Recent links of note:
Joshua Hammer, The New York Review of Books
As Julian Sancton explains in his new book, Madhouse at the End of the Earth: The Belgica’s Journey into the Dark Atlantic Night, polar expeditions attracted only the most fearless—and sometimes reckless—explorers. In 1897, a group of men set off to Antarctica on the Belgica, led by the aristocratic Belgian pacifist Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery. De Gomery was temperamentally unsuited to captain a crew of variably skilled Belgians, Norwegians, Poles, and Romanians, as well as an adventurous Brooklyn physician; after numerous setbacks, the Belgica approached the icy continent far behind schedule. Rather than face the embarrassment of turning back, de Gomery decided to stay the winter—it eventually dawned on the crew that de Gomery had marooned them on purpose. In his review for The New York Review of Books, Joshua Hammer describes how the men battled claustrophobia, scurvy, unrelenting darkness, and an ever-multiplying population of rats before eventually returning to civilization. While the Belgica has largely disappeared from public memory, in recent years NASA has studied the voyage to learn about the effects of prolonged confinement in preparation for a possible three-year trip to Mars.
“One French City”
Lydia Davis, London Review of Books
On the Rhône in southern France, near the Camargue wetland region famed for its wild horses, sits the ancient city of Arles. A warm retirement colony for the veterans of Caesar’s sixth legion, the city’s most striking landmark is its first-century Roman amphitheater, which held gladiatorial fights similar to those of its larger cousin, the Colosseum. (The locals’ enthusiasm for extreme entertainment persists in the form of bull fights: along with the Spanish corrida, visitors today can watch the less cruel course Camarguaise, the bloodless regional game in which a group of men compete to unhook a ribbon from a bull’s horn.) In the nineteenth century, Vincent van Gogh spent over a year in the city producing some of his most iconic works, such as Café Terrace at Night (1888), before his breakdown and self-internment at an asylum-monastery in nearby Saint-Rémy. This week, in the London Review of Books, we get to browse through a delightful selection of word sketches and historical snippets collected by Lydia Davis, who has written a forthcoming book on the city, Essays Two: On Proust, Translation, Foreign Languages, and the City of Arles.
The United Kingdom’s successful Portable Antiquities Scheme has at once incentivized treasure hunters and combatted looting. By law, metal detectorists must report finds that could be classed as treasure, for which they receive a hefty cash reward. The scheme has brought countless objects into the hands of experts for research and public display, unlike in other countries, such as France, where too much red tape around metal detecting and too few incentives mean that artifacts are turned in much less frequently. Recently, one lucky detectorist in Norfolk stumbled upon a sixth- or seventh-century jeweled sword pyramid, an item that likely helped a warrior’s sword and scabbard stay fastened to a leather waist-belt. This gorgeous example contains red garnets sealed with gold and can be compared to the many garnet-inlaid treasures found in the Sutton Hoo ship burial or in the Staffordshire Hoard, both dated to the seventh century. We can imagine a loyal retainer receiving the pyramid as a gift from his goldwine (literally “gold-friend,” one of the many kennings for a ruler in Old English poetry). The archaeologist Dr. Helen Geake, a Finds Liaison Officer, suggests somewhat fancifully that the object could have stopped a hot-tempered warrior from drawing his sword too quickly, “possibly acting as a check on an angry reaction.”
“Music for a While #49: Sparks.” Jay Nordlinger, The New Criterion’s music critic, talks music—but, more important, plays music.
“Storytime,” by Jay Nordlinger. Some tales about two composers and other musicians.