Saturday, May 16, 2009

How the Mice Bury the Cat

The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley
-Robert Burns, To a Mouse

People who "make" history are generally thought of as kings, warriors, and leaders in religion, business and the sciences. Every day output of television and publishing media underpin this opinion by spotlighting the notorious and the sensational. Whether its the six wives of Henry VIII or the "most evil men in history" like Stalin, Hitler, or Pol Pot. However history is also made from the lower classes that at first glimpse appear meager and unimportant. Under Peter the Great, Russia became transformed into an empire to be reckoned with in European affairs. In part it was because of his introduction of several Western scientific, technological, cultural and political conceptions and practices. His police state philosophy was based on the conviction that, just as he spent his life unceasingly in service for the state, so should his subjects discharge their duties to the state. Both his reforms and his quick and frequently cruel retaliations for infractions left their indelible impressions upon Russia.

The Russian peasants' self-sufficient rural existence may have seemed barren and harsh but in the last two decades historians have begun to study how peasants organized their lives, work and families and how they responded to economic and political events. One method they have used is to study the art from the era and local. In Russia the lubok is the name of a specific kind of folk art. They are vibrant prints made from a woodcut or a copper engraving. Generally prepared with three or four contrasting colors they are vivid, cheery, and animate. As a hybrid art form they usually contain pictures and words, narrative and imagery. All classes in Russian society, even the leaders, loved lubki (the plural form) and became popular in Russia at the onset of the sixteenth century during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. It has even been discovered that a set of lubki were purchased by the Tsar Michael Romanov in 1635 for his seven-year-old son, Alexis.

During Peter the Great's reign the nobility took up west European art and lubki were left to the lesser nobility and merchants. By the end of the seventeenth century Russian lubki had become tightly connected with the Moscow marketplace. Found in both fresco and woodcarvings the first prints were vigilantly carved religious woodcuts in a native style, an economical substitute for an icon. They were created by a small number of Moscow artisans form the middle of the 18th century. Peddlers bought the lubki by the hundreds to trade at regional fairs and market and were typically used as cheap wall decorations in homes and taverns. By the end of the century the themed lubki art form became a part of the peasantry and the most popular themes were rural depicting a variety of characters and activities from views from theatricals and feasts, parodies of assorted rites demonstrate the humor that thrived during this time. Lubki remained popular throughout the first half of the 18th century and frequently provides a peek into the past of how the peasant culture observed the less understood conduct of the tsars. Both Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great shared the crude parodying antics typical of the Old Russian popular culture.

Researchers note that by the late 1760's lubki began to take on satire on local customs and themes as central subjects when the artists integrated the clown and folly acts of the fairs into their work. These worldly themes were a reaction to the secularizing principles of Peter the Great and his agenda of reform that changed all facets of Russian life. The forcible Europeanization sweeping the land had found many adversaries and the satirical prints eventually reflected the popular anti-Petrine atmosphere. Most traditionalists found the tsar's reforms controversial and difficult to accept. One investigator of the folk art notes:

    Non-religious content began to appear in the first quarter of the eighteenth century during modernization of Russia by Peter the Great. For the first time, images of peasants were created. For example, holiday celebrations were depicted, as were typical events in the lives of peasantry, such as courting. Matchmaking became a very popular subject of the folk print. At the same time, humor became a central characteristic of the lubok; prints with dwarfs, clowns, and jesters became very popular. Lubki also began to contain sharp political and social commentary; for this reason, artists often encountered difficulties with church and government censors. In Peter the Great's time, lubki satirized his attempts at Westernization by depicting men getting their beards chopped off or by portraying Peter himself as the Anti-Christ.

The most renowned lubok of all is probably How the Mice Bury the Cat which collector Dmitrii Rovinskii (1824-1895) identified as a satire on Peter the Great. One the finest lubok design is its mate The Cat of Kazan which makes fun of Peter's moustache and his many titles. Both were created in multiple versions in the wake of Peter's unpopular secularizing reforms. How the Mice Bury the Cat with its jaunty rendering became the perennial favorite of the lubok buyers. It includes several key elements that identify the cat as Peter the Great and the mice as the Russian people. The print depicts a group of mice pulling a funeral sled containing The Cat of Kazzan. Two of the eight mice are playing musical instruments. This is significant because it wasn't until 1697 that the tsar allowed music and it was during the funeral of a personal friend. Additionally an orchestra was also present during Peter's burial and eight horses drew his funeral sled. One of the mice smokes a pipe that sets up an insinuation of the tsar-reformer's introduction of tobacco sales. In the upper right corner, two mice are riding in a one-axle cabriolet. Alexis Mikhailovich, Peter's father, had banned the gigs only to turn around and allow them during Peter's reign becoming one the tsar's favorite means of transportation.

There are several versions of the print including more anti-Petrine allusions and it seems as if they were created to represent a kind of collective dream of the peasant class; a telling commentary from the peasants as the "mice" who were unable to change and significantly rid themselves of the tsarist "cats". With the power to bury the cats the depiction provided the peasantry the opportunity to settle old scores and assign blame for the consequences of forced reform. Yet despite the mice's ability to bury the cats it was only a symbolic victory for the peasantry. They still had to live with the hated Westernization and were unable to bury the next top cat – Catherine I.

Because Peter the Great died in Saint Petersburg on February 8th 1725 there is some debate over some of these interpretations. In 1983 M.A. Alekseeva discovered that the earliest woodcuts of How the Mice Bury the Cat dated from the late 17th century and notes that they could not have originally referred to Peter's funeral. Alekseeva suggests that the concrete details like the number of horses for the funeral cortege were added after his death to create a new version of the print. Even so, what began as an inoffensive tradition of clowning around has since been reinterpreted as a parody of the titles of the tsar. Some experts say that perhaps it was the subtle influence of the Enlightenment period and what started as old humor highlighting the local comedy became internalized, trivialized and finally escapist.


Folk Art: The Lubok
Accessed May 5, 2005

Healy, Dan. Russian Peasants & Russian History 1861-1941
Accessed May 5, 2005

Satirical Lubok
Accessed May 5, 2005

Medieval Popular Humor in Russian Eighteenth Century Lubki Dianne Ecklund Farrell Slavic Review Vol. 50, No. 3 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 551-565.

Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Peter the Great.," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Tragic Hero

    "Fortunate Sophocles who after a long life
    died, a happy and a gifted man
    after writing many fine tragedies
    he made a good end, having endured no evil."
    -Phrynicus (a comic poet)
The beginnings of thespian writing originated during the 6th century BC in ancient Greece, and the earliest existing section of critical essays on the genesis of theatre is Aristotle's Poetics (c 330 BC). Greek tragedy, Aristotle wrote, "developed from dithyrambs—choral hymns in honor of the god Dionysus—which not only praised the god, but often told a story." Legends passed through the ages tell that Thepis was a choral leader that lived around the same period of history and is credited with creating a form of tragedy by assuming the part if the star in a dithyrambic story. When he spoke his part a chorus would respond and from this it was a short leap to adding other actors as well as characters. This is the basic way drama emerged as an independent form, according to Aristotle. Nevertheless, the apparently unprompted expansion of decidedly refined theater with almost no precedents is hard to explain.

During this time a tragedy was not a play with an unhappy ending rather it meant that a noble hero encountered obstacles to what the audience would think of as happiness. These hindrances could be based on personal overindulgences; like pride or a divergence between one set of laws and another. Morality and necessity limit all of mankind but even more so, tragic heroes.

    "Tragedy deals with the pain and suffering caused when an individual, obstinately defying the dictates of divine will or temporal authority, or refusing to yield to destiny and circumstance, instead obeys some inner compulsion that leads to agonizing revelation...."
The great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were performed yearly at the spring celebration of Dionysus, god of wine, and inspiration. One of the greatest writers of these dramas was Euripides (484-406). Only sixteen of his original 92 plays exist today. Aristotle called him the most tragic of the poets for the reason that his plays were the most moving. Coming from him, that was high praise. Because it was Aristotle who set forth the fundamentals for literary criticism of a Greek tragedy in his work Poetics there are three essential effects Aristotle's listed: First, the spectators develop an emotional attachment to the tragic hero; second, the spectators worries what may befall the hero; and finally; after calamity strikes, the spectators pities the afflicted hero. It was his well-known association between "pity and fear" and "catharsis" that led to the development of some of Western greatest philosophies. Aristotle defined the tragic hero as:
  1. A man who is characterized by good and evil; a mixture of both good and bad characteristics. " He is not an ordinary man but a man with outstanding quality and greatness about him""
  2. "The tragic hero is good, though not perfect" Typically he has a tragic flaw, or harmatia, some excess or mistake in behavior, that is the reason for his downfall.
  3. He has hubris- pride and arrogance- nearby, a person or thing that sets the stage for his descent, including all of the circumstances that will cause his to fall.
  4. He nearly always goes on an expedition or journey.
  5. "Nevertheless, the hero's misfortune is not wholly deserved. The punishment exceeds the crime. We do not come away from the tragedy with the feeling that 'He got what he had coming to him' but rather with the sad sense of a waste of human potential" People can relate to him by putting themselves in his place and realizing that if it were them they would in all probability do the same things that the hero does.
  6. "Yet the tragic fall is not pure loss. Though it may result in the protagonist's death, it involves, before his death, some increase in awareness, some gain in self-knowledge" The tragic hero is not ideal or god-like in status, but human. One with problems, and he goes through life with the same obstacles most others encounter.
  7. "The hero's downfall, therefore, is his own fault, the result of his own free choice--not the result of pure accident or villainy or some overriding malignant fate" His dreadful flaw always causes the him to fall in the end. There is misfortune and heartbreak for himself and for those around him.
Some vital terms critical to defining a composite recognition of tragic heroes:
  • Anagnorisis -"tragic recognition or insight": according to Aristotle, a moment of clairvoyant insight or understanding in the mind of the tragic hero as he suddenly comprehends the web of fate that he has entangled himself in.
  • Hamartia "-tragic error": a fatal error or simple mistake on the part of the protagonist that eventually leads to the final catastrophe. A metaphor from archery, hamartia literally refers to a shot that misses the bull's-eye. Hence it need not be an egregious "fatal flaw"; as the term hamartia has traditionally been glossed . Instead, it can be something as basic and inescapable as a simple miscalculation or slip-up.
  • Hubris -"violent transgression": the sin par excellence of the tragic or over-aspiring hero. Though it is usually translated as pride, hubris is probably better understood as a sort of insolent daring, a haughty overstepping of cultural codes or ethical boundaries.
  • Nemesis -"retribution": the inevitable punishment or cosmic payback for acts of hubris.
  • Peripateia -"plot reversal": a pivotal or crucial action on the part of the protagonist that changes his situation from seemingly secure to vulnerable.

Pop Quiz!

Now that we have the basics lets see how some readers can do at identifying one. This is for those Babylon5 fans out there. It might surprise some to learn that the science fiction saga has a lot of really intelligent writing supporting it. Did you know that one of the characters is written to fit the definition of a true tragic hero? How about trying to figure out which one? Think about which character you would consider to be the tragic hero. It might surprise many to learn who he or she is.

Oh! Oh! John Sheridan ...Captain John Sheridan!

No wait! I want to give some examples first....
It's not Sheridan. Although there is a bearing of greatness about him Sheridan rarely crosses ethical boundaries.

One of the most ancient stories about a tragic hero is the tale of Oedipus. The myth commences with Laius, King of Thebes, learning from the oracle that his son will kill him and marry his wife Jocasta. When the king's first child is born, the infant's feet are pierced and he is abandoned, on a mountaintop.

A shepherd saves the child, Oedipus (meaning swollen feet), and presents him to his king, Polybus, King of Corinth. When Oedipus grows up he finds out from an oracle that he will murder his father and marry his mother. Unaware that he was an orphan Oedipus banishes himself leaving for Thebes for fear that he will kill Polybus. Along his journey he runs into Laius and his followers, mistaking them for a band of robbers he unwittingly kills Laius fulfilling the prophecy.

Homeless and alone Oedipus arrives in Thebes where he finds the town besieged by the Sphinx, a dreadful monster. Oedipus successfully passes the riddle of the Sphinx who kills herself setting the community free. The grateful citizens thinking that their King Laius was murdered by unknown robbers, reward Oedipus by making him king and giving him Queen Jocasta to marry. Together they have four children: Eteocles, Polynice, Antigone, and Ismene.

Twenty-five years later a terrible plague descends upon Thebes and Oedipus consults the oracle that proclaims that the murderer of Laius must be banished or killed. Oedipus resolves to find and punish the murderer.

When Oedipus discovers that Laius had a son whose feet were pierced things start to come apart. Finally the Corinthian shepherd who "rescued" Oedipus the baby comes forward, and all the horrifying reality is exposed. Filled with grief over her incestuous life Jocasta kills herself. His wife is dead and children accursed Oedipus puts blinds himself, resigns from the throne and wanders for many years until his death in Colonus near Athens.

Could it be Ambassador Delenn?

No-- it's not Delenn. Even though she comes from nobility and is self sacrificing. After leaving public office, Delenn went into seclusion on Minbari and died.
shhh k?

Over time a tragic hero came to be measured as a "noble person with a fatal flaw" or "an opponent of society who is willing to take action that 'sensible people' might applaud but never perform themselves".

What about Michael Garibaldi or Stephen Franklin?

Well Garibaldi certainly overstepped a lot of cultural codes but he was too much of a bad boy and his eventual death was, in Mr. Straczynski's words, "a much quieter passing than he would have imagined waiting for him". As for Franklin; he had some of the most human faults of the entire crew. Still he didn't exactly die a hero's death. According to Straczynski, Franklin met his final fate on a distant, unexplored planet.
hush now.... I'll tell who it is at the end of this write up.

When William Shakespeare created Macbeth, he incorporated in the title character all of the key elements of a tragic hero. Macbeth has a decline from his good standing, reaches a low point and turns himself around, the epiphany, and finally rises in his morals and standing; however it is too late and his death is apparent.

Could it be Susan Ivonova or Marcus Cole?

Good try but Ivanova went back to Earth and Marcus (he was such a cutie; it WAS a tragedy when JMS killed him off!) but he was not a member of any class of nobility; neither was Lennier for the same reason.

Another character created by Shakespeare is Othello, a primary illustration of a smartly crafted tragedy. Othello himself has all the elements of a tragic hero: the personal grievance involving a friend and loved one, the tragic flaw –gullibility, the forfeit of life; suicide. And it is King Lear's hubris at the end of the day that strips him of his power.

Aha! I know it's Ambassador G'Kar!

No although G'Kar began as a villain with a touch of humor he evolved into a wise religious figure, a hero, but not tragic. Keep're close!
Someone's a little excited.

Modern classics that have readily identifiable elements of heroes from tragedy; one such example would be Moby Dick. On board the Pequod, Ahab as the ship's captain and his would-be greatness lies in his potential of slaying the great white whale. Ahab's flaw is an unwavering conviction leading him into a situation he can't win. Deluded by the prophecies of Fedallah, the captain comes to view himself as immortal, able to overcome anything. Blinded by arrogance he can see no alternative path of action or significance for the events that occur other than the one he decides to fit with his monomaniacal hunt of Moby Dick. Doomed by pride he makes a serious error in judgment, Moby Dick is Ahab's nemesis. Realizing he has made an irreversible mistake Ahab faces and accepts death with honor:

    "All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life" (Melville 545).
With these words, Ahab's fate is coupled with the common fate of humanity. Through this universal link, Ahab's struggle becomes that of everyone everywhere. Seeking within his own sphere of knowledge and experience the ship's captain overcomes what he perceives as a major evil force. At last, Ahab gives his life in the quest for the betterment for everyone.


Yay! You get a Gold Star! Londo as a tragic hero went through more twists than a bag of pretzels. Born into a noble family Mollari had a good heart, but he was condemned at every turn by his own bad choices. His ascension to the throne as Emperor was bittersweet and in the end he surrendered himself to his greatest fear, death at the hands of a Narn.

There you go. Now you've learned a few things about what make heroes tragic! It's been defined; several examples from the past, present, and future have been given, why there was even a little exam to check for understanding! Now go out there write great story for E2!


Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Drama and Dramatic Arts," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.

Comedy and Tragedy

The Heroic in Moby-Dick

Perrine, Laurence, and Thomas R. Arp. Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. 6th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publications, 1991.

The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5

Picture Source


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mesquite Almond Cookies

Mesquite as a food source

    "Only seven species of plants keep the majority of humanity from starvation: rice, maize, barley, wheat, the soybean, the common bean and the potato. The major crop plants of the world include another dozen or so species. Most of these domesticated species are genetically vulnerable to long-associated diseases and pests, and none are particularly adapted to arid lands. However, one third of the world's land mass falls within arid and semiarid climates. Thus arid-adapted crop plants become more necessary as agriculture expands to meet the world's food requirements, and as fresh water and energy become even more limited. In contrast to the major cultigens there exists a great diversity of food plants that have evolved in arid environments and which, for millennia have formed the basis of subsistence of native desert peoples. In the Sonoran Desert of southwestern North America, there are more than 375 species of wild food plants. About 40 of these species were utilized as major staples by the native peoples of the region. Rather than basing all arid-lands agriculture on imported, temperate or tropical cultigens which depend on costly supplements of water and energy-intensive technology, we would do better to select and develop certain of these indigenous desert plants for a twenty first century agriculture." (From Deceptive Barrenness by Richard Felger)

Mesquite Almond Cookies*

To many mesquite usually just means charcoal. Few know the sweet, unique flavor of mesquite pods. Recent research has shown that prickly pear and mesquite are great foods for diabetics.The advantages to mesquite meal are high soluble fiber content, protein and fructose sugar. The result is a food that tends to stabilize the blood sugar level.

Used as a condiment, it has a fruity molasses taste with a hint of caramel-like flavor. Meal made from the mesquite beans can enhance flavors in recipes when mixed with other flours, and is a good source of calcium, manganese, potassium, iron, and zinc. Generally, mesquite meal may substituted for up to one third of the flour content in many recipes. Mesquite meal can be purchased from Native Seeds/SEARCH @:

Preheat oven to 375F.

Mix the three flours and baking soda in a bowl and set aside.

Use a stand-type electric mixer to mix the two sugars briefly at low speed.

Add the butter in small gobbets, mixing first at low speed and then at high. Beat the mixture until it's pale, light, and very fluffy. Add the vanilla at the mixer's lowest speed, then beat at high speed for a few seconds.

Add the eggs, again at the lowest speed, switching to high speed for the final second or so. The eggs should be well beaten in, and the mix should look creamed, not curdled.

Add the flour mixture, a half cup at a time, mixing at low speed for about one minute, then at high speed for a few seconds.

Scrape down the bowl's sides with a spatula, add the sliced almonds, and mix at low speed for about 10 seconds. If need be, scrape the bowl's sides again and mix for a few more seconds.

Put tablespoons of the cookie mix on an un-greased cookie sheet.

Bake until the cookies are pale golden brown (nine minutes in an electric oven, 10 to 11 minutes in a gas one).
Remove and let cool on a rack.

Makes about 3 - 3 ½ dozen cookies.

There is so much to enjoy about living in the southwestern desert in the US. Ancient tales, live music, and desert sunsets that speak for themselves. Here is a little piece of it to share; take advantage of it -- the experience will do your soul -- and your body -- good.

Hubby gives a big thumbs up -- Pretty Good!