Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Voltaire Rolls in His Grave

Voltaire's Death Mask

"In the castle of Baron Thunder-ten-tronckn in Westphalia there lived a youth, endowed by Nature with the most gentle character." —Candide (opening sentence)

A few months ago while I was in bed trying to fall asleep, the word "Westphalia" from Voltaire's Candide randomly popped into my head. Instantly I realized how much "Westphalia" sounded like "West Philadelphia," and, as someone who grew up watching too much '90s television is wont to do, I wondered how the first sentence of Candide could be re-written to match the theme song of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. In my head I sung: "In Westphalia, born and raised, on a courtyard is where I spent most of my days." And that was enough to amuse me until I fell asleep.

Weeks later I remembered it again and decided to see if anyone had ever toyed with the connection.

After searching various phrases, I found the following (via Philosophy Archive):

"In the country of Westphalia, born and raised, in the castle of the most noble Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh, I spent most of my days, lived a youth whom Nature had endowed with a most sweet disposition."

Was this someone's subtle prank? Considering that this exact opening sentence is to be found nowhere else online, yes, I'd say it is. Also, the key phrase "I spent most of my days" is clearly just jammed in nonsensically.

Someone else, in a YouTube comment, went even further:

"In Westphalia born and raised,
Learning from Pangloss was where I spent most of my days.
Philosophizing, thinking, dreaming all year
And knowing that the world was nothing to fear.
When innocent Cunegonde was up to no good,
Dropped her handkerchief and in a flirty mood.
I gave her one little kiss and the baron got scared
He said Go somewhere, as long as it's not here!"

And that, my friends, is how dreams become nightmares.

fresh prince, voltaire, candide

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Maugham on Adolescence

Scorpio Rising (1964)

"It is an illusion that youth is happy, and illusion of those who have lost it; but the young know they are wretched, for they are full of the truthless ideals which have been instilled into them, and each time they come in contact with the real they are bruised and wounded. It looks as if they were victims of a conspiracy; for the books they read, ideal by the necessity of selection, and the conversation of their elders, who look back upon the past through a rosy haze of forgetfulness, prepare them for an unreal life. They must discover for themselves that all they have read and all they have been told are lies, lies, lies; and each discovery is another nail driven into the body on the cross of life. The strange thing is that each one who has gone through that bitter disillusionment adds to it in his turn, unconsciously, by the power within him which is stronger than himself." Of Human Bondage

William Somerset Maugham, 1959

"I read a lot of classical books, like The Return of the Native and all, and I like them, and I read a lot of war books and mysteries and all, but they don't knock me out too much. What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though. I wouldn't mind calling this Isak Dinesen up. And Ring Lardner, except that D.B. told me he's dead. You take that book Of Human Bondage, by Somerset Maugham, though. I read it last summer. It's a pretty good book and all, but I wouldn't want to call Somerset Maugham up. I don't know, he just isn't the kind of guy I'd want to call up, that's all."
—Holden Caulfield, one of literature's quintessential adolescents, from The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

Scorpio Rising (1964)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Mystery in Aden, part IV

(Parts I, II, III)

* * *

Once more, the enigmatic photo:

(Far left: "The Bearded Man")

The second most remarkable thing about the above photo -- or the first, if you've no interest in Rimbaud -- is the role played by various online Rimbaud enthusiasts (mostly on the forum). Together they provided theories, exchanged information, and deciphered various clues that led to many important questions and discoveries. An on-going creative conversation took place which, among other things, resulted in the identification of Henry Lucereau, something that had not yet been done even after the photo had been vetted for approximately two years by Rimbaud biographer Jean-Jacques Lefrère. This discovery was incredibly important because it created a concrete time frame in which the photo was forced to reside -- somewhere between September 1879 and August 1880, the dates when Lucereau was in Aden. To paraphrase Jacques Desse, one of the booksellers who discovered the Rimbaud photo, the controversy and progress of research related to this picture would not exist without the Internet. On the other hand, Desse recognizes the downside of democratization and immediacy: all voices are placed on the same plane without any "traceability." Thus it becomes very difficult to discern fact from fiction.

And so here we are.

In my previous post Henri Lucereau had just been identified in the photo, a fact that ruled out the possibility of Rimbaud if the bearded man on the left was Rimbaud's employer Alfred Bardey (which was commonly assumed at the time). This is because Bardey was not in Aden in August 1880, and Rimbaud was not there before mid-August 1880. And we know that Lucereau was not there after August 1880 (as I wrote previously, Lucereau made a last passage through Aden between July and October, which, it has been said, can be dated to approximately the 10 - 20th of August; he was killed in the surroundings of Harar on October 20, 1880). Therefore, in order for Lucereau and Rimbaud to be in the photo, the date of the picture had to be August 1880.


So, I wrote, "who is the bearded man if not Bardey? Lefrère doesn't rule out the possibility that it's Colonel Dubar (brother-in-law of Jules Suel), or even Suel himself..." Six-months after I made those remarks, Jacques Desse emailed me a link to the research he'd been working on with fellow book-dealer Alban Caussé. The Bardey double had been identified: photographer and African explorer Georges Révoil.

(Révoil - taken sometime in 1880, before July 25... or possibly not until 1884!)

(The Bearded Man, 1879-80; Georges Révoil, 1881)

Since that time there have been some new developments, many of which delve deeper into the identity of the bearded figure.

But first, to give an indication of the murky and transient nature of this whole ordeal, let me go back again to Lucereau. After he was positively identified in the photo, some people thought that his presence alone -- irrespective of Bardey's presence -- prohibited Rimbaud from being in the picture. Lucereau, they thought, was not in Aden in August. But this theory was debunked by a signed letter (discovered by Jacques Desse) that Lucereau sent from Aden to the consul of France, dated August 13, 1880. (The authenticity of the document has not been disputed.)

* * *

Doubt was cast on the narrative of Révoil-as-the-bearded-man when Rimbaldian Jacques Bienvenu posted months of research on his personal blog, Rimbaud Ivre.

Enter Dr. Dutrieux:



In February 1881, Dutrieux, after being informed that Lucereau had been killed a few months earlier, wrote a letter to an Egyptian newspaper. "The brotherhood that unites all African travelers put me in sympathy with Mr. Lucereau... and I owe it to myself to honor the memory of the unfortunate traveler." In the letter he mentions the time he spent with Lucereau in Aden, a mere fifteen days in November... 1879 -- a full year before Rimbaud had arrived! And this short stretch seems to be the only time they ever met. Thus, Dutrieux's photo and letters not only cast doubt on Révoil, they also cast a very real doubt on, and possibly even disprove, the presence of Rimbaud. And so the identity of the bearded man once again takes on crucial importance. Is it Révoil or Dutrieux?

Well, after all of this came to light, Jacques Desse and Jean-Jacques Lefrère speculated that it was not impossible for Dutrieux to be in Aden in August 1880. Their reasoning? Dutrieux was in Egypt during the summer of 1880 as part of a mission to fight slavery, but when he found out that his mission would not extend beyond the city of Siut, he gave up. It seems not unlikely, they surmised, that Dutrieux would then go to Aden (easy travel via the Red Sea) in order to talk to his friend Lucereau (before Lucereau left on his travels), as well as to gather information. Not a very convincing explanation, especially in light of Dutrieux's letter, which never mentions a second meeting.

Another idea that suggests Dutrieux's presence in August 1880 is the fact that he had been to Zanzibar. This is interesting because we know that Rimbaud spoke of going to Zanzibar in his letters, and the idea here is that someone (Dutrieux?) put the idea into his head. This is quite tenuous, though I suppose it is somewhat suggestive.

All of this was put to rest, however, when German scientist and literary detective Reinhard Pabst discovered an autographed letter of Dutrieux's dated August 16, 1880. It begins: "I am writing from Siut [a city south of Cairo, now known as Asyut] where I have been a few days."


This means, of course, that if the bearded man is indeed Dutrieux, then the photo was taken in 1879, not in August 1880. This was more-or-less known before with Dutrieux's other letter recounting his 15 day meeting with Lucereau in 1879, but now there could be no doubt about his absence during the only period when Rimbaud and Lucereau could have met.

Since Pabst's remarks are amusing as well as informative, I will quote (via translation) what he makes of this:

"Even if the doctor had thrown his pen into the corner of the room and left for Aden as soon as he finished the second page of his letter ... he would not arrive in time for Lucereau's departure. Even the hero of Jules Verne, Phileas Fogg (Around the World in Eighty Days) could not have made this happen! To make the 1,310 mile journey on the Red Sea from Suez to Aden around 1880, a steamboat would take eight days... In addition, Siut / Assiut is located several hundred kilometers from Suez. And why would Dutrieux have to go so suddenly to Aden? ... Defenders of the bold hypothesis of Rimbaud are now in serious trouble. They can still keep the photo taken outside the Universe Hotel as part of Rimbaud's iconography, but it seems more uncertain than ever. And if they do, then how?"

Jacques Desse and Alban Caussé have done so in various ways, one of which points out that the photo Jacques Bienvenu used of Georges Révoil was crudely retouched, as are all of Révoil's other "official" pictures. The majority of them were taken taken by Eugene Pirou, probably in the late 1880s, and in them Révoil's baldness was retouched because it was considered to be unbecoming for a diplomat.


So, Révoil's baldness could no longer be used as a means in which to conclude that he is not the mysterious bearded man (which, among other things, Bienvenu (and others) had done up until then).

The "unofficial" pictures of Révoil give an entirely different impression:




There are also other representations that have been found of Dutrieux that, according to Desse, have been ignored and/or glossed over by Bienvenu because they don't look much like the man in the Aden photo:

(Left: The tomb of Dutrieux; Right: Engraved portrait, "probably from a photo taken in 1877")

And historian of photography André Gunthert had another way of looking at the photo, namely, the technique. The objects in the photo, he pointed out, are marked by a slight tremor. This shows that the photo was taken using gelatin dry plates, a technique that replaced the collodion process in the 1880s. "There are no known photos of collodion which have made a blur of this type (characterized by an equal distribution over the entire image, a very small amplitude and two distinct edges)."


Why is this important? Because Georges Révoil was in Aden August 7, 1880 with photographic equipment that "perfectly matches" the characteristics of the Aden photo. André Gunthert (paraphrased via translation): "Although the dry plate begins to be used by avant-garde photographers in the early 1880s, its use remained uncommon ... until the middle of the decade. It [is] therefore particularly interesting to see [it used] early in the summer of 1880, which is counted among the earliest examples preserved in the practice of the dry plate. Fortunately, Jacques Desse and Alban Caussé support this hypothesis by examining the archive of explorer Georges Révoil... The blur from the image that everyone can see is the signature technique of gelatin, and one of the few irrefutable facts about this document. That this image has been executed in 1879 is very unlikely. This hypothesis would require someone to prove that another photographer practiced gelatin in Aden before Révoil." (At the same time it must be said that André Gunthert wrote all of this thinking that the bearded man was likely Dutrieux. And it was before Reinhard Pabst had discovered the letter showing that Dutrieux was not in Aden in August 1880). Regarding '79 vs '80, Jacques Desse wrote that gelatin silver was certified in Aden in August 1880, but "certainly not" in November 1879...

So where does that leave things? Clearly the technical details of the photo add compelling reasons to consider Révoil over Dutrieux (or the unlikely scenario of Dutrieux somehow in '79), but what about the likeness? Who does that favor? The strange hairline makes one want to proclaim Dutrieux. The eyebrows, too. The eyes, however, match much better with Révoil (though not the eyelids)...


Here are the ears and beard-line:


Unfortunately I think the Aden ear is a little bit too blurry for anything to be determined with certainty, but it might slightly favor... I'll let you decide.

I think it's also worth noting that the Dutrieux photo has the distinct advantage of being taken from a very similar angle as The Bearded Man, something that's not true for the most convincing Révoil photo.

The verdict? Well, much of the media has already determined -- prematurely, in my opinion -- that this is NOT Rimbaud. The consensus is that the man is Dutrieux, which, because of his letters, means that there's no way he could have been on the terrace of the Universe Hotel in 1880. Even Wikipedia outright states that the presence of Rimbaud has been completely debunked. Referencing an article Jacques Bienvenu wrote for Le Monde, it says: "The man sitting on the right was believed (in 2010) to be be Arthur Rimbaud but turned out not to be."

But, wait! As if to demonstrate the perils of the Internet, there's a document on THIS BLOG that claims evidence proving that Dutrieux was present in Aden during the month of August, 1880. The problem, however, is that I don't know who the author is, where the document comes from, or even if the document has been deemed authentic. As far as I can tell, no one has even commented on it! (To add a modicum of credibility, I found it via a link on the main page of the Rimbaud website.)

* * *

Personally I think there's still a decent chance the mustached man is (inexplicably) Rimbaud, but a lot of that has to do with the very unscientific and biased fact that, unlike most, I happen to think that the face on the terrace looks a lot like him (or at least how one might expect him to look)... The droopy eyes, the ear, the puffy bottom lip...

Reversed and contrasted image revealing a somewhat gaunt face (via contrast):


Reversed image with blur removed:


But then again, what do we really know about the face of Rimbaud?

Note: Not every single detail has been relayed here. Dutrieux, for example, wrote that he was "dying" when he came back from Zanzibar and arrived in Aden in 1879. This is noteworthy because it doesn't seem to match with the image of The Bearded Man in the photo. But other people believe this remark to be hyperbole on his part (citing other letters he wrote etc)... There are simply too many details like this to include every single one, and it gets complicated when there are various sides arguing different things. Instead, since very little of this information is available in English, I tried to give an overview of the photo in a way that allowed me to shape the developments into a sort of narrative (albeit a somewhat simplified one).

Credits: Jean-Jacques Lefrère, Jacques Desse & Alban Caussé (their blog), Jacques Bienvenu (his blog), Reinhard Pabst, André Gunthert, and, as well as a few other articles I've long lost track of. For more on Révoil and Dutrieux (with more pictures of Révoil), see THIS.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

On Thought Diving and its Many Uses (blog game experiment 2)

What follows is my friend Ellen's contribution to the blog game / experiment that I proposed in January. A topic was provided (in this case, thought-divers, deep divers, divers, or any and all variation(s) thereof), along with various materials (images and text), and the participant was asked to make a post following the instructions I gave. (I recommend taking a look at the materials -- before or after reading the post -- but everything that follows certainly works perfectly well as a stand-alone piece.)

Anyone who enjoys this will want to check out Ellen's excellent blog altarpiece.

The first blog game / experiment (with a different topic -- Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop) can be viewed HERE.

* * *

Go, speed the stars of Thought
On to their shining goals—
The sower scatters broad his seed;
The wheat thou strew’st be souls.

I. Exploration

x9 The growth of the intellect is spontaneous in every expansion. The mind that grows could not predict the times, the means, the mode of that spontaneity. God enters by a private door into every individual. Long prior to the age of reflection is the thinking of the mind. Out of darkness it came insensibly into the marvellous light of to-day. In the period of infancy it accepted and disposed of all impressions from the surrounding creation after its own way. Whatever any mind doth or saith is after a law, and this native law remains over it after it has come to reflection or conscious thought. In the most worn, pedantic, introverted self-tormentor’s life, the greatest part is incalculable by him, unforeseen, unimaginable, and must be, until he can take himself up by his own ears. What am I? What has my will done to make me that I am? Nothing. I have been floated into this thought, this hour, this connection of events, by secret currents of might and mind, and my ingenuity and willfulness have not thwarted, have not aided to an appreciable degree. [1]

Ralph Waldo Emerson Ralph Waldo Emerson

Herman Melville Herman Melville

Nay, I do not oscillate in Emerson’s rainbow, but prefer rather to hang myself in mine own halter than swing in any other man’s swing. Yet I think Emerson is more than a brilliant fellow. Be his stuff begged, borrowed, or stolen, or of his own domestic manufacture he is an uncommon man. Swear he is a humbug — then is he no common humbug. […] The truth is that we are all sons, grandsons, or nephews or great-nephews of those who go before us. No one is his own sire. [2]

We do not determine what we will think. We only open our senses, clear the way as we can all obstruction from the fact, and suffer the intellect to see. We have little control over our thoughts. We are the prisoners of ideas. They catch us up for moments into their heaven and so fully engage us that we take no thought for the morrow, gaze like children, without an effort to make them our own.
Each truth that a writer acquires is a lantern which he turns full on what facts and thoughts lay already in his mind, and behold, all the mats and rubbish which had littered his garret become precious. Every trivial fact in his private biography becomes an illustration of this new principle, revisits the day, and delights all men by its piquancy and new charm. Men say, Where did he get this? And think there was something divine in his life. But no; they have myriads of facts just as good, would they only get lamp to ransack their attics withal. [1]

Now, there is a something about every man elevated above mediocrity, which is, for the most part, instinctuly perceptible. This I see in Mr Emerson. And, frankly, for the sake of the argument, let us call him a fool; — then had I rather be a fool than a wise man. — I love all men who dive. Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more; & if he don’t attain the bottom, why, all the lead in Galena can’t fashion the plumet that will. I’m not talking of Mr Emerson now — but of the whole corps of thought-divers, that have been diving & coming up again with bloodshot eyes since the world began. [2]


II. Whaling

Text of this section excerpted from Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives.


And then one of them said Señor Salvatierra, we want to talk to you about Cesárea Tinajero.
Ah, I said to them, Cesárea Tinajero, where did you hear about her, boys? […] We haven’t read anything she wrote, they said, not anywhere, and that got us interested. Got you interested how, boys? […] Then I raised my hand and before they could answer I poured them more Los Suicidas mezcal and then I sat on the edge of the armchair and in my very backside I swear I felt as if I’d perched on the edge of a razor.


And when there was only a little bit left I poured a last round of Los Suicidas, saying a mental goodbye to that old elixir of mine, and I read…the Directory of the Avant-Garde. […] And when I had finished reading that long list, the boys kneeled or stood at attention, I swear I can’t remember which and anyway it doesn’t matter, they stood at attention like soldiers or kneeled like true believers, and they drank the last drops of Los Suicidas mezcal…and I too raised my glass and drained it, toasting all our dead.

And then one of the boys asked me: where are Cesárea Tinajero’s poems? …And I said: on the last page, boys. And I looked at their fresh, attentive faces and I watched their hands turn those old pages and then I peered into their faces again… I asked them again what they thought, now that they had read a real poem by Cesárea Tinajero herself in front of them, with no talk in the way, the poem and nothing else…and they said gee, Amadeo, is this the only thing of hers you have? is this her only published poem? and I said, or maybe I whispered: why yes, boys, that’s all there is. And I added, as if to gauge what they really felt: disappointing, isn’t it?
The poem is a joke, they said, it’s easy to see…A boat? I said. Exactly, Amadeo, a boat… That was all there was left of Cesárea, I thought, a boat on a calm sea, a boat on a choppy sea, a boat on a storm. For a moment, I can tell you, my head was like a stormy sea and I couldn’t hear what the boys were saying, although I did catch some phrases, some stray words, the predictable ones, I suppose: Quetzalcoatl’s ship, the nighttime fever of some boy or girl, Captain Ahab’s encephalogram or the whale’s, the surface of the sea that for sharks is the enormous mouth of hell…And then, after I’d drunk my tequila, I filled my cup again and filled theirs, and I said that we should drink to Cesárea, and I saw their eyes, those damn boys were so happy, and the three of us raised our glasses as our little ship was tossed by the gale.



Our soul before the wind sails on, Utopia-bound;
A voice calls from the deck, "What's that ahead there? — land?"
A voice from the dark crow's-nest — wild, fanatic sound —
Shouts "Happiness! Glory! Love!" — it's just a bank of sand!

Each little island sighted by the watch at night
Becomes an Eldorado, is in his belief
The Promised Land; Imagination soars; despite
The fact that every dawn reveals a barren reef.

Poor fellow, sick with love for that which never was!
Put him in irons — must we? — throw him overboard?
Mad, drunken tar, inventor of Americas...
Which, fading, make the void more bitter, more abhorred.