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Wednesday 30 June 2010



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Whether as it was or as it should be
Out of the ruins of the new society
The skeleton of an older society
Arose, from which, all rickety, banging
Shank and bone, a society yet
More ancient and long of tooth; and so on,
Until there occurred a syncope in
The series, and so mercifully ceased
At last the long obscene succession,
Discovery, retribution, torture,
Death, eternity, the crunching of
The whole repulsive nutshell beneath
History's dumb indifferent bootheel.

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Cross junction, northwest corner of The Loop, Chicago: photo by Daniel Schwen, 2007

Laughing Kookaburras


Laughing Kookaburras (Dacelo novaeguineae), with lizard prey, Cheltenham, New South Wales, Australia: photo by Mfunnell, 2006

We saw a fishpond all on fire and we had a laugh

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Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae), Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia: photo by Ymaup, 2005

I saw a house bow to a squire and I had a laugh


Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae): photo by Descramble, 2006

I saw a parson twelve feet high and I had a laugh

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Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae), airborne, Alexandria Park, Alexandria, Sydney: photo by BenAveling, 2007

I saw a cottage near the sky and I had a laugh

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Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae), perched on a Silver Wattle (Acacia dealbara), Waterworks Reserve, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia: photo by Noodle snacks, 2010

I saw a balloon made of lead and I had a laugh

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Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae), Healesville Sanctuary, Victoria, Australia: photo by Dushy, 2007

I saw a coffin drop down dead and I had a laugh

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Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae): photo by KaiAdin, 2006

I saw two sparrows run a race and I had a laugh

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Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae), Milwaukee County Zoological Gardens, Milwaukee, Wisconsin: photo by Cburnett, 2006

I saw two horses making lace and I had a laugh

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Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae), Audley Royal National Park, New South Wales, Australia: photo by Quartl, 2009

I saw a girl just like a cat and I had a laugh

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Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae), immature, southwest Australia: photo by Cygnis insignis, 2008

I saw a kitten wear a hat and I had a laugh

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Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae), Frankfurt Zoo: photo by Jutta 234, 2010

We saw a man who saw these too, and he had a laugh

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Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae), perching in a tree: photo by Keelie Meek, 2007

And said though strange they all were true.

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Laughing Kookaburras (Dacelo novaeguineae), Australia: photo by Henry Kerry (1857-1928), n.d. (Powerhouse Museum Collection, Sydney)

Text adapted by TC from traditional nursery rhyme, "I saw a fishpond all on fire"

Monday 28 June 2010

Who Killed Cock Robin? A Mystery


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European Robin (Erithacus rubecula), on the bank of the Lauch, above Herrlisheim, near Colmar: photo by Katz, 2007

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European Robin (Erithacus rubecula), Milton Country Park, Cambridgeshire: photo by DemonTraitor, 2007

Who killed Cock Robin?
I, said the Sparrow,
with my bow and arrow,
I killed Cock Robin.

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House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), male, Kolkata, West Bengal, India
: photo by J. M. Garg, 2010

Who saw him die?
I, said the Fly,
with my little eye,
I saw him die.

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: photo by Hedwig Storch, 2009

Who caught his blood?
I, said the Fish,
with my little dish,
I caught his blood.

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Blue Betta (Betta splendens): photo by Editor at Large, 2007

Who'll make the shroud?
I, said the Beetle,
with my thread and needle,
I'll make the shroud.

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Lady Beetle (Harmonia axyridis): photo by Fritz Geller-Grimm, 30 April 2007

Who'll dig his grave?
I, said the Owl,
with my pick and shovel,
I'll dig his grave.

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Tawny Owl (Strix aluco)
: photo by K.-M. Hansche, 2006

Who'll be the parson?
I, said the Rook,
with my little book,
I'll be the parson.

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Rook (Corvus frugilegus): photo by AndronovIN, 2007

Who'll be the clerk?
I, said the Lark,
if it's not in the dark,
I'll be the clerk.

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Rufous-Naped Lark (Mirafra africana athi), Sweetwaters Game Reserve, Kenya: photo by Jerry Friedman, 2007

Who'll carry the link?
I, said the Linnet,
I'll fetch it in a minute,
I'll carry the link.

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Linnet (Carduelis cannabina): photo by Pawel Kuzniar, 2006

Who'll be chief mourner?
I, said the Dove,
I mourn for my love,
I'll be chief mourner.

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A pair of White-Winged Doves (Zenaida asiatica), considering a nest site near a Yucatán cenote: photo by Jim Conrad, 2008

Who'll carry the coffin?
I, said the Kite,
if it's not through the night,
I'll carry the coffin.

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Black Kite (Milvus migrans): photo by Ferdinand Grossman, 2005

Who'll bear the pall?
We, said the Wren,
both the cock and the hen,
We'll bear the pall.

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Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris), Iona, Scotland: photo by Greg7, 2008

Who'll sing a psalm?
I, said the Thrush,
as she sat on a bush,
I'll sing a psalm.

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Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus): photo by Dave Menke, 2008 (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Who'll toll the bell?
I said the bull,
because I can pull,
I'll toll the bell

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Bull (Bos primogenius taurus), Oostvardersplassen, The Netherlands: photo by Rex, 2005

All the birds of the air
fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,
when they heard the bell toll
for poor Cock Robin.

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British Robin (Erithacus rubecula melophilus), Merrion Squre, Dublin: photo by David Jordan, 2008

Is the sad tale of Cock Robin a murder archetype in a nursery rhyme, a kind of children's story employed by a culture to resolve issues symbolically through catharsis, so that violence and danger, while recognized as real, may be moved off, in the child's mind, from the world of humans, where evil exists, to that of nature, where there had previously been an innocence that would, in a world like this one, be perhaps too much for a grown person to bear?

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European Robin (Erithacus rubecula), on the bank of the Lauch, above Herrlisheim, near Colmar: photo by Katz, 2007

Who Killed Cock Robin? origin unknown, first published in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book, c.1744, extended version first published c. 1770

Saturday 26 June 2010

Rimbaud in Africa


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He left his fortune to the Harar boy
Djami, whose name rhymes with friend,
The sole human he ever loved or trusted,
His young factotum, his faithful duidar
Dead before the poet's legacy reached him,
A suitcase full of silver thalers bearing
Maria Theresa's outdated head.

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Market in Harar: photo by Arthur Rimbaud, c. 1883, image by Andro96, 2006
Street scene, Harar: photo by Bain News Service, 1900, image by Andro96, 2006 (George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
Cemetery outside old city of Harar, Ethiopia: photo by Ahron de Leeuw, 2006
Montage en rouge: Arthur Rimbaud et éruption volcanique: image by PRA, 2007

Friday 25 June 2010

Wittgenstein: The Visual Room


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Agama sinaita, Jordan: photo by Ester Inbar, 2010

The 'visual room' is the one that has no owner.

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Milky Way arching across panorama of Southern Sky above the Paranal platform of European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (moon rising, zodiacal light shining above it, Milky Way stretching across sky; visible to right and below the arc, Small and Large Magellanic Clouds): photo by ESO/H.H. Heyer, 2001; image by Maedin, 2010

I can as little own it as I can walk about it, or look at it, or point to it.


Eumeces fasciatus (Five-lined Skink), having lost part of its tail: photo by Thegreenj, 2007

Inasmuch as it cannot be any one else's it is not mine either.

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Bradypus variegatus (Three-toed Sloth), feeding, Cahuita National Park, Costa Rica: photo by Mehlführer, 2007

In other words, it does not belong to me because I want to use the same form of expression about it as about the material room in which I sit.

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Revelation 22: 17 (King James Version): Baxter process illustration by Joseph Martin Kronheim, from The Sunday at Home: A Family Magazine for Sabbath Reading, London, 1880; image by Adam Cuerden, 2010

The description of the latter need not mention an owner, in fact it need not have any owner.

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Citrus paradisi (Pink Grapefruit): photo by Raeky, 2010

But then the visual room cannot have any owner. "For" -- one might say -- "it has no master, outside or in."

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Earth cloud cover, 11 July 2005: Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) image by Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, 2005 (NASA Earth Observatory)

One might also say: Surely the owner of the visual room would have to be the same kind of thing as it is; but he is not to be found in it, and there is no outside.

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Bolshevism without a Mask, propaganda poster from Anti-Bolshevik exhibition of the NSDAP Gauleiter, Reichstag Building, Berlin, 6 November-19 December 1937: photo by Herbert Agricola, 1937 (Library of Congress)

The 'visual room' seems like a discovery, but what its discoverer really found was a new way of speaking, a new comparison; it might even be called a new sensation.

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Highway 401, busiest highway in North America, closed 10 August 2008 during Toronto pipeline explosion: photo by Kenny Louie, 2008

Ludwig Wittgenstein: from Philosophical Investigations, 1945, published 1953, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe

Thursday 24 June 2010



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Each ship was as a wraith
in a spirit photograph

Fireline above Rotterdam, commemorating May 1940 aerial bombing by Germany: photo by Y.S. Groen, 2007

Pops' Tour


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To cast beyond ourselves in our opinions, admits Pops, employing the royal first person plural once again, the better to avoid the onus, Pops wears the onus uneasily, like a too tight collar, is the prime vice of age, which has so many vices. This is not the remark of a weak man. The principal vice of age is too much suspicion. Pops has been around the block. Pops has touched all the bases. He has called at every port. He has chafed under the onus. The wiles of life are not strangers to Pops. They have been much with him. They have tarried together. They have become accustomed to one another. Those long accustomed to the wiles of life cast commonly beyond themselves, let their cunning go further than reason can attend it. Pops is aware of this tendency to suspiciousness on the part of those who have too long tarried. Knowledge of this kind it would have been impossible for him to avoid. Equally impossible for him to steadily remember. Memory now an intermittent affair, here today, gone tomorrow, for Pops. In the gaps there is the forgetting and with the forgetting comes the casting beyond. This is always the fault of a little mind, made artful by long commerce with the world. A little mind is always playing catchup. A little mind is always losing things. A little mind is always developing systems of retrieval. One has observed this with squirrels and buried nuts. One presumes the squirrels spend much time developing systems of finding and then again losing and then again finding the nuts, and that the brain activity is what keeps them mentally agile. Relatively. How would one know really. Do they divide their territory up into grids perhaps, and then search each grid? Moving a small way, turning a bit, scratching, digging, pausing, then moving again. Over time they will have touched upon each grid section in the field which makes up the territory. What the squirrels have over Pops is their seeming ability to remember they have searched a certain section, so that they will not return to waste time in the folly of searching it again. Activity like everything else can be overdone.

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An open Knight's tour in chess, animated examples (with visited squares shaded and unshaded): images by Ilmari Karonen, 2010 (based on Knight's tour image by Gdr)

Wednesday 23 June 2010

The Conversion of Eden


Samuel Johnson on Measure for Measure

III.i.14 (63,3) [For all the accommodations, that thou bear'st Are nurs'd by baseness] Dr. Warburton is undoubtedly mistaken in supposing that by baseness is meant self-love here assigned as the motive of all human actions. Shakespeare only meant to observe, that a minute analysis of life at once destroys that splendour which dazzles the imagination. Whatever grandeur can display, or luxury enjoy, is procured by baseness, by offices of which the mind shrinks from the contemplation. All the delicacies of the table may be traced back to the shambles and the dunghill, all magnificence of building was hewn from the quarry, and all the pomp of ornaments dug from among the damps and darkness of the mine.

James Buchan on Money

Americans, as Santayana noted, prefer to talk of quantities rather than qualities and are therefore apt to consider things and actions in terms of money quantities. The great diversion of United States life -- and the force that runs through U.S. history, and makes it intelligible... -- is speculation in real estate: that is, the conversion of Eden into money. It was the force behind the great movements westward, where pioneers sold out their homesteads at immense premiums to a timid second generation; then, when the coast was reached, there was money to be made in swampland in Florida in the 1920s, in subdivided farmland in the 1950s and 1960s and, in the 1980s, in shoreland reclaimed from the sea.


For money to serve you, you must believe in it; if you doubt it a moment, it vanishes, like a ghost. What happened at the turn of the 1930s was that Americans lost faith in money. People stopped borrowing and bankers stopped lending... Most [Americans] felt quite helpless. Because they had believed that the markets of the 1920s were real, when those broke it seemed to Americans that reality had been turned upside down: that the snow of the 1929 winter, in Fitzgerald's formulation, was somehow of a different order because it was wet and cold and nobody swept it away, because, in short, money couldn't make it vanish.

Reality was suddenly transformed, not just in the market indices but in the hard, sensuous world that had been forgotten, which was now a world of street corners and ruined family farms and busted banks and men walking from town to town shooting vermin for food. In that transfiguration --- the moment so prized by the Greek tragedians in which the hero recognises that he has been made mad -- things stood out in hard, unyielding concreteness. Corporations emerged from behind their stock symbols as cold furnaces and shuttered gates; bank presidents made grovelling fools of themselves before government committees; crowds dissipated into lonely, struggling individuals. In certain of Hopper's paintings of that period Americans are shown in a cold, mute isolation, squatters in their own civilisation. A little drawing in a gallery I saw on Madison Avenue, two zeroes to represent the tops of gasoline pumps, three undulating lines to show the telephone wires loping away into infinity, a squiggle that represents the open bonnet of a Ford, still fills me with the sensation of a desperate, pointless flight. It is the definition for me of the antique conception of panic.

Samuel Johnson: Notes on Shakespeare, 1765

James Buchan: Frozen Desire: The Meaning of Money, 1997

Paintings by Edward Hopper:

Approaching a City, 1946 (The Phillips Collection)
New York Movie, 1939 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)
Hotel Room, 1931 (Fondation Thyssen-Bornemisza)