the heart thrills

there is beauty all around us

Month: July, 2016

TAKING THE D TRAM TO NUSSDORF

Vienna, 24 July 2016

We’re in Vienna briefly, on our way back to Bangkok from the annual training course I give in Budapest and using the occasion to visit the warehouse where our stuff has been stored away these last seven years to agree on when to start moving it and to where when I retire in a month’s time. We’ve used the occasion to spend the weekend here.

On Saturday morning, we visited an exhibition of Ai Wei Wei’s work, my wife’s favourite modern artist, which is spread between the 21er Haus and the Upper Belvedere. While we were at it, we also had a quick zip around the Upper Belvedere’s permanent collection – there is a lovely set of Schieles and Klimts. Then, footsore and thirsty, we took a D tram back into the city centre and headed for a café to have a drink and a rest.

Once revivified, we pondered where to go next. I suggested the Leopold Museum, which is holding an exhibition of a rather minor Austrian painter of the 19th Century, and so we dragged ourselves rather slowly in that direction. But on the way, we saw another D tram clank past, and since it was a glorious day we decided on the spur of the moment to hop on and ride to the end of the line, to Nussdorf, which lies at the foot of the hills that overlook the city. As the name suggests, Nussdorf, Nut Village, was indeed once an independent village but is now a suburb of Vienna. Presumably it once was known for its walnuts or hazelnuts, but several hundred years ago it planted vineyards on the slopes above it and thereby made its fortune selling thirsty Viennese Grüner Veltliner wines.

Now, as we got off the tram at the final stop, we trailed after our fellow passengers, all ramblers, who were making their way determinedly towards those vineyards and the woods beyond them, the Wienerwald. We found a path which followed a stream
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and started ambling slowly upwards – the walk was in no way strenuous.

The path first coasted houses buried at this time of year in luxuriant vegetation
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but then it became more solitary.
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At one point, we passed a little park dedicated to Beethoven.
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It is said that he used to come over from nearby Heiligenstadt, where he spent many summers in his later years, to walk along this same path, which of course the marketing-savvy locals have named Beethovengasse, Beethoven Lane.

Further on, we passed the dead of Nussdorf, sleeping their eternal sleep at the foot of the vineyards
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and now finally we were among the vineyards.
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A few yards further on, we arrived at our destination, a heuriger
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(a buschenschank in Styria; the owner of this heuriger must be a Styrian immigrant)

Heurigers, or wine taverns, dot the countryside around Vienna, selling the local wine, as well as simple food so that their patrons do not drink on an empty stomach. We had chosen this one from a map thoughtfully provided along the path by the local authorities, anxious to ensure that a good time was had by all
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We settled down in the tavern’s garden
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and pleasantly whiled a way an hour or so, sipping on our wine mixes (it was a bit early for straight wine), nibbling at our dried sausages, cheese plate, and Greek salad, gazing out over the neighbouring vineyards
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and generally enjoying that sense of gemütlichkeit – warmth, friendliness, and good cheer – which is the trademark of heurigers.

Suitably refreshed, and full of good cheer, we ambled slowly down the hill again, where I for one took advantage of the old-fashioned toilets, or pissoirs as the Austrians so picturesquely call them, helpfully provided at the tram stop by the local authorities
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before climbing back into the D tram

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and clanking slowly back into the city centre.

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The stream Schreiberbach: https://www.tripadvisor.co.za/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g190454-d260626-i134059629-Vienna_Woods-Vienna.html
All other photos: ours

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BAGAN, MYANMAR

Bangkok, 13 July 2016

My wife and I have just returned from a short visit to Bagan, in Myanmar. Back when Harold Godwinson received an arrow in his eye, losing his life and his English throne to William, Duke of Normandy
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the kings of Pagan (as the kingdom was then known) had consolidated their hold on the valley of the Irrawaddy River, swallowing up their neighbouring city-states, and had created the first Burmese kingdom. The kingdom grew rich on trade but also on agriculture, harnessing irrigation for the first time in this dry region of Myanmar. As befits the capital of a prosperous kingdom, the population of Pagan swelled. The kings and the richer citizens, anxious to gain merit for their next reincarnation, used their wealth to heavily sprinkle the city and the surrounding plain with stupas, temples, monasteries, and other religious edifices. At the height of this building frenzy, more than 10,000 such edifices covered an area of some 100 square kilometres.

Alas, this well-meaning search for merit undermined the edifice of state. More and more land was donated to the Buddhist monkhood, land which then became exempt from tax, thereby gradually emptying the state coffers. The resulting internal strife weakened the kingdom, and invasions of its borderlands by the Mongol dynasty of China finished her off. By 1287, the kingdom of Pagan was no more, and its capital city had shrunk to the size of a very modest town. Sun, wind, and rain began their work. The plaster moldings with which all the religious edifices had been covered peeled off, and the exposed brick began crumbling away to mud and dust. Trees and bushes did their part, inserting roots between brick and brick and slowly leveraging them apart. Earthquakes played their part too, toppling walls and cracking open stupas. And so the religious edifices so lovingly erected by earlier generations slowly slumped back into the earth from whence they had sprung.

A score of temples and stupas, which continued to be sites of pilgrimage, were maintained, often with infelicitous results as frescoes were painted or whitewashed over and badly crafted statues took the place of the originals. In the last century, conservation work was carried out – haphazardly – under successive military regimes. This has halted, or at least slowed, the dissolution, but even so only some 2,000 edifices remain standing, more or less, today.

But 2,000 is still a big number. Climb, as we did, the Shwesandaw stupa, and you will find yourself gazing out over flat, wooded farmland thickly sprinkled with red-brick stupas and temples of every size and state of disrepair.
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Get off the paved roads, as we did, and take the dirt roads and paths which crisscross this farmland, and you will come across lonely stupas brooding by the side of fields
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where the lines of the Persian poet Ferdowsi come to mind:

The spider spins his web in the Palace of the Caesars
An owl hoots in the towers of Samarkand
(it is said that the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II murmured these lines as he visited the desolate ruins of the imperial palace after his conquest of Constantinople in 1453)

It comes spontaneous to compare Bagan to other places. Angkor Wat in neighbouring Cambodia is often cited, but the comparison doesn’t hold. Angkor has edifices which are splendid in their art and architecture.
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The edifices of Bagan, on the other hand, now have little if any intrinsic merit. My wife and I saw nothing superlative in any of the stupas or temples we visited. Pleasant, yes, interesting sometimes, but nothing to take one’s breath away.
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No, it is the overall landscape that makes Bagan noteworthy, and it is to landscapes that we must turn for comparisons. Since many of the edifices in Bagan are funerary in nature, my wife felt a certain affinity between the Italian cemeteries of her youth and Bagan, with the latter of course being on a much larger scale.
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In such a comparison, I would perhaps lean towards the abandoned part of Vienna’s biggest cemetery, the Wiener Zentralfriedhof, which contains many of the tombs of Vienna’s Jewish community, wiped out in the Nazi concentration camps.
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I myself favour a comparison with Ancient Rome, not the Ancient Rome of today, swallowed up in the concrete and bitumen of the modern city, but the Ancient Rome that was the subject of many a painting in the 17th to 19th centuries. This is Claude Lorrain
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this, Piranesi
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this, Palmer
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and this, Lear
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In these paintings I see an echo of the Bagan I looked out on from the heights of the Shwesandaw stupa.

As the lines I cite above show, the melancholy of ruins has always excited the imagination of poets. Rome’s ruins are no exception, with reams of poems written about them. I quote one here, by Alexander Pope.

See the wild waste of all-devouring years!
How Rome her own sad sepulchre appears,
With nodding arches, broken temples spread!
The very tombs now vanished like their dead!
Imperial wonders raised on nations spoiled,
Where mixed with slaves the groaning martyr toiled:
Huge theatres, that now unpeopled woods,
Now drained a distant country of her floods:
Fanes, which admiring gods with pride survey,
Statues of men, scarce less alive than they!
Some felt the silent stroke of mouldering age,
Some hostile fury, some religious rage.
Barbarian blindness, Christian zeal conspire,
And papal piety, and Gothic fire.
Perhaps, by its own ruins saved from flame,
Some buried marble half preserves a name;
That name the learned with fierce dispute pursue,
And give to Titus old Vespasian’s Due.

But this poem is far too frothy, as are all the poems about Rome’s ruins. I prefer the fragments of an Anglo-Saxon poem of the 8th Century, part of an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poems in the library of Exeter Cathedral, whose subject is not Rome but the Roman ruins of Bath.

Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,
hrungeat berofen, hrim on lime,

For those of my no doubt many readers who, like me, are not conversant with Anglo-Saxon, let me continue with a translation by Siân Echard, of the University of British Columbia, with some modifications on my part.

Wondrous is this wall-stead, wasted by fate.
Battlements broken, giant’s work shattered.
Roofs are in ruin, towers destroyed,
Broken the barred gate, rime on the plaster,

Walls gape, torn up, destroyed, consumed by age.
A hundred generations have passed.
Earth-grip holds the proud builders, departed, long lost,
In the hard grasp of the grave. How often has this wall,

Hoary with lichen, red-stained, outlasted the passing reigns,
Withstanding the storms; the high arch now has fallen …

(At this point, there is a gap, for the parchment itself has suffered badly from the passage of time)

Indeed, the high arches, now fallen, of Bagan have witnessed the passing of many reigns, the last being but a few months ago, when the decades-long military government in Myanmar finally gave way to a democratically-elected civilian government. Knowing the history of neighbouring Thailand, where military meddling is a way of life, I offered a silent prayer in the Ananda temple
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that this would be the last of the military governments in this beautiful country, which has suffered so much and deserves so much better.

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Photos of Bagan: ours
Harold hit by the arrow: http://www.dot-domesday.me.uk/arrow.htm
Angkor Wat-1: https://artmundus.wordpress.com/2010/05/28/the-wonder-that-is-angkor-wat/
Angkor Wat-2: https://artmundus.wordpress.com/2010/05/28/the-wonder-that-is-angkor-wat/
Angkor Wat-3: http://rwethereyetrwethereyet.typepad.com/arewethereyet/2008/04/take-your-kids.html
Cimitero monumentale, Milan: https://www.tripadvisor.it/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g187849-d243431-i28163413-Monumental_Cemetery-Milan_Lombardy.html
Jewish section, Vienna Zentralfriedhof: http://www.flickriver.com/photos/lastingimages/2924629401/
Roman ruins:http://www.bobforrestweb.co.uk/The_Rubaiyat/Galleries/Gallery_5/g5notes.htm
– Claude Lorrain
– Giovanni Battista Piranesi
– Samuel Palmer
– Edward Lear

THUNDER

Bangkok, 4 July 2016

It’s the rainy season in Bangkok. The normal schedule sees the day start dry with perhaps some cloud cover, which then builds up into impressively nasty-looking, black, whorly cloud piles by late afternoon.

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At that point, lightning rips the sky from cloud to ground
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followed moments later by thunder. And what thunder it is! The air itself seems to crack and splinter, the clouds angrily boom and hammer, over and over again as lightning keeps bursting out of the clouds. Instinctively, my wife and I step back, retreating into the safety of the apartment, and murmur comments to each other about the elemental son et lumière playing outside our windows. And then the rain starts, so dense that the other side of Chaophraya River, normally perfectly visible from our terrace, is blotted out.

At moments like these, I feel pity for our early ancestors cowering in their rock caves or flimsy huts watching the same grand spectacle. With the benefit of science, I can rationalize what I am seeing: why, thunder is just the noise of the sonic shock wave created by the very sudden expansion of air caused by the almost instant increase in pressure and temperature brought about by the passage of a lightning bolt! That’s all … But they did not have this intellectual crutch to lean on. They must have found such dramatic displays by nature very frightening. So I suppose it’s not very surprising that all the early religions had a god of thunder, who no doubt had to be ritually appeased.

What I do find surprising, though, after a quick zip around the Internet, is how decorously many of these gods of thunder have been portrayed in art. If I were cowering in my cave 50,000 years ago, or even in my flimsy hut 5,000 years ago, listening to all that tearing, splintering, and booming mayhem going on outside, I think it would come naturally to me to depict the god of thunder as a mean, nasty, angry son of a bitch. Some portrayals do seem to go in this direction. For instance, those of Tawhirimatea, the Maori’s god of thunder

make him look satisfyingly nasty. So do portrayals of Raijin, Japan’s god of thunder
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who to my eyes looks apoplectic. Chaac, the Mayan god of thunder also looks suitably nasty
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although as in so much Mesoamerican art he looks gruesomely nasty – they really seemed to have a need for downright disgusting-looking gods, the Mesoamericans did. I think Thailand’s own god of thunder, Ramasura, could perhaps be added to the list. I suspect he has a nasty monster’s face, but the nastiness of it is offset by the graceful balletic poses he is depicted in, a pose common to any flying spirit in Thai art.
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After that, it gets difficult to find angry-looking gods of thunder. Take Zeus, for instance, the Greek god of thunder and lightning. The angriest depiction I could find was this one, on a vase, where frankly he just looks a little snippy rather than rip-roaring mad.
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His usual mode of representation seems to be that typically Greek one of Olympian calm and good muscle tone, like this magnificent statue of him in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens (the lightning bolt which he is, calmly, throwing has gone missing).
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A rapid whizz through the pantheon of thunder gods in the Middle East gave me nothing better than this representation of Teshub, the Assyrian and Babylonian god of thunder
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who, let’s face it, is looking petulant rather than angry as he wields his axe and lightning bolt.

I was hoping that the Norsemen, who after all seemed to spend most of their time stoving in their enemies’ skulls and drinking mead from those they hadn’t stoved in, would come up with a suitably horrible portrayal of Thor, their god of thunder. Not a bit of it! The best I could find was this
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which, let’s face it, is a really pathetic representation of this god, who, if I’m to believe the Icelandic sagas, was testosterone-fueled and badly in need of anger management classes. Marvel Comics have done a much better job at depicting him
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(and, by the way, have done a much better job of depicting Zeus too)
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What to make of all this? Perhaps that the trick of our ancestors was to personalize these frightening phenomena. By personalizing them, they could clothe them with known and understandable personality traits, thus rendering the unfamiliar familiar. And/or maybe the ruling classes who arose out of the early agrarian societies and needed the acquiescence of the masses to their rule, if necessary through force, rather liked the idea of the masses equating their power to that of natural forces like thunder and lightning – but also wanted that power to look regal rather than just plain nasty; the fist of iron in the velvet glove, as it were.

Well, that’s my two-cent’s worth of pop-anthropological musings. My wife and I can now go back to watching the spectacle through our apartment windows – but from two steps back; you never know.

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Thunder clouds over Bangkok: https://paulandsarahinthailand.wordpress.com/author/artyfooty/page/5/
Thunder clouds over Bangkok-2: http://2bangkok.com/2bangkok-weather-index.html
Lightning over Bangkok: http://www.digitalphotographytipsonline.com/my-image-gallery.html
Tawhirimatea, NZ: http://auckland-west.co.nz/2011/08/09/twhirimatea/
Raijin, Japan: http://www.esamskriti.com/print.aspx?topicid=969&chapter=1
Chaac, Mayan God of rain: http://archaeology.about.com/od/mayaarchaeology/a/Mayan-Rain-God-Chaac.htm
Ramasura: http://www.thaifolk.com/doc/mekkala_e.htm
Zeus on pottery: http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/K1.1.html
Artemisium Zeus statue: http://www.crystalinks.com/zeus.html
Teshub, Assyrian-Babylonian: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/12525705192076524/
Thor: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eyrarland_Statue
Thor comic book: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thor_(Marvel_Comics)
Thor and Zeus comic book: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeus_(Marvel_Comics)