Tuesday, 31 March 2009

John Donne Commemoration; Woodworking, Wit, and ADD

This image was taken from Digital Donne--a great online source for digital images of Donne's manuscripts and early editions

Ah, John Donne. Today, 31 March, is set aside for him by the Church of England. However, due to holiday schedules colliding, i think St. Joseph knocked Donne off the calendar this year. Personally, i think the guy should get a month, forget a day. Sometimes i think this blog takes the form of the Anglican calendar, oddly. For an article on another Jewish girl who likes Donne, click here. For a short bio from Wikipedia, click here. To see Donne's recent makeover, click here.

What can one possibly say about Donne that hasn't already been said? Well, i'll have a crack at it. Firstly, the guy was totally ADD. If he wasn't, his expression of the natural difficulty with which many of us struggle whilst at prayer makes me like him even more:

I throw myself down in my Chamber, and I call in, and invite God, and his Angels thither, and when they are there, I neglect God and his Angels, for the noise of a fly, for the rattling of a coach, for the whining of a door. . .A memory of yesterday’s pleasures, a fear of tomorrows dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in mine ear, a light in mine eye, an anything, a nothing, a fancy, a Chimera in my brain, troubles me in my prayer. So certainly is there nothing, nothing in spiritual things, perfect in this world.

I think that's what most people like about Donne; he was so human, so accessible. Milton seems to constantly boom down at you from on high, but Donne seems to be struggling with all the other mortals.

Donne has this way of perceiving the world which seems to transcend the human perspective. Here is a section of a letter he wrote to Lady Kingsmel upon the death of her husband on the 26 October 1624:

Nothing disproportions us, nor makes us so incapable of being reunited to those whom we loved here, as murmuring, or not advancing the goodness of Him, who hath removed them from hence. We would wonder, to see a man, who in a wood were left to his liberty, to fell what trees he would, take onely the crooked, and leave the streightest trees; but that man hath perchance a ship to build, and not a house, and so hath use of that kinde of timber: let not us, who know that in Gods house there are many Mansions, but yet have no modell, no designe of the forme of that building, wonder at His taking in of his materials, why he takes the young, and leaves the old, or why the sickly overlive those, that had better health.

True, it doesn't always do the trick, but when you are struggling with the idea of death or dealing with the death of family or friends, this analogy gives you pause. We tend to blame God; Donne asserts that this distances us from the dead. The metaphor he uses for a craftsman who needs different woods for different purposes is great, too.

Here's another section of God as a craftsman. It reminds me of the poem כי הנה כחומר, in the Jewish liturgy of the High Holy Days. To hear the prayer in about 9 different versions, click here.

When Man was fallen, God clothed him, made him a leather garment; there god descended to one occupation. When the time of Man's redemption was come, then God, as it were, to house him, became a carpenter's son; there God descended to another occupation. Naturally, without doubt, Man would have been his own tailor and his own carpenter; something in these kinds Man would have done of himself, though he had no pattern from God. But . . . in preserving Man from perishing in the Flood, God descended to a third occupation, to be his shipwright, to give him the model of a ship, an Ark, and so to be the author of that, which man himself in likelihood would never have thought of, a means to pass from nation to nation.
from A Sermon . . . Preached to the Honorable Company of the Virginia Plantation, 13 November 1622

Finally, in the vein of Rosh Hashana, or the High Holy Days, i'll close with a great piece by Donne on the nature of sin, called 'A Hymn to God the Father':

WILT Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore ;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore ;
And having done that, Thou hast done ;
I fear no more.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Passiontide & Passion Fruit



I know-it seems like a lame joke, but it's not (it's really just a lame post). Basically, since i find passion fruit very tasty, i was looking it up, and i was very surprised to read how this fruit got its name. Since Jesuits have been something on my mind i thought that today would be a good day to share some of the interesting info that i found on the Passiflora online site. Why is this day different from all other days (can you tell that Pesach is on the brain?)? Apparently today is Passion Sunday and marks the beginning of Passiontide, the last two weeks of Lent. But that's just a little excuse to take the nerdiness up a notch. Apparently, passion fruits are not named so for the intense sour-stick-like flavour that they have for which many people are passionate. I know it's silly-that was the reason i made up because i love passion fruit. I suppose if we really want to get to the bottom of this, we should start at the beginning. What does 'passion' mean, and from where does the word come?

Apparently, the Latin passus from pati or patior means 'to suffer', as in to let something happen passively (if you've ever read Jane Austen or something of that ilk, you'll be familiar with the term). With this in mind, the whole Jesus being cruxified thing becomes clear.

Anyway, getting back to the other edible passion--the fruit (that was a bad joke about mass and JC being edible) apparently, a bunch of Jesuits saw the symbolism of the passion in the various properties of the fruit, and named it the passionfruit! Is that some form of projection?! Here's what the Passiflora site says:

The Passiflora or 'Passion flower' (Flos passionis) acquired its name from descriptions of its flower parts supplied in the Seventeenth Century by Spanish priests in South America, known at that time as the 'New Spain'. It was known by the Spanish as "La Flor de las cinco Llagas" or the 'The Flower With The Five Wounds.' 'Passionis' refers to (Christ's) suffering. The parts were interpreted from drawings and dried plants by Giacomo Bosio, a churchman and historian, in Rome (1609), as representing various elements of the Crucifixion.

And here's a taste of some of the symbolism:

The five petals and five sepals are the ten disciples less Judas & Peter. The corona filaments are the crown of thorns. The five stamen with anthers match the five sacred wounds & the three stigma the nails. This symbolism is not universal however, in Japan it is sometimes known as 'The Clock-faced Plant' and apparently has recently been adopted as as symbol for homosexual Japanese youths.

It seems like a bit of a stretch, but the name somehow stuck. For a really interesting article about the symbolism of the passion fruit in art and poetry from the 17th century, click here. The guy who wrote the article, Michael E Abrams, is like one of the Hardy boys on art--it's pretty cool stuff.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

A DIY Shoutout to My Pepys (yeah, it's pronounced 'peeps')

Once again, thanks to Cardinal Wolsey's Today in History and Phil Gyford's excellent online version of Samuel Pepys's diary, the worlds of woodworking and early modern England come together. Hold on to your buckled hats! The grumpy guy you see here is Samuel Pepys, (1633-1703) the famous diarist. He was known for writing about the Great Fire in London, and for writing about his sexpcapades (ewe) in code so his wife could never bust him. If you're curious (and i don't blame you--he's got beautiful Vidal Sassoon [from the 80s!] hair) click here.
Anyway, here is Pepys' disastrous attempt at DIY:

Wednesday 7 February 1665/66

It being fast day I staid at home all day long to set things to rights in my chamber by taking out all my books, and putting my chamber in the same condition it was before the plague. But in the morning doing of it, and knocking up a nail I did bruise my left thumb so as broke a great deal of my flesh off, that it hung by a little. It was a sight frighted my wife, but I put some balsam of Mrs. Turner’s to it, and though in great pain, yet went on with my business, and did it to my full content, setting every thing in order, in hopes now that the worst of our fears are over as to the plague for the next year. Interrupted I was by two or three occasions this day to my great vexation, having this the only day I have been able to set apart for this work since my coming to town. At night to supper, weary, and to bed, having had the plasterers and joiners also to do some jobbs.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Moxon, Nicholas Owen, and the Gunpowder Plot

Every once in a while, i look for tenuous links between my research on Early Modern England and traditional woodworking. Naturally, i was so stoked to see Christopher Schwarz's work on Moxon, as well as his edition of the section on joinery. Other bloggers have written about Moxon, and Schwarz seems to have have ignited the woodworking world with enthusiasm for craftsmanship in early modern England. Seriously--by no means an easy or common achievement. Let me back up here. For those of you used to scouring EEBO, Moxon should be a familiar name in his capacity as a printer. Ring any bells? How about the Royal society? He was the first tradesmen to be allowed membership (in 1678).

Recently, i came across this cool book. It's quite helpful in understanding the religious environment in early modern England. I'm not up to the Gunpowder Plot yet. Elizabeth has just died, and so have many, many, English Jesuit priests who came over from their seminary in Spain to save English Catholic souls. Pretty sad. But, there is a pretty cool angle that Hogge goes into (thankfully, with photos!), and that is the hiding places for the priests. It's pretty mind-boggling that the deadly cat-and-mouse game between the pursuivants and the Jesuits, in fact the outcome of the religious power struggle in early modern England (perhaps one of the most important historical turning points) was heavily dependent on a dude called Nicholas Owen, a joiner from Oxford.

He was instrumental in creating 'priest holes' in country homes of wealthy Catholics. These were so good, they couldn't be detected by knocking on walls, etc. Father Henry Garnet (head of the Jesuit mission) employed Owen, who was so dedicated to his craft and its importance, that even servants of the households had no idea where the hiding places were! In fact, Hogge provides photographs of a priest hole that was discovered accidentally in 1879 by boys who were playing in a derelict country home. Who knows how many more priest holes the masterful and discreet Owen created which have yet to be uncovered?! Not a job i would mind having!

Sadly, Owen was captured and tortured, and like many other Jesuits, this layman gave no information before dying on the rack. In 1970, Owen was canonised as one of the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales, and his feast day is actually a week from today--16th of March. {Confusingly, it's also listed as the 25th of October (i guess it's a communal feast day for the other 39), and 2nd of March (the day he died).} Well, whenever it is, to students of early modern England and traditional woodworking, happy (bittersweet?) St. Owen's day...

Friday, 13 March 2009

Mindfulness, Meditation, Paradox and Purim

When engaging in woodworking, the mind tends to wander, to philosophise about the actions being undertaken and how they reflect the more obscure ideas reflected upon in the library. Rousseau said something to the effect of, "Put a young man in a workshop, his hands will work to the benefit of his brain, and he will become a philosopher while thinking himself only a craftsman." Roy Underhill's meditation on woodworking (Episode 7--'The Spirit of Woodcraft') is an interesting (and humorous--excellent Python reference in there) example of how immersing one's self in the physicality of these abstract ideas provides another angle.

Paradox abounds in the workshop--coming to understand it is the learning process and the 'journey' every student must take. After being frustrated, you learn that in order to tighten the plane iron cap, you must loosen it; in order to saw harder, you must loosen your grip. You must live or experience the paradox in order to figure it out. But it stays with you in a way that is very different from the fleeting grasping of paradox which exists in, say, Metaphysical poetry. John Donne understood the importance of the mundane, and filled his poetry with what many people would call not-so-romantic, or perhaps even nerdy imagery. His famous poem 'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning' is his meditation on spiritual love that endures despite the physical separation of the lovers and...a compass. Huh? There's no way this guy did well with the ladies if he compared them to school supplies (obviously Donne would've done well with this lady--i think this is the most romantic poem EVER. Plus, romantic poetry and hand tools? I don't think it gets any better than that! But i digress.) Donne's immersion in the physical, and his meditation on disparate things drove Samuel Johnson up the wall, and he wrote the following about Donne's poetry: 'The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.'

It has been noted that Donne's most romantic poems are spiritual, whilst his most spiritual poems are sexual. Donne's mixing of registers and his love for paradoxical conceits makes him a joy (albeit challenging) to read.

This brings me back to Underhill. One thing that struck me was his commentary on sharpening. Underhill notes that sharpening is a very Zen-like activity because its aim is nothingness. Instead of aiming for a gleaming microbevel, when sharpening chisels and planes, what you really want to see is nothing. When you see nothing, you have something. But if you see something (gleaming edge), you have nothing.

The mysterious paradox of sharpening, the meditative qualities associated with it, and the goal of bringing two 'faces' together evoke, for me, the idea of מצוות--mitzvot as actions for Jews to realise or physically meditate on God's unity, in the way that sharpening or Japanese tea ceremonies achieve that end. This may be a bit silly and have no grammatical basis whatsoever, but i was wondering if the words חד (chad )-sharp and אחד (echad )--one are connected. Not to digress to much, but the idea of God's unity is an appropriate abridgment of Judaism. Our main prayer שמע ישראל ה" אלוקינו ה" אחד: 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One' is recited several times daily, and is also the preparatory prayer for death.

A point of contention between Christians and Jews are the mitzvot. The Jews' immersion in the mundane was scoffed at by Christian polemicists. Indeed, a recurring theme in the polemics is that the Jews represent the physical foreshadowing of the more spiritual Christianity. Jeremy Taylor's sermon on spiritual zeal is one of many early modern examples.

The Divinely mandated immersion in the physical is perhaps a mitzvah of imitateo dei. In straddling the physical and spiritual worlds, we are emulating God; this is an alternative to the approach that being like God requires shunning our physicality. Donne's grappling with the physical and spiritual in pursuing his relationship with God is illustrated by the presence of paradox which pervades his Holy Sonnet XIV .

As Underhill reminds us, the great mind is capable of seeing the simplicity behind the confusion, of understanding the paradox. Purim is certainly a paradoxical holiday. Nothing in the narrative is what it seems. Everything is hidden, and it is Esther’s ability to see God’s hand at work and to act in an almost equally hidden way that is celebrated. This day of indulging in earthly pleasures, proceeded by a day of fasting is often compared to what appears to be its deepest opposite--Yom Kippur, a day of refraining from earthly pleasures, proceeded by a feast in preparation of the fast. We are commanded to get so drunk that we can’t distinguish between Haman the villain and Mordechai, the hero. Yet, our sages explain that a degree of mindfulness can come out of getting to a place in which we really don’t seem to be using our minds. All of the mitzvot on Purim seem to have the same goal in mind—unity. The Seuda (festive meal), or breaking bread, is one of the oldest sociological means of bonding. The public reading of the megilla unites us in witnessing the Purim narrative. Mishloach Manot (exchanging gifts of food) makes us feel closer to one another. Additionally, the tradition of sending two types of foods (necessitating two blessings) is a reminder that we recognise God’s varying capacities as Creator, and assemble it in one package. Matanot Laevyonim (giving charity) is an act which seeks to redress the economic differences between members of society.

Perhaps Purim is a day in which (with the help of that great social lubricant, alcohol) we can be like the angel in Titian’s ‘Sacred and Profane Love’ who stirs the well, mingling the boundaries between sacred and profane, attaining unity in paradox, through joyfulness, which, like sharpening-bringing two faces together (rectifying hester panim)-and unity comes from a root which sounds similar-- חדד. Well, it's a bit of a stretch, but still, one day out of the year, we get to walk in that no-man's land, to experience a Divine unity, to find the centre, or our centre (as our senseis tell us)...and hopefully not have an equally powerful hangover...

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Blogger's Block

So I have been putting off this first post because I’m not really sure what I'm doing and where I'm going with this. It also seems to reflect my current progress with work. Like my work, which involves writing about two very different things about which i have no idea, this blog is perhaps another overambitious attempt to address the main projects (or passions) in my life: Early Modern Literature, woodworking, and Eastern thought/martial arts. Hmm...Perhaps sorting out blogger's block will alleviate the writer's block, or dissertationitis.
After trawling the net for work and pleasure, I have been following some fantastic woodworking blogs. I also discovered many academic blogs. Part of the problem with working on something like Hooker (in addition to people thinking you're a perv), is that there are very few people to talk to. If you work on Milton, there are probably too many people talking. I was delighted to see a post on Richard Hooker in 2009! Doug Stowe's work and meditation on woodworking was another answer to my quest for meditations on woodworking. So I'm not really sure where I come in. What is certain is that there is a comunity of people eager to share ideas and help one another to grow, or at least to have some food for thought.