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“There is something sinister about the past.”

—Artist Kahinde Wiley

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

— Character Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s Ulysses

The study of history is endlessly fascinating. It is the biggest segment of non-fiction book publishing, a favorite of Civil War re-enactors, the grist for endless op-ed writers, a healthy chunk of the lecture series offered by the Great Courses, and a third of C-Span’s weekend programming. We are all at least amateur historians. 

Everyone knows the major narratives: George Washington as father to the country, Abe Lincoln as martyred Great Emancipator, Hitler as madman, Napoleon with his hand in his shirt, D-Day as the greatest victory of World War II. 

But almost all such interest in history is falsely benign, even when not entirely false. It is history as familiar story, and history with beginning, middle and satisfying end. Rather too neat compared with the messy, chaotic reality. 

It isn’t just that I wish to point out that it is largely a white male history, justifying the status quo, but that the overwhelming lesson of history is human misery. History is not a pageant on a grade-school stage, it is the eternal recurrence of peoples massacring, conquering, colonizing and enslaving each other. 

What we are taught in schools as history is overwhelmingly a list of the dates of the great battles and world-changing wars. There is a reason for this. The bulk of history is one of improved ways of bashing the skulls of opponents into bloody splinters. 

Yes, you can read about how Lincoln used and corralled his team of rivals, or how LBJ managed to pass the Civil Rights bills, but a better gauge of the norm is Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, about the millions of human beings starved, shot, bombed, buried alive or tortured.

Einsatzgruppe shooting naked women

One writer summarized the theme of the book as the “deliberate mass starvation and shootings in the Soviet Union in the period from 1933 to 1938; mass shootings in occupied Poland more or less equally by Soviet and German killers in 1939 to 1941; deliberate starvation of 3.1 million Soviet prisoners of war and mass shooting and gassing of more than 5 million Jews by the Germans between 1941 and 1945.”

And that is separate from the wartime military deaths, which is more millions of abruptly ended lives. 

Wikipedia lists more than 125 mass killings, genocides, pogroms and massacres before 1945, counting only those that have deserved names: St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre; Mountain Meadows Massacre; Wounded Knee Massacre; Rape of Nanking; Babi Yar; Holodomor; Shoah. 

Since World War II, massacres notable enough to have acquired names have occurred on the average of more than two per year. 

Skulls of Spanish, Djerba, Tunisia, 1558

I could make a list, but it would go on for pages, from the pyramid of skulls left by Tamerlane to the Cathar genocide of the 13th century to the death of 90 percent of the Carthaginians during the Third Punic War in 149 BCE. 

We can think of all these genocides and massacres as something that took place in distant years and distant lands. But there is ethnic cleansing going on right now, and as for the distance, the U.S. has to answer for both the decimation of Native American populations and the enslavement of millions of Africans and African-Americans. 

As written about in American Philosophy: From Wounded Knee to the Present, by Erin McKenna and Scott L. Pratt, It is also apparent that the shared history of the hemisphere is one framed by the dual tragedies of genocide and slavery, both of which are part of the legacy of the European invasions of the past 500 years. Indigenous people north and south were displaced, died of disease, and were killed by Christian Europeans through slavery, rape, and war. In 1491, about 145 million people lived in the western hemisphere. By 1691, the population of indigenous Americans had declined by 90-95 percent, or by around 130 million people.”

But let’s not make this into a game of blame the nasty Europeans. Everyone has his share of guilt. We cannot forget the Qing Dynasty’s 18th century Zunghar Genocide, which wiped out 80 percent of the Oirat Mongols of the Altai region; or 19th century genocide of the Moriori, on the Chatham Islands of New Zealand, when 95 percent of them were eradicated by Maoris; or the Indonesian mass killings of 1965 and ’66, when up to 3 million people were murdered; or another 3 million by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, who eliminated a third of the country’s population, including 100 percent of the Cambodian Viets, 50 percent of the Cambodian Chinese, 40 percent of their Lao and Thai, and a quarter of all city dwellers. 

The Hopi — called the “Peaceful People” in their own language — murdered the entire male population of their village of Awotovi in 1700 for being ka-Hopi: “un-Hopi.” This is the universal truth of humanity. 

2.

All this — and a hundred times more I am not writing about — is just prologue and context for what I want to say. Not just that the past is a slaughterhouse, but that history continues either to make us do stupid and bloody things or to justify our doing them. The past is not only always with us, it too often governs the present.

History oppresses us; it’s what we mean when we say the generals are always fighting the previous war. Or how so-called “originalists” use a 230-year-old Constitution to attempt to halt the flow of time and bind us to outdated strictures. The past is a ruler-wielding schoomarm. It is the punitive fantasy of MAGA. It is the excuse used by every murderous regime.  

The present is simply the sharp point of a blood-smeared sword whose shaft extends at least 3,000 years back into the past. While it is not the cause of every war, history fuels much of conflict. Even when there is more proximate cause, history is soon recruited to justify the fight. History is animated by grievance and payback. It is the Greeks and Turks, the Arabs and Israelis, the Tamils and Sinhalese, the Croats and Serbs, each side revenging the slights of centuries past, even millennia ago. 

The justification made for flying airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was that it was payback for Western interference in the Middle East, which includes the partition of the Levant after World War I, and before that, going back to the Crusades. In turn, we invade Iraq, in turn ISIS slaughters women and children. Hamas (which means “violence” in Hebrew and “Zeal” in Arabic) shoots rockets into Israel; Israel fires artillery into the Gaza Strip. 

It’s like the back seat on a road trip: “Peter hit me.” “Johnny hit me first.” 

You can carry it back, no doubt to Deuteronomy 20, when Jehovah demands genocide toward the Canaanites: “…you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you…”

Massacre at Drogheda

During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, as during the Irish Revolt of the early 20th century, retribution was taken for the deprivations of Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century (estimates of Irish death during that campaign range up to 80 percent of the Catholic population.) 

The power of grievance to sustain is appalling. There is a great line in Auden’s poem, September. 1, 1939: “I and the public know/ What all schoolchildren learn,/ Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return.”

When I first went to college in North Carolina in 1966, the first day on campus I was puzzled by a banner hanging from the second story of my dorm. It read: “Forget? Hell!” Being a naive Northerner, I did not fathom the historic resonance of the Civil War in the South. There is still a sectional animosity that plays out. 

This mechanism of grievance and retribution is the mythic substance of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy of Greek tragedies. The short and oversimplified version is this: Tantalus butchered his son, Pelops, and cooked and served him to an assembly of the gods. Pelops had two sons, Atreus and Thyestes; Atreus killed his brother’s sons and cooked and fed them to Thyestes. For revenge, Thyestes then fathered another son on his own daughter, Pelopia, in order that the son would grow up and kill Atreus, which he did. Then, Atreus’ son, Aegisthus, took up with the wife of another of Atreus’ sons, Agamemnon, while Agamemnon was away at the Trojan War. I know this gets complicated, but stay with me. When Agamemnon returned from war, Clytemnestra murdered him, upon which, their son, Orestes was tasked with revenging his father’s death by killing his own mother and her lover. This tit for tat might have continued forever, revenge upon revenge, but for the intercession of Athena, who put an end to the vengeance by putting Orestes on trial in Athens, where he is acquitted. Hence, justice was to be meted out by a jury rather than by blood feud. 

Or that’s the story, anyway. Please let no Classical scholar take umbrage at the violence I have done by streamlining the plot and vow vengeance upon me. 

One can take this myth and open it into the macro world and see the attempt to do as Athena did by setting up first, the League of Nations, and then the United Nations as means of circumventing the natural antipathies that lead to war in the modern world. Alas, we have seen how well that works. 

The world and history is one big Hatfield and McCoy back-and-forth.  A lex talionis writ large and over millennia. 

So as W.B. Yeats had it: “… when they know what old books tell/ And that no better can be had,/ Know why an old man should be mad.”

I read the Iliad once a year, and every time I do, Hector dies at the end and Achilles in an act of compassion gives the Trojan hero’s body to his grieving father. 

And every time I read Moby Dick, Ahab dies tangled in rope to the whale, and the beast sinks the Pequod. Likewise, the Maltese Falcon always turns out to be lead, and Dorothy always returns to Kansas.

These are stories and they have beginnings, middles and ends. We may know that Achilles is destined for an early death, even though it is not in the Iliad, and we may wonder if Ishmael ever gets on another boat or Brigid O’Shaughnessy hangs by that pretty neck of hers or spends 20 years in Tehachapi, or if Dorothy ever gets a Ph.D. or lives to bear children to a dunce. But all this is outside the knowledge of these stories. 

There is self-containment in a story, even one with sequels, in which each sequel is its own story, with its own beginning, middle and end. There is a front cover to the book, and a back cover, and when we close it over, we put the book back on the shelf. 

This seems to work for books about history, too. We know that Cornwallis will surrender at Yorktown and that Lee will surrender at Appomattox. When we read about Abraham Lincoln, we know his story ends at Ford’s Theater. 

Napoleon ends in Moscow, at Waterloo, or St. Helena, depending on the focus of the history book. Hitler will lose the war and the Berlin Wall will come down. No matter how many times we turn the pages, the end is always the same. We know it even before we start. 

So history seems to be constructed of discrete bits, sewn together. Each with a beginning, middle and end. Alexander will die in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar and the Middle Ages will come to an end in the Renaissance. 

So, when we read about Neville Chamberlain, we know he was a failure because we know what happened after Munich. We know in advance that Communism fails and that computers didn’t go all cattywampus after Jan. 1, 2000. 

It is seldom we acknowledge, even if it is obvious, that Washington didn’t know that he would win the battle, that Lincoln didn’t know he wouldn’t return from Our American Cousin, or that anyone living in AD 800 didn’t know they were living in the Middle Ages. Middle of what? They were modern at the time.

We get a false sense of the world when we look at history as a story. One thing follows another in consequence and bingo, Napoleon comes to the end we always knew he would come to. 

History as it happens isn’t history. It is simply the now of back then. Its participants are just as ignorant of the outcome as we are of what will happen in Syria or North Korea. Or the legacy of Trumpism. Eisenhower didn’t know that D-Day would work; Oppenheimer didn’t know if the plutonium bomb would actually explode; Neil Armstrong didn’t know if he would ever get back from the moon. It is all contingent. 

History is not a story. It is a flowing chaos, a million-billion strands floating out into the ether and gathering in unanticipated knots. You might as well stand at the banks of a river and ask, “Where did that water start, where does it end.” 

So, we don’t know where our future is going, where those knots will form. Only afterwards do we go back, pick out the bits that make sense to us at the moment and weave a story out of them, creating coherence where there never was any. Doughboys never called their fight World War I. They had no idea that their suffering was only prelude to a sequel. World War II was the “Good War.” World War I was “the War to End All Wars.” These are tales we tell to ourselves as if we were our own children. 

A story is a pattern. We may call it plot, or timeline, but in essence, a story is designed to fulfill our innate desire for pattern. In fiction, that pattern is engineered from the episodes the author invents. In history, it is created by simplifying the complexity so that we can impose the same sort of pattern we are used to in a story. 

Different eras find different patterns in the evidence, and so history is constantly rewritten to the specifications of a certain time and place. The old guard cries foul and calls this re-organization of data “revisionism,” but history will always be pushed and pulled like clay, into whatever form is needed for the day. 

So, Napoleon was a great man, a monster, an exemplum, or, like Tolstoy claims, an irrelevance. Which was the real Bonaparte? They are each a story fabricated from bits, like a Frankenstein reanimation. 

Reality offers an infinity of possibility and for mere comprehension, we cut and prune to make the whole digestible. To make it a story. 

For years I was a journalist, and I cringed at the idea that what I was writing were newspaper “stories.” Reporters are trained to make the news comprehensible by making them stories: beginning, middle, end. The truth is always muddier, always messier. 

There seems to be a biological need for stories, or why would we keep writing them, writing fictions we know are not literally true, but reinforce the patterns we know. A story is a theater of shadow puppets. 

The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “Panta Horein:” Everything changes, or everything flows, depending on your translation. A story petrifies that flow into a single unmoving image, which always distorts the cascading reality. 

It is 14 years after the assassination of Julius Caesar and three decades before the birth of Christ and the Greek queen of Egypt is about to die. The 39-year-old Cleopatra VII is the mother of four children by two fathers, both now dead. This much everyone seems to agree on. What happens next is romantic fairy tale, or conjecture, or cynical posturing — or all three.

The most widely believed version, used by Shakespeare in his tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra, has the queen, fearing to be taken captive to Rome by the conquering Octavian, has a basket of figs delivered to her, with a smuggled asp hidden under the fruit. She takes the venomous snake and applies it to her tender bosom and expires from the poison.

The problem is that there are conflicting stories told by the ancient writers.

The best known version, and the one Shakespeare cribbed from is that of Plutarch in his essay on Mark Antony.

The two rebellious lovers, having  been conquered by the young Octavian were at odds over what to do. Cleopatra had a false message sent to Antony that she is dead. Antony ran himself into his sword, but botched his suicide and was brought to Cleopatra, where he then expired. Cleopatra mourned and locked herself in her mausoleum. And then, according to Plutarch:

“Having made these lamentations, crowning the tomb with garlands and kissing it, she gave orders to prepare her a bath, and, coming out of the bath, she lay down and made a sumptuous meal.”

An old man came with a basket. The guards Octavian had sent to keep Cleopatra in check stopped him to examine the contents.

“The fellow put the leaves which lay uppermost aside, and showed them it was full of figs; and on their admiring the largeness and beauty of the figs, he laughed, and invited them to take some, which they refused, and, suspecting nothing, bade him carry them in.”

The queen then sent a letter to Octavian describing her intent to kill herself and locked herself in the monument with her two servants, Charmion and Eras. When Octavian got the note, which asked that she be buried next to Antony, he sent messengers to stop her from killing herself. But they found her already dead, “lying upon a bed of gold, set out in all her royal ornaments.”

Eras lay dying at her feet and Charmion, just ready to fall, barely able to hold up her head, was adjusting her mistress’s crown. And when the soldier that came in said angrily, “Was this well done of your lady, Charmion?”

“Extremely well,” she answered, “and as became the descendant of so many kings”; and as she said this, she fell down dead by the bedside.

“Some relate that an asp was brought in amongst those figs and covered with the leaves, and that Cleopatra had arranged that it might settle on her before she knew, but, when she took away some of the figs and saw it, she said, ‘So here it is,’ and held out her bare arm to be bitten. Others say that it was kept in a vase, and that she vexed and pricked it with a golden spindle till it seized her arm. But what really took place is known to no one.

“Since it was also said that she carried poison in a hollow hairpin, about which she wound her hair; yet there was not so much as a spot found, or any symptom of poison upon her body, nor was the asp seen within the monument; only something like the trail of it was said to have been noticed on the sand by the sea, on the part towards which the building faced and where the windows were. Some relate that two faint puncture-marks were found on Cleopatra’s arm, and to this account Caesar seems to have given credit; for in his triumph there was carried a figure of Cleopatra, with an asp clinging to her.

“Such are the various accounts. But Caesar, though much disappointed by her death, yet could not but admire the greatness of her spirit, and gave order that her body should he buried by Antony with royal splendor and magnificence. Her women, also, received honorable burial by his directions.

“Cleopatra had lived nine and thirty years, during twenty-two of which she had reigned as queen, and for fourteen had been Antony’s partner in his empire. Antony, according to some authorities, was fifty-three, according to others, fifty-six years old. His statues were all thrown down, but those of Cleopatra were left untouched.”

European asp

While Plutarch’s story has been repeated many times, it must be remembered that it was written 120 years after the events. Other historians and poets also told stories of Cleopatra’s death: Strabo, Velleius, Florus, Suetonius, Dio Cassius and Galen, Virgil, Horace and Propertius.

Of the historians, the only one who was alive at the time of Cleopatra’s death was Strabo, who wrote: “(Octavian) took the city at the first onset, and compelled Antony to put himself to death, but Cleopatra to surrender herself alive. A short time afterwards, however, she also put an end to her life secretly, in prison, by the bite of an asp, or (for there are two accounts) by the application of a poisonous ointment.”

Strabo was about 34 years old when Cleopatra died, but his account was written at least 10 years after that. It is thought he might have been in Alexandria at the time of the queen’s death.

The poet Horace wrote his ode, “Nunc est bibendum,” within a year or two of the queen’s death and mentioned it near the end of the poem: “Caesar came back to put the deadly monster in chains, but she, wanting to die more nobly had no feminine dread of the sword, and finding no way out of the situation, went to her palace lying in ruins and with a tranquil face was brave enough to handle vicious serpents and drink their black venom into her body. Having chosen death, she was fiercer still, unwilling to be taken back to Rome and led in a humiliating victory parade.”

The physician Galen (AD 130-200) wrote in De Theriaca ad Pisonem that “The queen had bit her arm and then rubbed the wound with poison.”

Virgil in the Aeneid says she died of “two fatal asps.”

Modern commentators tend to suspect that all the stories of Cleopatra’s suicide may very well be spin concocted by Octavian (by then Augustus Caesar) to cover up her murder at his orders. We know he had Cleopatra’s oldest son killed. Caesarion was the natural son of Julius Caesar and was 17 when Caesar’s adopted son had him quietly eliminated. “Too many Caesars is not a good idea,” he supposedly said.

So, Cleopatra either killed herself by taking poison, or by rubbing herself with poison ointment, or by stabbing herself with a sharp comb laced with poison, or held an asp to her arm to bite her, or scratched her arm up and rubbed it with venom from the smuggled asp, or — and the list goes on — it probably wasn’t an asp, since there are no actual asps in Egypt and if there were, their venom causes a very slow and painful death, and would more likely have been an Egyptian cobra, which is the sacred snake of the Egyptian pharaohs. Or she was killed by Caesar.

As Plutarch admits: “What really took place is known to no one.”

Among other accounts, Cleopatra tested various poisons on her slaves before picking the one that would cause her the least suffering. A good deal of the gloss on Cleo comes from the Romans, who had a vested interest in presenting her in the least flattering light. She was, after all, an enemy of Rome — at least after the disputed empire fell from the likely rule of Antony into the sure hand of Octavian.

Denouement: In addition to Caesarion, born to Julius Caesar, she had three children by Mark Antony. A son named for the sun and a daughter named for the moon survived her. Ptolemy Philadelphus was the youngest. Octavius spared them but gave them to his sister, the legal wife of Antony, to raise. The daughter, Cleopatra Selene, eventually married King Juba II of Numidia in north Africa. The son, Alexander Helios, is lost to history along with his brother.

Of course, you will have noticed that in none of the ancient stories of her death does Cleopatra apply the serpent to her firm but supple breast. That version comes later, especially as painters attempted to give us the version not so much of Plutarch as of Joseph L. Mankiewicz. There is a Cecil B. DeMille quality to most of the historical paintings of Cleopatra, who ranks second only to Eve as a ripe subject for images of naked women with snakes.

Not that they are the only two: There are paintings and sculptures of the Roman goddess Hygea, goddess of health, which show her feeding a snake — the snake being the sacred animal of Asclepius, the god of medicine.

Lord Leighton, the English painter, gave us a grand tondo of the Hesperides, the home of the golden apples Hercules was to gather, which was protected by a serpent.

And there is the story of Harmonia and Cadmus. Cadmus, king of Illyria, had killed a serpent and the gods then turned Cadmus into a snake. His wife, Harmonia, stripped herself naked and begged Cadmus to come to her. As she embraced the snake the gods turned her also into a snake.

There is an obviously salacious element in these stories, especially as they are told, painted and sculpted by artists in the Victorian age, where they could be hypocritically sanctimonious about expressing the moral uplift of the glory that was Rome and the grandeur that was Greece while at the same time thinking “Look at the boobies on that one,” and, as the French say, “L.H.O.O.Q.”

But the crown of this Orientalizing prurience must be in Gustave Flaubert’s novel, Salammbo — his followup to the scandalous Madame Bovary. It is the tale of the daughter of a Carthaginian general, set shortly after the first Punic War (264-241 BC). The plot is silly enough for an opera or a Hollywood epic. But there are scenes of sex and lasciviousness, not the least when the priestess Salammbo enters the enemy camp to retrieve the MacGuffin and encounters a prophetic snake. It is hard to avoid the Freudian undertones. They can hardly be called undertones.

“The moon rose; then the cithara and the flute began to play together.

“Salammbo unfastened her earrings, her necklace, her bracelets, and her long white simar; she unknotted the band in her hair, shaking the latter for a few minutes softly over her shoulders to cool herself by thus scattering it. The music went on outside; it consisted of three notes ever the same, hurried and frenzied; the strings grated, the flute blew; Taanach kept time by striking her hands; Salammbo, with a swaying of her whole body, chanted prayers, and her garments fell one after another around her.

“The heavy tapestry trembled, and the python’s head appeared above the cord that supported it. The serpent descended slowly like a drop of water flowing along a wall, crawled among the scattered stuffs, and then, gluing its tail to the ground, rose perfectly erect; and his eyes, more brilliant than carbuncles, darted upon Salammbo.

“A horror of cold, or perhaps a feeling of shame, at first made her hesitate. But she recalled Schahabarim’s orders and advanced; the python turned downwards, and resting the centre of its body upon the nape of her neck, allowed its head and tail to hang like a broken necklace with both ends trailing to the ground. Salammbo rolled it around her sides, under her arms and between her knees; then taking it by the jaw she brought the little triangular mouth to the edge of her teeth, and half shutting her eyes, threw herself back beneath the rays of the moon. The white light seemed to envelop her in a silver mist, the prints of her humid steps shone upon the flag-stones, stars quivered in the depth of the water; it tightened upon her its black rings that were spotted with scales of gold.

“Salammbo panted beneath the excessive weight, her loins yielded, she felt herself dying, and with the tip of its tail the serpent gently beat her thigh; then the music becoming still it fell off again.”

Yes, Flaubert; Mr. Mot Juste. More like Mot Jeaux, i.e. mojo.

We’re not done yet with naked women and snakes. More anon.

Click on any image to enlarge

How long ago was history?

When I was in grade school, whatever history I was taught seemed as distant as fairy tales, a never-never of such ancientness as to be inconceivable. It was certain that there was an unbridgeable divide between the now I lived in and a history that resided only in books, and pained us with dates and names we were required to memorize. There was no continuity; past and present were as immiscible as diesel fuel and salt water.

These things change as you get older and what is taught as history is what you lived through when you were younger. When I was born, Harry Truman hadn’t yet campaigned for president. For my grandchildren, Truman is a fuzzy black-and-white halftone in their textbook. For me, however, he was my first president. Eisenhower, the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing — these were things I can remember a time that was before.

Now that I’m about to turn 70, a century doesn’t seem like such a long time, or such a meaningful slice of eternity. My grandmother was born in the 19th century and I’m now alive in the 21st. She used to muse occasionally on the fact that she was born before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk and lived to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.

It’s really just a flash before you connect with what seemed so alien in that history textbook. Six degrees of separation.

Literally.

From me to my wife takes the first step. Her great-grandmother, Nancy Jane Steele, was alive until my wife was 8 years old. She was 98 when she died, in my wife’s childhood bed. She could remember eating sandwiches made from the cambium layer of tree bark because there was nothing else to eat during the Civil War. She had been married to Civil War veteran Rowan Steele, who had been messenger and courier for Col. Robert E. Lee, Jr., who was the youngest son of the legendary general, Bobby Lee. And that’s only five degrees of separation. Who knew a Yankee boy from New Jersey would be this close to the biggest name in the Confederacy?

We think of a century as being the measurement of a considerable piece of time — it is long enough to tick off entire ages in the history books: The 19th Century was distinct from the 18th Century; the 14th Century was so different from the 10th Century: the revolution between the Romanesque and the Gothic. But a century is really just the space from grandparent to grandchild. Not long at all.

In Ancient Rome, that is exactly how they counted eras. The Latin word we translate as “century” is “saeculum,” but saeculum doesn’t actually mean a hundred years. It is the time from the birth of a grandparent that you outlive to the death of the child who outlives you. They calculated it to be anywhere from 112 to 117 years.

How we can skip across these centuries. Let’s take something from the history books, say, the accession of James II of England in 1685. Unutterably distant, no?

Well, I can trace a person-to-person connection to that year in only nine degrees of separation. And without Kevin Bacon entering the equation at all.

That same year, Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach in Thuringia, now part of Germany. One of his sons was Johann Christian Bach, also a composer. J.C. Bach was friend and mentor to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who once heard the young Beethoven play the piano. He was impressed. Beethoven had a few paying students to help him afford his daily vin de pays. One of those students was Carl Czerny, who wrote an infernal and deeply hated series of piano finger-exercises that young pianists still suffer through. One of Czerny’s students became probably the greatest piano teacher of all time, Theodor Leschetizky (among his students are Jan Paderewski, Alexander Brailowsky, Ignaz Friedman, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Artur Schnabel, and Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler — all of them among the most famous pianists of the first half of the 20th century). And Mieczyslaw Horszowski — who died in 1993 at the age of 101, playing and recording well into his 90s.

Well, Horszowski had a piano student named Eugene Istomin, who made a series of legendary piano-trio recordings with Isaac Stern and cellist Leonard Rose. And when I was a volunteer photographer for the Eastern Music Festival, in Greensboro, N.C., in the early 1970s, I was tasked with picking Rose up from the airport, cello and all. I was his chauffeur.

There it is, from Bach to me in nine easy steps. So, the 17th Century isn’t all that far away. Another nine and we could be building Chartres. History is not that long ago.

A few years ago, I read the Bible, cover to cover, and my general response was “These people were out in the desert sun too long.”

I mean, you must slice off bits of your private parts, but you must never cut off your sideburns? You cannot wear cotton blends without risking being stoned to death or eternally damned? If you have a flat nose, you cannot go to your house of worship? I mean, either you have to allow the possibility that in 40 years in the wilderness of the Sinai Desert, someone suffered sunstroke, or that perhaps the manna from heaven was actually some sort of psychotropic mushroom.

Or, you can read the so-called prophetic books and ask yourself, is this some sort of occult conspiracy gibberish? It too often reads like word salad. There is some sanity in the gospels, but then you descend back into paranoid craziness with St. Paul.

I can think of no better prophylactic against religion than actually reading the Bible. Those who profess belief too often cherry-pick the parts they like and ouija-board interpret the prophesies and ignore the batshit nutjob stuff that surrounds it all.

So, I hope I have established my bona fides as a non-believer when I say I am against removing the Bible from public schools. That’s right — I believe the Bible should be taught in school from an early age. Not for religious indoctrination, and also not for religious inoculation, but rather to familiarize the upcoming students with the stories from the book.

The Four Evangelists by Jacob Jordaens

When I was teaching art history, many, many years ago, I was surprised that my students knew so little about the subject matter of the paintings we were studying. Renaissance and Baroque paintings are suffused with biblical imagery, and to understand what is going on in many of those paintings, you need to know the cultural context — i.e., you need to know the Bible stories.

But, in a test, when I asked “Who were the four Evangelists,” only two of a class of 22 knew. One of them half-remembered, “John, Paul, George and Ringo.”

It hardly mattered if the students considered themselves Christian, or even merely generally religious. They were by and large, astonishingly ignorant of their cultural patrimony.

Abraham and Isaac. Cain and Abel. Lot’s wife. Jacob and Esau. Potiphar’s wife. Jacob’s ladder. Aaron’s rod. The golden calf. Balaam’s ass. Joshua and Jericho. David and Jonathan.

There are tons of stories that were once the common well of cultural reference for all European and Euro-American peoples, and by extension and the African-American church, for Black Americans, too.

It isn’t just Renaissance paintings, but in everything from Medieval illuminated manuscripts to the poetry of W.H. Auden. It shows up in sculpture, in novels, in dance, in symphonic music and Baroque opera.

The Slaughter of the Innocents by Rubens

Daniel in the lion’s den. Boaz and Ruth. Jonah and the great fish. Paul and the road to Damascus. The massacre of the innocents. The wedding at Cana. The raising of Lazarus. The giving unto Caesar. Doubting Thomas.

The loss of these stories in popular parlance isn’t just a loss of religious faith, but a casting off of hundreds of years of art, literature and mores.

When Herman Melville begins his magnum opus with “Call me Ishmael,” we need to understand who Ishmael was in the Bible if we want to feel the depth of the meaning of such a simple statement. It resonates.

When John Steinbeck titles his book, East of Eden, do we know what geography he is laying out for us? When William Jennings Bryan exhorts us not be be crucified on a “cross of gold,” do we feel the mythic undertones of his rhetoric? Everything we say has resonance, more and less, with the long line of cultural continuity. We have lived with the Bible, in one form or another (depending on denomination) for nearly 2,000 years, and the Torah, for even longer and the residue from it has colored almost every cultural effusion since the Emperor Constantine decided to change the rules for the Roman Empire.

Of course, it isn’t only the Bible that needs to be taught. All of Greek and Roman mythology is equally part of our cultural inheritance. It should also be taught. How can you read Shakespeare or Milton — or John Updike — without it? I would recommend that everyone by the 8th grade have read Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

What I see is a rising population of those cut off from their past, from their inheritance. They are like untuned strings, with no fiddle or lute to provide resonance. And it is this resonance that is so important. A familiarity with our cultural origins allows meaning to open up when you read, that emotions become complex and connections are made. The world is electrified: A switch has been turned on and a darkened room is lit.

And what do you get without this resonance? I fear you need only look at the White House and its current occupant (and I use the word advisedly: an “occupant,” like an anonymous piece of junk mail rather than a “resident,” which implies roots.) For without resonance, you have simplicity instead of complexity, you have response without consideration of consequence. If someone insults you, heck, punch him in the face — a simple and simple-minded response. And a dangerous imbecility in the face of the complex cross-forces and dangers of the interconnected world.

Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Resonance is complexity. It is the plate tectonics under the surface geography.

A great deal of art and literature has something important to say to us, and the best of it resonates within the sounding board of 6,000 years of cultural development, with each layer built on the last and a through-line of meaning. Without it we are intellectually, emotionally and morally naked.

Size matters, at least in the case of Medieval churches vying with each other for bragging rights. The two tallest Gothic cathedrals in France are only a few miles apart, but they tell very different stories.

In the high Middle Ages, towns built churches the way American cities build sports stadiums, striving for the biggest, best and most impressive. They also advertised the best saintly relics, to draw pilgrims and their money to town. Some 70 miles north of Paris is the city of Amiens, which has the cathedral with the highest vaulted ceiling of any completed church and some 30 miles from that is the incomplete Beauvais, with a ceiling even higher, but an unfinished nave, leaving the church truncated and mutilated.

Amiens is a nearly perfect relict of the architecture of those years (and I shorthand the city’s name for the cathedral, otherwise I must write Notre Dame d’Amiens — or more precisely “The cathedral basilica of Our Lady of Amiens” to give it its official name — and almost all of these churches, cathedrals and basilicas are called Notre Dame or “Our Lady,” after the Marian cult that figured so prominently in Roman Catholicism in the area and at that time) It is the largest by volume and the tallest from floor to ceiling (save only the unfinished Beauvais, about which more later) with 13 stories of emptiness above the visitor.

It sits in the center of the town with a small by handsome parvis, or plaza, at its front. Three portals punctuate the western facade, which is covered with statues of saints and biblical figures. The north tower is slightly taller than the south, and because the building sits on a slight incline, there are more steps to climb at the north end of the facade than in the south.

Inside is brightly lit. Like the cathedral at Rouen, most of its stained glass is gone and the clear or frosted glass lets sunlight stream in.

The odd effect of the church’s regularity, its brightness and its isolation from other buildings nearby, Amiens doesn’t seem as big as it is, with ceiling 138 feet above the floor, and encompassing 260,000 cubic yards of air inside — three times the volume of Notre Dame of Paris. It is, however, the perfect model of the Gothic cathedral and the one I would suggest be the first to see, so as to gauge all the other you find in the northern half of the hexagon that is France.

There are a whole series of such cathedrals and basilicas in northern France, usually not more than 50 miles between each, and in 2006, my wife and I took a trip through the area, visiting 11 of these monuments. From Paris, we took the train to Rouen, where we rented a car and drove to Amiens and Beauvais. Then to Noyon, Laon, Reims, Vezelay, Chartres and back to Paris and Sainte-Chapelle, ending at the earliest Gothic architecture at St. Denis.

Of all of them, Amiens is perhaps the most classical, the ur-cathedral, and certainly the most unified, having been built rather quickly, by Medieval standards, from 1220 to 1260, with additions made in following centuries. Where some other churches are still rather grimy from the exhaust of the Industrial Revolution, Amiens has been cleaned up and is bright and presentable.

If anything is true of these prodigies of architecture, it is that there is no such thing as a Gothic cathedral — at least no such thing as a “pure” Gothic cathedral. Each has been built over decades, even centuries, and each has add-ons in different styles, rebuilds made more “modern,” and restorations by well-meaning finaglers such as the 19th-century Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who replaced damaged statuary, added grotesques and redesigned finials and gargoyles according to his Victorian sense of what Gothic style should be.

Viollet-le-Duc was put in charge of restoring Amiens in the late 19th century, and he added a whole new line of statues at the top of the west facade, called the “Galerie des Sonneurs,” or “Gallery of Bell Ringers,” a passageway arcade between the two towers. He redid a good deal of the statuary and had the cathedral floor redone to smooth out the cobbling of centuries of foot traffic. Modern standards for restoration were not part of his procedure. “To restore an edifice”, he observed in his Dictionnaire raisonné, “is not to maintain it, repair or rebuild it, but to re-establish it in a complete state that may never have existed at a particular moment.” In other words, as he might imagine it

But such rejiggering is hardly unusual for these cathedrals.

Amiens was originally built in what is called “high Gothic” style, but all kinds of stylistic incongruities have been patched on. Although the building was essentially complete by 1280, in the 16th century, the mayor of  the city of Amiens decided it should have a spiffy new rose window in the then-current “flamboyant” style, highly sinuous and curvy, so the front window of Amiens doesn’t match the rest of the facade.

Not that one can complain. Inside, there are altars added in the Renaissance and the Baroque eras, so completely out of sympathy with the more rigorous taste of the Gothic. In some cathedrals, there are even Modernist stained glass windows.

It is the genius of the Gothic style that it can absorb almost anything and still seem perfectly harmonious. Some historical styles that strive for unity require any additions to be matched stylistically or the new parts seem like carbuncles grown where they are least desired. (Can  you imagine an addition to London’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral designed by, say, Louis Kahn?) But Gothic is an accepting style. There is not much you can do to it and not have it welcomed into the family.

The 19th century gave us a pervasive sense of the Middle Ages. Whether it was Victor Hugo in his hunchback novel, or Sir Walter Scott in his Waverly novels, Alfred Tennyson in his Idylls of the King, or Mark Twain (who tried to take the whole thing down a peg or two) in his Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, there are knights in shining armor, kings and their courtiers, castles and cathedrals. Those artists and authors gave us an era of dour religion and grey stone monuments. And when we look at the front of Amiens, with its ranks of saints standing like an army between the portals, we tend to have a purist vision of the stern asceticism of that era. Yet, we now know, from recent restoration work, that those grey statues guarding the church were originally brightly colored with paint. Traces of that paint is found in the stone, and in recent years, a fancy computer program has managed to create a light show that projects the original colors back onto the neutral stone. We can see what the front of the cathedral was meant to look like. It comes as a shock. One is reminded of certain Arab sheikhs painting the statues in their gaudy Los Angeles mansions.

 

There are ranks of small bas reliefs at eye-height along the front of the cathedral that depict the zodiac signs, the works of the seasons, and the stories of local saints. They are now monochrome, but inside, you can find similar quatrefoil reliefs that are still painted.

The past as we imagine it is always a shaky construct. History is always being revised, and those scholars who do the work are initially derided as “revisionist,” when, of course, that is their job. To quote the revered Firesign Theatre, “Everything you know is wrong.”

Click any image to enlarge

 

Beauvais

Some 35 miles from Amiens, the cathedral at Beauvais is a testament to overreach. One cannot avoid thinking of the Tower of Babel, where cultural hubris outstrips engineering acumen and it all comes tumbling down.

The central metaphor of all these Gothic cathedrals is altitude, the sense inside them, that they reach to the heavens — or rather, to heaven. Their naves and choirs get taller and taller as the years move along, and when you are inside, it is nearly impossible not to be drawn upward, craning your neck into the vast space above your head. The light in a Gothic church also comes from above, reinforcing the metaphor: Above your head is divine.

This spiritual metaphor exists alongside the more earthly desire of city fathers to brag that they have the biggest and best, and so, a kind of competition existed in the 13th and 14th centuries to see who could build the most vertiginous vaulting. The winner of this inter-city battle was Beauvais, although its victory was Pyrrhic.

In AD 1225, the city authorities decided to replace an older church with one in the new Gothic style. The ambitions of the church and the local barons coincided in a plan to make this church the tallest and best in the world. The barons were in in  struggle with the French throne of Louis VIII and wished to assert their supremacy with the building, and the bishop wanted to assert his own primacy in this grand construction.

They finished the choir of the new church in 1272, with a ceiling vault that was 157 feet above the floor. An empty space the size of a 15 story building.

A Gothic church is usually built with a floorplan in the shape of a cross. The top part is called the choir, at the east end nearest the sunrise, the cross pieces are called the transept and the long side of the cross is the nave. Such churches were usually constructed with the choir made first, because that is where the Mass is celebrated and where the altar is located. (Amiens was unusual, in that the nave was built first and the whole constructed from west to east). So, in Beauvais, the choir was up and church services begun before the whole was finished.’’

It makers were proud, certainly, not only of the tallest church, but the finest, slenderest flying buttresses supporting the roof. But 12 years after it was finished, the roof collapsed. It seems to modern engineering studies, that a gale wind off the English Channel caused sympathetic vibrations in the structure and it shook apart. They rebuilt.

But the collapse, which caused concern about the engineering, and trouble fund raising to complete the whole left the church with only the choir and transept. At some point, it was decided that instead of using the money they had to finish the nave, they would use it to top the whole with a giant spire, which was finished in 1569 and left the church — at 502 feet high — the tallest building in the world at the time.

“We will construct a spire so high that once finished those who see it will think that we were crazy.”

Perhaps they were. Unfortunately, on April 30, 1573, it, too, came crashing down, along with three levels of the bell tower.

As described by author Elise Whitlock Rose, “On the eve of Ascension Day, 1573, a few small stones began to fall from its heights. The next morning, a mason, who had been sent to test it, cried out in alarm; the bearers of the reliquaries, about to join the Procession of the people and the clergy who were waiting outside, fled; — there was a violent cracking, — and in an instant, the vault crashed amidst a storm of dust and wind. Then, before the eyes of the terrified worshippers, the triple stories of the lantern sank, the needle fell, and a shower of stones rained into the church and on the roofs.”

The choir was rebuilt once more, but without the spire. But the nave (except for one bay) was never completed, leaving Beauvais as the trunk of a cathedral, a mutilated fragment.

The shakiness of its construction continues to threaten the building even today. The inside, meant to be an awe inspiring sublime holy space, is filled with trusses and braces, attempting to keep the whole from final catastrophe.

“I can remember Beauvais, because it didn’t have figurative sculpture on the outside and it didn’t have a nave” wrote Carole in our journal, “and inside I was frightened because so much of it was supported by wooden beams and screws. I wondered if it could fall.”

The lack of nave makes another point about the architecture: Despite Beauvais having the highest vaulting, its spiritual effect is diminished by the lack of nave. When you first enter Notre Dame de Paris, or Amiens, through the west portal, the view down the long stretch of nave gives you perspective on the height, making it all the more effective. You can see the height because of the length. At Beauvais, despite the height, there is something of a claustrophobic feel to it, squeezed into the heights instead of expanding to them.

Next: Noyons and Reims

trump-neuman-2

I have avoided writing about current politics for several reasons. Firstly, because the situation so quickly changes, nothing you write today may hold for tomorrow. Secondly, because it is so touchy a subject, you risk alienating your reader for minor offenses that can be taken as index markers for major disagreements. Thirdly, because politics is such a minor part of what makes a difference in our individual lives; so many other things are more important and more interesting.

Nevertheless, the chaos of the current American situation calls for some small clarification. Arguments muddy when thinking is unclear.

To begin, there is the issue of Donald Trump, which is a great squirt of squid juice, obscuring more lasting problems. It is easy to make fun of the Great Pumpkin, he practically satirizes himself. While he has fervent supporters, it is hard to know exactly what he stands for, because his words are so vague in application, no matter how blunt in expression. It is always possible to assume he is your ally, because you only listen to those words that honk your horn. Is he conservative? Conservatives value free trade. Is he pro-business? Business has told him they need an immigrant workforce. What does he stand for besides ignorance?

He is an obfuscation on the surface, a chaos beyond that because, of course, he has no ideology, other than Trumpism. It is not his supposed conservatism that I object to; there have been many thoughtful conservatives. Trump is not one of them; he isn’t even a conservative at all. What scares the bejeezus out of me about him is that he is so clearly unbalanced mentally. The word Andrew Sullivan has used is “bonkers,” and that can hardly be improved for accuracy. The constant wheezing about his vote count, poll numbers, inauguration crowd, all spouted against obvious and visual evidence, is a clear indication that he is unmoored from reality.

Then, there are the speeches, barely in English. They are really just sentence fragments thrown together with unattached adjectives. Yuge, sad, unbelievable, disgusting. They, as Philip Roth has counted them, are constructed from a vocabulary of a mere 77 words, reused and rearranged ad hoc. They jump around from topic to topic with little or no segue. And then, they are filled with things that are demonstrably untrue. One watches over an over when Trump says he never said this or that, followed by the videotape of him saying exactly what he now says he never said. Does he not know that his words have been recorded?

It cannot be easily said that Trump is a liar, because a liar knows what he is saying is untrue. Others manipulate statistics to make their arguments; Trump just pulls stuff out of his ass. Evidence is irrelevant.

Further, he uses these exanus pronouncements to support his chaotic policy pronouncements, which tend to be simple-minded in the extreme. Problems are usually complex and systemic; his solutions are simple-minded and blunt as a cudgel. He shows contempt for subtlety. If the problem is illegal immigration, his solution is not to consider the cause of the immigration, but to build a wall, despite the fact that the majority of the illegal immigration does not cross the desert border, but flies into our airports. My favorite joke about the wall: “Wall — cost: $12 billion; ladder — cost: $35.”

But this is not meant to be a jab at Trump, who is clearly unhinged, not very bright, not at all subtle, and basically a bully at heart. It is too easy to target him; he is a joke. A dangerous joke, who may very well destroy the world at the push of a button, but a joke nonetheless.

No, what I want to point out is that there is, beyond Trump, a basic misunderstanding of the political divisions in the country.

The divisions are very real. Between urban and rural, between liberal and conservative, between Republican and Democrat. But I want to point out that these may overlap, like Venn diagrams, the dipoles are not identical. We too often confuse conservative with Republican and liberal with Democrat. There may be overlap, but more important, their goals are different.

There is a clear difference between liberal and conservative. As they are defined nowadays (very different from when they originated and when conservatism favored a strong central government), the conservative now seeks a smaller central government and the liberal, an activist government working for the betterment of its citizens. The one favors the individual, the other, the community. The one is exclusionary, the other inclusive. And it is clear that as the political scene is currently deployed, Republicans tend to favor conservatism and Democrats tend to the liberal, although Republicans are more extremely weighted to the far-end of conservatism than the Democrats are to the left wing.

But, such thoughts of political philosophy are largely irrelevant to the actualities of politics. One should never conflate Republican with conservative, nor Democrat with liberal. The aims of ideology are to promote a world view and an action plan to enforce that world view. But that is not the aim of the Republican party. Certainly, it will use conservative ideas to further its ends when it can, but its primary driving aim is the accrual and preservation of power. This is central and should never be forgotten: Republicans will do whatever they need to to gain and keep power. Democrats have a similar, but weaker drive. Many Democrats join the party because they think they can make the world a better place. Some Republicans do that, too, but the aim of the party on the whole is not the improvement of society, but the exercise of power. It is King of the Hill on a hemispheric playing field.

This is not to say that most Republicans don’t believe, by and large, that conservative policies would help the nation, but that whether or not they do is secondary to the accretion of political power. Hence, the contorted, serpentine Congressional districts, gerrymandered into silliness in order to ensure Republican supremacy. (Yes, Democrats have done the same — in fact, they invented the procedure in the 19th century — but they were pikers compared to the modern attempt to engineer a “permanent Republican majority.”) Hence, the bald-faced hypocrisy of choosing sides on an issue solely on the basis of whether a Republican or Democrat is offering it for a vote (as with the Republican-designed Affordable Care Act, which became an unswallowable “disaster” when recycled by the Obama administration. Hence, the use of arcane Senate or House rules, or the threat of the “nuclear option,” when it favors them, and outrage when used against them.

And it is why Republicans were gulled into supporting Trump when it looked like he might win the White House back for the party, despite the problem of Trump espousing ideas contrary to longstanding Republican policies. Trump is, after all, not a Republican, except in name, and not a conservative, as it is usually defined. He is sui generis, a propounder of Trump now, Trump tomorrow, Trump forever.

One area in which Trump and Republican world views agree is that the primary lens through which to view policy is economic. Money is the gravity that holds that world together. Whether it’s tax cuts, deregulation or fear of unions and a raise in minimum wage, the heart and soul of the conservative world view is money. The very idea of “running government like a business” is a consequence of this Weltanschauung. But across the world, this idea is changing. Governments are not businesses.

There is a historical storyline here. In the feudal past, with the king at the top of the pile, government was essentially a protection racket, with each level of vassalage “wetting its beak” in the next level down, and everyone feeding on the peasants. The general welfare of the populace was not even an empty platitude. As nation states developed from the Medieval sense of monarchal real estate, the idea of decent governance took hold. Since the New Deal in the U.S., and post-war in the better part of the rest of the world, governments have assumed the duty of protecting the welfare of its populace. All through Europe, governments guarantee health care, safety, minimum living wages, shorter work weeks and longer vacations. The U.S. has resisted such things. For Republicans (distinct from conservatives, who also have many social issues) and Trump see the world through dollar-tinted glasses. It is a reversion to the Medieval model, where all wealth floats upward like a bubble in the champagne. And it is power that guarantees the income. The goal of the Republican party is not so much the institution of conservative ideas, rather it is the use of conservative ideas to protect and increase individual wealth.

The problem is, that while money can make life easier to navigate, money cannot make life worth living. For that, you need the other aspects of life that Democrats — and most of the rest of the world — embrace. Freedom from oppression, sufficient means for living, cooperative communities, aid for the less fortunate, an even playing field for all. Among the things that make life worth living are family, love, art, religion, good health, and shared interests and shared mythology.

For Trump and the Republican party both, the world they see is transactional. It is also a zero-sum game, and the winning is all. We need to recall that when we let ourselves be gulled into arguing over conservative and liberal. Those labels are merely the masks worn in the more brutal fight over who will be the alpha dog.