Saturday, March 27, 2010

Suspended Animation

In Robert Montgomery Bird's 1836 novel Sheppard Lee, the title character (and narrator) discovers that he possesses an unusual ability: he is able to make his spirit leave his body and reanimate the body of another person who has recently died. In the third section of the novel, his current incarnation, a wealthy businessman, pulls a drowned young man from a river and wishes to be in the young man's place—he would rather be drowned than suffer the torments of gout and a shrewish wife.

Almost immediately, his wish is granted—although, at first, he thinks he might have ended up in hell. He smells whiskey and tobacco smoke, and perceives a group of "devils" gathered around to torture him:
One of them, and I took it for granted he was the chief devil, stood by me, pressing my ribs with a fist that felt marvellously heavy, while with the other he maintained a grasp upon my nose, to which ever and anon he gave a considerable tweak; while another, little less dreadful, stood at his side, armed with some singular weapon, shaped much like a common fire-bellows, the nozle of which he held at but a little distance from my own.
As he begins to revive in his new body, he overhears a conversation among the "devils":
"But," continued the same voice, "we'll never finish the job till we roll him over a barrel. He'll never show game till the water's out of him."
Another voice replies: "No rolling on barrels," it said, "nor hanging up by the heels"—(hanging up by the heels! thought I)—"it is against the rules of the Humane Society..."

In the early nineteenth century, the Humane Society referred not to an animal rescue organization, but to a society (in the words of the Philadelphia Humane Society, founded in 1780) "for the recovery of persons apparently drowned, and other cases of suspended animation."

The first humane society was founded in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in 1767, and local societies soon sprang up in London and in various communities in America. The societies published manuals for distribution that described the proper methods of resuscitating drowning victims, including the use of a hand bellows to force air into the lungs—and, strangely enough, to force tobacco smoke into the rectum. The stimulant qualities of tobacco were thought to promote resuscitation.

The state of the body of a drowning victim, apparently dead but capable of being resuscitated by the proper methods, was called "suspended animation." As one writer put it in 1807: "The body, during this temporary suspension of animation, resembles a clock: upon its pendulum being accidentally stopped, its works are not mutilated or shaken out of their proper places, but are competent to renew their functions the moment the former is touched by some friendly hand."

The medical literature in both Britain and America from the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth centuries is full of treatises on the causes of "suspended animation" and proper methods of resuscitation. In America, one of the earliest such treatises was David Hosack's An Enquiry into the Cause of Suspended Animation from Drowning; with the Means of Restoring Life, published in New York in 1792. Dr. Hosack is especially concerned to combat "that most pernicious practice, rolling the body upon a barrel, and holding it up by the heels..."

Robert Montgomery Bird was himself a physician, and was undoubtedly familiar with the medical literature on suspended animation, such as Hosack's treatise. (Hosack died in 1835, the year before Sheppard Lee was published.)

The image above is of a smoke enema kit assembled by one of the early nineteenth-century humane societies. It has been suggested that the phrase "blowing smoke up one's ass" is derived from skepticism about the efficacy of smoke enemas.

Friday, March 26, 2010


This morning, the reflections on the water of Spring Creek, near the entrance to the Lower Arboretum, reminded me of a classic photo that my fellow Northfield blogger, Penny Hillemann, posted on Penelopedia two years ago (May 2008).  The Siberian squill is beginning to bloom along the banks of the creek.  On this date a year ago, Mary Schier, at My Northern Garden, blogged about seeing the first budding squill of the year.  If nothing else, our blogs may provide a kind of phenological record of the changing seasons here in Northfield.   

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Reading Journal: "Balancing Act"

Meera Godbole Krishnamurthy, Balancing Act. Penguin India/Zubaan 2009. 236 pp. Available on

I met Meera Godbole Krishnamurthy at Oberlin College in 1985. Reading her excellent first novel, Balancing Act, it’s impossible for me not to feel the powerful presence of an old friend. I feel in her writing the same humor and quirky intelligence that drew me to her a quarter century ago, the same enthusiasm and passionate sense of the beauty and wonder of the world. It’s difficult not to see Meera herself in her narrator, Tara Mistri. Tara shares some of the essential features of Meera’s curriculum vitae. Born in India, she trained as an architect in the United States, and interrupted her career to become a stay-at-home mother. But this trajectory in life, from career to full-time parenthood, is familiar to many women—and to some men—and many readers who have never met the book’s author will see their own stories reflected in Tara’s struggle to reconcile motherhood and career. As Meera explained to me, “While the details may differ, in spirit the stories is the same.”

Tara has a handsome and successful husband, a beautiful home, devoted friends, and two adorable and adoring children. But she’s still haunted by the might-have-beens of her earlier life as a promising young architect. She’s occasionally visited by a yakshi, a Hindu fertility spirit with feminist sensibilities. With yakshi urging her to resume her career, and mounting resentment toward friends who seem to regard her as no more than a perfect housewife, Tara sends out her resumé and lands an interview with an architecture firm. But Tara learns that going back to work isn’t necessarily the answer to her dilemma, or the way to find balance and satisfaction in her life.

Architecture is central to the novel, both as Tara’s chosen field and as a metphor for creating balance and structure in one’s life. Tara is obsessed with the Salk Institute in nearby La Jolla, designed by the Estonian-born architect Louis Kahn. The Salk becomes Tara’s icon as she attempts to construct a coherent life for herself as a feminist, an artist, and a mother. It seems to represent both balance and contradiction, the inspiring and the pedestrian, the ordered and the chaotic—the material of both art and life. In the novel, the Salk is likened both to a monastic cloister and the sort of building that might contain dentists’ offices. It’s both transcendent and mundane, like life.

The book is teeming with ideas, and the author’s intellect is apparent on every page, but the novel not merely cerebral. Every detail of Tara’s life as mother is beautifully and authentically rendered. You can hear the laughter of the children on the playground, see the Cheerios and juice boxes, feel the urgency as Tara rushes to turn off the television before Barney comes on. Every detail of Tara’s world rings true.

After our paths diverged in the late 1980s, Meera went on to Columbia and the University of Virginia, to work as an architect and a new life as a stay-at-home mother and writer. I went to Brown University, was employed briefly as a professor of classics, and became a stay-at-home father and writer. I’m happy our lives finally converged again in this wonderful novel.

For a set of images of the Salk Institute taken by Carleton College professor emeritus of art Lauren Soth, click here. Thanks to my friend and fellow blogger Patrick Ganey for arranging to have a copy of the novel sent from India before it became available on

Monday, March 22, 2010

"A Wretched Man"

Note: Below is a reposting of the feature I wrote for on the new novel A Wretched Man by Northfield writer R.W. "Obie" Holmen.

Northfield writer R.W. “Obie” Holmen’s newly-published novel, A Wretched Man, begins with a vivid evocation of the landscape of the ancient Middle East. Readers are often surprised to learn that Holmen has never visited the Holy Land, and that the landscape he so brilliantly evokes is the creation of the writer’s imagination, assisted by some meticulous research.

Holmen began working on his novel almost four years ago. He was interested in writing a historical novel about the Apostle Paul, a complex and controversial figure who, in Holmen’s view, was responsible for much of the development of early Christianity. Holmen spent three years researching the novel, working to get the history, the characters, and the setting “as realistic as possible.” At the same time, he worked at “honing the craft of being a storyteller.” Holmen, a former trial lawyer with a B.A. in history, had to learn how to write fiction.

As a novice fiction writer, Holmen found the classes and community at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis invaluable for helping him learn the craft of fiction. Taking classes at the Loft was, Holmen says, “a first-rate experience.” The Loft also brought him into contact with the writer Kate St. Vincent Vogl (author of Lost and Found: A Memoir of Mothers), who worked with Holman as an editor and writing coach. Vogl read Holmen’s draft and came back with “notes on virtually every page” that helped him “color between the lines” and add to the depth of his characterizations.

A draft of the novel was completed in the fall of 2008. Holmen worked with Vogl in the first months of 2009, and in May 2009 was ready to beginning working with Bascomb Hill Publishing Group, a small publisher in Minneapolis.

The past year has been spent producing and marketing the book, something that’s entirely different from the creative process of writing, but which Holmen still finds exciting. Now that the book is in print and available in bookstores and online, Holmen has a pair readings and booksignings scheduled in Northfield—at Monkey See, Monkey Read on Tuesday, April 20 at 7:30 pm, and at the Northfield Public Library on Saturday, May 15 at 1:00 p.m. He’ll also be Paula Granquist’s guest on ArtZany, her arts program on KYMN radio (1080 AM), on Friday, April 16, at 9:00 a.m.

The early reviews of the novel have been excellent. Barrie Wilson, a theologian at York University in Toronto, says Holmen's novel "opens up the reality of the world of Paul and his contemporaries in a way no other work does." Rev. Jeffrey Bütz, a theologian at Penn State, calls the book “a stunning fictional account of the early church that reads like real life.” He calls it “a story that will both shock and inspire any Christian who is truly searching to find and follow the historical Jesus.”

But Holmen insists that his novel is “historical fiction, not Christian fiction.”

At the center of the novel in Paulos, the Apostle Paul, and his struggle against James, the brother of Jesus, to define the message of Christianity. It was Paul, Holmen says, who insisted upon the divinity of Christ, and who began to shape many of the “rituals, symbols, and myths” of Christianity. Holmen is also interested in understanding what lay behind Paul’s attitude toward homosexuality, since Paul’s writings has historically provided much of the Biblical support for “gay bashing.” Holmen’s conclusions are compelling and controversial.

Obie Holmen grew up in Upsala, Minnesota, attended Dartmouth and the University of Minnesota, served in Vietnam, and worked as an attorney in St. Cloud for twenty years before his retirement in 1999. He and his wife recently moved to Northfield, attracted by the community’s rich intellectual and cultural life. Obie remains active in the Lutheran church, and writes a regular blog, Spirit of a Liberal, that explores religious issues from a progressive standpoint.

R.W. Holmen’s A Wretched Man is available locally at Monkey See, Monkey Read, the St. Olaf Bookstore, and the Carleton Bookstore. Holmen will be reading and signing books at Monkey See, Monkey Read on Tuesday, April 20, at 7:30 p.m., and at the Northfield Public Library on Saturday, May 15, at 1:00 p.m. You can view a "trailer" for the novel here.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Spring Biking Obstacles

The bike trail under Highway 3, Riverside Park, linking to the bike and pedestrian bridge to Sechler Park.


The roads aren't in any better shape.
Eighth Street between Water and Division Streets.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Another Sign of Spring

I love the latest seasonal variation of the logo that appears at the head of the website:
The site currently features an anthology of videos of the ice going out on the Cannon River in downtown Northfield, including large sheets of ice crashing over the Ames Mill dam. Meanwhile, the Cannon River, which seems to have peaked on Tuesday, has begun to recede a little.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Thomas Who?

From the New York Times (on the Texas School Board's new "standards" for American history textbooks):

"Cynthia Dunbar, a lawyer from Richmond who is a strict constitutionalist and thinks the nation was founded on Christian beliefs, managed to cut Thomas Jefferson from a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century, replacing him with St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone. (Jefferson is not well liked among conservatives on the board because he coined the term 'separation between church and state.')"

There is so much that's wrong about this, but I have to enjoy the irony of Texas conservatives writing out of history the early republic's most influential activist for states rights, limited government, fiscal conservatism, and American exceptionalism.

This is what happens when you attempt to simplify history to promote your own narrow, self-serving agenda.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

What's Next?

Yesterday was the last day of classes for the winter term, and my last day of teaching at Carleton College.  My intermediate Latin students surprised me with a cake and an enormous card.  After class, one of the students headed off to the library to work on a final paper, only to return a minute later to give me a big hug.  

"I just realized I might not see you again," she said.  

I've had a wonderful time teaching at Carleton off and on since 2006.  Carleton students are exceptionally bright and friendly and engaged, and I've enjoyed every minute I've spent in the classroom with them.  

Now it's time for something new.  Tomorrow afternoon, I'm heading down to Faribault to serve as a judge for the science fair at the Cannon River STEM School, and in two weeks I start teaching a class for the Cannon Valley Elder Collegium.  The class is called "America and the Classics," focusing primarily on the influence of the Greek and Roman classics on the American Founders.  I've also been working with a Prairie Creek Community School fifth grader to assemble his honors project on Ancient Greece, and I've started working with a St. Olaf senior planning a summer internship with  Finally, I've promised to translate Sophocles' Antigone for a production at Carleton in two or three years.  

I'm sure I'll find plenty of uses for my time in my "retirement," but I'm still going to miss my students at Carleton very much.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Reading Journal: "Nights at the Circus"

Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus. Penguin 1985. 295 pp.

Nights at the Circus is like a 295-page Decemberists song, a bizarre feminist fable about a circus aerialiste with enormous purple-feathered wings, a story that begins in a London music hall dressing room and ends in a shaman's hut in Siberia on the first day of the twentieth century. It's strange, meandering, often peculiarly florid, and frequently mesmerizing. New characters and situations materialize out of nowhere, perform their tricks, and disappear from the narrative. There are bravura set pieces, often involving clowns. There are hallucinatory episodes, also involving clowns. There is, in the last third of the novel, a spectacular train wreck, which the reader maybe tempted to take as emblematic of the entire novel. The novel often seems like a work of academic feminism reimagined by Tim Burton. Strange and daring, if not always entirely successful. Here's a sample of Carter's writing:
The Shaman and Walser did not live alone. There was a bear, a black one, not yet a year old, still almost a cub. This bear was part pet, part familiar; he was both a real, furry and beloved bear and, at the same time, a transcendental kind of meta-bear, a minor deity and also a partial ancestor because the forest-dwellers extended considerable procreational generosity toward the other species of the woods and there were bears in plenty on the male side of the tribal line.
The novel, like the bear which is both a real bear and a meta-bear, is a strange hybrid of storytelling, philosophy, and feminist anthropology that compulsively glosses and deconstructs its own artifices. Is Fevvers, the pinioned aerialiste, fact or fiction? Is she genuine or fraudulent? Is she a protagonist or a metaphor?

"She found herself turning, willy-nilly, from a woman into an idea," Carter writes of Fevvers, in the last pages of the novel.

It's a tough act to pull off. The narrative juggles so many ideas while swooping around from place to place on the gaudy purple wings of Carter's prose. It's dizzying, exhausting, and unlike anything else.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Marat/Sade at Macalester College

A production of Peter Weiss's 1963 play Marat/Sade is running for three more nights, Thursday through Saturday, March 4-6, at the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center at Macalester College.  The production, directed by Rachel Perlmeter, features powerful original music by Noah Keesecker, Joshua Clausen, and J. Anthony Allen.  The production is staged in a white box built entirely on the proscenium stage of the theatre, with tight tiers of seats surrounding the sunken stage on four sides, like an operating theater.  Though the script sets the action in the asylum of Charenton in 1808, this production sets it in a dystopic future, giving the play an Orwellian feel.  I found the production unexpectedly gripping, not just because I was transfixed by the beautiful performance of my friend Peytie McCandless as Charlotte Corday.  She was surrounded by a strong cast, especially Russell Schneider as Sade and Drew Callister as Marat. There's a chaotic little taste of the production in this video trailer produced by Noah Keesecker.You can reserve tickets by calling the Macalester College box office at 651-696-6359. 

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .