Suppose you’re a painter, and you want capture a realistic scene of two men playing chess in a parlor. How would you do it? Most people, I think, would sit in the room and paint what they saw. Or, depending on their era, maybe they’d work from a photograph. A very meticulous artist might pencil out  couple of single-point perspective lines to guide the recession of the room’s furniture. Vanishingly few artists would use a separate sheet of paper to create a 3-dimensional gridded space where everything in the room was geometrically plotted out with each object considered as its own individual study. But this is exactly what Thomas Eakins did.

Eakins’ perspective workup for The Chess Players

The Chess Players, Thomas Eakins

There’s a decent chance your reaction is: Thomas Who? Eakins is an odd case, a man considered one of the leading American painters of the back half of the 19th century who has slowly slid into something that isn’t quite obscurity but is pretty far from household-name status. You’ve probably heard of the people considered his peers at the time: Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, James McNeil Whistler, (kinda) Mary Cassatt. A combination of scandals (Eakins was heavily involved in art education, and was involved in scandals revolving around nude models and students, and it’s a dense thicket that’s almost impossible to judge from 130 years out without getting lost in the gap between then-contemporary and current social mores; last time I looked, his wikipedia page was dominated by speculation about his sexual preference), changing tastes, and the random drift of history have shunted him off to the side. But in his day, Eakins was a big deal, renowned as a new kind of big-brained artist.

Eakins was a creature of his time. He worked during a period of unprecedented exuberance about the progress of science. He brought that spirit into his artistic practice, pursuing representational realism through a combination of techniques derived from science and mathematics. His approach was powerful but flawed, with inconsistencies that led to visual paradoxes; similar paradoxes lurked around the edges of the very science world that inspired him.

Eakins’ belief that perfect representation of reality could be attained in painting through advanced science-based technique was a manifestation of a mode of thought pervasive in late 19th-century American and European intellectual circles, an idea that science and knowledge had reached a summit. His social position in the academic elite of Philadelphia put him in contact with scientists, artists, and thinkers whose output presents a similarly teleological outlook. He basically soaked up their hubris. And this isn’t something I can claim to prove, but I’d guess that the passing of that particular scientific worldview has something to do with the slow drift of Eakins into semi-obscurity.

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One of the recurring themes of my adult life has been my getting the itch to go back and take a look at some book or movie or album that I loved when I was younger but haven’t re-engaged with for a while. The vast majority of the time, I walk away from the revisit shaking my head and telling myself that hey, it’s no crime to have liked something bad or silly when you were younger.

So, recently I got the revisit urge for Lord of the Rings. I was pretty sure I knew how this was going to play out; I hadn’t read Tolkien since 2002, and I did vaguely remember not digging it at the last go-round. Which had been a bummer- these were foundational books to me in the 80s and 90s, but my turn-of-the-century reaction had been that the books were humorless, and trite, and just generally kind of bad.

A few things have happened to me since 2002, though. Big-picture, I’ve lived an adult life, with attendant ups and downs. More directly relevant, I’ve gained a historical consciousness, reading a ton of history (both cultural and political) and particularly boning up on World Wars 1 and 2.

And that’s the key. While I think there’s a lot of valid criticism that can be aimed at Lord of the Rings, I absolutely loved it on this reread, and a great deal of that love is based on my fascination with the way that Tolkien’s experience in World War 1 is smeared onto every page of the book (even beyond the physical descriptions of places around Mordor sounding almost word-for-word like descriptions of Western Front battlefields). Tolkien was at the Somme, arguably the most disastrous and harrowing British military experience of the 20th century. As he points out in the preface to The Fellowship of the Ring, by 1919, most of his close friends were dead. British tactics at the Somme were, essentially, to hop up out of somewhat-safe trenches in waves, charging into a maze of barbed wire covered by German machine guns. You’d watch the wave ahead of yours go over the top and get cut to pieces. And then the officers would blow their whistles and your wave would go. Tolkien survived the war because a serious illness brought on by lice bites took him off of the firing line. But he saw a lot of people he knew die. And, as a junior officer in WW1 infantry, he was trained to order men to immediate, useless deaths and display leadership by joining them.

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goebenI’m about halfway through Barbara Tuchman’s exceedingly excellent The Guns of August; World War I had always been a gap in my 20th century history, and I’ve always heard good things about the book. I’m really happy to say that it justifies the hype. It’s fascinating and – weirdly – hilarious. The more I read, the stronger my impression that Europe in 1914 was under the collective rule of one of the biggest gang of boobs in history, and that if World War I didn’t have such a horrible body count associated with it, it would rank as one of the great comedic acts of mankind.

Consider the case of the German battleship Goeben and her companion, the cruiser Breslau.

At the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, Goeben and Breslau were stationed in the Mediterranean. Shit hits the fan. War breaks out. Because of a network of pacts, you abruptly have a situation where noted world powerhouse Serbia is allied with Russia who’s allied with France who’s allied with England, opposing Austria-Hungary and their allies the Germans. The Ottoman Empire is neutral as things start out. They don’t like the Russians much, but they have a longstanding relationship with England, and there are a lot of German sympathizers in the Turkish military. They could go either way. And they’re strategically important, since all of the good warm-water ports supplying Russia depend on shipping traffic through the Dardanelles.

So. The Ottomans, a crucial swing state that could go either way. What do the British do to win them over? They seize a couple of completed battleships that they’d been building for the Ottomans. Ace diplomacy there.
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An idea I co-developed with Chad Cook. You’d better believe that if I ever somehow get to fuck-you money status, I’ll be buying an old Charger and making this happen.

(this originally ran on a now-defunct site called Modern Humorist)

by Keith Pille

Feedback on Midterm Paper
US History, 10th Grade

Richard:

I find it very painful to say this, but your midterm project is unsatisfactory in virtually every way an academic paper can be. I can only hope that this is a one-time occurrence and not a sign of deeper problems that could compromise what promises to be a fine scholarly career.

I must say that it was rather unorthodox to open your paper with what I can only characterize as a personal attack on me and my so-called “revisionist history.” While I grant you it is academically healthy to question the veracity of the information you are given in your textbooks, it is hardly constructive to couple your claims with crude statements about my family life, moral character, and mental capacities. I did my best to prevent my evaluation of your work from being colored by your opening remarks. More »