When I was younger
it was plain to me
I must make something of myself.
I walk back streets
admiring the houses
of the very poor:
roof out of line with sides
the yards cluttered
with old chicken wire, ashes,
furniture gone wrong;
the fences and outhouses
built of barrel staves
and parts of boxes, all,
if I am fortunate,
smeared a bluish green
that properly weathered
pleases me best of all colors.
will believe this
of vast import to the nation.
“Pastoral” by William Carlos Williams from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. © New Directions, 1991. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Today is the birthday of Marcel Proust (books by this author), born in Auteuil, France in 1871. His major work is the seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past (or, more literally, In Search of Lost Time) (1913–27). It’s Proust’s own life story, told as an allegorical search for truth. The most famous scene in the book occurs early on, when the narrator dips a bit of a madeleine in some tea and experiences a profound sense-memory of his childhood. That really happened to Proust, although in his case it was a much humbler and less poetic piece of a rusk — a twice-baked, dry biscuit or cracker — rather than a madeleine that triggered the memories.
He had started the book as early as 1905, but he kept setting it aside. Finally he realized that he had to do two things first: he needed to purge his writing of all his literary influences, which he did by writing a series of parodies for Le Figaro in the styles of Balzac, Flaubert, and others; and he needed to clarify what the philosophical underpinnings of the novel would be. He accomplished this by writing an essay stating that the artist’s task is to access and revive long-buried memories. He experienced his “rusk epiphany” in January 1909, and he began the novel the following June.
It is the birthday of inventor Nikola Tesla, born in Smiljan, Austria-Hungary (now Croatia) (1856). He picked up an interest in inventing from his mother, who used to come up with new and helpful household appliances in her spare time.
He patented the rotating magnetic field, which is the basis for alternating-current machinery, and he also invented the Tesla induction coil, an essential component in radio technology. He sailed to America in 1884, bringing with him four cents, plans for a flying machine, and a few poems he’d written. He got a job with Thomas Edison, but the two had incompatible styles and soon parted ways. Tesla then sold his patent for alternating-current dynamos to Edison’s rival, George Westinghouse. Edison waged a media campaign against Westinghouse, Tesla, and alternating current, but to no avail: the Westinghouse Corporation was selected to provide lighting at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, where Tesla demonstrated how safe alternating current was. He would hook himself up to an electric lamp and allow the current to pass through his body on its way to lighting the lamp.
Two years later, Tesla designed one of the first hydroelectric power plants in the country, at Niagara Falls; the plant was soon supplying power to the city of Buffalo, New York. In 1900, he imagined a worldwide wireless communication system that could also provide free electricity via an enormous tower. J.P. Morgan and other investors funded him at first, but then Edison — and Guglielmo Marconi — caught the investors’ eye with their own radio technology. Tesla was forced to scrap his project, literally as well as figuratively: his tower was dismantled and sold for scrap to pay Tesla’s debts. Tesla suffered a nervous breakdown, and eventually died, impoverished and alone, in 1943. His alternating current system is still the standard power system in use in the world today.
It’s the birthday of theologian and ecclesiastical statesman John Calvin (1509) (books by this author), born Jehan Cauvin in Noyon, Picardy, France. Calvin was raised in a strict Roman Catholic family. His father was employed by the local bishop as an administrator in the town’s cathedral. Calvin was a precocious child, and by 12, he was working in a shop as a clerk and had received the tonsure, the severe haircut that symbolized dedication to one’s church.
Calvin’s father wished his son to be a priest, and sent him at age 14 to Paris to study at the College de Marche in preparation for university. Calvin studied rhetoric, logic, geometry, astronomy, music, and arithmetic. In Paris, he changed his name to its Latin form, Ioannes Calvinus, which in French became Jean Calvin.
Calvin was in his early 20s and working as a humanist lawyer when he had an epiphany sometime between 1528 and 1533. He wrote to a friend, “Being exceedingly alarmed at the misery into which I had fallen, and much more at that which threatened me in view of eternal death, I, duty bound, made it my first business to betake myself to your way, condemning my past life, not without groans and tears.” He left Roman Catholicism to join the Protestant faith. At that time, this was a dangerous and sometimes fatal undertaking: dozens of Protestants were being declared heretics and burned at the stake. Calvin fled Paris and traveled through France, Italy, and Switzerland for the next several years, settling in Geneva.
In 1536, he published the first version of Institutes of the Christian Religion, which he intended as a kind of primer, laying out the general rules of what would be come known as “Calvinism.” The five principles spell out TULIP:
Total depravity: all people are born sinful.
Unconditional election: God has already chosen those people who will be saved.
Limited atonement: Jesus died to atone for the sins of the elect only.
Irresistible grace: If you are among the elect, you will inevitably repent and become Christian.
Perseverance of the saints: You can never lose your salvation.
Calvin continued revising and publishing the Institutes throughout his life. It made him famous. Though he enjoyed an occasional game of shove ha’penny, which was a kind of precursor to shuffleboard, he was somewhat joyless and austere and disapproved of drinking, dancing, saucy songs, and gambling.
In Geneva, he preached over 2,000 sermons, at least once a day, for over an hour at each time. He used no notes. His friends urged him to marry, but he said, “I, who have the air of being so hostile to celibacy, I am still not married and do not know whether I will ever be. If I take a wife, it will be because, being better freed from numerous worries, I can devote myself to the Lord.” He told acquaintances that his wife would have to be “chaste, obliging, not fastidious, economical, patient, and careful for my health.”
When presented with a young woman from a noble family, he at first refused to marry her, but then reluctantly agreed, but only if she learned French, which she did, dutifully. Still, he backed out of the marriage at the last minute and instead married a widow named Idelette. They had several children, but none survived infancy. When Idelette died, he was bereft. He wrote to a friend, “I have been bereaved of the best friend of my life.”
John Calvin died in 1564. Aside from Martin Luther, he’s the most important figure in the second generation of the Protestant Reformation.