Happy New Year!
1941 was a fatal year for authors.
- Virginia Woolf (b. 1882), fearing that her mind was going, drowned herself near her home in Sussex
- James Joyce (b. 1882) died in Zurich following an operation for a perforated stomach ulcer; he had gone to Switzerland to escape the Nazi occupation of France
- Marina Tsvetaeva (b. 1892), starving to death, hanged herself in Yelabuga, Tatarstan
- Karin Boye (b. 1900), brilliant Swedish poet, took an overdose of sleeping pills
- Henri Bergson (b. 1859) died of bronchitis; he had rejected the offer of the Vichy regime in France to exempt him from its anti-Jewish laws
- Sir Rabindranath Tagore (b. 1861) died in Calcutta
All the works of these authors that were published before the end of 1941 come out of copyright this morning in Britain and the EU countries, and in any other country where the term of copyright is 70 years from the death of the author. This will not, of course, include works that were published posthumously, such as diaries or letters. Nor will it include most or all of the English translations of works by Tsvetaeva, Boye and Bergson. Rabindranath Tagore translated his own works out of Bengali to English, but I believe there have also been some translations of Tagore by other authors.
Karin Boye I came across when I was putting together an anthology of lesbian poetry. There is a website dedicated to her with the Swedish texts of her poems and also the English translations by David MacDuff. MacDuff's translations are also online on his personal site.
I quite liked Tagore when I was young, but can't comfortably read him now. It has been said that he is a bad translator of his own work, which seems quite likely.
I read Bergson's book 'Laughter' when I was a university student; I'd like to post a passage from it here, but I cannot find out the date when Fred Rothwell, one of his English translators, died. The original French text is available online.
Other authors who died in 1941 include:
- Bessie Marchant (b. 1862), author of numerous girls' adventure stories. I know I read some of her books when I was a teenager, but I don't remember which. I suspect they were most of them written to a very similar formula. I know that I didn't read Lesbia's Little Blunder (1934), because I would have certainly remembered the title.
- P. C. Wren (b. 1875). His adventure story Beau Geste was still popular when I was at school; I remember borrowing it off someone in my class
- Elizabeth von Arnim (b. 1866), author of Elizabeth and her German Garden and a number of other works. My mother collected her books. I have to admit I have never read any of them.
- Sir Hugh Walpole (b. 1884). I have never read any of his books, either. But I heard his name when I was very young, and never forgot it: some friends of my parents had called their large and drooly bulldog 'Hamlet'. They had a son called Jeremy too.
- A. J. A. Symons (b. 1900), author of The Quest for Corvo, which I dimly recall reading many years ago. (I had a short-lived passion for 'Baron Corvo''s writings when I was about eighteen.)
Several important scholars died in 1941:
- George Lyman Kittredge (b. 1860) wrote an excellent study of witchcraft beliefs which is still well worth reading: Witchcraft in Old and New England (1929)
- Evelyn Underhill (b. 1875) is best remembered for her book Mysticism (1911) [electronic text]; she also edited the Middle English mystical treatise The Cloud of Unknowing [electronic text].
- Benjamin Lee Whorf (b. 1897) is remembered as a leading exponent of the theory that the structure of a language organises the speaker's perception of the world.
- Sir Arthur John Evans (b. 1851) is famous as the excavator of Knossos; he wrote extensively on the culture of the Minoans and other topics
This brings me to the anthropologist Sir James Frazer, the author of The Golden Bough (first edition 1890, but there were two further revised and expanded editions). I find Frazer irresistible. His theories may not always stand up to inspection, but his materials are endlessly fascinating.
Here is a passage from Frazer's Folk-lore in the Old Testament:
… the Hebrews would seem even down to comparatively late times to have been familiar with a form of witchcraft which aimed at catching and detaining the souls of living persons with the intent to do them grievous hurt. The witches who practised this black art were formally denounced by the prophet Ezekiel in the following terms : —
"And thou, son of man, set thy face against the daughters of thy people, which prophesy out of their own heart; and prophesy thou against them, and say, Thus saith the Lord God: Woe to the women that sew fillets upon all elbows, and make kerchiefs for the head of persons of every stature to hunt souls! Will ye hunt the souls of my people, and save souls alive for yourselves? And ye have profaned me among my people for handfuls of barley and for pieces of bread, to slay the souls that should not die, and to save the souls alive that should not live, by your lying to my people that hearken unto lies. Wherefore thus saith the Lord God: Behold I am against your fillets, wherewith ye hunt the souls, and I will tear them from your arms; and I will let the souls which ye hunt go free like birds. Your kerchiefs also will I tear, and deliver my people out of your hand, and they shall be no more in your hand to be hunted; and ye shall know that I am the Lord."*
The nefarious practices of these women, which the prophet denounces, apparently consisted in attempts to catch stray souls in fillets and cloths, and so to kill some people by keeping their souls in durance vile, and to save the lives of others, probably of sick people, by capturing their vagabond souls and restoring them to their bodies. Similar devices have been and still are adopted for the same purpose by sorcerers and witches in many parts of the world. For example, Fijian chiefs used to whisk away the souls of criminals in scarves, whereupon the poor wretches, deprived of this indispensable part of their persons, used to pine and die. The sorcerers of Danger Island, in the Pacific, caught the souls of sick people in snares, which they set up near the houses of the sufferers, and watched till a soul came fluttering into the trap and was entangled in its meshes, after which the death of the patient was, sooner or later, inevitable. The snares were made of stout cinet with loops of various sizes adapted to catch souls of all sizes, whether large or small, whether fat or thin. Among the negroes of West Africa "witches are continually setting traps to catch the soul that wanders from the body when a man is sleeping; and when they have caught this soul, they tie it up over the canoe fire and its owner sickens as the soul shrivels. This is merely a regular line of business, and not an affair of individual hate or revenge. The witch does not care whose dream-soul gets into the trap, and will restore it on payment. Also witch-doctors, men of unblemished professional reputation, will keep asylums for lost souls, i.e. souls who have been out wandering and found on their return to their body that their place had been filled up by a Sisa, a low-class soul. … These doctors keep souls, and administer them to patients who are short of the article."** Among the Baoules of the Ivory Coast it happened once that a chief's soul was extracted by the magic of an enemy, who succeeded in shutting it up in a box. To recover it, two men held a garment of the sufferer, while a witch performed certain enchantments. After a time she declared that the soul was now in the garment, which was accordingly rolled up and hastily wrapped about the invalid for the purpose of restoring his spirit to him. Malay wizards catch the souls of women whom they love in the folds of their turbans, and then go about with the dear souls in their girdles by day and sleep with them under their pillows by night. Among the Toradjas of Central Celebes the priest who accompanied an armed force on an expedition used to wear a string of seashells hanging down over his breast and back for the purpose of catching the souls of the enemy ; the shells were branched and hooked, and it was supposed that, once the souls were conjured into the shells, the branches and hooks would prevent them from escaping. The way in which the priest set and baited this soul-trap was as follows. When the warriors had entered the hostile territory, the priest went by night to the village which they intended to attack, and there, close by the entrance, he laid down his string of shells on the path so as to form a circle, and inside of the circle he buried an egg and the guts of a fowl, from which omens had been drawn before the troop set out from their own land. Then the priest took up the string of shells and waved it seven times over the spot, calling quietly on the souls of the enemy and saying, "Oh, soul of So-and-So," mentioning the name of one of the inhabitants of the village, "come, tread on my fowl ; thou art guilty, thou hast done wrong, come!" Then he waited, and if the string of shells gave out a tinkling sound, it was a sign that the soul of an enemy had really come and was held fast by the shells. Next day the man, whose soul had thus been ensnared, would be drawn, in spite of himself, to the spot where the foes who had captured his soul were lying in wait, and thus he would fall an easy prey to their weapons.
Such practices may serve to explain those proceedings of the Hebrew witches against which Ezekiel fulminated. These abandoned women seem to have caught vagrant souls in kerchiefs which they threw over the heads of their victims, and to have detained their spiritual captives in fillets which they sewed to their own elbows.
Thus the Hebrews apparently retained down to historical times the conception of the soul as a separable thing, which can be removed from a man's body in his lifetime, either by the wicked art of witches, or by the owner's voluntary act in order to deposit it for a longer or shorter time in a place of safety. If one great prophet reveals to us the Hebrew witch at her infernal business of decoying the souls of others, another great prophet perhaps affords us a glimpse of a fine lady of Jerusalem carrying her own soul about with her in a little casket. After describing, in a strain of Puritan invective and scorn, the haughty daughters of Zion who tripped about with languishing eyes, mincing steps, and tinkling feet, Isaiah proceeds to give a long catalogue of the jewels and trinkets, the robes and shawls, the veils and turbans, all the finery and frippery of these fashionable and luxurious dames.*** In his list of feminine gauds he mentions " houses of the soul." The expression thus literally translated is unique in the Old Testament. Modern translators and commentators, following Jerome, render it "perfume boxes," "scent-bottles," or the like. But it may well be that these "houses of the soul" were amulets in which the soul of the wearer was supposed to lodge. The commentators on the passage recognize that many of the trinkets in the prophet's list were probably charms, just as personal ornaments often are in the East to the present day. The very word which follows "houses of the souls " in the text is rendered "amulets " in the English Revised Version; it is derived from a verb meaning "to whisper," "to charm."
But this view of the "houses of the soul" does not necessarily exclude their identification with scent-bottles. In the eyes of a people who, like the Hebrews, identified the principle of life with the breath, the mere act of smelling a perfume might easily assume a spiritual aspect ; the scented breath inhaled might seem an accession of life, an addition made to the essence of the soul. Hence it would be natural to regard the fragrant object itself, whether a scent-bottle, incense, or a flower, as a centre of radiant spiritual energy, and therefore as a fitting place into which to breathe out the soul whenever it was deemed desirable to do so for a time. Far-fetched as this idea may appear to us, it may seem natural enough to the folk and to their best interpreters the poets : —
"I sent thee late a rosy wreath,
Not so much honouring thee
As giving it a hope that there
It could not wither'd be;
But thou thereon didst only breathe
And sent'st it back to me;
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
Not of itself but thee!"****
But if beauty can thus be thought to give of her life, her soul, to the soul of the rose to keep it fadeless, it is not extravagant to suppose that she can breathe her soul also into her scent-bottle. At all events these old-world fancies, if such indeed they are, would explain very naturally why a scent-bottle should be called a "house of the soul." But the folk-lore of scents has yet to be studied. In investigating it, as every other branch of folk-lore, the student may learn much from the poets, who perceive by intuition what most of us have to learn by a laborious collection of facts. Indeed, without some touch of poetic fancy, it is hardly possible to enter into the heart of the people. A frigid rationalist will knock in vain at the magic rose-wreathed portal of fairyland. The porter will not open to Mr. Gradgrind.
* Ezekiel xiii 17–21
** Mary H. Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (London, 1897), pp. 461ff
*** Isaiah iii 16–24
**** Ben Jonson
Sir James Frazer (1854–1941)
from Folk-lore in the Old Testament (1918), vol. II, pp. 510ff; most of the references regretfully omitted. [electronic text]