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I grew up on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. At the other end of the bridge was the wider portion of the world. It was the escape from parochial suburban concerns and into a life infinitely richer. 

New York city was not just the gateway to the larger world, it was the larger world. 

One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother taking me at age three, maybe four, into Manhattan to see the Christmas display windows at Macy’s department store. I remember being frightened by the subway and being returned like Odysseus from the underworld up to the snowy Seventh Avenue. 

It was only a few years after the war and the city was still the one described by E. B. White in Here is New York, published a year after I was born. It was the city of yellow cabs, of subway roar under the sidewalk grates, Con Edison steam pouring out of street vents. The Third Avenue El blocked the sky and the Horn and Hardart automat flipped out sandwiches and soup. Barges carrying freight cars crossed the Hudson from Weehawken and Hoboken; Penn Station and Madison Square Garden — the old one — were still standing. The GWB was still only one level. Skyscrapers were still mostly stone, brick and steel. The Empire State Building was still the tallest in the world. 

When you are young and the world is that new, every encounter with it imprints and becomes the ur-version of your Weltanchaung. Everything you later learn is first compared with these initial impressions. 

And so, two great geographical “gods” I grew up with were the Hudson River — every other river until I crossed the Mississippi failed to earn the name — and New York City. A city wasn’t a city unless it had sun-blocking canyons of impossibly tall offices, apartments and hotels. If it didn’t have a subway or a ring of bridges and ferries. Or the wharfs with their ocean liners and longshoremen. 

As I grew up, the city remained the touchstone not merely of urban-ness, but of civilization itself. It was where I went to find bookstores. There was Little Italy, Chinatown, Harlem and Spanish Harlem. I saw Puerto Ricans and Arabs, Norwegians and Hindus. The idea of a mixed population seemed absolutely normal. 

As White wrote, “The collision and the intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races and creeds make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world.”

And all that makes a kind of poetry: “A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal [combustion] engines.”

That music includes the sound of jackhammers, car horns, squealing bus brakes, street-corner arguments, police whistles, sirens, and on special occasions, marching bands. 

Through high school, and later when I returned home from college, I would take the Public Service bus to the bridge and walk across it from Jersey to Manhattan, looking down on the way to the little red lighthouse. Up past Cabrini Boulevard to the 175th Street IND subway station where a 15-cent token would take me anywhere in the city: Carnegie Hall, the Museum of Modern Art, the Sheridan Square Paperback Corner, the Hayden Planetarium. 

The city became so much a part of my world-view that it took traveling halfway around the world to break me open. That is the importance of travel. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” wrote Mark Twain. “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

The Mississippi River was more river than the Hudson, and the Columbia was a drained a greater area. The St. Lawrence was a wider gouge on the continent. And once I left the New World and stood on the banks of the Rhine in Dusseldorf, I marveled at night over the racing current and the moon reflected in the waves — so big a river and so rapid a flow. This was the Rhine of the Lorelei and the Valkyries. Robert Schumann wrote his Rhenish Symphony in Dusseldorf. 

And so it was with cities. Philadelphia and Chicago were smaller imitations of New York, but so many others created their urban civilizations on other patterns. I would have to come to terms with Los Angeles, with Seattle, with Miami. 

I had avoided LA for many years — decades, really — with the unearned disapproval of an East Coast snob. It wasn’t really a city at all. What did Dorothy Parker call it? “Seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.” 

LA was the city where the people who pass you on the freeway are always better looking than the people you pass. The city where all the women are beautiful and all the men wear shades to protect their eyes from the shine of their own smiles. 

My tune has changed. After many trips to Southern California, I have come to love LA, with all its traffic and sunshine. 

Los Angeles is genuinely cosmopolitan; I feel there as I must likely have felt in Amsterdam in the 17th century or Venice in the 16th century. I cannot remain awake and self-satisfied at the same time.

St. Louis

Of course, when something is cosmopolitan, that means it includes a great deal we might feel uncomfortable about.  

Mystery writer Walter Mosley wrote, ”It’s a land on the surface of dreams. And then there’s a kind of slimy underlayer. The contrast of beauty and possibility and that ugliness and corruption is very powerful.”

You ride up over Sepulveda Pass on the 405 and spread out before you is all of the San Fernando Valley, one vast Vaseline smear of suburbia and middle-class values — and you know that this is the world capital of porno films.

From Simi Valley to Costa Mesa, you find every food, every culture, ever language, every social class, every fast-food joint. There is high culture at the LA County Museum of Art and history at the La Brea Tar Pits; there is outdoor dining at the Farmers Market on West Third Street and Fairfax; there are the oil wells on the Baldwin Hills, pecking at the ground like so many chickens. 

When my late wife and I first began to travel, we avoided cities. As long-time Easterners, we were besotted by the empty West and its long horizons and open skies. Driving down carless roads that measured straight for 20 miles or more at a stretch, wiggling in the distance through the lens of desert heat, it was the isolation that fascinated us. Cities only slowed things down and gummed them up with stoplights and bumper-to-bumper glue. 

It was only later that the cities opened up their gifts to us. Since then, I have come to love several cities, and cherish their idiosyncrasies and talents. 

First among these is Paris. I have been back many times. It is so different from New York, so compact, so comfortable. You can walk almost anywhere, and with only a miserly few skyscrapers, it is a human-scale place. In New York, restaurants can seat hundreds at a time; in Paris, a typical restaurant has maybe a half-dozen tables and only two workers: the waiter and the cook. 

Tourists think of Paris as the Eiffel Tower or the streetside artists of Montmartre, but we never went there. Instead, we walked the streets near where we were staying and got to know the butcher, the florist, the baker. A morning visit to the patisserie for a pastry, a stop at the bookstore to pick up a Pleiades edition of Victor Hugo, a duck-in to a small neighborhood church that has been there for only, say, 400 years. 

Cape Town

The most beautiful city I have ever seen, based on its setting and geography, is Cape Town, South Africa. It sits in a bowl surrounded by peaks, including Table Mountain, which is a long, flat cliff over which a fog often drapes, like a tablecloth. The streets are wide and sunny, and the houses clean in the sunlight and often brightly colored. I was there near the end of the apartheid era, and while the Afrikaners to the north held fast to their racist ideology, in British-heritage Cape Town, I saw black and white Africans comfortably together on the beaches, despite its being technically illegal. 

Chicago (left) and Johannesburg

Back north in the former Transvaal, the city of Johannesburg, or “Jo-berg,” was more familiarly urban. In fact, if you didn’t know where you were, you could easily confuse the city with, say, Chicago. If you thought of Africa as elephants and zebras, the high-rise congestion of Jo-berg could come as quite a surprise. 

Durban

I have a special warm spot for the city of Durban, on the Indian Ocean, with its thick tropical humidity and dense pack of various humanity.

Seattle

I lived for a while in Seattle, and came to love it for its weather. What elsewhere might be called rain is hardly noticed in Seattle, unless it’s a downpour. Most days, it seems, the air just hangs with a slowly-dropping mizzle. The city is built on hills, and you are always going up or down, and until the recent and ugly development of a self-regarding amour propre, Seattle was a kind of forgotten city. That was the city I came to love. Now, it is overrun with Starbucks and hipsters. It used to be cool; now it knows it is cool, which is never cool. 

New Orleans

New Orleans is a city I used to despise. I thought of it as infested with cockroaches and humidity. But as I’ve gotten older and have begun to decay myself, I find a bit of deterioration admirable. Now, it is one of my favorite cities. How can you not love a place where the restaurants feature 60-year-old waiters in formal dress? 

San Francisco

There are other cities I hold dear: London; Oslo; Vancouver; Miami; Mobile, Ala.,; Halifax, Nova Scotia; San Francisco; St. Louis; Tijuana — yes, if you leave the tourist center, it is a wonderful city. 

Las Vegas

And there are places I have never come to love. I really dislike Las Vegas, for instance. It gives me the creeps. I see those retiree women sitting at the slots, their eyes turned into lifeless ball bearings in the soulless, windowless casinos with their dead, ringing bings. The horror; the horror. 

Atlanta seems like nothing but traffic; Dallas like endless freeway flyovers; Houston like a fungus that grows to eat up a wedge of southeastern Texas. Once you enter the city limits, it seems as if you can never get out. Houston covers more ground than Rhode Island, and paints it with minimalls, Comfort Inns and tire dealerships. 

Phoenix

I have been avoiding mentioning Phoenix. That is because my feelings are ambivalent. I have always called the city “Cleveland in the desert.” It has little actual character and the roads are as regular as jail bars. I lived there for a quarter century and came to love many things about it, and made many friends, who I now miss since I left. But the city itself has little to recommend it, outside of being in the middle of a desert paradise. Of course, you have to drive at least 60 miles in any direction to even get out of the city into the desert, and the remoteness of the desert only increases as the city expands. 

Yet, even in Phoenix, I get the feeling of civilization — both good and bad. Civilization is defined by cities. Before cities, life was villages and farms. After the growth of Sumer and Ur, and the creation of writing and the spread of trade and political power, it became possible for the cooperation and interaction that cities allow. 

And, even if an urbanite doesn’t leave his city, he will encounter those who have come from elsewhere. He will be forced to give up his “prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” City life tends to make one cosmopolitan and therefore, tolerant. Maybe not universally, but largely. 

It explains, in part, the vast political gulf we face, not so simply between red and blue states, but between urban and rural. As cities grow, the nation gets bluer. If we encounter what is “other” and discover it is not, we give up fear and dampen hatred. Cities work because everyone has to put up with everyone else. It is what makes New York such a model. 

“The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity,” wrote White. “The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry. If the people were to depart even briefly from the peace of cosmopolitan intercourse, the town would blow up higher than a kite.”

But it doesn’t. Not normally. In fact, the diversity of the city is more than merely tolerated, it is enjoyed: Who would want to live in a city where you could not get a good mu-shu pork or a good osso buco; not find a movie theater showing the latest Iranian film; not be able to buy a kofia and dashiki; not hear a Baroque opera? 

Asheville

I have learned to widen my definition of what counts as a city. Even the Asheville, N.C., I now occupy has, in its tiny compass, an urban feel. The downtown is old and brick, and pedestrians walk up and down its hills. The stores and restaurants are busy and it is hard to find a parking spot. It is a concentrate of urban-ness. I can eat Ethiopian injera or find a well-used copy of Livy. It is a blue city in a red state. And thank the deities in the stars for that. It still echoes the New York that is buried in my deep heart’s core.

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We all have roots. We draw up family trees, naming as far back as we can our ancestors; sometimes we discover Charlemagne or Henry II hiding in the branches. Many of us have tested our DNA to discover the nameless past before that and perhaps trace our route from Africa through Europe or Asia by haplogroup. 

There is a lineage — a straight line that leads from some familial Adam to ourselves. Or at least, we see it that way: The reality is messier. Each of the names above ours on the family tree doubles; parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on. That lineage becomes a mesh, a network of interconnectedness. Thousands of Adams and their Eves woven together.

Yet, there is still the sense of having gotten from there to here. A sense that, however complex the root system, the florescence is now. 

This seems to me to be true culturally as well as genetically. I am certainly American, with my bona fides in Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, Melville, Hawthorne. But there is still something behind those names. When one marries and begins a family of one’s own, there is still the family in which you were raised and it never really goes away. One day when you are 50, you look down and at the ends of your arms you discover your father’s hands. Or you find yourself saying something that rings the bell of remembrance: This is what the old man used to say. Your wedded family, like your friends are acquired later, but your original family stays with you forever. It is somehow more unshakable than the one you later don. You may divorce a first wife, but you can never lose your birth family: It is traced in your muscle and bone. 

And it is, at least for me, the same for the culture I resonate to. I find ever more as I grow older, that I am at heart European. It is European literature, music, thought — even landscape and city — that I respond to. France has always felt like home to me. And the painting and sculpture of the Old World — from Ancient Greece, through Rome, the Middle Ages and Renaissance, through the Enlightenment and into the horrifying terrors of the 20th century — they all speak to me more directly than the neotenous and optimistic culture of the New World. 

This is not to claim any supremacy for Europe. There are many great cultures in the world, and just as one knows one’s own family may not be the greatest one — indeed, it has its characteristic neuroses and scars — it is nevertheless your own and has a deep comfortableness and familiarity that you cannot get from other families. I am inoculated against any sense of European supremacy; I’ve read my Jared Diamond. But that can’t change my cultural genes.

And so, I see my grandfather’s nose taking over the center of my face. I find the patience so inborn in my father taking over my own, and his natural moderation in all things political guiding my own, and overtaking the youthful certainty and idealism that drove me to chant “Hey, hey, LBJ” and stew in a smug self-righteousness. 

So, there is Homer, Aristotle, Ovid, Montaigne, Dante, Gibbon, Tolstoy — these are my cultural parents and great-grandparents, and I find their hands at the end of my cultural arms. 

Yes, American culture owes a great deal to Africa, Asia and Native America, but underneath it all, the “dead White guys” are peeking out. Whether it is Indian art on canvas or blues riffs over triadic harmony, the basement layer supporting all the ethnic and cultural overlay, all the borrowings and tinctures, is European.

It’s so etched into the American memory, even on a pop-culture level,  that it’s the starting point for all American culture, both highbrow and lowbrow. Can we recognize it when we see it? Do we know how European we are? The older I get, the more I know it. Others feel the amalgam in their blood. They grew up on pop music and TV. I grew up on Stravinsky and Bach, and the pop culture never quite took hold. 

First, what do we mean by “Europe”? We sometimes have to laugh at any definition of Europe; after all, Europeans cannot agree on it. The European Union is now contemplating whether Turkey is part of Europe — a Muslim nation in Europe, and the United Kingdom is trying to divorce itself from the rest of the continent, as if you could divorce your parents. 

The continent got its name from ancient Greece, which divided the world into three: Europe was where “we” lived; to the east was Asia, meaning primarily Persia, the Levant and what is now Turkey; Africa was usually called Libya and included Egypt and Ethiopia. These three continents were surrounded by Ocean, the great river that circled the known world. That is the world as Herodotus knew it. 

Nowadays, Europe usually is defined to include Iceland, the western end of Turkey as measured from the Dardanelles, and Russia to the Ural Mountains.

It’s a huge and disparate place, including cultures that are Mediterranean, Germanic, Slavic, Celtic — even Turkic. But when we talk generically about European culture and art, we most often mean that of Western Europe: a cultural tradition that began in classical Greece, spread through the Roman Empire and flowered again in the Renaissance.

But what makes European art European? What distinguishes Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Beethoven, Shakespeare from art made in China, Ghana or Pre-Columbian Peru?

There are many things Europe gave us, from rationalism to colonialism, from democracy and humanism to the nation state and patriarchy, to say nothing of two world wars. Each aspect is cheered or booed, depending on whether you have come to praise Europe or to bury it.

But there is something familiar to it, whether it’s a Madonna or an Apollo: It is the heritage I feel in a way that Japanese noh theater and Tibetan thankas — no matter how beautiful or meaningful — I do not.

(Do not get me wrong here: I try to be as cosmopolitan as possible. I’ve read the Mahabharata three times, Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, Naguib Mahfouz, Jorge Luis Borges, and Mao’s little red book. As a teenager, I took up the use of the shizuri and sumi stick; I have a collection of African sculpture. I hope I am not a completely ignorant yob. But I can never drink as deeply from the vast elsewhere as I can from my backyard  European well.) 

For me, it is European art that is a touchstone for history, for ideas of beauty, for widely held social values, some of which are out of date and some of which are lamentable, even shameful. But an Old Master painting has just as much validity in our cultural ambience today as learning about Shakespeare in literature or Mozart and Tchaikovsky in music. It’s a huge spectrum of cultural experience, all tied into European art and culture.

What makes it European? I suggest five key things:

—First, there is a bias toward realism.

—Second, an astonishing persistence of Classical antiquity.

—Third, a belief, justified or not, in the idea of progress. 

—Fourth, the pervasive influence of Christianity.

—And finally, the singular importance of the human body and the nude that we might distill into the word “humanism,” a belief in the nobility, or divinity, of corporeal human existence.

(Also, in music, the use of harmony as the basic building block.) 

Deeply rooted realism

In the caves of southern Europe you can find the world’s oldest art, dating to 30,000 years ago. Even that long ago, proto-European artists created paintings that looked like the world they lived in: the aurochs and horses of Lascaux and Altamira often are so naturalistic that they can be taxonomized by zoologists into genus and species.

Prehistoric art from other cultures — South African, Australian and Southeast Asian — tend to be more diagrammatic: symbolic stick figures rather than shaded, colored images mimicking what the eye sees.

Aristotle said it 2,300 years ago: “Art imitates nature.” You can see it in Greek art from the fifth century B.C. The Greeks were intensely interested in realism. It is not just in the physicality of the statues, the lifelike figures, but in the drapery that clothed those statues. Later European artists, going back to that, like Poussin or Courbet, those lush mythological landscapes with that gleaming pink flesh. It is a love of the actual, of the real, physical world.

In our sophisticated provincialism, after a century of increasingly abstract and intellectualized art, we may think we have left all of that behind. But is Andy Warhol’s soup can any different?

Antiquity endures

We often say Europe was born in ancient Greece, which gave us so many of the philosophical and political ideas that we still live with. But even in art, antiquity remains in our lives. Go to any neighborhood and notice the homes with porticos, columns, architraves and pediments. Or listen to a pop tune sung in major or minor key and hear the remnants of a medieval and Renaissance idea of how the music of antiquity sounded.

Even in films, you have things like 300 and Troy. Even O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a take on Homer’s Odyssey. Theaters have their prosceniums and orchestras. 

Our poets still write odes, 2,500 years after Pindar, and the statues in our city squares mimic the poses of Augustus and Constantine. Turn to the back of your Yellow Pages and you’re likely to see a chiropractic ad with a photograph of a man in pain, in the pose of the famous Greek statue of Laocoon. These things persist in our visual memory.

And where do you think that cupid on your Valentine’s Day card comes from?

Artistic progress?

Technological progress has been a hallmark of Western culture, and the tendency has been to see a parallel development in the arts.

Giorgio Vasari, writing his influential Lives of the Painters in the 16th century, argued that “one artist supersedes the last and is better.”  Always march on to the next style.

But while European art history is a parade of changing styles, science and medicine move forward and improve our lives, but it isn’t so clear in art. Is Tom Clancy really much of an improvement on the Iliad? 

It’s not so easy to embrace the idea of cultural progress anymore. Progress covers up a lot of really nasty stuff, like the looting of other cultures. And as we have come to know and understand other cultures better, it’s harder to maintain that our art is “better” than theirs. 

Christianity’s sway

If you were to name the single-biggest source of imagery in European art, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to step into the ring with Christianity. It’s the winner by default: The central role of religion in the arts is manifest. Just as Islam governs the art of the Middle East and Buddhism colors the art of China and Hinduism the art of India, so the themes and subjects from the Bible are central to Europe.

Christian themes are an overwhelming component of the European sense of morality and ethics. It is through Christian stories, illustrated in art, that we see how we should think about our own lives. The good Samaritan, the prodigal son, doubting Thomas, the woman at the well — these serve in our art as parables and lessons.

At one end of the spectrum, you have the universal grief and suffering of Michelangelo’s Pieta. At the other end, you have the plastic Jesus riding on the dashboard of your car.

The human figure

It has become an emblem of art: The nude figure. Whether it’s Aphrodite born from the seafoam, King David gazing at a naked Bathsheba or the painter’s lover dropping her dress in the studio, the human figure is primary.

It isn’t just men ogling naked women: It’s Myron’s Discus Thrower and Michelangelo’s David. From the Greeks on, the male nude is just as important.

You won’t find this in the art of Asia, Africa, Australia/Oceania or the New World. When you find the naked figure there, it is almost always a fertility talisman or a figure with exaggerated sex. In Asia, you find such things in “pillow books” and other intentionally pornographic images. In Europe, the figure isn’t only sex and generation, it’s a mirror of the divine. It is man as the measure of all things, and that means men and women.

‘Dead White males’

It has been a long ride from the caves of southern France to the latest pickled roadkill of Damien Hirst, and European culture has changed at least as much as it has persisted.

Listen to the music of Osvaldo Golijov, for instance, and hear the legacy of Beethoven mixed with the Arabian oud, the Balinese gamelan, the pipa of China and Peruvian flutes. It’s all one big mix.

As Europe has changed the cultures it has come in contact with, its own is being changed in return. Globalization isn’t only economic.

But there’s still a great deal to be learned from the long march we have taken. We think it all must be irrelevant because it comes from so long ago. It’s what people mean when they complain about all that art, literature and music from the so-called “dead White males” that have been taught in universities for centuries. Yes, the world has opened up to include more, but the old art is still as meaningful as ever.

Cultural DNA

Just as genealogy fascinates many people, who trace a great-great-grandfather back to the battle of Appomattox or look at old photos to see in faded black and white where the family nose comes from, so a look at our cultural ancestors shows us where we came from. That cultural DNA is still there.

Again, this is not to make any special claims for European culture: It can speak for itself. And the rest of the world is equally compelling. I love Chinese painting, African carvings, Australian designs, Hopi pottery. The case I’m making is that for myself — and I am speaking primarily for myself here — there is a nest in Europe that my psyche fits almost perfectly. Fragments of its past often show up unacknowledged in my prose or my photographs. The art and poetry speaks a language I was born to. I get the idioms, when other cultures, no matter how much I love them and respect them, are a second language — its idioms will always elude me. 

When I go to Brittany or the Vosges Mountains, or visit the Roman arena — now a bull ring — in Arles or the aqueduct at Pont du Gard, or see the stained glass at Saint Denis, or the stave churches in Norway or the polders of Holland, I have an overwhelming sense of being home. This is my family, for all its faults. 

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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.