What does Eau de Nil mean?

Noted early twentieth century cultural signifier Eau de Nil wends it way from Flaubert in Egypt to Hitchcock to a fresh moment in the sun thanks to a cool president’s new portrait:

The term first entered our chromatic lexicon in the late nineteenth century, just as Egyptomania was hitting its peak. While in the British Isles talk of “the East” referred primarily to India, France had a particularly strong affinity for Egypt—due in part to Napoleon’s brief 1798 attempts at colonization and the influence of the savants. “If you were French,” Wall writes, “the east was Egypt, a place at the very limit of the European imagination … Egypt was the orient, a country of the mind, a grand theatre of sensuality, despotism, slavery, polygamy, cruelty, mystery and terror.” This Egypt of the mind had little reality outside the poetry of Keats and Shelley; the paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme, Emile Bernard, and André Duterte (whose painting of the ruined temple at Thebes may have been the basis for “Oxymandias”); and the oddly popular theories of the occultist Helena Blavatsky and her follower, the “wickedest man in the world,” Aleister Crowley. For the French, Egypt as a concept was far more exciting than Egypt as an actual place. (Though not to Flaubert; to him, Egypt was where he bedded nubile young women after watching them dance the popular striptease, “the bee.”)

Image: the great portrait by Kehinde Wiley

Steps in Rome


Not to say ‘toward’ or ‘from.’ No need to be so speculative at the top of a New Year.
The Cavour is a neighborhood just to the north of the Coliseum. Steps leading down to a small street from the large excavation of the Imperial fora, backing up from the Trajan forum specifically.
The name Cavour seems to relate to the ancient neighborhood, Suburra, which has become kind of hothouse stand-in for over-charged criminality with new film and TV depictions. I had heard it was kind of red-light district in earlier times. Colleen McCullough mentions it as a densely-populated neighborhood of working people and perhaps a dozen or more different ethnicities where Gaius Marius bought apartments for his wife Julia. The area is still home to a lot people and not a few chic new restaurant of at least a dozen ethnicities.
But before you descend the steps down to the those places, or toward the metro stop of the same name, from the Via Cavour you can look back over those large holes of ruins and see Victor Emannuele and the remains of the Republican Forum and the Palatine Hill.
It was just that, turning around for another look prior to descent, which occurs now. We look up as we go down, even in the Eternal City. Remembering the way, learning, forgetting again old acquaintances, seeing them through the lens of the new.
Whether steps are old and cracked or well cared for, lead us forward or back, down or higher – they deposit on the fringe of a new space. There for decisions to then be made about joining the madness, skirting the trouble, perusing the menus or busting in and asking for a table. Reservations? Sure, you may have them. But don’t let that stop you.
Excelsior. And step lively.

Image: Plan of Rome and the area in question, approx. 350 A.D.

Slaves built your house

When it all began is as clear of a question as when it might end. Actual Nazis on violent parade (is there another kind of Nazi parade?) in a public square has brought the question of white supremacy out of the shadows for the time being. Hopefully the moment lasts a while longer to permit for force the reckoning it begs. Original, unrepented, institutionalized sin remains our bedrock foundation and WE continue to allow ourselves to benefit from it. Every ‘safe’ street and every ‘good’ school in every boring suburb was constructed on advantages denied to black, brown and red people in the name of God and country. We can continue to exist but we cannot continue to exist in this way.
The descendants of slaves will never not hold the moral high ground. All the beatings, whippings, killings, and arbitrary cruelty that was slavery now looks back from every set of eyes through the fence. The perpetuation of white domination without reckoning with the past is illegitimate, predicated on the keeping the book of history a sealed volume. The longer this goes on, the stronger the scent of fear and defensiveness about who we are. By ignoring this history all around us, we perpetuate a crime against those who built this country without ever enjoying its rights and advantages, the shelter they built. We all remain in the storm, but some of us are now flinching at the slight discomfort of the metaphorical version.
All American institutions, and let us note the special case of the South, now sit upon the remnants of the slave power. As we celebrate the past, as citizens do of all nations with buildings and monuments, while not recognizing the contributions and implications of enslaved people, we remain blinded to our own story, our true selves, ignorant of who we are and what brought us to the present moment.

All difficulties of the reckoning – the statues, the street names, the building names, the towns and town squares – none of them compare to the reality upon which they were built. We have tried so desperately to stomp out all traces of this memory that it is remarkable that any exist; yet they still crop up in accidental discoveries – bodies buried, markers uncovered, genealogy traced. The Pavlovian reactions and knee jerk resistance are understandable; it is better if we don’t think about it. But the reaction is also wrong. We need to think about it. We need to know who we actually are. To assume that everything is fine now, equal, fair, is a lie. Pulling down statues should be just the beginning.
Image: From an amazing animation at Slate. Wow – most of the confederate monuments didn’t come until later. I wonder why?

Entry into the school of your choice ™

It’s back to school time! Lunch pails and school slates may have given way to Uber eats and iPads, but one anachronism that remains is the ability for donors to get their kids into the best schools. With the Trump Justice Department launching a dubious new project targeting discrimination against white students in university admissions policies, I’m not going to explain why a diverse population in any university is not just a nice thing, but inarguably a crucial component in a country or society’s progress. Straight-up affirmative action cannot even be used college admissions, and yet still the white kids suffer.
But I do wonder how all Harvard (or any college where this happens) students and alumni are not diminished when a rich guy can make a large donation to assure admission for his under-achieving offspring? Maybe this clumsy attempt to mollify the persistent mythology of oppressed white students will accidentally put the spotlight on just how uneven admissions processes – and other, nefarious types of preference – in the round remain. There is something rigged about the process, just not probably what is commonly believed.

Fifty Years In

Like smartphones teach us to be dumb – to not know things, to not be able to find our way except by using the device – we are also learning how to forget the past. Or how to remember it inaccurately, disconnected from the forks in the road where our path darkened and we lost something irretrievable, something we did not make nor deserve but that came from us and birthed us, was us, the best and the worst, that pushed us in the right direction because we were scared to go on our own until we learned we could pull ourselves there if we could just join enough hands.
April 4, 1968, the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, TN, the alternately riotous and trippy sixties, the whole twentieth century, came crashing to a sudden end.
Now, 50 years into the 21st we wonder how long it’s going to last. This should not be our mindset; it wasn’t his. Is there an ideal that’s not an ideology? Is there optimism greater than hope?
Can we contemplate the breadth of shared possibility? How much justice will the market allow? The answers are not in your phone.

Front Lines

For a long time, I’ve thought that living in Republican-dominated states, especially in the South, was a form of being on the front lines – of racism, of anti-union sentiment, of hostility to immigrants and civil rights broadly construed. Even the lesser evils of being among people who feel over-taxed, persecuted for their (in every sense dominant) religious beliefs, sub-par infrastructure (no mass transit and the promotion of personal automobiles as priority transportation concerns) and general discomfort with the world as more people deservedly take their places in it, you are confronted with this it all up close. You know what it’s like and grow accustomed to fear and self-loathing as it leaks out everywhere among the shiny automobiles and neat, though increasingly sad [and appropriately named] subdivisions. After not too long, you begin to sense among the dominant political persuasion an uneasiness that borders on paranoia. The lack of confidence about the way things are going, despite the fact that they are in charge, is unmistakable and results in all kinds of frantic attempts to standardize and codify the fear. But it’s not normal and doesn’t sell easily. It’s not inevitable that these attempts fail, but often enough, people seek allies and gain them in the smallest way. Smiles and nods turn to conversations and simple shared affinities on this side of the line. You have every opportunity to reinforce your own convictions and/or assure others, in any way you choose. And to choose not to. You can also nod along, turn attention to more temporal concerns. Get along. Move along.

The new administration is simply this dynamic writ large; the anti-everything good and decent now has an official imprimatur that is the rushing the worst people and measures out front with great haste and uncut distrust. But the unease is the same, if broader. They know they are somehow on the wrong side, hence the anger and lack of confidence.
For this side, people have discovered the streets again. Attention has been gained by atrocious indecency, a willingness to loot not just the treasury but the national moral character itself. We don’t have laws against this stuff, to stop those depraved enough to endanger everyone. And again, it’s not inevitable that the nominal Our party will be able to seize the moments and string them together into a coherent future direction, foment the positive and give people in the streets a reason to overwhelm the polls when it comes time again.
But we’re all on the front lines now, and we have been for a while though not everyone is fighting, yet.

First Day of the Rest of Your

How long will this last? How much can you take? Do you have a line that won’t be crossed? Do you have a budget for direct action?
Even within the sanitized discretion of our modern parlance the questions, and the situation, bring to mind the passionate, confused, committed young man Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just. As this article notes, and you might read about him and his extended, late-eighteenth century moment,

When Victor Hugo in his 1862 novel, Les Misérables, described the young student Enjolras, who leads the climatic fight on the barricade, as having ‘too much of Saint-Just’ about him, his readers knew what that meant. A few years earlier, Hugo’s contemporary and fellow countryman, the great republican historian Jules Michelet, described Saint-Just as ‘the archangel of death’, a phrase that encapsulated the legend of the unnaturally beautiful and cold-bloodedly terrible Saint-Just.

So the question may be, do you have enough Saint-Just about you?

Image: Saint-Just in a portrait by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, 1793. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon

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