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Happy Halloween!  This year, I have been working on a new series of artworks centered on flatfish.  I suppose flatfish have supplanted toruses as the primary focus of my art. People seem to like flounder better than donuts (the asymmetric fish have more personality…or at least they have faces), however the universe is not shaped like a flatfish (according to current models), so it raises the question of what the flounder means symbolically.  Flatfish are regarded as a delicious prey animal by humans, however they are excellent predators in their own right:  they are sort of the middle-class of the oceans.   Like the middle class, the pleurectiformes are experts at blending in, and they change their color and pattern to match their circumstances.  Today’s circumstances, however, are not merely muddy sand flats—the whole world is filled with wild eclectic ambiguity which is hard for anyone to follow (much less a bottom-dwelling fish). My full flounder series thus explore the larger human and natural ecosystems of the late Holocene and early Anthropocene world.  Each one lives in a little predatory microcosm where it is hunting and hunted.

The bizarre asymmetry of the flatfish also appeals to me.  Since my artwork seemingly concerns topology, this may be significant—although a classical knot theorist would blithely observe that a flatfish is homeomorphic with a torus (assuming one regards the digestive tract as a continuous tube).  At any rate it is currently Halloween and the flounder need to blend in with the monsters, goblins, witches, and mummies of the scary season! I made three black and white pen and ink flounders to use as Halloween coloring pages. These are supposed to print out at 8.5 inches x 11 inches, but who knows how wordpress will format them for your device?  Let me know if you want me to send you a JPEG.

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The top flounder is a classical Halloween artwork of haunted houses bats, witches, pumpkins, and mummies. In the center, mortality and the devil grasp for the human soul. The mood of the second artwork  is more elusive and elegiac: dark fungi grow upon the sole as an underling hauls a dead gladiator away in the depths.  Serpent monsters fill up the sky and our lady of the flowers blesses a corpse.  The final pen and ink drawing is unfinished (so you can add your own monster) but it centers around a haunted jack-in-the-box and a ruined windmill. A bog monster, scarecrow and lady ghost haunt the doomed landscape.

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I also threw in three little colored Halloween flounder at the bottom–as a teaser for my Instagram page.  You should check it out for your daily flounder (free of commentary and text, as is increasingly the way of our digital age).  I hope you enjoy these colorful treats and have a wonderful holiday!

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José de Ribera (1591 – 1652) was one of the greatest of Spanish artists. I paint–I studied very seriously with a master portraitist for many years–and I can usually understand how a painting was put together and executed, but the craftmanship of Ribera paintings tends to stand beyond my comprehension. When I come across one of his works in a museum, the dazzling virtuosity leaves me stupefied. He should be one of the foremost of the old masters…his name upon every lip like Rembrandt, Tintoretto, or Caravaggio. Yet in the museum, I see the other visitors turn away from his canvases.

Though a Spaniard, Ribera studied in Italy, and spent most of his life working there. In the 17th century, the peninsula was divided by great powers, and Spain, at the zenith of its empire, controlled the Kingdom of Naples. Ribera, a Spaniard who painted exquisitely in the Italian style was the favorite of the Spanish viceroys who ruled Naples. Ribera is an exceedingly great painter, but he was an exceedingly dark painter…a Tenebrist, and he is said to have had a matching dark personality. There are whispers that he utilized ruthless court intrigue and outright violence to monopolize worthwhile artistic commissions in Naples (a city with its own shadowside and a sinister history). This brings us to today’s dark artwork which I have put at the top of the post. This is “Apollo and Marsyas” (Jusepe de Ribera, 1637, oil on canvas). Ribera’s art combined the dark action and shadowy super-realism of Caravaggio with the deliquescent supernatural otherworldiness of Corregio (a puissant and disquieting combination). Here is the nightmare denouement of the tale of Apollo and Marsyas (you should reacquaint yourself with the myth if you are unfamiliar). A pure black diagonal bar slashes across the composition: Marsyas is inside that void, upside down, screaming in agony as the flaying begins. Apollo looms above him, both an omnipotent god and an implacable killer. His red cloak billows behind him like a tunnel of blood through which he has burst into the mortal world. The witnesses look on in dazed shock or scream outright at the nature of the proceedings. The instruments of music are cast aside forgotten, as violence and pain take center stage. It is a bloodbath on canvas–a horror movie painted by the matchless hand of an all-time master.

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And here is where Ribera goes wrong. The son of a shoe-maker painted his way to unparalleled wealth and status. Through his hard work and ruthless machinations, his family was enobled, but the struggle cast shadows across his work. There is real sadism in the beautiful and intent visage of Apollo as he fingers the incarnadine slit. There is true pain in the inverted face of Marsyas. Look at the other works of Ribera–they are all so gorgeous…but they are all so awful. In the allegory of Apollo and Marsyas, a personal challenge each artist must face, Ribera cast himself as Apollo. He and his art failed a moral challenge. Look upon it, dear reader, are there tests which you are failing too?

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Our week of dark art continues apace…hopefully you aren’t too overwhelmed by the vistas of beauty and horror…yet…MWAHAHA… Today we feature an image from a living artist, Santiago Caruso, an Argentine illustrator who is well-known for creating unique artworks for horror literature.  Gustave Doré and Alfred Kubin have passed on their great reward, but Santiago is very much in the world of the living, so I am just going to post the one sample image above and recommend that you look him up or, better yet, go to his web gallery (so he gets the traffic for himself).  The picture above shows the mind as a haunted cabinet of curiosities–a conceit which appeals to me greatly. Among the oddities on display are a cornucopia, a snake skeleton, and a twisted dark duck, but clearly there is more in the cabinet…and more which might be in the cabinet.  The Latin epigram is from the great dark masterpiece of silver-aged Roman literature The Golden Ass.  Roughly translated, it says “That which nobody knows about almost did not happen.”  It makes one wonder what skeletons are in this ghastly closet (as though that was not already the foremost thought in everyone’s head as our ghastly election enters the homestretch).  Go check out Santiago’s other work (although some of it is pretty NSFW) and think about the strange curiosities in your mental cabinet…if you dare…MWAHAHAHA.

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This artist needs no introduction. Gustave Doré was the preeminent illustrator of the 19th century. Although he became rich and successful, he was a workaholic, who took joy in his work rather than riches. He never married and lived with his mother until he died unexpectedly of a brief severe illness.

Doré illustrated everything from the Bible, to Nursery Rhymes, to Dante (one of my friends decided to become an artist upon looking at Doré’s version of Dante’s hell). Likewise he provided images for the great poetry and novels of his time. We could write a whole novel about Doré’s life (well we could if it wasn’t entirely spent sitting at a drafting table creating astonishing visual wonderment), but let’s concentrate instead on three especially dark images from his great oeuvre. First, at the top is an image of the end of the crusades. Every paladin and holy knight lies dead in a colossal heap. Collectively they grasp a great cross with their dead limbs as a glowing dove surrounded by a ring of stars ascends upward from the carnage. It is a powerful image of religious war–made all the more sinister by Doré’s apparent approval (and by the fact that it looks oddly like an allegory of the present state of the EU.

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Next we come to a picture from European fairy tales: a traveler bedecked in sumptuous raiment stands surrounded on all sides by writhing corpses trapped inside their caskets by bars. The coffins rise high above the lone man in an apparently endless architecture of death. Strange tricky spirits dance at the edges of his sight as he takes in his ghastly location. This is clearly an image of…I…uh…I have no idea…what the hell sort of nightmare fairy tale is this? How did Doré think of this stuff?

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Here finally, from Revelations, the final book of the New Testament, is an image of Death himself leading forth the horsemen of the apocalypse and the dark angels. This disturbing posse is descending from the sky to harrow the world of all living things and usher in a static and eternal era of divine singularity (which is the upsetting and unexpected end to a book about a kindly young rabbi who teaches people to be compassionate). Look at Death’s proud cold mien, which alone is composed and immutable in a desperate jagged composition of moving wings, scrabbling claws, ragged clouds, and blades of every sort.

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Lady on the Horse (Alfred Kubin, 1938, Pen and ink, wash, and spray on paper)

Alfred Kubin was born in Bohemia in 1877 (Bohemia was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire).  Like many people, Kubin could see the direction which Austrian society was taking, and it seemed to rob him of direction.  As a teenager he tried to learn photography for four pointless years from 1892 until 1896. He unsuccessfully attempted suicide on his mother’s grave. He enlisted and was promptly drummed out of the Austrian army. He joined various art schools and left without finishing. Then, in Munich, Kubin saw the works of symbolist and expressionist artists Odilon Redon, Max Klinger, Edvard Munch, and Félicien Rops.  His life was changed—he devoted himself to making haunting art in the same vein.  His exquisite mezzotint prints are full dream monsters, spirit animals, ghosts and victims.  These dark works seemed to presage the era which followed.  Yet throughout the nightmare of both World Wars and the post-war reconstruction, Kubin lived in relative isolation in a small castle.

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After Anschluss in 1938, Kubin’s work was labeled degenerate, yet his age and his hermit life protected him and he continued working through the war and until his death in 1958.  In later life he was lionized as an artist who never submitted to the Nazis (although possibly he was too absorbed in his own dark world to notice the even darker one outside).

 

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The North Pole (Alfred Kubin 1902)

Kubin’s beautiful prints look like the illustrations of a children’s book where dark magical entities broke into the story and killed all of the characters and made their haunted spirits perform the same pointless rituals again and again.  Great dark monuments loom over the lost undead.  Death and the maiden appear repeatedly, donning their roles in increasingly abstract guise until it is unclear which is which.

 

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The Pond (Alfred kubin, ca. 1905)

My favorite aspect of the works are the shadow monsters and hybrid animals which often seem to have more personality and weight than the little albescent people they prey upon.  The gloomy ink work is so heavy it seems to lack pen strokes—as though Kubin rendered these little vignettes from dark mist.

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The Egg (Alfred Kubin, 1902)

Kubin’s imagery was naturally seen through the psychosexual lens of Freudianism.  He was claimed by the symbolists, and the expressionists. Yet his work seems to really exist in its own mysterious context. Kubin’s greatest works seem to involve a narrative which the viewer does not know, yet the outlines of which are instantly recognizable (like certain recurring nightmares).

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The Government (Alfred Kubin)

Gifted in multiple ways, Kubin wrote his own novel, The Other Side, which has been compared to Kafka for its dark absurdity.  I certainly haven’t read it, but if anyone knows anything about it, I would love to hear more below.  In the meantime look again at this broken world of Gothic horror and wonder.  Then maybe go have some candy and enjoy some flowers.  There is plenty more dark art coming

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Snakes in the City (Alfred Kubin,1911, pen and ink)

 

 

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My grandfather owned a house in the strange & problematic city of Baltimore (which was one of the first urban areas I got to know very well).  One of grandpa’s tenants was an opioid addict.  This guy’s life was inexorably destroyed by debt, communicable disease, and appetite…and the poor soul ultimately went back to wherever he came from. But he left all of his empty aquariums, Apple computer games, and his weird science fiction literature behind.  In due time, these things found their way into my hands, and they were a huge part of growing up. Among the science fiction books were Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series where the capital of the old Galactic Empire was the fictional world “Trantor.” Planet Trantor was entirely a city:  the oceans had been drained away into underground cisterns.  The farms were all replaced by administrative buildings.  It was a metal and plastic world of skyscrapers, enormous conference rooms, huge statues, and titanic space co-ops.  On Trantor, there was no more primary sector work…everything was brought to Trantor from other planets. This explains how I first ran into the concept of an ecumenopolis—a planet which is entirely covered in a city—it is a forboding idea which blew my mind as a kid. I have been thinking about a lot lately.

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If contemporary English writers need to invent new words, they don’t go back to grub for syllables in ancient guttural Saxon words of earthy doom.  Instead they glue together neologisms from Greek and Latin roots.  This is how we have the word “ecumenopolis”, which literally means universe-city. The word does not come from Athens or Rome, where such a concept was undreamt of.  It is a word from America in 1967, when the world’s planners and scientists began to comprehend that invasive humans were spreading through every ecosystem of a finite Earth.  However the concept came from Asimov—who, in turn, borrowed it from a weird utopian American preacher.  The word was thus coined just before the dawn of the space age, when the finitude of the planet was beginning to become evident.

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Lately, this idea came to the masses in the form of planet Coruscant, the administrative world of the much-derided Star Wars prequels.  The best aspect of those movies was staring at the endless lines of spaceships flying between enormous  buildings or taking off from huge engineered megastructures. Coruscant had its own dark glistening beauty yet it was also painful to think about, and whenever the characters went down into the city, the effect was risible. It is hard to capture the cliquish and modish aspects of urban life on film in a way which makes them seem appealing (which is probably why Coruscant got blown to bits by a stupid plot contrivance in the new series).  This illustrates a point too: in fiction, the inhabitants of cities are corrupt and interchangeable (whereas country folks are salt-of-the earth heroes).

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We don’t really have any other planets: and if we do they will be hell worlds or ice desert worlds–like Venus and Mars (come to think of it, they will be Venus and Mars).  Those worlds would be lovely ecumenopolises: it isn’t like you were going outside there anyway.  Whereas if Earth’s deserts, reefs, rainforests, elephants, and golden moles are replaced with concrete and billboards it would be a tragedy beyond reckoning (although maybe future children would read about such things in antiquarian blogs).  That is a profoundly sad thought, but it doesn’t mean that things have to be that way.  If we can urbanize well, we can still have space and resources left over for agriculture and for the natural world (while we get our act together and make some synthetic mega habitats elsewhere where everyone can have a gothic mansion and a robot army).

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I introduced this post with an anecdote about the city, albeit the city of Baltimore which seems hopelessly tiny and provincial now (to say nothing of how it seems compared with imaginary planet-wide cities).  I want to write a lot more about cities.  The Anthropocene is upon us.  More than half of all human beings now live in a city! Indeed I live in Brooklyn, and I work on Wall Street (don’t worry: I am untainted by the corrupt wealth of global finance because none of it ever reaches my hands). Talking to people I have realized that the story of my grandfather’s tenant is unremarkable: city dwellers know all about such things. Yet the story of my renegade turkeys is unfathomable to most people.

 

Cities are the natural habitation of humans (well—I guess the margin between forests and grassland in Africa is our natural habitat, but most of us have moved away from there and cities are our new home). The question of whether we can make cities better and find a way to live in greater density in a safe and healthy way is a very pressing one. Or will the entire planet become a horrid strip mall…or worse a sprawling slum.

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Let’s talk about cities! We need to build better cities…and some day, an ecumenopolis.  We need to make sure that it is not here though, because that will be a true Apokolips, er…apocalypse.

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As we proceed further into the Halloween season, a long dormant specter has unexpectedly emerged from the past to claim another victim.  In the early era of space exploration a shockingly high number of Mars missions were complete failures.  This led space agencies to talk about the “Galactic Ghoul” a malevolent (and wholly imaginary!) entity which devours Mars probes.  Well, actually the phrase “Galactic Ghoul” was coined in the nineties…before that, this high failure rate was attributed to “the Curse of Mars” which isn’t quite as vivid a personification of failure but which still effectively evokes a malevolent supernatural thing out in the darkness between worlds. The ghoul (or curse) was particularly hard on Soviet craft and a shockingly large number of Soviet missions just vanished into the void for no reason as detailed in this dramatic chart (which is worth looking at for all sorts of reasons).

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The curse even manifested in the late nineties when NASA screwed up the distinction between matric and non-metric units of measurement and fired the Mars Climate Orbiter straight into the Martian atmosphere where it disintegrated (although that seems like it could be chalked up to a different old nemesis: being bad at math).  At any rate, the ghoul has been quiescent for a while as NASA learned to operate on the red planet (and triple check their numbers).

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Today though brings more grim news from the Red Planet. The ESA and the Russian space agency collaborated on ExoMars a joint mission in which the two teams sent an orbiter and a lander to Mars together.  The Trace Gas Orbiter is the real scientific component of the mission.  It will assay Mars for methane sources (we would like to know where the atmospheric methane of Mars comes from since it should be scrubbed from the thin Martian atmosphere faster than it can build up).  The lander was named for Giovanni Schiaparelli, the 19th-century Italian astronomer who popularized the idea of Martian canals (a concept long since disproven but bearing elements of truth).

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 Schiaparelli’s only scientific payload was a small weather station that would have run for a few days before running out of batteries.  It was really a lander designed to test out Martian landing capabilities, however, as of press time, the lander had proceeded into the Martian gravity well and then went ominously and completely silent.  Is the galactic ghoul now sated or will it need to feed on the next charismatic lander headed to the red planet?  Elon Musk may want to do some animal sacrifice and appeasement dances before he launches his colony ship!

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OK, some days, after a long day at work, I am a bit uninspired, but you know who never runs out of endless inventiveness? Nature!  So today, as a run up for next week’s Halloween week of creepy art, here is a gallery of natural expressionism—nudibranch mollusks—some of the most vibrant and exquisitely colored animals in all of the world (you can look at an earlier Ferrebeekeeper gallery of nudibranchs here).

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Now poisonous strange sea slugs are pretty creepy and seasonally appropriate, but to keep this filler post truly Halloween appropriate I have selected all orange, and black, or orange & black slugs (with maybe a fab or purple and white and green here and there).  Behold the glory:

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Aren’t they beautiful! Sometimes I wish I was a toxic gastropod that looked like Liberace and lived in a tropical sea…but alas, like so many of nature’s greatest works, they are vanishing as the oceans change.

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In the popular imagination, marsupials are synonymous with Australia.  Yet, once, in the age of Gondwanaland, Australia was linked to Antarctica (then a verdant land of forests) which was linked to South America.  The marsupials have been a big part of South America’s ecosystems for a long time, but, ever since the place was overrun with placental mammals, they have kept a fairly low profile.  Today’s Ferrebeekeeper post features a tremendously widespread and common marsupial from South America—yet this creature is nearly unknown beyond South America (except perhaps to mammalian zoologists and people who write alphabetical lists of beasts).  The water opossum (Chironectes minimus), also known as the yapok, is the most aquatic living marsupial and the only living marsupial where both sexes have pouches.

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The yapok is a formidable predator of fish, amphibians, snakes, and freshwater invertebrates like crayfish.  In order to pursue these creatures underwater, it has symmetrical webbed back feet, short waterproof fur, and numerous sensory facial bristles (like a catfish! which it slightly resembles).  The possums are small– 30 centimeters (11 inches) long with a 35 centimeter (14 inch) long tail. They have endearing little masks and cute stripes. Yapoks live from southern Mexico down through Central America to Southern Brazil.  They are especially prevalent in Colombia and Northern Peru, but they do not live in most of the Amazon Basin.

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Perhaps the most remarkable thing about yapoks is the female’s pouch.  While the mother yapok is taking care of her young, she still must swim and hunt—yet marsupial babies have a lot of development to do before they can be on their own (much less swim through swift streams hunting fish).  Adult female yapoks therefore have a watertight pouch which can be sealed with a muscular ring so that they can take their offspring with them in the water.  For 50 days she carries her brood of 1-5 little yapoks with her everywhere…and even after then, when they detach from the nipple, they still frequent her pouch.

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Of course, as I noted above, male yapoks have pouches too. Wikipedia blandly notes, “The male also has a pouch (although not as watertight as the female’s), where he places his genitalia before swimming. This is thought to prevent it from becoming tangled in aquatic vegetation and is probably helpful in streamlining the animal as well.”  My mind keeps approaching this concept and then reeling back from it.  So I will just leave Wikipedia’s wording as it stands and say no more.

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Condolences to the people of Thailand. Today (October 13, 2016) we bid farewell to world’s longest reigning king, Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, also known as Rama IX.  Born in 1927 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Bhumibol became king in June of 1946 and has continuously reigned since then.

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Ferrebeekeeper blogged about the king of Thailand before.  He was the richest and most powerful monarch in the world (with the possible exceptions of the king of Saudi Arabia or Vladimir Putin).  His subjects treated him as a living bodhisattva or god and he lived in vast palaces and rode on huge golden dragon barges. To a citizen of a Republic, it seems obscene for one man to personally control so much of a kingdom’s wealth (although frankly America has been falling short on our own austere Republican virtues these days).  It is strange to think that all of this power and wealth was going to go to Bhumibol’s brother, King Ananda Mahidol —before Ananda was murdered by being shot in the forehead. Fortunately a privy court hanged some random low-status servants after a shabby show trial—thus laying any questions about the exceedingly mysterious events to rest forever.

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King Bhumibol was a very loyal friend to America for 7 decades.  It startles me how swiftly the Cold War is passing from everyone’s memories, but Bhumibol helped the Western Democracies to win it.  His intelligence, forbearance, and natural political savvy helped Thailand stabilize South East Asia and prevent communism from spreading there (it also made Thailand the preeminent regional power). Bhumibol, a constitutional monarch eschewed direct levers of power. He was tremendously beloved by his subjects, which has always been difficult for a leader and is even more difficult in today’s wired world..  People who met him praised him as warm and sincere.

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Rereading this obituary I realize it sounds like a backhanded compliment.  It isn’t meant to be.  The papers today are full of claptrap which obscure Bhomibal’s political skill, his adroit ability to run Thailand from the shadows while ministers and generals came and went, and–above all–his iron will. He will truly be missed.  It will be majestic to see the Great Crown of Victory come out of its vault so that the playboy Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn can set it upon his own brow (for nobody else has sufficient status to grant the throne of Thailand to him) and become the new king. However it is sad to bid farewell to such a stalwart ally, gifted political player, and interesting man.  It also raises worries about the stability of Thailand once a period of national mourning has passed.

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