A Child's Book of Scorpions of Medical Importance

Things that may one day save your life

Tag: Travel

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.

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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.