Some biographies are as much about the era or the milieu as the man. The Orientalist is one of them.
This is not to say that Tom Reiss has written a bad book. On the contrary, it is an enlightening and informative one, even for someone well read in the history of Russia and Germany in the twentieth century, will find that The Orientalist has a rich store of little known anecdotes. In an effort to unlock the mystery of “Kurban Said“, the alleged author of the modern Azeri national epic, Ali and Nino: A Love Story, whose identity is hotly disputed, Reiss became a cultural archaeologist excavating the graveyards of Empires, Tsarist, Wilhemine and Ottoman. It was a search that brought Reiss to a remarkable character, Lev “Essad Bey” Nussimbaum, who had narrowly escaped the Bolshevik CHEKA, made fame and fortune as a literary freebooter in Weimar Germany only to sink into obscurity during WWII, dying in poverty and illness in Fascist Italy.
Lev, who was the son of a millionaire Russian-Jewish oil magnate from Baku, was a cultural chameleon, reinventing himself numerous times, converting to Islam, passing himself off variously as Muslim prince, a Transcaucasian “Wild Jew”, Orientalist scholar, monarchist and anti-Communist writer, briefly a literary star on Germany’s radical far Right. Even in the early days of the Third Reich, despite accusations of being a “Jewish story-swindler”, the many anti-Soviet books of “Essad Bey” were warmly endorsed by Josef Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda for reading by the Nazi Party faithful. The famous individuals who reputedly crossed Lev’s path are remarkable -Joseph Stalin, Fyodor Vinberg, Vladimir Nabokov, Walter Benjamin, Giovanni Gentile, Walter Mehring, Benito Mussolini, Egon Kisch, George Sylvester Viereck, Grand Duke Cyril Romanov, Max Brod, Stefan Zwieg, Hertha Pauli, and Ezra Poundamong others. “Essad Bey” was the denouement of the respectable intellectual tradition of 19th century Orientalism, particularly that of Jewish European scholars and ethnographer-explorers. Lev Nussimbaum was less a Martin Buber (whom Lev knew) than he was the Karl Mayof the East, a dime store mythologizer of Transcaucasia, old Qajar Persia and Islam for popular audiences accustomed to a tabloid press.
Essad Bey as a character reflects the contradictions and juxtapositions of an interwar Europe, especially Germany, ravaged by the Great War and Communist Revolution in ways that would be highly improbable today. Lev was a talented writer, a Jewish refugee who was an exponent of Islam and an admirer of Fascism, more glib than insightful, more clever than wise, at home playing the outsider but his place never secure. When the official black sedans of the Fascist secret police rolled up to an ailing Lev’s hotel and found him dead, villagers assumed the OVRA men where there to arrest “the Muslim”; in reality, it was to take Lev to make wartime propaganda broadcasts for Italy in Persian.
Jan Valentin Saether favors the Vesica Piscis formed where two circles overlap as the visionary aperture in the ninth image of his Viloshin Letters:
And the Olympic rings, as befits a logo heavily associated with advertising, might be the most banal of them all — had it not been redeemed one night by the gracious moon hanging low under London Bridge:
But let us return to Ezekiel’s angelic wheels, which are related to early Jewish “mysticism of the Chariot” or Merkabah:
Can we find some echo of those wheels, perhaps, in the roadwheels of the IDF Armored Corps’s Merkava IV tank? Pictured here is the Mark I, from 1979.
This book was Fascist Italy not of the newsreels of frenzied Roman crowds cheering bombastic speeches by Mussolini but how fascism’s imperial grandiosity were an ill-fitting facade for an Italy that underneath remained substantially an impoverished, traditionalist, parochial society of peasant squabbles and regional jealousies. Bosworth, one of the world’s top experts on the period takes a granular look at Italy under Fascism and the reader comes away amazed at how Mussolini fooled the great powers into taking his regime seriously for as long as they did.
At 692 pages, including 88 pages of endnotes, Mussolini’s Italy lays out in exhaustive detail how ordinary Italians carried on as best they could under the dictatorship, with the traditional reliance on corruption and the influence of kin and “men of respect” to undermine and ameliorate “totalitarian” rule. Repeatedly the regime sanctions dissidents (usually politically naive -or simply drunken – tradesmen or villagers) to “confino”, internal exile to faraway unpleasant regions only to have the intervention of some Fascist bigwig result in a swift amnesty.The brutality of the regime’s informal sanctions – the beatings, castor oil, kidnappings and murders – carried out by roving Fascist squadrists or at the orders of a local Fascist Ras (boss) like Cremona’s thuggish Roberto Farinacci, were by contrast, real enough.
Outside of the violent hooliganism of blackshirt squadrism there at times seems little to have held Fascism together as a political movement without Mussolini’s tin cult of personality, there was seldom agreement among fascists about such fundamental political issues as the role of the state vs. the party, capitalism vs. autarky, the sanctity of private property, the need for unions, whether Fascism should be antisemitic or the role of the Catholic Church in Italian life? An incoherence that left Mussolini, who was never much of a stickler for consistency, as supreme arbiter. A role he kept secure by arbitrarily moving his preening, intriguing, womanizing and feuding cabal of uniformed henchmen and party apparatchiks from job to job all the way into his bitter gotterdammerung of the Salo Republic, where Mussolini was reduced to being the puppet gauleiter of Lombardy and eventually patheitic victim of popular revenge.
Bosworth does a scholarly take-down of the original Fascist regime, demonstrating the deep propensity for cultural continuity in any society in the long term, even in one under the heavy hand of self-proclaimed revolutionaries and Roman tyrants.
[ by Charles Cameron -- shall we say, not a great enthusiast for war? ]
This image of Winston Churchill in the bombed out ruins of Coventry Cathedral is almost a self-referential paradox in itself, if you still believe the canard that he knew the Germans were going to bomb Coventry that night, and did nothing about it to avoid divulging allied knowledge of the German ENIGMA code.
It it walks like a canard and quacks like a canard…
As an aside, I wonder what Churchill had in mind when he coined his celebrated mot about Russia:
It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.
According to Wikipedia, the Poles had delivered their early Enigma-breaking theories, tools and sample cryptologic bombs to British military intelligence in Warsaw on 25 July 1939. Churchill’s broadcast, The Russian Enigma, was given on 1st October 1939.
And another aside, while we’re here — just to note that conspiracy theories are often among the gaseous components of a fog of war…
Here’s what’s happened to the Green Mosque or Mazjid Sabz, famous for its dome (upper panel only, lower panel h/t Bilal Sarwary), in the course of fighting in Afghanistan — the country whose oldest mosque it is:
Palestinian men pray Monday near a burnt part of the carpet in a mosque that was damaged in the West Bank village of Beit Fajjar near Bethlehem. Palestinians accused Jewish settlers of setting fire to the West Bank mosque on Monday
The upper panel image, as far as I can determine, shows the continuing celebration of Mass in a German church after Allied bombardment in World War II.
It is at least worth pondering the words of these Trappist sisters in Azeir, Syria…
They came to Azeir to continue in spirit the work of the monks of Tibhirine, about whom I wrote, giving extensive background and the entire text of Fr. de Chergé‘s great, final testament here. The sisters write:
Today we have no words, except those of the Psalms that the liturgical prayer puts onto our lips in these days:
Rebuke the Beast of the Reeds, that herd of bulls, that people of calves…oh God, scatter the people who delight in war…Yahweh has leaned down from the heights of his sanctuary, has looked down from heaven to earth to listen to the sighing of the captive, and set free those condemned to death…Listen, God, to my voice as I plead, protect my life from fear of the enemy; hide me from the league of the wicked, from the gang of evil-doers. They sharpen their tongues like a sword, aim their arrow of poisonous abuse…They support each other in their evil designs, they discuss how to lay their snares. “Who will see us?” they say. He will do that, he who penetrates human nature to its depths, the depths of the heart…Break into song for my God, to the tambourine, sing in honor of the Lord, to the cymbal, let psalm and canticle mingle for him, extol his name, invoke it…For the Lord is a God who breaks battle-lines! … Lord, you are great, you are glorious, wonderfully strong, unconquerable.
We look at the people around us, our day workers who are all here as if suspended, stunned: “They’ve decided to attack us.” Today we went to Tartous…we felt the anger, the helplessness, the inability to formulate a sense to all this: the people trying their best to work and to live normally. You see the farmers watering their land, parents buying notebooks for the schools that are about to begin, unknowing children asking for a toy or an ice cream…you see the poor, so many of them, trying to scrape together a few coins. The streets are full of the “inner” refugees of Syria, who have come from all over to the only area left that is still relatively liveable…. You see the beauty of these hills, the smile on people’s faces, the good-natured gaze of a boy who is about to join the army and gives us the two or three peanuts he has in his pocket as a token of “togetherness”…. And then you remember that they have decided to bomb us tomorrow. … Just like that. Because “it’s time to do something,” as it is worded in the statements of the important men, who will be sipping their tea tomorrow as they watch TV to see how effective their humanitarian intervention will be….
[ by Charles Cameron -- remembering that there are two calendars, two times, the secular and the sacred, and that there's more poetry, more depth of heart and thus intellect too, in the sacred calendar -- a truth made known also to popes and monarchs ]
Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, washes & kisses the feet of residents of a shelter for drug users, Maundy Thursday, 2008
It’s an extraordinary day, today, for myself as it happens, and more significantly for the world. Specifically, it is significant for poor and powerful alike, for it sets them in a proper relation to one another.
Today is Maundy Thursday, the day on which Christ’s Last Supper, which became and remains the prototype of the Catholic Mass, is remembered. His Last Supper would be closely followed by his crucifixion the next day, Good Friday, and resurrection on Easter Sunday.
After that final supper, Christ made a gesture which initially disturbed his close followers — he washed their feet, then instructed them to do the same.
His gesture repeats itself to this day.
Pope Francis, who as an archbishop had followed this practice by washing and kissing the feet of young people in drug shelters (image above) and AIDS clinics, is breaking with Vatican tradition — the pope washing the feet of priests in some major basilica in Rome — this year, by going to a youth prison today for the ceremony:
The Mass of the Lord’s Supper that Pope Francis will celebrate on Holy Thursday in the chapel of the Casal del Marmo Penitential Institute for Minors will be, by his express desire, very simple. Concelebrating with the Holy Father will be Cardinal Agostino Vallini, vicar general of the Diocese of Rome, and Fr. Gaetano Greco, chaplain of the Institute.
Around 10 girls and 40 boys will take part in the Mass. The Pope will wash the feet of 12 of them, who will be chosen from different nationalities and diverse religious confessions. The youth will also say the readings and the prayers of the faithful. Given the intimate nature of the pastoral visit, journalists will be restricted to the area outside the building and no live coverage will be transmitted.
That’s a slightly formal Vatican announcement of the occasion: “diverse religious confessions” in this case almost certainly includes Muslims and atheists or agnostics. Father Greco, the prison chaplain, is quoted as saying:
Only eight of our residents are Italian: six boys and two girls … The others are all foreigners. And most of them are Muslim. Then there are some who have no religious belief at all. Therefore many of them don’t even know who the Pope is. For this reason too, it was far from easy to explain to them the importance of the Pope’s visit.
A young Neapolitan who has been here for a while came to my help. He gathered them all together, to try to make them understand above all what the Pope’s act, which is an act of love for them, actually meant. I was upset for a moment by the first looks, that were either blank or only faintly curious about my enthusiasm. Then our friend broke the silence with that most classic of Neapolitan expressions: “Maronna mia, o Papa accà!” [good heavens! The Pope here!] and he ran his hand through his hair, his face betraying emotions mingled with happiness. At that very instant all the others, seeing his amazement, realized that it must really be something very special and began to question me. Little by little, I saw their enthusiasm growing.
Father Greco said of his young charges that the Pope’s visit “will make them see that their lives are not bound by a mistake, that forgiveness exists and that they can begin to build their lives again.”
This symbolic gesture, this washing of the feet, does indeed have enormous imaginative power, if we will allow it, to touch the heart and transform our behavior.
I’ve quoted this before, I know: it’s the account given by the man I know who, more than any other, prayed, lived, worked, and saw his great dream and hope accomplished in his lifetime — the overturning of the apartheid regime in S. Africa. For myself, it’s the heart of what he taught me: here, in his own words, Fr Trevor Huddleston CR describes how his own role in that drama began:
On Maundy Thursday, in the Liturgy of the Catholic Church, when the Mass of the day is ended, the priest takes a towel and girds himself with it; he takes a basin in his hands, and kneeling in front of those who have been chosen, he washes their feet and wipes them, kissing them also one by one. So he takes, momentarily, the place of his Master. The centuries are swept away, the Upper Room in the stillness of the night is all around him: “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.” I have knelt in the sanctuary of our lovely church in Rosettenville and washed the feet of African students, stooping to kiss them. In this also I have known the meaning of identification. The difficulty is to carry the truth out into Johannesberg, into South Africa, into the world.
Earlier today, Queen Elizabeth II will have celebrated “the Royal Maundy” in the chapel of my old College and that of my mentor, Trevor Huddleston, at Oxford, Christ Church — our college chapel is also the cathedral of that great city.
The current Dean Of Christ Church, the Very Reverend Christopher Lewis, gave the BBC this historical detail:
The last time it happened here was in 1644 when Charles I was thrown out of London and welcomed in Oxford.
Here’s the glorious building where the ceremony will have taken place:
The Royal Maundy is celebrated by the monarch giving two purses to local pensioners — 83 men and 83 women this year since HM is 83 years old — a white purse containing sterling silver 1p, 2p, 3p and 4p pieces, and a red purse contained a £5 and a 50p coin commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation in 1953.
Maundy Thursday commemorates the day of the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with the Apostles. The word ‘Maundy’ comes from the command or ‘mandatum’ by Christ at the Last Supper, to love one another.
The tradition of the Sovereign giving money to the poor dates from the thirteenth century. The Sovereign also used to give food and clothing, and even washed the recipients’ feet. The last monarch to do so was James II.
It’s a curious survival, the Royal Maundy, but a touching one, looking back to the days when the monarch really was expected to be a bit like a priest for the nation – acting out the great symbols of faith on behalf of everyone. …
And that’s very much what the Royal Maundy is about. What we see today is only a shadow of what used to be done hundreds of years ago, when the monarch would actually do what Jesus did at the Last Supper and wash the feet of a number of poor people. Back in the Middle Ages, this meant that the King was just doing what priests and bishops often did, not only on Maundy Thursday but on many other occasions.
They didn’t all do it because they were lovely humble people – some were, and some definitely weren’t – but because they accepted one great truth that needed repeating over and over again, the one big thing that Christianity had brought into the world of human imagination.
And that was – and is – the truth that power constantly needs to be reminded of what it’s for. Power exists, in the Church or the state or anywhere else, so that ordinary people may be treasured and looked after, especially those who don’t have the resources to look after themselves. The Bible is crystal clear that this is the standard by which the gospel of Jesus judges the powerful of this world.
Power exists, in the Church or the state or anywhere else, so that ordinary people may be treasured and looked after, especially those who don’t have the resources to look after themselves.
Here is the text from St John’s gospel — the gospel that focuses its attention at the symbolic level — describing the original event [John 13.1-15]:
He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.
Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet?
Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.
Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet.
Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.
Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.
Jesus saith to him, He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all. For he knew who should betray him; therefore said he, Ye are not all clean.
So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.
Here finally, for sheer beauty, is the great 16th century Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria‘s First Lamentation for Maundy Thursday, sung by the Tallis Scholars in the chapel of Merton College, Oxford — just around the corner from Christ Church:
Zenpundit is a blog dedicated to exploring the intersections of foreign policy, history, military theory, national security,strategic thinking, futurism, cognition and a number of other esoteric pursuits.