Vampires and Beans

September 13th, 2010 · 12:08 pm  →  the blog

While I was working on my piece on cemeteries for the upcoming “Cities” issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, I came across a number of random facts and other historical detritus that caught my eye—while none of it was suitable for the Lapham’s piece, a couple of interesting finds stayed with me, and with a little more time on my hands, I’ve been going back and following up with some of those finds.

Among other things, one fascinating piece of cultural belief turned up in an issue of The Classical Review from 1921 that I turned up while trying to find more information on Roman burial practices.

After an article by W. R. Halliday on the likelihood of adult burial within cities in Roman practices, came another piece titled “Quaestiones Romanae,” written by F. A. Wright; the first such “quaestione” was this: “Why are beans taboo?”

As you can imagine, this caught my attention. The answer was even more bizarre: the Greek word for “bean” was κναμος, which Wright points out, is a noun derived from the verb κνεω, “to be pregnant.” In other words, a bean is, literally, a “pregnant thing,” or “the thing big with life.” As he explains, “anyone who has watched the rapid and mysterious pushing forth of the young bean from the parent womb will understand why the bean was a symbol of sexual fertility.” This is perhaps a matter of some debate, though I’m willing to grant Dr. Wright this point, I suppose.

He also points out that the Pythagoreans, who were vegetarians, also abstained from eating beans, since “in its growth has almost the vitality of the animal kingdom”—beans, it could be said, were viewed as something of a hybrid creature, part vegetable, part animal—the classical world’s equivalent to slimemold, I suppose.

The bean, then, is an object which suggests an uncanny sexuality, and in the same way that pregnant women would have been seen to be unclean, so too were beans.

As a final note, though, it appears that beans, by virtue of this anomalous appearance, had a very specific usage: they could be used to deceive vampires, who would mistake beans for humans, or pregnant women….

So to the stake, the garlic, the mirror and the cross, one can also add…the bean.

Sexy Skulls

September 7th, 2010 · 11:00 am  →  the blog

Along the lines of my previous post, someone sent this image to me–god knows where she found it. They just don’t make album covers like this anymore, do they?

The Skull on the Bookshelf

September 5th, 2010 · 10:52 am  →  the blog

Around this time last year, the book was about to come out, and it was my birthday, which meant I was getting a lot of skulls. This not-entirely-unwelcome phenomenon seems to happen to anyone who develops a fondness for a certain object, animal or piece of pop cultural ephemera. If you tell people you like Elvis, for example, you’re going to get a glut of Elvis paraphernalia. My mother has always liked pink flamingos, and once her co-workers realized this, they began to flood her office at any gift-giving opportunity, with flamingos, so now it’s nigh-crammed with pink birds.

And so people knew that I liked skulls, and the skulls came pouring in. now my bookshelf is crammed with them, of various sizes, materials, and quality—along with a few phrenological charts and busts that have also come my way.


Of course, having a skull on a bookshelf is an old tradition, something that gets discussed in the book, particularly in relationship to the poet Friedrich Schiller:

When the German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller’s body was exhumed in 1826, twenty-one years after his death, the Duke Carl August had the skull mounted on a velvet cushion in a glass case and displayed in his library. In order to keep the duke from being confused with the religiously superstitious or macabre treasure hunters, much was made of the fact that the skull was to be kept in the library—the proper place for a skull of genius, which could be read phrenologically, almost as if it were another book on the shelf. As a private, special book, it was not for everyone. As the director of the duke’s library put it, the skull was to be made available only to those “of whom one can be certain that their steps are not governed by curiosity but by a feeling, a knowledge of what that great man achieved for Germany, for Europe, and for the whole civilized world.”

If anyone had that feeling, it was this librarian, no less than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who would become the bedrock on which much of Germanic literature was based. Either way, after a year the Duke got nervous about the skull and ordered it reinterred with the body. Respectable sources simply could not be relied on; if you wanted a skull, you had to steal it yourself.

So while I have no actual human skulls in my house, famous or not, it was great to be able to decorate my bookshelves with skulls, even if they were a bit more kitschy, such as the acrylic paperweight that my in-laws got me from Disneyland.


But by far my favorite of these skulls is the one that my mother bought me. I had, as a joke, asked her for an authentic human skull, one onto which a phrenology chart had been inscribed. Such skulls do exist; the Wellcome Museum has one, and Hari Kunzru writes about it in The Phantom Museum, a really great and inspiring text for anyone interested both in esoteric weirdness and good writing. In the tradition of the memento mori and Hamlet’s soliloquy, Kunzru imagines/traces the history of this skull:

Most of my body eventually found its way into the Cross Bones graveyard in Southwork, but my skull went into the anatomist’s collection, where it stayed, locked in a cupboard, for many years. At length, with the rise of the phrenological theories of Doctor Gall, it was marked out with the good German’s divisions of the mental faculties and converted, much to my pleasure, into a teaching aid.

One of the great things about Kunzru’s piece for me is his highlighting of that tension between the skull’s immortality and phrenology’s very limited shelf life:

Those were the glory days. I was handled, scrutinised, debated and argued over in a most flattering manner. I was most disappointed when the doctor’s theories were superseded. People had the nerve to call him a charlatan! I was rather relieved to be purchased by the collector. I am part of something permanent, something that does not change with the seasons. For (alas!) I believe it will always be my fate to fall out of fashion.

But anyway, my mother, alas, was unable to track down a similar skull for me. Instead she sent me this unbelievably tacky skull, a squeezable stress ball no doubt intended for junior high boys or elementary school classrooms come Halloween.

It’s garish and ridiculous, to be sure, but the amazing thing happens when you squeeze it hard enough, and out of a small, trepanned flap at the top of the cranium, a pouch filled with bloody rats oozes out.

And with due respect to Goethe and Schiller, to the Wellcome Museum and Kunzru, I think it’s safe to say that this skull, too, is one to be treasured…

Gustave Flaubert & the Demons of Masturbation

September 2nd, 2010 · 7:26 pm  →  the blog


In his final, unfinished novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet, Gustave Flaubert satirized the writing process (among nearly every other pursuit, artistic or otherwise) through his two bumbling protagonists, who struggle first for a subject on which to write before realizing that the main problem is that they have no taste. But if Bouvard and Pécuchet have no subject on which to write, Flaubert himself had an opposite problem through much of his life: a single subject that he spent three decades trying to write about, which consumed him and nearly destroyed both his writing career and himself.

It was while traveling in Italy in 1845 that Flaubert had first seen Bruegel’s Temptation of Saint Anthony, a painting that resonated deep within him, and which sparked in him a desire to retell the desert saint’s tribulations for the modern age. He worked on it for four years, and, in the fall of 1849, assembled his two closest friends—Louis Bouilhet and Maxime du Camp—for a reading of what he believed was to be his masterpiece. The 30 year-old writer was excited to finally share it with the two men whose opinion he trusted more than anyone else, and Bouilhet and du Camp were likewise excited: even though Flaubert had yet to publish anything, they both knew of his extraordinary potential, and were anxious to hear this masterwork that had so fully consumed him.


Flaubert told them beforehand that he wanted their honest appraisal of the work, but then, just before he began, Flaubert waved the manuscript pages in the air above his head and exclaimed, “If you don’t howl with pleasure at this, you’re incapable of being moved by anything!” Settling down, he began to read.

And read. He read the entire five hundred and forty-one pages straight through: eight hours a day in uninterrupted four-hour blocks of time, for four solid days. During that entire time, these people that he loved and trusted more dearly than anyone else—Maxime Du Camp, Louis Bouilhet—sat in silence as he read his opus.

They would later remember it as the most painful days in their lives, as they listened to an endless morass of words that was alternately incomprehensible, banal, repetitive, childish, and plain boring. “As he read,” du Camp later recalled, “Flaubert warmed, but we, though we tried to share his enthusiasm, remained cold as ice. Words, words—harmonious phrases expertly put together, full of noble images and startling metaphors, but often redundant, and containing whole passages which could have been transposed and combined without changing the effect of the book as a whole. There was no progression—the scene always remained the same, though played by different characters. We said nothing, but Flaubert could easily perceive we were not favorably impressed, and from time to time he interrupted himself to cry: ‘Wait! Wait! You’ll see!’”

After it was over, they did their best to put a good face on it and let him down easy. But it was difficult, as they felt clearly that the last four years had been wasted on something that was completely unsalvageable. Bouilhet, with as much tact as he could muster, told Flaubert simply, “We think you should throw it into the fire and never speak of it again.” Finally, du Camp, struggling to put a good spin on things, explained to Flaubert, “You proceed by expansion. One subject sweeps you toward another, and you end up forgetting the point of departure. A droplet becomes a torrent, the torrent a river, the river a lake, the lake an ocean, the ocean a tidal wave. You drown, you drown your characters, you drown the event, you drown the reader, and your work is drowned.”

It was du Camp that finally, to rescue the situation, suggested that Flaubert adopt a different strategy: “choose a down-to-earth subject,” he told Flaubert, “one of those incidents in which bourgeois life abounds, something like [Balzac’s] La Cousin Bette or La Cousin Pons….” Ultimately du Camp’s advice took the form of Madame Bovary in 1857, which finally redeemed the promise of Flaubert’s talent.

And though he deeply identified with the bored, provincial housewife he’d created (“Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” he famouly quipped), Flaubert never gave up Anthony, and spent the rest of his life working on different drafts, before finally publishing the third major version in 1874. And though the final product would in time have its admirers (including Mallarmé, Freud and Foucault), it was almost universally panned upon publication, sending Flaubert further into frustration and depression.

Flaubert’s Anthony is the ecstatic version of Emma Bovary. Whereas Emma loses herself amidst the reverie of books, Anthony is assailed by actual demons—retreating to the desert for contemplation, the Devil tempts him with hordes of fantastical creatures. Some attempt to seduce him through lust and vanity, but many try to play on his fear of physical death through savage beatings and attacks.

Grunewald Temptation Detail BETTER

The decades-long, tortured writing process that produced The Temptation of Saint Anthony veered between the sublime, the goofy, and the obscene, and ultimately, given the medical climate of the time, was curiously circular: Flaubert was drawn to Anthony because he had epilepsy, and he developed epilepsy because he masturbated, and he masturbated because he could not write his masterpiece, The Temptation of St. Anthony.

Flaubert worked on the Temptation, off and on, for thirty years, and it was a constant struggle. Often, out of frustration he turned to masturbation, which he was fairly casual in describing. “I’m gnawed by anger, impatience, impotence,” he confided to a friend. “There are moments when my head bursts with the bloody pains I’m taking over this. Out of sheer frustration I jerked off yesterday, feeling the same bleakness that drove me to masturbate at school, when I sat in detention. The ejaculate soiled my pants, which made me laugh, and I washed it off. Ah! I’m quite sure Monsieur Scribe never stooped so low!” Masturbation was a foil to good writing both literally and figuratively; in his letters to female friends, he likened to the frustrations of writing to “masturbating” his head in order to “ejaculate” a few sentences at a time. And in 1855 he wrote, “We take notes, we embark on voyages…we become scholars, archeologists, historians, doctors, cobblers and people of taste. But what about heart and verve and sap? We’re good at licking cunt. But humping? Ejaculating in order to make a child?” Above all, Flaubert wanted to make something, to be a productive member of literary society through a great and popular work. Nothing threatened this more than Saint Anthony—his obsession with the hermit was too esoteric, too idiosyncratic. The nineteenth-century wanted the realism of Balzac; it had no taste for the romance Flaubert sought to create. His was a perverse, solitary obsession, masturbatory in its scope and taste—no wonder it drove him to self-pollution.


Flaubert was playing a dangerous game; in the nineteenth-century masturbation had far more serious dangers in store than simply bad writing; it was, quite simply, lethal. Larousse’s Grand Dictionnaire noted in the 1875 edition that “We find in the annals of medicine plenty of cases of five-, six-, and eight-year-old children dead as a result of masturbation.” As Samuel Tissot, one of the foremost fighters of self-pollution, noted, “Too great a quantity of semen being lost in the natural course produces dire effects; but they are still more dreadful when the same quantity has been dissipated in an unnatural manner. The accidents that happen to such as waste themselves in a natural way are very terrible, those which are occasioned by masturbation are still more so.”

Why did masturbation lay at the root cause of so much suffering? As Thomas Laqueur explains in his exhaustive history of masturbation, solitary sex was dangerous because “it was motivated not by a real object of desire but by a phantasm; masturbation threatened to overwhelm the most protean and potentially creative of the mind’s faculties—the imagination—and drive it over a cliff,” and because, “while all other sex was social, masturbation was private, or, when it was not done alone, it was social in all the wrong ways: wicked servants taught it to children; wicked older boys taught it to innocent younger ones; girls and boys in schools taught it to each other away from adult supervision. Sex was naturally done with someone; solitary sex was not.”


It was chiefly in this private, unnatural manufacture of fantasies and images that had no grounding in reality that the masturbator was liable to get him or herself in trouble. Masturbation could lead to consumption or any number of nervous disorders, including epilepsy, which plagued Flaubert throughout his life. He suffered his first attack when he was twenty-one, riding in a carriage with his brother. With the onset of the seizure, Flaubert lost consciousness for ten minutes, in what he later described as “torrents of flame” sweeping him away. He was to suffer from these episodes regularly throughout his life, and they so horrified him that he would never once use the word “epilepsy” to describe his condition.

Epilepsy no longer was seen in terms of divine or demonic possession; Flaubert was a long way from St. Anthony’s body wracked and tossed about his cave in a cataclysmic spiritual battle. Convulsions and spasms like Flaubert’s were better understood as the result of a serious moral failing, an ethical rather than divine transgression. Flaubert himself seemed to agree with Tissot’s diagnosis—he confided to a friend once how “Madness and lust are two realms I’ve explored so deliberately…. But I’ve paid a price for it. My nervous malady is the scum of these little intellectual pranks. Each attack has been a kind of hemorrhage of innervation.”

Epilepsy, after all, is not just one of many illnesses that could result from the solitary vice, it is in many ways the most emblematic. The epileptic suffers from the nightmare form of the masturbator’s plethora of fantasies: attacked by an endless series of hallucinations from which he cannot escape. Here’s how Flaubert explained it: “At twenty-one I nearly died of a nervous illness brought on by a series of irritations and troubles, by late nights and anger. It lasted ten years. (I have felt, I have seen everything in Saint Theresa, in Hoffman and Edgar Poe; people visited by hallucinations are not strangers to me.)” Flaubert was not Emma Bovary, in love with the fantasies and phantasms found in novels; he was Anthony, plagued by them, tormented by them. In the 1849 draft of the Temptation, Anthony speaks for his creator, describing his temptations in the language of the epileptic: “I felt desperately unable to control my thought; it slipped the bonds with which I had tied it and escaped me.… Like a rogue elephant, [my mind] would race beneath me with wild trumpetings. Sometimes I’d lean back in fright, or else boldly try to stop it. But its speed stunned me, and I’d get up broken, lost.”

Sleep of Reason

It was this sudden excess of imagination this plethora of fantastical images, that drove Flaubert the masturbator, just as it terrified Flaubert the epileptic. But it also sparked Flaubert the writer. As the anti-masturbating crusader Dr. Tissot noted, “The self-polluter perpetually abandoned to his obscene meditations is in this regard, something in the case of the man of letters, who fixes all his attention on one point.” So too was Flaubert, like a hermit in the wilderness, alone with his thoughts, writing his misunderstood masterpiece.

On Bones and Libraries: St. Jerome

April 6th, 2010 · 5:48 pm  →  the blog

Jerome became the patron saint of libraries and librarians because of the one task he is most known for: the translation, editing, and assemblage of what became the standard edition of the Bible for over the Millennium: the Vulgate. Various canonical lists of the Bible had been circulating as early as the mid-third century, but only with the Council of Rome in 382 did an official council of bishops agree on the list of books to be included. Known as the Damasine List, it was so named for Pope Damasus I, who headed the council, and who had hired Jerome as his personal secretary. And so it fell to Jerome, also present at the Council, to assemble a fresh translation of this newly ratified library—known first as the “versio vulgata,” or “commonly used translation,” and later simply as the Vulgate.

For all the controversy surrounding the Bible, its apocrypha and conflicting versions, Jerome’s accomplishment had long been seen in terms of divine intervention—as with the Council of Rome, he is guided by the hand of God. Seen in this light, the Bible is perfect: there are no books missing, no books extraneous. It is a perfect library, a collection of exactly the books that God intended for humankind.

Without the certainty of Jerome, every other librarian has only one option: include it all, leave nothing out. It was this caution that had motivated Ptolemy I to build the Library of Alexandria at the end of the third century BCE, in which he hoped to assemble “all the books of all the people of the world.” Ptolemy calculated all the books in the world to be roughly five hundred thousand volumes, but long ago our capacity for books over took any sane number: the complete library is now, quite simply, infinite. If you do not have the divine grace of Jerome, to tell you which books to keep and which to exclude, you are obligated to take in everything, and you are condemned to a library without end.

The Library of Babel

The Library of Babel

This is the library imagined by Jorge Luis Borges, in his short story “The Library of Babel.” He describes the library as an “indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries. In the center of each gallery is a ventilation shaft, bounded by a low railing. From any hexagon one can see the floors above and below—one after another, endlessly. The arrangement of the galleries is always the same: Twenty bookshelves, five to each side, line four of the hexagon’s six sides; the height of the bookshelves, floor to ceiling, is hardly greater than the height of a normal librarian. One of the hexagon’s free sides opens onto a narrow sort of vestibule, which in turn opens onto another gallery, identical to the first—identical, in fact, to all. To the left and right of the vestibule are two tiny compartments. One is for sleeping, upright; the other, for satisfying one’s physical necessities. Through this space, too, there passes a spiral staircase, which winds upward and downward into the remotest distance.”

Every librarian, every book collector, finds him or herself between these two mythical places—the Perfect Library of God and the Infinite Library of Babel, the one transcribed by Jerome, the other by Borges.

But in some ways, they are closer to one another than they first appear. Borges’ description of the infinite library as a series of hexagonal cells that disappear into the distance, echoes (perhaps coincidently) the Roman catacombs that Jerome would visit while he was a young scholar, with bodies instead of books. “Often,” he later wrote, “I would find myself entering those crypts, deep dug in the earth, with their walls on either side lined with the bodies of the dead….Here and there,” he continues, “the light, not entering in through windows, but filtering down from above through shafts, relieved the horror of the darkness. But again, as soon as you found yourself cautiously moving forward, the black night closed around and there came to my mind the line of Virgil, ‘the horror and the silences terrified their souls.’”

It was to terrify his own soul that Jerome came down to those catacombs, so that he could remind himself of his own mortality. This reminder of death—in Latin memento mori, “remember that you will die”—is represented in art by a human skull, the grinning death’s head that awaits, that is all that is left after our own decay. And this skull is a common image in representations of Jerome, the saint who transcribes the immortal Word even as his own mortal body fails him.



For me, the most compelling of these images of Jerome are those by Caravaggio. In one painting he depicts the librarian’s long thin arm stretched out over a great folio, and on that folio—as a compositional counterpoint to Jerome’s haloed head—rests a human skull, reminding him of what awaits, exhorting him to prepare for the next life.

In Jerome’s time, this preparation took the form of asceticism, a word deriving from the Greek askesis, which means “exercise” or “athletic training.” In practice, asceticism was the abstinence of worldly pleasures and all but the most basic needs—the deprivation of one’s physical needs seen as crucial preparation for the time when one was without body, when one was pure spirit.

Jerome begun devoting himself to asceticism when he was about thirty years old, having left Rome for Antioch, after a serious illness led him to abandon his remaining secular studies. He ventured into the deserts of Syria, where a converted Jew taught him Hebrew and he began translations of the Hebrew Scriptures. Eventually, he returned to civilization and allowed himself to be ordained as a bishop, but only under the condition that he be allowed to maintain his ascetic life. Immersed in his books and his translations, Jerome prepared his body for death, and prepared his mind for a life without his hated, corruptible body.

Returning to Rome in 382, Jerome was distinctly out of place—a desert hermit amidst a bustling metropolis. He harangued the city’s clergy for their posh lifestyle, making him more than a few enemies. But eventually a circle of wealthy women, including the widow Paula and her daughter Blaesilla, gravitated to him, following his example and adopting an ascetic lifestyle.

Here in Rome, under the direction of Damasus, the Master Librarian continued work on his perfect library, where his reading itself was a sort of asceticism. As Michel de Montaigne noted 1400 years later, reading “is not a plain and pure pleasure…it has its disagreements, and they are onerous; the soul disports itself, but the body, whose care I have not forgotten, remains inactive, it grows weary and sad.” In the very act of reading and study, Jerome could be said to be forever mortifying his body.

As I read my way through these accounts of his life, I found myself wondering if the very act of reading, or at least book collecting, was itself a kind of memento mori, and whether this was connected to the habit of so many scholars over the centuries who have included human skulls in their libraries, perched amidst their books on endless shelves.

Like Jerome, Borges’ unnamed librarian remains fixated on his own death. “I am preparing to die, a few leagues from the hexagon where I was born,” he tells us early on. “When I am dead, compassionate hands will throw me over the railing; my tomb will be the unfathomable air, my body will sink for ages, and will decay and dissolve in the wind engendered by my fall, which shall be infinite.”
The image has always haunted me as quite beautiful, but the passage begs the question: in the Library of Babel, do bones, too, decay? Borges’ description suggests that yes, they do, that at some point during the infinite fall even the librarian’s bones disintegrate. But for a fall to be infinite, there must be something that is always falling, and I prefer to think that the bones remain, and that they fall infinitely, endlessly through the hexagonal galleries, so that as the librarians go about their business in the Library of Babel, every so often comes the sound of bones from some librarian who died so many, many floors up. The shafts of this great library filled with the sporadic clattering of bones, a memento mori falling at terminal velocity.

That Borges neglects the messy detail of bones reminds one that we too often neglect the body of the librarian, and partly for this reason, Caravaggio’s painting of Jerome is striking in that he so forcefully emphasizes the decrepit, ailing body of the great librarian. Jerome is barely alive, more skeletal than flesh, his arm stretched across the folio like a body pulled across the rack, as though the immortal Word were itself some kind of torture device.

Caravaggio reminds us that not only was Jerome a librarian, he was also flesh, mortal. There’s a subversive element to Caravaggio’s painting, precisely because what’s most engaging about the work is Jerome’s hated mortal coil, that which he cannot escape.

The stubborn reality of the body over the immortal Word was a truth that two of Jerome’s followers—the widow Paula and her daughter Blaesilla—were to learn all too well. Both adopted Jerome’s ascetic lifestyle, but after only a few months, Blaesilla, who had recently recovered from a serious illness, collapsed from exhaustion and malnutrition, and shortly died. Paula was grief-stricken at the death of her daughter, but Jerome found her display of earthly emotion both unbecoming and unchristian, and the Master Librarian harshly chastised the mother for her grief at the loss of Blaesilla’s earthly body. Ultimately, Jerome was forced out of Rome, in part because his protector Damasus died, but also because of his indirect role in the death of Blaesilla and his cold indifference to her fate.

Before I read this story, I had always assumed, or wanted to believe, that the narrator in Borges’ fable was a version of Jerome, and that we were listening to the voice of the great librarian himself. But I’m less sure now. Late in the story the narrator describes a librarian greater than himself, whom he calls the Book-Man, the sole librarian who understands the entirety of the Library of Babel, the sole librarian who has read the ultimate book. “On some shelf in some hexagon,” he says, “there must exist a book that is the cipher and perfect compendium of all other books, and some librarian must have examined that book….” Borges’ narrator opines that the Book-Man is thus analogous to a god, but I would argue that Jerome is a better fit—after all, it is not God that librarians dream of, but Jerome, and if this longing for the Perfect Library sometimes takes the form of idolatry, so be it. We’re told that “there are still vestiges of the sect that worshipped that distant librarian. Many have gone in search of Him. For a hundred years, men beat every possible path—and every path in vain.” And finally, the narrator confesses that he, too, has long searched for the Book-Man: “It is in ventures such as these that I have squandered and spent my years. I cannot think it unlikely that there is such a total book on some shelf in the universe. I pray to the unknown gods that some man—even a single man, tens of centuries ago—has perused and read that book. If the honor and wisdom and joy of such a reading are not to be my own, then let them be for others. Let heaven exist, though my own place be in hell. Let me be tortured and battered and annihilated, but let there be one instant, one creature, wherein thy enormous Library may find its justification.”

Searching himself for the Book-Man, he is not Jerome, sure in the perfection of his work and in the smug knowledge of a library that is so perfect it needs not our bodies nor our bones. He is instead Blaesilla, willing to pledge himself on faith, and willing to annihilate himself in subservience to the dream of a perfect librarian, and the secrets he may hold.


December 8th, 2009 · 9:23 am  →  the blog

One of the things I wish I had known more about when writing the book was the connection between phrenology and mesmerism/animal magnetism. Particularly in the 1840’s, as Sir Thomas Browne’s head was being stolen, the long-standing interest in mesmerism was put to new uses with phrenology. Magazines like The Zoist and The Phreno-Magnet, along with James Braid’s book Neurypnology, reported instances in which phrenological “truths” could be proven through the use of mesmerism. Here’s one such example from Neurypnology, which I found in Frank Podmore’s Mediums of the 19th Century:

A gentleman who had been present at a previous demonstration “ was so much astonished and gratified with what he had seen that he begged I would try one of his daughters. I hypnotized the eldest, and all the manifestations came out quite decidedly as in her cousin. Under “adhesiveness” and “friendship” she clasped me, and on stimulating the organ of “combativeness” on the opposite side of the head, with the arm of that side she struck two gentlemen (whom she imagined were about to attack me) in such a manner as nearly laid one on the floor, whilst with the other arm she held me in the most friendly manner. Under “benevolence” she seemed quite overwhelmed with compassion; “acquisitiveness,” stole greedily all she could lay her hands on, which was retained whlist I excited many other manifestations; but the moment my fingers touched “conscientiousness,” she threw all she had stolen on the floor, as if horror-stricken, and burst into a flood of tears. On being asked, “Why do you cry?” she said, with the utmost agony, “I have done what was wrong, I have done what was wrong.” I now excited “imitation” and “ideality,” and had her laughing and dancing in an instant. On exciting “form” and “ideality,” she seemed alarmed, and when asked what she saw, she answered “The D—l.” “What colour is he?” “Black.” On pressing the eyebrow and repeating the question, the answer was “red,” and the whole body instantly became rigid, and the face the most complete picture of horror which could be imagined. “Destructiveness,” which is largely developed, being touched, she struck her father such a blow on the chest as nearly laid him on the floor. Had I not endeavoured to restrain her, he must have sustained serious injury. Having now excited “veneration,” “hope,” “ideality,” and “language,” we had the most striking example of extreme ecstasy, and on being aroused she was quite conscious of all that had happened, excepting that she had heard music, and had been dancing. Her “philo-progenitiveness” was admirable.

In Search of Walton Felch

December 1st, 2009 · 10:26 pm  →  the blog

Shortly after my interview in the Boston Globe, I was contacted by Dr. Sue Lester, a descendent of the Massachusetts phrenologist Walton Felch (1790-1892), inquiring whether or not I knew what had happened to the two skulls he once possessed. Through a series of emails and some research, Dr. Lester and I have been reconstructing the history of Walton Felch—grammarian, cotton mill superviser, poet, phrenologist, and skull-thief.

Felch began his career as the superintendent at some of the earliest cotton mills; he was, according to his son Hiram, the master machinist at the Slatersville Mill in Rhode Island—which, at the time it opened in 1807, was the largest and most modern textile mill in the country. Felch would later incorporate these experiences into his poem, The Manufacturer’s Pocket-Piece; or the Cotton Mill Moralized. As the subtitle of this modest epic suggests, Felch saw the cotton mill as an allegory that could be used for moral instruction. In this he was not alone; the factory was becoming a major site for utopian longings in the early days of the industrial revolution. In Scotland the entrepreneur Robert Owen had turned his factory in New Lanark into a utopian community founded on socialist principles, and in New England the mill of Francis Cabot Lowell became a model of efficient and benevolent industrialism. Pilgrims came from all over to see and study Lowell’s factory; one such reformer, Henry Colman, reported that the “moral spectacle here presented is in itself beautiful and sublime.” In the cotton mill, “each part retains its place, performs its duty,” working in perfect harmony, acting as something of a model for human civilization at large.

Walton Felch saw similar utopian possibilities in the cotton mill. In his book Civilizing the Machine: Technology and Republican Values in America, 1776-1900, John F. Kasson writes that the “discipline of the factory, Felch suggested, might provide just the salutary influence to keep republican spirits from running to excess. He chose a cotton mill as an illustration and carefully traced the moral lessons of control taught by each of the various elements; then Felch solemnly gestured to the whole and instructed his countrymen:

Remark the moral order reigning here,
How every part observes its destined sphere;
Or, if disorder enter the machine.
A sweeping discord interrupts the scene!
Learn hence, whatever line of life you trace,
In pious awe your proper sphere to grace.”

The factory, Kasson writes, had become the symbol of a new kind of order, and a new kind of America, in which each had his/her appointed place, did one job to perfection, and thus became a cog in a larger machine. Fasson concludes that what “Colman and Felch described was essentially an industrial version of the Puritan doctrine of the calling, by which each person pursued his appointed vocation in the place which God had ordained. Factory discipline would provide social discipline as well.”

This early work in the cotton mill set the tone for Felch, who ardently believed in reform, and believed it could be attained through rational thought, an objective outlook, and a progressive bent. In 1841 he published his treatise on grammar, in which he argued that the “prevailing system of grammar, which in substance we have received from the ancients, will be found, upon careful inspection, to be radically defective and erroneous;—how defective and erroneous, no one is prepared to conceive, till he has given the subject more attention than a short essay like this article could evince.” Once again, one of his chief problems with grammar instruction is that it lacks a progressive or ethical agenda: “And in the first place, the purpose of grammar is not distinctly set forth. Indeed, it is proposed as ‘the art of speaking and writing correctly.’ Thus our grammarians would give us ‘the art’ without the science,—a heap of blind, and peradventure incongruous, rules of composition, with no principle for their basis. And it seems not to have entered their thoughts, that one may speak grammatically and yet incorrectly;—that his speech may be incorrect in point of perspicuity, meaning, fact, time, place, order, taste, manners, morals, &c.”

In his lectures on grammar, Felch often quoted the writings of Johann Spurzheim, who, with Franz Joseph Gall, invented the “science” that came to be known as phrenology. “All our learning ought to be useful, and we should obtain positive notions, instead of mere signs which convey no meaning.” It’s not surprising, then, that Felch also shared an interest in phrenology. The popular Scottish phrenologist, George Combe, had originally started in education reform, and particularly in the US phrenology was part of a massive reform movement. As I detail in my book, phrenology joined the pre-war craze of various cure-alls that claimed to heal the rifts growing in the country: “As it had in the British Isles, phrenology flourished by attaching itself to reform movements. The United States was being torn apart at the seams, the rift between North and South growing wider by the day. The division had become intractable, war was nearly a foregone conclusion, and everyone was looking for some kind of panacea to solve the nation’s woes. Transcendentalists, abolitionists, hydrotherapy advocates, antilacing societies (against corsets: “Natural waists, or no wives!”), teetotalers, and vegetarians—all lined up to promote their causes; phrenology took them all in and made them part of its grand scheme. The phrenological Fowlers published tracts from all manner of reformers and idealists in their Phrenological Journal, aggregating every movement under the banner of bump reading. In the journal’s tautological simplicity, all society’s ills could be explained through the skull.”

Felch committed his own act of grave robbing sometime between 1838 and 1844. In 1837 a monument had been erected at the battlefield of Concord, MA, commemorating the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, and marking the graves of the fallen British soldiers there. His interest piqued, Felch subsequently contacted the Concord Board of Selectmen, and, with their permission, set about acquiring the skulls of two soldiers—one with a bullet hole clean through the head—from the former battlefield graveyard. The circumstances of the actual theft remain murky, but soon thereafter Felch was using these skulls as examples in his lectures. The soldiers’ skulls, he claimed, showed both an over-developed bump of combativeness and a deficient bump of merriment—thus, Felch argued, soldiery was a natural fit for both men.

Felch continued to travel throughout New England, now with two skulls that he could use to illustrate basic phrenological principles. He also continued to lecture on mesmerism, another hobby of his, as well as hydropathy, geology, and astronomy. He was generally well received; after one of his geology talks, a reviewer noted that “we were instructed and well entertained by the Lecturer [and] we hope to be able to hear the gentleman further on this subject at future meetings.” But his life was not without controversy, and rumors followed him about his unorthodox methods. In 1847 a friend, James H. Desper, was compelled to publish an editorial in the Barre Gazette of Philadelphia, which ran:
Veto! Veto!! Veto!!!!

I, James H. Desper of Barre, having lately heard a variety of Reports apparently designed to raise a public prejudice against Dr. W. Felch, and thereby hinder him from giving proofs of the healing power of Mesmerism and Pure Water as applied by himself;—1st, that he was turned out of my house; 2nd, that he injured the health of my wife and others while boarding here; 3rd, that he has been suspected of breaking open our store, &c. &c. I hereby give notice, and my wife sets her signature with mine, that all these reports are most villainous falsehoods.

Felch died in 1892, leaving behind over 200 poems as his primary legacy. His phrenological collection fell to his widow, and shortly after his death the Worchester Historical Society came to her inquiring about the skulls. One of the Society’s members, George Hoar, described how as a boy, he had attended a lecture on phrenology in Concord, “where the lecturer exhibited a skull which he said was the skull of a soldier killed in the Concord fight.”

It was Hoar who contacted Felch’s widow, who agreed to turn over the phrenological materials for a small fee, but the Worchester Historical Society, upon examining the materials, found only one skull—the one with the bullet hole. The other was missing. Hoar spent some time searching for it, in vain, until he happened to bring up the story to Dr. Joseph N. Bates. Hoar knew that Bates was a collector of antiques, and related how, when he mentioned the missing skull to Bates, the doctor “smiled and said ‘I have got that one; I attended Mr. Felch in his last sickness and he gave it to me!’” The skull was ultimately lost, however; after Bates’ death Hoar was unable to recover the skull from the doctor’s belongings, and its fate remains unknown.

The one skull that they did have, however, was quietly repatriated to the cemetery; Hoar advised against any publicity: “I think this whole matter ought to be kept entirely private and by no means get into the newspapers as it would probably be a topic for some ridicule. My own idea is that it would be well to replace it secretly in the grave without even any ceremony of taking leave, and to make a record . . . kept private among the archives of your society.”

And so the society’s secret remained for much of the 20th century (though historian Douglas P. Sabin reported on some of this history in 1992). But while Hoar may have been a bit uncomfortable with Felch’s methods (or the Concord Board of Selectmen’s complicity), by the standards of the day none of this was particularly unusual. We tend to have a single view of American history in the nineteenth century, a well-established narrative that takes us from the Revolutionary War, through American transcendentalism and the horrors of slavery, towards the undeniable outcome of the Civil War. But while this is an important and true story of the United States’ coming of age, it’s one that was largely constructed after the fact, and s not by any means the only story to be told of that time. Walton Felch’s America is, after all, also our own.

Some Responses to the Skull Stealing Poll

September 14th, 2009 · 11:56 pm  →  the blog

Here’s just a few of the responses that have come in so far, in answer to our poll “What skull would you steal, and why?” Post your answer on Twitter (#cranio), or as a reply to this blog.

• I’m thinking if I could steal someone’s skull it might be Alice Paul. “Ms. I heard a speech and changed the world.”

• Omar Khayyam who spoke with such passion of the body’s dissolution would make a fine item of ossuary interest.

• Wm Wirt’s skull (again but not by me) as it might reveal ID of infant child bones ca 1960s found thrust & broken in his robbed tomb

• If I could steal any skull, it would be J S Bach’s, so I could experience his fugues the way he did when they 1st resounded there!

• Since nothing left of Joan of Arc, I say Nicholas II. Or Sarah Bernhardt! Or Proust! Too many choices. Also is kinda creepy.

• It would be Rob (numb) Skillingham’s cranium. He was in my class at school and had a head the size of a pumpkin.

• Well, assuming that the myth that drinking from it makes you see the future, Nostradamus’s skull would be my choice.

• Perhaps tortured Jan Potoki who rendered down a silver cross, forming a bullet, to end his worldly adventures.

• I would have to go with Shakespeare. Hamlet done with Shakespeare’s skull would be a fine performance.

• A skull to steal? Maybe Marie Antoinette b/c the hard part is done.

• I think I’d have to go with stealing da Vinci’s skull. A) He’d understand. B) My obsession goes back to when I was 11. C) Genius.

• Joseph Merrick’s (aka “Elephant Man”)

• If I were going to steal a head, my top three would be Lao Tzu, Tituba, and FDR.

• A skull to steal? Maybe Marie Antoinette b/c the hard part is done. Or David Byrne’s (AD obvs) b/c talking heads aren’t boring.

• Dante Alighieri – I don’t really want a skull, so I don’t think I’d actually steal it. I wouldn’t know do with it if I did. :)

• If I could steal a skull: Shakespeare’s from the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-upon-Avon or John Donne’s from St. Paul’s.

• To steal a skull, to have something both to tell and show, I’d take the noggin of the scribbler Edgar Allen Poe.

• Tough call, but I’d go with Emily Bronte, so I could take it outdoors on wuthering nights.

• I would dig Edgar Allan Poe’s skull so it could whisper scary stories to me at night.

Keep ‘em coming!

Also, I heard this awful, awful joke on NPR over the weekend, but it’s eerily appropriate for the book, so I thought I’d repeat it here:

Two gravediggers are digging up Beethoven’s grave in Vienna, and they’re about halfway there, when they start hearing music. After a second, they realize it’s Beethoven’s Third Symphony, only it’s backwards. They keep digging, and soon they’re hearing Beethoven’s Second Symphony, also backwards. One of the gravediggers says to the other, “What’s that noise?”, and the second says, “Oh that? That’s just Beethoven decomposing.”

I didn’t say it was funny.

Which Skull Would You Steal?

September 9th, 2009 · 11:22 am  →  the blog

Starting today, Unbridled Books is asking people which skull they’d steal and why, and so I’ve been thinking about which skull I’d most want to steal if given the chance. Especially as Halloween approaches, it seems a ghoulish enough exercise in thought (only a few hours in, and already people are posting their ideas: you can search #cranioklepty on twitter to see some of the suggestions).

Since I’m teaching myself phrenology in my off hours (more on that later), I suppose there are some skulls that I might find beneficial for learning more about this particular “science”. Many of the thefts I discuss in the book have to do with music, and certainly the search for a “music bump,” that would explain musical genius, was of paramount importance in the early nineteenth century. But being more of a writer than a musician, I’d probably start by looking for the “writing bump,” which, I’m guessing, would probably be located somewhere around the eyes. So maybe the skull of Virginia Woolf might have been a good place to start—except that she was cremated, and her ashes scattered in her garden, so that’s going to be a hard one. So, then, St. Peter’s cemetery in Oxford, Mississippi, where Faulkner (un-cremated) is buried.

But I’m also curious about Descartes’ skull, primarily for its texture—while I’m not a fan of Descartes, I’m fascinated by the fact that his head is now brown and shiny, almost the texture of an old football helmet—this from centuries of being handled and exposed to the elements. From what I hear, though, the Musee de l’Homme is now closed, so Rene’s head is buried somewhere in some archive somewhere, which might make a retrieval that much more difficult.

But maybe that’s part of the fun! For me, it’s not just which skull you’d want to end up with; there’s also the thrill of the actual theft itself. Joseph Carl Rosenbaum’s theft of Franz Haydn’s skull first grabbed my interest because of the extreme, almost cinematic way in which Rosenbaum stole it. Napoleon had just invaded Vienna (again), and the city had been abandoned to the marauding army. With war and chaos all around, Rosenbaum executed a dastardly robbery involving bribery, late-night rendezvous, near misses and dangerous escapes—like something more out of Hollywood, “Ocean’s Eleven” maybe, then out of nineteenth century history.

So as I thought about it, the decision I finally came to is that the skull that I’d most like to steal—or, as it turns out, re-steal—would be Geronimo’s. Or, whomever’s skull happens to be in the lobby of Yale’s Skull and Bones Society (they call it Geronimo, though when his heirs sought its return for reburial, they quickly changed their tune). The altruistic side of me would love to be able to return it to Geronimo’s heirs, so they can a) finally identify whether or not it is indeed Geronimo’s, and b) put it finally to rest. But I think pulling off such a heist would be a total hoot: breaking into a secret society, stealing one of their most prized artifacts and making off with it.

(Also, what would be the legal ramifications of such a theft? Would they be able to prosecute me? Have to ask a lawyer on that one….)

Some Yoricks

June 8th, 2009 · 3:39 am  →  the blog
Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

NPR and others reported last week on the recent staging of “Hamlet” with Jude Law in the title role; Law, ever the Stansilavsky man, requested use of a real skull for the Yorick scene.  As NPR explained:

Actor Jude Law is appearing in London’s West End as Hamlet, using a real human skull instead of a fake one. The production bought the skull for $400 from a dealer in Salt Lake City. Barry Edelstein, director of The Public Theater Shakespeare Initiative, says this is not the first time a real skull has been used in a production of the Shakespeare play. “Some actors want to go for authenticity at all costs, and if that means having a real human skull in their hands when they are speaking to Yorick, they’re going to do what they can to make that happen,” he tells NPR’s Melissa Block. Edelstein says that sometimes having a real skull can make a real difference to the actor. “It’s very much like an actor in a film who’s going to play a policeman, saying, you know, ‘I want to ride around with some cops on the streets of New York for a couple of nights,’” he says. But, Edelstein says, Shakespeare wanted the skull in Hamlet to be handled roughly, and Edelstein says he wouldn’t want his own cranium to be knocked around for all eternity. Still, that doesn’t prevent people from donating their skulls to theater companies. The main donors: actors, Edelstein says. “Theater people can be odd sometimes,” he says.

Is it really the same as riding around with a cop for a few nights?  When I was writing the skull book, a couple of people offered to get me a real skull for contemplation purposes (thanks, mom), but I declined.  It’s not that I’m unnerved by the presence of a real head, but it implies a level of responsibility that I wasn’t yet ready to accept.

Anyway, Law’s experience with the anonymous Salt Lake City skull calls to mind various other uses of real heads for the Yorick prop, including this rather famous story, which appeared last year in the Daily Telegraph:

When André Tchaíkowsky died of cancer in 1982 aged 46 he donated his body for medical science. But he added the proviso that his skull “shall be offered by the institution receiving my body to the Royal Shakespeare Company for use in theatrical performance.” Since then it has only been used in rehearsals because no actor felt comfortable enough using it on stage in front of an audience. David Howells, curator of the RSC’s archives, said: “In 1989 the actor Mark Rylance rehearsed with it for quite a while but he couldn’t get past the fact it wasn’t Yorick’s, it was André Tchaíkowsky’s.” Now, unbeknown to the paying public, Dr Who actor Tennant has used the skull in 22 performances of Hamlet in Stratford-upon-Avon. Director Greg Doran explained why he didn’t want anyone to know. He said: “I thought it would topple the play and it would be all about David acting with a real skull.” Polish-born Tchaíkowsky was smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto in 1942 to the city of Lodz, before settling in Paris and later England. He lived in Oxford for a time and loved going to the theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The skull will now travel with the Hamlet production to the Novello Theatre in London.

Interestingly, Doran’s comments turn out to foreshadow the story of the Law production: the news stories about this most recent performance (see also this one in The New Yorker) are not about the production, but about are (to paraphrase Doran) “all about Jude Law acting with a real skull.”

Of course, it also depends on whether or not the identity of the skull is known; Mark Rylance couldn’t get past the fact that he knew his prop’s identity—Tchaikowsky—whereas Law’s skull is nameless, anonymous.  Why wouldn’t Law (or anyone else) have similar compunctions? Whomever’s skull it is, it’s not Yorick’s.