Biblical illiteracy: “Imagine a national art gallery without any biblical scenes”

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I’m still worrying about biblical illiteracy. Seriously. In this excellent article non-religious biblical scholar Philip Davies explains why secular biblical scholarship is important. And not only a national art gallery is unimaginable without biblical scenes — imagine literature without biblical allusions and phrases, imagine opera, classical and modern music (from Bach over Samson et Dalila or Salome to Boney M) without biblical stories or poetry. Theatre, sculpture, the very languages we speak in Europe.

I’m all for knowing where Abraham gets his mustard.

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More Hysteria

… not vibrators-related, this time — but heated minds on a seriously hot topic: *gasp* the Bible!

Gove’s Bibles: good for schools?
This week, copies of the King James Bible were sent out to every state school in the country, courtesy of the education secretary Michael Gove. They were paid for by donations, not from the public purse. Tell us if you think the scheme is a good idea, and if you don’t, use the thread below to suggest books that could have been donated instead.
The Guardian

The mind-boggling result:

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Don’t miss the conspiracy theories, hilarious alternatives suggested and sheer ignorance in the readers’ comments!

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I briefly thought of the Gilgamesh Epic. Gilgamesh certainly has higher literary qualities then a lot of Bible writings. But the Bible has such a variety of themes, stories, history, philosophical-musings-next-to-erotic-poetry and so on, such an overwhelming range of characters and plots and literary styles — it remains one of the absolute masterpieces of world literature. The King James Version, of course, should be read because of its fine English. But, apart from the intrinsic qualities of the Bible and of this translation, there is another excellent reason for handing out Bibles: if the kids are going to be able to appreciate some of our finest works of art — painting, sculpture, literature, music, film, … — it might be a good idea to tell them what those works are about.

These are just a very few examples of the bloody *grin* good stories in the bible, and the art inspired by them — See if you can spot them!

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Some fine examples of the connections between women in the Bible and art are to be found on this lovely blog.

The Bible is on my List of Deserted-Island-Books

Evelyn Waugh & Father Brown

Brideshead Revisited is on my List of Deserted-Island-Books

One of the most powerful metaphors in the book, and I never spotted it’s origin. Delightful —
thanks to whoever pointed this out, you made my day! 😀

In Evelyn Waugh‘s novel Brideshead Revisited, a quote from the Father Brown story “The Queer Feet” is an important element of the structure and theme of the book. Father Brown speaks this line after catching a criminal, hearing his confession, and letting him go: “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” Book Three of Brideshead Revisited is called “A Twitch Upon the Thread,” and the quote acts as a metaphor for the operation of grace in the characters’ lives. They are free to wander the world according to their free will until they are ready and receptive to God’s grace, at which point He acts in their lives and effects a conversion. In the miniseries made by Granada Television adapting Brideshead, the character Lady Marchmain (Claire Bloom) reads this passage aloud.

Source: Wikipedia article on Father Brown

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Books to Read :: Es kam ein Stern aus Babylon

taz.de 24.04.2012. Rezension von Najem Wali.

Aufklärung. Mit “Platon in Bagdad” hat der amerikanische Autor John Freely eine aufregende Kulturgeschichte verfasst, die mit eurozentrischen Vorurteilen bricht. In seinem Buch erzählt er, wie das Wissen der Antike von Bagdad aus in die arabisch-islamische Wissenschaftnach Europa zurückkehrte

John Freely: “Platon in Bagdad. Wie das Wissen der Antike nach Europa kam”. Aus dem Englischen von Ina Pfitzner. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2012, 388 Seiten, 24,95 Euro

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Seasoned Cheese, Salami & Condoms

I had a bit of a talk with a librarian yesterday, and we came upon the interesting subject of things left by people in books they return to the library.

  • Back from holiday: picture postcards (Sunny greetings from Auntie! Warm greetings from Freddy! Hot greetings from Innanja!!). Sand. Sun cream. Hair. City maps. Entrance tickets. Sun glasses.
  • Letters. Unopened letters. Children’s letters to Santa
  • Seasoned cheese (found in Cheese by Willem Elsschot). Salami. Pictures (landscapes; family in Eurodisney; girl on pony; girl on toilet). Shopping lists, bank statements, dog’s vaccination
  • Dried flowers, knife with jam, contact lenses. Beermats, Aspirin (not necessarily together). Prescription for an anti-psychotic, tucked into a Van Gogh book.
  • Dog’s hair in book about education for dogs (plus dog’s smell)
  • Book about dogs, thoroughly destructed by dog’s teeth (dog didn’t like the book)
  • Money. Porn. Stamps. Restaurant bills. Invitations. Tea bags (used). Condoms (used). Toilet paper (…)

Here’s a great collection of Forgotten Bookmarks by a used bookseller. And our lovely Büchereien Wien has some stories to tell 🙂

To be continued!

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My Wilkie Collins Craze: February-April 2012

Basil (1852)

Not one joke. Seriously. Not one joke in the whole book. I can forgive Wilkie Collins a lot — his bland, pale, brainless and characterless heroines; his dumb, dull, serious and sanctimonious heroes, who fall head over heels in love with the ham heroines, preferably without having exchanged one sensible word with them — as I say, I forgive Wilkie Collins all of that most of the time, but not in this relentlessly joke-less book, with the palest, purest heroine of them all, aptly called Clara, with Margaret Sherwin, the swarthiest she-devil that even Collins invented, and with the most bloodless and slow-witted hero of the lot: Basil!

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There are some outstandingly baroque, lovely lively characters in Wilkie Collins’ books who make up for all the miserably dull and dim-witted protagonists: swarthy, sexy Marian Halcombe of “The lady is ugly!”-fame — half-sister of the endlessly helplessly swooning heroine and one of the finest Victorian feminist characters ever; the hypochondriac Frederick Fairlie, a delicious character nearly as good as Jane Austen’s Mr Henry Woodhouse; and, of course, the inimitable, vicious, eccentric, larger-than-life Count Fosco, his pet white mice crawling creepily over his enormously fat body — one of the most memorable creations ever; Gabriel Betteredge and his dog-eared and beloved Robinson Crusoe, one of Collins’ delightfully unreliable narrators; unforgettable Miss Clack and her hideous pamphlets, or rose-sniffing detective Sargent Cuff.
There are a variety of interesting and well-rounded female characters in Collins’ novels, including the first female detective in English Literature, Valeria Brinton in The Law and the Lady (1875) and Lydia Gwilt, the red-headed villainess in Armadale, still a fascinating character in our times, either as the protagonist of a marital tragedy, or as a favourite murderess.

It’s in the fireworks that is The Woman in White (1860) that a concentration of these baroque and strong creations characters appear.

Wilkie Collins invented the sensation novel. He took Gothic stories away from their ghost-filled castles and placed them into what he called “the secret theatre of home”. The result is infinitely more chilling, especially in the tales of domestic abuse that are at the heart of The Woman in White, but also, for example, of Man and Wife (1870), Collins’s first didactic work, which attacks both Irish and Scottish marriage laws as well as arguing the case for a Married Woman’s Property Act.

Glorious, glorious woman in White!
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This poster was Dickens’s way around the dictum that no article in his weekly journals Household Words and All the Year Round was to be signed. To keep Collins on staff, Dickens agreed that advertising designed for booksellers’ windows could specifically ascribe authorship of his serialised novels to Wilkie Collins. Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham

Back to Basil, which was Collins’ second novel — and it shows. Even his later didactic novels, sensationalist, sexist and classist as they often are, are salvaged by a sense of fun which is completely lacking in Basil.

The relentless attack on the “nouveaux riches“: ordinary, fatally sexually attractive, swarthy she-devil Margaret Sherwin and her vulgar, parvenu, uneducated and greedy parents, gives us the full benefit of Collins’ classism and unchecked snobbery, unbalanced by humour and reinforced by the continuous and tedious comparisons with Basil’s educated, refined, aristocratic family and with his pale, golden-haired, sunshine-bright (I kid you not!) and unsexed sister Clara. Nothing here of the exuberance of Dickens’ hilarious couple Mr Alfred and Mrs Sophronia Lammle, just spiteful stereotypes and prejudices. To be fair to Collins, he never sinks to these levels again — I suspect that the artistic darkness-light theme made him paint the connected hoi polloi-aristocracy contrast starker than he intended.

What to say about Collins’ sexism — or that nauseating idealisation of woman that was at the heart of Victorian romantic love? It is here in Basil, and it is a constant in all Wilkie Collins’ novels. There is no artistic excuse for this, and the “sexual frailty” of men, which makes them such easy victims to femmes fatales, still serves — as late as 1884 — as an excuse for male bad behaviour and for more sanctimonious twaddle about women and their angelic forgivingness in I Say “No”.
Intelligent, resourceful women are either adventuresses & murderesses, or mannish — Marian Halcombe even has a mustache. They provide intelligent conversation but will remain spinsters. Collins, a polyamorous laudanum addict, should have known better. He probably did. As a matter of fact, I agree that The Woman in White is a feminist novel, and I hope Feminéma gets to write the screenplay for the mini-series. She’s right about the ending & the love-hate story between Marian and Fosco — and I would like to add that the lesbian half-sisters get to live together happily ever after, until death do them part.

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From Armadale, not a must-read but still quite amusing — although this quote won’t probably endear it to female readers. Not to mention male readers, of course — there are occasions when the male mind accurately appreciates an appeal to the force of pure reason, and recognises blatant sexism for what it is … 🙂

“What are Marian and Count Fosco fighting over? The very soul and freedom of women.” Feminéma

The unreliable narrator. Collins’ use of voice is impressive, and never so impressive as in The Woman in White — narrowly followed by The Moonstone, where unforgettable Gabriel Betteredge and Ms Clack delight the reader with their opinionated and self-serving versions of the facts.
In The Woman in White, Frederick Fairlie, Mrs Catherick and Count Fosco are the most entertaining narrators, and they are equally untrustworthy. Fairlie’s hypochondria, Mrs Catherick’s spitefulness and the sheer brilliance and adorableness of Count Fosco, in spite of his villainy: each of the narrators lays bare their personality through their own words, and heightens the suspense through their narratives.

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Swarthy she-devils and brainless heroes in Victorian gardens

The gloriously unreliable narrator in Armadale is stunningly beautiful and dangerous femme fatale Lydia Gwilt. T. S. Eliot wrote “The one of Collins’s novels which we should choose as the most typical, or as the best of the more typical, and which we should recommend as a specimen of the melodramatic fiction of the epoch, is Armadale. It has no merit beyond melodrama, and it has every merit that melodrama can have.” This would be true, but for the glorious creation that is Lydia Gwilt. Her account of her villainous behaviour is candid and astonishingly convincing, even as strong voices in the novel point out that justice and public opinion have gone soft on criminality. Through Lydia Gwilt’s bitingly sarcastic remarks, the vapidness and blandness of especially the hero of this melodrama become clear — and she seduces the reader into sympathising with her.

Angelic as well as diabolical characters, an immense sense of humour, extraordinary use of language and style — interesting observations on gender and social issues and on the system of law in Victorian times (Wilkie Collins had trained as lawyer before he became a writer) — conspiracies, insanity, sanatoria and madhouses, lost diamonds of Indian gods, suicides, abortionists, Italian counts and white mice, shipwrecks, disappeared heirs and red-haired villainesses, murder, abduction, laudanum by the bottle, not to mention unknown poisons in any amount — still I’ve been wondering during the last approximately 45 days — in short moments of lucidity — what kept me reading. How much melodrama can a body stomach?
I was hooked. I got addicted. I turned the pages and couldn’t get enough. I hopped from cliff-hanger to cliff-hanger, blindly hanging on to the writer’s hand. Collins himself reveals his greatest narrative trick, the secret of his own enduring appeal, in one of his letters. So beguilingly simple, so masterly executed — he took as his literary motto an adage of the musical hall: ‘Make them laugh, make them cry – and make them wait.’

Now Reading: Sheridan Le Fanu

My Wilkie Collins Craze is (nearly) over — gottseidank. Reading now breathlessly the last pages of Armadale.

Next, I’m expecting Great Things from Sheridan Le Fanu.

This is an Illustration for his novel Carmilla:

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The novel tells the story, apparently, “of a young woman’s susceptibility to the attentions of a female vampire named Carmilla”, and is a great hit with feminists and scholars of gender studies. Wilkie Collins’ fascinating Victorian women, first and foremost Marian Halcombe, of course, and her as good as public lesbian relationship with her half-sister, but also the swarthy and especially the gorgeously red-headed villainesses have made me want more.

Joseph thomas Sheridan Le Fanu came to my attention a long time ago. In Dorothy L. Sayers‘s novel Gaudy Night (1935), Harriet Vane is doing research for a monograph on Sheridan Le Fanu, which is later reported to have been published. However, Sayers’ first quotes of Le Fanu appear in an earlier Lord Peter Wimsey novel, The Nine Tailors (1934), and a mysterious letter in the same novel is referred to by Mervyn Bunter as “written by a person of no inconsiderable literary ability, who had studied the works of Sheridan Lefanu [sic] and was, if I may be permitted the expression, bats in the belfry, my lord.”
Lord Peter’s christening present to Harriet — by then Lady Peter — for their first child is a quill pen which had belonged to Sheridan Le Fanu.

Some critics, among them William Veeder, suggest that Carmilla, notably in its outlandish use of narrative frames, was an important influence on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Most certainly something to look out for!

I will start with In a Glass Darkly (1872), a collection of five short stories. These are presented as the posthumous papers of the occult detective Dr Hesselius, and include:

  • “Green Tea”
  • “The Familiar”
  • “Mr Justice Harbottle”
  • “The Room in the Dragon Volant”
  • “Carmilla”

Wachteln in Rosenblättern

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Rosaura gab prompt vor, ihr sei übel und schwindelig, und aß nicht mehr als drei Bissen. Mit Gertrudis hingegen ging etwas Seltsames vor.
Offensichtlich entfaltete diese Speise bei ihr, noch während des Verzehrs, eine aphrodisische Wirkung, denn sie begann zu spüren, wie eine starke Hitze an der Innenseite ihrer Schenkel aufstieg. Ein Kitzeln in der Leibesmitte hinderte sie immer eindringlicher daran, sittsam auf ihrem Stuhl sitzen zu bleiben. Sie fing an zu schwitzen und konnte sich der Vorstellung kaum noch erwehren, sie säße rittlings auf einem Pferd, in den Armen eines Villa-Anhängers (…).
Doch es war zwecklos, etwas schier Unerklärliches ging in ihr vor. Hilfesuchend blickte sie zu Tita, doch diese war abwesend, ihr Körper saß zwar auf dem Stuhl, und das in völlig korrekter Haltung, doch ihre Augen ließen kein Lebenszeichen erkennen. Es machte tatsächlich den Eindruck, als habe ihr Geist sich durch irgendeinen mysteriösen Vorgang der Alchimie in der Rosenblütensauce, in den Wachteln, im Wein und in jedem einzelnen der Düfte dieser Speise aufgelöst. Auf diese Weise drang sie in Pedros Körper ein, wollüstig, aromatisch, wohlig erhitzt und voller Sinnenlust.

Laura Esquivel: Schäumend wie heiße Schokolade. Mexikanischer Roman um Kochrezepte, Liebe und bewährte Hausmittel in monatlichen Fortsetzungen (1992). Book reviews on Goodreads.

Como agua para chocolate is on my list of deserted-Islands-books.

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Eccentricity

According to studies, there are fourteen distinctive characteristics that differentiate a healthy eccentric person from a regular person or someone who has a mental illness (although some may not always apply). The first five are in most people regarded as eccentric:

  • Nonconforming attitude
  • Creative
  • Intense curiosity
  • Idealistic
  • Happy obsession with a hobby or hobbies
  • Known very early in his or her childhood they were different from others
  • Highly intelligent
  • Opinionated and outspoken
  • Noncompetitive
  • Unusual living or eating habits
  • Not interested in the opinions or company of others
  • Mischievous sense of humour
  • Single
  • Usually the eldest or an only child

Edith Sitwell, who wrote the aptly called book The English Eccentrics (1933) — and was a fine example herself— in a typical photograph:

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