The Urine Wheel

Ulrich Pinder’s urine wheel is a thing of beauty. Created in 1506, it describes the colors, tastes and smells of urine belonging to people in various diseased states. Image from this Nature article on “metabonomics,” the modern-day equivalent.

Scholarly Attitude

I shouldn’t enjoy it as much as I do, but I love when I can spot a scholar’s dislike of a historical personage—it shows their humanity. Perhaps the pretense of neutrality is what makes us academics so vitriolic when writing in nonacademic settings. FINALLY WE CAN LASH OUT.

Here’s what Susan Karant-Nunn has to say about Calvin:

“Calvin’s expatiation on Christ’s suffering is almost nil. Having, we assume, read the scriptural text aloud, he then refers to it almost obliquely, as a springboard for his remarks on Christians’ moral condition, which is poor.”

It’s veiled, but it’s there–the not-quite-scholarly use of “nil,” the sarcastic rhythm, the clipped end of the second sentence.

“The emotional trajectory of these Passion sermons is then upward; the congregation is taken from the horror and depths of its corruption to, in conclusion, the possibility of reconciliation with the Heavenly Father. Perhaps the series should have ended on this note.”

So delightfully dry! Why, you ask, should it have ended on this note?

“But in the final sermon, on the Resurrection, Calvin remarks on the fact that the women who went to Christ’s tomb preceded the disciples in hearing the astonishing news. In telling about the Resurrection first to women, who are by nature weak, ignorant, and infirm, God wanted to demonstrate ‘the humbleness of our faith.’ The men, normally elevated and designated to engage in public transactions, deserved punishment, in any case, for having abandoned their master. But God accepts the service even of the weak–he is referring here to the women.”

How about this?

“Unquestionably, Calvin adheres to the doctrine of the atonement; it is central to his conception of salvation for worthless humankind. Yet, so important is it to him to impress his charges with their worthlessness that he resorts to the emotive vocabulary of shaming and condemnation. His language is extreme, and it is designed to break down any lingering sense of self-worth and self-reliance in those around him. His initial stress is upon the nullity of human self-esteem. He proffers the atonement only secondarily, after he has rhetorically (he hopes) reduced his audience to the verminous level to which he repeatedly assigns it.”

Whew. (Also, incredibly effective as a piece of persuasion; I had no particular feelings about Calvin before, but I like Calvin him a lot less after reading this.)

Ointment For Asshole Jesus

If I stopped to mark all the Biblical moments that give me pause, my Bible would double its weight in sticky notes. (Sticky notes are the mattress-mites of academic books.) However, I just got the shiny new facsimile copy of the 1560 Geneva Bible, which means I get to experience verses I’ve already read again, this time with the benefit of 16th century marginalia and its alienating typeface, both of which somehow make it easier to be an ahistorical twat. One of the privileges of the early modernist is that—on your least mature days—your work is interrupted by episodes of rolling around in weird English like a psoriatic pig in mud. Shakespeare notwithstanding, there are days when sixteenth-century English sounds like David Sedaris’s French in “Me Talk Pretty One Day.”

This is one of those days. On another day like it I’ll get down to business and actually make my Bible verses comic series, but in the meantime, draw your own mental picture from this little episode:

“And when Iesus was in Bethania, in the house of Simon the leper, There came to him a womá, which had a boxe of verie costelie ointemet, & powred it on his head, as he sate at the table.”

That’s Matthew 26:6-7.

For those of us willing to cast historical contingencies aside, there are already MAJOR ISSUES. Some random gal just gallops on in and pours a box of super-expensive ointment on Jesus’ head?

The first question to strike the discerning reader is how do you pour ointment?

The second is likely to be how did Jesus feel about a box of ointment (again–a BOX of OINTMENT–who knew it came in boxes? I just can’t imagine an unlikelier phrase, and imagine what getting it off would take in a pre-detergent age) being poured ONTO his head?

Did it get into his eyes?

His disciples were annoyed, though not, as you might expect, because they hated to see their leader BLINDED by OINTMENT in a career-ending mishap*:

“And when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, ‘What needed this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and been given to the poor.”

Now, were I to have an indignation at a woman who waltzed in an doused my friend in ointment, this is not the first indignation I would have. But I respect it: evidently the box of ointment was very costly, and the whole incident does seem very wasteful. Fair if slightly tangential point, disciples.

To which Jesus replies, “Why trouble ye the woman? For she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you, but me shall ye not have always.”

At this, even the Christianest of Christian readers’ eyes goggle. Screw the poor, they’ll always be around! Jesus says, like someone on the set of Entourage instead of, oh, Hope Incarnate For All Mankind. Crazy lady here had the sense to spoil me. TAKE NOTES, FELLAS.

But this is where the ahistorical twat within me reconciles, after an airport chase, with history. Because the marginalia in my shiny new 1560 Geneva Bible shows that sixteenth-century readers were going out of their minds at the cognitive dissonance here too. “This fact was extraordinary, neither was it left as an example to be followed,” they say, in what might be the most diplomatic way you can (as a Christian) say DON’T LISTEN TO CHRIST HERE HE’S VERY TIRED, AND ANYWAY, HE DOESN’T HAVE A HEAD FOR US TO DOUSE IN OINTMENT ANYMORE, SO: “Also Christ is not present with us bodily or to be honoured with any outward pomp.”

And that’s why I love what I do.

*I’m modernizing spelling for the rest of this

How To Kill the 17th Century Serpent in Your Garden of Eden

John Dunton, one of my favorite late seventeenth-century fellas (of whose Athenian Mercury I wrote a series for The Awl), decided to amalgamate “extracts and abridgements of the most valuable books printed in England” between 1665 and 1692. It’s called The Young Students’ Library, and there’s an entry on what I’m 90% sure are modern-day rattlesnakes. Here’s the description:

“There are in several Places of America a kind of Serpents, most dangerous, which is called the Bell-Snake, because with the End of their Tail they make a Noise very like that which Bells do, when they are moved. This Animal is very big, about five Feet long, and of Brown Colour· mixed with Yellow: It hath a forked Tongue, and long sharp Teeth, and moves with as much Swiftness, that it seems to Fly.” 

Worrisome. Dunton helpfully includes the ways and means of killing it. According to a Captain Silas Taylor, what you do is poke it with a stick, on one end of which you’ve put some “wild Pouliot” leaves, which are rattlesnake-kryptonite. Here’s Taylor in his own words:

The wild Pouliot, or the Dictam of Virginia, is about a Foot high, the Leaves are like unto those of the Pouliot, and little blue Knots, at the Places where the Branches are joyned to the Trunk; and though the Leaves are of a Red Colour, inclining to Green, the Water, which is distilled thence, is of a fine Yellow, and is like Brandy. When these Leaves are opened and put upon the Tongue, they seem very hot and pricking. They take of these Leaves, which they tie to the End of a splitted Stick, and some one puts it very near the Nose of the Bell-Serpent, which useth all its Endeavours to draw away from it, but the Smell, as it is believed, kills it in less than half an Hour.

America might a new Garden of Eden where a New Jerusalem could be built, but it comes with the serpent. Of course, it also comes with a handy serpent-killer. The OED tells me dictam is a labiate plant that was thought to be medicinal. Not just medicinal—magic. Cretan dittany was said to be able to expel weapons. Its American cousin was also known as pepper-wort and (fittingly enough) Snake-Root.

But how well did work?

“This Experiment was made in Iuly 1651. at which Time it is thought the Venom of these Animals is in its greatest Strength. This Gentleman also assured the Royal Society, That where ever the wild Pouliot groweth, or the Dictam of Virginia, there are no Bell-Serpents to be seen.”

In short, to keep your Eden serpent-free, be a good gardener. Plant wild Pouliot and keep the devil-bell out.

“I Am All Over Phlegm”–A Bad Letter-Writer’s Apology

I’m in the middle of transcribing some 4000 images I took of the Lister MSS. at the Bodleian—a collection of letters and other documents written to and collected by Martin Lister, 17th century physician and eventual member of the Royal Society.

One under-explored aspect of this particular archive (which includes luminaries writing about the circulation of plants and other Matters of Import as well as patients writing to Lister for help) is the way in which the malfunctioning body allows letter-writers to finesse  social gaffes. As someone continually apologizing to friends for falling out of touch because of migraines, I admire how Richard Bulkeley apologizes to Lister for not writing sooner:

“My long silence since the receipt of your last (for which I heartily thank you) has not proceeded from my want of affection or respect nor even from forgetfulness, but from that Languor of spirit that I now lie under, a listlessness, a lentor of mind, for indeed it is a month since I first took in hand to write to you, & have sat to it at least half a score times since. But as the Vulgar speak (& they little know how truly) I am all over phlegm, this Viscous pituita so visible to me both in Excrement urine & its other effects, does likewise so habitate my Brain that I am good for nothing.”*

*Spelling has been modernized.



If it Craps Like A Duck: The Thrills of 1742 Automata

This 1742 handbill for an exhibit of automata describes three mechanical devices imitating life. The first represents a man playing a German flute, the second, a man playing the pipe and tabor. As for the third:

Another news cutting, issued on the day in question, clarifies—by the sheer number of lines devoted to each subject—what sensation-seekers were demanding most:

The German Flute gets a passing mention, as do the tabor and pipe, but the star of the show will be a robotic duck, doing its best to convincingly eat, groom, and shit onstage.


Limit Points

I’m sitting here trying to put together a course description for a class I may or may not get to teach (I’m 18th and 20th on the waiting lists). There’s something about being outside your environment that makes you feel your limits differently. I could, for example, take making woefully little money. That was fine.

I could take having no idea whether I’m going to be allowed to teach (and therefore have enough to live) from one semester to the next. I could take watching the university slowly undermine humanities departments and redefine itself as a private STEM university that costs more than Harvard. I could even take–with pain–watching the police beat my professors, students and colleagues.

But now those same people who were clearly peaceful and clearly victimized are being charged with crimes. The professor who held up her hands and said “arrest me, arrest me,” and was yanked to the ground by her hair by police, is charged—as if we were in fact in a Kafka novel and not at a public university—with “resisting arrest.”

Others have been arraigned and charged for “failing to leave the scene of a riot.” (There was of course no riot; everything was peaceful until the police attacked people with batons. The Chancellor later accused the protesters of being “not nonviolent” because they linked arms–as Martin Luther King did before them.) Still others stand accused of “malicious blocking of a sidewalk or public thoroughfare.”

What’s worse is that UCPD is behind the charges (they presented their “evidence” to the District Attorney, who has decided to proceed). And the chain of command leads straight to UCPD’s boss–the Chancellor.

They have, in their way, succeeded: in the absence of any evidence, in the face of a patently absurd charge, a judge has issued a “stay away order” to twelve of the detainees. That’s right: the students, who attend a public university, are forbidden from being on their own campus unless they have “class” there.

As anyone who understands a university knows, only a fraction of the important work that gets done there takes place in “class.” There are classes, of course. As graduate students, we teach them. We ourselves do not, however, attend class–at least not in our later years. We are there for other reasons that include, for example, research: the work the university is getting paid tuition dollars for us to do.

It would be a mistake to say that the “official business” of a student ends there. There are talks, lectures, meetings, days spent at the library. There are chance encounters between scholars and students in different fields. There are lunches, study dates, conferences, office hours, unofficial office hours, extra office hours. Working groups. Seminars. Panels. People quite literally LIVE at the university. That’s why there are dorms!

And yet the energetic District Attorney, in collaboration with UCPD and those in the administration who would like to quickly privatize the UC system and convert it into an online STEM university without anything so inconvenient as disagreement, has decided that my colleagues can’t even go onto the campus (which receives tuition dollars for their enrollment) to use the library.

The judge laughed when the question of library visitation came up. “Between you and me,” he seemed to say, “you don’t NEED to use the library. Come on now.” The person charged stared back blankly, confused. Neither side could quite believe that the other was real.

Apropos of nothing, I went to the British Library today. I’m going back tomorrow. The next day I’m accompanying fellow graduate student Irene Yoon to the University of Sussex Library. After that we’re going to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. We aren’t funded for this work–we are actually using our own meager funds to GO TO LIBRARIES. The judge who issued the stay away orders would probably denounce us as manticores.

Anyone who loves a public university enough to protest its insidious dissolution knows that you can’t “stay away”. For one thing, that’s just not how graduate studenthood works. One reason you love it is that its spaces have become part of your life. Take me, for example: I came to UC Berkeley six years ago because I believe in public education. There were other and better offers; I turned them down. I don’t believe in “students as customers” or “students as patients” (both are analogies frequently used by administrators at other universities, and increasingly at this one). Being old-fashioned, I believe students are students. It is actually its own very particular relation that proceeds as a fine collaborative balance of effort and instruction and generosity and will.

I love the students here. They’re dedicated and hard-working and committed. They know that this is their only shot to make it in a broken economy. In a world where student debt can never be forgiven and where federal grants are dwindling away, where people scorn the idea of an education for its own sake, there’s still one place where you can get an astounding education without going into indentured servitude.

There was, anyway.

So I’m sitting here, a continent away, trying to come up with a course description for this hypothetical class I might someday be allowed to teach. Maybe. If 19 of my fellow graduate students on the waitlist find other ways to live. Meanwhile, thirteen of my colleagues have been charged–four months after they were beaten, let’s not forget that small detail–and they’re getting slowly strangled by legal fees.

Graduate students can take a lot. But there was this straw, and now there’s a broken camel. If this is what happens when people try to defend public education; if no one looks up from their computer and writes a letter or makes a call, then we’re done. A California without public universities in general, and without UC Berkeley in particular, will be worse without them. But them’s the breaks. While the sun sets on the UCs, the for-profit Universities of Phoenix will rise and burn and rise again. Maybe UC and UP will merge! Glory be.

2666–Notes on La Parte de los Críticos

(I’m fulfilling last year’s New Resolution, which was to read 2666. I’ve managed—consciously—to insulate myself pretty thoroughly from any critical commentary on Bolaño, so I know nothing of what happens in the book. At this point, I’m on p. 384, halfway through the third part, and realizing that there’s no way to hold this entire beast in my head. I’m going back and taking notes on the parts I’ve underlined, just so I have a point of reference when I try to make sense of things later. Doing it, too, because other friends are reading it concurrently, so I figured it might be useful to make some of the thinking (or flailing) visible.

That’s a long way of saying that no one should actually read this–it’s just quotes, with very slight noticings on my part, as I try to lay down breadcrumbs for later. But I’m posting it here in case anyone else is navigating similar waters and feels like rowing in company. I could use some other points of view.

As of right now, my notes only cover the first part up through p. 165, halfway through Amalfitano’s major speech.)

Continue reading

A Cure for Balding

Joannes de Mediolanus’ 1528 cookbook is full of intriguing accounts of what food does to bodies and bodies do to food. Here, he prescribes onions as

  • an aphrodisiac
  • an antidote for dog bites
  • a tremendous cure for baldness
  • and warts
  • the opposite of a cognitive enhancer

(Spelling has been modernized.)

Onions sodden and stamped restore hairs again, if the place where the hairs were be rubbed therewith. This is of truth when the hair goeth away through stopping of the pores and corruption of the matter under the skin. For the onions open the pores and resolve the ill matter under the skin and draw good matter to the same place. And therefore, as Avicen saith, oft robbing with onions is very wholesome for bald men.

Wherefore the text concludeth that this rubbing with onions prepareth the beauty of the head: for hairs are the beauty of the head. 

For a farther knowledge of onions’ operation, witteth that they steer to carnal lust, provoke the appetite, bring color in the face. Mingled with honey they destroy warts, they engender thirst, they hurt the understanding (for they engender an ill gross humour), they increase spittle, and the juice of them is good for watering eyes and doth clarify the sight, as Avicen saith.

Farther note that onions, honey and vinegar stamped together is good for biting of a mad dog.

Breasts–The Reaction Shot

I wrote some time ago, over at The Hairpin, about a ladies’ fashion in the seventeenth century for wearing dresses that exposed the breasts. Browing the Library of Congress yesterday, I found this:

The cartoon is by artist Richard Newton, who died at 21 in 1798, a full hundred years after this fashion took London by storm. The lorgnette-bearing gent’s leer, alongside the excited caption (complete with exclamation point!) suggests to me that by this time, the seventeenth century had been rejected for its libertine excesses, and that this fashion had come to be regarded with the puritanical (and seamy) astonishment we feel for it, e’en now.