Go, stranger, and in Lacedaemon tell,
That here, obeying her behests, we fell.
–epitaph of Leonidas, King of Sparta
Famously, the electorate doesn’t like a loser; conversely, the poets appear unable to abide a winner. Our canonized imagery of warriors and warfare clusters around defeat: Thermopylae, Waterloo, Custer’s Last Stand, Hannibal’s Elephants, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” The Fall of Troy, Rocky I, and Lucan’s Pharsalia all hew to the narrative tropes of tragic implosion or moral victory set against a backdrop of loss. (When we do glamorize triumph, it is almost always the triumph of the underdog that we celebrate; victory against underwhelming odds carries less poetic resonance.)
The Frankish Emperor Charlemagne is mostly remembered—in the history books, that is—as the military and political architect of medieval Christendom. In the annals of verse, however, the most famous of the Carolingian chansons de geste, The Song of Roland, takes for its primary topic the Emperor’s most famous defeat. Roland (etymologists among you may be interested to know that, in Spanish and Italian, he is known as Orlando) was Charlemagne’s nephew and his commander at the Battle of Ronceveaux in A.D. 778, a relatively small engagement between the Franks and the Basques that prevented the Franks from holding onto recently conquered Moorish lands in northern Spain.
The Roland poet, whose identity is unknown, took some liberties with the story. Instead of facing a rag-tag band of Basque landsmen, the “fair flower of French chivalry” was up against the arrayed forces of 400,000 Moorish “paynims.” Roland’s stand in the high mountain pass also echoes Leonidas at Thermopylae–in the poem he is the last line of defense against a Muslim Europe. In the final analysis, the fact of Roland’s defeat is less important a subject for poetic elegy than his apotheosis as an exemplar of martial virtue.
It is thus a fool’s game to question the valiant nature of Roland’s gambit. (Indeed, it is a fool’s game to question the nobility of any military gambit not involving Benedict Arnold, the Nazis, or John Kerry.) On one issue, at least, the majority of poets seem to be in agreement: It is sweet and beautiful to die in defense of one’s country.
That most extraordinary of Southern gentlemen, Robert E. Lee, famously chose to give his military services to the Confederacy even though he had opposed secession as a betrayal of the Founding Fathers’ vision. As he put it to a junior officer in 1861,”I shall never bear arms against the Union, but it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in the defense of my native state, Virginia, in which case I shall not prove recreant to my duty.” (And what a musket it turned out to be.)
While Lee was a true son of Virigina, of the Westmoreland county Lees, he was a younger son; without a patrimony, he was forced to marry into money in order to live after the aristocratic fashion to which he was accustomed (there are worse fates). He married one Mary Custis, heiress to the great Washington-Custis fortune, and took up residence at her estate, called Arlington House, on the southern banks of the Potomac River. As few as fifteen years prior to the war between the states, Arlington House fell within the jurisdiction of the District of Columbia, and not the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Washington, D.C., often called Federal City in its early days, was an artificial and symbolic capital. At its founding in 1791, it consisted of two counties, one taken from Maryland and one from Virigina (thus straddling North and South), in an area of country personally selected by George Washington, whose Mt. Vernon was nearby. The District, as it was originally intended, formed a ten mile by ten mile “diamond,” with the Capitol at the very center, as is still possible to infer from the map below:
Over the course of DC’s first fifty years, the inhabitants of Virginian Alexandria county grew disenchanted with their inclusion in the District. The actual capital—the city of Washington—was north of the Potomac River as was Georgetown, an entrepôt that had siphoned off most of the river’s shipping business. Additionally, there was the question of slavery—what business there was at the port of Alexandria was mostly related to the slave trade, which faced serious opposition from some quarters in the District (and was eventually abolished within corporation limits following the Great Compromise of 1850).
With the support of the Commonwealth of Virginia—itself eager for two new Congressional representatives—the county of Alexandria petitioned the federal government for retrocession in 1846. The request was granted on June 9; subsequent Southern attempts at territorial reorganization were not met with such unconcerned approval.
And what of General Lee? To his chagrin, he was not able to retire to his confirmedly Virginian estate after the Civil War. During hostilities, the Lincoln administration seized the Custis-Lee lands, and, with no mean poetic justice, designated them as a burial grounds for the Union soldiers felled by Lee’s “musketry.” In our own time, the site continues to serve as a memorial graveyard. We call it Arlington National Cemetery.
The trial of John Peter Zenger remains the most famous case in American history of “jury nullification”: Zenger was clearly guilty of the laws he was accused of violating, but the jury found those laws unjust and set him free. This act was one of the opening salvos in the ongoing battle for freedom of the press. But journalists aren’t the only people in American society who have benefited from jury nullification: every barkeep in the land owes a comped drink to the brave and principled souls of the 20′s and 30′s who nullified the preposterous Prohibitions against alcoholic beverages.
American laws have often erred in the direction of telling people how to best take care of themselves, and many continue to err in that direction today, but never has this tendency been given wider reign than in the era of Prohibition. To review: in 1919, the United States ratified the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited the manufacture and sale of “liquors,” and passed the Volstead Act, which stated that “no person shall manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, furnish or possess any intoxicating liquor except as authorized by this act.” This bit of legislative lunacy remained on the books for over a decade, giving rise to bootleggers and all the crime associated with them. The amendment and the law were finally put to rest in 1933. As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt put it after signing the Cullen-Harrison Act, which amended the Volstead Act to death, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.”
Along with crime and a horrible precedent for American law, Prohibition also gave rise to a contempt for law that hadn’t been seen since the days of the Boston Tea Party, a contempt that often took the form of jury nullifications: over half of American jurors just couldn’t bring themselves to prosecute anyone for having or serving a drink. This was a major contributing factor in the repeal of Prohibition; after a time, the government couldn’t continue to lose credibility with a law its citizenry refused to enforce. Power to the people, says The Devoted Intellectual, and bottoms up!
Modernism (like romanticism) is a title more properly descriptive of trends common to a lengthy era (starting at the end of the 19th C and not quite vanished in our own time) than of one particular artistic movement. It is impossible to reduce modernism to one set of political, philosophical, or aesthetic values; the existence of such concepts as a modernist physics and modernist industrial production clearly show that such criteria do not provide an adequate definition of modernism on their own. Simply put, modernism is all about method—it is when we look at technique that we perceive family resemblances between Picasso, Proust, Heisenberg, and Nietzsche.
One of the most important commonalities running through modernist enterprise was the use of perspective as an analytic tool in the comprehension and reassembly of reality. Modernists had a habit of breaking things down into component parts—i.e. analysis—and re-using those parts in such a way as to establish new grounds for artistic, philosophical, political, and other investigations. A short survey of modernist artists and thinkers can help to illuminate this use of analytic perspective.
By making use of quick drying paint (the appropriation of new technology is another narrative strand in modernism), suitable for outdoor painting, French Impressionists sought to demonstrate that, as viewers, we see not objects, but, rather, light itself. Thus, the “true” nature of the object becomes contingent on the shifting foundations of environmental lighting, as illustrated by the series of Monet Haystacks below:
In his masterwork Ulysses, James Joyce employed different authorial voices in each “episode” of the novel, ranging from the form of a play to newspaper headlines to the Catholic catechism to stream-of-consciousness. Joyce deliberately adopted his disparate styles in an attempt to subsume the entire body of Western cultural history into his own story (reports vary, but are mostly positive).
The thought experiment known as Schrödinger’s Cat posed by physicist Erwin Schrödinger (which came about through a long correspondence with Albert Einstein) demonstrates that, according to the logic of quantum mechanics, a cat put in a potentially lethal box is both dead and alive until it is observed to be in either state.
Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet filmmaker, was the most famous proponent of the use of montage in cinematography. Through the juxtaposition of radically different images, he hoped to communicate the essence of an event in a way that he felt was more holistic and multi-layered than the illusion of temporal continuity favored by Hollywood. Below is a recreation, in his distinctive style, of events that took place during the Communist revolution in Russia (from the movie Oktober).
The preceding experiments in perspective are but a small cross-section of seminal modernist undertakings; for more on the topic, check out Yale scholar Peter Gay’s new book Modernism: The Lure of Heresy.
The sea shanty (from the French chanson: song) is a product of the explosion in European maritime exploration and trade, roughly corresponding the era A.D. 1600-1900. It is also a remarkable industrial management technique. While iconic amusement park rides and movies would have us believe that early modern crewmen were a merry and melodic bunch, prone to the spontaneous round or two at work or on the bowsprit, they do a disservice to the sea shanty in downplaying its essential role as metronome, or pace-setter, for backbreaking ship-side labor. (It is also probably best to avoid speculation on the relative psychological demeanor of sailors, one way or the other.)
Shanties established the working rhythms for nautical tasks, which called for synchronicity, in pre-mechanical days. Many of the songs encoded specific stage directions pertinent to the work at hand (that seemingly opaque line—“hooray and up she rises”—is all about the sail); a shantyman, or unofficial chorusmaster, would set the tempo by leading the call and response featured in so many of the tunes. Different chores gave rise to different kinds of shanties. Roughly, they can be broken down into categories:
•Long-haul (also called “halyard” or “long-drag” or “what you’re in for”) shanties: sung when a job of hauling on a line was expected to last a long time, generally feature two “pull” lines in each chorus.
•Short drag shanties: for shorter, difficult hauls, characterized by one strong pull in each chorus.
•Capstan shanties: The capstan was a giant winch to which the anchor was attached; the song was sung while pushing it.
•Stamp-’n'-go shanties: used on large ships to choreograph the complex series of movements and actions needed to raise the sail.
•Pumping shanties: sung while pumping the bilge of excess water.
•Fo’c's’le (Forecastle) songs: not actually shanties since they were sung in leisure hours; about as close to Disney as the shanty gets.
Below is a video of the Cornish antiquarian revival group, the Fisherman’s Friends, singing “South Australia”, a long haul shanty (heave away! haul away!) that was probably sung during the embarkation leg of the journey:
Though technology has made the practical use of the shanty obsolete, there is a fair amount of contemporary interest in the form, particularly in folk circles. For a list of sea song festivals worldwide, you can visit The Bitter End—the following is a sample of what an updated shanty sounds like (basically, a lot less elbow grease, a lot more ambient sound). Avast!
Alexander Hamilton’s famous Report on Manufactures occupies an odd place in the history of economics. He advocated for protectionist tariffs to allow American industry to develop without too much foreign competition, so this put him at odds with the views of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Adam Smith. Hamilton had read Smith’s most famous work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, and used Smith’s theories about the “division of labor” in the first part of the Report. However, he was not as resolute a free-market advocate as Smith, placing national interest above the principle of market competition. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the socialist theories of Karl Marx (a contemporary, incidentally, of the president most influenced by Hamilton: Abraham Lincoln). Hamilton may have advocated some governmental controls, but nothing like as many as Marx suggested.
Though Hamilton’s vision seems unique in the history of economic thought, it has been the basis for many developing economies in the past few centuries. Few countries have launched economic development programs without an initial set of protections, and fewer still have experimented with Marx’s entire socialist model. Could it be true that an extremely important economic model has only been theorized in an 18th-century Congressional report? Not quite. Every theory that Hamilton set forth was later developed by a brilliant (if little-known) 19th-century German economist named Friedrich List.
List was well versed in the works of Adam Smith and other economists, but he disagreed with their explanations of how economies worked at important transitional points. When it came to the day to day operations of commerce and trade, List conceded that Smith’s theories worked. But when it came to exceptional circumstances, like fostering a new economy or recovering from a major downturn, List felt otherwise. This excerpt from List’s 1837 The Natural System of Political Economy (which you can find in this introduction to List from The Atlantic) could have been lifted directly from Hamilton’s report:
The cosmopolitan theorists [List's term for Smith and his ilk] do not question the importance of industrial expansion. They assume, however, that this can be achieved by adopting the policy of free trade and by leaving individuals to pursue their own private interests. They believe that in such circumstances a country will automatically secure the development of those branches of manufacture which are best suited to its own particular situation. They consider that government action to stimulate the establishment of industries does more harm than good….
The lessons of history justify our opposition to the assertion that states reach economic maturity most rapidly if left to their own devices. A study of the origin of various branches of manufacture reveals that industrial growth may often have been due to chance. It may be chance that leads certain individuals to a particular place to foster the expansion of an industry that was once small and insignificant—just as seeds blown by chance by the wind may sometimes grow into big trees. But the growth of industries is a process that may take hundreds of years to complete and one should not ascribe to sheer chance what a nation has achieved through its laws and institutions.
List’s theories are completely at odds with almost everything taught in Western universities today, or recognized by the Nobel committee. Nonetheless, it takes less work to find historical precedents that fit with List’s theories and, most importantly, newer industrial powers like Japan and Korea self-consciously apply his theories today. They ought to be better known.
For a more complete introduction to List, click here.
With the rise of literacy throughout the West, the storytelling function of art has declined significantly. First books, then newspapers and periodicals and now motion pictures are the primary method for telling stories in our culture. There was an earlier time, however, when visual art had an important narrative function. This was particularly true of devotional art: only the church elite could read the (then-untranslated) Bible, so it was important for major Biblical stories to be depicted in painting, mosaic, stained glass, even silverware.
A major work in this respect is The David Plates, a series of 9 silver plates depicting the story of the Biblical David. The plates were rediscovered in Cyprus in 1902, and today four of them remain on the island and the other five reside at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (a gift from J. P. Morgan). The plates depict the major episodes in David’s life, from the moment that Samuel anointed him the true King of Israel to the confrontation at the center of one of the most famous stories in the Bible: the fight between David and Goliath.