Thursday 26 February 2015


The New Yorker is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, so I looked at the first four issues. Here are some lines that caught my attention:
  • On general principles, this magazine expects to take a firm stand against murder. But we don’t want to be bigoted.
  • Broadway has no end of actors out of work. But as a rule they refuse to admit the truth of their unemployment.
  • Re the exhibit at the Grand Central Art Galleries: If you care for anything later than Ingres, stay at home.
  • Better a third rate artist and a first rate publicity man than a first rate artist and no publicity man at all.
  • Re prohibition: The bootleggers are cautious. They always suspect a customer of being a prohibition agent, unless some taxi driver is willing to vouch for them.
  • The transit situation in New York City which for many years has been a problem and a nuisance is rapidly becoming a menace.
  • The Last Laugh – Cameo Theater. An imported German film and a milestone in the progress of cinema. Superbly acted by Emil Jannings.
  • Burning witches at the stake was a grand sport in its day and much more sportsmanlike than the modern game of censorship.
  • The New Yorker wishes one and all an Ideal Ides of March. Tax vobiscum.
  • Re Ziegfeld Follies: It isn’t drama. It’s osteopathy…The girl was admirably undressed. I do not mean that the costume was bold. Far from it. It was positively shrinking.
(Source: February/March 1525 issues of The New Yorker)

Saturday 21 February 2015


Authors must tweet, or so I’m told, so I started tweeting a year ago and have gathered some 450 followers – thank you, people, whoever and wherever you are.
For those out there who have never read my tweets, here is what I do:
I post historical photos, like this Bolivian hat below, a present from the man who built the reed boat in which Thor Heyerdahl crossed the Atlantic.

Or of places I’ve visited, like this one: a rock sculpture at the back of LACMA in Los Angeles.

I never thought I’d tweet words. For one thing I didn’t think I could fit anything worthwhile saying into 140 characters. But other people apparently manage just fine, as in these examples:
  • Hair: thick and seemingly warm enough to be the vest of some fabulous…creature (Howard Jacobson)
  • Backstory: They don’t tell you in movies where people grew up…no history, no past, just them (Doctorow)
  • There is no getting on, or getting over, just getting in (Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal)
  • Keeping your distance: He engaged in verbal jabbing to maintain perimeter (Tad Friend)
  • Habsburg soldiers: Best dressed army in the world (Edmund De Waal)

Like my selection of quotes? Check my tweets for more: @historycracks.

Thursday 19 February 2015


Hollyhock House in Los Angeles has reopened after years of renovation work. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for Aline Barnsdall in 1919-21, it is now restored to its pristine Mayan Revival style.

The furniture has been reconstructed according to old photos and original designs. Last week the house was open to the public for a 24 hour preview. And, as a one-time privilege, visitors were allowed to take photos!

We went there on Friday night, thinking that few people would brave the infamous end-of-week traffic in L.A. but we were wrong. Hundreds of people did. We had to line up for 2 ½ hours to get in. Such cultural enthusiasm, can you believe it?

Sunday 15 February 2015


From Kafka’s unpublished notes (quotes in bold):
There was once a village that boasted a giant hedgehog. It attracted many tourists, but only one serious observer – the local grade school teacher, who decided to write a report on the phenomenon. The report was published and sold well.
The old teacher was an excellent man but neither his abilities nor his prior studies enabled him to produce a thorough examination that might be of further use, not to speak of providing an explanation.
He continued to study the case and became increasingly discouraged by his inability to explain the phenomenon. At last he decided to consult an expert in the field.
A small addendum which he attached to his publication (many years later when hardly anyone remembered the case anymore) shows that he suffered a great deal from the rejection he experienced at the hands of …people from whom he had least expected it.
The expert he consulted listened to his report in a distracted manner and finally commented:
“True, there are various hedgehogs, small and large. The earth in your area is especially black and heavy. This offers especially rich nourishment to hedgehogs, and that is why they turn out exceptionally large.” “But not that large!” the teacher exclaimed, and outlined a 2-meter silhouette, exaggerating the dimensions somewhat in his wrath. “Oh, quite,” the scholar answered. He clearly thought the matter was very amusing. “And why not?”  With this verdict, the teacher returned home. His wife and six children waited for him in the evening, as snow fell on the country road, and he had to confess to them the final collapse of his hopes.
            When I read how the scholar had treated the teacher… I immediately decided to collect and put together everything I could discover about the incident. I couldn’t punch the scholar’s face, but I could defend the teacher in an essay at least, or to put it another way, defend not only the teacher but the good intentions of an honest yet powerless man. But I soon regretted my decision…Cont.

(Source, unpublished text posted on, my translation)

Thursday 12 February 2015


As a youngster, Kafka disliked being introduced to new people, and was ill at ease in company.
"They made ridiculous claims, lied about statistics, made mistakes about geography, introduced heresies – forbidden as well as nonsensical-- or valid political views, respectable opinions about the issues of the day, praiseworthy ideas that surprised the speaker as much as the company, and everything was reinforced with looks, or the way they grasped the edge of the table, or jumped up from their chair. As soon as they started that, they immediately stopped looking at me in that prolonged and severe manner, for now they no longer kept their upper body in its natural position but spontaneously bent forward or backward. Some even became oblivious to the clothes they wore and bent their knees sharply, supporting their weight solely on the tips of their toes, or creased their jackets, pressing them against their breast with great force. Others weren’t like that. They hung on with their fingers to a pince-nez, a fan, a pencil, a lorgnette, a cigarette, and most of them became heated and turned ruddy even if their skin was firm and solid. Their eyes slid off me, like a raised arm being dropped.
I remained in my natural state. I was free to wait and listen or to leave and go to bed, to which I always looked forward since I was often sleepy on account of being shy. It was like the long intermission at a dance, when few people decide to leave and most remain where they are standing or sitting, while the musicians, to whom no one pays attention, are off somewhere replenishing their energies to play on…
Through all of this, I was still in fear – in fear of the man with whom I’d shaken hands without feeling anything, whose name I did not know unless one of his friends chanced to call him by his Christian name. I sat across from him for hours maybe, totally at peace, a little tired perhaps, as young people tend to be when an adult looks at them, even if that adult turned his eyes rarely on me alone." 
Stay tuned for "Kafka and the Giant Hedgehog" (Sunday)
(Source: unpublished text of 1909, posted on; my translation)

Sunday 8 February 2015


And not only stupid, but awkward in company as well:
“Among my classmates, I was stupid, but not the most stupid – even if some of my teachers said so frequently both to my face and to my parents. But they only passed such extreme judgment under the fantastic notion some people have, who think that a daring judgment makes them conquerors of half the world.
But there was a general belief that I was stupid, and for good reasons, actually. These reasons were easy to state in case there was a need to convince a stranger who had initially formed a good impression of me and said so to others. Their negative judgment often made me angry, and I even cried. Those were the only times, however, when I felt insecure, under the pressure of the moment and despairing of the future, and it was only a theoretically insecurity and despair. If I had to tackle work immediately afterwards, I felt secure and was free of doubt, almost like an actor coming out of the wings at a run, who stops for a moment far from the centre of the stage, touches his forehead, let us say, even as the passion shortly required of him becomes so great that it cannot be disguised even if he squeezes his eyes shut and bites his lips. The uncertainty in him, half gone yet still present, heightens his mounting passion, and the passion reinforces his insecurity. It is unstoppable, constantly forming anew, enveloping both and the man himself. That’s why I’m unwilling to make the acquaintance of strangers. I’m uneasy even if they look at me sideways…"CONT. in my next post on Thursday.

(Source: Unpublished text of 1909, posted on, my trans.)

Thursday 5 February 2015

Freud manuscript

We’ve all read books (especially those on assigned reading lists), going uhuh, uhuh, but then you mature and read Freud voluntarily, and now you are  looking for something more definite, like good advice. So here is Freud translated into advice relevant to your life.
  • The less a man knows about the past and present, the more insecure will be his judgment of the future. Applied to you life:  What you don’t know won’t hurt you. I mean, do you really want to know the future? Could be seriously depressing.
  • Human civilization is the sum of all those respects in which human life differs from the life of animals. Applied to your life: Forget civilization. Have fun indulging your inner animal.
  • Every civilization is built on coercion and renunciation of instinct. What did I tell you? Forget civilization already, or you’ll never have fun.
  • The masses are lazy and unintelligent. They have no love for instinctual renunciation and cannot be convinced otherwise. So who says they are unintelligent? They understand perfectly well that they can’t have any fun AND be civilized. Which also explains why they are not spontaneously fond of work.
  • And yet civilization has a way of taking over. External coercion gradually becomes internalized, and man’s super-ego takes over. Superman, where are you when we need you to combat the Great Enemy, our super-ego!
  • But there is one way to be happy AND civilized: Thinking that your civilization is better than their civilization and despise those outside our culture. So keep up the ethnic slurs and remember: Discrimination makes you happy!

 (Source: Freud, The Future of an Illusion, trans. J. Strachey)