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Ruins of Moelingen, 1914
Here we see German troops leaving the ruins of Moelingen (or Mouland), a Belgian village destroyed during the German advance in 1914.
Hussein's Babylon: A Beloved Atrocity
In the realm of Saddam Hussein kitsch, it is hard to compete with Babylon.
The Iraqi leader found the squat, khaki-colored nubs of earth and scattered stacks of bricks left over from one of history's glorious empires somehow lacking, far too mundane to represent the 2,500-year sweep of Mesopotamian history that was to be reborn through his rule.
So he ordered one of the three original palaces rebuilt.
Never mind that nobody really knows what the imposing palaces looked like. Nor did Mr. Hussein pay much heed to the fact that the archaeological world cried foul -- deriding his project as Disney for a Despot -- because he was violating their sacred principle of preserving rather than recreating.
But as with many moves by Mr. Hussein, the end result garnered great populist appeal and hence he will probably have the last word on the fate of the famous ruins.
The name Babylon rang with deep significance for Iraqis long schooled in their role as descendants of the people who more or less invented civilization. What remained here was little more than rubble, however, because the prize pieces had long since been carted off to European museums.
Once the $5 million replica was finished, though -- at lightning speed, with construction crews working in three shifts toward the end -- everybody could see that it was a palace.
''I don't like it,'' said Lamia Gaylani, an Iraqi art historian who has returned after decades overseas to help rebuild the country's antiquities institutions. But she added that because other Iraqis ''love it,'' she was 'ɺll for it.''
''It is not just about Saddam's time,'' she said. ''Ruins in Iraq are ugly for most people. Ordinary Iraqis want something they can be impressed by like this. This is a symbol of their history.''
Donny George, the assistant curator of the Baghdad Museum, well remembers the day Mr. Hussein came through the ruins, demanding that the palace be rebuilt in time for the start of the first Babylon arts festival in September 1987.
Mr. Hussein did not talk much -- he mostly listened -- but he did ask how the curators knew when the original had been built. Mr. George showed him one of the original bricks stamped with the name of Nebuchadnezzar II and the construction date, which was around 605 B.C.
The Iraqi leader instantly suggested that bricks used in the re-creation bear some similar inscription. His suggestions had a way of sticking.
''He was the president,'' said Mr. George, shrugging off a decision that had sent a wave of angst through the antiquities department at the time.
The results are now laced throughout the walls, with scores of bricks stamped with the legend: ''In the reign of the victorious Saddam Hussein, the president of the Republic, may God keep him, the guardian of the great Iraq and the renovator of its renaissance and the builder of its great civilization, the rebuilding of the great city of Babylon was done in 1987.''
It goes on to mention the name and the date of the earlier despot, inexorably linking the two. (The Arabic script is very small.)
Mr. George, who was then field director of the ruins, recalls the difficulty involved in recreating the palace, one that rivals the Louvre in Paris for size, without an iota of the original plans.
Take the soaring arches that link the myriad rooms. No one really knows how high they were, or how high the original walls were, for that matter.
The arches in earlier royal courts in the region were roughly a boxy rectangle, the height of the arch around twice the width of the entryway. Mr. George decided that the Nebuchadnezzar palace would have been built on an even grander scale, so he tripled the height of the archways.
''It was just like his building massive palaces everywhere,'' said Mr. George. ''It's to be remembered forever.''
Actually the site has become something of a project for the United States Marines, whose main base in central Iraq incorporates the ruins and the palace that Mr. Hussein had built for himself after 1991 on an artificial mound overlooking the whole thing.
The American troops restored the looted gift shop and museum, replacing the roof, laying new linoleum floors and installing a new air-conditioning system.
The only pieces left in the museum are two hefty sections of the walls. One is covered with a scrawl of graffiti executed in what looks like black charcoal, including a fine wiggly snake and other figures. The second piece came from the brightly hued, mile-long Processional Way, depicting a lion in full stride and some flowers that would have done a 1960's 'ɿlower power'' T-shirt proud.
The rest of the artifacts once housed in the museum were all copies -- the real clay tablets, statuettes and other finds having been carted off to Baghdad, where secure store rooms kept them from looters. (Of course, Iraqis will tell you that the major looting occurred in 1914, when the Germans who had been excavating the site hauled away the famous Ishtar Gate and other booty to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.)
Sometimes the juxtaposition of the ancient -- even recreated -- and the modern can seem a little jarring, like watching huge gray Marine transport helicopters hover over the airfield just beyond the walls.
Art and archaeology experts joke about history repeating itself, about how the Babylonians, tired of their oppressive leaders, cooperated with the Persians to help toss them out.
Garish reminders of the excesses of Mr. Hussein's era have been brought crashing down all over Iraq. But experts touring these historic ruins recently concluded that Babylon stays. Even a folly has its place.
''Nebuchadnezzar was a despot and Saddam Hussein was a despot,'' said Mrs. Gaylani, the art historian. ''Would you take away what Nebuchadnezzar built? No. It's part of history. You have to accept it.''
2. Claire Lacombe (1765- ?): Her Greatest Role Was Revolution
It was a steaming July day in Paris in 1792. In the midst of a meeting of the revolutionary Legislative Assembly, a beautiful, unknown black-haired woman with the mannerisms and rich voice of a seasoned performer stood up to speak:
“Legislators! A Frenchwoman, an actress at the moment without a part such am I that which should have caused me to despair fills my soul with the purest of joy. As I cannot come to the assistance of my country, which you have declared to be in danger, with monetary sacrifices, I desire to offer it the devotion of my person. Born with the courage of a Roman matron and with hatred for tyrants, I shall consider myself happy to contribute to their destruction…Perish all despots to the last man!”
For the next three years, Claire Lacombe, a struggling provincial actress, would become a star among the most extremist elements of the French revolution. Known as “Red Rosa,” she danced atop the ruins of the Bastille, was shot in the arm during the storming of the Tuileries, and co-founded the radical, influential feminist “Republican Revolutionary Society” (also known as the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women). These 𠇎nraged” women of the maligned lower-class fought for equal rights and the destruction of all aristocrats.
Militant and fierce, Lacombe and her 𠇍ragoons” terrified the men of the revolution. In 1794, Lacombe was thrown in jail, and women’s clubs were outlawed. When she was released 16 months later, “she mingled with the crowd outside,” Lacombe’s biographer Galina Sokolnikova wrote, 𠇊nd vanished into obscurity.”
1914-06-28 Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria and his wife Sophie are assassinated in Sarajevo by young Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip, leads to declarations of war in WWI
- Léon Amédée François Raffenel, French general (3rd Colonial Div, WWI), dies during Battle of Rossignol at 58 Rondony, French general (3rd Colonial Div, WWI), dies during Battle of Rossignol at 58 Ernst Stadler, German poet (Der Aufbruch), dies fighting in WWI at 31
Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt
1915-05-07 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Sr., American businessman and sportsman (New York Central Railway), dies aboard the RMS Lusitania during World War I at 37
- John Simpson Kirkpatrick stretcher bearer with the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps at Gallipoli during World War I (b. 1892) Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, French artist and sculptor, killed fighting in WWI at 23 August Stramm, German poet and playwright dies in battle during WWI at 41 Rudi Stephan, German composer (Die ersten Menschen), dies fighting in World War I at 28 Edith Louisa Cavell, British nurse, executed by Germans in Belgium during World War I at 49
- Roland Leighton, English poet and soldier (featured in The Testament of Youth) dies on French battlefield during WWI at 20 Kenneth Hutchings, English cricketer (exciting England batsman, WWI), dies fighting at the Battle of the Somme at 33
1916-06-05 Horatio Kitchener, British General who commanded British forces during the Battle of Omdurman (Sudan) and the Second Boer War who became British Secretary of State for War during WWI (1914-16), drowns at 65 after the HMS Hampshire struck a German mine
- Max Immelmann, German pilot (1st flying ace of WWI), shot down over Northern France at 25 Victor Chapman, French-American pilot renowned during WW1 (1st American pilot to die in WW1), succumbs to wounds at age 26 William Booth, English Test cricket batsman (WWI 2 Tests), dies at the Somme at 39 Victor Horsley, English physician and neuroscientist, dies while serving in Iraq in WWI at 59 Leone Sextus Tollemache, British Army captain who was incorrectly alleged to have the longest English surname on record (Leone Sextus Denys Oswolf Fraudatifilius Tollemache-Tollemache de Orellana Plantagenet Tollemache-Tollemache), dies in active service in WWI at 32 Bryn Lewis, Welsh rugby union winger (2 caps Newport, Cambridge University), dies on active duty in WWI at 26 Karl Allmenröder, German World War I flying Ace, dies at 21 Octave Lapize, French cyclist (Tour de France 1910), dies when shot down as WWI fighter pilot at 29 Eric Lundie, cricketer (WWI Test South Africa v England 1914), dies Werner Voss, German World War I flying ace, dies at 20
1917-10-15 Mata Hari [Margaretha Geertruida Zelle], Dutch dancer, courtesan and convicted German WWI spy, executed by firing squad at 41
The Red Baron
1918-04-21 Manfred von Richthofen [The Red Baron], German World War I fighter ace, dies at 25 after his plane is shot down
- Ernie Parker, Australian tennis player (Australasian C'ship 1913), dies in action WWI at 34 Gervais Raoul Lufbery, French-American World War I fighter pilot and flying ace, dies at 33 Indra Lal Roy, Indian World War I flying ace, dies at 19 Erich Lowenhardt, Germany flying ace of World War I (b. 1897) Joe English, Irish/Flemish signaler (WWI), dies at 36 Arthur O'Hara Wood, Australian tennis player (Australasian C'ship 1914), dies in action WWI at 28 Mikhail Vasilyevich Alekseyev, Imperial Russian general and WW I Chief of Staff, murdered at 60 Joseph Lesage, French painter/etcher (WWI), dies at 34 Jane Delano, American nurse & educator (Red Cross Nursing Service during WWI), dies at 57 James Reese Europe, American ragtime and early jazz arranger, composer, and bandleader in New York, and with the military in France during WWI, dies of a stab wound (received during an argument with one of his drummers), at 38 Ludwig-Alexander von Battenberg [Mountbatten], admiral (WWI), dies at 67 André Caplet, French composer & conductor (Conte Fantastic, Le miroir de Jesus), dies from WWI gas attack issues at 45 John [Denton Pinkstone] French, 1st Earl of Ypres and British WWI field marshal, dies at 72 Sergeant Stubby, decorated World War I dog
1928-01-29 Douglas Haig, British fieldmarshal (Sudan, WWI) nicknamed "Butcher Haig" due to mass casualties under his command during the Battle of the Somme, dies from a heart attack at 66
Studies in the Scriptures - Editions after 1914
Editions of Studies in the Scriptures written prior to 1914 were very specific about what would happen prior to and during 1914. These journals continued to be used after 1914. To overcome the obviously erroneous predictions, in 1915 they were reissued with amendments.
For example, prior to 1914, editions of Studies In the Scriptures - Thy Kingdom Come stated on p.228 that the resurrection would occur before 1914. From the 1915 edition onwards, this was changed to state that the resurrection was to occur soon after 1914.
|Studies In the Scriptures - Thy Kingdom Come pre 1914||Studies In the Scriptures - Thy Kingdom Come post 1914 editions|
|"That the deliverance of the saints must take place some time before 1914 is manifest, since the deliverance of fleshly Israel, as we shall see, is appointed to take place at that time, and the angry nations will then be authoritatively commanded to be still, and will be made to recognize the power of Jehovah's Anointed. Just how long before 1914 the last living members of the body of Christ will be glorified, we are not directly informed but it certainly will not be until their work in the flesh is done nor can we reasonably presume that they will long remain after that work is accomplished. With these two thought in mind, we can approximate the time of the deliverance." |
Click here for scan of 1911 edition
|"That the deliverance of the saints must take place very soon after 1914 is manifest, since the deliverance of fleshly Israel, as we shall see, is appointed to take place at that time, and the angry nations will then be authoritatively commanded to be still, and will be made to recognize the power of Jehovah's Anointed. Just how long after 1914 the last living members of the body of Christ will be glorified, we are not directly informed but it certainly will not be until their work in the flesh is done nor can we reasonably presume that they will long remain after that work is accomplished." |
Click here for scan of 1923 edition
Instead of being slated to "end in October 1914", rewrites claimed (still erroneously) that Armageddon was to "end very shortly" and "very soon after".
Studies In the Scriptures - The Day of Vengeance pp.546,547
1911 edition compared to 1923 edition
The 1915 Mar 1 issue of the Watch Tower admitted to these changes in the following article.
"CHANGES IN "SCRIPTURE STUDIES"
We call attention to a few slight changes which have been made in four pages of Vol. II. and six pages of Vol. III., "STUDIES IN THE SCRIPTURES." These are all trivial and do not alter the real sense and lesson, but conform to the facts as we have them today. The pages containing these corrections are as follows:
Vol. II., page 77, line 1, "will be the farthest limit," reads "will see the disintegration."
Vol. II., page 77, line 6, "will obtain full universal control," reads "will begin to assume control."
Vol. II., page 77, lines 16,17, "end of A.D. 1914," reads "end of the overthrow."
Vol. II., page 81, line 9, "can date only from A.D. 1914," reads "could not precede A.D. 1915."
Vol. II., page 170, line 16, "at that time they will all be overturned."*
*How long it will require to accomplish this overturning we are not informed, but have reason to believe the period will be short.
Vol. II., page 221, line 25, "full favor until A.D. 1914," reads "full favor until after 1915."
Vol. III., page 94, line 29, "in this end or harvest," reads "at the end of this harvest."
Vol. III., page 126, line 12, "at A.D. 1914," reads "after 1914."
Vol. III., page 133, line 21, "ere the harvest is fully ended."+
+The end of the harvest will probably include the burning of the tares.
Vol. III., page 228, line 11, "some time before 1914," reads "very soon after 1914."
Vol. III., page 228, line 15, "just how long before," reads "just how long after."
Vol. III., page 362, line 11, "some time before," reads "some time near."
Vol. III., page 364, line 14, "must not only witness," reads "may not only witness.""
Watch Tower 1915 Mar 1 (reprints 5649)
Ruins and memories of Mexico’s El Amparo Mining Company
In 1916, the Amparo Mining Company had the most successful silver mines in Jalisco and was making money hand over fist. Although it was located pretty much in the middle of nowhere, 65 kilometers due west of Guadalajara near the town of Etzatlan, rumors abound that a bustling community of some 6,000 souls once lived there, enjoying such luxuries as two supermarkets, a cinema, a dance hall and their own classical music orchestra. This community, it was said, consisted of Americans, British, Mexicans and lots of Germans.
All that is what the rumors say, but when I tried to dig up some hard facts about Amparo, I discovered a curiously different picture of life at the mining camp. “There’s a monograph on the history of the old mine,” I was told by archeologist Phil Weigand who lived in Etzatlan for years, “for sale in the convent book store.”
After three trips to Etzatlan to to get that monograph, I discovered it had only a few lines about the mine. They were anything but laudatory:
The miners worked their long, miserable, heavy days under brutal conditions,” said Maria de la Luz Correa. I got the distinct impression that the riches flowing from the mine had only flowed into the pockets of the owner, who it seems, was American, not British. I also found out that there were only about 500 some miners at Amparo, not 6000. As for the two supermarkets, it was claimed that their primary function had been to enslave the miners, offering them luxuries and expensive entertainment on credit until they were hopelessly in debt.
The miners are long gone from the Amparo Mine, but an impressive ghost town still remains and it’s not a difficult place to visit. Just drive south out of Etzatlan for about 16 kilometers and you’ll find the sleepy rancho of Amparo, surrounded by once elegant buildings now swathed in vines and bushes. “This was the bachelors’ dormitory,” local people told me. “That was one of the stores and this was where the miners received their wages.”
The wife of the owner of the Langarica Copper mine, located near the village of Amparo, demonstrates that the area is still rich in minerals © John Pint, 2012
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing to a lonely tower atop a steep hill. “We call that El Faro, the Lighthouse,” I was told. “Actually, it was a watchtower built for driving away bandidos.” Once I saw the outside of this tower, pockmarked with bullets, I gained a new respect for those people who worked at this remote outpost — cinema or no cinema.
More ruins can be found about two kilometers south of Amparo at Las Jimenez, where electricity from high tension wires was transformed into useable voltage for the mine’s heavy machinery. Here I found the most beautiful building of all, several stories high. I was told the transformers were housed here, but the building looks too elegant for such a lowly purpose. Besides, transformers normally sit outdoors because they give off heat.
The miners at Amparo, led by famed Mexican Marxist muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, joined a Jalisco-wide union in 1926 and made demands for better salaries and working conditions to the company, which chose to shut down the mine rather than capitulate. This mine produced 138,597 kilograms of silver between 1924 and 1931, plus impressive quantities of gold, lead and copper. It was still productive at the time it was shut down and would no doubt have been reopened later if President Echeverria had not (I was told) “stolen all the machinery and workings, causing the mine to be flooded.”
Ruins of once beautiful buildings are now overgrown with weeds at Mexico’s once prosperous mining site of El Amparo © John Pint, 2012
Recently, a friend of mine, mining geologist Justus Mohl, brought me a treasure. Somehow he had managed to find a copy of the memoirs of Salvador Landeros, a mining engineer who grew up at Amparo and eventually became General Manager of all the mining operations. This is a spiral-bound collection of 217 typed pages, including photos, maps and diagrams, dated August 3, 1998. Landeros paints quite a different picture than Maria de la Luz, of life at Amparo. Below are a few selected anecdotes that give us a feeling for what life was like in that remote mining town.
The Memoirs of Salavador Landeros
I was born in what was then called the Villa of Etzatlán in the state of Jalisco on the 31st of December of 1905. At the tender age of three months, I went to live in a remote place called Amparo where my mother had been hired to wet-nurse Fany, the newly born daughter of Mr. Santiago Howard, Manager of the Amparo Mining Company. And that’s where I grew up.
One of the people from my childhood I could never forget was a man with only one leg whom everybody called No Ambition (Poca Lucha). This man couldn’t work, but he had a special talent: he knew by heart all the stories of the Thousand and One Nights. We children all loved to get together with him at night to listen to his stories. Sometimes the grown-ups would come join us kids and everyone would give ten or fifteen centavos to our fascinating story-teller. And that’s how I passed my time before I reached school age, listening to those stories and playing. It was a peaceful time.
I fell in love with music at a tender age. Every time I heard music playing near the main office, I would go listen. The waltzes from that period were so exquisite I felt I was in heaven and when a string quintet would play them at sunrise, why, even the dogs stopped barking and perked up their ears to listen attentively.
It was the period of Romanticism, which ended in the 1940s. I would say that never in my long life have I heard more beautiful pieces. Eventually, I studied violin and in the orchestra I played many of those old waltzes and much more, including classical music… and I think I was not bad.
When I finished fifth grade at school, we were told, “That’s it. That’s all we do at Amparo.” However, our teacher, Miss Rosario Rentería, had recently come to Amparo from Guadalajara and asked the authorities for permission to add a sixth year, since there were eight of us in the class and we all had good marks. So, I completed sixth grade, attending school in the morning and studying music in the afternoon. No more children’s games!
Once I completed sixth grade, it marked the end of my career of studies. I couldn’t apply to a college in Guadalajara because my mother didn’t have enough money and besides, in the time of Porfirio Díaz, poor kids could not go to a college and mix with the rich, the children of hacienda owners.
From 1918 to 1928 was the period of the mine’s bonanza. It was a sort of paradise on earth. Because overland transportation was so poor, we had everything at El Amparo. The company store carried all kinds of meat and vegetables, clothing, liquor, shoes and even freshly baked bread. And nothing was expensive. A family of eight could live for a week on 15 pesos.
Of course, on Saturdays the miners wanted to do something different after working all week under the ground, so there would be dances in three or four houses at the same time. At Amparo there were always more than enough musicians to go around. We had a real symphony orchestra with 36 elements and it was just as good as the Guadalajara Symphonic of those days. In addition, we had two bands that played popular music and there was even an opera house.
On a Sunday, after eating, there were games. One of them was called Little Jars (Los Cantaritos). We would have about 50 tiny baked-clay pots made at a time. To play the game, we would form a big circle and each person had a cantarito. The idea was to throw yours to someone else who had to catch it without breaking it. Finally, there would be only one jar left and everybody had to be very careful because if it broke, the person who should have caught it was obliged to pay for the musicians and another set of cantaritos for the next game. Instead of getting drunk Sunday evenings, we used to play games like this until it was finally time to go to the cinema. And from there it was off to bed because a lot of the men had to get up early the next morning to work.
The Treacherous Tramway
We have an old saying: La confianza mata al hombre (Taking things for granted will kill you) and I have a story to back that up.
When mining was at its peak at Amparo, we had an aerial tramway which transported the raw ore down to Las Jiménez in big containers suspended from steel cables strung between four towers. To avoid accidents, riding in the ore buckets was forbidden, but there were always a few characters willing to take a chance. Now, on various occasions, the electricity would go off, but usually for less than five minutes. If the men running the tramway were going to cut off the power for a longer time, they would send word up and down the system by telephone, warning people not to ride in the containers.
Of course — even though it was prohibited — it was mighty convenient to get a ride uphill from Jiménez to Amparo and even people not working for the company used to take advantage. One of these outsiders was doing exactly that one day when the bucket he was riding in suddenly came to a halt 15 meters from the tallest tower. Now, by chance, there was a deep arroyo right at the foot of that tower, so the distance down to the ground was about 40 meters. Well, this fellow was sitting in the container, hanging in the air and he waited a long time and nothing happened. And he waited some more — and some more. And finally he just had to get down from that ore bucket and he looked at that distance, only fifteen meters, and must have thought it would be easy to get to the tower just by holding on to the thick cable with his hands and walking along the thin cable below it with his feet. So he went for it and got about six meters when suddenly the power came back on and the containers started moving. Well, the very bucket he had been in came straight at him and cut his hands right off and he gave a shout which was heard by a passerby who saw him fall to his death. When they found his broken body at the bottom of the arroyo, they discovered he wasn’t even a miner. The poor guy was living all along in Las Jiménez and no one had any idea where he had been going or why he had climbed into that container.
The Purloined Ingot
The silver produced at Amparo was melted down into ingots weighing 35 kilos each, which were then transported to the bank of London in Mexico City. One day a policeman was watching over a pile of these silver bars outside the foundry, waiting for a truck to come pick them up. Well, the guard walked away for a moment and some wise guy who had been watching ran up, grabbed a bar and threw it down into a deep canyon just next to the building.
When the truck arrived, they counted the bars as they loaded them and found one missing. Well they all went crazy looking for that silver ingot and because there was no way to account for what had happened to it, they naturally blamed the guard and Antonio Leal, the head of Security, arrested him.
Now they were all set to send the guard to Etzatlán when along came a common laborer who said he had been walking in the arroyo and had come upon a little house and just inside the door he had spotted something white and shiny lying on a brick.
Antonio Leal — with his entire Police Force — went straight to the house in question and sure enough, there was the missing bar of silver. Antonio then began hunting high and low for the owner of the house and finally found him planting corn. So they arrested him and took him to the office where Antonio Leal was all set to hang him from a pole.
At this moment, however, one of the doctors came along and asked what had happened. After hearing the whole story, he declared that Antonio Leal had no legal right to execute anyone and how could the accused have stolen the ingot without being seen. “And where did you find that ingot hidden?” he asked.
“We could see it because the door was open,” someone said.
“OK,” said the doctor. “Bring the man here and let me talk to him alone.” Then he said to the man. “Alright, how did you steal that silver bar?”
And the man said, “Sir, I didn’t steal no silver bar. I just found that heavy thing down in the arroyo when I was looking for kindling wood and it looked awfully pretty, so I brought it home and put it on top of a brick to make a chair, ’cause I don’t have anything to sit on in my little shack.”
By now Don Guillermo Howard, the head man at Las Jiménez, had arrived. “This man is telling the truth,” said the doctor to Don Guillermo. “If he had known what he had in his possession, he wouldn’t be here now.”
“You’re right,” replied Don Guillermo. “We can’t blame him for anything. Look, not even the President of Mexico has had the privilege of resting his butt on an ingot of pure silver, as this man has so innocently done. He is guilty of nothing.”
He sent the man home but the poor fellow was so frightened, he simply vanished and was never seen around Amparo again.
The Fall of the Amparo Empire
(Thanks to Justus Mohl for this summary of Amparo’s last years)
If you visit the ghost town of El Amparo nowadays, you may wonder what happened to all that luxury in which Salvaderos Landeros grew up.
During the revolution, the mining management had to stay in Guadalajara for a while, but when it was all over, there were ten years of bonanza, from 1918-1928, with many festivities and dances and different ensembles. The Howard management brought in good teachers for the school and the children got all the needed materials free. Football and basketball teams were organized and the company always paid the expenses for competitions in Etzatlán or even in Guadalajara.
In 1926, nearby mines like, La Yesca, El Favor, 5 Minas and San Pedro Analco, were shut down due to political disorder. The striking miners, about 500, came to El Amparo telling them that everybody should join them to demand better salaries and better working conditions. About 600 unemployed striking miners went to see the governor of Jalisco, and finally, 5 months later, the president of Mexico, Plutarco Elías Calles signed an agreement forming a “cooperative” to administrate the El Amparo mine.
When in November, 1926 the peaceful workers from El Amparo became disturbed, the main accountant Adolfo Hoepfner told the Howard management to leave, thinking he could handle the situation, but some weeks later his own workers fatally attacked him with knives and machetes in order to distribute the ore and the bullion among the striking workers.
Finally, when the Howards had to accept the workers’ demand and abandon everything, it was Landeros who survived in the deserted town of El Amparo and, years later, it was Landeros who tried to put the mine back into production.
This worked for a while. Money from the ore was distributed among the workers, and initially the earnings grew, since there were no large salaries to be paid to management and nobody cared about searching for new ore reserves or spending big money on maintenance and equipment.
During that time everybody was told that the foreign management had been abusing the workers to become rich themselves. The good treatment extended to the workers, as well as the facilities, benefits and the warm personal relations between workers and staff, were all soon forgotten.
During a period of two years, until 1939, the new organization, called La Cooperativa Minera, was productive, but when they had to pay the pending electricity bills, the miners were asked to deduct it from their income. Other problems then developed, due to corruption on the part of managers (who were elected by the workers and spent their time playing with dominoes and girls in a Guadalajara hotel) and laziness on the part of the workers. In the end, there was no money and when the miners realized that nobody was ever going to pay them, they carried away everything they could, leaving behind only the ruins you can appreciate today in El Amparo.
Was Amparo a paradise or a prison? We may never know the whole story, but let’s hope more documents like the memoirs of Salvador Landeros will eventually come to light. Meanwhile, today, it is said that several companies owned or financed by Carlos Slim, richest man in the world, have their eye on these long-abandoned mines. It seems the history of El Amparo is not quite over.
Adolph Bandelier is one of the most important ethnographers, historians, and archeologists in the history of the southwest. Born in 1840 in Bern, Switzerland, Bandelier moved with his family to the United States in 1848. Settling in the Swiss community of Highland, Illinois, Bandelier grew up training to go into the family banking business. A friendship with the famous American Anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan led to an interest in ethnography. In 1880, at the age of 40, Bandelier traveled to Santa Fe to pursue this interest by visiting many of the American Indian tribes of the southwest. At the time the study of American Indians was not seen by some as important or necessary, and it would take a letter of support from John Wesley Powell to convince the Archeological Institute of America who sponsored the study.
Bandelier would continue his work in the southwest in 1882, visiting all thee missions associated with Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. Bandelier would map each of the sites and take some of the earliest photos of the missions. By showing the condition of the missions and the visible cultural remains, this work is invaluable to the park. Bandelier would also visit most of the areas that are now National Park sites throughout New Mexico and Arizona including Pecos, Aztec Ruins, El Morro, El Malpais, Gila Cliff Dwellings, Casa Grande, Tonto, and the pueblo ruins of the Pajarito Plateau which would be named in his honor, Bandelier National Monument. Bandelier would write a report on his work in the southwest entitled "Final Report of Investigations Among the Indians of the Southwestern United States, Carried On Mainly in the Years from 1880 to 1885."
Bandelier would go on to study cultures throughout Mexico and Central and South America. While in Spain in 1914 where he was working in the Archivo de las Indias, Bandelier would die. Buried in Seville, Spain, Bandelier's remains were exhumed in 1977 and his ashes spread in Bandelier National Monument in 1980.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF BEVERLY HILLS
Throughout history, there appears to have always been something special about the land that became Beverly Hills. The original inhabitants, the native Tongva, recognized it as a kind of oasis in a semi-arid basin, the place they poetically called the gathering of the waters. The Spanish explorer Don Jose Gaspar de Portolà realized it too, and when his expedition happened upon the Tongva's Eden, he translated the name for it into Spanish as El Rodeo de las Aguas.
The Tongva native atop the Electric Fountain at the intersection of Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards.
With Europeans, however, came a series of difficulties, beginning with smallpox, which wiped out the majority of Tongva. In 1838, the governor of the Mexican-controlled California territory deeded the 4,500 acres that constitute the core of present-day Beverly Hills to Maria Rita Valdez Villa, the African-Mexican widow of a Spanish soldier. She started a cattle and horse ranch and built an adobe home at what is now the intersection of Alpine Drive and Sunset Boulevard. As was the custom, livestock grazed wherever they liked but were annually herded to a rodeo located near today's intersection of Pico and Robertson Boulevards.
In 1852, Maria Rita survived a siege and shoot-out with Native Americans who attacked her rancho. This may have influenced her to sell her land two years later to Henry Hancock and Benjamin Wilson. Unfortunately for the new owners, the waters dried up a few years later, followed by a long drought that left their livestock to die. Hancock and Wilson are remembered today for the upscale Hancock Park neighborhood and local geographic landmark Mount Wilson. By 1868, the land was owned by Edward Preuss who sought to establish a community for immigrant German farmers to be called Santa Maria. In the meantime, he turned the ranch into lima bean fields, selling his crop to cover taxes. Santa Maria was never to be after yet another drought thwarted Preuss' dream.
Early in the 1880s, Henry Hammel and Charles Denker acquired the land with the intention of creating Morocco, a subdivision with a North African theme. The U.S. economic collapse of 1888 put a quick end to that scheme. In 1900, the fortunes of the former rancho began to improve. A group of oil-speculating investors, led by Burton E. Green, bought the bean field on behalf of the Amalgamated Oil Company. Green drilled a series of wells that failed to strike oil however, they did strike a lot of water -- enough to support a town. In 1906, Green and his partners reorganized as the Rodeo Land and Water Company. Inspired by Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, Green and his wife renamed the bean field Beverly Hills.
In 1907, landscape architect Wilbur D. Cook was hired to design a street plan for Beverly Hills. Cook laid out curving streets with larger lots on the north side, smaller lots on the south side, and a triangular commercial district between them. All the streets were tree-lined and land was set aside for public parks, four elementary schools, and a high school. The vision was to make the area affordable to a range of incomes, as long as the buyers weren’t Black or Jewish. These shameful restrictive covenants would eventually fall in the 1940s thanks to a lawsuit brought by Hattie McDaniel, Ethel Waters, and other notable African-Americans.
The first house was completed in 1907, but sales were slow. In 1912, to bolster the interest of potential buyers, Green completed construction of the Beverly Hills Hotel on the site where the waters once gathered. The luxurious establishment served not only travelers but the locals as a de facto city hall, community center, movie theatre, and religious worship venue. Sitting in what was then the middle of nowhere, the hotel was reached by the specially-constructed Dinky Railroad, a wondrous attraction in itself.
By 1914, the local population was large enough to support the incorporation of Beverly Hills as a city, but real growth didn’t take off until the era’s most glamorous Hollywood couple, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, bought a lot on Summit Drive and dubbed their home Pickfair. Following their fashionable lead was a host of film industry stars, directors, and producers who began the celebrity mystique that remains a constant of Beverly Hills to this day.
What also brought fame to the young city was the addition in 1919 of the Los Angeles Speedway, the site of auto races second in importance only to Indy. The course, covering most of the southwest quadrant of the city, barely made it through half of the Roaring Twenties. Among the notable structures built on land formerly traversed by race cars was the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in 1928. The same year, Edward L. Doheny completed Greystone, a 55-room mansion and estate, a wedding gift for his son, which is now owned by the City and operated as a museum, park, and event venue.
With growth came the return of a problem that haunted the 19th-century rancho, a potential shortage of water. In 1923, an effort to secure a steady water supply through annexation by the City of Los Angeles was defeated by the voters thanks to opposition led by Mary Pickford, who feared the loss of local identity. Celebrities continued to be important to civic life, most notably the nationally-cherished humorist and honorary mayor of Beverly Hills, Will Rogers. In his memory, the park across Sunset Boulevard from the Beverly Hills Hotel was renamed after his death.
The 1930s brought construction of the main post office and the magnificent Beverly Hills City Hall designed by architect William Gage in the Spanish Renaissance style. The old Santa Monica Park was expanded from three blocks to the entire length of the north side of Santa Monica Boulevard from Wilshire Boulevard to North Doheny Drive and renamed Beverly Gardens Park. The elegant Electric Fountain, featuring a central pillar atop which is posed a kneeling Tongva native amidst the spray of the “gathering waters,” was installed at the northeast corner of Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards. The jets of water effuse a multi-colored glow at night thanks to a programmed lighting system.
In the late 1940s, as the nation entered the post-World War II recovery, the City began to develop rapidly. With Rodeo Drive as its focus, the commercial district came to be called the Golden Triangle as an ever-increasing number of internationally-renowned retailers opened there. By the 1960s, the City’s reputation as a haven for the famous and center of grand homes, luxury shopping, and fine dining spread worldwide through films and TV shows shot or set there. The City also grew physically with the annexation of a large tract of land in the hills above the east side of town, the area known as Trousdale Estates, originally part of the Greystone estate.
Facing stiff competition for shoppers from new nearby shopping malls, Beverly Hills moved to shore up its status as the region’s premier shopping area. In 1989, Two Rodeo and its pedestrian path, Via Rodeo, opened, quickly becoming not only a shopping and tourist magnet but a popular photo and film backdrop. By the 1990s, the demand for services and the need for seismic retrofitting moved the city to restore and strengthen City Hall and build an expanded Civic Center with a modernized main fire station and library and an entirely new police headquarters.
In 1996, the Paley Center for Media opened its West Coast location, a significant new building by architect Richard Meier at the southwest corner of North Beverly Drive and South Santa Monica Boulevard. In addition, the shopping blocks of North Rodeo Drive were enhanced with new landscaped medians and sidewalks, as well as improved street lighting. Similar sidewalk and lighting enhancements were made to the shopping streets of North Beverly Drive and North Cañon Drive.
Moving into the 21st Century, the city added two new important attractions the 9/11 Memorial, a striking design containing an actual steel beam recovered from the ruins of the World Trade Center, and the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, a significant cultural resource that repurposes the classic U.S. Post Office building. The grand hall of the old post office is now the Annenberg lobby with its enduring ceiling murals by artist Charles Kassler, Jr., a product of the WPA during the Great Depression. What was once the work area behind the postal clerks’ windows has been turned into a flexible 150-seat theatre, a theatre school with three classrooms, a café, and gift shop. A modern addition, the 500-seat Goldsmith Theatre, is a state-of-the-art-facility for presenting a wide range of world-class performers.
As Beverly Hills approached the 100th anniversary of its incorporation, concern began to grow over the lack of an historical preservation ordinance to protect significant structures located within the city limits. In response, the City Council enacted one with the honor of Historic Landmark No. 1 being bestowed upon the Beverly Hills Hotel. Since its centennial in 2014, Beverly Hills has continued to mature with renewed appreciation for its past, remaining true to Burton Green’s vision of an oasis of refinement, while meeting the challenges of the future.
Legends of America
Redford, Texas is a farming community and near ghost town in Presidio County in an area that has been inhabited for centuries. The settlement of Redford was officially established in about 1876.
Located in a district that the Spanish called La Junta de los Ríos, this region had been inhabited since the Paleo-Indian Period from 8,000 to 6,500 B.C. These hunter-gathers survived on small game and edible plants in the region. By 1500 B.C., the area was known to have been inhabited by corn farmers of the Cochise culture and by 700 A.D. many of the region’s Indians had begun to adopt more sedentary lifestyles. Influenced by pre-Puebloan cultures like the Mogollon and the Anasazi, the people of La Junta eventually began to use pottery, live in jacal dwellings, and form extensive trade networks. The area was perfect for settlement due to its abundant water, fertile farmland, and bountiful game, and was located on an ancient and heavily traveled north-south trade route.
Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca
By the time the Spanish first came to the region in 1535, it was inhabited by the Patarabueye and Jumano people. At that time, Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca and three companions, who had survived the failed Panfilo de Narvaez expedition, traveled through the region. The first non-Indians to see the area, they discovered a number of villages that varied in size, from small clusters of a few families to one that was called home to over 1,000 residents and displayed a complex political structure. These people lived in single-story, flat-roofed pit houses of adobe construction and raised large crops of corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, and melons.
Some four decades later, a number of expeditions passed through La Junta, providing written accounts of the native peoples living in scattered villages along the two rivers. These descriptions set the stage for a greater Spanish presence in the area, bringing with them livestock and agricultural knowledge. La Junta soon became a cultural crossroads where farmers and hunters, nomads and villagers, came and went.
Before long, the Spanish began to build missions in the area with the clergy working to convert the Indians to Christianity, including one near the site where Redford would be established much later. Just above the Rio Grande, at its confluence with a small intermittent stream, Arroyo de la Iglesia (Church Creek), once stood a village called Tapacolmes. Sitting upon a large terrace, an early Spanish Mission was built sometime around the turn of the 17th Century. Called the San Pedro de Alcántara de los Tapalcomes, the mission didn’t serve these peoples long, as the Tapacolmes were thought to have left the pueblo by 1725 due to Apache raids.
Exhibition of Mexicans gambling in old El Polvo in about 1916. In the photo’s background was an almost-two-story-high mission building still intact and with a cross above its front entrance. Photo courtesy Texas Beyond History.
In 1747, the site was visited by Captain Joseph de Ydoiaga on an expedition to La Junta de Los Rios in 1747, who recorded that the pueblo had been abandoned and that the thick walls of the church were in ruins.
Except for small rancherias, Tapacolmes wasn’t settled again until 1870 when Texas Governor Richard Cocke initiated a policy to encourage people to cross the border from Mexico to settle in Presidio County. New settlers were allocated 160 acres of land and American citizenship. Its colonists fought the last of the Apache raids, cleared the floodplains, established farms, and brought in goats and cattle. They also banded together in building homes, dams, and hand digging canals for irrigation, many of which are still in use today. Many of the dams also still hold water for irrigation farming on both sides of the Rio Grande in the Redford Valley.
In 1871, the colonists officially founded their village calling it El Polvo, meaning “the dust” in Spanish. But, for generations, the Indians and Mexicans called it Vado Rojo, or the “red crossing” based on the color of the stone bedrock that lay beneath the Rio Grande, and lined the hills on either side of the valley. The village was laid out with a central square surrounded by connected adobe houses with doorways opening to the inside of the square. This arrangement however, was apparently abandoned sometime around 1900, when the community had become more dispersed.
It is believed that the new settlers of El Polvo took over the ruins of the old mission and repaired them in order to use for church services. It was described as a large adobe building that consisted of the main chapel and a smaller room — probably a sacristy. The long building had a large double door entrance to the main chapel and inside, there were two large adobe altars. However, by the early 1900s, the building was in such disrepair that it was abandoned and soon a new church was built.
In May 1885, when Geronimo and other Apache leaders began raiding small settlements throughout southern New Mexico and into Texas, General George Crook ordered troops to be stationed at every major crossing point along the Rio Grande border. Consequently, in June, Lieutenant George K. Hunter, commanding troops at Camp Pena Colorada and Lieutenant H.F. Kendall, commanding the Black Seminole scouts at Nevill’s Springs, received orders to guard the region between the Presidio del Norte and Presidio de San Vicente. After establishing Camp Polvo just east of the town of El Polvo, the Black Seminole scouts searched the surrounding region for any signs of hostile Apache.
Church of San Jose del Polvo by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, 2011.
The 1890s brought several changes to the area. A severe drought during the first portion of this decade greatly affected the ranchers of the region, and at the same time, mining was becoming an important industry in Shafter to the northwest, and Terlingua to the east. At that point, many of the people who had worked on the farms and ranches were employed in the mines.
At about the same time, the US Army began to consolidate its frontier garrisons. In 1891, Fort Davis and Camp Neville (in present-day Big Bend National Park) were closed and the Black Seminole Scouts were relocated to Camp Polvo, along the banks of the Rio Grande.
Fortunately, the drought was broken in 1895, and ranchers again stocked the range with cattle, sheep, and goats.
St. Joseph Catholic Church, Redford, Texas by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, 2011.
By 1900, the old mission was in such a bad state of disrepair that it was abandoned and replaced with the new Church of San Jose del Polvo in 1914. The church is distinguished by its offset stone bell tower with a low hip roof. It too, was replaced by the new San Jose Catholic Church, built in 1970. The old church, privately owned today, continues to stand.
During the Mexican Revolution, 1910-1920, the region was in chaos as the unrest that enveloped Mexico spilled across the river. During this period U.S. military operations were greatly increased along the border. During the 1914 Pershing Expedition in search of Pancho Villa, nearby Presidio served as an emergency landing field for the first U.S. planes to engage in foreign combat. In addition, U.S. Cavalry troops were stationed along the Rio Grande at Ruidoso, 35 miles above Presidio, Camp Fulton at Presidio, and at Camp Polvo in Redford. Camp Polvo, which had been closed some years earlier, was reactivated between 1916 and 1920.
An old building in Redford, Texas by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, 2011.
In the meantime, the community received a post office in 1911 that was located about a half-mile above the El Polvo river crossing. When the request for a post office was made, the postal authorities insisted on an English name and the villagers complied with the literal translation of the Spanish name, Red Ford. The authorities didn’t ask if it was to be two words.
By 1914, the town had four general stores, but would never grow very large. In 1934, it was called home to some 60 residents and three businesses.
Unfortunately, in about 1956, the last crumbling walls of the old San Pedro de Alcántara de los Tapalcomes Mission were leveled by county officials at the landowner’s request. At that time, many manos and metates, tools utilized to grind seeds, nuts, and other plant foods were recovered from the site.
An old house in Redford, Texas by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.
By 1970, the town boasted a school, a church, numerous homes, and a population of 107.
In 1979, Lucia Rede Madrid, a descendant of the original settlers and a retired schoolteacher, opened up a school library in her family’s store. The store closed around 1990 but continues to serve as a library and museum.
In 2000, the city was called home to 132 people, but, in the next decade, the population had dropped to just 89 in 2010. Its post office closed in 2012.
Today, Redford is one of the oldest communities in the United States. The predominantly Mexican-American town is linked to the Mexican town of Mulato, Mexico just across the river. More than 90 percent if its residents can claim Native American ancestry. Parts of the old settlement of El Polvo has been designated as a State Archeological Landmark.
Numerous old buildings, including the ruins of an adobe cavalry fort and customs station, and the old Church of San Jose del Polvo, provide great photo opportunities.
Redford is located about 16 miles southeast of Presidio, Texas along Farm Road 170, which follows the Rio Grande through both Big Bend Ranch State Park and Big Bend National Park.
Redford, Texas Ruins by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, 2011.
Daudistel, Marcia Hatfield Authentic Texas: People of the Big Bend University of Texas Press, 2013
Glasrud, Bruce A. and Mallouf, Robert J. Big Bend’s Ancient and Modern Past Texas A&M University Press, 2013
Handbook of Texas On-Line
Madrid, Enrique R. The Lost Mission of El Polvo The Journal of Big Bend Studies, Volume 15, 2003
Morgenthaler, Jefferson La Junta de los Rios Great Texas Books, 2007
Texas Beyond History
The Man of the Circular Ruins
I saw the mountains that rose from the water, saw the first men of wood, saw the water jars that turned against the men, saw the dogs that tore at their faces. I saw the faceless god who is behind the gods. I saw the infinite processes that shape a single happiness, and, understanding all, I also came to understand the writing on the tiger.
It is a formula of fourteen random (apparently random) words, and all I would have to do to become omnipotent is speak it aloud. Speaking it would make this stone prison disappear, allow the day to enter my night, make me young, make me immortal, make the jaguar destroy Alvarado, bury the sacred blade in Spanish breasts, rebuild the Pyramid, rebuild the empire. Forty syllables, fourteen words, and I, Tzinacán, would rule the lands once ruled by Moctezuma. But I know that I shall never speak those words, because I no longer remember Tzinacán.Jorge Luis Borges “The Writing of the God” (Trans. Andrew Hurley)
Alexander Grothendieck started out as the greatest mathematician of the Twentieth Century, and ended up as a destitute hermit, lost in a labyrinth of ideas, dreams and maybe delusions that we still haven’t been able to decipher. It’s a very different story to that of Herbert Dingle, the subject of my last post. Dingle understood little of what he believed he’d mastered. Grothendieck maybe comprehended everything that he was afraid he misunderstood, and we’re still left asking questions about his work and looking for the answers.
Grothendieck (pronounced ‘Grotendic’) was born in Berlin in 1928. His parents were, for lack of a better term, professional revolutionaries. His father was probably called Alexander ‘Sasha’ Shapiro, but he accumulated dozens of other names as he changed countries. He was a Jew of Ukrainian origins born in Novozybkov (now in Russia), apparently from a middle-class family, though it’s difficult to establish to what extent all this is true. As a very young man, he embarked on a career in anarchic militancy that he kept up his whole life. In 1905, at the age of 16, he participated in the attempt to assassinate Tsar Nicholas II. The attempt failed, and all the conspirators were executed except for Sasha, spared because of his youth. He stayed in a Tsarist prison camp until 1914 when he tried to escape by injuring one of his arms. It was amputated, and he spent three years in an isolated cell. In 1917 he was freed by the October Revolution and then continued to be an anarchist allying himself with the Bolsheviks. He participated in the civil war that followed, but in 1921, having foreseen the Leninist government’s anti-anarchist repression, he escaped in a highly adventurous fashion to Berlin, leaving his first wife and son in Russia.
In the next ten years, Sasha led a wandering life between Berlin, Paris, and Italy, meeting and collaborating with all the main actors of International Anarchy at the time. In 1927 he met Johanna ‘Hanka’ Grothendieck, a German journalist from Hamburg with Socialist views, who was already married. Hanka and Sasha had an affair which led to the birth of Alexander, and as a result, they started living together. They decided to give Alexander his mother’s name, as they were worried by the growth of antisemitism in Europe. The little family led quite a hard life, surviving entirely on Sasha’s work as an itinerant photographer. This lasted until Hitler’s arrival in 1933, when Sasha and Hanka fled to France, leaving Alexander and his half-sister Maidi with a German family headed by Wilhelm Heydorn, an interesting figure who was a former army official and former Lutheran pastor who had been converted to humanitarian Socialism and who took in children that had been separated from their parents. To all intents and purposes, Sasha and Hanka abandoned Alexander to carry out their political activities, passing from France to Spain, where both of them fought with the republicans in the civil war.
Alexander Grothendieck’s parents. Sasha Shapiro on the left, Hanka Grothendieck on the right.
In 1939 Heydorn was no longer able to look after the kids in his care, and he sent Alexander (alone) off to Paris, where his mother Hanka was waiting for him. The situation in France was quickly becoming extremely difficult for Grothendieck and his parents because as ‘political enemies’ they couldn’t return to Germany at the same time Germans were considered undesirables in France. As if that wasn’t enough, Alexander’s father was Jewish and considered a dangerous extremist. When the war broke out, Sasha Shapiro was sent to an atrocious internment camp for ‘undesirables’, whereas Hanka and Alexander ended up in another, Rieucros, which was slightly less terrible. Alexander never saw his father again in 1942, when the Germans invaded France, he was sent to Auschwitz, where he died.
Alexander and his mother managed to eke out a very harsh existence in Rieucros, where Alexander, who was now 14 years old, was allowed to continue his studies in a haphazard way. He led a precarious existence threatened by starvation on one hand and heavy maltreatment at the hands of the French (who viewed Alexander and his mother as ‘Germans’) on the other. Alexander was helped by the fact that he was pretty muscular for his age, and by the fact that he learned to use his fists while defending himself from violence, an ability that he demonstrated later on in different circumstances. In 1942 his mother was transferred by the Germans to another camp, but Alexander, in an unexpected stroke of luck, was transferred to Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a little town in the Upper Loire transformed by the energetic local Protestant pastor into a refuge for Jews and ‘undesirables’.
Here Alexander was able to attend the local high school, albeit at enormous risk to himself. Because he was the child of a couple of political activists and of a Jewish father, he risked deportation or death multiple times, saved only thanks to the help of some pious local souls, or to seeking refuge in the woods during German raids.
In his memoir Reaping and Sowing, Grothendieck speaks with admiration of his parents for their political conviction. But it’s clear that we’re talking about parents who were frequently absent, maybe more interested in militancy than in raising a son. Sasha, his dad, was a role model for Alexander but a distant one. Hanka, his mother, having quite an aggressive temperament, was simultaneously absent and overbearing. The realization that his parents, whom he initially idolized, effectively abandoned him to pursue a political ideal, would later become a kind of ‘discovery of evil’ for Alexander.
In 1945, at the end of the war, Alexander was reunited with his mother, who in the meantime had contracted tuberculosis, from which she died in 1957. They were alone, very poor, and without prospects. Alexander had effectively become stateless, a man without a country, because his documents had been left in Berlin and destroyed. To keep himself and his mother alive, Alexander got work where he could, sometimes as a seasonal harvester. The two supplemented their diet with what they managed to grow themselves in an improvised garden. In order to scrape some money together, Alexander produced and sold ‘bootleg’ wine for less affluent country farmers. Maybe because of all this, or in spite of it, by the end of the war Alexander (who was 17) already possessed four characteristics that would stay with him his whole life: a strong and almost ascetic connection with the land, a profound sense of moral direction, a fierce political radicalism, and above all a passion and incredible talent for mathematics.
The connection between Grothendieck and mathematics has something of supernatural about it. In 1946, when thanks to his ‘refugee’ status he enrolled in the little and provincial university of Montpellier, Grothendieck was already a kind of prodigy. He only occasionally attended lectures, and he read textbooks only when he was forced to do so. He didn’t learn mathematics, he invented it from scratch. In 1948, when his peers were still struggling to come to grips with mathematical analysis, he had rewritten—without having taken a course—Measure Theory an advanced branch of mathematical analysis. His professors realized they were up against an extraordinary talent, and they told him to go to Paris, to attend lectures by Henry Cartan, son of the legendary mathematician Élie Cartan (and brother of the physicist Louis Cartan, hero of the French Resistance who was shot by the Germans in 1943). Grothendieck enrolled in Cartan’s courses ‘quick smart’. Years of extreme poverty and privation had turned Alexander into a young man who was tough, direct, and who had great determination behind his gentle smile. His colleagues were amazed by the way he interacted with the professors as if he were one of their equals. He wasn’t presumptuous or unpleasant (on the contrary), but he knew what he wanted. In a certain sense, he was the opposite of the stereotypical nerd à la Sheldon Cooper. At the blackboard, he demonstrated that he’d singlehandedly reconstructed mathematical theories that (citing one of his teachers) “had needed decades to establish in the first place”.
Cartan intuited that underneath that determination and talent lay the deep obsession (exacerbated by the traumas he’d undergone) of someone who felt that he was ‘foreign’, and that the rarefied and competitive environment of the great Parisian universities would crush him. He sent Grothendieck to Nancy, at the time one of the best French ‘centers of mathematical production’. But it was in Paris that Alexander made a name for himself, and became friends with people like Claude Chevalley, Jean Dieudonné, Laurent Schwartz, and André Weil, the brother of the celebrated writer and philosopher Simone Weil and maybe the best French mathematician of those years. These men, under the ‘collective name’ of Nicolas Bourbaki, had been making an immense encyclopedic effort towards ‘the rewriting of mathematics’ in axiomatic and extraordinarily rigorous terms, all in order to furnish their students with standardized tests for exploring even the most advanced subjects. ‘Bourbaki’ was in many ways a revolution in the way we study mathematics, which had a lot of positive effects (because of the standardization of materials) but also some negative ones. The aridity and excessive abstraction that characterized the teaching of mathematics from the s to the s came out of ‘bourbakism’, and now they are fortunately tempered by a greater reliance on intuition. Grothendieck collaborated with the Bourbaki group, but he quickly distanced himself from it to fly in very different and ever more distant directions.
In Nancy, even before writing his dissertation to gain his doctorate, Grothendieck became one of the major experts in topological vector spaces, a branch of functional analysis that became important a little later because of Einstein’s controversy to do with non-deterministic interpretations of quantum physics (summed up in Einstein’s very famous saying ‘God does not play dice’). At this point, I think it’s necessary to remark once again how extraordinary Grothendieck’s ascent really was. In 1945, when he enrolled at University, he was practically an autodidact. In 1953, at the end of his undergraduate career, he’d become one of the major European mathematicians. It’s more or less as if someone went from getting their driver’s license to competing in the Formula 1 World Championships in a couple of years. And Grothendieck’s career had only just begun.
One episode stands out above the rest. At Nancy Grothendieck’s professors wanted “to make him know his limits” and simultaneously to test his ability. They presented him with a list of fourteen unsolved mathematical problems to do with vector spaces (a branch of functional analysis), asking him to choose one or two and to try to solve them. The expectation was that solving one of them would take at least a year. Four months later Grothendieck had solved SIX of them, and by the end of the year he’d solved all fourteen. It was as if he’d written fourteen dissertations in one year. Jean Dieudonné, one of the other great French mathematicians of the Bourbaki group and his supervisor, was so unnerved by it that he spent the next 15 years practically acting as Alexander’s secretary, even though he was much older than him.
In the second half of the s, Alexander ‘went on the offense’ and practically remade the branch of mathematics to which his name is linked: algebraic geometry. Without boring the reader, it’s worth briefly explaining what this is. In practice, algebraic geometry studies the properties of shapes created by ‘zeros’ of polynomial equations. When I put like that it sounds nonsensical, but we have all seen this example at school, the equation
Points X and Y that satisfy this equation form a circle of radius 1. It’s not hard to test it on Excel. The same equation can be rewritten as follows:
And so we say that ‘the zeros’ of this function, i.e. the parameters X and Y that make the result of the function be zero, form a circle.
The study of shapes (or ‘curves’) associated with equations have very ancient origins, but its modern form comes from the so-called “Italian school of algebraic geometry“, that group of adventurous Italian mathematicians which emerged between the mid-nineteenth and the mid-twentieth century and formalized the subject. The history of this school is the umpteenth sad story of Italian excellence destroyed by a mixture of academic and cultural snobbery, and by the devastation brought about by the infamous fascist racial policies, which meant that at the end of the Second World War Italian science and mathematics were in pieces and those pieces fled elsewhere, especially to the United States.
After the war, France supplanted Italy and Germany as the leading nation of mathematics in Europe and the world. Grothendieck couldn’t have found himself in a better position, and he rearranged the subject of algebraic geometry from top to toe, combining it with the methods of abstract algebra. Although it hides behind abstruse terminology, the classic idea is relatively simple and brilliant.
At the time when Grothendieck started to interest himself in the field, algebraic geometry was constructing geometric structures called ‘algebraic varieties,’ in practice, almost every shape which, if enlarged enough, turns out to be flat but which overall is curved (the simplest example, our dear old Earth, or almost any ball!), as well as algebraic structures called ‘rings‘, in practice almost any closed set of objects that can be added, subtracted and multiplied (but not divided!) but whose result is always part of the same closed set (another very simple example—the integers that we learned in elementary school). Studying ‘manifolds’ and ‘rings’ linked to polynomial equations one passes easily from algebraic shape to geometric configuration and vice versa, obtaining surprising results on both sides.
Grothendieck’s stroke of genius was this: to imagine the existence of n-dimensional structures even more general than the ‘manifolds’ called ‘schemes‘, which are just like the manifolds in that they are fundamentally an n-dimensional generalization of the familiar three dimensions of Euclidean geometry. One ‘scheme’ is formed by taking a ring, for example, those whole numbers, and ‘sticking them’ onto a geometric object called ‘the spectrum of the ring’ (everyone thinks of Tolkien at this point). This forms a kind of surface more general than the ‘manifold’, in which the concepts of ‘point’ and ‘curve’ merge. It is as if a new world was thrown open to humanity, a world that always existed but that we didn’t know about.
This thing I’m describing in very few words was just the start of Grothendieck’s exploration of this new and strange universe. He soon added other concepts to the ‘scheme’, ever more general, ever more remote, ever more abstract.
It’s always said that mathematicians are basically problem solvers. Grothendieck didn’t solve problems, Grothendieck created worlds.
His approach was always ‘from the top’. He would intuit the presence of a structure, give it a name, often a very poetic one, and then define it in a relentlessly rigorous manner, connecting it with the rest of mathematics. It’s an approach that very few people have managed to do without getting lost, and one that requires enormous mental discipline (Grothendieck called it ‘a yoga’) and not inconsiderable psychological –not to mention physical—strength.
As an American academic who knew him has written that, notwithstanding his kindness and openness, there was something alien and inhuman in Grothendieck. His routine in the ‘Golden Age,’ up to 1970, became legendary. He worked until eight o’clock, seven days a week, every day of the year except for some very brief vacations, often sleeping in his office, or not sleeping at all. In fact, he could decide how much he was going to sleep ‘at will’, an ability that never ceased to amaze his friends. He ate very little, mainly milk and vegetables. He produced hundreds of pages scrawled by hand, which Jean Dieudonné patiently transcribed into legible form every evening.
A lot of mathematicians are a little ‘removed from reality’, others are very practical. Grothendieck transcended these clichés. He was extremely polite, but also direct in his way of speaking to people and to students. He wasn’t an aggressive or abusive teacher, but he demanded a great deal from students, especially in terms of effort. He lacked almost every kind of pretentiousness, maintaining that it’s always the simple and obvious things that are most mysterious. He seemed to have an almost childlike enthusiasm for everything.
Other than mathematics, his interests were unstructured and irregular. He spoke not only in German (his native language) but also in French and in a very colloquial English that he’d taught himself. He loved music and played the piano. He loved neorealist Italian films, but then he didn’t go to the cinema for twelve years because he was too busy. He read a bit of everything (except mathematical books!) but in a chaotic and sometimes surprisingly ‘light’ way. He had a very strong interest in eastern philosophies, but his absolute favorite book was Moby Dick by Hermann Melville, a copy of which he always carried around with him. Maybe he felt close to the monomaniacal figure of Captain Ahab, and to his search for the white whale. And Melville was no stranger to mathematics.
“Halloa! here’s signs and wonders truly! [..] I”ll get the almanack and as I have heard devils can be raised with Daboll’s arithmetic, I”ll try my hand at raising a meaning out of these queer curvicues here with the Massachusetts calendar”H. Melville – “Moby Dick”
With a personality like his, it’s no surprise that ‘Shurick’ (as Grothendieck his friends called him) had a messy private life. He had a son from his first relationship with a woman much older than him who already had two children. When they separated, he entered into another relationship with another woman, by whom he had a son. He was a fascinating person, austere, not exactly a womanizer, but he projected an ineffable charm. He seemed tormented by a secret obsession, a kind of ‘spur’ that constantly pushed him forward, ever onwards. His mother died of tuberculosis in 1957, still relatively young, leaving Grothendieck in a profound and secret state of guilt that he had not been able to help her. His willingness to help others, on the other hand, was legendary. When not working he was always busy helping this or that acquaintance who’d become broke or lost their home, and his address became a ‘refuge’ for friends of all kinds, and even for homeless strangers.
In the second half of the s Grothendieck was at the pinnacle of his fame. For ten years he’d been working at the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques (IHES), one of the world’s most prestigious centers of mathematical research. He received the Field medal, the ‘Nobel’ of mathematics. It is given out every four years, and only for works that the winner has published before the age of 40. It is not, then, ‘recognition of a great career ‘, but a prize for people who are still in their working prime. There is also a significant cash prize attached to the medal. In short, Grothendieck had theoretically ‘arrived’, having gone from being a stateless, penniless wretch to one of the most important people in the global academic establishment. He could have just held out his hand and gotten whatever he wanted.
But he decided he didn’t want to hold out his hand.
The reason for this initial rebellion was politics. ‘Shurick’ was a radical anarchist, uncompromising, a rigid antimilitarist. His father had been a revolutionary who’d died at Auschwitz, his mother (in his eyes) was a martyr to her ideals. He didn’t want to be anything less. The Field medal should have been given to him in Moscow in 1967. The Soviet government was keeping an eye on western scientists aligned with the left, albeit with the goal of using them. Grothendieck was hostile to both the US Government (because of Vietnam) and to the Soviet Government (because of Hungary and because of the treatment of dissidents). He refused to go to Moscow. The medal was given to him anyway, and he responded by taking the money and gifting it to the Peoples Republic of Vietnam, North Vietnam which had been at war with France for years, and now was fighting the United States.
Upsetting his acquaintances, Alexander went to Hanoi to teach some courses in advanced mathematics. North Vietnam’s capital was under heavy American bombardment, Operation Rolling Thunder. Grothendieck seemed indifferent to the danger. When the bombings got too violent, his hosts moved their classes to the jungle. It wasn’t a problem for Grothendieck. He dressed as a Vietnamese peasant, wore sandals made from old car tires, and slept on the ground. The math lessons were very advanced, and Alexander hove into the sights of the western secret service, which continued to track him for years. But his Vietnamese visit had an important outcome in that Grothendieck became the rapporteur of the dissertations of Hoàng Xuân Sính, the first important female Vietnamese mathematician and founder of Than Long University, who gained her doctorate under Alexander’s supervision in 1975.
Grothendieck ina Vietnamese village where he was holding a class, November 1967
Returning from Vietnam, Grothendieck wrote, “Maybe the biggest impression I’m taking home from this trip is the calm faith in the future that I’ve seen in every person I’ve been able to talk to. This faith is not a ‘face’ put on for the benefit of foreigners, but a profound and real feeling that has its origins in their thirty-five year fight for independence for the Vietnamese people […]. This feeling wasn’t shaken by the fact that the cities and industrial infrastructure of this country were being destroyed by the Americans as the war spread. This experience has shown them that it is possible to lead a rational and socially useful life even in these circumstances.’ One gets the feeling that Grothendieck was also talking about his own experience.
In 1970 there was an about-face. Grothendieck abandoned IHES and ‘big mathematics’. The casus belli was the discovery that the Institute received a little financing from the French army. It was an act that some call ‘ludicrous’, but it was serious enough that he abandoned the institute and slammed the door after him. He was 42 and still stateless, because to get a French passport he’d have had to see his name written on the draft list, even if he was no longer very young. He only got one some years later, when the compulsory draft ended. Difficult years were in store for Grothendieck. He founded a group of radical ecologists called Survivre, in which he spoke—one of the first to do so—about the danger of global warming. He threw himself headfirst into political activity, accusing some of his former colleagues of being hypocritical and corrupt. Mathematics, especially in France, was actually a hotbed of radical politics at the time, so Grothendieck’s accusation seems gratuitous. But there was more.
The academic environment is what it is, the world over, with its rites, its privileges, its ‘barons’ and its dynasties. But mathematics at the levels at which Grothendieck worked is practically a world unto itself. In every other branch of knowledge, you can make it by ‘faking it’, as is shown by the story of Herbert Dingle. In mathematics, at least ‘that mathematics’, no. There are no half measures, you either know things or you don’t, because every time you’re called to show your knowledge again. A mathematical proof can’t be ‘faked’, it’s true or false. As Sabine Hossenfelder loves to say, with mathematics you can obfuscate things (especially with statistics!) but in mathematics you can’t lie.
Having said this, mathematics is also a competitive sector, in which ‘trade secrets’ are guarded more jealously than those of a Murano glassblower. The story of mathematics is full of little or big tragedies tied to the paternity of a proof or the solution of a problem. Italy has a very famous one: the story of Gerolamo Cardano is of the general solution of cubic functions. Put that way, it sounds like a silly intellectual quarrel. In fact, it was a story worthy of a roman noir, complete with a murder and the murderer’s subsequent execution. Grothendieck wasn’t ever particularly ‘stingy’ with his help to other mathematicians, on the contrary. He made all the work he’d done in his years at IHES available to everyone. But it’s as if he knew that this liberality, this generosity would be misinterpreted, that his work would be used for purposes that were far from noble.
Grothendieck had not dominated European and French (and according to some, global) mathematics just to get famous. His imposing personality had convinced many to follow him in one of the most ambitious discovery projects in the entire history of mathematics. The reformulation of algebraic geometry alone had prompted Grothendieck to produce more than 10,000 pages, maybe less than a tenth of those that he produced in his whole life. Like Captain Ahab of Moby Dick, his favorite book, Alexander Grothendieck led a motley crew in the hunt for a monster. Now he seemed to realize that the monster had to meet him alone.
Grothendieck in Montreal in 1972
Grothendieck’s highly political period lasted until the second half of the s. The group he’d founded ended up turning against him and marginalizing him. His intransigence, his inability to mediate clashed with active politics. And sometimes ‘intransigence’ and ‘clashing’ became literal. In 1973, while he was participating in a pacifist demonstration, two policemen rushed on his female companion meaning to arrest her. A few seconds later they were both on the ground, gasping for air. Grothendieck (who was pretty big and, let’s remember, had learned how to fight in a concentration camp!) had laid them both out with a couple of well-aimed jabs. He was arrested, but the official who handled his case may have been a math fan, because he recognized him and made sure the charges were dropped.
Another episode. For a certain period, Alexander lived with a little group of ‘disciples’ around him, one of whom was a Japanese Buddhist monk. The police started to give them trouble, maybe because of Grothendieck’s politics, maybe because the neighbors were annoyed. There was a raid at his house, where they found nothing except the Japanese monk, who was blind. From this there proceeded an absurd trial, which exploded in the newspapers as something far worse than what Grothendieck was accused of. His old colleagues were worried and defended him, which irritated Grothendieck immensely. He refused a lawyer, he defended himself (magnificently), but he was convicted. The conviction was overturned, and the story ended up being forgotten.
Despite all this and despite the invitations and the flattery of his old colleagues, ‘Schurik’ did not backtrack. He found a job as a professor in Montpellier, the university where he’d taken his first steps in 1946. He took a house in a sleepy little town a few kilometers away from the university, commuting by foot or bicycle, and coming to teach lessons once a week, for a miniscule salary. His fame had not dimmed at all, and he was besieged with requests from the world’s most prestigious schools. The University of Ferrara, where one of his great admirers taught, offered him a chair of professor emeritus, without teaching duties, with a salary many times higher than the one he got in Montpellier, so that he could have concentrated completely on his research. ‘Schurick’ refused.
Despite all this, Grothendieck’s mathematical creativity showed no signs of letting up during this period. But his publishing method changed profoundly. Rather than scientific ‘papers’, he produced informal tests, the goal of which was not to rigorously establish theorems but to throw up ideas that might then be developed by others. The most legendary test of this time is ‘Esquisse D’Une Programme‘ (Sketch for a Program), a research proposal on various subjects in advanced mathematics, especially the theory of the Galois Groups, one of the most important modern mathematical subjects. The proposal was rejected by what was the French equivalent of Italy’s National Research Council (Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche or CNR). But this test, never officially published, became the source of thousands of studies in the next 40 years, and has been called, “the most successful—rejected—research proposal in history”. One of the most interesting ideas presented in this ‘Sketch’ (which was written in very informal language) are the Dessins D’Enfant (kids’ pictures), which are simply diagrams similar to the very stylized ones that schoolkids make when asked to draw a human body, or those in puzzle books where you have to ‘join the dots and see what appears’.
Example of a “dessin d’enfant”
Grothendieck had discovered that with simple diagrams like this, it was possible, by changing the orientation and shape of circles and arrows, to express very complex mathematical concepts in an intuitive way. The ‘kids pictures’ are still a much-studied topic in contemporary mathematics.
Around the middle of the s, Grothendieck produced an autobiography of more than a thousand pages. Reaping and Sowing, self-published, and now subject to almost secret translations. A gargantuan book, an unrestrained river of information, where Grothendieck mixes personal recollections, invective, considerations on mathematics and what surrounds it, pointers for the future, a little bit of everything. When I started studying Grothendieck’s story, someone told me, ‘it’s an unreadable text’. Now that I’ve read it, I’d say not. It’s not an ‘unreadable’ text because it wasn’t written to be read as a novel or an autobiography. A bit like the labyrinthine pseudo-book that Borges invokes in the short story “The Garden of Forking Paths“, Reaping and Sowing is a text in which you get lost, that can be read starting from any point and walking in any direction. Someone has written that if properly edited it might have been a best seller, but I think this reveals a misapprehension of what Grothendieck wanted to do. The fact that (opening the book at random) you can find passages that talk about angels, then about the problem of nuclear weapons, then about Grothendieck’s childhood memories, and then about everything else, it’s not necessarily a sign of confusion. It’s controlled chaos, a labyrinth (a real one) in which Grothendieck wants to make his reader to get lost and then to give them subtle clues that lead them to the exit.
In 1986, when his mathematical production was flourishing but more and more irregular, Grothendieck writes the most problematic and strange of his works. ‘La Clef Des Songes’ (‘The Key of Dreams’). As the title says, it’s a book of dreams. It’s a book about God. Grothendieck’s thesis is simple. We meet God in dreams. But we aren’t ourselves dreaming God, rather God Himself is dreaming us. Or better: according to Grothendieck ‘a Dreamer’ exists, an external force who ‘dreams our dreams’ and at the same time dreams us. And this force can only be God.
To put it like this it seems almost like new age charlatanism. But reading the book you get a different impression. Grothendieck’s dreams are very vivid, but they always have an apocalyptic tone. Grothendieck explores the nature of God, declares that God has given us a mission, that it’s to help others and to ‘find ourselves’. And he declares, in a little footnote that it’s almost hidden, that mathematics wasn’t ‘created by God’ nor by man, but by an aspect of God’s nature that, unique among his attributes, is accessible to human reason.
From this moment on, and we are around 1987, the content of Grothendieck’s messages is ever more agitated and apocalyptic. He writes another two brief works of a tone similar to the preceding one: ‘Notes to the Key of Dreams’, and ‘The Mutants‘ an examination of twelve historical figures who Grothendieck thinks are a sign of evolution of the human race. Here it’s interesting to note one thing. In general, when a scientist or someone normally associated with ‘reason’ has an intense spiritual crisis such as that experienced by Grothendieck, they have the tendency to become introverted, more conservative. Their apocalyptic visions (convinced that humanity will soon face a scenario reminiscent of Stephen King’s The Stand) are accompanied by a further radicalization of his pacifism and his anarchism. While he refuses the atheistic and antireligious environment of his parents, on the other hand, he sees in war, in militarism, and in the physical assertions of power Absolute Evil. And it’s typical that one of the 12 ‘mutants’ is none other than Eddie Slovik, the only American soldier shot for desertion in the Second World War. Slovik wasn’t a hero (far from it) but a fragile person, a crook, not very intelligent, and even, openly, a coward. But Grothendieck sees him as an image of the future of humanity.
In 1988 Grothendieck was offered a very prestigious mathematics award, the Crafoord Prize, which also includes a significant monetary reward. Without hesitation, he refused it, saying that feeding this circuit of prizes and public acknowledgments horrified him and that in any case, he’d done nothing to deserve it.
It is from this exact moment that the most mysterious part and strangest event of Grothendieck’s human history begins. Before describing it, I just want to clarify one point. There is no concrete evidence at all to prove that Grothendieck was crazy or even disturbed in 1988. And Grothendieck definitely wasn’t using alcohol or drugs. His conversation and behavior in ‘practical’ terms was not just normal, but strikingly balanced. Just one example to clarify this. At that time a woman approached him, striking up a rapport mainly through letters and phone calls. This woman was clearly suffering deeply both physically and psychologically. In this case, Grothendieck behaved in a perfectly rational and responsible manner, first trying to comfort her, and then pointing her to someone who could give her professional help, assuring her that he would follow this help up, and keep himself informed of the outcomes.
Grothendieck in 1988, the year of his retirement
Whether he was, whether he wasn’t, on January 26 1990 Grothendieck wrote a letter addressed to a select group of friends. He called it ‘La Lettre De La Bonne Nouvelle’ (The Letter of Good News’) and in it Grothendieck insisted that he had had some visions, through a female entity who he identified by the name of ‘Flora’, who had convinced him that the apocalypse was imminent, and that it was his strict duty to warn the recipients of the letter of what was about to happen. This letter was followed by a second one, in which Grothendieck mentioned considering at least part of these ‘visions’ (which Grothendieck himself described as genuine and real episodes of possession) had a malign origin, and so were substantially false. It seemed that Alexander Grothendieck, the greatest mathematician of the twentieth century and one of the greatest of all time, had gone completely insane.
These two letters were followed by a dramatic episode. In June of 1990, Grothendieck stopped eating for 45 days. He was found by one of his children in a semicomatose state and subject to violent hallucinations, afraid for his life. Miraculously Grothendieck, who was 62 years old, survived without any physical consequences. At this point his friends and children were convinced that Grothendieck’s mental health was irrecoverably compromised. But there was another twist. Grothendieck seemed to go back to being perfectly normal. He gave one of his friends 20,000 typewritten sheets of mathematical works and unedited personal writings, and he disappeared westward, in a way that is very reminiscent of Bilbo Baggins at the start of The Lord of the Rings. For years, no one knew anything more about him.
Grothendieck’s disappearance became the stuff of legend. It yielded all the most absurd hypotheses. That he’d killed himself. That he’d gone to the United States or to South America. That he’d entered a monastery in Asia. The reality was known only to a handful of people, one of his sons among them, and didn’t emerge until 20 years later, shortly before Grothendieck died. The great mathematician, who had let his beard grow long and almost always wore a strange arab-style caftan, had taken refuge in a tiny village at the foot of the Pyrenees, where no one knew him. He lived there for 23 years, in a shabby abandoned farm, in total isolation. The village’s 200 inhabitants, who didn’t know who he was, soon got used to his presence, respecting his privacy. He received very few visits, all of them from the few people who knew about his new residence, and soon not even from them. He resumed his usual habits, very few hours of sleep, and the light on until very late. He grew all the food he ate, and only rarely accepted any food given him by his neighbors, who saw him only when he went out to smell his flowers or to go on an extremely rare errand to the post office.
Around 2008, some information on his whereabouts filtered through to the outside world, and some people started writing to him again. The great majority of letters were sent back unopened or opened and annotated in a meager way. The only ‘official’ message that he sent in 23 years was to say that he didn’t want any of his writing to be printed or reprinted, and he harshly condemned the fact that some of his old friends and students had put together a website, ‘Grothendieck Circle’, which collected writing by him or about him (the site still exists).
It was only after his death that anyone could find out the nature of Grothendieck’s work in the last 23 years of his life. Thousands and thousands of pages on themes very different from one another. Mathematics, physics (in which Grothendieck had started to take an interest), politics and especially religion and the problem of the existence of Evil, which seemed to obsess him to the end.
Grothendieck might have left the world, but the world remembered him. Few mathematicians have had a cult (underground but intense) grow up around their name as Grothendieck has, a cult that he not only did little to encourage but which he clearly abhorred. Near the end of his life, some adventurous souls managed to find his hideout and to try to meet him. Most of them went away without having managed to see him. A tiny few were more fortunate. Among all of these an Iranian mathematician studying in France had the most touching encounter. Grothendieck was clearly very elderly, and practically deaf. But he seemed in good health. When the Iranian student asked him if he could take a photo of them together, Grothendieck refused, but hugged him instead saying ‘This is a better memory than any photo’. And then he added, “You must excuse me, but I can’t invite you into the house. Inside there are…entities. Entities that would do you harm.”
Alexander Grothendieck died November 13 2014, at 86.
His misgivings ended abruptly, but not without certain forewarnings. First (after a long drought) a remote cloud, as light as a bird, appeared on a hill then, toward the South, the sky took on the rose color of leopard’s gums then came clouds of smoke which rusted the metal of the nights afterwards came the panic‐stricken flight of wild animals. For what had happened many centuries before was repeating itself. The ruins of the sanctuary of the god of Fire was destroyed by fire. In a dawn without birds, the wizard saw the concentric fire licking the walls. For a moment, he thought of taking refuge in the water, but then he understood that death was coming to crown his old age and absolve him from his labors. He walked toward the sheets of flame. They did not bite his flesh, they caressed him and flooded him without heat or combustion. With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he also was an illusion, that someone else was dreaming him.
Jorge Luis Borges “The Ruined Circles”
Thanks to Marco Casolino and Marco LG for help in editing this piece, despite their multiple commitments
Thanks to Katherine Dolan for kindly translating in English from the Italian original