And then they danced, and danced, and danced…

dance1In the Year of Our Lord 1374, a deadly disease swept dozens of villages along the Rhine River — a dance plague. Hundreds of people on the streets jumped and curled their knees with no beat or music, except, probably, that in the dancers’ head. They danced, sometimes for many days in a row, until their broken feet refused to hold them. Many died of exhaustion, stroke or heart attack.

Another instance of the dancing plague (or dance epidemic or dancing mania) occurred in StrasbourgAlsace, in the Holy Roman Empire in July 1518. Around 400 people took to dancing for days without rest and, over the period of about one month, some of those affected collapsed or died.danceInterestingly, the Strasbourg authorities first decided to let folks dance all they want, hoping for a spontaneous cure.  Two dance halls were opened in the city and a wooden stage was erected. Musicians were also invited to liven up the strange event.

Very soon it became clear that the measures undertaken did not lead to an improvement in the situation. In response, the authorities banned any and all entertainment in the city, save none, including gambling and prostitution.

Many theories were presented over time to explain the cause of the dancing plaque, most prevalent of which was severe food poisoning. The article in Wikipedia gives scientific names to every suspect poison.

John Waller, professor of the history of medicine at Michigan State University,  does not agree with the poison version, however, since in both cases the symptom of the ailment was dancing rather than convulsions. In his book A Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518 Waller proposes his own theory: the dancing plague were of psychogenic (due to mental trauma) nature, and the main cause of this mass mental trauma were fear and depression.dance2

The two outbreaks were preceded by famine, floods, loss of crop. The horror of the supernatural drew people into a state of trance. In such an atmosphere, it was enough for one madman of woman to start, and immediately infect hundreds of people around.

Drawing on fresh evidence, John Waller’s account of the bizarre events of 1518 explains why Strasbourg’s dancing plague took place. In doing so it leads us into a largely vanished world, evoking the sights, sounds, aromas, diseases and hardships, the fervent supernaturalism, and the desperate hedonism of the late medieval world.

At the same time, the extraordinary story this book tells offers rich insights into how people behave when driven beyond the limits of endurance. Above all, this is an exploration into the strangest capabilities of the human mind and the extremes to which fear and irrationality can lead us.

Filing stressed much? Fearful of floods, tsunami, hurricane, atomic war? Shall we dance?

Grave Matters

relicSince the early Middle Ages, relics of the saints,  preserved for purposes of veneration as a tangible memorial, considered extremely valuable. After all, they work miracles, protect local communities and — not a  small matter — they attract pilgrims. In one way or another, these tremendous benefits turn into money, prosperity and profit in  BuddhismChristianityIslamHinduismShamanism, and many other religions.

St_MartinBishop of Tours, enthusiastically ordering the destruction of pagan temples, altars and sculptures, and later known as Martin of Tours , was a rather decrepit man. Still, he found strength to wander between the two cities. Residents of these towns have long been monitoring his moves, waiting patiently (or not so patiently) for his demise in order to acquire his remains. At times, the patience on both sides run so low that the “good Christians” of both places were ready to kill the bishop. Martin died in the village between these cities. The villagers, on whom such luck had unexpectedly fallen, managed to deceive both cities, hiding the body and inventing a convincing alibi. St Martin’s shrine in France became a famous stopping-point for pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.Elizabeth of Hungary.jpgElizabeth of Thuringia, a Hungarian princess, was so virtuous that no one doubted her posthumous transfer to the rank of saints. When she died in 1231 at the age of 24, good people of faith simply tore her body into pieces, only to put their hands on their very own chunk of saintly flesh. Speak about “tangible”!

Saint_RomualdRomuald was revered as a saint in his lifetime.  In his old age, in a small monastery Val di Castro, he mentioned of his wish to move away and settle in another city. The prospect of losing Romuald, particularly his soon-to-be remains, in favor of some unworthy neighbors, did not sit well with his comrades. Overcome with not so saintly worries, they conferred and decided that murder was their only option to keep Romuald for themselves. Unholy brothers promptly proceeded to exercise this very option. Thus Romuald was murdered… God only knows how mercifully.

Of this and more in Barley, N. (2006). : Encounters with Death Around the World. New York : Henry Holt & Company.

Encounters with Death Around the World

Within the multitude of attitudes toward grieving, Grave Matters reveals that after death the body may be preserved or obliterated, transformed into furniture, or eaten. In this cross-cultural study of how people lend meaning to death, Nigel Barley uses autobiographical vignettes and a careful blend of ethnography and comparative theories to reflect on today’s mortuary practices and issues.

Women Of The World And Kurt Vonnegut’s Wife

This post was previously published on March 8, 2013. Today is year another March 8th, International Women’s Day…

Although barely noticed in the good old US of A, March 8th is celebrated around the world as the International Women’s Day. Good old Google, bless its loopy heart, celebrates International Women’s Day with a doodle of women from around the world, have you noticed?

Millions of Russian women – as far as I remember back when I used to be one – celebrate this day as it were yet another Valentine’s Day, invented exclusively for women – mothers, wives, lovers, friends. Flowers, attention and token gifts are expected from husbands, sons, boyfriends, classmates, coworkers and, generally, all those who – for one reason or another — sometimes, without any reason whatsoever — consider themselves MEN of at least 5 years of age with no upper limit. Women’s working conditions, struggle for equal pay, and nearly everything else that this day was designated to become since early 1900’s, gets often forgotten or relinquished to the effort of activists.

All pretty flowers and Umberto Tozzi crooning something sweet with the refrain “Te Amo” – the heart-melting words of love…

vonnegut lettersNow then, what Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., one of my favorite writers, has to do with any of it? Well, it might seem rather far-fetched, tenuous  connection at best, but at certain time of his life, Kurt Vonnegut behaved like your ordinary Russian husband on March 8th…

3 days ago, a book Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, edited by Dan Wakefield, came out. In it, very early on, because it is dated January 26, 1947, there is a hilarious document… Take a look. If your sense of humor is comparable to that of Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut and, well, mine, then you’d get a kick out of it too. Very fittingly, I’ve got the book today, March the 8th, on the International Woman’s Day. The text below is a courtesy of the Harper’s Magazine — the excerpt from the book was published in October of last year.



v3And purely for fun, I’ll throw in another Women’s Day Russian clip, featuring Russian men in various stages of dishabille, wishing women everywhere Happy Women’s Day and hoping to impress them with tastefully (or not) decorated areas below their waists. The lyrics  of the song… is unimaginative at best. Turn off the sound if it annoys you.

Please be warned that flowers and various props notwithstanding, a few male bare bottoms with no adornment whatsoever might be observed.

Ikigai. The Craft of Happiness

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Ikigai is a Japanese concept meaning “a reason for being“. Everyone, according to the Japanese, has an ikigai. Finding it requires a deep and often lengthy search of self. Such a search is regarded as being very important, since it is believed that discovery of one’s ikigai brings satisfaction and meaning to life.

Ikigai is composed of 2 Japanese words:

  • Iki referring to the concept of life;
  • Kai, roughly, means realization of one’s expectations and hopes.

The Japanese island of Okinawa is said to be home to the largest population of centenarians in the world. Any wonder ikigai has its origins in Okinawa?

While researching the topic of ikigai, the authors of a new book on the movement,   Héctor García and Francesc Miralles lived among the people of Okinawa.

Héctor García is a citizen of Japan, where he has lived for over a decade, and of Spain, where he was born. A former software engineer, he worked at CERN in Switzerland before moving to Japan, where he developed voice recognition software and the technology needed for Silicon Valley startups to enter the Japanese market. He is the creator of the popular blog and the author of A Geek in Japan, a #1 bestseller in Japan.

Francesc Miralles is an award-winning author who has written a number of bestselling self-help and inspirational books. Born in Barcelona, he studied journalism, English literature, and German, and has worked as an editor, a translator, a ghost-writer, and a musician. His novel Love in Lowercase has been translated into twenty languages.

The book claiming to teach you the ways of achieving happiness and a longer life

In their book, Ikigai The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, Garcia and Miralles discern the ten golden rules of Okinawans’ ikigai.  It seems so easy to find one’s own ikigai!  (Note: The images below are not from the book.)
The Ten Rules of Ikigai:


 1. Stay active and don’t retire


2. Leave urgency behind and adopt a slower pace of life

Image result for не есть много картинки

3. Only eat until you are 80 per cent full


 4. Surround yourself with good friends


5. Get in shape through daily, gentle exercise

ikigai. 6

6. Smile and acknowledge people around you

ikigai. 7

7. Reconnect with nature

ikigai. 8

8. Give thanks to anything that brightens our day and makes us feel alive.

ikigai. 9

9. Live in the moment

ikigai. 10

10. Follow your ikigai

The Feather Book of Dionisio Minaggio

The Feather Book of Dionisio Minaggio, also referred to in Italian as Il bestiario barocco (The Baroque Bestiary), is a collection of 156 pictures made almost entirely from bird feathers augmented with pieces of bird skin, feet, and beaks. They were created between 1616 and 1618 by Dionisio Minaggio, the chief gardener of the Duchy of Milan and were originally bound into a book. The majority of pictures in the book are of birds indigenous to the Lombardy region of Italy at the time, but it also contained sets of other images depicting hunters, tradesmen, musicians, and commedia dell’arte characters. (Wikipedia)There are amusing scenes of everyday life: a patient suffering in the hands of a dentist, a man playing a melody on a pipe, and waiting for his dog to “do her things” — musicians, artisans and actors, birds and plants.
At that time, Milan was ruled by Spain, and the Spaniards were familiar with the art of the pen widely practiced in Central and South America. Although the style and methods were very different, it is possible that knowledge about this art form served as inspiration. Still, this is only an educated guess.To this day, we do not have the faintest idea why Dionisio Minaggio created such an unusual for the time book, and who, if anyone, commissioned it.

Cloning Voynich Manuscript

It's one of the world's most mysterious books; a centuries-old manuscript written in an unknown or coded language that no one has cracked. Now after a ten-year quest for access, Siloe, a small publishing house has secured the right to clone the Voynich manuscriptVoynich Manuscript, all 240 pages of it, remains a literary mystery that baffled scholars, cryptographers and code-breakers since its discovery in an Italian monastery in 1912. Recently, it was widely reported that Siloe, a small Spanish publishing house has secured the right to clone the document.  898 exact replicas of the Voynich manuscript, once completed, will be sold  for a hefty 7,000 to 8,000 euros (£6,030 to £6,891 or $7,800 to $8,900) apiece.

It will take Siloe around 18 months to make the first clones, in a painstaking process that started in April when a photographer took detailed snaps of the original in Yale. The copies will be so faithful that every stain, hole, sewn-up tear in the parchment will be reproduced.
It will take Siloe around 18 months to make the first clones, in a painstaking process that started in April when a photographer took detailed snaps of the original in Yale. The copies will be so faithful that every stain, hole, sewn-up tear in the parchment will be reproduced
An informative and well-illustrated article Will the Voynich manuscript finally be cracked? Publisher to create clones of ‘the world’s most mysterious book’ to help experts break its code  has all the details.

If interested in paging through the entire book, here is the pdf file of the entire manuscript: Voynich. Happy decoding!


Hours of Catherine of Cleves

Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves. Text: Latin. Artist: Master of Catherine of Cleves. Utrecht, Netherlands, about 1440 year. Tempera on parchment. The Morgan Library and Museum, New York / The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c. 1440, MS M.945, f. 60v, The Morgan Library & Museum.

Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves. Text: Latin. Artist: Master of Catherine of Cleves. Utrecht, Netherlands, about 1440 year. Tempera on parchment. The Morgan Library and Museum, New York / The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c. 1440, MS M.945, f. 60v, The Morgan Library & Museum.

The Hours of Catherine of Cleves is the greatest Dutch illuminated manuscript in the world. Its 157 miniatures are by the gifted Master of Catherine of Cleves (active ca. 1435–60), who is named after this book. The Master of Catherine of Cleves is considered the finest and most original illuminator of the medieval northern Netherlands, and this manuscript is his masterpiece.

Catherine of Cleves Praying to the Virgin and Child

Catherine of Cleves Praying to the Virgin and Child

This digital facsimile provides reproductions of all 157 miniatures (and facing text pages) from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves. The original one-volume prayer book had been taken apart in the nineteenth century; the leaves were shuffled and then rebound into two confusing volumes. This presentation offers the miniatures in their original, fifteenth-century sequence.

St. George Slaying the Dragon

St. George Slaying the Dragon

The manuscript was commissioned by Catherine as prayer book. It contains an amazingly rich series of devotions illustrated with especially elaborate suites of miniatures.

Guardian Angel and Demon Fighting over the Book of Life

Guardian Angel and Demon Fighting over the Book of Life

Who Was Catherine of Cleves?

Catherine of Cleves (1417–1476) is known for two things: her Book of Hours and her protracted political battle against her husband. In 1430 she married Arnold of Egmond (1410 –1473), becoming duchess of Guelders. Although she bore her husband six children, the marriage was not happy. By 1440 Catherine refused to live with him.

The war between husband and wife was sparked by Arnold’s disinheriting his only living son, Adolf (1438–1477). Rumor had it that Adolf accused his father of homosexuality. Catherine sided with her son, suspecting that her husband molested their only son. These allegations started a big scandal in the duchy. Catherine demanded freedom for her and the children along with their share of the inheritance.  Arnold categorically denied the charges and flatly refused to give in to Catherine’s demands. The cities of Nijmegen, Zutphen and Arnhem supported Catherine and her son while Roermond sided with the duke. In 1465, Catherine and her son conspired to imprison Arnold and forced him to abdicate. Adolf, becoming the duke upon inheriting the duchy, spent six years in ceaseless struggles with his father’s supporters.

In 1471, Catherine watched in horror as Arnold secured his freedom and regained his title, imprisoning Adolf in turn. Arnold died in 1473, disinheriting both his wife and their son. Catherine’s death in 1476 robbed her of seeing the release of her son. Adolf’s liberty was short-lived for he died the very next year.

St. Michael Battling Demons

St. Michael Battling Demons

Now back to the Book. Master of Catherine of Cleves possessed a remarkable sense of observation. Combined with an interest in everyday objects it created a style far ahead of its time. It would come to fruition only in seventeenth-century Dutch still-life painting. Narrative was also one of the great talents of the artist — he could tell a good story.

Mouth of Hell

Mouth of Hell

The subjects of the images in Horologion vary from religious to secular with an great number of illuminations depicting Hell and Devil in different guises. This is all the more surprising since, as a rule, Hell was never depicted in women’s  Horologions. The reason of such an unusual iconography in Catherine’s Horologion defies explanation.

Last Judgment

Last Judgment

The Book is also famous for the artist’s innovative borders, no two of which are alike.

Arnold of Egmond, Catherine of Cleves’ Husband, Praying to Christ

Arnold of Egmond, Catherine of Cleves’ Husband, Praying to Christ

St. Michael Weighing Souls

St. Michael Weighing Souls

Souls Released from Purgatory

Souls Released from Purgatory

Hours of Catherine of Cleves9

St. Lawrence

St. Lawrence

Ten Thousand Martyrs and St. Acacius

Ten Thousand Martyrs and St. Acacius

Tree Growing from Adam’s Grave

Tree Growing from Adam’s Grave

The Virgin and the Crucified Christ

The Virgin and the Crucified Christ

Hours of Catherine of Cleves92

Artzybasheff’s Neurotica

а22aBoris Artzybasheff (1899 – 1965)  had a long career as an illustrator, beginning in the late 1920s and extending all the way through the 1950s, 50 books in all, including those he wrote himself, notably “As I See.”


Boris Artzybasheff is renowned for his ability to turn machines into living beings.а

Boris Artzybasheff.jpgDuring WW II he served as an adviser to the Psychological Warfare branch.  Why psychology? Wasn’t he an artist?  See for yourself: Artzybasheff’s Neurotica:



Latent Hostility


Inferiority  Complex





Manic-depressive Syndrome











Meet The Poet: Mark Gurarie, My Son

alexej ravski4.jpgEach year the month of April is set aside as National Poetry Month, a time to celebrate poets and their craft.

This year, I have ever more reasons to celebrate poetry and poets. One poet in particular — my son Mark Gurarie. His first book of poetry, Everybody’s Automat, was published by  The Operating System.everybodysautomat_cover_fullbleedfinal-1024x900.jpgPRAISE FOR EVERYBODY’S AUTOMAT:

 Mark Gurarie’s Everybody’s Automat could be the offspring of John Ashbery and Ziggy Stardust. And yet these are poems only Gurarie can write. These poems inhabit a superhuman linguistic and psychosocial consciousness. Martians are muses, as are John Cage & planet earth, who all play supporting roles in this delightful and haunting debut collection.” – Ali Power

The pitched quality of inventiveness in Mark Gurarie’s poems, is a worthy homage to the aleatoric musician John Cage and other musicians who inspire both the silences and contemplative notes of whimsy. The poems, like the music, however, are hitched to emotional states of being that are never distended or anemic, but curiously imaginative and responsibly resourceful to the core.” —Major Jackson

Everybody’s Automat arrives like a hundred aliens wielding a thousand devices to process the glittering wreckage of the Anthropocene. The book’s as much of a party as it is a postmortem revealing how we spoke to each other, where we failed each other, and that we never stopped making music, even as everything went irreversibly wrong. Whether Mark Gurarie is one of us, one of them, or a little of both, I can imagine no fitter or better poet to “confront the alien that speaks of ourselves.”

—Mark Bibbins

His publisher, The Operating System, takes a great pride in its authors and promotes them the best it can. Here is an excerpt from an impressively extended conversation with  Mark conducted by The Operating System  [RE:CON]VERSATIONS :: OF SOUND MIND :: PROCESS AND PRACTICE WITH EVERYBODY’S AUTOMAT’S MARK GURARIE

What’s a “poet”, anyway?  What is the role of the poet today?

Mark: This is a tough question because in the US, poetry is relegated to the margins of cultural and social production; whereas in many other countries and cultures, poetry is more central. Here, outside of exciting popular developments like the emergence of slam and spoken word—and I actually think you might be able to include the vibrancy of hip-hop here—poetry is famously ignored by non-poets.

That said, American poets have a special position as being the voice of the exterior, the underbelly, even if their exile from whatever the “mainstream” might largely be self-imposed.  In this sense, then, poets are able to use their craft to move in a freer way than many of their artistic peers who are more closely attuned to the market, and furthermore, the relationship between poet and broader American society is always evolving.

As much as can be said about the disengagement of say, modernist poets in the early 20th century, from political or social discourse, you have strains that speak for under-represented voices, that lift the mirror to society at large, like those of the Harlem Rennaissance, for instance. In a similar way, the poet today has the opportunity to employ the craft to explore and challenge the status quo, and in that, to bear witness. To me, it’s incredibly exciting that Claudia Rankine’s Citizen was actually on the NYT’s best-sellers list (two different times, I believe), or that  Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke” went viral.

In its own way, and occasionally, the culture at large looks to the poets and lets them in; the onus is on the poets to use their craft and their perspective to make work that is meaningful, challenging and makes a genuine attempt to capture an underlying truth.


The poet doesn’t look like this anymore…

The Curious History Of Stripes

stripes9In 1310, in French town of Rouen, one hapless shoemaker was sentenced to death for having been caught wearing a striped garment. This unusual case shows how the striped clothes were treated in the Middle Ages.

Michel Pastoureau, one of the best specialists in medieval symbolism, wrote a lively study of stripes, The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric, a unique and engaging perspective on the evolution of fashion, taste, and visual codes in Western culture.stripes.jpg

The Devil’s Cloth begins with a medieval scandal. When the first Carmelites arrived in France from the Holy Land, the religious order required its members to wear striped habits, prompting turmoil and denunciations in the West that lasted fifty years until the order was forced to accept a quiet, solid color.

The medieval eye found any surface in which a background could not be distinguished from a foreground disturbing. Thus, striped clothing was relegated to those on the margins or outside the social order—jugglers and prostitutes, for example—and in medieval paintings the devil himself is often depicted wearing stripes. The West has long continued to dress its slaves and servants, its crewmen and convicts in stripes. (Columbia University Press.)

Carmelites were, at worst, stoned and, at best, met with whistles and all sorts of intimidation. The conflict came to the attention of Pope Alexander IV, who forbade wearing of striped robes by the Supreme Decree. The stubborn Carmelites did not abide by the papal prohibition. The Vatican persisted and the final bull of Pope Boniface VIII forbade wearing strips by all Catholic monastic orders in the world, without exception .

Scene of court life with musicians playing viola

GERMANY – CIRCA 2002: Scene of court life with musicians playing viola, dulcimer, fife, drum and bagpipes, miniature from Manesse Code, manuscript, 1304, Germany. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

In the preface to his book, Pastoureau writes that preserved since XII-XIII century, abundant documentation shows that striped clothing was considered shameful, degrading and downright diabolical. Striped attire was worn by executioners and prostitutes. In medieval Europe striped suits were worn by all sorts of outcasts — circus performers, jesters, lepers, cripples, heretics and illegitimate children.
stripes2To this day, there is no consensus about the origin of stripes’ bad reputation. Pastoureau suggests that it came from the free interpretation of biblical quote  Do not put on two tunics (Mark 6:9.) Another hypothesis, secular one, is more “practical”: striped clothing conceal the silhouette, and this alone could be regarded as an attempt of camouflage. However, neither the first nor the second hypothesis can explain the reasons for the medieval Europeans’ hateful attitude toward striped garments.stripes3Diabolical nature of strips extends to the striped animals as well. Not only black, but striped cats, tigers, snakes and hyenas were considered to have diabolical traits. Although in the Middle Ages only very few Europeans knew of the existence of  zebras, Catholic naturalists ranked zebras as “devils of animals.” Unsuspecting zebras were relinquished to this category until the age of Reformation when the new generation of zoologists dispelled this belief.
stripes4The strips shed its diabolical designation at the end of the XVIII century. Revolution occurred not only in France and the New World, but also in the minds of ordinary people. Stripes were no longer seen as taboo. A fashion for striped fabric, from clothing to furniture upholstery and walls, took off with vengeance.
stripes5However, in 19th century, coming a long way from the Middle Ages, the fear of stripes in society was embodied in the striped prison uniforms.  Around this time, the black-and-white stripes familiar from old movies came into vogue, marking the men in a way that would remain embedded in public memory. stripesSlowly, as time went on, prisons began to eliminate the stripes for more neutral colors and the familiar worker-like jumpsuits. New York switched to grey in 1904 because, according to an article in Slate, the stripes were “a badge of disgrace.” Many states kept the stripes longer; North Carolina kept them until 1958.