Saturday, November 15, 2014

Earth-Centric Theory and the Regulated Mind

Arthur Conan Doyle:
His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.
Theoria solis per eccentricum sine epicyclo.
From: Harmonia macrocosmica seu atlas universalis et novus, totius universi creati cosmographiam generalem, et novam exhibens.
by Andreas Cellarius (1661)
(Wikimedia Commons)

"YOU appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."

"To forget it!"
"Schema huius præmissæ diuisionis Sphærarum."
From: Peter Apian, Cosmographia, Antwerp, 1524
(Wikimedia Commons)

"You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."

"But the Solar System!" I protested.

"What the deuce is it to me?" he interrupted impatiently; "you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work."
From A Study in Scarlet (1887, Project Gutenberg)
— in the Sherlock Holmes series.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Poppies, in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Study of Poppies, by John Constable
via V + A Museum website
They walked along listening to the singing of the bright-colored birds and looking at the lovely flowers which now became so thick that the ground was carpeted with them. There were big yellow and white and blue and purple blossoms, besides great clusters of scarlet poppies, which were so brilliant in color they almost dazzled Dorothy's eyes.

"Aren't they beautiful?" the girl asked, as she breathed in the spicy scent of the flowers.
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum (1900)

The Wizard of Oz is familiar enough through the 1939 film with Judy Garland that an introduction to it is likely unneeded. Instead, then, I have taken this excerpt. In the Hollywood version, the flowers have been enchanted by the Wicked Witch of the West; in this version, the fragrance of the poppies in themselves is a sedative. When reading this chapter, I wondered, if in 1900, laudanum was still used as a medicine even for children. (Wikipedia: American patent medicine manufacturers were first required to list opium content in 1906; preparations of coca leaf and preparations of opium were roundly restricted by the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914, and Britain and France formulated their own similar restrictions a few years later.)

Illustration: Made in Great Britain, ca. 1832.
Maker: John Constable, born 1776 - died 1837. Oil on paper with a brown ground. Given to the Victoria and Albert museum by Isabel Constable. Museum number: 329-1888.

In honour of the exhibition: Constable: The Making of a Master, in the Victoria and Albert Museum (London, UK), from September 20th, 2014 to January 11th, 2014. More information here.

Laudanum and Harrison Narcotics Tax Act [Wikipedia]
Text quoted from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (New York: Alfred A. Knopf — Everyman's Library, 1992), p. 68

Friday, September 19, 2014

Burns's Shelterless Mouse

'To a Mouse' is one of my favourite poems, which I came across during school. Robert Burns wrote it in 1785, after he indeed met by putting athwart a nest of mice amid agricultural pursuits, according to his brother. He writes it from the point of view of marauding man, with a half-affectionate disrespect that is already in the first lines. I am guessing from a knowledge of English rather than of Scots, but he is naming the mouse 'little, sleek, cowering and timorous.'

Its Scots Wikipedia entry is worth citing here:
'To a Mouse' (Scots: Tae a Moose) is a Scots poem written bi Robert Burns in 1785 that wis includit in the Kilmarnock Volume, his first settin furth o musradry.


I'm truly sorry Man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
                               Which makes thee startle,

Northumberland Bestiary: folio 33.
Between 1250 and 1260.
via Wikimedia Commons

WEE, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty
Wi bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murdering pattle.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Splendour of August in a Nutshell

August, from Les Très Riches Heures du
Duc de Berry (via Wikimedia Commons)

By the Limbourg brothers. 1412-6, painting on vellum, now displayed in Condé museum at Chantilly. (Falconry, gathering of harvest, and swimming, in front of the château d'Étampes.)


THERE is no month in the whole year in which nature wears a more beautiful appearance than in the month of August. Spring has many beauties, and May is a fresh and blooming month, but the charms of this time of year are enhanced by their contrast with the winter season. August has no such advantage. It comes when we remember nothing but clear skies, green fields, and sweet-smelling flowers—when the recollection of snow, and ice, and bleak winds, has faded from our minds as completely as they have disappeared from the earth—and yet what a pleasant time it is! Orchards and cornfields ring with the hum of labour; trees bend beneath the thick clusters of rich fruit which bow their branches to the ground; and the corn, piled in graceful sheaves, or waving in every light breath that sweeps above it, as if it wooed the sickle, tinges the landscape with a golden hue. A mellow softness appears to hang over the whole earth; the influence of the season seems to extend itself to the very wagon [. . .] 

Written during one of the travels of the Pickwick Club, in its literary depiction (Pickwick Papers, 1836-7) by Charles Dickens. It engraved itself on my mind during the course of reading his novel for the first time, more or less, since it appears to me to display a rare scenery-painting moment, not typical of Dickens's type of social novel.


The Pickwick Papers [Project Gutenberg]

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Megrim of King Richard the Third

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
— Act One, Scene One The Life and Death of Richard the Third
by William Shakespeare

"The winter of our discontent" is an ornament of Shakespeare's language that has perhaps slipped into a cliché, since it is also a label for an incident in modern British history. (Public sector strikes, inclement weather, and annoyance with the Labour government in 1978 and early 1979, which may — in their sum — have gifted us with Margaret Thatcher.)*

In itself, it is an apt label when 'everything' — public matters, private life, or anything similar — is in a difficult frame of affairs.

N.B.: Laurence Olivier's recitation of the lines is well worth finding on YouTube.