30 April 2011

Zombie

Isn't it time we went back to the origins of this extraordinarily well-worn trope? Hipster Psychonaut Hamilton Morris's documentary, Nzambi, explores those origins.



As a postscript, I have to say I've enjoyed these A to Z days, and loved meeting so many new bloggers and writers and writer-bloggers. I am moving on (tomorrow!!) to the Story a Day in May challenge. I hope you'll join me.

Yin

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I've mentioned before that I've spent a lot of time training with a tai chi master who is also a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine. Yin and Yang are the two primal forces that make up the phenomenological world (the world as we experience it). Mostly the western understanding of these two forces is pretty superficial. You've probably heard about yin and yang as feminine and masculine; earth and sun or heaven; dark and light; cold and hot. They flow into each other and become each other, too. In eastern systems, they aren't "yin and yang" - they are "yin yang," two sides of the same coin, but interpenetrating.

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Yin energy is earth energy: soft and cool and subtle. Yang energy is sun energy - hot and fast and hard-hitting. According to my teacher, men carry yang energy on the outside, and yin energy on the inside: think marshmallow in a steel drum. Women carry yin energy on the outside, and yang on the inside: think steel rod inside a pillow.

When we sleep, we use yin energy to cleanse our bodies.

When you meditate, you can draw on yin or yang energies, depending on how you do it. To grossly simplify things, if you meditate with eyes open in a room with a light source, you will draw yang energy. Eyes closed meditations are yin.

Deng Ming-Dao's book Chronicles of Tao offers a narrative account of his master Kwan Saihung's experiences training in the Huashan mountains of China. When Kwan Saihung is still a boy, his teacher takes him to visit an immortal, a Taoist practitioner who has achieved mastery in the practice of his choice. As a sometime fan of vampire fiction, I found this account fascinating. I hope you do too. (From Chronicles of Tao, pages 70-71.)

Master and disciple walked for over an hour until they came to a tiny stucco cottage. It was plain, with only a few square windows and an old tile roof. It was summer, and every building on Huashan had its windows propped open to admit the warm sunlight. The windows of this one, however, were tightly shut. The door was slightly ajar and, after knocking, the two stepped inside.
The small interior was dark and quiet, and a flow of cool air blew on them as they entered. Still blind from the bright sun, Saihung's vision adjusted slowly. Set among a few modest furnishings, was a large coffin.
Saihung saw his master drop down to his hands and knees, and Saihung automatically followed. He was puzzled. He had only seen his master bow during ceremonies. But there was no altar here, and his master couldn't be bowing to the coffin. Saihung completed his bow and looked up. There was a tall figure standing before them.
The figure remained standing and acknowledged their bow with a slight nod. 
"Hey, you!" cried Saihung, "Why don't you bow too? Don't you know how important my master is?"
"Saihung!" said the Grand Master sharply. "Don't be rude. He is the master here, not I." He turned to the man. "Greetings to the Bat Immortal." 
The Bat Immortal smiled slightly. He was tall, thin, and moved in an almost feminine fashion. His face was small, his beard and hair braided with ribbons, his skin unwrinkled, pale, and bloodless. Narrow eyes were sunken, the skin around them blackened, and they were almost closed all the time. But from the narrow slits of his eyes there seemed to shine an inner light, a hidden glow. 
"I've come to ask a point about the scriptures," said the Grand Master.
The Bat Immortal acknowledged the request by stepping forward. He avoided the sunlight coming through the door, and his steps were soundless. He stopped in front of Saihung. His eyelids lifted slightly; the glow from his eyes intensified.
"Is this the boy you mentioned?" he asked in a thin and hollow voice.
"Yes," replied the Grand Master. 
The Bat Immortal turned back to Saihung. Saihung looked up, and he had the uncanny feeling that the Bat Immortal gazed directly through his eyelids. Saihung's attention lapsed, and when he again became aware, the Bat Immortal had turned away.
The Grand Master sent Saihung outside to wait. 
When he emerged an hour later, the Grand Master walked directly away. Saihung followed him. After a half hour of silence, the Grand Master told him about the Bat Immortal.
"The Bat Immortal practices extreme yin training. That's why he has taken the name he has and sleeps in a coffin, avoids sunlight, stays only in cold places, and never eats anything hot. He cultivates the Great Yin, and this is the source of his spirituality." 
"He seems like a wicked man, with those dark circles and ghostly movements," said Saihung. 
"Don't think he is evil," cautioned his master. "He frightens you because he is an unfamiliar person. Naturally. He is immortal, and immortals are rarely glimpsed."
"But, Gong-Gong, I don't understand why you bow to him. Everyone always bows to you." 
"Saihung, there are always greater and greater masters, and we must always show our respect."

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28 April 2011

Xanthippe

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Xanthippe was the wife of the philosopher Socrates. Think about that for a second: you're a hot young thing, married to the ugliest and smartest man in Athens. He's running around town, being wined and dined by all the hip younger dudes, and he's screwing them, to boot. You're stuck at home with three kids and nothing to feed them.

You want your husband to smarten up when it comes to keeping you happy.

Xanthippe was a scrapper.

Head, meet shit.
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The iconic image of Xanthippe is this one, of her emptying a chamber pot on Socrates's head.

Socrates claimed he married Xanthippe because she wouldn't back down when it came to arguing. Away from home, he boasted that he was only trying to challenge himself by choosing to marry her. In the Symposium dialogue, he claimed:
It is the example of the rider who wishes to become an expert horseman: "None of your soft-mouthed, docile animals for me," he says; "the horse for me to own must show some spirit" in the belief, no doubt, if he can manage such an animal, it will be easy enough to deal with every other horse besides. And that is just my case. I wish to deal with human beings, to associate with man in general; hence my choice of wife. I know full well, if I can tolerate her spirit, I can with ease attach myself to every human being else. (Symposium 17-19 [= 2.10])
In my view, any man who compares his wife to a horse and himself to a rider deserves to have a chamber pot emptied on his head. (No matter that her name meant "yellow horse" - some plays on words are not clever.) So hard did Xanthippe fight for herself, she became the iconic figure of the fractious woman throughout the Renaissance. To this day "a xanthippe" is a shrewish, argumentative woman.

I Challenge You!

Got my dueling boots on and everything.
Woot! Story a Day in May is swiftly approaching.  I officially challenge y'all to join me and a band of piratical fantastical writers in attempting to climb Mount Crazy.  Some of you are on the fence about this. It is going to be great.

What's the worst that could happen? You flunk out horribly and end up with a mere five or six new short stories under your belt by the end of May? That's five or six stories you don't have right now.

Those stories need to be written, and you are just the ones to do it. Rules over here. Sign up. Do it. Do it now.

27 April 2011

Wasps

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Putting this post together made me itchy.

I've been thinking about wasps lately. It's just about time for them to make their annual assault on my backyard. The dog has been stung several times on his face. I'm not into spraying or killing bugs at all, and I could not figure out what they were attracted to in the yard. (We've got a lot of flowers, no fruit trees, but the flowers could do it.)  I found a good solution to this problem in a fake paper wasps nest that I hang outside, on my porch, in the spring time. Apparently wasps are intensely territorial, so having something that looks like a nest in your yard will keep them away.

The more I learn and understand about social, colony-dwelling insects, the more I think they are great models for alien societies in speculative fiction. Their behaviour is single-minded yet complex. Their capacity for interacting with their environment and with other species is positively mind-blowing.

(The second video is super, super gross, by the way.)





ETA: More details on the virus that the wasp injects along with its larvae in this New Scientist article. It seems the wasps are hijacking two separate live forms - the caterpillar and the virus - in order to pull off this parasitic stunt that is so vital to their reproductive cycle. Amazing.

26 April 2011

Vice

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When I was studying early drama, my favourite character was always the Vice. In medieval allegorical drama, Vices are spin-offs of the Seven Deadly Sins. They have names like Mischief, Covetousness, Nought, Nowadays, and New Guise. They are nasty, troublesome characters who want nothing more than to cause the downfall of the protagonist by leading him into temptation.

The thing about Vices is that they have boundless energy, and are virtually immortal. Even if they are beaten, they always bounce back in the end. They are the original supervillains. Onstage, they are often in cahoots with the audience, getting their participation in the corruption of the main character. Essentially, they are clown figures, always goofing off and telling dirty jokes, even as they work on behalf of the forces of chaos and evil.

They are so very wrong, so very bad, and so very fun to watch.

Physically, Vices are often exaggerated in their forms, as these images from the National Library of the Netherlands Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts show:

Hypocrisy and Gluttony confront a wandering monk. Note Gluttony's enormous mouth and maybe barf? maybe food? protruding from it. 
Pride borne by Flattery. Pride is depicted tooting her own horn. 
Treachery and Calumny (aka Slander) riding upon Envy's back. The arrows protruding from Envy's eyes show that she is always ready to stab those of whom she is jealous. 
If you're at all inclined to think allegorically, these are amazing images, I think. Note that almost all these figures are women, with the (possible?) exception of Hypocrisy. As I'm sure you know, the Virtues (Faith, Hope, Charity, Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Courage) were traditionally personified as women. After all, Faith, Hope, Charity, and to some degree, Prudence are female names. (I did know someone who named her son Justice, but that's beside the point.)  Later on, the Vices / Seven Deadly Sins were commonly depicted as men, but originally, in the very early days of the Church, they were also women. The Virtues and Vices, two opposing forces, fought for sovereignty over the human soul (also traditionally depicted as female, regardless of the gender of the soul's owner).

I have wondered if it wasn't the rise of drama that killed the depiction of the Vices as women. As the stage developed into a commercial enterprise, it became illegal in many parts of Europe for women to act in dramas. (They were still allowed comic roles on some parts of the continent, but not in Britain, at least not until the late 17th century.)

Just as Vices almost never died onstage or in allegorical works of fiction, they never quite leave us. They are still there in films (see the early part of Jim Carrey's career, Jack Black, and other over the top comedians). For those of you who spend a lot of time online, the Vice surfaces again and again in the form of the internet troll.


While your mileage may vary in terms of encounters with actual internet trolls, the iconic version of this figure can be pretty darned amusing.




If you run into serious trouble, though, there is an antidote. (The makers don't allow embedding - click through if you've got a couple of minutes and you want to be amused.)

25 April 2011

Underworld

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As long as there have been people who could look up at the sky and wonder, there has been a concept of an underworld, a heavenly alter-ego, a dark shadow space where the bad things, the repudiated things, or maybe just the dark and squiggly things live.

I'm not talking about the Romeo-and-Juliet-cum-werewolf-and-vampire movie series, much as I love Kate Beckinsale and love her even more in PVC.

You're welcome.
This dark realm, underneath the earth's surface, "below," is a realm of danger, and represents the constant threat that we might be captured by it and dragged to our doom.

Hades, god of the Underworld, stealing away Persephone
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It's easy enough to relate the concept of an underworld to the Christian hell, but there are other underworlds to explore for those of us interested in the unusual, which tell a different narrative about the world below.

In 1945, Richard Sharpe Shaver wrote a letter to the editor of Amazing Stories detailing what he claimed was a real encounter with the Teros, underground-dwelling supermen who educated him on a longstanding battle with the Deros, a degraded version of the Teros who had returned to a brutish mode of being. These cave dwellers delighted in tormenting humanity with the machines left behind by the ancients, and occasionally indulged in a little kidnapping, rape and cannibalism. Shaver acheived a sort of pulp fiction stardom with his stories, which appeared in 75% of Amazing Stories issues from 1945 to 1948. Eager readers wrote to the magazine to report that they'd had experiences with the Tero and the Dero. Shaver's stories continue to raise questions about his sources and convictions.

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Proponents of the Hollow Earth hyphothesis have long sought to revise our understanding of the basic construction of our planet. Among the strongest advocates for the hollow earth hypothesis was Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd, who claimed that he had accessed a lush new land during his investigation of the North Pole (source):

In his diary, Byrd allegedly tells of entering the hollow interior of the earth, along with others and traveling 17 miles over mountains, lakes, rivers, green vegetation, and animal life. He tells of seeing tremendous animals resembling the mammoths of antiquity moving through the brush. He eventually found cities and a thriving civilization. The external temperature was 74 degrees F.

His airplane was greeted by flying machines of a type he had never seen before. They escorted him to a safe landing area where he was graciously greeted by emissaries from Agartha. After resting, he and his crew, were taken to meet the king and queen of Agartha. They told him that he had been allowed to enter Agartha because of his high moral and ethical character. They went on to say that they worried about the safety of planet due to he bombs and other testing done above the surface by governments. After the visit Byrd and his crew were guided back to the surface of the planet.

Byrd stated that the North and South Poles are only two of many openings into the center of the Earth. He also wrote about seeing a sun below the Earth.

Map of Agartha
For men like Shaver and Byrd, the hollow earth is a place of mystery, wonder, and secrets, keys to long lost civilizations, and the storage house of the real history of how we came to be here on planet Earth. To me, it's a testimony to the power of the human imagination, always willing and able to revise and remake our collective mythos.

23 April 2011

An Offer You Can't Refuse

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...well, you probably can. But you might want to accept anyway.

You might have noticed a certain shift in tone to my posts during the A to Z Blogging Challenge this month. Suddenly, I am writing about strange facts and concepts! (As opposed to my usual posts on the horror genre, weird dreams I had, and stuff I'm writing.)

There is indeed a method to my madness. I've mentioned this before, but in case you're new here, I wanted to put in a little plug for a challenge I'm about to undertake, and to explain where I've been coming from this month.

You see, a while ago, the delightfully insane Julie Duffy stalked me and persuaded me via Twitter that Story a Day in May was the challenge for me, mostly because I said it scared the crap out of me. Write a story every single day in May? Are you nuts? It takes me a week or two just to crank out a draft of one story! I am failing miserably at Write 1, Sub 1. (Okay, not miserably. I am failing gently. And I have written several new short stories and sent them out this year. So...that's good.)

I had decided, sometime in March, that I would probably end up trying Story A Day in May and flunking on day one. Never one to give up ahead of time, I kept worrying about it. All this angst got me brainstorming about how I would attempt to climb this insurmountable peak if I did decide to follow through with it. I had already signed up for A to Z...and that's when I got a wonderful, terrible idea.

If I made each of my A to Z posts nice and juicy and idea-full, then I could use them as story prompts. Research? Already done. Evocative images? Already found. Idea factory? Switched on.

So this is my plan. By the end of April, I'll have 26 writing prompts in place. My current plan is to keep Sundays in May for writing ultra-short fiction based on random or spontaneous notions, so that will make up the extra five days.

My challenge to you is: join me. With all this A to Z action, there are a ton of story prompts out there for us to use. Feel free to use mine! Each of my posts this month could go in a bunch of different directions. Novel writers, take a break from your WiPs and try short fiction. Bloggers, give yourselves the chance to write something that lets your imagination soar. And short story writers: let's flex those muscles. Let's pound out the word count like we're writing in the pulp era. Let's take care of business.

If you are participating in Story a Day, let me know in the comments to this post and I'll add you to my sidebar. Make sure you keep us up to date on how the challenge is going for you.

Tulpa

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In certain Buddhist sects, including the Tibetan tradition, a tulpa is the concrete physical manifestation of a thought-form. All conscious beings - from the One Mind of the Universe to the deities to human beings - are capable of giving physical form to their thoughts. When a person / magician manifests a thought-form in reality, that thought-form is called a tulpa.

The analogy most commonly given for creating a tulpa is that of the architect: first he creates the form of the building he is designing, and then he makes that form manifest in three dimensional reality - albeit with the help of construction crews and building inspectors and site supervisors.

The magician who brings forth a tulpa, however, does so with pure mental focus, and by giving energy to the form.

One of the first westerners to work with the tulpa concept was Alexandra David-Néel. This remarkable woman was among the first Europeans to travel to Tibet, long before it was open to outsiders, in the early 1900s. She adopted a young Tibetan, Aphur Yongden, pictured with her here:

David-Néel with Aphur Yongden
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David-Néel studied Tibetan Buddhism deeply, and wrote many books on the subject. She received tulpa training, and decided to give it a try. The results were more than a bit creepy:

The method involved was essentially intense concentration and visualization. David-Neel's tulpa began its existence as a plump, benign little monk, similar to Friar Tuck. It was at first entirely subjective, but gradually, with practice, she was able to visualize the tulpa out there, like an imaginary ghost flitting about the real world. 
In time the vision grew in clarity and substance until it was indistinguishable from physical reality-a sort of self-induced hallucination. But the day came when the hallucination slipped from her conscious control. She discovered that the monk would appear from time to time when she had not willed it. Furthermore her friendly little figure was slimming down and taking on a distinctly sinister aspect. 
Eventually her companions, who where unaware of the mental disciplines she was practicing, began to ask about the "stranger" who had turned up in their camp-a clear indication that a creature which was no more that solidified imagination had definite objective reality.
At this point, David-Neel decided things had gone too far and applied different lamaist techniques to reabsorb the creature into her own mind. The tulpa proved very unwillling to face destruction in this way so that the process took several weeks and left its creator exhausted.

In Western circles, other tulpa-like experiments include The Philip Experiment performed by the Toronto branch of the Society for Psychical Research in the early 1970s. This group of experimenters created a totally fictional character, a 17th century nobleman called Philip, for whom they concocted an elaborate and tragic story. They then tried to conjure Philip, to see if they could give their fictional creation a life of its own. Several attempts at séance style contact failed. The group resorted to just sitting around and discussing Philip, or even just hanging out together with Philip in mind.

After a little while, Philip started to make his presence known through standard ghostly techniques: knocking and scratching on the table, moving furniture, and other creepy signs. (Go here for a more detailed discussion of the Philip Experiment and here to watch a video about Philip.)

When we create fictional characters, we take one giant step toward creating a tulpa. We give physical and emotional and intellectual traits to these people. Many writers experience the phenomenon whereby their characters do things unexpectedly, or insist on a course of action that the writer himself would never choose. They are becoming their own people.

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Serpent

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The humble snake or serpent carries a lot of symbolic weight in this world of ours. In the west, serpents have taken on an extremely negative connotation from their association with the forces of evil, courtesy of the story of Genesis (3:1-5 - this is from the KJV):

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? 
And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: 
But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. 
And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: 
For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods*, knowing good and evil.

This first demonstration of the potency of humanity's free will is, of course, an incredible disaster. Adam and Eve get booted from the Garden; by some accounts they enter into the world of pain and mortality; they are forever separated from the earthly paradise.

Sometimes the serpent of Genesis is depicted as a literal snake in western art:

Jean Baptiste Marie Pierre, The Temptation of Eve (18th Century)
I prefer the Medieval and Renaissance tradition of depicting him as a weird sort of snake with human parts:

Marriage of Adam and Eve and Temptation of Eve, dated 1324

Temptation of Eve c. 1450

In Eastern traditions, the serpent takes on an entirely other set of meanings. Yogis trained their bodies and minds in order to awaken Kundalini, a powerful spiritual energy that sits coiled at the base of the spine, and is dormant in most people. Once awakened, Kundalini enables the practitioner to unite his or her consciousness with the Universal consciousness, or Shiva.

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The Western remnant of the knowledge of Kundalini is in the medical symbol of the Caduceus, a pair of intertwined snakes wrapped around a central post, with a pair of wings at the top.

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My tai chi teacher says that the two serpents represent the twin energies of the physical and the emotional. United together and harmonized, these two energies support spiritual endeavours and the spiritual aspect of our being. Each place where the Caduceus intertwines, including the place where the heads face each other, marks the location of a major chakra point, from the root to the crown.

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In western alchemy and occult practices, the Caduceus was the symbol of the illuminated individual who had managed to elevate himself to the level of godhood through his practices. In such images, eastern and western practices mirror each other, revealing that this alternative view of the serpent persisted despite the negative associations of Genesis.

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               *  (For the Buffy fans)

21 April 2011

Rage

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Few emotions are as pure as rage. We love; we grieve; we fear; we worry; we rejoice. Seldom do we act decisively on these emotions, preferring to behave tentatively, quietly, or subtly. But when we rage, we often feel totally self-righteous. Never is the temptation to let our emotions loose on another human being so strong as when we are steamingly, overwhelmingly enraged.

Rage has many different inflections, too: outrage; simmering, slow-boil level righteous anger; the desire, simply, to squash that which you hate.

Rage is a popular posture among those who are interested in social justice. "Rage Against the Machine," anyone? They make great music, but is rage the most effective emotion to cultivate if you're interested in busting the cultural elite?

No emotion eats you up faster. In traditional Chinese medicine, anger is thought to deplete the energy of the liver. Chronic ragers are prime candidates for liver disease, and by extension, nervous system disorders like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, since the liver governs the nervous system. Anger is one of the traditional Chinese Seven Deadly Emotions, as it is one of the traditional Western Seven Deadly Sins, where it appears under the guise of Wrath.

"Wrath," from the Seven Deadly Sins Series by Katie Szadziewska
One of the most excellent portrayals of Wrath occurs in Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus. If you're not familiar with the Faust story, Dr. Faustus sells his soul to the devil in exchange for power here on earth. For his entertainment, he asks his demonic servant Mephistopheles to arrange for a parade of the Seven Deadly Sins. Faustus interviews each of them in turn. Wrath tells him,
I am Wrath. I had neither father nor mother: I leapt out of a lion's mouth when I was scarce an hour old; and ever since have run up and down the world with this case of rapiers, wounding myself when I could get none to fight withal. I was born in hell; and look to it, for some of you shall be my father.
Anger / Wrath, by Jacques Callot, c. 1620
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20 April 2011

Quean

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No, not "queen." Quean.

You'll see this word pop up from time to time in the language of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. A quean is a disreputable, upstart, boisterous, impudent woman. The term is also synonymous with "prostitute."

Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time by Bronzino, c. 1546
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A true quean always knows how to stir up maximum trouble. Even if she's a nun.

From Holbein's Danse Macabre, "The Nun"
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To be a quean is to be brazen. It's a derogatory term, but there have always been women who managed to wear it well.

19 April 2011

Pox

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Small pox, chicken pox: there are lots of different types of pox, but only one earned the name "The Pox" and "The Great Pox" - syphilis. As much as I admire the plague, syphilis has a special place in my heart as the Reigning Queen of All Diseases. She is enduring, she is mysterious, and she was a complete barbarian when she first hit Europe.

The fact is, nobody knows where or how syphilis originated. In 1494, she made herself known, during the seige of Naples by King Charles VIII of France. Having taken ample advantage of the local sexual delicacies, which were ripe with what was called "the New Disease," Charles's mercenary army went back home to their various native countries defeated and infected. Presto chango: syphilis spread across Europe almost overnight.

That year - 1494 - has led some to speculate that syphilis was a New World disease, brought back by Columbus and his friends on their return from their maiden voyage. There is evidence that syphilis was present in pre-Columbian South America, but as the Conquistadors moved through new territories, European syphilis seemed just as brutally infectious to the natives as everything else we gave them. Some studies have shown that certain Old World populations had syphilis-like symptoms prior to 1494. It may simply be that the bacteria responsible for syphilis mutated in exactly the right ways to cause a new epidemic.

Early medicine looked to planetary influences to try to account for the disease. They pointed to a particular conjunction of  planets that occurred in 1484 as the cause of a widespread poisoning of the earth, air, and waters, which showed as the symptoms of syphilis.
1484, The Nativity of Syphilis, attributed to Albrecht Durer
In the early days, the symptoms were incredibly severe. Early reports mention men's limbs falling off in a matter of days. So severe were the deep level lesions, an infected person would feel that her bones were breaking. Noses fell off; internal organs rotted; skin was deeply pocked.

Getting syphilis was relatively easy in those days. Curing it was next door to impossible. Armed with herbal and dietary cures, early physicians were ill equipped to purge their patients of this insidious infection.

Couple undergoing syphilis cure, early 16th century
Image depicts doctors examining patient's urine to evaluate her health (upper right corner) and applying mercury-based salve to syphilitic pox (lower middle).
The quest for a cure for syphilis opened the door to new medical technologies. Enter Paracelsus and his chemical / alchemical school of thought. Focusing on single-element cures for diseases, Paracelsus and his followers decided that mercury was a great thing to give syphilitics. Remember that the whole point of early medicine is to make stuff come out of people. When you're poisoned by mercury, your body tries to sweat and salivate (not to mention vomit, shit and otherwise purge) it out. Physicians argued that the mercury cure was the only way to get rid of such a pernicious infection as syphilis. Of course, there was a strong hint of moral righteousness to arguments in the period that infected people deserved the harsh punishment of the mercury cure. Many physicians acknowledged that if syphilis didn't kill you, the mercury cure probably would.

Eventually, people got used to the reality of syphilis, and the disease seemed to accommodate itself to European life. After the initial wave of infection, syphilis settled down and would now take years to kill, and sometimes years to show itself. It became known as a secret, insidious disease. The most beautiful, apparently untouched youth could in fact be a rotting corpse on the inside. You wouldn't know until you slept with him or her, and then it would be too late.


"Deformitie, within may bee,
Where outward Beauties we doe see."
From George Wither's Emblems, Ancient and Moderne, 1635
These attitudes continued throughout the centuries, right up until the modern discovery of antibiotics. Even through the World Wars, syphilis posed a major threat to the Allies' confidence in sending young, inexperienced men overseas, as these wartime posters attest.


It's easy for us to forget that syphilis was once synonymous with casual sex.


Like many other phenomena, syphilis served to reinforce negative perceptions of women and women's sexuality.


This is my favourite (depicting Hitler, Hirohito, and V.D.):

18 April 2011

Ombrophobia

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Fear of rain.

Like other weather-related phobias, ombrophobia often starts in childhood, as a result of a traumatic experience. The fix - like the fix for most phobias - is pretty nasty.

Perhaps the most efficient means of extinguishing a storm phobia is the procedure called "flooding," in which the phobic is exposed directly to the maelstrom and not allowed to escape. When no injury occurs, the fear subsides within an hour or two. Flooding can be harsh, and few would stand for it in this rude form. However, a more humane and common variant is also effective. With graduated exposure, the stimulus is presented in increments of increasing intensity, allowing the person to habituate to one level before the next, more intense element is introduced. Many phobics can be treated in a single, extended session using this modified incremental exposure procedure. (From Diagnosis & Treatment of Phobias)

It sounds good in theory. If you're the one undergoing the treatment, though, it is not so nice. In any "desensitization" demonstrations I've seen, people look like they're dissociating, not like they're actually getting any less scared.

The horror writer in  me always asks, "What if that person is right to be scared?"

16 April 2011

Necrophilia

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(By the way don't Google this topic. People are so, so gross.)

We all know what this is, right? A paraphilia, or sexual fetish that involves corpses. Like many sexual fetishes, necrophilia has the potential to reinforce common cultural inequities. The overwhelming majority of images and commentary online to do with necrophilia are rape fantasies, or jokes that imply rape. ("She can't say no if she's dead.")

(I could comment extensively here also on the Vampire Romance genre as a form of necrophilia, but properly speaking, necrophiles prefer the dead, not the undead or living dead.)

At the same time, stories about necrophilia can turn the tables on rape culture, or explore more sensitive territories (no play on words intended...well, maybe a little). Remember "Kissed"? The woman protagonist's necrophilia was based not only on her obsession with death and dead things, but on her ability to perceive exquisite beauty in the process of dying.

"Kissed" has a convoluted set of origins. The film is based on a short story by Canadian writer Barbara Gowdy. It appeared in her collection We So Seldom Look on Love. The title of the collection - and, presumably, the inspiration for the story - came from a mock ode poem by Frank O'Hara, "Ode on Necrophilia" (source).

Miasmatic Theory

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Back in the Medieval and Renaissance periods, there was no understanding of microbes as a cause of disease. Generally speaking, disease states were understood as products of internal imbalance within the individual. If you had a cold, for example, it was thought that you had too much cold and damp in your body, which needed to be expressed as phlegm - one of the four humours (the other three were black bile, yellow bile, and blood).

The Four Temperaments / Humours of Galen
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Generally speaking, this is a highly functional medical model, despite the idiosyncracies of some of its terminology. If your body is healthy and in balance, you will be better able to fight most microbes, after all.

When it came to bubonic plague, however - a disease that could fell a perfectly healthy person in a matter of days, and that caused large quantities of black pus / blood to pool in lumps at the surface of the skin - medieval and Renaissance medical people knew they needed something more to explain what was going on.

That's where miasmatic theory comes in.

Although the idea of microbes was still a little way off, early doctors proposed the idea that plague was caused by infection from outside the individual. The cause? Foul air, or "miasma." The understanding of what made air foul was pretty broad. A "miasma" could mean bad, stinking breath, rotten smells, or even the "atmosphere" in places where people were crowded together and overexcited - like the theatre. (But not church.)

This obviously posed a huge challenge to London city dwellers throughout the Renaissance. London was a notoriously stinky place. Open sewers, mass graves, and slaughterhouses within the city walls all proved a challenge when it came to avoiding stink.

Practices arose designed to counteract bad smells during plague time. The famous plague doctor's mask, resembling a bird beak, contained pleasant-smelling herbs at the end. Inhaling through the herbs, the wearer could avoid exposure to bad smells and thus hopefully avoid infection.

Plague Doctor's Outfit
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In the sick room, doctors distributed herbs and flowers, or heated them on warm bricks in order to dispel the infected air.
A doctor attempts to freshen the air in a plague house.
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The practice of carrying a nose-gay - a small bouquet of flowers - arose during the same time. Any time you encountered a bad smell, you could sniff the flowers, and thus decontaminate yourself. Sachets - nice-smelling small pillows stuffed with herbs and flowers - are a worldwide practice. In the east, they are thought to drive away evil spirits. In the west, they originated as a remedy for disease.

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