Monday, March 07, 2011
A Notice of Mortalitie
To the Members of the Royal Society:
'Tis with much Relish Regret that we announce the final and utmost Demise, yea, the certain and irreversible Decline, which the Latins call corruptio and which, being English'd, is the Corruption or Passing-Away of the corporeall Substance; the throwing off of the Mortal Coil, the giving up of the so-call'd Ghost, the final separation of the immaterial Soule, leaving, where it had once been, naught but a stinking and rotten Corpse; the Departure, the Egress, the Going: yea, I say, the DEATH of Dr. Jus. Smith, FRS, this Tues-Day last at his Home in Dulwich, having succumb'd to the Gout.
He is surviv'd by his Wife, Mary, and a Dozen of Children, not counting three Bastards, a Half-Wit, and one that is evidently a Changeling. His first Wife, Anne, died many years hence under suspicious Circumstances, when she, so 'tis said, slipt upon the Rind of a Fruit of the Mousa Tree, lately call'd by the Hottentotical name of Banana (Dr. Smith had been raising up this Fruit of the Torrid Zone right here in grey England, by means of an oven capable of regulating its own Heat, by the Light of Phosphorus channel'd thro' a powerfull Lamp, and othersuch alchemick Machinations), and she landed, poor Anne did, squarely upon her Skull. The servants present reported a strange comick Effect of this sad Event: tho' distraught to see their Mistress so suddenly despatch'd, they could not help but snicker at the very Improbabilitie of Slipping upon the Rind of this foreign Fruit. Experiments were subsequently perform'd within the Scientifickall Society to determine the precise Cause of the Banana's comœdickall Virtù, tho' we confess it remains to this day a great Mysterium.
Dr. Smith was born a-shipboard on 30 July, 1642, while voyaging to the Isles of Bermuda. He caus'd his own Mother such Birthing-Paines, 'tis said, that two deck-hands jump'd o'er-board just to escape her pitifull Wailing. No good Fortune befell that Ship after his Birth either, and soon enough the Capitain found his Vessel wrack'd upon one of those almost imperceptible Sea-rocks form'd entirely of the Droppings of Gulls.
'Tis not known how the infant Smith surviv'd; some say he was given Suck by passing Sirens, others, that he nourisht himself upon the very Droppings that serv'd as his Dwelling. Still others say that the Babe, as if by an inward Impulse, resorted to that unspeakable savage Diet of which the Frenchman Montaigne writes. In any case 'tis clear he surviv'd, some how, 'til some time after he was discover'd there upon the Rocks, surrounded by the Squelettes of his Ship-Mates, by a Crewe of Saracenickal Pirates, who carried him back with them to Foul Barbary.
He was thereupon sold into Slavery, but had the good Fortune to be purchas'd by none other than the Sultan of Fez, who by some unknowable Mahommedan Megrim grew fond of the lad, and determin'd to raise him up steep'd in the Learning of the Mussulmans. He was pair'd with a Tutor, who instructed him not only in the learnèd Books of Avicenna, Averroës, and Algazel, but Aristotelès too, and the other Greeks, of whose Philosophy all the Books of the Arabs are naught but an Echo. When the time came, he was sent to University at Al Caraween, which is call'd in the Arabick Tongue a Madrassa, where he excell'd in the Study of Naturall Philosophy, particularly Meteorology or the doctrine of mixt Bodies, Medicine, Metallurgy, Alchemy, and perhaps still other Arts, e'en blacker yet.
'Twas on the basis of this Formation that Smith, at the young Age of 26, would later gain Entrance into our Scientifickall Society, when he presented before its Members his newly invented Weather-Engine, which most magnificently display'd all the changes of the Heavens as in a Mikrokosmos: Clouds, Rain, Hail, and Snowe, all contain'd within a translucent glass Globe but three Feet in Diameter, placed upon a Table at the front of our Theatrum anatomicum. 'Tis this very Weather-Globe that would later give rise to the Commerce in inexpensive Snowe-Domes, sold at Faires and before the great Edifices of all Europe, wherein Snowe is made to fall, per exemplum, upon the Cathedral of Our Lady in Paris, with the words inscrib'd underneath: Yea, as this Snowe-Globe doth attest, I have voyag'd to Paris, and regarded its Monuments with my very Eyes.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves, for before his entry into the Society, young Smith had quite a voyage of his own. When at 18 Smith completed his course of Study at Al Caraween, his Master the Sultan determin'd to send him to Padua to further his Medical Formation under the Supervision of the renown'd Andreas Vesalius. But news travels slowly to the Moorish Lands, and by the time Smith arriv'd in Italy, Vesalius (1514-1564) had been long deceas'd: for exactly a Century of Years, in fact.
Tho' he had been an apt Pupil at Fez, in his Italick Sojourn the young Smith show'd but little Promise. With no-one to direct his further Studies, he instead went in for the Giuoco del calcio fiorentino, what is sometimes call'd the Florentine game of Kick, which consists in the mindless Running to-and-fro upon a Field of Grass or e'en Sand, chasing after a hide-bound Ballon, and directing it with the very Feet past the Lines-men & into a netted Goal. From the playing-Field's Edge he was oft heard to cry out along with his dullard Mates, olé! olé!, for an hidden Reason, like some distemper'd Spagnol. What a shamefull Waste of Time! Recently this game of Kick has crossed the Channel into our own Country, and if this is not a Jesuitickall Complot to distract our young Men in their most dynamicall and hopefull Years, then ne'er was there one in all of England.
With no Master to emulate, Smith quickly grew idle, as oft happens by a sort of Contagion in the Papist Lands around the Middle Sea. The Sultan yearn'd for him to return to Fez, but Smith thought him self fine where he was, and would no doubt have idled there indefinitely, had a chance Encounter with the fair Daughter of the Duke of Modena not chang'd his Fate for ever. The Maiden, having disguis'd her self in the clothing of a commoner, was Strolling with her Governness about the City's Streets. Believing she was as common as he, Smith got it into his Head to offer her a Sweet. You mustn't speak to her! was the Governess's stern reply. Yet he, perhaps by some Moorish perversion of the Art of Syllogism, took this very prohibition upon Speech itself as an Incitement to Action, and so attempted then and there to give the Lady of Modena a bacio profondo straight upon the Mouth.
Within the hour all of the Duke's men had been summon'd to chase this Scoundrel down, and so he ran north, and kept running right o'er the Alps; and he would have run no doubt all the way to the Land of the Hyper-Boreans, had he not remember'd the Story the Sultan told him years ago as a small boy, that his true Parents had come not from the Rocks made of Droppings, but from England. So there he went, and soon was reunited with his Uncle, who had been in search of him e'er since News of the Ship's Wrack arriv'd back home.
His Uncle, the Baron Waldegrave, was an indulgent Man, and arrang'd for Smith to be tutor'd in all things Christian, just as the Sultan had already had him train'd up in all things Gentile. He naturally began with the English Tongue, which to that point had remain'd as foreign to Smith as the Arabick tongue to the common Englishman. The tutor then mov'd on through the basic tenets of the true and reveal'd Christian Faith, disabusing him along the way of the sundry Averroistic heresies that had no doubt been inculcated into him earlier in Life. From there they moved on to the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, which young Smith learnt by Heart, chasing out (or so his Uncle hoped) the Superstitions of the Alcoran. His most belovèd was Psalm 19, which began: "The heavens declare the glory of God: and the firmament sheweth his handywork."
But his prior learning among the Gentiles was seen to have some Value, and the Baron encourag'd him to continue his experimentations touching upon Naturall Philosophy. And so he made not just Weather-Globes, but also Shoes that fasten not by laces, but rather by two surfaces that cling mysteriously to one another, which he call'd, no less mysteriously, Velcrum; he extracted Sweet Fluid from the Indian Corn of the Americas, and propos'd to use it for the Sweetening of Beverages; he invented a Box for the recording of spoken Words or music, that could be heard again, as if spoken again, simply by turning a Wheel upon the top of it (tho' he was only able to record the Words, Isaac, you ass! before the machine stoppt working altogether). Since he could not bring the Speech-Engine to present to the Society under such circumstances, it was decided that the Weather-Globe represented his best Hope for gaining Admission. So in the winter of 1668, off he went to London, with the Globe in tow.
In addition to his many fancifull Contraptions, Dr. Smith might in the End be best remember'd for his equally fancifull Speculations in matters metaphysickall. According to his philosophickall System, if it may be so call'd, the World consists in Corpuscules onely, bouncing hither and thither like so many Trucco-Balls. But these little Bodies have not onely Mass, Figure, and Motion, as Descartes held, and Lucretius before him. They have also what Smith call'd Strangeness, which maketh them all different the one from the other. But how they are different, and wherein this Strangeness consists, Smith could in no wise say. Hence the many Accusations against him that he had reintroduc'd the very Occult Qualities his valiant Predecessors had sought to chase out. He claimed moreover that some of these Corpuscules even had a certain Charm, that some were on top of the others, some on the bottom, but not in any meaningful sense of locabilitas or Being in a certain Place. At some point he took to calling these queer Corspuscules by the name of Quarks, which is absurd, since as we all know Quark is nothing if not a variety of Curd Cheese, first identified by Tacitus during his travels among the Germanick Heathens.
We would be remiss of course if we did not mention Dr. Smith's true Calling in this Life, which was the issuing of Quaeries in the Transactions of our Society. Won't you kindly tell me this-or-that about Iceland spar?, he would write. Or, Please explain how it is that the Turks hear the hexasyllabic word Constantinopolis as Istanbul, an exclamation only half its predecessor's Length, syllable-wise. Or, Is it true what we have heard, that in the New World the Empsychosis of the Fœtus begins at the very Conception, rather than after 40 days, as in Europe, and if so, what is the cause of this difference, and how should it influence the practice of the vulgar art of Midwifery? And other such Quaeries of no Consequence whatsoever, Quaeries that matter'd not at all to the Advancement of Science, but onely insofar as they satisfy'd Dr. Smith's queer, scatter-brain'd, and bottomless Curiositie.
In his last Will and Testament, Smith requested that all but a small Allowance for Mary and the Children go to his faithfull Amanuensis, Mr. Isaac Molesworth (no Pittance, either, thanks to the Revenues from all those Snowe-Globes). Furthermore, Smith added, "Mr. Molesworth is to inherit my Membership in the Society. Although this is not an usual Practice, as Members are elected in and not will'd in, you will need only to ask Mr. Molesworth to demonstrate his Search-Engine, which will surely put Squibb's Sub-Aquatick River-Vessel to shame (sic!), in order to be assur'd of his Worthiness."
'Twas said of old that no Man may be call'd happy 'til he dies. Is Dr. Smith, then, happy? He is dead, that much is certain. His Life seems to have involv'd much Going-about, many fancifull Inventions, and much Holding-Forth upon this topic and that. But wherefore? And to what End? These are perhaps the final Quaeries that will accompany Dr. Smith, or at least the Soul of him, as he goes to meet his All-Knowing Creator, whose very Being is it self the Answer to every Quaerie e'er sent out into the Republick of Letters, nay, e'er dreamt up by mortal Men.
Abraham Squibb, FRS
7 March, 1711
This concludes the Quaeries series. To read the earlier installments, please go here.
For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.
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