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Aristotle’s Poetics 1448b

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about poetry lately.  In an end-of-semester bout of insomnia last night my thoughts wandered towards Aristotle’s Poetics.  This section, 1448b, is a discussion of the origins of poetry and the Greek word mimesis.  Translation is my own:

There seems to be altogether two natural causes for the origins of poetry.  It is innate for men to imitate and from childhood they differ from other animals in this capability—that imitation is possible and they first form learning through imitation; and everyone takes pleasure in imitations.  The indication of this is carried out in our actions: some things are painful to look at, but if we look at their exact likeness instead we can take pleasure in them—for example, the shape of very deformed wild beasts, or corpses.  The reason for this is that it is not only pleasant for philosophers to learn, but it is similarly pleasant for everyone else to learn, although most people have a shorter experience with this.  People take pleasure in observing likenesses because it comes upon us to learn from and to make inferences about those things we observe—what each thing is like and that this person is like that person:  and if we should happen to see before us the original, it is not the imitation that brings us pleasure,  but its workmanship or appearance or some other such cause.

Needless to say there are so many aspects of this short paragraph to ponder over.


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Drawing is Discovery: Landscapes by John Berger

Study for the Head of Leda. Drawing by Da Vinci. 1505-1507.

I’ve spent the week reading the essays in this collection compiled by Tom Overton which were written by John Berger between 1954 and 2015.  The range of topics that Berger thinks and writes about is, to say the least, impressive.  Cubism, Renaissance Art, the Victorian Conscience and Soviet era aesthetics are a few subjects he covers.  My favorite pieces, however, were the two short essays on drawing.  Berger describes, through personal stories and anecdotes three categories of drawing: those done from memory, those that study and question the visible and those that record and communicate ideas.

There is a more personal and intimate quality to drawing then, say, painting, Berger argues:

“…the lines on the paper are traces left behind by the artist’s gaze which is ceaselessly leaving, going out, interrogating the strangeness, the enigma, of what is before his eyes—however ordinary and everyday this may be. The sum total of the lines on the paper narrates an optical emigration by which the artist, following his own gaze, settles on the person or tree or animal or mountain being drawn. And if the drawing succeeds he stays there forever.”

“For the artist, drawing is discovery,” is how Berger begins his essay “The Basis of all Painting and Sculpture is Drawing.”  He uses a personal story of drawing a nude in one of his very early art classes to, once again, demonstrate the intimacy involved in the act of drawing:

Then, quite soon, the drawing reached its point of crisis.  Which is to say that what I had drawn began to interest me as much as what I could still discover.  There is a stage in every drawing when this happens.  And I call it a point of crisis because at that moment the success or failure of the drawing has really been decided.  One now begins to draw according to the demands, the needs, of the drawing.  If the drawing is already in some small way true, then tese demands will probably correspond to what one might still discover by actual searching.  If the drawing is basically false, they will accentuate its wrongness.”

My first experience with Berger was Bento’s Sketchbook, which includes several of the author’s drawings and sketches.  I am due for a reread and will, no doubt, have a deeper appreciation for his writings and drawings after my experiences with the essays in Landscapes.


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Was this Love?: The Temptation of Quiet Veronica by Robert Musil (trans. Genese Grill)

In an article for The Kenyon Review in which he discusses the five short works by Musil, Frank Kermode writes, “All have erotic themes and most are concerned with female eroticism and with love as a means to some kind of knowledge.” And “To study the behavior of people in love is, for Musil, is to study the human situation at its quick. Even when there is only delighted animality, or when, as in ‘Tonka,’ there is an avowed absence of love and of intellectual communion, in a milieu of poverty and disease, sex remains the central ground for Musil’s study of the potentialities of human consciousness.”

In “The Temptation of Quiet Veronica” the title character is grasping at thoughts of love, self, connection and sexual desire but her narrative is much more enigmatic, stream-of-consciousness, and fractured than the other story in the Unions collection: “Was this love? It was a wandering in her, something that attracted her. She herself did not know. It was like walking along a path, seemingly towards a goal, with a slow expectation that makes one’s steps hesitate, before—sometime or other—one suddenly finds and recognizes an entirely different path.”

Veronica lives in a boarding house with her aunt and two men, Demeter and Johannes. In her interactions with these two men, there is a constant, subtle tension and eroticism that is woven throughout the short text. The timeframe of the story is also purposely confusing and broken—sometimes Veronica is thinking about events that took place during her teenage years and sometimes she is referring to herself in the present. Veronica keeps alluding to a lost memory which she is trying to recover and believes that her interactions with Johannes might help her recover this memory: “But, beyond this, she could not find the memory, and it unsettled her, and she suffered, because, whenever she believed she was close to it, it was obscured again by the thought of an animal.”

When she is free of Johannes, though, and experiences a sleepless night, she comes closer to her true self and her lost memory. Musil’s language, in Genese Grill’s brilliant translation, is sublime, poetic, philosophical. For me it is the most outstanding part of this extraordinary text:

Soul is something like this when one is on an uncertain quest. Veronica had been afraid of one love her whole dark long life and had longed for another one; in dreams it is sometimes that way, the way she longed for it. The things that happen enter with their whole strength, large and awkward, and yet like something that is already inside one. It hurts, but it is like when one hurts one’s self; it is humiliating, but the humiliation flies away like a homeless cloud and no one is there to see it; the humiliation flies away like the pleasure of a dark cloud…

The symbolism, metaphors and language in this novella demand multiple rereads. As I spend the rest of the spring and the summer making my way through Musil’s writing I will, no doubt, return to this short work many times.


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The Hippocratic Corpus: A Wandering Uterus and Fox Possession

The Hippocratic Corpus is a collection of dozens of Ancient Greek texts which were originally attributed to Hippocrates but were actually written by several unknown authors from the sixth through the fourth centuries B.C.E.  The writings contain an astonishingly wide range of descriptions of bodily functions, ailments of different body parts, and cures for diseases.  The section entitled “Diseases of Women,” for instance, describes the uterus which the physicians believed did not stay in one part of a woman’s body but instead wandered around causing great pain and discomfort.  Movements of the uterus within the body can include towards the head, the heart, the liver, the hips, or the bladder (137 L—translation of the Ancient Greek is my own):

Of all the diseases pertaining to the uterus that come about for a woman, I say this: whenever the uterus is set in motion away from its space, sometimes falling in one direction and sometimes in another direction, and where it comes to fall, causes this spot severe bodily pain.  And if it comes to fasten itself to the bladder, it causes bodily pain and does not accept urine, and it does not draw in any seed to itself.  And if both uterus and bladder suffer, and if a swift release does not come about, then in time the uterus will rot in that same spot and it will wither away.

As I was reading Christine Wunnicke’s latest book, The Fox and Dr. Shimamura, the author’s descriptions of women who were said to be possessed by a fox seemed eerily similar to the wandering womb described by the Hippocratic physicians.   In Wunnicke’s mythical, mystical, and at times bizarre tale, a late nineteenth-century Japanese doctor is sent to remote areas of the Shimane prefecture to cure women of fox possession. The book begins at the end, as Dr. Shimamura’s career as a renowned neurologist has passed, and his memories of curing fox possession and other forms of female hysteria are told in a feverish state from his sick bed. His hazy memories also bring us through his time in Europe, where he meets and studies with other famous doctors, Charcot and Breuer, who have an interest in ailments that particularly affect females.

For my complete review of The Fox and Dr. Shimamura and the connections between fox possession and Ancient Greek medicine, please follow this link to the Music & Literature website:

Thanks to Taylor and David, who were a true pleasure to work with, for publishing my piece.


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Lives of the Poets: Donne and Milton

I still making my way through Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets.  I can only read about 20 or 30 pages a week because I keep stopping to read the poems he discusses in his text.  What is equally fascinating are the details he chooses to include in his brief biological sketches of each poet.  The poets from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries have some common threads: poverty, affairs, political intrigue and imprisonment in The Tower.  But he also works in stories and anecdotes that I have not typically encountered when reading about these poets.  My two favorite chapters, so far, are those describing the lives of Donne and Milton.

John Donne, like many of the poets from the 17th century including Herbert, Marvell and Vaughan, did not consider themselves professional writers.  His manuscripts were circulated among a small group of friends but most knew him as a political and religious orator and not as a poet.  One of Donne’s preoccupations was with death and how his demise would be handled by his relatives when he passed from this earth.  Schmidt writes, “Most men allowed their survivors to bury the as they thought appropriate.  Donne took his death into his own hands.  The rehearsals as much as the memorial tell us more about him than we could learn from the rooms he lived in.”  Schmidt goes on to quote from Izaac Walton’s “Life of Donne”:

Dr. Donne sent for a carver to make for him in wood the figure of an urn, giving him directions for the compass and height of it; and to bring with it a board of the just height of his body.  These being got, then without delay a choice painter was got to be in readiness to draw his picture, which was taken as followeth.—Several charcoal fires being first maed in his large study, he brought with him into that place his winding-sheet in his hand, and, having put off all his clothes, had this sheet put on him, and so tied with knots at his head and feet, and his hands so placed, as dead bodies are usually fitted to be shrouded and put into their coffin, or grave.  Upon this urn he thus stood with his eyes shut, and with so much of the sheet turned aside as might show his lean, pale and deathlike face.”

I will never look at Donne poem the same again after reading these morbid, and somewhat creepy, details.

The biographical summary of Milton’s life includes more charming personal stories.  For example,  Milton’s father encouraged his son to read and, “If Milton as a boy of nine of ten wanted to read late, his father made sure that a maid sat up with him until midnight and after.”  The details of his education I found especially interesting:

When he went up to Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1625 he found the place disappointing, the curriculum dry and narrow.  He craved a broader, more liberal education than was offered.  He composed Latin poems in the manner of Ovid and Horace, epigrams, a Latin mock-epic on the Gunpowder Plot, Italian sonnets, more English paraphrases of the Psalms, and the eleven stanzas “On the Death of a Fair Infant Dying of a Cough.” His Latin elegies are in some ways his most personal utterances, including details of his life and thought not recorded elsewhere.  He was at the time as much at home in Latin as in English verse.

I’ve tracked down some of his Latin which I will try to translate for myself.  And Schmidt has also inspired me to reread Paradise Lost which I haven’t looked at since I was an undergraduate.  At this rate I will be spending my time with Schmidt’s book for the better part of this year…



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