23 July 2010

The Wisdom of Samuel Johnson

Plate I: Dr. Samuel "Pomposo" Johnson, the "Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung From Lichfield"

"Few things are so liberally bestowed, or squandered with so little effect, as good advice."

So said the great eighteenth-century biographed Brit Samuel Johnson (1709-84). Yet that same bewigged mountain of a dictionarian bestowed a liberal portion of his own helpful advice and apt aphorisms on his fellow Englishmen. His nagging sidekick-scribe, James Boswell, played Johnson's Plato, recorded much of the man's wisdom in his famed biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, DD.S. In fact, Johnson's prolific quoting made him the third most-quoted source (after those twin pillars of English Civilization, Shakespeare and the King James Bible) in Bartlett's [Not Very Familiar to the Average Reader] QuotationsSo, without further adieu, I present, for you to use at opportune moments within your social circle, a selection of the wisdom of the temperamental Doctor.

Plate II: All of London society came out to see the spectacle of Johnson's fortnightly quote-offs, in which the Doctor would invite all challengers to engage him in an "aphoristic Duel."

On Christopher Columbus, Genocider:
"The age being now past of vagrant excursion and fortuitous hostility, he was under the necessity of travelling from court to court, scorned and repulsed as a wild projector, an idle promiser of kingdoms in the clouds; nor has any part of the world yet had reason to rejoice that he found, at last, reception and employment."

On cucumbers:
"It has been a common saying of physicians in England, that a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing."

Plate III: At one of Sir Joshua Reynolds' famous soirees, during which Johnson was known to spout witty sayings randomly, now thought to be a symptom of his possible Tourette Syndrome.

On (Internet?) news:
"To us, who are regaled every morning and evening with intelligence, and are supplied from day to day with materials for conversation, it is difficult to conceive how man can consist without his news, or to what entertainment companies can assemble, in those wide regions of the earth that have neither Chronicles nor Magazines, neither Gazettes nor Advertisers, neither Journals nor Evening-Posts."

On sex:
Boswell: "So then, Sir, you would allow of no irregular intercourse whatever between the sexes?"

Johnson: "To be sure I would not, Sir. I would punish it much more than is done, and so restrain it. In all countries there has been fornication, as in all countries there has been theft; but there may be more or less of the one, as well as the other, in proportion to the force of law. All men will naturally commit fornication, as all men will naturally steal. And, Sir, it is very absurd to argue, as has been often done, that prostitutes are necessary to prevent the violent effects of appetite from violating the decent order of life; nay, should be permitted, in order to preserve the chastity of our wives and daughters."

Plate IV: Johnson, despite severe farsightedness, refused to adopt spectacles, saying that a man of character needs glasses like a "fish needs a velocipede."

On smoking:
"Smoking has gone out. To be sure, it is a shocking thing, blowing smoke out of our mouths into other people's mouths, eyes, and noses, and having the same thing done to us. Yet I cannot account, why a thing which requires so little exertion, and yet preserves the mind from total vacuity, should have gone out."

On taverns:
"As soon as I enter the door of a tavern, I experience an oblivion of care, and a freedom from solicitude. When I am seated, I find the master courteous, and the servants obsequious to my call; anxious to know and ready to supply my wants. Wine there exhilarates my spirits, and prompts me to free conversation and an interchange of discourse with those whom I most love. I dogmatise and am contradicted, and in this conflict of opinion and sentiments I find delight."

Plate V: A man of many eccentricities, Johnson always held his hand in a permanent wave of greeting when walking in publick.

On women preaching:
"Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

And, finally, on exercise:
"Exercise! I never heard that he used any. He might, for aught I know, walk to the alehouse; but I believe he was always carried home again."

Plate VI: Johnson wrote much of his celebrated Dictionary at several poorly-constructed desks in his London house.

Everyone here at the Cabinet (me) hopes that you enjoy these Grade-A aphorisms and use them liberally in the presence of your cohort. Remember, no one is as popular as the tweedy dude in the corner spouting arcane quotes. As Johnson probably did not say, "the road to Hell is paved with good intentions."

17 July 2010

The New Wonderful Museum, and Extraordinary Magazine

Your Humble Author, mining the libraries of the world for forgotten antiquarian baubles of knowledge. 

I recently came across a curious curio of a book on that great treasure trove of copyright-free media, Google Books, called:

The New Wonderful Museum, and Extraordinary Magazine: Being a complete repository of all the wonders, curiosities, and rarities of nature and art, from the beginning of the world to the present year 1802, comprehending a valuable collection (all well attested, and from respectable authorities) of Authentic and entertaining Descriptions, and Copper-plate Representations, of the most Wonderful, Remarkable, and Surprifmg Volcanos, Cataracts, Craters, Waterfalls, Whirlpools, and other Stupendous Phenomena of the Earth, resulting from Earthquakes and the general Deluge; strange Customs, peculiar Manners of remote Countries, wonderful Occurrences, singular Events, heroic Adventures, Absurd Characters, remarkable for eating, drinking, sailing, walking, etc., memorable Exploits, amazing Deliverances from Death and various other Dangers, strange Accidents, extraordinary Memoirs, astonishing Revolutions, etc., Including, among the greatest variety of other valuable matter in this line of literature (from an illustrated edition of the Rev. Mr. James Granger's celebrated Biographical history) memoirs and portraits of the most singular and remarkable Persons of both Sexes, in every Walk of human Life, from Egbert the Great to the Present Time, Consisting of many very eccentric Characters famous for long Life, Courage, Cowardice, extraordinary Strength, Avarice, astonishing Fortune, as well as genuine Narrations of Giants, Dwarfs, Misers, Impostors; singular Events, Heroic Adventures, Absurd and Vices and Virtues; uncommon Eclipses, Storms, remarkable Providences, heroic Achievements, supernatural Occurrences, strange Discoveries of long-concealed Murders, etc., etc., Forming altogether a New and Complete History of the Extraordinaries and Wonders of the World, the whole selected from the most approved and celebrated Historians, Voyagers, Travellers, Philosophers, Physicians and other eminent and distinguished Persons of every Age and Country, and from the most expensive Works and Manuscripts.

Written by a certain William Granger, Esquire, about whom little is known, the book, first published in 1802 in multiple volumes, is a kind of Ripley's Believe-It-Or-Not meets natural history meets Daily Mail-style tabloid meets--you guessed it-- a curiosity cabinet. Below I will share with you some of the terrific illustrations from the book with brief (and not embellished!) descriptions from the same.

I begin with John "Blind Jack of Knaresborough" Metcalf, the blind surveyor of highways in Derbyshire, etc., a man of advanced years still plying his trade when The New Wonderful Museum was published. The author assures us that he was responsible for surveying most of the highways and sundry roads in his corner of England, despite his visual disability. But, hey, couldn't anyone be a surveyor back then? I mean, that syphilitic ignoramus George Washington made it his stock-in-trade, right?

Next we have John "That Incorrigible Turkophile" Kelsey, a man of Restoration-era (1660-1688) England, who tried to convert the Ottoman sultan to Anglicanism! Only speaking English, Kelsey attracted much attention as a curiosity to the residents of erstwhile-Constantinople before spending six months (SEVEN by the Islamic lunar calendar) in a "madhouse." Fortunately, a guard there recognized his Pentecostal language as English. Kelsey was sent back to fair Albion on a ship, but he escaped and reappeared in the capital of the Turkish empire, later establishing a coffeehouse in the city called The Englishman's Head.

Then there is the curious example of Old Thomas Parr, a 152-year-old dude who is so interesting that I will pass over him now to devote an ENTIRE FUTURE POST to his story.

Mal (or Moll) Cut Purse, the stage name of Mary Frith, an infamous criminal of seventeenth-century London. Mal/Moll was of a "very masculine spirit and make...commonly supposed to have been an hermaphrodite." Her many discretions included acting as a "prostitute and procuress, a fortune-teller, a pick-pocket, a thief, and a receiver of stolen goods." In her illicit activities, she enlisted the help of her menagerie of gonofs, pictured above, including a monkey, lion cub, and a murder of crows.

Daniel "The Remarkable Miser" Danser, Esq., "who died in a Sack, and is a most Remarkable Example of UNACCOUNTABLE AVARICE." A wealthy penny-pincher in rural England, Danser scrimped and saved, wearing the meanest clothes and subsisting on the most meager allowances. He had a low opinion of many professions, feeling that "bellows-makers, undertakers, and trunk-makers are very extravagant fellows, on account of their great waste of nails, which profusion he thought unnecessary." He was found during his terminal illness wearing "an old sack, without even a shirt, remonstrated against the impropriety of such a situation," because, "having come into the world without a shirt, he was determined to go out of it in the same manner." After he had died, his executors found money hidden all over his estate, including:

£500 in an old coat in his barn
£2500 in a manure-heap
£200 in the chimney
£600 in a teapot (one Pound Sterling in 1800 would be worth at least $25,000 in today's money)

*     *     *

Those are all the stories I have time to share right now. But perhaps I will continue these tales in a future post, where we will learn the histories of the "Fake Czar," the "Bird Hermit," and the "Runaway Bridegroom"!

06 July 2010

Rotten Boroughs

In the spirit of the current confused governing situation in Ye Olde Unitede Kingedome, I bring you, faithful readers, the history of the ROTTEN BOROUGH, a (sadly) defunct peculiarity of the English political system. These parliamentary constituencies were those that had, over the centuries, lost enough population to make their voters greatly over-represented.  Most were either bought in secret backbench deals in Parliament, passed from aristocratic father to dandified son, or lost in spirited, sandwich-inspiring games of the card game whist.

1.1: Old Sarum, the famous modern Stonehenge city of the Salisbury plain, at its (projected) height

Perhaps the most (in)famous of the rotten boroughs was Old Sarum, once the proposed site for a cathedral city that was later moved to Sailsbury (New Sarum). [Ed.: If they already had a New Sarum, why did they even need its Old namesake?] In 1831, the parliamentary district of Old Sarum held two seats in the House of Commons but only eleven registered voters, all absentee landowners. It had been this way for almost two hundred years, since the seventeenth century. Before every election, it was said, the Eleven met inside the ruins of the cathedral for a fortnight to determine, through a gamut of secret rituals, who the Chosen Members of Parliament would be. Reformers accused them of engaging in augury, drawing lots, professing of secrets, and ancestor worship, among other black and white magic, during these sessions.

1.2: The notorious 'half church of Dunwich', All Saints Anglican Church, as it appeared in 1904, by which time it only contained only half its original number of saints.

The borough of Dunwich (pronounced DUM-wig), in Suffolk, was a thriving port city when its seats were apportioned in 1298. In the late seventeenth century, however, most of the city had fallen into the sea. This Providential retribution was surely the consequence of the rum-drinking, sodomizing, and random lashing that occurred frequently on its streets and docks, suffering the same fate as the morality-based tectonic upheavals in Port Royal, Jamaica and Lisbon, Portugal. By 1832, Dunwich only had forty-four houses and one-half of an Anglican church. To visit his constituency, one early nineteenth-century MP, Snowden Barne, developed an early version of the diving bell, the famous 'Dunwich Water Devil'.

1.3: The 'Dunwich Water Devil'

*     *     *

Gatton, a Parliamentary borough in Surrey, was yet another borough of rot. One seat in in the constituency was sold in 1830 for 180,000 pounds sterling (coincidentally, the weight of local parish church!). This is not to say that free elections were unknown in Gatton. In 1816, Sir Mark Wood (Jr.), defeated a Mr. Jennings (his butler or valet, disputed) by a vote of one to nothing. The only three voters were Wood, Jr., Wood, Sr., and said manservant. How Wodehousian!

1.4: The 'Iron Burgess' reviews her personal guard before the proposed reoccupation of the rotten boroughs, 1982.

*     *     *

Sadly, the Reform Act of 1832 cleansed England of its fifty-seven rotten boroughs in one fell swoop, bringing to mind Hercules and his filthy Augean stables. On the 150th anniversary of the bill in 1982, however, Baroness Margaret Thatcher introduced a resolution in the Commons to restore all of the abolished boroughs for a week of Parliamentary action. These rotten seats would be auctioned off to the highest bidder at Christie's, with all proceeds going to charity. Sadly, it was not carried, despite high interest from Prince Charles, Elton John, and Richard Branson, and the boroughs were destined to remain yet another vanished relic of the high tide of Empire.

In the spirit of Elbridge Gerry, the famous salamander-fancier who brought England's borough-rot to our fair shores, I take leave until the next journey into the hollow recesses of the Wunderkammer.

01 July 2010

The Elusive Columbus

Perhaps the most famous depiction of Chris:
"Christophorus Columbus" - by Sebastiano del Piombo, c. 1520.

At the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, the organizers exhibited seventy-one portraits of the explorer Christopher Columbus (or Cristobal Colon, Cristoval Colombo, etc.). Few of them, however, matched contemporary descriptions of Columbus, and none could be authenticated as painted during his lifetime (1451-1506).

So, no one is really sure what one of the most famous people of the last millennium actually looked like. Evidently, during the fourteen years after his "discovery" of America, no one thought to set the Genoese Admiral of the Ocean Sea down and paint him -- call it the William Shakespeare syndrome.

When compared, few of the portraits have much in common. On a few details, though, most of the artists agreed: Columbus was clean-shaven, a little bald, liked to wear some type of weird nun hat. And they don't even really agree on those.

I present below, for your Cabinet-viewing pleasure, a selection of these portraits (with a running commentary, naturally). Enjoy!

The following are portraits from the sixteenth century:

Unknown artist, 16th century. Nicknamed "The Silver Fox" (El Zorro Plateado).

Unknown artist, 16th century. Close-up!

By Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, c. 1520. One of the more well-known portraits of Double C.

From the altarpiece Virgen de los Navegantes, by Alejo Fernandez, early 16th century. The only officially-licensed portrait by the Spanish Crown.

A 19th-century engraving of Sir Anthony Moore's (alias Sr. Antonio Moro) 1570 portrait.  (Library of Congress) A goatee AND a ruffled collar! How good of Columbus to keep up with late sixteenth-century fashion! Also, notice the tiny Moore in on the lower left.

By famous seventeenth-century Dutch engraver Theodore de Bry, c. 1590. De Bry knew Chris to be a great lover of snails and monkeys.

Columbus, center, speaking Spantalian to some Asians, from an early modern engraving.

The nineteenth century brought numerous fresh attempts to capture the likeness of a centuries-dead man based on little or no evidence. Makes sense, I think.

A bearded Columbus! By John Stevens Cabot Abbot, 1875. Jesus with a Columbus hat?

Chris putting the moves on some poor Native American woman, from the 1875 fresco Columbus and the Indian Maiden by Constantino Brumidi at the U.S. Capitol.

From a late 19th-century banknote, Columbus the Elizabethan troubadour. (Library of Congress)

By John Sartain, 19th century

A portrait commissioned by Columbus to commemorate his 400th birthday, 1892. (Library of Congress)

Late nineteenth century advertisement showing Columbus' love of monkeys (again) tobacco, and Ohio.

The caption from Italian reads: "Columbus and son at the convent of La Rábída, approaching prior Juan Pérez, who is surrounded by poor people." A roguish Chris with penetrating gaze! 
Alfred Dehodencq, 19th century.

Take your choice: Columbus with hat (L) and without (R). Currier and Ives, 1892.

Sans hat, bearded, and with a wonderfully sculpted shock of hair. 
From Charles Morris' Pictorial History of the United States, 1907.

Some monks, a kneeling bearded dude, and a guy in a skirt wait for the Navigator to give up the ghost.
"The Death of Columbus," lithograph by L. Prang & Co., 1893.

And, finally, some more modern depictions:

For when you need to disguise yourself as an early modern explorer. Only $11USD!

Ah! What Columbus was after all along. How poignant! Not sure these are very valuable, though.

Well, gang, it's been a good time for all. See you in the next edition of the Cabinet!

- Your Humble Scribbler
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