Rereading China: A History

Rereading John Keay’s China: A History which is even more mind blowing—I suppose illuminating is the bigger word for it, but same thing—than when I read it a decade ago. It’s longish, half a thousand pages and some—but almost breezily written, full of vivid details from the astonishingly complete record that Chinese written history has left us, going back almost continuously for three thousand years. I’ve never read Tolkien but I suspect that the feeling of being immersed in an alternative world packed with drama and personalities and vivid detail in a continuous narrative is the same, without the vast gaps that plague so many parts of the world where people never got around to writing anything down (as Dark Age Europe, say, or India, where they invented the science of language among so many other extraordinary things but never really got round to history.) In any case it’s the Tang Empire now halfway through the book, when China was unparalleled by anybody anywhere, a sophistication at the time (about 650 A.D. by our watches) that is almost impossible for a westerner to understand. Such is the advantage of an arc of civilization unbroken by the conquest or immersion or annihilation that befalls most civilizations, a status that lasted in China for thousands of years. And in China they wrote everything down going way, way back and in a language and writing system that didn’t become indecipherable. You don’t forget how to do things when you’ve written everything down and even if you do forget after a lapse of a couple centuries—these things can happen in the best of civilizations—you can look it up again. Technologies were not forgotten the way so much was forgotten after the Roman or Persian or Khmer or Incan empires fell (among many myriad examples.) The downside of this continuation, though, is that eventually you get hung up in your own traditions, hidebound and crotchety and unwilling to try anything new. That’s still coming up in the book, though, centuries after the Mongols invaded and killed 20 million people and wrecked everything. I’m a hundred pages and half a millennium away from that mess. Happier times ahead for now. Then collapse, reemergence, virtual annihilation, reemergence, collapse again, another invasion….eventually we get to the latest Revolution (there is a long history of such revolutions in China, nothing there is never really new) and the latest emergence. The US will probably be long gone in a thousand years, but China in some stage of its interminable gyres will still be China.

Anyway, gotta run, this new Tang emperor is getting down.

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Gettysburg Address

As 19th century oratory, the Gettysburg Address was a failure. Lincoln himself said so as the weak and scattered applause subsided. But when printed on the front page of papers all across the North, it was a gem. Perfect. Poetic. Memorized and recited by everyone from politicians to preachers to schoolchildren to soldiers. It still is.

Lincoln read scores, perhaps even hundreds, of telegrams everyday. Indeed, his campaign in 1860 was the first American presidential campaign essentially run by wire, and the Civil War he found himself leading was the first war run by telegrams too. Lincoln composed wires all day long that were sent to military and administrative and political leaders across the span of the continent. A telegram’s prose, compared with handwritten letters, was spare and urgent, the rhythms terse and staccato, the words in the dozens, a couple hundred at most. Points were made succinctly, a series of quick images and at their best they squeezed ten thousand words into a hundred. Lincoln experimented with these new composition ideas as the presidential train rolled towards Gettysburg, you can see it in the drafts. He’s trying to say as much as possible in as little as possible. When he took the podium it was a couple months after the battle, the smell of death still emanating from the thousands of graves. Four score and seven years ago, he began, ending it 272 words later with shall not perish from the earth. It was short, to the point, and disappointing to most of those in attendance. Stem winding speeches were an afternoon’s entertainment in that era. But to those who were not in the audience and would read and not hear his words, Lincoln had changed American literature forever. Maybe no one realized it then. But in England the kids memorized Shakespeare, but here they memorized the Gettysburg Address.

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.