Serendipity: Soviet High Society

Stalin and Members of the Politburo 1925

I have just finished reading Italian writer Curzio Malaparte’s The Kremlin Ball (Material for a Novel), a book that attempts to cover the high society of the Soviet Union as if it were Marcel Proust’s fin de siècle Paris. It is a strange book, probably because Malaparte was never able to finish it after numerous visits to Russia up to 1957, when he died. It makes it a tricky read, as one is never sure exactly what period the author is talking about in a particular chapter. Still, I loved the following picture of all those figures whose lives depended on the whim of Joseph Stalin.

Of that era’s Soviet high society, corrupt, always thirsty for pleasure, greedy for money, glory, and power, proud and snobbish, capable of any infamy in order to maintain their ephemeral power, ready to betray the people, the Revolution, communism, Russia, to deny their own revolutionary past, in order not to have to renounce the honors and privileges of their position, of that Soviet nobility corrupted by Trotskyism and Bonapartism, almost no one was still alive. L’ancien régime of the Communist Revolution, the new nobility that had emerged from the communism of the war and NEP [the New Economic Plan], made up of men who believed themselves to be Marxists and were actually nothing but krasni burjui, red bourgeois, who believed that they were the guardians of Marxist and Leninist theory but were instead Bonapartists, who believed they were leaders of the proletariat but were really leaders of the Trotskyite counterrevolution, had by then given up their positions to the élites of the Stakhanovites and the Udarniks [shock workers], and to the Stalinist élites who were tough and lean but nevertheless more human and born of the Five Year Plans. Of all the merveilleuses of the communist ancien régime, of all those men corrupted by ambition, hatred, jealousy, comfort, pleasures, and privileges, all that remains is memory: the “snapshots” firing squads caught of them in their supreme, ultimate moment, their pale faces turned toward the rifle barrels, their hands clenched in fists, their eyes widened, their brows enraged, the great wind of death unobstructed in the cold, squalid, magnesium light of the camera flashes that lit up, from some invisible height, the scenes of execution in modern Europe.

NKVD Firing Squad

Serendipity: The Age of Kali

The Goddess Kali Is Not the Most Welcoming of Hindu Deities

I have just started reading William Dalrymple’s The Age of Kali: Indian Travels & Encounters. He uses the story of Kali as a parallel to what is happening in India as of 1998, when the book was published. I find the following paragraphs from the Introduction an interesting warning for Americans in the age of Trump and rampant Republicanism.

The book’s title [The Age of Kali] is a reference to the concept in ancient Hindu cosmology that time is divided into four great epochs. Each age (or yug) is named after one of four throws, from best to worst, in a traditional Indian game of dice; accordingly, each successive age represents a period of increasing moral and social deterioration. The ancient mythological Golden Age, named after the highest throw of the dice, is known as the Krita Yug, or Age of Perfection. As I was told again and again on my travels around the Subcontinent, India is now in the throes of the Kali Yug, the Age of Kali, the lowest possible throw, an epoch of strife, corruption, darkness and disintegration. In the Age of Kali the great gods Vishnu and Shiva are asleep and do not hear the prayers of their devotees. In such an age, normal conversations fall apart: anything is possible. As the seventh-century Vishnu Purana puts it:

The kings of the Kali Yug will be addicted to corruption and will seize the property of their subjects, but will, for the most part, be of limited power, rising and falling rapidly. Then property and wealth alone will confer rank; falsehood will be the only means of success in litigation. Corruption will be the universal means of subsistence. At the end, unable to support their avaricious kings, the people of the Kali Age will take refuge in the chasms between mountains, they will wear ragged garments, and they will have too many children. Thus in the Kali Age shall strife and decay constantly proceed, until the human race approaches annihilation.

 

 

Serendipity: A Plea from the Pagans

Winged Victory (Nike) bronze statue against background of Trajan’s Column and dome of Santa Maria di Loreto church. Rome, Italy.

I have always been fascinated by the period of transition from the Paganism of Ancient Rome to the Christianity of the last days of the Western Roman Empire. It was in AD 313 when Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the empire with his Edict of Milan; and it was in AD 476 when the Western empire fell.

Naturally, the transition was not sudden. In AD 375, the Emperor Gratian had the Altar of Victory removed from the Roman Senate, this despite the fact that most of the members of the Senate were still Pagans. On that occasion, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus complained to the emperor: “Grant, I implore you, that we who are old men may leave to posterity that which we received as boys.” He goes on:

All things … are full of God, and no place is safe for perjurers, but the fear of transgression is greatly spurred by the consciousness of the very presence of deity. That altar contains in itself the harmony of the members of our order and the good faith of each of them individually. Nor does anything so much contribute to the authority of the Senate’s decrees, as the fact that one body, sworn to the same oath, has resolved them. Greco-Roman Paganism is to us a ridiculous body of myths, but to the Roman Senators, making sacrifices to the Altar of Victory was not only patriotic but an act of piety.

Symmachus continues:

Let me use my ancestral ceremonies, she says, for I do not repent me of them. Let me live after my own way; for I am free. This was the cult that drove Hannibal from the walls of Rome and the Gauls from the Capitolium. Am I kept for this, to be chastised in my old age?… I do but ask peace for the gods of our fathers, the native gods of Rome. It is right that what all adore should be deemed one. We all look up at the same stars. We have a common sky. A common firmament encompasses us. What matters it by what kind of learned theory each man looketh for the truth? There is no one way that will take us to so mighty a secret. All this is matter of discussion for men of leisure. We offer your majesties not a debate but a plea.

This plea did not sit well with the new Christian orthodoxy of the empire. St. Ambrose wrote the official response, which was essentially that Christianity was replacing the old order of things.

Interestingly, it is now Christianity that seems to be on the defensive … to be replaced by—whatever.

 

Plague Diary 27: An Irish View

Giorgio De Chirico Landscape with Train in Distance

It was in a survey of impressions of the global coronavirus outbreak tin the April 23, 2020 issue of the New York Review of Books hat I saw this remark by Northern Irish Poet Nick Laird:

The prophecies arrive: hundreds of thousands of dead, trillions of dollars spent, millions and millions losing their jobs, their health care, their homes. Soldiers on the streets. Each graph, each blank statistic. Each talking head. Stick a fork in the ass of civilization, it’s done. Don’t be silly, this is a blip. I don’t think so. In the stream of news the poems sit like stones, lambent under the surface. Auden’s “Gare du Midi,” where the man with his little case alights from the train, and steps out “briskly to infect a city/Whose terrible future may have just arrived.”

And here’s the poem to which Laird refers:

A nondescript express in from the South,
Crowds round the ticket barrier, a face
To welcome which the mayor has not contrived
Bugles or braid: something about the mouth
Distracts the stray look with alarm and pity.
Snow is falling, Clutching a little case,
He walks out briskly to infect a city
Whose terrible future may have just arrived.

 

 

 

Serendipity: That Professional Smile

Why I Could Never Become a Salesman

Watch TV and you will see them by the hundreds: Actors with that professional corporate smile. Everything is fine. There are no negatives. Well, that’s not me. Let me greet you with a suspicious scowl. I don’t know you and I have no reason to send a ray of sunshine up your ass. I was always good at what I did, but I was hopeless as a salesman. (That never bothered me as that was not my intention.) The following is a long footnote from David Foster Wallace’s long essay on taking a Caribbean cruise for the first time, entitled “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

This is related to the phenomenon of the Professional Smile, a national pandemic in the service industry; and no place in my experience have I been on the receiving end of as many Professional Smiles as I am on the [cruise ship]: maitre d’s, Chief Stewards, Hotel Managers minions’ , Cruise Director—their P.S.’s all come on like switches at my approach. But also back on land at banks, restaurants, airline ticket counters, on and on. You know this smile—the strenuous contraction of of circumoral fascia w/ incomplete zygomatic involvement—the smile that doesn’t quite reach the smiler’s eyes and that signified nothing more than a calculated attempt to advance the smiler’s own interests by pretending to like the smilee. Why do employers and supervisors force professional service people to broadcast the Professional Smile? Am I the only consumer in whom high doses of such a smile produce despair? Am I the only person who’s sure that the growing number of cases in which totally average-looking people suddenly open up with automatic weapons in shopping malls and insurance offices and medical complexes and McDonaldses is somehow causally related to the fact that these venues are well-known dissemination-loci of the Professional Smile?

 

 

Serendipity: Waiting To Be Annihilated

American Writer Herman Melville (1819-1891)

On November 20, 1856, Nathaniel Hawthorne met with Herman Melville in England. In his English Notebooks, Hawthorne describes his friend as having “by way of baggage, the least little bit of a bundle, which, he told me, contained a night-shirt and a tooth-brush…. [H]e is a little heterodox in the matter of clean linen.” He goes on to describe their meeting:

He stayed with us from Tuesday till Thursday; and, on the intervening day, we took a pretty long walk together, and sat down in a hollow among the sand hills (sheltering ourselves from the high, cool wind) and smoked a cigar. Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had “pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated”; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists—and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before—in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.

 

 

 

Serendipity: London 1665 Bubonic Plague

The Bubonic Plague in London

As bad as the coronavirus is. it is nothing compared to the Bubonic plague. In 1722, Daniel Defoe published a superb work of reportage about the 1665 Bubonic plague in London entitled A Journal of the Plague Year. At the actual time of the plague, Defoe was only five years old; so it is actually a carefully researched work of fiction.

It was known to us all that abundance of poor despairing creatures who had the distemper upon them, and were grown stupid or melancholy by their misery, as many were, wandered away into the fields and Woods, and into secret uncouth places almost anywhere, to creep into a bush or hedge and die.

The inhabitants of the villages adjacent would, in pity, carry them food and set it at a distance, that they might fetch it, if they were able; and sometimes they were not able, and the next time they went they should find the poor wretches lie dead and the food untouched. The number of these miserable objects were many, and I know so many that perished thus, and so exactly where, that I believe I could go to the very place and dig their bones up still; for the country people would go and dig a hole at a distance from them, and then with long poles, and hooks at the end of them, drag the bodies into these pits, and then throw the earth in from as far as they could cast it, to cover them, taking notice how the wind blew, and so coming on that side which the seamen call to windward, that the scent of the bodies might blow from them; and thus great numbers went out of the world who were never known, or any account of them taken, as well within the bills of mortality as without.

This, indeed, I had in the main only from the relation of others, for I seldom walked into the fields, except towards Bethnal Green and Hackney, or as hereafter. But when I did walk, I always saw a great many poor wanderers at a distance; but I could know little of their cases, for whether it were in the street or in the fields, if we had seen anybody coming, it was a general method to walk away; yet I believe the account is exactly true.

Smoking Was Considered a Way to Avoid the Plague

As this puts me upon mentioning my walking the streets and fields, I cannot omit taking notice what a desolate place the city was at that time. The great street I lived in (which is known to be one of the broadest of all the streets of London, I mean of the suburbs as well as the liberties) all the side where the butchers lived, especially without the bars, was more like a green field than a paved street, and the people generally went in the middle with the horses and carts. It is true that the farthest end towards Whitechappel Church was not all paved, but even the part that was paved was full of grass also; but this need not seem strange, since the great streets within the city, such as Leadenhall Street, Bishopsgate Street, Cornhill, and even the Exchange itself, had grass growing in them in several places; neither cart or coach were seen in the streets from morning to evening, except some country carts to bring roots and beans, or peas, hay, and straw, to the market, and those but very few compared to what was usual. As for coaches, they were scarce used but to carry sick people to the pest-house, and to other hospitals, and some few to carry physicians to such places as they thought fit to venture to visit; for really coaches were dangerous things, and people did not care to venture into them, because they did not know who might have been carried in them last, and sick, infected people were, as I have said, ordinarily carried in them to the pest-houses, and sometimes people expired in them as they went along.

 

 

Serendipity: “A Contract of Mutual Deceit”

Finding Truth in a Mystery Novel

Toward the end of James Lee Burke’s excellent A Stained White Radiance, written in 1992, I suddenly came upon this passage, in which Detective Dave Robicheaux of the New Iberia, Louisiana, police force ponders the existence of ex-KKK, ex-Nazi politico Bobby Earl. I suddenly found myself thinking about Donald Trump.

I had been determined to prove that Bobby Earl was fronting points for Joey Gouza [a New Orleans mobster], or that he was connected with arms and dope trafficking in the tropics. I was guilty of that age-old presumption that the origins of social evil can be traced to villainous individuals, that we just need to identify them, lock them in cages, or even march them to the executioner’s wall, and this time, yes, this time, we’ll catch a fresh breeze in our sails and set ourselves on a true course.

But Bobby Earl is out there by consent. He has his thumb on a dark pulse, and like all confidence men, he knows that his audience wishes to be conned. He learned long ago to listen, and he knows that if he listens carefully they’ll tell him what they need to hear. It’s a contract of mutual deceit by which they open up their flak vests and take it right through the breastbone.

If it were not he, it would be someone like him—misanthropic, beguiling, educated, someone who, as an ex-president’s wife once said, allows the rest of us to feel comfortable with our prejudices.

I think the end for Bobby Earl will come in the same fashion as it does for all his kind. Unlike the members of The Pool [Burke’s term for the mob] and that great army of villainous buffoons trying to sneak through life on side streets, Bobby Earl’s ilk want power so badly that at some point in their lives they make a conscious choice to embrace evil. It’s not a gradual seduction. They do it without reservation, and that’s when they leave the rest of us. You know when it happens, too. No amount of cosmetic surgery can mask the psychological deformity in their eyes.

 

Serendipity: Henry Clarendon IV

Raymond Chandler (1888-1959)

It was the last of Raymond Chandler’s seven novels. The fact of the matter is that Playback (1958) is not up to the other six. But that’s all right, because I like the character of Private Detective Philip Marlowe so much that even so-so Chandler makes for fine reading—and this was the third time I read it. In this reading, one thing stood out from the rest, sort of like a sudden Buddhist burst of contemplation. It was an old man named Henry Clarendon IV sitting in a hotel lobby as Marlowe tries frantically to find a man named Larry Mitchell whose whereabouts are important for solving a case.

“Don’t bother with that one [Mitchell],” he said. “He’s a pimp. I have spent many many years in lobbies, in lounges and bars, on porches, terraces and ornate gardens in hotels all over the world. I have outlived everyone in my family. I shall go on being useless and inquisitive until the day comes when the stretcher carries me off to some nice airy corner room in a hospital. The starched white dragons will minister to me. The bed will be wound up, wound down. Trays will come with that awful loveless hospital food. My pulse and temperature will be taken at frequent intervals and invariably when I am dropping off to sleep. I shall lie there and hear the rustle of the starched skirts, the slurring sound of the rubber shoe soles on the aseptic floor, and see the silent horror of the doctor’s smile. After a while they will put the oxygen tent over me and draw the screens around the little white bed and I shall, without even knowing it, do the one thing in the world no man ever has to do twice.”

He turned his head slowly and looked at me. “Obviously, I talk too much. Your name, sir?”

“Philip Marlowe.”

“I am Henry Clarendon IV. I belong to what used to be called the upper classes. Groton, Harvard, Heidelberg, the Sorbonne. I even spent a year at Uppsala. I cannot clearly remember why. To fit me for a life of leisure, no doubt. So you are a private detective. I do eventually get around to speaking of something other than myself, you see.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You should have come to me for information. But of course you couldn’t know that.”

I shook my head. I lit a cigarette, first offering one to Mr. Henry Clarendon IV. He refused it with a vague nod.

“However, Mr. Marlowe, it is something you should have certainly learned. In every luxury hotel in the world there will be half a dozen elderly idlers of both sexes who sit around and stare like owls. They watch, they listen, they compare notes, they learn everything about everyone. They have nothing else to do, because hotel life is the most deadly of all forms of boredom. And no doubt I’m boring you equally.”

 

Serendipity: A Halloween Gift

American Author Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909)

As a special Halloween present for you, I give you a paragraph from a wonderful ghost story from Mike Ashley’s Great American Ghost Stories: Chilling Tales by Poe, Bierce, Hawthorne and Others. The tale in question is Sarah Orne Jewett’s “Lady Ferry,” the tale of a woman who has lived has been cursed with an incredibly long life, reminding one of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman and Eugène Sue’s The Wandering Jew.

Although I wished to see my father and mother, I cried as if my heart would break because I had to leave the ferry. The time spent there had been the happiest time of all my life, I think. I was old enough to enjoy, but not to suffer much, and there was singularly little to trouble one. I did not know that my life was ever to be different. I have learned, since those childish days, that one must battle against storms if one would reach the calm which is to follow them. I have learned also that anxiety, sorrow, and regret fall to the lot of every one, and that there is always underlying our lives, this mysterious and frightful element of existence; an uncertainty at times, though we do trust every thing to God. Under the best-loved and most beautiful face we know, there is hidden a skull as ghastly as that from which we turn aside with a shudder in the anatomist’s cabinet. We smile, and are gay enough; God pity us! We try to forget our heart-aches and remorse. We even call our lives commonplace, and, bearing our own heaviest burdens silently, we try to keep the commandment, and to bear one another’s also. There is One who knows: we look forward, as he means we shall, and there is always a hand ready to help us, though we reach out for it doubtfully in the dark.