Monthly Archives: February 2020

Denis Diderot and his magnificent dressing gown

Hi everyone just dropping a quick blog off the cuff today, if you’re wondering part two of Mt Tambora is still set to drop next week, Tuesday morning NZ time. I can only imagine all New Zealanders will know our national lottery has jackpotted up to $50 Million on Saturday – and must be won (shhh American readers, to us this is a LOT of money). A pessimist might choose to blog on all the people who won big, spent up large, and now live off unemployment cheques- embittered and mournful for the days before the win. I choose to share a different kind of story altogether…. Well slightly less cynical anyway.

Denis Diderot (5th October 1713 – 31st July 1784) was a French philosopher, critic and writer. He edited an encyclopedia, and was a highly regarded thinker of the Age of Enlightenment – my understanding is he was an early atheist writer who stated we don’t need religion to be moral people (possibly why he is the centre of Fyodor Karamazov’s rambling tale to Father Zosima in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov? This is a theme of that book). He also loved the way science was throwing light into the deep crevices of our knowledge. This tale is about none of that however – it is about his dressing gown.

In 1769 Diderot wrote an essay ‘Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown, or A warning to those who have more taste than fortune’. Diderot, the story goes, was gifted a marvelous new dressing gown by a friend, who had noticed his old gown was looking a little threadbare. Diderot recounts how this affected his outlook stating “poverty has it’s freedoms, opulence has it’s obstacles”.

At first the new dressing gown made Diderot feel rather special -as a poor academic he was not terribly accustomed to the finer things – but soon he began looking askance at other objects in his sitting room. First it was the rough old paintings on the wall, which must be replaced by a Rubens of an old man (less well known than his voluptuous ladies) and a Claude Vernet seascape. This was all fine, but then Diderot started thinking about how much nicer a leather chair would look than the old straw chair he had. One day, while sitting in his comfy armchair, reading a book and occasionally looking up to marvel at his paintings – a thought occurred to him what he really needed in his life was an ostentatious mirror over the mantelpiece. His library of books, for many years torturing a couple of lengths of fir, were soon after housed in a fitting bookshelf (fit for a queen no less – Diderot sold his library to Catherine the Great later in his life. Catherine let him keep them till he passed, and paid him a stipend to be their ‘librarian’).

Next he had replaced some old clay statues with an antique bronze of Venus. Some time after he was looking at his growing pile of bills at his old table, Diderot decided the thing to do would be to buy a nice new bureau to store them in. Another day, while staring up from his armchair, it struck Denis Diderot a Geoffrin clock would look grand atop his mantelpiece. Next, a writing desk was called for. On this went till the only item which represented the old Mr Diderot was a worn out old rug. It was at this point Diderot realized he had become captive to a cycle of runaway consumerism, that he had lost his love of the things he had previously prized – and that he felt trapped under the weight of items he thought would bring him great joy.

a la Geoffrin clock

To quote Diderot on his old dressing gown “Why didn’t I keep it? It was used to me and I was used to it. It molded all the folds of my body without inhibiting it; I was picturesque and handsome. The other one is stiff, and starchy, makes me look stodgy. There was no need to which its kindness didn’t loan itself, for indigence is almost always officious. If a book was covered in dust, one of its panels was there to wipe it off. If thickened ink refused to flow in my quill, it presented its flank. Traced in long black lines, one could see the services it had rendered me. These long lines announce the litterateur, the writer, the man who works. I now have the air of a rich good for nothing. No one knows who I am”

In 1988 an anthropologist studying consumerism came to the same conclusions. We may buy things because they are fit for purpose, but we choose ‘that’ specific thing because something about that thing reflects us. If our things become incongruent i.e. we buy a fancy dressing gown, it can lead to a downward spiral of consumerism in an effort to match everything to the new, nicer thing. The anthropologist, Grant McCracken named the effect after it’s most famous victim – The Diderot Effect.

Someone in New Zealand this Saturday may soon discover this effect, in spades. I don’t begrudge them – I’ve bought my ticket in the hopes of being that unfortunate soul saddled with $50 Million burning a hole in their pocket. I can’t help but think though the two most important things Saturday night will bring to someone (or several someones?) is the freedom from doing the things they don’t want to do, and the opportunities to do the things they really want to.

Good luck to all the other gamblers out there (not really, I want to win). Enjoy the win, and spend that money in a way which will bring you joy.

Mount Tambora, a Butterfly Effect in Four Acts (acts I and II)

This Tale is a script for an episode of the Tales of History and Imagination podcast. Click here for the episode

Hi folks welcome to Tales of History and Imagination, my name is Simone. Let’s consider today’s tale a work in four acts. We are going to start with a bang – then look into a series of unexpected outcomes that came from this horrific incident.

Act I
Act one begins early in April 1815 on the island of Java, modern day Indonesia. Like much of the world Java had been caught up in the worldwide conflict that was the Napoleonic wars. It passed from Dutch rule to the French, then back to Dutch again after 1814, via the conquering Britons, in 1811. On 13th August 1814 the Convention of London handed the Dutch their lost Indonesian colonies back – and just shy of eight months later they were in the process of taking control re-establishing themselves in the Dutch East Indies. While it must have been some relief to the Dutch and English alike that they no longer had Bonaparte to worry about, they realized the Dutch had some way to go to re-establish themselves in their powerhouse trading empire in the Spice Islands. When they heard cannon fire in the distance they must have wondered who was up to mischief, where, and to what end? Soldiers were sent out to deal to whatever militia, rogue 5th estaters, or interloper was out to dethrone the Dutch. I don’t know how these soldiers, presumably British rather than Dutch, fared – I only really know Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore mentions them in his memoirs – but there was no interloper. Mother earth was about to king hit the region with a type of ferocity not seen for a very long time.

Sir Stamford Raffles

On April 10th 1815, the supposed cannon fire was revealed as the prelude to the eruption of Mount Tambora, in Indonesia’s lesser Sunda Islands. To say this was a huge eruption is an understatement. It was the biggest volcanic eruption in at least 10,000 years. People talk of the neighboring Krakatoa eruption of 1883 as a big deal… well, it was, but it was a baby compared to Mt Tambora. Krakatoa happened at a time when telegraphs carried news around the world in the blink of an eye, at a time when greater democracy ensured an easier spread of news. Tambora was the real news story – at a time when technology simply was not equipped to disseminate information fast enough.

So, let’s try to quantify this eruption. Though it continued to fume and spit out debris from 10th April till mid July, most of it’s payload was released in the first three days. In terms of pure power Mt Tambora went off with an equivalent of 33 Billion tons of TNT, 2.2 million times the ‘little boy’ atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. To go full on ‘Tales of science and Imagination’ for a second; in three days the eruption blew with 1.17 x 10 to the power of 20 joules – or if like me you’re not a scientist – approximately equivalent to 3 months worth of the whole world’s power consumption in our time, over a space of just 3 days.

Via three massive columns of fire, a plume of smoke which reached 40 kilometers into the atmosphere, and via pyroclastic flows moving at a speed of 160 kilometers per hour, the volcano would eject 175 cubic kilometers of debris. If you collected all the ash in an area the size of Rhode Island, the pile would be close to 56 metres high – almost half the height of Providence, Rhode Island’s highest building, its ‘Superman’ building. Convert that – New Zealand podcast and all- to Auckland, we would be looking at a pile 161 metres high, just under half the height of our Sky Tower -as wide as our super-city. It went off with a big bang heard 2,600 kilometers away, and left a once 14000 foot tall mountain with a caldera, a giant indent – over a kilometer deep and a little over 3 kilometers across.

Did this cause widespread death and destruction? Very much so. One source I read claimed 10,000 people died instantly in the blast, near the island and on the neighboring island of Lombok. The blast caused a tsunami, which rolled through the Java sea at a height of around 2 metres. Ash fell on islands as far as 1,300 kilometers away in significant quantity. Enough so that it would collapse roofs 400 kilometers from the blast with it’s weight. Acid rain would fall in the region. Water supplies would be ruined. Forests, grasslands, and crops would be decimated – and all up perhaps as many as 80,000 further locals would die of starvation in the wake of the eruption.

Now I want to be a little careful, mindful of the fact act one has been all about statistics. To quote Stalin one death is a tragedy, one million deaths a statistic. This, for all the stats was 80,000 tragedies. A loss of life on a huge, traumatic scale – a tragedy felt for generations in the region. All up this tragedy is believed to have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in the long run. But I do have some ground to cover yet. Three more acts. One final stat I will share are as follows – while Mt Tambora threw a lot of ash into the atmosphere, it also released massive amounts of sulfur, chlorine and fluorine into the world. This would lead to 1816 becoming known as ‘The Year without a Summer’ as it drastically affected the whole of the planet. For the rest of the episode I want to leave the people of Indonesia, with my love, respectfully, to rebuild and move on – and turn my attention to three flow on effects of this tragedy. Welcome folks to Tales of History and Imagination Season 1, Episode 8. Mt Tambora – a butterfly effect in four acts.

(Theme music)
Act II.
To explain the next chapter in this story I feel I need to digress for a second on the topic of The Grand Tour. If you were a young aristocratic man in England– this was almost exclusively a boy’s thing – growing up in the 17th or 18th Centuries; your final stage in preparing for manhood would be going off on the grand tour. You would usually spend six months wandering the continent – seeing the sites in France, Italy, possibly Spain, some Germanic duchies, maybe the Balkans, Mediterranean, or Baltic states. This was usually followed by a stay of three years in some aristocratic enclave over on the continent, to sharpen up your language skills and cultural knowledge. Aristocrats would mix with other aristocrats, sow their wild oats, and eventually return to their estates more worldly wise. The Napoleonic wars put an end to grand tours, and when they came back into vogue decades later – the spread of railways across the continent and the development of companies like Thomas Cook and Sons, offering cheap package tours meant it was never again going to be the preserve of just the wealthy, aristocratic few.

During the time of the Napoleonic wars people really started feeling like they were missing out on an important cultural milestone, even those who had not participated begun to get the itch to travel – and no I don’t mean the kind of travel you get as cannon fodder in a war. In 1809 a young aristocrat named George Gordon – titled upon his uncle’s death the 6th Baron Byron (an inheritance of title and status but no wealth) gets the travel bug and sets off his own Grand Tour, war or no war. He skips war torn Europe, opting for the Mediterranean, via Portugal, Spain, Malta – on to the Ottoman Empire in the East.
When he returned to Britain in 1811 he began to write long poems on his adventures, and one particularly- Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage – is a massive hit. In Childe Harold (a childe is a medieval word for a young knight) Byron captures the zeitgeist of a generation sick and tired of endless wars, many in a culture war with their parents’ generation. He established the ‘Byronic hero’; a brooding, mysterious, almost superhero type – for more modern examples think James Bond and Batman. Most importantly his poems allowed the travel hungry to live vicariously through him, in a way an HGTV doer-upper show allows cash strapped millennials to ponder on what they would do with some run down old house. Lord Byron became very rich, super famous, and influential very quickly. He wrote of his success “I awoke one morning to find myself famous”. I’m digressing to point out Byron particularly was a rock star of his era. Percy Bysshe Shelley not so much in his own lifetime, but he would be seen posthumously as one of the greatest. Mary Shelley would write several novels- I’ve only read her most famous one myself, and what a novel it is.

So, our rock star authors set off for Geneva, Switzerland, early in the summer of 1816. They left behind a bitingly cold, wet, miserable, hazy England – If you look at Joseph Turners paintings from 1816-18 you get a sense of the atmosphere – I’ll post some pictures in the script on the blog page if you’re interested. Lord Byron set out first, followed a week later by Mary Shelley (then still Mary Godwin), Percy Shelley, and Mary’s half sister Claire Clairmont. While they would have hoped for warmer weather, they arrived to weather like none of them would have seen before. Mary would write back to her other sister Fanny, who was back in London

“One night we enjoyed a finer storm than I had ever before beheld. The lake (Geneva) was lit up- the pines on (Mount) Jura made visible, and all the scene illuminated for an instant, when a patchy blackness succeeded, and the thunder came in frightful bursts over our heads in the darkness”.

The unseasonable weather, which would roll on, not having fully cleared from the atmosphere for several years – was caused by the build up of greenhouse gases from the volcano. In Geneva spring, then summer did not come that year. The Shelley circle were greeted by the coldest summer in their records (which date back to 1753). By a howling, incessant Northeast wind. By almost never ending rain – Geneva saw 130 days of torrential downpours between April and September 1816. It rained so much that year that, despite the snow never thawing and running down the mountains – Geneva flooded.
Violent thunderstorms became the norm, which, while not reportedly dislodging the summer snow caps, left trees strewn around the edges of the lake.

On June 13th 1816, Lord Byron – I always think of his later hero Manfred – or Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ clung on to the balcony staring nature in the eye. He composed for a later canto of Childe Harold

“The sky is changed – and such a change! Oh night,
And storm, and darkness. Ye are wondrous strong…
And now again ‘tis black, – and now, the glee
of the loud hills shakes with its mountain mirth,
As if they did rejoice o’er a young earthquake’s birth.”

Finding themselves at risk in venturing out- one day Shelley took a boat out on the lake and was lucky not to drown – a portent of future things for him just six years later, they did spend a lot of time indoors. June 16th the suggestion was made the party should have a competition to write the best Gothic tale.

On June 18th, another tempest tossed night, the party settled around the fireplace while Lord Byron recited from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s latest book – a collection of older unpublished pieces which included the gothic tale Christabel, and the orientalist fragment Kubla Khan. The party took in the vibe – and truthfully a little opium. Tripping balls, Percy Shelley ran terrified from the room at one point where he was sure he saw Mary had taken off her top and had eyes where she would normally have nipples. Mary Shelley however was letting her imagination run away with her on a whole other level. In the midst of an electrical storm she began to imagine a young scientist born in Geneva. As he reaches maturity his mother passes and he throws himself into his studies. Obsessed with the thought of being able to bring loved ones back to life he creates life from the dead, through a secret method which includes a massive jolt of electricity. He is immediately horrified at the monster he has created. To go beyond that, the Romantic writers of this era – Romanticism is the name given to the Shelley’s and Byron, they were a second wave following the likes of Coleridge, Wordsworth and Robert Southey – had a great love of the concept of the sublime. The sublime is the overwhelming feeling a human gets when facing up against the unstoppable force of nature. Frankenstein has the sublime in spades. Stormy nights, majestic mountains, gale force winds feeding into the tension of a scene. If you haven’t read it I won’t drop any spoilers… well ok, just one, from the book – Victor sees a storm, note the similarities between this and her letter to Fanny…

“we witnessed a most violent and terrible thunderstorm. It advanced from behind the mountains of Jura; and the thunder burst at once with frightful loudness from various quarters of the heavens. I remained, while the storm lasted, watching its progress with curiosity and delight. As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak, which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump

This Tale is part one of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here