Thursday, February 18, 2010

Spider, spider, spinning bright . . .

{Photo by rocketlass.}

In my post the other day that drew on Isaac D'Israeli's accounts of how some literary luminaries spent their leisure time, I didn't point out the one that I found the strangest: Spinoza's habit of relaxing by setting spiders to fight each other. An admirer of Spinoza, I tend to glorify him a bit, thinking of him as an essentially gentle, bookish soul much put upon by the world, but learning of this oddly violent pastime has made me wonder whether I might have him all wrong. For a placid soul, what fun could there possibly be in watching spiders fight?

These spideatorial combats also led me to another question: how on earth did Spinoza find spiders whenever he happened to need a break from his labors? Maybe the Lords of the Ma'amad were right about his "monstrous deeds" after all--maybe a man who can conjure spiders at will should be cursed by day and by night, when he rises up and when he lies down, when he comes in and when he goes out.

Fortunately, further reading in D'Israeli restored my faith in Spinoza, at least so far as conjuring fighting spiders was concerned. Apparently spiders were just more readily at hand back in ye olden days, as they make two other appearances in the Curiosities of Literature.

The first example comes from the essay "Medical Music," which features an account of an unnamed officer who, confined to the Bastille, charmed his non-human cellmates with his lute:
At the end of a few days, this modern Orpheus, playing on his lute, was greatly astonished to see frisking from their holes great numbers of mice, and descending from their woven habitations crowds of spiders, who formed a circle about him, while he continued breathing his soul-subduing instrument. He was petrified with astonishment. Having ceased to play, the assembly, who did not come to see his person, but to hear his instrument, immediately broke up. As he had a great dislike to spiders, it was two days before he ventured again to touch his instrument. At length, having overcome, for the novelty of his company, his dislike of them, he recommenced his concert, when the assembly was by far more numerous than at first, and in the course of farther time, he found himself surrounded by a hundred musical amateurs.
At this point, it all seems like a scene from Disney short--music hath charms and all, right? Ah, but this soldier hath more of the Nuge than of Saint Francis about him:
Having thus succeeded in attracting this company, he treacherously contrived to get rid of them at his will. For this purpose he begged the keeper to give him a cat, which he put in a cage, and let loose at the very instant when the hairy people were most entranced by the Orphean skill he had displayed.
Now if you want to talk about someone who deserves to be cursed when he rises up and cursed when he lies down, &tc. . . .

But rather than blacken our souls with curses, let us turn to an act of kindness toward spiders, from D'Israeli's account of Anthony Magliabechi, a reader so voracious as to be nicknamed "the Glutton of Literature." D'Israeli describes him thus:
His habits of life were uniform. Ever among his books, he troubled himself with no other concern whatever, and the only interest he appeared to take for any living thing was his spiders. While sitting among his literary piles, he affected great sympathy for these weavers of webs, and perhaps in contempt of those whose curiosity appeared impertinent, he frequently cried out, "to take care not to hurt his spiders!"
I don't know whether D'Israeli was a fan of spiders--though his attention to them in his book is suggestive--but the rest of that description could easily apply to the compiler of the Curiosities himself.

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