This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

Archive for the category “obscure trivia”

What Does This Movie Mean? Ancient Greece in 1980’s Texas: The Coens’ “Blood Simple”

MV5BOWQwZTFhNTYtN2I5Ny00MDVlLTkwMDgtMzBhZGU5NTFlOTMzL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTk1NTMyNzM@._V1_SY500_CR0,0,354,500_AL_Lets begin by dispelling a common misconception among the movie’s following:  Julian Marty is not Greek — at least not literally.  He merely references Greece in conversation parallel to how Loren Visser references Russia.  Thus, the subtext of the movie immediately sets up this juxtaposition:  Greece, the land of civilization, versus Russia, the land of bears.  But then, the Coens immediately complicate it by assigning each symbol the other’s qualities:  Greece is where “they cut off the head of the messenger” if he brings bad news, and Russia is  an ordered society where everyone pulls for everyone else (“that’s the theory, anyway”, as Visser qualifies it).  The line between civilization and nature, order and chaos, refinement and barbarity, reason and impulse, can never be presumed — and nowhere is this more true than in a watering hole.

Read more…

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Cimetière des Saints-Innocents: A Post in Honor of Halloween

Caspar Friedrich,

Caspar Friedrich, “Abbey Ruins” (1809)

If you go to Paris today, you will see a nineteenth-century city.  That is because — I’m saving you the tedium of reading that guidebook — the medieval city that Victor Hugo described so longingly in The Hunchback of Notre Dame was almost entirely razed beginning in the 1850’s and replaced by a new, unrecognizable one.  New Paris is, of course, much more elegant (and also cleaner) than its predecessor; but, speaking as a medieval history buff and someone writing on Halloween, I have to say New Paris is also a lot less cool.  Old Paris, of which virtually nothing remains today, was, as kids would put it, hardcore.  Nowhere was this more apparent than at the city’s very center, at Europe’s most notorious cemetery, the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents. Read more…

How To Be A Real Great Poet

A PROPER poet

A PROPER poet

In nerd news: fragments of smoking pipes with traces of cannabis have been found in a location that was once William Shakespeare’s garden. Although it is not at all clear that any of these pipes belonged to the Bard (or indeed if they even date to his lifetime) scholars are excited: after all, here is a chance, however slim, of demonstrating that the boring stuffed shirt that was Bill Shakespeare really did write all that nice poetry. Maybe he was high as a kite. Read more…

Myths And Illusions: The Myth of Paracelsus’ Scientific Contributions

A page from "Rosarium Philosophorum", an anonymous 16-century alchemical treatiseI want to begin this post beating up on Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus, with a brief digression. As a student of the Middle Ages and Renaissance during my undergraduate days (as well as an Ancient History buff), I noticed an interesting phenomenon. When we talk about the store of knowledge humanity has acquired over the course of its existence, something is deemed to have been “discovered” only when (1) it’s explicitly attested to in writing (2) by a man (3) who has a name. Knowledge possessed and applied by women, or by illiterate societies, or by anonymous people is deemed to not exist; and women themselves, as well as “natives”, are matter-of-factly treated as passive objects of study, rather than human beings capable of possessing and using information. Thus, you might hear Hippocrates credited with “discovering” the early symptoms of pregnancy – even though midwifery existed as a recognized profession for at least 1,500 years before him, and papyri with instructions on how to calculate gestational age date to about that far back. (Sometimes the credit is given to Imhotep, instead.) Read more…

The Cadaver Synod

Jean Paul Laurens, "The Cadaver Synod" (1870)If you are in the mood for some really creepy obscure trivia from the Dark Ages, how about this little tidbit: circa 897 A.D., pope Stephen VI (VII) had his predecessor, Formosus, exhumed and put on trial for perjury and various vaguely defined offenses, such as doing priestly things “while being a layman”. The rotting corpse, still in its papal vestments, was propped up on a chair, and wires were attached to the dead man’s jaws. A deacon crouched behind the defendant’s chair, and as the corpse was being asked whether he admits his guilt on each of the charges, the deacon pulled on the wires to move Formosus’ lower jaw up and down and answered “yes” in a voice meant to imitate Formosus’, like a bizarre ventriloquist act. Surprising as it may be, the trial culminated in Formosus being found guilty of all charges, stripped of his papal robes, mutilated, and dumped in a communal grave for foreigners. Later, he was dug up again and cast into the Tiber. The current pope and his advisors reasoned that this would be a good way to show everyone what a bad guy Formosus had been and how righteous his successor was. The effect, of course, was the exact opposite. In fact, the whole episode proved so damaging to the Catholic Church, it outlawed posthumous trials in the aftermath of the debacle.

But alas, the most important lesson of history is that people do not learn from history. Read more…

Friday Ramblings: Fun With History

Some curious and very nerdy historical anecdotes for this Friday:

VIOLENCE

* In 1914, Grigori Rasputin, the legendary Russian mystic and favorite of the last Empress, was stabbed in the abdomen by a former prostitute turned religious zealot. He survived the stabbing. Two years later, he was poisoned, shot, shot three more times, clubbed and finally drowned. And only just barely: after being thrown into the icy waters of the Moika River, wrapped in a carpet and bound with rope, the poisoned, four-times-shot and badly battered Rasputin managed to break free of his bonds and almost swam to safety. The story plays out like a straight-to-video martial arts thriller on drugs: one of the murderers, Prince Yusupov, would later testify that he had the phonograph on, playing Yankee Doodle in a loop whilst three of history’s most inept assassins tried their damnedest to bring down the Indestructible Monk. Read more…

Friday Ramblings: The Elitist Edition

The cultural phenomenon of grossly overrating the mediocre never ceases to fascinate me. Some of these are easy targets: Spectator sports. Weddings. Traditional family values. But there are some rather meh people, stories and cultural widgets that have truly achieved the status of sacred cows, and I would like to devote this Friday to tearing some of them down. And so, a random selection from my list of horribly overrated, but actually mediocre, people, events, places and phenomena: Read more…

Potemkin Villages

In 1783, the Russian Empire scored a major victory against the Ottoman Empire: it conquered the Crimean Peninsula. Although nominally independent, the Crimean Khanate had essentially been a client state of the Ottomans, fellow Muslims (even when Crimea was formally allied with Russia). Once the lush peninsula was annexed, the next order of business was to do something about the vast steppes which separated it from the Russian heartland and the Turks to the southeast, smarting from their recent loss. The momentous task of settling and fortifying what came to be known as Novorossiya (“New Russia”), fell to Prince Grigory Potemkin, the lover and favorite of Catherine the Great.

About this, they — as in, the shadowy “they” who sit invisible at the table of every conspiracy, “they” who hide under every bed where an illicit affair is being consummated, “they” who are predominantly flamboyant 18th-century diplomats — they tell the following story: Read more…

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