To Seek Out New Worlds

03 07 kepler spacecraftOn this day in 2009, NASA launched its Kepler space observatory. Its purpose is to identify earth like planets orbiting other stars. It is focused on the Milky Way where there are billions of stars. Its only instrument is a photometer which continually measures the brightness of 145,000 stars. If any of the stars it is looking at dim periodically, that might indicate that there is a planet passing in front of it. So far, it has identified 1039 planets.

As I have been thinking about space travel today and, as I casually mentioned yesterday a seventeenth century bishop who wrote a story about flying to the moon with some swans, I thought I’d take a closer look at that today, along with another story that I didn’t get chance to mention, which heavily influenced Cyrano de Bergerac‘s ‘Other Worlds’. It is ‘True History’ written by Lucian of Samosata some time in the second century.

Francis Godwin was born in 1562 and became Bishop of Hereford. His father was the bishop of Bath and Wells. Both of his grandfathers were bishops. His ‘The Man in the Moone, or a Discourse of a Voyage Thither’ was published posthumously under an assumed name in 1638. He may have written it in about 1620. It is about a man called Domingo Gonsales, the book’s supposed author. Domingo has made a fortune in the East Indies but has to flee because he killed someone in a duel. He leaves for his native Spain along with his servant Diego. Ill health forces him to stop at St Helena. There he finds a new variety of swan he calls a ‘gansa’ that he discovers can carry substantial weights. 03 07 the man in the mooneEventually he harnesses some of them together so they can carry the weight of a man and flies around the island. Then, he decides to use the swans to fly him home. Nearing Tenerife he is attacked by British ships and forced to land. Finding the natives hostile, he takes off again. The swans carry him higher and higher. On the first day he meets demons and wicked spirits who give him a package of food for his journey. They promise to see him safely back to Spain if he promises to join them and serve a master who they will not name. He refuses.

Instead, the gansas carry him higher and higher, for twelve days, until he reaches the Moon. Suddenly, he feels hungry and opens his package to find that it contains dry leaves, goat’s hair and animal dung. There is also wine that he says smells like horse piss. He finds that the people who live on the moon are tall Christian people who live in a kind of paradise. He finds out that they maintain their Utopian existence by swapping any delinquent children for children from Earth. Here, he cites an example, the Green Children of Woolpit.

This is a very odd story dating from the twelfth century about two children who suddenly appeared near the village of Woolpit in Suffolk. They spoke an unknown language, their clothing was unfamiliar, their skin was green, and they would eat only beans. When they adapted to a normal diet, they lost their green colour. The boy died but the girl survived to adulthood. They couldn’t say how they arrived, only that they had been tending their father’s cattle, there had been a loud noise and suddenly they found themselves in a strange place. There is only one other writer we know of from this time who mentions the story and suggests that they may have come from an extra-terrestrial world. It is Robert Burton in his ‘Anatomy of Melancholy‘. This is an interesting piece of information for me as, over the last year, the Anatomy of Melancholy has become one of my favourite books that I’ve never read. But I digress.

After six months of living on the moon, and learning their strange musical language, three of Domingo’s gansas have died and he becomes concerned he will never get back to earth. He sets off for home, but before he leaves, the King of the Moon gives him a gift of three sorts of stones. Poleastis, which can store and generate great quantities of heat, Macbrus, which generates great quantities of light and Ebelus. Holding one side of this stone to you, renders you weightless, touching the other side makes you half as heavy again.

He uses his Ebelus to make himself lighter so that the journey back to Earth is easier for his remaining gansas. He lands in China where he is arrested as a magician. It takes him ages to learn Mandarin so he can explain himself. Eventually he makes contact with some Jesuits who write down his story and promise to send it to Spain. The book ends with him hoping that his adventures will make him famous.

The second century tale written by Lucian of Samosata was intended to be a parody against contemporary and ancient sources which quote obvious myths and legends as if they had really happened. So its title ‘True History’ is a joke. In the story, Lucien and some adventuring heroes sail west beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Straits of Gibraltar) and come to an island with rivers of wine filled with fish and bears. They also find marks indicating that Heracles and Dionysus have passed that way. On leaving the island they are 03 07 bearsley's space spidersswept up by a whirlwind and, after seven days, deposited on the moon. There, they find a huge war between the king of the Moon and the king of the Sun over who should colonise the Morning Star (Venus). There is a fantastical description of the two armies which includes men who wear long gowns that they use like sails to fly around, dog-faced men riding winged acorns and giant spiders. The armies of the sun are victorious when they build a wall that eclipses the moon. Lucian tells us that there are no women on the moon but that children grow inside the calves of men. This sounds like a weird idea, but it’s one I’m probably going to mention again at Bacchanalia next week.

After returning to Earth, they become trapped inside a 200 mile long whale. There are some amazing things inside the whale; among them, a little garden a lake and a temple dedicated to Neptune. There are also a thousand people who they go to war with. Then they discover a sea of milk and an island of cheese. After that, they sail to the Island of the Blessed. There, they meet the heroes of the Trojan War and Herodotus who is being eternally punished for all the lies he wrote in his own ‘Histories’. Herodotus was responsible for some of the more outlandish beliefs of Pliny the Elder and which persisted into medieval times, such as the belief in a race of dog-headed people. Lucian tells us that he is glad he will never suffer such a fate as he has never told a lie in his life.

Lucian then discovers a chasm in the ocean, which they manage to sail around and he ends his story as they discover a new continent and begin to explore it. It ends with the promise of more to come. No one now has any idea if there ever was more.

Anatomy of Melancholy

02 08 robert burtonToday is the birthday of Robert Burton, who was born at Lindley in Leicestershire in 1577. In 1621, he published a very long and very strange book called ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’. In it, he addresses the subject of melancholy; the causes of it and what he thinks we should do about it. Burton was himself, a sufferer from melancholy, what we would now call depression, and he tells us that: “I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.”

Burton studied at Oxford University and spent the greater part of his life there both working in the library and as the vicar of a local church. He was a voracious reader and his book is packed with references and quotes from works ranging from the classical literature of Greece and Rome, through the medieval period to the renaissance and up to, what were for him, the works of modern writers. In fact, using his subject of melancholy, he looks at all human emotion and thought and includes citations from just about every book available to a learned man in the seventeenth century. The Anatomy of Melancholy is a medical manual, it’s an encyclopaedia, it’s a mine of clever quotations, it’s a self-help book, it’s a mess. But lots of people love it. His first edition ran to nine hundred pages, but he revised it five times during his life and his last version, published shortly after his death, was two thousand pages. A lot of seventeenth century texts are a bit all over the place, but Burton’s book is a particularly fine example. It’s almost impossible to read from cover to cover, but it’s lovely to dip in and out of. The index is a joy in itself. A quick look will tell you that he has written about aerial devils, beef – a melancholy meat, why poets are poor and the urine of melancholy people.

Burton believed in the humoral system of medical diagnosis which had been outlined by Hippocrates, expanded on by Galen and had basically been around for about two thousand years. Here is how it works: the four humors; phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile are four liquids which flow around the body. Ideally, they are in perfect balance, but that is rarely the case. An excess of one or another leads to different personality traits. Phlegm, which is governed by water, makes a person ‘phlegmatic’ which is calm, thoughtful, patient and peaceful. Blood is governed by air, it makes people ‘sanguine’, they are courageous, hopeful, playful and carefree. Yellow bile is governed by fire and causes a person to become ambitious, leader-like, restless and quick to anger. Black bile is governed by earth and makes a person despondent, quiet, analytical and serious. If any of these humors are badly out of balance, they can cause disease, the symptoms can be both physical and psychological. Too much black bile is a cause of melancholia. In fact, the word comes from the Greek: melaina (black) and kholé (bile).

People believed that the quantity of these humors were affected by the food you ate, how much exercise you got, how much you slept, even the sort of air you were breathing. Treatments for symptoms were tailored according to the patient’s humoral temperament. There is no such thing as black bile, and they meant something completely different by the word phlegm from the way we understand it, but it was a system that had it’s good points. It meant that physical diseases could also have symptoms that were psychological and vice versa. So for Robert Burton, a psychosomatic illness was every bit as real as one with a physical cause. He knew that melancholia was a real illness and that telling a depressed person to cheer up was every bit as useless as telling an injured person to stop hurting or someone with a fever to stop being so hot.

02 08 sir philip sydneyMelancholy was actually quite a fashionable thing to suffer from in the seventeenth century. Here’s why: Back in Ancient Greece someone, possibly Aristotle, mused about why it was that all the greatest artists, poets and philosophers were predisposed to melancholy. During the renaissance people rather took up this idea and ran with it. A melancholic disposition became a sign of a great artist or a sensitive soul. People started to have pictures painted of themselves mooning about under trees, perhaps wearing black. It became something that was considered attractive and generally associated with genius. (It is a look that hasn’t really gone away, take the photograph of Oscar Wilde taken some time in the 1880s.)

02 08 oscar wilde 2So Burton’s book was really rather popular. He does warn though, that although it might seem attractive at first, too much melancholia can lead to serious problems and you should really try to do something about it. Writing helped him with his melancholia, as did reading, but he was aware that reading is a solitary occupation that can lead to melancholia. Particularly, he cites too much learning as a source of sorrow, which is rather sad but probably true. In certain passages he will warn his reader that if they are suffering from a certain type of melancholia, they might not want to read the next bit. Or he says that if what they are reading is making them feel sad, the next bit might cheer them up a bit. Goodness, comic interludes and trigger warnings from the seventeenth century, I really like Robert Burton.

Lots of other people have enjoyed his book too. Some because they recognised the symptoms in themselves, Some have read it to find impressive quotes in Latin to make themselves look clever. The Anatomy of Melancholy was a favourite of dictionary compiler Samuel Johnson. Samuel suffered from bouts of depression and said the Burton’s book was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise. Laurence Sterne borrowed his sprawling style with its extensive use of footnotes for his novel ‘Tristram Shandy’. He was rather making fun of Burton, but he also lifted a large section of text directly from The Anatomy, for which he got into trouble. The poet Keats loved the book and it was an inspiration for some of his poetry. Byron mined it for quotes to impress women with. His book has been also much admired by Samuel Beckett, Philip Pullman and Nick Cave.02 08 the anatomy of melancholy

It’s worth seeking out The Anatomy of Melancholy, even just for a glance through the index. His suggested cures are not really recommended. Most of his cures for sleeplessness involve opium, but he also suggests horse leeches behind the ears or smearing your teeth with earwax from a dog. He does describe the way people are often kept awake by worries in a rather lovely way though. He says it is called ‘being led around the heath by Puck’, which makes it sound a lot more fun than it actually is. Often he recommends just going along with whatever the patient says and just telling them that they can be easily cured. He has a story about a king who believed that his head had been cut off. He was cured by being given a leaden cap to wear, so that he could really feel it weighing on his shoulders. While having your head cut off is not really a fear many of us can relate to, for a king in days gone by, it could have been a very real worry. The way people’s symptoms manifested is both very different from our own but at the same time sometimes oddly familiar. Burton also describes ‘The Glass Delusion’, a surprisingly common belief that the patient was made from glass and might easily shatter. I wrote about this elsewhere back in the summer. If you think of it as a way a person suffering from anxiety might describe their feelings it’s completely understandable.

A Cock and a Bull Story

11 24 laurence sterneToday I am celebrating the birthday of Laurence Sterne, author of the novel ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’. He was born in 1713, in County Tipperary in Ireland whilst his father was stationed there as a soldier. His family were from Yorkshire and, after being ordained, he became vicar of Sutton-on-the-Forest, a little north of York, in 1738.

Then, in 1759, after his dean became involved in some sort of squabble within the church, Sterne wrote a book about the event in support of his friend. It is called ‘A Political Romance’ and was later partially republished under the title ‘The History of a Good Warm Watch Coat.’ Without having read it, it seems to have taken a petty provincial squabble and made it funny by elevating it into something far more epic. The Church was pretty embarrassed about it. The book was burned. Sterne had wrecked his chances of ever making any career advances within the Church, but he had found his true calling, At the age of 46, he realised what he really wanted to be was a writer.

That same year, he wrote and published the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy. There are nine volumes all together, published between 1759 and 1767. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, is supposedly a life story of the central character. It is narrated by Tristram himself, but he keeps getting distracted and leaving his story, making such huge diversions that he isn’t actually born until volume three. Consequently, we actually learn very little about Tristram’s life, but we learn plenty of other things. He tells us about the domestic upsets and misunderstandings in his family whilst all the time breaking off to write huge discourses on sexual practices and insults, on obstetrics and siege warfare. It is a sort of early form of the ‘stream of consciousness’ novel that would later influence the work of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

Of Tristram’s life, we learn about his ill-fated beginnings, when his mother asked his father, at the moment of their son’s conception, whether he had forgotten to wind the clock. We hear how his nose was crushed by the forceps of Dr Slop. This was a terrible thing mainly because his father believed, if a man were to make anything of his life, he must have a large and attractive nose. Tristram tells us how he came to have the name Tristram, even though his father thought it was the unluckiest name in the world, instead of the auspicious name he was meant to have; which was Tristmegistus. We also find out about how he was accidentally circumcised when he was small by a falling sash window that he was weeing out of.

11 24 black pageSterne’s first two volumes were published at his own expense, it’s an unusual book and quite bawdy. It’s not at all what people expected from a novel. It does not progress in a linear way from one event to the next. Not all the pages have text on them. For example, when his favourite character, Parson Yorick, dies in book one, he inserts a completely black page to represent that. There are also blank pages to represent where part of the narrative has been torn out and another blank page for the reader to fill in their own description of Widow Wadman’s beauty. In the first edition he also included a marbled page which represents the chaotic nature of his narrative. Marbling was pretty new in England at the time. Each one was made by hand, so each copy of the book had a unique pattern in it. In volume six there are graphs with great looping lines that are meant to represent the progress of the narrative. His book was hugely popular, it turned out people really liked this bawdy and strange book. When he went to London the following year, 1760, he was gratified to find he was quite famous. Not everyone was impressed though. Dr Johnson didn’t like it at all, and remarked: “Nothing odd will do long, Tristram Shandy did not last.”

11 24 plot linesSterne was very well read and drew his influences from all over the place. He was massively interested in the philosophical ideas of John Locke and the essays of Montaigne and well as the writing of Rabelais and Cervantes. Tristram’s father’s feelings about the nose come straight from Rabelais and the character of Uncle Toby, who is obsessed by battle re-enactments is not dissimilar to Don Quixote. It was not until years after his death that people started to notice that he had lifted ideas and sometimes whole passages from other works and rearranged them to give them new meaning in the context of Tristram Shandy. One of his sources was Robert Burton’s ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’, which is another huge, sprawling work which is full of digressions and difficult to negotiate. It isn’t a work of fiction though, it’s all about what makes people sad and what we should probably do about it. Sterne parodies Burton’s use of weighty quotations to support his ideas and some of his odd chapter titles are drawn from the quaint categories in Burton’s book.

The ninth and final volume ends with a story about a bull belonging to Tristram’s father. The bull is expected to service all the cows in the neighbourhood and the discussion is about whether he is equal to the task. Tristram’s mother asks what their story is all about. This is the final sentence: “A Cock and a Bull, said Yorick – And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard.” This could apply to the story about the bull, but equally, as ‘a cock and bull story’ means a fanciful and unbelievable tale, it could equally apply to the entire novel. The phrase ‘cock and bull’ in reference to a story first appears in English in Burton’s ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’: “Some mens whole delight is to talk of a Cock and Bull over a pot.”

Whilst Sterne was no fan of being overly serious about things, I don’t want to present him as entirely frivolous. In 1776, at the height of the debate about slavery, a former slave, Ignatius Sancho wrote to Sterne asking for his support. Here his reply:

“There is a strange coincidence, Sancho, in the little events (as well as in the great ones) of this world: for I had been writing a tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro-girl, and my eyes had scarce done smarting with it, when your letter of recommendation in behalf of so many of her brethren and sisters, came to me — but why her brethren? — or yours, Sancho! any more than mine? It is by the finest tints, and most insensible gradations, that nature descends from the fairest face about St James’s, to the sootiest complexion in Africa: at which tint of these, is it, that the ties of blood are to cease? and how many shades must we descend lower still in the scale, ere mercy is to vanish with them? — but ’tis no uncommon thing, my good Sancho, for one half of the world to use the other half of it like brutes, & then endeavor to make ’em so.”

New York Stories

09 11 william sydney porterToday is the birthday of William Sydney Porter, better known as the short story writer O. Henry. He wrote hundreds of short stories that are full of humour, wonderful characters and surprise endings. He was most prolific in the last few years of his life when he was living and writing in New York City.

Porter was born in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1862. His mother died when he was just three years old and he and his father moved to his grandmother’s house. He was raised and educated by his aunt who ran a school. William was a great devourer of literature and read everything he could lay his hands on from the classics to dime store novels. His favourites were One Thousand and One Nights and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, a vast and sprawling seventeenth century work about depression that covers a wide range of topics including digestion, wolves and goblins. An odd book for a child but probably it belonged to his father, who was a physician.

At fifteen, Porter began to work at his uncle’s drugstore and later trained as a pharmacist. He was troubled by a persistent cough and, hoping that a change of air would cure him, he moved to Texas three years later. Here he had several jobs and eventually became a bank teller at First National Bank. He had a great social life there, joining theatre and musical groups. He also met and married his first wife, Athol Estes, and began to write in his spare time. He lost his job at the bank when he was accused of embezzlement, which was likely the result of careless bookkeeping rather than any malicious intent.

In 1894 he began to publish his own weekly magazine called The Rolling Stone. It featured some of his short stories. The magazine folded the following year, but not before it had caught the attention of the Houston Post. Porter wrote a column for them which became very popular. His ideas came from hanging around in hotel lobbies just talking to the people there. Then, in 1896 the federal auditors found out about his embezzlement problems at the bank and he was arrested. His father-in-law posted bail for him but on the day of his trial, instead of going to the courthouse, he fled to New Orleans and then to Honduras. It was there that he wrote his first book Cabbages and Kings, a series of short stories about the characters of a sleepy American town. He also made friends with a bank robber. After six months he heard that his wife was ill and returned to Houston and handed himself in. His wife died and he was sentenced to five years in prison. There, his training in Pharmacy gained him work as a night druggist in the prison hospital. This left him plenty of time for writing. He forwarded his stories to a friend in New Orleans and had fourteen of them published under various pseudonyms of which O. Henry became the best known. His publishers never knew that their author was in prison.

He was released in 1901 and in 1902 he moved to New York to be near his publishers. This was the beginning of his most prolific writing period. He wrote 381 short stories. He wrote a story a week for over a year for the New York World on Sunday Magazine. People loved his beautifully drawn characters, his humour and his plot twists. His most well known story is probably The Gift of the Magi. It is about a poor young couple who can’t afford to buy each other Christmas presents. The woman sells her beautiful hair to buy her husband a chain for his watch, but he has sold his watch to buy combs for her hair. I’ve only had time to read a few of them. There is one called The Love-Philtre of Ikey Schoenstein about a shy all-night chemist who is enamoured of his landlord’s daughter. He has a rival for her affections to whom sells a love potion but things don’t turn out as he had hoped. Also there is a story narrated by a dog, called Memoirs of a Yellow Dog, who describes his appearance as a cross between an Angora cat and a box of lemons. Which is lovely.

Porter drew on his own experiences as well as what he learned from the people he met. He was obviously just terribly interested in people. Both of the last two stories come from a collection published as The Four Million which was published in 1906. It is a series of tales about the ordinary citizens of New York. They give an excellent picture of life at the turn of the century in the city which cuts across all social classes. He gave the book this title in response to a remark by Ward McAllister, a terrible snob, who asserted that there were only four hundred people in New York who were really worth knowing. William Porter knew that every single person in the city was worth knowing and had their story to tell.


08 26 princess alexandra of bavaria.Today I want to tell you about Princess Alexandra Amelie of Bavaria who was born on this day in 1826. When Alexandra was in her twenties, she wasn’t having an easy time. She was the only one of eight surviving siblings who remained unmarried and lived a rather isolated existence. She was already displaying some symptoms of anxiety. She was obsessed with cleanliness and always wore white. Then her father, King Ludwig I, had a very public affair with Maria Gilbert, an Irish actress who performed as a Spanish dancer under the name of Lola Montez. He wasn’t a very popular king and his people really hated Lola. She was not at all regal and was rude to the queen. For these reasons he was deposed in 1848 when Alexandra was 22. Shortly afterwards her parents noticed that she was walking sideways along the palace corridors and obviously with some difficulty. They asked her what was wrong. She told them that when she was small she had swallowed a grand piano made of glass and that it was still inside her. Poor Alexandra, she was walking that way because she was afraid the glass piano inside her would break if she knocked into anything. It seems like a really odd delusion to have, but her already nervous disposition, her isolation and her father’s situation which she was powerless to do anything about must have made her feel very fragile indeed. It’s interesting that she chose a piano. Something hidden inside her that could have made beautiful music but she had felt unable to allow it to play. She did receive treatment and was eventually well enough to become a writer and to produce plays for children so perhaps she did find her voice in the  end.

Although the belief that a part of your body is made of something very fragile was not terribly common, there are other cases cited as far back as the 15th century and right up until the 19th century. It even has a name, The Glass Delusion. It is mentioned in Robert Burton’s 1621 publication, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Sufferers would avoid contact with others because they were afraid that they would shatter. It seems to be the way that symptoms of anxiety manifested themselves. The condition was most often associated with people who lived an isolated existence. It was thought of as a symptom of what was called melancholia. Sometimes people would think that a part of their body was made of glass or that they were turning into a glass object such as a bottle or a lamp.

King Charles VI of France believed that his entire body was made of glass and wore special clothing that was re-enforced with metal ribs to protect him. Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, wrote a short story called The Glass Graduate about a man who suffered from the delusion. It was a condition often treated by shocking the patient into realizing that they would not break. One man who slept in straw had his bed set on fire, another who believed that his buttocks were made of glass was beaten on the bottom until he understood that he would not break. A rather brutal treatment, it probably led to the person replacing this delusion with another one. Luckily we have now found kinder ways of helping people.