A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Thursday, October 26, 2006

A nice foil to a good mystery is a book of essays. In recent years, Henry Petroski has expounded on ferris wheels (Remaking the World - Adventures in Engineering), Stephen Jay Gould has shown how natural selection has prevented anybody from batting 400 over a season since Ted Williams in 1941 ( Full House)and I have learned all about the Swiss Army in John McFee's La Place de la Concorde Suisse.

For essays on food (and chewing gum), nobody tops South African-born Toronto/Barcelona/South of France resident Margaret Visser. In her 1994 book The Way We Are, I found out why Pythagoras commanded his vegetarian followers, "Abstain from beans!" And in September of that year I had the good fortune of taking Visser's photograph in her room at the Hotel Vancouver.

We discussed her mention in her book of the first sunbathing scene in French Literature. In 1902, the hero of André Gide's book L'Immoraliste took off his clothes and lay down in the sun.

This made me remember the first recorded incident in history of someone taking a sun bath. I had learned of this from my wonderful teacher, Brother Hubert Koeppen at St Edward's High School in Austin, Texas. Brother Hubert had instilled a love of history in me that had all started with such facts.

I asked Visser if she knew of that mention in ancient history involving Alexander the Great and Pindar the Poet in Thebes. Visser answered, "You have it wrong - It was Alexander and Diogenes the Cynic in Corinth." We made a $10 bet.

She wrote her address in my copy of The Way We Were and it was an address on Euclid Street in Toronto. I also noticed that the book's dedication was in classic Greek. I knew I was in trouble.

A few weeks later, a neat handwritten letter arrived from Euclid Street. Included was a copy of a page from Plutarch's Lives in both English and Greek. It read,

"....a vote was passed to make an expedition against Persia with Alexander, and he was proclaimed their leader. Thereupon many statesmen and philosophers came to him with congratulations, and he expected Diogenes of Sinope also, who was tarrying in Corinth, would do likewise. But since the philosopher took not the slightest notice of Alexander, and continued to enjoy his leisure in the suburb of Craneion, Alexander went to see him; and found him lying in the sun. And when that monarch addressed him with greetings, and asked him if he wanted anything, 'Yes, 'said Diogenes, stand a little out of my sun.'" I sent Visser a cheque for $10.

I am about to re-read one of my favourite books. This is Visser's The Geometry of Love - Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in and Ordinary Church. This beautiful book about Sant'Agnese fuori le mura in Rome is a biography of a church that is not all that ordinary. One of the floors in the canonry of the 1,350-year-old building collapsed on April 12, 1855 and 105 people, including Pope Pius IV, fell through to the floor below. No one was injured.

For me entering a synagogue, a mosque, a Buddhist temple or my neighbourhood church will never be the same after having read this book. But Visser was up to her old tricks (Brother Hubert would have approved) in gently teaching us Greek and Latin and how they have put an indelible stamp in our language Would you ever guess that it was the virtuous St Peter who was the source of the word scandal?

Simon, son of Jonah, himself nicknamed Peter, "the stone, "was later to comment on the relationship between the crucifixion of Jesus (his "rejection") and his status now as "the corner stone" of the new view of the world. People who do not believe that Jesus is the Christ foretold will not think him a "cornersone" at all, Peter wrote; they will find him a "stumbling-block." The latter expression in Greek is petra skandalou , the origin of the English "scandal"; it means a stone that people fall over. Page 83, The Geometry of Love.

Margaret Visser


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