Saturday, September 13, 2014

New England Reflections 2014 (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part LI

When I began The Platypus Travels thread, I never thought that I would reach fifty-one posts.  The Platypus of Truth was originally conceived as a sort of daily journal share-able thoughts.  Around 2007-2008, it evolved into a literary blog with The Platypus Reads taking the lion's share of each year's posts.  The share-able thoughts and the book reviews have remained, but I'm pleased to see that The Platypus of Truth as grown over the past years to include poems, academic reflections, classic gaming reviews, and now travel blogging.  If one thread doesn't appeal to you, hopefully another will. From a small seed, this blog has grown into a vast tree and every branch and leaf is dear to me.

Today's post, then, is a short follow-up to this discussion of Victorian stained glass.  Specifically, I want to show you the companion piece on the west side of the church.  This window is in a more traditional style and features the Agnus Dei, or "Lamb of God".  The window is specifically dedicated in memory of the children that past away; whether in a specific epidemic in 1906 or over the course of several years is unclear from the dedication.  The Agnus Dei is a symbol of the Resurrection and thus fitting for a memorial window.  It may also be a reference to Blake's Little Lamb which had been converted into a popular children's hymn.  The daisies between the Lamb's feet are symbols of simplicity and are a typical emblem on memorials for dead children.  The Sunflowers in the field behind the Lamb are typically associated with the Roman Catholic faithful, an odd touch in an Episcopal church.  The lilies in the bottom panel are symbols of purity and resurrection.  The IHS can stand for the first three letters of Jesus' name in Greek or for the Latin "In Hoc Signo" (In This Sign [Conquor]).  The later is particularly fitting given that the Agnus Dei is an image of the victorious Christ from Revelation.  The oval that the central portrait sits in is a feature of byzantine icons and depicts a window into heaven.  The cross is a broadfooted cross with the triangular ends representing the Trinity(as do the clusters of three circles around the IHS and the fluer de lis around the Lamb).  The image of the Lamb creates a nimbus around the cross that gives it a Celtic flair.*  Since the sun was decidedly in the east when we visited the church, the window lacks the dazzling luminescence of its companion.  I can only imagine what it looks like in the light of the full afternoon sun.

*For help with interpreting the symbols on this window I am indebted to Douglas Keister's handy guide on funerary symbolism, Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Seven Heavens of Summer Reading 2014: The Platypus Reads Part CCLXXII

Summer is dead and gone good lady; Summer's dead and gone.  The sunny season has finally given way to her more temperate cousin and that means it's time to take stock of this year's Summer Reading.  As usual on this blog, that also means that I'm handing out awards for the seven best books I've read during the break.  The awards are themed around the attributes of the seven medieval heavens in honor of C.S. Lewis and Michael Ward.  So, without further ado, here are this year's winners.

Moon: The planet of madness goes to a book that nearly drove me mad: Night Train to Lisbon.  Pascal Mercier's story of a Swiss school teacher's mid-life crisis is the sort of book that reminds you of the emperor's new clothes.  It attempts to cow you with its own pretentiousness.  That's sad, because with another round or two of merciless edits, I think it could have been a good book.

Mercury:  This year's award for the planet of wordsmiths goes to one of the more helpful volumes on the writing process I've seen: Ray Rhamey's Flogging the Quill.  There was more practical advice for writing and editing in this thin little volume than in just about any other book I've read.

Venus:  The planet of love and the green earth goes to a book about a place near and dear to my heart, Jane de Forest Shelton's The Salt-box House.  It's the next best thing to living in the Shire.

Sun: The Heaven of scholars goes to the formidable father-son duo of John Ronald and Christopher Tolkien for wonderful treasure trove that is Beowulf and Sellic Spell.  While acknowledging that his thought is dated, I have always appreciated professor Tolkien's reflections on Beowulf and make frequent use of them in interpreting the work for students.  This new edition of Tolkien's translation with commentary is a joy to read and has me genuinely excited to teach the Anglo-Saxon poem again.

Mars:  The planet of contention goes to a book about some particularly contentious little creatures.  That book is Brain Froud's The Goblins of Labyrinth.  I have what amounts to an inordinate love of the movie and this whimsical little volume of production sketches did not disappoint.   

Jupiter:  I nearly missed this one and was saved by a chance trip to Barnes and Noble in search of a map of Southern New England.  The planet of kings goes to a story about a king who comes into his kingdom and finds no one at home: Hellboy in Hell: The Descent.  The real treat of this volume is that Mignola has returned to do the illustrations in the visionary style that set the series apart from the very first issue.

Saturn: The planet of catastrophes goes to book that deals with one of the great catastrophes of the 19th century, pulmonary tuberculosis.  That book is Food for the Dead, by Michael Bell.  Bell's book chronicles a folk medical practice that evolved on the fringes of New England for dealing with this dread disease.  Those who had died of the disease would be exhumed so that their hearts, lungs, and liver could be burnt and the smoke inhaled by their infected relatives.  I remember hearing about such a practice when I was growing up and it was good get the facts from an academic folklorist.  This is not a sensationalizing book, but it is a highly interesting one that treats its subject with rigor and respect.

So there you have it, another year of Summer Reading pleasure.  This was the first year in a while that I didn't do a "Summer of Shannara" reading campaign and I have to say that I enjoyed the freedom to roam without any specific goal in mind.Who knows what next year will bring, but I feel a sense of satisfaction as I draw the curtain over another summer here at The Platypus of Truth.

Monday, September 01, 2014

New England Reflections 2014 (Cont.): Platypus Travels Part L

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing‐masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

-Sailing to Byzantium, W.B. Yates

Having a Tiffany factory in town has its advantages.  There are two windows in the old Episcopal church that dominates one side of the green (the other, true to form, belongs to the Congregational church).  One of these windows (featured to the left) depicts Saint Paul, the saint after which the church is named.  We caught the image at the right time of day with the morning sun was streaming through the East windows.  It was a weekday, and the secretary was nice enough to lend us the key along with as much viewing time as we wanted provided that we lock up and return the key once we were done. Having had a good bit of time to view the window, then, let me share our observations.

My wife and I are still novices as students of stained glass and we noticed something in this particular window that we had never seen before,  The artisans, rather than painting in the folds of Saint Paul's garments textured the glass to simulate folded cloth. To provide deeper contrasts for the heavier folds, they used a darker shade of glass,  The trade-mark Tiffany mottling effect is still used in the non-textured portions of the window but it is more pronounced in the flat panels, particularly the edging of the Apostle's cloak, his gospel book, the ground, and the sky behind his head, where the technique is at its most subtle (see the first and the final picture).  The overall combination of textured, mottled,the technique is at its most subtle (see the first and the final picture).  The overall combination of textured, mottled, and painted glass is striking without imparting a sense of business -just the touch of genius I've come to expect from turn-of-the-century work.    

Thursday, August 21, 2014

New England Reflections 2014 (Cont.):The Platypus Travels Part XLIX

Who says you can't go home?

Connecticut is called "The Land of Steady Habits" both by those that inhabit it and by their neighbors.  Going back, even after sixteen or seventeen years doesn't mean that you're going to find much in the way of change.  There may be a few new houses and a few new faces, but things mostly stay in their place -the trees grow taller.  Not all change is bad, however, and it's always a delight to pop back in to a place you know and love and find that its beauty has been carefully tended and enriched.  Below, is one of my favorite places: the old library.  The town I grew up in once had a Tiffany glass factory and that factory provided a beautiful set of stained glass windows(ok, it's not actually stained glass, but a modern technique [rolled glass?] that Tiffany pioneered) for the town library.  These turn-of-the-century windows were damaged long ago and moved to the musty recesses of the attic so that I never saw them while I was growing up.  The library board recently partnered with an offshoot of the original Tiffany factory that remains in the town to refurbish two of the windows and install them in the reading room.

  The two figures represent Art and Literature.  There are two other panels(non-representational) still awaiting restoration as well as the original light fixtures (So much better than the present florescent monstrosities!).  Something else to look forward to...

Thursday, August 14, 2014

New England Reflections 2014 (Cont.): Platypus Travels Part XLVIII

Major Connecticut hero, minor video game character

Places can become ways of seeing things, but things can also become ways of seeing places.  I discussed this in regard to books in the previous post, but today I'd like to take a moment and extend the concept to video games.

Games can also be a way of seeing.  In fact, we should expect this since video and computer games are primarily a visual medium.  An abnormally frosty morning in North Houston can be transformed for a group of teenage boys just by playing the first notes of the Skyrim theme.  Eyes light up, slack faces crack into a smile, and immediately their imaginations begin to spin.  The chill frost and bleak landscape they were complaining about a minute ago is transformed into a wide world of adventure with a wilderness of dragons.  In my youth, games like Secret of Mana and The Legend of Zelda colored the way I saw my surroundings.  Exploring the woods, or canoeing, or archery were all different because they were the sorts of things the heroes and heroines of those games might do.  Playing A Link to the Past is enough to ensure that you never look at bushes or tree stumps the same way again.  On the other hand, until quite recently the abstract quality of video game art required a well-stocked visual imagination to give it life.  The blocks of color in the original Legend of Zelda or Super Mario Brothers that stood for trees and rivers and mountains had to be transfigured by the imagination of the player to be enjoyed (that process still occurs in contemporary games but improved graphics have made it less pronounced).  This means that based on the stock of images in each player's mind, the game as experienced by the individual player might be significantly different from that of another player.  For me as a Yankee, Link's world had a New England feel, even as the woods of Connecticut and Massachusetts will always have something a bit Hyrulean about them.  Real world and imagined world each influence and enrich each other.

Like Tennyson's Ulysses we are a part of the real and imagined places we have been.  They are our way of seeing the world and circumscribe our personal autonomy just as light circumscribes our sight.  Put another way: places are a part of what makes us who we are.  We usually think of place in terms of geographic location, but the artistic locations of books and video games can have a powerful impact on us as well, both in themselves and in the way they subtly shape our perceptions of the locations where we live and visit.  What are the places real and imagined that have shaped you?  In what ways do they cause you to see the world differently from others?  In what way might the geographic and artistic locations you have visited shape each other?     

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

New England Reflections 2014 (Cont.): Platypus Travels Part XLVII

A way of seeing

Places are a way of seeing.  They are a prism, or a lens, through which we view reality.  The places that we live in shape us just as we shape them.  As an illustration of this principle, I've posted pictures from the area where I grew up with the first quotes that came to mind when I sat down to review them.  That's not to say that they're exactly how I picture Minas Tirith, or Camelot, or Rivendell, but that my vision of each literary location takes its color from the basic images of my youth.  Now this can be seen the other way round as well.  Books have colored my sense of place.  There's an extra layer of meaning to all the towns and hamlets of rural new England because they are so "Shire-like".  The Colt Arms factory, even now that its been renovated, will always appear to me through the screen of Osgiliath.  All the Victorian Gothic follies and monuments will forever be hallowed for me by the image of the king.  Books and places.  Signs and symbols.

and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive at where we started and know the place for the first time. -T.S. Eliot

*Photo Credit: My wife: who has her own way of seeing.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

New England Reflections 2014 (Cont.): Platypus Travels Part XLVI

His house was perfect whether you liked food, or sleep, or work, or story-telling, or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.  Evil things did not come into that valley.  -J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit