Friday, January 31, 2014

Books Read in January

(Btw, I'm completely stealing this concept from Adam.) 

I'm going to try a new thing where I write about the books that I'm reading each month outside of the Great Book list.  Hopefully it will be interesting for others to read, but if nothing else it will serve as some kind of log for myself. 

American Gods, Neil Gaiman - A Hugo winner of about ten years ago, this is a fantasy novel about a man who gets involved in a war between gods of older mythologies (Norse, Egyptian, etc.) and newer American gods such as media and technology.  Very interesting detail work throughout and a lot of travel in my neck of the woods.  This is a reread for me.
Some Remarks, Neal Stephenson - A collection of essays and articles from one of my favorite authors.  Interesting stuff throughout, but the piece that really stuck with me was this one, regarding the ways that our culture has drawn the curtain on challenging stuff.
Podkayne of Mars, Robert Heinlein - Another reread for me.  I picked this one up mostly because of a part of the book that deals with an interplanetary cruise liner.  It had been some time (ten years? fifteen?) since I last read Podkayne.  The female protagonist thinks that being a woman will hold her back from her career.  Extremely dated book now.
The Wes Anderson Collection - Essays and articles on Wes Anderson and the movies that he's made.  He's one of the few directors whose new movies make me want to run out to the theater.  Also, lots of gorgeous pictures of sets and behind the scenes stuff.

I dipped into a lot of other things, but that's about all I can really say that I read this past month.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Where Are the Gods? - Herodotus

It's interesting reading through a progression of Greek writers.  In the past year we've read through Homer's telling of the Trojan war, Herodotus and the Persians and coming up, Thucydides and the Peloponnesian war.  There is a rather big change from Homer to Herodotus and then the big T. 
Homer's telling of war was completely driven by the gods.  They planned the war, they picked out who would die and often helped them on their way.  The gods even fought over how to kill off the survivors.  In Homer's world, the gods stood in for fate and decided who would make it out alive.
Herodotus is much less into the divine.  His stories are driven by great people and the decisions they make.  He does emphasize messages from oracles.  They're conduits of the gods but we no longer have any insight into the motives behind fated actions.
Thucydides writes about war in an almost modern fashion.  Decisions are made solely by people and battles are won or lost based on who was best prepared and best led.  He mentions phrases from oracles only in the way that they might have matched events.  He also mentions temples and shrines but only to show the respect that people paid to them.  His is a history in which other people have custom and possibly belief, but you couldn't prove that he has either.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Robert Louis Stevenson - Poetry

I know Robert Louis Stevenson only as a novelist and not a poet.  This particular poem is called 'Requiem' and was apparently used as epitaph on his own tomb.

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he long'd to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

What a nice little poem!  'Glad did I live and gladly die/And I laid me down with a will'.  I can only hope that I can face the end with such composure. The ending phrases get me too.  'Home is the sailor, home from the sea,/And the hunter home from the hill'.  I'm neither a hunter or a sailor, but those phrases strike at something.
I like it. 

The Fleets! - Herodotus

And we're on to book VIII, which mostly deals with the battle between the Persian and Greek fleets.  You may remember that Xerxes was warned that his large fleet would be vulnerable because there was no safe harbor that it could shelter in if there was bad weather.  That warning proved to be prophetic, as a storm wiped out about 200 of them. 
Meanwhile the Athenians evacuated Athens.  The Persians quickly sent in a land force and destroyed the town.  I had no idea that this had happened.  In fact, while I'm talking about it, cities were fairly routinely sacked and rebuilt in this era.  (Parts of Thucydides read like a game of Go Fish played with cities instead of cards.)  I don't know if this speaks to the more primitive construction of that time or if invading armies were more gentle than our own era of total warfare.  Maybe a combination of the two?
The battle of the fleets is a bit difficult to work out.  I wish I'd read it from the Landmark edition.  That would have helped.  Anyway, the Greek forces were better organized and had more clear purpose.  They were able to sow some confusion and distrust among the invasion force, in part because the Persians had triremes from neighbors that they couldn't completely trust.  In any case, the Greeks won and won decisively. 
One very interesting character in this section, is a Persian Queen named Artemisia.  She commanded a ship during the battle and was seen favorably.  She also gave Xerxes the advice to personally retreat back to Persia and keep a remaining army in place to finish off the war.  Xerxes followed this advice.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Thermopylae - Herodotus

Three books from Herodotus, the last three of his History, and all of them are about the great Greco-Persian war.  I'll tackle each one in a different post. 

Our story starts out with the Persian king Xerxes (apparently husband to the Bible's Esther), deciding to go out and conquer the Hellenes, today known as the Greeks.  Persia was the super power of its day and Xerxes was confident he could amass enough men and a large enough fleet to reduce those haughty Greeks.  His first challenge was to create a bridge over the Hellespont so that his army could march from what is modern day Turkey.  They would then simply walk around the Aegean sea and fight it out.  The bridge was made but then a problem happened.  From Herodotus:
But when the strait had been bridged over, a great storm came on and dashed together all the work that had been made and broke it up. Then when Xerxes heard it he was exceedingly enraged, and bade them scourge the Hellespont with three hundred strokes of the lash and let down into the sea a pair of fetters. Nay, I have heard further that he sent branders also with them to brand the Hellespont.  
I love that picture, don't you?  Herodotus tells such wonderful stories!  While his armies were marching Xerxes came into contact with a man named Artabanos who warned him that he was going into danger.  He told him that his large army was a danger to itself as it wouldn't be able to last long without constant supply.  He also warned that the large Persian fleet was in danger because it wouldn't have a single friendly harbor it could go to if there were storms.  Xerxes went on anyway.
There are two main paths into Greece from the north.  One of them was cut off by flooding so the Persians were forced to take a route along the eastern coast.  This path leads up to a bottle neck near some hot springs at a place called Hot Gates or Thermopylae.  A coalition of the Greek city states decided that this would be the best place to delay Xerxes.
The Spartans took command and their king, Leonidas, led 300 of his men to hold onto the bottleneck.  (They had some small support from other cities and from Spartan helots.  So the overall number was something like 4000, but let's not step on the legend too much.)  These men sealed up the passage and the Persians couldn't easily displace them. 
For two days, the Persians tried and tried but they couldn't knock them out.  Then, a Greek man named Ephialtes, told the Persians of a path that they could use to outflank the Spartans.  They did this on the third day.  The Greeks retreated to a hill and were subsequently slaughtered by arrows. 
This is one of those important myths in Western history.  The idea is that a small force of men voluntarily gave up their lives so that their comrades could organize a defense.  I don't know what the counter-factuals suggest would have happened without that delay but in the end it doesn't matter.  The story is what's important. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Readings for February

Just one piece:

Thucydides: The History of the Peloponnesian War (book I-II, V) link

We're pretty deep into ancient Greek history these first couple of months.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Emma Lazarus - Poetry

The next installment in the poetry book is a one that I'm half familiar with.  The poem is 'The New Colossus' by Emma Lazarus (and it apparently has nothing to do with X-Men.)  The poem was inspired by the Statue of Liberty and will be linked to her forever.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows worldwide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, the tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

What an inspiring poem!  Let me concentrate on the first half, which I don't know as well.  I really like the comparison between the Statue of Liberty and the Colossus of Rhodes.  I like the emphasis that lady Liberty is not a martial figure, but one of mercy.  It's no wonder this poem has lasted and lasted.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Landmark Herodotus and Thucydides

I want to pass on a format recommendation for reading Herodotus and Thucydides.  There are Landmark versions of both that are simply wonderful.  I got the Landmark Thucydides from the library and it has made understanding the writing much simpler.
Each page has a header that keeps track of which year and season of the war is taking place.  There are footnotes that connect the readings to other places within the Peloponnessian War.  Each paragraph has a summary statement in case the meanings are confusing.  There are also essays and indexes in the back to give more background, but I haven't dug into any of those yet.
And best of all, there are maps every few pages to help the reader place all of the mentioned cities and regions!  This is crucial to understanding something as geographically driven as a war.  I with I'd read Herodotus with the Landmark to keep clear where the battles were taking place.
If you're keeping up with the reading list or just stumbled upon this post from Google, I can't recommend these books too highly.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Paul Verlaine - Poetry

The next poem in the book is one that's unfamiliar to me.  The title is 'Tears Fall in My Heart' and it was written by Paul Verlaine.  The snippet in the book helpfully tells me that he had a passionate temperament and once spent two years in prison for shooting his lover.

Tears fall in my heart
as rain falls on the town'
what is the numb hurt
that enters my heart?

Ah, the soft sound of rain
on roofs, on the ground!
To a dulled heart there came,
ah, the song of the rain!

Tears without reason
in the disheartened heart.
What? no trace of treason?
This grief's without reason.

It's far the worst pain
to never know why
without love or disdain
my heart has such a pain!

I can't help but wonder if it works better in French.  Unfortunately, my knowledge of French is 'un peu' so I can't really tell.  Translations of poems are tricky.  Given that though, this one doesn't sing much for me.
I like the juxtaposition of tears and rain.  The rain is helpful but the tears, not so much!  Especially since the poet seems to have melancholy without reason.  We've all had days like that and the rain doesn't always help.
As I said, this one doesn't do much for me but that might not be the fault of the poet or the poem.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Promethian Myths - Aeschylus

Last night, after I'd written about 'Prometheus Bound', I picked up the book that I'm reading and headed off to bed.  I'm reading a collection of articles, essays and short stories by Neal Stephenson called 'Some Remarks' and I'm up to a foreword that he wrote for a David Foster Wallace book.  In a nice show of synchronicity, Stephenson writes about the story of Prometheus (and Eve from Genesis).  Sorry for the long excerpt but I can't find it online.

These are meant to be scary, cautionary tales to keep Bronze Age peons from asking difficult questions of their betters. To say that they have outlived their usefulness is wrong, since they were never useful to begin with. At some level, though, we've all imbibed them and they can be invoked in rhetoric to elicit certain predictable responses. By and large, these ensure to the benefit of those who have acquired lots of knowledge. You might not think so, for the Promethean myth is ostensibly a knock on academics. Not so ostensibly, though, it gives scientists a reason to put on priestly airs and, by hinting at the perhaps no-so-priestly stances of their counterparts in other countries, haul down defense grants. And it gives non-scientists an implicit pitchfork to brandish in the scientists' faces. Accordingly, a kind of deal has been struck in which both scientists and non-scientists have ended up accepting the Promethean myth as being a passable model of reality. Call this the Promethean consensus. The Promethean consensus is something that no one would ever admit to believing in, if you pinned them down and tried to get them to engage in that level of introspection, but is universally hammed home by every movie and TV show about science and a good many books as well, and obviously underlies the public postures that scientists are expected to adopt.
Once you've bought into it, the only two stances you can really take toward the Promethean consensus are to respect its rules or to willfully break them. You are either a priest or a bad boy. Priest because, if you are one of the keepers of the academic flame and are willing to allow that some of your knowledge is dangerous, you can get a lot of mileage out of intoning the right solemn and portentous sound bites. Bad boy because the downside of the Promethean myth has largely gone away. No one is getting expelled from the Garden of Eden or being chained to a rock to have his liver torn by vultures anymore. it's true that modern-day scientists have to take their share of flak, but, with the exception of people who run girls' schools in Afghanistan, or the occasional biomed researcher who's run afoul of the animal-rights activists, they no longer have to dodge pitchforks. And so if you're one of the people who actually has access to Promethean-grade knowledge, there's no longer much personal risk, and so, to the extent that the knowledge is perceived as dangerous, it can just feel kind of cool, in a naughty way, like you're a teenager who just figured out where Dad hides the keys to his gun cabinet. 
Stephenson goes on to talk about how various academic cultures treat each other, making a distinction between prestigious coastal universities and what he calls the Midwest American College Town (or MACT).  I don't know either culture well enough to comment, beyond saying that I found his theories interesting. 
Do we still use the Promethean myth today?  We do have large amounts of gate-keeping when it comes to science and academia.  Unorthodox theories won't fly unless the theorist has strong credentials.  Some of this is no doubt useful just in terms of controlling the flood of information but also no doubt some important things get dismissed out of hand unfairly.  But this doesn't feel connected to Prometheus.
As Stephenson points out, modern scientists and academics don't face too much risk for bringing forth advances or theories.  In fact, it's the exact opposite.  If Scientist X thinks he has something, there are more avenues than ever for getting that something out to the public.  How often do you see news reports about some theory that is due to be printed in a scientific journal?  All the time.  And if that 'something' doesn't pan out?  The scientist's career will still be fine, especially if the 'something' got lots of publicity. 
I don't think that we still have things that 'shouldn't be known by man'.  This is undoubtedly a good thing.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Prometheus Bound - Aeschylus

The basic story of Prometheus is well known.  Fire stolen from the gods and given to mankind.  For that, he was punished by Zeus; chained to a rock and attacked daily by eagles.  Aeschylus picks up the story as the chaining is taking place.  Two things that I learned from this telling:
  • Prometheus was a god, who gave fire to mortals.  Apparently I've had this wrong.  That changes the dynamic a bit.  He wasn't a clever mortal who found a way to enrich his fellow man.  He was a god that looked for a way to elevate those lower than him.
  • And it wasn't just fire.  Per the play, he also taught them how to build houses, how to use tell by the seasons when they should plant, the use of numbers (surpassing all inventions), how to domesticate horses and cows, how to make boats.  He also helped them with medicine and the high art of reading omens from birds and entrails.
Prometheus also speaks a prophecy about the overthrow of Zeus.
Wherefore let him rest on in his presumption, putting confidence in his thunders aloft, brandishing in his hand a fire-breathing bolt. For not one jot shall these suffice to save him from falling dishonored in a downfall beyond endurance; such an antagonist is he now with his own hands preparing himself, a portent that shall baffle all resistance; who shall invent a flame more potent than the lightning, and a mighty din that shall surpass the thunder; and shall shiver the ocean trident, that earth-convulsing pest, the spear of Neptune. And when he hath stumbled upon this mischief, he shall be taught how great is the the difference between sovereignty and slavery. 
Zeus is not too happy about this so he sends Hermes to ask for an explanation.  Prometheus refuses and Zeus promises further torments. 
This prophecy is very interesting.  Basically the tyrant will hold things so tightly that he will create his own opposition and eventual doom.  This is almost conventional wisdom now but apparently it was wisdom for Aeschylus too. 
It's also interesting that Aeschylus would have a play that shows Zeus in such a bad light.  I don't have the firmest grip on just how seriously the ancient Greeks took their religion but I've got to believe that this crossed some lines.  Zeus could have been portrayed as giving out a reluctant punishment.  Instead, he's somewhat bloodthirsty. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Greek Timeline

I'd normally put up biographies of Aeschylus and Herodotus but I did that last year.  You can find Aeschylus here and Herodotus here.  Last year I wrote that it was important to have a feel for the overall contemporary history of this period and I still think that's true.  So I'll just reproduce the timeline that I made then. 

There were three different wars that pictured the ancient Greek worldview and it's useful to put the various writers in context of those wars.  (As future historians learn about the 20th century, they'll need to be very aware of both world wars and the Vietnam war.  Same deal.)

Trojan War - (Sometime in the 1200s or 1100s BC)  This was the legendary war that provided so many stories of heroism and courage.  The Greeks wrote and sung about the happenings of this war for centuries.

Homer - (850 BC?)  The Homeric epics cemented the Trojan war and its aftermath in Greek storytelling.

Aeschylus - (525 - 456 BC)  Wrote about Agamemnon's return from the wars and the ensuing bloodbath.

Greco/Persian wars - (499 - 449 BC)  Notably, this started with a Greek adventure into Persian territory.  The Persians counter-invaded in 492 and the incredibly influential battle of Marathon happened in 490.  Two generations of Greeks lived with the reality of war with the Persian empire.

(Battle of Thermopylae 480 BC) A battle within the greater Greco/Persian war. 

Herodotus (484 - 425 BC) - Both men grew up in the wars.  It's notable that Herodotus traveled extensively during this whole period.  When he wrote about the conflict with Persia, he undoubtedly talked with veterans and contemporaries. 

Socrates (469 - 399 BC) - Grew up as the wars were winding down.  Was in his late 30's when the next war really heated up.

Thucydides (460 - 395 BC) - Was alive as an adult during the whole of the Peloponnesian War. 

Peloponnesian War (431 - 404 BC) - This war had many phases, but the most important for this timeline is that Athens was completely humbled by the end.  We're set to read Thucydides on this subject next year.

Plato (428 - 348 BC) - Grew up during the long fight with Sparta.  His adulthood was mostly in the post-war era.

Aristotle (384 - 322 BC) - Lived entirely after the wars.  By this time Athens was no longer had an empire nor a world power.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Gerard Manley Hopkins - Poetry

I've never heard of this poet or poem.  It's called 'Spring and Fall' or alternately 'Margaret, Are you Grieving?'

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for; can you?
Ah! as the the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter; child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

A curious poem.  If I have the theme right, it's a comparison between the ever changing seasons and overall mortality.  The fall of the colored leaves makes us sad.  We mourn for the loss of their beauty, but also for the passage of time.
I can get behind this exact feeling.  I always feel more joyful in spring and start to get down when winter pops up.  In part that's because I'm afraid of days like this where the weather in Minnesota is about -50 with windchill.  Feels like a prison sentence.  And when the first warm stretch in spring appears, it feels like an enormous release.
I've never connected that to overall aging though.  It makes sense.  We don't often think of it, but we only have so many autumns and springs in our allotment.  I don't know that this is a piece of my mourning, but maybe it is and maybe it should be.
Or maybe I'd be better off not paying attention to the odometer...

Friday, January 3, 2014

Author Timeline

Aeschylus  525-456
Herodotus  484-425
Thucydides  460-395
Plato  428-348
Aristotle  384-322
Euclid  Unknown (300 BC?)
Tacitus  56-117
St Thomas Aquinas  1225-1274
Chaucer  1343-1400
Shakespeare  1564-1616
Milton  1608-1674
Locke  1632-1704
Kant  1724-1804
Mill  1806-1873
Lavoisier  1743-1794
Dostoevsky  1821-1881
Freud  1856-1939

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Most Influential Books Ever

This is an interesting list, purported to be the 100 most influential books ever.  And by ever, the author really means it.  The list is chronological with the earliest entries coming in at 1500 BC.  (Those two are the 'I Ching' and the Old Testament in case you haven't clicked through.)
The last twenty selections are from the 20th century and that makes me skeptical on their inclusion.  I mean, I enjoy Kafka, but is 'The Trial' really one of the 100 most influential books ever?  How about George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff's 'Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson'?  Will they still be talking about it 100 years from now? 
I'm also curious about some of the books that made this list, but not the Great Books list.  I'm especially interested in Erasmus 'In Praise of Folly'.  I think I might find some space to fit that into my reading . . .

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

January Reading

Two pieces:

Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound link
Herodotus: The History (book VII-IX) link