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A page from “Winter Landscapes and Flowers” (album ca. 1770, Qian Weicheng) ink on silk

Here is a lovely little winter landscape from Qing Dynasty master landscape painter Qian Weicheng (錢維城). Qian was a proponent of the orthodox painting style, and, indeed, we can see that his simple, elegant calligraphic lines emulate the techniques of the Song and Ming artists who preceded him. Although he was perhaps not a master of bravura ink-wash realism to the unearthly degree of Fan Kuan or Guo Xi, Qian brings his own 18th century virtues to the art, and there is a delightful & unaffected simplicity to his work which captures the austere beauty of winter’s bare rocks, leafless trees, and frozen mud. In this little painting, flocks of geese glide through the overcast sky above a branching river which is swollen with melt water. The simplicity of the countryside must have been a dramatic contrast with the opulent splendor of court life in 1774 when this image was dated and inscribed. Of course Qian himself died in 1772, so the inscription and the date were added posthumously by Qian’s greatest fan, the Qianlong Emperor himself!

Qian Weicheng painted over 275 paintings during his time at court and he rose up through the imperial bureaucratic ranks to the exalted position of second-in-command of the Imperial Board of Works. Perhaps you are wondering how it is that Qian came to the capital from his native Jiansu to begin with. Any discussion of dynastic China includes mention of the famous, formidable imperial civil service exams, the great standardized test which was at the center of imperial China’s administrative system. In 1745, Qian came in first place on the exam, an academic feat which brought him to imperial attention and guaranteed his success as a mandarin and as a painter. This path to artistic greatness (acing a standardized test about Confucian principles!) brings up a variety of questions about meritocracy, politics, and aesthetics which we are still wrestling with!

Happy Epiphany! This holiday, also known variously as “Three Kings Day”, “Little Christmas”, and “Theophany,” celebrates the revelation of Christ to the gentiles. In ancient Christian tradition, Christmas has 12 days, starting upon December 25th when Mithras–I mean Jesus!–was born and ending when the wise men arrive to present their gifts and acknowledge Christ as king of Earth. Observed on January 6th, it also brings an end to the joyous Christmas season (which reminds me, I need to take down my tree this weekend…sigh). If you live your life in accordance with liturgical colors (which I find hard to imagine you doing unless you are the pope), January 6th marks the return to ordinary green.

When I was growing up, I always liked the three wise men, who seemed like cosmopolitan outsiders in the somewhat insular & Jewish world of the synaptic gospels. Plus I always played Melchior in Christmas pageants (with exotic orientalist “robes” and an inlaid mother-of-pearl jewelry box from my mother’s vanity table!

The Adoration of the Kings (Jan Gossaert, ca. 1515), oil on oak panel

Anyway, to properly celebrate this holiday-which-ends-the-holidays, here is a favorite artistic interpretation of the momentous visit by Flemish genius, Jan Gossaert. The painting has a sort of “find-these 30 hidden objects” quality to it (which is something I love about Flemish art), so it is worth really looking at it for a while. You might want to head over to the National Gallery’s website where you can really blow up the image to see the incredible details in every inch of the masterwork.

The kings’ names (Balthasar, Caspar, Melchior) are not found in the Bible. In fact in the gospels they are not even kings but “wise men.” Apparently their name and rank came from 5th century AD Greek texts. Interestingly it was the venerable Bede (an 8th century Northumbrian monk) who first wrote of Balthasar being black! The kings’ diverse ethnicity later became their signature feature during the Renaissance (when Gossaert was painting) as the age of exploration brought newfound fascination with ethnology.

There is one last daunting task for this miserable year. For Ferrebeekeeper’s annual 2021 obituaries, I promised to write an obituary for my grandfather, Robert Clarence Pierson Jr., who died on October 23rd, 2021…and the task has proved to be entirely daunting! When I was a child, Grandpa was my hero, since his far-flung James-Bond-style life seemed to so thoroughly epic and exotic–and characteristic of the triumphs and excesses of the 20th century. But now, in the squalor and waste of 2021, it seems equally impossible to write about him…for some of the same reasons. It is like writing about the career of some ancient Roman tribune or Chinese sage who accidentally crashed through into this debased era of social media and Kardassians and national disintegration…

Robert Clarence Pierson Jr. was born in 1924, at Blue Knob, a hamlet (if even that) in Clay County West Virginia. He was extremely premature, and his surprise arrival so discomfited all parties that the house ended up burning down! Great Grandma Virgie put the tiny baby in a drawer and he was almost stepped on by an anxious horse!

Thereafter Grandpa attended the one room school at Blue Knob and then the High School at Clay where he graduated as valedictorian in 1941. Since he grew up adjacent to West Virginia’s hunting, mining, drilling, and lumbering trades (with their sundry dangerous tools) his childhood adventures had an exciting frontier quality to them. Frankly, they sounded like a Fleischer cartoon (wherein a rocket powered sledge, cask of black powder, or steamer trunk filled with horseshoes is always on hand at exactly the right moment). Perhaps some of this was also thanks to Great Grandpa Clarence’s indulgence (Great Grandpa ran the local lumber mill and was becoming adept at the Democratic party politics) and also to Great Grandma, who was always willing to drop everything and bake a chocolate pie for him.

Grandpa attended West Virginia University until the war called to him. He began his army career as a paratrooper but, thanks to his foreign language and memorization skills, he quickly moved to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. In the European theater of World War II, Grandpa served in the peninsular campaign in Italy. Because of his facility with languages, communications, and codework, Grandpa flew behind enemy lines and he was in Rome when Rome was liberated by the allies (I asked him about the granular details of this operation and he said his outfit painted their airplane to look like a German airplane and then just landed at the airport…and all of the relevant Italians winked at them and looked the other way). After liberating Rome, Grandpa headed into the Balkans to help the Serbs with their anti-German activities. Then, once victory was achieved in Europe, he switched theaters and went to Burma, where he was impressed by the um, fervor of the Kachin resistance fighters.

After World War II, Grandpa married his university sweetheart, Constance Faye Wellen (better known as Grandma Connie). The OSS was disbanded a month after the war was over, but Grandpa took up a foreign career with its successor agency. He also brushed up on language and social sciences at the University of Chicago and Stanford, before heading abroad again. Language was grandpa’s greatest gift, and, as far as I could tell, he knew English, Latin, French, Javanese, Dutch, Vietnamese, Arabic, and maybe a bit of German.

The way the Cold War ended seems inevitable to us now, however in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, this was anything but true, and those decades were characterized by worldwide proxy conflicts between the United States and the Soviet Union which took place everywhere but burned brightest in portions of the world recovering from 19th and early 20th century European colonization.

Thus, while everyone else came back from the war to bobbysoxers, beach boys, and suburban ranches, Grandpa was first in India, and then in Egypt, Somalia (which he doubted could ever be welded together effectively), and Kenya. He was in the Belgian Congo during the independence crisis when it violently transformed into Zaire. Grandpa was a master of the cocktail niceties of the 60s and he told me that he would mix drinks for Patrice Lumumba and Lumumba’s cronies. In his cups, Lumumba would enthuse about glorious plans of pan-African unity and talk about how the movement would kill all Europeans, “but not you, Bob, since you make the drinks!” Grandpa would laugh, but, in reality, his closest Congolese friends were among the Baluba (a rival Congolese ethnicity which Lumumba had antagonized with violent crackdowns and pogroms). Later when the Congo blew apart in full-blown crisis, my grandmother, mother, and uncle all fled as refugees, but Grandpa stayed in the nation to ensure that it did not become a client state of the Soviet Union no matter what the cost.

From the Congo, Grandpa moved on to Indonesia which was also vacillating between the great cold war powers. One of my favorite stories involves how the United States built an elaborate new Washington embassy for the Indonesians which was filled with listening devices. As the only team man who could speak Javan fluently, Grandpa got to translate, but all they learned was Sukarno’s enthusiasm for the distaff charms of American actresses…particularly how much the Indonesian strongman wanted to sleep with Zsa Zsa Gabor. Sigh…

Grandpa left the foreign service for a time to work on local projects back in West Virginia, but he returned to the field to work in Vietnam during the sixties and seventies. Some of my favorite tales from Grandpa involve his stories of drinking out of great earthenware vessels with bronze straws and plotting with Hmong warlords (he was enormously impressed by the Hmong, and the North Vietnamese, but had some reservations about the South Vietnamese leadership)Although he tried as hard as he could to solve everyone’s problems in Vietnam I believe his proudest contribution was as a gardener. He said that in Saigon he was astonished by the markets filled with fruits and vegetables which he didn’t recognize, but that there were also things which were missing, so he took the State Department’s credit card and ordered a giant box of seeds. Thereafter he was always peddling squashes, pumpkins, gourds, maize, melons, and suchlike North American seeds to add to Vietnamese agriculture (and indeed they are now part of the culture and cuisine).

Speaking of culture, one of Grandpa’s early mentors, Arturo, was an intelligence officer in Southeast Asia who lived a flamboyant expat lifestyle and suggested to Grandpa that shrewd intelligence personnel in the foreign service should collect art. Not only did this pursuit require one to learn the culture, language, and perspective of new nations, but it also provided an automatic reason for being overseas, and a pretext for traveling to all sorts of strange locations to meet peculiar characters. Plus, as a sort of bonus, one would wind up with a collection of beautiful and interesting artworks. Grandpa collected Congolese and Indonesian oil paintings and, particularly, Chinese porcelain (so, if you have ever wandered why I am always trying to understand the glorious arts of China in this blog, I guess it is a cultural legacy from Arturo, some 1950s spy whom I never met).

I wanted to properly write about Grandpa’s foreign service career which was extensive and illustrious, but all of this makes him sound like some dark puppetmaster (his Indonesian sobriquet was “Wayang” since he had the same handsome sharp features as the Indonesian version of the hero Arjuna). However Grandpa retired from statecraft and the affairs of nations in 1974, the same year I was born.

He and grandma lived in suburban Maryland by the Chesapeake Bay and their cat Pharaoh (AKA Faro), a magnificent predator of the Chesapeake Bay swamp (who was, hilariously as white as an arctic fox). Grandpa was always trying to feed or heal various strays and mongrels and plant his own paradisiacal garden to rival the beauties of South East Asia (although hurricanes of ever growing frequency would always blow down his beautiful trees). Some of my happiest memories of childhood involve exploring the Bay with Grandpa in his rowboat and catching blue crabs, or having plum battles with the tiny Italian prune plums from his little orchard.

It was fun to look at his art collection (and his collection of exotic weaponry from Africa and Asia) but it was even more fun to spend summer vacation puttering around the Chesapeake or driving around Washington and Baltimore in his preposterous vehicle, an enormous Chevrolet Impala station wagon of the late seventies which was about 45 feet long and which looked like a hearse the color of a raincloud. Sadly, in that era, GM lavished minimal attention on frivolous details like engines, and so his new car’s motor exploded not long after purchase. Undeterred, Grandpa took the hulk over to a chopshop in Glen Burnie and told them to put “something powerful” in it, which is how he had a powder blue bulldozer in the unlikely form of a station wagon.

Grandpa loved religion and was drawn to it, and when I was growing up, he would beguile me by telling me the stories of what was happening in the paintings on his wall–epic tales from the Mahabharata or from ancient China. Yet it was clear he could see through the dogmatic aspects of faith and was most attracted to spirituality as a furtherance of human concerns through sophisticated allegorical confabulation. To be more plain, I think he was astonished that while nation-states were always desperately struggling to coerce people to do things, holy men could come along with a beautiful story which would cause people to eagerly participate in ridiculous ventures which ran contrary to their own self-interest. I would like to write about how he understood animals and people and was always surprising the Amish by speaking to them in their own tongue (it is basically a weird German, he confided), or befriending salty myna birds or rescuing addled baby animals or what-have-you, but I will instead end with his bees. Although he liked honey, it was obvious that he kept bees because they combined all of his true interests–communication, nation-building, animals, farming, warfare, family, and making things. All of this came in a little white box which he said was like having your own miniature city-state of 50,000 flying Spartans in yellow and black striped tunics. Of course sometimes West Virginia bears would come out of the forest and eat your civilization, or varroa mites would cause everyone to sicken and die, or the young queen would murder the old one (or vice versa) but it was all part of an even larger picture and just meant you had to rebuild better.

Now that Grandpa is dead, the world which he and his contemporaries made is swiftly coming apart. Beekeeping, arm-twisting, and politics have never much interested me, but if we want any honey (or simply not to be a sad addled province in Putin’s new Russia or a client state to Xi’s imperial China), perhaps we need to think about some of the lessons of his life of service to the Republic.

Consulting the Oracle (John William Waterhouse, 1884) oil on canvas

It is the last month of a largely disappointing year. It is time to start looking forward in time and thinking about how we can maybe redeem next year from the failures and idiocies which have bedeviled this era. But it also the beginning of the holiday season, so as an early holiday treat, here is a very famous and beautiful painting from 1884 (it was very famous in 1884–perhaps less so now, but its troubling beauty endures). But why is this painting troubling? What is it even about?

This is Consulting the Oracle, by the matchless John Williams Waterhouse, one of the greatest of English painters from England’s greatest era. Like Waterhouse’s foreboding and challenging work Psyche Entering Cupid’s Garden, this is a work that, at first glimpse, seems to be an overly realistic Victorian fantasy of decorative charm, exotic setting, sumptuous color, and feminine beauty without much larger import. As with the Psyche painting, this initial impression is quite far from the truth, but, to understand the painting one must research the subject.

According to Waterhouse (who must have been a very strange and learned man) “Consulting the Oracle” is about a group of young Jewish women consulting a teraph to learn the future. Teraphim appear in the Pentateuch–but the text makes their nature extremely problematic and mysterious, or, to say that a different way, teraphim are baffling forbidden items in the Bible. Hebrew scholars have lost the original meaning of the word and now just translate it as “disgraceful things.” Apparently they were household or ancestral deities, not unlike the Roman Penates. For example, In Genesis, when Jacob (the father of Israel) is finally escaping his conniving father-in-law, Laban, Jacob’s wife Rachel steals the family teraphim. Laban is suspicious about what she is sitting on (for she refuses to rise from her camel saddle), but she tells him she is menstruating and thus succeeds in making off with the items. Various disputed Talmudic sources (which I guess that Waterhouse was reading?) suggest that the teraphim were the ancestors, or to quote the Jewish Encyclopedia, that “Teraphim were made from the heads of slaughtered first-born male adult humans. The heads were shaved, salted, spiced, with a golden plate placed under the tongue, and magic words engraved upon the plate.” According to Kabbalistic tradition, such objects could foretell the future if hung upon the wall and properly invoked. Modern archaeology has discovered many ceremonially plastered and mounted skulls kept inside the house as sacred ancestral totems in the ancient early cities and settlements of Palestine and the Levant. Also the sacrifice of all first born male mammals is indeed an ancient Middle Eastern tradition.

So what Waterhouse has actually given us is a peak into a ritual which casts a great deal of doubt onto just what the Old Testament is really about (in fact if you look around the room, you might notice that the torah is there, peaking out of its cupboard beneath the blue bottle at far right). Also notice that in this composition, a seat has been prepared for you the viewer to take part in this dark ritual of prophecy. You get to hear what this sacrificed mummified human head has to say. In fact the head is there too, whispering to the quack priestess who commands the audience with her stagecraft–it is just so leathery, brown, and unexpected that you probably missed it. Jeepers Creepers!

So what is this painting about? To my mind it is a warning about the false promises of magic and divination (or “religion” as we call such things). These excited young women have fallen under the dark thrall of the teraph’s interpreter. She is using the “disgraceful thing” to work everyone up and gain a hold upon them. A cursory look at Waterhouse’s full oeuvre reveal him to be obsessed with exactly such stories of sacrifice, judgement, and faith gone horribly awry. Another interpretation is that it is a painting which takes a thread from the Bible, the teraphim, and pulls at it to see what unwinds, rather in the manner Kierkegaard did with “Fear and Trembling” (or Rembrandt did with Abraham and Isaac). But this is an evil version of Fear and Trembling, for it opens a curtain into a world where God’s chosen are, well, murderers and idolators, apparently. This, of course, lays open a possible interpretation that this is an anti-Semitic work, although I personally doubt this since because, like Waterhouse’s Arthurian and Roman women, these Jewish ladies really look like Victorian/Edwardian English ladies to me. Whatever Waterhouse is saying, he is probably saying it about all people for all time.

Another interpretation is that this really is a work about augury. The teraph’s words are terrible and forbidden, but who could resist hearing them? The audience’s body language of open mouthed astonishment, horror, or outright weeping suggest that the teraph might indeed have some bad things to say (maybe about the Great War and how Waterhouse would die just before it ended of a horrible, painful cancer). In a way, the painting reminds me most of the poem “Goblin Market” (another profound work of art by another Pre-Raphaelite) it approaches forbidden and the transgressive as a legitimate source of transcendent knowledge about ourselves. So sit down, right there, in the the seat Waterhouse has prepared for you and tell me what you hear.

Hello! I am back. I courteously request that you kindly forgive my two week absence from writing posts about dark gods, bottom-dwelling fish, the cold darkness of outer space, weird art, and, um, pretty flowers in the garden. The fact of the matter is that, after a long and vivid life, my grandfather passed away. Not only did the funeral take me out of town (back to the tiny mountain hamlet in Appalachia where my family comes from, and to a cemetery where I am related to pretty much everyone), but his death also spelled the definitive end of an era and left me with some pretty serious questions. (also I loved Grandpa and was mourning him, but we will leave such personal matters aside)

I will write up an appropriate obituary here at the end of the year, but to quickly summarize: Grandpa spent his working life overseas operating on behalf of the United States government, fighting and winning the nation’s great twentieth century battles. He was in German-occupied Italy when it fell to the allies. He was in Burma when the Imperial Japanese army was defeated. He was in Egypt during the Suez Canal Crisis, and then in Somalia, then in the Belgian Congo when it became Zaire. He was in Indonesia when the pro-communist Sukarno abdicated power for Suharto. And he finished up his foreign career in Vietnam working to best assist American allies there.

Even during the chilliest parts of the cold war, Grandpa’s work of defeating Soviet puppets (or subalterning them to become useful to the United States) was not highly visible or well-understood by Americans at home. These days that lack of diplomatic (or realpolitik) perspective is hurting us. The United States seems to benefit from having a comprehensible international competitor. After the events of the late eighties and the breakup of the Soviet Block, the perspective concerning the Cold War has gone two very opposite ways.

There is a narrative on the right that we won the Cold War outright and can now turn our back on the world and focus all of our attention on making American billionaires much richer and perfecting fundamentalist Christian theocracy. Thinkers from the left seem inclined to regard the outcome of the Cold War as foreordained and spend their energy lambasting the methods which America employed to counter Russia’s dirty tricks as some sort of capitalist imperialism or neocolonialism. Like all good-hearted people, I regard the first point of view as naive garbage which is pulling us towards fascism. Unfortunately, the well-intentioned liberal line of thinking is likewise dangerous garbage which is enabling the current international crisis of democracy. Please read this chilling article from the Atlantic about what happens when there are too few people like Grandpa (hint: we still have terrible foreign enemies and they are working hard to prolong our political stalemate and deepen our internal tensions…or just end our democracy outright and put their own puppet in charge here).

Anyway, this is a short post to explain my fortnight-long absence not to contextualize the affairs of the whole world (again, that Atlantic article does that). Also, as you can probably tell, being in West Virginia disturbed me. It is one thing to see America’s political divisions on some colorful map. It is quite another to come face to face with the number of earnest Americans who honestly believe our future lies in “far-right, authoritarian ultranationalism characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, and strong regimentation of society and of the economy” (to borrow a sentence straight from Wikipedia).

So Grandpa is gone and his hard work is coming undone. I will get back to writing about the garden and the oceans, but I will try to spend more time writing about the affairs of the world. The political crisis of the 21st century is well underway and America and our embattled democratic allies are quickly losing ground abroad and at home. We are all going to have to spend more time explaining why authoritarianism is bad and why we need to spend money and time influencing what happens overseas. Likewise we are going to have to keep defending fundamental liberal and democratic values here, as well. We will have to patiently do the best we can to minimize the coming disasters of 2022 and 2024. Otherwise the red spots on the map will keep spreading and there will be no United States–just another Russian puppet of the sort that Grandpa spent his life fighting.

Oh no! I just noticed that I published an incomplete version of the special Halloween post about “Spoon River” I mow cannot find the full post so, I guess, don’t read that post until I go back and rewrite it (at some time in the future! Right now I am too weak to wrestle any more with the larger themes of that dark cross sectional diagram of American society). Speaking of dark views of society, our Halloween-theme weeks invariably feature a post about Gothic aesthetics. It would be unconscionable not to have a post about Gothic tombs–but there are so many contenders! Where do I even start?

The answer is…Portugal? Above is the exquisite sarcophagus of Pedro I of Portugal who ruled the Iberian nation from 1357 until his death in 1367. The magnificent royal coffin is located in the Royal Monastery of Alcobaça right next to the equally splendid matching sarcophagus of Inês de Castro, a Gallician noblewoman whose life and death was the central story of Pedro’s life and career. The full horrible story of their cursed love has been told in numerous operas and was universally known in Portugal in the 14th century, however since there are few 14th century Portuguese gossip mongers still around, we will have to outline the story here. This is bad news since not only is the story a full-on “Game of Thrones style” disaster, but many of the parties involved shared similar names (which I guess were common to all Iberian princes and princesses).

Pedro I was the son of Afonso IV of Portugal (1291 –1357) an important king who kicked off the age of exploration (and made Portugal a world power), but Afonso IV struggled mightily against his powerful neighbors, the Kings of Castile. In 1325 Alfonso XI of Castile entered a child-marriage with Constanza Manuel of Castile, the daughter of Juan Manuel, Prince of Villena (and great granddaughter of Ferdinand I of Castile) . Two years later, Alfonzo XI of Castile annulled this marriage to Constanza Manuel in order to marry Afonso IV of Portugal’s daughter Maria of Portugal (Pedro’s sister). Unfortunately (but perhaps unsurprisingly) Alfonzo XI of Castile mistreated Maria of Portugal (who would have expected such behavior from a man who threw his child bride to the curb to grasp for more power?)

Anyway, Afonso IV of Portugal reached out to the equally aggrieved Juan Manuel (the powerful father of Constanza Manuel) and Constanza Manuel was married to Prince Pedro (later to become King Pedro I, whose sarcophagus we are writing about). Alas, Constanza Manuel brought the noblewoman Inês de Castro with her to Portugal as a lady-in-waiting. Pedro married Constanza Manuel, but he began a love affair with Inês de Castro which scandalized the nation. In 1345, Constanza Manuel bore Peter a son, Ferdinand, and then died. Afonso IV banished Inês de Castro to a convent, but Pedro kept seeing her (and she kept bearing him children). Fearing Castilian influence (and worried that Pedro’s sickly legitimate son would fall prey to the multitudinous illegitimate ones), Afonso IV sent three courtly assassins to deal with Inês de Castro. In 1355, the king’s goons beheaded her in the convent in front of her children. Afonso IV believed this would solve the problem, but, for some reason, it instead sent Pedro into a towering rage. Prince Pedro rebelled against his father and begin to ravage the heartlands of Portugal. Afonso IV martialed his army and defeated Pedro in battle, but as soon as he was victorious, he died and Prince Pedro became Pedro I, King of Portugal.

“The Death of Inês de Castro”, Karl Pavlovic Brjullov

Two of the assassins who had executed Inês de Castro fled to Castile, but King Pedro I offered Alfonzo XI various hostages in exchange for the fugitives. Once he had the killers back in Portugal he tried them for murder and when they were convicted, he personally, physically, literally ripped their hearts out (although the third killer, Diogo Lopes Pacheco, got away and after many adventures returned to die as an elderly prosperous Portuguese nobleman with his heart in its proper place).

A historical re-enactment

According to legend, Pedro I had a magnificent throne made for the mummified body of Inês de Castro and would force courtiers to kiss her leathery hand. Actual primary sources from 14th century Portugal do not corroborate this detail (although they also don’t explicitly say that Pedro I didn’t build a throne for his mummified posthumous wife). However what is certain is that he arranged for exquisite matching coffins so that she would be the first person he saw after resurrecting (excepting Jesus or super angels or whatever).

The Coffin of Inês de Castro, Portugal’s posthumous queen

It is a terrible story…but they really are beautiful fancy coffins. I don’t know, though, something about this story makes me wonder if it is actually worth it to be King of Portugal. Maybe supremely high social status is not the panacea we imagine it to be. I guess we can ask King Pedro I.

Sometimes you have to rip out a few hearts

Spoon River Anthology is a series of interwoven poems about a fictional cemetery in the fictional town of Spoon River, Illinois (a non-existent hamlet which somehow bears more than a passing resemblance to author Edgar Lee Masters’ home town of Lewistown, Illinois). While actual cemeteries are not especially chilling or haunting (other than for inducing thoughts about the very limited continuity of the things of this world), the fictional cemetery of Spoon River is a truly disquieting place. Masters utilizes the dark harrow of art to plough up flinty truths about human life–and these are the sorts of truths which are so honest as to be forbidden–unspeakable by anyone not already dead. It is one of the more haunting works of American fiction–an epic puzzle about how our lives are marred by our attempts to grasp our dreams and desires–and how the real arc of our destiny is hidden from us by the illusions, lies, and stratagems which come into being as other people strive to to grasp their dreams and desires.

The anthology features the voices of 212 characters speaking from beneath the hill about the true circumstances of their lives and deaths. They speak honestly about loneliness, need, and failure. They speak about belief, knowledge, and love. Although the anthology is entirely written in the unearthly voice of the departed, it is not a series of poem about the afterlife (indeed, I would be stunned if Edgar Lee Masters believed in any such thing), instead the poem is about adultery, ludicrous colonial wars, small-town politics, romance novels, addiction, sadness, and America’s siren song of success at any cost. Much of this involves the constant jostling for social ascendancy which (sigh) is the principle feature of human society. Perhaps it will shock, shock, shock you to learn that most of the wealthy and powerful elite of Spoon River obtained their high standing by standing on top of other people.

Spoon River Anthology was published in 1914–a date when America stood balanced between field and factory, between war and peace, and between innocence and disillusionment. You can (and should) read the whole thing for free anywhere on the internet. In many respects the poems work better today than when they were first written since they are non-linear networked pieces very much suited to hyperlinks and indexes.

Since you can easily read them yourself, I do not need to quote the poems extensively, but, it would be shame not to give you a taste to get you hooked. The metaphor for how to obtain success in the rat race of the capitalist world is to “build a better mousetrap” Here is the poem of Robert Fulton Tanner, one of several feverish inventors in Spoon River. It is a bit uncertain, but it seems like he died of sepsis after being bitten by a rat…

If a man could bite the giant hand
That catches and destroys him,
As I was bitten by a rat
While demonstrating my patent trap,
In my hardware store that day.
But a man can never avenge himself
On the monstrous ogre Life.
You enter the room—that’s being born;
And then you must live—work out your soul,
Aha! the bait that you crave is in view:
A woman with money you want to marry,
Prestige, place, or power in the world.
But there’s work to do and things to conquer—
Oh, yes! the wires that screen the bait.
At last you get in—but you hear a step:
The ogre, Life, comes into the room,
(He was waiting and heard the clang of the spring)
To watch you nibble the wondrous cheese,
And stare with his burning eyes at you,
And scowl and laugh, and mock and curse you,
Running up and down in the trap,
Until your misery bores him.

Do you perhaps feel a pang of sympathy for the poor trapped rat?

I have made Spoon River Anthology sound monstrous…and it is. The poems do not hide national sins of racism (look what happens to the poor Chinese American student), sexism, oppression, and cruelty. The dark work of whitecapping the neighbors, propping up the rotten bank, and putting the fix in for the masters is all there, along with SO much hypocrisy.

Yet Spoon River Anthology is about life and so it is also about love and hope. Luminous transcendent ideals are always present in this work, even among the most debased of the dead. Many of the poems (or maybe most of them) are about loving an idea or another person so much that one’s self is annihilated. Spoon River is filled with places where it is always spring, or where the most transcendent song can be heard, or where someone first found the love of their life. Sometimes such ineffable stuff leads souls to lives of meaning and beauty–in other cases it is the bit of cheese on the spring catch mechanism.

I said cemeteries are not haunted–but I meant Greenwood and Cypress Hills–I might say different things about Pleasant Hill and Blue Knob. It is impossible to avoid the feeling that if the little cemetery in your hometown were properly cross-referenced and indexed it would be very much like Spoon River.

Oh gosh, October is really flying by this year. I guess we might as well jump to this year’s spooky Halloween topic right now so that we will be able to enjoy (?) these posts as we approach Halloween. Topics in previous years have included the undead, the mother of monsters, flaying, and dark clowns. This year we are returning to the classics and writing about cemeteries (but with an eye on the future as well as the past). Arguably this is a repeat of my 2018 “necropolis” series, but I was dissatisfied by how that panned out (even if I am still astonished and troubled by Vietnam’s “City of Ghosts“) so this year we will circle back to explore the emotional, political, and philosophical (and environmental) aspect of cemeteries and take a look at some amazing graveyards as well.

We will do all of that in subsequent posts of this series, but to start with, let’s just check out an amazing ancient cemetery! The ancient city of Hierapolis is located in what is now Turkey, but its “golden age” took place during the Greco-Roman period particularly from Hellenic times to the beginning of the Byzantine era. The true apogee of Hierapolis was during the heyday of the Roman Empire. The location has a famous hot spring with heated bubbling mineral water–and it is hard to imagine anything more appealing to the Roman mind than a giant natural jacuzzi (especially one right beside the Adriatic in the Hellenized heart of Asia Minor). Well-to-do Romans would retire to Hierapolis to enjoy the healing benefits of the baths and the services of doctors/quacks/healers/magicians of all sorts. The location was a sort of medical mecca of the Roman world. You should go look up the wonders of the Hieraplois baths and theater on your own. For the purposes of this article though, the other side of the medical industry is germane. When the ancient doctors could not help patients, the people who moved their seeking succor stayed permanently.

Like other Roman cities, Hierapolis was designed with the market, theater, and forum in the center of town–along with the baths and medical establishments (and a great colonnaded main street). Around the city center were shops, temples and the dwellings of the great. Farther from the center were more modest dwellings and artisan’s shops and workplaces. The city was surrounded with walls and immediately outside these walls, along each thoroughfare, were extensive cemeteries. Just imagine how creepy roman cemeteries were back in the day when all of the outcasts and footpads of town would haunt the dark mausoleums, columbariums, and tumuli! Like us, the ancient Romans also had their own extensive creepy pantheon of demons and monsters, but the Roman spooky realm was haunted by beautiful flesh-eating lamia, and grim owl-like strix (and headlined by dark gods like Dis Pater, Hecate, and Cronus).

Anyway, Hierapolis was wealthy, as were the citizens who came there to spend the remainder of their days, and thus many of the Roman tombs built there were beautiful and solidly built–and they are still there. The Roman elites commissioned lovely gardens of cypress, asphodel, and roses around their graves. Many of the stunningly beautiful carved sarcophagi which you will recognize from Latin textbooks or history articles about Rome are from Hierapolis (the best have been gathered together in a museum). Even if you are a stern, joyless Christian and find little to love about a bunch of pagan graves, Hierapolis is the also the final resting place of Philip the Apostle and it had a long successful turn as a Byzantine spa city as well.

Tomb of Philip the Apostle (or possibly Philip the Evangelical, depending on which Biblical archaeologists you believe)

Jupiter, the speaking oaks, a pigeon, and a mysterious goddess

As I read about the ancient world, one of the place names which keeps reappearing again and again is Dodona–the site of the oldest oracle in Greece. Ferrebeekeeper has already written about the myth of the foundation of Dodona (which reputedly became a place of prophecy when a black dove with the power of human speech landed there). During the Greco-Roman era, the shrine was sacred to Zeus/Jove himself. The priests and priestesses of Dodona would listen to the noises of a grove of sacred oak trees. Not only did the leaves of these trees rustle in the wind but their boughs were hung with resonant bronze vessels (which banged and clanged like wind chimes). Although Dodona was sacred to Zeus in the classical era, it seems like it dates back to at least Mycenaean times (the mysterious palace-building city states of Mycenaean Greece preceded the Greek age by many centuries, and although they apparently shared some cultural and linguistic similarities, the cultures were not the same). It has been argued that the Dodona of Mycenaean times was sacred to the great goddess Gaia. Whatever the ancient traditions of Dodona were, they came to an apocalyptic halt around 1200 BC when disaster and invaders put an end to the palace civilizations. Sacred worship and divination reemerged there later in the new conventions of Archaic Greek religious style (all of which contributed to the Zeus versus Gaia mythology which is such a pivotal conflict in ancient Greek mythology).

The Sphinx in the Carthaginian Charnel Yard (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor on paper

Today’s post features a little watercolor from the tiny moleskine sketchbook which I carry around with me all the time—but it is also a teaser for Ferrebeekeeper’s annual Halloween feature topic (previous topics have included the undead, the children of Echidna, flowers of the underworld, evil clowns, and flaying).  Anyway, the painting shows a Carthaginian cemetery with a great sinister oven in the background in the shape of Baal or Tanit.  Some officious Carthaginian priest is running around the monuments with a sinister wavy ceremonial knife and weird shrouded forms writhe in the background.  In the foreground is a disgruntled sphinx wearing the same expression as my housecat before she stalks out of the room or disappears to hide in her undisclosed secure location.   In the extreme foreground is a nightjar hidden among the weeds and wildflowers.   Glowing pink flowers of a numinous character hover in the stormy sky.  It is unclear whether they are ornamental or somehow connected with whatever story is being told.  

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