Friday, June 25, 2010

Vanessa Atalanta

The first Red Admiral (Vanessa Atalanta) spotted in the garden this morning. 
A little early in the season to arrive from their migration I would have thought, usually associating this butterfly with the month of September more than late June. However upon reference it is described as, 'a strong migrant, spreading northwards from the Mediterranean region each summer to breed. Adults hibernate and a few survive the winter in Britain'. It would have to be a strong insect to have survived last winter, the coldest for several decades!

Butterflies flit across the pages of 'The Garden of Cyrus', Browne, the keen lepidopterist observing, that the colour of the Caterpillar will shew again in the Butterfly, with some latitude is allowable. Nor can he omit the enquiry how Butterflies and breezes move their four wings from his speculations, even likening butterflies to flowers in the form of the Butterfly bloomes of leguminous plants.

It's also of interest to note that the Ancient Greek word for "butterfly" is ψυχή (psychē), which translates as 'soul', but also as 'mind'. There is of course a wealth of symbolism in literature throughout the world, both ancient and modern which alludes to the transitory, migratory nature of the butterfly, or as it was known as in the seventeenth century, the 'breeze-fly', being likened to the soul.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Piano

Last night as part of my continuing comparative study between the film of the book , I watched 'The Piano' (1993). Jane Campion, (b.1954), the director of the film, is also author of the novella, 'The Piano'. Her novella, written after the film's making (1994), is in this case more of a development than an adaptation, adding new insights into the character's past history.

'The Piano' is a great triumph for several reasons. Most notably the combination of director Jane Campion's ten years dedication spent writing the story, and the actress Holly Hunter's portrayal of the emotions of the central character, Ada MacGrath, a role which consolidated Holly Hunter's acting career. She plays the part of Scottish pianist and mute, who arrives in New Zealand for an arranged marriage, little more than a mail-order bride. It's no small achievement to act a non-speaking role throughout an entire film and yet still be extremely expressive. The picture of the beautiful and broody Ms. Hunter wearing a Victorian bonnet is one of the film's great images. In addition to the fine acting of Holly Hunter which won her an Academy award, the supporting roles of Ada's frustrated husband and her lover are admirably realized by Sam O'Neill and Harvey Keitel respectively. The role of Ada's nine-year old daughter, Flora, earned Anna Paquin an award for supporting actress, the second youngest ever actress to win win such an award. The film is further enhanced by the lyrical music score of the composer Michael Nyman.

The triangular relationship between Ada, her husband Alisdair Stewart, and George Baines, is set against a backdrop of early colonial New Zealand, one of mud, deforestation and the indigenous Maori population. The film's plot is in essence an evolving love story which is propelled by two short scenes of sex and violence. There's also a good deal of subtle eroticism in the scenes which involve Ada and Baines in their negotiations over ownership of the piano, which itself is no minor 'character' .

Having also recently read the novella, 'The Piano' several interpretative points are worth mentioning. The film, unlike the book, engages in little of the book's internal dialogue other than Ada's short voice-over at its beginning and ending. The entire role of music and the emotion's which it evokes is naturally far less achievable in a novel, while the static nature of internal dialogue is less of a feature in most films. The viewer thus relies upon the acting skills of the central characters to explain why, for example, George Baines is entranced by Ada's piano-playing. But it is the near hypnotic ability of film to involve the viewer in a far greater immediate emotional response than reading can sometimes achieve, through the use of music, but also through graphic imagery, which strongly differentiates film from book.

In the case of 'The Piano' the music is an integral part of the story which further enhances empathy with the characters. The composer Michael Nyman (b. 1944) is quite simply the best of British composers, his previous collaborations with the film-maker Peter Greenaway, introduced him to a wide audience, and in fact the strong rhythmic impetus and gorgeous lyricism of his film-score has ensured that it stands as an enjoyable piano concerto in its own right.

By a curious coincidence like the film 'Respiro', which I reviewed in May 'The Piano' also involves a denouement in which the heroine is rescued and 're-born' in water surrounded by a small crowd of swimmers.

In many ways the success of the film 'The Piano' is the sum total of a harmonious artistic collaboration between director, actors and composer. It's a pity that more films are not so well constructed in direction, acting and sound-track.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Weapons of mass earsplitting destruction or harmless fun?

The vuvuleza is manufactured in a wide spectrum of colours, unlike opinion of it which is sharply divided between love and hate. It is currently receiving world-wide attention due to its contribution to the celebration of the football World Cup currently in session.

Its estimated that the one metre in length vuvuleza can emit a sound approximately 130 decibels loud; the most commonly manufactured instruments are pitched at B flat below middle C, very close to the frequency of human speech.

The BBC has received hundreds of complaints about the playing of vuvuleza spoiling viewers enjoyment of the sport, football players have requested fans to desist from its playing during the match and FIFA the organizational body co-coordinating the World Cup have decided not to ban it from matches.

There's considerable apian imagery associated with descriptions of its sound. Its constant drone being likened to having one's head thrust into a giant hive full of very angry bees.

The BBC sports commentator Farayi Mungazi stated that the sound of the horn was the "recognised sound of football in South Africa" and that it is "absolutely essential for an authentic South African footballing experience". He also said there was no point in taking the World Cup to Africa and then "trying to give it a European feel". The chief sports reporter of the Daily Telegraph Paul Kelso described critics of the vuvuleza as "killjoys" and said they should "stop moaning". South African football supporters themselves insist that the instrument is part of their national culture and claim those objecting to it are in fact being intolerant of an integral part of their national culture.

The phrase 'part of the national culture' seems to justify and vindicate all sorts of bizarre behaviour these days, from getting drunk on a Saturday night, to the waving of flags and engaging in war. Against a background of such behaviour the vuvuleza seems a harmless enough enthusiasm.

Its with some hesitation that I am filing this posting under the label of 'music', but then to some the compositions of Karlheinz Stockhausen, for example, barely equate as music. All that one can be certain of is that the world is becoming a place of highly subjective and arguementative opinion, with no centre or fulcrum upon which to establish that most elusive of human values, namely, truth, as regards this subject. One man's joyful sound is another man's irritating noise!

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Dream Life of Sukhanov

Recently I read 'The Dream life of Sukhanov' (2005) by Olga Grushin. Its the story of a man who possessing all the good things life can offer, a well-paid job as an art critic, a beautiful wife, loving children and perks such as a second home for the summer, a chauffeur-driven car and best tickets for the theatre, has to face the reality that he is neither loved, respected or valued as much as he imagines. The reader is obliged to pay close attention throughout the novel as almost imperceptibly the narrative slips between the present-day tragedy unfolding and Sukhanov's reminiscences of happier times.

Because Sukhanov has lived in Moscow throughout his life, certain places, doorways and streets, spark reminiscences. These reminiscences form a large part of the narrative, taking the reader back to earlier events in Sukhanov's life. However, there's a uncertain ambiguity writ large in the novel's title, for does Sukhanov's 'dream life' consist of the privileged, ideal life which is dissolving before his eyes, or his inability to desist from reminiscing about the past and happier times, his escapist 'dream life', when confronted with the crisis he faces .The plot drives onwards inexorably to a powerful, shocking and even slightly ambiguous denouement.

Sukhanov's great tragedy is that he takes everything for granted, toeing the party line in his art reviews by inserting commonplaces of communist aesthetics in his reviews, he has as modern parlance puts it, 'sold out'. However the novel is set in the year 1985, the year of Mikhail Gorbachov's policy of glasnost and perestroika and the dissolution of the communist old order.

There's much allusion in the novel to two 20th century painters, the exiled Russian painter Marc Chagall who died in the year the novel is set, 1985, and the surrealist painter Salvador Dali, representative of the 'decadent' art denounced by Shushkin as voice-piece of official Soviet party aesthetics. The surrealist art movement is also however representative of Shushkin's 'true' artistic creativity which he has abandoned for the trappings and prestige of official status. There's also significant allusion to Andrei Rubelev, the medieval Russian icon painter and the subject of a film by Andrei Tarkovsky.

'The Dream Life of Sukhanov' is extremely well-written in clear, concise and flowing prose. It is as the critics state, an astoundingly good first novel. Although written in English with its author now resident in America, it is utterly Russian in its theme of alienation and the role of the individual in society and history. I found it to be a deeply moving, at times funny, more often sad and ultimately challenging statement, on how the failure to face up to reality can destroy the individual's life.

Some highly recommended Russian novels

19th c.

Oblomov (1859) Ivan Goncharov
Fathers and sons (1862) Ivan Turgenev
The Idiot (1869) Fyodor Dostoevsky
Anna Karenina (1879) Leo Tolstoy
Brothers Karamazov (1881) Fyodor Dostoevsky

20th c.

The Fiery Angel (1908) Valery Bryusov
The strange life of Ivan Osokin (1915) P.D. Ouspensky
Petersburg (1916) Andre Bely
We (1921) Yevgeny Zamyatin
Heart of a dog (1925) Mikhail Bulgakov
Novel with cocaine (1934) M.A. Agev
The Master and Margarita (1940) Mikhail Bulgakov

21st century

A Hero's Daughter (1990 Eng. trans.2004) Andrei Makine

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Acting Browne

Over the years I've attempted to entertain and enlighten the good citizens of Norwich with performances of Sir Thomas Browne. Blessed with a good memory (one remembers well whatever one values and loves ) I've found a number of passages in Browne's works suitable for reciting and have been received with varied degrees of appreciation. Here's yours truly, located appropriately in a Garden-Grave with recently unearthed urn, about to deliver. I've not donned my costume for a couple of years now, but may well do so during the next Lord Mayor's procession week-end in July.

         Civic performance on the occasion of  new Browne sculpture, July 2007

Pseudodoxia Epidemica 1658

I acquired this copy of Sir Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica: or, Enquiries into Very many Received Tenents, and commonly Presumed Truths (first edition 1646) via an ebay auction in March 2006. It cost $500, its provenance was Charleston, Carolina U.S.A. Although no first editions of Browne's 1658 Discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus survive, they are appended to this fourth edition of Pseudodoxia Epidemica published in 1658. It's of particular note that the running order consists of the two dedicatory epistles following each other, strong evidence that its author intended the two Discourses to be read, viewed and meditated upon as one whole.

Pseudodoxia Epidemica
was in fact one of the earliest, if not the first, European encyclopedia and contributed to the 17th century scientific revolution. Although to us today with our vastly increased scientific knowledge, Pseudodoxia Epidemica can be seen to contain many errors itself, nonetheless it prepared a readership for much of the scientific journalism subsequently published in England.

Pseudodoxia Epidemica was a best-seller which found a place upon the shelves of many English households. Published in no less than six editions (1646,1650,1658 twice,1659 and 1672) it was translated into several European languages. It even found its way to America.

Included appendiced to Browne's encyclopaedia is a so-called Alphabetical Table. In all probability this index was compiled by Browne himself. It has never previously before been published in any edition of Browne's works, so is available here for the very first time.

As Jorge Louis Borges once declared -'To write vast books is a laborious nonsense, much better is to offer a summary as if those books actually existed'. A quick scroll down the page of An Alphabetical Table reveals the full scope of the breadth and depth of Browne's curiosity, knowledge and scientific investigation.

An Alphabetical Table lists many of Browne's main sources under 'authors commended', it includes mention of his many experiments as well as the astronomical, historical, biblical and zoological queries which preoccupied him . Queries range from the cosmological such as 'Cosmographers, why they divide their Globe into East and West', to the theological - 'whether our B. Saviour ever laughed', to the aesthetic '-Beauty- Determined chiefly by opinion, or the several apprehensions of people', to the medical '-Drunkenness, or to be drunk once a month, whether it be healthful', to the revealing esoteric entry ,'-Philosophers Stone, not improbable to be procured' . However entries such as, 'Abilities, (scientifical especially,) ought to be improved' and 'Candle, one discharged out of a Musket through an inch board', are indicative of the empirical and Baconian nature of Browne's quest.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Day at the Races

Champion jockey Hayley Turner aboard Collect Art
Yesterday I had a rare excursion out of the city to the sea-side race-track of Great Yarmouth. Pictured is the champion female flat jockey Hayley Turner aboard Collect Art in the Parade ring, just minutes before winning the race in a finish in which Collect Art rallied gamely to regain the lead near the line by a head. An exciting finish on a day which was a speculative financial disaster for myself. However as I've been attending the race-track on and off for 20 years now there are plenty of glory days to recollect and sustain oneself through such a bleak day.

The general mood of the day was coloured by the fact that after several hot sunny days of temperatures reaching 27 Celsius last week, this week the mercury plunged to 16 Celsius for the day. As sometimes happens due to the close proximity of the sea, a sea-fret rolled in restricting visibility to just the last 2 furlongs for several races. One of the largest off-shore wind-farms consisting of over 30 wind-turbines can be seen from the Grandstand (photo bottom page) but not on the day I attended due to the weather.

Situated on Norfolk's east coast, Great Yarmouth was once a major sea-port. It has a literary association with Charles Dickens (1812-1870) who wrote of his childhood memories when resident there in 'David Copperfield', and with the Norfolk-born naval hero, Lord Horatio Nelson (1758-1805). In fact many pubs, clubs, conference centres and hotels throughout Norfolk including the new Grandstand at Yarmouth race-track are named after the distinguished imperial pirate. There's been horse-racing at Yarmouth since 1770, primarily due to its relatively close distance to the home of thoroughbred-racing, Newmarket, Suffolk, also known simply as H.Q. (Headquarters) around the world by racing aficionado's.

Due to the current economic climate the old lamentation about the perilous state and condition of British Flat racing is wailed once more. The fact is that there is simply too much low-grade racing like today's card at Yarmouth. The big betting firms, Ladbrokes, Corals, William Hills etc. are simply milking the industry for all it's worth, not caring whether the sport survives or not, true to the colours of international capitalism which also is indifferent about the human cost of unemployment. As long as these institutions get their pound of flesh, they will remain complacent, until the corpse is placed on their door-mat. Besides, horse-racing now accounts for a lesser percentage of profit for the gambling industry, online activities such as poker and betting on football is where the big money is; its a sad state of affairs, for in many ways horse-racing was for centuries the National sport of Britain until eclipsed by the more mass-minded participation sports of cricket and football.

Ever since the 1760's when three Arabian thoroughbreds arrived in Britain, the British have engaged in genetically modifying the thoroughbred horse for the sport of racing. Historically speaking thoroughbred horse racing, for good or ill, like many other pastimes was introduced to the rest of the world by Britain.

British horse-racing has for over thirty years been greatly supported by big horse owners such as Sheik Mohammed and his brother Hamdan al Maktoum along with Prince Khalid Abdullah, (the owner of this year's Derby winner Workforce). These owners, recognizing the skill of the British trainer and the Brits love of horse-racing, have generously provided many horses for trainers for decades. Without their continued support British racing would have been considerably poorer long ago in both quality and quantity.

Della Porta

Giovanni Baptiste della Porta (1543-1615) of Naples, was an aristocrat, philosopher and physician of prodigious talent. When his Magiae Naturalis (Natural Magic) was first published in 1588 it was a phenomenal success, republished and translated into many languages throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Magiae Naturalis is a compendium of practical information upon aspects of nature which were believed to be ruled by mysterious forces at the time. It offers advice and records practical experiments in gardening and germination, house-keeping, hair-dressing, cosmetics and perfumes, cookery, brewing, fishing and hunting, the altering of metals, magnetism, optics, invisible writing and pneumatic experiments amongst other topics. A full transcription of its pages can be found at Natural Magic. Porta can be seen in the frontispiece to his celebrated work. He states his scientific credentials and justification for investigating nature's properties in 'Natural Magic' thus-

But I think
Magick is nothing else but the survey of the whole course of Nature. For, while we consider the heavens, the stars, the Elements, how they are moved, and how they are changed, by this means we find out the hidden secrets of living creatures, of plants, of metals, and of their generation and corruption; so that this whole Science seems merely to depend upon the view of Nature, as later we will see more at large.

By a curious coincidence Porta's 'Natural Magic' was published into English in 1658, the same year as the first publication of Browne's literary diptych, 'Urn-Burial' and The Garden of Cyrus.

It's not so surprising that a Latin copy of Porta's 'Natural Magic' (1644) is recorded as once upon the groaning shelves of the library of Sir Thomas Browne for Porta was a favourite author of Browne's. Several books by the Neapolitan polymath are listed in the 1711 Auction Sales Catalogue. These include Villa (1592) Phytognomica (1588) and Colelestis Physiogranonia (1603). But it is the authority of Porta's 'Natural Magic' which is most frequently cited throughout the pages of Browne's own encyclopaedia of European fame, Pseudodoxia Epidemica (five editions from 1646-76).

Incidentally, it was the American scholar Jeremiah Staunton Finch in 1934 who identified large portion's of the opening chapter of Browne's Discourse 'The Garden of Cyrus' as originally belonging to Porta's gardening treatise Villa, which includes a description of the Quincunx pattern in horticulture. J.S.Finch was also the editor of the facsimile edition of the 1711 Auction Catalogue of Browne's Library.

It's worth remembering that the Italian Renaissance which breathed new life into the arts and sciences throughout Europe, also revived and stimulated interest in esoteric topics. Primarily through the Florentine scholar Marsilo Ficino's translation of Plato's Timaeus , the discovery of the Hermetic Corpus, but also through Ficino's successor, Pico della Mirandola (1463-1493) with his interest in astrology, the Kabbalah and angel-conjuring. In addition to these seminal figures, the writtings of Paracelsus and John Dee also contributed to an enormous revival of study and appreciation of esoteric doctrines throughout the Renaissance period until as late as the 1670's .

Porta's own major contribution to esoterica is Colelestis Physiogranonia (Celestial Physiognomy). Porta justified the validity of physiognomy from a writing on the subject attributed to Aristotle. The study of the human face and apparent discernment of inner qualities from outer characteristics, found particular resonance with Browne the physician, perhaps as a useful diagnostic tool. Browne alludes to Porta's Colelestis Physiogranonia, in his own highly esoteric work, 'The Garden of Cyrus', thus-

that Augustus had native notes on his body and belly, after the order and number in the Starres of Charles wayne, will not seem strange unto astral Physiognomy, which accordingly considereth moles in the body of man, or Physicall Observators, who from the position of moles in the face, reduce them to rule and correspondency in other parts.
Browne forms an important link in the history of physiognomy between Giovanni della Porta and one of physiognomy's greatest advocates, the German Lutheran priest and one-time friend of Goethe, Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801), and in fact the German polymath Goethe stated of Della Porta, If we could take all of his collected works together, we would see the entire century mirrored in him. Lavater read Browne's Religio Medici (German translation 1748) which contains several physiognomical observations and praised it. Although physiognomy is today derided as a pseudo-science, the judging of the outer appearance of the individual as reflective of inner morals qualities, is a mental activity few people are consciously capable of desisting from, whenever meeting a new person or even when viewing a photo of someone.

Porta's definition of the ideal woman sounds both erotic and modern. She is 'like a panther, both in body and spirit'. Her 'neck is long and slender, her chest formed of small ribs, her back long and her hips and thighs well covered with flesh. On her flanks and her belly she is rather flat, that is her body here does not stick out, nor is it hollow'.

It's salutary to realize that those who elected to study nature and its properties were often isolated individuals. Early scientists such as Giovanni della Porta and later Browne, were often misunderstood or obliged to steer a perilous path of conformity to secure status and reputation; sometimes they were harassed and challenged by powerful authorities such as the Church; nonetheless they held firmly onto the validity of their enquiries, guided by inner lights. In effect these early scientists were the midwives to the scientific revolution, officially sanctioned in England with the establishment of the Royal Society in 1660.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010


This posting seems an apt follow-up to the preceding one on smell and the nose. I'm fairly confident that Sir Thomas Browne would have delighted in the sweet aroma of honeysuckle currently saturating my garden and would have waxed lyrical upon its 'delectable odour' and 'noble scent'; something which as of yet a computer is unable to convey!