Monday, October 8, 2012

A Knave of the First Rate

"Be judge yourself, I'll bring it to the test,
Which is the basest creature, man or beast
Birds feed on birds, beasts on each other prey,
But savage man alone does man betray:
Pressed by necessity; they kill for food,
Man undoes man, to do himself no good.
With teeth and claws, by nature armed, they hunt
Nature's allowance, to supply their want.
But man, with smiles, embraces. friendships. Praise,
Inhumanely his fellow's life betrays;
With voluntary pains works his distress,
Not through necessity, but wantonness.
For hunger or for love they bite, or tear,
Whilst wretched man is still in arms for fear.
For fear he arms, and is of arms afraid:
From fear, to fear, successively betrayed.
Base fear, the source whence his best passions came.
His boasted honour, and his dear-bought fame.
The lust of power, to whom he's such a slave,
And for the which alone he dares be brave;
To which his various projects are designed,
Which makes him generous, affable, and kind.
For which he takes such pains to be thought wise,
And screws his actions, in a forced disguise;
Leads a most tedious life in misery,
Under laborious, mean hypocrisy.
Look to the bottom of his vast design,
Wherein man's wisdom, power, and glory join:
The good he acts. the ill he does endure.
'Tis all from fear, to make himself secure.
Merely for safety after fame they thirst,
For all men would be cowards if they durst.
And honesty's against all common sense,
Men must be knaves, 'tis in their own defence.
Mankind's dishonest: if you think it fair
Among known cheats to play upon the square,
You'll be undone.
Nor can weak truth your reputation save,
The knaves will all agree to call you knave.
Wronged shall he live, insulted o'er, oppressed,
Who dares be less a villain than the rest.

Thus sir, you see what human nature craves,
Most men are cowards, all men should be knaves;
The difference lies, as far as I can see.
Not in the thing itself, but the degree;
And all the subject matter of debate
Is only, who's a knave of the first rate"

~ Lord John Wilmot, excerpted from A Satyre Against Mankind (1675).

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Comfortless Philosophy

"I shall be told, I suppose, that my philosophy is comfortless -- because I speak the truth; and people prefer to be assured that everything the Lord has made is good. Go to the priests, then, and leave philosophers in peace! At any rate, do not ask us to accommodate our doctrines to the lessons you have been taught. That is what those rascals of sham philosophers will do for you. Ask them for any doctrine you please, and you will get it. Your University professors are bound to preach optimism; and it is an easy and agreeable task to upset their theories."

 ~ Arthur Schopenhauer, Studies in Pessimism: On the Sufferings of the World (from The Works of Arthur Schopenhauer, Walter J. Black, Inc., New York: 1932).

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Photography of Lee Jeffries

Mr. Jeffries' stunning portraits capture every nuance of his subjects in gritty noir fashion. Dynamic emotional expressions, hidden quirks, and quietly cultivated mannerisms are all revealed with impressive detail. Few photographers have such a talent for capturing that bizarre spark which blazes in humanity, and Jeffries manages to render the human animal in all of its provocative strangeness.

Be sure to view the artist's full portfolio here:


Monday, August 27, 2012

Angels Sang to Me (Just Before I Fell to the Ground, Unconscious)

This preview is an instrumental interlude from my new project, Caligo. The title and mood allude to Robert Schumann's mental breakdown -- just before being committed to an insane asylum -- where he reported hearing celestial angels dictate to him a work composed by the dead spirit of Franz Schubert. [1]

1. For a detailed and insightful look at the mental breakdown of Robert Schumann as a symptom of paresis due to tertiary syphilis, see Deborah Hayden's excellent book, POX: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis. (Amazon.)

Saturday, August 25, 2012


We rot
and shed our ambitions
in mangy, leprous strings;
Flaking putrescent failure
couched in lofty dreams and pretty, painted sentiment.
Each successive step
yields a complimentary wound –
A festering chancre
which stains,
then fades with time.
Lost to memory,
Hidden from sight;
and waiting.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Myrmarachne formicaria

This time of year is perfect for amateur entomologists in Ohio who wish to do a little backyard surveying. Praying Mantis and Walking Sticks can be found munching on hydrangea leaves whilst indigo-colored wasps and hummingbird moths flutter about the last of summer's blooming flowers. One particularly interesting August denizen is a species which I only discovered for myself a few short years ago: Myrmarachne formicaria. (A rather large specimen is trying to climb its way up my leg as I type this post.) M. formicaria is an ant-mimicking spider, and a damn good one at that. In fact, the first time I recognized this creature for what it was, I had simply brushed one off of my arm, assuming it was an ant. Imagine my surprise when the "ant" descended to safety on a smartly-placed silk wire! Upon closer inspection, I realized that the apparent ant was actually an arachnid assuming a very convincing disguise.

Roberta Gibson has a nice little entry on M. formicaria at her blog, Wild About Ants, which features exceptional photos like the one below.

Also of interest:
The First Records of Myrmarachne Formicaria (Araneae, Salticide) in the Americas

Monday, August 13, 2012

Goofer Dust

From Wikipedia:

Goofer dust is a traditional practice of the African American tradition of hoodoo from the South Eastern Region of the United States of America. It can be used generically to refer to any powder used to cast a spell, especially if harmful in nature, but specifically refers to a concoction of natural ingredients that can be used to cause harm, trouble or even kill an enemy. Some historical sources, such as some of the interviews conducted by Harry M. Hyatt indicate goofer dust can be synonymous with graveyard dirt. It is sometimes used in love spells of a coercive nature, the severity of which range from the goofer dust being used to provoke helpful spirits to coax the target into love, to the more extreme "love me or die" spells. Rarely, it has been used in gambling spells.
     In practice, it was often used to create illness in victims, such as swelling of the legs or blindness. Recipes for making it vary, but primarily include graveyard dirt and snakeskin. Other ingredients may include ash, powdered sulfur, salt, powdered bones, powdered insect chitin, dried manure, herbs, spices and "anvil dust" — the fine black iron detritus found around a blacksmith's anvil. The result usually varies in color from "a fine yellowish-grey" to deep "black dust" depending on the formula, and it may be mixed with local dirt to conceal its deployment. 
     The word goofer comes from the Kikongo word "kufwa," which means "to die." Among older hoodoo practitioners, this derivation is very clear, because "goofer" is not only an used as an adjective modifying "dust" but also a verb ("He goofered that man") and a noun ("She put a goofer on him"). As late as the 1930s, goofering was a regional synonym for voodooing, and in North Carolina at least, the meaning of the term was broadened beyond spells of damage, illness, and death to include love spells cast with dominating intent. 
     A euphemistic word for goofering is "poisoning," which in this context does not refer to a physical poison but to a physical agent that, through magical means, brings about an "unnatural illness" or the death of the victim. Even more euphemistic is the special use of the verb "hurt," which is often defined as "to poison," with the tacit understanding that "to poison" really means "to goofer." The more general verbs "fix" (meaning to prepare a spell) and "trick" (meaning to cast a spell) are also applied to goofering.

Monday, August 6, 2012

"Murder! Murder!"

The Newgate Calendar recounts in great detail those grisly events of February 23, 1807, where throngs of people came to watch a series of public executions outside Newgate prison in London and, in a somewhat ironic twist, inadvertently condemned many of their fellow spectators to death: 

The crowd which assembled to witness this execution was unparalleled, being, according to the best calculation, nearly forty thousand; and the fatal catastrophe which happened in consequence will for long cause the day to be remembered. By eight o'clock not an inch of ground was unoccupied in view of the platform. The pressure of the crowd was such that, before the malefactors appeared, numbers of persons were crying out in vain to escape from it; the attempt only tended to increase the confusion. Several females of low stature who had been so imprudent as to venture among the mob were in a dismal situation; their cries were dreadful. Some who could be no longer supported by the men were suffered to fall, and were trampled to death. This also was the case with several men and boys. In all parts there were continued cries of "Murder! Murder!" -- particularly from the females and children among the spectators, some of whom were seen expiring without the possibility of obtaining the least assistance, everyone being employed in endeavours to preserve his own life.
       The most affecting scene of distress was seen at Green Arbour Lane, nearly opposite the debtors' door. The terrible occurrence which took place near this spot was attributed to the circumstance of two piemen attending there to dispose of their pies. One of them having had his basket overthrown, which stood upon a sort of stool with four legs, some of the mob, not being aware of what had happened, and at the same time being severely pressed, fell over the basket and the man at the moment he was picking it up, together with its contents. Those who once fell were never more suffered to rise, such was the violence of the mob. At this fatal place a man of the name of Harrington was thrown down, who had by the hand his youngest son, a fine boy about twelve years of age. The youth was soon trampled to death; the father recovered, though much bruised, and was amongst the wounded in St Bartholomew's Hospital. A woman who was so imprudent as to bring with her a child at the breast was one of the number killed. Whilst in the act of falling she forced the child into the arms of the man nearest to her, requesting him, for God's sake, to save its life. The man, finding it required all his exertion to preserve himself, threw the infant from him, but it was fortunately caught at a distance by another man, who, finding it difficult to ensure its safety or his own, got rid of it in a similar way. The child was again caught by a man, who contrived to struggle with it to a cart, under which he deposited it until the danger was over, and the mob had dispersed. In other parts the pressure was so great that a horrible scene of confusion ensued, and seven persons lost their lives by suffocation alone. It was shocking to behold a large body of the crowd, as one convulsive struggle for life, fight with the most savage fury with each other; the consequence was that the weakest, particularly the women, fell a sacrifice. A cart which was overloaded with spectators broke down, and some of the persons who fell from the vehicle were trampled underfoot, and never recovered. During the hour that the malefactors hung, little assistance could be afforded to the unhappy sufferers; but after the bodies were cut down, and the gallows removed to the Old Bailey Yard, the marshals and constables cleared the street where the catastrophe occurred, and, shocking to relate, there lay nearly one hundred persons dead, or in a state of insensibility, strewed round the street! Twenty-seven dead bodies were taken to St Bartholomew's Hospital, four to St Sepulchre's Church, one to the Swan, on Snow Hill, one to a public-house opposite St Andrew's Church, Holborn; one, an apprentice, to his master's; Mr Broadwood, pianoforte maker, to Golden Square. A mother was seen carrying away the body of her dead boy; Mr Harrison, a respectable gentleman, was taken to his house at Holloway. There was a sailor-boy killed opposite Newgate, by suffocation; he carried a small bag, in which he had some bread and cheese, and was supposed to have come some distance to behold the execution. After the dead, dying and wounded were carried away, there was a cartload of shoes, hats, petticoats and other articles of wearing apparel picked up. Until four o'clock in the afternoon most of the surrounding houses had some person in a wounded state; they were afterwards taken away by their friends on shutters, or in hackney- coaches. The doors of St Bartholomew's Hospital were closed against the populace. After the bodies of the dead were stripped and washed they were ranged round a ward on the first floor, on the women's side; they were placed on the floor with sheets over them, and their clothes put as pillows under their heads; their faces were uncovered. There was a rail along the centre of the room: the persons who were admitted to see the shocking spectacle went up on one side of the rail, and returned on the other. Until two o'clock the entrances to the hospital were beset with mothers weeping for sons, wives for their husbands and sisters for their brothers, and various individuals for their relatives and friends.
       The next day (Tuesday) a coroner's inquest sat in St Bartholomew's Hospital, and other places where the bodies were, on the remains of the sufferers. Several witnesses were examined with respect to the circumstances of the accident, which examination continued till Friday, when the verdict was, "That the several persons came by their death from compression and suffocation."

A wonderful digitized version of the Newgate Calendar can be found HERE, and a more sordid look at the history of Newgate prison may be found in J.A. Brooks' splendid work, the Ghosts of London (Jarrold Publishing, Norwich: 1982).


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Crapa Pelada


 An excellent tune from an excellent television series.

Friday, April 27, 2012


Edmund Burke described obstinacy as a great vice which was frequently the cause of great mischief, for it is allied to constancy, fortitude, fidelity, firmness, and magnanimity--all commendable virtues, which if practised to excess lead to obstinacy, the one passion that never recovers from failure. It is the pathway to that narrowness of mind which leads to self-conceit. 

~ Besser, H. Perseverance: How to Develop It. Funk & Wagnalls Co.: London, 1916. 

Friday, March 30, 2012

Fear of Contagion

The wonderful Miss Shade has been posting excerpts from John Kelly's The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time on her blog Materies Morbi, and I've been so intrigued that I simply had to buy the book and get in on the action:

The pestilence's magisterial pace also gave Parisans ample time to contemplate the meaning of love and duty and honor in a time of plague. What would they do if a loved one was afflicted? What would the loved one do if they were afflicted? The fear of contagion makes the psychology of plague different from the psychology of war. In plague, fear acts as a solvent on human relationships; it makes everyone an enemy and everyone an isolate. In plague every man becomes an island -- a small, haunted island of suspicion, fear, and despair. (page 177)

Friday, March 23, 2012

Thursday, March 22, 2012


People often remark on the decline of civilizations with something to the effect of "an empire is never truly destroyed from without, but rather decays from within." I tend to agree with this sentiment. The process of such self-destruction is not always obvious to contemporaries, however. A policy of decay often unfolds in shades of subtlety, where threads of indolence, abandonment, and contraction intertwine. The actors doggedly play out their parts in this grand pratfall, seemingly ignorant to the larger geopolitical context which envelops them. As one historian aptly notes, with regard to Rome:  

What is genuinely striking about the process of the 'Fall of the Roman Empire', to which it is necessary rapidly to add 'in the West', as its eastern half was to survive for another 1000 years, is the haphazard, almost accidental nature of the process. From 410 onwards successive western imperial regimes just gave away or lost control of more and more of the territory of the former Empire. At the same time, it must be appreciated, no emperor or Master of the Soldiers would have thought they were actually abandoning or putting outside the Empire the various provinces that they thus surrendered. In terms of constitutional theory practical authority in areas of administration and defence were being delegated to imperial appointees in the persons of the Germanic kings. These remained in theory subordinate to the higher authority of the emperors, even though the latter ceased to obtain material benefit from or to exercise direct control over the provinces. In this way the western Empire delegated itself out of existence.

~ Colins, Roger. Early Medieval Europe, 300-1000. Palgrave Macmillan: London. 2010.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Le Cholera

   It must be apparent to those who have been at all familiar with cholera, and other epidemic diseases, that the imagination has a large share in producing individual cases. It is a well-known fact that excess of joy will affect the circulation, sorrow will disturb the digestion, passion will inflame the system, and fright will chill; and it is equally true that not only are these transient effects produced through the influence of the mind, but special and positive diseases are, under certain circumstances, the result of mental impressions.
     This fact, illustrated in the history of the epidemics succeeding the fourteenth century, should be borne in mind in treating the great pestilence of the present age. Those who may doubt the truth of the statement that cholera is frequently engendered through fear, will here see the evidence of positive disease produced by no other cause than mental excitement.[1]

1. Collins, G.T. The Cholera: A familiar treatise on its history, causes, symptoms and treatment, with the most effective remedies, and Proper mode of their administration, without the aid of a physician, the whole in language free from medical terms, especially adapted for the use of the public generally. Also containing a history of the epidemics of the Middle Ages. J.R. Hawley & Company: Cincinnati. 1866.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

More Pride

     I believe that ambitious men in democracies are less engrossed than any others with the interests and the judgment of posterity; the present moment alone engages and absorbs them. They are more apt to complete a number of undertakings with rapidity than to raise lasting monuments of their achievements; and they care much more for success than for fame. What they most ask of men is obedience, what they most covet is empire. Their manners have, in almost all cases, remained below their station; the consequence is, that they frequently carry very low tastes into their extraordinary fortunes, and that they seem to have acquired the supreme power only to minister to their coarse or paltry pleasures.
. . .
Moralists are constantly complaining that the ruling vice of the present time is pride. This is true in one sense, for indeed every one thinks that he is better than his neighbor, or refuses to obey his superior; but it is extremely false in another, for the same man who cannot endure subordination or equality, has so contemptible an opinion of himself that he thinks he is born only to indulge in vulgar pleasures. He willingly takes up with low desires, without daring to embark in lofty enterprises, of which he scarcely dreams.

Thus, far from thinking that humility ought to be preached to our contemporaries, I would have endeavors made to give them a more enlarged idea of themselves and of their kind. Humility is unwholesome to them; what they most want is, in my opinion, pride. I would willingly exchange several of our small virtues for this one vice.

~ Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America (Volume II). Sever and Francis: Cambridge. 1862.

Friday, March 9, 2012



     The sacrifice of the Argive princess, besides its general human interest, is a striking testimony to the fact, that even among the most cultivated peoples of the ancient world, human sacrifice prevailed at an early period of their history. There are certain principles in the human heart which, at a certain stage of civilisation, seem to make such a practice a sort of moral necessity. That this practice existed even in the most polished age of Athens in a modified form is certain---vide the dictionaries, in voce Φαρμακός. The idea of the substitution of the stag by Diana, in order to save the virgin's life, and the conveyance of the destined victim of a bloody devotion to the barbarous service of a grim idol in the Crimea, was an afterthought---one of those beautiful lies with which the legendary lore of old Hellas is replete.[2]


1. Fresco found in Pompei, based on the 4th-century B.C. painting by Timanthus.

2. Blackie, John Stuart. Lays and legends of ancient Greece. 
        William Blackwood and Sons: Edinburgh. 1880.

3. Tiepolo, Giovanni Battista. The Sacrifice of Iphigenia. Fresco. 1757.


Monday, March 5, 2012

A Trip to the Carnegie, Part I

We spent this weekend in Pittsburgh, and I was able to capture many enjoyable moments with my camera. What follows is the first sample of photos taken in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and Art. If you've never been to the Carnegie before, I strongly urge you to visit and become a member. The museum is high on the list of the nation's best, and one could easily spend days there, poring over all of the incredible exhibits. 


Thursday, March 1, 2012


When it comes to cocktails, I generally prefer an Old-Fashioned (with rye whiskey) or a Dirty Martini (with Vodka). My tastes in a drink lean heavily towards bitter and salty rather than sweet and syrupy, so you won't see me pounding Appletinis or Chocolate Banana Banshees. About a year ago, while searching for new Old-Fashioned variations, I came across the Negroni. A rather obscure — almost forgotten — cocktail, the classic Negroni is made by combining one part Campari bitters, one part Gin, and one part sweet red Vermouth. The drink is stirred over ice, served in an Old-Fashioned glass, and garnished with an orange slice. What results is a citrusy, exceptionally bitter apéritif, which really makes the mouth pucker.

The Negroni was purportedly invented in 1919 as a modification of the Americano, when Count Camillo Negroni — a rodeo cowboy, no less! — requested that the club soda component be replaced by gin, to strengthen the drink.[1]
As Eric Felten writes:

    Count Negroni was in the habit of drinking Americanos, but he found that it didn't have enough kick. The Americano is undeniably suave and continental; in addition to being favored by James Bond at Paris cafés, W. Somerset Maugham puts the drink in the hand of his spy hero, Ashenden, too. But for all its impeccable charm, the Americano is not a potent drink. Count Negroni was at his regular watering hole in Florence, the Caffe Casoni, when he asked bartender Fosco Scarselli to bolster his Americano with gin. The drink was a success, and it soon spread to other bars in Florence, and beyond.
     The Negroni is a bit obscure these days, but it is still a solid-enough standard in the cocktail canon that any bartender worthy of the title will know how to make it. Nor has the drink lost its vaguely illicit vibe — it keeps turning up in the hands of ne'er-do-wells. Don't look for any Negronis in the movie version of Thank You for Smoking, but in Christopher Buckley's original novel, Vodka Negronis are the drink of choice for tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor. And just as the Contessa's Negroni seems to signal a certain corruption, Naylor's Negronis suggest an indulgent moral rot.
     What is it about the Negroni that makes it such a sinister accoutrement? There is the name, which is mysterious and exotic to American ears. And then there is the deep ruby color of the drink. Not only does the Contessa drink Negronis, everything in her flat—walls, sofas, curtains, lampshades—is that same infernal Campari crimson. You could say the drink is a red flag.[2]

After reading about the Negroni (and seeing it ordered in the last episode of the Sopranos), my curiosity was piqued. I tried to order it in several local establishments, but the servers were clueless. It seems that most people in Northeast Ohio have never heard of the drink, or they don't have the Campari on-hand to make one. I'd nearly forgotten about the Negroni myself, until recently, when I was browsing the Gin selection in a local liquor agency and decided to make one at home.

The Negroni is certainly one of the more interesting cocktails I've tried. The drink's bitterness should not be underestimated. I make my Old-Fashioneds with a vigorous dose of Angostura, but was still caught off-guard by the acerbic bite of this cocktail. There are several other variations of the Negroni which I'd like to try. One can double the proportion of Gin, or substitute Vodka. The Campari can be swapped for another bitter apéritif, like Cynar. As with most other cocktails, possibilities for experimentation abound.

1. Regan, Gary. Negroni history lesson ends in a glass.

2. Felten, Eric. How's Your Drink?: Cocktails, Culture, and the Art of Drinking Well.
     Agate Publishing. 2007.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


"The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. 
Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?"

~ Edgar Allan Poe


Monday, February 27, 2012

ὑγρὸν πῦρ -- "Liquid Fire"

One ancient version of napalm, or liquid fire (also commonly called "Greek Fire"), was utilized extensively by the Byzantine empire from the 6th through 13th century. Its invention is often attributed to Kallinikos, but historical record casts some doubt on this claim. The weapon itself is some mixture of flammable material which could burn on/in water, and was only extinguished through oxygen depletion or chemical reaction. The actual composition of Greek Fire remains an historical mystery. Liquid fire could be hurled in containers, a la the Molotov Cocktail, or sprayed through pressure-pumped cylinders and ignited in-stream, like a modern flamethrower.

   At what period the ancient Greek fire was invented has never been certainly determined. There are many writers who place the invention in a far antiquity. Historical details have been adduced pointing to the period of the earlier wars between the Greeks and Romans as the true era of the discovery. But we do not find any certain evidence of the use of Greek fire until the sieges of Constantinople, in the seventh and eighth centuries, though a Father of the Christian Church, writing in the fifth century, gave receipts for making a combustible substance of similar qualities from the compounds resin, sulphur, pitch, pigeon's dung, turpentine, and the juice of the herb 'all-heal.'

It is related that the true Greek fire was invented by a certain Callinicus, an architect of Heliopolis, in Syria (Baalbec), in 678. The secret of the composition of this artificial flame, and the art of directing its action, were imparted by Callinicus---who had deserted from the Caliph---to the Emperor of Constantinople. From this period until the year 1291 the use of Greek fire was an important element in the military power of the Byzantine empire. The progress of the Saracens was, more than once, decisively checked by the destructive action of this powerful and terrible flame. The important art of compounding the fire 'was preserved at Constantinople,' says Gibbon, 'as the palladium of the state: the galleys and artillery might occasionally be lent to the allies of Rome; but the composition of the Greek fire was concealed with the most zealous scruple, and the terror of the enemy was increased and prolonged by their ignorance and surprise.'

The accounts which have reached us respecting the properties of the Greek fire are such as to justify the high value attached by the Byzantine emperors to the secret of its composition. It was a liquid, which was propelled by various methods against the ships or engines of the enemy. So long as it was kept from the air, or remained in large masses, the liquid appears to have been perfectly safe from combustion; but as soon as it was poured forth it burned with an intense flame which consumed everything around---not merely burning upwards, but with equal fury downwards and laterally. Water not only failed to quench it, but made it burn with new ardour. To subdue the flames it was necessary to employ, in large quantities, either sand or vinegar. Various methods were employed for propelling the liquid fire towards the enemy. Sometimes it was enclosed in vessels made of some brittle substance, and these were flung at the enemy by means of suitable projectile machines. 'It was either,' says Gibbon, 'poured from the rampart in large boilers, or launched in red-hot balls of stone and iron, or darted in arrows and javelins, twisted round with flax and tow, which had deeply imbibed the inflammable oil.' But the effectual use of the destructive compound seems to have been best secured by means of a species of fire-ships specially constructed for the purpose. Copper and iron machines were placed in the fore-part of these ships. Long tubes, fantastically shaped, so as to resemble the mouth and jaws of savage animals, formed the outlet for a stream of liquid fire, which the engine---literally a fire- engine---propelled to a great distance. Hand-engines were also constructed by which the destructive compound could be spurted by the soldiers, Beckman tells us.

The secret, as we have said, was carefully kept by the Byzantines. The emperor Constantine suggested the answers which in his opinion were best fitted to elude the pertinacious questioning of the barbarians. 'They should be told that the mystery of the Greek fire had been revealed by an angel to the first and greatest of the Constantines, with the sacred injunction that this gift of Heaven---this peculiar blessing of the Romans---should never be communicated to any foreign nation; that the prince and subject were alike bound to religious silence under the temporal and spiritual penalties of treason and sacrilege; and that the infamous attempt would provoke the sudden and supernatural vengeance of the God of the Christians.' Gibbon adds that the secret thus religiously guarded was 'confined for above 400 years to the Romans of the East; and at the end of the eleventh century the Pisans to whom every sea and every art were familiar suffered the effects without understanding the composition of Greek fire.' [1] 

 1. Proctor, Richard A. The Universe of Suns and Other Science Gleanings. R. Worthington: New York. 1884.


Sunday, February 26, 2012

Decrepit Works

"Like as the waves make towards the pebbl'd shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown'd,
Crooked eclipses 'gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty's brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature's truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand."

~ William Shakespeare, Sonnet LX


Thursday, February 23, 2012

Legere et Discere

Although I had previously acquired miscellaneous pieces of the language from my studies of law and medical terminology, my interest in Latin did not genuinely begin to wax until I discovered that most wonderful tome, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Burton's streaming prose, so incredibly steeped in learning, is saturated with borrowings of ancient Latin aphorisms and poetry. It colors his writing, bringing the words to life in a way that English alone would not. 

As I've rekindled my passion for ancient Greek and Roman culture, my desire to truly learn their languages has grown. Correspondingly, I made the plunge and have been rapidly adding Latin to my polyglot checklist. These are the sources I'm currently working from:

  • Learn Latin: A Lively Introduction to Reading the Language by Peter Jones
  • Wheelock's Latin (7th Edition) by Richard A. LaFleur
  • War with Hannibal: Authentic Latin Prose for the Beginning Student by Brian Beyer and Dale A. Grote
  • Caesar's Gallic Wars (Revised Edition) by Charles E. Bennett (1950)
  • Latin for Beginners by Benjamin L. D'ooge, PhD. (Available HERE)
  • Various works made available on the Textkit Blog.
  • Learn Latin Online


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Xenophon and the Balance Factor

It would be too strange an omission to say nothing about that which, before Alexander's tremendous march, is the most familiar of all Greek adventures among the Barbarians; I mean that suffered and described by Xenophon the Athenian. Again we witness the triumph of a personality, although that is not the important thing about the Retreat of the Ten Thousand. The important thing is the triumph of the Greek character in a body of rascal mercenaries. The personality of the young gentleman who gained so much authority with them found its opportunity in a crisis among ignorant men, but it never became a great one. To the last it was curiously immature. Perhaps it would be an apter metaphor to say of Xenophon what some one said of Pitt---"He did not grow he was cast." His natural tastes were very much those of a more generous and incomparably greater man, Sir Walter Scott. They were the tastes of a country gentleman with a love of literature and history, especially with a flavour of romance. The Cyropaedia is the false dawn of the Historic Novel. Both Xenophon and Sir Walter wanted, probably more than anything else, to be soldiers. But Xenophon wanted to be too many things. Before his mind floated constantly the image of the "Archical Man"---the ideal Ruler---who had long exercised the thoughts of Greek philosophers of none perhaps more than Socrates, whose pupil Xenophon professed himself to be. One day it seems to have struck him: Might not he, Xenophon, be the Archical Man? He may not have framed the thought so precisely, for it is of the kind that even youth does not always admit to itself; but the thought was there. It was his illusion. He was not born to command, he was born to write. He did not dominate, he was always more or less under the influence of some one else---Socrates, Cyrus, Agesilaos. He was an incredibly poor judge of men and the movement of affairs. But put a pen in his hands and you have, if not one of the great masters, yet a master in a certain vivid manner of his own.

1. Alexander, James; Thompson, Kerr. Greeks & barbarians. George Allen & Unwin Ltd.: London. 1921.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Euclid In Memoriam, Part II

The second set of photos from my recent Sunday tour of Euclid Avenue, Cleveland:
(Higher resolution versions are viewable on Flickr -- see links at right.)


Sunday, February 19, 2012

Euclid In Memoriam, Part I

Today was very much a typical February Sunday, grey and drab, with the sort of wind that seems to pass right through every layer of clothing and smack the bones with a powerful chill. I took my camera downtown to capture some shots of the more unique bits of Cleveland architecture. The first sample follows. (Click images to view them at a larger size.)


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Море, сокол пие

Море, сокол пие
вода на Вардаро.
Море сокол пие
вода на Вардаро.
Яне, Яне ле бело гърло,
Яне, Яне ле кротко ягне
Море, ой, соколе,
ти юнашко пиле,
море, не виде ли
юнак да помине
Море, не виде ли
юнак да помине,
юнак да помине
со девет лути рани.
А десета рана
со нож е прободена,
а десета рана
со нож е прободена.
От девет лути рани
много го боли,
от десета рана
ке да загине.

A falcon is drinking
water in the River of Vardar
Jane, Jane the white gullet
Jane, Jane the gentle lamb
Oh you falcon
you brave bird
Jane, Jane the white gullet
Jane, Jane the gentle lamb
Haven't you seen
a brave man pass by
a brave man pass by
with nine sharp wounds?
Jane, Jane the white gullet
Jane, Jane the gentle lamb
a brave man passed by
a brave man passed by
with nine sharp wounds
all from gunshots
Jane, Jane the white gullet
Jane, Jane the gentle lamb
And the tenth wound
stabbed with a knife
Jane, Jane the white gullet
Jane, Jane the gentle lamb


Friday, February 17, 2012

The Surreal in Ritual

There is a certain poignant aspect to surreal works which, in spite of improbable and often absurd elements, strikes a visceral chord. A well-crafted piece of surrealism evokes primal responses, effecting moods which lie just below conscious, explanatory existence. Films from the likes of David Lynch, Luis Buñuel, and Wojciech Has, stories by Franz Kafka or Lewis Carroll, all are rife for critical analysis, but their real power is based in their ability to manipulate emotional states through a portal of fantastic improbability. 

Magic ritual too relies upon this sort of critical bypass. One key to achieving a state of suspended disbelief is to culminate an atmosphere of fantasy, conducive to raw emotion and imagination. This is a feature found in nearly every culture's system of ritual, and is as prominent in monotheism as it is animism. While the surrealist facets of contemporary, monolithic religions are often more visually subtle (or appear primarily as a matter of doctrine), such elements are on striking display in most polytheistic or animistic systems. There is not necessarily any "right" way to incorporate surrealistic expressions into ritual; each culture employs its own distinct ritual trappings in a way that is meaningful and useful to its adherents. I myself find the aesthetics of the Navajo particularly appealing, for the emotive value discussed above. I could dissect the garb and posture, breaking them down into digestible pieces for analysis, but that wouldn't get us any closer to understanding why this aesthetic appeals to me. The value lies in something below the level of critical thought, to some primal whisper which speaks in a tongue I do not understand, but carries with it an implied power derived from some vague memory; a hazy reflection of what has passed and what is yet to be. 

1. All photos by Edward S. Curtis, circa 1903. 


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Being One's Own, with Bombast

Alterius non sit qui suus esse potest.
"Let no man be another's who can be his own."

"Ye are of the serpent kind and hence I must expect only poison from you. With what scorn have you placarded me as the Luther of Physicians, with the explanation that I am an arch-heretic. I am Theophrastus and greater than those to whom you liken me. I am Theophrastus and am moreover Monarch of Physicians, and can prove that which you cannot prove. I will let Luther answer for his own affairs and I will take care of mine and will surpass everyone who attacks me,--the Arcana will help me to that. Who are enemies of Luther? The same crowd hates me also, and what you, for your part, wish for him so you wish for me, that is, to the fire.  
. . .
I may well rejoice that rascals are my enemies -- for the truth has no enemies but liars.
...I need lay on no armor against you--no corselet, for you are not so learned nor experienced that you can disprove my least letter. Could I protect my bald head from the flies as easily as I can my monarchy, and were Milan as safe from its enemies as I from you, neither Swiss nor foot-soldiers could gain entrance."[1]  


"All forms are subject to annihilation; they are only illusions, and as such they will cease to exist when the cause that produced them ceases to act. The body of a king or a sage is as useless as that of an animal after the life whose product it was has ceased to act. A form can only maintain its existence as long as the action of life upon the substance of the form continues." [3]

1. Stillman, John Maxson. Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim called Paracelsus: his personality and influence as physician, chemist and reformer. The Open court Publishing Company: Chicago. 1920.

2. Lévi, Éliphas; Waite, Arthur Edward. The mysteries of magic: a digest of the writings of Eliphas Lévi.
George Redway: London. 1886.

3. Hartmann, Franz. The life of Philippus Theophrastus Bombast of Hohenheim, known by the name of Paracelsus, and the substance of his teachings. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co.: London. 1896.


Monday, February 13, 2012


"The screech-owl, with ill-boding cry, 
Portends strange things, old women say,
Stops every fool that passes by,
And frights the schoolboy from his play." [1]

On this drab winter evening, after months of fruitless searching, we finally stumbled upon a grey-morph screech owl, sheltering in the craggy remains of a storm-split tree. [2]

1. Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley. The Letters and Works of Lady Mary Wortley 
     Montagu. George Bell and Sons: London. 1887.

2. Photos taken with Canon Powershot SX40-HS, 80% sepia filter.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

Thar She Blows!


     The 19th and late 18th centuries are most fondly remembered in American history as the age of the West. While the iconic struggles between European and Native peoples played out, the eastern United States was also engaged in an expansionistic battle. Off the shores of Maine and Massachusetts, as far south as the ports of Newark and Wilmington, a great naval war raged. The enemy was that ocean behemoth, the whale; the hunters’ spoils: spermaceti.


     A male sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) can reach lengths up to 67 feet and weigh over 45 tons. It has the largest brain of any animal on the planet, and teeth which weigh up to two pounds apiece. Physeter macrocephalus can attain underwater swimming speeds approaching 19 miles-per-hour. Sperm whales employ an incredibly complex communication system of clicks, and recent studies have shown that pods are organized by “dialects,” rather than by geographic boundaries as had been previously assumed [5].


     Knowing little of these facts at the time, the imagination of sailors must have run amok as they pursued their prey over the vast depths of the unknown. Picture those tiny whaling boats, rowing out from the main vessel, closing in for the kill. How vulnerable these hunters must have felt, despite the obvious advantages of man’s technology, to be hovering over a creature of such immense size and power, in their insignificant wooden floats. As any fisherman knows, even the smallest bass will put up an incredible fight when its life is on the line. 
     How much more intense, then, must have been the struggle between harpooner and whale; Leviathan in his mighty death throes. Indeed, these giants did not submit with a whimper. When enraged and injured they were capable of wreaking incredible havoc. The infamous white whale, Mocha Dick (Melville’s marine muse) survived many ocean brawls and was notorious for his cunning aggressiveness. Another nameless, unusually large whale, attacked the whaling ship Essex, sinking her and killing all but eight of the crew members, in a tale worth recounting here:

     On the leeward side of the Essex Chase's boat harpooned a whale, but its fluke struck the boat and opened up a seam, resulting in their having to cut his line from the whale and put back to the ship for repairs. Two miles away off the windward side, Captain Pollard and the second mate's boats had each harpooned a whale and were being dragged towards the horizon in what was known as a Nantucket sleighride. Chase was repairing the damaged boat on board when the crew observed a whale, that was much larger than normal (alleged to be around 85 feet (26 m)), acting strangely. It lay motionless on the surface with its head facing the ship, then began to move towards the vessel, picking up speed by shallow diving. The whale rammed the ship and then went under, battering it and causing it to tip from side to side. Finally surfacing close on the starboard side of the Essexwith its head by the bow and tail by the stern, the whale appeared to be stunned and motionless. Chase prepared to harpoon it from the deck when he realized that its tail was only inches from the rudder, which the whale could easily destroy if provoked by an attempt to kill it. Fearing to leave the ship stranded thousands of miles from land with no way to steer it, he relented. The whale recovered and swam several hundred yards ahead of the ship and turned to face the bow.

"I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods (550 yards) directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed (around 24 knots or 44kph), and it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect. The surf flew in all directions about him with the continual violent thrashing of his tail. His head about half out of the water, and in that way he came upon us, and again struck the ship." —Owen Chase.

The whale crushed the bow like an eggshell, driving the 238-ton vessel backwards. The whale finally disengaged its head from the shattered timbers and swam off, never to be seen again, leaving the Essex quickly going down by the bow. Chase and the remaining sailors frantically tried to add rigging to the only remaining whaleboat, while the steward ran below to gather up whatever navigational aids he could find.

"The captain's boat was the first that reached us. He stopped about a boat's length off, but had no power to utter a single syllable; he was so completely overpowered with the spectacle before him. He was in a short time, however, enabled to address the inquiry to me, "My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?" I answered, "We have been stove by a whale." —Owen Chase. [8]




1. Sperm whale skeleton in the Natural History Museum. From Museum Through a Lens. Photo: London. 1901.

2. Whaling Ports of the 1850s. From the Whalemen's Shipping List. National Maritime Digital Library. Via PBS, at 2012.

3. Sperm Whales, Physeter Macrocephalus. NOAA Fisheries, Office of Protected Resources. 2012

4. Sperm Whales, Physeter catodon. MarineBio Conservation Society. 2012

5. Rendell, Luke, et al. Can Genetic Differences Explain Vocal Dialect Variation in Sperm Whales, Physeter macrocephalus? Behavioral Genetics 42:332-343 (2012).

6. Whale depictions by Captain Valentine Barnard. PR-145, #76; from the Collection of the New York Historical Society, 1810.

7. Whaling photo by Marion Smith, 1902.

8. Essex (whaleship). Wikipedia. 2012.

9. Beale, Thomas. Natural History of the Sperm Whale (frontispiece). 1839.

10. Carved sperm whale tooth. Attribution unknown.