Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Poor Man, the Son of Pride, and Assorted Schlock

"So vast is art, so narrow human wit."
"Remembrance and reflection how allied.  What thin partitions divide sense from thought."
"They dream in courtship, but in wedlock wake."
- Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

This week, I once again stumbled upon the story of some enterprising folks in Haywood County (ca. 1880) who turned a quick buck by counterfeiting Indian artifacts. A full account of the tale (including illustrations) appeared here in The Great Haywood  Artifact Scam (8/26/2008).  Those clever Haywoodians would rinse their newly whittled soapstone carvings in rusty water to give them a phony patina of age and wear. 

The incident is an apt metaphor for a lot of things involving Native Americans since then.  With a line of potential suckers, urrr, customers ranging from oafish tourists to ditzy New Agers, it's been possible to peddle a whole bunch of severely twisted takes on Cherokee history and culture for a long, long time to the accompaniment of a ringing cash register.

I've had my own moments of romanticizing times and people from the past, but I'd rather not remain stuck in that delirium.  It's like what Pope said about dreaming and waking.  Reaching for the "real story" is usually a lot more interesting and a great deal more challenging.

Speaking of frauds camouflaged by the manufactured patina of the past, Chief Seattle's 1854 speech comes to mind.  You know the one:

How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? blah, blah, blah... 

It is quite lovely sentiment, deeply moving, Seattle's speech. But would a reader be disappointed to learn that it was created by a screenwriter in the 1970s?  Whoops!

The Chief Seattle expose appeared here  9/10/07 in  Ralph Oliver Waldo Wendell Emerson Holmes.  When the speech was adapted into a kid's book in 1991 it sold 280,000 units in six months, helped no doubt by the attribution of the speech to "Chief Seattle, 1854" rather than "Ted Perry, 1971."  Maybe you can't buy or sell the sky, but you sure can buy and sell the daylights out of a phony speech about how you can't buy or sell the sky.


The speech is lovely, even with (or especially with) a German (?) accent, but why gild the lily by calling it something it isn't...quite? And it isn't quite what Chief Seattle said.

I wonder if anyone else remembers what was (briefly) a big hit record of 1971, Les Crane's spoken word rendition of Desiderata ("Go placidly amid the noise and the haste...") I'd forgotten it, but working as a disk jockey back then, I had to spin that 45 every day.  It was purported to be a poem from some hoary master of ancient wisdom, I'm not sure who.  Nostradamus?  Kahlil Gibran?  Rod McKuen?  Wasn't it found in Old Saint Paul's Church in Baltimore in 1692?  That was part of the record's mystique.  In fact, Max Ehrmann had written the lines in 1927, so poor Les Crane faced a unexpected crisis over royalties.


Holy cow! Les Crane (rhymes with Novacaine) actually won a Grammy for Desiderata, incredible as that may seem. I had not heard the record in decades, and on hearing it again I don't know whether to laugh or to cry.

A few months after the Desiderata sensation subsided, National Lampoon responded with Deteriorata, which would arguably prove to be a far more accurate prophecy of these times.

Once in a while, though, a touch of the romantic is a welcome thing to encounter. I just discovered a classic of nineteenth century archaeology, Antiquities of the Southern Indians, Particularly of the Georgia Tribes, by Charles Jones, Jr.  What a delight! Jones writes beautifully, he draws from obscure early documents, he catalogs in great detail many sites in Georgia and the Southeast, and he manages to slip in some literary references from William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the like. 

Jones quoted a couple of lines from Bryant's poem, The Disinterred Warrior.  It commands  attention partly because of the warrior, yes, but more because of the way that people like Bryant, like Jones, had such a deeply heartfelt sense of wonder about the past and did not set themselves apart from it.

The Disinterred Warrior

Gather him to his grave again,
 And solemnly and softly lay,
 Beneath the verdure of the plain,
 The warrior's scattered bones away.

Pay the deep reverence, taught of old,
 The homage of man's heart to death;
 Nor dare to trifle with the mould
 Once hallowed by the Almighty's breath.

 The soul hath quickened every part--
 That remnant of a martial brow,
 Those ribs that held the mighty heart,
 That strong arm--strong no longer now.

 Spare them, each mouldering relic spare,
 Of God's own image; let them rest,
 Till not a trace shall speak of where
 The awful likeness was impressed.

 For he was fresher from the hand
 That formed of earth the human face,
 And to the elements did stand
 In nearer kindred, than our race.

 In many a flood to madness tossed,
 In many a storm has been his path;
 He hid him not from heat or frost,
 But met them, and defied their wrath.

 Then they were kind--the forests here,
 Rivers, and stiller waters, paid
 A tribute to the net and spear
 Of the red ruler of the shade.

 Fruits on the woodland branches lay,
 Roots in the shaded soil below,
 The stars looked forth to teach his way,
 The still earth warned him of the foe.

 A noble race! but they are gone,
 With their old forests wide and deep,
 And we have built our homes upon
 Fields where their generations sleep.

 Their fountains slake our thirst at noon,
 Upon their fields our harvest waves,
 Our lovers woo beneath their moon--
 Then let us spare, at least, their graves!

For the reader who goes through books with a highlighter, few pages of Antiquities will remain unmarked. Along with the little-known but well-documented information are digressions seldom found in modern archaeological tomes:  

We stood in the midst of an ancient and extensive Indian burial-ground on one of the low-lying islands which fringe the Georgia coast. Earth and shell mounds were thickly congregated on every hand. A bold spring issuing from a sandy bluff — adjacent salt-water streams and wide-spread marshes filled with oysters, crabs, and fishes, and neighboring forests once abounding with game — rendered this, in the olden time, a spot highly attractive to the red-men. The solemnity of death and of desolation so far at least as this entombed race was concerned — rested upon every thing.

Even the traditions of the locality were forgotten, and the grand old live-oaks which knew these sleepers during their waking hours whispered no legends of their customs, their wars, their loves, their lives, or their deaths. Their feeble "footprints on the sands of time" had been obliterated by the tread of a statelier civilization, and there were none to care for their graves. The same sun was sinking to his rest. The breath of the myrtle and the orange still perfumed the ambient air. Kindred waves washed the bermuda-covered shore and dashed their spray, as in former days, against the roots of the vine-clad cedars.

Eagles of the same bold flight soared majestically in the tranquil heavens, and contiguous woods were vocal with the notes of birds native here for centuries. The same blue sky, the same soft sea-breezes, the same generous mother earth, kindred forests and flowers, the same loves and voices of Nature, but all else how changed! The living Indian frequented no more his favorite groves.

Autumnal leaves long ago covered the last trace of his rude hut. His watch-fires were dead. His council-lodge years ago mouldered into utter decay. His village was converted into a cotton-field, and the ploughboy trampled upon and furrowed mound-tombs hallowed by unrecorded memories of chiefs, warriors, priests, medicine-men, and the nameless dead of tribe and family.

Never more will weeping mother with trembling hand fashion the funeral-vase. The sorrowings circle will never again assemble around the sepulchral fires, nor stalwart arms above the ashes of the dead heap the grave-mound. Beaten upon by the rains and wasted by the winds, there will soon be scarce a vestige of these tumuli. Few, if any, will gather up and deposit in some secure resting-place these neglected bones as they whiten in the sun and crumble into dust amid the fields of the present owners of the soil.

"Mors sola fatetur
Quantula sint hominum corpuscula."

The world, waxing old, forgets the names, palaces, pyramids, and sky-searching towers of even those who once held mighty sway over vast domains; and, in the wreck of ages whole nations, living and dying without letters, are remedilessly engulfed in the great ocean of oblivion.

As we mused amid these silent, storm-beaten graves, the mournful strains of the Coplas of Manrique entered with peculiar pathos into our saddened, thoughts.

"Our lives are rivers gliding free
To that unfathomed, boundless sea —

The silent grave.
Thither all earthly pomp and boast
Roll, to be swallowed up and lost

In one dark wave.
Thither the mighty torrents stray,
Thither the brook pursues its way,

And tinkling rill.
There all are equal. Side by side,
The poor man and the son of pride

Lie calm and still."

[Jorge Manrique was a fifteenth century Spanish poet whose best-known work Coplas por la Muerte de su Padre, was translated into English by Longfellow - see note below]

With the recognition that our ultimate fate is obscurity, the counterpoint to the melancholy of Manrique, Longfellow, and Bryant is found in Alexander Pope's Ode on Solitude. Sunny by comparison, he composed it prior to the age of twelve.  At about that point in his life he endured  serious health problems that deformed his body and stunted his growth, ands left him with a severe hunchback. He reached a height of only 4 ft 6 in. Because he was a Catholic at that time in England, Pope had been isolated from school and society and his poor health only alienated him further.

Ode on Solitude

Happy the man, whose wish and care
   A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
                            In his own ground.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
   Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
                            In winter fire.

Blest, who can unconcernedly find
   Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
                            Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
   Together mixed; sweet recreation;
And innocence, which most does please,
                            With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
   Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
                            Tell where I lie.

How funny that, 300 years later, the English faculty at Yale would see that his resting place was marked. 

How funny that the twelve-year-old who embraced obscurity and who was dealt less than the full measure of humble life he envisioned, is now the second most frequently quoted writer (after Shakespeare) in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.  Pope's greatness is of the type not soon forgotten, his words granting him a kind of immortality.  But I like to think that every human life contains flashes of greatness, even if that greatness remains humble, private, unseen.

The past has fallen on hard times, twisted into a lie when it's not outright destroyed. A lot of people are crowded around a blazing fire fueled by the burning of the testaments of history. 

I don't know what life will be like when civilization enters an advanced stage of Alzheimers, but we're about to find out.  Revisit Ray Bradbury's remarkably prescient Fahrenheit 451 and you will note that the exercise of memory is one of the most rebellious acts that one can commit.

Thankfully, the archaeological scholarship of Charles Jones uncovers fragments of what it meant to be human, fragments of long-ago greatness, along with the fragments of bone and stone and clay that suggest the story of those who were here before us.

Note -
Don Jorge Manrique flourished in the last half of the fifteenth century. He followed the profession of arms, and died on the field of battle. Mariana, in his History of Spain, makes honourable mention of him, as being present at the siege of Ucles; and speaks of him as 'a youth of estimable qualities, who in this war gave brilliant proofs of his valour. He died young; and was thus cut off from long exercising his great virtues, and exhibiting to the world the light of his genius, which was already known to fame.' He was mortally wounded in a skirmish near Canavete, in the year 1479.

The name of Rodrigo Manrique, the father of the poet, Conde de Paredes and Maestre de Santiago, is well known in Spanish history and song. He died in 1476; according to Mariana, in the town of Ucles; but, according to the poem of his son, in Ocana. It was his death that called forth the poem upon which rests the literary reputation of the younger Manrique. In the language of his historian, 'Don Jorge Manrique, in an elegant Ode, full of poetic beauties, rich embellishments of genius, and high moral reflections, mourned the death of his father as with a funeral hymn.' This praise is not exaggerated. The poem is a model in its kind. Its conception is solemn and beautiful; and, in accordance with it, the style moves on -- calm, dignified, and majestic.' ~ Longfellow's Poetical Works, prnt. by Routledge, 1883. 
Full poem as translated by Longfellow

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Grooving With the Picts

Strangers to clothing, the Britons wear ornaments of iron at their waists and throats; considering iron a symbol of wealth, they value this metal as other barbarians value gold. They tattoo their bodies with colored designs and drawings of all kinds of animals; for this reason they do not wear clothes, which would conceal the decorations on their bodies. Extremely savage and warlike, they are armed only with a spear and a  narrow shield, plus a sword that hangs suspended by a belt from their otherwise naked bodies. They do not use breastplates or helmets, considering them encumbrances in crossing the marshes.
- Herodian (Greek Historian, ca. 170 - ca. 240) from History of the Roman Empire since the Death of Marcus Aurelius

Way back...or should I say way, way, way high school, my friend Robert shared his favorite track from a new Pink Floyd album.  It was an avant-garde composition with the title Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict.  For whatever reason I didn't give much thought to the meaning of the word "Pict" nor would I give the word any thought in the intervening 40+ years.

Until now.

Recently, I was getting reacquainted with the work of English painter John White (1540-1593) whose drawings I had appreciated from the time I was a little kid. As far back as I can remember we had a copy of John Lawson's book, "A New Voyage to Carolina" and it featured illustrations by John White.  With that association in my memory I would have recollected that Lawson and White were contemporaries, perhaps colleagues, during Lawson's under-appreciated "Voyage of Discovery" through the Carolina backcountry in 1700-1701. In fact, White preceded Lawson (1674-1711) by a century, and had been hired by Sir Walter Raleigh to illustrate and make maps during Richard Grenville's 1586 expedition to the New World.  For his pains, White was named governor of the colonization attempt on Roanoke Island in 1587.

Roanoke Indians, John White

White gave us our "first look" at what those colonists encountered in Carolina, quite memorable images. But during his career he also painted Old World subjects, and that is how I once again bumped into a Pict, not that I would recommend bumping into a Pict.  As it turned out, White's Old World Picts found a place next his New World Algonquians, for reasons to be explained later.

A Pictish Woman, watercolour over black lead, John White

The Picts were a tribal confederation of peoples who lived in what is now Scotland during the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval periods, and who raided the Roman Empire. They were mentioned (by name) by Roman writers as early as AD 297, with the Latin word "Picti" referring to their practice of painting and tattooing their bodies, something alluded to by Julius Caeser in The Gallic Wars: “All the Britons dye themselves with woad,  which produces a blue colour, and makes their appearance in battle more terrible.”

A Pictish Warrior Holding a Human Head, John White

In general, their lifestyle was similar to that of the neighboring Gaels and Anglo-Saxons.  Early Pictish religion resembled Celtic polytheism, though they later converted to Christianity. The Picts had their own language, now extinct.  And today scholars believe that reports of elaborate Pictish tattoos were exaggerated.

Pictish Warrior, John White

Pictish Warrior, Theodor de Bry engraving based on John White painting, in A Brief and True Report

Nevertheless, White and other artists of his time perpetuated the popular image of the heavily-illustrated Picts. The question arises, though, why did Theodor de Bry's engravings based on John White's series of Pict portraits appear in the 1590 edition of Thomas Harriot's A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia?

Harriot (1560-1621) had travelled with John White on their first voyage to Carolina (1586).  Harriot was hired for that expedition due to his expertise as a navigator, astronomer and scientist.  He learned the Algonquin language and brought specimens of New World flora, fauna and minerals back to England. Walter Raleigh was a businessman who anticipated vast profits from successful colonization of the New World, and Harriot's book was in no way intended to discourage potential colonists. 

The Conjurer, Theodor de Bry engraving, based on John White painting,  in A Brief and True Report

On the contrary, Harriot emphasized the abundant fecundity of the New World and downplayed the hazards.  In this respect, it made sense to include portraits of the fierce Picts of the British isles alongside pictures of the comparatively docile Indians of the Roanoke region. 

Theodor de Bry, engraver of the Pict images, explained that they were included to show how the inhabitants of Great Britain in times past were wildly tattooed savages, contrasting dramatically with the more modest and demure Algonquians of Carolina.  Here's the account of the Picts, published in Harriot's book:

IN tymes past the Pictes, habitans of one part of great Bretainne, which is nowe nammed England, wear sauuages, and did paint all their bodye after the maner followinge. the did lett their haire gro we as fare as their Shoulders, sauinge those which hange vppon their forehead, the which the did cutt. They shaue all their berde except the mustaches, vppon their breast wear painted the head of som birde, ant about the pappes as yt waere beames of the sune, vppon the bellye sum feere full and monstreus face, spreedinge the beames verye fare vppon the thighes. Vppon the two knees som faces of lion, and vppon their leggs as yt hath been shelles of fish. Vppon their Shoulders griffones heades, and then they hath serpents abowt their armes: They caried abowt their necks one ayerne ringe, and another abowt the midds of their bodye, abowt the bellye, and the saids hange on a chaine, a cimeterre or turkie soorde, the did carye in one arme a target made of wode, and in the other hande a picke, of which the ayerne was after the manner of a Lick, whith tassels on, and the other ende with a Rounde boule. And when they hath ouercomme some of their ennemis, they did neuerfelle to carye a we their heads with them.

To the dismay of some who were seduced by Harriot's promotional tract and actually tried to find a new life in the New World, the Algonquins were no less benign than the Picts of old.  Those intrepid Englishmen are remembered today as members of the Lost Colony. 

Frankly, because she looks so much like she would fit in at any hipster brewpub ca. 2016, I have to include one other image, a watercolour attributed to Jacques Le Moyne rather than John White.

A Young Daughter of the Picts, painting ca. 1580s

In the British Museum publication, European Visions: American Voices, Sam Smiles' essay John White and British Antiquity: Savage Origins in the Context of Tudor Historiography addresses the Le Moyne painting:

The use of flowers to cover the body has been repeatedly commented on, given that it bears no direct relation to the classical accounts of the Picts originated in Scythia, and so turned to Xenophon who, in the Anabasis, records that the warlike peoples on the Black Sea coast included the fair-skinned Mossynoicoi, whose chestnut-fattened children were "tender and very white...with backs and breasts variegated and tattoed all over in flower patterns."

Rockin' that floral body art the way she does, I'll bet the Young Daughter of the Picts would dig a little Floyd:

#  #  #

See also  - The Pictish Tattoo: Origins of a Myth, by Richard Dibon-Smith

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Everything Turns Away

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, long thought to be by Pieter Bruegel, is probably a version of a lost original by Bruegel, likely from the 1560s or soon after.  The painting inspired two well-known poems:

Musee des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

---W. H. Auden, 1907 - 1973,  poem ca. 1938

The Fall of Icarus, Peter Paul Rubens

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

---William Carlos Williams, 1883 - 1963, poem ca. 1960

In the 1940s, the Swedish author and poet Erik Lindegren wrote his own Icarus poem in response to Auden's earlier work:


His memories of the labyrinth go numb with sleep.
The single memory: how the calls and the confusion rose
until at last they swung him up from the earth.

And how all cleavings which have cried out always
for their bridges in his breast
slowly shut like eyelids,
and how the birds swept past like shuttles, like arrows,
and finally the last lark brushing his hand,
falling like song.

Then: the winds’ labyrinth, with its blind bulls,
cacophonous lights and inclines,

with its dizzying breath which he through arduous
struggle learned how to parry,
until it rose again, his vision and his flight.

Now he is rising alone, in a sky without clouds,
in a space empty of birds in the din of the aircraft…
rising toward a clearer and clearer sun,
turning gradually cooler, turning cold,
and upward towards the spring of his blood, soul’s cataract:
a prisoner in a whistling lift,
a seabubble’s journey toward the looming magnetic air:
and the vortex of signs, born of the springtide, raging of azure,
crumbling walls, and drunkenly the call of the other side:
Reality fallen
        Without reality born!

---Erik Lindegren, 1910-1968  (translation by John Matthias and Göran Printz-Påhlson)

From Ovid's Metamorphoses - Book VIII

When Minos landed on the coast of Crete,
He bled a hundred bulls to mighty Jove,
And decked his palace with the spoils of war.
And yet strange gossip tainted all his honours:
Proof that his wife was mounted by a bull
Was clear enough to all who saw her son,
Half-beast, half-man, a sulky heavy creature.
To hide this symbol of his wife’s mismating
He planned to house the creature in a maze,
An arbour with blind walls beyond the palace;
He turned to Daedalus, an architect,
Who was well known for artful craft and wit,
To make a labyrinth that tricked the eye.
Quite as Meander flows through Phrygian pastures,
Twisting in streams to sea or fountainhead,
The dubious waters turning left or right,
So Daedalus designed his winding maze;
And as one entered it, only a wary mind
Could find an exit to the world again ---
Such was the cleverness of that strange arbour.
Weary of exile, hating Crete, his prison,
Old Daedalus grew homesick for his country
Far out of sight beyond his walls --- the sea.
“Though Minos owns this island, rules the waves,
The skies are open: my direction’s clear.
Though he commands all else on earth below
His Tyranny does not control the air.”
So Daedalus turned his mind to subtle craft,
An unknown art that seemed to outwit nature:
He placed a row of feathers in neat orders,
Each longer than the one that came before it
Until the feathers traced an inclined plane
That cast a shadow like the ancient pipes
That shepherds played, each reed another step
Unequal to the next.

With cord and wax
He fixed them smartly at one end and middle,
Then curved them till they looked like eagles' wings.
And as he worked, boy Icarus stood near him.
His brilliant face lit up by his father’s skill.
He played at snatching feathers from the air
And sealing them with wax (nor did he know
How close to danger came his lightest touch):
And as the artist made his miracles
The artless boy was often in his way.
At last the wings were done and Daedalus
Slipped them across his shoulders for a test
And flapped them cautiously to keep his balance,
And for a moment glided into air.
He taught his son the trick and said, “Remember
To fly midway, for if you dip too low
The waves will weight your wings with thick saltwater,
And if you fly too high the flames of heaven
Will burn them from your sides.
Then take your flight Between the two.
Your route is not toward Boötes
Nor Helice, nor where Orion swings
His naked sword.
Steer where I lead the way.”

With this he gave instructions how to fly
And made a pair of wings to fit the boy.
Though his swift fingers were as deft as ever,
The old man’s face was wet with tears; he chattered
More fatherly advice on how to fly.
He kissed his son --- and, as the future showed,
This was a last farewell --- then he took off.
And as a bird who drifts down from her nest
Instructs her young to follow her in flight,
So Daedalus flapped wings to guide his son.
Far off, below them some stray fisherman,
Attention startled from his bending rod,
Or a bland shepherd resting on his crook,
Or a dazed farmer leaning on his plough
Glanced up to see the pair float through the sky,
And taking them for gods, stood still in wonder.
They flew past Juno’s Samos on the left
And over Delos and the isle of Paros,
And on the right lay Lebinthus, Calymne,
A place made famous for its wealth in honey.
By this time Icarus began to feel the joy
Of beating wings in air and steered his course
Beyond his father’s lead: all the wide sky
Was there to tempt him as he steered toward heaven.
Meanwhile the heat of sun struck at his back
And where his wings were joined, sweet-smelling fluid
Ran hot that once was wax.

His naked arms
Whirled into wind; his lips, still calling out
His father’s name, were gulfed in the dark sea.
And the unlucky man, no longer father,
Cried, “Icarus, where are you, Icarus,
Where are you hiding, Icarus, from me?”
Then as he called again, his eyes discovered
The boy’s torn wings washed on the climbing waves.
He damned his art, his wretched cleverness,
Rescued the body and placed it in a tomb,
And where it lies the land’s called Icarus.