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Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Wrong End. By John von Daler

                 "Twenty dollars", says the realtor with a chuckle, "You could have bought this place for twenty dollars back then!" We are looking at a colonial house in Connecticut.
                In corresponding situations I have always thought, and what's so funny about that? I would not have had twenty dollars back then and I don't have the price you are asking now!

                Distance - in time - does not always, as one would suppose, improve our objective view of history. We love to talk about old times as if somehow even heinous crimes were committed with less atrociousness way back then. Large, terrible things seem little and sweet, as if we had turned our mental telescope around and were looking through the wrong end. We see small figures doing more or less cute things and we nod approvingly and giggle.
                "Wow! Only twenty bucks! We should have been around then, hah, hah, hah!"
                Looking back we may think #Napoleon was a great and wonderful figure. Did he not standardize all the laws in France? And he was a military genius, that is, until he lost the last few campaigns. When his troops crossed Prussia on their way to attack Russia they raped and pillaged. When they came back wounded, tired and disillusioned they were slaughtered by the very peasants they had misused in the first part of their campaign. Napoleon great? Only when seen through the wrong end of the telescope.
                I have a tendency to look back on #Charlemagne with a certain kind of fondness. Did he not unite Europe? He even had all the laws in his kingdom translated into Latin. If you were born in Strasbourg and committed a crime in Aachen, you would be tried by the local judge but punished according to the laws of Strasbourg because thanks to Charlemagne he had them at hand in Latin.
                Charlemagne seems quaint now, sitting in his morning bath that he combined with a kind of open house for his subjects. While he enjoyed his pool, his daughters gathered at the edge, he heard the complaints and problems of his subjects and gave council and decrees judiciously. All winter he stayed in Aachen, eating grilled meat against the advice of his doctors (they recommended boiled), ruling his kingdom, and planning his military campaign for the spring. He was a ferocious warrior and had a sword called, like it or not, "Joyeuse" (Joyful!). But I would not want to have been someone against whom he campaigned.
                Charlemagne could read but not write. He had scriveners to do that for him. Not a bad role model.
                My favorite view of him seen through my backwards telescope can be read in Alessandro #Barbero's wonderful book, Charlemagne: Father of a Continent. The Vikings have sailed for the first time towards the coast of Normandy (at the beginning of the ninth century). Charlemagne happens to be in the area quite by accident. Seeing him, the Vikings turn around and sail back north. Charlemagne's subjects cheer him after this great and bloodless victory. But they see that he is shedding tears.
                What's wrong, oh great emperor? they ask. Charlemagne looks at them through his tears. They will be back, he says, and by then I will be gone.

                Now, seen at a distance, isn't that sweet?

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