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800px-Dresden_Frauenkirche_1880

There is nothing that Ferrebeekeeper loves more than an enormously ornate 18th century edifice—unless it is a touching story of unification and healing!  This story has all of those things—but it also drives straight through one of the darkest episodes of twentieth century history.

This is the Dresden Frauenkirche, one of the two great churches of Dresden.  The Frauenkirche is Dresden’s great Protestant church: the Catholic church–the Hofkirche of Dresden—has its own history (though it could be argued that both churches form a larger story of faith and schism in Germany especially since Dresden is part of Saxony, which was Martin Luther’s diocese).   At any rate the Frauenkirche was designed by Dresden’s city architect, George Bähr and built between 1726 and 1743.  The defining feature of the church was its 96 meter tall stone dome.  The 12,000-ton sandstone dome rested on eight slender supports, and yet was famous for its solid resilience and strength.  During the 7 Years War, Prussian cannonballs bounced harmlessly off the sandstone dome like acorns bouncing off of a church bell.

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Unfortunately, the 20th century saw the advent of more terrible weapons than cannons (and more terrifying German leaders than Frederick the Great). In the final stages of World War II, the Frauenkirche was destroyed by the 1945 Allied fire bombings which burned down Dresden (and killed 25,000 of its citizens). All that was left was a pile of rubble and melancholy broken walls which looked for all the world like a Friedrich painting. The Cold War also took its toll on Germany and Soviet hegemonic aggression prevented the nation from uniting and fully rebuilding.  East Germany was unable to fulfill its potential or govern itself (on the opposite side of the Cold War, the United States was and is the dearest friend and ally of Germany…although maybe it is best not to look too closely into the circumstances of that firebombing or ask a lot of questions about our own recent embrace of the crazed strongman theory of misgovernment).

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So, for half a century the Frauenkirche was a nightmarish burnt fragment—an ever-present revenant reminding the people of Saxony of the terrible destruction of the war.   It became a locus of the German peace movement (and a site for passive resistance to the East German government). Then, in the nineties, circumstances in Germany changed very quickly.  Reunification brought forth a project to rebuild the Frauenkirche.  The original church was destroyed, but the original blueprints were not.  In 1992 construction began on the new Frauenkirche.   In an effort to recreate the church as thoroughly as possible, chemists tested burnt remnants, historians pored over ancient receipts, archivists collected endless photos and artworks, and the citizens of Dresden saved pfennigs in order to pay for the undertaking.  About 3800 stones from the original church were recovered and used.  The old stones have a patina of age…and they were darkened by the fire.

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The project was finished in 2005 (ahead of schedule) and today the Frauenkirche looks almost exactly the same as it did in 1744 or 1944, except the smattering of original stones give it a speckled appearance like a magnificent baroque toad.  Touchingly, the golden cross at the apex of the tower was funded officially by “the British people and the House of Windsor” and wrought by a British goldsmith whose father was a pilot in the bombing.

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If you have ever tried to fix or restore anything, you will recognize that this is a monumental accomplishment which indicates the proficiency and excellence of German manufacture (not that anyone had any doubts anyway). Even more importantly, the story is a reminder to everyone that reunification, rebirth, and rebuilding to Golden Age glory are entirely possible.  The full story of the church however also remains to remind us of the horror of war and the tragic history of mistakes which caused so much devastation.

Today, October 27th, 2012, the top news story here on the East Coast is the possible trajectory of Hurricane Sandy, a large tropical cyclone which is projected to make landfall somewhere between southern New Jersey and New England next week.  However the storm itself is not the point of this post.  Instead I am fascinated by the name “Sandy” because–thanks to a coincidence of timing and translation, that name has been much in front of me lately—but not as the name of a human female.  Instead “Sandy” is the name an inhuman water monster from Chinese mythology.  The monster is a horrifying cannibal, true, but also a strangely put-upon functionary, and then later a devout Buddhist.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let me explain.

Shā Wùjìng carrying the luggage

Sandy is one of the main characters of The Journey to the West, which is the most fantastical of China’s four great classical novels  (four epic works of pre-modern fiction, which scholars regard as the most influential works of literature from that great and ancient nation).  The Journey to the West tells the supernatural deeds of four pilgrims traveling from the court of Emperor Taizong in China  to India in order to obtain the  Lotus Sutra (actually there are five pilgrims, but one is a young dragon who has shapeshifted into a horse, and he seldom leaves horse-form).     The main thrust of the story concerns Golden Cicada (a devout Buddhist priest) trying to control Monkey (a primeval trickster god) and Pig (a monstrous animal spirit whose appetite and bumbling antics provide comic relief).  Monkey is nearly omnipotent and exceedingly clever.  The fourth pilgrim, Sandy (or Shā Wùjìng) is a sort of river ogre who acts as the stolid straight man for the antics of monkey and pig.

The Pilgrim Protagonists of Journey to the West

Together these characters face a host of scheming antagonists while trying to work within the baffling framework of the sprawling bureaucracy of China’s pantheon (this list of the book’s characters will give you a sense of the scope of this plot).   The party is aided by Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of compassion who swoops in to extricate them when they really screw up.

One of the first monsters the monk, the monkey, and the pig encounter is Shā Wùjìng, who has a backstory which illustrate the dangers of the celestial court.  Shā Wùjìng was once a general in heaven, where his task was to occasionally lift a special curtain for the Jade Emperor (the ruler of heaven).  Unfortunately, in a fit of clumsiness, the hapless general accidentally broke one of the Jade Emperor’s favorite vases and incurred divine disfavor.  He was flogged with eight hundred lashes and his form was corrupted into that of a hideous monster with indigo skin, a blood red beard and razor teeth.  Then he was exiled to the desert.

Understandably, Shā Wùjìng was upset at this fall from grace.  He began to haunt the Kaidu River which flows through the arid wastes of Xinjiang.  Every day the Jade Emperor would send seven flying swords to flay open the hapless monster’s chest (the chief god was apparently really fond of that broken vase).  To avoid these swords Shā Wùjìng would hide in the sandy river bottom to the extent that he came to identify himself as “Sandy”.  Because the desert was empty of resources, Sandy began to prey on the silk caravans heading west to Central Asia and India.  In the medieval Chinese worldview, merchants are terrible people of no consequence so there were no repercussions for killing and eating them, but one day Shā Wùjìng unwisely ate a party of holy Buddhist monks who were going to India to visit the sacred lands of Shakyamuni.   The skulls of the holy men float on the river, so Sandy fashions them into a necklace which, along with his monk’s spade (a combination of polearm /bludgeon) are his trademark items.

Shā Wùjìng (Sandy) fights Pig (Zhu Bajie)

In the same manner he ate the earlier party of pilgrims, Sandy attempted to eat Golden Cicada, however monkey and pig easily prevented him from doing so (pig even bestirring himself for an epic battle beneath the river).  Thereafter Shā Wùjìng himself took up the burden of pilgrimage and he is one of the most loyal and dependable character in the book (although he is less strong than monkey and pig).  Of the three monster spirits he is by far the most tractable.

A few weeks ago Ferrebeekeeper featured an introductory post concerning the power which population demographics exert over the affairs of people and nations.  I would like to follow up on those ideas with a post concerning demographic cohorts in the United States (and in Western Europe, where history and shared culture have produced similar chronological categories).  A cohort consists of a group of contemporaries, born together in a 15-25 year period, who have shared certain coming-of-age experiences and crises together. According to conventional thinking there are seven age-based cohorts still marching in the great parade of life here in the western democracies:

  1. The Lost Generation (born 1883 to 1900): Honestly only a few last representatives of the World War I generation remain alive, and they are now so old as to seem fabulously unbelievable–like unicorns or manticores. They earned their name in a horrible way.  A whole generation of young men were conscripted to fight in the trenches of France–and they never came back from the mud beneath the big guns. Even in America, which entered the war late, a huge part of this generation was lost to Spanish flu. The last man to fight in the trenches died earlier this year.  Soon everyone who ever lived in the shadow of the monstrous debacle that was World War I will be dead and the generation will truly be lost–but for now a few ancient grandmothers still survive. 
  2. The Greatest Generation (born 1901 to 1924): This generation also came by its name through fighting in a World War.  The abject awfulness of the Nazi and Japanese war machines gave Allied soldiers a moral clarity and purpose which other generations have lacked. Also this generation first mastered the atom, first ventured into space, and then presided over a time of unprecedented plenty and economic success.
  3. The Silent Generation (born 1924-1945): The oldest members of the Silent Generation participated in World War II along with the greatest generation and now pretend to be part of that cohort, but largely this was the generation slightly too young to go to war.  They grew up in the depression–and they carry some of the hardheaded skinflint pragmatism of that time with them always.
  4. The Baby Boom (born 1945-1965): When the Second World War was won, the world lay in smoking ruins–except for America which was at the peak of its productive capacity.  The brave soldiers came home, started businesses, and married the strong capable women working in the hospitals and factories.  Then together they engendered a huge demographic bulge of newborns. The demographic weight of the boomers (combined with a certain self-absorbed focus on their special destiny) has put them much in the center of national affairs. They were the hippy generation who protested during the summer of love.  They were the hard-charging yuppies of the eighties.  They are the bulk of the government now.  However the boomers are beginning to retire and this massive flux is going to upend everything in our nation.
  5. Generation X (born 1965-1981): Also called the thirteenth generation, this is my generation. We were born in the post-sixties hangover, when recession and malaise stalked the nation and then we came of age in the booming eighties and nineties as communication technology underwent unprecedented breakthroughs (and brought an unprecedented boom in productivity). My generation has always seemed a bit lost—a rain shadow cast by the demographic mountain of baby boomers.  The conventional wisdom is that generation x is lackadaisical, cynical, and apathetic. We certainly do not have any moon landings or atomic bombs to our credit but we did have a hand in creating the new information age.  Also our entire generational ethos has not been finalized. Our greatest masterpieces have not yet been painted.
  6. The Millennial Generation (born 1981-2002): This group is also known as the shadow boom or mini-boom because they are the children of baby boomers (and therefor have their own demographic power). The majority of our active duty service members are from this generation.  They grew up surrounded by pagers, faxes, emails, and texts and they have the mentality to make sense of our networked world. When I was visiting my alma-mater a few years ago, I noticed that the students looked a lot happier and better-dressed than they did when I was a student.  The bars and bathrooms were not covered in graffiti and everyone’s hair was neat.  I think this generation really does have a different and more optimistic mentality then the two preceding it.  Coming into the workforce during a crippling recession might jar the polite businesslike smiles of the millennial generation a bit, but based on their battlefield aplomb and their personal rectitude, we can expect great things.
  7. The New As-Yet-Unnamed Generation (2002-present): No golden-tongued wag has yet given a name to the generation who are currently children.  Whenever I see this group featured in the mainstream media, it seems to be a pejorative article about how video games and environmental mercury are making them dull, but on an anecdotal level I have not found this to be true at all.  The children I have met have all the grace, swiftness, brilliance, and innocence of children.  They are bright and shiny as new-struck coins and I think it is appropriate that nobody has given them a name yet.

Of this list, I obviously have a preference for the first two generations and the last two generations. The lost generation and the greatest generation were badasses who came of age killing Germans with bayonets while building superweapons at home.  The two most recent generations are good-looking kids who are polite, hard-working, socially conscious, and still possess nimble minds. Naysayers who complain about the bad pop music and bad attitudes of “kids these days” are out-of-touch curmudgeons who are not paying close attention to reality [well, popular music actually is pretty bad—ed.].  The millennials are alright and the unnamed generation are better than alright—they are adorable kids who could grow up to be anything.

Sadly, the three generations in the middle—the generations who are at their economic peak and are running the country–are a greedy, fumbling mess.  It is popular to blame Chinese manufacturers, world trade, and globalization for the current economic turmoil, but there is a simpler reason for these bad times.  The inability of government to work and the excesses of our financial sector reflect a deeper division in our society. A huge number of Americans are beginning to retire, and, as large swaths of the population change from productive members of society to retired (but politically active and materially successful) seniors, the nation’s economic timbre is sure to be diminished.

A quick look at the halls of congress or the directorship of large companies will reveal that the silent generation and the baby boomers may be retiring, but they have not given up the true reigns of authority. The great political movements of the past few years—the tea party and the “occupy Wall Street” protests snap into a much sharper focus if you look at the age of the respective participants.  Wrestling control of the faltering nation from the hands of hard-bitten silent generation plutocrats and from a huge number of retiring boomers (who have always had things their way) falls to the indolent hands of generation x—people who would rather write blogs or paint weird paintings.  I, for one, am looking forward to when the millennial generation can also rise to the halls of power. I also worry that demographic stalemate might mean we have to wait until then to enjoy a united and prosperous nation.

The Garden of the Hesperides (Sir Frederic Leighton, 1892)

In the Greek view of the world, there was a tranquil garden of perpetual rosy twilight which was found at the sunset edge of all lands–so far west that the west came to an end.  The garden was inhabited by three nymphs of peerless beauty whose special task was to tend an apple tree in the middle of the garden.  The golden fruit of the tree would confer immortality upon anyone who ate one. But of course there was a catch.

This was the penultimate labor of Hercules: to bring back three of the apples of the Hesperides.  The tree was in the private garden of Hera herself and the apple tree was a wedding gift from Mother Earth to the queen of the gods.  Plucking the apples from the tree would bring instant death to any mortal, but the biggest problem of all was the garden’s true guardian, the dragon Ladon who was coiled around the apple tree.  As you might imagine, Ladon was one of Echidna’s offspring.  He is sometimes shown as a great python, other times as a more traditional dragon, and occasionally as a hundred-headed uber-dragon.

The Garden of Hesperides (Edward Burne-Jones, ca. 1870-1873)

Although dragons abound in Greek mythology, the snake-dragon curled around a sacred tree, seems to have arrived in Greek mythology from another canon altogether.  Scholars believe Ladon’s original form was the Semitic serpent god Lotan, or the Hurrian/Hittite serpent Illuyanka.  In fact, serpents/dragons wound around fruit trees are well-known in the three great monotheistic faiths of the present. In Greek mythology, Ladon only plays an active role in the story of Hercules 11th labor (and even then, the dragon’s role is curiously ambiguous).

Hercules and the Hesperides (Rubert Bunny, 1864 - 1947)

Hercules traveled through the Greek world having adventures, killing giants, and seeking the garden’s location.  It was during his search for the Garden of the Hesperides that he slew the Caucasian Eagle and freed Prometheus (who, in gratitude, told him what to expect at the garden of the Hesperides).  In order to obtain the apples, Hercules solicited the aid of the titan Atlas, who holds up the firmament.  Hercules assumed the burden of the heavens while immortal Atlas collected the apples. When Atlas betrayed Hercules and left the strongman holding the heavens, Hercules pretended to accept his fate–but he asked to adjust his lionskin first.  Once Atlas was holding the heavens again, Hercules picked up the apples and took them back to Eurystheus (who was rightly afraid of them, and gave them to Athena).  The fate of the dragon is a bit unclear.  In some versions Hercules kills him for good measure.  For example, in the story of Jason and the golden fleece, Ladon’s corpse is spotted by the Argonauts—the creature’s body is still heaving and trembling years after death while the heartbroken nymphs sob.  In other stories the dragon survives and, together with the nymphs, continues to look after the tree of life.

Because I can not resist, here are links to a very short and delightful comic strip consisting of a first, second, and third panel. The drawings contain mild nudity (which differs from that found in Lord Leighton’s painting above only in that the strip is contemporary). The creator, M.L. Peters, tried to add a feeling of fin de siècle illustration so as to give the comic punchline a deeper resonance, and I feel he succeeded admirably.  Additionally I love anchovies.

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