Sunday, May 31, 2009

From Ancient Scripts & the Voynich Manuscript to Borges & Marx


There is a nice article in The New Scientist about eight ancient scripts that have not been deciphered. Decoding antiquity: Eight scripts that still can't be read.

There is a notable aspect of Borges writings that involves lost, forgotten, unread, fragmentary, or even imagined manuscripts. I always think of texts such as these or of disputed works such as the disputed Voynich Manuscript at the Yale Library.
It has been the object of dispute ever since it came on the scene in the late 1800s and the script/code has never been deciphered, though the work on it continues. It is in many ways the epitome of a Borgesian work. There are many works that we are accustom to thinking are complete, but are really fragments. One of the most famous, in some circles, being The German Ideology by Marx and Engels. The latter once wrote--- and this contributes to its fame--- that finding no luck with publishing the manuscript, and having worked out certain problems in it that necessitated that they move on to other topics and styles of exposition: “We consigned the manuscript to the gnawing criticism of the mice.”

The critical marks of the mice are visible in these pictures of two pages from the manuscript of The German Ideology. (Click on them to get the full image.)
One of the things that becomes important when teaching Marx is getting students to understand that much of his work was not completed (the German Ideology, Capital, vols. 2 and 3), or subject to frequent revision (Capital, Vol.1,), never published (the Dissertation On the Difference Between Epicurean and Democritean Philosophy of Nature), or published under censorship restrictions (much of his work, actually). So the disputes around the interpretation of Marx and the party struggles to define Marxism are rooted not only in the later politics of the revolutionary period, but in the huge archive of manuscript fragments that Marx left behind.
And of course, no one seems to notice the elaborate drawings in the margin, just as they ignore Marx's love of Shakespeare and Aeschylus.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Music of the Week: Henry Cow -- No More Songs

This week's selection is one of the most intelligent and highly mobile bands ever, Henry Cow, live in 1976 performing No More Songs.
On Facebook, the video will not appear. Go instead to http://node801.blogspot.com/

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Hanging of Amy Spain

While reading the history of my home town, Darlington, South Carolina, I came upon a section of letters regarding the hanging of Amy Spain, a 17 year old slave, in March of 1865. It is a truely remarkable story about which I want to compile as much documentation as possible, perhaps for a small volume along the lines of Herculine Barbin. Of course, the difference being that Amy Spain never got to speak or write her side of the story. All that remains are the accounts of others. The hanging was important enough to appear in Harpers Weekly of Sept.30, 1865, parts of the account then being disputed in the pages of Darlington's New Era newspaper. Amy Spain was owned by a prominent local lawyer and hero of the invasion of Mexico, Major A.C. Spain, who acted as her counsel at her trial before a rebel military commission. Amy Spain was entrusted with the care of the Major's two daughters, and he wrote that: "Amy's temper was hot, hasty, and ungovernable, yet to me, as her master, she was always dutiful up to the unfortunate time when she exhibited traits of character, adopted a line of conduct, used expressions, and committed acts which contributed to the violent termination of her existence at the early age of seventeen."
A.C. Spain had been called up in the final days of the war and, he said, left the care of his plantation in the hands of his "aged" father. Upon the appearance in town of a scouting party of Sherman's forces (I have almost narrowed down and after a bit more research think that I can identify which Union and Rebel units were in the area at the time), Amy Spain and many others thought that liberation had come. Unfortunately, from what I have read in the Union records, the main body of Federal troops remained outside the town because of flooded river crossings and so only dispatched a small detail to scout and retrieve supplies. The troops then returned and continued on into Florence (the site of a large prisoner of war camp which they were no doubt anxious to liberate) and to pursue retreating forces. Amy Spain had in the mean time declare that she was free and promptly took possession of many of the household goods of the Major, taking them to her own home and declaring that the fruits of slavery now belonged to the freed slaves. Unknown to her, Confederate troops had returned to the town and to help establish "order," arrested her for her "crime." The Harper's writer describes what happened next, though this is disputed by some.
Hanging of Amy Spain
Harper's Weekly
September 30, 1865, page 613

One of the martyrs of the cause which gave freedom to her race was that of a colored woman named Amy Spain, who was a resident of the town of Darlington, situated in a rich cotton-growing district of South Carolina. At the time a portion of the Union army occupied the town of Darlington she expressed her satisfaction by clasping her hands and exclaiming, "Bless the Lord the Yankees have come!" She could not restrain her emotions. The long night of darkness which had bound her in slavery was about to break away. It was impossible to repress the exuberance of her feelings; and although powerless to aid the advancing deliverers of her caste, or to injure her oppressors, the simple expression of satisfaction at the event sealed her doom. Amy Spain died in the cause of freedom. A section of Sherman's cavalry occupied the town, and without doing any damage passed through. Not an insult nor an unkind word was said to any of the women of that town. The men had, with guilty consciences, fled; but on their return, with their traditional chivalry, they seized upon poor Army, and ignominiously hung her to a sycamore-tree standing in front of the court-house, underneath which stood the block from which was monthly exhibited the slave chattels that were struck down by the auctioneer's hammer to the highest bidder.

Amy Spain heroically heard her sentence, and from her prison bars declared she was prepared to die. She defied her persecutors; and as she ascended the scaffold declared she was going to a place where she would receive a crown of glory. She was rudely interrupted by an oath from one of her executioners. To the eternal disgrace of Darlington her execution was acquiesced in and witnessed by most of the citizens of the town. Amy was launched into eternity, and the "chivalric Southern gentlemen" of Darlington had fully established their bravery by making war upon a defenseless African woman. She sleeps quietly, with others of her race, near the beautiful village. No memorial marks her grave, but after-ages will remember this martyr of liberty. Her persecutors will pass away and be forgotten, but Amy Spain's name is now hallowed among the Africans, who, emancipated and free, dare, with the starry folds of the flag of the free floating over them, speak her name with holy reverence.


The historical truth is, of course, impossible to establish, but I think the story should be better preserved.
According to all accounts, Amy Spain was executed and then buried wearing the clothes of Spain's daughters.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Freud's Library/Office

I was looking at the great new site redesign of the Freud Museum in London when I noticed something about Freud's office. Now I have to admit that the work spaces of my intellectual predecessors (in the sense that Borges mentions in his "Kakfa & His Predecessors") have always interested me more than biography. When the American Museum of Natural History put on it's Darwin exhibition, it was great that Darwin's study was on display. It was a nice contrast to the life-size video of Darwin's garden walk. It was neat, but the study was far more interesting to me. It seemed to complement his written works perfectly. The way it opens out onto his gardens is nice.

Emerson's study

Emerson's study, too, speaks just as much about his own complex relationship to nature. There is a great description of Marx from an January 5 1879 Chicago Tribune interview where the reporter writes of Marx's study:
Once into his library, however, and having fixed his one eyeglass in the corner of his eye, in order to take your intellectual breadth and depth, so to speak, he loses that self-restraint, and unfolds to you a knowledge of men and things throughout the world apt to interest one. And his conversation does not run in one groove, but is as varied as are the volumes upon his library shelves. A man can generally be judged by the books he reads, and you can form your own conclusions when I tell you a casual glance revealed Shakespeare, Dickens, Thackeray, Moliere, Racine, Montaigne, Bacon, Goethe, Voltaire, Paine; English, American, French blue books; works political and philosophical in Russian, German, Spanish, Italian, etc., etc.

The British Museum, in many ways Marx's study.









But I obviously digress.

Freud's office has some features that might be of interest. The prints behind the couch, The Lesson of Dr. Charcot and another of classical ruins which is unfortunately not reproduced on the site as of yet. Still, if we look at the room from Freud's position, the arrangement of the figures and antiquities on his desk is not unlike the arrangement of the students in the print of Charcot's lesson. Just as much as these figures inspired Freud, so too does he seem to be to them as Charcot was to his students, enlightening them as to their own meaning and value. Ernest Jones quotes Freud:
"I believe I am changing a great deal. Charcot, who is both one of the greatest of physicians and a man whose common sense is the order of genius, simply demolishes my views and aims. Many a time after a lecture I go out as from Notre Dame, with new impressions to work over. But he engrosses me: when I go away from him I have no more wish to work at my own simple things. My brain is sated as after an evening at the theater. Whether the seed will ever bring forth fruit I do not know; but what I certainly know is that no other human being has ever affected me in such a way."(Life & Work, p.119)

The ruins of Rome come up in Freud's work, such as in passage in Civilization and it's Discontents where he begins to compare the past of "the city with the past of the mind." He concludes that there is no point to doing so, though it is a rather half-hearted gesture. Of course this does not prevent him from later mentioning that the super-ego works like a garrison in an occupied city.

Of course, this is pure speculation on my part, but that is what this blog is for, as opposed to replicating my academic work.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Don't be frightened of cliches


Text from Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies