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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.

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.

The Crucifixion (Anthony Wierix & Martin de Vos, ca. 1590), engraving on paper

It is Good Friday, and as per tradition, here is an exquisite crucifixion artwork to mark the occasion. The beautifully engraved print is remarkable for its enormous quality, precision, and detail: just look at the lightning striking Jerusalem in the distant background! However it is also remarkable for the two (or three) levels of reality which the artists/printmakers have divided it into. In the central rectangle, Jesus is crucified on a hill in Israel as Mary, Mary Magdalen, and Saint John lament. Moving outwards by a degree, we find a second, rather more metaphorical frame which presents the instruments of the passion: the cross, the scourge, the nails, the pitcher of vinegar. Only as we examine the carefully engraved items in depth do we discover how allegorical these images really are. The coins are avarice. The flail is cruelty. The cock is denial. The vinegar is bitterness. The sepulcher is fear. These bedrock emotional drives are the true tools of the Passion. It is by means of the universal nature of humankind that Jesus was slain, but only by transcending such things and moving inwards to a more divine and transcendent level of faith, tenderness, and compassion can we be redeemed.

Of course there is an unspoken third level as well–of bare paper which has not been pressed by the plate. This reminds us that we are looking at a little nesting universe of profound ideas which are the contrivance of gifted artists working in the real world with ink, burins, presses, and paper in order to make us think more carefully about existence…or such would be the case if you were looking at this in a Duke’s library or the Cooper Hewitt Museum. Instead you are looking at this on the internet on glowing pixels on my blog–so there is really a fourth meta-level of ideological interpretation (conveniently provided by me, some random guy on the internet just writing stuff). The 16th century was an age when thrilling new media lead humankind to terrible excesses (there is a reason all of those torture implements look so realistic). Theologians, political leaders, and rabble-rousers used these new tools to whip up the sectarian passions of Christ’s followers and drive the faithful to slay the faithful in vast religious wars. There is a symbolic reason the scimitar, the torturer’s tongs, and the open crypt are closer to the viewer than Christ is: God is separated from us not just by space and time, but by supernatural and moral hierarchy as well (and by ethnicity too, as the Hebrew at the top reminds us). I wonder if His followers in the modern era will see what the Christian artists of the new mass media arts of the 16th century were trying so hard to explain…

Although the news of world affairs and politics has been rather bad lately, there is some more good news from the laboratory. Yesterday, an Oxford-based company, First Light Fusion, successfully tested a novel strategy to creating safe, sustainable nuclear fusion power (which is to say their test was a success–we have yet to see whether the larger concept fulfills its premise). Unlike the National Ignition Facility in California, which uses an enormous laser array to heat the hydrogen target to solar temperatures, or the ITER project (which uses a tokamak, a torus of plasma held in place by powerful magnetic fields), the British strategy is shockingly primitive–a gun shoots a super-high velocity projectile at a little cube containing two tiny spheres of deuterium. This cube is the secret ingredient for the company’s fusion plans (literally, since they hope to sell the proprietary fuel packets to everyone and make money that way).

Reading between the lines of the article announcing this information in “The Financial Times” it seems like this method does not produce as much energy as the tokamak or the laser array, however it is simpler and more scalable then those designs–if it can be made effective. So far none of the designs have produced more energy than they required, so that is quite a big if.

Coincidentally, although First Light Fusion is a British company, their main financial backer is an enormous shadowy Chinese capital company. Perhaps America’s legislators could spare some time from their busy schedule of performative white supremacy interrogations of Supreme Court candidates and suchlike culture wars gibberish to, you know, fund research into the technologies which will define the future.

Well, there is more bad news for world democracy today, as Russian strongman Vladimir Putin attacked Ukraine in what appears to be a classic expansionist landgrab (but which Putin apologists have been trying to whitewash with every color of falsehood available). It comes as a legitimate shock to the international community (and to me), even though, for weeks America’s president and intelligence community have been loudly warning about exactly this thing happening in exactly this way! I thought Putin was attempting to distract attention away from his troubles in Central Asia by shaking the Crimean tree as hard as he could (and maybe also see if the Ukrainian plum would just tumble into his lap). That was wrong: Putin has obviously brought an axe to chop the tree down. All of his actions for the past half-decade (at least) suddenly make perfect sense as a series of steps to destroy and annex Ukraine…and to prevent the nations of the world from doing anything about it. Not only does this provide Putin with a coveted breadbasket, it could mortally damage his greatest geopolitical rival, the United States of America by showing we are hopelessly weak, divided, isolated, and self-deluded.

Speaking of which, if the United States of America were properly united, this would never have happened. Unfortunately though, Republicans have devoutly simpered over Putin ever since he bankrolled their beloved leader, the criminal fraudster Donald Trump (whose supine obeisance to Vladimir Putin has been a much-remarked upon central feature of his political and business persona). Since far-right Republicans support Putin and openly back his darkest plans to crush our nation and transform it into a broken client state of Putin’s empire (with themselves installed as life rulers), we have a real problem. What is to be done?

Looking back to a bygone era, I believe poor Grandpa would have some keen insights into how to handle this international crisis. Most of them would boil down to a simple & proven formula: slather money, weapons, and support on Putin’s enemies. Russia is filled with restive provinces like Chechnya which are longing to escape and surrounded by anxious new republics like Kyrgyzstan which are terrified of the giant criminal empire next door. If everyone who hates Putin in all of these places were indulged with fancy handouts and shiny new arms, Putin’s world would be much worse. No time for Ukrainian adventures when you are fighting half-a-dozen Chechnya-type conflicts! (does anyone recall how dirty and destructive that war was?) Also, other Russian client states like Syria, Myanmar, Cuba, Iran, Cyprus, Egypt (sigh), and…Saudi Arabia (!) need to be isolated or courted as appropriate–even if dealing with such recidivist nations rubs American progressives the wrong way.

Putin is in a shakier position than he seems. Former Russian leaders have been rather less reliant than Putin on the absolute support of Russia’s shadowy oligarchs, who now lead lives of unimaginable opulence and international privilege. America and our allies control the world financial system. Strip the oligarchs of their ill-gotten money (squirreled away in banks and assets around the world) and take away their ability to travel the world as they please. Perhaps Putin could stand to worry about national division and traitorous back-stabbers too.

A third part of an international anti-Putin strategy involves winning the People’s Republic of China back from Putin’s malign influence. China surely recognizes that their successful, prosperous, and extremely-populated nation shares a 4133 kilometer border with a mostly-empty rogue state, which is now going around attacking its neighbors. Yet suddenly China looks like it is taking orders from Russia and acting as its toady (and it looks that way for a very good reason). In the meantime, their own markets have plunged and their vital fuel and gas supplies have become ever-so-much more expensive. Xi JinPing is an unreconstructed despot of ancient stamp and always will be. Yet he and China have ever so much more to lose than the nihilistic decaying petrostate which surrounds China. Undoubtedly Xi knows it, but hopes to lie back in the tall grass while Russia’s craziness takes America down a notch or two.

The main international strategy of Donald Trump (undoubtedly given him by his master, Putin) was to insult, belittle, and bully China in every way and to begin a series of mutually harmful trade wars. Perhaps America could undo some of that harm by buttering up China, ending the sanctions, and offering it some things it wants. This might sound unlikely, but Richard Nixon successfully did exactly that…and during a deep freeze in the cold war!

Finally, we need to clean house back at home. Republicans fell completely for a Russian counterintelligence/extortion operation. Don’t worry Republicans, it happens to everyone! Just clap the Trumps in irons and exile some self-proclaimed pro-Russian traitors like Tucker Carlson, J.D. Vance, and Candace Owen from the party (you might find you are happier without them, too). All of the other Republican traitors who have supported Trump and Putin over their own country could whitewash themselves and claim to return to being the party which stands for strong defense and an American-led international order. Clever political operators could probably delude the deplorables that this whole whole “Russia taking over America by taking over the Republican Party” business was Biden’s fault all along (in fact, some of them are trying to do just that according to this AP article from today). Fine. If what is required to unite and protect the nation is pretending that Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, and Mitch McConnell are not the grotesque fascists, cowards, kleptocrats, and traitors which they obviously are, then I am sure we can all grit our teeth and do so. Here. I, personally will lead the way: Tom Cotton is not (always) a ghastly weasel who calls for gunning down American citizens while he lies about being an army ranger. He is a patriot and I respect his ability to stand up to Russian aggression which he demonstrates by supporting President Biden and castigating the Russian puppet Donald Trump. See how easy that was [grit griiiiiiiiiind]

If we act quickly and cleverly in a united way, Russia could be terribly wounded and Putin could be swept away, however, if Republicans keep insisting that representative democracy is the true scourge and moneyed Russian oligarchs are our proper masters, Putin could well win everything. How can we get them to see that destroying the nation for personal political aggrandizement is not the right answer?

Back when I was a toymaker, I used to attend the annual “Toy Fair” trade show in New York’s Javits Center. As you might imagine, the fair was filled not only with fine toys from around the world, but also with weird characters, strange products, peculiar has-been celebrities (Jaimie Farr at booth 1312?), and MASCOTS. A lot of these capering stuffed shills were selling recognizable dolls, plush animals, or action figures, but my favorite was an anonymous and poorly executed bear mascot with a neutral expression, dead eyes, and a bright blue shirt that said “Hong Kong Fun!” For some reason, I could not find a picture of this defunct character (bear-acter?) and so I have approximated the experience with this stock photo (even if it is a bit less anonymous than the original).

Apparently Chinese factory owners were incensed that American manufacturers were (and still are) designing and selling most of the toys made in China. They hoped to eliminate the middle man by manufacturing their own toys and selling straight to American retailers. Hong Kong Fun Bear was a branding tool in this mission. But Hong Kong Fun Bear not only looked janky, he also had a Chinese minder to keep an eye on him. If you tried to talk to Hong Kong Fun Bear, this apparatchik would sternly explain that Hong Kong Fun Bear was prohibited from speaking. Fun! Near the end of the fair, I noticed that Hong Kong Fun Bear had escaped his PRC escort and was outside having a cigarette with his head removed (inside the bear suit was a scrofulous and wan Chinese acrobat with an incredibly sad face).

Anyway, I tell this story to contextualize the current news from China, where Bing Dwen Dwen the famous and beloved Panda mascot of the 2022 Olympics is mired in controversy (maybe he really does exemplify the 2022 Olympics). According to the South China Morning Post, the beloved mascot appeared on a news program to question a skier and spoke with a deep manly “uncle voice” and a pronounced northeastern Chinese accent. The article (which you should read because it is amazing) describes the unhappy reaction which this breach provoked: “‘People don’t want to know that when they hug Bing Dwen Dwen, they’re holding a strange man,’ [one] outraged person commented.”

Apparently Bing Dwen Dwen is subject to binding contractual agreements between the PRC and the IOC which prohibit him (her? it?) from talking and specify that the character is gender neutral. It sounds like Hong Kong Fun Bear was smarter than the average bear to keep his mouth shut (although, thinking back, I am not sure Hong Kong Fun Bear even had a mouth). All of this is good fun of course and South China Morning Post has already published an article about the delight which Bing Dwen Dwen brings to workers (which also details the Cabbage Patch Kids style shortages of the panda figurines and merchandise). A party spokesperson pointedly noted that there are plenty of figurines of Shuey Rhon Rhon, the unloved lantern mascot of the paralympics.

Here seen standing forlornly in a strange public room

All of this suggests to me that Los Angeles had better start getting its mascot game together before the 2028 Olympics. Pandas drive people into buying frenzies, but if California rolls out a lame star or some kind of grizzled grizzly, South China Morning Post is going to be talking all sorts of trash about us. Just ask Hong Kong Fun Bear.

or Bing Dwen Dwen, if you can separate him from his new army of minders
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!

Every December, Pantone announces its “Color of the Year”. A secret cabal of Illuminati-style color influencers meet up and project aesthetic trends for the coming year. All sorts of fashion houses, paint companies, and consumer goods companies utilize Pantone’s announcements to select the color for their wares, so the choice does reflect in the look of the coming year. By the dark magic of emotional association (and the cunning and/or oracular magic of the color guild), the color of the year often does capture the zeitgeist with disturbing canniness. For example, 2021’s two colors, sunny yellow and depression gray, captured the year’s “best of times/worst of times” dualism wherein the the stock market reached all-time highs and the country was awash in cash and jobs yet huge segments of society felt like the economy was in the doldrums. Oh! Also, the 2021 construction-worker colors predicted the huge new infrastructure bill which is putting backhoes and concrete mixers to work across the continent to build back crumbling bridges and roads.

Here is a list of past colors/years if you want to see how the color augurs have done in other years (or at least read my humorous barbs about their choices (although, secretly, I think they do a pretty fine job of finding pretty colors and mixing things up).

2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021

But enough of about the past, let’s gaze into the future! The color of the year for 2022 will be “veri-peri” a mid-tone blue hue which is sliding towards violet. Pantone describes it as “a dynamic periwinkle-blue hue with a vivifying violet-red undertone.” An oil painter would probably say “French ultramarine and flake white with a dash of alizarin crimson and a bit of black”. The more I look at it, the less it seems blue and the more it seems purple. Perhaps it properly sits equidistant between the two. Pantone’s press release says ““Blending the faithfulness and constancy of blue with the energy and excitement of red, this happiest and warmest of all the blue hues introduces an empowering mix of newness.” Hmm, it sounds like they are once again trying to hew a middle passage between the red world of reactionary ethno-nationalism and the blue world of fundamental enlightenment values (both sides need consumer goods).

Pantone also claims this color reflects the growing interdependence between the internet and the dull world of, you know, actual reality. Maybe they are trying to expand their chromo-empire from waffle-makers and cocktail dresses into online games and media (this blog already loves you, Pantone!).

As for me, I like all purples–even this somewhat conservative and official-looking violet blue. One of my coworkers said that Veri-Peri looks like a passport from a country where you might not have all of your freedoms but they probably would not just grab you off the street and send you to a re-education camp (a color-description which reveals much about the growing political tensions in our world). I would describe it as the color of dusk in winter: not warm or comforting but beautiful and elegant nonetheless.

What does Veri-Peri predict for the economy and for society? It seems like a cautious color but one with some optimism as well. In our blue/red world Pantone really does favor purple–and other purple years (2014, 2018) haven’t been so bad (although there were some admitted setbacks). I say, if you want to go ahead and buy a bunch of purple turbans and purple flounder art, go ahead: the good times, such as they are, will keep on rolling. Yet, just as winter twilight indicates that you might need to get your act together and find shelter for the cold dark times, there is an anxious edge to veri-peri. Keep your wits about you and don’t be taken in by things you see on the internet: 2022 will present opportunities both for progress and for calamity…

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

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