History, Bitter & Twisted October 21

Arrivals:

1772 – Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a very serious scholar, mostly remembered today for a couple of poems and a fondness for opium.  Actually, Coleridge and his friend “Wordy” Wordsworth were the poetic beginnings of the Romantic Age – “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”  Coleridge wanted to see the world without reason and enlightenment.  He wanted a poetic overthrow of the Industrial Revolution and a return to the magical, pastoral time of his youth.  Besides his most famous poems “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Coleridge also wrote tons of other poetry, philosophy and literary criticism.  The thing that amazes me is that he did all that while sucking back a bottle and a half of laudanum every week.

1833 – Alfred Nobel, who spent the early part of his life trying to find a safe way to blow things up.  He succeeded in 1867 when he invented dynamite, but not before he’d accidentally blown up his brother, Emil.  Naturally, the military loved dynamite and used it extensively throughout the 19th Century — making Nobel a very rich man.  However, Nobel didn’t want to be remembered as “The merchant of death,” so, in a clever attempt to fool history, he left most of his money to The Nobel Foundation and The Nobel Prizes for Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature and Peace (Economics was added later.)  Except for nerds, very few people care about most of the prizes, but Peace and Literature get an annual discussion about how political they’ve become.  This was especially true in 2009, when Barack Obama won the Nobel Prize for Peace because he wasn’t George Bush.

1805 – In general, actual battles don’t mean very much to history; they’re just a way for lazy people to teach it.  However, there are a few battles that do mark an epoch or that change the world.  Trafalgar is one of those.  On a calm, cool autumn day, off the coast of Spain, British Admiral Nelson caught French Admiral Viileneuve and the combined French and Spanish fleets in open water.  Even though he was outnumbered and outgunned Nelson attacked “straight ahead.”  At the end of the day, the British fleet had achieved an overwhelming victory.  It was Britain 22 – France 0.  This was the beginning of Pax Britannica and nobody would challenge British power again for nearly 100 years — until a bunch of farmers, called Boers, decided that the British Empire wasn’t all that tough and took them on in a dirty little war in South Africa.

Departures:

1969 – Jack Kerouac died of the extensive use of alcohol in St Petersburg, Florida.   If Ginsberg started the Beat Generation, it was Jack Kerouac who personalized it.  On the Road is the soul of the Beat Generation, and Kerouac is its high priest.  He wrote the entire novel on one continuous sheet of paper in about 3 weeks, in 1951.  It wasn’t published until 1957, and, even then, it was heavily edited.  The publisher Viking chopped many of the more descriptive (read “explicit”) parts out and changed most of the names.  It didn’t matter, though, because within minutes of its hitting the streets it was a best seller and Kerouac was being called The Voice of a Generation.  In truth, Kerouac has become the voice of many generations. There isn’t an undergraduate alive who hasn’t thought about it – just droppin’ the books and gettin’ out On the Road.

1984 – Francois Truffaut, one of the few French film directors who is actually any good.  Most of the rest of them wander around in black and white, making their actors look miserable and speak in sub-titles about how crappy life is.  Truffaut, on the other hand, had something to say and said it in such a cinematically unique way that he started a whole new movement in French film making – La Nouvelle Vague.  His early movies like The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim influenced directors on both sides of the Atlantic.  His only film in English, Fahrenheit 451 (1966) was done in a strong New Wave fashion and holds together very well in the 21st Century.  Before Truffaut began directing his own movies, he was an outspoken film critic and was banned from the Cannes Film Festival.

Time Flies October 7

Arrivals:

1952 – Vladimir Putin, the current Tsar of Russia.  Putin started out in the KGB, and it shows.  However, for all the negative press Putin gets he has established a certain stability in Russia and has restored its economy.  This is no minor accomplishment, given what he had to work with when he started. 

1959 – Simon Cowell, the smarmy smug bugger who thinks bitchy is witty.  He makes his living insulting people who can’t defend themselves.  It is the earnest hope of most of the people in this world that somewhere, sometime, when he least expects it somebody is going to jump down off that stage and punch his lights out.

1916 – Corporal Adolf Hitler was wounded by a piece of shrapnel, during an artillery barrage at the Battle of the Somme.  Just think of how history would have changed if that British artillery officer had straightened out his aim!

1955 – Allen Ginsberg performed Howl for the first time at the Six Gallery in San Francisco.  And with the words “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked….” Ginsberg launched the Beat Generation.   With Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Kerouac’s On the Road the Beats set the tone for the rest of the century.  Today the microserfs of Generation Y look with nostalgia on the Beat era as a time of hedonism, sexuality and creativity.  No wonder, given the restrictions most contemporary people endure.  One of the things that they don’t know about the Beat Era, however, is it was tons of fun.

Departures:

1849 – Edgar Allan Poe, the author who invented spooky.  He wrote stories that are frightening, macabre, gothic and just plain weird.  His best known work is a poem “The Raven”, which, when read properly – alone and at night – scares the crap outta ya.  He also invented detective fiction with his recurring character C. Auguste Dupin who was not called a detective at the time because that word hadn’t been invented.  Poe’s death reads like one of his stories.  On September 27th, he left Richmond Virginia to go home to New York and literally disappeared.  He was found 6 days later, in the gutter outside a tavern in Baltimore, Maryland.  He was dressed in somebody else’s shabby clothes.  He was delirious, slipping in and out of consciousness until he died.  And in a last twist that he could have written himself, all of his medical records and his death certificate have disappeared.

1956 – Clarence Birdseye, the guy who perfected flash freezing as a method of preserving food.  Apparently, he learned this technique while ice fishing with the Inuit in Labrador.  It’s a good story that’s actually true.  Birdseye artificially reproduced the freezing effects of the Arctic weather, first in a laboratory and then, on a bigger scale, in a factory.  There’s not a single guy or university student alive today who doesn’t worship Birdseye for the frozen pizza alone.