Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

June 16, 2010

While the mariners were landing in the New World (see previous post), the Renaissance intellectual literati were carrying on with their pagan wet dream in a dream.  Published in 1499, and a bestseller for centuries, I just finished Hypnerotomachia Poliphili [other posts] and I can confidently say that it is the weirdest book I have read.  Here are a few samples of the text which, as the translator tells us in his forward, has been considerably pruned of invented words and bizarre phrases to make it flow better for the modern reader.

One of the many architectural wonders Poliphilio dreams, and describes at tremendous length:

The threshold of the doorway was made from an immense leek-green stone, whose tough surface was marred with a scattering of white, black, and grey spots and various other indistinct stains.  The straight antis-columns rested on this, standing one pace form the edge of the threshold with their inner sides smooth and lustrous but their outer faces notably carved.  There was not sight of hinges either on the threshold, or above, nor any indications of iron hooks retaining the half-capitals which were of the same stone.  Above this there curved the arched beam or semicircle, with the requisite lineaments and measured fascias of the beam, namely balls or berries and spindles, arranged by tens as if threaded on a string; dog’s ears; sinuous or lapped rinceaux in antique style, with their stalks.  The spine, wedge, or keystone of the arch was worthy of admiration for its bold and subtle design and its elegant finish, which make it a splendid sight to see.

In his dream, Poliphilio meets an enticing nymph:

The white breasts were left voluptuously open as far as to reveal the round nipples,  The little virginal body rested on straight legs, and little feet, some of the bare within antique sandals what were held on by golden thongs that passed between the bi and the middle toes, near the little toe, and right around the heel, to join neatly above the instep in an artistic bow.  Some were in shoes, tightly fastened with golden hooks: others wore boots with soles of crimson and other gay colors, such as were never seen on Gaius Caligula, the first to wear them.  Some had high boots slit around their with and fleshy calves; others, slippers with masterly fasteners of gold and silk. Many wore antique Sicyonian shoes, and a few had fine silken socks, with golden laces decorated with gems.

Still in his dream, he finds Polia, and is invited into a pagan love-fest:

Does Mars dream?

Take your pleasure of me for a all days to come, and you will feel comfort and contentment that make you forget your former torments and past misfortunes:  they will dissolve under my caresses and kindnesses just as the mists, rising and thickening from the all-ruling earth are dispersed by forceful winds, as dust-motes float and vanish in the air.  Now take this amorous kiss’ (here he embraced me in virginal fashion) as the gauge of my inflamed heart, conceived from my excessive love.”  And as he hugged me tightly, my little round purple mouth mingled its moisture with his , savoring sucking, and giving the sweetest little bites as our tongues entwined around each other.

There is much sighing, some dying, some reviving, then dying more, then sighing, and loving and entwining.  But in the end, Poliphilio awakes, and it’s all over.  He curses the jealous sun that rose and ended his nightime bliss.

Nightmare on Main Street

October 23, 2007


There I go again, alluding to cultural cliches in my post title, but I could not help myself. I get positively giddy when I see nightmares and surrealism going mainstream in the news. Of course, surrealism has been mainstream since the 30’s, and you could argue that it forms the aesthetic bedrock of much of the advertising industry. Well, anyway, the NYTimes Science section is featuring dreams and bad dreams – most dreams are bad, it seems – in today’s paper.


And speaking of bad dreams, a mare is a horse, and a nightmare, well, Henry Fuseli showed us what it all means with his famous pictures, one of the best known shown here.

And this strange, bloody eye, right from the page of the NYTimes! So common in horror shows these days – I just saw it last night while I peeked at my son’s favorite TV sci-fi melodrama, Heroes. To the right, we see its ancestor in that opening sequence from “Un Chien Andalou,” (An Andalusian Dog) the landmark of cinema and surrealism by Dali and Bunuel – a woman gets her eye sliced open as a thin cloud passes before a full moon…and the dreams begin. Rotting donkeys on pianos, hands stuck in doors with ants, lots of ants, sex, death, music…the usual stuff.

un-chien-andalou4.jpg images.jpg

Not as well known to the public, because it doesn’t make for shocking juxtapositions in pop culture, is the surrealist preoccupation with l’amour fou, deranged love. This image from “L’Age D’Or” (The Golden Age) shows one of the more fetishistic aspects of this trend.


And while we are on the subject of images in the media, here’s one from todays online NYTimes. A house going up in smoke, combining with oxygen, as Mr. Rosewater (God bless him) would have it, in southern California. To me, it has an apocalyptic cast, reminding me of the final scene from that noir pulp classic, “Kiss Me Deadly,” when the scoundrels open up The Box and are illuminated with deadly radiation. End of the World, anyone?

Speed, Opium, and The Man

April 29, 2005

That’s speed, as in velocity, not the drug. That’s opium, as in the drug, not the perfume. That’s The Man, as in Thomas De Quincey, not Yves St. Laurent or Keanu Reeves. Does anyone read De Quincey anymore, or is he persona non grata in the “Just Say No” era? Well, times were different then, circa 1812.  I wonder if there is a literary influence at work between De Quincey’s piece, “The English Mailcoach” and the the screenplay of the movie, “Speed.”

Let’s see, the story of the Mailcoach is of a young man hitching a ride on the roof of a mail delivery stage, stoned on laudanum, i.e. opium, who sees in the distance a cart approaching down the endless tree covered lane. Its driver and passenger are in the midst of amorous billing and cooing and don’t see that they are in the way of the hurtling stage, rocketing along at the enormous speed of 15 miles per hour. Nor can they know what the opiated author knows, that the mailcoach driver has fallen asleep, the reins grasped tightly in his hand. For thirty pages or so, the author spins a tale of hyperactive imagination, tracing his efforts, moment by moment, to rouse himself out of his narcoleptic state and to shout, like Stentor, a warning that would alert the young couple to their certain doom if they do not act. I detect some general similarities here…

De Quincey was my muse for many years. His wild prose, his total immersion in the realm of the fantastic and the imaginary, his long, convoluted sentences were music to my ears. He declared himself the true pope of the Church of Opium, and penned lines such as these:

Oh! just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for “the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,” bringest an assuaging balm;

He created a personal mythology, based on his torrid hallucinations and his will to create, of whole cloth, a world of imagery. He describes his first ecounter with the drug, brought on by terrific facial pains that struck him as an undergraduate. He found his way to a pharmacy and was dispensed the narcotic by a man who appeared to be an ordinary man like any other “sublunary” citizen. Later, he revisted the spot where the shop had been, but could not find it, convincing him that it had been, indeed, a heavenly messanger who had sold him the magical dose.

He wrote of eating opium and going to the opera, where he sat fixed to his chair, in ecstasies of enchantment as the soprano sang. And he wrote of the Pains of Opium, which became dominant as his addiction deepened:

I brought together all creatures, birds, beasts, reptiles, all trees and plants, usages and appearances, that are found in all tropical regions and assembled them together in China or Indostan. From kindred feeling, I soon brought Egypt and all her gods under the same law. I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas: and was fixed, for centuries at the summit, or in secret rooms; I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hates me: Seeva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at. I was buried, for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.

I thus give the reader some slight abstraction of my Oriental dreams…

De Quincey wrote on many topics, supporting himself through journalism, but it is by his Confessions of an English Opium Eater that he is remembered. These quotations were taken from later additions to that work that were entitled “The Pleasures of Opium,” and “The Pains of Opium.” Althea Hayter wrote a book called The Milk of Paradise that discusses the importance of opium in romantic literary history – Coleridge, De Quincey, Crabbe, and others.