Mina's Typewriter

A literary blog on cultural conundrums, gender benders, and things that go bump in the night

OEA (Opium-Eaters Anonymous)

Recently, I decided it was time to review my “want to read” bookshelf on Goodreads and see how I did. As always, I was disappointed with the long list of books I still hadn’t read … especially after adding 20 extra must-reads. One book, however, was way past due: Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. ‘Why this one?’ you might ask. Well, allow me to elaborate. Being a literature history fanatic, I can’t ignore the influence of the culture of opium consumption – especially laudanum – had on a large part of British history. Its exotic origins was interwoven with the rising popularity of literary Orientalism. Lord Byron, William Beckford, and later on many of the Pre-Raphaelites expressed in their works that keen interest in the culture, dress and folklore introduced from the East, leading to a conglomeration of Oriental images in literature and arts.

But first, a few notes on opium:

Opium was first introduced into Britain when it was transported from India in the 17th century, by order of Queen Elisabeth I. Over the centuries it began to gain ground. Opium was used both medicinally and recreationally in a number of forms ranging in levels of purity. It was primarily sold in pills as an over-the-counter painkiller relieving you from all ailments. Most impressively, you could even get it at the local grocers or tailor before the passing of the Pharmacy Act in 1868.

Although the elicit ‘opium dens’ were indeed popular among the fans of oriental opium usage, the most literary form of opium was laudanum: a tincture consisting of opium and water, wine or even spirits. Again, the purity of the opium in laudanum was often questionable.

The 1868 Pharmacy Act declared that from then on only apothecaries were allowed to sell opium, putting a stop to the legal distribution of opium pills by general retailers.

In the same period, morphine established itself as a purer form of opium. Not only did it appear in diluted forms as a “cure all” medicine for everything imaginable (incl. headaches, arthritis, malaria, etc.), but it was also consumed freely by patients with the use of a hypodermic needle. Luckily, this purer but highly addictive form helped cause addiction awareness and led to the medical treatment of addiction as a serious affliction. Unfortunately, this happened long after Mrs. Winslow’s soothing syrup had been ‘soothing’ children all over the UK and US.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One very important text that became pivotal in the debate around the benefits and harms of using opium was Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. The text itself relates Thomas De Quincey’s experiences with opium as a lifelong addict. It was originally published anonymously in the London Magazine and 40 years later published as a book in an exhaustingly extended version. The version I read was the edition containing Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and its sequels Suspiria and An English Mail Coach. For those who are absolutely captivated by my writing and just have to read this book, let me give you a heads up. Only the first part is truly about his opium usage. Towards the end De Quincey begins to use opium metaphors to explain philosophical queries. Noteworthy is the description of his opium-induced dreams, which were part of the attraction to opium for many author geniuses of the day. Their ‘visions’ were considered a great source of creative inspiration.

The funny thing about this book is that, although it was accompanied by quite a scandal when published, it soon became part of recommended medical reading material. De Quincey, who was then still the anonymous Opium-eater, became an authority on opium usage and specifically a reference tool in the debate around the recommended (or perhaps warned-against?) maximum dosage.

 

William Hogarth’s Gin Lane captures the effects of gin, including frequent jail time, child neglect, debauchery and starvation.

 

Now, I could go on and on about this book. (Seriously, don’t dare me ’cause I’ll do it!) Confessions is not only packed with information on the customs of the time, but also provides a great source for investigating the cult of the artist-genius. What I personally find noteworthy is opium’s transcendence of social strata (as opposed to the ever popular gin, which was known as the poor man’s route to excessive drunkenness). One could even discuss the text as an interesting subject for Clifford Geertz’ method of thick description. (Possible follow-up post?) However, I will leave you to read it for yourself and discover what the text has to offer you. Note: Insomniacs will definitely appreciate De Quincey’s description of the effect that opium has on not only dreams but also your sleeping patterns in general.

Since the book is labelled “Confessions”, I will finish with a few of De Quincey’s best:

  1. During a certain time in his life he took up to 40 grains of opium a day. Since opium wasn’t a very pure product at the time and its strength could vary, we don’t know exactly what an insane amount that is. Let’s assume more than enough.
  2. He had begun taking opium for an acute pain in his face, calling it ‘an arthritis of the face’.
  3. He was very, very short.
  4. His best friend in the world was a 15-year old prostitute.
  5. He mentioned as the main negative side effect of his extreme opium usage being haunted by the hallucination of a crocodile.

 

… Sweet dreams!

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Writer’s Block: Confessions of a Literature Blogger

It’s been some time since my last update, so I decided to write about the cause of this massive delay. Writer’s block. Every blogger will experience it at least once in their blogging life. Even the greatest authors experienced it: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, even the ever witty Oscar Wilde! But what is writer’s block really, and what causes it? When my partner asked me why I hadn’t written for so long, I had a variety of answers ready:

“I just haven’t read any good books lately. “

“I don’t know what to write about.”

“I’m working on something, but it’s not entirely finished yet.”

“I know; I’ve been sooo busy lately!”

To which my partner replied: that’s bullsh*t and you know it. Yes. Yes, I did.

So what was the cause? A short circuit in the brain? Having ‘lost my muse’? In truth, it was simply loss of confidence. When I got stuck and reread, I found my writing uninteresting, incoherent and below average (to say the least).

But then what was I aiming for? A simple blog post or a life’s work? Do people really expect Pulitzer Prize-winning material from a recreational blogger? Probably not. I had to get over myself and just write. Because in the end, I write because I like sharing my thoughts on the books I read for the people who are interested in them. That is all.

And if this self-motivational speech fails, just tell yourself:

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With these words I officially declare the end of my writer’s block. Let the blogging commence!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holiday book cheer!

By now most of us have finished the leftovers in our fridge, put away the Christmas decoration, gave a good scowl at the scale, and have returned to that dreadful thing called work. But if there is one thing that stays with you after the holiday craze – besides the extra weight – , it’s the presents! And this happy blogger can’t complain.

For my last post I talked about my travels through Ireland and all the impressions that stayed with me the most. Lucky for me, my other half follows my blog with a resolute passion and got the hint by giving me this:

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The Book of Kells Gift Edition by Bernard Meehan

Yes, The Book of Kells Gift Edition! Not only does this book provide elaborate context for the creation of The Book of Kells, it also contains around 60 full-page illustrations! In other words, it’s the next best thing to the original. Minus the ridiculous maintenance costs and mortal fear of tearing a page. 

Needless to say, I am one happy camper!

 

 

Now, to continue on the subject of gift-giving, I was wondering whether everyone has that same problem with buying books for other people. Knowing someone’s taste in books is a rare talent, and I myself have very specific preferences when it comes to reading. The titles I put on my Christmas list have wrinkled many brows in my family, and the gift certificates have been many. But still, a good book is a wonderful way to show you know a person and support their interests. When someone hands me a book I’ve never heard about with the phrase “You’ll like this. Trust me”, my excited present face often turns to a look of doubt at the sight of a strange author name and dubious book cover. But some of the best reads of my life have come from unexpected gifts. So, when you’re doing your Christmas shopping next year and you happen to pick up a book that reminds you of someone, don’t put it back on the shelve. Trust your gut and go for that present with a personal touch!

Literary travels – Part 2: Ireland

Aaaaah Ireland. What’s not to love? It’s got sheep, whiskey, leprechauns… Besides, green is my favourite colour! And let’s reinforce that stereotype once and for all: Ireland is indeed very, very green.

Above all things to love about Ireland, there is one thing that sticks out among the rest: Ireland’s strong literary tradition. Thinks about it: Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and James Joyce are all Irish. And this is a fact that most tourist offices in Ireland love to stress. But how far does this literary spirit reach into contemporary Irish culture? Here’s an impression of travelling through Ireland as an ex-lit student and her bio-engineer boyfriend.

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With a rather strong fear of heights, I had climbed the stairs of Blarney castle with the intent of kissing the Blarney stone to receive “the gift of the gab (eloquence)” When I saw you had to kiss it dangling upside down from a gap in the castle wall, I decided I was eloquent enough as it is. So here you see me kissing a random stone on the Blarney domain in compensation.

I was rather shocked that all the seemingly legitimate authentic pubs didn’t play any music. Lots of sports, lots of cheap beer, but (besides chatter) no sound whatsoever. On the other hand you had the loud tourist traps that had their constant blackboards out with the writing “traditional Irish music every night.” What’s so traditional about an acoustic U2 cover anyway? This confused me.

One beautiful exception was Dick Mack’s pub in Dingle. It was recommended to us by local guy named Johnny. Thank you Johnny!

Upon entering, we immediately noticed the wall of whiskey bottles. Had I died and gone to heaven? The opposite wall was designed after an old shoe maker’s shop, including shop counter and random shoes missing their left or right partner. When we arrived, there was already quite a show going on. One man was singing and playing the guitar, and had got everyone to join in. He also introduced a Frenchwoman, who had only been in Ireland for 2 years and already knew more Irish songs than he did. I was amazed at how everyone could instantaneously sing along, as if they grew up with these songs in their homes. But then again, they probably did. Things got tougher when the Frenchwoman (what was her name?) sang La Vie en Rose to give them a taste of her own musical heritage. Even when people didn’t understand the lyrics, they hummed, whistled, and accompanied her in every way they could. And everyone got a go! An elderly gentleman sung a very sad song about a man who lost his wife because of his drinking habit. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

Even we were invited to partake, but our Belgian musical tradition failed us.  (More correctly: our knowledge of that tradition, and my own ability to carry a tune.) As the evening progressed, the themes became more sensitive until at one point someone got insulted by a song about the Troubles. The singer asked if he was from Northern Ireland, but quickly realized: “Oh no, he’s English!” This got quite a bit of laughs … and an almost equal amount of tension.   When the bar closed and things got heated, that was our cue to exit. We did get a last “Oh no, the foreigners are leaving!” to keep us warm on our way back to the hostel. Definitely a night to remember.

I think this picture captures my love of him quite well, don’t you?

I think this picture captures my love of him quite well, don’t you?

 

Our last days in Ireland were spent in Dublin. And there was one small, hidden thing I needed to see before we left: Oscar Wilde’s statue. We wandered through Dublin until out feet hurt and we were getting hungry, bordering on severe crankiness. Finally, I found the flamboyant image of my muse. After an elaborate photo-shoot I was finally content and we could move on. And oh, did we save the best for last!

 

 

Coincidentally, one of Dublin’s greatest tourist attractions just so happened to be a literary treasure located in Trinity College! The Book of Kells is known among scholars and lay people as one of the most beautifully illuminated manuscripts preserved to this day. Since I studied historical linguistics and literature, and got a job as a volunteer at the Heritage Library Hendrik Conscience in Antwerp, I can honestly tell you I was more than exited to see this book. It was showcased in a glass case in a small dark room: one text page laid open, and one illuminated page. I was absolutely mesmerized by the level of detail in the illustrations, and I might have shown this too obviously, because I was soon addressed by the steward present in the room. He told me the entire history of the Book of Kells, for example that the illuminators were 12 to 16 years old because they had to have perfect vision to achieve such detail in their work. After this brief history lesson we had a nice chat about all things literary and exchanged enthusiastic anecdotes. Our bonding experience paid off, because he told me I could ignore the “20 minute entry rule” and shift between rooms as often as I’d like and stay as long as I deemed fit!  Of course I couldn’t ignore The Long Room: books EVERYWHERE! I’ve spent quite some time in the beautiful Nottebohmroom of the Antwerp Heritage Library, but The Long Room in Trinity College is still something to be jealous of. (Also, it is indeed quite long.)

Needless to say, I had to be literally dragged out by my boyfriend.

So what have I learnt about Ireland’s literary tradition? Mostly that it isn’t just Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, James Joyce, or any other great Irish writers that you can think of. It’s in the people themselves. The language, the music and the way people interact shows the long and significant oral tradition that lies at the base of Ireland’s literary culture. The pub in Dingle showed how mnemonic devices were used to pass on stories in a time when the written word wasn’t the standard medium. Nowadays rhymes, repetition and rhythm are mostly seen as a way of ‘giving a nice ring’ to a recitation, but their importance regarding memory is proven by the fact that I still remember the words to a poem I heard only once in my life. Literature, poetry and song is everywhere. It’s in daily life, commercial life, and in the hearts of the people. And nowhere in the world have I seen that natural literary tendency as clearly as in Ireland.

Now I have to ask a question that has bothered me since my trip to Ireland. Who here has actually read Ulysses? And I don’t mean browsing through it or reading a bit so you know enough to bluff your way through a snobby lit students’ discussion. I mean every page, from cover to cover. I haven’t. I’m not afraid to admit that during my student years Ulysses was too great a challenge. I mean… 1000 pages to narrate 24 hours, and all in stream of consciousness-style. Seriously? Apparently, even most Irish admit to not having read their Modernist masterpiece. Now I’d love to meet people who have actually conquered the great beast and can convince me to finally do so. Is it worth the effort? Or should I just stick to my pulp fiction and slightly less daunting Russian classics?

Here are a few Irish texts you might enjoy reading:

  •  Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla and Bram Stoker’s Dracula: Both are stories about a vampire set in an exotic foreign land. Nevertheless, critics have shown that the settings in these texts are in fact more strongly influenced by the authors’ original Irish scenery than by the actual country the stories portrays.
  • Morgan Llywelyn’s Bard: A sci-fi/fantasy novel that tries to capture the historic figure of the bard in the times when Ireland was still called “Hibernia.” Its value lies in the sensual portrayal of a literary tradition that was praised above all else.
  •  Everything Oscar Wilde ever wrote.

Halloween Disappointment

Well… the title says it all, really. I must say I was quite disappointed with this year’s festivities. Where were my monsters?? In preparation of Halloween I had made a list of all the possible movies for my Halloween Food and Fright Fest. Being my indecisive self, I gave up finding the perfect movie and thought I’d settle for whatever movie my TV told me to watch. And this is where my jaw dropped. There weren’t any Halloween movies on TV! Not one! Now I do live in a country where Halloween isn’t the great holiday it is in the US, or even the UK. But still. I had only one group of Trick ‘r Treaters and judging by the underwhelming size of their shared candy bucket, I could tell they weren’t going to have a very lucrative Halloween.

So I’m calling out to all the people who let Halloween pass them by: Don’t. You will miss out  on a great night of food, costumes, bad old horror movies, and screaming and laughing with your friends or family.

And in light of Halloween, I dug up some older work of one of my favourite actors (and voices): Christopher Lee. Coincidentally, he’s also narrating the work of one of my favourite authors: M. R. James!

Christopher Lee: “A Warning to the Curious”

And of course one of my favourite James stories: Tales To Terrify: “Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You My Lad”

Enjoy!

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“Oh Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad!”

 

 

Agostino Ramelli’s Bookwheel

And where can I get one?

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Libeskinds-Reading-Machine

The bookwheel, an alternative version of the revolving bookstand, is a device designed to allow one person to read a variety of heavy books in one location with ease.

The books are rotated vertically much like a Ferris wheel (as opposed to a flat, rotating table surface). This device was invented by Italian military engineer Agostino Ramelli in 1588.

To ensure that the books remained at a constant angle, Ramelli incorporated an epicyclic gearing arrangement, a complex device that had only previously been used in astronomical clocks. Ramelli undoubtedly understood that gravity could have worked just as effectively (as it does with a Ferris wheel), but the gearing system allowed him to display his mathematical prowess.

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Top photo from the Venice Architecture Biennale in 1986 where architect Daniel Libeskind recreated a version of Captain Agostino Ramelli’s “bookwheel” reading machine.

Via Retronaut and Wikipedia.

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Literary Travels – Part 1: Prague

Some time ago I went to Prague with a couple of friends for a two-day festival. We had scheduled two extra days for sightseeing, which turned out to be a fantastic idea! Everyone who’s been in Prague already knows that it’s a beautiful city. It reminded me of Budapest with its bridges and beautiful architecture. The last day of the festival everyone went on a trip to the ossuary in Kutná Hora, a sight you wouldn’t believe! Legend has it that when the local abbot went on a pilgrimage to Palestine, he returned with a handful of consecrated dirt, which he sprinkled across the chapel’s cemetery. This made the cemetery holy ground, leading to its immense popularity as a place of burial. Because the small cemetery couldn’t hold so many people, they decided to exhume the bodies. Their remains are now on display in a work of art, rightfully dubbing the chapel UNESCO World Heritage. Personally, I was amazed at how the artist handled the skeletons with such creativity.

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Our very last day we wanted to do one final activity with the gang, and on my suggestion we ended up in the Sex Machines Museum.  A brochure I found had some intriguing pictures of strange contraptions, and we simple couldn’t resist finding out more! The first thing we saw upon entering were two old pornographic films, shot on the command of the Spanish king Alphons XIII in 1925. We also found a number of hand-operated vibrators and penis pumps.

Here are a few hand-operated vibrators! Before you imagine turn-of-the-century women straining themselves with these still rather tiring machines, I must add that they were probably used “medicinally” by doctors at the time.

Here are a few hand-operated vibrators! Before you imagine turn-of-the-century women straining themselves with these still rather tiring machines, I must add that they were probably used “medicinally” by doctors at the time.

Less cheerful machines included an electrical device with one end to be attached to a sleeping boy’s penis, and the other end to a bell in his parents’ room. This way they would always know when their son had a night-time erection. Embarrassing, I can imagine.

Strangely enough, the medieval and renaissance tools were a lot less alienating than those in the “modern” room. Whereas the instruments and furniture from the Early Modern period seemed to be designed to improve comfort during sex, the modern devices served the exact opposite purpose. Besides the introduction of a number of strange and rather amusing fetishes (ever heard of pony boys?), the emphasis lay on S&M in its most unpleasant forms.

Although parts of the exhibitions made us slightly uncomfortable, the museum provided insight into the sexual mentalité of the past. In that respect it reminded me of a book I was reading during the trip, to the delight of my roommates: Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud.  This fascinating book relates the transition from a former one-sex model to the current two-sex model. To contextualize this model, we first need to revisit the difference between sex and gender. A person’s sex is made up of the biological and anatomical features that define them as either male or female. Gender, on the other hand, is a socio-political identity that is connected to a person’s sex. In other words, gender studies generally examine the social roles that women and men are given (or fed). So we can conclude that sex is natural, and gender cultural. Here’s where the one-sex model complicates things. In the old days, people believed that there was actually only one sex: male. What about women, you might say. Well, they were considered only lesser versions of men, “unfinished” so to say. This theory was supported by the then widely accepted idea that women possessed pretty much the same sexual organs, except that their ‘inward penis’ never had the chance to grow outward like in the man’s case.  According to Galen (the man who popularized medicinal blood-letting based on Hippocrates’ theory of the humours), this stunted development was due to a lack of “heat” as nature’s steroids, present in men. Allow me to illustrate:

vesalius

This wonderful drawing is an illustration from Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica.  It portrays a woman’s vagina as a replica of the man’s penile shaft.  The comparison went even further with the idea that if you’d fold the ovaries into the uterus you’d get something that resembled the male scrotum. If you do the same to the rest, the vagina will become the penile shaft, and the labia foreskin. The one-sex model didn’t last, however. The 19th century witnessed men and women become two distinct sexes, opposites even.

The female orgasm: myth or mandatory?

In his preface, Laqueur mentions that he originally intended to write a study on the female orgasm throughout history. You might wonder how one could write an entire book about an orgasm. Funny thing: in Medieval and Early-Modern times the female orgasm was considered a prerequisite for conception. If a husband and wife couldn’t conceive, everyone knew whose fault it was! No seriously, the husbands were often humiliated whenever it took too long for a couple to become pregnant. After some time, and a great deal of counter-evidence, this theory of conception was rebutted. Unfortunately, with the rise of the new two-sex model, the female orgasm disappeared … literally. The nineteenth century, and especially Victorian England, witnessed a change in what it meant to be a woman. Now there were only chaste, pure beings without any sexual drive at all. Men and women became “the opposite sex”, men sexually active and women passive, and women were now believed not to have orgasms at all. A sad, sad world.

What I found so exciting about this book is that it makes you not only rethink history, but also present knowledge of biological facts. This evolution of science entails that sometimes facts are indeed subject to interpretation, and consequently also to change. Even scientific thought is often influenced by cultural persuasions, in that our thoughts are structured by these influences which we are unaware of. The same goes for the language we use to express and define our thoughts. If in ancient Greek the same word is used for parts of the female sexual anatomy as well as the male, then it’s no wonder that their referents should be equated. I must add that it was a wonderful coincidence that I was reading this book at the time that I visited the museum. It certainly rekindled my interest in sexual history and culture-specific interpretations of the human body.