Saturday, August 16, 2008

Back from Vancouver

Without being unpatriotic, you understand, what I detest about America is the sheer loudness of the brand, the insistence that no other brand counts, that we are the only way to go. This has only got worse since the fall of communism. Americans are offended that anyone else has a national anthem praising the beauties or splendors or achievements of their native land - that they admire their own movies, music, food, mode of living more than they admire ours. They are offended when any other nation wins an Olympic gold medal, because that means some other country's anthem will be played. They want the whole world turned into Disneyland with only one brand of coffee and one sort of hamburger and one sort of cola. One temperature. One weather. They want the whole world to be Chevrolets which, gas-guzzling aside, offends me because I think it's boring. I think a world with Packards and Studebakers and Rolls-Royces and Volkswagens is more interesting. And if it were Fords, they could be any color as long as it was red, white and blue. And fast food is terrible and the nine-to-five work day is inhuman; it is not nap-friendly; it is corporate in the worst sense.

And we're terribly offended that the whole world does not wish to be American any more, indeed that much of it never did. The world would rather be Canadian. We are all poised to kick out the immigrants, and they'd rather go to Canada. Old Croatian proverb: Give a man a fish and he will eat for one day; teach a man a fish and he will move to Nova Scotia. There is nothing like being all dolled up to reject an importunate suitor only to find out he's really come to ask your "dull" sister to the dance. And she's accepted him, so he may be next door the rest of your life - how do you like that?

If McCain wins the election, I think we'll all have to move to Canada. I don't see what other choice we'll have. Not that it will save us from global disaster, but at this point nothing will.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Wheel of Dates

It's a wheel in my head. It spins and you insert a date. The date should be four numbers, and the first one should be 1, though leaving it blank will also (usualy) work. It works best for CE, but there is a certain general sense in which it works for BCE.

I had no idea it was in place, though I put it in place myself over long years. It was much harder to install than a piece of software in my computer (installing software in my body ... well, that's a discussion for someone else's blog, isn't it?), but also a great deal more fun or I'd never have done it, would I?

Any year, and I will tell you roughly (stress that) who was alive and what was going on anyplace on earth, focus especially on Europe. Certain places remain dark to me, but I'm always eager to add more facts. I tend to remember things in their proper order, too. At my present age, I am having senior moments, but not so many about previous centuries as I do about this one. My specialty is political history, but I am pretty competent on military history and artistic-literary history as well. Musical history does not begin until the invention of musical notation (twelfth century, Italy? yes, Virginia, there are things dead white European males did do better than any other civilization, and notating music so that we can recover a lot of tunes from five or seven or nine hundred years ago is one of them), but I can give you a decent proximate timeline on that from 1600 to 1950. Don't ask me which year which band produced which top hit in the last thirty years because I probably never heard of the stuff (actually, I have, but did not pay attention to which group did which song). Am I into eighties music? someone asked me. I said: 1680s or 1780s?

This wheel gives me great pleasure and it was quite some time before I realized most people have nothing of the sort. (Too busy dancing to Top Forty or collecting football stats or making money or raising children or doing something else pointless.) When I look at a painting or a building or listen to a tune, I have a context to put it in - which does keep me a handsbreadth from just reacting to the thing as art (I yield - and deplore - the point), but does allow me to make connections that help me understand my reactions, or understand the artist. The point of art, I have always believed, is to communicate with others, and when I look at old art (or read it, or listen to it),, I am trying to open my satellite dish to the transmitter be s/he ever so anonymous or long dead. I want to share the joke, which is easy with jolly sorts like the anonymous sculptors of Romanesque cloisters, or composers like Rossini or Mozart, but can be tough with austere types like Mimar Sinan (the Ottoman architect) or George Eliot.

Go ahead, pick a year, pick a country. 1375, Sweden. The king was Albrecht of Mecklenburg (I think), to the great resentment of the Swedes, who ended up deposing him, besieging him and his German troops in Stockholm (a German city at the time) and offering their crown to Margarethe, the Danish regent of Denmark and Norway, in 1387. The greatest power in the Baltic was the Hanseatic League, a band of mostly German merchant cities (often in non-German places, like Bergen and Riga and Danzig and Tallinn, but based on Hamburg, Bremen and Lubeck), grown rich on the furs and lumber and grain and nautical supplies of the sea, which they exported to the entire continent. The local nationalities were thus under outside control and resented it; this ended in 1397, when the three Nordic monarchies were united by Margarethe under the nominal rule of her grandnephew, Erik of Pomerania. (Not a Scand, but at least not a German either.) This lasted until 1523, sort of - then Sweden dropped out (taking Finland with her. The Union of Kalmar was a great success in its way, as it was strong enough to hold off the Germans in the Baltic and allowed the Danes and Swedes, at any rate, to have local cultural development properly - but it was a bumpy sort of deal, sometimes with separate monarchs who still subscribed to the "union." The lessons of its breakdown should probably be studied more carefully by the EU in Brussels than, I fear, they are.
The Hansa never recovered from the Reformation, which hit Germany hard after 1517 - suddenly there were reasons other than national or mercantile for groups to stick together.

Do you want to know WHY Albrecht of Mecklenburg was King of Sweden? I'm so glad you asked. His mother was Euphemia, sister of King Magnus Smek (the word means a slobbery sort of kiss and there's a great story there, as usual), whose sons were Erik XIII of Sweden (o.s.p.) and Haakon VI of Norway (married to Margarethe of Denmark, vide supra; their son was Olav IV of Norway and Denmark, who died at the age of 17. Women could not legally reign in any of these countries, but Margarethe just kept on ruling anyway until her death in 1412, and the present Danish sovereign is named Margarethe II in her honor).

Of the other kings who were about just then, my favorites are Gedyminas of Lithuania and Pedro the Ceremonious of Aragon-Catalunya, the latter simply because of his cool nickname. There's a story about it. Go ahead: ask. (Charles the Bad was king of Navarre - or had he been succeeded by his spoilsport son, Charles the Noble?. You don't get many kings called "the Bad," and he did deserve it. Go ahead: ask.) (The Holy Roman Emperor was Charles IV of Luxembourg, who is fondly remembered in Prague if nowhere else. Historians like him because he was an intellectual and wrote an autobiography. Very few medieval monarchs did.) (The king of France was Charles V the Wise, one of the two Valois kings with any political sense. The tyrants of Milan and Pavia were the brothers Bernabo and Galeazzo Visconti;. The tyrant of Ferrara was wicked Marquis Niccolo d'Este, famous for murdering his bastard son and his second wife who were making eyes at each other. The pope - I think - was Gregory XI, who returned from Avignon to Rome. Not at all sure about that.)

(When figuring out which pope reigned when, it is generally reliable rule that the numbers increase as time passes. I cling to that. So if you know Gregory IX was the bane of Emperor Frederick II, who reigned in the 13th century, you can be pretty sure any later Gregory had a larger number. I cling to that.)

I'm not making all this up, you know. And I did just pick a date out of thin air.

That was dry, wasn't it? It's livelier when I have you in person and you want to know (my friend Doug rings me up and says, "Yohopedia?") why the Iconoclasts in Constantinople upset the pope so much that he crowned Chalemagne emperor or something like that. I've got a million of 'em. Literally. It's especially good if I've been to the site of events (Istanbul, Ferrara, Prague) and can tie things in that way, with architecture and painting and why this building exists and that one doesn't.

I am always putting more reasons in for things that happened, from books, from research, from lectures, from deductions of my own. "Simple explanations are for simple minds - I've no use for either." - Joe Orton (True, he puts this line into the mouth of a maniac, but it still has relevance)

I'm in Vancouver now and it's raining so I can't ride my bike in Stanley Park and see how much is left, but I was sort of in the mood to work on my novel anyway. Back in New York on the tenth. Not looking forward to that. There are mice in my storage closet, yclept The Gulag. Any advice for getting rid of the smell will be appreciated. I can get rid of the mice okay, but the smell is problematic.