Have a drink with: Thomas Nashe
It was the merry month of February…
Ask him about: Valentine’s Day plans
Though he lived in Elizabethan England, Thomas Nashe was not an unfamiliar figure to modern thinking: in his twenties, Nashe was out of college, short on funds and trying to make it as a writer in London. It was a tough time for a writer without independent wealth or consistent patronage – plague outbreaks made life dangerous and, as a practical matter, often closed the theaters that called on writers for material. And while young Thomas was very talented, let’s face it: when you’re a freelance writer, no matter how good you are sometimes you’ve just gotta pay the bills. Sometimes having to “prostitute my pen in hope of gain” means writing corporate sales copy, sometimes it means ghostwriting, and yes, sometimes it means reluctantly writing raunchy poems about sex toys. Welcome to the Elizabethan Cialis ad.
Have a drink with: Leonardo da Vinci
Polymath, painter, engineer, left-handed gay underdog genius
Ask him about: flying psychic unicorn voyages of the mind
The surgeon and writer Leonard Shlain was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2008 and died less than a year later, just a week after finishing the manuscript for his book “Leonardo’s Brain.” Released late last year with the help of Shlain’s surviving family, the book purports to use what we know of Leonardo da Vinci’s life and work to tell us about the capability, potential and future evolution of the human brain.
Shlain starts with the premise, hardly arguable, that da Vinci stands alone in artistic accomplishment and diversity of skill. It is no exaggeration to claim that few if any humans throughout history have even begun to approach Leonardo’s explosively creative, integrative mode of thinking, and to execute on it so well and so beautifully. To suggest candidates – he tosses out Omar Khayyam, Galileo, Goethe, Freud – is only to drive home the achievement gap.
It’s one thing to say that every artist, ever, was influenced by da Vinci, to suggest that he presaged the discoveries of Newton and Bernoulli, or even to claim he discovered arteriosclerosis (all of which Shlain does).
But that’s small potatoes once you bring up the psychic flying.
Maybe we should back up a little.
Have a drink with: Queen Isabella of Spain
Queen, ass-kicker, Rules girl, working mom
Ask her about: kicking everyone out of Spain
A few year-end lists recommended Kristin Downey’s biography of Queen Isabella, so lately I’ve been knee-deep in early modern Spain and a lot of questions about the famous lady.
What is image-making and what is truth? Was Isabella the complete idealized ruler? Was she calculating, maniacal? Was she or Ferdinand more responsible for ills like the Inquisition or the expulsion of the Jews from Spain? What aspects did her piety carry?
All of this brings me back to one of history’s most prevalent and maddening problems: unless you were there (and in most cases you weren’t), you can’t know exactly how things went. And even if you were, your reaction is yours alone – and trying to get into the head of any person other than yourself is foggy work. It’s the police lineup problem, or like being in a family where everyone has a slightly different story of how that fight at Christmas dinner went down, and everyone except that one cousin thinks Uncle Steve’s a jerk.
Said more nobly by John Gaddis: “but the past, in another sense, is something we can never have. For by the time we’ve become aware of what had happened it’s already inaccessible to us: we cannot relive, retrieve, or rerun it as we might some laboratory experiment or computer simulation. We can only represent it…We can perceive shapes through the fog and mist, we can speculate as to their significance, and sometimes we can even agree among ourselves as to what these are.”
Put another way, how do we solve a problem like Isabella?
Have a drink with: St. Teresa of Avila
Reformer, mystic, dreamer, smart lady.
Ask her about: that time she told the devil to piss off.
I grew up thinking saints were terribly stodgy, righteous people who had somehow gotten themselves onto life’s “Do Not Call” list for doubt and temptation. It wasn’t until later in life, when I learned that hagiography is basically a template for fictionalizing the lives of remarkable yet messy people, that I realized many of them would probably have made excellent drinking buddies.
My personal favorite is Saint Teresa of Avila, the first woman doctor of the Catholic Church and a stone-cold sixteenth-century bad-ass. I own a St. Teresa coloring book. You can’t but be awesome if someone made a coloring book about you.
Teresa grew up in sixteenth-century Spain, smack in the middle of what we’d now call the early modern period in Europe and the Spanish (Counter-) Reformation. This is to say: Lots Going On. Europe had suddenly gone pro in hair-splitting points of church doctrine; academic humanism was on the way up; there was explosive growth in art, writing and theater; hybridization and tension thanks to Jewish and north African cultural influences in Spain; and also there’s the disturbing effect of inbreeding on the Hapsburg family jaw. Plus, iconoclasm and poop jokes.