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.

 

Serendipity: “A Pretty Girl with an Arid Heart”

Patrick Modiano in 1968, the Year His First Novel Was Published

I have just finished reading the book whose cover is shown above. It is an autobiographical essay by a Nobel-Prize-winning (2014) author that covers the years from his earliest childhood to the publication of his first book in 1968. I believe I have mentioned elsewhere that Patrick Modiano is by far my favorite living French author. He is approximately the same age as I am, and I feel a unique kinship with him and his work. So far I have read six books by him, and I am just getting started.

His autobiographical essay Pedigree: A Memoir is painful to read. The author was raised—or I should rather say neglected by—two parents who did not particularly care to see him and shunted him off to various boarding schools, the farther apart from Paris the better. Below is a savage description of his mother, who was a small-time actress:

She was a pretty girl with an arid heart. Her fiancé [after her divorce from Patrick’s father] had given her a chow-chow, but she didn’t take care of it and left it with various people, as she would later do with me. The chow-chow killed itself by leaping from a window. The dog appears in two or three photos, and I have to admit he touches me deeply and that I feel a great kinship with him.

 

Serendipity: Where Did The Maya Go?

Our Picture of the Ancient Maya, But Is It the Only One?

I can still remember the historical pundits of the 1950s and 1960s, with their cockamamie claims that the Egyptians came to the New World and built the pyramids for the Maya, because, naturally, they were too primitive to learn how to pile one stone on top of another. I can hear their voice-overs in dozens of spurious documentaries (imagine Lowell Thomas’s voice): “What happened to these people? Where did they disappear to?”

One answer comes from Christopher Shaw, in his uneven but occasionally brilliant book Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods:

If a golden age existed, it included—along with art and writing, highly developed religious and political systems, artificers and scribes, ritual torture and human sacrifice—cayucos [canoes] floating in waterlily beds, canals thick with protein-rich fish, and the finite cosmos reflected in the waters. If it “fell,” as mny scenarios insist it did, the region became crowded and degraded at the denouement of the classical era. Drought came and apocalyptic wars ensued. In their aftermath, people forgot the old ways and connected them to the past. With the cities reeling, merchant nobles from the coast—putun—imposed themselves and took power. Some of them, in their bourgeois, sentimental fashion, tried to maintain the trappings of grandeur. But the thread had been cut. In the great pyramid temples of the centralized state, the gods fell silent, though not in the houses of the campesinos.

The putun—simultaneously “barbarian” intruders and “merchant warriors,” to [archeologists] Linda Schele and David Freidel—apparently tried to keep alive the connections to tradition, dynasty, and place that lay at the root of the classic peple’s success. But the collective consciousness had moved on. The people “turned their backs on the kings to pursue a less complicated way of living,” as Schele and Freidel put it. hey turned to the forest. In the words of the Popol Vuh, the retreated “under the vines under the trees.”

Tomorrow I will return to this subject with a slightly different point of view.

Serendipity: The Lacandon Apocalypse

The Late Chan K’in Viejo, Lacandonian Chief and Elder, in 1933

I have just begun reading Christopher Shaw’s excellent Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods, a book about the river waterways used by the ancient Mayans for trading. The Lacandonians are a very traditional Mayan group that live along the Usumacinta River that forms part of the border between Mexico and Guatemala. In 1992, I saw a Lacandonian selling bows and arrows in front of the Casa del Balam Hotel in Merida, Yucatán. The following passage in Shaw’s book caught my eye:

Kayum, one of Chan K’in’s sons, a painter of naïve but arresting jungle scenes with one-man shows from Barcelona to Seattle to his credit, looked up from his ax work and gently scolded Victor [Perera, author of The Last Lords of Palenque] that he must let go of the world. It is creaking and groaning like an old man, he said. Everything prefigured the imminence of xu’tan, he said, the Lacandon apocalypse. The proper attitude of a hach winik [Lacandonian, “real person”] was to welcome it and the new era of creation it anticipated. He spoke with the deep calm and conviction of a believer. Victor never forgot it, though he never accepted it either, Kayum’s willingness to watch and welcome while a thousand generations of accumulated beauty and uncatalogued nonhuman life got traded for the shortest of gains, or in many cases no gains at all.

The Usumacinta River Near Piedras Negras

 

Serendipity: The Name of God

Lithograph by Frederick Catherwood of the Mayan Ruins at Copán, Honduras

It is with the greatest pleasure that I am re-reading a book I first read in June 1975 in preparation for the first of my travels, to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. The book was Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán by John Lloyd Stephens. The book was published in 1841 in two volumes with illustrations by Frederick Catherwood, who accompanied Stephens on his journeys. At one point, Stephens and Catherwood visit a school in Zacapa in Guatemala, where they set about making a usable dictionary of Mayan Indian words. As Stephens recounts:

We were rather at a loss what to do with ourselves, but in the afternoon our host called in an Indian for the purpose of enabling us to make a vocabulary of Indian words. The first question I asked him was the name of God, to which he answered, Santissima Trinidad. Through our host I explained to him that I did not wish the Spanish, but the Indian name, and he answered as before, Santissima Trinidad or Dios. I shaped my question in a variety of ways, but could get no other answer. He was a tribe called Chinaute, and the inference was, either that they had never known any Great Spirit who governed and directed the universe, or that they had undergone such an entire change in matters of religion, that they had lost their own appellation for the Deity.

The two volumes are still in print from Dover Publications.