That life is the enemy of philosophy

With a regularity which is no doubt statistically meaningful (and thus calls for an explanation, a master's thesis anyone?), conversations among the unreproduced turn to the topic of their relationship with the reproduced. Upon such occasions two things are invariably observed:

1. That the reproduced desire us to reproduce. Usually they do this nicely, telling us how nice and worthwhile is the experience, or, less nicely, how we are missing out (every PR man knows that fear of missing out is the single most powerful cattle-prod in his toolbox), but sometimes not nicely at all, as when they suggest that not reproducing is unnatural ("That's what we're here for"), or even immoral ("Why should you have it easy while we labor in childbirth and child-rearing?");


2. How their reproduction robs us: it robs us of our friends because those who have been our favorite conversation companions to-date, on topics which interested us (which is why we picked them as friends in the first place), now, suddenly prove incapable of talking of anything other than their progeny's exalted status as the ultimate blessing upon the multiverse. Which is, of course, while the progeny remains in the initial (sausage) stages (and for a very long time afterwards) both laughable and dull in the extreme.

No more Heidegger for us, or Proust, or -- anything; the quality of the progeny's evacuation preempts all topics now.


This second topic is part of a more sinister aspect of reproduction which is that, unless the parents have sufficient financial resources to

a) hire domestic help in order to insulate themselves from the duller aspects of child-rearing (i.e. nappies, school pick ups, play-dates) and thus preserve for themselves a reasonable amount of free time in which to continue being themselves as they once were; and,

b) more broadly speaking, have resources sufficient to make sure that the arrival of the offspring does not ruin them financially and chain them to the tiller till their dying day by burying them under a mountain of economic obligations (prams, school fees, babysitters, tutors, toys);

then the arrival of the progeny means the end of their life as their life. They become little more than an adjunct to the progeny's life: its foot servant, its cotton-picker, its babysitter, its driver, and its slave-tutor all in one.1

They are simply no longer their own.

Mysteriously, they don't deny it: they readily admit that their life has but one purpose now -- to assure the best possible future for their offspring -- and are mystified by our objection to this fact. Why would you not want, they seem to want to ask, to give up all you have for the sake of your children? And already the s2-word is lurking in the background.


Now, there is a sense in which the unreproduced are held by the reproduced to be pupae of a sort: that is, unfulfilled human beings, imperfect and incomplete; ones assumed to be merely waiting to reproduce; indeed, ones who have failed to reproduce; and thus objects of pity in the manner in which one might pity an athlete who collapses before reaching the finish line.

The truth is that while there are perhaps some unreproduced who are like this -- desiring to reproduce and unable to -- there are also others who are hardened career criminals: we have no intention of ever reproducing, not for five minutes, and look upon our reproduced friends, now chained to the tiller for the rest of their lives, with silent but profound pity. Silent because it would be too cruel to tell them the truth that, in our eyes, they have mocked up, messed up, and thrown away their lives. Cruel because what could possibly be the point of revealing to them their own misery in all its stark terror -- if there is nothing they can ever do about it?

So we smile benignly and pretend that the sausage-like thing in the pram is indeed the eighth wonder of the world (and its evacuation extraordinary in every measure); that we do secretly wish for one ourselves (or at least for more of the same for them); and that we are sorry that we have not attained to our reproduced friend's exalted status as kings of the universe: Mom or Dad.

Forsooth, it is out of pity for our friends that we do not tell them that the miracle that they deem to have achieved was no miracle at all; that the act is an ordinary act (one just lies back and moans for about 3 minutes): baboons can do as much and as well; and so do chickens every day of the year; or that their joy at the arrival of the munchkins is morally suspect: parents invariably talk of "their" children and are proud of their parental authority; but the children are not their children, or at least ought not to be; they will only naturally want to be their own, not their parents', which is what all parents, even the best meaning ones, always, invariably forget; while authority is something to be earned over our equals, not something to be imposed by default over defenseless little things.


I suppose one could divide all adult life into ante-reproductionis and post-reproductionis; the ante-reproductionis is characterized by many things -- free time, disposable income, higher frequency of the experience of happiness and pleasure (there are incontrovertible statistics to prove this last point but the reproduced labor incessantly to deny or distort their truth, or at least to disbelieve it); and -- by a certain sense of searching for something. This sense is mostly quite mild, or at any rate intermittent, in most; but it can be quite powerful in some, leading them variously into religious pursuits or debauchery or extreme sports; it is sometimes described as searching for answers; and by some deemed the proper concern for philosophy.

Famously, a certain popular cultural franchise proposed once that our whole species were no more than a kind of computer devised by a higher civilization to find these answers. Being young and as yet unreproduced one can easily identify with this view. And though the franchise then proposed, rather meanly (and thoughtlessly), that the questions to which the answers are to be found are themselves unknown, and thus the whole search is a kind of confused head trip3, the truth is the opposite: the question is but one, and always the same, and very clear: how should we live our lives? That is: what should I, Joe Blow, do with my forty or fifty years here? The resource -- life -- is finite and wasting. There is a desire, a natural economic instinct, to deploy it most efficiently: to make the most of it, and now, before any part of it wastes away, gone never to come back.

And there is that sense that the endless cycle of birth and death and birth and death, as a good Buddhist might put it, or a life lived earning a living and then eating it; a life amounting in the end to no more than a tombstone, or a Wikipedia entry if we're lucky (as some consider it) -- that such a life does not amount to anything; that it is some preposterous waste of unknown possibilities which must surely be greater, more meaningful, more satisfying.

(I do not wish to argue here that this thought process is in some way correct; it is enough for the sake of my argument to observe that it commonly happens with the young).

Now, this search is naturally time consuming. Let me illustrate: Angelica, when I took her for a motorcycle trip in the hills, exclaimed at the end of the day:

"My goodness, this is wonderful, so this is what I have been missing!"

And then, being the thinking girl that she is, reflected:

"It is not easy to know what one likes, or to guess what one might like, is it? And one needs so much free time to find out!"

And she was right: one does need a lot of time to find out how one can live one's life to one's own satisfaction because opportunities to try different things are not evenly spaced out, are sometimes expensive, and are always crowded out by other choices. The search is made more difficult by the fact that many seem hell-bent on diverting us in our search to their own purposes, telling us things like "Plastics!" or "Hold up the flag!" or, most commonly, "Having your own children is the most wonderful experience you can ever have."

But, for most of us, before we can make much progress in this difficult and time-consuming search, there comes, usually out of the left-field, reproduction and stops our research dead in its tracks. Suddenly turned into our children's slaves now, we no longer have the time to try different things, or the energy, or the money; and most importantly, we no longer even want to, having suddenly transformed into breathless worshipers of our progeny's magnificent poop . The question how to live our lives, the central question of philosophy (at least in the way in which the ancients saw it), becomes irrelevant; it has been answered for us by life itself; life turned us into that into which it had always intended to turn us: slaves of the species reproductive process. In accepting this role, we agree not to question it. And thus there are no more questions which need to be answered. The way we ought to live our lives is this, it turns out: we ought to reproduce. Thus philosophy ends.

Then, as our progeny grows it will in turn eventually become human (i.e. acquire a mind of its own) and almost as soon as it does it will, invariably, turn to the immortal question: how should I live my life? (Thus raising philosophy back from the dead). But it's question, too, will go unanswered, because, the progeny too, will end up reproducing before it is ready and abandoning the search incomplete as a result. Philosophy's quest is thus doomed to failure.

Which is how I have illustrated my point: that life is the enemy of philosophy4.


1 Given the direction public education is taking, less and less the last, since the public appears eager for us not to educate our progeny ourselves but to desire us instead to slave breathlessly to support a child whose mind then a total stranger -- a goobment appointed "teacher" -- will pervert without reference to our desire or opinion; this last means that, really and honestly speaking, once our children leave for school, at the tender age of five or six, we are no longer rearing it.

2 As in self-centered, egoistical, parsimonious, miserly, self-seeking, ungenerous, small-minded. You take the hint?

3 It will be apparent from what follows that the authors of this BBC series were very likely already reproduced at the time of writing its script.

4 I have suggested elsewhere that the history of philosophy -- everywhere, East and West -- could be seen to follow this pattern: that philosophy begins with the attempt to figure out how we should live our lives, from which attempt it promptly strays into meaningless drivel like debating "intentionality" or "prime matter" or "causation". The number of excuses which reproduced philosophers can think up in order to duck philosophy's fundamental question is vast and potentially unlimited.


The Word and The Flesh (7)


Parthian Empire, 1st century AD.

But I had to have an equerry also: and I did. Rachela Erato was still in mourning after her father and her second husband, but I asked three Jewish learned men of Susa whether they did not agree with me that it would be both wise and good -- and a clear sign of good will towards Rome -- to reveal to Marios Maksimos right there, on the bridge, the identity of the Son of Vengeance, the scourge of the uncircumcised in Palestine. As a result of this question, an insightful commentary on the appropriate passage of the Pentateuch (supposedly Mosaic) was speedily discovered, from which commentary it undoubtedly followed that Rachela was sinfully stretching the period of her mourning.

Threats, my dear Markia, are an amazing thing; all actions of the Son of Vengeance fill me with disgust, I admit, and I intend to deal with him in my own way one day, but I do not as a matter of habit reveal secrets with which I have been entrusted. This was obvious and clear to Rachela, but I assumed that she would not be able to convince of it the wise men of Israel, because they, ever since I staged in Harana Ezekiel's play about Moses, consider me capable of every iniquity; and thus, at the price of a mere threat I won the exceptional pleasure of having rested my foot on that same glove, the lifting of which had once exposed me to so many humiliations.

The throwing and picking up of gloves is, I should think, not a Parthian custom: I had not heard of it until I met Rachela Eratona. But Armenian, Alanian and Sarmatian knights practice it widely, even when the object of the challenge is a fortress rather than a person. But I was taught to challenge a city by sending an arrow into the shield above the gate; and to challenge a man by daring words. It's no surprise then that I didn't know what to do when, nearly eighteen years ago, on the Armenian-Adiabenian border a flaming-ruby-red knight followed his question why I schlepp around the world, armed and horseback, when it would behoove me better to stay at home and suck my mother's milk instead, by throwing his net-glove in my direction (the very glove which tonight serves as my inkwell).

Suck my mother's milk?! Indeed, I was barely sixteen then, but Phraates V had been even younger when the crown of the King of Kings was placed upon his head annointed with twenty six oils. As a teenager, it seems, I was able to hide my anger more easily than I can now; and thus, instead of letting my anger carry me, I replied the knight most politely: that I do not schlepp around, but wander as a knight errant, asking all those whom I encounter one question, only one.

"That's very interesting", replied the red knight, "and very sweet. I do the same thing myself. With the difference that, if it were permitted to place the image of a living creature on my shield, I would place on mine the image of a spider, not that of a fly."

And he pointed to my shield, adding that perhaps I mean to compare myself to a wasp rather than a fly, but this is understandable: young boys need to flatter themselves.

I needed to listen to him closely. He spoke -- of course -- Aramaic, but a different dialect of it from the one which had resounded around me as I was growing up in Babylon. But it was sufficiently clear to allow me to suppress my anger a little longer; on my shield I had half the emblem of Elymais, not some insect, as he assumed; and he mistook the anchor hooks for poorly drawn legs and wings of a wasp, or -- even worse! -- a fly. Or he pretended that he mistook them. So I called out to him angrily:

"Ask your question, and then, if you please, close in!"

As for the anger, I was making it up a bit. Too bad -- I had to because I noticed that the red knight's troop somehow, magically grew tenfold or more during our short exchange, while our number remained the same old five -- a eunuch and a Greek grammarian (a refugee from beyond the Euphrates) among them. Yet, I was not sufficiently afraid, not in any measure remotely equal to the danger: I was to learn only later that the red knight's troop was composed entirely of past-masters at the art of unerring and lightening-fast lassoing in of horsemen archers while at full gallop; and that it was not their habit to play with travelers who entered their narrow pass in lighthearted exchanges of knightly "if you please". Hence my suspicion today -- so many years later -- that that meeting with the red knight, that meeting which changed my life in so many dramatic ways -- had not been accidental.

But if it had not been, that fact has never been revealed to me. On the contrary, the red knight behaved in a manner which suggested that even my name was to him a meaningless sound, which was something I had not expected, and which frightened me, even terrified me.


The Word and The Flesh (6)


Ahura Mazda (right, with high crown) invests Ardashir I (left)
with the ring of kingship. (
Naqsh-e Rustam, 3rd c. CE)

Every day of my so-called exile took me further away from you.

How differently would everything have turned out had I, on the night on which you served Komodos poison, been on the Euphrates rather than in Mathura, whence it is closer to the Ganges than to the Hind! And, oh, how far it is from the banks of the Hind to Rome! And Alexandria, too, how far!

What sort of nonsense is this? Here we are in Alexandria now, both of us, but Alexandra tells us that our -- yours and mine -- child should only be conceived on the other side of the Hind. How generous, don't you think? One might have expected Alexandra to appoint for that purpose China. Or that land, dreamt up by Seneca, squeezed in the middle of the ocean, half way between Hispania and China. I should laugh. Which would be good: I have not laughed in a long time. Alas, I am told that it is not her, who says this, but you, speaking through Alexandra's mouth: we must flee!

Oh, you miserable Greek of half-breeds! Here I am, laboring my second day, trying to explain, in writing, as you wished, why it is not necessary that we flee, and how far have I gotten? I have not even managed to tell you yet how my father, beginning with the question about the elephant, set out to lead my tortured soul of a half-breed bastard towards that place, whence only one path was possible: towards absolute readiness to prove, at the cost of the so-called great sacrifices, even -- how much one can indeed rely on the so-called half-breed bastard, even at such times when one should rather trust that overhead monkey than any Arsakid truly deserving of that name.

I exaggerate. I was ready to make ultimate sacrifices, that is true. I knew that I was exposing myself to great dangers, yetI did not refuse the plea; this is also true. But how would it have been with that readiness of mine if here, among the Romans, you did not await me, Markia?

True, this doubt has only now passed through my mind. But this great two-day -- or rather two-night -- concentration on the task of writing to you in Greek with the help of a goose feather, this, I will say it, painful concentration seems to dig up from the dark places of my memory something which I had completely forgotten, long forgotten, perhaps as soon as the day after my conversation with my father in Nisa. It was not me who asked the question of myself, but he: would I be so ready to be given up as a Roman hostage, if you were not awaiting me here? While characterising Septymios Kaisar -- yes, now I remember it all very clearly -- he began, apparently for no special reason, to name all those Romans over whose dead bodies the lust for power took Septymios while guiding him ever closer towards that imperial purple which had fallen off the shoulders of Komodos. And there, somewhere, between Eklektos and Aimilios Laitos, he sneaked in your name; for no special reason, apparently. But mentioning it, he looked at me most meaningfully. And me? What did I do? you will ask. I can't remember.

It's unbelievable, I know, but I cannot remember.

Of course, I knew at that time that you were alive. For though my father, until the moment of the Roman capture of Ktesiphon, had continued to reject all pleas, regardless who made them, to recall me from exile, yet I had managed to smuggle into the West first -- as you know -- Alexandra, then Ardashir, then Babrios. And all three sent the same message: you were alive! But did I tell my father, when he named you among the dead, that you were in fact alive? Perhaps not, for this I should have remembered. But, surely, I must have rejected that nonsense somehow: I simply cannot believe that I would have been able to control myself, and to summon such powers of pretending, that my father might actually believe: "This does not seem to concern him at all."

So what happened then? What happened?

Whatever happened, my father must have been satisfied; his doubts must have been dispelled; and he thanked me most passionately for my readiness to serve him so selflessly in such a difficult moment of his reign. And I think that this time the passion was not pretended, and that there was no hidden intent in his suggestion that I should cross the Tigris on the back of that elephant, given me once by Vasishka-Vasudeva. But I resisted this suggestion; I was in the position to name terms and I named them. I warned him that Romans might see in my appointment as hostage a ruse, perhaps even ridicule; after all, I added with a smile, no one has ever made it a secret that I was the least favored of all the nephews of the Sun and the Moon; and that from the royal treasury of Ktesiphon (or Ragas) not a single coin has ever passed over the last thirty years to any temple treasury to defray the cost of prayers for my life and my health. And that therefore it was necessary to do everything in our power to dispel any Roman doubts as to whether the King of Kings cared at all for the life, health and comfort of his hostage. Of course, only a small group will come with me to Seleukia: the Karen girl, Samgila, Adrashir, Samasaryston with his niece, and as many servants and guards as my father will be pleased to give me; but there should be no more of them than -- say -- two dozen.

But I must cross the bridge dressed fabulously, indeed: ceremonially; I should be accompanied by five Karens, as many Mirs and as many Geopatrans, all of them with their body-guards, flying their clan banners; it would also be advisable that the kettle-drum carried before me should be drummed by the King of Elymais himself, the oldest and the stupidest of my half-brothers; and let Gokhiras of Persia walk right behind me, leading in hand my palfrey.

He'll refuse? Let him try! Does my father still have in his hands those three Mages who had agitated in Arbela for the stoning of the Christians? Let Gokhiras choose then: either he will agree to lead my horse, or those three will be walled-in alive as guilty of violating royal edicts concerning freedom of religion. And, believe me, Markia, my father agreed to it all. Of course, those three Mages were never seriously under threat (even though, had anyone deserved being walled-up alive, it was those three) because Gokhiras was really tortured by another fear: I had announced that I should release Ardashir of the word he had given me, that word which chains him to me like irons; and Gokhiras knew very well, that the moment Ardashir appears in Istakar, the Basrangs' rule over Persis will have at most a week in it.

Of course, the humiliation and rage of Gokhiras could have speared my back on the bridge (to the greater glory of Ormazd), but for this eventuality I had Ardashir, who, for that occasion, transformed himself from my hand-servant into the sword-bearer of the King of Persia. And, oh, would it have given Ardashir special pleasure to cut in half the King of Persia with that king's own sword!


The solution to our equinox mystery


Go to Yongzheng's Screen of Twelve Beauties to see large size scans of this wonder. Above is a tiny reproduction of one of the twelve life-size paintings to whet your appetite, this one is entitled: Murmuring to Herself while Reading.

Yongli was Kangxi's younger son, and therefore a minor prince and not originally intended for emperorship. Thus he was free to spend his youth like Marcus Aurelius -- studying the classics, composing poetry, staging dramas, painting -- and generally polishing his cultural and connoisseur credentials. (And in the winter making snowmen -- in the shape of mythical Chinese beasts in classical poses, of course). Then the usual series of plots, counterplots, rebellions, arrests and poisonings have left him alone on the stage to claim the throne, thus giving China one of her greatest connoisseur emperors.

In his youth, he had commissioned many works of art, one of them being this series of twelve portraits of beautiful women with Yongli's favorite toys: his birds, his antiques, his poetry and paintings and even -- calligraphy in his own hand. (In this painting, the calligraphy on the wall is a well known, and still extant, piece by Mi Fu (1051-1107); and the book before her is from the imperial edition of the poems of Du Qiu; but the painting on the wall remains unidentified). When he became emperor these paintings were considered compromising and packed away. (They were not rediscovered till 1950's). At one point Emperor Yongzheng (as the once prince Yongli had become) had to write a memorial apologizing for their existence and explaining how they had really been intended as a serious work of art and not some sort of prurient eye-candy, Mencius forbid.

(Another human art universalism: Chinese art has the same problem with moralizing kill-joys as our own and Muslim art does. The moralizing kill-joys are invariably just the fellows who can't afford the art in question. The point is this: if I cannot have it, neither should you. Fie. Says a poor man, who can barely afford his one wife, to a rich man: thou shallt have but one wife at a time, says God).

Perhaps as a result of this cover-up, we know almost nothing about these paintings. All objects in them seem to have been real objects (most have been identified); were the women also real people? Or were they conceived as kind of muses -- allegories of connoisseurship?

Six of them are now on show at the Taipei National Palace Museum as part of the Yongzheng show.


The Word and The Flesh (5)

Vologases IV

How much I have to explain to you, dear Markia! How very much! And with what precision, how detailed precision! -- detailed in a manner better suited perhaps to the introductory year of one's schooling! Which is not, of course, your fault, but the fault of your world, that Wild West, that West which produced your mother and which consumed your father with its insatiable need to repeat constantly: "We are strong! Invincible! Alone!" When I read your historians and your geographers -- and by "your" I mean not just Romans, but also Greeks, who sold themselves to the Romans -- I can never stop being amazed by the intellectual laziness blowing from all those books. For how can one not term "laziness" that constant overuse of the epithet "barbarian" regarding all those whose life-style, customs, pleasures and ideas require a little effort in order to be understood?

I know, dear Markia, the words you uttered when you first learned about my existence: "Oh, what a pleasant diversion this barbarian princeling's imagination makes!" But what do you know -- and what would you say -- about... the Kushans? You know only that they wear pants which they tuck into tall boots and that the names of their rules usually end in -ishka; and you say "Oh, some barbarian of the sort common east of Euphrates". But these barbarians, my love, have managed to give flesh to the dreams of Eutidemides and Helioklides, and of all the Greek merchants from Seleukia on the Tigris to Marsilia: they managed to establish a customs border with China!

What is more: when Alexandra and I were in India, we spent two years in Taxila, with which surely you must be familiar from the history of Alexander, and out of which, two centuries after Alexander, Demetrios Eutidemides hoped to make the paragon of Greek-Indian spiritual and political unity. You will guess perhaps the exaltation with which I walked about that city of Demetrios: a double exaltation in fact, because after Greeks, we, Parthians ruled India from this city.

But -- it was not a harmonious doubling of exaltation: in Taxila, at the acropolis, I felt myself a thousandfold more Greek than Parthian. And I reasoned like a Greek: with truly Greek contempt for barbarians I looked down at the third Taxila, the Taxila of the Kushans. I laughed in the same way in which you, your mother, and Markos Imperator would have laughed at the atavistic power of nomadic inheritance: the fact that the Kushan rulers preferred to give up all the advantages -- of beauty and defensibility -- which the Eutidemide Taxila owed to its mountainous position; and preferred to build, at enormous cost, a wholly new city down below, so as not to have to part their feet -- and their gaze -- from the low, wide, flat plain.

I shared this observation with Alexandra's father. (He was then -- in vain -- trying to secure Kushan support for my father's dying -- as it then seemed -- rebellion against Vologases III; while it was through the latter king's mercy that I, instead of having died impaled on a stake, and having subsequently been eaten by vultures, crossed and recrossed India in the Eutydemid footsteps without a care in the world). The old fox, who had fooled for half a century Romans, Jews, Parthians, Siakas, Kushans and Chinese, listened to me with one eye slyly half-closed, and when I finished, asked: "And hat do you know about the art of fortification, son?" I admitted that I knew nothing about it. "Pity. Or maybe rather lucky: lucky -- for you. For your peace of mind, for your self-satisfaction. For if you knew anything about it, and took a careful look at the walls, towers and moats down below there, you would soon lose any desire to laugh at the atavist habits of nomadic blood. You say that Kushans do not understand how to employ the advantages of mountainous terrain? You are wrong, my dear. Rather say this: they can afford not to employ these advantages -- afford to see them as mere inconveniences, rather -- which neither Parthians nor Greeks could ever have afforded. Is that clear? I think not! Your mind is too occupied with the question whether Shakyamuni Gautama was or was not a god, too occupied, I say, to understand such simple things as these."

He exaggerated a bit -- as he always did when trying to characterize my mental type; and he did so (by right of being my step-father) at every opportunity. Luckily, he didn't have the opportunity often: after I married Rachela Eratona -- and you know from Alexandra that this happened very early -- I saw my step-father perhaps six, at most seven times over the space of eight years. Afterwards, I was no longer to see him, even if I wanted to, and I did often want to see him: though he was the most cunning devil I have ever known, yet he managed to miscalculate once: he decided to betray my father on the day which he judged to be the day of the rebellion's defeat, while, in fact, it was the day of breakthrough.

For me it was a day of change only to the extent that while up to that day I had been victim of the anger of Vologases III, after that day I became equally victim of an equal anger of Vologases... IV. And never ever after this day, or indeed never ever before this day, have I shed one tear of the sort one might expect an exile to shed: why, exile has its charms, very great charms! One is a martyr -- praise be to Christians, what a useful neologism this is! -- which means that whenever one says or does something displeasing to his hosts, they wink at each other with understanding, sigh and say: "Poor thing! Longing for lost fatherland has unhinged his mind!"

In fact, I did long for something. Not the fatherland, for where is my fatherland? Seleukia? Achaia? Kharakis? Hekatompylos? No. I longed for you.


The Word and The Flesh (4)

Auguste Jean Baptiste Vinchon, Propertius and Cynthia at Tivoli

It seems that I cannot pretend convincingly, though I would so much wish I could. And I know, and have long known, that -- though my mother never attempted to put any poison in the King of King's food, nor even as much as salt -- yet I am the fruit of one of those forty-three nights. The very same nights, dear Markia, which, far beyond distant mountains and seas, your mother passed reciting to herself breathlessly and repeatedly: Quandocumque igitur nostros mors claudet ocellos accipe quae serues funeris acta miei.

Perhaps now at last I can learn how this couplet continues? Perhaps the satisfaction of this curiosity alone might be worth taking the risk (with which Alexandra tries to frighten me day and night) that at last the Roman sword might fall upon my neck? How sad that this thought had not occurred to me then, in Nisa: I would not have had to throw into his face -- between his false eyebrows and his purple beard -- the complaint (interlaced with revolting sobs) that, in order to reach at last the one person who may love me for myself alone, I should be ready to go as a hostage even among the forked-tongued citizens of Iambulos' island (if such indeed exists). Or to those lands, which (as I learned reading with Numerianos some dreadfully dull play of Seneca) stretch somewhere between China and Lusitania.

Accipe, accipe!
What did your mother, and whatshisname -- Propertios -- command to those who were to follow their funeral cortege? Numerianos is prejudiced against this poet: he says that though throughout the entire four books of his elegies he addressed himself to some Kintia, he was in fact only interested in himself. Unlike, of course, Numerianos himself: no one will suspect him of preoccupation with himself since he always so readily yielded his apartment on the Kelian Hill to anyone to whom Didia Klara was at that moment prepared to say "Where you, Gaios, there I, Gaia." Yielded -- both the apartment and her, too; and now he yields her still (though without the apartment); indeed, he offers her (at her request, of course). He even offered me. Oh, no! Numerianos cannot be suspected of Propertios-like self-worship, while he pretends to worship a woman. Though, my father suspects, it is all the same for the rest of us.

"You want love?" he asked, interrupting my revolting sobs. "Are you sure? Personally, I suspect that you wander across the world looking for -- you know what? The most flattering mirror! And for this -- only this -- you are prepared to pay a huge price. A huge price. For instance: the destruction of the Majesty of the King of Kings".


The Word and The Flesh (3)


Ruins of the Parthian capital in Nisa, Turkmenistan (Central Asia).

You will perhaps say “Exaggeration!” – Alexandra said so yesterday. But you cannot say so, because saying so would amount to denying yourself: you would be going back on your own words: your reply (transmitted to me by Klaudios Iulianos ten years ago) to my proposal that you and I should correspond. Do you remember that reply? I will remind you: “I might in principle agree to this: half-breeds like us may correspond with each other in Greek without incurring ridicule. But – oh my distant, unknown friend, why, nearly my brother – Markia’s letters and letters to Markia will surely be intercepted. Let us not expose ourselves to derision then, let them not say that, again, half-barbarians dare abuse the divine tongue of Homer, Pindar and Plato. Let’s spare ourselves this humiliation.”

I wanted then to throw in the face of Klaudios Iulianos the words: and what about Lukianos of Samosata? And Markos Imperator? Neither was even partly Greek: neither had as much as a drop of Greek blood in him! But I was ashamed then to as much as look in the eyes of the commander of Dura and without saying a word I passed from under one sail (with the letters SPQR) under another: one decorated with a half-moon, a star and an anchor. As I leapt from boat to boat, I was pursued by the insistent, though friendly in its nature, and well-meaning advice: “Demand to be sent to Rome for talks regarding the return of the deserters from Roman auxiliary units!” Perhaps it was a sensible and friendly advice, but I did not follow it because I have always been against any talks on the fate of those Syrians who had fled from under the wings of the hated eagles into my father’s kingdom.

But perhaps that is why you are punishing me? For that omission? For that failure to seize the opportunity to meet you in Rome ten years ago already? Perhaps you believe that we are both too old now to create a worthy flesh for your mother’s and my father’s love-wish? That this child should have been conceived then, ten years ago, not now?

But that’s impossible! You could not punish me for that! I am as Parthian as you are Roman. I had my duties, duties of an Arsakid, and you – you had the duties of the favorite concubine Imperatoris Augustii. I had? You had? No! We have them still! Alexandra may not understand this, but you, Markia? It was your view that it was unworthy of the Roman Kaisar to perform in the amphitheater; it was my view that it was unworthy of the King of Kings to give up the deserters, for this reason, at the very least, that since the King of Kings holds himself to be the brother of Sun and Moon, his word, once given, cannot be changed just as the orbits of his heavenly brothers cannot be changed. And if I believe this – and I do, and Alexandra has known this for seventeen years – then it is simply reprehensible of her to try to convince me to flee; and worse than reprehensible to try to enlist you in the effort. My father has concluded peace with Septymios Kaisar, accepted such and such terms, and made me a living security for the fulfillment of those terms. How could I flee then?

Alexandra says: my father has intentionally sent me to my death. Nonsense! Not that he either loves me, or is in any way proud of me; quite the contrary: he has been ashamed by my existence ever since my birth; and indeed has at times wished me dead. But that is over now. Now he wants me to live as long as I possibly can. Mongrel children are an embarrassment to rulers and nations only in times of their presumed greatness; in defeat, rulers and nations draw such children close to their hearts, the more tenderly the more they believe the old tale concerning the half-breed’s natural tendency to betray. The wiser among rulers, though they may share in the belief, do not rest at merely exposing their breasts to the potential viper’s bite; they can look into the minds of half-breeds deeper than I can now look at the coin which I am to hand to Didia Klara tomorrow in payment for Theodotos. And in this matter, at least, my father belongs to the wiser kind; the more insightful kind; the kind who can see at once both sides of the coin. When he called me in for our farewell conversation under the turquoise-encrusted dome of his palace in Nisa, he did not need to remove from his memory the acrimonious cries – and warnings -- of my uncles at his decision to nominate me viceroy of Babylon during the civil war ten years previously. On the contrary: he eagerly inquired whether I still recalled them. And, to make doubly sure, he asked about the health of that elephant upon whose back the daughter of the Kaisar of Kushan had intended to give her body to me -- but she gave that body only much later to ants, to whom the subtle poets and insightful thinkers of the East married her when she’d gone there to bear them (as she thought) enlightenment and its fruit – liberation. That martyrdom – if I may use such a daring neologism – was also known to my father in that moment when his eyes, illumined by the moon and the torches, sparkled with tears – tears brighter than all the turquoises of Nisa! – tears of joy (especially prepared by skillful court doctors) to welcome me, a son who could finally be of some use!

I pretended, of course, that I did not grasp the connection between the question about the health of the elephant and the king my father’s whining complaint that ever since his beloved brother’s rebellion, no Arsakid worthy of the name could inspire in the breast of the King of Kings as much trust as he has for a monkey which he may allow to play in the coconut palm overhead. Or for a kitchen maid whom he might take into his bed only to get tired of her after forty three nights.


Angelica tells the truth

Why don´t you write a book? asks X.

(And Y. And Z. And T. And, most recently, my Angelica. And three days after her, someone else).

The answer is, of course, that as long as The Leopard remains in print, another book is hardly ever needed -- because anyone tempted to pick up and read a book of mine (or of anyone, indeed) is simply better off picking up The Leopard and re-reading it for the 57th (or whatever the case may be) time.

Really: as long as The Leopard remains in print, no other book is ever needed.


Every time I reread the book (a mere 147 pages!), a new aspect of it strikes me.

Last night it was Angelica´s praise for the Prince:

You are so handsome, so manly, so sexy, she says (not her words, but certainly her message). Old? Bah! -- she exclaims -- who could ever be interested in these inconsequential pretty young shrip?

If you have not understood Angelica, she appears to be saying to him you are the man. (And her (young) fiance plays along, feigning one wicked jealousy).

And then she invites Don Fabrizio to dance the mazurka.

Oh no, replies the prince, going along with the game, not the mazurka, I beg you. I am not so old, he says, that I cannot remember. Not the mazurka. The waltz will do. (He means also: I am not so young that I do not understand the ways of the world. Give me a staid boring dance, the sort one may safely dance with her grand-father).

(The prince, you see, is old but wise; and yes, I do mean to say "but" -- unlike in speech, in life "old and wise" is not a common combination at all).


The fact is, of course -- the inexorable fact -- that she invites him to dance as a way of thanking him for having helped to arrange her marriage with Tancredi, who is his nephew: young, dashing... and a shrimp of a man.

(The prospect had been bedevilled by the usual social issues: Tancredi was a poor nobleman, even if he descended from the peers of Charlemagne; while Angelica´s father was a country-bumpkin nouveau-riche with ties to the mafia and no title of any sort at all; this was a difficulty which only a prince could overcome; and overcome it Don Fabrizzio did: for his nephew, whom he loved (how could one not); but also, importantly, for Angelica, whom, had it been another time, another age, he would have loved gladly).

And now Angelica says to him now, you are neither too old, nor too fat, nor too flabby, nor too dull for a young woman to love madly.

But she means -- obviously -- "for another young woman" -- ("not me").

Which is exactly how one needs to read this every time.


In the novel -- believe it or not -- the prince (one too old for a romance with Angelica) is forty-five. Forty five! A requiem for those of us who are today forty-six!


The word and the flesh (2)


Parthians, in the so-colled Sacrifice of Conon, a Parthian fresco,
in the Temple of Palmyrian Gods, Dura Europos.

Yes, I know: I should explain why I think so. And, two days ago, as I waited for your call, I had already prepared the whole argument in my mind hoping that, once we met, once we looked into each other´s eyes, I could lay it at your feet. You should not believe Alexandra when she says that the purpose of the first meeting I had proposed two days ago was only to conceive our first child. No. I did also intend to explain to you everything, or at least as much as time would allow. And I am certain that I would have convinced you about it all: that you and I owe a sacred duty to your father and my mother´s love wish; that my marriages with Rachel Eraton and Samgila were not betrayals of you; and, above all, that Alexandra´s notion that you and I should flee is nonsense.

It´s clear, though, that such a meeting of ours would not have been to Alexandra´s benefit; and thus she did all she could to prevent it. What´s more, fearing that I might discover your hiding place without her help, she convinced you to command me, by letter, that I should not attempt to see you until I have explained to you -- again by letter -- all that about me which you either do not understand or do not approve. And you do not approve, says your letter, a great deal; and you are puzzled by even more. These were your words, am I right?

This "am I right?", and the two sentences preceding it should bring you to the realization that I am still not certain whether the letter which I have received indeed comes from you. You might say perhaps that this suspicion belies what I had said earlier: that I believe that Alexandra never lies. And this would be a valid observation except that I had also added: that it is her custom to omit certain things from the truth. And thus, for example, how would I know whether this letter had not been accompanied by a message which was supposed to be transmitted to me orally? I did have the opportunity to assure myself that the letter was written by your hand (never mind how). And I recognized the seal: I have no doubt that the ring impressed in the wax was in fact the ring I had sent you ten years ago from the left bank of the Euphrates, just opposite Dura.

What´s more: Theodotos the Byzantine, whom you may remember, and whom I had purchased from Didia Klara two weeks ago, barely glanced at Alexandra´s feet as she returned from you but he exclaimed: this is my leather! Here, at the crossing of the straps -- a mark of my tannery!" And he began to cry, poor fellow, remembering what he had once been. I had to remind him that, supposedly, it is easier for the camel to pass through a the eye of a needle than for a rich man et caetera...

And yet, Markia, I am unable to dispel doubt, why, even anxiety. I am unable to believe that it is from you that this order comes: that I should arm myself - for a long time! - with a quill. That I should continue to maim -- maim? desecrate! -- the most glorious, most sacred language of your father and my mother.


Carlyle, too

Tired of reading dull, prosaic, tell'em like you see'em prose? Read Carlyle. (But why is the cover so damn ugly? Best wrap it in brown paper):

Men have, indeed, been driven from Court; and borne it, according to ability. A Choiseul, in these very years, retired Parthian-like, with a smile or scowl, and drew half the Court-host with him. Our Wolsey, though once ego et rex meus, could journey, it is said, without strait-waistcoat, to his monastery, and there, telling beads, look forward to a still longer journey. The melodious, too soft-strung Racine, when his King turned his back on him, emitted one meek wail, and submissively -- died. But the case of Coadjutor de Rohan differed from all those. No loyalty was in him that he should die; no self-help that he should survive; no faith that he should tell the beads.

(Adds Szerb: Rohan lived on, to put it in poetic terms, like a winter tree waiting for some fairy-tale spring).


Antal Szerb

The vagaries of sexual attraction -- writes Antal Szerb -- can be analyzed in terms of sociological type. There are some people who can love only those of lower standing than themselves -- gentlemen of birth who pursue female servants, and ladies of rank who adore coachmen. There are those whose passions are strictly confined to members of their own stratum, and those who can only love those from a bracket higher than their own -- people in whose minds sex and ambition are inseparably fused.


Szerb teaches and delights. Above all, delights.


The word and the flesh (1)

Parthian head, Louvre.

Forgive me, Markia, my love, but I do not believe that Christ has entered into a pact of mutual assistance with you.

But it does not follow from this disbelief that I make light of this revelation (made yesterday by you to me through the intermediation of Alexandra). On the contrary: whether such a pact does or does not exist is far less important than the fact that you believe in its existence, or at least once believed in its existence over the course of a certain period of eight days. This obliges me to reconsider my former view of the mystery of what happened on that New Year´s Eve nine years ago.

You know from Alexandra, that I have always doubted that any plot had really existed between you, Eklectos, Aimilios Laitos, Pertinax and Narkis. But you do not know -- because neither does Alexandra -- that I have always considered as pure invention the story of how you, supposedly, having served your imperial lover poison, and seeing that it seemed to take no effect, called out to Narkis (who was hiding behind a column): "Strangle him!" Yet now I am beginning to think that perhaps that report is true; indeed, that it must be true. And I think this because I think I now understand the entire thought process which guided you in the course of those eight days between the night on which the virgin birth of Mithra is celebrated in Rome and the Roman New Year´s Eve.

Equally understandable is now to me Alexandra´s strange eagerness to report to me your confession. Barely a week ago I would not have been surprised by it, thinking her eagerness and precision perfectly natural, but since I began to suspect (a week ago) that her husband did not die of natural causes, I have come to see her also in a different light from that in which I had seen her all these years since the day she had began to speak. Supposedly my most devoted companion, the most trusted recipient of my innermost thoughts, she proved capable of hiding from me the truth regarding the most fundamental of matters!

I do not suspect her of lying -- oh, no! She never distorts the truth -- she only omits to say things which, in her opinion -- might hurt me. Or so Ardashir, Samgila and Theodotos all say: all three are full of admiration -- worship even -- for Alexandra, that she treats me so gently and so very much tries to spare me any pain. Oh, to think of it! Ardashir, for so many years her staunchest enemy -- now admiring her! But what will happen to his admiration -- and that of the other two -- when I tell them that in this business -- the business of the great mystery: are you or are you not a regicide? -- Alexandra did not take the least care to spare my feelings? On the contrary: she told me the whole truth! How strange!

My mother had taught me not to be mystified but to look for that which is hidden behind the mystifying mask. And in this case, too, I have followed her advice: I have spent the whole night wondering what was behind Alexandra´s eagerness and -- precision. And now I think I know: it was, first of all (contra the triune admiration of my familae) the pure, unalloyed, irresistible and urgent need to cause me pain. And second: the far less pure desire to turn my attention away from a whole series of unusual circumstances surrounding the supposedly natural death of Achilles the Hermopolitan, my, after all -- how incongruously! -- brother in law. Finally, I think that she expected that by reporting to me your confession she will convince me to change my heretofore position regarding her suggestion that you and I should flee to the Far East. But in this she is mistaken: though I am now quite certain that you did indeed murder Kaisar Komodos, I repeat -- not "Flee!", but -- "Reveal yourself!" This idea that you and I should flee -- it is neither in your nor in my interest, and only to Alexandra´s benefit.

(I can only handle two paragraphs of this at a time).


More blatant voyerism

And how about this girl, eh.

Cup with curved rim and qingbai glaze, Northern Song, 11th century, Jiangxi, or perhaps Fanchang county, Anhui, height 7.3 cm.

The word used in the business for a perfect shape like this is "finely potted"; and she is: she shows off that which is best about Chinese porcelain (thanks to the world's best kaolin): it is very pliable when soft and extremely hard once fired, making it possible to produce very thin, fine shapes.

The catalog:

Qingbai wares were made over a fairly long period of time, from the early Northern Song period to the middle of the Yuan period. Their evolution follows a trajectory familiar for many types of wares: the earliest examples are finely made and take their inspiration from already popular wares made at other kilns (...); then there is a period of growing confidence, when the potters develop and perfect their styles -- the classical period; then attention turns to maximizing profit and methods of improving production, such as upside-down firing; and, finally, quality starts to drop off and an attempt is made to cover the deficiency with extravagant decoration and novelties.

Of course, art historians of Chinese pottery are interested in this trajectory model because its automatic application helps them "date" pieces (rather dubiously, I should think); but there is something convincing about it: it may seem to fit many other art forms -- consider the trajectory of Italian painting between 1400 and 1750. There are probably important psychological and economic reasons why this should be so; it bears thinking about, does it not.

But enough theorizing. Look here: the superiority of porcelain over plastic no longer lies in color and shine; but it still lies in the feel of things (porcelain is heavy, hard and cool); and -- in texture. If you look closely at the piece you can just make out (despite my bad photography) that the color of the qingbai glaze is not as smooth to the eye as its surface is smooth to touch. Rather, if you look very closely you will see that the color looks like curdled milk: with more or less uniform-sized fat bits of white swimming in a somewhat darker shade of white. (Click to enlarge).

In this, qingbai is like Lucknawi emrboidery: white on white. (You see a fellow in a shirt and it looks kind of crumpled, like he forgot to iron it. But then you look closer and -- oh my god -- it is covered with a field of tiny flowers!) There is a moment of wonderful surprise; and the pleasure of knowing that we have seen something most will never do.