Saturday, December 1, 2012

Visions of Sugar Plums

Der Letzte Traum des Unsinnigen Königs—The Last Dream of the Mad King (inspired by the life and legend of “Mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria) – Black wood-framed shadowbox; antique German mercury glass peacock Christmas tree ornament; antique square silver frame; genuine white swan plume feathers; vintage metal and crystal hanging embellishments; silver cording; colour prints of King Ludwig II and Neuschwanstein Castle photographs by Angelika Schnell-Dürrast; negative print of Ludwig’s handwriting and signature

One-hundred and twenty years ago, American writer and literary critic, William Dean Howells wrote a short story titled, “Christmas Every Day.”
Ahhh, a child’s fondest wish!
But as the old adage warns, be careful what you wish for…
In Howells’ story, one little girl makes such a foolish wish, asking a fairy if it could be Christmas every day of the year. And, lo and behold, her wish comes true. Every day without cease—the Christmas tree, the Christmas carols, the candy, the presents, and the turkey dinner. It’s Christmas on Valentine’s Day, it’s Christmas on Easter, it’s Christmas on the Fourth of July!
And, as Howells penned:
“After a while turkeys got to be awfully scarce, selling for about a thousand dollars apiece. They got to passing off almost anything for turkeys—even half-grown hummingbirds. And cranberries—well they asked a diamond apiece for cranberries. All the woods and orchards were cut down for Christmas trees. After a while they had to make Christmas trees out of rags. But there were plenty of rags, because people got so poor, buying presents for one another, that they couldn't get any new clothes, and they just wore their old ones to tatters. They got so poor that everybody had to go to the poorhouse….It was perfectly shameful!”
Of course, at the end all is set right again, with Christmas coming only once a year.
Excellent example, I suppose, of another old adage, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”
But the idea of getting everything one wants, every day still entices.
Still corrupts.
But that was only a story, I hear you saying. That’s fiction.
True, so now I will present a parallel tale—a real-life lesson…
Once upon a time, a baby boy was born into the royal family of Bavaria. His name was Ludwig. He was handsome, he was precocious, he was destined to one day be sovereign of his own fairy tale kingdom. But as in almost all fairy tales, Ludwig had been born under a curse.
He had inherited the taint of his lineage.
Insanity pulsed rampantly through the blue-blooded veins of the Bavarian royal House of Wittelsbach. Ludwig’s aunt wore only white, walked sideways down corridors, and was under the delusion that she had swallowed a grand piano made of glass (fight that one, Freud!); his younger brother, Otto, was so unbalanced that he was literally barking mad (his vocal impersonations of various members of the canine species at the most inconvenient moments got his leash yanked from public appearances); and his favorite cousin, the exceptional beauty, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, was a health fanatic, a peripatetic wanderer, and acute recluse, whose only son and heir to the Austrian throne committed suicide after murdering his mistress. Elisabeth herself would later die an appropriately eccentric death at the tip of an assassin’s stiletto (Ludwig almost married Elisabeth’s sister, Sophie, but the wedding bells never rang, probably because Ludwig’s companions in the boudoir were of the decidedly more masculine persuasion; a groom, an aide de camp, a chief equerry, and a Hungarian theatre actor were all known to have shared his bed). Even Ludwig’s grandfather, the notoriously shabby King Ludwig I, had been deposed of his autonomy due to his less-than-kingly habits of scribbling atrocious verses, daydreaming of the glory days of Ancient Greece, and carrying on affairs of the heart with the likes of the high-class courtesan Lola Montez when he should have been attending to affairs of state.
As Fate would have it, Ludwig’s father shuffled off this mortal coil far too early, leaving his inexperienced and distrait eighteen-year-old son to be crowned, Ludwig II, King of Bavaria.
And from the moment his imperial bottom touched the throne, not only did young Ludwig follow in his peculiar relatives footsteps, he outran them all, straight into a straightjacket.
Akin to his ousted grandpapa, Ludwig had no interest in the day-to-day tedium of running an empire; he was far more interested in making all of his private fantasies come true, losing himself in his own obsessions—chief among them, the operas of Richard Wagner. Ludwig saw himself as the new Lohengrin, the magnificent swan king of Germanic lore.
And such a magnificent swan king as he needed magnificent surroundings in which to nest.
And so, the castles rose—Linderhof, Ludwig’s secluded paradise, a place where he could be alone (well, as alone as a king could get); Herrenchiemsee, his island re-creation of Versailles on the largest lake in Germany (where Ludwig lived for only ten days during his entire reign); and the most famous, Neuschwanstein—the never-completed, turreted mountain palace that inspired Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle at Disneyland (it’s a tourist trap now, too, visited by over fifty-million camera-snapping visitors a year).
Splendid, glorious, superb, grand, impressive; garish, gaudy, vulgar, kitschy, ersatz—such adjectives fail to describe these architectural flights of fancy.
Sprawling gardens, gilded statues spewing water into marble basins, ornate throne rooms, sure every European castle worth its weight in gold had those—and so did Ludwig’s.
But, ahhh, let me tell you where they differed.
Ludwig’s castles came with Moorish kiosks; Indian temples; and halls of mirrors to rival his venerated Versailles. There were spun glass, Meissen porcelain, and ivory chandeliers; carpets woven of ostrich plumes, and heated bathtubs. There was a private grotto painted with backdrops from Tannhäuser, and equipped with multicolored lights, which changed the mood and atmosphere, where Ludwig was rowed about in his own gilt seashell swan boat while Wagner’s music resounded; and a massive indoor winter greenhouse on the roof of one castle, brimming with tropical flora and fauna, kept swelteringly hot no matter the time of year, illuminated by imitation rainbows and faux moonlight, and appointed with blue silk tents blooming with roses. (This iron and glass-paned structure leaked, causing the servants below to sleep beneath opened umbrellas; it was later demolished for safety reasons. A lack of safety was also the reason why one of Ludwig’s most fabulous imaginings never saw fruition—an elaborate gondola car that was to be suspended from a monstrous balloon, which would float him via a cable across the lake to Herrenchiemsee. The designer worried that the inflatable might get loose during a storm, thus carrying its royal passenger off to certain doom, leaving one Ludwig biographer to write: “The picture of Ludwig making his final farewell in this way is curiously appropriate.”)
Reality came to mean nothing to this “dream” king. Just as his gardens grew in spite of the season, so time itself was ignored. Ludwig now lived only by night, seeing himself as the “Moon King”, a romantic, though ever-increasingly agoraphobic, shadow of the earlier French “Sun King”, Louis XIV. Thus he grew to be a nocturnal creature, shunning the sun, wandering in solitude the resplendent marbled halls of his residences, losing himself in an incense-scented never-never-land of gold-leaf, crushed velvet, swan down, and peacock feathers, demanding sumptuous banquets to be prepared at two in the morning. But no matter how large, how extravagant the dining chambers, no matter how many chairs and settings had been laid, the table seated only one. Here Ludwig held sway engaged in conversations with the long-dead kings and queens of France, stuffing his face with lavish confections until his weight swelled and his teeth rotted. His only form of exercise, other than being rowed around his grotto, was being driven in the middle of the night at blinding speeds through the snows of the Bavarian Alps in his colossal gold-plated sleigh, attended by footmen in bright blue eighteenth-century livery.
The government was in disarray; the country’s coffers all but empty from funding its monarch’s latest whim.
Something needed to be done.
And something was.
Ludwig was declared insane and removed from the throne.
He was imprisoned and placed under a suicide watch.
And he died as mysteriously as he had lived—on the rainy night of June 13, 1886, Ludwig went out walking by Lake Starnberg with his appointed psychiatrist; they never returned. Both Ludwig and the doctor were later found face down in the brackish waters. No official explanation was provided. Although an autopsy stated that Ludwig met death by drowning, rumors persisted that he was actually shot, a story corroborated by the king’s boatman, and by a royal relative who would show her afternoon tea guests the gray overcoat Ludwig was supposedly wearing at the time, which had two bullet holes in the back.
The Swan King, the Dream King, the Mad King was dead at age 40.
His reign of perpetual Christmas had come to an end.
So, in the end, as wonderful as Christmas is, there is a reason why it only comes once a year…
Merry Christmas, everyone!



 "I wish to remain an eternal enigma to myself
and to others."
                                                                 - Ludwig II