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.