Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen

December 23, 2012


Before Metropolis, before M, there was the Nibelungen (1925), a five-hour Nordic-medieval-romance-fantasy like nothing I have ever seen.  The primal storytelling impulse that drives this magnificent set of moving images has petered out today in computer generated extravaganzas of ersatz mythologies dreamed up by an English university professor.

One element of the art design that struck me was that it was like watching the Vienna Succession brought to life.  The sets, costumes, and even the direction often look as if they are lifted right from Gustave Klimt (see the cropped images above) and his contemporaries.  The cinematic results are magnificent, and, strangely, it sheds new, backwards directed light on the sensibility of that fin de siècle art movement.



Four Horses of the Cathedral

April 25, 2011

Over at His Futile Preoccupations, things are gearing up for a heavy dose of deep, dark, syrupy, sicko-noir, from Jim Thompson.  He wrote The Grifters and The Getaway, favorite films, as well as the screenplay for Kubrick’s Paths of Glory!  Before I dive into that, I felt the need for a bit of escape to one of my favorite historical time-place intersections, Venice and the Fourth Crusade.

I am reading Jonathan Phillip’s history, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, a nice read by an historian who is not as eager as some have been to take to task the Venetians for their diverting of the holy rollers from their destination in Palestine to overthrow the Byzantine Empire instead.  No, you have to see it in context… I really can see it from the crusader’s point of view, because I’ve been reading the chronicle of the events written by Robert of Clari, an ordinary knight who took part in the whole mess.  As he relates, the Venetians committed themselves to ferrying the army to Egypt (the strategy was to take Alexandria, make a base, then move up the coast to Jerusalem) and they through the entire resources of their city-state economy into the task of building an enormous fleet.  Then, the ‘army’ doesn’t show up!  Or only a very small part of it does.  All those boats, and nobody to sail in them!

The Venetians were out a lot of money and needed to be paid.  Then there was this heir to the eastern throne who was hanging around Germany who had some contacts with the crusaders since he was hiding out in Europe after his uncle murdered his father.  (Byzantine rulers ruled by a sort of ‘heavenly mandate.’  That is, if a slave murdered his way to the throne, he was assumed to have been divinely destined for it.)  One thing led to another, and the crusade made its fatal detour in history, and Venice got the four horses that used to reign over the Imperial Hippodrome…

Robert gives us quite a long digression to explain the dynastic politics of the Eastern Empire – much treachery, putting out of eyes, assorted bloodshed –  before resuming his chronicle of the crusade, and he includes this pungent episode involving a filthy camel:

And when the morrow came, early in the morning, the nobleman took Andronicus [the deposed traitor] and led him away to the royal palace into the presence of the Emperor Isaac [rightful and restored emperor]. When Isaac saw him he said to him, “Andronicus, wherefore hast thou in such fashion betrayed thy lord, the Emperor Manuel [Isaac’s murdered father]; and wherefore didst thou murder his wife and his son; and wherefore hast thou been so fain to do evil to those who were displeased because thou went emperor; and wherefore didst thou seek to have me taken?”

And Andronicus answered him, “Hold thy peace!” (quoth he) “for I would not deign to answer thee!”

When the Emperor Isaac heard that he would not deign to answer him, he summoned many of the men of the city to come into his presence. And when they were in his presence, the emperor said to them, “Sirs, behold, here is Andronicus, who hath done so much evil both to you and to others. I myself could, me seemeth, in no wise do such justice to him as ye all would desire; but I release him to you, to do with him what ye will.”

Then were the men of the city right glad, and they took him; and some said that he should be burned; and others, that he should be boiled in a caldron that he might live longer and suffer more; and others, that he should be drawn and quartered; so that they could not agree amongst themselves by what death or what torture they might destroy him. But there was there a certain wise man, who said,  “Sirs, if ye would trust me, I would show you how we might avenge ourselves right well of him. I have at home a camel, which is the foulest beast and the most bedunged and ugliest in the world. Now we will take Andronicus, and we will strip him stark naked, and we will bind him to the camel’s back in such fashion that his face shall be against its rump, and we will lead him from one end of the city even unto the other. Thus will all they, both men and women, whom he hath wronged, be able to avenge themselves right well.”

And all agreed to that which that man had told them. And they took Andronicus and bound him even as the man had devised. And as they were leading him adown the city, then came those that he had wronged; and they stabbed him and pricked him, some with knives, and others with daggers, and yet others with swords. And they cried, “Twas thou didst hang my father! ‘Twas thou didst ravish my wife!”

And the women whose daughters he had taken by force tare his beard and wrought such other indignities on him that when they were come to the other end of the city there was no flesh whatsoever left upon his body. Then took they his bones and cast them into a draught-house. In such wise did they avenge themselves of the traitor.

Cloisters of NYC

February 20, 2010

In keeping with my plan to visit the Metropolitan Museum once a month, I spent an hour at The Cloisters today.  This is the uptown branch of the Met that houses a large collection of medieval objects in a building resembling a monastery, and with multiple courtyards and interiors of European abbeys that were transported here and reconstructed.  It sits in the midst of a park on highlands overlooking the Hudson River Palisades and northeast Manhattan, and it is the only museum in Manhattan where I can drive up and park at the front door anytime I want.  The trip from my home takes about fifteen minutes.

I like to visit museums for short periods, or exhaustion sets in.  Since I can go often, I can look at a few things each time and leave the rest for later.  Some of favorites that I viewed today:

Superman at Canterbury?

January 17, 2010

Was Thomas Beckett, murdered archbishop of England, a Nietzschean Superman?

Despite my raging Anglo-philia of boyhood, I never saw Beckett (1964) with Peter O’Toole as HenryII, and Burton as Thomas Beckett, his Chancellor, and then archbishop of Canterbury.  Based on Jean Anouilh’s play, it is the story of an intense friendship between two men who understand power a little differently.  King Henry, a bit of a spoiled child and also a lonely soul, rages at the stuffy imbecility of his courtiers, but he takes his royal job seriously, and he has no intention of ceding royal power to anyone.  Nay, he wishes to increase it.  Beckett, his friend, his servant, then his chancellor, seems to be happy to go along for the ride, the food, the girls, but he knows that he has a tiger by the tail, and he knows how to keep himself safe when he is so close to the live wire of absolute power.

Then Henry makes a mistake – he makes Beckett the head primate of the Church in England, thinking he will then rule heaven and earth, with his friend a pliable and cooperative bishop.  Beckett is transformed by his new position, and finds the higher vocation that has eluded him thus far – he commits himself to the defense of churchly principle against secular power, driving his former companion to his wits’ end.

This was a central conflict played out during the Middle Ages again and again:  sometimes the brute kings won, as when the French king kidnapped the pope and dragged him off to ‘Babylonian’ captivity in Avignon, bringing on the Great Schism; and sometimes the Popes won, as when Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire was reduced to waiting in the snow at the door of the papal palace in Canossa.  The State lost this round – Henry’s thuggish courtiers murdered Thomas while at services, thinking they were doing the king’s bidding.  Henry did severe penance, Beckett was quickly made a full-blown saint.

Both characters in the play are motivated by the ‘will to power,’ and their different allegiances.  Henry is left to rule the miserable earthly realm, while Thomas, standing tall while he is murdered without resistance, triumphs in true Nietzschean-Jesus fashion, over the pigs who think they can really kill him.  His person becomes venerated, and he casts his spell for centuries over England and its kings.  Good thing too, or we wouldn’t have gotten the Canterbury Tales!  He knows what he’s about:  His last words as he dies are, “Poor Henry…”

Of course, when one thinks of Richard Burton, one cannot help thinking of his on again, off again mate, Elizabeth Taylor.  As a very young boy, I asked my mother who was Elizabeth Taylor, and was told, “She’s the most beautiful woman in the world.”  Well, maybe so…

Finally, back to Chaucer, Beckett, and Canterbury, sort of…  I post here what I think is the most hilarious pastiche from an amazing book, The Holy Tango of Literature.  (Earlier post here and the text online here.)


In tholde dayes of the towne Seatel,
Of whos charmes Nirvana fans yet pratel,
Al that reyny land fayn slepen late.
Thus ofte a sutor failled to keepe a date;
And werkers reched offices at noon,
Noddyng of although the sunne shoon;
Husbondes were too tyred by the eve
A staf for plesyng wyves to acheve.

Now to this citie in a languor stukke,
Came a fair knyght cleped Sterrebukke,
Beryng benes from a forein land
Ygrounde to a poudre in his hand,
From which a potent brew could he deryve
That causeth wery peple to revyve.
Whan word aboute his draghte hadde sprede,
To his shoppe the custumers al spedde
Til everich veine felte a rush of blood,
With humours boyed upward by that flood.
Soone men who herd the crowyng cok
Wolde rise withoute cursyng at the clok,
The thoughte of facyng daylight not so bleke
With coffey bryngyng roses to the cheke
And helpyng them to holde their swords alofte
And shethe them before they falle softe.

Sterrebukke so bygan to thynke
Of other ways to selle the same drynke.
With stemed milk and sprenkled cynamone,
’Twas fit, he sayde, for kynges on the throne;
The capuchino joyned thus his wares,
As wel as mocas, sweter than eclares,
And lattes riche in creme, ofte fresen
And beten to a froth in sumer seson,
And tall espressos armured with cappes
To stoppen scaldyng spilles into lappes
As may hap when one is in a hurry
Upon a pilgrymage to Caunterbury.

Division of Opinion

August 27, 2009

ruskin Adam Smith - Enlightenment

I have been reading The Lamp of Beauty, a selection of John Ruskin’s voluminous writings on art.  The preface states that one reason for reading him is to find the source of so many ideas about art that we take for granted these days, and that’s true.  Even when I come across a theme with which I am familiar as one of his, say, the importance of craft, I am struck by the force of his statements and the depth of his critique of industrial society.

Here’s a little face off between Ruskin, the romantic godfather of the English Arts and Crafts movement, and Adam Smith…you all know who he is.  The topic is the division of labor in industrial production.  For Smith, an unalloyed good; for Ruskin, the source of mental and physical slavery and aesthetic degradation.

from the beginning of Smith’s The Wealth of Nations:

The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labor, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is anywhere directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labor.
. . .
In every other art and manufacture, the effects of the division of labor are similar to what they are in this very trifling one [the making of pins]; though in many of them the labor can neither be so much subdivided, nor reduced to so great a simplicity of operation. The division of labor, however, so far as it can be introduced, occasions, in every art, a proportionable increase of the productive powers of labor. The separation of different trades and employments from one another, seems to have taken place, in consequence of this advantage. This separation too is generally carried furthest in those countries which enjoy the highest degree of industry and improvement; what is the work of one man in a rude state of society, being generally that of several in an improved one. In every improved society, the farmer is generally nothing but a farmer; the manufacturer nothing but a manufacturer. The labor too which is necessary to produce any one complete manufacture, is almost always divided among a great number of hands. How many different trades are employed in each branch of the linen and woollen manufactures, from the growers of the flax and the wool, to the bleachers and smoothers of the linen, or to the dyers and dressers of the cloth!
. . .
This great increase in the quantity of work, which, in consequence of the division of labor, the same number of people are capable of performing, is owing to three different circumstances; first, to the increase of dexterity in every particular workman; secondly, to the saving of the time which is commonly lost in passing from one species of work to another; and lastly, to the invention of a great number of machines which facilitate and abridge labor, and enable one man to do the work of many.
. . .
I say, all these things, and consider what a variety of labor is employed about each of them, we shall be sensible that without the assistance and co-operation of many thousands, the very meanest person in a civilized country could not be provided, even according to what we may falsely imagine the easy and simple manner in which he is commonly accommodated. Compared, indeed, with the more extravagant luxury of the great, his accommodation must, no doubt, appear extremely simple and easy; and yet it may be true, perhaps, that the accommodation of a European prince does not always so such exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages.

from The Stones of Venice: The Nature of the Gothic

We have much studied and much perfected, of late, the great civilized invention of the division of labour; only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided; but the men: — Divided into mere segments of men – broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin or the head of a nail. Now it is a good and desirable thing, truly, to make many pins in a day; but if we could only see with what crystal sand their points were polished, — sand of human soul, much to be magnified before it can be discerned for what it is — we should think there might be some loss in it also. And the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is all in very deed for this, — that we manufacture everything there except men . . . It can be met only by a right understanding, on the part of all classes, of what kinds of labour are good for men, raising them, and making them happy; by a determined sacrifice of such convenience, or beauty, or cheapness as is to be got only by the degradation of the workman; and by equally determined demand for the products and results of healthy and ennobling labour.

And how, it will be asked, are these products to be recognized, and this demand to be regulated? Easily: by the observance of three broad and simple rules:

1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which  Invention has no share.
2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.
3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving records of great works.

Silent brothers

May 3, 2009


A couple of weeks ago, I dipped into the Met for a quick visit, and came upon this figure of Aaron, from the Cathedral of Noyon.  I was struck by its monumental aspect, its mesmerizing representation of the fabric wrapped tightly around the figure, and the serene expression on Aaron’s face.  His brother, originally disposed opposite him on the cathedral facade, hasn’t fared so well with time.

A Few of My Favorite (Prohibited) Things

February 18, 2008

auto da fe

After 200 years of religious freedom in America, we have difficulty remembering why our predecessors fought so hard for the separation of church and state. Here I present excerpts from one of my favorite documents in the history of ideas, reprised from a time when church and state were one! I am particularly fond of the prologue to the enumeration of thought-crimes, emphasis is mine.

Faculty of the University of Paris:
The Condemnation of 219 Propositions (1277 A.D).

We have received frequent reports, inspired by zeal for the faith, on the part of important and serious persons to the effect that some students of the arts in Paris are exceeding the boundaries of their own faculty and are presuming to treat and discuss as if they were debatable in the schools, certain obvious and loathsome errors, or rather vanities and lying follies which are contained in the roll joined to this letter. …Lest, therefore, this unguarded speech lead simple people into error, we, having taken counsel with the doctors of Sacred Scripture and other prudent men, strictly forbid these and like things and totally condemn them. We excommunicate all those who shall have taught the said errors or any one of them, or shall have dared in any way to uphold them, or even listen to them, unless they choose to reveal themselves to us or to the chancery of Paris within seven days…Given in the year of the Lord 1276, on the Sunday on which Laetare Jerusalem is sung at the court of Paris [the condemned propositions follow]:

1. That there is no more excellent state than to study philosophy.

2. That the only wise men in the world are the philosophers.

3. That one should not hold anything unless it is self-evident or can be manifested from self-evident principles.

10. That nothing can be known about God except that He is, or His existence.

22. That God cannot be the cause of a newly-made thing and cannot produce anything new.

53A. That an intelligence or an angel or a separated soul is nowhere.

66. That God could not move the heaven in a straight line, the reason being that He would then leave a vacuum.

67. That if the heaven stood still, fire would not burn flax, because God would not exist.

83. That the world, although it was made from nothing, was not newly-made, and, although it passed from nonbeing to being, the nonbeing did not precede being in duration but only in nature.

84. That the world is eternal because that which has a nature by which it is able to exist for the whole future,
has a nature by which it was able to exist in the whole past.

86. That eternity and time have not existence in reality, but only in the mind.

87. That nothing is eternal from the standpoint of its end that is not eternal from the standpoint of its beginning.

89. That is impossible to refute the arguments of the Philosopher [Aristotle] concerning the eternity of the world unless we say that the will of the first being embraces incompatibles.

99. That there is more than one prime mover.

100. That there was no first man, nor will there be a last; indeed, the generation of man from man was and always will be.

188. That it is not true that something comes from nothing or was made in a first creation.

180. That creation is not possible, even though the contrary must be held according to the faith.

Abelard and Eloise

March 4, 2005


I’ve heard about these two for so many years, but I never read their letters. They figured in the film “Being John Malkevich” – the J. Cusak character used the text as the salacious dialog for one of his marionette shows – and, of course, there’s Cole Porter:

As Abelard said to Eloise,
“Don’t forget to drop a line to me, please”
As Juliet cried, in her Romeo’s ear,
“Romeo, why not face the fact, my dear”It was just one of those things
Just one of those crazy flings

A bit of a shock to find that the passion in the epistles is mostly a one-way affair, from her to him. He’s rather a drip, filled with self-pity, condescension, pedantry, and a desire to justify himself at length. As a sample of the heat generated by Eloise’s letters, I offer the following:

The name of wife may seem more sacred or more worthy but sweeter to me will always be the word lover, or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore. I believed that the more I humbled myself on your account, the more I would please you, and also the less damage I should do to the brightness of your reputation. … God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore.

Talk about being a love-slave! And this from a woman who was renowned for not only her beauty, but her incredible erudition, all the more remarkable in an age that did not look to her sex for intellectual guidance. Despite Peter’s unappealing correspondance, it is a great story, a love story the likes of which we can hardly imagine today:Peter was the intellectual superstar of his day, the late 11th century in France. When I say superstar, I mean it – crowds come to hear and see him engage in learned disputes with other theologians and philosophers. His pronouncements on logic were pored over by intellectuals everywhere. Someone had to worry about which was correct, nominalism or realism, right? And what of the status of universals? I can’t even remember which stands for what anymore! (I think that realists held that univerals did, in fact, exist. There IS a perfect triangle, somwhere. Nominalists held the reverse point of view.)

He grew rich from the largesse of his students and patrons, and this was before the founding of the great universities of Europe – he was a freelancer! Fair and handsome, a spellbinding speaker, he had the world at his feet. Then he encountered Eloise, a very lovely, and VERY smart young lady. He became her tutor and used his position to seduce her, though from many accounts, the desire for a liaison was mutual right from the start. She becomes pregnant, they marry secretly, although Eloise, slave to love and to Peter, consents only after extended argument. What does she care for marriage, convention, society? She is in love!

The whole business is discovered and publicized by Eloise’s uncle who becomes enraged, and sends his henchmen to castrate Peter. Yes, no holds barred in those days. Peter orders Eloise to become a nun, which she does, and he becomes a monk. This is the time during which their famous letters are exchanged. In her subsequent career as an abbess she is renowned for her administrative skill and intelligence – he lives on as an increasingly curmudgeonly, cranky, intellectual. Understandably, he could never quite live down the humiliation of his condition, and this in a time when such punitive barbarities weren’t that uncommon. [By the way, in case you are under the illusion that castration (after puberty) renders one impotent, guess again. Harem women were said to prefer sex with eunuchs – merely sterile – since they could hold erections longer, and, of course, there was no risk of pregnancy. See: Eunuch – Myths]