Friday, July 27, 2012


He found some leftover pizza in the fridge, tossed it into the microwave, and watched it revolve on the glass plate like some slow-motion juggler’s trick. It tasted like cardboard when he pulled it out but he didn’t much care. The hunger was there, but appetite was another story; still, the beer he had opened to go with it didn’t taste half bad. Bill had lived on his own long enough that he could manage for himself in the kitchen if he had to, but mostly it wasn’t worth the dishes or the bother. Living mostly on take-out took a chunk out of his budget, but since it was pretty much his only indulgence he could swing it without any problem. He had never entertained in his apartment, except when his family flew in for a visit, and even then mostly they wanted to go out on the town while they were there.

The view from his balcony wasn’t so much of the river as over it, although naturally that wasn’t the way they put it in the real estate listings. The city had grown up along both shores, leveling hills and filling in marshes and brackish pools, abolishing the topography as it went. There had to be hundreds of thousands of living human beings, right at that moment, just in the buildings that were visible from where he stood. They were out there in the projects, in the office towers where people were still working late at their desks, at the stadium in the distance that was lit up for a home game, in the cars whose headlights were moving soundlessly along the encircling expressways, and yet he knew barely a soul among them. He had felt the same way once before, years ago, peering through the window of a Shanghai high-rise, when he realized that no one in that unimaginably vast metropolis knew his name or what had brought him there, that he was a stranger from another country who barely spoke the language and had no real reason for being there that he could clearly articulate, even to himself, that whatever his life was going to be about was of infinitesimal concern to the people whom he passed in the street or who waited on him in the crowded markets, that he was only of flickering interest even to his teachers and fellow students in the university where he attended classes five days a week. He had reconciled himself to the fact of his irrelevance and made it safely through, just as he would make it through tonight, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that something, somewhere deep down in his gut, was slowly, relentlessly hollowing him out from inside. No one around him would notice, of course, because it wasn’t necessary for you to have anything inside you in order to get by, in fact it made it easier, you fit in better with everyone else who was in the same predicament, showing up on time, keeping your head down and your desk in order, breathing in, breathing out, going through the motions. He had abandoned some indispensable part of himself somewhere along the way, but one of the symptoms of the disorder — maybe the hardest of all to bear — was that he could no longer remember clearly just what it was that was now lost to him forever. All he knew was that it wasn’t somewhere lying ahead, in his future, waiting to welcome him with fanfares and open arms when he finally landed on the shore. It wasn’t even in his past, for if he had ever truly been the person that he now knew that he would never become, then there would always be a piece of that being tucked away somewhere deep within, no matter how scarred over or neglected it became, something he could call on in his darkest moments, if only to have it reproach and mock him him for forsaking it. But even that was to be denied him. He knew that now.

He flipped the TV on with the remote and lay down on the bed, still wearing the same pants and shirt he had worn to work, setting the half-empty bottle on the nightstand. He flipped from channel to channel, watching the news. In the other room his BlackBerry chimed every few minutes but he didn’t bother to get up and answer it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


The police had cordoned off the sidewalk and were beginning to make arrests. Something in the air was making Héctor’s eyes water, and the cops were wearing masks that made them look like giant grasshoppers and which might have made him laugh if he hadn’t been so frightened. A dozen or so protestors had planted themselves on the sidewalk and were refusing to move, waiting for the cops to come and put plastic handcuffs on them and drag them off to the waiting vans. Héctor didn’t know which way to turn but whenever he saw two or three cops coming he moved off in the opposite direction as quickly as he could. He remembered some minnows he had seen once in a store, how they darted from one end of the tank to the other, desperately trying to avoid being scooped up in the net, as if they knew that their fate lay in being impaled on a fisherman’s hook. The strobe lights on the police vans kept flickering, making him woozy and even more terrified than he already was. He wished that he had never decided to go for a walk, that he had never let his curiosity get the better of him. Whatever this protest was about it surely wasn’t his business to get mixed up in, and now if he got arrested he was certain they’d find out he had no papers and send him packing. How could he pay back what he owed the polleros for bringing him across the border if he couldn’t stay in the city and work? How could he ever come north again, with no money? His cousin was going to be furious when Héctor called him from jail. Maybe they’d stick him in some prison and let him rot, surrounded by strangers. Héctor had never been in prison but he’d heard the stories. If you were lucky, they said, you only got beaten by the guards; if the other inmates went after you, you were finished.

A voice was issuing from a bullhorn, shouting insistent commands, but Héctor couldn’t understand what it was saying. There were screams from across the street, a concussion, and then the mist of whatever it was that was stinging his eyes suddenly hit him head-on, blinding him, burning his nostrils and throat. He bent over, choking and retching, and as he stumbled someone running by struck Héctor’s head hard with his elbow in his haste to escape. He dropped to his knees but immediately forced himself up again. Unable to see, he staggered away from what seemed to be the center of the fumes and the noise. People were rushing past, shoving, grasping, crying, and through his closed eyelids he sensed the pulse of the strobe lights, the shadows of figures moving all around him. He trod on something soft that he thought must have been a human hand, but whoever it belonged to was evidently either unconscious or simply oblivious to the pain.

He struck something hard with his shoulder and knew at once that it was the wall of the building that soared above. Feeling his way along its surface, clambering over fallen bodies, he bashed his leg hard against a standpipe and let out a cry. He touched one of the building’s glass doors, tugged desperately at the handle, but found that it was locked tight. He could hear the sickening sound of a truncheon being struck against a body, no more than a few feet away, and winced in anticipation of the coming blow, but it didn’t arrive. As he reached the corner of the building something jutted against his chest and he realized that it was the cordon set up by the police. He grasped it with one hand and ducked underneath, then slipped away down the side street, still unseeing and in terror for his life.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Blick auf die Unterstadt

This postcard "view of the lower town" of Eupen, Belgium, was printed by Kunstverlag Ferdinand Schweitzer in Aachen, across the German border, probably between 1935 and 1940.

Once part of the Duchy of Limbourg, Eupen was incorporated successively within France, Prussia, and the German empire. Transferred to Belgium by the Treaty of Versailles, it became a hotbed of pro-German and pro-Nazi sentiment between the world wars, and was annexed to the Third Reich in 1940. Having survived fierce fighting during the Battle of the Bulge and the loss of a substantial portion of its male population to conscription into the German Army, the town was once again returned to Belgium at the end of the war.

"Luftkurort," in the lower margin, is, according to Wikipedia, "a title given to towns or cities ... which are health resorts which have a climate and air quality which is considered beneficial to health and rest."

Below, from, is an advertising label produced by the Schweitzer company.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Honest Badger Thief of Lubeck

Kahn + Selesnick are at it again, with a new project, Truppe Fledermaus. Worth keeping an eye on. Sly Frank Zappa reference below:

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Armies of the End of Days

The late Norman Cohn's study of "Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages" is a book I first read in my early twenties, have dipped into now and then over the years, and have just finished re-reading in full. I no longer remember exactly why I picked it up in the first place, years ago, though I'm fairly sure that I did in fact seek it out deliberately rather than simply stumble across it by accident. At the time I first read it I had negligible grounding in medieval history or the study of millenarian movements (not that I have much more now), but Cohn was a vivid enough writer and an assured enough scholar to overcome the reader's shortcomings in that regard, and for that reason the book has long had an appreciative audience. As far as I can tell, The Pursuit of the Millennium has been more or less continuously in print since the publication of the first edition in 1957. My paperback of the revised edition features glowing quotes by such British intellectual heavyweights as Bertrand Russell, Hugh Trevor-Roper, and Isaiah Berlin, but its influence has been surprisingly widespread, having had its effect on Guy Debord and the Situationists as well.

Cohn's subject, in brief, is the tradition of millenarian excitement that flourished in Europe throughout the Middle Ages and into the Reformation. An appendix examines the activities and writings of the Ranters in 17th-century England; other than that Cohn makes little attempt, in what is not after all a particularly lengthy study, to draw comparisons with similar movements in other times and places, though the relevance of such events as the War of Canudos of 19th-century Brazil is clear.

The millenarian tradition drew its intellectual origins from various canonical and non-canonical apocalyptic writings of the Jewish and Christian traditions, from the Book of Daniel to the Sibylline Oracles, but much of its energy arose from the social conditions of the Middle Ages, from the vast disparities in wealth between rich and poor, from the blatant corruption of much of the clergy, and from such disruptive events as the Crusades, the Black Death, and the rise of towns. In the geographical area that Cohn focuses on (mostly the Low Countries, France, Germany, and Bohemia), hardly a generation seems to have gone by without the appearance of some would-be prophet or redeemer, usually but not always self-appointed and often identifying himself with a historical figure, like Baldwin IX of Flanders or the Emperor Frederick II, who had supposedly returned from the dead. The coming of this figure was taken to herald the violent downfall of the rich and the corrupt and the advent of an era of peace, prosperity, and righteousness in which, as in the primal State of Nature, all things would be held in common, the faithful would be sustained without labor, and the world would be unified beneath the strong and just hand of the redeemer. In some but not all cases there was a marked Antinomian strain; as the elect or even the incarnation of God, the army of the faithful literally could not sin, and thus anything — theft, adultery, murder — was permitted to them.

As unhinged and megalomaniac as many of these figures may have been (and many of their followers were hardly less delusional), the movements were often surprisingly potent. Drawing the allegiance not only of the dislocated poor but of disaffected clergy and nobles who chafed against the wealth and privileges of the Church, they successfully occupied and defended major towns and cities, notably in Münster in 1534-35. Horrific violence was an intrinsic part of the pattern, as the participants, justified by divine sanction, simply slaughtered anyone who opposed the new order or violated its injunctions, or anyone against whom they held a grudge; devastating pogroms against Jews were a regular occurrence. For their part, the civil and ecclesiastical authorities, in their zeal to suppress the disorders, meted out merciless punishment to anyone deemed heretical or subversive; time and again we read of dissenters who met their end by being burned, beheaded, drowned, or simply hacked to pieces.

Cohn doesn't stress, but does make note of, the applicability of the movements he describes to more recent history. Millenarialism, of course, has never gone away, though it has largely been absorbed within conservative Protestantism and tamed to the point of banality. The affinity of some of the movements with Marxist expectations of the overthrow of capitalism and the institution of a classless society is evident, and has been indeed noted by some Marxist historians (who naturally have tended to emphasize the social rather than theological roots of such movements). Possibly less familiar is the anticipation of Hitler's explicitly millennial Tausendjähriges Reich in the writings of the anonymous 15th-century "Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine," who proclaimed that "the Germans once held the whole world in their hands and they will do so again, with more power than ever." As Cohn writes:
There is the same belief in a primitive German culture in which the divine will was once realised and which throughout history had been the source of all good — which was later undermined by a conspiracy of capitalists, inferior, non-German people and the Church of Rome — which must now be restored by a new aristocracy, of humble birth but truly German in soul, under a God-sent saviour who is at once a political leader and a new Christ. It is all there — and so were the offensives in West and East — the terror wielded both as an instrument of policy for its own sake — the biggest massacres in history — in fact everything except the final consummation of the world-empire which, in Hitler's words, was to last a thousand years.
In the end, with five centuries or more separating us from most of the events described in this volume, the reader would be ill-advised to draw much inspiration from the millenarian uprisings of the Middle Ages, however legitimate the grievances of their participants. Understanding what produced them, and how the events played out once they were set in motion, however, would still seem to remain valuable.

Monday, July 09, 2012

The bus

There were no seats and several people already standing, so she grabbed hold of a strap and planted her feet as the bus lurched forward. She could have walked it in a half-hour and often did if the weather was okay and she wasn’t too tired, but today she was dead on her feet and eager to just get home and out of her work clothes. The traffic was bad, though, and she quickly regretted her decision. Gingerly easing its way around construction vehicles, crossing pedestrians, and cabs picking up or discharging passengers, the bus slowed to a crawl at every intersection and barely managed to make up time in the long stretches between avenues. All was quiet in the interior. One young woman was silently nodding to music, her headphones trailing down from her ear and disappearing into her clothes, but the other faces around Helen were patient, impassive, inured. If any of the riders were traveling together they had let their conversation lapse and were staring blankly ahead or out the window, rocking with the motion of the bus, when it moved at all. She recognized a couple of people from other times but no one she knew well enough to say hello to.

A voice came over the radio and the driver picked up the handset to respond. Over the noise of the motor she couldn’t make out all the back-and-forth but it sounded like the dispatcher was reporting a tie-up somewhere ahead. The bus had been stuck for several minutes, fifty yards from the end of a block, and streams of pedestrians — heavier than usual, Helen thought — were flowing past it on either side, as if the age of the automobile and the internal combustion engine had suddenly ground to a halt, undone by their own success, returning the streets of the city to older and more agile forms of transportation. No one complained or stood up or even let out a sigh, though the bus’s air conditioning wasn’t great and they were getting hit head-on with the declining sun in the west. The bus crept forward a few yards, halted, crept a few yards more, and finally pulled up to a designated stop where a dozen or so figures were waiting, skeptically, hoping to board. As the doors opened Helen made a snap decision, strode forward, and stepped to the sidewalk. She was only halfway home but anything was better than wasting the rest of the afternoon standing on a bus that wasn’t going anywhere.

The block stood in the middle of a busy wholesale and manufacturing district made up of older buildings, with narrow storefronts, fire escapes, and lofts in the upper storeys — not the trendy kind the bohemians liked, but the kind that still actually produced something, though Helen had no idea what. At night the area was pretty much deserted and she avoided it, but she felt no fear at this hour, other than the terror of getting bowled over on the narrow sidewalks by people darting past to run errands, deliver packages, or just be somewhere else. Keeping as best she could to a steady pace, she soon left the stalled bus far behind, but when she reached the end of the second block she saw that a crowd had backed up from the next avenue, that some people were trying to work their way through but others were just lingering there watching something. The traffic heading downtown was barely inching along, and when she turned to look she quickly saw why: a block away there were hundreds of people standing in the middle of the street, swarming around the unlucky vehicles that had advanced that far and now could neither proceed nor turn off. Some of the people held signs aloft but most just seemed to be staring further down the avenue, at something that Helen wasn’t able to make out. Two squad cars with flashing lights were parked at the edge of the crowd and the cops were trying to get traffic off the avenue, but the crowd was too big and the knot couldn’t be untied.