“the only wisdom within our grasp during our stay in the insoluble mystery of who and where and when we are is the wisdom of humility?”

Comment sections have a bad press, and one can understand when even the most innocuous YouTube video can have all sorts of rabid anger unleashed below. Sometimes, however, comments can do what they supposed to do in the early years of the Internet; be a genuinely illuminating conversational source, a place one learns even more from the wisdom of crowds (not a phrase that has been getting much airing in recent years, has it?)

It’s been a while since I linked to anything on First Known When Lost,  Stephen Pentz’s gem of a blog. First Known When Lost is made by Mr Pentz’s individual sensibility; his affinity with nature and with poets deemed unfashionable.  I have discovered much from him, especially conquering my prejudices against writers who I had not actually read but had generally absorbed a critical antipathy to. And when the online world seemingly has transformed from an exciting frontier of creativity to an echo chamber of hype and hate

The comments on First Known When Lost are of a very high standard and Mr Pentz is scrupulous in replying to comments.

This comment from Bruce Floyd (with a bit of Eliot also)  is worth reading in its own right. For me, humility is at the root of science and religion and art and indeed any human endeavour. Anyway, here is the comment:

The second part of Eliot’s “East Coker”–from the “Four Quartets– clearly asserts that the knowledge gained from experience is of “limited value.” Eliot, late in his life, understands that the “autumnal serenity / And the wisdom of age” are not to be found..He concludes that “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”

We stand pitifully mortal and profoundly ignorant under the stitched heavens, certain that our perception of our the universe, of our purpose, of ourselves is an illusion. Stevens tells us to beware of “the lunatic of one idea.”

The ideologue, his strident cries rending the stillness, howls into a vacuum. When the wisest know next to nothing, should not we cease our blustering and at long last [realise] that the only wisdom within our grasp during our stay in the insoluble mystery of who and where and when we are is the wisdom of humility?

from “East Coker”

What is the late November doing
With the disturbance of the spring
And creatures of the summer heat,
And snowdrops writhing under feet
And hollyhocks that aim too high
Red into grey and tumble down
Late roses filled with early snow?
Thunder rolled by the rolling stars
Simulates triumphal cars
Deployed in constellated wars
Scorpion fights against the Sun
Until the Sun and Moon go down
Comets weep and Leonids fly
Hunt the heavens and the plains
Whirled in a vortex that shall bring
The world to that destructive fire
Which burns before the ice-cap reigns.
That was a way of putting it – not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.
It was not (to start again) what one had expected.
What was to be the value of the long looked forward to,
Long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity
And the wisdom of age? Had they deceived us,
Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,
Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?
The serenity only a deliberate hebetude,
The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets
Useless in the darkness into which they peered
Or from which they turned their eyes. There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge inposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.
In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
but all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
Risking enchantment. Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

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“Seduced by sinners, fools, & jerks I delight in as I write in my study, my pen my poker, my thoughts often bloody” – ‘Flannery and St. Thomas, Take II’ by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell

I posted Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s “Flannery and Dante” the other day. Here is another poem by O’Donnell, this time dealing with Flannery O’Connor and St Thomas Aquinas.

“Flannery and St Thomas Take II” takes as its epigraph a typically contrarian passage from one of O’Connor’s letters:

I feel I can personally guarantee that St. Thomas loved God because for the life of me I cannot help loving St. Thomas. His brothers didn’t want him to waste himself being a Dominican and so locked him up in a tower and introduced a prostitute into his apartment. Her he ran out with a red-hot poker. It would be fashionable today to be in sympathy with the woman, but I am in sympathy with Thomas.
—Flannery O’Connor, Letter to Elizabeth Hester, August 9, 1955

Sunday morning and what do I know
beyond my own foolishness? I spend
my days with crazies who come from my brain.
Thank God for Thomas. He keeps me sane.
A man who knows his nature and his end,
keeps both forever fixed in view
so as not to get waylaid on the road
to salvation, unlike the worser person
I am, easily derailed by temptation,
what’s pretty and what’s witty and what’s new.
Like the peacock loves his tail I love my work.
Seduced by sinners, fools, & jerks
I delight in as I write in my study,
my pen my poker, my thoughts often bloody.

#ChoralMarch, March 7th, O Sacrum Convivium, Messiaen, sung by Choir of Trinity College Cambridge

Yesterday I posted about a now-lost Naxos sampler CD which included a version of “Hark! I Hear the Harps Eternal” I now long to hear. It also included Messiaen’s “O Sacrum Convivium” – which here is sung by the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge. Unlike yesterday, this version is just as good as what I remember from the Naxos CD!

“O Sacrum Convivium” means “O Sacred Banquet” (think “convivial”) and is a text celebratory of the Blessed Sacrament. Here, via Wikipedia, is the Latin text with English translation:

Original Latin (punctuation from Liber Usualis)

O sacrum convivium!
in quo Christus sumitur:
recolitur memoria passionis eius:
mens impletur gratia:
et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur.
Alleluia.

O sacred banquet!
in which Christ is received,
the memory of his Passion is renewed,
the mind is filled with grace,
and a pledge of future glory to us is given.
Alleluia.

You are not alone: the word “sonder”

I recently came across the word “sonder”

Coined in 2012 by John Koenig, whose project, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, aims to come up with new words for emotions that currently lack words.[1][2]Related to German sonder- (special) and French sonder (to probe).[3]

(neologism) The profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passed in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it.

I am not that sure how I feel about it. As with solastalgia I am somewhat suspcious of the resort to neologism. I have a nagging sense that there is another, already existing word for this… perhaps I should think of a word for this nagging sense.

Happy Birthday Edgar Allan Poe, and a cheers to the Poe Toaster

Poe would be 210 if he was alive today, which would be a surprising development for all concerned. And presumably today will see the appearance of the Poe Toaster at Poe’s Baltimore grave. Alas, this is a revival of the original mysterious decades-long toaster:

 

Poe Toaster is a media epithet popularly used to refer to an unidentified person (or more probably two persons in succession, possibly father and son) who, for over seven decades, paid an annual tribute to American author Edgar Allan Poe by visiting the cenotaph marking his original grave in Baltimore, Maryland, in the early hours of January 19, Poe’s birthday. The shadowy figure, dressed in black with a wide-brimmed hat and white scarf, would pour himself a glass of cognac and raise a toast to Poe’s memory, then vanish into the night, leaving three roses in a distinctive arrangement and the unfinished bottle of cognac. Onlookers gathered annually in hopes of glimpsing the elusive Toaster, who did not seek publicity and was rarely seen or photographed.

According to eyewitness reports and notes accompanying offerings in later years, the original Toaster made the annual visitation from sometime in the 1930s (though no report appeared in print until 1950) until his death in 1998, after which the tradition was passed to “a son”.[1] Controversial statements were made in some notes left by the post-1998 Toaster, and in 2006 an unsuccessful attempt was made by several onlookers to detain and identify him. In 2010 there was no visit by the Toaster,[2] nor has he appeared any year since, signaling an end to the 75-year tradition.[3][4]

Pleasingly, the revival since 2016 has maintained the anonymity aspect:

 

In 2015, the Maryland Historical Society organized a competition to select a new individual to resurrect the annual tribute in a modified, tourism-friendly form. The new Toaster—who will also remain anonymous—made his first appearance during the daylight hours of January 16, 2016 (a Saturday, three days before Poe’s birthday), wearing the traditional garb and playing Saint-Saëns‘ Danse macabre on a violin. After raising the traditional cognac toast and placing the roses, he intoned, “Cineri gloria sera venit” (“Glory paid to one’s ashes comes too late”, from an epigram by the Roman poet Martial), and departed.[25]

Review of “Homesickness: An American History” by Susan Matt, Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 2012

Review of “Homesickness: An American History” by Susan Matt, Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 2012

This is a wonderful book I heartily recommend, indeed re-reading the review I hope the warmth of my recommendation is clear. The balance  Susan Mat strikes between mastery of the academic and theoretical framework and what could best be called common sense (and readability) is highly impressive.

9780195371857

In this review I didn’t have space to expand on the parallels between the State Associations Mat describes (for instance Minnesota or Wisconsin Societites in Chicago or New York) and County Association in Ireland. My father was active in the Sligo Association in Dublin, and at his funeral I was very touched by the many who came to me having been involved in it and also the Galway or Mayo Associations (evidently Connacht folk stick together!) with fond memories of him.

Here is the original link

 

The wonderfully named French physician Louis-Alexandre-
Hippolyte Leroy-Dupré wrote that acute homesickness “becomes
more rare each day thanks to rapid communications which modern
industry is beginning to establish among people who will soon be
nothing more than one big happy family.” One might imagine that
this observation was written for the age of Facebook, Skype and
Twitter, but it is fact over one hundred and fifty years old, dating
from 1846.
Susan J Matt is a historian at Weber State University in Utah; her
specialty is the history of the emotions (a previous book is entitled
“Keeping Up With The Joneses: Envy in American Consumer
Society 1890-1930”) This admirably lucid book, based on primary
sources such as diaries, letters and personal interviews, is an
overview of the history of a particular emotion, homesickness.
American society is famously built on the archetype of the pioneer,
the rugged individualist, cheerfully moving on from place to place
without demur. This archetype finds different forms; the
immigrant, the cowboy, the “Organisation Man”, the pilgrim
settler, but all have in common a sense of perpetual motion and
freedom from ties.
As with all archetypes and grand narratives, the details of reality
were very different. Very many pioneers and immigrants returned,
despite the social pressures to remain. Matt places centre stage
the men and women who actually lived these experiences, and
who were often beset by overwhelming homesickness. This was
especially so for women, less in control of their destiny than men.
From the first settlers on, thoughts of home contended with the
various religious, political and economic motives for perpetual
motion. While official rhetoric emphasised the importance of
forging on with the pioneer spirit, diaries and letters allow Matt to
reconstruct the emotional lives often lost to history.
In 1865, twenty –four Union soldiers officially died of nostalgia [2019 note – I should have said “the official cause of death for 24 Union soldiers was nostalgia].
Among the American forces in World War 1, only one casualty had
a cause of death listed as nostalgia. Matt records the varying
opinions of psychiatrists, alienists on physicians on the causes and
management of nostalgia-as-an-illness. Contemporary concerns
such as racial and ethnic purity (“weaker” ethnicities such as the
Irish and Southern Europeans were often held to be more
susceptible) and venereal disease were implicated as risk factors
for nostalgia cases.
Over the later nineteenth century and into the twentieth, public
attitudes to homesickness hardened. Once, children who crossed
thousands of miles to return from boarding schools to families
were celebrated. Their attachment to home was seen as evidence
of a tender sensibility. How homesickness was addressed by the
military in the various wars in the era Matt’s history covers is
revealing. Armies have to balance the motivating power of
attachment to country with the demotivating power of separation
from that same country. In the American Civil War, homesickness
among soldiers was seen as evidence of a nobility of nature. This
attitude persisted through the century. The sole nostalgia fatality of
the Spanish-American War of 1898 was treated with great
sympathy bordering on glorification by the contemporary media.
The inter-war years saw the cultural shift gain momentum. This
was the era where the child rearing “expert” began to opine in
the popular press; no less a figure than the seminal behaviourist
John Watson weighs in on the importance of avoiding excessive
affection with one’s children. The following fifty years saw the
denigration of homesickness gain pace. Where the home-loving
children of previous eras were celebrated, now over attachment to
parents and to home was seen as “sissifying” and a manifestation
of “Momism.” An ethic of universal cheerfulness which celebrated
the “can-do” spirit further cast homesickness into disrepute. The
interests of corporate America were in creating a mobile workforce,
ready to cross the continent at short notice. While this is not a
matter that Matt discusses, this aspect did get me thinking how
the anti-family jeremiads of R D Laing and David Cooper ironically
dovetailed neatly with this corporate imperative. Perhaps, as the
Marxists say, there are no accidents.
Anti-homesickness rhetoric persists today, although the picture is
complicated by the rise of technologies which allow instantaneous
communication, and the global availability of familiar brands. Yet
these developments are palliatives for homesickness, not cures.
Skype, Facebook and similar technologies allow a certain abolition
of distance, and Matt shows how they have perhaps helped in the
rehabilitation of homesickness as a valid public emotion. Indeed,
one of her themes is “the surprising persistence of the extended
family” and how emotions and their expression can be moulded
and shaped by social forces, but are also strangely resistant to them
Indeed, this is a history of the resilience of homesickness, despite
everything. So many approaches in contemporary humanities
emphasise the contingent and socially constructed nature of
things; what Matt manages to do is to acknowledge the role of
social and economic pressures while making a strong case that
emotions are less fungible than theorists, pundits and social
engineers of all political hues would believe. There is also very little
of the jargon and theoretical ballast which many contemporary
historians freight their work
Matt’s title clearly indicates that this is an American history of
homesickness, but the book is of great interest to an Irish
readership too. The Irish immigrant experience abroad is of course
familiar to most of us; a sizable chunk of Irish popular music is
eloquent testimony to the force of homesickness. More
fundamentally, homesickness is a universal emotion; all readers will
find someone to identify with among the lives Matt describes. We
may not always go through the same social transformations as
America at the same time, but we always seem to get round to
them sooner or later. In our age of ghost estates and resurgent
emigration, many of the concerns of the book seem all too
relevant.
Academic careers rival medical careers in demanding frequent
moves (and in requiring a certain insouciance as the proper
response.) In her acknowledgements, Matt salutes her husband
and observes “since we met in Ithaca, New York, in 1990, we have
lived in six different states and travelled many places, but no matter
where we are, when I am with him, I am home.” It is a poignant
note, and one which sets the tone for a humane and thought-
provoking work.
firstpage-s0790966700017663a-1

The man who rode zebras: Lionel Walter Rothschild

walterrothschildwithzebras
Photo credit Wikipedia

Here’s an extraordinary character, Lionel Walter Rothschildfrom the Nigeness blog a few years back:

Lately I’ve been browsing in the biographies [of The Aurelian Legacy: British Butterflies and Their Collectors] , which is where I found the chap with the zebra cart above – Lionel Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild of Tring, who sounds like a delightfull fellow. Temperamentally unsuited for the normal occupations of the world, he devoted himself entirely to building up the largest collection of animals ever assembled by one man – everything from starfish to gorillas and giant tortoises (144 of them), with butterflies and moths to the number of 100,000 species, with the greatest range of variants ever seen (‘I have no duplicates,’ he declared). As a student at Cambridge, he kept a much-loved flock of kiwis, and kangaroos, ostriches and, of course, zebras roamed free in his grounds at Tring. He once rode a zebra carriage and four through Piccadilly to Buckingham Palace. Such exhibitionism is often a product of shyness, and Rothschild was cripplingly shy. He was also apparently unable to control his voice, which alternated quite unpredictably between a low stammer and a loud bellow. He grew very stout, tipping the scales at 22 stone, his vast 6ft 3in body balanced on tiny feet, giving the effect, when he bowled around his mansion, of (in his niece Miriam’s words) ‘a grand piano on castors’.

Again from Wikipedia, here is Baron Rothschild on a tortoise:

rothschildtortoise