If you need to be mean
be mean to me
I can take it and put it inside of me
-Mitski, “I Don’t Smoke”
I have a picture of us from when we were ten years old — Rose, Audrey, Sam, and me. We’re standing on the gravel shoulder of the highway that cuts across our hometown like a life line across a palm. Our arms are wrapped around each other, affectionate and possessive with the weight of preteen desires. Have you noticed the way young girls cling to each other in photographs? Maybe we knew then the terrible possibilities of separation. If we hadn’t held on to each other so tightly through childhood, how would things have ended?
That was all before we grew apart. That was before I hopped on a plane, before Rose came to meet me, before we ended up in the mountains of Italy, alone in a 300-year-old farmhouse. That was when we still lived in our small universe of Halfmoon Bay, in homes secluded from the highway by long gravel driveways and undisturbed forest. What would have happened if the ghost had shown up then, when we were still so connected, instead of a decade later, across the world when there were just two of us in the middle of the night? More… “Gone Ghost”
History has remembered the Spanish-American conflict as a “splendid little war.” Between April and August 1898, over 72,000 American soldiers, sailors, and Marines steamrolled the larger forces of the decaying Spanish Empire in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Former Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, who had given up his position in the McKinley administration in order to create the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry (better known as the Rough Riders), became an all-American hero after the war. More importantly, America’s victories at San Juan Hill, Santiago, and Manila Bay showed the world that Washington had now entered into the age of empires.
The Spanish-American War is notable because it conclusively proved that the media can concoct a war without much evidence. The “gay ’90s” in America belonged to the press barons, otherwise known as the purveyors of “yellow journalism.” Competitors William Randolph Hearst (later portrayed as the character Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane) and Joseph Pulitzer fed war fever prior to the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor by writing sanguinary and exaggerated stories about Spanish atrocities against the innocent and helpless Cubans. While thousands of Cubans really did suffer in concentration camps, Hearst and Pulitzer often filled their pages with imaginary Spanish intrigues against the United States and American businessmen in Cuba. As a gross indication of the press’s power, one apocryphal story claims that illustrator Frederic Remington received a telegram from Hearst while covering the Cuban rebellion: “You furnish the pictures and I will furnish the war.” More… “Invasions: Real and Imagined”
The railway combined rapid movement and the possibility of transportation across large distances. As difficult it is to imagine today, in the age of jet travel, the transition from stagecoach to train was a rocky one. In 1843, after the railway lines from Paris to Rouen and Orléans had been inaugurated, German-Jewish writer Heinrich Heine wrote:
What changes must now occur in our way of viewing things and in our imagination! Even the elementary concepts of time and space have begun to vacillate. Space is killed by the railways, and we are left with time alone. … I feel as if the mountains and forests of all countries were advancing on Paris. Even now, I can smell the German linden trees; the North Sea’s breakers are rolling against my doors.
In the words of cultural historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch, the railway created “a revolutionary rupture with (all) past forms of experience.” His book The Railway Journey remains the eminent source. The railway freed travel from the constraints of human and animal muscle power (and stench) and — to the extent that the network expanded — from geography itself. It also introduced a number of new sensory and psychological experiences. In this context, the mechanical vibration from the engine was seen as particularly threatening, often inspiring fears that the train would derail. Drivers complained about “the trepidation of the machines, the regular but perpetual movements that it transmits to the entire body and to the lower extremities in particular,” as a French article about influences on the health of train conductors recapitulated in 1857. Some early drivers came up with arrangements to cushion the shocks and jerking vibrations, but over time they got used to them. First- and second-class passengers profited from upholstery, but for some time they still suffered from fatigue as a result of the unfamiliar movements. Train passengers also experienced a sensation of disorientation, but gradually got accustomed to the new mode of travel.
Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His most recent book is Birdmania: A Particular Passion for Birds. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, and Best American Travel Writing. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
We live in an era of identity wars. On both sides of the Atlantic, old partisan loyalties are being reshuffled as a new national populist right battles over immigration with an open-borders, multicultural left. Beyond the West, the most dynamic leaders are seeking to root their legitimacy in historic national and religious traditions — Russian Orthodoxy and Eurasianism in Putin’s Russia, Hindu nationalism in Modi’s India, Chinese nationalism in Xi’s China, and post-secular Islamic Turkish nationalism in Erdoğan’s Turkey. The most extreme form of identity politics is that of the Islamic State that has risen from the wreckage of Iraq and Syria. Its adherents seek to recreate a version of the early Muslim caliphate. More… “The Age of Identity Wars”
In the early days of the 20th century, Picasso met some rich and careless Americans. “These folks,” Dave Hickey wrote in his book The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty, “are no longer building gazebos and placing symboliste Madonnas in fern-choked grottos. They are running with the bulls — something Pablo can understand. They are measuring their power and security by their ability to tolerate high-velocity temporal change, high levels of symbolic distortion, and maximum psychic discontinuity.”
Ah, spring is here and sidewalk cafés are again blooming across America! Some of my friends are thrilled at this seasonal turn. I am not.
My memories of outdoor dining skew toward the mildly traumatic. Such excursions often begin with companions who all but squeal “Let’s sit outside!” Confronted with such enthusiasm, it’s hard to argue for an indoor seat, and if I do I’m accused of being a troglodyte and killjoy. Enduring a long, silent, and pouty indoor meal is never fun, so I usually capitulate and go outside. Thus I leave the comfort of civilized shade and air-conditioning, and take my seat in the petting zoo set aside for masticating humans.
A war has been brewing in Europe and no one seems to care. Admittedly, the hostilities have been mild so far: hurt feelings, insults, diplomatic wrangling. Yves Leterme (a Flemish politician) questioned whether people in the French-speaking part of Belgium have the “intellectual capacity” to learn Dutch. Belgium, Leterme suspects, holds together as a nation only because of three things: “king, national football team and certain beers.” Not even all the beers.
Belgium is not the most obvious candidate for a unified state. It is, and arguably always has been, deeply and fundamentally divided between the French-speaking southern half of the country (Wallonia) and the Dutch-speaking northern half of the country (Flanders). The separation runs back to the Frankish invasions of the area back around the fifth century, which is a pretty longstanding divide even by European standards…. More…
Power, as Henry Kissinger gloated, is the ultimate aphrodisiac. At his star’s highest point in 1810 — he was then aged 41 — the Emperor Napoleon was the master of continental Europe, with 44 million people under his control. Then, in a moment of candor, he confessed to an aide that he had done it all not for glory, patriotism, or ego, but for love: As the world’s most powerful man, he could sleep with any woman he desired.
In the Emperor’s bedroom, however, the reviews were mixed. Just as he indifferently bolted down his food, paid no attention to his clothes, and could be self-absorbed and distracted in conversation, Napoleon’s romantic style, admits one otherwise admiring biographer, was “anything but endearing.” A description by the author Stendahl, backed up by members of Napoleon’s staff, describes his “brutally… More…
The past year’s headlines from Eastern Europe bleed together like a Virginia Woolf novel whose characters hang on in quiet desperation:
Bulgarians are Europe’s most dissatisfied – survey
Poll finds Hungarians increasingly glum
Romania’s anti-corruption efforts slow down — or go backwards
Sad and depressed generation is being created [in Croatia]
Even suicide is stagnating [in Hungary]
Germans miss the ‘good old days’ of the GDR
It’s been 20 years since the Iron Curtain opened. Back in ’89, the promise of capitalism and liberal democracy was supposed to lead the famously gloomy region into a new era of hope and optimism. But, as the newspapers say, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Lech Walesa — the man who gave us Solidarity and a “national treasure,” according to the current President of Poland — is so fed up, he is now threatening to emigrate and renounce his Nobel Prize. Last… More…
The night was far from young when I flagged down what I thought was a typical gypsy cab in St. Petersburg, Russia, in early 2003. In fact, since the sun was just starting to show itself after the more than 16 hours of darkness that is the norm at that latitude at that time of year, suffice it to say that the night was actually dead. Luckily, though, I wasn’t, even after the fatal amount of vodka I had imbibed throughout the course of that long evening. But if the copious amounts of booze didn’t kill me, something else just might. Or maybe someone. Maybe even the man driving the silver Mercedes I had just gotten into. Hmm. Perhaps, this wasn’t a typical Russian gypsy cab, after all.
It didn’t take me long to come to that conclusion…. More…