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by Richard Nilsen
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Is there anything left to say? After 4,000 years of putting it all down on clay, stone, parchment and paper, is there anything that hasn’t been said? It is something every writer faces when putting pen to paper, or fingertip to keyboard. Or even thumbs to smartphone.
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And it is something I face, after having written something like four million words in my professional lifetime. Where will the new words come from?
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It is also something newlyweds often fear: Will they have anything to say to each other after 20 years of marriage? Forty years? Surely they will have talked each other out.
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What we write comes from a deep well, a well of experience and emotion and sometimes we have drawn so much water so quickly, it dries, but give it time and it will recharge. If no new experience enters our lives, our wells remain dry.
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One friend has offered this: “That each generation thinks they know more than anybody else who has ever lived.  In a way, that’s a good thing because it allows for new ideas.”
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But how new are those ideas? “I guess we have to live with a certain amount of repetition under that system,” she says. “Relying on what previous generations wrote would be so boring. Our ego demands that we pick and choose from past works if we heed them at all.”
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I have a different interpretation. We never quite hit the target of what we mean; words are imprecise, concepts are misunderstood. One generation values family, the next understands family in a different way and builds its family from scratch with friends.
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As T.S. Eliot says in East Coker:
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Every time I put word to word, I come up short, leave things out, use phrases sure to be misinterpreted, have my motives doubted, and — as I learned many times from my readers, they read what they think I wrote and not always what I actually wrote.
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And so, there is the possibility of endless clarification, endless rewriting, endless apologizing. And new words to be written.
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As someone once said, all philosophy is but a footnote to Plato (who, by the way, is a footnote to the pre-Socratics), and all writing is an attempt to get right what was inartfully expressed in the past. It is a great churn.
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All writing is an attempt to express the wordless. The words are never sufficient; we are all wider, broader, deeper, fuzzier, more puzzling and more contradictory than any words, sentences or paragraphs can encompass.
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Heck, even the words are fuzzier. Consider “dog.” It seems simple enough, but includes great Danes and chihuahuas, Scotties and dobermans.  As a genus, it includes wolves and foxes. It also describes our feet when we’ve walked too much; the iron rack that holds up fire logs; the woman that male chauvinist pigs consider unattractive; a worthless and contemptible person. You can “put on the dog,” and show off; you can “dog it,” by being half-assed; you can call a bad movie a “dog;” at the ballpark, you can buy a couple of “dogs” with mustard; if you only partly speak a language, you are said to speak “dog French,” or “dog German;” past failures can “dog” you; if you are suspicious, you can “dog” his every move. “Dog” can be an anagram of “God.”
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Imagine, then, how loose are the bounds of “good” or “bad,” or “conservative,” or when someone tries to tar a candidate as a “socialist.” Sometimes, a word loses meaning altogether. What, exactly do we mean when we talk of morality or memory, or nationality or the cosmos?
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And so, every time we pick up pen to write, we are trying our hardest to scrape up a liquid into a bundle.
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And so we rework those words, from Gilgamesh through James Joyce and into Toni Morrison. We rework them on the New York Times editorial page and in the high school history textbook. We rehash them even in such mundane things as our shopping lists or our FaceBook entries.
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We will never run out of things to write or say, because we have never yet gotten it quite right.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen

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When I cross the border from Detroit, Michigan to Windsor, Ontario, I flash a passport. There is a clear demarkation, a borderline, between the two nations. This is true for almost every nation. And we tend to think of such borders between most categories: Good and evil; Liberal and Conservative; Boys and Girls. But the real world is more ambiguous, more nuanced. Take colors. Where is the delineating line between green and blue? We may think we know when something is clearly green and when something is distinctly blue, but one slides into the other and any thought of drawing a line evaporates.
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Unless someone is colorblind, there is little trouble distinguishing individual hues. The problem is not in the color, but in the name. What do we call “green,” what do we call “blue.”
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The whole issue of color names is fraught with inexactitude. What an artist means by “red” may be what a printer calls “magenta.” Where is red no longer red, but something we recognize as violet? There is no surveyor to set his theodolite firm and draw a line, setting the deeds for red and violet or blue and green.
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And even if we who speak English feel secure that we know the bounds, even if we can’t prove it in court, those who speak other tongues have other ideas. When approached worldwide, the entire question of color names becomes a quagmire. Something that seems so simple we take it for granted with hardly a thought, turns out to be queasily ambiguous.
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It is more akin to the question of where is the Middle East. Does Iran count? At least since the Arab conquest, Egypt has always been considered part of it, but then, how about Libya? And if we include Libya, should we include Algeria? What are the boundaries of the Levant, of the Maghreb? Somewhere the Middle East turns into North Africa; but where? Likewise, which states are Midwestern? Some people count Oklahoma as a Southern state. But the South is a region, not a nation. Shall we split California between the desert Southwest and the conifers of the Northwest? And so, Green is a region, too. And blue, and red, and yellow.
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In English we have 11 or 12 color names that signify such regions, names that are not metaphorical or compound. (Even that has some question, because names that are no longer thought of as metaphorical originally entered the language through metaphor: The word-root for “Blue” once meant “shiny” or “glittery,” even if the shine were copper-colored.)
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These basic names are often thought of as “primary.” Red, blue and yellow are one set of primary colors. But other colors are also so basic as to be linguistically primary: Green, purple, brown, white, gray, black, orange, pink, tan. Other names we commonly use, such as “turquoise,” “teal,” “beige,” “aquamarine,” “fuchsia,” or “indigo,” fall under one or another of the larger umbrella terms.
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But no matter what language, the division of sheep and goats into their categories is a matter of convention. In English we tend to think of red and pink as separate colors. They need not be: Pink is really just a tint of red, but we have separate primary words for the two shades. In many other languages, such as Russian, the same distinction is made between light blue and dark blue. Not two shades of the same color, but two distinct colors.
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In Russian they are “goluboy” and “siniy.” In Moroccan Arabic, a similar distinction is made between “sibi” (light blue) and “zraq” (for the darker). In Albanian, the two are “kalter” and “blu.” In Polish, “blekitny” and “nieblieski.”
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On the other hand, other languages, among them Japanese, fail to make some distinctions at all, even between green and blue. Until recently, in Japanese, “ao” means both the color of the sky and the color of grass. (Now there is “midori” adapted for use as “green,” but which is still thought of as a shade of “ao” rather than a separate color on its own.) Vietnamese uses “xanh” for both colors.
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In English, we have a primary word for “green.” But at least one color theorist divides up the color wheel with names for two distinct greens: sea green and leaf green. They are both clearly green, but also clearly distinguishable. Why do we not have separate names for these two? It’s just the way our language works.
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When I first learned to name to colors of the rainbow, I was taught the mnemonic “Roy G. Biv” — Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. But dividing the spectrum up into seven colors was just a relic of the Middle Ages when seven was a magic number and we divided up the world in sevens, such as seven tones in the musical scale, seven planets, seven deadly sins, the seven wonders of the world and the seven days of creation.
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What, pray say, is the difference between “indigo” and “blue?” And even “blue” is ambiguous. When engineers and scientists define blue as a primary color in the additive system, the blue they mean is closer to violet than to cerulean.
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The mention of the rainbow or of the spectrum is problematic. A prism divides white light into its component hues, and that is all nice and scientific, but we don’t “see” spectral colors, scientifically, but rather we interpret colors through a kind of differential analysis, comparing which sensors (cones) in our eyes are activated by the light hitting them. And so, our perception of color is not a one-to-one correspondence with spectral wavelength.
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The spectrum may be an objective reality, but color vision is entirely a subjective experience, taking place in our brains. We can even see colors that don’t exist in nature as wavelengths of light. While the spectrum is divided up into wavelengths of light, red on the longer end, blue on the shorter, violet, for instance, is not a wavelength at all, but rather a mixture of lights translated through the optic nervous system and perceived as a singular hue. It does not exist in nature, only exists in our brains.
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And when we perceive the color yellow, it is almost never because a yellow wavelength of light is bombarding our retina. We see yellow when both red and green light hits the back of the eye. We see violet when both red and blue strike together. Again, the perception is created in our minds.
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The acute human eye can distinguish about 16,000 colors, or shades and tints of colors. But each of them is really only a buzzing on nerve endings in the eye that distinguish between red, blue, and green light — or in a more recent theory, between light and dark (black and white); blue and yellow; and red and green. The pile of wavelengths are blended together in our brains and we perceive color.
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But we cannot have names for the 16,000 varieties of chroma (although sometimes it seems we’ve named millions). And even if we tried, our divisions would be different from the divisions in Chinese or Greek or Swahili.
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The Zuni language classes yellow and orange together, which means that once they have coded it in language, say, as if to tell a friend what they have seen, the friend decodes the word into his trove of experience and comes up with something quite different. It may be orange; it may be yellow. That is a distinction that our language makes, but his does not.
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The tomato is a whole lot closer to the orange end of the red category and the stop sign is closer to the magenta end. Yet we call both red, and if we tell a friend about something we have seen and say it is red, the friend will decode the term the same inexact way the Zuni friend decodes orange-yellow.
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And there are aspects of color nomenclature that English doesn’t have, or has only vestigially.
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There are languages in which the surface reflectivity of an object changes its color name. We have that in English, where a metallic version of grey is called silver, and a version of yellow that maintains specular reflections is called gold.
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In certain languages there are names for colors that are descriptive in terms of surface, as a wet black or a dry black There is a big difference between a box merely painted black with glossy house paint, and a Japanese lacquer box. The lacquer is a blacker black.
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The distinctions of hue turns out to be a historical process. If you’ve ever wondered why Homer calls the Mediterranean Sea “wine dark,” (oinopa ponton), it is because ancient Greeks did not have a name for blue or for green. This is not as surprising as it might seem.
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In 1969 scientists Brent Berlin and Paul Kay theorized that languages adopt color names in a recurrent pattern. First comes the distinction between light and dark, or black and white. In such languages, blue is a subset of black and yellow is a subset of white. Context determines the meaning of “light” and “dark.”
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( Berlin and Kay explain: “The terms black and white appear in this hierarchy with a meaning close to the general panchromatic English terms dark and light or dull and brilliant rather than equivalent to the specific achromatic terms black and white.”)
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The two noted that if a language has a term beyond light and dark, it will be “red.” There are many languages that have only those three color terms: white, black and red. If there is a fourth term, it will be either green or yellow. I.e., if a language has a word for green, then you can bet it will also have a word for red. The third stage is when a language has both green and yellow, and it isn’t until then that “blue” enters as a recognizable name for a hue.
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In Stage VI, a word for brown is included. Again, if a language has a word for brown, you can count on it also having words for blue, yellow, green, red, black and white. Finally come words for purple, pink, orange or gray.
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Ancient Greek had no word for blue, but it did have a word that covers both green and yellow (chloros). Which means, it also had a word for red and for black. Hence, “wine dark.”
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Once this basic palette is set in words, all added color terms are metaphorical, or literary — or commercial.
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Think of all the many shades and tints that have names in English — lavender, chartreuse, scarlet, ivory, lilac, sepia — literally thousands of them. They are all derivatives and fall into subgroups of the primary 11 colors.
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And beyond the metaphorical, there are the qualified names, in which a basic hue is qualified by an adjective, such as “brick red,” or “sky blue.” Thousands of such qualified names exist regularly in English and understood as distinct shades of color. Or we think of them that way. But not so fast.
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Although we all know what “green” is, or “red,” and are willing to assume a wide and indistinct definition of them, these secondary and tertiary names can seldom be agreed on with any exactitude. One person’s scarlet is another person’s crimson.
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Commercial advertising makes great hay with this ambiguity, and has habitually invented seductive names for shades to sell product, but, again, who actually can pin down what exact shade of amber counts as “Autumn Gold?”
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I remember a page from the old Evergreen magazine in which 30 or 40 color chips were printed, and every one exactly the same, but under each was another name. Not just Autumn Gold, but Aztec Sunset, or Sunflower or Buttercream, and so on. Not a hairsbreadth difference between the actual color, but names carting along boatloads of emotional linguistic baggage. (Not one paint chip was called “Baby Poop” or “Jaundice.”)
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Beyond the basic 11 terms, humans have tried to express precise shades of hue in many ways. A box of 64 Crayola crayons is a vocabulary treasure trove of color names: cornflower, chestnut, peach, salmon, periwinkle, goldenrod, olive green, raw sienna.
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Being precise is hard. Consider Myrna Loy in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, explaining to her contractor what colors she wants her walls painted:
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“Now, first, the living room. I want it to be a soft green. Not as blue-green as a robin’s egg, but not as yellow-green as daffodil buds. Now, the only sample I could get is a little too yellow. But don’t let whoever does it get it too blue. It should be a sort of grayish yellow-green.
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“Now the dining room. I’d like yellow. Not just yellow —  a very gay yellow. Something bright and sun-shiny. I tell you, if you’ll send one of your workmen to the grocer for a pound of their best butter and match that exactly, you can’t go wrong.
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“This is the paper we’ll use in the hall. It’s flowered. But I don’t want the ceiling to match any colors of the flowers. There are some little dots in the background. And it’s these dots I want you to match. Not the little greenish dot near the hollyhock leaf. But the little bluish dot between the rosebud and the delphinium blossom. Is that clear?
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“Now, the kitchen’s to be white. Not a cold, antiseptic, hospital white. A little warmer, but still, not to suggest any other color but white.
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“Now, for the powder room in here, I want you to match this thread.        And don’t lose it. It’s the only spool I have and I had an awful time finding it. As you can see, it’s practically an apple red. Somewhere between a healthy Winesap and an unripened Jonathan.”
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She ask him if he understands.
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“Yeah, red green, blue, yellow, white.”
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen

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I finished college 50 years ago, and I’ve changed a great deal in that half-century, and I don’t just mean the issue of losing hair on the top of my head and gaining it in my ears.
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But much has remained the same. And what has remained is what I take as the essence of my self, who I am. For most writers who tackle the subject, the self is defined by memory: The continuous thread of remembering from our earliest recollection to the moment an instant before this. This continuity is our self. It remains separate from what others believe about us or their perception of our who-ness.
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There is something very insubstantial about this thread of memory. After all, the past doesn’t exist; it is a reconstruction, not an actuality. And so, for many thinkers, the self is also a construction — a back-construction. We are reminded of this when we meet old friends and talk about “remember when,” and discover that our friend’s remembering is different from our own, or that they remember things we have long forgotten.
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Surely the self is more than our own cogito ergo sum, recalled in memory. It is also our behavior, the sense we make of the world and how it is constructed and how it functions. It is not simply our past, but our expectations of a future. And there should be some outward manifestation of our selfness, not solely the interior rattling around of snippets of memory, strung together like a necklace of remembered events.
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I began to think of such things when I woke one morning and sat on the side of the bed, facing the bookshelf on the wall in front of me. I happened to spot the slim volume of The Elizabethan World Picture by E.M.W. Tillyard, an ancient paperback that I had in college. It is a book I’ve owned for more than 50 years. It is where I first encountered the idea of the “Great Chain of Being.”
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Then, I gazed over the shelves to discover if there were other books I’d owned that long, and saw Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which I attempted to cook from during my first marriage, when I was still in college. Are those two books as much a part of my selfness as the memories of the old school or the failed marriage?
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As I wandered through the house later that day, I pored over the many bookshelves to seek the books I’ve owned the longest, through divorces and break-ups, through four transcontinental relocations, through at least a dozen homes I have rented in five different cities. Nine cities, if you count homes from before college, which I didn’t rent, but lived with parents.
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The oldest book I still have is my great-grandmother’s Bible, which was given to me when I was four years old. I also have my grandmother’s Bible, in Norwegian, and the Bible my parents gave to me when I was a boy, with my name embossed on the cover in gold. I am not a religious man and don’t believe any of the content scribed therein, I also have to recognize that the culture that nurtured me is one founded on the stories and strictures bound in that book, and more particularly, in the King James version, which I grew up on and which has shaped the tone of the English language for 400 years.
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Surely, completely divorced from doctrine, the KJV is a deeply embedded part of who I am.
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The second oldest book is one my grandmother gave me on my eighth birthday, a giant-format Life magazine book called The World We Live In. It was a counterbalance to the Holy Writ, in that it was a natural history of the world and gave me science. At that age, I was nuts about dinosaurs (many young boys are in the Third Grade), and The World We Live In had lots of pictures of my Jurassic and Cretaceous favorites. It also explored the depths of the oceans, the mechanisms of the weather, the animals of the forest, the planets of the solar system, and a countering version of the creation of the world, full of volcanoes and bombarding meteorites. I loved that book. I still love it. It is on the shelf as a holy-of-holies (and yes, I get the irony).
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Both the Bible and The World We Live In are solid, tangible bits of my selfness that I can touch and recognize myself in, as much as I recognize myself in the mirror.
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I pulled down Tillyard from the shelf, and gathered up the several Bibles and began piling by my desk, and went through the bookshelves finding the many books that have defined me and that I kept through all the disruption that life throws at us, with the growing realization that these books are me. They are internalized and now their physical existence is an extension of my selfness into the world.
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The pile beside my desk slowly turned into a wall, one stack next to another, building up a brick-foundation of me-ness. They were cells of my psyche very like the cells of my body, making up a whole. And they began to show a pattern that I had not previously noticed. The books I’ve held on to for at least 50 years sketched a me that I knew in my bone.
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I’ve kept books from 40 years ago, from 30, from 20. I’ve got books that define me as I am at 72 years old that I have bought in the past month. But the continuity of them is a metaphor for the continuity of my self.
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When I was just out of college, a neighbor of my parents died and left my a pile of old books, printed in the 18th and early 19th century. There are three volumes of the poetry of William Cowper, a History of Redemption by Jonathan Edwards, a fat volume with tiny print collecting the Addison and Steele Spectators, and a single volume of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature. I have Volume IV of five volumes, which contains descriptions and illustrations of birds, fishes and “Frogs, Lizards, and Serpents.”
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And while my great-grandmother’s Bible gives me a sense of roots running four generations deep, these older books take those roots deeper into the culture that made me. I see myself not as a single mind born in 1948, but as part of a longer-running continuity back in time. A reminder that any single generation is simply a moment in a process: seed, sprout, plant, flower, fruit, seed. Over and over. My self grew from my mother’s womb and she from her mother’s. And my psyche grew from all the books I’ve read, and all the books that have shaped the culture that produced those books. It is a nurturance that disappears in the far distant past, like railroad tracks narrowing to a point on the horizon.
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I am not here making an argument for nurture vs. nature. I am not simply the sum of the books I’ve read. Rather, the books I’ve read that have remained with me — and there are many times more that haven’t stuck with the same tenacity — have not only nurtured me, but are the mirror of who I was born, my inner psyche, who I AM. They are the outward manifestation of the inward being.
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I have books left over from college, such as my Chaucer and my Shelley, my Coleridge and my Blake.
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I have the poetry I was drawn to when first discovering its linguistic and cultural power, such as all the Pound I gobbled up.
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There are the two volumes of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, edited by Artur Schnabel. I could never be without them. I read scores for pleasure just as I read words. I still have piles of Kalmus and Eulenburg miniature scores that I have used over the years to study music more minutely than ears alone can permit.
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Books that have turned the twig to incline the tree stay with me, such as Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen, or the Daybooks of photographer Edward Weston, or The Graphic Art of the 18th Century, by Jean Adhémar.
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I still have the Robert Graves two-volume Greek Myths that I had when taking a Classics course my freshman year, and the Oxford Standard Authors edition of Milton that I took with my in my backpack when I tried to hike all of the Appalachian Trail (“tried” is the operative word), and the photographic paperback version of the Sierra Club book, In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World.
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My many Peterson Guides and wildflower books have only multiplied, but the basics have been with me for at least five decades.
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The Thurber Carnival I still have was actually my mother’s book that I took from home when I went off to school. The catalog from the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. is now browned out and tattered and the Hokusai manga is another holy of holies.
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All these have stuck to me like glue all through a life’s vicissitudes, many with ragged and torn covers, as I have myself in a body worn and torn by creeping age.
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I could name many more, but you get the idea. And it is undoubtedly the same for all of us. For you, it many not be books; it might be a shirt or blouse you have kept, or maybe a blanket that comforted you when you were an infant, or your first car. These are the outward signs of an inner truth. The you who is not separate from the world, but embedded in it, connected to it, born from it and in some way, its singular manifestation.
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NB: The books illustrated are all some of them I’ve lugged with me for at least 50 years; anyone who knows me would recognize me in them. 
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Click on any image to enlarge.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 

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by Richard Nilsen

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Think of Persia. Then think of Iran. Very different places occupying the same geographic location. The names of places carry a kind of emotional scent that surrounds them. Persia has an exotic perfume; Iran rather stinks to American minds as moldy bread.
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Persia is a land of legend of djinn, of harems, and magic carpets; Iran rather has its mullahs, its chador, and its Revolutionary Guard. Persia had its Omar Khayyam and his “The Bird of Time has but a little way to flutter — and the Bird is on the Wing.” Iran has religious fundamentalism and “Death to America.”
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Certainly the political situation has changed radically over time and that contributes to our different perceptions of the same country, but the names we use conjure up very different associations, too, and not just for Iran, but the names we use around the world and especially, over time. Most locations on the globe have born a variety of monikers over the ages. Some of these names are better for journalism, some for poetry.
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The same land that we now know as Iran was once called Parthia. Once called Media — land of the Medes — once called Ariana, at another time, the Achaemenid Empire. In the Bible, it is Elam. (The borders are never quite the same; borders are notoriously fugitive.) There are other names, too, all accounting for parts of what are now The Islamic Republic of Iran: Hyrcania; Bactria; Jibal; Fars; Khuzestan; Hujiya; Baluchistan.
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Some of these names, such as Baluchistan and Bactria, have a kind of exotic emotional perfume and remind us of the Transoxiana of folklore and half-remembered, half-conjured history. Samarkand and Tashkent; Tales of Scheherazade or Tamurlane, stories recounted by Richard Halliburton or Lowell Thomas. One thinks of old black and white National Geographic magazines.
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Countless Victorian paintings depicted a romantic Orientalized version of seraglios, viziers, genies, pashas, with the women often in various states of undress.
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I have long been interested in this nomenclatural perfume, and how the names of places conjure up emotional states. And how often those aromas and scents are ambiguous as to be unplaceable. Where, for instance, is Bessarabia? What about Saxony? I have written before about how borders change over time, and the names of places change along with the borders, but here I am writing about the emotional resonances of those place names.
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Saxony, Westphalia, Silesia, Franconia, Pomerania, Swabia, Thuringia: These are names from history books, but we are quite unlikely to know where to spot them on a map. They are all sections of Germany and Eastern Europe that have been subsumed by more modern nations, but a few centuries ago were their own kingdoms, principalities and dukedoms. Some reappear as regions or counties in larger nations, but some are pretty well evaporated. Saxony, for instance, as it exists now as a part of Germany, was originally a separate nation, and not even in the same place where the current Saxony lies.
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The older names often have a more exotic connotation than the current names. Siam brings to mind Anna and Yul Brynner; Thailand may elicit thoughts of sex tourism. Abyssinia is a place of Solomonic apes and peacocks; Ethiopia is a nation that went through the Red Terror and famine of the Derg. Burma had its Road to Mandalay, its Kayan women with their elongated brass-coiled necks or even George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” but Myanmar brings to mind military rule, extreme xenophobia and Rohingya genocide.
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Sri Lanka used to be Ceylon, but it was also known as Serendip, from which we get the word “serendipity.” “Ceylon” derives from the ancient Greek word for the island, Sielen Diva. And according to legend and literature, it was originally named Tamraparni, or “copper colored leaves” by its first Sinhalese king, Vijaya. That name becomes the more common Taprobana.
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The older names are almost always more resonant, more perfumed, which is why they show up so often in poetry and literature. Where have you heard of Albion, Cambria, Caledonia, Hibernia or Cornubia, but in verse? England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Cornwall just don’t have that literary heft. It’s hard enough for non-Brits to keep straight the difference between England, Britain, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom or UK.
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If you’ve ever wondered what the ship Lusitania was named for, that was the former name for what is now Portugal. When James Joyce talks about Armorica in Finnegans Wake, he is using the old name for Brittany. Firehouse Dalmatians are named for the former Roman province located across the Adriatic Sea from Italy and now part of Croatia.
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Eastern Europe is a coal bucket of forgotten or half-remembered toponyms. These places don’t translate one-for-one with modern nation-states, but across the map from Poland through Ukraine and down to Romania you find such redolent names as Pannonia, Sarmatia, Podolia, Wallachia, Pridnestrovia, Bohemia, Moravia. All of which makes the region a fertile spot to locate a fictional country when you want to write a spy novel or film comedy. Just make up a name that sound vaguely plausible.
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Of the following, only one has ever been real. The rest are made up. Can you pick the genuine from the bogus?
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If you picked Ruritania, a slap on the wrist for you. You have probably heard of it, but it is the fictional country that Anthony Hope used to set his 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda. It has since been used myriad times as a stand-in for any small nation in a movie or book.
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(Other fictional countries that show up on celluloid: Freedonia and Sylvania from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup; Tomainia, Bacteria and Osterlich from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator; Moronica in the Three Stooges’ You Nazty Spy. There are many more.)
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The ringer in the question is Ruthenia, which was a real name for a real place in Eastern Europe, now parts of Hungary and Ukraine. As for the others: Brungaria is from the Tom Swift Jr. series of boys’ books; Estrovia is from Charlie Chaplin’s film A King in New York; Lichtenburg is from the 1940 film, The Son of Monte Cristo; Pontevedro is from operetta and film, The Merry Widow; and Grand Fenwick is from the Peter Sellars film The Mouse That Roared.
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There are names for mythical places, too, and they really carry their exoticism well: Atlantis; El Dorado; Shangri-La. Less well known, but once more current are the lost continents of Mu and Lemuria, both popular with cultists, and the sunken Arthurian country of Lyonesse and the drowned city of Ys.
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But even real places have their exotic past. What we now call Mexico was once Aztlán. Iceland was once the almost legendary land of Thule. What we know as Xi Jinping’s China was to Marco Polo, Cathay. There is more incense to that than the more modern smog-choked superpower. Properly, Cathay was the northern part of modern China during the Yuan dynasty; the south was called Mangi. Shangdu is the modern name once transliterated as Xanadu. It has gone the way of Ozymandias.
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Ruins of Xanadu

Turkey wants to be part of the European Union and is a NATO member, but in the far past, we knew the part of it east of the Dardanelles  as Asia Minor. But even that part was originally known by its regions: Anatolia in the east; Bithynia in the northwest; Cilicia in the southwest; Pontus in the northeast; and Galatia in the center (that’s who the New Testament Galatians was addressed to). The nation’s current capital is Ankara, but how much more soft and silky is its earlier incarnation as Angora?
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The Middle East is now divided up in a jigsaw created after the world wars. What was The Holy Land is now Israel and its surrounding lands, which used to be aggregated as Palestine. But that whole end of the Mediterranean used more commonly to be called the Levant. I love those old terms: The Levant east of the sea and the Maghreb along the sea’s southern coast west of Egypt.
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Hawaii used to be the Christmas Islands, counterweight to Easter Island. But speaking of counterweights: Tonga used to be the Friendly Islands and to their east is Niue was once Savage Island. (“Niue” translates as “Behold the Coconut”).  Back in the Atlantic, the Canary Islands were latterly the Fortunate Islands.
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Nations like to attempt to make their own emotional perfume, with more or less success. Some nicknames are quite familiar: Japan is “The Land of the Rising Sun;” England is “The Land of Hope and Glory;” Ireland is “The Emerald Isle.” Norway is “The Land of the Midnight Sun.” Some nicknames aren’t particularly glorious. Italy is “The Boot;” France is “The Hexagon.” Some are just descriptive: Australia is “The Land Down Under;” Canada is “The Great White North;” Afghanistan is “The Graveyard of Empires.”
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States have nicknames, too. Alaska has a bunch of them: “The Last Frontier” is printed on license plates. But others are less chamber-of-commerce-ish: Seward’s Ice Box; Icebergia; Polaria; Walrussia; the Polar Bear Garden.
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Among the odder state nicknames: Arkansas is the Toothpick State; Colorado is The Highest State (which now has added meaning); Connecticut is both The Blue Law State and “The Land of Steady Habits;” Delaware is The Chemical Capital of the World; Georgia is The Goober State (for the peanut, please); Massachusetts is The Baked Bean State; Minnesota is “Minne(snow)ta;” Nebraska is The Bugeating State; New Jersey is officially The Garden State, but many call it “the Garbage State,” none too kindly; North Carolina used to be The Turpentine State; South Carolina used to print on its license plates, “Iodine Products State;” Tennessee is The Hog and Hominy State.
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Cities have their nicknames, too. Some are in universal parlance. Paris is The City of Light, Rome is The Eternal City. In the U.S. we can drive from Beantown to the Big Apple to the City of Brotherly Love and through Porkopolis on to the Windy City and head south to the Big Easy and then out west to the Mile High City (again, now a double entendre), and finally to The City of Angels or more northerly to Frisco. (The full name given to Los Angeles is El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles or “the town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels.” Put that on a Dodgers ballcap.)
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But there are less common and less polite names for cities, too. And some real oddball ones. Albertville, Ala., is The Fire Hydrant Capital of the World. Berkeley, Calif., is “Berzerkeley.” LA is also “La-La Land.” Indianapolis is “India-no-place.” New Orleans is also the “Big Sleazy.” Las Vegas is “Lost Wages.” Boulder, Colo., is The People’s Republic of Boulder.
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You can string together toponyms and almost make poetry, or at least a song: “Oklahoma City looks oh so pretty/ You’ll see Amarillo/ Gallup, New Mexico/ Flagstaff, Arizona/ Don’t forget Wynonna/ Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino/ … Get your kicks on Route 66.”
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“I’ve been to Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota/ Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota/ Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma/ Tampa, Panama, Mattawa, La Paloma/ Bangor, Baltimore, Salvador, Amarillo/ Tocopilla, Barranquilla, and Padilla, I’m a killer/
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“I’ve been everywhere, man/ I’ve been everywhere.”
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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Seattle police during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918

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by Richard Nilsen
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It’s a strange time. Few of us have been through anything quite so comprehensively threatening. I lived through the 1960s and remember the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and serial assassinations. There was the hovering blackmail of being drafted to go and die in the jungles of Southeast Asia. But that was aimed at only a fraction of young men at the time. This aims at all of us. And all of us on the whole planet.
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So, I wanted to take a look at how it all compares with past plagues. First, I rooted around to see how many pandemics have been recorded in history. Surely, many occurred before the invention of writing and history. I imagine disease decimating prehistoric populations, although the number of people on the globe was so much smaller, that although people didn’t practice social isolation, there was enough isolation between groups of people that disease probably didn’t spread as efficiently as it does today, with bugs riding ticketless on jet planes to “cover the globe” like Sherwin-Williams paint.
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There is some evidence that plague caused what is called the “Neolithic Decline” about 5000 years ago. In 2018, a skeleton of a 20-year-old woman was found in Sweden that contained DNA traces of Yersinia pestis, the pathogen that caused three other major outbreaks of plague through history.
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Two plagues of Egypt

 

The first recorded plagues I could find were probably fictional — the Ten Plagues of Egypt — but the fact there was a biblical word for “plague” indicates that such things were well known then.
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But the historical plague that enters the record first is that of Athens in the Fifth Century BCE. It was described by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War. It comes just after Pericles’ Funeral Oration and lists the symptoms of the plague that carried off something like 100,000 people, or a quarter of the population of the city. It is gruesome reading, but then, so are descriptions of all the plagues of humankind. Thucydides wrote:
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“Suddenly, without any apparent cause preceding and being in perfect health, they were taken first with an extreme ache in their heads, redness and inflammation of the eyes; and then inwardly, their throats and tongues grew bloody and their breath noisome and unsavory. Upon this followed a sneezing and hoarseness, and not long after the pain, together with a mighty cough, came down into the breast. And when once it was settled in the stomach, it caused vomit; and with great torment came up all manner of bilious purgation that physicians ever named.
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“Most of them had also the dry heaves which brought with it a strong convulsion, and in some ceased quickly but in others was long before it gave over. Their bodies outwardly to the touch were neither very hot nor pale but reddish, livid, and beflowered with little pimples and whelks, but so burned inwardly as not to endure any the lightest clothes or linen garment to be upon them nor anything but mere nakedness, but rather most willingly to have cast themselves into the cold water. And many of them that were not looked to, possessed with insatiate thirst, ran unto the wells, and to drink much or little was indifferent, being still from ease and power to sleep as far as ever.
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“As long as the disease was at its height, their bodies wasted not but resisted the torment beyond all expectation; insomuch as the most of them either died of their inward burning in nine or seven days whilst they had yet strength, or, if they escaped that, then the disease falling down into their bellies and causing there great ulcerations and terrible diarrhea, they died many of them afterwards through weakness.”
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Scholars disagree over what caused the Athenian Plague, Most often it is blamed on typhus, but more recent study leans toward a variety of the ebola virus.
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The numbers jump with the next major pandemic (there have been smaller outbreaks), beginning in 165 CE, was the Antonine Plague that swept the Roman Empire and killed off something like 10 million. It is guessed to have been an outbreak of smallpox.
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But that paled compared with the Justinian Plague of 541-542 CE, that wiped out between 40 percent and 50 percent of the people of Europe, meaning ten times the toll of the Antonine Plague — 100,000 million souls. Again, likely smallpox.
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We can add 2 million dead, or almost half the population of Japan in the smallpox epidemic of 735-737 CE.
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Of course, the granddaddy of them all is the Great Mortality, better known by its later name, the Black Death that first crippled Europe in 1348. It devastated not only Medieval Europe, but Asia and North Africa and wiped out something like half the population of Europe. (These are all estimates: No precise figures were kept at the time).
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Plague mask from the Black Death

Giovanni Boccaccio wrote about the plague in Florence in words that sound oddly familiar: “The plague had arisen in the East some years before, causing the death of countless human beings. It spread without stop from one place to another, until, unfortunately, it swept over the West. Neither knowledge nor human foresight availed against it, though the city was cleansed of much filth by chosen officers in charge and sick persons were forbidden to enter it, while advice was broadcast for the preservation of health. Nor did humble supplications serve.” He goes on to describe the symptoms and the public panic. Much of which also sounds prescient.
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Over and over, there is a single place on the map where the number of people getting sick and dying increases dramatically. Those elsewhere take little notice. But the contagion spreads and other places begin to follow suit. The death tallies rise and the affected areas grow, but those in unaffected areas feel only that such disturbance is distant from them and their concerns. As the contagion spreads, the authorities attempt to downplay the seriousness of the problem, until the map is filled in and everyone is affected. They stay closed up in their homes, hoping to remain safe.
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This is a story from the Third Century, from the Sixth Century, from the 14th Century, 17th Century, 18th, 19th, 20th and now our nascent little century. I mean this month.
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Bubonic and Pneumonic Plague, caused by Y. pestis, probably began in Mongolia and swept west until it engulfed all the Old World. And it returned on average, although in less virulent form, every 10 or 15 years until the 17th century. The last major outbreak was the Great Plague of London in 1666 that was chronicled in the diary of Samuel Pepys. Some 100,000 died in that wave, in the city alone.
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But the New World had its chance, too. Blame the conquistadors. About 40 percent of the native population of central Mexico died in 1520 of small pox, that being 5 to 8 million dead. Twenty-five years later, the Cocoliztil Epidemic, also smallpox, wiped out between 5 and 15 million, or 80 percent of those who had survived the first wave. In 50 years, the native population went from 30 million to 3 million.
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In North America, the 1616 New England Epidemic wiped out as much as 90 percent of the Wampanoag people. It may have been a breakout of leptospirosis, although other guesses include yellow fever, plague, influenza, smallpox or hepatitis. Estimates of pre-Columbus Native American populations in North America range from about 3 to 18 million people. Most recent estimates favor the higher numbers. By 1890, that had been reduced to 250,000. Some of that destruction came by military action, but the vast majority was caused by disease.
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Smallpox was the greatest of the villains, and many of history’s worst epidemics have been of that now-extinct disease. But it is plague that gets all the glory. There have been three great waves of plague, each coming in an initial burst and reappearing intermittently for centuries. The first is the Plague of Justinian. The second is the Black Death and the third began in Yunnan, China, in 1855, and spread through Asia, taking out some 12 million people, mainly in India and China. Deaths from this wave continued into the 20th century.
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Plague also killed some 2 million in Persia in 1772.
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But joining smallpox and plague is cholera, which killed a million victims in Russia in the mid-19th century. That century finds cholera outbreaks all over the globe, popping up first there, then here.
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Temporary influenza hospital at Camp Funsten in Kansas in 1918

 

Now, in the 20th and 21st centuries the great threat is influenza. The first notable outbreak was the pandemic of 1889-1890, that killed 1 million worldwide. But then, the Spanish Influenza killed something like 100 million between 1918 and 1920. (That is five times the number killed in World War I, both military and civilian). That influenza was caused by the H1N1 subtype of Influenza A.
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The flu has returned in various forms several times. The Asian Flu killed 2 million in1957-1958; the Hong Kong Flu took out another million in 1968-1969; the London Flu in 1972-1973 killed 1,027, which may seem a small number, but it was big enough to put a scare in the populace.
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The most recent million-death pandemic was HIV/AIDS, which first became known about 1980 and has since then killed more than 32 million people.
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I have shoveled a lot of numbers into this essay and it is easy to think of them merely as numbers. The quote attributed to Josef Stalin is apt. Talking to a group of commissars about the starvation in Ukraine, he is reported to have said, “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”
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To get past the mere piling up of numbers into haystacks of meaninglessness, there are many notable works of literature that humanize the pestilences. The first one you should read is the introduction to Boccaccio’s Decameron. It reads like modern journalism, with an accumulation of observed detail and a lack of sentimentality. The Decameron is a collection of short stories ostensibly told by a group of refugees hiding from the plague in Florence. But the introduction is blank fact and beautifully written.
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The Great Plague of London was covered by two writers. Samuel Pepys was an eye witness and he wrote about it in his Diaries. For Jan. 30, 1666, he wrote, “This is the first time I have been in this church since I left London for the plague, and it frighted me indeed to go through the church more than I thought it could have done, to see so many graves lie so high upon the churchyards where people have been buried of the plague.”
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Great Plague of London, 1666

 

The other, written some years later by Daniel Defoe is his A Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722, more than 50 years after the event. The author of Robinson Crusoe was just 6 years old when the plague hit London, but he carefully researched the event and although his Journal technically fiction, it very closely hews to the journalistic truth.
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He describes the weekly and daily numbers of reported dead, which sounds eerily familiar, and the sequestering of families and the quarantines. He also chronicles the quack cures being touted.
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“It is incredible, and scarce to be imagined, how the posts of houses and corners of streets were plastered over with doctors’ bills and papers of ignorant fellows, quacking and tampering in physic, and inviting the people to come to them for remedies, which was generally set off with such flourishes as these, viz.:
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“ ‘Infallible preventive pills against the plague.’ ‘Never-failing preservatives against the infection.’ ‘Sovereign cordials against the corruption of the air.’ ‘Exact regulations for the conduct of the body in case of an infection.’ ‘Anti-pestilential pills.’ ‘Incomparable drink against the plague, never found out before.’ etc”
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All of it sounds familiar, now that there is talk of drinking bleach or silver. But he also brings the individuals to life: “I wish I could repeat the very sound of those groans and of those exclamations that I heard from some poor dying creatures when in the height of their agonies … and that I could make them that read this hear, as I imagine I now hear them, for the sound seems still to ring in my ears.”
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He describes the cart bringing the corpses to the graveyard, “a becloaked, muffled figure comes in to view, ‘oppressed with a dreadful weight of grief indeed, having his wife and several children all in the cart … no sooner was the cart turned round and the bodies shot into the pit promiscuously … but he cried out aloud, … the buriers ran to him and they led him away to the Pie Tavern, over against the end of Houndsditch, where it seems the man was known’.”
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The fear struck everyone. One man, self-quarantined in the second floor of his home, took precautions with his mail: “His letters were brought by the postman, or letter-carrier, to his porter, when he caused the porter to smoke them with brimstone and with gunpowder, then open them, and to sprinkle them with vinegar; then he had them drawn up by the pulley, then smoked again with strong perfumes, and, taking them with a pair of hair gloves, the hair outermost, he read them with a large reading-glass which read at a great distance, and, as soon as they were read, burned them in the fire; and at last, the distemper raging more and more, he forbid his friends writing to him at all.”
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There is simple fiction, too. Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, wrote in 1826 a novel called The Last Man, about an apocalyptic world ravaged by a plague. Poe’s Mask of Red Death tells of the wealthy and aristocratic hiding in luxury from the pestilence until “a figure arrives wearing a mask made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have difficulty in detecting the cheat.” The visitor is the Red Death itself and all die.
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The Red Death is taken up by Jack London in The Scarlet Plague, from 1912, in which a survivor in postapocalyptic America of 2073 recalls a pandemic from 2013.
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There is a whole trove of more recent postapocalyptic narratives, including Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, Stephen King’s The Stand, Jose Saramago’s Blindness, and Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse. Most are meant as thrillers, but there is a deep moral core to Albert Camus’ Le Peste (“The Plague”), published in 1947, which it is hard not to keep in mind when you watch doctors, nurses, paramedics and other hospital workers risk their lives in the current Covid-19 pandemic. It should be required reading for everyone.
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And holed up in your homes, there is plenty of time for good reading until this current angel of death passes overhead and moves on.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 

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by Richard Nilsen

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I’ve been on many pilgrimages, although I have never really thought to call them that. You probably have, too.
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The line between what constitutes pilgrimage and what can be called merely travel is impossible to draw in ink. Each of us must decide where one endeavor shades into the other. There are many who walk to Santiago de Compostela merely for the adventure of it, and there are those who may vacation in some spot that has developed, for them, the quality of a shrine.
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I am not religious and subscribe to no doctrine, but there is still something deeply satisfying about going somewhere, away from life’s everyday concerns, to discover something bigger, more important and more meaningful. That is how I define for myself the nature of a pilgrimage.
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In some sense, nearly all travel I have taken has functioned as pilgrimage. I go to see something, or I go to learn something, or just to be near something that has meaning. “Meaning” is a squishy term, difficult to define. In this sense, meaning cannot be translated; you can’t always say what something “means,” it cannot be paraphrased, but you feel that it has meaning. Like a dream you cannot parse, but won’t leave you; you know it is meaningful. You don’t always understand meaning, but you recognize it.
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Some call this meaning “spiritual,” but the word, for me, has too much incense around it. I leave it to the New Age conjurors and the church-goers. I think of it rather in Jungian terms, as our subconscious mirrored in the world at at large.
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You will have your own meaningful travel; I recommend to you that you consider why some places seem important and others are insignificant, perhaps because of something that happened earlier in your life, perhaps because of something you read and admired, perhaps because of religious belief. Perhaps, even, because it matches some undefined longing deep in your chest.
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It was such a longing, or empty space in my experience, that led me to Chartres cathedral. It was certainly more pilgrimage than tourism that led me to Chartres the first time. It overwhelmed me. It led, a few years later to a more traditional pilgrimage: An intentional voyage from shrine to shrine, as I traveled west to east in northern France from Mont Saint-Michel to Saint-Samson in Ouistreham; to Chartres again; to Paris for Notre Dame and Sainte-Chapelle, Saint Denis, and several smaller churches, such as Saint Séverin, Saint Germain l’Auxerrois, Saint Eustache; then north to Rouen, Amiens and Beauvais; and east to Laon, Reims and Noyon.
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And despite my utter lack of religious faith, there was no denying the power of this architecture and the meaningfulness of its vast interior space as metaphor for both the infinite heavens and our psychic interior — both of them larger and more important than our puny day-to-day lives.
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I’ve also made the pilgrimage three times to Monet’s garden at Giverny — which is one of my holy-of-holies — first in the spring and then twice in the fall. My life is infinitely alive for my having spent time there.
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In my freshman year at college, my friend shared his enthusiasm for Cape Hatteras and I’ve been back too many times to count. My first official wife and I took our honeymoon there, although I’m sure she would not remember it as fondly as I do. We camped in the dunes directly under the lighthouse and at night the surf misted the air with a salty haze. The nighttime sky with the roar of the ocean was another mirror turned simultaneously inward and outward.
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When I have been back, it has usually been in winter or early spring, before the hordes descend. When I first went, much of the barrier islands were empty; now, except for the protected National Seashore, it has become a Manhattan of the coast, with three- and four-story condos lining Route 12, which runs down the curve of the Hatteras Island like the vein on the back of a shrimp.
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One can make pilgrimage not only to claim something new, but to pay homage to what has become sacred. Every time I visit Maine, I go to Schoodic Point where the waves crash over rocks and wash back into the sea in torrents. It is pilgrimage in so far as each visit reassures me that the world I know survives — both the interior and the exterior. I reabsorb what it gives me and I am remade.
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With my second unofficial wife, I hiked a good portion of the Appalachian Trail in the mid-1970s, in a more traditional pilgrimage on foot. We never finished that one, giving up because we discovered that unlike what we had imagined — leisurely enjoying the beauty of nature —  the reality was driving ourselves to the next lean-to by nightfall and not losing track of the paint blazes that marked the trail. A trudge rather than a Thoreauvian saunter. Nevertheless, even incomplete the hike has informed who I have become in profound ways.
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Other pilgrimages I have made include driving the the length of the Mississippi River from its source at Lake Itasca to its mouth on the Gulf of Mexico. I have also traveled the length of the Appalachian mountain cordillera, from Alabama to Percé Rock at the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec; and have driven from Mexico to Canada up the fold in the middle of the map of the 48 states — along the 100th Meridian.
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Each of these, and several others, have been journeys of intent, that is, trips made with an end in mind, as opposed to a vacation trip, whose whole point it to avoid the work involved in achieving a goal.
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Another repeated pilgrimage is to Walden Pond in Concord, Mass. I first went there more than 50 years ago, after having read pretty much everything Henry David Thoreau ever published, including his 14 volumes of journals. I fell in love with Thoreau’s prose style, with its biblical heft and Shakespearean metaphor.
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“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.” How can you write better than that? You can’t.
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I read it all, from Walden to The Maine Woods to The Dispersion of Seeds. But not the poems. Gott im Himmel, not the poems. Thoreau wrote the most poetic of prose, but the most prosaic of poetry.
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Walden, of course, chronicles his time spent in a cabin he built on the glacial lake of that name, where he lived for a year and a half in an attempt to leave civilization behind and grow his own beans. Thoreau became the patron saint of environmentalism in the 1960s, when I was reading all this, and that despite the fact that in 1844, he personally destroyed a whole forest by, like Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon, “doubtless being careless with matches.”
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I can not accurately recall the number of times I have made it to Walden Pond; they all blur together. I’ve been there in spring and in fall; I have had the place all to myself, and I have had visits I had to share with busloads of tourists; there were moments when I felt I was communing with the eternity that Thoreau found there, and moments that were bound by the clock — I had elsewhere to get to before dark.
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But the climax of a visit is circumambulating the pond, i.e., walking the perimeter of the water, a distance of roughly a mile and a half. At the one end is the swimming hole beach used by the residents of Concord, Mass., and at the other end are the railroad tracks of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s Fitchburg Line commuter train.
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On the way, you pass the site of Thoreau’s cabin, marked by stones where the tiny building used to be (a modern replica can be see on the other side of the highway that passes the pond, at the parking lot; yes, there is now a parking lot.)
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The pond is just another kettle lake in a landscape made by their number into Swiss cheese on the map of New England. But it has a resonance built into it because of its adoption by Thoreau, a resonance that is now felt by countless acolytes for whom Walden is, if not a holy book, then at least a baedeker for self-discovery.
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As he sat in his cabin, from 1845 or 1847, he spent his time writing a book about his own pilgrimage, 10 years before. He and his older brother, John, rowed and sailed a dory down the Concord River and up the Merrimack. When John died only a few years later, Henry composed the book as a memorial to his brother. It is a discursive volume, mostly about the boat trip they took, but also about pretty much everything else the young writer could pack into it.
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He had it published at his own expense, and when it failed to sell, he wound up with all the remaindered books delivered to his home. “I now have a library of nearly nine-hundred volumes,” he said, “over seven-hundred of which I wrote myself.”
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I suppose I did not always think of travel as pilgrimage, but it does not matter what I planned. In that sense, there is but a little difference between pilgrimage and vacation. Perhaps the most salient difference is the goal: For a pilgrim intends to change, while the vacationer usually purposes only to recharge the batteries and come home feeling more himself. But leaving home and passing through the unfamiliar will always change who you are.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen

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When I was so young that I was just entering the tunnel of adolescence, I sent a joke into the Reader’s Digest. The Digest was the primary reading material in our house, and they had a regular feature with funny definitions of words. Mine was a definition for “euphemism,” which I said was “synonym and sugar.”
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I never heard back from the august publishers. Perhaps they rejected me out of hand, perhaps they never got my letter, or perhaps they just smelled the anti-acne cream on the paper.
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Even at that age, I knew that I had an abnormal interest in the English language, and language in general. From the second grade onward, when we had weekly lists of vocabulary words to memorize and use in sentences, I habitually attempted to use all 10 words in a single sentence, just to be a smartass.
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So, it is hardly surprising that eventually, I became a writer. And a smartass — at the newspaper where I earned my crust, I enjoyed making up words to sneak past the editors. In one six month period, I made a game of inventing some word in each and every story I submitted, and to my surprise, and great pleasure, got them all through the checkpoints and safeguards. I never knew whether the editors assumed the words must be real, or if they just thought, well, that’s Nilsen, whatcha gonna do?
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But, back to synonyms. Part of the captivating magic of words for me was always their various halos, or nimbuses of meaning. No word stands alone, naked and singular, but rather, each is a spinning molecule composed of a cluster of atoms, each a different connotation, so that I became early convinced that there really is no such thing in the English language as a synonym. Not really.
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English is a promiscuous language. It lets anyone have its way, and it permits all kinds of immigrants take up residence. A fluent or native speaker of Spanish has a vocabulary estimated at about 10,000 words while the Oxford English dictionary contains 228,132 words either defined or as subentries. That does include a good number of words no longer in current usage (words I often like to attempt to resuscitate), but even so, there are about 170,000 of the little squiggles that are commonly in use, although no one uses all of them. The average is 10,000 words in an ordinary person’s word-hoard (the Old-English kenning for vocabulary).
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Shakespeare, admittedly an outlier, had a personal vocabulary of about 66,000 words. Some of those, he seems to have coined himself.
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The reason is that so many of our words have companions from Germanic and Romance languages, so, we have hogs, pigs, pork, or cows, steers and beef. To be called hoggish is different from being called swinish or piggish or porcine. Shades of meaning.
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Each word traces its family history to another region of the globe, including China (ketchup), India (pajamas, or if you are British, pyjamas), Aztec Mexico (tomato), Africa (okra) or the Middle East (candy).
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And so, there are many words that have overlapping meanings. But a sensitive ear ferrets out the subtle differences. Take “flammable” and “inflammable.” On the surface, they seem like they should be antonyms, but they mean the same thing. Or almost.
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“Flammable” implies burnable while “inflammable” implies something able to be set on fire. A subtle difference, but there, nonetheless.
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“Quiet” is a good thing in the bustle of a city, but when things go “silent,” you should start worrying.
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A “writer” sends letters or publishes in a newspaper; and “author” produces books.
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Each synonym has a slightly different shade of meaning, and a good writer (or author) used those differences to his or her advantage. It is an issue of awareness.
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“Sad” and “unhappy” are interesting, because “unhappy” is both more ephemeral than “sad” — if you are “unhappy” about an outcome, you aren’t necessarily feeling “sad” and get over it quickly— but also permanent — an “unhappy” marriage is longer lasting than a sad mood.
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So wrapped up in language am I that I have imagined languages other than those actually spoken. I once invented a language — not the language itself, not like a secret “twin language,” but rather the grammar and rules of an imaginary language spoken by imaginary peoples.
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It helps me think about the possibilities and limits of language.
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The language was spoken by a tribal group on an island in the Indian Ocean, recognizable to anyone who watched old movies on TV. So, there is a joke in the description. See if you get it.
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The story is presented in the form of a fictional “translator’s note” for a fictional book about this fictional island, which bears the name which is a synonym of “cranium.”
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To wit:
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Translator’s Note
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All the translations in this book are by the author, save only those in passages by books cited in the bibliography.
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A few notes about the difficulty of translating the native language of the Kandeni Islands might be in order. Those tiny islands in the Indian Ocean (approximately 2 degrees South and 90 degrees East), and their primary island, Kandei, were undiscovered until 1933 (vide Cooper and Schoedsack, 1933), and so remote are they that their language and customs seemingly grew in isolation for centuries, if not millennia. A few relics in their language suggest they had contact with cultures in the South Andaman Sea in earlier eras, perhaps related to the extinct Jangil peoples, but in the main, their language is unique.
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By far, the primary difficulty in their language is the fact that it has only two verbs, which might best be described as the verb to be and the verb to do, one active, one passive. Every usage is intelligible only in context. The language has nouns with cases, adjectives that mirror those cases and a few prepositions and a few vestigial conjunctions. There are no articles.
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This bifurcation of verb is essential to their organization of the world. Things — whatever they are — either be or do. They exist as essences or they exist as agents. Every act is merely a morph of the simple act of doing. Running, speaking, sleeping, eating — they are all seen as variants of a single act.
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For the elders who spoke to me, this is taken as obvious: Their mythology (see Chapter 3) revolves around the dichotomy of being and doing, and their gods, if you can call them that (they may also be seen as ancestors), fall into two categories, the “be-ers” and the “do-ers.” These supernatural beings (I use our terminology — they do not make the distinction between natural and supernatural) are at odds, if not at war (the stories vary from family to family).
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On first approach, it may appear that the language is simple to the point of being rudimentary, but in fact, with these few elements, it has grown into a language of immense complexity, requiring of its speaker — and listener — not only great subtlety but awareness of its context. The same sentence in the morning may mean something different after the sun begins its descent.
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As one might expect, that although there are only two verbs, there are many nouns. The Kandeian people have words for the things of their world, but not static words. A certain plant, for instance, will have a different noun for its seedling, for its fruiting or for its use by native animals. Linguistically, they are different things, even if our Linnean system sees them as merely phases of the same plant. This is true as it is for us, for instance, who think of a boy as different from a man, a puppy as different from a dog. For them, the manioc plant is a different plant before it grows a sufficient tuber. For us, these distinctions are vestigial, for them, they are applied to almost everything in their ecosystem.
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The prepositions come in five varieties, describing being above something, under something, around something or in something and finally away from something. There is no before or after: That is expressed by saying something like “I here (to be), he here (to be), and the listener infers from context that the one happened before the other.
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Adjectives and adverbs are undifferentiated; they are universal modifiers and no distinction is made between a fast runner and running fast (or in the language “active verb fast.”
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A few examples might help.
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A standard statement might include first a subject, like the personal pronoun, “I,” followed by the object of the sentence followed by one of the two verbs. If you were to express a simple idea, such as “I throw the ball,” the sentence would be constructed as “I ball (active verb).” Or “I ball do.” The “I” is in the nominative case, the “ball” in the objective. The “do” or “act” is understood as something you do with the ball — which in context would most likely be understood as “throw.” The speaker might mimic the act of throwing, but this is not necessary. If you needed to express something else, such as “I sat on the ball,” you would have to express this with not only the sentence, but with gesture. “I ball (do)” and a short squatting gesture. Why you might want to sit on a ball, I don’t know.
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The other verb expresses both condition and essence — both the concepts that in Spanish are divided by “ser” and “estar.” To say “I am here,” the sentence would be built as “I here (to be).” “Here” is in the locative case. Other places would likewise be in the locative. “I river (to be).” There is no tense expressed. Again, tense is implied by context or by extension: “I river yesterday (to be).”
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Naturally, such a language can only be meaningful in a face-to-face encounter. The many gestural inflections cannot be captured in print or over a telephone. Neither of which, I hardly need to say, the Kandeian peoples do not have.
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When they were discovered by a passing tramp steamer in 1933, it is estimated there were perhaps 400 Kandeian speakers on the island. In the intervening time that number has dropped precipitously; there are now estimated to be under a hundred left, although a precise census has never been taken, in part because the Kandeians resist outside visitors, and in part because the island is so wild and overgrown, cross-country travel is extremely hazardous (ibid, Cooper and Schoedsack).
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I spent two years on the island in the late 1980s, studying the language and customs. I spoke with several family leaders — a position gained not by force or vote, but by assent — and they told me their stories and the stories of their ancestors. This raises another distinct quality of their language. When discussing everyday events, they speak in an ordinary pitch and volume, as you or I might. But when relating myth, they speak in a high pitch and with little inflection. They can revert back and forth with seemingly no difficulty as they interweave the mythic with the quotidian.
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This way of speaking also functions as a kind of subjunctive mood, as it is also used to express things that might not be, or might occur in the future. So, for the Kandeian, linguistically at least, the past — other than a personal past — and the future are equally mythic. In the middle, there is the lifetime remembrance of the speaker, which is taken as indicative rather than subjunctive; all else is relegated to myth, or a time that may have been or might become.
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The problems of rendering such a language in English should be manifest. When I translate the words of Ruthentay, leader of his family, I must interpret his meaning into English rather than literally translate. Certainly this is the case when translating from any language to another; the problems of turning Tolstoy into readable English is well known. But with the Kandeian Islander, this is raised to an exponential degree. I cannot just give the words Ruthentay speaks, but must render them as if they had been spoken in English. This distorts them in ways that break my heart, but it cannot be otherwise.
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In those cases where no English equivalent exists, as for certain food items of the Kandeian diet, I must use transliterations of the native words. I am sorry if this causes confusion but again, there seems no way around it.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

by Richard Nilsen

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“Constantinople is not Constantinople anymore…”
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That’s how the song goes. “Constantinople is now Istanbul…” etc. etc. for the rest of the tune. The change in name happened officially in 1926, although it took until the 1950s before the switch made it down to the level of a pop tune.
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This is hardly the first time that the city on the Bosphorus has switched identities. If we look in the rearview mirror, the city has been named Stamboul, Istanbul, Constantinople, Islambol, Constantinople (again), Byzantium, Nova Roma, Augustina Antonina, Byzantium (again) and, according to Pliny the Elder, was first founded as the city of Lygos by Thracian immigrants in 13th or 11th century B.C.E.
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Besides the official names, there are the names the city was known by in other languages and cultures. For instance, the Vikings called it Miklagarth or “Big Wall.” It is Tsargrad (or “Caesar City”)  in old Slavic languages (and remains so in Bulgarian). To the Persians, it was Takht-e Rum, or “Throne of the Romans.” In Medieval Spain, it was Kostandina. And in old Hebrew, it was Kushta.
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During the Ming Dynasty in China, the city was Lumi, but in the Qing Dynasty it was Wulumu, or alternately, Gongsidangdinebole. That’s a mouthful. In modern Pinyin Chinese, it is Yisitanbao, in which you can hear the echo of “Istanbul.”
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Ukraine wheat and flag

I bring this up, oddly, because Ukraine is so much in the news. When I was learning geography in grade school (another outdated name), it was “the Ukraine,” very much parallel to “the Argentine,” or “the Midwest.” A few years ago, the definite article was officially sent packing.
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The issue was born of history. In the 12th century, the city of Kiev dominated the trade routes from northern Europe to Constantinople and the region developed into a quasi-nation called the Kievan Rus. Later, the city of Moscow, to the north, grew stronger and became dominant.
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And so, there were two Russias and the larger, ruled by Moscow, acquired the name “Russia,” and the lesser became known as “Little Russia,” or Malaya Rossiya, or, for short, Mala Rus.
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(Excuse this oversimplification of history. This is not even the Cliff Notes version of Russian and Ukrainian history and leaves out a whole lot, but I hope gives the gist of what goes on with the naming of the spot on the globe. I have not even begun to mention the Tatars.)
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To continue: With Muscovite Russia taking over, what was called Little Russia was seen as a kind of borderland between Russia and Poland. A “buffer zone.” Russia has always been obsessed with buffer zones. By the most commonly accepted etymology, “Ukraine” means “borderland.” And hence, the definite article. The Ukraine: The Borderland.
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As a digression — Piotr Illich Tchaikovsky wrote six symphonies. The three final ones are huge, grand statements and a bulwark of the symphonic repertoire. The first three are lesser works. His second symphony is known as the “Little Russian” symphony. Many people have assumed it was a smaller symphony that was somehow Russian. But it is named for the composer’s use of Ukrainian folk tunes in the music. Hence: “Little Russian.”
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Back to the story. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Ukrainian nationalism, there was a backlash against any idea that their nation was the little brother and popular sentiment abhorred the older idea of Little Russia. They resented the popular image that they were the hicks and hillbillies of the Steppes. And they equally it hurt their national pride that they were merely a borderland between other, more important powers.
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The country also has a more recent beef with their former overlords. Through the first half of the 20th century, Ukraine was devastated by Soviet    policy. In the 1930s, untold millions were starved to death by Stalin. Later, untold millions were killed by Hitler. This sorry story is recounted brilliantly in Timothy Snyder’s 2010 book, Bloodlands. Grim but important reading.
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And so, once they were independent, in 1991, they asked the world to drop the article in their name, and on Dec. 3 of that year, the Associated Press officially changed the style and asked newspapers to use “Ukraine” and no longer “the Ukraine.”
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I remember when that happened. I was working at The Arizona Republic; it was a small footnote to that year. The AP frequently updates its stylebook, but the loss of the “the” struck me at the time as kind of ugly. Linguistically, I liked the distinction the nation had as an outlier. I have always liked language anomalies.
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Sorry. I keep getting distracted. So, after the Russian annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Russian-ish troops into eastern Ukraine, the leader of the separatist movement and head of the self-proclaimed state of Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Sakharchenko, proposed renaming his portion of the Ukraine as Malarus, or “Little Russia,” to acknowledge his allegiance to the idea of a single grand Rus. The idea went nowhere; even the Russian-leaning populace wanted to distance themselves from the old idea of “little brother.”
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We have a habit, probably hard-wired into our evolution, of thinking of the world as static, as a given. We may change, we may age, we may marry and divorce, but the land we live on is permanent. It is not.
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Not only are nations and borders constantly shifting, but rivers change course, mountains lose half their height overnight (Mt. St. Helens or  Vesuvius). You can find on the internet several YouTube animations demonstrating the wiggling, shifting borders of nations over the past thousand years. Poland notoriously rolls around like mercury on a plate. Even after World War II, the whole of Poland lifted up its skirts and moved 200 miles to the west.
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Western Europe 1300-1900

But for our purpose here, it is the names of places that I want to point out. They change constantly. Either because the old name has demeaning connotations, or because of political change, or the splitting up of ethnic portions of a once-single nation, or the rising linguistic influence of a powerful imperialist neighbor.
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So, not only has the Ukraine become Ukraine, but Peking has become Beijing; Bombay is now Mumbai; Upper Volta became Burkina Faso. Cambodia turned to Kampuchea, but then went back. Burma tried on Myanmar and is now loosening up to be Burma again. But Rangoon is pretty secure as Yangon.
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As political influence shifts, names come in and out of circulation. Where Germany and Poland contend, you sometimes have both names, such as Danzig and Gdansk, Stetin and Szczecin, or Auschwitz and Oswiecim.
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Czechoslovakia is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Mapmakers must go crazy trying to keep up.
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Even in Ukraine, Kiev is changing to Kyiv.
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Persia became Iran in 1935; the Kingdom of Hejaz and Nejd became Saudi Arabia in 1932; Abyssinia turned into Ethiopia in 1941; Siam became Thailand in 1949.
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One of my favorites — In 1384, the Duchy of Brabant became Burgundian Netherlands; a century later, it became Habsburg Netherlands. Give another hundred years and it became Spanish Netherlands. In 1713, it became Austrian Netherlands followed in 1815 as the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, only to turn a few years later into what we now know as Belgium. There is a bubbling separatist movement that may turn the whole thing back into two countries: Wallonia and Brabant, bringing full circle.
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Utah was once called Deseret. Kolkata was once Calcutta. St. Petersburg became Petrograd became Leningrad became St. Petersburg once again.
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I don’t think even Ovid could have kept up with all the shifting identities.
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Bechuanaland is Botswana; Basutoland is Lesotho; Ceylon is Sri Lanka; British Honduras is Belize; Dahomey is Benin; Madras is Tamil Nadu; Londonderry is Derry. Russia itself went through a cataclysmic shirt to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to the Russian Federation and back to good ol’ Russia.
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Joseph Stalin kept the commissars humming. The city of Tsaritsyn was renamed in his honor as Stalingrad. But genocidal dictators come and go, and now the city is Volgograd. Dushanbe in Tajikistan was changed to Stalinabad in 1929 to honor Uncle Joe, and was de-Stalinized later, returning it to Dushanbe. Of course, the man history knows as Stalin wasn’t born that way; he was originally Iosep Besarionis dze Jughashvili.
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I could go on listing name changes. Illyricum in the Roman Empire was Yugoslavia during the Cold War and has since shattered into various entities, forming and reforming now into Slovenia, Croatia, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro. Give it time and the region will certainly transform again.
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The point of all this is that the world is dynamic. Our sense of it is static, but the reality is constantly shifting. When I hear politicians rail on about national sovereignty or diplomatic recognition for rogue states, I turn my head and blush for them. It is all just snakes in a bucket, over time, wriggling and writhing. New York was once New Amsterdam; Oslo used to be Christiania; Guangdong was first known to us as Canton.
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Nothing stays the same. It is always changing. Tempus fugit. Everything fugit.
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Even Regina, Saskatchewan was once a town named Pile of Bones.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen

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Recently, filmmaker Martin Scorsese caused a bit of a kerfuffle by suggesting that perhaps superhero movies weren’t, strictly speaking, cinema. The backlash from the fanboy hordes was sharp, angry and, in simple terms, the equivalent of “OK, boomer.”
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He is behind the times, they say. He is trapped in a past and needs to get with the program.
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An old friend and former colleague of mine at the newspaper where I used to work defended Scorsese with a quote from something I wrote years ago. I hadn’t even remembered it. But it is to the point.
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I made a distinction that should be kept in mind: “Movies are about story; film is about how the story is told; and cinema is about what the story means.”
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Most audiences go to the theater for the story — nothing wrong with that, some of the best movies ever are all about story. I would hate to give up myThin Man movies, or my Claude Chabrol thrillers. Story is the foundation of film.
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When crotchety director Sam Fuller was asked what makes a good movie, he said, chomping his cigar, “A story.” And when pressed for what makes a good story, he said, “A story.” You can’t get any clearer than that.
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But in the past several decades, after a crowd of young directors have gone through film school, many films have become instead about how they are told. Take, for instance, Pulp Fiction, which shuffles several interrelated stories and proves Jean-Luc Godard’s famous dictum: “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”
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Or Christopher Nolan’s Memento, in which moves forward and backward in time simultaneously. Or The Blair Witch Project, which creates professionally the look of amateur film. Or 2014’s  Birdman, by Alejandro Iñárritu, which is filmed with the appearance of no editing.
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If you go to film school, you want to try out the toys.
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It may seem as if this tendency is new in Hollywood, but the fact is, most Alfred Hitchcock films are primarily about how they are made. He often set himself filmmaking problems and had a barrel of fun solving them, as when he shot an entire film in a lifeboat at sea, or in Rear Window, where everything is seen from a single room, or even Psycho, where he does the unthinkable and kills off his main character halfway through the film.
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He even anticipated Birdman (and the 2002 Russian Ark) by making Rope in 1948, which presents itself as one long single take. Hitchcock reveled in filmmaking for its own sake.
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In North By Northwest, he has a famous sequence in which Cary Grant is chased through a cornfield by a cropdusting plane. The scene makes no actual sense, and doesn’t logically fit into the story (if the bad guys wanted to kill him, there are lots easier ways to do it than to buzz him with a biplane). But Hitch wanted to shoot it and it is one of the most cinematic in the movie.
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But the type of film Scorsese was referring to is what I label “cinema,” that is, film used to explore questions of existence, to find meaning — or lack of — in life. The Marvel and DC movies he targeted have very little to do with real life; they are utter fantasy. The characters don’t do what actual humans might do; the plots focus on scenarios that are impossible by the laws of physics; and most awful: The world is divided into good guys and villains. Worse: super-villains, that odd concatenation of evil, paranoia and comic books, usually mixed with absurd technology (I’m talking about you, Doc Ock and Doctor No).
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Hannah Arendt, who wrote about the banality of evil, would have nothing to say about this parallel universe.
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Some movies, however, aim to explore the conditions of being human, films such as Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal, Federico Felllini’s La Dolce Vita, or Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Colors trilogy or Decalog.
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These films have sometimes been called “art films,” although to many, that implies unwatchability and pretension. But, like great books or classic music, rather it means not settling for the simple and conventional. To those of us who love such films, they are a joy and pleasure and spark the recognition that yes, this is the real world I know.
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These are films that hit deeply at what it all means, the great questions of life, the universe and everything. Roshomon, The Bicycle Thief, Exterminating Angel, The 400 Blows, Raging Bull.
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But I don’t mean to imply that films are simply one type or the other. An art film can have a story, and a crowd-pleaser at the multiplex can be told in innovative ways. In fact, almost all film dips into each well to one depth or another.
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Consider Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, which is a gripping story, told in unconventional ways that is also a deep dive into meaning of psychology, politics, power, love, and childhood. It does all three better than most films. And, as Pauline Kael famously said, it is “more fun than any other great movie.”
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Unless that movie is Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game, which has at its core the infinite wisdom of the truth: “Everybody has their reasons.”
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But it wasn’t movies I was meaning to talk about. Really, I meant to notice that this tripartite division is applicable to the other arts as well. In fact, it is a good way to consider them, so you aren’t asking the wrong questions when looking, hearing or watching something.
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A painting of a vase of flowers can be just a painting of a vase of flowers. It’s pretty enough. Watercolor societies all over regularly hold member exhibitions filled with very pretty flowers, very well painted, but their reason for existence is to be pretty, to decorate a home.
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But when Picasso paints a vase of flowers, the point is the way he paints them, whether as a Cubist image, or an abstract, or even, at times, a threatening monstrous vase of potential Audreys from a little shop of horrors. His paintings are beautiful, but never pretty.
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Consider, then, the frequent trope of 17th century Dutch flower paintings, where an utterly gorgeous bouquet is pictured with a few withered blossoms and several insects or snails ready to devour them. Sometimes, if the message isn’t clear enough, a human skull will be placed next to the vase as a memento mori. Vanitas, vanitas; omnia vanitas. Such paintings remind us of the shortness of life and the futility of ambition.
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Again, it doesn’t mean that the Dutch flowers aren’t beautiful; they are. But there is another layer of meaning behind them. They aren’t just a pretty face.
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Or take poetry. A poem may be simply an attractive image or thought. It may tell a story in verse, or illustrate a popular truism. But then there are poems that are just about the way they are written: The tricky layout of an e.e. cummings or the anagram poetry of George Herbert, or the odd-length lines of a Dylan Thomas drawing a diamond on the page.
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A villanelle or a sonnet or even a haiku is always in part about how it is written, as if it were a puzzle that the poet has carefully crafted for you. Even a limerick.
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Not every poem is an earthshaking revelation. But there is always a Paradise Lost or an Intimations Ode to remind us that the world is larger, more meaningful and reflect our part in it.
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A novel may be simply a story, the way Stephen King writes them, direct and with clear structure. Or they may be as James Joyce’s Ulysses, where the manner of its writing is central. Or, like Dostoevsky, it may tackle the big issues of life.
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Again, none of these does just the one thing, but each clearly emphasizes a different aspect. I suppose you could map it all out with a pie chart for each.
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Even in music, there are simple tunes (“chunes” as William Yeats used to call them). They can be pop songs, or dinner cassations by Mozart, but their only aim is to please.
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Then there is music that is about how it is written, which ranges from Haydn’s clever play with sonata form all the way to the dodecaphonic assemblages of Milton Babbitt, which have little expressive content and are entirely about their own construction.
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But swing the whole other way and you have Beethoven’s Ninth or Mahler’s Third, music that strives to, in Mahler’s formulation, “be like the world, it must contain everything.”
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In Wagner’s later operas, he certainly tried to explain the world and existence. Yes, much music is pleasant to listen to, but who with a human heart can hear the Liebestod without breaking down in recognition of his own ineluctable mortality, and worse, the loss of those we most dearly love.
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Igor Stravinsky once lied through his teeth and claimed that “music can express nothing,” but can you listen to Schubert’s C-major string quintet and not weep with depth of its sorrow?
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These three motives in art are everywhere, and We should be careful not to dismiss something because we assume it is trying to do something it is not. Roger Ebert often wrote about judging a movie by what it is aiming to do, not by what the critic wishes it did.
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Art can entertain; it can disturb; it can perplex. It can fulfill an expectation or subvert it. There are more colors than one. There is the story, how it is told and what it means.
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Q.E.D.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen
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Imagine nothing. Now, imagine that not even nothing exists, for after all, nothing is something. At the very least “nothing” implies its opposite, and I’m asking you to imagine a time before opposites are possible, before time is possible.
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Then, imagine a point, the way geometry defines a point, with no dimensions. This point is something. But it can exist for only a billion-trillionth of a second — although a second is something that doesn’t really exist yet. The word “yet” implies that a future does exist, however, and in that infinitesimal fraction of eternity the point — which is everything that exists or ever will exist — physicists tell us that the point “expanded,” although that word cannot adequately express the explosion. In fact, the universe ejaculated into both something and nothing. It gave rise to particles and antiparticles and we were off to the races.
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As it says in the Tao Te Ching, “Thus something and nothing produce each other.”
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Now, 13.799 billion years later, the universe is still expanding, ever faster and faster. And we are riding on one meager little mote in that great soup, called the planet Earth. Now, “nothing” is what exists between the bits of “something.”
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That is our Creation Myth.
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By calling it a myth, I am not implying it is not true, or not factual. Myth does not mean something is untrue, but means it is our way of comprehending what is beyond our actual understanding.
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Myth is our explanation to ourselves of something. It may be factual, it may be fantastical. It may be taken literally or it may be understood as metaphor. Either way, it is an approach to the comprehension of something too complex to be held in the mind any other way.
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A physicist may be able to put the math together and parse out the myth in non-mythic terms (I use the word “may” advisedly), but for the rest of us, we take it on faith that our creation myth is scientifically verifiable and therefore, factual. It is the myth we believe in, i.e., the story we take as true. (That it is true is irrelevant to its function as myth).
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We mistakenly tend to look on myth as something from the past: Zeus or Achilles, or Odin, or Indra fighting Vritra, or Quetzalcoatl, or the Chinese dragon. It is something we condescend to, having learned better. We know that thunder isn’t clouds crashing together. But such an attitude misunderstands myth and its function. We all live by myth, even now.
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There are things we do not or cannot understand. Either too complicated to grasp or just plain unknowable. We need a metaphor to help us come to grips with such things. Language cannot describe such things with the precision of a dictionary, but rather it has to fall back on not “what it is,” but “what is it like.” We tell a story.
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The Big Bang is our story. When we assume our superiority, we fail to understand that for most of us, we are relying on the argument from authority no less than the Middle Ages did. We must accept that the physicist knows what we merely accept. (I am making the assumption that a physicist has a more complete understanding than even an educated lay person).
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And since we cannot know every corner of relativity or quantum mechanics, we simplify it all into a comprehensible story. The Big Bang.
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I am not claiming what science has parsed out is false, but that our understanding as non-scientists is a mythological understanding, not a literal one. And for that matter, I doubt any scientist is conversant in all aspects of theory. Perhaps he or she has a good grasp on black holes, but how much has he or she published on quasars? Specialization is necessary for modern science, and even a scientist has to rely on the work of others.
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All of which takes me off point: Creation myth. There are so many of them, from the Chinese cosmic egg to the Mesopotamian butchery of the sea goddess Tiamat. The one we are most familiar with is that of Genesis.
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“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light.”
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We are so used to the organ tones of the King James translation that sometimes putting it into modern English takes away some of the majesty.
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“When God began creating the sky and earth, the earth was formless and empty.”
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A literal translation from the ancient Hebrew is even more peculiar: “When it all started up, and the gods were arranging the sky and the ground, When the earth was emptiness with darkness over the ocean, the wind of the gods hung over the face of the water. The gods said: ‘Let there be light,’ and light happened.” Yes, the word for God in Chapter 1 of the story is “Elohim,” which is plural.
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There are many believers who take this story literally, just as most of us take the Big Bang. For most of us, the Bible story is a story. If we had to stake our lives on it, we would defend physics and — even if we were Christian believers — accept that ancient Middle-Eastern poetry is just that.
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“Mythology opens the world so that it becomes transparent to something that is beyond speech, beyond words, in short, to what we call transcendence,” said scholar Joseph Campbell. The King James Genesis is transcendent poetry. But so is our story of the Big Bang.
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“The energies of the universe, the energies of life, that come up in the sub-atomic particle displays that science shows us, are operative. They come and go. Where do they come from? Where do they go? Is there a where?”
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Physicist Paul Dirac in 1930 imagined a where: Now called the “Dirac Sea,” it is an infinite XX of subatomic particles that exist beneath our visible world. An electron may pop up anywhere, as quantum physics has shown, and may disappear also. Where they come from, where they go is the Dirac Sea. Using the nautical term is another case of mythology making familiar what cannot be grasped otherwise.
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“The ultimate ground of being transcends definition, transcends our knowledge,” said Campbell. “When you begin to ask about ultimates, you are asking about something that transcends all the categories of thought, the categories of being and non being. True, false; these are, as Kant points out in The Critique of Pure Reason, functions of our mode of experience. And all life has to come to us through the esthetic forms of time and space, and the logical ones of the categories of logic, so we think within that frame.
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“But what is beyond? Even the word beyond suggests a category of thought. So transcendence is literally transcendent.”
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Vedic mythology has many creation stories, but the one most widely seen has the Brahman, or the ultimate ground of reality, as the source of all. However as it says in the Upanishads, the Brahman is just a word, and already it is a distortion of the ultimate, which is beyond words, beyond category, beyond comprehension. As Campbell says it, it has never been soiled by words.
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“Of all knowledge,” Campbell said. “In the Kena Upanishad, written back in the seventh century BC, it says very clearly, ‘that to which words and thoughts do not reach.’ The tongue has never soiled it with a name. That’s what transcendent means. And the mythological image is always pointing toward transcendence and giving you the sense of riding on this mystery.”
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So, we look at the Hubble image of a portion of the Eagle Nebula and have named it “The Pillars of Creation.” It is a transcendent image, and fills most of us with genuine awe. But of course, it is a photograph in false color: It would not look that way if seen by a human eye through a telescope. It is a myth. Again, I am not saying it is not true — even the false color is true in its way — it provides a way to see wavelengths that cannot register in a human eye, but are there nonetheless.
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But let us go back again to that bit before “something” and before “nothing” — those pairs of opposites.
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In his De Rerum Natura (“On  the Nature of Things”), the Roman writer Lucretius comes very close to both modern astrophysics and to quantum mechanics, although told in mythic terms rather than mathematical formula.
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For Lucretius, the universe has always existed. Nothing can be created from nothing, he wrote, nor can it be destroyed — anticipating the conservation of matter and energy. But the universe originally was an undifferentiated mass of atoms, all traveling in straight lines — anticipating Newton’s First Law of Motion — but oddly the atoms had an irrational  tendency to “swerve.” This unaccounted divergence of the atoms’ direction led them to bump into each other, to make concentrations of matter in some localities and voids of matter in others — very like the astrophysicists’ explanation of how the cooling of the Big Bang led to unequal distribution of matter in the early universe through density fluctuations.
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Before anything, there was Chaos. We should not be fooled by modern science’s version of Chaos Theory. It that, chaos is just something so complex it cannot be predicted by mathematical formula. But mythological Chaos is something else again: It is before the organization of “categories of thought.” It is to order what eternity is to time. Not unordered as beyond any idea of order. Chaos can only be understood mythologically. It cannot be described either in words or algebra.
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Percy Shelley called it “the intense inane,” where “inane” has its original meaning, not of insipidity but of the terrible void. Latin “inanis.”
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My favorite Creation myth is found in the opening of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “Before sea or land, before even sky which contains all, Nature wore only one mask — since called chaos. A huge agglomeration of upset. A bolus of everything — but as if aborted. And the total arsenal of entropy already at war within it. No sun showed one thing to another, no moon played her phases in heaven. No earth spun in empty air on her own magnet, no ocean basked or roamed on the long beaches.
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“Land, sea, air, were all there but not to be trodden, or swum in. Air was simply darkness. Everything fluid or vapor, forms formless, each thing hostile to every other thing: At every point hot fought cold, moist dry, soft hard, and the weightless resisted weight.
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“God, or some such artist as resourceful, began to sort it out. land here, sky there, and sea there. Up there, the heavenly stratosphere. Down here, the cloudy, the windy. He gave to each its place, independent, gazing about freshly. …
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“He rolled earth into a ball. Then he commanded the water to spread out flat, to life itself into waves according to the whim of the wind, and to hurl itself at the land’s edges. … Hardly had he, the wise one, ordered all this than the stars, clogged before in the dark huddle of Chaos, alit, glittering in their positions.”
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— I.e., The Pillars of Creation.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons

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