by Richard Nilsen
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The more I learn, the less I know.
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This is common to most of us. Because knowledge grows arithmetically, but our awareness of how much we don’t yet know in any given field grows exponentially.
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The great E.O. Wilson without doubt knows more about ants than anyone else on the planet, but I would wager that he would tell you that if you put all his knowledge on one side of a balance scale, and all he doesn’t know on the other, that side would drop the weighing pan to the table, leaving his knowledge high and dry and swinging quietly in the air. He is more aware now than ever of just how much there is still to learn about ants.

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Fifty years ago, when I was taking college courses in everything I could think of, my ambition in life was to know everything. Literally. I wanted to absorb all that was known in this existence. There may have been a slight awareness of irony in this, but the ambition was essentially sincere. I plunged into ancient Greek, into astronomy, into Shakespeare, into mythology, into symbolic logic — and that was just my first semester; I had to get special permission for the extra credit hours. And in my leisure time, I read poetry, physics, political science and Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception.
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Needless to say, I couldn’t keep this pace going after the second semester. There was beer, combustible pharmaceuticals and a newly invigorated interest in the exciting volatility of female physiology. Still, I continued to take as wide a variety of courses I could get away with and still meet my requirements for the core curriculum. But it was after my degree that my real education began. In school, I read what was required of me, after, I read entirely what my curiosity ignited in me. I soaked up everything I could, but the more I took in, the faster the horizon of my knowledge sped away from me.
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by Unknown artist, oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1629

It bugged me. When poet John Milton was that age, he took six years off after getting his degree from Cambridge University and read everything that have ever been written up to that time — at least everything he had knowledge of.
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I doubt he read Chinese, but he did read Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and even Old English, and while there were surely myriad books he was simply unaware of, other than those, he managed to read everything as far as he knew, that had ever been written. Everything.
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By 1967, that was no longer possible for me. By then, even scientists could no longer even read everything just in their own field. There was too much. Now, it is even worse. Words are being written faster than they can be read, faster than they can be cataloged, faster than voice-recognition software can translate them. We are buried under a vast refuse pile of publication and the gulls swarm, circling overhead, squawking.
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One then makes a choice — do you dive deeper into a single field, and learn all you can about ants, or about the use of the ablative case in late Roman literature, or perhaps the transfer of spin in subatomic particles, or do you attempt to skim the surface of it all and gather bits of flotsam from every field.
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As for me, I didn’t really have a choice. I have become less interested in any single particular, and more interested in the way all these particulars relate to each other. I made a distinction between what I called the “tree of knowledge” and, on the other hand, “fact confetti.”
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We all know fact confetti. In high school, we had to learn dates: 44 BC, AD 1066, 1492, 1588, 1776, 1848, 1914 — but they too often remained discrete bits of factoid unrelated to each other, except by needing to know them for tests. The snow of confetti piled up: subtrahend, pluperfect, atomic number, Bonaparte, establishment clause, hypotenuse, bicameral, manifest destiny, cosine, topic sentence, supply and demand, and something about my aunt and her pencil. It was a blizzard.

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Against this fact confetti, I set the tree of knowledge. In this view of learning, all the branches of human knowledge are connected, and you follow one limb out to its extension without ever losing track of the limb that balances it on the other side of the tree. It is the ultimate effect of trying to hold on to as wide an understanding as possible. You cannot know every fact, but you can grasp the structure on which all the facts are leaves.
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If you have a sense of the Renaissance giving in to the Baroque and to the Neoclassical and Romanticism, then you not only understand the history of painting, but also that of political philosophy, literature and even typography. The Bodoni typeface simply has to appear when it did. And by the flow from one era to the next, you can follow the pendulum as it swings from a kind of classicism to a kind of Baroque, or Romantic outlook, which governs all. Thus, 1492 isn’t merely Columbus, but also the Expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Iberia, the pivot into a world of nation-state, a growing urbanism, a gradual reawakening of European globalism. The years that soon followed, Erasmus wrote his In Praise of Folly, Machiavelli wrote The Prince, and Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible was published. It is all tied together.
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If you understand the forces of the Reformation and its Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation, you can understand the difference between the paintings of Rembrandt and Rubens. You will not place them in the wrong century. It is all of a piece. Know the tree and even if you forget a detail, you can follow the branch out and rediscover what you didn’t know you remembered. It is not fact confetti, but a single glorious growth from rootstock to leaf tip.
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The truth is, that we need a framework for our knowledge; anything else is merely fact confetti. We enter that calculus class and hear a blizzard of terminology:  derivatives, tangents, quotients, functions, integrals, vectors. We might as well be studying Aeolian Greek. An overview would be helpful, so we would know where to hang these definitional tree ornaments.
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Scene at base of trumeau, south portal, west facade Notre Dame de Paris: Eve eats of the forbidden fruit and hands apple to Adam, while serpent is seen as part woman.

Clearly, the frontiers of knowledge are expanded by the first choice, by those who dare to pick apart the minutiae, get their Piled-Higher-and-Deeper and condemn themselves to a life in which the only people they can talk to are others who share the same fragments of existence. But a problem occurs when such profoundly learned people venture outside their own spheres. What can an entomologist have to say about the ablative case? Or a Dante scholar say about differential calculus?

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And it is the breadth of knowledge, not its depth that makes the tree of knowledge. We depend on specialists to add new growth to the tree, but it is important for at least some of us to focus on the whole and not the part.
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Obviously, the specialists cannot, and don’t need to. But someone does. Someone has to see the forest and not the trees, or the trees and not just one leaf or another. That is for those of us who have taken the second choice. Those whose curiosities cannot settle, who hover over every thought, every field, and wish not to write a peer-reviewed paper, but, like Denis Diderot, write an entire encyclopedia.
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In other words, not to know everything, as I once wished, but at least to see the shadow of everything and try to hold it in the mind even as the horizon stretches away from us.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 
by Richard Nilsen
In 1974, the surrealist comedy team, Firesign Theater, released an album titled, Everything You Know is Wrong. Surprisingly, they were right.
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Take China, for instance. We have been told that China is 3,000 years old, or 5,000 — take your number — as if the entity we today call China were unchanging in all that time. But in reality, the national identity of China has changed constantly.
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Looked at more closely, the history of China is one of various dynasties, varied national borders, conglomerations of multiple nations coalescing and dividing and joining again and absorbing territory from its edges, being invaded and ruled by non-Chinese emperors, and reasserting its Han ethnic identity, despite the large numbers of non-Han peoples now circumscribed by its current borders. China has not been static over those millennia. It has been a bubbling cauldron of instability and change.
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.You only have to look at the varied maps over time to see that what we tend to call China moves around the map of the Asian continent almost as much as Poland has moved around the map of Europe.
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If we thought about Europe the same way we tend to think about China, then there is no reason we shouldn’t say that France is 30,000 years old, because the cave paintings of Lascaux and Chauvet are that old, and the kind of naturalistic drawing evidenced in those caves is characteristic of European art as we tend to think of it.
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So, why do we think of China as an unchanging entity, but recognize France as having emerged from Roman Gaul and the Frankish kingdom of Charlemagne, and becoming France only slowly?
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Clearly, there is a bias somewhere here, a view that we have a more detailed understanding of what is closer to us, and a dim and uncertain view of what is “other” and foreign. “They” are unchanging, while we constantly evolve.
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But I don’t mean to be writing about China, but about what we consider knowledge. What we know is almost always wrong, or, if not wrong, always more complicated than we allow.
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I think of Cliff Clavin, the mailman on the TV show, Cheers, who was a nattering fountain of facts. “It’s a little known fact that smartest animal is a pig. Scientists say if pigs had thumbs and a language, they could be trained to do simple manual labor.”
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Clavinisms include a good deal of what we hear as “fact” on the internet, when we read “Top 5 Countries with the Most Fatalities on Everest” or “Top 5 Countries with the Most Women in Parliament.” They make up all the “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” cartoons (“An 8-year-old Ohio boy taught himself to drive by watching YouTube, and
he drove to McDonald’s for a cheeseburger with his little sister on April 9, 2017. He didn’t commit any traffic violations!”), and the basis of many frightening schoolyard myths that little boys impress each other with (“If you stab yourself with a pencil, you get lead poisoning.”)
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Needless to say, most such Clavinisms are either demonstrably false, or self-contradictory (the Ohio boy did commit a traffic violation: He drove without a license), or — more often — missing contextual complexity.
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And it is this complexity that usually stumps us. Almost any fact, taken individually, is refutable with enough context, because the world is not made up of discrete bits, but of a web of interrelations, and every bit complicates every other bit.
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It is why we can argue interminably over the cause of the Civil War or whether behavior is learned or innate. How many of each animal did Noah take on the Ark? Depends on which verses of the Bible you consult.
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Facts are the defense of the young. When we are so young that we still know everything, we can assert with confidence that marijuana is not addictive, or that abortion is murder. When we enter college, we are all Cliff Clavins. It takes a lifetime of being humbled before the complexity of the world that we come to understand how little we actually know.
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I remember well when I knew everything. I knew that war was unnecessary, that the maturity of my elders was equal parts exhaustion and cowardice, that evil in the world was merely a product of ignorance. Later, after drinking too shallowly of the Pierian Spring in college classes, I knew that everything was relative, and that there was no such thing as universal truth. I have recently been face to face with the fact that there is at least one universal truth, expressed in Brahms’ German Requiem: “Herr, lehre doch mich, dass ein Ende mit mir haben muss.”
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Recently, my wife would complain when she asked a question and I answered, as I increasingly did in later years, “I really don’t know,” or “I’m not sure,” and she would say, “You used to be able to answer all my questions. Why can’t you do that anymore?” The reason is that all the answers have become muddied. There is too much husk and not enough seed. How can you answer a question such as “Why did Napoleon fail in Russia?” without beginning with the Greeks and Scythians 2,500 years earlier? It is all connected. Each answer requires a book, and even the book is only a summation. “I don’t know” can also mean “I don’t know how to give an answer that doesn’t distort the case by oversimplifying.” And, “I don’t know because while I have the surface information, I don’t know the background well enough to explain it.”
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It can be easier to accept the Clavinism: The Romans had a room where, after eating too much, they would go to vomit (a “vomitorium” was really the exit portal of a sports stadium); Einstein failed math in school (no, he didn’t); Napoleon was short (he was average height for his time); we only use 10 percent of our brains (perhaps true for certain politicians, but not for the rest of us).
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Such factoids give us the illusion of knowledge. But, even when they are superficially true, they miss the swirling, gurgling complexity of the real world, the interrelatedness of history, the unknowability of parts of the cosmos.
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This is not a plea to surrender to ignorance, but rather a call to embrace humility. The ability to recognize that you don’t know isn’t an end, but a beginning: It is the prod to learn more. I am now 69 and I feel like I am barely turning the first page of a book.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

by Richard Nilsen
I think often of the rose window at Chartres cathedral in France. There are three such windows, but the one at the north corner of the building is the one that rivets my attention each time I visit.
Rose windows are common in the cathedrals of northern France, and come in many styles. Chartres has two styles: The oldest window, on the front of the church, is mostly stonework, with only a small percentage of glass. But the two rose windows in the transepts (the north and south “els” of the standard Gothic church, forming the crosspiece to the crucifix floorplan most such churches use) are in a later, more elaborate and vitreous style and are lacy with tracery, letting in the colored light that is the raison d’etre of Gothic architecture.
Yet, it is the north window that moves me, in part because it moves, itself. This is an illusion, of course, but its designer was one of the geniuses of his age, able to create that illusion with static stone and glass. Each of these two roses are built of circles of circles, building from a central core, and radiating out, like choirs of angels surrounding Providence. But in the north window, the panels dance.
It may be hard to see this in a reproduction, like the one here, but there is a ring of squares and diamond-shapes that form one of the rings, and it is nearly impossible to see these alternating squares and diamonds as anything but tumbling shapes, dancing around the center.
The north rose window of Chartres cathedral is — I have said many times — the single most beautiful human-created entity I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a gob-lot of iconic art works. It brings me to tears each time I am in its presence, and I feel the need to return to it, a feeling very kin to love.
I know a lot of hoo-haw gets ascribed to art. People make great claims for art, only some of which can be supported. But I believe, from my own experience, that art can make you more sensitive to the world around you, to prompt you to see again those things you have become inured to through over-exposure and turned to the ash of everyday-ness. As I have also said, every bush is the burning bush, we just can no longer see it. When you open those gates in your chest, and let the world in, it becomes intensely beautiful and makes you understand, as William Blake wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
I do not know how long this effect can last after you accept a profound work of art, perhaps it can change you permanently, perhaps it is itself an illusion and perhaps it slowly fades, like an after-image of a flashbulb.
On my last visit to Chartres, it was a gloomy sort of day, without much light, and Chartres, at the best of times, is a dark cathedral. Darker than most we have visited. 
Too dark for interior photos that day, so I spent about an hour and a half, maybe two hours, photographing the outside, alternating with sitting inside and meditating on the north Rose Window. I say again, it is the single most beautiful production of humankind I know. It never fails to move me deeply.
Then outside for more sculpture, then back inside for more Rose Window.
When I finally gave up and headed back down the hill toward the hotel, I came across a couple of kids — a boy and a girl about 9 or 10 years old — and they were throwing stones at pigeons.
I wish I could have picked up some stones and thrown at them and asked them, “How do you like being thrown at?” But my French was not up to it. So I stood there with my hands on my hips looking stern and adult and tried to shame them into stopping. Either I succeeded, or they got bored with hitting pigeons, and they stopped and left.
I have no love of pigeons, but I don’t think they deserve to be stoned. I was feeling a sudden rush of St. Francis of Asissi, and also feeling a little full of myself for being and “atheist christian,” but a block on, I came across the Pont St. Thomas over the Eure River, just past an ancient church and over a weir in the river and stopped to watch the water, when I noticed a spider web on the bank, stretched out to the bridge. It was dewy with condensation and a small spider sat in the middle, like the center pane in the rose.
Just then, the reflection of a bird shot past on the water’s surface and I looked up to see a swallow or martin flash past. When I looked back down, a cloud of gnats swarmed over the river and at the end of the bridge, a cat walked by. All to the tune of crickets and the chirp of sparrows. The entire world was animated. I felt like I was instantly open-chested to the world of nature and animals. It was a crest like a wave that came over me, and then the world returned to normal and I went back to the hotel.
Footnote: These words are only tangentially related to the question of animal rights, but readers may be interested in reading a piece I wrote years ago about the “Catch-22 of Animal Rights,” which can you can reach with this link:https://richardnilsen.com/2014/05/19/the-catch-22-of-animal-rights/
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen
Nothing gets quite so romanticized as Romanticism. It all seems so — well — romantic. We get all fuzzy inside and think pretty thoughts. Romanticism means emotional music, beautiful paintings, expansive novels, and poetry of deep feeling.
Or so we think, forgetting that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe called Romanticism a “disease.”
The surface of Romanticism may be attractive, but its larger implications are more complex. We should look deeper into what we mean by “Romanticism.”
Initially, it is a movement in art and literature from the end of the 18th century to the middle or latter years of the 19th century. It responded to the rationalism of the Age of Reason with a robust faith in emotion, intuition and all things natural. We now tend to think of Romanticism as a welcome relief from the artificiality of the aristocratic past and a plunge into the freedom of unbuttoned democracy. We read our Shelley and Keats, we listen to our Chopin and Berlioz and revel in the color of Turner and Delacroix. Romanticism was the ease of breathing after we have unlaced our corset or undone our necktie.
Yet, there is something adolescent about Romanticism, something not quite adult. It is too concerned with the self and not enough with the community. There is at heart a great deal of wish fulfillment in it, and a soft pulpy core of nostalgia and worse, an unapologetic grandiosity. One cannot help think of Wagner and his Ring cycle explaining the world to his acolytes. Music of the Future, indeed.
I’m not writing to compose a philippic against a century of great art, but to consider the wider meanings of what we narrowly define as Romanticism.
Most importantly, one has to understand the pendulum swing from the various historical classicisms to the various historical romanticisms. Romanticism didn’t burst fully grown from the head of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, but rather recurs through history predictably. One age’s thoughtfulness is the next generation’s tired old pusillanimity. Then, that generation’s expansiveness is followed by the next and its judiciousness.
The classicism of Pericles’ Athens is followed by the energy of Hellenism. The dour stonework of the Romanesque is broken open by the lacy streams of light of the Gothic. The formality of Renaissance painting is blown away by the extravagance of the Baroque. Haydn is thrown overboard for Liszt, and later the tired sentimentality of the Victorians (the last gasping breaths of Romanticism) is replaced by the irony of Modernism. This is almost the respiration of cultural time; breathe in, breathe out. You could call it “cultural yoga.”
We tend to label the serene and balanced cultures as classical and the expansive and teetering ones as romantic. The labels are not important. Nietzsche called them Apollonian and Dionysian. William Blake personified them in his poems as thought and energy.
We are however misled if we simplify the two impulses as merely rationality vs. emotion. The twin poles of culture are much more than that.
Classicism tends to engage with society, the interactions of humans, the ascendency of laws instituted by men (and it is men who have instituted most of them and continue to do so — just look at Congress). Romanticism, of whatever era it reveals itself, engages with the cosmos, with history, with those things larger than mere human institutions, with Nature, with a capital “N.” Romanticism distrusts anything invented by humans alone, and surrenders to those forces mortals cannot control.
These oppositions concern whether the artist is concerned with man as a social being, an individual set in a welter of humanity — or whether he is concerned with the individual against the background of nature or the cosmos.
In the 18th Century, for instance, Alexander Pope wrote that “The proper study of mankind is man.” The novel, which investigates human activity in its social setting, came from the same century. Fielding and Defoe come from that century.
The succeeding century is concerned more with man in nature, or man in his loneliness, or fighting the gods and elements. One thinks of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound or Byron’s Manfred.
There are many more polarities to these movements in art and culture. One side privileges clarity, the other complexity. Just compare a Renaissance painting with a Baroque one. The classical Renaissance tends to line its subjects up across the canvas in a line, while the Baroque wants to draw us in to the depth of the painting from near to far. Renaissance paintings like to light things up evenly, so all corners can be seen clearly. The Baroque loves the great patches of light and dark, obscuring outlines and generally muddying up the works.
 
Look at this Last Supper by Andrea del Castagno. See how clear it all is. But the Baroque painter Tintoretto had a different vision of the same biblical event. It is writhing, twisting out into deep space, with deep shadows and obscure happenings. The Renaissance liked stability and clarity; the Baroque, motion and confusion.
One side values unity, the other, diversity. One side values irony, the other sincerity. One side looks at the past with a skeptical eye, the other with nostalgia. One side sees the present as the happy result of progress, the other sees the present as a decline from a more natural and happier past. One side unabashedly embraces internationalism, the other, ethnic identity and nationalism. If this sounds familiar, think red and blue states.
One of the big shifts is between what I call “ethos” and “ego.”
That is, art that is meant to embody the beliefs of an age, thoughts and emotions that everyone is believed to share — or art that is the personal expression of the individual making it.
We have so long taken it for granted that an artist is supposed to “express himself,” that we forget it has not always been so. Did Homer express his inner feelings in the Iliad? Or are those emotions described the emotions he expected everyone would understand and share? He tells of what Achilles is feeling, or Ajax or Hector or Priam — and they are deep and profound emotions — but they give no clue to what Homer was feeling.
In music, Haydn’s symphonies were written about as being powerfully emotional. Nowadays, we think of Haydn as a rather cerebral composer. If we want emotion, we go to Beethoven or Schubert. You cannot listen to Schubert’s string quintet and not believe it expresses the deepest emotions that its composer was suffering at the time. It is his emotion. We may share it, but it is his.
The history of art pulsates with the shift from nationalistic to international styles, from that which is specific to an ethnic or identity group, and that which seeks to transcends those limitations.
In music, Bach imitated the national styles in his English and French suites and his Italian Concerto. The styles are distinct and identifiable.
But the Galant and Classical styles that replaced it vary little from country to country. Perhaps the Italian is a little lighter and the German a little more complex, but you can’t get simpler or more direct than Mozart.
Nationalism reasserted itself in the next century, so that you have whole schools of Czech music, French, Russian. In the early 20th Century, internationalism took charge once more and for a while, everybody was writing like Stravinsky.
The main architectural style of the first half of this century is even called “The International Style.” That style is now so passé as to be the butt of jokes.
The classical era values rationality and clear thinking, while its mirror image values irrationality and chaos.
You’re ahead of me if you have recognized that much of what I am calling Romanticism is playing out in the world and in the White House as a new Romantic age. Nationalism is reasserting its ugly head in Brexit, in Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin — and in Donald Trump.
The mistrust or outright disbelief in science is a recasting of Rousseau. Stephen Colbert invented the term “truthiness,” and nothing could be a better litmus test of Romanticism: The individual should be the arbiter of truth; if it feels true, we line up and salute. In a classical age, the judgments of society are taken as a prime value. Certainly, there are those who resist, but by and large, the consensus view is adopted.
As we enter a new Romantic age around the world, one of dissociation, confusion and realignment, we need to recognize the darker side of Romanticism and not merely its decorative accoutrements.
We will have to accept some of those adages propounded in William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell:  “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” And, “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.”
As income inequality becomes the goal rather than the problem, we must remember that,  “One law for the lion and the ox is oppression.”
The first time America entered a Romantic age, in the 19th century, it elected Andrew Jackson, arguably the most divisive president (outside the Civil War) before Donald Trump, and certainly the most cock-sure of himself and the truthiness he felt in his gut. Facts be damned. For many of us, Trump feels like the reincarnation of Jackson, and this era feels like the reemergence of a Romantic temperament, and we may need to rethink just how warm and cuddly that truly is.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen

I sit across the table from my brother at the seafood restaurant in Virginia and he doodles on a napkin with a Sharpie.
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My brother is an artist — primarily a printmaker, but more recently a painter. And while he isn’t terribly prolific, he is constantly drawing. His mind is always coming up with visual ideas and he jots them down. Most never go anywhere, but he just cannot stop himself from playing. It is his way of processing experience: What he sees he transforms.
It reminds me of the photographer Lee Friedlander, who describes his addiction to making photographs as “pecking.” Like a hen darting at cracked corn on the ground, he clicks his camera — peck, peck, peck. Some of the results of his pecking turn into finished photographs he displays in galleries and publishes in books. But there is an improvisatory quality to his work that comes — like a jazz musician woodshedding — from constantly working his instrument.
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Among the images caught by pecking, Friedlander will periodically find something he hadn’t considered before, and thus his body of work takes a new direction, constantly refreshing his art.
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In part, the importance of this kind of sketching is that it is not art — or rather, not meant as art. It is more the flexing of an esthetic muscle. One can become intellectually paralyzed if all you aim at is writing deathless prose, or painting the museum masterpiece, or composing the next Eroica. Not everything needs to be The Brothers Karamazov. There is great value in just pecking. It keeps your senses alive.
My wife and I just spent a week visiting her brother, who is also an artist, a very accomplished artist who regularly sells his paintings to clients both private and corporate.
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But while we were there, I spent a portion of my time doodling — pecking — with my tiny point-and-shoot digital camera. We would sit on their patio talking about the things one yammers on about with one’s relations — old times, where former acquaintances have gone, the horror of the recent election, the joys of fishing — and I would distractedly point my camera around me at the things one seldom notices.
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I wasn’t thinking of making art. I barely paid attention to what I was doing with the camera, but I pecked. The result is a kind of notebook of the things we lived among, seen in some different way, so as to lift them from their context, to suck them out of the everydayness they languish in.
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 It reminded me of an assignment I used to give my photography students, some 35 years ago, when I taught the subject at the same school where my brother still teaches. “Make a photograph of something so I cannot tell what it is.” I made sure they understood I didn’t mean to make it out of focus or poorly run through the darkroom, but to find something we see everyday, but pay so little attention to, that when faced with its presence, we might be baffled until that moment when, the proud student, having fooled us all, tells us what we’re looking at and we all let out a gasp of breath and say, “Of course, now I see it.”
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These pecked pictures are mostly details. They are not the grand view or the concatenated whole, but the tiny bits out of which the larger scene is built. Most of us pay attention only to the whole, when we pay attention at all; for most Americans — maybe most humans anywhere — only use their eyes for useful things. They see the road they drive on, the cloud that tells them it will rain, the house, the car, closet. But every house has a door, and every door a door-handle; every car has tires and every tire a tread and each tread is made up of an intricate series of rubber squiggles and dents. Attention must be paid.
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Paying attention to the details means being able to see the whole more acutely, more vividly. The generalized view is the unconsidered view. When you see a house, you are seeing an “it.” When you notice the details, they provide the character of the house and it warms, has personality and becomes a Buberesque “thou.” The “thou” is a different way of addressing the world and one that makes not only the world more alive, but the seer also.
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(It doesn’t hurt that isolating detail makes it more necessary to create a design. You can make a photo of a house and just plop it in the middle of the frame and we can all say, “Yes, that’s a house,” and let the naming of it be the end-all. But if you find the tiny bits, they have to organize them in the frame to make something interesting enough to warrant looking at.)
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Sectioning out a detail not only makes you look more closely, but forces your viewer to look more closely, too. Puzzling out what he sees without the plethora of context makes him hone in on its shape, color, and texture. It is a forced look, not a casual one.
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So, when I gave my students that assignment, it wasn’t just to be clever, but to make them pay attention to the minutiae that are the bricks of the visual world they inhabit. And paying attention is a form of reverence.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen

Predicting the Oscars is always a tricky enterprise, but I earned a small (tiny) place in history — and my only citation in Wikipedia — for a prediction I made in June of 2007: “Richard Nilsen from Arizona Republic,” noted the Wiki entry on the movie, “was even more enthusiastic, writing ‘don’t bother voting. Just give the Oscar to Marion Cotillard now. As the chanteuse Édith Piaf inLa vie en rose, her acting is the most astonishing I’ve seen in years.’

This, it should be noted, was written six months before the 2007 Academy Awards nominations were even announced, before the opening of such best actress nominee films as as Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (October), Laura Linney in The Savages (November), and Ellen Page in Juno (December). Only Julie Christie in Away From Her had opened earlier (in 2006, so I’m not sure why it was eligible for the 2007 Oscars — anyway, I reviewed it for The Republic in May of that year). 

All I’m saying is, I was so confident in Cotillard’s ascendency, that I pronounced her victory before most of the films of the year had even opened. And this despite the fact her role wasn’t even in English, and the Oscars tend to be Anglophile in prejudice (previously, no foreign language film had ever brought an Oscar to its lead actress). 

You can imagine just how smug I felt when Cotillard accepted the statuette from Forest Whitaker. “Thank you life; thank you love,” she said. 

Of course, I wasn’t so smug on March 21, 1999, when the Academy proved, once again, that the best doesn’t always win the award. The films of 1998 duked it out and I had been assigned to see all the Best Film nominees and write about them. 

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“(Saving) Private Ryan was the big surprise for me. If it doesn’t win the Oscar, something is wrong. I haven’t seen a movie that well-made — and overpowering — in a long, long time,” I wrote. Well, something was wrong. 

I listed my films in order of preference: 

“1. Saving Private Ryan — Not only the most impressive piece of moviemaking of the year but probably of the decade. Director Steven Spielberg manages to make great art entertaining. 

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“2. The Thin Red Line — You come out realizing, ‘This isn’t really about war, is it?’ No, its meaning is cosmic where Private Ryan’s is civic. Director Terrence Malick has made something like a modern version of the Bhagavad-Gita

“3. Life Is Beautiful — Of the three war films nominated, Roberto Benigni’s is the most personal. Neither cosmic nor civic, it is the one that makes you care most deeply for the fate of its characters. It is funny, inventive, profound, disturbing — all at once. 

“4. Elizabeth — Makes a convincing case that this young, naive woman could develop the political savvy to survive in the (literally) cutthroat environment of English r4Renaissance politics. Besides that, I could look at Cate Blanchett’s riveting face for eight hours, no break. 

“5. Shakespeare in Love — A huge disappointment, it turns out to be nothing but an extremely well-written and witty sitcom. Also, I couldn’t take seriously any Shakespeare who looks this much like the artist formerly known as Prince.”

I’m sure you remember which film ran off with the Oscar, in fact, ran off with seven Oscars. My emotions that night were somewhat akin to how I felt this year on Nov. 8. “Whuuuuu????” Sometimes, things go horribly wrong. 

The problem with the Oscars, though, is that they go wrong so frequently, and so predictably. Which is why some film-critic Oscar prediction stories run parallel lists: “Who will win,” versus “who should win.” The critic knows that the Hollywood insiders who vote tend to go for high-minded films, no matter how much baloney they dish out; or films that dump a Scrooge McDuck-load of money on their studios; or actors who lose or gain a great deal of poundage; or who portray some disability or other; or have been notoriously overlooked for previous films and now given the award for some current mediocre work while they should have won earlier. They are loathe to reward a difficult film, one with a less-than-uplifting ending, or one that is too innovative too soon. (Those innovations will be rewarded in the sixth or seventh generation film that has learned from them). (Footnote: I should make clear, I am talking about the “major” categories; innovations frequently garner awards in the technical categories, in part, because they are voted on not by the Academy membership in general, but only by their peers, who actually know what is going on.)

r5We can go down the long list of Oscar winners — most notoriously the Best Film winners — and slap our foreheads over and over at the choices. Not that the winners were universally bad films, but that the runners-up were so often better, at least in the eyes of posterity. Consider the Sixth Academy Awards, from 1933, when the winning film was Cavalcade, a film hardly seen anymore, and seldom mentioned. But that same year saw as “losers” such perennial favorites as 42nd Street, A Farewell to Arms, I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Little Women, The Private Life of Henry VIII, She Done Him Wrong and State Fair. What is more, films not nominated that year include Dinner at Eight, King Kong, Duck Soup, Trouble in Paradise and M. What distinguished Cavalcade, aside from maudlin sentimentality? It made $3.5 million that year and joined the list of most profitable movies up to that time. 

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Take most Top Ten lists from American movie critics, and you will find a trove of films that didn’t win, or weren’t even nominated. Citizen Kane, which used to top everyone’s list, didn’t win. Jean Renoir’s great war film, Grand Illusion, lost out in 1938 to You Can’t Take It With You, which is a memorable film, but not quite in a league with Renoir’s. In 1994, Pulp Fiction — one of the most innovative and memorable films ever — lost out to Forrest Gump. Let me repeat that: Forrest Gump! Looking back from the perspective of two decades, that seems like a missed call. It would be hard, with a straight face to argue that in 1953, The Greatest Show on Earth was a better film than High Noon, or than The Bad and The Beautiful, which wasn’t even nominated.  

We should consider some of the films over the years that weren’t even nominated. Beginning with the first ceremony in 1929:Steamboat Bill, Jr., Nosferatu; In 1931, City Lights, Public Enemy; 1936: Modern Times, My Man Godfrey; 1937: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; 1941 (the year that overlooked the nominated Citizen Kane, to say nothing of the un-nominated  Maltese Falcon,Suspicion and Sergeant York): Fantasia; 1942: To Be or Not to Be, Sullivan’s Travels; 1946: The Big Sleep, Children of Paradise,Notorious, Gilda, The Postman Always Rings Twice. The list goes on, year by year, but here are a few of the films left un-nominated for the top award by the Academy: The Third Man, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, Singin’ in the Rain, Roshomon, Night of the Hunter, Rebel Without a Cause, The Searchers, The Seven Samurai, Paths of Glory, Vertigo, Touch of Evil, Some Like it Hot,Wild Strawberries, Psycho, Spartacus, In Cold Blood, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby, The Wild Bunch, Easy Rider,Little Big Man, Mean Streets, Sophie’s Choice, Fanny and Alexander, Blood Simple, The Princess Bride, Do the Right Thing, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Cinema Paradiso, Leaving Las Vegas, The Big Lebowski, Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, Fight Club, Boys Don’t Cry

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Box office, as I said, sometimes has a hand. How else can you explain the nominations (not wins, thank goodness) of John Wayne’s The Alamo in 1960 and Cleopatra in 1963. That latter fiasco may be the worst film ever nominated for any award other than a Golden Raspberry. As a yardstick, it was the same year Fellini’s wasn’t even nominated. In 1986, when Out of Africa took home the statuette, Kurosawa’s Ran wasn’t nominated. 

I’ve listed films for only one category: Best Film. But other categories have their own embarrassments. Consider that in 1941 John Ford (no slouch for sure) won over Orson Welles for Citizen Kane. Surely, in hindsight, Kane is one of the greatest directing jobs of all times, while Ford’s How Green Was My Valley is one of his lesser r8efforts. One of his best, The Searchers, didn’t win in 1956, because George Stevens did, for a trumped up epic, Giant. Marty is a moving film, from 1955, but for its writing and acting, not for its direction, yet the brilliantly directed Night of the Hunter, Charles Laughton’s only film as director, lost to Delbert Mann’s Marty.Vertigo is currently listed as the Greatest Film of All Time (for which I disagree, but it is the critics’ favorite), but was not even nominated for best director (Alfred Hitchcock), while the award went to Vincente Minnelli for the treacly Gigi. Perhaps the worst of all, John Avildsen of Rocky beat out Martin Scorsese for Taxi Driver in 1976. Someone should have been hanged for that. It’s at times like that when you realize there is no assurance of justice in this world. 

And let’s not forget Art Carney (Harry and Tonto) winning over both Jack Nicholson in Chinatown and Al

r9Pacino in Godfather Part II. One could go over each major category and find head-scratching outrages. 

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Which brings me back to 1998, when Shakespeare In Love beat out its betters. That is the biggest head-scratcher of all, to me. The first 20 minutes alone of Private Ryan will be taught in film schools for decades while Shakespeare In Love will be played as a filler on TBS cable after the last daily rerun of Big Bang Theory. Academy muffed that one.

It is  important to keep all this in mind this year when the awards are given out, once again, to the mediocre, meretricious and magniloquent. 

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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen

Who is this man?
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This is arguably the most recognizable face of the 20th century; you may recognize him without his most iconic feature. But probably not. Without it, he looks like any anonymous businessman or bourgeois politician of his time. Yet, give him back that one little caterpillar curling under the shade of his nostrils and you can recognize him instantly.
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In fact, you don’t really need the rest of the face. Even an abstract diagram can be given its name without much puzzling. That mustache defines the face of the single most evil person of the previous century (nominations are now open for the current era). Before the middle of the last century, there were many who bore a similar fungus on their lip, but since then the so-called “toothbrush mustache” has gone understandably out of fashion, save for a few copycat dictators and a comedian or two attempting irony.
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Yet, before its demonization, the lip tonsure was famous for defining the Little Tramp of Charlie Chaplin. It was also worn by Oliver Hardy (“Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”) One would be hard pressed to understand the thing in any way but comical, until it occupied the philtrum of the Great Dictator. It’s hard now to realize that it could grace the passport photo of Eric Blair on his way to Burma to shoot an elephant, later to write about it as George Orwell.
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Then, there is precedent for the little fuzz as popular with strongman rulers. Generalissimo Francisco Franco, before he was still dead, bore the little bristle. So did pre-war Japanese Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe. And, of course, Peter Parker’s boss in the Spider-Man comic books is J. Jonah Jameson. The scant inch-of-hair has a long pedigree.
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Even now, there are those willing to sport the growth. Former Ecuadoran president, Abdala Bucaram, known to his voters as “El Loco,” sported it before he was impeached. Zimbabwe “president for life,” Robert Mugabe wears one so tight and slender, it barely fills the space between his two nostrils.
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Michael Jordan tried one on for a series of ads he made for Hanes underwear. It won him the title of “Herr Jordan.” His friend, Charles Barkley admitted, “I don’t know what the hell he was thinking and I don’t know what Hanes was thinking. I mean, it is just stupid. It is just bad, plain and simple.”
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It has fallen on hard times, this innocent little bushlet. Irony is its constant companion. It is a meme on the internet; it is a joke in a Mel Brooks movie; it is even a phantom that bedevils Michael Grave’s teapot design for J.C. Penney (now off the market after too many people saw the evil one’s face in its handle and lid ball, with the spout as a Nazi salute).
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But, where did this odd thing come from? And how did it make its way onto the facial undercarriage of der Führer?
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The first surprise is that early commentators tell us the style was originally American. It was American tourists who brought it with them to Germany, where, in the early years of the past century, it spoke of Modernism and efficiency. Back then, the style, especially among military officers was the broad, spreading eagle of the “Kaiserbart,” or Kaiser mustache. All the most Erich von Stroheim cavalry men sported them. It was described in a New York Times article on Oct. 10, 1907 as something like a handlebar mustache, with its tips “elevated upward and the rest fashioned something after the form of the wings of the Prussian eagle which one sees on National standards and postage stamps. It is more or less popular all over Europe, particularly in military circles.”
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The piece goes on to say, “The ‘toothbrush’ mustache, which is  considered an American importation, is a bristling appendage claimed by its possessors to have the advantage of being hygienic and convenient — virtues which should make a particular appeal to the Germans.
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“That it did make such an appeal is revealed by the fact that many German swells have of late applied the scissors to their ‘Kaiserbart’ and discarded the use of the ‘frixe mustache.’ The substitution, however has met with widespread resentment on the part of the fair sex. One German lady writes to the Berliner Tageblatt that she will no longer recognize her male acquaintances who wear ‘a toothbrush on their upper lips.’
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“ ‘Man is naturally very ugly,’ writes another. ‘The only natural adornment he ever had was his mustache, and that he is now ruthlessly mutilating. Instead of the peaceful hirsute ornament of the past he is marring his face with a lot of bristles.’ ”
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The fashion was certainly helped along by celebrity. A year before the New York Times story about the “American mustache” that had become all the rage, the newspaper chronicled the heroics of a young German military officer who won the “New York to Paris” round-the-world automobile race (he was later disqualified for cheating). Hans Koeppen was described as “31-years-old and unmarried. Six feet in height, slim and athletic, with a toothbrush mustache characteristic of his class, he looks the ideal type of the young Prussian guardsman.”
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The ‘stache acquired nicknames. It was called the Rotzbremse, or “snot brake.” It was called the Fliege (fly),Zwiefinger (two-finger), and Chaplinbart, after its most famous wearer before it gained infamy on the lip of the Führer.

This was before the start of the War to End All Wars. When the war changed everything, it seemed to have changed the upper lip of a certain German corporal along

Hitler during World War I

Hitler during World War I

with it.

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There is no certain documentation as to when Adolf Hitler first adopted the wooly-worm balanced above his lip. There are several stories, none of which is certain.  The most common is that his broad-winged Kaiserbart could not fit efficiently into the gas mask he was required to don in the trenches of the Western Front, and so he was forced to snip it down to something that could squeeze in. There are several photographs of the corporal with a wide snifflebuster across his face. Post-war, it is gone.
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In her suspect autobiography, Hitler’s sister-in-law Bridget Hitler claimed that she couldn’t stand his spreading Kaiserbart whiskers and, in 1912, made him snip off its ends. But in doing so, she wrote, He went — as he did in most things — “too far.” The problem with this version is that photographs show him after 1912 with the handlebars on his cheeks.
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In all likelihood, he just picked the mustache because it was fashionable. He, too, could look “the ideal type of the young Prussian guardsman.”
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Not that everyone liked it. In 1923 fellow Nazi party member Ernst Hanfstaengl claimed “the ridiculous little smudge … made him look as if he had not cleaned his nose.” He attempted to persuade Hitler to change it, telling him the style was by then unfashionable. Hitler’s answer: “If it is not the fashion now, it will be later,” he said, “because I wear it.” Boy, did he get that wrong.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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