Monday, January 30, 2012

Post-Mortem Photography

Post-mortem photography began in the 19th century, essentially beginning with the invention of the camera, and ended in the 1940s. It was most popular in Britain and America, but it did spread to Eastern Europe by the 1920s. In a broad sense, it is defined as the act of photographing a deceased person. However, in the Victorian age, it became a fine art that may seem a bit macabre to modern sensibilities.

It was popular to prop the deceased into a position so as to appear alive with the surviving family or friends posing with them in a sort of family photo. The purpose of this was not to be sensational or macabre, but to have something beautiful to remember your lost loved one by. In the context of the mid-19th century, cameras were new technology and photography a brand new art form and was not as easily available to the public as it is today. That is why they posed the dead to appear, at least in the photo, as if they were still alive.

In many cases, these photo shoots would be the only photos ever taken of the deceased and only the rich could afford to have a portrait painted. Photos in general were still not cheap but were affordable to the average person. Also, the time it took to take a photo was considerably longer in the early days of the camera, but they were considerably quicker compared to the time it would take a commissioned painter to create a portrait.

Despite the differences between painted portraits, photographs were still taken more seriously then than they are now. You couldn’t just “snap a pic” on your cell phone anytime the mood struck; rather one would have to find a professional photographer and then sit in the pose for five or more minutes without moving. Slight movements would cause blurriness in the photo. You may notice a difference in clarity between the deceased and the rest of the family because of the ever so slight movements of the living compared to the perfect stillness of the dead. Below I have included two examples of this.

A skilled photographer could alter the photo to make the deceased’s eyes appear to be open. Usually, the photographer would color in the pupil and occasionally the outline of the eye to achieve this effect. These photos are so lifelike that it is sometimes difficult to be sure who the deceased is in a group picture! I have heard that the eyes could be held open if the eyes were still intact at the time of the photo session, but to my knowledge I have not seen any examples of this and I have to question the actual logistics of doing so. The picture below is a prime example of a colored in photograph.

The earlier photos never show the coffin or any funerary fixtures. However, babies seem to be an exception; they were sometimes shown in or next to their coffins. I noticed that infants were more often depicted lying in their strollers in American photos. Children were also frequently shown with their toys. One will find that photos of children and babies appear in these photos more often than adults. This is due to much higher childhood mortality rates.

It is also quite interesting to note that the practice even extended to the family pet. I assume that it was only the very wealthy who would have come up with the money for it, but below you can see a few examples of this.

The elaborate post-mortem photography shown above survived until the end of the Victorian era. However, in the early 1900s it slowly became common to take the photo with the deceased in their coffin or in their “death bed.” This type of photograph is less jarring, at least to me, since it is more similar to the funeral service we still practice today. This type of post-mortem photography survived into the 1940s before the practice faded away.

Modern reactions to this practice are generally negative. I find this interesting since it is not uncommon to see death scene photos of dead celebrities, or even depictions of violent deaths such as suicides and accidents. Even autopsy photos are readily available and are generally sought after when a celebrity meets their end. This in contrast to the purpose of the post-mortem photography of the Victorian era illustrates the differences in cultures from then to now.

I can’t help but feel that there is much more respect shown for the dead in this old practice. The average person has no concept of what happens to the body when it is prepared for the viewing. Embalming is only the beginning; the loved one is essentially prepped like a turkey in ways that I will not detail. There is no need for the actual post-mortem photographs anymore, since we now have easy access to photos of our loved ones while alive. However, the care and personal nature of the process and customs back then are so very different than now. Death is a taboo in modern culture; we essentially avoid it at all costs and do not even so much as speak about. I observed at the recent funeral of my grandmother that during the viewing everyone spoke about everything except the reason why we were all there. If not for the open casket, one would have thought it a cocktail party instead of a funeral. Why are we so distant now from the reality of death? The genuine emotion captured for all time in these photographs speaks volumes.

The photo below is of a man and his recently deceased wife. Is it so awful that he didn’t shudder away from her and pretend nothing had happened? Over one hundred years have passed and we can still feel that man’s pain and love.

Monday, January 23, 2012

King Midas and An Alchemical Touch?

We have all heard the story of King Midas and his golden touch. Everyone knows the moral of the story is simply not to be greedy, but is that all there is to the story? What if that straightforward moral lessen is only the surface of something much deeper? Perhaps even a veiled reference to alchemy? After a re-reading of the story with these questions in mind, I have come to the conclusion that there is much, much more to it. I shall tell the story using the version found in Ovid’s Metamorphosis.

And not content with this, Bacchus resolved to leave that land, and with a worthier train went to the vineyards of his own Tmolus and to Pactolus, though the river was not golden, nor admired for precious sands. His usual throng of Satyrs and of Bacchanals surrounded him; but not Silenus, who was then detained from him. The Phrygian folk had captured him, as he was staggering, faint with palsied age and wine. And after they bound him in garlands, they led him to their king Midas, to whom with the Cecropian Eumolpus, Thracian Orpheus had shown all the Bacchic rites. When Midas recognized his old time friend Silenus, who had been so often his companion in the rites of Bacchus, he kept joyful festival, with his old comrade, twice five days and nights. Upon the eleventh day, when Lucifer had dimmed the lofty multitude of stars, King Midas and Silenus went from there joyful together to the Lydian lands. There Midas put Silenus carefully under the care of his loved foster-child, young Bacchus. He with great delight, because he had his foster-father once again, allowed the king to choose his own reward—a welcome offer, but it led to harm. And Midas made this ill-advised reply: “Cause whatsoever I shall touch to change at once to yellow gold.”

After dwelling on the story, one word came to mind--chrysopoeia. Wikipedia defines chrysopoeia as:

“In alchemy, the term chrysopoeia means transmutation into gold (from the Greek khrusōn, gold, and poiēin, to make), although it is also symbolically used to indicate the philosopher's stone as the completion of the Great Work.”

Taking this into account, this uncomplicated story takes on a whole new meaning. This is the first clue that the story is in fact a hidden warning to the possible dangers of alchemical studies. Let’s look a little deeper and see what we find.

The fable begins with Silenus becoming trapped by King Midas’s men. Silenus was the father of the Satyrs as well as the foster father of Bacchus himself.

Satyrs love wine and women; they travel in the tail of Dionysus in a state of constant revelry. They are lovers of every physical pleasure. They are joyful and happy, but in their ecstasy are dangerous to humans, as the story of Midas shows. They are frequently represented as half-man, half-goat.

The Satyrs are forces of nature; they are both good and evil depending on the circumstances. Under agreeable circumstances they can be a great benefit, but they can easily become very dangerous. In order to master yourself and progress to the higher states, you must be able to control your own nature. I like to compare Silenus with Chiron the Centaur. Chiron was the teacher of both Achilles and Asclepius, and he was renown for his wisdom and patience. Chiron represents the higher potential of one who learns to balance the wildness of the beast with your higher nature within yourself. As Niccolo Machiavelli states in reference to Chiron in his famous book The Prince:

“All the allegory means, in making the teacher half beast and half man, is that a prince must know how to act according to the nature of both, and that he cannot survive otherwise.”

I chose Ovid’s rendition of the tale because it includes the detail that Midas was previously initiated into the Bacchic Rites. This is important because his prior experience gave Midas a false sense of security when dealing with Silenus (his untamed animal nature) and Bacchus (his higher nature). Unfortunately for our King, he was not yet ready for the higher art and his ignorance led him into the curse he thought would be a blessing. This is a clear warning to the dabbler in the esoteric doctrines. It reminds us to take heed that you do not think yourself a Master when you are really still a child.

Bacchus agreed to his unfortunate request, with grief that Midas chose for harm and not for good. The Berecynthian hero, king of Phrygia, with joy at his misfortune went away, and instantly began to test the worth of Bacchus' word by touching everything. Doubtful himself of his new power, he pulled a twig down from a holm-oak, growing on a low hung branch. The twig was turned to gold. He lifted up a dark stone from the ground and it turned pale with gold. He touched a clod and by his potent touch the clod became a mass of shining gold. He plucked some ripe, dry spears of grain, and all that wheat he touched was golden. Then he held an apple which he gathered from a tree, and you would think that the Hesperides had given it. If he but touched a lofty door, at once each door-post seemed to glisten. When he washed his hands in liquid streams, the lustrous drops upon his hands might have been those which once astonished Danae. He could not now conceive his large hopes in his grasping mind, as he imagined everything of gold. And, while he was rejoicing in great wealth, his servants set a table for his meal, with many dainties and with needful bread: but when he touched the gift of Ceres with his right hand, instantly the gift of Ceres stiffened to gold; or if he tried to bite with hungry teeth a tender bit of meat, the dainty, as his teeth but touched it, shone at once with yellow shreds and flakes of gold. And wine, another gift of Bacchus, when he mixed it in pure water, can be seen in his astonished mouth as liquid gold.

Here the trouble starts. He got the gift from the gods and in no time discovered that it is in fact a curse. As I already stated, Midas was previously initiated into the Bacchic Rites and would have had some knowledge of higher spiritual matters. However, because of his request we know that he was still very much rooted in Earthly matters; otherwise, he would not have misused this opportunity.

Alchemists hid their Philosophers Stone as well as their theurgic practices behind symbolic language. Many to this day believe that they were seeking to transmute actual lead into actual gold. Midas represents one of these people who are still blinded by the possibility of turning matter into gold. The wording is very important here--Midas specifically asked that everything be turned into “yellow gold.” In Alchemical texts, you will find that they are always speaking of transmutation into “Our Gold,” or “Our Water,” etc. This differentiates that they are not speaking of vulgar gold, as Midas mistakenly asked for. He asked for what he mistook to be the Stone, and alas, Bacchus was obliged to give him precisely what he asked for.

The practice of using magic or supernatural means to acquire wealth is generally viewed as contrary to spiritual advancement. Midas’s wish is akin to using demons to make financial gain. For instance, a pact could be made with a demon known as Lucifuge Rofocale, in which he agrees to lead you to the nearest treasure, after some brow-beating, in exchange for a small payment (Ceremonial Magic, Waite). As anyone familiar with Goethe’s story of Faust knows, these pacts never end well for the sorcerer. The prologue of The White People by Arthur Machen explains that:

“Holiness requires as great, or almost as great, an effort; but holiness works on lines that were natural once; it is an effort to recover the ecstasy that was before the Fall. But sin is an effort to gain the ecstasy and the knowledge that pertain alone to angels, and in making this effort man becomes a demon. . . . Evil is unnatural in a much deeper sense than good. The saint endeavors to recover a gift which he has lost; the sinner tries to obtain something which was never his. In brief, he repeats the Fall.”

Confounded by his strange misfortune—rich and wretched—he was anxious to escape from his unhappy wealth. He hated all he had so lately longed for. Plenty could not lessen hunger and no remedy relieved his dry, parched throat. The hated gold tormented him no more than he deserved. Lifting his hands and shining arms to heaven, he moaned. “Oh pardon me, father Lenaeus! [Lenaeus is a Roman surname for Bacchus] I have done wrong, but pity me, I pray, and save me from this curse that looked so fair.” How patient are the gods! Bacchus forthwith, because King Midas had confessed his fault, restored him and annulled the promise given, annulled the favor granted, and he said: “That you may not be always cased in gold, which you unhappily desired, depart to the stream that flows by that great town of Sardis and upward trace its waters, as they glide past Lydian heights, until you find their source. Then, where the spring leaps out from mountain rock, plunge head and body in the snowy foam. At once the flood will take away your curse.” King Midas did as he was told and plunged beneath the water at the river's source. And the gold virtue granted by the god, as it departed from his body, tinged the stream with gold. And even to this hour adjoining fields, touched by this ancient vein of gold, are hardened where the river flows and colored with the gold that Midas left.

Bacchus took pity on Midas because he still possessed a pure heart and was humble enough to ask for forgiveness. However, his deliverance was not free. King Midas had to travel to the appointed river and wash himself free of sin. No one else could do it for him. The real blessing was this second opportunity to save himself, not only of the curse of the Golden Touch but also the root cause which drove him into the snare in the first place. Midas is now literally washed clean by the grace of God and his own labor. Nothing less would have saved him.

In the end, Midas grew a great deal from the events. Before, he desired gold and sought after material wealth, and the golden touch made him hate all these things. He now realized that riches can be a torment and that you can’t eat gold.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Feast of All Saints

In this historical fiction novel, Anne Rice displays her literary prowess without any of the supernatural overtones usually found in her novels. While it is a melodrama, there is enough action to keep the plot moving without that dragging feeling books or movies sometimes get if a scene lasts too long.

The story is set in the 1840s and follows the lives of a handful of young gens de couleur libre, or “Free People of Color,” a type of in-between class formed of mixed race Creoles who peopled New Orleans and Louisiana. We get to see all of the characters from many different points of view throughout the story, so you really get a good sense of the world they lived in and the myriad of cultural nuances that explain who they are and why they behave as they do.

The main characters are Marcel St. Marie, the illegitimate son of Philippe Ferronaire, a rich white plantation owner who spends his time in the country with his white family and only visits the St. Maries in the city sporadically, and Cecile, Marcel’s mother, a Haitian refugee from the revolution. Philippe keeps the family very well taken care of via his lawyer who lives in the city. Marcel’s sister Marie St. Marie, his best friend Richard, and many more memorable personalities are met with throughout the novel.

One scene that stands out to me that doesn’t give away any of the plot is a scene involving Rudolphe Lermontant, the undertaker and father of Richard, and Christophe Mercier, the famous novelist-turned-school-teacher. Christophe had allowed Bubbles, a slave, to sit in the back of his classroom and learn with the children. As a result of this, many of the parents withdrew their children from his school. Christophe could not understand why they would object to this, since many of them were direct descendants of slaves and were subjected to many of the same discriminatory laws as other blacks. Rudolphe explains that while this is so, the gens de couleur must be careful not to lumped into the same class as the slaves. They had earned their freedom and had to demand to be treated as a separate social class that was almost equal to the whites. The Americans from other parts of the country did not see a difference between them; to them they were all just blacks. Rudolphe suggested that he educate Bubbles outside the classroom so that everyone would respect him for it, and as long as he kept him out of the classroom, the regular students would be allowed to return.

This highlights the very delicate balance that their whole society existed on. The gens were not fully accepted by the whites or the blacks. They were subjected to the same unfair laws and restrictions as the freed slaves and were looked at as bourgeoisie by the same black community. Many of the gens owned slaves themselves and as we find later in the novel, many of them were plantation owners.

Rice works in many historical lessons, especially regarding the Haitian Revolution, which was quite fascinating to learn about. The early Daguerreotype photography also features prominently through the story, as Marcel is very fascinated with the process and on occasion drags Richard to Picard’s photography studio to sit for portraits. Daguerreotype photography was one of the earliest types of photography developed by Louis Daguerre in Paris during the 1830s.
                                                                     A Daguerreotype Camera

My only complaint about the novel is that some of the scenes are somewhat confusing. They jump back and forth between the past, present, and inner thoughts of the character a little too abruptly, in my opinion. The intention was to show the reader exactly what was going on in their heads, and after a second take always made sense. Aside from that, the novel flows very well and the characters are developed so fully that by the end I felt very entwined into their lives.

All of the characters are interesting, but Philippe is one of the more fascinating to follow. While he is initially rather unlikable, by the end I found him to be pitiful. He is wealthy and prestigious, but utterly miserable. His wife, Aglae, is extraordinarily cold and distant from him and he does not want to run a plantation or even live in the country. He only seems happy with Cecile in her cottage on Rue St. Anne. His life is essentially nothing but different obligations from which his only escape is Cecile and alcohol. Of course, Cecile, Marcel and Marie are kept secret from his white family and friends.

It is also very much a coming of age story. Young Marcel, Richard and Marie are all trying to find their way in life, and their trials are relatable to the present day, regardless of the differences between their world and ours.

New Orleans is one of my favorite cities and reading this atmospheric tale brought back many memories of strolling the French Quarter and the salty air blowing in off the Mississippi. Reading Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles back when I was a teenager inspired my romanticized view of the city and after finally visiting it, I was not disappointed. I am glad to have read this novel after having been there as that did add to the experience of reading the story. From that perspective, I am not sure if a reader who has never been there would react to the street names and descriptions as intensely, but I’m sure that it would give them a good taste of the Crescent City.