Monthly Archives: May 2014

Catherine II of Russia

Enlightened Despots

 

This was the name given to the monarchs who in mid-18th century Europe took inspiration from the French Enlightenment and decided to loosen the reins of absolutism and improve the lot of their subjects. “Enlightened Despot” sounds like a contradiction in terms but that is because we are looking at it through a rear-view mirror and with today’s eye.

In their day, this was quite a novel idea. They sincerely wanted to institute reforms without in any way undermining their absolute power. They were familiar with the writers of the day and their ideas about religious tolerance, improved education and a measure of uncensored expression. This was political change from above, benevolent paternalism, which could be undone at their whim. They were also acting selfishly because they wanted to lessen the power of the landed aristocracy and that of the Church. Continue reading

History

The Holocaust: Facing The Past

In April, Israel commemorated “Yom ha Shoah (the Holocaust Remembrance Day). On this occasion, the Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas called the Holocaust

“the most heinous crime in modern history.” At the same time, Abbas has allied himself with Hamas, the terrorist organization responsible for rocket attacks on Israel. Hamas vehemently denies the Holocaust. Abbas himself had previously held the same position. Why the change now?

Turkish President Recep Erdogan also offered unprecedented apologies to the grandchildren of Armenians massacred in 1915 by Ottoman soldiers and referred to “our shared pain.” He had previously refused to admit these murders had happened. He acknowledged that 1,500,000 Armenians were killed but stopped short of calling it a genocide. A cartoon shows Erdogan shaking the hand of the Armenian Orthodox Pope and offering condolences. The Pope looks him in the eye and says “The funeral was 99 years ago.” Again, better than nothing I suppose. Continue reading

writer's block

A Room of One’s Own

In Virginia Woolf’s essay with this title, she reflects on what Shakespeare’s fictitious sister would have written had society not barred her way with obstacles. She concludes that in order to write fiction, a woman must have money and a room of her own.

We know that Jane Austen wrote her novels in the dining parlor and had to put them aside when company came to visit. Would she have written more if she’d had her own room? We also know that her fame was mostly posthumous. In her day, society frowned on women who departed from their assigned roles, and many women chose to write under male pseudonyms: George Sand, George Eliot. Even in today’s permissive climate, women often use initials rather than first names to facilitate acceptance: P.D James, J.K Rowling. Continue reading