The other day, I asked the Muscle how the Battle of the Crater got its name. Ever since he took the Open Yale Course on the Civil War,* he’s been reading every book on the syllabus, so I figured he would know.
His answer: A bunch of Union soldiers dug a tunnel under a fort in Virginia and blew it up, hence the crater. They weren’t sure what to do next, so they filed into the hole — where they were summarily shot like fish in a barrel.
The Muscle always makes up crazy stories when he thinks I don’t really want to know the answer.
“Come on, what happened?” I asked.
The general was drunk and thought aliens were attacking with laser-blasters that would form massive craters.
All the soldiers were reading a best-selling novel that had just come out the week before, Union and Confederates alike. They wouldn’t fight until they’d all reached the last page. The novel was called The Crater.
I gave up and looked it up on Google. To my surprise, he had told the truth the first time. The Battle of the Crater may not be a one-name conflict like Gettysburg or Antietam, but there’s something darkly compelling about its story.
It reads like the synopsis of a good novel: the suspense of mines and countermines, the battle tactics and race politics, and the sudden plunge from triumph to tragedy with a drunken general at the helm. Read the rest of this entry »
Back in the 1870s, Eadweard Muybridge set the stage for cinema by shooting photos of moving targets, such as horses, gymnasts, and nudes serving tea.
This was quite a feat, given the cumbersome process of photography in those days. (Think glass negatives and chemical baths.) Muybridge had to trick out cameras that could take a number of photos in succession and create a device that could flash them in front of the viewer’s eye. For this, he invented the zoopraxiscope, which you can see in all its steampunk splendor at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. The exhibit “Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change” runs through Sunday.
I expected Muybridge to be little more than a historical blip on the path to movies as we know them. The exhibit gives us a fuller picture of the man who scaled the peaks of Yosemite with thirty pounds of equipment and later became one of the first to photograph the native peoples of Alaska. His seventeen-foot panorama of San Francisco is one of the better documents of the city before the great earthquake of 1906. Working mostly by government commission, he was well-known long before a railroad baron named Leland Stanford asked him to photograph his horse in motion. (Legend has it that Stanford wanted to settle a bet as to whether a horse lifts all four legs off the ground while running.) Read the rest of this entry »
The Artist in American Society, the Formative Years: 1790-1960 by Neil Harris. (Goerge Braziller, 1966)
The colonial painter wasn’t so much an artist as an artisan. He painted signs, crockery, fire buckets, and anything else he could to make a living.
If he were particularly ambitious, he might farm himself out to small towns like Albany, NY, and offer to paint portraits for a reasonable fee, or send panoramas on tour with sideshow-type acts. If he succeeded in the minor leagues, he might try his hand in a big Eastern city like Boston, Philadelphia, or New York.
After the Revolutionary War, painting was impressed into the service of patriotism. The trouble with painting history in America was that scenes of speechifying or signing documents were not terribly exciting. Thrilling moments were often violent ones — certainly not the tension-in-repose of the Classical ideal.
Landscapes, it seems, became more prevalent during the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath as alternatives to the mechanized world. Interestingly enough, scenes of the cities where artists lived and worked were not painted until after the Civil War.
The Classical Ideal pursued through Romantic detail, the general revealed by the specific — history in the 18th century and nature in the 19th — this became the goal of the New World artist (15) Read the rest of this entry »
The “lady traveler” was something of a Victorian phenomenon. She shooed hippopotami with her parasol and bicycled across India in bloomers. A painter, collector, or just a wanderer, she cherished her tea after a camel ride. (Isabella Bird drank it from a beef tin with a one-eyed outlaw named Mountain Jim.)
Back home, if she were particularly famous, readers met her ship at the dock and crowded the lecture halls.
During the 40-odd years before the outbreak of the first World War, such genteel globetrotting reached almost epidemic proportions.
writes David Cannadine in The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy.
You might expect these women to be the grandmothers of today’s bestsellers like Eat, Pray, Love and Under the Tuscan Sun, in which middle-aged women find renewal and self-fulfillment in foreign lands. Read the rest of this entry »
#3. The problem of violence and responsibility. To regain their kingdom, the Pandava brothers go to war.
At the close of the 18-day battle, the dead include their sons, cousins, guru, and a brother they never knew they had. Some didn’t even die a clean death. They were distracted by imitations of their son’s voices, shot while trying to free a chariot from the mud.
How does a reader come to terms with the carnage of the Kurukshetra War? Even the heroes have their doubts.
Overwhelmed by the prospect of killing his relatives, Arjuna lost the will to fight. He dropped his bow and turned to his chariot driver. “How can we be happy after killing our kinsmen, O Krishna?” In fighting for his country, he would lose the very people for whom he wanted to win it.
Little does he know that his chariot driver is an incarnation of the god Vishnu. The divine Krishna responds with a meditation on faith, right action, and the eternal soul.
Do your duty to the best of your ability, O Arjuna, with your mind attached to the Lord, abandoning worry and attachment to the results, and remaining calm in both success and failure.
His speech is known as the Bhagavad Gita, or Song of God, and is readily available as a book as in its own right. The 700-verse treatise, possibly a later addition to the Mahabharata, is a seminal work of Hindu philosophy. Along with the Vishnu Sahasranamam, a prayer spoken by a dying warrior, it forms the religious core of the epic.
The Mahabharata helps the reader see the cosmic forces at work on the battlefield. Dying there is the result of a series of actions in a man’s life, or a previous one. Some enemies were actually demons in human form that the gods wanted killed. Warriors are merely instruments of fate.
On a cosmic level, it all makes sense. Yet as the wives of the dead search the battlefield, the suffering doesn’t seem any less real.
4. Caste counts. Caste has a long, complex, and politically fraught history in India. This post merely outlines a few basics that are relevant to a reading of the Mahabharata.
Humans in the epic are born into a caste that determines their status and lifestyle. Caste resembles but is not quite the same as a social or feudal class. It determines the the jobs a character may hold, whom they may marry, and their duty toward members of other castes, among other things.
The castes you’ll encounter in the epic are mainly the kshatriya, who tend to be warrior and rulers, and the priestly brahmins.
A man of the kshatriya caste studies the art of weapons and statescraft; he’s likely to become a warrior or a ruler. His duties often include ruling justly, defending his kingdom, treating holy men with respect, and keeping his word. Many of the main characters, including the Pandava brothers and their cousins, belong to this caste.
A man of the priestly brahmin class studies the Vedas, or Sanskrit scriptures, from childhood, and officiates at religious rites. They lead ascetic lives of near-poverty and often live on donations of food. A notable brahmin in the epic is Vyasa, the sage who transcribes the Mahabharata as the god Ganesh tells it and appears as a character in the story.
Assumptions about caste are so strong that the warrior princes can disguise themselves by behaving like members of other castes. When they need to hide from spies, the warrior brothers dress as brahmins and beg for alms. This ploy succeeds until they hear of a demon who has been forcing villagers to sacrifice one of their youths for his supper. One brother, Bhima, is so outraged that he kills the demon, an act that unfortunately “outs” him as warrior. The brothers later conceal themselves by taking unusual jobs for warriors in a palace: a cook, an animal keeper, a lady-in-waiting, and so on. When the local prince goes to battle, though, the “lady-in-waiting” can’t help but take the field.
One can hardly identify a single attitude toward caste in the enormous, episodic work. It does, however, raise recurring questions. What happens when a man’s skills and aspirations appear to conflict with his birth? Drona, the heroes’ weapons instructor, also happens to be a brahmin; Vishwamitra, a kshatriya king, becomes a respected sage. Read the rest of this entry »