After an hour of discussing her mother, the afterlife and the shamelessness sometimes required in producing art, Michelle Zauner adjusted her video camera to show her Bushwick apartment. Her coffee table, suddenly in view, was covered with Jolly Pong Cereal Snack, NongShim Shrimp Crackers, Lotte Malang Cow Milk Candies and other Asian junk food.
“This whole time we’ve been talking,” she said, “you’ve been in front of these snacks.”
It’s true that Rome’s collapse reverberated widely, at least in the western – mostly European – half of its empire. (A shrinking portion of the eastern half, later known as Byzantium, survived for another millennium.) Although some regions were harder hit than others, none escaped unscathed. Monumental structures fell into disrepair; previously thriving cities emptied out; Rome itself turned into a shadow of its former grand self, with shepherds tending their flocks among the ruins. Trade and coin use thinned out, and the art of writing retreated. Population numbers plummeted.
But a few benefits were already being felt at the time. Roman power had fostered immense inequality: its collapse brought down the plutocratic ruling class, releasing the labouring masses from oppressive exploitation. The new Germanic rulers operated with lower overheads and proved less adept at collecting rents and taxes. Forensic archaeology reveals that people grew to be taller, likely thanks to reduced inequality, a better diet and lower disease loads. Yet these changes didn’t last.
In 1520 Albrecht Dürer travelled to Zeeland to see a whale stranded on the sands. A storm drove back his boat and by the following morning it had also blown the fabulous creature back out to sea. The artist never saw his whale, so instead he drew sea monsters, putting them together like Frankenstein out of bits of this and that: eel, unicorn, dolphin, crocodile, mermaid. The year before, Pope Leo X had received a Rosmer – a walrus – from a Norwegian bishop; not the entire creature, just its head, salted in a barrel like a dead naval hero. Dürer imagined the entire walrus and made a picture of it. The disconnect between the pickled head and imagined body parts lends Dürer’s creation the tragic pathos of Hans Christian Andersen’s little mermaid, who sells her soul to swap her tail for legs – the price of human love.
What does it mean to heal as a Native American? Brandon Hobson’s new novel, The Removed, asks this question as it follows a Native family, the Echotas, 15 years after the loss of their son Ray-Ray to police violence. Shot at a Tulsa, Oklahoma, mall on the same day as the Cherokee National Holiday, Ray-Ray’s death coincides with the commemoration of the end of the Trail of Tears. These coinciding dates highlight the long, ongoing history of betrayal of Native peoples in American life.