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The Great Crown of Victory of Cambodia

The quintessential crown of southeast Asia is Phra Maha Phichai Mongkut, the “Great Crown of Victory” of Thailand (which Ferrebeekeeper blogged about back when Bhumibol was still in this world). Yet there is–or was–a second great crown of victory, Preah Maha Mokot Reach, the Great Crown of Victory of Cambodia. Like the Thai crown, the Cambodian crown was a tall gold cap made of diminishing conical tiers of gold set with precious gems. Passed down from king to king since the time of the Khmer Empire (which blew apart in 1431), the Cambodian crown was meant to symbolize Mount Meru, the sacred cosmic mountain which appears in Jain and Buddhist myth. The Cambodian Great Crown of Victory was held by the King of Siam (who claimed suzerainty over Cambodia) for a time in the 19th century, but it was back in Cambodian hands by 1941 in time for the charismatic yet addled Norodom Sihanouk to wear it at his first coronation.

Sihanouk at his coronation in 1941

From my constant use of the past tense verb, you have probably guessed that the ancient crown has gone missing. It has not been seen since Lon Nol’s coup in 1970. The particular circumstances of that coup were already murky thanks to the general strife, war, and confusion of Southeast Asia in 1970, and the history has grown even more confusing after the subsequent horrific events of the seventies in Cambodia. Suffice to say, Lon Nol was probably backed by the United States as part of the larger war next door in Vietnam (Grandpa probably knew the true specifics of this, but he certainly didn’t tell me). Norodom Sihanouk who was once king (and would be again) backed the communists of the Khmer Rouge–although, to be fair, Sihanouk, who spent the early seventies in exile in China and North Korea did not seemingly grasp the genocidal nature of the Khmer Rouge.

I was going to show a picture of Cambodia in the 70s but they are all too awful. This picture of absolute darkness is much cheerier.

All of which is to say, the Great Crown of Victory was most likely destroyed in 1970, although maybe the Chinese, North Koreans, Vietnamese, or Thai have it for some unknown reason. It could even conceivably be in Fullerton, California which is where Lon Noi ended up (although this isn’t really conceivable, and I am just writing it to indicate how strange that era was). But you never know. Over the course of my lifetime, Cambodia has gone from being the most hellish place on Earth to being a tourist paradise (with a purely ceremonial elected king). Maybe the crown of Cambodia is actually on a shelf or buried under a wall somewhere. But I doubt it. It represents a Cambodia which is gone.

Every year Ferrebeekeeper features posts about the voluminous cherry blossoms from the splendid Kwanzan cherry tree which grows in the back garden. For a week or two the garden becomes an unearthly place of lambent beauty which resembles the western paradise of Amitabha Buddha. But what about the week after?

Well, the answer is all too clear from these photos. The blossoms fall. In the week after they bloom there is a crazy shag carpet of princess pink all across the garden and in the neighbor’s lawn. Also this carpet is far stickier and wetter than it looks. After I took these pictures, I went inside to get something and then came downstairs to see that great pathways of pink blossoms were cast upon the hardwood floors and carpets. The first stunned thought I had was that someone had let a Roman emperor (and his blossom-throwing votaries) into the house. Only after a moment did it occur to me that the distinctly-non-imperial petal-treader was actually this author (and then I went for the even-more-non-imperial dustpan).

Despite the fact that it is composed of hundreds of thousands of tiny moist decals waiting to adhere to everything, the blossom carpet has its own sort of beauty. The real letdown comes in the days afterwards–when it all turns to taupe goo. Fortunately we should have some May flowers by then to distract our attention to elsewhere in the garden! Maybe the Brooklyn weather will finally become May-like as well. In the meantime I will continue to pretend I am in the court of Elagabalus (a fiction which grows easier by the minute as our republic descends into political incoherence) and hope that my roommates are not too incensed by the petals which the dustpan missed.

he Roses of Heliogabalus (Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1888), oil on canvas

Every year when the cherry blossoms bloom, I like to draw and paint pictures of the garden. Although I am never satisfied with the pictures when I am working on them (since they only capture the tiniest fraction of the garden’s beauty), I am often pleased later in the year. It is almost like canning fruit: fresh fruit is obviously much better, but at least you have a little preserved portion of the heavenly taste later on. Additionally, painting the same subject year after year also provides a sort of benchmark to assess the media and techniques I am using. At any rate here are two of the pictures I painted. Above is a full watercolor sketch of the yard and below is a little drawing in pink, gray, and black ink which I made in my pocket sketchbook. Let me know what you think!

I have more pictures and thoughts about the spring garden…but they will have to wait. Today, alas, we must talk about politics. Since you are looking at the internet, you almost undoubtedly know by now that somebody at the Supreme Court leaked the draft of Samuel Alito’s high-handed opinion striking down Roe vs. Wade. It is a real document. Perhaps the final language will change somewhat, but unless everything changes immediately in some crazy way, abortions will be illegal or effectively illegal in red states by the end of June. It is surprising, but it is also unsurprising (since progressives and moderates have been watching Republicans strategically building towards this outcome for decades).

So far, I have read all sorts of opinions about what this means to the nation, to women, to Republicans, to Democrats, to the legitimacy our worthless kangaroo Supreme Court, to our terrible health-care system, etc. None of these writings have satisfied me, because none of them said what I wanted to hear. Therefore I guess I am stuck writing the essay which I keep looking everywhere for. You will have to judge whether it is true or not. Perhaps you will have to judge whether to make it true, since, in the end of things, that is how politics works.

Ok, here is my thesis: obtaining what they have claimed to want will be a much bigger problem for Republicans than they care to let on. They are like the proverbial dog chasing a van who finally catches it. If abortions are illegal in red states, it will quickly threaten the GOP’s already tenuous political coalition through several ways. First of all, the same religious fundamentalists, scolds, and absolutists who have obsessively made this a single-focus issue will want abortion outlawed everywhere in the nation. Republicans will now have to work towards that goal, unless they want all of those single-issue voters to harumph and stay home. Yet, as women start dying left and right, politics in those same red states will change more quickly and in more unnerving ways than Republicans are ready for.

I suspect that strategy-minded Republicans such as Mitch McConnell never really wanted to see Roe end for exactly this reason. The pro-life zealots were already maximally engaged. This will not create more of them or cause them to show up at the polls in greater numbers. After an odious victory lap, they will either tune out of politics or demand that Republicans do stuff which is even more unpopular. And ending Roe (and its reproductive freedoms)–especially in this draconian way–is quite unpopular with 55-70 percentage of the electorate (depending on how the questions are asked). That number is likely to get much larger as snoozing Democrats and progressives wake up and notice that the United States is quickly becoming a farcical fascist dystopia .

So Republicans are back to their true play. Either they must comprehensively end representative democracy once and for all and replace it with an autocracy masquerading as a democracy (like Hungary or Turkey) or they will have to eventually face voters, a majority of whom do not like their policies. Republicans have become so wily at avoiding voters and at painting Democrats’ attempts to govern the nation as extremism, that we have lost sight of how deceptively weak and unpopular their fundamental positions are. Now they are running on a platform of raising taxes for working people, destroying Social Security, making healthcare more expensive, AND abolishing reproductive choice for all Americans. The fact that they are doing as well as they are is testament to their astonishing ability to lie and prevaricate, but the truth is slowly creeping up behind them and dawning even on the most misinformed voters.

So the next two elections of 2022 and 2024 will be the GOP’s best chance to use structural advantages to finish off the democracy as a functioning entity. That was already the case, but perhaps today’s leak will remind confused people who had tuned out of politics (dully repeating the Republican line that “all politicians are equally bad“) that they need to turn back in and fight off these ghastly autocrats and religious zealots. Otherwise today’s assault on freedom, dignity, and privacy will neither be the last nor the most jarring.

I apologize for not writing any posts last week. I got upset hearing about how blogging is dead and only podcasts and video content matter (also I was seduced away from the stupid, worthless internet by the evanescent beauty of the cherry tree). But, even if writing is worthless and doesn’t matter and the only people of any importance are rich blathersome celebrities, it hardly seems right to leave all opinion-making to them. So I will try to make up for last week’s absence by posting more this week!

Pursuant these matters, April is poetry month, and I failed to write a post about poetry! So, in a spirit of year-round poetry appreciation, here is a quiet poem which seems to fit with this year’s cold spring and various worldwide crises. The poem was written by the largely-forgotten poet, Charlotte Mew (an unhappy spinster whose large family was destroyed by mental illness and bankruptcy). Although Charlotte Mew died in 1928, she saw the ways of the world clearly and her poem feels like it could be about the present. Likewise, although the poem is about what it is about (large beautiful trees being cut up and carried off), it is also clearly about bankruptcy, downfall, ruin, and defeat. Finally, somehow there is a lowly (yet pitiable) dead rat in the poem which makes me think of posts about the despised (yet morally righteous) rats. But enough talk, here is Charlotte Mew’s lovely poem about sycamore trees:

The Trees are Down

By Charlotte Mew

and he cried with a loud voice:
Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees

(Revelation)

They are cutting down the great plane-trees at the end of the gardens.

For days there has been the grate of the saw, the swish of the branches as they fall,

The crash of the trunks, the rustle of trodden leaves,

With the ‘Whoops’ and the ‘Whoas,’ the loud common talk, the loud common laughs of the men, above it all.

I remember one evening of a long past Spring

Turning in at a gate, getting out of a cart, and finding a large dead rat in the mud of the drive.

I remember thinking: alive or dead, a rat was a god-forsaken thing,

But at least, in May, that even a rat should be alive.

The week’s work here is as good as done. There is just one bough

   On the roped bole, in the fine grey rain,

             Green and high

             And lonely against the sky.

                   (Down now!—)

             And but for that,   

             If an old dead rat

Did once, for a moment, unmake the Spring, I might never have thought of him again.

It is not for a moment the Spring is unmade to-day;

These were great trees, it was in them from root to stem:

When the men with the ‘Whoops’ and the ‘Whoas’ have carted the whole of the whispering loveliness away

Half the Spring, for me, will have gone with them.

It is going now, and my heart has been struck with the hearts of the planes;

Half my life it has beat with these, in the sun, in the rains,   

             In the March wind, the May breeze,

In the great gales that came over to them across the roofs from the great seas.

             There was only a quiet rain when they were dying;

             They must have heard the sparrows flying,   

And the small creeping creatures in the earth where they were lying—

             But I, all day, I heard an angel crying:

             ‘Hurt not the trees.’

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