Richard Feynman’s Poignant Letter to His Departed Wife Arline: Watch Actor Oscar Isaac Read It Live Onstage

Media vita in morte sumus, goes the medieval line of poetry that lent the English Book of Common Prayer its most memorable expression: “In the midst of life we are in death.” The remainder of the poem extrapolates a theology from this observation, something one can only take on faith. But whatever way we dress up the mystery of death, it remains ever-present and inevitable. Yet we might think of the motto as a palindrome: In the midst of death, we are in life. The dead remain with us, for as long as we live and remember them. This is also a mystery.

Even theoretical physicists must confront the presence of the departed, and few scientists—few writers—have done so with as much poignancy, directness, eloquence, and humor as Richard Feynman, in a letter to his wife Arline written over a year after she died of tuberculosis at age 25. Feynman, himself only 28 years old at the time, sealed the letter, written in 1946, until his own death in 1988. “Please excuse my not mailing this,” he wrote with bitter humor in the postscript, “but I don’t know your new address.” Even in the midst of his profound grief, Feynman’s wit sparkles. It is not a performance for us, his posthumous readers. It is simply the way he had always written—in letter after letter—to Arline.

In the video above, Oscar Isaac, who has embodied many a wisecracking romantic, gives voice to the longing and pain of Feynman’s letter, in which the physicist confesses, “I thought there was no sense to writing.” Somehow, he could not help but do so, ending with starkly ambivalent truths he was unable to reconcile with what he colloquially calls his “realistic” nature: “You only are left to me. You are real…. I love my wife. My wife is dead.” Read the full letter below, via Letters of Note. For more from their Letters Live series, see Benedict Cumberbatch read Kurt Vonnegut’s letter to the school that banned his novel Slaughterhouse Five.

October 17, 1946


I adore you, sweetheart.

I know how much you like to hear that — but I don’t only write it because you like it — I write it because it makes me warm all over inside to write it to you.

It is such a terribly long time since I last wrote to you — almost two years but I know you’ll excuse me because you understand how I am, stubborn and realistic; and I thought there was no sense to writing.

But now I know my darling wife that it is right to do what I have delayed in doing, and that I have done so much in the past. I want to tell you I love you. I want to love you. I always will love you.

I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead — but I still want to comfort and take care of you — and I want you to love me and care for me. I want to have problems to discuss with you — I want to do little projects with you. I never thought until just now that we can do that. What should we do. We started to learn to make clothes together — or learn Chinese — or getting a movie projector. Can’t I do something now? No. I am alone without you and you were the “idea-woman” and general instigator of all our wild adventures.

When you were sick you worried because you could not give me something that you wanted to and thought I needed. You needn’t have worried. Just as I told you then there was no real need because I loved you in so many ways so much. And now it is clearly even more true — you can give me nothing now yet I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else — but I want you to stand there. You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive.

I know you will assure me that I am foolish and that you want me to have full happiness and don’t want to be in my way. I’ll bet you are surprised that I don’t even have a girlfriend (except you, sweetheart) after two years. But you can’t help it, darling, nor can I — I don’t understand it, for I have met many girls and very nice ones and I don’t want to remain alone — but in two or three meetings they all seem ashes.

You only are left to me. You are real.

My darling wife, I do adore you.

I love my wife. My wife is dead.


PS Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don’t know your new address

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The Photography of Poet Arthur Rimbaud (1883)


Arthur Rimbaud, far-seeing prodigy, “has been memorialized in song and story as few in history,” writes Wyatt Mason in an introduction to the poet’s complete works; “the thumbnail of his legend has proved irresistible.” The poet, we often hear, ended his brief but brilliant literary career when he ran off to the Horn of Africa and became a gunrunner… or some other sort of adventurous outlaw character many miles removed, it seems, from the intense symbolist hero of Illuminations and A Season in Hell.


Rimbaud’s break with poetry was so decisive, so abrupt, that critics have spent decades trying to account for what one “hyperbolic assessment” deemed as having “caused more lasting, widespread consternation than the break-up of the Beatles.” What could have caused the young libertine, so drawn to urban voyeurism and the skewering of the local bourgeoisie, to disappear from society for an anonymous, rootless life?


On the other hand, in revisiting the poetry we find—amidst the grotesque, hallucinogenic reveries—that “travel, adventure, and departure on various levels are thematic concerns that run through much of Rimbaud”: from 1871’s “The Drunken Boat” to A Season in Hell’s “Farewell,” in which the poet writes, “The time has come to bury my imagination and my memories! A fitting end for an artist and teller of tales.”


He was only 18 then, in 1873, when he wrote his farewell. Two years later, he would finally end his violent tumultuous relationship with Paul Verlaine, and embark on a series of voyages, first by foot all over Europe, then to the Dutch East Indies, Cyprus, Yemen, and finally Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia), where he settled in Harar, struck up a friendship with the governor (the father of future Emperor Haile Selassie), and became a highly-regarded coffee trader, and yes, gun dealer.


Rimbaud may have left poetry behind, deciding he had realized all he could in language. But he had not given up on approaching his experience aesthetically. Only, instead of trying “to invent new flowers, new stars, new flesh, new tongues,” as he wrote in “Farewell,” he had evidently decided to take the world in on its own terms. He documented his findings in essays on geography and travel accounts and, in 1883, several photographs, including two self-portraits he sent to his mother in May, writing, “Enclosed are two photographs of me which I took.”


You can see one of those portraits at the top of the post, and the other, in much worse shape, below it, and a third self-portrait just below. The “circumstances in which the photographs were taken are quite mysterious,” writes Lucille Pennel at The Eye of Photography.

Starting in 1882, Rimbaud became fascinated with the new technology. He ordered a camera in Lyon in order to illustrate a book on “Harar and the Gallas country,” a camera he received only in early 1883. He also ordered specialized books and photo processing equipment. The planned scientific publication was never realized, and the six photographs are the only trace of Rimbaud’s activity.

“I am not yet well established, nor aware of things,” Rimbaud wrote in the letter to his mother, “But I will be soon, and I will send you some interesting things.” It’s not exactly clear why Rimbaud abandoned his photographic endeavors. He had approached the pursuit not only as hobby, but also as a commercial venture, writing in his letter, “Here everyone wants to be photographed. They even offer one guinea a photograph.”

The comment leads Pennel to conclude “there must have been other photographs, but any trace of them is lost, raising doubts about the degree of Rimbaud’s engagement with photography.”


Perhaps, however, he’d simply decided that he’d done all he could do with the medium, and let it go with a graceful farewell. History, posterity, the cementing of a reputation—these are phenomena that seemed of little interest to Rimbaud. “What will become of the world when you leave?” he had written in “Youth, IV”—“No matter what happens, no trace of now will remain.” In a historical irony, Rimbaud’s photographs “were developed in ‘filthy water,’” notes Pennel, meaning they “will continue to fade until the images are all gone. They are as fleeting as the man with the soles of wind.”

If we wish to see them in person, the time is short. The photo at the top of the post now resides at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The other six are housed at the Arthur Rimbaud Museum in Charleville-Mézières.

via Vintage Anchor/The Eye of Photography.

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

Why Socrates Hated Democracies: An Animated Case for Why Self-Government Requires Wisdom & Education

How often have you heard the quote in one form or another? “Democracy is the worst form of Government,” said Winston Churchill in 1947, “except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time….” The sentiment expresses two cultural values many Americans are trained to hold uncritically: the primacy of democracy and the burdensomeness of government as a necessary evil.

In his new book Toward Democracy, Harvard historian James T. Kloppenberg argues that these ideas arose fairly recently with “mostly Protestants, at least at first,” notes Kirkus, in whose hands “the idea of democracy as a dangerous doctrine of the mob was reshaped into an ideal.” Much of this transformation “occurred in the former British colonies that became the United States, where, at least from a British nobleman’s point of view, mob rule did take hold.”

The modern revamping of democracy into a sacred set of universal institutions has defined our understanding of the term. Just as the West has co-opted classical Athenian architecture as symbolic of democratic purity, it has often co-opted Greek philosophy. But as anyone who has ever read Plato’s Republic knows, Greek philosophers were highly suspicious of democracy, and could not conceive of a functioning egalitarian society with full suffrage and freedom of speech.

Socrates, especially, says Alain de Botton in the School of Life video above, “was portrayed in the dialogues of Plato as hugely pessimistic about the whole business of democracy.” In the ideal society Socrates constructs in the Republic, he famously argues for restricted freedom of movement, strict censorship according to moralistic civic virtues, and a guardian soldier class and the rule of philosopher kings.

In Book VI, Socrates points out the “flaws of democracy by comparing a society to a ship.” If you were going on a sea voyage, “who would you ideally want deciding who was in charge of the vessel, just anyone, or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring?” Unless we wish to be obtusely contrarian, we must invariably answer the latter, as does Socrates’ interlocutor Adeimantus. Why then should just any of us, without regard to level of skill, experience, or education, be allowed to select the rulers of a country?

The grim irony of Socrates’ skepticism, de Botton observes, is that he himself was put to death after a vote by 500 Athenians. Rather than the typical elitism of purely aristocratic thinking, however, Socrates insisted that “only those who had thought about issues rationally and deeply should be let near a vote.” Says de Botton, “We have forgotten this distinction between an intellectual democracy and a democracy by birthright. We have given the vote to all without connecting it to wisdom.” (He does not tell us whom he means by “we.”)

For Socrates, so-called “birthright democracy” was inevitably susceptible to demagoguery. Socrates “knew how easily people seeking election could exploit our desire for easy answers” by telling us what we wanted to hear. We should heed Socrates’ warnings against mob rule and the dangers of demagoguery, de Botton argues, and consider democracy as “something that is only ever as good as the education system that surrounds it.” It’s a potent idea, and one often repeated with reference to a similar warning from Thomas Jefferson.

What de Botton does not mention in his short video, however, is that Socrates also advised that his rulers lie to the citizenry, securing their trust not with false promises and seductive blandishments, but with ideology. As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes, Socrates “suggests that [the rulers] need to tell the citizens a myth that should be believed by subsequent generations in order for everyone to accept his position in the city”—and to accept the legitimacy of the rulers. The myth—like modern scientific racism and eugenics—divides the citizenry into an essential hierarchy, which Socrates symbolizes by the metals gold, silver, and bronze.

But who determines these categories, or which voters are the more “rational,” or what that category entails? How do we reconcile the egalitarian premises of democracy with the caste systems of the utopian Republic, in which voting “rationally” means voting for the interests of the class that gets the vote? What about the uses of propaganda to cultivate official state ideology in the populace (as Walter Lippman so well described in Public Opinion). And what are we to do with the deep suspicions of, say, Nietzsche when it comes to Socratic ideas of reason, many of which have been confirmed by the findings of neuroscience?

As cognitive scientist and linguist George Lakoff writes, “Most thought is unconscious, since we don’t have conscious access to our neural circuitry…. Estimates by neuroscientists vary between a general ‘most’ to as much as 98%, with consciousness as the tip of the mental iceberg.” That is to say that—despite our levels of education and specialized training—we “tend to make decisions unconsciously,” at the gut level, “before becoming consciously aware of them.” Even decisions like voting.

These considerations should also inform critiques of democracy, which have not only warned us of its dangers, but have also been used to justify widespread voter suppression and disenfranchisement for reasons that have nothing to do with objective rationality and everything to do with myth and political ideology.

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

Performance Artist Marina Abramović Describes Her “Really Good Plan” to Lose Her Virginity

Losing your virginity–it’s not a subject we’ve previously discussed much here at Open Culture. Nor is it a subject about which we’d claim to have great expertise. (After all, you lose it only once in life.)

But performance artist Marina Abramović has given the whole endeavor some serious thought. As she explains in the BBC Radio 4 video above, she waited until she was 24 years old. Having seen precocious friends make mistakes, she handled things in her own special way. A Perry Como album. A bottle of Albanian whisky. An experienced, emotionally uninvolved partner. They all figured into what she calls–now 45 years later–her “really good plan.”

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Hear a 20-Hour Playlist Featuring the Experimental Music of Composer Pauline Oliveros (RIP)

We can all surely recite some version of the difference between listening and hearing. It’s usually explained by a parent or guardian, with the intent of making us better at following instructions. On the whole, it’s for our own good as children that we pay heed to our elders. But genuine, critical listening is about so much more than perceiving gestures of authority. The avant-garde composer Pauline Oliveros, who died this past Thursday at 84, would argue that true listening, what she called “deep listening,” opens us up in radical ways to the world around us, and frees us from the sociopolitical constraints that hem in our senses. “Take a walk at night,” says one Oliveros’ 1974 “Sonic Meditations,” a set of 25 instructions for deep listening, “Walk so silently that the bottom of your feet become ears.”

“Sonic Meditations” emerged after “a period of intense introspection prompted by the Vietnam War,” writes Steve Smith in a New York Times obituary, during which Oliveros “changed creative course” to begin favoring improvisatory works. “All societies admit the power of music or sound,” she wrote in the preface.

“Sonic Meditations,” wrote Oliveros, “are an attempt to return the control of sound to the individual alone, and within groups especially for humanitarian purposes; specifically healing.” Her approach represented the composer giving up control and the primacy of authorship in order to play other roles: healer, guide, and teacher, a role she inhabited for decades as a college professor and author of several books of musical theory.

As you can see in her TEDx lecture at the top of the post, Oliveros always returned from her sonic explorations—such as the 1989 recording titled Deep Listening (hear an excerpt below)—with lessons for us in how to become better, more engaged and empowered listeners, rather than distracted consumers, of music and sound. Even before the 70s, and her turn to music as a meditative discipline informed by Buddhism and Native American ritual, Oliveros’ work disrupted the usual hierarchies of sound. An early adopter of technology, she “was quickly at the vanguard of electronics,” wrote Tom Service in a 2012 Guardian profile, but her “relationship with technology is philosophically ambivalent” given the role of research and development in creating weapons of war.

In early compositions like 1965’s “Bye Bye Butterfly,“ the composer “manipulated a recording of Puccini’s opera ‘Madama Butterfly’ on a turntable,” Smith writes, “augmenting its sounds with oscillators and tape delay.” In the beautifully moving results, further up, she aimed for a critique that “bids farewell not only to the music of the 19th century,” she wrote, “but also to the system of polite morality of that age and its attendant institutionalized oppression of the female sex.” Music has always been produced and consumed within the social constructions of gender binaries, Oliveros maintained. In a 1970 New York Times essay “And Don’t Call Them ‘Lady’ Composers,” she observed that “unless she is super-excellent, the woman in music will always be subjugated, while men of the same or lesser talent will find places for themselves.”

Throughout her long career, Oliveros created a place for herself, with as much theoretical rigor, playfulness, elegance, and sophistication as her friend and contemporary John Cage. That her substantial body of work has received a fraction of the attention as his may offer an instructive gloss on her contentions of persistent bias. But Oliveros’ work was not reactive; it was constructive, such that her concepts gave rise to what she called a Deep Listening Institute, an “ever-growing community of musicians, artists, scientists, and certified Deep Listening practitioners,” who strive “for a heightened consciousness of the world of sound and the sound of the world.”

But you don’t need specialized certification or training to experience the meditative, consciousness-expanding techniques of Oliveros’ music. On the contrary, she sought to foster “creative innovation across boundaries and across abilities, among artists and audience, musicians and nonmusicians, healers and the physically or cognitively challenged, and children of all ages.” In the Spotify playlist above, hear—or rather listen to—20 hours of Oliveros compositions, many featuring her early experiments with analog electronics, her “expanded instrument system,” and her signature instrument, a digitally-enhanced accordion.

As in the orchestral movement of Deep Listening, the album, Oliveros frequently dialogues with musical traditions, but she refused to allow them any particularly elevated authority over her work. “I’m not dismissive of classical music and the Western canon,” she said in 2012, “It’s simply that I can’t be bound by it. I’ve been jumping out of categories all my life.” As listeners, and readers, of her work, we can all learn to do the same.

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

Watch Come Together, Wes Anderson’s New Short Film/Commercial Starring Adrien Brody

Why does the holiday season no longer feel complete without a Wes Anderson movie? Several of his features have opened in late fall or early winter, surely the most Andersonian time of year. Some have come out right around Christmas (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou on the day itself), and some, most notably The Royal Tenenbaums, take place partially in the season. While it looks as if we’ll have to do without a full-length Anderson production this Christmas, since the past year has reportedly seen him in pre-production on an as yet untitled stop-motion animated movie, the auteur of poignant and funny anachronism has nevertheless found time to direct Come Together, a brand new not-quite-commercial for “fast fashion” retailer H&M.

Anderson’s unusual niche in the world of filmmaking allows him to both work as perhaps the most meticulous cinematic visionary alive, and also to make ads with impunity. We’ve featured the pair of commercials for the Hyundai Azera he did in 2012, and more recently the less overt Castello Cavalcanti, a seven-minute short sponsored by Prada. These are in addition to spots for the likes of Stella Artois and American Express, the latter of which starred the director parodying himself.

This time regular collaborator Adrien Brody, previously seen in The Darjeeling Limited and The Grand Budapest Hotel and heard in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, takes the lead role of Conductor Ralph, the man in charge of a train that has fallen far behind its schedule as Christmas Eve becomes Christmas Day. Still, displaying the same attitude most of Anderson’s characters take toward matters of aesthetics and tradition, he takes seriously indeed the job of making Christmas special for his passengers. We glimpse these passengers one at a time through their cabin windows from outside the train, a sequence reminiscent of the cross-section shots of The Life Aquatic‘s R/V Belafonte.

What will enliven the pale greens and matte grays of this slightly forlorn but still doggedly rolling conveyance? It takes less than four minutes, during which Ralph, and Anderson, summon all the resources of this unspecified, dreamlike past at their disposal, to find out. Afterward, Come Together leaves only one lingering question. The famously meticulous Anderson who appears to demand a certain vintage yet timeless solidity in everything from his settings to his devices to his cuisine to his wardrobe — he can’t possibly be into fast fashion. Can he?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

An Animated Introduction to George Orwell

When his short and (by his own account) often miserable life came to an end in 1950, could the English political writer Eric Arthur Blair have known that he would not just become a household name, but remain one well over half a century later? Given his adoption of the memorable nom de plume George Orwell, we might say he had an inkling of his literary legacy’s potential. Still, he claimed to choose it for no grander reason than that it sounded like “a good round English name,” and would have loathed the pretense he sensed in the use of the phrase “nom de plume,” or, for that matter, any other of conspicuously foreign provenance.

The attitudes that shaped the author of Animal Farm and 1984 come out in this animated introduction to Orwell’s life and work, newly published by Alain de Botton’s School of Life. In explaining the motivations of this “most famous English language writer of the 20th century,” de Botton quotes from the essay “Why I Write,” wherein Orwell, with characteristic clarity, lays out his mission “to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”

Orwell hated his fellow intellectuals, whom he accused of “a range of sins: a lack of patriotism, resentment of money and physical vigor, concealed sexual frustration, pretension, and dishonesty.” He loved “the ordinary person” and the lives led by those “not especially blessed by material goods, people who work in ordinary jobs, who don’t have much of an education, who won’t achieve greatness, and who nevertheless love, care for others, work, have fun, raise children, and have large thoughts about the deepest questions in ways Orwell thought especially admirable.” Though raised middle-class and educated at Eton, Orwell eschewed university and believed that “the average pub in a coal-mining village contained more intelligence and wisdom than the British Cabinet or the high table of an Oxbridge college.”

One might want to call such an intellectual a poseur or even a sort of fetishist, but Orwell backed up his pronouncements about the superiority of the working class with his years spent living and working in it, and, with books like Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier, writing about it. He praised newspaper comics, country walks, dancing, Charles Dickens, and straightforward language, all of which informed the attacks on ideology and authoritarianism that would keep his writing meaningful for future generations. The holiday season now upon us makes another work of Orwell’s especially relevant: his Christmas pudding recipe, one blow in his lesser-known struggle to, as the London-based de Botton puts it, write “bravely in defense of English cooking” — a project which would, by itself, qualify him as a champion of the underdog.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Noam Chomsky’s Wide-Ranging Interview on a Donald Trump Presidency: “The Most Predictable Aspect of Trump Is Unpredictability”

Last May, during the contentious presidential primaries, Noam Chomsky spoke about the mounting resentments in America, the opening they’ve created for a figure like Donald Trump, and the parallels to 1930s Germany. Six months later, Trump has apparently won the election. So what does Chomsky, one of America’s leading public intellectuals, make of it all now?

The MIT professor presciently warned back in 2010 that a Trump-like figure was coming. (See his comments pasted below.) But he couldn’t tell you how Trump will actually govern once he takes office. That’s because “The most predictable aspect of Trump is unpredictability. It’s dangerous, very dangerous.” He also adds, “It’s certainly extremely hazardous to have an ignorant, thin-skinned megalomaniac who sends off [tweets] at 3am if somebody angered him.”

If there’s room for some optimism, it’s because Trump might actually make good on his promise to deescalate tensions with the Russians.

We don’t know what’s in [Trump’s] mind. I suspect he doesn’t know what’s in his mind… But anything that would reduce the growing and dangerous and severe threat of nuclear war is to be welcomed. It would be a nice thing if humanity could survive.

A textbook definition of what’s called damning with faint praise.

But don’t worry Republicans, Chomsky doesn’t go easy on Democrats either. Continuing the line of thought above, Chomsky added “One of the presidents who worried me most was Kennedy. In fact Kennedy brought us closer to nuclear destruction than anybody.”

And asked about Democrat suspicions that the Russians possibly hacked the election, he retorts: “It’s a kind of a strange complaint in the United States. The U.S. has been interfering with and undermining elections all over the world for decades and is proud of it. So yes maybe they’re doing it here too.”

Around the 18:15 mark, Chomsky gets to chiding progressives who refused to stop Trump, and voted for Stein or Johnson instead. They simply made “a bad mistake,” he adds.

For me, the best part comes when the al Jazeera interviewer asks Chomsky how we should address the rise of fake news and the “post truth” climate we’re now living in, as some claim: “You combat it by being an educator, by trying to educate, organize, and bring people to understand that they should use their critical intelligence, to evaluate what they’re reading, whether it’s in the mainstream media or on some other site they are looking up.”

For more on that, see this item in our archive:

Noam Chomsky Defines What It Means to Be a Truly Educated Person

Daniel Dennett Presents Seven Tools For Critical Thinking

How to Spot Bullshit: A Primer by Princeton Philosopher Harry Frankfurt



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Watch Georges Méliès’ The Dreyfus Affair, the Controversial Film Censored by the French Government for 50 Years (1899)

History resounds with events so momentous they can be conjured with a single word: Waterloo, Watergate, Tiananmen, Brexit….

In the late nineteenth century, one simple phrase, J’Accuse!the title of an open letter published by novelist Emile Zolastood for a serious injustice that inflamed the political passions of artists, journalists, and the public for decades afterward, and presaged some of the 20th century’s most incredible state crimes.

Zola wrote in defense of French artillery captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was accused, court-marshalled, and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island for supposedly giving military secrets to the Germans. It was the trial of the century, writes Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker, and afterward, Dreyfus, “a young Jewish artillery officer and family man…. was publicly degraded before a gawking crowd.”

His insignia medals were stripped from him, his sword was broken over the knee of the degrader, and he was marched around the grounds in his ruined uniform to be jeered and spat at, while piteously declaring his innocence and his love of France above cries of “Jew” and “Judas!”

Two years later, compelling evidence came to light that showed another officer, Ferdinand Esterhazy, had committed the treasonous offence. But the evidence was buried, and the officer who found it transferred to North Africa and later imprisoned. The Dreyfus Affair marked a major turn in European civil society, “the moment where [Guy de] Maupassant’s world of ambition and pleasure met Kafka’s world of inexplicable bureaucratic suffering.” After a perfunctory two-day trial, Esterhazy was unanimously acquitted by a military court, and Dreyfus convicted of additional charges based on falsified documents.

Five years after Dreyfus’ conviction, his supporters, the “Dreyfusards,” including Zola, Henri Poincare, and Georges Clemenceau, forced the government to retry the case. Dreyfus was ultimately pardoned, and later fully exonerated and reinstated in the French army. He went on to serve with distinction in World War I.


Dreyfus’ accusers’ have mostly sunk into obscurity. His supporters— some caricatured above as “the twelve apostles of Dreyfus”—included some of the most illustrious men of arts and letters in France. They can count among their number the great French director and cinematic visionary Georges Méliès. During the heated year of 1899, “Méliès made a series of eleven one-minute non-fiction films about the Dreyfus Affair as it was still unfolding,” writes Elizabth Ezra,” portraying sympathetically Dreyfus’ arrest,” imprisonment, and retrial. You can watch Méliès’ complete Dreyfus film at the top of the post.

It may be difficult to appreciate the daring of Méliès’ project from our historical distance, and in the somewhat alien idiom of silent film. “For today’s viewers,” writes Ezra, “it is not always easy to discern the sympathetic elements of the films, but the abundance of huffy gesturing and self-righteous facial expressions on the part of Dreyfus make of him a dignified hero who refuses to be degraded by the accusations made against him.” (In this respect, Méliès anticipated another silent film about another unjust trial in France, Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.)

Likewise, we may find it hard to understand the significant social import of “Méliès’ only known expression of political commitment.” But to understand the Dreyfus Affair, we must understand, as the National Library of Israel points out, that “France was already a divided country and the case acted as a casus belli…. ‘The Jew from Alsace’ encapsulated all that the nationalist right loathed, and therefore became the symbol of the nation’s profound division.” Landing in the middle of this political firestorm, Méliès’ Dreyfus series “provoked partisan fistfights,” writes Ezra.

Not only did the Dreyfus case introduce into the public eye a vicious anti-Semitic show-trial, but it also served as a test case for censorship and media sensationalism. Méliès’ film, says author Susan Daitch in the On the Media episode above, was the first docudrama, the “first recreation based on photographs and illustrations in weekly newspapers in France at the time.” And it proved so controversial that it was banned, along with all other Dreyfus films, for fifty years, and only shown again in France in 1974.

The film, says Daitch—who has written a novel based on the Dreyfus Affair—emerged within a partisan mass media war of the kind we’re far too familiar with today. “Both sides,” Daitch tells us, “used and altered the media,” and Dreyfus was both successfully railroaded into prison and successfully retried and exonerated partly on the strength of his supporters’ and accusers’ propaganda campaigns.

The Dreyfus Affair will be added to our list of Free Silent Films, a subset of our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

The film is considered to be in the public domain in the United States and comes to us via Wikimedia Commons.

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

British Advertisers Predict in 1935 What the World Will Look Like in 2500: Wireless TV, Atomic Cars & More


Back before the public came to terms with the grim causal relationship between cigarettes and cancer, smoking was a jolly affair, whose pleasures extended well beyond the physical act.

Smoking was sociable. Yes, there were certain situations in which three on a match could spell doom, but a far greater likelihood that lighting an attractive stranger’s coffin nail might kindle conversation, and more.

If you were at a loss for words, you might break the ice with the trading cards manufacturers slipped inside cigarette packs, such as these mid-30s beauties that came inside packs of Greys, a now-defunct British cigarette brand, and favorite of WWI vets.

The subject is unusual. Sports, cinema stars, and military scenes were common themes of the time. The “Greys Anticipations” series took creative liberties, by imagining a (cancer-free) year 2500, in which Londoners would be privy to such innovations as solar-lighting, moving sidewalks, and wireless television…

Great Scott! Were they psychic!?

Hopefully not.

Hopefully, we’ve still got 484 years to find out…


“Picadilly, London, A.D. 2500: Roofed-in under non-conductive mica glass . . moving pathways . . rubber roadways avenued into 50, 100, 150 and 200 miles per hour . . suspended mono railways . . motors driven by atomic energy . . phonetic spelling . . wireless television . . lighted by captured solar rays . . excursions to Mars.”

I’m fine with excursions to Mars and monorails but atomic energy is as problematic as the health claims once put forward by cigarette ads.


“At the Customs House on the Roof of London, A.D. 2500: The railway train has followed the ichthyosaurus into extinction. Mighty aerial liners transport passengers in their thousands, with great cargoes of merchandise from continent to continent. Mankind, living amidst such tremendous achievements, thinks, plans, and acts with corresponding bigness.”

Hmm…I was kind of rooting for train travel to make a comeback


“The Pleasure City, London, A.D. 2500: Pleasure-seeking has been raised to a fine art . . . mutitudes when the short day’s work is done find a satisfying means of relaxation in smoking “GREYS” Cigarettes and listening to the mammoth mechanical orchestra . . . characteristic of the music of the period . . . music so complex that it can be rendered only by wonderous mechanism.”

This does sound rather fun, depending on who’s doing the programming… perhaps we should just stick with headphones and a busker on every corner.


A Hive of Industry, A.D. 2500: Literally a “hive” in that it is a city unto itself . . . radiating from the mammoth super-factory are workers’ dwellings and associated institutes . . . architecture governed by the prevailing material — concrete . . . no smoke (other than from tobacco!) . . . no household cooking . . meals delivered by pneumatic tube from central cookhouse.

Um…I strongly suggest revisiting Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film, Brazil,  before signing off on the whole pneumatic tube thing.

Darran Anderson, author of  Imaginary Cities, took a closer look at one of the cards in the above talk about imaginary London. I share his opinion that “phonetic spelling… is the best thing that they envis­aged of the future.”

He also notes that the card is about 20 years ahead of its time in promoting a mid-50s-style vision of the future, but that it failed to predict the demise of Greys Cigarettes, by prominently advertising them on the side of a suspended monorail.


via Metafilter

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday