31 December 2013

Captain Williams

Captain Williams, my brother Peter (age 6) and me (nearly 12) in King Tom,
Freetown, Sierra Leone (between White Man's Bay and Kroo Bay), April 1955.

I want to pay tribute to Captain Williams, one of the most beloved and loving people in my life.

We sailed from New York in late March on the Sulima of the Elder Dempster Line, one of those wonderful 12-passenger freighters. The ship was immediately in bad weather: my parents were laid-out flat in their cabin, unable to care for my brother and me who were laid-out flat in ours. At some time on that first miserable day, a small bright-eyed man appeared at our cabin door and took over as our nurse. That was Captain Williams who had asked one of the stewards why we were not at the table.

Two or three days later, he bundled me up in blankets and had me outside in a deckchair with a cup of tea. Then he pulled another deckchair alongside and began to read to me. As he told me, in bits and pieces, he had grown up in the London slums -- just look at his height -- and had run away to sea on a whaling ship when he was 15. He did well with ships, came to work for Elder Dempster Lines, and was eventually one of their captains, having captained the Sulima a few years earlier. He married, and had two sons, Reginald and Robert. He gave them an African Grey parrot that scolded them when they made too much noise.  At the time he rescued us, he was retired, living in Sierra Leone, and collecting animals for American zoos. (In the picture above, my brother is holding a brochure for the NY company.)

Bundled up in blankets in a deckchair, I listened to Captain Williams (who had run away to sea on a whaling ship) read Moby Dick. I loved it, loved his parallel stories and explanations, and have no idea now what he told me and what Melville wrote. For years I had the sense of having lived Moby Dick, and in college was furious at my literature professor from Harvard who so freely pronounced theory about Moby Dick and knew nothing of the sea.  Once Captain Williams woke me up early to see two whales spouting on the horizon.

The Sulima stopped at Dakar with its incomparably beautiful people, then at little Bathurst (Banjul) on the Gambia with its rose arbors, and then at Freetown, Sierra Leone, where Captain Williams left us. But first he invited us to his home in King Tom where he lived in a bungalow surrounded by flame trees that crowded the slope down to the sea.  Looking at GoogleMaps I almost feel I can identify that place.

We were not there long: the Sulima needed to sail, and the captain was giving Captain Williams this time as a courtesy.  We watched as he made acquaintance with a family of chimpanzees his employees had just acquired. 

He walked into the cage, and squatted down, facing the largest male.  He held out his hand and said, "Hello, old chap!"  Presently the male came over, took his hand, and examined it carefully for a long time.  Then Captain Williams examined his hand carefully.  That was all, but before he came out of the cage each of the chimpanzees had willingly allowed him to stroke them.

There was another incident, when a boxed python was brought out.  The chimpanzees went into a great state of alarm, even though they -- and we -- couldn't see it yet.

We had tea, then went back to the Sulima which sailed just at sunset.  Flame trees covered the Freetown peninsulas, and the setting sun set them afire. We were sure we saw a small figure in white waving through the flames as we moved out into the golden sea.

24 December 2013

Ἐγένετο: it happened.

Adoration, by Brian Kershisnik

Ἐγένετο: it happened. 

That’s how stories begin: Once upon a time, In the beginning, In the days when wishing could make it so. But this storyteller can pin his story to the days of Caesar Augustus. This is not courtroom evidence: this is a story, and we are a people hungry for stories.  For some of us this story is braided into our own story.  We claim its lights for our candles and trees, and we add our own elements  -- our crèche has a Venetian lion, an Egyptian camel, an evzone, a Massachusetts sheep.  We tell it in ways that make sense to our own lives -- this is a family who, if travelling this year, could not get from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of the barrier.  They might be thought homeless, but my mother, the obstetrician, said, "Thank heavens that there was no room in the inn.  They had clean straw and privacy and quiet in the stable."
Καὶ ποιμένες ἧσαν ἐν τῇ χώρᾳ: And there were shepherds in the fields.  

The people whom the angels choose to tell about the baby were laborers with dirty hands smelling of sheep, ritually unclean, cold.  They were in the fields because they were watching for birth.  The last few days before lambing, the ewes are too heavy to walk back to the sheepfold, so the shepherds sit out to protect them until they can give birth to the lambs to be sacrificed for the coming Passover. This storyteller has a fine sense for plot.

Over the years this story became braided together with an older story which begins:

Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἡ γένεσις οὕτως ἦν: The birth of Jesus Christ was like this. 

He pins the story to the rule of Herod.  He is writing for Jews, for whom Herod was of loathsome memory, while the first writer is writing for people who possibly wouldn't know Herod, but who wouldn't know of Augustus?

ἰδοὺ μάγοι ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν παρεγένοντο εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμνα: you see, magoi from the East came to Jerusalem. 

Scholars who studied the night sky and methodically recorded their observations. They were awake at night, looking for light, and they saw a light that told them of a new king. They left to pay homage.  They could afford to be away for a long time, cross international borders, bribe customs' officials, pay for any shelter available, and they knew they would be received at the courts of kings.

The brephos (newborn) of the first writer had become a paidion (young child) when they arrived, and the family was living in a house.  He was old enough to be delighted with the shiny things the magoi had in their treasure chests, thesaurous.  We are only told about gold, frankincense (libanon, livani), and myrrh, but there was a great deal of value in amounts small enough to fit under the seat on the flight to Egypt.

We braid these stories with ours.  When I was young, a neighbor's younger daughter was to draw for her Sunday School class a picture of some part of this story.  She drew four people on an airplane, and explained, "This is the flight to Egypt, with Mary and Joseph and Jesus and Pontius the pilot."   Near the same time, my younger brother was to draw for the same class a picture of his favorite Bible verse.  He drew a person followed by two dogs: " It's the twenty-third Psalm, and this is Surely-Goodness and Mercy following me."

Did you notice that both groups of people who saw amazing light in the night were not out finding themselves?  They were not on retreats getting in touch with their spiritual side.  They were not doing a twenty-four hour cleanse. They were not in worship services.  They were at work.  They were doing their jobs, but jobs with the distinctive characteristic of isolation from the usual daily noise and interruptions. 

Another element in the story, one we try to work around.  The massacre.  What in God's name did Mary say when in later years she encountered one of the mothers of those dead children? There have been a lot of massacres of small children, and painters from Giotto on give evidence in their paintings that they had seen these brutalized bodies.

We braid these stories with ours.  Some years ago my daughter and I were watching a cycle of English medieval mystery plays, presented on four stages around the village green in Marlboro. I tend to truly believe what I am watching, and when the soldiers began searching for the children, I was shaking with horror and weeping.  Then a slender girl with a baby in her arms tapped me, "Excuse me," trying to get by, and before I could react a soldier had snatched the baby from her.

This part of the story is unbearable.  But many find the light equally unbearable.  

Whatever interpretation you want to give or decline, the story is about a baby.  About the joy surrounding a birth, and the spontaneous outpouring of generosity.  Many of us have had babies.  We have seen our newborn surrounded by radiance.  None of us would find it inappropriate -- surprising, perhaps -- for angels to sing, or for strangers to bring expensive gifts.  

May you be surprised by the time, by joy, by light.

19 December 2013

How Guillaume Villehardouin got his nick-name

Circumstances have made it impossible to write an entry for this week.  So I thought it might be amusing to post here an excerpt from the novel I was writing 25 years ago on the Villehardouins in the Morea.  This is about Guillaume Villehardouin's childhood in Kalamata.  This is fiction.

* * * * * *

A naked golden-brown child hauled kicking and choking onto a fishing boat, pounding his rescuers and sobbing in fury, "I coulda gone that far. I can swim farther than anyone!"

A stocky brown boy on the battlements, leaping from one the top of one crenellation to the next, shouting down the wind, "I am the king of the castle! I am the king of the castle!" Shouting down to his horrified parents who shouted back to him unheard.

A black-and-blue-eyed, bloody-nosed gawk of a lad, hair bleached nearly white by the sun, in torn, dung-smeared clothes, struggling up off the cobblestones, hiccupping, rubbing snot and blood off his face with a scabby brown arm, gasping, "I'm gonna show you mu' fuckers." Hurling himself like a windmill onto two or three larger boys who proceded to beat him up again with no respect for rank.

A stocky, tanned, scarred youth with crooked nose standing on the wall and looking at his friends in a semi-circle below, around a horse, chanting, "Jump! Jump! Jump!" Jumping onto the back of the horse as they screamed. The horse whinnying, rearing, bucking, he falling backward into straw and dung on cobblestones, and the hoofs coming down on his face again and again . . .

. . . becoming conscious under the faces of his parents: his father holding his arms down firm against the bed, his mother holding out something in both hands, a bearded stranger smashing his face. He tried to object, to tell the stranger to stop hurting him, to explain he would be all right if they would leave him alone, but all that came out was a gurgle of mucus and blood which made him cough and choke and then the terrible pain made everything dark again.

Coming sharply awake to a new pain and the harsh smell of vinegar. "Siga-siga, pedi-mou. It's all right, boy, I'm just cleaning you up." He heard the bone grate in his nose, jerked to get away from the pain, but his father was holding him. The stranger continued working, speaking to him calmly, telling him what was happening: a voice comforting in the pain. He put gum on the side of Guillaume's nose and on the opposite cheek; then pressed a strip of parchment from one to the other, pulling the battered nose back into position. The sound of the grating bone made him pass out again.

The next time Guillaume came to, the man seemed to be sewing something on his face, still speaking soothingly, his mother was helping him, too, they were both deliberately hurting him and his father was stalking back and forth. Then the man was wrenching his jaw: blinding pain again, and the smell of the gum. The man pressed a shape of leather onto the jaw and secured it with straps around Guillaume's head. He sat down on the floor, his face level with the boy's.

"Listen to me, pedi-mou. This is to hold your jaw while it heals. The gum makes it secure. It will wear away in time but the straps should hold it well enough. Don't try to take it off; your face will only hurt more. Now, you must have something to drink." He pushed a reed between his lips. It hurt. He squeezed his eyes against tears. Slept.

Mostly he moved back and forth between drugged thought and half-dreamed images, tangled ideas about looking at the horse more carefully next time, positioning it better as regards the wall, leaping onto a horse both of them fully armed now shining brandishing sword and banner at the charge. Running on the wall, jumping, each jump making him weep in pain, jumping into the sea to escape the pain, into the sea where he could swim out farther than anyone else and diving like a dolphin while they begged him to come back. In and out of the drugged dream his mother stroking his head and washing his face, dreading lest he flinch and she stop combing his hair. She kept working with a damp warm cloth trying to remove the blood, silently picking out the straw and dung, picking apart the tangles because he wore his hair long like the Greeks. He heard his father say, "Just cut the damn hair off," but she said nothing only kept stroking the hair loose.

Thick matted dark hair not blond like his mother and Geoffroi and Alix but dark like his father, bleached reddish now by the sun and salt water. At two, it was white from the sun, they said. In his bath, shrieking and splashing as usual, and his mother sitting before the fire brushing out her hair. Long hair, longer than he in the firelight all pale and gold. The maids had helped her wash it, she on her knees before the copper tub, two of them holding ewers of warm water to pour over her head. Shrieked with joy and danced when they lifted the tub to the window sill, unfastened the shutters doubled against the winter wind, and poured the water out into the blackness making great clouds of steam from the crash of hot water onto cold wind and stone. His nurse took a white sheet and lined the tub, then poured in more warm water from the ewers waiting on the hearth. Shrieking for the obligatory chase around the room until he was caught and stripped and held and scrubbed and scolded for the grime ingrained in knees and heels and elbows. Sputtering while his eyes and nose were gouged and his chin yanked up so the rings around his neck could be scrubbed clean. Fighting and drowning when they poured water on his hair and yanked it clean. Drowsy watching his mother shining before the fire, taking sections of her hair the width of the ivory brush with thumb and two fingers and beginning at the crown and brushing down. Slowly at first for tangles, then faster and smoother drawing the white gold out glistening before the fire. He jumped out of the bath and ran into the hair, under the tent of hair, turned pushed his face through it to look up at her face, smiling, then tugging the hair around him like a cloak or pelt. She laughed and drew her hair loose from him, and then tossed her head easily from one side to the other and he dodged back and forth through the soft and gleaming curtain.

Catching it again, hiding his face in it, coming up just as a voice said, "Opa!" His big brother, shining grown-up Geoffroi back from adventures, helm in hand, wearing boots in Maman's room. Who had been gone so long he had almost forgotten how desperately he adored Geoffroi. And Geoffroi put the helmet on his head and he couldn't see and he hid in the hair and came out again, and Geoffroi got the bearskin from the floor and growled, and he ran in and out of the golden forest of hair to hide from the bear as his mother put her hands to her head and held her hair protectively and laughed for mercy as the adventure became more exciting.

Stopped when his father at the door said, "Kalispera sas," and his mother stood and Geoffroi bowed a little and then caught him up to plunge him back into the tub to rinse. The nurse dried him and rubbed his hair dry and it pulled and she poked in his ears and put on a clean shirt and knit hose. The maids carried out the tub, and more people brought in trestles and boards and made a table near the fire. They brought in cheese and bread and figs and soup for Geoffroi who always ate a great deal after adventures. They gave him bites but they had wine, he couldn't have wine.

"Tell me about Astros," demanded his father, and his mother said to him, "Shhh," bending down because he was rolled up in the bearskin and growling and Geoffroi began to tell about not an adventure not at all interesting until rolled up in the bearskin he went to sleep.

So tired, he needed to sleep so much, but the stranger kept waking him up and telling him to cough. It hurt unbearably and he badly needed to spit, but he could only dribble into the leather chinpiece. The stranger wiped his mouth each time and nodded and said something over and over to him in a another language that sounded like a magic incantation and most likely was, because he always felt better for a little while after he was there though then his head started hurting again and he was thirsty and he kept thinking he would be sick.

It was summer, late summer, and the leather made him itch. His face was swollen wide enough for two: that he could see clearly enough in his mother's silver mirror. He was hungry after four days of nothing but what gruel he could suck into the side of his mouth through a reed, and everything the reed touched hurt and every time he swallowed he was sure he would be sick. His mouth tasted like sour blood. He couldn't sleep; they gave him possets, through the reed, of wine and cloves and cinnamon boiled with opium. This masked the pain and made him doze a while, but after an hour or two he would awake with a throbbing head and dried blood and dribble caked around his cheek. Thirsty and needing to pee but unable to get up. Spluttering incomprehensible syllables till one of the menservants brought a pitcher and assisted him to an unsatisfactory and partial emptying but when he tried to sit up so it would go better his head throbbed too much so he had to lie down and then he felt like he would wet the bed.

After a week, he was allowed up. The swelling in his face had mostly gone down, though it was brown and yellow and blue and purple and miserably tender. The leather sling on his jaw chafed; his mother tried to work in some salve but he couldn't bear to be touched. Then his friends were allowed in to visit and they immediately got to clowning and jumping and one thing and another and then all of a sudden he was too tired and too sore to be entertained, and was nearly in tears when his father and the stranger came in and thundered the boys out.

"Guillaume," his father shouted, "this is Rabbi Benjamin from Corone. He studied medicine in Spain and Damascus, and he has been good enough to take care of you."

"Prince," the Rabbi bellowed, "I hope you are feeling better." The Rabbi had so much beard that his mouth seemed to be covered and Guillaume decided groggily that the Rabbi didn't eat either. His head was throbbing and he couldn't understand why they were shouting at him when he was hurting so much. He nodded at first, to be polite, but his eyes got full of tears and he pointed to his head. "Of course," said the Rabbi, and went away and came back with a small glass vial and a reed. "Willow bark," he said and held it while Guillaume sipped painfully. Then the Rabbi had Guillaume get out of bed. He was wobbly so he sat on a stool why the manservant washed him and pulled a clean tunic over his head, and then the Rabbi massaged his temples and the back of his neck. It was only when the headache had gone away that the Rabbi allowed him to get back into bed. He slept.

The first real sleep in a week. He slept through the evening without stirring, all night, and into the middle of the next day. When he finally woke up, he was ravenously hungry, and consumed -- through his reed -- milk, porridge with honey made thin with milk, then an egg beaten in milk, Without the soreness once making him pause. The tenderness went away over the next few days, faster than the blue and purple on his face which gave way to brown and yellow. The Rabbi had the leather strap removed -- excruciating pain again as it was tugged away from the gum -- and replaced with several windings of linen. He no longer needed the opium possets. He was also permitted to leave the castle with a servant, though when he did, he had to wear the leather sling on his jaw.

So it was a shame that when he was finally able to go back outside on his own, he went immediately down the hill to the town, met up with his friends, persuaded one to hold a horse's head, climbed stiffly back onto a wall, and jumped. And fell off again. And was kicked and trampled.

The Rabbi had, of course, returned to Corone, so it was hours and hours of pain and not until evening before a horseman could ride south, locate the Rabbi, find fresh mules, and ride back. Hours filled with more pain and little sympathy mostly fury from his parents, guilt and misery watching while the boy who had held the horse's head was beaten. Knowing that when he was healed enough, his own beating would be double that.

The weary Rabbi gave him another dose of opium in wine and then set to work. After some maneuverings and the terrible shriek of bone against bone, he shook his head and sank back. "So," he said to the Prince. "It will mend, but it will always be crooked. It can't be set back the way it was."

"Do what you have to do," said the Prince, but his mother said, "How will he look?"

"There is always some mercy," said the Rabbi. "Fortunately, the boy does not have to be beautiful -- it is enough that he is a Prince. Now if he were a girl, God protect us all! The jaw, here, will be crooked, and the teeth, here, will protrude." He touched, Guillaume winced. "When he grows up -- he should live to grow up! -- he can always say he was in the wars. And why not? He lives in a continual war with life."

"Grosse-dent," they called him when the bandages were finally off. "Big-tooth." Sometimes they called him "Jaws."

The next spring, when they hanged Judas in Holy Week, the effigy of Judas had an enormous protruding jaw. He was mortified. The Prince laughed until the tears came to his eyes, and his mother was furious and said a thing so obscene and insulting should be forbidden. 

12 December 2013

The imitation of the immortality of the gods

Out of the overflowing abundance of images from the Byzantine world, this is the only image I have been able to find that shows affection between a man and a woman. I would be greatful if anyone could offer me another. Some will think of the Digenes plate, but that suggests silliness, and the intimacies in the epic are neither affectionate nor erotic. I have mentioned before my dismay at finding no Byzantine love poetry beyond a single late poem that follows an Italian model.   

In contrast, what I have found on George Gemistos Plethon, has been too much.  An unnecessary number of males -- rarely a woman -- seem called on to discourse on his philosophy of the soul. Very few can write about Gemistos without feeling obliged to discuss his paganism.  And very few can avoid yet another unnecessary revew of his suggestions for reorganizing the Morea on the Spartan method.  (No one notices that his suggestion for 6000 soldiers reflects precisely the number of men shown to be available over and over during the century.)  So over and over in working on my book, needing Gemistos if I was to write about Mistra, I have come up between a rock and a hard place in finding Gemistos inaccesible to my contemporary concerns.

Until I analyzed his monodia for Cleofe. George Gemistos spoke of the beauty of her luminous body, and of her even more luminous soul. He, in fact, mentioned her beautiful body three different times.  And it occurred to me that this was a man with a physical body, and a man who liked the fact of a woman having a physical body, and that he was a man who has been carefully muffled by the heirs of the Byzantines who really did not like bodies at all. When you treat him like Plato -- even Plato wasn't Plato -- you get a marmoreal automaton.  My Greek is not adequate to sustain me through very much of Gemistos, so I was glad to find the AlexandrePléthon: traite des lois, which has a facing French version, and between them I found evidence of a warm and interesting human being.  This is  Gemistos on affection between and man and a woman.

Very early in the Laws he says, "For the others [in contrast to the celibate] it is a thing most beautiful and most divine to marry and have children." Later he says  -- paraphrasing -- that the sexual relationship was instituted by the gods to perpetuate the race of mortals, to give them a sort of immortality, and that desire is a gift of the gods.  This way, we approach the gods. We cannot deny the importance of this act which in our mortal nature is the imitation of the immortality of the gods. We ought to see that we do it well. We do this [in private] not because of shame, but because most humans do not wish to display publicly those religious acts which they regard as the most holy. It is the most personal thing people can do, and since it is one of the most important things given to people to do, it deserves to be done as perfectly as possible. Nothing is more shameful than an important act poorly done.

06 December 2013

Waves, ruins, and the city

My correspondent, Pavlos Plessas, sent me a new image of Nauplion this week, quite the nicest I have ever seen. It is a panorama of the Morosini-led assault on the Ottoman-held city in 1686, done in glorious color by the Dutch engraver Romeyn de Hooghe.  I cannot find out the size of the print, but it must be quite large, because this image will enlarge to show amazing detail. 

Several details particularly interest me.  The first, the image of water above, is done in a style that suggests that de Hooghe was well-acquainted with the tradition of Japanese prints.  There is nothing like this in the work of two other Dutch engravers on the same subject, or in any of the Venetian engravers who indicated their water rather as it is indicated in the bay south of Nauplion, at the top of this print.  There is a striking difference in technique between the two parts of the bay.

The second detail is this suggestion of ruins near the coast, north of Nauplion.  (Images of Nauplion, like images of Candia, almost always show the city with north at the bottom.) I have been wondering if one of de Hooghe's sources noted the walls of Tiryns.  If so, this is the first pre-Independence image of Tiryns I have ever seen.  But then, ruins crop up in other areas of the engraving.  Do look at the large version of this panorama and pay attention to the beauty of de Hooghe's trees.

The next detail is this tower and wall at the north of the Bay of Argos, at the bottom of the panorama.  I wrote about the tower, and its neighboring frogs, more than four years ago.  This wall was, for some years, the indication of the boundary between Venetian territory and the Despotate, and then Ottoman territory.  The tower, in the last century, has several times been erroneously identified as a mill, because it is in the area of The Mills, and because identifiers took the double wall for a mill race. The Germans put an anti-aircraft gun between it and the water.

Finally, de Hooghe is the first to show a distinct plateia, and a fountain, although many engravers show a large open space in this area of Nauplion.  But more important is what I am seeing, just behind that line of houses and in front of the wall, as a church and a walled garden.  I believe this is, somewhat relocated and turned 90 degrees, the Franciscan convent -- now the Panagia, and I have long been sure the area was enclosed because of the eccentricity of the streets in the immediate vicinity.  If you are familiar with Nauplion, you will know the Venetian arsenal at the west end of the plateia. The street behind the arsenal is exceptionally narrow, and since that street was the beginning of what was apparently intended to be a grand approach leading to Akro-Nauplion from the harbor, it must have been so because there was no possibility for broadening the other side of the street because of the convent wall.    

I will stop commenting here.  Go back to the large image and rejoice in the extraordinary colors.