Those Maps Will Lead You Anywhere

Time for a pop quiz.  Quick, who died (almost exactly) 100 years ago?  No, don’t peek at Wikipedia.  Yes, Karl May, and 2012 is Karl May Year.  On 30 March 1912, just days before the Titanic set sail from Southampton on its maiden voyage, Karl May died in Radebeul near Dresden, Germany, at the age of 70.

Karl May as Old Shatterhand, 1896 (Photo: Karl May Gesellschaft)

At that time, he probably ranked as Germany’s most successful writer, with 1.6 million print copies sold.  By the 1970s, sales of his collected works in German ran in the 80 million copies, not counting translations in multiple foreign languages, from Afrikaans to Volapük.  Sales are reportedly around 200 million now.  Although his most famous characters, Old Shatterhand and Winnetou, roamed the American West, Karl May is practically unknown in the U.S.  I remember vividly my nagging disappointment on my first trip to the States in the 1980s when, visiting the Badlands and other areas West of the Mississippi I knew through his novels, I found lots and lots of native American and “Western” lore but nobody who had ever heard of Karl May–or of Winnetou, for that matter.  Although his popularity may now be on the wane in continental Europe and his native Germany, previous generations had been practically raised on his stories.  I read them in Dutch when I was in my early teens, in a cheap paperback series advertised “Voor zoon en vader” (“for father and son,” though girls certainly read them too).  I still have several of the twenty-five volumes, starting with the Winnetou Trilogy,

Karl May, Winnetou III (1950-60s ed.)

followed by the moving The Son of the Bear Hunter and reaching a climax in his best work, The Treasure of Silver Lake.  They all purported to narrate May’s own experience as Old Shatterhand, a “trapper” gaining fame for his marksmanship and his all-powerful “shattering” uppercut, but also for his friendship with Winnetou and other native Americans, to whom he brings “in all humility,” the greatest good of his civilization. i.e. his Christian faith.  The dozen or so North American stories ended with the Death of Winnetou (boys were of course supposed to stoically endure this event) but May applied the formula with just as much gusto to other areas of the world: there followed stories of his exploits as Kara ben Nemsi, the hero of the Orient, famous there, too,

for his aim and his all-powerful fist, and for his friendship with Hadschi Halef Omar, his Muslim guide, and with all natives suffering under Ottoman rule; and, as a light encore, a few tales set in Latin America.

All of these written of course without having set foot in any of those lands. Like a modern-day Sir John Mandeville, May would embark on his voyages ensconced in his study and armed with a few popular

May’s study (Photo: Karl May Museum)

ethnologies, a set of the Brockhaus encyclopedia, an atlas or two, and his lively imagination.  Story-telling, make-believe, faking it: it was not only his profession but may have stood at the very core of his being.  Born in abject poverty as the son of a weaver in Saxony in 1842, May survived as a con-man and petty thief, spending almost ten years in jail, before he realized that the safest and most lucrative way to utilize his gifts was by turning his compulsive self-promotion into an art form and sell books.  Along the way he adopted a doctoral degree (“Dr. Karl May”) whose authenticity he then attempted to demonstrate by adding a (fake) honorary degree from the Universitas Germana-Americana (in Chicago!).  A local gun smith fabricated three guns that May alias Old Shatterhand was supposed to have brought back from the States (the Bärentöter or “Bear Killer”, the Silberbüchse or “Silver Gun” and the Henrystutzen or “Henry Rifle”); these he then exhibited as artifacts in the handsome home in Radebeul that he bought with his staggering sales and re-named Villa Shatterhand. Trips to the US and the

May at Villa Shatterhand, undated. He had shot the lion “straight through the heart” — but where? (Photo: Karl May Gesellschaft)

Orient late in life helped to shore up his knowledge of the regions after the fact, but scandal followed him throughout his writing career, up to his last days, which included a dreadful marital imbroglio.  A learned and very readable recent biography (only in German, alas), Helmut Schmiedt, Karl May oder die Macht der Phantasie: Eine Biographie (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2011), reflects on the writer’s apparent megalomania and the final transformation of his self-image into that of a Christ-like savior preaching world peace in those tense days leading up to the Great War.  It is hard to decide whether he had not come to believe his own legend.

I certainly believed it.  The books not only “felt” authentic: they came with a brief editorial comment about “Dr. May”’s travels, a terse but straightforward timeline (“this story occurred between 1860 and 1870”), and a map How I loved those maps, with all the thrilling, exotic names (New Orleans, San Francisco, Llano Estacado, Cairo, Rio de la Plata, Kurdistan), a sinuous route that by its very shape evoked an exciting venture, swirling mountain roads, perilous desert trails—and all more or less in the right places!  True, by the end of the series, when I was perhaps eleven or so, it did occur to me that May had traveled an awful lot in a short time, and my budding sense of time and place was jarred a little when Winnetou—in what otherwise seemed a masterstroke of imaginative as well as economic plotting—joined Old Shatterhand Kara ben Nemsi in the Sahara for Winnetou and the Bedouins (Orig. title: Krüger Bei and Satan und Ischariot), but then there were these maps!  How could this not be true?!  Curiously, it was May’s ardent patriotism that did him in for me. Eventually I grew weary of the fact that virtually every hero of the West (and to some extent of the East), every famous scout whom Old Shatterhand encountered was, like him, German, or more accurately, from Saxony.  Or alternatively from Pommern. (No slackers from Bavaria admitted here!)  This, I thought, defied credibility, and I have been a skeptic of nationalist feelings ever since.

And yet, and yet: I credit May with instilling in me at a very young age an interest in the world, in other people’s experiences, in learning about their history.  I learned about the Mahdi (In the Land of the Mahdi, set against the backdrop of Muhammad Ahmad‘s 1881 rebellion along the Nile) years before I read anything “serious” on Islam or African history; indeed, my knowledge of Ottoman history—such as it is—still owes a lot to From Bagdad to Istanbul and Through Wild Kurdistan, with a little help from Seven Pillars of Wisdom years after that.

Loss of interest in this writer among younger readers has been sort of compensated in recent years by academic enthusiasm—not surprisingly, since Karl May’s oeuvre combines elements of orientalism, the myth of the Noble Savage, colportage novels, eventually also Nazi censorship/propaganda, all rolled into one.  Even before his death, the “Karl May Phenomenon” created its own commercial universe, with Karl-May-cards as candy supplements, Karl-May figurines, puzzles, even kitchen utensils.  Now there are comic books in multiple languages, at least one play for the stage (Hadschi Halef Omar), several TV series, numerous radio plays, pop songs, and of course, inevitably, parodies and satirical takes.  Truck Stop, a German country music band (they exist!) scored a smash hit in 1991 with their Winnetou, oh Winnetou, containing the memorable lines (best left untranslated):

Ich suche mir eine neue Squaw

Ich hoffe nur, ich find sie bald.

Die alte Silberbüchse

Hat schon so lange nicht mehr geknallt.

Perhaps the most spectacular product of the Karl May industry was the series of seventeen (17!) German westerns and easterns produced between 1962 and 1968, mostly featuring the striking Pierre Brice as Winnetou and the Hollywood actor Lex Barker, Johnny Weissmuller’s successor in the Tarzan role, whose 6’4” frame made him the ideal Old Shatterhand / Kara ben Nemsi.  Yes, American readers: before Sergio Leone and his Spaghetti Westerns, there were Frankfurter Westerns. In fact, some of the latter even introduced actors who became stars in the former, like Terence Hill and Klaus Kinski.  And they had Herbert Lom.

I just found out that Dartmouth’s media library owns a videotape of The Shoot (“Der Schut”), the 1964 film based on May’s story of the same title involving Kara ben Nemsi’s pursuit of a villain in the mountains of Montenegro/Albania, “somewhere between 1860 and 1870”.  We probably owe that to Gerd Gemünden, my colleague in the German department, who is an expert on German film and has published on the East German, anti-capitalist Indianerfilme, and to the late Susanne Zantop. Dartmouth students, what treasures do you have right here at your fingertips!

Update: The German Karl May Jahr site announces an American exhibit on May opening in..uh, May.  At the Apache Spirit Ranch in Tombstone, Arizona.  That looks like the right place for it.

Home Sweet Home

Sold at a November 24-27, 2011 auction, by Bubb Kuyper, one of Europe’s most prominent auctioneers of printed and manuscript books:

Photo: Veilinghuis Bubb Kuyper, Haarlem

(from the catalogue:) 55/ 81  [Objects for booklovers]. (Bearded man in his study). Scale model of a private library w. 2 bookcases, comprising 9 shelves w. ±100 imitation miniature books, mixed materials, in a glass bottle (Ş13,5, length 25 cm.)., 20th cent.

Sold for 210 Euro.

H/t: Boekendingen

Pain and Longing: The Hidden Terrors of Helene Nolthenius

Nolthenius in the 1950s

The Dutch medievalist Helene Nolthenius (1920­–2000) has a curious, split reputation.  The division is not between fans and detractors but rather between those who appreciate her for a small set of specialist publications, mostly in medieval music history, and then a much larger audience that loves her for popular non-fiction and fiction, usually set in the distant European past.  She began her career in 1951 with a tremendously successful work on thirteenth-century Italy, Duecento (English translation: Duecento: The Late Middle Ages in Italy, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968; published in Britain as In that Dawn: The Thirteenth Century in Italy, London: Darton Longman and Todd, 1968).  It’s still a lovely introduction to Italian culture on the eve of the renaissance, though it shows its age and, especially in the original Dutch, stylistically bears the mark of Johan Huizinga’s “historical sensation” – concept: it’s all very exciting, even a little breathless.  Imagine Huizinga, having fallen in love with Umbria, sitting down for work in the morning with an espresso and a shot of grappa, and then letting loose (hard to imagine, I know).

This is rather unkind of me because there are times when I really like the book, and in some ways it broke new ground: Nolthenius was interdisciplinary long before anyone knew what the term meant.  But she would have been the first to admit that Duecento did not go very deep and did not aim very high: the goal was to thrill, to please, to find a new audience for a history and a place with which she had fallen in love during her dissertation research on the musical culture of early Franciscan Laude in central Italy. It was the source of an enduring passion that compelled her to retire from her professorship in Utrecht at the age of fifty-six and move to an old farmhouse in Cavriglia, some 20 miles south of Florence, in 1978.  The dream turned out to be less than satisfying, and she went back to Holland in 1981, another illusion richer (or poorer).  The experience characterizes her life, dominated by a longing for a high culture of love and beauty impossible to attain in the modern world and increasingly sought in the past and within—or perhaps with her husband, Willy Wagenaar, a kind and erudite esthete, and with her family.  A strain of deep sadness and pain runs through much of her fiction work, which I always found difficult to reconcile with the mood of eager delight in Duecento.  Even her lighter work, like the mystery novels centered on Lapo Mosca, a medieval monk and sleuth,

A Spanish translation of two Lapo Mosca mysteries, 1996

can be bleak.  She started the series in 1977; a year later Umberto Eco began work on his novel about a medieval monastic detective, The Name of the Rose, which of course became an international bestseller.  (Nolthenius’ Lapo Mosca-mysteries did well in the Netherlands; some were translated into Italian, Spanish and German.)

Above all, there is guilt, and shame.  In her final novel, Voortgeschopt als een steen [“Kicked like a Pebble”, only available in Dutch], published a year before her death, when she was already suffering from Parkinson’s, the central character, Leonidas of Taranto (a real historical figure, aka Leonida di Taranto, author of Greek epigrams, probably active in the third century BC) traces his life of endless vagrancy to the day when, at the age of twenty-five, he leaves his homeland to seek adventure, serving cruel Pyrrhus and many other dubious patrons to whom he sold his pen as a second-rate poet.  ‘An artist is a divided human being: the protective hide of his homeland provides the foundations of his art, but he will always seek the muses on the far side of the horizon” (p. 17, my translation).  Leonidas looks back in shame: he failed himself for not living up to his own high standards of art, but he also failed his father, who had named him after the famed Spartan king and martial hero in the hope of a glorious future; and he has failed his home, Taranto, sacked by Pyrrhus.

Nolthenius thought of herself as a lonely wanderer in a senseless world.  Throughout her life and career as a historian and writer, she harbored an identification with St Francis of Assisi, the subject of her last historical work for a wider audience,

Giovanni Bellini, St Francis in Ecstasy, c. 1480 (New York, Frick Museum)

De man uit het dal van Spoleto: Franciscus tussen zijn tijdgenoten [The Man from Spoleto Valley: St Francis Among his Contemporaries, 1988; translated into Italian and Spanish, but not in English), in which she juxtaposes fragments from historical narratives about political and cultural events written in the days of St Francis, with a meticulous reconstruction of the saint’s life, which produces an odd effect of profound melancholy: it reminded me of Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus, in which the painter foregrounds a farmer plowing the land and a shepherd glancing up at the sky as if worried by inclement weather, totally oblivious to the drama in the background of young Icarus plunging to his death.

A new biography by Etty Mulder, Rede en vervoering. Helene Nolthenius 1920–2000 [Reason and Ecstasy: H.N.] (Nijmegen: Vanthilt, 2009) reveals that this brilliant loner kept some long and deep scars in her psyche carefully hidden behind a forbidding persona, unfathomable to her colleagues and intimidating to her students—though they remember her even more for her inability to look them in the eye.  When Helene was four or five, in the mid-1920s,

Nolthenius, age 5 (photo: Mulder, HN)

her father Hugo abandoned his career as a cellist because of stage fright and became a high school teacher of Latin and Greek.  His great learning inspired immense admiration in the young girl, but his pomposity in the classroom also embarrassed her.  He, in turn, cut short her promise as a singer, insisting that her voice “just wasn’t good enough”. Adolescence brought even greater tension with her father.  Helene never forgave him for leaving her mother (and her) for another woman, and broke off all contact with him in the early 1950s.  Mulder identifies “letting go” as a key value in her life.

I am intrigued by her sense of failure, affected no doubt by the troubled relationship with her father but also by traumatizing events during and shortly after the Second World War, which shaped her view of herself and her main subject, Franciscan culture.

Her formative teens and early twenties involved numerous crises and transitions for herself and for loved ones.  She idealized her aunt Frida, a history teacher in Indonesia; after Frida’s suicide in 1927, Mulder testifies, she “put on [Frida’s] clothes and read her books”, including Johannes Jørgensen’s biography of Saint Francis of Assisi (orig. publ. 1907), setting into motion a lifelong fascination with Francis and her conversion to Catholicism, formally completed when she turns 21—truly an act of rebellion against her pantheist/atheist father; Mulder publishes Nolthenius handwritten Apologia for her faith, found among her papers after her death—complete with her father’s critical notes in the margin!

At that point, Holland is laboring under five years of Nazi occupation, of course, and they bring tragedy.  In 1943, the Nolthenius family decide to shelter her Jewish friend Hanna de Beer in their home.  They manage to hide Hanna safely for months, then move her to a friend’s house when the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) closes in.

Hanna (“Hans”) Hammelburg-de Beer in 1947 (Photo: Mulder, HN)

Finally, in January 1944, the SD arrests Nolthenius; under pressure, she divulges Hanna’s new hideaway.  Hanna and her parents are rounded up. Nolthenius is further interrogated but her father’s astonishing courage saves her: he convinces the German authorities that he is the ringleader of the underground circuit and that his daughter is innocent.  Dachau is his fate (he survives, weakened).  Hanna and her parents are transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the elderly de Beers are immediately killed.  Hanna, a medical student, survives by claiming to be a doctor.  Nolthenius is freed.

Meanwhile a young Jewish man, Samuel Vecht, also in hiding, has fallen in love with Nolthenius, now 24 years old, smart, talented, beautiful, with a dominant personality. She acts as a mentor to Samuel, five years her junior,

Nolthenius (sitting, left) and Samuel Vecht (sitting, right), with Gerard and Willemien Brom (standing), 1946 (Photo: Mulder, HN)

tutoring him in Greek and Latin, while introducing him to the study of St Francis (I wonder if Jørgensen’s own, important mentorship of a Jewish friend was not without influence here).  With no news about his family deported to the camps, and utterly besotted by Nolthenius, Samuel even converts to Catholicism. In the end, Nolthenius marries another man, Willy Wagenaar; Samuel declares an intention to enter the Franciscan order, then commits suicide.  His father, the Vecht family’s sole survivor of the camps, spits Nolthenius in the face upon meeting her.  For the rest of her life, Nolthenius never talked about Samuel.

What did she try to find in St Francis and medieval culture?  Not confirmation of her faith: she abandoned Catholicism shortly after 1950 and never again ascribed to any religious belief system.  Nor did she idealize Francis as a social activist: although she had become a member of the Dutch communist party in her late teens (for her, communism was the logical consequence of true Christian faith!), she cancelled her membership because of the 1939 Stalin-Hitler pact in yet another instance of “letting go,” and refrained from all political activity after that. Mulder suggests she admired Francis and his world for doing exactly that which she no longer could do: to give oneself for an ideal, to commit with passion.

Parkinson’s clouded her latter years; she became forgetful, confused.  Wagenaar relates to Mulder that shortly before her death, fifty-five years after the war, she would wake up at night convinced that she was living in an extermination camp.  In the end, she herself had become “Jewish.”

Etty Mulder, Rede en vervoering: Helene Nolthenius 1920–2000 (Nijmegen: Vantilt, 2009). 319 pages.  ISBN 9789460040214.


Spain may have lost a historical treasure but made an important new discovery.  You can learn more about this marvelous technological breakthrough here (in Spanish):

A video with French subtitles is making the new technology more widely available here. The intellectual origins of the invention may be traced to this 2001 Norwegian TV-show.

Actually, I believe the idea is really old.  Regrettably, it could not prevent this.

Furtum Sacrum

The Codex Calixtinus, the twelfth-century manuscript containing the oldest version of the so-called “Pilgrim’s Guide to St James,” has “disappeared” from a safe in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.   Staff discovered its absence late on Tuesday but it is not clear when exactly the manuscript was stolen, if theft there is.  There were no signs of forced entry, and only two people, in addition to the dean of the cathedral, have access to the manuscript.  El País, which offers the most extensive coverage of the mystery that I have seen, notes that its value is “incalculable.”  Like many medieval manuscripts around the world, the Codex Calixtinus is not insured.

On Alan Greenspan, Metaphors, and Allegory (With a Detour to Montaillou)

My apologies for the long blogging silence these past months.  Teaching the much-feared Dartmouth winter term was as challenging as ever.  Maybe it takes a full spring term to recover from the winter term.  But here we are again, with fresh energy and news from the interwebs.  In case you haven’t heard: the season produced a remarkable crop of historical statements by Very Wise Men in business and finance.   There was first of all Alan Greenspan’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal of March 29, 2011, which contained this gem:

Today’s competitive markets, whether we seek to recognise it or not, are driven by an international version of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” that is unredeemably opaque. With notably rare exceptions (2008, for example), the global “invisible hand” has created relatively stable exchange rates, interest rates, prices, and wage rates.

As Henry Farrell noted,

It’s best not to interpret this as an empirical claim, but a carefully-thought-out bid for Internet immortality. It has the sublime combination of supreme self-confidence and utter cluelessness of previously successful memes such as “I am aware of all Internet traditions” and the “argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care,” but with added Greenspanny goodness. I tried to think of useful variations on the way in to work this morning – “With notably rare exceptions, Russian Roulette is a fun, safe game for all the family to play,” and “With notably rare exceptions, (the Third Punic War for example), the Carthaginian war machine was extremely successful,” but none do proper justice to the magnificence of the original.

Photo: flickr

Within 24 hours, the clever folks at Crooked Timber generated more than 330 Greenspanisms along those same lines, forming one of the most hilarious comments’ threads in memory.  An instant classic.  Greenspan’s legacy as Chairman of the Fed might be rather shaken, but his contribution to the history of rhetoric is now undisputed.

This could be a great parlor game (are there still parlors anywhere?) for the historically inclined:

“With notably rare exceptions (1346-48, for instance), the Black Death had little impact on medieval society.”

“With notably rare exceptions, Chernobyl reactor #4 functioned splendidly.”

“With notably rare exceptions, Austrian Archdukes rather enjoyed their trips to Sarajevo.”

And so forth.

Not to be outdone, Google’s Chief economist, Hal Varian, had this to say in The Economist‘s pages:

If you look at the history of the world, up until 1700 nothing much happened—GDP growth per capita was essentially flat. Then the wonderful Industrial Revolution happened and things took off.

Enough to give this medievalist an apoplexy of course, but Varian then continued:

There’s a recent study out of the University of Michigan, where they had a team of students find answers to a set of questions using materials in the campus library. Then another team had to answer the same set of questions using Google. It took them 7 minutes to answer the questions on Google and Continue reading