Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Our Excuse is a Book

No, it isn't that we are still on an extended summer vacation in the south of France; in fact, we never had time to take more than a weekend off all year. We indeed have been remiss for not posting sooner, and our sincere apologies for having let that drag on so long. But we have been exceedingly busyactually, entirely consumed would be more accuratewith a new book project.

Our publisher made us an offer we could not refusecomplete editorial controland so we did not refuse; such gifts are almost never offered to authors and we would have been churlish, or fools, to decline. The downside was that they had a wildly ambitious schedule, but we thought, "Well, it is humanly possible."

Indeed it is humanly possible, just as we predicted, but it has made the summer and fall, and the coming month at least, a time of intense charette and equally intensive research, writing, layout work and editing.

Preparing a book is a bit like herding both elephants and fleas together, even in the best of circumstances; there are so many little things that need to be watched while doing the big things. Here, occupying the positions of author, illustrator, layout person and packager all at once, we are faced with an exponential increase in both elephants and fleas, and as the project has advanced we have been consumed these past months by painting, painting, painting, then writing, writing, writing. Then writing some more when not chasing all those fleas and herding the elephants.

Publication is scheduled for sometime in 2013. Perhaps we've moaned a bit too much about the work before us, but when preparing a book we wouldn't have it any other way.

We hope to return as early as we can to posting here; we have much to share. And we also hope to be able to announce the full details of the publication of the magnum opus soon.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sunday Spotlight: Bastille Day in Paris

Yesterday at 10:30 in the morning, as on every 14th of July in Paris, delta formations of Mirage fighter jets and lumbering military transports screamed across the leaden skies in successive waves.

Oh! you think, putting down your coffee and looking out the window, waiting for the formations to appear after being preceded several seconds by their own thunderous roar, it's Bastille Day. 

Visions of khaki-clad Legionnaires and the Republican Guard in horse formations and camouflaged tanks rumbling down the Champs Élysées—a musty, pompous tradition that reeks of May Day parades back in the good ole USSR. (The French also love to clap rhythmically after concerts and operas, but that's for another post... )

The new President, François Hollande, even had his Michael Dukakis moment trundling along in an armored personnel carrier in a navy-blue suit.

 But beyond the obvious target of a once-major world power playing out the slightly painful anachronisms left over from its days of gloire, the holiday does remind you quite forcefully, even after all these years, of your outsider status. You can't help but roll your eyes at the awkward, somehow plaintive military breast-beating meant to impress and reassure a people (who can only be truly impressed with deeply discounted prices for superfluous consumer goods) with the outdated forms and trappings of the time of their greatness, and you look on the scale of the display with bemusement and complete disinterest. And that complete detachment extends to not even remembering the date until the jets begin to scream overhead, or even finding a scintilla of the slightest emotional investment that every last Frenchman must feel, because not even the most cynical of continentals can rest indifferent who was born here, since it is in your blood and you cannot help but at some point during the day be seduced by pride of country and a free-floating but keen nostalgia for an idea the Germans call Heimat.

So the planes scream by, reminding you this can never be your true home.

Actually, Paris is empty right now, and cold and rain-sodden. There hasn't been a summer to speak of, or an entire warm, sunny day since sometime in late May (and I actually ran the heat last night). Everyone is on vacation—6 weeks per year minimum, 8 weeks for most everybody (not counting the mysterious congés and the universally exploited formation, both of which, if played right, add another ten days of paid free time to the tally). I kid you not, les américains.

The official, countrywide start of the summer vacation season, when France literally closes for two full months, is, for the average Frenchman, almost as exciting as an adolescent's first furtive lovemaking, but so much more satisfying! (The local dry cleaner actually hangs an engraved brass plaque announcing his fermature annuelle and bakeries must co-ordinate their closing dates so as not to leave too vast a swath of ghostly Paris without access to baguettes.)

The media gears up for it with breathless, heartpoundingly important special reports, while nonstop traffic updates scroll across the bottom of regular programming all the last week of June, and incessant newsflashes feature a color-coded alert system analyzing the status of the major southbound autoroutes  (remember those Bush-era terror scares?), all of it leading up to the first Friday in July: D-Day!

Everyone scrambles in a mad, delirious rush to be the first to get the heck out of Dodge and indulge in the perfect trifecta of the three universally acknowledged pillars of French identity (and the main subjects of French conversation): food, sex and vacation. Of course, after all those embouteillages sur l'autroute, the Parisians find themselves just as sardine-packed on the beaches.

If only half such dedication and zeal had been expended to defend the country in 1940 as is done today to see to it that the groaning family Citröen, bound down with roof bins and bicycles, arrives on the Côte d'Azur without having sat in a traffic jam, then Angela Merkel would today be speaking French.

The over-accessorized adolescents, slumped in the back seats of cars in Biarritz and Nice and St-Tropez, dangle a foot or languid hand out the window in the clichéd symbol of French lassitude as they crawl along the overburdened and sun-struck beachside avenues. 

A month on the beach, or in the country at the ancestral compound, then a week back in Paris to wash and sort out the laundry, make sure the apartment is in order, and then off again to Charles de Gaulle airport for another two weeks on a holiday tour.

Vive les vacances ! Vive la France !

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Boundaries of Central Park

Begun in 1858, the construction of New York City's Central Park was largely completed by 1864, in the midst of the Civil War. The park below 102nd street was fully open by the end of 1863, the same year when the park's four northernmost blocks, from 106th to 110th streets, were finally acquired after a four-year delay.

The 65-acre parcel brought the park's final area to 843 acres. In the annexed northeast corner, work gangs transformed 12 acres of low-lying swampland into the Harlem Meer (above, dominated by the contemporary boathouse, officially named the Charles Dana Discovery Center). The rest of the area was landscaped with a wilder, craggier, more rugged æsthetic (below) than the pastoral landscape of the bulk of the park to the south: a design decision which—in the puritanical eyes of the fanatically penurious comptroller, Andrew Green—had the overriding merit of being delightfully inexpensive to build. 

The park's designers and the remaining seven commissioners not involved in the war effort then turned their attention to properly defining the park's boundary with the city. The park borders and its main gates were seen as the crowning element to their triumphant construction campaign, but the question of their materials and form became mired—yet again, as had many prior such questions—in an economic, æsthetic, political and class battle.  

Enter Richard Morris Hunt (above), the first American architect to study at the École des Beaux-arts and who, beside his talent, had the brilliant foresight to launch his career by having himself born to the wealthy and influential Hunt family of Vermont. His grandfather had been lieutenant governer of Vermont, his father Jonathan was a representative in the New York State legislature and partner in a prominent Manhattan law firm and his brother-in-law, Charles H. Russell, just happened to be a park commissioner. 

Then in his late thirties, Hunt stood at the outset of an illustrious career which would be crowned by commissions for the main facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, and he was already a prominent society architect, designing Loire Valley châteaux on Fifth Avenue and in Newport for Marquands, Vanderbilts, Belmonts and Astors. (Below: 660 Fiifth Avenue, the residence of William K. Vanderbilt.)

With the park's chief landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, in self-imposed exile in California and his partner Calvert Vaux reduced to a unsalaried consultant's role after both resigned in May of 1863 in the face of Green's maneuvers to displace them by radically expanding his powers as comptroller, commissioner Russell was able to induce the rump board to approve his brother-in-law's designs for four elaborate, beaux-arts entrance plazas for the southern border of the park in April 1864. (Below, Hunt's design for Fifth Avenue at 59th Street, with the site of the Plaza Hotel occupied by a transplanted Tuileries Palace.)

Hunt, quite naturally, saw his designs as "elegant and appropriate" mediators between the city's built fabric and the park, and an ally promoted them in the New York Post (with no mean rhetorical flourish, even for a florid age) as a means to transform the park into "one great open air gallery of Art, instead of being, as some dreamers fancy it, a silent sketch of a rural landscape caught up and enclosed within the raging tumult of a vast metropolis."  

Comptroller Andrew Green, though a peculiarly nineteenth-century Puritan version of a megalomaniac, was nonetheless a profound admirer of the talents he had displaced and considered Olmsted and Vaux's Greensward plan as something of a holy vision—to the point where he stated in his memoirs, dictated to a spinster neice (one must chuckle at the clichéd Victorian perfection of that situation)—that he himself had largely been responsible for it. Thus Green was not particularly enamored of Hunt's bombastic (and expensive) plazas and, since he was now running the show and (grudgingly) paying the bills, he delayed their execution in favor of completing construction of the Harlem annex.

Green's delay allowed Calvert Vaux (above)—himself no slouch when it came to cultivating influential New Yorkers and the press—to mount a counter campaign to induce the commissioners to renounce Hunt's project. Playing the egalitarian card, Vaux characterized the design as anti-democratic and "continental" and conceived for the "panjandrum," not the common man.

To deadly effect, he likened Hunt's plazas to the antechambers of Versailles: "the imperial style presumes that people wait, wait and hang around, and provision is made for clients, courtiers, subordinates and laqueyes" (sic) to cool their heels in suitable splendor. He went on to say that the average New Yorker did not need such airs, and exclaimed, "How fine it would be to have no gates" in the park at all, and "to keep open House and trust all always."

Hunt's plazas, doomed as much for their massive cost as for their obvious æsthetic clash with the park's pastoral simplicity, were eventually shuffled aside, though Hunt exhibited his drawings at the Academy of Design in 1865 to force the issue, to no avail. The question of the form of the park's actual enclosure then came to the fore. Several commissioners admired the spiked iron fences enclosing Parisian parks but Olmsted, quoting Ruskin, noted that "An iron railing always means thieves outside or Bedlam inside."

After "six months of serious trial" and despite the large economies an iron fence offered, Vaux finally dissuaded the commissioners from adopting an "iron cage" in favor of a low stone wall that would allow the pedestrian's eye "to roam at will" over the landscape inside. Today, these rusticated brownstone boundary walls, cast green with moss (above), are as comfortingly familiar to New Yorkers as chrome-yellow taxis.

In 1866 the board issued a proclamation, stating: "The construction of the Park has been easily achieved because the industrious population of New York has been wise enough to require it, and rich enough to pay for it."

"To extend to each citizen a rightful welcome," the board named the park's four principal entrances along Central Park South to honor the people themselves: the city's "Artisans," "Artists," "Merchants" and "Scholars." 133 years later, in 1999, the Central Park Conservancy finally saw to it that simply inscribed stone markers (above) were inset into the boundary wall to identify each entrance.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sunday Spotlight: World's Oldest Clove Tree Survives World's Oldest Corporation

This Sunday, let's turn to a fascinating historical morality tale, courtesy of Simon Worrall of the BBC. Reporting from the island of Ternate, in the heart of Indonesia's Spice Islands, he recounts the history of the world's oldest clove tree, apparently named Afo, living on the forested slopes of the wonderfully named Gamalama volcano and estimated to be nearly 400 years old.

The tree itself, once 40 metres high, has died back to a stump and presents a massive, gaunt skeleton to the sky. But what is most interesting in the report are some snippets of spice lore—a Han dynasty ruler forbade any subject to address him who had not chewed cloves beforehand—and the horrific practices of The Netherlands United East India Company (VOC), the world's first multinational corporation.

To ensure its lucrative trade monopoly, in 1652 the VOC instituted a policy of "extirpation": its agents would uproot, burn or otherwise destroy all spice-bearing trees outside its own plantations. Only Afo, high on the mountainside, survived the arboreal genocide.
Anyone caught growing, stealing or possessing clove plants without authorisation faced the death penalty. On the Banda Islands, to the south - the world's only source of nutmeg - the Dutch used Japanese mercenaries to slaughter almost the entire male population.
Like Opec today, the Voc also limited supply to keep prices high. Only 800-1,000 tonnes of cloves were exported per year. The rest of the harvest was burned or dumped in the sea.

Worrall also alludes to Monsanto as well as the OPEC oil cartel for latter-day examples of this ruthlessly monopolistic corporate lineage. And since we have recently been informed by the US Supreme Court that corporations are people too, it is also enlightening to know that they all sprang from a psychopathic Dutch progenitor.

But redemption was to be found in the person of a French naturalist with the Dickensian name of Pierre Poivre (Peter Pepper), who "stole" some of Afo's seedlings (aka trade secrets), which became the foundation stock of the clove plantations of the Seychelles and Zanzibar, ending the Dutch monopoly.

Not a great deal of morality in the tale, but fascinating nonetheless.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The USS Maine Monument, Central Park

Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!

The USS Maine was the US Navy's second pre-dreadnought battleship (with the USS Texas); these warships were the first in the US fleet to dispense with the full masts of Civil-War-era ironclads and rely entirely on advanced, coal-fed steam boilers for propulsion. Both warships were built in response to the alarming naval might of Brazil, which had commissioned several battleships from Europe, most notably the imposing Riacheulo, delivered in 1883. As a result, Brazil stood far and away as the dominant sea power in the Americas in the 1880s.

The Maine and the Texas were the first modern warships built in the United States, at a time when the country lacked sufficient technological prowess and industrial infrastructure to bring such an ambitious project quickly to fruition. Planning and specifications were drawn up in the early 1880s; Congress authorized construction in 1886 and the Maine's keel was finally laid down in the Brooklyn Naval Yard in 1888; construction took nine years (3 years alone were wasted waiting for the steel armor plate to be produced from one of Andrew Carnagie's companies), and the ship was finally commissioned in 1895, entering active service the year following.

With nearly 15 years between conception and actual service, the Maine was flagrantly obsolete upon delivery. Its en échelon main guns, cantilevered out over the hull, were already found to be ineffective by European navies years before it had entered service; its ramming bow was a quaint leftover from a prior epoch of naval warfare dating back to Roman triremes, its heavy armor had been superceded by innovative lightweight armor, and it had neither the firepower to face true battleships nor the requisite speed to serve as an effective cruiser.

In short, the Maine was the offspring of a white elephant and a sitting duck.

Enter colonial Cuba and its uprising against Spain

In January of 1898, less than two years after entering active service, the Maine was ordered to Havana harbor as a show of American might during the Cuban War of Independence. Weeks later, on the evening of 15 February, a massive explosion ripped through the forward third of the ship and the Maine sank within moments, taking with it 266 crewman. 

In the words of Captain Charles D. Sigsbee:

I laid down my pen and listened to the notes of the bugle, which were singularly beautiful in the oppressive stillness of the night... I was enclosing my letter in its envelope when the explosion came. It was a bursting, rending, and crashing roar of immense volume, largely metallic in character. It was followed by heavy, ominous metallic sounds. There was a trembling and lurching motion of the vessel, a list to port. The electric lights went out. Then there was intense blackness and smoke. The situation could not be mistaken. The Maine was blown up and sinking.

The fore-ship, torn by the massive explosion, sank nearly instantaneously; the stern, where Sigsbee's cabin was located, settled more slowly. Neighboring ships immediately launched rescue parties to search for survivors. "Chief among them," Sigsbee noted, "were the boats from the Alfonso XII. The Spanish officers and crews did all that humanity and gallantry could compass."

The Maine's wreck was coffer-dammed in 1911 and a Naval inquiry held, and a second forensic inquiry was conducted by Admiral Hyman Rickover in 1974. Both definitively documented that the cause of the Maine's destruction was not a Spanish mine or bomb but the detonation of the forward gun magazines. 

Rickover's enquiry attributed the detonation to the spontaneous ignition of highly volatile bituminous coal (which the US Navy had recently adopted as fuel as opposed to slower, cleaner burning and far less volatile but more expensive anthracite coal) in the bunker abutting the forward gunpowder magazine. A spark or heating from the coal fire traversed the bulkhead and ignited the gunpowder in the adjacent magazine, dooming the ship. However, the actual cause of the explosion is still a subject of debate and may never be satisfactorily resolved for history.

Yellow Journalism

Of course this forensic science was carried out far too late to satisfy William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, who were in a frenzied war for domination of New York's lucrative daily newspaper market. The infamous era of corrupt, manipulated, exaggerated and patently false reporting known as "yellow journalism" reached its sordid apex with their jingoistic, frenzied dispatches, detailing non-existent cannibalism, torture and war atrocities committed by Spain against Cuba—all in an effort to drag the United States into war against Spain in a bout of newfound American expansionist brinkmanship.

Hearst managed to outdo even Pulitzer in audacity, and famously sent his star delineator, Frederick Remington, to Havana to document Spanish atrocities. After several uneventful weeks, Remington cabled Hearst, "There is no war. Request to be recalled." Hearst wired back, "Please remain. You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war."

Hearst was true to his word. In the weeks following the Maine disaster, his New York Journal often devoted eight or more pages a day to the tragedy and speculated wildly about Spanish duplicity. Pulitzer rivaled Hearst in war mongering (though privately he said that "nobody outside a lunatic asylum" believed the Maine had been sabotaged by Spain). Nor were the country's lesser editors to be underestimated in their jingoism, and together the "yellow press" stoked a groundswell of war fervor with editorials demanding vengeance for the sinking of the Maine and the defense of American honor.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The USS Maine Monument was also a Hearst publicity vehicle, just as the Spanish-American War had been "his" war, and he browbeat his readers with a relentless subscription campaign, underpinned by his own donations—even though the proposed monument had no official site and was shunted from location to location until finally accepted for the Merchant's Gate of Central Park, facing Columbus Circle at Central Park South.

The monument itself was designed by Harold Van Buren Magonigle, a student of Calvert Vaux (Frederick Law Olmsted's assistant in designing Central Park) and an apprentice in the august offices of McKim, Meade & White. Magonigle made a name for himself designing beaux-arts monuments—he also authored the McKinley memorial in Canton, Ohio and the Liberty memorial in Kansas City, Missouri—and the Maine Monument was certainly his most elegant, successful design.

The massive, chamfered pylon evokes ancient Egyptian temple architecture, and the various beaux-arts sculptural groups embellishing the scheme were executed by Attillo Picirilli and his atelier, an Italian stonemason and master carver who emigrated from the famed Carrara quarries in Tuscany to New York, whereupon he and his sons dominated sculptural stonework in New York for decades.

The wonderful gilded bronze sculptural group atop the pylon, Columbia Triumphant (our watercolor appears as this post's first illustration), is unfortunately virtually impossible to view clearly from any angle, one of the design's major flaws. Nonetheless, the groupreminiscent of that crowning Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, the triumphal Quadriga of St Mark's Square in Venice, and the ancient tradition of celebratory sculpture crowning victory monuments that stretches back to the triumphal arches of Imperial Romeis superbly conceived and masterfully executed, and was reportedly cast from bronze recovered from the Maine's own main batteries. 

The allegorical eagle prow (seen above in our watercolor profile elevation) is quite remarkable as it encapsulates and predates Art Deco by a full decade. The other allegorical sculptures are of equal quality and none of them have a hint of the saccharine or the substandard about them, in either their conception or their execution. 

In all, the USS Maine Monument is a masterfully executed memorial, but unfortunately it seems we have become perfectly indifferent to the beaux-arts aesthetic today. Consequently, it ranks among the most-overlooked and under-appreciated architectural and sculptural ensembles to reside in the heart of Manhattan.  

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Sunday Spotlight: A commute fit for a (Sun) King

This Sunday we put aside the cosmic and instead turn to the tongue-in-chic: commuter rail cars fit for the Sun King.

The SNCF, the French national railroad, on the 16th of May quietly slipped into service the first of five suburban train sets operating between Paris and Versailles, its cars decorated with photographic reproductions of the domain's most evocative decors.

Bright, airy, graphic and clever, the lighthearted interiors are a joint effort of the SNCF and the town and château of Versailles. Once all five trains are in service on the RER C line, your chance of catching one is 1 in 5.

Whether you ride beneath the ceiling of Le Brun's Galerie des glaces or no, the trip to Versailles sure beats sitting in a wooden box held on sprung steel straps straddling a fixed undercarriage rolling with steel-banded wheels over unpaved dirt roads. In short, you ride better than a king.

(All images are © C Recoura, from France Today online. Hat tip to Two Nerdy History Girls and their wonderful Sunday breakfast links.)

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Jubilee: a short history of a long tradition

The Queen of Pentacles

From the 2nd to the 5th of June, Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her Diamond Jubilee, marking 60 years of reign, a landmark anniversary that is cause for celebration in the United Kingdom. We would also be amiss if we didn't note that the Astrologer Royal was doubtless consulted when selecting the spectacularly auspicious end date of the festivities, the same day that Venus, "the Queen of Heaven," begins to transit the face of the sun, which last occurred in 2004 and won't occur again for another 113 years.

In one of nature's boundless displays of beauty, Venus's orbit when seen from earth traces a pentagram over an eight-year cycle known as the grand quintile, succinctly elaborated at; they also created the excellent graphic below (you may need to click on the image to enlarge it for clarity).

The pentagram traced by Venus is actually a fractal one, and when plotted graphically (below) reveals a nexus of symbolic meanings: the five petalled rose (the English rose), the lily (the royal fleur-de-lys) and the alchemical quintessence, the fifth and pentultimate of the classical elements (earth, wind, fire and water), the æther. In short, we are being invited to witness a royal apotheosis, and I for one am expecting a jolly good show.

The Good Sumerians

The celebratory ceremony of the jubilee is as old as civilization itself, a tradition that stretches back through medieval Christianity to ancient Israel and ultimately to Sumer and First Dynasty Egypt, whereupon it is lost to recorded history.

The first recorded ruler to proclaim a jubilee is Enmetena, king of Lagash, an ancient Sumerian city-state. His proclamation of "freedom" (ama-gi, written in cuneiform above and literally translated as "a return to the mother") is documented in a tablet dating from ca. 2400 BC:
A remission of the obligations (ama-gi) of Lagash he instituted.
He returned the mother to the child
and returned the child to the mother,
and a remission
(ama-gi) of interest-bearing barley loans he instituted.
Some fifty years later, a successor king of Lagash, Urukagina, also declared a universal pardon and is the first ruler known to institute reforms to fight inequities and corruption, detailed in surviving tablets such as the following excerpt from a praise poem of his reign. The poem recounts man's eternal subjegation to taxes and takings and is profoundly depressing when one considers that it was written four and a half millenia ago, yet begins with the words:
From time immemorial, since life began,
in those days, the head boatman appropriated boats, the livestock official appropriated asses, the livestock official appropriated sheep, and the fisheries inspector appropriated [fish].... These were the conventions of former times!

Egypt: Run for your throne! Run for your life!

Though adapted over time, the Egyptian Heb Sed, or royal jubilee, was a codified test of the pharaoh's fitness to rule. After 30 years' reign, pharaohs were to prove their physical and mental acuity and stamina by running, singing and performing ritualized dances and ceremonies intended to renew their authority, vigor and divinity.

(Below: a view of the Heb Sed courtyard at Saqqara. In the foreground is the socle representing the double throne of Upper and Lower Egypt, with the Heb Sed pavilions and the famed stepped pyramid of Djozer rising behind.)

During the Heb Sed ceremonies, the pharaoh also raised the djed pillar, a phallic fertility symbol, from which derives, I believe, the English-language double entendre of "raising the dead." Thereafter the festival was repeated every three years until the ruler's death. What scraps of information remain concerning the ceremonies indicate nothing concerning those elements of the Heb Sed not directly involving the pharaoh, so we do not know if pardons were involved as well. However, if we go back to the earliest known incarnation of the Heb Sed, pharaohs who failed the test were ceremonially put to death—indicating that society ultimately governed the pharaoh and not the reverse.

"And on the seventh day He rested"

The Jewish jubilee (from the Hebrew yobhel, or ram's horn, blown on the Day of Atonement) was based on a seven-year cycle of crop rotation; in the Torah, Jehovah commanded Moses that fields and orchards were to lie fallow every seventh year, the sabbath year, or shmita. The jubilee year was celebrated at the end of the seventh year of the seventh shmita cycle, or every 50th year. All debts were erased, all sins forgiven, all foreclosed land returned to its prior guardians and a universal pardon was proclaimed.

This article of Mosaic law is detailed in Leviticus 25: 9-10 (KJV):
Then shalt thou cause the trumpet of the jubilee to sound on... the day of atonement... throughout all your land. And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.

All roads lead to Rome

Pope Boniface VIII, much more economically stingy than Jehovah but spiritually much more indulgent, proclaimed the first Christian Jubilee on the 22nd of February in the year 1300. In return for 15 days of visits to the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul for pilgrims and 30 days for native Romans, the penitent faithful (above) received complete absolution of sin.

No debt relief came with purity of soul, and in fact pilgrims indebted themselves to undertake their journeys; nonetheless, the pope's gesture was enthusiastically received throughout Christendom and began a tradition—initially at fifty year intervals, then for a time 33, reverting again to 50, and finally, with Paul II's proclamationin the late 1400s, settling upon a 25-year interval—that continues to this day. In 2000, John Paul II greatly liberalized the requirements for receiving a Jubilee indulgence, though confession, Communion, prayer for the Pope and freedom from all attachment to sin remain mandatory prerequisites.

The British Jubilee

The tradition of the British monarchy celebrating royal jubilees began with the anniversary of George III's 50th year of reign on 25 October 1809, which was celebrated thoughout Britain and the colonies. A private service was held at Windsor and a grand fete and fireworks were offered at Frogmore.

Queen Victoria, the longest reigning British monarch, also celebrated Gold and Diamond Jubilees in 1887 and 1897. Two days of pomp, feasting, processions and fireworks were attended by foreign monarchs and administrators from across the Empire, and witnessed by massive crowds. Of her Diamond Jubilee carriage ride, the Queen wrote in her diary, "No one ever, I believe, has met with such an ovation as was given to me, passing through those 6 miles of streets... The cheering was quite deafening & every face seemed to be filled with real joy. I was much moved and gratified."

"What would Jesus do?"

Which brings us to the present day: a world engulfed in The Depression that Dare Not Speak its Name and rising calls, amid vertiginously rising national and world debt that has reached truly Biblical proportions, for a Biblical response equal to the problem. For those fond of asking, "What would Jesus do?", it is well worth noting that the only time Jesus ever became violent was when driving the money changers from the temple—literally with a whip. Makes one stop a moment to ponder, doesn't it?

Caveat Victor

Throughout history, human societies have recognized the need for renewal, cleansing and release—a reset button, if you will—to resolve inequities and to relieve injustices and imbalances that would otherwise destabilize them and eventually cause outright collapse. The imperative was so strong, in fact, that the jubilee became enshrined as an essential societal regulator and was sacralized as the Word of God as received by Moses. Whatever one's political persuasion, it cannot be denied that the world today is not only in social, political and financial turmoil, but actual distress.

The causes are far too complex to ever outline here, but if we take a few steps back and consider the proverbial Big Picture, it becomes obvious that long unchecked and exponentially accelerating debt creation, coupled with a steadily increasing concentration of wealth and power, threatens the very fabric of society itself.

Of course, those who have amassed most of the marbles won't like giving some of them back, and other inequities will certainly be engendered in doing so. But if we stay with the game metaphor for a moment, has anyone ever finished a game of Monopoly in peace and harmony, or finished the game at all? Inevitably, when the endgame comes into view, dissension arises and a handswipe—or worse—finishes things off. No one plays things out until there is an actual winner.