Sunday, July 16, 2017

Emperors and Bohemians


We went to Prague, and what a trip that was. I am quite sure there is no place like that Czech city on earth; Praha is a totally unique city--a surreal blend of medieval architecture and modern chutzpah.

One reason that ancient metropolis retains so much Old World ambience is that during the big war back in the '40's, Prague did not suffer major bombing damage. So there are parts of the city, particularly near the Castle, in which your wandering really does take on the feeling of a stroll through the Old Europe of medieval times, except for all the tourists waving their devices around.

Such as us.

We were right there, in with all that crowd of world-travelers snapping pics, gazing quizzily at our phones, searching for signs of meaning in the domiciles of Kafka and Havel.

Although I strive to write here with some profundity, I must admit that my few days there--although thoroughly edifying and significant--qualify me for nothing more that the status of being a tourist who was in awe of the place. I truly got the feeling that no, you're not in Kansas anymore.

So now, today, as we roll along toward Budapest, I reflect on our time in Prague, but my mind also wanders back to our all-too-brief sojourn through Vienna, which came before Prague. My analytical, touristic mind wants to make a comparison. So here it is, in all its dubious oversimplification.

Prague is bizarre, proletarian, and cutting edge.

Vienna is presumptuous, regal and Establishment.

Great cities do have, you know, an identity. Think of the difference between, say San Francisco and Washington DC. What's going on here in central Europe is somewhat like that. Think of, say, a bunch of hippies in 1968 showing up in Washington DC.

A century and a half ago, when the Vienna-based Hapsburgs were ruling their Austro-Hungarian empire, their noblesse oblige sensibilities must have been seriously ruffled when they would encounter, from time to time, the sight of wild-eyed Bohemians who had just rolled in from the Czech outback. On the back of a turnip cart, perhaps, these unrefined immigrants from the hinterlands rolled into staid Vienna with rocking chairs on the back of their carts like Granny Clampett, while their uncouth cousins probably strutted along, coaxing untamed gypsy melodies from their fiddles like there was no tomorrow.

Of course, when the First Big War finally ground down to a halt back in 1918, there was, in fact, no tomorrow for the Hapsburg royals. The jig was up for them and for their obsequious entourage of noblesse oblige courtesans who had populated  the royal courts of Vienna for half a millennium.

But the difference between these two great cities of Europe is retained in the feeling you get while visiting each one.

Vienna, as a major tourist destination, still capitalizes upon and cultivates that royal legacy with which they were born. You can feel it, you can see it plainly in what they emphasize in their presentation to us visitors.

Here are two pics from our Vienna hotel:

Compare this ambiance to  a pic I snapped from our first night in Prague:


You get the picture?

This morning in Hungary, I was recalling a statement that our Vienna tour guide had made when we were there last week. She was telling us about the financial patronage through which the Hapsburgs supported orchestral  Music in Vienna during the Classical Age, which was during a period  from about 1760 to 1810 or so.

Our guide spent a good while  talking about the Emperor's favored composers, Mozart and Haydn. The music of these two composers embodies the dignified, perfectly structured character of Classical Music as it was appreciated and financed by powerful, order-cultivating imperial benefactors. Our guide Iva also mentioned that, toward the end of the Classical period, Beethoven became a recipient who benefited from  those Hapsburg pursestrings. But Beethoven's status as a recipient of their order-cultivating, imperial patronage was somewhat questionable. His musical identity--his struggle to surpass the courtly bonds of Mozart/Haydn conventionality-- was always on the edge of something terribly new and disruptive. Ludwig stood, in fact, on the dizzying precipice of a new 19th-century eruption in music. And he knew it. His opus would not turn out to be a kind of music that proceeds from the calm waters of courtly, post baroque, Classical concerts.

Ludwig's music turned out to be expressive, emotional, even explosive. His orchestral movements were a harbinger of a newly-forming revolutionary age, a disruptive century to come. His booming symphonies resonated more with those Czech Bohemians than with his courtesan mentors Mozart and Haydn. Ludwig was a German from somewhere over there in the cauldron of  the Rhine/Ruhr, an upstart. And even though he was able to obtain support from the imperial coffers, he was never the comfortable courtesan composer like Mozart and Haydn had been.

Our Vienna guide, Iva, mentioned this. She explained that the the imperial support for that unpredictable young German was of a different nature. The times they were a-changing.  Ludvig von Beethoven wasn't the mere conveyor of those raucous new symphonic strains; he was an (if not the) originator of the  new romanticism in music. When Iva concluded her spiel on the great  music that had come out of imperial Vienna, I felt that there was something she had left out.

(Excuse me) "What about Strauss?" I asked.

Her answer surprised me.

She said that the Strauss music--the waltzes, the Blue Danube, et al which came later in the 19th-century--were considered by the  Vienna Establishment to be "pop music." They were equivalent to the "Dirty Dancing" of that time.

Strauss waltzes, the "Dirty dancing!" ?? of that day?

Duh! ????

She said that Strauss went to Chicago and did a concert for a hundred thousand people.

But that did not impress the Establishment in Vienna.  As far as they were concerned, Johann Strauss Jr and his thumping waltzes were in the same league with . . . dirty dancing.

I suppose the royals and their courtesans always preferred their little, intimate venues like this one in Vienna, a space where, as our Vienna guide explained, Mozart had done one of his last concerts.


I will never get a handle on how all this human art and music plays out.

Glass Chimera 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Independent Thinking in Prague

In Prague, we find a very long history of people who can detect and identify the manipulative hypocrisies that form within human institutions. From Jan Hus to Franz Kafka to Albert Einstein to Jan Masaryk to Vaclav Havel, and including  many other reformers throughout history, we discover in Prague a long line of independent thinkers who defended the initiatives of the people to conduct their own religious and political affairs without being controlled by powerful institutions such as the Church or the Communist Party.

An early historical example of such a reformer would be Jan Hus, whose life and legacy is depicted in this sculpture in Old Town Square in Prague.


In the year 1415  A full century before Martin Luther, Hus criticized  a manipulative system within the dominant political institution of that time, the Catholic Church. Over a millennium of time, potentates within the religious hierarchy had managed to erect barriers whereby believers were denied the freedoms of reading/interpreting the scriptures for themselves. Ecclesiastical prohibitions pertaining to the reading, translating and teaching of the scriptures had led to an institutionalized Church that manipulated people for political/economic purposes, instead of assuring their liberty to read/interpret/preach the scriptures for themselves. Such institutional prohibitions had permitted non-biblical practices such as the selling of indulgences to creep into Church religion.

Jan Hus was declared by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, as it existed in 1415, to be a heretic. The judgement laid upon him ultimately cost him his life, as he was condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake.

In modern times, a reformer named Vaclev Havel suffered similar persecutions from the dominating institution of Czechoslovakia during his time of life, the 1950's-1980's. Havel's ultimate fate, however, was a much happier one than that of his 15th-century forebear reformer.

After a persecuted early life of continual resistance against the cruel machinations of the 20th-century Soviet Communist Party, the writer Vaclav Havel's role was re-defined in a most favorable way. The people of the Czech Republic elected him as their President after the people rose up in 1989 and overthrew the Communists.

As visitors to this country hoping to understand some of these changes, we visited the Museum of Communism here in Prague yesterday. In viewing that time-line  of artifacts and information, we were able to gain a comprehensive perspective. The museum displays presented a  concise history of communist ideas and dogmas from Marx onward, though Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev. A presentation of this history reveals effects that were destructive, insofar as in they oppressed the proletariat who were supposed to have been the benefactors of communist ideology.  The Soviet controls became more restrictive and controlling as the 20-century years rolled by.

One display I saw included this text about the Communist Party establishing a Secret Police after the coup in 1948. 


Vaclav Havel and many other protesters mounted a lifelong, persistent resistance against these  control-freak obsessions. Their efforts paid off. In 1989,  the reformers were able to lead such a widespread popular movement that they successfully rejected Communist Party control and then established the Czech Republic.

From a display in the Museum of Communism, here's a capsulized explanation of how that happened:


And here's the last photo I snapped from the display at the History of Communism Museum. It's a pic of Wenceslaus Square, Prague,  in November of 1989 when, the old repressive institutions of the Communist Party began to tumble in the wake of a huge popular democratic/republican demonstration.




King of Soul

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The End Room


For 600 years, a royal dynasty named Hapsburg ruled the vast European domains called Austria-Hungary.

In 1848, an emperor died; and so an emperor's son replaced him.  From 1848 onward, Emperor Franz Josef ruled the empire for almost 68 years, until his death in 1916.

Franz Josef had a nephew named Ferdinand, whose place in the extended family would later qualify him as the heir to the throne at the occasion of Franz Josef's death.


But Ferdinand never ascended to that throne,  because he was assassinated in 1914. This assassination happened in Sarajevo, Serbia, on June 28, 1914. It is considered by most historians to be the fatal event that sparked the powder-keg of militarized Europe and ignited World War I.

But before all that, when Emperor Franz Josef was still ruling over the quasi-peaceful Austro-Hungarian empire, and the Hapsburgs were still lolling along as royalties habitually did, the royal family spent their summers at their summer palace near Vienna.

It is a place called Schonbrunn.


We visited the palace at Schonbrunn as tourists. As I was walking through the "royal apartments," the audio-guide mentioned that Franz Josef was a real go-getter when it came to performing his roles as Emperor. I got the impression that he was a workaholic monarch who spent his entire day, every day, dealing with matters of state. It makes sense if you think about it, because. . .

Ruling over an empire is no easy task. But in fact, it ultimately proved to be an impossible task. After his nephew Ferdinand, the heir, was assassinated, things really got out of hand for Franz Josef and the Hapsburg monarchy.

The whole royal arrangement really started to unwind when he demanded restitution from them upstart Serbs down there in Sarajevo who had shot his nephew.

But a Serbian concession was not going to happen. The Serbs did not like being subjects to Austrian control; they wanted to have their own country. Franz Josef's ultimatum soon became a declaration of war.  Next thing anybody knows, there's a whole damn alliance-mongering world war exploding all over the place, because one very important man was shot to death. 

Cutting toward the chase here, I must say that about half-way through that war, the old Emperor Franz Josef died, in 1916. So the Austro-Hungarian Empire was in need of a new Emperor.

But nephew Ferdinand, the would-have-been heir, could not ascend to the throne at that time, because he had been assassinated.

Therefore, the scepter of royal authority of the house of Hapsburg passed to another nephew, Karl. Karl was the nephew of the nephew and therefore the next in line to be Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

But this would be no easy task for young Karl. The prospect of assuming that royal authority must have been, in the wrath of an escalating world war,  akin to accepting the gift of a hornet's nest. Most all the European potentates and their armies were mad as hell at the German Kaiser Wilhelm and his Austrian co-potentate, the erstwhile Emperor of Austria-Hungary. The wrath of Republican Europe was fast mounting fiercely to dismantle their Entente Axis of presumptuous military power.

But at a terrible cost: millions of lives perished in World War I.

Emperor Franz Josef's death in 1916, only half-way through the hostilities, was for Karl, more an overwhelming burden than some whoopdeedoo ascension to kingly privilege. His uncle's prickly challenge to the Serbs had rendered Europe into a grand bloody mess.

So in the year  1918, a scant two years after his accession to the throne, Karl was in no position to wheel and deal on behalf of Austria, or Hungary, or his supposed royal realms, or any other entity except, perhaps, for his immediate family. He was between a rock (Germany) and a hard place (the Allies who were hell-bent on demanding reparation from Germany and Austria.)

This was no easy position for a young monarch to be in.

As we traipsed through the royal apartments of Schonbrunn last Monday, the audio-guide informed me that I had just entered a certain room where, in 1918, a gang of both friends and foes of the Emperor had presented to young Karl his choices pertaining to the Empire.

Karl's choices were not pretty. The military leaders, diplomats, politicians in that room told him that they were taking the whole damn empire away from him and his family. He was in no position to argue with them, so that was where it all ended for the Hapsburgs. Therefore he had no choice but to concede to their demands.

So Karl and the Hapsburgs lost it all, right here in this room.

Except one thing. Karl refused to abdicate. He managed to slink away still having his title. 

Whatever that means, I thought, while standing there with all my fellow-tourists in the room where a 600-year empire had ended. Karl would still be Emperor, but emperor of what? His own kingdom exiled him.

At that moment, I accidentally snapped a contraband photo:


This is where it all ended for the legendary Hapsburgs. As cousin George said later, all things must pass.

Smoke

Monday, July 10, 2017

What's a building




What's a building to do?
Is it for some function or use,
or should it just stand there and look back at you?
Must the building pose, so proud and grand,
being stately, stable and strong,
or should it fulfill some meaningful plan?
Some say a building should blend with the earth;
thus it oughta be curvy and quirky.
allowing nature to re-greening its girth.
Others state that a building should be modern and sleek;
it oughta be angular, straight and clean
Then it can be filled with both workers and geeks.
It seems to me a building should be all of these things,
fulfilling all the purposes that human life brings,
allowing all shades of the gray, the browns and the greens,
thus fulfilling everyone's dreams.

Glass half-Full

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Peering through windows


Whether through windows of time

or a window of glass

we peer through,

maybe through the windowed pane

eyes of the artist who is

long gone yet

lives on

displaying legacy image for us

to view

through our window of time

into his memory of love

through her yielding to the pangs

of love

the pain of love


Yeah, windows golden with memory

they are

moments of love so

dear to him and her and now

to us

golden memories they are

images of what carried them forward

into future or carry us

backward into reflection

backward into history

where precious intricacies of the human mind and hand were

crafted for us or 

assembled for us


to see,

to view


through a glass darkly

through barriers of time

or glass

or gates of iron or the

gates


of Vienna

when the invaders had been turned away

and later where

the artist lived and breathed and

loved


and left a gift, their moment of prescious love

which came to be their

golden moment,  and later his gilded

memorial of love for us to

peer into,

before the gates could close again.

 

Smoke

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Vienna


My mama raised me to be a Catholic. Daddy wasn't into religion much.

After I grew up, and became a man who could/would relate to the world on my own terms--after I had reached the age of reason and I had decided for myself what this life was all about. . . after I had lived life to the full, and managed to do a few things right and many a thing wrong--after I had made a grand mess of my life, then allowed the Lord of the Universe, our Creator, to take hold of me at the ripe old age of 27 and turn me around and plant my wayward feet firmly in the ground of the gospel of Jesus Christ--after all that. . .

I met my wonderful little women, Pat from New Jersey. We got married in 1980 and by n' by she presented three lovely children to me. Eventually the kids grew up, became responsible adults, etc and, long story short, we have followed each one of them to various points of interest all over the world.

Our current adventure in following progeny has brought us to the wonderful city of Vienna, Austria.

Now I have to say that this is an amazing place. Walking around this city for just one evening has already taught me some profundities about what life is all about and where things came from, long before I was born. Previously unexplained elements of my childhood, my heritage as a Catholic kid who later turned born-again Christian, can now be contemplated from the perspectives of history itself, and the movement of certain people groups at various periods of time from the Old World to the New, which is to say, America.

I mean, we grow up and we see things and we don't really have a clue where all this stuff came from or how it got here and how we came to be in the midst of it all. In my case, I was a kid in the middle of the Deep South, in Mississippi in the 1950's. Growing up, snotty-nosed and clueless as I was, now I'm wondering how likely it could have been that I grew up Catholic instead of Southern Baptist.

Well, my mama was a French-American Catholic from Louisiana, and my daddy's people were from Scotch-Irish stock from up in the piney wood of Mississippi and before that they had come through Pennsylvania and before that from the old country, Ireland or Scotland or somewhere over there on the other side of the Pond.

So now, at this particular moment in time, it just so happens that I wake up this morning on the other side of the Pond, which is to say: now we are in Europe, the Old World, because yesterday (or maybe it was the day before that) we flew from America-- formerly the New World-- to this Old World, and one plane led to another and now I find myself in Vienna on a sunny morning and thanking God for such a wonderful life a the one we now find ourselves in.

As we strolled along the Karntnerstrasse last evening, we encountered this very impressive big cathedral structure, so I snapped a pic:


The immensity of history--what has gone before--is what I'm feeling as I pondered this structure. The erection of this church building took lifetimes of work and toil and sweat, and devotion, back in the days of the Holy Roman Empire, whatever that was, and its long tails of historical development through Peter and Paul and later Constantine and then all the Popes in Rome and eventually the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Hapsburgs and their hunky-dory relationship to the Catholic Church. . .

Until that fateful day in 1914 when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand got shot in Sarajevo by an angry young Serb and the Empire ended and the Old World ended and World War I dealt the final death blows to the ancient reins of power and the reigns of the royal houses that had ruled Europe for a couple a thousand years or so.

As I was pondering all this, we did stroll inside, into the Church at Stephensplatz. We found there a group of devoted Catholics celebrating Mass. This kind of thing has been going on here for a long time. And I don't care what you think or say about it . . . This was a good thing.


That devotional setting took me back to childhood memories of being Catholic because that's the way Mama raised me, even though Daddy wasn't into it.

So as I contemplated, and in some sense, entered into. . . the devotion of these congregants to their belief in the Lord Jesus Christ, and their expression of that devotion in the sacrifice of the Mass,  and as I reconciled in my mind between those ancient strains of high-church faith and the Protestant Reformation that later changed everything . . . right down to the johnny-come-lately tides of Charismata that had drawn me into my experience of the Christian faith in 1978, and my present appreciation for all that God has done for me and Pat and our grown-up children and their spouses. . . as I stood there in the quiet reverence of a tourist who just happened into a cathedral while other believers worshipped in their strange high-church way . . .

I could relate. I could relate to what they were feeling.

This morning, I can still feel it, devotion.

Devotion goes way back. This is a good thing.

 

King of Soul 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Prague


A decade and a half ago, I took a few post-baccalaureate courses at our local university, Appalachian State. I had some educational strategies in mind. Those plans didn't really pan out. Nevertheless, what I learned at that time sharpened some research skills that had been dormant in me since I had become a worker bee many years prior, in 1977.

In one education course that I took, we learned about a strategy called Compare and Contrast.

In the  years since that phase of life I have found Compare and Contrast to be a helpful idea when describing any two things.

In this case, I apply the method to two periods of time that are described in a book that I am presently reading. Under A Cruel Star, A life in Prague 1941-1968 was written by Heda Margolius Kovaly, and published in 1986 by Plunkett Lake Press of Cambridge MA.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Under_a_Cruel_Star


The book is biographical; its focus is on one period in Heda's life in post-war Prague, after we Allies had run the Nazis back into their holes.

Heda Margolius Kovaly was so fortunate to be a survivor--an escapee, no less-- of the Nazi concentration camps;  Her book of which I write, Under a Cruel Star, begins with a harrowing account of her ordeal in sneaking out of the concentration camp at a time when the war was not yet over  then laying low as she slinked through Poland into the Czech lands and at last managed to sneak into  into her home city of Prague.

When she got to the city, Heda found the whole place bound up with Nazi paranoia. Which is to say: the Nazis were paranoid of losing what they thought they had conquered. At the same time, the locals--the Czechs and Slovaks--were still paranoid because that's all they had known for the last six years.

After a while, the the Russians came in and "liberated" the place. Thank God.

But they had big plans for eastern Europe--Communist plans.

In the late 1940's, the Soviets moved all their control-freak gear and Party personnel into the eastern European nations, including Czechoslovakia, Heda's home country. In Soviet-controlled Prague, Czechoslovakia, the bossy Russians and their local Czech lackeys slowly and insidiously came to  dominate every aspect of life, with an intent to show the world how Communism, as prescribed by Marx, Lenin, Stalin et al, could be be accomplished.

Long story short, they made a big frickin' mess of it. 

Heda Margolius Kovaly and her husband were right there in the middle of all of it in the early days of Czech communism. Rudolf, her husband was appointed to an important job, a real plum of a job, as a project chief in the Ministry of Foreign Trade.

In her personal story, Heda gives an account of how Russian hegemony became more and more secretive, abusive, and cruel after the Communist coup in '48. People were desperate for some kind of rebuilding of life, and they paid dearly for their willingness to accept the Soviet prescription for a better life. But it did not work out that way. 

The flaws in Communist ideology drove Czech life into a real dead end. Instead of life getting better for all the good comrades, life in Prague got worse and worse under the enforced Soviet regime. Heda  raises the question of how. How could the Czechs and others in eastern Europe have been so gullible and vulnerable to the force-fed communism?

The main reason these people had been rendered so vulnerable to Russian control and abuse is this: they had been extremely traumatized and debilitated by the incredibly oppressive, cruel Nazi occupation from which they had been liberated. Furthermore, on that side of Europe, the Russians were the liberators; they ran Hitler's armies back into their holes. In that first  year of occupation, 1945, they were heroes.

After the war and all that life-shattering chain of events, the people of eastern Europe were worn out, broke, busted and disgusted. For the Russians, these people were easy pickin's, with their hands stretched out, desperately seeking help and some resources to rebuild their cities and infrastructures.

And looking for somebody to tell them what to do, since they were still in a kind of wartime shell-shock.

But Russians came in with an agenda. It's called communism. And the Ruskies did not have a lot of trouble getting these desperate people cranked up on a little Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist indoctrination. Power pounces on  a void.


Why were the people of eastern Europe so vulnerable to Soviet hegemony?

Part of Heda's postwar explanation goes this way:

"Usually, the reasoning went something like this: if for purposes of building a new society, it is necessary to give up my freedom for a time, to subsume something I cherish to a cause in which I strongly believe, that is a sacrifice I am willing to make. In any case, we are a lost generation. We all might have died uselessly in the camps. Since we did survive, we want to dedicate what is left of our lives to the future.

"This streak of martyrdom was stronger that was generally understood. People felt chosen by destiny to sacrifice themselves, a feeling that was reinforced by a strong sense of guilt that characterized many who had survived the camps. Why was I alive and not my father, my mother, my friend? I owed them something. They had died in place of me. For their sake I had to build a world in which this could never happen again.

"This was where the misconception lay: in the idea that communism was the one system under which it could never happen again. Of course we knew about the communism of the thirties in the Soviet Union, but that was an era of cruelty that had ended long ago, the kind of crisis out of which all great change is born. Who today would condemn democracy for the Terror of the Jacobins after the French Revolution?

"The most eagerly embraced belief of the time was that no national or racial oppression could exist under communism . . ."

A couple of pages later, Heda arrives at this assessment: 

"It was an insidious process and as old as the world. Had it not been for the war and the overwhelming need for change, we would have seen through it easily."

Now here is where the Compare and Contrast (that I mentioned earlier) comes in.

That naive willingness to accept the communist game plan was in 1945, immediately after the trauma and desperation of the war.

Let's fast-forward to 1952, after the Communist Party had been been running their postwar recovery show in eastern Europe for about seven years, and after Heda's husband, Rudolf, a dedicated, very intelligent, workaholic apparatchik of the State had suddenly been arrested and imprisoned without explanation, without trial, and without any indication of where he was being held, or how long he would be detained, or when he might be released.

In her darkest days of disillusionment with the dysfunctional state of the State, in the grip of despair over the unsure fate of her imprisoned husband, Heda begins a chapter of the book by providing this description of what Czech life had become:

 
"Life in Prague. . . had acquired a totally negative character. People no longer aspired toward things but away from them. All they wanted was to avoid trouble. They tried not to be seen anywhere, not to talk to anyone, not to attract any attention. Their greatest satisfaction would be that nothing happened, that no one had been fired or arrested or questioned or followed by the secret police. Some fifty thousand people had so far been jailed in our small country. More were disappearing every day."

Compare Heda's postwar description of the the Czechs' willingness to accept Russian hegemony-- when the liberated people were compliant to help bring in the communist agenda for rebuilding the nations-- Compare it to her description of how things actually turned out seven years later.

You'll find a big difference there, a huge contrast, like the difference between day and night.

But here's the good news. In 1989, the peoples of eastern Europe--Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Slavs and others, cast off the chains of Soviet domination, and the light of liberty began to shine again.

We need to help them strengthen the good that was gained in 1989.

Smoke