". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Vikings - Season 3 - History Channel - If Any, Only Minor SPOILERS

The History Channel's original scripted, long-form drama, Vikings, has four more episodes before season 3 closes.  It was recently announced there is going to be a season 4. Thus the series is a significant success, since there was no idea at season 1 there would be another one, much less at least two more seasons. Vikings was my favorite television watching from its first episode all the way through the end of season 2. But the intensity of my involvement in third season has been muted in comparison to the past ones, so much less that my assessment has been through these first 6 episodes has been, "wait and see."

The reasons for being less involved with the episodes this season aren't so easy to winkle out. There have been some fine scenes in each episode, but no story-line or relationship possessed the kind of tension that hooked season 2's viewers as when all around Ragnar his people were allying with King Horik to betray him. This was revealed to be one of Ragnar's cunning long plays, which was laid as an entirely plausible trap of King Horik. The conclusion contained one of the most beautifully choreographed scenes of judgment and execution sickening violence in the history of television.

These final scenes came after episode 7, "Blood Eagle" that held us breathless through the  the punishment-execution of Jarl Borg, who also had betrayed Ragnar. Even more, Ragnar emotes a flawless soliloquy to his dead daughter Gyda, one of the victims of the plague in Kattegat while he was away in Wessex. Interwoven in these arcs are the arrival a pregnant Aslaug, among the consequences of which are, wife en titre, Lagertha, divorced Ragnar and left Kattegat, returning just in time as an earl in her own right with fighting men to help out his next invasion-- and much more, as well as new characters, such as King Ecbert of Wessex, who are interesting in their own right. We never faltered from our full investment in these characters and their fates (with the exception of the fully historically preposterous character, Mercian princess Kwenthrith, an unbalanced nympho who acts out in public).

But not this year.

King Ecbert relaxing without his crown in order to better hangout with the two who have caught his attention in a net of curiosity as curiosities,  Athelstan the former monk who is now a viking warrior and Ragnar's favorite counselor, and Lagertha, who is a farmer, an earl, a warrior and divorced wife, who killed another unsatisfactory husband -- also very beautiful and intelligent.
Part of the problem is the core group is divided. The female characters we know best, Aslaug, now Ragnar's wife, and dropping sons seemingly every year, are left in Kattegat with the characterless children. Everyone else goes to Wessex, including warrior-farmer Lagertha and her want-to-be imitator, the former slave girl -- who manages the seemingly impossible of being less interesting as a free woman than as a slave -- , now carrying Ragnar's oldest son's child, and a passel of farmers. There's a lot of negotiation in various languages about the land promised Ragnar's farmers by King Ecbert. Christian Saxons are appalled by the eating habits of pagan vikings, while Princess Kwenthrith acts equally appallingly to the eyes of pagans. She gets way too much screen time in the first episodes -- and worse, the Nords can't have any of the land until they kill all her -- and King Ecbert's -- enemies.

The most interesting thing that happens is King Ecbert is fascinated by Lagertha, who takes it all in canny, sensible stride.  Ecbert is as intrigued by her as he is with Athelstan, another one who keeps Ragnar's back.

Siggy, who has proven herself in o so many ways a most valuable asset to Ragnar's family and kingdom even though she was the former ruler's wife.
While back in Kattegat, despite Siggy's best efforts Aslaug is having an attack of petulance, makes bad choices -- or god-driven choices or is bewitched by a charlatan under the guise of an avatar of Odin -- which have very bad consequences. Further than that one cannot go, without spoilers.

Aslaug and one of her many sons.
The problem is viewers aren't invested emotionally in Aslaug, partly because her character has played her spoiled upper class card so often -- and she took splendid Lagertha's place -- so Aslaug's welfare matters little to us, beyond their effect upon Ragnar and the other characters for whom we do care. She pops out sons, unlike Lagertha whose loss of her final pregnancy seems to have made her infertile. Yet these sons, who are in the sagas very important, are without personality, unlike Bjorn and Gyda as Lagertha and Ragnar's children in the first season.

Floki, even more antic this season, melding into -- unbalanced?

So far, in these first 6 of the 10 episodes, season three's predominate theme has been to dramatize what it is for people, whether Christian or pagan, who inhabit a time in which the gods are real to everyone. Even the title of this last episode

Athelstan, once a monk, then a slave and farmer, then a warrior and a viking, crucifiction victim and counselor to kings
underscores this theme: "Born Again." This season has gone to great pains to show the depths of intolerance possessed by people holding different religions, and how quickly and effectively this intolerance can be harnessed by the power elite and even others for objectives and goals that have nothing ultimately to do with religion. But when the intolerance is harnessed for the purposes of authentic religious convictions, it's even worse. Yet, this fact of religious intolerance employed for power and conquest,

Another god's man, the Seer of Kattegat
or genuine belief played upon by charlatans (see: for perhaps a charlatan's exploitation episodes 2 and 3, "The Wanderer" and Warrior's Fate) hasn't managed engaged our imaginations in the way court and hall political intrigues have done.

With three very big deaths in this season already, things are such a mess for Ragnar in both Kattegat and Wessex that I'm as impatient as he is to go on a vacation to war in Frankia. Next week -- "Paris".  The season is beginning to shake out now, finally, maybe.

Friday, March 27, 2015


IN the Guardian, by Kathryn Hughes: how can a news cruiser resist the following --
During Henry VIII’s reign, codpieces became so large that it was impossible for men to bend over to pull on their shoes.
The sentence was provoked by a survey of Fashioning the Body
a collection of scholarly essays written to accompany an exhibition of the same name in Paris in 2013 and that will be mounted again at the Bard Center, New York from next week. 

So many terrible events crashing one-upon-another this week. The beginning was my own building escaping burning down thanks to stupid tenants and building owner (prevented only by the quick work of my across-the-hall neighbor and myself calling the fire department -- yet owner still thinks making it possible for drunk young males to play with fire is an excellent thing). Yesterday afternoon four East Village buildings just like this one were destroyed in a terrible conflagration, thanks to people's greed squeezing more and more profit out of buildings that aren't equipped to handle that much gas, while refusing to hire qualified plumbers and electricians -- not to mention the constant pounding the infrastructure of buildings, pipes and lines receive from constant renovation for wealthy people and high-rise building where there shouldn't be.

The consequence of the East Village catastrophe include evacuation all around the area, hundreds of homeless, two people missing, 19 in the hospital, four with critical injuries.

At the same time, the Germanwings tragedy-crime -- and our city at least is observing cancer week, and all the media is booming non-stop the most terrible stories of people dying of the most terrible things and how it all would be prevented and / or cured if we had a decent health care system and people could afford medical care and drugs. Our foods,even organic ones, are filled with cancer-causing pesticides and our wine is filled with arsenic.

These things have rather jangled my nerves this week -- plus, el V is where communications can happen only infrequently and for very short bursts. 90 miles off the U.S. coast and we can't skype, make phone calls, and hardly can e-mail, there's so little bandwidth in Cuba, thanks to we know whom.

So this light-hearted look at our historical fashion and style preposterousities has been welcome -- the paragraph's last sentence is particularly delightful.

No sooner had codpieces reached their most gargantuan proportions than they were at risk of bursting under their own pretentions. Not for nothing did Montaigne call them silly and even worse, a kind of “falsehood and imposture”. Yet just 250 years later – a mere blink compared with the millennia it takes to produce a permanent swerve in the body’s skeleton – they were back in fashion. In the Regency period, skintight trousers for men were teamed with narrow coats (rather than Henrician puffed shoulders and barrel chests) to create a long, lean line broken by a wide buttoned flap that puckered and pouched much like an impromptu codpiece. The effect was to draw attention to the phallus while nonchalantly pretending that it was the last thing on your mind.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

What To Do With Dragons

I was finally able to pick up The Widow's House, fourth volume in Daniel Abraham's Dagger and Coin series..

I've read the prior volumes, and quite liked the first two. The third one though, was fairly generic in ways the first two were not.  However, The Widow's House is back to form and I stayed up later than I should have for two nights in a row, reading it to the end -- because I could not guess how it would end, which is not the case for this reader with most fiction at this point.

As Widow's House contains a dragon that held some promise of being an interesting character,  I got to thinking about dragons in fiction.  Actually, the most interesting thing Inys the dragon does is get drunk. That may be a first?  I can't recall whether any of the dragons in the books of the alternate history/fantasy Tremaire series ever got drunk.

Writers like to have dragons, but few of them seem to know what to do with them when they get them. Among those who seem to understand their dragons are the

writers Katharine Kerr, whose Deverry dragons are essentially cats (which works very well), or McCaffrey's, in the first Pern novel, who are medieval heavy

cavalry chargers with super firepower. Another exception is McAvoy's Mayland

Long, the black dragon of Tea With the Black Dragon (1983) -- "black dragon" signifies my favorite oolong tea -- is a shape shifter. So, as a wise Mandarin, he possesses human-kind personality and physical characteristics. And Novak

 knows how to create an Enlightenment - Age of Revolution philosophe with Tremaire.  Others of her dragons also had differentiated characters and voices.*

However, Hobb's dragons seem nothing more than slabs of mountain in one series and, unintentionally on the part of the writer, never made any sense. Another couple of her series made dragons be everything from rotting toxic poisonous swimming serpents to mad things that made no sense. These dragons' real function is to become woods out of which are constructed ships, that communicate with the special persons. Then there was another series, which I confess I couldn't read which seemed to try to unify the mountain dragons of a Fitz series's world with the world of the Shippers. In that one the dragons' function was to give a very special young female a save the world mission.

Got's dragons' function -- so far, only expected function -- is to be WMD -- which so far at least can't seem to be imagined actually taking place in the narrative either. Wait! one of them burned up a bad guy once who spoke contemptible insults about Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of Meereen, Queen of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons in a language he mistakenly thought incomprehensible to the Mother of Dragons Who Is Always Threatening / Promising Something-or-Other Will Be Done to Something-o- Someone-or-Other. Or did that only happen on-screen and not on the page at all?  It's all so long ago who remembers?

The exceptions to this would be the afore-mentioned Novak dragons,  Kerr's, and now, Abraham's Inys, the world's last dragon, has personality / character. Still, for all his size, Inys inhabits only few pages of The Widow's House. He's referred to much more than he's on-stage, er, on page.

Which again seems that with dragons, when one has them, it's difficult to give them actions of active significance, beyond deus ex machina, or, as in Hobb, McGuffin roles. This seems so for Got's dragons. ** 

Well, in fact Abraham's Inys is instrumental to a significant action: as he falls to the weapons of the enemy, the inhabitants of the city that has never been successfully sieged other than by insiders opening the gates -- OPEN THE GATES to save the dragon that was thought to be saving them -- AND THE CITY FALLS TO THE ENEMY.  Horribly.

There is the Ch'in dragon in Carey's Namaah spin offs from the Phedré - Terre d'Ange series, featuring Moirin, whose voice is exactly like Phedré's, and whose

vagina is equally magical. In the second volume, Naamah's Kiss, Moirin goes to Ch'in and rescues Snow Tiger-- a celestial princess imprisoned by her uncontrollable dragon powers and appetites. Moirin saves and liberates Snow Tiger via her afore-mentioned divine vagina.** It also employed the Westerner-goes-to-Asia-and-saves-the kingdom trope.

Maybe the best dragon is still Smaug from The Hobbit, though he too was onstage for a relatively short period?  But he had a character and agency up the wazoo, and he sure did something. And when he fell, the story of what he wrought wasn't magically concluded.  He was onstage as long as he needed to be.


*   I haven't read the volumes released since Tremaire and Captain William Laurence went to Africa -- I've been so immersed in one way and another for the last few years with the Age of Revolution and Napoleón history and slavery)

** This seems equally so for dire wolves. Everyone talks endlessly about dragons and dire wolves, but they do very little, and in fact entire books go by and they don't even appear

* * *  Please take note: I am neither criticizing the divinity of the vaginas of either Phedré or Moirin, nor the author for giving them these vaginas.

Their vaginas have as much right to possess magical power as do the bodies of the super-powered, super-attenuated male characters in every genre from mysteries (for example, James Lee Burke's Robicheaux and Clete, or Child's Jack Reacher) to sf/f, in which these aging Warrior - Heroes are still taking and giving punches and kicks more powerful than a mule's and getting up immediately, or at least recovering after a day or two in the hospital with no further problems until they again do something stupid.

No matter how old they are crowds of gorgeous lascivious and smart women throw themselves at these old, beat-up guys who continue to exhibit truly bad judgment and make terrible life choices. Additionally, their wives and lovers keep getting killed because of these guys' bad choices, even as they white-knight service even more gorgeous and / or deserving females.

So why shouldn't a Fantasy Female God-blessed heroine be the most beautiful and attractive woman in the intelligently and lovingly imagined author's world, the foundations of which are built on a spiritual belief in the worship of love and beauty, that these qualities are indeed divine? Carey's women live fully within their milieu of theology, philosophy and history that are inclusive, not exclusive (though of course the less special Special Terre d'Ange's take it for granted they are superior to all other peoples, which surely annoys the Others), so within this world building they are entirely plausible extra-special saviors.

As a reader, my real objections are the primary characters' non-differentiated voices, vocabulary and cadences. "Blessed Elihu" and "love as thou wilt" seem invoked in every gdded paragraph; by the fourth volume what had been fresh about the voice and invocations had crossed over into annoying and even snort-provoking. One was so tempted to do the drinking game with the endless repetitions, but -- you know? probably Phedré would agree and say, "as thou wilt, what makes you happy."  :)

Friday, March 20, 2015

First Day of Spring Lift-Off -- Havana

After a week of frantic preparation, with winter's return further complicating the stress and sturm, the plane did lift off,  despite weather and the fact that for reasons JFK has currently shut down all its runways except one,  All flights need to expect at least a 4 hour delay.  But they left so early -- a 4 AM rising! -- they managed only a half hour delay.

Snow, rain, are currently providing further delays.  So I was glad to re-wake to a text from Him, saying they were boarded and about to taxi.

The Prado, on a facsimile of which during Prohibition's last year, some scenes of Boardwalk Empire's final season are set.
I won't hear from el V, probably until tomorrow, due to the continuing difficulties and expense of communications between there and here.  We haven't been out of touvh with each other for this long since the last time I didn't go to Cuba with him, which was in 2000.  Not even while in Africa -- we can skype from Africa . . . .

Thursday, March 19, 2015

American Name of the Day

Thanks to Samuel Clemens / Mark Twain, and his Innocents Abroad, this on goes into the collection of favorite American names:

Bloodgood Haviland Cutter, an actual person, from a well-known 19th century family on Long Island.

He was a wealthy, go-getting sort of fellow, who was an obsessive rhymer, at length, into the bargain. This trait was not admired by Mr. Clemens.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

History - Sheep Guard Dogs

One morning I woke with the realization that I didn't know when in human culture we began training herding sheepdogs.

So far I've learned that it is far more ancient that I'd have assumed -- if, that is, if I'd ever thought about it previously.  I have other things to do but I can dig a little in the time cracks.

This is what I learned last week:
Through the Middle Ages in Europe guardian dogs have been used to guard livestock, such as sheep and goats.  The evolution of the herding sheepdogs breeds we know today correlates with the elimination of the wolf and increased land enclosure for production of food and fodder crops.
Instead of allowing sheep and goats to roam wherever pasture could be found with Livestock Guardian Dogs protecting them from predators such as wolves, bears and other predators, shepherds increasingly selected dogs that would instinctively herd flocks of sheep together.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Last Evening

Not quite dark, sky a blue velvet curtain against which the lights of One World Trade Tower and the planes banking out of LaGuardia were bright and sharp.

Ahead of me on the sidewalk are five young African Americans, only one of whom is female, talking animatedly with each other -- not on phones -- and entirely blocking my way, as I'm heading home and walking much faster.

Unlike the vast majority of the hordes who come down here, who clearly are not of the neighborhood, these younglings had spatial sense -- and pay attention to their surroundings.  They notice I'm behind them and blocked, and smile, apologize and move to make way for me.

Now I'm ahead of them I can hear what they're talking about.  They're talking about 9/11.  The young woman says, "I kept hearing the towers, the towers but I had no idea what the towers were.  Just something awful happened."  One of the young men says something about the school he was in when it happened and the little kids in his class who were Muslims and how scared they were.  She returns, thoughtfully, "I've never understood who the guys were who did that.  Osoma Bin Laden -- was he really a Muslim?  Was he an Arab?  Because when I got old enough to understand anything there were all these crazy people on tv talking about our president is a Muslim and an Arab and an African, and I'm going, "What?"

By then I'd arrived to the door of my building.  In the course of putting down my bags and getting out my keys, the group caught up with me.  On impulse I addressed them, "I apologize, I don't want to be rude, and I wasn't trying to eavesdrop, but are you all from out of town?"

They stopped, and all of them responded, "Yes!  We're from L.A.  This is our first time here.  We're on spring break and trying to visit places that have to do with the history of our life."

They were on their way to Memorial and Ground Zero site.  One of the guys -- I learned his name was Zach -- exclaimed, "I've seen this block, this street, that sight (pointing at the One World Center Center, its lights sparkling, its spire bright red tonight, like and art object designed out of the school of gigantism.

Exchanging names, hesitantly, Dominique asks, "Were you here then?"

So we talked for nearly forty minutes, out there on the sidewalk as night fell on NYC, about that day, what 9/11 meant for NYC, what it meant for el V and I, personally.  And what it had all meant to them.  That was a lot of why they were on this trip.  Young as they were on that day -- one of them in pre-school -- they sensed the world had changed forever, and they wanted to know how and why.

Then Katrina was in the conversational mix.  All of them had relatives who lived through Katrina.  They'd been to New Orleans often.

They said how glad and lucky there were to have met me, as they went down to the Ground Zero Memorial site.

I was so glad and lucky to have met them.  These are the young people who are going to fix some of the greatest messes the earth has ever experienced since she evolved homo saps.  They were just splendid in every way.

But there was more to why they were so impressive, beyond their excellent manners and courtesy, their sense of being comfortable in their own skins and with each other, their obvious intelligence and their articulate language.

But, it wasn't until waking up this AM I understood why I felt such confidence in them.  Not once during this whole experience with them, which was about an hour, did I see or hear a phone among the 5 of them.

They surely have those phones.  But they were entirely involved all this time in the material world, the world they see, hear and touch, and not the virtual world.

That is what makes them special.  How many people their age (and alas, so many more of us too, who are much, much older) who forego the virtual world of their devices for that long?