Bathroom Aesthetics (2)

If you can then arrange for an unseasonal afternoon squall to dump about 3 inches of water into your open-air shower, along with more broken flowers and debris; and to clear up before sunset so that a blue sky -- and the shadow of the fire tree -- can be reflected on the surface the water; that's +7 points.


Continuing education

Oy's a rare enough story anywhere, much more so in the developing world: grown tired of her prospect-less life in the provincial town where she was born, she rebelled, dumped her love-home-town-want-to-stay-near-mom boyfriend and moved to the city, managed to get a job which gives her significant control over her work and pays her enough to afford her own place, a car, and a few extras. At thirty she is were some of us find find ourselves about that age: in control of her life, confident and reasonably content. She realizes the rarity of her success, and is proud of her achievement, but also knows that she's not likely to do much better and does not strive to. There is contentment in accepting our limits -- when they are comfortable.

This is one way a young person's life can turn out: crowned with the contentment of early maturity.

I know, because mine did.

I remember well when I reached that point -- I was then around thirty myself. It felt like the final victory in a long struggle. We spend our teens and twenties trying to figure out what kind of life we want to -- and can -- live and what kind of person we can and should be. And when we at last arrive at a juncture at which it seems that we have finally figured it out, we quite suddenly feel unusually comfortable with ourselves. A period of easy contentment ensues; we call it maturity; and we assume that it will stay with us forever.

Yet, life, it turns out, does not stay still. While we kick back in the comfort of our content thirties, all the while our life changes: we change -- we get older, uglier, frailer, we begin to tire easily, our old routines begin to master us -- and bore us; and the world around us changes: our friends become older, their life situation is now different, and the world around us turns relatively younger, people begin to see us in a new light. As a result some things we assumed we knew -- how to dress, smile, apologize; how to seduce a woman, say, or charm a client -- no longer work.

Back when I was thirty, if I got drunk at a party and made a pass at a woman she might have rejected me perhaps, but would have thought the whole incident funny and me a silly prank, at worst; today the possible downside is far worse: if she does not like me, she's liable to be upset and think me a repulsive lecher. Little things may be even more important, because they are with us every day: with only half my former hair left, I no longer look cute -- but -- miserable -- when uncombed... And since my beard has mostly turned white, I can no longer afford to go unshaven every other day and count on sympathy... If I fall asleep with a lover, I must get up before her and shave... or else she'd think she's dating a geriatric...

I can no longer afford to dress in sweat pants and ripped T-shirts because I no longer have the charm of youth which excuses poverty... Poorly dressed at twenty five or even thirty, I was to many an attractive rogue and it was assumed that I was on the make... but poorly dressed today, I am to those who look at me and don't know me, a poor old bastard: I appear to them a pitiful financial failure. And how much of our success -- and contentment! -- depends on how they -- the people who do not know us -- see us!

Thus, it seems, the period of contentment in which we know perfectly how to act in all situations -- the early maturity -- is just that: early; we outgrow it and we must change and learn again. We must learn new lessons -- the lessons of the middle maturity; and above all how to project confidence, dignity, and probity: the virtues expected of people of our age. (And the only way to earn respect).

And how to accept our new limits -- since trying to go beyond them when so obviously it is not possible exposes us to nothing but ridicule.

(Ah, the new limits. These are the hardest, of course).


Bathroom Aesthetics (1)

You have heard of bathroom humor. You at least should have heard of bathroom literature. Now, it is time for you to hear of bathroom aesthetics.

A good place to start is with an open air shower, tiled in deep sea-green celadon, with a fire-tree for a roof. Not too leafy or else you won't see the sky while you shower. Then you must arrange for a nice stiff breeze from time to time to strike your tree, shake its branches, and strew a few flowers on your floor. Not too many, and, please, not too symmetrically.

It's best if the fire-tree if of the blood-orange variety, but, in a pinch the yellow blossom will do. Of course, yellow blossoms go better with deep blue tile; and as retiling is really only a little more hassle than replanting a tree (after all, once planted, a tree mostly grows by itself); it's best to get your blossoms-and-tile color scheme right -- right off the bat.

Then, you tread upon the whole thing with bare feet. And boy, does it feel nice.


Some thoughts upon the reading of Tanizaki

Tanizaki's life doubles up on itself, in the shape of the letter U. He started out as a Westernizing Young Turk -- from Tokyo, too: through which all foreign ignorance and diseases enter -- the fish rots from the head, don't you know. But he ended up as a back-to-our-(Japanese)-roots cultural conservative -- and even moved to Kyoto -- the delicious Hana no Kyoto, the cultural capital, away from the Tokyo head-rot.

How very moving, say the critics -- a Damascus like conversion. They point to Some Prefer Nettles as the inflection point. They point to the Bunraku in it as the beginning of Tanizaki's interest in Japanese traditional arts.

Too bad about the Bunraku in it, though: I could have written those bits. Why, I could have written them better: to write them better would not have been very hard.

For instance, Tanizaki's discussion of the art form (through the father-in-law's lips) proposes that puppets are to be appreciated in proportion to their life-likeness. Thus, he argues that western marionettes are inferior to Bunraku because they are not as lifelike as Bunraku. (Tanizaki must not have seen good western marionettes).

But any seasoned puppet-theater connoisseur knows that a puppet's excellence lies precisely in its puppet-likeness; that is to say, in the ways in which it explores puppethood; in all the wonderful and surprising ways, in other words, in which puppets are unlike men. Indeed, this is puppet theater's whole -- and only -- aesthetic rationale -- to be unlike the life it depicts. It would have no business existing otherwise (since live actors will always be more lifelike than puppets). Was it Grotowski? Theater which pretends to be life is not a theater, it is a pretense.

Nettles' other traditional bit -- Tanizaki's comparisons between the Osaka and Tokyo singing styles -- is mere obfuscation, too. But let us not be harsh: it is extraordinarily difficult to think about music even for those who understand something of its structure. (It may seem to the speaker to be weighty and meaningful to say, as Tanizaki does, that a certain song sounds vulgar but, in fact, what needs to be observed is that it is unusually low-pitched, for instance).

And so, while I had hoped that Nettles might be an interesting discussion of Bunraku, set, like stones in a bracelet, in any old narrative, treated as a mere excuse for taking up Bunraku, Nettles' best bits turn out -- disappointingly -- the central love story, after all. But these bits read autobiographical, and autobiographical in the worst of all autobiographical ways: they read like the autobiography of a writer whose greatest claim to interest was that -- he was one; which isn't much interest really. (How interesting is a guy who sits all day at his desk, writing?) The autobiography is dull and the character uninteresting. Sorry.

Perhaps the problem lies in Tanizaki's productivity. Perhaps he was too busy writing to have any time left to experience, learn and digest; as a result, there is not enough content in the words. Try to do less, young man, they should teach at the school of creative writing. (Do they?) "Do not try to write thirty novels in your lifetime, young man; only God and Thomas Mann could write more than one good novel in their lifetimes, and both are dead."

Why, when one studies a foreign language, it is safe to assume that one needs to do at least four hours of homework for every hour of classwork; when one writes about art, the ratio has got to be even greater: one needs to spend a year at a minimum studying an art-form before one can hope to write an intelligent page about it; if then.

I would dearly have loved to read a good novel about some traditional art of Japan, but Tanizaki's isn't it. Kawabata's Old Capital is far more successful in this regard. Perhaps because it is Kawabata's last novel: he'd had fifty years of art appreciation behind him at the time of writing. He'd done his homework.

We should be glad of Tanizaki's U-turn, of course: he spent the last 25 years of his life rewriting Genji Monogatari into modern Japanese (the tenth century classic is too archaic for anyone to read today). This is, arguably his greatest contribution to civilization. But it does him little credit that his U-turn simply tracked state policy: Tanizaki westernized when the government policy called for westernization; and he began to go "native" just as the state propaganda turned nationalist. I am not saying he was slavishly following party-line, but he certainly wasn't going against the grain. Kawabata's (and Mishima's) Japaneseness is more convincing: they embraced it against the (again) westernizing policies of the post-war state.

To me, Nettles' only convincing section was Tanizaki's discussion of how Japanese cities rapidly uglified during modernization. This isn't a Japanese phenomenon alone: cities uglify everywhere equally, as if following some universal law of nature: all corpses rot, all cities develop. Development, it seems, necessitates ugliness. (De Soto, a Peruvian economist, explains why: they grow too fast to stay pretty. He promises hope: what are today relatively pretty parts of central London were as recently as 1840 god-awful slums. Just wait 170 years, it'll get better, it might seem. Why even Tokyo might look OK by the year 2080).

It occurs to me that the longing for the past which men like Tanizaki and Kawabata experienced was perhaps not the longing for national roots or authenticity but a flight from the ugliness of development.

Why should development be ugly? Why was the past so much prettier?

One could think up a million ad hoc theories. But -- are they? Were they? Is it possible that what survives of the past comes down to us as it were through a sieve, filtered; only the good survives, the bad having been eliminated and recycled? Has the past, so to speak, been censored for us by our ancestors?

Perhaps. If so, I wish we were censoring the present more actively.


The mystery at the heart of the idea of Eric Rohmer

Eric Rohmer was a misanthrope: his films by and large show people who are stupid, nasty, hypocritical, and self-deceived. The films show no violence and very little suspense, yet they are are "strong" -- psychologically exhausting -- stuff: I can never take more than one a month. (90 minutes' listening to these characters makes me feel sick to the heart).

The fact that the man lived his entire life in great privacy constitutes further evidence of his misanthropy.

I understand the man well: my view of the race isn't any better than his; and I suspect that I am even more secretive and further removed from society than he ever was.

It is this proximity to him which makes me aware of the great mystery at the heart of the idea of Eric Rohmer: why on earth did he continue to make all these films?

If people are nasty -- not worth knowing -- then, surely, there is no point making movies about them. After all, if reality sucks, then nothing much is gained by saying -- repeatedly -- how much it sucks. One should either try to change it; or create alternatives to it; or escape it; or forget it. Constant belaboring of an intractable problem is a recipe for nothing but frustration. Was Rohmer not frustrated by the very labor of making his films?

What's more: if people are nasty, then there is no point making movies for them to see. (Or writing novels for them, or cooking them dinners, or serving them breakfast in bed). And if they are self-deceived deceivers, then there is no point engaging them because -- well, because they don't really know what they are saying and what issues from their lips is not worth hearing.

(Everyday I walk past a pig-sty. I know the pigs are pigs, but there seems to be no point telling them so: they would not understand it).

My guess is that Rohmer knew all this but could not help himself. This strikes me as very sad for Rohmer (who could not have been happy making them) but lucky for us. His films are depressing stuff, not to be taken lightly, but they are still very good films. It does us well to take them -- in small doses, far apart.


A note concerning the title:
I am convinced that Eric Rohmer does not actually exist. He is an idea. A masonic cabal, like the Rosecrucian Society. (Lot's of people believed in its existence, too).


Staring at the pond


My pond is a fascinating place and staring at it is a full time job. It lies in the shade of the trees. In places direct sunlight hits it, and, penetrating below the surface, it scatters within the depths off the small particles of mud suspended in the water creating milky areas of impenetrability. Other areas of the pond lie in varying densities of shadow: the deeper the shadow, the more faithful the reflection of the world above: trees, sky, and clouds. The wind moves the trees and with it, the effects on the water shift.

Now, add to that complexity other layers of complexity: that there are here and there objects -- usually dry leaves or flower petals -- scattered and floating on the surface of the pond. In other places objects sunken under the surface can be seen: branches dropped in the water by the wind, or fish sunbathing lazily right under the surface. As if that was not enough, the surface of the pond is sometimes disturbed: perhaps a fish has stirred near the surface; or a kingfisher skimmed the surface in an attempt to catch a small fry; or something fell into the water from the trees above. All these events cause different sorts of waves, resulting in different patterns on the water; and sometimes two happen at once, creating a kaleidoscopic interference.

An American naturalist who sometime in the 1820's retired to live in a shack by a pond, wrote how sitting by the pond and staring pointlessly brought up to his lips, unawares, a silly smile. I emulate that great literary model a great deal these days.


Two kinds of happiness


Back in the 1950's a woman wrote a book about ecstasy: her point was to argue that there really is such an experience (since descriptions of it ranging from religious to literary to erotic texts were all strikingly similar across all ages and cultures) and that, presumably, there must be a brain mechanism responsible for its generation.1 Though she did not say it, the book's one possible implication was that, if we only learned to manipulate that mechanism...

The book passed without an echo. (It was the fifties, after all: too early to talk about sex; and ecstasy does not seem to interest anyone unless it be sexual).

I have forgotten it, too: the experience which interested the author did not interest me. It seemed too tiresome: it was too intense sort of thing for me. Who wants to writhe with pleasure? (Don't get me wrong: pleasure is fine, but I am not such a great fan of writhing).

What interested me in her book was another experience of pleasure. This the author did not discuss at great length -- only long enough to define it and to say that it is not the subject of her book. She termed it "The Adamic Experience" (that is, that of Adam in Eden, before The Fall). She also called it the Oceanic Experience, from the way it feels: the experience of utter and complete calm, like looking at the ocean from a great height, gently undulating beneath us.

Milosz has a poem which captures it:
A day so happy.
Fog lifted early. I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.

I became intimately familiar with the experience during the six years when I lived by the sea. And I have done well to tame it since; at times seem able to just turn it on at will.

(Alas, un-philosopher-like, this ability to do so depends entirely on the circumstances in which I find myself: the place must be both beautiful and -- quiet. You see, the oceanic experience enters, so to speak, through the eye but escapes through the ear).

But my last several days have taken me away from the oceanic calm and back towards ecstasy.

I don't have Laski's book with me here, so will make a literary reference I can recall: Lawrence Weschler's Vermeer in Bosnia. In one of its essays a man recalls: "it was soon after I returned from Japan... I was driving on [some freeway in Southern California] and these waves of intense pleasure just rolled over me one after another."

Well, that's what happened to me yesterday while I lay on my terrace in the afternoon and looked up at the sky through the trees:

Intense waves of pleasure, like waves of heat emerging from a kiln, washed over me.

I stared up hungrily, insatiate.

It was no doubt a malfunction of the brain.

Ecstasy is bad for us. It upsets us. It makes us greedy. It makes us grasp. We want more. We fear it may stop.

And happiness is not built on fear and desiring.

But I was OK with it for a day.
A little writhing is good every now and then, I suppose.
At my age and all.

1 Marghanita Laski, Ecstasy: a Study of Some Secular and Religious Experiences


And new cups, plus a word on universal goodness


The two mugs are thinly potted, well proportioned (both pretty to look at and well-shaped to limit heat-loss through surface evaporation), light-weight (easy to lift, don't take too much heat out of the tea), and they fit my hand perfectly (they are five-fingers-high and just the right width for my hand to wrap around comfortably). They take about 200 ml of tea, which is about the right serving for my body-size (and appetite). The fluted opening assures that the edge remains cool, allowing one to lift them (as one lifts Asian cups -- by the edge) without burning one's fingers.

The first one is matte. I have yet to research this type of glaze.

It's certainly very pretty: mildewed reeds in early autumn. This cup is especially pretty inside:

even though, personally, I prefer cups with white or light-colored glazing inside as they allow one to see the color of the tea. (This is not only pleasant, but also has the practical benefit of allowing one to judge whether the tea is strong enough).

The second cup is glossy-glazed. The outside glaze is called robin's egg: the glaze contains a mixture of two different salts which melt at slightly different temperatures and separate in the kiln, creating tiny, milkish runs in a dark-blue background.

This is not the best robin's egg I have seen, or even the best I own, but it is the best robin's egg I own on a cup which is comfortable to drink from. This glaze is famously difficult to fire: out of 10,000 cups perhaps 2 or 3 might be "perfect" (and command huge prices). Finding a piece which has both the right shape and a well-executed robin-egg is very difficult.

The inside is glazed in a different color: a kind of blond caramel. This, too, has run revealing finger marks on the inside of the cup (the cup was thrown on a wheel). They seem to me like the ribs of the great behemoth -- seen from inside the belly.

I like containers with a strong color contrast between inside and outside. And the caramel color is light enough to allow me to see the color of my tea.

I have declared these two cups to be a set: similar enough to be a set, yet different enough to be interesting. I like to mis-match my pottery this way: uniform sets testify to the aesthetic laziness of the host.

I'll serve you your tea in them when you come. By the side of my pond, of course (small ponds being, as you know, the perfect place to have tea, especially if there is a small wooden bridge nearby, or a small painted wooden boat; or so says a Chinese classic, the Chasu).

Here I have them all: the pond, the bridge, the boat, and the tea.


The Platonic question as to whether there are universal values has herein its answer: some cups are better than others. A cup must be not too large (or one can't finish the tea) and not too small (or one is kept busy rebrewing and refilling); it must be of a shape that fits one's hand well; and shape and thickness which won't cool the tea excessively; it should be white or light-colored inside to allow one to evaluate (and enjoy) the color of the tea.

Thus a goodness of an object can be shown to depend on the use to which it is put. It is very well for someone to say "I prefer that cup over this", but what if he is not a tea-drinker? Then, in a certain sense, his opinion is irrelevant and his cup is probably useless -- for tea.

Similarly with glazes: as one learns about the techniques and looks at different pieces executed in it one learns to recognize quality -- the difficulty of the piece and the excellence (or not) of its execution: a connoisseur is only as good as the sum total of everything he has seen. It's hard to say that a robin's egg is better than a celadon; but it is quite easy (and uncontroversial) to say that this robin's egg is better than that. And thus under certain circumstances one may well say that this robin's egg (a rare, well executed robin's egg) is better than that celadon (a badly executed celadon). In this sense it is true that quality is relative; but not in the sense in which the phrase is usually meant: there is nothing arbitrary about the goodness, only the initial conditions are. (E.g. shall we have a tea cup in robin's egg? If so, which one will do best?)

Thus it can be seen that there are true value judgments: they are true within a context. It's a little like the direction in which you point your car: north is the good direction if that is in fact where your destination lies. But if that is where your destination lies, no other direction will do.


Some new pottery on the table, too

I read somewhere recently (I think it was in Tanizaki) that men who are too fond of ladies when they are young, generally turn into antique collectors when they are old.

"Tea-sets and paintings take the place of sex", the quote continued, rather coarsely.


Here's a plate in what is called "robin-egg" glaze, not terribly good, but coloristically very pleasing and a pleasure to eat off. Bright yellow omelets especially make for a nice color contrast.

And here is a large shallow serving bowl, sang-de-boef ("bull's blood", a paste-like deep brownish red) on the outside, buckwheat ("soba") glaze on the inside. Look up close at the glaze: it looks like it contains tiny flecks of gold.

This one is great for stir-fried greens, especially the bitter dark-green sorts.

Plate three bucks, bowl ten. Aesthetically speaking, my life is worth billions. I bet Warren Buffet does not get half the pleasure out of his Cherry Coke (registered trademark).

But, reluctantly, I am prepared to concede that Hari-Hara II (he of 20,000 wives) probably had more fun in his late forties.


Two cheap "batik" prints, Indonesian, ca. 2009

Like the title says. Each less than 4 bucks. What a cheap way to beat the blahs.


Seven Against Thebes (13)


Thanks to poetry and works of art, the Mycenaean Age lives on today in our imaginations as the springtime of our civilization, our first blushing youth. Adventures of daring heroes, loves which bound mortals and gods, mysterious oracles, great feats of arms, dangerous sea expeditions towards unknown lands where great treasures lay guarded by terrible monsters – such is the legendary stuff of those few centuries.

The decipherment of the clay tablets has revealed a new face of that age. Of course, even before the decipherment it was understood that poetic imagination must surely have lent a shining glow to what must have been a more prosaic truth. Yet, as soon as the script has spoken, we learned that the age which serves as the setting of practically every Greek myth was first and foremost an age of tireless pedantic bureaucratic activity: a vast army of bureaucrats controlled a strictly centralized economy through the manufacture of tons of accounting records. It turns out to make no difference whether one writes on paper or on clay; nor does the bookkeeping system make any difference. Indeed, considering their primitive level of material development we must admit that when it came to their efforts to record all details of their economic reality, Mycenaeans could easily compete with every other economic management to date.

And this despite the fact that the archives which have come down to our times must surely be but a small fragment of the great bureaucratic output of the vast state apparatus of command and control of the time. Yet even this is enough to create a rather depressing impression. It’s natural, of course, that the palace had to keep records of various categories of soil and a careful population census. The constant recounting of the contents of the state treasury – objects made of gold, silver, bronze, ivory, weapons and chariots – is also understandable. What is striking, though, is the meticulous record of every smallest vessel of olive oil or wine, of every measure of wheat: from whom it was received, to whom it was issued, how it was spent or used – for the needs of the king or the staff, or for divine sacrifice. The office also wished to know what at any one moment every one of its subjects is doing – and where; what work he was performing and the amounts – in goods or labor – still due from him.

Thus, we have before us several thousand short warehouse notes: lists, receipts, and commands of the sort: issue; send; receive; owes; there is. These short notes allow us to form a certain image of the state and its society. It’s only fragmentary, of course, and somewhat nebulous but some things are quite clear: both the political structure and the class and property relations were complex and inflexible; they do not recall in the least any of those idyllic freedoms which are so easy to imagine when we think of the mythical age.

There were in Greece at the time several centers of political power; all may have recognized the primacy of Mycenae, at least formally. At the head of each state stood a ruler titled wanax. In later Greek the original meaning of this word was changed: wanax (or rather, as one then began to pronounce it, anax) was merely a powerful lord, an aristocrat. In the Mycenaean times, wanax meant the first person of the kingdom, its king; he performed also priestly functions; his position was nearly divine. This is perhaps why so many heroes of the myths are considered to be sons of gods and why the title “son of Zeus” is used by Homer for every prince. Below the wanax there stood his highest official, lawagetas, which could be rendered as “leading the people”, the equivalent of our wojewoda. It seems that his political power may have been no smaller than that of the wanax; and in some instances he may have controlled the reins of power. The subsidiary princes controlling smaller divisions of land were called basileus. It was this title which in later centuries, after the fall of the Mycenaean world, assumed the meaning of “ruler” or “king”.

Rulers had by their side a team of warriors; these were called epeta. In addition to them, to courtiers and court ladies, and to the lower serving classes (who may have been slaves) there were also, in each palace, large numbers of artisans: smiths, goldsmiths, potters, cartwrights, even makers of incense. Above them was placed a large contingent of scribes noting scrupulously how many cloaks were left in storage, how many oarsmen ought to be sent to Pleuron, who, and in what amount, submitted spices for food, which chariot needed a new wheel. We must say one thing in their defense: as Mycenaeans did not possess coins and all pay was paid in kind, careful evidence of property was in order.

We will yet have the chance to speak of the great treasures of Mycenaean palaces, and where they came from; for now let us say that the basis of the economy lay in the production of grain, vine and olives as well as in animal husbandry. But what of the property relations? Sources are not clear on this and scholars are divided. It seems that the lands belonging to the king – and perhaps to the princes, also – were called temenos. The same word was used for the property of the gods. Some pieces of land seem to have been held in common by the communities; others were held privately; both kinds were often leased out. Every piece of land was of course evidenced in the state archive and weighed with heavy dues. It could not be leased without state permission.

Mycenaean bureaucracy was not unique in the world at the time. We see similar systems of government in Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia. But comparison with the record of the clay tablets found in the Syrian city of Ugarit is instructive. Ugarit archives date to the same period (fourteenth-thirteenth centuries B.C.). Yet, in the Ugarit record we also find religious texts and fragments of poems as well as trade and tax records. But the Mycenaean record is nothing but pedantic, all-encompassing, merciless account-keeping.

It is often said that the Mycenaean world collapsed in the twelfth century as a result of the invasion of wild barbarians from the north, the Doric tribes. But it is interesting to try to imagine how these arrivals from the north managed to capture the massive Mycenaean fortresses. It is suggested that their victory was due to their superior weapons: the Dorians are supposed to have had iron while the Mycenaeans only bronze. This is not certain: there is no evidence that the Dorians used much iron; and in any case, iron weapons do not confer much advantage over bronze weapons, certainly not the sort that firearms offer over bows and arrows. Finally, neither iron swords, nor indeed numerical superiority would have been of much use against the Cyclopean walls of Mycenaean fortresses, had only those fortresses been manned by a people determined to defend themselves. Even later, in classical times, large and well armed armies often proved useless when faced with even minor fortifications: there was simply not enough useful siege machinery.

Given all this, another theory seems attractive: that Mycenaeans gave in to Dorians because their subjects were not interested in defending a state whose sole purpose was to record – control – collect. The greatest enemy of Mycenaean fortresses were not iron-clad Dorians down below but their own bureaucrats scratching out little symbols on their clay tablets inside.

Various aspects of bureaucracy are subject to the famous laws of Parkinson (summed up in Parkinson's Law: The Pursuit of Progress). The first of these concerns the self-sufficiency and alienation of the bureaucracy; other laws, proposed in a later work, present in great detail the mechanism and consequences of the growing tax burden. The basic problem, says Parkinson, lies in the fact that the bureaucracy is unable to understand that there is an objective upper limit to tax obligations. It is difficult to discover this limit through economic measurement because it is not a function of the level of income or productivity, but of certain inalienable features of human psychology. In some situations, given a certain tax burden, it simply becomes inefficient for the populace to continue working productively; its main object becomes finding methods to dodge its tax obligations. In such instances, the bureaucracy becomes a kind of cancerous growth, which functions very well for its own needs, flourishes and multiplies but – kills the organism which supports it.

Ancient history knows many examples of sudden collapses of great states and whole civilizations as a result of this disease. Perhaps the fall of the Roman Empire, bureaucratized to its very core, is the most famous example. Roman citizens welcomed their barbarian invaders with relief. Mycenaean archives allow us to guess that the destruction of the world which they served came in a similar manner.

If so, it would the first instance of the functioning of the laws of Parkinson on our continent.


Seven Against Thebes (12)


The first clay tablets covered with symbols were discovered in Knossos, on Crete, in the year 1900. Identical symbols were found on clay amphorae discovered in 1921 in the ruins on Theban Cadmea. The number of tablets dug up in Knossos rose every year: we now have more than four thousand: it was in fact the palace archive. But Crete was only one of the centers of Mycenaean civilization. The Mycenaeans captured it only around the year 1450 B.C., arriving from the mainland. Yet, there were hardly any examples of the script on the mainland; the only proof that the script was used there were inscriptions on the amphorae discovered in Thebes and later in Tiryns and Mycenae; and, of course, the tablet from Alcmene’s tomb.

But this all changed in 1939. In that year great excavations were began in Pylos, on the western shores of Peloponnese. In the Mycenaean period it was one of the more important castles; it was the seat of the old wise man Nestor, before whose wisdom even king Agamemnon, the commander of all the Greek armies at Troy, bowed his head in respect. Like in Knossos, a palace archive was found in Pylos. In the first year alone over six hundred clay tablets came to light. After World War II, excavations were resumed in 1952; and every year since then dozens, sometimes hundreds, of new clay tablets have come to light. Yet, in Mycenae, though it gave its name to the entire period, and though it was perhaps the most powerful of all the castles of its era, barely a few score tablets have been found. Nor has an archive been discovered in Tiryns. Perhaps this is not an accident: perhaps the richer centers have been pillaged more mercilessly by invaders?

What do the tablets look like? They are made of ordinary clay, in various shapes; some are rectangular, like the pages of a notebook, and covered with even lines of symbols which march, as in our own script, from left to right; others, long and narrow, look more like palm leaves. Sometimes the tablets were dried in the sun, though they were never fired. Nor was it necessary: even those unable to read the script can quickly figure out that most of the symbols represent nothing but rows of numbers, weights and measures. The tablets served a practical purpose: they were intended for the keeping of accounts and the maintenance of lists. Once they have fulfilled their role, they were mixed with water, erased, and reused. It was the cheapest and most readily available writing material. The tablets which survive to our times owe their survival to the great fires which raged in the palaces when their civilization collapsed, when the Mycenaean principalities fell and their states went into ruin.

One is free to speculate, perhaps, that those works, which were considered important and valuable, may have been recorded on a more expensive but less durable material – such as papyrus imported from Egypt (since Mycenaean trade contacts with Egypt, and the whole Middle East, were very close); but while in its country of origin, papyrus was preserved for millennia by dry air and desert sand, in the humid climate of Greece it rotted away quickly. Some texts, held to be especially valuable, were perhaps inscribed on bronze tablets; a practice also followed later by Greeks and Romans. But bronze has always been valuable and sought after and, following the fall of the Mycenaean world the conquerors probably ruthlessly melted down all bronze objects which they could lay their hands on; only those buried in the ground survived – as was the case with the tablet later found in Alcmene’s grave. This history was to repeat itself: when the Graeco-Roman world collapsed, most ancient bronzes were destroyed (and religious fanaticism aided the destruction): tablets and statues went into smelting furnaces to be reborn in new shapes. Even marble was not safe: masterpieces of sculpture were used as ordinary building materials.

But back to the humble clay tablets, of which we have by now thousands. As their number grew, efforts to decipher them became ever more intense. All sorts of hypotheses were proposed in order to break their secret. Some even followed in the footsteps of the Spartans, turning to Egyptian hieroglyphs for help, or Babylonian cuneiform. But these odd ideas proved fruitless. Most scholars turned in other directions. Egyptian hieroglyphs did play a certain role: the story of the decipherment of such a difficult, complicated script over a hundred years earlier inspired hope: why should the Mycenaean signs, so much simpler, resist decipherment?

First, scholars arrived at a general outline of the history of ancient scripts on Crete and on the Greek mainland. By about the year 2000 B.C. there already existed on Crete a hieroglyphic script: its signs represented objects and concepts and we know it only from short inscriptions on seals. Later a new, simpler script appeared, called now Linear A. Then, in the fifteenth century B.C. Mycenaeans conquered Crete and took over the script, adapting it significantly in the process. This is the script known as Linear B; it spread quickly across the Mycenaean world and survived until the end of the civilization in the twelfth century B.C. while the use of the earlier scripts has always been limited to Crete itself. Following the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization, the knowledge of Linear B script was lost forever. For several centuries, Greeks managed without any sort of script at all and only sometime in the ninth century B.C. they borrowed Phoenician alphabet, which became the basis of the Greek, which in turn gave basis to Latin, and therefore ours.

Even before the script was deciphered, much could be surmised about its nature. First, it was possible to distinguish a large number of signs which represented persons, animals, plants, weapons and vessels. There are several score such signs; we have mentioned them already. Their precise meaning is sometimes not clear as they are often very sketchy, simplified, symbolic representations; but it is quite clear that they are ideograms, that is, signs representing objects or concepts. It was also clear that some signs were used to represent numbers. Their discoverer, Arthur Evans, the excavator of Knossos, established their values by 1935: horizontal lines represented units, vertical lines – tens, circles – hundreds, circles with four spokes sticking out – thousands. There also existed signs representing fractions, weights, and measures. But the most critical is a set of over eighty symbols which are found in ever shifting combinations, like the letters of our own alphabet. But they could not simply represent vowels and consonants, because to do that job a much smaller number of signs would have been sufficient. The idea suggested itself therefore that this may have been a syllabary script. It was remembered that still in historical times the Greeks of Cyprus used a strange script, possibly a distant descendant of the Mycenaean, whose every sign represented a syllable: either a vowel or a consonant plus a vowel, for example a, i, to, ro, ka.

But these were all general observations; none addressed the heart of the problem: in order to decipher Linear B we first had to know what language it was used to transcribe. Only then one could try to propose phonetic values for different signs and, through the process of trial and error, arrive at some sort of result. And thus the crucial question arose: who were the Mycenaeans? What was the language in which all these thousands of tablets from Knossos and Pylos and all the inscriptions on the amphorae in Thebes and Mycenae and Tiryns were written?

The Greeks themselves considered the men of the Heroic Age as their own ancestors (if more courageous and capable). But in modern times completely different views on this matter arose. There were those who claimed that the civilization was Illyrian; this people, now extinct, did indeed occupy much of the Balkan Peninsula in antiquity. And though most scholars thought that the Mycenaeans had been Greeks, there was no proof of it as long as the script remained silent.

We don’t have the space here to present the whole laborious process of decipherment of Linear B. And though we should mention Alice Kober, an American scholar, who, in 1950, was the first to observe that certain groups of signs of the script appeared with a frequency suggesting the existence of inflection of nouns in the Mycenaean language, we won’t repeat the whole story: someone else has already told it much better: the close collaborator of the discoverer of the truth, John Chadwick, in his highly readable The Decipherment of Linear B. The actual discoverer of the mystery was a young architect, Michael Ventris. Both were English, but we’re allowed to mention that the mother of Michael Ventris was Polish.

In 1953 there appeared an article jointly penned by the two men; it summarized the main findings of the many years of their labor; asserted that the Mycenaean language was Greek; and provided a glossary of the phonetic value of the signs of Linear B. But Ventris did not live to see the publication of the definitive monograph – Documents in Mycenaean Greek – published in 1956: he died in a car accident that year, aged only thirty four.

Using the phonetic key provided by Ventris it is possible to decipher the tablets, though with an important proviso: the script had not been originally designed to fit the phonetic structure of the Greek language; and in fact, since it was borrowed from another language, it lacks some signs necessary to record certain sounds indispensable in Greek, such as the consonant l. As a result, practically all words recorded in it were distorted; and thus we find in the tablets the name Castor recorded in the script as Ka-to-ro, the word leukos as re-u-ko, pater as pa-te, Pylos as py-ro, sperma as pe-ma, krater as ka-ra-te-ra. These distortions are not too difficult to decipher, but in some cases it is quite difficult to figure out what Greek word was meant.

The second obstacle to decipherment is equally important: in the Mycenaean language there existed many words, some native, some borrowed, which in time dropped out of use and were no longer known in classical times; some others changed their meaning entirely. This, of course, should not surprise: gradual change lies in the nature of language: after all, we find fifteenth and sixteenth century texts in our own language difficult to read without use of dictionary or reference to footnotes. But Mycenaeans have left us neither footnotes nor dictionaries: any word whose meaning is not apparent from the context, or through its links with some classical Greek term, is for us, today, simply dead; it is only an empty sound. This is why the text of many of the tablets remains mysterious or doubtful.

But broadly speaking, it is possible to say that the Mycenaean archives have opened up; that they have spoken.


Reading Marcel, at last

Giotto, Charity, Capella degli Scrovegni, Padua.

I have waited until now to begin reading Proust.

For many reasons: first, the book is famously slow and dense, so I waited for the right, slow moment in my life to start it. This winter, I thought, the time had come: I had three months on a farm in the country, all to myself; and it was a content, contemplative time, a good moment to take up a slow book.

Also, I had delayed starting on Proust because I was a little hesitant about Old Marcel... So many highly regarded classics have turned out disappointing... Most prominently, authors like Jane Austen and James Joyce, writing beautifully about the middle class of their time, tired and bored me precisely because they wrote about the middle class of their time. (Stupid and dull, yes, why belabor it over 1800 pages?) Proust's reviewers suggested Marcel's work was also about people who would bore me... Certainly their life problems seemed, well, Austenjoycean, uninteresting in the extreme. In short, I was afraid that Proust might turn out to be just like Joyce: all fireworks of style and structure and -- stupid boredom within.

But now I know that the reviewers had not done Marcel justice. Indeed, that Marcel is not even the book they describe.

For one, not one of them has mentioned that what Marcel writes about are chiefly aesthetic impressions, of which a substantial part is about the sort of impressions that interest me most in my own life: encounters with art (much of it decorative), literature, and nature.

Take, as an illustration, track 8 of the audio-book (I am listening to Marcel rather than reading him with my own eyes, which leaves me time to stare at the sky and clouds).

The track starts with the discussion -- not so much learned as sensitive and therefore insightful in the sort of way one never gets from art historians and scholars -- of Giotto's Virtues. (I quote it at length at the end of this post to give you a taste of Marcel).

The track then goes on to cover the joys of reading books in a summertime garden (hear, hear!) which turns into a sort of review of an imagined author to whom Marcel confesses a special connection. ("Bergotte" appears to write his own thoughts for him, a bit like Parnicki -- a real author, I swear -- seems to write mine for me). It is, in fact, a description of the sort of literature Marcel wished someone had written for him to read -- instead of the sort of literature he was obliged to read (my own experience much of my reading time). It then launches into a speculation on why it is that characters in books feel closer, more immediate to us than the real people we meet in waking life, and -- wow -- better stuff on aesthetics of literature has not been written by any scholar I have read.

Then Proust launches onto a few childhood memories, sweet and beautifully rendered, but not important: they serve as a kind of delightful itermezzo -- a side dish of pickles to rest one's lips between the bouillon with pork dumplings and the roasted phaesant -- before he turns to the discussion of the different ways in which his aunts (provincial Jane Austens all of them) discussed art (with worshipful but firm judgments, voices of rote-educated certainty) and the way Swann -- a true connoisseur, from the capital, too -- did: full of hesitations, value words used with reservation, in quotation marks, so to speak, as if forever wanting to say both yes and no all at the same time.

Each one of these reflections -- on Giotto, on literature, on connoisseur perceptions of art -- is a mini essay on subjects which interest me vitally. And they are interesting, observant, and well written. And that is just track 8, of 24 of the first volume, Swann's Way. You see, the novel is perhaps nothing so much as a collection of essays on aesthetics, a fabulous necklace of fantastic vignettes strung together haphazardly: an aesthetic miscellany a la Sei Shonagon except richer because, since Shonagon's time, there has been another thousand years of art and literature to store up and savor.

Why has no reviewer I ever read ever mentioned the existence of these vignettes on art and literature within the body of the novel? Why have all repeatedly spoken about memory, falling asleep, middle class life, plots, emotional tangles, Proust's poetic prose, his homosexuality, and his famous encounter with Joyce but not this -- this, the stuff which makes the heart of the novel, its true purpose and point? Could it be that the reviewers, like Proust's dumb middle class aunts, have no such experiences themselves, entertain no such thoughts, and when they do encounter them, they consider them insignificant, merely decorative intermezzi between the main dishes of... plot and character description?

But no more of that. Time to go back and re-listen to track 8... I have heard it perhaps ten times already and each time it ends, I decide to hear it again, feeling that I have merely skimmed its intense richness. A part of me wants to memorize it, word for word.

Listening to Proust is a bit like watching the daybreak. When it is on, we are wholly engrossed in it, but when it is over, we feel that we have missed most of it; and that it has dealt with us underhandedly because it ended and it had no business ending.


A Taste of Marcel

Proust's essay on Giotto's Virtues, from the chapter entitled Combray. Enjoy.

"...These last recalled the cloaks in which Giotto shrouds some of the allegorical figures in his paintings, of which M. Swann had given me photographs. He it was who pointed out the resemblance, and when he inquired after the kitchen-maid he would say: "Well, how goes it with Giotto's Charity?" And indeed the poor girl, whose pregnancy had swelled and stoutened every part of her, even to her face, and the vertical, squared outlines of her cheeks, did distinctly suggest those virgins, so strong and mannish as to seem matrons rather, in whom the Virtues are personified in the Arena Chapel. And I can see now that those Virtues and Vices of Padua resembled her in another respect as well. For just as the figure of this girl had been enlarged by the additional symbol which she carried in her body, without appearing to understand what it meant, without any rendering in her facial expression of all its beauty and spiritual significance, but carried as if it were an ordinary and rather heavy burden, so it is without any apparent suspicion of what she is about that the powerfully built housewife who is portrayed in the Arena beneath the label 'Caritas,' and a reproduction of whose portrait hung upon the wall of my schoolroom at Combray, incarnates that virtue, for it seems impossible, that any thought of charity can ever have found expression in her vulgar and energetic face. By a fine stroke of the painter's invention she is tumbling all the treasures of the earth at her feet, but exactly as if she were treading grapes in a wine-press to extract their juice, or, still more, as if she had climbed on a heap of sacks to raise herself higher; and she is holding out her flaming heart to God, or shall we say 'handing' it to Him, exactly as a cook might hand up a corkscrew through the skylight of her underground kitchen to some one who had called down to ask her for it from the ground-level above. The 'Invidia,' again, should have had some look on her face of envy. But in this fresco, too, the symbol occupies so large a place and is represented with such realism; the serpent hissing between the lips of Envy is so huge, and so completely fills her wide-opened mouth that the muscles of her face are strained and contorted, like a child's who is filling a balloon with his breath, and that Envy, and we ourselves for that matter, when we look at her, since all her attention and ours are concentrated on the action of her lips, have no time, almost, to spare for envious thoughts.

Despite all the admiration that M. Swann might profess for these figures of Giotto, it was a long time before I could find any pleasure in seeing in our schoolroom (where the copies he had brought me were hung) that Charity devoid of charity, that Envy who looked like nothing so much as a plate in some medical book, illustrating the compression of the glottis or uvula by a tumour in the tongue, or by the introduction of the operator's instrument, a Justice whose greyish and meanly regular features were the very same as those which adorned the faces of certain good and pious and slightly withered ladies of Combray whom I used to see at mass, many of whom had long been enrolled in the reserve forces of Injustice. But in later years I understood that the arresting strangeness, the special beauty of these frescoes lay in the great part played in each of them by its symbols, while the fact that these were depicted, not as symbols (for the thought symbolised was nowhere expressed), but as real things, actually felt or materially handled, added something more precise and more literal to their meaning, something more concrete and more striking to the lesson they imparted. And even in the case of the poor kitchen-maid, was not our attention incessantly drawn to her belly by the load which filled it; and in the same way, again, are not the thoughts of men and women in the agony of death often turned towards the practical, painful, obscure, internal, intestinal aspect, towards that 'seamy side' of death which is, as it happens, the side that death actually presents to them and forces them to feel, a side which far more closely resembles a crushing burden, a difficulty in breathing, a destroying thirst, than the abstract idea to which we are accustomed to give the name of Death?

There must have been a strong element of reality in those Virtues and Vices of Padua, since they appeared to me to be as much alive as the pregnant servant-girl, while she herself appeared scarcely less allegorical than they. And, quite possibly, this lack (or seeming lack) of participation by a person's soul in the significant marks of its own special virtue has, apart from its aesthetic meaning, a reality which, if not strictly psychological, may at least be called physiognomical. Later on, when, in the course of my life, I have had occasion to meet with, in convents for instance, literally saintly examples of practical charity, they have generally had the brisk, decided, undisturbed, and slightly brutal air of a busy surgeon, the face in which one can discern no commiseration, no tenderness at the sight of suffering humanity, and no fear of hurting it, the face devoid of gentleness or sympathy, the sublime face of true goodness."


The whole text is to be found here. You can hear the delightful opening of the book, its first 2.5 minutes, with its two Homeric metaphors, here.


Seven Against Thebes (11)


These last words of Polymnis have caused Simmias to lose all sense of time and place. The faces upon which he gazed seemed to him to be the faces of others, and their voices seemed to reach him from far away, bringing to his ears words from twenty years earlier.

Yes, it happened twenty years ago. The small, damp room was also full of young men. And on the bed there also sat an old man. He rubbed his ankles because only a moment ago chains had been removed from them by the government commissioners who also informed him at the same time that his sentence would be carried out that day. Xanthippe was still there, by his side, crying and whining. Socrates, while continuing to rub his ankles, spoke to those gathered somewhat brusquely: “Take her home, will you?” Someone indeed got up and took her and the children away. Only when the men were left alone in the Athenian prison cell could they begin serious conversation.

Simmias thought to himself, full of admiration, what a faithful friend Plato was. In one of his earlier dialogues he had written that it was Simmias and Cebes, also a Theban, who’d offered a great sum of money to save Socrates from execution. But just a few months ago Plato sent Simmias his new dialogue, Phaedo, representing the Athenian wise man’s last moments. Simmias noted that in this dialogue Plato assigned him a very noble role: he has him, immediately upon Xanthippe’s departure, go right to the heart of the matter and ask why Socrates was so eager to depart from this world. This question then begins a great discussion of the final things: what is death; is there such a thing as the soul; what happens to us when it parts from the body? Only sporadically is this conversation interrupted by the shy requests from the guard: would Socrates please try not to get too excited, or his body will warm and he will have to take the bitter poison two or three times more. But the old man has but one response to all these pleas: he waves his hand and orders that a great deal of poison should be prepared in advance. And then, with great interest, he launches upon the philosophical discussion, his last. He defends the view that death is a liberation, a passing into a better world. And who is his main opponent in this great debate? Who is trying to deprive the dying man of hope? Why, Simmias and his friend Cebes.

Simmias admired the subtlety of this idea very greatly, because he understood perfectly Plato’s intentions. After all – this is mentioned right in the first pages of the dialogue – both Simmias and Cebes had once been students of Philolaus, and Philolaus had played a leading role in the Pythagorean brotherhood. The existence of the soul, and her transmigration from one body to another following death, were among the brotherhood’s central tenets, which set out to link up various trends of mysticism with advances in mathematics.

But Philolaus was not an orthodox Pythagorean; he claimed that the soul was a kind of harmony. But the harmony of what? Of the various parts of the body? If so, then the soul would cease to exist the moment the body’s various elements were destroyed. A well tuned lyre is the necessary condition for the existence of an invisible, disembodied, beautiful, divine harmony of music. But if one breaks the lyre, and rips or cuts her strings, then this harmony dies, even though she is not herself material. It would be pure nonsense to claim that the harmony still exists into eternity, all of its own powers, only because she is so beautiful. Our body is like the lyre: it is made of various parts, and they remain in a state of certain mutual tension, or tuning, just like the lyre’s strings. When this tension changes, or weakens, such as, for example, when we are ill, its effect is immediately reflected in the state of the soul; and, though she be so very beautiful, and so different from tangible matter, she is irretrievably lost when the body’s constituting parts come apart.

Simmias read an argument like this in Phaedo – and it was supposedly his own! He smiled when he first read it; and he smiled now as he remembered it because Plato was being wittily contrary: everything he wrote was of course god’s own truth, everything that is except one detail: for Philolaus had never claimed that the soul was a harmony of the various parts of the body. So what was it a harmony of? This Philolaus revealed only to the select few, and Plato knew this well; and now, by compelling Simmias to make the argument, supposedly the argument of Philolaus, while in fact not at all, he paid homage to their shared secret.

It was in any case an excellent thought to take as Socrates’ opponents these two young men who’d become famous in their day for their own mystical inclinations.

Socrates died in May 399 B.C. It was then that this great debate about the immortality of the soul took place. Their teacher’s death scattered his friends and students. Their lives took different paths and they developed different kinds of philosophical views because their teacher had not presented them with ready-made solutions, but inculcated in them that which is most important in one’s intellectual life: how to search, how to ask questions, how to doubt.

During the twenty years which have passed since his death, Simmias traveled a great deal, saw many lands, learned many things, met many people. He also wrote a great deal. As if competing with Plato, he, too, composed philosophical dialogues. There were twenty three of them, but they were all short, each took up only one slim volume. (And all are now lost). You will recall that Simmias returned home to Thebes at the time when the plot against the tyrants and the foreign garrison, was ripening. The old man hosted the plotters in his house; they awaited the arrival of the plotters from Athens, but he -- the arrival of a guest from far away. Could that Pythagorean, who had sacrificed at the tomb of Lysis, be that man? he now asked himself.

But for the moment, Simmias did not occupy himself with thoughts of the mysterious foreigner. The Plato’s dialogue which he had just remembered would not let him rest. The wise man thought:

That meeting in Socrates’ cell has become a myth. It was no longer important what really happened. All future generations will see Socrates’ last hours with the eyes of Plato. Even I myself begin to believe that I said then what I am made to say in Phaedo. But, in fact, it was me who was the true eye-witness of the event because I was there while Plato – was not because he was sick! It was me who cried when Socrates lifted to his lips and drained the cup of poison. Apollodorus wailed then out-loud, but Socrates strode back and forth across the cell (so as to distribute the poison through the body more quickly) and spoke with a note of criticism:

“What sort of men are you? Did I not order the woman sent away so that we would not have to see such scenes? Besides, does not the moment of death deserve the dignity of respectful silence? Come on, then, calm down! Control yourselves a little!”

"So writes Plato, who only knows the story second-hand. Yet, I, thought Simmias to himself, seem ready to swear that this is how things happened and that such were indeed Socrates’ last words! But then what is truth – and what fantasy and poetry? And, in any case, what is needed more: faithful recording of facts? Or their presentation in a manner which makes them most memorable and which thereby gives them their own immortal life? I would dearly wish for such a fate for these meetings at my own bedside! Well, I may not measure up to Socrates, I suppose; nor am I yet awaiting my death. Yet, the fate of a large city, and of thousands of its citizens is being decided here, so perhaps these conversations of ours will rise one day to the stature of legend?

"Are there perhaps distinct degrees by which reality transforms itself into poetry and rises to immortality? Here is Plato who presented the last hours of Socrates somewhat faithfully, and yet – more beautifully. Then, long after all of Socrates’ students have died, someone else will take up the subject again and give it yet more color and more drama. Eventually, dramatists and poets will sing it – how much of the original events will be left by then? Perhaps no more than our names? Perhaps a thousand years from now Socrates will be worshiped as a demigod? One thing seems certain: scholars will argue as to the sort of person Socrates really was; what his true teaching was; and what were our actual arguments on the last day of his life. And no one will ever know for sure.

"In just this manner we worship the heroes of the Heroic Age; and yet, I am certain, they were once ordinary men; their only virtue may have been agility, or strength of arm; they became heroes only because of the passage of time – and the work of poets. For let us see it the other way around: just as the figure and death of Socrates seem to be gaining by degrees a certain strange glow right in front of our eyes, so it must have happened in the past, many centuries ago, when legends began to accrue around the works of some mortal men, until, in time, both they and their times became what they are to most of us today: part of a great epoch of superhuman beings.

"Someone whispered in my ear a moment ago that seven of our friends are already waiting in the wilds of Kithaiorn. We know that they are men no different from many of us: brave, yes, but subject to all the same laws of nature, and their success or failure depend entirely on the vagaries of fate, on accident. But the participants of the first expedition of seven against Thebes seem in our imagination god-like. And all of this merely because we are separated from them by the gulf of time, dozens and dozens of generations, of which each reverently received the stories from the one before, added a little more color to them, and passed them on to the one after. After all, that first expedition against Thebes predated even that against Troy! How many heroes of the Trojan War are praised as sons of the heroes of that earlier war!"

Simmias was right. The first expedition of seven against Thebes is mentioned several times in the Illiad as a great and important war in which the most important princes of their time participated. If one accepts that Troy was destroyed somewhat before the year 1200 B.C., then the first expedition would have had to take place around the year 1300 B.C. or even earlier, since it often happens in myths that distant events are pushed close together. And this is understandable: all those years in which nothing memorable happened seem to dissolve into thin air.

Simmias was also right in assuming that those distant times were not different from his: the same sort of ordinary men, ordinary concerns, ordinary works. Our decipherment of Linear B script showed this very plainly.


In the 18th century the French have painted a great number of paintings representing Socrates' death. They are all uniformly awful, including the famous Davide: pompous, rhetorical, and stiff. Too much reverence for a subject can be very bad for the art.


Seven Against Thebes (10)

Auguries and Fate

The Theban poet Pindar, dignified and enigmatic, begins his Sixth Nemean Ode:

There is but one, one tribe of gods and men! Both we and they take our breath from the same mother. But the relative powers of our two branches of our single tribe are very different and they divide us. One is as nothing, while the other owns the bronze house of heaven, which lasts forever. Though on occasion we approach the immortals by the dint of great thought or strength of body, we never know to what end our fate drives us – drives us day and night.1


Suddenly, the conversation at the house of Simmias (the one on the topic of Alcmene’s tomb) was interrupted by the a new arrival. It was the father of Caphisias and Epaminondas. An older man already, his name was Polymnis. He greeted the host and sat down next to him, on the bed, because the room was already very crowded. Then he turned to his son and their companions:

“I bring a request from Epaminondas; it is meant for you, Caphisias, but also all you present here. He wishes to ask you, that, unless you have some other urgent business, you may wait for him here because he wishes to introduce to you a certain foreigner. The foreigner is a worthy man and has arrived here with a noble mission. He was sent here by Italian Pythagoreans to offer sacrifices at the tomb of Lysis. He says that his journey here was occasioned by dreams and visions reported by many members of the confraternity. He has brought with him a considerable quantity of gold and he wishes to pay Epaminondas for all the costs which he incurred while supporting Lysis in his old age. But we neither wish nor ask to be aided in our poverty.”

Simmias’ face lit up and he cried:

“You speak of a worthy man and one who deservedly carries the name of a philosopher! But why did he not come to us directly himself?”

Polymnis explained:

“It seems that he spent the night at the tomb of Lysis. Then Epaminondas took him to bathe at the stream of Ismenos. Only now are they coming here, to your house. He’d spent the night by the tomb because he hopes to take the dead man’s remains with him to Italy and he wanted to see whether some deity might not appear to him and order him otherwise.”

Barely did Polymnis finish, when Galaxidorus, seated in the back of the room, piped up. He spoke with great passion:

“By Heracles! How difficult it is to find a man free from stupidity and superstition! Some fall prey to these diseases as a result of inexperience or weakness; while others wish to appear to be extraordinary men, favored by gods. This is why they wrap their lives in a nimbus of divinity, a cloud of mystery, and put dreams, visions, and other such nonsense above rational thought! One could, I suppose, forgive politicians when they do this sort of thing, appealing to auguries or oracles or omens, because they deal with the stupid, vulgar crowd; so they use superstition as a rein, to lead the masses where they please. But it is not worthy of philosophers to behave in this manner; why, it is against their very calling! After all, what is the promise of philosophy? That she will teach us that which is good and that which is useful; and that she will teach them rationally. But now, here, it would seem, philosophy, by turning to omens and dreams, looks to gods as the origin of all action and thereby disrespects reason. Here, she no longer values a well made logical argument, which is supposed to be her distinguishing characteristic, but interprets soothsayings and nightmares. Well, anyone at all can claim to be an expert in this sort of baloney, and more expert than a truly wise person, too. But if your Socrates had valued philosophical education, it was because he thought that simplicity and common sense were the noblest and the closest to the truth.”

Theocritus (a soothsayer, after all) interrupted him excitedly:

“How comes it, Galaxidorus? Have you, too, been convinced by Meletus that Socrates despised belief in gods? You know, perhaps, that this is precisely what he was accused of! Twenty years have passed since the court case of Socrates, and his lamentable death, but, surely, this business is still well remembered?”

Galaxidorus went on the defensive:

“Well, of course Socrates did not disregard gods altogether. The problem lay elsewhere: Pythagoras and his students have filled philosophy with visions, myths, and superstitions; then Empedocles blew it up full of some sort of Bacchic hysteria. It took Socrates to teach philosophy again how to look rationally at reality and to search for truth through logical analysis.”

“Very well”, Theocritus agreed, “but in such case, my dear, what do we make of the daemon, which Socrates considered his protective spirit? Is it a lie, then? One hears a lot about Pythagoras’s skill at soothsaying; but to me nothing seems quite so mysterious as the daemon of Socrates. Homer gives to Odysseus the goddess Athena as his companion in all his travels and adventures; in this same manner Divinity equipped Socrates, from his earliest youth, with the ability to foresee the future. It was his unfailing guide in life; it seemed to walk ahead of him and light the way in all difficult matters, which were beyond ordinary mind’s ability to conceive. But ask his companions, like Simmias here, about it and they will tell you more and better. I can only aver what has happened in my own presence. It happened in Athens, when I was visiting the soothsayer Euthyphron. One day – you, Simmias will remember this – Socrates was walking uphill, towards the house of Andocides, all along the way asking questions and jokingly perplexing Euthyphron. Then, suddenly, he stopped and became lost in thought. Then, he turned round and walked straight down the Trunkmakers’ Street and to those who’d gone ahead of him he cried: Follow me, I had a divine omen! Most followed him, myself included, since I always kept close to Euthyphron. But a few young men went on, ignoring Socrates’ warning, as if wanting to test the daemon’s warning. (The flautist Charillus was among them). When they arrived in the Graver’s Row, near the courthouse, their path was blocked by a huge flock of filthy pigs. There was no way to go on, and the pigs pushed on like mad. And it all ended with some of the men being knocked over by the pigs and others splattered by dirt. Charillus arrived home – we roomed together – covered in filth head to toe. Since then we always laughed whenever someone mentioned Socrates’ daemon, but we were quite impressed that the deity never left him and that she tried to warn him even in such trivial matters.”

Polymnis, the father of Caphisias, broke in:

“As for me, Galaxidorus, I have heard somewhere that the famous daemon of Socrates was no more than a sneeze, whether his or someone else’s. Now, if someone sneezed on his right, no matter whether it was forward or behind, he considered it a good omen and proceeded with whatever it was that he had intended. But a sneeze on the left would stop him from carrying out his original intention. His own sneeze, whenever he was about to commence some action, always encouraged him, but stopped him if he was already in its middle, since he considered it a warning... But... this seems odd to me. Because, if he really let himself be guided by sneezing, then why did he tell his friends that it was some sort of protective spirit which ordered him to do this or not to do that? This sort of boasting would have been alright with some young show-off, but not a worthy man who’d risen above the common rank thanks to his simplicity and honesty. It seems really odd that he should let himself be guided by some sort of a voice overheard accidentally or by someone’s sneezing. After all, Socrates showed great determination and energy because he based his actions on firm principles. For example, he remained in utter poverty his entire life out of principle – since so many would gladly have helped him out with greatest readiness. And he did not abandon his love of wisdom though so many tried to prevent or dissuade him. He did not yield to the pleas of his friends, who had so eagerly and handily prepared his escape. Truly, I do not believe that a man guided by mysterious voices and sneezing would have been capable of such principled life!”

1 Did you know? (1) Pindar's odes were intended to be performed by a choir and danced. (This is the origin of the term "foot" for a measure of poetry). Pindar is said to have composed both the music and the choreography as well as directed the performances. (2) Pindar's poetry earned him divine fame: nine hundred years after his death, the priest of Apollo at Delphi still intoned every night as he closed the temple doors: Let Pindar the poet go unto the supper of the gods.


The magical procedures (sleeping by the tomb in expectation of a prophetic dream, bathing in a sacred stream, etc.) and the reasoning (what is the difference between a daemon and a sneezing?) are readily familiar to anyone who has spent any time in India. The classical Greek milieu reminds me of no other place on earth more.


Betrayed by our paladins, or, why there is (nearly) nothing worth reading these days

Here is a fragment taken from an introduction to Joseph Roth's Radetzky March penned (maybe) by Nadine Gordimer, a South African writer, political activist and -- get this -- Nobel laureate:

Roth's petite phrase in the single great work into which all this transforms is not a Strauss waltz but the elder Strauss's Radetzky March, in honor of the Austrian field marshal who was victorious against Sardinia. Its tempo beats from the tavern through Vienna and all the villages and cities of Franz Joseph's empire, to Berlin in those novels where the other imperial eagle has only one head. For Roth's is the frontier of history. It is not recreated from accounts of the past, as War and Peace was, but recounted contemporaneously by one who lived there, in every sense, himself. This is not an impudent literary value judgment; it is, again, the work that provides a reading of the author's life. Here was a writer obsessed with and possessed by his own time. From within it he could hear the drum rolls of the past resounding to the future.

Pretty impressive, huh? Nadine can keep this going, too: this goobledy-gook is sustained for full thirteen pages plus footnotes.

What does it mean? Not much: as far as I can figure it out, the editor should probably have suggested to replace the above with something like:

Throughout Roth's work, the motif of the Radetzky March repeats; it must be important, I guess.

Now, such resolute editing would have cut the introduction's thirteen pages to less than one, but what remained would still not have been worth saying -- or writing, or reading. Certainly not worth paying for: really, the publisher's online division should sell the book with Gordimer's introduction as an optional add-on. ("Would you like Nadine Gordimer's introduction to the book for an additional $1.59?" Check: "No.")


How does a person like Gordimer come to write this sort of trash? The genesis of the paper is easy enough to unravel, if you know how publishing works:

1. The publisher thought Roth was a long shot and decided to invest a little money in a credibility-building introduction by Someone Famous.

2. An agent-friend happened to know that Nadine was a bit short of cash (the Nobel prize's 1.3 million bucks being such a small sum, poor us) and suggested to the publisher that a Nobel Laureate would do nicely as an intro -- not for the sales of Roth, certainly- Roth is dead in the water anyway -- but for the publisher's profile, at least. ("Think, you'd be a Nobelist's publisher!")

3. Nadine, seeing the publisher's low standing on the industry's totem-pole (who the heck is Overlook Press? Nice logo, though), demanded a far stiffer fee than either the publisher or the agent had reckoned with.

4. As she figured, they gasped and -- accepted (in the, oh, so predictable hope of further "cooperation" between the Illustrious Laureate and the humble publisher thus honored by her).

5. But, having stiffed them for the fee, the Laureate ended up be feeling a little bad, and turned in a few extra pages of copy to mollify them -- and avoid any rows. She didn't exactly feel obliged to do any real work, though: a sufficient quantity of words alone would suffice, she felt. (Has not Gordimer's favorite philosopher said that quantity eventually passes into quality?)

So you see how the essay came about -- in the form in which it did.

Now, for the other question: how about authorship? Did Nadine really write those pages herself? Or did she, Dali-like, subcontract the introduction to her driver (or was it her masseur)?1

The question is not outrageous: the introduction makes it plain that Nadine is not above a spot of misrepresentation: she has most certainly not read any of those Roth books she claims therein she has.


This truly is a shameful thing. It is a shame, of course, if Nadine thinks her essay is good (she can't possibly, but if she does, then she obviously does not deserve her literary awards); but it is a double shame if she does not because that means that she is prepared to produce dreck and put her name to it; I say a double shame because by doing so she shames old Alfred N. After all, the Nobel Prize's whole point was to make it unnecessary for the elect to do such blameworthy hack work.

And yet, here is a Nobel Prize Laureate, vandalizing literature, offending us with substandard production. This introduction is somewhat as if, if walking into Versailles ca. 1750, a grand duke, or a peer of the realm, let out a loud fart.

Nadine, Nadine, does not Noblesse oblige anymore?


So, dear reader, if you are looking for the causes of our cultural decline, look no further. Our cultural Paladins have betrayed our cause. Our Nobelists and Manbookers and Pulitzers are selling it down the river for a fee. Blase, they pollute our books and journals with trash, feed us substitute food -- cornflakes made out of recycled cardboard and polyurethane packing -- saying to us haughtily: "I wrote it, eat it", and do not even feel ashamed by their own betrayal.

And we do not protest?

1 It is widely suspected in the art world that many of Dali's lithographies were made, with his full knowledge, by his secretary but then signed by him. The medieval masters often used their students to fill in the less important bits of their works, of course, but -- note -- they did not sign their paintings.