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cabinet 181 Wyckoff Street Brooklyn NY 11217 USA tel + 1 718 222 8434 fax + 1 718 222 3700 email firstname.lastname@example.org www.cabinetmagazine.org Winter 2008/2009, issue 32 Editor-in-chief Sina Najafi Senior editor Jeffrey Kastner Editors D. Graham Burnett, Christopher Turner UK editor Brian Dillon Associate editor & graphic designer Ryo Manabe Art director Jessica Green Development director Elizabeth Grimaldi Website directors Luke Murphy, Ryan O’Toole, Kristofer Widholm Editors-at-large Saul Anton, Mats Bigert, Brian Conley, Christoph Cox, Jesse Lerner, Jennifer Liese, Frances Richard, Daniel Rosenberg, David Serlin, Debra Singer, Margaret Sundell, Allen S. Weiss, Eyal Weizman, Margaret Wertheim, Gregory Williams, Jay Worthington, Tirdad Zolghadr Contributing editors Joe Amrhein, Molly Bleiden, Eric Bunge, Pip Day, Charles Green, Carl Michael von Hausswolff, Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss, Dejan Krsic, Roxana Marcoci, Phillip Scher, Lytle Shaw, Cecilia Sjöholm, Sven-Olov Wallenstein Editorial assistants Alexandra Cardia, Karina Granda, Mollie Goldstrom Cabinet National Librarian Matthew Passmore Founding editors Brian Conley & Sina Najafi
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Cover: US Air Force firefighters on Aviano Air Base, Italy, work to extinguish a simulated aircraft fire at their new training facility, 14 March 2008. Courtesy US Air Force . Page 4: Building encased in ice after a fire, 65–83 Little St. James Street, Montreal. Collection Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal. Contents © 2009 Immaterial Incorporated and the authors and artists. All rights in the magazine reserved by Immaterial Incorporated, and rights in the works contained herein reserved by their owners. Fair users are of course free to do their thing. The views published here are not necessarily those of the writers and artists, let alone the lowlights who edit Cabinet.
Ingestion / Power Hungry Ben Kafka Dining with the Committee of Public Safety
The Cosmonaut of the Erotic Future Aaron Schuster A brief history of levitation from St. Joseph to Yuri Gagarin
To Sit, to Stand, to Write George Pendle The authorâ€™s position Notes on Scent Adam Jasper & Nadia WagneR How do you smell?
A Minor History of / Falling from Great Heights Joshua Foer Down to earth
Colors / Puce Barry Sanders A flea in your ear
Inventory / Everyone Once in Berlin! Mel Gordon A semiotics of the Weimar streetwalker
A Fish Called Plaice An introduction
Artist Project: Flounder No. 2 Nesta Mayo
Plaice and Place Sanelma Nicht The significance of space and locality in the investigation of Pleuronectes platessa
Artist Project: Plaice dan woerner
Plaice names Allen S. Weiss A real mouthful
SCREENPLAY PITCH FOR An American Plaice Tim Davis Coming, perhaps, to a cinema near you
Hook, Line, and Sinker: An Interview with Russ Symons Jeffrey Kastner A quiet sort of fishing
Tour of Duty
Therese Robert USS Plaice at war
Beginning the End Jon Calame In the zero thickness of the International Date Line
Fire and TrutH D. Graham Burnett Learning from spectroscopy
Postcard / Artist Project: Re-branding Denmark Superflex
Iron Ivy Thomas A. P. Van Leeuwen The picturesque charm of the American fire escape
Bookmark / fire in the hole The Scoville Scale
George R. Lawrence, Aeronaut- Photographer Christopher Turner Above the ruins of San Francisco
Superflex and the Re-branding of Denmark Mats Bigert
The Great Integrator: An interview with Stephen J. Pyne Jeffrey Kastner Fire in North America
Marks of Assurance Janet Connelly The birth of fire insurance
Sparks of Life Simon Werrett Fireworks and physiology
The Rational Hearth Frumento Combusti Gauger, Descartes, and the Vestal Complex
Julia Wolcott Bucky Fullerâ€™s dome on fire
Contributors Mats Bigert is an editor-at-large of Cabinet and one half of the Swedish artist duo Bigert & Bergström. Life Extended, their new film on the utopian quest for immortality, will have its world premiere at the “Documentary Fortnight” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in February 2009. D. Graham Burnett is an editor at Cabinet and a historian of science at Princeton University. He is the author of four books, including Descartes and the Hyperbolic Quest (American Philosophical Society, 2005) and A Trial By Jury (Knopf, 2001). A winner of the 2009 Mellon New Directions Fellowship, Burnett is currently working on the history of aesthetics. Jon Calame is a partner with the non-profit consultancy group Minerva Partners and specializes in post-conflict urban rehabilitation. His book, Divided Cities: Belfast, Beirut, Jerusalem, Mostar and Nicosia (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), examines shared sequences of partition. Frumento Combusti was born in France and is a principal in Los Gallos, LLC, a company based in Colorado. He is working on a history of the nineteenthcentury Russian-Jewish colony of Cotopaxi, on the Arkansas River. Janet Connelly is a Brooklyn-based writer currently working on the history of fire insurance in Europe and the US. Tim Davis is an artist and writer living in Tivoli, New York, and teaching photography at Bard College. His most recent solo shows, “Kings of Cyan” and “My Life in Politics,” were at Galerie Edward Mitterand in Zurich and the Luckman Fine Art Center in Los Angeles, respectively. Joshua Foer is a freelance science writer. He is working on a book about the art and science of memory, forthcoming from Penguin. He can be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>. Mel Gordon is professor of theater arts at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of numerous books, including Voluptuous Panic: the Erotic World of Weimar Berlin (Expanded Edition) (Feral House, 2006) and The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber (Feral House, 2006). His next book, The Artificial Paradise: Erotic Paris, 1920–1946, will be published by Feral House in 2009. Adam Jasper recently completed a dissertation on minor aesthetic categories. He is an occasional contributor to Frieze, Art Review, and Art & Australia, among others. Ben Kafka is an assistant professor of media studies and history at New York University. He is working on a history of paperwork. Jeffrey Kastner is a Brooklyn-based writer and senior editor of Cabinet. Nesta Mayo, an artist based in Brooklyn, received her MFA from Hunter College, New York, in 2005. She recently exhibited in New York City at the Stanton Chapter and Nurture Art. For more information, see <nestamayo. com>. Sanelma Nicht directs the Project for Applied Historical Biometrics, an HMAP-funded initiative within the School of Future Fisheries at the University of Turku in southwestern Finland. She worked on Alaskan halibut boats for almost ten years, and has contributed to Parakett, Kiiltomato, and Ildfisken. She can be reached at <email@example.com>. George Pendle has written for the Times, the Financial Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. He is the author of Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons (Harcourt, 2005), The Remarkable Millard Fillmore: The Unbelievable Life of a Forgotten President (Three Rivers Press, 2007), and the recently published Death: A Life (Three Rivers Press, 2008). He is currently writing an in-depth study of airport carpeting. Stephen J. Pyne is a professor at Arizona State University, and the author most recently of Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada (University of British Columbia Press, 2008). Therese Robert is an artist based in Long Island City. She is working on a book composed solely of images of various kinds of flounders. Barry Sanders spends his time writing in Pasadena and Portland. His last book, with Francis Adams, was Alienable Rights: The Exclusion of African Americans In A White Man’s Land, 1619–2000 (Harper Collins, 2003). Two books are forthcoming: The Green Zone: Militarism and the Degradation of the Environment (AK Press) and Unsuspecting Souls: The Disappearance of Human Essence in the Nineteenth Century (Counterpoint Press).
Aaron Schuster is a writer based in Brussels. He has lectured and published widely on psychoanalysis and contemporary philosophy, and his writings on art have appeared in Frieze, Frog, Metropolis M, and De Witte Raaf. He coauthored the libretto for Cellar Door: An Opera in Almost One Act (JRP Ringier, 2008), and his Cosmonaut of The Erotic Future: A Brief History of Levitation from St. Joseph to Yuri Gargarin will appear as a book in 2009. Superflex is a Danish artist collective founded in 1993. Russ Symons has fished out of Plymouth, England, all his life and has held two International Game Fish Association world records for pollack, as well as several European and British line class records for a variety of other species. For the last twenty years, he has worked as a photographer and writer using the sea and his fishing as his subjects. Christopher Turner is an editor of Cabinet. His book, Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came To America, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Thomas A. P. Van Leeuwen was professor of architectural history, cultural history, and art criticism at Leyden University for many years. He presently teaches at the Berlage Institute, Rotterdam. His books include The Skyward Trend of Thought: Metaphysics of the American Skyscraper (MIT Press, 1988) and The Springboard in the Pond: An Intimate History of the Swimming Pool (MIT Press, 1998). These studies are part of a tetralogy with each volume centered on the relationship between architecture and one of the classical elements. In preparation are Columns of Fire: The Un-doing of Architecture and The Thinking Foot: A Pedestrian View of Architecture. Nadia Wagner teaches design at the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, Sydney. She is currently researching the role of smell in design and architecture. Allen S. Weiss has recently published his Autobiographie dans un chou farci (Mercure de France, 2006) and Varieties of Audio Mimesis (Errant Bodies Press, 2008). He is currently working on a new book, The Metaphysics of Crumbs. Simon Werrett is a historian at the University of Washington in Seattle. His book Philosophical Fireworks: Science, Art and Pyrotechnics in European History will be published by the University of Chicago Press in 2009. Dan Woerner is an artist who lives and works in Long Island City and in the desert of west Texas on the Terlingua Ranch. He and his primary collaborator, Kate Burnet, exhibit at Art Space NYC and are currently documenting Dark Meat, a seventeen-piece psychedelic ensemble from Athens, Georgia. Julia Wolcott is a writer based in Staten Island, New York. She is currently working on a book project titled Full and Fuller.
“Ingestion“ is a column that explores food within a framework informed by aesthetics, history, and philosophy. / “A Minor History Of,” a column by Joshua Foer, investigates an overlooked cultural phenomenon using a timeline. / “Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet. / “Inventory” is a column that examines a list, catalogue, or register.
Ingestion / Power Hungry Ben Kafka
In the final years of the eighteenth century, the Göttingen physicist, tinkerer, and man-about-town G. C. Lichtenberg—whose habit of procrastination, Wikipedia helpfully tells us, led to his “failure to launch the first ever hydrogen balloon”—recorded a series of observations on human nature. Among these was a proposal for a “Compass of Motives,” which would allow intrepid explorers of individual character to chart human inclinations with a greater degree of precision. “The motives that lead us to do anything might be arranged like the thirty-two winds, and might be given names accordingly, for instance, ‘food-food-fame’ or ‘fame-fame-food.’”1 This observation was a favorite of Freud’s, who took it up twice, the first time as farce, the second time as tragedy. In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), he offered Lichtenberg’s proposal as an example of the role of absurdity in the formation of jokes. The juxtaposition of fame and food, ambition and appetite, struck him as ridiculous, at least at the time. But he was no longer laughing when he returned to Lichtenberg’s observation in an open exchange of letters with Albert Einstein, published by the League of Nations’ International Institute for Intellectual Cooperation as Why War? (1933). This time Freud invoked Lichtenberg’s compass of motives as a genuine psychological insight. Our drives, our motives, are never pure, he suggested. They are always mixed, fused, alloyed. The “food” in the Lichtenberg allusion seemed to be a nod to Einstein’s suggestion that there was a deadly “power hunger” at work in the world. “Power hunger” is almost always taken metaphorically, that is to say, as mankind’s supposedly immutable appetite for power. What if we took it literally? What if we took it to mean the kind of appetite you work up after a long day at the office making decisions about national security or monetary policy? This can be exhausting. Indeed, physiologists have spent considerable time and government research funds quantifying the amount of energy expended on various office tasks, from sitting at one’s desk writing memos to the various subcategories of standing (“light/moderate,” “duplicating machine”). The standard reference on this subject makes no mention of how much energy it takes to order a bunch of people around, but it does tell us that “sitting-meetings, general, and/or with talking involved” consume 1.5 MET s—a unit representing the ratio of working metabolic rate to a resting metabolic rate—while conducting an orchestra consumes 2.5
Bill for food provided to the Committee of Public Safety. It is signed bythe celebrated chef Méot. Photo Ben Kafka.
METs.2 Such measurements can’t be taken too seri-
ously, of course. But they nevertheless signal something important about the kinds of material resources—some abundant, others scarce—that make state power possible on a daily basis. The hunger for fame, perhaps. The hunger for lunch, definitely. As usual, to reinvigorate our understanding of the history and theory of power, we can turn to the French Revolution. More than two centuries later, it remains both eerily familiar and irreducibly strange. The Committee of Public Safety is remembered more for the blood on its hands than for the grease on its fingers. During the revolutionary Terror of 1793–1794, its twelve (later eleven) members implemented a series of more or less ruthless measures designed to protect the young republic from its enemies, internal and external, real and imaginary. “If the mainspring of popular government in peacetime is virtue,” Robespierre said in his famous discourse on political morality, “the mainspring of popular government in revolution is virtue and terror both: virtue, without which terror is disastrous; terror,
without which virtue is powerless.”3 Of course it took a lot of effort to maintain virtue and terror both in a nation of twenty-eight million people. The republic was at war with the British, the Austrians, the Prussians, the Spanish, and the Dutch. And it was at war with itself, as angry royalists, refractory priests, and their sympathizers in the Vendée fought against Parisian control. Bad harvests, sabotage, hoarding, and profiteering added to the difficulty of supplying the troops, feeding the populace, and managing the nation. What’s more, office hours were brutal; during the daytime, committee members would work in their separate bureaus, overseeing large staffs of clerks and copyists, handling hundreds of reports, circulars, memos, and other documents. In the evening, they would assemble in a chamber high up in the Tuileries, the palace once located between the Louvre and what is now known as the Place de la Concorde, but at the time was known as the Place de la Revolution. The chamber, which had formerly served Louis XVI as a private office, was called the “Green Room,” after the color scheme of
its wallpaper and conference table. Here, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Carnot, and the other committee members— who didn’t much like one another—would report on their respective departments, argue about proper procedure, come to agreements, and plot courses of action. These meetings usually lasted until three or four in the morning. Then they got to go to bed. There are no records of what was said or eaten in the Green Room during the Terror. What scant evidence I’ve been able to find suggests that the committee members were largely left to fend for themselves. Carnot later recounted: “I worked so hard that I did not even give myself time to go dine with my wife, even though I lived on rue Florentin [just a few blocks away]. I dined each evening on the terrace of the Feuillants, with food from a caterer named Gervais.”4 After one especially bitter argument with Robespierre, the latter had Carnot’s caterer arrested, just for the heck of it. Or so Carnot later claimed—he was facing accusations of colluding with the terrorists and was doing everything he could to distance himself from the “Incorruptible.” On the night of 27 July 1794, the regime’s opponents staged a coup, invading the Green Room and arresting several committee members. Robespierre shot himself in the face as he was being wrestled to the ground; with no linen on hand to make bandages, his captors tried to staunch the bleeding with sheets of paper. The Committee of Public Safety, which had been functioning as a largely autonomous executive power, deciding everything from postal routes to peace treaties, was purged of its most militant elements. The night is best known by its date on the revolutionary calendar, 9 Thermidor—and in French “Thermidorian” is immediately associated with “reactionary.” Not only were Jacobins hunted down and punished—Jacobin women, for example, were stripped naked and flogged in the streets by gangs of so-called “gilded youth”—but the entire culture took on a gothic cast, with flourishes of extreme luxury, even decadence, framed by a general morbidity. ••• At this point, the archives suddenly get very interesting, at least from a culinary perspective. I was going through old payroll records in France’s National Archives when I came across a series of bills and receipts showing, in splendid detail, how the committee fed itself from one day to the next. Instead of forcing its members to find dinner on their own, the reformed Committee of Public Safety began to order its meals in.
Food made its way into the committee by three routes. The first was a supply of snacks and beverages brought in by the committee’s clerks, who were reimbursed for the cost. One receipt is titled “Itemized Expenses Incurred both for the Bureaus and the Central Office of the Committee of Public Safety during the month of Brumaire Year III of the Republic One and Indivisible”—roughly November 1794. In it, we see that the committee and its bureaus consumed 178 livres‘ worth of “syrups”—sweet concentrates to be mixed with water—and “victuals,” which could mean pretty much anything. To give some sense of relative prices, this was approximately a month’s salary for a low-level clerk. Another seventy-five livres and change went to cheese and fruit; half as much again to biscuits and little cakes. These were mainly provided by a certain Madame Uzépy, the only woman to find employment as a clerk in the Committee of Public Safety; she was hired after her husband was killed on an official mission. It seems that her son worked there too—it was not uncommon for boys as young as twelve to perform various ancillary office tasks. And then there was the wine. The offices of the subcommittee responsible for military affairs consumed sixty-six bottles over the course of the month; thirty-one more went to the conference room where the committee itself met; eighteen more to the library. This is routine stuff, not that much different from what any workplace might consume, except maybe a bit boozier. Far more interesting is what the committee itself ate on a daily basis. And this we can determine in still more detail. Another document, from the revolutionary month of Pluviose Year III, or approximately February 1795, shows a day-by-day inventory of the catered meals at the post-Thermidor Committee of Public Safety. On the first of the month, a ham in aspic, four red partridges, pastries, and biscuits. On the second, pastries and biscuits. On the third, a veal tongue, four more red partridges, and the ubiquitous pastries and biscuits. And so on. Now granted, these inventories aren’t menus, and don’t tell us much about how the dishes were actually prepared and presented. I was particularly curious about all these red partridges—a relatively banal game bird that could not have been that much fun to eat day after day. (Alexandre Dumas’s culinary dictionary, published in 1873, explains that the grey partridge was much preferred in the eighteenth century.)5 What we can say with some certainty is that the execution of these meals must have been creative enough and elaborate enough to compensate for the monotony of the main ingredients. This can be gathered from the signature on these bills,
which belonged to Méot, one of the most celebrated restaurateurs of the revolutionary era. He had opened his restaurant in 1791 after his former employer, the Prince de Condé, fled to Coblenz to organize a counterrevolutionary army allied with the Austrians. Méot’s eponymous restaurant was famous for its superb cuisine, sumptuous decor, and, above all, its powerful clientele. Louis Sébastien Mercier, the great chronicler of Parisian life in the final decades of the eighteenth century, described the meals at Méot as the best in Paris, and thus anywhere in the world. The food was “warm, prompt, well-made,” the dining rooms “gilded, sculpted, theatrical.” Finally, the prices were the highest in Paris.6 Méot’s bill for the month of Pluviose Year III, for instance, came to 2623 livres, or about fifteen times a clerk’s monthly salary. In the decades following the French Revolution, Méot would be lauded as a pioneer by both Grimod de La Reynière and BrillatSavarin. In addition to members of the Committee of Public Safety, who are said to have drafted France’s first republican constitution over lunch at Méot in June 1793 (earning the document the nickname la constitution Méot), famous revolutionary customers included MarieAntoinette’s judges, who celebrated her condemnation at the restaurant in October of the same year. Given Méot’s legendary extravagance, how might the Committee’s red partridges have been prepared? Though we have no recipe from Méot himself, one of his greatest rivals, Antoine Beauvilliers, later published one in his Art of Cookery (1814). Chef Beauvilliers instructs the cook to take three partridges, remove the feathers, trim the claws, stuff them with a pound of truffles and a half pound of lard that’s been mixed with truffle pairings, sew the cavity, and truss the legs. Fill a pot with lard, ham, the fat of veal kidneys, a mirepoix, a bouquet garni, half a glass of white wine, a spoonful of consommé, and a little salt. Gently lay the partridges breast-down on top of this mixture, cover with slices of lemon and bacon, bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, and braise for fortyfive minutes. Drain, carve, and serve with a Perigord sauce—a madeira-based sauce embellished with diced truffle. There is one final route that food took into the committee’s offices and stomachs, one that seems to be associated with special occasions, and that attests to power hunger at its most robust. Unlike the snacks supplied by the committee’s clerks, or the meals delivered daily by the caterer, these were ordered in advance, with the ingredients stipulated by the officials themselves. On a standard pre-printed form of the sort used for recording official decisions, we find a handwritten note, which 10
says: “coupon for thirty bottles of wine, twenty-five pounds of bread, and thirty pounds of meat to be delivered by Citizen Méot, caterer. He will also include two bottles of barley syrup”—a sweet dessert sort of drink, generally non-alcoholic—“and ten rice porridges.” And it’s signed “The Representatives of the People Charged with the Direction of the Armed Forces, J. F. B. Delmas.” Beneath, tabulated in what appears to be Méot’s handwriting, though it may be that of one of his assistants, we read “one veal shoulder, one veal tongue, one paté of poulard,” and the rest of the items that Delmas had requested. Best of all—and it’s a nice touch—what look to me very much like grease stains. 1 Lichtenberg, quoted in Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious , in Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. James Strachey, with Alex Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1953–1974), vol. 8, p. 86. Translation slightly modified. 2 Barbara E. Ainsworth, William L. Haskell, Melicia C. Whitt, et al., “Compendium of Physical Activities: an update of activity codes and MET intensities,” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, vol. 32, no. 9, suppl. (2000). 3 Maximilien Robespierre, “On the Principles of Political Morality that Should Guide the National Convention in the Domestic Administration of the Republic,” in Robespierre, Virtue and Terror, trans. John Howe (New York: Verso, 2007), p. 115. 4 Réimpression de l’ancien Moniteur (Paris: Plon, 1863–1870), vol. 24, p. 74 (10 Germinal, Year III / March 30, 1795). 5 Alexandre Dumas, Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine (Paris: Alphone Lemerre, 1873), p. 814. 6 Louis Sébastien Mercier, Le Nouveau Paris , ed. Jean-Claude Bonnet (Paris: Mercure de France, 1994); pp. 608–609. On restaurant culture in the revolutionary era, see Rebecca Spang’s wonderful study, The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).
opposite: Order for food signed by Jean-François-Bertrand Delmas during a meeting with the Committee of Public Safety. Beneath the order is the caterer’s tally of the cost of each item ordered. Photo Ben Kafka.
1618 ca. 8 AD
A Minor History of / Falling from Great Heights Joshua Foer
from the Tower of the Golden Phoenix. The emperor calls it a “liberation of living creatures.” In fact, all the prisoners die upon striking the ground.
ca. 8 AD Ovid publishes his canonical account of the
ca. 875 Feathered and wearing a large winged cloak,
myth of the wax-winged Icarus, spurring generations of like-minded daredevils to fall to their deaths. 3rd century To ensure that the builder of one of his
beloved towers would never replicate his work elsewhere, the Persian king Shapur I orders the architect to construct the tower’s roof without providing any means for his own descent. “The architect, in no position to reject the offer, requested only that he have enough wood to build a shack to protect himself from vultures,” writes Michael Abrams, author of the definitive history Birdmen, Batmen, and Skyflyers. “Once the tower was complete, the architect hewed himself a pair of wings with the wood and, with a little help from a strong wind, flew to his escape.” 6th century In perhaps the earliest recorded attempt
at human flight, the short-lived tyrannical Chinese emperor Kao Yang orders a group of condemned prisoners to attach bamboo wings to their backs and jump 12
the Berber astronomer and poet Abbas Ibn Firnas climbs a tower near Cordoba and pronounces, “Presently, I shall take leave of you. By guiding these wings up and down, I should ascend like the birds. If all goes well, after soaring for a time I should be able to return safely to your side.” All does not go well. After flying a short distance, Ibn Firnas crashes to the ground, badly injuring his back. ca. 1500 According to legend, a Ming dynasty bureau-
crat named Wan Hu constructs a rocket-propelled chair with the aim of travelling to the stars. He attaches fortyseven large black-powder rockets and a pair of kites to a wooden chair, robes himself in his finest attire, and invites forty-seven assistants to light the fuses simultaneously. When the smoke and flames clear, Wan Hu and his chair are gone. 1617 Inspired by the sketches of Leonardo da Vinci, the
Croatian polymath Faust Vrancic builds the world’s first rigid parachute, and then uses it to successfully leap
1887 1877 1891
from a Venetian tower. He dubs his invention Homo Volans, the Flying Man. 1618 A group of irate Bohemian Protestants storm
the Hradschin Castle and hurl two leading members of the Catholic Council of Regents and a scribe out of a high window. Though they land on a pile of garbage and survive, the Defenestration of Prague nonetheless sparks the Thirty Years War. The surviving scribe, Philip Fabricius, is later granted the title Baron von Hohenfall, literally “the Baron of Highfall.” 17th century In a letter to his friend Sir Isaac Newton,
Robert Hooke outlines the consequences of digging a tunnel from one side of the earth to the other. A “gravity train” dropped into such a tunnel would accelerate in free fall to some 25,000 miles per hour until it reached the center of the earth, at which point it would begin decelerating until eventually coming to a complete rest at the other end of the planet. Total trans-planetary travel time: 42 minutes and 12 seconds.
1877 Fourteen-year-old Rossa Matilda Richter, working
under the stage name Zazel, inaugurates her acclaimed human cannonball act. Stuffed into a spring-loaded 13
cylinder that was patented six years earlier by “the Great Farini,” Zazel is launched into the air accompanied by fireworks and a loud bang, and lands in a net sixty feet away. Many years later, having grown wealthy and famous from her cannonball act, Richter is crippled when the stunt goes awry. 1887 Apparently drunk, renowned funambulist
Stephen Peer loses his balance and plummets forty-five feet to his death while attempting a midnight crossing of the thinnest tightrope ever strung over Niagara Falls, a steel cable a mere five-eighths of an inch thick. According to local Niagara lore, it was not a wire-walking misstep that did Peer in, but rather a bullet shot by one of his funambulatory rivals. 1891 Monsieur Carron unveils his “Machine for
Sensational Emotions” to the editors of Nature magazine. The mortar-shaped thrill-ride, containing a cabin large enough for fifteen intrepid thrill-seekers and a large bed of springs underneath, is to be dropped from the top of the Eiffel tower. According to Carron, it will reach a speed of 172 miles per hour in free fall, faster than any human being had theretofore travelled, and “it will be prevented from being dashed to smithereens by
falling into a water-filled pond shaped like a champagneglass.” Mr. Carron assures the editors of Nature that “the shock felt by the occupants on landing will be in no way unpleasant.” 1901 In search of fame and fortune, a sixty-three-year-
old retired dancing instructor named Annie Edson Taylor becomes the first person ever to plunge over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive. Upon recovering from her concussion, she tells reporters, “If it was my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat.” 1912 With a film camera trained on him, Austrian tailor
Franz Reichelt steps off the observation deck of the Eiffel Tower wearing a combination overcoat-parachute garment of his own design. He expects onlookers will measure the duration of his flight. Instead, they measure the depth of his crater. 1937 “Someday I think that everyone will have wings
and be able to soar from housetops. But there must be a lot more experimenting before that can happen,” says Clem Sohn, also known as “Michigan Icarus” and “the human bat.” Just before falling to his death at the Paris 14
Air Show, he assures an onlooker, “I feel as safe as you would in your grandmother’s kitchen.” 1942 Hugh De Haven, an American pilot who survived
a World War I airplane crash, publishes his landmark paper “Mechanical Analysis of Survival in Falls from Heights of Fifty to One Hundred and Fifty Feet,” which concludes that “the human body can tolerate … a force of two hundred times the force of gravity for brief intervals.” Thirteen years later, De Haven is issued a patent for the first three-point seatbelt. 1960 Air force pilot Joe Kittinger is lifted 102,800 feet
into the sky in a pressurized balloon. At the end of his three-hour ascent, at the edge of space, looking out across the arc of the Earth, he opens the capsule and jumps into the vanishingly thin air. During his twenty-sixkilometer free fall, which lasts four-and-a-half minutes, he accelerates to 615 miles per hour, arguably becoming the first man to touch space and certainly the first to break the sound barrier outside of an aircraft. 1972 Croatian terrorists blow up a DC -9 jet 33,316 feet
above Czechoslovakia, killing all twenty-nine passengers and crew, save one, a twenty-two-year-old Serbian
stewardess named Vesna Vulovic, who free-falls for over three minutes without a parachute, before colliding with the side of a snow-covered mountain. Miraculously, she survives. 1974 Queen Elizabeth II travels to Pentecost Island, in
Vanuatu, to witness the world’s most primitive form of bungee jumping. Each spring, just after the first yams begin to emerge from the soil, the men of the South Pacific island erect enormous wooden towers, some as tall as seventy-five feet, in each of the island’s villages. The men climb to the top of these towers, attach two long elastic vines to their ankles, announce to the world their most intimate (and occasionally last) thoughts, and then leap. The vines are supposed to catch the jumper just at the point where his hair is able to brush the ground, ritually fertilizing it for a bountiful yam harvest. 1987 The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical
Association publishes a study of 132 cats that fell from high-rise buildings. It concludes that, contrary to expectations, the higher the fall, the more likely the cat is to survive. Researchers hypothesize that in falls of more than seven stories, cats are able to flay their bodies like a parachute, decreasing their terminal velocity. 15
2001 Between 8:46 am and 10:28 am on September
11th, at least two hundred people jump to their deaths from the north tower of New York City’s World Trade Center. According to USA Today, which systematically studied videos of the horrific day: “For those who jumped, the fall lasted 10 seconds. They struck the ground at just less than 150 miles per hour—not fast enough to cause unconsciousness while falling, but fast enough to ensure instant death on impact. … They jumped alone, in pairs and in groups.” 2008 Harnessing himself to 1,000 helium-filled balloons, Father Adelir Antonio de Carli takes off from the Brazilian port of Paranagua in a fundraising stunt to help build a spiritual rest stop for truck drivers. After reaching an altitude of 20,000 feet, an unexpected change in wind patterns blows the Catholic priest out to sea, where he loses radio contact with the ground, and eventually plunges to his death. Several days later, his balloons are discovered floating on the ocean waves, but not his body.
Adolphe Neyt, photomicrograph of a flea, ca. 1865.
Colors / Puce Barry Sanders
Some French wag in the seventeenth century played a colossal joke on the world, creating a color that everyone has heard of but, over three hundred years later, very few can define. The color is puce. But that’s not the joke. It’s that puce turns out to be the most decidedly sexual and most violent color in the paint box. Puce is about plotting. Puce is about villainy. And it is not just about simple murder, but the emotionally charged and deranged murder usually associated with love—with jealous, overheated love. Think twice about using puce, or at least heed its creepy history. The first but by no means strangest fact about puce is that it owes its existence to one of the tiniest animals in the kingdom, the flea—in Latin, pulic or pulex, or more descriptively, pulex irritans. In Old French, flea is pulce, which by the time of the Renaissance becomes puce. Which prompts the question: how did we get from the loathly flea to the lovely puce? The answer is a surprising one—especially in the usually predictable world of the color wheel. Don’t expect to find the answer in the Oxford English Dictionary, for it offers only the following thoroughly confusing definition: “Of a flea-color; purple brown, or brownish purple.” Does the OED deliberately deceive? Puce is not flea-color—that would render the color black. And black is far from either brown or purple. The supreme arbiter of the English language only perpetuates the mystery. Even putting aside the differences of color, we have to ask: Why would anyone memorialize such a nasty, outrageously useless pest? Surely, there must be something other than perversity going on here. Camel brown and dove gray, colors that take their name from respectable animals, we can understand. But a flea seems out of the question. After all, fleas have been responsible over the centuries for millions of deaths. The flea is the plague; the flea is the Black Death. Moreover, everyone knows the flea’s intimacy with that dreaded rodent, the rat—a relationship just too, too disgusting for most people. And yet the flea has another side, this one outlandishly sexual. It’s what appealed, I am certain, to our anonymous French wag. The flea took on its sexual identity from a string of suggestive cognates with puce, like pucelle, “maiden” (and in certain contexts, “slut”); pucelage, “maidenhead”; and depuceler, “to deflower.” In addition, the French eroticize the flea in a phrase popular since the fourteenth century, “avoir la puce à 17
l’oreille” (“to have a flea in one’s ear”), meaning that one harbors a libidinous urge, “a sexual itch.” Say the word puce today, and a Frenchman will either titter or offer a knowing wink. As far back as antiquity, that little black speck starred in some of the most elaborate metaphors of love, beginning with a volume of poems entitled Carmen de Pulice, “Songs of the Flea,” which some historians attribute to Catullus, and others to Ovid. But while the flea’s sexual career blossomed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries with a rash of erotic flea poetry, it really took hold in late sixteenth-century France after a celebrated court scandal. A flea, it seems, can fell a nation. The events in question unfolded in the most innocent way. One particular evening in the summer of 1579, Monsieur Étienne Pasquier, a lawyer and distinguished man of letters, made a call on Madame Madeleine DesRoches at Poitiers, and, to his surprise, noticed a flea on the bosom of her daughter, Mademoiselle Catherine. Pasquier, along with the other assembled gentlemen, showed special interest in the flea’s audacity but delighted even more in the privileged spot the flea had chosen for itself. A great commotion ensued, the men huddling in the corner to plot a course of action: should one of them pluck the flea, so to speak, or should they ignore the tiny parasite altogether? No, they decided, they could not completely sidestep the flea and the virgin. And so, as distinguished men of letters, they decided to commemorate the event by composing poems about the jet-black flea on Mademoiselle’s snow-white bosom. With great fanfare, they published their cycle of some fifty poems, in 1582, giving it the very direct but nonetheless provocative title, La Puce de Madame Des-Roches. In an attempt to dazzle Mademoiselle Catherine with the far-fetched reaches of his poetic imagination, the rather portly Pasquier imagined himself as a flea—more accurately, perhaps, as a pest—so as to better play the lover: “If only God permitted me / I’d myself become a flea. / I’d take flight immediately / To the best spot on your neck, / or else, in sweet larceny, / I would suck upon your breast, / or else, slowly, step by step, / I would still farther down, / and with a wanton muzzle / I’d commit flea idolatry, /nipping I will not say what, / which I love far more than myself.” Lacking in restraint (and good taste), Pasquier grew even more tedious as he brought his love to a climax of sorts, falling back on that overused French phrase: “Oh flea . . . / Thanks to you, Madame / Is aroused for me. / For me she is aroused / And has a flea in her ear.” We have no record of Catherine’s or her mother’s reaction
to Pasquier’s rugged doggerel. Critics, too, chose not to comment. Most of the assembled gentlemen wanted to kill the flea, but stopped themselves. Which takes us to the very dark heart of the joke. A flea’s color does not change after it bites an animal or a person: the flea, both pre- and post-bite, retains its jet-black appearance. Some poets boasted that they could notice a change in the size of a flea after it had taken a bite, the image of an engorged flea designed to bolster the insect as sexual symbol. But to discover if a flea has blood inside it or not—in this case, Mademoiselle Catherine’s elegant and refined blood—requires one thing only: a person must flatten it. That’s what the men at the Des-Roches court all knew: the temptation to kill the flea is always present, always a reality. Confronted with the flea, each one of us, even the most normal-seeming person, just cannot wait to get that irritating pest between our nails—especially after it has bitten an arm or leg—and slowly, deliberately squeeze until we hear that tell-tale pop. Call it what you want, but that death squeeze constitutes an act of revenge. And it’s that trace left behind on your fingertips, the reddish stain, that our seventeenth-century French practical joker memorialized as “la couleur puce.” And thus the catch—the real joke. We can only enjoy the color puce, only experience it first hand, by killing. In order to spill our own artistic guts, we must first spill the flea’s. And given its sexual connotations—recall pucelage and “maidenhead”—“popping the flea” reverberates with sexual innuendo, specifically with breaking the hymen. Puce is love’s stain. Hence none of those respectable gentlemen around Catherine would dare “kill the flea,” so to speak, at least not in public view. Like vampires and vampire bats, the flea feeds on human blood, but in the sixteenth century it sucked with much more meaning. Aristotelian science, popular in the Renaissance, imagined coitus as the mingling of the man and woman’s blood—just the perfect thing to fire the imagination of one of the period’s most clever poets, John Donne. In the opening to his sonnet “The Flea” (1633), the speaker tries to persuade his mistress to go to bed with him, using a flea bite as his come-on for coupling: “Mark but this flea, and mark in this, / How little that which thou deniest me is; / It sucked me first, and now sucks thee, / And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.” The mistress remains silent throughout the poem. We never hear her speak. Clearly, however, she has been stewing. For, in the last stanza, she destroys the 18
speaker’s overblown argument by literally taking matters into her own hands. She kills the flea, which brazen act draws a shriek of protest from the speaker: “Cruel and sudden, hast thou since / Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?” In her mind, the need for revenge; on her fingers, the evidence of the abuse of puce. Donne describes a woman who breaks convention to assert herself: I’ll kill the flea myself, she seems to be saying, and remain whole and intact, to boot. Her undersized revolutionary act did not go unnoticed. Just a few years later, for example, the Renaissance French painter Georges de La Tour made that same bold statement the subject of his painting, La Femme à la puce (ca. 1640), sometimes translated as The Flea-Catcher. His famous Femme brings to a conclusion the history of puce. A woman, draped loosely so as to reveal her breasts and a good deal of her mid-section, sits in front of a candle with a flea trapped between her thumbnails: we catch her in the act of killing. She makes visible the desire of the woman in Donne’s poem, to put an end for all time to such demeaning, flea-sized sexual foppery. Indeed, one needs a magnifying glass to see the flea in La Tour’s painting, and even then it is doubtful one could actually make out its tiny shape. The flea seems to have totally disappeared. We are aware of it solely in La Tour’s title. Woman has triumphed, and that is in part why some art historians choose to identify La Tour’s lady as Mary Magdalene—more upstart and aggressive than most women in the Bible, more so than her discreet sister, and more so, certainly, than that other Mary. And thus all we can really see, and what has been left behind in the painting, is pure color. La Tour has bathed the entire canvas in a purple brown or brownish purple, depending on how the candle illuminates parts of the background. The Flea-Catcher, a radical painting in the history of art, takes on a bit of philosophical importance, as well. For La Tour destroys not just the animal, but also the sexual origins of that single, sneaky, most playful and dangerous color, already a part of the French palette by La Tour’s time, la couleur puce. The flea is dead—“out of the picture.” Only the pure color remains, cleverly present in the painting’s title, this time in the second meaning of puce. And that’s the color we use today—still elusive, still playful, but decidedly asexual. Even after some three hundred years, ask what color puce is and most people will immediately think of puke—a yucky green or even a slightly ratty brown. They have no idea of purple brown or brownish purple, and know nothing at all of fleas or flirting or bloody murder.
Inventory / Everyone once in berlin! mel gordon
Between 1919 and 1933, Berlin was one of the Jazz Age’s primary destinations for sex tourists. Its civic leaders even promoted this unsavory attraction in 1927 with the oblique and comic proclamation, “Everyone Once in Berlin!” Nocturnal erotic delights, in fact, had become the metropolis’s third most lucrative industry. The very first thing foreigners noticed in Berlin was its thousands of prostitutes, on the streets, in hotel lobbies, and seated at cafés and clubs. How many women made their living selling sex in Berlin during the Golden Twenties is impossible to calculate, but estimates range from a low of 5,000 to the oft-published figure of 120,000 (not including the city’s estimated 35,000 male prostitutes). It all depended on one’s definition of the term. Commercialized sex in the Prussian capital was technically unlawful but allowed in practice. Only two strictures were consistent: unlike Paris, Buenos Aries, or Shanghai, Berlin had no established red-light district or legalized brothels, and prostitutes were prohibited from verbally soliciting customers or announcing their services in print. Instead, they had to signal their vocation and specialized activities by other means: through frequenting specific locales, using the subterfuge of evocative pseudonyms, or adopting particular codes of dress. Altogether there were seventeen distinct varieties of female prostitutes in Weimar Berlin. Although relatively few in number (300 to 350), Boot Girls, dominatrices near the Wittenberg Platz, provided Berlin nightlife with its most ubiquitous local color. Since the fur-coated Boot Girls’ particular services were suggested by the iridescent colors of their calf-length, patentleather boots and shoelaces, suitors had to be intimately familiar with their semaphore-like advertising before accompanying them to nearby apartments. Naturally, only devoted aficionados could decipher such specific messages with confidence. Other potential clients had to buy special primers, where Berlin’s complex street semiotics were thoughtfully decoded for the uninitiated. Arriving in Berlin during the inflation crisis of 1922– 1923, Klaus Mann remembered walking past a group of the outdoor dominatrices: “Some of them looked like fierce Amazons, strutting in high boots made of green, glossy leather. One of them brandished a supple cane and leered at me as I passed by. ‘Good evening, Madam,’ I said. She whispered into my ear, ‘Want to be my slave? Costs only six billion and a cigarette. A bargain. Come along, honey!’” Eight years after Mann’s encounter, 19
Curt Moreck reported on the same corner: “One favorite tourist site is located near the corner of Passauer and Ansbacher streets, west of Wittenberg Platz. There, a trio of six-foot-tall Boot Girls are garishly costumed in red and black attire like nineteenth-century horsewomen. Snapping a riding crop, the tallest Amazon bellows menacingly, ‘Who will be my slave tonight?’” The following is an inventory of the services offered by the various types of prostitutes working indoors and outdoors in Weimar Berlin.
Two guides to nightlife in the Weimar capital: So It Seems— Berlin! (1927) and Berlin: What’s Not in the Baedecker Guide (1927).
Polish-born Jews, also knows as Lublins, from the Polish industrial town of Lublin.
Child prostitutes, aged twelve to seventeen, who were made to resemble junior versions of theater or film starlets and were ordered by telephone.
Young women from good families who occasionally supplemented their allowances by working in highclass houses in west Berlin. Dominas
Leather-clad women who specialized in whipping, humiliation, and other forms of punishment, and worked in lesbian nightclubs that admitted heterosexual couples and free-spending male clients. Fohses
Independent prostitutes who advertised in newspapers and magazines as manicurists or masseuses. Medicine girls
Child prostitutes who were “prescribed” by pimps posing as physicians in phony pharmacies in west Berlin. Minettes
Exclusive call girls who enacted S&M fantasy scenes involving foot worship and forced transvestitism. Race Horses
Masochistic prostitutes who worked in “Institutes for Foreign Language Instruction” where the schoolrooms were equipped with bondage equipment. Table Ladies
Prostitutes who worked at expensive nightclubs often frequented by politicians and businessmen who paid “table money” for an evening of champagne and conversation prior to a backroom encounter. 20
Dominatrices near the Wittenberg Platz whose sexual services were signaled by the colors of their boots, laces, and ribbons, sometimes worn in combination. —Black boots: buttocks cropping (lying on bed). —Brown boots: asphyxiation by boot or stockinged foot. —Cobalt blue boots: forced feminization; penetration by female. —Lacquered gold boots: bound feminization; physical torture. —Poisonous green boots: psychological enslavement. —Brick red boots: buttocks flagellation (tied to bed or cross). —Scarlet boots: forced feminization; transvestite humiliation.
Lowly streetwalkers who performed oral sex in the Tiergarten. Gravelstones
Physically deformed women who worked in north Berlin. Half-Silks
Occasional prostitutes, often secretaries, shopkeepers, and office clerks supplementing their incomes after work. Kontroll Girls
Three defined classes of licensed prostitutes, whose health was certified by city physicians. Münzis
Pregnant women who waited under lampposts on Münzstrasse. Nuttes
Boyish teenage girls who framed their transactions with the protocols of dating, enticing their customers with lines such as, “Don’t you think we should have a coffee first?” Tauentzien Girls
Women wearing the latest fashions and hairstyles, often working in mother-and-daughter teams near the Kaiser Memorial Church.
—Black laces: punishment with a short whip. —Gold laces: defecation on chest. —Maroon laces: verbal humiliation. —White laces: collared like a dog. —White ribbons on top of boots: a roleplay scenario in which the male customer begins as the dominant figure and ends as the submissive party.
opposite: illustration of Weimar-era prostitute.
Saint Joseph of Copertino, artist unknown.
The cosmonaut of the erotic future Aaron Schuster
What happens to levitation, one of the great imaginative figures of art and literature, in the transition from a religious culture to the disenchanted universe of modern science? What becomes of ecstasy, rapture, ascension, transcendence, grace when these give way to “space oddity”: man enclosed in a tin can floating far above the world? Is the cosmonaut a prophet of the erotic future, avatar of man’s stellar renaissance, as Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke once imagined? Or is he like Nietzsche’s madman, proclaiming as Gagarin himself was rumored to have said: “I don’t see any God up here”? Levitation: what is it?
The word levitation has several senses and connotations: miraculous, magical, oneiric, but also scientific and technological. Levitation is equally an affair of mystics and engineers, charlatans and poets. One thinks of the feats of the Scottish medium Daniel Dunglas Home, 23
Yves Klein, The Leap into the Void, 1960.
who on December 13, 1868 (one of the most auspicious days in the history of levitation) floated out of a thirdstory window and returned through the window of an adjoining room; or the ascension of Christ, archetype of all saintly air travel; or the magnetic levitation train zipping commuters between Shanghai and the Pudong International Airport at a maximum speed of 431 km/h. Levitation derives from the Latin levitas, meaning lightness. The term would appear to have been coined as the opposite of gravitation, sometime in the early seventeenth century when humanity’s conception of the cosmos was being revolutionized by Brahe, Copernicus, and Kepler. Rather than being based on qualitative “elective affinities,” the attraction of bodies became a matter of purely quantitative relations expressed by algebraic symbols. Though the ancient cosmology was effectively vanquished by the new clockwork universe, this was hardly a simple or straightforward affair. Even Sir Isaac Newton hedged his bets. While developing his theory of gravitation, Newton was also privately elaborating a highly idiosyncratic theology. According to certain
Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni), The Blessed Ranieri Rasini Freeing Poor People from Prison in Florence, 1437–1444.
obscure and, until recently, largely neglected writings, after the Apocalypse “children of the resurrection” (notably Newton himself) would be able to levitate at will, soaring “to the furthermost extremities of the universe.”1 Levitation is also related to levity, to the lighthearted, the frivolous, and the fun. The link between levitation, levity, and laughter was made explicit in the 1964 Walt Disney classic Mary Poppins (as we’ll see, the the 1960s was an absolutely crucial decade for levitation). Near the end of the film, the curmudgeonly bank director miraculously ascends as he goes into hysterics at an employee’s little joke. I won’t tell you the joke—it’s not very good. Later we learn that the old man died. But he died happy from levitating laughter. Parceling the sky
One of the great literary works of the past century dealing with levitation, combining the technology of aviation with Christian mysticism, is Blaise Cendrars’s Le lotissement du ciel (literally “The Parceling of the Sky” but translated as Sky Memoirs). Begun during World War 24
II and published in 1949, Cendrars’s book presents a kind of literary collage. Prose poetry, exotic travelogues, personal memoirs, and found texts, including scholarly documents, are all pasted together in a complex construction. Cendrars is renowned as an adventurer, and the stories he recounts here do not disappoint: there is his trip across Siberia with a jewelry merchant, his pilgrimage to a strange Brazilian doctor obsessed with Sarah Bernhardt, his voyage from Rio to Cherbourg with 250 tropical birds (none survive the boat ride), his work as a war correspondent for British headquarters in Paris. But it is the death of his son Rémy, a pilot who perished in the early months of the war, that provides the novel’s “center of gravity.” Often Cendrars’s “parceling of the sky” is interpreted as an act of mourning. He had spoken with his son about the idea of proposing St. Joseph of Copertino, famed levitator, as the patron saint of French aviators. Though Cendrars’s plan was foiled by the American air force, which adopted St. Joseph as their own guardian angel in 1943, his fascination for the flying priest was unabated. While hiding from the Gestapo in
Aix-en-Provence, he spent his time in the library immersing himself in the study of levitation, and in particular the life of St. Joseph. Cendrars ends the first part of the book with a passionate proposal to make a film about the levitating saint: “If a producer ever feels like making this prodigious film, I—I, who have sworn never again to waste my time making films—will drop everything, give up my solitude, my tranquility, and my writing, to make this film about St. Joseph of Copertino, in memory of my son, Rémy, the pilot, and as a souvenir for his sometime girlfriend, the out-of-work baker’s girl, with whom I lost touch in wartime Paris.”2 St. Joseph: The Movie
What might this cinema of levitation have looked like? And what genre would it be? Perhaps an action film? That would certainly fit the temperament of Cendrars, but, frankly, there is not much in the life of the seventeenth-century Italian priest to recommend such an approach. It is true that Joseph’s miraculous flights did provoke suspicion, and that he was investigated by the Inquisition at Naples for several weeks. But in the end, Joseph was released after the judges found no demonic wrongdoing. A historical drama, then? Large portions of Cendrars’s book are simply transcriptions of the classic 1928 study by Olivier Leroy titled La Lévitation: Contribution historique et critique à l’ étude du merveilleux. One could imagine a Duras-style film essay with long shots of airplanes taking off and landing, perhaps an image of a tropical sun floating languidly in the sky, while the voice-over endlessly recites passages from Leroy. Personally, I like to think that it would have been a slapstick-style comedy with lots of physical gags—the unfortunate priest always being lifted off at just the wrong moment, flying away while sitting on the toilet, and so on. There are two details that speak in favor of this conception. First, Joseph was the only saint ever to have succeeded in flying backwards: retrorsum volantem. Cendrars was especially delighted by this fact. Second, Joseph was a total imbecile who (ironically) became the patron saint for candidates for the priesthood and people taking university degrees. So, what we have in effect is a dim-witted backwards-flying priest, a role that would have been perfect for Jerry Lewis in his prime. In order to envision the appropriate kitsch aesthetics for our hypothetical comedy, we need look no further than The Flying Nun, a highly eccentric television series that ran from 1967 to 1970. No history of levitation would be complete without mentioning this program. 25
Anonymous, The Ascension of Christ, from the series Travels and Wanderings Through the Holy Land, ca. 1481.
The show centered on the adventures of a group of nuns in the Convent San Tanco in Puerto Rico. Sister Bertrille could be counted on to get the nuns out of any jam by virtue of her unexplained ability to fly (perhaps it had to do with the aerodynamics of her oversized hat). Of course the storylines were limited—there are only so many situations one can devise that require the heroine to levitate—and so the show was cancelled after three seasons. As it happens, a film was made about the life of St. Joseph. It is titled The Reluctant Saint and was released in 1962. The movie was directed by Edward Dmytryk, who is best known for The Caine Mutiny and for being one of the “Hollywood Ten.” It is very difficult to get hold of a copy of this film. I have seen it and can report that it is rather conventional and dull. Yet with Ricardo Montalban playing the suspicious Father Raspi, and the great Maximilian Schell in the role of St. Joseph, it is still definitely worth a view. The artist levitator
I think it would not be terribly controversial to call Yves Klein the artist-levitator of the twentieth century. Indeed, with Klein, levitation becomes a veritable revolutionary program. In his 1959 manifesto Overcoming the Problematics of Art, the artist proclaims: “We shall thus become aerial men. We shall know the forces that pull us upwards to the heavens, to space, to what is both nowhere and everywhere. The terrestrial force of
Gianni Motti, Levitation, 1995 (in collaboration with illusionist Mister RG).
James Bond levitates in orbit with Holly Goodhead in Lewis Gilbertâ€™s Moonraker, 1979.
Bruce Nauman, Failing to Levitate in the Studio, 1966.
The miracle of love as levitation in Andrei Tarkovsky, The Mirror, 1975.
attraction thus mastered, we shall literally levitate into a complete physical and spiritual freedom!”3 This ideal, which is simultaneously that of the artist, the artwork, and life itself, is embodied in Klein’s iconic photograph The Leap Into the Void ; its other, lesser known title is Obsession of Levitation. The artist’s audacious plunge is that of a saint announcing the dawn of a new era,4 an epoch of immateriality where buildings will be fashioned from air currents, color dissolved into the void, and life and art merged in blissful union. In the caption beneath the photograph, it is written: “Today the painter of space must, in fact, go into space to paint, but he must go there without trickery or deception, and not in an airplane, nor by parachute, nor in a rocket: he must go there on his own strength, using an autonomous, individual force; in short, he must be capable of levitation.”5 With his leap, Klein both anticipates the space flight of Yuri Gagarin and outdoes him. The artist is superior to the cosmonaut in that his journey into space is made without the aid of technological gadgetry. Of course, it is ironic that The Leap Into the Void is precisely a doctored photograph, an early and masterful example of image manipulation before the days of Photoshop. As much as it may aspire to “True Life,” art, after all, remains a matter of illusion. The photograph was staged on October 19, 1960, with Klein’s judo pals holding a blue sheet to catch the levitating artist. It appeared soon after in the publication Dimanche 27 novembre. Le Journal d’un seul jour (Sunday November 27th: Newspaper of a Single Day). Failing to levitate, or the art of the fall
Bruce Nauman’s photograph Failing to Levitate in the Studio appears six years later as a kind of counterweight to Klein’s ascensional sublimation (sublimation being one of Klein’s favorite words). From the triumphant leap of the artist-levitator, always suspected of charlatanry and cheap showmanship, we are presented with the fall of the clown. (Nauman once famously transformed himself into a spitting fountain.) Later, Nauman staged a performance in which two actors were instructed to sink into the floor or, more mysteriously, let the floor rise above them. If the classical ideal of art is a kind of elevation, lifting up or spiritualization, one way of characterizing contemporary art is as an “art of the fall.”6 Rather than the miraculous flight of the saint, its iconic figure is the well-timed tumble of the slapstick artist. In short: Buster Keaton in place of St. Joseph. I am thinking especially of Bas Jan Ader’s Fall films, but there are many failed levitations in recent art history. After hearing about The Leap Into the Void, Paul McCarthy reportedly jumped from 27
his balcony—and broke a leg. There should be a name for this kind of vertiginous mimetic behavior. Perhaps after the Stendhal syndrome, we could call it the Klein syndrome. Psychoanalyzing the cosmonaut
“The cosmonaut of the erotic future” is a phrase that occurs once, in passing, in the 14 March 1962 session of Lacan’s seminar Identification—the same year as the release of the film The Reluctant Saint, almost one year after Yuri Gagarin’s space flight aboard Vostok-1 on 12 April 1961, and approximately sixteen months after the appearance of The Leap Into The Void. In other words, a particularly propitious moment in the history of levitation. How does the analyst interpret Gagarin’s voyage? Lacan paints a vivid portrait of the cosmonaut as living pulp implanted in a tin can, quivering flesh plugged into a complex technological apparatus. If for Freud man had already become a “prosthetic God,”7 in the era of the cosmonaut he would seem to be relegated to a button pusher, utterly dependent on the machine that supports his life functions and extends his limited sensorium. Gagarin himself, together with Soviet psychologist Vladimir Lebedev, stated plainly: “The main function of the operator in the ‘man-machine’ system, provided it functions normally, is to take the reading of instruments.”8 For Lacan, the precarious situation of the cosmonaut hooked into an impenetrable mechanism is not an isolated or extreme case, but reveals the universal condition of the human subject. We are all erotic cosmonauts, split between our everyday, phenomenological life experience and the computing apparatus—what Lacan calls the “symbolic order”—that parasites our body and secretly controls our thoughts and desires. The lot of the modern subject, adrift in a universe of significations without substantial support or foundation, is perfectly encapsulated by the “the experience of the cosmonaut: a body that can open and close itself weighing nothing and bearing on nothing.”9 Space sex
At one point during his speculations on the cosmonaut, Lacan raises the delicate matter of the effects of antigravitation on sexual desire: “What happens in the state of weightlessness to the sexual drive, which usually manifests itself as going against gravity?”10 In other words, what happens to male erection in outer space? How can the phallus properly “levitate” in a gravityfree environment?11 There have been internet rumors circulating for some time about sexual experiments conducted by NASA and the Russians, but it was popular
French science writer Pierre Kohler who first discussed them in print in La Dernière mission: Mir l’aventure humaine (The Last Mission: Mir, The Human Adventure), published in 2000. The chapter titled “Cosmic Love” (in English) begins with a precise scientific question: “Have the astronauts—or the cosmonauts—already made love in outer space? If so, how many of them … and who?” Considering the secrecy of government organizations, we may never know the answer. For the conspiracyminded, Kohler reports that information regarding the best positions for sexual intercourse in a state of weightlessness is to be found in the NASA dossier STS 75-Experiment no. 8. At the end of the film Moonraker, James Bond floats in amorous embrace with Dr. Holly Goodhead, but this is a highly idealized picture. As Kohler informs us, zero-gravity sex is no easy proposition: best first to strap yourself to your partner.12 Jews in space
Compared to the Christians, levitation is not really a Jewish strong point. One can, of course, find some scattered episodes of miraculous flight in the Old Testament, but the phenomenon of levitation, especially as ecstatic experience, is largely absent from the Jewish tradition.13 There is an important exception to this general neglect: Emmanuel Levinas’s reflections on Yuri Gagarin, contained in his short 1961 essay “Heidegger, Gagarin and Us.” What does space flight signify for the Jewish philosopher? The first thing that strikes the eye is the way that Levinas puts Gagarin and Heidegger back to back. Strange comparison: what do the Russian cosmonaut and the rustic thinker of Todtnauberg have to do with one another? In fact, they represent absolute antipodes: Soviet Communism and German Fascism, technological wizardry and technophobic anti-modernism, vita activa and vita contemplativa. Most importantly, for Levinas this impossible couple stands for the choice between “enlightened uprootedness” (enracinement éclairé) and “earthly attachment” (attachement terrestre). By voyaging into space, man leaves behind his mythic homeland: even further, he discovers that this hallowed place was never anything but superstition and idolatry. Levitation makes of the human being a creature of the universe. Against the philosopher of the forest clearing, Levinas defends the astral desires of technological man. To quote Levinas’s remarkable elegy to Gagarin in full: What is admirable about Gagarin’s feat is certainly not his magnificent Luna Park performance which 28
impresses the crowds; it is not the sporting achievement of having gone further than the others and broken the world records for height and speed. What counts more is the probable opening up of new forms of knowledge and new technological possibilities, Gagarin’s personal courage and virtues, the science that made the feat possible, and everything which that in turn assumes in the way of abnegation and sacrifice. But what perhaps counts most of all is that he left the Place. For one hour, man existed beyond any horizon—everything around him was sky or, more exactly, everything was geometrical space. A man existed in the absolute of homogeneous space.14
In brief, Gagarin is the ultimate figure of exile: a man without roots in a cosmic desert without horizon or end. Mel Brooks once made a comedy sketch called “Jews in Space,” but Levinas goes even further: in the vast expanses of space, we are all wandering Jews. Remembering how to fly
In the February 2008 issue of the Journal of Hand Surgery, there appeared an article by Dr. Samuel O. Poore examining the question of whether, through reconstructive surgery, the human arm may be transformed into a functional wing. Can man’s ancient dream of unassisted flight finally be realized through cuttingedge surgical techniques? After thoroughly detailing the medical possibilities and problems, the answer finally is no.15 Yet as a certain literature would have it, the power to fly, far from being a vain aspiration, is a most ordinary and general human capacity. Everyone can fly. Only, we have forgotten how to do so. The historian of levitation cannot fail to be impressed by the different ways in which levitation is posited as universal destiny. Who is the cosmonaut of the erotic future? Is he the soaring angel of ecstasy that augurs the coming of paradise on earth? Is he the machinic apparatus that parasitizes our body and controls our deepest desires? Or is he the geometric prophet of a new interstellar Diaspora? One of Eugene Ionesco’s lesser-known plays, A Stroll in the Air, first performed on December 15, 1962 (a little more than one month after the release of Dmytryk’s film on St. Joseph), suggests that salvation lies in reclaiming our innate levitative powers. When Monsieur Bérenger rises into the sky one Sunday afternoon, he explains his behavior to dubious onlookers thus: “Man has a crying need to fly.... It’s as necessary and natural as breathing .... Everyone knows how to fly. It’s an innate gift but everyone forgets.”16 The same sentiment was later echoed in Paul Auster’s Mr.
From “Jews in Space,” a segment in Mel Brooks’s History of the World, Part I, 1981.
Alexei Leonov, Over the Planet, 2003. Painting of the first spacewalk by the cosmonaut who accomplished it. Courtesy Alex Panchenko.
Marc Chagall, Over Vitebsk, 1915–1920.
Cover for edition of two plays by Eugene Ionesco.
Poster for Steven Spielbergâ€™s E.T., 1982.
Vertigo. At the novel’s end, the narrator, once a vaudevillian “Wonder Boy” renowned for his gravity-defying stunts, offers the following simple instructions for levitation: Deep down, I don’t believe it takes any special talent for a person to lift himself off the ground and hover in the air. We all have it in us—every man, woman, and child—and with enough hard work and concentration, every human being is capable of duplicating the feats I accomplished as Walt the Wonder Boy. You must learn to stop yourself. That’s where it begins, and everything else follows from that. You must let yourself evaporate. Let your muscles go limp, breathe until you feel your soul pouring out of you, and then shut your eyes. That’s how it’s done. The emptiness inside your body grows lighter than the air around you. Little by little, you begin to weigh less than nothing. You shut your eyes; you spread your arms; you let yourself evaporate. And then, little by little, you lift yourself off the ground. Like so.17 This essay is adapted from a talk given as part of the night program of the Berlin Biennial (“Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours”) in the Zeiss Planetarium, Berlin, on 4 May 2008. 1 Frank Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton (London: Oxford, 1974), p. 102. I also draw here on Joel D. Black, “Levana: Levitation in Jean Paul and Thomas de Quincey,” Comparative Literature, vol. 32, no. 1 (Winter 1980), pp. 44–45. 2 Blaise Cendrars, Sky Memoirs, transl. Nina Rootes (New York: Paragon House, 1992), p. 148. The other great writer of the twentieth century fascinated with St. Joseph was Italian playwright and actor Carmelo Bene, who wrote a whole play about the flying priest. For Bene, the most interesting characteristic of St. Joseph was his imbecility—he quips that Joseph was so stupid he didn’t even know the law of gravity. 3 Yves Klein, “Overcoming the Problematics of Art,” in Overcoming the Problematics of Art, transl. Klaus Ottmann (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, 2007), p. 64; translation modified. 4 The suspended pose of the self-defenestrating artist might best be described with the paradoxical expression of an “upwards fall.” As Cendrars writes: “The saint who falls into ecstasy falls into the abyss, floats On High, levitates, gyrates in a transport, breaks out, and is no longer in possession of himself. At the most, he lets out a cry or a last sigh. Then he lets himself go and plummets into the very depths of the Word of God. He soars…” op. cit., p. 135. 5 Klein, “Selections from ‘Dimanche,’” in Overcoming the Problematics of Art, op. cit., p. 106. 6 See Gérard Wajcman, “Desublimation: An Art of What Falls,” Lacanian Ink, no. 29 (Spring 2007). 7 Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, transl. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1955) vol. 21, pp. 91–92. 8 Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Lebedev, Psychology and Space , transl. Boris Belitsky (Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2003), p. 259. 9 Jacques Lacan, “Merleau-Ponty: In Memoriam,” Merleau-Ponty and Psychology, ed. Keith Hoeller, transl. Wilfried Ver Eecke and Dirk de Schutter (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1993), p. 74; translation modified. 10 Lacan, Seminar IX, L’Identification, session of 28 February 1962 (unpublished). 11 For the father of psychoanalysis, the paradigmatic levitating object is the phallus. “The remarkable phenomenon of erection,” Freud writes, “around which the human imagination has constantly played, cannot fail to be impressive,
involving as it does an apparent suspension of the laws of gravity.” The Interpretation of Dreams, in Standard Edition, vol. 5, p. 394. Freud’s colleague Victor Tausk adds that erection is first experienced as “an exceptional and mysterious feat,” something “independent of the ego, a part of the outer world not completely mastered,” and even a kind of “machine subordinated to a foreign will.” See “On the Origin of the ‘Influencing Machine’ in Schizophrenia” , Sexuality, War, and Schizophrenia: Collected Psychoanalytic Papers, ed. Paul Roazen (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1991), pp. 213–214. 12 In contrast, in the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky, levitation always occurs in place of the sexual act. By virtue of its unreal, miraculous character, levitation is apt to convey the miracle of love, which, according to Tarkovsky, is completely obscured by images of copulating bodies. Incidentally, it was another Soviet filmmaker, Pavel Klushantsev, who first filmed zero-gravity space scenes. 13 One should not forget, however, the mystical tradition of Judaism, which includes flying rabbis; see, for example, the floating Jews in Cynthia Ozick’s short story “Levitation,” or scenes of flight in the paintings of Marc Chagall. Like Judaism, official Islam also de-emphasizes levitation. One of the most interesting treatments of levitation in the Islamic tradition is found in the work of Avicenna, who, some six centuries prior to Descartes, proposed a radical thought experiment to demonstrate the nature of self-consciousness. This experiment, in which a man is imagined deprived of sense data, floating in a void, was later dubbed the “Flying Man.” 14 Emmanuel Levinas, “Heidegger, Gagarin and Us”  in Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, transl. Seán Hand (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1997), p. 233. 15 Samuel O. Poore, “The Morphological Basis of the Arm-to-Wing Transition,” Journal of Hand Surgery, vol. 33 (February 2008). I thank Darius Miksys for this reference. 16 Eugene Ionesco, “A Stroll in the Air,” in Plays, vol. 6, transl. Donald Watson (London: John Calder, 1965), pp. 46–47. 17 Paul Auster, Mr. Vertigo (New York: Penguin, 1994), p. 293.
To sit, to stand, to write George Pendle
One of the more curious denouncements to appear in Friedrich Nietzsche’s supremely truculent Twilight of the Idols (1888) is a brief but furious attack on the writing habits of Gustave Flaubert. In a letter to Guy de Maupassant, his protégé, Flaubert had made the seemingly innocuous statement: “One cannot think and write except when seated.” The author of Madame Bovary (1856) had always been a sedentary sort and had previously informed Maupassant that “a civilized person needs much less locomotion than the doctors claim.” However, to Nietzsche’s ear, finely attuned to the slightest signs of cultural decadence, Flaubert’s admission was nothing less than an attack on the nature of creativity itself. “There I have caught you, nihilist!” he snapped triumphantly. “The sedentary life (das sitzfleisch—literally “sitting meat”) is the very sin against the Holy Spirit. Only thoughts reached by walking have value.” Ever since Nietzsche’s declaration, there has been some disagreement among writers, thinkers, doctors, and designers as to whether inspiration and creativity come from being seated and quiescent, or from being upright and vigorous. (Full disclosure: This article is being written standing up.) It was the early twentieth century labor journalist and suffragette, Mary Heaton Vorse, who pithily described the art of writing as “the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” Vorse was expressing a distinctly Flaubertian sentiment that was all the more radical when one considers how few women wore pants at the time. Ernest Hemingway, by contrast, proved to be a strict Nietzschean, declaring that “writing and travel broaden your ass if not your mind and I like to write standing up,” which he did by perching his typewriter on a chest-high shelf, while his desk became obscured by books. Yet trying to find out whether authors who share similar writing positions also share similar writing styles is by no means easy. Such disparate authors as Virginia Woolf, Lewis Carroll, and Fernando Pessoa all wrote standing up, while Mark Twain, Marcel Proust, and Truman Capote took the Flaubertian creed to its ultimate extent by writing while lying down. Indeed, Capote went so far as to declare himself “a completely horizontal writer.” We can conjecture that it was physical considerations that caused the six-foot-six-inch Thomas Wolfe to write his opulent, autobiographical novels using the top of the refrigerator as his desk, the shifting of his weight from foot to foot being a neat approximation of 32
the Nietzschean decree that all writing should “dance.” But what do we then make of Roald Dahl, also six-footsix, who everyday climbed into a sleeping bag before settling into an old wing-backed chair, his feet resting immobile on a battered traveling case full of logs? Dahl’s claim that “all the best stuff comes at the desk,” is a simple modern variation on Flaubert’s static dictum. Occasionally the hint of a philosophical similarity can be drawn between those who share the same manner of writing. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.—the Supreme Court justice who coined the phrase “clear and present danger” to limit the First Amendment when its practice endangered the state—wrote his concise legal opinions while standing at a lectern because “nothing conduces to brevity like a caving in of the knees.” Such a sentiment seemed to be echoed, albeit in a somewhat distorted manner, by another member of the federal government (and fellow vertical writer), the former secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld. When Rumsfeld was handed a list of approved torture techniques being used at Guantanamo Bay, he infamously scribbled a query on it: “I stand for 8-10 hours. Why is standing [of prisoners] limited to four hours?” If we look to prehistory for guidance on the ideal creative posture, we gain only indistinct clues. In the Book of Genesis, we hear that as God created the heavens and the earth He “moved upon the face of the waters.” While this suggests that He wasn’t following the Flaubertian prescription of motionless creativity, what He was doing seems more like sailing or boating— Noah’s ark is also described as “moving upon the face of the waters”—neither of which activity entirely meets the orthodox Nietzschean standard. History is not much more helpful. Aristotle’s followers were known as Peripatetics, although no one is entirely sure whether this stems from Aristotle’s habit of walking about while he talked (his followers taking their name from the word peripatêtikos, meaning “given to walking about”) or because he held lessons beneath the colonnades (or peripatoi ) of the Lyceum. Etymological study initially seems to favor the Nietzschean attitude of being vital, upright, and mobile in the moment of one’s creation. The ancient Greek word theoria—from which the word theory stems— included within it the idea of a journey, in particular a pilgrimage undertaken to the dwelling of a god or goddess. Yet modern words seem to lean towards a supine Flaubertianism; after all, surely the modern English homophones stationary—meaning motionless—and stationery—meaning writing paper—sound the same for a reason.
Tuckâ€™s Postcard showing Mark Twain at work, ca. 1900. Courtesy Barrett Collection, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library.
Roald Dahl in his writing hut, ca. 1990. Copyright Jan Baldwin. Courtesy the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre.
In 1967, Jacques Derrida attempted to quash the whole argument in Writing and Difference, insisting that Nietzsche was being disingenuous in his attack on sitting and writing. “Nietzsche was certain that the writer would never be upright,” Derrida insisted. Even Zarathustra eventually had to stop “tracing figures of fire in the heavens” and hunch down over a desk since “writing is first and always something over which one bends.” The vast majority of the world would agree with Derrida. Since its heyday in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the standing desk has become almost obsolete, and today in offices and libraries in every continent, workers are bound to their desks like Prometheus to his rock. But the contemporary office environment owes less to the persuasiveness of Flaubert and Derrida than to a designer named Bob Propst. In 1968, Propst, a former professor of fine arts who had become head of research at the Herman Miller company, surveyed the common office space and declared it a wasteland. Row after row of orderly desks and chairs stretched to the horizon, and filing cabinets reached up 34
to the sky (see Billy Wilder’s 1960 film The Apartment). The “monolithic insanity” of it was anathema to creation. “It saps vitality,” Propst asserted, “blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.” Propst declared that he wanted offices to be less soulless and allow workers to circulate more freely. “It’s truly amazing the number of decisive events and critical dialogues that occur when people are out of their seated, stuffy contexts.” Although he may not have known it, Propst seemed to be directly channeling the posture theories of Nietzsche who, in The Gay Science (1882), had linked the deleterious effect of a bad workspace (and bad digestion) to the quality of a person’s work: “How quickly we guess how someone has come by his ideas; whether it was while sitting in front of his inkwell, with a pinched belly, his head bowed low over the paper—in which case we are quickly finished with his book, too! Cramped intestines betray themselves—you can bet on that—no less than closet air, closet ceilings, closet narrowness.” Propst’s answer to the “closet narrowness” of
the mid-twentieth-century office was what he called the Action Office System. A truly Nietzschean accomplishment, the Action Office System used moveable partitions to create free-wheeling semi-enclosed spaces that offered a social kind of privacy. Varying desk levels allowed employees to work standing up, thus encouraging blood flow, and management would be readily approachable, not hidden away in an office. It was intended as “a low-key, unself-conscious product” that changed the very position in which people worked. But as with so many other Nietzschean ideals, the Action Office System was seized upon by unscrupulous individuals and twisted out of shape. Companies soon realized that the moveable partitions of the Action Office System could be used to cram more and more workers into smaller and smaller spaces. The varying desk levels were removed as being extraneous, the holistic experience was betrayed, and soon Action Office partitions were lined up in identical rows, as desks had been before them (see Mike Judge’s Office Space, from 1999). Nihilism had returned. The Action Office system had become the cubicle. The stunning corruption of Propst’s Nietzschean ideals made it seem as if the Flaubertian school of posture had triumphed for good. But in 2005, Dr. James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, created what was perhaps the fullest embodiment of the Nietzschean posture ideal to date. Levine is an expert in N.E.A.T. , or non-exercise activity thermogenesis. Using custom-made data-logging undergarments with motion-sensing technology, Levine measured how many calories we burn through in our simple day-to-day activities. His remarkable discovery was that slender people are on their feet an average of 152 more minutes a day than overweight people. His ingenious solution was to invent a treadmill desk—a computer terminal with a treadmill taking the place of a chair. Noticing that the sedentary Flaubertian style of working barely used any calories at all, Levine showed that simply walking at one mile per hour while writing and making telephone calls could burn approximately 125 calories per hour. Levine now sells such “walkstations” for $4,000 each. Admittedly Levine’s walkstations are primarily aimed at those who wish to lose weight, rather than those who wish to create undying philosophical works of eternal value. Still, it is the most significant vertical riposte to the fixed Flaubertian immobile in many years.
Ernest Hemingway prefered to write standing up.
According to Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf’s nephew and biographer, Woolf “had a desk standing about three feet six inches high with a sloping top; it was so high that she had to stand to her work.” This work habit continued until about 1912. Later in her life, Woolf often wrote in a low armchair with a plywood board across her knees.
Fragrance circle used by Drom, a global scent company founded in Germany in 1911.
Notes on Scent Adam Jasper & Nadia Wagner 1. It is commonly estimated that we can smell roughly
10,000 distinct scents, but no one has made a definitive claim regarding the number of smells an individual can differentiate. Unlike hearing and sight, whose mechanics and molecular biology have been exhaustively mapped in the course of the twentieth century, there is little agreement on how smell works. 2. Our sense of smell is beyond doubt a tool of great
precision. Strange, then, that in the history of Western philosophy it should be so little discussed, and so often 36
dismissed as subjective. Smell has been held in low esteem since the height of the Enlightenment. When Condillac, in his Treatise on the Sensations (1754), imagined a statue that would be granted all the capacities of thinking and feeling one by one, smell was the first capability he bestowed upon it, because he held smell to be the most primitive of senses and the one that contributes least to the mind. Condillac maintained that, should his statue smell a rose, it would not thereby gain any concept of the rose as an entity distinct from itself. When it smells a rose, it simply exists within the sensation of the scent of a rose. Smell, this position implies, teaches us nothing about the outside world, but produces pleasant or unpleasant sensations that go on to
determine what we desire, rather than what we know. 2.1 This demotion of smell has continued more or
less uninterrupted, as demonstrated by the manner in which Septimus Piesse attempted to defend the utility of perfumes in his 1857 book The Art of Perfumery and Methods of Obtaining the Odors of Plants: “Of the five senses, that of smelling is the least valued, and, as a consequence, is the least tutored; but we must not conclude from this, our own act, that it is of insignificant importance to our welfare and happiness. By neglecting to tutor the olfactory nerve, we are constantly led to breathe impure air, and thus poison the body by neglecting the warning given at the gate of the lungs. Persons who use perfumes are more sensitive to the presence of a vitiated atmosphere than those who consider the faculty of smelling as an almost useless gift.” A. Chlorine (Cl 2 at room temperature and pressure) is
a pale green gas that was described by the soldiers that first encountered it in Ypres in 1915 as having a distinctive smell part-way between pepper and pineapples. The characteristic acrid odor we associate with chlorine pools is not that of chlorine itself but of chloramine (NH 2Cl), the product of a reaction between chlorine and an organic molecule. When a pool smells intensely of chloramine, it’s an indicator that the water is dirty, not clean, and the persistent smell that we carry for hours after a swim is the smell of free chlorine molecules reacting with our hair and skin. We become conscious of chlorine, in its peculiar chlorineness, at a concentration of three parts per million. At five parts per million it produces a choking sensation. At thirty it induces coughing and vomiting. At sixty it begins to corrode the lungs. 3. Kant makes almost no reference to smell in the
Critique of Judgment nor elsewhere in his writing on aesthetics. He does, however, discuss smell at length in his Reflexionen zur Anthropologie. There, he makes a curious distinction between the senses by which we as rational beings come to know things, and the senses that work on a more intuitive basis. Looking at things, hearing them, and even touching them require Wahrnehmung, or perception. But smelling things, like eating them, involves a sort of carnal knowledge, Einnehmung, or ingestion. By smelling things, we absorb them directly into our bodies, and consequently they provide what Kant otherwise only attributes to God: unmediated knowledge of the thing in itself. To prevent this from becoming a crisis for his epistemology, Kant 37
argues that experiences of smell or taste are things that we are interested in, personally, and compromised by in both senses of the word. This prevents us from the sort of disinterested contemplation that aesthetic experience requires. Kant’s dogmatic exclusion of taste and smell from the aesthetic has either been reproduced without question or thrown out of court (see Frank Sibley’s essay “Tastes, Smells, and Aesthetics”), but no one seems to have considered that maybe he was halfright. Smell is deeply connected with the unconscious, divorced from representation, and consequently in some respects more primal than the other senses. It indicates a royal road to our animal and emotional being, offering a way of thinking, or at least of drawing conclusions, that is not conceptual but intuitive. 3.1 Smells have two qualities that make them ill-suited to the Enlightenment project of establishing a firm foundation for our knowledge of the world. First, they do not persist. Most smells are fleeting—the smell of violets (methyl ionone) is famous among perfumers for persisting for only about half the duration of an inhalation before it becomes imperceptible. Other scents are more persistent, but even the most penetrating perfume becomes undetectable to the wearer after a short period of time. 3.2 Second, as Kant writes in Reflexionen zur
Anthropologie, “all the senses have their own descriptive vocabularies, e.g. for sight, there is red, green, and yellow, and for taste there is sweet and sour, etc. But the sense of smell can have no descriptive vocabulary of its own. Rather, we borrow our adjectives from the other senses, so that it smells sour, or has a smell like roses or cloves or musk. They are all, however, terms drawn from other senses. Consequently, we cannot describe our sense of smell” (our translation). 3.2.1 Kant’s observation does not seem to be a limita-
tion of his Baltic Sea dialect. There are also no words in the English language that are exclusively devoted to describing a smell. All the other senses have a specific vocabulary that is part of everyday speech and in no way technical (bright, loud, hard, soft, smooth, bitter, etc). Smell proceeds entirely via euphemism. Typical words for describing citrus scents include fruity, refreshing, sweet, sharp. “Fruity” is derived from a noun. “Refreshing” is stolen from an affect. “Sweet” belongs to taste. “Sharp” to touch. The word citrus, in toto, is useless for anyone who has not smelt citrus already, and none of the descriptive words belong to the sense of smell except in a metaphorical sense.
B. A curious piece of trivia claims that all medical
unlike the sense of sight, in which knowing and naming are intimately interconnected activities. In a peculiar way, smelling short-circuits conscious thoughts. It bonds to memory and emotion before it subjects itself to concepts, and emerges as already a part of the bodily unconscious.
4. Freud said that “wishes are immortal.” In this respect, smells and wishes are the same. The passage of time, which rots and corrodes the content of visual memory, has no measurable impact on the olfactory memory (Trygg Engen, “Remembering Odors and Their Names,” American Scientist, no. 75, 1987). On the condition that a smell is linked to an emotionally significant episode, the ability of specific smells to trigger episodic memories is immortal (the Proust Effect). Strangely, we are terrible at recalling the impression of smells—nearly as bad as we are at remembering physical pain. It’s easy to recall the shape and color of a lemon, but almost impossible to conjure up its absent scent.
5.2 Although there has been substantial research on the
anesthetics are olfactants, that is, they have a peculiar and identifiable smell. From chloroform on, synthetic molecules used to knock you out (things you couldn’t possibly have evolved to be able to experience) have distinct odors.
C. Is the sense of smell really subjective? Zookeepers
have long noted that the smell of tiger’s urine resembles fragrant basmati rice. It was only in the course of the 1980s that Indian biologists realized that the same molecule is active in both—2 acetyl-1-pyrroline. (R. L. Brahmachary, M. P. Sarkar, & J. Dutta, “The Aroma of Rice ... and Tiger,” Nature, vol. 344, no. 6261, p. 26.) Furthermore, it’s been noted that we can detect certain pyrazines, such as 2-isobutyl-3-methoxypyrazine—which is found in peas and paprika—at a concentration of 1 part in 500,000 million, that is, virtually molecule by molecule. 5. The olfactory bulb in humans is relatively small compared to, say, a white-eared opossum, a West European hedgehog, a polar bear, or a domestic dog, especially when taken in proportion to the size of the brain. But the number of human genes that encode scent has turned out to be unexpectedly large. According to Linda B. Buck and Richard Axel’s research, about 1,000 genes code for proteins that are only expressed in the olfactory epithelium. This means that roughly three per cent of the human genome is devoted to the olfactory system. That’s an enormous share. 5.1 The olfactory bulb feeds directly into the limbic
system, the seat of both long-term memory and the emotions. The results of smelling are processed here, and loaded with associations, before they even reach the upper cortex, where language is composed. This is 38
olfactory bulb, olfaction is dwarfed by the other senses in the amount of research committed to it, and ignored in undergraduate studies (a 2008 textbook on cognitive neuroscience offers a chapter on sight, another on touch, but exactly two sentences on smell). This might have something to do with the following: no one agrees on how smell works. Although the problems posed by hearing and sight on the cellular level were to a large degree cracked by the 1950s and 1960s, there is still no consensus on how a molecule of olfactant entering the nose brings a single neuron to fire. 5.3 In 1996, Luca Turin—a research biologist and well-
known perfume reviewer—resurrected an exotic theory of the sense of smell that had first been mooted and dismissed in the 1950s. It suggests that the smell of a compound is not dependent on the shape of the molecule (although this is the standard hypothesis, as “lock and key” ligand-binding is the mechanism by which most chemical signaling within the brain takes place, as well as the way in which the immune system functions). Rather, Turin solves the combinatorial problem of smell by arguing that embedded in the cell membrane is a kind of electron-tunneling spectrograph, and so the smell of a molecule is dependent upon its chief vibrational resonance. D. The port wine magnolia has small purple and white
inflorescences that smell distinctly like nail polish remover (acetone) and wine jujubes. The scent is strong, sweet, and slightly nauseating. Other magnolias smell like citrus. Not exactly like citrus, but somewhat like citrus. Is acetone a pollutant that is actually found in cheap port wine? 6. The relationship between smell, long-term memory,
and emotion is not a trivial one, and it’s not meaningless to say that they’re all one thing. Everyone knows that smell evokes strong memories, but the relationship works both ways. The olfactory bulb is the only part of the brain that continues to grow throughout our lives, and constantly generates new neurons (Buck & Axel won a Nobel prize for figuring this out). The ability to
responsible for serious explosions in fragrance laboratories, and the death of more than a few fragrancers.
recognize common smells is now used as a diagnostic tool in identifying neuro-degenerative diseases. People without memory—Alzheimer’s patients—have massively reduced sensitivity to smell.
6.1 It is as if, when chemistry evolved out of alchemy to become an Enlightenment science, smell was left behind. Appropriately, the perfumer behaves more as a member of a medieval guild than as part of a contemporary scientific discipline. Alchemists guarded their mysteries, whereas chemistry is based on peer-review and the broadest possible dissemination of results. Perfumers are likewise notoriously secretive about their ingredients, even though the field involves the mass production of tons of refined chemical products. They are even loath to talk about how they arrange their fragrance libraries (this seemingly innocent question was in fact the impetus for this text). There is a legal reason for this: it’s not possible to patent a scent. You can patent the individual synthetic molecules that might be used in a scent, but you can’t patent what something smells like in the same way that you can patent the way in which a product looks and feels. Knock-off perfumes are
E. Real musk is obtained from the dried gland of a wild
male deer, and fresh from the wild it has a repulsive smell. Harvesting musk involves hanging out in forests during mating season with a high-powered rifle, shooting a medium-large mammal, cutting out a small gland, and then taking and preparing that gland for a luxury product. Hunters can’t tell whether the deer in their sights is a buck or a doe, and consequently half of the animals they shoot are the wrong sex. That’s one reason for synthetic musks. Another is that real musk is a mélange of chemicals that will cause some wearers to break out in hives. The first synthetic variant—Musk Xylol— was produced in 1888, and as the industry bible by Steffen Arctander notes, it is a close relative of trinitrotoluene, or TNT. Attempts to synthesize Musk Xylol in commercial quantities have been
Michael Edwards’s fragrance wheel, 1983.
prosecuted for copying the packaging of the original, not for smelling identical. As a result, perfumers are particularly clandestine about what’s in their bottles. The other reason for their secretiveness is that, even if they want to talk about what they are doing, they seem to find it pretty difficult. 6.2 Systems of smell resemble medieval bestiaries that
have swollen in population without gaining in order. Aristotle classified smells into five categories. Linnaeus’s system contained seven categories, but by the early twentieth century Zwaardemaker’s had swollen to nine. Gerbelaud’s system from the 1950s encompassed fortyfive categories, and a decade later Arctander’s included eighty-eight separate groups. Even more striking than the increasing complexity of the proposed systems is the parallel proliferation in the taxonomies themselves. A comprehensive taxonomy of taxonomies is hardly possible, but we can enumerate a few. 6.3 Crocker and Henderson’s 1927 model derives many
of its terms from Zwaardemaker’s model of 1895, which itself draws from Carl Linnaeus’s original taxonomy of 1756. According to Crocker and Henderson’s ingenious scheme, each odor can be considered in terms of the extent to which it is fragrant, acid, burnt, or caprylic, each on a scale of 1 to 8. Thus, vanillin has an odor of 7122. Unfortunately, there is often disagreement as to the precise score to give a scent on each of its characteristics, although Crocker and Henderson do attempt to provide a structured language for comparing scents.
F Civet E Verbena D Citronella
G Sweet Pea
B Stocks and Pinks
A Peru Balsam
A Tonquin bean
A New-mown Hay
G Orange Flower
A music-inspired taxonomy of scent offered by English chemist and perfumer George William Septimus Piesse in his seminal book The Art of Perfumery (1857).
6.4 Some industrial scent manufacturers arrange smells
into a sort of “color wheel” in order to describe them. But this is a weak analogy, as smells, unlike colors, do not naturally form a continuous spectrum. The Drom spectral wheel, for instance, implausibly places citrus directly next to musk, but spatially opposite to “fruity” scents. Different wheels have been proposed, but their insufficiency is highlighted by their proliferation. 6.5 Even fragrance wheels specific to the perfume
industry (such as Michael Edwards’s 1983 version) are not designed as an objective tool for the fragrancers, but as a marketing guide for clients. To make matters worse, it seems that we are particularly susceptible to being suckered when we are told what we “ought” to be smelling. As Trygg Engen notes: “The associative strength of an odor-name pair is weak and asymmetric and is easily influenced by the verbal factor” (p. 502). In other words, if someone offers you a bad synthetic frambinone, and 40
tells you it’s strawberry, you’ll believe them, and if they ask you to sniff onion and tell you it’s garlic, you’ll notice nothing amiss. 6.6 There have been more inventive attempts to taxono-
mize odor. In the nineteenth century, Septimus Piesse arranged smell on a musical scale to show how harmonious perfumes could be composed, a better (more multi-dimensional) approach than a linear spectrum. He was the first to apply the term note to a distinctive odor, as well as introducing the terms chord, harmony, and progression, all metaphors that are still current in the perfume industry. Piesse proposed that “sounds appear to influence the olfactory nerves in certain definite degrees,” and that “there are octaves in odors like octaves in music.” Piesse took his model quite literally.
According to his theory, a harmonious fragrance can be composed by bringing together those odor notes that correspond to harmonious musical chords. Conversely, discord, a cacophony of smells, is the result of combining olfactory notes that would produce discordant sounds if played musically together. In his invention, Piesse resembles Des Esseintes in Joris-Karl Huysmans’s Against Nature, the great novel of dandyism, who composes for himself a “taste symphony” by assigning a different note to each liquor. Via this artifice, Huysmans’s character could play himself his favorite refrains from classical music by sequentially tasting various spirits.
6.7 Perhaps one of the most interesting models is the Henning Odor Prism, or Henning Olfactory Prism (1915–1916), a triangular prism that resolves the problem of how to visually depict the complex variability of smells by presenting them as points on the surface of a three-dimensional model. The prism has six apexes and five faces, and allows for any smell to be described in terms of the six categories: flowery/fruity/putrid/spicy/ burnt/resinous. This would not be a substantial addition to extant theories, except that Henning goes on to argue that all smells can be described as being on the surface of the prism, but not within it. Therefore, a smell cannot be spicy, burnt and resinous as well as being putrid, and likewise, a fruity, flowery, putrid and spicy odor cannot exist. In making assertions of this kind, the Henning prism is at least putatively falsifiable, unlike most other smell models. This is no small virtue. 6.7.1 The Henning Prism becomes more interesting
when one notes the sub-groupings that the on-thesurface rule implies. Cover two of the terms at a time, and look again at the set of characteristics flowery/ putrid/spicy/burnt versus the set fruity/putrid/burnt/ resinous. It could be argued that both groups have enough terms to adequately describe any smell, and there is a risk of that, but that isn’t what Henning intended. What is it about these two groups that make them mutually exclusive? Certainly the flowery/fruity/spicy/ resinous—the general realm of attractive smells—can coexist, but not together with the putrid and burnt. The putrid and the burnt both mark out forms of decomposition. The putrid indicates metabolic decay carried out by simple life forms, whereas the burnt is the rather more chaotic decay caused by heat (both processes are marked by increasing variety but reducing complexity in the organic molecules present). Whereas flowery and fruity scents may, in their freshness, have much in common, according to the Henning prism they differentiate 41
Hans Henning’s Odor Prism, 1915-1916.
themselves from each other in their odor profile during decomposition. Also, it is noteworthy that the flowery/ fruity/putrid (less stable) and the spicy/burnt/resinous (less volatile) take opposite ends of the Henning Prism. 6.7.2 Intriguingly, the Henning Prism also suggests the
possibility of charting “smell trajectories,” that is, the characteristic changes in smell as a perfume’s volatile top note lifts to reveal its middle and base note, as a fruit ripens, or as an organic product undergoes metabolic decomposition. By what habitual route does an unripe peach slowly lose its spicy, flowery characteristics to sweeten into an odor more fruity and perhaps more resinous? And via what path does this scent become putrid as the peach begins to rot? Is it curved, or straight? 6.7.3 Henning attempted to relate different chemical
groups to the various sections of his prism, noting, for instance, that the category of the putrid is marked by volatile sulphides. Unfortunately, while some molecules might have predictable characteristics, like a bad grammatical model, there are nearly as many exceptions to each category as well-behaved instances that fit the rules. F. Ambergris is another highly valued ingredient in perfumes. It is made of a sort of fatty hairball coughed up by a sperm whale that then floats upon the surface of the ocean. Over time it darkens to black, and its scent mellows until it becomes what is described as a “soft, suave, dry-mossy, musty and seaweed-like fragrance that is extremely difficult to duplicate with complete fidelity.” The trade in ambergris is now banned, and a wholly synthetic version of the scent, Ambroxan, is sold in its place.
6.8 In 1951, Dr. Paul Jellinek proposed a new scheme
for the classification of scents. Although a professional perfumer, his system (which has been restated in The Psychological Basis of Perfumery, 4th Edition, 1997) has the virtue of attempting a degree of generality. The schema, however, is tendentious in the worst sense. As Jellinek held that the sense of smell is enthralled by sexuality, he arranges all odors on a scale based on their purported psychological effect. One axis connects the erogenic to the anti-erogenic, another axis runs from the narcotic to the stimulating. Following Jellinek, cheesy smells are both highly erogenic and slightly stimulating, whereas fruity smells are anti-erogenic and somewhat narcotic. The problem, of course, is that as soon as one questions the psychological model behind the classification, the schema collapses. And in spite of all the enthusiasm about pheromones, they remain more or less mysterious. It’s also not advisable to buy synthetic pheromones from dispensing machines in toilets, as androstenones, the closest pheromones to humans that have been extensively synthesized, are from the family porcine. The only mammals that you are likely to arouse irresistibly are pigs. 7. Luca Turin’s thesis of the vibrational basis of smell
has come up against entrenched opposition from the scientific establishment. Perhaps, here again, it is the enchantment of the diagram that is responsible, for should his argument prove to be correct, the wire-frame and space-filling molecular models that mesmerize fragrance designers worldwide would have precious little relevance in predicting how a chemical will actually smell. The thousands of line drawings of organic molecules that fill fragrance textbooks will turn out to be as much a fetish as Piesse’s musical scale, because we have been studying the wrong characteristics.
how many dimensions it would have to incorporate in order that all its observable contradictions disappear. Much like experimental versions of Mendeleev’s original periodic table, there are interesting possibilities for new spatial models for representing scents. Perhaps future models of smell will have to address similar orders of complexity, and the solution just hasn’t been drawn up yet. Alternatively, there may simply be no way to represent visually the variability presented by scents. 9. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud tells an
originary myth, in which Man goes from walking on all fours to standing erect. As he does so, the genitals are exposed, the sense of sight is privileged, and the sense of smell is denigrated. Whether or not the story refers to an actual historical event doesn’t matter, Freud’s point is that somewhere in our development, we learn shame for what has become the spectacle of shit and lose the capacity to smell it with any finesse. However, there’s a simpler physical explanation for why walking on two legs might lead to a demotion for the sense of smell: olfactants are heavier than air, and consequently they fall to the ground. If you want to make a map of how your room smells, you need to get down on your hands and knees. 10. And finally, how do professional perfumers arrange
their smells? Alphabetically, of course.
G. Oak moss has a particularly wonderful smell— neither vegetable nor animal, but richly aromatic. The moss grows only on oak trees, and only in the most established and ancient woods. For a very long time, the majority of it was harvested in Yugoslavia. However, it soaks up radioactive waste more effectively than just about any other life form, and ever since the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine, it has been exceedingly rare and expensive. 8. In conclusion, smell is not subjective; rather, it is sim-
ply very hard to communicate objectively, that is, to talk about and achieve any sort of consensus. One possibility would be to unwind the “color wheel” model, and ask 42
Perfumer Paul Jellinek’s classificatory system, 1951.
American plaice (Hippoglossoides platessoides).
A FISH called plaice
The following portfolio of texts and images was originally assembled in response to a request that Cabinet received to contribute to a Spanish catalogue examining the notion of “place.” Our initial idea had been to investigate how much a notion of place needs to be localized in order to be meaningful. Can we, for example, in any useful sense speak of an American or European notion of place? As we conducted our research, a simple typing error while Googling made us realize that while an “American place” may not exist, the American plaice (Hippoglossoides platessoides) certainly does, as does the European plaice (Pleuronectes platessa). Soon our project derailed as we became increasingly infatuated by these asymmetrical right-eye flounders, and we decided to investigate some of the places in which one can find these fish—from the ocean to the restaurant— as a way of fulfilling our Spanish commission. Needless 43
to say, the pun did not work in Spanish and so we put aside our piscine project. And yet we had become enamored of these fish whose strange looks are matched by truly strange lives. In an 1876 paper on flounder, for example, the naturalist Alexander Agassiz describes how the symmetrical hatchling, swimming along with eyes on both sides of its head, eventually must lie down on the ocean floor. The decision it makes about which side to lie down on is the most crucial moment in the fish’s life. If it settles on the correct side, its lower eye, now looking directly into the ocean sand, can migrate to the upper part of its head. Falling on the wrong side results in death. Right-eye flounders, for example, must lie on their left side. Perhaps the quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger should have turned to the flounder for his famous thought experiment instead of a cat. —Eds.
Nesta Mayo, Flounder no. 2, 2007.
Dan Woerner, Plaice, 2006.
Plaice Names Allen S. Weiss
How do we get from a plaice to a place? This is an ancient tale, so we would do well to begin with etymology. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary teaches that plaice has numerous derivations: plaice or plais in Middle English, plaïs or plaïz in Old French, platensis in Late Latin, platys in Greek, all somehow alluding to flatness, broadness, place, and specifically indicating the European flounder (Pleuronectes platessa), also known as the summer flounder, and the fluke in England. Further research reveals that flatfish refers to the order Heterosomata, which includes the halibuts, flounders, turbots, and soles. Reference to sole, in turn, reinforces our initial etymology, as the name of these flatfish of the family Soleidae, including the famed European foodfish Solea solea, is derived from the Latin, Middle French, and Middle English solea or sandal. Harrap’s New Standard Dictionary translates plaice by two different names: plie and carrelet. We learn, thanks to Le Petit Robert, that plie (whose first instance in Old French occurs in 1530 as plaïs, derived from twelfthcentury Low Latin) is not only a false homonym for pli (fold), but in fact its antonym, as this fish is actually flat— as Old English, Middle English, and Old High German imply—and not at all folded. We are given a further clue, as the dictionary refers plie to carrelet. Here the plot thickens, since carrelet is derived as early as 1360 from quarlet, carrel, carreau, and is thus not only a flatfish, but a squarefish, a fish of “quadrangular form.” But by 1694, we are confronted with a great irony, or perhaps sarcasm, as the carrelet at that moment also comes to designate a square fishing net, such that the carrelet may be used to catch the carrelet. A further set of definitions expresses the richness and rectitude of the term carrelet, which also signifies a square ruler, whence its relation to the noun carrelage (floor tile) and the verb carreler (to tile or to draw squares or to cobble shoes), all derived from the noun and adjective carré, square. We are moving towards a greater coherence, so we might recapitulate using the classic dictionary Littré: the plie is a flatfish related to the limande and also known as carrelet ; there also exists a related species, the plie rude, commonly known as the flétan, but obviously a different species. Of particular interest is the illustrative citation culled from the Ménagier, a fourteenth-century cookbook: “Plais sont doulces à applanier à la main, et lymandes au contraire.” (“Plaice is soft to the touch, as 48
opposed to the limande.”) In turn, the limande, a “poisson de mer fort plat ” (“a very flat sea fish”—the adjective very is here rather striking), is designated as being more or less similar to the carrelet, and, unusual in the Littré, the same quotation from the Ménagier is offered. But two additional meanings of carrelet are of interest: a large and flat ruler (carpenter’s or mason’s straight-edge) and a flat piece of wood used for boat repairs (graving piece). Furthermore, the fact that the term faire la limande means “a slap in the face” is not without interest. At this point we probably have enough information to answer our initial question. The plaice is a square flatfish; the place, plaza, piazza is the town square, eternally traversed by sandal-shod soles. Such a flat, square, grid-like space is the utopia of the surveyor, cartographer, geometer, urbanist, and occasionally (Cartesian) philosopher. The place is an ideal plaice, perfect in its quadrature, its flatness, its levelness, its smoothness. Inversely, the plaice is a camouflaged, dissimulated place, perpetually hiding its true physical qualities. But why is it, we may ask, that in the Scandinavian countries plaice is so highly valued as a food-fish, while in France it is rarely seen on menus or in recipes? Here we must delve into the culinary unconscious. As a camouflaged fish, plaice is fundamentally indistinguishable from its place. This fact is accentuated in the French definitions where, as we will remember from the Ménagier citation, plie and limande are differentiated by touch, not sight. For the Gallic chef, the plie and the limande are invisible, and as such are rarely served. To the contrary, in the Scandinavian countries, the plaice is named according to its red spots—Rödspätta (Swedish), Rødspette (Norwegian), Rødspætte (Danish)—and it is as if these aquatic targets call out to be caught and cooked. Unlike the plaice, which doubles as its place, the redspot distinguishes itself from its place. We might conclude by claiming that genius loci in fact means, “the sole of the plaice.” Yet in that case, we would also need to consider the pollack or coalfish, known in French as the lieu—French for “place.” But that would be a whole other story.
Plaice being served in Jacques Tatiâ€™s Playtime, 1967.
Sketch for a poster for An American Plaice. Image Alicia Puglionesi.
Screenplay Pitch for An American Plaice Tim Davis
We see Gutsy Housewife (Holly Hunter) noticing something new. The chilled counter is featuring American plaice, a fish she’s never heard of, whose fillets look flaky and light, and might just fail to offend Ty and Babe, her fraternal twins. Ty is fat and jovial; Babe, lean and severe, but neither of them will sniff at fish. It is the ‘80s in America and the Library of Congress has just changed its subject heading for “Macaroni” to “Pasta.” Yuppie foods are appearing on shelves; people wrap their mouths around “mahi-mahi,” “polenta,” and “wasabi,” like they were exotic strains of flu. Gutsy Housewife is recently divorced and keen to feed her kids deeper meanings. The Grocer (Chris Cooper) is cute, divorcedlooking, a little ragged around the edges, but solid, clear-eyed and thorough, the kind of man you’d be happy to find in your life-raft. He offers her a recipe for plaice featuring something called a “cardamom glaze,” which she snatches with a flirty whack. Ty and Babe love the cardamom-glazed plaice. They ask for it night after night and Gutsy Housewife observes their lives transforming as they start staying home to cook rather than huddle playing Dungeons & Dragons with acned local boys. When the Grocer is invited to dinner, he smiles utterly radiantly, insisting he’ll bring the plaice. Frenzied house cleaning to Fleetwood Mac. The twins produce a raspberry chocolate torte; the table is set with a center garland of autumn bittersweet. When the Grocer shows up, he is kissed furtively and hard by Gutsy Housewife on the front landing. Their suburban cul-de-sac is misty after a late rain, and they both look around at the unlikely setting for such a romantic effusion. She sneaks a look at his hands but finds them empty. “Let’s all sit down,” he insists with a twinkle. “Have you heard of ‘overfishing’?” Here’s where our Kramer vs. Kramer goes Little Miss Sunshine on its way to Pirates of the Caribbean. The Grocer is not a grocer, but an agent of “Project Hayduke,” a radical cell of environmentalists named for George W. Hayduke, the leader of Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang. The American plaice is ecologically fragile, they are told, and is quickly being fished out. “Your nuclear family atom is split,” the Grocer entreats them, “join us and shine again.” Frenzied packing to Kenny Loggins. Little Babe hangs a “Gone Fishin” sign on their door, as Ty loads Blondie, their pet chinchilla, into an idling Vanagon. 51
Gutsy Housewife looks good sweating in The Gobbler ’s hold, and her choir training helps her find acceptance among the diverse and muscular radicals. As they polish brightwork under a moody dawn, she sings their altered sea shanty: And it’s roll, roll, Gobblers roll Them Japanese driftnetters got us in tow
The Haydukers are gaudily eclectic and habitually underfunded. Before leaving port, Pere Jules (Bruce Willis), the crusty first mate, teaches Ty and Babe a bit of fundraising. They approach seaside tourists who are alternating photographing one another and offer to take their picture together. The twins wave them back, wave them back, into the scene, and then disappear down the port’s tiny alleys to fence their booty. On the high seas, this family, so dissolute in the suburbs, throws itself into its work. The kids, once too timid to vacuum up after the chinchilla, swab the decks with the passion of converts amid nautical perils. And perils there are! A hail of gelatinous material, which Pere Jules calls a “goonami,” blankets the ship. Three-beaked octopi clamor on board. A neocon mole is found among the bunch, morsing their coordinates to Interpol. Dinner is tofu. Shipboard romance can run from African Queen to Dance, Fools, Dance, depending on the state of PG13 . See moonlight on the waves, and kisses to bazouki music. See jealousy from sexier, younger, more committed mates. But when their white whale is spotted, a Japanese fishing trawler scooping up holdsful of plaice in protected waters, elaborate and free-wheeling unity breaks loose. A good old-fashioned naval set-to is staged for easy translation into theme park rides. The twins swing in on enormous ropes, and deploy the chinchilla to chew through the trawler’s electrical cables. The captain, a jovial, bearded former restaurateur (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) bellows Puccini while trying to ram the offending vessel. Evasive action leads to a videogame-tie-in-ready chase amid icebergs. The fishing ship is rammed, and as its sailors climb into life-rafts, the camera pulls back to find Pere Jules and the twins signing an oath in blood. The two young actors didn’t know it at the time, but the prop oath was a bona fide contract for three sequels.
HOOK, LINE, and SINKER: An Interview with Russ Symons Jeffrey Kastner Tell me a little about yourself. You’ve been a fisherman all your life?
Yes, indeed. I was brought up on the Barbican, a very old part of Plymouth. My great-grandfather was a sailor from way back; he used to do the old tea runs from Shanghai back to Liverpool and places like that. And my father and all my family have been sailors, so I’m probably the first one in generations not to actually go to sea, but it’s there somewhere, because I spend a couple of days each week at sea, fishing for this, that, and the other, you know. And if it’s too rough to go to sea, I go fly-fishing. And you always did both ocean and inland fishing.
Oh, yes. One kind of grew out of the other really, because we fished on the Great Reefs off Plymouth. They’re fourteen miles off, and if it was too rough to go fourteen miles out, then I used to go home and just change my clothes and my tackle and go trout fishing. Are there particular places where you have to go to fish for plaice?
That’s right, and that is half the battle. What you have to understand about plaice is that during the winter months, we get some deep-water wreck fishing, which we go to if the weather allows us to. But usually round about January, February, the weather turns, and very often we can’t go to sea. So that’s the time we take the boats out of the water and refurbish them. And then, toward the end of March, we get the boats back in the water and the first fish we go looking for—it’s sort of a harbinger of spring, if you like—is plaice. We go nearly up to Dartmouth, to a place called the Skerries Bank. And what is it about that time of year?
It has to do with the migration of the plaice. From the end of February, you find that the plaice come inshore from the deeper water where they’ve been during the winter months. They come in to the shallow water to look for something to eat and get up to their breeding. And they usually start feeding on small crabs and invertebrates, razor fish, and so forth. And around the end of March, the sand eels arrive and the plaice start feeding 52
on them. So when the plaice first come in, we use crab and worm bait, but from April into June we can use sand eel or worms. Most fishing for plaice happens during those three or four early season trips because the deep water fish are not plentiful, and to travel twenty or thirty miles out to the deep-water wrecks is not worthwhile. So it’s mostly very early season fishing, although late in the season, at the end of September and October, when the fish are migrating back to the deep water, you also get a good flurry of decent fish tight at the back end. But that will only last a few weeks because the migration goes quickly. Sometimes we get them in February, but then they are usually very, very thin fish, really out of condition, and they need to be on the banks for three or four weeks feeding up before they’re worth catching. How deep do you fish for plaice in the shallow water?
Fifty feet, as opposed to 200 to 250 feet for deep-water fishing. And what kind of structure do the plaice like?
They like fast water over sandbanks, like Start Point just east of Plymouth. There is a very big sand bank, the Skerries Bank, that’s been built up over the years by the current sweeping around Start Point and depositing the sand like an arc around its back. Then up around Weymouth, there’s another bank called the Shambles, which is another famous plaice mark. Those are really the two most famous plaice marks in UK waters. Do you always fish with live bait? Will plaice take artificial lures?
No, they’re not like the American flounder, which is quite a voracious fish. In terms of technique, it’s a question of keeping the bait near the bottom, because you fish from a drifting boat most of the time. It’s that sort of fishing—a quiet, contemplative sort of fishing. Sometimes the fish come in a flurry and then it’s quiet for a few hours and then they come again. It’s the type of fishing where you can sit down and talk. When the water’s nice and quiet, at the neap end of the tide, you can sometimes put the anchor down and brew a pot of tea. The fish are affected by the tide. When the tide just starts to flood, you find most of the fish will be down at the west end; I think they go down there because the water starts to pick up and comes around in a rush and when it does, it will bring with it the sort of thing the plaice are looking to eat.
Dinner. Photo Russ Symons.
Because they’re basically stationary, right? They settle down in one place and wait for the food to come to them.
That’s right. They go on the bottom and they shuffle down, so they’re basically covered with sand apart from those two little eyes and they just wait in ambush. And the little crab will walk past or the bait will trickle past and then out they come and they’ll pounce on it. It’s a fish that has great curiosity. It’s very important to use a fairly heavy weight to make sure your bait stays on the bottom, because in this fast water it’s very easy for the lift of the line to pull your sinker up, and the fish won’t take it once it’s even a foot or two off the bottom. We use weights with little spikes on them in order to grip better, and when you’re on the drift, this drags along and makes a little cloud of sand.
Do they hit aggressively?
You get two sorts of bites. They seem to either hammer into the bait and really give you a good tug, or they’ll be so subtle in their take, well, we just call them “whoopsies” because you start to reel in and go “Whoops, I got one!” I would say seventy-five percent of the time you feel the fish take the bait; the rest of the time, you never even notice, and when you come to pick the rod up to reel in, you realize you got one. What is a good-sized plaice?
Well, anything over four pounds is a specimen fish. A five-pound fish is a really excellent fish and a six-pound fish is a fish of a lifetime. A two to three pound fish is a good eating fish.
Much like a crab might.
So they are good to eat?
Much like a crab might. And we put colored beads right next to the bait or maybe a flashing spoon to excite the fish’s curiosity. And the bait moves with the drifting of the boat.
Oh, yes, I think so. Actually, some people absolutely love them and others are a little iffy with them. But if it’s a good fish and you get a good fillet, it’s a tasty fish. I just do them in a frying pan, with a little butter and some spices.
Replica of battle flag of USS Plaice.
TOUR OF DUTY THERESE ROBERT
One of 119 Balao-class submarines built by the US during World War II, USS Plaice was constructed at the Portsmouth Naval Yard and launched on November 15, 1943. More than 300 feet long and equipped with torpedoes and deck guns, she began a tour of duty on April 15, 1944, transiting the Panama Canal with her crew of eighty-one sailors en route to Pearl Harbor. Plaice’s maiden war patrol began on June 4, 1944, and twenty-six days later she sunk her first enemy vessel, the 986-ton Japanese ex-gunboat Hyakufuku Maru, near the Bonin Islands—an archipelago that includes Iwo Jima, the site of the pivotal 1945 battle. She returned to base at the end of July, but not before she sank two more ships: the 857-ton ex-net tender Kogi Maru and the 300-ton Submarine Chaser No. 50. Over the next fourteen months, Plaice went on five more patrols. Each lasted roughly six weeks, and none was as eventful as her first. On her second patrol she 54
engaged three targets near the Ryukyu Islands and sank one, but encountered none on her third mission. In January 1945, she joined a wolf pack in the Luzon Straits, but the fifty-eight-day patrol of that group—including Archerfish, Batfish, Blackfish, Scabbardfish, and Sea Poacher—encountered only one target and sunk none. On Plaice’s fifth patrol in April, she engaged a number of small boats with surface guns and sank several of them, and on her final mission in July, she made no enemy contact, but did rescue five Army aviators whose B-25 had been shot down over the East China Sea. When the war ended on August 15, 1945, Plaice was still at sea—her final patrol concluded nine days later when she pulled into Midway Island. She was placed in reserve and in 1963 was loaned to the Brazilian Navy, which renamed her Bahia. In 1973, she was again decommissioned and sold to the Brazilian Museum of Naval Technology in Santos for use in an exhibition. However, the museum project was never completed and in 1978 she was towed back to Rio de Janeiro, where she ended her life as scrap.
Beginning the End Jon Calame
A few things are certain about the passage of days and nights: now we face the light, now we hide from it, moving in perfect circles around the axis of the earth. We plunge into darkness and out again through fixed turnstiles of twilight and dawn. To use the modular language of linear time while spinning on a globe is to risk entanglement with “some spurious concept ... nothing but the ghost of space haunting the reflective consciousness.”1 For instance, at each moment there are two calendar days afoot, occasionally three.2 Each day lasts a day at any fixed location but has a life span of exactly
The evolution of the International Date Line. Courtesy Jon Calame.
forty-eight hours on the globe: the first twenty-four as it “pushes the previous day out of existence ahead of it” and another twenty-four as it is “squeezed into oblivion” by its successor.3 Another example: after 1750, sailors on long ocean journeys measured physical progress east or west in degrees, minutes, and seconds of longitude when they measured the hours, minutes, and seconds of discrepant time between an untouched home port chronometer and another adjusted optically each noon, with a ritual observed by Melville in his 1850 novel White Jacket : “Twelve o’clock reported, sir,” says the middy. “Make it so,” replies the captain.
And the bell is struck eight by the messenger-boy, and twelve o’clock it is.
A minor wrinkle in trans-Pacific shipboard timekeeping had emerged in 1522 when Antonio Pigafetta, a survivor of Magellan’s voyage, verified Ismail Abu al-Fida’s 1323 hypothesis regarding a “circumnavigator’s paradox,” which held that exactly one day would be inevitably lost by long-distance travelers “bearing the Sun company.” Prior to 1884, sailors resolved the paradox by making routine adjustments of plus-or-minus twenty-four hours in their ship’s log somewhere in the far west Pacific. These de facto date lines, determined by nationality, customary prime meridian, or cartographer, served well enough while traffic across the lines was light. By the early nineteenth century, however, distances between major destinations seemed to be shrinking quickly.4 Heavier traffic, faster journeys, and more costly cargo introduced increasingly large flows of capital between and across continents. Major political and commercial agents eventually pooled their frustrations in an international consortium to curtail “the thousand engagements broken by the discrepancies of time.”5 They funded research, hired experts, and hosted an extensive series of deliberations6 about what, exactly, should be done about rife timekeeping “discontinuities.” Isolated struggles had hardened into a pitched battle between planetary motion and commercial punctuality. In 1884, these efforts culminated in the International Meridian Conference in Washington, DC. Forty-one delegates from twenty-five countries attended the Washington meeting and agreed upon a universal Prime Meridian at Greenwich,7 noting the convenience of an anti-meridian 180° away falling through the western Pacific. Consensus regarding placement of the date line was viewed as a vital step towards synchronization of physical movement in calendar time—shunting westbound cargo into tomorrow and eastbound cargo into yesterday—without which, it was claimed, confusion would result for the traveler. Of course, even now it is rare to find a private citizen rushing across the Pacific to keep appointments on the other side. The more influential consumers of regulated, synchronized time were the telegraph companies, railroad managers, astronomers, and colonial surveyors who appealed to their governments for time uniformity in order to facilitate the “intimate intercourse of civilized peoples” and keep the wheels of international commerce spinning smoothly. Prior to adoption of Standard Time in the US, for example, Wisconsin used thirty-eight different local 56
times and the traveler passing through was obliged to adjust his timepiece accordingly. But the shift to Standard Time was not without detractors. In Bangor, Maine, where citizens on the far edge of the proposed Eastern Standard Time would experience a maximum displacement of local time, associations between sunlight and working hours were jolted out of their traditional alignment and heating costs increased during darker winter afternoons. In reply, Mayor Frederick Cummings cited “the immutable laws of God” when he vetoed a compliance initiative in 1883 supported by his political rivals. Bangor’s public clocks kept two times (local and EST , Democratic and Republican, respectively) until Cummings was overruled by the state legislature in 1887.8 Meanwhile, advocates marketed Standard Time throughout the 1880s. They offered reassurance to members of the general public who questioned the need for so much conformity: “We do not, of course, wish to suppress local time in common life ... we do not dream of forcing the population of certain countries to rise at noon, nor of forcing others to dine at midnight.”9 In the end, the world’s civilian population was obliged to adopt Standard Time as specified by the observatories, distributed by the telegram, and apportioned by the railroads. “Henceforth,” as one historian has noted, “the localities are no longer spatially individual or autonomous: they are moments in the traffic that makes them possible.”10 Localities into moments, more ghosts of space. Inquiring about time, space is consulted, and inquiring about space, time is invoked11 as “every expansion of the physical milieu makes it more important to do something about time.”12 Proper functioning of the standardized grid of days and hours requires a fixed anchor (0°, or Prime Meridian), which in turn fixes the location of a calendar reset switch (International Date Line, or anti-meridian) engineered to trigger upon contact “that unnatural yet unavoidable jump of twenty-four hours”13 and enable maritime punctuality. These imaginary lines are the cartographic parentheses girdling a global system of uniform time zones that gradually replaced intuitive “local time” and allowed for the upscaling of predictable, profitable long-range commerce on sea and land. Still, the “so-called International Date Line” that appears on most maps after 1900 was adopted only customarily “among the commercial steamships of the principal maritime countries.”14 It had to be located somewhere, it might have been located The International Date Line today. It deviates from the 180th meridian on a number of occasions, most dramatically to include all of Kiribati to its west.
‘Frontispiece’ and ‘Time Chart of the World’ from The Pocket Atlas of the World by John Bartholomew (1887). The International Date Line, shown here in its de jure perfection, splits the world perfectly in two along the 180th meridian. Courtesy the British Library.
anywhere,15 and it was intended to follow the 180th meridian only “as closely as political and geographic circumstances will admit.”16 Routinely gerrymandered to skirt national boundaries, the date line now deviates as much as 2,020 statute miles eastward and 520 westward from the 180th meridian designated in 1884. Migrations began as early as the 1840s, when the economic interests of the Philippines turned from Spain’s Mexican ports to the Dutch East Indies and the country was officially moved from the eastern to the western side of the de facto date line. When the United States purchased Alaska in 1867, the de facto date line was deflected eastward through the Bering Strait and westward around the Aleutian Islands to capture all formerly Russian territory in one American day. The Samoan archipelago had traditionally observed an Asian day, but in 1892 King Malietoa relocated his country from the western to the eastern side of the de jure date line in order to strengthen ties with American businesses, allowing for the celebration of July 4th twice that year. In 1995, the Republic of Kiribati ended calendrical segregation by deflecting the de jure date line dramatically eastward (almost as far as 150° west), unifying the sprawling nation in a single Asian day. The International Meridian Conference, with a neat piece of cartographic cosmetic surgery, rendered possible the impossibility of keeping one-way time on a rotating sphere. The operation left a discreet scar in the far western Pacific. The traditional frontier where East met West—always at the map’s edge—was enveloped by the de jure date line. This sleight of hand concluded the western narrative in which Ulysses ruptured the Mediterranean boundary, Columbus ruptured the Atlantic boundary, Magellan ruptured the Pacific boundary, and, no oceans remaining, Melville’s Ahab “is full stop” at “the end of the UNKNOWN. ”17 The imaginary margin of the known had narrowed to zero thickness: a line. Arriving late in the western Pacific, one colonial power still sought the uncharted and tenantless spaces formerly in abundance there. In 1947, the United States undertook one more misadventure athwart the dismantled frontier when it assumed trusteeship of 2,000 islands clustered near the 180th meridian to create the “Pacific Proving Grounds.” Thousands of islanders were evacuated to allow for the detonation of 102 nuclear weapons. A contaminated cloud formed, drifting for years and hundreds of miles, over into the day before and back again. 1 Henri Bergson in Time and Free Will (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), p. 99. 2 Interpenetrating time zones resulting from large east-west deflections along
the de jure date line allow three calendar days to be simultaneously observed for one hour out of every twenty-four. For example: when it is 11:30pm Tuesday night in Samoa, it is 5:30am Wednesday morning in New York City and, strangely, 12:30am Thursday morning on the Kiribati Islands. 3 James Stokley, “The Day and the Date Line,” The Scientific Monthly, vol. 74, no. 4, (April 1952), p. 238. The snub-nosed prow of each new day, cutting into and “squeezing” out the old, is the International Date Line. Of special interest is Stokley’s reliance on spatial metaphors; Bergson observed that “as soon as we try to measure [time], we unwittingly replace it by space.” 4 Regarding the linkage of European cities and hinterlands by rail, Heinrich Heine noted in 1843: “I feel as if the mountains and forests of all countries were advancing on Paris. Even now, I can smell the German linden trees; the North Sea’s breakers are rolling against my door.” 5 Leonard Waldo, “The Distribution of Time,” Science, vol. 1, no. 23 (December 4, 1880), p. 277. 6 International conferences directly related to the standardization of time, distance, and commerce included: the 1879 Conference on International Telegraphy in London; the 1881 Conference of Berne to regulate railroad transportation; the 1881 General Time Convention in New York (later to become the Association of American Railroads Convention); the 1881 3rd International Geographic Congress in Venice; the 1881 International Association for the Reform and Codification of the Law of Nations in Cologne; the 1882 American Society of Civil Engineers in Washington D.C.; and the 1883 7th International Geodetic Conference in Rome, culminating in the Meridian Conference of 1884. 7 Following animated debate, delegates in the affirmative: Austria-Hungary, Mexico, Chile, Netherlands, Columbia, Paraguay, Costa Rica, Russia, Germany, Salvador, Great Britain, Spain, Guatemala, Sweden, Hawaii, Switzerland, Italy, Turkey, Japan, United States, Liberia, and Venezuela; in the negative: San Domingo; abstaining: Brazil and France. 8 Carlene E. Stephens, On Time: How America Has Learned to Live by the Clock (New York: Bulfinch Press: 2002), pp. 119–120. 9 Editorial in Science, vol. 3, no. 64 (25 April 1884), p. 518. 10 Wolfgang Schivelbusch, “Railroad Space and Railroad Time,” New German Critique, no. 14 (Spring 1978), p. 40. 11 Accordingly, astromoner Friederich Bessel coined the term “light-year” in 1838 to describe units of distance (10.4 of them) between the Earth and a star called 61 Cygni, or “Piazzi’s Flying Star.” 12 Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power  (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984), p. 399. 13 Percival Lowell, The Land of the Morning Calm: A Sketch of Korea (Boston: Ticknor & Co., 1885), p. 1. 14 Correspondence from Professor George Davidson, formerly assistant in charge of the United States Coast Survey Office in San Francisco, to the American Geographical Society dated 6 August 1899. In “Universal World Time,” Geographical Review, vol. 25, no. 3 (July 1935), p. 484, Helen M. Strong notes that “although this line is used by navigators of all nations, there seems to be no general agreement concerning the name of ‘the line,’ no international agreement has defined it, nor have the nations formally sanctioned it.” 15 A popular prerogative of isolated or imperial governments was to establish their own Prime Meridian. Prior to the consensus of 1884, a functional date line might have been situated 180° east or west from prime meridians recognized in Paris, Washington, Rome, Gibraltar, Naples, Copenhagen, Brussels, Rio de Janeiro, Ferro, Cordoba, Lisbon, Madrid, Berne, Pisa, Oslo, Warsaw, Alexandria, St. Petersburg, Jerusalem, Mecca, or Ujjain (central India). Some Talmudic scholars situate a Halachic date line, the Kav Hataarich, 24° east of Jerusalem along the 149°E meridian. 16 A. W. Downing, “The Date Line in the Pacific,” The Geographic Journal, vol. 15, no. 4 (April 1900), p. 415. 17 Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947), p. 119.
Burning to know: the sunny side of youthful experimentation, as depicted on Porter Chemical Company’s 1947 chemistry kit. Photo Gregory Tobias.
Fire and Truth D. Graham Burnett
Late in the eleventh century, in the thick of the first crusade, when the Christian sackers of Antioch found themselves miserably besieged and starving in the citadel of their prize, a devout soldier of the Lord named Peter Bartholomew, a commoner, awoke from a fitful sleep to announce a vision. Rousing his fellow holy marauders, he led them to a site indicated in his dream and pressed them to dig, whereupon they uncovered a rusty pike, buried deep in the earth. Falling down in ecstatic spasms, Peter declared the relic nothing less than the lance driven into the side of the Savior as he hung upon the cross. Inspired by this apparent sign of divine favor, Peter and the Christians blazed with new vigor, and undertook a breakout maneuver against their infidel enemies, driving them down in a great slaughter. But not all the knights of Christ were entirely enthusiastic about Peter’s sudden spiritual (and worldly) ascendancy—a certain palpable grumbling could soon 61
be heard in the ranks about this charismatic peasant (whose visions had continued unabated) and his rusty relic (which served him as a kind of scepter). Was he entirely for real? Why not check? And so, with Peter’s indignant indulgence, a gazebo of dry olive branches was erected, fourteen feet long and four feet high, down the middle of which ran a narrow passage some twelve inches in breadth. After three days of purgatory fasting, Peter emerged from prayerful seclusion dressed in a light shift and carrying his disputed lance. Kindled, the olive bower burst into a tunnel of roaring flame, into which Peter, nearly naked, plunged wildly, disappearing from view in the white heat. Here, unfortunately, the ancient chroniclers diverge, suggesting a historical record indelibly tainted by partisanship. One line of texts has it that Peter and his false relic were thoroughly consumed in the conflagration, laying permanently to rest his usurpatory deceptions. But a more sympathetic tradition holds that Peter emerged from the fiery gauntlet merely singed, and thus thoroughly exonerated, only to be caught
up in the thronging masses of his crazed acolytes, who crushed and trampled him to martyrdom in their enthusiasm—proliferating the immediate supply of relic material, but terminating (despite themselves) his broader bid for temporal leadership. What is striking in these otherwise incommensurable endings is their perfect consensus on the forensic value of flame: fire, here as elsewhere in the history of the Medieval trial by ordeal, is a basic technology of truth. Burned, the things of the world reveal their essential nature. The scriptural basis for this notion is iffy (Lot surviving the flames of Sodom? Moses’ encounter with the burning bush?). The physics of the proposition, however, proves to be spot-on: everything that burns speaks with tongues of flame that cannot lie. This is called spectroscopy. ••• It is itself a phoenix science, at least in its nativist narration. On the 10th of April 1845, around mid-day, a small fire broke out in an icehouse on Second Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In a matter of hours, some fifty acres and more than a thousand structures had been reduced to smoldering embers. As one newspaper reported: The fire, as though impelled by the hand of the Destroying Angel, rolled on from building to building, with the flight of a fiery flying serpent, consuming every house with the angry fury of a Vulcan, speeding its way with awful and terrific progress, threatening the whole city, inhabitants and all, and only ceased its mad career in the line of the river, because there was nothing more for it to destroy, having swept every thing in its way for one mile and a quarter! Never did any event appear more like Judgment Day. People running, some screaming, others hallowing, warning the people to fly for their lives, carts, drays, furniture wagons, omnibuses, horses, and all and every kind of vehicle, crowded the streets to an excess which made it difficult for each to escape, and threatened destruction to all! May we never again witness such a scene, until the last conflagration of this terrestrial globe!
To the ash field of this disaster came, several days later, a thirty-seven-year-old medical doctor and tinkerer named David Alter, resident of the town of Freeport, some two dozen miles northeast of the ruins. The pillar of smoke drew him. Pittsburgh had been for a generation the center of American glass production, so it was not entirely 62
fortuitous that Alter, in perusing the ruins of the Bakewell-Pears Glasshouse, stumbled on a thick chunk of what looked to be premium flint glass. He pocketed it, and back in Freeport set about grinding it down into a prism. Then, over the next decade, in his small workshop in the Alleghenies, Alter conducted a series of experiments that would earn him footnote status in the history of the physical sciences. Here is what he did: he rigged up his new prism at the heart of a simple spectroscope, by affixing it in a black box through which light was admitted only via a narrow slit. Pointing this device at a light source—say, the sun—yielded a tidy smear of rainbow that could be projected on a sheet of paper. Alter was well aware that earlier in the century the gifted German optician Joseph von Fraunhofer, messing about with just such an instrument, had noticed that the sun’s spectrum was not perfectly continuous. Rather, it was striped throughout by irregularly spaced dark bars—perhaps ten, perhaps fifty or more (it could be hard to decide, squinting at a blurry rainbow for hours on end; different observers saw things differently). These lacunae in the solar spectrum were a major-minor physics mystery of the first half of the nineteenth century—a challenge to astronomers and a stumper to the rump of natural theologians still trying to read God’s providential inscriptions in the book of nature (the rainbow had been, after all, a divine covenant—why these strike-outs in the contract?). Like a number of his contemporary practitioners of the natural sciences, Alter was thus keen to investigate these queer lines, and one way to get at the problem was to use his salvage spectroscope to look at a variety of other sources of light: what sort of spectra would they generate? Already equipped with a galvanic generator and other accoutrements of the electro-mechanical laboratory (he had tried to patent a proto-telegraph several years earlier), Alter rigged up a crankable sparking device which, when juiced and whirling, crackled with a brilliant flash that arced between two metal plates. By swapping out the plates, Alter was able to establish that, although different metals all yielded a more or less “white” spark, this white light, when observed through the spectroscope, resolved not into a full rainbow-like spectrum, but rather into sequences of characteristically colored bars: copper, for instance, consistently produced two orange stripes and three green, together with a bit of fuzzy reddish-yellow; zinc, by contrast, reliably turned up one strong red bar, together with two orange stripes, three of blue, and a little smearing over in the yellow. Admittedly, this sort of thing had been noticed before, but Alter went so far as to suggest that an alloy
like brass (a mixture of copper and zinc) generated a spectrum that superimposed the distinctive color signatures of its component elements. This observation—a little off-hand, and published in an American journal not on the desk of every European savant—has earned Alter a claim to be the inventor of “spectral analysis,” the business of reading the tongues of fire. Put aside his (somewhat tenuous) priority. What matters is that within a decade the notion that each element cannot but declare itself when submitted to the torch would become a central dogma of chemistry, and an extension of this notion to the heavens would mean that every star could be understood to be forever calling out its essential elements. Out of this realization—that starlight was the continuous twinkle of a chorus of celestial confessions—modern astrophysics was born. Even the dark was found to speak: those troublesome privations in the solar spectrum noticed by Fraunhofer were soon shown to correspond to the signature lines of known substances. His lines were, in the end, tell-tale shadows; the materials they signaled were indeed out there, but they were not burning, only lurking in celestial clouds—nevertheless, they could not hide from the pervasive fire of the heavens. ••• Alter’s experiments have become standard high school science: a choice laboratory exercise in the modern methods of truth making. And it was with some sense of their canonicity that I set about reproducing them for my sixth-grade science fair. I was, at the time, a basementdwelling pre-adolescent with an elaborate chemistry set, living in West Philadelphia and attending a forbidding Catholic grammar school. Limited parental oversight had permitted me to install a pump-driven respirator that fed air from the kitchen down to a diving mask I wore when conducting particularly hazardous work with chlorine gas. My assistant, a precocious Mexican neighbor named Dave del Río, had a nervous stutter and no mask. He was very skilled at Dungeons & Dragons. The spectroscope was easy, but the sparking device never worked properly. Dave and I moved on to a more elaborate scheme: to build a crucible in which we might burn anything—metal salts and even metals themselves. The key lay in an apparatus known as an “arc furnace,” instructions for the building of which we found in a science activity book published before the era of widespread liability litigation. The core of the device involved removing the carbon rod from the center of a pair of D-cell batteries and wiring these pencil-like 63
electrodes to a severed extension cord—one carbon bar attached to one wire, the other to the other. Plugging in the cord, with a well-taped electrode in each hand, one carefully brought their sharpened tips into contact, producing a searing hum, a blinding magnesium-white light—and instantly blowing the mains in the house. We developed a work-around for this problem: a rheostat to control the current. It was primitive, but very functional: we split one of the electrode leads and wired in a pair of coffee can lids. These were then placed—not touching, weighted down with small stones—in the bottom of a Pyrex baking dish filled with salt water. The water served as a resistor, and by sliding the lids closer together (with a stick, so as not to be electrocuted in the dish of water that was plugged into the wall) we could increase the juice to the arc. Adding more salt also kicked up the charge. This device worked like a charm. We drilled a pair of holes in a small clay flowerpot, and fed the carbon electrodes through, to make a little crucible. With the arc struck (and carefully maintained by just the right “touch”—the sharpened tips had to be close, but not too close, for maximum heat and light) the pot became a raging inferno in which one could easily and quickly melt down a screwdriver. Which was entertaining, but we were after bigger game: spectroscopy. So we procured a number of chemical compounds whose emission spectra promised to be clear and bright. My own enthusiasm was highest for some potassium nitrate, which I had found on a dusty back shelf of the local pharmacy, where it was sold, I believe, as an anaphrodisiac (its powers to suppress auto-erotic behavior are now discredited). Several heaping tablespoons of this white powder were shoveled into the small furnace, and I struck the arc. Dave stood by with the spectroscope (a shoebox, rigged up with a pinhole and a prism). It is difficult to describe what happened next, but it was very scary. I have come to suspect that our potassium nitrate had been adulterated with sugar (perhaps to make it more palatable to little masturbators), which combination—saltpeter and sugar—is the basic recipe for very effective smoke bombs. Whether this was the case or no, the sample, under the influence of the white heat, rapidly congealed into a lava-like ball of orange magma. Immediately unnerved by its spitting and gelatinous vigor, I broke the arc and stepped away, glad to be wearing my respirator. But the cessation of the applied heat did not stop the unfolding auto-catalytic process: within seconds, a geyser of furious and terrifying smoke blasted up and choked out the room. Meteoric lumps of
The sun confesses (ca. 1814): using a spectroscope of his own manufacture, German optician Joseph von Fraunhofer discerned a set of “blanks” in the solar spectrum—dark lines that would later be read as clues to the chemical composition of extraterrestrial matter. Courtesy Deutsches Museum.
molten stone sprayed left and right. Dave, discarding the spectroscope, gasping for breath, upended the rheostat, blowing the fuse and cutting off the flow of air to my mask. Groping, we found our way through the darkness, and tumbled up the steps to the relative safety of the kitchen. “Did you get a reading?” I asked him, as we lay panting on the floor, still genuinely afraid, thick smoke seeping under the basement door. “No,” answered Dave. “I couldn’t see a thing.”
With a light step, and sensing myself newly a participant in the complex and always contingent process of creating knowledge, I headed down to the gymnasium to set up my arc furnace and spectroscope on a wobbly card-table. I had carefully written out instructions for how the sisters appointed as judges might themselves endeavor to strike the arc, though I decided it was best not to leave any potassium nitrate around. And I did put a sign on the Pyrex baking dish, in large letters, warning everyone to keep their hands out of the water.
That night I wrote up our results in my laboratory notebook (the basic accoutrement of a science-fair project), and opted to keep the story simple for the nuns: the saltpeter, in my reconstruction, glowed helpfully, and Dave and I were able to witness, at our spectroscopic leisure, a brilliant panorama of the tell-tale emission spectra for both potassium (heavy striping in the blue/violet range together with three nice green bars) and nitrogen (some red, some yellow, some light green). I got all of this, needless to say, from a book. Then I packed up our furnace, and headed off to school for the science fair. It was in the car that morning that I offered my mother, without too much detail, the story of what had actually happened, and mentioned that I had touched up the results for the consumption of the judges. But she, being at heart a teacher (if not a scientist—she taught French), took the occasion to stump for the virtues of absolute candor in a laboratory notebook. I sat in the back, looking out the window, listening to her expound a general history of the rise of the sciences as nothing less than the sequential progress of unflinching truth over mere slavish orthodoxy. Galileo was brought into evidence; the fortuitous discovery of penicillin made an appearance; disparaging remarks were adduced concerning the anti-empirical tendencies of scholasticism. I stepped from the car chastened, and resolved to mend my ways. I forfeited recess to the excision of the carefully penned and artfully idealized narrative of our work, and set to scribbling at impassioned speed a faultlessly factual account of the withering disaster: the explosion, the evacuation of the makeshift laboratory, the damage to the fuse-box, my father’s great anger on discovering that the laundry room had sustained fire damage, etc. My “conclusion” section, too, required a total re-write. No longer the self-satisfied confirmation of the spectroscopic commonplaces, but rather a more provisional and open-ended valediction, calling for further work in this difficult and dangerous area of research.
I was, of course, disqualified. Though it entirely surprised me when I returned to my table to find an icy pink disciplinary slip in my (unplugged) crucible, since I had secretly come to expect nothing less than a blue ribbon. Who could have done something better? (The winner, I recall, had looked at his cheek cells under a dime-store microscope.) The nuns had been understandably dismayed by the white-knuckle narrative of the notebook, but more so (and justifiably, it must be said) by the fact that I had left a plugged-in dish of water in a crowded school gymnasium. There would be a reckoning. With sister William Mary, known among the boys as “Willard, the Rat King.” She who carried (but had not been seen to use) a thick wooden ruler, triangular in section, upon which misfeasors were said to be forced to kneel. It was, of course, a long prism. Carrying that slip down the carpeted hall of the convent toward the office of the principal that afternoon, I was very afraid: the walls felt close, and I burned with an unhappy combination of shame and anxiety. But at the same time there was, in that small boy’s fear, a delicious shiver of righteousness. To be a scientist was grand; but to be a martyr— what could compare?
Iron ivy on a building in downtown Manhattan. Photo Thomas A. P. Van Leeuwen.
IRON IVY Thomas A. P. Van Leeuwen “Tonight, Tonight!”
“Tonight, tonight,” Maria and Tony sing in urgent unison while holding onto a fire escape. They sing because they are in love. But they sing on a fire escape because they are in love in the United States of America, and only in the United States of America do you find fire escapes. Together with their aquatic counterpart—the water tower—fire escapes have become characteristic elements of the American cityscape. America’s exterior fire escapes hang on old and decrepit buildings in inner cities, on residential and commercial buildings, on low and tall buildings, and even on early skyscrapers. Countless at the turn of the twentieth century, their numbers have now been greatly reduced. In 2004, the New York Times reported: “No one is sure exactly how many fire escapes are left; Vincent J. Dunn, a retired deputy chief with New York City’s Fire Department, guesses there may be 200,000” in New York City.1 They are more likely to be found in the less affluent parts of New York: West Side Story, for example, was set on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a neglected tenement district in the late 1950s when the film was made. Porches in the Sky
The New York Times article also reported that the predominantly Dominican immigrants living in areas of 67
upper Manhattan like Inwood and Washington Heights were making ingenious use of their fire escapes: “For many working-class residents in older tenement buildings without balconies or rooftop access, the humble fire escape has always been the next best thing. It is their makeshift stoop in the sky.”2 As in West Side Story, the fire escape stands for something else, something more romantic, a balcony, or even a “box seat,” as one of Inwood’s residents calls it.3 West Side Story, a 1957 Broadway musical made into a Hollywood film in 1961, was so heavily identified with the architectural environment in which it was set that a few schematic flights of stairs from a fire escape became its unmistakable logo.4 Even today, when the fire escape is disappearing from our memories, posters announcing new stage productions of West Side Story still use the same iconic image of three flights of black iron stairs set against a red background. Stairs and balconies are viewing platforms, lookouts onto the world, and West Side Story cleverly replaced Romeo and Juliet’s noble balcony with a fire escape tête-à-tête between working-class Tony and immigrant Maria. But despite the insecurity and deprivation represented by the setting, the romance was the same, better even—stronger and charged with a more acute sense of escape. Of course, fire escapes are also meant to help you escape a building in case of a fire. But even that was not always as self-evident as it might seem.
To Get Close to the Fire
Originally, fire escapes were not attached to buildings. They were not even intended to help people get away from fires. The first so-called “fire escapes,” introduced in England during the late 1820s, were ladders on wheels carried along by firemen in order to gain better access to the fire. As buildings had grown taller, the upper stories could no longer be reached with standard ladders; the longer “fire escape” ladders were therefore designed to give fire-fighters access to the roofs of buildings, a position from which they could more easily douse the fire. The first “fire escape” ladders that also allowed victims to descend were operated by London’s Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire, established in 1836.
The iconic image designed by Saul Bass for the film version of West Side Story (1961).
They were six-wheeled ladder wagons, “strategically placed in streets to be run by conductors to the fire with the object of effecting any necessary rescues.”5 Mobile fire escapes were, however, risky contraptions. Climbing them was the work of professionals, and civilians, even in times of utmost desperation, balked at trusting their lives to such apparently unstable structures. Victims of a fire instinctively climb to the highest point in an effort to remain ahead of the increasing smoke and heat. The roof— typically reached through a hatch or “scuttle”—would be the nearest point of relief, but also the last.6 When a building catches on fire, the first thing that burns is the staircase. Made of wood and designed to connect the various floors, staircases act
like fast-burning fuses. Meanwhile, the roof of a burning building is akin to the top of a funeral pyre; the hottest and smokiest spot available. Nevertheless, picking up refugees from the roof was the motivation behind establishing London’s mobile fire escape brigades. Their escape ladders had to be constantly refigured to keep up with the ever-increasing heights of buildings, a progression that finally reached its limit with the advent of tall, steel-framed buildings in the late nineteenth century. At that point, victims in tall buildings on both sides of the Atlantic were left no other choice than to jump. This was dramatized most poignantly in the 1874 fire at a textile mill in Fall River, Massachusetts, which shocked a nation that learned of the events through dramatic woodcuts, published by magazines and newspapers, of desperate victims jumping out of windows. Finding the general stair tower blocked and firemen’s ladders too short to even reach the second-floor windows, workers at the cotton mill tried to escape the flames by jumping out of fourth-floor windows. Twenty-three died; many more were permanently injured. The factory’s printmaker did his best to catch the jumpers by hovering under their final destination on the pavement. Such acts of “defenestration” signal, of course, that the victim chose death by falling over death by incineration. It is small consolation that most victims of a fire are killed by smoke rather than the fire itself, and that jumpers often experience a fatal heart attack before they hit the pavement. The Fall River disaster naturally resulted in an ongoing national investigation into other means of egress. Many ingenious solutions were proposed, ranging from ropes and derricks (such a thing was fitted on the balcony of the White House for the obese American president Taft) to textile chutes, nets, inflated cushions, parachutes, and many other more or less daring precursors to human flight. In the end, the only realistic approach remained a fixed, external fire escape, made of iron balconies and interconnecting stairs. Originally, the stairs were vertical ladders, but gradually, starting with recommendations made in 1885, they acquired a more comfortable angle for descent. The horizontal fire balcony, made of iron and consisting of a platform and railings, was bolted to the building and supported by iron braces. Victims of fire no longer had to wait for firemen to rescue them.
then the city burned again in 1856 and was almost entirely destroyed. Chicago knew an almost uninterrupted history of city fires, including those of 1857, 1859, 1866, 1868, 1871 (“the Great Fire”) and 1874 (“the Forgotten Fire,” the most destructive of them all.) Although efforts in fireproofing became a dominant feature of the new commercial architecture, the problem of reducing the risk of deadly fire in residential buildings was much less urgently tackled. Business counted, not lives. Official reports of great fires counted property losses, not human casualties. Warehouses were normally better constructed than tenement blocks, and fireproofing was first applied to factories and storage facilities. “Thus, again and again, in town and country alike, Americans encountered the disturbing scent of burnt money. And yet, although an overview of the ‘great fires’ helps to establish the dimensions of the problem, the preoccupation with statistics almost trivializes the severity of the destruction.”7 Despite this nonchalance, however, pressure from the news media— the unconscious of the nation in those days—slowly helped to formulate laws and regulations. Before these laws were passed in the second half of the nineteenth century, property owners were not held responsible for injuries or loss of lives resulting from fires in their buildings. It was only after a series of extreme cases of what we would now call criminal
To Get Away from the Fire
From the 1850s to the 1870s, many American cities were repeatedly devastated by large conflagrations. A quarter of the city of Boston, for example, was destroyed in 1872. Half of Charleston, South Carolina, was lost in 1838, and 69
Fall River factory fire of 1874.
negligence that owners were obliged to install alternative means of egress in case of a calamity. In the winter of 1860, the New York Times started a campaign for better safety measures after a particularly horrible fire in a large tenement house on Elm Street claimed thirty lives. Historian Sara E. Wermiel writes: “This fire outraged the editors of the New York Times, who reproached New Yorkers for fretting over the welfare of slaves in the South while ignoring the safety of their own poor neighbors. Within a couple of months, the state enacted a new, comprehensive building code for New York City. An early draft of this law called for making landlords liable for injuries sustained at fires in their buildings, but lawmakers deleted this provision from the final version. Nonetheless, this 1860 law introduced several novel requirements pertaining to egress, the most important of which was a device that became a signature feature of America’s downtowns: the outside fire escape.”8 The 1860 law required every large apartment building (nine or more units) in the city to have either a fireproof stair tower or else “fireproof balconies on each story on the outside of the building, connected by fireproof stairs.” The vagueness of the wording led to the development of many types of fire escapes, the majority of which paid lip service to the new laws. Other American cities and states soon followed New York’s lead, but it was not until 1885 that a fire escape was legally defined as an “outside, open, iron stairway, of not more than forty-five degrees slant, with steps not less than six inches in width and twenty-four inches in length.”9 Good intentions notwithstanding, the external fire escape never completely fulfilled expectations. Whoever tried to climb out of a window on the fifth floor of a burning tenement, let alone a twenty-story office building, was challenging fate. Fire escapes were either too cold or too hot to allow a comfortable hold, and this does not even take into account the period’s uncomfortable clothes and slippery, leather-soled shoes. Another infamous New York fire, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, announced the effective end of the life of the outside fire escape. Though it finally claimed 146 lives, the fire itself had not been especially dangerous. The Asch Building, of which only the top floors were used by the Triangle Shirtwaist company, was a solid fireproof building which, almost a century after the fire, is still standing in what is now the New York University campus. But the dramatic loss of life was the result of the hopelessly inadequate system of emergency egresses established by the owners of the sweatshop, who found it cheaper to purchase fire insurance policies than invest in fire-prevention systems. The Asch Building’s fire 70
escape, which could not be easily reached because of a locked door, became so hot that it bent and finally collapsed under the weight of those who had found their way there, sending twenty-five garment workers down to their deaths in the alley below. After the 1911 disaster, the construction of external fire escapes on new buildings was increasingly restricted by individual states and localities in favor of internal fire-resistant stairs.10 Monuments of Inadequacy
In his provocative 1931 book, Fire, Thomas F. Dougherty, Assistant Chief at the New York City Fire Department, went so far as to accompany a photograph of a destroyed fire escape with the text “Fire escape or griddle? That the outside fire escape is often worthless is well demonstrated by the distortion of this one from the heat of the fire.”11 Edward Croker, Chief of the Fire Department of New York City, who became famous as the voice that spoke up after the Triangle disaster, similarly concluded that even if the hapless factory workers had been able to reach the fire escape on the ninth floor of the burning Asch Building, they would still have been far from safety: A device more futile or treacherous than the average present-day fire escape would be hard to devise. True, many lives have been saved by means of them, because any additional means of escape or of rescue is of value; but a great number of lives, I believe, have been lost as well. Usually of material too light to stand the strain they are called upon to bear in times of crowding and emergency, they are also, in many cases, improperly anchored to the walls, tearing away and sagging under the weight of thronging bodies. ... They readily become hot and many an unfortunate has been severely burned on them, or driven back into the furnace, as was the case at the famous fire in the Windsor Hotel, in the Washington Place [Triangle Shirtwaist] fire already mentioned and in scores of minor disasters in tenement houses, lofts and hotels throughout the country.12
Another drawback of the outside fire escape was that it was practically an open invitation to burglars. From street level or from neighboring platforms, with or without athletic training, access was guaranteed. To solve this problem, windows were barricaded with a variety of grilles, the most popular of which was the retractable grille. But the solution was even more dangerous than the problem. In case of an emergency, the barrier could get stuck, be locked, and, in case of a fire, it could be deformed by the heat and jammed shut. It was to be expected that in the end, external fire
escapes were no more than what they had been from the beginning: quick solutions for an otherwise insoluble situation. Landlords preferred the fire escape as a quick fix for their hazardous real estate. And as far as quick fixes went, fire escapes were more concerned with the law than safety. The true solution was to raise building construction standards. People like Croker and Dougherty continued to warn against the dangers of flammable materials and proposed the use of fireproofing techniques, not only for the outside but, even more urgently, for the inside of buildings. Their key proposal was internal, insulated, fire-proof stairs—an option that many European countries had already adopted. Although Croker was responsible for important revisions of the fire laws in effect in 1911 (which, together with other recommendations, formed the basis of New York City’s Building Exits Code of 1923), few of his proposed solutions, such as interior fire-proof stairs, were, or indeed still have been, fully implemented. In fact, building codes since 1860 had called for such improvements in “buildings of a public character” but owners had nevertheless been allowed to resort to the outside fire escape, which remained “the all-purpose solution for emergency egress.”13 Dark Tourism
In the late nineteenth century, sensation-seeking travelers from Europe flocking to the poor, fire-prone neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan were amazed by the strange growths of iron. Spoiled by the relative safety of European cities, they were fascinated by the eerie forest of dark webs stretching from block to block, from pavement to roof. German diplomat Roger Nielsen, author of Amerika in Bildern (1924), interpreted the fire escapes on Mott Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown as souvenirs of the days of opium and crime: faded lace curtains hanging over the spirits of the old opium kits. But fire escapes were seen not only as mementos of past urban devastation, but also as presaging catastrophes in the making. They were thought to act as admonitions of “the accident,” in Paul Virilio’s words, of “what can happen,” a bit like the dinky life-jackets with their pull cords and ominous toy whistles hiding under the seats of our passenger airliners. Visitors like Jules Huret were very much aware of the fire escape’s numinous character. As a caption for a photograph in his monumental L’amérique moderne (1911), he wrote: “The East Side, populous neighborhood in New York. Fires occur in this neighborhood with such frequency that, as a security measure, the floors of the apartment buildings are connected by iron ladders.”14 71
Why Not in Europe?
In Europe, the outside fire escape is a rarity. The reason is simple: from the thirteenth century on, European cities have been “petrified,” that is, structures made of wood were banned from the inner cities in favor of those built from stone and brick. The cavity wall was introduced, the widths of streets were determined by law, and, particularly after London’s Great Fire of 1666, access routes for fire-fighting equipment were straightened and widened. Amsterdam, for example, never suffered a major conflagration in the eighteenth century, thanks to the fact that the city was built almost entirely of brick, its roads were paved, and the canals provided a well-stocked reservoir of water. Thanks also went to the work of people like the painter Jan van der Heyden, who invented the pliable fire hose and was a major advocate for fire safety. Amsterdam’s inner city was so well-protected that even when the Amsterdam Opera burned down in a spectacular fire in May 1772, the neighboring houses were spared due to van der Heyden’s inventions. Paris, almost entirely built of stone and brick and the first modern city with wide, stone-paved streets and squares, suffered numerous local fires due to its numerous theaters, which were often made of wood but employed fire for lighting and stage effects. The Palais Royal, the city’s central pleasure garden, was home to two important theaters, the Comédie Française and the Théâtre du Palais Royal. The Comédie Française was destroyed by fire in 1900 and rebuilt with interior fire stairs.The Théâtre du Palais Royal, on the other hand, lacking surplus interior space and with no room to expand, had in 1880 commissioned the respected architect Paul Sédille, famous for the Parisian department store Au Printemps, to provide the theater with an appropriate egress system.15 The balconies and staircases of this rare European example of an external fire escape are compacted into one block and integrated gracefully onto the back of the theater. The result was widely admired for its elegance. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, European cities increased their immunity against fire, whereas on the other side of the Atlantic, wood remained the preferred building material, one reason why there are still to this day annual conflagrations in the coastal areas of greater Los Angeles. “Iv y and Creepers”
Fire escapes are uniquely shaped, simply engineered, and easy to understand. They are also disfiguring, parasitically clinging to both tenements and townhouses. Yet these urban scars also retain a certain beauty, one
Jan van der Heyden, A Comparison of Old and New Firefighting Methods, 1680s. Van der Heyden uses the diagram to show the many advantages of his new inventionsâ€”the pliable fire hose and a more efficient fire engine. On the left, we see the old methods, dependent on drawing water in buckets from a canal and filling the heavy, large fire engine whose fixed nozzle could only move in a circle. On the right, we see the new, small fire engine, which uses a trestle equipped with a pliable, treated canvas hose to draw water
from the canal, and then pumps the water through a thin leather firehose that can be taken all the way into the building. This drawing served as the model for the first illustration in van der Heydenâ€™s book Beschryving der nieuwlyks uitgevonden en geoctrojeerde Slang-Brand-Spuiten en Haare Wyze van Brand-Blussen, better known as Brandspuitenboek (The Fire Engine Book), and published in Amsterdam in 1690.
that echoes the fondness of the eighteenth-century Picturesque for contrasting materials climbing up a brick wall. Garden architect John Claudius Loudon, for example, designed “a house calculated for being decorated with Ivy and Creepers” and the artist-theorist Reverend Gilpin observed that “ivy in masses uncommonly large, has taken possession of many parts of the walls; and gives a happy contrast to the grey-coloured stone.”16 From Alfred Stieglitz to Alfred Hitchcock, fire escapes were photographed, painted, sketched, and filmed. Fire escapes invite photography, just as masts of sailing boats invited painters.17 They add elegance to otherwise uninteresting blocks of brick. Zigzag lines in dark paint over a background of glowing brick were used by George Bellows in his 1913 Cliff Dwellers. John Sloan’s rooftop scene Pigeons (1910) used fire escapes and balconies to enliven the faceless façades of New York townhouses. Still, picturesque or not, many house owners wanted to get rid of their fire escapes at the first opportunity. This became possible in the 1960s and early 1970s with the great clean-up that raged across all the cities of the Western world. Everything had to make way for the new motor-based economy. The First to Disappear
Architects and historians following the events all over the world held their breath. Exactly a hundred years after Chicago’s Great Fire, a large-scale destruction campaign, led by the notorious mayor Richard A. Daley, was about to destroy Chicago’s famous Loop. “Daley wanted to clear the terrain of Chicago as neatly as had the Great Chicago Fire in 1871,” Richard Cahan wrote. “He wanted to rebuild. Miles of homes, thousands of buildings, even entire neighborhoods were cleared in the name of growth and increased tax dollars.”18 A small army of preservationists furiously resisted the mayor and his developers. Professional and amateur photographers alike took roll after roll of pictures of threatened buildings. A denser concentration of monuments of pre-modern architecture was hard to find. Shoulder to shoulder they stood, challenging the wrecker’s ball: William Jenney’s Manhattan Building, Burnham and Root’s Fisher Building, their Monadnock Building, and Holabird and Roche’s Marquette Building. Thanks to the combined preservationist forces, the South Dearborn landmarks were saved. By 1978, most of the surviving Chicago School buildings had been designated historical landmarks. The 1896 Fisher Building, one of the most elegant but covered in soot and provisionally patched up, was subsequently restored as a luxury apartment-hotel. Soot, 73
boards, and signs with forgotten commercial messages were removed. The pretty putto over the main entrance of the building, obscured in photographs from 1972, has now been freed from all the obscuring junk and restored to its original glory. But where is its F. P. Smith fire escape, visible in so many earlier photographs? Chicago was not only a great place to study early skyscrapers, it was also a place to study old fire escapes. At some point, early, tall Chicago Style buildings had been equipped with external fire escapes, and these enormous fire escapes had to be manufactured by large iron works. Naturally, they were more legal additives than instruments of salvation (who in his right, or wrong, mind would jump on a fire escape twenty or more floors above street level?). But from the standpoint of architectural history, they did at least bear the names of their makers. Stamped in a medal-shaped counterweight on the lower landing of the fire escape on the Fisher Building was the name “F. P. Smith Wire and Iron Works, Chicago.” With some difficulty, it could still be read in a faded color slide that I took in 1971. The same F. P. Smith was also the author of the fire escape at an even more famous front, that of the Sullivan and Adler Auditorium Building at the corner of South Michigan Avenue and Congress Parkway, just a block away from the Fisher Building. Another signed fire escape, which was cleared away, was on an equally famous former office building, now turned residential, on South Dearborn Street: William LeBaron Jenney’s bay-windowed Manhattan Building of 1891. Pictures from the period of analogue photography allow endless enlargement, and so we can see the decorative counterweight and lever bearing the name of its maker: “United States Fire Escape Co. Chicago, Ill.”19 Yet, by and large, fire escapes are anonymous. Their makers might have been foundries, modest iron works, or small-scale blacksmiths who specialized in individually adapting ready-made fire escapes. Some manufacturers advertised in architectural magazines, as did Marshall Brothers of Pittsburgh with their “Iron City Elevator Works,” offering ready-made units of balconies and stairs for existing buildings. But for the rest we are left with guesswork. Everything made of iron is usually stamped with the name and address of its maker: manhole covers, steel-rimmed curbs, and cast-iron basement skylights are extensively signed.20 Former industrial districts such as Manhattan’s SoHo functioned as open-air catalogues for the iron works that made their façades. So why were fire escapes left anonymous? Maybe it had to do with scale. The tall Chicago buildings relied on large companies to comply with the safety codes, but the more modest units could be
serviced by small workshops. Since fire escapes were not forged but assembled from available strips of iron and bolted and welded together, even a small smithy could provide an average building with an average fire escape. Signatures
America’s nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were an age of iron and steel. Foundries dotted the commercial directories. Lower Manhattan was as black as the smithies that created it. All that has changed completely. The Pradafication of SoHo has been selective in its nostalgic modernization. Black has been whitewashed and the rusty iron has been removed. New fire escapes were not required and the maintenance of old ones was not needed. And so the last of the blacksmiths have left the city for suburban retirement.21 The very last of them might have been Joe Vanelli of Particular Iron Works. All his life, Vanelli had manufactured decorative ironwork, railings, stairs, fences, and, of course, fire escapes. He also repaired them. I had first spotted the Particular Ironworks at 52 Greene Street (now a design shop of props and sets) when I was on a photo tour in 1975 but it was in 2005 on a field trip with art history students that I finally met Joe and was invited into the workshop. In the thirty years that had passed, not much had changed, it seemed. The fire escape over the door had deteriorated further and the front had been given a new coat of grey paint. Inside, cast iron decorative parts were everywhere, sharing tables and floors with loose ends of steel, rolls of wire, tools, and machines. Various devices for bending and punching metal occupied the basement floor. The jewel in the crown was a German metal-forming machine. Smiths like Vanelli occasionally worked from drawings if larger commissions were at hand. Blueprints were uncomplicated affairs, concentrating primarily on points of attachment, which, for example, distinguished type “A” from type “B,” the former refering to standing triangular supports, and the latter to hanging supports. Reference sources with models, guidelines, and regulations remained restricted to one volume: Daniel M. Driscoll’s Architectural Iron Design of 1926, as then required by the laws of New York.22 For the rest, ironworkers followed model and tradition. One freedom they allowed themselves, however, was the decorative pattern of the fences. Particular Iron Works, for example, filled the vertical parts of the balconies with squares divided by diagonal strips. Others used circular motifs, straight vertical bars, vertical and horizontal bars, curved bars, bent balusters, and so forth. These different patterns were, in fact, their signatures. 74
1 David W. Chen, “An Escape, and a Retreat: A Neighborhood Communicates, Plays and Daydreams on Its Porches in the Sky,” The New York Times, 15 August 2004, pp. 33 and 38–39. Early egress laws concentrated on buildings with high occupancy, such as tenements, hotels, factories, and office buildings. Housing for the more affluent was generally better built, was less densely occupied, and had safer egresses. 2 Ibid. 3 In Amsterdam, where fire escapes are non-existent and balconies are rare, a new element has appeared recently: balconies that look like fire escapes. Stuck on brick-faced walls, the new balconies are like baskets of black iron. 4 The film West Side Story was partly shot on location in Manhattan in abandoned West Side tenements around 110th Street. 5 Roger C. Mardon, <www.romar.org.uk>, accessed 16 April 2002. 6 The purpose of the hatches in this early period was to enable firefighters to reach roof and chimney fires. Sara E. Wermiel writes: “One of the earliest built-in kinds of alternative exit was the roof hatch. In the late 1700s, a mutual fire insurance company, the Philadelphia Contributionship, required its policyholders to put trap doors in their roofs. Charlestown, Massachusetts, across the harbor from Boston, took up this idea in 1810, when it called for every building to have a roof hatch (called a “scuttle”) as well as a ladder leading to it and a “safe railing on the roof.” See Sara E. Wermiel, The Fireproof Building: Technology and Public Safety in the Nineteenth-Century American City (Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), p. 189. 7 Fire historians Margaret Hindle Hazen & Robert Hazen tell us that in the US, even in the twentieth century, a disproportionately large percentage of dwellings were made of wood. “Sometimes the combustibility of the basic building blocks of American life remained hidden or ignored until a disastrous fire reminded the public of its perpetual vulnerability.” See Margaret Hindle Hazen & Robert Hazen, Keepers of the Flame: The Role of Fire in American Culture, 1775–1925 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 78. 8 Sara E. Wermiel, The Fireproof Building, op. cit., p. 190. 9 Sara E. Wermiel, “No Exit: The Rise and Demise of the Outside Fire Escape,” Technology and Culture, vol. 44, no. 2 (April 2003), p. 271. 10 Ibid, p. 281. 11 Thomas F. Dougherty & Paul W. Kearney, Fire (New York & London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1931), pp. 178–179. 12 Edward F. Croker, Fire Prevention (New York: Dodd Mead & Company, 1912), pp. 98–99. 13 Sara E. Wermiel, The Fireproof Building, op. cit., p. 191. 14 Jules Huret, L’amérique moderne (Paris: Pierre Lafitte & Cie, 1911) vol. 1, caption for plate 5. Translation by author. 15 See Bernard Marrey & Paul Chemetov, Familièrement inconnues: Architectures, Paris 1848–1914 (Paris: Dunod, 1976), p. 54. 16 William Gilpin, quoted in Christopher Hussey, The Picturesque: Studies in a Point of View (London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1927), p. 117. 17 Thomas A. P. Van Leeuwen, “Portrait of Two Generations: The Photography of John Vanderpant,” in Pronk & De Ruiter, eds., Foto Voorkeuren (Amsterdam: Voetnoot, 2007), pp. 87–90. 18 Richard Cahan, They All Fall Down; Richard Nickel’s Struggle to Save America’s Architecture (Washington, DC: The Preservation Press, 1994), p. 11. 19 Some other counterweights were stamped “Standard Fire-Escape Co. Chicago. Ill.,” “United States Fire-Escape Company, Chicago, Ill.,” and “Hanke Iron & Wire Works, Chicago, Ill.” The latter is still on the forty-story Pittsfield office building on East Washington, Chicago. 20 Bogardus and Badger both left their names on columns, steel sidewalk covers, and glass-and-cast-iron basement skylights. Others were Jacob Mark from Worth Street; J. L. Jackson Iron Works of 28th/29th Street and Second Avenue; Cornell Iron Works of Center Street; G. R. Jackson & Burnet & Co., East River; Z. S. Ayres Iron Foundry of 45th Street, corner of 10th Avenue; Aetna Iron Works of Goerck Street; Nicholl & Ballerwell of Hanover Street; J. M. Duclos & Co., New York City; and Iron Works of 104th Street. Next to the name of the company, the precise address was often given as well. See Margot Gayle, Cast-iron Architecture of New York (New York: Dover Books, 1974). 21 Nowadays suburbs are dominated by fenced-in private domains where everybody is afraid of everybody. Fire escapes may be obsolete, but demand for “artistic” monumental iron fences and customized gates is booming. 22 Daniel M. Driscoll, Architectural Iron Design (As Required by the Laws of New York) (New York: Van Nostrand, 1926).
San Francisco in ruins after the fire of 1906. The panoramic photo by Lawrence was taken from his “Captive Airship” 2,000 feet above San Francisco Bay. Courtesy Library of Congress.
George R. Lawrence, AeronautPhotographer Christopher Turner
On 18 April 1906, at 5:12 am, San Francisco was hit by an earthquake that is estimated to have been 8.25 on the Richter scale. The earth shuddered for a full minute and— as chimneys fell, gas pipes burst, and electrical circuits shorted—fires broke out all over the city. These were far more devastating than the quake or its aftershocks. The city’s subterranean water system was so badly damaged that there were few resources with which to fight the flames. The fire department dynamited whole rows of buildings to try and create firebreaks, and created more fires in the process. Several firestorms joined together in one great inferno that blazed for three days; 490 city blocks were razed and over 250,000 people were made homeless. Almost two-thirds of the city was destroyed. The extent of this devastation was captured in an iconic photograph, San Francisco in Ruins, taken six weeks after the fires burnt out. Shot from 2,000 feet in the air, the 160-degree panoramic image shows a view of the city from Ferry House to Twin Peaks, ten kilometers inland. The signage on the waterfront is clearly visible, and you can make out figures amidst the masonry-strewn ruins. The flattened city looks like a ploughed field, the streets shiny furrows that have thrown up black ridges of charred wreckage. The sun’s rays emerge from behind a cloud over the mouth of the San Francisco bay, sparkling the water with glowing 75
light, almost as if to hint at new beginnings. The photograph was taken by George R. Lawrence, using what he describes, in an inscription on the enormous 48 x 183 ⁄4 inch print, as a “Captive Airship.” The image was deemed by many to be a composite fake. Manpowered flight was still in its haphazard infancy (the Wright brothers were granted a patent for their Flyer only six days before Lawrence took his photo), and, though Nadar had shot Paris from a hot air balloon in 1868, the even lighting in Lawrence’s aerial view of San Francisco placed its author under suspicion. The fact that Lawrence claimed to have taken his picture from a boat with a camera that had been fastened to a series of kites did nothing to reassure the skeptics. Lawrence had a photographic company in Chicago whose slogan was “The hitherto impossible in photography is our specialty.” He had earned the nickname “Flashlight Lawrence” because of his pioneering work with magnesium flares—experimentation that, according to an obituary published in 1939, caused “numerous explosions which burned off his hair, eyebrows, and mustache, and burst his eardrums.” His ingenious solution to these problems was a system that released a canvas bag over the discharged lighting apparatus so as to extinguish any fires and contain the smoke, allowing him to shoot indoor scenes without choking or setting fire to his subjects. He was hired to take panoramas of overleaf: Aerial panoramic photograph of San Francisco taken by Lawrence on 5 May 1906. Courtesy Library of Congress.
Lawrence and his crew installing his 1400-pound camera to photograph the Alton Limited, 1900 . Courtesy Chicago History Museum.
Lawrence used a train of kites to hoist his camera, which was suspended from the bottom kite. Each kite was attached to the main line by its own short line and prevented from becoming entangled with it by means of a light bamboo rod. Courtesy Chicago History Museum.
political conventions, legislative sessions, and festive occasions, to which he gave titles such as “Secretary Taft’s Philippine Party Dinner.” Lawrence was also famous for having created what was billed as “the world’s largest camera.” It cost $5,000 to make, weighed 1,400 pounds, had twenty-foot bellows, and required fifteen people to carry it. One picture of Lawrence shows him with a lens cap the size of a garbage can lid under his arm, timing the exposure of his gargantuan device. The oversized camera was commissioned to create an 8 x 41⁄2 foot photograph of the Alton Limited, a sleek passenger train that had recently been built to run the Chicago to St. Louis line. The resulting print, promoted as The Largest Photograph in the World of the Handsomest Train in the World, was exhibited at the Paris Exposition of 1900 and, like the later image taken by his kite camera, was judged a patchwork fake. The French Consul General was sent from New York to Chicago to verify the photograph and, after he’d inspected the camera and enormous glass plate, Lawrence was awarded the “Grand Prize of the World for Photographic Excellence.” The photographer continued to innovate, challenging himself to perfect aerial views of urban scenes, such as racetracks and ballparks. He invented a telescoping tower that could lift him up to 200 feet, before customizing gas-filled hot air balloons to get bird’s eye views from five times farther up. On 20 June 1901, Lawrence was almost killed while photographing the Chicago Union Stock Yards from the air. His balloon broke free of its anchor in heavy winds and floated off over Lake Michigan. He had built a special platform to replace the traditional basket, so as to obtain an unobstructed view, and this suddenly gave way: he fell 230 feet. Lawrence survived only because his fall was broken by telegraph and telephone wires; according to his obituary, the experience “(temporarily) cured him of further use of balloons to get spectacular views.” When Lawrence saw a kite trailing an advertising banner over Chicago, he imagined a less risky way of obtaining lofty perspectives. He began using trains of up to seventeen kites to lift a forty-nine-pound panoramic camera that he specially adapted for the purpose. Unbeknownst to him, a precursor to this device had been built twenty years earlier by French inventor Arthur Batut, who shot a series of aerial views of La Bruguiere in southern France with a kite camera. Batut had used a slow-burning fuse to trigger the camera’s shutter; Lawrence set his off with an electrical current transmitted through the metal kite line (like Benjamin Franklin, but backwards). A small parachute would be released to indicate that a picture 79
had been taken, and Lawrence hauled down the kites so that the camera could be reloaded. Nadar’s aerial photography had attracted the attention of the French military; Lawrence’s kite images were also thought to have possible wartime uses. In August 1905, at President Theodore Roosevelt’s personal recommendation, Lawrence was invited aboard the USS Maine to demonstrate his system as a possible reconnaissance tool. Because of high winds, the results of these military tests were mostly blurred, and Lawrence did not get the sum that he wanted for his invention, but the lengthy report on the trials is an invaluable document in explaining the camera’s workings. To take his panoramas of San Francisco, as the navy report illuminates, Lawrence stabilized his bulky camera with three fifteen-foot-long bamboo poles attached to its sides (these had to be cropped off or retouched out of the corners of his pictures); from each of these a 120foot silk cord was hung, and these joined together to support a three-pound weight that helped prevent the camera from swaying in the wind. The camera had a nineteen-inch focal length, and the impressive depth of field was achieved by having the camera’s shutter taper from half an inch at the bottom to four inches at the top, so that when the lens swung through its 160-degree arc the murkier distance was exposed for eight times as long as the brighter foreground. Lawrence sold his spectacular pictures of the earthquake wreckage for $125 a copy; in total, he made $15,000. After an expensive trip to Africa, where he tried to take panoramas of animals in their natural habitat from balloons and to flashlight lions—who, instead of running away, attacked and destroyed several precious cameras—Lawrence gave up photography in order to concentrate on aircraft design. He started a company that built “enclosed-cabin flying boats,” wooden seaplanes that resembled Zeppelins with wings. Lawrence soon held patents for over a hundred inventions relating to airplanes. It is fitting that Lawrence made this career change from aerial photography to aeronautics. Nadar, the photographer he emulated but never met, set up the Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by Means of Machines Heavier than Air (which had Jules Verne amongst its members), founded the newspaper L’Aéronaute, raised money for research into flight by giving rides in his balloon, and exhibited early flying machines in his studio. “Man will fly like the bird,” Nadar promised, “better than the bird; for … it is certain that man will be obliged to fly better than the bird, in order to fly merely as well.”
superflex and the re-branding of denmark mats bigert
In February 2006, the Danish embassy in Damascus was attacked by a furious mob, which set it on fire using the offices’ own furniture. The hatred in the Islamic world toward Denmark following the publication in Jyllands-Posten of the caricatures of the prophet Mohammed had spilled over; The embassy of Norway, one of whose newspapers had reprinted the caricatures, was also torched by Syrian protestors. All Scandinavian countries with a cross on their flag, it seemed, were suddenly vulnerable. But when the mob went from torching embassies to burning flags, it only saw red—the predominant color of the Danish flag. The Lilliputian country of Hans Christian Andersen was under attack, and the xenophobia encouraged by the nation’s right-wing government had come back to bite the Danes. But the burning Danish flags seen on the news for weeks didn’t just raise questions of a religious or ideological nature. There were also some practical questions, such as: Where did all the flags come from? Surely Middle Eastern flag factories had not been hoarding a surplus of Danish flags. A closer study of some primetime desecrations showed that most of the flags were in fact poor DIY replicas, with uneven lines, off-kilter crosses, and only an approximation of Denmark’s trademark red. Luckily for the DIYers, the Danish flag is one of the easiest to copy—a white sheet and some red household paint will do the job. If Norway’s flag had been the main target, its third color would have made for a somewhat more complex task, and the number of public desecrations might have been reduced. Ironically, it is legal in Denmark to burn the “Dannebrog,” as their flag is called, but not the flags of other nations. The reasoning behind this curious law is that burning a foreign flag is a matter of foreign policy insofar as it might be construed as a threat to the other nation. In their project Re-branding Denmark, the Danish artist collective Superflex asks whether this national trauma could be turned into a productive discourse. Is it possible to extract new meaning from the graphic image of the burning Danish flag? What are the consequences for a small, slumbering nation to be drawn into the maelstrom of international politics? Will the new graphic symbol be a brand of shame to be held up for coming generations, or can a re-branded national symbol, boasting a cool custom flamejob, be viewed as a radical statement of newly gained political awareness?
the great integrator: An Interview with Stephen j. Pyne Jeffrey Kastner
Harnessing fire’s ferocious physical force in the service of hunting, agriculture, and industry gave humanity the power to alter an often inhospitable landscape for its own purposes. Yet our control over fire remains imperfect at best. Unchecked in nature, it remains a constant, unpredictable threat to the very civilization to which it gave rise. The rich socio-cultural effects of this biological phenomenon have been the focus of environmental historian Stephen J. Pyne’s work for nearly three decades. Author of over a dozen books on the history, ecology, and management of fire, Pyne—Regents’ Professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University— recently spoke with Jeffrey Kastner about the arrival of fire in North America, its uses by successive groups of settlers, and its role in the development of modern approaches to forestry management. You start your book, Fire in America, with an explanation of the principles of fire behavior. Can you walk us through the physics of fire in the natural environment?
Fire is a chemical reaction, a very rapid oxidation of hydrocarbons. The zone of that reaction is shaped by physical surroundings. This includes things like terrain: Are you going uphill or downhill, through mountain passes or valleys? It would also include weather and climate: Is it dry, wet, windy? And then there’s the stuff that actually burns. Most of us think of it as part of the natural world—trees and pine needles and grasses and shrubs. But for understanding how fire behaves, it’s all just so much fuel, just so much combustible matter. The setting shapes the kinds of fire that result: creeping ground fire in dried peat or swamp; brisk grass fires in the prairies; blazing shrub fires and chaparral fires in Southern California; different kinds of forest fires, such as the very high-intensity fires that get into the crown, the ones that make it onto television. Fire is not a substance like water, air, or earth. It’s a reaction: it’s purely what its surroundings make of it. This fact makes fire a great integrator, which is marvelous for someone interested in synthetic history, because fire integrates all the factors that shape how the combustibles sit on the landscape. Is there a particular point at which fire started to be part of the ecosystem?
Fire goes back four hundred million years—we can find 81
charcoal evidence in the geological record. The reason fire appeared when and as it did was because life was colonizing land and had created enough oxygen in the atmosphere to support combustion. At that point, lightning could supply the spark so that oxygen in the atmosphere and hydrocarbons on the land could react. So fire is literally a creation of the living world. One of our current failings is our inability to appreciate the extent to which fire is biologically constructed. It’s not just a physical event that slams into ecosystems like a hurricane or or a flood. It’s something that feeds off of, that is literally sustained by, a biological matrix. You can have a hurricane without anything living around it, but not fire. You write about three ways in which fire came to North America—from nature, from Asia with the first humans to arrive on the continent, and later from Europe.
Let’s begin with the natural circumstance. Why does fire exist where it does? What you need is a pattern of wetting and drying. That supplies the fundamental rhythm—it has to be wet enough to grow things and then there has to be a dry period where things can dry out and burn. The majority of fires, however, are caused by humans, and, in a perhaps perverse way, I see this as furthering life’s control over fire. We ourselves are biological agents, and we can overwhelm natural ignition patterns. In the book, I emphasized the multiple sources of fire because I wanted to get away from the usual narrative of the Europeans coming in and burning everything, chopping it down, making a mess—the usual frontier story. Fire is a property of humanity: all people have fire, and only people. That story began earlier than the Europeans. The human impact of fire on the land really started when the earliest people came to North America. But it was very hard to find evidence—nobody had really looked at it that way. Since then, there have been a number of studies, including some out of Australia, that demonstrate the astonishing power of Aboriginal fire, that is, what control over ignition alone can do. One can extrapolate from Aboriginal practice back to the North American experience?
Yes, I think so. The Aborigines have a similar economy to many early peoples here, a similar level of technology. Southern California, for example, is very similar to much of southern Australia—a Mediterranean climate prone to burn and subject to explosive winds. Accounts
Forest fire on Wolf Creek, Ochoco National Forest, Oregon. August 1951. Courtesy US Forest Service.
we have of burning by indigenous people in California from early Spanish contacts are very similar to what in Australia has been termed “firestick farming.” When you approach the subject in this way, however, you can trigger very passionate counterarguments because it gets tied up with the founding myths of the US : that it was an empty wilderness, that it was settled primarily from Europe. If it turns out that for thousands of years there were people working this way on the landscape, such an argument is difficult. You discuss the many ways fire was used by the Native Americans—as both a hunting tool and an agricultural method.
They certainly burned for hunting—not just to drive animals, but also to create attractive feeding sites. How many hunted animals thrive in old-growth forests? None. One of the ways you can keep the landscape stirred up is by burning it. You burn to encourage other species of flora—things animals like to eat, such as berries, browse, and tubers, do well in a systematically burned landscape. You burn shrubs to produce new growth of twigs that then get used in basketry. You also burn just to keep open landscape. Australia again is an example of this—fire used in this way is about managing the land. The second phase is agricultural fire. In this case, you prepare the fields by burning them; that way you don’t have to rely on nature to supply fuels. You can
define the climate and create fire environments where there aren’t any. If you look at what happens after a burn in a mixed environment, the cycle of recovery takes about three years. In the first year, you’ve changed the structure of the place—you’ve opened it up, allowed in more sun and more wind, you’ve left lots of ash on the ground, which is a fertilizer. But even more effective is the fumigating effect of the fire. It purges the land of the resident plants and micro-organisms. This cleansing doesn’t last very long; by the second year, most of the original flora has recovered, and by the third year it has pretty much re-established itself. Now that’s what happens in nature. What you do with agriculture is to apply this effect to your own purposes—you create an artificial environment in which you can introduce exotic plants, species that aren’t native there and cannot compete in a natural setting. The indigenous plants, now called weeds, will try to reclaim the land, and so the procedure has to be repeated. The Native Americans were using these techniques to introduce corn, beans, and squash—the classic Mesoamerican trilogy—and then they could supplement it with things like berries in the surrounding, similarly burned, landscapes. The system only works if you burn. Because there’s no other way to have such large-scale effects on the ecosystem?
That’s right. You can’t do this everywhere, but where you can, you do it. This has been going on for a very long time. And in many ways, this old pattern of agriculture, which was also present in Europe, was very good from a biodiversity standpoint because it creates all kinds of habitats from the various stages of recovery and they could be used and tweaked in assorted ways. When Europeans came to North America, they brought different approaches to fire, but they also learned from the native population, so what you get is a hybrid. The Europeans had more effective axes made of steel and they also had markets overseas; so they were willing to do land clearing on a larger scale by logging, and then export that material or use it for construction, and further convert the land. They also introduced animals—sheep, pigs, cows, horses, goats—that began replacing the wild animals and this changed both what was available to burn and, more importantly, what your interest in burning was. You now wanted to promote browse, which supports these animals, so you had to enlarge your pastures. Europeans were also accustomed to draining land, and they began burning lots of areas that were swampy or marshy or otherwise outside 83
the normal burning system because they were never dry enough. They also introduced a whole slate of cereal crops. In fact, much of the landscape the Europeans moved into had already been cleared, in a sense broken to the agricultural harness and adapted to fire, and they took those sites and adjusted them for their own plants and animals. They also established very different patterns of land ownership. This was important because the old patterns of fire always required that you move around the landscape, so that you were not in the same place that you were burning. But when you have fixed plots, you have to stay on them because you own them or are otherwise attached to them, and so the pattern of burning changes. It’s no longer possible to do largescale burning—it’s now at the level of individual plots, so instead of slashing and burning and moving around the countryside, you slash and burn on a given plot and establish what is essentially a pattern of field rotation using fire. Was this the pattern of land management that was being used in Europe?
Absolutely. The part of Europe between the Mediterranean and the boreal forests is not a fire climate, and it’s odd that the most aggressive of the settlement cultures came from a place without fire. They were always conquering fire-prone places and were confounded by flames. There was in fact plenty of fire in their own background, because they couldn’t make agriculture work without burning. But basically that whole zone in the middle of Europe is a very fireimmune place; fire exists there because people put it in. This got translated into the idea that the way to control fire was to control society, so they sought ways to eliminate fire and find an alternative. To their minds, if you used fire, you were primitive. Some of the most pyrophobic societies ended up in some of the most fireflush landscapes and they were really stunned. And they had to find some way to come to grips with fire, because they felt they couldn’t dominate these landscapes if they couldn’t control it. Do they bring this pyrophobic attitude to the US?
There was very much a divide between officials and people on the ground. The people on the ground all resorted to fire, because it was the only thing that worked. But the officials—academics, ministers of agriculture, foresters—all hated fire and wanted to remove it.
You talk about the figure of the English forester as the representative of the state coming in and preventing local people from using the land in the way they always had. I can imagine that being very resonant for settlers in the US as well.
The story is a very interesting one and it’s tied up with European imperialism. The great testing ground for this policy was India. In the nineteenth century, the British began to establish forest reserves there as part of a rationalizing presence, to bring order to an “unruly” place. They didn’t know what forestry meant; they had to bring in Germans to do it. A fellow named Dietrich Brandis was really the genius on this. Brandis was a tropical botanist, and found himself in the teak forests of Burma. It was here that he began moving from botany to forestry, eventually becoming Inspector General of Forests in India. The British set up reserves for teak in India, and starting in the late 1850s instituted a series of laws for resource management and fire control that they continued to develop into the 1870s. The goal was to protect wood for
Fire-prevention posters commissioned and disseminated by the US Forest Service. The Smokey poster, designed in 1944, marks the first appearance of the much-beloved icon. Courtesy US Forest Service.
commerce, but arguments were also made on the basis of climate stabilization and public health. These were places that were being burned everywhere, all the time, and it was just a shock to the British. So they organized a conference in 1875 and the first question asked was whether fire control was possible and, if possible, whether it was desirable. Everything else would follow from this. And there was a split—everybody on the ground said, “This is a bad idea. You’re not going to be able do it. You’re going to make things worse.” All those predictions turned out to be true. But officialdom prevailed, and the British approach became a model for all the other imperial experiments (the French had their own style, with similar consequences). It also influenced policy here in the US. In 1891, President Harrison established forest reserves out of public land, and this was followed in 1897 by the Forest Management Act, or the so-called Organic Act, which was concerned with the question of what we do with this land now that we’ve set it aside. Was this an ecological impulse or a commercial one?
This is simply what a civilized society did. You protected these reserves because otherwise people would cut them down and burn them up. This was a global phenomenon. If you’re a fan of the “Jungle Books,” you might have wondered what happens to Mowgli after he grows up. Well, Kipling wrote a sequel: Mowgli joins the Indian forest service and fights forest fires. So this approach had very wide currency; it was seen as progressive. The idea was that you couldn’t trust local people—you needed the intervention of high-level institutions to prevent the land from being destroyed. So in the US , the National Academy of Sciences set up a committee in 1896 to figure out what to do, and they recommended that we teach forestry at West Point—that we, in effect, militarize it. And the model for that was the US Cavalry, which had taken over Yellowstone National Park in 1886, and then all of the other national parks, and had provided the first federal fire-fighting force. It was a paramilitary model from the very start, and this was similar to what was going on with the other imperial countries as well.
A man named Gifford Pinchot, self-styled as America’s first native-born forester, was a member of the Academy’s committee. At the time, he was heading the Bureau of Forestry, which was just an obscure advisory bureau in the Agriculture Department because it didn’t control any land—that didn’t happen until 1905. But in the meantime, as part of Pinchot’s self-education in forestry, he started corresponding with Brandis, who was now back in Germany and had set up a forestry school. Pinchot went there and he later wrote that he wanted to do in this country something of what Brandis had done in India. Pinchot got impatient and dropped out, but his successor, Henry Graves, went through the whole program, actually went to India on a study tour, and even went to America’s new colony in the Philippines. These men, who established US policy toward forestry, came to see fire control as a necessary thing, but also as a great public relations ploy. Remember we’re in the middle of the Gilded Age, a time of unrestrained capitalism, so why aren’t we turning these lands over to private use? One way to justify it is on the basis of fire
control—everyone can see that the damn thing is burning up and we have to stop it! They thought the danger of fire would lessen as time went on, but they were wrong. Fire control turns out to be the defining aspect of forest management and we’re still struggling with it. How have these original attitudes evolved over the last century?
All the questions we’re asking now were asked a hundred years ago or more. Fire fighting is now consuming fifty to sixty percent of the Forest Service budget. We thought it had been beaten down, but all we did is set up an ecological insurgency. The original intention behind the forest reserves was to rationalize usage, not to set the land aside as pristine preserves. It was very much on a par with attempts to straighten out rivers and kill predators—the idea that we can apply scientific knowledge and make it work. A major event in the development of policy attitudes happened in 1910. Pinchot had been fired in January, and that summer his successor faced a huge outbreak of fires throughout the West, culminating in what became known as the Big Blowup when on 20 and 21 August something like 3.25 million acres in the northern Rockies burned in one gulp—possibly twothirds of that in thirty-six hours or so. This was the first time the Forest Service had tried to fight fire in a serious way. They had 9,000 to 10,000 people out on the fire line, and essentially all the standing military of the American northwest, but they had no inkling what was coming. Seventy-eight firefighters were killed in different incidents—it was enormously traumatic for the Forest Service. At the same time, the whole “light burning” controversy erupted in California, pitting people who supported burning as a useful stewardship practice against those who were trying to stamp fire out. But all these brave men had just died fighting fires in the Rockies, so the whole discussion got skewed for some time. The next four chiefs of the Forest Service were all personally on the 1910 fire line, and it’s not until 1939 that that generation passed from the scene, and the agency would consider any other alternative other than fighting fire mano a mano. In the 1930s, the whole thing comes up again because drought had returned—it was the forest equivalent of the Dust Bowl, with big fires breaking out everywhere—and the Forest Service convened their best minds in Missoula, Montana, and asked them what to do. During the debate, one group, including a veteran of 1910, said, “We ought to just get the hell out. 86
We haven’t done any good. We should just stand aside and let nature run its course.” The other faction said, “You can’t do that. You have to hit every fire, and early enough so that none of them get big.” The head of the service was the number two guy in the northern Rockies during the Big Blowup and here was his chance to fight it again. So he announced what was called the “10 am Policy,” the idea that by 10 am the next morning every fire will be controlled, and if you fail, then you plan to get control by 10 am the next day, and so on. As a strict guide, it’s gone. But we still have traces of it in today’s fire-fighting approaches. Isn’t there more recognition now of the concept of letting nature take its course? A policy of containment, in a sense?
It is widely understood that fire has a natural role to play in the landscape, and so that debate has essentially been over as a matter of policy for thirty to forty years. The idea that we ought to be looking at re-introducing fire in the right way is well established. The problem is how to do it on the ground. It’s like re-introducing a lost species—in a sense you’ve got to have the right habitat for it to occupy, and the fact is that the habitat has now been dramatically altered. Fire is not behaving as it did in the past. Now we’ve got invasive species coming in that respond to fire differently. And then there’s climate change. The past may no longer be a good prologue to the future.
Ruins of Coeur dâ€™Alene Hardware Warehouse in town of Wallace, Idaho, after the Big Blowup of 1910. Courtesy Special Collections & Archives, University of Idaho Library.
marks of assurance janet connelly
Though organized firefighting can be traced back at least to the vigiles, the watchmen who served as the public fire and police force of Imperial Rome, the practice of fighting fires remained a dangerously haphazard affair in European cities well into the seventeenth century. The Great Fire of London in 1666—perhaps the most infamous of all urban conflagrations, it destroyed nearly ninety percent of the medieval City between the Tower of London and Whitehall along the north bank of the Thames—threw the inadequacy of urban firefighting methods into stark relief. Attempts by the “Train-band,” or the local London militia, to fight the fire with leather buckets and small hand-operated syringes were complicated by the tinderbox of poorly constructed, largely wooden structures that crowded the area’s narrow streets and fatally compromised by the lack of any coordinated municipal plan for battling a blaze of such magnitude. The enormous losses—even London’s great cathedral, St. Paul’s, succumbed; lead from its roof, wrote the diarist John Evelyn, was seen “mealting down the streetes in a streame”—led to new legislation in the form of the 1668 “Act for Preventing and Suppressing of Fires within the City of London and Liberties Thereof.” The twenty-eight point plan enjoined the citizens to refrain from keeping certain flammable materials in their homes and directed that the various companies of workmen across the city select individuals from their ranks “to be ready upon all occasions of Fire to attend the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs for quenching the flame.” But in practice the ad hoc staffing provided for in the Act did little to improve the quality of fire control in the city. Instead it was the creation of private fire brigades, charged not by the city nor seconded from the guilds but employed by the first firms of the nascent fire insurance industry, that changed the character of fire service in London and beyond. Fire insurance is generally considered to be the invention of Nicholas Barbon, the son of the preacher and Cromwellian parliamentarian Praise-God Barebone (who burdened his heir with the extraordinary name Unless-Christ-had-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-beendamned Barebone). Trained as a physician, Barbon turned to land speculation in London in the immediate aftermath of the fire, and seeing the potential for a system by which individuals could protect their homes from future calamities, began offering a form of fire insurance as early as 1667. Although little evidence 88
remains for Barbon’s one-man insurance shop in the years immediately following the Great Fire, by 1680 he had opened what is considered to be the first modern fire insurance company, The Fire Office. An advertisement published on May 12 of that year was placed “to give notice that the persons that propose to insure Houses from Fire do now attend at their office in Threadneedle Street, against The Exchange, every day from 9 to 12 in the morning and from 3 to 6 in the afternoon.” There, individuals could pay a standardized rate to cover the costs of repairing a home “Burnt down, Demolished, or otherwise damnified by reason of fire.” But because the best way to avoid having to pay off premiums was to prevent fire damage in the first place, the Fire Office went one step further, forming and outfitting its own private fire brigade. Soon other insurance companies with their own private fire-fighting forces were founded as well, including the Friendly Society (1683), the Hand-in-Hand Fire and Life Insurance Company (1696) and the Sun Fire Office (1710). Dressed in the distinctive livery and regalia of their individual companies, these new breed of fire fighters were first and foremost charged with the protection of their firm’s properties. To distinguish these, they developed a system of affixing small metal plaques, or fire marks, bearing the symbol of the company to the exterior of the insured structures, a necessity given the tangle of unmarked houses that lined London’s many unnamed streets—for example, one insured home, policy no. 4536 of the Fire Office, is described in company records as being “[s]cituate on the South Side of Three Cupp Court also Castle Court between Newgate streete and Pater Noster Roe; now in the possession of John Mumriffe Coffeeman being the second Howse Westward from the South East end of the said Court and distant from them to the middle of the Howse about Thirty foote.” The individual designs for the various firms—a phoenix for the Fire Office; five arrows entwined by a snake for the Friendly Society; a handshake beneath a crown for the Hand-in-Hand; a sixteen-rayed Sol for the Sun—were not only a locating aid to firemen, they were also a form of advertising, symbols of the often fierce free-enterprise competition between the various companies. Indeed, stories circulated of fire brigades standing by while buildings not bearing their firm’s fire mark burned to the ground, though there were also many accounts of cooperation between the various firefighting units. By the end of the eighteenth century, the major fire companies of London had pooled resources, setting the stage for the formation in 1833 of the joint
1851 fire mark of the Associated Firemenâ€™s Insurance Company of Pittsburgh. In his left hand, the figure carries a wrench for tapping the fire plug beside him.
Late eighteenth-century fire mark of the Philadelphia Contributionship. Courtesy the Philadelphia Contributionship. Photo Will Brown.
The Green Tree fire mark, originally issued by the Mutual Assurance Company of Philadelphia.
The fire mark of the Friendly Society, founded in 1684. The earliest known fire mark, it featured arrows entwined by a snake, an element from the coat of arms of William Hale, one of the Societyâ€™s directors.
London Fire Engine Establishment, the private forerunner of today’s public London Fire Brigade. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the growing cities of colonial America were similarly in need of coordinated fire-fighting services. Unlike in England, however, the earliest American companies were not created through private enterprise, but rather were organized as volunteer groups which, because of the settlements’ relatively modest size and newness, were governed by a greater sense of shared responsibility and community spirit. By the end of the seventeenth century, both Boston and New York had well-established systems of community wardens charged with organizing public responses to fire and in 1736, Benjamin Franklin, who lamented “As to our Conduct in the Affair of Extinguishing Fires, tho’ we do not want Hands of Good-Will, yet we seem to want Order and Method,” organized the Union Fire Company, the first volunteer fire-fighting force in Philadelphia, which was by then well on its way to being colonial America’s largest city. In this environment, private insurance companies were not created to help fight fires, but instead to simply help rationalize the costs stemming from fire damage. The first recorded fire insurance firm in the US was the Friendly Society of Charleston, South Carolina, established in 1735. But it was short-lived, going bankrupt after a disastrous fire that burned over three hundred houses, along with stables, warehouse, and wharves, in November of 1740. Within a decade, however, Franklin had begun conceiving his own fire insurance firm and in 1752 he founded the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire with a group of prominent local citizens. Like its English forerunners, the Contributionship also adopted the practice of affixing a fire mark—in its case, a sign depicting four hands clasped and crossed—to the structures it insured. But whereas in London the private nature of the fire-fighting companies meant that there was a potential disincentive to put out fires at buildings insured by other firms, in the American system the various fire-fighting companies, as they became increasingly professionalized over the following decades, would vie (and occasionally even come to blows with each other) to extinguish a blaze and earn a resulting payment from the insurer. The Contributionship remained America’s only fire insurance company through the years of the Revolutionary War (though it did suspend its practice of affixing lead fire marks to insured houses during those years, melting down those on hand to be cast into bullets for the Continental Army). It wasn’t until 1784 that a 90
rival emerged, when a group of the Contributionship’s members, angered by the firm’s demand that owners of insured houses cut down all trees on their sidewalks, left to form their own firm, the Mutual Assurance Company. In a small echo perhaps of the spirit of sharp-elbowed competition that governed the emergence of the first fire marks, the upstart new concern chose for its identity an image that symbolized the point of contention between it and its well-established competitor: a green tree.
Engraving by W. H. Tyne, ca. 1806, depicting a foreman and fire brigade members in the livery of the Sun Fire Office.
Sparks of Life Simon Werrett
“I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. … By the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”1 Thus the magic moment in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) when the creature is brought to life by what is usually considered (though Shelley does not say so outright) the infusion of an electric “spark of being” into a constructed body. Shelley’s story emerged amid heated disputes among London physicians over the nature of life itself. Against the view of mechanists and materialists, who argued life could be reduced to the complex organization of physiology, vitalists asserted that some other force or spirit must be superadded to bodies to achieve living animation. Vitalist John Abernethy thus declared, “The phaenomena of electricity and of life correspond.”2 To support their case, vitalists often pointed to the “animal electricity” described by Bolognese physician Luigi Galvani, who had seen the legs of a dissected frog twitch when touched with a metal scalpel in the presence of electricity. Another Italian, Alessandro Volta, rejected Galvani’s claim that such animal electricity was a distinctive form of electricity, and simulated it by bringing different metals into contact in moisture, thus contributing to his invention of the “voltaic pile” or battery. Volta’s experiments troubled vitalist accounts, but dramatic experiments supported them. In London in 1803, and again in Scotland in 1818, experimenters charged the bodies of dead criminals with electricity to witness astonishing convulsions and spasms, suggesting electricity was essential to life: “[E]very muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action: fear, horror, despair, and ghastly smiles, united their expression in the murderer’s face, surpassing far the wildest representations of a Fuseli or a Kean.”3 That the electric “spark of life” figured prominently in debates over the nature of life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is well known. Less well known is the fact that prior to this period, gunpowder was often identified with the substances that were necessary to life, if not as a vitalistic spirit, then as an essential element in the animation of the body. The idea of a spark of life went back to ancient times, likening living beings to the glowing embers of a fire. In the Old Testament, for example, the wise woman of Tekoah begs for the life of her son, pleading “they will stamp out 91
my last live ember.”4 But from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, this vital flame was often equated with gunpowder. There was fire in the blood: not electric, but pyrotechnic fire. The ancients knew that air was necessary to both combustion and respiration. They combined both processes in the term flamma vitalis, the “vital flame” or “flame of life.” Aristotle identified the heart as the center of the body’s warmth, the place where “the soul is set aglow with fire.”5 By the sixteenth century, as European science was being transformed through engagement with flourishing princely courts, the flamma vitalis entered a complex moral economy of fire. Balthasare Castiglione, in his Book of the Courtier (1528), identified the appropriate behavior of courtiers with the management of the fiery desires, passions, and appetites that ignited in the body.6 Vannoccio Biringuccio described the burning fire of love in Pirotechnia (1540) as “the fire that consumes without leaving ashes.”7 Alchemists, magicians, and proponents of the new mechanical and experimental philosophies sought a deeper comprehension of these mysterious life-giving fires, and inquired into the nature of combustion and the role of breathing. Gunpowder, with its volatile ingredients of niter (also known as saltpeter, and today as potassium nitrate: a white, powdery mineral) and sulfur (a lemon-yellow crystal), offered the principal model for comprehending these processes. In late seventeenth-century England, a physician named John Mayow presented an argument that what he called “nitrous” and “sulphureous” particles could account for a huge array of phenomena in the universe. Mayow, an Oxford graduate and Fellow of the Royal Society, claimed that “nitrous particles,” similar to those making up mineral saltpeter, formed a part of the air (previously thought to be an homogenous element). When a body burned, its sulfurous parts reacted with this “nitro-aerial spirit” in the air to give off heat. The reaction used up nitrous particles in the air, and unless a fresh supply of air were available, eventually the burning would cease when all the “aerial nitre” was exhausted. Mayow conducted ingenious experiments to extend this explanation to physiological processes. He compared the processes of burning and breathing, arguing that nitrous particles in the air were also necessary to respiration. In order to demonstrate this hypothesis, he lowered into a vessel of water a bell jar containing a small animal suspended above the water inside a cage. Initially, the water level was the same inside and outside the jar but as the animal breathed, the level of water rose in the jar, indicating that air was being used up—about
Monk and nun dancing on a turning wheel. From anonymous manuscript titled Feuerwerksbuch, Strasbourg, ca. 1598.
one-fourteenth of the total volume.8 A similar effect was seen when camphor was burned inside the jar. If both a burning candle and an animal were placed in the jar, the animal did not live long after the candle went out, because, reasoned Mayow, “the air enclosed in the glass is in part deprived of its nitro-aerial particles by the burning … hence not only the lamp but also the animal soon expires for want of nitro-aerial particles.” Mayow thus established for the first time that part of the air was used in respiration, and this was the same part consumed by fire.9 Mayow extended his “gunpowder” explanation of physiology to many other matters, earthly and cosmological. He explained that nitrous and sulfurous particles were “engaged in perpetual hostilities with each other” and from their struggle arose “by turns all the changes of things.”10 His work probably influenced the young Isaac Newton, whose alchemical studies included a keen interest in vivifying spirits circulating through the universe (a model for his later ideas of universal gravitation). But Mayow was not alone in propounding these 92
ideas, and others extended his “nitro-sulphureous” theory to different aspects of physiology. Another physician, the Oxford fellow Thomas Willis, proposed that nitro-sulphureous particles might explain the action of the muscles. Scholars knew that muscles moved through contraction, but did not understand how this contraction occurred. Willis proposed a “gunpowder” explanation. The act of breathing, he claimed, introduced aerial niter into the bloodstream, where it combined with sulphureous particles to produce nitro-sulphureous particles. When arteries carried this nitro-sulphureous blood into the muscles, it met with “animal spirits,” or a nervous fluid, to produce an “explosion”: the particles “suddenly intumified, they, as if inkindled, are exploded.” The nerve acted as an ignition mechanism, controlled from the brain, producing “the fiery inkindling or the match … [to] blow up the Muscle.”11 Human movement thus depended on pyrotechnics in the blood. What were the sources for this gunpowder physiology, this pyrotechnic vision of the flamma vitalis?
A Christian knight and a Turk in battle. From manuscript book by Friedrich Mayer, Bichssenmeistery auch/ von allerley schimpfflichen und ernst- / lichen Feuerwerkchen, Strasbourg, 1594.
Some historians suggest that sixteenth-century alchemists began the equation of living spirits with “aerial nitre,” a symbolic relationship that gradually became more physical and mechanical during the seventeenth century. The “philosopher’s saltpeter” thus appeared in the work of Polish alchemist Michael Sendivogius as a symbol of growth, by analogy to the way niter grew out of the earth like a mossy plant. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, followers of the German physician and alchemist Paracelsus equated the flamma vitalis with a more material substance, an “aerial sulfur,” a “fyre which nourisheth and quickeneth mans body.” Paracelsus also described an aerial niter that nourished the muscles via the lungs, and his followers developed the idea and applied it to other phenomena. Another important resource for the gunpowder theory was meteorology, because many forms of weather were thought to be caused by explosions in the sky analogous to the explosions of gunpowder. In the century before Benjamin Franklin showed that lightning was electricity, aerial niter and sulfur, brought 93
together into an explosive mixture, provided a convincing account for the flash of lightning and rumble of thunder, in addition to a host of exotic “fiery meteors” illuminating early modern European skies.12 Already by the late Renaissance, scholars had associated bodily pyrotechnics with these heavenly explosions because the human body was understood as a microcosm of the larger world. Thus the French Paracelsan Joseph du Chesne, writing in the first decade of the seventeenth century, explained thunder and lightning in terms of nitro-sulfurous causes, and then claimed that “[t]his Niter-Sulphurus stinke is that which manifestly causeth in us fiery meteors… which bringeth forth innumerable passions and paines.”13 There were also material sources for gunpowder physiology—most obviously gunpowder itself, which Mayow and Willis would certainly have had in mind overleaf: C. H. Fritsche, Firework on the Elbe on the Occasion of the Visit of the King of Denmark, 6 June 1709, ca. 1709. King Frederik IV of Denmark’s initials— F.4.R.D.—can be seen on the fireworks castle in the middle of the river. Courtesy Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.
Construction of a seated figure. From manuscript book by Johann I. von Nassau-Siegen titled Etliche schöne Tractaten von aller-/handt Feüerwercken und deren Künstlichen Zubereitung, 1610.
when elaborating their theories of “aerial niter.” A seventeenth-century gentleman might have come into contact with gunpowder in a number of ways. Ordnance, or great cannons, had become commonplace in European cities since their introduction in the thirteenth century, and theories of meteors and muscle action often analogized the powers of nature and the human body with these devastating modern technologies. Mayow’s assertion that niter and sulfur were “engaged in perpetual hostilities with each other” reflected the prevailing view that thunderstorms and lightning were Nature’s version of an artillery battle in the heavens. Willis alternatively claimed some inspiration for his pyrotechnic view of muscle action from the French atomist Pierre Gassendi, who supposed a powerful and compact force was needed to move the “animal machine”: “Who can easily comprehend that small thing … within the body of an Elephant … that it should be able to agitate such a bulk, and to cause it to perform a swift and harmonious dance? But indeed, the same fiery nature of the soul, serves within the body by its own mobility, what a little flame of gunpowder does in a Cannon: it not only drives the bullet with so much force, but also drives back the whole machine with so great strength.”14 Equating the body with pyrotechnic artillery reflected another common reference in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century science—fireworks. “Artificial Fireworks” and the gunpowder theory of meteors and physiology grew up in Europe at about the same time. In the East, in India and China, gunpowder fireworks— rockets, wheels, squibs, and bombs—had been used for festivals and warfare since their invention by the Chinese sometime in the eleventh or twelfth century. Arriving in Europe in the fourteenth century, fireworks were used in battle, and occasionally in church dramas and royal pageants. By the sixteenth century, fireworks were a common element of courtly festivities across Europe. Princes hired gunners and artisans to design spectacular displays, whose dramatic effects of sparks, noise, and smoke were intended to make a terrifying display of the prince’s power over the formidable element of fire. Fireworks were shown for royal weddings and birthdays, to celebrate military triumphs, or to see in the new year: crowds gathered on riverbanks and city squares to watch the shows, which were often performed over water to heighten their effect. The purveyors of these entertainments viewed their work as an imitation of the great fiery spectacles of the natural world, and for this reason they called their fireworks “artificial.” (Contemporary English has dropped this term, but the French still speak of feux d’artifice). 97
Using “artificial fireworks,” gunners mimicked the natural fires of thunder, lightning, shooting stars, comets, suns, and volcanoes. A typically marvel-filled display in Elizabethan England showed “[a] blaze of burning darts, flying to and fro … streams and hails of fiery sparks, lightnings of wildfire on water and land, flight and shot of thunderbolts: all with such continuous terror and vehemency, that the heavens thundered, the waters surged, the earth shook.”15 Fireworks imitated meteors as well, so it is not surprising that contemporary accounts explained the causes of natural meteors by analogy to the effects of gunpowder. As the English physician and author Thomas Browne put it in 1650, “Surely a main reason why the Ancients were so imperfect in the doctrine of Meteors, was their ignorance of Gunpowder and Fire-works, which best discover the causes of many thereof.”16 Fireworks were also used to imitate the human body in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The earliest festive fireworks in Europe were shown in theatrical settings, providing added drama to stage scenery in religious plays. Sparks crackled from papiermâché doves, representing the Holy Spirit, made to descend along a string before audiences. Flames issued from the figures of angels winched up into the air, or from the bodies of diabolical dragons and demons. As fireworks developed into an autonomous genre of didactic entertainment, they continued to be shown around stage scenery. Fireworks exploded above temples, arches, obelisks, and rocks made with painted canvas and wooden frame. Displays also included elaborate automata, or moving figures of humans, animals, giants, and monsters. The classical engineer Hero of Alexandria had shown how to make moving figures of human and animal bodies using pipes filled with water, and Renaissance grottos abounded with such devices, some of which inspired René Descartes’s startling proposal that man could be understood as a kind of machine. Gunners could now deploy pyrotechnics rather than water to bring their artificial creatures to life. Around 1600, remarkable painted manuscript books were prepared for German princes, illustrating the many varied forms of human, animal, and monstrous figures that his artificers were capable of making. The illustrations testify not only to the skill of German artificers, but also to the playful and ingenious nature of these early pyrotechnics. One showed the life-sized figures of a monk and a nun erected on a wooden cartwheel, which was made to spin by pulling on a rope around its circumference, sending the monk and nun into a whirling dance. Fires emanating from the monk
and nun’s bodies show these figures were filled with fireworks. Other illustrations showed the manner of filling bodies with pyrotechnics. Inside human figures constructed of paper, cloth, and wood, a system of tubes was arranged to carry fireworks, which would erupt into gushing fountains of sparks when ignited. Two battling warriors, a Christian knight and a fighting Turk, could be attached to a long wooden beam or a firm rope and made to fly towards one another by rocket propulsion. Different treatises showed how the figures of St. George and the Dragon could be made to do battle in a similar manner, and suggested a variety of pyrotechnic devices to make bodies move with fireworks. The English gunner John Babington, whose displays may have been witnessed by Mayow and Willis, described making human figures from basket-weavers’ rods, which were weighted with sand to float upright in water, where they moved around by the action of hidden rockets.17 Pyrotechnic physiology, the thought that bodies move and live by the action of gunpowder-like particles exploding in the blood and muscles, proliferated in the context of such animated fireworks displays. Mayow cited mechanical bodies as an inspiration for his nitrosulphureous theories: “[W]e must suppose that the sulphureous and nitro-aerial particles … are fashioned by the supreme Artificer [i.e. God] with truly marvellous skill … as much skill … as in automata constructed with the most accurate human art.”18 Fireworks, like fountains, were “machines,” and as the body came to be viewed as a machine so these mechanisms offered models for scientific theories. As Willis wrote, science benefited from “artificial things, from the Analogie of whose motions, in an animated body, both regularly and irregularly performed, most apt reasons are to be taken.”19 The new mechanical philosophy, equating the body with a machine, also gave added urgency to the question of what animated the body: was life caused by the coming together of many mechanical parts, or was it something else, a force added to make those parts move and come to life? Men of science in the age of Frankenstein were still debating these questions, but by the early nineteenth century the causes of muscle motion and animation in bodies were no longer equated with gunpowder but with electricity. Critics hastened the decline of the gunpowder theory by arguing that explosions in the body would be too uncontrollable to account for human movements. “What dominion could the Soul have over the Muscles … if they were agitated every moment by Squibbs or Crackers breaking within them? Certainly she could never moderate such violent and tumultuose 98
explosions.”20 Nevertheless, what might be called the “gunpowder paradigm” had lasted for some two hundred years before electric theories replaced it beginning in the mid-eighteenth century. Even then, fireworks continued to be associated with heated passions and sexual desire; the gunpowder theory, meanwhile, persisted within the parameters of early electrical research, which similarly set out to provide a comprehensive explanation for diverse phenomena including meteors, lightning, and human physiology. In the nineteenth century, the success of Shelley’s Frankenstein and new theories proposing an electric basis for nerve and muscle action secured an electrical image for the “spark of life.” But for many years before, this spark was pyrotechnic. 1 Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, ed. J. Paul Hunter (New York & London: Norton, 1996), p. 34. 2 John Abernethy, An Enquiry into the Probability and Rationality of Mr. Hunter’s Theory of Life (London: Longman et al.,1814), p. 42. 3 Andrew Ure, quoted in Iwan Rhys Morus, “Galvanic Cultures: Electricity and Life in the Early Nineteenth Century,” Endeavour, 1998, vol. 22, no. 1, p. 8. 4 Samuel, Book II, xiv, 7, in The Revised King James Bible, with the Apocrypha, (Oxford & Cambridge: Oxford University Press & Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 270; John Wycliffe, The Holy Bible, made from the Latin Vulgate by John Wycliffe and his Followers, eds. J. Forshall & Sir F. Madden (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1850), rendered the translation “Thei sechen to quench my spark that is laft.” 5 Gad Freudenthal, Aristotle’s Theory of Material Substance: Heat and Pneuma, Form and Soul (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 20. 6 Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier (London: Penguin Classics, 1976), pp. 294, 328, 340–342. 7 Cyril Stanley Smith and Martha Teach Gnudi, eds., The Pirotechnia of Vannoccio Biringuccio (New York: Dover, 1990), p. 444. 8 Mayow did not know carbon dioxide being breathed out by the animal was dissolving into the water. 9 John Mayow, Medico-Physical Works (Edinburgh: Alembic Club Reprints, 1907), p. 76. 10 Ibid., p. 35. 11 Thomas Willis, “The Anatomy of the Brain,” in Dr. Willis’s Practice of Physick (London: 1684), pp. 105, 111. 12 Royal Society fellow John Wallis, for example, explained how “Thunder and Lightning are so very like the Effects of fired Gun-Powder, that we may reasonably judge them to proceed from the like Causes. … Thunder and Lightning were a kind of natural Gun-Powder, and [gunpowder] a kind of artificial Thunder and Lightning.” See John Wallis, “A Letter of Dr. Wallis to Dr. Sloane, concerning the Generation of Hail, and of Thunder and Lightning, and the Effects thereof,” in Royal Society, Miscellanea curiosa, (London, 1705–1707), vol. 2, p. 317. 13 Josephus Quersetanus, The Practise of Chymicall, and Hermeticall Physicke, for the Preservation of Health, trans. Thomas Tymme (London: 1605), Sig. Y. 4. verso. 14 Thomas Willis, “Of Convulsive Diseases,” in Dr. Willis’s Practice of Physick, op. cit., p. 2. 15 Robert Laneham, A letter whearin part of the entertainment vntoo the Queenz Maiesty at Killingwoorth Castl in Warwik sheer in this soomerz progress 1575 is signified (London: 1575), p. 16. (Note: the spelling has been rendered in modern English). 16 Sir Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia epidemica (London: 1672), p. 93. 17 John Babington, Pyrotechnia (London: 1635), pp. 64–66. 18 John Mayow, Medico-Physical Works, op. cit., p. 120. 19 Thomas Willis, “Of Convulsive Diseases,” in Dr. Willis’s Practice of Physick, op. cit., p. 2. 20 Walter Charlton, Three Anatomic Lectures (London: 1683), p. 99.
The Rational Hearth Frumento Combusti
In his 1637 treatise on optics, La Dioptrique, the French philosopher, mathematician, and cosmologist René Descartes concerned himself at some length with the problem of the “anaclastic,” a general term for the geometry of lenses and mirrors capable of effecting (at least in theory) a perfect focal point. His innovative solutions, which involved elaborate constructions of conic sections (and elegant proofs of some thorny theorems), were not only essential to the development of telescopes and microscopes for more than a century, they also embodied the spirit of the new sciences—those mechanico-mathematical reconstructions of nature that birthed modernity in the seventeenth century. Steeped in Latinity, Descartes would have been well aware that the word focus secreted in its etymology the primordial centering point of civilized life: the hearth (Lat. focus). It might have surprised him, however, had he lived long enough to see his optical methods for calculating foci mobilized for the purposes of “hearth-craft” by an idiosyncratic Cartesian disciple, the Parisian jurist and tinkerer Nicolas Gauger, whose Méchanique du Feu of 1714 is a most unlikely hybrid: a masonry handbook that keeps lapsing into a metaphysical treatise on thermodynamics and domesticity. Much as the English “practical Newtonians” of the eighteenth century churned out reams of dodgy pamphlets that applied their hero’s law of gravitation to everything from animal husbandry to cardsharping, “practical Cartesians” like Gauger, inspired by the ésprit géometrique, took up the ancient nuisances of the smoky fireplace and the icy bedchamber, confident that Descartes’s analytical tools could provide heat, not merely light. Reasoning that heat traveled in rays that obeyed the laws of optics, Gauger advocated parabolic fireplaces that would, in his analysis, optimally redirect emergent heat-rays out into the room. Standardized log-lengths were essential to his fire-science, since the proper construction of a given hearth required that the geometrical focus and directrix of its parabolic sides be calculated with respect to the specific size of fire it would house. But does fire actually behave like light? Without reference to an energistic conception of heat (which would only arise in the nineteenth century, in connection with studies of the efficiency of steam engines), Gauger was left to muse on the slippery nature of warmth, which sometimes acted like a ray, but at others like a pervasive 99
fluid or breath. He called this latter form of heat “transpiration,” and outfitted his new fireplaces to breathe this aspect of fire gently into the room: an elaborate system of vents and ducts both fed the fire from below and circulated external air through a sequence of baffles around the firebox; once warmed, this heat-breath could blow out from mouths in the hearth stone. Gauger touted his improved fire-mechanisms as something more than the rational taming of the ancient violence of flame, though they were certainly that. They were also, however, therapeutic devices, ideally crafted to improve health, sanitation, and domestic welfare. The ill, so in need of warmth, were gravely endangered by shutting themselves off from fresh air in sealed rooms, as were their attendants, who poisoned themselves slowly by re-breathing the exhalations of their wards. Worse still, the sick tended to bundle themselves against the pervasive drafts of poorly heated rooms, but this swaddling enclosed and concentrated their maladies. With Gauger’s new devices, rooms could be continuously heated by a gentle, adjustable stream of fresh, warm air, permitting bodies to be exposed, comfortable, and together—all without risk of infection or inconvenience of discomfort. The benefits would fall above all, of course, to women, whose delicate skin, sensitive eyes, and vulnerable complexions would be guarded from the insults of smoke and flame, draft and chill. Once understood as the essential tenders of the hearth, women were, by 1714, well on their way to being re-imagined as hothouse flowers. Having completed, in 1927, an exacting technical history of the science of heat propagation, the antipositivist postmaster-turned-epistemologist Gaston Bachelard turned to the project that would become, a decade later, La Psychanalyse du Feu, a defiantly Jungian effort to re-ground scientific objectivity on the poetic discernments of our deep psychology. Writing there of what he called “The Prometheus Complex,” Bachelard recalled himself as an invalid, and his father as the primordial focarius, the first stoker, the mythic fire-man: When I was sick my father would light a fire in my room. He would take great care in arranging the logs over the kindling chips and in slipping the handful of shavings between the andirons. To fail to light the fire would have been incredibly stupid. I could not imagine my father having any equal in the performance of this function, which he would never allow anyone else to carry out. Indeed, I do not think I lit a fire myself before I was eighteen years old. It was only when I lived alone that I became master of my own hearth.
Rational hearth-craft, ca. 1714: a construction diagram from Nicolas Gauger’s Méchanique du Feu, illustrating the proper configuration of the firebox and ventilation systems for a scientifically optimized fireplace. Note the rounded back corners, which are actually parabolic arcs, calculated with respect to the length of the log to be burned, and intended to maximize the reflection of heat rays back into the room. The entablature, fireback, and hearth floor all admit the passage of ducts for the circulation of regulated flows of air—some to feed the fire, some to transfer its warmth.
Controlling smoke and heat: a sequence of Gauger’s illustrations showing different arrangements of baffles and associated “thermodynamic” patterns. At right, a full cross-section of a flue and chimney. Dotted straight lines like EG and eg are geometrical constructions intended to guide builders and explain the behavior of the fire. Gauger, like other “smoke doctors,” was particularly concerned about downdrafts (see his annotations at top right).
For Bachelard, the Prometheus Complex was, as he put it, “the Oedipus Complex of the life of the intellect,” under which rubric he proposed to gather all those “tendencies which impel us to know as much as our fathers, more than our fathers.” Here the basic drama of civilization becomes a kind of competitive “quest for fire” in which knowledge is hearth-craft, and hearth-craft is, as it happens, patriarchy. It is this last move that surprises. Patriarchy? But what has become of Vesta, the archaic keeper of the Olympian fire? Or, to put it a different way, what has become of the sexual drama that lies at the heart of the original Oedipus Complex? In transferring that drama to the realm of the (masculine) intellect, Bachelard sublimed it, burning off the taint of eros, erasing the oozy mess of woman-love, and reinventing the domestic drama as a tidy game of boys against boys. How did women come, like sick boys, to sit by the fire, instead of tending it? This, in the end, is perhaps the real story of La Méchanique du Feu. After all, what could be a better answer to this question than the chronicle of the rise of domestic comfort, the mechano-architectural evolution of bourgeois domesticity? And Gauger, to be sure, merits more than a footnote in that history. But is this enough? What if we were instead to follow Bachelard, and sift beneath that plodding (if worthy) story of centralized heat and running water, slipping our fingers down into the first darkness to feel for the mind that has, as yet, no focus. In other words, what if we were to recover a psychoanalysis of domestic fire? We would discover, it seems, what we might call the “Vestal Complex,” under which designation can be gathered all those tendencies that impel men to replace “their” women with machines. The mechanical hearth, by these lights, becomes the prehistory of what Duchamp would eventually call the machine célibataire. Which leads back, of course, to Descartes, who figured himself at the scene of his most profound discovery—at the moment of his regrounding of the Western philosophical tradition—as a focarius, attending on his over-heated stove in a small and airless room. Only the Vestal Complex can explain the irrepressible rumor that has dogged his memory ever since: that using his new mechanical philosophy, he fashioned a refined automaton-daughter, Francine, and took her as his android-lover. Here was a solution to the anaclastic of desire; here we find a suitable keeper of the Cartesian flame. Picture her sitting comfortably beside the Gauger hearths reproduced in these pages. The author would like to thank Daniel Zauber for his contributions to this essay.
domesday julia wolcott
Commissioned to build the US Pavilion at Expo ‘67 in Montreal, Buckminster Fuller created his most dramatic structure to date. While his previous geodesic domes had been hemispherical, the Montreal dome was a three-quarter sphere that rose to over two hundred feet. Its trellis-like frame was made of welded steel tubes and was covered by a transparent skin of acrylic panels. Despite its enormous size, its transparency made it seem like an oversized dandelion. Visitors were enthralled by it, but another kind of love was also in play. Fuller dedicated the dome to his wife in honor of their fiftieth anniversary, naming it “Anne’s Taj Mahal.”
“Anne’s Taj Mahal” on fire, Montreal, 20 May 1976. Courtesy the Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller.
After Expo’67, the US government donated its pavilion to the City of Montreal, which took official possession on 31 January 1968. Despite its public appeal, however, Fuller’s structure was not suited to the Canadian climate. It was impossible to heat and the wide seasonal variations in temperature caused the metal tubes and acrylic outer panels to expand and contract considerably. Leaks were common. On 20 May 1976, a welding operation during the maintenance of the outer covering caused a fire that destroyed the entire acrylic shell in half an hour. The tubular frame remained intact and survives to this day; the acrylic skin was never replaced, despite Fuller’s proposal for how it might be done.