Monomania as Philosophy

(People who like “Monomania as Philosophy” will probably also like “Where Both Philosophy and Sex Went Wrong“)

René Descartes, tr. Clarke, Discourse on Method, Penguin, 1999.

René Descartes,tr. Ariew / Cress, Meditations, Hackett, 2006.

I was then in Germany, where I had been drafted because if the wars going on there, and as I was returning to the army from the emperor’s coronation, the arrival of winter delayed me in quarters where, finding no company to distract me and, luckily, having no cares or passions to trouble me, I used to spend the whole day alone in a room that was heated by a stove, where I had plenty of time to concentrate on my own thoughts…. DM p. 11

If this were the beginning of a short story, we would know what to expect next: cabin fever, dementia,  haunting by ghosts, murder, suicide, or hopeless insanity. And in fact, Descartes did experience quite considerable distress:.

As I consider these problems more carefully, I see so plainly that there are no definite signs by which to distinguish being awake from being asleep. As a result, I am becoming quite dizzy, and my dizziness nearly convinces me that I am asleep….. Yesterday’s meditation has thrown me in such doubts that I can no longer ignore them, yet I fail to see how they are to be resolved. It is as if I had suddenly fallen into a deep whirlpool; I am so tossed about that I can neither touch bottom with my foot, nor swim to the top. M 10/13 (more…)

Published in: on December 28, 2013 at 6:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

Where philosophy and sex both went wrong

Plato’s Phaedrus, tr. Hackforth, Library of Liberal Arts, 1952.

Plato, tr. Hamilton,The Symposium, Penguin, 1951

According to Plato philosophy is eros, but it is an entirely non-carnal eros which is not the desire for physical consummation, but instead the desire for the knowledge of abstract, invisible Ideal Forms. It was upon this lucus a non lucendo that Western philosophy was founded. Plato’s description of the carnal eros (from which philosophy developed in stages) hardly prettifies it — eros, after all, is the desire or need for a Beauty which is absent, and is not itself beautiful.

The obsessed lover is driven almost mad with desire, and must misperceive the beloved as a god:

[The lover] beholds a godlike face or bodily form that truly expresses beauty, first there comes to him a shuddering and a measure of that awe which the vision inspired, first there comes on him reverence as at the sight of a god ….with the passing of the shudder, a strange sweating and fever seizes him; by reason of the stream of beauty entering through his eyes comes a warmth…. [he] throbs with ferment in every part…. (Phaedrus pp. 96-7).

Lovers are broken and desperate, driven helplessly by their need:

Each of this is thus the broken tally of a man…. and each of us is perpetually in search of his corresponding tally (Symposium p. 62). (more…)

Published in: on December 7, 2013 at 2:31 am  Comments (5)  

The μακελοσ Queen

Queen Christina was a very serious coin collector and commissioned a series of 118 coins commemorating her life, which she called her “histoire metallique”, though only 8 of them were actually struck before her abdication.

One of them is a recognizable image of Christina wearing the helmet of Athena, the Athenian virgin goddess of wisdom. The logo on the reverse side, μακελοσ, puzzled scholars until they realized that it was the Swedish word “makelos”, which means “peerless or unmatched”, “unmarried”, and perhaps (by a stretch) “undefeated”.

This word is seen in Middle English in the form of “makeles”, and is an epithet of the Virgin Mary :

I synge of a mayden
That is makeles:
Kyng of alle kynges
To hir son she ches.

Christina was without false modesty or, it would seem, any other kind.

NOTE: In German makellos means “unblemished”, “without stain”, “immaculate”, meanings I cannot find in English (OED) or  Anglo-Saxon. Etymologically it is a completely different word, from the Latin macula. But the Virgin Mary was also immaculate, , though the Immaculate Conception is a fairly recent dogma.

Queen Christina of Sweden, 1659 Makelos coin.

Published in: on November 29, 2013 at 7:47 pm  Comments (1)  

The Comanche Empire

The period of Comanche domination of Texas, New Mexico, northern Mexico, and much of the American West between 1750 and 1850 is just a passing footnote in American and Mexican history, but it provides an interesting perspective on many important historical questions, notably the history of the Eurasian steppe and the role of violence in long-distance trade. 

My information about the Comanches comes from Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire and Gwynn’s Empire of the Summer Moon [Update: with James Brooks's Captives and Cousins added in an appendix]. Of these authors, Gwynn especially emphasizes  the brutality of the Comanches, and Jared Diamond and others have recently revived tha claim that life in prestate societies is usually bloody and violent.  However, with a better understanding of the historical status of violence and of  aristocratic men of violence in human history, the violence of the Comanches will be seen to  have been pretty much normal.

Completely secure in their home territory on the Llano Estacado in northwestern Texas, western Oklahoma, and neighboring areas of Kansas, New Mexico, and Colorado, the Comanches held Spanish New Mexico as a tributary vassal, raided northern Mexico and lowland Texas with impunity, and controlled trade in much of the American West, within which Comanche became the trade language.  For many Native Americans in the West Comanche markets were the main source for the goods of European America, while for European America they were a source of such goods as buffalo robes, buffalo meat, and slaves, but especially horses: the Comanche territory included the best pasture in North America.

From the perspective of Asian history Comancheria seems very similar to the various small, short-lived nomad / Chinese states which would fill power vacuums in north China during the periods of division, passing from existence once a strong Chinese dynasty arose. A comparison can also be made as well the Bulgar and Khazar trade states that arose north of the Black and Caspian seas during the second half of the first millenium AD. These states were founded by nomad raiders akin to the Huns, but they  eventually became nodes in a relatively peaceful trade network reaching from Greenland to China, the Middle East, and India, and ultimately to the Mongol trade empire that dominated  half of Eurasia. These states were much larger and longer-lived than Comancheria, but they suggest a development trajectory which might have been possible under different historical circumstances.

Spain was the first of the Western powers to lay claim to Comancheria, but Spanish control of New Mexico and Texas after the 1680 Pueblo revolt was very insecure . Starting about 1720 the French (who claimed the Mississippi valley) challenged Spanish control, but in 1763 France lost almost all of its North American possessions and Spain acquired most of French Louisiana (the west bank of the Mississippi and points west).  By this time, however, Spanish New Mexico was more or less under Comanche control and Spanish Texas was at the Comanches’s mercy, and the Spanish claim to Louisiana was virtually meaningless.

In 1783 the British claims east of the Mississippi and south of Canada passed to the United States, and in 1803 France recovered Louisiana from Spain and immediately sold it to the US.  However, the American claim was initially hardly more real than the Spanish claim had been, especially because the United States had to deal almost immediately with the British invasion of 1812. Whatever plans Spain had to gain control of its territory were ended by the Mexican Revolution of 1820, and the new Mexican state’s plans in that regard were quickly challenged by the rise of the Republic of Texas and by the Mexican War. The Mexican War was followed almost immediately by the Civil War, and in 1865 the victorious Union Armies had their hands full pacifying Texas, and for that reason signed a treaty favorable the Comanches. Finally, as soon as the Texans were quiet, the full power of General Sherman’s army was directed at the Comanches, and by 1874 their century of power was ended.

Despite the various European claims, during this period Comancheria controlled a large area and functioned as a state, signing treaties with the French in 1746, with the Spaniards in Santa Fe in 1754  and 1786, with Texas Republic in 1836 and 1843, and with the United States in 1865. These treaties were mostly favorable to the Comanches, since the Comanches were  the stronger party up until 1865 (and in fact, according to a visitor, believed that they were the most powerful people in the world), they interpreted the treaties as they saw fit. This is the explanation for a puzzling and bothersome thing about Comanche behavior: How could they negotiate so reasonably at one moment, and then at a later time behave with appalling brutality? There is really no mystery: the Comanches were the stronger party granting favors, and the westerners were their subject peoples, and from time to time imperialists have to get strict with their subjects. For the moment, it was the European-Americans who were the victims of unequal treaties unfairly enforced,as if Comancheria were a legitimate sovereign state like Spain, France, or England.

After the 1680 Pueblo revolt the Native American peoples had acquired horses, and the Comanches were the first to master their use.  Very quickly they developed a pastoral way of life (complete with cavalry warfare) which sharply contrasted with their earlier hunter-and-gatherer lifestyle in the Great Basin. From their new homeland in the Llano Estacado they became the major power over a large area and remained so for most of two centuries.  Their cavalry armies were almost irresistible and their raids could be horrifyingly savage, but (like the Vikings, the Mongols, the Venetians, the Hellenes, and 19th century Europeans) they were not merely raiders and plunderers, but also the center of a large trading network which included St. Louis, New Orleans, Santa Fe,  Pembina on the Canadian border, and a number of smaller towns. Roughly speaking, they held Comancheria as their homeland, dominated the areas north and west of them as their sphere of influence, held the Santa Fe area as a vassal, and plundered Texas and North Mexico (possibly as a step on the way toward making them vassals too), and engaged in foreign trade at Pembina, St Louis, New Orleans, and a few other places.

Not only were the material culture and lifestyle of the Comanches similar to that of the Mongols and other Asian steppe nomads, so were their foreign relations: a diplomacy of shifting alliances, the alternation of sudden cavalry raids from a safe haven and peaceful trade, and the adoption of captive children to be raised as Comanches. The Comanches hunted buffalo rather than raising sheep, but all the evidence is that, even if the US Army had not destroyed their nation, they would eventually have been forced to shift from hunting to some sort of pastoralism. There is an old argument in anthropology about whether or not (and to what degree) cultures are formed by their physical environments and the kinds of economies that these environments make possible, and the development of Comanche nomadism seems to support the thesis that this influence is very considerable.

Frederick Lane, Niels Steensgaard, and Charles Tilly have written about the role of violence in the formation both of of international trading networks and of nation states. Lane described Venice’s Middle Age trade network in the eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea, China and the Middle East; Steensgaard discussed early modern trade empires of the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the English; and Tilly wrote of the rise of the states of early modern Europe. Traders on the steppe or in international waters either had to have a capacity for violence, or local protectors with such a capacity, and if they could do so they not only protected their own traders but captured and plundered competing traders in order to gain a monopoly. Likewise, if trading partners refused to trade, traders could simply plunder them. Lane distinguishes between “negative protection” of trade (protecting your own traders) and “positive protection” (destroying competition the and giving your own traders an advantage), and he also develops a continuum model of trade based on power relations, with pure plunder at one end, free gifts at the other, pure free trade in the middle, and extortion, protection payments, tributes, taxes, and forced trade (semi-free exchange) lined up between plunder and free trade. The ideally non-violent free trade which free marketers take as typical is merely one particular form, and really can only occur when  power relations are such that neither side can benefit from the use of or the threat of force.

The state is “protection” writ large, and Tilly described the rise of the modern nation state in terms of the accumulation and centralization of wealth, on the one hand, and of military power on the other. It is to be noted that the states he studied with wealth but little centralized military power (the northern Italian city states and the Dutch Republic) eventually receded into the second rank, whereas Russia, always a poor nation per capita but with a huge, centralized military, remains powerful today. In any case, once these states were securely established they sent out their own raiders to the Americas, Africa, and Asia, and in the course of time succeeded in destroying, among others, the Comanches.

There is no nonviolent theory of the international relations or of the state, but theorists of these topics do not go into detail about the cruelty and brutality of the necessary violence. Gwynn stresses the Comanches’ cruelty, but the Comanches did not do to Texans anything that Europeans did to each other during, e.g., the Thirty Years War or the Inquisition. The Comanche atrocities are not about “barbarism”. What they did in Texas, an area whose control was being contested, were within the normal range of violence for the various earlier empires, nations, and states and must be viewed in that larger context. On the blood-drenched stage of world history  Comanche violence was well within the normal range . We are more aware of the Comanche violence because the victims were people like us, and because the survivors were literate in English. From this same period we have much less testimony from the African victims of the slave trade (or as far as that goes, from 20th-century Congolese), and unsurprisingly the testimony we do have is not as widely circulated.

Lane tentatively suggests the four-stage development of states. According to this theory, the Comanches were already at Stage Two with regard to their Santa Fe dependency and the Native Americans to their north and west, but still at Stage One (“anarchy and plunder”)  in the contested areas of  Texas and Northern Mexico. An alternate history could be written in which Comancheria passed through the other stages to become civilized frontier trading state like Bulgar, Khazaria, or Xixia, all of which were founded by nomadic trader-raiders. In order for this to have happened, a large number of things would have had to have been different, but if, for example, there had been no railroads or firearms, and if the United States still had to contest control of North America with an equally-powerful state, Comancheria might still be with us today.

APPENDIX I

Brooks’ Captives and Cousins describes the cross-border relationships between Comancheria, Santa Fe, and Texas in more detail than do my other two sources. From this book it is possible to get a feeling for the alternation of raiding and peace treaty; in this zone peace was hoped for by the settled peoples, but it could not be expected, and if a group within the decentralized Comanche nation offered peace and friendship, the settled peoples would be glad enough to accept it even though Comanche raids were a very recent memory, and even though the peace might end up being fragile.

Brooks also shows the hybrid nature of these societies, with captives, slaves. and renegades from the other side of the line comprising a considerable part of the population of each people. Furthermore, in this mixed society, the loyalties of many Anglos and Hispanics could be divided, and in some circumstances some of them would prefer to affiliate with the Comanches than with their “own” government in Mexico City or Washington D.C.

According to Owen Lattimore, the Chinese walls were not meant merely to protect against the barbarian hordes, but also to mark the limits of Chinese power and keep Chinese subjects within those limits, thus preventing the formation of Comancheria-type hybrid societies with mixed loyalties.

APPENDIX II

Many years ago I read Joseph Schumpeter’s “Sociology of Imperialism” for an undergraduate class, and his line of thinking still seems popular among economists and libertarians. Ideal capitalism is “unwarlike” and the imperialism of capitalist nations is  “motivated by primitive aggressive instincts”, “non-rational and irrational”, “atavistic in character” – “the heritage of the autocratic state” which will  inevitably disappear. In the light of Lane, Steensgaard and Tilly this seems like special pleading, the projection of a  Platonic ideal has never been actual. The medieval “peaceful bourgeois” of whom Schumpeter speaks was a subjugated bourgeois, dominated and intermittently dispossessed by his noble rulers. Capitalists normally work within the coercion  regime that is in place, and do not need to participate actively in the violence themselves as long as their activities are protected; they will be happy delegate the task and ride free if they can (treating law and order as a “free good”, in Lane’s words).

Furthermore, as Adam Smith pointed out, every individual capitalist is perfectly willing to undermine the capitalist system (for example, by gaining a monopoly or promoting a war) if there is profit in it for him personally. In uncontrolled international waters and frontier lands where traders needed to protect themselves (as in the cases of medieval Venice, ancient Athens, the medieval Vikings, or 19th century Comancheria), they made their own law, and nothing forces them to limit themselves to self defense or to eschew  “positive protection” and forced trade (piracy and plunder). And it might be added that traders who trade in slaves or weaponry, as most of the early long-distance traders did, cannot be called “peaceful” even if they themselves do not use weapons.

APPENDIX III

Gwynn informs us that (much to the displeasure of some of his Texan admirers) Theodore Roosevelt cultivated the friendship of the once greatly feared Comanche war chief Qanah Parker. This is not surprising: like many others in the 19th and the early 20th century, Roosevelt was a war lover  and success worshipper who only regretted the comic opera flavor of his own military exploits during the Spanish American War. In his foreword to Jeremiah Curtin’s 1907 book The Mongols,  after a long, worshipful recitation of the Mongol triumphs (and a comment about historians’ Eurocentrism), Roosevelt explicitly compares the Mongols to the Comanches. (Of course, Roosevelt does end the piece with the usual comments on the Mongols’ “ant-like or bee-like” power of joint action, the “maddening” Chinese bureaucracy they imposed, and the “hideous and noxious” consequences of their triumph).

APPENDIX IV

Lane (p. 416) on “forced trade”:

“To the objection that a “forced sale” is really no “sale” at all, and that the concepts of exchange do not apply, it may be answered: (a) “Forced “is a matter of degree”. At one extreme the buyer may have the alternative of payment or death, or taking extreme chances of dying. This choice faces not only those who pay for “protection”, but also those who depend for water on a supplier who has a monopoly of the supply. During a desperate famine buyers of food have only this choice.  In some cases of illness patients are in this sense practically forced to agree to the fee asked….. (c) Calling the taxpayer a purchaser of protection is no more inadmissible than saying that the servile laborers of an eastern German landlord were ‘selling’ their labor service to their landlord, yet an economist describes that situation by saying: ‘The Lord of the manor was a monopsonist with a closed demand’…. When laborers had to work for the landlord at the wage he offered or else have no means of livelihood, there was a ‘forced sale’ with force in the hands of the buyer”.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brooks, James ,Captives and Cousins, North Carolina, 2002.

Gwynn, S.C., Empire of the Summer Moon, Scribner, 2010.

Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire, Yale, 2008.

Victoria Tin-bor Hui, War and State Formation in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge, 2005.

Sechin Jagchid, Peace, War, and Trade along the Great Wall, Indiana, 1989.

Frederick Lane, Venice and History, Johns Hopkins, 1966.

Louis Proyect, “The Political Economy of Comanche Violence”, http://louisproyect.org/2013/08/29/the-political-economy-of-comanche-violence/

http://louisproyect.org/2013/02/17/the-comanches-and-the-yanomamo/

http://louisproyect.org/2009/01/05/what-made-the-comanche-exceptional/

Theodore Roosevelt, “Foreword” to Jeremiah Curtin, The Mongols, Combined Books, 1996 (1908).

Joseph Schumpeter, Imperialism and Social Classes, World Publishing Co., 1961.

Niels Steensgaard, The Asian Trade Revolution, Chicago, 1973.

Niels Steensgaard, “Violence and the Rise of Capitalism, Review of the Braudel Society, vol. V, #2, Fall 1981, pp. 247-273.

Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, Blackwell 1992.

Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History, California, 1982.

Published in: on November 27, 2013 at 10:10 pm  Comments (1)  

Sexual Customs of the Icelanders

Blefkenius (a 16th century explorer) reported that young Icelandic women (“very beautiful but poorly dressed”) offered travelers sexual hospitality much like the Babylonian temple prostitution reported by Herodotus. Marco Polo reports the same custom in two places he visited —  a city in what is now Xinjiang, and a place which he calls Tibet. (Blefkarius’s report was stoutly denied by Arngrimus Jonas, a coadjutor to the bishop of Iceland who, Bayle informs us, married a young woman when he was in his late 80s and lived well into his 90s.)

In The Fate of Shechem Pitt Rivers discusses customs of this type, especially the sexual hospitality offered to the Pharoah and Abimelech by Abraham and Isaac, which was also discussed by Bayle).  However, he emphasizes the nomadism of the early Hebrews, which was not a factor in the other cases.

Blefkenius also reported that it is forbidden to leave the table during Icelandic drinking bouts, so that young girls would bring chamber pots and hold them under the tables so that the celebrants could relieve themselves. Marco Polo reported a similar custom among the Rus, who during the 13th century were not as different from Scandinavians as the Russians are today. And Kepler reported that Tycho Brahe’s death was the result of “courtesy”:  “even though he felt the tension in his bladder increasing ….he put politeness before his health”. (However, others have suggested that it was a contest, and that Brahe died because his fierce competitiveness).

What are we to make of this? Did Blefkarius plagiarize Polo? (If he did, Bayle didn’t catch it; perhaps he hadn’t read Polo, a non-classical author). The first story resembles the timeless joke about the traveling salesman and the farmer’s daughter. It may be that a certain kind of person (represented by Blefkarius, Polo, Herodotus, and Abimelech) makes sure to find this custom wherever he goes, whether it was already there or not.

We should also note that during this era blonde people were not necessarily “white”. Ibn Fadlan, Ibn Battuta, and Marco Polo all describe both the pale northern peoples and the black Africans as lewd, filthy, superhumanly strong barbarians.

Dumb Swedes.

Judge William Cant declares Finns to be white (1908).

Bjork on ancient Icelandic customs

Sources: Marco Polo, Moule tr., pp. 269-270, 476; Tycho (per Kepler), Koestler’s Sleepwalkers, p. 311; Blefkarius, Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary, pp. 104-106.

Published in: on November 15, 2013 at 7:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

Marco Polo and Diversity

Marco Polo not only discovered Asia (for Europe), he discovered diversity. And he told us so:

Toutes gens que volés savoir les deverses jenerasions des homes et les deversités des deverse region dou monde, si prennés cestui livre et le feites lire. Et qui trovererés toutes les grandismes mervoilles et the grant diversités de la grande Harminie et de Persie et des Tartars et de Inde….

Marco Polo, Chapter One

(Everyone who wants to know the diverse nations of men and the diversities of the diverse regions of the world, take this book and read it. And here you will find all of the greatest marvels and the great diversities of Greater Armenia and of Persia and of the Tartars and of India…..)

This is from the Franco-Italian version of Marco Polo, written in a non-standard mixed dialect at a time when even Court French wasn’t really very standardized: “Old French doesn’t have rules, but only tendencies” (Kibler, Introduction to Old French).

There are about seven texts of Marco Polo which are regarded as in some way “original”; all are early versions of a series of texts which have been lost. The Franco-Italian text is thought to be closest to the original, and it’s noticeably badly written. This is unsurprising, since vernacular literature in French was only a little more than a century old, Marco Polo was not a writer at all and may have been illiterate in European languages, and his co-author Rustichello was an Italian trying to write French. The dialect used was a compromise language related to the lingua franca of the crusaders and Mediterranean sailors, adapted as much as possible to the language of the literary romances. (Besides translating, Marco Polo’s translators also cleaned up the writing a bit — the Tuscan version uses the word “diverse”, in some form), only three times instead of four, and the Court French translation uses it only twice.)

Serious literature during that period was written in Latin, whereas vernacular literature of that period was secular, profane, and often rather trashy. (Unfortunately, Polo’s contemporaries Dante and Cavalcanti were already working to change this by producing tiresome vernacular work.)  Marco Polo’s book fits loosely into the era’s “Wonders of the East” genre, and Rusticello folded in as much heroic romance as he could. While these genres may seem naive, folkish, and low class to us today, they were intended for the nobility and their hangers-on.

I can’t think of another book in world history where the form-content imbalance was as great as it is in this one.

Published in: on May 28, 2013 at 9:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

Renaissance Wogs

The Problem of Unbelief in the 16th Century: The Religion of Rabelais (Lucien Febvre, 1942)

They were simple people who gave way to their feelings. We repress ours…. (p. 100)

Here, too, was the “underdevelopment of sight”.  He was content to “feel” — like his whole age (p. 454).

Who was Febvre talking about? Martin Luther, and with him, the entire Renaissance: Erasmus, More, Montaigne, Pico, Rabelais, the whole shebang. This is the Annales school’s famous histoire des mentalités. Where did it come from?

A while ago our teacher Lévy-Bruhl investigated how and why primitives reasoned differently from civilized men. Yet a good part of the latter remained primitives for a long time (p. 6).

But  Lévy-Bruhl was refuted by Lévi-Strauss, and there’s no such thing as “la mentalité primitive”!  And anyway, you’re not supposed to talk about white people that way — Luther and Erasmus were not wogs! (Paging Edward Said).

During the first half of the 20th century French rationalism and scientism were fierce and savage. Febvre was diligently refuting an even more rationalistic earlier book by Abel Lefranc which had claimed that Rabelais himself was a pure rationalist, centuries ahead of his time.

Published in: on April 14, 2013 at 8:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Solomon Volkov, “St. Petersburg”

I highly recommend Solomon Volkov’s St. Petersburg, a cultural history of St Petersburg (and by extension, Russia) from about 1700 to the 1980s. Wonderful anecdotes, but also lots of serious stuff. Volkov knew many of the mid-20th c. figures personally, notably Anna Akhmatova. Two anecdotes from the book (interpreted by me):

1.

The impresario Diaghilev, who played an enormous role in the development of early 20th c. music and ballet, was a talentless, unscrupulous charlatan.How do we know this?

When he was 24 Diaghilev wrote the following to his stepmother, with whom he was very close:

I am, first of all, a great charlatan, although brilliant, and secondly, a great charmer, and thirdly, very brazen, and fourthly, a man with a great amount of logic and a small amount of principles, and fifthly, I believe, without talent; however, if you like, I believe I have found my real calling – patronage of the arts. For that, I ha ve everything except money, but that will show up.

Of course, maybe he was just another “unreliable narrator” (or perhaps a Cretan liar).

2.

In 1881 Czar Alexander II was killed by nihilist assassins. Czar Alexander III knew he needed to do something to restore Russia’s confidence, so for 15,000 rubles he commissioned the world first
Fabergé egg and gave it to the Czarina on Easter.

Imperial Russia wasn’t into pragmatism and efficiency. Assassination is a poor way of achieving political goals, and nihilists basically believe that nothing is possible anyway. And similarly, Fabergé eggs are an ineffective response to social unrest.

Published in: on April 14, 2013 at 7:18 pm  Comments (2)  

The past is a different country

London, May 16, 1751

My Dear Friend,

In about three months from this day, we shall probably meet. I look upon that moment as a young woman does upon her bridal night; I expect the greatest pleasure, and yet cannot help fearing some admixture of pain.….

This is Lord Chesterfield writing to his son. Where are the Freudians when you need them? I am very glad that my own father never wrote anything like this to me.

Lord Chesterfield constantly nagged his bastard about not being shallow, frivolous, and artificial enough. He recommended that he take two mistresses, one of them a high society lady to teach him the airs and graces, and the other a girl of convenience. The bastard was touring Europe, and while he was there Lord Chesterfield continually pimped fine ladies on him — and many of them sent back reports (most of them negative). The son was a serious-minded, scholarly sort and he resisted as best he could, but he didn’t have what it took to make the appropriate response to the letter above:

My dear father,

I look forward eagerly to your return. Rest assured that it is with the ultimate gentleness that I shall unveil your fair charms, and that if during the final consummation the throbbing gristle betwixt your yielding thighs should cause you even the tiniest pain, that harm will be remedied with a thousand passionate kisses.

Your obedient son, &c &c

Published in: on April 9, 2013 at 1:02 am  Leave a Comment  

The Root of the Problem

Natalya, however , remembers Yezhov with love. She has said in an interview “He spent a lot of time with me, more even than my mother did. He made tennis rackets for me. He made skates and skis. He made everything for me himself.” And the authors of the first English-language biography of Yezhov write, “At the dacha, Yezhov taught her to play tennis, skate, and ride a bicycle. He is remembered as a gentle, loving father showering her with presents and playing with her in the evenings after returning from the Lubyanka.

–Robert Chandler, “Appendix” to Vasily Grossman, The Road.

Yezhov was the head of NKVD and presided over the Stalinist terror during 1937 and 1938; after being replaced by Beria in 1939, he was shot in 1940. He was responsible for the deaths of close to a million people, including much of the Russian intelligentsia.

Yezhov was nice to his daughter. Stalin was nice to his daughter. Adolf Eichmann was nice to his kids. Hitler was nice to children and dogs.

People! Quit being nice to children!

That’s where it all starts!

Published in: on April 9, 2013 at 12:38 am  Leave a Comment  
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