Sunday, January 31, 2016


I grew up in a community of eighty or so houses built on a hill leading up from a small man-made lake. In the winter you could see the lake from our house and watch skaters in the distance, if there happened to be any; in the summer the view was mostly occluded by trees. At the summit of the hill there was a water tower, which I suppose is where our water must have come from, after having been pumped up to it from a well somewhere.

The tower, which was set in a patch of woods not far from the uppermost stretch of road, wasn't particularly imposing; I suspect it was only twenty feet high or so. Nevertheless, there was a tale connected with it, of the kind that was told to (or by) half-believing kids around the fire on summer nights when some of us got together to camp out.

The story was that the tower, the inside of which no one I knew had ever seen, was inhabited by some kind of water-dwelling creature of an unknown but uncongenial kind. In normal circumstances it remained safely inside the tower and bothered no one, but it was said that one year, when there was a drought and the water level in the tower fell precipitously and stayed low for a good part of the summer, desiccated bodies — squirrel, cats, who knew what else — were found in the surrounding woods. We avoided the area at night, just to be sure.

Friday, January 29, 2016

On Prophets

From time immemorial the function of the prophet has consisted of one thing and one thing only: to cry down the wrath of the heavens upon the wicked and proclaim the kingdom of the righteous. The prophet's domain is truth, as he or she is inspired to preach it; that many prophets preach things that are by any measure utterly demented does not perceptibly alter the job description.

Prophets are famously unpopular in their own time because, in the end, the truth isn't something we particularly want to hear, unless it happens to suit us (which it tends not to do). Nevertheless, prophets are essential, because without them we quickly lapse into our comfortable habits.

Politics, on the other hand, has little to do with virtue and even less to do with truth. Politicians often employ the language of prophecy — indeed, we generally expect them to — but no politician would last long who told us the whole truth. All kings have their flatterers, and this is no less true when sovereignty is vested in the people. Except in rare moments of crisis, when the need for sacrifice is underlined, we must always be told that we can have things both ways, that there is no difference between what is true and good on one hand and what benefits us in the fairly short run on the other.

The kingdom of the righteous never arrives, but that doesn't mean that prophets are without influence. Sometimes the truth of what they say becomes so self-evident that it is grudgingly accepted and acted upon, after a fashion at least; at other times their zeal ignites a great conflagration, empires fall, old ways are swept away, and wickedness must seek new horizons (they are rarely far).

In the end, though, corruption lurks everywhere, not least within the heart of the prophet, who, perhaps, begins to tire a bit of berating the indifferent and decides to grasp for power. Every prophet who is true to the name must, in the end, remain a voice crying out of the wilderness. The rest of us must muddle along as best we can.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

If I Had Wings

"Shake" is pretty much your typical Vulgar Boatmen song: understated but relentless, made up of lyrics stitched together from scraps of language that never quite settle into a story, a plea, or a plaint, but that somehow manage to perfectly capture a state of uncertain longing stripped of all its outward trappings.
It's cold tonight
Bell rings on a corner and just like that
Your friends, my friends, start to disappear
I can't find, I can't find her anywhere
The live performance shown here is from 1992; the song would later be included on the Boatmen's third album, Opposite Sex, where it is credited to Dale Lawrence (the singer in the video), Robert Ray, and Jeff Byers.
And if I had wings
Well if I had wings
I'd come by for you, come by for you
I'd come by for you, come by for you
Walk around, walk around, walk around

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Boy Who Was a Friend of the Devil (Ana María Matute)

Everyone, at school, at home, in the street, told him cruel and ugly things about the Devil, and in his catechism book he saw him in Hell, enveloped in flames, his horns and tail burning, with a sad, solitary face, sitting in a cauldron. "Poor Devil," he thought; "he's like the Jews, whom everyone drove from their land." And from then on every night he called the Devil "handsome one, beautiful one, my friend." His mother, who heard him, crossed herself and turned on the light. "Oh, stupid boy, don't you know who the Devil is?" "Yes," he replied; the Devil tempts the bad people, the cruel ones. But since I'm his friend I will be good forever, and he'll let me go into Heaven in peace."

My "slow reading" project for the next few weeks or months will be this enormous brick of a book, which contains all (or nearly all) of the short fiction and miscellaneous writings of the late Spanish writer Ana María Matute. The story above is from her earliest collection, Los niños tontos (1956), which contains twenty-one brief fable-like pieces, most barely longer than this one. Most of the children come to a bad end.

Earlier posts on Ana María Matute:

Last words (on Demonios familiares)
Bonfires (on Primera memoria)
Childhood (on Paraíso inhabitado)
Faithful Objects

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Journey of Shuna (anniversary re-post)

I'm re-posting this piece (with a couple of additional images) for two reasons: because I've just been leafing through my copy of The Journey of Shuna, which remains as beautiful and mysterious as ever, and because I notice that my original post is now exactly ten years old.

This delicate watercolor manga by Hayao Miyazaki has never been officially translated into English, which is a bit of a surprise, given the increasing popularity of Miyazaki's films worldwide and the ready availability here of his multi-volume manga epic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Perhaps the production cost of doing it in full color would be prohibitive — I don't really know (but see bottom of page).

The following is a brief outline of the story, as I can follow it and based on some available page-by-page fan translations.

Shuna is a young man living in a small village in what looks like some high-altitude country in Asia. (When this story takes place is deliberately unclear; the art and technology seem very old, but on the other hand there are a few primitive guns.) The country is windswept and the land barren; the villagers survive, but barely, on sparse harvests of grain.

One day a stranger, an old man, is found by the wayside and brought back to the village, barely alive. Before he expires he tells Shuna that he is a prince from a distant country. Long ago he, like Shuna, had encountered a lone traveler. The latter had given him a purse full of grain — grain so rich that it could bring plenty even to a harsh land. The old man still has the purse of grain, but after so many years it is useless. He has searched for years for the land where the grain is grown, somewhere far to the west, but he has never found it and now can go on no longer.

Shuna, of course, soon decides to leave the village and seek the land of the golden grain. He mounts his yakkul (an elk-like creature) and rides off. Like every good quest-hero, he travels through a wasteland; then he comes upon a derelict ship half-buried in the sand. There are shrouded inhabitants inside, who beckon him in, but, spooked by the sight of a pile of human bones, he steers away and camps a little ways off. During the night he is attacked by several shrouded figures (they are all apparently women), but he fights them off, severing the hand of one with a gunshot. (She later creeps back and silently retrieves the hand).

On the road he is passed by a large cart, drawn by several blue beasts and surmounted by several gunmen. They treat him rudely and continue on their way.

Soon afterwards, Shuna comes to an enormous bustling city. In the marketplace he finds a pile of the grain he seeks, but it is already threshed and dead; he is told that it comes from a distant place. He also learns of the city's flourishing trade in slaves. He sees a girl roughly his own age in chains, with a younger girl alongside. He tries to purchase their freedom but fails, and leaves the city.

He meets a hermit monk, who tells him that he can find what he seeks further west, in “the place of the god men, where the moon is born and returns to die,” a place from which no man has ever returned. The next morning Shuna wakes up and finds the hermit has gone.

He again encounters the cart with the gunmen. Inside are slaves, among them the two sisters he had met in the marketplace. He shoots the gunmen and releases the girls. Together they flee, as more armed men are seen coming from the city. They are followed to the top of a high cliff, the very precipice which overlooks the land of the god-men. Shuna sends the girls and his mount away to safety in the north, then evades his pursuers by sending them to their deaths over the precipice.

An enormous luminous face swifly crosses the sky above him and disappears over the edge of the precipice. Knowing that he has come to the place he seeks, Shuna begins to descend the cliffs. His descent seems to be, as well, a descent through time; he climbs over ancient monuments and the skeletons of antediluvian creatures and eventually reaches a sea in which enormous prehistoric beasts are swimming. He wades across to a dense and fertile land, populated by a variety of creatures, all of them, fortunately, benign.

The next few pages are strange and eventful, and I'm not sure I completely understand them — but here goes: an enormous green figure strides through the forest, then collapses, and is immediately consumed by a horde of beasts. More giants stride through the forest; Shuna passes them and comes to a clearing, where there is a vast tower which appears to be some kind of living being. He discovers that it is hollow. Just then the moonlike face crosses the sky and arrives at the top of the tower. It disgorges from its mouth a stream of human figures, slaves, apparently, acquired from the slave-traders. As they fall into the tower they are transformed into green giants; they emerge and spread out, spewing seeds from their mouths as they travel. Within hours the land becomes green — this, then, is the source of the golden grain.

Shuna grabs hold of several stalks of ripe grain. The giants howl with pain; Shuna flees, leaping into the sea.

We are now shown the two sisters. They have arrived in a village in the north, where they and the yakkul are ploughing a plot of land belonging to an old woman who has taken them in. One night they find a ragged traveler outside; it is Shuna. He is haggard and has lost his ability to speak, but around his neck he carries the precious golden grain.

The girls and Shuna plant the grain in a small plot; it sprouts. The old woman tells the older girl she is now of age and must marry one of the villagers. There is a bride-contest: the girl says that she will marry the suitor who can master the yakkul. Of course all the young men fail, until finally the mute Shuna succeeds.

The sprouted grain eventually bears fruit, after being protected by Shuna and the girls from a terrible hailstorm. Shuna recovers his speech. The three stay another year, harvesting another crop and fending off an attack from slave-traders, then depart for Shuna's native village, leaving half the grain behind for their hosts. The story ends there.

There's a lot that could be said about The Journey of Shuna, but I'm not going to try to interpret it, because, as with all great mythological stories, there seem to be so many different angles from which it can be approached. Despite the different setting, the affinities with the legend of Perceval and the grail seem very strong to me; there are also echoes of the Odyssey (the bride-contest, if nothing else), and, in the green men, similarities with Central American myths. It's also very much a Miyazaki story; other observers have commented on its connections with both the manga and film versions of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, but the beginning of the tale, the departure of the hero, resembles the opening of Princess Mononoke.

There are some fascinating visual elements as well: in the background of the panels where the old traveler is dying there appear first a large upside-down female figure, then a pair of outstretched hands, as if a deity were carrying him away. This is not commented on in the text, and it has been suggested (I don't agree) that the apparent “deity” is just a painted decoration in the interior of the room where the man lies dying — in any case the effect is quite odd. The old woman who shelters the sisters reminds me, in one panel, of some of Sendak's old crones. Overall it's very rich and distinctive both visually and as story; I hope that American audiences will eventually get a full chance to appreciate it.

Update: An authorized English-language edition is now available.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Hero or grifter? (II)

There are two detailed primary sources, as well as a number of supporting documents, on the prosecution of Ernest de Lipowski (see previous post); all are available online, for the curious, in a folder in the Base Leonore.

The two main sources are a report bearing the letterhead of the Mairie de la Ville de Bordeaux, dated December 1873, and an article in the Journal de Bordeaux, dated 19 October of the same year, which coyly refers to the suspect as "le général X."

According to the Journal, the whole affair — "the most vulgar swindle one could dream of" — had to do with three barrels of white lead pigment and two boxes of window-glass. On September 16, 1873, two construction workers named Fargeon and Lhoste presented themselves before a Bordeaux merchant, M. Sainthérand, and asked if he could furnish a quantity of building materials for the restoration of a château in the domaine of La Tresne belonging to the général comte de X, that is, to de Lipowsky. After Sainthérand requested to see the owner, de Lipowsky appeared, a price was agreed on (to be paid on credit), and the materials were loaded onto a carriage. Once out of sight of the merchant, the goods were sold, at a steep loss but for cash, and the two workmen were given a "commission" for their efforts, de Lipowski pocketing the rest. A few hours later Sainthérand became suspicious, made inquiries, and, discovering that the château was fictional, had all three arrested.

Once in court, much of the initial discussion focused on whether de Lipowski had a right to the several titles he claimed to bear. Confronted with the alleged swindle, he stated that he and his wife had (formerly) possessed large sums of money, and that if he had done what he did, it was with the intention of repaying the merchant, on credit. He was, he explained, simply a bit hard up for ready cash. His attorney emphasized de Lipowski's service to France, denied any intention to defraud, and declared that, as to his habit of running into debt, this was due to the luxurious habits he had acquired after his marriage had brought him a considerable dowry. "He has paid such a debt to the country," he concluded, "that the country ought to pay him one in return." The court may have taken de Lipowski's war record into account, but it nevertheless sentenced him to a month in jail and a fine of 50 francs.

The handwritten report on the letterhead of the Mairie of Bordeaux is rambling and hard to decipher in spots, but it gives the impression that de Lipowski was involved in not one but multiple instances of chicanery, in which he tried to leverage his rank and his wife's supposed fortune in order to obtain goods or services from local merchants. When pressed to pay his debts, he would fly into a fury and plead his offended dignity as a general.

As a consequence of his conviction, de Lipowski was removed from the rolls of the Légion d'honneur. He does not, however, appear to have ceased to "habitually wear the insignia of a chevalier," as correspondence between the police and the Chancellor of the Légion noted in 1877. By September 1880, the point would become moot; an official decree indicates that he was awarded the title of officier (a higher title than chevalier) in the Légion, by virtue of being "commandant of the 41st regiment of the infantry of the Austrian army." (The same decree, which was issued in conjunction with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, awarded similar titles to a number of foreign military officers).

Had de Lipowsky, burdened by chronic debt and jealous of his social standing, become a kind of roving military consultant, trading on his family connections across several European countries and offering his expertise to whatever nation would pay his bills? His travels were not yet over; he would later enter the service of the Tsar of Russia, though he would, in the end, die in Paris in 1904.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Hero or grifter? (I)

Here's as much as I've been able to piece together of the story of Ernest de Lipowski, the father of the young girl whose 1887 photographic portrait was the subject of an earlier post.

Joseph Antoine Ernest, Comte de Lipowski (one source includes the additional given name of Raoul) was born in Strasbourg in 1843; his parents were Pierre Nicolas Joseph Albert de Lipowski, a Spanish-born descendant of Polish nobility, and Marguerite Sophie Laroche. He was married twice, with both weddings occurring on English soil. His first wife, Marie Eggerickx (the name may be Flemish), whom he married in 1870, died within a few years, and in 1876 he married Marianne Eastwood, who reportedly brought him a substantial dowry. Although there are Jewish families surnamed Lipowski, he was presumably a Roman Catholic, as one or two members of the family, according to his death notice, evidently became nuns.

After attending the French military academy of Saint-Cyr, de Lipowski embarked on a career as an officer, but he resigned his commission in June 1870 due to a series of financial embarrassments. A note in his dossier states dryly that "M. Lipowski's colleagues no longer have the regard for him that is always indispensable to good comradeship." In 1870, however, during the Franco-Prussian War, he was named captain of a corps of franc-tireurs, and rapidly rose to the rank of général de brigade in the armée auxiliare. The highlight of his service, which earned him the title of chevalier in the Légion d'honneur, was the Battle of Châteaudun. He was sidelined during the Paris Commune of 1871, reportedly because of his friendship with Gen. Napoléon La Cécilia, a commander on the Communard side, who had also served at Châteaudun.

So far so good. Look ahead to his death and we see subsequent service in the Austrian army and under the Tsar of Russia, and (from 1880) the higher rank of officiér in the Légion d'honneur. But in 1873, his name had in fact been expunged from the rolls of the Légion as a consequence of his conviction for the crime of escroquerie — a type of fraud.

A prelude to the affair took place in Geneva in September 1871. Evidently there were again some issues of unpaid bills, and de Lipowski seems to have claimed immunity from Swiss prosecution on the grounds that he was a citizen of France and thus protected by treaty between the two countries. According to a later report, "he claimed to be married to a very rich woman — but many people doubted this marriage." There was also some suspicion (unfounded, as it happened) that he might be a certain escaped convict posing under a false name. It was noted that he displayed medals he claimed to have received from one M. Walewski (possibly Alexandre Colonna-Walewski, a noted diplomat and reputed illegitimate son of Napoleon Bonaparte); that claim, if he made it, may well have been true, but it would not be the last time that de Lipowski would lean on his titles and honors.

Not long after, de Lipowski arrived in Bordeaux, where he made frequent changes of address, but soon fell afoul of the local authorities.

(To be continued.)

Friday, January 01, 2016

New Year's Day

The fundamentals —

trees, sky, water,
the calling of crows

— do not change.

Smoke rises above the tea-house.
The geese glean the fields.