Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Dürer's Melencolia I: The Why

I've spilled a lot of pixels on Melencolia I by this point. So now the big question is... why. Why is this piece so important to me, why do I obsess on it, why does it hit me in such a profound way on a personal level?

And I guess the best answer I can give is, because this is what it feels like inside my own head.

A clutter of ideas – weird, occult ideas at that – sitting before an ambivalent thinker. Reminders of death, yes, but also endless, obsessive puzzles to dive into, weird landscapes, tools laid carelessly aside, a flurry of information spiraling down to the furthest detail.

Sounds a bit like this blog, doesn't it?

And moreover, sounds a bit like my life. I tend to dive deeply into things that interest me for a short period, filled with inspiration from Elsewhere and then, once I am done with the idea, it lays me carelessly aside. David Foster Wallace put it best in Infinite Jest when his protagonist Hal Incandenza (a last name itself redolent of being afire with inspiration) speaks of his own genius-troubled childhood: "I too had moved serially between obsessions, as a child." Hal's speaking of his own father's incessant, unstoppable need to conquer a new obsession once the old one had worn off. "His record up until [the filmmaking career which he took up until the end of his life] indicated that he remained obsessed with something until he became successful at it, then transferred his obsession to something else."

Of course, some of us gripped by melancholia imaginativa never become a success.

And that's I think what someone like me gets out of Melencolia I. Albrecht Dürer? A true Renaissance man, skilled in art, architecture, mathematics, the occult and spiritual. His furious melancholy picked him up, used him, and put him down again but with great works left behind. My melancholy? It renders me heavy and weighed down, obsessing on minutiae, an angelic figure of inspiration sinisterly placed upon my shoulder, taunting me with what might be.

I guess the challenge of having this kind of brain (I'm not saying I'm anything like a genius, by the way; just that I have the kind of brain susceptible to a) obsessiveness and b) depression) is being able to systematically organize and process one's obsessions, put them into the field of vision of one's own life, and catalogue them accordingly. Which is one of the reasons I started this blog, to be honest.

Being mired in depression has always been something I've reveled in a bit, which I think is part of the condition, but what Melencolia I offers me is the promise of a way to make something beautiful out of a condition that is painful, shockingly painful on almost every day of my life.

I want to be picked up by inspiration, ultimately, picked up and not put down carelessly when it is done with me.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Dürer's Melencolia I: The Math

We keep seeing the motifs of Dürer as craftsman return again and again in our examination of Melencolia I. Indeed, the image itself is replete with these symbols: the compass in the celestial figure's hand, the woodworking tools at its feet, and the scales, hourglass, and bell above. But look more closely at the image and you see another symbolic thread, parallel and complementary to craftsmanship, and that is the presence of mathematics.

Of course, without math one cannot correctly construct. But the math in Melencolia I is obscure, occult, surreal, magical. It defies the earthy concerns of a saw, nails and a plane. It begs us to leave the real world behind and enter, yes, an imaginary, higher realm.

We've spoken of the magic square in detail before; all that remains to be said is that Dürer's magic square in Melencolia I has many eyebrow-raising references and properties. Everyone knows the inclusion of "15/14" in the bottom row of the square to reflect the year it was created. But there is also another monogram of Albrecht Dürer here, hidden in the corners of the square: A and D are the 1st and 4th letters of the alphabet. In addition, it is a gnomon magic square, where the four quadrants of the square add to the same sum, as well as the center four numbers. Lots of satisfying mathematical symmetry here (not the least of which that opposite values on the edge of the square total to 17). But what of the mystical significance of this particular type of square?

The 4x4 square was dedicated, in Agrippa, to Jupiter. Now, one would naturally wonder or expect a magic square in a piece titled after melancholy to include the Saturnine, 3x3 square. But instead of the leaden, ponderous square of Saturn, we are giving the shining, beneficent, literally-jovial square of Jupiter. Is the magic square in Melencolia I meant to something to aspire to? It hangs above the angelic figure's head, conspicuous in its placement among the muddle and mess of the rest of the scene, the bell waiting to be rung above it. Perhaps it is even a square of warding, a way of keeping the confusion and overwhelming stimuli of melancholia imaginativa at bay? An exercise to settle the mind, a meditation on order? Think of the time Dürer likely spent in lining up all these numbers to work just as he wished. Perhaps he saw the square as a way to quiet and focus his mind.

In Agrippa, the square of Saturn can be used as both "white" or "black" magic, to either confer stability or discord upon the subject of its spell, but Jupiter's square in unequivocally beneficent magic:
They say that if [a four-by-four magic square] be impressed upon a Silver plate with Jupiter being powerfull, and ruling, it conduceth to gain, and riches, favor, and love, peace, and concord, and to appease enemies, to confirm honors, dignities, and counsels, and dissolve enchantments if it be engraven on a corall. (French, 1651)
Moving on to the other mathematical enigma in the image, we come to Dürer's solid, on the left hand side of Melencolia I. And it's quite an uncanny piece of business. Let's start with the fact that it contains the primary optical illusions in Melencolia I. First, there is the face, or according to Finkelstein, faces plural. These "ghosts" that appear in the solid are put there via the method of foreshortening; an optical illusion to us today, but in the early decades of the birth of perspective in Western art, a new and bizarre way of communicating graphical information.

The solid itself is a rhombohedron, with truncated shavings taken off two of the vertices, turning the 6-sided figure into an 8-sided one. We, of course, cannot see the back four surfaces of the solid, which means we are making assumptions of symmetry. It's often said that this solid has "fascinated scholars for centuries," but what really is going on here I think is the inherent uncanniness of taking of a regular, nay Platonic, solid – the cube – turning its sides into rhombuses and then chopping off two of the vertices. It feels wrong. Especially when you compare its "irregular" shape to the conspicuous sphere on the ground. Why a sphere, right there of all places? Again, I believe the placement is intentional and meant to unnerve us. The sphere is the most perfect shape; the octahedron, odd and seemingly out-of-place.

But what if the solid is exactly what it should be? A man like Dürer would not arbitrarily consign an irregular solid to his image for no reason. What is it? Perhaps it is the very liminality, mutability, and process of transition of the solid from cube to rhombohedron to octahedron that makes it meaningful? The cube in Platonic metaphysics represents the element of earth; the octahedron, air. Perhaps Dürer's unsubtle shaving of the already-warped rhombohedron was a way of describing the feeling in Agrippa of being gripped as an earthly being by a spiritual, mystical melancholia imaginativa? The earthbound transforms into a realm of pure idea? There is something to be said about the fact that would have necessitated a transformation of cube into quintessential dodecahedron and not airy octahedron, but who's to say what exists on the other side of the solid, facing the distant landscape and eerie rainbow arcing its way across the sky?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Dürer's Melencolia I: The Man

Qualifier up front: I am neither an art history student nor a student of psychology. So the suppositions I will make in this installment are just that: suppositions. But as someone with at least a casual knowledge of Dürer's artistic journey over his lifespan, his interests outside of art, and the way in which he navigated the political shoals and rocks of the early 16th century Holy Roman Empire, I feel like I can give at least a truncated psycho-history of Dürer.

Let's begin with the most notable observation from his early life: Dürer was born at least somewhat an outsider. His father, a skilled craftsman (in goldsmithing), came from modern-day Hungary and as we noted in the previous installment, Dürer's family name was originally Ajtósi, changed first to Türer (the German translation of "doormaker") and then phonetically to Dürer. Whether or not Dürer's background as a "first-generation immigrant" (if such a term can be used anachronistically) had any impact on his later art, I can't say. What I can say is that almost all of Dürer's biographers agree he was privileged to grow up in the burgeoning "middle class" (again, another likely anachronism) among some of the much talented craftspeople in Europe near the turn of the 15th/16th centuries.

Dürer didn't differ from most artisans of the time: he apprenticed, he had his wanderjahren (which included a stint in Italy at the outbreak of the revolution in art there), and he settled in Nuremberg where he lived for most of the rest of his life. Stability, patronage, experience: these are the factors that enabled Dürer to produce his masterworks.

What do we see of Dürer in his art? Precision, yes, to be certain. A certain horror vacui that today we might associate with outsider artists? Perhaps that's just me. A devotion to the ideas of twin ideas of the liberal arts and mystical inspiration? Looking at his St. Jerome in the context of Melencolia I, and indeed the occult construction of the melancholia imaginativa previously investigated, how could anyone think otherwise? But there are some other aspects to Dürer's personality that I believe can be found in his choices of subjects.

Portraiture was unusual enough in this very early Renaissance era. Self-portraiture was even rarer. Occasionally a fresco artist might insert himself as one figure of many in a crowd scene, but Dürer's gaze gravitated towards himself first, and this made him unique in this period. Later in the 16th century and beyond, the self-portrait would become an accepted, normal mode of painting (notably, amongst women artists), but in Dürer's time, it was a statement of purpose, a statement of ego.

Because Dürer did not come to making real, permanent works featuring himself later in life; he'd done it since adolescence. Certainly, the drawings he made at 13 may have likely been for practice, but his great self-portraits in paint occurred throughout his 20s, when he was just beginning his career. An audacious statement.

More audacious? His Self-Portrait at Age 28, in which he dresses and poses like a Christ.1

As was his trademark, his AD monogram, which adorned most of his prints. Remember that prints were certainly for mass consumption in this age, and so began the era of the credited artist.2 Dürer had to be a marketer, a self-promoter. But still, I believe this strong sense of ego was one of the most basic elements to his personality, and it dovetailed well with the development of the printed image and word.3

This leads nicely into I think the other very salient aspect of Dürer's personality: his profound neophilia. By now means was Dürer mired in the past in either his art of his thought: he was the early prototype Renaissance man: plumbing the ancients for the ideas that mattered and re-presenting them in a "modern" context. Certainly his thoughts on architecture and art broke ground, but spiritually and religiously, we've already seen his attraction to the occult, and in the early years of Martin Luther, Dürer positively idolized the man. Keep in mind, this was before Protestantism as a movement and Luther was simply an unorthodox reformer; once Luther broke with the Church, Dürer would brook no further discussion. But he remained friendly to Reform ideas up until his death, which in the context of everything else, makes a lot of sense.

So where do we end up with these traits? We see a man with a strong ego, a desire for the new, and a crowded, full mind, forever voyaging. Was Dürer melancholic as we would consider it today (either unipolarly or bipolarly depressed)? The connection between genius/creativity and mental illness is well-trod ground I don't wish to debate here, but it is interesting to note that no one ever made explicit observations of Dürer being depressed, simply energetic and endlessly creative. Surely, he was said to have experienced "depressive fits" when his father died, but this is reasonably to be expected. Dürer definitely tried to control his self-image, so it makes sense that he would release only the manic side of his bipolarity, if indeed he suffered from it.

One wishes to argue that melancholy interested Dürer for the reasons we cited in Agrippa: he saw in its imaginative form an explanation for his skill with hands and mind. In the last installment of this series, I'm going to examine this idea of mental illness, depression, creativity, and ego more carefully in a personal context. For now, I wish to leave the question, "Was Dürer himself melancholic?" unanswered, like so many of the mysteries in his masterworks.

Next week we'll look at the art, mathematics, and science – including the occult science – of Melencolia I.

1 For years, I thought this was the work featured in both of George Lucas's THX-1138 films (student version and theatrical release), as the Electronic Confessional/Jesus/Citizen 0000, but it turns out it was Hans Memling's Christ Giving His Blessing. That confusion in and of itself says a lot about Dürer's self-portraiture.

2 Being a medievalist by education, the proliferation of named authors, artists, and musicians always was to me one of the signal occurrences to identify the change from medieval to Renaissance mindsets, whatever that might mean. I've come around on this as being somewhat reductive in recent years as I delve more into the Renaissance/early modern period.

3 In most of the books Dürer authored, his monogram appears on the frontispiece and takes up nearly half the page.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Dürer's Melencolia I: The Title

So let's begin at the beginning then. Why is Melencolia I called that?

The title is right there in literal black and white, floating in a scroll in the upper left corner of the print, supported by a bat, one of two animals in the image (both the bat and the dog being associated with the melancholic humor). The bat was considered melancholy because of its nocturnal nature; the dog, due to its ability to mimic human emotional responses and the longstanding "black dog" of depression.1 It is noteworthy that the bat presents us the title, not the cherub/putto who slumps in imitation of the main angelic figure, its wings seeming vestigial, gravity keeping him earthbound. It is, instead, the bat who is rampant and aerial, triumphant in this scene.

Melencolia. It's not an orthography the moderns are familiar with, and indeed many scholars believe it was never an accepted spelling of "melancholia."2 (Finkelstein 2007, 20) Is there a hidden message, perhaps as an anagram of the title, or even within the gematria of the individual letters? I will leave that for others to discern and analyze: Finkelstein opts for the anagram LIMEN CAELO, "boundary of heaven," or "gateway to heaven," playing on Dürer's original surname, Ajtósi, meaning "doormaker." But the idea of liminality... let's not quite throw that away yet as a stretch.

Melencolia I. Was there to be a part II, a part III? Scholars are divided on this, as it seems that Melencolia, as one of the so-called "master prints" of Dürer, could be considered part of a series done while in service to (but not directly commissioned by) Emperor Maxmilian I. But this idea of the three master prints seems a modern contrivance, which also conveniently ignores the fact that Knight, Death, and the Devil came first of these three.

The I in the title, I believe, more accurately refers to "melancholia imaginativa." And this is where we first delve full-bore into the world of the occult and of magic and its relationship to Dürer.

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim was a contemporary of Dürer's. Agrippa served as one of the first encyclopedists of Western esotericism in the early modern era with his masterwork, Three Books of Occult Philosophy. When most of us think of Western magic – its mix of ancient cultures (Hebrew, Greek, Egyptian, etc.), its reliance on ritual, geometry, cypher, and categorization, its pseudo-scientific trappings – all this comes from Agrippa.

In his first book, Agrippa speaks of the inspiration that can come when a truly enlightened sibyl, prophet, or magician is influenced by melancholy.3
So great also they say the power of melancholy is of, that by its force, Celestiall spirits also are sometimes drawn into mens bodies, by whose presence, and instinct, antiquity testifies men have been made drunk, and spake most wonderful things. And that they think happens under a threefold [three-fold] difference, according to a threefold apprehension of the soul, viz. imaginative, rationall, and mentall. They say therefore, when the mind is forced with a melancholy humor, nothing moderating the power of the body, and passing beyond the bonds of the members, is wholly carried into imagination, and doth suddenly become a seat for inferior spirits, by whom it oftentimes receives wonderfull wayes, and forms of manuall Arts. 
"Inferior spirits," "Celestiall" ones, enabling the experiencer to speak "most wonderful things." Dürer's engraving visually, as a whole, really has that feeling, doesn't it? The ambivalence of melancholy, the fruits of said imaginative state all around the larger angelic figure (all those instruments of science, measurement, and quantification), the interior motion and exterior inertia... it's all there, packed into all of Dürer's obsessive detail. Melancholia imaginativa is the inferior form; it produces sudden utterances, clutter, chaos, formless verse, skill in manual arts, it gets into the limbs. The higher forms – rational and mental – produce philosophical/prophetic and divine inspiration respectively.

Agrippa actually owes this tripartite conception of inspiration via melancholy to an earlier theorist, Marsilio Ficino, who was really the instrument by which Platonism and neo-Platonism from the late antique period came down to the humanists in the Renaissance. His Latin translations of Plato brought Christendom's thinkers out from underneath the medieval devotion to Aristotle.

Here's the most interesting thing about Dürer's purported inspiration by Agrippa: his Three Books had not even been published yet in 1514. If Dürer were so inspired by Agrippa's theories of melancholy, he had to have read them in a circulated manuscript, for which there is ample evidence: Agrippa and Dürer both served in Maxmilian's court. But it is stunning to think of untested, unpublished ideas being so vitally important to Dürer here, for a theory on melancholy, buried within a much larger opus, to grab him so profoundly to lead to this kind of masterwork. It's a testament, I think, to how much the theory spoke to Dürer personally. Which will lead us to the next installment of this series: looking at Dürer's vita and personality.

1 Although the idea of a "black dog" hounding the depressive is now mostly well-known due to Dr. Johnson and Winston Churchill's use of the phrase, the idea exists in a continuum from Ancient Rome, through the Middle Ages (where the black dog was more often a familiar of the Devil) and through the early modern period: Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy speaks of dogs being "most subject" to the mimicry of human melancholy, in the form of "many stories of dogs that have died for grief, and pined away for loss of their masters." Whither Jurassic Bark?

2 Not wishing to drive traffic too far afield, but as Wikipedia says, it's believed more ink has been spilled on Melencolia I than any other piece of art in human history; a bold claim, but even so it's very hard not to tread on scholars' toes when trying to explicate what makes this work unique. I cite here, for the purposes of examining the title of Melencolia I, a paper from a physics professor at Georgia Tech, David R. Finkelstein, and his quite occult interpretation of, well, nearly everything within Melencolia I.

3 Excerpt from the English version first published in 1651 by John French.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Dürer's Melencolia I: Prelude

"I don't get it."
"No one has gotten it for 500 years THAT IS WHY IT IS SO AWESOME."

- a friend and me, on Melencolia I

"It's grey and has a sad dog and a withered baby and an angry dude and symbolism and is [your] version of puppies and rainbows."1

- my wife, on Melencolia I

Last year, I did a series of posts around Christmas on the Weirdness of Christmas. It was pretty well-received, especially the post on the Yule Lads, which is apparently getting a lot of attention these days as we enter another holiday season.

Most importantly, last year's Weirdmas series kept me honest. It kept me writing. So I was thinking that I needed another series this year; maybe not 12 days of fun, as real life continues to intrude. But something I could write about over the holiday season in a serial format. And then it hit me.

My long-promised series of posts on Albrecht Dürer's Melencolia I.

I don't want to spoil too much of what I'd like to write about this magnificent, mysterious print in this introductory post. But what I will tease is the fact that this work is absolutely seasonally-appropriate, especially for me personally.

Its deeper personal meaning for me, too, will need to wait until the proper time. All I will say at this moment is that Melencolia I is an important artistic vision to me on many levels, one I did not discover until relatively late in life, and one which I literally look at every day (it is both my iPad wallpaper and my Facebook homepage image).

During this series I'll also talk a lot about Melencolia I's occult symbolism, about Dürer's life and influences, about the reception of Melencolia I in the centuries since it appeared on the scene. But mostly I want someone out there to discover it and love it as much as I do.

1 This conveniently ignores that Melencolia I actually has a dog and a rainbow in it! Hmph.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

John Napier: Necromancer of Numbers

I was on Wikipedia this morning, checking the history of SI and non-SI units named after people – as you do – and I came across the name John Napier. Yes, I was faintly familiar with this name but I had no idea what he'd done. Turns out? Quite a bit worthy of a Renfusa post.

Yes, he is the inventor of logarithms, which I faintly remember from 10th grade math, but rarely if ever have occasion to use in my daily life today. But for the natural philosophers of the 17th century, logarithms were an invention on par with the computer in the post-World War II era. They enabled areas of science long dormant, like astronomy and physics, to increase the speed and accuracy of calculations, accounting for many of the great advances in that century. He was connected to our old friends Tycho and Kepler, and without his tables, Kepler would have never devised his laws of planetary motion.

More interesting to me are the affectations that seem to suggest Napier's involvement with the occult. Rumors swirled around him that he was a sorcerer; it turns out, these stories were just the suspicions of superstitious people with little knowledge of science or reasoning. For instance, he was said to have ensorcelled a flock of pigeons that was eating his grain. His neighbor, who owned the pigeons, was said to remark, "Catch them if you can," and the next day, unconscious pigeons littered both men's property. Turns out he spread wine-soaked grain for the birds to eat, and rendered them drunk. He supposedly used a black rooster to identify a criminal in his staff; turns out he devised a psychological test that would drive the innocent to touch the rooster and be marked with soot; the guilty party, fearful of bewitchment, exited the dark room with clean hands.

Like his successor Newton, he was obsessed with codes being hidden in the Bible. While Newton obsessed on the dimensions of the Temple of Solomon, Napier delved deep into that longtime inkblot test of the eschatologist, the Book of Revelations. His A Plaine Discovery, a metaphysical and historiographic analysis of St. John's Apocalypse, was certainly during his lifetime his most well-known work.

But one has to wonder about the kind of man who, when driven near the end of his life to create a calculating machine using his logarithms, elects them to be constructed of bone rods reminiscent of ancient cleromantic dice!

"Napier's Bones" were left as his posthumous bequest to the world, the bones and instructions on use left in a publication sent to his colleague after his death. They spread through Europe in the 17th century and became the computing device par excellence for both philosophers and merchants who needed to multiply and divide in a (relative) hurry. Such lattice multiplication tools were not new: the medieval Arabs knew about them as did Fibonacci. But Napier's bones were faster due to his logarithmic research, easier to use and, most importantly, once you knew the trick for using them, more portable than calculating tables; essentially, a bulkier version of the eventual slide rule.

But yes, they do look like Roman dice – long, four sided, and made of bone – and so there is this tendency, when looking at things from a certain angle, to dub them tools of cleromancy. Dead bones opening up vistas of knowledge never before plumbed. Mathemagics.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Field Trip: The Dead Sea Scrolls

Last weekend I took a trip to Boston's Museum of Science to see their temporary exhibition on the Dead Sea Scrolls, thanks to a birthday gift from my wife. A well-curated exhibit all told, even though your eventual arrival at the scrolls after a pilgrimage through a history of ancient Judea might be considered a little anti-climactic.

Beginning with a near-360-degree multimedia display, you're sent into an entry chamber with a timeline of the region which, for some baffling reason, is shown in reverse chronological order. Maybe it's supposed to reflect being flung back in time to the original settlement of Canaan by the Israelites, but I had to be an iconoclast and view it backwards in the proper chronological order.

Then it's into a couple of chambers where the large-scale artifacts of ancient Judea are displayed, and this is where I felt the exhibit really stood out. Huge pots, scale replicas of ancient Judean living quarters with actual artifacts, altars, idols (we'll get to this in a minute), and practical items like seals and measuring scales. One small piece of recurring evidence that the idea of private proprety is an ancient one: almost all the inscriptions on these practical everyday items were statements of ownership. These artifacts also came together to tell a story about ancient Israel that is rarely accurately reflected: that pre-Captivity Israel was awfully pagan.

We were shown and told about altars, figurines, and popular cultic dedication to a panoply or gods and concepts; combine this with the pieces of architecture on display (crudely evocative of early Greek) and you get this sense that the religious differences between 800s BCE Israel and the same period in, say, Greece or Egypt are few and far between. I knew this, of course, going in but having physical evidence on hand really drove the idea home to me. It's interesting to consider that Jewish cultural identity and even monotheism itself was forged in the fire of the captivities, sackings, diasporas and cultural imperialism experienced by a people looking to differentiate themselves from their captors and conquerors.

As I said, the scrolls themselves were small, and difficult to view (even lit from beneath by a huge ring that looked like something from the bridge of the starship Enterprise). Moreover, there was not one piece of Biblical text that deviated from modern Biblical canon (unless you count the Book of Tobit, and of course some do). Granted, there were some sets of community instructions on how to behave, and these acted as an intriguing glimpse on how the Essenes actually practiced their religion. This fragmentary information about the community that buried the scrolls was far more evocative. Very few of their household objects survived the time in the desert, so the fact that these scrolls were carefully preserved gives you a very clear sense of their common priorities: forget the personal effects and save the books.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Metafiction, Postmodernism, Cape Cod, and Generational Bias

I'm a little embarrassed to admit that over the past month I've read several classics of 1960s postmodernism for only the first time: John Barth's Giles Goat-Boy,Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, and Richard Hartigan's Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar. And it's even more embarrassing to admit this because I am such a fan of the generation of writers who came after the 60s and 70s postmodernists — David Foster Wallace being foremost among them — that not having the essential vocabulary of these early postmodern literary works is turning out to fill in several blanks in my own knowledge and literary education.

I'll say this much for all these books: they are right up my alley and make me even more surprised that I'd never read them before. Both Barth and Nabokov solidly lie within the bailiwick of metafiction, both are narratively framed by questions of authorship and authority, and both deal in fictional dreamplaces that echo the concerns of the Cold War world. Brautigan's writing obviously traipses into surreal territory, but still lies in this area of unreal places and people.

To avoid having this entry end up like a high school book report where I "compare and contrast," I'll just shoot out some rapidfire impressions in bullet list form.

  • Barth's reputation for opaqueness and hostility to the reader isn't much in evidence in Giles Goat-Boy; as frustrating and awkward as the gimmick of world history seen through the prism of a fictional university campus can be, the narrative moves along at a decent clip and as alien as the characters' motivations may sometimes be in order to serve the symbolism, they still have recognizable motivations.
  • I think I liked Pale Fire quite a bit more. Obviously, it reminded me of House of Leaves and again made me angry and a little ashamed that I hadn't read Nabokov first. Nabokov's prose is, of course, flawless, and the sense of what I can only put as "rollicking anxiety" as we cartwheel chronologically through Kinbote's exegesis of Shade's poem towards the climactic shooting is nothing short of breathtaking. I couldn't stop reading, even as we delved through the minutia of Zemblan history and Kinbote's various peccadilloes.
  • Brautigan, well. I've been told to read Brautigan for years and he certainly didn't disappoint. Talk about the very definition of sui generis. The bits and pieces of Brautigan that return to me are mostly from In Watermelon Sugar... for some reason, the logic of that book evokes in me a sort of childlike play-logic: of course watermelons planted on different days would have different colors and characteristics, of course the tigers wouldn't eat children but would instead teach them arithmetic after eating their parents.
So about the debts owed to these writers from the writers of Generation X and younger: I've read copious amounts of DeLillo and Pynchon, but again, I've never delved back to the formative decade of metafiction and postmodernism: the 60s. Sure I've read The Crying of Lot 49 but again, that's a more picaresque Pynchon, less overtly Weird. And as I evoke Wallace in talking about the debt he owes, certainly to Barth inasmuch as Wallace tried to defy and go beyond Barth's showy metafiction, I think about the generational biases I possess with literature, and the fact that these seminal authors never even entered my frame of reference until the past month.

I'm grateful for long Cape Cod vacations and excellent used bookstores for providing me the time to read these works and with first editions of the Barth and Brautigan, respectively.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Renfusa: An Anniversary, A Worke Unfinished

Yesterday was the first anniversary of Renfusa as a blog. I want to thank all our contributors and all our readers during this time. I know things have been a bit fallow here recently; real life does intrude, sad to say. But I'm looking forward to spending some time this summer on some of my long-awaited posts, including some more "Five Things" book reviews and a series of long-promised posts on Dürer's Melencolia I.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

We Really Should Pay Attention to the Men Behind the Curtains

Amongst my geeky obsessions are personality cults and cargo cults. And honestly, I think they're kind of the same thing at their core: a charismatic person rallies sycophants around themselves with promises of power and wealth, and they attempt to maintain control through often ostentatious displays of pomp, circumstance, and propaganda.

I've long been fascinated by the psychology behind how these cults not only coalesce, but more importantly how they continue. Usually, the center cannot hold and things eventually fall apart. But who are the enablers and apparatchik who keep the machinery working while the con is ongoing? How do they rationalize their actions? How many believe their own hype, and for how many is it simply a paycheck? "They've drunk the Kool Aid" has become a shorthand in our culture for this kind of loyalty, but I've never been entirely comfortable with this sort of hand-wavey, yadda yadda-ing of human mass psychology.

I tend to think about this stuff once a year when the Arriang Mass Games roll around, but it came to the fore ahead of schedule when I saw this video of Newt Gingrich earlier this morning:

We're really puzzled here at Gingrich Productions. We've spent weeks trying to figure out: 'What do you call this?'

Now— putting all politics aside— I don't want this to become a sniggering argumentum ad hominem, where I point at the former Speaker of the House and Presidential candidate— someone who is held up by many as the leading intellectual and historian of his political party— and laugh at the fact he has somehow never heard the term 'smartphone'. After all, this is a man who ostensibly loves science and technology... if you remember from the 2012 primaries, one of his campaign platforms was the building of a manned moon base as a way station for further manned- and unmanned exploration of the solar system. That's some pretty heady, visionary stuff there!

So, I'm trying to wrap my brain around the implications of this video, trying to figure out the world just beyond that camera lens' field of view. And I've come up with five options, none of which bode well for my (already decidedly dim) view of humanity:

  1. 'Gingrich Productions' is a one-man band. The mighty have fallen, and Newt is sitting alone in his office talking to a webcam, essentially rendering him a better dressed version of the 'Kid from Brooklyn'. All of his talk of "we" is just delusional self-aggrandizement. Somehow, I doubt this is the case, but it is amusing to consider.
  2. Newt Gingrich does indeed have a production company and staffers surrounding him. And they have truly discussed this miraculous black box amongst themselves "for weeks." And somehow, all of these fellow travelers are just as out-of-touch as their boss, and not a man jack of them know how to use Google. Which begs the question: do we want such intellectually incurious people anywhere near policy making?
  3. A corollary of option 2: Gingrich has his staffers, and during these weeks of internal discussions, not a single one of them simply spoke up and answered Newt's question. This means Gingrich Productions is a personality cult staffed by cowardly sycophants and courtiers of Versailles proportions. The Emperor Has No Clothes, indeed.
  4. Another corollary: he has his staffers, and they do know the answer, but they chose en masse to not answer their boss because each and every single one of them apparently hates him *so much* they wanted him to make an ass out of himself publicly by shooting and posting this video.
  5. Newt Gingrich and his staffers know damn well the little piece of glass and metal he holds in his hand is colloquially called a 'smartphone.' But they hold themselves in such arrogant high regard, they somehow think the rest of us plebes are either a) dolts for using this term, or b) it is early days yet, and here is his chance to steer the cultural conversation. Gingrich himself brings up that we don't call cars 'horseless carriages' anymore, so apparently we just need men of vision like he and his disciples to change the language and lead us into the light.

I'm sure it all comes down to "a little from column A and a little from column B" depending on the individual motivations of the apparatchik. But like I said at the start: none of these options really buoy my faith in humanity. I find it pretty damned depressing to think about the motivations of the men behind the curtains. 

Friday, May 3, 2013

Formative Science Fiction Memories: Part 1

A conversation on Facebook this morning about the early-80s cheesefest Buck Rogers in the 25th Century flung me back to my early childhood, specifically pondering the science fiction media from that era that burrowed deep into my brain, uncanny, eerie details of which I'm still able to pretty clearly recall.

My early childhood was pre-cable. (Again, nostalgia for pre-cable television in and of itself is probably another post entirely, but I digress). In the Boston metropolitan area, that meant three network stations, plus PBS, and then pretty much three independent UHF stations. It's almost startling to realize that until the age of  probably 9 or 10, all television I consumed came to me on seven channels. And so, it's pretty easy to narrow down the programs that had those rich formative effects on me. These are only a few; there are many more but these got shuffled to the top of the deck in my head and so I'm going to respect that and present them first; future entries in this series may feature more obscure memories.

Doctor Who. This is the big one. For large swaths of my early childhood in the late 70s and early 80s, Doctor Who was broadcast on WGBH in Boston (I clearly recall it being on at 7:30, serialized in half-hour format, and that I would watch it with my father or grandmother while waiting for my mother to return home from her late-ish shift at work). And Doctor Who at this time meant only one man: Tom Baker. I seem to remember the early-to-mid Tom Baker-era episodes the clearest: in particular two which I can still recall images from: "The Ark in Space" and "The Hand of Fear."

From "The Ark in Space" I remember the gleaming white walls of the space ark, so emblematic of the clean 1970s futures from movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey. And from "The Hand of Fear" I remember the titular hand (oh, very very clearly, I shiver even now to think about it) and somehow even more uncanny and sinister than that, Sarah Jane going evil and walking into a nuclear fucking reactor.

Read All About It. Okay, I guarantee this one is probably just me. But on sick days and summer days home from school, I would watched educational programming on PBS (yes, even when I wasn't in school I wanted to be in school). A vast amount of WGBH's cheap educational programming came from TVOntario, who produced a number of series in the 1970s to teach you about health, economics, French, and... scaring little kids witless.

"Read All About It" was very cheesy; bad Canadian acting, silly song skits and full of hackneyed attempts to get kids to read books. But it was also somehow incredibly cool and frightening. The enemy of the kids of the Coach House/Herbertville Chronicle was an alien tyrant named Duneedon who was also the mayor of the town; in his true form he looked a bit like Aladdin Sane-era Bowie but to a little kid of 6 or 7 he was pants-foulingly frightening.

More primal fear for a nerdy little kid? How about a labyrinth where if you don't solve a puzzle, you're implied to be gruesomely killed or stranded forever? It seemed like the kids were always getting thrown into interdimensional prisons where you were asked to solve word problems or be forever lost. I can't see how that was influential on my childhood and eventual adolescent/early adult interests at ALL.

Otherworld. The early 80s were a rough time for science fiction on American TV; the Star Wars era had ended and typical hour-long action programs were shows like The A-Team or Airwolf: lots of stuff blowing up to a Mike Post soundtrack. We had V, sure, but by the time it had gone from miniseries to series, it was pretty formulaic and moribund. Which makes Otherworld all the more intriguing and weird. It was on CBS for one season, and I may have been the only person who watched it.

A family exploring the Great Pyramid (bwuh?) is transported to some kind of alternate fascist Earth with androids, churches of artificial intelligence, and, naturally, crystaltech. Eight episodes, each more bizarre in premise than the last. And 37-year-old me discovering JUST NOW that the heavy was played by none other than the future Mike Ehrmantraut. Wow.

So: eerie alien invasions, pocket puzzle dimensions and bizarre alternate Earths: these are the building blocks of my sci-fi psyche.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Field Trip: The Elli Buk Collection

So yesterday a couple of members of the masthead and I went to Dedham Mass. to check out the Elli Buk Collection, which is on exhibition prior to its being up for auction this week.

Elli Buk was a collector of scientific and medical equipment of the last two centuries and his collection is a massive testament to the failed and obsolete in the world of technology. In other words: absolute Renfusa-bait.

Here were the gleaming brass artifacts of Victorian science: telescopes, microscopes. And there were the glowing cathode-ray and vacuum tubes of post-war prosperity: radios, televisions. I'm sure our esteemed Euergetas will speak of her adoration for the medical models, ossified animals, and other biological oddities contained in the collection, but for me it was all those lovely technological dead-ends that spoke to me.

At a certain point, I lay down my iPhone to collect the collection catalogue I was holding, and I thought to myself, in two centuries will curious onlookers queue to take a peek at a deadtech iPhone, its rounded curves and sleek touchscreen looking as baroque to the 23rd century as the gleaming imitation ivory panels, gem-like red indicator lights, and molded animal feet of the electrical generators littering this exhibition?

This is an X-ray shoe fitting machine. No, seriously.

The collection is on display through next weekend and the auctions begin on Thursday.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Test Card Ω

A few weeks ago I was told, "Hey baby, you'd dig it the most" in the manner of one Vincent Vega by our esteemed Mercator Lucis and was sent a link to a blog. That blog is called Scarfolk, and I indeed did dig it the most. Since it seems virtually impossible to explain why it rings cherries with me so resonantly, I'll let the creator of the blog do it for me:
Scarfolk is a town in North West England that did not progress beyond 1979. Instead, the entire decade of the 1970s loops ad infinitum. Here in Scarfolk, pagan rituals blend seamlessly with science; hauntology is a compulsory subject at school, and everyone must be in bed by 8pm because they are perpetually running a slight fever.
Yeah, okay, that's all me. Let's leave aside the entry-level 70s UK Uncanny of the Test Card Girl so shamelessly exploited by Life on Mars, and let's leave aside the childhood memories of Doctor Who episodes set in deserted villages where strange things are afoot and Cold War-era military-scientific edifices loom in the background. Let's even leave aside things like The Red Riding Trilogy, in which the dark grey British 70s explode in a blossom of blood and madness, lit only by dim fluorescent bulbs in dingy police stations. And let's forget the episode of Electric Dreams I watched with my British wife that stated only half of British households at the outset of the 70s had a telephone and most did not have a freezer and which allowed me more fodder for "don't you know there's a war on still" jokes for years to come.

Let's just concentrate on the gestalt of all these things being evoked together perfectly in Scarfolk.

I'd previously written about Electric Eden, which lovingly detailed the rise of British folk-rock and juxtaposed the ancient and the modern. Conveniently for our purposes, this rise happened in the 70s, when a revival of back-to-the-land was happening in many Western nations. The pagan past rises from the misty moors. Combine this with the exquisitely clunky state of technology in the decade and throw in a little bit of trademark British irony and humor and I think that's why Scarfolk works so well. That and the amazing evocation of the era's graphic design. That may just be the mortar that holds it all together.

So go check out Scarfolk. If you agree with me that Boards of Canada should be Renfusa's soundtrack, I think you'll like it and "get" it, too.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Mash Note to Magic Squares

A few years ago, I was running an RPG that shall remain nameless (nameless not because I didn't enjoy it, but nameless because I am desperately trying to maintain the increasingly thin red line that divides this blog from a gaming blog... I'll just say, *coff*sad-eyed Mexican Frankensteins*coff*) and I happened upon Dürer's Melencolia I. This post is not about Melencolia I because a single blog post could never contain even one infinitesmalith of the awesomeness of Melencolia I. No, this post is about magic squares.

You probably remember these from math class at some point; all the columns and rows add to the same number. If you were a nerdy mathlete like me, maybe you came across it in one of the many math-related books you took out of the public library as a grade schooler. But man, a magic square is more than a cool parlor trick (and yes, according to Wikipedia, there is such a thing as "recreational mathematics," good Lord). A magic square is an abjuration. It's an incantation. It's a protective amulet. It's, well, magic.

Ptak Science Books's blog (really, another must-add if you like Renfusa, go there now and devour the archives, I'm not kidding) recently did a post on magic squares with an assortment of Western and Indian magic squares; seems that magic squares have been a universal human obsession for centuries. Much like our numeral system, the magic square originated in India (and really, can you picture someone trying to squeeze Roman numerals into a magic square? It'd be more like a magic spreadsheet at that point) as well as China, and they were believed to be a true piece of protective magic. According to legend, a turtle emerged from a flooding river with a 3x3 magic square on its shell and from then onwards, people were able to use it to divert floods.

In Europe, as you might expect, a multiplicity (no pun intended) of occult uses were found for the magic square. They were used to communicate and protect against the "higher intelligences" of the superterrestrial spheres: there is a magic square for every planet, depending on how big the grid is. You can then draw sigils based on the gematria value of the angel or demon's true name using the square. Like most Renaissance magic, it feels like arbitrary rules made up by someone with a lot of time on his hands, and that does tend to pretty accurately define Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy.

There are of course non-mathematical magic magic squares to, dating back to the "SATOR Square" of ancient Rome, also an incantation, but made of letters, not numbers.

To come full circle to Dürer, his magic square not only features the year it was made (1514) but it also features hidden tributes to Dürer's age and his initials, as well as non-horizontal and vertical totals, in addition to being the solution to something called the "four queens problem," which this mathematical and chess layman is not even going to try to unpack.

So yeah. Magic squares. Still magic. And awesome.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013


"It's a pardon for 'anything whatsoever, including murder, adultery, or dismemberment of a friend or relative.'"
"Who's that signed by?"
"Both popes."

- Brother Baldrick in dialogue with Archbishop Edmund the Unwilling

A stray tweet on my Twitter feed this morning reminded me of the term "antipope." It's such an evocative term, isn't it? From our modern perspective, almost theoretical and scientific. But for people throughout the history of Christianity, it was a real thing, even an existential threat.

In the early days of the Church, with processes and factions still coalescing into what we'd come to know as post-Nicene orthodoxy, antipopes were fairly common. Even in these early years, future conflicts over state vs. church would be prefigured by antipopes like Felix II and Laurentius, appointed by Emperors for political reasons.

The true golden age of antipopes was the 11th and 12th centuries, as political controversy in the Holy Roman Empire led to Emperors elevating antipopes to counteract elected Popes who stood in opposition to them. Things get even more confusing as these Popes in turn would sponsor antikings who would stand in opposition to various Holy Roman Emperors.

Of course, the Great Western Schism of the late 14th century produced three lines of Popes: one back in Rome after the Babylonian Captivity, the Avignon Papacy, which had existed as the legitimate Papacy throughout the 14th century but was now shut out, as well as the Pisan Papacy, which occurred because well-meaning Church officials tried to elect a legitimate Pope but only resulted in a third antipope.

In these modern days, there is a positive wealth of antipopes, both of the Conclavist ilk, who believe all Post-Vatican II Popes to be illegitimate and thereby proclaim through a lay council their own (anti)popes, and of the "mysticalist" bent, who proclaim their hold on the Papacy through visions and divine revelations. Some even dare to claim the title "Peter II," which as anyone can tell you is anything from a huge faux pas to a sign that the Rapture is approaching.