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Research in motion: from my “serendipity” notebook

Pronunciation:/ˌsɛr(ə)nˈdɪpɪti/

noun

[mass noun]  the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way:  a fortunate stroke of serendipity

[count noun]  a series of small serendipities

These definitions, plucked from the Oxford English Dictionary’s online edition, are accompanied in characteristic OED fashion by an account of the word’s “origin”:  “coined by Horace Walpole, suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of a fairy tale in which the heroes ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things that they were not in quest of.””  http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/view/entry/m_en_gb0756730#m_en_gb0756730

Already, then, my interrogation of the significance of “serendipity” exemplifies serendipity, offers itself as an example of what the word, from its putative “origin,” means to say.  I certainly was not in quest of a fairy tale that, in more years than I care to count as a student and teacher of comparative literature, I had never read, in any language (could this in any way be connected to the fact that I still have outstanding student loans?).  How peculiar, then, to be prompted (no doubt in part by my recent reading of Clay Shirky, a great champion of the cognitive surplus behind Wikipedia), to find myself clicking from the OED entry on “serendipity” to the free encyclopedia’s account of The Three Princes of Serendip.  Allow me to recount some of what I learned.

The Three Princes of Serendip is the English version of the Peregrinaggio di tre figluoli del re di Serendippo published by Michelle Tramezzino in Venice in 1557.  Tramezzino claimed to have heard the story from one Christophero Armeno who had translated the Persian fairy tale into Italian adapting Book One of Amir Khusrau’s Hasht Bihisht of 1302.  The story first came to English via a French translation, and now exists in several out-of-print translations.  Serendip is the Persian name for Sri Lanka.

I am riveted as I go on to read that

The story has become known in the English speaking world as the source of the word serendipity, coined by Horace Walpole because of his recollection of the part of the “silly fairy tale” where the three princes by “accidents and sagacity” discern the nature of a lost camel.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Three_Princes_of_Serendip

So, what do a lost camel and the future of journalism have in common?  Stay tuned.

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More context for Haiti: the Lisbon earthquake, 1755 (part 2)

More excerpts from Wikipedia‘s substantive entry on “1755 Lisbon earthquake,” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1755_Lisbon_earthquake   

Effect on society and philosophy   

The earthquake had wide-ranging effects on the lives of the populace and intelligentsia.  The earthquake had struck on an important church holiday and had destroyed almost every important church in the city, causing anxiety and confusion among the citizens of a staunch and devout Roman Catholic city and country, which had been a major patron of the Church.  Theologians and philosophers would focus and speculate on the religious cause and message, seeing the earthquake as a manifestation of the anger of God.   

The earthquake and its fallout strongly influenced the intelligentsia of the European Age of Enlightenment. [Cf the recent posts on Voltaire and Rousseau in response to the Lisbon event, which brings us to another, oft-cited thinker on Makurrah’s Blog.  You guessed it.] …. The concept of the sublime, though it existed before 1755, was developed in philosophy and elevated to greater importance by Immanuel Kant, in part as a result of his attempts to comprehend the enormity of the Lisbon quake and tsunami.  Kant published three separate texts on the Lisbon earthquake.  The young Kant, fascinated with the earthquake, collected all the information available to him in news pamphlets, and used it to formulate a theory of the causes of earthquakes.  Kant’s theory, which involved the shifting of huge subterranean caverns filled with hot gases, was (though ultimately shown to be false) one of the first systematic modern attempts to explain earthquakes by positing natural, rather than supernatural, causes.  According to Walter Benjamin, Kant’s slim early book on the earthquake “probably represents the beginnings of scientific geography in Germany.  And certainly the beginnings of seismology.”   

Werner Hamacher has claimed that the earthquake’s consequences extended into the vocabulary of philosophy, making the common metaphor of firm “grounding” for philosopher’s arguments shaky and uncertain:  “Under the impression exerted by the Lisbon earthquake, which touched the European mind in one [of] its more sensitive epochs, the metaphor of ground and tremor completely lost their apparent innocence; they were no longer merely figures of speech” [Hamacher, Premises, 263].  Hamacher claims that the foundational certainty of Descartes’ philosophy began to shake following the Lisbon earthquake.   

Hamacher’s “The Quaking of Presentation” in Premises:  Essays on Philosophy and Literature from Kant to Celan is among the most authoritative and reliable sources I know on these matters.

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More context for Haiti: the Lisbon earthquake, 1755

As it turns out, Wikipedia has a substantive entry on the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, an event that I have been using as a reference point for reflection on the Haiti instance:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1755_Lisbon_earthquake   Even cursory research into the Lisbon quake and its multiple impacts can provide some historical and practical context for the seemingly incomprehensible events unfolding in Haiti. 

Here are a few excerpts from the Wikipedia entry on “1755 Lisbon earthquake,” which includes endnotes and a list of references that are also of interest. 

Travel time map for the tsunami waves of 1 November 1755 

In 1755, the earthquake struck on the morning of 1 November, the Catholic holiday of All Saints’ Day.  Contemporary reports state that the earthquake lasted between three-and-a-half and six minutes, causing gigantic fissures five metres (15 ft) wide to appear in the city centre.  Survivors rushed to the open space of the docks for safety and watched as the water receded, revealing a sea floor littered by lost cargo and old shipwrecks.  Approximately forty minutes after the earthquake, an enormous tsunami engulfed the harbour and downtown, rushing up the Tagus river, “so fast that several people riding on horseback…were forced to gallop as fast as possible to the upper grounds for fear of being carried away.”  It was followed by two more waves.  In the areas unaffected by the tsunami, fire quickly broke out, and flames raged for five days…. 

Shocks from the earthquake were felt throughout Europe as far as Finland and North Africa, and according to some sources even in Greenland and in the Caribbean.  Tsunamis as tall as 20 metres (66 ft) swept the coast of North Africa, and struck Martinique and Barbados across the Atlantic.  A three-metre (ten-foot) tsunami hit Cornwall on the southern English coast.  Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, was also hit, resulting in partial destruction of the “Spanish Arch” section of the city wall…. 

The royal family escaped unharmed from the catastrophe; King Joseph I of Portugal and the court had left the city, after attending mass at sunrise, fulfilling the wish of one of the king’s daughters to spend the holiday away from Lisbon.  After the catastrophe, Joseph I developed a fear of living within walls, and the court was accommodated in a huge complex of tents and pavilions in the hills of Ajuda, then on the outskirts of Lisbon.  The king’s claustrophobia never wanted, and it was only after Joseph’s death that his daughter Maria I of Portugal began rebuilding the royal Ajuda Palace, which still stands on the site of the old tented camp.  Like the king, the prime minister Sebastiao de Melo (the Marquis of Pombal) survived the earthquake.  When asked what was to be done, Pombal reportedly replied, “Bury the dead and heal the living,” and set upon organizing relief and rehabilitation efforts.  Firefighters were sent to extinguish the raging flames, and teams of workers and ordinary citizens were ordered to remove the thousands of corpses before disease could spread.  contrary to custom and against the wishes of the Church, many corpses were loaded onto barges and buried at sea beyond the mouth of the Tagus.  To prevent disorder in the ruined city, the Portuguese Army was deployed and gallows were constructed at high points around the city to deter looters; more than thirty people were publicly executed.  The Army prevented many able-bodied citizens from fleeing, pressing them into relief and construction work. 

Executions in the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake. At least 34 looters were hanged in the chaotic aftermath of the disaster.

The king and the prime minister immediately launched efforts to rebuild the city, hiring architects, engineers and organizing labor.  In less than a year, the city was cleared of debris.  Keen to have a new and perfectly ordained city, the king commissioned the construction of big squares, rectilinear, large avenues and widened streets – the new mottos of Lisbon.  When the Marquis of Pombal was asked about the need for such wide streets, he is said to have replied:  “One day they will be small.”

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