September 27, 2021

On This 28th of September 1943...


Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz

This excerpt is taken from Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman, which I highly recommend to all and everyone.

   In the headquarters of the Workers Assembly Building on 24 Romersgade in Copenhagen, [Denmark,] the Social Democratic Party leaders have all convened. A visitor in a Nazi uniform stands before them. They are staring at him in shock.

   'The disaster is at hand,' the man is saying. 'Everything is planned in detail. Ships will anchor at the mooring off Copenhagen. Those of your poor Jewish countrymen who get caught by the Gestapo will forcibly be brought on board the ships and transported to an unknown fate.'

   The speaker is trembling and pale. Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz is his name. He will go down in history as 'the converted Nazi,' and his warning will work a miracle.

   The raid was set to take place on Friday 1 October 1943, following detailed plans drawn up by the SS. At the stroke of  8 p.m., hundreds of German troops would begin knocking on doors up and down the country to round up all the Danish Jews. They would be taken to the harbor and boarded onto a ship equipped to hold six thousand prisoners.

   (...) Up until this moment there had been no discriminatory laws, no mandatory yellow badges, no confiscation of Jewish property. Danish Jews would find themselves being deported to Polish concentration camps before they knew what had hit them.

   That, at least, was the plan.

   On the appointed night, (...) the Germans discovered that the Jews had been forewarned of the raid and that most had already fled. In fact, thanks to that warning, almost 99 percent of Denmark's Jews survived the war.

(...) 'The answer is undeniable,' writes historian Bo Lidegaard. 'The Danish Jews were protected by their compatriots' consistent engagement.'

Fleeing Denmark for Sweden

   When news of the raid spread, resistance sprang up from every quarter. From churches, universities and the business community, from the royal family, the Lawyers Council and the Danish Women's National Council--all voiced their objection. Almost immediately, a network of escape routes was organized, even with no centralized planning and no attempt to coordinate the hundreds of individual efforts. There simply wasn't time. Thousands of Danes, rich and poor, young and old, understood that now was the time to act, and that to look away would be a betrayal of their country.

   'Even where the request came from the Jews themselves," historian Leni Yahil noted, 'these were never refused.' Schools and hospitals threw open their doors. Small fishing villages took in hundreds of refugees. The Danish police also assisted where they could and refused to cooperate with the Nazis. 'We Danes don't barter with our Constitution,' stormed Dansk Maanedspost, a resistance newspaper, 'and least of all in the matter of citizens' equality.'

   Where mighty Germany was doped up on years of racist propaganda, modest Denmark was steeped in humanist spirit. Danish leaders had always insisted on the sanctity of the democratic rule of law. Anybody who sought to pit people against each other was not considered worthy to be called a Dane. There could be no such thing as a 'Jewish question.' There were only countrymen.

Denmark at Liberation
   In a few short days, more than seven thousand Danish Jews were ferried in small fishing boats across the Sound separating Denmark from Sweden. Their rescue was a small but radiant point of light in a time of utter darkness. It was a triumph of humanity and courage. 'The Danish exception shows that the mobilization of civil society's humanism [...] is not only a theoretical possibility," writes Lidegaard. 'It can be done. We know because it happened.'


   In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt makes a fascinating observation about the rescue of the Danish Jews. 'It is the only case we know,' she wrote, 'in which the Nazis met with open native resistance, and the result seems to have been that those exposed to it changed their minds. They themselves apparently no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course. They had met resistance based on principle, and their "toughness" had melted like butter in the sun...'

The Oresund Bridge that now links Copenhagen, Denmark, to Malmo, Sweden, was built in 1999

September 20, 2021

The Shapes Of Stories: Kurt Vonnegut's Story Structure Exposition

"Somebody gets into trouble, then gets out of it again. People love that story. They never get tired of it." ~Kurt Vonnegut. 

Kurt Vonnegut, most famously known for his Slaugherhouse-Five anti-war sci-fi novel, wrote a thesis on storytelling, stating that they could all be brought down to the same elements, plotted prettily on a graph: 

Main characters having continuous changes in fortunes (good and bad), and these changes in fortunes can be graphed, from beginning to end.

Shapes of Story by Kurt Vonnegut

Using this principle, researchers have found that our most popular stories tend to follow one of six shapes along this plot line:

  1. Rags to riches, or the Upward Journey - from ill fate to good fate. Examples of this story structure include Oliver Twist, the Karate Kid, Rocky.

  2. Riches to rags, or the Downward Journey - from good fate to ill. Examples include The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street, Raging Bull

  3. Man in a Hole, or the Fall then Upward Journey - Easily the most popular story (and the one that brings in the most $$$), as it follows a main character getting into trouble, then figuring out how to overcome its challenges. Examples include any boy meets girl story, like romcoms, where the guy meets the girl, loses her, then they get together again at the end. But also includes stories such as the Godfather.

  4. Icarus, or the Rise then Fall Journey - The heroine moves from an ill fate, rises to great heights...only to fall again. Examples include East of Eden (GREAT book and movie, btw), Breaking Bad.

  5. Cinderella, or the Rise, Fall, Rise Journey - The heroine starts off in a really bad place (ex: orphan), starts to get out of her hell hole (ex: meets prince), falls again (the clock strikes 12 and she's locked up by horrid step-mother), then rises again to get her happily ever after. This is another super famous (and super profitable) plot line. Examples include Cinderella (obvs), the New Testament (humankind gets lots of presents from God, only to get punished/ousted from paradise, but can gain unlimited bliss in the very end), Harry Potter, plenty, if not most, of the Grimm's fairy tales.

  6. Oedipus, or the Fall, Rise, Fall Journey - The ultimate tragedies. You start with someone who seemingly has it all, like a prince, who then loses it all (banished, lost war, etc.), tries to change his fate, and it looks like it's going to happen (defeats bad guys, marries princess,...), only to have a worse calamity befall him. Examples include the original Little Mermaid, and All About my Mother

Illustration of all story types in one "life line": Dayton O’Donnell

As you can see, each of these Story Shapes has a distinct emotional arc for the main character, depending on how their fortunes shift. This is also known as the "dramatic curve." 

To be clear, though, although most stories fall into one of these categories, the devil's always in the details. Meaning that, even if the overarching story arc is the same, each story is different because we each bring our own, individual visions, words and craft to the board. 

But knowing about these dramatic curves can help if one's stuck in terms of what needs to happen next.

Other Resources:

1. The Six Basic Plots and the Dramatic Curve - this goes into a lot more details when explaining each of the points above

2. Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories and Why Uncertainty is The Crucible of Creativity

3. The formula for box office success: Scientists checked 6,147 movie scripts and discovered the emotional arc in The Godfather is the most financially successful

4. To Tell Your Story, Take a Page from Kurt Vonnegut

September 7, 2021

When Art Could Literally Kill You

The Basilica Di Santa Croce, Florence, Italy

I have been reading Maggie Stiefvater's The Dreamer Trilogy, a real fun fantasy series about Dreamers, people who can bring anything they make up in their dreams into the real world, and the Moderators who want to wipe them out to prevent the end of the world. In the trilogy's second installment, Mister Impossible, there is mention of the Stendhal Syndrome, which totally peaked my interest. Hence this post.

It's amazing how many new syndromes I learn about reading fantasy fiction (the last one being the Marie Antoinette Syndrome which I discovered while reading House of Hollow), eh?

Anyway, the Stendhal Syndrome is named after the French author who described his intense reaction to the Basilica of Santa Croce in 1817, whose beauty nearly gave him a heart attack:


"I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty ... I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations ... Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call 'nerves'. Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling." (1)

Symptoms include dizziness, tachycardia, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, ... visual and auditory hallucinations, paranoid persecutory delusion, and depersonalization disorders. Basically, the person finds him/herself so overwhelmed by the beauty of the art, that their brain's completely overwhelmed and short circuits.

Quite intense, huh? 

Three hundred years prior, Florence had hosted three great artists at the same time: Michaelangelo, Leonardo, and Botticelli, and their fingerprints have been left all over the city. But it is not the only place that has similar effects. Dr. Hiroaki Ota noticed similar reactions to Paris, while Dr. Bar-El coined the term Jerusalem Syndrome for the same symptoms experienced by people in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

Freud himself "wrote about severe feelings of alienation and depersonalization upon visiting the Acropolis of Athens, and writer Fyodor Dostoevsky experienced severe paralysis, and absence when faced with Hans Holbein's Le Christ mort au tombeau in Basel, Switzerland." (2)

Arias, MD, draws is even further, stating that "[e]cstatic epilepsy shares symptoms and mechanisms

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

with orgasmic epilepsy (spontaneous orgasms in the course of epileptic seizures), musicogenic epilepsy (epileptic seizures triggered by listening to a certain musical piece), and also with Stendhal syndrome (neuropsychiatric disturbances caused when an individual is exposed to large amounts of art) and some autoscopic phenomena (out-of-body experiences that occasionally take place in imminent death situations). In all these events, there are pleasant and affective symptoms which have a great impact on patients." (3)

Curioser, and curioser. And also a little scary... don't you think?

PS: I am really enjoying Mister Impossible (in fact, the whole trilogy, though only the first 2 books are available as of the date of this post), for those of you who are into YA urban fantasy stories--it's got great characters, lots of actions, and really great descriptions (and for one who's not that much into descriptions of places in general, that's saying a lot)!


(1) Wikipedia article on the syndrome

(2) Stendhal Syndrome: a clinical and historical overview 

(3) Neurology of ecstatic religious and similar experiences: Ecstatic, orgasmic, and musicogenic seizures. Stendhal syndrome and autoscopic phenomena.