Soundtrack (II)

I got a $50 iTunes card for my birthday. (Thanks, Dad!) Amazingly, I did not buy any Stravinsky this time. But I did buy:

Pierre Boulez. Le marteau sans maître. I’ve been revisiting the music I loved as an adolescent. I still love it! The Laurel library shelved its audio collection—twelve-inch vinyl albums, naturally—next to the stairs to the atomic fallout shelter, with its curious yellow-and-black symbol, paired with another of black silhouettes hurrying down zigzag steps.

Charles Ives. Holidays symphony. Ives was another adolescent passion of mine. Was I a strange teenager? I suppose I must have been. Perhaps I’m still a little strange…?

Charles Ives. Sonatas for violin and piano. This album actually has a music video! Imagine that—what is the world coming to? I hope that their lungs didn’t suffer too much from that smoke machine.

Witold Lutosławski. Symphonies three and four. After the wars (take I and take II), eastern Europe’s music-making was dominated by the Soviet apparatus, which was just as beneficial to it as it was to art and literature. But some genius did bloom despite all that, and despite the foolish notion of musical progress that gripped both eastern and western Europe.

Witold Lutosławski. Cello concerto. Beauty that astonishes (the best kind). At first, the cellist plays alone, a virtuoso solo part, for a long time, taking the breath away, and the heartbeat, and the thinking mind….

John Adams. Violin concerto. Speaking of foolish notions, I hope that we can also stop prattling on about minimalism, new complexity, and all the other so-called schools of current compositional practice. Why not just listen to the music?

John Adams. Shaker loops. I have to confess, it was the Shaker connection here that first drew me to Adams’s music. In my early twenties, I was fairly obsessed with the Shakers—I blame Michael Dirda’s review of his Apples and pears for this—

Eliot Carter. String quartets two, three, & four. I wonder what’s wrong with the first string quartet that prevented its inclusion here.

Olivier Messiaen. Catalogue d’oiseaux, livres 1–6. For solo piano. What it says on the tin—eccentrically, weirdly even, harmonized renderings of bird calls, nature’s first music (humanity providing nature’s second).

Retrospective diagnosis

Attempting to impose a modern medical interpretation upon symptoms that have long since carried away their sufferers is always a chancy affair, and the older the facts the more dubious the conclusion.

Consider the case of Elizabeth Kelly, eight years old.


I. Sunday 23 March 1662

Elizabeth attends meeting 9 a.m. to noon. She then goes with Goody Ayres to the Ayres home, where Goody Ayres “did take broth hot out of the boiling pot and did immediately eat thereof and did require our said child to eat with her the same […] whereupon she began to complain of pain at her stomach for which pain I gave her a small dose of the powder of angelica root which gave her some present {=immediate} ease.”

They return to the meeting, then home. Elizabeth “did not much complain at her return home, but three hours in the night next following the said child […] did suddenly start up out of her sleep and holding up her hands cried: Father! Father! Help me! Help me! Good Wife Ayres is upon me. She chokes me. She kneels on my belly. She will break my bowels. She pinches me.”


II. Monday 24 March

These outcries against Goody Ayers and symptoms of pain and discomfort continue most of the night and the following Monday. “We used what physical helps {=herbal medicines} we could obtain, and that without delay, but could neither conceive, nor others for us, that her malady was natural.” (The deponent here and above is Elizabeth’s father. I do not have access to the original document; I am quoting from a modernized version given in R. G. Tomlinson, Witchcraft Prosecutions. The editorial glosses are mine.)


III. Tuesday 25 March

“In this sad condition she continued until Tuesday.” There is a temporary respite of the symptoms: “While the said Ayres was there, the child seemed indifferent well and fell asleep.”


IV. Wednesday 26 March

“The said Ayres departing, the child was more quiet till midnight. Then she broke out fresh, as before, against Goody Ayres. […] In this plight she continued until Wednesday night and then died. At last spake was, Goody Ayres chokes me. Then she was speechlessness.”


V. The inquest, 28 March?

“Wee whose names are under written, were called forth and desired to take notes, of the dead child of John Kelly, doe hereby testifie, what wee saw as followeth: the child was brought forth and layd upon aforme, by the good wife Aeres and good wife waples, and the face of it beinge uncovered good wife Aeires was desired, by John Kelly to come up to it and to handle it; the child havinge purged alittle at the mouth the goodwife Aeires wiped the corner of the childs mouth with acloth, and then shee was desired to turne up the sleeve of the arme and shee did indeavour to doe it, but the sleeve beinge some what straight, shee could not well doe it. then John Kelly himselfe ripped up both the sleeves of the armes {text crossed out} and upon the back side of both the armes, from the elbow to the top of the shoulders were black and blew, as if they had bin bruised or beaten, after this the child was turned over upon the right side and set upon the belly, and then there came such a sent from the corps, as that it caused some to depart the roome, as Gregorie wolterton, and George Grave, then the child being turned again, and layd into the coffin John Kelly desired them to come into the roome againe, to see the childs face, and then wee saw upon the right cheeke, of the childs face, a reddish tawny great spott, which covered agreat parte of the cheeke, it beinge on the side next to goodwife Aeires where shee stoode, this spot or bloach was not seene before the child was turned and the armes of the child did apeare to be vere limber, in the handlinge of them; Thomas Catling Gregory wolerton {illegible} Thomas Bull Joseph Marsh Nath willet George Grave” (Samuel Wyllys Papers, Case of Goody Ayers: Testimony of the Inquest Committee)


VI. The autopsy, 30 March?

Performed at the graveside by Dr. Bryan Rossiter, who presented his report on 31 March. This is the first recorded autopsy in Connecticut, and perhaps the second in New England, and it will be apparent that Rossiter had little experience with dissection, or even of cadavers at all. Here is his report in full:

“All these six particulars underwritten I judge preternatural: Upon the open of John Kelly’s child at the grave, I observed:

“1. The whole body; the musculous parts, nerves and joints were all pliable, without any stiffness or contraction, the gullet only excepted. Experience of dead bodies renders such symptoms unusual.

“2. From the costal ribs to the bottom of the belly, in the whole latitude of the womb, both the scarf skin {=epidermis} and the whole skin with the enveloping or covering flesh {=peritoneum} had a deep blue tincture, whereas the inward part thereof was fresh and the bowels under it in true order without any discoverable peccancy {=disease} to cause such an effect or symptom.

“3. No quantity or appearance of blood was in either venter {=lower abdomen} or cavity such as breast or belly but in the throat only at the very swallow {=glottis?} where there was as large a quantity at that part could well contain, both fresh and fluid and in no way congealed or clotted but as it comes from a vein opened, so that I could stroke it out with my finger like water.

“4. There was the appearance of pure, fresh blood in the backside of the arm, affecting the skin as blood itself without bruising or congealing.

“5. The bladder of gall was broken and curded without any tincture in adjacent parts.

“6. The gullet or swallow was contracted like a hard fish bone so that hardly a pea could be forced through.” (Tomlinson, op. cit.; the glosses are again mine.)


VII. The conclusion

The contemporary determination of cause of death was, of course, witchcraft. If we reject that diagnosis, what, with the information available, might we propose instead?

A case for leisurely literature

Immediately after finishing the Tale of Genji, I read Egil’s Saga. Both take place at roughly the same time (circa 1000 C.E.), and were composed not much later (about a century) and in similar forms (verses embedded in prose narrative); both feature large casts roaming about unfamiliar and long-vanished cultures and landscapes; both stories span multiple generations (in neither is anyone alive at the beginning still around by the end); and both are classics in their respective traditions — still read today after the lapse of a millennium.

Why then did reading Egil, of fewer than 200 pages, seem like so much more work than reading Genji, weighing in at 1120 pages in the Royall Tyler translation?

(Please don’t misunderstood: I strongly recommend both. But reading Egil did seem so effortful.)

I think it might be partly a limitation of the capacity to process narrative. Egil is so compressed it is terse. Decades fall by in sentences, and although there are also more extended sequences, such as the expedition to the north or the court case at the end, the overall impression is of a headlong rush into oblivion. And it is such a strange world! The men are, as a rule, at the same time childish and murderous, prone to bursting into a frenzied rage for no particular reason. And the women — well! The women! And everyone is thoroughly drunk much of the time.

On the other hand, Genji is capacious, it enfolds everything, it takes its time, years slip languorously by like moving from one stage to the next of a casual love affair, perhaps even one never to be consummated. Fifty pages might be devoted to a boating party, then a hundred to how to deal with a willful princess. Nothing ever happens, really, yet it is never dull. And it is such a strange world! Manliness is best expressed by the tendency to burst into tears for no particular reason. The women blacken their teeth and shave their eyebrows, only to paint them on again in green — not that anyone can even see the women most of time (not even each other), so dim and hemmed about with barriers are the spaces they inhabit. And everyone is quite drunk a significant fraction of the time.

What do they have in common? Eruptions of the supernatural, snatches of poetry, intrigue (romantic or political), the melancholy of exile and of frustrated love.

And how do they differ? O worlds unknown and apart! No overlap at all, truly —

Viking Iceland.

Heian Japan.

Sometimes a book is like a desk drawer crammed so full of index cards that it won’t shut, all of them covered all over with tiny, precise handwriting. This is Egil.

Sometimes a book is like a house, a large one, where one might spend the mornings sipping milky coffee on the terrace, in a chair under the leaf-shattered sunlight; the afternoons in the library, shadowy and cool, remote from the doings of the rest of the household; the evenings, after dinner, aloof in a corner of the drawing room, someone at the piano over there plinking away at something resembling Chopin, at one’s elbow a goblet, discreetly renewed, of excellent claret; and at night, in the cool moonlight falling through the windowpanes, in bed, crisp linen sheets pulled up to the chin, one arm thrust out, asleep, athwart, enwrapped in dreams that one has no need to recall. This is Genji.

Is one better than the other? No. Of course not. But one is more leisurely than the other. And in leisure there is pleasure.

Rhetorical questions and rhetorical answers

History is only a catalog of the forgotten.
(Henry Adams)

I’m still a slow learner. But let’s talk about witches.

James Wakelee’s first appearance in the documentary record is 18 February 1640/41 O.S., when he is noted as owning four acres of land at Hartford, Connecticut (1) [Love, p. 127]. The last record, a court order of May 1691, part of his long struggle to free his assets from legal difficulties, mentions, off-hand, that he has died [Hoadly, p. 35].

Everyone knows about the witch craze of 1692–93 in and around Salem, Massachusetts, but few remember the earlier prosecutions. Towards the end of 1662, in Wethersfield, Connecticut, James was indicted for a capital crime; recognizing his peril, he abandoned his family and property and fled to Rhode Island [Adams, pp. 260-261]. That indictment has not survived, but a deposition from the later trial of Katherine Harrison for witchcraft mentions him:

Thomas Bracy aged about 31 years testifieth as follows that formerly James Wakeley would haue borrowed a saddle of the saide Thomas Bracy, which Thomas Bracy denyed to lend to him, he threatened Thomas and saide, it had bene better he had lent it to him. Allsoe Thomas Bracy beinge at worke the same day making a jacket & a paire of breeches, he labored to his best understanding to set on the sleeues aright on the jacket and seauen tymes he placed the sleues wronge,… and soe was forced to leaue workinge that daie.

. . . . .

After that Thomas Bracy aforesaide, being well in his sences & health and perfectly awake, his brothers in bed with him, Thomas aforesaid saw the saide James Wakely and the saide Katherin Harrison stand by his bed side, consultinge to kill him the said Thomas, James Wakely said he would cut his throate, but Katherin counselled to strangle him, presently the said Katherin seised on Thomas striuinge to strangle him, and pulled or pinched him so as if his flesh had been pulled from his bones, theirefore Thomas groaned. [Taylor, pp. 49-50]

This deposition, sworn before magistrates, must, in some sense, be true; Thomas Bracy was not lying. (2)

Now, such historical events as these, however minor (or, rather, historical texts, since what we can receive of the past is almost entirely textual) — such events might seem to bear their sense plain on their surfaces. But that’s not true, I think. Most of us nowadays would say: This man quarreled with me so that I could not concentrate on my work. But this 17th-century tailor said: He bewitched me! And we might say: I had a bad dream and my neighbor was in it. And yet these people said: He’s a witch! (3)


Of course, there can be no other subject than what we might call the real world, simply because there is no other subject. What then (for example (4)) is science fiction about? The real world. What is fantasy about? The real world. And witchcraft? Again, the real world. But the means that they have, science fiction or fantasy or witchcraft, (5) of going about being about the real world differ — and are as different from each other as from any other rhetorical mode.

A rhetoric is only the tekhnē (6) of discovering and framing a discourse: a method for abstracting from the real world our experience of it, or a means of expressing that experience. Witchcraft has its own distinctive rhetoric, basically a Manichean one, with virtue and evil contending in opposition for men’s (for these deponents were mostly men) souls. This James Wakelee, accused but escaped witch, was possibly one of my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfathers [Jacobus, p. 627].

Witchcraft is not merely rhetorical.

Nor is fantasy.

Nor science fiction.

Our own words pull our attention out of ourselves, away from what we know, or wish to know, for a while — a little while — to an imaginary world very like our own world (insofar as that world is not itself imaginary), only not, you know, not quite

Not quite the same.


1. He appears on the third list of the “Names of Such Inhabitance as were Granted lotts to haue onely at The Townes Courtesie wth liberty to fetch wood & keepe Swine or Cowes By proportion on the Common,” [Love, p. 125] probably as a result of efforts to attract useful trades to the settlement. James is recorded somewhere — I do not have the reference at hand — as having been a weaver.

2. That is to say, Thomas clearly harbors some animosity towards James, but he is not perjuring himself here. At this point, James has been living in Rhode Island for about seven years, interrupted by a year’s return to Wethersfield which ended with James again fleeing an indictment or the threat of one.

3. There’s more to it than that, of course. But the so-called witches of modern horror stories and movies have nothing, nothing whatsoever, to do with it, nor do the antics of those who call themselves witches nowadays. The standardized indictment for witchcraft sums it all up succinctly: “Joane Carrington thou art Indited by the name of Joane Carrington the wif of John Carrington that not hauing the feare of God before thine eyes thou hast Interteined familliarity with Sathan the great Enemy of God and mankinde and by his helpe hast done workes aboue the Course of Nature for wch both according to the Lawes of God, and the Established Lawe of the Common wea thou deseruest to dye” [Adams, p. 93].

4. Genre is a marketing category: where to send the ad dollars, which shelf to plunk the product on. At my local library, books one and three of Paul Park’s Roumania sequence were shelved in the science fiction section, two and four in adult fiction. When I pointed this out, the librarian asked where I thought they should go; I told her it hardly mattered, genre is arbitrary, but keep them together; and she gave me one of those why-do-I-always-have-to-deal-with-the-lunatics looks.

5. It’s probably important to point out here that this is not a question of definitions. The question is how, exactly, words trick us into believing, or temporarily consenting to believe, things that we know are not true, cannot be true, can never be true. There’s more than one way to pull off this trick. The various tricks, or sets of tricks, I am calling a rhetoric. Thus the rhetoric of fantasy is not the same as the rhetoric of science fiction, however we might choose to define those categories.

6. Greek τεχνη = art, skill, craft, trade, science; artifice, cunning, trick; work of art. That’s a good phrase to end this little essay with: science fiction stories are works of art.


Adams, Arthur, editor. Records of the particular court of Connecticut 1639-1663 (Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society Volume XXII). Hartford: Connecticut Historical Society, 1928.

Hoadly, Charles J., editor. The public records of the colony of Connecticut, from August, 1689, to May, 1706. Hartford: Case, Lockwood and Brainard, 1868.

Jacobus, Donald Lines. History and genealogy of the families of Old Fairfield. Volume 1. Fairfield (Conn.): The Eunice Dennie Burr Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution, 1930.

Love, William DeLoss. The colonial history of Hartford gathered from the original records. Hartford: Privately printed, 1914.

Taylor, John M. The witchcraft delusion of colonial Connecticut 1647–1697. New York: The Grafton Press, 1908.

Soundtrack I

Earphones are wonderful things, muffling the here-and-now of the acoustical world, and replacing it with some new distraction of one’s free choice. I don’t always work with earphones clamped to my head, but when I do, I need the new noise to be wordless, or in some language I can’t understand. Chamber music is best.

Some recent winners of the repeat-button endorsement (this list is alphabetical to avoid the appearance of a ranking):