Of carnie ginks and geniuses

The St. Giles Fair closed the streets in the central part of Oxford today, and we went expecting medieval knights, an open air market and arts and crafts.

Carnival ride on St. Giles
Carnival ride on St. Giles

Instead, the midways of every county and state fair or village carnival from the United States had been moved in to compete with the spires of Oxford. We walked through but never stopped for cotton candy, a chance to win a stuffed animal or for a ride on one of the puke generators we used to love so well.

We made our way through the noise and crowd to the Vodaphone store to find out what happened to the extra pounds I had loaded onto my phone for calls back to the States. One call and all but 90 pence were gone. Got a different plan that gives us 50 minutes of international calling for a month. Mother Marian, we will not neglect thee (reading too much Shakespeare?).

Then it was on to the Weston Library for the “Marks of Genius” exhibit. In climate-controlled glass cases the library (part of the Bodleian Library) has spread out remarkable examples of remarkable genius. Let’s start with parchment shards of poems written by Sappho about 700 years before Christ. Of the nine volumes of poems she wrote, only one survives intact.

Go look at the Declaration of Independence in Washington, D.C., and think how old that seems for a document to survive. Then think about the Magna Carta, first written in 1215. There’s no trace of an original, but the Weston’s is one of 17 copied by hand on parchment. So it may not be all of 800 years old — give or take a decade or two.

There are ancient texts from China, the Arab world, Edmond Halley (predicted the cyclical return of the comet named after him), the original manuscript of “The Wind in the Willows” and the original book jacket for “The Hobbit,” designed by J.R.R. Tolkien himself.  Wonderful colored original prints by Audubon, drawings by William Blake and Copernicus. A travel journal kept by Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley (talk about a couple of messed up lives!). Original calligraphy lessons by Queen Elizabeth I. There are original or early volumes of “The Divine Comedy” by Dante, musical scores by Handel and Mendhelssohn, the Gutenberg Bible, Jane Austen’s novels and the “Essay on Criticism” by Alexander Pope (my favorite Pope quote: “The higher you climb, the more you show your ass” — for this I went to grad school).

Interesting that they included early printing — handbills, posters, etc. — as examples of genius. But then this is a library, after all, that collects printed material — 13 million volumes to date. So why not? It’s been the medium of genius — and much else — for almost 600 years.

What stuck with me the most might have been a letter written by Isaiah Berlin about the visit of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich to Oxford to receive an honorary award. Shostakovich, in and out of favor by Stalin, arrived with two Soviet “diplomats” who accompanied him everywhere, making dinner and cocktails difficult and more seriously leaving evident signs of strains on the composer’s face. The effect of this repression on genius made a vast impression on Berlin, whose letter conveyed the feeling to me. That’s genius.

Kathy at the St. Giles Fair.
Kathy at the St. Giles Fair.

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