A certain jollity of mind, pickled in the scorn of fortune

The opening of the author’s prologue to the fourth book of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel in the Thomas Urquhart translation, (re)discovered through the epigraph of a Rabelais biography I picked up last week – Mary Willcocks’ The Laughing Philosopher. Urquhart always manages the magic of hitting the spirit by departing from the letter.

Good people, God save and keep you! Where are you? I can’t see you: stay–I’ll saddle my nose with spectacles–oh, oh! ’twill be fair anon: I see you. Well, you have had a good vintage, they say: this is no bad news to Frank, you may swear. You have got an infallible cure against thirst: rarely performed of you, my friends! You, your wives, children, friends, and families are in as good case as hearts can wish; it is well, it is as I would have it: God be praised for it, and if such be his will, may you long be so. For my part, I am thereabouts, thanks to his blessed goodness; and by the means of a little Pantagruelism (which you know is a certain jollity of mind, pickled in the scorn of fortune), you see me now hale and cheery, as sound as a bell, and ready to drink, if you will. Would you know why I’m thus, good people? I will even give you a positive answer –Such is the Lord’s will, which I obey and revere; it being said in his word, in great derision to the physician neglectful of his own health, Physician, heal thyself.


à ce qu’on m’a dit. Je n’en serai jamais fâché. Vous avez trouvé un remède éternel contre toutes les soifs violentes ? Voilà une opération efficace. Êtes-vous, ainsi que vos femmes, enfants, parents et familles, dans la santé que vous désirez ? Cela va bien, cela est bon, cela me plaît. Puisse Dieu, le Dieu de bonté, en être éternellement loué, et (si telle est sa sainte volonté) puissiez-vous y demeurer longtemps.

Quant à moi, par sa sainte bonté, me voilà, et je me recommande à lui. Je suis, moyennant un peu de Pantagruélisme (entendez par là une certaine gaieté d’esprit pleine de mépris pour les coups du sort), sain et dispos ; prêt à boire, si vous voulez. Ne me demandez-vous pas pourquoi, gens de bien ? Réponse irrécusable : telle est la volonté du Dieu très bon, très grand, auquel j’accepte de croire, auquel je me soumets, et dont je révère la très sainte parole, porteuse de bonnes nouvelles, c’est-à-dire l’Évangile où il est dit, Luc, 4, avec une moquerie poignante et une dérision sanglante, au médecin négligent de sa propre santé : « Médecin, oh ! guéris-toi toi-même. »

Ferrying the dead

From Procopius’ History of the Wars (8.20), a fascinating myth told among the Austrasian Celts – or, by other estimates, a gossipy garbling of some ritual or practice of theirs. Either way a pretty story and a unique variant on ferrying the dead. The destination island Brittia was supposedly set somewhere between Great Britain and Thule.

Since I have reached this point in the history, it is necessary for me to record a story which bears a very close resemblance to mythology, a story which did not indeed seem to me at all trustworthy, although it was constantly being published by countless persons who maintained that they had done the thing with their own hands and had heard the words with their own ears, and yet it cannot be altogether passed over, lest, in writing an account of the island of Brittia, I gain a lasting reputation for ignorance of what takes place there.

They say, then, that the souls of men who die are always conveyed to this place. And as to the manner in which this is done, I shall presently explain, having many a time heard the people there most earnestly describe it, though I have come to the conclusion that the tales they tell are to be attributed to some power of dreams. Along the coast of the ocean which lies opposite the island of Brittia there are numerous villages. These are inhabited by men who fish with nets or till the soil or carry on a sea-trade with this island, being in other respects subject to the Franks, but never making them any payment of tribute, that burden having been remitted to them from ancient times on account, as they say, of a certain service, which will here be described by me.

The men of this place say that the conduct of souls is laid upon them in turn. So the men who on the following night must go to do this work relieving others in the service, as soon as darkness comes on, retire to their own houses and sleep, awaiting him who is to assemble them for the enterprise. And at a late hour of the night they are conscious of a knocking at their doors and hear an indistinct voice calling them together for their task. And they with no hesitation rise from their beds and walk to the shore, not understanding what necessity leads them to do this, but compelled nevertheless. There they see skiffs in readiness with no man at all in them, not their own skiffs, however, but a different kind, in which they embark and lay hold of the oars. And they are aware that the boats are burdened with a large number of passengers and are wet by the waves to the edge of the planks and the oarlocks, having not so much as one finger’s breadth above the water; they themselves, however, see no one, but after rowing a single hour they put in at Brittia. And yet when they make the voyage in their own skiffs, not using sails but rowing, they with difficulty make this passage in a night and a day. Then when they have reached the island and have been relieved of their burden, they depart with all speed, their boats now becoming suddenly light and rising above the waves, for they sink no further in the water than the keel itself.

And they, for their part, neither see any man either sitting in the boat with them or departing from the boat, but they say that they hear a kind of voice from the island which seems to make announcement to those who take the souls in charge as each name is called of the passengers who have come over with them, telling over the positions of honour which they formerly held and calling out their fathers’ names with their own. And if women also happen to be among those who have been ferried over, they utter the names of the men to whom they were married in life. This, then, is what the men of this country say takes place.

Ex Libris (Post Mortem)

On vacation last week I went into a promising little used/antiquarian bookshop. Finding more Latin Teubners than a man has any right to expect of any store, I started checking for owner’s marks and discovered I’d been browsing the unwanted residue of an old professor’s personal library. This reminded me of the bookplate below, which I’d saved a few years back partly because I liked the spirit of the joke and partly because I knew it to be only half a joke. As I made room in my library this morning for new editions of Valerius Flaccus and Macrobius, the joke end of the scale seemed to lose weight.

In looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water

From Ch 7 (The Chapel) of Moby Dick, the chapter’s concluding reflection. Obvious Cartesian influence aside, Melville here seems to combine ideas from two passages of Plato given below. He may also be indirectly recalling (or expecting the reader to recall) the famous 1 Corinthians (13:12) ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.’

It needs scarcely to be told, with what feelings, on the eve of a Nantucket voyage, I regarded those marble tablets, and by the murky light of that darkened, doleful day read the fate of the whalemen who had gone before me. Yes, Ishmael, the same fate may be thine. But somehow I grew merry again. Delightful inducements to embark, fine chance for promotion, it seems—aye, a stove boat will make me an immortal by brevet. Yes, there is death in this business of whaling—a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity. But what then? Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me. And therefore three cheers for Nantucket; and come a stove boat and stove body when they will, for stave my soul, Jove himself cannot.

From Plato’s Phaedo (starting 109b), a sort of early version of the allegory of the cave – only grounded purely in the physical.

The earth itself is pure and lies in the pure heaven in which there are the stars. Indeed, the majority of those who are accustomed to talk about these things call it the ether. It’s of this that these elements (the water, mist and air) are the sediment and they continually flow together into the hollows of the earth. Now we who live in its hollows have failed to observe this and think we live above on the earth, as if someone living in the middle of the depths of the ocean were to think he was dwelling on the surface of the sea and, seeing the sun and the rest of the stars through the water, he were to think the sea was the heaven; but, on account of his slowness and weakness, he had never yet got to the surface of the sea, or had even seen, on emerging and lifting his head out of the sea and looking up at our world here, how much purer and more beautiful it actually is than his own environment, nor had heard from anyone else who had seen it. So this then is exactly what we too have experienced, because, living in some hollow in the earth, we think we’re on the surface of it, and we call the air heaven as though this were the heaven through which the stars pass. But it’s the same thing; as a result of our weakness and slowness we’re unable to get out to the farthest reaches of the air. Since if someone were to get to the surface, or grew wings and flew up, he’d lift up his head and see, just as fish here look up out of the sea and see what’s here, so someone would see what’s up there, and if he were naturally capable of holding out and viewing the sight, he’d realize that is truly heaven and the true light and the real earth.


εἶναι γὰρ πανταχῇ περὶ τὴν γῆν πολλὰ κοῖλα καὶ παντοδαπὰ καὶ τὰς ἰδέας καὶ τὰ μεγέθη, εἰς ἃ συνερρυηκέναι τό τε ὕδωρ καὶ τὴν ὁμίχλην καὶ τὸν ἀέρα· αὐτὴν δὲ τὴν γῆν καθαρὰν ἐν καθαρῷ κεῖσθαι τῷ οὐρανῷ ἐν ᾧπέρ ἐστι τὰ ἄστρα, ὃν δὴ αἰθέρα ὀνομάζειν τοὺς πολλοὺς τῶν περὶ τὰ τοιαῦτα εἰωθότων λέγειν· οὗ δὴ ὑποστάθμην ταῦτα εἶναι καὶ συρρεῖν ἀεὶ εἰς τὰ κοῖλα τῆς γῆς. ἡμᾶς οὖν οἰκοῦντας ἐν τοῖς κοίλοις αὐτῆς λεληθέναι καὶ οἴεσθαι ἄνω ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς οἰκεῖν, ὥσπερ ἂν εἴ τις ἐν μέσῳ τῷ πυθμένι τοῦ πελάγους οἰκῶν οἴοιτό τε ἐπὶ τῆς θαλάττης οἰκεῖν καὶ διὰ τοῦ ὕδατος ὁρῶν τὸν ἥλιον καὶ τὰ ἄλλα ἄστρα τὴν θάλατταν ἡγοῖτο οὐρανὸν εἶναι, διὰ δὲ βραδυτῆτά τε καὶ ἀσθένειαν μηδεπώποτε ἐπὶ τὰ ἄκρα τῆς θαλάττης ἀφιγμένος μηδὲ ἑωρακὼς εἴη, ἐκδὺς καὶ ἀνακύψας ἐκ τῆς θαλάττης εἰς τὸν ἐνθάδε τόπον, ὅσῳ καθαρώτερος καὶ καλλίων τυγχάνει ὢν τοῦ παρὰ σφίσι, μηδὲ ἄλλου ἀκηκοὼς εἴη τοῦ ἑωρακότος. ταὐτὸν δὴ τοῦτο καὶ ἡμᾶς πεπονθέναι· οἰκοῦντας γὰρ ἔν τινι κοίλῳ τῆς γῆς οἴεσθαι ἐπάνω αὐτῆς οἰκεῖν, καὶ τὸν ἀέρα οὐρανὸν καλεῖν, ὡς διὰ τούτου οὐρανοῦ ὄντος τὰ ἄστρα χωροῦντα· τὸ δὲ εἶναι ταὐτόν, ὑπ’ ἀσθενείας καὶ βραδυτῆτος οὐχ οἵους τε εἶναι ἡμᾶς διεξελθεῖν ἐπ’ ἔσχατον τὸν ἀέρα· ἐπεί, εἴ τις αὐτοῦ ἐπ’ ἄκρα ἔλθοι ἢ πτηνὸς γενόμενος ἀνάπτοιτο, κατιδεῖν <ἂν> ἀνακύψαντα, ὥσπερ ἐνθάδε οἱ ἐκ τῆς θαλάττης ἰχθύες ἀνακύπτοντες ὁρῶσι τὰ ἐνθάδε, | οὕτως ἄν τινα καὶ τὰ ἐκεῖ κατιδεῖν, καὶ εἰ ἡ φύσις ἱκανὴ εἴη ἀνασχέσθαι θεωροῦσα, γνῶναι ἂν ὅτι ἐκεῖνός ἐστιν ὁ ἀληθῶς οὐρανὸς καὶ τὸ ἀληθινὸν φῶς καὶ ἡ ὡς ἀληθῶς γῆ.

And from Phaedrus (250 E):

For, as has been said, every soul of man has by the law of nature beheld the realities, otherwise it would not have entered into a human being, but it is not easy for all souls to gain from earthly things a recollection of those realities, either for those which had but a brief view of them at that earlier time, or for those which, after falling to earth, were so unfortunate as to be turned toward unrighteousness through some evil communications and to have forgotten the holy sights they once saw. Few then are left which retain an adequate recollection of them; but these when they see here any likeness of the things of that other world, are stricken with amazement and can no longer control themselves; but they do understand their condition, because they do not clearly perceive. Now in the earthly copies of justice and temperance and the other ideas which are precious to souls there is no light, but only a few, approaching the images through the darkling organs of sense, behold in them the nature of that which they imitate, and these few do this with difficulty. But at that former time they saw beauty shining in brightness, when, with a blessed company—we following in the train of Zeus, and others in that of some other god—they saw the blessed sight and vision and were initiated into that which is rightly called the most blessed of mysteries, which we celebrated in a state of perfection, when we were without experience of the evils which awaited us in the time to come, being permitted as initiates to the sight of perfect and simple and calm and happy apparitions, which we saw in the pure light, being ourselves pure and not entombed in this which we carry about with us and call the body, in which we are imprisoned like an oyster in its shell.


καθάπερ γὰρ εἴρηται, πᾶσα μὲν ἀνθρώπου ψυχὴ φύσει τεθέαται τὰ ὄντα, ἢ οὐκ ἂν ἦλθεν εἰς τόδε τὸ ζῷον,· ἀναμιμνῄσκεσθαι δ᾿ ἐκ τῶνδε ἐκεῖνα οὐ ῥᾴδιον ἁπάσῃ, οὔτε ὅσαι βραχέως εἶδον τότε τἀκεῖ, οὔτε αἳ δεῦρο πεσοῦσαι ἐδυστύχησαν, ὥστε ὑπό τινων ὁμιλιῶν ἐπὶ τὸ ἄδικον τραπόμεναι λήθην ὧν τότε εἶδον ἱερῶν ἔχειν. ὀλίγαι δὴ λείπονται, αἷς τὸ τῆς μνήμης ἱκανῶς πάρεστιν· αὗται δέ, ὅταν τι τῶν ἐκεῖ ὁμοίωμα ἴδωσιν, ἐκπλήττονται καὶ οὐκέθ᾿ αὑτῶν γίγνονται, ὃ δ᾿ ἔστι τὸ πάθος ἀγνοοῦσιν διὰ τὸ μὴ ἱκανῶς διαισθάνεσθαι. δικαιοσύνης μὲν οὖν καὶ σωφροσύνης, καὶ ὅσα ἄλλα τίμια ψυχαῖς, οὐκ ἔνεστι φέγγος οὐδὲν ἐν τοῖς τῇδε ὁμοιώμασιν, ἀλλὰ δι᾿ ἀμυδρῶν ὀργάνων μόγις αὐτῶν καὶ ὀλίγοι ἐπὶ τὰς εἰκόνας ἰόντες θεῶνται τὸ τοῦ εἰκασθέντος γένος· κάλλος δὲ τότ᾿ ἦν ἰδεῖν λαμπρόν, ὅτε σὺν εὐδαίμονι χορῷ μακαρίαν ὄψιν τε καὶ θέαν, ἑπόμενοι μετὰ μὲν Διὸς ἡμεῖς, ἄλλοι δὲ μετ᾿ ἄλλου θεῶν, εἶδόν τε καὶ ἐτελοῦντο τῶν τελετῶν ἣν θέμις λέγειν μακαριωτάτην, ἣν ὠργιάζομεν ὁλόκληροι μὲν αὐτοὶ ὄντες καὶ ἀπαθεῖς κακῶν, ὅσα ἡμᾶς ἐν ὑστέρῳ χρόνῳ ὑπέμεν, ὁλόκληρα δὲ καὶ ἁπλᾶ καὶ ἀτρεμῆ καὶ εὐδαίμονα φάσματα μυούμενοί τε καὶ ἐποπτεύοντες ἐν αὐγῇ καθαρᾷ, καθαροὶ ὄντες καὶ ἀσήμαντοι τούτου, ὃ νῦν σῶμα περιφέροντες ὀνομάζομεν, ὀστρέου τρόπον δεδεσμευμένοι.

And perhaps if we showed a little more confidence they would become friendly

From Dino Buzzati’s The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily, a childhood favorite that I find almost better as an adult thanks to how respectfully Buzzati speaks to his prime audience. He also offered endless subversion of tropes before subversion became itself the dullest of tropes.

In the neighbourhood there was an old castle – in fact at that time there were many old castles, but the one we mean is Demon Castle, which was all in ruins and hideous, and full of wild beasts, but which was the most famous because it was inhabited by ghosts. As you very well know, all old castles are generally haunted by a ghost or, at most, by two or three. But in Demon Castle there were so many that you could not count them. There were hundreds of them, if not thousands, lying hidden by day: there were even ghosts in the keyholes.

There are some mothers who say: “I cannot imagine what pleasure people get out of telling children ghost stories: it terrifies them, and afterwards at night they start screaming if they hear a mouse.” Perhaps the mothers are right. Still, there are three things to remember. First of all, ghosts, always supposing they exist, have never done children any harm – in fact they have never done anyone any harm: it is simply that people insist on getting frightened. Ghosts and spirits, if they exist (and today they have almost vanished off the face of the earth), are natural and innocent things like the wind or the rain, or shadows of trees, or the voice of the cuckoo in the evening – and they are probably sad at having to live all by themselves in dreary, old, uninhabited houses – and they are probably afraid of people as they hardly ever see them, and perhaps if we showed a little more confidence they would become friendly and would enjoy playing with us at, say, hide-and-seek.

Secondly, Demon Castle does not exist any more, the Grand Duke’s city does not exist any more, there are no more bears in Sicily, and the whole story is now so remote that there is no cause for alarm.

Thirdly, that is how the story was, and we cannot alter it.

And Buzzati’s accompanying art (skipping a bit forward in the story)

And so the universal thump is passed round

From the opening chapter of Melville’s Moby Dick. I normally read this novel in 1-2 consuming sittings but I’d like to try something different this time and hit no more than a few chapters each day.

No, when I go to sea, I go as a simple sailor, right before the mast, plumb down into the forecastle, aloft there to the royal mast-head. True, they rather order me about some, and make me jump from spar to spar, like a grasshopper in a May meadow. And at first, this sort of thing is unpleasant enough. It touches one’s sense of honor, particularly if you come of an old established family in the land, the Van Rensselaers, or Randolphs, or Hardicanutes. And more than all, if just previous to putting your hand into the tar-pot, you have been lording it as a country schoolmaster, making the tallest boys stand in awe of you. The transition is a keen one, I assure you, from a schoolmaster to a sailor, and requires a strong decoction of Seneca and the Stoics to enable you to grin and bear it. But even this wears off in time.

What of it, if some old hunks of a sea-captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks? What does that indignity amount to, weighed, I mean, in the scales of the New Testament? Do you think the archangel Gabriel thinks anything the less of me, because I promptly and respectfully obey that old hunks in that particular instance? Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that. Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about—however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way—either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content.

There’s a fascinating thread running through the novel of ruminations prompted by thumping, slapping, and striking. Jump to Stubb’s dream in ch.31 (Queen Mab) and you find:

“Such a queer dream, King-Post, I never had. You know the old man’s ivory leg, well I dreamed he kicked me with it; and when I tried to kick back, upon my soul, my little man, I kicked my leg right off! And then, presto! Ahab seemed a pyramid, and I, like a blazing fool, kept kicking at it. But what was still more curious, Flask—you know how curious all dreams are—through all this rage that I was in, I somehow seemed to be thinking to myself, that after all, it was not much of an insult, that kick from Ahab. ‘Why,’ thinks I, ‘what’s the row? It’s not a real leg, only a false leg.’ And there’s a mighty difference between a living thump and a dead thump. That’s what makes a blow from the hand, Flask, fifty times more savage to bear than a blow from a cane. The living member—that makes the living insult, my little man. And thinks I to myself all the while, mind, while I was stubbing my silly toes against that cursed pyramid—so confoundedly contradictory was it all, all the while, I say, I was thinking to myself, ‘what’s his leg now, but a cane—a whalebone cane. Yes,’ thinks I, ‘it was only a playful cudgelling—in fact, only a whaleboning that he gave me—not a base kick. Besides,’ thinks I, ‘look at it once; why, the end of it—the foot part—what a small sort of end it is; whereas, if a broad footed farmer kicked me, there’s a devilish broad insult. But this insult is whittled down to a point only.’ But now comes the greatest joke of the dream, Flask. While I was battering away at the pyramid, a sort of badger-haired old merman, with a hump on his back, takes me by the shoulders, and slews me round. ‘What are you ’bout?’ says he. Slid! man, but I was frightened. Such a phiz! But, somehow, next moment I was over the fright. ‘What am I about?’ says I at last. ‘And what business is that of yours, I should like to know, Mr. Humpback? Do you want a kick?’ By the lord, Flask, I had no sooner said that, than he turned round his stern to me, bent over, and dragging up a lot of seaweed he had for a clout—what do you think, I saw?—why thunder alive, man, his stern was stuck full of marlinspikes, with the points out. Says I, on second thoughts, ‘I guess I won’t kick you, old fellow.’ ‘Wise Stubb,’ said he, ‘wise Stubb;’ and kept muttering it all the time, a sort of eating of his own gums like a chimney hag. Seeing he wasn’t going to stop saying over his ‘wise Stubb, wise Stubb,’ I thought I might as well fall to kicking the pyramid again. But I had only just lifted my foot for it, when he roared out, ‘Stop that kicking!’ ‘Halloa,’ says I, ‘what’s the matter now, old fellow?’ ‘Look ye here,’ says he; ‘let’s argue the insult. Captain Ahab kicked ye, didn’t he?’ ‘Yes, he did,’ says I—‘right here it was.’ ‘Very good,’ says he—‘he used his ivory leg, didn’t he?’ ‘Yes, he did,’ says I. ‘Well then,’ says he, ‘wise Stubb, what have you to complain of? Didn’t he kick with right good will? it wasn’t a common pitch pine leg he kicked with, was it? No, you were kicked by a great man, and with a beautiful ivory leg, Stubb. It’s an honor; I consider it an honor. Listen, wise Stubb. In old England the greatest lords think it great glory to be slapped by a queen, and made garter-knights of; but, be your boast, Stubb, that ye were kicked by old Ahab, and made a wise man of. Remember what I say; be kicked by him; account his kicks honors; and on no account kick back; for you can’t help yourself, wise Stubb. Don’t you see that pyramid?’ With that, he all of a sudden seemed somehow, in some queer fashion, to swim off into the air. I snored; rolled over; and there I was in my hammock! Now, what do you think of that dream, Flask?”

And further on in Fleece’s speech to the sharks (ch 64 Stubb’s Supper):

“Do you is all sharks, and by natur wery woracious, yet I zay to you, fellow-critters, dat dat woraciousness—’top dat dam slappin’ ob de tail! How you tink to hear, spose you keep up such a dam slappin’ and bitin’ dare?”

“Cook,” cried Stubb, collaring him, “I won’t have that swearing. Talk to ’em gentlemanly.”

Once more the sermon proceeded.

“Your woraciousness, fellow-critters, I don’t blame ye so much for; dat is natur, and can’t be helped; but to gobern dat wicked natur, dat is de pint. You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not’ing more dan de shark well goberned. Now, look here, bred’ren, just try wonst to be cibil, a helping yourselbs from dat whale. Don’t be tearin’ de blubber out your neighbour’s mout, I say. Is not one shark dood right as toder to dat whale? And, by Gor, none on you has de right to dat whale; dat whale belong to some one else. I know some o’ you has berry brig mout, brigger dan oders; but den de brig mouts sometimes has de small bellies; so dat de brigness of de mout is not to swaller wid, but to bit off de blubber for de small fry ob sharks, dat can’t get into de scrouge to help demselves.”

“Well done, old Fleece!” cried Stubb, “that’s Christianity; go on.”

“No use goin’ on; de dam willains will keep a scougin’ and slappin’ each oder, Massa Stubb; dey don’t hear one word; no use a-preachin’ to such dam g’uttons as you call ’em, till dare bellies is full, and dare bellies is bottomless; and when dey do get ’em full, dey wont hear you den; for den dey sink in de sea, go fast to sleep on de coral, and can’t hear not’ing at all, no more, for eber and eber.”

And last of the suggestive samples, from chapter 86 (The Tail):

Other poets have warbled the praises of the soft eye of the antelope, and the lovely plumage of the bird that never alights; less celestial, I celebrate a tail.

But as if this vast local power in the tendinous tail were not enough, the whole bulk of the leviathan is knit over with a warp and woof of muscular fibres and filaments, which passing on either side the loins and running down into the flukes, insensibly blend with them, and largely contribute to their might; so that in the tail the confluent measureless force of the whole whale seems concentrated to a point. Could annihilation occur to matter, this were the thing to do it.

Nor does this—its amazing strength, at all tend to cripple the graceful flexion of its motions; where infantileness of ease undulates through a Titanism of power. On the contrary, those motions derive their most appalling beauty from it. Real strength never impairs beauty or harmony, but it often bestows it; and in everything imposingly beautiful, strength has much to do with the magic. Take away the tied tendons that all over seem bursting from the marble in the carved Hercules, and its charm would be gone. As devout Eckerman lifted the linen sheet from the naked corpse of Goethe, he was overwhelmed with the massive chest of the man, that seemed as a Roman triumphal arch. When Angelo paints even God the Father in human form, mark what robustness is there. And whatever they may reveal of the divine love in the Son, the soft, curled, hermaphroditical Italian pictures, in which his idea has been most successfully embodied; these pictures, so destitute as they are of all brawniness, hint nothing of any power, but the mere negative, feminine one of submission and endurance, which on all hands it is conceded, form the peculiar practical virtues of his teachings.

Such is the subtle elasticity of the organ I treat of, that whether wielded in sport, or in earnest, or in anger, whatever be the mood it be in, its flexions are invariably marked by exceeding grace. Therein no fairy’s arm can transcend it.

It is a little significant, that while one sperm whale only fights another sperm whale with his head and jaw, nevertheless, in his conflicts with man, he chiefly and contemptuously uses his tail. In striking at a boat, he swiftly curves away his flukes from it, and the blow is only inflicted by the recoil. If it be made in the unobstructed air, especially if it descend to its mark, the stroke is then simply irresistible. No ribs of man or boat can withstand it. Your only salvation lies in eluding it; but if it comes sideways through the opposing water, then partly owing to the light buoyancy of the whale-boat, and the elasticity of its materials, a cracked rib or a dashed plank or two, a sort of stitch in the side, is generally the most serious result. These submerged side blows are so often received in the fishery, that they are accounted mere child’s play. Some one strips off a frock, and the hole is stopped.

Lancelot and the Sword Bridge

From the Burton Raffel translation of Chretien de Troyes’ Lancelot, The Knight of the Cart, Lancelot’s crossing of the sword bridge. An edition of the original text can be found here (~lines 3000-3125 given here). I can’t find a good collection of images online but this article plus a quick google image search will point to how iconic the scene became – though to me some of the representations (like the one below) take an accidental Boschian aspect from the artist’s realization that all you really need is a knight on a large knife (compare from Hell in Earthly Delights and the center panel in the Bruges Last Judgment).

Following the most direct
Route, just as the light
Was fading, about nine
That night, they saw the Sword Bridge.
They stopped and dismounted at the foot
Of the terrifying structure, looking
Down at the treacherous water,
Black and boiling, swift
And harsh, as horribly evil
As if it flowed from the devil
Himself, deep and dangerous
Like nothing else in this world:
Whoever fell in would sink
Like a rock in the salty sea.
And the bridge that spanned it was just
As different from other bridges;
Believe me, nothing lie it
Had ever existed, or ever
Would, neither as huge
Or as wickedly built-a single
Gleaming sword-blade crossing
That ice-cold water, stiff
And strong, as wide as a pair
Of spears, and attached at either
End to massive tree-trunk
Stumps. No one would worry
About it bending or breaking:
It would clearly stand, no matter
What weight it was asked to bear.
But those who’d come with our knight
Were most concerned at seeing,
Or thinking they saw, a pair
Of lions, or perhaps they were leopards,
Chained to a boulder on the far
Side of the bridge. The water,
The bridge, and the two great beasts
Gave them such a shock
That from head to foot they trembled
With fear: “My lord, allow us
To advise you, seeing what we see,
For advice is what you need.
This bridge is wickedly built,
Evilly put together.
Change your mind nowOr else you’ll lose the chance.
A man must think both long
And hard before he acts.
Suppose you get acrossBut it isn’t going to happen:
No one can hold back the wind
And stop it from blowing, or forbid
Birds to open their beaks
And sing, and keep them silent,
Or climb into a mother’s
Womb and be born again:
All these things are just as
Impossible as draining the sea.
How can you expect
Those furious lions, chained up
Over there, not
To kill you, and drink the blood
From your veins, and swallow your flesh,
And finish by gnawing your bones?
My nerves are strong, but I
Can barely allow my eyes
To see them. If you’re not careful,
They’ll surely kill you, I know it,
They’ll rip you right apart
And tear off your arms and legs.
Expect no mercy: they have none.
So take pity on yourself.
Stay here with us! Don’t
Commit so grave a sin
Against yourself, aware
Of mortal risk, yet seeking it
Out.” He replied, laughing,
“Gentlemen, I’m deeply grateful
That you care so much for my welfare:
You’re good and generous friends.
I know quite well you wish me
To come to no harm. But my faith
In God, my trust in Him,
Compels me to believe Hell protect me.
Neither bridge nor water
Nor this harsh world can worry
Me. I intend to cross,
Whatever the risk. I’d rather
Die than turn and go back!”
There was nothing more to be said,
But pity and sorrow wrung them
Both with bitter tears.
And our knight made ready, as best
He could, to cross the gulf,
Preparing, in the strangest way,
By removing the armor from his hands
And feet, as if making sure
He could not arrive uninjured!
Then he held tight to the sword-blade
Bridge, as sharp as a razor,
Hands and feet both bare
For he’d left himself no covering,
Neither shoes nor stockings
Not fearing sharp edges slicing
Away at his flesh, much
Preferring bloody wounds
To falling into that icy
Water from which he would never
Emerge. Accepting the immense
Pain and suffering, he crossed,
Hands and knees and feet
Bleeding. But Love, who had led him
There, helped him as he went,
And turned his pain to pleasure.
When he came to the other side
None of his wounds were hurting.
And then he recalled the pair
Of lions he’d seen, or thought
He’d seen, before he crossed,
But looking here and there
All he could see was a lizard,
And nothing there that could harm him
Raising his hand to his face
He stared at his ring, and knew
At once the pair of lions
Were imagined, and nowhere in sight,
But conjured out of magic.

The symbols of the divine show up in our world initially at the trash stratum

From Philip K. Dick’s Valis (ch 14). Something the other day reminded me of this passage – which is a concise phrasing of an idea that appears throughout Dick’s later writings – and a bit of reflection today led to connecting it to what Stanislaw Lem had written about Dick as the only American sci-fi writer whose work he could respect.

Seated before my TV set I watched and waited for another message, I, one of the members of the little Rhipidon Society which still, in my mind, existed. Like the satellite in miniature in the film Valis, the microform of it run over by the taxi as if it were an empty beer can in the gutter, the symbols of the divine show up in our world initially at the trash stratum. Or so I told myself. Kevin had expressed this thought. The divine intrudes where you least expect it.

And now from Stanislaw Lem’s Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans (online here)

Dick employs the same materials and theatrical props as other American writers. From the warehouse which has long since become their common property, he takes the whole threadbare lot of telepaths, cosmic wars, parallel worlds, and time travel.
….
The peculiarities of Dick’s worlds arise especially from the fact that in them it is waking reality which undergoes profound dissociation and duplication. Sometimes the dissociating agency consists in chemical substances (of the hallucinogenic type—thus in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch); sometimes in “cold-sleep technique” (as precisely in Ubik); sometimes (as in Now Wait for Last Year) in a combination of narcotics and “parallel worlds.” The end-effect is always the same: distinguishing between waking reality and visions proves to be impossible. The technical aspect of this phenomenon is fairly inessential—it does not matter whether the splitting of reality is brought about by a new technology of chemical manipulation of the mind or, as in Ubik, by one of surgical operations. The essential point is that a world equipped with the means of splitting perceived reality into indistinguishable likenesses of itself creates practical dilemmas that are known only to the theoretical speculations of philosophy. This is a world in which, so to speak, this philosophy goes out into the street and becomes for every ordinary mortal no less of a burning question than is for us the threatened destruction of the biosphere.

And understood not that a grateful mind by owing owes not

From Book IV of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan’s speech:

O thou that with surpassing Glory crownd,
Look’st from thy sole Dominion like the God
Of this new World; at whose sight all the Starrs
Hide thir diminisht heads; to thee I call, [ 35 ]
But with no friendly voice, and add thy name
O Sun, to tell thee how I hate thy beams
That bring to my remembrance from what state
I fell, how glorious once above thy Spheare;
Till Pride and worse Ambition threw me down [ 40 ]
Warring in Heav’n against Heav’ns matchless King:
Ah wherefore! he deservd no such return
From me, whom he created what I was
In that bright eminence, and with his good
Upbraided none; nor was his service hard. [ 45 ]
What could be less then to afford him praise,
The easiest recompence, and pay him thanks,
How due! yet all his good prov’d ill in me,
And wrought but malice; lifted up so high
I sdeind subjection, and thought one step higher [ 50 ]
Would set me highest, and in a moment quit
The debt immense of endless gratitude,
So burthensome, still paying, still to ow;
Forgetful what from him I still receivd,
And understood not that a grateful mind [ 55 ]
By owing owes not, but still pays, at once
Indebted and dischargd; what burden then?
O had his powerful Destiny ordaind
Me some inferiour Angel, I had stood
Then happie; no unbounded hope had rais’d [ 60 ]
Ambition. Yet why not? som other Power
As great might have aspir’d, and me though mean
Drawn to his part; but other Powers as great
Fell not, but stand unshak’n, from within
Or from without, to all temptations arm’d. [ 65 ]
Hadst thou the same free Will and Power to stand?
Thou hadst: whom hast thou then or what to accuse,
But Heav’ns free Love dealt equally to all?
Be then his Love accurst, since love or hate,
To me alike, it deals eternal woe. [ 70 ]
Nay curs’d be thou; since against his thy will
Chose freely what it now so justly rues.
Me miserable! which way shall I flie
Infinite wrauth, and infinite despaire?
Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell; [ 75 ]
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threatning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n.
O then at last relent: is there no place
Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left? [ 80 ]
None left but by submission; and that word
Disdain forbids me, and my dread of shame
Among the Spirits beneath, whom I seduc’d
With other promises and other vaunts
Then to submit, boasting I could subdue [ 85 ]
Th’ Omnipotent. Ay me, they little know
How dearly I abide that boast so vaine,
Under what torments inwardly I groane:
While they adore me on the Throne of Hell,
With Diadem and Sceptre high advanc’d [ 90 ]
The lower still I fall, onely Supream
In miserie; such joy Ambition findes.
But say I could repent and could obtaine
By Act of Grace my former state; how soon
Would higth recall high thoughts, how soon unsay [ 95 ]
What feign’d submission swore: ease would recant
Vows made in pain, as violent and void.
For never can true reconcilement grow
Where wounds of deadly hate have peirc’d so deep:
Which would but lead me to a worse relapse [ 100 ]
And heavier fall: so should I purchase deare
Short intermission bought with double smart.
This knows my punisher; therefore as farr
From granting hee, as I from begging peace:
All hope excluded thus, behold in stead [ 105 ]
Of us out-cast, exil’d, his new delight,
Mankind created, and for him this World.
So farewel Hope, and with Hope farewel Fear,
Farewel Remorse: all Good to me is lost;
Evil be thou my Good; by thee at least [ 110 ]
Divided Empire with Heav’ns King I hold
By thee, and more then half perhaps will reigne;
As Man ere long, and this new World shall know.

A thousand Demy-Gods on golden seats, frequent and full

The concluding lines of Book 1 of Milton’s Paradise Lost (online here with a few annotations). Except for L’Allegro and Il Penseroso I haven’t thought to read Milton in a decade, but all Machen’s talk of ecstasy brought this poem more to mind than any other.

Mean while the winged Haralds by command
Of Sovran power, with awful Ceremony
And Trumpets sound throughout the Host proclaim
A solemn Councel forthwith to be held [ 755 ]
At Pandæmonium, the high Capital
Of Satan and his Peers: thir summons call’d
From every Band and squared Regiment
By place or choice the worthiest; they anon
With hunderds and with thousands trooping came [ 760 ]
Attended: all access was throng’d, the Gates
And Porches wide, but chief the spacious Hall
(Though like a cover’d field, where Champions bold
Wont ride in arm’d, and at the Soldans chair
Defi’d the best of Paynim chivalry [ 765 ]
To mortal combat or carreer with Lance)
Thick swarm’d, both on the ground and in the air,
Brusht with the hiss of russling wings. As Bees
In spring time, when the Sun with Taurus rides,
Pour forth thir populous youth about the Hive [ 770 ]
In clusters; they among fresh dews and flowers
Flie to and fro, or on the smoothed Plank,
The suburb of thir Straw-built Cittadel,
New rub’d with Baum, expatiate and confer
Thir State affairs. So thick the aerie crowd [ 775 ]
Swarm’d and were straitn’d; till the Signal giv’n.
Behold a wonder! they but now who seemd
In bigness to surpass Earths Giant Sons
Now less then smallest Dwarfs, in narrow room
Throng numberless, like that Pigmean Race [ 780 ]
Beyond the Indian Mount, or Faerie Elves,
Whose midnight Revels, by a Forrest side
Or Fountain some belated Peasant sees,
Or dreams he sees, while over-head the Moon
Sits Arbitress, and neerer to the Earth [ 785 ]
Wheels her pale course, they on thir mirth and dance
Intent, with jocond Music charm his ear;
At once with joy and fear his heart rebounds.
Thus incorporeal Spirits to smallest forms
Reduc’d thir shapes immense, and were at large, [ 790 ]
Though without number still amidst the Hall
Of that infernal Court. But far within
And in thir own dimensions like themselves
The great Seraphic Lords and Cherubim
In close recess and secret conclave sat [ 795 ]
A thousand Demy-Gods on golden seats,
Frequent and full. After short silence then
And summons read, the great consult began.