Tag Archives: empathy

THE AQUARIUM CLUB

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MARK TWAINI am a great admirer of Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens).  After reading his Autobiography I discovered that Mark Twain became increasingly   cynical, depressed and disillusioned by the behavior of the human race.  His revolutionary books, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer were protests against the institution of human slavery in a time when "owning people" for commonplace.  Toward the end of his life, in his 70s, Mark Twain became reclusive and bitter about the pain and suffering he witnessed on his extensive travels around the world during lecture tours.  This was compounded by the agony and personal responsibility he felt for the death of his infant son, the death of his daughters and his beloved wife.  The accumulated tragedy of his his observations and experience as a human being overwhelmed him in the end.  He died defeated by the pain of his own compassion for humanity and from the loss of the people he loved the most-- his family.

Many men who are "dreamers" and "visionaries", like Twain, are highly empathetic.  They FEEL the pain of other beings as a personal, subjective pain.  Some beings find relief from this chronic agony in drugs or alcohol.  Or, they just stop looking and caring.  Mark Twain found a temporary relief from his own pain in tobacco, humor, and a "collection" of young girls....

This article is re-posted from the Blog "Today I Found Out":
Samuel Clemens (aka, Mark Twain) used to “collect” girls between the ages of 10-16 years old.

On February 12, 1908, Clemens said, “I suppose we are all collectors… As for me, I collect pets: young girls — girls from ten to sixteen years old; girls who are pretty and sweet and naive and innocent — dear young creatures to whom life is a perfect joy and to whom it has brought no wounds, no bitterness, and few tears.”

Okay, so it isn’t actually as creepy as it initially sounds and in some ways is kind of sweet, but Samuel Clemens did love to entertain young girls.  Towards the end of Clemens life, he suffered quite a lot of hardship. His daughter Susy died in 1896 and his wife Olivia passed away in 1904, followed by a second daughter, Jean, in 1909. Clemens fell into a depression in the early 1900s and noted that while he had reached the grandfather stage of life, he had no grandchildren to keep him company. He therefore went about befriending young girls who he treated as surrogate granddaughters.ANGELFISH










The girls in question were the daughters of couples who ran in his same social circle. He often met them on boats carting him back and forth to England or Bermuda, as was the case with Helen Allen. Allen was just twelve years old when Clemens stayed with her family in Bermuda. Her father was the American Vice-Council in Bermuda; her grandmother had known Clemens’ wife as a child. Clemens said Allen was “perfect in character, lovely in disposition, and a captivator at sight,” everything that Clemens wanted in his collection of young girls.

The group of girls were called “Angel Fish” or “the Aquarium Club.” The name is derived from the fish that Clemens first saw in Bermuda. He decided on that name because the angelfish “is the most beautiful fish that swims.” Clemens would buy angelfish pins in Bermuda and present them to each of his girls. Out of a dozen or so original pins, at least one is still in existence. It currently resides in the Mark Twain Library in Redding, Connecticut.

So what exactly did a man in his late seventies do with a bunch of teenaged girls? All manner of innocent, grandfatherly things. Clemens invited the girls to concerts, the theatre, and to his own house for card games, billiards, and reading. While in Bermuda, several of his Angel Fish had fun riding in a donkey-pulled cart with him. Clemens initially called his estate “Innocence at Home” in honour of “his girls.” He kept in touch with them by exchanging letters when they couldn’t visit, but always kept a room available and hoped to have an Angel Fish “in it as often as Providence will permit.” Before you get too much of a “Michael Jackson” vibe, it should be noted that the girls were always accompanied by a chaperone; the room for the Angel Fish even had two beds to accommodate a mother or guardian along with a girl.

Besides the room, Clemens’ house also had a billiard room which was refashioned into a sort of shrine to the Angel Fish. Above the door was a sign that said “the Aquarium” and inside the walls were lined with framed photos of each of the Aquarium Club’s members.Mark-Twain1

As innocent as it all was, if some celebrity tried to do that today, the press would have a field day with it, insinuating all manner of disgusting things, whether there was any evidence of such acts or not. In his day, it wasn’t really much of a scandal, though Clemens’ remaining daughter, Clara, didn’t appreciate the behavior, perhaps being a tad jealous. When she returned to her father’s home from a stint in Europe to find that her father had collected a group of young girls to entertain, she made her father change the name of his house to “Stormfield” and stopped the household staff from saving letters from the Angel Fish. (Today the full collection of every surviving letter can be read in Mark Twain’s Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens-Angelfish Correspondence.)

The presence of chaperones probably should have put Clara’s mind at ease, but the letters Clemens wrote to his girls would definitely raise some eyebrows today. Shortly after Dorothy Harvey’s fourteenth birthday, he wrote to tell her “I wish I could have those free-gratis-for-nothing-voyages-&-nothing-to-do-but-look-at-you every day.” To Dorothy Quick, just eleven years old, he wrote after one of her visits, “I went to bed as soon as you departed, there being nothing left to live for after that, & all the sunshine gone. How do you suppose I am going to get along without you?” The letters showed his love and devotion to his girls and the enjoyment he experienced in spending time with them, but today parents would likely have used these letters as evidence in civil lawsuits.

mark-twain-154x210Despite this, only one relationship ever looked to be somewhat improper, and that wasn’t with one of his Angel Fish; further, the inappropriate overtures didn’t come from Clemens. The girl was Gertrude Natkin. He met her when she was fifteen and he was 70 in 1905.  The two exchanged letters and Natkin developed a “school girl crush” on Clemens and went somewhat overboard in expressing her affection for him through her letters. Clemens became concerned about this and distanced himself from her- his letters growing more and more infrequent, because he didn’t want to gain a reputation for impropriety nor encourage her affections, perhaps proving that he saw his Angel Fish as nothing more than granddaughters.  Certainly, at the time, an adult male courting a 15 year old girl wouldn’t have raised eyebrows, particularly if the suitor was well-to-do and not too old.  But at 70, it would have been a scandal even in that time period.

Clemens died on April 21, 1910 of a heart attack, just a few years after establishing the Aquarium Club for his Angel Fish. All in all, there were around a dozen members of the club who visited Clemens regularly until his death, but his enthusiasm for the club waned in the last year of his life; he complained that his girls were growing up too fast, complained about their boyfriends, and cut off one girl when she turned sixteen.  In the end, his fondness for them primarily lying in their innocence, as something of a breath of fresh air in a cynical world, waned as they gradually lost that defining feature of children."

VERMEER — AN EMPATHETIC EXPLORATION

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Paintings of Johannes Vermeer exhort a mystic awe in the human soul.   Aesthetics, women and mystery are each a glue that have baited many of the most powerful traps in history.  Vermeer combines all three.  Almost nothing factual is known about the painter personally, or the bevy of enchanting women he painted.

Compounding the mystery is the puzzle of identifying the people he painted so repetitively.  Apparently, they were nearly all his wife or daughters!  Moreover, they were portrayed at various ages in their lives, over a span of twenty-two years during which he and his wife produced an family of 15 children, 11 of whom survived! As a consequence of their common genetic similarities in their physical appearance, they also shared clothing, hair styles, and jewelry.   Add to this monochromatic puzzle are identical rooms, windows, lighting, furniture, fixtures and the themes surrounding them.  The resulting maelstrom of similarities make differentiating one person from another a near impossibility.

Most of his work, apart from the paintings produced during his six year apprenticeship at the Guild of St. Luke, were portraits of his wife, family and a few close friends. Vermeer never painted his family members, or his self-portrait, with the intention of selling them, any more than you and I would think of selling photographs or home videos of the members of our own family.

He painted people in his surroundings that were close at hand, familiar, and endeared to him.  Mostly he painted for the love of aesthetics, and to innovate the technology of painting — to discover new techniques to more exactly render the myriad subtleties of light, and to endow love, and life on canvas, with colors and brushes.  Like many artists before and after Vermeer, these challenges intrigued and consumed his interest, intellect and spiritual passion.

Apparently, during his own life, it never occurred to him that anyone would be interested in paying money for many of his paintings.  Most of his paintings were still in the possession of his wife when he died prematurely at the age of forty-three!  Astoundingly, they were never sold, even though he and his family were literally starving from the want of money to buy food!

According to the research of Vermeer scholar, Anthony Bailey, the value of Dutch money was as follows:  “…a Dutch cloth-worker in 1642 got eighteen stuivers a day; there were twenty stuivers to one guilder, and a 6-pound loaf of rye bread coast about four and a half stuivers…”.

Imagine his shock and dismay to discover, 300 years later, that his paintings are worth many millions of dollars!  Yet, during his own lifetime, he never earned enough from them to feed his family, and indeed, died from an overwhelming bought of depression because of it.

These facts confound comprehensive and compound the mystery of Vermeer.

In this book, I propose to travel this impossible labyrinth, to discover the long-hidden key to ancient riddles: Who were the people painted by Vermeer?  Who was Vermeer, the artist and the man?

As though this were not daunting enough, I propose to do this, in part, by leaping the abyss of 300 years from the present year of 2008, returning through my own experience as an artist, a father, a husband and a man, through my own, personal life experiences, to re-experience the life of Vermeer, as though it were my own!

I do not claim that I am or was Vermeer.  Such an assertion would be entirely subjective, impossible to prove, and irrelevant. As do myriad other people fascinated by his art and his life, I have a good deal of personal empathy and common life experiences that I share with this obscure man, as a father, as a parent, as an artist and as a spiritual being.  I intend to employ this empathy as a tool of investigation and discovery:  just as one might use a divining rod to seek out water in the desert.

As a lost dog uses native intuition to find it’s way home, I am searching for a lost self.  As a tourist in Italy feels a sense of deja vu when visiting the Coliseum in Rome: one can almost smell the roar of blood spattering on the sand, and reel at the lust for pain and death oozing from the crowd!  And thrill as a blade slashes and vomits entrails to the ground.  The spirit writhing to be free of a mangled corpse crumpled in the dust.

I yearn to recover a lost identity.  Vermeer.

Does the intervening distance of time make a difference in this investigation?  Let me propose that time is only an arbitrary measurement of the movement of objects through space that has no effect or relevance here.

Has time changed the emotions of love, lust or hatred in ten thousand years?

When struck in the heart by a spear, does a great-great grandson not bleed just as profusely now as when his ancestor was struck down on a ancient battlefield?

Were the tears shed and anguish suffered over the dead child of our mother’s, mother’s, mother any less real than our own in the eternal now?

If I experience what another man has experienced, am I not, to that degree, that man myself?  If I am willing to invade, permeate and be that experience, and to assume responsibility for it, is it not my own?

My experiment is to be Vermeer.  That is, to return to his life and time to experience his existence from the perspective of subjective emotional, artistic, and spiritual experience in present time.  To this degree, I am Vermeer.

To the degree that you re-experience his life with me, you are Vermeer.  In truth, Any Man who is willing to be Vermeer, is, to that degree, Every Man.

— Excerpted from the book, “Vermeer: Portraits of A Lifetime”, by Lawrence R. Spencer