I am reading Bertram Wolfe's Three Who Made a Revolution; I read a few pages in college for a report I had to do as a sophomore. My dad always insists that it's the single best book on the Russian Revolution, and I think he's right. I'll see if I can't put a few quotes up in the weeks to come.
I am also watching, on DVD, Shoah, which is simply astonishing -- I remember it played in Philly down by the Delaware at the Ritz when I was an undergraduate on four or five consecutive nights, and a good friend of mine went for every night and would turn up at breakfast haunted the next day. I understand why.
In the Pursuit of the Millennium, Norman Cohn tells of the flagellants, a medieval movement that required of followers
a grim torture which people inflicted upon themselves in the hope of inducing a punishing God to put away his rod, to forgive them their sins, to spare them the greater chastisements which would otherwise be theirs in this life and the next.
The popularity of the flagellants was particularly high during the Black Death; it is notable as well that these pious torturers of their own flesh were particularly fond of torturing that of the Jews as well. We can look at their madness from a safe remove and laugh at them for scourging their flesh when soap and water would have been more effective, but consider this item:
INDIANA Jones star HARRISON FORD has had his chest waxed in an ad to protest against global deforestation.
Ford grimaces in pain and admits “that hurts” in the 30-second clip.
The actor, 65, said: “Every bit of rainforest that gets ripped out over there hurts us over here.”
Ford — whose Kingdom of the Crystal Skull film opens today — shot the clip for Conservation International.
Boss Peter Seligmann said: “I didn’t have to talk him into anything.”
Harrison Ford is a man of not inconsiderable means. He could hire a Washington lobbyist to press for preservation of the rain forest, or buy hundreds of acres of it himself to conserve, but instead prefers to grimace in pain as his chest is waxed (and by the way, what a wuss -- the flagellants actually flogged themselves).
...which is good news for women everywhere, too:
After his wife of more than two decades filed for divorce in Montgomery County Circuit Court, Irfan Aleem responded in writing in 2003, and not just in court.
Aleem went to the Pakistani Embassy in the District, where he executed a written document that asserted he was divorcing Farah Aleem. He performed "talaq," exercising a provision of Islamic religious and Pakistani secular law that allows husbands to divorce their wives by declaring "I divorce thee" three times. In Muslim countries, men have used talaq to leave their wives for centuries.
But they can't use it in Maryland, the state's highest court decided this week.
"But they can't use it in Maryland" might just be one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language...
The Lovecraft quote below got me to thinking about what I like about Lovecraft. Like Poe, he was steeped in the scientific ideas of his time; like Poe, he teased from enlightened ideas the darkness of nightmares. Lovecraft maintained a gothic atmosphere, but substituted for the supernatural effects of lesser writers or the psychological terrors invoked by Poe something I'd call natural horror -- the horror of endless time and space, of successive races of monsters dominating the earth (some hailing from distant stars), of humans whose place at the top of the food chain is a temporary accident, one that will soon be remedied when the monsters return.
I am more optimistic than Lovecraft's tales (we certainly shouldn't assume he believed his fictions), but at the same time I can't help thinking that nature is a wheel that turns. The sudden onset of another ice age, a comet collision, a super volcano, and we might be extinct, while primordial life will go on, perhaps producing a species of Cthulhus. We flatter ourselves by thinking that if only we could go and sin no more -- control our urges for sex or, more recently, SUVs -- we could propitiate the gods and control the mighty forces that are eternal and timeless and as utterly ignorant and indifferent to us as we are of the millions of germs that hover about us and on us and in us every day. A turn of the wheel, a diminution of the sun's light or a volcanic eruption spewing ash into the sky, and a thousand years of darkness might follow. And if we were to perish, what creatures might emerge in our place?
But we are a wondrous creature. The western variant in particular: we preserve and study the cultures of others, we investigate and conserve all manner of creatures, we reject the stultifying orthodoxies of a thousand faiths for the far more revealing texts of nature. Consider the platypus, whose genome has just been decoded:
"We're going to be using the platypus genome for the next 50 years," said Ewan Birney of the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, England, which was involved in the analysis.
"The platypus gives us a perspective that is deep in time, that tells us what was going on 170 million years ago, when all these traits were being developed," Birney said. "Every time there's a difference in the DNA between human and dog, or human and some other mammal, and you want to know which one changed more recently, you need these outgroup species to be able to answer that."
Turned to this on the Metro on the way home:
As I surveyed this quaint apartment, I felt an increase in that aversion first excited by the bleak exterior of the house. Just what it was that I feared or loathed, I could by no means define; but something in the whole atmosphere seemed redolent of unhallowed age, of unpleasant crudeness, and of secrets which should be forgotten. I felt disinclined to sit down, and wandered about examining the various articles which I had noticed. The first object of my curiosity was a book of medium size lying upon the table and presenting such an antediluvian aspect that I marvelled at beholding it outside a museum or library. It was bound in leather with metal fittings, and was in an excellent state of preservation; being altogether an unusual sort of volume to encounter in an abode so lowly. When I opened it to the title page my wonder grew even greater, for it proved to be nothing less rare than Pigafetta's account of the Congo region, written in Latin from the notes of the sailor Lopex and printed at Frankfurt in 1598. I had often heard of this work, with its curious illustrations by the brothers De Bry, hence for a moment forgot my uneasiness in my desire to turn the pages before me. The engravings were indeed interesting, drawn wholly from imagination and careless descriptions, and represented negroes with white skins and Caucasian features; nor would I soon have closed the book had not an exceedingly trivial circumstance upset my tired nerves and revived my sensation of disquiet. What annoyed me was merely the persistent way in which the volume tended to fall open of itself at Plate XII, which represented in gruesome detail a butcher's shop of the cannibal Anziques. I experienced some shame at my susceptibility to so slight a thing, but the drawing nevertheless disturbed me, especially in connection with some adjacent passages descriptive of Anzique gastronomy.