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Its Light Was Prodigious

August 18, 2014 | by

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Paul Sandby, The 1783 Great Meteor, as seen from the East Angle of the North Terrace, Windsor Castle

As evidenced by its name, the 1783 Great Meteor was, yes, great and meteoric. At the time, not much else could be said about it with certainty—indeed, when it graced the skies of the British Isles 231 years ago today, it prompted a scientific (or pseudoscientific) crisis. Experts rushed to answer that burning—pun intended—question: What the hell was that?

On the night in question, Paul Sandby, a landscape painter, happened to be with Tiberius Cavallo, an Italian philosopher, hanging out on the terrace of Windsor Castle, enjoying the summer night, taking in the solemn spectacle of the sky, when, as Cavallo later wrote,

some flashes of lambent light, much like the aurora borealis, were first observed on the northern part of the heavens, which were soon perceived to proceed from a roundish luminous body, whose apparent diameter equaled half that of the moon, and almost stationary in the same point of the heavens … This ball at first appeared of a faint bluish light, perhaps from appearing just kindled, or from its appearing through the haziness; but it gradually increased its light, and soon began to move, at first ascending above the horizon in an oblique direction towards the east. Its course in this direction was very short, perhaps of five or six degrees; after which it directed its course towards the east … Its light was prodigious. Every object appeared very distinct; the whole face of the country, in that beautiful prospect before the terrace, being instantly illuminated.

I like the blend of specificity and awe here: Cavallo takes pains to describe the event as accurately as he can, but his account is suffused with the kind of wonder that only comes from confusion. How exciting it must’ve been, not knowing what was happening, not having the rote assurance of a scientific explanation. This was a time, after all, when one could still refer to the skies as “the heavens” without the slightest trace of irony.

In what amounts to an early example of crowdsourcing, artists and scientists came together to corroborate and dispute various accounts of the meteor. Sandby turned in an excellent watercolor of the phenomenon, and a schoolmaster named Henry Robinson made the engraving below. The meteor became the subject of wide speculation in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society; London Magazine ran an absurd account from a British lieutenant who claimed to have seen the meteor reverse its course, “moving back again, the contrary way to which it came.”

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Corpulent Coriolanus

August 13, 2014 | by

Yesterday, the Folger Shakespeare Library released some eighty thousand images into the Creative Commons, a deluge of bardic miscellany from which the Internet may well never recover. There are astrology charts, game boards, hornbooks, advertisements, illustrations, engravings, and more, all of it related, however tangentially, to Shakespeare. We’ve had TPR interns taking a fine-tooth comb to the collection for twenty-four hours now, with closely monitored breaks for water and gruel, and we present to you now the results of their exhaustive research. There’s a plump Coriolanus with a salty cheek, a lurid and seemingly shrunken Lady Macbeth, a King Lear who seems to have wandered off the Grateful Dead tour bus, and a plus-sized “Harlequin Quixote,” dressed in a modish, dance-floor-ready romper, attacking some puppets.

There is, perhaps best of all, this illustrated version of Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” monologue, from Jaques in As You Like It. Click to enlarge:

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Oh, to be a lean and slippered pantaloon...

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Jessoterica

August 6, 2014 | by

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Interior page from From Force of Habit, 1966, collage book, approx. 8" x 5 ¾ ". Courtesy of the Odyssia Gallery, New York, NY.

Jess Collins, better known as just Jess, was a painter and collagist born today in 1923. Jess spent most of his life in the Bay Area, where he lived with his longtime partner, the poet Robert Duncan. (The latter died in 1988; the former in 2004.) In our Fall 2012 issue, The Paris Review featured some of Jess’s work in collage, or “paste-ups”; as our own Nicole Rudick explains,

Jess and Duncan shared a lifelong interest in salvaging esoteric bits of culture past—in Jess’s case, Goodwill cast-offs, Dick Tracy and Krazy Kat comics, advertisements for Tabu, and Life magazine, but also tarot cards, Renaissance chapbooks, Greek mythology, Victorian engravings, and Arthurian legend. As he worked, he would choose from among thousands of carefully cut-out images, painstakingly organized by subject. His recollection of an abandoned prospector’s shack, which he discovered as child, aptly describes his own studio: “a little palace assembled from ... almost any type of found object you can imagine.”

If you want to explore more of Jess’s work, earlier this year the Times ran an excellent piece on him, Duncan, and their coterie:

Where Duncan’s art explodes, Jess’s only threatens to, which is much more interesting … Jess is best known for his collages, which he called paste-ups: staggeringly intricate symbolic narratives pieced together from bits of scientific treatises, muscle magazines, art history books, cartoons and popular periodicals like Life and Time. This work is not lost-in-the-clouds stuff. A 1968 collage in response to the war in Vietnam called “The Napoleonic Geometry of Art—Given: The Pentagon in the Square: Demonstrate: The Hyperbolic Swastika,” is about as pointedly angry as art can be.

And Hyperallergic published a great essay in February, wherein Christopher Lyon identifies Duncan and Jess’s

sustained faith in make-believe—that one can simultaneously be oneself and be many selves, past and future; that one can embrace the everyday and simultaneously experience in it an intensified poetic reality. Embedded in art or poetry, make-believe expresses a faith that someone in an unknowable future will engage with one’s work and re-experience that intensification of the moment—this is existentialism recast as myth.

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Alfabeto Pittorico

August 5, 2014 | by

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Sploid, “a new blog about awesome stuff” (as opposed to the many blogs about unawesome stuff), drew my attention to Antonio Basoli’s Alfabeto Pittorico, a series of architectural-alphabetical engravings from 1839—twenty-four letters and an ampersand. (Sorry, J and W.) These are works of pure fabulism—Basoli, a painter and designer from Bologna, created sets and curtains for the theater, and his alphabet has a lot of stagecraft to it. Every letter looks like a scene from another play. Part of the fun is in wondering what compelled him to make these engravings at all: Was he on some kind of precursor to LSD? Had he been dissed by an illiterate architect, against whom he sought fanciful revenge? Did he need a novel pedagogical device to teach the ABC’s to his distracted children? Whatever his motive, he brought an impressive imagination to the table. His G, for instance, is built on a Viking ship with a rabbit at its bow; K appears to be in some sort of mosque, with people in prayer all around; S is carved into a treacherous cliff, at the foot of which is a grave with a mourner. S—the cruelest letter.

You can see the whole series here; if you’re thinking there’s an Alphabet City joke to be made, I regret to inform you that the editors at Sploid have beat you to it. I thought about closing this post by spelling out PARIS REVIEW in Basoli’s letters, but life is short, and I, like you, tire of clicking. So here’s TPR: Read More »

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To Serve and Protect

August 4, 2014 | by

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Not, alas, an actual archival photo.

Cats Hate Cops” is a tidy black-and-white pamphlet from Research & Destroy, a “radical zine collective” based in New York. Its title may seem, to the casual observer, like an editorial statement, but make no mistake: it’s a fact. The zine’s sixty-two pages comprise 150 years of cat-on-cop violence, all of it diligently chronicled by our nation’s newspapers—hard evidence, in other words. The first report is from 1805, when, in Edinburgh, a man attempting to police his dairy met with a cat bite on the neck; the latest is from the Melbourne Age, which last January ran a sidebar called “Anatomy of a Cat Attack.” (“Police close one lane and engage Scratchy, who resists.” Attaboy, Scratchy!)

Whether these are disconnected incidents or the enactment of a kind of feline political philosophy remains to be seen, but my money’s on the latter. It just makes sense. Cats and humans are coevolved; the Scratchys and Tigers of the world have had ample time to form opinions about authoritarianism and the police state. And think about it: Have you ever seen a cat driving a cruiser? Have you even once seen a cat with a badge? These animals want Friskies, not frisking.

Of course, the media tends to side with the state. “A mad cat upset the general routine of things last Friday morning at a grocery store,” reads a 1939 blurb, failing thereafter to give the cat’s point of view. Time and again, “Cats Hate Cops” describes a world in which the humane treatment of animals is not a going concern, and in which the police are generally assumed to be competent executors of the public will. The prose is often blunt: “After clubbing the animal into insensibility they shot it through the head,” one story ends.

The zine is available from Brown Recluse Zine Distro; below are two of my favorite entries. Read More »

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How to Win Friends and Influence People

July 31, 2014 | by

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Daniel Defoe, beloved in the pillory. Line engraving by James Charles Armytage, 1862.

Before he wrote Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders—before he wrote any novels at all, actually—Daniel Defoe was a pamphleteer, fomenting controversy in the London of the early eighteenth century. On July 31, 1703, he landed himself in the pillory for seditious libel; he’d written an anonymous satire mocking the hostility toward Dissenters, suggesting that the whole lot of them should be killed. It didn’t take long for authorities to pin him as the author. Then they did what authorities do: fined him to the point of bankruptcy, threw him in prison, and subjected him to ritualized public humiliation.

Before his stint in the stocks began, Defoe managed to write and disseminate a poem, “Hymn to the Pillory.” Legend has it, however dubiously, that the public was so enamored of his verse that they came to greet him at the pillory with flowers, toasting his health instead of hurling stones at him.

Lesson learned: in the court of public opinion, nothing carries more weight than a well-timed poem. Bear this in mind next time you’re stoking the flames of religious unrest in your community.

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