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On December 7th, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. One of the teenage medical volunteers who assisted the many wounded American servicemen that day (and on days after) was Daniel Inouye, the son of Japanese immigrants who had moved to Hawaii looking for a better life. As soon as Japanese-Americans were allowed to enlist, Inouye suspended his pre-medical studies and joined the U.S. Army where he was assigned to the Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
In 1944, Inouye fought in the Rome-Arno Campaign and then in the Vosges Mountains of France, where the 442ndwas given what amounted to a suicide mission: rescuing the Lost Battalion (a battalion of the 141st Infantry Regiment which was ambushed and surrounded by vastly superior force of German veterans). During that fight, Inouye was shot directly in the chest, but the bullet was stopped by two silver dollars which he had in his shirt pocket. The Nisei 442nd suffered over 800 casualties on that day (and, in fact, went on to become the most decorated unit in Army history). Inouye was given a bronze star and promoted to second lieutenant–which was most meaningful to him because the commission meant he got to carry a Thompson submachine gun into battle.
On April 21, 1945, Lieutenant Inouye was back in Italy storming a German fortification on the Gothic Line (the last line of German defenses in Italy). During a flanking maneuver, at a heavily armed ridge named Colle Musatello, his platoon was pinned down between 3 machine gun nests. As Inouye attacked the first nest, he was shot in the stomach. His wound did not prevent him from throwing grenades into the first gun placement and then rushing in to finish off the German soldiers with his machine gun. Refusing treatment, Inouye attacked the second machine gun nest in the same fashion and successfully destroyed it.
As the other men of his squadron attacked the third machine-gun placement, Inouye silently crawled within ten yards of the position and primed a grenade to throw into the bunker. Unfortunately he was spotted by a German soldier who shot a rifle grenade through Inouye’s right elbow. This meant that Inouye was clutching the live explosive in a hand over which he had no control as the German reloaded to finish him off. Inouye’s astonished soldiers report that the lieutenant ordered them back, then pried the grenade from his own dead arm, and cast it off-hand into the final bunker. After the bunker exploded, Inouye then mopped up with his Tommy gun and charged the main line. Shot in the leg he tumbled to the bottom of the ridge and blacked out. When he came to, the concerned men of his platoon were all around him, but he ordered them back to position with the exhortation that “nobody called off the war!”
During the action at Colle Musatello, Inouye reputedly killed 25 Germans (and wounded 8 more) while being shot in the abdomen & the leg and despite having his right arm mostly shot off (the shattered remains were amputated at a field hospital without proper anesthesia ). While he was convalescing from these wounds, Daniel Inouye met other many other badly wounded men including future Senators Philip Hart and Bob Dole (who became a lifelong friend).
Inouye remained in the army until 1947 and he was honorably discharged with the rank of captain. For his actions he was awarded many different awards including the Distinguished Service Cross, which was later upgraded to the Congressional Medal of Honor. Although his ruined arm meant that his ambitions of becoming a surgeon were ended, he studied political science at Honolulu and then earned a law degree with honors from George Washington University Law School in Washington. Daniel Inouye was the first Hawaiian congressman when the state joined the Union in 1959 and he was elected to the US Senate in 1962. He is now the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. A long-standing tradition is that the most senior member of the majority party serves as president pro tempore of the US Senate, so Inouye, a democrat, is third in line for the US Presidency (after Biden and Boehner). If some appalling disaster brought him to the office, he would no doubt hunt down the malefactors and destroy them utterly (possibly with his own bare hand).
In this era, the political parties of the United States of America are bitterly divided. Whatever happens in today’s election is unlikely to change the long stalemate or foster friendship across the aisle. Things have sometimes been like this in the past—as when Democratic-Republicans locked horns with Federalists or when Whigs fought acrimoniously with the Jacksonian Democratic Party—yet I feel that is dangerous and shameful to have our leaders so deeply divided. There have been happier and more productive times too. Today Daniel Inouye is a bizarre and ancient political dinosaur, but he rhapsodizes about warm friendships with colleagues of all political stripes.
I would like to congratulate the victors in today’s election and wish them every success in their honored positions of leadership. The United States is in need of their finest effort and hardest work. However, I would also like to draw their attention to Daniel Inouye in order to remind them of America’s shared tradition of sacrifice, compromise, and friendship (& badass heroism).
Here’s another strange painting from contemporary master of surrealism, Mark Ryden. The subject is the “tree of life” a subject which comes up in religion, philosophy, science, and art. A tree of life from Greek myth even found its way onto this blog several Octobers ago. In Ryden’s interpretation, a princess with a bouquet and a baby sits suspended in a sentient tree. Hidden among the boughs are the seven platonic solids. Beneath her a bear and a monarch symbolize some unknown dualism.Somehow this painting combines Crivelli’s creepy diagram-like realism with half of the topics from Ferrebeekeeper. Seriously there are hymenopterans, crowns, trees, mammals, a snake, and garden flowers (not to mention all of the colorsfrom a master’s palate). The only things missing are a Chinese spaceship and an underworld god (and even the latter is hinted at by the death’s head and the tree’s occult eye).
As always I am moved by Ryden’s realism and by his eerie milieu, but I am at a loss as to the cohesive meaning. Perhaps there isn’t one and the piece is meant to convey atmospheric mystery and sacredness of a renowned tree which does not actually exist anymore than does platonic perfection.
This blog has pursued all things gothic, as the open-ended concept has wound its way through history, the arts, literature, and other forms of culture. There is, however, a major creative genre which we have entirely overlooked—that of cinema. The melodramatic spookiness of the 19th century Gothic revival movement was born in architecture and literature, but it was the media of film which cemented the whole concept of horror as a fundamental distinctive genre. In the modern world, gothic horror (with all of its familiar trappings) is virtually synonymous with film. This characteristic milieu of ruffled clothing, vampires, ghosts, sconces, and eerie castles goes all the way back to the first horror film–which was made very early indeed, in France in 1896.
Le Manoir du Diable (“The Manor of the Devil”) was meant as a pantomime farce, but most of the familiar elements of gothic cinema appear in the three minute production. It was released on Christmas Eve of 1896 at the Theatre Robert Houdin (which was on the Boulevard des Italiens in Paris). Since the piece is well over a century old, any copyright has long expired and it is part of the public domain. So, without further ado, here it is:
Using the most sophisticated special effects of the day, the filmmakers present a sorcerous devil popping in and out of reality. The fiend creates goblins, bats, and specters out of thin air and thereby bedevils a pair of foppish noblemen who have wandered (or been summoned?) into the haunted castle. Fortunately, one of the noblemen has the presence of mind to seize a handy crucifix and banish the fiend.
Although the film’s staging—and overarching moral lesson–owe something to opera, the rapid protean transfigurations were a completely novel feature. Admittedly the special effects have not aged well, but I think you will enjoy Le Manoir du Diable, the first gothic film.
The most fell of undead warriors was the mighty draugr from Scandinavian epics (the singular is “draugr” and the plural is “draugar”). Draugar were the reanimated corpses of warriors, chieftains, and other people of great strength. Unlike many other undead beings, draugar remained in possession of human intelligence, emotions, and memory–albeit horribly distorted and corrupted by the grave. Simultaneously fascinated and enraged by the living world, draugar lusted for treasure and hungered for flesh–but they did so in perverse and alien ways. The draugr will seem familiar to anyone who has read fantasy literature: Tolkien based wholesale swaths of his universe on Scandinavian and Germanic (and Anglo Saxon) epics. Subsequent books, films, and games are filled with lichs, deathknights, wights, and wraiths which ultimately descend from the original medieval sources.
In Scandinavian epic literature, the various undead beings manifest in slightly different ways but they share common powers such as the ability to shapeshift into monstrous animals, to turn into smoke, to see dark parts of the future, and to greatly increase in size, heaviness, and strength. Draugar seem to delight in causing suffering to the world of the living. They are able to curse lesser animals to death and they cause fear, despair, and madness to larger creatures (and, indeed, to humans). Sometimes they would eat or otherwise ravage living things. They are connected with winter darkness. Most tales concerning the monsters take place at Yuletide, Christmas, or the winter solstice when Scandinavian nights lasted almost an entire 24 hours. Disturbingly, some draugar were said to be able to enter the dreams of their victims.
Grettir’s Saga, which recounts the tragic life of Iceland’s greatest outlaw, contains two draugar, Kar the Old and Glam. The saga gives us limited background concerning Kar, a dead Norwegian nobleman who came back to life to guard his lands and his barrow filled with treasure. A minor character describes the situation thus, “On the headland stands a grave mound. In it was laid Kar the old…after Kar died he returned from the dead and started walking, so much so that in the end he drove away all those farmers who owned lands here.” When Grettir breaks into the mound he finds a huge cold warrior sitting dead upon a throne with treasure at his feet and horse skeletons scattered around him. As Grettir begins to remove the treasure, a cold & inhumanly powerful hand grabs his foot and the fight begins in earnest. When Grettir finally triumphs, he despoils Kar’s hoard (which includes the fiersome sax that Grettir always wore thereafter).
We learn even more about the second draugr in the epic. While working as a shepherd, Glam, a giant surly Swedish slave was killed in a battle with an unknown monster on Christmas Eve. Glam’s body is described as “Black as Hel and swollen as fat as a bull.” Ominously the corpse had become so heavy as to be immoveable–so the locals built a cairn over it without moving the body. After this mysterious death, Glam returned every winter to haunt the farm. The draugr is described riding the roof of the longhouse as though it was a steed, damaging the walls by driving his feet into them. More ominously, Glam killed the sheep, the workmen, and eventually molested the farmer’s daughter to death (she seems to have been his favorite target). After dispatching several lesser heroes, Glam inevitably fights with Grettir. In the moral and emotional climax of the epic, Grettir outwrestles the horrible corpse but is transfixed by Glam’s otherworldly dead eyes. In this moment of truth, the draugr lays a curse of doom upon Grettir saying,
“I will not take from you the strength you have already acquired. But it is in my power to decide you will never become stronger than you are now—yet you are strong enough as many will find out. You have become famous because of your accomplishments, but from now on you will fall into outlawry and killings. Most of what you do will now turn against you, bringing bad luck and no joy. You will be made an outlaw, forced always to live in the wilds and to live alone. And further I lay this curse upon you: these eyes will always be within your sight, and you will find it difficult to be alone. This will drag you to your death.”
Today in Iceland there is still a word for this curse “Glẚmsskyggn”—Glam’s sight –which is to walk always alone and unhappy with dead eyes staring at you.
There were different ways that heroes or ordinary folk could deal with draugar. Although not explicitly stated, the draugar always avoid Christian churches and sanctified things. Observing the proper burial practices was also helpful. When circumstances permitted, dead bodies were carried out of houses and into tombs through doors which were then built over or bricked in (since the walking dead had to return through the same doors they originally used).
The real way to cope with this problem however was Grettir’s way—by means of physical violence. To defeat a draugr, a hero had to wrestle it into submission through sheer physical strength and then cut off its head (which was then placed on top of the corpse’s backside). The corpse could then be burned into ash and thrown into the sea.
As the heroic age passed from Scandinavia, draugar changed somewhat and became more associated with drowned sailors than with barrow dwelling Vikings. Then even these undead sailors began to fade away. Occasionally in modern Iceland, Norway, and Denmark there are wild reports of strange walking dead (which come from wholly unreliable sources) but the monsters have largely faded from legend. Even in the movies, draugar are scarce. The undead Nazis of the Norwegian horror film “Dead Snow” behave like draugar–which is a problem for the human protagonists who have been raised on American zombie films and don’t know how to fight traditional Norse undead. However it is in computer games and fantasy books where the draugar from epic tradition have the greatest following today. The internet and online games are filled with accursed giants in dark armor with corpse-blue skin and glowing eyes. These guys are always mumbling runic curses, piling up digital treasure, or harassing virtual villagers. More than any other undead, draugar have seamlessly made the jump to the digital world: in fact they have done a better job transitioning to the web than many living people and contemporary industries. Glam’s eyes still shine brightly through the halls of countless internet dungeons and software modules of damned cities.
Gotland is the largest island in the Baltic Sea. It is culturally and politically part of Sweden (although it has ancient ties to Denmark, Norway, Germany, Poland, Russia, and lands beyond). Many historians believe the Goths, the tribe of invaders which sacked Rome, originated from Gotland (a story which will have to wait for another post). The main town of Gotland is Visby, the city of roses and ruins, which was a principal port of the Hanseatic League. Gotland is scattered with strange ancient rune stones (some of which are graven with valknuts) and ancient hidden treasure hordes, but todays post concerns the island’s 94 medieval churches. These buildings executed in the Romanesque and Gothic architectural style are one of the Island’s top tourist draws.
The Romanesque churches of Gotland were built between 1150–1250 AD. Then the style switched to Gothic from 1250 to 1400 AD (nearly a millennia after the original Goths began to cause unrest in the northern provinces of the Roman empire). The era of church building was a golden age for Gotland which grew rich from Baltic trade. Priest, sailors, merchants, bankers, fishermen, architects, monks, and all manner of other folk walked the thriving streets of Visby. Many of the churches remain (though many have been rebuilt) and their elegant architecture provides a window to the vanished medieval world. Here is a little gallery of some of the churches of Gotland. If you are wildly curious about any particular building you can visit this site for a more comprehensive explanation.
Aren’t they beautiful? I am sorry that I could not find the names of a couple of churches, but there is a “find the six differences” aspect to this group of images which I didn’t appreciate at first. I was hoping to make this an easy Friday post, but I have been trapped at my computer comparing the slants of steeples and the shape of windows. I’ll leave you with a little picture of the gorgeous cathedral at Visby and let you look for the rest of the churches of Gotland on your own!
In a previous post we analyzed how the devil gradually became red and goatlike in popular imagination (even though scripture does not mention such details). Here is a stunningly dramatic gothic painting by the Sienese master Duccio which shows how the devil was conceived of at the beginning the 14th century. The painting illustrates one of the narrative high points of the New Testament: the devil tempting Jesus by offering him power over all the nations of Earth. Here is how Matthew relates the story in the fourth chapter of his gospel:
8Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; 9And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. 10Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. 11Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.
Duccio illustrates the very end of the episode as the bird-footed, spiky-haired gray devil waves his hand in disgust and prepares to fly off. Additionally Satan has gnome ears, bat wings, and seems to be cast in a permanent shadow of decay. Androgynous angels in voluminous robes approach Christ from beyond the horizon to tend to him after his forty days and nights of fasting in the desert. The head of Jesus is naturally at the apex of the composition. All around him, the architecture of the world is represented in miniature: the crenellations and towers of the delicate pink and cream colored buildings look like dollhouses beneath the feet of Christ. The pomp and power of the world’s cities is empty and small compared with divinity.
Today we head back to Gotland for another ancient knotlike symbol. The Saint John’s arms is a square with loops at each edge. The shape is actually not a knot but an unknot: if you pulled at it you would discover that it is a torus which has been twisted.
The symbol appears carved on a 1500 year old image stone from Hablingbo, on the island of Gotland (a Swedish Island in the Baltic Sea). Ever since then it has appeared throughout the Scandinavian/Baltic world to demark sights of interest. Although it is especially common in Finland (where it gained a reputation for warding off evil), the Saint John’s arms can be found blazoned upon cultural attractions throughout Belarus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Lithuania, Norway, and Sweden.
From its obscure Scandinavian roots, the Saint John’s arms vaulted into international fame during the 80s. Originally Apple computer utilized the “open apple” and “closed apple” as its command keys (I even remember these from my old Apple IIe and my halcyon days of adventuring in the realms of Ultima). In 1984, when the Macintosh personal computer was introduced, Steve Jobs decided that using the apple for shortcut commands was denigrating the brand. According to Apple insider Andy Hertzfeld, when Jobs saw how many apple commands were in an early version of MacDraw he peremptorily told the design team, “There are too many Apples on the screen! It’s ridiculous! We’re taking the Apple logo in vain! We’ve got to stop doing that!” The bitmap artist, Susan Kare, flipped through her dictionary of international symbols until she found one that easily translated into 16 bit-resolution. It was the Saint John’s arms symbol—which the symbol dictionary said indicated camping grounds in Sweden.
So today the Saint John’s arms, a mysterious Viking symbol carved on a weird rock on a haunted island, is in use everywhere that Apple computers are.
The Valknut is an ancient Viking design (although the word itself is new). A Valknut consists of three interlinking triangles. Classic Viking valknuts as seen in ancient stone carvings are one of two topological forms: the unicursal form or “triquetra” and the tricursal form, which consists of three linked triangles (also known as Borromean rings). The triquetra valknut has been found, for example, on the 7th century Tängelgårda stone (which stands on the island of Gotland, Sweden). The tricursal valknut is found on a different ancient Gottland monument–the Lärbro stones.
Above is one of the carvings from the Lärbro stones (also known as the Stora Hammar rune stones). The violent relief carving is filled with symbols of Odin: a warrior holds a captive facedown and flays open his back with a spear as two ravens (or eagles) fly overhead. To the right a troop of armored warriors look upon the sacrifice while at the left another victim hangs from a tree. The valknut is in the center of the composition just above the spearman killing the supine figure. Scholars suspect that it is a symbol of Odin, the allfather in his dark manifestation as god of battle death and human sacrifice. Other scholars have speculated that the points of the three interlinked triangles may represent the nine realms linked together through Yggdrasil. In contemporary times, the valknut has been used by neopagans as a symbol of their devotion to Norse gods, but it also has darker connotations and is sometimes adapted into the symbols of Scandinavian white supremacists and hate groups. Because of its antiquity and its strong ties to Swedish history the Valknut is also used by many corporations, sports teams, and individuals who are in no way neopagans or white supremacists!
Duccio di Buoninsegna was born in the middle of Sienna in the 13th century. Before his death in 1319 or 1320, Duccio combined the stiff formal conventions of Byzantine and Romanesque art with newfound Italian interests in modeled forms, three dimensional architectural interiors, and naturalistic emotions. Along with Cimabue, Giotto, and Pietro Cavallini he is regarded as one of the progenitors of Western art (and the sole father of Siennese gothic art).
Duccio’s painting Announcement of Death to the Virgin is one of only thirteen surviving works by the master. A beautiful gothic angel has materialized before Mary as she reads from a psalter. The heavenly visitor silently presents Christ’s mother with a palm frond to symbolize the coming death of her son. Mary gestures in resolute horror at the message. Beyond the three-dimensional room delicate arches lead to a background of blackness.
Little is known of Duccio’s life, but we know that it was a disorganized mess. He had seven children and thanks to an inability to manage money he was frequently in trouble with debts and fines. Fortunately his gifts as an artist outshone his problems with organization. By the beginning of the 14th century he was the most famous (and revolutionary) painter in Sienna and he managed to solve his financial problems by painting numerous commissions around the thriving communal republic.
The Magic Circus is a bizarre contemporary gothic painting created in 2001 by Mark Ryden, the king of the pop surrealist painters. Ryden was born in the Pacific Northwest and grew up in Southern California. At the beginning of his career, he was a commercial artist who created magazine illustrations, book covers, and album covers, but due to the outlandish visionary intensity of his work, he has successfully broken into the rarified top echelon of contemporary painters. His works have sold very successfully for over a decade (although he is regarded as a bizarre outsider by the unofficial “academy” of curators and critics).
The Magic Circus is an eye popping juxtaposition of cartoonlike hybrid animal/toy characters, science book illustrations, and delicate vulnerable children. The upbeat but sinister pastel circus landscape has been rendered with the precise and exacting realism of the finest illustration. As with 16th century Flemish art, dark horrors lurk among the details. Looking past the dazzling crown and jewel-like bees and cheery dancing octopus, the viewer notices a striped winged demon with a shrunken head drinking a chalice of blood. Jesus and Abraham Lincoln are rendered as toys and lifeless sculptures while a plush stuffed animal capers in the foreground with lively malice.
Many of Ryden’s works involve the idea that our icons and consumer goods are springing to malevolent life and taking over. The Magic Circus has the visceral appeal of a child’s nightmare. The toys are coming to life and putting on a show, but there is a dark and horrible side to the carnival. Within the interlocking “rings” of childlike delight, scientific materialism, and commercial exploitation, Ryden includes symbols and themes which he reuses again and again in his paintings.
Pop Surrealism takes kitsch elements from everyday life and arranges them in a way to maximize the emotional, sentimental, and psychological aspects of everyday symbols. The narrative focus, realistic technique, and psychological intensity of this diffuse school have all been disparaged by “high-brow” art schools and abstract/conceptual artists for the past few decades. Yet as the visual language of the internet becomes more pervasive (and as mainstream art languishes in a conceptual rut), Pop Surrealism has been finding broader acceptance