Thursday, June 21, 2018

An Epigraph from Pope

Alexander Pope (1668-1745)

'Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.

(from "An Essay on Criticism"
in The Major Works, Pat Rogers, ed.
Oxford University Press, 2008
p. 19)

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Joseph Roth and Poland After World War I

"Boot und Transportfuhrwerk im winterlichen Galizien" (1914-1918)
By the K.u.k. Kriegspressequartier, Lichtbildstelle - Wien
In the Austrian National Library
via Wikimedia Commons

IN THE MID-1920s, in a Europe that was as battered as ever by the First World War, Joseph Roth (who later wrote The Radetzky March) was earning his bread as a foreign correspondent for German newspapers. One such periodical was the Frankfurter Zeitung, mouthpiece for leftist circles in the Weimar Republic that was later shut down by the Nazis, only to resurrect itself after the Second World War as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Roth himself was far to the left, inclined to socialism, and he took the pen name 'Red Joseph' for the purposes of his political journalism. Also, his views and position in Weimar Germany were determined by other elements: he was a Jewish native of Galicia, now Poland, who had served (after years of reluctance) in the imperial army on the German side, and who indulged in an odd allegiance to the abolished monarchy, which he celebrated in part of his work.

His newspaper assignment was to travel in Poland, in Ukraine, and in a Russia that had been living under a Leninist system since 1917. (Later he would travel to Albania, Yugoslavia, the Saar region of Germany that had rejoined the country by referendum, Poland, and Italy.) Vladimir Lenin himself had just died in 1924. And Joseph Roth's perspective was, of course, directed by his life experiences. He had no prejudices against the coexistence of the plethora of European minorities. These were intended, per the ideals of the League of Nations, to form their own states by virtue of the ideal of self-determination, but they lived too intertwined with each other for it to be simple to draw a border map humanely. In that respect there is no warning in his writings of the German nationalism that already existed at the time, and certainly not of the Nazism. His stance toward the Russian government was staunchly optimistic, at first, and he was looking forward to seeing Leninist solutions to widespread problems of undereducation, poverty, sickness, and lack of dignity for the poor in a classist society. He also tinges his reporting with his strong adherence to religion.

He took a long time to send dispatches back, because he kept gathering more and more material before he put his pen to paper. I believe that one can easily notice from the quality and nature of his writing when the well of inspiration was overflowing and when it ran almost dry.* He also had a magisterial way of writing — he never mentions specific interviewees or quotes anybody, it seems; everything is noted from an infinite upwelling of knowledge, except where it throws a tangent into his intermittent analysis. In the course of his travels, he was assailed not by his surprisingly complacent interlocutors (they did not seem to be holding onto the grievances of the war, although it was uncanny for him to revisit some places where he had once been the invader), but by pests like bedbugs. Aside from physical afflictions like these, there is a peculiar untouchability in his reporter's persona, as if he were a sleepwalker through Galicia and the Soviet Union.

But he ended his travels by thinking that his socialist ideas were not being realized in every respect, and his optimism crashes every now and then in the reports. He also found, everywhere, the detritus of the war.


Excerpts from his reporting in Poland:

"Lemberg, die Stadt."
Es ist eine große Vermessenheit, Städte beschreiben zu wollen. [. . .] Städte verbergen viel und offenbaren viel, jede ist eine Einheit, jede eine Vielheit, jede hat mehr Zeit, als ein Berichterstatter, als ein Mensch, als eine Gruppe, als eine Nation.
Nationale und sprachliche Einheitlichkeit kann eine Stärke sein, nationale und sprachliche Vielfältigkeit ist es immer.
(November 22, 1924)


"Die Krüppel."
In Lemberg wurde der berühmte polnische Invalide begraben, über dessen demonstrativen, heroischen Selbstmord alle Zeitungen der Welt berichtet hatten. Dieser Invalide sprach in einer Versammlung seiner Kameraden über die gemeinsame Not, schloß mit einem Hochruf auf die polnische Republik und schoß sich eine Kugel durch den Kopf.
Wir haben Massengräber gesehen, verschimmelte Hände, ragend aus zugeschütteten Gruben, Oberschenkel an Drahtverhauen und abgetrennte Schädeldecken neben Latrinen. Wer aber weiß, wie Ruinen aussehen, die sich bewegen[. . .]? Wer hat schon gehende Krankenhäuser gesehen, eine Völkerwanderung der Stümpfe, eine Prozession der Überreste?

So war dieser Leichenzug.
"Karl I. in Galizien während der Gegenoffensive, die von Mitte Juli 1917 bis Anfang August andauerte. Hier trifft er am 22. Juli in Busk ein. Gemeinsam mit dem Generalobersten Böhm Ermolli schreitet Karl das Ehrenspalier ab"
(~ King Karl I in Galicia during the counteroffensive, which lasted from mid-July 1917 to the beginning of August. Here he arrives on July 22nd in Busk. With Colonel-General Böhm Ermolli, he paces down the honour guard.)
By the K.u.k. Kriegspressequartier, Lichtbildstelle - Wien
In the Austrian National Library
via Wikimedia Commons

[. . .] und über dem Leichenzug, knapp vor dem Knaben im weißen Hemd, der das mattschimmernde Metallkreuz trug, segelte eine dunkelblaue Wolke, zackig, wuchtig und schwer, und streckte vorne einen Zipfel aus, wie einen zerfetzten Zeigefinger, um den Krüppeln den Weg nach dem Friedhof zu weisen.
(November 23, 1924)


St. Zitakapelle in Dobrowlany, Galizien (1917)
By the K.u.k. Kriegspressequartier, Lichtbildstelle - Wien
In the Austrian National Library
via Wikimedia Commons


Translations (amateurish, with help from Google Translate):
Lemberg [Lviv], the City
It is a great presumptuousness to want to portray a city. [. . .] Cities reveal much and conceal much, each is a unity, each is a plurality, each has more time than a reporter, than a human being, than a group, than a nation.
National and linguistic unity may be a strength; national and linguistic diversity is always one.

The Cripples
In Lemberg was buried the famous Polish invalid of whose demonstrative and heroic suicide all the newspapers in the world had reported. This invalid spoke in an assembly of his comrades about their common need, ended with a paean to the Polish republic, and shot a bullet through his brain.
We have seen mass graves, moldy hands, stretching out of filled-in pits, thighs on wire barriers and severed skulls beside latrines. But who knows what ruins look like that move? Who has seen walking hospitals before, a mass migration of stumps, a parade of remains?
This funeral procession was that.
And above the funeral procession, barely in advance of the lad in a white shirt who bore the dimly shining metal cross, sailed a dark blue cloud, ragged, massive and heavy, and stretched in front of itself a tip like a torn forefinger, to point the cripples along the way to the cemetery.


Reisen in die Ukraine und nach Russland, by Joseph Roth. Jan Bürger, ed. Munich: C.H. Beck, 2015
Joseph Roth (Wikipedia - English)
Frankfurter Zeitung (Wikipedia - English)
Joseph Roth (Wikipedia - German)

* After rereading Jan Bürger's afterword in the edition that I have, it strikes me that perhaps I am misinterpreting. Roth apparently rarely thought he was out of material or inspiration:
"1926 gestand er den Redakteuren der Frankfurter Zeitung fast zwei Monate nach Ankunft in der Sowjetunion, dass er bis dahin noch gar nichts habe schreiben können. Dies habe mit der Überfülle und Intensität der neuen Eindrücke zu tun."

Edgar Allan Poe's Masque of the Red Death

The Masque (1842), even where it does not describe everything, draws in the way many successful stories do upon a common human treasury of archetypal fears or secondhand experiences. Like the reign of Caligula, which lasted three years but whose fame reaches us nearly two thousand years later, it feels far longer than it truly was.

It begins without compromise:
THE "Red Death" had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal —the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains [. . .] were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.
The prince Prospero shuts himself and his court away from the pestilence.
The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the "Red Death."
He succeeds for around half a year. But his unwise interior decoration schemes already foreshadow doom:
Now in no one of the seven apartments was there any lamp or candelabrum, amid the profusion of golden ornaments that lay scattered to and fro or depended from the roof. [. . . ] But in the corridors that followed the suite, there stood, opposite to each window, a heavy tripod, bearing a brazier of fire that protected its rays through the tinted glass and so glaringly illumined the room. [. . .] But in the western or black chamber the effect of the fire-light that streamed upon the dark hangings through the blood-tinted panes, was ghastly in the extreme [. . .]
Also, the seventh apartment has been furnished with a clock. It rather bluntly suggests that time is running out.

AT THE time of the tale, the Prince holds a grand party for a thousand of his dearest friends, and proposes a masquerade, leading to a savagely chaotic scene:
There were much glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm --much of what has been since seen in "Hernani." There were arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments. There were delirious fancies such as the madman fashions.

But then the clock strikes midnight, and a new guest arrives at the party:
The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat. And yet all this might have been endured, if not approved, by the mad revellers around. But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His vesture was dabbled in blood --and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.

The Wikipedia article warns against reading deeper meanings or messages into this story, and indeed — like part of the novel, Castle of Otranto, that is supposed to be Poe's inspiration — it might well be a mere recounting of a nightmare, or of a waking fantasy.

But I think it appeals also because it evidently sparks ideas that it never literally describes. Above all I like the span across times and places of the story. It is akin in spirit to the memento mori of the Middle Ages, the morbid skull in Hans Holbein the Younger's painting of the Ambassadors as well as Shakespeare's Hamlet, and rumination on the 'wages of sin' by figures as heterogeneous as American preachers and William Hogarth.

The lavish colours and wealth might be a reference to the Catholic Church, too — the gilding of inner corruption. But I'm thinking that mainly due to this week's lavish party at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in honour of the Catholic Church's influence on high fashion.


This tale, like his works generally, is even more striking against the background of Edgar Allan Poe's own life's story, I think. He certainly saw enough death and led a gruelling Dickensian life: in Boston and Virginia as a neglected or badly raised child*, over gambling tables as a youth, in and out of the enlisted army ranks and West Point (if I understand correctly, at least he never saw war), through the early deaths of his mother, brother Henry and wife Virginia from illnesses, etc. And there was his alcohol abuse.


* Worthy of the Child-Rearing Horrors hall of fame:
"the infant Edgar was farmed out first to grandparents and later to a nurse who dosed him and an infant sister with laudanum and gin."
From: "Eulogy for a master" by Hilary Spurling, in The Observer (January 27, 2008)

The Masque of the Red Death (Wikipedia)
Edgar Allan Poe (Wikipedia)

Illustration: From Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1867–1939). Via Wikipedia

Masque of the Red Death quotations taken from The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe on the website of the University of Virginia.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Voltaire on the Wars of Catholics and Protestants

In his article "Climate" from the Philosophical Dictionary (1764), Voltaire argues that the weather, the natural environment, and of course other causes greatly influence religious beliefs in different countries and regions. They influence the creed behind the religion, and they also influence the way the religion is practiced in its daily details.

He gives this nutshell summary of the Thirty Years' War — it is so frivolous and glib about a horrendous historical period that it is funny again:
"What cause detached the north of Germany, Denmark, three-quarters of Switzerland, Holland, England, Scotland, Ireland, from the Roman communion? Poverty. Indulgences and deliverance from purgatory were sold too dear to souls whose bodies had at that time very little money. The prelates, the monks devoured a province's whole revenue. People took a cheaper religion. At last, after twenty civil wars, people believed that the Pope's religion was very good for great lords, and the reformed religion for citizens."

From: Voltaire, The Philosophical Dictionary. H.I. Woolf, ed. New York: Knopf, 1924
via Hanover Historical Texts Project


In French:

Quelle cause a détaché le nord de l’Allemagne, le Danemark, les trois quarts de la Suisse, la Hollande, l’Angleterre, l’Écosse, l’Irlande, de la communion romaine ?... la pauvreté. On vendait trop cher les indulgences et la délivrance du purgatoire à des âmes dont les corps avaient alors très-peu d’argent. Les prélats, les moines, engloutissaient tout le revenu d’une province. On prit une religion à meilleur marché. Enfin, après vingt guerres civiles, on a cru que la religion du pape était fort bonne pour les grands seigneurs, et la réformée pour les citoyens. 

From: Voltaire, Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, Vol. 18. Garnier, 1878 (pp. vii-xi).
via Wikisource

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Voltaire on the Worth of the Pyramids

Although the great, sober-minded reference works of the Enlightenment era, the 'dictionaries' of pre-Revolutionary France, are unknown territory to me, I enjoy two of the satirical dictionaries that arose then and centuries afterward: Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, published in 1911 in the United States, and Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, first published in 1764 in Geneva. (Being a sort of liber non grata in the French skeptic's native country.)

It's as refreshing as ever, by the way, to read books that are meant to be enjoyed by the reader.

And I'm naive — i.e., my standards might not be high — but I was charmed, surprised, and pleased by this passage in one of Voltaire's articles (which is related to the debate about whether contemporary culture is equally good as, better, or far worse than, the literature and other culture of the Romans and Greeks):
"The Chinese, more than two hundred years before our era, constructed that great wall which was not able to save them from the invasion of the Tartars. The Egyptians, three thousand years before, had overloaded the earth with their astonishing pyramids, which had a base of about ninety thousand square feet. Nobody doubts that, if one wished to undertake today these useless works, one could easily succeed by a lavish expenditure of money. The great wall of China is a monument to fear; the pyramids are monuments to vanity and superstition. Both bear witness to a great patience in the peoples, but to no superior genius. Neither the Chinese nor the Egyptians would have been able to make even such a statue such as those which our sculptors form today." 1 °
These condemnations of ancient Chinese and Egyptian inspiration evidently aren't logically watertight. Perhaps pharaohs and emperors and other patrons, who were the ones at whose whim some of the ancient art and architecture survive into the present day, had a rather pedestrian aesthetic and perhaps their guidelines were metaphorical straight-jackets. Their legacy is no realistic reflection on the potential of ancient Chinese and Egyptians on the whole.

'Nankow Pass: Gate of the Great Wall'
in China, its Marvel and Mystery
T. Hodgson Liddell, New York: J. Lane Co. (1910)
via Wikimedia Commons


But I like Voltaire's skepticism of the pyramids' purpose. (And his reduction of e.g. the Great Wall of China to the embodiment of 'a great patience in the peoples.') I grew up reading about Ancient Egypt, watching televised documentaries, exploring the dynasties in school and briefly in university; all, reverentially. Less rosily, I was taught or told as an urban legend, if I remember correctly, that the Great Wall of China was built so brutally that the bones of the workers are trapped within the stones — a mirror of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the country where I grew up, where (in the 19th century) around a thousand Chinese guest workers were killed by dynamite as well as by other dangers and privations.* But what good did building the pyramids, the mastabas and the Sphinx achieve? Is uncritical admiration for them out of keeping with our respect for democratic principles and the rights of the individual? (It's true, of course, that Egyptians who were oppressed 4,000 or more years ago would have fared no better if our generation were perfectly skeptical and enlightened about the monumental building initiatives of their day.) Perhaps our thoughtless amazement at the monuments of ancient Egypt is a clue that we are more attracted to pharaonical, and other, dictatorships than we'd like to think.

1 Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, "Ancients and Moderns"
Selected and Translated by H. I. Woolf
Mineola, NY: Dover Publications (2010), pp. 18-19

° Original French:
Les Chinois, plus de deux cents ans avant notre ère vulgaire, contruisirent cette grande muraille qui n'a pu les sauver de l'invasion des Tartares. Les Égyptiens, trois mille ans auparavant, avaient surchargé la terre de leurs étonnantes pyramides, qui avaient environ quatre-vingt-dix mille pieds carrés de base. Personne ne doute que si on voulait entreprendre aujourd'hui ces inutiles ouvrages, on n'en vînt aisément à bout en prodiguant beaucoup d'argent. La grande muraille de la Chine est un monument de la crainte; les pyramides sont des monuments de la vanité et de la superstition. Les unes et les autres attestent une grande patience dans les peuples, mais aucun génie supérieur. Ni les Chinois, ni les Égyptiens n'auraient pu faire seulement une statue telle que nos sculpteurs en forment aujourd'hui.
From: Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol. VII, Paris: Furne et Cie. (1947), p. 102
[Google Books]

* "A quiz for Joe Oliver: How many died building CPR?" [Globe and Mail]
by Michael Babad, January 10, 2012

Friday, February 16, 2018

Keats's Charactery

John Keats was notoriously young, twenty-five years old when he died of tuberculosis in Rome, and at that time he was not basking in the venerable twilight of an acknowledged poetic master. He was, to some contemporaries, an upstart, and his readers partly ridiculed him.

I think it makes sense that the work he did influenced him to foreboding and a preoccupation with death, because besides writing poetry he also worked as a surgeon. His poem "When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be" I remember from Grade 12 English Literature class as a time-overleaping twin to John Milton's earlier 17th-century sonnet "When I Consider How My Light is Spent"; and it is a prime example of the poet's foreboding strain.

"Portrait of Keats, listening to a nightingale on Hampstead Heath"
Joseph Severn (ca. 1845)
via Wikimedia Commons

"When I have Fears" is from the year 1818; Keats likely had not developed tuberculosis yet, and he died years later in 1821. That said, Keats's brother had already been ill, offering reasonable grounds for Keats to feel a semi-medieval fascination with Death.
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charact'ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.-*
(I wonder what the last two-and-a-half-lines mean. Might they mean that death is so all-devouring that even we forget even the warmest desires in life, when its warning shadow overcasts our consciousness?)

* From: "When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be" on Wikipedia
further information from "John Keats" and "When I Consider How My Light is Spent"

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Mysterious Demises at Cornwall, with Sherlock Holmes

"High Cove Typical Cornish rocky cove, with small sandy beach"
by Mike Hancock, 1995
via at Wikimedia Commons
CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Thus it was that in the early spring of that year we found ourselves together in a small cottage near Poldhu Bay, at the further extremity of the Cornish peninsula.

It was a singular spot [...] From the windows of our little whitewashed house, which stood high upon a grassy headland, we looked down upon the whole sinister semicircle of Mounts Bay, that old death trap of sailing vessels, with its fringe of black cliffs and surge-swept reefs on which innumerable seamen have met their end. With a northerly breeze it lies placid and sheltered [...]
I realized afresh when I read this passage in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Adventure of the Devil's Foot, that one of the charms of the Sherlock Holmes tales is its perhaps semi-journalistic survey of Britishness. His stories are of their time, too, and feel at least to me very Victorian and very Edwardian. But I think that less time-specific aspects of England peep out, even if it is the description of an Atlantic-battered holiday getaway — Sherlock Holmes leaves London at the beginning of the story, so that he can recruit his health by the seaside — in western Cornwall.

Alongside a far from bashful self-advertisement of the short story — Watson claims that this adventure is a problem 'more intense, more engrossing, and infinitely more mysterious than any of those which had driven us from London' — Doyle also enumerates his set of characters with well-practiced celerity. For example, Mortimer Tregennis is introduced in this sketch: "his lodger strangely reticent, a sad-faced, introspective man, sitting with averted eyes, brooding apparently upon his own affairs."

Mortimer Tregennis and the vicar, Mr. Roundhay, are the ones who request Sherlock Holmes's professional assistance in this story. Tregennis's sister has died and his two brothers descended into madness, for no apparent reason, seated in the dining room after an evening game of cards. (What happened wasn't common knowledge. The housekeeper was the one who found the victims the next day, hours after the mysterious catastrophe had occurred.)

Watson, never one to dilute drama, writes that as he and Holmes — having accepted the request — were walking with the others to investigate the death scene, a carriage drives by to transport the maddened brothers to an institution. "As it drove by us I caught a glimpse through the closed window of a horribly contorted, grinning face glaring out at us. Those staring eyes and gnashing teeth flashed past us like a dreadful vision."

"Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Devil's Foot (1910), Illustration by Gilbert Holiday, in The Strand Magazine"
via Wikimedia Commons

That morning, Sherlock Holmes sifts the evidence at the Tregennis house. He wants to know amongst other things what might be behind the tale that a face had peeked in through the window, the previous night, at the card-players. There are no footprints near the window. Also, the night was too dark and a card-player in the room could not have seen very much. Eventually, Holmes leaves the Tregennis home again for his cottage, without pointing fingers at any culprit. But in his mind, the links have formed in a strong chain of evidence.

Ibid., here

Later, that afternoon, a neighbour of the Tregennises enters the scene, calling on Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and wishing to keep informed about their investigation. He happens to be the Edwardian equivalent of a celebrity:
The huge body, the craggy and deeply seamed face with the fierce eyes and hawk-like nose, the grizzled hair which nearly brushed our cottage ceiling, the beard--golden at the fringes and white near the lips, save for the nicotine stain from his perpetual cigar--all these were as well known in London as in Africa, and could only be associated with the tremendous personality of Dr. Leon Sterndale, the great lion-hunter and explorer.
All of the dramatis personae are introduced to the story at that point; and Holmes speedily resolves the mystery. Retelling it would require many spoilers, which I won't mention here.


I don't know why this gruesome tale is the first one I think to post on Valentine's Day; but in a way I think the mystery, once resolved, doesn't make it an entirely undeserving candidate for this day. Loyalty and love, although mangled and lost under the violence of fictitious and sensational tragedy, are still at the emotional centre of the story.


"The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" is a later Holmes story, in The Last Bow, and was published in 1910.
The quotations are from the Project Gutenberg edition, here, and this is the Wikipedia article: here.