Pompeii, Sleeping Cops, and Romance Dispelled

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad:

But perhaps the most poetical thing Pompeii has yielded to modern research, was that grand figure of a Roman soldier, clad in complete armor; who, true to his duty, true to his proud name of a soldier of Rome, and full of the stern courage which had given to that name its glory, stood to his post by the city gate, erect and unflinching, till the hell that raged around him burned out the dauntless spirit it could not conquer.

We never read of Pompeii but we think of that soldier; we can not write of Pompeii without the natural impulse to grant to him the mention he so well deserves. Let us remember that he was a soldier—not a policeman—and so, praise him. Being a soldier, he staid,—because the warrior instinct forbade him to fly. Had he been a policeman he would have staid, also—because he would have been asleep.

There are not half a dozen flights of stairs in Pompeii, and no other evidences that the houses were more than one story high. The people did not live in the clouds, as do the Venetians, the Genoese and Neapolitans of to-day.

We came out from under the solemn mysteries of this city of the Venerable Past—this city which perished, with all its old ways and its quaint old fashions about it, remote centuries ago, when the Disciples were preaching the new religion, which is as old as the hills to us now—and went dreaming among the trees that grow over acres and acres of its still buried streets and squares, till a shrill whistle and the cry of “All aboard—last train for Naples!” woke me up and reminded me that I belonged in the nineteenth century, and was not a dusty mummy, caked with ashes and cinders, eighteen hundred years old. The transition was startling. The idea of a railroad train actually running to old dead Pompeii, and whistling irreverently, and calling for passengers in the most bustling and business-like way, was as strange a thing as one could imagine, and as unpoetical and disagreeable as it was strange.

Faithful unto Death
 by Sir Edward John Poynter

Pliny vs. Ishmael

Herman Melville, Moby Dick (Chp. 105):

But may it not be, that while the whales of the present hour are an advance in magnitude upon those of all previous geological periods; may it not be, that since Adam’s time they have degenerated?

Assuredly, we must conclude so, if we are to credit the accounts of such gentlemen as Pliny, and the ancient naturalists generally. For Pliny tells us of whales that embraced acres of living bulk, and Aldrovandus of others which measured eight hundred feet in length—Rope Walks and Thames Tunnels of Whales! And even in the days of Banks and Solander, Cooke’s naturalists, we find a Danish member of the Academy of Sciences setting down certain Iceland Whales (reydan-siskur, or Wrinkled Bellies) at one hundred and twenty yards; that is, three hundred and sixty feet. And Lacépède, the French naturalist, in his elaborate history of whales, in the very beginning of his work (page 3), sets down the Right Whale at one hundred metres, three hundred and twenty-eight feet. And this work was published so late as A.D. 1825.

But will any whaleman believe these stories? No. The whale of to-day is as big as his ancestors in Pliny’s time. And if ever I go where Pliny is, I, a whaleman (more than he was), will make bold to tell him so. Because I cannot understand how it is, that while the Egyptian mummies that were buried thousands of years before even Pliny was born, do not measure so much in their coffins as a modern Kentuckian in his socks; and while the cattle and other animals sculptured on the oldest Egyptian and Nineveh tablets, by the relative proportions in which they are drawn, just as plainly prove that the high-bred, stall-fed, prize cattle of Smithfield, not only equal, but far exceed in magnitude the fattest of Pharaoh’s fat kine; in the face of all this, I will not admit that of all animals the whale alone should have degenerated.

The Whale of Procopius

Herman Melville, Moby Dick (Chp. 45):

“In the sixth Christian century lived Procopius, a Christian magistrate of Constantinople, in the days when Justinian was Emperor and Belisarius general. As many know, he wrote the history of his own times, a work every way of uncommon value. By the best authorities, he has always been considered a most trustworthy and unexaggerating historian, except in some one or two particulars, not at all affecting the matter presently to be mentioned.

Now, in this history of his, Procopius mentions that, during the term of his prefecture at Constantinople, a great sea-monster was captured in the neighboring Propontis, or Sea of Marmora, after having destroyed vessels at intervals in those waters for a period of more than fifty years. A fact thus set down in substantial history cannot easily be gainsaid. Nor is there any reason it should be. Of what precise species this sea-monster was, is not mentioned. But as he destroyed ships, as well as for other reasons, he must have been a whale; and I am strongly inclined to think a sperm whale. And I will tell you why. For a long time I fancied that the sperm whale had been always unknown in the Mediterranean and the deep waters connecting with it. Even now I am certain that those seas are not, and perhaps never can be, in the present constitution of things, a place for his habitual gregarious resort. But further investigations have recently proved to me, that in modern times there have been isolated instances of the presence of the sperm whale in the Mediterranean. I am told, on good authority, that on the Barbary coast, a Commodore Davis of the British navy found the skeleton of a sperm whale. Now, as a vessel of war readily passes through the Dardanelles, hence a sperm whale could, by the same route, pass out of the Mediterranean into the Propontis.

In the Propontis, as far as I can learn, none of that peculiar substance called brit is to be found, the aliment of the right whale. But I have every reason to believe that the food of the sperm whale—squid or cuttle-fish—lurks at the bottom of that sea, because large creatures, but by no means the largest of that sort, have been found at its surface. If, then, you properly put these statements together, and reason upon them a bit, you will clearly perceive that, according to all human reasoning, Procopius’s sea-monster, that for half a century stove the ships of a Roman Emperor, must in all probability have been a sperm whale.”

Bodleian Library, MS. Ashmole 1511, Folio 86v

Unimpressed by Hagia Sophia

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad:

“The people who go into ecstasies over St. Sophia must surely get them out of the guide-book (where every church is spoken of as being ‘considered by good judges to be the most marvelous structure, in many respects, that the world has ever seen.’) Or else they are those old connoisseurs from the wilds of New Jersey who laboriously learn the difference between a fresco and a fire-plug and from that day forward feel privileged to void their critical bathos on painting, sculpture and architecture forever more.”

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The Ninth Gate: Movie Hell

There are no good movies about books and bibliomaniacs. Occasionally, some lover of the written word will be featured as a character in a film, but the delight in books as aesthetic objects or repositories of wisdom or even simply as a source of pleasure is relegated to the triviality of being merely incidental to the plot. (In Beauty and the Beast, Belle could have easily been an enthusiast for anything other than books; indeed, their stories really serve only as a counterpoint to the boredom of her quiet and provincial life.) Of course, the truly bookish movie would likely be a total failure. Undoubtedly the topic lacks sufficiently broad commercial appeal to make it palatable for studio executives, and those who already have a pronounced proclivity for books would just as soon read a book about books rather than watch a film.

It was with this understanding that Joel convinced me to watch one of the most execrable films in our apparently infinite treasury of media products, The Ninth Gate. Though he live-Tweeted my reactions to the movie, I nevertheless thought it worthwhile to set down some more articulate and continuous thoughts on the movie and its relation to reading culture more generally.

The plot is straightforward enough, and even for one paying as little attention as I did, it is entirely predictable after a few minutes. Totally lacking in energy or commitment to the project, Johnny Depp plays the rare book collector (detective and evaluator?) Dean Corso. He is hired by the ultra-wealthy Satan enthusiast Boris Balkan to determine the authenticity of his copy of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, a manual written in the 17th century by Aristide Torchia or, as rumor has it, the devil himself. Though there are three copies remaining in the world, it is rumored that only one is authentic – that is, only one of them has the power to summon the devil himself.

Each of these books possesses nine engravings supposedly crafted by Aristide Torchia, but Corso learns in comparing them that three of the engravings in each copy are not only different from the corresponding engravings in the other copies, but are in fact the work of Lucifer. As you might expect, the owners of these copies are mysteriously murdered as Corso pursues his line of inquiry, and Corso himself is nearly killed a few times, saved only by a combination of stout plot armor and the intervention of a mysterious (and obviously supernatural) green eyed woman. No surprise, Balkan had the owners of the other copies murdered, and attempted after collecting the nine true engravings to summon the devil and pledge his loyalty to the dark lord, only to accidentally burn himself to death. Corso then locates the last authentic engraving and goes to carry out the ritual himself.

As a film, it’s a total flop. If Balkan were going to resort to murder anyway, why not just murder the owners of the texts in the first place? The pacing is horrible, and the fights are worse than what a few kids could stage with a cell phone camera and a YouTube account.

Corso’s growing obsession with the authentic book is the main thread of the thinly-worn plot, and it is in effect simply a re-tooling of the Faust tale. He is an expert book collector, and in the opening minutes of the movie we see that he is able to score extremely rare editions of coveted works with little effort. While Faust summoned the devil out of boredom with the earthly disciplines he had mastered and in order to pursue more knowledge, Corso becomes obsessed with the rarest book in the world, and the attainment of the goal leads him to the devil.

What this suggests about bibliomaniacs and book culture is clear enough. In an age where science has created weapons which could annihilate all of human civilization within minutes, the dread specter of occult knowledge still has a tenacious grip on the collective mind. There’s something about all of those old tomes bound in leather, with mysteriously horrific engravings and (most mysterious of all) their impenetrable arcana locked in the secret vault of a dead language.

I suspect that the cultural associations of Latin have much to do with its frequent recurrence in movies like this. Indeed, we may only think that the devil speaks Latin because he did such a damn good job of it in Marlowe’s Tragedy of Dr. Faustus. Perhaps it makes sense that, in an age when learned doctors were apparently eager to summon the devil, and when all learned doctors knew Latin, that the devil might find it expedient for his business prospects to trudge through a grammar or two. Nevertheless, the idea that Latin is uniquely suited to spells and incantations is in fact entirely arbitrary, a sheer historical accident. One would expect that the devil exists in a kind of supralinguistic state, but even then, there is no reason for him or his demonic posse to speak and respond to Latin beyond the fact that Latin was widely employed by the Catholic Church. I strongly suspect that in places which were under not just the spiritual but also the linguistic influence of the Greek Orthodox Church there is no strongly pronounced association between demonic communication and the Latin language. The sole merit of the movie is that the production team had the decency to use grammatically functional Latin, and not the strange medley of Latin-like words which one sees most frequently either on screen or inked to someone’s skin.

Yet, as I think over the movie, it occurs to me that it really isn’t about bibliomania. Corso hardly seems like an enthusiastic intellectual, and did not appear to do much reading beyond the strict requirements of his job. Moreover, Hollywood apparently conceives of rare books as things which are regularly manhandled by any interested party. Throughout the movie, Corso carries the book with him everywhere (even through the rain), and it is rarely handled without a lit cigarette and/or drink in hand. Even reasonably rare but uninteresting books put together by second-rate hacks are guarded more carefully than this in archival rooms, but the book possibly written by the devil himself can be carted around like the latest James Patterson you picked up at the airport. (Then again, they may be rough equivalents.)

And so, you have here a movie that isn’t really about books or book lovers, and certainly has no appeal for anyone who is into cinema. I only made it through because Joel put me to it and seemed to be amused by my criticisms, and his cat kept me more or less distracted for the last horrific hour. Maybe one day Hollywood will give us a movie about bibliomania, but for now we just have to settle for the devil. I’d rather read anyway.


The Gardens of Adonis – Trifling Pleasures

Erasmus, Adagia 1.4:

Ἀδώνιδος κῆποι, that is ‘the Gardens of Adonis’ used to be said of trifling and unprofitable things which were suited only to the brief pleasure of the moment. Pausanius notes that the gardens of Adonis were once among the little delights, teeming with lettuce and fennel, in which seeds used to be placed in a pot, and for that reason it came to be used proverbially against worthless and trifling fools who were born for insipid pleasures. Included in thus bunch are singers, sophists, bawdy poets, gluttons, and others of that sort. There were however two gardens sacred to Venus on account of Adonis, her love who was snatched away at the first bloom of his youth and turned into a flower. Plato makes mention of these in his Phaedrus: :

Ὁ νοῦν ἔχων γεωργός, ὧν σπερμάτων κήδοιτο καὶ ἔγκαρπα βούλοιτο γενέσθαι, πότερα σπουδῇ ἂν θέρους εἰς Ἀδώνιδος κήπους ἀρῶν χαίροι θεωρῶν καλοὺς ἐν ἡμέραισιν ὀκτὼ γιγνομένους, ἢ ταῦτα μὲν δὴ παιδιᾶς τε καὶ ἑορτῆς χάριν δρώῃ ἄν, ὅτε καὶ ποιοῖ,

that is ,

‘will a farmer in his right mind, who has concern for his seeds and wants them one day to bear fruit, sow them with zeal in the gardens of Adonis during the summer, and does he rejoice to see them made beautiful within the space of eight days, or will he do those things (if ever) rather as a joke, for the sake of merriment?’

Similarly, Plutarch, in his commentary entitled Περὶ τοῦ βραδέως ὑπὸ θείου τιμωρουμένου, that is, ‘About One Punished Late by the Gods,’

Ἀλλὰ μικρός τις καὶ κενόσπουδος ὁ θεός ἐστιν ὥστε μηδὲν ἡμῶν ἐχόντων θεῖον ἐν αὑτοῖς μηδὲ προσόμοιον ἁμωσγέπως ἐκείνῳ καὶ διαρκὲς καὶ βέβαιον, ἀλλὰ φύλλοις, ὡς Ὅμηρος ἔφη, παραπλησίως ἀπομαραινομένων παντάπασι καὶ φθινόντων ἐν ὀλίγῳ, ποιεῖσθαι λόγον τοσοῦτον, ὥσπερ αἱ τοὺς Ἀδώνιδος κήπους ἐπ᾿ ὀστράκοις τισὶ τιθηνούμεναι καὶ θεραπεύουσαι γυναῖκες, ἐφημέρους ψυχὰς ἐν σαρκὶ τρυφερᾷ καὶ βίου ῥίζαν ἰσχυρὰν οὐ δεχομένῃ βλαστανούσας, εἶτα ἀποσβεννυμένας ἀεὶ ὑπο τῆς τυχούσης προφάσεως,

that is

‘He is a capricious god concerned with trifles who (though we have nothing divine in us nor anything which approaches his image and which might remain fixed and unchanged forever, but instead after the manner of leaves – as Homer says – droop in every respect and die in a short time) has such care for us, much as women who tend the gardens of Adonis which flourish for a few days and minister to the souls which endure for a brief period in our weak flesh, receiving no solid root of life and soon snuffed out by any chance accident.’

Theophrastus recounts in Idyll 8

Πὰρ δ᾿ ἁπαλοὶ κᾶποι πεφυλαγμένοι ἐν ταλαρίσκοις,


that is,

‘There are soft gardens preserved in shining baskets.’

The proverb is also given this way,

Ἀκαρπότερος τῶν Ἀδώνιδος κήπων,

that is,

‘Less fruitful than the gardens of Adonis.’

In a not dissimilar mode, Isaeus, mentioned in Philostratus, calls juvenile pleasures Ταντάλου κήπους, ‘the gardens of Tantalus’, because they are so similar to shades and dreams, and do not fill up the human mind, but rather provoke it. Similarly, Pollux used to call the speech of the sophist Athenodorus ‘the gardens of Tantalus’ because it was so juvenile and trifling, making a large pretense to be something when it was in fact nothing.”

The Gardens of Adonis (1888) by John Reinhard Weguelin

Adonis Horti.iv

Ἀδώνιδος κῆποι, id est Adonidis horti, de rebus leviculis dicebatur parumque frugiferis et ad brevem praesentemque modo voluptatem idoneis. Pausanias testatur Adonidis hortos olim in deliciis fuisse, lactucis potissimum ac feniculis frequentes, in quibus semina haud aliter atque in testa deponi consueverint, eoque rem in proverbium abiisse contra futiles ac nugones homines et voluptatibus ineptis natos ; cujusmodi sunt cantores, sophistae, poetae lascivi, cuppediarii atque id genus alii. Erant autem ii horti Veneri sacri propter Adonidem ejus amasium primo aetatis flore praereptum atque in florem conversum. Horum mentionem facit Plato in Phaedro : Ὁ νοῦν ἔχων γεωργός, ὧν σπερμάτων κήδοιτο καὶ ἔγκαρπα βούλοιτο γενέσθαι, πότερα σπουδῇ ἂν θέρους εἰς Ἀδώνιδος κήπους ἀρῶν χαίροι θεωρῶν καλοὺς ἐν ἡμέραισιν ὀκτὼ γιγνομένους, ἢ ταῦτα μὲν δὴ παιδιᾶς τε καὶ ἑορτῆς χάριν δρώῃ ἄν, ὅτε καὶ ποιοῖ; id est Num agricola qui sapiat semina quae curae haberet quaeque cuperet aliquando fructum adferre, aetatis tempore summo studio in Adonidis hortos mittet gaudetque spectare eos intra dies octo jam pulchros effectos, an ea quidem per lusum ac festi gratia faciet, si quando tamen fecerit ? Item Plutarchus in commentario, cui titulus Περὶ τοῦ βραδέως ὑπὸ θείου τιμωρουμένου, id est De eo, qui a numine sero punitur : Ἀλλὰ μικρός τις καὶ κενόσπουδος ὁ θεός ἐστιν ὥστε μηδὲν ἡμῶν ἐχόντων θεῖον ἐν αὑτοῖς μηδὲ προσόμοιον ἁμωσγέπως ἐκείνῳ καὶ διαρκὲς καὶ βέβαιον, ἀλλὰ φύλλοις, ὡς Ὅμηρος ἔφη, παραπλησίως ἀπομαραινομένων παντάπασι καὶ φθινόντων ἐν ὀλίγῳ, ποιεῖσθαι λόγον τοσοῦτον, ὥσπερ αἱ τοὺς Ἀδώνιδος κήπους ἐπ᾿ ὀστράκοις τισὶ τιθηνούμεναι καὶ θεραπεύουσαι γυναῖκες, ἐφημέρους ψυχὰς ἐν σαρκὶ τρυφερᾷ καὶ βίου ῥίζαν ἰσχυρὰν οὐ δεχομένῃ βλαστανούσας, εἶτα ἀποσβεννυμένας ἀεὶ ὑπο τῆς τυχούσης προφάσεως, id est Immo morosior quispiam et levicularum rerum curiosus est deus, qui cum nihil habeamus divinum in nobis, neque quod ullo modo ad illius similitudinem accedat quodque constet ac stabile perpetuumque sit, quin magis foliorum ritu, quemadmodum ait Homerus, undequaque marcescamus intereamusque brevi, tantam nostri curam habeat non aliter quam mulieres, quae Adonidis hortos ad dies pauculos vernantes in testulis quibusdam nutriunt foveatque animas brevi duraturas in carne tenera et solidam vitae radicem non recipiente suppullulantes ac mox ad quamvis occasionem interituras. Meminit et Theocritus Idyllio Θ :

Πὰρ δ᾿ ἁπαλοὶ κᾶποι πεφυλαγμένοι ἐν ταλαρίσκοις,


id est

Adsunt et teneri calathis candentibus horti,


Effertur paroemia etiam hoc modo, Ἀκαρπότερος τῶν Ἀδώνιδος κήπων, id est Infructuosior Adonidis hortis. Non dissimili figura Isaeus apud Philostratum juveniles voluptates appellat Ταντάλου κήπους, quod umbris ac somniis persimiles sint nec expleant hominis animum sed irritent potius. Similiter Pollux sophistae Athenodori dictionem appellabat Tantali hortos, quod juvenilis esset ac levis, speciem prae se ferens, quasi esset aliquid, cum nihil esset.

Poetic Study in the Time of Pindar

J.E. Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship, Vol.1: 


“In the age succeeding the expulsion of the Peisistratidae, Pindar, with a conscious reference to the origin of the word Rhapsodos, describes the Rhapsodes as ‘the sons of Homer, singers of deftly woven lays’. He also alludes to the laurel-branch that they bore as an emblem of poetic tradition. Homer himself (he tells us) had ‘rightly set forth all the prowess of Ajax, leaving it as a theme for other bards to sing, by the laurel-wand of his lays divine. Pindar’s praise of Amphiaraus is a clear reminiscence of a Homeric line in praise of Agamemnon. He describes the ‘fire-breathing Chimaera’ in a phrase like that of Homer, but differs from him in minor details as to Bellerophon, Ganymede and Tantalus. He shows a similar freedom in giving a new meaning to a phrase borrowed from his own countryman the Boeotian poet, Hesiod, by applying to the athlete’s toilsome training a proverbial admonition originally referring to the work of the farm. In the age of Pindar, and in the Athenian age in general, the poet and his audience were alike saturated with the study of the old poets. Homer and Hesiod, and a touch alone was wanted to awaken the memory of some long familiar line.”

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