December 8, 2013

Let’s do Christmas

Posted in Christmas, History, Music tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 3:36 pm by faraway67

Just a few musings about a wonderful season and its traditions

Rare German Christmas Card: "The last Christmas in the 19th century"

Rare German Christmas Card: “The last Christmas in the 19th century”

Some things go so very much without saying that we can’t even think they haven’t always been that way.

Of course we have always celebrated Christmas, haven’t we?

You all know the answer –in fact we have not.

And I don’t have to go back so far as the time before Jesus – whose birth we remember at Christmas – was actually born, which would, as most theologians agree about, have happened between 4 and 6 BC (Not long ago, pope emeritus Benedict XIV. caused an outcry because he stated exactly that. Read about it here.)

But for a long time nobody cared about it anyway. There was no interest whatsoever in Jesus’ Birth. The important events were his crucifixion and his resurection. These were the days that were celebrated. The first time we know of that Christmas was celebrated was in the 4th century in Rome. provides a wonderful overview regarding that topic.

No, Christmas has definitely not been there forever.

But since then, we certainly always have had a christmas tree, right?


In fact, it should take more than thousand years untill Christmas was celebrated with a tree. It is said that first decorated trees were set up in Latvia in 1510, and it is widely known that Martin Luther, the great reformer, decorated a tree with candles for his children. But it should take quite a bit of time till decorated trees at Christmas were common. Germans brought the first trees to the US, to Pennsylvania in the early 19th century, and as for Britain, christmas trees came into fashion through Queen Victoria and her German husband Prince Albert. You can read it for yourself in an interesting longreads.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children celebrate Christmas

Oh, of course. But all the time, since Christmas was invented, we’ve been going around, singing carols, yes?

Now, this is interesting. Going around and singing for neighbours seems to be a really old habit – only not for christmas. It was called “wassailing” and dates back to the middle ages, where people visited each other and wished each other a good fortune. The habit to do this at christmas time however only reaches back to Victorian times. Read about this interesting subject in a wonderfully informative TIME article and enjoy a little collection of traditional German christmas songs played on the organ by my talented friend Matthias Rascher:

But then surely we’ve written to each other all the time, haven’t we?

We have sent tidings of comfort and joy to our fellow christians and our families over all those centuries, for certain!

Yeah well – not exactly. Sending christmas cards is a British invention. In 1843, John Callcott Horsley, a painter and illustrator, designed the first card for his friend Sir Henly Cole, who, being involved in many events like the Great World Fair and the founding of the Victoria and Albert museum, just didn’t feel like writing dozens of personal letters to friends and family. This is the birthday of the commercial christmas card. But very soon it became a hit – people started to ask for and send away hundreds and thousands of neatly designed cards to their loved ones. The guys over at Mental Floss tell you all about it.

Christmas card

The first commercial christmas card from 1843. Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

Christmas hasn’t been here forever. And still it is the one and only time in the year almost nobody can resist. We think about each other, we sing songs, we cherish our families and friends and share many much loved traditions, even if they don’t date back to ancient times. I love this time. I hope you do to. Come on. Let’s do Christmas!

A wonderful, inspiring Christmas time and Merry Christmas to all of you.

Enjoy a little gift I’ve prepared for your pleasure and watch a slideshow featuring beautiful historical Christmas cards:

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And, at last, listen to the universal Christmas wish, courtesy of Matthias Rascher:

We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Many thanks to my dear friend Matthias Rascher for allowing me to use his uploads on YouTube. Please visit his YouTube Channel for more wonderful organ music and have a look at his fantastically curated Twitter Stream.


February 2, 2013

The joy of reading Joyce

Posted in History, Literature tagged , , , , , , , , , at 12:05 am by faraway67

Or: How I learned to drown in words

James Joyce By Alex Ehrenzweig ( via Wikimedia Commons

James Joyce by Alex Ehrenzweig ( via Wikimedia Commons

Today are the anniversaries of two important dates in Joyce-history: James Joyce‘s 121st birthday and the 91st anniversary of the publication of his most famous work, Ulysses. An important day for all lovers of Joyce – and those who don’t love him that much, who are, as it seems, legion. And I was one of them. In the beginning.

Cover of the 1st edition of Ulysses, 1922. Courtesy of WikiCommons

Cover of the 1st edition of Ulysses, 1922. Courtesy of WikiCommons

My first encounter with James Joyce happened to be when I was in my late teens. A friend of mine, a young priest, gave me his copy of Ulysses. He told me he loved it and I would, too. Now, James Joyce’s Ulysses is hardcore for an 18-year-old. And I hated this almost-1000-pages giant, printed on uncomfortably thin paper, at first sight. But I liked and respected my friend, and, what was more, I wanted him to respect me, too. So I took the challenge. I started to read the book. And I have to confess – I hated it at second sight as well! What on earth was this about – there were no sentences – there was no story, nothing was like I had been used to when reading novels. It felt as if somebody had abandoned me on a strange, hostile island. So I put the book in a far corner of my shelf. From time to time I started a weak-hearted attempt to read on, but never managed more than a few pages. But of course I wouldn’t admit that. When my friend asked me how far I had come and if I liked it – of course I smiled and told him that I loved it and it was very intriguing, that it was just a lot to read and would take me some more time. So it went on for almost a year – till my friend asked me to give his copy back – and invited me to an evening of discussing the book. How should I possibly do that, having not read it? There was only one solution – I had to read it – and I had to do it quickly.

“Does nobody understand?”

Last words of James Joyce on his deathbed, 1941

Well, everyone who ever tried to read Joyce knows there is no way to read him quickly. And I learned that, too. 1000 pages of twisted thoughts and twisted language – that is just insane. My usual coping strategies – speed reading, skimming the text or simply looking up the content in “Kindlers Literaturlexikon”, a famous German encyclopedia for literature, failed. Big time. So I sighed and began to read. But I couldn’t keep my thoughts on the text. I just couldn’t concentrate on it. My thoughts kept strolling around, playing with the words I read, going on a roller coaster trip.

And then I got it: You actually can’t read James Joyce. If you try it, with your analytical book critic’s mind, you will fail. James Joyce’s novels are not made for reading. They are made for drowning. Once I stopped analyzing what I read and began to just savour it, it suddenly began to make sense. The originality of approach to a topic, the interior monologues, allowing you to slip into another – even fictional – person’s mind and merging with them, the beauty of a strange grammar, strange new words – unfolded before my mind like a wonderful painting. A painting that you couldn’t cherish before, because you stood too close in front of it – but you see its geniality once you step back and casually let your eyes wander about it. That was when I began to love Joyce. The feeling of fascination and my admiration for his unusual writing skills deepened when I came across “Finnegans Wake”, my first Joyce-book I read in English without having read a German translation before. It is wonderful. The words sweep you from your feet. Puns, poetry, neologisms, entwined with rags of foreign languages – a challenge and a reward at the same time.

Reading Joyce is like jumping head over heels into a cool pool: At first the water is cold and makes you shiver, but give yourself a few minutes, and you will feel wonderful. Pure bliss. Sheer joy.

“There’ll be bluebells blowing in salty sepulchres the night she signs her final tear. Zee End. But that’s a world of ways away.”

(James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake)


There’s plenty of material about James Joyce and his works out there. Here are a few links to start with:

Watch a  snippet of a footage showing the “real” James Joyce in Paris on Youtube:

Read or download “Ulysses” from Project Gutenberg, “Finnegans Wake” here, and read other works online from the Literature Network. Find a very different approach to “Ulysses” – through maps: “Mapping Bloomsday“. The Guardian provides some interesting original reviews of “Ulysses” from the archives. And there is even an animated cartoon version of this famous book. Listen to James Joyce’s own voice reading an excerpt of “Ulysses” here. Or watch a few passages from the film “Finnegans Wake”, along with additional links and a comment by my friend Matthias Rascher, on Open Culture’s website.

In 1922, the famous playwright and avantgardist Djuna Barnes conducted an interview with James Joyce for Vanity Fair. It can be found here.

The New Yorker published an insightful article on Joyce’s special use of language: “Silence, exile, punning”.

You can also download a free podcast about Joyce’s Dublin on ITunes Open University. Or, if you happen to come to Dublin, take “A walk around James Joyce’s Dublin” and visit all the important places of his life and novels.

And if you are still not satisfied: These sites will provide plenty of additional information and links: The Modern Word, Keep on bloomin’ and The James Joyce Society and, last but not least, a wonderful collection of high-quality-articles on James Joyce from the University of Dublin.

January 4, 2013

Happy Birthday, Sir Isaac Newton!

Posted in History, science tagged , , , , , , , at 4:14 pm by faraway67

Plato is my friend – Aristotle is my friend – but my greatest friend is truth!
(Sir Isaac Newton)

Sir Isaac Newton(4.1.1642 - 20.3.1727)

Sir Isaac Newton
(4.1.1642 – 20.3.1727)
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Apples are good for your health. Everybody knows that. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away!” was the very first task I had to learn by heart in my early English lessons. But when it comes to Sir Isaac Newton, the apple isn’t simply a nutritive, vitamine-rich fruit. It is the fruit of knowledge.

Of course all of you know the wonderful anecdote about the apple that hurt Newton’s head (famously celebrated by Google with a sweet doodle in 2010) and brought him to the development of the Universal law of gravity (read more about it here). But there is much more about him.

Newton was a man with a broad knowledge and almost limitless interests. His achievements were not only on the field of science, as in mathematics, theoretical physics, mechanics and optics. He was also very interested in philosophy, alchemy and even religion and theology, and wrote about it. For 3oo years his religious and alchemistic works weren’t accessible to the public, all the more I was happy when I got to know that they are now digitized and open for everybody through the wonderful  Newton Project (You MUST check out this fantastic website!) It is awesome to see him from a totally different site. His writings are both fascinating and touching, as this list of his sins from 1662 shows.

Today is the 370th birthday of this brilliant mind and true renaissance character, and I invite you to celebrate it with a real treat: A few photos from a 1st edition of Newton’s “Geographia generalis”, published in 1672. I can’t thank my very dear friend @thesonofstig on Twitter enough for sharing this with me and allowing me to use the pictures he sent me for this post.

First page of Newton's "Geographia Generalis", 1st edition 1672

First page of Newton’s “Geographia Generalis”, 1st edition 1672

Newton's "Geographia generalis", 1st edition 1672

Newton’s “Geographia generalis”, 1st edition 1672

Newton's dedication of his "Geographia generalis", 1st edition 1672

Newton’s dedication of his “Geographia generalis”, 1st edition 1672

Illustration from Newton's "Geographia generalis", 1st edition of 1672

Illustration from Newton’s “Geographia generalis”, 1st edition of 1672


Read about Newton’s mathematical work on the calculus here.
Don’t remember the three laws of motion? Here you are! Let a dog show you how they work;-)
Get to know about Newton’s optics works, his prism experiment and the telescope he built in the article “Newton and the colour of light“.
Learn about the Newton Project in an article from the NYT.

Besides the Newton Project website, the Cambridge Digital Library holds a lot of resources about Newton as well.
Here’s also a review of my favourite biography of Newton.
And, last but not least, a wonderfully written article about newer developments in the research on gravity, “What is gravity, really?


I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
(Sir Isaac Newton)

February 27, 2012

“What immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

Posted in Literature, Nature, Photography tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , at 3:15 pm by faraway67

The Tigress: Pictures of an arresting encounter that made me think

You cannot miss him. Whenever he appears, be it in a movie or a documentary, the music changes. It becomes compelling, a bit mysterious but mighty all the same. Perhaps there is a drum solo and then – silence. Only the sound of the wind and some moving leaves are left. Everything else makes room. The stage is set. Then he comes. The king. The king of the jungle. The great tiger.

Of all big cats, the tiger is the most fascinating. Neither the lion nor the leopard or any of the others combines strength, menace, beauty and grace in such perfection. It is not very astonishing that in Asian literature and history the tiger takes the place that the lion has in our western culture. He is the animal royal. But of all big cats, the tiger is also the most endangered. Or perhaps it is not “but”, perhaps it is “because”. Perhaps it is because the tiger is so impressive, so extraordinary that people make him subject to their hunt, not only in history, but still today.

What we see today is only a poor rest of the variety and amount of tigers we once knew. Only 7 %  of what once roamed most of Asia is left. Of the 9 subspecies of tigers three are already extinct, three are very close, and all are severely endangered.

If our attitude does not change soon, for our grandchildren tigers will be mentioned in the same breath as the mammoth and the dinosaur – only a relic of distant dreams.

On the other hand, there are signs of hope. People are becoming more aware of the treasures of our planet – and of what it means if we lose them. So, when some years ago in a broad survey “Animal Planet” asked about 50,000 people in many countries about their favorite animal, it was neither the intelligent and helpful dolphin nor the faithful dog that came on top. It was the tiger. No doubt, this animal – so far above us in terms of strength and dangerousness, but then so vulnerable as well –  has now become subject to our admiration and affection.

Some time ago I went on a field day with one of my classes. Like most children, my 5th graders are fascinated by animals and so we decided to visit a zoo nearby. I had taken my camera with me, and strolling through the zoo I encountered one of those impressive animals, an awesome tigress. She was majestic but also really amiable. Believe it or not: When I whispered “Can’t you please turn a bit so that I can get a better picture of you?” – she really did! Actually she acted quite like a model. So I was able to take some really nice shots which show her beauty and casual strength. You are invited to share them with me. Enjoy!

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“Few problems are less recognized, but more important than the accelerating disappearance of the earth’s biological resources. In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it is perched.”
(Paul Ehrlich)

Bonus: Read a comprehensive article on tigers on Wikipedia and savor a video featuring breathtaking pictures of camera-trapped tigers (H/T to my friend Matthias Rascher, who dug that up). Here is also a list of  important fictional tigers and, if you want to visit the most famous of all, Shere Khan of Kipling’s “The Jungle Book”, read it online or download it for free here. And at last William Blake’s superb poem “The Tyger”, from which I have taken my headline for this post, and with which I will close, written and illustrated by his own hand.

Original by William Blake, courtesy of WikiCommons

October 4, 2011

“You came and I was crazy for you…”

Posted in History, Literature tagged , , , , , , , at 3:08 pm by faraway67

On poetry, love in the antiquities and the art of translation

John William Godward: In the days of Sappho, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful island in the Mediterranean Sea. And on this Island, there lived a gifted woman. Her name was Sappho, and her talent was so extraordinary that people called her “the 10th muse”.

No, actually I don’t want to tell you a fairy tale ;-). The idea for this blog post came to me in a more modern way: A friend of mine posted a tweet on Twitter, featuring a poem by Anne Carson. I liked it, and was reminded that I had already heard about her. Scouring my library, I quickly found what I was looking for: A little book, containing her translations of Sappho’s poems.

I reread them. Well, to be honest, I didn’t simply read them, I savoured them, drowned in the delight of Sappho’s wonderful, colorful words. And while doing that, I came to three conclusions:

The first one was not very astonishing. I already knew Sappho’s poetry, and I’ve always loved it. The words drop of her lips like honey…full of exquisite sweetness. And herself – what a stunning biography for a woman in those times, more than 2500 years ago (read more about her life here).

I was touched all the more by my second conclusion. All my life, through all my history studies, this was what I had been taught, what I believed and also taught my own students: That people in ancient times didn’t feel like we do. That it was not possible for them, living in times of plagues and early deaths, to invest as much feeling into other persons as we do today, or else they would have gone mad over the loss of one beloved after the other. That love, that deep, intimate feeling we know between men and women was an invention of the 19th century, of no use in earlier times. That there were totally different reasons that held relationships together: Caring for family and offspring, conserving land, creating power bonds between families or simply struggling for survival. If there were tender feelings between two people…nice. But it had been my firm conviction that this was not an important – or even necessary – foundation of marriage or a relationship.

And then I read Sappho’s words – in a powerful translation – and it hit me like a bullet. What she describes in her unique, artful words – is nothing less than love. The deep, intimate love we know today. Exactly the love I know. And I wondered, how I – and all my teachers before me – could have been so mistaken.

It occured to me that the reason for it probably wasn’t really “far away”. I, and all my teachers before me, used translations of ancient texts that were made mainly in the 19th or early 20th century. And even more recent translations took these as a role model for their choice of words. The language that had been used there was simply not our language. So the words about emotions, love and sexuality came out strangely cool and flat. Not at all the way we would talk about feelings so deep and profound.

That led me to my third conclusion: The importance of a contemporary translation of classic texts, and, in the same breath, how wonderful Anne Carson’s translation in “If not, Winter” is. Anne Carson, a classical scholar and poet herself, has managed beyond awesomeness to put Sappho’s words, written 2500 years ago, into a language that speaks to us. And even more: Though Sappho wrote dozens and dozens of poems in her lifetime, merely three have survived as a whole! All the others are fragments, sometimes only a few words or even letters. A challenge for every translator – and still, Anne Carson managed to create sense beyond sense in her translation…even the fragments talk to us and give us a vivid impression of what they may have sounded like once they had dropped from mellifluous Sappho’s lips.

Just listen to her:

“He seems to me equal to gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking.”
(p. 63, from poem 31, one of the rare almost complete ones.)

“You came and I was crazy for you and cooled my mind that burned with longing.”
(p. 101, fragment 48)

“I am aware…of evildoing…other…minds…blessed ones….”
(p. 9, fragment 3)

Or this one:

“….beautiful he…stirs up still things….exhaustion the mind…..settles down…but come O beloveds….for day is near“.
(p.87, fragment 43)

Or even this, only a few words left, and yet so sad and beautiful:

“……rumor…… the same time……..anxiety…..ground……daring.”
(p. 169, fragments 87 a-c)

Who could say this is flat? Who could say this is old-fashioned and lacks emotion?

Reading these texts I saw it crystal clear: People in ancient times weren’t that different from us. Of course I was right, as were my teachers: People in ancient times had a hard life indeed. It was dangerous then to invest feelings and emotions. Death came cruelly and unexpectedly. It was a craze to waste feelings when you knew there would be nothing but loss and pain. But still: People were born and died, they laughed and cried, loved and hated…just like we do. They were the same as we are. They were no different. That’s what Sappho and Anne Carson taught me. I bow in awe, humility and admiration.

“I don’t know what to do. Two states of mind in me.” (p. 51, fragment 51)

Read much more about Sappho (Essays, texts in Greek and English, and lots of links) here.

Listen to how Sappho’s poems, actually songs, may have sounded like in ancient times:

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