Friday, January 29, 2021

A Techno-Pastoral Appendix to Postblogging Technology, October 1950: The Chestnut Plague

I am writing in late January about October of 1950, well after North America's Christmastime "chestnuts roasting over an open fire" season, and even longer after continental Europe's fall chestnut  cornucopia, when chestnut roasting stands are everywhere, and a bag of hot, roasted chestnuts, liberally doused in salted garlic butter, used to be cheaper than a subway ticket -and probably still are, although the vendors were mostly Roma, and that's quite the mess I just stepped into.

The Roma were, in their day, horse traders. People of the open road, which gives them a certain affinity with the chestnut, and maybe helps set the stage for their  more recent turn as Europe's least favourite minority. (Not that the competition for that honour isn't fierce.)

If you have ever been to the Schönbrunn Palace as a tourist, chances are that you rode the U4 line to the Schönbrunn station and walked some distance down the Schönbrunner Schlossstrasse to the front entrance under the towering chestnut trees that line the allee, and were perhaps told that Maria Theresia had them planted as a boon for the poor of Vienna. This is not, as it turns out, quite the case. Ideally, this is how all roads are suppposed to look, at least in the 1740s and through at least the 1890s.

This allee shows that ideal arrangement, with a raised, graded and surfaced roadbed, flanked by open drains separating the road from two parallel sidewalks. At the edge of the work, saplings are planted. And while the engineer will wax poetic about shady rests, the prosaic truth is that the trees are intended to put down roots and stabilise the flanks of the  roadbed, as well, as it turns out, to serve in lieu of a guard rail, preventing wagons and coaches from veering from the road and rolling.  The advantages of planting a mast tree, once you have started out down this road, is obvious enough. Everyone's got to eat!

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Postblogging Technology, October 1950, II: The Shogun and the Surprise

R_. C_.,
The Mayflower,
Washington, D.C.

Dear Father:

You find your darling Ronnie quite recovered from both her flu and her "traditional herbal medicine" tea that turns out to have been just about 100% ephedra. It was a good time, and a surprisingly long time, but not something I care to repeat. I'm honestly not sure whether I hallucinated the rumour that General de Lattre de Tassigny will be taking over in Hanoi, or whether I heard it from one of my host's other guests. I have to say that if I dreamed it up on my own, I need to have a long and stern talk with my subconscious! 

I am not sure what to tell you about the reaction around here to the Red action at Pukchin. I have a feeling that Time is downplaying it because Time welcomes a full-blown war with the Reds, but that's my opinion. I really do hope that you can reach Bradley through your friends at the CIA, but I honestly don't see that happening. American policy is just going to get more feverish as we count down the last week to the election, and I hope that Peking understands that, too!

So until WWIII crashes in our tropical paradise, I remain,

Your Loving Daughter,

It's not "Branding A Calf," but it is current and choice!

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Postblogging Technology, October 1950, I: Double Brain with Garlic Butter

R_. C_.

Dear Father:

Well here is the latest missive from the "unstable Pacific Rim." I'm a bit ahead of the news again, so you're getting this after the route on Colonial Route 4. Looks like we're going to have a Communist Indo-China soon unless de Lattre de Tassigny can stabilise the front, and I imagine that'll be the end of the Fourth Republic. Exciting times! And if that's  not enough, there's talk of the Seventh Fleet enforcing the blockade. I can't even begin to express the absurdity of it, but apparently Arleigh "Thirty Knot" Burke says that the British will fold if we push it, and he's definitely the leader of the Navy's Young Turks. 

I hope --I hope!-- this will all blow over, but as a matter of simple self preservation I wonder if we need to reach out to the Reds?

Your Loving Daughter,

Friday, January 8, 2021

The Bishop's Sea (With a Literary Appendix to Postblogging Technology, 1950): The Fishing Event Horizon and the Great Forgetting

 Robert E. Howard was born on 22 January 1906, the son of an itinerant doctor, which doesn't sound like a real job, but, then, we're talking about Texas. In the postwar boom, Dr. Howard's finances improved  enough that he was able to settle his family in Cross Plains, Texas, where his son died seventeen years later by his own hand on 11 June 1936, predeceased by his mother. 

Howard is best known to  posterity as the creator of Conan the Barbarian, but his turn to the nascent "Sword and Sorcery" genre was initiated in 1928 by a hundred-dollar sale to Weird Tales os a story featuring "Kull of Atlantis."  Unfortunately, the success of that story was a fluke. While Kull is a literary prototype of Howard's much more popular character, Conan the Barbarian,  Howard sold no further Kull stories in his lifetime. Four years later, a rewritten "Kull" story, now featuring Conan, was equally successful and launched that character into the pulp magazines. Conan was popular enough to almost escape the pulp ghetto, winning a book contract for Howard from a British publisher. Unfortunately, the press failed and Conan the Conqueror finally came out from Gnome Press, in 1950.   

Kull wasn't only a literary precursor to Conan. Howard made an explicit family connection in an unpublished essay, "The Hyborian Age," which lays out his prehistoric imaginarium in some detail, further hinting at a connection with some of his other characters, notably Cormac Mac Art, a "Gaelic pirate" of the time of King Arthur, and not the quasi-historical High King of Ireland. The comic panel opposite makes Cormac the descendant of Kull's sidekick, Brule the Spear Slayer, but close enough, because Brule is the reason for this digression. 

"The Hyborean Age" presents us with a prehistory of the Earth that is catastrophism on steroids. Kull lives about 20,000BC, and is brought up on the barbaric island continent of Atlantis, to the east of the Pictish Isles. Further east is a blobby continent in place of Eurasia, where (Western) humans fight evil serpent-men. Some time later, but after Atlanteans and Picts have colonised the northwest bit of the blobby continent, catastrophe reshapes geography and causes the collapse of civilisation, such as it is. The Picts and Atlanteans became barbaric, the Atlanteans becoming Cimmerians, Conan's people. Another catastrophe brings an end to the age of Conan adventures, and reshapes the geography of Eurasia one more time, so that the Picts and Cimmerians are isolated on what becomes the British Isles, now as Celts, and, well, Picts. 

In Howard's writing, although not in the published fan fiction he has inspired, the later Picts are notably more barbaric than the Cimmerians, almost to the point of being subhuman. In defence --somewhat-- of Howard, this is the Picts of popular history at the time that he was writing. Speakers of a non-Indo-European language, of "Asiatic" phenotype, possessed of an unusual, matrilineal legal system, and in some writing, so "degenerate" as to live in holes in the ground, the Picts had become an object of racist fantasy. Of particular interest to this blog is the implication of a connection with North American First Nations, who notably also practiced matrilineal succession and are of Asiatic phenotype. 

How this could possibly work geographically has never been clear to me, although that's not saying that the crackpots haven't been making it work.  It is also an excellent example of fiction having the advantage over bare facts, since Howard can simply assert that the same catastrophe that sank Atlantis, raised the Pictish Isles into the tops of the Appalachian mountains, inhabitants included. 

Although it seems as though this is a story we've been telling since long before Howard. The historically rooted connection was  between the low-cost Highlander and Irish establishment regiments used to fight colonial wars in the southern United States between the foundation of Georgia and the Revolution; but the idea that the Picts were somehow Indians pops up independently here and there in the Nineteenth Century. It's probably no great surprise. The disappearance of the Picts was marked as one of the great mysteries of British history virtually at its foundation, by Henry of Huntingdon.

Well, no. This blog post is inspired by Siân Grønlie's introduction to his 2006 translation of the Kristni saga, the story of the conversion of Iceland. Grønlie's introduction discusses both the saga and its precursor, Ari the Wise's account of the conversion of Iceland in the Islendimgabok, assuring the reader that the lacunae in the two accounts are as important as what is actually said, because these accounts are intended to create an Icelandic nationality, and one of the key features of a national identity is a "collective amnesia" about alternative accounts of national origins. 

In this week of nationalism run amok, I have finally found an excuse to talk about Robert E. Howard and the Picts that is actually related to the topic at hand. "Collective amnesia" is a powerful concept, and the Picts may be its most spectacular victim.

Friday, January 1, 2021

A Pseudo-Scientific Appendix to Postblogging Technology, September 1950: A Watershed Year for Pseudo-Science?


Three of the biggest pseudo-scientific books of the Twentieth Century were published (in English) 1950. For example, Immanuel Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision was published in April; L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics was published in May; while Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki came out in an English edition late in the year, having been first published in Norwegian in 1948. I'm not an expert on Fortean bullshit, but off hand only  von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods (1971) and Berlitz's Bermuda Triangle (1974) really engaged the public imagination to the same degree as 1950s' trinity of absurdity. 

These three books were not, of course, the only ones. I was finally driven to write this post by a Time reviewer calling our attention to the sales success of Frank Scully's Behind the Flying Saucers and telling me, as the self-appointed voice of posterity, that there was something going on. Behind the Flying Saucers doesn't even come close to being in the same league as the first three titles, but, as the reviewer points out, it was making money hand over fist for Scully and his "conservative" publisher, Henry Holt, and that makes it significant in its own right.

Finally, the University of Washington signed up for a single go in the Ivy League Nude Portraiture Scandal in the fall of 1950. Although definitely pseudo-science, the ILNPS seems like a pretty different kind of phenomena. But was it? The answer is that it might not be.