A simplistic but sometimes compelling reinterpretation. Of course, points taken away for inserting plot elements to further the ends of the reinterpre...moreA simplistic but sometimes compelling reinterpretation. Of course, points taken away for inserting plot elements to further the ends of the reinterpretation. A better attempt would be to only try and reinterpret existing events and not include new ones just to drive the new plot. 85/100 for the attempt Uncle Orson.(less)
Not a word in the dictionary to rest your head on. How can a true lover of language endorse it? How can a Grammarian escape himself? Hanuman watches t...moreNot a word in the dictionary to rest your head on. How can a true lover of language endorse it? How can a Grammarian escape himself? Hanuman watches the city he will destroy by naming and then by fire, Paz observes the Noble Monkey and destroys him by writing about him, and then sets himself down on paper, to be destroyed by the reader as he reads. The words flowing into meaning, the meanings flowing out as they do. Paz reads about Valmiki who had read Hanuman's readings of the battle of Lanka. Valmiki erases, Hanuman erases, Paz erases. Only Splendor survives.
This is one of those books that is humbling and infuriating at the same time. The reader becomes the author and then the actor and then again a mere reader. Then a review is to be written that makes no sense to anyone else. That is the end of this reading. Thank You.(less)
Though the title gives a misleading idea that the book is an exploration of folktales from around the world, the real scope of this work is limited mo...moreThough the title gives a misleading idea that the book is an exploration of folktales from around the world, the real scope of this work is limited mostly to the folklore and mythology of Native Americans and to a select few indigenous people like the Maori. Every chapter opens with this recurring note claiming that the subject of that chapter is 'found in almost every remote corner and among almost all cultures', and then gives one or two greek and Indian examples before jumping right ahead into an exhaustive cataloguing of related Native Indian legends.
As the book proceeds, it starts to read suspiciously more and more like a mish-mash of doctoral theses of a group of the author's students than a polished and structured work of non fiction. One place where I found this amateurish nature very clearly was when the chapter on 'Rabbits and Hares' opened with this phrase: "Perhaps fittingly we come to the hare and the rabbit following on the heels of the tortoise." This would have been a witty and apt opining to the chapter if only they had taken care to incude the chapter immediately after the tortoise chapter, which was more than seven chapters ago.
The criticisms being said, the book is still an exhaustive and informative one, especially if the reader happens to have a special interest in comparative Native Indian legends. Also, the original intention of the author in writing the book is noble as he tries to bring together many tales of a mythic and folkloric nature to illustrate how universal our beliefs truly are — not how different one culture is from the next, but how similar they are.
The book is split into two parts and the first part is concerned primarily with the mystical creatures such as fairies, elves and vampires that are spoken of and written about for thousands of years in almost every corner of the world.
The second part is about the spirit beings appearing in animal and insect form that have accompanied spiritual belief and traditions around the world.
Some of the interesting legends explored include:
Little People - one of the most enduring and widespread legends of the world
Water People - is also found in most legends in surprisingly similar garbs. My major complaint at this point was that the author treated the legend of 'Water Babies' in detail without mentioning Charles Kingsley even once!
Forest Folk - was perhaps the most interesting section of the book as it talked about the variety of elf lore. Here is an extract that I found particularly interesting:
Tree elves have been popular in many cultures; they have been said to inhabit the elm, oak, willow, yew, fir, holly, pine, ash, cherry, laurel, nut, apple, birch and cypress trees. Each of the tree elves is created from the specific tree and thus takes on the characteristics of that tree. While all of these species of trees have a resident elf, “the elder”, writes Nancy Arrowsmith, “has without doubt the highest elf population.”8 The lives of the “elder elves” are linked directly to their tree and so they are very protective of it.
The appearance of tree elves varies according to the tree from which they originated. The oak elf will appear as a gnarled old man and the birch elf appears as a thin white female. The oak has guardians in England, Italy and Germany.
Another insight from this chapter was about creation of contemporary myths. The story below illustrates the fact that myth and folklore continue to be created in contemporary times, often utilizing traditional lore as the basis for new stories and providing more fuel for the evolution of oral culture.
"John Mbiti reports, in his book African Religions and Philosophy, an incident that took place in Ghana in the 1960s. During the construction of a new harbor at Tema, equipment was repeatedly stolen and a company investigator, an Englishman, was sent to look into it. After his investigation was over, one of the European supervisors mentioned to him that a lone tree was causing him a great deal of trouble. All the other trees in the area had been cleared but one relatively small tree remained. Every attempt to remove it had failed, as the heavy equipment always stalled when approaching the tree. One of the African foremen said that the tree was magic and could not be removed unless the tree spirit could be persuaded to move on to another tree. A shaman was called in; he sacrificed three sheep and poured three bottles of gin onto the roots of the tree as an offering. Evidently, the ritual worked as the machinery could be started, and a few of the workmen simply walked to the tree and were able to pull it up out of the earth."
Giants - Interestingly enough, the author points out, Irish mythology links giants to the Little People. Barbara Walker is said to have theorized that the giants “shrank as popular belief in their powers waned before the encroachment of the new [Christian] religion. Eventually they became fairies or elves, not giants but ‘little people’...This reduction in their size was surely related to a reduction in their awesomeness.”
Fairies - form the land-spirits and cover the gamut from leprechauns to gnomes.
Wild Man Legend - The story of 'Enkidu' from The Epic of Gilgamesh is mentioned before passing into native american lore
Horned Beings - The omnipresence of horns in mythic symbolism and the Pan and Devil connection and the origins of the devil archetype is well-explored in this section.
Ghosts and Vampires and Werewolves are also given separate chapters but I failed to find much of interest in these except that the Vampire legend is much older than I had expected and most of the contemporary stories and association are purely Hollywood generated.
All these nature spirits may really be expressions of mankind’s primeval sense of the mystery and awe of nature. But the author tries to insinuate throughout the book that they might just be true and yet undiscovered species that existed on Earth, as in this excerpt:
We are only capable of guessing about the origins of these tales and if, in fact, the folklore of Fairy is based on some event or people that, while not really representing a mythic race of supernatural beings, did strongly alter oral traditions. Such mythic tales may have spread rapidly through trade and cultural interactions. H.R. Ellis Davidson, historian and former president of the British Folklore Society, summarized the difficulty in her book, Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: “The idea of the fairies as a former race who remained hidden from men has been explained as memories of an earlier culture displaced by more powerful invaders, but it might also be based on traditions of the land-spirits, who, as in uninhabited Iceland, possessed the land before settlers came to live there.”
Fairy lore around the world, the author concludes, is remarkable for its uniformity between countries, cultures and times. What are the reasons for this, he asks and tries to speculate on whether these stories just that — stories or whether they are the tales passed down from generation to generation to explain the unknown or to persuade children to behave in certain ways or are maybe even something else...
The only real 'scientific' speculation that the author tries is based on a by now commonly known but remarkable discovery, in 2004. On the isolated Indonesian island of Flores a cave yielded the remains of half a dozen “little people” — described as 'Hobbit-sized' (or, more accurately, only half the size of modern humans), that had existed on the island for some 95,000 years. It is possible that for 30,000 of those years they occupied the area alongside Homo sapiens — modern humans. While this was a plausible conjecture, the author then tries to project this theory to explain giants too even though he concedes no proof is available. Another interesting explanation for giants that the author mentions, if only in attempt to refute it is - "While many stories of giant skeletons may be attributed to excavated dinosaur and mammoth bones..."
The section on animal and insect myths opens with a good anecdote:
It was not uncommon in medieval France for pigs to be tried for attacking and killing children. One sow was actually executed after being tried at Falaise, Normandy, France in 1386. Charged with infanticide, “Defence council for the accused animal,” wrote Nicholas Saunders “was provided at public expense.”
Some of the animals covered are:
Snake - With such detail it was amazing that the authors forgot to mention the dragon myth…
Turtles - While the turtle is symbolic of longevity, it is also symbolic of things that we mostly find distasteful, such as cowardice, the obscene, braggarts, and to the ancient Egyptians, an enemy of the sun god. However, the turtle’s larger cousin, the tortoise, is symbolic of all that is good. In ancient mythology, the tortoise carries the world on its back, while the Cosmic Tree grows out of that same carapace. The tortoise represents fertility, regeneration, the beginning of time and creation, and immortality. It is also symbolic of the moon, the waters and the earth mother.
Cats - Black cats are normally thought to bring bad luck — except in England, where they have the opposite effect. Images of black cats in England are made into good luck charms?
Other animals covered include; toads and frogs and their associations with magic and witches and regeneration potions, Dogs and theirs associations with death and the underworld, Bees, Bears etc...
In addition to the above, contemporary beliefs are also explored and the effect of christianity on folk lore was also given due emphasis.
In the end, the author leaves us with a lot of examples and an illusion of connections but no real synthesis is attempted to bring together these disparate stories and try to construct a narrative linking them or try to explore their evolution. Which is why, even if a few mistaken assumptions may have discredited much of his work, Sir James George Frazer still rules, at least for me. I will take an attempt at coherence over obsession with data any day.(less)
The hopes of all men and of...more Man, being reasonable, must get drunk;
The best of life is but intoxication:
Glory, the grape, love, gold, in these are sunk
The hopes of all men and of every nation;
Without their sap, how branchless were the trunk
Of life's strange tree, so fruitful on occasion:
But to return,—Get very drunk; and when
You wake with headache, you shall see what then.
~ Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto II, Stanza 179.
If we offend, it is with our good will.
That you should think, we come not to offend,
But with good will. To show our simple skill,
That is the true beginning of our end.
Consider then we come but in despite.
We do not come, as minding to content you,
Our true intent is. All for your delight
We are not here. That you should here repent you,
The actors are on hand; and, by their show,
You shall know all, that you are like to know.
The Lightweight Satire
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is often viewed as a lightweight play, but it is much more than that. It is one of Shakespeare’s most polished achievements, a poetic drama of exquisite grace, wit, and humanity. It has perhaps become one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, with a special appeal for the young. But belying its great universal appeal it might be a stinging social satire too, glossed over by most in their dreamy enjoyment of the magnificent world Shakespeare presents and also by the deliberate gross-comedy in the end that hides the play from itself.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an Archetypal play where charm, innocence, violence and sexuality mix in giddy combinations. In this fantastic masterpiece, Shakespeare moves with wonderful dramatic dexterity through several realms, weaving together disparate storylines and styles of speech.
It offers a glorious celebration of the powers of the human imagination and poetry while also making comic capital out of its reason’s limitations and societies’ mores. It is also perhaps the play which affords maximum inventiveness on stage, both in terms of message and of atmosphere.
The Course of True Love
“The course of true love never did run smooth.”
1. In some ways Lysander’s well-known declaration becomes one of the central themes, as the comedy interlocks the misadventures of five pairs of lovers (six if one counts Pyramus and Thisby) - and uses their tribulations to explore its theme of love’s difficulties.
2. Also central to the play is the tension between desire and social mores. Characters are repeatedly required to quell their passion for the sake of law and propriety.
3. Another important conflict is between love and reason, with the heart almost always overruling the mind. The comedy of the play results from the powerful, and often blinding, effects that love has on the characters’ thoughts and actions.
4. Third antipathy is between love and social class divisions, with some combinations ruled out arbitrarily, with no appeal to reason except for birth. This when combined with upward aspirations and downward suppressed fantasies form a wonderful sub-plot to the whole drama. Represented best by Bottom’s famous dream.
Each of these themes have a character representing them that forms the supporting cast to the lovers’ misadventures, defining through their acts the relationship between desire, lust and love and social customs:
1. The unreasonable social mores is represented by Egeus, who is one character who never changes. (Also perhaps by Demetrius who appeals to the same customs to get what he wants)
2. Unloving desire by Theseus who too never changes, and also perhaps by the principal lovers (H&L) in their original state. (Helena could be said to represent ‘true’ love but Shakespeare offers us nothing to substantiate this comforting assumption. It is also important that the women's loves not altered by the potion, which is very significantly dropped into the eyes, affecting vision - i.e. it can affect only superficial love.)
3. Lack of reason, though embodied in all the lovers, are brought to life by Puck as the agent of madness and of confusion of sight, which is the entry-point for love in Shakespeare.
4. Finally, class aspirations and their asinine nature by Bottom himself
Out of all these, every character is given a positive light (or an extra-human light, in the case of the fairies) except Egeus, who is the reason for the night-time excursion and all the comedy. In fact, Shakespeare even seems deliberately to have kept the crusty and complaining Egeus out of the 'joy and mirth’ of the last celebrations - he disappears along with the over-restrictive society he is supposed to represent - of marriages, reasoned alliances and ‘bloodless’ cold courtships.
Hence, it is social mores that compel the wildness on love which is not allowed to express itself freely. When freed of this and allowed to resolve itself in a Bacchanalian night all was well again and order was restored to the world.
This reviewer has taken the liberty of assuming that this is the central theme of the play - which is also deliciously ironic since it is supposed to have been written for a wedding. What better time to mock the institution of marriage than at a wedding gala?
So in a way the four themes - difficulties of true love, restrictions by propriety and customs, and the comical unreason that beset lovers, and class differences that put some desires fully into the category of fantasies - are all products of social mores that impose artificial restrictions on love and bring on all the things mocked in this play by Shakespeare.
In fact this is one reason why Bottom could be the real hero of the play (as is the fashion among critical receptions of the play these days) - he was the only one comfortable in transcending all these barriers, at home everywhere and in the end also content with his dreams and in the realization that he would be an ass to try to comprehend what is wrong with the world.
The Subtle Satire
The lovers’ inversions of love could be taken to be a satire on the fickle nature of love but I prefer to see it as another joke at the expense of social mores - of the institution of marriage and courtship, in which each suitor professes undying love in such magnificent lines until he has to turn to the next and do the same. This is reinforced by allusion to how women are not free to ‘pursue’ their loves as men are since social mores allow only the man to pursue and the woman has to chose from among her suitors. It is quite telling that it wasBottom who accepted love and reason seldom go together and expresses the hope that love and reason should become friends. His speech echoes Lysander’s in the previous scene. Lysander, the aristocrat instead is just another attempting to find a way to understand the workings of love in a rational way, the failures emphasize the difficulty of this endeavor. Lysander thus ends his speech by believing/claiming his newfound love for Helena was based on reason, quite absurdly, but yet quite convinced - representing most of mankind.
By taking the lovers to the enchanted forest of dreams, far from the Athenian social customs and into land where shadows and dreams rule, and then resolving everything there, even allowing Bottom a glimpse of aristocratic love, Shakespeare seems to say that it is the society that restricts love and makes it artificial - all that is needed is bit of madness, a bit of stripping away of artificiality - throughout he cupid’s potion. Again the need for a bit of madness (lunacy, mark the repeated moon ref). It is almost an appeal to the Dionysian aspects of life - see alternate review on Nietzsche for detail. (Also see these two Plato-based reviews for important and balancing takes on 'rational' love - Phaedrus & The Symposium
Puck Vs Quince (or) Diana Vs Cupid (or) Art Vs Entertainment
Significantly the final words of the play belong to the master of misrule, the consummate actor and comedian, Puck. In some sense, Puck, with his ability to translate himself into any character, with his skill in creating performances that seem all too real to their human audiences, could be seen as a mascot of the theater. Therefore, his final words are an apology for the play itself. Also mark how Puck courteously addresses the audience as gentlefolk, paralleling Quince's address to his stage audience in his Prologue.
Thus, the final extrapolation on the theme could be that Shakespeare ultimately points out that though a bit of madness and wildness is needed to bring love back into the realms of the truth, it can also be achieved through great art, through sublime theater - not by bad theater though! This could be a statement that Art and thus Theatre is a substitute for the madness of love that is needed to escape the clutches of society (and live the fantasies away from the constricting artificial 'realities') and find yourself, to rediscover yourself away from ‘cold reason’.
When the actor playing Puck stands alone on the stage talking to the audience about dreams and illusions, he is necessarily reminding them that there is another kind of magic - the magic of the theatre. And the magic it conjures is the magic of self-discovery. Continuing the play’s discourse on poetry, Puck defines the poetry of theater as an illusion that transports spectators into the same enchanted region that dreams inhabit. Thus the spectators have not only watched the dream of others but have, by that focus of attention, entered the dream state themselves.
This ‘finding yourself’ seems to be the most essential part of love and as long as you are constrained by imposed restrictions, this is impossible. That is why Shakespeare has made it easy for us and created an art-form of a play that allows us to dream-in-unreason and wake up refreshed. But there is a caveat too, highlighted by the parallel prologues of Puck and Quince - A ‘Crude’ entertainment like ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ might only allow one to while away an evening happily. It might not give the transport and release and inward-looking that is necessary to achieve the madness that true art is supposed to confer. So Shakespeare uses the play to educate us on what is needed to find ourselves and then the play-within-the-play to also show us what to avoid.
Lord, What Fools Mortals Be
“Art, like love, is a limited and special vision; but like love it has by its very limits a transforming power, creating a small area of order in the vast chaos of the world . . . . At the moment when the play most clearly declares itself to be trivial, we have the strongest appeal to our sympathy for it. . . .” ~ Alexander Leggatt
“I will get Peter Quince to write a ballet of this dream. It shall be call’d “Bottom’s Dream,” because it hath no bottom.”
In one of the most philosophically transcendent moments in the play, Bottom wakes up from his grand aristocratic/magical dream and is disoriented. Bottom decides to title his piece “Bottom’s Dream” because it has no bottom - all literature and art are bottomless, in that their meaning cannot be quantified, cannot be understood solely through the mechanisms of reason or logic. Here it parallels life and love, both beyond reason, limited only by the imagination.
Of course, this is a very simplistic representation of a wonderfully complicated play. It can be read in many different ways based on the viewpoint you chose to adopt. I have tried out a few and felt the need to comment slightly at length on this viewpoint. This is not to diminish the play, which I fully concur with Shakespeare is indeed a ‘Bottom’s Dream’ since it has no bottom in the wealth of meaning to be mined from it.
Lord, what fools these mortals be, Puck philosophizes, mockingly. And perhaps we are indeed fools - for entering into the dangerous, unpredictable world of love or of literature; yet what fun would life be without it?
This book has a bit of a prosaic title, especially when coming from a historian (they usually come up with fantastically irresistible titles) - writing one too many academic papers must have gotten to the poor guy. I have suggested a few alternatives above in the guise of titles for my own summary-essay.
I cannot believe there is not a single review on Goodreads for this fantastic book (9 ratings and 0 reviews on Goodreads + 2 non-reviews on Amazon!). It would be a good wager that it is due to the strategically chosen title. But despite the seeming lack of interest in the book, it is a literal page turner. This is firmly among the top 3 environmental books that I have yet read.
What follows is more a summary than a review. I have taken a few liberties in the process. For example, fracking is not covered in the book so I have tried to bring it into the analysis - integrating it into the argumentative framework to forestall criticism on that front. Being the only review on Goodreads for such a good book, I am under a bit of pressure here. There is only so much a summary can do. I have to warn you that you might find that it is a very depressing book in many ways - the most essential sort.
Stein’s Law: “Trends that can’t continue, won’t.”
The Unexpected Oil Spill (Or Not)
It was 9:15 p.m. on April 20, 2010, The Deepwater Horizon oil spill (also referred to as the BP oil spill/Macondo blowout) began in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM).
In the next four months, the oil gushing from the Macondo well spread over several tens of thousands of square miles of Gulf water - An entire region was under environmental siege. Countless of birds, turtles, dolphins, and an unknown number of fish and shrimp died. Tens of thousands of people lost their livelihoods and incomes, and a whole way of life was demolished.
Tainter and Patzek uses the story of this Gulf oil spill as the background for a wide-ranging discussion of how we got here and where we are headed. They emphasize that such events point to a systemic problem, and suggest that the spill was in fact more than likely given sufficient opportunities and time. The disaster and GOM (Gulf Of Mexico) in general is taken as a microcosm to explore the inevitability of disaster in our society.
Nature: A Mean Fractal
Starting from the basics is the best way to understand the basics. As far as Oil is concerned, the first thing we need to know is how much recoverable oil is waiting for us down there (in GOM, in this case). How much risk is involved in obtaining it and what is the trade-off. In other words, do the benefits outweigh the risks, for whom, and for how long?
Finding new oil in the deep Gulf of Mexico has not been easy. Historically, “dry holes,” wells that never produced commercial hydrocarbons, have been numerous. To put the last number in perspective, 72% of all wells drilled in water depths greater than 5,000 feet were dry holes!
Why is this so?
The sizes of reservoirs are important - it turns out that over the entire range of reservoir sizes, hydrocarbon reservoirs follow a “parabolic-fractal” law that says there is an increasing proportion of the smaller reservoirs relative to the larger ones.
If this law of reservoir sizes holds true, most, if not all, of the largest oilfields have already been discovered, and the smaller ones will not add much new oil to the total regardless of how many new oilfields are discovered.
The Paradigm of The Low-Hanging PEAK
We employ the Principle of Least Effort or Low-Hanging Fruit when we look for the resources that we need. We would never have considered looking for oil in deep water before we had fully developed the easy oil available elsewhere. We follow the same principle in the development of human society and in other aspects of history.
This is a variant of plucking the lowest fruit. The second fruit to pluck is the next one up, and so forth. At some point, however, the costs start to accelerate and the benefits of complexity, the ability to solve problems, increase more slowly and the risks start to become more than acceptable. This is a normal economic event, and it is known as the point of diminishing returns.
That should be how we redefine the point of Peak Oil. There is a need to shift the definition.
2020: The Year of the Boiled Frog
‘Boiling a frog’ is a famous metaphor for the problem we all have perceiving changes that are gradual but cumulatively significant, that may creep up and have devastating consequences. Nothing changes very much and things seem normal. Then one day the accumulation of changes causes the appearance of normality to disappear. Suddenly things have changed a great deal, the catastrophe has arrived. The world is different.
We know how to boil a frog. Complexification is how to boil a society. Complexity grows by small steps, each seemingly reasonable, each a solution to a genuine problem. A few people always foresee the outcome, and always they are ignored.
We are often assured that innovation (in technology or production or processes) in the future will reduce our society’s dependence on energy and other resources while continuing to provide for a lifestyle equivalent or better than such as we now enjoy. Could innovation reduce the energy cost of complexity?
Institutionalized innovation as we know it today is a recent development. In every scientific and technical field, early research plucks the lowest fruit: the questions that are easiest to answer and most broadly useful. Research organization moves from isolated scientists who do all aspects of a project, to teams of scientists, technicians, and support staff who require specialized equipment, costly institutions, administrators, and accountants.
Looking at today’s unending stream of inventions and new products, most people assume that innovation is accelerating. Ever-shorter product cycles would lead one to believe so. In fact, relative to population, innovation is not accelerating. It is not even holding steady.
Huebner found that major innovations per billion people peaked in 1873 and have been declining ever since. Then, plotting U.S. patents granted per decade against population, he found that the peak of U.S. innovation came in 1915. It, too, has been declining since that date.
Jesus Fracking Christ - A Saviour?
Patzek’s (One of the authors) research has emphasized the use of unconventional natural gas as a fuel bridge to the possible new energy supply schemes for the U.S. Fracking is an important such new technology that is posing as a sort of savior. But we need to understand such improvements inside the framework of he technology-complexity spiral framework - that such improvements is ultimately an increase in complexity.
Does this mean that efficiency improvements and new technologies of extraction such as Fracking are not worthwhile? Of course not. Efficiency improvements are highly valuable, but their value has a limited lifespan. Technical improvements may merely establish the groundwork for greater resource consumption in the future. This in turn requires further technical innovation, but as we have just discussed, those technical improvements will become harder and harder to achieve. And as we do achieve them, they may serve us for shorter and shorter periods. We have a tendency to assume that technical innovations such as Fracking will solve our energy problems. This is unlikely.
It is the Thermodynamics, Stupid!
The Second Law of Thermodynamics defines what tends to or can happen in any energy system (the entropy of an isolated system never decreases). Considerable energy flows are required to maintain complex structures that are far from equilibrium, including living organisms and societies. We must breathe, drink, and eat for energy to flow continuously through our living bodies and maintain their highly complex, organized structures. Unfortunately, this tends to create a mess in the environment that surrounds us.
The same principle applies to the production of oil. The energy it would take to restore the environment damaged by the oil production processes such as Fracking (or inevitable disasters such as the BP spill) exceeds by several-fold the amount of combustion heat we get from burning the oil in our cars. In both examples, we cannot break even no matter how hard we try!
The Boiled Frogs: A Quick History of Civilizations
Although we like to think of ourselves as unique, in fact our societies today are subject to many of the same forces and problems that past societies experienced, including problems of complexity and energy. In some past societies, the growth of complexity ultimately proved disastrous, and all past societies found it a challenge. It might seem quaint to talk of ancient societies declining but it is infect quite easy to see the striking parallels. It takes being a Historian though.
(Much of the insight in this section draws upon the book ‘The Collapse of Complex Societies’ which the reviewer has not read. Hence, it is not covered in detail in this summary.)
The Roman Cauldron
There was not much ancient societies could do to store extra solar energy except to turn it into something durable. This they did by turning surplus solar energy into precious metals, works of art, and people and into monetary units. When the Romans conquered a new people, they would seize this stored solar energy by carrying off the same precious metals and works of art, as well as people who would be enslaved.
One of the problems of being an empire is that eventually you run out of profitable conquests. Expand far enough and you will encounter people who are too poor to be worth conquering (the germanic tribes), or who are powerful enough that they are too costly to conquer (The Persians). Diminishing returns set in.
ROME: Hit that Decline Button - Sloowwly
The strategy of the Roman Empire, in confronting a serious crisis, was largely predictable - They responded as people commonly do: they increased complexity to solve their problems, and subsequently went looking for the energy to pay for it.
This way of dealing with increasing complexity can be called The Roman Model. The society, in this model, increases in complexity to solve urgent problems, becoming at the same time increasingly costly. In time there are diminishing returns to problem solving, but the problems of course do not go away.
Byzantium - The Dark Age Solution
Third and fourth century Byzantine emperors had managed a similar crisis in a similar fashion by increasing the complexity of administration. This eventually led to a radical devolution of the civilization. The period is sometimes called the Byzantine Dark Age. This eventually led to a re-flowering of the empire.
This response is the Byzantine Model: recovery through simplification. It is a solution that is often recommended for modern society as a way to inflict less damage on the earth and the climate, and to live within a lower energy budget. In this sense, Byzantium may be a model or prototype for our own future, in broad parameters but not in specific details. There is both good news and bad news in this. The good news is that the Byzantines have shown us that a society can survive by simplifying. The bad news is that they accomplished it only when their backs were to the wall. They did not simplify voluntarily.
Europe: The Subsidized Continent
As discussed earlier, there is an overwhelming reason why today’s prosperous Europe emerged from so many centuries of misery - That they got lucky: they stumbled upon great, almost free subsidies.
Over the seas they found new lands that could be conquered, and their resources turned to European advantage. We are all familiar with the stories of untold riches that Europeans took from the New World.
This process is the European Model: of increasing complexity. Problem solving produces ever-increasing complexity and consumption of resources, regardless of the long-term cost. High complexity in a way of life can be sustained if one can find a subsidy to pay the costs.
This is what fossil fuels have done for us: they have provided a subsidy that allows us to support levels of complexity that otherwise we could not afford. In effect, we pay the cost of our lifestyle with an endowment from a wealthy ancestor.
This is fine, as long as the subsidy continues undiminished and as long as we do not mind damages such as the Gulf oil spill.
A Subsidized Planet: Living on Borrowed time - Literally
More recently, all societies of today, led by Europe, made the transition to financing themselves through fossil fuels, supplemented to varying degrees by nuclear power and a few other sources. This continues the European tradition of financing complexity through subsidies – energy coming from elsewhere. In this case, the “elsewhere” is the geological past.
The Deepwater Horizon is one of the latest manifestations of the evolutionary process of complexification. Problems such as the depletion of easy deposits and environmental concerns have been met by complexification: the development of technology that is increasingly capable, yet costly and risky (such as Parallel Drilling, Fracking, Arctic exploration etc). The cost comes not only in the money needed to design, purchase, and run such a rig, but also in the money to repair the environmental damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon spill. Yet despite these costs, we will continue to operate such rigs until they reach the point of economic infeasibility or, more important, the point where the energy returned on energy invested, and the resulting energy and financial balance sheets, make further exploration pointless.
Can anything be done about the energy–complexity spiral without diminishing our material quality of life? Two potential solutions commonly suggested are: Conservation and Innovation. But does either conservation or innovation provide a way out of the energy–complexity spiral? In this discussion, we have found that there might not be much hope.
It is fashionable to think that we will be able to produce renewable energy with gentler technologies, with simpler machines that produce less damage to the earth, the atmosphere, and people. We all hope so, but we must approach such technologies with a dose of realism and a long-term perspective.
To the contrary, as problems great and small inevitably arise, addressing these problems requires complexity and resource consumption to increase. The usual approach to solving problems goes in the opposite direction. The Energy consumption of societies can only be on an upward trajectory - indefinitely (till supply chokes and dies).
To believe that we can voluntarily survive over the long term on less energy per capita is to assume that the future will present no problems (or fewer!). This would clearly be a foolish assumption, and this reality places one of the favorite concepts of modern economists and technologists, sustainable development, in grave doubt.
So, it is not clear whether renewable energy can produce even a fraction of the power per person that we enjoy now, let alone more energy to solve the problems that we will inevitably confront. Renewable energy will go through the same evolutionary course as fossil fuels. The marginal return to energy production will decline, just as it has with fossil fuels.
Cheap abundant energy, chiefly from oil, has come to be regarded as a birthright, and we all expect someone to drill and deliver that oil to support our energy-exuberant lifestyles. The tragedy aboard the Deepwater Horizon may be a rare event, like a Black Swan, but it does force us to reconsider the potential price for the complex and risky technological solutions that will continue to be required to bring the remaining oil to market.
The processes building up to an energy crisis have been growing in the background for decades, out of sight of most consumers. Then a tipping point is reached - a catastrophe, and suddenly the world has changed. Similarly, the complexity and riskiness of drilling in open water have been growing for decades, but growing in the background, away from most peoples’ sights.
So the Gulf spill appeared as a Black Swan when in fact it was a frog finally boiled to death.
All Excess Baggage Aboard: How to Jettison the Energy Dilemma
So, what now? We seem to have run out of options. At least, the easy ones.
We are not the first people to face an energy dilemma. We saw three examples of societies that faced problems of energy and complexity. Each found different solutions (?) to their problems, and from this experiment we can foresee possible options for ourselves.
To be sure, we will try to continue the European model of energy subsidies for as long as we can. Humanity will not forgo such rich, steep gradients. Even the threat of climate change will not deflect humanity from searching for oil in ever-more-inaccessible places, nor from burning through our mountains of sulfurous coal. Too many people find the short-term wealth and well-being irresistible.
For how long, though, can we follow the European model? Declining EROEI and the Laws of Physics suggests that the answer is: Not forever.
We cannot cannot continue on false optimism and expect to preserve our lifestyle. Do we then need to identify things we want to preserve of our culture and channel energy to those items? Should we jettison as much as possible and try to stay afloat? Is that the only way to avoid a devolution into another in the sequence of Dark-ages that civilizations have made a habit of falling into?
These are tough questions.
Wake Up and Smell the Boiling Oil
Our societies cannot postpone this public discussion about future of energy and the tough questions. The era of plentiful petroleum will someday end. We don’t know when this will happen, nor does anyone else. Surely it will happen sooner than we want.
We cant fool ourselves any more - we are running on fumes and dooming our grandchildren (or even ourselves - who can truly say?) to a pre-technological society. As the Red Queen said to Alice in Through the Looking Glass, “Here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Paying more and more to maintain the status quo is the very essence of diminishing returns to problem solving.
But it is, however, the direction in which we are headed. Someday, the physics of net energy will curtail our use of petroleum. A trend that cannot continue, won’t.
A rat crept softly through the vegetation; departed. A cold blast at the back, So rudely forc'd, like Philomela. It was Tiresias', it was he who doomed all men, throbbing between two lives, knowing which?
Et O ces voix d'enfants, chantant dans la coupole! Excuse my demotic French!
Let us go then, him (that carbuncular young man), and you - In a minute there is time For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
You may come or go, but speak not of Michelangelo.
When there is not solitude even in the Mountains, When even the sound of water could dry your thirst, Then you can lift your hands and sing of dead pine trees.
Have you yet been led, through paths of insidious intent, through every tedious argument, To that overwhelming question?
Gentile or Jew O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
Sweet Thames, sweating oil and tar, Sweet Thames, run on softly till I end my song, for I speak not loud or long, for I speak not clear or clean, for I speak in the hoarse whispers of the last man, for it was I who murdered you, and Ganga, right under the nose, of mighty Himavant!
You who were living is now dead. We who were living are now dying - With a little patience!
Break The Bough, and hang yourself from it, Sweeney, Prufrock, The Fisher King and the sterile others, all will follow first, like corpses etherised on well-lit tables.
Remember me, me - Tiresias, once more, for we are all him, yet not.
The present will always look at the mirror, and see only a Wasteland, The Past is always the heavenly spring, running dry now.
Perspective, Thy name is Poetry.
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down These fragments you have shored against my ruins.
Hark, A Fairy Tale I Give Thee, Fit for Today’s Times!
I have in my time, written many plays - tragedies, comedies, all - but reader beware: this might be my darkest vision yet.
I will exalt you; and in death’s throngs.
Have you heard of Cinderella, of King Leir, of Arcadia’s Kings, and all such happy and sad tales of old? Have you laughed with relief at their ends?
Well, let me show the real end of tales.
Have you hated the Villains and prayed for the Heroes? Let me show you how, each to himself and to the other, they only plough despair on themselves! Let me show you of good and evil and the intermingled confusion of their origins. Let me show you the face of the Gods, mocking and crying, the mad Gods that rule us.
Note now my words well, and note the tales I tell. You have heard them before, so note most where I differ!
Note how it is Leir and his daughters, who are mixed with the Paphlagonian King of Sidney’s Arcadia. Pay your most special heed to those special introductions of mine: to the Storm and to the Madness; to the Fool and to poor Tom; to the faithful and noble servant and to the slimy one; and most of all to the Protean one.
See all this in me, be not blind!
See also what I leave out, see the plot tightened and stripped off base plottings and machinations, and the happy endings! See my sources condensed and expanded and kneaded into a potent brew for your vision’s improvement.
But most important of all, see the mixing of the tales: all themes from all stories pour into my cup, I raise them from mere tales to be an epic, to cosmic proportions. Watch on, as Leir’s small world becomes my Lear’s world - and then becomes the world entire. Is it clear to you that my Lear’s fate may indeed be the fate of any man, of Yours? Never mind, it is a mystery you can fathom not!
[Aside] Alack, the future shall find this impossible to bear, and just as I mutilate the happy myths, my sad tragedy too shall be undone so, by Nates and nit-wits! Actors and audiences will then prefer this mutant version of my play. Oh, how then its happy ending will comfort them, for a century and a half! Not for much longer - You will be back to me. Comforting endings, all fictions, are only there to mock, as ever.
Finally see the ending I have stored specially for you, see how I have left no consolations for you. See how I raise your hopes at every turn and shatter them like boys playing with insects. See through these windows I make for you, before you erect your mirrors all over again.
You must see that beyond the apparent ‘worst’ that I let you imagine, there is a worse suffering, and when it comes in with a rush, it will be a mere image of that horror, not the thing itself. Ha! and yet, it will be more appalling than anything you could expect, than the very worst nightmares this stage can conjure!
See! See if for a moment, before you leave me and slip back into cozy habits again, into your own blindness of self-absorption.
Alack, it is for me to shatter your expectations, for only in the cracking of the mirror can you see through that window-that-was and into the truth beyond. Let me be your guest and enter your very homes and crack all the mirrors fixed where windows ought be, and let in the world, full wild and gorgeous!
A difficult play to stage my hands said to me! Indeed, I meant it to be thus and naught else - ‘only the imagination can encompass it’ (which might serve quite well in a day when reading supplants all staging in reach) but stage it I shall, watch it you shall, break the mirrors I shall, and rush in the World shall.
This is a fine collection of essays. It does not seem to be put together following any particular collective logic, but all the essa...more Consider The Essay
This is a fine collection of essays. It does not seem to be put together following any particular collective logic, but all the essays seem to be good advertisements to DFW’s intuitively imaginative, explorative and curious writing method. Would need to read more of DFW’s essays to be able to comment on the logic of this particular set of essays inhabiting the same book. It is, however, vintage DFW and hence cannot be rated below 5 stars, even if a couple of essays were so-so.
For practical purposes, everyone knows what an essay (or a book review) is. As usual, though, there’s much more to know than most of us care about—it’s all a matter of what your interests are.
The first extremely explicit essay on an inside look into the Porn industry turned this reviewer off slightly (being the prude that I am) but from then on it was increasingly easy to figure why so many of my most respected friends have such an intellectual crush on DFW. I have too now, I guess. Or maybe it is puppy love. Hard to know for sure. IJ is such a bad place to first encounter DFW, he is all infinite there (with no restrictions on his interpolative imagination), the finite essays are so much more fun, accessible and lovable and most importantly, imitable (at least in intent, if not in style). The biggest crush-inducer, however, is how many of DFW’s sentences and ideas you actually want to remember and use for yourself. Therein lies the most important reason to fall in love - he is really placing himself at a level that you can aspire towards. Not too difficult, not too complex, but deliciously complex enough to stretch comprehension and understanding. It is not terribly difficult to fall in love from there.
This reviewer acknowledges that there seems to be some, umm, personal stuff getting worked out here; but the stuff is, umm, germane.
As you get into the essays, you will find that the jungle of footnotes and the sub-foot-notes (and sub-sub… well no point in scaring off potential readers) will soon become a veritable tangle. Not to mention the thicket of interpolations - interpolation upon interpolation upon interpolation, ad infinitum. I had read a New York Times piece with a great quote from DFW in reference to his endnotes: "Most poetry is written to ride on the breath, and getting to hear the poet read is kind of a revelation and makes the poetry more alive. But with certain literary narrative writers like me, we want the writing to sound like a brain voice, like the sound of the voice inside of the head, and the brain voice is faster, is absent any breath, and it holds together grammatically rather than sonically."
Not sure if this applies to his fiction as well but, if you happen to miss the footnotes, you would miss half the fun, not to mention half the book.
This reviewer was never able to figure out if DFW is showing off or if he just couldn’t help being a genius. It was a source of constant amazement to observe how DFW uses a review (or any given essay) to explore every pet topic imaginable. It was even more amazing to imagine how his editors let him do that.
In illustration of this amazement:
For it turned out that the more interesting a […] happenstance was, the more time and page-space it took to make sense of it, or, if it made no sense, to describe what it was and explain why it didn’t make sense but was interesting anyway if viewed in a certain context that then itself had to be described, and so on. With the end result being that the actual document delivered per contract to Rolling Stone magazine turned out to be longer and more complicated than they’d asked for. Quite a bit longer, actually. In fact the article’s editor pointed out that running the whole thing would take up most of Rolling Stone’s text-space and might even cut into the percentage of the magazine reserved for advertisements, which obviously would not do.
Surely, you get the drift...
On ‘DFW’: 'David Foster Wallace' is a pretty long name. David, Foster or Wallace, however, by themselves wouldn’t be enough to indicate who you are referring to. Hence it has to be the whole name - David Foster Wallace, which being too long is ‘DFW’ - the best option for fans who want to talk about DFW often enough.
In sum, give DFW any topic and he will conjure out of it the angst of the modern condition, link it with some fundamental disconnect and manage to be completely non-pretentious and genuine while doing that. He suspends your inner cynic. That is genius, whatever else you might say.(less)
Probably the best among Gladwell's books. He still stands true to his success mantra - "Gladwell - The Power of Inductive Reasoning." But, it was stil...more Probably the best among Gladwell's books. He still stands true to his success mantra - "Gladwell - The Power of Inductive Reasoning." But, it was still a well researched and informative book. Blink.(less)