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Rattling like skeletons

stalins-corpse

(March 5th, 2017)

Stalin died on this day in 1953. It was a peaceful passing, in his own bed. His corpse was embalmed and treated and put on display next to Lenin’s, and the people passed by in their hundreds of thousands, never realizing till then just what a little guy–five foot four inches–Stalin had been. The powers of life in death in such compact form. Had a single man ever had such total control over so many people over such an expanse in the history of humanity? Nyet. Stalin was unsurpassed.

And then, suddenly, he was gone. For days vast mobs filed the streets in extraordinary public grief. So vast was this grief that the body of Prokofiev, who died the same day as Stalin, was stuck in his house for three days such was the press of flesh in the streets. The official state journal of music mentioned the composer’s death on page 116. The first 115 pages were dedicated to the musical contributions of Comrade Stalin. Perhaps you’ve forgotten the musical contributions of Stalin. They seem to have disappeared quickly.

His instrument of terror, Beria, was arrested that June, when a bunch of leading party leaders and functionaries and generals grabbed him, quite unsuspecting, at a dacha outside Moscow. Beria’s associates and underlings, all cold eyed KGB men, were picked up across the country in a final bloody purge. Some were arrested, others dispatched on the spot. Beria himself was held in some discomfort for six months before they got up the nerve to try him. He was accused of being a traitor, a pervert, a terrorist and a counter revolutionary. He was found guilty on all counts except perversion (though he was as evil a sexual predator as there has ever been) and sentenced to death, and as he pleaded for his life in a rather pathetic fashion, a general (chosen by lots, I believe), after stuffing Beria’s mouth with a rag to shut him up, put a revolver to his forehead and blew his vile brains out. Thus ended Stalinism, two days before Christmas. Beria’s corpse was taken outside and burned, the ashes scattered in the nameless taiga, where they dissolved into nutrients, feeding birch trees that rattle in the Russian wind like skeletons every December 23.

lavrenty_beria

Leventy Beria

Atom bomb cake

An atom bomb cake? Is this the single weirdest tackiest photo of 1946? Hiroshima and Nagasaki had barely stopped sizzling. The victims were still dying. Sheesh.

Then again, from the perspective of the US military the bombs saved a couple hundred thousand US and several million Japanese lives that would otherwise have been lost in the invasion of Japan. Well, the second bomb saved them. Hiroshima was obliterated for no reason at all because it did not shake the Emperor’s intention to have his entire civilization to go up in a blaze of fire and suicide. That was the plan. The emperor’s subjects certainly had done so thus far. Japanese soldiers had fought to the death and Japanese civilians had committed mass suicide in every action against Americans in 1944-45, and unlike Germany, the resistance and fanaticism increased and not decreased as the US closed in on the homeland. Japanese flyers joined in, dying in mass kamikaze attacks. The last of the Japanese fleet was sunk in a suicide sortie, the world’s biggest battleship going down with nearly all hands, a 70,000 ton kamikaze. Now Japan itself was on the verge of a final act of national nihilism that Hitler, deep in his bunker, could only have dreamed about.

Then we obliterated Nagasaki and the Emperor woke up to reality. Instantly the war was over. Several hundred thousand American soldiers went home and there was a glut of unused coffins, whole warehouses full. In Japan, the cities smouldered and two radiated but the countryside was as untouched by war as America’s. Weird the fortunes of war.

So perhaps this mushroom cloud cake that strikes me as incredibly callous now was really just a tacky sigh of relief. As memories of the prospects of invading Japan faded (along with memories of Japan’s genocidal war crimes) people became increasingly aware of what happened to the poor people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We remember what actually happened instead of what might have happened. Decades living under the threat of world wide nuclear annihilation certainly altered perspectives. But it took us a while to get to this state of consciousness. Indeed, there was a time there in the late 1940’s when people looked on the atomic bomb as some sort of war ending peace assuring wonder weapon. There was even a weird stretch there where people seemed enamoured of mushroom clouds, in cakes, in Vegas, in song. “I’ve been to Nagasaki,” Wanda Jackson sang, “Hiroshima too/What I did to them/I can do to you!”

It’s like the whole damn planet had PTSD after the War. Maybe everyone was nuts. And I wonder if that mushroom cloud cake was chocolate. I’d eat a piece of chocolate atomic bomb cake. Or a piece of chocolate global warming cake or chocolate invariably fatal pandemic cake or any kind of post apocalyptic chocolate cake. It’s not like it’s the end of the world.

If Day

(Written in 2016 and never posted.)

Never heard of this before, a simulated violent Nazi takeover of Winnipeg, Canada on a wintry February day in 1942. If Day, they called it, and no one had to explain what the if meant. The Axis powers were winning the war in February of 1942–indeed, they had yet to peak, that would be later, in the summer–and the notion that the Blitzkrieg could reach far into Canada seemed unlikely, but not impossible. An even though everyone in town knew this was a simulated Nazi conquest, it must have creeped the hell out of them. The Canadian Air Force painted up planes in Nazi colors and markings and buzzed the city, even bombed, and an armored column of Wehrmacht soldiers defeated the local Canadian units and captured them. The city fell quickly, the SS came in shooting, and men in German uniforms patrolled the streets harassing and threatening people. Gestapo agents, fully armed and uniformed (the uniforms and Nazi accessories were borrowed from Hollywood film studios) arrested people, sometimes en masse (they carried off the mayor and city council), or singly off the sidewalk, and posters threatening death for all manner of infringements went up all over town. The radio stations were seized, the CBC broadcast martial Nazi music and Hitler’s speeches all day. The afternoon edition of the Winnipeg paper came out in German. The day culminated in a goose stepping Nazi victory parade. The idea was to spur the sale of victory bonds, and it worked better than the organizers could have imagined, Manitobans purchased $60 million (Canadian) in bonds by the end of the month—about one billion in 2016 American dollars.

Talk about performance art.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/If_Day

Saying Los Angeles

There are, as far as I can tell, two ways of saying Los Angeles in L.A. anymore. The English pronunciation, with a soft G (that is, a J) and ending like an ess (and the stress on the first syllable of Angeles). Los ANjeless. And the Spanish pronunciation, with the aspirated G (sort of like a breathy H in English, or like someone cleaning their eyeglasses) and ending like ess (with the stress, though not as strong as in the English, on the second syllable of Angeles.) But if you watch old movies, the tough black and white film noirs shot on the backstreets of downtown in the 40’s and 50’s, you hear it called Los Angeles, with a hard G, a very hard G in fact, like in angle. It sounds bizarre now, though ironically it’s actually closer to the original Spanish pronunciation than our current Angeles like in angel. And then there’s the ending, Los Angeleez. As in coming into Los Angeles, bringing in a couple of keys. When Arlo Guthrie wrote that, the eze pronunciation was still prevalent enough to make the song rhyme. Now it reads like free verse. I remember when I first moved here back in 1980 we’d still call it Los Angeleez almost like a pet name, kind of coy, kind of cute. But we’d taken to spelling it like that, Los Angeleez, because otherwise people read it as Los Angeles pronounced as it is now. I see that a lot in things I wrote back then that are now tucked away crumbling and wrinkled in a box in my closet. I don’t think anyone under fifty has ever called it Los Angeleez. And then, even weirder to the modern Angeleno ear, is the pronunciation with both the hard G and the eez, though I am not sure when that was used, and if it was a transition from one way of saying Los Angeles to another, or just sat side by side with the hard G with the ess ending. I don’t even know if many people in LA pronounced it that way or not. Not that it mattered, this city filled up so fast with people from all over the country that what they called LA in New York or Texas or New Orleans or Chicago or what was then called Frisco was what a lot of people called it here too. There were far more immigrants in LA than native born Angelenos (so rare, then, they were always marveled at–you were born here?) and as they poured in they probably pulled the pronunciation of the city this way and that. Eventually the hard G pronouncers all died, and the baby boomers probably wouldn’t be caught dead saying Angeles like Angle-less instead of Angel-less. But I’m just guessing here, I really don’t know. You don’t see a lot of things written about it, or even anything written about it, though the change from the hard to the soft G and from eez to ess must be one of the more dramatic changes in pronunciation of a big city name you’ll find in American history. It’s like they are two completely different words. As English evolves, hard G’s just don’t soften into soft G’s, instead they turn into unvoiced H’s, much like the G in the Spanish pronunciation of Los Angeles. So it was not a gradual, natural transition, but was a deliberate change in how to say the name. The parents said Los Angeles with the hard G, their no good kids said it with a soft G. The eez lasted longer and just sort of fell away on its own as long vowels and voiced sibilants (a Z) tend to. That is, eez fades to ess (and then iss, though it’s not Los Anjeliss yet, give it another generation). It’s that sudden seismic consonantal shift from G to J in how we pronounce Los Angeles that is so striking and so forgotten. The old ways of saying things just fade away with the actuarial tables, I guess, and soon no one but old movie buffs has any idea that the name of this city once rang with hard G’s and eez’s.

La Marseillaise

One of these days I’ll get to Paris for Bastille Day. Not too likely this year. The closest I’ll get again will be this clip from Casablanca. It’s the best La Marseillaise I’ve ever seen on film, helped along no doubt by the fervor of the extras who were all refugees from Paris, escaping the Nazis. You can feel the genuine emotion in the explosion of Vive la France! at their anthem’s rousing finish.

You have to admit it’s a helluva song, La Marsellaise, an 18th century march, a popular form of the time, and written by some creaky old brigadier to fire up the hearts of the ragamuffin citizen soldiers being sent out to face the combined armies of all the kings of Europe. It worked, and the citizen armies made quick work of the walking muskets (Napoleon’s term) facing them. War was changed forever, it seemed, with massed drafts of citizens fighting in simpler formations (that needed less drill) and driven more by elan than the automaton discipline. War became vaster, more overwhelming, more dangerous. It took atomic bombs to finally slow it down, and there is no song for dropping atomic bombs, except maybe We’ll Meet Again. But then we’re being ironic, and there was nothing ironic about La Marseillaise. Irony went out with the Ancien Régime. Revolutions are like that.

I think when we Americans hear anything sung in French we think La Vie En Rose. Romantic, sad, wistful. When we actually see the lyrics of Le Marseillaise it’s kind of shocking. We forget it was written in the 1780’s to spur on citizens to take up arms against foreign armies intending to crush their revolution. So when we hear this:

Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L’étendard sanglant est levé, (repeat)
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats?
Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras
Égorger vos fils, vos compagnes!

Aux armes, citoyens,
Formez vos bataillons,
Marchons, marchons!
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!

We still think of Maurice Chevalier loving Paris in the winter when it drizzles. We don’t know it says this:

Arise, children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us tyranny’s
Bloody banner is raised, (repeat)
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They’re coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons, your women!

To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let an impure blood
Soak our fields!

And that is the nice verse. It goes on for half a dozen more.

A little riffing on Le Pen and fascism and French history

The landslide defeat of Le Pen today is historically a big thing for France as Le Pen as it is perhaps the most decisive defeat of that peculiarly French form of the far right has suffered since World War 2. The electorate, presented with the movement’s most presentable package ever, utterly rejected it. Doesn’t mean it is going away. It never has gone away. Yet it was only actually in power once, during the Vichy years, 1940-44. Nowhere was the Nazi conquest easier than in France, where perhaps a third of the populace were pre-disposed to a fascist government already and where the Nazi occupiers found no shortage of talented civil servants to operate the French government and bureaucracy for them. The French took care of collecting victims of the Holocaust for the Germans, the French collected and shipped their own citizens off to work in German factories, the French even had their own Gestapo. It was as if there had been a fascist infrastructure sitting there in France awaiting a fascist takeover. Whether that takeover came from inside or outside (i.e., from Germany) was no matter to the French right. When France’s greatest living military hero, Philippe Petain, who’d saved the French Army from mutiny and collapse in 1917 and eventually led them in victory through Berlin a year later, agreed to lead France under Nazi domination it just signalled how profoundly fascist the nation had become. Perhaps half the county felt it their patriotic duty to follow Petain. Perhaps more. A little know factoid from the war is that most of the French soldiers rescued at Dunkirk as the Blitzkrieg closed in demanded to be returned after the French surrender to France to finish their service in the Vichy army. That Vichy was a fascist puppet state did not bother them. France was now allied with Nazi Germany and Germany was at war with England. Serving in the Free French forces under De Gaulle was seen by many and perhaps most French soldiers in 1940 as being unpatriotic. That changed as Nazi repression grew worse and Nazi demands for French manpower increased and as Nazi armies were defeated on battlefields. But in 1940 it was obvious that fascism had dug deep roots in the French national psyche. No other state the Nazis conquered rolled over as did France. No other subject people collaborated so. Reading the histories of those days is surreal. France had been enemies to the death with Germany in World War One. They died in unbelievable numbers defending France. Not now. The spirit of fascism had transformed the land in the years between the wars. Not everyone was a fascist, of course, but enough were to make it very uncomfortable for those who were not.

Apparently that spirit remains. It just wasn’t quite sure how widespread it is. We now know. About a third of the French electorate has fascist tendencies. Some of that third are powerfully fascist, some just ornery nationalist. Which is about what it was in the 1930’s. Things haven’t fundamentally changed at all. Perhaps the left’s retribution after liberation in 1944 had not been ferocious enough. Perhaps they should have hanged Petain, and shot tens of thousands more. Perhaps they should have thrown a million collaborators in re-education camps. Perhaps there should have been a purge worthy of the darkest days of the French Revolution. But they were a democracy. And democracies don’t do that sort of thing. Besides, that is what Vichy had been doing. They were the ones killing and torturing and exacting brutal revenge on political enemies for four long years. No one wanted to go through that again.

Which might be what doomed Le Pen’s party to defeat. No one wanted to go through life under a far right government again. The French right had power only once, from 1940-44, and only because an anti-democratic foreign regime forced itself upon it. Without Nazi Germany there never would have been a fascist government in France. And now in lieu of Hitler it was Putin trying to put the French hard right in charge. A lot of bad memories came rushing back, you could see it in the French press. A lot of talk about Vichy, and Petain, and how the French Right had once sold out the French people for the sake of its brutal ideology. And then all the talk of an aggressive foreign dictator–Putin–interfering in French domestic politics, again, just like the 1930’s, when German Nazis and French fascists were very close. Not that Le Pen and her platform were anything even close to Naziism, but it sure smelled funny. And familiar. Like those odd smells that suddenly bring back the past in powerful deja vu. It was all too much, and today the French voters kicked the French right to the curb. The threat is over for now.

Not that the French far right’s struggle is over. It is never over. In France the next Revolution is always just around the bend (there have been five Republics since the Revolution, and perhaps twice that many regime changes). You can dream big dreams in France, because politically just about anything seems within the realm of possibility. Le Pen’s party will retreat and reform, as there is always fertile ground in France for this fierce Francophile nationalism (remember how it once conquered Europe), and at the same time elements of the far right might well grow more radical, getting violent and militant and perhaps even paramilitary. None of this is new. It was a powerful far right/fascist coalition that did so much to weaken the French Third Republic as Nazi Germany grew into a mortal threat in the 1930’s. Of course back then the French Far Left, with some elements following orders from Stalin, was the right’s foil, and Left and Right battled in the streets even as both undermined the center. During the Vichy regime those street battles took on a much more vicious nature as the left formed the core of the French Resistance (the Maquis) and the right became the parts of the Gestapo’s police state (the Milice). Now that French hard Left and even its softer Left is pretty much spent (for now, anyway) as a political force, only anti-semitic fascism remains as a mass movement, deeply rooted radical ideology in France. That is what made Le Pen’s campaign so unsettling, that unlike Trump she did not come out of nowhere but was the leader of a generations old political party that represented at least a century and a half of French ideological history. German fascism had shallower roots in 1933, yet swept the country after a couple electoral victories. Were we seeing a repeat of that success in France?

Nope. Liberté, égalité, fraternité, more or less, came though.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-H25217,_Henry_Philippe_Petain_und_Adolf_Hitler

Maréchal Pétain meets Adolf Hitler in October 1940. As low a point as there ever was in French history, it is also the high water mark of the French far right’s political power. You’d be hard pressed to find an entire political movement that ever betrayed its own country in such abject humiliation as did French conservatives after the French surrender in 1940. Not even Lenin turned his entire country over to the Germans in 1918 in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Hitler left the French with no pride whatsoever, and the French Right had no problem with the set up at all. Thus Marine Le Pen licking Putin’s jackboots was nothing new to those aware of the history of French fascism.

The Corpses of the DeWitt Brothers

There’s a meme making the rounds about how the Dutch lynched and ate their prime minister back in 1672 which is, alas, true. It also resulted in what has to be the creepiest Flemish Golden Age painting ever, “The Corpses of the DeWitt Brothers” by, it’s assumed, Jan De Baen, who had painted both DeWitts in life. You can see where steaks had been sliced from the shoulders and thighs, and how they’d been gutted and disemboweled in the process of getting at the liver. For some reason the liver is almost universally the gourmand’s organ of choice for humiliation by eating, whether by warring tribes in the New Guinea mountains or in the streets of Amsterdam in the Age of Rembrandt or by elite Japanese officers selectively devouring their prisoners in the Second World War. Devouring the heart ripped from a living man’s rib cage was certainly more dramatic but much less gastronomic. But that is probably a newer tradition, indeed one meaningless without the concept of a soul, which is what you are eating when you eat a man’s heart. A man’s soul, his spirit, his immortality. But eating a man’s liver requires only knowledge of  what’s edible, indeed delectable, inside freshly killed prey. There is nothing so dehumanizing as reducing a human to a collection of food stuffs. It originated not as an act of humiliation but ordinary hunting. We once ate each other regularly. In times of stress we still might, though we did so more in ages past. It’s a tradition so universal that it might go back hundreds of thousands of years. It might even have a niche deep in our human DNA. Civilization’s aversion to cannibalism has been slowly built up over thousands of years and reinforced with layers of religion and law and tradition and mores. Otherwise we might be eating people the way we eat cattle. Perhaps our overwhelming success as social animals has something to do with the fact that we stopped hunting each other for food. We still hunt and kill other humans, but almost never for meat. Civilization does not work if we eat people regularly. There is not one civilization that did so. Not even when human sacrifice reached vast proportions, like among the Aztec during their holier months, was eating parts of people more than a priestly ritual.

We have such an enforced aversion to cannibalism that we do not even eat our dead, but rather let all those perfectly good steaks and sweetmeats rot away. It makes no sense, protein wise. Some very hungry people will think it makes no sense during times of intense famine when cannibalism crops up, though when discovered the cannibals typically are dispatched summarily, like rabid dogs. Undetected surviving cannibals do not continue eating human flesh once the famine is over. Or usually they don’t. History is full of disturbing exceptions. Perhaps the desire to eat human meat lies deep within us. And there does seem to be a latent desire to eat a person’s liver. It is good for the digestion, a Japanese general explained after eating a freshly slaughtered American pilot’s liver in 1945. It was fresh (the garrison’s surgeon did the cutting), cooked to perfection and served on a bed of rice with vegetables and a fine sake. Apparently there is something special, indeed healthy, about eating a humiliated man’s liver. The transcripts of the war crimes trial–the general’s digestion may have improved, but he hanged for it later–reveal nothing behind his notion that eating a man’s liver was good for the digestion. A bit of folk wisdom, perhaps. Maybe some ancient magic.

In the case of Johan de Witt and his brother Cornelius (both anti-monarchist republicans and supporters of religious tolerance), the two were cold bloodedly murdered one midsummer night by monarchist militia men and their bodies left to the reactionary Calvinist mob in the square. The scene quickly degenerated into an orgiastic mob, but one very orderly and Dutch. The bodies were not ripped to pieces, a not uncommon fate of Byzantine emperors and Roman martyrs (a tradition that nearly caught up with Benito Mussolini in 1945, who was spared the ultimate indignity when soldiers came upon the scene and kept his battered corpse intact ). Rather they were quickly hung up on a nearby gibbet in order to slice them up to get at their livers. From the painting it appears that professionals were called in, the local Calvinist butcher perhaps. It’s not clear how the livers were partaken. Served up fresh and raw and passed among the crowd who took a chomp before passing it along? Or divided into delicate slices and distributed for home cooking? History does not tell. No one else died, though, nothing was burned, and by nightfall the streets were empty and the corpses of the brothers hung, naked and mutilated and ghostly white by the light of the moon. It must have been an irresistible scene to a painter, though you can tell, by the clumsier details–the cat, or those hands a little too large on the man holding the torch–that he hurried to get the image down on canvas, like this was no place for an artist, not with the smell of the mob’s work still fresh in the air, sweet, like rotting meat.

Johan De Witt was an accomplished mathematician, by the way. But there was an anti-intellectual mood in Holland that year, and being a mathematician probably only helped to doom him.

The Corpses of the Brothers De Witt