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Here is an enigmatic painting by an enigmatic artist.  Henri Rousseau (1844–1910) did not start painting until he was in his forties—around the time his wife Clémence Boitard died.  The couple had six children but only one survived to adulthood (the rest died as infants or succumbed to childhood disease).  Rousseau made his living with a dull career as a toll collector. Later, when he was working as an artist, detractors belittled him as Le Douanier “the customs officer”.  He never visited the tropics or saw a jungle, but painted from illustrations, taxidermied animals, and Parisian hothouses. Initially ridiculed as childlike and flat, Rousseau’s works commanded the attention of a new generation of modern artists like Picasso, Matisse, Delaunay, and Brâncuşi, all of whom were influenced by him (as were several succeeding generations of artists).  However, just as his work began to gain traction, he died.

The Snake Charmer (Henri Rousseau, 1907, oil on canvas)

Commissioned by Comtesse de Delaunay,  Rousseau’s painting The Snake Charmer (above) was finished in 1907.  The painting features strange snakes made of empty space gliding out of a fecund jungle towards a nude musician also composed of darkness.  A spoonbill stares at the scene with a crazy empty smile.  Behind the figures, a green river ripples under the tropical sun.  Rousseau was not trying to titillate his audience with an exoticized picture of an oriental snake charmer (like the exquisitely crafted picture below by the great French salon artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, whose work was the pinnacle of French art a generation earlier).

The Snake Charmer (Jean-Léon Gérôme,1870, oil on canvas)

Instead of Gérôme’s ethnic stereotypes and off-putting eroticism, there is a sense of true menace and mystery in Rousseau’s painting.  Within the lush strangling wall of plants there are tendrils of nothingness which move in obedience to some otherworldly music. The universe is not the place we think.  Rousseau painted The Snake Charmer two years after Einstein’s “year of wonders” when the Swiss physicist, then working as a lowly patent clerk, conceived several radical theories which fundamentally changed how we look at space and time.  Whether, by accident or by design, The Snake Charmer captures some of the uncertainties that were winding their way through art, politics, and science in the era just before the first World War.   Unlike many other paintings from that era, Rousseau’s work has stayed fresh and disturbing.  Whenever we think something is certain, we start to see the alien serpents of oblivion wound up in the landscape, belying what we think we know.

Bust of Sir William Herschel

Happy Birthday to Sir Frederick William Herschel. who was born on November 15th 1738! Ferrebeekeeper has touched on Herschel’s scientific and musical accomplishments and we have also explored his convictions concerning extraterrestrial life, but have what have we done lately to commemorate the long deceased astronomer and his contributions to human knowledge?

…other than photoshop this cake (sorry Seth)….

 That’s why we’re observing the great man’s birthday by listing a few of Herschel’s additional accomplishments (which didn’t fit in the prior, overlong post) and by making some brief comments concerning multi-disciplinary polymaths–who are rapidly disappearing in a world of myopic specialists.  Perhaps this will in some way suffice to memorialize this personal hero.

Although Sir William is principally known as an astronomer, he regarded himself as a well-rounded man of science and studied many other disciplines both in and out of the sciences.  Indeed one of his more remarkable discoveries–that non-visible frequencies of electromagnetic radiation exist–is really a physics discovery rather than an astronomy discovery (although the disciplines are allied).  However Sir William also worked in the natural sciences, and is credited with an important biological discovery.  Prior to his time, coral was regarded as a plant.  Sir William got out his microscope and made some direct observations of coral cells. He concluded that since coral cells had the same thin membranes as animal cells, the organism was an animal.  Such is of course the case and today’s aquarium docents patiently explain to first-graders that corals and siphonophorae are actually creatures (although they, cnidarians, lack central nervous systems and can’t even enjoy basic sensations, much less book-of-the-month).   Sir William was an ideal renaissance man whose intellect and creativity allowed him insights into many different fields–which segues us to contemplating the scientific community of the present.

A microscope photograph of mushroom coral (by James Nicholson)

Contrary to what we might expect, today Sir William would probably find no place in the professional sciences (astronomy, physics, biology, or otherwise).  For in the sciences, as in other realms of academia, the gownless are vehemently cast out.  Someone who spent so much time practicing oboe and composing symphonies would never be able to get through the mountain of information necessary for an unfortunately named BS degree (to say nothing about attaining the doctorate so necessary to research and publish).  

Of course it’s admirable that we train our scientists at such immense length in specialized accredited schools.  And it’s also necessary! Any freshman scientist has his head swimming with a gigantic amount of information because science itself has grown.  Each branch of science is broader and wider and deeper (and other dimensions that non-scientists have no names for) every year.  Only people who have tremendous self-discipline and an advanced knowledge of where they want to go in life (no to mention substantial smarts) can travel such a path, and even these paragons can only choose one path each. 

Men like Herschel traveled the frontiers of science the way that men like Jim Bowie traveled the frontiers.  They are legends who opened up new realms–but we might not have any place for either one today (or more likely they would both be anonymous consultants battling the Washington beltway to their midlevel office jobs).  

"What the hell kind of simile was that?"

I mention all of this because I love and revere science but, despite trying to keep up, I am increasingly baffled. Scientists express their dismay at the laughable opinions of the layperson, but science stands in danger of becoming a mystery cult assessable only to the ridiculously highly educated.  I don’t have any solutions or suggestions about this.  Unlike some fields of endeavor I could name, science is not complicated because of politics or insidious Wall Street insiders.  It’s complicated because it’s complicated.  Only continuous studying and striving can allow scientists to push back the boundaries of human understanding (even as the rest of us connive to sell insurance and plastic junk to each other). That seemingly precludes brilliant crossovers. Strange visionary outsiders like Herschel no longer contribute their insights and talents, which is a great pity.  

Pictured: Science

I’m sorry I strayed into personal opinion there.  Perhaps some actual scientists can set me straight concerning interdisciplinary methodology within their fields.  In the mean time have some birthday cake and join me in waiting for the next polymath to give us a brilliant discovery which opens up the universe to the rest of us.

Herschel's Reflecting Telescope at Slough

One of the most enigmatic Greek divinities is Nyx, the primordial goddess of the Night. In Hesiod’s Theogeny she was a child of Chaos, but, in other texts, Nyx was present at (or before) creation and had no parents.  She is rarely mentioned in classical texts, but the few times she does appear are noteworthy.  Some of her children include Death (Thanatos), Sleep (Hypnos), Mockery (Momus), Dreams (Morpheus), and the Fates (Moirae)–they represent various slantwise forces which even the Olympian gods are subject to.

Nyx is mentioned in Chapter XIV of Homer’s Illiad, when the sleep god Hypnos refuses to carry out Hera’s bidding.  Hypnos describes the past results of putting Zeus to sleep (against Zeus’ will) and relates how his mother saved him:

“Jove was furious when he awoke, and began hurling the gods about all over the house; he was looking more particularly for myself, and would have flung me down through space into the sea where I should never have been heard of any more, had not Night who cows both men and gods protected me. I fled to her and Jove left off looking for me in spite of his being so angry, for he did not dare do anything to displease Night. And now you are again asking me to do something on which I cannot venture.” [Forgive the Roman names—I used the Johnson translation for ease of citation and copying.  Also, obviously, Nyx is called “Night” as she is in the rough Aristophanes quote below. I’ll try to find some prettier translations later.]

Nyx is also mentioned in Orphic cult poetry (certain mystery cult poems were attributed to the demigod Orpheus) where she is portrayed as a bird/woman with black wings who first created the universe.  She dwells in a cave at the edge of the Cosmos. With her in the eternal darkness is Kronos, Zeus’ father, who was savagely mutilated by his son. Kronos is unconscious, drunk on magical honey, and he mutters prophecies which Nix then chants.  Outside the cave is Zeus’ nursemaid, Adrasteia, who acted as mother for the king of the gods during his boyhood.  Adrasteia keens and beats a cymbal to Nyx’s chanting and the entire universe subtly moves to the rhythm of her cymbal.

Aristophanes alludes to the Orphic mystery poetry in a chorus from his play “The Birds”.  The chorus is sung by birds who have a different take on creation.  In their interpretation, night is a bird and they are descended from her via love and chaos.  Here is the relevant portion of their song:

…At the start,
was Chaos, and Night, and pitch-black Erebus,
and spacious Tartarus. There was no earth, no heaven,
no atmosphere. Then in the wide womb of Erebus,
that boundless space, black-winged Night, first creature born,
made pregnant by the wind, once laid an egg. It hatched,
when seasons came around, and out of it sprang Love—
the source of all desire, on his back the glitter
of his golden wings, just like the swirling whirlwind.
In broad Tartarus, Love had sex with murky Chaos.
From them our race was born—our first glimpse of the light
not before Love mixed all things up. But once they’d bred
and blended in with one another, Heaven was born,
Ocean and Earth—and all that clan of deathless gods.
Thus, we’re by far the oldest of all blessed ones,
for we are born from Love. There’s lots of proof for this.
We fly around the place, assisting those in love—
[Translation by Ian Johnston]

Although a few small temples and cults to Nyx existed, she was not often worshiped openly in Greece (nor, for that matter, were her children). However Nyx was in the background of many other god’s temples and ceremonies as a statue or a sacred phrase.  Around her name and mythos was an impalpable shroud of ambiguity.  To the Greeks, Nyx was older and stranger than the gods they cared about and worshiped–she was the first and original outsider.

"Nyx" by Gustave Moreau (ca. 1880)

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