A Child's Book of Scorpions of Medical Importance

Things that may one day save your life

Category: Culture

Krampus Hates Hipsters

One of 1000s of vintage Krampus postcards you can hotlink from your lazy, seasonal blog.

One of 1000s of vintage Krampus postcards you can hotlink from your lazy, seasonal blog.

As an American, the things you own and consume are your identity.  Your place in society is defined by your ability to acquire, and the discernment you apply in choosing, your stuff.  Even hipsters and self-exiled outliers who pride themselves in cocking a snook at American consumerism play a full role:  their rejection of the consumerist formula always involves a loud avoidance of the first part of the equation, and a whole spirited devotion to the second.  And because the premise of America requires the destruction of the old, and the constant, grinding acquisition of the new, the refinement of consumer taste must be eclectic and seasonal.  Even American intellectuals are constantly on the hunt for novelty, and the vast space between ‘intellectual’ and ‘hipster’, the seething, chaotic, meaningless reality of the ‘cultural critic’, is heavily populated.  Are you old enough to recall a time when sophistication in America meant a passing familiarity with Kabbalah, an ironic, encyclopedic knowledge of 70s sitcoms, and the ability to pronounce ‘Côtes du Rhône’?  Where is your truth now, hipster?

Google tells me that American interest in Krampus began in December 2010 with a groundbreaking survey of the Krampus phenomenon by professional blogger ‘TeenAngster’ (Real name:  Alison; Location: Brooklyn, NY; Turn-ons: folk art, vintage oddities and other stuff discovered in her first year as a ‘Lit Major’ at University of Iowa, then pared and refined obsessively during three years in Williamsburg).  Her survey sets the formula for American discoveries of Krampus over the last two years:  Krampus is a vaguely goth, anti-Santa Claus;  Krampus adds some edgy thrills (and lazy blog copy) to the hackneyed, consumerist Christmas myth.  Krampus is cool, and he comes with many sets of vintage postcards that are easily scanned or hotlinked.

But there is a problem.  Krampus is also fucking terrifying.  And he hates hipsters.  I have friends who grew up with the myth of Krampus, and, at best, they would find Brooklynites’ glib, seasonal fascination annoying.  One such friend spent his life in a Hapsburg satellite state.  On the evening of the Nikolo (December 6, the St. Nicholas festival), his grandfather would prowl around the house after bed time, scratching windows with thorny twigs and rattling heavy chains.  My friend would cower under his bed for hours, having wet himself, sobbing for the intercession of St. Nicholas before Krampus made it into the house; because if Krampus did find him, he would be roughly tossed into an excruciating basket made of thorns and TAKEN STRAIGHT TO HELL.  (Some myths claim children are taken to Krampus’s lair, but, whatever.  It’s all the same to a six-year-old Slav).

‘OK,’ you might write in your next Gawker article.  ‘Old world parenting techniques aren’t the best.  But Krampus is still über-cool.  Check out these hotlinked photos from a Krampuslauf, which means ‘Krampus run’ in German, and occurs during the month of December in Austria, Hungary, Northern Italy and…’

Let me stop you right there, Alison.  Have you ever been to a Krampuslauf? Have you ever been to Carinthia, the glorious Texas of Austria?  Those JPEGs you cut-and-pasted are from the Disney ‘Main Street Parade’ of Krampusläufe. Your goth alternative to mall Santa has a mundane reality:  on the morning of December 5th, Austrian ‘bros’ get wasted on beer and schnapps, they don shitty monster masks and fur suits, and then use the occasion and the anonymity to wander the streets of Eberstein or Treffen harassing girls and beating the crap out of fags and pussies with sticks.  Things usually get a little out of hand, but, like the high spirited fraternity ‘rager’, it’s allowed to pass and is quickly forgotten.

If you want to understand better what Krampus is all about, spend a few winter months in Carinthia or south Tirol.  Learn German.  Attend a local Nikolo evening.  And head out to a small town Krampuslauf to survey the action.  But leave the skinny jeans in Brooklyn, and be forewarned:  Krampus is an old world allegory that doesn’t make for easy or frivolous consumption.  Krampus can smell irony from 200 metres.  He’s drunk on schnapps, swinging a spiny pine sapling at your head, and, above all, Krampus hates hipsters.

What to Look for

Two Scorpions Kissing

Scorpions Kissing

We have all had that uncomfortable conversation, where we try to explain the complex beauty of scorpions to an acquaintance only to be confronted with indifference:

‘I hear they’re just primitive arachnids.  What’s the big deal?’

‘Well, morphologically, they appear to be primitive, but if you study the composition of scorpion venom, you will find that evolution has exercised a long and powerful…’

‘Whatever.  I think they’re creepy.’

And this is usually where the conversation ends, and not only every conversation about scorpions, but many conversations about other, less important, things.  People struggle where there is no comfortable frame of reference.

Scorpion venom is remarkably intricate, and bears the mark of hundreds of millions of years of ceaseless evolution;  as though the original, outward design was sufficient, but the scorpion’s rich cocktail of organic materials, mucous, salts and long- and short-chain peptides, each perfectly targeted to the species of prey or enemy, quickly became an obsession for Nature; like Proust, who lay in bed for the last three years of his life pouring every ounce of energy into extending a single novel that would test the limits of human stamina.  The beauty of scorpions is thus easy to dismiss, much like the three-and-a-half thousand pages of stuff someone remembered because of a soggy cookie.  And, yet, beautiful and essential in spite (and perhaps because) of its obscurity.

When I first visited France, I was disappointed.  The cosmetic Bohemianism I had known in California seemed richer than what I perceived there.  The French were homogeneous.  They spoke in the same tiresome idioms, repeated the same idées reçues, and their cuisine was surprisingly repetitive.  How much daubemerguez or choucroutte was a student required to stomach?  But the strength of France wasn’t in the breadth (although the breadth was there once I learned to see it), but in the deliberate, thousand-year refinement of its arts.

My heart recently went out to a friend who is trying to pursue a career in France, but his first three months have been excruciating.  Barnaby, a young orchestra conductor, searches for the familiar, and is endlessly disappointed.  The French are less forthcoming than the Americans.  They are lazy.  Parisians are assholes.  He doesn’t have time for museums.  The language course was a waste of money.

‘I can’t wait to get home.  Coming to Paris was a mistake.’

‘It wasn’t a mistake, but perhaps it was the wrong thing for you.  There is beauty there.  Everything worthwhile is in France.  But you have to want to see it.  You won’t have the tools to discover it unless you are there for more than a year, and unless you try to find it.  Unless you allow it to change the way you think, and only then you will recognise the importance is in the details.  The many, many vast details that were invisible before.’

‘What the fuck are you talking about?  Details?  I have to stand in line for everything!  The university course is like a pretentious high school!’

‘You need to step outside yourself.  You need to get out of your “comfort zone”!’ (I had to put the phone down briefly and gag after repeating these words, but I knew they were the only way to convey my urgent warning).  ‘You need to explore what you really want.  Are you doing what makes you happy?  You can’t expect to find beauty if it isn’t fundamentally what you love.  Maybe you need to look more deeply inside yourself.’

‘Are you saying I should start dating men?’

‘Yes.  That is exactly what I’m saying.’

How I Squandered my Youth

I did a lot of bad stuff when I was younger.  I rolled with some pretty heavy dudes:  catty French scholars; a mediaeval Latinist who could take your eye out with ‘crane spears the toad’ or any number of balletic Chinese manoeuvres gleaned from a dog-eared book on kung-fu.  But the worst of the lot were the Rhodes Scholars.  And their dark lord and master was Bill Clinton.

Cecil Rhodes had designed the scholarship to instil the best (read – ‘worst’) of English culture into the brightest minds from the remote colonies.  You might remember Cecil Rhodes as the pasty omnivore who failed to take his degree from Oriel College, Oxford, and went on to destroy any hope of self determination in southern Africa for over a century.  The pre-requisites for the scholarship, as he dictated them to a brow-beaten secretary in 1902 who can take no other shape in my mind than Mr. Smithers from ‘The Simpsons’, demanded, in order that all candidates:

‘[…] shall not be merely bookworms […] in the the election of a student to a scholarship regard shall be had to […] (ii) his fondness and success in manly outdoor sports such as cricket, football and the like (iii) his qualities of manhood’

There followed some blathering about truth, courage, sympathy for the weak and the esteem of performance ‘in public duties as his highest aim’.

If you juxtapose these noble thoughts with his other writings, the goals of the Rhodes Scholarship become clearer:

‘I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race […] if there be a God, I think that what he would like me to do is paint as much of the map of Africa British Red as possible’

‘Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.’

‘Equal rights for all civilized Men South of the Zambezi’.  [The emphasis is my own]

I would like to think that my laziness and distinct unmanliness as an undergraduate (thus precluding me from consideration for his filthy, blood money) was an unconscious, if deeply noble, political gesture.

Unfortunately, I found myself face-to-face with Bill and Hillary on the lawn of Rhodes House in 1994.

If we were to use no other criteria than the physiognomy required by Cecil, then both aspiring leaders would have failed election to the Rhodes before the first interview began.  Bill Clinton is an enormous man, shaped like a wobbly pear, and standing at least six feet, four inches tall.  He towers over his awkward wife, and your attention is immediately captured by his head, the size of a watermelon.  His huge, ruddy, libertine face indicates a man who rarely passes up an indulgence, and he maintains a blissful grin, as if he were absolutely replete, and had just cum all over you.  He commands even more space than his tottering frame could require, and he radiates heat, charm and compulsion.  He hardly moved through the crowd, but eager Rhodes Scholars flocked around him.   He gave an insipid and hasty speech about ‘people being our most important commodity’  (perhaps it is now less puzzling that he won the Rhodes) and how ‘we’ all represented the future of America.

Hillary played no role in the ceremony, having recently endured the debacle as the public face of her husband’s failed health care reform.  She shook hands and greeted ambitious young Americans, but maintained no presence, and left no impression on her audience.  I recall she was much shorter, and very much wider than I ever imagined, and her face was deeply lined, as if she had carried for many years an inordinate share of the worry in their partnership.

No one spoke about the speech afterward, although I did compare notes with a few Canadian Rhodes Scholars, who all agreed that it had been no illusion:  his face was enormous, and bright red.

The whole episode only took on broader significance years later when the Clinton administration’s unholy collusion with the forces of Goldman Sachs became clear, and when, in perspective, the economic miracle of the 1990s (or its ‘irrational exuberance’) could be traced as much to the unsteady foundation laid by Ronald Reagan, as to any conscious decisions by Bill Clinton.  Dear reader, don’t get me wrong!  The idiocy of George W. Bush is more to blame than any factor for the pickle we now find ourselves in, but I learned from an early age, and under the tutelage of the delinquent academic characters portrayed in this post, to ‘keep it real’ above all else.

I have since wondered if the American people wouldn’t benefit if Cecil Rhodes’ stamp of approval were quietly retired, and the remaining money disbursed, in his name, among the people he enslaved.

There is an article in The New York Times, published in 1913, that raises questions that are just as relevant today [http://bit.ly/nECqHJ].  Why would America send some of its best young scholars (or those who perform particularly well in interviews and show a propensity to boss everyone else around) to England for years?  Is the arrangement good for Oxford?  Stanley Went, an old Rhodes Scholar, argues convincingly that it isn’t necessarily so.  Oxford remains largely unchanged.

In my own experience, US Rhodes Scholars had no particular interest in England, and would never have attended Oxford had they not won.  They stuck together, and fumbled impatiently through a degree that meant little in the end.  Few were true academic standouts in their new environment, and many harboured a bitter taste for Oxford that took years to sweeten, and rarely turned to nostalgia.  They would sneak into the Middle Common Room in the early morning, to help themselves to the free coffee and steal newspapers, avoiding interaction that wasn’t immediately relevant to their planned congressional campaigns once the annoyance of a second BA in politics, philosophy and economics was finished (the philosophy or economics curriculum would be quietly dropped at the beginning of the second year as the workload began to pile up;  and the candidate would slink away later with a half-hearted 2.1, somewhere between a ‘B’ and a ‘B+’, and would mutter for months on the unfairness or inadequacies of the Oxford degree exams until a new job with McKinsey in New York quickly led him to forget his two years in purgatory).

They would tiptoe into the computing lab late at night, greeting no one, and spend hours on instant messenger, lamenting to friends in Arkansas or New Jersey that there was no platform in England to continue whatever local flavour of community activism had underpinned their Rhodes candidacy.  They shunned alcohol and scoured the internet for news of their favourite baseball teams. They would occasionally reach out with a half-articulated complaint about Oxford, England, the food, the heating, or any subject that might serve as a common enemy when they recognised that I was American, and a possible refuge from their isolation.

I’m not sure if there is a real lesson to be learned here, but, like I said, when I was younger, I rolled with some pretty bad dudes.

Why is tonight’s Chablis different from all other nights’ Chablis?

My fiancée, a swarthy heathen who covets life’s luxuries, reminded me this evening that in between the plagues, visited upon Pharaoh and his luckless subjects, there must have been a few moments of respite, when everyone took a break for lunch, and the afflicted might even have been distracted enough to believe their boils were subsiding.

Living in a dismal, seaside town in California, blighted by rampant crime, untreated mental illness, and an abundance of shitty wine, I face similar dilemmas.  There are tortuous moments of hope, when a local merchant (the single local merchant whose staff are not perpetually high) might come to the rescue.  Tonight is an example:  a beautiful 2006 Sancerre from the ‘Monts damnés’ vineyard accompanied the sunset, and the warm, summer air, and I thought for a moment this might actually be a nice place to settle down and raise children.  The police raid on the meth-amphetamine dealers encamped  in the flop house across the street jolted me back to despairing reality like an unexpected swarm of locusts just when the pustules seemed to be itching less.

The momentary shock reminded me of an experiment I conducted over a decade ago that calls into question our understanding of winemaking, culture, and even ‘intelligence’.  In 1988, I had purchased two bottles of wine that should have been, chemically, very similar.  I did this in full awareness of the opportunity for future mischief.  One bottle was the 1988 Bonny Doon Vineyard ‘ Le Cigare Volant’ [sic]; the second was Guigal’s 1988 Châteauneuf du Pape.  I even set aside a bottle of Guigal’s generic 1988 Côtes du Rhône as a control.  Six years later (and I was assured by the Bonny Doon Vineyard staff that this was near the height of the Cigare’s ‘drinkability’) I tasted all the wines.

The Guigal Châteauneuf du Pape was delicious.  The Guigal Côtes du Rhone was drinkable, even good.  The Cigare was a lifeless shadow.  The bright, sunny fruit, characteristic of Californian wines, and that is required by the domestic market, had died quietly in the bottle.

The Cigare was the product of the University of California at Davis oenology department, a school that has attempted to codify the best winemaking techniques in a single generation.  But I wondered if anyone could capture the subtleties of a millenium of viticulture across regions as diverse as the Rhône river valley, the entre deux mers, the Kamptal, Slavonia, Tuscany, and even the Bekaa Valley, and a thousand other places where the alchemy of apparently irrational tradition rules the production of wine that slaps any California vintage to the mat, then rolls the mat up and smokes it like a delicious Oakland blunt.

What was missing from the Californian recipe?  And could Californian winemakers exercise the patience to defer the imperatives of their consumers, to experiment, to set aside vintages for comparison a decade later and possibly gain an understanding of the subtle interplay of terroir and artistry that creates a great wine?

I wondered how intelligence develops among species we would otherwise never consider as sharing our gifts for rational and long-term planning.  The anthropological world went figuratively ‘ape shit’ when it was discovered that chimpanzees could fashion and utilize tools, such as a twig, whittled to fish termites from a hole.  But what about spiders and their gossamer?  An individual spider is far less adaptable than a chimp, but there is an astonishing variety in the use of gossamer as a tool.  A species of spider creates a webbed net that it affixes to its feet, and uses with pinpoint accuracy to fish insects from the air.

I can imagine a Slavonic winemaker who farms, year after year,  the same hillside that his great-great grandfather had farmed, who himself had long forgotten why his own great-great grandfather had chosen this spot.  The modern Slavonian spoliates the vines in a very particular way, a practice for which he can offer no scientific explanation.  But the end result is magical, as the master sommelier at the Hotel Esplanade in Zagreb led us to know by simply pointing at the menu:  ‘This one is good,’ he affirmed, without embellishment.

Perhaps the local, Californian wine market doesn’t know what it wants.  And perhaps the frantic efforts of the academics at Davis to address the desires of wine consumers won’t get us any closer to a cure for the plague of mediocre vintages.  Perhaps complex and dynamic systems develop an intelligence that outstrips the understanding of rational, individual actors.  And perhaps ‘revolutionary praxis’ (to borrow the hideous, clumsy term of a local professor of the ‘History of Consciousness’) can be discovered in a wholly unexpected context, far removed from the meta-discourse of semiotic frippery, or the énoncés of a slap-headed, French S&M enthusiast.   I am a revolutionary, after all, and despite a rhetoric and sub-text that would raise the hives on any cultural studies professor like a persistent, Old Testament curse, our language is not so different.    Perhaps achieving the cure is less tortuous, and less remote than we believe.


Richard’s Brilliance, Berkeley’s Shame

My friend Richard is a genius.  The nature of his genius will become clearer at the end of this post.  First, let me say a few things about California, and Berkeley in particular.

When our ancestors abandoned the security of Europe and stumbled beyond the Mississippi following the lunatic visions of Joseph Smith, or racing as fast as thirsty cattle could carry their wagons ahead of the law and debtors’ prison, they forgot a few things on the long journey west.  And what they did remember were pieces of patchwork:  meaningless, disembodied and quickly mislaid by their feral offspring.  But humans need culture; to tell them who they are; to allow them to live happily together; and, in the best possible cases, to show them the marvelous, unexpected limits of human achievement.  In the last case, even with the intercession of genius, it often takes more than a few generations to create something profound.

Those near relations of ours, who dropped their cultural inheritance like used tissues somewhere on the trail from Boston, were only recently scratching out a meagre living in the San Joaquin or Salinas Valleys, dying of whooping cough, and crying themselves to sleep after ‘Pa’ had told them they would have to shoot Old Yeller.  Or, like my own close relations, fishing for sharks in the Gulf of California in the quixotic struggle to ‘strike it rich’ in the days before synthetic vitamin A.  So you wouldn’t expect much from California today.  But Berkeley?  Berkeley?  Seriously.

Admittedly, the strong local weed and clumsy application of 19th-century utopianism were bound to hold things back, but I expected, at this stage, Berkeley would have produced at least two good restaurants.  We ate at Gather which embodies perfectly the blind, Californian eclecticism that outsiders, and particularly Europeans, find so liberating, until they have to live with it for more than twenty minutes.

When Californians didn’t need to worry so much about rabies or diptheria, they turned their attention to rebuilding a few of the things that make life worthwhile, if not possible.  Hmm… Where to start?  I seem to recall that my great-grandfather had a small library, and a collection of French portraiture, but we had to sell those when cousin Silas got the gangrene and couldn’t farm no more.  But with the money I earned pan-handling, I bought this didgeridoo, and I invented a dance cobbled from the vague memories of a Javanese Gamelan production I saw as an undergraduate.  We are as close to Asia as to Europe, after all, and this seems to make sense.

Culture requires a language that suits.  Of course, it will never be perfect; like the small bright spots that illuminate pieces of a vast reality, physics, chemistry, biology, and which are all synonyms of each other.  The French have their portraiture, their philosophy, even their philosophy of portraiture, which runs in parallel to, and competes viciously with, its sister German or Italian schools.

But in California, and in Berkeley, this language has been re-developed quickly, and in isolation.  If there were a genius who could intercede, and help to make sense of a fathomless problem, here, on the edge of the world, where civilisation has been sadly suspended, his name is probably Ajithkumar;  he lives far away, in Fremont, and devotes his intelligence to system architecture for application hosting ‘in the cloud’.  I doubt he wastes much time with the philosophy of portraiture.

And so Gather assembled the best local ingredients, in the hands of the best local cooks, to create an eclectic blend of vegan charcuterie juxtaposed with meat-heavy dishes such as pork belly and hamburger, to cater to a clientele who exist only in the fever dreams of a weed-addled executive chef.  Admittedly, some dishes, on their own, were delicious.  Some ingredients, on their own, were also delicious.  But the combination was a mystery.  And the wine list made us all want to cry:  old-world varietals, combined in new and exciting ways under the guidance of a recent graduate of the University of California at Davis’s Oenology department who felt he could improve upon the millennia of French (or Italian, or Austrian) viticulture by serving a sunny, ‘fruit-forward’ Malbec on its own.  Malbec, known as Côt in Cahors, was, until recently, only seen fit for export in bulk to Russia for Orthodox religious ceremonies on a budget.

We nibbled at the bright plates and wondered how to make sense of a cuisine that married the purest vegetarianism with an incoherent blend of sour wine and fried flesh.  Perhaps there was a statement that brilliantly captured the absurdity of ‘vegan charcuterie‘ or the heartbreaking betrayal of an ethical convert to vegetarianism who now had to share his table and cutlery with gruesomely braised pigs’ feet.

During a long pause in the conversation, as I peered daydreaming through an untouched glass of cloudy wine, Richard remarked, while I picked up a forkful of apparent flesh from the charcuterie board, and as my expression fell when I realised it was thinly sliced, Japanese eggplant.

‘Man, you just kissed a dude!’

Satan wants his Dog Back

My girlfriend sneaked in a few late-night blog posts, between novels about dogs, consumed without interruption from 9 AM until 3 AM, and during one of those rare moments of pause when she isn’t either looking at puppy videos on the internet, or holding one-sided conversations with ‘Rocky’, who is the subject of this post, and the reason why human beings need to take a cold, hard look at their relationship with their ‘best friends’.

I felt the subject might receive light and unfair treatment at her hands – http://bittle1.soup.io/ – so while she is sleeping off the effects of ‘Marly and Me’ or ‘Bark Less, Wag More’, I got up early to strike a blow for the truth.

Let me get a few things out of the way before I begin.  She convinced me long ago that dogs are worthy of our loyalty:  we bred them to resemble us, to depend on us almost entirely, and so we owe them affection, and lives as long and comfortable as we can afford.  Evolution and selective breeding have granted dogs the mimicry of traits humans admire, but, in the same gesture, have dulled the instincts and stripped many of the protections that would keep the jackal from swiftly snatching a poor dog’s bone, and then heckling his useless, stubby legs and pronounced underbite while trotting back into the bush.

We owe dogs a living, and so even the smelliest and most disobedient merit no less than to be judged ‘worthy of affection’ or ‘loveablesque’.  In most cases.  The rare exceptions are worth noting:  terriers have been bred to kill, to kill anything weaker and smaller than themselves in a fit of violent, snarling rage.  The dogs of Lhasa have been bred to maim those who offend their superstitious masters.  If, for instance, you were to find a dog who married the particular aggressions of both breeds;  who had been raised by white supremists; and who had then been left alone at a young age to fend for himself on the hard streets of Oakland, California,  and to reap the bitter fruit of his intolerance, then you may need to reassess the rules.

But in this case, the combination of genetics and circumstance that would guarantee for a human being a lifetime without parole in an isolated supermax prison has been unable to extinguish the gleeful tail wagging and proud exuberance that our calculated breeding has carefully etched, over centuries, into the very foundation of ‘dog’.

I have strong reason to believe that Satan lives in Oakland, and one day, after hours cleaning and cataloguing his collection of assault rifles, he paused momentarily, bewildered at the unaccountable silence, normally punctuated continuously by barks and growls, and thought to himself ‘I wonder where Rocky is?’  And, not finding the dog, didn’t press the matter further, deciding that he ‘wasn’t much of a dog person, anyway’.  Although I also suspect that they still maintain a faint, supernatural connection, and occasionally, when Rocky tears at the ankle of a child, or vociferously reminds a passing black or Chinese person that they are not welcome in his neighbourhood, Satan feels a passing regret, and thinks fondly of the puppy he had hoped to raise into a monster, but who slipped beyond his influence before he could fully nurture the instinctual kindness out of him.

Luckily, Satan doesn’t know that shortly after Rocky was adopted into his new family, he developed a systemic condition known as ‘dermal lupus’, that causes pustules and rashes to form all over his body, and a dark, pussy excrescence to mat his hair into demonic little dreadlocks.  This might be the same condition that causes his anal glands to clog up periodically, and then to release in a torrent on car seats, and a select array of expensive furniture and Persian carpets.  I’m not really sure, but I strongly suspect that if Satan were aware of Rocky’s sheer toxicity he might try to reclaim his protege a little more actively.

But he can’t have him back.  The small, and unbelievably arduous progress we have made over the years in saving Rocky’s meagre and blackened soul have qualified me for beatification.  My flaws are largely eclipsed, and I always have somewhere to point when things go wrong (followed by a few chin scratches and a swift, whispered apology to Rocky when my girlfriend’s back is turned).  In some small part thanks to Rocky, I am kind of a hero.

Pauvre Belgique!

There is no better way to spend the little spare time I have than to visit a good, European museum on a scorching afternoon.  Vienna reached thirty-five degrees celsius today, and the dim, air-conditioned halls of the Kunsthistorisches  Museum were particularly welcoming.

I can’t visit museums like normal people.  I can enjoy a small exhibit, or take in a few paintings over the course of an hour, but racing through the Louvre in four hours is nerve shattering:  I absorb nothing, as if I were listening to five symphonies played at high volume, sped up, simultaneously.

The best exhibit I have ever seen involved only one painting, Manet’s ‘The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian’ at the National Gallery in London.  The exhibit toured the development of Manet’s work, moving through sketches and historical documentation he used as signposts in a long journey to the final, massive painting, that served as an indictment of the colonial French betrayal of its lackeys in occupied Mexico.  A little under two hours for the understanding of a single work is about the right balance of attention and painterly effort.

So I was happy to see the Kunsthistorisches  Museum had an exhibit on Cranach the Elder, Holbein and Duerer. German portraiture went through a remarkable metamorphosis in just a few generations from the late fifteenth to the early sixteenth centuries.  Humanist ideals, and the growth of printing and sketching brought an amazing, revolutionary naturalism to the depiction of the human face.

Unfortunately, as with so many good things in the past 200 years, Belgium reared its muddled head and ruined everything, like the alcoholic uncle who shows up uninvited to Christmas dinner.  I won’t go into the full list, but if Belgium were solely responsible for the squalid last years of Baudelaire, and his miserable death, the scramble for Africa and its eventual rape and colonization, or the paintings of James Ensor, it should be sufficient to trigger a UN sanction restricting Belgian artistic and political activity for generations.

This time, it was the proud son of Belgium, Jan Faber, who spoiled the party.  Squished between two Holbein works was a blue scribble, executed in ball-point pen, called ‘De Lijmstokman’.  I won’t even bother to translate, because it doesn’t matter.  I thought a student from the local academy had snuck in, and managed to hang his painting while the docents were snoozing. And this wasn’t a singular occurrence.  Faber’s scratches had been systematically wedged in between monumental German renaissance works by some anxious curator, fresh out of the local art history department, keen to mix a little ‘edginess’ into an otherwise academic mix of world-transforming portraiture.  Fine, it was a bit of a nuisance, but no more disruptive than someone farting loudly between the first and second courses of an otherwise delicious dinner.

That’s when I stumbled on Faber’s ‘tapestries’.  Faber thought it would be worthwhile to take a ball-point pen, and a 12-metre by 8-metre piece of nylon (labeled ‘artificial silk’ in the museum placard) and cover the entire thing in blue doodles.  I wondered briefly how many pens had been sacrificed.  Perhaps the massive curtain represented the depths of his despair at being born Belgian.  I checked his biography and found that he had once covered an entire building in ball-point scribble, a phenomenon he labeled ‘Bic-art’.  I wouldn’t call this art so much as compulsion.

Again, absolutely none of this would have mattered, except that Faber’s tapestries (yes, he felt compelled to execute more than one of the massive, nylon scrawls) were hung from floor to ceiling, one metre in front of walls covered in renaissance German and Flemish masterpieces.  Large signs warned the visitor in five languages ‘Do Not Touch!’ in case he were tempted to brush aside Belgium’s shame to gain a view of the epic transformation of European art in the sixteenth century.

Throughout the entire exhibit, Faber kept springing up like an annoying child screaming ‘Hey, dad, look at me!’  and I wondered if the EU couldn’t put his whole country up for adoption. Or, at the very least, no dessert for a week.