Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Incorruptible and Forever

Highgate Cemetery, in London

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:19)

As I mentioned in my post on reliquaries, some relics are actually whole saints, preserved in a state that is called "incorruptible". This means "the property of a body — usually a human body — that does not decompose after death...
Incorruptibility is seen as distinct from the good preservation of a body, or mummification. Incorruptible bodies are often said to have the Odour of Sanctity, a sweet smell...if a body remains incorruptible after death, this is generally seen to be a sign that the individual is a saint. The converse is not true: not every saint is expected to have an incorruptible corpse."
[wiki] And incorruptible bodies, according to the Catholic Church, must be bodies that have not been embalmed or otherwise preserved.

Here's a question, though: "Is decomposition a BAD thing?"

I am always torn about this supposedly miraculous incorruptibility, mostly because so many of them really look mummified. I really want them to be real, because it's such a fascinating and weird addition to the minutae of the world: I mean, what a marvelous concept, to be so outside the physical order of things that you smell like flowers, or keep your dewy complexion, even though you have departed this earthly plane. I suppose it seems glamorous, extraordinary even, to leave behind whatever mystical quality makes your flesh stay and stay, as if you had never left. And yet, there is something creepy, something unnatural about it, too. And so often a dead saint is described as "fresh and sweet as the day they died" - but then when you see pictures of them they don't look much different than some of the mummies in, for example, Guanajuato, Mexico, none of whom are considered saintly in the least.

Incorruptibility has shown up in many different religions, but Catholicism is the place where it really has taken hold. With the belief in relics came a desire to exhume the corpses of people who had been particularly devout or who had caused miracles during their lifetimes. A good number of the bodies thus exhumed were proclaimed incorrupt, which was for a long time a real weight in the argument for someone's beatification.

Theoretically, accidentally preserved corpses are typically discolored, wrinkled, distorted, skeletal looking and lacking in elasticity, whereas a truly incorruptible body doesn't have any of those characteristics: instead, they are moist and flexible, and often retain certain organs intact, such as the liver or heart. Unlike most long-dead corpses, incorruptibles supposedly have a sweet, almost floral, smell; and all this even after years in damp, corrosive places.

The reliquary containing St. Sergius' incorrupt body. St. Sergius of Radonezh died in 1392.

Unfortunately, the really old saints, such as Sergius of Radonezh are kept in very old reliquaries, and are therefore mostly closed from view; it is only since the 1700s or so, when glass became a proper industry, that large reliquaries have been able to incorporate enough glass to make it possible to to get a really good view of the body thus preserved. Thus, the incorruptibles in more recent reliquaries, such as the head of the amazing St. Catherine of Siena, whom the folk at Curious Expeditions went to see, are actually on display. A surprising number of incorruptible saints are quite recent, with a number of them living and dying in the 19th century; and you can actually see photographs of them when you read about them in Wikipedia or elsewhere.

I was impressed and suspicious when I saw the remains of St. Bernadette Soubirous, who died in 1879 and was exhumed several times before being put in her glass reliquary in Nevers, France. Her face is so perfect, so impossibly serene and attractive, that I had difficulty not smelling a rat. Then I found out that during the last exhumation but one, the ever-so-helpful folk who did it actually washed the body, so when they re-exhumed her in 1909 there was a slight discoloration to her face. This led to cosmetic procedures: "A precise imprint of the face was molded so that the firm of Pierre Imans [a high-quality mannequin designer and manufacturer] in Paris could make a light wax mask based on the imprints and on some genuine photos. This was common practice for relics in France, as it was feared that although the body was mummified, the blackish tinge to the face and the sunken eyes and nose would make an unpleasant impression on the public. Imprints of the hands were also taken for the presentation of the body." [wiki]

This explained everything! In fact, I was still suspicious, for it seems to me that "sunken eyes and nose" do not sound uncorrupted, never mind the discoloration, which was put down to the washing. On looking at the picture again, however, I can indeed see the underlying structure of a face, with that weird veneer that the wax mask gives to it. It's odd. Part of me is simply skeptical. But part of me wants it to be true, because it would be another unexplained thing in a far-too explained world. I find the whole process of masking relics strangely bizarre, a queer kind of hygenicization of something that should be startling. I already struggle not to feel the wool is being pulled over my eyes, or perhaps (to be kinder) I simply feel that there is a strong sort of wishful thinking going on by those involved; so for the Church to indulge in this sort of cosmeticism when the miraculousness should be allowed its own self-evidence - it makes me feel as if I'm being patronized. I'd much rather see the real thing, miraculous or not.

The question of incorruptibility implies a certain belief, very present in many religions, but particularly Catholicism, that the earthly sphere is a place of sin and somehow, being earthly, less...important. A lesser place than the place beyond death, where we will all go to reap our rewards, rewards that are better than those we receive here. So when someone's earthly remains, those parts of them that were left behind when they went to go to the spiritual world (to meet their Maker), don't follow the natural processes of decay, it is symbolic of the purity, the lack of sin, when they lived here on earth. In other words, they were so saintly in regular life that the sinlessness permeated their fleshly self, and it remained "above" such things as returning to the dust from whence they came.

I could be describing this inaccurately, but this is as close as I can get to what seems to be the thinking.

The problem with this thinking, for me - who is not Catholic, and not studied in Catholicism - is the basic tenet that the natural, "earthly" world is a lesser world than the one we go on to after death (whatever that may be). The very word "incorruptible" implies this attitude, as if the natural processes were a corruption, dirtying what is holy; whereas I find, on looking around me, that the intricacy of the decomposition process is incredible, amazing - miraculous, if you will - whether they be the product of some Creator or the result of some intricate evolutionary processes. The completeness, the incredible tidiness of it, is astounding, particularly when you look carefully at the processes that happen after death.

A white-backed vulture. There's a good reason vultures have no feathers on their heads.

In a natural environment, there are animals who live almost solely on dead bodies; they are, in essence, nature's janitors. They decrease the amount of body that needs to decompose, scatter the bones, and generally reduce what is there. Then a host of smaller janitors move in, breaking the remains down farther, carrying it away and dispersing it until there is very little left. What remains is then covered with leaves or dead plant matter, which in turn keeps whatever is left moist so that it can be fully dissolved by bacteria - with the exception of bones, which, happily for science, sometimes live on for millenia.

I think one of the things that people find difficult about this process (aside from things like smell and general asthetics) is that, in essence, the body is being eaten, being devoured by the agents of the soil. We have trouble thinking about why anything would want to eat such a revolting meal. But just think about it: if there was ever any sense of divinity in the universe, wouldn't it be symbolized by the fact that there are creatures out there who prefer to eat something so (to us) repulsive? That in this perfectly balanced world, everything is provided for, even the redistribution of our bodies' nutrients back to the soil, so that fruit can be made and flowers can flourish? There is nothing so wonderful, in my mind, as the fact that something so unwanted as a dead body can be turned into something so desirable as a flower. And all the things which do that work for us - buzzards and blowflies and their ilk - should be venerated for the job they do to make our world as beautiful as it is.

Which brings me to another historical point of view about nature: that line we draw, the one which is so clear and so difficult to define - the line between humans and nature. There are many, many ways that people of European descent try to distinguish themselves as separate from animals, and death is one of the biggies. Embalming, solid-metal caskets, crypts, mummification, you name it: we try to cheat nature out of reclaiming us, and prove that we are not simply animals, to lie down and be taken by the soil. The preservation of bodies is not a new concept, but it has lasted surprisingly long, considering how crowded our earth has become. It was only recently, for example, that the first person of European descent was cremated here in the U.S. (see this great article from the other Cabinet, about Theosophists and cremation), because up until the last century, nearly everyone believed they would not be able to go to Heaven unless their bodies were preserved intact.

There is a movement, begun in England in the 1990's, to make the burial industry more ecologically friendly, called "the alternative death movement," toward creating nature preserves where remains are interred with cardboard or other biodegradable caskets, and the only markers are native plants or stones. The bodies are not embalmed, and some are even simply wrapped in a shroud. The intense beauty of this kind of burial, to be returned to the embrace of the earth so as to nourish the land, seems to me far more mysterious and inspirational than the idea of leaving behind a moist and flexible carapace that is never allowed to go...well, home.

And really, the concept of forever is hard to grasp. Does having your remains stay immovable, fixed, speak more of eternity to you? Or does the more fluid, circular idea of matter constantly recycled - that your remains become part of the soil, then part of plants, then perhaps eaten by an herbivore, which in turn is eaten by another person, thus carrying some small part of you on in any number of others' bodies - seem vaster and more eternal? I think I would have to go with the latter. I understand the miraculousness of saints who linger, to help their supplicants; but ultimately, I find I would not want it for myself.

Ursula LeGuin talks about this in a different way in the last couple of her Earthsea books: this need to herd the dead into a place of their own, and the way that the unnaturalness of it begins to take its toll. It's a more metaphorical approach, but the idea that our natural cycle is to return to the earth, to the wholeness of everything, is well-presented.

I suppose the remains of saints are important in that they leave something behind for people to venerate. It is a kindness, a vehicle for more miracles, if you are a believer of those things. But for the rest of us, it is at this point just an industry, one that makes a great deal of money. If you have ever watched Six Feet Under, especially the episodes where the large corporation is trying to take over their small family funeral business, you may get some inkling. But try googling "casket manufacturer", and you'll come up with a really amazing peek into a big-business operation.

My friend Gwyan once did an art piece about how a lot of less-wealthy graves in Oakland, California got moved from the cemetery to make room for more graves. He found a mortuary catalog and printed flyers for caskets, from the Solid Bronze casket (yes, many coffins are actually metal these days) down to the Cardboard Casket, and posted them along the route the disenterred had taken from the cemetery to their new location. This from the same person who went with some others from the Cacophony Society (who were also involved with the origins of Burning Man) on a tour of the newly-abandoned California School of Mortuary Science, where all kinds of amazing things were unearthed, including a full glass bottle of LyfLyk - "For the velvety appearance of living tissue" (many thanks to the Frigid Fluid company for continuing to carry this fascinating product).

But I digress (eww!).

Abney Park Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery, in London, is a famous example of what happens when the burial industry goes awry: nature takes over, with quite wonderful results: leaning angels point to heaven, ivy from ancient wreaths has instead wreathed itself around wonderful Victorian monuments. The cemetery was built during the Victorian era, when the small local churchyards could no longer maintain the number of burials required. A ring of seven cemeteries were built in a ring around London, known as The Magnificent Seven, and an era of seriously fashionable Gothic burials was ushered in.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, for us), the companies who built these cemeteries simply didn't have the foresight to put money away for the future maintenance of the park, so when the cemetery was full, no more money was coming in and maintenance on it ceased altogether. By 1975, despite an annex across the road (where you can see Karl Marx's tomb), it had become such a financial disaster that they actually closed it, and it was only because a trust was formed and efforts made to save the cemetery that it hasn't completely fallen into ruin. Still, those intervening years have done wonders for the atmosphere of the place, and I would put it, along with its smaller sister cemetery, Abney Park in Hackney, as one of my top ten places to see in London. In fact Highgate was the scenery for a lot of the 1960's Hammer Horror movies, so if you want to do a little armchair tourism, you could watch a vampire flick or two.

In any case, this fearfulness, this attitude toward "corruption", is a conundrum not easily solved. To be separated from your loved ones forever - or, more hopefully, until they join you wherever - can be terrible to contemplate. No one knows for sure how death happens, and what happens to that meaningful spark that is you, when you go. Stepping off into a dark place is not an easy business. But to fear the breakdown of one's body, that return of your less meaningful parts to whence they came, should not be a fearful process, because you're not there anymore. It seems to me it is a gift you can give to the universe.

Don't get me wrong, if you want to become incorruptible and be put in a really cool reliquary, I'm not going to stop you. We all need some miraculous weirdness to keep us interested, keep the wonder going. ...I'm just saying, let's not all do it.

Some links for your perusal:

The Mummy Locator, with all the information you could ever want about mummies - this page points to Guanajuato.

A really great site all about why and how not to spend a lot of money on fancy caskets.

A directory of places in the U.S. that do green burials, and information on home funerals and other back-to-basics ideas.

A very minimalist site selling cardboard and other self-assembly caskets for as low as $49.95.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Shameless Fangirl Post

I'm going to use the might of my media arm here - and I'm going to do it shamelessly. If you don't like dripping praise, skip this one.

I love Diana Wynne Jones. Simple as that.

I first discovered her about three years ago, when someone in my family bought me the whole Dalemark Quartet, in one volume, in a half-priced bookstore because, he said, he "thought he had heard of her somewhere and thought I might like it." Next thing I knew, I was bounding along like a husky through the snow, as Ann Lamott says about writing (not), and I found myself laughing aloud at how great the storytelling was. In particular, there was a magical quality to Drowned Ammet which captivated me but which I still can't put my finger on.

The best thing was, when I looked at the list in the front pages, I was gobsmacked to discover that she had written over thirty books. It was like discovering treasure. This woman was clearly a Grande Dame of British fantasy.

Since then I have read every one I could put my hands on - or read them to my kids - and while they are not all as good as Drowned Ammett was for me the first time, they are, for the most part, remarkable feats of storytelling. True, they are technically "young adult", but I don't see how they have to be only young adult, as the stories are interesting to everyone. She has a deft hand with point-of-view, letting us see things but not necessarily understand them, while the characters are frustratingly naive or unwilling to interact with adults who could explain things, but therein often lies some of the tension. Personally, I admire her sheer innovativeness, which is hard to parallel. And best of all, she manages to write fantasy without cardboard cutout characters or shorthand scenery, or all those annoying things we think of when we're feeling tired of "fantasy" as a genre; her stories are grounded in place - meaning they tend to take place in one very-carefully thought out place - and well crafted. When magic happens, it is experienced by the character: it exists not as an action, but as a feeling.

There! It may not be Cabinet-worthy, and you may have all heard of her before, but I wanted to do it. And now I have.

* * *

For an interesting analysis of her writing, check out this well-written review, thanks to Strange Horizons, of Farah Mendlesohn's excellent creative criticism work on DWJ, which you can buy in book form at relatively high cost (I'm asking for it for my birthday). She has a good eye, does Ms. Mendlesohn.

My personal favorites, to get newbies started:

- Chrestomancy books
- Dark Lord of Derkholm, which is screamingly funny
- Castle in the Air (a sequel to Howl's Moving Castle, which she also wrote - not to be confused with Castle in the Sky, the movie)
- The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a "guide", to all the pitfalls of cheesy fantasy-writing. Well done, hilarious, and easy to keep by your bed or elsewhere to pick up in odd moments
- and the Dalemark Quartet, of course.

Monday, August 13, 2007

On Vacation...From My Vacation

...That's from a Swollen Monkeys song. If anyone has a digital copy, let me know, my friend Gwyan is looking for it.

The Matter At Hand: I am taking a vacation for a couple of weeks, and hope that anyone who reads this will not simply fling up their hands and abandon me. I find that there are too many people in my house to do proper research right now, and am looking forward to the beginning of the school year to recapture some uninterrupted thoughts. Hope to see you soon!


I never know how many people have seen Street of Crocodiles, by the Brothers Quay, but I always feel like it's worth remembering. Years ago, back in the fog of my youthful ignorance I saw it for the first time and didn't really understand where it came from or what it was supposed to mean, but the Amazing Stuff quotient was high, I could tell that. And that atmosphere - of grubby glass and things moving unto themselves, dirty everyday items transformed by movement, odd, creepy dolls' head people - somehow it etched itself indelibly on my mind, and I started thinking about a different kind of asthetic, something which has ultimately led, I think, to this blog.

Here is a little part of it (the beginning):

The film, only 21 minutes, is based on (or perhaps I should say "inspired by") the book of the same name by Bruno Schultz. Mr. Schultz's book is an intense meditation on his early life in Poland, an intertwined set of prose pieces that are marked by his descriptions of inanimate objects and places as if they had emotions or were capable of expression. "Attics gape in horror," as one critic puts it, and "building facades wait stoically". A very particular vision of "inanimate anima" - anima being the spark of life - gives his writing depth and richness and, for me at least, a kind of believability. After all, we all do that kind of anthropomorphism, and it is simply a matter of taking one's childlike feeling that "things inanimate are thinking about you" (and holding it in one's mind until one is grown) to create the kind of atmospheric intensity that Mr. Schultz manages so well.

The Brothers Quay were influenced, among other things, by several Eastern Europeans, notably the great Ladislas Starevich (see my previous post with the bugs) and Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, who produced this (typical, for him) vision of Alice (unfortunately only a segment):

Eastern European animators come from a long and rich tradition of puppetry, and their creations show it. I like Svankmajer (and so do my children) for his quirky sense of humor. If you get a chance, try watching Dark, Light, Dark, in which two hands, eyeballs, ears, head, feet and genitalia meet in a room and decide to get together and form a more Or the three people made of bits of vegetables, bits of paper, and metal utensils - respectively - who literally chew each other up in Dimension of Dialogue's game of rock, paper, scissors.

There would have to be something creepy about anything that grew from puppet culture, though. Traditionally, puppets have walked that line between funny and creepy, and it's hard to say why. I'm not talking about Sesame Street puppets or the slightly watered-down childrens' shows you see in the park nowadays; I'm talking about real, Punch and Judy style puppetry, with the papier-mache heads and the tatty costumes. It's as if the puppet-master imbues a positive life into his puppets: when they are active, they delight; the grins becoming hilarious, the large eyes comical. But as soon as he puts them down, as soon as they lay, staring, alone and abandoned, the creepiness comes out. They appear to have some other life, some light in their eyes.

My favorite puppet, a very old one from the Italian Lake District belonging to my mother, demonstrates that some puppets can be simply beautiful - the only creepiness being in how incredibly alive they can look.

In Oakland, California, at the renovated Fairyland, they have several puppet-shows a day. The sound system is terrible, and the plays are really nothing to write home about, but the puppets come from some ancient manifestation of the show-business god, and haven't been renovated at all. It's really quite wonderful to go sit in the front row and try to examine them as they bounce around; and I find it extremely intriguing that children still seem to find it entertaining, and not slightly odd.

And then there's that Twighlight Zone, I think it was, where there was this puppet lying on a table. In the five seconds of it that I watched, the puppet turned its head to look at something before I hastily switched the channel. That five-second vision gave me nightmares for years, for it was too close to my own fearful imaginings.

A sample of Vent Haven's wonderful fare; this dummy has real human teeth.

Some of you may have seen Boingboing's amazing link to a Flickr user's pictures of the Vent Haven Museum of Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, which bills itself as "the world's only museum of ventriloquial figures and memorabilia." The pictures were truly amazing, full of scary glamour and chipped, aging artistry. Unfortunately, the guy had a cease-and-desist situation and had to take the pictures down, for which we will all mourn. I wish that I had downloaded some of them before they did. Still, I suppose we could all write to the Museum to tell them that those Flickr pictures were the best advertisement of the place we had ever seen, and is the Museum still open? 'Cause we wanna visit.

I may have mentioned this before, but...remember the "clown scene" in Poltergeist? That is the perfect example of how a cheerful-looking toy's face can look terribly different in the wrong circumstances. It's terrifying: there's thunder, and the lights are flickering, and the clown just sits there, smiling...brrr. And there is the ubiquitous Chuckie, which I must mention simply because he is there, though I am somewhat of an anti-fan of slasher flicks. They seem to me to be formulaic, lacking in artistry, in fact lacking in anything creative or interesting. And unlike the really interesting movies, they show everything. Kind of like a hard-core pornography of gore.

(By the way, there is actually a phobia that is a fear of clowns. It's called coulrophobia).

I think it's clear that we seem to have a fascination with homunculi, or "little men". The term was first invented by the alchemist Paracelsus:

He once claimed that he had created a false human being that he referred to as the homunculus. The creature was to have stood no more than 12 inches tall, and did the work usually associated with a golem. However, after a short time, the homunculus turned on its creator and ran away. The recipe consisted of a bag of bones, semen, skin fragments and hair from any animal, of which the chimeric homunculus would be a hybrid. This was to be laid in the ground surrounded by horse manure for forty days, at which point the embryo would form. [wiki]

Goethe's Faust and Homunculus

The idea of the homunculus not only caught on in the alchemical world, where all kinds of recipes were made for how to create a false human (mostly involving semen and manure, among other things - although sometimes they did involve a mandrake root, said root believed to look like a person); but it became related to the notion - first pondered by the Greeks, and later embraced by Charles Darwin of all people - that miniscule body parts were exchanged during the act of sex, and were assembled in the womb. In a further step, "preformationism" took this belief and eliminated the assembly altogether, saying instead that a tiny, whole human (homunculus) was contained in either the sperm or the egg, and that it was only a matter of growing this homunculus to a finished size. Thus the belief that frightening the mother, or cursing the father prior to sex, would lead to malformations and so on. (True to form, we are now discovering that many birth defects can indeed be traced back to the mother's pregnancy. Aren't old wives' tales amazing?)

Drawing of Human Sperm, 1694, Niklaas Hartsoeker: what he imagined sperm would look like if they could be seen.

But somehow, despite the proliferation of other connections to the homunculus idea, we always seem to come back to that original concept, that of the created tiny person, or the person who will do your bidding. It strikes the fancy, for some reason; all the more because the begetting was so magical. It wouldn't be the same, somehow, if the thing we created simply looked like a real person; instead, it has to be from the darkness, and it has to look odd. Much like puppets. (And I always get the feeling, looking at these descriptions by these ancient nerds the alchemists, that they were also about getting around the natural process of making babies. And maybe about getting a servant for free. Just like catching the leprauchan, and forcing him to give you his gold, or house elves, or the modern interest in little household robots.)

I think one of the reasons Street of Crocodiles is so successful (aside from the wonderful thread mechanics that run through it, the dust, the glass, the...! the...!) is the way the main character, and the minor ones too, possess this kind of eery homunculus quality, as if they were born from some disturbing ritual. The dolls' head characters are lit from within, and wear gloves of wound thread. The main character is chipped and staring, is strangely full of pathos in his fleetness and his slight decrepitude. He is a puppet, but more than that: a creature not of the womb, a created thing, moving through his dusty world as if he can't understand what he's doing there.

World's Oldest Animation

One of my things is that I'm not very conscious of what's going on in the here and now on the Internet. So I often miss trendsetting moments; I'm too involved with things that I find interesting, and those things filter through. And then the rest all go by the wayside. Call me a nerd, if you like, or whatever. My friend Robyn says I know everything. But I often miss things that are considered "hot".

So anyway: correct me if you've seen this before, but in 2005 archeologists in Persia found a cup from the 2nd or 3rd century BC with what looks like the oldest animation ever seen painted on it. I don't know if the cup was supposed to be turned really fast or what, but it's only 8 cm across, so it seems unlikely. Still, in keeping with the recent "ancient technology" theme, I thought I'd mention it.

You can actually download the Quicktime video of the animation the archeologists found by going to this article. The archeologists are saying it's unusual because of the complexity of the movements shown; perhaps we have a prehistoric Muybridge here?

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Alert: The Uncertainty Principle on BBC4

Just a quick note to those of you who can get BBC4. David Malone's Dangerous Knowledge will be broadcast at 8 pm this Wednesday (August 8th). I haven't seen it but would highly recommend watching it, as it seems to put a finger on something I've been thinking about a lot but haven't been able to articulate clearly: the idea that uncertainty is good for us.

We are faced with all kinds of questions, and we want answers: whether, for example, mobile phones cause cancer, or perhaps whether depleted uranium causes it. It looks, from the outside (and even from the inside, sometimes) like science should be able to answer those questions. As Mr. Malone says, "science has become, in the minds of many, the new guarantor that there is certainty and that we can attain it." As I've been saying in several of these posts, recent science has often become reductionist, wanting to boil truth down into compartmentalized pieces that we can say for sure are true, are real; and that is a mistake. The more you learn, the more you realize how little you know - the more there is to learn, in fact - and a good scientist will understand this. Anything else, any belief that you could possibly come to the end of it and have everything figured out, is delusional.

Mr. Malone's premise, on the other hand, is that "certainty is totalitarian. It forecloses further thinking. Not one of the theories devised by Newton, Darwin, Einstin or Planck is certain and perfect. Powerful and beautiful they undoubtedly are, but they are still partial and incomplete approximations of truth.

"For the modern counterparts of Godel and Turing - the likes of Roger Penrose and Gregory Chaitin - intellectual certainty is a dead end. Serious thinkers are not afraid of uncertainty. For them a theory's uncertainty or incompleteness is not a failing but a positive and creative condition in its own right. The profound discoveries of modern mathematics and science show that life and thinking flourish only in the liminal and fertile land that lies between too much certainty and too much doubt. The art of scientific inquiry is to tack back and forth between the two."

He says that "the very word 'uncertainty', along with 'incompleteness' and 'uncomputability', encapsulates one of the three of the most profound theories in 20th-century science and mathematics. Yet they are all defined in terms of the unsettling lack of something positive or better. It is perhaps for that reason that the stories of those who discovered these uncertainties have been largely overlooked."

I cannot express how refreshing it is to see someone exploring this realm. It always makes me happy when a problem that's been bothering me becomes clear. It has seemed to me that our reaction to uncertainty is nearly always inappropriate, and now here is someone discussing how our reactions tend toward two equally disastrous extremes: compare Weimar Germany (the nihilist approach) with Hitler's Reich (the absolutist approach). What happened to the place in between, where we explore?

Hopefully, this documentary will make it all...uh, certain.

You can watch a clip from Dangerous Knowledge here.

(Thanks to New Scientist [August 4-10, 2007] for the article from which this was derived)

Monday, August 6, 2007

The Allure of Hot Glass

A glass store in Rome, demonstrating the infallible beauty of glass. It's easy to love it, but be careful of its shiny attraction: it can get vulgar sometimes...

If you've ever been to a glassblowing workshop and watched the glassblowers doing their stuff, or seen a demonstration at a historical museum, you'll know what I mean when I say that blowing glass is a dance, requiring a specific and delicate choreography, often involving many people working together.*

Most people don't think of glass as sensual, but it is - when it's hot. Glass is really a magical medium. Its melting point is at around 2400 degrees Farenheit (1300 Celsius), so touching it is out of the question. The incredible, lush pliability of glass when it is hot can only be felt through the end of a blowpipe, never with your hands. Wet wooden tools, wads of wet newspaper, and steel implements become your fingers and hands when you are interacting with hot glass; the love affair is conducted at a distance. This takes quite a lot of time: to learn to feel the quality of the material, judge when it is ripe for movement, know when you can shape and pluck, push and pull. It must be kept constantly, constantly moving, for gravity exerts an inevitable pull, tempting the hot and drooping glass to pool on the floor, and your job is to dance the rolling dance, turning and turning so the glass doesn't follow gravity's will. The sensuality of it begins to hit you as you get better at the dance; the sweatiness, the manipulation of softness, and the titillation of that desire to touch and necessary distance is inescapable. It is truly hot stuff.

Looking into the Glory Hole

A good glassblower can feel the gradual slowing of movement as the glass goes from near-liquid to sluggish, a warm taffy consistency, to an eventual hardening which signals that the end is near. If you are not finished at this point, you are in danger of your work cracking, breaking, or popping off the punty (long steel pole) and shattering on the floor, so you must keep heating it, using your sense of distance-touch and the glow of the glass to tell you when it is hot enough to work, but not so hot that you lose all the detail and shape of what you have done so far.

And it is hot! Working with the furnaces, dipping the blowpipe into the crucible of molten glass or reheating in the glory hole (special reheating furnace), you feel that you are suffering a form of localized sunburn, a crystalization of your sweat. Your skin radiates; you don't notice you're sweating because all of you is at the end of that pipe, that pole, moving the glistening stuff around.

My friend Pamina Traylor, a masterful glassblower and sculptor, at work with a reheating torch: more localized than the glory hole.

Curiously, it is this need for heat that was the undoing of much of the forests of Europe. As Venetians took their glass skills and traveled to other places (which they weren't supposed to do - but since when does that stop people?), glass workshops were set up all over the continent and the British Isles. In 17th century England, James the First finally banned charcoal burning because of fears that the forests would be decimated - not because he loved trees, but because they were fast approaching a place where there would be nothing to build ships out of for the navy. Losing the charcoal-burners, who transformed trees into hot-burning fuel, meant that the glass industry, one of the most fuel-hungry industries around, had to recalibrate their furnaces and their glass "recipes" in order to convert to coal.

This led to several improvements in the glass. First of all, the coal produced a purer, high temperature product. Secondly, and oddly, Admiral Sir Robert Mansell (the naval man who advised the King to ban charcoal burning) retired from the navy and started his own glassworks. He experimented with adding iron and magnesium to the mix in an effort to make colored glass, but instead came up with a much stonger type of glass.

(One offshoot of this was that the English then were able to start fermenting wines in the bottle, since the glass was now strong enough to withstand the pressure. The French didn't start being able to make champagne with a second fermentation until the mid-1800s: their wood-fire blown bottles weren't strong enough.)

A typical Dale Chihuly piece, about 14 feet high, made with over a thousand pieces

Historically, glassblowing was always an activity either Guild-centered or exclusively industrial. Then in the late 1950's Harvey Littleton, an American ceramicist who grew up in the glass town of Corning, New York, began experimenting with glassblowing in a studio, with the help of Dominick Labino, a glass scientist who designed a simple furnace. By the early 1960's he had begun teaching others what he had learned, and the modern studio glass movement had begun. The Littleton style of blowing, however, was a sort of bootstrap affair, doing nearly everything oneself; which is a bit like insisting on building your house with your own two hands - you can do it, but why?

By the late 1960s studio glass artists had begun turning their faces to Venice, where artisan (rather than industrial) glass was still being blown by highly-skilled people. A conversation was begun between Venetian and American glass artists which is still going on today.Dale Chihuly himself, a student of Littleton and one of the best-known glass designers in the world these days, was and is a big proponent of the team style of blowing, creating work that would be absolutely nowhere without many hands to help. In fact, Chihuly takes this idea a bit further, allowing highly skilled blowers to do the hot-glass dance for him entirely, since he has lost an eye and doesn't have the requisite depth perception.

To my mind, one of the most wonderful, the most magical parts of the blowing process, aside from the sheer addictiveness of the act itself, is the way you get to come back the next day and see the things which were once liquid transformed into cool, crystalline hardness, through some almost incomprehensible alchemy. The glass has gone from being naturally hot, orange, and in motion (cold equalling danger), to cold and immovable, brittle and clear.

The nature of glass is finicky; it must be cooled slowly, or it will shatter. The thicker and larger the piece, the longer it must take to cool, or stresses within the structure of the glass (yes, it is indeed a type of silica, with a couple of other things in there) will be too much for the object, and it will give way, sometimes years later. This process is called annealing, and it is done in a sort of hot oven called an annealer, where glassblowers put their work when it is finished. In a modern studio, annealers are programmed to slowly ramp down in temperature until it is safe for the pieces inside to be in the outside air.

If you don't anneal the glass then you are producing a walking time-bomb: I knew someone who had had a paperweight for ten years, and then one sunny day it simply went off, exploding and spraying shards of glass all over his living room. Evidently it hadn't been annealed long enough for its size. Luckily, he wasn't home when it happened. And when I was blowing glass there were these things we made, terribly dangerous I realize now, called Prince Rupert's Drops:

"A kind of glass drop with a long tail, made by dropping melted glass into water. It is remarkable for bursting into fragments when the surface is scratched or the tail broken; -- so called from Prince Rupert, nephew of Charles I., by whom they were first brought to England." -Webster 1913

You can see one of these in the movie of Oscar and Lucinda, and there is a lovely bit in the book, though I can't find my copy to quote it. They are the ultimate in tightly-wound imperviousness, like some people: you can hit the leading end, the round end, with a hammer and nothing will happen; the hammer bounces off in this weird, almost disturbing way. But break the delicate tail, and the whole thing turns to powder in your hand. The internal stresses caused by instantaneous cooling balance the incredible surface tension, which makes the round part unbreakable. But the tail is a sort of long extension of the stresses, so that when it goes, the whole thing goes - with a sort of "phack!" sound.

I heard once that the large lenses mirrors they once used in observatory telescopes, which are often some fifteen feet across, had to be annealed for three to five years, they were so thick and large - or they would crack later and waste all the work, the casting and sanding and polishing, of making them. You can see why there were so few large telescopes in the ancient world: large lenses would be hard to produce, as the technology for annealing was much less accurate before the Industrial Revolution.

Glassblowing, that is, the insertion of a bubble into molten glass by means of a long tube, was begun in the first century BC in Roman Syria, and spread very quickly throughout the Roman world. Previously, everyone had been working on the Egyptian model of glass-making, which had been in use since around 1500 BC: glass was heated and wound around and around a core of mud or a small sand-bag at the end of a long pole. The effect, though colorful, was never large, and often faulty - not guaranteed leak-proof. As Wikipedia says, "this advancement transformed the material's usefulness from a time-consuming process...into a mass-producible material which could be quickly inflated into large, transparent, and leak-proof vessels."

Egyptian glass work

Glass is especially exceptional because it is difficult to classify as either a liquid or a solid. Unlike most solids it has no specific phase-transition, that is the specific moment when the physical properties change clearly from one phase (liquid) to another (solid). The transition from liquid to elastic solid to inelastic solid is a continuum; it has many of the properties of a supercooled liquid, but at room temperature. However, unlike a supercooled liquid, it doesn't move or behave like a liquid. There is an old story that glass continues to flow downward over time, which is why old windowpanes are thicker at the bottom, but this turns out to be untrue, sadly (I always liked the idea that my windows were actually a kind of slow liquid). The truth is likely that, because old ways of making pane glass had to do with pouring molten glass over a surface, the "poured spot" in the middle tended to be thicker. When it was cut up into pane-sized pieces, glaziers would simply put the thick side down, so it would be more stable. [wiki]

Neon jellyfish by Eric Ehlenberger

Another cool thing about glass is neon, or other gas-light tubes. Traditionally, "neon" signs are made by torchwork, i.e. bending glass tubes with the help of a torch, but more and more, people are creating beautiful works using various gasses and hot glass pieces. The trick is to evacuate the glass and provide an electrode at each end, so that the current has to pass through the gas from one electrode to the other, thus lighting it up. These devices, in the form of the Geissler tube, were first developed by a man named (yes, it's true) Heinrich Geissler, who invented them to demonstrate the principles of electrical discharge in 1857.

"They were mass produced from the 1880s as entertainment devices, with various spherical chambers and decorative serpentine paths formed into the glass tube. When the tube was handled (the terminals were insulated) the shape of the plasma changed. Some tubes were very elaborate and complex in shape and would contain chambers within an outer casing. If these were spun at high speed a visual disk of color was seen due to persistence of vision." [wiki]

The interesting thing about the Geissler tube/neon light is that it so quickly became a sort of ghettoized object. Neon, when most people think of it, carries a burden of '50s culture, of cheap hotels and sleazy bars, of flickering signs in Chinatown late at night. Ridley Scott used this shorthand to excellent effect in Blade Runner, but what more creative uses could it be put? What about architecture with vast, delicately-glowing arches of glass? What about Geissler tubes that occurred naturally, growing up inside of crystal structures? Or how about neon that followed the contours of natural objects, such as trees or rocks, in sinuous organic shapes, as part of the Queen's garden? I'd love to see that, somewhere.

Perhaps I'll put it in my next story, unless one of you do. I always wanted to make a hand-blown Geissler tube, probably with argon. Alas, keeping a full-on glassblowing studio is a pretty expensive hobby, and I'm afraid I traveled rather a lot instead. Sadly, too, it isn't like riding a bicycle: if you don't keep blowing, you lose the skill. But I don't ever forget the hot thrill of it...and I'm glad, in the long run, that I had the chance to explore something so innately magical, so surprisingly beautiful, and so, so, marvelously dangerous. It will always be there, in the back of my imagination.

* * * *

*(Editor's note: When I say "glassblowing", I am referring specifically to what is called "hot glass", rather than "flameworking". Flameworking is the small kind of glassblowing, starting with tubes or rods of glass and bending them or melting them to create beautiful objects. By hot glass I mean the working of larger amounts of glass that has been dipped out of a crucible full of molten glass. Both these kinds of glass-working can produce excellent results (or cheesy, depending on where you go, as I said above; beware the cheap ease of its shiny allure); but flameworking tends to be a solitary pursuit, in a small studio, and hot glass requires a large, noisy workspace with plenty of access to fresh air and loads of propane or other gas to run the equipment. It also requires more people to make it work.)

Other links:

Timelapse of Chihuly piece being set up

Great site for learning about glass

Pilchuck Glass School, where you can go to learn to make glass of all kinds: hot glass, flameworking, casting, kiln slumping, stained glass, Ravenna-style mosaics, you name it.

Also, try going to Youtube and typing in "pino signoretto" for a glimpse of a Venetian master glass sculptor at work.


Okay, it's time to Do It Yourself. Below are some interesting places to find out How to Do Stuff.

The Treatises of Benvenuto Cellini on Goldsmithing and Sculpture is a quite amazing book about fine metalcraft by one of the world-class egos of the Italian Rennaissance. Cellini, aside from the detail and astonishing clarity of his highly personalized descriptions of how to do things with precious metals and gems, is so stuffed full of raconteurism that it makes for a highly entertaining read, even if you don't plan on ever making anything out of precious metals.

I first found Shire Books when I was on a short course in Blacksmithing at West Dean College, a conservation and art center in West Dean (in the Southwest of England) where you can get certificates, BAs and MAs in such things as Stringed Instrument Making and Antique Clock Restoration (yes, you do learn to cut your own gears and things!). Unbeknownst to me, there was also the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum right next door, where you can go and walk around in restored buildings from all over the country that have been taken down from their original settings and brought in pieces, numbered and archived, to the grounds of the museum, where they are carefully stored until they have the money to reassemble and restore them. It's quite an interesting place, West Dean.

In any case, on exploration I finally discovered the amazing Open Air Museum and found that their little gift shop was stuffed with these amazing little books.

In my opinion, Shire Books has the most amazing selection of little paperback "albums" on history, culture and collectionism. Their stated mission when they started in 1962 was "to offer books at low prices on subjects on which there was very little information in print." This is done in the most inimical British style, with titles such as Laundry Bygones (illustrating traditional washing-aids of the past), Old Gramophones and Other Talking Machines, Deserted Villages, Haunted Inns and Taverns, Old Lawn Mowers, and the Gothick Guides to various locations. There are also many very useful books on things like thatching, bellfounding, lime-burning and other soon-to-be-lost crafts, describing and therefore immortalizing the traditional techniques. I cannot stress how much I love this company; their range is so unique, so unsurprising yet full of wonderful discoveries, and so occasionally random that it is hard not to love them.

The Patterns of Fashion series by Janet Arnold, including Patterns of Fashion 2: Englishwomen's Dresses and Their Construction C.1860-1940, Patterns of Fashion 1: 1660-1860, and Patterns of Fashion: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women C1560-1620, are the result of dedicated research and meticulous analyses of real antique clothing. Ms. Arnold's drawings and patterns are directly transcribed from original specimens, and while the series does not contain an enormous number of patterns, the drawings and discussion are fascinating. Patterns are laid out on a grid for easy expansion to actual size, and construction techniques of the time are described in detail. Even if you do not plan to sew these amazing costumes, they are worth looking at for the artistic and cultural value.

Country Wisdom and Know-How: Everything You Need to Know to Live Off the Land is a surprisingly interesting book, considering I picked mine up at Costco (gasp!). To be honest, I can't figure out how this odd and fact-filled book came to be at such a venue. Who on earth would buy it? It describes how to build a doghouse, how to start a beehive, how to look at a horse to see if it is worth buying, and other odder parts on diatomaceous earth (to eliminate bat parasites) and herbal lore, and slaughtering rabbits, feeding pills to a cat and debeaking baby chicks, as well as pickling and canning recipes, bread-making instructions, and more (Plumbing! Pruning! Home remedies!). It is hard to describe the tone of this book, printed on incredibly cheap paper in tiny print, with useful little diagrams; I can't figure out what kind of person wrote this thing. A survival nut? A sort of muddy-booted Martha Stewart? Or someone trying to do the world a favor for when the infrastructure starts to fall apart? It's sort of like the Whole Earth Catalog meets Five Acres and Independence. Which, by the way, are both classics in themselves.

Basic Bookbinding is an excellent, step-by-step instruction book. I love Dover Books, too. They reprint all kinds of cool stuff that was nearly lost. Who couldn't love that?

This volume, published by Unesco, is chock full of fun stuff which, interestingly, intersects nicely with some of the ideas in Connections, discussed here recently. 'Nuff said, I think.

Then there's a couple of interesting links:

- Plans and instructions from The Boy Mechanic for making a Wondergraph, a sort of old-fashioned adjustable homemade Spirograph thingie; very cool.

- From same, how to make a Tellurium, an orrery-like device that shows the movements of the earth and the moon.

If you've found some fabulous ancient treatise or other non-standard how-to text that other people can easily access and you think would be good on this blog, I'd like to invite you to send me a link and I'll file it away for possible use next DIY time.

Soo...until the next post (which is soon): don't try this at home, kids.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Stumble It!Stumble It!