Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Boxing Day marked the 236th anniversary of the birth of Mary Somerville, Scottish scientist and polymath. And it so happened that on the day before that, Christmas Day, pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin, who established the existence of dark matter, passed away without ever winning the Nobel Prize that she probably deserved. I may be a few days late, but it still seems the week to celebrate Somerville’s legacy.
As Maria Popova noted over at Brainpickings, the very word “scientist” was coined for Somerville’s sake, because the traditional phrase “man of science” was obviously inappropriate for a woman. Another phrase by which Somerville was known was “the queen of science.” When she passed away in 1872, the London Post described her as “the Queen of Nineteenth-Century Science.”
’Tis now the day after Christmas, when the Three Wise Men would have set out to find Jesus. Although Nativity scenes typically show the Three Wise Men alongside the shepherds, the Gospel of Matthew indicates that the men arrived some time later. After all, they had to follow the star and travel for some time before they could reach Bethlehem. Christian tradition fixes their arrival on the Epiphany, thirteen days after Christmas, giving the three men just shy of two weeks to travel, a very tight schedule for the ancient world.
Most of what Christians now believe about the Three Kings do not come from the Bible. In Spanish-speaking countries, the kings are called Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar, representing Arabia, the Orient, and Africa. Others of the Western Christian tradition deem Melchior as being from Persia, Gaspar (or Caspar or Jasper) from India, and Balthazar from Babylon. Traditions relating to the three treat them as largely symbolic, representing three different parts of the world and also three ages of man. But most significantly, they represent the nations who would come to embrace Christ — hence the name “Epiphany,” a revelation of Jesus as “a light to the Gentiles” described in Isaiah 49:6.
But the sole biblical account of the visit, Matthew chapter 2, says none of this. There aren’t necessarily three of them, they’re not said to be kings, they’re not said to be wise, and they’re only described as being from “the east.”
When we think of Singapore, we think of the Southeast Asian city state with its gleaming high-rises and strict laws — “no chewing gum!” is what I hear most commonly from people who have never spent time there. Even those who know a few things about Singaporean history and politics usually begin with Lee Kuan Yew, the Chinese-descended, Cambridge-educated lawyer who became the country’s first prime minister in 1959 and led it to independence.
What few outsiders know is that the island just off the coast of Malaysia also has a fascinating Jewish heritage. And before there was Lee Kuan Yew, there was David Saul Marshall.
Standing in the snow in Pripyat, the abandoned township across from the nuclear reactors in Chernobyl, I kept thinking about how apocalypses are alien to the American historical experience.
Perhaps that means Americans have less instinct for how to behave in such a scenario. And presumably this has much to do with American pop culture’s inclination to imagine destruction, whether through zombies or aliens or, representative of a different type of apocalypse, the collapse of a sociopolitical order thought to be stable, through Nazi conquest (The Man in the High Castle), which all of a sudden doesn’t seem altogether fictional.
For reasons that should be obvious by the end of this post, a young man I met once in college has been on my mind in recent days. I met him early in 2003, soon before the Iraq War began. I was a junior at Yale, and the prospect of war felt like all that anyone could talk about on campus.
I was at the dining hall of my residence getting dinner when I ran into this girl I knew — let’s call her Giselle — and the guy she introduced to me as her new boyfriend. The three of us sat down together. He said his name was Aleksey. He had short blond hair, what I remember as a slightly gaunt frame, and gold-rimmed glasses. He spoke with a slight Russian accent and said his family was Russian but had immigrated from Uzbekistan.
Then, in rapid succession, Aleksey offered the following about himself: He was a Tibetan buddhist; he was a master of martial arts; he was a tennis champion; he worked as a male model; he started his own company and was still the CEO; he was a member of the Russian mafia; and he was an undercover operative for the CIA.
It’s a well-known story in Russia. But I assume that most non-Russians haven’t heard it. And in this age of ours when Russia appears to be instigating white supremacist movements abroad, maybe even Russians need a reminder.
Abram Hannibal was a black man born in today’s Cameroon in 1696. At the age of seven he was kidnapped by Ottoman Turks before being presented to the court of Peter the Great as a gift. In Russia he came to be known as Abram Petrovich Gannibal (the Russian language has a way of changing Hs to Gs, so much so that “Harry Potter” in Russian is “Garry Potter”). Peter took a liking to the young African boy and took him into his household. He faithfully served the Tsar and later his daughter, the Empress Elizabeth, first as a valet and eventually as a general in the Russian army.
Fast forward a hundred years to Abram’s great-grandson Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin. Like so many Russian aristocrats of his day, as a child Pushkin knew French better than he knew Russian, a defect he would remedy soon enough. By the age of fifteen he had published his first poem and gained a literary reputation. But his politics were far too liberal for the Tsarist autocracy, and he got himself exiled to the Crimea, Moldova, and the Caucasus, that romantic part of Russian imperial territory where I am as of this writing, a place that would inspire other Russian writers as well, like Mikhail Lermontov.
In this peculiar age of ours, when Neo-Nazis are apparently getting a new and sympathetic hearing, it’s worth remembering those remarkable individuals, even national icons, who were not the race we typically think of them. There will be more posts like this one coming up.
Let’s begin with Alexandre Dumas, pere, the most popular French novelist of his time and author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, and father of Alexandre Dumas, fils, the great French writer and playwright.
He was black.
In Lalibela, “Ethiopia’s Jerusalem,” my hotel manager Abraham (not his real name) invited me to sit with him and his friend. He was thirty-something and wore a gray hoodie as though in emulation of Luke Cage. We were in the tranquil backyard, sitting on white plastic chairs and chewing khat, the tobacco-like stimulating shrub leaves common here and in the Middle East.
Like a surprisingly number of Ethiopians, he spoke fluent English, although his friend struggled to understand me and found it hard to get a word in edgewise. Abraham later explained that years ago a Finnish woman had helped him get an education, and he worked very hard to learn English well.
“You are Chinese?” he asked.
“But you are not Chinese.”
“How did you know?”
“You are not like other Chinese people I have met.”
“I live in America.” I repeated this lie, not wanting to explain the complications about how I’d left already.
The Chinese language contains many phrases known as chengyu (成語), literally “fixed expressions,” what in English we’d call cliches but which are an indispensable part of Chinese.
One fixed expression goes, “three in the morning, four in the evening” (朝三暮四). Today the expression is used to describe someone who is mercurial, hot and cold, inconstant. But that’s not what it originally meant.
Many fixed expressions have fun origin stories. This one goes back to ancient Taoist philosophy. In Zhuangzi, a foundational text of Taoism named after its author and published in the third century B.C., there’s a cute fable in “A Theory on the Equality of All Things” (莊子‧齊物論) about a man who raised monkeys and could talk to them. The man came to the monkeys and said, “How about I feed you three fruits each in the morning, and four in the evening?” The monkeys protested that this was not enough food. The man nodded and went away. A little while later he returned and made another proposition: “How about I feed you four fruits each in the morning, and three in the evening?” The monkeys now cheered and accepted the proposal.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."