This has been a grim year for many of us. For me and most of my friends, the year started with a presidential inauguration that we dreaded and feared. As the weeks and months passed, the politics didn’t get any better. Much of public life was tinged with disappointment and a level of discussion more suitable for a TV reality show than for normal social communication.
As if that weren’t enough, we were plagued by natural disasters—hurricanes hitting Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico; wildfires in major portions of California—and unseasonable weather in much of the country. The bills for coping with these disasters are still coming in and the suffering of people who lost homes and property will continue well into 2018.
But no year is entirely bad. Each one gives us opportunities for new experiences, encounters with people and with arts that bring us new ideas and emotions. To celebrate 2017, I’ve chosen a few of these encounters that have pushed my ideas in new directions.
Early in the year, I saw the play Leni by Sarah Greenman at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. Based on the life of Leni Riefenstahl, the filmmaker who worked in Germany during the 1930s and produced pro-Hitler films such as Triumph of the Will, the play is an exploration of one person’s character. Obviously she is not a sympathetic character, but Greenman’s play shows her as a complicated woman who always insisted that her
interest was in producing art rather than supporting any political positions. The argument is not very convincing, but the play made me think about the tangled motives of real people caught up in world events they cannot comprehend. More than that, this production of Leni was an excellent example of how live theater can make characters come alive with a minimum of background, scenery or narrative. It was a great example of the power of live theater during this period when electronic presentations dominate most art forms.
I had another unexpected vision of an old art form when I went to the exhibit of Gods in Color at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. As I wrote here a few weeks ago when I blogged about the exhibit, it may seem trivial to see marble statues presented in a new way, but it made my imagination stretch. It is easy to think about familiar objects as set permanently in time, but it’s good to have our memories shaken occasionally.
One of the most recent books I read, and the one that left me with the most new ideas to ponder was Prairie Fires: A Biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. Fraser not only writes a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but also gives a portrait of the lives of people who settled the plains states–Minnesota, North Dakota, Kansas, etc.–during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I, for one, had no idea how extremely difficult it was to settle those plains and how the Homestead Act, pushed as a noble deed by the U.S. government, actually encouraged people to settle in areas unsuitable for agriculture. For many people, the move west was a disaster because the plains states were subject to plagues of locusts as well as tornadoes, and extreme weather all of which made it impossible to raise crops profitably. And the farmers did not know that by plowing the plains they were removing the topsoil and thus causing the dust storms that ravaged much of the west during the depression years of the 1930s.
Laura Ingalls Wilder lived through a series of tragedies during her childhood and her early married life–loss of houses to fires and storms, loss of crops, loss of a stillborn baby. Only one child survived to grow up, Rose Wilder Lane, who became a journalist and writer. It wasn’t until Laura Wilder was in her fifties that she started to write. When she did, she found that her daughter was her greatest help in shaping her memoirs for publication, but the relationship between mother and daughter was always contentious. The Little House books grew out of this tangle and eventually became amazingly popular. Their false, cheerful picture of the life of pioneers influenced (and continue to influence) generations of children growing up in the 20th century and are still going strong. The TV shows that were presented in the 1970s falsified the stories even more than the books did and were even more popular.
When Franklin Roosevelt became President, both Laura and Rose became extremely conservative politically. They were rabid opponents of Roosevelt and the New Deal. Looking back it is almost impossible to believe that innovations, such as Social Security, which have become an integral part of American life were so controversial. Prairie Fires opened my eyes to a new view of American history. I strongly recommend it.
Looking back over these experiences that have enriched my life during 2017 gives me hope for the coming year. There will be more performances to hear during 2018, more art to see and, more great books to read. And above all, more new ideas to welcome and ponder.
Happy New Year!
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.—Mark Twain
Despite Mark Twain’s excellent advice, a lot of people back in his day—like many people today—did vegetate in one little corner of the earth for their entire life. Of course the majority of people have never had a choice. To travel comfortably is a luxury reserved for prosperous people, but even among them, many people don’t take advantage of the opportunity. Fewer than half of all Americans have a passport.
Traditionally men have traveled while women stayed at home, but there have always been women who insisted on travelling just as their brothers and husbands did. One of the most notable woman travelers of the 19th century was Gertrude Bell. She traveled and learned about other cultures, studied languages, and had a major influence on the course of history.
Gertrude Bell was born into a wealthy family in County Durham, England, in 1868. Her mother died when she was very young, but her father soon remarried and her stepmother, Florence Bell, was a strong influence on the girl. She even decided, eventually, that Gertrude was too restless and intelligent to be decorously educated at home as other girls were. She was sent to school and even attended a women’s college in Oxford where she was the first woman ever to receive a first in history. She was not, however, awarded a degree for that because women might study and excel in learning, but it was feared that an actual degree was a step too far.
Gertrude’s father supported her desire to travel and her interest in archeology and
supplied a generous allowance that made it possible for her to travel the world. She fell in love with the Middle East and spent much of her life there, learning languages, studying ruins, and getting to know the rulers and their wives. Despite looking like a staid Victorian schoolteacher, Bell was a fearless traveler.
In 1911, when Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, the British Navy replaced coal fired ships with oil powered ones. Suddenly England became dependent on oil from the Middle East and the exotic countries where it was produced. Access to the oil was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, which encompassed most of Mesopotamia, and the Turks were allies of the Germans.
British intelligence was very interested in what was going on in the Middle East and because Gertrude was recognized as an expert, she was summoned to Cairo to help map the area. Given the rank of Major—the first woman officer in the history of British intelligence—she caused consternation among other officers who couldn’t figure out how to treat her. But she managed build a comfortable relationship with the men, and she played a vital role in establishing the governments that ruled the Middle East for decades after the war.
Iraq was the country that was closest to her heart. While she was there she oversaw the establishment of the great National Museum to house antiquities of the country. She also started the library, which became the National Library of Iraq.
There have been many questions raised about the role Bell played in establishing borders for countries that no Westerner truly understood. She was not always right in her advice, but she respected the people and, unlike most of the English, she foresaw many of the difficulties that would arise. Perhaps before any of us make judgments about Bell’s work we should read the biography written by Georgina Howell, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations.
Now that we have so many ways of getting to know the world, maybe in 2018 more people can travel whether in person, by reading, or through the Internet. And remember the words of Confucius “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”
Visiting the exhibit of colored Greek statues at the Legion of Honor museum here in San Francisco this week brought me a new perspective on classical statues.
Art scholars have known for years that the ancient Greeks painted their statues and that the pure white statues found in so many European and American museums today are not at all like the ones the ancient Greeks knew. Like every other human activity, sculpture changed over the years. The introduction of Christianity changed the direction of art in Europe and throughout the Western world. The image of snow white marble sculptures influenced the way people thought about ancient Greece. Is it possible to see the statue of Socrates as it is shown in this picture and not associate it with austere, intellectual philosophy? Would we think of Socrates in the same way if he were portrayed in an orange or red toga with a busy, bright pattern?
Do we ever truly know what an historical period was like? Can we ever really imagine how people thought and felt in times gone by?
It wasn’t until the 19th century that the sculptures of ancient Greece were sought out by people from Western Europe. Many of them had been neglected for years. The Parthenon in Athens Elgin Marbles had been used to store arms and the pediment sculptures that make up the Elgin marbles were neglected by the Turks who ruled Greece for many years. Eventually, many of the sculptures that decorated the Parthenon were brought to Western Europe—most famously to England, but also to Denmark, Germany and France.
The 19th century is much closer to us in time than the ancient Greeks were. But much of
the story of the removal of the Elgin Marbles to England were still done in a period of history that seems foreign to us. Susan Nagel in her fascinating book Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin (2010) tells how Lord Elgin and his wife managed to persuade the Turks and some Greeks to help them move the sculptures to London. But their story also raises questions about how well we understand historical characters.
Lord Elgin was a noted spendthrift who had gambled away his own fortune and relief on his wife’s money to make his purchase and transportation of the Elgin marbles possible. The Nisbets were a devoted couple for several years, but bearing three children in three years made Mary very reluctant to continue having children. It is hard for us to realize how helpless wives of those times were in controlling their bodies and their frequent
pregnancies. Without access to contraceptives, Mary Nisbet was entirely at the mercy of her husband. She was the wealthiest woman in Scotland, but that was no protection. Lord Elgin wanted a large family and Mary had no power. Eventually he managed to get a divorce—which took an act of Parliament—and take their three children away from his wife. He married a second wife and had seven more children.
Whether it is ancient Greek color schemes or 19th century marriages, the past is a constant surprise. We are always discovering new truths about it. Historians are kept busy discovering new records and old remains that offer different glimpses of our ancestors. Someday, no doubt, historians will be search back through our Facebook posts and Twitter feeds to discover what in the world 21st century people were thinking and feeling. Will they ever really know us?