Sunday, April 26, 2009

Shevchenko vs. Lenin: The insanity of too much reason

At the southern entrance to Taras Shevchenko Park in Odessa, Ukraine stands a statue of the park's namesake. His massive chiseled shoulders top a monstrous frame clothed in perfectly-pressed trousers and jacket. A face meant to either inspire or strike fear into the common worker is mandatory for Shevchenko, an Ukrainian poet, artist and humanist who is credited by many for the creation of modern Ukrainian literature and even the language. In the west, presidents and war veterans often take credit for founding society. But in the east, the poets are the heroes.
What is most striking about Shevchenko's statue in this southern port town is his eyes and his mustache. Evidenced by his portrait, Ol' T.S.'s cookie duster is the envy of World War 1 veterans and mustache enthusiasts the world over, but this statue's exemplification was unique. As were his eyes. They were so cold, so huge and yet dwarfed by his massive brow. And then it became apparent his shoulders were not his own, either.
It was Lenin. The enemy of patriotic Ukrainians everywhere, the destroyer of worlds himself, Lenin's statue had been altered into a beefy Shevchenko. How incredibly ironic and yet unsavory: turning Communism's godfather, the man responsible for a regime that enslaved Ukraine for half a century, into the hero Ukrainians credit as the patriarch of their very language and culture.
Reflecting on the laziness of statue redactors everywhere, I have begun reading G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy in order to make sense of why the world is so mad. In his first glorious chapter, Chesterton addresses the question of insanity, and what exactly keeps a man sane or expunges him from it. The answer, of course, is not that he has lost reason altogether, but that he has lost everything but reason. Insanity may very well be a problem of too much reason, which is what every tyrant like Lenin suffers from in the first place.
Chesterton's grandest example of this is in the contrast of exactly those two men in the Odessa statue: the logician and the poet. The problem with the all too reasonable logician, like Lenin, is he tries to understand everything in the infinite universe, and realizing he cannot, makes it finite. He intentionally limits his view of the infinite because he cannot explain it, making it finite and incomplete.
The poet, Shevchenko, accepts the universe as the infinite sea that it is, Chesterton says, and merely attempts to float his raft on it. Accepting the universe as something outside of his control, as something infinite, the poet makes a place for his finite self in an infinite universe and finds he has all the space he needs. Realizing his view of the world is not complete, he is free to wander about and look at everything, and is never bored because there is always more to be discovered.
Chesterton says the poet merely pokes his head into the clouds to have a look around. The logician attempts to fit the heavens into his head, and it is his head that splits.

Perhaps this is why the insanity of Lenin's ideas are now dying in the godforsaken aftermath of the Soviet Regime. The tyrant attempts not only to understand everything, to reason everything, but in doing so he attempts to control all. This might be best exemplified in Tsar Nicholas I's order to exile Shevchenko to the Ural Mountains for writing critically of Tsarist Russia. Nicholas' words were to keep him under the strictest surveillance, without the right to write or paint.
The poet gives up control of his surroundings and his existence and merely attempts to enjoy and observe it. Shevchenko died in exile at the age of 47, but not after producing numerous paintings, poems, writings and drawings that live on today in Ukraine as works of a national hero.
The tyrant is insane because in his power he attempt to stretch his finite being over the infinite, to reason and control it. He creates a reasoning perfect in its simplicity, a perfect circle if you will, but a circle that is limited by its size. As his control and reason is found wanting, the circle shrinks, its owner running around it faster and faster and always ending up at the same place he started. The tyrant finds this reasonable because all apparent contradictions to his perfect circle must be left out if it is to work.
Shevchenko managed to retain sanity in the the bitter cold of the Ural mountains, of physical labour, and of the tortuous punishment of his oppressors. It would seem logical to us he should have gone insane. Yet he withstood the cruelest punishment and harshest conditions unwaveringly until death. But his oppressors could not withstand even his simple poetry or the sight of his art, it was too beautiful to fit in the circle, and it was too infinite to be snuffed out even his death.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Apparently, you can receive monetary compensation for blogging your butt off

This was in my email inbox about 2 hours ago:

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Spain another fabulouth thucceth, love Barthelona

I will post my trip in full in a few days, but it´s been a while since I´ve updated on my trip to Spain. I arrive here last Wednesday, went to Valencia on Thursday and returned to Barcelona on Saturday for Easter Sunday. I´m in Girona right now after I dropped my friend Amanda off at the bus station.
I´m typing at an internet cafe with my friend Bozena from Canada and a new friend, Brenton, from Texas, who we refer to as 'Dallas.' Dallas and I have been mimicking the Catalanian accent the entire trip, tho we keep thaying thingth with a lithp. Stop it.
We´re couchsurfing here in a small town before Bozena and I catch a plane to Poznan, Poland and Dallas goes to France. Life is wonderful and I´m doing well. We are staying in a farmhouse that looks like a morgue in a horror film. We were a bit surprised when our host pulled out a dried pig leg and carved us some ham. It was tasty and very dead.

Monday, April 13, 2009

France Last Day

Above, top to bottom: One of our hosts enjoys a cigarette as he explains his struggling photography career. I was surprised he keeps professional photo and studio equipment, prints and his computer in the squat for safety reasons, but it strangely put me at ease; Timothy preparing a wine carrying case during our final hour or so; the squat in all its glory

Friday, April 10, 2009

France Day 7: Paris

Above, top to bottom: smoking a cigar on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, France on March 30th, 2009; Brett in his bed at the squat we slept in; Pierre showing me his photo studio, one of the permanent squatters of the building(name has been changed, they are living illegally); Ahhh, Paris. Ahhh, the Seine. Oui! France! Carpe Diem, world! Live vicariously through me!
"Are you sure this is the place?"
"Damned if I know"
"You have this girl's number?"
"I already texted."
We were waiting outside a small bookshop near Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris for our host, a friend of a friend, to let us into her flat. When the door finally opened, a short, round-faced girl with tired eyes blew a thin stream of cigarette smoke out the crack of the door and pushed it open.
I was not expecting to squat illegally in an abandoned flat turned art commune. But I did. Tim, Brett and I were a bit surprised when we walked into what looked like the utility closet of the building, a red door with some tape and a name over it. Although they have permission from the courts to stay till August, I felt I should not advertise their presence over the internet.
Inside, we were greeted with a multitude of superfluous art materials, canvas and building materials. There were at least 12 bicycles, only two of which worked. The room was completely black, but I was aware of a huge cart holding some mammoth wooden frames, nearly 15 feet long and eight feet tall. There were scraps of insulation strewn about the floor, things I mistook for rats at first. Perhaps it was wishful thinking.
"We're on the second floor," said Claire.
For the first time, I notice the bits of colored cloth tied in Claire's partial dreadlocks. We follow her up a creaky staircase and into even darker rooms. She leads us to a makeshift room that looks more like a landlord's afterthought than an artist's accommodations. Claire fumbles for the light, as if she cannot remember where it is in the room.
When she does find it, I wished it was off again. The four-foot tall teddy bear staring at me is in the midst of a pile of clothes, used plastic bags and wrappers, coathangers, half a coffee table, wires, and a bed covered from ceiling to floor by red drapes. There is no floor space.
"Shit, I have to clean," said Claire.
We drop our bags and head to kitchen to meet the rest of the residents.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

France Day 6: Paris

Above, top to Bottom: Oscar Wilde's grave inside the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France on March 29th, 2009; Frederic Chopin's grave, he was a Polak!; the Mauthausen Memorial, a Nazi, WWII concentration camp in Austria; Tim inside in the colombarium, where the graves of the cremated are; and would you really put a Simpsons-esque character on your grave?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Day 5: Lyon

Above, top to Bottom: the view from Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière in Lyon, France on March 27th, 2009; the interior of the Basilica; Tim inside a Russian Orthodox Church in Lyon, the same church of our hosts who let us sleep in their rectory(in a different location); after lunch with our host, Francois, at far left, the parish priest, and Francois' family.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

France Day 3 and 4: The Saint

Above, top to bottom: Marie-Jean, Brett and Tim say their good-byes and thank-you's in French after a wonderful day and several gourmet meals on March 26, 2009 in Cavaillon, France; Jocelyn, Tim, Marie-Jean and Brett outside their home; Jocelyn, myself, Marie-Jean and Brett; a quiche Marie-Jean baked for us during our 24-hour mega-feast and lesson in the finest of French dining; stuffed tomatoes Jocelyn made for us. I was licking my plate.

Il y a un fete dans ma bouche," I proclaimed to the lunch table and one of our hosts, Jocelyn.
The blond-haired widow and mother of two from Normandy stared blankly back at me as she contemplated the meaning of the phrase. She looked at the stuffed tomatoes we were eating and burst out laughing.
"You have a party in your mouth," Tim said, giggling.
And it was quite the fiesta. Stuffed tomatoes, delictable quiche, choice red wine, fresh dates and apricots, grilled pork-chops, and assorted cheeses nearly burst the stomachs of three young men. We were humbled buy the physical feast, but only filled by the words of our host, Marie-Jean.

My friend Teresa had arranged for our accommodations days before this lunch, and we had assumed the floor and sleeping bags would be the logical accommodations. After all, we're young and poor, we should earn it. But the week before we came, Teresa met a woman at church and mentioned to her that we were passing through Cavaillon via car. She offered her driveway for the car. Oh, and I have a few beds by the way . . . have they eaten? etc. etc. etc.
Four hours late, we pulled into the driveway of Marie-Jean's house at 9 p.m. on the 25th to see an elderly woman with gray hair standing in the driveway. She spoke warmly to Teresa in french and directed us to the side of the driveway.
"This woman's a saint," Brett said.
Never have I been so humbled by a single person, nor have I felt such a strong connection with an individual. I realized I was no longer a guest, but rather a newborn member of a family I had never known before. I was not staying in her house, but rather entering her sphere of influence. Everthing we did, said, thought, ate, breathed, slept and saw was in reference to her kindness. A consecrated widow, Marie-Jean took us in as one of her own, and without understanding any french myself, I knew I was adopted. I knew I could bring my family and friends back to this woman and have deep conversations without words. I felt changed just standing in her presence.
Despite being four hours late, she had patiently waited to serve us a four-course feast.
We talked until two in the morning, and then took showers. She let us sleep as late as we wanted, and when we awoke, breakfast was waiting.
I should mention the only sight-seeing we did this whole day was to a church in the downtown area, and to a flower shop to buy our host some flowers. We spent the whole 24 hours with Marie-Jean eating, sleeping, and mostly talking. It was liberating.
I will never be the same. I cannot fully describe here what we talked about, it was too much to put into words and too beautiful, but if you ask me again when I return home, I'll be happy to relate it all.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

France Day 3: wine, chocolates and Peugeot rental cars

Above, top to bottom: Tim and Brett are so excited to get a rental upgrade to a Peugeot, they celebrate by immediately jumping on the hood and dressing like tourists from countries their not from; Monsieur Tim Malone II poses for a portrait outside Jenna's apartment in Aix-en-Provence on March 23rd, 2009; Jenna, myself and Tim shortly before we leave for Cavaillon; the delicious gourmet chocolates we sampled together, I don't remember what they all were, but the seashell one was creamy, soft, warm and delicious(I wanted to buy a chocolate cat and pass it around while we stared at Chamallow, but I was outvoted); from left to right: Tim Malone II of Rockford, IL, USA, Alanna Karpa of Vancouver, Canada, Brett McCaw and Jenna McIntyre also from Rockford, and Veronique, host mother and apparently smelling someone's fart, of Aix-en-Provence.
I hear there's a lot of fine wine in southern France, but we didn't try none of it. Shucks.
In truth, we quickly dispensed with the sightseeing pleasantries and focused on just enjoying the people with whom we were staying. It really is the best way to travel: relationships, not sights and things.
We spent the afternoon of our last day in Aix-en-Provence bumming around the countryside looking for a place to do lunch. Apparently Guistine, Veronique's daughter, has a friend who lives inside a castle. Whoever he/she was, they weren't home, but we felt very important for about five minutes while waiting inside the gates. We found a vineyard, but the owner's were too exhausted from bottling to give us a tasting. So we played with their five dogs and drove away.
Hershey's and the occassional Ghiradelli bar is the extent of most American's chocolate education. After biting into a lilac syrup-filled dark chocolate, the strong aroma of a spring breeze in my nostrils, I new what I was missing. The chocolate we sampled was some of the best in France, and perhaps in the world.
It was a pity we had to leave Aix and the girls so soon, but the trip was well worth it. Thanks, ladies!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

France Day 2: Aix-en-Provence

I spent my first couple days of the trip in Switzerland with my aunt and uncle(Thanks Bob and Kate). After looting my father's wine supply, helping Kate bake cookies and enjoying delicious leg of lamb, I set out for France via eurail and arrived in sunny Marseilles to find Brett, Tim and Jenna waiting for me on the platform. We had a splendid time staying with Jenna, Tim's neighbor from Rockford, IL, her roommate Alanna and their hostmother Veronique over three days. They were wonderful to us.
On day two, we decided to go for a hike to some sort of mountain, and spent the majority of the time blazing new trails, getting cut and bruised and giving blood to the forest floor than we did actual hiking. But we had a blast nonetheless, and the view from the top of the mountain we did climb was excellent. So was the cigar.
That night, we had a heated debate about the Pope's comments on contraception in Africa, and then we finished my(dad's) bottle of wine and opened another. Ladies, if you are reading this, you are all excellent conversationalists. What a way to start a trip. Read Tim's rather humorous morning moment below in my post from last week.
The most infamous member of Veronique's flat was a overweight, orange Persian cat with a chainsaw-snoring disorder. Chamallow, as they had named the beast, got its name for the french for cat, "chat" [chah] and "marshmallow."But for imagination's sake, if you could coat a marshmallow in orange fur, give it the body type of the Chinese Buddha and the personality of Madonna, you could clone Chamallow.
Fearing a dog-bite is quite natural, but the fear human beings experience when they know there is a cat waiting to pee on their possessions is like hearing the artillery fire and waiting for it to land on your only pair of shoes you've brought to France for a week-long trip. It just when I thought I had escaped the Persian's gaze, I sat down on the toilet and came face to the face with the "Cat Show, Marseilles" poster on the bathroom door, and those yellow Persian cat eyes. Ick, cats.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Where I was last week

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The thrill of renting a car in a foreign country is like getting a pony at age 6. You're convinced you're getting underwear, but you get an upgrade to a 4-door for free. Mom and dad seem hellbent on giving you coal, but then the AVIS guy in Paris writes the gas charge off your car and give it to you for less than you expected. You think "hmm, won't driving in France be hard?" and then you end up delegating that to your best friend, who is a great driver and drinks coffee like Juan Valdez.
I often find myself in strange situations, like being 6 inches from then-Senator Barack Obama in Milwaukee without reliable photographer credentials. Eating bagettes and cheese while driving on French highways, squatting illegally in a Parisian flat, and smoking a cigar while walking down the Champs-elysees definitely rates up there with my top 10 unbelievable situations.
But beyond the visceral travel experiences, my two closest friends and I went through a profound transformation during this trip. It quickly gained "best trip of our life" status, and for more reasons than just experiential. We were getting a tour of humanity, of the good Russian Orthodox parish in Lyon and the bad side of French secularism, the unconditionally loving French widow who took us in as her own sons and the Lonely-Planet hating host we had in Blois, the believers and friends we found in Aix-en-Provence and the French anarchists we stayed with in Paris.
This week I'll post photos on what exactly transpired over the last week, but it's a bit too difficult to explain in one post. I'll have to take it one day at a time. One thing is for sure, I'll never look at the world the same way as before France in 2009.