Alexis de Tocqueville’s Prediction of How American Democracy Could Lapse Into Despotism, Read by Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq's third novel Platform, which involves a terrorist bombing in southeast Asia, came out the year before a similar real-life incident occurred in Thailand. His seventh novel Submission, about the conversion of France into a Muslim country, came out the same day as the massacre at the offices of Islam-provoking satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. His most recent novel Serotonin, in which farmers violently revolt against the French state, happened to come out in the early stages of the populist "yellow vest" movement. Houellebecq has thus, even by some of his many detractors, been credited with a certain prescience about the social and political dangers of the world in which we live today.

So too has a countryman of Houellebecq's who did his writing more than 150 years earlier: Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, the enduring study of that then-new country and its daringly experimental political system. And what does perhaps France's best-known living man of letters think of Tocqueville, one of his best-known predecessors? "I read him for the first time long ago and really found it a bit boring," Houellebecq says in the interview clip above, with a flatness reminiscent of his novels' disaffected narrators. "Then I tried again two years ago and I was thunderstruck."




As an example of Tocqueville's clear-eyed assessment of democracy, Houellebecq reads aloud this passage about its potential to turn into despotism:

I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Being a writer, Houellebecq naturally points out the deftness of Tocqueville's style: "It's magnificently punctuated. The distribution of colons and semicolons in the sections is magnificent." But he also has comments on the passage's philosophy, pronouncing that it "contains Nietzsche, only better." The operative Nietzschean concept here is the "last man," described in Thus Spoke Zarathustra as the presumable end point of modern society. If conditions continue to progress in the way they have been, each and every human being will become this last man, a weak, comfortable, complacent individual with nothing left to fight for, who desires nothing more than his small pleasure for the day, his small pleasure for the night, and a good sleep.

Safe to say that neither Nietzsche nor Tocqueville looked forward, nor does Houellebecq look forward, to the world of enervated last men into which democracy could deliver us. Houellebecq also reads aloud another passage from Democracy in America, one that now appears on the Wikipedia page for soft despotism, describing how a democratic government might gain absolute power over its people without the people even noticing:

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

"A lot of what I've written could be situated within this scenario," Houellebecq says, adding that in his generation the "definitive transformation of society into individuals" has been more complete than Tocqueville or Nietzsche would have imagined.

In addition to lacking a family, Houellebecq (whose second novel was titled Atomized) also mentions having "the impression of being caught up in a network of complicated, minute, and stupid rules" as well as "of being herded toward a uniform kind of happiness, toward a happiness which doesn't really make me happy." In the end, adds Houellebecq, the aristocratic Tocqueville "is in favor of the development of democracy and equality, while being more aware than anyone else of its dangers." That the 19th-century America Tocqueville knew avoided them he credited to the "habits of the heart" of the American people. We citizens of democratic countries, whichever democratic country we live in, would do well to ask where the habits of our own hearts will lead us next.

Related Content:

Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America: An Animated Introduction to the Most Insightful Study of American Democracy

How to Know if Your Country Is Heading Toward Despotism: An Educational Film from 1946

George Orwell’s Final Warning: Don’t Let This Nightmare Situation Happen. It Depends on You!

Is Modern Society Stealing What Makes Us Human?: A Glimpse Into Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra by The Partially Examined Life

The History of Western Social Theory, by Alan MacFarlane, Cambridge University

Hunter S. Thompson Gets in a Gunfight with His Neighbor & Dispenses Political Wisdom: “In a Democracy, You Have to Be a Player”

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Songs by Joni Mitchell Re-Imagined as Pulp Fiction Book Covers & Vintage Movie Posters

I wish I had more sense of humor

Keeping the sadness at bay

Throwing the lightness on these things

Laughing it all away 

                           - Joni Mitchell, “People's Parties”

Joni Mitchell has been showered with tributes of late, many of them connected to her all-star 75th birthday concert last November.

The silky voiced Seal, who credits Mitchell with inspiring him to become a musician, soaring toward heaven on "Both Sides Now"…

"A Case Of You" as a duet for fellow Newport Folk Festival alums Kris Kristofferson and Brandi Carlile….

Chaka Khan injecting a bit of funk into "Help Me," a tune she’s been covering for 20 some years...




They’re moving and beautiful and sensitive, but given that Mitchell's the one behind the immortal lyric “laughing and crying, you know it's the same release…,” shouldn’t someone aim for the funny bone? Mix things up a little?

Enter Todd Alcott, who’s been delighting us all year with his “mid-century mashups,” an irresistible combination of vintage paperback covers, celebrity personae, and iconic lyrics from the annals of rock and pop.

His homage to "Help Me," above, is decidedly on brand. The lurid 1950s EC horror comic-style graphics confer a dishy naughtiness that was—no disrespect—rather lacking in the original.

Perhaps Mitchell would approve of these monkeyshines?

A 1991 interview with Rolling Stone’s David Wild suggests that she would have at some point in her life:

When I was a kid, I was a real good-time Charlie. As a matter of fact, that was my nickname. So when I first started making all this sensitive music, my old friends back home could not believe it. They didn’t know – where did this depressed person come from? Along the way, I had gone through some pretty hard deals, and it did introvert me. But it just so happened that my most introverted period coincided with the peak of my success.

Alcott honors the introvert by rendering "Both Sides Now" as an angsty-looking volume of 60s-era poetry from the imaginary publishing house Clouds.

"Big Yellow Taxi" carries Alcott from the bookshelf to the realm of the movie poster.

The lyrics are definitely the star here, but it's fun to note just how much mileage he gets out of the floating text boxes that were a strangely random-feeling feature of the original.

Also "Ladies of the Canyon" is a great producer's credit. Given Alcott’s own screenwriting credits on IMDB, perhaps we could convince him to mash a bit of Joni’s sensibility into some of Paul Schrader’s grimmest Taxi Driver scenes…

That said, it's worth remembering that Alcott's creations are loving tributes to the artists who matter most to him. As he told Open Culture:

Joni Mitchell is one of the most criminally undervalued American songwriters of the 20th century, and that now that I live in LA, every time I drive through Laurel Canyon I think about her and that whole absurdly fertile scene in the late 1960s, when artists could afford to live in Laurel Canyon and Joni Mitchell was hanging out with Neil Young and Charles Manson.

See all of Todd Alcott’s work here. (Please note that this is his official sales site… beware of imposters selling quickie knock-offs of his designs on eBay and Facebook.) Find other posts featuring his work in the Relateds below.

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See Classic Performances of Joni Mitchell from the Very Early Years–Before She Was Even Named Joni Mitchell (1965/66)

Beatles Songs Re-Imagined as Vintage Book Covers and Magazine Pages: “Drive My Car,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” & More

Classic Songs by Bob Dylan Re-Imagined as Pulp Fiction Book Covers: “Like a Rolling Stone,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” & More

Songs by David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads & More Re-Imagined as Pulp Fiction Book Covers

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 9 for a new season of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

 

Richard Feynman’s Technique for Learning Something New: An Animated Introduction

I sometimes wonder: why do people post amateur repair videos, made with smartphones in kitchens and garages, with no obvious commercial value and, often, a level of expertise just minimally above that of their viewers? Then I remember Richard Feynman’s practical advice for how to learn something new—prepare to teach it to somebody else.

The extra accountability of making a public record might provide added motivation, though not nearly to the degree of making teaching one's profession. Nobel-winning physicist Feynman spent the first half of his academic career working on the Manhattan Project, dodging J. Edgar Hoover's FBI at the beginning of the Cold War, and making major breakthroughs in quantum mechanics.




But he has become as well-known for his teaching as for his historic scientific role, thanks to the enormously popular series of physics lectures he developed at Caltech; his funny, accessible, best-selling books of essays and memoirs; and his willingness to be an avuncular public face for science, with a knack for explaining things in terms anyone can grasp.

Feynman revealed that he himself learned through what he called a "notebook technique," an exercise conducted primarily on paper. Yet the method came out of his pedagogy, essentially a means of preparing lecture notes for an audience who know about as much about the subject as you did when you started studying it. In order to explain it to another, you must both understand the subject yourself, and understand what it's like not to understand it.

Learn Feynman’s method for learning in the short animated video above. You do not actually need to teach, only pretend as if you're going to—though preparing for an actual audience will keep you on your toes. In brief, the video summarizes Feynman’s method in a three-step process:

  1. Choose a topic you want to understand and start studying it.
  2. Pretend you’re teaching the idea to someone else. Write out an explanation on the paper…. Whenever you get stuck, go back and study.
  3. Finally do it again, but now simplify your language or use an analogy to make the point.

Get ready to start your YouTube channel with homemade language lessons, restoration projects, and/or cooking videos. You may not—nor should you, perhaps—become an online authority, but according to Feyman, who learned more in his lifetime than most of us could in two, you’ll come away greatly enriched in other ways.

Related Content:

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The Feynman Lectures on Physics, The Most Popular Physics Book Ever Written, Is Now Completely Online

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Buckminster Fuller Tells the World “Everything He Knows” in a 42-Hour Lecture Series (1975)

History seems to have settled Buckminster’s Fuller’s reputation as a man ahead of his time. He inspires short, witty popular videos like YouTuber Joe Scott’s “The Man Who Saw The Future,” and the ongoing legacy of the Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI), who note that “Fuller’s ideas and work continue to influence new generations of designers, architects, scientists and artists working to create a sustainable planet.”

Brilliant futurist though he was, Fuller might also be called the man who saw the present and the past—as much as a single individual could seemingly hold in their mind at once. He was “a man who is intensely interested in almost everything,” wrote Calvin Tomkins at The New Yorker in 1965, the year of Fuller’s 70th birthday. Fuller was as eager to pass on as much knowledge as he could collect in his long, productive career, spanning his early epiphanies in the 1920s to his final public talks in the early 80s.

“The somewhat overwhelming effect of a Fuller monologue,” wrote Tomkins, “is well known today in many parts of the world.” His lectures leapt from subject to subject, incorporating ancient and modern history, mathematics, linguistics, architecture, archaeology, philosophy, religion, and—in the example Tomkins gives—“irrefutable data on tides, prevailing winds,” and “boat design.” His discourses issue forth in wave after wave of information.




Fuller could talk at length and with authority about virtually anything—especially about himself and his own work, in his own special jargon of “unique Bucky-isms: special phrases, terminology, unusual sentence structures, etc.,” writes BFI. He may not always have been particularly humble, yet he spoke and wrote with a lack of prejudice and an open curiosity and that is the opposite of arrogance. Such is the impression we get of Fuller in the series of talks he recorded ten years after Tomkin’s New Yorker portrait.

Made in January of 1975, Buckminster Fuller: Everything I Know captured Fuller’s “entire life’s work” in 42 hours of “thinking out loud lectures [that examine] in depth all of Fuller’s major inventions and discoveries from the 1927 Dymaxion house, car and bathroom, through the Wichita House, geodesic domes, and tensegrity structures, as well as the contents of Synergetics. Autobiographical in parts, Fuller recounts his own personal history in the context of the history of science and industrialization.”

He begins, however, in his first lecture at the top, not with himself, but with his primary subject of concern: “all humanity,” a species that begins always in nakedness and ignorance and manages to figure it out “entirely by trial and error,” he says. Fuller marvels at the advances of “early Hindu and Chinese” civilizations—as he had at the Maori in Tomkin’s anecdote, who “had been among the first peoples to discover the principles of celestial navigation” and “found a way of sailing around the world… at least ten thousand years ago.”

The leap from ancient civilizations to “what is called World War I” is “just a little jump in information,” he says in his first lecture, but when Fuller comes to his own lifetime, he shows how many “little jumps” one human being could witness in a lifetime in the 20th century. “The year I was born Marconi invented the wireless,” says Fuller. “When I was 14 man did get to the North Pole, and when I was 16 he got to the South Pole.”

When Fuller was 7, “the Wright brothers suddenly flew,” he says, “and my memory is vivid enough of seven to remember that for about a year the engineering societies were trying to prove it was a hoax because it was absolutely impossible for man to do that.” What it showed young Bucky Fuller was that “impossibles are happening.” If Fuller was a visionary, he redefined the word—as a term for those with an expansive, infinitely curious vision of a possible world that already exists all around us.

See Fuller’s complete lecture series, Everything I Know, at the Internet Archive, and read edited transcripts of his talks at the Buckminster Fuller Institute.

Everything I Know will be added to our collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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A Three-Minute Introduction to Buckminster Fuller, One of the 20th Century’s Most Productive Design Visionaries

Buckminster Fuller Rails Against the “Nonsense of Earning a Living”: Why Work Useless Jobs When Technology & Automation Can Let Us Live More Meaningful Lives

Buckminster Fuller Creates Striking Posters of His Own Inventions

Buckminster Fuller Documented His Life Every 15 Minutes, from 1920 Until 1983

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Introducing Pretty Much Pop (A Culture Podcast): Episode 1 – Pop Culture vs. High Culture

What is pop culture? Does it make sense to distinguish it from high culture, or can something be both?

Open Culture is pleased to curate a new podcast covering all things entertainment: TV, movies, music, novels, video games, comics, novels, comedy, theater, podcasts, and more. Pretty Much Pop is the invention of Mark Linsenmayer (aka musician Mark Lint), creator of The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast and Nakedly Examined Music. Mark is joined by co-hosts Erica Spyres, an actor and musician who's appeared on Broadway and plays classical and bluegrass violin, and Brian Hirt, a science-fiction writer/linguistics major who collaborates with his brother on the Constellary Tales magazine and podcast. For this introductory discussion touching on opera, The Beatles, Fortnite, 50 Shades of Grey, reality TV, and more, our hosts are joined by the podcast's audio editor Tyler Hislop, aka Sacrifice MC.

Some of the articles brought in the discussion are:

"The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow" by Noah Berlatsky from the Pacific Standard (2017)

"Pop Culture's Progress Toward Tragedy" by Titus Techera from the National Review (2019)

Read more about the 1895 silent film that featured a train coming right out of the screen, sending people screaming in terror. Here's more about the opening of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" at which spectators rioted. You may also enjoy episode 137 of The Partially Examined Life about the tastes of social classes that analyzes Pierre Bourdieu. Also see episode 193 on liberal education and the idea of a "canon" of essential, high-culture works. The opening music is by Mark (guitars, cellos, djembe) and Erica (violins). The podcast logo is by Ken Gerber.

The ending song was written by Mark just for this episode. It's called "High Rollin' Cult," and features Erica on violin and harmonies.

For more information on the podcast, visit prettymuchpop.com or look for the podcast soon on Apple Podcasts. To support this effort (and immediately get access to four episodes plus bonus content), make a small, recurring donation at patreon.com/prettymuchpop

An Animated Introduction to the Magical Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges

"Reading the work of Jorge Luis Borges for the first time is like discovering a new letter in the alphabet, or a new note in the musical scale," writes the BBC's Jane Ciabattari. Borges' essay-like works of fiction are "filled with private jokes and esoterica, historiography and sardonic footnotes. They are brief, often with abrupt beginnings." His "use of labyrinths, mirrors, chess games and detective stories creates a complex intellectual landscape, yet his language is clear, with ironic undertones. He presents the most fantastic of scenes in simple terms, seducing us into the forking pathway of his seemingly infinite imagination."

If that sounds like your idea of good read, look a little deeper into the work of Argentina's most famous literary figure through the animated TED-Ed lesson above. Mexican writer and critic Ilan Stavans, the lesson's creator, begins his introduction to Borges by describing a man who "not only remembers everything he has ever seen, but every time he has seen it in perfect detail." Many of you will immediately recognize Funes the Memorious, the star of Borges' 1942 story of the same name — and those who don't will surely want to know more about him.




Stavans goes on to describe a library "built out of countless identical rooms, each containing the same number of books of the same length," that as a whole "contains every possible variation of text." He also mentions a rumored "lost labyrinth" that turns out to be "not a physical maze but a novel," and a novel that reveals the identity of the real labyrinth: time itself. Borges enthusiasts know which places Stavans is talking about, meaning they know in which of Borges' stories — which their author, sticking to a word from his native Spanish, referred to as ficciones — they originate.

But though "The Library of Babel" (which in recent years has taken a digital form online) and "The Garden Forking Paths" count as two particularly notable examples of what Stavans calls "Borges' many explorations of infinity," he found so many ways to explore that subject throughout his writing career that his literary output functions as a consciousness-altering substance. It does to the right readers, that is, a group that includes such other mind-bending writers as Umberto Eco, Roberto Bolaño, and William Gibson, none of whom were quite the same after they discovered the ficciones. Behold Borges' mirrors, mazes, tigers, and chess games yourself — thereby catching a glimpse of infinity — and you, too, will never be able to return to the reader you once were. Not that you'd want to.

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Why You Should Read The Master and Margarita: An Animated Introduction to Bulgakov’s Rollicking Soviet Satire

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

There’s a Tiny Art Museum on the Moon That Features the Art of Andy Warhol & Robert Rauschenberg

This week is the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, and though we have yet to send an artist into space (photographer Michael Najjar is apparently still training to become the first), there is a tiny art museum on the moon, and it’s been there since November 1969, four months after man set foot on the lunar service, and in the afterglow of that amazing summer.

Don’t expect a walkable gallery, however. The museum is actually a ceramic wafer the size of a postage stamp, but what an impressive list: John Chamberlain, Forrest Myers, David Novros, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol.




As you can see, the six kept it minimal. Rauschenberg drew a single line. Abstract artist Novros created a black square with intersecting white lines that look like a circuit board. Sculptor Chamberlain also created a geometric shape like circuitry. Oldenburg left his signature, which at the time resembled an old Mickey Mouse. Myers, who initiated the project, drew a “linked symbol.” And Andy Warhol drew a “stylized signature” but let’s be honest, it’s a penis. Yes, Warhol put a dick pic on the moon.

The museum was not an officially sanctioned project. It had to be smuggled onto the Apollo 12 lunar lander. This took some doing and it started with Myers.

He might not be as well known as his fellows, but Myers was one of the forces behind the Soho art scene in the ‘60s, who saw the industrial area blossom with artists looking for cheap rents and large spaces.

Myers had been thinking about putting art on the moon, but all his entreaties to NASA were met with silence--neither a no nor a yes. It would have to be smuggled on board, he decided, but for such an operation, he’d need someone on the inside.

Fortunately, there was a non-profit that was helping connect artists with engineers, called Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) and Rauschenberg was one of its founders. Through E.A.T., Myers met Bell Labs’ Fred Waldhauer who loved the moon museum project, and came up with the idea of the small wafers. Sixteen wafers were produced (other accounts say 20), one to go on Apollo 12, the others to go back to the artists (one now resides in MOMA’s collection). Waldhauer knew an engineer with Grumman who was working on the Apollo 12, and he agreed to sneak the ceramic wafer on board. But how would they know this ultra secret mission was accomplished?

Two days before the Apollo launch, Myers received a telegram from Cape Canaveral:
"YOUR ON' A.O.K. ALL SYSTEMS GO.
JOHN F."

The artwork was not the only object sent to the moon on that mission. Engineers placed personal photos in the same place: in between the gold thermal insulation pads that would be shed when the lander left the moon’s surface.

Only when Apollo 12’s re-entry capsule was on its way back to earth did Myers reveal to the press his successful stunt. However, unless we sent astronauts back to the exact same spot we don’t really know if the museum ever made its way there. Maybe it landed the wrong way up? Maybe other wafers moved in through gentrification, raised rents, and the moon museum had to move to Mars. We’ll never find out.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

The Romanovs’ Last Spectacular Ball Brought to Life in Color Photographs (1903)

In 1903, the Romanovs, Russia’s last and longest-reigning royal family, held a lavish costume ball. It was to be their final blowout, and perhaps also the “last great royal ball” in Europe, writes the Vintage News. The party took place at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, 14 years before Czar Nicholas II’s abdication, on the 290th anniversary of Romanov rule. The Czar invited 390 guests and the ball ranged over two days of festivities, with elaborate 17th-century boyar costumes, including “38 original royal items of the 17th century from the armory in Moscow.”

“The first day featured feasting and dancing,” notes Russia Beyond, “and a masked ball was held on the second. Everything was captured in a photo album that continues to inspire artists to this day.” The entire Romanov family gathered for a photograph on the staircase of the Hermitage theater, the last time they would all be photographed together.




It is like seeing two different dead worlds superimposed on each other—the Romanovs' playacting their beginning while standing on the threshold of their last days.

With the irony of hindsight, we will always look upon these poised aristocrats as doomed to violent death and exile. In a morbid turn of mind, I can’t help thinking of the baroque gothic of “The Masque of the Red Death,” Edgar Allan Poe’s story about a doomed aristocracy who seal themselves inside a costume ball while a contagion ravages the world outside: “The external world could take care of itself,” Poe’s narrators says. “In the meantime it was folly to grieve or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure…. It was a voluptuous scene, that masquerade.”

Maybe in our imagination, the Romanovs and their friends seem haunted by the weight of suffering outside their palace walls, in both their country and around Europe as the old order fell apart. Or perhaps they just look haunted the way everyone does in photographs from over 100 years ago. Does the colorizing of these photos by Russian artist Klimbim—who has done similar work with images of WW2 soldiers and portraits of Russian poets and writers—make them less ghostly?

It puts flesh on the pale monochromatic faces, gives the lavish costuming and furniture texture and dimension. Some of the images almost look like art nouveau illustrations (and resemble those of some of the finest illustrators of Poe’s work) and the work of contemporary painters like Gustav Klimt. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that unease lingers in the eyes of some subjects—Empress Alexandra Fedorovna among them—a certain vague and troubled apprehension.

In their book A Lifelong Passion, authors Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko quote the Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovitch who remembered the event as “the last spectacular ball in the history of the empire.” The Grand Duke also recalled that “a new and hostile Russia glared though the large windows of the palace… while we danced, the workers were striking and the clouds in the Far East were hanging dangerously low.” As Russia Beyond notes, soon after this celebration, "The global economic crisis marked the beginning of the end for the Russian Empire, and the court ceased to hold balls."

In 1904, the Russo-Japanese War began, a war Russia was to lose the following year. Then the aristocracy’s power was further weakened by the Revolution of 1905, which Lenin would later call the “Great Dress Rehearsal” for the Revolutionary takeover of 1917. While the aristocracy costumed itself in the trappings of past glory, armies amassed to force their reckoning with the 20th century.

Who knows what thoughts went through the mind of the tzar, tzarina, and their heirs during those two days, and the minds of the almost 400 noblemen and women dressed in costumes specially designed by artist Sergey Solomko, who drew from the work of several historians to make accurate 17th-century recreations, while Peter Carl Fabergé chose the jewelry, including, writes the Vintage News, the tzarina’s “pearls topped by a diamond and emerald-studded crown” and an “enormous emerald” on her brocaded dress?

If the Romanovs had any inkling their almost 300-year dynasty was coming to its end and would take all of the Russian aristocracy with it, they were, at least, determined to go out with the highest style; the family with “almost certainly… the most absolutist powers” would spare no expense to live in their past, no matter what the future held for them. See the original, black and white photos, including that last family portrait, at History Daily and Russia Beyond, and see several more colorized images at the Vintage News.

via The Vintage News

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

When Neil Young & Devo Jammed Together: Watch Them Play “Hey Hey, My My” in a Clip from the 1982 Film Human Highway

It’s well known that in the 80s, Neil Young briefly went New Wave, first with 1981’s Re-ac-tor, then the following year’s Kraftwerk-inspired album Trans, which features such dance floor-friendly tracks as “Computer Age” (see it live further down), “Transformer Man,” and “Computer Cowboy (aka Syscrusher).” This is a weird period in Young’s career—one critics tend to ignore or dismiss, as William Ruhlmann writes at Allmusic, as “baffling.”

“Despite the crisp dance beats and synthesizers,” Ruhlmann complains, Trans “sounded less like new Kraftwerk than like old Devo” (as though this were a bad thing). But the "old Devo" dig probably wouldn't bother Young. He jammed with the band themselves in his bizarre 1982 film Human HighwayDevo not only star in the movie—as garbage men at a nuclear power plant—they also play  a version of “Hey Hey, My My,” with Young on guitar and Mark Mothersbaugh on vocals.




Young wasn’t cashing in on Devo’s popularity, riding their New Wave coattails to bolster his hipster cred with a punk generation. He began as a big fan before they even released their first album. “Young first saw Devo when they played the Starwood Club in West Hollywood in 1977,” writes Andy Greene at Rolling Stone. “He was blown away by their wild, frenetic stage show and decided to cast them in his movie,” which began shooting the following year.

The admiration wasn’t mutual at first. Devo were “shocked by the atmosphere on the set,” especially the stoned, drunken antics of Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell, and they weren't totally digging the song, either. The jam was “completely unrehearsed.” Says Devo’s Jerry Casale, “He told us the chord progression and that was that…. It was hippie style.” Mothersbaugh remembers, “I didn’t want to sing about Johnny Rotten. So we sang about Johnny Spud.”

Young, at work on songs for the classic 1979 live album Rust Never Sleeps, was pushing his approaches to performance and recording in new directions. But when Human Highway started shooting in 1978, few fans would have predicted that when it wrapped four years later, he would be making synth-rock records. The film became a cult classic, notable for bringing together a legendary cast of weirdos and serving as Mark Mothersbaugh’s first venture in film-scoring.

But we can also see this bizarre musical comedy as a conceptual bridge between the jam-band “hippie style” rock of Crazy Horse and the slick, vocoder pop of Trans, an album that might make a little more sense if we think of it in part as Young’s tribute to Devo.

Related Content:

Who Is Neil Young?: A Video Essay Explores the Two Sides of the Versatile Musician–Folk Icon and Father of Grunge

When Neil Young & Rick James Created the 60’s Motown Band, The Mynah Birds

The Philosophy & Music of Devo, the Avant-Garde Art Project Dedicated to Revealing the Truth About De-Evolution

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Beatles Songs Re-Imagined as Vintage Book Covers and Magazine Pages: “Drive My Car,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” & More

What makes the Beatles the best-known rock band in history? None can deny that they composed songs of unsurpassed catchiness, a quality demonstrated as soon as those songs hit the airwaves. But the past 55 or so years have shown us that they also possess an enduring power to inspire: how many beginning musicians, fired up by their enjoyment of the Beatles, play their first notes each day? The tributes to the music of the Beatles keep coming in non-musical forms as well: take, for example, these Beatles songs turned into vintage book covers and magazine pages by screenwriter and self-described "graphic-arts prankster" Todd Alcott.

"'Drive My Car' re-imagines the classic 1965 Beatles song as a classic 1965 advertisement for an actual car," Alcott writes of the work at the top of the post, "mashing up the image from an ad for a 1966 Chevrolet Corvair with the lyrics from the song."




Below that, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" makes of that number a mass-market book cover "in the style of Erich von Daniken's classic 1970s alien-visitation book Chariots of the Gods?" Below, Alcott's interpretation of "Tomorrow Never Knows" perfectly re-creates the look (and, with that visible cover wear, the feel) of a heady 1960s science-fiction novel.

Tomorrow Never Knows does sound like a plausible piece of speculative fiction from that era, but Alcott has made use of much more than these songs' titles. Even casual Beatles fans will notice how much of their lyrical content he manages to work into his designs, for which the 1967 National Enquirer cover pastiche he put together for the 1967 single "A Day in the Life" ("complete with photos of Tory Browne, the Guinness heir about whom the song was written") offered an especially rich opportunity. Just when the Beatles broke up in real life, the era of the new-age self-help book began, and after seeing what Alcott did with "Hello Goodbye" using the distinctive visual branding of that publishing trend, you'll wonder why no one cashed in on such a combination at the time.

You can see all of Alcott's Beatles book cover and magazine page designs, and buy prints of them in various sizes, over at Etsy. Other selections include "Rocky Raccoon" as an 1880s dime novel (publishers of which included a firm named Beadles) and "Revolution" as a Soviet history book. Open Culture readers will know Alcott from his previous forays into retro music-to-book graphic design, which took the songs of David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Radiohead and others and re-imagined them as sci-fi novels, pulp-fiction magazines, and other artifacts of print culture from times past. In the case of the Beatles, Alcott's formidable skill at evoking a highly specific era of recent history with an image underscores, by contrast, the timelessness of the songs that inspired them.

Related Content:

A Short Film on the Famous Crosswalk From the Beatles’ Abbey Road Album Cover

How The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Changed Album Cover Design Forever

Songs by David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads & More Re-Imagined as Pulp Fiction Book Covers

Classic Songs by Bob Dylan Re-Imagined as Pulp Fiction Book Covers: “Like a Rolling Stone,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” & More

Classic Radiohead Songs Re-Imagined as a Sci-Fi Book, Pulp Fiction Magazine & Other Nostalgic Artifacts

Pulp Covers for Classic Detective Novels by Dashiell Hammett, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie & Raymond Chandler

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.





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