I’m pretty sure I’m not seriously hurt--no broken bones, a skin scrap on my leg that’s all. Not terrible for just climbing out of a Borges labyrinth.
It started in the light well enough, as it often does. I was looking at a book on my shelf—a collection of essays by Christopher Morley—and I went from the world of 20th century Man of Letters to the idea of canine vivisection in the 17th century to solve the problem of maritime longitude. (This could make a great Simpson’s episode; I’m sending Matt a spec.)
This spiral started twenty years ago in a Methodist church thriftstore. My father had the habit of picking up used books for me for a quarter, or fifty cents, to build my library
One very quirky selection is the Christopher Morley collection. His is a dusty, dusty name from the 1920s. If we sweep away the cobwebs, we see he was a Rhodes scholar to New College, Oxford; cofounder of the Saturday Review of Literature in 1924 with Henry Seidel Canby; founder of the Baker Street Irregulars, an invitation-only club for Sherlock Holmes fanatics, which is still in existence; and the author of "The Bowling Green" column for the old New York Evening Post.
Morley also wrote the novel Kitty Foyle in 1938, which went to Hollywood and brought Ginger Rogers a Best Actress Oscar, beating out Katharine Hepburn’s Tracy Lord.
I have a miscellany collection of his called The Powder of Sympathy. The short musings, from the 1930s, are blog posts before their time, and so I was drawn in by their familiar feel and sound.
“Hail, Kinspirit” is one essay, about an item in the Personal column of the London Times.
“Lost in Taxi last week, small portfolio containing colour diagrams and newspaper print of Lamb’s portrait of Lytton Strachey. Finder rewarded. Y. 1926. The Times E.C.4.”
Pica for pica, Morley’s essays are more jammed with old Big Lit names than the frames of Mrs. Parker and her Vicious Circle.
“Well, well, we say to ourself: then there is one other person in the world who felt just as we did about that gloriously entertaining portrait of Mr. Strachery, and who carried it about with him just as we did ours, clipped from the Manchester Guardian.”
I think we can forgive Morley his royal plural, because we so like the sentiment of his post.
From there I wandered into the world of the book’s title, “The Powder of Sympathy,” and Sir Kenelm Digby.
The book is excellent, but I need to know more. I start Googling and learn that Sir Kenelm Digby was an eccentric privateer and a member of the Privy Council of Charles I. He advocated the concept of the Powder of Sympathy—-a sympathetic magic first proposed by the German physician and professor of physics, medicine, and mathematics Rudolf Goclenius. The idea was that you treat the agent of the wound, instead of the wound, with a salve. The salve is made from Roman vitriol [copper sulphate] and the Sun when it is in Leo.
I want to break out and watch a Friends rerun, but I’m in too deep now.
I imagine someone stabs me. My 17th century doctor applies the Powder of Sympathy to the knife, and my wound heals. I Google deeper into the e-labyrinth: there are 2 more very important points: the healing is not contingent on geographical proximity; and when the salve is applied to the knife, I will be affected, and may cry out.
I can't stop clicking deeper down, more pages, more connections: I learn that some bright mind decided to apply this "system" to the very serious issue of “the longitude problem.” The Brits ruled the waves in the 17th century, but a staggering number of them died in shipwrecks because captains were never certain where they were.
Latitude reckoning was determined by the stars. But longitude is a measure of time from a fixed, constant point.
More search, more clicks: I find Dava Sobel to explain it:
“As early as 1514, navigators well knew that the secret to determining longitude at sea lay in comparing the time aboard ship to the time at the home port -- at the very same moment. They could then convert the hour difference between the two places into a geographical one. Unfortunately, although navigators could figure out their local time at sea by watching the sun every day to see when it reached its highest point in the sky (at noon), they could not keep track of time at another place. For that they would have needed a clock or watch set to the home port. But pendulum clocks went haywire on the decks of rolling ships: they slowed down, or sped up, or stopped running altogether.”
So that was the problem. Then an anonymous pamphlet called “Curious Enquiries” suggested that a wounded dog be put aboard ship, leaving the knife and discarded bandage with a trusted timekeeper on shore. He would apply the Powder of Sympathy at agreed upon times, and when the dog yelped, the seaman would know the exact time on shore.
Apparently it’s not known if this pamphlet was “in jest” or the idea of desperate, desperate men as the sailor body count rose.
As late 1712 the British Empire was still searching for better navigating instruments, which was a major plot point NBC's short-loved Crossbones, with John Malkovich as the pirate Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard.
Umberto Eco uses the Powder and the longitude problem as a major plot point in his 1994 novel The Modern World.
Now I’m really worried. With Eco in the picture, I’ll never get out of here. I can't see my living room anymore, just pages and pages and pages of connected ideas that keep pulling me into my computer. Eco is a labyrinth himself—-I could rattle around here for hours more. I want to come up for air.
Finally, between clicks of the website Porta Ludovica, I’m able to free myself from the endless information on Eco and make my way back to Morley, hoping he is a piece in a breadcrumb trail that will let me find my way out.
Morley echoed Digby: “This theory of treating not the wound but the weapon might be well meditated by literary critics. For instance, when some toxicated energumen publishes an atrocious book, the best course to pursue is not to attack the author but to praise Walter de la Mare or Stella Benson. This may be termed the allopathic principle in criticism.”
I’m rising toward the surface--Morley’s quip is funny--but I don’t know who Stella Benson is. I’m so close but I can’t quit out of Firefox just yet. I Google her to a literary encyclopedia, which is edited by Janet Todd.
Janet Todd. I know her. I studied at Southampton University in England with her. A real person I have known.
Ahh, that does it-—I can see the way back. Just one more tight passage to squeeze through, then . . . .