New Year, Old Regrets

From the ancient Babylonians to Victorian England, the year’s end has been a time for self-reproach and general misery

for the Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: ALAN WITSCHONKE

I don’t look forward to New Year’s Eve. When the bells start to ring, it isn’t “Auld Lang Syne” I hear but echoes from the Anglican “Book of Common Prayer”: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”

At least I’m not alone in my annual dip into the waters of woe. Experiencing the sharp sting of regret around the New Year has a long pedigree. The ancient Babylonians required their kings to offer a ritual apology during the Akitu festival of New Year: The king would go down on his knees before an image of the god Marduk, beg his forgiveness, insist that he hadn’t sinned against the god himself and promise to do better next year. The rite ended with the high priest giving the royal cheek the hardest possible slap.

There are sufficient similarities between the Akitu festival and Yom Kippur, Judaism’s Day of Atonement—which takes place 10 days after the Jewish New Year—to suggest that there was likely a historical link between them. Yom Kippur, however, is about accepting responsibility, with the emphasis on owning up to sins committed rather than pointing out those omitted.

In Europe, the 14th-century Middle English poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” begins its strange tale on New Year’s Day. A green-skinned knight arrives at King Arthur’s Camelot and challenges the knights to strike at him, on the condition that he can return the blow in a year and a day. Sir Gawain reluctantly accepts the challenge, and embarks on a year filled with adventures. Although he ultimately survives his encounter with the Green Knight, Gawain ends up haunted by his moral lapses over the previous 12 months. For, he laments (in J.R.R. Tolkien’s elegant translation), “a man may cover his blemish, but unbind it he cannot.”

New Year’s Eve in Shakespeare’s era was regarded as a day for gift-giving rather than as a catalyst for regret. But Sonnet 30 shows that Shakespeare was no stranger to the melancholy that looking back can inspire: “I summon up remembrance of things past, / I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, / And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.”

For a full dose of New Year’s misery, however, nothing beats the Victorians. “I wait its close, I court its gloom,” declared the poet Walter Savage Landor in “Mild Is the Parting Year.” Not to be outdone, William Wordsworth offered his “Lament of Mary Queen of Scots on the Eve of a New Year”: “Pondering that Time tonight will pass / The threshold of another year; /…My very moments are too full / Of hopelessness and fear.”

Fortunately, there is always Charles Dickens. In 1844, Dickens followed up the wildly successful “A Christmas Carol” with a slightly darker but still uplifting seasonal tale, “The Chimes.” Trotty Veck, an elderly messenger, takes stock of his life on New Year’s Eve and decides that he has been nothing but a burden on society. He resolves to kill himself, but the spirits of the church bells intervene, showing him a vision of what would happen to the people he loves.

Today, most Americans recognize this story as the basis of the bittersweet 1946 Frank Capra film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” As an antidote to New Year’s blues, George Bailey’s lesson holds true for everyone: “No man is a failure who has friends.”

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Miseries of Travel

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Today’s jet passengers may think they have it bad, but delay and discomfort have been a part of journeys since the Mayflower

Fifty years ago, on September 30, 1968, the world’s first 747 Jumbo Jet rolled out of Boeing’s Everett plant in Seattle, Washington. It was hailed as the future of commercial air travel, complete with fine dining, live piano music and glamorous stewardesses. And perhaps we might still be living in that future, were it not for the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.

Deregulation was meant to increase the competitiveness of the airlines, while giving passengers more choice about the prices they paid. It succeeded in greatly expanding the accessibility of air travel, but at the price of making it a far less luxurious experience. Today, flying is a matter of “calculated misery,” as Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu put it in a 2014 article in the New Yorker. Airlines deliberately make travel unpleasant in order to force economy passengers to pay extra for things that were once considered standard, like food and blankets.

So it has always been with mass travel, since its beginnings in the 17th century: a test of how much discomfort and delay passengers are willing to endure. For the English Puritans who sailed to America on the Mayflower in 1620, light and ventilation were practically non-existent, the food was terrible and the sanitation primitive. All 102 passengers were crammed into a tiny living area just 80 feet long and 20 feet wide. To cap it all, the Mayflower took 66 days to arrive instead of the usual 47 for a trans-Atlantic crossing and was 600 miles off course from its intended destination of Virginia.

The introduction of the commercial stage coach in 1610, by a Scottish entrepreneur who offered trips between Edinburgh and Leith, made it easier for the middle classes to travel by land. But it was still an expensive and unpleasant experience. Before the invention of macadam roads—which rely on layers of crushed stone to create a flat and durable surface—in Britain in the 1820s, passengers sat cheek by jowl on springless benches, in a coach that trundled along at around five miles per hour.

The new paving technology improved the travel times but not necessarily the overall experience. Charles Dickens had already found fame with his comic stories of coach travel in “The Pickwick Papers” when he and Mrs. Dickens traveled on an American stage coach in Ohio in 1842. They paid to have the coach to themselves, but the journey was still rough: “At one time we were all flung together in a heap at the bottom of the coach.” Dickens chose to go by rail for the next leg of the trip, which wasn’t much better: “There is a great deal of jolting, a great deal of noise, a great deal of wall, not much window.”

Despite its primitive beginnings, 19th-century rail travel evolved to offer something revolutionary to its paying customers: quality service at an affordable price. In 1868, the American inventor George Pullman introduced his new designs for sleeping and dining cars. For a modest extra fee, the distinctive green Pullman cars provided travelers with hotel-like accommodation, forcing rail companies to raise their standards on all sleeper trains.

By contrast, the transatlantic steamship operators pampered their first-class passengers and abused the rest. In 1879, a reporter at the British Pall Mall Gazette sailed Cunard’s New York to Liverpool route in steerage in order to “test [the] truth by actual experience.” He was appalled to find that passengers were treated worse than cattle. No food was provided, “despite the fact that the passage is paid for.” The journalist noted that two steerage passengers “took one look at the place” and paid for an upgrade. I think we all know how they felt.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-miseries-of-travel-1537455854?mod=searchresults&page=1&pos=1

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Psychology and History of Snipers

PHOTO: THOMAS FUCHS

Sharpshooters helped turn the course of World War II 75 years ago at the Battle of Stalingrad

The Battle of Stalingrad during World War II cost more than a million lives, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. The death toll began in earnest 75 years ago this week, after the Germans punched through Soviet defenses to reach the outskirts of the city. Once inside, however, they couldn’t get out.

With both sides dug in for the winter, the Russians unleashed one of their deadliest weapons: trained snipers. By the end of the war, Russia had trained more than 400,000 snipers, including thousands of women. At Stalingrad, they had a devastating impact on German morale and fighting capability. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: ‘A Brief History of Brinkmanship’

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

In 1956, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, explaining how America could use the threat of nuclear war in diplomacy, told Life Magazine, “The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art…. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.” President Donald Trump recently seemed to embrace this idea with his warning that if North Korea made any more threats to the U.S., it “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: A Brief History of Lemonade

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

The lemonade stand has symbolized American childhood and values for more than a century. Norman Rockwell even created a classic 1950s drawing of children getting their first taste of capitalism with the help of a little sugar and lemon. Yet like apple pie, the lemonade stand is far older than America itself.

The lemon’s origins remain uncertain. A related fruit with far less juice, the citron, slowly migrated west until it reached Rome in the first few centuries A.D. Citrons were prestige items for the rich, prized for their smell, supposed medicinal virtues and ability to keep away moths. Emperor Nero supposedly ate citrons not because he liked the taste but because he believed that they offered protection against poisoning. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Perils of Cultural Purity

PHOTO: THOMAS FUCHS

“Cultural appropriation” is a leading contender for the most overused phrase of 2017. Originally employed by academics in postcolonial studies to describe the adoption of one culture’s creative expressions by another, the term has evolved to mean the theft or exploitation of an ethnic culture or history by persons of white European heritage. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: On the Trail of Art Looters

A relief from Rome’s Arch of Titus showing the spoils of Jerusalem. PHOTO: DEAGOSTINI/GETTY IMAGES

Since 2014, Islamic State has been doing its best to destroy all traces of pre-Islamic culture in Iraq and Syria. Hammers and explosives aren’t its only tools. The antiquities trade is worth billions, and the self-styled caliphate is funding itself in part by looting and selling ancient treasures.

In late May, the Journal reported that U.S. and European Union authorities were scrutinizing a pair of art dealers as part of a wider investigation into who has been facilitating the market for ancient coins, statues and relics stolen by Islamic State. The dealers say they have done nothing wrong.

Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Long, Long Fall of Monarchy

A portrait of Czar Nicholas II, published in a French newspaper in 1896. PHOTO: LEEMAGE/UIG/GETTY IMAGES

A hundred years ago, on March 14, 1917, just before midnight, the ministers of Czar Nicholas II informed him that the army was on the verge of mutiny. “What do you want me to do?” the Russian emperor reportedly asked. “Abdicate,” they replied. After a few minutes’ silence he agreed to go, thus bringing down the curtain on three centuries of Romanov rule. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: A Brief History of Sledding

The sled symbolizes the all-American way of life—with its freedom, simplicity and comfort—that Kane lost when he gained his riches. It should be no surprise that another quintessential American classic, Frank Capra’s 1946 “It’s a Wonderful Life,” also has an iconic scene of children sledding on a wintry day. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: Barbie and Her Many Ancient Sisters

From left, Presidential Candidate Barbie (2004), Registered Nurse Barbie (1961) and Career Girl Barbie (1963).

From left, Presidential Candidate Barbie (2004), Registered Nurse Barbie (1961) and Career Girl Barbie (1963).

Since her arrival in 1959, Barbie has evolved into an international phenomenon with a grip on modern culture. Her success testifies to the genius of the doll’s creator, Ruth Handler—born 100 years ago this week.

Some social commentators call Barbie, with her strikingly varied career choices, an avatar for women’s liberation. Others call her a tool of patriarchal oppression, beginning with her anatomy—which, according to one scientific analysis, would force her to walk on all fours if she were alive, due to her tiny feet and top-heavy body. Continue reading…