Saturday, February 27, 2016

Early modern text messages, painfully transmitted

The vanity of dogmatizing, or, Confidence in opinions manifested in a discourse of the shortness and uncertainty of our knowledge, and its causes: with some reflexions on peripateticism, and an apology for philosophy / by Jos. Glanvill (1661)

It’s a learned work in which our learned author displays his learning by listing all the processes and phenomena for which the learned world provides no explanation: “we are as much non-plust by the most contemptible Worm, and Plant, we tread on. How is a drop of Dew organiz'd into an Insect, or a lump of Clay into animal Perfections? How are the Glories of the Field spun, and by what Pencil are they limn'd in their unaffected bravery?” 

Such learned disquisitions on our ignorance are of course sceptical in stance. Richard Popkin, in his History of Scepticism, is kinder to Glanvill (I think) than the author of the ODNB life, taking him seriously. In his time, Glanvill was answered by Thomas White, An exclusion of scepticks from all title to dispute being an answer to The vanity of dogmatizing (1665), who rather over-anxiously sets off to warn the young wits of both universities against such a potentially debilitating scepticism: “the studious of truth may understand it alike dangerous to think every thing and nothing is demonstrated.

In Glanville’s book, knowledge has not been lost culturally in a decline from the days of the ancients. He attacks Aristotle vigorously: “That the Heavens are void of corruption, is Aristotles supposal: But the Tube hath betray’d their impurity; and Neoterick Astronomy hath found spots in the Sun.” Knowledge, rather, has been lost from its high point in unfallen Eden. The normal human condition is, for Glanvill, to be “naturally amorous of, and impatient for Truth, and yet averse to, and almost incapacitated for, that diligent and painful search, which is necessary to its discovery.” In Glanvill’s account, Adam is a fantasy figure, a hero with superpowers of knowledge, a thought experiment about what a human being could know at an undiminished, pre-lapsarian full capacity.

The very first sentence rumbles with that particular 17th century plangency: “Our misery is not of yesterday, but as antient as the first Criminal, and the ignorance we are involved in, almost coaeval with the humane nature; not that we were made so by our God, but our selves; we were his creatures, sin and misery were ours.”

But for all that relish of the gloom into which we have fallen, there’s an excited sense that there are new heroes in thought (Descartes, Gassendi, Galileo, Tycho Brahe, Henry More and, ominously enough, Sir Kenelm Digby), and that new technologies can lift our perceptions up to the levels enjoyed by Adam:

Adam needed no Spectacles. The acuteness of his natural Opticks (if conjecture may have credit) shew’d him much of the Coelestial magnificence and bravery without a Galilaeo’s tube: And 'tis most probable that his naked eyes could reach near as much of the upper World, as we with all the advantages of art.”

What seems to me interesting about this is that Adam is not a static figure of perfection, but enables Glanvill to think about what super-sensory powers might exist. His Adam, we would say, is able to perceive much further along the electro-magnetic spectrum. Glanvil’s Adam, able to perceive so much more, understands invisible forces: the magnet, gravity, and (important for Glanvill) coherencies in the nature of things, connections, all the 'sympathies' he thought Kenelm Digby was helping discover: “Sympathies and Antipathies were to him no occult qualities” … “it appears to be most reasonable, that the circumference of our Protoplast’s senses, should be the same with that of nature’s activity”

So Glanvill pivots between a fantasy of the perfect knowledge of Adam in paradise, and the present, in which new ideas may restore former states of insight and understanding. Glanvill is aware of surmises about where long-hidden knowledge can be re-found: “Modern Ingenuity expects Wonders from Magnetick discoveries”.

He comes up with an intelligent list of desiderata:
"It may be some Ages hence, a voyage to the Southern unknown Tracts, yea possibly the Moon, will not be more strange then one to America. To them, that come after us, it may be as ordinary to buy a pair of wings to fly into remotest Regions; as now a pair of Boots to ride a Journey. And to conferr at the distance of the Indies by Sympathetick conveyances, may be as usual to future times, as to us in a litterary correspondence. The restauration of gray hairs to Iuvenility, and renewing the exhausted marrow, may at length be effected without a miracle: And the turning of the now comparatively desert world into a Paradise, may not improbably be expected from late Agriculture."

There’s the recurrent early modern fantasy of instant communication over distance, here, not by using spirits, but by “Sympathetick conveyances”. Glanvill does not at this point expound a view that Adam could have done this: that would raise too many problems of its own. A telepathic Adam could have forestalled the Fall. Instead, he tells, famously, the tale of the Scholar Gypsy, an early modern Darren Brown who exerts mental control at distance over the conversation of his old friends.

What Glanvill comes up with next is not a story for a distinguished nineteenth century poem. It’s another tale of remote connection, and details both the potential and the drawbacks to having ‘sympathized hands’ (and, as they say, ‘Don’t try this at home’):

"That some have conferr’d at distance by sympathized hands, and in a moment have thus transmitted their thoughts to each other, there are late specious relations do attest it: which say, that the hands of two friends being sympathized by a transferring of flesh from one into the other, and the place of the letters mutually agreed on; the least prick in the hand of one, the other will be sensible of, and that in the same part of his own. And thus the distant friend by a new kind of Chiromancy may read in his own hand what his correspondent had set down in his. For instance, would I in London acquaint my intimate in Paris, that I am well: I would then prick that part where I had appointed the letter [I:] and doing so in another place to signifie that word was done, proceed to [A,] thence to [M] and so on, till I had finisht what I intended to make known. Now that there have been some such practices, I have had a considerable relation, which I hold not impertinent to insert. A Gentleman comes to a Chirurgeon to have his arm cut off: The Surgeon perceiving nothing that it ailed, was much startled at the motion; thinking him either in jest, or besides himself. But by a more deliberate recollection, perceiving that he was both sober, and in earnest; entreats him to know the reason of so strange a desire, since his arm to him seem’d perfectly sound: to which the Gentleman replyes, that his hand was sympathiz’d, and his friend was dead, so that if not prevented by amputation, he said, it would rot away, as did that of his deceased Correspondent. Nor was this an unreasonable surmise; but, if there be any such way of manual Sympathizing, a very probable conjecture. For, that which was so sensibly affected with so inconsiderable a touch, in all likelyhood would be more immuted, by those greater alterations which are in Cadaverous Solutions."

One can, I think, feel reasonably certain that that never happened (which is a relief). Glanvill is eager to announce a breakthrough: these rather painful early modern text messages have been sent and received (but there was a snag). His language is interesting: “there are late specious relations do attest it”. Now, the OED actually cites this very work for the first use of ‘specious’ in its current sense: that is, sense d. Of falsehood, bad qualities, etc.
1661   J. Glanvill Vanity of Dogmatizing, xii. 108  “Such an Infinite of uncertain opinions, bare probabilities, specious falshoods.”
Yet here, the batty anecdote he retails is a ‘specious relation’ with ‘specious’ in older senses: pleasing, plausible. Glanvill also uses ‘speciousness’ in this work: “Self-designers are seldom disappointed, for want of the speciousness of a cause to warrrant them” – what he means here is that we always find reasons plausible to us to support our preconceptions. We are supposed to deduce which precise meaning of a word is intended from the context in which a word is used by an author, but Glanvill’s ‘specious relation’ seems to me to say ‘specious falshood’ even before the anecdote is produced, the sceptic in Glanvill discounting the newly uncovered way to use 'sympathies' even before he's told us about it. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A votive painting to the witchcraft cult?

A rather pleasing witchcraft image, from the Prado’s online collection: ‘Anonymous’ and ‘17th century’, ‘oil on board’ is all they have to say about it.

As you see, we have a variant, unique as far as I know, on the type of composition that puts an elaborate garland of flowers round a devotional image. Somebody like Jan Brueghel would do the flowers, and in the centre, the virgin and child. The figures might be work (sometimes) of a different hand. Rubens worked with Brueghel on this type of decorative/devotional art.

By the model of divided labour, ‘anonymous’ here could well have been an anonymous two. The painting in the middle, a witch at her cauldron, might be by Daniel Teniers: it certainly collects witchcraft motifs from Teniers paintings. Elements from the left and right side of this 'witches' kitchen' scene have been moved outdoors:

So we have the hag with her hair blown forwards, at a cauldron mounted on a tripod over a fire. She stirs the cauldron, while she consults the book of spells in her other hand, earnest as a cook tackling a difficult recipe. At her feet, a skull, ointment pot, and perhaps,  her athame. Music is provided by a zoomorphic attendant wearing  a peculiar hat, who is playing a nose flute, another zoomorph stands and holds a dim taper, while a crouching small demon blows the fire. Other weird faces gaze from the gloom at the scene, toad-like, bat-like, fishy or reptilian. The moon, banded by clouds, is high in the night sky.

The charm and novelty lies in the surrounding cartouche and swags of foliage. A carved lugubrious face of a dog stares from the top. Mushrooms are tied in bunches with coarse string. They seem to be ordinary boletes, rather than any poisonous type of fungus. The foliage is yew (at the top), ivy (of course), wild hops, acorns and a cherry oak gall. Spiky plants are accumulated: briars and thistles.
Notes of subdued colour are provided by a single bluebell, a buttercup, a clover head, a sow-thistle and a larkspur. The artist has not gone for melodramatic flora: it isn’t deadly nightshade, henbane, hemlock, monkshood, but just a set of ordinary enough plants. Seasons have not been observed, for we have a bluebell and ripening blackberries.

The insect life is also mundane, consisting of large and small flies on the upper volutes, balanced by a grasshopper and a wasp on the shelf or plinth below, like miniature armorial bearers. A meadow brown butterfly perches on one thistle head, a wasp or bee on another, then there is a caterpillar on a mushroom, with a shiny beetle adjacent to it. No scorpions, no great big hairy spiders, no devil’s coach men.

Who commissioned or bought this painting? It was obviously created as an object of curiosity. In itself, a fantastic world of impossible beings is surrounded by a thick border of unremarkable things: the type of plants you might ignore or tread upon, annoying little creatures you’d swat away. As a parody of the floral-devotional image, it has a sly mischief to it, prompting  a double-take from the onlooker, who might have taken it for one of those paintings that make a tribute of flowers to a divine figure that had got darkened by smoke or discoloured varnish. Instead of Mary with a verge of vibrant flowers, a composition that pushes towards us with colour and a reminder of faith, this image recedes away past mundane things into a haunted night. A familiar form of cult object is wittily - or daringly - turned into an object apparently venerating another cult.