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I have lived in all four corners of this country: in the Northeast until I was 17; in the South — for the first time — until I was 30; in the Northwest for a bit more than a year; back in the South until I turned 39; moved to the Southwest until I was 64; and back, finally, to the South. I am now 74. And so, I’ve lived in the American South longer than anywhere else, and while that does not give me the right to consider myself a Southerner (you have to be born here for that — maybe even your granddaddy had to have been born there for that), I have come to have a complex and conflicted love for the region. The South has a mythic hold on the psyche that no other region can match. 

Oxford, Mississippi

Perhaps the biggest problem in dealing with the American South is that there is no good way to separate the reality of it from its mythic power. Other regions have their myth, too, for sure. There is a Puritan New England, and there is the Wild West, but both of those have an element of legend to them — they are made up of familiar stories, whether of pilgrims debarking at Plymouth Rock, or Wild Bill Hickok playing aces and eights. These are stories that get repeated and we presume they tell us something about the character of the inhabitants of these regions. But the South is not built of stories, but of myth, which another thing entirely. 

There is something external about stories and legends; myth is born from that place in the psyche that Carl Jung called “the shadow.” Stories are told; myth is felt. It is something profound but unexamined — it is the sense of significance, of meaning, even if we cannot exactly put our finger on any specific meaning — the way a dream can feel significant, even if we don’t know why. 

Windsor Ruins, Mississippi

And there are at least four conflicting myths about the South, which can overlap. There is the “moonlight and magnolias,” which is now and has always been bullhockey; there is the redneck South, riven with poverty, ignorance and superstition; there is the Black South, which has its own subdivisions. And then, of course, there is the “New South,” with its Research Triangles and its civic progress. 

Yanceyville, North Carolina

The first is the bearer of the Lost Cause, a self-deluded sense that the Old South was a place of gentility and honor; the second includes both the rural farm South and the Appalachian hillbilly; the third is counterweight to both of the first two, and yet, is also the power-grid on which the first two run — it is there behind all of it. 

And lastly, if you have ever watched a new butterfly wriggle slowly, struggling out of its chrysalis, seeming to be stuck halfway, then you have a pretty good image for the New South trying to leave behind the problems of the Old. The Old is unwilling to let go. 

Because history is the foundation of Southernness. 

 

Zubulon Vance birthplace, North Carolina

When I first arrived in the South, in 1966, one of the first things I saw on driving into the campus of Guilford College, in Greensboro, N.C., was a giant banner hanging out of the third-story window of my dorm with “Forget? Hell!!” written on it in gigantic hand-scrawled letters written on a bedsheet. It was my introduction to the sense of grievance that has ridden the back of the South since the Civil War. It is a sense of being put upon by others, of having been defeated despite the assumed bravery, honor and courage of the soldiers attempting to protect the South and its heritage. Of course, this is all myth, but myth is a powerful driver. 

In Homer’s Iliad, when two soldiers meet on the fields outside Troy  and are about to beat each other into bone-snapping pulp, they first stop to tell each other their genealogy. 

“And the son of Hippolochus answered, ‘Son of Tydeus, why ask me of my lineage? … If, then, you would learn my descent, it is one that is well known to many. There is a city in the heart of Argos, pasture land of horses, called Ephyra, where Sisyphus lived, who was the craftiest of all mankind. He was the son of Aeolus, and had a son named Glaucus, who was father to Bellerophon, whom heaven endowed with the most surpassing comeliness and beauty’…” And this goes on for another 30 lines, explaining the history of his family from its origin among the gods. No one is merely an individual, but rather the tail-end of a long history, known to both the warrior himself and to his foe. 

Bell Family, Mayodan, North Carolina

This sense of history is rife in the American South, too, and the Civil War takes the place of the heights of Ilion. 

My late wife, Carole Steele, was born in North Carolina and learned about the war first-hand from her great-grandmother, Nancy Hutcherson Steele, who was 10 when it began. She had plowed the fields during the war while her father and brothers were away fighting. When she died at the age of 98, she did so in my wife’s childhood bed in a small house on the banks of the Dan River. Carole was 8 at the time.

Steele family, just after Civil War

The confluence of childhood and history formed the seed of the poetry she wrote. The blood in her veins was the blood in her father’s veins, in her grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s. History, blood and identity flowed like a river. 

“My father’s blood is always a river/ rushing to his mind/ igniting diamonds,” she wrote. She called the sense of history being alive in the genes the “long man,” an identity stretching across centuries. 

Carole described the feeling in several of her poems. One describes the feeling of being in the South and reads, in part, “It was for the wasps/ singing in the rotten apples/ under the trees,/ the sweetish smell/ of rabbit guts and/ frozen fur stuck to the bloody/ fingers/ and frost on the stubble,/ the dipper and the well,/ tobacco juice in the privet hedge,/ and liquid night/ the muted rumble/ of old voices/ at the kitchen table/ drifting up the wooden stairs”

I learned from Carole and her family, that there is usually a deep sense of belonging that Southerners feel: The second pillar of Southernness is place, and what is more, place and history are almost the same thing. A genuine love of the patch of ground where they grew up, a love like you feel for a parent. It is a love of where you were born that may not extend beyond the town or county and maybe the state. But for Carole, Rockingham County was where her father and grandfather were buried. Another poem ends: “your Daddy is a fragrance/ gathered in the peach trees/ over there.”

That fact alone meant there was an unseverable umbilical connection to that omphalos, that tiny patch of Piedmont, those trees, those creeks and rivers, those very weeds that crept over the edges of the crumbling pavement on the back roads. It is the feel of the red clay between your fingers, the blackbirds roosting by the hundreds in the oak tree. Home. 

And, in the meantime, the blood of countless slaves and freedmen enlarged the tragedy of the South. There were lynchings and later the violence of the civil-rights movement.

Mobile, Alabama

It isn’t only rancor and slaughter that give the South its sense of history, but the land itself. You can stand in a cornfield in rural Sprott, Ala., 25 miles north of Selma, and see the stand of trees at its border, knowing the trees are no more than 60 years old. And that before those trees began filling in the countryside, there were cotton, sharecroppers and poverty. A dilapidated wooden shack sits in the middle of the woods, and you wonder why anyone ever built there.

Then you recognize they didn’t. The sharecroppers’ home — just like those written about by James Agee in his Let Us Now Praise Famous Men of 1941 — was built by a cotton field, but times change and history presses on and the fields are now woods.

Sprott, Alabama

There is history elsewhere in the country, too: Bunker Hill, Mass., Fort Ticonderoga in New York or Tombstone, Ariz. But they are singular places you go to visit — somebody else’s history. The South is so full of history that its land and people seem buried under the sense of it.

The first democratic legislature in the New World was Virginia’s House of Burgesses. The author of the Declaration of Independence was a Virginian. And the Revolutionary War came to a close at Yorktown, Va.

Shiloh battlefield, Tennessee

Each state has its Civil War sites, where thousands of its men are buried. There are the street corners where civil-rights workers were hosed and beaten by police. Cotton fields where slaves were whipped. It is interesting that the one place in the country where Black and White share the most is the South.

For most Americans, history is a story told in a schoolbook. It seems removed from the lives we live. For most Southerners, history is something their grandparents did or was done to them.

And I, of course, have come late to this epic, first in 1966 when segregation was officially illegal but still largely in effect. The local barber shop would not cut a Black man’s hair; “We were not trained how to,” the barber explained, weakly and not very convincingly.

Jim Crow was so unconsciously buried in the White brain that a local ministry could, with no irony, proudly boast that it offered help and aid to “the alcoholic, the prostitute, and the Negro.” 

 

After graduating from college, I eventually found work writing for the Black weekly newspaper in Greensboro, N.C., The Carolina Peacemaker, where I found myself writing editorials for the city’s Black population. It felt strange to do so, but I never felt less than completely welcome. When I visited the African Methodist Episcopal church, I was invited in with a warmth I never felt in New Jersey — and, I might add, magnificently fed in the church basement after the service. Clearly the resistance to change in the South was a one-way thing. 

My daughter, Susie, who is also a journalist, worked in daily papers in Jackson, Miss., and Mobile, Ala., also started on a Black weekly — the Jackson Advocate, in Mississippi, where she had the same experience I did of welcome and inclusion. 

I did not find that sense in 1967 when I and a few of my college friends attended a Ku Klux Klan rally in Liberty, N.C. There, the sheriff of Forsyth County gave the keynote harangue with tales of Africans feeding their babies to crocodiles, and how Africans still had the “stub of a tail.” The smell of alcohol was pervasive, and the festivities ended with the circling and burning of a 30-foot cross, built of intersecting phone poles set alight with poured kerosene. Meanwhile, a scratchy recording of The Old Rugged Cross played on a miserable loudspeaker system. 

Later, I covered the followup to the 1979 Klan shootings in Greensboro. Klan members and American Nazi Party members were acquitted for the killings of five protesters. The city police were claimed to have colluded with the Klan, and 25 years later, the city apologized. So, the recent rash of police violence against people of color comes as neither surprise nor shock to me. 

Yet, I love the South and choose to live here. It fills my mythic life also. In the 1970s, it was the Eden from which I was exiled. I was setting roots and rhizomes in the soil of the house I shared with the woman I expected to grow old with. It was the paradise garden: In the front yard was an Yggdrasil of a shaggy, ancient black walnut tree, covered in moss. In the back yard was a pecan tree. There were two fig trees from which we ate fresh figs. There was a vacant lot next door with an old pear tree. A chinaberry grew on the street side. And a proud row of the most brilliant red maple trees along the road, changing reds throughout the year — buds, flowers, leaves, branches, each with their own ruddy glow. 

There were lilacs beside the house, wild Cherokee roses along the driveway, random chickory spreading blue along the foundation. Between our yard and the vacant lot, I counted more than a hundred species of weed — or rather, wildflower — with my Peterson Guide. I grew a vegetable garden with beans, peppers, eggplants, okra and tomatoes. 

There were mockingbirds that I trained to whistle, pileated woodpeckers that would climb the pecan tree. Crows, owls, cardinals, sparrows, redwing blackbirds, the rare ruby-throated hummingbird. Circling overhead were buzzards and hawks. There were butterflies and beetles. Ants highwayed up and down the walnut tree. A luna moth sat on the screen door. 

We lived there for seven years, digging our feet deeper into the soil, until the Archangel Michael came brandishing his sword: My love left me suddenly and I left the house. And I left the South. 

When I returned, some years later and bearing with me a numbed depression, I was taken in by my college friend and his wife, and a second, shadow-Eden was set in Summerfield, N.C., in an old house with only a wood stove for heat, and three great ancient oak trees in the back. I walked through the woods behind the house and into a small ravine — the petit canyon — and soaked my loss in the loam and leaf litter. 

The thing about depression and myth is that they play into each other. It isn’t so much that depression makes you the center of the universe, but that it wipes away everything else, leaving only yourself and your loss. You are forced to experience your life at a mythic level and for me that meant the land, its history and its people. 

New River, Ashe County, North Carolina

I recovered, moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains when I was invited by Carole. The house was on a bluff above the New River, with a dark green patch of pine trees on the hill and an unmowed grassy field on the other side of the house. I could stand at the kitchen sink, doing dishes, and watch the weather shift over the peak of Mt. Jefferson, five miles off to the north. 

Ashe County, North Carolina

Together we moved to Virginia, where Carole taught in Norfolk and I taught in Virginia Beach. Six years there, with much travel around the country. When Carole got a job offer in Arizona, we moved, lived in the desert for 25 years and when we both retired, moved back to North Carolina, to be near our daughter. 

Swannanoa Mountains, Asheville, North Carolina

It’s been 10 years now, and five since Carole died, and I have hunkered down in Asheville, at the foot of the Swannanoa Mountains, and feel as if I am where I belong. The trees and birds, the weeds and the occasional wandering black bear, the snow on top of the hills, the barbecue joints and auto parts stores. 

Age has a way of deflating myth. When I was in my 20s, the world seemed aglow, lit from within by a kind of mythic importance. The South had that glow: its people, its landscape, its history. I have come back to the South after a quarter-century in the desert. It has lost some of its oneiric power, as, indeed, the world has in general. But the South feels comfortable and human and my children and grandchildren all live here and I cannot imagine living anywhere else. I burrow in and pull its blankets around my shoulders. 

Click any image to enlarge

I have no belief in ghosts, spirits or ouija boards and I don’t believe that the past hangs on to the present to make itself palpable. But I have several times experienced a kind of spooky resonance when visiting certain famous battlefields. 

The thought re-emerged recently while watching a French TV detective show that was set in Normandy, and seeing the panoramas of the D-Day landing beaches. I visited those beaches a few years ago and had an overwhelming rush of intense sadness. It was inevitable to imagine the thousands of soldiers rushing up the sands into hellish gunfire, to imagine a thousand ships in the now calm waters I saw on a sunny day, to feel the presence in the concrete bunkers of the German soldiers fated to die there manning their guns. 

The effect is entirely psychological, of course. If some child with no historical knowledge of the events that took place there were to walk the wide beach, he would no doubt think only of the waves and water and, perhaps, the sand castles to be formed from the sand. There is no eerie presence hanging in the salt air. The planet does not record, or for that matter, much note, the miseries humans inflict on each other, and have done for millennia. 

But for those who have a historical sense, the misery reasserts itself. Imagination brings to mind the whole of human agony. 

Perhaps I should not say that the earth does not remember. It can, in certain ways. Visiting the woods of Verdun I saw the uneven forest floor, where the shell craters have only partially been filled in. Once the trees were flattened by artillery, leaving the moonscape littered with corpses. The trees have grown back, but the craters are still discernible in the wavy forest floor. 

This sense came to me first many years ago visiting the Antietam battlefield in Maryland. There is a spot there now called Bloody Lane. Before Sept. 17, 1862, the brief dirt drive was called the Sunken Road, and it was a shortcut between two farm roads near Sharpsburg, Md. All around were cornfields rolling up and down on the hilly Appalachian landscape.

The narrow dirt road, depressed into the ground like a cattle chute, now seems more like a mass grave than a road. And it was just that in 1862, when during the battle of Antietam Creek, Confederate soldiers mowed down the advancing Federals and were in turn mowed down. The slaughter was unimaginable.

You can see it in the photographs made a few days after the battle. The soldiers, mostly Southerners, fill the sunken road like executed Polish Jews. It was so bad, as one Union private said, “You could walk from one end of Bloody Lane to the other on dead soldiers and your feet would never touch the ground.”

Even today, with the way covered with crushed blue stone, the dirt underneath seems maroon. Perhaps it is the iron in the ground that makes it so; perhaps it is the blood, still there after 160 years.

Antietam was the worst single day of the Civil War. Nearly 23,000 men were killed or wounded. They were piled like meat on the ground and left for days before enough graves could be dug for them. There were flies, there was a stench. The whole thing was a fiasco, for both sides, really.

But all these years later, as you stand in Bloody Lane, the grassy margins of the road inclining up around you and the way lined with the criss-cross of split-rail fencing, it is painful to stand in the declivity, looking up at the mound in front of you, covered in cornstalks in a mid-July day. You can see that when the Yankees came over the rise, they were already close enough to touch. There was no neutralizing distance for your rifle fire to travel, no bang-bang-you’re-dead, no time, no room for playing soldier. Your enemy was in your face and you had to tear through that face with lead, the blood splattered was both Federal and Confederate, in one red pond among the furrows. In four hours on 200-yard stretch of Bloody Lane, 5,000 men were blown apart.

It is difficult to stand in Bloody Lane and not feel that all the soldiers are still there, perhaps not as ghosts, but as a presence under your boot-sole, there, soaked into the dirt.

It is almost, as some cultures believe, as if everything that happens in a place is always happening in that place. The battle was not something that occurred before my great-grandfather was born, but a palpable electricity in the air. You can not stand there in Bloody Lane and not be moved by that presence.

A similar wave of dismay overcame me at several Civil War sites: Shiloh; Vicksburg; Fredericksburg; Cold Harbor; Petersburg; Appomattox. Always the images rise in the imagination. Something epochal and terrible happened here. 

Visiting the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana, there are gravestones on the slope below the so-called “Last Stand,” but you also look down into the valley where the thousands of Sioux and Cheyenne were camped. 

I’ve visited Sand Creek and Washita. And Wounded Knee. That was the most disturbing. You travel through the Pine Ridge Reservation and the landscape is hauntingly beautiful, then you pull into the massacre site and you see the hill where the four Hotchkiss guns had a clear shot down into the small ravine where the victims huddled. The sense of death and chaos is gripping. The famous image of the frozen, contorted body of Big Foot  glowers in the imagination. It feels like it is happening in a past that is still present. 

This sense of horror and disgust wells up because of the human talent for empathy. Yes, I know full well that there are no specters of the victims waiting there for me, but my immediate sense of brotherhood with them resurrects them in my psyche. I am human, so I know that those dead were just like me. I can imagine myself bowel-loosening scared seeing my comrades to either side being blown to pieces and an enemy who I’ve never met and might have been friends with races toward me with bayonet stretched in front of him, eyes wide with the same fear. 

History is an act of the imagination. The most recent may be memory, but for me to know what my father went through in France and Czechoslovakia in World War II requires my identification with him, my psyche to recognize the bonds I share with him — and with all of humanity. 

So, when visitors are shaken by visits to Auschwitz or stand on the plains of Kursk, or the shores of Gallipoli, they well may sense that history as more present than past. I have had that experience. The ghosts are in me.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about evil,” said Stuart. Stuart is now 74 and he’s been with Genevieve for a good seven years now. “Lucky seven,” he calls it. We met again on a visit to New York, and were walking down Ninth Avenue on our way to Lincoln Center. Genevieve was playing there in a pick-up orchestra in a program of all new music by Juilliard students. 

“Well, not evil so much as how we personify evil.”

I guessed he was talking about images of Satan and devils. 

“Yes, there’s Satan,” he said. “And how we picture him keeps changing. In the Middle Ages, he was a monster with goat horns and a second face where his genitals should be. 

“To Dante, he was a giant with bat wings. 

“To Milton, he was a glorious angel who had lost little of his heroic luster. In popular culture, he was an opera villain dressed in red. He had tiny pointed horns and a pitchfork. 

“To modern movie audiences, he’s now a slick hedge-fund manager. 

“The less visually imaginative have a non-personal sense of evil as a force in the cosmos something like gravity — pervasive but not individualized. They feel they have escaped the primitive urge to apostrophize nature. 

“But what interests me isn’t just his appearance, but his character. Satan isn’t a single person, but a range of fictional stereotypes — maybe archetypes. There are probably dozens of Satans, hundreds if you want to count the demons and djinn of other cultures. But they all boil down to what I think are five mega-types. I figure there are five possible motivations for Satan. First, he is a sociopath and has no concern for his effects on the world, no empathy, no compassion — hollow and empty. We’ve seen what happens when a malignant narcissist is given power. His only concern is for himself. 

“Then, he is often seen as a trickster, a Loki, who gets his kicks from knocking the hats off of policemen. His role in the universe is the revivifying power of chaos, without which the world would be a stale and boring place, where nothing interesting ever happens. The side-effect of this is necessarily going to impact some people rather badly. William Blake seems to have seen Satan as this sort of being: a creator through destruction.

“More popular is Satan the con man and seducer, the profferer of the Faustian bargain, the little voice that says, ‘give in to the desire,’ the tempter of Jesus, the snake-oil salesman who knows his potion is either useless or poison. His pleasure is in knowing he is more clever than you, and hence, this Satan is motivated, in part, by vanity. 

“A small portion of theologists envision Satan as the right hand of god, without whom god would not be possible. If there is no evil, there is no good to play against it. God and Satan are coeval, co-existent and co-dependent. This is the Gnostic Satan, as important as Jehovah.  

“Finally, there is evil as ignorance. If we knew better, we’d behave better. For this point of view, Satan does not actually exist, but only our own failure to understand. We do evil because we are blind, stumbling about in the moral darkness. 

“Of course, I don’t believe any of this,” Stuart says. “It’s all just mythology. But myth is interesting. We always seem to better understand through story than through logical argument.”

I couldn’t help but notice the irony. But Stuart went on.

“I had a dream the other night, which set me off into a different direction,” he said. “In it, evil was a machine, not a person. I figured that in a Cartesian universe, a mechanistic and scientific world, evil might well follow laws of nature very like something Isaac Newton might have formulated. Such a conception would require a mechanistic mythology. And so, I tried to imagine a Satan-machine. 

“Like all mythologies, it would have to be built on the things of daily life, what we come into contact with. These are the things that color our imaginations. And so the evil machine of the 18th century wold be all gears and pulleys, spritzing steam and clanking along. Blake’s “dark Satanic mills.” 

In the 1950s, the machine would be blinking lights and spinning magnetic-tape reels. 

In 2000, it would be read-out screens and buttons to press.”

“And now?” I asked.

“Now, I think Satan would be a visually inert silicon chip, perhaps the size of George Lucas’ Death Star, working silently and invisibly to our destruction. 

“There is an impersonality to our scientific conception of the cosmos and its creation, and so, my idea of evil should reflect that, and our Satan would be technological. The evil is still there, and it has an origin, but the origin is not shaped in any way like a human being, no arms, no legs, or eyes or tongue stuck out like Gene Simmons’ or the Hindu goddess Kali. No, I am ready for a machine to be the source of all bane and baleful action.”

“OK,” I said. “But machines are manufactured. Who made this Satan-machine? Are we not right back with the proof of god by design? Is there a God in a lab coat who tinkered with silicon until he came up with this machine?”

“Hmm.” Stuart looked thoughtful. “No, it would have to be a writer. I’m imagining Douglas Adams,” he said. 

If I say we have entered a new Romantic era, you may lick your chops and anticipate the arrival of great poetry and music. But hold on. 

Nothing gets quite so romanticized as Romanticism. It all seems so — well — romantic. We get all fuzzy inside and think pretty thoughts. Romanticism means emotional music, beautiful paintings, expansive novels, and poetry of deep feeling.

Or so we think, forgetting that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe called Romanticism a “disease.” 

The surface of Romanticism may be attractive, but its larger implications are more complex. We should look deeper into what we mean by “Romanticism.”

Initially, it is a movement in art and literature from the end of the 18th century to the middle or latter years of the 19th century. It responded to the rationalism of the Age of Reason with a robust faith in emotion, intuition and all things natural. We now tend to think of Romanticism as a welcome relief from the artificiality of the aristocratic past and a plunge into the freedom of unbuttoned democracy. We read our Shelley and Keats, we listen to our Chopin and Berlioz and revel in the color of Turner and Delacroix. Romanticism was the ease of breathing after we have unlaced our corset or undone our necktie.

Yet, there is something adolescent about Romanticism, something not quite grown up. It is too concerned with the self and not enough with the community. There is at heart a great deal of wish fulfillment in it, and a soft pulpy core of nostalgia and worse, an unapologetic grandiosity. One cannot help think of Wagner and his Ring cycle explaining the world to his acolytes. Music of the Future, indeed.

I’m not writing to compose a philippic against a century of great art, but to consider the wider meanings of what we narrowly define as Romanticism.

Most importantly, one has to understand the pendulum swing from the various historical classicisms to the various historical romanticisms. Romanticism didn’t burst fully grown from the head of Beethoven’s Eroica, but rather recurs through history predictably. One age’s thoughtfulness is the next generation’s tired old pusillanimity. Then, that generation’s expansiveness is followed by the next and its judiciousness.

The classicism of Pericles’ Athens is followed by the energy of Hellenism. The dour stonework of the Romanesque is broken open by the lacy streams of light of the Gothic. The formality of Renaissance painting is blown away by the extravagance of the Baroque. Haydn is thrown overboard for Liszt, and later the tired sentimentality of the Victorians (the last gasping breaths of Romanticism) is replaced by the irony and classicism of Modernism. Back and forth. This is almost the respiration of cultural time; breathe in, breathe out. You could call it “cultural yoga.”

We tend to label the serene and balanced cultures as classical and the expansive and teetering ones as romantic. The labels are not important. Nietzsche called them Apollonian and Dionysian. William Blake personified them in his poems as reason and energy.

We are however misled if we simplify the two impulses as merely rationality vs. emotion. The twin poles of culture are much more than that.

Classicism tends to engage with society, the interactions of humans, the ascendency of laws instituted by men (and it is men who have instituted most of them and continue to do so — just look at Congress). AT its heart, it is a recognition of limits. 

Romanticism, of whatever era it reveals itself, engages with the cosmos, with history, with those things larger than mere human institutions, with Nature with a capital “N.” Romanticism distrusts anything invented by humans alone, and surrenders to those forces mortals cannot control. Romanticism has no truck with limits. 

These classical-romantic oppositions concern whether the artist is engaged with man as a social being, an individual set in a welter of humanity — or whether he is concerned with the individual against the background of nature or the cosmos.

Yet there is an egotism in the “me vs. the universe” formulation. It tends to glorify the individual as hero and disparage the community which makes life possible. 

In the 18th Century, for instance, Alexander Pope wrote that “The proper study of mankind is man.” The novel, which investigates human activity in its social setting, came from the same century. Fielding and Defoe come from that century.

The succeeding century is concerned more with man in nature, or man in his loneliness, or fighting the gods and elements. One thinks of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound or Byron’s Manfred.

There are many more polarities to these movements in art and culture. One side privileges clarity, the other complexity. Just compare a Renaissance painting with a Baroque one. The classical Renaissance tends to line its subjects up across the canvas in a line, while the Baroque wants to draw us in to the depth of the painting from near to far. Renaissance paintings like to light things up evenly, so all corners can be seen clearly. The romanticised Baroque loves the great patches of light and dark, obscuring outlines and generally muddying up the works.

Look at this Last Supper by Andrea del Castagno. See how clear it all is. 

But the Baroque painter Tintoretto had a different vision of the same biblical event. It is writhing, twisting out into deep space, with deep shadows and obscure happenings. The Renaissance liked stability and clarity; the Baroque, motion and confusion.

One side values unity, the other, diversity. One side values irony, the other sincerity. One side looks at the past with a skeptical eye, the other with nostalgia. One side sees the present as the happy result of progress, the other sees the present as a decline from a more natural and happier past. One side unabashedly embraces internationalism, the other, ethnic identity and nationalism. If this sounds familiar, think red and blue states.

One of the big shifts is between what I call “ethos” and “ego.”

That is, art that is meant to embody the beliefs of an age, thoughts and emotions that everyone is assumed to share — or art that is the personal expression of the individual making it.

We have so long taken it for granted that an artist is supposed to “express himself,” that we forget it has not always been so. Did Homer express his inner feelings in the Iliad? Or are those emotions he (or she) described the emotions he expected everyone would understand and share? He tells of what Achilles is feeling, or Ajax or Hector or Priam — and they are deep and profound emotions — but they give no clue to what Homer was feeling.

In music, Haydn’s symphonies were written about in his day as being powerfully emotional. Nowadays, we think of Haydn as a rather witty and cerebral composer. If we want emotion, we go to Beethoven or Schubert. You cannot listen to Schubert’s string quintet and not believe it expresses the deepest emotions that its composer was suffering at the time. It is his emotion. We may share it, but it is his.

The history of art pulsates with the shift from nationalistic to international styles, from that which is specific to an ethnic or identity group, and that which seeks to transcends those limitations.

In music, Bach imitated the national styles in his English and French suites and his Italian Concerto. The styles are distinct and identifiable.

But the Galant and Classical styles that replaced it vary little from country to country. Perhaps the Italian is a little lighter and the German a little more complex, but you can’t get simpler or more direct than Mozart.

Nationalism reasserted itself in the next century, so that you have whole schools of Czech music, French, Russian. In the early 20th Century, internationalism took charge once more and for a while, everybody was writing like Stravinsky.

The main architectural style of the first half of this century is even called “The International Style.” That style is now so passé as to be the butt of jokes.

The classical eras value rationality and clear thinking, while its mirror image values irrationality and chaos.

You’re ahead of me if you have recognized that much of what I am calling Romanticism is playing out in the world and in current politics as a new Romantic age.

Nationalism is reasserting its ugly head in Brexit, in Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin — and in Donald Trump and his followers.

The mistrust or outright disbelief in science is a recasting of Rousseau. Stephen Colbert invented the term “truthiness,” and nothing could be a better litmus test of Romanticism: The individual should be the arbiter of truth; if it feels true, we line up and salute. In a classical age, the judgments of society are taken as a prime value. Certainly, there are those who resist, but by and large, the consensus view is adopted.

The previous Romantic age had its Castle of Otranto and its Frankenstein. The current one has its Game of Thrones and its hobbits, and wizards and witches. The 19th Century looked to the Middle Ages with a nostalgia; the Postmodern 21st Century looks to a pre-civilized barbarian past (equally mythologized) with a vision for a post-apocalyptic future. 

(Right-wing nostalgia is for a pre-immigrant, pre-feminist, pre-integration utopia that never actually existed. The good old days — before penicillin.) 

This neo-barbarianism also shares with its 19th Century counterpart a glorification of violence, both criminal and battlefield — as the huge armies that contend in the Lord of the Rings films, to say nothing of the viciousness of Game of Thrones

As we enter a new Romantic age around the world, one of dissociation, confusion and realignment, we need to recognize the darker side of Romanticism and not merely its decorative accoutrements.

We will have to accept some of those adages propounded in William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell:  “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” And, “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” Is this not the Taliban? The Brexiteers? The Republican Party? And those elements in academia who want cover their ears and yell “nyah-nyah-nyah” when faced with anything outside their orthodoxy? 

Because it isn’t only on the right. The Noble Savage has come back to us as a new privileging of indigenous cultures over Western culture. The disparagement of European science, art, culture and philosophy as “hegemonic” and corrupt is just Rousseau coming back to bite us on the butt. (The West has plenty to answer for, but clitoridectomies are not routine in New Jersey. There is shame and blame found everywhere.) 

And the political right has discovered “natural immunity” and fear of pharmaceuticals, while still thinking it OK to run Clorox up the kiester. 

The last Age of Romanticism kicked off with the storming of the Bastille — a tactically meaningless act (only seven prisoners remained prison, four of them were forgers and another two were mentally ill) which inspired the French Revolution and all the bloodshed of Terror, but had enough symbolic significance to become the focus of France’s national holiday. We have our January 6, just as meaningless and perhaps just as symbolic. But perhaps that riot has more in common with a certain putsch in Munich. 

The first time America entered a Romantic age, in the 19th century, it elected Andrew Jackson, arguably the most divisive president (outside the Civil War) before Donald Trump, and certainly the most cock-sure of himself and the truthiness he felt in his gut. Facts be damned. For many of us, Trump feels like the reincarnation of Jackson, and this era feels like the reemergence of a Romantic temperament, and we may need to rethink just how warm and cuddly that truly is.

This piece is updated, expanded and rewritten from an April 2017 essay for the Spirit of the Senses

Is there anything left to say? After 5,000 years of putting it all down on clay, stone, parchment and paper, is there anything that hasn’t been said? It is something every writer faces when putting pen to paper, or fingertip to keyboard. Or even thumbs to smartphone.

And it is something I face, after having written more than four million words in my professional lifetime. Where will the new words come from?

It is also something newlyweds often fear: Will they have anything to say to each other after 20 years of marriage? Forty years? Surely they will have talked each other out.

What we write comes from a deep well, a well of experience and emotion and sometimes we have drawn so much water so quickly, it dries, but give it time and it will recharge. If no new experience enters our lives, our wells remain dry.

One friend has offered this: “That each generation thinks they know more than anybody else who has ever lived.  In a way, that’s a good thing because it allows for new ideas.”

But how new are those ideas? “I guess we have to live with a certain amount of repetition under that system,” she says. “Relying on what previous generations wrote would be so boring. Our ego demands that we pick and choose from past works if we heed them at all.”

I have a different interpretation. We never quite hit the target of what we mean; words are imprecise, concepts are misunderstood. One generation values family, the next understands family in a different way and builds its family from scratch with friends.

As T.S. Eliot says in East Coker:

Every time I put word to word, I come up short, leave things out, use phrases sure to be misinterpreted, have my motives doubted, and — as I learned many times from my readers, they read what they think I wrote and not always what I actually wrote.

And so, there is the possibility of endless clarification, endless rewriting, endless apologizing. And new words to be written.

As someone once said, all philosophy is but a footnote to Plato (who, by the way, is a footnote to the pre-Socratics), and all writing is an attempt to get right what was inartfully expressed in the past. It is a great churn.

All writing is an attempt to express the wordless. The words are never sufficient; we are all wider, broader, deeper, fuzzier, more puzzling and more contradictory than any words, sentences or paragraphs can encompass.

Heck, even the words are fuzzier. Consider “dog.” It seems simple enough, but includes great Danes and chihuahuas, Scotties and dobermans.  As a genus, it includes wolves and foxes. It also describes our feet when we’ve walked too much; the iron rack that holds up fire logs; the woman that male chauvinist pigs consider unattractive; a worthless and contemptible person. You can “put on the dog,” and show off; you can “dog it,” by being half-assed; you can call a bad movie a “dog;” at the ballpark, you can buy a couple of “dogs” with mustard; if you only partly speak a language, you are said to speak “dog French,” or “dog German;” past failures can “dog” you; if you are suspicious, you can “dog” his every move. “Dog” can be an anagram of “God.”

Imagine, then, how loose are the bounds of “good” or “bad,” or “conservative,” or when someone tries to tar a candidate as a “socialist.” Sometimes, a word loses meaning altogether. What, exactly do we mean when we talk of morality or memory, or nationality or the cosmos?

And so, every time we pick up pen to write, we are trying our hardest to scrape up a liquid into a bundle.

And so we rework those words, from Gilgamesh through James Joyce and into Toni Morrison. We rework them on the New York Times editorial page and in the high school history textbook. We rehash them even in such mundane things as our shopping lists or our FaceBook entries.

We will never run out of things to write or say, because we have never yet gotten it quite right.

An earlier version of this essay originally appeared on the Spirit of the Senses webpage on  Aug. 2, 2020. 

What do cows in India, Mexican bugs and Egyptian mummies have in common?

If you said, “Rembrandt,” give yourself a cigar.

Most of us, when think of color, think in the abstract. Color is the spectrum or the rainbow. Or the deciding factor in which car we buy. We think we know what “blue” means, or “yellow,” but that doesn’t say what particular blue or what of many possible yellows. Just an abstract approximation. Exact hues require incarnation. 

And so, for an artist, color is pigment, and pigment is ornery, peculiar and sometimes toxic, sometimes distressing, even morally questionable.

Poet William Carlos Williams wrote in his book-length Paterson, “No ideas but in things.” It was the total anti-Platonic declaration of faith in the here-and-now, the lumpy, gritty, quotidian things we can feel with our fingers or stub our toe with. I paraphrase his dictum with “No color but in things.” This is not abstract, but palpable.

A painter cannot simply decide on green or yellow, but on what pigment that paint is made from. Each acts in its own way, mixes with others differently, dilutes differently, requires a different thinner, binder or medium, displays varying levels of permanence, transparency and glossiness. The painter cannot think in abstract hues, but in the actuality of the physical world. Hands in the mud, so to speak.

The earliest pigments were dug from the earth or sifted from the cook-fire: Ochers and soot. The caves of France and Spain were painted with these pigments. 

They had to be worked into submission by the artist, grinding, mixing, adding medium and binder. His — or her (we cannot know for sure) — hands got dirty in the process. There was a smell to it, fresh loamy smell or the acrid residue of the hearth. There was a feel, gritty or pulverized, oily, or smudgy like moist clay.

So, until the mid-19th century, all paints were made from the things of this world. Soils and rocks, plants and snails. Each pigment had its idiosyncrasies and those had to be reckoned with when mixing them or placing them side-by-side. None was pure, save, perhaps, the blackness of soot.

Then, in 1856, an 18-year-old chemist named William Henry Perkin, trying to find a cure for malaria, found instead a new, synthetic purple dye — the first aniline dye. He called it “mauve,” or “mauveine.”

A decade later, the German chemists Carl Graebe and Carl Liebermann, working for BASF, synthesized alizarin crimson, making an artificial pigment that matched the natural alizarin dye that had been extracted from the madder plant. It was the first color created from an element of coal tar — a byproduct of turning coal into coke.

Apres moi, le deluge” — Since then, there has been a flood of synthetic colors, all devised in the laboratories of giant corporations. There are the aniline dyes, the azo dyes, the phthalocyanine dyes, diazonium dyes, anthraquinone dyes — a whole chemistry lab of new industrial color. Many of these new dyes and pigments were brighter and purer of hue and more permanent.

 (Not all: the new chrome yellow that Vincent Van Gogh used developed a tendency to turn brown on contact with air. Properly protected, chrome yellow is familiar as the paintjob on most schoolbusses).

Nowadays, even oil and acrylic paints with traditional names, such as burnt umber and ultramarine are likely to be produced industrially using chemical derivatives. But that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that Rembrandt or Michelangelo had to arrive at their paints through laborious and time-consuming processes.

Most pigments came to the artist’s atelier in the form of a rock or a sediment. It had to be ground down to a powder, a process normally done by an apprentice — basically an intern: “Bring me a latte, a bearclaw and the powdered cinnabar.” Being ground to a grit wasn’t enough; the poor apprentice sometimes had to spend days with the pigment between grinding stone and levigator or muller, working it into pulverized paste that could be mixed with a binder and medium and finally used by the artist on canvas.

It wasn’t until the advent of the industrial revolution and the invention of a pigment-grinding machine in 1718, that the tedious work of pigment making became doable in large quantities. And it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that prepared paints, sold in zinc tubes, made it possible for artists to buy portable paints they could carry out into the countryside to paint in the open.

But we should not forget the sometimes ancient origins of the paints used for the canvasses of the Renaissance, the Baroque — the Old Masters. This is where the Indian cows, the Mexican bugs and the Egyptian mummies come in.

First, let’s look at a few of the standard paint-sources from this pre-industrial age. Many of them have wonderful and memorable names, now largely gone out of use.

We’ll take the reds first. None was perfect, several were lethal. 

Carmine — This is the Mexican bug I mentioned above. The cochineal scale insect grows on certain cactuses in Central and South America. It is a bright violet- to deep-red color. The Aztecs called it “nocheztli,” which means “tuna blood,” and dyed the tunics of Aztec and Inca royalty.

Crimson — Before the Conquista, a European scale insect, growing on the kermes oak, provided a red dye. These insects were picked from the twigs with fingernails and processed into a scarlet dye. It was the color used to dye the curtains of the Temple in Jerusalem. Also widely used by ancient Egyptians and Romans. It was less efficiently grown and produced than the cochineal of Mexico, and so was replaced. Michelangelo used it in his paint.

Vermilion — A scarlet red form of mercury sulfide and highly poisonous, it was mined in Europe, Asia and the New World as cinnabar and was used also for cosmetics and medicine — hardly a wise use. In its mineral form, it was used to color Chinese lacquer. A finer, and redder version was first synthesized in China in the fourth century BCE, and depending how well powdered it has been ground, produces hues from orangey-red to a reddish purple that  one writer compared to “fresh duck liver.” It is still also produced by grinding cinnabar. 

The terms “cinnabar” “vermilion” and “Chinese red” are often loosely interchangeable. The finer the grinding, the brighter the red. Painter Cennino Cennini in his 15th century Craftsman’s Handbook wrote: “If you were to grind it every day for 20 years it would simply become better and more perfect.” It was the most common red in painting until it was replaced in the 20th century by cadmium red.

Dragon’s blood — Mentioned in a First-Century Roman travel guide (a periplus), it is a maroon-red pigment made from the sap of various plants, most notably the Dracaena cinnabari. Medieval sources wrote that it was made from the blood of actual dragons. It is also what gives classic violins their reddish varnish. In several folk-religions and in neo-paganism, it is a source of magical power, presumably because of its supposed connection to dragons. 

Minium — Also known as red lead, this orange-red pigment was commonly used in Medieval illuminated manuscripts. It was made by roasting oxidized lead in the air to form lead tetroxide. It is named for the Minius River between Spain and Portugal, and because this red lead was used for the small letterings and illustrations in hand-made books, it is the source of our word, “miniature.” 

Near colors of yellow, orange and purple had their sources, too. 

Gamboge — A yellow pigment formed from the resin of the evergreen Cambodian gamboge tree (genus Garcinia). Coincidentally, the name comes from the Latin name for Cambodia. It is the traditional color used to dye Buddhist monks’ robes. The pigment first reached Europe in the early 17th century. When mixed with Prussian blue, it creates Hooker’s green. A strong laxative if ingested; in large doses can cause death. 

Orpiment — A bright yellow pigment gathered from volcanoes and hot springs and is a highly poisonous compound of arsenic and was once used as an insecticide and to tip poison arrows. It was traded as far back as the Roman empire. Its name is a corruption of the latin auripigmentum or “gold pigment.”

Realgar — Realgar was, along with orpiment, a significant item of trade in the ancient Roman Empire and was used as a red paint pigment. It is an arsenic sulfide mineral and sometimes called “ruby of arsenic.” Early occurrences of realgar as a red paint pigment are known for works of art from China, India, Central Asia and Egypt. It was used in European fine-art painting during the Renaissance, a use which died out by the 18th century. It was also once used as medicine and to kill weeds, insects and rodents. Be grateful for modern medicine. 

Madder — Another dye that goes as far back as ancient Egypt, it is a violet to red color extracted from the Rubia tinctorum and related species, plants that grows on many continents, and in southern France is called garance — for those of you who love the great French film Les Enfants du Paradis. It is turned into a pigment from a dye by the process known as “laking,” and so often encountered as madder lake.

Tyrian purple — This is the purple of the Roman emperors, and is extracted from a mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of a predatory sea snail found in the eastern Mediterranean. It was worth its weight in silver and it might take 12,000 snails to produce enough dye for a single garment.

Blues and greens were often so close as to be made from variants of the same thing. 

Bice — Is a dark green-blue or blue-green pigment made from copper carbonates, primarily the mineral azurite, sometimes malachite. Lightened, it was often used for skies.

Smalt — First used in ancient Egypt, it is a cobalt oxide use to color glass a deep blue. The glass is then ground into a powder used as a pigment.

Ultramarine — The ultimate blue, made from the mineral lapis lazuli, found almost exclusively in Afghanistan, which, for Europeans, was “beyond the (Mediterranean) sea” or “ultra-marine.” The process of making the pigment from the mineral was complex and the final color was so highly prized, and so expensive, that its use had to be expressed in the contract commissioning a painting by Renaissance artists, less they use some less costly, and less glorious blue. 

Prussian blue — The first modern synthetic pigment, Prussian blue is iron hexacyanoferrate and a very dark, intense blue. It is also sometimes called Berlin blue or Paris blue. It is the blue of traditional blueprints and became popular among painters soon after it was formulated in 1708 — by accident when a chemist attempted to make a red dye and got blue instead. It largely replaced the more expensive ultramarine. After it was imported to Japan, it became the standard blue of woodblock prints. 

Egyptian blue — Long before Prussian blue, the ancient Egyptians manufactured a light blue pigment from calcium copper silicate, by mixing silica, lime, copper and an alkali. First synthesized during the Fourth Dynasty (ca. 2500 BCE), its use continued through the Roman period. The Egyptians called it “artificial lapis lazuli,” and used it to decorate beads, pots, scarabs and tomb walls. 

Indigo blue — The familiar color of blue jeans comes from indigo, made from the indigo plant Indigofera tinctoria. At least, it once did. Now the dye is synthetic. It is a deep, dark blue, almost black. Before the Asian indigo plant was imported to Europe, the dye was made from the woad plant Isatis tintoria. Before the American Revolution, Asian indigo, grown in South Carolina, was the colony’s second-most important cash crop (after rice), and counting for a third of the value of exports from the American colonies. Initially, European woad processors fought against the importation of Asian indigo dyes, as later, after adopting the Asian product, they fought tooth and nail against the synthetic. Progress. 

Verdigris — A green pigment formed by copper carbonate, chloride or acetate. It is the patina on the Statue of Liberty, but in oil paint, it has the odd property of being initially a light blue-green and turning, after about a month into a bright grass green.

Viridian — A darkish blue-green pigment, a hydrated chromium oxide, popularized by Venetian painter Paolo Veronese.

Sepia — a dark brown to black dye and pigment extracted from various species of squid. Most popular as an ink, it has also been used for oil paint.

You will have undoubtedly noticed how many of these pigments were poisonous. It has certainly been suggested that Van Gogh’s madness may have been caused by his habit of tipping his brushes on his tongue.

So many of these pigments relied on the unholy trinity of toxins: mercury, arsenic, and lead. Their toxicity was understood from ancient times. The cinnabar used for vermilion was mined in China by convicts, whose life expectancy was — well, who cared? They were convicts. 

The most common toxic color through history was white, which was most often lead carbonate, or flake white, aka white lead. It was easy to manufacture by soaking sheets of lead in vinegar for weeks at a time and scraping the resulting white powder off the surface of the metal. Flake white was a wonderful, opaque and brilliant white pigment. Unfortunately, it could kill, blind or make mad those who used it. Even today, older houses have sometimes to be de-leaded of their original paint in order to be sold legally. Children are especially vulnerable.

A substitute for white lead was looked for. Zinc white — an oxide of zinc — was tried, but was not as opaque or as white. Nowadays, titanium white is used, safer and nearly as good a pigment.

But, as I said at the top of this article, some of the old pigments were not only dangerous, but morally questionable.

Ivory black — made from elephant ivory, and essentially ivory charcoal, it is (or was) an intense black pigment. Nowadays, it is most often made from bones, as bone black, aka Mars black.

Indian yellow — A pigment brought to Europe from the east, it was described as being made by feeding cows solely on mango leaves, which made their urine an intense yellow, which was then evaporated into a sludge, dried and sold. The cattle were severely malnourished by this diet, and the practice outlawed. There are those who doubt this explanation of the pigment, but no one doubts the strong stench of the bolus. It is no longer made.

Mummy brown — A bituminous brown, made from ground-up Egyptian mummies, both human and feline. Popular from the 16th century, it was good for “glazes, shadows, flesh tones and shading.” In the 19th century, the supply of Egyptian mummies was so great that in England, they were used as fuel for steam locomotives. But when the actual origin of the pigment became widely known, a moral repugnance swept England and the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones was horrified to find out what he was using, “and when he heard what his brown was made of, he gave all his tubes of this color a decent burial” in his garden.

Makes you look at all those rich, warm browns in Rembrandt with a slightly different eye.

——————————————

This blog entry is significantly rewritten and expanded from an earlier essay published on the Spirit of the Senses website in March, 2018.

Click on any image to enlarge

In addition to this blog, which I have been writing since 2012, I have written a monthly essay for the Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz., since 2015. I was, at various times, a presenter for the salon, which arranges six to 10 or so lectures or performances each month for its subscribers. Among the other presenters are authors, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, musicians, lawyers and businessmen, each with a topic of interest to those with curious minds. I recently felt that perhaps some of those essays might find a wider audience if I republished them on my own blog. This is one, from May 1, 2020, is now updated and slightly rewritten.

Imagine Persia — Then think of Iran. 

Very different places occupying the same geographic location. The names of places carry a kind of emotional scent that surrounds them. Persia has an exotic perfume; Iran rather stinks to American minds as moldy bread.

Persia is a land of legend of djinn, of harems, and magic carpets; Iran rather has its mullahs, its chador, and its Revolutionary Guard. Persia had its Omar Khayyam and his “The Bird of Time has but a little way to flutter — and the Bird is on the Wing.” Iran has religious fundamentalism and “Death to America.”

Certainly the political situation has changed radically over time and that contributes to our different perceptions of the same country, but the names we use conjure up very different associations, too, and not just for Iran, but the names we use around the world and especially, over time. Most locations on the globe have born a variety of toponyms over the ages. Some of these names are better for journalism, some for poetry.

The same land that we now know as Iran was once called Parthia. Once called Media — land of the Medes — once called Ariana, at another time, the Achaemenid Empire. In the Bible, it is Elam. (The borders are never quite the same; borders are notoriously fugitive.) There are other names, too, all accounting for parts of what are now The Islamic Republic of Iran: Hyrcania; Bactria; Jibal; Fars; Khuzestan; Hujiya; Baluchistan.

Some of these names, such as Baluchistan and Bactria, have a kind of exotic emotional perfume and remind us of the Transoxiana of folklore and half-remembered, half-conjured history. Samarkand and Tashkent; Tales of Scheherazade or Tamurlane, stories recounted by Richard Halliburton or Lowell Thomas. One thinks of old black and white National Geographic magazines.

Countless Victorian paintings depicted a romantic Orientalized version of seraglios, viziers, genies, pashas, often with women in various states of undress.

I have long been interested in this nomenclatural perfume, and how the names of places conjure up emotional states. The Sahel, Timbuktu, Cappadocia, Machu Picchu, Angkor Watt, Bali, Madagascar, the Caspian Sea, Tristan de Cunha, Isfahan. You listen to Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia or his Polovtsian Dances, or Ippolitov-Ivanov’s Caucasian Sketches, or Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Watch the Cooper-Schoedsack 1925 silent film documentary of the annual Bakhtiari migrations in western Iran, Grass

There are Paul Gauguin’s brown-fleshed vahines from Tahiti, or the Red Fortress of Delhi, or the Taj Mahal. 

All have taken up residence in our subconscious imaginations. Places we likely will never visit except in art or literature. We watch Michael Palin and vicariously sail across the Arabian Sea on a Dhow, or look south from the Tierra del Fuego towards the icy basement of the planet. We read Herodotus, Marco Polo or Ibn Batuta. The best writing of Charles Darwin can be found in his Voyage of the “Beagle”. Or Melville’s Encantadas

And how often those aromas and scents are ambiguous as to be unplaceable. Where, for instance, is Bessarabia? What about Saxony? I have written before about how borders change over time, and the names of places change along with the borders, but here I am writing about the emotional resonances of those place names.

Saxony, Westphalia, Silesia, Franconia, Pomerania, Swabia, Thuringia: These are names from history books, but we are quite unlikely to know where to spot them on a map. They are all sections of Germany and Eastern Europe that have been subsumed by more modern nations, but a few centuries ago were their own kingdoms, principalities and dukedoms. Some reappear as regions or counties in larger nations, but some are pretty well evaporated. Saxony, for instance, as it exists now as a part of Germany, was originally a separate nation, and not even in the same place where the current Saxony lies.

The older names often have a more exotic connotation than the current names. Siam brings to mind Anna and Yul Brynner; Thailand may elicit thoughts of sex tourism. Abyssinia is a place of Solomonic apes and peacocks; Ethiopia is a nation that went through the Red Terror and famine of the Derg. Burma had its Road to Mandalay, its Kayan women with their elongated brass-coiled necks or even George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” but Myanmar brings to mind military rule, extreme xenophobia and Rohingya genocide.

Sri Lanka used to be Ceylon, but it was also known as Serendip, from which we get the word “serendipity.” Both “Ceylon” and “Serendip” derive from the ancient Greek word for the island, Sielen Diva. And according to legend and literature, it was originally named Tamraparni, or “copper colored leaves” by its first Sinhalese king, Vijaya. That name becomes the more common Taprobana.

The older names are almost always more resonant, more perfumed, which is why they show up so often in poetry and literature. Where have you heard of Albion, Cambria, Caledonia, Hibernia or Cornubia, but in verse? England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Cornwall just don’t have that literary heft. It’s hard enough for non-Brits to keep straight the difference between England, Britain, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom or UK.

If you’ve ever wondered what the ship Lusitania was named for, that was the former name for what is now Portugal. When James Joyce talks about Armorica in Finnegans Wake, he is using the old name for Brittany. Firehouse Dalmatians are named for the former Roman province located across the Adriatic Sea from Italy and now part of Croatia.

Eastern Europe is a coal bucket of forgotten or half-remembered toponyms. These places don’t translate one-for-one with modern nation-states, but across the map from Poland through Ukraine and down to Romania you find such redolent names as Pannonia, Sarmatia, Podolia, Wallachia, Pridnestrovia, Bohemia, Moravia. All of which makes the region a fertile spot to locate a fictional country when you want to write a spy novel or film comedy. Just make up a name that sound vaguely plausible.

Of the following, only one has ever been real. The rest are made up. Can you pick the genuine from the bogus?

If you picked Ruritania, a slap on the wrist for you. You have probably heard of it, but it is the fictional country that Anthony Hope used to set his 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda. It has since been used myriad times as a stand-in for any small nation in a movie or book.

(Other fictional countries that show up on celluloid: Freedonia and Sylvania from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup; Tomainia, Bacteria and Osterlich from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator; Moronica in the Three Stooges’ You Nazty Spy. There are many more.)

The ringer in the question is Ruthenia, which was a real name for a real place in Eastern Europe, now parts of Hungary and Ukraine. As for the others: Brungaria is from the Tom Swift Jr. series of boys’ books; Estrovia is from Charlie Chaplin’s film A King in New York; Lichtenburg is from the 1940 film, The Son of Monte Cristo; Pontevedro is from operetta and film, The Merry Widow; and Grand Fenwick is from the Peter Sellars film The Mouse That Roared.

There are names for mythical places, too, and they really carry their exoticism well: Atlantis; El Dorado; Shangri-La. Less well known, but once more current are the lost continents of Mu and Lemuria, both popular with cultists, and the sunken Arthurian country of Lyonesse and the drowned city of Ys.

But even real places have their exotic past. What we now call Mexico was once Aztlán. Iceland was once the almost legendary land of Thule. What we know as Xi Jinping’s China was to Marco Polo, Cathay. There is more incense to that than the more modern smog-choked superpower. Properly, Cathay was the northern part of modern China during the Yuan dynasty; the south was called Mangi. Shangdu is the modern name once transliterated as Xanadu. It has gone the way of Ozymandias.

Ruins of Xanadu

Turkey wants to be part of the European Union and is a NATO member, but in the far past, we knew the part of it east of the Dardanelles  as Asia Minor. But even that part was originally known by its regions: Anatolia in the east; Bithynia in the northwest; Cilicia in the southwest; Pontus in the northeast; and Galatia in the center (that’s who the New Testament Galatians was addressed to). The nation’s current capital is Ankara, but how much more soft and silky is its earlier incarnation as Angora?

The Middle East is now divided up in a jigsaw created after the world wars. What was The Holy Land is now Israel and its surrounding lands, which used to be aggregated as Palestine. But that whole end of the Mediterranean used more commonly to be called the Levant. I love those old terms: The Levant east of the sea and the Maghreb along the sea’s southern coast west of Egypt.

Hawaii used to be the Christmas Islands, counterweight to Easter Island. But speaking of counterweights: Tonga used to be the Friendly Islands and to their east is Niue was once Savage Island. (“Niue” translates as “Behold the Coconut”).  Back in the Atlantic, the Canary Islands were latterly the Fortunate Islands.

Nations like to attempt to make their own emotional perfume, with more or less success. Some nicknames are quite familiar: Japan is “The Land of the Rising Sun;” England is “The Land of Hope and Glory;” Ireland is “The Emerald Isle.” Norway is “The Land of the Midnight Sun.” Some nicknames aren’t particularly glorious. Italy is “The Boot;” France is “The Hexagon.” Some are just descriptive: Australia is “The Land Down Under;” Canada is “The Great White North;” Afghanistan is “The Graveyard of Empires.”

States have nicknames, too. Alaska has a bunch of them: “The Last Frontier” is printed on license plates. But others are less chamber-of-commerce-ish: Seward’s Ice Box; Icebergia; Polaria; Walrussia; the Polar Bear Garden.

Among the odder state nicknames: Arkansas is the Toothpick State; Colorado is The Highest State (which now has added meaning with the legalization of marijuana); Connecticut is both The Blue Law State and “The Land of Steady Habits;” Delaware is The Chemical Capital of the World; Georgia is The Goober State (for the peanut, please); Massachusetts is The Baked Bean State; Minnesota is “Minne(snow)ta;” Nebraska is The Bugeating State; New Jersey is officially The Garden State, but many call it “the Garbage State,” none too kindly; North Carolina used to be The Turpentine State; South Carolina used to print on its license plates, “Iodine Products State;” Tennessee is The Hog and Hominy State.

Cities have their nicknames, too. Some are in universal parlance. Paris is The City of Light, Rome is The Eternal City. In the U.S. we can drive from Beantown to the Big Apple to the City of Brotherly Love and through Porkopolis on to the Windy City and head south to the Big Easy and then out west to the Mile High City (again, now a double entendre), and finally to The City of Angels or more northerly to Frisco. (The full name given to Los Angeles is El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles or “the town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels.” Put that on a Dodgers ballcap.)

But there are less common and less polite names for cities, too. And some real oddball ones. Albertville, Ala., is The Fire Hydrant Capital of the World. Berkeley, Calif., is “Berzerkeley.” LA is also “La-La Land.” Indianapolis is “India-no-place.” New Orleans is also the “Big Sleazy.” Las Vegas is “Lost Wages.” Boulder, Colo., is The People’s Republic of Boulder.

You can string together toponyms and almost make poetry, or at least a song: “Oklahoma City looks oh so pretty/ You’ll see Amarillo/ Gallup, New Mexico/ Flagstaff, Arizona/ Don’t forget Wynonna/ Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino/ … Get your kicks on Route 66.”

“I’ve been to Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota/ Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota/ Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma/ Tampa, Panama, Mattawa, La Paloma/ Bangor, Baltimore, Salvador, Amarillo/ Tocopilla, Barranquilla, and Padilla, I’m a killer/

“I’ve been everywhere, man/ I’ve been everywhere.” 

But I ain’t been to Timbuktu. 

In addition to this blog, which I have been writing since 2012, I have written a monthly essay for the Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz., since 2015. I was, at various times, a presenter for the salon, which arranges six to 10 or so lectures or performances each month for its subscribers. Among the other presenters are authors, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, musicians, lawyers and businessmen, each with a topic of interest to those with curious minds. I recently felt that perhaps some of those essays might find a wider audience if I republished them on my own blog. This is one, from Jan. 1, 2020, is now updated and slightly rewritten.

“Constantinople is not Constantinople anymore…”

That’s how the song goes. “Constantinople is now Istanbul…” etc. etc. for the rest of the tune. The change in name happened officially in 1926, although it took until the 1950s before the switch made it down to the level of a pop tune.

This is hardly the first time that the city on the Bosphorus has switched identities. If we look in the rearview mirror, the city has been named Stamboul, Istanbul, Constantinople, Islambol, Constantinople (again), Byzantium, Nova Roma, Augustina Antonina, Byzantium (again) and, according to Pliny the Elder, was first founded as the city of Lygos by Thracian immigrants in 13th or 11th century B.C.E.

Besides the official names, there are the names the city was known by in other languages and cultures. For instance, the Vikings called it Miklagarth or “Big Wall.” It is Tsargrad (or “Caesar City”)  in old Slavic languages (and remains so in Bulgarian). To the Persians, it was Takht-e Rum, or “Throne of the Romans.” In Medieval Spain, it was Kostandina. And in old Hebrew, it was Kushta.

During the Ming Dynasty in China, the city was Lumi, but in the Qing Dynasty it was Wulumu, or alternately, Gongsidangdinebole. That’s a mouthful. In modern Pinyin Chinese, it is Yisitanbao, in which you can hear the echo of “Istanbul.”

I bring this up, oddly, because Ukraine is so much in the news. When I was learning geography in grade school (another outdated name), it was “the Ukraine,” very much parallel to “the Argentine,” or “the Midwest.” A few years ago, the definite article was officially sent packing.

The issue was born of history. In the 12th century, the city of Kiev dominated the trade routes from northern Europe to Constantinople and the region developed into a quasi-nation called the Kievan Rus. Later, the city of Moscow, to the north, grew stronger and became dominant.

And so, there were two Russias and the larger, ruled by Moscow, acquired the name “Russia,” and the lesser became known as “Little Russia,” or Malaya Rossiya, or, for short, Mala Rus.

(Excuse this oversimplification of history. This is not even the Cliff Notes version of Russian and Ukrainian history and leaves out a whole lot, but I hope gives the gist of what goes on with the naming of the spot on the globe. I have not even begun to mention the Tatars.)

To continue: With Muscovite Russia taking over, what was called Little Russia was seen as a kind of borderland between Russia and Poland. A “buffer zone.” Russia has always been obsessed with buffer zones. By the most commonly accepted etymology, “Ukraine” means “borderland.” And hence, the definite article. The Ukraine: The Borderland.

As a digression — Piotr Illich Tchaikovsky wrote six symphonies. The three final ones are huge, grand statements and a bulwark of the symphonic repertoire. The first three are lesser works. His second symphony is known as the “Little Russian” symphony. Many people have assumed it was a smaller symphony that was somehow Russian. But it is named for the composer’s use of Ukrainian folk tunes in the music. Hence: “Little Russian.”

Back to the story. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Ukrainian nationalism, there was a backlash against any idea that their nation was the little brother and popular sentiment abhorred the older idea of Little Russia. They resented the popular image that they were the hicks and hillbillies of the Steppes. And they equally it hurt their national pride that they were merely a borderland between other, more important powers.

The country also has a more recent beef with their former overlords. Through the first half of the 20th century, Ukraine was devastated by Soviet  policy. In the 1930s, untold millions were starved to death by Stalin. Later, untold millions were killed by Hitler. This sorry story is recounted brilliantly in Timothy Snyder’s 2010 book, Bloodlands. Grim but important reading.

And so, once they were independent, in 1991, they asked the world to drop the article in their name, and on Dec. 3 of that year, the Associated Press officially changed the style and asked newspapers to use “Ukraine” and no longer “the Ukraine.”

I remember when that happened. I was working at The Arizona Republic; it was a small footnote to that year. The AP frequently updates its stylebook, but the loss of the “the” struck me at the time as kind of ugly. Linguistically, I liked the distinction the nation had as an outlier. I have always liked language anomalies.

Sorry. I keep getting distracted. So, after the Russian annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Russian-ish troops into eastern Ukraine, the leader of the separatist movement and head of the self-proclaimed state of Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Sakharchenko, proposed renaming his portion of the Ukraine as Malarus, or “Little Russia,” to acknowledge his allegiance to the idea of a single grand Rus. The idea went nowhere; even the Russian-leaning populace wanted to distance themselves from the old idea of “little brother.”

We have a habit, probably hard-wired into our evolution, of thinking of the world as static, as a given. We may change, we may age, we may marry and divorce, but the land we live on is permanent. It is not.

Not only are nations and borders constantly shifting, but rivers change course, mountains lose half their height overnight (Mt. St. Helens or  Vesuvius). You can find on the internet several YouTube animations demonstrating the wiggling, shifting borders of nations over the past thousand years. Poland notoriously rolls around like mercury on a plate. Even after World War II, the whole of Poland lifted up its skirts and moved 200 miles to the west.

But for our purpose here, it is the names of places that I want to point out. They change constantly. Either because the old name has demeaning connotations, or because of political change, or the splitting up of ethnic portions of a once-single nation, or the rising linguistic influence of a powerful imperialist neighbor.

So, not only has the Ukraine become Ukraine, but Peking has become Beijing; Bombay is now Mumbai; Upper Volta became Burkina Faso. Cambodia turned to Kampuchea, but then went back. Burma tried on Myanmar and is now loosening up to be Burma again. But Rangoon is pretty secure as Yangon.

As political influence shifts, names come in and out of circulation. Where Germany and Poland contend, you sometimes have both names, such as Danzig and Gdansk, Stetin and Szczecin, or Auschwitz and Oswiecim.

Czechoslovakia is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Mapmakers must go crazy trying to keep up.

Even in Ukraine, Kiev is changing to Kyiv.

Persia became Iran in 1935; the Kingdom of Hejaz and Nejd became Saudi Arabia in 1932; Abyssinia turned into Ethiopia in 1941; Siam became Thailand in 1949.

One of my favorites — In 1384, the Duchy of Brabant became Burgundian Netherlands; a century later, it became Habsburg Netherlands. Give another hundred years and it became Spanish Netherlands. In 1713, it became Austrian Netherlands followed in 1815 as the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, only to turn a few years later into what we now know as Belgium. There is a bubbling separatist movement that may turn the whole thing back into two countries: Wallonia and Brabant, bringing full circle.

Utah was once called Deseret. Kolkata was once Calcutta. St. Petersburg became Petrograd became Leningrad became St. Petersburg once again.

I don’t think even Ovid could have kept up with all the shifting identities.

Bechuanaland is Botswana; Basutoland is Lesotho; Ceylon is Sri Lanka; British Honduras is Belize; Dahomey is Benin; Madras is Tamil Nadu; Londonderry is Derry. Russia itself went through a cataclysmic shirt to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to the Russian Federation and back to good ol’ Russia.

Joseph Stalin kept the commissars humming. The city of Tsaritsyn was renamed in his honor as Stalingrad. But genocidal dictators come and go, and now the city is Volgograd. Dushanbe in Tajikistan was changed to Stalinabad in 1929 to honor Uncle Joe, and was de-Stalinized later, returning it to Dushanbe. Of course, the man history knows as Stalin wasn’t born that way; he was originally Iosep Besarionis dze Jughashvili.

I could go on listing name changes. Illyricum in the Roman Empire was Yugoslavia during the Cold War and has since shattered into various entities, forming and reforming now into Slovenia, Croatia, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro. Give it time and the region will certainly transform again.

The point of all this is that the world is dynamic. Our sense of it is static, but the reality is constantly shifting. When I hear politicians rail on about national sovereignty or diplomatic recognition for rogue states, I turn my head and blush for them. It is all just snakes in a bucket, over time, wriggling and writhing. New York was once New Amsterdam; Oslo used to be Christiania; Guangdong was first known to us as Canton.

Nothing stays the same. It is always changing. Tempus fugit. Everything fugit.

Even Regina, Saskatchewan was once a town named Pile of Bones.

I woke up this February morning to a gray, cloudy, cold day, with reaches of fog climbing up the sides of the mountains, giving them all the look of a Chinese painting. Brouillard in French. Nebel in German. 

And that set me to thinking about Long John Nebel, a radio personality from WOR-AM in New York, who had an all-night talk show when I was a kid, interviewing people who claimed they had been in flying saucers, or explained there was a civilization that lived in the center of the earth, or that could bend spoons with their minds. It is where I first heard of Charles Fort, Edgar Cayce and astral projection. 

Long John’s theme song was originally written for the movie The Forbidden Planet by David Rose, but was never used there. It was distinct and spooky, just like most of Long John’s guests.

Remembering Long John reminded me also of Jean Shepherd, whose program ran on the station just before Long John. For 45 minutes each night, Shep told stories of his childhood or army life, ranted about modern culture, played the Jew’s harp or kazoo along with The Sheik of Araby, and drove his engineers and management nuts. His theme music was Eduard Strauss’s polka Bahn Frei, in a Boston Pops arrangement by Peter Bodge. Eduard was the lesser known younger brother of  Johann Strauss II and you could call him the Eric of the Strauss family. I listened to Shepherd night after night and heard the polka so many times — thousands — that as soon as I think of it, it becomes an ear worm and for the next couple of days, it plays in my head endlessly. 

And so, I’m sitting there this morning, enjoying the nasty weather outside and my mind wanders to TV show theme music. There’s the William Tell Overture and The Lone Ranger; Love in Bloom for Jack Benny; Love Nest for Burns and Allen.

Burns and Allen was a show we watched regularly in the 1950s, and in retrospect, I can see it as the first Postmodern series, as George would retreat to his study above the garage and watch the same show we were watching, on his TV and commenting on the plot as it played out. This level of knowingness became common later with such shows as It’s Like, You Know… Everyone’s doing it now. 

These connections, from fog on the mountain to Postmodernism, are the way the human mind works. One damn thing leads to another. We might all like to think we are rational beings and think logically, but no, it’s a slow bumping from one thing to another, and sometimes we make them fit together like the Tab A and Slot B of a puzzle. 

It’s a version of the Kevin Bacon game. How many steps to get from this to that. For instance, I can get to Vladimir Putin in only three steps. When I was music critic in Phoenix, I was friends with the director of the Arizona Opera, the late Joel Revzen (an unfortunate  Covid victim late last year; I will miss him). After he left Arizona, Revzen worked at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and became the designated repetiteur for Valery Gergiev (Revzen would rehearse the orchestra and singers for weeks to get them ready for the jet-set conductor who would swoop in the last week and put the finishing touches on the performance). Gergiev also invited Revzen to conduct his orchestra in Moscow, the Mariinsky Orchestra. Gergiev, in turn, is pals with Putin. Three jumps and bingo. 

I can connect with Albert Einstein in two steps: My friend and predecessor as music critic in Arizona was Dimitri Drobatschewsky, who was born in Berlin. Dimitri’s father was a noted violinist, and when Dimitri was a young boy, the family played string quartets at home, and occasionally, Einstein — an amateur fiddler — would sit in. A quick two-step. 

Dimitri knew many of the most famous musicians of the 20th century, and through them, I could trace connections to Rachmaninoff, Heifetz, Rubinstein, even George Gershwin. And through Gershwin to Arnold Schoenberg, and through him to Gustav Mahler. Short trips and many connections. 

Let’s see how many connections I need to make it to Johann Sebastian Bach.

—I knew Dimitri; who knew cellist Gregor Piatagorsky; who recorded Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 2 with Artur Schnabel; who studied piano with Theodor Leschetizky; who learned piano from Carl Czerny; who was a pupil of Ludwig von Beethoven; who met Wolfgang Mozart; who knew Johann Christian Bach; whose father was Johann Sebastian. Nine steps over 271 years, an average of 30 years per step.

That’s a bit over the standard Kevin Bacon line, but I can still claim only six degrees from Beethoven. I knew someone who knew someone who knew someone, etc., who knew Beethoven. Finding connections, whether of acquaintance or through association of ideas, everything is connected to everything else. When we isolate anything, we rip it from its context, and its context extends, however tenuously, to the edges of the universe. 

And I cannot think of 271 years as being all that long ago. I have lived for nearly three-quarters of a century; my father was born 102 years ago. That’s the year of the Versailles Treaty and the year Pierre-Auguste Renoir died. So, that’s a century, a father-son century. Only 10 of those father-son centuries and we are in the reign of King Canute of England. The Middle Ages. A millennium. And only 10 of those brings us to the very beginnings of agriculture and civilization itself, growing along the Fertile Crescent, the Indus River Valley and in China. That’s just the father-son century times 10 times 10. All of civilization, there between your thumb and forefinger. 

It’s hardly surprising, then, that everyone with even a drop of European in their DNA can count Charlemagne in their family tree. We are all related. Further back, we seem all to have the bones of Lucy as our great-great-great, etc. grandma. 

And anyone who saw the 1978 James Burke television series, Connections, knows that the world doesn’t progress in a linear fashion, but by accretion. It takes a handful of previous inventions to permit the breakthrough we all know. It’s a web, not a line. 

Even today’s weather in Asheville is dependent on yesterday’s rain in Tennessee and last month’s disturbance over the Pacific Ocean. 

In my own life, I realize I could have had a Ph.D. in some specialty, maybe a sinecure in a college or university. It was actually what my life-arc seemed to predict. But I could never narrow down my interests. I wanted to learn everything. An impossibility, of course. But I have spent my seven decades looking for the way all things are related, for the bigger picture. The beaker into which it all mixes. The mind casts a wide net, wide enough to move from a gray day through a radio talk show to Charlemagne and even to Gobekli Tepe in Turkey. 

Today we enter a year that is a calendric anomaly: Every 101 years, for the past 12 centuries, the year is written in consecutive numbers. This year is 2021; the last time this happened was 1920. 

This stuff is for geeks only. There is absolutely no significance to this peculiarity. But we are a species hardwired to find significance where there is none. I am fairly certain that 13 months from now, there will be predictions for the end of the world on Feb. 22. Why? Because it will be written in the shorthand as 2/22/22. That hasn’t happened since Jan. 11, 1911. 

So, we may ask, will anything significant occur in 2021, other than the misdating of checks for a month or two? In 1920, there were several significant events. Prohibition began in the U.S. In Germany the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or German Worker’s Party, changed its name to Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or National Socialist German Worker’s Party, a rather long and clumsy name soon shortened to Nazi. More meaningful to us now, perhaps: The Spanish Flu Pandemic, which killed up to 50 million people, officially ended. 

Also of significance, upside and downside: The 19th Amendment gives women the right to vote; and hydrocodone is first synthesized. Of no significance at all: the East Bengal Football Club was established in Kolkata, India. 

Going back a century and a year, in 1819, Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia; Alabama admitted as the 22nd U.S. state; and Princess Alexandrina Victoria was born. In 1837, she becomes Queen Victoria and gives her name to the rest of the century. A less significant event, but perhaps related to Queen Victoria: In 1819, the erotic and explicit wall paintings discovered in Pompeii were barred from view to the public. 

Another lurch backward and A.D. 1718 was the year of Blackbeard the pirate, who in May attempted to blockade the harbor at Charleston, S.C. and who was killed in November at Ocracoke, N.C. by the Royal Navy, when he is hit by five musket balls and sliced with 20 sword wounds. 

The abbreviation A.D., or Anno Domini, is traditionally printed ahead of the date, as opposed to B.C., or “before Christ,” which comes after the date, although this nicety is often abused in practice. And now, it is replaced with C.E. and B.C.E. (Common Era and Before Common Era) which, while less Christian-centric, sound rather more bureaucratic. Perhaps the formality of “A.D.” could be reduced if we used a more modern translation from the Latin and rendered it not as “Year of Our Lord,” but instead as “Year of the Boss.” Tradition lends sanctity to the old Jacobean translations with their “thee” and “thou.” For instance, what sounds important and holy as the Ark of the Covenant sounds reverential if we call it simply “the box with the contract in it.” 

Anyway, this game of sequential numbers really only begins with A.D. 910. Before that, zeros get in the way: 809 doesn’t quite work. We could print it as 0809, but no one does. So, the anomaly starts with 910, the year Alfred the Great’s son, King Edward defeated the raiding vikings at the Battle of Tettenhall in the West Midlands of England. But do they teach that in New Jersey grade schools? No. 

The year 1011, or MXI in the Julian Calendar, Danish King Thorkell the Tall and his army laid siege to the city of Canterbury, taking hostage the archbishop, Ælfheah; Godwine, Bishop of Rochester; and Leofrun, Abbess of St. Mildrith’s. The archbishop was then murdered by being “pelted with the bones of cattle” and then struck with “the butt of an ax.” In other worlds, “Going Medieval” on him. 

In 1112, Otto the Rich is appointed Duke of Saxony by Emperor Henry V. Also Garcia the Restorer of Navarre and Henry the Blind of Luxembourg are born and Vasil the Robber of Armenia dies. In other news, Duke Boleslaw III of Poland has his half-brother Zbigniew blinded and thrown into a dungeon, so, we’re still in the Middle Ages. 

Pope Innocent III called for the Fifth Crusade in 1213. Not so innocent, he had also caused the Fourth Crusade, which razed Constantinople and killed thousands and included the rape of nuns by the crusader army. If that weren’t enough, Innocent also instituted the Albigensian Crusade, in which papal forces massacred about 20,000 men, women and children, heretical Cathar and orthodox Catholic alike (his general said, “Kill them all and let God sort them out.”)

Which brings us to 1314, when Jacques de Molay, 23rd Grand Master of the Knights of Templar is burned at the stake in Paris. The phrase “nasty, brutish and short” comes to mind for all these centuries. Also, Robert the Bruce defeats Edward II of England at the Battle of Bannockburn. 

A theme is developing. In 1415, the Council of Constance tries Jan Hus for heresy and then sentences him to be burned at the stake. And, at the Battle of Agincourt Henry V of England defeats the larger French forces on St. Crispin’s Day. St. Crispin is patron saint of cobblers, curriers, tanners and leather workers and was beheaded in the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian. 

In 1516, Thomas More published Utopia, a book describing the perfect society, probably because the real world wasn’t. It was a busy year: In addition, the first national postal service was created by Henry VIII in England, the world’s first ghetto was created in Venice, and — little known or celebrated —  Christopher Columbus had a cousin, Rafael Perestrello, who actually did sail to China and trade with merchants at Guangzhou. 

In 1617, Johannes Kepler begins publishing his theory of elliptical planetary orbits; and John Napier invents Napier’s Bones, the first multiplying computer; and Henry Briggs publishes his book describing logarithms. Science is beginning to win over superstition, except that in Sweden at least seven women are burned to death as witches at the Finspang Witch Trial. 

Which takes us by a commodius vicus of recirculation, back to 1718 and the settlement of New Orleans in New France and the introduction of the white potato to New England. Everything seemed new, including the potatoes. 

And the Panic of 1819, the first major peacetime financial crisis in the U.S., which some historians call the “First Great Depression.” 

And 1920 and the first great Red Scare, when a terrorist exploded a bomb on Wall Street (very like Nashville), and the Palmer Raids arrested more than 4,000 suspected communists and anarchists and held them without trial (as at Guantanamo) and the New York State Assembly refused to seat five duly elected Socialist assemblymen. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were arrested. Also: The oldest existing movie footage of a professional wrestling match. America becomes America.

And now, 20 and 21. Already momentous: The UK leaves the EU as ethnic nationalism once again begins to show its ugly face around the globe. And the Covid pandemic has caused us to replay much of 2020: the 2020 Summer Olympics are planned for this year, and also the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest. The U.N. has declared 2021 as the International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development — and they say the U.N. is too bureaucratic. It is also the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables.

Also expected in XXMMI is Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Fla. And in the U.S. the largest brood of 17-year locusts, called Brood X, will emerge for the first time since 2004. Something to look forward to.