Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Lincoln's Brain: Suddenly the bullet dropped out

I first encountered Sarah Vowell through the Daily Show and then in The Incredibles. Finally picked up a copy of Assassination Vacation the other day. Was going to read only the first 20 pages or so and was 51 pages into it before I stopped to make note of the extraordinary passage quoted below.

The above video is an excerpt from a longer talk she gave to promote her book The Wordy Shipmates. She has a rare ability to add humor and charm to subject matter that is usually devoid of both. In the clip, she is discussing the differences between the Geneva Bible and the King James Bible, illustrating this with an anecdote from her youth about how she would put on a puppet show "about how people of faith needed to stand up to wrong-headed kings."

Assassination Vacation is about her pilgrimage around the US to various museums, prisons and historical homes having something to do with presidential assassinations - specifically, those of Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. The passage below is about Lincoln's brain:

Curtis and Woodward were examining Lincoln's head, looking for the bullet, this bullet now in this museum. Curtis wrote, "Not finding it readily, we proceeded to remove the enture brain."

Think about that. I know I have. For the first few days after I read that, every time I took a five-dollar bill out of my wallet I looked at the engraving of Lincoln's head and couldn't get the image of his detached brain out of my head. Curtis goes on to write that as he was lifting the brain out of the skill, "suddenly the bullet dropped out through my fingers and fell, breaking the solemn silence of the room with its clatter, into an empty basin that was standing beneath." Listen. That room was so quiet. Of course it was. When the bullet dropped in such a quiet room, it must have been almost as jarring as the original gunshot. In less steady hands, the brain could have fumbled to the floor. Curtis stares at that bullet:

"There it lay upon the white china, a little black mass no bigger than the end of my finger - dull, motionless and harmless, yet the cause of such mighty changes in the world's history as we may perhaps never realize.... Silently, in one corner of the room, I prepared the brain for weighing. As I looked at the mass of soft gray and white substance that I was carefully washing, it was impossible to realize that it was that mere clay upon whose workings, but the day before, rested the hopes of the nation. I felt more profoundly impressed than ever with the mystery of that unknown something which may be named "vital spark" as well as anything else, whose absence or presence make all the immeasurable difference between an inert mass of matter owing obedience to no laws but those covering the physical and chemical forces of the universe, and on the other hand, a living brain by whose silent, subtle machinery a world may be ruled. The weighing of the brain... gave approximate results only, since there had been some loss of brain substance, in consequence of the wound, during the hours of life after the shooting. But the figures, as they were, seemed to show that the brain weight was not above the ordinary for a man of Lincoln's size. "

Monday, June 28, 2010

Colin Wilson: Hoping to talk to TS Eliot and ended up meeting Marilyn Monroe

Just discovered this excellent post about the rise and fall of Colin Wilson at Another Nickle in the Machine. I have heard most of the story before but what is entirely new are the photographs and secondary material. Nice.

From Another Nickle in the Machine:

A gossip columnist buttonholed Wilson before he left the party and asked what he was doing there. Wilson said that he had spent the evening hoping to talk to TS Eliot and ended up meeting Marilyn Monroe.

The next morning the columnist duly wrote about the young author meeting Marilyn at the premiere adding that Wilson, while there, had been asked to write a play for Olivier.

It was publicity like this that made his supporters question whether he really was a serious writer. The New York Times had written about his almost over-night ascendancy -- “he walked into literature like a man walks into his own house”.

If it’s easy to walk into your own house, it’s presumably just as easy to walk out, and Wilson’s fall from grace was almost as quick as his initial success. The tabloid backlash began in December 1956 when a story in the Sunday Pictorial informed the public that Wilson had a wife and a five year old son but was living with a mistress -- his girlfriend Joy -- in Notting Hill. Indeed, one of the reasons he lived rough on Hampstead Heath, while he was writing his acclaimed first book, was to avoid paying maintenance to his estranged wife.

Via The Hound Blog

Lemmings and the Alienation of Mass Culture: Life quickly leaves them, and they die from the slightest injury....

A week or so ago, as I was walking past Michael's Books, I stopped to check out the boxes of free books that they always leave outside. My attention was caught by the title of a tattered paperback, Man Alone: Alienation in Modern Society. Of course, I had to pick it up.

One of the more influential books in my life was The Outsider by Colin Wilson, published in 1956. Strange things in the air from around 1955 to 1965. The issue of the "alienation of modern man" had a surprising relevance for popular culture: that there was a seething subculture disconnected from society; that the psychological effects of two world wars and the atomic bomb had undermined traditional values; that there was a "crisis" that must be attended to. The existential was cool. The world was burned-out, beat, whimpering in whispers. Something had to be done. Urgently. Unflinchingly.

The cover copy of Man Alone:

From Karl Marx to James Baldwin, from Dostoevsky to Ignazio Silone, and unflinching survey of one of the most critical dilemmas of our time.

The tone is now nostalgic, the narration of a film trailer from the same period. Sweet. 50s naive. You wonder which bourgeois-losers were publishing all those cowardly surveys of non-critical dilemmas. The smell of the old pages alone was that of serious thinking, intense conversation.

Scanning over the contents of Man Alone, I noted the final piece, The Hare and the Haruspex: A Cautionary Tale by Edward S. Deevey (originally published in The Yale Review, Winter 1960). It is a remarkable essay concerning the odd behavior of lemmings. From the distance of 50 years, it is still intellectually enchanting, something you might find from the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the style an engaging cross between Swift and Borges - subversive irony mixed with annotated counter-factology. Several times in the reading I had to slow down in order to parse the levels of satire and, for lack of a better term, scientific irony.

Deevey was a respected and influential paleolimnologist. Nothing in his other publications - that I can find - is similar in style to The Hare and the Haruspex.

I have included quite a few quotes below. Additionally, the piece led me to a moderately deeper consideration of the Analogy and Mythology of the Lemming. A few notes in this regard are also included.

From Man Alone: Alienation in Modern Society:  Edited, with an introduction, by Eric and Mary Josephson, Dell Publishing, 1962. The Hare and the Haruspex: A Cautionary Tale by Edward S. Deevey [originally published in The Yale Review, Winter 1960]:

What is now suspected is that the lemmings are driven by some of the same Scandanavian compulsions that drove the Goths. At home, according to this view, they become depressed and irritable during the long, dark winters under the snow. When home becomes intolerable, they emigrate and their behavior is then described by the old Norse word, beserk.

As Caruso's vocal cords, suitably vibrated could shatter glassware, the whole of animate creation sometimes seems to pulsate with the supply of lemmings.

The reindeer, which ordinarily subsist on reindeer moss, acquire a taste for lemmings just as cattle use salt.

In his authoritative and starkly titled book, Voles, Mice and Lemmings, the English biologist Charles Elton summed up "this great cosmic oscillation" as "a reather tragic procession of refugees, with all the obsessed behavior of the unwanted stranger in a populous land, going blindly on to various deaths."

The diagnosis, if that is what it was, amounted to saying that the hares were scared to death, not by lynxes (for their bodies hardly ever showed claw-marks), but, presumably, by each other.

The Second World War was on at the time, and for a while no one remembered what Collett had said about the lemmings: "Life quickly leaves them, and they die from the slightest injury.... It is constantly stated by eyewitnesses, that they can die from their great excitement."

These Delphic remarks turned out to contain a real clue, which had been concealed in plain sight, like the purloined letter.

Well-trained in the school of Pasteur, or perhaps of Paul de Kruif, the investigators had been looking hard for germs, and were slow to take the hind of an atrophied liver, implying that shock might be a social disease like alcoholism. As such, it could be contagious, like a hair-do, without being infectious. It might, in fact, be contracted in the same way that Chevrolets catch petechial tail fins from Cadillacs, through the virus of galloping, convulsive anxiety. A disorder of this sort, increasing in virulence with the means of mass communication, would be just the coupled oscillator to make Gause's theory work. So theatrical an idea never occurred to Gause, though, and before it could make much progress the shooting outside the windows had to stop. About ten years later, when the news burst upon the world that hares are mad in March, it lacked some of the now-it-can-finally-be-told immediacy of the Smyth report on atomic energy, but it fitted neatly into the bulky dossier on shock disease that had been quietly accumulating in the meantime.

Keyed up by the stresses of crowded existence - he instanced poor and insufficient food, increased exertion, and fighting - animals that have struggled through a tough winter are in no shape to stand the lust that rises like sap in the spring. Their endocrine glands, which make the clashing hormones, burn like a schoolgirl making fudge, and the rodents, not being maple trees, have to borrow sugar from their livers. Cirrhosis lies that way, of course, but death from hypertension usually comes first.

Haruspicy, or divination by inspection of the entrails of domestic animals, is supposed to have been extinct for two thousand years, and no one know what the Etruscan soothsayers made of a ravaged liver. Selye would snort, no doubt, at being called a modern haruspex, but the omens of public dread are at least as visceral as those of any other calamity, and there are some sound Latin precedents - such as the geese whose gabbing saved Rome - for the view that emotion is communicable to and by animals. More recently, thoughtful veterinarians have begin to notice that neurotic pets tend to have neurotic owners....

 From Wikipedia:

The myth of lemming "mass suicide" is long-standing and has been popularized by a number of factors. In 1955, Disney Studio illustrator Carl Barks drew an Uncle Scrooge adventure comic with the title "The Lemming with the Locket". This comic, which was inspired by a 1954 American Mercury article, showed massive numbers of lemmings jumping over Norwegian cliffs. Even more influential was the 1958 Disney film White Wilderness, which won an Academy Award for Documentary Feature, in which staged footage was shown with lemmings jumping into sure death after faked scenes of mass migration. A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary, Cruel Camera, found that the lemmings used for White Wilderness were flown from Hudson Bay to Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where they did not jump off the cliff, but in fact were launched off the cliff using a turntable.

From Snopes:

Lemming suicide is fiction. Contrary to popular belief, lemmings do not periodically hurl themselves off of cliffs and into the sea. Cyclical explosions in population do occasionally induce lemmings to attempt to migrate to areas of lesser population density. When such a migration occurs, some lemmings die by falling over cliffs or drowning in lakes or rivers. These deaths are not deliberate "suicide" attempts, however, but accidental deaths resulting from the lemmings' venturing into unfamiliar territories and being crowded and pushed over dangerous ledges. In fact, when the competition for food, space, or mates becomes too intense, lemmings are much more likely to kill each other than to kill themselves.

Disney's White Wilderness was filmed in Alberta, Canada, which is not a native habitat for lemmings and has no outlet to the sea. Lemmings were imported from Manitoba for use in the film, purchased from Inuit children by the filmmakers. The Arctic rodents were placed on a snow-covered turntable and filmed from various angles to produce a "migration" sequence; afterwards, the helpless creatures were transported to a cliff overlooking a river and herded into the water. White Wilderness does not depict an actual lemming migration - no time are more than a few dozen lemmings ever shown on the screen at once. The entire sequence was faked using a handful of lemmings deceptively photographed to create the illusion of a large herd of migrating creatures.

Nine different photographers spent three years shooting and assembling footage for the various segments that comprise White Wilderness. It is not known whether Disney approved or knew about the activities of James R. Simon, the principal photographer for the lemmings sequence.

Nature documentaries are notoriously difficult to film, as wild animals are not terribly cooperative. Many nature shows and films of this era - including Disney's "True-Life Adventure" movies and TV's Wild Kingdom - staged events to capture exciting footage for their audiences. The sight of a few lemmings mistaking a lake or ocean for a stream and drowning after swimming out too far, or being pushed over a cliff during the frenzied rush of migration, has become the basis of a widespread belief that lemmings commit suicide en masse when their numbers grow too large.

From In Depth: ABC Science:

Back in the 1530s, the geographer Zeigler of Strasbourg, tried to explain these variations in populations by saying that lemmings fell out of the sky in stormy weather, and then suffered mass extinctions with the sprouting of the grasses of spring. Back in the 19th century, the Naturalist Edward Nelson wrote that "the Norton Sound Eskimo have an odd superstition that the White Lemming lives in the land beyond the stars and that it sometimes comes down to the earth, descending in a spiral course during snow-storms." But none of the Intuit stories mention the "suicide leaps off cliffs".

When these population explosions happen, the lemming migrate away from the denser centres. The migrations begin slowly and erratically, with an evolution from small numbers moving at night, to larger groups in the daytime. The most dramatic movements happen with the True Lemmings (also called the Norway Lemming). Even so, they do not form a continuous mass, but instead travel in groups with gaps of 10 minutes or more between them. They tend to follow roads and paths. Lemmings avoid water, and will usually scout around for a land crossing. But if they have to, they will swim. Their swimming ability is such that they can cross a 200 metre body of water on a calm night, but most will drown in a windy night.

So lemmings do have their regular wild fluctuations in population - and when the numbers are high, the lemmings do migrate.

The myth of mass lemming suicide began when the Walt Disney movie, Wild Wilderness was released in 1958. It was filmed in Alberta, Canada, far from the sea and not a native home to lemmings. So the filmmakers imported lemmings, by buying them from Inuit children. The migration sequence was filmed by placing the lemmings on a spinning turntable that was covered with snow, and then shooting it from many different angles. The cliff-death-plunge sequence was done by herding the lemmings over a small cliff into a river. It's easy to understand why the filmmakers did this - wild animals are notoriously uncooperative, and a migration-of-doom followed by a cliff-of-death sequence is far more dramatic to show than the lemmings' self-implemented population-density management plan.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

'Yes' said the rider as white as a bone

The Rider - From the film The Proposition

'When?' said the moon to the stars in the sky
'Soon' said the wind that followed them all

'Who?' said the cloud that started to cry
'Me' said the rider as dry as a bone

'How?' said the sun that melted the ground
and 'Why?' said the river that refused to run

'Where?' said the thunder without a sound
'Here' said the rider and took up his gun

'No' said the stars to the moon in the sky
'No' said the trees that started to moan

'No' said the dust that blunted its eyes
'Yes' said the rider as white as a bone

'No' said the moon that rose from his sleep
'No' said the cry of the dying sun

'No' said the planet as it started to weep
'Yes' said the rider and laid down his gun

From Roger Ebert:

Have you read Blood Meridian, the novel by Cormac McCarthy? This movie comes close to realizing the vision of that dread and despairing story. The critic Harold Bloom believes no other living American novelist has written a book as strong and compares it with Faulkner and Melville, but confesses his first two attempts to read it failed, "because I flinched from the overwhelming carnage."
That book features a character known as the Judge, a tall, bald, remorseless bounty hunter who essentially wants to kill anyone he can, until he dies. His dialogue is peculiar, the speech of an educated man. "The Proposition" has such a character in an outlaw named Arthur Burns, who is much given to poetic quotations. He is played by Danny Huston in a performance of remarkable focus and savagery.

[ source ]

From Blood Meridian:

The judge tilted his great head. The man who believes that the secrets of this world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

"Music for a vast, half-submerged ruined cathedral..."

From an interview with John Foxx:

Sometimes you have to step back to go forward. You need to revalue and restate. The context has altered too, so that alters the use of the content and its meaning. Makes it into something new, which simply uses a few old elements. Twenty years ago sampling remade and re-modelled, then evolved new genres from the older elements. I think that what is happening now is a similar re-use of a previous generations electronic remains. New architecture containing some appropriated material. Gene splicing to make interesting mutations, better able to negotiate new environments.

There are also several other good techno-philosophical reasons for this revaluation, because speaker technology has really only just evolved so that you can now hear how good the sounds of the past really were. For instance, bass speaker technology is only now beginning to realise the quality and range of frequencies analogue equipment is and was capable of throwing out. We have also been through a very puritanical rejection of analogue for digital. So now we are realising the intrinsic and unique qualities of both media are complimentary, not mutually exclusive. A good parallel to this exists in digital video, where, for the first time, we can now see the value of intrinsic imperfections in transferred analogue film- scratches flicker, borders. The beauty of faded and ruined film, variable exposure, different textures and quality of film such as super 8 and black and white.

All these elements have a kind of unique evocative beauty. This beauty was invisible or overlooked until you could fix and begin to control the elements in a new, content free digital medium. So they slowly become incorporated in the new medium as a part of its language. They make the new medium richer and denser. They give an empty new medium texture and content and vocabulary. Sampled surface scratches from vinyl are an example of this process. Things previously regarded as faults become qualities. This re-use of older material happens in all the Arts and Sciences at all stages - Picasso drew from Rembrandt, The Rolling Stones appropriated all the Chicago Blues singers, Oppenheimer used Einstein, Chaplin used Music Hall, They all used that material to create something new, for a new time.

Of course, Foxx's concern here is with external recording technologies. What is interesting to me is the application of his ideas to internal recording, memory. The tendency is always to see memories as static moments fixed in time. However, by entering into a dynamic relationship with memory, by allowing the creation of a fluid interior drama, "the beauty of faded and ruined film," by allowing one's faults and mistakes to "become qualities of unique evocative beauty," by incorporating them into the present sense of self, you make yourself wonderfully vulnerable to creation of a new ground for being, upon which richer, stranger and more resonate forms of self are given space to move and evolve.