A blushing bard

cobbeportraitThis rosy-cheeked fellow is almost certainly an authentic image of Shakespeare made during his life, Stanley Wells announced today. The portrait has been in the collection of the Cobbe family for years, but it was not until Alec Cobbe visited the Searching for Shakespeare exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2006 that he realised he might have Shakespeare on his wall.

In London, he saw the Folger portrait of Shakespeare and recognised the face. He contacted Stanley Wells, and in the past three years the painting was subjected to all kinds of tests, from tree-ring-dating to infrared reflectography. It appears to date from around 1610, and could well be the original of the portrait that is now in the Folger library. Interestingly, since the Cobbe collection belonged to the Earl of Southampton it may have been Henry Wriothesly, the dedicatee of Shakespeare’s sonnets, who commissioned the painting.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust quotes its chairman Stanley Wells:

The evidence that it represents Shakespeare and that is was done from life, though it is circumstantial, is in my view overwhelming, I feel in little doubt that this is a portrait of Shakespeare, done from life and commissioned by the Earl of Southampton and believe it could certainly be the basis for the engraving seen in the First Folio.

None of the English newspapers I have read so far explain the words “Principum amicitias!” written in gold above the bard’s head. I googled and discovered they derive from Horace’s Carmen Saeculare Odes, book 2, ode 1 (here’s the Latin, and here an English translation). Then I found this passage in the German Frankfürter Allgemeine:

Besonders reizvoll erscheint ihm [Wells] die Aufschrift „Principum amicitias!“ aus einer Ode des Horaz, die den römischen Dichter und Geschichtsschreiber Gaius Asinius Pollio warnt, sich bei der Darstellung politischer Intrigen seiner Zeit ja vorzusehen – eine Ermahnung, die auch auf Shakespeare gemünzt sein könne, zumal der katholische Graf von Southampton wegen seiner Verwicklung in den geplanten Umsturz der Protestantin Elisabeth I. im Tower einsaß.

In the ode, Horace warns the Roman poet and historian Gaius Asinius Pollio to be careful in his depiction of political intrigue, and apparently — according to this newspaper — Wells suggested that this might be a warning that could also be directed at Shakespeare, especially since the Catholic Earl of Southampton was involved in Essex’s rebellion. I haven’t been able to find any other sources that report this remark, and I don’t know what to think of it. Why would Southampton include secret messages about the Essex rebellion in a portrait seven years after his release from prison and his restoration to the court of James I? And does Wells agree with Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel that Southampton was a Catholic? Perhaps my German has let me down — or perhaps the reporter’s own imagination takes over after the dash in that quotation.

Library thing in university catalogue


The online library catalogue at Utrecht University not only has a design homepage to go with their cool design building. It has also just integrated Library Thing into their catalogue. When you look up a book, the search results come with a set of tags from Library Thing users, as well as a list of related books based on the Library Thing data:

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More memes

About a year ago, I read Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine and wrote about the experience. I was fascinated by this attempt by natural scientists to explain cultural change, but had some major reservations as well. Today I read parts of another book on memetics: Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science, edited by Robert Aunger, with a foreword by Daniel Dennett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).This interlibrary loan book had been sitting on my shelf for quite a while, so I decided that it was going to be Easter reading. The interesting thing about this volume is that it not only includes contributions by proponents of memetics, such as Susan Blackmore and Daniel Dennett, but also contains critical chapters. Robert Aunger writes in his introduction that the aim of the book is “to see where a reasonable consensus might fall on this spectrum of opinion regarding the utility of the meme concept.” (5)

In his foreword, Daniel Dennett is quite stern about my sort of people – cultural historians who reserve criticism:

It is obvious that there are patterns of cultural change – evolution in a neutral sense – and any theory of cultural change worth more than a moment’s consideration will have to be Darwinian in the minimal sense of being consistent with the theory of evolution by natural selection of Homo sapiens. […] [T]he ferocity with which Darwinian accounts of the evolution of language and sociality are attacked by some critics from the humanities and social sciences show that in some influential quarters, mere consistency with evolutionary theory is not yet the accepted constraint it ought to be. (ix)

The editor, Robert Aunger, in his introduction is much more open to criticism from the humanities. He offers his volume as a collection of opinions, and leaves it up to the reader to decide (although his rhetoric subtly hints at his own position):

From whence does this disgruntlement spring? From intrinsic defects in the notion […], in incidental features of its present manifestation, or from intellectual agendas having little to do with memetics itself? The reader must judge.

Biased reader as I am, I was especially fascinated by the contribution of Maurice Bloch, a British anthropologist. His answer to Aunger’s question would be that the disgruntlement is not simply due to intellectual agendas or different traditions, but to the fundamental features of the different parts of a single totality that natural and social scientists study. Bloch is not opposed to the idea of memes and encourages cooperation between the two kinds of science — in fact, he chides anthropologists for their disinterest in memetics. In his contribution to the volume, he seeks to pinpoint some of the failures of meme theory as it stands, so that it might in future be more successful.

His first point is that the general claims made by Dawkins and Dennet resemble the ideas of anthropologists working as early as the late nineteenth century. Proponents of the meme theory seem not to have taken any notice of insights developed in anthropology. It is of course hard to keep abreast of literature in other disciplines, Bloch comments, but “memeticists have freely chosen to explore exactly what anthropologists have been studying for more than a century.”

His second objection is to the similarity that memetics suggests between memes and genes – the idea that human culture consists of discrete bits. If memetics is to work, then “memes have to be something with a defined existence in the world” they cannot be a unit of analysis or a metaphor — like genes, they have to be an ontological fact. But how do you divide phenomena like catchy, tunes or folk tales up into memes? In reality, he argues, culture does not allow itself to be cut up into such neat units. (Bloch does not mention Vladimir Propp, the structuralist who analysed Russian folk tales to identify their smallest narrative elements, but I think that Propp took into account the cultural specificity of the tales he studied. He did not assume that these elements would be found in Chinese folk tales as well — correct me if I’m wrong.)

Bloch turns to the historical case of the diffusionists to illustrate his point. Diffusionists were anthropologists who in the early twentieth century argued that human culture cannot be understood as governed by an evolutionary process, because humans share information with each other. The critiques that American and British anthropologists formulated on diffusionism could be useful in a consideration of memetics as well.

An important objection of American anthropologists that also applies to memes, is that information or culture does not spread like a virus, but is constantly unmade and remade as it is absorbed into new cultural environments. A meme does not lead an independent life of its own, but exists in these processes of reshaping. “What noodles mean to Italians is therefore quite different from what it means for the Chinese” (198). British anthropologists, on the other hand, would argue that knowledge is too complex to locate it as a single type: it is integrated in single minds at different levels of consciousness, but also inseparable from action.

Although Maurice Bloch seeks to bring anthropologists and biologists together, the critique he formulates seems to me quite fundamental. If memes are not like genes, do not exist independently but are shaped either by society or individual psychology, then what is the advantage of the theory over existing ideas in the cultural sciences?

For a complete table of contents of Darwinizing Culture, see Robert Aunger’s website.

Other recent natural science perspectives on literature:

Thumb thing

A friend of mine had one, and I wanted it too: the Thumb Thing. It’s an ingenious invention for reading in bed (or in the park and on the couch). With your thumb in the thumb thing, you effortlessly keep your book wide open.

The only drawback is that it left tiny indentations in the pages of my Freud where the edges of the wings (marked “side” in the diagram) touch the paper. But, hey, that’s the price of comfort.

Early modern science & the memory of genes

A re-run of a BBC Horizon documentary on genetic imprinting on Belgian television reminded me of an early modern theory of conception and imagination. The documentary announced that scientists have discovered that our genes have a memory:

The lives of your grandparents – the air they breathed, the food they ate, even the things they saw – can directly affect you, decades later, despite your never experiencing these things yourself. And what you do in your lifetime could in turn affect your grandchildren.

I was fascinated, and watched the entire thing. Although the documentary started with the tentative discovery of an epigenetic system — inherited information that operates on a level higher than the genes, and determines which genes will operate in what way — the biggest part of the documentary was devoted to research that focused on pregnant women’s experience of traumatic events or malnutrition. Pregnant women who witnessed the attack on the Twin Towers, for example, produced higher levels of stress hormones (correct me if I’m wrong), and their children had been found to have similarly high stress levels. In Sweden, the children of children whose mothers experienced a shortage of food during pregnancy, suffered from diabetes and other diseases associated with malnutrition.

The programme spoke of a “paradigm shift” in our thinking about genes. It reminded me of a considerably earlier paradigm of conception and pregnancy — a paradigm that is pivotal in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and which figures also in Thomas Wright’s early modern treatise on the workings of the emotions: The Passions of the Minde in Generall (1604). The paradigm is also concerned with the inheritance of character traits or bodily characteristics, and similarly focuses on the mother’s pregnancy. And indeed, in this paradigm too, the lives of your mothers or grandmothers, especially the things they saw or thought of while having sex, “can directly affect you, decades later, despite your never experiencing these things yourself”:

Galen also reporteth, that a woman beholding a most beautifull picture, co[n]ceiued and brought froth a most beautifull childe, by a most deformed father, wee haue also in the Scirptures the like experience in Iacob who to cause his Ewes conceiue speckled Lambs, put sundry white rodds in the chanels where the beasts were watered, and thereby the lambs were yeaned partly coloured. These proued experiments, by the censure of Aristotle a sage Philosopher, and Galen a sound Physition, proceeded from a vehement imagination in the time of conception. And for this cause saith Aristotle, wee see the yonglings of bruit beasts for the most part, to resemble in colours, figures, temper, greatnesse, properties, and conditions, their siers and damms: but in men we obserue farre otherwise, for wise parents beget foolish childre[n], & vertuous, vitious; and contrariwise, foolish parents wise children, and vitious, vertuous; […]. The cause of this varietie, are the various imaginations of the Parents at the time of their conception: Beasts therfore not being distracted with these various imaginations, conceiue not with such diuersitie. (Thomas Wright, The Passions of the Minde in Generall, 66-67)

A novel idea

I had a wonderful weekend visiting a friend in Ireland. We went to Limerick and Killarney, walked around a beautiful lake and visited country houses and castles. At the University of Limerick the student canteen featured this amazing vending machine that does not sell Bounties or Balistos, but books:

The machine has a small display that shows the blurb of the book you select. The only thing missing is the possibility to browse inside the book, something I always like to do before buying. I selected Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch, inserted the proper amount of euros, and the book dropped down with a loud thud. It was enclosed in a very neat cardboard box, with a pop-out handle for carrying and a complimentary bookmark.

The Novel Idea vending machine was an idea by Paul O’Carroll and John Costello from Limerick. Their machines are in various universities, hospitals, hotels, stations and airports in Ireland, and can now also be found at Heathrow and Gatwick. I think they should be in the Netherlands as well!

The modern reading machine was certainly not the only attraction in Ireland. This is a photo of Ross Castle, in Killarney National Park:

Interactive reading

In an essay in the Academic Commons, Tatjana Chorney argues that there are many similarities between the way hypertext structures our reading practices, and the way in which early modern readers interacted with the things they read. Unlike a printed text that can only be passively read, hypertext shapes an active and appropriative reader who interacts with the text, and is involved in knowledge construction. This manner of active reading is as least as old as the early modern period, she writes: “The Renaissance reader was accustomed to applying “alien” texts to new purposes in a method of appropriative reading.”

Tatjana Chorney looks at the way in which early modern readers copied fragments out of poems to keep for themselves, sometimes giving them different titles. Reading was a creative and re-creative engagement with a “living” text. She concludes that the four things that our internet reading practice has in common with early modern reading are: non-linearity; a protean sense of text and its functions; affinity with oral models of communication, and a changing concept of authorship. Chorney also refers to the machine that featured here before – the reading wheel:

The experience of reading texts in hypertext, the best known example of which is the World Wide Web, is very similar to the experience of reading with the help of a “reading wheel.” It encourages reading not for “linear narrative” but for points of interest, empowering readers to shape and control the reading process by selecting and reading only those parts of texts that are memorable or relevant to them.

Chorney makes the comparison between these two practices of reading, both informed by different techniques, in order to learn something about pedagogy. Historical awareness of early modern reading habits, she argues, will increase our ability to relate to students whose reading and learning habits are shaped by the new medium of hypertext.

Her characterization of the reader of a printed text as passive, as well as this reference to the learning habits of students reminded me of a more active involvement with the printed text that I encountered during my year at Birmingham University. Students there engaged with library books in a way that I had never encountered in the Netherlands. Whenever I went to the University Library to read a set text for a course, say, Greenblatt’s Shakespearean Negotiations, there would be a proliferation of pencilled notes in the margins of the library book. Not just little squiggles to mark an interesting passage, as you might find in a Dutch library book. No, entire discussions were going on in the margins. A reader had commented on Greenblatt’s argument, another reader had reacted to those comments again, and then… You get the idea: an abundant para-text was growing in the margins. And I loved it, because on the whole they were quite clever discussions of the text. This kind of active reading, I would say, goes back even further than the early modern period, witness the medieval manuscript of the first testament below, with comments in different inks in at least three different hands (click on the image for the larger picture). In the case of the manuscript, however, the different hands are from different periods. Because the library books are – in a sense – in the public domain, the comments could truly react to each other in a short space of time. You could say these scribbles in the margins are a way of academic community-building. It would be interesting – if this is a widespread practice – to compare Birmingham para-texts with those at Oxford or Cambridge.

Milton after 9/11

The very first volume of the online journal The Literary Magazine contains an intriguing piece on Milton, terrorism and revenge.

Like the call for papers for the Shakespeare Yearbook on “Shakespeare after 9/11,” Neil Forsyth’s article looks at early modern literature from the perspective of our current political context. It is an intelligent and broad-ranging article that pivots on the central crux of the Yearbook’s call for papers: “the more we historicize Milton, place him firmly in his time and place, the less his concerns will be easily seen as ours.”

Forsyth’s article reacts to an earlier piece in the TLS (6 September 2002) in which John Carey compared Samson in Milton’s Samson Agonistes to a terrorist bomber moved by religious conviction to destroy the lives of others. Reactions to Carey’s piece were divided: people were either abhorred at the idea that Milton would have supported terrorism, or were thrilled about Milton’s relevance to contemporary politics.

There are really two camps in critical interpretations of Samson Agonistes, Forsyth writes. On the one hand there are the traditionalists, who argue that Milton saw Samson as a religious hero whose violence against the Philistines was directed by the hand of God. Revisionists on the other hand emphasize the ambivalence inherent in the poetic work, or argue that Milton was not the kind of man to approve of violence. Forsyth argues that it does not matter whether Milton endorsed Samson’s deed. By dealing with revenge at its deepest levels, Milton’s work “gives us tools to think with.”

Because political events change the ways in which we read, it has become possible to conceive of Samson as a suicide bomber, in the wake of the New York, Washington, Madrid or London atrocities. […] Perhaps the parallel seems different to some of us now than it did in 2002 when John Carey first made his case. But the case would never have been worth making if Milton’s poems were not worth reading. What I have tried to show here is why it should be so. The bombs may affect our reading, but the poems may also change or enlarge our feelings about the bombers, once we allow for the parallel. I’m not sure about that. Perhaps it is too soon to say. Certainly the parallel will change how we read the emotion of revenge.

Forsyth in his inspiring analysis thus recognizes that our political context influences our reading of Milton and that, conversely, Milton’s work can also change the way we think about revenge. My only problem with the article is that in order to draw the diachronic parallel, Forsyth has to see revenge itself as a universal human emotion. He implies that revenge “is where we all come from,” and argues that our reading about Samson’s revenge might inspire sympathy with current-day revengers. But as the contributors to Reading the Early Modern Passions (which contains a fascinating contribution on Milton’s Eikonoklastes by John Staines, as well as a reading of the passions in Paradise Lost by Michael Schoenfeldt) have convincingly shown, emotions are historically specific, and are discursively produced, among others by literature itself. Our thinking about revenge, the concept of honour in which the need for retaliation is based, the rhetoric we use (“we’ll smoke ’em out of their holes,” for example), are produced by highly localized cultural discourses.

I particularly enjoy historically contextualized readings of early modern literature that analyse the ways in which literature produces and circulates such constructions. I’m currently reading Diane Purkiss’ wonderful Literature, Gender and Politics during the English Civil War. Purkiss looks at the “political imaginary” of the English Civil War: “the space in which the men and women of the age thought about the events which took place around them, and determined what was and was not possible, what was not thinkable.” The contradictions inherent in the images and rhetoric of the political imaginary in her view explain what revisionist historians of the Civil War period have called irrational political decisions of individual actors in the years before the wars.

Purkiss, too, analyses Samson Agonistes, but reads it in the political context of its time; more specifically, in the context of gendered representations of King Charles I. She shows how the perceived effeminacy of the King in anti-royalist discourse is the chief pretext for rebellion and regicide, since an effeminate ruler is not only unfit to govern, but also threatens to dissolve the masculine identities of his subjects. Her reading of the way in which the literary text functions in the discursive dynamics of its time explains the ways in which revenge is culturally constructed. She demonstrates how the parliamentarians’ revenge on their king was informed by a historically specific discursive dynamics of masculinity and femininity, in which an effeminate king was contrasted to a virile parliament. Purkiss’ reading of Milton, too, could teach us something about the present, but in a different way from Forsyth’s. Purkiss alerts us to the ways in which discursive gender constructs can work to legitimate revenge, both in the past and in the present.

Reading machines — past and future

A post on early modern machines on Peacay’s award-winning blog BibliOdyssey reminded me of an early modern reading machine. It was designed by Agostino Ramelli who published the idea in his Le diverse et artificiose machine del Capitano Agostina Ramelli in 1588. It was apparently never built in the early modern period itself, but rumour has it that Daniel Libeskind built a version for the Biennale in Venice in 1985. The machine consists of a big wheel that can house several books, and which can be turned in order to bring the right book in front of the reader’s eyes. Ramelli writes:

This is a beautiful and ingenious machine, very useful and convenient for anyone who takes pleasure in study, especially those who are indisposed and tormented by gout. For with this machine a man can see and turn through a large number of books without moving from one spot. Moreover, it has another fine convenience in that it occupies very little space in the place where it is set, as anyone of intelligence can clearly see from the drawing.

Some see this reading machine as the forerunner of the modern computer. The funny thing is that the latest developments in the field of computer screens are paradoxically directed towards the emulation of the old-fashioned sheet of paper. Philips and Polymer Vision are developing the Readius: a screen so thin and flexible that you can roll it up and put it in your pocket, like a scroll of paper. Ideal for reading e-books on.

Update: I found a blog on the future of the book: if:book.