Ukraine On The Brink

About an hour ago, news sources began to report that people had been killed in the protests in Kiev. This follows the Ukraine government passing legislation that would ban all protests. Clearly, if people continue coming out into the streets, there will be more violence. A turning point has been reached in the Ukraine.


A molotov cocktail hurled by a protestor going up in flames. Ukraine, January 23. []

Just to back up a bit, Ukraine’s was an “Orange Revolution” in 2004, when people took to the streets to protest an election rigged by Viktor Yanukovych. His main opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, was allegedly poisoned with dioxin but continued the electoral battle and ultimately triumphed. Yushchenko proved unable to deliver on the promises of democratic freedom that he had made — indeed, he was accused of graft and corruption — and was unable to repeat his success, his party falling to less than 6% in subsequent elections. So Yanukovych returned to power.
The other popular opponent to Yanukovych has been Yulia Tymoshenko, who is photogenic and attracted a great deal of support from non-Ukraine journalists who never bothered to examine her platform. Tymoshenko is an ultra-nationalist linked to xenophobic and anti-semitic groups. But, nationalist though she claims to be, her strength lies in Ukraine’s east which is pro-Russian in its stance. So, when Tymoshenko allowed a huge energy contract to Russia at a price much higher than Russia was charging other nations, she was charged and imprisoned. Her treatment in prison has raised questions about Yanukovych and she remains a thorn in his side.

That brings us to the critical issue of Russia, who supplies Ukraine with gas and petroleum, and the stated Ukraine desire to join the European Union. Russia wants Ukraine to join its own eastern customs union which should start up next year. Russia is not hesitant to use Ukraine’s energy dependence as a stick to beat it into line.

November, 2013. Riot police and protestors in Kiev after the announcement that Yuchenko's government would not sign the EU agreement. [Guardian]

November, 2013. Riot police and protestors in Kiev after the announcement that Yanukovych’s government would not sign the EU agreement. [Guardian]

So, last November, Yanukovych’s government announced that it would not sign an agreement with the EU to be receptive to advances from that organization. Immediately protests broke out in the western part of the nation. Russia has, several times, pressured Ukraine to steer clear of the EU by raising prices on gas and petroleum and by cutting off various aid incentives. This occurs quite quickly, since Putin gets what he wants without much need for debate or agreement of other government agencies. Last August, before the Ukraine/EU talks, Russia (according to Tim Judah):

…began withdrawing licenses for certain companies—especially those connected to oligarchs in Yanukovych’s eastern heartlands—to export to Russia; and Russian importers began to break contracts already signed for metal products, steel, and cars. In only a few months the level of trade between Ukraine and Russia dropped 25 percent; in eastern Ukraine, one source who asked to remain anonymous told me, production dropped between 30 and 40 percent between May and November.

This was brutal for a country undergoing the kind of economic stress Ukraine was already feeling. Meanwhile, the EU was only offering an ageement to agree on further agreements — nothing definitive that Yanukovych could take to the bank. So, he buckled and didn’t sign. Russia has repaired some of the broken contracts — Putin’s idea of a carrot is to restore part of the rewards beaten away by the stick — and has recently announced its intent to forgive some or all of Ukraine’s debt as well as reducing prices paid by Ukraine for petro-imports. Of course, these pronouncements can be reversed at any time.

Yanukovych at a meeting with Putin. Putin has kept Yanukovych waiting for hours at scheduled meetings and has generally treated him with contempt. []

Yanukovych at a meeting with Putin. Putin has kept Yanukovych waiting for hours at scheduled meetings and has generally treated him with contempt. []

Putin has made his personal contempt for Yanukovych very clear and western Ukraine has gotten the message: it is a subject nation meant to serve a Russian master. Eastern Ukraine shrugs and says, “So? What’s new?”
Spare a moment of empathy for Yanukovych, the corrupt politico who tried to poison one rival and has imprisoned another. He is caught in a terrible dilemma. He does not want to be subject to Russia any more than other Ukrainians but he has nowhere else to go. The EU showed very little political sense in dealing with Ukraine as it tried to play one power against the other. There is no middle path, no up the middle for Ukraine. Russia will win — though Putin may have the sense to play his victory down (Ha! Not likely.) Yanukovych, for all his faults, is the guy that Ukrainian democracy, for all its shortcomings, has chosen. He will go to his grave wondering if, after all, he should have signed those silly EU papers. Meanwhile, those using cell phones at a protest in Kiev received a government message : “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.” In other words, “We’re watching you. Back off or suffer the consequences.” Yanukovych is signalling that he will use whatever force is necessary to end the protests.
Mind you, all this depends on no out-of-the-blue happenings in Ukraine, such as Yanukovych telling Putin to take a flying jump into the lake, but that eventuality has such dire consequences for Ukraine that it is highly unlikely.

The Coffins of Arthur’s Seat

Arthur’s Seat is an extinct volcano just outside Edinburgh. The Seat and other peaks are located in Holyrood Park, a place for tourists and hikers now, but in 1836, sheep grazed here and locals hunted rabbits. Five boys were out after rabbits in the summer of 1836 when they opened up a recess in the rocks and discovered a stack of small wooden coffins, each less than four inches long by an inch wide. The boys threw the small boxes at each other, trashing some of them, but the next day one of their teachers made his way up the mountain and recovered those coffins that he could find. He took them home and pried off the lids to discover tiny wooden bodies. Over the next one and three-quarters centuries, people have speculated on just what these coffins are all about and why they were left where they were.


Arthur's Seat from Edinburgh. [Wikimedia Commons]

Arthur’s Seat from Edinburgh. [Wikimedia Commons]

Anthropologists came up with theories about voodoo dolls and the like, and folktale collectors began calling them “Fairy Coffins”, a name that has stuck. There is a notion that these might be in memory of dead children:

a mother carv[ed] them for stillborn or miscarried children: portraits of the sons she never got to raise, made from the toys they never got to play with.

Now, it is not unknown for a woman to have seventeen children, but to have them all die at birth or in childhood seems such cruel happenstance that my mind simply rejects it.

The eight coffins from Arthur's Seat. [National Museum of Scotland]

The eight coffins from Arthur’s Seat. [National Museum of Scotland]

Simpson and Menefee, authors of the key article on the coffins, put forward the notion that the coffins were related somehow to Burke and Hare, who had been convicted in 1829. Burke and Hare killed sixteen people and robbed one grave, so the number of corpses is right. But twelve of the victims were female and — so far as can be determined — all the figures in the coffins are meant to be male. Also, it is possible that the coffins were an on-going project, not meant to end with seventeen objects.
Accepting that their theory is problematic, Simpson and Menefee have suggested that investigators should look for tragedies of the era connected with the Edinburgh area that have seventeen victims — a shipwreck for instance. To date, no one has come up with a better idea and the Burke and Hare murders are given as the reason for the coffins by the Scottish National Museum.

Arthur’s Seat has certainly had more than its share of violent death: the slaughter of rebellious apprentices at Murder Acre in 1677, a murder-suicide at Hangman’s Crag in 1769, deaths accompanying various Scots attempts to rid themselves of English rule, a mutiny of local soldiers which had one direct death in 1778 and many indirect after the lads were shipped off to India. Corpses are found from time to time, some are possibly those of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s men, some are far more recent.
Once the site of a monastery, the area was considered by locals to be a place of sanctuary and various outcast individuals lived there on the fringe of society. A furnished cave from the 18th Century has been uncovered and explained as a smuggler’s hideout or an outlaw refuge, but any number of possibilities come to mind, a priest-hole, for instance, or a safehouse for Jacobite spies.
The first decades of the 19th Century, as Scotland modernized, were troubling to many locals. Horse-drawn railways constructed to bring coal into Edinburgh proliferated in the 1830s, and others were constructed to the harbors at Granton and Leith. Edinburgh residents were pleased to use the railroads for excursion purposes but were skeptical about the benefits of improving transport to the harbor towns. Leith opened its first harbor in 1806 and its second in 1817 — though it lacked effective city governance for a decade and became notorious as a hangout for thieves and ruffians. Some locals believed that the harbor towns were draining life from the region as they became embarkation points for New World emigrants.
Edinburgh was surpassed by Glasgow as Scotland’s largest city in the 1820s and there was a sense of decline in the city. The “Scottish Enlightenment” had ended before 1800 with the death of such luminaries as David Hume and Adam Smith and such soon-to-be-famous Scots as Sir Walter Scott had yet to make their mark. There was some anxiety about the great changes that were taking place.

Rabbit on Athur's Seat [via Crafty Green Poet]

Rabbit on Athur’s Seat [via Crafty Green Poet]

The Holyrood area was held by the Earl of Haddington whose ancestors had received it from James VI. But after the Earl was accused of non-payment of poor taxes and was found to be quarrying stone from the mountain and selling it in London, in 1831 the Crown removed the noble grant and turned Holyrood into a park, officially named King’s- or Queen’s-Park from that time forward. Locals continued grazing their flocks and hunting rabbits around Arthur’s Seat until recent times.
Modernization combined with a sense of lost importance — quite a bit of turmoil in a short period.
But, of course, the coffins might not be connected with any particular event, nor even the malaise that infected some of the populace; they might simply be the product of a person or persons who thought this a cool project.
Of the original seventeen coffins only eight are still preserved. These are on display at Scotland’s National Museum.


Here’s what is known and unknown about them:
1– It is unknown exactly where the coffins were found. Various widely separathed places near Arthur’s Seat have been named. Whinny Hill, an eroded volcanic cone to the east, seems a likely candidate, though a place south-east of Arthur’s Seat is favored by some.
2– The coffins were in a niche (probably not man-made) in a hillside. Pieces of slate, perhaps three of them, were used to cover the opening. Reports that these were headstone-shaped are (I think) embellishments.
3–The coffins were arranged in two stacks of eight, and one coffin, possibly the beginning of a new stack, next to them. This description is apparently from one or more of the boys who discovered them but we have no first-hand reports, nor even the names, of these lads.

4– The coffins are in different stages of decay. Whether this means that they were placed in the niche at different times or simply suffered different amounts of moisture and weathering is unknown.
5–There was no real examination of the niche nor the slate covers. It is possible that no one but the boys actually saw either of these.
6–The eight coffins that have lasted through the years are carved from Scots pine. A knife, possibly with a hooked blade, was used to cut away a recess in a 95mm/3.74inch by 23mm/.9inch block of wood. In one case the knife blade has actually cut through the coffin bottom. Since a woodworker would have (presumably) used a chisel or gouge rather than a knife, it is conjectured that the maker(s) was/were a leatherworker or practiced some other trade requiring a very sharp knife. The 19th Century Edinburgh directories on-line show a number of boot and shoemakers and there is a large saddlery warehouse as well. (The directory for 1835 is not on-line but is available at museums and libraries in the area.)
7– The coffin lids are decorated with pieces of tin. Since tin was used to make shoe-buckles, this points toward a shoemaker.
8– Some of the coffins have rounded corners while others are square. It is conjectured that two carvers were at work.
9– Two of the coffins were originally painted or stained red.
10– One coffin is lined with paper made after 1780.

Figure outside coffin. Note darkening (paint around feet. [National Museum of Scotland]

Figure outside coffin. Note darkening (paint) around feet. [National Museum of Scotland]

11– The wooden figures inside the coffins were not carved for that purpose. Some have had arms removed so that they will fit. Some show traces of black painted boots. Facial features include wide-open eyes. It is thought that the figures were orginally toy soldiers, possibly made in the 1790s.
12–Simpson and Menefee: “single-piece suits, made from fragments of cloth, have been moulded round the figures and sewn in place. With some figures there is evidence of adhesive under the cloth.” Some of the cloth is patterned or printed.
13–Some of the cloth on the figures has rotted away but what remains is in such good shape that it is thought that it could not have been buried long.
14– Cotton thread, used to sew the burial suits, replaced linen thread after 1800. Thread used to sew one of the suits is three-ply which came into use about 1830.
15– No DNA could be recovered on the dolls, cloth, or coffins. Scientific tests that might show age by analyzing paint or cloth have not been done.
So, the best conjectures are that: the coffins were carved by one or more individuals, possibly engaged in a trade that required a very sharp knife; who repurposed a group of toy soldiers for this project; and that at least one of the coffins was made within five or six years of their being discovered, though they may not all have been deposited in the niche at the same time.
That’s it. The mystery of the fairy coffins is likely to remain unsolved, barring the discovery of a pertinent old letter or manuscript in an attic trunk in Edinburgh. Meanwhile, your theory is as good as anyone else’s.

The best article on-line is this one by Mike Dash, originally published at Fortean Times.
Article in the July 16, 1836 Scotsman (“The Logic-chair”) describing the discovery of the coffins is available on-line, but it costs..
The 1994 study by Simpson and Menefee is in the Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, available for £4 plus postage.

The Man Who Walked Through Walls: Marcel Aymé

The movie poster below is for a 1951 film version of Marcel Aymé’s story “The Man Who Walked Through Walls”, first published in 1943 while German forces occupied France. No doubt a great many people wished they had the ability to pass through walls then.

Poster for the 1953 film version of The Man Who Walked Through Walls. Poster by surrealist Felix Labisse.

Poster for the 1951 film version of The Man Who Walked Through Walls. Poster by surrealist Felix Labisse.

Before the War, Marcel Aymé had written several novels set in rural France. These were disdained by the snobbish Parisian literary establishment as was Aymé’s style, which incorporated Anglicisms and the patois of the Franche-Comte, where he was born in 1902. Even his children’s stories, collected as Stories from the Perching Cat [Les Contes du chat perché], were savaged by these critics. It didn’t help that Aymé often satirized the bourgeoisie and their hypocrisy. He ignored the critics and kept on writing.
Aymé was apolitical. He had tried to escape conscription but, at the age of eighteen, was taken into the army where he served as part of the French occupation of Germany in 1920. Before 1935, Aymé was considered a leftist, but in that year he signed a petition opposing French action against Italy for the invasion of Ethiopia. The petition was essentially a pacifist plea but contained troubling words that called the Ethiopians a “pack of tribes” and suggested that Italy was bringing Western civilization to savages. More to the point, the petition noted that France had a large empire of its own and had no business criticizing other nations until it cleaned up its own house.

Marcel Ayme, 1940s.

Marcel Ayme, 1940s.

The petition was signed by a number of right-wing intellectuals, including many connected with Action française, an extreme right publication that had begun life as an anti-Dreyfus journal. Other signatories included many French fascists including Robert Brasillach (of whom, more later). The petition was denounced by many on the left as a document of “fascist intellectualism”. It should be noted that, at this time, there were pacifists on both the left and the right (yes) and that anti-bourgeois sentiments were common to both. The left tended to be secular and republican with Marxism the core philosophy; the right was Catholic and royalist with a philosophical bent toward fascism.
France had a great many outright fascists who admired Mussolini’s model and there were many more who shared certain principles — nationalism, militarism, anti-semitism — with them. After the collapse of the French army in 1940, many of these became supporters of the Vichy puppet regime. Some openly proclaimed their satisfaction with the German conquest. “A divine surprise,” Charles Maurras called it.
German occupation of France was intended to be a soft affair, one that wouldn’t upset the citizens too much, and for a while, it was. Independent France still existed — on paper — in Vichy, which gave people an excuse to go along with the Germans, since it meant protecting France. The Germans put Francophiles in charge of occupied Paris – some were married to Frenchwomen — and they were quite sensitive to French feelings. French artists in particular had freedoms not known in other parts of occupied Europe.
Some French residents, such as Gertrude Stein, actively took up the cause of Marshall Pétain, “the savior of France” and head of the Vichy regime.  Stein translated a work of Petain’s into English. This book, which included long anti-semitic diatribes, was meant for publication in America. Stein wrote a foreword in which she compared Pétain to George Washington and Benjamin Franklin — in other words, the Nazi collaborator was the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers. Stein took up residence in Vichy territory. Her Paris apartment, full of priceless artwork, was sealed. When the Gestapo decided to open the seal, Picasso warned Bernard Faÿ, director of the Bibliothèque Nationale, who was unofficial Vichy Minister for Culture and Stein’s protector.  Faÿ ordered the Gestapo away. The Pétain book was never distributed in America.
Some others, like Louis-Ferdinand Céline, intensified the expression of their thoughts. Céline, who was about as nasty an anti-semite as could be found anywhere, continued a series of anti-Jewish books that he had begun before the War. André Gide, by no means a fascist, defended the first, pre-war, volume as over-the-top black humor. And it may be possible to read Trifles for a Massacre [Bagatelles pour un massacre] that way. But, in 1941 when Céline was still openly calling for the elimination of all Jews, the joke was hard to find:

Beating up Jews (by Jew I mean anyone with a Jew for a grandparent, even one!) won’t help, I’m sure, that’s just going around in circles, it’s a joke, you’re only beating around the bush if you don’t grab them by the strings [tefillins], if you don’t strangle them with them. [via Tony Judt in the NYRB]

"Tefillen" are the straps used to attach phylactery prayer-boxes, as on this Israeli soldier. Cocteau is saying that they should be used to strangle Jews.

“Tefillen” are the straps used to attach phylactery prayer-boxes, as on this Israeli soldier. Cocteau is saying that they should be used to strangle Jews.

Céline was a friend to Aymé who had championed his work in the past. Both satirized the bourgeosie, both played with language, though Aymé was a humanist who tended to smile at human foibles while Céline seemed to desire the kind of dark destruction that appealed to fascist romantics. But Aymé was loyal to his friends.
Meanwhile, others determined to resist. Albert Camus saw a friend shot by the Germans and came to the conclusion that sometimes one had to make a choice, a decision about which side you were on. And he wrote in his journal about Vichy, “Now the only moral value is courage, which is useful here for judging the puppets and chatterboxes who pretend to speak in the name of the people.”
Jean Texcier wrote his pamphlet “Advice to the Occupied” which gave instructions on dealing with the Germans: “Have no illusions. They are not tourists, they are conquerors…” Don’t deliberately insult these conquerors to their face, give them a light if they ask for it, but do not befriend them, don’t invite them into your home.
There were incidents — violent confrontations — in the countryside from the beginning of the occupation, but these were unorganized. By the end of 1940, a number of groups of resistants had formed across France, some were Communist, some ex-army, some criminals, some adventure-seekers, and some were ordinary folk, unwilling to put up with an occupation that was becoming, outside Paris, more and more bloody. In early 1941, these groups began to cooperate and function as a united Resistance.

Combat office in 1944. Camus at left, Andre Malraux in uniform at right.

Combat office in 1944. Camus at left, Andre Malraux in uniform at right.

The Resistance published its own journal, Combat, which was staffed by many of the leading lights of French literature, in particular Albert Camus, but also Jean-Paul Sartre, André Malraux, Raymond Aron, and others. At the same time, the right-wing Je suis partout [I am everywhere -- scary, right?], with Robert Brasillach as editor, displaced Action française as the main organ for Vichy collaborators. Aymé wrote four articles for this journal in 1942. None were political.
The resistants’ war became more and more bloody. German troops were killed in the streets of Paris, resulting in the kind of reprisals already familiar in the countryside. The occupation became more onerous to ordinary citizens: France had to pay the costs of the German occupation and currency values were rigged to favor the deutschmark. Most of France’s gross domestic product flowed back to the Third Reich. Young Frenchmen were drafted into the Labor Corps. And the arrest and transport of Jews began in July of 1942, with more than 70,000 French Jews murdered by the War’s end.

Arno Breker sculpting Cocteau.

Arno Breker sculpting Cocteau.

As things became more serious, the casual disdain for political affairs displayed by certain artists dissolved into fear. Picasso became afraid and begged Jean Cocteau for help. Cocteau was a fascist sympathizer who contacted Arno Breker, “Hitler’s favorite sculptor”, on Picasso’s behalf. According to Breker, he kept Picasso from being shot. Meanwhile, the Resistance had become popular and Jean Marais, Cocteau’s lover, begged to be allowed to join. No one trusted him, though, either because of his connection to Cocteau or because he was a blabbermouth, and Marais never found a resistant willing to recruit him.

Jean Marais, Cocteau at rear, 1939.

Jean Marais, Cocteau at rear, 1939.

In 1943, Marcel Aymé published a book of short pieces titled  The Man Who Walked Through Walls [Le Passer-muraille]. The stories are mostly fantastic and satiric. Aymé’s method is to take a single fantastic situation and then push it to a climax.
“The Man Who Walks Through Walls” is the story of a civil servant named Dutilleul who, at the age of 42, discovers that he can walk through walls. This power does not interest him, in fact it bothers him, so Dutilleul goes to a doctor who prescribes medication that will take away this unwanted talent. Dutilleul takes one tablet, then shuts the rest of the pills away. He continues using doors and ignoring walls until his boss is replaced by someone disagreeable. Eventually, Dutilleul is driven to use his power to bedevil this new boss to the point of madness. After he is driven from the scene, Dutilleul finds himself with a taste for more devilment. He becomes a thief and eventually reveals himself to the police, who, of course, cannot hold him in a cell. Dutilleul relishes his notoriety. He takes a lover whose husband locks her in at night, and his life is going well until, one day, he has a headache and pops a pill he finds in the cupboard. It is one of those that the doctor prescribed for him. He goes to meet his lover and winds up stuck in the wall, unable to move.
But the most interesting story in the collection is “The Ration-Card”["La Carte"]. It is presented as a diary:

There’s an absurd rumor going around the neighborhood about new austerity
measures. In order to ward off shortages and insure a greater output from the
laboring element of the population, there will supposedly be executions of
non-productive consumers: the elderly, the retired, those of independent means,
the unemployed and other non-essential persons. Deep down, I feel that this
measure would be quite fair.

But the diarist discovers that:

…putting all the non-essential to death is out of the question. The plan will
simply cut back on their time alive. Maleffroi explained to me that they will be
entitled to so many days of existence per month according to their degree of

So people thought to be useless will have less time alive. The narrator is allowed only fifteen days a month of life. He is indignant, but is told that, after all, writers are useless. The narrator goes to pick up his ration card:

I waited three hours in line at the 18th district city hall to get my time
ticket. We were there, lined up in double file, around two thousand unfortunate
souls dedicated to the appetite of the laboring masses. And this was just the
first little batch. About half of the number looked to be elderly. There were
pretty young women whose faces were languid with sadness and who seemed to sigh:
“I don’t want to die yet”. … In the waiting lines, I recognized, not without emotion, and, I must admit, with
secret satisfaction, comrades from Montmartre, writers and artists: Céline, Gen
Paul, Daragnès, Fauchois, Soupault, Tintin, d’Esparbès and others. Céline was in
a dark mood. He said that it was just one more maneuver of the Jews, but I think
that on this particular point, his bad mood led him astray. As a matter of fact,
in the terms of the decree, it allows Jews, without distinction for age, sex, or
activity, one-half day of existence per month. On the whole, the crowd was
irritated and tumultuous. The many officers assigned to security duty treated us
with great disdain, clearly considering us the scum of the earth. Again and
again, as we grew tired of this long wait, they appeased our impatience with
kicks in the ass.

By now the reader must recognize this story as an allegory of current events. The Nazis called those they condemned to death — cripples, the insane, the old, the feeble-minded –  “useless eaters”. As for the artists, well, we have met Céline, the painter Gen Paul was not a fascist, and Soupault was on the run from the Gestapo, arranging a Resistance radio network. So, one must ask, how did this manage to get published in occupied Paris in 1943? Presumably, because the Nazi censors nodded when presented with fantasy. There may be an answer in the French Gestapo files for 1943 but these are sealed for several decades yet.
Anyway, the ration cards and the life they represent begin to turn up on the black market. Some can buy extra days of existence. The narrator adds five days to June, existing to the 35th. Eventually, with the wealthy buying up all existence and extending their days for many months, the authorities concede that the plan has not aided the economy one bit and they discontinue the cards.

People rummaging through scraps at a market in occupied Paris. [photo by André Zucca, who took pictures for the Germans.]

People rummaging through scraps at a market in occupied Paris. [photo by André Zucca, who took pictures for the Germans.]

Another story deals with the entry into heaven of an evil man. There are so many dead soldiers waiting to get in that St. Peter just waves in the lot. The wicked person hides in the crowd.
One tale is not fantasy but a bitter description of life in rationed France. People waiting for food talk about their harsh lives. One says simply, “I am a Jew.” He need say nothing more, everyone recognizes that he has the hardest life. Once again, all this went through German censorship.
By now, everyone could see that the tide had turned against the Germans. Some Vichy officials, like François Mitterrand, became surreptitious resistants.
After D-day, some collaborators and sympathizers, Céline for example, fled the country. Others hung around, trusting in the concept that Vichy had saved France to save them. But the “Purification”, l’épuration, spared no one. Pétain and many members of his administration were imprisoned to await trial for treason. In the countryside, justice was more summary. Resistants took over villages and killed many who were suspected of collaboration or who, one way or another, offended them.
When the trials began, one of the first was that of Robert Brasillach. He was found guilty of aiding the enemy and sentenced to death by a judge who had once served Vichy. Marcel Aymé took up the task of saving his live. He asked numerous artists and writers to sign a petition asking for clemency. Some agreed. It is unlikely that Cocteau’s signature was of value in this instance but François Mauriac was a hero of the Resistance. Sartre and Picasso refused to sign, possibly because the Communist party advocated revenge. Albert Camus answered Aymé’s request with a letter. During the War, Camus had called for justice for the collaborators and Vichyites. He said, no one could forgive them except the families of those who had been killed. He wrote to Aymé:

I have always been horrified by the death penalty, and I have judged that as an individual the least I could do was not participate in it, even by abstention….This is a scruple that I suppose would make the friends of Brasillach laugh. And as for him, if his life is spared and if an amnesty frees him as it probably will in one or two years, I would like him to be told the following as concerns my letter: it is not for him that I join my signature with yours, it is not for the writer,  whom I consider to be worth nothing, nor for the individual, for whom I have the strongest contempt.

Mauriac took the petition, with Camus’ signature, personally to De Gaulle. But, in January, 1945, Brasillach was shot. His last words: “Vive la France.” He was the only writer to be executed during the Purification. A number of other Vichyites were sentenced to death, although de Gaulle commuted Pétain’s sentence to life imprisonment. Aymé was widely attacked and accused of collaboration. The Ethiopian petition and the articles in Je suis partout were mentioned, but the real crime was  Aymé’s friendship with fascists like Brasillach and Céline. The charges were not pressed. Still, Aymé was labeled with the quasi-official term “blame without [overt] display” (“blâme sans affichage”), which I take to be something like “thought crime”.
In 1945 many claimed to have been resistants or anti-Vichy, whose resistance was, at best, minimal. Gertrude Stein, for instance, claimed to have aided the Resistance, though evidence for that is difficult to find. She was certainly, at minimum, a Pétainist. Some felt that the best way to proclaim their own resistance to the Germans was to attack anyone else who might be suspected of any kind of collaboration.
Aymé was disgusted with this kind of hypocrisy, which, at that time, might mean a matter of life and death. His politics were personal and extended to those around him. He despised grand organizations and causes. You not betray a friend or, for that matter, any human being for the sake of an ideology.
In 1948 he published Uranus, a novel describing the events in a newly liberated village. Young Communists murder  social democrats and Trotskyites in the street, and sometimes they kill other people for reasons that have nothing to do with politics. In one scene, townspeople who had been prisoners of war return. The Marseillaise is played and the mayor makes a speech while five Communists locate a man in the group that they call a Pétainist. They throw him on the ground and begin to beat him. Everyone stands aside and the mayor continues his welcoming speech as the man is beaten to death. At the novel’s center is an alcoholic tavern-keeper, Leopold, a sympathetic character who winds up being executed.

Gerard Depardieu as Leopold in the 1990 film version of Uranus.

Gerard Depardieu as Leopold in the 1990 film version of Uranus.

Uranus is the third novel in a trilogy that depicts life in a French Village from the late 1930s to 1944. Neither of the first two, published in 1941 and 1942, has the harsh bitterness expressed in Uranus. (Although the first, Travelingue, contains sharp satire of leftists during the Popular Front.) Tony Judt calls Uranus hard-bitten and cynical, and puts it in company with the writing of others at the time who said much the same sort of thing.
Even a non-cynical person could not fail to find something corrupt in the offer of the Legion of Honor to Aymé in 1949. He turned it down, warning against “the extreme lightness with which [this honor] was thrown at the head of a bad Frenchman like me…”
In that same year, Aymé took up the cause of another writer, Maurice Bardèche, a scholar of 19th Century literature and Brasillach’s brother-in-law, who was accused of excusing war crimes. Bardèche was definitely a fascist sympathizer before the War and after it, but was not an active collaborator. He was sentenced to a year in prison, something that made him more defiant, and he became a Holocaust denier and Nazi apologist.
In 1950, Céline was convicted in absentia of “acts harming the national defense”, a much less damaging charge than treason. He was sentenced to a year in prison, which he served in Denmark, where he was living. In 1951, his lawyer negotiated an amnesty for Céline, and he returned to France. During this period, Aymé wrote pleas and letters and circulated petitions  to aid his friend.

Celine, at left, with Ayme in 1955.

Céline, at left, with Aymé in 1955.

As Camus had foreseen, the harsh treatment of collaborators had diminished to the point where pardons became the norm. But who could have predicted, in 1945, that eight years later it would become a crime to label anyone a collaborator? By the end of 1951, more than 50,000 French citizens had been charged with various offenses under the Purification Acts. After that, the French government came to think that there was more harm than good to be found in continuing the program, so the official position was completely reversed. Anyway, France had more immediate problems: inability to form stable governments, a stuttering economy, relations with the U.S., the Cold War, and the collapse of the French empire, first in Indo-China, then in Algeria. Men and women who had been united in Resistance found themselves split on these new questions.
It is very wrong for anyone, who has never had to face something like occupation by invaders, to make easy judgements on the actions of those who underwent this experience. Still, it is necessary to examine such historical events for whatever lessons and moral instruction may be taken from them. One may believe, with Camus, that sometimes a person must take sides, with all the moral complications that may ensue from acts of resistance and rebellion. Artists are not immune to criticism because they are artists, they still have a duty to act. But Camus himself came under fire for his position, or lack of it, on Algeria. Algerian-born, he decried the use of indiscriminate violence to spur revolution. He said that, if a bus were bombed and his mother killed, then he would be on his mother’s side, not the bombers’. This runs close to Aymé’s personal politics.
Texceira’s instructions on how to deal with occupation forces boiled down to: don’t befriend them but don’t antagonize them for no reason except to make yourself look good. In fact, that (IMO) is the program followed by most of those in occupied France. This approach does not rule out resistance or armed rebellion, but it does try to apply some common sense to the situation faced by ordinary people.

The Ayme memorial by Jean Marais in Montmarte. [photo: Andre Derain via]

The Ayme memorial by Jean Marais in Montmarte. [photo: Andre Derain via]

Aymé died in Paris in 1967, at the age of 65. In 1989, a memorial was commissioned near his home that was sculpted by resistant-wannabe, Jean Marais. It depicts the final bit of “The Man Who Passed Through Walls” when the hero, depicted here as Aymé himself,  finds himself unable to pass through to one side or the other but is immured in the wall itself.


The only English translation of the collection, The Man Who Walked Through Walls, is this one.
Two of the stories (and one from another collection) with the original French versions, are available on-line here.
The 1951 film version of Passer-muraille is a slapstick comedy with little relation to Aymé’s story. You can watch the entire movie here.
Les contes du chat perché is not available in English. The stories concern two girls spending time at a farm. They speak to animals and have adventures. Some of the stories have been adapted into stage plays, animated movies, and comic books.
Uranus is unavailable in English. The 1990 film is good but also has no current DVD version with subtitles. A subtitled version sometimes plays on television, though. Watch for it.

An excellent account of artists in occupied Paris is Alan Riding’s And the Show Went on: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris

This article by Tony Judt surveys several books about France from the thirties to the fifties.
Gertrude Stein’s Vichy role is summarized here.
Céline’s anti-semitic work is reviewed here.

Remembrance Day: Crucified Soldiers

In May of 1915, a brief news story appeared in the London Times reporting that some Dublin Fusiliers had seen a Canadian soldier crucified with bayonets before being “riddled with bullets”. The story was reprinted in Canada and was brought up in the UK Parliament. Before long, various versions of the story were circulating: the soldier was one of a number of wounded left by retreating troops in a barn, the Germans bayoneted all except a sergeant who was tied to the large cross from a village church before being killed; the sergeant was pinned to a church wall with four bayonets before a fifth went through his throat; it was eight bayonets; it was many bayonets; he was dead when pinned to the wall/fence/tree/barn door; he was alive, and so on. The soldier’s name was given as Thomas Elliott of Brantford, Ontario. Elliott himself wrote to his pastor to say that he had not been crucified. Canada set Albert Kemp, Minister for Overseas Military Forces, to investigate and he found three soldiers, one of them a Victoria Cross winner, ready to testify. But: One claimed to have seen three soldiers, all crucified to a church wall; one was not in Europe at the time of the alleged crucifixion; and one claimed to have seen the crucifixion in a place that the Germans did not occupy. Sir Arthur Currie, commander of the Canadian Corps said that he could find no evidence of the event.

Ad for Bonds, Calgary Herald, November 2,1918

Ad for Bonds, Calgary Herald, November 2,1918

But Allied propagandists jumped on the story, printing posters and including the incident in a propaganda movie, The Prussian Cur. There is speculation that General John Charteris, chief of “Black Propaganda” and author of the German Corpse Factory myth and possibly the Angel of Mons story, may have been involved in promoting the story of the Crucified Canadian.

Still from The Prussian Cur, propaganda movie made 1918. The film is now lost.

Still from The Prussian Cur, propaganda movie made 1918. The film is now lost.

The Canadian soldier was said to have been crucified April 22-24 in the Ypres salient, perhaps at, or near, St. Julien. This was the extreme allied flank and the Germans meant to break through the defense and, perhaps, turn the Allied flank. But a direct assault seemed impossible of success until the German High Command came up with a new tactic: gas. On the 22nd, the Germans let loose a cloud of chlorine gas toward the Allied lines. Many troops ran from this new horror, but some 4000 Canadians stood their ground and kept the assault from victory. Some say that the Canadians may have killed Germans, including prisoners, after that as payback for the gas attack. Some say that the Crucified Soldier was German revenge for Canadian war crimes. Few speak of the crime of chemical warfare, possibly because the Allies were developing that very same weapon, using it for the first time in September, 1915. Crucifixion was an atrocity with more resonance for people — not many have been gassed but everyone has seen a crucifix.

"Canada's Golgotha" by Francis Derwent Wood on display at the Canadian War Museum. [via MelbourneBlogger]

“Canada’s Golgotha” by Francis Derwent Wood on display at the Canadian War Museum. [via MelbourneBlogger]

In 1918, Francis Derwent Wood cast a bronze image, less than a meter high, titled Canada’s Golgotha that depicted the incident. The bronze was to be exhibited in January, 1919, but Germany protested, demanding to see evidence that the event had occurred. There was none and the sculpture was withdrawn. Germany also requested that they have a representative on the Canadian commission under Albert Kemp investigating the claim. Shortly afterward, Canadian authorities pronounced that the story was “not proven”.

But while all this was going on, a nurse in France heard a wounded man tell her of a Canadian soldier whose body he had seen bayoneted to a barn door. He identified the man as Sergeant Harry Band. Band’s family, then living in Kelowna, B.C., had received letters from members of his outfit that also claimed that he had been crucified by German troops. Iain Overton investigated the incident and became convinced that Harry Band had indeed been crucified by German troops. [see a documentary here].

Sergeant Harry Band

Sergeant Harry Band

Band was born in Scotland and had seen service in the British Army before moving to Canada. In September, 1914, he signed up with the 48th Highlanders, an Ontario unit composed largely of Scots immigrants and people of Scots ancestry. A thousand strong, the unit was reduced to 300 men after the fighting at Ypres. Band listed his father in Kelowna as next of kin and directed that his pay be sent to a Miss Isabella Ritchie in Dundee, of whom nothing is known. Band was well-thought of by the men who served with him.
Many who studied this story mention that Belgium, around Ypres, is full of crucifixion imagery. There are statues by the roadside everywhere, not just churches. Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory: “The image of crucifixion was always accessible at the front because of the numerous real physical calvaries visible at French and Belgian crossroads, many of them named Crucifix Corner.” Fussell and others think that exhausted men fed their imagination with the everpresent imagery. But British soldiers hardly needed hallucination to see one of their own crucified, it was a rather common event.

Field Punishment No. 1. British War Office contemporary illustration.

Field Punishment No. 1. British War Office contemporary illustration. Note the pencilled instruction at left: “make the post look entirely unlike the cross”.

Crucifixion was the name given by British troops to Field Punishment No. 1. Men who were accused of petty crimes — losing a piece of equipment, for instance — would be bound to a post or caisson for hours at a time over a period of days, sometimes under conditions which resulted in fatalities. The War Office instructed that the post was to “look entirely unlike the cross” but the troops could see a resemblance. The Canadian War Museum helpfully notes that military punishment had little to do with justice but was intended to instill discipline. This concept of “pour encourage les autres” was carried to the extreme during the War as British officers ordered more than 300 troops to be executed for various infractions without any meaningful investigation. Canada honored its twenty-three executed soldiers in 2001, England gave a posthumous pardon to these executed soldiers in 2006.
One vet, at the age of 105, recalled the War and said he doesn’t know if posthumous pardons for those executed was a good idea, but he did remember feeling sorry for one man who was crucified:

One day I was ordered to stand guard over a chap who had been tied to a wheel, without food or water, as a punishment for something. I can’t remember what he’d done. But I felt sorry for him so I put my fag up to his lips so he could have a smoke. It was a very risky thing to do because if anyone had seen me they’d have tied me to the wheel as well!

"Ecce Homo" by George Grosz, 1924. Grosz was charged with blasphemy.

“Ecce Homo” by George Grosz, 1924. Grosz was charged with blasphemy for making this drawing.

After the War, German artist George Grosz produced a drawing which summed up the experience of all those men who had served in the Great War: “Ecce Homo”, subtitled “Shut Up and Do Your Duty”. Other artists echoed this theme. William Faulkner’s A Fable has a Christ-like doughboy as central character who winds up interred as The Unknown Soldier. Paul Gross’ film Passchendaele references the Crucified Canadian several times and has its hero undergo his own Calvary.

Paul Gross in Passchendaele, 2008.

Paul Gross in Passchendaele, 2008.

Many men died at Ypres. Some are buried in marked graves but other corpses simply disappeared in the mud. Those whose bodies were not recovered are memorialized at Menin, their names inscribed on the walls of the Gate. Occasionally a farmer will turn up bones in his field and, once in a while, these can be identified. When that happens, the remains are interred in a proper cemetery and a name is removed from the wall. More than 54000 names remain on that wall; one of them is Band, H.

Inside the Menin Gate Memorial near Ypres.  The names of more than 54000 men whose bodies were never identified are carved on the wall. Tens of thousands whose remains are identified are buried in the surrounding cemeteries. Five battles were fought at the Ypres salient with over a million casualties.

Inside the Menin Gate Memorial near Ypres. The names of more than 54000 men whose bodies were never identified are carved on the wall. Tens of thousands whose remains are identified are buried in the surrounding cemeteries. Five battles were fought at the Ypres salient with over a million casualties.

The evidence that Harry Band was crucified is presented in this documentary.
Story from The Ottawa Citizen with Iain Overton’s remarks.

Various blogs and web pages exist on this subject. These may be useful:
Spartacus (John Simkin)
Above Top Secret (links are dead)

Paul Gross’ Passchendaele

The Executioner: His Pride and His Shame

In 1553, a wood-cutter named Heinrich Schmidt was standing amongst a crowd in the Bavarian town of Hof, listening to the Margrave detail a plot to assassinate him. The Margrave had arrested three men and accused them of the crime. Now it was time to execute them. There was no official executioner handy, so the Margrave invoked a local custom: he pointed at Heinrich and ordered him to do the deed. The wood-cutter was reluctant but was told that if he refused to carry out the order, then he would be executed instead as well as the men standing on either side of him. So Heinrich Schmidt picked up a sword and cut the heads off the three men.

Having killed these men, Schmidt became a social outcast, like a gravedigger or a slaughterhouse worker, the kind of workers that are called burakumin in Japan and shunned to this day. So Schmidt turned to the only job opening available for a man like himself — he became an official executioner. Two years later, his son, Frantz, was born and, when he was old enough, became his father’s apprentice.

“Leonardt Russ of Ceyern, a thief. Executed with the rope at the city of Steinach. Was my first execution.” So begins the diary of Frantz Schmidt which details his life’s work as an executioner and torturer, first under his father, then in Nuremburg. Over the course of forty-five years, Frantz Schmidt executed 361 people and tortured hundreds more. These acts were all noted in his diary. He was proficient in using the noose, the wheel, fire, and drowning besides the sword, which was considered the most merciful of execution methods.

The only known picture of Schmidt. "Execution of Hans Fröschel, 1591". This drawing was made in the marguns of a court record book. Note Schmidt's collar and curved moustache. [WikiMedia Commons]

The only known picture of Schmidt. “Execution of Hans Fröschel, 1591″. This drawing was made in the margins of a court record book. Note Schmidt’s collar and curved moustache. [WikiMedia Commons]

Each of the methods required a certain knowledge of the human body and its capacity for injury. Executioners had to know how to break a prisoner’s limbs on the wheel in such a way that he would survive for a time. They had to know how to torture without killing. They had to be able to cut out a tongue or perform other judicial maimings without having the prisoner bleed to death. They had to know the proper angle for a waterboard (yes, they had them then.) Sometimes executioners had to heal their prisoner’s broken limbs or other wounds before they could participate in the ritual of public execution. So Schmidt operated as a healer on the side, a trade he found much more congenial and one that he studied. In order to learn more about the human body, he dissected quite a few. Schmidt later estimated that he had treated over 35,000 patients and he was proud of the fact.

Five years after hanging his first man, Schmidt took up work in Nuremburg. He first served as assistant to Nuremburg’s chief executioner, then succeeded him. He also married his master’s daughter — both husband and wife being tainted by association with one of the nastier trades, they would have had difficulty finding a spouse elsewhere. But the post of chief executioner was well-paid and the Schmidt family lived in an upscale part of the city.

A public execution was staged as a morality play. In the first act, the prisoner — whose guilt had already been determined — was allowed a last meal, including alcohol, then was dressed in a white blouse. The executioner then entered and asked the prisoner’s forgiveness before sharing a traditional drink with him. During this time the executioner would be assessing the prisoner’s state of mind and health, judging when he was ready to proceed.

Dungeon under Nuremburg's Old City Hall. Here is where prisoners were held before their execution. Now it's a tourist destination.

Dungeon under Nuremburg’s Old City Hall. Here is where prisoners were held before their execution. Now it’s a tourist destination.

Now the prisoner was brought before a “blood court” consisting of a robed judge holding a rod and a sword, and twelve jurors. The judge would read out the death sentence, including the method of execution, then poll the jurors for their assent. “What is legal and just pleases me,” each would reply. Next the judge asked if the prisoner wished to speak. This was an opportunity for the prisoner to forgive those who had condemned him to death and possibly express his thanks, especially if the sentence was for a merciful beheading. Some prisoners might curse the court, others were too dumb with fear or stupefied by drink to make a coherent speech. When the prisoner was finished speaking, the judge would order the executioner to carry out the sentence and snap in two the white rod he was holding.

The second act of this drama was a procession to the place of execution, which might be a mile or two away. The judge led the way, followed by the prisoner, a couple of soldiers, a chaplain or two, and the executioner and his assistants. Sometimes, if the prisoner was violent or was sentenced to be tortured on the way, he would be carried in a cart. Tortures might include having pieces of flesh torn out with red-hot tongs. The number of these “nips” were spelled out in the sentence. Sometimes the prisoner would have a few more drinks along the way.

The procession route would be lined by crowds of people, who might themselves be drunk and unruly and sometimes threw things at the prisoner. If he could, Schmidt would hurry the prisoner along to avoid problems. The prisoner might pray along with the chaplains and bless the crowd or he might curse his audience or break down in tears.

Execution by wheel. The man's limbs are being broken with heavy wheels. This is opposed to execution on a wheel, where the limbs were broken by a rod or weight after the victim was strapped to a wheel.

Execution by wheel. The man’s limbs are being broken with heavy wheels. This is opposed to execution on a wheel, where the limbs were broken by a rod or weight after the victim was strapped to a wheel.

The final act was the execution itself. The condemned prisoner would mount a scaffold or a platform. There, it was expected that a final prayer would issue from his lips as the noose was placed around his neck or as he sunk to his knees and awaited the executioner’s sword. The executioner would perform the deed then turn to the judge:

“Lord Judge, have I executed well?”

“You have executed as judgment and law have required.”

“For that I thank God and my master who has taught me such art.”

Then the executioner and his assistants would clean up and dispose of the remains.

The idea of the public execution was to make a statement. On the one hand it was supposed to be reassuring—a reminder that people get caught and punished. On the other hand it was a statement about state authority, because the state’s authority was not unquestioned. One of the things government officials were concerned about was private punishment—like lynch mobs and private justice. So it was meant to establish their authority.

No executioner wanted to make a mistake that would sully the grand pageant of death. Though messy executions were frequent at this time, Frantz Schmidt seldom took more than one stroke of the sword to remove a head. Out of 187 decapitations, only four needed more than a single blow. Schmidt was unforgiving to himself for these four, writing in his diary that he had botched the job and did not try to excuse himself. He was proud to practice his trade well. His headsman skill was at least partly due to the fact that he did not drink — at this time executioners were often as drunk as their prisoners when they wielded their sword.

German executioner's sword. The inscription: “I have to punish crime as the law and judge tell me”. [Weapons Universe]

German executioner’s sword. The inscription: “I have to punish crime as the law and judge tell me”. [Weapons Universe]

Traditionally, the executioner was allowed three sword blows to remove a head. If he needed more, the audience might turn into a mob that attacked him. Only once did Schmidt require three strokes with his sword. This was the execution of a woman who was calm before the blood court and said she was happy to leave this world of woe, but on the way to the place of execution her happiness turned to fear and she had to be restrained. Prisoners who were unable to stand were strapped into chairs before being hanged or beheaded, now this prisoner was carried in the procession strapped to a chair. Instead of holding her head steady, so that her death might be quick, she wobbled it around on her neck making it difficult for Schmidt to properly behead her.

Women were not executed as often as men but repeated offenses might well wind up with a capital sentence. So, Marie Kurschnerin, a prostitute, was pilloried in the stocks and driven out of town. Further offenses brought the punishment of having her ears cropped. Finally, in 1584, Schmidt’s wrote in his diary:

…the thief and whore Marie Kurschnerin, together with thievish youths and fellows, had climbed and broken into citizens’ houses and stole a mighty quantity of things. It was an unheard of thing for a woman to be hanged in this city and it had never happened before. Such a dreadful crowd ran out to see this, that several people were crushed to death.

An entry from Schmidt’s diary for 1617:

November 13th. Burnt alive here a miller of Manberna, who however was lately engaged as a carrier of wine. Because he and his brother, with the help of others, practiced coining and counterfeiting money and clipping coins fraudulently. He also had a working knowledge of magic… This miller, who worked in the town mills here three years ago, fell into the town moat on Whitsunday. It would have been better for him if he had been drowned, but it turned out according to the proverb that “What belongs to the gallows cannot drown in water.” This was the last person whom I, Master Frantz, executed.

Frantz Schmidt served the city of Nuremburg for forty years. He successfully petitioned the emperor to allow his children to have the executioner stigma removed from their names so that they could pursue other trades. After his retirement in 1617, Schmidt served as a healer for the last seventeen years of his life. Ironically, during that period most of his children and grand-children, that he had saved from practicing his deadly craft, died. When Frantz Schmidt himself followed them in 1634, Nuremburg honored him with a grand funeral. Social outcast though he was, Schmidt was also well-respected.


The main source for all the above is Joel Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century, a really interesting book. An except may be found here and an earlier article about Schmidt by Harrington is here.

Some odd points were picked up from an interview with Harrington and a few items from this article on medieval executions of women which includes an interesting account of the execution by Schmidt of Elizabeth Aurhaltin, aka Scabby Beth.

Schmidt’s original diary long ago disappeared but at least four copies of it were made. Harrington used the earliest copy known as the basis for his book. A 1928 English translation from another copy is a prime candidate for the Internet Archive or Somebody out there hear me.

Also, in this context, I can’t help recommending Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun tetralogy featuring Severian, apprentice to the Seekers for Truth and Penitence, which is to say, the Torturers’ Guild.

Duel of the Outsiders

At Carlton House in London, on April 9, 1787, A duel took place between two interesting characters of the era. The duel… Well, look for yourself:

Painting by Robineau, who was present, apparently, at the match. [Royal Collection, copyright owned by Queen Elizabeth II]

Painting by Robineau, who was present, apparently, at the match. [Royal Collection, copyright owned by Queen Elizabeth II]

The person on the left is the Chevalier de Saint-George, son of a slave from Guadeloupe and her white master. The person on the right is the Chevaliere d’Eon, diplomat and spy who claimed to be a woman and wore only women’s clothing from the age of forty-nine. These two were renowned fencers and had agreed to a swordfight at the behest of the Prince of Wales, wearing the big hat and standing at the center left. This was a major social event, attended by many friends of His Royal Highness.
D’Eon was born male — he later said that this was a fiction concocted by his father who stood to lose his estate if he lacked a son. This was the reason, he said, that he bore both the masculine name of George and the feminine one of Geneviève, one name was genuine, the other, not. At some point in his life, d’Eon began dressing in women’s clothes. He was small, fair, and apparently quite fetching. Although he was one of the lesser nobility, his family was not wealthy and d’Eon, like other courtiers, had to depend on wit and charm to make his fortune.

Portrait by Maher Brown derived from the official fencing academy portrait. This version, 1788. [Wikimedia Commons]

Portrait by Maher Brown of Saint-George derived from the official fencing academy portrait. This version, 1788. [Wikimedia Commons]

The Chevalier de Saint-George was born Joseph Boulogne to a Guadeloupean slave owner in (probably) 1745. His father fought with a man in 1747, giving him a bloody nose which became infected so that the man died. Boulogne was charged with murder and fled Guadeloupe with his wife, his daughter, his black mistress, and her son, Joseph. A few years later, after receiving a pardon, the Boulogne family returned to Guadeloupe and Joseph began studying music under the tutelage of his father’s estate manager, a gifted violinist who was also the product of master-slave miscegenation. The family, including Joseph’s mother, Nanon, returned to Paris in 1759. Boulogne’s father was in a state of financial embarrassment, as they say, and hoped to find funding to buy more slaves for his sugar plantation. Joseph had been declared a member of the nobility, even though the title was supposed only to go to those born in wedlock. He was given the name Saint-George from his father’s holdings in France. The young chevalier learned fencing and horsemanship — he was very good at both — and continued to study music, particularly the violin. In 1761, he was named a member of the Royal Military Household. At one point, a man called Saint-George “Laböessière’s mulatto” (Laböessière was the fencing master then teaching Saint-George, among others) and his father insisted that the young man challenge the fellow who insulted him. Saint-George reluctantly did so and thoroughly defeated his opponent. He began to develop a reputation as a great fencer.
D’Eon had charmed enough people to be accepted at court. He served as an assistant in the treasury department and wrote a book on France’s finances. In 1756 he became a member of the Secret du Roi — the King’s Secret — the royal spy network.
Louis XV wanted to invade, or at least pass troops through, the small kingdom of Hanover but George II, Hanoverian king of England, had joined with Prussia in promising to send troops to defend the place and requested Russia to also provide troops. Louis did not want to take on both England, Russia, and Prussia all at once. He dispatched two of the King’s Secret — d’Eon and another man — to St. Petersburg to bring Russia onto his side. According to d’Eon — or at least in words attributed to him — he crossed the border in drag, since, he said, only a woman could get past the guards. Once in Russia, he cosied up to the Empress Elizabeth and revealed himself to her as a man. Elizabeth was delighted at his wonderful imposture and had him live among her retinue for six months or more. Perhaps this is why Russia allied with France and Austria against Prussia and England — or perhaps it was because Elizabeth despised Prussia and she owed a debt to the King’s Secret who had helped install her as empress after a palace coup in 1741. Anyway, for d’Eon, a successful mission. D’Eon returned to France but almost immediately was sent back to Russia, where he was a man in the French embassy and a woman in the Russian court. This duplicity was much admired by his peers in the espionage game. The Seven Years War — England and Prussia against France, Austria, and Russia, soon began. In 1761, d’Eon enlisted as a dragoon and fought in several battles. He was wounded at Ullsdorp. In 1762 he returned to diplomatic service. It was at this time, at the age of thirty-five, that d’Eon was made a chevalier.
The Chevalier Saint-George lost his French violin teacher and patron, Jean-Marie Leclair, in 1764 when LeClair was murdered outside his house. The young man was distraught of course, but soon reconciled himself to moving into his former master’s position as France’s premier violinist. The murder was never solved but suspicion has gathered round LeClair’s estranged second wife.
Saint-George was now lauded for his virtuoso violin playing and had begun composing. in 1769 he became first violin of

1787 portrait by Robineau who painted duel. [Wikimedia Commons 9French)]

1787 portrait by Robineau who painted duel. [Wikimedia Commons 9French)]

the Concert des Amateurs formed by the master, Francois-Joseph Gossec. In 1773, Saint-George took over direction of the company and began publishing his compositions. At first, his works were written for string quartet but soon expanded to full symphonic pieces. The Concert des Amateurs was his testing ground for this music. His father died in 1774 and Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier Saint-George, had no share in the estate which all went to his mother and sister. He was on his own but, at this point, the future seemed bright.
In 1762, d’Eon was dispatched to England to investigate terms the English might find acceptable to end the Seven Years War. D’Eon was sent as a man, but he claimed later that, as a woman, he charmed many a secret from the English military establishment. Louis XV was considering an invasion of England and he wanted to know about that country’s defenses. D’Eon pretended to be two people: himself, when dressed as a man, and his sister, Lia, when dressed as a woman. He may have been lover to many noblewomen, including queens — or at least so he said, or was said to have said to his earliest biographer whose work falls on the veracity scale somewhere between unreliable and complete bullshit. Later, more sober biographers have suggested that d’Eon never had a sexual passage with anyone, male or female — but what do they know?

Portrait of d'Eon circa 1775.

Portrait of d’Eon circa 1775.

Soon after helping negotiate the Treaty of Paris in 1763, d’Eon sensed a turning against him by the French court, possibly because he incurred the displeasure of Madame de Pompadour, possibly because he  was running up huge debts and begging the foreign ministry for cash. When he was ordered back to France at the end of 1763, d’Eon refused, claiming that the new French ambassador, Guerchy, had tried to poison him. Guerchy sued for libel. Although Guerchy was arraigned for murder, he was not convicted. D’Eon, on the other hand, was found guilty of libel. Now he launched a counter-attack against his enemies. For some time d’Eon had quietly amassed a collection of secret documents about such projects as the possible invasion of England. In 1764 he published some of these documents in a book that became an international scandal and upset both the French and the English governments. But d’Eon did not publish the most important papers, such as the plans to invade England; these he kept back as a threat not to cross him further. In 1766, the French court capitulated and d’Eon was granted an allowance and returned to his work as a spy.
It became well-known that d’Eon and Lia were the same person and some individuals insulted whichever persona was presented before them. D’Eon challenged several of these men to duels and won them all. The sporting classes of London began now to speculate on d’Eon’s true sex and, in the 1770s, great betting pools were set up where one could gamble on the spy’s gender. Thousands of pounds were offered to anyone who could prove that d’Eon was either male or female. D’Eon claimed to be upset about all this activity but didn’t help matters by publishing another book, Les Loisirs du Chevalier d’Eon, in 1774. In this book d’Eon was rather ambiguous about his sex, thus fueling the gambling frenzy. He also wrote letters — stacks of them — to everyone in sight protesting that he was a man and offering to cross swords with those who said otherwise, but his denials of being female always left room for doubt. Some of the gambling concerns — insurance companies as they were called — became anxious and one sued for a settlement of a wager. The case came before the King’s Bench in 1776 where the presiding judge ruled that d’Eon was female. D’Eon himself did not testify since he had returned to France to repair his fortunes there.

English satiric engraving of d'Eon, 1770s.

English satiric engraving of d’Eon, 1770s.

After Louis XVI came to the throne in 1774, the French began pressing d’Eon to return the documents he had stashed away. D’Eon responded with threats to publish them all and demanded that the king pay him an enormous sum of money. In 1775 Louis sent an agent, Pierre Beaumarchais, author of The Barber of Seville, first performed that year, to negotiate d’Eon’s return of the papers. Louis could not risk the publication of the papers. On the other hand, he had to punish d’Eon in some fashion. Beaumarchais believed, or said he believed, that d’Eon was indeed a woman and begged His Majesty to think of the poor, frail woman, so besieged by fate and cruel enemies: “When it is considered that this creature, so persecuted, is of a sex to which all is forgiven, the heart is moved with sweet compassion.”
In other words, you can forgive d’Eon because she is a woman. Your enemies cannot say that you lack the will to punish them if you are merely forgiving some female foibles. A novel solution to this dilemma was worked out: d’Eon would return the papers, the French government would pay off his debts and restore his pension, but on condition that d’Eon pass as a woman for the rest of his life.  Should he ever put on man’s clothing, d’Eon would be imprisoned and possibly executed. The Comte de Vergennes, Louis’ minister, wrote to Beaumarchais:

I require, absolutely, I say, in the name of the King, that the phantom Chevalier d’Eon shall entirely disappear, and that the public mind shall forever be set at rest by a distinct, precise, and unambiguous declaration, publicly made, of the true sex of Charles-Geneviève-Louis-August-André-Timotheé d’Eon de Beaumont before she returns to France — her resumption of female attire settling for ever the public mind with regard to her…

Certainly, if he ever dared reveal French secrets to the English, “consequences will be terrible to d’Eon” wrote Vergennes. So, at the age of forty-nine, d’Eon took on a permanent role as a woman, which now, according to the English courts and the French king, she was. In 1779, d’Eon published an autobiography but the book was ghost-written and rather untrustworthy. Still, it has served as the basis for much of the myth surrounding d’Eon.
The Chevalier Saint-George was at the top of his game when, in 1776, he tried for the position of head of the Royal Opera, now a perogative of Louis XVI. According to Gabriel Banat, three of the female performers wrote to the king that they could never take orders from Saint-George because: “their honor and their delicate conscience could never allow them to submit to the orders of a mulatto.” Perhaps Saint-George became a bit embittered toward the upper classes at this point. He continued composing and directing. By 1778 he had written symphonies, concertos, string quartets, and musical comedies. In 1779, he became a court favorite of Marie Antoinette, a situation that was, perhaps, displeasing to some. In that year he suffered his first assassination attempt. A group of eight or nine men attacked Saint-George in the street, one of them had a gun to his throat when help arrived. The gunman claimed that he was only defending himself against Saint-George’s sword. There were rumors that the entire affair had come about because Saint-George had cuckolded the pistoleer. Later, another man paid child support to that man’s wife.

Saint-George, circa 1789.

1847  engraving for a book about dueling that featured an heroic Saint-George.

If the attacks on Saint-George and LeClair sound like something out of Les Liasons Dangereuses, it might be worth mentioning that Choderlos de Laclos was a friend of Saint-George and, in his novel, was describing a milieu he well-knew. The attempt to kill Saint-George may have arisen because of his reputation as a great lover. His biographer, Gabriel Banat, suggsts that Saint-George’s fame as a bedtime swordsman was the same kind of racist attribution that is well-known: blacks are bigger, better, and once you go there you don’t go back. At any rate, after this, Saint-George seems to have made an effort to play down his reputation as a lover — a sort of reticence not at all common in this era — though his friends made it quite clear that they thought Saint-George a great lady-killer.

d'Eon portarait made by the English painter, Thomas Stewart, but copying a French portrait by Mosnier made 17??. [Wikimedia Commons]

d’Eon portrait made by the English painter, Thomas Stewart, but copying a French portrait by Mosnier made 17??. [Wikimedia Commons]

Marie Antoinette showed favor to d’Eon also and sent her own dressmakers and corsetiers to supply her with proper costume. D’Eon appeared at court and at various salons as a woman, though she generally wore lower heels than was fashionable. When the American Revolution broke out, d’Eon asked that he be released from his promise to the King so that he might travel to America and fight the English. The King responded by threatening to cut off d’Eon’s support and enjoined him from ever wearing a military uniform. That did not stop d’Eon from sometimes dressing in men’s clothes. The first time this happened, d’Eon was arrested and thrown into a dungeon for several weeks. If this was meant to frighten him into obeying the royal will, it failed. From time to time, d’Eon would dress as a man. Each time soldiers were dispatched to forcibly clothe him in women’s clothing. Each time, d’Eon signed an agreement not to do it again. Finally, the game grew tiresome and d’Eon retired to family property at Tonerre, where she lived with her mother.
Even though the Royal Opera was barred to him, the Chevalier Saint-George had advanced his career, performing with Marie Antoinette at Versailles. He joined a French Masonic lodge and, when the Concert des Amateurs closed in 1781, took up leadership of a Masonic-sponsored group, The Olympic Lodge Orchestra. This group performed Saint-George’s clarinet concerto in 1782 and, in 1784, introduced six works by Hayden that Saint-George had commissioned.
The Chevaliere d’Eon, meanwhile had grown restless and, perhaps, apprehensive about the situation in France. He had been caught riding about his estate dressed as a man and warned again about this impropriety. So d’Eon applied for, and received in 1785, permission to go to England. Perhaps another blackmail threat helped pave the way. From this point on, d’Eon was never seen to dress as a man. Nor did she ever return to France.
D’Eon had joined a Masonic lodge on her earlier mission to England and perhaps it was through cross-Channel Masonic links that the Prince of Wales managed to set up the great duel at Carlton House in 1786. Both the Chevalier Saint-George and the Chevaliere d’Eon were highly regarded fencers — Saint-George had once been called the finest swordsman in Europe, but in 1784 he blew out an achilles tendon and lost quickness in his movements. In 1750, Saint-George’s fencing-master, Laböessière, had developed the modern fencing mask as a means toward non-fatal duels, but no masks were to be worn at the Prince’s fencing exhibition.

Engraving made from the Robineau painting by Victor Marie Picot in 1789. Picot has caricatured the audience. [Princeton University Library]

Engraving made from the Robineau painting by Victor Marie Picot in 1789. Picot has caricatured the audience. [Princeton University Library]

Of course, this was a spectacle, a kind of freak show — there were other matches between famous swordsmen that day, but this was the novelty act – but both Saint-George and d’Eon were used to being on display and both knew how to deal with royalty. So the tall, slim, forty-year-old Saint-George fought the short, stout, fifty-nine-year-old d’Eon. According to Saint-George’s loyal biographers, although he was prinked once, he won the match. D’Eon’s camp say that their woman hit Saint-George at least six times and was the winner. Of course, this might be gallantry shown the weaker sex. A newspaper of the day reported that d’Eon had hit Saint-George with a coup des temps, that is, in the midst of his preparing a move against the woman. D’Eon exclaimed at the time that Saint-George had allowed the coup out of courtesy, but Saint-George replied that, on the contrary, he had done what he could to avoid it. So, gallantry all round.
The swordfight was a topic of coversation for a few days, then faded. Saint-George returned to France to write an opera about a boy disguised as a girl; d’Eon entertained and dined out where he hobnobbed with the rich and curious. Gary Kates:

…James Boswell… talked with d’Eon at a party one evening in 1786. “I was shocked to think of her a kind of monster by metamorphosis. She appeared to me a man in woman’s clothes.” Horace Walpole “found her loud, noisy, and vulgar… The night was hot, she had no muff or gloves, and her hands and arms seem not to have participated of the change of sexes, but are fitter to carrying a chair than a fan.”
What is amazing about the reactions of Boswell and Walpole is that they did not follow their instincts and declare that d’Eon was actually a man dressed as a woman. Rather, despite what they perceived, they identified d’Eon as an Amazon, a thoroughly masculinized woman. They assumed female in what they could not see; they perceived male in what they could see. To them, d’Eon was anatomically female, but socially a man: this is what came across so appalingly to these conservative Englishmen.

If d’Eon’s difference was such that he could hide it with a change of clothes, Saint-George’s was inescapable and written on his skin. His biographers claim that he could not marry because no white Frenchwoman would risk the ignomin y of a mixed marriage, but the fact is many of them did. Is it possible that he was gay? Or did he, like d’Eon, choose a celibate path? At any rate, he and d’Eon were odd men out. D’Eon traded on his difference, Saint-George endured his. Slavery was illegal in Paris and its environs, so Saint-George had been free since his arrival there. Now he determined to do something of value to all colored peoples: he joined with the abolitionist movement in England.
In France, Saint-George formed the Society of Friends of Blacks. In England, where he often travelled in order to perform, he became friendly with the major abolitionists of the day. One night, in 1790, accompanied by co-abolitionist the Duc d’Orleans, Saint-George was walking through Greenwich Park to a house where he was to give a performance. A man wielding a gun attcked the pair. When Saint-George proved equal to the task of defending himself, four more gunmen emerged from the bushes. The great fencer used his walking stick and his violin to defend himself and his companion, driving off his assailants. It is thought that these were toughs hired by pro-slavery interests to attack the abolitionists.
Now the French Revolution had begun. Saint-George quickly declared himself a Republican and offered himself for military service. He was brought into the National Guard with the rank of captain. An organization promoting Black/White friendship had been formed by Julien Raimond, a planter and slave-owner of part-African ancestry. Raimond’s group wanted to promote the friendship between free blacks and whites so that, together, they might make slavery work better — which is to say, with lower possibilty of slave revolts. This was completely opposite to Saint-George’s abolitionist Society of Friends of Blacks. But now Saint-George joined Raimond in petitioning the National Assembly to raise a black regiment. In 1792, the Assembly had passed its Edict of Fraternity, which promised to aid any republican uprising that asked for assistance. The edict also allowed for “free legions” of non-nationals who would fight for the French Republic. The Assembly still held much of the racist attitude of the Ancien Regime, which had passed Black Codes that were more and more restrictive as the 18th Century progressed. A free legion of blacks could be excused, somehow, under the Edict of Fraternity, although the Assembly was still dithering over the abolition of slavery. So was formed the French Legion of Americans of the South, also known as the Black Legion, but more generally as the Légion de Saint-George.
Saint-George immediately set out to enlist a fellow student of Leböessière, Alexandre Dumas. Dumas was born a slave to a noble who had a sugar plantation in Saint-Domingue. The nobleman, through a stroke of fortune, came into great wealth from the family holdings and took his son with him back to France. Dumas was given a first rate education and lived the life of a wealthy playboy until his father began cutting back on his allowance. Then, he enlisted in the army. Although, in theory, he could have been commissioned as an officer, he joined up as a private. His father, now the Marquis de la Pailleterie, was horrified that his son might drag the family honor through the lower ranks, insisted that he use a name other than de la Pailleterie. So, the young man enlisted as Alexandre Dumas. Two weeks later, his father died but Dumas never attempted to become a marquis — a fact that probably served him well during the Revolution. He proved an excellent soldier and worked his way up through the ranks. Along with most of the French Army he declared as a republican and joined the National Guard after the storming of the Bastille. Dumas was at the forefront as the Revolutionary National Guard fought the armies of Europe. Already lauded as a military hero. Dumas was the man to lead Saint-George’s legion. In 1793 he was named Lieutenant-Colonel, under Colonel Saint-George, with two hundred cavalry and eight hundred infantry under his command.

Dumas in action against Austrian troops. Color engraving probably from 1800 or so. Note other members of the Saint-George Legion in the background.

Dumas in action against Austrian troops. Color engraving probably from 1800s. Note other members of the Saint-George Legion in the background.

The unit was stationed at Lille where it soon engaged in combat with Austrian forces, defeating them. Officially, the legion was part of the Army of the Centre of General Dumouriez. Dumouriez had politicked against the execution of Louis XVI, had quarreled with the Assembly over supplies for his troops, and otherwise made himself unpopular. When the Assembly sent a delegation to Dumouriez to examine his conduct, he arrested them and then tried to persuade his troops to march on Paris. Saint-George and his legion refused and revealed the attempted coup to the Assembly. Dumouriez fled to Belgium and Saint-George was, briefly, hailed as a hero.
There were complaints about the way Saint-George handled his command, including some from Dumas, who claimed that Saint-George was responsible for the chronic supply shortages. Saint-George was already under suspicion for his ties to the nobility. He dropped the “Chevalier” title and began signing his name as “George” but no one forgot that this man once played music with the despised Marie Antoinette. Ironically, the exposure of Dumouriez’ treachery had helped to create the political fury that soon became the Terror. Saint-George was arrested and incarcerated. He remained in prison for eighteen months, until the fall of Robespierre brought in a new political order and he was pardoned in late 1794, the same year that the French Assembly abolished slavery. Julien Raimond, ironically, was the person sent to Haiti to help that nation adapt to freedom.
Saint-George was not allowed to rejoin the army, so began trying to repair his musical career. But this was a difficult matter without arts-funding by the nobility and Saint-George struggled to make a go of it. In 1799, he suffered a bladder infection that soon proved fatal.
After the Carlton House duel, d’Eon fought a number of other exhibition matches — at least six staged by the Prince of Wales, now Prince-Regent. The French Revolution ended d’Eon’s pension and she spent some months in debtors’ prison. In 1792 d’Eon wrote the French Assembly, offering to raise a company of women, a légion of Amazons, to fight for the Revolution. This offer was declined. D’Eon had a small fencing school that gave various show matches around Britain. In 1796, at one of these duels, d’Eon’s opponent broke the tip of his sword and the fractured blade pierced d’Eon under the armpit. D’Eon was two years recovering from the wound and announced that there would be no more fencing exhibitions. For the last fifteen years of her life, d’Eon lived in the house of a Mary Cole where, in 1810 she died at the age of 81. A crew of doctors now demanded to examine d’Eon’s body. They pronounced d’Eon anatomically male in all respects. Mary Cole was shocked, shocked do you hear, and many women who had met d’Eon under circumstances not suitable for mixed company, were scandalized.
Dumas continued to rise as an officer and was a general when the Assembly called him to return to Paris in 1794, probably to stand trial for treason. Dumas delayed his departure until after the fall of Robespierre, when the matter was forgotten. Dumas served under Napoleon in Italy and was a member of the ill-fated Egyptian expedition. Returning from Egypt in early 1799, Dumas’ ship foundered and he wound up a prisoner in Taranto, part of the Kingdom of Naples. While in prison he suffered terrible privations, losing the sight of one eye and becoming partly paralyzed. In 1801, Napoleon, now in power, took the Kingdom of Naples and Dumas returned home. There he died of stomach cancer in 1806. His prison diaries helped inspire his son, Alexandre Dumas, in the writing of The Count of Monte Cristo.

The actor LaFont costumed as Saint-George in an 1840 production. [Wikimedia Commons]

The actor LaFont costumed as Saint-George in an 1840 production. [Wikimedia Commons]

The Saint-Charles Legion was slowly broken up after 1793 and turned into the 13th Hussars. In 1802, Napoleon re-introduced slavery in the French colonies — or tried to. He was usuccessful in ending the Haitian Revolt of the newly re-enslaved but settled the matter on terms that Haiti would pay a huge indemnity to France for many years, the repercussions of which still mark that country. Black Codes were re-introduced in France, including a mandatory registration of all people designated as black. Blacks were expelled from the army in 1802. In 1806, inter-racial marriage was made illegal.
Saint-George’s music fell into obscurity, not being performed for two centuries, but Saint-George himself was remembered as a hero and various places in France are named after him. His life, as a fencer and military man, was romanticized and by 1840 there were plays or shows about him, the lead actor wearing blackface. In the 1960s, the American Civil Rights movement brought about a new awareness of black contributions to history and culture and Saint-George was re-discovered. In 1990, Saint-George’s work began to be performed and recorded, though It is feared that a great many compositions have been lost over the years.
The Chevaliere d’Eon was the subject of at least six biographies after his death. The sexologist Havelock Ellis proposed the term “eonism” for what later became known as transvestitism. D’Eon has also been featured in several movies. In the film Beaumarchais she is played by a beautiful blonde actress, much younger than the character she portrays. D’Eon has attracted the attention of contemporary investigators into the matter of gender and there is a fair amount of new writing about this person, hampered somewhat by the fact that d’Eon told so many different versions of whatever the facts may have been — but, of course, by profession, spies are great dissemblers.
Both d’Eon and Saint-George were outsiders in their society who managed to find a place through their own great talent and skills. Probably they would be outsiders today: trans-gendered people are struggling to find a place in a world where many places make it illegal for them to live their lives. And, even in the most advanced nation on earth, the commander-in-chief may find himself facing charges that he is, after all, an African.

Some Sources:

Chevalier Saint-George:
Gabriel Banat,The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow
The recently-published The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss is a life of Alexandre Dumas which contains info about Saint-George and his Legion. has a biography as well as a partial discography and a few audio samples. More performances may be found via Google and YouTube. The violin concertos are possibly the most-played pieces.
The CBC documentary,The Black Mozart/Le Mozart Noir is available on DVD and there is an accompanying set of CDs with a great many pieces by Saint-George.
Another on-line biography page.

Chevalier(e) d’Eon:
A biography, The Strange Career of the Chevalier D’Eon de Beaumont by Buchan Telfer, published 1885, is available on-line and is pretty good on d’Eon’s spying and the Beaumarchais mission.
This page is very sober and claims that d’Eon did very little cross-dressing and especially, emphatically Not, during the mission to Russia.
This page takes from a number of sources and sees d’Eon as a cross-dresser, especially on the Russian mission. There are a lot of pictures of d’Eon.
Gary Kates, Monsieur D’Eon Is a Woman: A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade examines some trans-gender issues but its conclusion — that d’Eon was moved by religious notions to become a woman — seems fanciful to me.

Thomas Quick and Sture Bergwall: What Next?

Yesterday, a Swedish judge dismissed murder charges against Thomas Quick aka Sture Bergwall. This is the eighth murder conviction that has been overturned against Quick/Bergwall, who has been incarcerated since 1994 when he confessed to a number of crimes. Now he is petitioning for release from the psychiatric facility where he has been held.

But even if Quick did not commit all or any of these murders, he is a pedophile, bank robber, and once stabbed a man and left him for dead.

Thomas Quick aka Sture Bergwall [YVONNE SELL/SVD/SCANPIX]

Thomas Quick aka Sture Bergwall [YVONNE SELL/SVD/SCANPIX]

Thomas Quick was born Sture Bergwall in 1950 in Korsnäs, Sweden. He and his twin sister were the fifth and sixth of seven children in the family. Quick says his earliest memory, at the age of four, was his father fellating him. His pregnant mother walked in on the pair and collapsed. She suffered a miscarriage. Later Quick and his father bicycled to nearby Lake Runn where, Quick says, his father disposed of the stillborn infant’s remains at a place called Främby Point. Quick says that his mother grew to hate him and, a year or so after her miscarriage, tried to drown him in Lake Runn. Years later, Quick said that he buried a body nearby. Police have thoroughly searched Främby Point and found no sign of a body, infant or otherwise. Nor is there any record of Quick’s mother being pregnant in 1954, nor of a miscarriage.

When Quick was fourteen, he discovered that he was gay. He was ashamed and afraid to tell his parents. His first victim was killed at this time, he claims. Quick killed him in a shed, leaving his face bloody and his clothes ripped. But witnesses say that Quick was at Communion with his sister when the crime took place four hundred kilometers away. Photographs bear out the witness statements. Next, Quick said he killed another boy in a distant town in 1967. Quick’s sister said that he was nowhere near the town where the murder occurred, also distant from their home. By the time Quick confessed, the statute of limitations had run out on the crimes and, anyway, he was a juvenile at the time of the alleged killings. The first victim’s name was Thomas and was combined with Ms. Bergwall’s maiden name of Quick to create the pseudonym by which he wanted to be known. It was in his teens that Quick began using drugs, mainly amphetamines.

Quick/Bergwall, 1993. [T-online]

Quick/Bergwall, 1993. [T-online]

When Thomas Quick was nineteen, he claimed to have met the only love of his life, an older man named Tom (!). After Tom committed suicide, Quick says that he became deranged. He sexually assaulted an eleven-year-old boy. Two more such incidents followed, then Quick assaulted a nine-year-old patient at the hospital where he worked. He held his hand over the boy’s face to quiet his screams. When he took his hand away, he saw blood and thought he had killed the boy. Quick was apprehended and the witness/victim statements are enough to show that these attacks were no fantasy. Quick was committed to a mental hospital, received residential treatment, and went in for a stay at the Säter mental institution, where he is incarcerated today.

Released from care, Quick was twenty-three when he picked up another man at a gay bar in Uppsala. There was an argument in the man’s apartment and Quick wound up stabbing him. Quick says that he had been sniffing trichloroethelyne which sometimes produces hallucinations. He hallucinated that the man was a monster and so, he had to defend himself. The victim, alive today, disputes this version. He says that they were talking and drinking, maybe fooling around a little when Quick suddenly attacked him. He remembers Quick calmly cleaning his fingerprints off the knife, then walking out to leave his victim — stabbed twelve times in the liver, guts, and lungs — to bleed to death. When he was arrested, Quick claimed innocence for a while, then switched stories and said that he had become enraged when a third man left the apartment. The victim says that there was no third man. Quick was sent back to Säter where he remained until 1977.

Once released, Quick went back using amphetamines. He was involved in some petty crimes — a fake hold-up, an arson attempt — then, in 1990, he and an eighteen-year-old companion, wearing Santa Claus masks, broke into the home of a bank manager. The pair was armed. Quick raged about the house, stabbing the walls, claiming that he had AIDS and would infect the bank manager’s wife and ten-year-old son unless the man cooperated. The manager and Quick’s companion then went to the bank to get money, leaving Quick with the terrified woman and child. Later that afternoon, Quick was apprehended and once again sent to Säter.

Quick/Bergwall at Säter.[]

Quick/Bergwall at Säter.[]

Over the next year or two Quick began seeing psychiatrists and found that he was an uninteresting patient — until, that is, he told about being sexually abused by his father. That made the doctor sit up and take notice. After a time, he confessed to a murder, though his account was too confused for anyone to take seriously. Every now and again, Quick was allowed a day trip to the library where he began researching murders, including that of the boy named Thomas. Then he would come back to the hospital with grisly new details to give his interviewers. During this period Quick was being administered drugs, a lot of drugs: Xanax, Halcion, Treo, Rohypnol, Panacod, and heroic amounts of Valium. Quick discovered that confessing to murder got him more drugs, so he began confessing to more murders.

Psychology professor Sven Christianson now took an interest in Quick and began lengthy interviews with him. Christianson had police connections and told them he had located a man who could clear many unsolved murders. The police were delighted. They took Quick to the areas where murders were supposed to have occurred and Quick re-enacted them. Christianson helped in this process. One officer, Jan Olsson, was involved in two later reconstructions and was dismayed by the procedures. Crime scenes were already set up before Quick got there, rather than having him tell the investigators where things happened. It seemed to Olsson that Quick was being coached, too. No one listened to Olsson and he quit the investigation. By the way, before these re-enactments, Quick was allowed doses of Xanax.

In 1993, police informed the parents of Johan Asplund, who had gone missing at the age of eleven in 1980, that a mental patient had confessed to killing their son. The parents, who had divorced when Johan was three, did not believe it. They thought they knew who had abducted their son and told the police: a man who Johan’s mother had broken up with was their suspect. The police were convinced otherwise. The Asplund parents became convinced that the police were feeding evidence to Quick and were careful what they told them. For instance, they didn’t mention a birthmark on Johan’s backside until pressured by the police. A few days later, the birthmark appeared in Quick’s testimony.

Quick piled on the confessions. The same psychologist interviewed him,the same police officers investigated, the same police sniffer dog was sent out to search for remains. No remains were found, although the sniffer dog did give positive responses at several locations. Then a single piece of charred bone that had been cut by an edged tool was identified by one forensic expert at a place where Quick said that he had burned a chopped-up body. Although he is homosexual, Quick claimed that he had raped one of two women he claimed to have murdered and semen was found in her body. Eventually the police began charging Quick with murders, eight altogether. Prosecutions proceeded and Quick was found guilty eight times between 1994 and 2001.

Quick with police at an allleged crime site, 1997. [viaNettavision]

Quick with police at an allleged crime site, 1997. [viaNettavision]

In 1998, Quick wrote his life story including the tales of abuse, miscarriage, and secret burial. Quick’s older brother, Sten-Ove Bergwall, had also written a book, My Brother, Thomas Quick, in which he refuted these tales. Quick began sending him hate mail. He wrote one letter to Sten-Ove’s wife accusing her new husband of child abuse. Just in case Sten-Ove was destroying the letters unopened, Quick began writing his messages on the outside of the envelope. When Sten-Ove was in hospital awaiting cardiac surgery, Quick called him and said, “I hope your heart explodes.”

Sten-Ove Bergwall and Pelle Svenson, lawyer who acted for the Asplund parents. Picture taken 2009 [Wikicommons]

Sten-Ove Bergwall and Pelle Svenson, lawyer who acted for the Asplund parents. Picture taken 2009 [Wikicommons]

By 2001, Quick had confessed to thirty or so killings and might have admitted more except that a new psychiatrist at Säter, appalled by Quick’s drug intake, cut down his supply. Coincidentally, perhaps, Quick stopped confessing.

Everyone knew that some of the thirty killings had never happened because the victims turned up alive. But Psychologists, police, judges, and Quick’s own lawyer were unwilling to give up on the eight prosecutions, two of them without bodies. Still, many people had questions. One author identified Quick as a serial hoaxer. The Asplunds sued the man who they believed had taken their son and won, although the decision was later overturned. The semen in the dead woman was found not to be Quick’s but he was convicted anyway. The charred bone turned out to be a piece of wood. The Chancellor of Justice reviewed the trials in 2006 and decided that the convictions would stand.

Then, in 2008, film-maker Hannes Råstam, looked at the police re-enactments and noticed that Quick seemed to be dazed or stoned. He began interviewing Quick and, after three months, Quick admitted that he had never killed anyone. Råstam made a television documentary that, on top of efforts made by many other people, caused re-examination of the murders. Quick’s new lawyer pressed to have the convictions overturned and, one by one, they have been.

Claes Borgström being questioned by reporters about his defense of Quick. [Fredrik Sandberg/Scanpix]

Claes Borgström being questioned by reporters about his defense of Quick. [Fredrik Sandberg/Scanpix]

The Ministry of Justice has ordered a review of the entire Quick matter. There are a great many people facing humiliation. As might be expected, many of them are convinced that Quick really did kill those people, or some of them anyway. The police investigators are the ones going to get the really tough questions, including the handler of the sniffer dog. The prosecutor of six of the Quick murders is still convinced of his guilt and even claims that the fragment of wood is bone, after all. Sven Christianson, the psychologist who first got the case going, is also convinced that Quick is a violent sex criminal. He points out that he is still regarded by the police and the courts as an expert in these matters. Quick greatly enjoyed his attention — a real professor coming to interview him! And he also enjoyed having a famous attorney, Claes Borgström, who was a political star and was, for a time, Sweden’s Ombudsman in charge of gender equality. Borgström is under investigation by the Swedish Attorney’s Union for what one lawyer has described as “the worst defense counsel job in modern Swedish history”. He is also counsel for the two women accusing Julian Assange of rape.

So, probably, the man who now calls himself by his birth name, Sture Bergwall, will soon walk the streets. For a while he will be famous and important but, as this matter winds down, as eventually it will, fewer people will care about him. And my question is, what will Thomas Quick do then to re-assert his importance?


Much of the above, including info about Sten-Ove Bergwall, is from this article by Chris Heath.

Some points were gotten from an article for The Observer by Elizabeth Day.

Sture Berwall/Thomas Quick has a blog; it’s in Swedish but translation devices abound. Here is a 2012 post on his lawyer Claes Borgström.

Hannes Råstam’s book, Thomas Quick: The Making of a Serial Killer, was published posthumously last year.

Two Protests: Turkey and Brazil

Most people in North America have become aware of the on-going protest in Turkey, fewer know about the one in Brazil. These two events have some things in common but are being handled in different ways and their respective outcomes may prove important in determining how this kind of protest is handled in the future.

Ankara, June 5 [Reuters]

Ankara, June 5 [Reuters]

In Turkey, authorities decided to take down some trees in a park in order to build something or other. People gathered in the park to protest the removal of the trees and police moved in to break up the protest with overwhelming force. Tear gas and rubber bullets were freely used, violent force all out of proportion to the threat presented by the crowd, composed of ordinary tax-paying folks who just wanted a say in what was going on.

In Brazil, the government announced a sudden 6% increase in bus fares. People gathered to protest and police moved in to break up the protest with overwhelming force. Tear gas and rubber bullets were freely used, violent force all out of proportion to the threat presented by the crowd, composed of ordinary tax-paying folks who just wanted a say in what was going on.

Sao Paulo, June 14 [via  V for Vinegar ]

Sao Paulo, June 14 [via V for Vinegar ]

In both cases, people around the world were shocked by the harsh police response. A protest over trees? Over bus fares? Good people met with the kind of force usually reserved for black anarchist G-8 protestors or the like, unemployed, shiftless, troublemakers who break windows and so on.

Turkey has responded, so far, by increasing the level of force employed against the protestors. Observers wonder why President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is so adamant about cutting down these trees. Perhaps the answer is that this level of force has long been part of Turkish law and order, only now it is nice people being clubbed.

This woman being tear-gassed in Ankara's Gezi Park upset nice people around the world. [Reuters via Huffington Post]

This woman being tear-gassed in Ankara’s Gezi Park upset nice people around the world. [Reuters via Huffington Post]

In Brazil, after the initial violent response, President Dilma Roussef has ordered the police to lighten up and, in a public statement to the nation, congratulated the protestors on demonstrating the strength of democracy and the civility of the people — or something like that. Anyway, bus fares will not be hiked up.

It is clear that the state, in both instances, has the resources and the will to employ a very high level of violence, if necessary. The difference is that Brazil has determined that, this time, it isn’t necessary.  And there is a difference in the leadership: Turkey’s Erdogan has indicated that he will never back down, no matter how silly he looks. When President Roussef was booed at the Confederations Cup soccer match, she was visibly shaken – this was not how she saw her presidency proceeding. Perhaps her background as an anti-government protestor back in Brazil’s bad old days, pre-Lula, has something to do with her response. Or perhaps she is just worried about a possible boycott of the World Cup to be hosted by Brazil next year. Erdogan once served time in prison for anti-government speech but is now associated with military elements of the Turkish establishment. He is a guy used to being obeyed. Or maybe he’s just having a bad moment and will change his mind tomorrow.

Roussef being booed at the Confederations Cup. {YouTube, link in body of post]

Roussef being booed at the Confederations Cup. [YouTube, link in body of post]

Erdogan claims that terrorists and anti-government forces are behind the Turkish protests. It is true that communist parties are very visible in news photos, but they seem to be exploiting the situation rather than creating it. Roussef is one of those Bolivaristo-types, and thus supposed to be a Leftist. Brazilian protestors don’t appear to be Rightists. Demonstrators in both countries are using Facebook and other internet opportunities. The protestors have their own popular hero moments that were met with idiotic police responses: Turkey’s Standing Man and Brazil’s V-for-Vinegar Salad Uprising. The two protestts demonstrate crowd control globalism, by the fact that the police in both countries are using tear gas manufactured in Brazil.

Now what happens next? If Brazil protests continue, and they may, will that validate Erdogan’s hard-line stand? If Turkey slides into chaos, after years of peace and prosperity, will that cause other leaders to think twice about subscribing to such violence? There have been an awful lot of citizen protests the last few years — the Occupy events, the California university confrontations, Quebec’s printemps érable, Idle No More, and the establishment favorite: the Arab Spring. There seems a lot of pressure building up and, unless governments figure out how to get a handle on the problem, they might wind up with something serious on their hands.


Bloomsday: Ulysses

Bloomsday is June 16. That is the day, in 1904, that James Joyce went out with the love of his life, Nora Barnacle. That is the day Joyce immortalized in Ulysses, the odyssey of an ordinary man’s daily round in Dublin.
In 1954, certain Irish publicists decided to have a 50th anniversary celebration and Bloomsday, as an event, was born. For many years there have been attempts to celebrate this day but many were thwarted by Stephen Joyce, grandson and legal representative of James Joyce’s copyrights.


Stephen was a twat. I use the past tense because he may have reformed, oh, yesterday, or an hour ago, or something, and I don’t want to imply that the man is forever damned because he was, for years, a twat. This is Catholic country and forgiveness for all, including child molesters and twats, is possible.
At one point Stephen used his control of copyright to bar public readings from his grand-dad’s work – unless he was paid a hefty fee — but now Joyce’s work is in the public domain and Dublin rejoices (so to speak).
This Bloomsday began yesterday (by my time) with an internationally broadcast reading of Ulysses and will continue until all participants are so thoroughly soused that they cannot perform any longer. Stephen must be shitting bricks thinking of the lost revenues.
Well, but that is now and next year may be different — who knows what crap the copyrighters will throw at us. Why, I might be forced to delete this post.
Meanwhile, for those who are interested, I recommend the comic Ulysses Seen by Throwaway Horse, a publisher that specializes in comic versions of important stuff — like Eliot’s “The Wasteland” or an account of the Trojan War. Throwaway Horse has recently teamed with Dublin’s Joyce Centre to reproduce Ulysses Seen.
This comic reproduces Joyce’s words and illustrates them. It is an excellent introduction to Ulysses for those who want to know how to read the book. I found the illustrations for Part One very illuminating — I did not know of a Martello Tower before, much less that it was the location where stately, plump Buck Mulligan invoked divinity, just as Homer had invoked the Goddess. There are copious notes and explantions for every page. The Tower in question is the site of other Bloomsday activities.

Part of the descriptive page for the opening caption. (Screen grab, links do not work -- go to  first page of comic  for the full monty.

Part of the descriptive page for the opening caption. (Screen grab, links do not work — go to first page of comic for the full monty.

There is another entire section, “Calypso”, Part Four of Ulysses that is illustrated on the site and includes interesting interpretations of Bloom’s visit to the privy (with a copy of a paper that prints a rejected Joyce manuscript to wipe his ass) and the painting over Molly’s bed. More is said to follow, though don’t hold your breath: this is a long term project. (part of Section Two, “Nestor” and Section Five, “Lotus [sic] Eaters” are available.)


Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

When I was fourteen, I got a stereo record player for Christmas. It was portable, so-called because it had a handle and wasn’t a piece of furniture. The lid came off and served as one speaker, the other was in the phonograph itself. It was cool. A little while after, I got a special record from Columbia that included samples of a bunch of Columbia stereo recordings and a set of noises that you could use to balance your speakers — there was a booklet explaining how to do this. So I balanced my speakers, cranked up the volume, and listened to the sampled music which was pretty humdrum until, suddenly, I was assaulted with a barrage of orchestral music, intensely rhythmic, heavy on percussion. I listened to the piece again. And again. Up to this point in my life, Little Richard had made the most exciting music I had heard but now I was listening to an excerpt from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring by Leonard Bernstein conducting the N.Y. Philharmonic and it blew everything else I had ever listened to out of the water. Years after, I still find it exciting music, but that’s partly because now I know the story behind it.

In the early 20th Century, ballet had fallen into disuse in Europe, except in Russia, where a few composers and a state-supported performance system kept turning out interesting work. But a new group of composers had come on the scene after Tchaikovsky — Mussorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakoff, and his pupil, Stravinsky. These composers were very self-consciously Russian and they played up an aspect of Russia stereotyped by outsiders that is now called Orientalism.

Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Stravinsky. Photo by Nijinsky's sister, circa 1911

Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Stravinsky. Photo by Nijinsky’s sister, circa 1911

Serge Diaghilev, showman and impresario, bundled together a number of Russian dancers, musicians, and artists and took them to Paris as the Ballets Russes in 1909. The dancers included Vaslav Nijinsky and, for a time, Anna Pavlova. The chief designer was Leon Bakst, who often worked with local artists, including Picasso. The Ballets Russes were a huge hit but Diaghilev soon became faced with the problem of topping his last performance.

Igor Stravinsky composed The Firebird and Petrushka for the Ballets Russes but, in 1912, began work on a very new, very iconoclastic piece about the birth of music itself. Stravinsky’s vision was informed by a Ballets Russes designer, Nicolai Roerich, a mystic artist who was inspired by the findings of archaeologists that were very recent. Roerich had worked out a notion of prehistoric ritual that he explained to Stravinsky.

Roerich, "The Great Sacrifice", 1912

Roerich, “The Great Sacrifice”, 1912

The idea was that, in the Spring, the Earth had to be served so that it would allow the generation of new life; the service was one of human sacrifice. Stravinsky was taken with this notion and began to compose the score for a ballet that would feature dancers conducting the ritual that would culminate in the sacrifice of the Chosen One, a girl who would — this being ballet — dance herself to death.

Nijinsky photographed by Stravinsky in 1911

Nijinsky photographed by Stravinsky in 1911

Meanwhile, in Paris, Diaghilev was in a sexual relationship with Nijinsky, but the affair seemed to be reaching a crisis point — possibly because Nijinsky was tired of being Diaghilev’s possession, possibly because of Diaghilev’s desire for variety. This was not a long-term relationship.

Nijinsky was the star of the Ballets Russes, the first male dancer to achieve the kind of fame later accorded Nureyev and Baryshnikov. He had begun to choreograph some of the Ballets Russes numbers, not always successfully. Meanwhile, he performed in costumes that were either over-the-top Oriental or hardly there at all. His Afternoon of A Faun shocked some people with its sexuality — but, then, the Parisian taste-making class wanted to be shocked and Diaghilev wanted them to buy tickets, so Nijinsky kept pushing at the boundaries of acceptability.

Things were mounting toward a crisis point. Nijinsky’s version of a new work by Debussy, Jeux, received a few catcalls and boos at its premiere, but there was no great scandal yet, just the sense of one waiting to happen.

Stravinsky at the piano, drawing by Jean Cocteau

Stravinsky at the piano, drawing by Jean Cocteau

When Stravinsky first played some of the Rite for Diaghilev he chose a part where the same chord is pounded over and over. According to Stravinsky’s recollection (and, let it be said now, Stravinsky is a most unreliable rememberer), Diaghilev asked, “When does it end?” He was trying to be polite, Stravinsky said later, but he snapped a reply, “When it’s over!” According to Stravinsky, the chastened Diaghilev sat quietly through the repetition of the piece.

Costume study by Roerich.

Costume study by Roerich.

It is difficult to imagine Diaghilev being chastened by anything and, soon as he could, he began talking up the new work that the Ballets Russes was going to perform: composed by Stravinsky, conducted by Pierre Monteux, choreographed by Nijinsky, set and costume designs by Nicolai Roerich. So it was that, May 29, 1913, The Rite of Spring was first performed at Gabriel Astruc’s brand-new Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

There are many eye-witness accounts of what happened that evening and not one of them can be trusted. It is not simply that they contradict each other, it’s that the witnesses contradict themselves in the telling and re-telling of the tale. Many more people claim to have been there than the theatre could hold — was Picasso there? Probably not. Were Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas? Or did they, perhaps, see a later performance? No one now can say: this was a pre-video event.

Costumes from  The Rite of Spring  on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Costumes from The Rite of Spring on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

According to some accounts, there was a disturbance when the first notes of the piece played in the darkened theatre — a bassoon, playing in its upper register. (“Wouldn’t a saxophone be better, Mr. Stravinsky?” “I know the difference between a saxophone and a bassoon, and I want a bassoon!”) Other accounts say that the uproar began when the curtain rose on the dancers, clad in flannel dresses with long pigtails. The dancing was pigeon-toed stamping to the insistent rhythms of the orchestra. And those rhythms played off one another and against each other in groupings of notes that did not harmonize. There was no melody.

"Get a Dentist!"

“Get a Dentist!”

The women dancers struck poses discovered by Roerich’s archaeological research. When they cocked their heads against their hands, someone yelled, “Get a dentist!” and someone else yelled back, “Get two dentists!”

Lauren Stringer from her children's book,  When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky

Lauren Stringer from her children’s book, When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky

So it went. The cacophony from the audience grew and grew. Conductor Pierre Monteux had been told, “Keep on, no matter what!” And he did. When the dancers could not hear the music over the audience noise, Nijinsky stood on a chair in the wings shouting out the count in Russian. Stravinsky abandoned his seat and said something to the people around him, perhaps “Go to Hell!”. He remembered it in different ways. He went backstage where he may have held Nijinsky’s coattails as the choreographer leaned out over the stage shouting his directions. Someone, perhaps Diaghilev, perhaps Astruc, the theatre owner, flicked the houselights on, then off, several times to try to quiet things down. Some say that objects were hurled at the dancers, at the orchestra, at spectators. Others say that fistfights broke out. Some accounts have mass arrests of forty or more people, though this does not show up in the official police records. In other words, as my great aunt used to say, “A good time was had by all.”

Allan Moore (words) and Melinda Gebbie (art) from their pornographic work,  Lost Girls

Allan Moore (words) and Melinda Gebbie (art) from their pornographic work, Lost Girls

Afterwards, Nijinsky, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, and Jean Cocteau went out on the town. They wound up in the Bois de Boulogne, in the early hours, with Diaghilev weeping and reciting Pushkin at the top of his lungs. Or so Cocteau said. Stravinsky denied the story. He claimed that he, Diaghilev, and Nijinsky went to a restaurant where Diaghilev claimed that the evening was “exactly what he wanted”. There are a lot of stories about the events of that evening that I doubt. Did Saint-Saens really say, when he heard the opening notes, “If that’s a bassoon, then I’m a baboon.” I suppose he spoke in French, “basson” and “babouine” just don’t have that rhyme that the story requires. But I could be wrong. Stravinsky says that neither Saint-Saens nor Cocteau attended the premiere, but he could be misremembering.

Diaghilev and Stravinsky

Diaghilev and Stravinsky

Diaghilev may have been the genius behind the great scandal. He gave away tickets to young modernists, those who disdained the upper classes (who paid double price for their tickets) and, some say, he hired certain provocateurs to create a riot. Whether or not that is true, he was certainly pleased with the night’s events which guaranteed sellouts of the next five French performances and the four English ones that followed. This was not enough to make the event solvent — there were fifty or so dancers, ninety-nine or a hundred orchestra members (there was scarcely enough room to squeeze them into the pit) — and Astruc was paying double fee to the Ballets Russes. He went bankrupt. Ah well, c’est dommage!

The Ballets Russes now embarked on a voyage to South America to astonish the citizenry there — all except Diaghilev who claimed he was afraid of ocean voyages, though others say that he wanted an Italian vacation to check out the pretty boys. Anyway, on the trans-Atlantic voyage, Nijinsky proposed marriage to Romola de Pulzsky, a Hungarian woman who had been stalking him for more than a year. They did not share a language, so an intermediary was called in to translate. Romola, who had been warned by Marie Rambert, Nijinsky’s under-choreographer, that the man was gay, went ahead with the marriage. It was some time before it was consummated, but when that event was accomplished, Romola became pregnant. Back in Europe, Diaghilev was furious and fired Nijinsky from the Ballets Russes.

Romola and Nijinsky wedding, Buenos Aires, 1913.

Romola and Nijinsky wedding, Buenos Aires, 1913.

Nijinsky tried working with his own company, headed by himself, his sister, and her husband – the last two very accomplished dancers. But Nijinsky had no head for business or organization and things were not working out when, in August, 1914, the First World War put an end to all that. Nijinsky was in Vienna at the time and, as a Russian citizen, he was incarcerated as an enemy alien. But what goes around, comes around, and Diaghilev managed to spring him free. For a couple of years they tried to work together, but somehow the world was not so interested in ballet at that particular moment.

In 1919, in Switzerland, Nijinsky gave his last performance to a group of upper-crust types who attended him at his hotel. Nijinsky sat for a half hour staring unblinking into the eyes of his audience who dared not respond. Then he unrolled two great strips of cloth, overlaid them in a cross, and said, “Now I will dance you the war…. The war which you did not prevent.” He danced. They left. That morning, Nijinsky had begun a journal full of odd writings and his own drawings. The drawings are mainly of eyes, single staring eyes. Some have been gone over and over again so that the paper has worn away under his pen strokes. Over the next two years, his behavior became more and more erratic — he tried to drive his carriage into others, for instance, and he pushed or threw Romola down a flight of stairs. Finally, in 1919, he was committed to an asylum, diagnosed with dementia praecox, or as his doctor, Eugen Bleuler, later termed it, schizophrenia.

Nijinsky painting of an eye, 1920

Nijinsky painting of an eye, 1920

The war was not kind to anyone and the Russian Revolution wrecked any hopes that members of the Ballets Russes might have of going home: they were now bourgeois entertainment and not to be tolerated. Still, ballet lived on in Russia and, eventually, Stravinsky’s music was rehabilitated by Khruschev.

Diaghilev died from diabetic complications in Italy in 1929 and was buried on the island of San Michele near Venice. Nicolas Roerich continued to sail on into the mystic and settled in India where he died in 1947. The Roerich Pact of 1935 resulted from his work in trying to protect the world’s cultural heritage.

Roerich toward the end of his life. [Wikimedia Commons]

Roerich toward the end of his life. [Wikimedia Commons]

In 1920, The Rite of Spring was re-choreographed by Diaghilev’s new lover, Leonid Massine, and performed several times. In 1930, it came to America. The Pittsburgh performance was preceded by a work by Schoenberg, who requires a whole ‘nother level of appreciation. The lead dancer in the US performance was Martha Graham.

Roerich backdrop used in the American production.

Roerich backdrop used in the American production.

Stravinsky emigrated to the US in 1940. He drifted to Hollywood where he made contact with the vast group of European refugees already there.  Walt Disney, under the influence of Leopold Stokowski, was trying to put together a film of animated classical music. He had a notion of a prehistoric earth, dinosaurs battling, volcanoes raging, that sort of thing, but he could not find the proper music. Someone suggested The Rite of Spring. Disney got into it. He and Stravinsky talked for a while — both parties have given very different renditions of the discussion – and Stravinsky’s work got the nod.

Later, Stravinsky said that Disney had threatened him (or implied the threat) that he could do what he wanted since The Rite of Spring was not  protected any longer by copyright, the Bolsheviks having given up all that bourgeois claptrap. So, take it or leave it. Stravinsky took it — the amount of cash involved differs from one account to another. Those present at the actual events say that Stravinsky was pleased, but who knows.

Disney and Stravinsky studying drawings of dinosaurs in 1940. Does Igor look happy?

Disney and Stravinsky studying drawings of dinosaurs in 1940. Does Igor look happy?

Fantasia did not do well at the box office and Disney decided never to go highbrow again. Years later, when Disney re-issued the film they ran into a problem: an outfit named Boosey & Hawkes had obtained the copyright to The Rite of Spring in 1947.  In 1993 when Fantasia was scheduled for release as a video, Boosey sued, saying that Disney had only purchased theatrical rights from Stravinsky, not video rights. Disney settled for $3 Million. Of course, this is amusing to anyone who knows about the history of copyright and the manner in which Disney has extended it. For a little while, the Rite was in public domain but in 2012, a century after it was written, the piece went back under copyright. Right now, under the current rules, The Rite of Spring will not be copyright free until 2041.

In 1939, Nijinsky had improved somewhat, possibly as a result of insulin shock treatment (which, to me, sounds so barbaric that I can’t credit it), and went home, or to Romola’s home, in Hungary. He almost never spoke and hardly related to anyone — his daughter recollected him taking a bouquet that she offered him and clutching it silently to his bosom. In 1945, he heard Russian soldiers playing folk music near his house and went out to them and began to dance for the first time in a quarter-century. He died in 1950 in London.

Nijinsky and Romola post-War. []

Nijinsky and Romola post-War. []

Stravinsky kept on in the US. I recall seeing his Noah and the Flood on television in the ’60s. All that I remember was the depiction of the Heavenly Host, angels eternally singing to God, who were (I thought) made up to look like mechanistic puppets. He died in 1971 and, like Diaghilev, was buried on San Michele.

Marie Rambert was fired from the Ballets Russes at the same time as Nijinsky. Diaghilev suspected her of loving Nijinsky — which, perhaps, she did. She went on to become a major force in ballet, particularly in England. She died in 1982.

Joffrey reconstruction in 1987.

Joffrey reconstruction in 1987.

In 1979, Rambert assisted Millicent Hodson in an attempt to restore Nijinsky’s choreography for The Rite of Spring. After close examination of Nijinsky’s notes and other documentation, Hodson was able to reconstruct the original ballet, which the Joffrey Ballet performed in 1987. You can see a version here.

Many orchestral performances of The Rite can be accessed on line. There is a version by Pierre Monteux (who scoffed at the piece whenever anyone asked about it), Pierre Boulez, Stravinsky himself, and several versions by Leonard Bernstein as well as many national orchestras. There are also: an electronic version, an 8-bit version, several jazz versions, a couple by high school marching bands, mashups, and versions by groups such as Birdsongs of the Mesozoic. There are also several performances of the work for four hands and two pianos, though the original performance by Stravinsky and Debussy of that arrangement was not recorded, so far as I know.

A very good documentary on the music and listening to it is from Michael Tilson-Thomas’ Keeping Score. There are also videos available on the bassoon part (and how to play it), master classes in conducting the piece, and so on.

Joffrey Ballet in Los Angeles, June, 2013. [photo: Herbert Migdoll for The Joffrey Ballet]

Joffrey Ballet in Los Angeles, June, 2013. [photo: Herbert Migdoll for The Joffrey Ballet]

I am reliably told on the internet (so it must be true) that more than two hundred ballet versions have been staged. Boosey & Hawkes say that they have authorized a hundred and fifty.  Some follow, as best they know how, the original; some have very odd costumes; some have no costumes, completely or partially nude; some have a young man as the sacrificial victim; one Russian version has the victim’s lover exacting revenge on the tribal elders after the fact, an atheistic Communist political corrective; there is a native American version, an Australian aboriginal version, a Punk version (what?); a Japanese butoh version; and one where there are no dancers at all, just clouds of bone dust floating over the stage. Just do a search for “Rite of Spring” on YouTube and you will find versions to both thrill and appall you.

All of this would make Diaghilev smile, especially if he could get a cut of the box office. Nijinsky would be horrified; he believed in his version. Stravinsky, who became an American citizen in 1945 and lived in the States until his death, would just shrug it off, or make up a story about it all.

The BBC’s Riot at the Rite is a movie that retells the story of May 29. It has a somewhat hetero Nijinsky who sacrifices himself to Art, just as the Rite‘s dancer sacrifices herself to the Earth. There are other movies about the Rite and Nijinsky and even a play about Stravinsky and Disney.

Still, after all these years, The Rite of Spring is powerful music. Leonard Bernstein said that it was the most important orchestral work of the 20th Century. Stravinsky was one of the artists who created Modernism , the 2oth Century’s new take on Art. After World War I, younger artists imbued their work with a cynical, disillusioned edge, but for a long while, it was still the same Modernist patch being plowed. Now, of course, we are all Post-Modern and this stuff doesn’t mean so much: we can be all ironic about it. But, I want to say, The Rite of Spring still hammers my consciousness the same way that it did a half-century ago.