Friday, September 25, 2015

How Pleasure Works by Paul Bloom

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This book has two central premises, one of which I think makes a lot of sense, and is pretty well supported by the author. The second premise is more tenuous, and I think ultimately comes across more as speculation than not.

The author’s goal is to explore and explain the way that humans experience pleasure, which is unique among the animals. While there are some things that we share - a love for food, sex, affection - there are many pleasures which are exclusively human. For example, there is a reason one does not train an animal by reading it poetry as a reward.

The first premise is fascinating, and does indeed explain some strange things about human behavior: Humans believe in “essentialism,” that is, in the hidden essence of things. This is why a clever forgery is worth less than the original. It may be every bit as beautiful as the original, but it doesn’t contain the “essence” of the artist, if you will. Likewise, an object owned by a celebrity can be worth far more than it would be otherwise. Sometimes, this seems to be superstitious; other times, it is just how we all tend to think. Otherwise, we would buy that forged Picasso for the same price.

Essentialism leads naturally to a belief in transcendence. If things have essences that go beyond their physical constituents, then transcendence is possible. Bloom proceeds to look at the uniquely human forms of pleasure, and connect them to essentialism and transcendence. As I mentioned above, this part of the book - which is most of it - is fascinating. Bloom is a professor of psychology, so he is able to speak the language of that discipline. I believe he does make a strong case for what is going on in our brains in many of these instances.

The second premise is that essentialism and transcendence came about as a result of evolutionary pressures. There are some links here that do kind of make sense, like essentialism as a heightened belief in individuals. However, at multiple points, Bloom has to assert that the trait or ability that he is discussing must have arisen, not as an adaptation, but as an accidental side effect of an adaptation. This is where the argument gets into the weeds a bit.

For a great deal of human traits and behavior, Darwin works pretty well as an explanation. For animal behavior and traits, it actually works exceedingly well. There is a reason that “behaving like an animal” is a logical statement. If one responds strictly to evolutionary pressures, one is indeed acting like an animal - and animals do.

It is when we cross the line into uniquely human psychology that we find this weird mix. Certainly, we do have a lot of the animal still in us. Those pressures have not gone away. However, we do find these essentialist and transcendent properties which either seem evolutionarily irrelevant, or in other cases seem to work against the biological pressures. Thus, Bloom is forced to look for ways that these would have been “unintended” side effects, which all arose and managed to come together in just the right way.

If you are sure that everything about human psychology results from evolution, you have to at least make this argument. If you believe - as I do - that there is a facet of our human nature which is not adequately explained by evolutionary pressures, but represents a created, spiritual side of our being; another explanation seems more plausible. I’m not arguing that my belief is the only possible conclusion. I find it to be less of a stretch, however. Your mileage may vary.

Enough about the grand scope of the philosophy in this book. The fun is also very much present in the details.

One alternate explanation to essentialism for certain pleasures is that of social signaling. I found this interesting, because I wrote a post as part of my Modesty Culture series in which I argued that social signaling was a crucial part of the culture. Bloom mentions another modern example of this phenomenon, which is - surprise! - also popular in some homeschool circles.

Once you start thinking about signaling, you see it everywhere. I’ve sometimes wondered if signaling can explain why expensive private schools teach Latin. The schools insist that it is an intellectually worthy pursuit, but the alternative is that it’s popular just because it hits the sweet spot of difficulty, association with power...and total uselessness, making it an ideal signal of status. If Latin turned out to help children learn other languages and improved their minds in certain ways, then public schools might start to teach it, and a proponent of signalling theory would predict that private schools would give it up, and have their students spend an hour a day on Sanskrit or calligraphy.

Nothing against knowledge of the Latin roots of English words, obviously. But those have been taught for years in public schools. Bloom does have it right, I believe. If Latin was associated with the unwashed masses, rather than stuffy British schools of the 1800s, then another pursuit would have been chosen.

I sometimes wonder if most of the Common Core goals would have been embraced had expensive private schools adopted them, rather than common public schools.

Bloom also spends some time on the psychology of sexual pleasure - and this section is quite good. One point he makes is that from time immemorial, “bed tricks” have been a theme of literature. (From Leah and Rachel on down.) Shakespeare utilized it in a number of plays, including Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well. 

Another facet of essentialism comes into play when we select mates. While we are looking for certain traits, we are attracted to specific people with them. We fall in love, not with the trait, but with the individual. That is why my wife won’t leave me the minute she finds someone who rates slightly higher in her desired traits. Bloom quotes Steven Pinker here:

How can you be so sure that a prospective partner won’t leave you the minute it is rational to do so - say, when a 10-out-of-10 moves in next door. One answer is, don’t accept a partner who wanted you for rational reasons to begin with; look for a partner who is committed to staying with you because you are you.

This fundamental irrationality of love is what makes human love what it is. The darwinistic animal seeks to be the fittest and to mate with the fittest. The transcendent human seeks “true love,” that is, irrational love in a sense.

I won’t quote all the poetry which comes to mind, but suggest my post on Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Bloom also quotes Helena, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgment taste—
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste.
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.
As waggish boys in game themselves forswear,
So the boy Love is perjured everywhere.

It is the essence a person is believed to contain which determines the value, not the objective qualities.

Essentialism also proves to be an explanation for a phenomenon which has puzzled economists. Humans (rationally) value cash more than they do the items in can buy in many cases. I have no love for most Nissan vehicles, for example, so I would rather have the cash value of one than the actual vehicle. If you ask people, they will typically respond this way.

However, we psychologically value gifts of items over gifts of cash. This is economically irrational, but makes sense if we believe that the gift of an item contains an essence of the gift-giver. There is a lot more that is outstanding in this section which I won’t quote. If you want to understand the parallel psychological economy that runs parallel to the economic one, this whole chapter is excellent.

The chapter that probably resonated with me the most was the one on the arts. That the arts are a uniquely human endeavor is indisputable. No other species engages in artistic endeavors for their own sake and satisfaction. For what it’s worth, the human appreciation of transcendent art is one reason I am a theist. As Bloom notes in the book when discussing religion, “[T]here is more to religion than belief and ritual and society...This is the notion that there is more to the world than what strikes our senses. There is a deeper reality that has personal and moral significance.” There is something that transcends, and our own souls and psyches reach toward that.

There are some amusing anecdotes about the peculiarities of the human response to art. One, naturally, is the story of Joshua Bell in the Subway station. 

A world class player wasn’t recognized, and thus, most people failed to appreciate what they were hearing.

We do this with all the arts, however. The pleasure is in what we believe we are hearing, seeing, and so on. A forgery will never be as good as the original. The same piece, written by an obscure artist, will be believed to have less merit than if Beethoven were the composer.

For us violinists, we have the case of some rather famous “forgeries.” Fritz Kreisler was one of the great violinists of the first half of the 20th Century. Early in his career, he wrote a number of encore pieces which are now considered part of the standard repertoire of any concert violinist. However, at the time, he did not dare to attach his name to them. Instead, he attributed them to relatively obscure composers of the past. Eventually, the truth came out, and some of the critics who had enjoyed the compositions were appalled. They claimed that “anyone” could write a piece “in the style of” another composer. Kreisler allegedly dared them to try.

Just for fun, here is one of the best of Kreisler’s works. He claimed it had been written by 18th Century composer Gaetano Pugnani. 

The essentialism governs this case as well. The “essence” of Pugnani, and the creativity and effort he was believed to have put into it was a key part of the appeal of the piece. For some, that appeal was greatly reduced when it was revealed that a young performer was the author. For us now, recognizing that Kreisler was a great violinist, his “essence” in the pieces now raises their value in our esteem.

As Bloom puts it, “Much of the pleasure that we get from art is rooted in an appreciation of the human history underlying its creation. This is its essence.”

Another fascinating chapter is devoted to the exploration of the human tendency toward imaginary worlds. A study Bloom cites seems to indicate that the default state of our brains is toward daydreaming. (It isn’t just me!) When we direct our brains toward a task, we focus, but when we stop, our minds wander where they will.

This does not apply just to adults either. While cultures differ in the specifics, all children, universally around the world and across all known times, play make-believe. And these are not just practice at skills that will be needed, as in the way kittens practice fighting. These are genuine flights of imagination that may or may not ever have a practical application. (These are probably related to our empathetic ability, so imagination isn’t exactly useless. But it does appear to be unique to humans.) Furthermore, Bloom points out what I have known for a long time: children - even infants - are remarkably good at telling the difference between reality and imagination, between real and make-believe.

This fact seems to have been lost on the most restrictive Christian Fundamentalists, including the group my wife spent time in. Many parents didn’t let their children read any fiction at all - but particularly not ones with magic or talking animals or other “unrealistic” elements. They were worried that their children wouldn’t be able to tell fiction from reality. This fear is so removed from any reality of child development (or human nature) that one wonders if the parents themselves were having difficulty distinguishing reality from the utopia in their minds.

Not only do humans spend time daydreaming, we often spend our leisure hours in imaginary worlds created by others. Most people watch a lot of television. I prefer books in most cases, but both are often imaginary worlds. Likewise for video games, movies, theater, and so on. In part, we enjoy these versions because, as Clive James  (quoted in the book) puts if, “Fiction is life with the dull bits left out.”

This book cites a lot of other books and authors. A few authors that I reviewed are listed below.

There is plenty to think about in this book. Essentialism can be problematic for mankind when we essentialize others (as in racism), but an understanding of how essentialism works can also help us avoid superstition and make better judgments. If we recognize when we are basing our values on a belief about what something “really” is, we can discern whether this judgment is truly justified, or whether it is a false valuation.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Canyonlands National Park and John Wesley Powell

In the summer of 1869, naturalist John Wesley Powell led a group of ten on a truly epic exploration from southern Wyoming to Nevada, following the route first of the Green River, and then the Colorado River. The journey carried them through some of the most scenic parts of the western United States, including the areas that are now Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, Ouray National Wildlife Refuge, Dinosaur National Monument, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Lake Powell (named after, well, Powell), Grand Canyon National Park, and Lake Mead. It is hard to think of another river trip of that length that would contain such an endless succession of gorges and dramatic scenery.

In the middle of that journey is a rugged and nearly inaccessible labyrinth of mesas, canyons, and cliffs. That place is now known as Canyonlands National Park. The Green and Colorado rivers enter the park from the north, and combine in the middle of the park, tucked away inside a remote canyon. If you want to see the confluence, you have to either hike or take a kayak.

Canyonlands became a national park in 1964, during the Johnson administration. In this case, unlike many parks, Canyonlands was not a National Monument prior to becoming a park. Thus, there was the usual political wrangling over the boundaries, and the current park is a bit of a compromise. Conservationists hope to eventually extend the park to encompass the area all the way to the plateau rims which make for a “natural” boundary to the park.

We only had a single day to explore Canyonlands during our trip back in May, so we barely scratched the surface. There are four “districts” within Canyonlands, and they are not close to each other by car. In fact, two of them are accessible only by four wheel drive vehicles, hikers, and intrepid whitewater boaters. We visited the most popular section, the Island in the Sky, because it was close to Arches National Park, where we were camping.

Island in the Sky is aptly named. It is located on top of the mesa at the north end of the park. From the south, it does indeed look like a giant island or reef, cut into a triangular shape by the two rivers as they wind toward their junction. From the top, one can look down over the labyrinth - a view that stretches well over 100 miles on a clear day.

Down below the cliff, there is a second level, a mesa below the mesa. Named the White Rim for the color of the rocks at the edge, it contains a dirt road nearly 80 miles long. The best way to do the drive is to get a permit to camp at one of the sites along the way. I would love to come back and do that some time.

For most of this trip, we had intermittent thunderstorms, and our day at Canyonlands was no exception. Fortunately, we avoided most of the rain until we were driving back. The weather did, however, make for great lighting and contrast for photography.

I am particularly proud of this one, with the cell dropping some rain into the canyon.

Monument Basin and the White Rim

The kids.

The view through Mesa Arch

Rain over toward Arches National Park and the La Sal Mountains

If the Grand Canyon did not exist, Canyonlands might well be considered one of the most spectacular canyon systems in the world. One wonders if Powell, floating down the river, felt as though every day brought a new canyon, each more spectacular than the last.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Devil's Postpile National Monument and the Need for Conservationists

Devil’s Postpile National Monument isn’t particularly well known outside of California, for some reason. Even within California, many people scratch their heads when you mention it. Perhaps this is because California boasts several better-known National Parks, and these eat up the publicity. Perhaps it is because of the remote location. Or perhaps it is that most people visit the area to ski, and the place is buried under many feet of snow.

It’s also a small place, not even two square miles, and accessible only by a narrow one-lane road. (They run shuttles during the peak season.) Nonetheless, it is a fascinating place, beautiful to look at, and intriguing for its geologic and human history.

The postpiles themselves are basalt columns well over 100 feet tall, which cooled and cracked into regular hexagonal shapes about 100,000 years ago. Much later, a period of glaciation would scrape the top off the formation, exposing the columns, and leaving a neatly scraped "tile floor" at the top. The whole history of the geology of the Sierra Nevada is fascinating in itself. The National Park Service has a good summary of the forces that shaped the area around the Monument. 

The human history is more recent, and is interesting in its own right. Originally, Devil’s Postpile was part of what would eventually be designated Yosemite National Park. President Abraham Lincoln placed the area under government control in 1864. Back then, there was no such designation as a National Park or National Monument. That would come later.

In 1890, Yosemite was designated as a National Park. At that time, the fairly unknown postpile formation was within the boundaries. However, there were other interests at work. Mining operations, loggers, and ranchers eyed the federal forest land as resources to be obtained. As a result of their lobbying pressure, Yosemite’s boundaries were redrawn, opening significant areas - including Devil’s Postpile - to development. Within a few years, plans were made to dam the San Joaquin River to provide power for mining operations. This proposal would have flooded the entire valley, and the postpiles would have been lost to public knowledge. To add insult to injury, the miners proposed dynamiting the formation to obtain materials for the dam.

Fortunately for posterity, conservationists including John Muir himself took notice, and put political pressure on President William Howard Taft (hardly a conservationist himself), and convinced him to establish the Monument.

This was possible due to the Antiquities Act, which was passed a mere five years prior.

When asked about the difference between a National Park and a National Monument, most people - if they are even familiar with the subject at all - will note that National Parks are selected for their scenic and recreational value. National Monuments can also be selected for their historical or cultural significance, which is why Fort McHenry (setting for The Star Spangled Banner) is a National Monument, but will never be a National Park.

There is another difference, however, and it is of interest to us lawyer sorts: National Parks can only be created by Congress. National Monuments can be created Congress, but also by the President, under the Antiquities Act. This has led to some significant friction between the political parties. I remember when President Clinton created the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in Utah back in the 1990s. The other party went ballistic, claiming abuse of power and all that. Never mind that nearly every president of both major parties since Theodore Roosevelt has used the Antiquities Act power.

There is also an interesting dynamic at work here. Because - as in the case of Devil’s Postpile - there are often economic interests opposed to the designation, areas are quite often protected first as National Monuments. A conservationist need only convince the President of the value, and the deed can be done. If Congress were to be involved, the big money machine would rev up and little would get done.

However, once the place is protected from development as a National Monument, there is little to prevent it from becoming a National Park, assuming it otherwise meets the standard. A later Congress can agree to the change in designation, claim credit for feel-good legislation, yet pay no price from industrial donors, because the Monument is already protected.

Just in my lifetime, many former National Monuments have become National Parks. (See, for example, Pinnacles and Capitol Reef, which I blogged about previously.) The most noticeable effect in my experience is a greater level of staffing, which is a plus.

There are many things about the United States that I love, from our freedoms of speech and religion, to our quirky court system. I think, however, that we should also be proud of our National Parks and Monuments. We led the world in recognizing that natural wonders should not belong to the wealthy alone, but to all of us. The history of Devil’s Postpile is merely one example of the tendency of those focused on the accumulation of wealth to run roughshod over the earth, and never notice the beauty and wonder of creation. I am thankful for those like John Muir, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Virginia McClurg, and many other men and women who helped ensure that my children would be able to enjoy these wonders.

A few pictures from our trip:

The postpiles.

The kids and me. Picture by Paul Swanson.

Tiles at the top, scraped flat by a glacier.

Rainbow Falls. Not much water this year due to the drought.

 The kids on the trail to Crystal Lake, above Lake George and Lake Mary. This is not in the Monument itself, but nearby.

Goofing around with her first fish. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Pre-Shakespearean Drama - Part 2 (Non-Cycle Plays)

Source of book: I own this.

This is the second installment of plays from Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas, edited by Joseph Quincy Adams. Since many of the plays are in Middle English, and the entire rather long book has small print, I decided not to attempt a straight read-through. Instead, I have tackled it piecemeal. In the first installment, from about three years ago, which you can read here, I read the early Medieval liturgical plays (translated from the original Latin), the first plays in the vernacular, and the Craft Cycle plays.

This time, I read the four “Non-Cycle” plays contained in this collection:

Duk Moraud
The Conversion of Saint Paul
Mary Magdalene
The Play of the Sacrament

Each of these plays has its own flavor, and its own intended instructional purpose. They were written in the 14th and 15th Centuries, and were intended to be performed at more permanent locations than the traveling Craft Cycle plays. It is believed they were popular at celebrations and other great events, and a wealthy nobleman could enhance his reputation by his sponsorship of a production. Some things never change.

One of the indications that these plays would be less suited to the wagon-based traveling shows is the increased use of special effects. Even today, staging these properly can be a significant undertaking. Saint Paul, for example, calls for pyrotechnics, thunder and lightning, and two fantastic devils. Mary Magdalene calls for a ship to “sail” around between the stations. The Play of the Sacrament calls for an oven that leaks blood before bursting, and a talking face of Jesus appearing in the oven. One wonders how this was pulled off in those days. The record shows, however, that the effects were part of the attraction, and the Non-Cycle plays were wildly popular. In many ways, the drama of the age of Shakespeare was rather constrained and small scale in comparison. It would not be until the grand operatic spectacles of the 19th Century that the sheer scale and sumptuousness would be surpassed.

These four plays fall into two categories: Miracle Plays, and Saint Plays. The non-Cycle Morality plays are treated separately in this collection, so those will wait until next time.

The Saint plays tell of the lives - and gruesome deaths in some cases - of the saints. The two here have little blood, however.

Like the Cycle plays, these plays have multiple “stations,” with the action moving from station to station as the setting changes.

Duk Moraud

This play is a bit of a heavy-handed tale of lurid sin, a miracle, and conversion. The titular duke engages in incest with his adult daughter, they conspire to murder his wife (her mother), and generally live a debauched life thereafter. She becomes pregnant by him and gives birth. Fearful of discovery, he convinces her to kill it. (The child doesn’t even get the dignity of a gender…) Later on, a miracle of some sort occurs (parts of the manuscript are lost), and he repents.

The surviving fragment of this play is pretty short, so there is not that much to say about it, other than that even after Moraud repents, he still seems to blame his daughter for the whole thing. “The woman you gave to me…” remains a popular sentiment.

The Conversion of Saint Paul

This play closely follows the biblical account in plot, but fleshes out the conversations between Paul and his servants, the encounters with Ananias, and the theological change in Paul’s heart. While the theological parts are clearly influenced by Medieval Catholicism, including the popular conception of demons, most of it is pretty straightforward. A modern version as acted out in churches across the world today wouldn’t look substantially different.

Mary Magdalene

Unlike The Conversion of Saint Paul, this play deviates substantially from the text of the Bible. Included are many scenes from the mythology that sprang up around her centuries after the fact.

Primary in these myths is an obvious mistake: Mary Magdalene was not the same person as Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Likewise, she is not the same person as the unnamed “sinner” who anointed Christ’s feet. I suppose this confusion stemmed from the fact that Mary was a popular female name, with no fewer than five individuals in the Gospels with that name.

Around the 4th Century CE, these three somehow became merged into one character, representative of fallen womanhood. Any guess which sin was associated with her? Why, sexual sin, of course! That is the primary female failing, after all. Traditionally, she is depicted with red clothing, in contrast to Mary, Christ’s mother. The scarlet A wasn’t entirely an invention of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The Penitent Magdalene by Dominico Tintoretto (1598)
A fairly typical picture with a combination of penitence and sexiness.

In the Bible, Magdalene is said to have been cured of seven demons, and to have been one of the women who supported Christ’s ministry out of her own funds. So, more likely than not - if one were to take the ancient view of the world and update it to reflect modern knowledge - one could say that she probably was a wealthy woman, who was cured of a mental illness.

Magdalene was also notable for being the first “apostle.” As Saint Augustine put it, she was the “apostle to the apostles,” the messenger chosen by God to reveal the resurrection to the (male) disciples. This was extraordinary at the time, because women were not permitted to testify in court. As in other cases, Christ turned the patriarchal gender roles on their heads.

As to the telling of the tale in this play, Mary is melded with the other Mary,  becoming the sister of Martha and Lazarus. They are left wealthy orphans when their father dies. Mary succumbs to the lure of the alehouse, and embarks on a series of sexual escapades. She enjoys her encounters (thus establishing her as a true hussy), but eventually meets with Christ, who brings her to repentance. From there, the Biblical account predominates, again with the story of Martha and Lazarus, rather than the more limited references to Magdalene herself.

There are a few interesting lines in this play. First is one that I noted in my earlier installment of this book:

All the villains worship Mohammed.

This is an amusing anachronism, considering that Mohammed wouldn’t live until 600 years after Christ, and thus would have been unknown to New Testament characters - to say nothing of the Old Testament characters in some of the Cycle plays. But, never mind. It makes a nice shorthand for “heathens,” or in many cases, “Jews.” The irony there is a bit thick.

In this case, it is King Herod who plays the villain early in the play. He rails at his advisors for talking too much:

No noyse, I warne yow, for geveyng of me!
Yff yow do, I xal hovrle of yower hedes, be Mahondes bones,
As I am trew kyng to Mahound so fre.

In another anachronism, Pilate threatens to have any law breaker “hangyd and draw.” That is, hanged and drawn. This punishment wasn’t used by the Romans, who prefered crucifixion. But it was certainly well known to the audience of the play.

While the anachronisms show the change over time, other things have stayed very much the same. While Middle English words often have grown archaic, or mean something entirely different now (“benign” meaning “happy”), but the expletives haven’t changed in 800 years. Neither have certain terms and methods of verbal abuse.

Satan makes an appearance, and he is in a bad mood, as his minions have let Christ redeem Magdalene. In the time honored tradition of villains with incompetent minions, he lets them have it:

A, owt! owt! and harrow! I am hampord with hate!
I hast wyl I set on iugment to se!
With thes betyll-browyd bycheys I am at debate.
How! Belfagour, and Belzabub! com vp here to me!

Take it from the Devil himself: there is no greater insult than to call a man a woman…

The Play of the Sacrament

This is perhaps the best known of the miracle plays. A couple of rich merchants, one Christian and one Jewish, meet, and come to an agreement. The Jewish Jonathan checks all three boxes of the generic Medieval heathen:

He is Jewish. He is a skeptic in that he doesn’t believe in miracles. He worships Mohammed. 

Hey wait! If you remove “Jewish,” that sounds an awful lot like the common shorthand for “bad heathen sorts” today. They are either Muslim or Atheist…

Naturally, he is due for a serious comeuppance.

The Christian, Aristorius, does share one negative trait with Jonathan: he too is a merchant, and therefore assumed to be greedy. Not in the same way quite that Jonathan is assumed to be greedy because he is Jewish in addition to being a merchant, but close enough.

So, they meet to discuss some trades they want to do with each other, and Jonathan asks that Aristorius bring him the host from the Eucharist. When the price is raised high enough, Aristorius is overcome with greed enough to agree to steal the host.

This done, Jonathan and his servants nail the bread to a board and attempt to cook it. The bread bleeds, and bursts the oven, and eventually sticks to Jonathan’s hand enough that he cuts the hand off in his panic.

After Christ appears, Jonathan seeks out the priest, who heals the hand and converts Jonathan and his servants. Aristorius is overcome with guilt, and repents as well.

There are some pretty funny sections in this play. My favorite was the digression when the quack doctor appears on the scene. He has his servant out there drumming up business, making ludicrous claims about the curing effect of the doctor’s medicines. He hears through the grapevine that Jonathan has a little problem, and seeks him out in his home. Jonathan tries to shoo them away, but the servant is persistent.

Syr, ye know well yt can nott mysse,
Men that be masters of scyens be profytable.
In a pott yf yt please yow to pysse,
He can tell yf yow be curable.

Now, really. The man has cut off his hand, and the quack wants to examine his urine to see if it can be fixed…

One final reference warrants a mention. Jonathan lists a whole host of spices he has brought up from Asia. Many of these are familiar, a few are in infrequent use these days, but one stood out.

The text refers to “ganyngale.” I had my suspicions about what this was, and I turned out to be correct. This is an archaic word for galana, a relative of ginger. It is commonly used in Thai and other South Asian cuisines, and is just becoming known again in the United States. My favorite restaurant in Thai Town, Los Angeles, makes a superb Tom Yum Gai, which uses fresh slices of the root. There is nothing else quite like galanga. Unlike Jonathan, we can find the fresh root, rather than just dried pieces, in many Asian groceries here in California. 


Stay tuned for the next installment. My ability to read these is getting better, but it is still a slog, as I have to say stuff out loud sometimes to “hear” what the word should be. A few more years of this, and I will, I hope, be able to read Chaucer in the original reasonably fluently.