Runciman's classic history of the Crusades begins with this engrossing and highly-readable account of the background leading up to the Latin Christian...moreRunciman's classic history of the Crusades begins with this engrossing and highly-readable account of the background leading up to the Latin Christian incursion into the Near East by way of the Byzantine Empire, up through the First Crusade and the stunning initial conquest of Jerusalem. Runciman bases his history on his vast familiarity with the chronicle sources written in an imposing number of languages.
The book is packed with colorful personalities and events, and by the standards of current scholarship, regards history a bit too much as the "drama of princes and kings." So the story largely becomes a personal one, and the implications of various disasters and gut-wrenching massacres is perhaps somewhat overshadowed by the personal fortunes of the Crusading captains such as Bohemond and Raymond of Toulouse.
Runciman's specialty was the Byzantine empire, and I especially valued his patient work in excavating and documenting its centrality to events which are all-too-often viewed as a belligerent incursion of Western Europeans into Anatolia and Palestine. While there is some truth to that, the situation and motivations of the Europeans are far more complex than all that. The lands through which the Crusaders traveled and fought were, after all, to a large degree recent acquisitions by the expanding Arab and Turkoman peoples, and had long been part of the Eastern Roman Empire. Reducing the whole complex order of events to Western expansion is too simplistic.
Runciman lingers on and perhaps idealizes the role of the Byzantines, and especially the Emperor Alexius Comnenus. Runciman clearly viewed them as the great civilization of the three, caught between warring barbarians.
This book recounts countless unforgettable incidents, from the petty bickering that repeatedly threatened to derail the entire campaign to the bizarre machinations of Peter Bartholomew, from countless battles to endless missed opportunities. There was a miracle of sorts in the Crusading armies reaching their goal against such impossible odds and across such endless roads, but more often than not, conquest meant wholesale murder and petty power-grabs.
This book is endlessly illuminating and beautifully written, and remains a classic of the field. (less)
Excellent collection of Müller's plays, including "Die Hamletmaschine" and "Germania: Tod in Berlin". Müller is hard to describe - something like a st...moreExcellent collection of Müller's plays, including "Die Hamletmaschine" and "Germania: Tod in Berlin". Müller is hard to describe - something like a strange amalgam between a politicized Brecht haunted by the fragmented Expressionist nightmares of Georg Heym. I love him as an artist for taking the problem of human culture and the human spirit seriously, and for ruthlessly examining the psychic condition of life in divided post-War Germany. His work is haunting and periodically electrifying. (less)
This brisk essay explores the problem of communicative action in the light of digital communication. Han concurs with Habermas's diagnosis that commun...moreThis brisk essay explores the problem of communicative action in the light of digital communication. Han concurs with Habermas's diagnosis that communicative action is not currently possible online, because the Internet does not form a public sphere, but instead a discourse environment that is entirely novel. Instead of people coming together to rationally disagree in coffee houses, we have a galaxy of bloggers speaking mostly to themselves. Such conditions lend themselves to certain kinds of flash-in-the-pan mass actions, but not the formation of ideology.
Rather than stopping there at a point of sour nostalgia for the vanished old mechanism of European political consensus formation, Han attempts to characterize what type of digital democracy might emerge in light of mass electronic communication. Such a democracy would be based on the instantaneous and additive power of ideology-free dynamic communities of actors, which he terms "swarms."
As a product of pure theory, Han's theory might sound a bit arbitrary, were it not such an excellent fit with various characterizations of the dynamics and character of digital political action, such as those described by the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society. I am convinced that online activism and civic participation is indeed post-ideological in the way that Han describes on the basis of empirical research, and like Han, I'm deeply ambivalent about what the implies.
Han continues to be a provocative and engaging thinker with some arresting ideas. I was stopped dead in my tracks, for example, by his contention that each new form of information technology entails its own new dimension of unconsciousness. In the light of modern information-processing models of the unconscious, this is likely literally true, and has fascinating implications. (less)
This book is an invaluable aid to any technical writer. It's written specifically for Microsoft-sanctioned products, of course, but it will be useful...moreThis book is an invaluable aid to any technical writer. It's written specifically for Microsoft-sanctioned products, of course, but it will be useful to anyone looking for a methodically-conceived and persuasive set of guidelines for organizing and presenting technical information. It contains basic guidelines for organization and style, such as parallel construction, active voice, and simple, clear parsimony of expression, as well as more advanced rules dealing with thorny cases like dealing with always-lower-case tool or command names, when they may occur at the beginning of a sentence.
So far I've not yet had a problem that it hasn't covered, and 99% of the time I agree with their reasoned and aesthetically-sound recommendations. (less)
Would be better titled "Linux and the Unix Platitudes."
Most everything of value can be absorbed from the table of contents, which presents some insig...moreWould be better titled "Linux and the Unix Platitudes."
Most everything of value can be absorbed from the table of contents, which presents some insight into Linux architecture in a series of aphoristic slogans. Many of them are thought-provoking, though it should be noted they're also not original to the author, who provides a "commentary" of sorts, with a lot of hand waving. The book could be profitably reduced to a page of truisms, like "Learn by doing," "Done is better than perfect," "Small is beautiful," "Form follows function," and so forth.
This bizarre little book is an incoherent brain dump of brilliant ideas, reflecting the author's Herculean effort to articulate key points of the life...moreThis bizarre little book is an incoherent brain dump of brilliant ideas, reflecting the author's Herculean effort to articulate key points of the lifeworld of antiquity, viz. knowledge, initiation, immortality, and truth. It's a prolegomena where a critique is needed, and although it contains many brilliant insights and stunning observations, it's tedious and exhausting to read, coming across like the ranting of an academic in the grip of a manic episode.
The name strikes me as almost entirely arbitrary. Although Orpheus and Plato appear in the book, Uždavinys dwells as much or more about Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, Rome, and Europe of the Middle Ages as he does on Greece.
I was deeply put off by his argument by apposition. He strings thoughts together by association, making no effort whatsoever to motivate or explain why a mystical rite of classical antiquity necessarily had any relationship to the teachings of a Persian Sufi in the eleventh century. I can't comprehend what, in Uždavinys's mind, an argument consists of, or really, what he was doing, on a very basic level, other than rhapsodizing.
It didn't surprise me that he railed against methodical and careful scholars like M. L. West, while praising similarly speculative authors like Jan Assmann, whom he quotes liberally. Like Assmann, Uždavinys speculates in the most uninhibited way, and posits coherence and unity between distant ideas, seemingly at his convenience.
The fragmentary nature of this odd compendium is perhaps most clearly brought across by its end, or lack thereof. It stops at a completely arbitrary point.
Despite these numerous and severe flaws, Uždavinys undoubtedly was a master of secondary literature on the ancient world, and the book contains a great many gems. I believe his basic intuition is sound, and I found his effort to expound on the nature of philosophic thought with respect to its transcendental content, and his deft navigation of diverse traditions by which it played out in different forms, to be at times virtuosic. He gives an electrifying sense of the vitality of ancient philosophy, and conveys the depth and profundity of its spiritual roots.
It's too bad he seems like such a deeply disorganized individual. He could have been a truly great scholar, of Peter Brown's caliber. (less)
A magnificent book, beautifully-illustrated and wonderfully written by one of the great living specialists on the Notre-Dame de Chartres cathedral, th...moreA magnificent book, beautifully-illustrated and wonderfully written by one of the great living specialists on the Notre-Dame de Chartres cathedral, this book takes you on a detailed tour of the church with special attention to its history and the meaning of its many forms. Very highly recommended.(less)
There exists a pressing need for a comprehensive survey of Tibetan history in a western language - after some 20 years of looking, I've not come close...moreThere exists a pressing need for a comprehensive survey of Tibetan history in a western language - after some 20 years of looking, I've not come close to finding such a work. It was my hope that this collection of scholarly essays would partially serve this function, as it is organized chronologically in sections that suggest something of a panoramic overview of the whole story, but it does not. Rather, it's a collection of journal articles, book excerpts, et cetera, old and new, assembled chronologically.
I can't criticize the book for not being what I had hoped it would be, but I do find it hard to get too excited about. It is an assortment of very deep, very narrow examinations of topics ranging from those of great general importance (the career of the Fifth Dalai Lama, or the origins of the Tulku system, for example), to rather obscure (the Mongol Census in Tibet).
I particularly welcomed Aldenderfer and Yinong's survey of our archaeological knowledge of pre-Imperial Tibet, which did an excellent job of laying out what we know and what we don't know about that fascinating period.
Many of the articles are surprisingly short, and I frequently came to the end with great surprise, feeling that the topic had barely been addressed. Van der Kuijp's examination of the Great Fifth in particular hardly covered the basics in a cursory way.
Apparently the barriers to Tibetan historiography are high, because the work that exists is primarily a collection of fragments and hagiography. I hope I live to see contributions of greater scope. (less)
This review applies to all three volumes translated by the Hollanders. I'm going to keep this review short, because I'm only capable of writing someth...moreThis review applies to all three volumes translated by the Hollanders. I'm going to keep this review short, because I'm only capable of writing something either very short or very long about this work.
Dante's Commedia is probably the greatest work of literature written in Europe between the times of Homer and Shakespeare. It has influences but is without antecedents, and it towers so high above nearly all contemporaneous work it is a deep mystery, how Dante created it. He was a world-historical genius, and one of the greatest writers in any language.
This translation is excellent, written in a flowing, expansive free verse style that still conveys an electrifying intensity. I compared key sections of Inferno to Pinsky's translation to see how it squared against that very popular version, with its close attention to retaining the formal magic of Dante's terza rima. I found that the Hollanders' translation compared favorably.
The one area where I was left deeply dissatisfied was the commentary. With the exception of very brief essays introducing each volume, all comments are included as line notes at the end of each chapter.
This massive commentary, which exceeds the actual text in length, runs as a single, continuous brain-number. Digging through the vast heap, you may encounter a page and a half analyzing whether a single line refers to a spirit crossing its arms across the waist or across the chest, based on several competing commentaries.
Or you may find two sentences buried in a single two-page note that provide information necessary for understanding the entire canto. There's no way to know without slogging through the whole mess.
The primary purpose of many of the notes is to justify translation decisions, and I can only think, see how academic life distorts one's sense of value. It's a caricature of scholasticism.
It would have been so easy to include a short summary of key points for each canto before taking the deep dive into trivia. Such a pity. (less)
Most of us have heard that all of the atoms in our bodies other than helium and hydrogen were forged in the nuclear furnaces of stars - that we are ou...moreMost of us have heard that all of the atoms in our bodies other than helium and hydrogen were forged in the nuclear furnaces of stars - that we are ourselves, so to speak, stardust.
Popular science writer John Gribbin, with the assistance of his wife and co-author, spin this intriguing and evocative factoid into a book-length review of findings in cosmology, astrophysics, chemistry and evolutionary biology to explore the literal truth of the claim.
The result is not just a poetic whimsy or arbitrary romp through two hundred years of science. As Gribbin notes in the conclusion: "We have answered the biggest question of them all - where do we come from? But hardly anybody outside a small circle of scientific specialists seems to have noticed at all!"
In what sense do we now "know where we came from?" Insofar as we can trace almost every step of the process leading from the big bang through the formation of stars to the creation of heavier elements to the creation of our solar system and planet, and to the impregnation of our planet with complex organic molecules and obvious precursors to the machinery of living cells.
The missing link for Gribbin is the step between a collection of amino acids in a primordial ooze and self-catalyzing autopoietic systems. I submit that this step has in fact been well-characterized by Stuart Kauffman's "The Origins of Order."
At times the book's lengthy layperson characterizations of the details of stellar nucleosynthesis started to drag for this reader, but on the whole it was a stimulating read, and revelation. (less)
In "The Grail," one of the twentieth century's most important scholars of Arthurian legend sets out to prove that Grail legend derives principally fro...moreIn "The Grail," one of the twentieth century's most important scholars of Arthurian legend sets out to prove that Grail legend derives principally from Celtic prototypes and antecedents. His putative opponent is the scholar who, like Jessie Weston, believes that Grail legend reflects an underground esoteric tradition stemming from the Levant or based in the Cathar heresy, or some other damn thing.
Before we travel so far afield, Loomis reasons, we should first look at the most obvious candidates for sources of Grail legend, in the myths and legends of the Celts, as preserved in the Irish Matter and the Mabinogion.
As a comparativist by nature, I wouldn't be so quick to discount some of these theoretical influences that range in from further afield. The similarities of the wounded Fisher King trope, for example, to the myths of Attis and Cybele of Phrygia, are so obvious and so self-evident that they demand explanation.
You won't find such an explanation here, but you will find an exhaustive comparison of incidents in the principle sources for Grail legend, written between 1150 and 1250 on the Continent, with Celtic antecedents. Too exhaustive for my tastes, and not altogether convincing.
Loomis' interpretive sensibility is fixed on textual concerns to the exclusion of a poetic or psychological account of the material. But one cannot simply discount the literary aspect of literature, and doing so causes him to make missteps.
For example, by his register, a king in an enchanted castle who subsists upon a single communion wafer a day is a trope so outlandish that it demands explanation, which he seeks in mistranslations or corruptions of earlier stories.
To me, it requires no more explanation than the belief that this same communion wafer is a sacrament bestowing salvation and eternal life. The implication of this trope is that the enchanted king feeds upon the food of the spirit, not of the flesh.
In my world, poets absorb the available material and re-express it in the light of their own understanding, often putting familiar elements together in novel ways. To Loomis, poets imitate prototypes as closely as possible, and deviations are probably best explained by errors or corruptions.
I'd add that his reconstruction of Celtic prototypes at times rests on very thin ice. Several of the Celtic stories he compares to Grail legend, as he acknowledges, were written down AFTER the Grail legends they purportedly influenced, in earlier redactions.
His search for firm interpretive ground is misguided, as it forces him to ignore clear parallels from non-regional literature, and Quixotic, owing to the state of the Celtic sources.
That said, he has certainly established beyond question the Celtic credentials of many components of Grail legend. His thesis persuades in a general way, even if many individual points miss the mark. (less)
The history and mythology of Ireland is the story of layers. By the time the first myths and legends were written down in the sixth century, at least...moreThe history and mythology of Ireland is the story of layers. By the time the first myths and legends were written down in the sixth century, at least three major cultures had already ruled the island - the Neo- and Mesolithic peoples who had initially settled the island, and who built Newgrange; the Indo-European Celts who invaded in the first millennium BCE; and the Christian missionaries from the mainland led by Saint Patrick.
From the old Celtic tales we can try to extrapolate knowledge of all three. For example, we suspect (but do not know) that many of the prominent women and female Sidhe in Irish literature, such as Medb, Badb, or Morrigan, may be remnants of neolithic goddesses.
Religious symbols tend to be extremely resistant to modification or deletion in certain structural respects, so the goddess offers a wonderful window into the prehistoric past. By tracing her evolution throughout historical time, we see how she continues to evolve and unfold, reflecting the new values and priorities of new social orders.
The primary subject of Clark's book study is the Morrigan, a complex lady of the Tuatha de Danann who appears in key episodes of early Irish literature such as "The Cattle Raid of Cooley" and "The Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh." The Morrigan links several important motifs within her person, including the sovereignty of the land, fertility, battle, and death. In her trifold aspect she may appear as a young maid, a sexually powerful woman, and an old crone.
Because the Morrigan is a complex, morally-ambiguous figure who incorporates both positive and negative qualities, Christian authors were unable to easily assimilate her into sainthood (as with the goddess Bridget) or euhemerize her into a human queen or noble (as with Medb). She is therefore a unique candidate for examining the goddess in Irish history, as she appears in the earliest literature in less-adulterated form than her sisters.
Clark traces her evolution forward in time, as her sexual aspect is unceremoniously extirpated from various accounts, not only by pious Christian scribes, but by the authors of the Irish Renaissance as well, including Lady Gregory and Yeats, who were apparently equally inhibited about such matters. This prudery on the part of latter-day authors is a shame bordering on a disgrace, as it altogether distorts the character and meaning of many of the tales to omit her function as fertility goddess. Lady Gregory, for example, simply leaves some of her key sexual acts out of her accounts.
The goddess-figure, who often represents the fertility of the land as the consort of the king, became absorbed in recent centuries as a patriotic embodiment of Ireland as the character of Sovereignty. For example, the aisling is a form of poem in which Ireland is addressed in the form of a woman.
It was under the influence of such sublimated forms of the goddess that Yeats composed his fatuous, simple-minded play "Cathleen Ni Hoolihan," which tells the eerie story of young men who becomes galvanized by the concept of Country in this guise. The play is made disturbing by Yeats's unwillingness to fully understand or control the symbols that he dealt with - he simply accepts them as delivered from beyond, and presents them uncritically.
In any event, Clark traces these manifold guises of the Irish goddess with alacrity, erudition, and an extremely illuminating expository gift.
I was drawn to this book by my intuition that goddesses and queens are usually the most interesting figures in Irish mythology, and this book has been enormously helpful in understanding why. It was an excellent, informative book. (less)