A Place at the Table

As friends and families around the United States gather together for their Thanksgiving dinners today, many (according to a plethora of trendy newspaper stories) dread the sort of political discussion that raises the risk of appetite loss and/or indigestion. I recall holidays at home with my own family and my mother’s requests that I refrain from bringing up subjects such as nuclear disarmament or gay rights at the table. She, too, would remain politely silent despite the antagonistic comments of others. One in particular, an offhand remark that doctors shouldn’t treat people with HIV/AIDS because they deserve to die, still burns in my heart.

“The Dinner Table” by Judy Chicago, 1979

With that in mind, my Thanksgiving morning this year was spent reading about Judy Chicago and the various women commemorated in her installation, “The Dinner Table.” This year marks the 40th anniversary of the masterpiece, widely regarded as a cornerstone of feminist art. When asked about what had inspired her, Chicago recalled an actual dinner party she had attended in 1974: “The men at the table were all professors,” she said, “and the women all had doctorates but weren’t professors. The women had all the talent, and they sat there silent while the men held forth.” 

The artist Judy Chicago

For centuries, women had no “place at the table” when it came to political discourse. Chicago’s imaginary banquet hall features a triangular table with 39 place settings for influential female figures. The contributions from an additional 999 women are honored with names inscribed on “The Heritage Floor.” These women, Bertha von Suttner among them, represent the foundations upon which feminist progress was built.

Though Bertha was invited to numerous international parliamentary conferences during her lifetime, she attended only as a guest, since governmental business was the nearly exclusive province of men. (Royalty allowed for some rare exceptions.) Likewise, in political discussions of the day, her viewpoints and ideas were often summarily dismissed solely because she was a woman. This explains why she, along with many other female writers of her time, used a gender-neutral pseudonym, “B. Oulotte,” when publishing her early political and philosophical essays. (Bertha’s nickname in the Suttner household was “Boulotte,” which roughly translates to “Fatty.”) For her landmark book The Machine Age, Bertha went by the name “Jemand,” the German word for “someone” or “anyone.” As she explained in her Memoirs: “I was afraid that if the book were signed with a woman’s name, it would not reach the readers for whom it was expressly designed, for in scientific circles there remains so much prejudice against the capacity of women as thinkers.” 

The International Congress of Women held in Den Haag, the Netherlands, in April of 1915

This Thanksgiving, we should feel grateful for the progress made over the past century, not only in women’s rights but in the rights of other previously silenced and marginalized peoples. Much hard work remains. Even so, our holiday dinner-table conversations can build upon that progress and inspire us to learn how the voices of yesterday helped to lift up our voices today.

Introducing the Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize

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Nino Kalandarishvili holds up the inaugural Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize alongside Salome Adamia and Petra Keppler.

This spring, Nino Kalandarishvili became the first recipient of the Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize in Zugdidi, Georgia. The ceremony took place on the grounds of the Dadiani Palace, where Ekaterina Dadiani, the last Princess of Mingrelia, welcomed Bertha and her husband Artur immediately following their elopement from Vienna, Austria. Shunned by Artur’s disapproving parents, the Suttners would remain in Georgia for nine years. Forced to move from place to place, they relied on teaching and writing to avoid falling into abject poverty, a challenging contrast from their aristocratic backgrounds. 

While in the Caucasus region, Bertha and Artur witnessed growing tensions and conflicts between local residents, visiting expatriates, and the warring Turks and Russians. It’s entirely likely that the seeds of Bertha’s groundbreaking novel Lay Down Your Arms! first germinated in Georgian soil. With that in mind, Zugdidi provides a fitting venue for honoring peacemakers in our own time.

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Promotional materials for the prize include an image of the Dadiani Palace in Zugdidi.

Initiated by the Georgian youth group Trust for Peace, the Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize received international support from Zugdidi’s municipal government, the Austrian Embassy in Tblisi, the Bertha von Suttner Peace Institute of the Netherlands, the Women’s Network for Peace of Germany, and the youth welfare group Act for Transformation, also of Germany.

In her role as chair of the Institute for the Study of Nationalism and Conflicts (http://isnc.ge/), Nino Kalandarishvili has been actively promoting civil dialogue and mediation among numerous communities, both within and beyond national borders. Her bridge-building work brings her into constant contact with politicians and refugees, diplomats and activists. The inaugural Peace Prize recognizes the many ways in which her inspirational personality and professional perseverance contribute toward the success of her efforts toward conflict resolution. She personifies the stated goals of the Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize: “to honor the contribution of activists participating in peacemaking activities, to promote peaceful attitudes in society, and to engage young people in the process of building international trust and cooperation.” 

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The 2019 Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize

To learn more about the annual Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize and its sponsors, you can click on the links above as well as those listed on the “Resources” page.

Symbolic Gestures

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Young Franz Kafka

Much has changed since my last post here, especially after the U.S. election last November. I’ve been tempted to comment on the many parallels between the daily news and the historical events I’ve been researching (among them terrorism in the early 1890s, anti-immigration and anti-Semitic policies of that day, the looming specter of doomsday devices, and even disputes over Venezuelan sovereignty).

At the same time, I’ve felt a greater urgency to complete the final chapters and not be overly distracted by all the hype and click-bait published in the media, both social and professional. On several occasions I’ve thought about Franz Kafka’s dispassionate and seemingly self-centered journal entry on the outbreak of World War I: “Germany has declared war on Russia. Went swimming in the afternoon.”

(Brief historical aside: Kafka’s spirit haunts me as I write this book, especially after I learned that Bertha von Suttner’s birthplace, the Kinsky Palace in Prague, was later converted into the grammar school that Kafka attended as a child. It now houses the Franz Kafka Bookshop. See http://www.prague.cz/kinsky-palace/ for more details.)

 

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The Kinsky Palace in Prague, birthplace of Bertha von Suttner and, later, the site of a grammar school attended by Franz Kafka

There’s a vast psychological distance between those two sentences in Kafka’s journal, and yet by now many of us are all too familiar with it, perhaps to the point of feeling overwhelmed and completely powerless in the face of current events. What can one single person do in this place and time to create a better future for our world? For some, the answer is to take to the streets with banners and placards, to spend hours arguing with legislators on the telephone, to post and repost fact-based articles detailing the most demanding issues of the day. For others, the answer is to persist and persevere along our chosen paths. “Stay in your lane,” advised the poet and journalist Ted Genoways, urging fellow writers to do what they do best: write. The benefits may not be realized in the short-term, especially for those of us working on epic-length novels, but we maintain faith in the positive, long-term effects.

In the meantime, we should look to our health as individuals and prepare ourselves for what promises to be a long-term challenge. When has this not been the case? Losing sleep, courting depression, indulging addictions: none of these helps with solutions.

The trend toward aggressive militarism in the United States, for example, didn’t begin with the contested election of Donald Trump, nor did the nation’s long-running struggle with racism and xenophobia. When I began writing this book years ago, these ugly and immoral aspects of American life were already deeply ingrained in our culture. Just compare how a 19th-century female pacifist like Bertha von Suttner would have responded to the wildly popular movie “Wonder Woman” and so many viewers’ claims that here, at last, was a positive role model for young women. To use a modern catch-phrase, “I can’t even.”

Today is the International Day of Peace, one of many symbolic annual events such as Earth Day that neatly package a grand idea into twenty four hours of observation. Many (like me, I’ll admit) will post a banner or meme on their Facebook walls before returning relatively unaffected to our daily work. Some, like the real wonder woman, Nobel Peace prize winner Malala Yousafzi, may continue to act on their beliefs in human goodness and progress, perhaps placing one brick atop another to construct a new and sturdy schoolhouse for young women in a war-ravaged nation. (More likely, Malala will be hunkered down in the library doing her homework after classes at Oxford University, continuing to improve herself even as she works to improve the world.)

 

Screen Shot 2017-09-02 at 5.02.37 PMSymbolic gestures such as International Peace Day remind us that the work of peace is varied and ongoing. Bertha von Suttner was a firm believer in the power of advertising and propaganda; in fact, these were among the primary goals of the many peace societies she helped to found throughout Europe. Together with other luminaries of the day, she helped craft a pin for society members to wear, something visible to promote the cause in public. “Peace is sought for by Justice,” the emblem read, reminding members of the ideology behind their movement. Today, we carry that idealism forward according to our individual gifts and talents. On days like International Peace Day, it’s worth pausing to consider what our efforts can achieve collectively.

So on this day, remind others that our labors for peace are ongoing and that we must continue to do what we can do. Read a newspaper to stay engaged. Volunteer to help a friend or neighbor in need. Share your hopes for a better world. Purchase a book to stay enlightened. And swim a few laps to stay healthy.

Swords into Ploughshares

 

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“Let Us Beat Our Swords into Ploughshares,” a sculpture by Evgeny Vuchetich presented to the United Nations in 1959 and on display at its headquarters in New York City

God shall judge among the nations, and shall decide for many peoples: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
—Isaiah 2:4

 

For decades now I’ve looked to the literary journal Ploughshares as a symbol of the positive influence that writing can have on establishing a more just and peaceful world. Derived from the biblical quote above, the publication’s name refers to the constructive and creative application of the tools crafted to help civilize the world, language and literature among them.

With that clearly in mind, I submitted the first excerpt from Peace at Last, a chapter entitled “Koppargruva,” to the editors in the hopes that it might find a meaningful home there. I’m ever so thankful that it has.

This conflation of good and evil, construction and destruction, haunted Alfred Nobel throughout his life and features prominently in this excerpt. His patented applications of explosives (nitroglycerin, dynamite, and gelignite most notable among them) led to incredible advances in the mining and railway industries and, in so doing, helped to transform the world at an unprecedented rate. However, military applications of the same technology, at first held at arm’s length by Nobel, caused death and destruction at similarly unprecedented levels.

Throughout his life, Nobel considered ways to balance the destructive power of his explosives with more constructive and unifying pursuits. Working together with Bertha von Suttner, he funded pacifist societies throughout Europe and eventually, also at her insistence, endowed the peace prize that now bears his name. For him, this represented one way to establish a more progressive and positive legacy despite society’s depiction of him as a “merchant of death.”

“Cannot swords be turned to ploughshares?” Ronald Reagan asked in his address to the 42d Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City nearly a century later. He continued, “Can we and all nations not live in peace? In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity. Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences world-wide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world. And yet, I ask you, is not an alien force already among us? What could be more alien than war and the threat of war?”

These questions and concerns, debated for centuries, still trouble society today. They can inspire us toward aspiration and optimism just as easily as they can lead us to despair and cynicism. They’re the motivation behind my devotion to Peace at Last, for in Alfred and Bertha I see both sword and ploughshare. They’re also at the core of the moral crisis depicted in “Koppargruva,” one of the early “Nobel” chapters from the book.

The Ploughshares “Solos” version of “Koppargruva” is now available directly from the Ploughshares Web site (https://www.pshares.org/solos/koppargruva-solo-52) and can also be purchased and downloaded via iBooks (Apple iTunes) and Kindle (amazon.com, where it’s a dollar more for some reason).

The title can also be found on kobo.com, where new registrants are frequently treated to an instant $5 credit. Might I suggest adding Bertha von Suttner’s Lay Down Your Arms ($2.99) to your cart along with “Koppargruva”? You’d still have two cents left to put toward another purchase…

Continuous Education

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Portrait of Bertha von Suttner (1894) by Adrienne Gräfin Potting. The painting now hangs at Schloss Harmannsdorf, once Bertha’s home in Austria.

In 1912, Bertha von Suttner addressed the National Education Association of the United States of America and declared, “It seems to me that education must be continuous, and that the greatest educators are life and experience.” As she well knew at the time, life and experience were often the only two avenues for learning available to women, who were still barred from pursuing a more formal education in many countries.

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“Martha’s Tagebuch,” published in 1897, was adapted from Suttner’s novel “Lay Down Your Arms” and became “the first work of German pacifist children’s literature” (Roderick McGillis, 2003).

As part of her efforts to spread the message of peace from her landmark best-seller, Lay Down Your Arms!: The Autobiography of Martha von Tilling, Bertha worked with her close friend and fellow writer Hedwig Gräfin Potting (whom she jokingly referred to as “Hex,” from the German word for “witch”) to create and publish a version of the book that might appeal to younger audiences and help educate them about the horrific costs of war. Based on the life and experiences of the original novel’s central character, Martha’s Tagebuch (Martha’s Diary) features several illustrations by Hedwig’s sister Adrienne, who years earlier had painted a youthful portrait of the world-famous author.

With the gracious help of my friend Patty Paige-Pfennig in Wiesbaden, I’ve been fortunate to obtain a first edition of the book, one that had been tucked away in an old barn in Germany. Even though Bertha was the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, her resounding calls for peace and disarmament were regarded as a serious threat to the militaristic leaders of her day. Many of Bertha’s published works and personal effects were destroyed by the Nazis and other fascist groups in the decades between World Wars I and II, so the book is a rare find indeed.

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The fictional Martha von Tilling, based in large part on Bertha von Suttner herself, writes in her journal. Illustration from “Martha’s Tagebuch” by Hedwig Gräfin Potting.

Writing a historical novel involves following a number of paths and tangents, some of which can result in an author’s falling “down the rabbit hole” and losing track of the original story and its themes. In this instance, however, I’m thankful to have discovered an important secondary character for the book in Hedwig “Hex” Potting, especially as Hex was one the very first people to learn that Bertha had finally been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905. I look forward to sharing more stories of the lives and experiences of such engaging characters as I continue to follow in the footsteps of Bertha von Suttner and Alfred Nobel.