Serendipity: Poet and Savior

Russian Poet Maximilian Voloshin (1877-1932)

I have been reading Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya (1872-1952), better known by her pen name, “Teffi.” It is the story of her last months in Russia and the Ukraine, desperately trying to escape the Red Terror of Lenin’s security forces. The following tale of a Russian poet by the name of Voloshin is a living testimony to the place of poetry in Russian culture.

Around the beginning of spring, the poet Maximilian Voloshin appeared in the city. He was in the grip of a poetic frenzy. Wherever I went, I would glimpse his picturesque silhouette: dense, square beard, tight curls crowned with a round beret, a light cloak, knickerbockers, and gaiters. He was doing the rounds of government institutions and people with the right connections, constantly reciting his poems. There was more to this than was at first apparent. The poems served as keys. To help those who were in trouble Voloshin needed to pass through certain doors—and his poems opened these doors. He’d walk into some office and, while people were still wondering whether to announce his presence to their superiors, he would begin to recite. His meditations on the False Dmitry [a monk who falsely claimed to be the son of Ivan the Terrible] and other Russian tragedies were dense and powerful; lines evoking the fearful burden of history alternated with soaring flights of prophecy. An ecstatic crowd of young typists would gather around him, ooh-ing and aah-ing, letting out little nasal squeals of horrified delight. Next you would hear the clatter of typewriter keys—Voloshin had begun to dictate some of his longer poems. Someone in a position of authority would poke his head around the door, his curiosity piqued, and then lead the poet into his office. Soon the dense, even hum of bardic declamation would start up again, audible even through the closed door.

On one occasion I too received a visit of this nature.

Voloshin recited two long poems and then said that we must do something at once on behalf of the poetess Kuzmina-Karavayeva, who had been arrested (in Feodosya, I think), because of some denunciation and was in danger of being shot.

“You’re friends with Grishin-Almazov [a local politico], you must speak to him straightaway.”

I knew Kuzmina-Karavayeva well enough to understand at once that any such denunciation must be a lie.

“And in the meantime,” said Voloshin, “I’ll go speak to the Metropolitan [a high Orthodox church prelate]. Karavayeva’s a graduate of the theological academy. The Metropolitan will do all he can for her.”

I called Grishin-Almazov.

“Are you sure?” he responded. “Word of honor?”

“Yes.”

“Then I’ll give the order tomorrow. All right?”

“No, not tomorrow,” I said. “Today. And it’s got to be a telegram. I’m very concerned—we might be too late already!”

“Very well, I will send a telegram. I emphasize the words: I will.”

Kuzmina-Karavayeva was released.

 

 

The Talking Stones of Yaxuna

The Mayan Glyph Stairway at Copán

The Maya believe that certain inanimate objects, such as stone glyphs and statues had souls. The following excerpt, entitled “The Talking Stones,” comes from Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path by archeologists David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker:

When I read Paul Sullivan’s book [Unfinished Conversations: Mayas and Foreigners Between Two Wars] it helped me understand something I had witnessed among the village people of Yaxuna who worked with me on the nearby ancient city. When excavation first began, the villagers were deeply concerned that we might try to remove stones, especially carved stones, from the ruins. I had difficulty understanding their anxiety. I explained to them that sometimes artifacts had to be removed for analysis, but that they would be returned faithfully when safe storage could be built for them. The matter was of such importance to the villagers that finally Don Pablo, the local shaman, took it personally  upon himself to ensure that no carved stones be removed from the site. There were some strained moments when the archeologists of the Mexican government insisted that carved stones be taken to safekeeping and the Yaxuna people insisted that they stay; but the tensions were finally resolved. The stones of Yaxuna are still there, under the watchful eyes of the villagers, and now I know why the matter loomed so large: such stones are likely k’an che’, seats of supernaturals.

I had one other encounter with Don Pablo and talking stones. One day in the summer of 1989, after he had done some work on the camp kitchen, I found a clear glass marble in the area. Thinking it belonged to Don Pablo and was one of his saso’ob, the “lights” he used when focusing spiritual forces, I took it next door to him that evening. He took the marble and inspected it carefully.

“Yes,” he said finally, “this is a stone of light.”

Then he smiled, “However, it won’t speak until it has been soaked in maize gruel, sak-a’, and then it will speak only Maya.”

Serendipity: “The Great Orgy of Universal Nihilism”

British Writer Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)

I have always loved the work of Aldous Huxley and have been reading him almost worshipfully for over fifty years. While I admire his fiction, particularly Point Counter Point (1928), I like his essays best. Several years ago, I dished out a couple hundred dollars to buy a clothbound six-volume set of his collected essays. Today I picked up one of his essays, “Revolutions,” written in Do What You Will in 1929, where I found the following:

The revolution that will then break out will not be communistic—there will be no need for such a revolution, as I have already shown, and besides nobody will believe in the betterment of humanity or in anything else whatever. It will be a nihilistic revolution. Destruction for destruction’s sake. Hate, universal hate, and an aimless and therefore complete and thorough smashing up of everything. And the levelling up of incomes, by accelerating the spread of universal mechanization (machinery is costly), will merely accelerate the coming of this great orgy of universal nihilism. The richer, the more civilized we becomes, the more speedily it will arrive. All that we can hope is that it will not come in our time.

Huxley was lucky. It came well after his death in 1963. It started with the Tea Party movement around 2009 and reached an apogee with the election of Donald J. Trump in 2016. Whether that particular individual lasts, we still have the revolutionaries in their Southern or Midwestern fastnesses.

 

 

Serendipity: Dealing with Misfortune in Greenland

Inuit Greenlander

The following paragraph comes from Lawrence Millman’s Last Places: A Journey in the North. I have always had a hankering to pay a visit to Greenland—and I might, as a side trip from Iceland. I cracked up as I read this:

One thing about Greenlanders: they tend to find misfortune amusing. I once saw a man return from Denmark in a wheelchair, and when his family met him, they slapped their knees and rolled in the snow, pointing and laughing at the old man (he laughed with them) stuck in this odd-looking chair of metal. In The Last Kings of Thule, my favorite book about Greenland, Jean Malaurie describes how the good people of Thule always used to mimic a lame man named Asarpannguaq trying to make love. Cruel, yes, but it’s cruelty that serves, or once served, a useful purpose: you’ve got to be tough in this vale of misfortune or you’ll exchange your breath for a pile of stones. There’s a saying that Danes beat their children but not their dogs, while Greenlanders beat their dogs but not their children. It’s probably true; not once have I seen seen a Greenlander strike a child. But he will ridicule that child unmercifully or perhaps give him a nickname like Usukitat (Little No-Good Penis) that will stay with him all his life. In Igateq, East Greenland, I once met a hunter named Itiktarniq (Liquid Dog Shit), who was as tough as nails.

 

 

Serendipity: MAGA and Hells Angels

A Hells Angels Vest

It is amazing to me that a work written more than half a century ago could so accurately have predicted the mentality of the Trump voter with his red MAGA hat. Back in 1967, Hunter S. Thompson came out with Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga about the iconic motorcycle gang. In it, I found the following quotes:

To see the Hell’s Angels as caretakers of the old “individualist” tradition “that made this country great” is only a painless way to get around seeing them for what they really are—not some romantic leftover, but the first wave of a future that nothing in our history has prepared us to cope with. The Angels are prototypes. Their lack of education has not only rendered them completely useless in a highly technical economy, but it has also given them the leisure to cultivate a powerful resentment … and to translate it into a destructive cult which the mass media insists on portraying as a sort of isolated oddity, a temporary phenomenon that will shortly become extinct….

Hells Angels Members in the 1960s

Tell me if the following does not describe the MAGA hat wearers to a tee:

In the terms of our Great Society the Hell’s Angels and their ilk are losers—dropouts, failures and malcontents. They are rejects looking for a way to get even with a world in which they are only a problem. The Hell’s Angels are not visionaries, but diehards, and if they are the forerunners or the vanguard of anything it is not the “moral revolution” in vogue on college campuses, but a fast-growing legion of young unemployables whose untapped energy will inevitably find the same kind of destructive outlet that “outlaws” like the Hell’s Angels have been finding for years. The difference between the student radicals and the Hell’s Angels is that the students are rebelling against the past, while the Angels are fighting the future. Their only common ground is their disdain for the present, or the status quo.

 

Serendipity: Dépaysement

Lebanese Restaurant in Paris

The term dépaysement is a French concept which refers to that feeling of disorientation that specifically arises when you are not in your home country nor identify exclusively with it. It’s the way that I, a Hungarian-American who loves to travel in places like Latin America and Iceland, feel as the United States slides down the drain of Trumpism. Juan Goytisolo (1931-2017), a Catalan writer of Basque extraction who lived most of his life in Marrakech, felt that way about Spain, particularly after the Franco régime’s depredations. The following is from his essay “Why I Have Chosen to Live in Paris” from his essay collection Space in Motion:

Q: If I understand you rightly, French cosmopolitanism ….

A: There is no such thing as French cosmopolitanism; there is interculturalism, plurality, osmosis: a universe in miniature. If a person so desires, he can eat in a Cambodian restaurant, drink mint tea in a Moorish café, see a Hindu or Turkish movie in the afternoon—Yilmaz Güney’s The Sheepflock in my opinion is one of the best films of the year—and in the evening, with a bit of luck, attend a concert of the Noss el Ghiwán or Izanzaren. Society is linked to the idea of space, but culture—like the individual—is mobile, drifting like the wind. Culture today cannot be French or Spanish, or even European, but rather mestizo, bastard, fecundated by civilizations that have been victims of our self-castrating, aberrant ethnocentrism. For up until now we have exported the Occidental model with all its props—from its ideology to its drugs and gadgets—we are at present witnessing an inverse process that personally fascinates and delights me: the gradual dissolution of “white” culture by all the peoples who, having been forcibly subjected to it, have assimilated the tricks, the techniques necessary to contaminate it.

Q: So then, Paris for you …

A: Insofar as it abandons its pretensions of being a beacon and accepts its status as a motley, bastard, heterogeneous metropolis that belongs to no country, I will always feel better in it than in any other exclusively “national” city that is uniform, chaste, compact, rid of its angels.

 

 

Serendipity: An Eye-Witness to Vesuvius AD 79

The Vesuvius Eruption as Imagined by an Artist

I have just finished reading the complete letters of Pliny the Younger (AD 61-113). They were interesting on three counts. First of all, I was impressed by Pliny’s honesty and sense of civic responsibility. Secondly, toward the end of his life, he was governor of Bithynia and Pontus, where he died in AD 113. Finally he writes as a first hand witness of the eruption o Vesuvius in AD 79. He and his uncle Pliny the Elder were across the bay as it happened. The uncle crossed the bay to investigate, and died in the process. Here is his nephew’s account in a letter he wrote to the historian Cornelius Taci

Your request that I would send you an account of my uncle’s death, in order to transmit a more exact relation of it to posterity, deserves my acknowledgments; for, if this accident shall be celebrated by your pen, the glory of it, I am well assured, will be rendered forever illustrious. And notwithstanding he perished by a misfortune, which, as it involved at the same time a most beautiful country in ruins, and destroyed so many populous cities, seems to promise him an everlasting remembrance; notwithstanding he has himself composed many and lasting works; yet I am persuaded, the mentioning of him in your immortal writings, will greatly contribute to render his name immortal. Happy I esteem those to be to whom by provision of the gods has been granted the ability either to do such actions as are worthy of being related or to relate them in a manner worthy of being read; but peculiarly happy are they who are blessed with both these uncommon talents: in the number of which my uncle, as his own writings and your history will evidently prove, may justly be ranked. It is with extreme willingness, therefore, that I execute your commands; and should indeed have claimed the task if you had not enjoined it. He was at that time with the fleet under his command at Misenum. On the 24th of August, about one in the afternoon, my mother desired him to observe a cloud which appeared of a very unusual size and shape. He had just taken a turn in the sun and, after bathing himself in cold water, and making a light luncheon, gone back to his books: he immediately arose and went out upon a rising ground from whence he might get a better sight of this very uncommon appearance. A cloud, from which mountain was uncertain, at this distance (but it was found afterwards to come from Mount Vesuvius), was ascending, the appearance of which I cannot give you a more exact description of than by likening it to that of a pine tree, for it shot up to a great height in the form of a very tall trunk, which spread itself out at the top into a sort of branches; occasioned, I imagine, either by a sudden gust of air that impelled it, the force of which decreased as it advanced upwards, or the cloud itself being pressed back again by its own weight, expanded in the manner I have mentioned; it appeared sometimes bright and sometimes dark and spotted, according as it was either more or less impregnated with earth and cinders. This phenomenon seemed to a man of such learning and research as my uncle extraordinary and worth further looking into. He ordered a light vessel to be got ready, and gave me leave, if I liked, to accompany him. I said I had rather go on with my work; and it so happened, he had himself given me something to write out. As he was coming out of the house, he received a note from Rectina, the wife of Bassus, who was in the utmost alarm at the imminent danger which threatened her; for her villa lying at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, there was no way of escape but by sea; she earnestly entreated him therefore to come to her assistance. He accordingly changed his first intention, and what he had begun from a philosophical, he now carries out in a noble and generous spirit. He ordered the galleys to be put to sea, and went himself on board with an intention of assisting not only Rectina, but the several other towns which lay thickly strewn along that beautiful coast. Hastening then to the place from whence others fled with the utmost terror, he steered his course direct to the point of danger, and with so much calmness and presence of mind as to be able to make and dictate his observations upon the motion and all the phenomena of that dreadful scene. He was now so close to the mountain that the cinders, which grew thicker and hotter the nearer he approached, fell into the ships, together with pumice-stones, and black pieces of burning rock: they were in danger too not only of being aground by the sudden retreat of the sea, but also from the vast fragments which rolled down from the mountain, and obstructed all the shore. Here he stopped to consider whether he should turn back again; to which the pilot advising him, “Fortune,” said he, “favours the brave; steer to where Pomponianus is.” Pomponianus was then at Stabiae, separated by a bay, which the sea, after several insensible windings, forms with the shore. He had already sent his baggage on board; for though he was not at that time in actual danger, yet being within sight of it, and indeed extremely near, if it should in the least increase, he was determined to put to sea as soon as the wind, which was blowing dead in-shore, should go down. It was favourable, however, for carrying my uncle to Pomponianus, whom he found in the greatest consternation: he embraced him tenderly, encouraging and urging him to keep up his spirits, and, the more effectually to soothe his fears by seeming unconcerned himself, ordered a bath to be got ready, and then, after having bathed, sat down to supper with great cheerfulness, or at least (what is just as heroic) with every appearance of it. Meanwhile broad flames shone out in several places from Mount Vesuvius, which the darkness of the night contributed to render still brighter and clearer. But my uncle, in order to soothe the apprehensions of his friend, assured him it was only the burning of the villages, which the country people had abandoned to the flames: after this he retired to rest, and it is most certain he was so little disquieted as to fall into a sound sleep: for his breathing, which, on account of his corpulence, was rather heavy and sonorous, was heard by the attendants outside. The court which led to his apartment being now almost filled with stones and ashes, if he had continued there any time longer, it would have been impossible for him to have made his way out. So he was awoke and got up, and went to Pomponianus and the rest of his company, who were feeling too anxious to think of going to bed. They consulted together whether it would be most prudent to trust to the houses, which now rocked from side to side with frequent and violent concussions as though shaken from their very foundations; or fly to the open fields, where the calcined stones and cinders, though light indeed, yet fell in large showers, and threatened destruction. In this choice of dangers they resolved for the fields: a resolution which, while the rest of the company were hurried into by their fears, my uncle embraced upon cool and deliberate consideration. They went out then, having pillows tied upon their heads with napkins; and this was their whole defence against the storm of stones that fell round them. It was now day everywhere else, but there a deeper darkness prevailed than in the thickest night; which however was in some degree alleviated by torches and other lights of various kinds. They thought proper to go farther down upon the shore to see if they might safely put out to sea, but found the waves still running extremely high, and boisterous. There my uncle, laying himself down upon a sail cloth, which was spread for him, called twice for some cold water, which he drank, when immediately the flames, preceded by a strong whiff of sulphur, dispersed the rest of the party, and obliged him to rise. He raised himself up with the assistance of two of his servants, and instantly fell down dead; suffocated, as I conjecture, by some gross and noxious vapour, having always had a weak throat, which was often inflamed. As soon as it was light again, which was not till the third day after this melancholy accident, his body was found entire, and without any marks of violence upon it, in the dress in which he fell, and looking more like a man asleep than dead. During all this time my mother and I, who were at Misenum—but this has no connection with your history, and you did not desire any particulars besides those of my uncle’s death; so I will end here, only adding that I have faithfully related to you what I was either an eye-witness of myself or received immediately after the accident happened, and before there was time to vary the truth. You will pick out of this narrative whatever is most important: for a letter is one thing, a history another; it is one thing writing to a friend, another thing writing to the public.