Always She Will Be Present in My Memory and I Shall Never Cease to Bewail Her

I just do not know what to do about Marie Antoinette.

Yes, I realize that there isn’t, strictly speaking, anything to be done about her at this point – our decision-tree was pruned dramatically when she was guillotined.

But she is one of the most polarizing figures in European history, and she was killed during one of its most morally complicated upheavals; it feels incumbent on even the most casual consumer of history to have an opinion about her.

Still, making a close read of Marie Antoinette’s life wouldn’t have felt like an urgent priority except that one of my favorite writers, Stefan Zweig, wrote a biography of her, Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman.  Despite the title, it’s an essentially sympathetic biography (and let’s not forget that, on the spectrum of things said about Marie Antoinette over the years, ‘average’ is positively kindly) and based largely on her own letters.

It’s always interesting watching a biographer try and force their uncooperative subject into their narrative mold.  I had a similar experience a few years ago reading Antonia Fraser’s biography of Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, which was a long and heroic attempt to make a real dimwit seem like a sophisticated, evolved, and politically subtle monarch (interesting side note: Antonia Fraser, patron saint of lost causes, also wrote a biography of Marie Antoinette).

Likewise, even Zweig’s best efforts can’t hide the fact that Marie Antoinette was a bizarrely spoiled young woman who, for most of her life, spent her limited mental energies entirely on the superficial and, particularly, on herself.  Despite receiving a great deal of very sound, very clear advice from a number of qualified people (not least her mother, the forbidding and formidable Maria Teresa of Austria), she persisted in acting in an extravagantly self-destructive way.

But I don’t always listen to my mother, either, and if Marie Antoinette was sometimes a self-involved mental midget, she was also complicated.  She loved her children, and seems to have had abiding and deep friendships.  At the end of her life, she displayed great bravery and great composure.

She also, at least according to Zweig, had one great and lasting love, Axel Comte de Fersen (and really, who could resist a man with such a name!).  The two of them, the Queen and the Swedish nobleman, loved each other for many years; Fersen even orchestrated the royal family’s attempted escape from the Tuileries.  Fersen never married, writing to his sister, “I cannot belong to the one woman to whom I should like to belong and who loves me, so I will not belong to anyone.”

He was devastated by her execution in 1793, and never really recovered, though he lived for nearly two more decades:

“She for whom I lived, since I have never ceased to love her…she for whom I would have sacrificed everything…she whom I loved so dearly, and for whom I would have given my life a thousand times – is no more.  God, why have you crushed me thus…I do not know how I go on living, I do not know how to support my suffering, which is intense and which nothing can ever efface.  Always she will be present in my memory and I shall never cease to bewail her…The sole object of my interest has ceased to exist; she alone meant everything to me…I care to speak of nothing but her, to recall the happy moments of my life.  Alas, nothing is left of them but memories which, however, I shall preserve so long as my life lasts.”

He died in 1810, beaten to death by an angry mob that believed he had murdered the heir to the throne of Sweden.

The whole story sounds incredible, I know, but, at least in Zweig’s hands, it’s also moving.  I wasn’t prepared to find so many sympathetic coordinates in Marie Antoinette.  Zweig didn’t talk me all the way around to liking her – the image of her and her bullshit peasant hut in Petite Trianon is hard to shake, and impossible to like.

But most of us are some part bullshit, and some part real; maybe Marie Antoinette was, too.  And I’m disconcerted to feel that I dismissed with prejudice someone on whom I should have spent more careful attention; she was a ditz, and so, like a ditz, I ignored her.  More fool I, it appears – if Zweig hasn’t convinced me that Marie Antoinette was “average”, he has at least convinced me I was wrong.

Image, which is a portrait of Marie Antoinette by Martin van Meytens, is from Wikipedia.

A Brief Note in Defense of Georges Cuvier

Jean-Léopold-Nicholas-Frédéric Cuvier, known for reasons that are unclear to me (it is not as though he lacked for names) as Georges, is one of my intellectual heroes.  A French paleontologist when being French was trendy, but before being a paleontologist was, Cuvier is considered the foundational thinker of vertebrate paleontology.

He is also the person responsible for clearly formulating, and perhaps proving, the idea of catastrophic extinction.  Before Cuvier, the idea that animal species went extinct, that they simply ceased to exist, was considered something of a crackpot theory, more the province of poets than of scientists (Lucretius, for example, wrote about something very much like it in ‘On the Nature of Things’, in 50 B.C.).  Even Darwin, who understood that species must die, did not believe that that they went extinct all at once, in single events.

Cuvier saw that they might.  Cuvier saw an astonishing number of things: he discovered a number of species, made a number of correct family and order distinctions, and he saw it all from bones.  He had a remarkable ability to divine what once was from the little that remained.

Cuvier is not so well remembered as Darwin, and when he is remembered, it is usually remarked that he did not believe in evolution; in fact, he derided and punished his colleagues who did.

That is unfortunate and unattractive.  It is one thing to be wrong; it is quite another to be wrong and gloat about it.  More than that, we tend to hold it against intellectuals who did not then immediately see the good sense in evolutionary theory, in much the same way that we conclude that people who now persist in denying it are philistines and morons.

But there was, then, a great deal less accumulated evidence in support of evolution, and I would like to offer one small word in defense of Cuvier: in France, when he was living, the new theory of evolution of the species was called transformisme.

Transformisme is a fairly silly-sounding word, and not merely because it is French.  Evolution sounds like a process with impressive scope; natural selection is a machine whose gears might, over eons, grind out the diversity of life on earth.

Transformisme is a smaller word – it sounds like a journey of self-discovery, like something the ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ woman might have tattooed on her lower back.  When one confronts the expanse of geologic time, and examines the bones of the monsters that populated it, and grasps for a word to grapple with them, one finds transformisme insufficient.

(Interesting datum: Spouse, who is a scientist, when asked his opinion of the word transformisme, immediately sang, “More than meets the eye…”)

I’m kidding and I’m not: Cuvier had a penetrating analytic mind, and I don’t mean to imply that his scientific ideas were informed solely by how important-sounding the words for those ideas were.  There is no denying it: though his batting average was high, he completely whiffed it with evolution.  But there is a reason that scientists give their own projects weighty names: they signal to other people our seriousness, and the seriousness of our work.  Cuvier, who coined the names ‘mammoth’ and ‘mastodon’ and ‘pterodactyl’, understood that, and Darwin certainly did.  Scientists think very hard about what they call their discoveries – they understand that there is an element of marketing in the act of naming.  And transformisme is a right idea that starts off on the wrong foot.

Image taken from Wikipedia.

Please Pope Sylvester, May I Have Another?

There is a theory, advanced by a German historian named Heribert Illig, called the Phantom Time Hypothesis, which postulates that the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, Pope Sylvester II, and, maybe, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII, conspired to manufacture a new dating system that would place their reigns around the (admittedly sexy) year 1000 A.D.  In order to accomplish this, the theory states, they fabricated a few years, specifically all of the years between 613 A.D. and 911 A.D.

That is a lot of years.  In fact, it is 297 years, and it encompassed, among many other things, the lives of Charlemagne, the Venerable Bede, and the Prophet Muhammad, the Viking landing in Greenland, and Charles Martel and the battle of Tours.

The evidence marshalled for the Phantom Time Hypothesis is…weak.  Proponents of the Hypothesis say that there is “a scarcity of archaeological evidence” from the years 614 A.D. to 910 A.D. (there is also a scarcity of archaeological evidence for the specific years between, oh, I don’t know, 50,120 B.C. and 49,823 B.C., for that matter, but no one is disputing their existence).  They also point to discrepancies between the Julian and Gregorian calendars: the Julian calendar’s slight discrepancy against the tropical calendar should have introduced an extra day per century; however, when the Julian and Gregorian calendars were synced in 1582 A.D., there were only ten extra days, instead of thirteen.

However, the question with any temporal sync is, “synced from when?”  At the reconciliation of the Julian and Gregorian calendars, they started the clock at the first Council of Nicaea, in 325 A.D., and not the year 0 – that explains those missing three days.

Nevertheless, I am delighted with the Phantom Time Hypothesis.  The years between 613 A.D. and 911 A.D. maybe didn’t exist – that is wonderful news.

First of all, on a personal and petty note, my spouse has always claimed to be a descendant of Charlemagne.  I have always found this claim dubious, and am delighted that Spouse will no longer be able to lord it over me.

(Although, on a sad note, with the loss of the Carolingian dynasty, we will also lose perhaps my favorite-named monarch, Pepin the Short.)

But the implications of the Phantom Time Hypothesis are so much grander than the theater of my matrimonial feud will allow.  To meddle with the past, that has been the province of the gods only.  And yet this is a power I would like for myself: the power to create or erase time.  And now I find that it is the province not only of the divine, but of man!  At least, of Pope Sylvester.

History is not, to my way of thinking, well-apportioned.  There are times I would reassign.  For example, I have never been partial to the ancient Greeks; I would prefer to give some of their time to the Romans, of whom I am very fond.  I would happily trade several decades of boring Athenian democratic experiment for, say, another bizarre Roman emperor, or maybe just more time spent in 44 B.C.

Or how about the Antebellum United States – I think we can all agree that was suboptimal.  I would donate the years which belong to the Antebellum States to someone more deserving, or more interesting: perhaps to the pre-Columbian South American civilizations.

A plastic history is so much more optimistic than a static one, and, besides, perhaps we ourselves are on the edge of another leap forward in Phantom Time.  We may all wake up tomorrow and discover that we’ve been gifted several hundred free years.  In a Phantom Time universe, everything is negotiable: what happened yesterday, what happened today, and what may happen tomorrow.  Nothing is set in stone; nothing is done which may not be undone, or, indeed, which, in fact, may not have been done at all.  We can always improve ourselves, and in Phantom Time, we may find we already have.

‘King, Look Into Your Heart’

‘Evil’ is a word which, I think, should be applied with care.  I believe that most cruel human actions are the result of ignorance, or cowardice, or illness.  Some, though, are the result of greed, or anger, or selfishness, and those may fairly be called ‘evil’.

The historian Beverly Gage recently published the unredacted version of a famous, evil document.  In 1964, William Sullivan, a deputy of J. Edgar Hoover, then director of the FBI, composed and mailed an anonymous letter to Martin Luther King Jr.

Hoover suspected King of communist sympathies and had been tapping King’s home, office and hotel rooms, and so knew of King’s extramarital affairs.  A tape of one such encounter apparently accompanied the missive.

The letter, which was sent the same year King won the Nobel Peace Prize and which references it, is addressed to KING, explaining that it will not dignify him a ‘Mr.’, ‘Reverend’, or ‘Dr.’ in light of his “abnormal personal behavoir [sic]”.

The letter instructs him, “King, look into your heart.  You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes.”  It calls him “evil, vicious”.  It tells him, “Listen to yourself you filthy, abnormal animal” and threatens him with the exposure of his affairs, warning him that, “You are done.  The American public, the church organizations that have been helping – Protestant [edited for legibility], Catholic and Jews will know you for what you are – an evil, abnormal beast.”

Threatens him, unless, within 34 days, he completes an act unspecified: “King, there is only one thing left for you to do.  You know what it is…there’s only one way out for you.”  King, who apparently didn’t buy the letter for one minute and saw Hoover clearly behind it, thought that the letter was designed to make him kill himself.

This letter is evil along so many axes: the government wire-tapping of political dissidents, the targeting of a non-violent civil rights leader and the attempt to drive him to suicide, the leveraging of a man’s legal sexual appetites against him in the political arena, the patronizing and caricaturish attempt to play on racial loyalty.  This letter is utterly unredeemed by any generous or normal human virtue; there is nothing in this sorry episode that the American government should feel good about.

And this was not so long ago – fifty years.  I was not alive, but my parents were.  We can hardly argue that these are the sins of our remote ancestors, that we are a wholly different nation now.  Dr. Gage, in her great short piece in the New York Times, is absolutely right: when we decide to trust our government, when we try to imagine what baseness we’re capable of today, it is worth remembering what base acts we committed only yesterday.

Image taken from the New York Times article cited above.

‘Notes for Those Going on Leave’

Some documents are worth quoting in their entirety.  From Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943 (and which he, in turn, found in the Central Archive of the Ministry of Defence in Podolsk), a leaflet produced by German soldiers on the Ostfront for the gallows-amusement of their fellow soldiers:

“Notes for Those Going on Leave

You must remember that you are entering a National Socialist country whose living conditions are very different to those which you have become accustomed.  You must be tactful with the inhabitants, adapting to their customs and refrain from the habits which you have come to love so much.

Food: Do not rip up the parquet or other kinds of floor, because potatoes are kept in a different place.

Curfew: If you forget your key, try to open the door with the round-shaped object.  Only in cases of extreme urgency use a grenade.

Defence against Partisans: It is not necessary to ask civilians the password and open fire on receiving an unsatisfactory answer.

Defence against Animals: Dogs with mines attached to them are a special feature of the Soviet Union.  German dogs in the worst cases bite, but they do not explode.  Shooting every dog you see, although recommended in the Soviet Union, might create a bad impression.

Relations with the Civil Population: In Germany just because somebody is wearing women’s clothes does not necessarily mean that she is a partisan.  But in spite of this, they are dangerous for anyone on leave from the front.

General: When on leave back in the Fatherland take care not to talk about the paradise existence in the Soviet Union in case everybody wants to come here and spoil our idyllic comfort.”

The exploding dogs referenced above were a Soviet innovation.  The Red Army soldiers would train a dog to look for their food under vehicles, cars, and tanks.  They would then strap anti-tank mines to the dogs’ backs and send them over to the German lines.  The dogs would go crawling under German cars searching for treats, the bottom of the car would catch the mine, and the mine would explode.

The Germans learned pretty quickly to shoot all dogs on sight, but the idea that any creature that crawled toward their camp might be a bomb terrorized and demoralized the Germans.  Apparently, even the Nazis didn’t enjoy shooting dogs.

Bad Bummer on the Ostfront

“Red Army units also shot their German captives, especially Luftwaffe pilots who had baled out.  There were few opportunities for sending them to the rear, and they did not want them to be saved by the enemy advance.” – Antony Beevor, ‘Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege

Operation Barbarossa launched on June 22nd, 1941; the German army invaded the Soviet Union in a move which surprised no one except the leaders of the Soviet Union.  In the next three weeks, the German army advanced well into the Soviet Union and over 2 million Soviet soldiers were killed.

The Ostfront is a bleak chapter of human history, with atrocities to go around.  And while apologies should never be made for the murder of prisoners of war (at which, if course, the Nazis also excelled), there is something devastating about soldiers so certain of the enemy’s advance that they execute POWs lest they find themselves fighting them again.  Imagine the desperation they must have felt as the German army advanced further and further into their country, closer and closer towards their homes and families.

Have you ever been moderately or seriously injured?  Shot, stabbed, sliced, had a bone badly or visibly broken?  The moment you realize that the boundaries of your body have been breached is a bad one.  There is a sick, sinking feeling, before anything actually hurts, when you see that the world has intruded into you and you understand that you are not OK.

I wonder whether that is at all how it felt to watch the Germans advance into your country.  One’s relationship to one’s country is obviously different, more complicated and less…implicit, than one’s relationship with one’s own body, but they might be equally vulnerable to the sense that something hostile and alien and hard has come driving into a space which was your’s and safe and has hurt it.  Two million Russian soldiers killed in three weeks – which does not include civilian deaths – a rate of killing which must have felt like national hemorrhaging.

One of the challenges in thinking about the Ostfront is finding someone to really root for.  With one genocidal regime pitched against another, it’s hard to feel good about any outcome.  But while some evils are perpetrated by evil individuals, some are perpetrated by sad, misguided, or desperate ones.  While Soviet soldiers certainly committed evil acts, they were being borne down on upon by one of the most frightening forces humans ever unleashed upon one another.  They were angry and they were scared, and we can understand that without apologizing for it.

Quotation at the top is from Antony Beevor’s book Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943.

Hammer of the Witches

Men are ridiculous about their penises.

In 1486, two German priests, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, wrote the Malleus Maleficarum, ‘Hammer of the Witches’.  ‘Hammer of the Witches’ is a useful guide to the identification, trial, and punishment of witches.  It is chock full of interesting tidbits.  For example, did you know that, if a woman fails to burst into tears during her witch trial, then she is definitely a witch?  Although, I will say, in half-hearted defense of the ludicrous and evil practice of witch trials, what sort of person wouldn’t be in tears at their own terrifying and arbitrary trial for witchcraft?

Another interesting fact to be gleaned from the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’: witches steal penises.  Yes, they would allegedly steal the penises from human men that they knew, and store them (the stolen penises) in boxes (or bird nests) and feed them (again, the penises) oats, and maybe return them, if the men capitulated to their demands.

I feel as though they really could have nipped this whole pernicious witch hunt business in the bud if they had only employed a little empirical skepticism here:

Witness: She’s a witch!

Judge: How do you know?

Witness: She stole my penis!

Judge: How did she steal it?

Witness: With witchcraft.

Judge: Wait, what?  What does that mean? What’s left?

Witness: …Uh, a nub.

Judge: May I see?

Witness: …No…

Judge: Why not?

Witness: …[Silence]…

Judge: Sir, do you still have a penis?

Witness: …No…

Judge: Case dismissed.

One cannot help but wonder how often penis-theft was actually alleged.  It is hard to imagine, if men in 1486 were anything like men now, that a large number of medieval men were delighted to have their communities thinking that they no longer had penises.  It is also hard to imagine that there was an epidemic of medieval penises actually falling off, unless I am dramatically underestimating the incidence and severity of medieval crotch rot (which is possible).

But whatever the prevalence of penis-shedding in the Middle Ages, one thing is certain: not one missing penis was stolen by witches.

Witch-hunting is obviously not recommended by the author, but anyone interested in further information should check out the source material itself, the Malleus Maleficarum.

Featured image is ‘Aquelarre’, [Witches Sabbath] by Francisco Goya (1798).

The Inca Prince in the Cusco Cathedral

The cathedral in Cusco in properly called the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin.  It is on the Plaza de Armas in Cusco, in Southern Peru.

Cusco Cathedral

The Cusco Cathedral is built on the foundation of an Inca palace, Viracocha.  Spanish Catholics began work on the cathedral in 1559, but didn’t complete it for nearly 100 years.

There is a legend that, when they were building the Cusco Cathedral, the Spanish bricked an Inca prince alive into one of the towers.  He lives still, trapped within the masonry, waiting for the tower to fall to ruin.  When it does, he will emerge, liberate his people, and reunite the Inca lands under his rule.

In 1950, Cusco experienced an earthquake.  Thousands of locals are said to have crowded into the Plaza de Armas to watch the tower fall and the prince’s return.  The tower sustained damage, but is still standing.

I find that my thoughts keep returning to that Inca prince, locked in with only his faith that the Spanish empire would not outlast the cathedral masonry.  With his faith that his people’s memory was more enduring than stone.  Peru is no longer under Spanish rule, but it little resembles the world he remembers.  I wonder whether he missed his chance.  I wonder whether he knows it, whether he was trapped, helpless, behind stonework that held him while the world moved on.  Did he watch?  Did he see the Spanish recede, and was he relieved until he realized that they left a language and a religion behind them?  Is he waiting for those artifacts to recede as well?  Is he still waiting at all?  I wonder what he’s waiting for.


St. Anthony’s Fire

Claviceps purpurea is a gnarly purple fungus that grows on grain, specifically on wet grain.  It looks like nothing so much as worms clinging to stalks of wheat.


If that grain is ground into bread and consumed, the bread causes ergot poisoning.

Ergot poisoning (or ergotism) has been known, if not understood, at least since the time of Lucretius, the first century B.C.  There are two different forms of ergotism: convulsivus and gangraenosis.

Both forms of ergotism present with diarrhea, vomiting, mental impairment, and hallucinations.  This is why sufferers of ergotism have historically been thought mad, or possessed.  Ergotismus convulsivus is additionally characterized by profound visual, sensory, and mental disturbances, and contractions in the muscles of the hands or limbs, and paraplegia.

Patients with gangraenosis ergotismus suffer from lack of blood flow to the limbs, which often break out into blisters.  The limbs become gangrenous, and either autoamputate or become septic.  Hence the convent record which describes “a great plague of swollen blisters [that] consumed the people with a loathsome rot so their limbs were loosened and fell off before death.”

In 1090, when his son fell ill from ergotism, a French nobleman promised, before the tomb of St. Anthony, that if his son recovered, he would give his fortune to the church.  St. Anthony, Anthony the Great or Anthony of the Desert, was an Egyptian hermit who lived in the third century A.D.  He is often prayed to against skin diseases (perhaps not the most appetizing of saintly vocations).



‘The Temptation of St. Anthony’, Hieronymus Bosch, 1500-1525

When his son was well, that nobleman founded the Order of St. Anthony, monks who devoted themselves to caring for the victims of ergot poisoning.  Over time, because of their efforts, ergotism became known as St. Anthony’s Fire.

Isaac Newton, His Eye, and His Bodkin


Adventures in Physics!

bodkin (noun):

1. a) a dagger or stiletto

   b) a sharp, slender instrument for making holes in cloth

   c) an ornamental hairpin shaped like a stiletto

2. a blunt needle with a large eye for drawing tape or ribbon through a loop or hem

Bodkin from Museum of London

This is a bodkin.

(from The Museum of London)

Picture 4165

This is also a bodkin.

(from The Imperial War Museums)

The reason I mention bodkins is that I learned this week that Sir Isaac Newton, considered by many to have been an intelligent man, spent some time in the 1660s sticking one into his eye.  On purpose.

Newton was famously interested in optics and the nature of light.  However, he was also interested in the visual stimulus, and the physiological processes by which objective reality is perceived by us.

So, to address this question, Sir Isaac Newton thought it would be sensible to start poking himself in the eye with a large needle.  We know this because, like any good scientist, Isaac Newton left detailed experimental notebooks.  He even included helpful illustrations.

Bodkin in Eye

From the Cambridge University Library

And therein, perhaps, lies the difference between the dedicated scientist and the layperson.  It would take a great deal of persuasion to get a normal person to poke themselves in the eye with a needle – Isaac Newton did it because he hoped he might learn something about color.

And did he?  Well, sort of.  He learned that, when you poke yourself in the eye, you disrupt your vision.  When he stuck the bodkin between his eyeball and his eye socket, “as neare to backside of my eye as I could”, then he saw spots.  Those spots were clearest “when I continued to rub my eye [with the] point of bodkine”.

That’s science, baby!

I first heard about Isaac Newton poking himself in the eye for science in The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World, by Edward Dolnick, a book completely worth picking up if you have any interest in the history of science.