Serendipity: “Happiness, Pure and Immaterial”

Dame Freya Madeline Stark DBE (1893-1993)

One of the most incredible women travelers of the Twentieth Century was Freya Stark, who wrote some thirty books about her solo travels in the Middle East during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. I am currently halfway through The Southern Gates of Arabia: A Journey to the Hadhramaut (1936) about her trip to a part of Yemen which is currently at war with Saudi Arabia. Yet she managed to travel around by herself with only one problem: she contracted a wicked case of measles when she visited a harem in Masna’a. Before she came down with her illnesses, she reflects on a moment of pure joy:

When the evening came, and the sweet shrill cry of the kites, that fills the daylight, stopped, ’Awiz appeared with three paraffin lanterns, which he dotted about the floor in various places, and, having given me my supper, departed to his home. The compound with its dim walls, its squares of moist earth planted with vegetables and few trees, grew infinite and lovely under the silence of the moon. The gate of the city was closed now; a dim glow showed where the sentries beguiled their watch with a hookah in the guard house; at more or less hourly intervals they struck a gong suspended between poles, and so proclaimed the hour. And when I felt tired, I would withdraw from my verandah, collect and blow out the superfluous lanterns, and retire to my room. None of the doors shut easily, so I did not bother to lock them; I had refused the offer of a guard to sleep at my threshold, the precaution was so obviously unnecessary. As I closed my eyes in this security and silence, I thought of the Arabian coasts stretching on either hand:—three hundred miles to Aden; how many hundred to Muscat in the other direction? the Indian Ocean in front of me, the inland deserts behind: within these titanic barriers I was the only European at that moment. A dim little feeling came curling up through my sleepy senses; I wondered for a second what it might be before I recognized it: it was Happiness, pure and immaterial; independent of affections and emotions, the aetherial essence of happiness, a delight so rare and so impersonal that it seems hardly terrestrial when it comes.

 

Serendipity: Paul Theroux in Guatemala

The Rail Line Between Tecun Uman and Guatemala City

I have read Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas several times. It got me interested in visiting South and Central America in the first place; and I keep tryi9ng to relive the experience of reading it the first time. Back in the 1970s, there was still passenger rail service in Guatemala. Now there are only railroad museums with rusting locomotives. The following is the author’s take on recent Guatemalan history—which is still largely true.

I had a political reverie on that train [the one between Tecun Uman and Guatemala City]. It was this: the government held elections, encouraged people to vote, and appeared to be democratic. The army appeared to be impartial, the newspapers disinterested. And it remained a peasant society, basically underfed and unfree. It must perplex any peasant to be told he is living in a free country, when the facts of life contradict this. It might be that this does not perplex him; he has every reason to believe, in accordance with the evidence, that democracy is feudal, a bureaucracy run by crooks and trigger-happy vigilantes. When one sees a government of the Guatemalan sort professing such high-mindedness in its social aims and producing such mediocre results, one cannot be surprised if the peasant concludes that communism might be an improvement. It was a Latin American sickness: inferior government gave democracy an evil name and left people with no option but to seek an alternative.

 

Serendipity: Fury Cursing the House of Atreus

The Progeny of Tantalus, Atreus, and Thyestes Is Cursed by the Gods

I have been reading the tragedies of Seneca, where I came upon this speech by the Fury that curses the progeny of Tantalus, which includes Atreus, Thyestes, Agamemnon, and Aegisthus. This occurs in the tragedy Thyestes. I cannot help relating it to the House of Trumpf in Washington.

Haughty brothers will lose their kingdoms, then be recalled from exile to rule again. The destiny of their house will swing violently back and forth between short-lived kings; the powerful will become humble, the humble powerful. Fortune will carry the kingship on a constant wave of uncertainty. When god restores to their country those exiled because of their crimes, they will return only to commit more. Everyone else will hate them as much as they hate each other. In their anger they will consider nothing off limits: brother will fear brother, father son, son father. Children will suffer wicked deaths but be born out of even greater wickedness. A hostile wife will plot against her husband. But in this wicked house adultery will be the most trivial of crimes. Righteousness, Faith, Law—all will perish. Wars will be carried across the seas; every land will be irrigated by bloodshed. Lust will exult victoriously over the mighty leaders of nations. Not even heaven will be exempt from your wickedness! Why do stars still shine in heaven’s vault? Why do their flames still feel obliged to offer their splendour to the world? No! Let there be deep night! Let day retreat from the sky! Embroil your household! Summon Hatred, Slaughter, Death! Fill the whole house with your contagion, fill it with the essence of Tantalus.

Just to refresh your memory, Tantalus was a son of Jupiter. He killed his son Pelops and attempted to feed him to the gods. “For this he was punished with eternal thirst and hunger while residing in a pool of water and surrounded by trees with low-hanging fruits, which would recede and retreat whenever he tried to drink or eat them—the origin of our word ‘tantalize.‘” (From the Penguin edition of Seneca’s Phaedra and Other Plays.)

Why were Seneca’s tragedies so dark? He was the Emperor Nero’s adviser, which drove him to commit suicide by taking hemlock.

 

Serendipity: The Acorn Woodpecker

Sometimes There Just Doesn’t Seem To Be Any Rhyme or Reason …

I have been reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s collection of stories and poems entitled Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences (1990) with the usual rapture that goes with reading her work. The following is from an introduction to a group of “Seven Bird and Beast Poems” followed by the relevant bird poem. Enjoy!

The first [poem] is a joke about one of my favorite kinds of bird, the acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus in Latin, boso in Kesh). They are handsome little woodpeckers, still common in Northern California, splendidly marked, with a red cap, and a white circle around the eye giving them a clown’s mad stare. They talk all the time—the loud yacka-yacka-yacka call, and all kinds of mutters, whirs, purrs, comments, criticisms, and gossip going on constantly among the foraging or housekeeping group. They are familial or tribal. Cousins and aunts help a mated pair feed and bring up the babies. Why they make holes and drop acorns into them when they can’t get the acorns back out of the holes is still a question (to ornithologists—not to acorn woodpeckers). When we removed the wasp- and woodpecker-riddled outer wall of an old California farmhouse last year, about a ton of acorns fell out, all worm-hollowed husks; they had never been accessible to the generations of Bosos who had been diligently dropping them since 1870 or so. But in the walls of the barn are neat rows of little holes, each one with a long Valley Oak acorn stuck in, a perfect fit, almost like rivets in sheet iron. These, presumably, are winter supply.On the other hand, they might be a woodpecker art form. Another funny thing they do is in spring, very early in the morning, when a male wants to assert the tribal territory and/or impress the hell out of some redhead. He finds a tree that makes a really loud sound, and drums on it. The loudest tree these days—a fine example of the interfacing of human and woodpecker cultures—is a metal chimney sticking up from a farmhouse roof. A woodpecker doing the kettledrum reveille on the stovepipe is a really good way to start the day at attention.

What Is Going On in the Oaks Around the Barn

The Acorn Woodpeckers
are constructing an Implacable
Pecking Machine to attack oaks
and whack holes to stack acorns in.

They have not perfected
it yet. They keep cranking
it up ratchet by ratchet
by ratchet each morning
till a Bluejay yells, “SCRAP!”
and it all collapses
into black-and-white flaps and flutters
and redheads muttering curses
in the big, protecting branches.

God, how I miss Ursula and her keen insights!

 

 

Serendipity: African Laughter

A Laughing Epidemic Swept Tanzania in 1961

Between 1962 and 1964, there was a laughter epidemic in Tanzania that started in one girls’ school and spread like wildfire around the country. The following is from the How Stuff Works website.

At a small girls’ boarding school in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), three students started to giggle. Starting and stopping abruptly, their fits would last anywhere from a minute or two to several hours. This “laughter” proved contagious — soon other girls were doing the same thing. No one could concentrate on their schoolwork, and restraining the laughing students proved ineffective. Six weeks later, more than half of the school’s middle and high schoolers had caught the laughing bug.

School officials shut the place down. But when they reopened it two months later, the laughing plague immediately restarted and the school was once again shuttered. The laughing epidemic spread to other schools and lasted somewhere between six and 18 months.

So what caused this? “The bad news is, it had nothing to do with humor. There was no merriment. Laughter was one of many symptoms,” said linguist Christian F. Hempelmann, who researched the incident. He noted that the students also had fits of pain, fainting, crying and rashes.

He blamed excessive stress for the uncontrollable giggles. The boarding school where the laughter began was a very strict one. Plus the country had just gained its independence, and people were anxious about the future. With all of the terrorism in the world today, experts say another laughing epidemic wouldn’t be surprising.

Check out this video regarding the incident:

 

Serendipity: The Writer Gives an Interview

Jorge Luis Borges Giving an Interview for Spanish Television in 1967

I was just looking through V. S. Naipaul’s A Turn in the South (1989) when a passage on page 57 suddenly struck my eyes. Toward the end of his life, Jorge Luis Borges was blind. During this time, he gave many interviews which were published (I have at least a dozen of them on my shelves). My guess is that he saw the interviews as an easy replacement for having to write the stories, essays, and poems for which he was famous.

It was something I had worried about that these figures of Atlanta, because they had been so often interviewed, and though they might appear new to the out-of-towner, might in fact have been reduced to a certain number of postures and attitudes, might have become their interviews. Like certain writers—Borges, to give a famous example, who had given so many interviews to journalists and others who, in the manner of interviewers, had wanted absolutely the set interview, the one in the file, had wanted to leave out nothing that had occurred in every other interview, that he, Borges, had finally become nothing more than his interview, a few stories, a few opinions, a potted autobiography, a pocket personality. Which was the way, I had been told, the media created two or three slogans for a politician and reduced him to those easily spoken words.

Fortunately, Borges was wily enough to give a series of varied interviews which, though they had some common elements, especially in the area of “a potted autobiography,” are still capable of entrancing the reader.

 

Serendipity: Are Oranges Always Orange?

What the Best Oranges Look Like

What we usually think oranges should look like are bright orange throughout. We are unlikely to accept oranges that are green with some orange on their rinds. But the best oranges I have eaten, whether in solid form or juiced, are much too ugly to sell in an American supermarket. In his book Beyond the Mexique Bay (1934), Aldous Huxley describes his own discovery along these lines when he visited Trinidad:

The oranges that grow in these tropical islands are particularly juicy and aromatic; but they never appear on any European or North American market. As with so many of us, their faces are their misfortune; they have a complexion which nature has made, not orange, but bright green, irregularly marbled with yellow. Nobody, therefore, outside their countries of origin, will buy them. For fruit, strangely enough, is sold on the strength of its appearance, not of its taste. Every grower knows that his product must appeal first to the eye and only secondarily to the palate. Immense pains have been taken to embellish the skin, but how little does anyone ever trouble to improve the flavour, of our dessert! …

But this is not the whole story. Man looks out on reality through an intervening and only partially transparent medium—his language. He sees real things overlaid by their verbal symbols. Thus, when he looks at oranges, it is as though he looked at them through a stained-glass window representing oranges. If the real oranges correspond with the beau idéal of oranges painted on the window, he feels that everything is all right. But if they don’t correspond, then he becomes suspicious; something must be wrong.