Archive for February, 2022

Reflektor 2: Venice

February 22, 2022

To the extent that a reflection can detach from what it reflects – from anything itself capable of reflection, especially – Eva and I sat at the back of a long black Mercedes Benz for the dark hour from Gatwick and took turns squeezing the other’s hand numb in – in my case, at least – a sort of neap tide of the mind, my thoughts neither shallow nor profound, waves of memory lapping against an embankment made of…of what? Of memory also. Memory is, after all, all there is. 

Venice: a city built on water by people hiding from Attila the Hun. In winter: nebbia, and the smell of frozen seaweed.

A journey that began on a fast train through the Veneto, reenacting the war between the gods and titans in voices of Sesame Street characters: “C is for the Cookiemachy, that’s good enough for me,” and didn’t so much end as attenuate, for hours, on a boat motoring lazily across the lagoon in a pink and blue light characteristic of the 18th century. “Tiepolo was a realist,” I concluded. 

By then, we had followed Wystan Auden’s ghost – a tear channelized by wrinkles, although he continued to laugh – into Caffè Florian, where I drank five quick whiskies and recited “The Fall of Rome” as the wine-addled Spaniard behind me, comically failing to comprehend his utensils, finally two-handed a whole dessert into his pie hole. The stolid bartender kept bringing small plates of nosh, for which I thanked him repeatedly; “You’ll need them,” he repeated back. 

I did.

Some islands we rubbed against; others, we disembarked upon; still others, we merely circled: San Michele, San Servolo, San Lazzaro degli Armeni, Giudecca, Murano, Torcello, Lido, Lazzaretto Vecchio, Lazzaretto Nuovo, the Sant’Andrea star fort, San Giacomo in Paludo, and all the rest. 

After a boatman pointed out that gold leaf once covered façades along the Grand Canal, I couldn’t stop thinking: what must that have looked like? 

The two basilicas – di San Marco and S. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari – are both worth lengthy disquisitions, but in the interest of brevity I’ll say only this much: they stopped my heart and restarted it, respectively.

Satyrs ate granola. Glass blackamoors bejeweled a chandelier. As Carnevale – the theme this year: “Remember the future!” – gained momentum all around us, the ratio among thronged bodies of those promenading in costume to those photographing them was tilting rapidly toward the masked. 

We heaved theatrical sighs whenever we passed by the Ponte de i Sospiri. I also passed through it, twice, between the vast, dark, sky-competing ceilings Tintoretto did for the Doge and the rude stone cells from which Casanova and Father Balbi daringly escaped to the roof of the palace in 1756. 

Some happinesses are irreducible. You try squeezing them, even for words, and they shatter into a confetti of disconnected images: 

A septuagenarian hip-bumping to Snoop Dogg, brandishing an orange spritz like she was on a yacht in a video. The quill Napoleon dissolved the Venetian Republic with. The Bridge of Tits. The jogger who, however often he passed us, kept reappearing from behind – as if to confirm we were trapped in a pocket dimension; or else, that following a thread means, necessarily, losing oneself in the knot.

In four days of superb meals, a navigational error led us serendipitously to the best of them. And just as termites produce tiny pyramids of dust, Eva and I accumulate our little piles of books wherever we travel; this time, from Libreria Alta Acqua, Studium, Damocle Edizioni. As she reclined at the foot of the monument to the doomed polar explorer Francesco Querini and his huskies, I read: “And, like the silk stocking of a burlesque half-nude / queen, it climbs up his thigh: gangrene.” 

Robert Harrison thinks the cries of gulls sound like eternity, I mentioned. And speculated that one of three water hearses lashed to a quay outside the Ospedale SS. Giovane e Paolo – the Eterna, Memoria, or Luna – might have been the one to carry off David Graeber. In the little museum of the island monastery San Lazzaro degli Armeni (to which Byron commuted for over two years to study Armenian while he lived on Lido), there was talk of the oldest sword ever discovered (ca. 3300 BC), which, through a quirk of history, happens to have been found in the archive there three years ago.

Eva placed an idol of Ganesha on the as-yet-unmarked grave of Roberto Calasso, and I squatted at the foot of Jospeh Brodsky’s – vegetable matter erupting from its dirt into an eerily humanoid shape, as if to demonstrate, eo ipso, that the resurrection of the body isn’t so much a question of final judgment as of perpetual reconsideration – and recited his “May 24th, 1980” back at him: “Yet until brown clay has been crammed down my larynx, / only gratitude will be gushing from it.”

The rest was fog and water, laughter, whisky, walking, and love. 

Fiery Serpents

February 17, 2022

Marcel Mauss asserted that a “myth is the mesh of a spider’s web, not a dictionary entry.” I agree, and have lately been following threads of a particular geophysical myth-mesh to some pretty far out corners of the web.

Early yesterday morning, for instance, I watched a short, jaw-unhinging documentary by Karen Kramer called The Jolo Serpent-Handlers (just wait until you get to the bit where a guy named Dewey Chafin, who survives an agonizing night – surrounded by a shouting, dancing, electric-guitar-twanging prayer vigil – after being bitten on the arm by a black rattlesnake [Crotalus horridus, probably] during a ceremony, admits it was the 68th time, over 28 years, that it had happened). And in the afternoon, in hot pursuit of the heraldic origin of the biscione, I set off across Mediolanum to visit the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio for a look at what was once purported to be the bronze serpent that Moses, per God’s specific instructions (see Numbers 21: 4-9), carried through the desert exodus on a pole to heal snakebitten Israelites who stared it in the eyes.

Admittedly, I’m less interested in puzzling through the seemingly contradictory position staked out by the Old Testament Lord and His lawgiver with respect to other idols (e.g., the Golden Calf) than in the fact that there is, to this day, a goddamn snake on a pillar in the middle of one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in Europe. I mean, this is where Ambrose converted Augustine, for chrissakes.

Whatever its actual provenance (the Byzantine Emperor Basil II is supposed to have presented it to HRE Otto II in 1000 AD as a gift wrapped in the Moses story) – and even counterbalanced, as it currently is, with a 19th-century cross on a pillar opposite the nave from the snake – the bronze is a deeply weird echo of ancient ophiolatry and of early Neoplatonisms and Gnosticisms that jockeyed for primacy with Arianism and the Nicene creed in the Paleochristian era. “A very obscure sect,” is how Origen described the Ophites. And how. Not just in terms of, ah, origin, but motive, method. And, as Roberto Calasso points out in the wonderful second chapter of his Tiepolo Pink, whom are we even talking about when we talk about the Ophites? “Cainites, the Perates, the Sethites, the Barbelo-Gnostics, the Severians, the Nicolaitans, the Archontics? No answer is given.” But I have, as usual, my suspicions.

Herpetological Footnote

February 6, 2022

When I wrote in the previous post that I don’t have “any especial herpetological interests”, I meant: except for Komodo dragons.*

A Komodo dragon can run down a deer over short distances. They’re cannibalistic, and fight each other standing upright like goddamn Sleestaks. They wear bonemail armor (osteoderms) under their hides. Their mouths are full of sepsis-inducing bacteria to which they themselves are miraculously immune. They can unhinge their lower jaws and consume 75% of their body weight in a single meal. They can swim in the ocean, climb trees, subsist on as few as twelve meals a year, and reproduce by means of parthenogenesis. And oh, yeah. They hunt in groups. The idea that there are thousands of these creatures – some ten feet long and weighing more than 150 lbs – creeping around the Lesser Sunda Islands of Indonesia is nightmarish. Imagine being a Homo floresiensis settler there 200,000 years ago, when darkness was truly dark, sitting inside a shallow cave and realizing your terrible terrible mistake.

*And maybe dragons more generally.

In 2015, my sister and I dragged our then-seventy-three-year-old mother to the ruined fort atop Dinas Emrys to try waking up the dragons asleep beneath the hill. My mom stood well back. You know, just in case. Afterward, something interesting happened. Standing over the foundation of a collapsed tower (pictured here), we started hearing two voices conversing in Welsh. It came as quite a surprise, given that we hadn’t seen anyone in the surrounding woods, or on the (only) trail up, or on the summit as we circumnavigated the ruins. So I ran around the hilltop trying to figure out where they were coming from, but didn’t find a soul. What I did see was an open cave mouth where it hadn’t been ten minutes earlier, in a shady depression beneath the circle of tumbled stones in which the dragons were supposedly confined in 100 AD.

A year later, in the Lake District near High Tilberthwaite, Jay Owens led me to a cavelet she and Ella Saitta had found with a curled dragon made of slate inside, beside a scratched stone reading: WAYNE WAS TASTY. The, ah, long tail of the summoning?

Union of the Snake

February 6, 2022

For a guy without ophiolatrous leanings, or even any especial herpetological interests, I have a lot of snake stories. Weirdly many of them about near-fateful encounters I’ve had with extremely dangerous species. The time, when I was wee, my mother St. Georged a water moccasin that had coiled beneath me on my swing (thanks, mom!). The time I crawled headfirst into a dark shaft beneath the Casa Grande domes without a headlamp and stopped – for no perceptible reason – with my face just inches short of a sleeping rattlesnake.* The time a different rattlesnake bit me on the foot as I waded through waist-high scrub in shorts while bush-running a string of small peaks in the San Bernardinos. Bruno Ganz’s admonition that “only double knots will last” may have saved my life there – or, at the very least, my leg – when the snake’s fangs got snarled in the twice-tied laces of my Asics.

I’ve handled snakes, let them lick my face, and even encircle my body (which reminds me of an elderly, white-afroed Black man I once saw sitting on a stool at Venice Beach, talking on his phone, encircled by three albino pythons; “No photos,” he told me). Deb Chachra and I once threw sleeping bags down in the dune sea that envelops the US-Mexico border near Yuma and slept under the Milky Way. The next morning, we saw evidence that at least one shovel-nosed snake (Chionactis annulata annulata? Chionactis occipitalis occipitalis?) had swum through the sand beneath us in the night, like a baby Shai-Hulud.

I won’t go on, but could.

I mention all of this because I have, while overturning figurative (and actual) rocks in the first few weeks of my PhD, somehow already been surprised by a snake – a fantastically huge one, undulating back through spacetime from the oil fields of eastern Oklahoma to the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (née Southern Death Cult) mounds of the New Madrid Seismic Zone, into penumbral prehistory, of the Early Woodland and even darker, deeper time. I’m supposed to be writing about Gravitational Minimalism for a seminar talk I’ll give in two weeks at University College Dublin, but all I really want to think about these days is snakes.

*Come to think of it, for years, every time I crawled into holes in the ground in the desert southwest I was confronted by sentinel serpents. A run of ill luck interrupted in one notable instance when a growling mountain lion inhabited the cave instead.

At Play in the Magnetic Fields of the Lord

February 2, 2022

Astroeremology is something I’ve had an armchair interest in for a number of years. Back when I first started nosing around it, bouncing ideas off PSU professors like Alex Ruzicka, I was quite taken with one geologic mystery of Mars in particular. Are any of you are familiar with the magnetic lineations the Mars Global Surveyor detected back in 1997? They’re similar – in appearance, at least – to the ones found in the Earth’s crust that led to the discovery of sea floor spreading: evidence that greatly strengthened the theory of plate tectonics. As I’m sure you’re all aware, the notion of any similar activity on Mars, even historically, is a controversial one. And given how long ago the Martian planetary dynamo shut down, the stripes there probably do tell a different geologic story. I mean, they might be hotspot artifacts or some other relic of ancient plate tectonics. Personally, though, although it may only be my chronic impishness flaring up, I agree with Ruzicka’s hypothesis that at least some of those lineations are magnetic paleodunes.

I realize this notion is complicated by a number of unanswered questions – e.g., Could highly magnetized ores be formed by eolian deposition? And even if they could, how might that happen in the absence of an atmospheric water cycle like Earth’s? &c.

I had an idea about this, based on the following (quite possibly bone-headed) assumptions: 1. Eolian deposition is routine on Mars. 2. Some sand dunes lithify. 3. Not all dunes that lithify need to do so in the context of precipitation. 4. Dunes that lithified in a post-precipitation Martian climate might do so if: 

• The obliquity of Mars changed – as it is wont to do occasionally. 

• As a result, the surface of the planet changed position relative to sun, exposing its massive CO2 ice fields in the southern polar region to increased temperatures, some of which melted. 

• Enough CO2 was released to thicken the atmosphere slightly (creating a situation in which both wind patterns changed and small quantities of groundwater were not immediately sublimed away). 

• Wind got shut off to particular dune field. 

• Subsurface ice melted slightly, owing to elevated global temperatures. 

• Moisture wicked up into the dune (because of the new temperature gradient), where it facilitated diagenesis. 

But who knows, really? If they are paleodunes, they may have formed in the context of rain in some remote eon of Martian history. By counting the number of impact craters, measuring their size, and looking for evidence of previously observed erosion patterns, we should be able to date paleodune fields to known geochronological benchmarks, at the very least. If someone – or something – would take a closer look, all sorts of interesting, better-informed questions might be asked. This sort of thing didn’t exist back then, so it may be that MOLA, HRSC, and other instruments have helped sort the mystery out already. If so, I haven’t read about it.

If we (where “we” = “someone, anyone, please”, although there is nothing but an orogeny of other priorities to stop me from acquiring a student edition of ArcGIS Pro and looking back into this myself) do identify topography consistent with paleodunes in those cratered highlands, I’d love to see us drop a robot down to check them for magnetite, limonite, and other hematitic precipitate cements one would expect to see in a lithification process that involved extremely slow, very low T/P redox reactions – which would probably have reinforced the remnant magnetism in the hematite dust.

And, heck, if those magnetic lineations aren’t dunes, that’s probably even more interesting.