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Posts Tagged ‘history’

05 JUNE, 2014

The Breathtaking Love Letters of Violet Trefusis and Vita Sackville-West

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“All the hoardings of my imagination I have laid bare to you. There isn’t a recess in my brain into which you haven’t penetrated.”

More than a decade before her love affair with Virginia Woolf, in an era when LGBT Pride was as laughable a concept as LGBT shame was culturally codified, English author Vita Sackville-West fell in love with another woman, the writer and socialite Violet Keppel, and the two embarked upon one of the most intense and turbulent affairs in literary history. The exquisite epistolary records of their relationship, which was later fictionalized in Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking novel Orlando, span more than a decade and are captured in Violet to Vita: The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West (public library) — an immensely moving addition to history’s most beautiful LGBT love letters, preserved at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, brimming with some of the most urgently, breathtakingly passionate uses of the English language.

Violet and Vita had been friends since childhood, but began forming an intense romantic bond during their teenage years and eventually became lovers in their twenties. The surviving letters, beginning in 1910 when Violet was sixteen and Vita eighteen, capture the exultant and anguishing whirlwind of love so passionate yet so utterly quixotic in the context of their era’s bigotry toward same-sex romance.

In October of 1910, 16-year-old Violet replies — in French, and with exquisite candor — to a letter in which Vita had asked her why she loves her:

I am in the act of asking myself if I ought to reply to your question? A question furthermore most indiscreet and which merits a sharp reprimand. Reply, don’t reply, reply! Oh to the devil with discretion!

Well, you ask me pointblank why I love you… I love you, Vita, because I’ve fought so hard to win you… I love you, Vita, because you never gave me back my ring. I love you because you have never yielded in anything; I love you because you never capitulate. I love you for your wonderful intelligence, for your literary aspirations, for your unconscious (?) coquetry. I love you because you have the air of doubting nothing! I love in you what is also in me: imagination, the gift for languages, taste, intuition and a host of other things…

I love you, Vita, because I have seen your soul…

Over the decade that followed, the two remained lovers even though Vita married the wealthy writer and politician Harold George Nicolson in 1913. They had a mutually agreed upon open marriage. In 1914, Vita gave birth to the first of their two sons and Violet, at her “own sarcastic request,” became a godmother. She and Vita continued to correspond passionately and to steal the occasional weekend getaway for consummating their love.

Violet came to call Vita “Mitya,” short for “my Dmitri,” a character from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, the voluptuous music of which Violet identified with her beloved — it was a choice particularly poignant in its gender-reversal, as Violet wrote in a number of her letters that she would’ve married Vita if she were a man so the two could live happily ever after. But with marriage equality a century away, the fantasy of marriage was only possible if she envisioned her beloved as a male character.

Despite the increasingly forbidding circumstances of their lives, Violet fell deeper and deeper in love. In a letter from the spring of 1918, she writes:

Drunk with the beauty of Mitya! All today I was incoherent. I tell you, there is a barbaric splendor about you that conquered not only me, but everyone who saw you. You are made to conquer, Mitya, not be conquered… You could have the world at your feet.

A few weeks later, at the end of a few days together, Violet writes:

It was Hell leaving you today. God how I adore you and want you. You can’t know how much… Last night was perfection… I am so proud of you, my sweet, I revel in your beauty, your beauty of form and feature. I exult in my surrender today…

Mitya, I miss you so — I don’t care what I say — I love belonging to you — I glory in it, that you alone … have bent me to your will, shattered my self-possession, robbed me of my mystery, made me yours, yours, so that away from you I am nothing but a useless puppet! an empty husk.

In July of 1918, the reality of their impossible love sets in more firmly and Violet writes in anguish:

What sort of a life can we lead now? Yours, an infamous and degrading lie to the world, officially bound to someone you don’t care for…

I, not caring a damn for anyone but you, utterly lost, miserably incomplete, condemned to leading a futile, purposeless existence, which no longer holds the smallest attraction for me…

I never thought I would (or could) love like this.

Violet’s desperation swells all the more painfully if one were to imagine how their relationship might have unfolded had marriage equality been around at the time — a wistful realization that Violet herself touches on with remarkably prescient poignancy in a letter from August of 1918:

Oh, Mitya, come away, let’s fly, Mitya darling — if ever there were two entirely primitive people, they are surely us: let’s go away and forget the world and all its squalor — let’s forget such things as trains, and trams, and servants, and streets, and shops, and money, and cares and responsibilities. Oh god! how I hate it all — you and I, Mitya, were born 2000 years too late, or 2000 years too soon.

Later that night, Violet writes:

I want to see you. I want to hear your voice. I want to put my hand on your shoulder and cry my heart out. Mitya, Mitya, I have never told you the whole truth. You shall have it now: I have loved you all my life, a long time without knowing, 5 years knowing it as irrevocably as I know it now, loved you as my ideal…

Nine days later, on August 25, Violet can no longer contain her longing and pleads with Vita to go away together, oscillating between prostrate vulnerability and fervent ultimatum:

My days are consumed by this impotent longing for you, and my nights are riddled with insufferable dreams… I want you. I want you hungrily, frenziedly, passionately. I am starving for you, if you must know it. Not only the physical you, but your fellowship, your sympathy, the innumerable points of view we share. I can’t exist without you, you are my affinity, the intellectual “pendent” to me, my twin spirit. I can’t help it! no more can you! … We complete each other…

Mitya, we must. God knows we have waited long enough! Something will go “snap” in my brain if we wait any longer and I shall tell everyone I know that we are going away and why. Do you think I’m going to waste any more of my precious youth waiting for you to screw up sufficient courage to make a bolt? Not I!…

I want you for my own, I want to go away with you. I must and will and damn the world and damn the consequences and anyone had better look out for themselves who dares to become an obstacle in my path.

Above all, Violet is consumed with violent resistance to the life of mediocrity and duplicity, to the concessions they are forced to make in their love in the face of what society deems acceptable. In letter from October of 1918, she channels that resistance with exquisite urgency:

O Mitya, give me great glaring vices, and great glaring virtues, but preserve us from the neat little neutral faintly pink or faintly mauve ambiguities that trot between…

Be wicked, be brave, be drunk, be reckless, be dissolute, be despotic, be an anarchist, be a religious fanatic, be a suffragette, be anything you like, but for pity’s sake be it to the top of your bent — Live — live fully, live passionately, live disastrously if necessary. Live the gamut of human experiences, build, destroy, build up again! Live, let’s live, you and I — let’s live as none ever lived before, let’s explore and investigate, let’s tread fearlessly where even the most intrepid have faltered and held back!

But by the following spring, the bold fantasy had grown stifled by reality. Violet reluctantly became engaged to Denys Trefusis, a soldier with the British Royal Horse Guards, who had been courting her for years. Although Denys had given his word to remain a “gentleman” — that is, he had promised the marriage would be chaste, so that Violet could remain faithful to Vita — the prospect of committing to someone other than her beloved was unbearable to Violet. By March of 1919, as she approaches her twenty-fifth birthday, Violet grows even more desperate over the disconnect between the intensity of her love for Vita and the options handed down to them by life in Edwardian England:

My beautiful, my lovely, I want you so… Cast aside the drab garments of respectability and convention, my beautiful Bird of Paradise, they become you not. Lead the life Nature intended you to lead.

And yet Society, subjugating Nature, has different plans for them. On the last day of March in 1919, Violet attends “a ball of some sort” where her mother had publicly announced her reluctant engagement to Trefusis. That night, at 2 A.M., she sends Vita the most beautiful and harrowing letter of their entire correspondence, emblematic of the heartbreaking impossibility imposed on their love by the era’s punishing conventions and perhaps the most moving case ever made for the heart of marriage equality:

I was congratulated by everyone I knew there. I could have screamed aloud. Mitya, I can’t face this existence… It is really wicked and horrible. I am losing every atom of self-respect I ever possessed. I hate myself. O Mitya, what have you done to me? O my darling, precious love, what is going to become of us?

I want you every second and every hour of the day, yet I am being slowly and inexorably tied to somebody else… Sometimes I am flooded by an agony of physical longing for you … a craving for your nearness and your touch. At other times I feel I should be quite content if I could only hear the sound of your voice. I try so hard to imagine your lips on mine. Never was there such a pitiful imagining…

Nothing and no one in the world could kill the love I have for you. I have surrendered my whole individuality, the very essence of my being to you. I have given you my body time after time to treat as you pleased, to tear in pieces if such had been your will. All the hoardings of my imagination I have laid bare to you. There isn’t a recess in my brain into which you haven’t penetrated. I have clung to you and caressed you and slept with you and I would like to tell the whole world I clamor for you… You are my lover and I am your mistress, and kingdoms and empires and governments have tottered and succumbed before now to that mighty combination — the most powerful in the world.

It is as heartbreaking as it is unsurprising that the two women never escaped the shackles of their era’s narrow possibilities. Violet went through with the marriage to Denys. At the height of their inevitable marriage troubles a few years later, he burned all of her letters, rendering those preserved in Violet to Vita: The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West a rare and bittersweet sacrality of a romance so beautifully full of expansive possibility yet so tragically stifled by the narrowness of a culture unwilling to see that all love is sacred.

Edith Windsor, patron saint of modern love, put it best.

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02 JUNE, 2014

William Shakespeare, Astronomer: How Galileo Influenced the Bard

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A stanzaic vision for Jupiter’s moons and Saturn’s rings.

William Shakespeare — to the extent that he existed at all — lived during a remarkable period in human history. Born the same year as Galileo, a founding father of the Scientific Revolution, and shortly before Montaigne, the Bard witnessed an unprecedented intersection of science and philosophy as humanity sought to make sense of its existence. One of the era’s most compelling sensemaking mechanisms was the burgeoning field of astronomy, which brought to the ancient quest to order the heavens a new spirit of scientific ambition.

In The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe (public library | IndieBound), science journalist Dan Falk explores the curious connection between the legendary playwright and the spirit of the Scientific Revolution, arguing that the Bard was significantly influenced by science, especially by observational astronomy.

'A Comet Lands in Brooklyn,’ an installation designed by StudioKCA and David Delgado of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the 2014 World Science Festival

Of particular interest is what Falk calls “one of the most intriguing plays (and one of the most overlooked works) in the entire canon” — the romantic tragedy Cymbeline. Pointing to a strange and highly symbolic scene in the play’s final act, where the hero sees in a dream the ghosts of his four dead family members circling around him as he sleeps, Falk writes:

Shakespeare’s plays cover a lot of ground, and employ many theatrical tricks — but as for gods descending from the heavens, this episode is unique; there is nothing else like it in the entire canon. Martin Butler calls the Jupiter scene the play’s “spectacular high point,” as it surely is. But the scene is also bizarre, unexpected, and extravagant — so much so that some have wondered if it represents Shakespeare’s own work.

[…]

If anything in Shakespeare’s late plays points to Galileo, this is it: Jupiter, so often invoked by characters in so many of the plays, never actually makes a personal appearance — until this point in Cymbeline. And of course Jupiter is not alone in the scene: Just below him, we see four ghosts moving in a circle. . . . Could the four ghosts represent the four moons of Jupiter, newly discovered by Galileo?

The timeline, Falk points out, is right — Cymbeline is believed to have been written in the summer or fall of 1610, mere months after the publication of Galileo’s short but seminal treatise on his initial telescopic observations, Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger). Falk finds more evidence in an earlier scene, where Jachimo meets the married Imogen, having been introduced by her husband, Posthumus, who has dared Jachimo in a wager to try seducing Imogen — a feat Posthumus deems unattainable. Mesmerized by her beauty, Jachimo decides to win the wager by convincing Imogen that Posthumus had been unfaithful to her on his travels, implying that her best recourse of revenge would be to be unfaithful in turn — of course, by sleeping with Jachimo himself. Lo and behold, his ploy backfires — Imogen is infuriated. To salvage the situation, Jachimo makes a U-turn, claiming to have made everything up as a way of testing her and extolling Posthumus’s virtues. And yet, even though Imogen forgives him, Jachimo is struck by the sketchiness of his own story. Falk cites the following passage spoken by Jachimo:

Thanks, fairest lady.
What, are men mad? Hath Nature given them eyes
To see this vaulted arch and the rich crop
Of sea and land, which can distinguish ’twixt
The fiery orbs above and the twinned stones
Upon th’unnumbered beach, and can we not
Partition make with spectacles so precious
’Twixt fair and foul?

First atlas of the moon, 1647, from 'Ordering the Heavens.' Click image for more.

Falk writes:

The passage seems to allude, at least in part, to the sights one might see in the heavens; at the very least, it has something to do with distinguishing different kinds of objects (including, it would seem, stars) from one another. But the context is crucial: The first line is spoken to Imogen; the remaining lines are clearly an aside, spoken only to the audience. He seems to be saying, My story is unbelievable; why would Posthumus stoop so low, when his own wife is so beautiful? After all, he reasons, the eye gives one the power to tell the stars apart, and even to distinguish one stone on the beach from another; can’t Posthumus see the difference between his wife and a common whore? [Penn State University astronomer Peter] Usher passes over the sexual aspect of these lines, however, and focuses on the astronomical: The “vaulted arch” is surely the sky; the “fiery orbs above” must be the stars. Could the precious “spectacles” be a reference to a telescope-like device?

In the remainder of The Science of Shakespeare, a wonderfully dimensional read in its entirety, Falk goes on to explore a number of other allusions to astronomy throughout the play, from Imogen’s oblique wink at the English mathematician and astronomer Thomas Digges to Shakespeare’s potential reference to the structure of Saturn’s rings. At the heart of his argument is an ambitious effort to offer empirical assurance for what we all intuit — that art and science need each other, inform and inspire one another, and are branches from the same tree of the human longing in a universe that is more like a mirror of meaning than a window of understanding, beaming back at us whatever imagination we imbue it with.

How right pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell was when, two and a half centuries later, she marveled at the shared sensibility of science and poetry:

We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.

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29 MAY, 2014

A Brief History of the Toilet

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How the most appropriately named inventor in history saved humanity from a centuries-long crisis.

“Civilized man has always been outraged by what he sees, or else there would be no civilization,” Norman Mailer once wrote. And, in fact, among the greatest feats of civilization is a technology that has enabled us to get one of humanity’s most primal yet most outrageous sights as far away from us, and as quickly, as possible: the modern toilet.

From Bill Bryson’s wonderfully edifying At Home: A Short History of Private Life (public library) comes the curious history of how this staple of civilization came to be — a story not for the faint of heart or gut, but one brilliantly emblematic of how scientific innovation unfolds, with all its desperation-driven revolutions, cumulative advances, and dormant breakthroughs.

Bryson begins by tracing the colorful etymological history of the word itself:

Perhaps no word in English has undergone more transformations in its lifetime than toilet. Originally, in about 1540, it was a kind of cloth, a diminutive form of ‘toile’, a word still used to describe a type of linen. Then it became a cloth for use on dressing tables. Then it became the items on the dressing table (whence toiletries). Then it became the dressing table itself, then the act of dressing, then the act of receiving visitors while dressing, then the dressing room itself, then any kind of private room near a bedroom, then a room used lavatorially, and finally the lavatory itself. Which explains why toilet water in English can describe something you would gladly daub on your face or, simultaneously and more basically, water in a toilet.

Meanwhile, the fate of the actual toilet water — at what is referred to by that term today — was far less polished. As recently as the beginning of the 18th century, most sewage still went into cesspools, which were frequently neglected to a point of spilling into adjoining water supplies or overflowing into the streets. Bryson cites one man’s diary record of such an incident spurred by his neighbor’s neglected cesspit:

Going down into my cellar… I put my foot into a great heap of turds … by which I found that Mr. Turner’s house of office is full and comes into my cellar, which doth trouble me.

And just when one feels things couldn’t get any more nauseating, Bryson introduces the people who cleaned the cesspits, semi-euphemistically known as “nightsoil men.” Their duties put in perspective any present-day complaints about the struggle to find fulfilling work:

They worked in teams of three or four. One man — the most junior, we may assume — was lowered into the pit itself to scoop waste into buckets. A second stood by the pit to raise and lower the buckets, and the third and fourth carried the buckets to a waiting cart. Nightsoil work was dangerous as well as disagreeable. Workers ran the risk of asphyxiation and even of explosions, since they worked by the light of a lantern in powerfully gaseous environments.

Given this was unfolding during the heyday of Adam Smith, it is perhaps unsurprising that nightsoil workers made up for the extreme disagreeableness of the job and the skewed supply-demand ratio by charging formidable fees. This presented another problem: Poorer districts, often in the overcrowded inner city, couldn’t afford their services, which caused their cesspits to overflow regularly. Given the extreme population density — in London’s most compressed districts, 54,000 people were packed into a few blocks and one one report claimed that 11,000 lived in 27 houses on a single alley — this was a problem.

A new word crept into the vernacular to describe such neighborhoods: slums. Though its exact origin remains unknown, Charles Dickens was among the first to use it, in a letter penned in 1851.

A solution to the cesspit crisis was desperately needed. But when a successful one finally arrived, it wasn’t the result of a eureka! moment for groundbreaking technology — it was a concept that had been around since the end of the 16th century but, as is the case with many scientific and technological breakthroughs ahead of their time, had stopped short of perfecting the prototype enough to gain commercial traction.

That solution was the flush toilet, which John Harington, the godson of Queen Elizabeth I, had built for the Queen in 1597. Delight by his invention, she promptly installed it in Richmond Palace, but it never expanded beyond the royal dwellings. Bryson writes:

Almost 200 years passed before Joseph Bramah, a cabinet maker and locksmith, patented the first modern flush toilet in 1778. It caught on in a modest way. Many others followed… But early toilets often didn’t work well. Sometimes they backfired, filling the room with even more of what the horrified owner had very much hoped to be rid of. Until the development of the U-bend and water trap — which create that little reservoir of water that returns to the bottom of the bowl after each flush — every toilet bowl acted as a conduit to the smells of cesspit and sewer. The backwaft of odors, particularly in hot weather, could be unbearable.

The final link in this chain of problem-solving came from an inventor with perhaps the most brilliantly appropriate name in history: Thomas Crapper. Bryson ties the loose ends of the story:

[Crapper] was born into a poor family in Yorkshire and reputedly walked to London at the age of 11. There he became an apprentice plumber in Chelsea. Crapper invented the classic and still familiar toilet with an elevated cistern activated by the pull of a chain. Called the Marlboro Silent Water Waste Preventer, it was clean, leak-proof, odor-free and wonderfully reliable, and their manufacture made Crapper very rich and so famous that it is often assumed that he gave his name to the slang term crap and its many derivatives. In fact, crap in the lavatorial sense is very ancient, and crapper for a toilet is an Americanism not recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary before 1922. Crapper’s name, it seems, was just a happy accident.

In the rest of At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bryson goes on to explore with equal parts wit and scientific rigor the everyday miracles in each room of the house and the colorful backstories behind those modern comforts we’ve come to take for granted, from pipes to pillows.

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