The First Travel Writer

There is a long timeline of world history in my mind that throughout my reading life gets filled in slowly with each document, each classic. The original text of this travelogue, written in amateurish Latin, was probably written in the early 380s. It was later copied in the 11th century by a monk in the Abbey of Monte Cassino, south of Rome, and then discovered in a monastic library in Arrezzo in 1884.  This English translation finds us now through the work of several translators and collaborators, this version printed in 1919.

Itirerarium Egeriae begins mid-sentence, whole sections having been lost to the centuries since the initial writings of that singular and impressive pilgrim. She was called Egeria (or Etheria, Aetheria, Etheroiua or Eurcheria), and she wrote of her journeys to see Biblical landmarks that were, to her and her peers, venerated or holy.

The travelogue is a fascinating record of her stops at places still known today, both by modern maps and through Biblical reference.  It is interesting to discover which places were in fact holy in her time, and which have since been assigned sanctity by other men (yes, always men).

In these writings, we learn that in the year 380, a Feast of the Nativity was celebrated on January 6th, not on December 25th and it is interesting that of all the martyriums she visited, she made no reference to Christ’s tomb or place of death, even though it is reasonable to claim that the site, at least, had begun to be venerated as early as the late 4th century.

In this book, we get a rare look into the very early days of Christianity, approximately 380 years after the death of Christ, and around 67 years after emperor Constantine I issued his edict ceasing the persecution of Christians. Sixty-seven years isn´t that long, and since then the ambiguities of this particular period seem to me to have been filled laboriously with obfuscation, revised histories, complex and conflicting interpretations and myth, the frustrating lack of details and even context having been glazed over with declarations of revelation and faith that seem more to serve particular people than the acquisition of knowledge.

The primordial Christian church was more monastic in nature, the notion of “congregation” and collective worship had just begun.  Solitary men and small groups, we would now call them hermits, inhabited caves and humble living spaces, and lived chastened lives. The concept of hymns and hymn singing had only just begun as well.  Holy Week was already celebrated with its recognizable symbols and rituals: children waving palm leaves, the cross as a symbol of adoration, the taking of Communion on Maundy Thursday.

Egeria refers to what we would call the Bible with several names, some of which only appear in this document (Scriptura Canonis for example, means “Scripture of the Canon”, which to me implies an attempt at a common standard, or the beginnings of a universal, all-inclusive tome).  She quotes most often from the first five books of the what we now call the Old Testament, also known as the Pentateuch, and in a pre-Vulgate Latin.

The text is a great education in monasticism, vulgar Latin and the origins of the Mediterranean Romance languages, and it is a wonderful account that is arguably one of the first travelogues, rich in references to landscape, politics and subjective interpretation of the world through journey.  Also, the writings seem to have been written and orally related not only by a woman, but also to women, a circle of ladies who gathered to share stories and religious devotion. And I am once again prompted to ponder the gems of literature, art, philosophy and politics which have been lost or destroyed throughout the centuries at the clumsy hands of entitled men.

 

 

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A Window on Russia

Photo by Robert Capa, book cover credit: Penguin Books (reprinted in Penguin Classics 2000).

” The old, old thing came up, that always comes up: ´Then why does your government not control these newspapers and these men who talk war?´ And we had to explain again, as we had many times before, that we do not believe in controlling our press, that the truth usually wins, and that control simply drives bad things underground. In our country we prefer that these people talk themselves to death in public, and write themselves to death, rather than bottle them up to slip their poison secretly through the dark.

They have a great deal of misinformation about America, for they have their yellow journalists too.  They have their correspondents with little knowledge, and they have their fiery typewriter soldiers.”

 

***

 

In the aftermath of World War II,  John Steinbeck and legendary war photographer Robert Capa went to the Soviet Union on a trip of cultural exploration. That was all it was.  They endeavored to avoid politics and polemics.  And although Steinbeck was more or less a disillusioned intellectual, at the time fed up with the status quo of the world and perhaps with his own work, they went not as communist sympathizers or angst-ridden activists, rather they wanted to write about and to photograph what was left of humanity after the devastation of war.  They certainly found it–simple, yet happy villagers, destroyed landscapes and industries, austere and suspicious Muscovites, broken men and families, inquisitive Soviets–and they also found a mundane, quotidian totalitarianism still in its infancy. Capa, accustomed to more action (the invasion of Normandy, Spanish Civil War), was even bored at times.

This is a modest little book, a long report for the New York Herald Tribune, (ironically, not quite a rich as his Log from the Sea of Cortez, an excellent memoir of his collecting marine specimens in barren Baja California), and a wonderful peek into the daily lives of simple Russians.  The book seems to have been a response to the strong curiosity that Americans had about Russians and Russia, and it at once shows us what we have in common and our fundamental, eternal differences.

Steinbeck often chooses humor over generalization, and of course he demonstrates keen powers of observation that never stray into condescension or veiled contempt.

Throughout the book, Capa´s photos are placed right alongside Steinbeck´s commentary, although I wish Penguin would have included better quality shots. For more high-resolution photos by Robert Capa, explore Magnum´s wonderful collection (click here).

Hitchcock and Truffaut Talk Shop

imageAlfred Hitchcock was a living example of what the Cahiers du Cinema thought a director and visionary should be.  I’ve always been surprised by who Godard and Truffaut respected, especially in their early days as burgeoning Nouvelle Vague artists (Howard Hawks, Robert Aldrich…etc.), but they always stressed the importance of the director in the highly collaborative art of cinema.  The documentary Hitchcock Truffaut is probably a lot of what you’ve seen before if you’re a fan of Hitchcock, but watchable nonetheless, and something that can be learned from with each viewing.  There is a reason why Wes Anderson’s copy of Truffaut’s Hitchcock Truffaut is now an overused pile of papers.

Many clips of the documentary are available on YouTube, but the insight of the other directors is worth watching the real documentary. More importantly, though, I believe one should monetarily support works like this.

The New Yorker’s Nathan Heller has written a piece on the book that brought about the documentary (click the first link below).  And Richard Brody wrote a review on the documentary itself (click second link).  Both are excellent, and a fair tributes to the brilliance and dedication of Hitchcock and the humility of Truffaut.

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-book-that-gets-inside-alfred-hitchcocks-mind?mbid=social_facebook

 

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-book-that-reinvented-hitchcock

In Defense of Polymaths

The Invention of Nature                                                                                                                                           by Andrea Wulf
John Murray, 473 pp.

imageAlexander Von Humboldt was an often insufferable chatterbox who dominated conversation and dinner parties that usually included important contemporaries, thinkers and politicians.  His interests spanned from the movements of land masses and volcanology to astronomy, from plant and animal habitats to mineralogy to map making, from vertebrate nervous systems to geopolitics, but his greatest contribution was his (now self-evident) concept of nature.  Before Humboldt, studies were made in general isolation and empircal observation didn’t necessarily mix with the theoretical.  But Humboldt made a lifetime of experiencing nature firsthand and recording volumes of invaluable observations.  And although outside of scientific circles he is mostly forgotten, his name has left a permanent mark. He has more things named after him than anyone.  There is the Humboldt ocean current that flows past Chile and Peru, there are parks in South America named after him, like the Pico Humboldt in Venezuela and the Sierra image Humboldt in Mexico.  There is a village in Argentina, a river in Brazil, a bay in Colombia, and a geyser in Ecuador named Humboldt. In Greenland there is the Humboldt Glacier and the Kap Humboldt.  There are rivers and waterfalls in New Zealand and Tasmania, and mountain ranges in China, South Africa, Antarctica and New Zealand.  There is the Rue Alexandre de Humboldt in Paris and parks in Germany (his native country).  In North America, there are four counties, and thirteen towns, mountains,  and lakes named after him (and one river).  There is the Humboldt Redwoods State Park in California and two parks–one in Chicago and one in Buffalo, named Humboldt.  Almost 100 animals and 300 plants are named after him, and the state of Nevada was almost called Humboldt. Several minerals have his name, and there is even a Mare Humboldtianum on the moon.

His contribution to exploration and scientific thinking is almost unknowable because it is so vast. And most interestingly, he was not a scientist, but a naturalist and compulsive documenter with insatiable wanderlust and curiosity.  His immeasurable influence can at least partly be measured by his associates and those he affected.  Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe was his close friend, and Humboldt undoubtedly had an influence in his finishing Faust. Charles Darwin kept Humboldt’s Kosmos as a guiding inspiration, filling it with notes, and he attributed the development of his Origin of Species to Humboldt so blatantly that we might never have heard of his natural selection or evolution.

Thomas Jefferson considered Humboldt’s maps of the western territories invaluable, and found himself giddy with excitement when the eccentric German came to visit the White House in a young United States.

imageThe philosphy of conservation in the United States owes much to Humboldt.  Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is in large part a rumination of his ideas of the interconnectedness of nature. George Perkins Marsh wrote Man and Nature in 1860, a book inspired directly by Humboldt’s ideas, and marking the beginning of conservation movement.  Henry David Thoreau found a way to focus his introverted, mountain man eccentricities after discovering Humboldt, and eventually broke away from Emerson’s existentialism, more and more valuing Humboldt’s direct observation of nature. During his time in Yosemite, John Muir filled his copy of Humboldt’s Views of Nature and Cosmos with notes, at a time when he was coming up with his ideas of glacial formation of landscapes.

Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman both loved the writings of Humboldt.

A comprehensive list of his influences could go on and on, and this book is a voluminous collection of fascinating stories, and strong encouragement for someone like me, a person with wildly varied interests, but who cannot claim to be a scientist or specialist in most things.  Our view of nature nowadays owes so much to the tenacity and inventiveness of Humboldlt, and Wulf has made a proper, highly readable book of it.

Berghaus Atlas, UCD Library Special Collections - copystand images for Prof Anne Buttimer

Berghaus Atlas, UCD Library Special Collections – copystand images for Prof Anne Buttimer