Archive for May 2009

My First Guitar

May 22, 2009


Liliana Osses Adams, in a site dedicated to the history of the harp, relates that the earliest known image of a musician dates back about 15,000 years, and is found in the Cave of Les Trois Frères in the Pyrenees in southwest France. The animal skin and horns suggest a shaman figure, or sorcerer, and he appears to dance and play a single-stringed harp.

A similarity exists of course between this early musical instrument and the early hunting instrument, the bow, and there has been speculation as to which came first. While it appears that the bow and arrow are earlier, with the first known examples dating to the end of the Gravettian period, about 20,000 years ago, it could be more gratifying to suppose that the ancestors turned to music before they turned to hunting. However, this requires picturing some clever brute deciding to use his harp as a weapon, so better to imagine an ancient individual (one much like myself) who, in the act of stringing a bow in preparation for the hunt, discovers that his instrument of death can also, like the already very ancient flute, produce beautiful sounds, and yet produce them with the fingers, leaving the voice free to sing along. What song the syrens sang, writes Sir Thomas Browne, is not beyond all conjecture, but what song I sang as I plucked the first harp is “a question above antiquarism.”



May 17, 2009


As an admirer of Alexander Pope, and as a student of caves, I was pleased to learn that it is still possible to visit (with special permission, and only once a year) Pope’s Grotto, the artificial caves the poet had built below his home and garden in Twickenham around 1720. The accompanying picture gives what I can only assume is a very limited idea of the interior of the grotto, but it suggests an organic quality, and brings to mind certain scenes from the 1966 submarine film Fantastic Voyage, in which miniature scientists explore the interior of the human body. Until such a time as we can in fact reduce ourselves, and enter the human grotto via a hypodermic, we must content ourselves with the savagery of surgery, which rips the body open, but at the same time offers up for view heavy stalagmite organs and dripping stalactite glands, the blood that courses and pools among them, the blind cave-dwellers that reside within, the stones that accumulate in passages. I imagine a remake of the movie, but this time set in the 18th century, so that the flea-sized surgeons can enter Pope’s bloodstream, navigate through his deformities, diagnose (in heroic couplets) his tuberculosis, and cure it.


May 1, 2009


Borges famously informs us that in the pages of a certain Chinese encyclopedia called the Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, “it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.”

I’d like to add another: those that bear features resembling musical instruments. I offer two examples here, the harp seal and the lyrebird. But then I want to add a subdivision: animals of that description which don’t come immediately to mind.