Philip Roth (RIP) Creates a List of the 15 Books That Influenced Him Most

Image by Thierry Ehrmann, via Flickr Commons

We stand at a pivotal time in history, and not only when it comes to presidential politics and other tragedies. The boomer artists and writers who loomed over the last several decades—whose influence, teaching, or patronage determined the careers of hundreds of successors—are passing away. It seems that not a week goes by that we don’t mourn the loss of one or another towering figure in the arts and letters. And along with the eulogies and tributes come critical reappraisals of often straight white men whose sexual and racial politics can seem seriously problematic through a 21st century lens.

Surely such pieces are even now being written after the death of Philip Roth yesterday, novelist of, among many other themes, the unbridled straight male Id. From 1969’s sex-obsessed Alexander Portnoy—who masturbates with raw liver and screams at his therapist “LET’S PUT THE ID BACK IN YID!”—to 1995’s aging, sex-obsessed puppeteer Mickey Sabbath, who masturbates over his own wife’s grave, with several obsessive men like David Kepesh (who turns into a breast) in-between, Roth created memorably shocking, frustrated Jewish male characters whose sexuality might generously be described as selfish.

In a New York Times interview at the beginning of this year, Roth, who retired from writing in 2012, addressed the question of these “recurrent themes” in the era of Trump and #MeToo. “I haven’t shunned the hard facts in these fictions of why and how and when tumescent men do what they do, even when these have not been in harmony with the portrayal that a masculine public-relations campaign — if there were such a thing — might prefer.... Consequently, none of the more extreme conduct I have been reading about in the newspapers lately has astonished me.”

The psychological truths Roth tells about fitfully neurotic male egos don't flatter most men, as he points out, but maybe his depictions of obsessive male desire offer a sobering perspective as we struggle to confront its even uglier and more violent, boundary-defying irruptions in the real world. That said, many a writer after Roth handled the subject with far less humor and comic awareness of its bathos. From where did Roth himself draw his sense of the tragically absurd, his literary interest in extremes of human longing and its often-destructive expression?

He offered one collection of influences in 2016, when he pledged to donate his personal library of over 3,500 volumes to the Newark Public Library (“my other home”) upon his death. Along with that announcement, Roth issued a list of “fifteen works of fiction,” writes Talya Zax at Forward, “he considers most significant to his life.” Next to each title, he lists the age at which he first read the book.

“It’s worth noting,” Zax points out, “that Roth, who frequently fields accusations of misogyny, included only one female author on the list: Colette.” Make of that what you will. We might note other blind spots as well, but so it is. Should we read Philip Roth? Of course we should read Philip Roth, for his keen insights into varieties of American masculinity, Jewish identity, aging, American hubris, literary creativity, Wikipedia, and so much more besides, spanning over fifty years. Start at the beginning with two of his fist published stories from the late 50s, "Epstein" and "The Conversion of the Jews," and work your way up to the 21st century.

via The Forward

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch The Hedy Lamarr Story, a New Documentary on the 1940s Film Star & Inventor of Wi-Fi Technology (Streaming Free for a Limited Time)

We told you last year about Hedy Lamarr, the 1940s film star who also helped invent the technology behind wi-fi and bluetooth during World War II. Now, she's the subject of a new documentary from PBS's American Masters series. Directed by Alexandra Dean, and streaming free online for a limited time, BombshellThe Hedy Lamarr Story, "explores how Lamarr’s true legacy is that of a technological trailblazer" and features, among other things, "four never-before-heard audio tapes of Lamarr speaking on the record about her incredible life, finally giving her the chance to tell her own story." The winner of several film festival awards, The Hedy Lamarr Story premiered across the US on May 18th. Stream it online above or also here.

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The Art of Europe’s Forgotten Avant-Garde Artists Now Digitized and Put Online

Economically depleted but filled with the desire to pose questions about the future in radically new ways, postwar Europe would prove fertile ground for the development of avant-garde art. Though that environment produced a fair few stars over the second half of the twentieth century, their work represents only the tip of the iceberg: bringing the rest out of the depths and onto the internet has constituted the last few years' work for Forgotten Heritage. A collaboration between institutions in Poland, Belgium, Croatia, Estonia, and Germany supported by Creative Europe, the project offers a database of European avant-garde art — including many works still daring, surprising, or just plain bizarre — never properly preserved and made available until now.

Forgotten Heritage's About page describes the project's goal as the creation of "an innovative online repository featuring digitised archives of Polish, Croatian, Estonian, Belgian and French artists of the avant-garde movement occurring in the second half of the 20th century," meant to eventually contain "approximately 8 thousand of sorted and classified archive entries, including descriptive data."

Currently, writes Hyperallergic's Claire Voon, its site "offers visitors around 800 records to explore, from documentation of artworks to texts.  The majority of works stem from to the ’60s and ’70s, as a timeline illustrates, with the most recent piece dating to 2005. This interactive feature, which has embedded links to individual artists’s biographies and examples of their artworks, is one way to explore the well-designed archive."

Forgotten Heritage thus makes it easy to discover artists previously difficult for even the avant-garde enthusiast to encounter. Visitors can also browse the growing archive by the medium of the work: painting (like Jüri Arrak's Artist, 1972, seen at the top of the post), installation (Wojciech Bruszewski's Visuality, 1980), film (Anna Kutera's The Shortest Film in the World, 1975), "photo with intervention" (Edita Schubert's Phony Smile, 1997), Olav Moran's "Konktal" and many more besides.

Voon cites Marika Kuźmicz's estimate that about 40 percent of it, mostly from Belgian and Estonian artists, has never before been available online. Debates about whether an avant-garde still exists, in Europe or anywhere else, will surely continue among observers of art, but as a visit to Forgotten Heritage's digital archives reveals, the avant-garde of decades past, when rediscovered, retains no small amount of artistic vitality today.

via Hyperallergic

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Robert Rauschenberg’s 34 Illustrations of Dante’s Inferno (1958-60)

Perhaps more than any other postwar avant-garde American artist, Robert Rauschenberg matched, and maybe exceeded, Marcel Duchamp’s puckish irreverence. He once bought a Willem de Kooning drawing just to erase it and once sent a telegram declaring that it was a portrait of gallerist Iris Clert, “if I say so.” Rauschenberg also excelled at turning trash into treasure, repurposing the detritus of modern life in works of art both playful and serious, continuing to “address major themes of worldwide concern,” wrote art historian John Richardson in a 1997 Vanity Fair profile, “by utilizing technology in ever more imaginative and inventive ways…. Rauschenberg is a painter of history—the history of now rather than then.”

What, then, possessed this artist of the “history of now” to take on a series of drawings between 1958 and 1960 illustrating each Canto of Dante’s Inferno? “Perhaps he sensed a kindred spirit in Dante,” writes Gregory Gilbert at The Art Newspaper, “that encouraged his vernacular interpretations of the classical text and his radical mixing of high and low cultures.”

Critic Charles Darwent reads Rauschenberg’s motivations through a Freudian lens, his Inferno series a sublimation of his homosexuality and repressive childhood: “The young Rauschenberg… came to see Modernist art as a variant of his Texan parents’ fundamental Christianity.”

The most straightforward account has Rauschenberg conceiving the project in order to be taken more seriously as an artist. Such biographical explanations tell us something about the work, but we learn as much or more from looking at the work itself, which happens to be very much a history of now at the end of the 1950s. Though Rauschenberg based the illustrations on John Ciardi’s 1954 translation of the Divine Comedy, they were not meant to accompany the text but to stand on their own, the Italian epic—or its famous first third—providing a backdrop of ready-made ironic commentary on images Rauschenberg ripped from newspapers and magazines such as Life and Sports Illustrated.

“To create these collages,” explains MIT’s List Visual Arts Center, “he would use a solvent to adhere the images to his drawing surface, then overlay them with a variety of media, including pen, gouache (an opaque watercolor), and pencil.” Steeped in a Cold War atmosphere, the illustrations incorporate figures like John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, who, in the 50s, Gilbert writes, “served as one of Joseph McCarthy’s political henchmen during the Red Scare.” We see in Rauschenberg’s collage drawings allusions to the Civil Rights movement and the decade’s anti-Communist paranoia as well its reactionary sexual politics. “Political and sexual content… needed to be coded,” Gilbert claims, in such an “ultraconservative era.”

For example, we see a likely reference to the artist’s gay identity in the Canto XIV illustration, above. The text “describes the punishment of the Sodomites, who are condemned for eternity to walk across burning sand. Rauschenberg depicts the theme through a homoerotic image of a male nude… juxtaposed with a red tracing of the artist’s own foot.” Maybe Darwent is right to suppose that had Dante’s poem not existed, Rauschenberg “would have been the man to invent it”—or to invent its mid-20th century visual equivalent. He draws attention to the poem’s autobiographical center, its subversive humor, and its density of references to contemporary 15th century Italian politics, adapting all of these qualities for modernity.

But the illustration of Canto XIV—depicting “The Violent Against God, Nature, and Art”—also encodes Rauschenberg’s violent trampling of artistic convention. Many critics see this series as the artist’s reaction against Abstract Expressionism (like that of De Kooning). And while he “may have felt a creative kinship with Dante,” writes Gilbert, “he also admitted to the art critic Calvin Tomkins his impatience with the poet’s self-righteous morality, a statement likely directed against this Canto.” Like his 1953 Erased de Kooning Drawing, Rauschenberg’s Inferno drawings also perform an act of erasure—or the creation of a palimpsest, with Dante’s poem scratched over by the artist’s wild, childlike strokes.

In recognition of the way these illustrations repurpose, rather than accompany, the Inferno, MoMA recently commissioned an edition of Rauschenberg’s 34 drawings, accompanied not by the straight translation by Ciardi but poems by Kevin Young and Robin Coste Lewis, whose portion of the book is titled “Dante Comes to America: 20 January 17: An Erasure of 17 Cantos from Ciardi’s Inferno, after Robert Rauschenberg.” Rather than viewing the illustrations against Dante’s work itself, we can read their particular American proto-pop art character against literary “erasures" like Lewis’s “Canto XXIII,” below. See the full series of Rauschenberg’s 34 illustrations at the Rauschenberg Foundation website here.

Canto XXIII.
by Robin Coste Lewis

                "I Go with The Body That Was Always Mine"

Silent, one following the other,
the Fable hunted us down.
O weary mantle of eternity,
turn left, reach us down
into that narrow way in silence.

College of Sorry Hypocrites, I go
with the body that was always mine,
burnished like counterweights to keep
the peace. One may still see the sort of peace

we kept. Marvel for a while over that:
the cross in Hell's eternal exile.
Somewhere there is some gap in the wall,
pit through which we may climb

to the next brink without the need
of summoning the Black Angels
and forcing them to raise us from this sink.
Nearer than hope, there is a bridge

that runs from the great circle, that crosses
every ditch from ridge to ridge.
Except—it is broken—but with care.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

View and Download Nearly 60,000 Maps from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)

By reasons of parenting, I’ve become well acquainted with a song—perhaps you know it?— called “Fifty Nifty United States,” taught to schoolchildren as a geographical mnemonic device. The lyrics mention that “each individual state contributes a quality that is great.” What are some great qualities of, say, Delaware, New Mexico, or South Dakota? We aren’t told. Hey, it’s enough that a five or six-year-old can remember “shout ‘em, scout ‘em, tell all about ‘em” before rattling off an alphabetical list of “ev’ry state in the good old U.S.A.”

But if you hail from the U.S., you can enumerate many contributions from a few nifty states, whether culinary delights, historical events, writers, artists, sports heroes, etc. And most everyone’s got stories about visiting natural wonders, hiking mountain trails, fording rivers, gazing upon breathtaking vistas.

We may be occasional tourists, travel enthusiasts, or experts, but whatever our level of experience in the country, it’s probably kid stuff compared to the work of the scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Established by Congress in 1879, this august body has documented U.S. lands and waters for 125 years, gathering an incredible amount of detailed information as “the nation’s largest water, earth, and biological science and civilian mapping agency.” Thanks to the Libre Map Project, the general public can view and download nearly 60,000 of those topographical maps, from all fifty states, and nearly every region within each of those states. See Colorado’s Pike National Forest and surrounding environs, at the top, for example, created from aerial photographs taken in 1950. Above, see a map of San Francisco, compiled in 1956, then revised in 1993 and further edited in 1996.

And just above, the devastating Kīlauea Volcano, in a map compiled from aerial photos taken in 1954 and 1961. (See the USGS site for the latest info about the ongoing eruption there.) Below, a nifty map of New York City, created “by photogrammetric methods from aerial photographs taken [in] 1954 and planetable surveys [in] 1955. Revised from aerial photographs taken [in] 1966.” Google maps may be more current, but these USGS maps have an aura of scientific authority around them, evidence of painstaking surveys, checked and rechecked over the decades by hundreds of pairs of hands and eyes.

Browsing the archive can be a challenge, since the maps are catalogued by coordinates rather than place names, but you can enter the names of specific locations in the search field. Also, be advised, the maps “are best used with global positioning software,” the archive tells visitors. Nonetheless, you can click on the first download option for “Multi Page Processed TIFF” to pull up a huge, downloadable image. Enter the archive here and get to scouting.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Bill Gates Names 5 Books You Should Read This Summer

It's something of a tradition. Every summer, philanthropist/Microsoft founder Bill Gates recommends five books to read during the slow summer months. This year's list, he tells us, wrestles with some big questions: "What makes a genius tick? Why do bad things happen to good people? Where does humanity come from, and where are we headed?"

And now, without no further ado, here's Bill's list for 2018. The text below is his, not mine:

Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson. I think Leonardo was one of the most fascinating people ever. Although today he’s best known as a painter, Leonardo had an absurdly wide range of interests, from human anatomy to the theater. Isaacson does the best job I’ve seen of pulling together the different strands of Leonardo’s life and explaining what made him so exceptional. A worthy follow-up to Isaacson’s great biographies of Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. [Read his blog post on the book here.]

Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, by Kate Bowler. When Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School, is diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer, she sets out to understand why it happened. Is it a test of her character? The result is a heartbreaking, surprisingly funny memoir about faith and coming to grips with your own mortality. [Read his blog post on the book here.]

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. I thought I knew everything I needed to know about Abraham Lincoln, but this novel made me rethink parts of his life. It blends historical facts from the Civil War with fantastical elements—it’s basically a long conversation among 166 ghosts, including Lincoln’s deceased son. I got new insight into the way Lincoln must have been crushed by the weight of both grief and responsibility. This is one of those fascinating, ambiguous books you’ll want to discuss with a friend when you’re done. [Read his blog post on this book here.]

Origin Story: A Big History of Everything, by David Christian. David created my favorite course of all time, Big History. It tells the story of the universe from the big bang to today’s complex societies, weaving together insights and evidence from various disciplines into a single narrative. If you haven’t taken Big History yet, Origin Story is a great introduction. If you have, it’s a great refresher. Either way, the book will leave you with a greater appreciation of humanity’s place in the universe. [Read his blog post on this book here.]

Factfulness, by Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund. I’ve been recommending this book since the day it came out. Hans, the brilliant global-health lecturer who died last year, gives you a breakthrough way of understanding basic truths about the world—how life is getting better, and where the world still needs to improve. And he weaves in unforgettable anecdotes from his life. It’s a fitting final word from a brilliant man, and one of the best books I’ve ever read. [Read his blog post on this book here.]

You can find Gate's reading lists from previous summers in the Relateds below.

via Gates Notes

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Discover David Lynch’s Bizarre & Minimalist Comic Strip, The Angriest Dog in the World (1983-1992)

Most David Lynch fans discover him through his films. But those of us who read alternative weekly newspapers in their 1980s and 90s heyday may well have first encountered his work in another medium entirely: the comic strip. Like many of the best-known examples of the form, Lynch's comic strip stars an animal, specifically a dog, but a dog "so angry he cannot move. He cannot eat. He cannot sleep. He can just barely growl. Bound so tightly with tension and anger, he approaches the state of rigor mortis." That text, which prepared readers for a reading experience some way from Marmaduke, introduced each and every edition of The Angriest Dog in the World, which ran between 1983 and 1992.

During that entire time, the strip's artwork never changed either: four panels in which the titular dog strains against a rope staked down in a suburban backyard, in the last of which night has fallen. The sole variation came in the word bubbles that occasionally emerged from the window of the house, presumably representing the voice of the dog's owners.

You can see a few examples at Lynchnet and also on this blog. "If everything is real... then nothing is real as well," it says one week. On another: "It must be clear to even the non-mathematician that the things in this world just don't add up to beans." Or, in a nod to the region of The Angriest Dog in the World's home paper the LA Reader: "Bill... who is this San Andreas? I can't believe it's all his fault."

"At some point David Lynch called up the editor at the time, James Vowell, and said, ‘Hi, I'd like to do a comic strip for you,’" says former Reader editor Richard Gehr as quoted by John F. Kelly at Spooky Comics. Every week thereafter, Lynch would phone the Reader to dictate the text of the latest strip. "We would give it to somebody in the production department and they would White Out the panels from the week before and write in a new, quote/unquote… gag.” The clip from The Incredibly Strange Film Show's 1990 episode on Lynch above shows the evolution of the process: someone, one of Lynch's assistants or perhaps Lynch himself, would regularly slip under the Reader's office door an envelope containing word balloons written and ready to paste into the strip. (Dangerous Minds finds an interview where Vowell describes another production method altogether, involving wax paper.)

Lynch came up with the words, but what about the images? "I assume he drew the first iteration," says Gehr as quoted by Kelly. "I don’t even know if the second and third [panels] were hand drawn. Those could have been mimeographed too or something." The style does bear a resemblance to that of the town map Lynch drew to pitch Twin Peaks to ABC. The attentive fan can also find a host of other connections between The Angriest Dog in the World and Lynch's other work. That factory in the background, for instance, looks like a place he'd photograph, or even a setting of Eraserhead, during whose frustrating years-long shoot he came up with the strip's concept in the first place. "I had tremendous anger," says Lynch in David Breskin's book Inner Views. "And I think when I began meditating, one of the first things that left was a great chunk of that." If only the Angriest Dog in the World could have found it in himself to do the same.

via Dangerous Minds

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Ups & Downs of Ancient Rome’s Economy–All 1,900 Years of It–Get Documented by Pollution Traces Found in Greenland’s Ice

When we see stories pop up involving scientific findings in glacier ice, we might brace for unpleasant environmental news about the future. But a paper published just recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences instead reveals fascinating findings about the distant past—the history of ancient Rome between 1100 B.C.E. to 800 C.E. Historians know this 1,900-year period through archaeological and literary evidence. Now climate scientists have provided a treasury of new data to help substantiate or revise scholarly understandings of Rome’s economic rises and falls, by measuring the stratifications of lead pollution in a roughly 400-meter ice core from Greenland.

Why lead? “It’s a proxy for coin production,” says Seth Bernard, professor of ancient history at the University of Toronto. Roman currency, the denarius, was made from silver, mined primarily on the Iberian Peninsula. “But these mines didn’t excavate pure silver,” notes Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic. “Instead, they unearthed an ore of silver, lead, and copper that had to be smelted into silver. This process filled the air with lead pollution,” which eventually made its way on air currents to Greenland, where “storms deposited lead-tainted snow or sleet over the Arctic island.” New layers formed upon the old, each one preserved for posterity.

In the mid-1990s, scientists began drilling Greenland’s ice sheet in the North Greenland Ice core Project (NGRIP). At the time, a team attempted a similar analysis on the lead levels and their correspondence to ancient coinage, “which used a similar but rudimentary technique,” Meyer writes. But this study only drew from 18 data points. By contrast, the new research “made 25,000 different measurements of the ice core.” Improved technology has refined the measurement process, allowing researchers to detect “the presence of 35 different elements and chemicals at once,” and to tie their observations to specific years, or fairly close to it, anyway. The chart above shows the fluctuations in lead emissions over the almost 2000-year span.

One of the study’s authors, Joseph McConnell, estimates the margin of error as within one or two years. “That’s pretty good,” he says, “a lot better than what archaeologists are used to, I can tell you that.” This allows the team of climate scientists, archaeologists, and historians to match their observations about lead levels to known historical events. As The New York Times reports, “lead emissions rose in periods of peace and prosperity, such as the Pax Romana, which ran from 27 BC to 180 A.D. and dropped during the civil wars that preceded the Pax and the rise of the emperor Augustus. There were also dramatic drops that coincided with the Antonine plague of 165-180 A.D., thought to have been small pox, and the Cyprian plague, cause uncertain, of 250-270 A.D.”

The data, notes The Economist, “provide a new window onto the workings of the ancient economy…. Not all of the lead trapped in the glacier comes from silver minding, but much of it does,” and scientists can make informed guesses about just how much. Many unanswered questions remain. “What we’d love to have is a document that says Rome had a state monetary policy,” says Bernard. The empire's specific economic policies are largely a mystery, but the ice core samples provide a wealth of new evidence for the increase and decrease in currency production, and ever-more refined technologies will allow for even more data to emerge from the pollutants trapped in glacial ice in the near future.

via The Atlantic

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

It’s the End of the World as We Know It: The Apocalypse Gets Visualized in an Inventive Map from 1486

When will the world end?

We can find serious scientific answers to this question, depending on what we mean by “world” and “end.” If civilization as we currently know it, climate scientists’ worst-case scenario points toward somewhere around 2100 as the beginning of the end. (New York magazine points out that it “probably won’t kill all of us”). It’s possible, but not inevitable.

If we mean the end of all life on earth, the forecast looks quite a bit rosier: we’ve probably got about a billion years, writes astrophysicist Jillian Scudder, before the sun becomes “hot enough to boil our oceans.” Still not a cheerful thought, but perhaps many more creatures will take after the tardigrade by then. That’s not even to mention nuclear war or the epidemics, zombie and otherwise, that could take us out.

But of course, for a not inconsiderable number of people—including a few currently occupying key positions of power in the U.S.—the question of the world’s end has nothing to do with science at all but with eschatology, that branch of theological thought concerned with the Apocalypse.

Theological thinkers have written about the Apocalypse for hundreds of years, and the world's end was frequently perceived as just around the corner for many of the same reasons modern secular people feel apocalyptic dread: disease, natural disasters, wars, rumors of wars, imperial power struggles, uncomfortably shifting demographics….

Take 15th-century Europe, when “the Apocalypse weighed heavily on the minds of the people,” as Betsy Mason and Greg Miller write at the National Geographic blog All Over the Map: “Plagues were rampant. The once-great capital of the Roman empire, Constantinople, had fallen to the Turks. Surely, the end was nigh.”

While a niche publishing market in the nascent print era produced “dozens of printed works” describing the “coming reckoning in gory detail… one long-forgotten manuscript depicts the Apocalypse in a very different way—through maps.” As you can see here, these maps convey the unfolding of worse-to-worser scenarios in a number of visual registers: temporal, symbolic, geographic, thematic, etc.

At the top, the nested triangles depict the rise of the Antichrist between the years 1570 and 1600. The central concern for this author was the supposed global threat of Islam. Thus, the next map, its “T” shape a common Medieval world map device, shows the world before the Apocalypse, the text around it explaining that “Islam is on the rise from 639 to 1514.”

Then, we have a circular map with five swords pointing at the edges of the known world, illustrating the author’s contention that Islamic armies would reach the edges of the earth. The other maps depict the “four horns of the Antichrist,” above, Judgement Day, below, (the black eye at the bottom is the “black abyss that leads to hell”), and, further down, a diagram describing “the relative diameters of Earth and Hell."

Made in Lübeck, Germany sometime between 1486 and 1488, the manuscript is written in Latin, “but it’s not as scholarly as other contemporary manuscripts,” write Mason and Miller, “and the penmanship is fairly poor.” Historian of cartography Chet Van Duzer explains that “it’s aimed at the cultural elite, but not the pinnacle of the cultural elite.”

Pointing out the obvious, Van Duzer says, “there’s no way to escape it, this work is very anti-Islamic,” a widespread sentiment in medieval Europe, when the “clash of civilizations” narrative spread its roots deep in certain strains of Western thinking. This particular text also “includes a section on astrological medicine and a treatise on geography that’s remarkably ahead of its time.”

Van Duzer and Ilya Dines have studied the rare manuscript for its insightful passages on geography and cartography and published their research in a book titled Apocalyptic Cartography. For all its theological alarmism, the manuscript is surprisingly thoughtful when it comes to analyzing its own formal properties and perspectives.

Mason and Miller note that “the author outlines an essentially modern understanding of thematic maps as a means to illustrate characteristics of the people or political organization of different regions.” As Van Duzer puts it, “this is one of the most amazing passages, to have someone from the 15th century telling you their ideas about what maps can do.” This marks the work, he claims in the introduction to Apocalyptic Cartography, as that "of one of the most original cartographers of the period."

The Apocalypse Map now resides at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles.

via Nat Geo

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

 

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Oldest Writing System in the World: A Short, Charming Introduction

Teaching child visitors how to write their names using an unfamiliar or antique alphabet is a favorite activity of museum educators, but Dr. Irving Finkel, a cuneiform expert who specializes in ancient Mesopotamian medicine and magic, has grander designs.

His employer, the British Museum, has over 130,000 tablets spanning Mesopotamia’s Early Dynastic period to the Neo-Babylonian Empire “just waiting for young scholars to come devote themselves to (the) monkish work” of deciphering them.

Writing one’s name might well prove to be a gateway, and Dr. Finkel has a vested interest in lining up some new recruits.

The museum’s Department of the Middle East has an open access policy, with a study room where researchers can get up close and personal with a vast collection of cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia and surrounding regions.

But let’s not put the ox before the cart.

As the extremely personable Dr. Finkel shows Matt Gray and Tom Scott of Matt and Tom’s Park Bench, above, cuneiform consists of three components—upright, horizontal and diagonal—made by pressing the edge of a reed stylus, or popsicle stick if you prefer, into a clay tablet.

The mechanical process seems fairly easy to get the hang of, but mastering the oldest writing system in the world will take you around six years of dedicated study. Like Japan’s kanji alphabet, the oldest writing system in the world is syllabic. Properly written out, these syllables join up into a flowing calligraphy that your average, educated Babylonian would be able to read at a glance.

Even if you have no plans to rustle up a popsicle stick and some Play-Doh, it’s worth sticking with the video to the end to hear Dr. Finkel tell how a chance encounter with some naturally occurring cuneiform inspired him to write a horror novel, which is now available for purchase, following a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Begin your cuneiform studies with Irving Finkel’s Cuneiform: Ancient Scripts.

via Mental Floss

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her solo show Nurse!, in which one of Shakespeare’s best loved female characters hits the lecture circuit to set the record straight premieres in June at The Tank in New York City. Follow her @AyunHalliday.





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