Maintaining lucidity is a central challenge for both audience and protagonist in the dizzying and illusory narrative of Marquez's Autumn of the Patria...moreMaintaining lucidity is a central challenge for both audience and protagonist in the dizzying and illusory narrative of Marquez's Autumn of the Patriarch. While its easy to dwell on the uncompromising style of a novel devoid of paragraphs, punctuation, and quotations delineating dialogue, such blurry tactics seal the bizarre entrancement of a novel concerned with the solitude of a bastard patriarch. Certainly it's no easy pie being tossed randomly into an unspecified Caribbean climate and period, but for those readers willing to tunnel into the narrative, a luscious comfort settles in and Marquez's familiar descriptive and story-telling abilities begin to sparkle.
In the words of the author: "my most important problem was destroying the lines of demarcation that separates what's real from what's fantastic," of which he succeeded marvelously. Time periods shift in mid sentence, making it difficult to establish an objective point of reference between past and present, transitioning from narrative voice into undifferentiated dialogue in an endless stream of dreamlike storytelling. An eccentric and daunting cast of scheming subordinates, presidential impostors, deceptive right-hand men, fine-tailored assassins, foreign dignitaries, and erstwhile nun love interests litter the storyline in the endless shifting between invisible arrangements of power.
But what's so redeeming about all of this, the disorienting prose and the frequent descriptive escapades, is the substantive exploration of power and illusion lying underneath it all. What is power if not a perception? An artifice exercised through others' mutual perception? Marquez underscores this artfully and brilliantly in his use of magical realism, heaving his readers into the same boat of illusions as his characters. One wavers like the throngs of peasants outside the general's palace, questioning his power -even his existence- one moment, exalting in it and praying for him days later. It's a calm delirium everyone gets used to. After all, don't we all, in various self-serving ways and forms, blamelessly submit to and exert control over one another? Marquez does not limit his comment to just those in positions of ultimate authority. There is a kind of symbiosis existing in the compatible illusions maintained across and between the layers of Caribbean society; between the general and his officers' fealty, the public and their expectations of royal power, between the general and his own position of authority, all transpiring unspoken and intimately connected. It all starts to feel so patently absurd as the novel spirals tighter and tighter into itself. You are left feeling the distant despair of life as some ridiculously orchestrated illusion, like an elephant floating by a balloon string, maintained by the inexplicable conviction that if we all pretend it floats, it really must.
It's easy to condemn the despicable and senseless acts governing the conscience of such a corrupt, festering patriarch, hell bent on perpetuating his appearance at all costs. Yet Marquez's careful attention to nuance while exploring the psyche of supreme power inspires a kind of sympathetic melancholy meditation of sorts, while simultaneously constituting a scathing, mocking indictment. Ultimately the illusion of power, or lack thereof, becomes all-reaching and unintelligible, even swallowing up the emperor himself. In his abject loneliness, pity replaces envy, power feels like a pestilent disease, and one is left with the conclusion that wherever happiness or a meaningful life may lie, the hierarchies of power afford little direction. (less)
With all the dystopic literature coming out of the collective 20th century psyche of post-Hiroshima anxiety and the realization that as of now we, li...more With all the dystopic literature coming out of the collective 20th century psyche of post-Hiroshima anxiety and the realization that as of now we, literally, can 'bomb ourselves back to the stone age,' Walter Miller's contribution runs with that very idea and tosses you into a world at once both familiar and foreign. Through three successive time periods spanning some 1,000 odd years from the 26th century onwards, Miller's protagonist becomes the all-observing spectre of time as the reader is dropped from the sky into the middle of a medieval desert ala Bruce Campbell without the chainsaw, shotgun, and red convertible.
Initially there seems to be no rhyme or reason to Miller's almost capricious use of time travel, sometimes dwelling on what feel like side stories (we are talking about the destruction and rebirth of the world here) for pages and then passing over centuries with a few smartly worded sentences that occasionally feel like he's cheating you out of knowing a world he's just piqued your fascination with. Imagine being introduced to Hannibal Lector and then spending 20 minutes on his athletic pursuits. It's not that what Miller includes isn't of itself worthwhile, but sometimes you could expect more from him. Then, you are uh-huh uh-huh yup oh interesting exactly with a character for 100 pages and in one paragraph the monk's head is split open with an arrow and a page later you're sitting in 'New Rome' 500 years forward with some dude named like a classical history multiple choice test and you realize Miller seriously means to F with your head.
But it also is a liberating arrangement he has made with the reader, in by severing any attachment to a single protagonist you're expectations are realigned with the general arc and meanings transmitted across time period and character, while still writing intriguing characters for you to follow. This quickly becomes a strong point of the novel, as most follow central characters throughout a story, and therefor most novels' aspirations are contained within the rubric of the changes and understandings contained in the singular life of one or a few persons in a given time period. When Miller opens his novel up into a future world charting different stages of growth, we readers have shifted our search for meaning into a far broader examination of humankind, in lieu of the singular human.
Probably most enjoyable for me was the undeniable focus on the head games that history plays in a world of multiple futures where epistemology, logic, symbols, sociology, and reinterpretation are all put on a comparative plain of historical (yet futuristic) analysis through the conversations, events, and details of an engaging story. It would be hard to read this book after 1980 and not think of The Name of the Rose. Asking some very basic questions about how humanity thinks about itself and construes its world based on a shared yet fragmented intellectual heritage (and whether such a heritage ultimately matters), one can't avoid Miller's constant emphasis on understanding and creating present existence through understanding and recreating past existence, resulting the confining of what we think of as 'truth' to a subjective category.
For example, the discovery of a "Fallout Survival Shelter" by a monk in the initial neo-medieval time period becomes humorously misinterpreted in a world devoid of common knowledge and stripped of all its previous 'progress' as some kind of ghastly creature (a 'Fallout') that terrorized previous societies (who needed a 'Fallout' Survival Shelter). This results in a grievous error repeated as 'truth' that would take centuries to correct, and what of all the resulting axioms, behaviors, and laws that were in direct response to an 'erroneous' assumption? How fragile is our boldly stated reality? Its hard to read the passage and not wonder what materials, ideas, and accepted histories we have immersed ourselves in that might be just as grossly misinterpreted as the monk's 'Fallout' episode. One is forced to admit not only that they are probably living in a misinterpreted history of the present (which makes absolute History closer to story-telling), but that the truths we are so attached to presently are just as subjective and time-sensitive and indeed may not be the omniscient safety-valves of natural orderly understanding we all employ in explaining our world and escaping our deepest anxieties. In considering the future, Miller plays with our relation to time, such that every society experiences itself as a 'present-day' society and thinks of itself as the most 'advanced.' Yet in considering the future, one has to consider the present-day to be future's antiquity. And this is assuming that each current civilization is more intelligent and finer-tuned than the previous, an idea which Miller turns on its head as his story progresses.
For reasons just as these, this book draws attention to the subtleties of how fabricated every worldly period is composed, how brittle to fall apart, how limitless the possibility of the structures humans apply to their perceptual worlds, yet how interwoven and built upon they can be, and how much their resemblance and disparity points to broad observations displayed across time periods that might resemble closest the basic 'truths' humans are always seeking. On this note, it's with such a wide ambition that I find any fault in the novel itself, mainly because the ideas inherent in cross-cutting such large swaths of human history, thought, and experience, are so enormous that it could consume 5 lifetimes for a human to do justice.
He has quite the challenge in not only imagining how a future society might re-imagine our current one based on what he chooses to have these future monks and scholars rediscover and explore in the story, but also formulating their reactions, their logical conclusions, their scientific understandings, their employment of logic, and occasionally you wish he fleshed out more of this world. If you're going to destroy the world to begin your novel and you want to detail a new world both uniquely invented yet enmeshed with the leftover artifacts, social habits and all of previous societies, you need to address, maybe even in a few pages at each segment, an overarching outline, or a few scattered didactic chapters (although some people loathe that kind of thing re: Name of the Rose) of how this new world logically holds itself together (if you're at all concerned with the very topics he is, at least, as opposed to something junk for pure entertainment). For instance, all monks of Leibowitz (and of the new world) read from left to right, but would that necessarily be the case in a world newly reformed? Who knows? It's not necessary for the story to continue or his points to be made, but it would provide more nuanced character to the piece as a whole.
But it looks like I have to eat my words a bit on this critique, because apparently he published this 'novel' initially as 3 separate stories, which makes complete sense regarding some of what I felt was missing from the total novel. Now I feel like an asshole. But hey, at least my cellphone isn't cancering my brain every day while I drive my SUV, okay now I feel better. Regardless, this book was so wonderful it nears brilliance and therefor a quality of writing is expected, and Miller just barely misses it. But I find his imagination, his attention to semiotics and philosophy as it would be in a future society, his fabric-of-history sensibilities, his obsession with the large questions in life, and that he did all of this primarily in a monastery, endlessly delightful.
For my own sake, before I attempt a review, I have to sort out the rattlings that took me here. In my opinion, it's arguable that an organism's habita...moreFor my own sake, before I attempt a review, I have to sort out the rattlings that took me here. In my opinion, it's arguable that an organism's habitat and potential landscape is one of the single largest dictators of variation and diversity of life on the planet. Being that nearly all material forms of life must navigate through space in some way to exist, it follows that our perception, reactions, discoveries, and formation of relationships with this space serves, especially initially, as a primary foundation for the varied and endless development of organic life. To wit, I am speaking primarily of the Animal, Plant, and Fungi kingdoms, and view genetics and biology more as sequential processes than as conscious creative forces. Once competing systems of life have been set in motion under the generally cyclical mechanisms of mother nature, navigating space becomes subconscious and intuitive, and complex adaptations develop. So if it all started as sensory perception and response, aren't we shaped by how and what we respond to? And if so, doesn't that start with the most fundamental setting we were so unpleasantly deposited into as wailing little greaseballs? We get two things shaping us right away: other people, and the surrounding environment. How has navigating through space shaped the different peoples of the earth? How did it shape us before it became second-nature? Isn't human history rooted in these human-landscape interactions?
With thoughts like these floating around, I excitedly picked up W. Gordon East's 'The Geography Behind History.' The first thing that should be said about Mr. East's work of lih-truch-cher is that it is a somewhat dated work (from the 1960s), and in some parts very Anglo-centric. Occasionally it reads like a research paper robotically citing premise and example or an Intro Social Psych textbook busy stating the obvious, and a few chapters (such as the one on Towns) fall grossly short of their potential. That said, W.G.E. has a nice conversational tone, asks lots of open-ended questions, is careful to avoid absolute statements, and covers a breathtaking amount of historical, sociological, and geographical territory.
Interested readers will be familiar with the conceptual arc of his thinking, which makes it easy to follow his movement between modes of thought and micro/macro scale analyzation. Basically, he jumps around a lot because its such a mess of mechanisms and relationships to untangle, but he's up to the task and goes in some unexpected directions, including a few chapters tacked on towards the end on Mesoamerica and east-west geographic relationships that are fun and informative. Who knew that similar blood-groups existed between South American natives and pre-Mongoloid peoples of Asia, perhaps implying colonization from across the Bering Strait?
In his attempts to bring out the underlying relational symmetries between geography and history, Mr. East explores a variety of natural antecedents. In particular, correlations between climate and morphology (including seasonal regularity, glacial movements, trade winds, alluvial flats, steppe-deserts, arable land), and human development (boundaries, frontiers, routes, towns, vegetation, animal husbandry, specialization) receive plenty of attention as East moves between principles and historical examples.
Frequently noted are the changes in climate and landscape patterns over time, and the corresponding changes in human activity, borne out by thought-provoking observations. For instance, its easy to forget that the arid deserts of today were once the lush and preferred environs of dawning peoples, now barren due to receding icebergs or a changing ocean current's effect on wind streams directing rainfall. Or the geographic similarities in alluvial flats common between the sprouting human civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley. Even how the intimidating terrain between China and Europe, combined with the uniquely hospitable climate in regions of China, helped keep the silk moth a local and highly profitable venture in the far east for centuries (eggs of the silk moth eventually reached Constantinople cleverly hidden in a bamboo cane). Slowly one starts to see how a volcanic eruption here or riverbank erosion over there, through a series of related natural phenomena over spans of time, effects and somewhat dictates the paths of humans.
I was perhaps most excited about the abundance of maps when I flipped through, and in a book on geography and history, you have to figure they will play a central role in tying together conceptually challenging material. Unfortunately while many are helpful in conceptualizing past historical relevancies, most are so often spelled out in the following text that they wind up offering marginal clarity. But a few from atypical perspectives or highlighting previously-existing physical traits made it all worthwhile.
Probably the biggest kernel I will take home with me, is East's consistent focus on the 'magnitude that seasonal pause played in creating hospitable climates for humans, checking the growth of vegetation and insects, with a mix of draught and flood, allowing arable land.' We are clever little life-forms that embedded themselves in the cyclical nature of seasonal climates, and for said reasons above, we have spread across the planet.
(A small aside. It's been commented that this work is too dry and boring, and I'll admit I am a bit amped-up on this topic. But like any academic work aimed at intelligent readers, if you aren't willing to engage your brain, you probably shouldn't be reading it anyway. The Anglo-centric chapters add up to little of the work as a whole, but I'm guessing their place towards the beginning throws off a lot of folks.) (less)
As Timothy Lockley demonstrates in his edited documentary record of Maroon Communities in South Carolina, “marronage was a far more serious problem f...more As Timothy Lockley demonstrates in his edited documentary record of Maroon Communities in South Carolina, “marronage was a far more serious problem for eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century South Carolina than has hitherto been acknowledged, involving more maroons in more locations and over a longer period of time than any history of slavery in the state has indicated.” Consisting mainly of primary source material from the South Carolina House of Commons General Assembly and supplemented by regional newsprint and occasional private correspondence, Lockley has assembled a loosely-threaded volume of documents, reprinted directly from his exploration of the South Carolina Department of Archives, which portray in chronological order the consistent appearance of runaway slave activity in the swamplands surrounding urban and plantation life in South Carolina from 1711 through the 1830s. The simple fact that Lockley has “edited,” not “authored” the volume speaks to the paucity of secondary source material available, such that fundamental gaps on marronage in America warrant the publishing of archives themselves. Significant contributions to the study of maroon communities (often termed marronage and referring to runaway slave encampments in New World slave-holding societies) have followed Richard Price’s foundational Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas largely in keeping with their more prevalent and better-documented existence in the Caribbean and South America, particularly regarding Brazil, the Guianas, Cuba and Jamaica. On the North American mainland, the existence of marronage has gone largely unexplored, partially due to assumptions about the nature of British-American chattel-slavery and the tendency to view slave resistance in the United States primarily in the form of the slave revolt. Lockley’s careful treatment of his source material is meticulously footnoted, interspersed with minor commentary at key moments, and provides essential context with larger discussions at each chapter’s outset, making his volume an exceptional resource for interested scholars, both in terms of the archival leads and the demonstration of marronage in the public record. Seen largely through the eyes of the South Carolina legislature, correspondence between governors in South Carolina, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia, petitioning planters, concerned citizens, officer reports, personal accounts, and newspapers such as the Charleston Courier, the Savannah Georgian and the Gazette of the State of Georgia, the “depredations” and “petty plunderings” of “a few runaway Negroes” provoke such consistent and considerable anxiety over the course of Lockley’s record that larger patterns become recognizable; marronage in South Carolina was something greater than the sum of isolated incidents. In particular, Lockley does well in his minimalist contributions to situate marronage in South Carolina against the context of other forms of resistance (such as the Stono Rebellion in 1739 or the Vesey Conspiracy in 1822), its occurrence in the Spanish Americas, the French colonies, Brazil and the British Caribbean, and especially its observable fluctuations within the backdrop of larger historical trends in South Carolina. These included the largely Barbadian composition of early planter society, the consistent import of free-born African slaves through 1808 (including 40,000 between 1803 and 1807), the exploitation by the enslaved of planter instability, distraction and/or chaos related to conflict with the British including the Stamp Act of 1765, the Revolutionary War in the 1770s and the War of 1812, and confusion over the boundary line between Georgia and South Carolina. Maroon communities in South Carolina were heavily dependent on the surrounding swampland and marshes for survival, building small, highly-mobile subsistence communities exploiting their “off the grid” location. Anglophone culture largely found swampland impenetrable; as property it impeded large scale farming, as terrain it proved impossible for horseback and visually homogenous, as wetland it housed troublesome vegetation, reptiles, insects and disease, all of which maroons used to their advantage, employing camouflage, canoes, treetop vantage points, small scale farms and especially localized knowledge of pathways, hideouts and food sources. Maroon camps were by no means impoverished; often they were found well-provisioned with housing, barrels of rice, dozens of canoes, wells, hog pens, pots, axes, scaffolds for drying meats etc. In the eyes of slaveholders and legislators, runaway slaves were a continual problem, applying amorphous pressure on resources, often quantified in small groups as they ambushed locals en route to trade or ransacked plantation farms, slaughtering or stealing cattle, weapons, grain, tools and clothing. Spanning the documentary record are reports in the legislature of runaway activity, from rewards for “Outrages and Robberys” and petitions by concerned citizens for the mustering of militia to pleas for compensation for lost “property” by slaveholders and dispatches between officer and governor. It is clear that no decades passed without incident. More engaging are the larger “bursts” of marronage referred to by Lockley, such as the 40 or so “Savannah River” maroons, or the 100 or so runaways in Colleton County in the mid-1760s, troublesome enough to compel action by Lt. Gov. William Bull to the South Carolina Board of Trade, complaints by the Grand Juries of Georgia and South Carolina, and the hiring of Catawba Indians (“professional slave catchers”) to finally locate and destroy such communities. Indeed, one such notorious maroon by the name of Joe managed to evade local forces for over four years, causing uproar upon the shooting of planter George Ford in 1820, despite public and private bounties, pursuit by state militias and local hunting parties, and reports in newspapers statewide. These “larger bursts” of marronage, from 1765-1774, 1775-1787 and 1813-1829 are not attributable to any single cause, although Lockley’s attention to their parallels with U.S./British conflict is enticing. An enduring problem with the study of marronage in the United States is the complete dependence on institutional observation by its detractors. Lockley is hesitant to engage in speculation, and rightfully so, even as the general impression of his documentary record offers substantial pause for a reconsideration of the existence of marronage in the slaveholding South. Is the ebb and flow of this documentary record reflective of political patterns, or changing awareness within the cultures of marronage formed in swamps across South Carolina? It is unclear as to how involved maroons may have been in the Stono Rebellion, and certainly changes in individual leadership, group dynamics, historical contingencies and available resources may have had just as much of an effect on the presence or absence of marronage in the public record at any given time. There is also the issue of suppressed reportage, touched on only briefly here, in light of the fact that slaveholders occasionally (or perhaps often?) avoided publicizing enslaved resistance in attempts to keep their own captives “in the dark.” Some maroon communities may have preferred to lay low and avoid the ire of slaveholders altogether, while others may have existed in far greater numbers than attributable from the perspective of white townspeople. If there are any complaints to be lodged against Lockley, they are trivial. A highly guarded seven page Afterward seems about all Lockley is willing to offer, which on one hand allows the record to speak for itself, but on another could benefit from the opinion of its compiler, given the previously mentioned state of U.S. maroon historiography. There is a bigger picture here with the consistent and substantive presence of maroons in South Carolina, to be linked with other regions in the Deep South, with insurrections, trade networks, and ultimately the limits of white Southern slaveholding hegemony. Additionally, we are left to assume that Lockley has scoured the state archives in South Carolina and relevant correspondences in personal and professional source material, but we are given very little information regarding the discriminatory approach taken to formulating such a “documentary record.” Further, it might prove useful to examine the known use patterns for swampland that remain to this day “unsettled,” as, given maroons’ environmentally-determined patterns and the abundance of activity described by Lockley, it is reasonable to believe many were in some form or fashion constantly inhabited or continued beyond the direct observations of occasional white interlopers. The study of maroon communities may always orbit more identifiable phenomenon, given the speculative nature of research located in the gaps of the historical record. However, Alain Lockley’s edited volume is surprisingly rich with maroon activity and lucidly presented in a manner that manages to tell a story despite the shifting boundaries and moving targets. Based on the necessary and invaluable contribution of primary material contributed here, it will take historians willing to enter the swamps with more tenacity and imagination than that exercised by colonial militias in South Carolina, if any further maroon communities are to be located, unless that is, they don’t want to be found. (less)
Campanella's latest iteration of deltaic reflection is a quick and informative read, partially reprising basics from his earlier and excellent Bienvil...moreCampanella's latest iteration of deltaic reflection is a quick and informative read, partially reprising basics from his earlier and excellent Bienville's Dilemma. Like most of his publications, the pictures, graphs, and GIS analysis are all a result of his one-man-academic-army readable onslaught on New Orleans geographies. What comes through strongest is the inherent predicament and contradictory environment "delta urbanism" entails: levees that curb river overflow but encourage subsidence, outfall canals meant to drain runoff and prevent flooding serve as natural vectors for flooding during storm surges. Short chapters with chronological timelines move through a snapshot of the delta region's social and swamp histories, admirably captured in layman's terms for those of us looking for a bit of nuance and detail but lacking in the field's expertise. Campanella's work on New Orleans is irreplaceable and this informative bit published by the American Planning Association is no different, save the price tag, best find a used copy unless you're a specialist. (less)
Part exploration and part exercise, the interrelated mapping of 'mindscapes' by Ginzburg reminiscent of the Cheese and the Worms continues in these fo...morePart exploration and part exercise, the interrelated mapping of 'mindscapes' by Ginzburg reminiscent of the Cheese and the Worms continues in these four essays strung together in nonlinear entirely readable fashion. Being no scholar and only vaguely familiar with most of thinkers/works he trots through (Erasmus, Tristram Shandy, Bronislav Malinowski), and therefor despite a host of subtleties that probably flew over my head, Carlo remains accessible and rewarding to anyone willing to put in the work. A background knowledge of current medieval scholarship or of latin would probably have increased my appreciation of the first two essays; however as I sallied forth in the second half Sr. Carlo really starts spinning well-conceived webs for himself to disentangle, and by the finish I was left with the kind of complex and nuanced intellectual enjoyment analagous to reflecting on the totality of a journey's experiences opposed to its singular parts. (less)
Since Eco, a semiotician, is a fan of lists, and I would butcher a review or have to spend 10 hours to complete a few paragraphs satisfactorily, I'm g...moreSince Eco, a semiotician, is a fan of lists, and I would butcher a review or have to spend 10 hours to complete a few paragraphs satisfactorily, I'm going to leave myself a list of thoughts. -Eco captures the episteme(s) of the period brilliantly, referencing the intellectual conflicts of medieval modernity, caught somewhere between aging religiosity and the growing discovery of scientific insights, between interiors and exteriors, the pseudo and the genuine, what one knows and feels to be true and what one believes is true, between tainted purity and righteous blindness, and in the lack of organized and expedient communication tools (such as literacy, the printing press, megaphones..) amongst groups, the power of manipulating perception. -Intertextuality, layered narrative voices, so much interwoven complexity. I loved the theological debates and historical background and setting. -I plunged into an agitated state of despair after finishing this. If because I was released from the feverish grip it was holding me in, or because I grieved for the library and the loss of precious knowledge, or because returning my senses to the modern day was revolting, experiencing layer upon layer of material indifference, and the complete devaluation of interiority apparent in spiritual bankruptcy of this era. Being that you can't avoid our human stain, contemplative monks killing each other amongst theological debate in a beautiful monastery is far superior to vacuous politicians killing each other amongst television and Nyquil in an oval shaped room full of briefs, telephones, and uninspiring portraits of crusty old men on the walls. -How could he burn the library!? It makes the soul teary. Of course he had to burn the library! Fuck! -That labyrinth is complete badassery, to borrow a friend's term, and perfectly creepy. -Beautifully constructed medieval world. He makes you convince yourself you wish to have lived in the time period, although given the infant mortality rate, half of us probably would just end up being dead babies...So I guess the present is good to be in. But goddamit! -A lot about a reader can be told in how they react to the substantial amount of latin. For some, they feel its an ostentatious display and in lieu of the edifying struggle to comprehend, would rather complain and dismiss both author and fan base to make themselves feel better. These people suck. For others, it just makes them want to learn Latin (this was mine), or even if not, makes them appreciate the effort and knowledge of Eco and his attempts to portray the period accurately, or adds to the mystery of the book, or all of these combined. -The post-script is well worth reading.
What can be said about the Iliad that hasn't already been? It's hard to be critical in any fashion to something so monumental, something meant to be s...moreWhat can be said about the Iliad that hasn't already been? It's hard to be critical in any fashion to something so monumental, something meant to be spoken and accompanying a lyre. If he weren't 2,800+ years dead and probably a conglomeration of folks, I'd grab him by his beard and yell 'Who Does This??' Well, apparently a lot of folks back in the way back.
In 21st century parlance, the Iliad could be considered Homer's 'minor' work - ;) -, in comparison to the often-lauded The Odyssey, held in higher esteem by everyone I've ever come across. Still, knowing that the Iliad precedes Odysseus's long journey, I wanted to embrace my inner Ass, or Mule if you will, and challenge myself to read them in chronological order. It is tough going in the beginning, especially if you don't know which God begets which, what has preceded the 10th year at the shores of Troy, or how many classical Greek names Homer could have memorized. My edition topping out at 400 pages, I felt like I might be carrying this book around in my bag for awhile.
But perhaps unsurprisingly (it's not a towering work for nothing), as the fighting started I myself slowly became wrapped around the competing threads of Homer's descriptive warfare. And being as I read books primarily for intellectual stimulation as opposed to gory blood-lust, it was quite pleasant to watch the Iliad turn into a page-turner right before my eyes -even knowing the outcome of Achilles and Hektor beforehand. I kept saying to myself, it's not 'The Iliad' for nothing. And as one reads on into the depths of Homer's heroic fancy, you just have to simply marvel at how all of this was composed in poetic form and delivered by a humming bard with no access to the written word. It's just stunning.
There is a lot at work in his story-telling style, especially regarding the interplay between God and Man, God and God, and the constant analogies omnipresent between Nature and Man. The Gods seem infallible, yet the Achaian Diomedes injures Aphrodite. They play nudging, quarrelsome roles in mankind's affairs like a chess player observing a game board, but never directly move the pieces (except occasionally to save a loved-mortal from certain death). But they push the results: they plant ideas of escape or fury, forge armor, seed conflict, and generally avail themselves in portentous manners. It was the most interesting device Homer employed for me; what language or guise or form mediates the Godly interplay, how are their decisions made, how are they seen by mortals? Men interpret strong winds, lightning, the turning aside of a spear, the snap of a bowstring, as events manifested through the will of the Gods. Their prayers are heard, their sacrifices responded too, their courage rewarded. Yet the Gods are unpredictable, overzealous, apathetic, fearful of each other, and most of all, impulsive.
One can't talk about the Iliad without discussing its gruesome detail and blatant war-mongering machinations. The constant back-and-forth charges between Achaians and Trojans could be tiresome to readers, but I found Homer's description refreshing in its antiquated form and unpredictable storyline. Also, there is a distinct lack of hatred during the killing (aside from Achilles), and honorable codes, sometimes flummoxing 2,000 years later, yet govern their force.
Homer's ability to convey emotional nuance and subtlety rested squarely on the consistent insertion of parallels between behavior in nature and behavior in mankind; "as the (insert natural behavior), so (insert person and outcome)." As fields of wheat are reaped in autumn, so Achilles reaped his Trojan foes. One can see how a variety of natural scenarios, guidelines for godlike interplay, and family legacy could begin to be molded together in the mind of a masterful story-teller before a group of fireside listeners, and one gets the feeling if only we were so lucky.
This is the first novel of Morrison's I've read, and it quickly struck me in places as yet untouched and/or verbalized, a space that narrows the more...more This is the first novel of Morrison's I've read, and it quickly struck me in places as yet untouched and/or verbalized, a space that narrows the more one reads, and as such does what authors I've most loved manage to do: further my understanding of myself and the complexities of the world/reality around me as nothing else can. She has a way with words that leaves me awestruck reminiscent of G.G Marquez, and just as much, she manages to capture human experience so vividly it blares at you in less than 10 words what others such as myself currently take paragraphs to pin down. I can't heap enough praise on writers who with their works are like stone masons adding bricks into my own foundation, something probably common to avid readers. Her narrative tone is both comforting and full of austerity, and in the lack of a central protagonist, weaves one of the most complex non-linear narratives I have read yet. Its particularly effective in the way it produces a sense of nostalgia and mystery that fortunately she does not forsake like some writers who start well but inevitably turn rotting carcass-like.
The last few chapters beginning with Patricia I found particularly satisfying; she built an intense hunger for questions and content which she adequately answers without ever giving too much, and she consistently centered on the social dynamics and their repercussions on a topic as absurdly complex as racial, and more central, human proclivity across time period and social trend, and the smallest attributes in totality make up the biggest pictures we humans are so addicted to identifying and trying to understand.
I'm sure there are plenty of folks who do not take to this novel for various reasons. I however, was caught like a kid with his pants down in public, trying to handle the beautiful machinations that Toni Morrison so effortlessly wielded inside my head. As if it was written for me specifically, and nothing could be further from the truth. But it sure feels like ecstasy when you discover an author doing just such a thing. (less)
Natalie Z. Davis's stated interests in mutually incomparable 'truths,' ambiguities, and speculative story-telling bear plenty of fruit in her most rec...moreNatalie Z. Davis's stated interests in mutually incomparable 'truths,' ambiguities, and speculative story-telling bear plenty of fruit in her most recent historical plunge: a cross-examination of cross-cultural relationships between cross and crescent worlds across a 16th-century Mediterranean milieu. Her analytical weapon of choice, neither a towering and typical monarch nor a Middle Aged Joe Sixpack (wink wink), was a Muslim scholar and diplomat named Al-Hasan al-Wazzan, conventionally known as Leo Africanus, who was captured by Christian pirates, dubiously converted under Pope Leo the X as a reprieve from the dungeon, and with the watchful eye of the Church began composing manuscripts in Italian on the Arab world.
A lazier historian would have picked a more substantial figure, since aside from Al-Hasan's notable and expansive manuscript 'The Geography and Cosmography of Africa' and a few minor works, all that remains are the table-scraps of indirect and obscure references of the time period. For Natalie Zemon, however, his fence-straddling position and Arabic heritage provide a perfect backdrop for comparative aesthetics between Peoples of the Book, creative speculation on his motives and lifestyle, and the chance to immerse herself in a new region of study, Africa, and its vast Muslim history.
How very apt then, that in the beginning of Al-Hasan's Cosmography , he relates to his would-be Italian readers a traditional anecdote of an 'amphibious bird' who would feign fish-hood when taxed in the skies by the bird-king and bird-hood when taxed in the seas by the sea-king, always escaping payment and surviving though ambiguity. Zemon makes quick work of this hint into Al-Hasan's middlesome mindset and from there tosses us into the cultural context of competing religious movements, African social trends, and Maghreb geopolitics swirling around the Mediterranean shores in woefully complex patterns. One goes on a tour of North Africa from Fez to Tunis, the Atlas Mountains, the Sahara, lower Sudan, and Rome, soaks in distinctions between Muslim and Christian (or lack thereof) tolerance of homosexuality, skin color, gender, conversion, and Jewish communities just to name a few, of sultan power struggles and Maghreb and Portuguese warfare, to false eschatological prophets, it just goes on and on.
Davis handles this all beautifully. She's done her research, lucidly acclimatizing Westerners to the fine-tuned nuances of Islamic religiosity with its factions and intercultural prejudices, and frequently employing Muslim terminology and Qu'ranic scripture. Small insights into Islamic behavior flourish under Davis's hand, such as the heavy foreboding Muslims felt at the arrival of the printing press, with its ability to replicate heresy en masse and its deemphasizing effect on the spiritual aesthetic of Arabic calligraphy. Along with such description is the pleasure of watching Davis weave it, musings and all, into a solid conception of how Al-Hasan may have engaged the zeitgeist of the times, and what his life would have looked like. More importantly, Davis succeeds in conveying the pervading atmosphere of a particular historical period for which any reader's modern worldview will be enriched.
Mostly, Trickster Travels concerns a traveler's relationship to his own time period, and what we can explore given the ambiguities of his situation. It does not present controversial discoveries or advance meticulously crafted conceptions, or attempt to tell us how Al-Hasan's work and life contributes or improves upon our present world. It is a reflection, a creative endeavor. A lively venture into one's imagination, contextualized historically with a bounty of information and impression. Perhaps most intriguing for me is the overlapping similarities between Zemon Davis and her very own subject, Al-Hasan Al-Wazzan: Davis writing in English to inform westerners about the Muslim world of Africa via an Islamic polymath, Al-Hasan, who himself was writing in Italian during his captivity in Rome to inform Europeans on the very same topic 500 years ago. (less)
This is the first thing I have read of Henry James, and while I understand he is not an author defined or confined by the horror genre, one could eas...more This is the first thing I have read of Henry James, and while I understand he is not an author defined or confined by the horror genre, one could easily make the mistaken assumption given such a masterful display of suspense while delivering such a disturbingly luscious scare to the spirit. While the language is cloaked in the formalities of Victorian literature, I found it not only contributed to the eloquence of the subtle psychological conflicts voiced by the narrator, but to the unease created by the constant allusion to an ever present, unspeakable world lurking just below your feet. I kept asking myself, are they talking about what I think they're talking about? The only way to quench the too-unnerved-to-ignore-it feelings brewing inside me was to continue reading. After all, who watches Psycho and turns it off during the shower scene proclaiming 'time for bed!'? In this way (and many others), under a feverish spell I was reduced to ignoring a cluttered work desk and taking my Henry James via a shitty e-book that both strains my eyes and cheapens the reading pleasure (they didn't even transfer italics into the online text) in various ways satisfying to knock when feeling self-righteous.
Henry James as nuanced psychological translator succeeds marvelously and manages to, if occasionally asking you to endure a few stubbornly phrased passages, completely realize in the reader the most vague suspicions redeemable while permanently lingering between the believable and the paranormal.
Yet the single most unnerving and therefor delectable quality of this fireside ghost story is the creaky plot hinge of two chillingly perfect and precocious children (whom you immediately suspect capable of deviant malingerings) isolated in a giant island mansion like two evil geniuses in an underground laboratory, free to spend their days and nights playing out their own possessed fantasies under a mask of the most adroit childly manner. If you're a parent, you won't look at your children the same at night, no matter how loud, shy, abrupt, clumsy, precious, or miniature they are; the slightest of whispers or window gazing should have you calling Max Von Sydow in no time. If you're not a parent, you will probably continue leering at little people from afar like you are accustomed to. Either way, you'll eventually return to the normality of your world with the soothing reassurance that possessed child or not, you're bigger than they are. (less)
Trite, hackneyed, utterly generic, I can't recall the last time I read something I truly felt was utter garbage...it was a pain to finish it and I ful...moreTrite, hackneyed, utterly generic, I can't recall the last time I read something I truly felt was utter garbage...it was a pain to finish it and I fully expected to like it.(less)