Dec 112018
 

Today is the birthday (1918) of Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, Russian dissident writer of the Soviet era. Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk, in the northern Caucasus (now in Stavropol Krai). His mother, Taisiya Zakharovna (née Shcherbak), was of Ukrainian descent. Her father had risen from humble beginnings to become a wealthy landowner, acquiring a large estate in the Kuban region in the northern foothills of the Caucasus. His father was Isaakiy Semyonovich Solzhenitsyn, a young officer in the Imperial Russian Army of Cossack origin and fellow native of the Caucasus region. In 1918, Taisiya became pregnant with Aleksandr. On 15th June, shortly after her pregnancy was confirmed, Isaakiy was killed in a hunting accident. Aleksandr was raised by his widowed mother and his aunt in lowly circumstances. His earliest years coincided with the Russian Civil War. By 1930 the family property had been turned into a collective farm. Later, Solzhenitsyn recalled that his mother had fought for survival and that they had to keep his father’s background in the old Imperial Army a secret. His educated mother (who never remarried) encouraged his literary and scientific leanings and raised him in the Russian Orthodox faith. She died in 1944.

As early as 1936, Solzhenitsyn began developing the characters and concepts for a planned epic work on World War I and the Russian Revolution. This eventually led to the novel August 1914. Solzhenitsyn studied mathematics at Rostov State University. At the same time he took correspondence courses from the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History, heavy in Soviet ideology. As he himself makes clear, he did not question the state ideology or the superiority of the Soviet Union until he spent time in the camps.

During the Second World War, Solzhenitsyn served as the commander of a sound-ranging battery in the Red Army, was involved in major action at the front, and was twice decorated. While serving as an artillery officer in East Prussia, Solzhenitsyn witnessed war crimes against local German civilians by Soviet military personnel. The noncombatants and the elderly were robbed of their meager possessions and women and girls were gang-raped to death. In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn wrote,

There is nothing that so assists the awakening of omniscience within us as insistent thoughts about one’s own transgressions, errors, mistakes. After the difficult cycles of such ponderings over many years, whenever I mentioned the heartlessness of our highest-ranking bureaucrats, the cruelty of our executioners, I remember myself in my Captain’s shoulder boards and the forward march of my battery through East Prussia, enshrouded in fire, and I say: ‘So were we any better?’

In February 1945, while serving in East Prussia, Solzhenitsyn was arrested by Red Army Counter-Intelligence for writing derogatory comments in private letters to a friend, Nikolai Vitkevich, about the conduct of the war by Joseph Stalin, whom he called “Khozyain” (“the boss”), and “Balabos” (Yiddish rendering of Hebrew baal ha-bayit for “master of the house”). Also he had talks with the same friend about the need of a new organization against the Soviet regime. He was accused of anti-Soviet propaganda under Article 58 paragraph 10 of the Soviet criminal code, and of “founding a hostile organization” under paragraph 11. Solzhenitsyn was taken to the Lubyanka prison in Moscow, where he was interrogated. On 9th May 1945, it was announced that Germany had surrendered and all of Moscow broke out in celebrations with fireworks and searchlights illuminating the sky to celebrate the victory in the Great Patriotic War as Russians call the war with Germany. From his cell in the Lubyanka, Solzhenitsyn remembered:

Above the muzzle of our window, and from all the other cells of the Lubyanka, and from all the windows of the Moscow prisons, we too, former prisoners of war and former front-line soldiers, watched the Moscow heavens, patterned with fireworks and crisscrossed with beams of searchlights. There was no rejoicing in our cells and no hugs and no kisses for us. That victory was not ours.

On 7 July 1945, he was sentenced in absentia by Special Council of the NKVD to an eight-year term in a labor camp. This was the normal sentence for most crimes under Article 58 at the time. The first part of Solzhenitsyn’s sentence was served in several different work camps; the “middle phase”, as he later referred to it, was spent in a sharashka (i.e., a special scientific research facility run by Ministry of State Security), where he met Lev Kopelev, upon whom he based the character of Lev Rubin in his book The First Circle, published in a self-censored or “distorted” version in the West in 1968 (an English translation of the full version was eventually published 2009). In 1950, he was sent to a “Special Camp” for political prisoners. During his imprisonment at the camp in the town of Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan, he worked as a miner, bricklayer, and foundry foreman. His experiences at Ekibastuz formed the basis for the book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

In March 1953, after his sentence ended, Solzhenitsyn was sent to internal exile for life at Birlik, a village in Baidibek district of South Kazakhstan. His undiagnosed cancer spread until, by the end of the year, he was close to death. In 1954, he was permitted to be treated in a hospital in Tashkent, where his tumor went into remission. His experiences there became the basis of his novel Cancer Ward and also found an echo in the short story “The Right Hand”. It was during this decade of imprisonment and exile that Solzhenitsyn abandoned Marxism and developed the philosophical and religious positions of his later life, gradually becoming a philosophically-minded Eastern Orthodox Christian as a result of his experience in prison and the camps.

After Khrushchev’s Secret Speech in 1956, Solzhenitsyn was freed from exile and exonerated. Following his return from exile, Solzhenitsyn was, while teaching at a secondary school during the day, spending his nights secretly engaged in writing. In 1960, aged 42, he approached Aleksandr Tvardovsky, a poet and the chief editor of the Novy Mir magazine, with the manuscript of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It was published in edited form in 1962, with the explicit approval of Nikita Khrushchev, who defended it at the presidium of the Politburo hearing on whether to allow its publication, and added: “There’s a Stalinist in each of you; there’s even a Stalinist in me. We must root out this evil.” The book quickly sold out and became an instant hit. In the 1960s, while he was publicly known to be writing Cancer Ward, he was simultaneously writing The Gulag Archipelago. During Khrushchev’s tenure, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was studied in schools in the Soviet Union, as were three more short works of Solzhenitsyn’s, including his short story “Matryona’s Home”, published in 1963. These would be the last of his works published in the Soviet Union until 1990.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich brought the Soviet system of prison labor to the attention of the West. It caused as much of a sensation in the Soviet Union as it did in the West—not only by its striking realism and candor, but also because it was the first major piece of Soviet literature since the 1920s on a politically charged theme, written by a non-party member, in fact, a man who had been to Siberia for “libelous speech” about the leaders, and yet its publication had been officially permitted. In this sense, the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s story was an almost unheard of instance of free, unrestrained discussion of politics through literature. Most Soviet readers realized this, but after Khrushchev had been ousted from power in 1964, the time for such raw exposing works came to an end.

Solzhenitsyn made an unsuccessful attempt, with the help of Tvardovsky, to get his novel Cancer Ward legally published in the Soviet Union. This had to get the approval of the Union of Writers. Though some there appreciated it, the work ultimately was denied publication unless it was to be revised and cleaned of suspect statements and anti-Soviet insinuations. After Krushchev’s removal in 1964, the cultural climate again became more repressive. Publishing of Solzhenitsyn’s work quickly stopped; as a writer, he became a non-person, and, by 1965, the KGB had seized some of his papers, including the manuscript of The First Circle. Meanwhile, Solzhenitsyn continued to secretly and feverishly work on The Gulag Archipelago. The seizing of his novel manuscript first made him desperate and frightened, but gradually he realized that it had set him free from the pretenses and trappings of being an “officially acclaimed” writer, something which had come close to second nature, but which was becoming increasingly irrelevant.

After the KGB had confiscated Solzhenitsyn’s materials in Moscow, during 1965–67, the preparatory drafts of The Gulag Archipelago were turned into finished typescript in hiding at his friends’ homes in Estonia. Solzhenitsyn had befriended Arnold Susi, a lawyer and former Estonian Minister of Education in a Lubyanka Prison cell. After completion, Solzhenitsyn’s original handwritten script was kept hidden from the KGB in Estonia by Arnold Susi’s daughter Heli Susi until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 1969, Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Union of Writers. In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He could not receive the prize personally in Stockholm at that time, since he was afraid he would not be let back into the Soviet Union. Instead, it was suggested he should receive the prize in a special ceremony at the Swedish embassy in Moscow. The Swedish government refused to accept this solution because such a ceremony and the ensuing media coverage might upset the Soviet Union and damage Swedish-Soviet relations. Instead, Solzhenitsyn received his prize at the 1974 ceremony after he had been expelled from the Soviet Union.

The Gulag Archipelago was composed from 1958 to 1967. It was a three-volume, seven part work on the Soviet prison camp system (Solzhenitsyn never had all seven parts of the work in front of him at one time). The book was based upon Solzhenitsyn’s own experience as well as the testimony of 256 former prisoners and Solzhenitsyn’s own research into the history of the Russian penal system. It discussed the system’s origins from the founding of the Communist regime, with Vladimir Lenin having responsibility, detailing interrogation procedures, prisoner transports, prison camp culture, prisoner uprisings and revolts, and the practice of internal exile.

Even though The Gulag Archipelago was not published in the Soviet Union, it was extensively criticized by the Party-controlled Soviet press. An editorial in Pravda on 14 January 1974 accused Solzhenitsyn of supporting “Hitlerites” and making “excuses for the crimes of the Vlasovites and Bandera gangs.” According to the editorial, Solzhenitsyn was “choking with pathological hatred for the country where he was born and grew up, for the socialist system, and for Soviet people.”

On 12th February 1974, Solzhenitsyn was arrested and deported the next day from the Soviet Union to Frankfurt, West Germany and stripped of his Soviet citizenship. The KGB had found the manuscript for the first part of The Gulag Archipelago and, less than a week later, Yevgeny Yevtushenko suffered reprisals for his support of Solzhenitsyn. In West Germany, Solzhenitsyn lived in Heinrich Böll’s house in Langenbroich. He then moved to Zürich, Switzerland before Stanford University invited him to stay in the United States. Despite spending almost two decades in the United States, Solzhenitsyn did not become fluent in spoken English. Solzhenitsyn’s warnings about the dangers of Communist aggression and the weakening of the moral fiber of the West were generally well received in Western conservative circles, but he also criticized what he saw as the ugliness and spiritual vapidity of the dominant pop culture of the US, including television and much of popular music: “…the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits… by TV stupor and by intolerable music.”

On 8 August 1971, Solzhenitsyn was poisoned with what was later determined to be ricin, but survived. On 19th September 1974, Yuri Andropov approved a large-scale operation to discredit Solzhenitsyn and his family and cut his communications with Soviet dissidents. Andropov also gave an order to create “an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion between Solzhenitsyn and the people around him” by feeding him rumors that everyone in his environment was a KGB agent and deceiving him in all possible ways.

In 1990, his Soviet citizenship was restored, and, in 1994, he returned to Russia with his wife, Natalia, who had become a United States citizen. Their sons stayed behind in the United States (later, his oldest son Yermolai returned to Russia). From then until his death, he lived with his wife in west Moscow. He was a  staunch believer in traditional Russian culture and expressed his disillusionment with post-Soviet Russia in works such as Rebuilding Russia, and called for the establishment of a strong presidential republic balanced by vigorous institutions of local self-government. Solzhenitsyn died of heart failure near Moscow on 3rd August 2008, at the age of 89. A burial service was held at Donskoy Monastery, Moscow, on Wednesday, 6th August 2008. He was buried the same day in the monastery in a spot he had chosen.

Solzhenitsyn is a mixed blessing as far as I am concerned. I read his straight semi-autobiographical novels when they came out and was impressed with their narrative quality. I was less enamored of Gulag Archipelago, and even less so with his wandering political and sociological views. He embraced both Western “freedom” and Putin’s image for post-Soviet Russia, which tells me as much as anything else that he was neither a good observer nor analyst of political landscapes. He was too easily engaged by or disappointed by superficial issues. His handling of the lived experience of Stalinist labor camps and hospitals I found much more engaging.

Here is an amusing video by a comic Russian called Boris on making chebureki, a meat filled fried pastry that is found widely in the Russian Federation as street food, but may have originated in the Caucasus and is extremely popular in the region.

Dec 102018
 

Today is the birthday (1588) of Isaac Beeckman, a Dutch natural philosopher who is rarely spoken of today, but in his time was well respected, and was a leading figure in the development of many modern scientific theories, especially atomism.

Beeckman was born in Middelburg, Zeeland, to a strong Calvinistic family, which had fled from the Spanish-controlled Southern Netherlands a few years before. He had his early education in his home town and went on to study theology, literature and mathematics in Leiden. Upon his return to Middelburg he could not find a position as a minister, due to his father’s clashes with the local church, and decided to follow his father in the candle-making business, setting up his own company in Zierikzee. While trying to improve on the candle making process, he also involved himself in other projects, like creating water conduits and doing meteorological observations. In 1616 he sold the business to his apprentice and went to study medicine in Caen, where he graduated in 1618. On his return, he became an assistant rector in Utrecht. On April 1620 he married Cateline de Cerf, whom he knew from Middelburg, and with whom he would have seven children. From 1620 to 1627 he taught at the Latin school in Rotterdam, where he founded a “Collegium Mechanicum”, or Technical College. From 1627 until his death at the age of 48 he was rector of the Latin school in Dordrecht.

Rene Descartes and Isaac Beeckman.

Beeckman’s most influential teachers in Leiden probably were Snellius and Simon Stevin. He himself was a teacher to Johan de Witt and a teacher and friend of René Descartes. Beeckman had met the young Descartes in November 1618 in Breda, where Beeckman then lived and Descartes was then garrisoned as a soldier. It is said that they met when both were looking at a placard that was set up in the Breda marketplace, detailing a mathematical problem to be solved. Descartes asked Beeckman to translate the problem from Dutch to French. In their following meetings Beeckman interested Descartes in his corpuscularian approach to mechanical theory, and convinced him to devote his studies to a mathematical approach to nature. In 1619, Descartes dedicated one of his first tractati to him, the Compendium Musicae. When Descartes returned to the Dutch Republic in the autumn of 1628, Beeckman also introduced him to many of Galileo’s ideas. In 1629 they fell out over a dispute concerning whether Beeckman had helped Descartes with some of his mathematical discoveries. In October 1630, Descartes wrote a long and harshly abusive letter, apparently meant to crush Beeckman psychologically, in which he declared himself never to have been influenced by Beeckman. Despite a few other such fallings-outs, they remained in contact until Beeckman’s death in 1637.

Beeckman did not publish his ideas, but he had influenced many scientists of his time. Since the beginning of his studies he did keep an extensive journal, from which his brother published some of his observations in 1644. However, this went basically unnoticed. The scope of Beeckman’s ideas did not come to light until the science historian Cornelis de Waard rediscovered the Journaal in 1905, and published it in volumes between 1939 and 1953.

The following are key points in the Journaal:

Beeckman developed, independently of Sebastian Basso, the concept that matter is composed of atoms.

Beeckman is one of the first people to describe inertia correctly, although he also assumed that a constant circular velocity is conserved.

Beeckman showed that the fundamental frequency of a vibrating string is proportional to the reciprocal of the length of the string.

In the analysis of the functioning of a pump he theorized correctly that air pressure is the cause and not the then popular theory of horror vacui (“nature abhors a vacuum”

In his time, he was considered to be one of the most educated men in Europe. For example, he had deeply impressed French polymath Marin Mersenne, despite their opposing religious views, as well as astronomer and mathematician, Pierre Gassendi, who apparently had been introduced by Beeckman to the philosophy of Epicurus and atomism. Gassendi stated in a 1629 letter that Beeckman was the greatest philosopher he had ever met.

Here is a 16th century Dutch recipe for gooseberry omelet taken from Seer excellenten gheexperimenteerden nieuwen Coc-boeck (The very excellent and tried new cookbook) by Karel Baten (Carolus Battus) published in 1593:

Om een tasey van stekelbesyen te backen.
Neempt versche boter ende smeltse in een panne. Doeter dan soo vele stekelbesyen in datse bycans twee vyngeren hooch liggen ende laetse met de boter een weynich sieden tot datse maer recht hen coleur verloren hebben. Clopt dan wel cleyn 7, 8 ofte 9 eyeren met wat gengeber ende wat rooswaters. Gietet tsamen over de besyen ende latet so over een coolvyer backen dat niet en brande. Als de tasey genoech gebacken is, so laetse properlick uut de panne in de schotel rijsen datse niet en breke. Dan stroyter suycker ende caneel op ende dientse.

To bake an omelette of gooseberries.
Take fresh butter and melt it in a pan. Add gooseberries so that they are almost two fingers high and let them simmer in the butter until they have lost their color. Then beat 7, 8 or 9 eggs with a little ginger and rosewater. Pour this mixture over the gooseberries, and let it bake over a coal fire without burning. When the omelet is done, let it glide from the pan on to a dish without breaking. Then sprinkle sugar and cinnamon on it and serve.

Dec 092018
 

Today is Anna’s Day in Sweden, which is both a name day celebrating people named Anna, and the day to start the preparation process of the lutefisk to be served on Christmas Eve.

OK – my sister is named Anna, so that’s a good start. I’m not going to write a post on her, but here’s her picture from facebook.

Then there’s Anna Harriette Emma Leonowens, an Anglo-Indian or Indian-born British travel writer, educator and social activist, who became well known with the publication of her memoirs, beginning with The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870), which chronicled her experiences in Siam (modern Thailand), as teacher to the children of the Siamese King Mongkut, fictionalised in Margaret Landon’s 1944 best-selling novel Anna and the King of Siam, as well as films and television series based on the book, most notably Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 hit musical The King and I.

There’s Anna May Wong, the first Hong Kong-Chinese American Hollywood movie star, as well as the first Chinese American actress to gain international recognition, which is actually a cheat because she was born Wong Liu Tsong.

There’s also Anna Pavlova and Anna Freud who have posts here, and an alarming number of 19th century serial killers, as well as Russian tennis players and gymnasts. Maybe they are all named after Anna Karenina?

Let’s now turn to lutefisk. Garrison Keillor has this to say about lutefisk in his memories of Minnesota:

Every Advent we entered the purgatory of lutefisk, a repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat. We did this in honor of Norwegian ancestors, much as if survivors of a famine might celebrate their deliverance by feasting on elm bark. I always felt the cold creeps as Advent approached, knowing that this dread delicacy would be put before me and I’d be told, “Just have a little.” Eating a little was like vomiting a little, just as bad as a lot.

The description “fishlike” is incorrect. It is not like fish, it is fish. His sentiment about it, however, is fairly widespread, including in Scandinavia. There are Scandinavians who love it, and those who hate it. There is no middle ground. I suspect that it is more popular among ex-pats at Christmas nowadays than among those living in Scandinavia where roast pork and roast turkey are common Christmas Eve treats.

Lutefisk is dried whitefish (normally cod, but ling and burbot are also used) treated with lye. The first step is soaking the stockfish in cold water for five to six days (with the water changed daily). The saturated stockfish is then soaked in an unchanged solution of cold water and lye for an additional two days. The fish swells during this soaking, and its protein content decreases by more than 50 percent, producing a jelly-like consistency. When this treatment is finished, the fish (saturated with lye) is caustic, with a pH of 11–12. To make the fish edible, a final treatment of yet another four to six days of soaking in cold water (also changed daily) is needed. Eventually, the lutefisk is ready to be cooked.

After the preparation, the lutefisk is saturated with water and must therefore be cooked extremely carefully so that it does not fall to pieces. To create a firm consistency in lutefisk, it is common to spread a layer of salt over the fish about half an hour before it is cooked. This will release some of the water in the fish. The salt must be rinsed off carefully before cooking. Lutefisk does not need additional water for the cooking; it is sufficient to place it in a pan, salt it, seal the lid tightly, and let it steam cook under a very low heat for 20–25 minutes. An alternative is to wrap in aluminium foil and bake at 225 °C (435 °F) for 40–50 minutes. Another option is to parboil lutefisk; wrapped in cheesecloth and gently boiled until tender. Lutefisk can also be boiled directly in a pan of water.

When cooking and eating lutefisk, it is important to clean the lutefisk and its residue off pans, plates, and utensils immediately. Lutefisk left overnight becomes nearly impossible to remove. Sterling silver should never be used in the cooking, serving or eating of lutefisk, which will permanently ruin silver. Stainless steel utensils are recommended instead.

In Sweden and Finland lutefisk is a part of the Christmas tradition and is mostly eaten with boiled potatoes, green peas and white sauce. Regional variations include a sprinkle of freshly ground allspice or black pepper and the addition of coarsely ground mustard in the white sauce (in Scania). In parts of Jämtland it is served on flat bread along with whey cheese.

In the United States lutefisk is often served with a variety of side dishes, including bacon, peas, pea stew, potatoes, lefse, gravy, mashed rutabaga, white sauce, melted or clarified butter, syrup, and geitost, or “old” cheese (gammelost). It is sometimes eaten with meatballs, which is not traditional in Scandinavia. Side dishes vary greatly from family to family and region to region, and can be a source of jovial contention when eaters of different “traditions” of lutefisk dine together.

Lutefisk prepared from cod is somewhat notorious, even in Scandinavia, for its intensely offensive odor. Conversely, lutefisk prepared from pollock or haddock emits almost no odor. The taste of well-prepared lutefisk is very mild, and the white sauce is often spiced with pepper or other strong-tasting spices. In Minnesota, this method (seasoned with allspice) is common among Swedish-Americans, while Norwegian-Americans often prefer to eat it unseasoned with melted butter or cream sauce.

There are many wholly apocryphal stories about the origin of lutefisk.  The one that amuses me claims that St. Patrick attempted to poison Viking raiders in Ireland with lye-soaked fish, but rather than kill them, the Vikings relished the fish and declared it a delicacy.

Dec 082018
 

Today is the birthday (1765) of Eli Whitney, best known for inventing the cotton gin which radically changed the economy of the Antebellum South. Few people know much more about him than that he invented the cotton gin, so time for another history lesson.

Whitney was born in Westborough, Massachusetts, the eldest child of Eli Whitney Sr., a prosperous farmer, and his wife Elizabeth Fay, also of Westborough. Whitney’s mother died in 1777, when he was 11. At age 14 he operated a profitable nail manufacturing operation in his father’s workshop during the Revolutionary War. Because his stepmother opposed his wish to attend college, Whitney worked as a farm laborer and school teacher to save money. He prepared for Yale at Leicester Academy (now Becker College) and under the tutelage of Rev. Elizur Goodrich of Durham, Connecticut, he entered in the fall of 1789 and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1792. Whitney wanted to study law but, because he was broke he accepted an offer to go to South Carolina as a private tutor, but ended up in Georgia instead.

In the closing years of the 18th century, Georgia was a magnet for New Englanders seeking their fortunes. When he initially sailed for South Carolina, among his shipmates were the widow and family of the Revolutionary hero Gen. Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island. Mrs. Greene invited Whitney to visit her Georgia plantation, Mulberry Grove. Her plantation manager and husband-to-be was Phineas Miller, another Connecticut migrant and Yale graduate (class of 1785), who would become Whitney’s business partner.

Whitney is most famous for two innovations: the cotton gin (1793) and his advocacy of interchangeable parts. In the South, the cotton gin revolutionized the way cotton was harvested and reinvigorated slavery. In the North the adoption of interchangeable parts revolutionized the manufacturing industry, and contributed greatly to the Union victory in the Civil War. All told, therefore, Whitney was a prime, though, unwitting figure in the causes of the Civil War and its outcome.

The cotton gin is a mechanical device that removes the seeds from cotton, a process that had previously been extremely labor-intensive. The word “gin” is short for “engine.” While staying at Mulberry Grove, Whitney constructed several ingenious household devices which led Mrs Greene to introduce him to some businessmen who were discussing the desirability of a machine to separate the short staple upland cotton from its seeds, work that was then done by hand at the rate of a pound of lint a day. In a few weeks Whitney produced a model. The cotton gin was a wooden drum stuck with hooks that pulled the cotton fibers through a mesh. The cotton seeds would not fit through the mesh and fell outside. Whitney occasionally told a story about how he was pondering an improved method of seeding the cotton when he was inspired by observing a cat attempting to pull a chicken through a fence, and could only pull through some of the feathers.

A single cotton gin could generate up to 55 pounds (25 kg) of cleaned cotton daily. This contributed to the economic development of the Southern states of the United States, which became a prime cotton growing area. Whitney received a patent (later numbered as X72) for his cotton gin on March 14th, 1794, but it was not validated until 1807. Whitney and his partner, Miller, did not intend to sell the gins. Rather, like the proprietors of grist and sawmills, they expected to charge farmers for cleaning their cotton – two-fifths of the value, paid in cotton. Resentment at this scheme, the mechanical simplicity of the device and the primitive state of patent law, made infringement inevitable. Whitney and Miller could not build enough gins to meet demand, so gins from other makers found ready sale. Ultimately, patent infringement lawsuits consumed the profits (one patent, later annulled, was granted in 1796 to Hogden Holmes for a gin which substituted circular saws for the spikes) and their cotton gin company went out of business in 1797. One often-overlooked point is that there were drawbacks to Whitney’s first design. There is significant evidence that the design flaws were solved by his sponsor, Mrs. Greene, but Whitney gave her no public credit or recognition.

After validation of the patent, the legislature of South Carolina voted $50,000 for the rights for that state, while North Carolina levied a license tax for five years, from which about $30,000 was realized. There is a claim that Tennessee paid, perhaps, $10,000. While the cotton gin did not earn Whitney the fortune he had hoped for, it did give him fame. It has been argued by some historians that Whitney’s cotton gin was an important if unintended cause of the American Civil War. After Whitney’s invention, the plantation slavery industry was rejuvenated, eventually culminating in the Civil War. The cotton gin transformed Southern agriculture and the national economy. Southern cotton found ready markets in Europe and in the burgeoning textile mills of New England. Cotton exports from the U.S. boomed after the cotton gin’s appearance – from less than 500,000 pounds (230,000 kg) in 1793 to 93 million pounds (42,000,000 kg) by 1810. Cotton was a staple that could be stored for long periods and shipped long distances, unlike most agricultural products. It became the U.S.’s chief export, representing over half the value of U.S. exports from 1820 to 1860.

Paradoxically, the cotton gin, a labor-saving device, helped preserve slavery in the U.S. Before the 1790s, slave labor was primarily employed in growing rice, tobacco, and indigo, none of which were especially profitable any more. Neither was cotton, due to the difficulty of seed removal. But with the gin, growing cotton with slave labor became highly profitable – the chief source of wealth in the American South, and the basis of frontier settlement from Georgia to Texas. “King Cotton” became a dominant economic force, and slavery was sustained as a key institution of Southern society.

Eli Whitney has often been incorrectly credited with inventing the idea of interchangeable parts in manufacture (an essential component of Ford’s movable assembly line), which he championed for years as a maker of muskets. However, the idea predated Whitney, and Whitney’s role in it was one of promotion and popularizing, not invention. Successful implementation of the idea eluded Whitney until near the end of his life, occurring first in others’ armories.

The motives behind Whitney’s acceptance of a contract to manufacture muskets in 1798 were mostly monetary. By the late 1790s, Whitney was on the verge of bankruptcy and the cotton gin litigation had left him deeply in debt. His New Haven cotton gin factory had burned to the ground, and litigation sapped his remaining resources. The French Revolution had ignited new conflicts between Great Britain, France, and the United States. The new American government, realizing the need to prepare for war, began to rearm. The War Department issued contracts for the manufacture of 10,000 muskets. Whitney, who had never made a gun in his life, obtained a contract in January 1798 to deliver 10,000 to 15,000 muskets in 1800. He had not mentioned interchangeable parts at that time. Ten months later, the Treasury Secretary, Oliver Wolcott, Jr., sent him a “foreign pamphlet on arms manufacturing techniques,” after which Whitney first began to talk about interchangeability.

In May 1798, Congress voted for legislation that would $800,000 in order to pay for small arms and cannons in case war with France erupted. It offered a $5,000 incentive with an additional $5,000 once that money was exhausted for the person that was able to accurately produce arms for the government. Because the cotton gin had not brought Whitney the rewards he believed it promised, he accepted the offer. Although the contract was for one year, Whitney did not deliver the arms until 1809, using multiple excuses for the delay. Recently, historians have found that during 1801–1806, Whitney took the money and headed into South Carolina in order to profit from the cotton gin.

Although Whitney’s demonstration of 1801 appeared to show the feasibility of creating interchangeable parts, Merritt Roe Smith concludes that it was staged and duped government authorities into believing that he had been successful. The charade gained him time and resources toward achieving that goal. When the government complained that Whitney’s price per musket compared unfavorably with those produced in government armories, he was able to calculate an actual price per musket by including fixed costs such as insurance and machinery, which the government had not accounted for. He thus made early contributions to both the concepts of cost accounting, and economic efficiency in manufacturing.

Whitney died of prostate cancer on January 8, 1825, in New Haven, Connecticut, just a month after his 59th birthday. He left a widow and four children. During the course of his illness, he invented and constructed several devices to mechanically ease his pain. These devices, drawings of which are in his collected papers, were effective but were never manufactured for use of others due to his heirs’ reluctance to trade in “indelicate” items.

Georgia is noted for peaches, of course, as is South Carolina (even though Georgia is officially the Peach State). I gave a recipe for Georgia peach pie here — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/mark-twain/  Here is Georgia peach crisp. It’s excellent served warm with ice cream.

Georgia Peach Crisp

Ingredients:

5 tbsp salted butter, at room temperature, divided
4 cups peeled and sliced fresh peaches
¾ cup packed dark brown sugar, divided
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 cup chopped pecans
½ tsp kosher salt

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C.  Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil.

Heat a 12-inch ovenproof skillet over medium heat and melt 1 tablespoon of the butter.  Add the peaches and ¼ cup of the brown sugar.  Cook, stirring, until the juices thicken into a light syrup- about 8 minutes.  Remove the pan from the heat. Add the peaches in an even layer

Combine the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter, the remaining ½ cup brown sugar, flour, pecans and salt in a mixing bowl and spread the mixture evenly over the peaches.  Place the skillet on the lined baking sheet.

Bake until golden brown and bubbly, about 30 minutes.  Serve warm.

Dec 072018
 

Today is probably the birthday (1805) of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, or it might have been yesterday. You never can tell with French magicians – tricky lot. His autobiography says yesterday, but birth records say today. I’ll go with today. He is widely considered the father of the modern style of conjuring. Houdini took his stage name in homage to Robert-Houdin.

Robert-Houdin was born Jean-Eugène Robert in Blois. His father, Prosper Robert, was a watchmaker in Blois. Jean-Eugene’s mother, the former Marie-Catherine Guillon, died when he was just a young child. When Jean-Eugène  was 11, Prosper sent him to school 35 miles up the Loire to the University of Orléans. At 18, he graduated and returned to Blois. His father wanted him to be a lawyer, but Robert-Houdin wanted to follow into his father’s footsteps as a watchmaker. His penmanship was excellent, and it landed him a job as a clerk for an attorney’s office. Instead of studying law, he tinkered with mechanical gadgets. His employer sent him back to his father. He was told that he was better suited as a watchmaker than a lawyer, but by then, Jean’s father had already retired, so he became an apprentice to his cousin who had a watch shop, and for a short time worked as a watchmaker.

In the mid-1820s, he saved up to buy a copy of a two-volume set of books on clockmaking called Traité de l’horlogerie (Treatise on Clockmaking) by Ferdinand Berthoud. When he got home and opened the wrapping, instead of the Berthoud books, he had received a two-volume set on magic called Scientific Amusements. Instead of returning the books, his curiosity got the better of him, and from these relatively simple volumes, he learned the rudiments of magic. Subsequently he practiced at all hours of the day. He considered the mistake to be the hand of Fate setting him on his life’s path. He was upset that the books he got only revealed how the secrets were done but did not show how to do them. He found that learning from the books available in those days was very difficult due to the lack of detailed explanations provided, but the books piqued his interest in the art. So he began taking lessons from a local amateur magician. He paid ten francs for a series of lessons from a man named Maous from Blois who was a podiatrist but also entertained at fairs and parties doing magic. He was proficient in sleight of hand, and he taught Jean how to juggle and to coordinate his eye and hand. He also taught him rudiments of the cups and balls tricks. He told him that digital dexterity came with repetition, and as a direct result, he practiced incessantly.

Magic was his pastime, but meanwhile, his studies in horology continued. When he felt he was ready, he moved to Tours and set up a watchmaking business, doing conjuring on the side. Much of what we know about Robert-Houdin comes from his memoirs—and his writings were meant more to entertain than to chronicle, rendering it difficult to separate fact from fiction. Robert-Houdin would have readers believe that a major turning point in his life came when he became apprenticed to the magician Edmund De Grisi, Count’s son and better known as Torrini. You can find key extracts from his memoirs here:

https://web.archive.org/web/20050324073949/http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/gaslight/houdin.htm

What is known is that his early performing came from joining an amateur acting troupe. Later, he performed at social parties as a professional magician in Europe and the United States. It was during this period, while at a party, that he met the daughter of a Parisian watchmaker, Jacques François Houdin, who had also come from Jean Robert’s native Blois. The daughter’s name was Josèphe Cecile Houdin, and he fell in love with her at their first meeting. On July 8th, 1830, they were married. He hyphenated his own name to hers and became Robert-Houdin. He moved to Paris and worked in his father-in-law’s wholesale shop. Jacques François was among the last of the watchmakers to use the old methods of handcrafting each piece, yet embraced his new son-in-law’s ambitions for mechanism. While M. Houdin worked in the main shop, Jean tinkered with mechanical toys and automatic figures. He and Josèphe had eight children, of whom three survived.

Quite by accident, Robert-Houdin walked into a shop on the Rue Richelieu and discovered it sold magic (lots of happy accidents in his biography). It was owned by a Père (Papa) Roujol, and there he met fellow magicians, both amateur and professional, where he engaged in talk about conjuring, and he met an aristocrat by the name of Jules de Rovère, who purportedly coined the term “prestidigitation” to describe a major misdirection technique magicians used. At Papa Roujol’s, Robert-Houdin learned the details of many of the mechanical tricks of the time as well as how to improve upon them. From there, he built his own mechanical figures, like a singing bird, a dancer on a tightrope, and an automaton doing the cups and balls. His most acclaimed automaton was his writing and drawing figure. He displayed this figure before king Louis Philippe and eventually sold it to P. T. Barnum.

Robert-Houdin loved to watch the big magic shows that came to Paris. He dreamed about some day opening his own theater. Meanwhile, he was hired by a friend, Comte de l’Escalopier, to perform at private parties. The income from the shop and his new inventions, which he sold, gave him enough money to experiment on new tricks using glass apparatus that would be (or at least appear to be) free of trickery. He envisioned a stage that would be as elegant as the drawing rooms in which he was hired to perform. He also thought that a magician should be dressed in traditional evening clothes. De l’Escalopier lent him 15,000 francs to make his vision into reality. He rented out a suite of rooms above the archways around the gardens of the Palais Royal, which was once owned by Cardinal Richelieu. He hired workmen to redesign the old assembly room into a theatre. They painted it white with gold trim, hung tasteful drapes and chic candelabras, and the stage furniture was set in the style of Louis XV.

On July 3rd, 1845, Robert-Houdin premiered his 200-seat theatre in what he called “Soirées Fantastiques”. No critics covered Robert-Houdin’s debut, and in his memoirs, Robert-Houdin said that the show had been a disaster. He suffered from stage fright that caused him to talk too fast and in a monotone. He said that he did not know what he was saying or doing, and everything was a blur. He believed that a magician should not present a trick until it was mechanically perfected to be certain of avoiding failure, and this caused him to over-rehearse. After the first show, he was about to have a nervous breakdown. He closed the theater and had every intention to close it for good, until a friend agreed that the venture was a silly idea. Instead of admitting defeat, Robert-Houdin, irked at the friend’s effrontery, used this insult to regain his courage, and persevered in giving the show a long run, becoming more polished and confident onstage.

With each performance, Robert-Houdin got better, and he began to receive critical acclaim. Le Charivari and L’Illustration both said that his mechanical marvels and artistic magic was comparable to those of his predecessors like Philippe and Bartolomeo Bosco. Even with all of this, still relatively few people came to the little theatre during the summer months, and he struggled to keep it opened. To meet expenses, he sold the three houses that he had inherited from his mother. The following year, he added a new trick to his program that became especially popular. Seats at the Palais Royal were at a premium. This new marvel was called Second Sight. Second Sight drew the audiences into the little theatre. He walked into the audience and touched items that the audience members held up, and his blindfolded assistant, played by his son, described each one in detail. It caused a sensation and brought throngs to see his shows. Eventually, he changed the method, so instead of asking his son what was in his hands, he simply rang a bell. This stunned those that suspected a spoken code was being used. He would even set the bell off to the side and remain silent, and his son still described every object handed to his father. At one point he made the test even more difficult. He placed a glass of water into his son’s hands, and Emile proceeded to drink from it. He was able to perceive the taste of the liquids that spectators from the audience merely thought of. Even then, the audiences were not entirely convinced, they tried to trip up Emile by bringing in books written in Greek, or odd tools such as a thread counter used by a weaver.

On one of Robert-Houdin’s side tables, he had an egg, a lemon, and an orange. He went into the audience and borrowed a lady’s handkerchief that was in style then. He rolled it into a ball. He rubbed the ball in between his hands, and the handkerchief got smaller and smaller until it disappeared, passing through to the egg on the table. He picked up the egg, and the audience expected him to crack it open and produce the spectator’s handkerchief. Instead, he made that disappear too. He told the audience that the egg went to the lemon. This was repeated with the lemon and the orange. When he made the orange disappear, all that was left was a fine powder which he placed into a silver vial. He soaked this vial with alcohol and set it on fire. A small orange tree planted in a wooden box was brought forth by one of his assistants. The audience noticed that the tree was barren of any blossoms or fruit. The blue flame from the vial was placed underneath it. The vapors from it caused the leaves to spread and sprout orange blossoms from it. Robert-Houdin then picked up his magic wand and waved it. The flowers disappeared and oranges bloomed forth. He plucked the oranges from the tree and tossed them to the audience to prove they were real. He did this until he had only one left. He waved his wand again, and the orange split open into four sections, revealing a white material of sorts inside of it. Two clockwork butterflies appeared from behind the tree. The butterflies grabbed the end of the corner of the white cloth and spread it open, revealing the spectator’s handkerchief.

When touring in Algeria, he used another famous trick to prove that French “magic” was stronger than local superstitions: he presented an empty box with an iron bottom that anyone could lift. By turning on an electromagnet hidden under the floor, he made it immovable, “proving” that through his “will power”, he could make it impossible to be lifted even by the strongest Algerian warriors. He found the trick was more impressive not when he claimed that he could make the trunk heavy, but when he claimed he could make the strong man too weak to lift a trunk that even a small child could lift. When he performed this trick the first time, the Algerian strong man he worked it on became so enraged that he left in a fury. It took a great deal of diplomacy to convince the Algerians that his actions were all trickery and not sorcery. These and other tricks are described by Robert-Houdin himself in detail in the link I gave above.

After his mission in Algeria, Robert-Houdin gave his last public performance at the Grand Théâtre in Marseille, then returned to his home in Saint-Gervais, near his native Blois, where he wrote his memoirs, Confidences d’un Prestidigitateur. He also wrote several books on the art of magic. He lived happily in retirement for about fifteen years, until the advent of the Franco Prussian War. His son Eugene was a captain in a Zouave regiment. On August 6th, 1870, Robert-Houdin heard news of his son being mortally wounded at the Battle of Worth. Meanwhile, Hessian Soldiers captured Paris, and Robert-Houdin hid his family in a cave near his property. Four days later, Robert-Houdin learned that his son had died of his wounds. With the stress from that and the war, his health deteriorated, and he contracted pneumonia. On June 13th, 1871, he died at the age of 65.

His home in Blois is open to the public as the publicly owned La Maison de la Magie Robert-Houdin. It is a museum and theater first opened by his grandson Paul Robert-Houdin in April 1966.

There are videos on magic tricks in the kitchen but they are pretty lame. This one on tricks with eggs is not strictly magic, but there are some fun ideas.

Or you can go with a Loire valley regional dish such as salmon with lemon sauce to celebrate Blois.

 

Dec 062018
 

Today is the birthday (1778) of Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, a French chemist and physicist,  known mostly for his discovery that water is made of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen (with Alexander von Humboldt), for two laws related to gases, and for his work on alcohol-water mixtures, which led to the degrees Gay-Lussac used to measure alcoholic beverages in many countries.

Gay-Lussac was born at Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat in the present-day department of Haute-Vienne. His father, Anthony Gay, was a lawyer and prosecutor and worked as a judge in Noblat Bridge. He owned much of Lussac village and usually added the name of this hamlet, following a custom of the ancien régime. Towards the year 1803, father and son finally adopted the name Gay-Lussac. Gay-Lussac received his early education at the Abbey of Bourdeix, though later in life he became an atheist. Under the Abbot of Dumonteil he began his education in Paris, finally entering the École Polytechnique in 1798. Gay-Lussac narrowly avoided conscription and by the time of entry to the École Polytechnique his father had been arrested (due to Robespierre’s Reign of Terror). Three years later, Gay-Lussac transferred to the École des Ponts et Chaussées, and shortly afterward was assigned to C. L. Berthollet as his assistant. In 1802, he was appointed demonstrator to A. F. Fourcroy at the École Polytechnique, wherein (1809) he became the professor of chemistry. From 1808 to 1832, he was the professor of physics at the Sorbonne, a post which he only resigned for the chair of chemistry at the Jardin des Plantes. In 1821, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. In 1831 he was elected to represent Haute-Vienne in the chamber of deputies, and in 1839 he entered the chamber of peers. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1832.

Gay-Lussac married Geneviève-Marie-Joseph Rojot in 1809. He had first met her when she worked as a linen draper’s shop assistant and was studying a chemistry textbook under the counter. They had five children, of whom the eldest (Jules) became assistant to Justus Liebig in Giessen. Some publications by Jules are mistaken as his father’s today since they share the same first initial (J. Gay-Lussac).

Gay-Lussac died in Paris, and his grave is at Père Lachaise Cemetery. His name is one of the 72 names inscribed on the Eiffel Tower.

Here is a timeline of Gay-Lussac’s accomplishments:

1802 – Gay-Lussac first formulated the law, Gay-Lussac’s Law, stating that if the mass and volume of a gas are held constant then gas pressure increases linearly as the temperature rises. His work was preceded by that of Guillaume Amontons, who established the rough relation without the use of accurate thermometers. The law is sometimes written as p = k T, where k is a constant dependent on the mass and volume of the gas and T is temperature on an absolute scale (in terms of the ideal gas law, k = n·R/V).

1804 – He and Jean-Baptiste Biot made a hot-air balloon ascent to a height of 7,016 meters (23,018 ft) in an early investigation of the Earth’s atmosphere. He wanted to collect samples of the air at different heights to record differences in temperature and moisture.

1805 – Together with his friend and scientific collaborator Alexander von Humboldt, he discovered that the composition of the atmosphere does not change with decreasing pressure (increasing altitude). They also discovered that water is formed by two parts of hydrogen and one part of oxygen (by volume).

1808 – He was the co-discoverer of boron.

1810 – In collaboration with Louis Thenard, he developed a method for quantitative elemental analysis by measuring the CO2 and O2 evolved by reaction with potassium chlorate.

1811 – He recognized iodine as a new element, described its properties, and suggested the name iode.

1815 – He synthesized cyanogen, determined its empirical formula and named it.

1824 – He developed an improved version of the burette that included a side arm, and coined the terms “pipette” and “burette” in an 1824 paper about the standardization of indigo solutions.

Clafoutis, is a baked French dessert of fruit, from the Limousin region where Gay-Lussac hailed from. It is traditionally made with unpitted black cherries, arranged in a buttered dish and covered with a thick flan-like batter. The clafoutis is dusted with powdered sugar and served lukewarm, sometimes with cream. The cherry pits contain amygdalin, the active chemical in almond extract, so during baking a small amount of amygdalin from the pits is released into the clafoutis, adding a complementary note to its flavor. If you cannot find fresh, unpitted cherries, pitted will work. While black cherries are traditional, there are now numerous variations using other fruits, including red cherries, plums, prunes, apples, pears, cranberries or blackberries. When other kinds of fruit are used instead of cherries, the dish is properly called a flaugnarde. The dish’s name derives from Occitan clafotís, from the verb clafir, meaning “to fill” Clafoutis apparently spread throughout France during the 19th century.

Clafoutis Aux Cerises

Ingredients

4 large eggs
½ cup sugar
½ tsp salt
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
½ tablespoon kirsch
zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons melted butter
¾ cups all purpose flour
2 cups black cherries, unpitted
powdered sugar for dusting

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350°F/175°C.

Butter and lightly flour a 9-inch round pie dish or cast iron pan.

Combine the eggs, sugar, salt, milk, lemon zest, kirsch and vanilla extract in a food processor. Blend just until combined. Add the flour and blend again, just until combined and smooth. Finally, add the melted butter and pulse a few times to incorporate into the batter. You can mix the ingredients by hand, if you don’t have a processor.

Pour the batter into the prepared dish. Top with the cherries.

Bake in the preheated oven for 45 minutes to one hour or until the custard is just set. A toothpick poked in the center should emerge relatively clean. Do not bake too long, so that the custard is completely dry.

Remove from the oven and let it cool slightly.

When ready to serve, dust with powdered sugar. Serve warm.

Dec 052018
 

Today is World Soil Day. declared by the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly in 2013. The purpose of the Day is to raise awareness worldwide of the importance of soils for food security and agriculture, as well as in mitigation of climate change, poverty alleviation, and sustainable development. If you are not a farmer or gardener you probably rarely, if ever, think about soils, soil quality, and their effects on your daily life.  I got involved in gardening as a boy, to differing degrees, in Australia and England, but when I bought a house in New York State I got deeply involved in all kinds of gardening – herbs, vegetables, trees, grass, rockeries, flower beds, water plants, houseplants, potted plants etc. – for 30 years. Soil, of all types, was key. Caring for the soil was paramount.

If you have not worked the soil as a farmer or gardener, you probably do not understand how complex it is, how much of a living thing it is, and how much it interacts with the rest of the world. Soil is a mixture of organic matter, minerals, gases, liquids, and organisms that together support life. Earth’s body of soil is the pedosphere (the earth’s skin), which has four important functions: it is a medium for plant growth; it is a means of water storage, supply and purification; it is a modifier of Earth’s atmosphere; it is a habitat for organisms; all of which, in turn, modify the soil.

The pedosphere interacts with the lithosphere (rocks), the hydrosphere (water), the atmosphere (air), and the biosphere (plants and animals). Soil consists of a solid phase of minerals and organic matter (the soil matrix), as well as a porous phase that holds gases (the soil atmosphere) and water (the soil solution). Accordingly, soils are often treated as a three-state system of solids, liquids, and gases. Soil is a product of the influence of climate, relief (elevation, orientation, and slope of terrain), organisms, and its parent materials (original minerals) interacting over time. It continually undergoes development by way of numerous physical, chemical and biological processes. Given its complexity and strong internal connectedness, it is considered an ecosystem

Most soils have a dry bulk density (density of soil taking into account voids when dry) between 1.1 and 1.6 g/cm3, while the soil particle density is much higher, in the range of 2.6 to 2.7 g/cm3. Little of the soil of planet Earth is older than the Pleistocene (2,588,000 BP) and none is older than the Cenozoic (66,000,000 BP), although fossilized soils are preserved from as far back as the Archean (4 billion to 2.5 billion BP). That is, soil has been around for a very long time, but it evolves.

The era that some anthropologists (and others) call the Anthropocene, the period when humans began having a major impact on the environment, could see a fundamental change in the nature of soil. I don’t really use the term Anthropocene, but I do talk about the two great disasters that befell the planet: the domestication of plants and animals, and the Industrial Revolution. So . . . 12,000 to 15,000 years ago, humans started exploiting the planet – particularly the soil – via domestication, and it has been downhill ever since. The Industrial Revolution sped up the process, and now we are facing the consequences.

Instead of a food recipe today I have a recipe for compost. I always composted kitchen waste, leaves and grass clippings, and had plenty of compost all the time for my vegetable garden so that I did not need chemical fertilizers (and also so that my kitchen waste was not really wasted). It’s not a difficult process, but this video lays it all out clearly.

 

Dec 042018
 

Today is the birthday (1875) of René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke better known as Rainer Maria Rilke, a Bohemian poet and novelist who is known for his lyrically intense poetry and prose. He invokes images that focus on the difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude and profound anxiety. While Rilke is most known for his contributions to German literature, over 400 poems were originally written in French and dedicated to the canton of Valais in Switzerland. Among English-language readers, his best-known works include the poetry collections Duino Elegies (Duineser Elegien) and Sonnets to Orpheus (Die Sonette an Orpheus), the semi-autobiographical novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge), and a collection of ten letters that was published after his death under the title Letters to a Young Poet (Briefe an einen jungen Dichter). In the later 20th century, his work found new audiences through use by New Age theologians and self-help authors, which could explain why I find his work unappealing.

Rilke was born in Prague, then capital of Bohemia. His father, Josef Rilke (1838–1906), became a railway official after an unsuccessful military career. His mother, Sophie (“Phia”) Entz (1851–1931), came from a well-to-do Prague family, the Entz-Kinzelbergers, who lived in a house on the Herrengasse (Panská) 8, where Rilke also spent many of his early years. The relationship between Phia and her only son was colored by her mourning for an earlier child, a daughter who had died only one week old. During Rilke’s early years Phia acted as if she sought to recover the lost girl through the boy by dressing him in girl’s clothing. His parents’ marriage failed in 1884. His parents pressured him into entering a military academy in St. Pölten, Lower Austria, which he attended from 1886 until 1891, when he left owing to illness.

He moved to Linz, where he attended trade school. He was expelled from the school in May 1892, and returned to Prague. From 1892 to 1895 he was tutored for the university entrance exam, which he passed in 1895. Until 1896 he studied literature, art history, and philosophy in Prague and Munich.

In 1897 in Munich, Rilke met and fell in love with the widely traveled, intellectual – but married – woman of letters Lou Andreas-Salomé. Rilke changed his first name from “René” to “Rainer” at Salomé’s urging because she thought that name to be more masculine, forceful, and Germanic. His relationship with her lasted until 1900. But even after their separation, Salomé continued to be Rilke’s most important confidante until the end of his life. Having trained from 1912 to 1913 as a psychoanalyst with Sigmund Freud, she shared her knowledge of psychoanalysis with Rilke.

In 1898, Rilke undertook a journey lasting several weeks to Italy. In 1899, he traveled with Salomé and her husband, Friedrich Andreas, to Moscow where he met Leo Tolstoy. Between May and August 1900, a second journey to Russia, accompanied only by Salomé, again took him to Moscow and Saint Petersburg, where he met the family of Boris Pasternak and Spiridon Drozhzhin, a peasant poet.

In 1900, Rilke stayed at the artists’ colony at Worpswede. Here he met the sculptor Clara Westhoff, whom he married the following year. Their daughter Ruth (1901–1972) was born in December 1901. Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876–1907), an early expressionist painter, became acquainted with Rilke in Worpswede and Paris, and painted his portrait in 1906. In the summer of 1902, Rilke left home and traveled to Paris to write a monograph on Auguste Rodin. His wife left their daughter with her parents and joined Rilke there. The relationship between Rilke and Clara Westhoff continued for the rest of his life; a mutually-agreed-upon effort at divorce was bureaucratically hindered by Rilke’s “official” status as a Catholic, though a non-practicing one.

At first, Rilke had a difficult time in Paris, an experience that he called on in the first part of his only novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. At the same time, his encounter with modernism was stimulating: Rilke became deeply involved with the sculpture of Rodin, then the work of Paul Cézanne. For a time, he acted as Rodin’s secretary, also lecturing and writing a long essay on Rodin and his work. Rodin taught him the value of observation and, under this influence, Rilke dramatically transformed his poetic style from the subjective and sometimes incantatory language of his earlier work into something quite new in European literature. The result was the New Poems, famous for the “thing-poems” expressing Rilke’s rejuvenated artistic vision. During these years, Paris increasingly became his main residence.

Between October 1911 and May 1912, Rilke stayed at the Castle Duino, near Trieste, home of Princess Marie of Thurn und Taxis. He began the poem cycle called the Duino Elegies there in 1912 which would remain unfinished for a decade because of a long-lasting creativity crisis. Rilke had developed an admiration for El Greco as early as 1908, so he visited Toledo during the winter of 1912/13 to see his paintings. Subsequently, Rilke spent extended periods in Ronda, the famous bullfighting center in southern Spain. He kept a permanent room at the Hotel Reina Victoria from December 1912 to February 1913.

The outbreak of World War I surprised Rilke during a stay in Germany. He was unable to return to Paris, where his property was confiscated and auctioned. He spent the greater part of the war in Munich. From 1914 to 1916 he had a turbulent affair with the painter Lou Albert-Lasard. Rilke was called up at the beginning of 1916 and had to undertake basic training in Vienna. Influential friends interceded on his behalf, and he was transferred to the War Records Office and discharged from the military on 9th June 1916. He returned to Munich, interrupted by a stay on Hertha Koenig’s Gut Bockel in Westphalia. The traumatic experience of military service, a reminder of the horrors of the military academy, almost completely silenced him as a poet.

On 11th June 1919, Rilke traveled from Munich to Switzerland. The outward motive was an invitation to lecture in Zurich, but the real reason was the wish to escape the post-war chaos and take up his work on the Duino Elegies once again. The search for a suitable and affordable place to live proved to be very difficult. Among other places, Rilke lived in Soglio, Locarno and Berg am Irchel. Only in mid-1921 was he able to find a permanent residence in the Château de Muzot in the commune of Veyras, close to Sierre in Valais. In an intensely creative period, Rilke completed the Duino Elegies in several weeks in February 1922. Before and after, Rilke rapidly wrote both parts of the poem cycle Sonnets to Orpheus containing 55 entire sonnets. Together, these two have often been taken as constituting the high points of Rilke’s work. In May 1922, Rilke’s patron Werner Reinhart bought and renovated Muzot so that Rilke could live there rent-free.

During this time, Reinhart introduced Rilke to his protégée, the Australian violinist Alma Moodie. Rilke was so impressed with her playing that he wrote in a letter: “What a sound, what richness, what determination. That and the Sonnets to Orpheus, those were two strings of the same voice. And she plays mostly Bach! Muzot has received its musical christening…” From 1923 on, Rilke increasingly had to struggle with health problems that necessitated many long stays at a sanatorium in Territet, near Montreux, on Lake Geneva. His long stay in Paris between January and August 1925 was an attempt to escape his illness through a change in location and living conditions. Despite this, numerous important individual poems appeared in the years 1923–1926 (including Gong and Mausoleum), as well as his abundant lyrical work in French.

In 1924, Erika Mitterer began writing poems to Rilke, who wrote back with approximately fifty poems of his own and called her verse a Herzlandschaft (landscape of the heart). This was the only time Rilke had a productive poetic collaboration throughout all his work. Mitterer also visited Rilke. In 1950, her Correspondence in Verse with Rilke was published.

Rilke supported the Russian Revolution in 1917 as well as the Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1919. He became friends with Ernst Toller and mourned the deaths of Rosa Luxembourg, Kurt Eisner, and Karl Liebknecht. He confided that of the five or six newspapers he read daily, those on the far left came closest to his own opinions.[30] He developed a reputation for supporting left-wing causes, and thus, out of fear for his own safety, became more reticent about politics after the Bavarian Republic was crushed by the right-wing Freikorps. Yet, in January and February 1926, Rilke wrote three letters to the Mussolini-adversary Aurelia Gallarati Scotti in which he praised Benito Mussolini and described fascism as a healing agent.

Shortly before his death, Rilke’s illness was diagnosed as leukemia. He suffered ulcerous sores in his mouth, pain troubled his stomach and intestines, and he struggled with increasingly low spirits. Open-eyed, he died in the arms of his doctor on December 29th, 1926, in the Valmont Sanatorium in Switzerland. He was buried on January 2, 1927, in the Raron cemetery to the west of Visp.

Rilke had chosen as his own epitaph this poem:

Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch, Lust, Niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter soviel Lidern.

Rose, o pure contradiction, desire to be no one’s sleep beneath so many lids.

A legend developed surrounding his death and roses. It was said: “To honor a visitor, the Egyptian beauty Nimet Eloui Bey, Rilke gathered some roses from his garden. While doing so, he pricked his hand on a thorn. This small wound failed to heal, grew rapidly worse, soon his entire arm was swollen, and his other arm became affected as well”, and so he died.

Here is a Bohemian recipe for baked rabbit that I have selected for Rilke, partly because he reminds me of a rabbit (don’t ask), and partly because I miss rabbit since I left Italy.

Bohemian Baked Rabbit

Ingredients

1 rabbit, jointed
1 tbsp caraway seeds
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
100ml white wine vinegar
2 tbsp plain flour
oil, for frying
100 gm pitted prunes, halved
250ml beer
2 tbsp sour cream
salt and white pepper

Instructions

Soak a clean tea towel with vinegar. Place the rabbit pieces on the towel and press the caraway seeds into the meat. Scatter the chopped onion over the rabbit, and then wrap it up in the tea towel. Place the wrapped meat on a dish and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat the oven to 150°C. Unwrap the pieces of meat and dust them with the flour. Heat a little oil in large skillet over a medium heat and sauté the rabbit pieces until browned on all sides. Transfer the rabbit pieces to a lidded casserole and add the prunes and beer. Cook in the oven for 1 hour, turning the pieces over from time to time. About 15 minutes before the end of cooking, season with salt and pepper.

Remove the meat from the casserole and leave to stand, covered, for 7–8 minutes. Add the sour cream to the sauce and stir. Place the rabbit pieces on a heated serving dish, pour the casserole sauce over the rabbit, and serve.

 

Dec 032018
 

 

Anna Freud, youngest daughter of Sigmund Freud and Martha Bernays, was born in Vienna, on this date in 1895. She had difficulties getting along with her siblings, specifically with her sister Sophie Freud who was judged to be the more attractive child. They both competed for the affections of their father who once spoke of Anna’s “age-old jealousy of Sophie.” She also had developmental problems growing up. Biographers have indicated that she suffered from depression and had eating disorders. She was repeatedly sent to health farms for rest, and also to gain weight. Apparently, Anna had a reputation for mischief. Freud wrote to his friend Wilhelm Fliess in 1899: “Anna has become downright beautiful through naughtiness.” Freud is said to refer to her in his diaries more than others in the family.

Later, Anna Freud said that she didn’t learn much in school; instead she learned from her father and his guests at home. This was how she picked up Hebrew, German, English, French and Italian. At the age of 15, she started reading her father’s work and discovered a dream she had had at the age of nineteen months, cited in The Interpretation of Dreams.

A visit to Britain in the autumn of 1914, which her father’s colleague, Ernest Jones, chaperoned, became of concern to Freud when he learned of the latter’s romantic intentions. His advice to Jones, in a letter of 22 July 1914, was that his daughter “… does not claim to be treated as a woman, being still far away from sexual longings and rather refusing man. There is an outspoken understanding between me and her that she should not consider marriage or the preliminaries before she gets two or three years older”. In 1914 she passed the test to work as a teaching apprentice at her old school, the Cottage Lyceum. From 1915 to 1917, she worked as a teaching apprentice for third, fourth, and fifth graders. For the school year 1917-18, she began her first position as Klassenlehrerin (head teacher) for the second grade. She was invited to stay on with a regular four-year contract starting in autumn 1918.

After experiencing multiple episodes of illness Anna Freud resigned her teaching post in 1920. This enabled her to pursue further her growing interest in her father’s work and writings. From 1918 to 1921 and from 1924 to 1929 she was in analysis with her father. In 1922 she presented her paper “Beating Fantasies and Daydreams” to the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society and became a member of the society. In 1923, she began her own psychoanalytical practice with children and by 1925 she was teaching at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Training Institute on the technique of child analysis. From 1925 until 1934, she was the Secretary of the International Psychoanalytical Association while she continued child analysis and contributed to seminars and conferences on the subject. In 1935, she became director of the Vienna Psychoanalytical Training Institute and the following year she published her influential study of the “ways and means by which the ego wards off depression, displeasure and anxiety”, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence. It became a founding work of ego psychology and established her reputation as a pioneering theoretician.

Among the first children Anna Freud took into analysis were those of Dorothy Burlingham. In 1925 Burlingham, heiress to the Tiffany luxury jewelry retailer, had arrived in Vienna from New York with her four children and entered analysis first with Theodore Reik and then, with a view to training in child analysis, with Sigmund Freud himself. Anna and Dorothy soon developed what have been described as “intimate relations that closely resembled those of lesbians”, though Anna categorically denied the existence of a sexual relationship. After the Burlinghams moved into the same apartment block as the Freuds in 1929 Anna became, in effect, the children’s stepparent.

In 1938, following the Anschluss in which Nazi Germany occupied Austria, Anna was taken to Gestapo headquarters in Vienna for questioning on the activities of the International Psychoanalytical Association. Unknown to her father, she and her brother Martin had obtained Veronal from Max Schur, the family doctor, in sufficient quantities to commit suicide if faced with torture or internment. However, she survived her interrogation ordeal and returned to the family home. After her father had reluctantly accepted the urgent need to leave Vienna, she set about organizing the complex immigration process for the family in liaison with Ernest Jones, the then President of the International Psychoanalytical Association, who secured the immigration permits that eventually led to the family establishing their new home in London at 20 Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead.

In 1941 Anna Freud and Burlingham collaborated in establishing the Hampstead War Nursery for children whose lives had been disrupted by the war. Premises were acquired in Hampstead, North London and in Essex to provide education and residential care with mothers encouraged to visit as often as practicable. Many for the staff were recruited from the exiled Austro-German diaspora. Lectures and seminars on psychoanalytic theory and practice were regular features of staff training. Freud and Burlingham went on to publish a series of observational studies on child development based on the work of the Nursery with a focus on the impact of stress on children and their capacity to find substitute affections among peers in the absence of their parents. The Bulldog Banks Home, run on similar lines to the Nursery, was established after the war for a group of children who had survived the concentration camps. Building on and developing their war-time work with children, Freud and Burlingham established the Hampstead Child Therapy Course and Clinic (now the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families) in 1952 as a center for therapy, training and research work.

On her arrival in England Anna Freud began to give lectures on child analysis. At that time in London, the field of child analysis was largely the domain of Anna Freud and Melanie Klein, Anna’s theoretical and clinical rival. Anna’s arrival in London resulted in splitting the British psychoanalytic community into three schools: Freudian, Kleinian and Independent. The Kleinian approach differed from the Freudian in several methodological and theoretical techniques around infancy and object relationships. For example, the Freudian approach did not believe that children had a superego, and their therapist should be part of their transference. In contrast, Klein believed that children had a superego, and needed to be treated with the same techniques as adults. These differences had initially threatened the discipline of Anna’s Freudian techniques of child analysis in England, but by the end of World War II, the conflict was resolved through parallel acceptance for both schools.

From the 1950s until the end of her life Freud traveled regularly to the United States to lecture, to teach and to visit friends. She was elected Vice-President of International Association of Psychoanalysts and Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1959.

During the 1970s she was concerned with the problems of emotionally deprived and socially disadvantaged children, and she studied deviations and delays in development. At Yale Law School, she taught seminars on crime and the family: this led to a transatlantic collaboration with Joseph Goldstein and Albert J. Solnit on children’s needs and the law, published in three volumes as Beyond the Best Interests of the Child (1973), Before the Best Interests of the Child (1979), and In the Best Interests of the Child (1986).

Anna Freud died in London on 9th October 1982. She was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium and her ashes placed in a marble shelf next to her parents’ ancient Greek funeral urn. Her life-partner Dorothy Tiffany-Burlingham and several other members of the Freud family are also interred there.

If you have read my post on Sigmund Freud – http://www.bookofdaystales.com/sigmund-freud/ — you will know that I have great respect for his originality of thought, and for some of his ideas that have survived the withering criticism of a century. You will also know that I am a severe critic of much of his work. Ditto for his daughter. Freud’s identification of certain psychological processes, especially projection, is ironic. A good case could be made for the entire corpus of Freudian theory being one gigantic, narcissistic projection of his own upbringing. Anna’s role throughout her career was to both expand and defend her father’s work especially as it came under increasing attack in the post-war era. She never strayed from a doctrinaire Freudian approach, although her work focused more on the ego and latency in children than on the whole range of psychosexual development.

Both Sigmund and Anna Freud based their theory on self analysis, and in Anna’s case you have a depressed anorexic child with fantasies of being beaten, striving for the affections of a dominant father with her sister, and indifferent to a distant mother, who spent her adult life in a lesbian relationship (consummated or otherwise), and with no children of her own. Yes, I am sure that a balanced, healthy theoretical perspective will emerge from those experiences !!!

One thing that sticks out for me concerning Anna’s care for children in difficult circumstances was her emphasis on letting them eat what they chose. I don’t know what the choices might have been, but one dish that is child friendly in Austria is Viennese Rindsuppe, a beef bone consommé usually with noodles or dumplings. It is not difficult to make, although it is time consuming. I’ll give you an instructive video although the process is simple: simmer meaty beef bones for several hours, then add soup vegetables (celery, carrot, onion, leek) and herbs, simmer for several more hours, strain and serve with noodles or dumplings. Sorry that the video is in German — it is easy to follow, anyway.

Dec 022018
 

Today is a National Day in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic marking the anniversary of the victory of the Pathet Lao in the Laotian Civil War that was an adjunct of the Vietnam war. Let’s talk about the country’s name before I get into the heart of things. The country was called Laos (with an /s/) by French colonists, but both the people and their language are known as Lao indigenously, and they refer to their country by the full name, sometimes, or as Muang Lao (ເມືອງລາວ) more commonly. After independence from France in 1953 until 1973 the country retained the French colonial name, Laos, but subsequently it has been called Lao. I will use the name Laos here for the country prior to 1973.

The First Indochina War (1946 – 1954) was centered on Vietnam, but involved Laos and Cambodia as well, and eventually led to French defeat and the signing of a peace accord for Laos at the Geneva Conference of 1954. In 1955, the US Department of Defense created a special Programs Evaluation Office to replace French support of the Royal Lao Army against the communist Pathet Lao as part of the US policy of “containment” of communism in Asia.

In 1960, amidst a series of rebellions in the kingdom of Laos, fighting broke out between the Royal Lao Army and the communist North Vietnam-backed, and Soviet Union-backed Pathet Lao guerillas. A second Provisional Government of National Unity formed by Prince Souvanna Phouma in 1962 was unsuccessful, and the situation steadily deteriorated into large scale civil war between the Royal Laotian government and the Pathet Lao, backed militarily by the NVA and Vietcong.

Laos was a key part of the Vietnam War since parts of Laos were invaded and occupied by North Vietnam for use as a supply route for its war against the South. In response, the United States initiated a bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese positions, supported regular and irregular anticommunist forces in Laos and supported South Vietnamese incursions into Laos. In 1968 the North Vietnamese Army launched a multi-division attack to help the Pathet Lao to fight the Royal Lao Army. The attack resulted in the army largely demobilizing, leaving the conflict to irregular ethnic Hmong forces of the “U.S. Secret Army” backed by the United States and Thailand, and led by General Vang Pao.

Massive aerial bombardment against the Pathet Lao and invading People’s Army of Vietnam forces were carried out by the United States to prevent the collapse of the Royal Kingdom of Laos central government, and to deny the use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to attack US forces in the Republic of Vietnam. Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped 2 million tons of bombs on Laos, nearly equal to the 2.1 million tons of bombs the U.S. dropped on Europe and Asia during all of World War II, making Laos the most heavily bombed country in history relative to the size of its population; The New York Times noted this was “nearly a ton for every person in Laos”. Around 80 million bombs failed to explode and remain scattered throughout the country, rendering vast swathes of land impossible to cultivate and killing or maiming 50 Laotians every year. (Due to the particularly heavy impact of cluster bombs during this war, Laos was a strong advocate of the Convention on Cluster Munitions to ban the weapons, and was host to the First Meeting of States Parties to the convention in November 2010.

In 1975 the Pathet Lao, along with the Vietnam People’s Army, and backed by the Soviet Union, overthrew the royalist Lao government, forcing king Savang Vatthana to abdicate on 2nd December 1975. He later died in prison. Between 20,000 and 62,000 Laotians died during the Civil War. On 2nd December 1975, after taking control of the country, the Pathet Lao government under Kaysone Phomvihane renamed the country as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and signed agreements giving Vietnam the right to station armed forces and to appoint advisers to assist in overseeing the country.

Larb is probably the best known Lao dish and I covered a version of it here. http://www.bookofdaystales.com/lao-new-year/ This recipe is for a common beef version, but there is also a fish version which is popular. It resembles ceviche a little, in that the fish has a lime juice dressing, but it is parboiled, and other herbs and vegetables are added. The greens preferred in Laos, and SE Asia in general, are not easily found outside of Asia, but you might find a friendly Vietnamese market. When I lived in New York there was one near my work. In Lao the fish used is local fish from the Mekong. You can use any white fish, but remember, the more you substitute ingredients, the farther you get from the taste of Lao.

Fish Larb

Ingredients

¼ cup fresh squeezed lime juice
1 tbsp lemongrass, white parts only, finely minced
1 tsp fresh ginger, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp fish sauce
2 tbsp shallots, thinly sliced
¼ cup scallions, green part only, thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1-2 red Thai bird chiles, chopped (or Prik Bon chili powder)
3 cups Asian greens, whole leaves, coarsely chopped
¼ cup cilantro, fresh, whole leaves, coarsely chopped
½ cup fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped
1 lb white fish, sliced
1 stalk lemongrass, cut into 2” pieces
1 ½ tablespoons ground roasted rice (optional)

Instructions

In a small bowl, mix together the lime juice, lemongrass, ginger, garlic, fish sauce, shallots, salt and chili. Set aside.

Put the watercress, cilantro and mint into a medium bowl.

In a small saucepan, boil 3 inches of water with 1 stalk of lemongrass, place the fish into the boiling water, turn off the heat. Let sit 3-4 minutes.

Toss the greens with lime-lemongrass dressing plus the roasted rice (if using). Drain the fish and mix in gently. Serve immediately.