Here’s what you need to know.
Louis XIX ruled over France for twenty minutes on August 2nd, 1830. His predecessor had signed a document of abdication and — for Louis’s entire reign — wouldn’t stop weeping. Louis’s wife implored him not to sign the document. He was succeeded by Henry V.
Emperor Modi of Jin ruled the land for twelve hours before being killed by a Mongol soldier.
Dipendra of Nepal was declared King of Nepal while laying comatose in a hospital bed after he had killed his father and then turned the gun on himself. His first royal act was to die. (“Long live the ki — oh, crap.”)
From 2181 to 2160 BC, there was a point at which fourteen separate Pharaohs ruled for 70 days. That’s ten weeks pregnant. That’s a mostly finished H.G. Wells novel. That’s a potential plot for an Adam Sandler/Vince Vaughn buddy comedy called, “Too Many Pharaohs”; sample line of dialogue: “Talk dirty to me.” “Oh, that’s — sorry, could you repe –” and so on.
In a limited sense, these pratfalls of power are reassuring. It’s the ghost of Buster Keaton turning around and knocking these people in the back of the head, and a part of the brain can’t help but process these present scenes of smoke bombs in the South Korean parliament, fistfights in the Duma, the Governor of Montana vetoing bills with a branding iron or the ex-Governor of California vetoing bills with a foul-mouthed acrostic, in a black and white sort of way, as cigarette burns appearing every few minutes in the corner of the frame of history.
But there is something dispiriting at play in seeing these things unfold — in both the past and the present. It’s like watching Hamlet kick Ophelia off the stage, fall asleep, then say, “Hmm?” when woken again, filled with a kind of nap-induced eudemonia. Or maybe it’s like someone intently and intensely moving chess pieces across the board, and then they realized they blitzkrieged themselves. And then they changed their pants. Which were filled with chess pieces. (Fun fact: the name for changing your pants filled with chess pieces is “castling.”)
Are we simply doomed to repeat? Is the storyline we’ve set for ourselves a permanent vacillation between a focus on the game of things and a focus on the marrow of things? Is there nothing more to it than an either/or?
The middle way — the thing that threads the needle and says that you can still lead in a fairly honest way in the face of something that might be deemed historically ridiculous — lies with William Henry Harrison, who died a month after becoming President, and who — while ill — was treated with leeches and a kind of plant Alexander the Great once used on one of his Generals to fight off the work of a poison arrow.
Not only was that medical reality of the times the thing that it was, but Harrison further compounded himself by being too busy to get any rest, which means that — theoretically — there were people in Washington who — for a time — carried with them the image of a leader covered with leeches talking about reconstituting a central bank for the United States, issuing paper currency, and re-delegating legislative capabilities back to Congress.
It’s like Swamp Thing becoming Prime Minister and stalking the Houses of Parliament — a beautiful bender of a thought.
And the most telling part is that when Harrison died, he said, “Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of the government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more.”
P.S. If you’re aspiring to be bilingual and you’re wondering about how to talk dirty in hieroglyphics, you can never go wrong with:
“over a pile of dead frogs.”