Clare Coffey reviews a new book on mesmerism in America and discusses what it tells us about rationalism in a secular world: “Mesmerism is the brainchild of Franz Mesmer, a German doctor born in 1734 who practiced medicine in Vienna and Paris, and who believed in the influence of magnetic fluids and astronomical movements on human physiology. (If that sounds particularly quaint, consider that today Dave Asprey has built an empire offering advice such as that walking barefoot is a necessary and healing method of getting in touch with the earth’s electrical energy.) The doctor regularly treated his patients with magnets, and one day, while employing his technique on a female patient, he discerned a fluid in her body that responded to his manipulations. Mesmer called the fluid ‘animal magnetism,’ a term that in general use now means raw charisma. As he used it, ‘animal’ just meant ‘vital’; it was the force that sustains and animates us. When it became blocked or flowed in the wrong direction, physical and mental ailments resulted. In this, mesmerism resembled Reiki, developed in Japan by Mikao Usui about a hundred years later. But unlike Usui, who claimed to regulate intangible, spiritual energies, Mesmer claimed to have made a bona fide breakthrough in physiology. He presented himself as a scientist, not a healer.”
A view of ancient Taiwanese culture: “A newly available Library of Congress collection shows the lives of an oft-overlooked minority.”
When T. S. Eliot became an institution: “The letters that close the volume towards the end of 1938 reveal the decision to discontinue the Criterion after the next number, a decision which at this stage is confidential to Eliot, Geoffrey Faber and the firm’s other directors. (One of Eliot’s letters suggests that the need for Faber and Faber to ‘retrench’ financially was a more significant consideration than biographers have usually allowed.) Not for the first time, correspondence with Faber prompts Eliot to be frank about his own feelings – ‘I have run [the journal] without conviction for several years’ – and revealing about his conception of his role: ‘When one is young, one can say things in one’s own periodical which one would not be at liberty to say elsewhere; but at my age, it tends to the reverse: one has to be much more cautious, as editor, than one would need to be as a contributor elsewhere’. So much about Eliot had become more cautious by this point. Ezra Pound directed a good deal of intemperate exasperation towards him on this account, but he was not the only person to regret that the young hero of Modernism had become a ‘man in a four-piece suit’, and it is hard to feel that the Criterion closed too soon.”
The people who went Midwest: “David McCullough is best known to most readers for his popular biographies of some of the most prominent names in American history — Theodore Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John Adams and the Wright Brothers have all been subjects of his meticulously researched volumes. Occasionally, though, he delves into the lives of historically significant people whose names likely aren’t familiar to most Americans. That’s the case with his latest book, The Pioneers, which tells the story of the 17th- and 18th-century settlers who set out to start lives in the Northwest Territory, the region of the country that is now Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and much of the Upper Midwest. It’s a fascinating look at a chapter in American history that’s been somewhat neglected in the country’s popular imagination.”
Leah Libresco Sargeant reviews a new Tony-nominated play that retells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice: “This version of the story, ably directed by Rachel Chavkin and now the frontrunner of this year’s Tony Awards, is acutely aware it is a retelling—and not just of the original myth. Songwriter Anaïs Mitchell developed Hadestown first as a song cycle, then as an off-Broadway staging, and finally as a full Broadway production. The set (by Rachel Hauck) echoes the theme of cycles, placing the actors on a small stage, but one fitted with three concentric turntables. A story of gods and men requires magic, and the show achieves its moments of transcendence by hanging onto a scrappy, small-budget sensibility, with an admirable restraint that is sometimes lacking in Broadway transfers.”
The Jewish Museum’s revamp of its permanent collection is a disaster: “From its priceless collection of artworks, a foremost cultural institution has harvested mainly inferior examples for display, while submerging Jewish identity in a sea of ‘universal values.’”
Essay of the Day:
In The New York Times, James Gorman tells the story of two amateur archaeologists who discovered ancient rock art south of Mumbai:
“In the evening breeze on a stony hilltop a day’s drive south of Mumbai, Sudhir Risbud tramped from one rock carving to another, pointing out the hull of a boat, birds, a shark, human figures and two life-size tigers.
“‘They’re male,’ he said with a smile, noting that the carver had taken pains to make the genitalia too obvious to ignore. He was doing a brief tour of about two dozen figures, a sampling of 100 or so all etched into a hard, pitted rock called laterite that is common on the coastal plain that borders the Arabian Sea.
“The carvings are only a sample of 1,200 figures that Mr. Risbud and Dhananjay Marathe, engineers and dedicated naturalists, have uncovered since they set out on a quest in 2012. The two men are part of a long tradition of amateur archaeologists, according to Tejas Garge, the head of the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums for the state of Maharashtra, and the petroglyphs they have uncovered amount to a trove of international significance.
“They are the most recent collection of rock art to join other images left by Stone Age peoples around the globe. Like paintings and carvings in Australia, the American Southwest, Africa and elsewhere, the carvings are cryptic messages left by people whose lives are lost in the mists of deep time.”
Photo: Sevnica Castle
Poem: Jason Guriel, “From Forgotten Work”
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