Month: October 2014

On Taste vs. Money – a Baron H Reflection

Our resident vampire guest poster is back – giving us more of his view of the world following his thoughts on humor from a couple of months ago.

Hawaiian zombie

Greetings faithful readers,

As cold weather and low skies make the northern hemisphere a gloomier place, I’d like to take this opportunity to inform you that I am in Hawaii at the moment.  This isn’t, by any means a choice I would have made on my own.  I like cold, dark, gloom.  Ideal lighting for a midafternoon abduction and dismembering of a used car salesman.

Hawaii, on the other hand has little to recommend it.  After a few hundred years, even the wittiest of undead humor grows thin (“My last meal disagreed with me.  So I ate him.  Har Har.” Aaargh!).

And yet, here I am, trying to avoid direct sunlight in a place where the sun seems to be permanently smiling on beautiful tanned bodies.  Not a place where the undead walk joyfully.  And the humidity is just hell on zombies – they get moldier and riper.  As you can imagine, I am here by invitation of the Big Island’s royal ghosts.  I’m currently sitting deep inside a natural cave formed by a lava floe, and my wireless access is patchy (what does it say about the world when you can actually get internet acces in a CAVE?).

Being here has, once more, gotten me thinking about the relationship between money and taste – mainly because I’m surrounded by tourists who were able to afford the price of admission, so presumably have at least some disposable income.

Most people hear the word taste and equate it with money.  Good taste seems to be something that everyman is not allowed to have.  Now, while I will be the first to admit that it is in short supply, and would like nothing better than to say that yes, it is the exclusive domain of those who are well-to-do, I simply can’t do so with a good conscience (and before the moralists out there point it out, yes, I am a multiple mass murderer.  But it doesn’t affect my conscience, since they are only humans.  Lying about this or anything else, however, would be beneath me).

Now, while I’ve often been accused of being a snob about money, the truth is that I’m a snob about taste.  I would much rather spend my time with the ghost of a penniless maid who’s spent the intervening years haunting a library than even the most aristocratic vampire whose idea of elegance is a pimped Cadillac Escalade.  Hell, I’d rather spend time with the creature from the black lagoon than this particular aristocrat.  Earthy as the monster is, it is at least honest and unpretentious.

To those with even a modicum of taste, the above will seem obvious, a waste of a few hundred words.  But those of us who are here at the Aikanaka Reunion and Bloodbath, there is a single self-evident truth, a new first law of everything, if you will.  One that, when broken, will cause gods of the underworld to cry:  Zombies.  Flowered shirts.  NO.

I have seen things here that no undead was ever meant to see.

Regards,

H

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Tarzan of the Apes – Revisited as a Reader

Tarzan of the Apes book cover

Over the past ten or twenty years – and earlier, many novels that had been considered unarguable classics have suffered the indignity of revisionism.  Perhaps the clearest example of this is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is an obvious target for this behavior, because it is one of (if not THE) greatest pieces of prose ever written, but treads in places and attitudes that not even the bravest twenty-first century writer would approach, for fear of being crucified by special interest groups.

It is a work that, despite the efforts of well-meaning but intellectually misguided revisionists can only be truly analyzed and understood within the context of a) its time and b) human nature itself.

Edgar Rice Burroughs

Another book that, despite not being quite in the same literary league, generates a similar response, is Tarzan of the Apes – one of Edgar Rice Burroughs three supremely successful fantasy milieus (the others being Barsoom and the Earth’s Core).  Though enormously influential in popular culture, the novel itself is seeing a backlash due to its supposedly problematical treatment of non-whites and women.

Now, it’s clear that a book written in 1912 will contain many attitudes that will leave modern readers scratching their heads, but that is part of what makes reading classics a worthwhile.

It’s hard for people to imagine just how much of modern society was created out of whole cloth and necessity in the years of WWI.  Everything from women’s expanded role in industry to the breakdown of class barriers got a huge boost by the harsh realities of a Europe that lost an enormous percentage of its young men to the conflict.  Reading books from the era immediately before it helps understand both what was gained and what was lost.

Tarzan falls into most of the traps the revisionists dislike, but, at the same time, it is truly an unflinching – if somewhat fantastic – view of what the wilderness would have been like, and is therefore valuable to modern readers.  To the revisionists, this is of no moment: they feel that anything which expresses certain attitudes needs to be suppressed – or at least not encouraged.  The prevailing attitude seems to be: watch the Disney version if you must, but avoid the novel.

And yet…

And yet, the novel, despite being a little bloodier and a little less pink-lensed than what a modern equivalent would be, is still FUN.  The archaic attitudes don’t really distract in the least from the adventure story unless you really, really make an effort to be offended.  The good guys and the bad guys are clearly defined, and one can immediately tell what is right and what is wrong.

So this is one that we at Classically Educated recommend with no qualms whatsoever.  Our readers – cosmopolitan, open-minded and educated – will be able to accept the anachronisms and enjoy what, 100 years later, is still a cracking good book.  If you haven’t already, get your hands on a copy!

As for the revisionists, perhaps we can just all agree to take the classics in the spirit in which they were written and be offended at something else*?  Please?

*We propose being offended at the discriminatory practice of painting all bulldozers yellow.  Surely that is sinister and hides a racist message of some sort that most people haven’t yet been able decipher.  Also, it is an important thing that people care deeply about – we’re not just trying to get you to go away.  Honest.

Empire State of Artistic Mind

New York City Skyline

So, our Editor-In-Chief has just returned from a trip to New York… it was pretty obvious that he was going to write stuff for the page.  His first delivery is a slightly elitist take not only on art museums, but specifically on which art museums.  A phrase about leopards and spots comes to mind.

When I got back from my recent New York vacation, a friend who’s never been to the Big Apple asked me: “Other than just walking around the city, what is there to do in New York?”

Talk about a loaded question.

In the first place, “just walking around the city” should be more than enough for essentially anyone.  This is a city that, if you avoid the tourist traps such as Times Square, or the Statue of Liberty cruise, is extremely rewarding.  Culture, be it art, literature, history or any other expression is there to be found, often even if you are a brain-dead tourist who tries to avoid it.  Any house on Museum Mile is likely to be an art gallery – even if it doesn’t really advertise the fact.  The Strand is an amazing experience, and if you happen to land in Times Square by mistake, the theater overflows onto the street.

But my first instinct when answering was: the art museums.  There’s MoMA and the Met, of course, but also countless others.  The Whitney, The Frick and the Neue Galirie spring to mind immediately… but there are still others.

But what if we had to pick just one?  And what if, hypothetically, you had to pick it according to Classically Educated’s Manifesto, so you could write an article about it?

Even more loaded than the last one!

But we’ll give it a shot.  And we’ll make it a top five list, just because people on the internet like top five lists.

Gustav Klimt Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer

5. Despite the fact that Gustav Klimt is well represented – by the famous, stolen-and-recovered-and-sued-for-and-recovered-again portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer, and that the gallery is located almost perfectly, the Neue Galerie is still a bit limited in scope.  Cool, but very small, only good enough for fifth place on our list, just edging out the Morgan Library museum, and the unexpected collection at Kykuit and well ahead of the Brooklyn Museum.

Whitney Museum New Building

4.  The Whitney.  4th place might be a bit unfair to this icon of American art, as, had I waited until 2015, I could have spoken about the museum in its new building at the southern tip of High Line Park.  But as it wasn’t yet done at the time of writing, we’ll acknowledge the quirkiness of the special exhibits here (Kusama being a particular favorite) with 4th place.

Edgar Degas Ballerina at the Met

3. The Met.  Wow, I can hear the cultured from all over the world complaining already.  How can the Met be third?  Well, it is.  It’s an amazing museum, built on the scale and philosophy of the Louvre in Paris, with the added benefit of an impressive Impressionist collection, which the Louvre doesn’t really have. But… apart from not having that inexplicable Pyramid entry, the Met has a bit too much mass appeal to get any further than third on our list.  Which just goes to show how good the art museums in New York truly are.

Frick Collection Interior

2.  The Frick Collection.  While the collection itself is small, and not particularly impactful compared to the others on this list, the Frick deserves its place among our favorites for various reasons.  The first is that the house it is located in is perfect gilded-age elegance, uncompromising in the sense that money exists to be enjoyed, without guilt and to the fullest extent.  It is a beautiful place.  The art is good, too, with Whistler, Goya and Velázquez on the walls.  It can’t be first, but it is the one that makes us point and say: that is how it should be done.

The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh

1. MoMA.  OK, so once the Met was out, this one was always going to win, but still requires some explanation.  Classically Educated is supposed to be all about the classics, after all – and the collection here is late 19th century at its oldest point.  But the thing is, if you go off to look for a polymath with gently elitist tendencies, it’s more likely that you’ll find him hanging around in this museum than any of the others on the list.  So, something about this museum makes it a haven for our target audience.  What?  Well, for one thing, it’s eclectic – you need to be able to appreciate painting and photography and graphic design and industrial design to truly enjoy this one.  For another, you need to be grounded sufficiently in art theory to have an appreciation of the conversation that is constantly going on regarding the definition and limits of art.  These two characteristics make it our kind of art museum – but what truly seals its position is the fact that there it is: Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, hanging on its own wall.  When you have the best impressionist painting, you have an insurmountable advantage.

Disagree?  Of course you do.  That’s what the comments section is for…  Also, liking us on Facebook means you won’t miss any posts!

The Greek Campaign

Italian Fiat Tank Captured By Greek Forces

Today we have another amazing excerpt from Stacy Danielle Stephens’ Historical novel about WWII.  If you like what you see here please remember that Stacy’s Bismarck series is also available here, as are many other parts of her novel!

To a great extent, Poland is a vast flat expanse, an immense village square set between the Carpathian Mountains to the south and the Baltic Sea to the north. Something like an enormous marketplace separating Germany from the Ukraine and Western Russia. In the event of a German attack, which had been unimaginable in the summer of 1929, and seemed unavoidable by the summer of 1939, the only terrain features that might have leant any assistance to the Polish Army were two rivers, the Bug, flowing westward south of East Prussia, and the Vistula, flowing east from southern Poland, then north through central Poland to Danzig and the Baltic Sea. It has been argued that had the Polish Army made a stand behind these two rivers, the German Blitzkrieg may well have failed.

That the war began promptly on September First was not serendipity. The autumn rains begin in mid-October, and as the end of summer approaches, rivers throughout Europe are low in their beds and running slow. It is not until the end of August that a large mechanized army can be sure of crossing Polish rivers rapidly enough to strike quickly, and by the third week of October, Germany’s armoured and motorized infantry units would be immobilized by the mud, and helpless against Poland’s elite cavalry units.[1] There was, therefore, a six week time frame within which an invasion of Poland had its greatest chance of success.

* * *

Invariably, Benito Mussolini and his career are summed up in two pairs of words. Castor oil and train schedules. He established his reputation as a forceful leader by compelling incompetent government bureaucrats (as well as his political opponents) to drink castor oil. And he secured his popularity in Italy when he got railroad passenger service throughout the country consistently running on time. This he accomplished with nothing more than pencils and notebooks. Officials rode the trains, noting how long it took to go from one city to another, how long it took the passengers to get on and off the train, how long it took to load and unload their baggage, how much time was necessary for proper maintenance. New schedules were written by simple clerks armed with nothing more than this pertinent information, and then the trains ran on time. There was no overhaul of the existing rail network, and no new trains were designed or built. There was almost no money spent, and not one engineer, conductor or ticket agent drank castor oil.

Sadly, Mussolini himself learned nothing from this, his most successful undertaking during more than twenty years as Prime Minister, and which was also almost certainly his only effort grounded in reality.

The Italian invasion of Greece began on October 28th, when the mountains and valleys were awash with the autumn rains, and the rivers brimming with rapid flows. Because of the weather, Italy’s air force could not fly tactical combat support, and neither artillery nor trucks could move. At five-thirty in the morning[2], eight divisions of the Italian army went forward in three columns, with Metsovon, Ioannina and Arta as their operational objectives. This would place Epirus (the westernmost province of the Greek mainland) under Italian control.

The war plans, as drawn up by the Italian General Staff, called for reinforcements arriving from Italy, once Epirus was secure, to subsequently drive east to the Aegean Coast, splitting Greece and thus allowing it to be conquered gradually. However, General Prasca, assuming that a spectacular show of force, in conjunction with the virtually unopposed arial bombardment of Greek cities, would demoralize the population and prompt their government to surrender, had no specific plans to carry out the later phases of the invasion.[3]

No other army in Europe had greater bravery or cheaper rifles than the Italians, and no other army in history ever fought so well so often while being led so badly and equipped so poorly.

* * *

Italians fighting in Greece received their first Operational Directive two weeks after the invasion began. It had been written by General Soddu, who had been put in charge of the Greek campaign when General Prasca was relieved of command.

Greek Soldier WW2

The Greek plan of defense was as pragmatic as it was brilliant, and as effective as it was simple. They launched a large number of small counterattacks as the Italians advanced through narrow valleys between steep mountains. A handful of Greeks, with a few well-concealed artillery pieces and a limited number of shells, would inflict heavy casualties on the lumbering mass of surprised Italians. Greek infantry would descend upon them, inflicting more casualties and inciting panic. The Greeks then commandeered such materiel as they could carry and destroyed much of what they could not carry. Those Italians who counter-attacked in the treacherous fog and hazardous terrain took heavy losses.[4] In terms of equipment and resources, in numbers devoid of emotion, the Greek tactics were effective enough, but the impact on Italian morale dwarfed the more concrete effects.

Centauro Division Insignia

On the morning of November 5th, the Italian Centauro Armoured Division spearheaded what would prove to be Italy’s final attack to take place on Greek soil[5]. The tanks leading the operation fell victim to concealed tank traps. Tanks attempting to maneuver around these obstacles discovered minefields, where many of them were destroyed. Artillery fire forced the remaining tanks to attempt a withdrawal through marshes, where most of them sank. The majority of armour crewman who had survived to that point were killed by machine gun and rifle fire. Cavalry units attempting to cover the retreat suffered equally horrendous losses, and that night, Greek infantry taking up the positions abandoned by the shattered Italians were unnerved by the sight of men, interspersed among dead horses and abandoned equipment along the roadsides, who appeared to be sleeping. Anticipating minimal resistance from the Greeks, Italian High Command had not made any arrangements for evacuation of the wounded. However severe their injuries, these soldiers had resigned themselves to their duty, composed themselves, then accepted death, alone and far from home, for the glory of Rome.[6]

On November 22nd, in what could be considered the first victorious Allied attack to take place on the European mainland during the Second World War, the Greeks captured Koritsa, which is now generally known as Korce.[7]

By December Fourth, the Greeks had captured Pogradec, in Albania, and the obvious finally became apparent even to General Soddu, who issued a directive instructing his men to withdraw meter by meter, even though the only Italian units that had not already withdrawn from Greece were those finally arriving from Italy, or those that had been routed too suddenly to retreat.

Not having expected so great a degree of success, the Greeks were not prepared to press it further. They were also reaching the limits of their own supply lines, which had been tenuous from the start. Without trucks or paved roads to drive them on, and hampered by a shortage of mules, whenever the Greeks were unable to capture what they needed from the Italians, they often depended upon a network of women and children.

* * *

One weeps when one imagines an army supplied by children, and one’s sobs become wrenching when one considers to what end these Greek children were supporting their brothers, uncles and fathers. It is always appropriate to give the fullest measure of devotion to protect one’s home, family, and community. However horrible the circumstances, it is always pleasant and proper to die in defense of one’s country, even if it is a de jure crime to speak another language in that country, or a de facto crime to practice another religion. It is holy to stand in the gap and fight for the freedom of another country, another nation, another people. But had the Greeks driven the Italians from Albania, it is inconceivable that Ioannis Metaxas would have done anything more than replace the Italian street signs with Greek ones.

[1] Although Poland’s cavalry did not perform as well against the Germans as it had against the Soviets twenty years earlier, Polish cavalry consistently avoided the encirclement which was an essential facet of the German scheme of warfare.

[2] Emanuele Grazzi, Italy’s ambassador to Greece, had been instructed to inform Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas at 3:00 AM that unless his government immediately acceded to Italy’s demands–which, in effect, amounted to an annexation of Greece–a state of war would exist between the two nations as of 6:00 AM. Metaxas personally received this message from Grazzi at 4:00 AM.

[3] Reynolds Packard, UPI bureau chief in Rome at the time, later contended that the Italian Foriegn Mininster, Count Ciano, had paid bribes to a number of Greek officials in a failed attempt to secure the prompt surrender of Greece. While Packard’s contention is plausible in itself and fully consistent with events, there is neither concrete nor definitive evidence which validates it.

[4] Four years later, many of these same Italians, fighting as partisans against the German forces occupying Italy, would use the same technique.

[5] Italy’s advances into western Greece in 1941 were merely seizures of positions abandoned by the Greeks in response to German successes in Northern and Central Greece.

[6] After the war, General Charalambos Katsimitros, commander of the Greek Eighth Infantry Division, which was responsible for the majority of Italian casualties during the first few weeks of fighting, insisted that cowardice was virtually non-existent among the enlisted men of the Italian Army.

[7] In spite of the city’s population being more than ninety percent ethnic Albanian, the Greeks believed that they were liberating a Greek city. Most historians, wishing to avoid an obvious tinderbox, downplay the significance of this particular battle.

Ox-Bow and Modern Sensibilities

The Ox-Bow Incident Movie Poster

I once had a professor at school who, when teaching The Merchant of Venice, told us that it’s nearly impossible to mess up a trial scene.  Shakespeare, of course, didn’t mess it up, but the fact that it’s not an impossibility is clear when watching the movie The Ox-Bow Incident, which is the next in our series of films from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

This movie fails on many levels, but mostly because it goes for tired trope of the revisionist gut-punch: take a scene from a time that is different (generally far in the past, although more recent in this film), show the human suffering that was caused by how life was back then, and use that to create an emotional reaction from modern audiences used to more gentle times.

So, we essentially have a Western, in which a bunch of innocent men are put on trial by a posse, and eventually lynched.  At the end the posse members learn that they were innocent, and are remorseful.  How sad.

Audiences in the day (1943) lapped it up, of course.  Audiences today will probably lap it up.  The reason is that they never stop to think about context, so if something is unacceptable in 1943 (or 2014), it was also wrong when it happened.  So they are ripe for the spoon-feeding of emotions which leads them to a sense of moral outrage at what they see.

The Ox-Bow Incident Hanging Scene

No one will argue that a witch hunt or a posse is the best way to get justice.  We know it isn’t.  But the truth is that the reaction of most of this posse’s contemporaries would have been a shrug and something along the lines of “well, that’s life, I guess*”.

Sadly, the tendency of audiences (and everyone else) to judge earlier times by modern standards is growing as opposed to diminishing.  Most people, instead of using the amazing amount of information available at the click of a button to try to understand context, simply ignore the fact that things are now different and judge with modern values**.  I suppose it’s easier for the lazy hordes and useful for the people who like to use them to further their own agendas, so it won’t be going away any time soon.

In general, I deeply enjoy most of the movies on this list but this is one of the few movies on the 1001 movies list which is so bad in this respect that it could have been filmed today.

*The correct phrase, “Shit happens” had yet to be invented back then.

**Don’t believe me?  Have a look at the latest flap among the Fantasy writers crowd.  Idiotic revisionism at its best – and now with more thought-police involvement!

Toilet Paper: An American Love Story

Well, we DID say it would be eclectic…  you can’t accuse us of not having warned you!–Ed.*

Upon visiting the US, a foreign visitor is immediately struck by how all things that can make life more comfortable or pleasant are immediately available, from glazed donuts to those pillows you need so that your head doesn’t flop around when trying to sleep on airplane seats.

It is quite clear that Americans enjoy being comfortable – decadently so, if possible.

The visitor will note this and nod in approval.  It is a good thing to have one’s creature comforts looked after.  In fact, it would be good to take it back to his own country.  He takes notes.  He understands why America is an important world power, and why immigrants, both legal and of the humid dorsal variety flock to it’s shores.  He understands all this while purchasing an electric griddle.

Sadly, as soon as he decides to go to the bathroom – possibly from eating all those glazed donuts – he realizes that it’s all a facade, and takes the first available flight back to civilization.

“Why?” one asks.

It’s quite simple.  The one basic creature comfort that isn’t readily available in the US is the bidet…  and as most readers of this blog will be aware, civilized life simply isn’t possible when that particular implement is lacking.

But why is is so rare on those shores?

Well, one theory is that, since it was invented by the French (originally used by French royalty in fact), it was rejected by the British, which, as we recall were influential in America in the early 1700s.  This would mark one of the few instances in which the British Empire was unable to adopt and improve upon a foreign custom, and seems a bit of a flimsy excuse.  After all, a culture that adopted tea as the national drink despite its not growing within a thousand miles of its shores seems not to be the best candidate for not-invented-here syndrome.

So, perhaps it’s a technical thing.  Perhaps scraping with toilet paper is better than washing?

Er… read the above line again.  If you are unable to spot the problem, then you are quite blessed: from now on, you can save a fortune on water by never showering again in your life; all you have to do is to give yourself a good rub with toilet paper once a day, and you’re good to go.  Clearly, that isn’t it either.

So what could cause a culture that has warmly embraced everything from Ikea furniture to the idea that fish is better raw to shy away from something that could make everyone’s life better?

One guesses that it has to be sex.

Even today, upon viewing the Wikipedia entry for bidet, one is immediately struck by the article’s statement that the bidet’s primary function is to cleanse genitalia.

Hmm.  Now why would houses with perfectly good showers need an extra apparatus to cleanse genitalia?  I think we may have spotted a myth here. The truth is, bidets are mainly used for the same thing that the toilet roll beside a toilet is used for in the US: to sanitize after going to the bathroom.  The only difference is that water is better for the purpose, as well as being much more pleasant.

The wikipedia article, however, is just the continuation of a long-held myth: that the bidet exists exclusively for couples to clean up before / after sex, and is therefore somehow kinky or perverted.  It’s gotten so bad that people just don’t question it any more.

So, essentially, the most important industrialized country is doomed to scrapes and discomfort for no reason other than prudishness dating back to the 17th century.

Interesting world we live in, isn’t it?

*And we could have illustrated this article…  and now we wonder how far one has to go before WordPress just tosses us out?