Serendipity: ¡Viva La Muerte!

Some of the Issues from the Spanish Civil War Seem Very Contemporary

I am currently reading the First Edition of Hugh Thomas’s The Spanish Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1961).  Many issues between the Nationalists (Franco’s Fascists) and the Republic (very like our Democratic Party) seem to ring equally true for today’s overcharged political environment. On August 15, 1936, the Nationalists adopted the flag of the Spanish monarchy and made a number of speeches. After Generalissimo Francisco Franco and Gonzalo Queipo de Llano y Serra, there was a third speaker:

Next to speak was [José] Millán Astray, a man from whom there seemed to be more shot away than there was of flesh remaining. He had but one leg, one eye, one arm, few fingers left on his one remaining hand. ‘We have no fear of them [the Leftists],’ he shouted, ‘let them come and see what we are capable of under this flag.’ A voice was heard crying‘¡Viva Millán Astray!’ ‘What’s that?’ cried the General, ‘no vivas for me! But let them all shout with me “¡Viva la muerte! ¡Abajo la inteligencia!”’ (Long live death! Down with intelligence!). The crowd echoed this mad slogan. He added, ‘Now let the Reds come! Death to them all!’ So saying, he flung his cap into the crowd amid extraordinary excitement. [Page 272]

Fascist General Millán Astray

How like the Fascists to praise death and downgrade intelligence. “Don’t think too much,” they seem to be saying. “Just follow orders!” The Spanish left was like our Democrats: A Circular firing squad. There was the CNT (Anarcho-Syndicalist Trades Union), the FAI (an Anarchist secret society), POUM (Trotskyites), PSUC (the United Catalan Socialist-Communist Party), and UGT (the Socialist Trade Union). On the Left were militias, propagandists, the International Brigades from all over Europe and the Americas, and a whole plethora of irreconcilable beliefs and opinions. On the Right was the Spanish Army led by Franco and supplies and manpower from Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy.

Serendipity: Raven Brings Death to the World

Tlingit Myth: Raven Swallowing the Sun

Now that I have resolved to explore the Inside Passage of Alaska and British Columbia, I have become interested in the many native peoples along the route. And also that means I have a renewed interest in Franz Boas, who spent so much of his career studying the Kwakiutl, the Tlingit, the Bella Coola, the Salish, and others. From Boas’s (edited) Folk-Tales of Salishan and Sahaptin Tribes (1917) comes this tale, from the Nicola Valley, of how death came into this world:

Coyote was travelling, and came to Raven, a bad, selfish chief, who wanted to make everything difficult for other people, and easy for himself. He wanted the game for himself, wanted long winters, and he did not want man to be immortal. Coyote questioned him as to why he wanted people to die. He said, “If people were immortal, there would be too many. Let them become sick and die.” Coyote said, “Why should they die? Death will introduce sorrow into the world, and sorrow is very hard. If they die, what will become of them? Where will they go? Let them be sick, but not die.” Raven said, “No, they must die. I do not wish our enemies to live forever. If the people should become too numerous, there would be no food, and they would be hungry. It is better for them to die.” Raven’s people supported their chief, and clamored for the people to die. Raven, Crow, Fly, Maggot, and many others wanted people to die, so that they might feed on corpses. Coyote said, “Let people die for a while, and then come back to life again. Let death be like sleep.” Raven said, “No, if they die, let them die for good, and let their bodies rot.” At last Coyote agreed, and said, “Well, it is ordained that people shall die when their time has come. Their bodies shall be buried, and their souls shall go to spirit-land; but this will only be until the world changes again, when they will die no more.”

Shortly after that, Raven’s daughter became sick and died. She was the first to die. Raven tried to restore her to life, but failed. Then he wept because of his daughter. He went to Coyote, and said, “Let us change what we said before. Do not let people die and remain dead forever. Let us change it!” Coyote answered, “No, it is settled now, and cannot be altered.” Thus it happens that people die and are buried.

Serendipity: My Hovercraft Is Full of Eells

The Eells in Question Was the Reverend Myron Eells

In preparation for a projected trip along the Inside Passage to Alaska, I am reading Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999). The book is full of delightful historical anecdotes about Captain Vancouver and other early explorers and settlers. Some got along well with the Indians: Others didn’t. One in the latter category was the Reverend Myron Eells, known for his “garrulous moralism.” More than fifty years after he passed on, he was still remembered by old people who, as children, been on canoes with him. In 1934, William M. Elmendorf interviewed a Skokomish elder who spoke of Eells as “that awful man.” The elder went on to say:

People didn’t like him very well. He was collecting Klallam words from some Klallam Indians who were visiting here one time. I had to translate for him. So he would ask them for words like father, mother, house, dog, and so on. And those people didn’t think much of Eells, so they would give him all sorts of dirty, nasty words, and he would write them down in a book. Then he would try to use some of these words. thinking he was talking Indian, and people would just about bust trying to keep from laughing.

If you have any interest in primitive languages, it would help first to see whether one is on the same wavelength as one’s interviewees. (Oh, and my apologies to Monty Python’s Flying Circus!)

Serendipity: “A Mighty, Harmonious Beauty”

Isak Dinesen (1885-1962) in Her Youth

The following is from a chapter entitled “On Mottoes in My Life” from her book Daguerrotypes and Other Essays. I decided to find a picture of Danish Baroness Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) when she was young and beautiful. It is sad that so many great authors are only photographed when they are old, which presents us with an odd and somewhat misleading view of their life. Anyhow, here goes:

An old Chinese mandarin, during the minority of the young Emperor, had been governing the country for him. When the Emperor came of age the old man gave him back the ring which had served as an emblem of his vicariate, and said to his young sovereign:

“In this ring I have had set  an inscription which your dear Majesty may found useful. It is to be read in times of danger, doubt and defeat. It is to be read, as well, in times of conquest, triumph and glory.”

The inscription in the ring read: “This, too, will pass.”

The sentence is not to be taken to mean that, in their passing, tears and laughter, hopes and disappointments disappear into a void. But it tells you that all will be absorbed into a unity. Soon we shall see them as integral parts of the full picture of the man or woman.

Upon the lips of the great poet the passing takes the form of a mighty, harmonious beauty:

Nothing of him that doth fade,
but doth suffer sea-change
into something rich and strange.

We may make use of the words—even when we are speaking about ourselves—without vainglory. Each one among us will feel in his heart the inherent richness and strangeness of this one thing: his life.


Serendipity: The Broken Prism

The Blessed Virgin Mary

You could be a million miles away when, quite suddenly, you can be confronted with what you believe—and what you don’t believe. Today, I was sitting in the Santa Monica Library reading Tim Cahill’s Hold the Enlightenment: More Travel, Less Bliss, ostensibly a book of adventure travel essays, when the following paragraph hit me smack between the eyes:

My own background is Catholic. I suppose my current status in that Church can best be described as long-lapsed. Even so, no one who has suffered a Catholic education is ever entirely free of the belief, or at least the discipline. Quaint notions, punitive and medieval, color my perception of the physical world. I tend to see the wilderness through the broken prism of my faith.

That holds true for me as much as it does for Tim Cahill, one of the founders of Outside magazine. The only change I would make is that I never “suffered” a Catholic education: I merely “experienced” it, and not unwillingly. My grade school, Saint Henry in Cleveland, Ohio, was staffed by Dominican sisters; and my high school, St. Peter Chanel in Bedford, Ohio, was taught by Marist priests. At Dartmouth College, I was an active participant in Catholic services at the Newman Club under Monsignor William Nolan.

When asked whether I believe in God, my answer is always, Yes. I quickly add that I have no idea what God is like or what He/She/It wants. I only know that the Godhead manifests itself in some very curious ways to the peoples of this planet. I cannot pretend to be an atheist with any degree of certitude, nor do I wish to. There is enough left of the shards of my faith to see me through the day.

What will I believe a year from now? I don’t know. It’s all subject to change.

Serendipity: The Allegory of the Lamp Post

Lamp Post at Hotel Jardines de Nivaria in Tenerife

I am currently reading Simone Weil’s essay “On the Abolition of All Political Parties”—a subject to which I will return in a few days. In the introduction by Simon Leys, I found this splendid long quote from G. K. Chesterton’s Heretics:

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good—” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

Serendipity: The Sachem Passaconaway

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

I am slowly reading Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), which he wrote after the fact about a canoe trip with his late brother John, who got tetanus seven years earlier when he cut himself shaving. It is a leisurely book full of philosophizing, local history, and poetry. In it I ran into this description of a former Indian chief who had lived in New England in earlier times:

In these parts dwelt the famous Sachem Pasaconaway, who was seen by Gookin “at Pawtucket, when he was about one hundred and twenty years old.” He was reputed a wise man and a powwow, and restrained his people from going to war with the English. They believed “that he could make water burn, rocks move, and trees dance, and metamorphose himself into a flaming man; that in winter he could raise a green leaf out of the ashes of a dry one, and produce a living snake from the skin of a dead one, and many similar miracles.” In 1660, according to Gookin, at a great feast and dance, he made his farewell speech to his people, in which he said, that as he was not likely to see them met together again, he would leave them this word of advice, to take heed how they quarrelled with their English neighbors, for though they might do them much mischief at first, it would prove the means of their own destruction. He himself, he said, had been as much an enemy to the English at their first coming as any, and had used all his arts to destroy them, or at least to prevent their settlement, but could by no means effect it. Gookin thought that he “possibly might have such a kind of spirit upon him as was upon Balaam, who in xxiii. Numbers, 23, said ‘Surely, there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel.’ His son Wannalancet carefully followed his advice, and when Philip’s War broke out, he withdrew his followers to Penacook, now Concord in New Hampshire, from the scene of the war. On his return afterwards, he visited the minister of Chelmsford, and, as is stated in the history of that town, “wished to know whether Chelmsford had suffered much during the war; and being informed that it had not, and that God should be thanked for it, Wannalancet replied, ‘Me next.´”

The Sachem Passaconaway