Is North Korea Weird or Is It Us?

About a week ago, a South Korean newspaper reported that Kim Jong-un had executed his ex-mistress and a number of other members of her musical troupe for the crime of making pornographic films, and possibly for possessing Bibles. There were some lip-smacking details: death was by machine gun and family members had been forced to witness the event before being herded off into the prison gulag of the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea.
But did this actually happen? The South Korean newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, is considered Korea’s top journalistic publication, but need I mention the top US paper and, say, Weapons of Mass Destruction? And Chosun Ilbo is very much part of Korea’s power elite and has been accused of slanting reports in aid of that elite. Perhaps South Korean politicos felt the need to mock the North for some reason or other; Chosun Ilbo is able to help. All reporting has to be read critically.

Kim Jong-un and Hyon Song-wal at an Unhasu Orchestra performance August 8. On August 17, Hyon was reported arrested.

Kim Jong-un and Hyon Song-wal at an Unhasu Orchestra performance August 8. On August 17, Hyon was reported arrested.

So what do we know? The woman in question, Hyon Song-wol, reportedly became involved with Kim Jong-un ten years ago, but Dad (Kim Jong-il) didn’t approve and broke up the relationship. Rumor has it that Hyon and Kim Jong-un carried on, though, even after her marriage to an army officer.

Ri Sol-ju and Kim Jong-un earlier this year.

Ri Sol-ju and Kim Jong-un earlier this year.

The Kim dynasty has been very secretive about family matters. It was something of a departure for Kim Jong-un to be seen and photographed with his wife, Ri Sol-ju, over the last year or so.

Mun Kyong-jin performing in Paris, 2012.

Mun Kyong-jin performing in Paris, 2012.

Hyon was a member of the Wangjaesan Light Music Band musical troupe that often performed with the Unhasu Orchestra, a serious group that played in Paris last year. Mun Kyong-jin, a highly regarded violinist, and two other concertmasters of the Unhasu Orchestra are among those said to have been executed. Also reported slain were members of the all-female Moranbong Band. Hyon also performed with the popular group, Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble. Her best known number was “A Girl in the Saddle of a Steed” (also translated as “Excellent Horse-like Lady”) where she performed as a worker in a textile factory, dancing amongst the bobbins in a widely-seen video. Glorification of the worker and militarist patriotic numbers are staples of North Korean music.

Wangjaeshan Light Music Band. Hyon is in purple dress.

Wangjaeshan Light Music Band. Hyon is in purple dress.

Ri Sol-ju is a former member of the Unhasu troupe, though Kim has tried to erase her show biz past. There is speculation about her involvement in the executions. So far as I can tell, it is all speculation. About ten days before the reported executions, Kim and Ri Sol-ju attended a performance of the Unhasu Orchestra and Wangjaesan Light Music Band.
The pornographic video sold in China is said to be the one on this page. Hyon and two other women dance to “Aloha Oe”, sung in English, while wearing red borsalino hats and vests. They throw off the vests toward the end of the number, somewhat like a stripper might do, except that there is no nudity.

Pornographic "Aloha Oe"? link to video in post.

Pornographic “Aloha Oe”? link to video in post.

Now watching that video has to convince you that North Korea is weird. No doubt about it. Kim Jong-il once kidnapped a movie director and an actress from South Korea and kept them captive to make movies for him. And there are reports that Kim Jong-un had a senior military officer executed for drinking during the mourning period for Kim Jong-il. According to reports, Kim commanded that the man be obliterated so the executioners zeroed in a mortar on the spot where he stood and blew him up. Yep, weird.

from Guy Delisle, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea If power has no need for truth, perhaps neither does entertainment posing as journalism.

from Guy Delisle, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea
If power has no need for truth, perhaps neither does entertainment posing as journalism.

The problem is that no one really knows what is going on in North Korea. The first real evidence of the prison camps came from an escapee. Still, that was a widely-disseminated rumor that turned out to be true. And perhaps this story of executed musicians is true as well, or perhaps it’s just that First World people have a taste for News of the Weird. A spokesperson at North Korea’s official YouTube channel has denied the reports and, a little while back, claimed that Hyon and the Unhasu Orchestra were going to perform September 9, Foundation Day of the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea. But, so far, no video of Hyon taken since August 17 has been shown on YouTube.

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 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 knew well. 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 and 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 ignominy 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 attacked 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 legion 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 Légion 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.

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.

“The Kreutzer Sonata” and The Moonlight, part 1

A group of strangers meet in a Russian railway carriage. It is 1889 and the conversation turns to the decline of marriage. An old man states that this is all because of too much education: people have become too learned and there is no more fear. Women should fear their husbands, then there would be fewer divorces. A woman shakes her head:

“Oh, that, my little father, that is ended.”

“No, madam, that cannot end. As she, Eve, the woman, was taken from man’s ribs, so she will remain unto the end of the world,” said the old man, shaking his head so triumphantly and so severely that the clerk, deciding that the victory was on his side, burst into a loud laugh.

“Yes, you men think so,” replied the lady, without surrendering, and turning toward us. “You have given yourself liberty. As for woman, you wish to keep her in the seraglio. To you, everything is permissible. Is it not so?”

“Oh, man, –that’s another affair.”

Double standard? The old man says, No. He says that men, too, have received the Law, but that it is not so bad for them to break it as it is for women. Double standard, yes.

The old man gets off the train and the others continue chatting about marriage and the status of women, all except one passenger who keeps to himself and avoids eye contact with the others. Finally, he is drawn into the conversation and begins talking wildly about love, which he denounces. One of the other passengers mentions the Posdnicheff case, where a man murdered his wife. “I see that you have recognized me,” says the man who does not believe in love and reveals himself as Posdnicheff.

At the next stop all of the passengers leave the carriage except Posdnicheff and the narrator. “Love, marriage, family, — all lies, lies, lies,” says Posdnicheff and then he tells the narrator the story of how he came to murder his wife.

"The Kreutzer Sonata", painting by Prinet, 1901, inspired by Tolstoy's work but illustrating something that never happens in the story -- except, perhaps, in one man's evered imagination. This painting was used in an advertisement for Tabu perfume and was well-known enough in the 1950s to be parodied in Mad.

“The Kreutzer Sonata”, painting by Prinet, 1901, inspired by Tolstoy’s work but illustrating something that never happens in the story — except, perhaps, in one man’s fevered imagination. This painting was used in an advertisement for Tabu perfume and was well-known enough in the 1950s to be parodied in Mad.

Thus begins Leo Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata”, a work disliked by pretty much everyone who has read it. But Tolstoy had serious purpose in writing the story and put a lot into it over the years. “The Kreutzer Sonata” incorporated much of his own thinking on sex, marriage, and the relations between the sexes. This is not to say that Posdnicheff is Tolstoy’s double — Tolstoy never murdered anyone — but his words often reflect Tolstoy’s opinions.

Posdnicheff tells the narrator that he comes from a wealthy family and that he did not marry until he was thirty. Before that time he lived, he says, a life of debauchery, having sex with prostitutes. Eventually, though, he is persuaded that he should marry and decides on a young woman from a family fallen on hard times. Before their wedding he shows his bride-to-be his diary, which describes his various sexual adventures, one of which he wants her to know about before she hears of it through gossip.

Now this last bit also happens in Anna Karenin, when Levin shows Kitty his diary. And, in fact, Tolstoy also showed his diary to Sophia before he married her, particularly because he wanted her to know about a liason with a woman that she knew. All three of these women — Sophia, Kitty, and Posdnicheff’s fiancée — were terribly embarrassed by this action, though Tolstoy would have it that they were horrified rather than mortified.

"The Kreutzer Sonata" by Joseph deCamp, about 1913.

“The Kreutzer Sonata” by Joseph deCamp, about 1913.

Anyway, the Posdnicheff wedding proceeds. The marriage is not a success. The couple quarrel often and then make up and have sex. Then they quarrel again. Posdnicheff is convinced that they quarrel because, once their sexual desire is satisfied, that they are not interested in one another. They hate each other, says Posdnicheff, and their hate grows because neither is able to find a reason for this hatred. Of course, he is ascribing thoughts and feelings to his bride that she is unable to refute and, over the course of the story, the reader may come to see Posdnicheff as a very unreliable narrator. Certainly, by this point, most readers will find him unlikeable, cold and distant, though he believes himself a creature controlled by passion.

The marriage staggers on. There are children — at least five, maybe seven, possibly two died — and Posdnicheff names two of them, the boy that he uses as a weapon against his mother and the girl that she enlists as an ally against him. The couple fight and screw and propagate until a “rascally” doctor explains birth control to Mrs. Posdnicheff. Now she blossoms, becoming plumper and prettier. Of course, Posdnicheff hates this. When his wife becomes interested in performing music with a male violinist, he becomes jealous. They perform Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata for Piano and Violin, No.9 in A Major (Opus 47), a work that greatly disturbs Posdnicheff. His jealousy and hatred grows until he tells his wife that he wishes she were dead. She attempts suicide; they reconcile, briefly, then back to the old routine of quarrel/hate/screw; he suggests divorce, but only if she initiates it. Finally, in a fit of jealous rage, Posdnicheff stabs his wife, right through her corset, inflicting a wound that turns out to be fatal. The story ends by quoting Matthew 5:28, “…whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery…” and goes on to say that this includes a husband looking lustfully on his own wife.

A couple of notes are due here: Posdnicheff never actually discovers that his wife is unfaithful — there’s that unreliable narrator trick — and it is only when she is dying that Posdnicheff sees his wife as a human being, that is, a real individual person as opposed to a Wife, a Mother, a Woman; throughout his tale, he never once uses her name. Along the way in this story, we are treated to various rants: against contraception — which is a terrible evil; against pretty dresses and hairdos — traps to catch men; about love — which does not exist; about music — which is so disturbing that it should be controlled by the state; about the fact that all women care about is entrapping a husband; and the fact that women actually run the world by being totally in control of men all the time, even though they exercise this control from a condition of slavery. By now the reader’s brain is shouting the word “misogyny”.

Clandestine copy of "The Kreutzer Sonata" circulated in 1889. [British Library] The Library says that this is a hectograph rather than a mimeograph. That is, a special carbon paper proof was imprinted on a sheet of gelatin, then paper copies were pulled from the jello plate. Maybe fifty good copies could be made before the sheet became unusable. This was a method used up to half a century ago to print 'zines.

Clandestine copy of “The Kreutzer Sonata” circulated in 1889. [British Library] The Library says that this is a hectograph rather than a mimeograph. That is, a special carbon paper proof was imprinted on a sheet of gelatin, then paper copies were pulled from the jello plate. Maybe fifty good copies could be made before the sheet became unusable. This was a method used up to half a century ago to print ‘zines.

“The Kreutzer Sonata” was circulated in a mimeographed form for a while. Tolstoy rightly thought that the Czarist government would block its publication but perhaps he did not forsee that an enterprising Berlin publisher would release versions in four different languages. After the English version was released, the United States Post Office made it illegal to send it through the mail. The US Attorney-General backed this action and President Roosevelt called Tolstoy a “sexual moral pervert”. Of course, Teddy might have been just getting back at a guy who disapproved of hunting. The case went to the courts after some newspaper vendors excitedly offered “Suppressed!” copies for sale. In the end, Philadelphia’s Justice Thayer struck down the ban. Tolstoy might hold some absurd ideas, he said, but the work was not an “obscene libel”. In the first place, it wasn’t obscene and, after all, the anti-sex ideals expressed in it were a commonplace in Christian thought.

G.K.Chesterton, who held a jaundiced view of Tolstoy’s “simplicity”, said:

The emotion to which Tolstoy has again and again given a really fine expression is an emotion of pity for the plain affairs of men. He pities the masses of men for the things they really endure — the tedium and the trivial cruelty. But it is just here, unfortunately, that his great mistake comes in; the mistake that renders practically useless the philosophy of Tolstoy… Tolstoy is not content with pitying humanity for its pains: such as poverty and prisons. He also pities humanity for its pleasures, such as music and patriotism. He weeps at the thought of hatred; but in “The Kreutzer Sonata” he weeps almost as much at the thought of love.

Isabel Hapgood, who had translated and championed Tolstoy’s work for Americans, refused to translate “The Kreutzer Sonata”. She said:

The whole book is a violent and roughly worded attack upon the evils of animal passion. In that sense, it is moral. Translation, even with copious excisions, is impossible, in my opinion, and also inadvisable. The men against whom it is directed will not mend their ways from the reading of it, even if they fully grasp the idea that unhappiness and mad jealousy and crime are the outcome of their ways, as Pozdnisheff is made to say in terms as plain as the language will admit of, and in terms much plainer than are usually employed in polite society.
On the other hand, the book can, I am sure, do no good to the people at whom it is not launched. It is decidedly a case where ignorance is bliss…

This bit of peck-sniffery makes me almost sympathize with Tolstoy. (I say, fuck “polite society”! And “Stay ignorant, blissful fools,” is elitist bullshit. [rant rant rave rave]) But there is an interesting bit in Hapgood’s essay:

Count Tolstoi one day praised the Shakers in this manner [i.e., for the same reason that Posdnicheff praised them, because they were committed to non-reproduction] before a table full of people. I was afraid to ask him his meaning, lest he should explain in detail, so I questioned his wife in private as to whether this new departure was not somewhat inconsistent with his previously advocated views on woman’s vocation.
She replied: “Probably it is inconsistent; but my husband changes his opinions every two years, you know.”

I like that she didn’t ask what he meant, “lest he should explain in detail” which says quite a bit about Count Tolstoy and his imperious verbosity. I also like the interchange with Sophia Tolstoy that confirms many men’s suspicions that all women are in league and constantly plotting together against the master sex.

Sophia and Leo. Photos from around the time of their wedding in 1862.

Sophia and Leo. Photos from around the time of their wedding in 1862.

That brings up the question of the Tolstoy marriage. In brief: it was troubled. Leo was thirty-four, a little older than Posdnicheff when he married. Sophia was nineteen, about the same age (so far as I can tell) as Posdnicheff’s bride. The Tolstoys had thirteen children; nine survived infancy. They began arguing early on but Sophia was not shy with her opinions. She acted as Tolstoy’s editor and transcribed his manuscripts over all the years of their marriage. When she didn’t like a work — and she hated “The Kreutzer Sonata” — she let him know. When Leo leapt into appealing new systems of thought, she tried to restrain him. They certainly fought. Sometimes, like many battling couples, their fights were ridiculous to outsiders. But Leo’s lofty foolishness could be forgiven as idealism gone off the rails; Sophia’s actions appeared neurotic and mad.

Sophia spied on her own house through binoculars, sizing up the situation. She hated cats and banned them from the Tolstoy estate at Yasnaya Polyana; then, to counter the vermin problem, brought in snakes. The symbolism here, of Eve investing a would-be Paradise with swarms of serpents, cannot have been lost on either Tolstoy. And Sophia was a temptress, always trying to turn Leo away from a multitude of notions. Their daughter Aleksandra cited a letter:

“You are harassing and killing yourself,” [Sophia] wrote him on April 19, 1889, to Yasnaya Polyana. “I…have been thinking: he does not eat meat, nor smoke, he works beyond his strength, his brain is not nourished, hence the drowsiness and weakness. How stupid vegetarianism is….Kill life in yourself, kill all impulses of the flesh, all its needs — why not kill yourself altogether? After all you are committing yourself to *slow* death, what’s the difference?”

Yeah, dude, why not just kill yourself? Which is what Posdnicheff says to his wife and which she promptly attempts to do. And it was Sophia who actually attempted suicide, several times, so often that it seems to have become a ritual. Sophia’s diary also castigates Leo for his coldness which he interrupts only in fits of sexual desire. So the real life drama is close to the story. Well, except for one thing: it wasn’t sex that the Tolstoys fought about, mostly it was money.

Sophia and Leo, around 1905.

Sophia and Leo, around 1905.

Tolstoy, in a bout of spiritual fervor, decided to leave his entire estate to some noble purpose or other. Sophia wanted the money to go to their children. This was the cause of the great combat between them at the end of their lives. Tolstoy was assisted by a number of fervent Tolstoyians. Some he employed as secretaries. One of these, Vladimir Chertkov, helped Leo determine how to distribute his fortune in his will and it was Chertkov that Sophia was most worried about; this was the guy she was looking for with binoculars. She had heard that there was a secret will signed by Tolstoy in 1909 and was determined to fight it. In 1910, Leo and Sophia quarrelled and he stalked out of the house, attended by an acolyte. He was persuaded not to try to walk to wherever it was he had chosen as a destination and instead took up refuge in a series of railway stations, headed somewhere else. Tolstoy succumbed to pneumonia in one of these stations and died at the age of 83. Sophia was not allowed to see him; she hovered nearby, in a railway car, talking about hiring a private detective to follow Leo and find the secret will. A decade later, everything became moot as the Bolshevik Revolution wiped out the Tolstoy property values.

Sophia, trying to get entry to the place where Leo is dying, 1910.

Sophia, trying to get entry to the place where Leo is dying, 1910.

But there is still the question of how much Posdnicheff’s views reflect those of Leo Tolstoy. Well, Posdnicheff’s views on sexy clothing had already been stated by Tolstoy both in other works and in rants to his listeners. He was horrified by the sight of a naked shoulder. Or perhaps he was filled with lust, which is much the same thing, right? And, this was the fault of the shoulder-barer — at least to a egocentric like Tolstoy. Then there is the stuff about music: Posdnicheff says, “…a terrible thing is music in general. What is it? Why does it do what it does? They say that music stirs the soul. Stupidity! A lie! It acts, it acts frightfully.” Tolstoy once told Rachmaninoff that he could not stand Beethoven, “Is such music needed by anyone? I must tell you how I dislike it all. Beethoven is nonsense.” Stefan Zweig said that Tolstoy distrusted both women and music because they unleashed his passions. But let’s go directly to Tolstoy’s own defense of “The Kreutzer Sonata” in which he explains his thinking:

…it is necessary for the view in regard to carnal love to change. Men and women ought to be educated in their homes and by public opinion to look, before and after marriage, on infatuation and the carnal love connected with it, not as upon a poetical and exalted condition, such as it is now considered to be, but as upon an animal condition, degrading to man…

It is not good to use means preventive of childbirth, in the first place, because people are thus relieved of cares and labours in regard to children, who serve as a redemption of carnal love, and, in the second, because it comes very near to the act which is most repulsive to a human conscience, to murder. Nor is non- continence during pregnancy and nursing good, because it is destructive of the physical, and still more of the mental, powers of woman.

…the attainment of the aim of being united in wedlock or of being outside of wedlock with the object of love, however much extolled by poetry it may be, is unworthy of man, just as the aim of obtaining sweet and superabundant food, which presents itself to many as the highest good, is unworthy of man.

And so on. Tolstoy proceeds from principles which he says everyone agrees with — the value of chastity, for instance — and he cites the New Testament as a basis for his thinking — hence the quotation that ends “The Kreutzer Sonata”. Tolstoy thinks it is best not to have sex — procreation is not an issue for him, better not to breed — but he recognizes that complete celibacy is difficult if not impossible. So, try for the chaste ideal but if continence is the best you can manage, so be it. There are echoes here of Paul’s notion that it is better to marry than to burn. Marriage is an accomodation with sin. Although Tolstoy claims to believe in the equality of the sexes, his argument is based on unstated premises of female subservience. The old man in “The Kreutzer Sonata” who proclaims that obedience is a wife’s duty is saying something that Tolstoy accepts as obvious.

Still from a 2008 movie version of "The Kreutzer Sonata" that has the action in current times. That sound you hear is Leo Tolstoy doing cartwheels in his coffin.

Still from a 2008 movie version of “The Kreutzer Sonata” that has the action in current times. That sound you hear is Leo Tolstoy doing cartwheels in his coffin.

Sophia Tolstoy took over responsibility for publishing her husband’s work in 1886 and performed this duty very well. She disliked the crowds that called at Yasnaya Polanya, thinking that many of the Tolstoy-worshippers were “lunatics” and the women “hysterics”. But mostly she regretted the loss of her husband as he took on the role of living saint. From Sophia’s journal, 1903:

I went to [my husband’s] room this evening as he was getting ready for bed, and realised I never hear a single word of comfort or kindness from him nowadays.

What I predicted indeed has come true: my passionate husband has died, and since he was never a friend to me, how could he be one to me now? This life is not for me. There is nowhere for me to put my energy and passion for life; no contact with people, no art, no work – nothing but total loneliness all day.

That, I think, is the authentic voice of Posdnicheff’s wife. Posdnicheff himself says that he murdered his wife, not when he stuck a knife in her, but when he married her. Perhaps that’s what Tolstoy thought about Sophia. One last thing: as Tolstoy’s publisher, it was Sophia who demanded that the czar lift the ban on Russian publication of “The Kreutzer Sonata” in 1891. She was successful.

[Part 2 will discuss a riposte to Tolstoy also titled from a Beethoven sonata, Joyce Cary’s The Moonlight.]


The full text of “The Kreutzer Sonata” is here and in other places on the Net. I have kept Posdnicheff’s name as the anonymous translator has it, though you can find it spelled at least three other ways in the various pages I have linked.
Tolstoy’s Epilogue, his explanation of “The Kreutzer Sonata”, was published in English in 1904.

Besides her anti-Kreutzer essay linked above, Isabel Hapgood wrote a long account of visiting the Tolstoys in 1890. There she gives another version of the Shaker/celibacy business mentioned above.

This is a marvelous account of visiting Yasnaya Polnaya by Elif Batumen which has quite a bit to say about “The Kreutzer Sonata” and the Tolstoy marriage.

Many adaptations have been made of “The Kreutzer Sonata” for stage, screen, and television. None (that I have seen) are particularly good since they all follow the action of the narrative, so you get a drama about a neurotic, jealous wife-murderer with none of the surrounding rationale. You can see the same thing on many TV crime shows. But there is one movie of interest: The Last Station starring Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, and Paul Giametti as the scummy Chertkov, which looks at the final days of the Tolstoy marriage.

Celebrity Plonk

Looking for a hobby? Got a few millions to spend? Why not buy a vineyard and bottle your own wine. You might make a profit, even better, you might turn out something good. Now I’m not talking about just licensing your name to somebody so they can put your image on a jug of swill and triple the price. I’m talking celebrities who actually like wine and have a bit of taste and, maybe, some business acumen.

The worst kind of celebrity plonk. Malcolm Young doesn't drink any more and Angus never did. Bon Scott of course... Still, I might try that Highway to Hell Cabernet someday.

The worst kind of celebrity plonk. Malcolm Young doesn’t drink any more and Angus never did. Bon Scott of course… Still, I might try that Highway to Hell Cabernet someday.

Surprisingly few celebrity chefs dabble in wine production. Mario Batali works with his business partner, Joe Bastianich (son of celebrity chef Lidia), who is a recognized authority on Italian wines, but that’s about it. Perhaps the chefs are concerned that a poor vintage might cause people to doubt their culinary skills or the restaurants they own. Or maybe it’s because these chefs already have sweetheart deals with wineries. Possibly I should mention Martha Stewart here who has partnered with Gallo to lend her name to wines sold through K-Mart. Or possibly not. Oh, and maybe there’s Guy Fieri, if he survives the awful reviews of his restaurant.

One of the few wines in this post that I've actually tasted. It was very good. Thanks, Jason Priestly. [more on Black Hills]

One of the few wines in this post that I’ve actually tasted. It was very good. Thanks, Jason Priestly. [more on Black Hills]

There are plenty of actors who have taken up vinting — Lorraine Bracco, Kyle McLachlan, Jason Priestly, Emilio Estevez , Sam Neill, Gérard Depardieu, all own some or all of a vineyard and and a label. Raymond Burr bought a vineyard but died before its first vintages were ready — the label is still run by his partner, Robert Benevides. Fess Parker started the winery and resort that bears his name, which was featured in Sideways.

Sideways wine-tasting at Fess Parker's place.

Sideways wine-tasting at Fess Parker’s place.

Some actors are concerned that their personae may affect the reception of their wine:

Originally the winery was called Smothers Brothers, but I changed the name to Remick Ridge because when people heard Smothers Brothers wine, they thought something like Milton Berle Fine Wine or Larry, Curly and Mo Vineyards,” Tom explains.

On the other hand, Francis Ford Coppola has turned his estate into a movie museum where you can suck down some Black Label Claret while you look at Godfather mementoes.

Drew Barrymore's Pinot Grigio which is supposed to be pretty good.

Drew Barrymore’s Pinot Grigio which is supposed to be pretty good.

Dan Aykroyd isn’t afraid to market his own products and put his name on the label. “They asked me if I’d like to have my own wines…how good is that?” Aykroyd got heavilly involved in the selling of Crystal Head vodka (distilled in Newfoundland) and was dismayed when the Liquor Control Board of Ontario refused to carry it because the bottle was too pretty or something. Aykroyd finally won that fight and his vodka is on sale beside the Pátron tequila that he imports into Canada and his own line of Niagara wines. Aykroyd also has a surprising factoid about wine and celebrities:

Every hockey player I know has an excellent nose and an excellent tongue. Kirk Muller, for instance, has excellent taste. Dave Ellett – he called his dog Caymus [after the famous Napa Valley cabernet] Dougie Gilmour loves to have the big, full red wines. Wendel Clark and John Erskine, too. I’ve had some good wine parties with those guys.

Wow! Wait’ll Don Cherry hears about hockey wine snobs! And I really, really want to try some Wendel Clark In-Your-Face red — but it has to be made from Saskatchewan grapes. Or saskatoons or something. Meanwhile, maybe I’ll sample some of The Great Ones’ No.99 wines, especially since it’s now legal to transport wine across the border into B.C.

Cellar of Valeri Bure's Bure Family cellars. Note the hockey stick in the eagle's talons. Bure says he learned about wine in Montreal.

Cellar of Valeri Bure’s family winery. Note the hockey stick in the eagle’s talons. Bure says he learned about wine in Montreal.

There are a whole lot of athletes that have gone into the wine business — Tom Seaver, Mike Weir, Mario Andretti, Charles Woodson (who is not allowed to promote his product so long as he is active in the NFL) — just to name check four major sports besides hockey. Peggy Fleming had a winery but it seems to have closed.  And let’s not forget David Beckham who gave his wife a vinyard for her birthday. (I so hope they produce a wine called Posh Spice.) Hmm, no basketball wine. Well, Larry Bird has put his name on a few bottles (“surprisingly good for a white”) but he’s not really involved so far as I can see.


But aside from a few rockers like Vince Neil, the best celebrity wines are produced by actors. Richard Gere has teamed with a major Italian producer to put out what I hear are outstanding wines. And, of course, there’s Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt who are the latest celebrities to buy Miraval, a French château that has seen more than its share of celebrities. Sting (yes, he makes wine, too) recorded there as did Pink Floyd, who recorded much of The Wall at a studio constructed in the basement by jazz pianist Jacques Loussier. In fact, a reportedly excellent rosé from Miraval was named Pink Floyd by Pitt. Pitt and Jolie are to be married at Miraval and then will market their co-produced wines as Jolie-Pitt. They should be very very good.

Sinéad O’Connor Twenty Years After

Twenty years ago today, during a Saturday Night Live performance, Sinéad O’Connor ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II. There was an immediate outcry from critics, journalists, and, a week later, SNL host and noted theologian, Joe Pesci. O’Connor’s career never recovered. When she attempted to perform Bob Marley’s “War” at a Bob Dylan concert, she was booed off the stage. Now, twenty years on, Michael Agresta takes a fresh look at the event.

[click to see performance via YouTube]

Agresta listened to what O’Connor had to say: she added some fresh lyrics to “War” about child abuse as one of the Catholic Church’s sins. This isn’t news today, but it was then. In fact, most people (including me, I have to admit) missed the allusion altogether and thought O’Connor was protesting abortion/contraception policies or something. But O’Connor, when anyone bothered to ask, was quite clear about what angered her:

In Ireland we see our people are manifesting the highest incidence in Europe of child abuse. This is a direct result of the fact that they’re not in contact with their history as Irish people and the fact that in the schools, the priests have been beating the shit out of the children for years and sexually abusing them. This is the example that’s been set for the people of Ireland. They have been controlled by the church, the very people who authorized what was done to them, who gave permission for what was done to them.

The Time magazine interviewer didn’t really grasp what O’Connor was saying, so she tried to explain by giving some personal history. She said she had been subjected to every kind of abuse:

Sexual and physical. Psychological. Spiritual. Emotional. Verbal. I went to school every day covered in bruises, boils, sties and face welts, you name it. Nobody ever said a bloody word or did a thing. Naturally I was very angered by the whole thing… [Time interview, November 9, 1992, behind a pay wall, unfortunately.]

Her mother, said O’Connor, was a Valium addict, a product of Catholic schools. Later, when O’Connor went to an Adult Children of Alcoholics-type group, she got a handle on her situation. The photo of the Pope that she tore up? That had belonged to her mother: “The photo itself had been on my mother’s bedroom wall since the day the fucker was enthroned in 1978.”

Young Sinéad, striped shirt.

O’Connor herself was incarcerated in a Magdalene laundry, an Irish institution for wayward girls, at the age of 15. The Magdalenes have been criticized by the UN Committee Against Torture and one Magdalene being sold by nuns trying to make up stock market losses turned out to have twenty-two unregistered anonymous corpses buried out back.

After Pope Benedict apologized in 2010 for the Irish abuse cover-up, O’Connor criticized him for calling the cover-up “well-intentioned” and called for a boycott of the Church. She told Rachel Maddow that she is a believer who wants to free the Church from those who have brought it into disrepute. And in the Los Angeles Times:

I’m a Catholic, and I love God. . . . That’s why I object to what these people are doing to the religion that I was born into. . . .

I’m passionately in love and always have been with what I call the Holy Spirit, which I believe the Catholic Church have held hostage and still do hold hostage. I think God needs to be rescued from them. They are not representing Christian values and Christian attitudes. If they were truly Christian, they would’ve confessed ages ago, and we wouldn’t be having to batter the door down and try to get blood from a stone.

Sometimes angry people are dismissed when they do or say things other people find disturbing. Often these angry people are absolved over time. Sinéad O’Connor paid a price for expressing her anger and for telling truths that people weren’t ready to hear. She is a brave woman who has finally been awarded some of the respect that she has earned.