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Material Objects

October 22, 2014 | by

Lessons from Rare Book School.

Edward Collier, Trompe l'Oeil of Newspapers, Letters and Writing Implements on a Wooden Board, 1699.

Four stories underneath the stately Georgian campus of the University of Virginia, I was with a group of rare-book experts scrutinizing a five-hundred-year-old Italian woodcut of two chubby infants. They framed a capital letter L. One, with a look of insouciant concentration, was thrusting his butt over the downslope of the L to defecate on it.

“The woodcut accompanies Andreas Vesalius’s discourse on the muscles of excretion,” Roger Gaskell, a rare-book dealer based in Cambridgeshire, told the group. It turns out that Vesalius, the Renaissance physician remembered today as the father of modern anatomy, had an intensely strained relationship with his publishers. “This initial letter differs from the others in the book—despite the fact that the printing house had a perfectly good L already cut,” Gaskell said. “So I rather suspect this shitting putti was a message to his publisher.”

Over a coffee break, the members of Gaskell’s seminar mingled with three others led by such luminaries as Mark Dimunation, the chief of the rare-book division at the Library of Congress. They were gathered in a warren of windowless basement rooms for an annual rite of passage in the world of antiquarian texts: Rare Book School. Read More »

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Extreme, Extreme!

September 17, 2014 | by

The literature of laughing gas.

Laughinggas1

“This is not the Laughing, but the Hippocrene or Poetic Gas, Sir.” Colored etching by R. Seymour, 1829, via the Wellcome Library.

What’s mistake but a kind of take?
What’s nausea but a kind of -ausea?
Sober, drunk, -unk, astonishment.
Everything can become the subject of criticism—how criticise without something to criticise? Agreement—disagreement!!
Emotion—motion!!!

These words were set to paper in 1882 by William James, one of the most celebrated proponents of the new science of psychology, and a newly minted assistant professor of philosophy at Harvard. James was in many ways the paragon of an eminent Victorian—his writing tends to summon images of the author ensconced beside a roaring fire in some cozy wood-paneled study in Cambridge. And yet here James comes off as utterly, absurdly stoned.

Because he was.

After huffing a large amount of nitrous oxide, James set out to tackle a prominent bugbear of 1880s intellectual life: Hegelian dialectics. He came up with a stream of consciousness that centered on a kind of ecstatic binary thinking:

Don’t you see the difference, don’t you see the identity?
Constantly opposites united!
The same me telling you to write and not to write!
Extreme—extreme, extreme! Within the extensity that “extreme” contains is contained the “extreme” of intensity
Something, and other than that thing!
….
By George, nothing but othing!
That sounds like nonsense, but it’s pure onsense!
Thought much deeper than speech … !
Medical school; divinity school, school! SCHOOL!
Oh my God, oh God; oh God!

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Wizards of the Coast

May 29, 2014 | by

John Dee and the occult in California.

Figure1

Antonio de Pareda, The Knight’s Dream, 1655, Real Academia de San Fernando, Madrid.

Working summers at a Northern California health food co-op brings you into a constellation of eccentrics. The one that stands out in my memory, at a remove of more than a decade, is the old man who dressed as a wizard. His was not some flimsy Halloween affectation—it was a lifestyle, with accessories to match: thick robes of purple velvet stitched with golden stars, a silvery beard, and a hefty wand topped with a crescent moon. In our sole interaction that summer, he entered the co-op around closing and cornered me as I struggled to replace a roll of receipt paper. Peering out from under his pointed hat, he hit me with an intense stare and asked, “You ever done DMT, kid?”

Dimethyltryptamine, you might recall, is a highly potent, short-acting psychedelic alkaloid. It’s the stuff in the bitter Amazonian brew known as ayahuasca, and it’s the reason people lick the backs of Mexican toads to get high. The question surprised me at the time, but it shouldn’t have. Wizards have been asking questions like this for about four hundred years now.

Merlin has long occupied point position in pop culture as our archetypal sorcerer. But John Dee of England, born in 1527, the astrologer to Queen Elizabeth and advisor to Sir Walter Raleigh, was the true founder of the wizardly iconography and mythos. A skilled mathematician, geographer, and inventor, Dee also delved into grimoires, kabbalah, alchemy, and Biblical prophecy. He believed he’d been chosen by God to receive a new divine revelation—angels were sending him a new set of Biblical texts from heaven. And he had a sidekick: Dee believed the ultimate conduit was not himself but his servant, a mysterious ex-con named Edward Kelley, who spoke with the angels through a glass orb that the two called a “shew-stone,” or crystal ball. Read More »

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