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Posts Tagged ‘nineteenth century’

Illinois Jesus

August 18, 2014 | by

A forgotten Midwestern religious sect and the strange novel it inspired.

An illustration from Six Years in Heaven.

The most confusing thing about the rural Midwest is the importance placed on being normal. Perhaps this comes from demographic homogeneity: there’s a comforting stability in being able to drive a hundred miles in almost any direction and find a landscape almost identical to the one from which you set out.

The Midwest is construed as a place where nothing happens—that being, it should be emphasized, a good thing. Native Americans once lived here, of course; but there’s no longer any sign of them aside from some low mounds and their continuing near-universal use as school mascots. When I grew up here, no one wondered why they’d left. Probably it was more exciting somewhere else. Who could blame them? It’s a fine place to leave.

But on returning, as I did recently, the effect is disorienting: this is a place where everyone is cheerfully convinced of the rationality of their insanity. I was never immune to this. In school, everyone was perplexed by race problems. We weren’t racist. How could we be when there weren’t any black people? We ignored that in Rockford, Illinois, ten miles away, desegregation lawsuits were impossibly still grinding through the court system. Likewise, we firmly believed that gay people weren’t something we had; we learned we’d had a Jewish family in our town only after they’d safely escaped. This seems ludicrous to me now, and things have undoubtedly changed since the turn of the century. With the arrival of the Internet and cable TV, the boast that newscasters were carefully trained to speak like us—because we, among all Americans, had no accents—isn’t quite as impressive.

In 1988, when I was ten, my parents moved to a five-acre farm between the rust-belt city of Rockford and the village of Winnebago. Not being from the area, they were naturally curious about the history, and one of them found a Works Progress Administration history of Illinois in the library. In that book, we discovered that the country road we lived on had once not been so somnolent. A block north of us, a large complex of buildings painted red bore the name Weldon Farm, but once it had been called Heaven. In the 1880s it had been the center of an obscure religious sect—still lacking a Wikipedia entry of their own—called the Beekmanites. A woman named Dorinda Beekman had declared herself to be Jesus, as one did in those days; she died after promising to rise from the dead in three days. Her considerable followers were disappointed until one of them, a red-headed man named George Jacob Schweinfurth, neatly solved the problem by explaining that her spirit had moved into his body. Many agreed; he and his followers, the Church Triumphant, moved into Heaven and lived communally, where he’d attracted attention as far away as the New York Times.

A block south of my parents’ place, the road dead-ended in front of a run-down house. A “bad” family lived there, and their children occasionally went to school with me. We would have called them poor white trash had we not been afraid of being beaten up. Their house, ramshackle as it appeared to be, had a history as well: it had once been Hell. Schweinfurth had lived in luxury in Heaven, arrayed with young women called Angels. Their husbands, had they any, and members of the group who’d fallen out of favor, were sent to Hell, where the work needed to keep the sect fed was done. Read More »

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Oneiric Architecture and Opium

August 15, 2014 | by

Visualizing opium dreams through the etchings of Piranesi.

Title Plate

Title Plate

Prisoners on a Projecting Platform

Prisoners on a Projecting Platform

The Arch with a Shell Ornament

The Arch with a Shell Ornamental

The Drawbridge

The Gothic Arch

The Gothic Arch

The Man on the Rack

The Round Tower

The Round Tower

178054, 2012.159.18.6

The Smoking Fire

The Staircase with Trophies

The Staircase with Trophies

It’s Thomas De Quincey’s birthday today—what better time to tour the mind-bending architecture of his laudanum-fueled dreams? The famed Romantic opium addict described his vivid dreams as “the immediate and proximate cause of my acutest suffering.” In his 1821 Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, he outlines their disturbing qualities. They’re extremely productive—pretty much anything he thinks about at night ends up in them; they resurrect deeply repressed memories from his childhood, accompanied by intense anxiety and melancholy, and they seem to expand time and space to the point of “unutterable infinity.”

What might this madness look like? Here De Quincey turns to ekphrasis, invoking Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons), a series of etchings that depict surreal, classical-inspired dungeons:

Many years ago, when I was looking over Piranesi’s, Antiquities of Rome, Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by that artist, called his Dreams, and which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever. Some of them (I describe only from memory of Mr. Coleridge’s account) represented vast Gothic halls, on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, &c. &c., expressive of enormous power put forth and resistance overcome. Creeping along the sides of the walls you perceived a staircase; and upon it, groping his way upwards, was Piranesi himself: follow the stairs a little further and you perceive it come to a sudden and abrupt termination without any balustrade, and allowing no step onwards to him who had reached the extremity except into the depths below. Whatever is to become of poor Piranesi, you suppose at least that his labours must in some way terminate here. But raise your eyes, and behold a second flight of stairs still higher, on which again Piranesi is perceived, but this time standing on the very brink of the abyss. Again elevate your eye, and a still more aerial flight of stairs is beheld, and again is poor Piranesi busy on his aspiring labours; and so on, until the unfinished stairs and Piranesi both are lost in the upper gloom of the hall. With the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction did my architecture proceed in dreams. In the early stage of my malady the splendours of my dreams were indeed chiefly architectural; and I beheld such pomp of cities and palaces as was never yet beheld by the waking eye unless in the clouds.

Completed in the mid-eighteenth century, Piranesi’s Prisons, with their vast cavernous archways and creeping staircases, remind of the impossible constructions of M. C. Escher, though Piranesi precedes Escher by nearly two hundred years. And there’s an expressiveness to Piranesi’s line, a level of permitted imprecision radically different from Escher’s mathematically inspired print work—a certain nightmarishness, even. Through the Prisons, De Quincey manages to evoke the strange, haunting infinity of his dreams. And by setting these expansive dungeons in the mind of an addict, he gets at something key about the particular creepiness of Piranesi’s constructed prisons: the crush of infinity. There’s something claustrophobic about their sheer expansiveness. The shadowy inmates of imaginary prisons, like opium eaters, are enslaved in surplus, sentenced to learn the restrictive power of excess.

Chantal McStay studies English at Columbia University and is an intern at The Paris Review.

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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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Boule de Suif

August 5, 2014 | by

Boule_de_Suif 

Let’s talk about Guy de Maupassant, because he was born today in 1850 and because—why not? He’s Guy de Maupassant. As our own Lorin Stein wrote in 2010,

In a career that spanned barely a decade—the 1880s and early 1890s—Maupassant produced some 300 stories, 200 articles, three travel books, a collection of poems, three plays, and six novels, and the bulk of this production was consumed with the pursuit of illicit sex. His specialty was the conte leste, a kind of bawdy comic story we have very little of in English after Chaucer (think Boccaccio or The Arabian Nights). Maupassant modernized this tradition, testing the boundaries of what was permissible even in the Paris tabloids, where many of his stories first appeared. He was the best-selling writer of his generation.

Maupassant’s early story “Boule de Suif,” from 1880, remains a hallmark and a natural starting point. It’s about a prostitute whose refrain, like Bartleby’s, is that she would prefer not to—in this case, a Prussian officer asks repeatedly for the pleasure of her intimate company, and she invariably denies him. Unlike Bartleby, though, Boule de Suif must eventually give in, not by any defect of will but because of peer pressure.

This Prussian guy, you see, has detained her and several of her countrymen at a local inn. He’ll only allow the group to leave if Boule de Suif (or “Dumpling,” should that translation suit you, or “Butterball,” or most literally “Ball of Fat”) surrenders to his advances. And so her fellow travelers, all of whom disdain her for her occupation, find themselves begging her to succumb. Read More »

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The Vale of Soul-Making

July 25, 2014 | by

How Keats coped with fever.

keats_pic

Tuberculosis seemed to pursue Keats his whole life.

In 1821, three months after he learned of Keats’s death, Percy Shelley wrote Adonaïs: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, in which he described the poet as a delicate, fragile young flower of a man:

Oh gentle child, beautiful as thou wert,
Why didst thou leave the trodden paths of men
Too soon, and with weak hands though mighty heart
Dare the unpastured dragon in his den?

That dragon was a cruel critic who had mocked Keats’s literary ambitions—John Gibson Lockhart, who, writing under the pseudonym Z, had scolded Keats as if he were a child, insisting in a review of Endymion that “it is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop, Mr John, back to the ‘plasters, pills, and ointment boxes.’ ” Lockhart had classed Keats among the Cockney School of politics, versification, and morality, known—at least by readers of Blackwood’s Magazine—for its “exquisitely bad taste” and “vulgar modes of thinking.” In Shelley’s formulation, it was this bad review that sent Keats to an early grave, and gazing back through history, one begins to accept this two-part narrative of Keats’s legacy. The fallen poet had lived a life of abstractions—he was not only an aesthete, but the aesthete—and he had been, as Byron quipped, “snuffed out by an article,” too beautiful and frail for this harsh world.

But Keats was immersed in the realities of life; his poetry and letters reveal an allegiance to radical politics as well as a concern with economic and scientific issues. Far from childlike and apolitical, he’s now thought of as having been “dangerous … a poet who embodied and gave voice to the anxieties and insecurities of his times … a poet whom the establishment would be obliged to silence,” as the scholar Nicholas Roe puts it. We often overlook, for instance, that Keats spent six years studying medicine, successfully earning a license to practice in London from the Society of Apothecaries—hence Lockhart’s insult about the “plasters, pills, and ointment boxes.” To think that he was “snuffed out by an article” trivializes the intense pain he experienced as his lungs were slowly consumed by tuberculosis, robbing him of his work, his love, and his life at the age of twenty-five.

The myth of the frail genius is attractive, even to contemporary readers, because of its quintessential Romanticism. But the truth is that Keats’s writings—especially when they seem fanciful or escapist—are grounded in real-world concerns. And nowhere is this more evident than in the letters and poems of his that deal with feverish suffering. Read More »

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Le Pater

July 24, 2014 | by

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In 1899, Alphonse Mucha, a progenitor of Art Nouveau, published Le Pater, an illustrated edition of the Lord’s Prayer embellished in his sinuous, faintly occult style. Mucha, who was born today in 1860, made only 510 copies of the book, which he considered his masterwork. According to the Mucha Foundation,

Mucha conceived this project at a turning point in his career … [he] was at that time increasingly dissatisfied with unending commercial commissions and was longing for an artistic work with a more elevated mission. He was also influenced by his long-standing interest in Spiritualism since the early 1890s and, above all, by Masonic philosophy … the pursuit of a deeper Truth beyond the visible world. Through his spiritual journey Mucha came to believe that the three virtues—Beauty, Truth and Love—were the ‘cornerstones’ of humanity and that the dissemination of this message through his art would contribute towards the improvement of human life and, eventually, the progress of mankind.

Whether or not you buy into Mucha’s spiritual ambition—and I must admit that I don’t—his illustrations are striking in their depth and detail, with a certain haunted, diaphanous quality that would be imitated, if never duplicated, throughout the twentieth century, right on up to those ponderous Led Zeppelin “Stairway to Heaven” black-light posters that continue to grace all too many dorm rooms. As the artist Alan Carroll explains,

in the 1870s and 1880s, so many American artists went to study in Paris (e.g. Sargent, Whistler, Cassatt, Eakins, Homer) because American academic training at the time was generally considered so inadequate. Combine this with a mesmeric American fascination with the Old World, and we can begin to see why Mucha’s early trips to the States were so rapturously received. And yet Mucha seemed reluctant to lap up the attention that the gentry and grandes dames of American Society were determined to bestow. Indeed, he was sick and tired of his obligations, as evidenced in a hilariously melodramatic letter he wrote in 1904: “You’ve no idea how often I am crushed almost to blood by the cogwheels of this life, by this torrent which has got hold of me, robbing me of my time and forcing me to do things that are so alien to those I dream about.”

Something of that crushed-to-blood quality comes through in Le Pater, whose fascination with the otherworldly is predicated on a kind of desperation: There must be something more, right?

You can see more of Le Pater on Carroll’s blog, Surface Fragments.

Lepatermucha005

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