the Avram Davidson electronic newsletter

Vol. I No. 5
31 January 1997
ISSN 1089-764X

Henry Wessells, Editor.
Cooper Wessells, Honorary Secretary.

Published bimonthly.
Contents copyright 1997 The Nutmeg Point District Mail and assigned to individual contributors. All rights reserved.

P.O. Box 43072
Upper Montclair, NJ 07043-0072

Or: Use the electronic address for requests to be added to or dropped from the mailing list.

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With this issue, The Nutmeg Point District Mail formally establishes the Golden Nutmeg Award for "an outstanding work of fiction or nonfiction published in the preceding year that combines good writing, eclectic scholarship, and wit," more or less within the tradition of Avram Davidson's essays and fictions. Accordingly, with all due fanfare, the winner of the 1997 Golden Nutmeg Award is Robert W. Carrubba's translation of Exotic Pleasures, Fascicle III, Curious Scientific and Medical Observations by Englebert Kaempfer, published in 1996 by Southern Illinois University Press. A brief, and admittedly eccentric review follows this article. In subsequent years, the award may be presented in both categories (fiction and nonfiction).

Nominations, including a copy of the book, should be sent by publishers or authors to the editor at the address above.

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Exotic Pleasures, Fascicle III, Curious Scientific and Medical Observations by Englebert Kaempfer

Translated with an introduction and commentary by Robert W. Carrubba
224p., with illustrations and bibliography.

Southern Illinois University Press
Post Office Box 3697, Carbondale, IL 62902
Telephone 618.453.2281

Today, even the most adventurous voyager is navigating inside a known and circumscribed world. A passing glance at books by desert travellers over the past century brings this point home: the starting point is the unchanging pre-modern world of Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888), which I have in the Boni Liveright thin-paper edition of 1921 with the introduction by T.E. Lawrence, whose Seven Pillars of Wisdom, A Triumph (1926) marks the next stage of the conversion of the timeless to the ordinary (my copy is the 1935 Doubleday Doran edition for "general circulation"). Then jump to Wilfred Thesiger's Arabian Sands (1959), which recounts his travels in the Empty Quarter from 1946 to 1950, and notes the writings of de Monfried, Bertram Thomas, Lawrence and Glubb Pasha in the course of this splendid elegy for the Bedu and the nomadic lifestyle.

My own motorcycle jaunt to Siwa Oasis in 1983 (site of the ancient Oracle of Zeus Ammon) was guided by Ahmed Fakhry's charming antiquarian account in The Oases of Egypt, Volume I, Siwa Oasis (1973), and Volume II, Bahriyah and Farafra (1974), gave me an itinerary and background for further jaunts to the oases. I consider myself fortunate to have made that trek before the asphalt road replaced the trail that Alexander followed, but have been reluctant to publish any sketch of these caprices.

This reluctance is further confirmed by the final book in this century of desert travel, Sahara Unveiled, A Journey across the Desert, by William Langewiesche (Pantheon, 1996), which is a thoroughly post-modern account of a voyage from Algiers to Timbuktu to Dakar, and seems to illustrate that for some the surface of the globe has become a mere literary convention. The details of travel in the Sahara in Atlantida (L'Atlantide) (1920), by Pierre Benoit, or in The Sheltering Sky (1949), by Paul Bowles, seem fully as authentic as the notionally true events of Langewiesche's book.

(How, you may ask, do these remarks on the literature of desert exploration bear upon a landmark work of late 17th century scientific observation? Precisely because readers and travellers alike must be careful not to impose preconceptions and past readings upon present experience, in fact, not to allow literature to overshadow the possibility of real experience and observation.)

When Englebert Kaempfer (1651-1716) travelled from Sweden in 1683 through Russia to Persia, Arabia, India, the East Indies, Siam, and Japan before returning to Holland in 1693, the world he crossed was depicted in maps that often contained blank spaces or else omitted salient features. Similarly, the intellectual map of that period contained numerous blank spaces, although important changes were occurring in the late Renaissance intellectual circles in which Kaempfer was trained: observation and scientific methodology were replacing a climate of antiquated knowledge and credulity. In the course of his voyages, first as part of the embassy from Charles XI of Sweden to the Shah of Persia, then as Physician for the Dutch East India Company, Kaempfer observed and accumulated the material that formed the five fascicles of the Amoenitates Exoticae or Exotic Pleasures, which was published shortly before his death. The high point of this work appears to the sixteen observations recorded in the fascicle translated here.

A short list of the subjects reveals the diversity of Kaempfer's interests, experiences, and talents. "The Scythian Lamb, or the Borometz Fruit" refutes the myth of the zoophyte, a plant that was thought to bear as fruit a lamb with a fleece of exceptional fineness. Carrubba's notes report a 19th century discussion of this subject, The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary: A Fable of the Cotton Plant (London, 1887). "The Torpedo of the Persian Gulf" is an account of a marine ray, and Kaempfer almost takes the prize for the first discussion of electricity when he discusses the ray's defensive faculties: "So powerful and so swift is the force of the horrifying exhalation that like a chill bolt of lightning it shoots through the handler." Other observations include "Muminahi, or Native Persian Mummy" (on collecting bitumen in the caves of Persia), with Kaempfer's views on the efficacy of this standard item in the pharmacopeia of the day, tropical medical disorders, the harvest of asafoetida and "Dsjerenang, or Dragon's Blood," "Two Snake Dances of India," early accounts of Acupuncture, Moxa, and the history of Japanese tea, as well as "A Defense of Ambergris," a chapter on Persian and Indian intoxicants, and a hilariously credulous account of how to ensure sexual fidelity through the "Magic Spells of the Makassars."

Robert W. Carrubba's translation of this richest portion of Kaempfer's Exotic Pleasures reads fluently: it remains idiosyncratic without being obscure. The introduction gives an interesting summary of Kaempfer's educational background and career, information on the circumstances surrounding the Dutch factory on Dejima, in Japan, and the history of how Kaempfer's manuscript history of Japan came to be published in London in 1727, after the English collector Sir Hans Sloane bought Kaempfer's manuscripts and collections. Carrubba's notes to each observation range from the terse to the elaborately digressive, with frequent citations from material alluded to by Kaempfer, or from later works on similar topics. The complex mixture of shrewdness and gullibility displayed by Kaempfer in this splendid and entertaining volume will intrigue and inform the most jaded reader. Kaempfer's medical acumen and insistence upon observation and skepticism are as notable as his fortitude in bearing his own many illnesses. A rewarding glimpse into an earlier world, this book goes on the shelf next to Robert H. van Gulik's Sexual Life in Ancient China, A Preliminary Survey of Chinese Sex and Society from ca. 1500 B.C. till 1644 A.D. (1974), itself a peculiar volume, first published in 1961, with all explicit scenes rendered in Latin. But that's another story.

Henry Wessells

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Reno Odlin has suggested that the editor of the District Mail entertain nominations for a Wooden Nutmeg Award, but with all due respect, there are enough good books clamoring for attention that this suggestion must await a more leisured period.

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Curiosae Anatomicae; or, A Footnote to "Dagon" and "The Dragon Skin Drum"

The New York Times of Sunday 22 December 1996 reported the death at age 94 of Sun Yaoting, the last eunuch of the Imperial Chinese court, noting that even after the collapse of the Manchu dynasty, Mr. Sun continued to serve the last Qing emperor, Puyi (or Pu Yi), who later became the puppet ruler of Manchukuo under the Japanese, and whose biography is recounted in The Last Manchu. Readers of "Dagon" and "The Dragon Skin Drum" will recall Davidson's asides on the persistent interest of American servicemen in China in the anatomy of these imperial relics.

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Freshwater Oddities ; or, A Footnote to "The Prevalence of Mermaids" & "The Case of the Mother-in-law of Pearl"

During your editor's recent bibliographic researches into the life of 19th century French photographer and aeronaut Nadar -- who was incidentally the inventor of aerial photography (in his memoirs he wrote that he shed everything that weighed down the balloon, including all his clothes, to get the first successful vue aerienne of Paris) and the first to use electric light in portrait photography and in photographing the catacombs and sewers of Paris in 1865 -- what should turn up in the November 1951 issue of Popular Photography (see, I haven't lost the thread of this sentence) but a a few examples of what may be best described as "early cheesecake" photographs by his son Paul, including one of a lorette reclining against an underwater background, her legs encased in a diaphonous sheath, spotted trout style, and signed "Mes compliments, Lurline."

One wonders if Prince Roldran Vlox might in fact have made a visit to Paris, after all.

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