Being in Dog TIme

This essay by D. L. Pughe originally appeared in BARK Magazine.

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“An hour is not merely an hour, it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates, and what we call reality is a certain connection between these immediate sensations and the memories which envelop us simultaneously with them…”       Marcel Proust

“Yet by that time, I kept one desire, one above all the others. I wanted a continuum. A continuum as a whisper, which never ends, similar to life, which is what perpetuates us greater than any quality.”                                                                                       Henri Michaux

“For time is the longest distance between two places.”     Tennessee Williams

 One of the endless wonderful things we love about dogs may be their ability to pull us so completely into the present. We forget about the load of past we usually drag around behind us, and the clouds of future we forecast up ahead. What human being can match a dog in how they so gratefully embrace what the day will offer up to immediate experience? As Pascal tells us, human beings must continually make efforts to acquire this newness of spirit, “since we can only preserve our former ‘grace’ (as he calls it) with the acquisition of new grace.” Perhaps one of the many reasons we befriend a dog is for an infusion of grace that no one else can offer to the same degree.

Dogs do, in fact, have their own sense of time. As with humans, scents and smells pull them backward into memory, and also like us, dogs have been known to save treats for a future moment of need. But it is still the greatest challenge is to catapult oneself into the canine mind and decipher how they regard seconds, minutes, the accumulation of hours into days. I spent a good while walking dogs at the county animal shelter in Iowa City, and one of the most congenial dogs there was an American Foxhound named Daisy who had spent most her life in confinement. She had been in one institution or another for more than two years since she was found as a 6 month old pup roaming the countryside of Johnson County, 50 miles away. Daisy looked to be a purebred Foxhound who had chased a deer or furry creature too far from a pack of like-minded hounds on a hunt with their owner. She’d been wandering in the wild long enough to develop a serious ear infection and to become pregnant. After being rescued, she was sent to the Kirkwood Veterinary College where interns successfully operated on her ears then delivered her puppies as a case study for the obstetric vets. Everyone at the Vet school took to Daisy: she was good-natured, easy-going, well-behaved, grateful for attention but never demanding. She stayed many months, long after her puppies were born and given away, and her gentle nature made her an easy ‘test animal’ for demonstrating veterinary techniques like drawing blood.

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Nearly a year later, Daisy transferred to the Iowa City Animal Care and Adoption Center, a highly regarded county shelter where all the animals are well treated and almost all find good homes. She arrived in the spring, when an excess of cute puppies were adopted first and her stay continued on for a long year. She willingly settled into her new 4′ x 6′ kennel and looked forward to playtimes out in the fenced yard with other dogs and to daily walks on leash by the Iowa River with the Center volunteers. At the beginning of each walk she would shake her head happily, her sensitive ears flapping wildly. And afterwards she gratefully stepped back into her cage, sat on her bed, and politely received her treat.

Many dogs in shelters, especially if they’ve come from a happy family home, grow sad in confinement. Over a period of weeks you witness their soul begin to wither, they lie facing the back wall of their kennel, barely lifting their heads to see who is walking by. Their sadness is palpable and heart wrenching. Daisy showed only the smallest glimpses of this desperation, and seemed to amiably accept whatever came her way in terms of kindness. She was a pleasure to walk and I began taking her on more distant adventures along the river. On a lark I emailed her picture to a friend back in Berkeley, “I’ve found the perfect dog for you,” I told her “Not only is she beautiful and the best behaved dog I’ve met, but she just matches your china!” My friend Margaretta’s vintage porcelain features a pack of Foxhounds spiraling into the center of each plate followed by a fleet of red-coated horsemen. I was completely surprised but delighted when she answered back that she was interested, undaunted by the 2,000 miles between where Daisy and I were and where she was writing from. She had lost her older dog a few years back and had been looking for a new one for awhile. When she heard Daisy’s story, Margaretta quickly applied for adoption by Fax, and once accepted, we set about finding a kind soul who could drive Miss Daisy from Iowa to her new Berkeley home.

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This was the moment when Daisy came to live with us for a month. We were visiting academics who normally live in Berkeley but were staying a year in a house just 4 blocks from the Animal Center. By the time she came to us, Daisy had been well over two years in kennel life and was such a gracious and good-natured dog, stately and quiet. I thought of her often like Nelson Mandela, someone who had spent so much of life in confinement yet kept her nobility and generosity of spirit. Daisy had a sense of depth and seemingly infinite patience. Being aware of her past, I happily watched her grow less serious and more playful day by day. After a week she clearly thought she was here to stay and began romping a bit like a clumsy puppy with an overgrown adult body. She would crouch in play posture and rabbit pounce in happy circles. Being so aware of her past confinement, I wanted her to enjoy her newfound freedom and took her on long walks as often as I could. She was truly being reborn into a new wide world. But I also knew she was only staying ‘awhile,’ a notion I was at a loss to explain to her. I realized the disappointment ahead in thinking of our house as home only to be uprooted once more and taken by a long car ride to her final destination.

The time of a story involves a beginning, middle and end—this erzälte Zeit is how we, as humans, enjoy contemplating time.[i] In order to gather up instantaneous moments we must be able to remember what just occurred and suspend it in immediate memory to link it with what is about to happen. Husserl likens this to the way we hear a succession of notes running off and sinking down as we connect them all into a melody. Something in what we hear tells us to wait, this is going somewhere, a future place of greater possibilities. It is how we experience time as a 4th dimension of space, going away from something toward something else, ending up over a fresh horizon. The key to absorbing the melody is an ability to wait and I realized this was Daisy’s secret strength. In the shelter she was patient; in the dog training classes that all dogs at the shelter take to make them more ‘adoptable,’ she’d gotten the ‘wait’ command with ease. Wait means ‘pause for a moment’ because there’s something up ahead worth waiting for. It is the essence of all hope.[ii]

Consciousness of time is a difficult human proposition, and wholly subjective as Henri Bergson pointed out a century ago. Each person defines their own sense of duration (durée), how the minutes add up in our psyche and at what point our awareness of them can seem unendurable. Abrupt change seems to be what we all fear the most, where we have no role in affecting that change. And yet having time to think about change is truly the basis of neurosis. Most people acknowledge that it is not death they worry about but the amount of time they might have to helplessly see it hurtling towards them. It is why wasting painful illnesses seem unendurable but also why airline disasters where we imagine having long moments, apprehending our fate in mid-air, seem excruciating. The more time we have to think and comprehend, the more we also have time to feel the meaning of it, the eclipse of our future. Heidegger spent great amounts of time exploring how we experience being in it, and how each of us, aware or not, is ‘being towards an end.’ And thus we are always becoming, the ‘instants whizzing’ by in the ‘now’s continuous pursuit of the not-yet-now.’

Dogs do not view the future the same way, insofar as we can tell. They live in the moment, propelled by an urgency of smells and sounds that we are often oblivious to. They have their own circadian rhythms that sometimes coincide with ours in terms of day and night, but possibly not in awareness of the continuum.[iii] Our older dog, Pearl, for instance, had a change of diet in her senior years that derailed her usually ‘to the minute’ calculations on when she was usually fed each day. Every 20 minutes from midnight on she would wake up and whine to ask if it was time for breakfast, like the annoying kid on a long car trip to a not-yet-known destination repeatedly asking “are we there yet?”

Understanding dogs takes a rare kind of empathy, one that doesn’t anthropomorphize but tries to really see the world through their eyes. I’d spent years studying both philosophies of time and also the unique phenomenological aspects of empathy. Wading through the German thinkers on the latter subject, I’d learned to distinguish between what we know as sympathy, where you absorb the emotional state of the other person in a sloshy mess, from a more useful empathy which combines thought and imagination, intuition and emotion. Empathy is thought to offer not only a deeper understanding of what the world is like for another being, but also some way to bridge our two worlds.[iv] A revised notion of empathy, a ‘theromorphic’ approach, suggests that one can begin to see the world through the eyes of the animal by first understanding the perspective of their vision, then the expanded range of their other senses of smell, taste, etc.[v]

But to attempt to enter dog perspective one must first decide what is their ‘natural culture.’ In today’s urban requirements to leash and clean up after our pets, few dogs have a life of freedom to come and go as they please from our homes. Their sense of time revolves around our own schedules: when we wake and rise to feed them, take them for walks and out to play and, sadly and ultimately, when we must decide their time is up. Their own sense of time is one poised in our duration, which they seem to endure with sometimes amazing patience. Often, because of their need for our assistance to be out in the world, I think I can safely say that most dogs are exceedingly well rested, napping diligently out of the boredom of waiting.

In Daisy’s case, I was too sympathetically aware of her past, her years of confinement; it was always with me in the present, along with my knowledge of her upcoming future. I’d imagine the endless procession of nights she’d spent at the shelter, where lights are put out at 5:30 p.m. and the dogs lie in the dark until an attendant returns at 7:00 the next morning— similar to an experience watching Birdman of Alcatraz as a child where I became painfully aware of the reality of being ‘sentenced’ to ‘doing time.’   Then I shift to imagine the disruption of the upcoming long car trip to her new home.

Meanwhile Daisy was happily settling into our home in the present, though still a bit tentative about what to expect. She began to test boundaries just to see how things worked, gently sticking her nose into our trash can, grabbing a glove from the table and dropping it at my feet. She responded amiably to rules against such activities, and seemed to be checking on who was in charge. I wanted her to enjoy the world as much as possible now in compensation for her years of confinement and we embarked on long walking excursions around town. People often stopped us on the street to talk to her—she’d become a minor celebrity from an appearance we made on TV and from the many vet students and volunteers who had worked with her in the institutions she’d stayed in.

Memory is most tied to scent and hounds like Daisy are primarily attuned to smell; it was hard for me not to think that her past was trailing around with us in where her nose led us. More likely, it was her interest in small furry creatures that pulled us along, and the bits of food that only dogs seem to be able to spot on an empty street. But she appeared to recognize places, rushing up the steps of certain houses, plopping down once on a sofa on the porch of a student apartment as though she’d been the resident who’d caused it sag like a hammock. How long had she roamed the wilderness and fringes of the town before she’d been discovered? She wanted to get into any car, and once in the middle of an intersection yelped with recognition at a certain pickup, straining on her leash as though she’d found her long lost owner. I was certain they must have been heartbroken when this wonderful dog had disappeared, but felt like that past was gone and a better world for her lay up ahead in California.

As Daisy’s present was becoming more and more stable, she was less anxious when I left her alone and had grown familiar with our own routine: when she could expect her walks which, even in 20 below zero weather and deep snow, were her supreme delight. Routine, it seemed, calmed Daisy more than anything and I saw how this had become the key to her survival in captivity. But where we use our eyes to note minute changes in the neighborhood (a neighbor’s walk has been shoveled, their lawn mowed), each time a dog goes out into the world it has been replenished with countless invisible smells. And where most dogs’ philosophy of time is that of Winnie the Pooh, who sets his clock to 11 a.m. when it is always ‘Time for A Little Something,’ Daisy thought ahead. The treats we gave her she hid away, sometimes taking as long as an hour to bury one at the bottom of the clothes hamper for use some later day. Her future, the long journey ahead with someone she didn’t know, was looming for me, with no way to explain it to her though I confess I often did discuss her California home in glowing terms. When the day came for her departure, I realized how happy she had become here, how trusting. We made a happy commotion when our friend Craig arrived and loaded her things into the trunk and she gleefully jumped in the car, but as it drove away I saw that she had enough time to look back and realize I was not coming. It was haunting to see the panicked look frozen on her face and not imagine it reflected in the car window as she rode through long nights of hushed winter prairies.   I felt as though I was caught in a relativity fable, riding a light beam parallel to the car but helpless to reassure her.

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As human beings, when we meet people we like in the course of our travels, we enjoy warm meals together and laughing over shared stories. It is always hard to leave, but we know we have letters, email, the telephone, and a future where our paths might cross again. There was no way for me to explain the future to Daisy: that in a few months time I would be living across the street from her, able to share walks from time to time with her and her new ‘mom’. If a dog can feel betrayed, I suspected that kind of hurt was perplexing her now and for nearly 50 hours of travel by car. I knew once she arrived in California in Margaretta’s warm embrace she would be in heaven, and it was true. I was right, but she was wary to accept it at first. How can you tell a dog that this time it is ‘for keeps,’ that she would now be able to enjoy the succession of days with a true friend for the rest of her life?

Months later as I was leaving Iowa to return to Berkeley I found a treat Daisy had hidden in the folds of a pile of clean towels, her pledge to the future. I carried it back to her in her new home and Margaretta led me down to Daisy’s ‘queendom,’ her own backyard. She was napping in the sun and she greeted me happily, doing the silly circle dance; Daisy was clearly now happy all the time. She ran over to her own spacious dog house and pranced in to show it off, then we noted all her new ‘projects,’ a series of gleeful excavations that are being indulgently allowed, given her long history on concrete floors. Indoors, Daisy has two beds and enjoys retiring with Margaretta to a large fluffy one at the end of long adventurous days. She loves their routine, their daily walks and routes. the curious new symphony of smells, and glimpses of the deer that live on the other side of her fenced forest.

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We live always with the tick, then tock—the asynchronous movement of two different clocks: one registers what we feel and the other how we’re conscious of having felt. Dogs keep us ticking, always able to seize the joy of every day and also every night and to urgently share it with us each moment. Luckily, they are safe from the tock that we, as humans, use to reckon with fate in order to protect them and their world, aching always for as much earthly time with them as we can.[vi]

 

“Anyone can observe that the duration for which we are exposed to impressions has no bearing on their fate in memory. Nothing prevents our keeping rooms in which we have spent twenty-four hours more or less clearly in our memory, and forgetting others in which we passed months. It is not, there- fore, due to insufficient exposure time if no image appears on the plate of remembrance. More frequent, perhaps, are the cases when the half-light of habit denies the plate the necessary light for years, until one day from an alien source it flashes as if from burning magnesium powder, and now a snapshot transfixes the room’s image on the plate.”

Walter Benjamin

 

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Endnotes

This essay was first published in BARK Magazine in Issue 32, 2005 and was one of six favorite essays chosen by the editors of BARK in its first decade of publishing.

[i] In cinematic time, this narrative path is always shifted, and it does make one wonder if dogs can experience things cinematically as Godard suggested: films have a beginning, middle and end but not necessarily in that order.

[ii] An example purported to be from cognitive psychology that is hard to contemplate (unless you’ve admitted the difficulties in also realizing what the words to ‘three blind mice’ actually prescribe) tells us that rats put in a bucket of water will drown after three hours of struggle. If the rats are rescued after 2-1/2 hours, before their energies were exhausted, then put in water again a day later, they can struggle along for 5 hours. Hope. Even when it may be for Godot instead of God. (This example, by the way, is most often quoted in Christian sermons and biblical text analysis and used by business gurus in management seminars and is alternately attributed to Duke University or University of California at Berkeley). There is interesting testimony to how the ‘desensitization’ (we might call it insensitivity) required of researchers who use animals in experiments such as this one is an subject in its own right. See Roger E. Ulrich, “Animal Research in Psychology: An Example of Reinforced Behavior” in the Journal of Americans For Medical Advancement: Perspectives on Meidcal Research, Vol. 3 (1991).

[iii] Recently, in an earnest but entirely artificial laboratory setting, scientists conducted controlled experiments to ascertain the circadian rhythms of dogs. In an experiment on purebred beagles in Italy, the dogs were kept in 140 X 200 cm. pens in relative isolation (away from other dogs and human contact) for 8 with days with rectal thermometers which measured their temperature every two hours. Night and day were simulated by laboratory lights on and off and the dogs were fed once a day, four hours after the lights were turned on each day. Even in this highly artificial setting, the dogs exhibited heightened temperatures at certain same times each day, indicating circadian rhythms usually found in most beings in nature. What this tells us about how dogs experience time, or how they found the confinement and intrusion of instruments during this experiment is still inaccessible even to our imaginations. R. Refinetti &G. Piccione, “Daily Rhythmicity of Body Temperature in the Dog.” Journal of Veterinary Medical Science 65 (8) (2003): 935-937.

[iv] Wemelsfelder, Françcoise, “The scientific validity of subjective concepts in models of animal welfare.”  Applied Animal Behaviour Science 53 (1997) 75-88.

[v] Timberlake, William, “An animal-centered, causal-system approach to the understanding and control of behavior.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 53 (1997) 107-129. Timberlake proposes a revised notion of empathy, a ‘theromorphic’ approach, where the researcher attempts to see the world through the eyes of the animal by first understanding the perspective of their vision, then the expanded range of their other senses of smell, taste, etc.

In what to me seems the most ‘natural’ approach using Timberlake’s theory, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas in her book The Hidden Life of Dogs attempted to infiltrate dog culture as an anthropologist. She began by observing her two dogs in an urban environment, later on a ranch in the West she studied larger group of dogs which she gave a spacious territory under their own control. The dogs Thomas observed on her ranch were able to establish a culture among themselves rather than in relationship to her. Though she continued to provide food, she did not interact with them as pets and attempted to infiltrate the ‘pack’ in the beleaguered position far down in the social hierarchy. Thomas quickly found that being first in the order of eating, the choicest morsels, and the best spot in the collectively dug out den were all awarded to the alpha dog and then in order the dogs themselves had established. Because she was still the main provider of food, daily rhythms still focused on her times of feedings, but she watched how the shifting sun and weather affected daily routines the dogs established among themselves.[vi] Though the dogs under her care had a larger area in which to range, napping in the sun did figure significantly as a pastime. Thomas, Helen Marshall. The Hidden Life of Dogs (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1993).

 

 

 

 

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Dispatching Echoes

 

an excerpt from A Different Acquaintance, a novel by D. L. Pughe

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Mayer is on his side again, on a slim leather couch in the cramped but magical guest room of his old friend János, a professor at the New School in New York. A few decades ago János proudly showed him how he had taken over the large closet in his tiny apartment, built maple bookshelves all the way up to the high ceiling and inset a desk with intriguing compartments into one wall. On the wall opposite he managed too squeeze in the small sofa. Books filled the four walls and in the narrow space around the door jam he made shelves for LP’s and a niche for his stereo and a short-wave radio. Speakers rescued from broken TV’s left on New York streets stared down with round faces from each of the four upper corners.

“A cathedral in a shell…” Mayer had said when János demonstrated the acoustics.

“Exactly…” his host smiled then brought out his most extravagant purchase —thick, soft leather-padded headphones for working late into the night.

It was here on the leather sofa straddling the wall opposite the desk that Mayer surveyed the changes over the years. He was still surrounded by books, in fact they were now stuffed into every shelf and stacked on the floor. Some shelves had been covered over with framed prints and sculptures had been pushed into niches made by smaller books.  The closet had slowly grown into a cabinet of curiosities. The small couch, just the length of Mayer’s frame, is where he has always slept in New York over the years, preferring it even when his travel funds could afford a grand hotel. The niches for LP’s had been subdivided, first for a phase of cassette tapes and then re-configured for CD’s which jammed every crevice and were stacked in towers in front of the shelves. As time went by, the books in Hungarian had risen slowly to the top of the shelves, the books in English and French gradually took over the lower ones surrounding the uneven piles of papers spilling over on the desk. The stacks of books and CD’s left only a small bit of floor uncluttered making the approach to the couch a slalom over the thick Turkish carpet. And though it still looks like a fine leather sofa, the burnished sheen of years adds to how one sinks into its curves and sags. Not nearly as comfortable as it once was, like age itself it’s familiar embrace is holding its own.

Each time he re-enters this chamber, Mayer is reminded of the festival of Corpus Christi. Southern Mediterranean families bring out their most valuable wealth on that holiday, stacked in front of their homes as a ‘technical’ offering to Christ. A sort of innocent ostentatiousness, Mayer feels, though his Catholic friends find the display as embarrassing as the ancient barter for indulgences. Sometimes, though, abundance can be bolstering; a sense that life on earth has its rewards that the distant whiff of Heaven cannot know. And in János’ book-laden closet, Mayer always finds the overwhelming rush and force of curiosity as though he has crawled inside the human mind itself.

He had come in late at night, barreled into the city in a cab holding tight to the leather stirrup as they swerved through traffic. His exhaustion was so great that even János’ exuberant talk didn’t revive him and he was allowed to go directly to the comfort of the closet. He removed the stiff and somewhat prickly cushions made from Turkish carpets from the back of the couch and stretched out with the soft blanket. He reached up and instinctively turned off the small intense lamp over the bed.  With his other hand he reached the knob below the glowing numbers of the shortwave radio; it’s awkward antenna slanted to the ceiling. The FM station was playing Kodaly’s Variations on a Hungarian Folksong, and he listened for awhile as though struggling with a giant earpiece. Soon even this tired him. He turned the dial past rapid French, rolling Spanish, exclamations in Russian and Chinese and struggled to finally find a station with BBC news from distant corners of the world.

For some time now he had turned first to words before sleeping. In the beginning it was listening to trustworthy-sounding British voices describing revolutions in places he’d yet to imagine.  Then, hearing accounts of survivors gave him a kind of courage to face what outwardly seemed like calm, reasonable days in a rich, fairly ordered democracy. But his days carried with them the undertow of losing friends he loved most to illness or distance. The ensuing loneliness would sometimes sap his ordinary strength.

It wasn’t just hearing about events around the globe and how noble individuals rose above their circumstance that gave him back a reservoir to draw from.  Their voices offered a way into being in the world, invisible and nearly always in the dark; taking his imagination to the furthest reaches of hope.  While searching through the scratchy tuner, Mayer passed jumping beats of the local hip hop stations, the stops and pauses of classical music followed by rapid sawing violins, then a gyrating saxophone with insistent originality. The blaring lyrics of popular music were the most painful and he fumbled in irritation as he rolled past.

Why the need for words, he wondered, when any one of these local places on the dial should be able to hold his interest?  It used to be his great pleasure to decipher who else could be listening at this hour, imagining people in cars, in hotel rooms, in the tiny dark apartments of towering buildings nearby who were possibly sharing the same sound. But Mayer needed to be far beyond the immediate city, to speed out over the dark waters of the Atlantic toward the lights of Europe slowly going out as the day dawned. To hover over Budapest long enough to spot his grandmother’s apartment.  And from there to soar over the snow covered Alps, the dusted white steppes of Russia and arrive somehow, through some faint mention, at the mysterious terrain of outer Mongolia.

There, in a small room in Ulaan Bataar, perhaps there was a young woman who had just returned from her day at work, lay on a small sofa and picked up a book. Leaning back to think, had she also turned on to music, then bypassed several channels in indecipherable languages, news reports of the capitol and then events in India-accented English, and found herself for a moment also tuned to the BBC?  Was this what Mayer was seeking, a coded message across thousands of miles? He imagined her listening quietly to the same news, the frequent suicide bombings that still caused anguished sighs, the dramatic weather devastating new regions and, with relief, candid survivor’s reports.  Then the authoritative crisp voice would somehow shift to UK business, the debt-ridden railway system, clogged healthcare, the doings of the royal family. At this, Mayer knew, the young woman might sigh again, and turn the dial in search of music, slightly astonished that a slow bass and now soothing saxophone were making their way to her across the universe of sound.  At that moment, Mayer turned the dial again and found the greatest consolation:  Thelonius Monk was playing slow, deliberate chord after chord.  He finally drifted off to sleep in a distant inner room where Monk was somehow communing with Vladimir Horowitz, a peaceful place of shadowy radiant light.

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Spinozahuis

This essay by D. L. Pughe first appeared in NEST Magazine.
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A few years ago I traveled to The Netherlands seeking out two of the homes of Spinoza which still remain. I wanted to see how he had lived, this man who offered the reassuring faith that philosophy could help with the problem of living. Arriving in Leiden, I found a small room in a hotel in the student quarter. It was named after an owl and had a window overlooking a cobblestone square where rare, end-of-winter sunlight was glancing off a statue of Erasmus. From above, his oxidized cheeks appeared green with sheets of tears.

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At the gates of the Horticultural Gardens of the University I met a friend who had come up from the Hague. We wandered through the groomed paths introducing ourselves to the Latinate shrubs and the fresh young shoots peering from the ground.

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He warned me he had a surprise and led me with eyes closed through several streets, into a building with a chill and smell of sanctuary. I felt high ceilings and ancient wooden floors. We climbed up wide stairs, then narrower stairs, then entered a room which I knew rose up into a dome.

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When I opened my eyes we were in the ancient dome of Mesdag’s panorama, painted over a century ago and offering views of Scheveningen, the coastal town not far from Rijnsberg where Spinoza lived.  It was a chance to see the shore as he might have seen it, walking on the strand.

After this, another surprise:  an antiquarian library, a darkened private collection kept intact since it was founded by a nobleman in 1655. The curator led us to some low wooden cabinets and pulled out folios filled with the broadsheets printed in Spinoza’s day. These were pamphlets of all sizes handed out on the street, written by 17th century commentators on political events, on new ideas in physics, time, ethics. Suddenly, through these smudged sheets, the whole century sprang back alive: debates over Descartes’ method of doubt, announcements of Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia and other dignitaries arriving to find political sanctuary in the Netherlands, accounts of the daily challenges faced by the de Witt brothers in their efforts at reform. Spinoza at that time lived in the Hague with the house-painter Van der Spyck who rented him an attic room. I imagined his landlord arriving home from the town center with the latest papers, bringing them up to the attic to discuss them with his tenant. And outside his door, perhaps the Van der Spyck children tossing pillows, then beyond, out in the street the continual reckoning of lives.

We were allowed to remain in this remarkable century for the rest of the afternoon, wearing white cotton gloves and turning brittle yellowed pages.

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That evening I walked through the narrow cobbled streets to look in the windows of the bookstores of Leiden. In one antiquarian shop an ancient wooden angel was holding a small vellum book in her upraised hands and wore a beatific smile, offering its knowledge to the street lamp opposite her. I was certain then that she moved, slightly turning her head. When I passed her again after dinner I had a feeling of deep satisfaction and anticipation. The glow of the street lamp had shifted or else she had gracefully moved her arms. Light was beaming across the pages of her uplifted book as though the lamp was now reading over her shoulder with deep and serious pleasure.

I went up the corridor stairs to my room; sleep was impossible. I settled into the chair to read and some time later experienced a number of Spinoza’s ideas lazily circling the room like well-fed birds. I wrote them out in large letters on some blank cards, then propped them up on the few pieces of furniture in the room, tossing others across the bed:

  facies totius Universi

Amor intellectualis dei

Deus sive Natura

Exprimit, explicat

Fortitudo, generositas

Caute[i]

After two I climbed under the sheets and fell asleep with a blurry vision of Spinoza’s correspondence of far and near: far is the great distance we witness in the celestial constellation of a dog; near the animal which barks. Just before dawn, a nightmare of flames leaping down the street woke me with a jolt. Then an image of abject 17th century cruelty flooded in, the day the de Witts were drawn and quartered in a public square. Spinoza had been horrified, he tried to carry a placard down to the crowds: Ultimi Barbarorum. He was stopped by his landlord, Van der Spyck, who knew all too well that Spinoza would also be instantly torn from limb to limb.

Caute.

I saw the floor was scattered with fallen cards, deep blue boxes in the early morning light.

Diamond

Rijnsburg is a small village near Leiden made up almost entirely of small stone houses on poorly marked streets. The train travels only so far and then it was a long walk, no crumbs along the path leading to Spinoza’s early home where he worked as a lens grinder. Finally, a small plaque attached to a cottage with a dark interior. Closed.

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I could see the glass grinding wheel sitting silently in one corner, a glass case of Spinoza’s library with their rubbed and worn spines in an adjacent room. The calm which lay in the interior was one I did not ever wish to disturb. As I walked away I recalled that Thoreau, like Spinoza, died at age 44. He developed an illness from the fine graphite dust inhaled while inventing his round pencil machine; for Spinoza it had been the powder of glass. His lenses had aided fellow explorers like the upholsterer van Leeuwenhoek in his discoveries of the creatures swimming in dregs of wine, and Huygens in his view out toward the stars. Yet what pulled Spinoza on was a desire for the invisible, the unseeable, for understanding.

Spinozaslensgrindingmachine-1

Diamond

In The Hague Spinoza’s final home survives in what has become a rough section of the city; I was warned by the train conductor to leave before dark. The streets were broken in many places and lifeless, filled with a hollow silence.

2120025454_6b38dbcb56When I arrived I felt a sinking despair. The house was also dark and had a small brass notice explaining one must have an appointment in advance. I rang the bell and waited for the faint sound of footsteps. There were none. I realized it would be rude to ring again, so I stepped out into the street and gazed at the uppermost window of the attic. That was his room, the room where he composed the Ethics, the room where he wrote his ideas on freedom of speech, where he re-conceived the western view of God as a force of nature infusing all of life instead of a bearded man in the sky. And as I stood looking up a pair of eyes appeared between the curtains in a window on the lower floor.
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A few moments later the front door opened and a lovely older woman who was perhaps seventy invited me inside. The lower level holds the International Spinoza Society Library in dark brown wood. A long oak table easily conjures up images of meetings where earnest, erudite scholars engage in good-natured debates. My host, mevrouw van Oeffal, brought me a cup of hot tea and, much to my pleasure, one for herself and sat down to speak with me. She said she could tell from my expression that I had come a long way. She watched while I examined the manuscripts in glass cases and the sculpture of Spinoza in a dimly lit niche. Then I asked about the attic. No one goes up there, she explained. “No one?” I asked. She could tell how desperately I wanted to see it. Asking me not to tell, though not to whom, she led me through the second level where she and her husband live as caretakers.

Their home held a lifetime of treasures: blue and white porcelain full of peaches set on a table covered with the traditional deep patterned carpet, delicate still life paintings in dark wooden frames. Mevrouw van Oeffal let me to a corner and pointed to a decorated wooden panel on the wall, pale blue with faded flowers. It was small, odd-shaped and warped and suddenly opened on an extremely narrow spiral brick and plaster stairwell. The steps curved up into the attic which, like most Dutch houses, is extremely long, stretching a distance away from the street. In Spinoza’s day, the house painter van der Spyck lived below with his wife. Their seven children slept in the back of the vast, dark attic—Spinoza’s room was in the front, with a thin wall separating him from their bright and noisy lives. Mevrouw van Oeffal opened the low door to his room, and in the dark I could see only bright squares from his window stretching a grid across the floor. Leaning closer, I expected to see his words etched in light, and then noticed her white hair glistening from the same sun.

In one corner sat Spinoza’s small bed frame of dark wood slatted to hold a mattress; it had been given to him by his mother and was the only thing he kept from that legacy.[ii] The dark green curtains that once hung from its posts are gone, and other than its starkness without bedding it is striking only in its child-like size. In another corner, much to my surprise, mevrouw van Oeffal’s husband had set up an oak desk from this century with a few books on modern business subjects. She told me she and her husband became caretakers here seven years ago when he retired from Shell Oil.

She had not known much about Spinoza, she confessed, but on moving into the house she felt an urgent need to understand. She took my hand then, turning towards me with widening eyes. With her family’s belongings still scattered everywhere in boxes, she went to the attic each day and sat on the edge of the bare bed frame to read Spinoza’s Ethics. It is a difficult book, she admitted. As mevrouw van Oeffal told her story, I realized how deeply she had been changed by this experience. We looked at each other silently then, two women of different ages and cultures and paths. She said to me:

            “After two weeks of reading from early morning until late at night, I got through it all. I came to know how important these ideas are and how they have become….And I knew what kind of man he was.”

Her grip tightened. She knew from my expression that I had come to the same understanding by a different route and was as thankful. She told me how this knowledge affects the way she takes care of his home, how she imagines his life.

Diamond Spinoza first spoke of conatus as a tendency for self-preservation which is common to all things in nature. Perhaps it is not simply a desire to exist but to arrive at an understanding of our existence. Perhaps, he reasoned, that is as close as we can come to salvation.

Over three centuries earlier, Spinoza’s own landlady, mevrouw Van der Spyck, had asked him one day whether he believed that she could be saved through her Lutheran faith. Spinoza was a religious paradox to many: he had been expelled from Judaism, was seen as heretical by the Christians and yet was known for his deep ethical consideration and his abiding faith in God. God or Nature, he said, they are one and the same. Mevrouw Van der Spyck’s question was sincere, hoping to learn in shortened version what he might have discovered. She was struck by his answer and wrote it in her day-book:

            “Your religion is a good one, you need not look for any other, nor doubt that you may be saved in your faith, provided, while you apply yourself to Piety, you live at the same time a peaceable and quiet life.”[iii]

Salvation in some realm beyond this earth was not something Spinoza took stock in; he was much more concerned with how we reckon with our lives while we’re here. But with respect to other’s faith, he was respectful, and his vision of God was one of accommodation. There were so many things he could have said; instead, he suggested living a peaceable life.[iv]   Perhaps he knew his own path to understanding was neither simple nor reproducible. Each of us must tie up the threads of our faith in our own way, find our own peace. He might be heartened, though, hundreds of years later, to learn the passion to understand is still simmering under the roof of his old home. A different mevrouw, the same room, similar light falling in through the window. And the final words of his Ethics still pushing us toward earthbound hope:

 Sed omnia præclara tam difficilia quàm rara ∫unt.

But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.[v]

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ENDNOTES

This essay was first published in NEST Magazine, 2000.

[i] The complete countenance of universal understanding

The intellectual love of god

God or Nature

(first) Express, unfold the explanation

(then) Courage, moral strength, compassion

Caution

[ii] The poet Zbigniew Herbert tells the story of Spinoza’s bed in his book of essays about Dutch art and life:   Still Life With A Bridle Trans. John and Bogdana Carpenter (London: Jonathan Cape, 1993) 150-152.

[iii] Johannes Colerus, The Life of Benedict de Spinoza (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1906) 9. J. Thomas Cook discusses this biographical episode and its meaning in “Did Spinoza Lie to His Landlady?” in Studia Spinozana Vol. 11 (1995) Spinoza’s Philosophy of Religion (Würzburg: Königshausen u. Neumann GmH, 1996) 15-37.

[iv] He could have told her, for instance, that we are all striving for understanding (which is a kind of salvation) and we discover good and evil only in how they lead us to it or get in the way. He could have described (centuries before Freud) how moments of conflicting emotion come back to haunt us again and again unless we can think back into our past and untangle the truth of the situation. See Benedict de Spinoza , The Ethics in Works of Spinoza, unabridged Elwes translation, Volume II The Ethics, Selected Letters, On the Improvement of Human Understanding. (New York: Dover Publications, 1951)

[v] Benedict de Spinoza, Ethica, De Libertate Humana, Propositio XLII, Scholium in Éthique. Texte original et traduction nouvelle par Bernard Pautrat. (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1988)

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The Lost Notebook of Aqueous Perspective

This essay by D. L. Pughe first appeared in Writings on Water, MIT Press.

“describe all the forms taken by water from its greatest to its smallest wave, and their causes.”1

                                                         —Leonardo da Vinci

It became a deluge for Leonardo to write of water. All its forms were to be explored, beginning in nooks and crannies of ice where it melted and pooled, flowing into brooks, streams braiding into rivers, rivers splashing into seas, and finally oceans rising in enormous crescendos from gargantuan storms. The studies of currents alone took up page after page, the exploration of clouds into rain a complete chapter, and the deep exploration of underwater vision: a lost notebook.2

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He is in Cloux near the castle of Amboise in the Loire Valley. He had retired to the royal manor house at 62 after exhausting nearly every possibility in Florence, Venice, Milan.

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Here he is allowed to think and dream, and occasionally help Francis I, the French king, with plans for a network of canals for the Loire.

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Awake in the night he goes over again and again in his imagination the outlines of forms he has been studying, the ‘noteworthy things conceived by subtle speculation.’3

He considers the great amount of hidden water lingering inside the earth which feeds the springs. The motionless high mountain lakes and ponds, the stillness of fountains and stagnant pools. He attributes their calm to their distance from the center of the earth, and yet it is from these heights that splashing rapids, thundering waterfalls and great rivers fall like drapery: the Ticino from Laggo Maggiore, the Adda from Lake Como, the Rhine emerging from Lake Constance and Lake Chur.4

Fire flutters upward; water trickles down or drops from the sky. He is fascinated by liquid gravity, always descending, falling over, plunging, flowing downstream, pouring into the sea. Fire draws what is caught in it toward the sky like a passion that consumes you as it lifts you; water pulls you under in its powerful embrace.

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Was it this attraction as well as this fear that led Leonardo to contemplate it again and again, from every perspective?

He drew rivers the same way he drew veins in the arm, a confluence of streams joining together coursing to the ocean, nourishing continents along the way. Reaching the sea they unravel in countless capillaries, spilling their pure contents into salty waves. He is fascinated by these mergers and divergences, the sweet purity of springs and heavy salinity of seas. He studies the way water courses around objects in its path, experimenting with sticks and boards, drawing the curls and braided currents as it rushes past every obstacle. He sketches a smaller river bending into a larger one from the opposite direction, whirling as the currents adjust themselves to the same destination.5

He realizes the ways water must be coaxed into channels and invited into canals by a beckoning drop in height.

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Leonardo is aware water is not gentle in return. In the long nights at Cloux he dreams again and again of the massive deluge he is sure will wash civilization away. He sees clouds rise in ferocious gray armor and drop ton after ton of water on a helpless countryside full of desperate humanity. Mountains crumble, whirling waves rise, fly up, recoil, ‘friction grinds the falling water into minute particles, quickly converted to a dense mist, mingling with the gale in the manner of curling smoke and wreathing clouds,’ then all is washed away in a deadly inundation of foam, furiously rushing to the depths of the sea.6

He imagines the deep hidden channels of water within the earth which, over centuries, have carved away hollow caves. He is torn by contradictory emotions of fear and desire: ‘fear of the threatening dark cavern, desire to see whether there are any marvelous things within.’7 Whirlpools sometimes stir there, awaiting each luckless thing pulled into their path. They can appear dark blue and calm, for instance, running among jagged cliffs behind an innocent Madonna cradling her child in a nest of rocks.

3Leonardo-Da-Vinci-Virgin-of-the-Rocks---London

The exchange between oceans and rivers fascinated him, water constantly circulating and returning, the infinite number of times all the waters of the sea and rivers have passed through the mouth of the Nile.8

…that which crowns our wonder in contemplating [water] is that it rises from the utmost depths of the sea to the highest tops of the mountains, and flowing from the opened veins returns to the low seas; then once more, and with extreme swiftness, it mounts again and returns by the same descent…9

Gradually, these torrents of water ‘throw back stones toward the mountains’ hitting one another and rounding their edges away. By the time they reach the sea, they are pebbles worn to sand. Just as the water itself is caught in eternal return, so the land goes back and forth over centuries:10

Li moti son fatti dalli cor si de’fiumi; Li moti son disfatti dalli cor si de’fiumi.

Mountains are made by the currents of rivers, Mountains are destroyed by the currents of rivers.11

Was it this which drew Leonardo on?

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What leads him to draw a submarine, to take Aristotle’s notion of a ‘diving bell’ and want to plunge into the deep violet depths of the ocean? Knowing his accumulated fears of water, of the deluge that could sweep humankind away in a thunderclap and swirling curl of foam, what did he hope to find in the fluttering light on the ocean floor?

On terra firma Leonardo was trained in the strict linear perspective of Alberti, a world controlled by point and line falling onto planes. Forms recede into the distance in graduated angles, always toward an anchoring point on a horizon which is also the point of vanishing. The Euclidean geometry which lay behind Alberti’s scheme was widely believed then and rarely challenged. In the beginning Leonardo applied angles to light and air, and saw the boundaries of shadows as determinable points. ‘He who is ignorant of these [points],’ he warned, ‘will produce work without relief, and the relief is the summit and soul of painting.’12

LeonardoDivertingRiver

But in the shadowy, spiraling realm below the surface of water there is no such relief. Plunged below an anchoring horizon, all points are indeterminable. It is a realm of impossible angles where light dances like snakes rising from the floor instead of crisp beams slanting down from the sun. Perhaps he was headed there all along, toward a more inexpressible abstraction. In his late writings Leonardo begins to re-define a point as an instant in time and a line as a length or duration.13 Gradually the lines of a winding river come to resemble his own time on earth, ending in the immensity of the sea. Duration there becomes blurred, hinting at eternity.

On land, Leonardo devised a new means of atmospheric and aerial perspective to eloquently explore the blurring of the world. He noted the way objects diminish in sight as they recede from the eye, the way colors change in the distance (often merging into blue), and the haziness of edges, of vanishing: ‘the way that objects ought to be less carefully finished as they are farther away.’14 He applied these luminous rules to his painted landscapes, overriding hard-edged geometric schemes. And he delighted in the waters which trailed off into the bluish distance, in particular those at the edge of a certain portrait of a lady with whom he shared his room in Cloux. In the evenings did he linger in the deep turquoise water that travels through the craggy mountains behind her indecipherable smile?

mona-lisa-or-la-gioconda-by-leonardo-da-vinci  LeonardoMonaDetail

He began to call the Albertian method ‘simple,’ a construzione legittima but nonetheless artificial, then started to decode what he called ‘natural’ perspective. He resurrected the importance of our rounded world. The alleged ‘pyramid of vision’ which is said to frame nature and reach into our eye would give us a much different view than the one we actually see. He found our two eyes, working together, frame a graceful oval not a square. How did this play out under the surface of the ocean; how did this man, for whom the edges of light were once calculable angles, manage in the restless coils of aquatic shadows?

LeonardoCurvatures

He began to embrace curves. He observed that stones flung into the water become the center and cause of many circles, that sound also diffuses itself in the air in echoing rings. And he noticed the sky spreading out in concentric bands of atmosphere, with the horizon suddenly visible as a graceful arc.15

Peering into water from above, he finds direct light does not allow him to look deeply into the layers of a stream, it bounces back his reflection and the sky. His eyes find a way in through other dark shadowy images reflected on the surface or what he calls the ‘skin.’ Observing submerged pebbles he sees how light bends as it enters the liquid world then diffuses in unpredictable ways. It would be several hundred years before a ‘wave’ theory of light came to be accepted, but he was already suspicious of the sanctity of beams.

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Straight things seem to dissolve into ribbons in watery realms. Descartes would later describe how a stick in water appears bent from refraction, and that only a child would most likely believe it is truly bent. ‘Touching it, however, confirms that it is straight and goes beyond our preconceived opinions.’16 Descartes believed all ‘visual errors’ could be corrected this way—our senses working furiously in tandem to check and balance one another. He calls this ability ‘reason;’ Leonardo called it common sense, senso comune, where the five senses minister to the soul and enhance artistic perception.

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He was the master of depicting shadows, smoky contours: Sfumato was his special means of rounding edges by subtle gradations to capture three-dimensional views. He explains how the density of a shadow is darkest closest to that which casts it, then fades away as it stretches into the distance. But looking down on water, shadows from above leap great distances and nearly disengage from their source. Bridges, for instance, leave their wobbly geometry on the surface some meters up or downstream. And immersed underneath the sea, the shadow of a fish swimming above can dart across the ocean floor a safe distance away just as its fin touches your shoulder. How did he try to capture these shifts of location, the curves of light, the diabolical dimensions of vision in the hushed immense chamber of the ocean?

LeonardoRiverFlowingCanal

We cannot know. In his rooms at Cloux in those final days he dreamed again of the deluge, his sketches becoming more and more cataclysmic and yet full of a vibrant conclusion: visual clashes of cymbals and drums and trumpets. He finds a sketch of a storm of our human failings, our foolish desire for objects suddenly bursting and falling from a dark thicket of clouds.

LeonardoTheRainOfThings

Comforting him in his last hours, the outstretched arms of St. Anne, the enigmatic face of La Gioconda, and the even more mysterious smile of St. John, his flame-like finger pointing toward the sky. They all appear to know something. And joining him in thought: a self-portrait, his beard cascading in silent waterfalls.

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He had once believed that swimming is the closest we can come to understanding what birds do in the air. It can free us from gravity and fear. Like flying, it is a pushing away, and he believed we could push, that water could be mastered. Challenging Christ, he devised shoes with helpful poles for walking on the surface.

leonardo-da-vinci-skis-with-which-one-can-walk-on-water-detail  REBR-127_Da-Vinci_life-preserver

And attempting to defy the gods, he designed a life saver not unlike those carried on giant ships traversing the seas.

But as his apocalyptic dreams grew, these inventions paled. He again and again is caught in the storm:

 the swollen waters of the river, already having burst its banks, will rush on in monstrous waves; and the greatest will strike upon and destroy the walls of the cities and farmhouses in the valley…the swollen waters will sweep round the pool which contains them, striking in eddying whirlpools against the different obstacles, and leaping into the air in muddy foam; then, falling back, the beaten water will again be dashed into the air…17

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He had once designed an underwater suit to dive the depths of the ocean.

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Did it occur to him now that the ocean floor might be the safest place to hide? He had altered his judgment of the world and had begun to embrace the curved reality we, too, have recently begun to know. What did the deepest depths of blue water hold in final reckoning? A resting place, a refuge, a realm of constant revision and invention. A point of vanishing where the soul is firmly anchored in scattered turquoise light.

295

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ENDNOTES

This essay originally appeared in Writing On Water (Terra Nova Books), edited by David Rothenberg and Marta Ulvaeus,  (MIT Press, 2002).

1 Leonardo da Vinci, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Vol. II compiled and edited from Leonardo da Vinci, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Vol. II compiled and edited from the manuscripts of Jean Paul Richter (New York: Dover, 1970) Section 922 175.

2 The notebook of underwater perspective was not mislaid, it was simply but sadly never written. It is not known if Leonardo did intend to write one.

3 Leonardo da Vinci, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952) 218.

4 Leonardo, The Notebooks, Vol. II, Section 933 181.

5 Leonardo, The Notebooks, Vol. II, Section 971 201.

6 Leonardo, The Notebooks, Vol. I compiled and edited from the manuscripts of Jean Paul Richter (New York: Dover, 1970) Section 606-611 305-314.

7 Leonardo, The Notebooks, Vol. II, Section 1339 395.

8 Leonardo, The Notebooks, Vol. II, Section 945 187.

9 Leonardo, The Notebooks, Vol. II, Section 965 197.

10 Leonardo, The Notebooks , Vol. II, Section 919 175.

11 Leonardo, The Notebooks, Vol. II, Section 979 205.

12 Leonardo da Vinci, Trattato della Pittura di Leonardo da Vinci, Section 121, quoted in Kenneth Clark, Leonardo da Vinci (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939) 76.

13 Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Arundel, Section 190 in The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, ed. J. P. Richter (London: Oxford 1939, rev. ed. New York 1970) Paragraph 916.

14 Leonardo da Vinci, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, ed. Edward MacCurdy (New York: Reynal, 1939) 864.

15 Leonardo da Vinci Notebook A (Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale 2038) 9v, R paragraph 69. Quoted in James S. Ackerman’s Distance Points, Essays in Theory and Renaissance Art and Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991) 116.

16 René Descartes, Descartes, Selected Philosophical Writings, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) Section 439 124.

17 Leonardo on Painting, ed. Martin Kemp (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) 234-235.

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Transylvanian Dreams

by D. L. Pughe

CsodavarThickForest

The Transylvania I love has Nothing to do with vampires. It is an area of steep Carpathian mountains with lush fir forests, remote villages and towns, and steeped in legends and centuries-old customs and myths.  Tran-sylvania (literally ‘across the forest”) is the ancient mountainous region of what was once Hungary and now is in Romania, captured best by Patrick Leigh Fermor in his book Between the Woods and the Water:

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“All through the afternoon the hills had been growing in height and now they rolled into the distance behind a steep and solitary hemisphere clad to the summit with vineyards. We turned into the tall gates at the foot of it and a long sweep of grass brought us to a Palladian façade just as night was falling. Two herons rose as we approached; the shadows were full of the scent of lilac. Beyond the french windows, a coifed and barefoot maid with spill was lighting lamps down a long room, and, with each new pool of light, Biedermeier furniture took shape and chairs and sofas where only a few strands of the original fabric still lingered; there were faded plum-coloured curtains and a grand piano laden with framed photographs and old family albums with brass clasps; antlers branched, a stuffed lynx pricked its ears, ancestors with swords and furred tunics dimly postured. A white stove soared between bookcases, bear-skins spread underfoot: and, as at Kövecsespuszta, a sideboard carried an array of silver cigarette-cases with the arms and monograms of friends who had bestowed them for standing godfather or being best man at a wedding or second in a duel. There was a polished shellcase from some Silesian battle, a congeries of thimble-sized goblets, a scimitar with turquoise-encrusted scabbard, folded newspapers—Az Ujság and Pesti Hirlap sent from Budapest, and the Wiener Salonblatt, an Austrian Tatler full of pictures of shooting parties, equestrian events and smart balls far away, posted from Vienna. Among the silver frames was a daguerrotype of the Empress Elizabeth—Queen, rather, in this lost province of the formerKingdom—another of the Regent dressed as admiral of a vanished fleet, and a third of Archduke Otto in the pelts and the plumes of a Hungarian magnate. Red, green and blue, the squat volumes of the Almanach de Gotha were ready to pounce. A glittering folio volume, sumptuously bound in green leather, almost covered a small table and its name, Az ember tragediája, was embossed in gold: The Tragedy of Man, by Imre Madács. It is a long nineteenth-century dramatic poem of philosophic and contemplative temper, and no Hungarian house, even the least bookish—like English houses with the velllum-bound Omar Khayyám illustrated by Edmund Dulac—seemed complete without it. Finally, a rack in the corner was filled with long Turkish pipes. This catalogue of detail composes an archetype of which every other country-house I saw in Transylvania seemed to be a variation. At the other end, beyond the double doors of a room which was half-study and half-gunroom, more antlers proliferated; figures moved in the lamplight and the voices of guests sounded, as I hastened upstairs to wash and get some of the dust off before meeting them…
Next morning revealed the front of a late eighteenth-century building. Between the wings, four wide-spaced Tuscan columns advanced and ascended both floors to form a splendid loggia. White louvred shutters continued the line of windows on either side, each leaf touching its neighbour on the façade when they were open while indoors the light poured across the floors; closed, with their slats ajar when the sun became too hot, they striped the wide polished beams underfoot with bars of light and dark,. There was a wheel with a handle which cranked out an enormous slant of white awning and, looking out, one might have been on the deck of a schooner painted by Tissot with tree-tops for waves. Beyond, the vine-clad hemispherical hill of Mokra soared like a volcanic island against snowy heaps of cloud and a pale sky. The smells of lilac, box and lavender drifted in, goldfinches moved about the branches, and now and then house-martins from the nests clustering along the pediment strayed indoors and flew in desperate circles or swept clean through the house and out the other side.”

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CabinInClearing    MEadows&Trees OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA   Romania Transylvania grass-thatched barn

 

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Transylvania is ‘Erdély,’ the land of forests and dreams….

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TransylvaniaMaramaros_borsafured  TransylvaniaMaramaros_kilatas_a_borsa_hagorol          BorszekInFogMorning

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Connecting with Nature in Forster’s Forests

by D. L. Pughe

In Chapter 14 of Howard’s End, the lovely novel by E. M. Forster, the young clerk named Mr. Bast reveals that he has walked all night through forests in a feverish state to comprehend nature, humanity, all of life.

allegheny-national-forest_pennsylvania He confesses this to his new acquaintances, the Schlegel sisters, and a rapid literary conversation ensues in which George Meredith’s – The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Robert Louis Stevenson’s – Prince Otto, and Richard Jefferies – The Story of My Heart are among the books mentioned as testaments to nature writing and the meaning of life.

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So begins Mr. Bast’s account of his night walking:

“I took the Underground to Wimbledon. As I came out of the office I said to myself, ‘I must have a walk once in a way. If I don’t take this walk now, I shall never take it.’ I had a bit of dinner at Wimbledon, and then–”

“But not good country there, is it?”

“It was gas-lamps for hours. Still, I had all the night, and being out was the great thing. I did get into woods, too, presently.”

“Yes, go on,” said Helen.

“You’ve no idea how difficult uneven ground is when it’s dark.”

“Did you actually go off the roads?”

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“Oh yes. I always meant to go off the roads, but the worst of it is that it’s more difficult to find one’s way.

“Mr. Bast, you’re a born adventurer,” laughed Margaret. “No professional athlete would have attempted what you’ve done. It’s a wonder your walk didn’t end in a broken neck. Whatever did your wife say?”

“Professional athletes never move without lanterns and compasses,” said Helen. “Besides, they can’t walk. It tires them. Go on.”

“I felt like R. L. S. You probably remember how in Virginibus.”

“Yes, but the wood. This ‘ere wood. How did you get out of it?”

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“I managed one wood, and found a road the other side which went a good bit uphill. I rather fancy it was those North Downs, for the road went off into grass, and I got into another wood. That was awful, with gorse bushes. I did wish I’d never come, but suddenly it got light–just while I seemed going under one tree. Then I found a road down to a station, and took the first train I could back to London.”

“But was the dawn wonderful?” asked Helen.

With unforgettable sincerity he replied, “No.” The word flew again like a pebble from the sling. Down toppled all that had seemed ignoble or literary in his talk, down toppled tiresome R. L. S. and the “love of the earth” and his silk top-hat. In the presence of these women Leonard had arrived, and he spoke with a flow, an exultation, that he had seldom known.

“The dawn was only grey, it was nothing to mention.”

“Just a grey evening turned upside down. I know.”

“–and I was too tired to lift up my head to look at it, and so cold too. I’m glad I did it, and yet at the time it bored me more than I can say. And besides–you can believe me or not as you choose–I was very hungry. That dinner at Wimbledon–I meant it to last me all night like other dinners. I never thought that walking would make such a difference. Why, when you’re walking you want, as it were, a breakfast and luncheon and tea during the night as well, and I’d nothing but a packet of Woodbines. Lord, I did feel bad! Looking back, it wasn’t what you may call enjoyment. It was more a case of sticking to it. I did stick. I–I was determined. Oh, hang it all! what’s the good–I mean, the good of living in a room for ever? There one goes on day after day, same old game, same up and down to town, until you forget there is any other game. You ought to see once in a way what’s going on outside, if it’s only nothing particular after all.”

“I should just think you ought,” said Helen, sitting–on the edge of the table.

The sound of a lady’s voice recalled him from sincerity, and he said: “Curious it should all come about from reading something of Richard Jefferies.”

“Excuse  me, Mr. Bast, but you’re wrong there. It didn’t. It came from something far greater.”

But she could not stop him. Borrow was imminent after Jefferies– Borrow,  Thoreau, and sorrow. R. L. S. brought up the rear, and the outburst ended in a swamp of books. No disrespect to these great names. The fault is ours, not theirs. They mean us to use them for sign-posts we mistake the sign-post for the destination. And Leonard had reached the destination. He had visited the county of Surrey when darkness covered its amenities, and its cosy villas had re-entered ancient night. Every twelve hours this miracle happens, but he had troubled to go and see for himself. Within his cramped little mind dwelt something that was greater than Jefferies’ books–the spirit that led Jefferies to write them; and his dawn, though revealing nothing but monotones, was part of the eternal sunrise that shows George Borrow Stonehenge.

“Then you don’t think I was foolish?” he asked becoming again the naive and sweet-tempered boy for whom Nature intended him.

“Heavens, no!” replied Margaret.

“Heaven help us if we do!” replied Helen.

“I’m very glad you say that. Now, my wife would never understand –not if I explained for days.”

“No, it wasn’t foolish!” cried Helen, her eyes aflame. “You’ve pushed back the boundaries; I think it splendid of you.”

“You’ve not been content to dream as we have–”

 

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The Fictions of Kleist

by D. L. Pughe

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The great Swiss writer Robert Walser captured the difficulties of writing in his perfect short story ‘Kleist in Thün’ about the writer Heinrich von Kleist and the summer he spent trying to write on an island in the Thünersee.

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W. G. Sebald in turn wrote about Walser and his own struggle with writing and sensitivity and showed us the antique postcard Walser had of Kleist’s Thün retreat in his possessions when he died.

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What is it about Kleist that draws so many writers to him? Christa Wolf has also written a near perfect slim book “No Place On Earth” about an imaginary meeting between Kleist (1777-1811) and the poet Karoline von Günderrode (1780-1806), a meeting devoid of romance but instead the confessional conversation of two souls who struggle with living day to day, with pulling the words from themselves that can keep them alive. And sadly, Günderrode killed herself at age 26. 

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Kleist followed suit at age 34, both casualties to the pain that sometimes comes in the rush of images and emotion and that could overwhelm them at times, pinning them down and unable to embrace life. How lucky we are that they were with us as long as they could, and that we hold and read and treasure the works they left behind.

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