Contemporaneous Living

A recent social media exchange reminded me of one of my favorite anthropological facts: human beings have been in Australia for some 50,000 years, but humans have been in New Zealand for less than 800 years. Just about a thousand miles of sea separate the two nations, but in dozens of millennia, it seems that nobody made the voyage across the Tasman Sea. In fact, when humans finally did arrive in New Zealand, they were Polynesians rather than Australians.

This fact does not tell us much about the cultures of the Maori people or the Aboriginal Australians, but it does help create a larger context for the settlement of New Zealand. A persistent problem in the study of history is the failure to appreciate “the big picture.” Maori settlement of New Zealand happened about the same time as the founding of the Ottoman Empire by Osman I. And although neither event had any effect on the other, knowledge of their coincidence can be interesting and helpful.

This sort of perspective is equally important (and striking) when thinking about historical figures. Many historical figures had famous relationships, such as Thomas More and Erasmus; Aristotle and Alexander the Great; Cicero and Julius Caesar; or Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes. But other sets of contemporaries are less obvious. I remember very distinctly my surprise when I realized that Thomas Jefferson was President of the United States at the same time Napoleon was Emperor of France. (I had always thought of the Napoleonic Wars as pre-dating the American Revolution.) Likewise, had never thought of Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein as contemporaries, but they exchanged letters on the subject of war.

But one of the oddest examples, in my opinion, is Mohandas K. Gandhi. He exchanged letters with Count Leo Tolstoy (whom I would have guessed was dead before Gandhi was even born.) But Gandhi also actually wrote letters to Adolph Hitler (who was only 20 years his junior, and whom Gandhi out-lived by less than three years.)  What makes it so easy to be surprised by these connections is the fact that the Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Hitler are all associated with very different countries and periods. But, evidently, their places and times were not as disparate as they may seem at a glance. In fact, the world is much more interconnected than we often appreciate.

Beer of the week: Breakfast Beast – This imperial stout from Clown Shoes is aged in bourbon barrels with cold brewed coffee. It is very strong, and oily dark. It is also extremely thick and smooth. It is practically a complete breakfast. Delicious.

Reading of the week: Correspondence between Mohandas K. Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy – For additional historical perspective, consider the following: Gandi was murdered 7 years ago next Tuesday. These letters exchanged between him and Tolstoy are pretty special. In his letters Gandhi, a professed admirer of Tolstoy’s writings on pacifism, seeks support for political movements in South Africa (at that time, the Transvaal) and India (then, British India.) Tolstoy replies that “Your work in the Transvaal, which to us seems to be at the end of the earth, is yet in the centre of our interest.”

Question for the week: What is your favorite surprising historical coincidence? Or, if you prefer, what is your favorite historical gap? (For example, the Great Pyramid of Giza was older to Cleopatra than Cleopatra is to us.)


War Horses

One hundred years ago today was the beginning of the Gallipoli Campaign during The First World War. Over the course of 8 months, a whole lot of Australians and New Zealanders (as well as Englishmen, Irishmen, Indians, Canadians, Frenchmen, and Turks) died in this ill-fated and ultimately meaningless military campaign. Many years before, Banjo Paterson, Australia’s finest poet, had written a poem entitled El Mahdi to the Australian Troops that severely censured Australian military involvement on the other side of the globe. Why should these men leave their home, “fair Australia, freest of the free,” to kill and be killed in the name of the British Empire?

I have a copy of Paterson’s complete works and used to read from it every night before bed. I read chronologically, and since he was extremely prolific, I never did make it as far as the First World War. Consequently, this ANZAC Day the Beer & Trembling reading is one that is unrelated to war and death and empire. This week’s reading is an adventure poem about wrangling wild horses: The Man from Snowy River.

I have never wrangled wild horses myself, but I have gotten pretty close to some. Years ago, I went camping on Assateague Island with some friends. Assateague is quite famous for its feral horse population. It is unclear whether the horses swam ashore from some ancient ship wreck, or whether colonists simply released horses on the island. Either way, now they run free and will occasionally walk right up to a camp fire in search of marshmallows. A horse did, in fact, walk right up to us at our campfire and we got yelled at by a park ranger who assumed that we had intentionally lured it to us.

Among our camping provisions, we packed lemonade and Miller High Life. During the day we mixed the two for a refreshing shandy. When evening fell, the lemonade was eschewed in favor of straight beer. A couple at the next campsite came over and introduced themselves. They seemed friendly enough, but then the man made the most insane critique of beer that I have ever heard:

“You guys are drinking High Life, huh? I’ll stick with Miller Lite; High Life has too much of a heavy lager flavor.”

I’d been drinking all day, so this fired me right up. High Life? Too much flavor? Really? After he returned to his own campsite, I was still incredulous; I had to be talked down. “Forget it, Jake. He’s just a Philistine.”

In the intervening years, I have come to regard that gentleman’s opinion as more and more valid. I do not mean to say that his opinion was correct, only that I have sort of mellowed to the idea that people can legitimately think whatever inane thing they want. I try to keep my mind ordered and live a rational, reasonable life. If others choose to believe inanities or hold absurd opinions, that only makes the world more interesting and puts my own intellectual flaws into perspective. There is no point in getting upset because somebody else is unsophisticated or believes something that I do not. 

Miller High Life

Beer of the Week: Miller High Life – “Heavy lager flavor,” huh? To be fair to our camp-out neighbor, the flavor of this beer (“heavy lager” or otherwise) is pretty bad. It smells of cheap grain and tastes, um, not good. However, there is one really interesting thing about High Life. If poured aggressively, this crystal-clear, straw colored beer has a thick, foamy head. It even leaves some substantial lacing on the glass. Given time, the lacing dries out and forms a delicate, solid, dry foam. I don’t know if this ever happens with other beers, but I have never seen it before. Interesting though it may be, I rather suspect that this actually shows something undesirable about the beer.

Reading of the Week: The Man from Snowy River by Banjo Paterson – As evidence of Banjo Paterson’s preeminence in Australian poetry, I submit the Australian $10 note. Pictured on the $10 note is a young Paterson as well as the entire text of this poem. Coincidentally, one of the characters in this poem appeared in an earlier Paterson poem that has already been a reading on this blog: Clancy of the Overflow.

Question of the Week: Among my favorite works by Paterson were his war correspondences from the Second Boer War in South Africa. I was quite impressed with his willingness to sympathize with the Boers and portray them positively even as they were engaged in killing Australians. Is war really sustainable if the enemy is regarded as fully human? Or, to put it another way, does supporting war require the dehumanization of enemy?