Immortal

In 1800, Daniel Steibelt, a celebrated European virtuoso, came to Vienna to duel Beethoven in an ‘improvisation contest’.  With great pomp, in the first round, he won.   Beethoven was not much interested in trying to impress aristocrats.  For the second round, Steibelt was puffed up enough to use Beethoven’s own music in his challenge.  This was a. . . mistake.  Incensed, Beethoven snatched up Steibelt’s own music sheet, marched to the piano, turned the music upside down, went on to mock Steibelt’s ostentatious style, and then transform Steibelt’s  music into a dazzling composition.  Steibelt stormed out, refused ever to oppose Beethoven again, and eventually exiled himself to St. Petersburg, . . . for the rest of his life!

Such was the great Beethoven.  He came to realize that he had achieved absolute musical mastery.  He knew that he could do . . all that can possibly be done . . with music.  Only a master genius can know what that is like, to have no peers, and no hope of being fully realized, in your own lifetime.

In 1802, in his ‘Heiligenstadt‘ Will and Testament, found only after his death, Beethoven resolved his loneliness and melancholy, and dedicated himself to music.

Little was lacking to make me put an end to my life.  Only art held me back, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world before I had brought forth all that I felt destined to bring forth

And so ‘bring forth’ great music he did, for the rest of his life, taking long walks, writing down the music as it would came to him, in ever present notebooks, absent minded, stubborn, and eccentric.

His music is his autobiography.  Hear the pain, in the Moonlight Sonata. The love of his life told him no. Feel the anguish in Pathetique.  He realizes he is going deaf.  The notes in these pieces are as much like words as any sounds can be, . . .the language of a human soul.

The true artist has no pride.  He sees unfortunately that art has no limits.  He has a vague awareness of how far he is from reaching his goal; and while others may perhaps admire him, he laments that he has not yet reached the point to which his genius only lights the way for him like a distant sun.”

On May 7, 1824, perhaps the greatest day in the history of music, at the Karntnertor Theatre, in Vienna, he performed his last symphony, unaware, in his deafness, that he had raptured the audience and brought down the house.  In its beginning, this symphony is thunderous, and startling, then it is combative and retreating, then accepting and aching, and then, like his life, transcendent in catharsis and joy, culminating in a . . . song,  a song with an sweet, resonating melody that anyone and everyone can keep in their heads, and sing, . . .forever.  On that night, in that theatre, Beethoven gave the everyday world, crafted with the greatest possible musical genius of any human composer, a magnificent and yet wonderfully simple, everyday, popular song.  And we have been writing and singing popular songs since.

The first and last speech

On December 13, 1963, Corliss Lamont hosted the 172nd anniversary of the Bill of Rights in Washington D. C., and presented the Thomas Pain Award to . . . Bob Dylan.

Mr. Lamont was the son of a wealthy banker, a graduate of Phillips Academy, Harvard, Oxford, and Columbia.  He had a PhD in Philosophy. He celebrated atheism.  In 1932, he visited the Soviet Union and found a very promising, enlightened society.  The secret police were “courteous and efficient and good natured“.  There were hungry people begging for food, but “most of these beggars are people who are too lazy to work, since every Russian can get a job if he wants to“.  He found “charming” the sight of head shaven, marching youth, “freed from their mothers and the bourgeoise ‘trip’ “.  He led the Friends of the Soviet Union, to “Hail the glorious achievements of the workers and peasants of the USSR – where starvation and unemployment have been abolished.” He sided with North Korea, the Soviet denial of the Katyn Massacre, and with Fidel Castro. He was a personal friend of the father of Kathy Boudin, the Weatherman underground radical.

In New Orleans, in the Summer of 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald was passing “Hands off Cuba” leaflets, with copy written by . . . Corliss Lamont.

Bob Dylan, awkward, new on the national stage, ambivalent about the self-celebrating, moral preening of Important People, not wanting to offend and yet not wanting to embrace, gave a disjointed, rambling speech. “It’s took me a long time to get young“.   He  spoke of their  “bald heads“, and remarked that “I’ve never seen one history book that tells how anybody feels”. He then went on to say:  “I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald, I don’t know exactly where – what he thought he was doing, but I got to admit honestly that I too – I saw some of myself in him.”  This did not go over well.

Remember that many people, already, were not thinking that Oswald was guilty.  Framed perhaps, and young, and awkward, and arrogantly bold, and perilously sincere, and perhaps doomed to be forever misunderstood.  Not unlike  Mr. Dylan, . . .no?

Dylan wrote to “explain/not explain”:

“when I spoke of Lee Oswald, I was speakin of the times

I am not speaking of his deed if it was his deed

the deed speaks for itself

but I am sick

so sick

at hearin “we all share the blame”. . it is so easy t say ‘we’ an bow our heads together

I must say “I” alone an bow my head alone

when I speak of bald heads, I mean bald minds

for it is I alone who is living my life. . .nobody tells me how any of ‘m cries or laughs or kisses, I’m fed up with  newspapers, radios, tv, an movies an the like t tell me. I want now t see an know for myself an I accepted the award for all others like me who want t see for themselves an who don’t want that God-given right taken away

out! out! brief candle life’s but an open window an I must jump back thru it now

respectfully and unrespectfully, Bob Dylan”.

American Hamlet

He was just a sickly kid who loved heroes” –  Jackie Kennedy, with Theodore White, 1964.

He had a “rigid and physically distant mother”, and a domineering and  demanding father – “We want winners, we don’t want losers around here.”  Jack Kennedy, Barabara Leaming, pg. 61, 2006.

Joseph P. Kennedy, in 1962, was worth of $500,000,000.  The Kennedy’s were not just rich, they were super-rich.

It is so natural for the wealthy to be self-centered.  They are more valuable. They do have more to lose.

John F. Kennedy was self centered, and witty, engaging, charming, and a war veteran. He was famous from the start, his entire life stage-managed by his father. And he was haunted by losses – his older brother, his favorite sister, war comrades, and his own health.  He was very uncomfortable with emotional intimacy.

I once asked him why he was doing it, why he was acting like his father, why he was avoiding real relationships, why he was taking a chance on a scandal at the same time he was trying to make his career take off.  “I don’t know, really.  I guess I just can’t help it”.  He had this sad expression on his face.  He looked like a little boy about to cry.”  Dallek,  An Unfinished Life, pg. 152.

Kennedy had a sense of history, but he also had an administrative technique that made the gathering of history extremely difficult.  He hated organized meetings of the Cabinet or the National Security Council, and therefore he chose to decide policy after private meetings, usually with a single person.”  James Reston, November 22, 1963, New York Times.

That single person was almost always his brother.  In the Berlin crisis, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile crisis, and Vietnam, he was a tentative, and secretive, a reluctant leader.  The most powerful government in the world had great difficulty knowing its commander’s direction.

And the stakes were getting very high. The window of ‘opportunity’ for a ‘successful’ nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union would close. . . in November of 1963.

Mr President, you certainly can’t say that Dallas doesn’t love you!” . . . And then the plaza rang with the first gunshot. . . The first bullet tore through Kennedy’s throat, and his arms went up as if to block himself from further injury.  His wife turned to him, and just as she did, another bullet shattered his head. . . .She remembered the strange elegance of his demeanor.  “His expression was so neat: he had his hand out, I could see a piece of his skull coming off; it was flesh-colored not white.  He was holding out his hand – and I can see this perfectly clean piece detaching itself from this head. . .He had such a wonderful expression on his face.  You know that wonderful expression he had when they’d ask him a question about one of the ten million gadgets they’d have in a rocket?  Just before he’d answer, he’d look puzzled; . . .and then he slumped forward.”  Jackie Kennedy, Four days in Dallas, Bugliosis, 2009.

 

Chicxulub

Across the land, turbulent air flowing from the chilly north encounters the breezes of the hot south.  As the two fight it out over the plains, tornadoes are spawned.  Ninety percent of the worlds tornadoes occur in North America.”   The Eternal Frontier,  Tim Flannery,  2001.

Long before it became the first global human empire, North America was a climatic dynamo affecting the entire earth.

Unlike any other continent, it is a giant “inverted wedge”, 4000 miles across the in the sub-arctic north, sixty miles across in the south,  with the Appalachian Mountains to the east and the Rockies Mountains to the west.  This wedge is a giant. . . carburetor. . . funneling super-chilled Canadian air southward in winter, and warm Gulf air northward in summer, generating explosive storms, torrential rains, giant lakes, thunderous rivers, and intense seasons that have fueled an evolutionary combustion of plants, reptiles and mammals.  This includes the great forests of deciduous trees that shed their nutrient-drained colorful leaves in winter , when the sunlight is low, and reabsorb their fertilizer energy in the spring when the sun is bright.  And not only leaves, seedlings too, including nutritious, soft-shelled nuts that entice small mammals to carry them away and bury them.  North America invented squirrels.  Native american societies, too, thrived on the gathering and storing of nuts. Only in North America did inland complex societies arise that were not based on farming.

Sixty five million years ago, North America was  two continents separated by a shallow sea, the BearPaw Sea, covering what is now the great plains.

And. . .then. . . a renegade Manhattan-sized meteor from a broken asteroid escaped the gravity of the asteroid belt, and found its way toward Earth.  It lunged in from the southeast and across the equator and crashed into what is now the town of Chicxulub, on the Yucatan peninsula. It struck with a glancing blow “like a giant golf chip shot“, at a speed of 54,000 miles per hour, digging a celestial divot straight up into the BearPaw seaway, with a collision blast of a 100 million megatons of TNT, 2 million times greater than the largest nuclear bomb ever made, exploding a hole 3 miles deep and 100 miles wide, and creating a tsunami wave . . . one-half mile high. . . that smashed the whole world.  With heat one thousand times that of the surface of the sun, the entire North American forest was ‘carbonized’ – incinerated – all the way to the Red Deer River valley in northern  Canada, and even across the Pacific Ocean to Hokkaido island of northern Japan. Fourteen genera of dinosaurs immediately became extinct. The Age of Giant Reptiles cataclysmally ended.  The lee of the mountain ranges of the Appalachians and of the Sierra Nevada and inside the Arctic Circle were the only areas of sanctuary for life.

For many, many years, debri, dust, and smoke blocked out the sun, freezing the land, and poisoning the atmosphere with sulfur and acid rain.  This was “Impact winter”,  the long “polar night”. . .that starved planetary life.

It would be centuries before the charred North America would turn green again, slowly rejuvenated by a. . . fern, Stenochlaena.

 

Natural Civilization

Fourteen thousand years ago, Siberian and Mongolian people crossed the Bering land bridge into North America. Following the ice-free coastline, they eventually found the Andes mountains, the longest linear stretch of mountains in the world.  There, unaffected by Rome or Greece, or Moses, or Plato, or Aristotle, or by any of the rest of world history, they . . . naturally . . . became the Inca civilization, the largest, most sophisticated civilization of the New World.   One hundred thousand elites controlled 10 million peasants, unified by a religion of sun worship, ruled by an emperor who was “the king, the pope, and Jesus Christ all rolled into one.” All land was state owned, peasants were granted rights to till communal lands. Taxes were paid with labor, which created surpluses of food, tools, and weapons, which were stored along the Inca road network, and which were used for times of want, for war, and for patronage.  The few ruled the many.  Natural civilization.

In 1528, Francisco Pizarro found a Bronze Age society, 2,500 years back in time. The Incas did not have writing, or money, but they had deadly slingshots, and clubs, and vast armies. The Spaniards, though, had steel swords, armor, and horses, and like tank warfare against foot soldiers, 168 Spanish horsemen conquered 10 million Incan foot soldiers.

History has been the story of men killing other men, and so also in the New World.  The Incas had been fighting a gruesome civil war for many years, ever since their great Inca chief was killed by another old world weapon – small pox.  His sons fought to the death for the throne. Atahualpa had just conquered brother Huascar and executed his entire family, and was on his victory trip to Cuzco, to be crowned Sun King, when strange boats appeared off the coast. At Cajamarca, Atahualpa crossed Pizarro’s path. He promptly executed any of his men that showed any fear of the strange horse beasts.

The Incas, it seems, did not know the plight of Montezuma and the Aztecs. They were self-sufficient mountain people, not traders with the larger world. Pizarro had been with Cortes. He enticed Atahualpa into a courtyard, and in a bloody ambush, captured him.

For ransom, Atahualpa filled the Cajamarca courtyard with gold.  Pizarro executed him anyway.  His wife became Pizarro’s mistress, and bore him two sons.

To subdue a civilization, dethrone its religion.

The last Inca Emperor, Tupac Amaru, in Cuzco before his execution, tells his people that their religion has been false.

Lords, . . . Let it be known that I am a Christian, and they have baptized me and I wish to die under the law of God – and I have to die.  And that everything that my ancestors, the Incas, and I have told you up until now – that you should worship the sun god, Punchao, the shrines, idols, stones, rivers, mountains, and sacred things – is a lie and completely false.  When we used to tell you that we were entering [a temple] to speak to the sun, when we told you what it said and that it spoke – this was a lie.

The Last Days of the Incas,  Kim MacQuarrie, 2007.

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