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23 May 2017
Afternoon Sedition

"This is the Law of the Yukon"

Robert W. Service

Robert William Service

This is the Law of the Yukon, that only the Strong shall thrive;
That surely the Weak shall perish, and only the Fit survive.

"The Law of the Yukon" by Robert W. Service

Robert William Service (1874-1958) is one of those poets, like Edwin Arlington Robinson, whom is known by his work, but not by his name. His most famous poem, "The Law of the Yukon," is likely familiar, if, for nothing else, for the lines quoted above. Or maybe you know "The Shooting of Dan McGrew", which made him over half a million dollars. Service was, in a word, prolific: he penned over 2,000 poems, of which about 1,200 have been published. Many were written for friends and family.

Service was famous enough for just about anyone, let alone for a poet. When Charles Lindberg first flew across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St Louis he carried a book of Service's poems. So where did Service come from? Now, that's a tale. Robert W. Service (he didn't use his middle name much) was born in Preston, Lancashire, Scotland on 16 January 1874, which is a rather substantial walk from the Yukon Territory.

His father was a bank clerk, so it is understandable that Service, at the age of 15, started working in banking. (T.S. Eliot is the only other banker turned poet I can think of offhand.) The work bored him terribly — what a surprise — and he jumped at the chance to go to Canada and become a ranch hand in 1896. The only problem was that Service's view of the romantic cowboy lifestyle was pure fantasy, and after slogging it out for 18 months in British Columbia, and even a short stint in California, he decided, in 1902, it was better to be banker and explore the wilderness in his off-hours. A very sensible decision.

Service became known for reciting poetry by other poets, but one day the local newspaper asked him for something with local color. And so he created "The Shooting of Dan McGrew". That piece became so famous it ultimately earned him a half million dollars over the course of his life, a staggering fortune in the twenties and thirties.

The Shooting of Dan McGrew

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's known as Lou.

When out of the night, which was fifty below, and into the din and the glare,
There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear.
He looked like a man with a foot in the grave and scarcely the strength of a louse,
Yet he tilted a poke of dust on the bar, and he called for drinks for the house.
There was none could place the stranger's face, though we searched ourselves for a clue;
But we drank his health, and the last to drink was Dangerous Dan McGrew.

...

"The Shooting of Dan McGrew" by Robert W. Service

Robert W. Service's Cabin in the Yukon Valley

Robert W. Service's Cabin in the Yukon Valley

Service wrote more poems and made even more money, so much that he quit his bank job and moved to a log cabin with a view of the Yukon valley. (But he notably did not write "The Face on the Barroom Floor" which is often attributed to him; that poem was penned by Hugh Antoine d'Arcy in the 1870's.) Service wasn't a hermit, though, and tooled around Europe, meeting and marrying a German woman in 1913. He left Canada because he decided he just didn't like Canadians all that much. (Damn Canadians! Always up to no good, ramming their damned poutine down our throats!) Service liked the French Rivera because he felt he could do whatever he wanted there without his neighbors passing judgment.

Robert W. Service Working in His Yukon Cabin

Robert W. Service Working in His Yukon Cabin

Although originally from Scotland, and thus a speaker of Gaelic, Service also spoke English, French, and Italian. While his French would have been expected to be, if not good, at least tolerable — he moved to France and lived there until he died — it turned out it was good enough that he even wrote poetry in it. I haven't seen it, so I don't know how good it was. (But back to his European travels.) Too old — he was 41 — to fight in World War I — varicose veins were the official reason his enlistment was rejected — he became a war correspondent and ambulance driver. (Shades of Hemmingway.) After the war he lived in France, but spent the duration of World War II in the US. Afterwards, he went back to France, dying there in 1958.

Service remained popular long after his death:

Ten years ago, when I was twenty-one, I spent some months in the company of disgruntled U.S. Viet Nam war vets at sea and in fishing towns on the Alaska coast. I was never out of the company of someone who could recite a poem of Robert Service, and his complete works in verse were for sale by the cash register in every place where you could buy anything at all. When we were lined up to pay for our liquor once on shore, my friend Stan--sorry, we didn't really use last names--saw the book and started to recite Service poems I had never heard.

"Life of Service," by Dan Duffy

So why was he so popular? There are a few reasons:

The reason of the popularity of this poetry may be summed up almost in a word–it pictures human life. For, after all, nature worship or classic lore, ethics or abstruse philosophy, grow stale and flat when used continually as the basis of literary emotions, but every human being, who has not become a conventionalized fossil, always will be moved by the passions and moods of the surging, restless, primitive, even animal spirit of humanity that permeates Service's poems. . . . These poems must not be regarded as typically Canadian–they crystallize a phase of Canadian life, but it is a phase which has become Canadian by accident of circumstances. . . . . The rhythm of the poems has an irresistible sweep; no training in the technique of versification is necessary to catch the movement–it carries one away; and the plain, forcible language grips the attention and holds it, while short, vivid, insistent epithets hammer themselves deeply into one's mind.

— Donald G. French, Globe Magazine

A great poet died last week in Lancieux, France, at the age of 84.

He was not a poet's poet. Fancy-Dan dilettantes will dispute the description "great." He was a people's poet. To the people he was great. They understood him, and knew that any verse carrying the by-line of Robert W. Service would be a lilting thing, clear, clean and power-packed, beating out a story with a dramatic intensity that made the nerves tingle. And he was no poor, garret-type poet, either. His stuff made money hand over fist. One piece alone, The Shooting of Dan McGrew, rolled up half a million dollars for him. He lived it up well and also gave a great deal to help others.

"The only society I like," he once said, "is that which is rough and tough - and the tougher the better. That's where you get down to bedrock and meet human people." He found that kind of society in the Yukon gold rush, and he immortalized it.

Obituary, Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, 16 September 1958

But, enough about Service the man. Let's consider two of his more famous works:

The Law of the Yukon

This is the law of the Yukon, and ever she makes it plain:
"Send not your foolish and feeble; send me your strong and your sane --
Strong for the red rage of battle; sane for I harry them sore;
Send me men girt for the combat, men who are grit to the core;
Swift as the panther in triumph, fierce as the bear in defeat,
Sired of a bulldog parent, steeled in the furnace heat.
Send me the best of your breeding, lend me your chosen ones;
Them will I take to my bosom, them will I call my sons;
Them will I gild with my treasure, them will I glut with my meat;
But the others -- the misfits, the failures -- I trample under my feet.
Dissolute, damned and despairful, crippled and palsied and slain,
Ye would send me the spawn of your gutters -- Go! take back your spawn again.

...

"The Law of the Yukon" by Robert W. Service

The Cremation of Sam McGee

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

...

"The Cremation of Sam McGee" by Robert W. Service

It is unlikely you know Service by way of the saucy Violet De Vere:

Violet De Vere

You've heard of Violet de Vere, strip-teaser of renown,
Whose sitting-base out-faired the face of any girl in town;
Well, she was haled before the Bench for breachin' of the Peace,
Which signifies araisin' Cain, an' beatin' up the police.

...

"Violet De Vere" by Robert W. Service

You can read more of his poems here or over at Gutenberg.org (see further reading).

Sources and Further Reading

  1. PoemHunter's Collection of Poems by Robert W. Service
  2. International War Veteran's Poetry Archives Collection of War Poems by Robert W. Service
  3. Rhymes of a Rolling Stone by Robert W. Service
  4. The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses by Robert W. Service
  5. Rhymes of a Red Cross Man by Robert W. Service
  6. Ballads of a Bohemian by Robert W. Service
  7. Ballads of a Cheechako by Robert W. Service
  8. The Spell of the Yukon by Robert W. Service (collected poems)
  9. Yukon Valley in British Columbia
  10. "Life of Service," by Dan Duffy

The Red Badge of Bureaucracy

Red Tape

Our English red tape is too magnificently red ever to be employed in the tying up of such trifles...

"Frauds on the Fairies" by Charles Dickens, 1 October 1853

Red Tape. Some say it is the greatest gift of the Constitution's framers since its inefficiency prevents tyranny, or at least slows it down. But what is the origin of "red tape?" The earliest use is in Britain in 1736, referring to the ribbon used to tie official documents into bundles. (The ribbon was not sticky.)

There was something about it that quickened an instinctive curiosity, and made me undo the faded red tape, that tied up the package, with the sense that a treasure would here be brought to light. Unbending the rigid folds of the parchment cover, I found it to be a commission, under the hand and seal of Governor Shirley, in favor of one Jonathan Pue, as Surveyor of his Majesty’s Customs for the port of Salem, in the Province of Massachusetts Bay.

The Scarlet Letter, The Custom-House, Introduction, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850.

Safflower

Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius)

The color of the ribbon was derived from the natural red dye present in the safflower (Carthamus tinctorius):

Non-wood forest products for rural income and sustainable forestry - MAJOR COLOURANTS AND DYESTUFFS 6

"Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius L.) is an annual herb which is well adapted to semi-arid conditions in the tropics and sub-tropics. It is a thistle-like plant with a deep taproot, growing up to 120 cm high, with a branched stem and a flower head at the end of each branch.

The florets contain three major pigments, all of which are present as chalcone glucosides: the water-insoluble scarlet-red carthamin and the water-soluble "safflor yellow" A and B. The latter pigments are deliberately removed by water washing in the traditional primary processing of the florets in order to provide the desired, red raw material for dyeing/colourant usage.

Safflower was formerly employed, as its synonym "dyer's saffron" implies, as an inexpensive substitute for saffron in textile dyeing. The term "red tape" originates from the use of safflower to impart a pink-red colour to the tape employed to bind legal documents. The colour tone can be varied according to the mordant used through pink, red, rose, crimson to scarlet."

"Safflower: Summary of Basic Information," Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

In any event, doing any sort of official business involving records required much tying and untying to locate desired documents. Hence being tied up in red tape or going through red tape. Charles Dickens is reported to have popularized it as indicative of governmental inefficiency:

I have tamed that savage stenographic mystery. I make a respectable income by it. I am in high repute for my accomplishment in all pertaining to the art, and am joined with eleven others in reporting the debates in Parliament for a Morning Newspaper. Night after night, I record predictions that never come to pass, professions that are never fulfilled, explanations that are only meant to mystify. I wallow in words. Britannia, that unfortunate female, is always before me, like a trussed fowl: skewered through and through with office-pens, and bound hand and foot with red tape. I am sufficiently behind the scenes to know the worth of political life. I am quite an Infidel about it, and shall never be converted.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, Chapter 18, 1917

Prior to Dickens, however, was Thomas Carlyle's efforts in popularizing the term as one of opprobrium. (Dickens dedicated Hard Times to Carlyle as a way of recognizing latter's ceaseless waging of war on the cruelty of government bureaucracy.) Carlyle pulled no punches when it came to red tape:

Is it such a blessedness to have clerks forever pestering you with bundles of papers in red tape?

Thomas Caryle, "The Hero As King", On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, Chapter 18, Section III

From all corners of the wide British Dominion there rises one complaint against the ineffectuality of what are nicknamed our "red-tape" establishments, our Government Offices, Colonial Office, Foreign Office and the others, in Downing Street and the neighborhood. To me individually these branches of human business are little known; but every British citizen and reflective passer-by has occasion to wonder much, and inquire earnestly, concerning them. To all men it is evident that the social interests of one hundred and fifty Millions of us depend on the mysterious industry there carried on; and likewise that the dissatisfaction with it is great, universal, and continually increasing in intensity,--in fact, mounting, we might say, to the pitch of settled despair.

Every colony, every agent for a matter colonial, has his tragic tale to tell you of his sad experiences in the Colonial Office; what blind obstructions, fatal indolences, pedantries, stupidities, on the right and on the left, he had to do battle with; what a world-wide jungle of red-tape, inhabited by doleful creatures, deaf or nearly so to human reason or entreaty, he had entered on; and how he paused in amazement, almost in despair; passionately appealed now to this doleful creature, now to that, and to the dead red-tape jungle, and to the living Universe itself, and to the Voices and to the Silences;--and, on the whole, found that it was an adventure, in sorrowful fact, equal to the fabulous ones by old knights-errant against dragons and wizards in enchanted wildernesses and waste howling solitudes; not achievable except by nearly superhuman exercise of all the four cardinal virtues, and unexpected favor of the special blessing of Heaven. His adventure achieved or found unachievable, he has returned with experiences new to him in the affairs of men. What this Colonial Office, inhabiting the head of Downing Street, really was, and had to do, or try doing, in God's practical Earth, he could not by any means precisely get to know; believes that it does not itself in the least precisely know. Believes that nobody knows;--that it is a mystery, a kind of Heathen myth; and stranger than any piece of the old mythological Pantheon; for it practically presides over the destinies of many millions of living men.

Thomas Caryle, "Latter Day Pamphlets - No. 3 Downing Street", 1 April 1850

And now we the poor grandchildren find that it will not stick together on these terms any longer; that our sad, dangerous and sore task is to discover some government for this big world which has been conquered to us; that the red-tape Offices in Downing Street are near the end of their rope; that if we can get nothing better, in the way of government, it is all over with our world and us. How the Downing-Street Offices originated, and what the meaning of them was or is, let Dryasdust, when in some lucid moment the whim takes him, instruct us. Enough for us to know and see clearly, with urgent practical inference derived from such insight, That they were not made for us or for our objects at all; that the devouring Irish Giant is here, and that he cannot be fed with red-tape, and will eat us if we cannot feed him.

Thomas Caryle, "Latter Day Pamphlets - No. 3 Downing Street", 1 April 1850

Decades before Carlyle used it in a derogatory fashion, it was used descriptively by Sir Walter Scott:

The Bailie, whom this reference regarded, and who had all this while shifted from one foot to another with great impatience, ‘like a hen,’ as he afterwards said, ‘upon a het girdle’; and chuckling, he might have added, like the said hen in all the glory of laying an egg, now pushed forward. ‘That I can, that I can, your honour,’ drawing from his pocket a budget of papers, and untying the red tape with a hand trembling with eagerness. ‘Here is the disposition and assignation by Malcolm Bradwardine of Inch-Grabbit, regularly signed and tested in terms of the statute, whereby, for a certain sum of sterling money presently contented and paid to him, he has disponed, alienated, and conveyed the whole estate and barony of Bradwardine, Tully–Veolan, and others, with the fortalice and manor-place — ’

Waverley by Sir Walter Scott, Chapter 17, (1814)
Red tape isn't a uniquely British or American problem, however. Other countries, like Singapore and Canada have undertaken efforts to make government more accessible to citizens:

The Ontario government consulted with hundreds of businesses, institutions and individuals to identify ways to improve the business environment. It found that people wanted government to be more responsive to consumers and businesses and to provide more effective and efficient customer service.

The government created the Red Tape Secretariat to help eliminate existing red tape and prevent unnecessary rules and regulations from being created in the future.

The Secretariat reviews proposed Cabinet policies and regulatory measures that affect business and institutions, and intervenes on behalf of business, institutions and members of the public seeking assistance with provincial red tape problems.

The Whitney Block The Secretariat reviews and reports on ministries’ annual red tape reduction plans. It also coordinates legislation that reduces barriers to business, investment and job creation."

Red Tape Commission, Ontario Government, Canada

While Singapore may not cane bureaucrats who impede the public's access, this would certainly be a good first step.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Red Tape Commission, Ontario Government, Canada
  2. Waverley by Sir Walter Scott, Chapter 17, (1814)
  3. Thomas Caryle, "Latter Day Pamphlets - No. 3 Downing Street", 1 April 1850
  4. Thomas Caryle, "The Hero As King", On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, Chapter 18, Section III
  5. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, Chapter 18, 1917
  6. "Safflower: Summary of Basic Information," Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  7. The Scarlet Letter, The Custom-House, Introduction, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850.

"The Master is Dead."

Nosferatu Coming up the Stairs

...and it was in 1443 that the first Nosferatu was born. That name rings like the cry of a bird of prey. Never speak it aloud... Men do not always recognize the dangers that beasts can sense at certain times.

Script for Nosferatu

Nosferatu. The name itself is enough to induce an excrement hemorrhage in anyone who watched this movie on PBS during their childhood. (Yeah, it scared me, too.) I mean, those fingernails! (He, clearly, isn't a metrosexual getting regular manicures.) Brrrrr! And Nosferatu did the Kojak look long before it was trendy. Overall, it's one fine piece of cinema. Retrocrush named it the 18th scariest movie of all time.

From the diary of Johann Cavallius, able historican of his native city of Bremen: Nosferatu! That name alone can chill the blood! Nosferatu! Was it he who brought the plaque to Bremen in 1838? I have long sought the causes of that terrible epidemic, and found at its origin and its climax the innocent figures of Jonathon Harker and his young wife Nina.

Script for Nosferatu

The full title is "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens." As you've no doubt surmised, Nosferatu was directed by a German. In this case, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, one of the big three filmakers in the Weimar republic, between the World Wars. Here is some background on the film and its name, director, and story:

Contrary to popular opinion, the word "nosferatu" does not mean "vampire," "undead", or anything else like that. The term originally came from the old Slavonic word "*nosufur-atu", which itself was derived from the Greek "nosophoros". "Nosophoros", in the original Greek, stands for "plague carrier". This derviation makes sense when one considers that amongst western European nations, vampires were regarded as the carriers of many diseases, such as sexually transmitted diseases, TB, etc.

Silent Movie Monsters on Nosferatu

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau is one of the most important filmmakers of the cinema's first thirty-five years. He is often grouped with Fritz Lang and G.W. Pabst as the "big three" directors of Weimar Germany. He finished his career in Hollywood and died at a young age in an automobile accident. Three of his films routinely appear on "The Greatest Films" lists of critics and film groups. He is one of the few filmmakers to whom the label "poet" can inarguably be applied. And yet there seems to be little written about him, little that gives his work and career the notice it deserves.

Sloppy Films writeup on Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau

Nosferatu is the story of Dracula, of a vampire moving from his secluded castle to real estate he has purchased in the city of Bremen, where he will find a constant source of victims. Although the vampire is a creature of the night, Murnau has made his film in daylight. He has left the studio and the set to make his vampire story in mountains and in the sun-drenched streets of a fantasy city. Murnau's vampire stands with curling fingernails under a clear sky on the deck of a boat, whose rigging curls like Orlock's nails.

Sloppy Films writeup on Nosferatu

Nosferatu Onboard Ship

The film stars the aptly named Max Shreck as the vampire. Schreck, in case you weren't aware of it, is the German word meaning "fear". (How cool is that?) Shreck was a Stanislovsky method actor, which meant that he immersed himself fully in the character. (And you thought this was a recent invention by Harvey Keitel?) He was so effective that some on the set of Nosferatue believed that Shreck might actually be a vampire. (This conceit was later used in "Shadow of the Vampire", a 2000 release starring John Malkovich as Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Max Shreck, a vampire pretending to be an actor.)

What's interesting is how the world almost lost the chance to see Nosferatu at all:

Unfortunately for Prana, this film [being an unlicensed version of Dracula] was too thinly veiled, and Florence Stoker, widow of the late Bram Stoker proceeded to join the British Incorporated Society of Authors, whose lawyers then took up the case for her. Stoker was seeking restitution since Prana neither asked permission to adapt Dracula, nor paid her any money for it. However, Stoker and the BISA were not the only people persuing Prana-Films: Prana was a financial sinking ship and was being hunted down by creditors as well. Just as the BISA sued Prana, it went into receivership and all materials and debts were taken over by the Deutsch-Amerikansch Film Union. The BISA then persued the Film Union and demanded that all copies of Nosferatu be handed over to Florence Stoker for destruction. In July 1925, the issue was settled and all known copies of Nosferatu were handed over to Stoker, and destroyed.

Or so Stoker thought. In October of that year, the Film Society in England asked her to endorse a classic film festival, and first on the list was the infamous Nosferatu. Stoker was furious and demanded that the Society give her their copy so that she could destroy it as well. The Film Society refused and the legalities followed. By 1928, Universal Pictures owned the copyright for Dracula, and therefore, all adaptations of it, including Nosferatu. Initially, Universal allowed the Film Society to keep the print, but after pressure from Florence Stoker, they aquired the print and it joined its kin in 1929. Then came a sudden spurt of American copies of the film, under the name Nosferatu the Vampire, but Universal had them all destroyed in 1930. It finally seemed as though this pesky film had met its end.

This was not the case though. Following Florence Stoker's death in 1937, various copies of the film cropped up. Nosferatu truely regained its popularity in 1960 due to the program Silents Please, which showed a condensed version of the film under the title Dracula. This version was re-released on video by Entertainment Films as Terror of Dracula. In 1972, Blackhawk Films released the uncut original to the collector's market as Nosferatu the Vampire, and the condensed version to the general as Dracula.

Silent Movie Monsters on Nosferatu

You can download it and watch it free at Archive.org. A restored version is commercially available on DVD:

"Nosferatu - Special Edition" from Image Entertainment features a stunning restored picture, a Dolby Digital 5.0 score by Silent Orchestra and a Tim Howard organ score.

Nosferatu — Special Edition

Nosferatu Being Destroyed by Sunlight

Oh, and the title line? It's from the movies's end.

Only a woman can break his frightful spell—a woman pure in heart—who will offer her blood freely to Nosferatu and will keep the vampire by her side until after the cock has crowed.

Script for Nosferatu

Sources and Further Reading

  1. IMDB entry for "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens"
  2. IMDB entry for "Shadow of the Vampire"
  3. Freely Downloadable Copy of Nosferatu at Archive.org
  4. Script for Nosferatu
  5. Nosferatu — Special Edition DVD
  6. Retrocrush writeup as 18th scariest movie of all time
  7. Silent Movie Monsters on Nosferatu
  8. Sloppy Films writeup on Nosferatu

When Three Isn’t A Crowd

Photograph of Three Sisters Volcanoes

Three Sisters Volcanoes in Oregon, by Lyn Topinka, United States Geological Survey

Bad things, as the saying goes, come in threes. So do the fates.

In Greek mythology, the fates are called "Moerae" or "Moirai." (The word moerae means to apportion or divide.) There were three, described using metaphors drawn from weaving. The poet Hesiod is likely the source of their names:

These are Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, and they give mortals their share of good and evil.

— Hesiod, Theogony, 905-6

Each of the three has a separate role. Clotho, who spins the threads of human life, Lachesis, who measured its span, and Atropos, who cut it with a shears. (Atropos is the eldest, a wizened creature who, of all the fates, is most feared. Her name, meaning inexorable or inevitable, is the source of the name for the drug "atropine," a belladonna derivative that relaxes, or paralyzes, muscles by interfering with nerve conduction.)

Meanwhile he'll not suffer harm or trouble, not before he sets foot on his own land. After that he'll undergo all those things Destiny and the dreaded spinning Fates spun in the thread for him when he was born, when his mother gave him birth.

— Alcinous, The Odyssey, Homer, Book 7, line 240

The fates predate the gods of Olympus, and their relationship is much like the United States Constitution's balance (separation) of powers. She who cuts cannot measure. She who measures cannot alter the thread (events) of life. She who creates the life cannot determine its length. And so it goes.

Behind the power of the gods and beyond all the efforts of men, the three Fates sat at their spinning. No one could tell whence these sisters were, but by some strange necessity they spun the web of human life and made destinies without knowing why. It was not for Clotho to decree whether the thread of a life should be stout or fragile, nor for Lachesis to choose the fashion of the web; and Atropos herself must sometimes have wept to cut a life short with her shears, and let it fall unfinished. But they were like spinners for some Power that said of life, as of a garment, Thus it must be. That Power neither gods nor men could withstand.

Old Greek Folk Stories Told Anew by Josephine Preston Peabody, 1897

The Romans called the fates Parcae or Fatae; there were Nona, Decuma, and Morta: Nona, like Clotho, spins; Decuma, like Lachesis, measures; and Morta, like Atropos, cuts.

The Norse had the three Norns who wove human life: Urth or Wyrd, for the past or fate; Verthandi, for the present or necessity (of dying); and Skuld, for the future or being. When the end of the world arrives, Skuld will lay death upon the universe itself; in the meantime, they weave a tapestry of such unimaginable complexity that it will never be finished. The Norns live in a cave at the base of Yggdrasil, the world tree — situated in the Nornenberg (Nuremberg) mountains — where they try to stop its decay by pouring mud and water from the Well of Fate over its branches. (It is interesting, if not ironic, that the trials of Nazi war criminals were held at Nuremberg.)

The three weird sisters of destiny in Shakespeare’s Macbeth has the three weird sisters of destiny; these are the Scottish equivalents of the Moerae, the Parcae, and the Norns. (Weird is derived from "wryd," the Anglo-Saxon word for fate.)

First Witch: Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd.
Second Witch: Thrice and once, the hedge-pig whin'd.
Third Witch: Harpier cries:—tis time! 'tis time!
First Witch: Round about the caldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.—
Toad, that under cold stone,
Days and nights has thirty-one;
Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot!
All: Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.

MacBeth, by William Shakespeare, Act 4, Scene 1

David Brin wrote a science-fiction novella, "The Loom of Thessaly" (published in The River of Time, 1981, but available online), about the fates. I quite liked it, but YMMV.

"Creative Genius Destroyed
by Neglect and Misunderstanding"

Edwin Arlington Robinson

Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935)

Well, it isn't a perfect poem, but it is certainly a remarkable one.

— John Lucas on "Richard Corey"

I often run into people who either aren't familiar with the work of Edwin Arlington Robinson or who are passingly familiar with it but either don't know the whole piece or the author. Fewer still know that Robinson moved from Maine to 28 MacDougal Street in New York City's Greenwich Village — holding such jobs as time checker for construction of the IRT subway and as a clerk in New York City custom's house (he was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt, who liked his poetry) — where he spent the last twenty-five years of his life, largely solitary, until his death on 6 April 1935.

A Maine poet whose numerous volumes of verse explore the repressive life of small-town American, Edwin Arlington Robinson drew inspiration for his portraits and tales from the tortured lives of his family and acquaintances. Transforming autobiography into myth, he set these stories in the fictitious Tilbury Town, the poet's emblem of the American dream gone awry, a place where creative genius is destroyed by neglect and misunderstanding.

Reared in Gardiner, ME, and educated at Harvard, Robinson's philosophical perspective came to combine the idealism of the waning Romantic Age with the dark pessimism of the dawning century. While he believed ardently in the divine spark within all man and nature, he inevitably found that spark clouded with what he called "the black and awful chaos of the night." Given the bleak history of Robinson's own life--poetic neglect, unrequited passion, and family problems with alcohol-- his view is not surprising; what is more amazing is the stoicism with which he persevered, ultimately winning national recognition for his long Arthurian poem, TRISTRAM, in 1928.

Robinson claimed to have experienced his poetic vocation as an epiphany when, at age seventeen, he became "violently excited over the structure of English blank verse." An admirer of Robert Browning's dramatic monologues, he set about to cloak his own poetic persona in a series of masks, creating a gallery of characters, who were at once thinly veiled incarnations of his relatives and townsfolk and subtle manifestations of his own psyche.

"I Hear America Singing", Public Broadcasting Service

Robinson was born the third son of a family whose hearts were so set on having a daughter this time that they had made no provisions for the name of an unwanted son. For more than six months the boy remained unnamed, until strangers at a summer resort, feeling that he ought to be granted an identity beyond that of simply "the baby," put slips of paper with male first names written on them into a hat and chose someone to draw one out. The man who drew out the slip with "Edwin" written on it happened to live in Arlington, Massachusetts, which seemed to provide the easiest choice for a second name; and so by an "accident of fate," we have a poet named Edwin Arlington Robinson. Robinson hated the name and thought of himself as a child of scorn--and he had reasons.

American Poets: From the Puritans to the Present by Hyatt H. Waggoner

Robinson's most famous poem is likely "Richard Corey":

Richard Corey

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich — yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Edwin Arlington Robinson

A few notes. Robinson's brother Hennan drank himself to death. It may not have been as quick as a bullet, but it was just as certain.

Here we have a man's life-story distilled into sixteen lines. A dramatist would have been under the necessity of justifying the suicide by some train of events in which Richard Cory's character would have inevitably betrayed him. A novelist would have dissected the psychological effects of these events upon Richard Cory. The poet, with a more profound grasp of life than either, shows us only what life itself would show us; we know Richard Cory only through the effect of his personality upon those who were familiar with him, and we take both the character and the motive for granted as equally inevitable. Therein lies the ironic touch, which is intensified by the simplicity of the poetic form in which this tragedy is given expression.

The Poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson: An Essay in Appreciation, by Lloyd Morris, 1923

While "Richard Corey" is likely his most famous poem, "Miniver Cheevy" runs a close second:

Miniver Cheevy

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would send him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam's neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing:
He missed the medieval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

Edwin Arlington Robinson, 1907

Some Notes. The khaki suit refers to the brown military uniform, common until after World War I. The Medicis ruled renaissance Florence, and combined a love of knowledge, art, and scholarship with naked brutality when it came to remaining in power. Priam was king of Troy and killed during the Trojan war. Thebes was a Greek city in Egypt, on the Nile. Camelot, of course, was the mythical home of King Arthur's court. The line "He mourned Romance, now on the town," is tied to the meaning of "on the town" as being unable to support onesself and thus dependent upon the town's charity. The poem has some relation to Robinson's life, given that he felt unwanted as a child. (See the biography above.)

Oh, one more thing. The title line is from "I Hear America Singing", Public Broadcasting Service. It referred to Tilbury Town, but it summed up many things about Robinson and, indeed, about the world in general.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Children of the Night by Edwin Arlington Robinson (contains "Richard Corey")
  2. The Man against the Sky by Edwin Arlington Robinson
  3. The Three Taverns by Edwin Arlington Robinson
  4. "Edwin Arlington Robinson", The Academy of American Poets
  5. "On Richard Corey," Modern American Poets
  6. "On Miniver Cheevy," Modern American Poets
  7. "I Hear America Singing", Public Broadcasting Service

"The one who gives gifts
goes naked and does without."

"The Three Graces", circa 323-146 B.C.

"The Three Graces", circa 323-146 B.C. (Louvre, Paris)

The other day I saw a reproduction of the Louvre's Three Graces relief, and it reminded me of all the mythology I used to read when I were a lad. (As opposed to all the mythology I read today in the New York Times; Fox News isn't mythology, of course, it's pure Lovecraftian horror.) Anyway, I remember the three graces and have thought that the message they carry is a nice one. So I wrote it up.

"The Three Graces", Fragment of Wall Frieze, Pompeii

"The Three Graces", Wall Frieze, Pompeii, circa 60 AD

The three graces, all sisters, are the daughters of Zeus and Euryeome or Hera. (Zeus, as you'll recall, had a serious problem keeping it under his toga.) As the attendent goddesses to Aphrodite — the goddess of love — the three were all that is grace and beauty personified. Each represents a different facet of the goddess: Aglaca, splendor; Euphrosyne, joyfulness; and Thalia, abundance.

"The Three Graces" by Raphael, 1504

"The Three Graces" by Raphael, 1504 (Musee Conde, Chantilly)

Artists and writers have been influenced by the three graces through the ages; the Greeks painted vases and made sculptures, the Romans made friezes at Pompeii, and painters like Rubens and Raphael memorialized them forever. They are typically depicted as two figures facing us and one facing away, with the two outer figures looking in different directions from the center one. They have their hands on each other's shoulders, as if in dance. Without the graces, there can be neither pleasure nor dancing.

In addition to the artists who were inspired, was Andrea Alciato, a sixteenth century writer:

The three Graces attend Venus, and follow their mistress, and so prepare delights and things to eat. Euphrosyne brings happiness, Aglaia, glorious radiance, and Pitho is Persuasion herself, winsome and pleasing of speech.

Why are they naked?

Because loveliness resides in honesty of mind and pleases through its utter simplicity.

Is it because the ungrateful give nothing back that the Graces' casket is always empty?

The one who gives gifts goes naked and does without.

Why have their feet been recently attired with winged sandals?

The one who gives quickly, gives twice; generosity that is slow to appear is almost worthless.

Why does one turn with the others' arms around her?

Giving graciously makes interest. When one is let go, two remain to the giver.

Jupiter is father to them all. From heavnly seed Eurynome brought forth the divine creatures, dear to all.

Emblematum Liber (Book of Emblems) by Andrea Alciato, 1531

Andrea Alciato's Emblematum liber or Book of Emblems had enormous influence and popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is a collection of 212 Latin emblem poems, each consisting of a motto (a proverb or other short enigmatic expression), a picture, and an epigrammatic text. Alciato's book was first published in 1531, and was expanded in various editions during the author's lifetime. It began a craze for emblem poetry that lasted for several centuries.

Emblematum Liber (Book of Emblems) by Andrea Alciato, 1531

"The Three Graces" by Peter Paul Rubens, 1639

"The Three Graces" by Peter Paul Rubens, 1639 (Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain)

Photograph of "The Three Graces", a Victorian Cameo

"The Three Graces", Victorian Cameo

Of course, not everyone has the same take on the same concept:

Photograph of "Bachelor and Three Graces" (tree grouping)

"Bachelor and Three Graces" (tree grouping) by Marlene Bruce, a photograph of three trees with the same name in the Calaveras Big Trees State Park

"Composition VII: The Three Graces" by Theo van Doesburg (1917)

"Composition VII: The Three Graces" by Theo van Doesburg (1917), (Gallery of Art, Washington University In St. Louis)

Porn Is Also Great and Would Suffice

Sign in Beacon Hill, MA saying "Porn Is Great"

"If State’s 'porn' Sign Won’t Slow Down Drivers, Nothing Will" by O’Ryan Johnson, Boston Herald 11 April 2005

Seems someone in Boston decided that the city should take a break from flashing empty, mindless, fear-inspiring messages like "If You See Something, Say Something," "Homeleand Insecurity Is Job #1," "Don't Let the Terrorist Win!," and "Your Tax Dollars at Work":

An electronic road sign on Cambridge Street flashed "EXPECT DELAYS" and "ROAD WORK AHEAD" but also alerted drivers that "PORN IS GREAT."

It's the second time such a message has appeared along the delay-plagued stretch of roadwork in Beacon Hill, but state officials aren't laughing.

"Obviously the message is unacceptable and will be taken down (Sunday) tonight," said Jon Carlisle, spokesman for the state's Executive Office of Transportation.

He said while there are some electronic signs that can be hacked into remotely, someone broke through a locked panel to change the flashing message on this one.

"That's pretty clever," said Chris Hickey, 27, of Boston while walking by the sign yesterday.

But her friend, Andrew D'Agostino, said he would have aimed for something more original.

"Of course it's (porn) great, tell me something I don't know," he said.

"If State’s 'porn' Sign Won’t Slow Down Drivers, Nothing Will" by O’Ryan Johnson, Boston Herald 11 April 2005

Finally, a message from the government that I can actually say I fully endorse. It just proves that in an infinite universe all things are possible, just not equally probable. Besides, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. (The government being the stopped clock, of course, and not me.)

Oh, and the title line? It's an allusion to a poem by Robert Frost:

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Robert Frost, 1920

I found the balance between desire (eros, lust) and hate (puritanism, censorship) particularly apt here.

Lorem Ipsum Dolor Sit Amet…

While I used to see it a lot more, many Websites are still riddled with "Lorem Ipsum" placeholder text. (Just do a search on Google.) Some use it until the real content can be added, while others use it as a bit of copyright-free text to demonstrate differences between fonts, point sizes, justification rules, etc. So where did this bit of fake Latin come from?

Years ago I came across the origin and largely forgot about it except to the extent it crops up in conversation. (I clearly hang out with too many writers and artists.) Anyway, it came up in conversation and so I decided to write it up.

Lorem Ipsum, in brief, is derived from "Finibus Bonorum et Malorum" (The Extremes of Good and Evil) by Cicero, an ethics book written in 45 BC. The literal translation is, "There is no one who loves pain itself, searches for it and wants to have it, simply because it is pain." Typesetters have been using this as dummy text since the 1500s. Much of the modern popularity seems to stem from Aldus which included a Lorem Ipsum generator in PageMaker. The best source is Lipsum.com which has an excellent explanation and even includes a generator to spew out placeholder text so you too can have a Website that is clearly still in the throes of design.

What is Lorem Ipsum?

Lorem Ipsum is simply dummy text of the printing and typesetting industry. Lorem Ipsum has been the industry's standard dummy text ever since the 1500s, when an unknown printer took a galley of type and scrambled it to make a type specimen book. It has survived not only five centuries, but also the leap into electronic typesetting, remaining essentially unchanged. It was popularised in the 1960s with the release of Letraset sheets containing Lorem Ipsum passages, and more recently with desktop publishing software like Aldus PageMaker including versions of Lorem Ipsum.

Why do we use it

It is a long established fact that a reader will be distracted by the readable content of a page when looking at its layout. The point of using Lorem Ipsum is that it has a more-or-less normal distribution of letters, as opposed to using 'Content here, content here', making it look like readable English. Many desktop publishing packages and web page editors now use Lorem Ipsum as their default model text, and a search for 'lorem ipsum' will uncover many web sites still in their infancy. Various versions have evolved over the years, sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose (injected humour and the like).

Lipsum.com

So there you have it.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Straight Dope Column (less informative)
  2. Google Search for "Lorem Ipsum"
  3. Lipsum.com, includes generator
  4. Lorem-ipsum.info
  5. Text Generator

When The Going Gets Weird…

Hunter S. Thompson with Cigarette

Rolling Stone has a few tribute pieces on Hunter S. Thompson. I've linked to them directly with an excerpt from each. Some of them aren't great, but they're all we got. (And, yes, I'm still bummed. But thanks for asking.)

He liked to work against a crisis, and if there wasn't a legitimate one, he made one.

My Brother in Arms, by Jann S. Wenner

There was nothing hippieish about him. With a skull pipe clenched in his teeth, he looked — and sounded — strangely like Douglas MacArthur on amphetamines.

The Final Days at Owl Farm by Douglas Brinkley

Thompson eventually determined that the right drugs, in balance with the right amounts of alcohol, would help him churn out an increasingly prodigious — and for a time, an amazingly inspired — amount of writing.

The Last Outlaw by Mikal Gilmore

"Buy the ticket, take the ride." These are the words that echo in my skull. The words that our Good Doctor lived by and, by God, died by. He dictated, created, commanded, demanded, manipulated, manhandled and snatched life up by the short hairs and only relinquished his powerful grasp when he was ready.

A Pair of Deviant Bookends by Johnny Depp

Henceforth, anyone caught with narcotics, crazy pills or other stupor inducing agents will be dragged down to the basement and have his scrotum torn off.....and, conversely, any offender without a scrotum will have one permanently attached to her.

Memo From the Sports Desk by Raoul Duke

Midnight on the Coast Highway by HST

"Dr. Gonzo" by Ralph Steadman

"Dr. Gonzo" by Ralph Steadman

Midnight on the Coast Highway
Hunter S. Thompson, San Francisco, 1965

"All my life my heart has sought a thing I cannot name."

Months later, when I rarely saw the Angels, I still had the legacy of the big machine - four hundred pounds of chrome and deep red noise to take out on the coast highway and cut loose at three in the morning, when all the cops were lurking over on 101. My first crash had wrecked the bike completely and it took several months to have it rebuilt. After that I decided to ride it differently: I would stop pushing my luck on curves, always wear a helmet, and try to keep within range of the nearest speed limit ... my insurance policy had been cancelled and my driver's license was hanging by a thread.

So it was always at night, like a werewolf, that I would take the thing out for an honest run down the coast. I would start in Golden Gate Park, thinking only to run a few long curves to clear my head, but in a matter of minutes I'd be out at the beach with the sound of the engine in my ears, the surf booming up on the sea wall and a fine empty road stretching all the way down to Santa Cruz ... not even a gas station in the whole seventy miles; the only public light along the way is an all night diner down around Rockaway Beach.

There was no helmet on those nights, no speed limit, and no cooling it down on the curves. The momentary freedom of the park was like the one unlucky drink that shoves a wavering alcoholic off the wagon. I would come out of the park near the soccer field and pause for a moment at the stop sign, wondering if I knew anyone parked out there on the midnight humping strip.

Then into first gear, forgetting the cars and letting the beast wind out .. . thirty-five, forty-five ... then into second and wailing through the light at Lincoln Way, not worried about green or red signals but only some other werewolf loony who might be pulling out, too slowly, to start his own run. Not many of those - and with three lanes on a wide curve, a bike coming hard has plenty of room to get around almost anything - then into third, the boomer gear, pushing seventy-five and the beginning of a windscream in the ears, a pressure on the eyeballs like diving into water off a highboard.

Bent forward, far back on the seat, and a rigid grip on the handlebars as the bike starts jumping and wavering in the wind. Tail-lights far up ahead coming closer, faster, and suddenly - zaaapppp - going past and leaning down for a curve near the zoo, where the road swings out to sea.

The dunes are flatter here, and on windy days sand blows across the highway, piling up in thick drifts as deadly as any oil slick ... instant loss of control, a crashing, a cartwheeling slide and maybe one of those two inch notices in the paper the next day: "An unidentified motor-cyclist was killed last night when he failed to negotiate a turn on Highway 1."

Indeed ... but no sand this time, so the lever goes up into fourth, and now there is no sound except wind. Screw it all the way over, reach through the handlebars to raise the headlight beam, the needle leans down on a hundred, and wind burned eyeballs strain to see down the centerline, trying to provide a margin for the reflexes.

But with the throttle screwed on there is only the barest margin, and no room at all for mistakes. It has to be done right ... and thats when the strange music starts, when you stretch your luck so far that fear becomes exhilaration and vibrates along your arms. You can barely see at one hundred; the tears blow back so fast that they vaporise before they get to your ears. The only sounds are the wind and a dull roar floating back from the mufflers. You watch the white line and try to lean with it ... howling though a turn to your right, then to the left and down the long hill to the Pacifica ... letting off now, watching for cops, but only until the next dark stretch and another few seconds on the edge... . The Edge... . There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others - the living - are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to chose between Now or Later.

But the edge is still Out there. Or maybe it's In. The association of motorcycles with LSD is no accident of publicity. They are both a means to an end, to the place of definitions.

The Fourth Man

I'm taking a break from putting photos of The Gates online. When I got back from the signing of New York Magazine by Christo and Jeanne-Claude — I'll blog that in a day or so — I was listening to the mess going on in Syria. (I generally try to avoid politics since the idiotic comments of der Fuhrer really annoy me.) Anyway, I was reminded of a poem by Constantine Cavafy, who is one of my favorite poets. This is not, perhaps, his best work, but it was appropriate given the day's events in Syria.

Oh, and I am often reminded of the poem's closing comment about employment. It seems I ended up getting similar employment choices, too.

They Should Have Provided

I have almost been reduced to a homeless pauper.
This fatal city, Antioch,
has consumed all my money;
this fatal city with its expensive life.

But I am young and in excellent health.
My command of Greek is superb
(I know all there is about Aristotle, Plato;
orators, poets, you name it.)
I have an idea of military affairs,
and have friends among the mercenary chiefs.
I am on the inside of administration as well.
Last year I spent six months in Alexandria;
I have some knowledge (and this is useful) of affairs there:
intentions of the Malefactor, and villainies, et cetera.

Therefore I believe that I am fully
qualified to serve this country,
my beloved homeland Syria.

In whatever capacity they place me I shall strive
to be useful to the country. This is my intent.
Then again, if they thwart me with their methods —
we know those able people: need we talk about it now?
if they thwart me, I am not to blame.

First, I shall apply to Zabinas,
and if this moron does not appreciate me,
I shall go to his rival Grypos.
And if this idiot does not hire me,
I shall go straight to Hyrcanos.

One of the three will want me however.

And my conscience is not troubled
about not worrying about my choice.
All three harm Syria equally.

But, a ruined man, why is it my fault.
Wretched man, I am trying to make ends meet.
The almighty gods should have provided
and created a fourth, good man.
Gladly would I have joined him.

"They Should Have Provided", Constantine P. Cavafy, 1930

Notes:

The Malefactor was the nickname for Ptolemy VII Euergetes, officially known "the Benefactor" who ruled Egypt from 145 to 116 BC with extreme cruelty.

Alexander II Zabinas, a nickname meaning "the bought one", had been an heir to the throne backed by the exiled Egyptian king Ptolemaios VIII Gryphon. After he defeated Demetrius Nicator he ruled parts of Syria from 129 to 123 BC, until killed by Antiochus VIII, nicknamed "Grypos" or "hooknose", who then ruled from 125 to 96 BC.

Ioannes Hyrcanos I, the son of Simon Maccabaeus, was the king and high priest of the Jewish empire from 134 to 104 BC. He fought the Greeks.

And Burroughs Said, Snick, Snick…Bang!
And there was art.

After a shooting spree, they always want to take the guns away from the people who didn't do it.

— William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs with shotgun

William S. Burroughs with Shotgun

10 Gauge City by William S. Burroughs

"10 Gauge City" by William S. Burroughs

In addition to being an avante garde writer, William S. Burroughs was also an avante garde artist:

Using a variety of tools like spatulas, Ouija board pieces, and even a .45 Smith and Wesson handgun, William S. Burroughs was always creating art.

...

Nelson said her favorite pieces in the exhibition are "Something New Has Been Added," the Steadman and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" artist, lithograph. Burroughs shot the lithograph six times with a .45 long colt Smith and Wesson handgun and then signed it.

Words, Guns and Art, by Tony Herrman, Kansas State Collegian, 18 September 2003

The discovery of the shotgun's potential as a paintbrush was purely accidental. But, then again, knowing how Burroughs lived, one could say his whole life was one creative accident, and that any day nobody died in the name of art was a good one. Anyway, Burroughs says he was shooting his shotgun — he loved guns, despite having killed his wife in a William-Tell style "accident" — at plywood. Finding the damage to be an intricate and attractive type of abstract art, he began loading shooting paint into shotgun shells and firing them into plywood and agumenting the splatters. Here's the actual process from someone who heard Burroughs describe it:

The gallery directors said something in French and then in English, and then Burroughs answered questions:

With a shotgun, yes.

Twelve-gauge.

No, you take the buckshot out, for god’s sake. You put the paint in the shells.

No, I only keep the good ones. I throw the others out.

Yes, you select the right part. You choose.

No, it’s not random.

Yes, the process is random. You can’t tell what you’ll see until you pull the trigger.

Well, no, you choose the right one. It’s not random. I choose the pictures I like. You have to do a lot before you get to the good ones.

Yes, it’s art.

Because I choose among them. Aren’t you listening? Every artist chooses. You choose all the time. That’s what art is.

Yes, I sign them. Jesus. No more questions.

"One Blow Job Away" by Michel Basilières, Maisonneuve Magazine, Issue 10, July 2004

William S. Burroughs and David Goodrich

William S. Burroughs and David Goodrich

The artist David Goodrich has an amusing anecdote about making shotgun art with Burroughs.

A bit later Burroughs gave me a call. He said that he’d done some experiments with shooting through magazine pages mounted to panels, and he liked the results. Therefore, he had decided, he would like to shoot my painting after all. I was elated. And so it was on Easter Sunday of ‘87 that he phoned and said he was in the mood to go shooting, and invited me along.

At his place we had to wait for Bill Rich to arrive. They had a shortage of shotgun shells, and, being Easter, there would be no place open to buy any. Therefore we stopped by the house of James Grauerholz on our way out of town, where I showed my painting to James, Michael, and some young girl that was there. We got our shells and went on to the Outhouse, a place outside of town, a small brick building, which, at the time, was a punk rock venue run by Bill Rich, I believe. They kept bails of hay there, which were used by Burroughs to lean panels against to accept the shot. He had a piece of his own to shoot, one of those 3-d postcards that he had attached to a panel. He shot this several times, once or twice with a splatter of paint. He had forgotten his staple gun, and so we had to beat nails into the panel with a rock we found to hold these baggies in place. Once he was happy with his project he offered to shoot mine, and so I pulled it from the trunk of my car. We beat a baggie of yellow paint onto the spot that I wanted shot, leaned it against the hay, and I stood back while the old guy put a hole right through it. He walked up to it, took a close look at the splatter he’d made, and said “It looks like an owl.”

We shot a few more things and I took a few photos, then we cleaned up our mess and I dropped him back at his place. Now I was happy. It had worked out just as I’d wanted.

David Goodrich's anecdote about making shotgun paintings with William S. Burroughs

Painting 'Something New Has Been Added' by Ralph Steadman

"Something New Has Been Added" by Ralph Steadman, 1995
Serigraph on paper with shotgun holes by WSB

Burrough's collaboration with the famed gonzo artist Ralph Steadman seems, at the same time, both obvious and peculiar.

In the late 1980s this life-long interest in visual art flared up in a series of surprisingly colourful, accessible and only-slightly-evening-classy paintings by Burroughs himself. Some consisted of painted plywood doors with jagged gunshot holes in them ... "The shotgun blast releases the little spirits compacted into the layers of wood, releases the colours of the paints to splash them out in unforseen images and patterns," he wrote. It is also, perhaps not irrelevantly, just about the most violent thing you can do to a painted surface without incinerating it completely.

...

The collaboration with Burroughs is a new way of nourishing his American roots. It was Steadman's idea. "I wanted to do a print with his express pleasure in mind," he says. He had met Burroughs only twice before, very briefly each time, but had long been a fan of his writing and also admired the shot-through doors which Burroughs exhibited in London in the 1980s. "My idea was that I make the print and he shoots the hell out of it and we sign it together."

Burroughs okayed the project, and the key meeting took place last May [1995] in Burroughs' clapboard house in the nondescript college town of Lawrence, Kansas, where he has lived for some 15 years. Meetings between celebrated artists must often be like this: swarms of assistants, acolytes, relatives, parasites, somebody taping the whole thing on video, another person with a Leica, flunkies, tripping over each other. Burroughs, bent double as he is, retains a jerky, relentless vigour, riffling through the prints Steadman has brought along, pulling revolvers out of his pocket and demonstrating the workings of the safety mechanisms, steadily chugging on a long beaker of vodka and Coke that is regularly replenished.

Bill and Ralph's Excellent Adventure by Peter Popham, The Sunday Review, 3 March 1996

Traveler on the Yellow Wave by William S. Burroughs

"Traveler on the Yellow Wave" by William S. Burroughs, 1982
Paint on Plywood with Shotgun holes.

But is it art? Is it acceptible to use tools to generate art? Of course it is; why wouldn't it be? There's a long tradition in using random processes to make art:

The first use of randomization in the arts that I am aware of is an invention by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart provides 176 measures of prepared music and a grid that maps the throw of a pair of dice, and a sequence number (first throw, second throw, etc) into the numbers 1 through 176. The player creates a composition by making a sequence of random dice throws, and assembling the corresponding measures in a sequential score. Perhaps Mozart knew intuitively that purely random music isn’t terribly interesting because he found a primitive way to mix order and disorder. The short pre-composed measures provide order, and the throw of the dice provide disorder.

Randomization in the arts came into its own primarily in the 20th century. As a young artist Elsworth Kelly used inexpensive materials such as children’s construction paper along with chance methods to create colorful collages. He was inspired to do this after observing the random patchworks that would develop in the repair of cabana tents on the French Rivera.

The writer William Burroughs famously used his Dada inspired “cut-up” technique to randomize creative writing. Less well known are Burroughs experiments in visual art using shotgun blasts to randomly scatter paint on, and partially destroy, plywood supports.

Occasionally Carl Andre would use a random spill technique rather than his more typical highly ordered assembly system.

Certainly one of the most famous advocates for the random selection of sounds in music was John Cage.

In the era of computer-generated art the use of pseudo-random number generators becomes perhaps the most popular digital generative technique.

"What is Generative Art? Complexity Theory as a Context for Art Theory" by Philip Galanter

Generative art can be used to attack these fundamental points head on. First, generative artists can explore form as something other than arbitrary social convention. Using complex systems artists can create form that emerges as the result of naturally occurring processes beyond the influence of culture and man.

Second, having done this, generative artists can demonstrate by compelling example reasons to maintain faith in our ability to understand our world. The generative artist can remind us that the universe itself is a generative system. And through generative art we can regain our sense of place and participation in that universe.

"What is Generative Art? Complexity Theory as a Context for Art Theory" by Philip Galanter

Cover for Seven Deadly Sins book

TitleThe Seven Deadly Sins
AuthorWilliam S. Burroughs
ISBN0934953368
PublisherWater Row Books

Color plates, each illustrating one of the seven deadly sins, with accompanying text. Art was produced using a twelve-gauge shotgun technique on mylar and wood blocks.

TitleConcrete & Buckshot: William S. Burroughs Paintings 1987-1996
AuthorTimothy Leary and Benjamin Weissman
ISBN1889195014
PublisherSmart Art Press

This catalogue focuses on Burroughs’s achievement as a painter and includes concrete poetry written by legendary twentieth-century philosopher cum pop-culture guru Timothy Leary shortly before his death. Adding meat to this Burroughs/Leary sandwich is artist and writer Benjamin Weissman’s "Sad but Happy," a Burroughs-esque literary adventure into the dark side.

Smart Art Press caption for Concrete and Buckshot

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Bill and Ralph's Excellent Adventure by Peter Popham, The Sunday Review, 3 March 1996
  2. What is Generative Art? Complexity Theory as a Context for Art Theory by Philip Galanter
  3. Words, Guns and Art, by Tony Herrman, Kansas State Collegian, 18 September 2003
  4. Smart Art Press caption for Concrete and Buckshot
  5. Concrete & Buckshot: William S. Burroughs Paintings 1987-1996 by Timothy Leary and Benjamin Weissman
  6. The Seven Deadly Sins by William S. Burroughs

Yes, it’s art. Because I choose among them. Aren’t you listening? Every artist chooses. You choose all the time. That’s what art is.

William S. Burroughs, "One Blow Job Away" by Michel Basilières, Maisonneuve Magazine, Issue 10, July 2004

Books That Won’t Give You Indigestion

Graphic of the human digestive tract

The Guardian UK would be laudable if it did nothing more than just present better reporting about what goes on in America than do the NY Times or Washington Post. But beyond more political reporting that's either boring or upsetting, lies a valuable resource: the digested read. As the Guardian puts it, "Too busy to read the hot books? Let us read them for you". What this means is that it delivers "The must-read books in 400 words", but while retaining the author's style present in the original work. (Now, you're saying, if Citizen Arcane were shorter I'd have the time to read these books. To which I say, well, yeah, sure. How do you think I feel? I'm the one who actually writes all this verbiage...)

Anyway, one of my favorite digest reads is the version of Anthony Bourdain's A Cook's Tour. (BTW: I quite liked Bourdain's early work; after a while it got repetitious, but it's still interesting even if you aren't a chef, amateur or professional.) If you're a vegetarian, you'd best skip these excerpts. (It's for your own good. Trust me.) This is such a good parody of Bourdain that as I read it I heard his voice narrating.

Yo, motherfuckers. I'm sitting in the bush with Charlie, deep in the Mekong Delta, drinking hooch. My hosts, VC war heroes, pass me the duck. I chomp through its bill, before cracking open the skull and scooping the brains out...

When you've just had a big score with an obnoxious and over-testosteroned account of your life, your publishers tend to fall for any dumbass plan. So when I told them I wanted to go round the world eating all sorts of scary food in a search for the perfect meal, they just said, "Where do we sign?"

Y'know, most of us in the west have lost contact with the food we eat. It comes merchandised and homogenised. The same goes for chefs. Cooking isn't about knocking up a few wussy monkfish terrines out of fillets that have been delivered to the kitchen door; it's about badass guys going deep into their souls and looking their ingredients in the eye.

Which is why I am in Portugal, outside the barn while Jose and Francisco restrain several hundredweight of screaming pig. I unsheathe my knife, bury it deep into the neck and draw it firmly towards me. The pig looks at me in surprise and fury. I lick the blood from my arms, make another incision and rip out the guts. The women pan-fry the spleen. It's indescribably good.

Digested Read for A Cook's Tour.

First Thing, We Gag All the Lawyers

When lawyer jokes become the basis for prejudice and bigotry, a line has been crossed which can lead to dangerous situations. Lawyer-bashing is hate speech that is as heinous as all other forms of bigotry. Crimes of violence against attorneys should be covered by hate-crime laws.

Harvey I. Saferstein, President of the California State Bar Association
quoted in "He Must Be Joking", The Oregonian, 8 July 1993, Page B8

Following on the heels of the Supreme Court ruling that the First Ammendment is not advisory, we have this story:

"How do you tell when a lawyer is lying?" Harvey Kash, 69, of Bethpage, said to Carl Lanzisera, 65, of Huntington, as the queue wound into the court. "His lips are moving," they said in unison, completing one of what may be thousands of standard lawyer jokes.

But while that rib and several others on barristers got some giggles from the crowd, the attorney standing in line about five people ahead wasn't laughing.

" 'Shut up,' the man shouted," Lanzisera said. "'I'm a lawyer.'"

The attorney reported Kash and Lanzisera to court personnel, who arrested the men and charged them with engaging in disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor.

"They put the handcuffs on us, brought us into a room, frisked us, sat us down and checked our driver's licenses to see if there were any warrants out for our arrest," Lanzisera said yesterday. "They were very nasty, extremely nasty."

The men are founders of Americans for Legal Reform, a group of outspoken advocates who use confrontational tactics to push for greater access to courts for the public and to monitor how well courts serve the public. One tactic is driving a truck around the Huntington area emblazoned with the slogan "Stop The Lawyer Disease." They said their rights to free speech were violated Monday.

NY Newsday

And lawyers wonder why they have a bad reputation? So bad that people are always quoting that that line from Shakespeare. You know the one. The one people always say is about how eliminating lawyers is the key to destabilizing society and seizing power: "First thing, we kill all the lawyers." Well, that interpretation is just plain wrong and is nothing more than wishful thinking, if not downright lying, on the part of lawyers.

The line comes from Henry VI, Part II. The context is fairly simple. Jack Cade, a notorious thug and vicious criminal, is a pretender to the throne, and is talking about all the wonderous things that will transpire upon his coronation. Dick The Butcher is a member of his gang.

JACK CADE: Be brave, for your captain is brave and vows reformation. There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny, the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops, and I will make it felony to drink small beer. All the realm shall be in common, and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to grass. And when I am king, as king I will be —

ALL FOLLOWERS: God save your majesty!

JACK CADE: I thank you, good people — there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord.

DICK THE BUTCHER: The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.

JACK CADE: Nay, that I mean to do. Is this not a lamentable thing that the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? That parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings, but I say ’tis the bee’s wax. For I did but seal once to a thing, and I was never mine own man since.

Henry VI, Part 2, Act 4, Scene 2 by William Shakespeare

So the quote is not about how lawyers prevent revolution by keeping society orderly. It is not about how lawyers are key to ensuring that government is not disrupted by criminals. It is just about a bunch of semi-drunken criminials talking about what would constitute utopia. And given how lawyers treat the rest of us, is there really much doubt that eliminating many of those two-legged reptiles would bring about, if not utopia, at least a better world?

Ooops! Hate crime! Anyone know a good bail bondsman?

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