Höfði House, Long After

August 21, 2012

This is the house where Reagan and Gorbachev met in 1986, effectively ending the Cold War.  As one who grew up during those days when nuclear annihilation was a daily, and real possibility, I had to visit.  Much as I detest Ronald Reagan, and all he stood for, I must credit him for having the independence to go against his advisers and make this meeting happen (more here).

As I mention in the post linked just above, Reagan, a movie man to his core, was moved to oppose his own advisors by a TV film, The Day After.

This a a photograph inside the house, but it almost looks like wax figures.  Now that would be an interesting installation!

The house is in an isolated spot by the bay in downtown Reykjavic, which probably was a major reason for selecting it.  It would have been easy to provide complete security for the building.  One of the meeting rooms.  The house used to be the French Consulate.


Realms of Gold

April 5, 2012


John Keats was young, sick, and poor…and one of the great poets of the English language.  As such, he died young, and certainly did not have a gentleman’s education.  As with most of us, his knowledge of the ancient classics was by way of translation.  In his day, a new translation of Homer, by Chapman, made a big splash, and Keats was impressed by it.  (Whether that was truly his first exposure to Homer, I do not know.)  He immortalized his enthusiasm in this sonnet, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, in which he uses the metaphor of literature as territory, to be explored and appreciated.

 Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

 Round many western islands have I been…
The speaker/author has read widely and travelled through the worlds of the literary imagination, including that of Greek poetry.

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene…
Well, maybe yes, maybe no.  Certainly not in its original form.

 Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
 When a new planet swims into his ken;
A beautiful evocation of the excitement of literary discovery, and the enthusiasm of the reader.  The image is founded on the notion of the scientist as a sort of poet/voyager himself, a romantic notion that dissolved in the succeeding materialist century.  Compare to Whitman’s use of the figure of the star-gazer in When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.

 Or like stout Cortez…
Cortez is not our day’s notion of a romantic hero:  history now treats him as a ruthless butcher caring for little but gold.  But even I, raised in Southern California in which the school system regaled us with ‘history units’ on the Spanish Conquistadores every semester, cannot help but respond to this image.

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
So, he confused Cortez, destroyer of the Aztec Empire, with Balboa, the first European to see the Pacific Ocean.  Just where is Darien, anyway?  I think they call this poetic license.


Ballet Russe, Zionism, and Terror

March 22, 2012

In my recent post of Richard Francis Burton’s translation of two short tales from Scheherazade’s 1001, I included a picture of Ida Rubenstein, a figure from fin de sièclela Belle Époque history who was new to me.  She was born to a wealthy family of Russian Jews, came to dance late, for a ballerina, that is, and made a big splash with Leon Bakst and Nijinsky.  Her début was a private performance of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, in which she danced through the seven veils to the nude.  She was denounced by the Archbishop of Paris for dancing as Saint Sebastian in a ballet scored by Debussy, with costumes by Bakst.  Sacrilege!  A Jew and a woman depicting the martyred saint!

During WWII, she fled France for England, where she helped escaped Resistance members, and was intimate with Walter Guinness, her sponsor and sometime lover.  He was assassinated in 1944 by members of the Stern Gang, a terrorist organization of Zionist Jews trying to dislodge Britain from Palestine.

Stern Gang is what the Brits called them, but they referred to themselves as Lehi, but also as ‘terrorists’ and, according to Wikipedia,  may have been one of the last organizations to do so:

An article titled “Terror” in the Lehi underground newspaper He Khazit (The Front ) argued as follows:

Neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat. We are very far from having any moral qualms as far as our national war goes. We have before us the command of the Torah,whose morality surpasses that of any other body of laws in the world: “Ye shall blot them out to the last man.” But first and foremost, terrorism is for us a part of the political battle being conducted under the present circumstances, and it has a great part to play: speaking in a clear voice to the whole world, as well as to our wretched brethren outside this land, it proclaims our war against the occupier. We are particularly far from this sort of hesitation in regard to an enemy whose moral perversion is admitted by all.

There we have it.  Infatuation with The Cause, with Violence, with The Nation.  Sound familiar?  On the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the Lehi made overtures to Nazi Germany, offering to assist in its war against the British in exchange for allowing the free emigration of Jews to Palestine to join the nation-building cause.

The more I learn about the history of Zionism, and its role as a foundation of Israeli society, the more disgusted I become.  Former Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir, was a member in good standing of the gang.


Public Image

March 15, 2012

I was struck by this image of the Prime Minister of China that appeared in today’s NYTimes.  I don’t know enough of Chinese art to be able to place the style of the image in the background, or to know if it is a reproduction or a valuable original, but it is interesting to me that he is happy  to be shown in front of an image that depicts peacocks.  Can you imagine Obama in such a pose?  Or Sarkozy? 

China is, after all, the oldest continuous civilization in existence, and the imagery of state power does  change slowly.  The Emperor simply changes his clothes.


Narbonne: Power and the People

September 6, 2011

Narbonne is a provincial city in southwest France, right on the Mediterranean, and close to Spain.  It was a big power center in the time of the Roman Empire, and a pretty big deal during the Middle Ages, but fell on hard times along with the rest of the Languedoc during the early modern period.  Much of the region is still quite poor relative to the rest of France.

On the wall of the City Hall in the main square and elsewhere, there are these two plaques with the heading:  1907 – It’s our history.  The pictures show some sort of an insurrection.  The text tells about an intransigent mayor who refused to surrender to the police authorities, demonstrations and riots in his support, and Clemenceau’s decision to draft troops from other regions of France (as Deng did in China during the Tiananmen activities) to go and suppress the disturbances.  Some shots were fired at crowds, some people died, order was restored.

I had to dig a bit to find out just what the ruckus was all about.  It’s known as La Revolte de Vigne, the Revolt of the Vinyards, and it was triggered by a terrible slump in prices for wine, caused in part by overproduction, wine being, then  and now, the economic engine of the region.  The mayor was a socialist, and the protesters were calling for some sort of popular relief.  Not too different from farmers in the Populist Movement of the USA.  In Kansas, do they have placards about agricultural actions that say, “It’s Our History?” I wonder?

Across the square from the plaques is an excavation to the original Roman road, Via Domitia, that ran from Barcelona through Provence.  For the Roman Empire, roads were as important as military posts for establishing and maintaining control.  Major Roman roads continued to be used throughout the medieval period as trade routes, long after the Empire ceased to exist except as an idea that would not die.

As for the people, the female half of them has a special place in French culture – we all know that.  Of course, I’m not talking about love, romance, and adultery:  I’m talking about shopping.  On the same town square, there is a 19th century building that used to be a large department store, emblazoned with the words, Aux dames de France (to the ladies of France) across its frieze.  It’s not Paris, but it could have as easily said ‘Ladies Delight!‘ the title of Zola’s great novel about a large department store.  Not too far away, Les halles, again, not the great Parisian market structure of Zola’s The Belly of Paris, but a wonderful place to fill one’s gut nonetheless, and right on Rue Emile Zola too!

I like Narbonne a lot:  it’s not exciting, but it’s open, informal, and has that pleasing architectural jumble that was wiped out in Paris by the facelift it got from Napoleon III and Hausmann in the 1850s and ’60s.   I also like indulging in cafe culture in the main square, something that just doesn’t exist at home.  Old people, housewives, young people, professionals at work, all sorts, sitting in the square, reading, eating, or just chatting for as long as they like, even if they buy nothing more than a coffee or a single beer.  And watching the people walking by or sharing their cafe space – the sunny weather makes it perfect!


Origins of the Modern Thieving State

June 13, 2011

 

In an earlier post, I mentioned that Putin’s brutal tactics against his billionaire political opponents (he throws them in jail and convicts them of trumped-up charges) rang a bell in my head.  The trial of Nicolas Fouquet, Finance Minister to Louis XIV came to mind.  This got me started on the whole notion of what Krugman called today, Rule by Rentiers, and the tremendous and parasitical hold over our society of the financial élite…and whence it came to be.

Fouquet has interested me for a long time, not least because he built one of Europe’s great architectural gems, the estate at Vaux-le-Vicomte.  The gardens were designed by André Le Nôtre, who went on to design the overwhelmingly magnificent landscapes at Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles.  Fouquet also came to my attention early in life because in high school, I read some letters by Madame de Sévigné, including a famous one describing the fate of Vatel, formerly cook to Fouquet.  During a grand banquet for the Prince (the Great) Conde, the fish course was threatened – the fish had not been delivered!  Vatel was so humiliated by this failure, that he threw himself on his sword.  His death was treated as a national tragedy.  But Fouquet and his ilk are the story here.

Fouquet is not mentioned much these days – all attention goes to his destroyer, Le Roi Soleil, Louis XIV.  But Fouquet was Louis’ faithful servant during a time when the king was young, and just getting a firm grip on power.  (The childhood of Louis was during the civil war called The Fronde.)  He always served the interests of the king and the French state (no difference between the two!), and along the way, he enriched himself.  Well, so did everyone else, and most didn’t do such a good job as he did.  Nor were they as handsome, intelligent, charming, cultured, and imaginative.  Richelieu, Mazarin, and Colbert are not on any historian’s list of fun people.

The job of Nicolas Fouquet was to ensure that the royal treasury was full so it could pursue its endless war against the Spanish Hapsburg Empire.  The state of national finance at the time was so chaotic and desperate that it makes American budget issues look like textbook examples of perfect accounting practice.  Books were duplicated, or secret.  Huge ‘loans’ to government figures were standard.  It was not illegal to rake off a substantial sum from tax collections or financing from the merchant élite, it was how the system worked!  There was no separation of the personal interest from the state interest at the level on which these high ministers worked.  After all, if they did not have the cash to present a good front, what financier would lend to the state they represented?  Opulent show was all part of the process.

The crime of Fouquet was simply to do his job far better than anyone else, thus exciting the envy and hostility of Colbert, and to be neglectful or unaware, to a shocking degree, of how his activities might be interpreted by the young king.  Three weeks after hosting the king at a vast banquet in his brand new palace, Vaux-le-Vicomte, he was enlightened:  Louis had him arrested on charges of embezzlement and treason.  The charges were totally trumped-up, and Louis probably did not believe them a bit:  he simply wanted to get rid of a too-independent servant.

The trial was a milestone in the history of political show trials, but Fouquet did not play the docile, self-incriminating defendant that students of the USSR might expect.  He was cool, calm, and collected, and even managed to smuggle out some letters that were the basis of quickly printed pamphlets that generated tremendous popular support for him.  Louis XIV did not have the resources of the total terror-state, but he did his best.  He hanged a few people who helped Fouquet communicate with the outside world from prison, but it is a measure of the not-yet-established nature of his absolutist rule that many elements of the trial were not under his control.  He learned, and acted differently in the future.

Convicted, but not sentenced to death, the verdict of eternal banishment did not please the king.  He did not get his wish, and did not feel strong enough to impose execution, but he did change the verdict to life in prison.   Fouquet languished in a fortress in the remote alpine Piedmont region of France.

The details of the trial are recounted in some of Madame de Sévigné’s letters, which are always very readable.  This popular biographical treatment is also quite good:

A side note:  When Fouquet and his wife lost a very young daughter to disease, they were advised by a cleric “to learn to love death.”  What a tremendous gulf this reveals between our world and theirs!  Death was all around, and the death of one, or many children, was a common occurrence.  To accept and love death was the only salvation.  No “youth culture” for them!


Putin’s Neo-Stalinism? Absolutism?

May 24, 2011

 

Today’s column by Joe Nocera on Russian justice got me thinking about Putin, the current leader, in fact, if not nominally, of Russia.  His grandfather was a cook in Stalin’s household, and he himself was brought up through the communist security organs.  He presides over Russia with something like Louis’ attitude of L’etat, c’est moi.  No Versailles, no lavish costumes, but he holds near absolute power, and he wields it as the champion of the Russian state against the Russians themselves.

Nocera’s column is about the tycoons who grew rich looting the crumbling USSR – nobody says they were good guys! – and who have now run afoul of Putin’s blueprint for the greatness of Russia.  Independent billionaires represent a power center not under state control, and a potential threat to it, and so must be brought to heel.  Some of these oligarchs, as they are called, have gained some perspective on the nature of a functioning good society as they have lived their lives of luxury.  And they have, or had, the means to do something about it, such as supporting opposition political figures and parties, or founding them!  The most prominent of them have been brought to trial on trumped-up or highly dubious charges, and are invariably found guilty.  The state confiscates their property.

Not exactly the Great Purge of Uncle Joe, but times have changed.  The great show trials directed by Stalin do come to mind:  after all, Putin obviously feels the need to present the appearance of legality.  Putin is plowing the field cultivated by Louis XIV who orchestrated his own great show trial against his former minister Fouquet, a valuable servant who acquired too much wealth not to excite the jealousy and fear of Louis, and all of which he lost to the Sun King.


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