Thursday, July 21, 2005

One of the great pleasures

of the kind of academic work I do is that you occasionally come across some stunningly good book that is so weird and memorable and little-known that you feel it is your personal property. I get this pretty often. (I think my favorite one last year was August Weismann's essays on heredity, which are so lucid and smart and funny and self-aware that you feel like you're right there in the same room with him, though they were published in the 1880s. Weismann was immensely well-known and respected in his day, but hardly anyone reads him now--more's the pity.) It's like a kind of real-world ghost, the way that some books bring their authors to life so vividly and forge such a connection with the person reading: of course that why a lot of canonical novels are still read (Austen and Dickens), but it's even more fun when it's some relatively obscure nonfiction book whose author's jumping off the page at you. All this is a long way of saying that I cannot resist pasting in another quotation from Timothy Nourse, who published a volume called Campania Foelix in 1700. It's an amazing book, I think everyone should read it who's interested in this period at all (Garland reprinted it in their garden book series, and it's also available through EEBO or ECCO or one of those on-line databases). I could give you pages and pages, but I won't. Here's the kind of thing, though, that just makes me fall out of my seat laughing in horror and sympathy--Nourse has such a distinctive way of thinking about things, you feel you could pick him out of a police line-up on the basis of the irritable and put-upon expression on his face:

I have been told Abroad by some German Gentlemen, that it was a usual thing amongst them, in the Warmth of their Debauches, (which in those Countries are excessive) to drink their Healths out of the Barrel of a cock’d and loaded Pistol, with Finger on the Triquer, whilst they discharge the Wine into their Throats; so that upon the least Miscarriage of an unsteady Hand, the Bullet would not fail to do its Duty. This Point of Bravery being over, they all give a Volly on fire together, and then charge afresh, and so on. If this kind of Gallantry were in vogue amongst us, I believe we should have fewer Drunkards than now there are, and by going out of this World by a Draught of Flame, they would be better prepar’d to drink of it for ever in the next.

Social Darwinism avant la lettre!

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