An Account of the Sad Mischief Befallen the Inhabitants of the Isle of Sorea, Near Unto the Molucco’s, for Which They Have Been Forced to Leave Their Countrey (From The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Volume 19, London, 1695, abr.)

<strong>Moluccae insulae (1602) by cartographer Petrus Bertius</strong>

Moluccae insulae (1602) by cartographer Petrus Bertius

An Account of the Sad Mischief Befallen the Inhabitants of the Isle of Sorea, Near unto the Molucco’s, for Which They Have Been Forced to Leave Their Countrey. Contained in a Letter, Written in Those Parts, to the Right Worshipful, Nicholas Witzen, Burgermaster of Amsterdam, etc. in the Year 1693. And by Him Communicated to Dr. Martin Lister, S. R. S.

In the beginning of the easterly season, the isle of Sorea, situated towards the south-east of these islands, consisting for the most part of one mountain, which now is more terribly shaken than ever before, casting out abundance of fire and smoke, only with some short intermissions. And when the easterly wind had blown about six or seven weeks, till about the 4th of June, the inhabitants being almost so far used to the trembling and casting up of fire that they were careless, the mountain Sorea began early in the morning to cast out more fire than ordinary, which continued for five or six days, during which it was dark and cloudy weather, till at last it brought forth not only a most prodigious flame, but also such a black and sulphureous vapour, that the inhabitants of Hislo, a village in the western part of the island, and nearest to the opening of the mountain, were wholly covered by it, and afterwards followed a whole stream of burning brimstone, which consumed many that could not escape. Afterwards the inhabitants perceived that a part of the mountain was sunk down, and three or four days after another part; and so from time to time, until the burning lake was become almost half the space of the island. Wherefore the inhabitants went on board their vessels and boats, from whence they perceived that huge pieces of the mountain fell into this fiery lake, as into a bottomless pit, with a most prodigious noise, as if a large cannon were discharged. It was remarkable, that the more vehement the fire was, the less the island was shaken.

The inhabitants of another town, called Woroe, upon the east side of the island, not thinking themselves in so great danger, the opening or fiery lake being yet at some distance, remained a month longer, until they saw the same continually approaching them: they observed that when great pieces fell down, and that the lake became wider, the noise was so much the greater, so that they saw no likelihood but that all the island would be swallowed up; wherefore they unanimously transported themselves to Banda, leaving all their moveables for want of vessels.

Evgeni Bauer (aka Evgenii, Yevgeni)

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto is the largest silent film festival in the world. It’s been held each year since 1981 in the northeastern Italian town of Pordenone, population 5,155. In 1989, the cinephiles, critics, and academics who attended this week-long event were privileged to be the first non-Russians since 1917 to see the films of director Evgeni Bauer. According to Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan, “It’s not easy to shock and awe the international authorities who attend Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, but it happened in 1989 as it never has before or since when the films of this Russian director were screened.” For their technical innovation and “remarkable psychological sophistication,” Turan later wrote, “Bauer’s films have justly been called the work of the greatest director you’ve never heard of.”

Turan’s statement isn’t just the effusiveness of an idiosyncratic film critic. Bauer is “one of the unknown greats of the era,” The Village Voice critic J. Hoberman has written, a director whose “lush morbid melodramas are distinguished by a feverish psychological intensity.” In his essay “Notes on Evgeni Bauer,” film historian and critic Philip Kemp places Bauer in the vanguard of the film directors of his time. “Bauer had a sense of cinematic space, an insight into the creative use of light and an audacity in the handling of the camera that set him far ahead of more celebrated innovators of the period such as DW Griffith or Victor Sjostrom.”

Nor was Bauer unrecognized by his peers. As Yuri Tsivian, one of the foremost experts on Bauer’s work, writes in his biographical sketch of Yevgeny Bauer in The Oxford History of World Cinema, “Bauer’s unique directorial achievements were singled out as early as 1913, as ‘being above praise in their artistic taste and intuition—something rarely found in cinema’.” Iran Perestriani, an actor who worked with Bauer, recalled that “his scenery was alive, mixing the monumental with the intimate. Next to a massive and heavy column—a transparent web of tulle sheeting; the light plays over a brocade coverlet under the dark arches of a low flat, over flowers, furs, crystal. A beam of light in his hands was an artist’s brush.” What’s more, Bauer was also known as a “woman’s director,” and displayed a perspective of gender issues that was unusually complex and contemporary, at least for his time.

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Still from Evgeni Bauer’s Twilight of a Woman’s Soul (1913)

So with credentials like these, why isn’t Evgeni Bauer as well known as early Russian filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein or Dziga Vertov?

The foremost reason is unquestionably Bauer’s early death. Evgeni Franzevich Bauer was born on January 20, 1867 (though most Bauer bios say 1865), to a famous zither-playing father and opera-singing mother. He studied at, but did not graduate from, the Moscow College of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture before working as a caricaturist, satirical journalist, and photographer.

As Tsivian details in Bauer’s Oxford History bio, it was as a set designer for operetta and musical comedies that Bauer would first make his name. He was hired in 1912 as a contract set designer for the Pathé Frères Moscow Department. In 1913, after designing sets for Alexander Drankov and Aleksei Taldykin’s The Tercentenary of the Rule of the House of Romanov, Bauer directed four films for Pathé’s and another four films for Drankov and Taldykin’s studio. He joined the Khanzhonkov company in January 1914.

Over the next 3 ½ years Bauer built an oeuvre of more than 80 films. It’s an impressive number, but it could have been much higher. In 1917, while working in Crimea, Bauer fell over a cliff and broke his leg. He was able to continue working from a wheelchair, but complications ensued that would leave him bedridden, and he eventually died of pneumonia on June 9, 1917.

Of course the other reason for Bauer’s obscurity is the political revolution that was taking place in Russia the year of his death. Bauer’s films and their lush aestheticism would be condemned by the Soviet government as decadent escapism epitomizing the values of the bourgeoisie, despite the fact that the February Revolution had allowed Bauer to more explicitly criticize Tsarist society. As Kerr writes, “In both The Revolutionary and The Alarm, the last films he was able to complete, he showed his sympathy for the revolutionary cause, and, had he survived, Bauer would surely have become a major figure in Soviet cinema.” Tsivian suggests a more enigmatic outcome. “There is no way to tell what [Bauer] would have achieved had he lived into the 1920s.”

The Obscure Films of Evgenii Bauer

Only 26 of Bauer’s 82 films are known to be extant, and of these 26 only three are currently available on DVD (though if you want to go the VHS route, the British Film Institute’s Early Russian Cinema series contains more of Bauer’s films). Twilight of a Woman’s Soul, After Death, and The Dying Swan were released together by Milestone Film & Video on a disc titled Mad Love: The Films of Evgeni Bauer. The films were restored by Gosfilmfond, the Russian film archive, and feature new scores that were commissioned by the British Film Institute.

Twilight of a Woman’s Soul (1913)

Twilight of a Woman’s Soul is Bauer’s earliest surviving film, and though it’s less cinematically advanced in some ways than either After Death or The Dying Swan, it features some remarkable lighting and intriguing camerawork. Above all, it brilliantly exemplifies what Russian film scholar Rachel Morley wrote in her essay for the Milestone DVD: “Bauer’s female characters are consistently shown to be emotionally stronger and more engaging than their male counterparts.”

A viewer wouldn’t exactly guess this from the film’s initial scenes. “Vera feels lonely in her luxurious surroundings” is the intertitle that introduces its heroine. As the picture below illustrates, Bauer uses lighting and deep focus to create a sense of isolation. Later, after being summoned from her room to attend the party that’s being thrown by her wealthy mother, Vera slips away, and the camera follows her solitary pacing with a brief but important tracking shot which Yuri Tsivian praises in his visual essay that appears as a special feature on the Milestone DVD. As Tsivian wrote in his Oxford bio of Bauer, “His tracking shots display a sympathy towards the ‘inner life’ of the characters rather than merely stressing the vastness of the décor”—an innovative technique in Bauer’s time.

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The next day, Vera accompanies her mother on a philanthropic visit to the homes of the poor while wearing a fur hand muff the size of a large dog. This comic innocence becomes tragic when a workman whose arm she’s bandaged turns Vera’s naivete against her. That night, the worker, Maksim, sneaks through her window to deliver a letter begging for her to visit and tend to his injury. Meanwhile, Vera has had a dream that prompts a decision to dedicate her life to the poor (unlike the elaborate dream sequences in Bauer’s later films, the dream is a simple bit of double exposure). Alone, she goes to visit Maksim, and Bauer further signals the workman’s malignant intentions with a hawkish point-of-view shot as Maksim peers down at her from his garret window.

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Maksim rapes her, but then the film takes a surprising twist: after he falls asleep, Vera kills him with one of his own tools. She returns home and broods over the event, but tells no one. Shortly thereafter she meets Prince Dol’skii, a somewhat pompous figure who wins her heart with a display of martial skill. Fencing and pistol shooting with his peers while Vera looks on, he fires each of his three shots into the bullseye. The Prince and Vera are soon engaged.

Vera makes multiple failed attempts to tell the Prince of the rape and subsequent murder, and succeeds in doing so only after the wedding has taken place. The Prince is unable to accept her “shame,” and Vera leaves him. Regretting his reaction, the Prince attempts to find Vera, but she’s left the country.

Two years later, the prince returns from his search. Attending a performance of La Traviata, he recognizes the lead actress as Vera, only now she’s going by the stage name of Ellen Kay. (I’ve not seen any comments on this by Bauer scholars, but I strongly suspect that Vera’s stage name was inspired by the Swedish feminist and suffragette Ellen Key, whose book The Woman Movement was published in 1912, just a year before Twilight of a Woman’s Soul was released. If so, it adds an entirely new layer of commentary to the film’s gender dynamics.)

The Prince visits Vera after the performance and declares his love, but the now worldly and experienced Vera rejects him. The Prince returns home, pulls out a pistol, and shoots himself through the heart—an unexpected coda in which his masculine martial prowess is ironically turned against him. “There are no clear winners in Bauer’s battle of the sexes,” Morley has written, but in this case the winner is indeed clear. The film ends abruptly, without even a glimpse of the dead man’s face.

After Death (1915)

After Death is essentially a tale of impotent, outdated masculinity confronted by the boldness of a modern woman. Based on Ivan Turgenev’s 1882 short story “Klara Milich,” After Death is about a reclusive photographer (in Turgenev’s story he was a scientist), Andrei Bagrov, pure in mind and body as the film’s intertitles relate, who reveres and idealizes the memory of his dead mother.

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Zoia stares at the seated Andrei, who has just endured a momentous tracking shot.

Though the opening of the film features an unmoving shot through a half-closed doorway that uses distance, lighting, and staging to suggest an isolation similar to Vera’s in Twilight of a Woman’s Soul, by 1915 Bauer had learned some much more exciting tricks that display his directorial prowess while also revealing something about his characters. Dragged to a social event by a friend, the reclusive Andrei travels down a long hallway, a social gauntlet of sorts, and is introduced by his friend to small bodies of people on both his left and right. Bauer shoots the entire affair in one astonishing three-minute tracking shot that is the silent film-era equivalent of the tracking shot of Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco walking into the Copacabana in Goodfellas. The camera moves slowly backwards the entire time, dollying out with brief left and right pans, a shot that required Bauer to rig up a two-bicycle platform with which to move the camera.

Near the end of the shot the camera pans left to a curtained doorway through which a woman appears: Zoia Kadmina, an actress. She immediately commands Andrei’s attention, yet he’s too shy to approach her. Shortly after, he attends a charity event where Zoia gives a performance. Andrei leaves immediately after, rejecting the opportunity to be introduced to Zoia, but her eyes follow him in an eerie closeup.

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The bold Zoia writes an anonymous letter to Andrei requesting a meeting in a park. He guesses the letter’s author and keeps the appointment, but her declarations of feeling are too much for his solitary soul. They depart separately, and three months later Andrei reads a notice in the paper that Zoia has poisoned herself, a suicide rumored to be inspired by unrequited love.

Throughout the rest of the film, Andrei is haunted to death via elaborate dreams and visitations by Zoia. Yet her figure and mannerisms are suggestive less of her true self than of what Rachel Morley calls “an out-dated icon of idealized femininity,” perhaps an attempt by Andrei to vicariously fetishize Zoia with some of his late mother’s perfection. In one recurring and visually striking dream, a white-clad Zoia walks through a field of rye, the upper half of her body made blindingly bright via overexposed film.

The Dying Swan (1917)

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Vera Karalli

The character of Zoia in After Death was played by Vera Karalli, formerly a ballet dancer, and so famous as a beautiful queen of the Russian screen that she was used in the plot to lure Rasputin to his death (Morley says “allegedly used,” but other accounts are less equivocal). Karalli also starred in The Dying Swan, this time as a mute ballet dancer named Gizella who becomes the morbid obsession of Count Glinskii, an inept painter. Seeing Gizella perform, Glinskii is convinced that by painting her, he will at last be able to capture “real death” on canvas.

The covert and ambivalent irony of Bauer’s treatment of Andrei in After Death becomes much more overt and sardonic in The Dying Swan, a film which “suggests that Bauer was perhaps growing a little impatient with the dilettantish obsession with morbidity popular at the time,” Morley writes. However, it’s more likely that the mocking tone the film takes toward Glinskii is directed not at others, but at Bauer himself and his obsession with death and the quest for the perfect image. As Tsivian says in his DVD essay, “[Glinskii is] an artist whose interest in death almost parodies Bauer’s own.”

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The shot which introduces Glinskii is so replete with skeletons that it can be easy to overlook the fact that Glinskii is trying and failing miserably to sketch a realistic lifelike/deathlike head. Later, after Gizella has consented to a sitting, Glinskii proudly shows his self-professed work of genius to an older friend, who instantly voices his scornful judgment: “But it is untalented—terrible!”

The Dying Swan features an innovative tracking shot that in its subjectivity, if not in its length or technical prowess, is equal to the tracking shot in After Death. Gizella is asleep on a stormy night. Signaling the onset of a dream, the camera begins to move back, revealing flashes of lightning through the bedroom windows: the dream is going to be a nightmare. In fact, the dream foretells Gizella’s death, ending with a frightening shot of many pairs of disembodied hands reaching out to grab her.

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“Viktor shall marry me if I’m not devoured by my table setting!”

Unexpected happiness becomes the cause of Gizella’s doom. After accepting a proposal from Viktor, a beau who had betrayed her with another woman in one of the early scenes of the film, Gizella visits Glinskii for a final sitting. The Count is astonished by her transformation. “Can this be the same Gizella? Where are those joyless, sad, exhausted eyes?” The film ends as it must, with a strangled Gizella futilely posed by the murderous painter. “Unlike the outcomes depicted in Soviet films, or, for that matter American films of the time, in the works of Bauer… evil rarely got punished. There was a great deal of suffering in them, but it was usually the innocent victim who suffered rather than the wicked person,” Peter Kenez writes in Cinema and Soviet Society, 1917-1953.

Mad Love: The Films of Evgeni Bauer can be purchased through the Milestone website (http://www.milestonefilms.com/movie.php/madl). If you’re interested in reading more about Bauer and his films, I recommend an interesting essay by Galya Diment on the critically overlooked connections between Bauer’s films and the works of Russian novelist and cinephile Vladimir Nabokov.

Some Human & Inhuman Figures from Gaspar Schott’s Physica Curiosa, Sive Mirabilia Naturæ et Artis Libris (Wurzburg, 1662)

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Images from http://fantastic.library.cornell.edu/

Weird Creatures: Nomura’s Jellyfish (Nemopilema nomurai)

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“Of all ocean species, jellyfish are among the least studied by scientists, in part because of their lack of obvious utility to humans, and in part because of the specific challenges of working with them,” Kalee Thompson writes in “Attack of the Jellies” in the January 2008 issue of Popular Science. Nomura’s jellyfish (Nemopilema nomurai) may become an exception, but not because of its massive size and hauntingly beautiful appearance. Economics is a more likely prod to curiosity, for from 2002 to 2007 the inexplicably large blooms of this giant jellyfish resulted in such severe damage to Asian fisheries each autumn and winter that the nations of Japan, China, and Korea convened meetings to address the problem. Just as inexplicably, 2008 saw a massive falloff in the number of Nomura’s jellyfish, with less than 200 sightings as of November 2008 versus about 6,300 in 2007.

“Information on the biology and ecology of N. nomurai is extremely scarce due to the difficulties in sampling and rearing this giant jellyfish as well as its restricted distribution area,” write Hye Eun Lee, Won Duk Yoon, and Donghyun Lim in their article “Description of Feeding Apparatus and Mechanism in Nemopilema nomurai Kishinouye (Scyphozoa: Rhizostomeae)” in the March 2008 issue of Ocean Science Journal. However, several N. nomurai studies have been published in the past three years, and what is known about this gigantic cnidarian is enough to make it more than worthy of inclusion in the Weird Creatures category of this cabinet of curiosities.

The first recorded appearance of Nemopilema nomurai was in Korea in 1814. It resides primarily in the northern East China Sea, Yellow Sea, and Bohai Sea, but as mentioned above it has been moving northward in large numbers into the Sea of Japan. It’s a truly massive creature, capable of growing to a bell diameter or body width of 6’6” (2 meters) and a weight of nearly 450 pounds (200 kilograms), making it one of the largest jellyfish in the world.

Despite its size, N. nomurai’s sting is very rarely lethal. Symptoms are cutaneous (red skin, small blisters), but do include “very intense pain” and a “strong burning sensation,” as described by “Stings of Edible Jellyfish (Rhopilema hispidum, Rhopilema esculentum and Nemopilema nomurai) in Japanese Waters” by Masato Kawahara et al. It’s also edible, but though Japanese fishermen have tried to make a sushi of necessity, N. nomurai hasn’t really caught on, primarily because, as Kawahara writes, “it does not have the preferred crunchy texture.”

As for N. nomurai’s own diet, it may appear large enough to eat a human or jellyfish whole, but it actually eats only small-sized zooplankton, mostly small crustaceans called copepods. As Lee et al. write, an adult N. nomurai, or medusa, has eight oral arms and lacks a central mouth. To eat, it has “developed complicated canal systems connecting the tip of the tentacle and oral arm to the gut cavity… The prey is gathered by paralyzing nematocyst at the tentacles and by adhering cirri at the oral arms and scapulets. They are engulfed into the terminal pore located at the oral arms and scapulets, and entered into the gut cavity via the canal system. The estimated digestion time is 1 hour and 20 min. The diameter of terminal pore is always about 1 mm, implying that they could not eat prey larger than that pore size.” However, young medusae, or ephyrae, do have central mouths, and “could swallow prey as large as adults could.” During the ephyra stage, N. nomurai’s daily growth rate is as high as 15% of its own weight, according to research conducted by Shin-ichi Uye.

Several speculative causes have been given for the 2002 to 2007 Nomura’s jellyfish scourge which resulted in poisoned fish, broken fishing nets, and stung fishermen, and reduced incomes by as much as 80% in some fishing-dependent communities. Potential causes include global warming, overfishing and a resultant niche for invasive jellyfish, and eutrophic or nutrient-rich water flowing into Chinese seas. But last year’s disappearing act—and the lack of Nemopilema nomurai-related research—makes any such speculation difficult. Will Fall 2009 see The Return of the Giant Jellyfish? Only N. nomurai knows for sure…

Ferdinando Cospi and his custodian Sebastiano Biavati (From Museo Cospiano, Bologna, 1677)

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The First Book of Grabinoulor (Pierre Albert-Birot)

“One day Grabinoulor took it into his head to regret all the hours of his life that he hadn’t lived and he immediately decided to live every single second but after four minutes he had to stop living that sort of life because he was so tired that he thought he could see death on the horizon and he had already aged by a month but luckily a green and blue dragonfly kindly came and poised in front of him on the tip of a wild oat so while he was watching it he recouped at least two weeks out of the month he’d lost by trying to gain too much and from that point while he was coming and going considering men’s love for women some ugly little irritations tried to fall on his neck whereupon Grabinoulor made a face and shook himself all over like a horse exacerbated by flies and the little irritations got scared and retreated telling themselves that they’d come back when they were bigger but an extraordinary thing happened which was that Grabinoulor had completely lost the day the date and the hour of the time he was living in that day and he had gone so far astray that he had practically reached eternity or at the very least its outskirts but when he was beginning with unalloyed pleasure to see things such as he had never seen before some signs got together and came and told him today is Wednesday and within a fifth of a second he had found the date and the hour again and it seemed to him that he was a dog chained up outside its kennel even though he was sitting on the sand by the sea and taking great pleasure in discovering all the shapes of his feet with his hand”

–Fifth Chapter, The First Book of Grabinoulor by Pierre Albert-Birot, translated by Barbara Wright

Most everyone who writes about Pierre Albert-Birot, whether as a primary subject or tertiary figure, begins by mentioning the unjust obscurity to which he and his creative works have been relegated. For example, there is the description of Albert-Birot by Johanna Drucker, author of The Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern Art, 1909-1923, as being “now much eclipsed in spite of the role he played in the 1910s as publisher, editor, and promoter/producer of performances and works.” The primary—really the only—critical work on Albert-Birot in English, Pierre Albert-Birot: A Poetics in Movement, A Poetics of Movement by Debra Kelly, calls him “a writer whose work has been neglected by the academic establishment and that remains largely unknown by the general reading public.”

Albert-Birot’s obscurity is so entrenched that it can even border on the comic. In his review of the Encyclopedia of Erotic Literature for The Times Literary Supplement, historian and novelist Robert Irwin observed that “some of the biographical entries are so strange that I wondered if some of these writers had not been made up… Was Pierre Albert-Birot a real person?” Happily yes, both for his readers and his own ebullient self. However, with the recent death of his English translator and advocate, Barbara Wright (she passed in April ’09), Albert-Birot is unlikely to become a publishing phenomenon anytime soon. More’s the pity.

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Pierre Albert-Birot, or PAB as he was nicknamed by his friends, was born on April 22, 1876 in Angoulôme in southwestern France. Though he had a happy childhood, as Wright relates, PAB experienced a “difficult, poverty-stricken adolescence.” After the failure of his parents’ marriage, he moved to Paris in 1894 with his mother, where he studied sculpture at the École des Beaux-Arts because it was free.

Albert-Birot was left to raise his four children on his own when his partner left him in 1909. He began writing in 1913 after meeting his second wife, Germaine de Surville, a musician. Declared unfit for military service in World War One, PAB was collecting unemployment insurance in 1916 when he had what Wright calls “a sort of revelation. What was needed in those barbarous times, he saw, was an avant-garde review.”

An unemployed father of four without any connections in the art world, Albert-Birot produced the first issue of SIC on his own (SIC was an acronym for Sons Idées Couleurs, or Sounds Ideas Colors). The magazine would be published each month from 1916 to 1919 and be associated with movements such as Dadaism, Futurism, Surrealism, Nunism/Presentism, and Simultaneism. Albert-Birot was also responsible for the first staging of Guillaume Apollinaire’s play Les mamelles de Tirésias in 1917. The music for the play was composed by PAB’s wife, and the programme PAB prepared featured the first use of the term “surrealism,” though it was actually Apollinaire who came up with the word while in conversation with Albert-Birot.

Though generally referred to simply as an author, Pierre Albert-Birot was an extraordinarily experimental artist. Debra Kelly lists “figurative paintings and sculptures, still lifes, landscapes, cubist and abstract canvases, experimental forms of la peinture absolue, traditional versification, punctuated and nonpunctuated poetry and prose, sound-generated poetry, visual poetry or ‘poesie plastique,’ translation, linear narrative in more ambiguous form, theater, and autobiography” among his exploits. She forgot to mention PAB’s interest in body puppetry.

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PAB began working on Grabinoulor, the lifelong work that Kelly calls “the key to the universe created by Pierre Albert-Birot,” in 1918. He would continue working on the six-part “epic” until the early 1960s. Despite his work with SIC and various dramatic productions in the 1920s, Albert-Birot spent most of his life removed from the Parisian arts and literary scene, working for more than 50 years as an antiques restorer. After his wife Germaine’s death in 1931, he lived the next 25-some years, in his own words, “excessively, and much too solitary… I live two hours a day. I waste twenty-two in sleeping, doing my domestic chores, and earning enough to live on. These two hours of real life occur after each meal. The whole morning, all I am thinking of is the poetic hour I’m going to have after lunch, and after the meal I feel almost drunk at the thought that in a few moments I shall be immersed in poetry. I go into my work room and it’s really, really as if I were walking into heaven.”

When Wright met Albert-Birot in 1964, she writes, “almost none of his previous work was still in print. A lot of it hadn’t even been published, and was simply sitting piled up in his wardrobe.” He died three years later on July 25, 1967. His “much, much younger” widow, Arlette Albert-Birot, continued to promote his work after his death, but it wasn’t until 1991 that all six volumes of Grabinoulor were published in France (Les six livres de Grabinoulor: Epopee comes to over 900 pages).

Only the first book of Grabinoulor has been translated into English. It was published by Dalkey Archive Press in the U.S. in 1987. Barbara Wright’s translation was awarded the Scott Moncrieff Prize, an annual award for French-to-English translation named after the original English translator of Marcel Proust’s À la recherché du temps perdu. The paperback edition of The First Book of Grabinoulor was released in 2000 and is still available through Dalkey’s website.

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Grabinoulor is a childlike, libidinous, superhuman figure intent on defending the primacy of the earth and his body, yet drawn into elaborate flights of fancy by objects as banal as a bicycle or a map. As Albert-Birot writes at the beginning of Chapter 15, “But you can’t go and live on another planet for very long when you are a man and Grabinoulor’s feet liked the earth and the asphalt for he was born on the Earth so whenever he was elsewhere he felt obliged to come back here”

The absence of punctuation is one of the things that first strikes a reader of Grabinoulor—that and the madcap, priapic joy that the character exhibits right from the getgo, when Grabinoulor awakens with a heart full of sunshine, his nose standing up straight in the middle of his face, and a blanket-clad dibber (his word) reaching out to life in “virile expectation.” In her preface, Wright relates that PAB had declared war on punctuation in 1917, for as one of the poems in his collection Trente et un Poèmes de Poche begins, “Nature has no full stops”

Nor does Grabi, who is able to overcome time and space at will—or perhaps more precisely, “at whim.” After going in search of the Empire of the Dead and failing to find it where Homer, Lucian, Virgil, Dante and others had indicated it was, Grabinoulor builds a Tower of Life that quickly becomes a celebration of copulation, or Poems to the Flesh, in which Albert-Birot exhibits his typographical creativity by setting poems in the shape of a phallus, pubic triangle, a pair of breasts, and a rounded navel.

Grabinoulor’s erotic propensities are simple and affirmative rather than crass, but not without a trace of self-mockery. In the seventeenth chapter, titled “Grabinoulor is a man,” he goes off into a future time inhabited by ten-foot androgynous figures capable of asexual reproduction, a more playful variation of imaginary voyage tales such as Gabriel De Foigny’s The Southern Land, Known (1676) and its allegorical island of hermaphrodites. The giants poke fun at “the little individual with the gross deformity” until, homesick and afraid of being put in a cage, Grabinoulor returns to the Paris streets perfumed by short-skirted women.

The episodes in books two through six of Grabinoulor sound intriguing, and include a twelve-hour Parisian orgy of eating, drinking, and sex as host to the angel Gabriel, and later, the deflowering of Eve by Adam. However, my rudimentary French isn’t up to the task of reading these volumes on my own. Considering how little attention Albert-Birot receives in the U.S., I’m likely to be fluent before a full Grabinoulor translation is published. If and when that distant day comes, I’ll post another detailed review of the remaining five books of Grabi’s epic tale.

In the meanwhile, you can buy a French Simultaneism t-shirt featuring Pierre Albert-Birot’s poetry via CafePress. Too bad it’s green.

The Museum of Ferrante Imperato (From his Dell’historia naturale, Naples, 1599)

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Weird Creatures: Leaf-Rolling Caterpillars & Their Anal Cannons

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A silver-spotted skipper caterpillar at rest. Photo by Tom Pawlesh.

If this is indeed the “best of all possible worlds,” as the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz proposed in his argument for a benevolent and omnipotent God, then it’s logical to assume that the Creator endowed mankind with the best of all possible defecation methods. However, the definition of “best” is problematic in this case, particularly in light of the extraordinary ability that is possessed by a number of leaf-rolling caterpillars—the ability of fecal firing.

A leaf-rolling caterpillar, for those drug-addled deviants among you whose minds instantly conjured the intoxicated caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, is rolling the leaf not because it lacks access to a hookah, but because it needs a hiding place (though the title of a 1955 Ecology paper by James Needham, “Notes on a Leaf-Rolling Caterpillar and on Some of Its Associates,” does sound like an undercover DEA operation).

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“Who are you?”

These feeding larvae are indeed hiding from a sting operation of sorts: the predatory presence of wasps. The Polistes fuscatus, or paper wasp, kills caterpillars in order to feed them to its own developing larvae. To avoid this fate the leaf-rolling caterpillar creates a shelter, folding over a leaf and holding it in place by spinning silk fibers. It can then feed on the ends of its leafy home or cautiously venture out and feed on adjacent leaf surfaces.

There’s only one problem with this cloistered and edible home: poop, or to use the more precise scientific term, frass, i.e. insect excrement. The presence of frass is an obvious tip to wasps—and human gardeners who wish to keep herbivorous pests away from their plants—that a caterpillar is near.

The solution that a number of shelter-dwelling caterpillars—at least 17 moth and butterfly families, according to Dr. Martha Weiss of Georgetown University—have evolved to cope with this threat is both martial and comic: “they fire their droppings like howitzers,” as Carl Zimmer puts it in his book Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures. “As a bit of frass starts to emerge from the caterpillar,” Zimmer writes, “it pushes a hinged plate back against a ring of blood vessels surrounding its anus. The blood pressure builds up behind the plate, which the caterpillar then releases. The pressure of the blood slams against the droppings so suddenly that it blasts them three feet a second, in a soaring arc that carries them up to two feet away.”

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A banana skipper caterpillar and its frass: “…most caterpillars do not have a defecation sequence in which they…fire off pellets.”

In their paper “Faecal Firing In A Skipper Caterpillar Is Pressure-Driven,” Stanley Caveney, Heather McLean, and David Surry state that “most caterpillars do not have a defecation sequence in which they extrude, retract, tilt and fire off pellets of frass.” However, because the anal haemocoel compartment in non-firing caterpillars becomes pressurized during defecation, the authors find it plausible that the periodic elevation of blood pressure “became adapted to power a projectile mechanism to discharge frass pellets.”

The benefits of such an adaptation have been well confirmed by Dr. Weiss’ research. Her article “Good housekeeping: why do shelter-dwelling caterpillars fling their frass?”, published in Ecology Letters, outlines a series of experiments that she performed to test whether frass ejection in the silver-spotted skipper caterpillar (Epargyreus clarus) is related to hygiene, crowding, or natural enemies. (As Dr. Weiss states, this research is rather unusual: “Despite the taxonomically widespread occurrence of frass ejection behaviour, and the use of associated anal structures as larval key characters, the phenomenon has been little studied.”)

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Polistes fuscatus wasp

By introducing the chemical signal of frass into some caterpillar shelters and visually similar black glass beads into others, Dr. Weiss found that P. fuscatus wasps visited frass-containing shelters far more frequently. Of the 17 E. clarus larvae in frass-bearing shelters, only three survived. Of the 17 E. clarus larvae in bead-associated shelters, 14 survived. No significant differences were found between the frass and bead shelters in the hygiene and crowding tests.

While the skipper caterpillar and its anal cannon go happily on to the next stage of metamorphosis, a curious reader might wonder what happens to all that ejected frass. Though frass may not be as “noble” a substance as the maggot-feeding corpses of Hamlet’s fat kings and lean beggars, it is put to an equally good use. In regions where they can be found, leafcutter ants—the fungus-growing ants that are among the world’s smallest farmers—will use caterpillar frass in their agricultural operations.

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A Cyphomyrmex rimosus ant, a relative of the leafcutters that’s found in the Southern U.S. and South America, carrying a piece of caterpillar frass to its nest. Photo © Alex Wild.

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A Cyphomyrmex rimosus fungus garden. The fungi are the yellow globs clustered around the pieces of frass. Photo © Alex Wild.

The curiosity cabinet of the Dimpfel family of wholesale ironmongers and miners from Regensburg (Joseph Arnold, 1608)

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Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities

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“No other work at the beginning of the 18th century offered such a comprehensive survey of the diversity of living beings as [Albertus] Seba’s Thesaurus.” So write Rainer Willmann and Jes Rust in “The Zoology and Botany in Albertus Seba’s Thesaurus,” their introductory essay to Taschen’s gorgeous reproduction of Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities (the proper title of which actually begins Loccupletissimi Rerum Thesauri Accurata Descriptio…; thus “Thesaurus“). Seba’s was neither the first curiosity cabinet nor the last, but its scope, temporal position, and historical influence make it one of the most important, and a fitting subject with which to debut this site, to which I bid you all welcome.

Born in the East Frisian town of Etzel in 1665, Seba was an apothecary—an early pharmacist trained in the practice of creating medicines from vegetable, animal, and mineral ingredients. Traditional recipes were usually followed, which required apothecaries to keep a store of ingredients at hand. For example, theriac, which the 2nd century physician Galen had declared to be a sixty-four-ingredient compound, was considered able to cure any illness known to mankind. “Theriac has two principal virtues, one is that… it preserves the healthy, the other that it cures the sick,” wrote  Bartolomeo Maranta in On Theriac and Mithridatum (1572). Theriac’s ingredients included viper flesh, cinnamon, and opium, and it was used to treat everything from snake bites to plague.

Renaissance apothecaries strove to restore ancient medicine by obtaining the exact theriac ingredients cited by Galen. The wealthier you were, the more exotic and expensive the materials in your medicines would be. Otherwise you might receive a garlic and onion vegetable cure, the “theriac of peasants and the poor,” as it was called by the physician Lodovico Settala (1552-1633). Collecting specimens from abroad was thus a fundamental part of the apothecary’s trade. Many apothecaries also “continued the search for new methods, collecting natural specimens from distant lands, studying them, and testing their potential uses,” writes Irmgard Müsch in “Albertus Seba’s Collection of Natural Specimens and its Pictorial Inventory,” the other of Taschen’s two introductory essays.

<strong>Volume I, Table 57: Flying foxes, a red-headed manakin, and a homalopsine colubrid snake.</strong>

Volume I, Table 57: Flying foxes, a red-headed manakin, and a homalopsine colubrid snake.

Unsurprisingly, this collecting often took on a life of its own. Seba obtained specimens from correspondents in such far-flung locales as Sri Lanka, Virginia, Greenland, and the Dutch colony of Batavia. He would also hustle down to the Amsterdam docks (he became a citizen in 1697) to buy souvenirs from sailors who’d just returned from distant voyages. Snakes, lizards, frogs, and other animals had to be preserved in alcohol, and wouldn’t always arrive in the most pristine condition. Sometimes the alcohol would evaporate, and there was always the possibility that the alcohol would be consumed by thirsty (and apparently not very squeamish) seamen.

By 1717, Seba’s collection was massive enough to draw the attention of Russia’s tsar, Peter the Great, to whom Seba had been providing medicines for several years. Peter the Great purchased the collection for 15,000 guilders (approximately €146,000 or US$215,000 in 2008). It included 72 drawers full of shells (much like the tulipomania of the early 17th century, the conchyliomanie, or shell craze, of the early 18th century had made these quite valuable), 32 drawers containing 1,000 European insects, and 400 jars of animal specimens preserved in alcohol. Seba also engineered the sale to Peter of the curiosities collection of Frederik Ruysch for an even greater sum: 30,000 guilders. The two collections were housed together in Peter’s Kunstkamera, along with mineral collections, malformed infants, and other natural and human curiosities and rarities.

But it’s not this collection that’s featured in the 449 color plates of Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities. After the sale to Peter, Seba started an entirely new collection (as did Ruysch), this time focusing on marine animals, insects, and reptiles. Seba’s second collection would eventually be even larger than his first.

<strong>A Southern common opossum from Volume I Table 39 and a lesser sulphur-crested cockatoo, hawk-headed parrot, tricolored blackbird, helmeted manakin, and hummingbird from Volume I Table 59.</strong

A Southern common opossum from Volume I Table 39 and a lesser sulphur-crested cockatoo, hawk-headed parrot, tricolored blackbird, helmeted manakin, and hummingbird from Volume I Table 59.

In 1731, Seba signed a contract with the agents of two publishing houses to create a book with 400 illustrated plates depicting his collection. The first two volumes of this four-volume work came out in 1734 and 1735, but Seba’s death in 1736 delayed the publishing of the final two volumes until 1758 and 1765, respectively.

Though separated by only twenty to thirty years, the first two and last two volumes of Seba’s Thesaurus were released into very different scientific environments, for Carolus Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae had been published in 1735. Linnaeus’ system of binomial nomenclature—the assignation of Latin scientific names to species—marked an important transition, a movement toward specialization and closer examination of biological forms. However, Linnaeus’ systematization owed much to Seba’s curiosity. The first edition of Systema Naturae recorded 549 species. It cited Seba’s Thesaurus 284 times.

(Seba had actually requested Linnaeus’ help with the preparation of the fishes section of Volume III of his Thesaurus, a volume dedicated to shells and marine organisms. Linnaeus declined, as he had begun working on his Hortus Cliffortianus, a catalogue of the garden of George Clifford III, a director of the Dutch East India Company and a member of the Clifford family of English bankers who had emigrated to Amsterdam in the early 17th century. Linnaeus recommended his friend Petrus Artedi for the job. Two months after beginning work with Seba, Artedi fell into a canal and drowned while walking home at night from Seba’s house.)

Despite Linnaeus’ early reliance on the Thesaurus, Enlightenment scientists would become increasingly dismissive and even scornful of the efforts of collectors like Seba. “It is indicative that even Linnaeus hesitated to cite Seba’s work in the tenth and twelfth editions (1758, 1767) of his Systema Naturae,” write Willmann and Rust. The encyclopedic and seemingly random quality of collections like Seba’s was thought to be confused and amateurish. Yet as the book Possessing Nature by Paula Findlen points out, the Enlightenment worldview failed to account for the cosmological significance of early museums. Irmgard Müsch concurs: “The ideal cabinet of curiosities constituted an attempt to produce an overall picture of this world, the cosmos… The aim was to bring together—at least in representative form—the most complete collection possible of all things knowable and worth knowing.” And as Denis Diderot wrote, “The order of a cabinet cannot be that of nature; above all nature affects a sublime disorder.”

The illustrations in the four volumes of Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, divided as they are into the pre- and post-Linnaean epochs, reflect that what the scientific world gained in clarity it lost in charm. In particular, the first volume features many lively, incongruous, ingenuous, and aesthetically inspired compositions in which plants, snakes, butterflies, birds, and other creatures appear together. (Inspiration was clearly drawn from the colorful, action-packed work of artist Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717) and her 1705 book about the insects of Surinam, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium.) Oddities such as Siamese goat twins and a seven-headed hydra are also included in Seba’s first volume. Anthropomorphized facial features predominate, and differences in scale are sometimes bizarre. The animals were invariably dead and/or unfamiliar, making accurate representations sometimes difficult.

<strong>One of Maria Sybilla Merian's famous action scenes that inspired the illustrations in the first volume of Seba's collection.</strong>

One of Maria Sybilla Merian's famous action scenes that inspired the illustrations in the first volume of Seba's collection.

The illustrations in the subsequent volumes of Seba’s Thesaurus are generally more conventional, so for the sake of interest and time, I’ll close this post by providing a few highlights of the first volume:

• Table 30, Figure 2. Felidae description: “Wild cat from America, resembling the tiger. This beast is so ferocious and mean that it hunts down other animals, pounces on their faces, gouges out their eyes with its long and sharp claws, peels off their skin, and feeds itself on their blood; the cat devours them in deep holes that it has dug and in which it lives.” An inaccurate description as it turns out, and impossible to believe anyway about such a cross-eyed little creature.

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• Table 32 features five moles, plus one of the volume’s rare glimpses of a skeleton (Eurasian common mole). Beneath it lies a cheetah about to scratch the underside of its jaw, a motion one assumes was modeled on a housecat sleeping lazily next to the illustrator.

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• Table 33 is the original home of the jaundiced-looking fellow whose image presides over this literary and pictorial log of naturalia and artificialia. He’s a two-toed tree sloth. Like the sloth on Table 34, he’s standing/walking upright. Linnaeus and others assumed that sloths were a type of monkey.

• Table 45 and its Siamese deer twins. The next table features “Siamese goat twins” and “Siamese twins of young small cats.”

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• Table 48, Figure 2. This “small cat” is a prime example of how the wide-eyed anthropomorphizing could venture into children’s cartoon territory.

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• Table 49 hosts some very amused-looking (yet nonetheless deceased) hedgehogs.

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• Table 102, Figure 1. Hydra description: “Here we see a representation of the animal held to be a serpent with seven heads. A stranger, who did me the honour of visiting my cabinet of natural curiosities in 1720, was the first to give me a picture of it. This stranger told me that he had seen the original animal in Hamburg, that it resembled a serpent with seven raised heads, each of which had its mouth gaping wide open to reveal an arsenal of large and small teeth, having in addition only two feet and a long tail, such that although it was thought to be a serpent with seven heads, it nevertheless looked more like a dragon than a snake.

“I do admit that these relations seemed quite paradoxical to me and had more the flavour of myth than truth. But in the following year, Mr. F. Eibsen, a preacher of the Holy Gospel in a town called Wursten in the Duchy of Bremen, who came one day to see my cabinet, told me the same thing about this hydra and promised to obtain a drawing of this animal for me, which was easily done, since he had connections with the owners of the hydra, the merchants Dreyern and Hamble in Hamburg. He informed me that it had formerly belonged to Count von Königsmark, and that subsequent to his death it was then inherited by Count von Leeuwenhaupt.

“Having heard that the hydra was being offered for sale for ten thousand guilders, which [Eibsen] confirmed, I was inspired by the sheer size of the sum to obtain an authentic illustration. Mr. Eibsen kept his word and procured me the copy I wished. I do admit, though, that not absolutely trusting it, I wrote to my friend Mr. Jean Freder from Notorp near Hamburg. This very judiciously curious natural historian, who had seen the same hydra with his own eyes, assured me that it was definitely not the work of art but truly that of Nature. This friend also sent me a copy in life size and very well illuminated. This latter was used to produce the figure I present here.”

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