Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Imperial Vision of a Plant

TLS January 9 2009

from Sandra Knapp's review of John Hemming's Tree of Rivers: The story of the Amazon:

Undeterred [Alfred Russel] Wallace wrote a book about his travels, then immediately set off for South East Asia, from where he sent a famous latter to Darwin enclosing an essay entitled "On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type"--which goaded Darwin into completing his masterpiece On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection.

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Seeds of Hevea brasiliensis had earlier been planted with great success in Malaysia, and establishing a source of quinine was deemed equally important. Some might characterize this as stealing or, more hysterically, as "biopiracy", but plants of importance have always been taken by people wherever they go. Coffee, for example, now the mainstay of many Amazonian economies, was taken from Ethiopia--I suspect if you asked many people where coffee was native, they might say Brazil.


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from Gillian Beer's review of Jim Endersby's Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the practices of Victorian science:

His [Enderby's] splendid exploration of archives in New Zealand, the United States and Britain has yielded all sorts of fresh material. This includes the vivid presence of William Colenso, an unorthodox and lonely man with a rare appreciation of Maori language and culture--and something of a thorn in the side of Joseph Hooker. The long association, and the conflicts, between these two men allow Endersby to bring to life the stresses between metropolitan scientists and their distant informants. These were not social only, but concerned with professional recognition: Hooker took no notice of papers pubished in the colonies and refused to concede the particular worth of local knowledge. A system of barter prevailed in which presents of books and instruments from Hooker ensured the continued supply of specimens even while he sought to repress any attempt to name "new" varieties or species except according to his chosen nomenclature. Hooker included illustrations in his books that Endersby describes as "the imperial vision of the plant, defined in the metropolis and exported back to the colonies, to tell their inhabitants what 'their' plants really looked like".

This struggle, sometimes concealed in Hooker's letters beneath politesse, sometimes peremptory, had a larger intellectual frame as well. Since almost no plant specimens are identical, the search was for an ideal stable example, probably a composite description, rather than for the significance of slight deviations. That, of course, was the flaw that Darwin perceived in the "natural system". Such slight deviations were for him precisely the means of evolutionary change.


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from John Guy's review of Jonathan Bate's Soul of the Age: The life, mind and world of William Shaekspeare:

In a captivating section, Bate attempts to reconstruct Shakespeare's library. The thirty or forty books it contained include Golding's Ovid, Noth's Plutarch, Florio's Montaigne, Chaucer, Caxton's Trojan history, the chronicles of Ralph Holinshed and Edward Hall, and perhaps the Geneva Bible.

. . . Yet Bate underestimates the significance of claiming that Shakespeare owned one. The 1561 edition, with its marginal annotations, was certainly the most read Elizabethan Bible translation, but it was not the official one. Only a genuine Protestant--certainly no recusant, "church papist" or conservative in religion--would have chosen it. The dedicatory epistle, for example, would have outraged Queen Elizabeth, since it emasculated sacral monarchy and the Queen's role as "Supreme Governor" of the Church. Bate concedes that, elsewhere, the phrasing of Shakespeare's biblical allusions often resembles the officially sanctioned Bishops' Bible, thus weakening his own case for Shakespeare's ownership of the Geneva translation.


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from Patrick McCaughey's review of Andrea Riccio: Renaissance master of bronze, at the Frick Collection:

Riccio's "The Shouting Horseman" . . . is rightly regarded as his supreme masterpiece among the free-standing bronze figures and is emblematic of the Donatellesque. The strange radiance of this work, the electric charge which it exudes, springs from the rapid transition from the rough serrated surfaces of the horse's mane and the horseman's helmet, armour and contorted face to the smoothness of skin and body. The former absorb light; the latter radiate it. The effect is of horse and horseman caught in a blaze of sunlight.


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from Daniel Karlin's Commentary on Edward FitzGerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

We owe the Rubaiyat to one of FitzGerald's closest friendships, with a brilliant young scholar, Edward Cowell, later the first professor of Sanskrit at Cambridge. Cowell suggested the study of Persian to FitzGerald in the winter of 1852, and FitzaGerald too it up only because, as he told Frederick Tennyson, "it is a point in common with him, and enables us to study a little together". . . . But we also owe the poem to the loss of this friendship, because in August 1856 Cowell left England to take up a teaching post in Calcutta. His parting gift to FitzGerald was a copy of a manuscript he had recently come across in the Bodleian Library--a fifteenth century compilation of the rubaiyat attributed to Omar Khayyam. . . .

. . . The setting for FitzGerald's intensive study of Persian juxtaposes intimacy with distance, and desire with acceptance of loss. The first translation of Omar, the "Englishing" of his sceptical spirit, is imprinted, so to speak, with Cowell's absence.

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The poem accordinglt begins at dawn and ends at nightfall, and in the course of this symbolic day the speaker meditates on "Human Death and Date", mourns the transience of life, confronts his mortality with courage, with indignation and with gaiety, but without what he regards as the illusions and consolations of religious faith. Only the present moment has value; past and future are equally unreal. It is one of the poem's many fruitful paradozes that this proposition can only be understood from a perspective like the speaker's: one that takes in the whole cycle of time, historical, mythological, cosmic. A second such paradox expresses delight in drunkenness, and in sexual freedom, in terms that bring the pleasure of sensation close to that of oblivion, of self-unmaking.

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His attitude to translation is summed up in a phrase that has become the rallying cry of "free" translators against their literalist opponents: "Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle".


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from "Then and Now," Kathleen Nott's 1959 review of the first English translation of Karl Popper's Logik der Forschung:

Professor Popper deals, then, with the problem of induction very simply: he shows that it does not exist: and a principle of induction is therefore a logician's dream. Scientists do not behave as Bacon thought--industriously gathering "countless grapes ripe and in season" so that the wine of science may flow . . . . They work the other way round. They fling out hypotheses: and they test these, not prove them, by controlled and selective experiments. Science is the quest for truth, not the possession of it. It is also the challenge to refutation, it seeks not primarily the verification of its hypothesis but the kind of evidence which might falsify them . . . .


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