Wit Larded with Malice

Or: The Satirical Russian Magazines of 1905-08

In Russia, following a string of embarrassing defeats in the Russo-Japanese War and the infamous Bloody Sunday incident, during the period of the so called Failed Revolution, no less than 480 underground magazines sprung-up to voice the outrage of the many disparate groups and factions and movements—nihilists, anarchists, socialists,  Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, etc—which though unorganized, were united in their calls for Tsarist reform. This outpouring of printed materials, critical of the State, was no small thing in a country with a long history of strict censorship and brutal punishments for dissension. These many short-lived publications are referred to, collectively, as “satires.” 

08.12. filed under: art. comedy. death. design. history. 9

Vin Mariani

“never has anything been so highly or justly praised.”

A good 20 years before the original cocaine-infused Coca-Cola taught the world to grind its teeth and give ineffectual bathroom-stall handjobs in per•fect har•mo•ny, there was another drink of choice among those wishing to feel invigorated and overconfident for no good reason. It was called “coca wine” and it was loved not only by self-important blowhards wearing too much jewelry but by Kings and Popes and… oh, right. Anyhow, it was called Vin Tonique Mariani (or simply Vin Mariani) was sold as a curative, and in the latter half of the 19th century it was a medicinal, recreational, and marketing powerhouse. To paraphrase J.J. Cale “Czars don’t lie, Popes don’t lie, Queens don’t lie…”

08.09. filed under: design. history. people. 4

Occult Chemistry

In 6th century BCE the concept that matter is composed of discrete and not infinitely reducible units developed in India. Around 460 B.C. the Greek Democritus named these fundamental and irreducible bits of matter átomos, meaning “uncuttable.” Notions of this kind were at this point in history, more than anything, matters of pure Philosophy. As such, when the big daddy Aristotle weighed in and rejected the idea as worthless, “the atom” was pretty much stopped in its tracks. It would be a couple thousand years before Science picked up where Philosophy had left off. But before Science made its first excited indirect observations of electrons and protons and managed to put forward a widely acceptable model for the structure of the atom, another group stepped forward to ply their trade in the service of atomic knowledge. They were theosophists, known collectively as the Occult Chemists, and their goal was nothing less than “direct observation of atoms through clairvoyance.”

08.04. filed under: books. history. people. science. theory. wtf. 4

The Recumbent Supper

If I accosted you on the street, grabbed you by the shoulders, and blurted, “The Last Supper!” involuntarily (and to spite your fear of being pawed and shouted at by a lunatic) an image would form in your head. We all know what that image is without any need of my describing it because its roughly the same image we all conjure up. It would seem that Western depictions of the last supper, most notably Leonardo Da Vinci’s incredibly iconic version, have dominated the popular imagination in regard to this biblical event to such a degree that we’ve been left with an unshakeable mental image. As it happens, however, it’s an image which deviates considerably not only from scriptural description but from historical reality.

07.20. filed under: art. belief. books. history. 4

The Spectre of Brocken

Soiling Lederhosen Since There Were Lederhosen To Soil

Quote: “On stepping out to the terrace, I was very agreeably surprised to see my shadow some 200 feet high, s thrown on the mist by a strong lamp, rise up to the zenith! It was a very curious spectacle indeed. every movement of the hand or head was faithfully reproduced by the phantasm. But only the head and shoulders of the figure were neatly delineated. The remainder of the body was exceedingly indistinct. Giant rays of colour radiated from the head in all directions.” –E.M. Antoniadai, 1896.

What was for the astronomer Antoniadai “very agreeable” was for generation upon generation before him, understandably, a shock, an anxious source of folkloric speculation, and a bit of a horror.

07.19. filed under: belief. history. science. 3

Some zeitgeist from Independence Days past

The following is a hodgepodge of images and text, taken from The Library of Congress’ American Memory site and the New York Public Library’s Digital Collection, which represent, without much comment on my part, some isolated moments and issues and attitudes from Independence Days past. They span the years between 1844 and 1970 and offer what I hope will be a bit of a gentle counterpoint to our drunken, parade-following, explosion-watching fun today.

07.04. filed under: history. 4

On The Magic Island

By W.B. Seabrook with illustrations by Alexander King.

In 1929 a travelogue was released that would, through the chain reaction it set off, have a profound effect on American popular culture and by extension the American collective consciousness. It was written by a fellow with a questionable resume of personal traits said to include alcoholism, occultism, sensory deprivation, and sadism, who would ultimately commit suicide by pill-overdose. His is not a household name, and is rarely spoken, yet it is through the continued fascinated invocation of another name altogether that we unknowingly evoke his legacy: Zombie! Zombie!! Zombie!!!

06.29. filed under: belief. books. death. film. history. people. 4

Hsueh Shao-Tang, Stamp Connector.

Quote: “Several years ago, at a sumptuous Chinese dinner in Geneva, my hosts asked whether I would do them a favor, or, rather, a favor for their cook, who had prepared the banquet. I intended driving through the Alps later that night, to arrive at dawn on the French Riviera for celebrations honoring the ninetieth birthday of Pablo Picasso; who would surely remain behind his locked gate working, as on any other day. He once had sighed, “If people could only give me their wasted hours! Instead, they bring me things.” So, when my friends explained that their cook wanted me to take a gift to Picasso “from an admirer who never met him,” I tactfully declined. My friends actfully persisted. ‘This one is different! It’s a good-luck picture, the Chinese god of Happiness and Long Life—made from tiny fragments of postage stamps.” Next morning I arrived on the Riviera as the gift-bearing envoy of Hsueh Shao-Tang . . . master artist and master chef.” –David Douglas Duncan.

06.20. filed under: art. history. people. 7

Are you familiar with the Federal Writer’s Folklore and Life Histories project? It was a subsection of the larger FWP (itself a New Deal arts program) undertaken to support writers during the great depression. The Folklore Project, in particular, has fascinated me for years because at bottom it is simply a collection of the musings of ordinary people walking the 1930’s streets; and largely anonymous ordinary people at that. For example, the typewritten text above is all we are given by way of biographical information on the man who dictated a piece I came across today, and wanted to share. See below for I’m a Might-Have-Been, recorded in New York circa 1938.

06.15. filed under: history. humanity. people. 2

Abracadabra!

Can you begin to imagine the amount of time spent by the human race in pursuit of magic? I am not speaking metaphorically here. I mean can you imagine the sum total man-hours devoted to actively invoking, incanting, intoning, beseeching, divining, scrying, summoning, chanting, conjuring, and casting? And though, so far as we know, not a single minute of all that feverish sorcery yielded the intentional result with greater efficiency than chance, magic continues, and will continue, probably forever. And do you know why? Well, setting aside the fact that the whole endeavor is damn poetic specifically because of its futility, fascinating because of its baroquely fanciful trappings, pathos-packed because of its provenance, and let’s face it, pretty hilarious on the whole, there is another, simpler reason; one which I believe will be self-evident if you take a gander at what I’ve set out for you below…

06.11. filed under: belief. history. humanity. play. 7

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