Sociable Spirit

Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely…

On reading a plague pamphlet and shaking hands again

I’ve been reading Thomas Dekker’s Plague Pamphlets, particularly A Road for Run-awayes published in 1625. Not because this is now in vogue, namely, the pandemic themed readings, but because I was scouring the internet to identify an image I was about to use in illustrating the scurrilous Elizabethan attitude towards theater especially during the summer when the playhouses were closed “lest the resort unto them should ingender a plague or rather disperse it, being already begonne” (William Harrison, 1572). This is the image (without the title for help) I was trying to identify:

But as it often happens, I was easily seduced and — instead of progressing with my writing (with the illustration now securely referenced) — I ended up reading the pamphlet. Should you be interested too, it is available both as a facsimile edition (in an Oxford Clarendon Press edition published in 1925 via and as a more-easily read transcript (thanks to Early English Books Online – Text Creation Partnership Phase I). The passage I would like to share is this:

We are punished with a Sicknesse, which is dreadfull three manner of wayes: In the generall spreading; in the quicknesse of the stroke; and in the terror which waites vpon it. It is general: for the spotted wings of it couer all the face of the Kingdome. It is quicke: for it kills suddenly; it is full of terror, for the Father dares not come neere the infected Son, nor the Son come to take a blessing from the Father, lest hee bee poysoned by it: the Mother abhors to kiss her owne Children, or to touch the sides of her owne Husband: no friend in this battell will relieue his wounded friend, no Brother shake his brother by the hand at a farewell. (B1)

And herein lies our answer to the question on whether Covid-19 will have a lasting affect on our human affairs — it will not. We are prone to think of our own experience as earth-shattering and life changing but, as a matter of fact, we will shake hands again. As people indeed shook hands after the plague was “begonne.” This is of course good news…

… but not without a negative ramification. The way I see it, we are a race* of amnesiacs in that we are exceptionally lousy at retaining information and memory gained from past misdeeds, fails, and losses. Perhaps because we do not like to be reminded of our misdeeds, fails, and losses. We also seem to be singularly self-possessed in that we tend to think of our emotions and experiences as absolutely unique — nobody gets us, especially not our parents. Unfortunately, this is sometimes the case, but mostly because our parents too like to pretend (as self-deluding amnesiacs) that they have never made our mistakes (in a misguided attempt to retain our respect when in fact nothing damages it as much as obvious hypocrisy). By the time we realize (facing our own children) how frustrating this attitude of I-know-it-all/you-know-nothing is (in both directions, not to mention what an obstacle it is in avoiding previous mistakes) we ourselves have become old and are no longer reckoned with (either because we too start pretending and/or because our off-springs cannot fathom us having had similar experiences). A cosmic irony of a sort!

So, is there hope? Or are we cursed to repeat history over and over again. I think there is, albeit a special brand of hope. Hope against hope. The possibility for us to remember — when the time comes to shake hands again and to hug again — that all is transient in this world, both the good (which is kind of bad) and the bad (which is definitely good). Hoping against hope that one would, therefore, stand for good the more and shun bad as much as possible.

And in case we want to play the deliberate amnesiac card again by waxing all philosophical about what is good or bad… Let us remember this simple guide to decent human behavior: “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” (Please note the positive/proactive wording as opposed to the negative/ passive one as in “Whatever is hurtful to you, do not do to any other person.” Doing, not just avoiding, makes all the difference.)

* There is but one human race despite of what some of us profess in order to feel superior to others.
** Hmm, what about that saying that one cannot step into the same river twice? I guess if we don’t build a bridge we are still bound to end up with wet and cold feet.

What’s in his ROMANCE kiss?

[Happy New Year — 2020 — to you all! I decided to launch a series of posts under the category of Footnote Fodder containing tidbits from my readings that I find curious and genuinely interesting but have, as of yet, no way to incorporate in any of my publishing projects. They seem too good/bizarre not to share. Enjoy! ;)]

If your brain is anything like mine then you are sometimes plagued with random songs like I am. In my case, the songs materialize triggered by semantic knowledge (i.e. encounter with words reminiscent of the lyrics) and stay lodged in my brain’s auditory cortex. So, I have Thomas Heywood to blame for “The Shoop Shoop Song” running in loop on my brain. And it runs like an ironical commentary in Cher’s voice:

If you want to know if he loves you so
It’s in his kiss
That’s where it is
Whoa oh it’s in his kiss
That’s where it is.

Why ironical? Because reading Thomas Heywood’s Gynaikeion: or, Nine books of various history concerning women inscribed by ye names of ye nine Muses (London: Printed by Adam Islip, 1624), in “The Third Book of Women, inscribed Thalia” one comes upon the alleged origin of kisses:

… the use of Wine was not knowne amongst them [the Roman matrons and virgins]; for that woman was taxed with immodestie, whose breath was knowne to smell of grape. Pliny in his natural historie, saith, That Cato was of opinion, That the vse of kissing first began betwixt kinsman and kinswoman, howsoeuer neere allide or farra off, onelie by that to know whether their wiues, daughters, or neeces, had tasted any wine: to this Iuuenall seems to allude in these verses:

Paucae adeo cereris vittas contingere Digna
Quarum non time at pater oscula. (p. 118)*

Well, if this does not throw a nasty wrench into the romantic notion about kisses. Sorry Jules, nothing personal.

Of course, Heywood is quick to dismiss the above as a custom of bygone days (and places) acknowledging that “kissing and drinking both are now growne (it seems) to a greater custome amongst vs that in those days with the Romans: nor am I so austeare to forbid the vse of either…” (ibid).

But it certainly puts the following two verses from the Song of Songs into a different perspective:

How fair is thy love, my sister, my spouse! how much better is thy love than wine! And the smell of thine ointments than all spices! Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue… (4:10-11)

Also, are we talking about a French or a Roman kiss? Comment if you know. Until you come up with a veritable source, I am opting for Romance Kiss — as in Romance languages, nothing romantic really 😉

*There are so few worthy to touch the fillets of Ceres,
Whose kisses a father would not fear.
(Transl. by Martin Madan. In A New and Literal Translation of Juvenal and Persius, vol. 1. London, 1789, p. 231)

A feminist adaptation of Paradise Lost

Hell is but a state of mind, they say, and I certainly feel like in Hell for not being able to attend in August the Stratford Festival’s modern Paradise Lost, a theatrical adaptation of Milton’s epic directed by Jackie Maxwell and written by Erin Shields. It’s heralded as a “witty, modern, feminist retelling of” Paradise Lost. So I do fervently hope that this retelling will go beyond the casting choice for Satan who is to be played by Lucy Peacock, although, I must admit she looks quite intriguing on the play’s poster image dressed in full snakeskin outfit (PETA be damned, its probably fake anyway ;)).

Lucy Peacock as Satan

Lucy Peacock as Satan in Stratford Festival’s modern Paradise Lost. Photography by Clay Stang – The Garden.

Van der Goes, The Fall

The Fall by Hugo van der Goes (1467-68). Oil on oak. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Not that I doubt Peacock’s ability to be a deviously witty tempter. I am cautious in my anticipation because of the long literary and visual art’s tradition of associating sin with Eve, and consequently with women, which has already produced paintings in which the distinction between Satan (the tempter) and its erstwhile target (Eve) has been blurred rendering the Tempter and its manipulated subject (the snake) into a single female snake character; a fit representation from the perspective of the patriarchal discourse that puts the whole blame of the-Fall-debacle on women. But this gender bending is hardly enough in and of itself from a feminist point of view that would ultimately challenge this resilient patriarchal assumption (i.e. that women are to be blamed for all the bad things befalling mankind). All in all, I am curious in what way is this retelling going to be a feminist one.

Also, I am positively intrigued by the authors’ decision to work with a small cast and, hence, have actors play two polar opposite characters in different parts of the play (e.g. Jessica B. Hill playing both the character of Beelzebub and Gabriel). Very early modern indeed.

I am looking forward to the play’s reviews but just in case G. S. is reading this and thinking about founding a scholar of modest means from East-Central Europe, I would be delighted to attend in person and watch it myself. Just in case.




NEPTUN: “And found no end, in wandering mazes lost”

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary the word Neptun originates from “late 14c., ‘god of the sea,’ from Latin Neptunus, son of Saturn, brother of Jupiter, the Roman god of the sea (later identified with Greek Poseidon), probably from PIE root *nebh- ‘cloud’ (source of Latin nebula ‘fog, mist, cloud’ ).” I don’t know whether the developers of the Neptun Student Information System (sic!) were consciously or unwittingly choosing its name, but there certainly is more fog, mist and cloud-shrouded uncertainty surrounding it, than clear direction and information. We also learn from the OE Dictionary, that “[u]ntill the indentificatin of Pluto in 1930, it was the most distant planet known” — hm, again, one wonders if the developers knew ahead how far removed their system will be from the actual, known needs of Hungarian uni populations. Also, how can one expect anything good from a system that is introduced with the following sentence by the University (BME) it was developed for:

“This can be a blessing or a curse, but a real means, a surface to manage your student self throughout your studies at our institution.”

There is not much solace in knowing that our University (SZTE) was the last to give in and shift to the government enforced system. So, if at the start of this semester you feel like finding no end, in wandering mazes lost, you are entitled to some despair. I too, whenever daring the nebulous entrails of Neptun, encounter–to quote Milton again–

But cloud in stead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the chearful wayes of men
Cut off, and for the Book of knowledg fair
Presented with a Universal blanc
Of Nature’s works to mee expung’d and ras’d,
And wisdome at one entrance quite shut out. (PL 3.45-50)

Space may produce new Worlds

Welcome to my corner of the web. It’s presently under construction but hopefully it will soon become more than a mere playground for my budding web-making-skills.

Illustration from The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine Pisan

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