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by Richard Nilsen
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And then what happened?
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It’s the essence of story. What happened next? Turn the page to find out. Then the next page; then the next. The author who can make you turn the page has a special talent.
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This is a talent that can often be belittled. It is not the virtue of the “literary novel.” You don’t read James Joyce’s Ulysses for the plot. But you don’t read Stephen King for the elegance of his sentences. You read for the story. You turn the damn page.
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It is a talent that I have come to admire, perhaps mostly because I do not possess it. I remember, some several years ago, I was in a book store and while moving among the Classical authors and the Library of America sections, finding a slim volume of James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. The Michener I knew wrote doorstop tomes like Hawaii, Centennial, Alaska and Chesapeake. They were big, commercial enterprises, designed from floor level up to be best-sellers. I grandly dismissed him as a hack.
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But I opened Tales of the South Pacific and thought I’d peruse a page or two to see what Michener’s style was like,

perhaps to gather ammunition to make fun of him. A page or two. I didn’t need much. But some time later, I awoke to find myself standing among the shelves, oblivious to my surroundings, on page 27, flipping them over one after the other without even recognizing that I was sinking deeper and deeper into the story. What happens next? I had fallen into the narrative. He pulled me along like rapids on a river.

 

And I realized, there is a kind of genius to the ability to tell a story.
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I had often made fun of Stephen King. He is not an elegant writer. His sentences are often choppy, awkward and even simple-minded. But, geez, he can tell a story.
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King has made the argument himself that in the past, authors made their reputations on the ability to tell stories. We respect Charles Dickens as a classic, but in his day, he wrote potboilers that were enormously popular with those who wanted to know “what happens next?” King argued that the plot-driven novel should be better valued — and of course, that meant King’s own oeuvre.
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It has been 15 years since King was given a lifetime achievement award by the National Book Awards and gave an acceptance speech scolding academic writers and critics for failing to recognize the importance of story in literature. Those writers and critics did not take it well.
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Harold Bloom — the most erudite and ponderous of critics — complained, “The decision to give the National Book Foundation’s annual award for ‘distinguished contribution’ to Stephen King is extraordinary, another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life. … What he is is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis.”
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And compared with Joyce, or Flaubert, or Laurence Sterne, this is certainly true. Sentence by sentence, King can be clumsy. But he makes you turn the page. An hour later, you are a hundred pages in, and you don’t remember the time passing.
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As I said, this is a talent not to be sniffed at. Dickens had it; Victor Hugo had it; Henry Fielding had it. Jane Austen had it. What happens next?
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When film director Sam Fuller was asked what makes a good movie, he said: “A story.” Pressed, then, for what makes a good story, he said, with no hesitation, “A story.” He meant it.
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Why should we care? Beads on a string; beads on a rosary, we move from one to the next, chapter follows chapter, sentence follows sentence. What happens next?
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I don’t want to downplay the role story plays in simply keeping us entertained. From the earliest tales told in the cave around a fire to our uncle’s redoubtable blow-by-blow of the fish that got away, a tale fills the hours after work and before sleep. But there are other ways to fill that time.
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And there is the window that fiction gives us on the workings of minds other than our own. They can foster compassion and a wider understanding of the world. A really good character can persuade us they are real: Ask all those Sherlock Holmes fans who visit his “address” in London.
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As Shelley puts it in his Defence of Poetry, “A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own.”
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A good story gives us those pains and pleasures. We internalize them and enlarge ourselves in the process.
But entertainment and empathy are byproducts of story. The power of narrative is found, I believe, in the very fact of one thing leading to another. The story itself is the hold it has over us.
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Consider: We live in a world of simultaneity — a chaotic chorus of seven billion human things happening at once in an infinity of extra-human activity. The world is a constant buzz, incoherent. If we listen to it all, it is white noise, undifferentiated.
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Yet, we live within ourselves as a single quiet stream surfing on the buzz. From birth to death, we understand ourselves to be a single thread, beginning, middle, end. We reassure ourselves that our stream is, indeed, coherent by comparing it with another stream: a story. If a tale being told, a novel being read, a TV show being watched is coherent, perhaps we are, too. This runs contrary to the latest findings of neurobiology, but it is as deeply embedded in our psyches as anything. Coherent narrative is how we make sense of chaos.
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“There is one story and one story only that will prove worth your telling,” wrote Robert Graves, but Graves was a crackpot. And yet, there is something in it: The one story is that of birth, life and death. Yet, it is the multiplicity of that story that reassures us. All that chaos can be combed out, like tangled hair, into parallel strands: Your story, your spouse’s story, Odysseus’s story, Humbert Humbert’s story, Carrie Mathison’s story — all laid out side by side to show that the singular flow, all in one direction, like the rosary beads told one after another, backs up our claim to the way we understand time, ourselves and our existence.
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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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As I write this, I am listening to Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It is not only profoundly beautiful, it is deeply moving. It speaks both of death and loss, of pain both physical and emotional and yet is also overwhelmingly comforting. It would be hard to find another work of art that says so much about what it means to be human.
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It makes me remember Paul Gauguin’s painting, D’où Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous? (“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”) at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
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The painting’s title asks essential questions, questions central to our occupation of our skins. In some form, these are questions we all come to ask of ourselves, and whether we answer in some philosophical terms, or simply by living the life we do, we cannot avoid them: In a sense, trying to avoid them is answering them.
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I mention that because the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point has proposed eliminating majors in humanities. In this, they have joined several other colleges and universities, including Indiana State University, Edinboro University, the University of Southern Maine, Boise State University, Rider University, Western Illinois University, even the University of North Carolina. Some have already axed majors, some are floating the proposals under the guise of making universities function more like business.
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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker offered his rational, proposing to change the state education code from requiring the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and now requiring them to “meet the state’s workforce needs.”
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How could we have gone so far astray?
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A certain class of politician has coopted the conversation. For them, all questions are economic questions. This seems odd, because, of course, in the past, the Republicans were so big on “values.” Now, however, the only value they seem to comprehend is financial value. All their policy decisions seem based on the acquisition of money — and the belief that this view is universally held, and English majors are just losers in the big zero-sum game.
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In an odd way, the irony of which they would not understand, they have become Marxists. It almost makes me laugh, or at least grin sheepishly. While in the past, these same politicians waxed elegant about values — god, country and family — all they seem to be able to address now is taxes, jobs, and keeping immigrants from taking our jobs.
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But where did those values come from, in the first place?
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A job, per se, does not make life worth living. It may make it possible, or at least easier, but it cannot make it worth the while. It takes an inner life to do that. One has to think and feel, absorb the world and understand the thoughts and feelings of others. This is exactly what the humanities are all about.
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Novelist Francine Prose (who is my age) noted in The Guardian, “Studying the classics and philosophy teaches students where we come from, and how our modes of reasoning have evolved over time. Learning foreign languages, and about other cultures, enables students to understand how other societies resemble or differ from our own.”
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She also questions the motives of those politicians, both national and local, who wish to suppress the humanities in favor of vocational training for a work force.
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“Is it entirely paranoid to wonder if these subjects are under attack because they enable students to think in ways that are more complex than the reductive simplifications so congenial to our current political and corporate discourse?”
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This is not a plea to axe STEM majors and block replace them with courses on moral philosophy, Milton’s prosody and the history of the Ottoman Empire, but rather to realize that they must all be integrated into a single tree of knowledge. Science and literature are both not only important, but vital.
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Those of you who knew the late Dimitri Drobatschewsky may remember that when he was a child in a musical family in Berlin between the wars, Albert Einstein would come over to his house to sit in playing string quartets with Dimitri’s father, mother and brother.
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Dimitri would sometimes quote Friedrich Nietszche, who said, “Life without music would be a mistake.”
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Or physicist Richard Feynman, who played the bongo drums and loved samba.
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Or, when Robert Oppenheimer reacted to the first nuclear blast in the New Mexico desert, he responded with a quote from the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” It was poetry that expressed his emotions.
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When Gauguin talked about his magnum opus, spread out like a movie screen, 12-feet wide, showing the course of life from birth to death, he refused to explain his allegory: “Explanations and obvious symbols would give the canvas a sad reality and questions asked would no longer be a poem.”
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Many of us have a poem that speaks most directly to our insides, perhaps two, perhaps more. For me, those poems are Wordsworth’s “Intimations Ode,” and Chaucer’s Trouthe. I read them over and over, and especially at times of distress or emotional trauma. The poetry expresses something larger than the words mean directly. They resonate and make our psyches into soundboards.
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STEM and humanities are not opposites; they complement each other. Teaching our children trigonometry and physics without feeding their inner lives at the same time reminds me of the time I was invited to the home of an acquaintance where the walls were entirely bare of art or any decoration — not even an Olan Mills store-bought portrait of the kids. The house felt chill and empty. Like the vacuum of space.
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Finally, I hesitate to defend humanities on simply practical grounds — that it makes us think more clearly, opens our minds to things we knew not of, informs our decisions as citizens, makes graceful our lives.
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I would rather make the case that learning — all learning, whether science or history or literature or mathematics — makes us more interesting to ourselves.
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When I went to college, in 1966 — more than a half a century in the rear-view mirror — I never considered whether my degree would prepare me for a job. Never entered my mind. No, I went to college with the hunger and avidity of someone who wanted to learn, who wanted to know everything. My first semester of my freshman year, I signed up for 23 credit hours; I would have signed up for 40 if they would have let me. I took classes in the widest range of disciplines: Shakespeare; the ancient Greek language; astronomy; the history of India.
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I know I am preaching to the choir here. Those who have signed up for Spirit of the Senses have that same kind of curiosity and come to lectures on everything from how bees think to current politics in Europe to Homer’s Odyssey. And that is just this month.
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Learning is its own reward; considering it as leverage to ensure employment is at best misguided, and at worst, shallow.
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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 Nilsesn
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What do cows in India, Mexican bugs and Egyptian mummies have in common?
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If you said, “Rembrandt,” give yourself a cigar.
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Most of us, when think of color, think in the abstract. Color is the spectrum or the rainbow. Or the deciding factor in which car we buy. We think we know what “blue” means, or “yellow,” but that doesn’t say what blue or what yellow. Just an abstract approximation.
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But for an artist, color is pigment, and pigment is ornery, peculiar and sometimes toxic, sometimes distressing, even morally questionable.
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Poet William Carlos Williams wrote in his book-length Paterson, “No ideas but in things.” It was the total anti-Platonic declaration of faith in the here-and-now, the lumpy, gritty, quotidian things we can feel with our fingers or stub our toe with. I paraphrase his dictum with “No color but in things.” This is not abstract, but palpable.
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A painter cannot simply decide on green or yellow, but on what pigment that paint is made from. Each acts in its own way, mixes with others differently, dilutes differently, requires a different thinner, binder or medium, displays varying levels of permanence, transparency and glossiness. The painter cannot think in abstract hues, but in the actuality of the physical world. Hands in the mud, so to speak.
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ochre pit

The earliest pigments were dug from the earth or sifted from the cook-fire: Ochres and soot. The caves of France and Spain were painted with these pigments. They had to be worked into submission by the artist, grinding, mixing, adding medium and binder. His — or her (we cannot know for sure) — hands got dirty in the process. There was a smell to it, fresh loamy smell or the acrid residue of the hearth. There was a feel, gritty or pulverized, oily, or smudgy like moist clay.

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So, until the mid-19th century, all paints were made from the things of this world. Soils and rocks, plants and snails. Each pigment had its idiosyncrasies and those had to be reckoned with when mixing them or placing them side-by-side. None was pure, save, perhaps, the blackness of soot.
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Then, in 1856, an 18-year-old chemist named William Henry Perkin, trying to find a cure for malaria, found instead a new, synthetic purple dye — the first aniline dye. He called it “mauve,” or “mauveine.”
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A decade later, the German chemists Carl Graebe and Carl Liebermann, working for BASF, synthesized alizarin crimson, making an artificial pigment that matched the natural alizarin dye that had been extracted from the madder plant. It was the first color created from an element of coal tar — a byproduct of turning coal into coke.
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Apres moi, le deluge” — Since then, there has been a flood of synthetic colors, all devised in the laboratories of giant corporations. There are the aniline dyes, the azo dyes, the phthalocyanine dyes, diazonium dyes, anthraquinone dyes — a whole chemistry lab of new industrial color. Many of these new dyes and pigments were brighter and purer of hue and more permanent (not all: the new chrome yellow that Vincent Van Gogh used developed a tendency to turn brown).
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Nowadays, even oil and acrylic paints with traditional names, such as burnt umber and ultramarine are likely to be produced industrially using chemical derivatives. But that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that Rembrandt or Michelangelo had to arrive at their paints through laborious and time-consuming processes.
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Most pigments came to the artist’s atelier in the form of a rock or a sediment. It had to be ground down to a powder, a process normally done by an apprentice — basically an intern: “Bring me a latte, a bearclaw and the powdered cinnabar.” Being ground to a grit wasn’t enough; the poor apprentice sometimes had to spend days with the pigment between grinding stone and levigator or muller, working it into pulverized paste that could be mixed with a binder and medium and finally used by the artist on canvas.
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It wasn’t until the advent of the industrial revolution and the invention of a pigment-grinding machine in 1718, that the tedious work of pigment making became doable in large quantities. And it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that prepared paints, sold in zinc tubes, made it possible for artists to buy portable paints they could carry out into the countryside to paint in the open.
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But we should not forget the sometimes ancient origins of the paints used for the canvasses of the Renaissance, the Baroque — the Old Masters. This is where the Indian cows, the Mexican bugs and the Egyptian mummies come in.
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First, let’s look at a few of the standard paint-sources from this pre-industrial age. Many of them have wonderful and memorable names, now largely gone out of use.
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Bice — Is a dark green-blue or blue-green pigment made from copper carbonates, primarily the mineral azurite, sometimes malachite. Lightened, it was often used for skies.
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Carmine — This is the Mexican bug I mentioned above. The cochineal scale insect grows on certain cactuses in Central and South America. It is a bright violet- to deep-red color. The Aztecs called it “nocheztli,” which means “tuna blood,” and dyed the tunics of Aztec and Inca royalty.
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Cinnabar — A scarlet red form of mercury sulfide and highly poisonous, it was mined in Europe, Asia and the New World and was used also for cosmetics and medicine — hardly a wise use. See also: Vermilion.
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Crimson — Before the Conquista, a European scale insect, growing on the kermes oak, provided a red dye. It was less efficiently grown and produced than the cochineal of Mexico, and so was replaced. Michelangelo used it in his paint.
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Dragon’s blood — Mentioned in a First-Century Roman travel guide (a periplus), it is a maroon-red pigment made from the sap of various plants, most notably theDracaena cinnabari. Medieval sources wrote that it was made from the blood of actual dragons.
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Gamboge — A yellow pigment formed from the sap of the Cambodian gamboge tree (genus Garcinia). Coincidentally, the name comes from the Latin name for Cambodia.
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Orpiment

Orpiment — A bright yellow pigment gathered from volcanoes and hot springs and is a highly poisonous compound of arsenic and was once used as an insecticide and to tip poison arrows. It was traded as far back as the Roman empire. Its name is a corruption of the latin auripigmentum or “gold pigment.”

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Madder — Another dye that goes as far back as ancient Egypt, it is a violet to red color extracted from the Rubia tinctorum and related species, plants that grows on many continents, and in southern France is called garance — for those of you who love the great French film Les Enfants du Paradis. It is turned into a pigment from a dye by the process known as “laking,” and so often encountered as madder lake.
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Minium — Also known as red lead, this orange-red pigment was commonly used in Medieval illuminated manuscripts. It was made by roasting oxidized lead in the air to form lead tetroxide.
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Sepia — a dark brown to black dye and pigment extracted from various species of squid. Most popular as an ink, it has also been used for oil paint.
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Smalt — First used in ancient Egypt, it is a cobalt oxide use to color glass a deep blue. The glass is then ground into a powder used as a pigment.

Bottled smalt

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Tyrian purple — This is the purple of the Roman emperors, and is extracted from a mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of a predatory sea snail found in the eastern Mediterranean. It was worth its weight in silver and it might take 12,000 snails to produce enough dye for a single garment.
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Ultramarine — The ultimate blue, made from the mineral lapis lazuli, found almost exclusively in Afghanistan, which, for Europeans, was “beyond the (Mediterranean) sea” or “ultra-marine.” The process of making the pigment from the mineral was complex and the final color was so highly prized, and so expensive, that its use had to be expressed in the contract commissioning a painting by Renaissance artists, less they use some less costly, and less glorious blue.
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Verdigris — A green pigment formed by copper carbonate, chloride or acetate. It is the patina on the Statue of Liberty, but in oil paint, it has the odd property of being initially a light blue-green and turning, after about a month into a bright grass green.
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Vermilion — First synthesized in China in the fourth century BCE, the bright red is mercuric sulphide and depending how well powdered it has been ground produces hues from orangey-red to a reddish purple that  one writer compared to “fresh duck liver.” It is also produced by grinding cinnabar. The finer the grinding, the brighter the red. Painter Cennino Cennini in his 15th century Craftsman’s Handbook wrote: “If you were to grind it every day for 20 years it would simply become better and more perfect.” It is also highly poisonous, but was the most common red in painting until it was replaced in the 20th century by cadmium red.
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Viridian — A darkish blue-green pigment, a hydrated chromium oxide, popularized by Venetian painter Paolo Veronese.
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You will have undoubtedly noticed how many of these pigments were poisonous. It has certainly been suggested that Van Gogh’s madness may have been caused by his habit of tipping his brushes with his spit.
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The most common toxic color through history was white, which was most often lead carbonate, or flake white, aka lead white. It was easy to manufacture by soaking sheets of lead in vinegar for weeks at a time and scraping the resulting white powder off the surface of the metal. Flake white was a wonderful, opaque and brilliant white pigment. Unfortunately, it could kill, blind or make mad those who used it. Even today, older houses have sometimes to be de-leaded of their original paint in order to be sold legally. Children are especially vulnerable.
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A substitute for white lead was looked for. Zinc white — an oxide of zinc — was tried, but was not as opaque or as white. Nowadays, titanium white is used, safer and nearly as good a pigment.
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Turner’s ‘Tegnmouth Harbour’ is painted with Indian yellow”

But, as I said at the top of this article, some of the old pigments were not only dangerous, but morally questionable.
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Ivory black — made from elephant ivory, and essentially ivory charcoal, it is (or was) an intense black pigment. Nowadays, it is most often made from bones, as bone black, aka Mars black.
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Indian yellow — A pigment brought to Europe from the east, it was described as being made by feeding cows solely on mango leaves, which made their urine an intense yellow, which was then evaporated into a sludge, dried and sold. The cattle were severely malnourished by this diet, and the practice outlawed. There are those who doubt this explanation of the pigment, but no one doubts the strong stench of the bolus. It is no longer made.
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Mummy brown — A bituminous brown, made from ground-up Egyptian mummies, both human and feline. Popular from the 16th century, it was good for “glazes, shadows, flesh tones and shading.” In the 19th century, the supply of Egyptian mummies was so great that in England, they were used as fuel for steam locomotives. But when the actual origin of the pigment became widely known, a moral repugnance swept England and the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones was horrified to find out what he was using, “and when he heard what his brown was made of, he gave all his tubes of this color a decent burial” in his garden.
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Makes you look at all those rich, warm browns in Rembrandt with a slightly different eye.
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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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If you have ever stood out on the rear deck of a ship at night, you might see in the dark water a bright wake, illuminated from within, almost like the mirror image of the Milky Way over your head. It is the glow of millions or billions of microscopic dinoflagellates who are churned by the propeller into producing bioluminescent light, much like the light of a firefly. It is a stunning thing to see: A long line of radiance behind your vessel drifting back into the horizon.
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And so our past recedes from our moving present and the glow is memory — the wake of our selfhood.
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I recently got an e-mail from an old friend, who raised a question he had asked our former colleague:
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“I asked Sal, or prompted him, about why memories seem so powerful. Even though I’m not a person who sees the past through totally rose-colored glasses, point-memories from childhood — and even as ‘late’ as the early ‘80s — now, can elicit a kind of rapt attention when I recall them.
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 “Sal e-mailed me back that it was because the ‘air was suffused with possibility,’ or, as I erroneously remembered his remark, the ‘air tingled with possibility.’ Makes me think of the time-space foam from which the universe burst forth like Athena from the head of Zeus, according to some cosmologists.”
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The more I thought on this, the more I came to believe Sal had it exactly backwards. Those early memories that seem so indelible and so fraught with meaning have that permanence and power not because of the open path ahead, but because they are the bedrock on which we build our “selves” — our sense of who we are; the terms of the definition we write about our inner identities. Those early memories are the bricks on which we construct the foundation of our being.
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As such, these memories are not simply recollections of temps perdu, but the parts-box from which we take the walls and hinges of the edifice we build, that is our personality, our personhood.
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What my friend was calling “point-memories,” are something I recognize for myself, and I believe most people have such memories. They are not merely scenarios replayed in our minds, but aggregations of event and emotion. Not just what happened, but how we feel about what happened.
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From the memories, we pick and choose, perhaps unconsciously, and construct a story, which we take to be the essence of who we are, but the self is more than a coherent narrative. The self is that singularity, that dimensionless point, as in geometry, that is the center of consciousness, with no dimensions of its own, but that, again as in geometry, can generate a line, which can generate a plane, which can generate a third dimension which exists in the fourth dimension of time.
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But however distinct, however vivid and indelible, memory alone cannot define selfness. Selfhood comes in layers.
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In the beginning, as it says in the Vulgate, “in principio,” the self is the object of stimulus; poke it with a stick and it flinches, like a sensitive plant or a clam.
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It is the dimensionless point behind the eyes that sees, between the ears that hears, that tastes, feels, smells. For John Locke, it is the tabula rasa upon which life will write its book.
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But, as Steven Pinker demonstrates in his book, The Blank Slate, we enter this world with baggage. “Individuals differ in personality and intelligence,” he says. The genetic inheritance governs just how we react to these stimuli. We may be inherently grumpy, or suspicious, or happy, or simple-minded, and that humor colors the incoming sensations.
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I grew up at a time when we were taught, “It is all cultural.” It was dogma that we begin at birth absolutely empty, and life begins filling us up, shaping us into the vessels we become. It was an orthodoxy that allowed for the eventual perfectibility of humanity and society. But science has shown it just isn’t so.
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This was brought home to me with a thunderclap when after 40 years, I re-met my son, the child of divorce, who I hadn’t seen since he was less than a year old. There had been no contact between us; I doubt he knew who I was. But when I saw him again, finally, as an adult, he was wearing the same kind of clothes I wore when I was his age, the same kind of eyeglasses; he read the same kind of books; he spoke in front of crowds about movies — something I have often done — and, the clincher: In his home office, scattered with books and music and movies, just like my home office, there was a world globe turned upside down so that Antarctica was on top. In my home office back in Phoenix, there was a world globe turned so Antarctica was on top.
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It was as if we were subatomic particles linked across the universe in a kind of quantum entanglement. The only explanation was in the genes we shared.
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But this combination of the stimulus-reaction colored by innate tendencies does not yet create a self. That comes with the recognition that there is an entity that is doing the reacting. It is me. I am seeing, I am hearing, I am touching. Ego est (pronounce it as if it were a fast breakfast food: Eggo). An infant at first does not seem to distinguish between himself and the rest of his environment. But at some point, the division between self and world becomes fixed; the skin becomes a physical barrier of the psychic separation.
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From this point, we begin accruing the memories, the continuous barrage of stimuli, that eventually create our backstory and personality. This is the glowing wake we can see from the taffrail. This trail of memory is what many take for the self. It is necessary but not sufficient.
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What has fascinated me is how baroque and prodigious memory can be. Some years ago I took to writing an autobiography, not for publication, but for sharing with my brothers. I asked them to do the same for me, so we might catch up on the parts of our lives after we separated and went away to college, took up jobs and wives. What I discovered was that every memory I examined was connected to six others, and each of those to six more, and so on, almost endlessly, building up a past in vivid detail that I did not know I possessed. Each room I entered had six doors, and whichever door I chose to open gave me access to another room with another six doors. It was like a Borges library. There is a vastness inside our craniums. The stars of the night sky populate the inner dome of my skull as the ocean depths gurgle down around my amygdala. As in Andrew Marvell’s Garden: “The mind, that ocean where each kind/ does straight its own resemblance find,/ yet it creates, transcending these,/ far other worlds, and other seas;/ Annihilating all that’s made/ To a green thought in a green shade.”
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It is an old idea of Medieval thought, that everything in the world finds its reflection in the mind, one-for-one. As if every part of a life were still there, buried in the many dusty closets of my self.
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But, again, this midden of memory is not the whole story. We are not self-contained personality bubbles. The trace of memory cannot explain the wild idiosyncrasies of who we are. There are more layers.
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As we pass through life, we take on roles. I become a father, a grandfather, and these archetypes become part of my self. Husband, wife, boss, employee, student, teacher — they are all roles we don as if they were a suit of clothes. They may be imposed from the outside, but they become  internalized.
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Then, too, added to the mix of self must be considered the opinions of others, who see you through their eyes. If someone sees you as a dummy, you are apt to bumble, if they see you as cruel, it will either make you more so, or will challenge you to prove them wrong. Those you know, either intimately or casually, become part of your selfness.
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Finally, there is the cosmos. It can also define you. The time and place you are born in part governs who you are. The cosmos may give you a bad hand: It gives you a genetic disease, or you lose a leg in a car accident or a war. You could be a woman born into a society that stones women to death, or dropped into this planet during plague years. It all becomes part of who you are.
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Layer on layer. “Muchos somos,” as Pablo Neruda wrote. “De tantos hombres que soy, que somos,/ no puedo encontrar a ninguno:/ se me pierden bajo la ropa,/ se fueron a otra ciudad.”
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“Of the many men I am, who we are,/ I cannot find a single one;/ They are lost under my clothes,/ they’ve left for another city.”
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You keep adding to this self even as it begins to crumble. The older you are, the more complex your self, trying endlessly to make it cohere.  Until, ultimately, it all vanishes. As Herman Melville confessed to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne: “I have pretty much made up my mind to be annihilated” — the quintessence of dust blown from some very old book.
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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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Poet John Milton was born eight years before Shakespeare’s death, but soon after that point, the two have vied to take the lead in a Kentucky Derby deciding who is the greatest English poet of all time.
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Milton took an early lead, while Shakespeare faded in the stretch during the 17th century and into the early 18th, when Paradise Lost was assumed to be the greatest assemblage of words since Homer — even if many of them wer oddely spelt.
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It may be hard for us to accept this, now that Shakespeare has been apotheosized as “The Bard,” but there was a time when he wasn’t all that well thought of. After all, Shakespeare is all over the map, mixing high tragedy with fart jokes, and bouncing from scene to scene like an ADD patient on crystal meth. The taste of the time was for a play to remain in a single place for at least as long as it takes to actually act out the action required. Shakespeare was blamed for having trampled the so-called “classical unities.”
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And Shakespeare kept making up words, at least as much as Milton kept making up spellings.
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Things changed as the 18th century progressed as Shakespeare pulled neck-and-neck with the Puritan. Critics — especially Dr. Johnson — began to recognize the genius of the playwright, even as the versifiers of the age  continued to imitate the word inversions and obsolete poeticisms they inherited from the Miltonic high altar.
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What had been a stumbling block to earlier ages in the 19th century became a point of pride. Shakespeare spewed out metaphor like a spinning lawn sprinkler sprays water. Even if many of these metaphors were mixed. Shakespeare seemingly couldn’t write a sentence without throwing in an entire zoo of imagery into his garden of words.
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In contrast, Milton stuffed his lines with allusions to classical and biblical mythology — after all, if Shakespeare had little Latin and less Greek, Milton had read everything ever written in those languages and expected his readers had, also.
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If Shakespeare’s language was helter-skelter, all over the place, Milton adhered to a sense of order and rules, even if those rules were devised for the Latin grammar. The peculiar word orders in Milton came directly from the classical languages.
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“Him who disobeys me disobeys.” Such sentences backward read careful parsing require.
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The opening of Paradise Lost is a sentence that runs for seven lines, but doesn’t get to the verb until line 6.
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But you hear in the lines of Shelley or Keats, the reverb from Milton’s prosody. All the “e’en” and “e’er,” all the “thee” and “thine,’’ all the “dosts” and “lovests” are the echoes of Milton. You really could not have the opening of Shelley’s To a Skylark didst not Paradise Lost lead the way.
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“Hail to thee, blithe spirit! Bird thou never wert …”
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 A whole duffel of conventionalized wording provide the makings of poetic cliche throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Even Wordsworth, who tried to free himself from such to “speak the language of ordinary men,” could not quite abjure the gravitational pull of “It is not now as it hath been of yore.”
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Which brings us to the 20th century, when Milton finally lags in the final turn and Shakespeare pulls ahead by several lengths. T.S. Eliot placed the blame for three centuries of bad poetry at the metrical feet of John Milton. “Milton writes English as a dead language,” Eliot said.
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“Milton’s poetry could only be an influence for the worse, upon any poet whatever. It is more serious, also, if we affirm that Milton’s bad influence may be traced much farther than the 18th century, and much farther than upon bad poets: if we say that it was an influence against which we still have to struggle.”
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Or as critic John Middleton Murry wrote: “To pass under the spell of
Milton is to be condemned to imitate him. It is quite different with Shakespeare. Shakespeare baffles and liberates; Milton is perspicuous and constricts.”
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(Two things should be pointed out, one ironic: Eliot never said Milton was a bad poet, but that his influence was deplorable; and ironically, the same can be said for the influence of Eliot on the poetry of the century that followed him. An awful lot of awful undergraduate poetry can be blamed on Tom Eliot.)
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Which brings me to my prime point: Reputations rise and fall like tides. Consider poor Vincent Van Gogh, who sold only a handful of paintings during his life, and those for a pittance and most to relatives. Now, his work sells for many millions of dollars and he has become the iconic painter of the 19th century, as Picasso has for the 20th — although one notices that Picasso’s light has of late been partially eclipsed. More respect is paid to his name than love for his painting. One rides the waves.
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Reputations depend on the spiritus mundi, the Zeitgeist. Romantic ages value extravagance; more conservative ages value rules well followed. One age values clarity, another complexity. One values tradition, another innovation.
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One recalls that Giacomo Meyerbeer was the most famous composer in the world in the 1840s, but hardly anyone has even heard his name nowadays. William Cowper was more valued as a poet in England than Shelley was at the time. John Dryden was once considered the greatest English poet after Milton; no one reads him anymore, except for those writing dissertations. No one can read him; he is deadly.
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On the other hand, few people paid attention to John Donne as anything but a sermon writer in the 17th century. Now, he is considered one  of the prime poets of the English tradition. Gustav Mahler was derided as an out-of-control pasticheur and largely forgotten after his death in 1911. Now, orchestras program his music almost as often as the do Beethoven.
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And now John Milton, still valued by those who pick him up him and study him, has fallen into a trough of unreading. Hardly anyone takes the effort to walk through the high grass of his verse. Ours is an unheroic age, mistrustful of anything too grand, too aspirational. It is an age that looks at its feet as it walks.
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Yet, all the virtues of Milton’s verse is still there for anyone to see, feel and hear. It is a language of deep melody and incisive rhythm. The very word inversions that seem so out-of-date also give the poetry its heft, that sense that hearing Milton’s poetry is very like listening to the roar of a Bach  organ fugue in a cathedral. There is in it what Longinus called “the sublime.”
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“Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit/ Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast/ Brought Death into the World, and all our woe…”
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Yes, you have to ignore Milton’s heretical theology, and even if you are a believer, there are parts of Milton’s thought that will feel strange. But take the poem as a secular reader, imagine Raphael describing the universe as if he were describing the Big Bang, the racing orbs and spinning spheres circling the heavens, and you feel the size of the cosmos as you seldom do elsewhere. And, there is pathos in the fate of our Original Parents and those lines that end the epic can hardly be bettered for pure poetry and profound compassion.
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Loss is the universal human experience. It informs everything we do, every year we live. If we have not been pitched from Eden, we still face the plight that Eve and Adam faced. Being born is being spit out into a fallen world.
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“They looking back, all th’ Eastern side beheld/ Of Paradise, so late thir happie seat,/ Wav’d over by that flaming Brand, the Gate/ With dreadful Faces throng’d and fierie Armes:/ Som natural tears they drop’d but wip’d them soon;/ The World was all before them, where to choose/ Thir place of rest , and Providence thir guide:/ They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,/ Through Eden took thir solitarie way.”
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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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There is an experience that many well-read Americans have when they visit Paris. They head to the first patisserie and order up a small box of madeleines. The result of this purchase is universally the same: utter disappointment, because the madeleine of their imagination is rife with the magic of memory, the power invested in this tiny cookie by the words of Marcel Proust. In the most famous section of his seven-volume A la recherche du temps perdu, when Proust bit into one as an adult, the taste caused his childhood to flood back in an irrepressible wave of nostalgia.
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The disappointment these readers feel is caused by the fact that a madeleine is such an unimpressive morsel, a sponge of little flavor or texture. It is primarily used for soaking in a cup of sweetened tea — the way we dunk a plain donut into our morning coffee.  The madeleine itself is insipid and boring.
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Its magic for Proust was not in the eating, but in the association of the madeleine with his childhood. His, not yours. It was a door to who-he-used-to-be. But we have all had a similar, if not so profound experience concerning our own past. Often it is a tune. Perhaps you don’t immediately recognize why you react so emotionally to it, but then, you can recall exactly where you were when you heard it.
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For me, it is often a color, a deep, dark blue, or the mix of green and cream white. That blue paired with yellow brings to mind a set of blocks I played with as a bairn. Not just any blue and yellow will trigger this rush, but only a very specific combination of colors.
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One puzzles over what, in fact, a memory is. It would seem to be a videotape filed away in the synapses that can be retrieved by pressing the right buttons. But science can tell us memories are encoded as electrical impulses, carried between neurons by chemicals known as neurotransmitters. How does that farm I visited when I was two become a little zap in the cells of my brain, and what magic mechanism retranslates that buzz into the pictures I see so clearly behind my eyelids?
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For Proust, the madeleine brought an involuntary flood of memory. And that memory inevitably exists not as a discrete neutral image, but as a wooly complex of image, emotion and thought, a whole ball of inextricable who-you-used-to-be.
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The easiest aides-de-memoire are old photographs. That box of family snapshots holds a passel of memories. But there is always the sneaking suspicion that what you remember are not the events, but the pictures themselves. But then, some research implies that each time we retrieve a memory, what we are remembering is the last time we remembered that event, and so the memory degrades, like succeeding copies of a Xerox image — copying the copy multiple times. Details are lost, and what remains becomes murky and misremembered. You visit your brother or sister, now all grown up, perhaps retired, and you say, “Remember that day you fell into the creek?” and they reply, “That wasn’t me, that was your other brother, and it wasn’t the creek, it was the river upstate.”
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Whose memory, then, do you trust? Your own feels so real, so re-lived in the recollection.
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My wife had a supernatural memory. She recalled events from her childhood in infinite detail. I asked her to write those stories down for her grandchildren, but she declined. “Then I will start remembering the remembering,” she complained, “and the original will be lost, its authenticity diluted.”
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There is a difference, noted Proust, between the involuntary memory summoned up, like a genie from a lamp, when you smell a smell; hear a sound, a song; see a color or a picture; and the memory you search for voluntarily. This second, while not so spontaneous, is often more rewarding.
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A number of years ago, I made a pact with my two brothers. We had all gone to college and moved away to our separate jobs, wives and lives. I wanted to know more about those missing years we had been apart. I suggested we each write a short autobiography for the other two brothers. I  began mine, which covered only the years from my birth to when I was about 30. Even though I thought of it as a summary, it grew to 250 typed pages. Even now, I could go back and between each paragraph add new detail.
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Where does all this stuff come from? Each time I call up a memory, it is like opening a door into a forgotten room, and each room has three or four other doors, each of which opens into yet another room, each with its four doors, and on and on, like Borges’s fictional library. There seems no end, as one memory suggest two or three others. Colors come back, sounds, emotions, textures, smells, chronologies, acquaintances, pains both caused and suffered, moments of transcendence, moments of relief.
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As I get older — I am already old — it becomes harder to retrieve simple things, such as words and names, but the older memories still burn underneath and can be accessed. I will sometimes, when I have trouble going to sleep, call up a scene of tranquility and walk through it like a movie or play and slowly drift off as the memory metamorphoses into a dream.
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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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Historians like to take big chunks of time and give them names: Classical, Postclassical, Late Medieval, Romantic, and so on. Then they argue over it all, because any good academic historian knows that the names we give big chunks of time are misleading. But, as they say, whatcha gonna do?
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Take the Middle Ages. Middle of what? Homo sapiens developed something like — in a common low-end estimate — 300,000 years ago, putting the start of the Middle Ages somewhere approximately in the last 15/3000ths of human history. Not exactly the middle.
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But the dates we give the Middle Ages vary widely. It came after the Roman Empire. When did the Roman Empire fall? Well, you can say that the final collapse came in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople. For some people, that is already the Renaissance, squeezing out the Middle Ages entirely. But no one really believes the Byzantine Empire was genuinely Roman. They spoke Greek, for god’s sake. They were Christian.
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Usually, when we talk of the fall of Rome, we mean the Western Roman Empire and the sad reign of Romulus Augustulus, which came to an end in AD 476. But really, the Western Roman empire at the time consisted only of most of Italy and Dalmatia (later aka Yugoslavia) and a tiny bit of norther France.
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And you could easily argue that Rome ceased to be Roman after Constantine converted to Christianity and legalized it in AD 313. After that, the slow slide from Roman imperialism into Medieval feudalism began its ambiguous transubstantiation.
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It is the great paradox of scholarship: The more you read, the more your ignorance grows: The more you learn about something, the more you discover how little you know.
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So, when did modernity take over? It is a slippery question. I am reminded of the time, some 40 years ago, when I first drove west from North Carolina. I had never seen the great American West and eagerly anticipated finding it. It must be so different, I thought, so distinct.
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We were living in Boone, N.C., named for Daniel, who trod those mountains in the 1700s, when anything beyond the Blue Ridge was the West. When George Washington surveyed the Northwest Territory in the late 1740s, he was measuring out what became Ohio.
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So, when I was driving, I knew I had already pushed my own frontier past such things, and knew in my heart that the West began on the other side of the Mississippi River. But, when I crossed the river into Arkansas, it hardly seemed western. It didn’t look much different from Tennessee, in my rear view mirror. Yet, Arkansas was home to the “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker and where Jesse James robbed trains.
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But surely Texas was the West, but driving through flat, bland Amarillo on I-40 was as exciting as oatmeal. The first time we felt as if we had hit the West was at the New Mexico line, when we first saw a landscape of buttes and mesas. Surely this was the West.
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Maybe, but we hadn’t yet crossed the Continental Divide. All the waters of all the rivers we crossed emptied into the Atlantic Ocean. Finally, crossing the Divide near Thoreau, N.M.,  we felt we had finally made it.
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Yet, even when we made it to Arizona, we knew that for most of the pioneers who crossed this country a century and a half ago, the desert was just one more obstacle on the way to California. In some sense it still wasn’t the West.
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When we got as far as we could in a Chevy, and stared out at the Pacific Ocean, we knew that there was still something farther: Hawaii, Japan, China, India, Africa — and eventually back to North Carolina.
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So, the West wasn’t a place you could ever really reach, but a destination beyond the horizon: Every point on the planet is the West to somewhere else.
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When we look to find the beginnings of Modernity, the horizon recedes from us the same way. Perhaps it began with World War I, when we entered a non-heroic world and faced a more sober reality.
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Modern Art began before that, however, perhaps with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913, perhaps with Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun in 1894. Some begin with the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874.
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Politically, maybe it begins with Bismarck and the establishment of a new order of nations. Or before that, with the Treaty of Westphalia, and the first recognition of national boundaries as something more than real estate owned by the crown.
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You can make a case that Modernism begins with the Enlightenment in the 18th century, when a rising Middle Class began to fill concert halls and Mozart became an entrepreneur instead of an employee of the aristocracy.
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You can set your marker down with Luther, with Gutenberg, with Thomas Browne, Montaigne, Caravaggio — or Giotto.
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For many, Modernism began with the Renaissance, but when did the Renaissance begin? 15th century? The Trecento? Or did it begin further north with the Gothic, which is really the first sparking of a modern way of thinking.
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Perhaps, though, the Roman republic divides modern political organization from more tribal eras before. Or you could vote for the democracy and philosophy of ancient Greece. Surely the time before that and the the time after are distinctly different. We recognize the near side of each of these divides as more familiar than the distant side.
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You might as well put the starting line with the discovery of agriculture in the steppes of Anatolia and the river plains of Iraq. An argument can be made for any of these points on the timeline — and arguments could be made for many I haven’t room to mention.
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Which leaves us the ultimate question: Is Modernism over? Done with? Have we moved on, or is what we deem Postmodernism really just the next manifestation of the Modern?
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Perhaps the horizon should be recognized for what it is: a ever-moving phantasm. For those peasants digging in the manorial dirt in the Ninth Century, the times they were living in were modern. The first person recorded to use the term “modern” for his own age was the Roman writer Cassiodorus in the 6th Century. Each moment is the new modern.
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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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