Hector France was a colonial soldier who served long in Algeria. Upon his return to France, he would regale his friends, many of them notable artists...moreHector France was a colonial soldier who served long in Algeria. Upon his return to France, he would regale his friends, many of them notable artists and authors, with his soldier's tales of life amongst the Muslims of North Africa. Eventually, they convinced him to try his hand at writing them down, and he turned out to have an author's talent.
This, then, is the collection of the strange and wild stories of his life as a soldier--some are his own adventures, others those of his friends and acquaintances, and littered throughout are details of the country, the people, and the politics of his time and place. Too many details, it turned out, for his Victorian audiences, as the book only received a small, private publishing, and is little-known today. I was only able to read it because it's available for free online.
France was not shy about representing prostitutes, child-brides, murderers, hashish use, and the incompetence of his colonial overseers. As his title poetically informs us, we are to expect stories of sex, drugs, and death. The collection runs the gamut from the humorous to the touching to the disturbing, as a soldier's recollections tend to do, each one a curious slice of life.
While France is not entirely free of a certain cultural bias, he is much more the Humanist than the Nationalist, often remarking on the violent stupidity of the colonials, who will start a war over nothing and whose inability to comprehend that they are dealing with another culture invariably makes fools of them.
For France's part, he is of the opinion that there is no one way to live, and that whatever lessons the Arabs might learn from the Europeans, the Europeans have just as much they should be learning from the Arabs. It is not the view of the distant Orientalist or governor who tries to deal with the whole mass of a culture without ever bothering to deal with the individual man and woman within that culture.
France is also not quite the wild egotist his fellow adventurers, like Burton, tend to be, which means he is less likely to try to rewrite the foreign culture to match his idea of 'exoticism'. He does indulge in a bit of 'scientific racism', which was quite popular at the time, but overall his view is more nuanced than one generally expects from the soldier's memoir.
France also has a rather surprising subtle and effective use of prose--superior in fact to many similar fictional tales written up by successful authors. He has a sense of poetry, a flair for drama, and a strength of characterization that I wish more fiction authors had.
Of course, he also had the benefit of taking a lifetime of adventure, of strange people and experiences, and of reducing it down to the most unusual, touching, and intriguing examples. The amount of imagination it takes to equal the life of a middlingly interesting fellow is surprisingly great.
However, many men who lead even more remarkable lives were unable to deliver such charming and affecting stories to the page--whether it was their own bias that got in the way, or a matter-of-fact disposition, or a habit of including too much, without enough thought to what is liable to interest the reader. It is pleasant to find a more earnest and open sort of fellow--or at least a man capable of affecting such candor when it suits him.(less)
Once again, I'm reminded that even a lackluster history often has a better plot and characters than most novels. Gardner does have his good points, bu...moreOnce again, I'm reminded that even a lackluster history often has a better plot and characters than most novels. Gardner does have his good points, but overall he becomes easily enthused by the great names of certain English heroes--not to say that they weren't remarkable men who shaped history, but there's a little to much hero-worship for my tastes. Likewise, there are a few remarks about the 'violent, mysterious, spiritual East' and other such silly prejudices that Said built a career on critiquing, but overall it's not a book that dwells on such assumptions, and even reverses them, now and again.
Most interesting is the fact that the premise of the book is the uniqueness of the East India Company, a shipping interest owned by shareholders that incidentally ended up one of the most powerful empires in history, an empire owned and run by businessmen, and for profit--though they were often used as a screen for government interests, and ran on a debt most years of their existence, paying lie to the old notion that 'if business were run like governments, they'd fail'--for indeed, most business do run on debt and loans, and it hardly cuts into the profits--indeed, in allowing for larger risks, it often makes them bigger.
However, I was unconvinced by the premise that this system of governance is unique--firstly, it seems that the majority of governments have been run for the profit of their little elect group, and whether you call them 'nobility' or 'the board of directors' is really only a matter of tradition. More than that, there are of course more modern examples of the 'Barons of Industry' running governments both at home and abroad, from Banana Republics and Drug Cartels to the Fiji Water Tyranny, and of course the fact that Bills in America tend to be passed or blocked on the basis of lobbyists and high-payed consultancy positions.
In the end, more than anything, it reminded me of the post-cyberpunk world in Snow Crash, where the map has been literally divided up into the protectorates of various business concerns. But then, since the business schools of The East India Company produced John Stuart Mill and the philosophy of Utilitarianism, I begin to ask whether open rule by a corporation might not be better than half-secret rule by them--at least then, we'd have a better idea of what we were getting.
The most fascinating part was the role of Rani Lakshmibai in the terrible Sepoy Revolution (a rather important bit of history that we don't get here in the States). She was a modern day warrior queen who lead her people in an uprising against the Company, as it was trying to suppress their religion and dearest cultural traditions, one of the most foolish things an invading force can do to a far remote culture over which it has power.(less)
Howard Zinn saw a problem in the world, a great bias in our understanding of history, a history written by the winners--by tyrants and industrial magn...moreHoward Zinn saw a problem in the world, a great bias in our understanding of history, a history written by the winners--by tyrants and industrial magnates and warmongers--and so he did something about it: he created an equally flawed and opposed bias, just as carefully constructed to prop up his own one-sided conclusion, in an act which always calls to my mind Bob Dylan's line:
"In a soldier's stance, I aimed my hand. At the mongrel dogs who teach. Fearing not that I'd become my enemy. In the instant that I preach."
A staunch idealist, Zinn's standard method is to throw out the baby with the bathwater: he finds an imperfection in a plan or event, and declares that, since it it not perfect, it should be rejected, outright. There is no pragmatism, no sense of compromise, no utilitarian notion of 'the greater good' for Zinn--if there is a flaw in an action, then that action must be condemned.
He has come out as saying that war is never a solution, that since people died, the conflict of World War II is not excusable, that the cessation of the Fascist war machine was not worth the cost. Of course, this beggars the question: what else? Is there some better solution to the problem, is there anything else that could have been done to prevent it?
Likewise, he has rejected US intervention in Korea, despite the fact that when we look at the split Koreas today--the North a wasteland of violence, malnutrition, and ignorance, the South a modern nation with a thriving economy--it is difficult to argue that, despite the deaths in that war, the intervention was not, overall, a positive.
Certainly, I am not of the camp who believes the US to be some sort of 'World Hero', that we are justified in policing the world, or in enforcing our ideals upon other nations, but neither do I buy the image Zinn paints of the US as a hand-wringing Disney villain that ruins everything it touches--the real truth of the matter is somewhere in between.
Some things which the US has done, such as our interference in Afghanistan--well on its way to becoming a modernized, self-sustaining nation in the mid-20th Century--tearing down its government, arming its warlords, and making it the staging ground for our Cold War battles with Russia--are awful examples of selfishness forced upon the world. The actions of our government and intelligence community there were not for the greater good, they were at the expense of the Afghans to our own benefit, and there are many such damning examples, but to focus solely on them is just as bad as ignoring them entirely.
Zinn has received much credit for revealing truth, for reinvigorating our education system and our view of history, but honestly, his work was a bit late for that--already, such diverse perspectives were emerging, and while it took some time for them to trickle down to Middle Schools and the public consciousness, nothing in his book was a revelation to devoted students of history.
Even those historians who were sympathetic to minority experiences and opposed to the white-washing of history tended to condemn Zinn for cobbling together a poorly-researched work which took only those parts that were convenient to his thesis and left out all else--and beyond that, twisting and misrepresenting his sources to his own ends.
But his work is sensationalistic, and work of that sort has a way of finding its way into popular discussion, whether it is accurate or not. His opponents can cite him of an example of 'all that is wrong with that point of view', while his supporters are attracted by the fact that his work tends to cast as the true heroes of history the uninvolved thinker, the academic who talks a great deal, attends protests, but does not get his own hands dirty, since in Zinn's approach, to interact directly with the imperfect world is to sully one's self.
It's hardly surprising that, in the modern age of 'Entertainment News', as represented by the vehement spewing of incoherent bias, figures like Zinn and Chomsky should become elevated. Zinn's book is like the 'documentaries' Zeitgeist, or What the Bleep Do We Know?, like Daniel Quinn's Ishmael or Hesse's Siddhartha, or the writing of Bell Hooks--all works that are fundamentally more concerned with the author's prejudice than with anything resembling fact.
In college, it's not uncommon to find folks who are devoted to all of the above--and if there's a better way than that to say "I have relatively little capacity for critical thought, but need constant confirmation of my own specialness', I don't know it. But then, such works are liable to spark off movements--not because they are accurate or well-written, but because they flatter certain preconceptions in the person who reads or watches them--meaning that the movements they inspire are not far removed from cults, centered as they are on philosophies which do not correspond to reality.
It is truly sad that, in the end, the common state of politics can be boiled down to a question like 'Do you follow rush Limbaugh, or Kieth Olbermann?', when in fact both of them are equally sensationalistic purveyors of half-truths delivered by way of ideology-filled rants. One sometimes wonders what we might achieve if we were able to think of the world in terms other than false dichotomies--but since I, unlike Zinn, am not an idealist, I shall have to accept the fact that it's simply how the human mind works, and do my best to work within that system.(less)
Sometimes called 'the most important piece of literary criticism in the Horror genre', Lovecraft's essay on the history and method of supernatural hor...moreSometimes called 'the most important piece of literary criticism in the Horror genre', Lovecraft's essay on the history and method of supernatural horror is a great resource for readers and writers alike, as it mostly consists of a list of his favorite authors and their most notable and unusual stories. Really, an editor should go through the text, collect all the stories and authors Lovecraft mentions, and then make them into a shot story collection, with this essay as an introduction--hard to think of a more effective primer to the genre than that.
Unfortunately, I wish that Lovecraft had gone into greater depth about the style and methods of horror writers, particularly when he was going through all the example authors. If he had taken certain stories and passages and used them as illustrations for how to achieve this or that effect, then this would be an indispensable analysis. As it is, you get a lot of plot outlines along with generalized bits of praise or condemnation from Lovecraft, himself.
He includes many of those longer Gothic works, talking about certain moments which manage to rise above the formulaic melodrama and tacked-on romance that tend to dominate such lengthy, ambling tales, but it's hard to feel that it's worthwhile to wade through all that just to get to the few superlative instances. His discussion of Hawthorne's longer works, in particular, made them sound much more appealing than my actual experience with them, years ago. Then again, Lovecraft, himself is known to indulge in verbose exposition, so he may find that style less off-putting than I do.
Likewise, Lovecraft's chapter on Poe is much more laudatory than what I would write, as I find most of his work to be uneven and repetitive to the point of narrowness in terms of images, ideas, themes, and tone. Lovecraft, himself, does acknowledge some of these problems, but as with the rest of the essay, it could have done with more specific examples and laying out of ideas. It looks like I'll have to return to the stories, themselves for instruction, and hope that proves to be enough.
Amusing that Lovecraft outright rejects the 'Gothic Explique'--when an author tacks on a bit at the end that tells the reader how all the apparently supernatural events actually have a reasonable explanation such as mass hypnotism, a dog covered in phosphorescent mushroom spores, or a full-sized human skeleton rigged up as a marionette--also known as the 'Scooby Doo Ending'. Then again, I'm not fond of it, myself, especially in a profoundly supernatural tale where the explanation must become absurd in order to account for everything that has happened.
But so far, I'm happy to report that my book seems to lie within the guidelines set down by Lovecraft, so that, at least, is a promising sign.(less)
There's a curious double-standard between what we expect from White guy authors compared to authors of any other background. When an author is a Nativ...moreThere's a curious double-standard between what we expect from White guy authors compared to authors of any other background. When an author is a Native American, for example, we tend to expect their books to deliver to us the 'Native American experience'. If the author is a woman, we tend to expect that her book will show us the 'female perspective'--to the degree that female authors who write stories about men often take on a masculine or nondescript name, like J.K. Rowling.
So we get Western-educated authors like Achebe, Hosseini, and Momaday who write thoroughly traditional novels in the Western style and then place a thin veneer of their own ethnic background onto those stories, and are praised for it in academia, because their work meets expectation: delivering to The West a simplified and pre-colonized version of foreignness.
As a White male author, on the other hand, the expectation is that you won't stick to your own cultural identity, but will instead attempt to explore the breadth and depth of human experience through characters of many backgrounds--and why not? White guys have been doing it for years, and many of them were quite good at it.
In fact, the problem here is not that White guys are encouraged to take on other roles, its that non-White folks are discouraged from doing so. As Said points out: it is not only Black people who are capable of writing about Black people, or only Arabs about Arabs, or only Whites about Whites; we all need to explore similarities and differences in our fellow humans.
So here I am: White guy, trying to explore humanity, writing a bit of fiction about Colonialism, about the English rule in Egypt and India, featuring characters of different backgrounds--but it's daunting. I don't want to do it thoughtlessly, and though I take a great deal of inspiration from Haggard, Kipling, Conrad, and Burton, I don't want to incidentally adopt their shortcomings along with the interesting bits.
So I thought I might combat their prejudices by taking in the most notable and talked-about book on interactions and stereotypes between The West and The East. However, Orientalism was not what I expected; but then again, it wasn't what Said expected, either. He didn't intend to write The Book on East/West interaction, his work is much narrower in scope.
The whole of the book is Said looking at a dozen authors, mostly French and English, some academics, some fiction writers, and gives examples of a number of quotes for each where they talk about 'The East' in ways that demonstrate a certain bias. That's pretty much the book, all four-hundred pages of it. Why spend that long on such a specific topic? Because this book was meant for a small academic publication, and that's what specialized academics do.
Now, if you've read any of the other reviews of this book on GR, you'd get the impression that Said is an enraged polemicist who spends the whole book denigrating 'The West' and praising 'The East'. It’s inexplicable to me that any person with basic reading comprehension could come away from Said with this view. Indeed, once I realized the scope of this work (and that it wasn't likely to help with my specific writing concern), I almost abandoned it, but I wanted to get to the 'angry Said' part where he defames Western civilization, just to see how bad it got.
It never came. Said's tone throughout the book is exceedingly dry and cautious--too much so, for my taste, I've been known to enjoy a good diatribe--so any prejudicial anger a reader might find in this book is only what they brought in with them. The notion that Said is anti-Western or Pro-Islam is such a bizarrely inexplicably misreading that the only reason a reader could come away from the book with that belief is if they brought in a huge set of prejudices and then ignored everything Said actually wrote.
First, they must assume that ‘East’ and ‘West’ are terms that have well-defined geographical and social meanings, and then ignore the fact that Said repeatedly states that, to him, 'East' and 'West' are just convenient ideas, not real, solid entities--that it is ridiculous to talk about India, China, and the Middle East as if they were one culture, or even to lump in the various Arab states with one another, when they each have very different histories and values. There is no more unity between all Islamic nations than there are between all Christian nations.
Trying to place a line between Greece and Turkey and claiming these are separate cultures is artificial. Lest we forget: Troy was in Turkey, when the Roman Empire died in Italy it continued in Istanbul (as Edith Hamilton points out: Roman rule was always more Persian than Greek), Southern Europe was long ruled by Moors, and as Ockley’s 1798 History of the Saracens contentiously point out, nearly everything Europe knows of Greek philosophy and mathematics came from Islam.
Then, the ignorant reader would have to assume that when Said points out a specific trend in some authors of the ‘West’, that this constitutes an attack on ‘The West’ as an entity (which Said denies exists). this despite the fact that Said explicitly holds many of these Western authors in high regard and specifically states that there’s nothing wrong with cultures having interdependent relationships:
“The Arab world today is an intellectual, political, and cultural satellite of the United States. This is not in and of itself something to be lamented; the specific form of the satellite relationship, however, is.”
The reader would then have to assume that this perceived attack on a fictional ‘Western Culture’ was the same thing as an uplifting of ‘the East’, even though Said often speaks about how many Eastern states are damaged and without a modern intellectual tradition to train its members to do the work of improving them, and that all the great centers of study and economic control for Islam are in England or America.
But then, the fact that there are prejudiced readers is hardly surprising: the world is full of people trying to divide everything up between 'us' and 'them'. I get comments from people who don't realize that Islam is an Abrahamic religion--that it shares the same holy books, prophets, and god as Christianity and Judaism--people who aren't aware that a 'fatwa' just means any public statement by a scholar. You read about American military consultants in the Middle East who don't know the difference between Shia and Sunni. Very few these days would connect this quote:
"The ink of the scholar is more precious than the blood of the martyr"
How easily we forget that Athens is closer to Marrakesh, Tunis, Cairo, and Baghdad than it is to Paris, Berlin, or London.
I remember seeing a picture of a map where the Middle East was replaced by an impact crater, with the words 'Problem Solved' beneath it, completely ignoring the fact that the reason there is constant conflict there is because powerful First World countries have gone in, supplied both sides with cheap guns, made Opium the only profitable crop for farmers to grow, and set up regimes whose only purpose is to funnel money and natural resources out of those countries and into multinational banks--of course the area is going to be politically unstable under those conditions.
Indeed, Said openly admits that there is much wrong in the Arab world, that it is full of turmoil and violence and lack of education, and that it is all too easy to paint it as a ‘fallen culture’ when compared to the heights of culture and science it once achieved, and which sparked off the Renaissance in Europe. Of course, to typify them that way is to ignore the fact that we do the same thing within our own cultures, that the cliches of American rednecks and hippy-dippy liberals are the same as the cliche arab: ignorant, sectarian, ever-feuding, following charismatic leaders into reactionary movements. We can point to Religious Fundamentalists, Tea Party Yokels, Ron Paul Libertarians, Militant Feminists, and Black Muslim Brotherhood members and find the same clannish human system at play.
I was constantly struck by the fact that the separation Said depicts between the ideas of East and West were just the generic type of power separation laid out by Marx that mark the separation of a dominating power structure versus the population whom they control and profit from. They make the same generalizations: that the population is childlike and irrational, easily manipulated, and in need of their governance. Very little of Said’s analysis was specific to the conflict between the East and West, which may have been deliberate on his part, but I think it would have made his neutral stance clearer if he had expressed this outright. As an avowed Humanist, I think that extending the narrow facet of his argument and showing us that this is how power works everywhere, at all times, would have made his work stronger, overall.
As I read, it seemed that what Said was saying was clearly true, but not in a revelatory way. I found myself comparing it to Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman, my high-water mark for social criticism, where her statements are inescapably true, but in a way you never realized until you saw it written out. I kept waiting for Said to take it to the next level, to elevate these basic, naked conclusions to some profound and insightful conclusion.
Of course European, christian powers would mythologize and simplify Islam, of course they would make of it a phantom enemy of it, while at the same time trading, allying, and trading inspiration with it--that is no more than differing cultures always do, as Said points out. What great insight into this system is meant to shock me? Am I simply too much the postmodern, atheistic American to see what he says as anything but basic and inescapable?
I came to this book looking to find something insidious, some system by which these cultures interact uniquely, but all I got was ‘most people are dumb, dominating forces produce propaganda, Europe vs. Islam edition’. Of course we are all Quixote and Pangloss, making ourselves heroes of a fantastical narrative and creating enemies to blame because we are too weak to do anything else but maintain that fiction. But, even if we are all human, and Said is a Humanist, and all power structures operate in the same ways, there should still be some specifics which set this incidence apart.
I was waiting for Said to do some serious unpacking. It’s not enough to show a passage of Renan’s and demonstrate that his Semites are ‘sterile’--I want to know how that construction is achieved, why it is important, how it operates culturally, why it is an important and vital part of this interaction. And yet, just as he seems to be reaching a kind of specificity, he breaks off:
“Why the Orient seems still to suggest not only fecundity but sexual promise (and threat) . . . is something on which one could speculate: it is not the province of my analysis here, alas, despite its frequently noted appearance.”
So then, if not that, what is the province of his analysis? It isn’t until his conclusion that he lays out his purpose and helps us to understand why he didn’t extend to these sorts of specific conclusions, which made me wish that he had made his conclusion his introduction, so I wouldn’t have spent four-hundred pages wondering why he keeps stopping just at the point when it was starting to get interesting.
This is an academic work with a very narrow scope. It is meant to give a view of a very specific trend in Orientalist criticism amongst a group of authors, and not to force on the reader any specific conclusion about what this trend means, or how it operates on a minute level, except to point out that it exists and that it represents standard power dynamics. That is the purpose and the effect of this book, and it invites the reader to use it to extend these examples into specific arguments and observations of their own, to use the general roadmap provided as a guide for their own work. The fact that it has become the central text on the subject is an accident of time and place, for that was not the author’s purpose, nor is this a transformative, revelatory work that sets out a specific theory of analysis for looking at Orientalist works, as I wish it had been.
In the end, Said’s Orientalism is not a primer, but an exploration and an experiment which is incomplete without further scholarship on the part of the reader. Since Said is not specific, we cannot know just how accurate his readings are unless we can compare them to our own readings of the same works, so it can only be a companion to our studies and not a work which, on its own, develops a unique view which we can use, as scholars, going forward.(less)
There's something terribly edifying when, having created your own rubric for how books should be judged, you happen to pick up the work from which all...moreThere's something terribly edifying when, having created your own rubric for how books should be judged, you happen to pick up the work from which all literary criticism arose and find that you and Aristotle have independently produced the same system for judgment. I know it probably just trickled down to me through cultural osmosis, but it does give me hope that I'm putting the pieces together properly.(less)
One hurdle in studying Eastern religions is having to unlearn all of the bad research of the European Theosophists and authors like Hesse, who took in...moreOne hurdle in studying Eastern religions is having to unlearn all of the bad research of the European Theosophists and authors like Hesse, who took in foreign phrases and concepts and conflated them with well-established Christian spiritual notions. I was often reminded of this while reading a used copy of this book, in which some naive former soul had left marginalia every few pages declaring that The Dream of Brahma was 'just like in Christianity' or some equally precocious notion.(less)
While researching the use of opium for my own (fictional) writings into the subject, I came across this fascinating article about a fellow whose habit...moreWhile researching the use of opium for my own (fictional) writings into the subject, I came across this fascinating article about a fellow whose habit of collecting paraphernalia led him to become both the leading expert on them and an addict. The interview led me to the work of Dr. H.H. Kane, and Kane's analysis led me back to de Quincey, with whom I had some prior familiarity due to my literary studies.
De Quincey's writing style is precise and exacting, but he does not have that flair for storytelling which marks a fascinating diarist. Indeed, many of the most intriguing parts of his tale are those he declined to go into in great detail, and throughout one can see his struggles not so much in what he has written on the page, but in what he cannot bring himself to say. He comes to the cusp of his own suffering again and again, but to cross that threshold is to relive his greatest shame and disappointment, so he often skirts it.
No doubt this is why Dr. Kane accuses de Quincey of presenting all the beneficial sides of the drug's use, and ignoring the dangers. Yet I found myself constantly thankful that I was not in de Quincey's position, for his constant and unabated suffering seemed clear enough to me.
Indeed, when he spoke of being unable to complete his work (the promised third part of his Confessions never arrived), of the weeks or months passing by without his being perceptibly closer to completing all of the great tasks and projects he had set before himself--one does not have to be a taker of laudanum to sympathize, as being an artist of any stripe is quite enough to understand that eternal struggle.
But though some of his narrative is less than vivid, most interesting are his descriptions of opioid dreams, which visions were so influential to fantastical authors like Gogol and Lovecraft. Indeed, his vision of the 'impossible castles of the clouds' are recognizable in the writings of numerous mythos authors, who were so obsessed with the realm of dreams, especially when it bled into quotidian life.(less)
There are certain people who delight in mythologizing their lives--looking for deep meanings and explanations for who they imagine themselves to be. I...moreThere are certain people who delight in mythologizing their lives--looking for deep meanings and explanations for who they imagine themselves to be. It is not mere soul-searching, because they dislike even reasonable criticism, and cannot stand to be made aware of the ways their actions conflict with the vision they have of themselves. They want to be special and important, and are less interested in understanding themselves than in creating an image.
There are some rare people for whom the act of personal recreation is a serious matter--people who explore their own depths, trying on new personae, always shifting and moving--they are the artists of identity, and they are few. Like any art, it takes a level of skill and determination that most people lack. Self-creation is like writing a novel: the average person trying to do it is going to end up with something cliche, hackneyed, conflicted, and ultimately self-serving.
Which is why these people often say the same sorts of things: 'I'm a little bit psychic, it runs in the family', 'I'm very in-touch with my spiritual side', 'I have Cherokee blood', 'I've always been very creative'. Now, I don't want to just pick on New Age spiritualists, because there are plenty of people who do the same thing on the other end: 'I've always been a very rational thinker', 'I find it so hard to be around naive people', 'I have this passion for world politics', 'I watch a lot of documentaries'.
No matter the form this delusion takes, it can be very frustrating to deal with someone who is so self-centered. They want to talk about themselves, indulge in their fantasy, and be confirmed by those around them. Some cynical individuals develop a game for interacting with this type: engage them, pretend to buy into their self-delusion, and then try to suggest something even more outlandish to see if they'll accept it. Extra points if the new idea clearly contradicts their previous claims. Unfortunately, the entertainment value of this game is limited, since it isn't hard to get them to accept even nonsensical notions. As Forer's astrological experiment demonstrated, people are quick to accept flattering explanations without questioning them; as Harlan Ellison said:
“If you make people think they're thinking, they'll love you; but if you really make them think, they'll hate you.”
In his opening essay, Jung's examples of the efficacy of dream analysis seemed similarly convenient. It reminded me of the solutions from some of the Sherlock Holmes stories, where things happen to fit all the data, but in an unlikely and convoluted way. Sure, it's possible to sit down with some tarot cards and tell someone else a story about their life that matches the draw, but just because something is capable of inspiring the human mind does not mean that it is ultimately meaningful.
Da Vinci was once studying the whorls and eddies in a streambed for a painting, and was suddenly struck with the idea that the human heart could use similar currents to maintain constant bloodflow throughout the body. It turned out that he was correct--though we wouldn't know it until a few years ago. However, just because a certain swirl in a stream inspired his thought does not make that swirl intelligent or magical or an agent of fate.
Yet unlike his presentation of ideas in Synchronicity, Jung is much more cautious here, telling us that he does not place importance on dreams because of any system or understanding, but because he often can't think of anything else to analyze! In his own words:
"I had tried to explain too much in too simple a way, as often happens in the first joy of discovery."
Disappointingly, I found the majority of Jung's theories arise from the same misplaced enthusiasm. Again and again, whether he is speaking of dream interpretation, synchronicity, or the collective unconscious, I see grand, far-flung notions with little basis in reality.
He speaks about Einstein's Theory of Relativity making his theories of psychic interconnectivity possible, and so demonstrates that he develops theories using the reverse of the scientific process. Normally, you take something you understand and then create a theory based on that. Jung instead takes an idea he shows no ability to comprehend (relativity) and states that it makes his ideas possible.
Sadly, one can see this same poor technique at work today, such as in the case of the 'documentary' What the Bleep Do We Know!?, which invited out a group of Quantum Physicists, interviewed them for a few hours, then edited them down to a few comments which seemed to imply that Quantum Physics made ESP possible. It is true that there are interconnections and unpredictable events on the quantum level, but trying to scale them to the human mind is pointless. Just because an ant can lift a hundred times his body weight, doesn't mean a human can. The scientists interviewed in the film later spoke out against it.
These sorts of pseudoscientific ideas play into the personal narratives of those self-obsessed folk I was speaking about earlier. Jung himself gives us a striking indictment of this sort of person:
". . . a great horde of worthless people people give themselves the air of being modern by overleaping the various stages of development and tasks of life they represent. They appear suddenly by the side of modern man as uprooted human beings, bloodsucking ghosts whose emptiness is taken for the enviable loneliness of modern man and casts discredit upon him."
Today we might call them 'hipsters'--people who take on the mannerisms and appearance of eccentricity, but lack any capacity for real iconoclastic thought. Artists and scientists often dress shabbily because they spend all their time and thought on subjects other than their appearance. Their horn-rimmed glasses and v-neck sweaters are not magic totems that confer intelligence.
As Jung indicates, when an individual falsifies an outward appearance without first developing inner depth, they become like 'bloodsucking ghosts', empty and entirely reliant on external confirmation. It is unfortunate that the attempt by the previous generation of parents to 'give' self-esteem to their children has been just as destructive, producing a generation of people with a great deal of confidence but no foundation to base it upon, so they collapse or lash out any time they are challenged.
But, looking at Jung's own theories, I came away with the impression that he was just as guilty of "overleaping the various stages of development" in his enthusiasm: he developed grand theories without a foundation, skipping past proofs and evidence in favor of loose anecdotes and flawed studies.
In reading earlier thinkers--Hume, Nietzsche, Plato--I found myself constantly confronted with startling insights into human thought, motives, society, and relationships. Freud's psychoanalysis was hardly the beginning of the study of the human mind. Yet here, reading Jung, writing with the benefit of the scientific method and with numerous studies to draw upon, I get none of these insights. It seems strange that the 'modern blossoming' of psychoanalytic thought about which Jung is so enthusiastic seems less productive than the centuries of thinkers that preceded it.
It became increasingly clear to me that I am simply not a Modern Man in Search of a Soul, for the same reason that I am not a man in search of gold bars. Souls and bullion might be nice things to have, but it seems rather pointless to wander my yard with a shovel looking for either one. There are a thousand thoughts and activities which seem to me more promising.
Jung himself promotes the importance of spirituality with a sort of Pascal's Wager--according to Pascal, an atheist who is wrong still goes to hell, while a believer who is wrong merely ceases to exist, so in terms of consequences it's better to believe (for the record, Pascal did not mean this to be taken as a serious argument).
Jung's Wager has a more psychological premise: in our youth, we are driven by our urge to reproduce, but once we are old, we no longer have this urge, so it's important to be spiritual so you have something to do with yourself after midlife. He suggests it's only natural, since humans can live to eighty, there must be some purpose to those extra years. After all, elders in tribes are revered for their great wisdom in when crops should be planted or how disputes should be resolved.
Unfortunately, Jung's arguments are once again in conflict with his conclusions. If we apply the adage of the Zen teacher 'listen to what I do, not what I say', then we will recognize that the importance of these elders is based upon their practical knowledge, not their spirituality--maybe those extra forty years should be devoted to the sciences or engineering, then?
In both wagers, we are asked to believe because we have nothing better to do, which is a sad state of affairs. The only people it could convince would be those utterly frivolous 'empty bloodsuckers' Jung spoke of earlier. It appeals to them because the search for 'the soul' can so easily become a fantasy, an escapist odyssey of self-importance. The exploration of the self must be tempered by an exploration of the world, and whenever they come into conflict, the world is correct. To recede into the self and ignore the world is the way of madness--of 'hearing voices', tinfoil hats, Napoleonic delusions, and other schizophrenic ephemera.
Sometimes they come up to me and ask me if I'm happy. I say no. They ask if something is missing. Something is missing, I say. It's god, they say. No.
People are starving, dying, warring. A wealthy elite exert control in the most destructive ways, leveraging and speculating and devastating whole swathes of the global economy, raking a profit off the top before the bottom drops out. I haven't had a regular job for years. Students leave high school hardly able to read or write, ignorant of the most basic facts of history and science. Whole cultures and gender groups are made to feel worthless and incomplete by predatory consumerist culture, which they then destructively feed back into.
My believing in god won't help any of those people. It won't help me. It won't change anything. If believing caused me to suddenly feel happy and whole, it would only be because I had turned inwards so far that I no longer recognized the cries of pain of my fellow man. Sometimes it's good to be angry, to be depressed, to be frustrated. There are many situations for which they are a completely normal, rational response.
Like cancer--I would think, if someone got cancer, they would be entitled to feel upset, angry, hopeless, and depressed sometimes, but as Barbara Ehrenreich found when she got breast cancer, there's a whole 'forced positivity' culture set up to completely overwhelm and alienate anyone who displays a perfectly reasonable emotional reaction.
To be happy, fulfilled, and untroubled in the face of that is not healthy, it's not a sign of sanity. If a person can tells me that they feel happy and whole in this world, the way things are, then it seems clear to me that they have already checked out. Sure, the world is full of joys, wonders, splendors, epiphanies, and new understandings, but that's only one half of the picture, and to discount the rest is to live half a life.(less)
The central theory of 'synchronicity' relies on an unfortunate combination of flawed research and misapplied statistics. Jung hems and haws but is nev...moreThe central theory of 'synchronicity' relies on an unfortunate combination of flawed research and misapplied statistics. Jung hems and haws but is never able to demonstrate that any acausal connection between events exists.
The first problem is his reliance on research by Joseph Rhine, who coined the term 'parapsychology' to describe his studies. Throughout his career, Rhine's work was plagued with errors, and his ESP experiments were so poorly-designed as to be useless.
To produce good results means setting up a good test. If there are flaws in the test, the results will be useless. When Rhine began to speak about the 'remarkable findings' in his research, he gained interest and his papers were widely read. Sadly, it was immediately clear to professionals in the field that the results were unreliable.
Through the course of his early experiments, Rhine did not lay out a system by which the testing took place. He used a set of twenty-five Zener cards to test his subjects, but never specified any method by which the cards be randomized or presented. One of the most successful tests took place in a moving car.
The expected outcomes were also underestimated, so that subjects reported as performing 'above chance' were in fact quite average. Each deck contained five symbols with five cards each, and Rhine reported this meant a one-in-five (20%) chance of guessing the correct card. However, the cards were not returned to the deck and reshuffled after each one was drawn, so every card after the first had a greater than 20% chance of being guessed.
If the first card drawn is a star, the subject knows that only four star cards remain. That means the other symbols in the deck now have a greater than 20% chance of being drawn. If eight cards have been drawn and none of them are a cross, the subject now has a 30% chance of being correct if he guesses a cross, since there are more crosses remaining in the deck than any other card. The odds of guessing correctly increase for every card drawn.
Beyond counting cards, it was later discovered that several of Rhine's assistants were >a href=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_B... certain subjects to cheat, that subjects were often allowed to handle the cards, and that the original cards were often thin enough that the symbols could be seen through them in certain lights.
After changing the tests to make cheating more difficult and getting rid of assistants caught cheating, Rhine never again produced any meaningful results. Sadly, he revealed his prejudice when he refused to publish any experiment that did not support his theories.
He then tried to excuse his lack of evidence by the so-called 'Decline Effect', which is just another misunderstanding of how statistics operate. Imagine you roll a large number of dice, then get rid of any that roll five or lower. You continue rolling, and continue keeping only those that roll high. Eventually, you're down to a handful of dice. If you keep rolling them, they will average out.
They were never super dice, after all, we just happened to decide to keep the ones that rolled high--which any of the dice might have done. That's not an anomaly, it's our own selection bias. It's like someone who doesn't like red skittles, and so only eats the other ones, and then is surprised when the bag has only red skittles in it.
Rhine did the same thing: he tested large numbers of people, and kept only those who scored highly. He was selecting only the data that confirmed his theory. Then, when he retested them, they averaged out. This is not a magic 'decline effect', it is the natural correction of his own selection bias averaging out over time.
The fact that Jung did not recognize the flawed methodology throughout the experiments troubled me. A theorist needs to be able to recognize and avoid using flawed data, and the fact that Jung has so quickly embraced it suggests a lack of rigor in his own approach.
Besides these contentious studies, Jung often relies on anecdotes--examples from his life, or from other people which suggest that coincidences are in some way important. For example, he remarks that one patient was telling of a dream she had about a beetle, at which point a beetle flew into the window of his office.
Anecdotes are like metaphors: they are useful for illustrating an idea, but only a fool mistakes the illustration for the idea. One can 'burn the midnight oil' without actually having any oil at hand, and just because a man gets attacked by an escaped tiger in NYC, that is not evidence of an urban tiger infestation. Beyond that, memory is an untrustworthy thing, and human beings assign more importance to events which confirm what they already believe, tending not to remember things that conflict with their beliefs.
In this specific case, coincidences like the kind he describes are not actually uncommon. While it is unlikely that a bug would fly in while a woman spoke about bugs, that is only one of many coincidences that might have happened that day. If a person has a thousand small moments in a day where a coincidence might happen, then statistically, each person will experience a one-in-a-thousand coincidence every day.
Given enough time, the coincidence actually becomes more likely to occur than not to occur. It is unlikely that a roulette wheel will land on seven if you spin it once. If you spin it a thousand times, it would be miraculous if it didn't eventually land on seven. With a world population of 6.8 billion, 6,800 people are experiencing a one-in-a-million coincidence right now.
Unfortunately, Jung never overcomes either the flawed studies or the vague arguments which undermine his theory. He speaks back and forth at some length about various suppositions and possibilities, but never develops any convincing insight. A good piece of philosophy contains not only an interesting theory, but also presents the flaws and contradictions which it must overcome in order to be relevant. It is impossible to discuss the necessity of an idea without first dealing with the problems amassed against it. Only if its power and accuracy prove greater than these problems can the idea may truly emerge as a workable concept. Jung never manages to cross this important threshold.
It is clear that he has passion, and that there is a great desire within him to explore and understand, but this is simply not enough. He tells us that there have been many ideas throughout history which were considered unpalatable, which were rejected outright, and only accepted as truth later. He reminds us that it is vital to keep pushing the boundary--yet again he forgets statistics--for every great idea that was rejected for being before its time, there are ten or a hundred ideas which ended up being flat out wrong.
The lesson of history is that the odds are against the radical idea. We might think of great successes like Kepler or Newton, who changed our conception of the world with radical notions--but both also men had passionate ideas which they worked on their whole lives, and which turned out to be baseless--for Kepler, the notion that the orbits of the planets were based on the platonic solids, and for Newton the study of alchemy. While reading, I had my own moment of synchronous coincidence, when Jung quoted Kepler's notion of 'Geometric Unity' as an example of a philosophy of synchronicity--despite the fact that it turned out to be incorrect. Mankind is better served by thinkers who work on likely theories rather than ones who chase white rabbits.
Yet, I am not numb to the passion that drives a man who works to prove the impossible. There is a part of me that has always wanted magic to exist. A world with magic seems a more interesting and wonderful world. Part of the reason I am skeptical, the reason that I searched so hard for truth, for proofs, was that I wanted to believe. But a simple desire does not make reality:
"Do you want a piece of cake?" "Yes!" "Then have one." "I don't see it . . ." "You aren't looking hard enough." "I've checked the whole kitchen and I still don't see any cake." "You just don't want the cake enough. If you really wanted the cake, you'd be eating it already." "But there isn't any cake here!" "Well, you can't expect to find the cake with a negative outlook like that. Cakes don't respond well to negative energy." "I'm pretty sure that even if I wanted this cake more than I ever wanted anything, it still wouldn't be here." "What a hopeless cynic!"
One of my favorite articles is a piece by Dr. Susan Blackmore, entitled 'Why I Have Given Up", which goes into great detail about how difficult it is to try to study unusual theories. She searched in vain for evidence of fantastical claims for a quarter century. In the beginning, she hoped they were true--that she would find something definitive, and that the way we look at the world might be changed forever. By the end, she had still not found a single shred of evidence.
Believers attacked her. They said she didn't have an open mind. All the people who had contacted her over the years, sure that they had proof, blamed her when they couldn't demonstrate it. People have a passion for wondrous notions, even when there is nothing to suggest they might be true. It's important to have an open mind as a student of the world, but it's also important to make sure you don't open it so wide that your brain falls out.
A place with unicorns and psychic powers were all things are connected and directed by fate seems exciting and interesting. Yet these things are only interesting because they are impossible. They are only fantastical because they do not exist. If they did exist, we would come to expect them. They would be normal to us, and we would no longer find them wondrous.
Yet that would not decrease how remarkable they were. The ability to communicate one's thoughts remotely and immediately to a person across the world is terribly fantastical--yet it is something we can now do at a whim. It is no less fantastical to do it with a cellphone, rather than psychic energies, and the only reason the psychic power seems interesting is because we cannot do it. It is the lure of the thing we cannot possess.
Instead of losing the self in the contemplation of things that are wondrous because they are impossible, why not contemplate things which are wondrous, but which are all around us all the time? Is it not fantastical that we can see and measure stars as they were countless years before our race was born? Is it not fantastical that we can comprehend the invisible particles which make up all substance in the world?
God is a fantastical impossibility: contemplating him means withdrawing from the world and wishing for another existence. Natural laws are a fantastical reality: to contemplate them is to come closer to a grand understanding.
If you were walking in the middle of the woods with a friend and came across an arched bridge of stone that gracefully spanned a deep ravine, it would be a beautiful and awing thing to behold. If you asked your friend where it came from, which would be the more fantastical answer: that the natural laws which govern the depositing and erosion of stone naturally created this wonder, or that some guy built it? And yet what is god besides the notion that 'some guy built it'?
To me, the notions of gods, angels, psychic powers, magic, astrology, and all the rest do not make the world a more remarkable place, because they are all of man, not of the world. They are not explanations, they provide no understanding, and they indicate no grander existence. They are attempts to make the world more like us.
We are programmed to see ourselves everywhere--we see a face in the light socket, we yell at the car for breaking down, we apply complex psychological motivations to our cat. What is god but the attempt to make the universe more like us--to make it living, breathing, thinking, moral, creative, thoughtful, emotional, and answerable? It allows us to pretend for a moment that we are important, that we are in control in some grand, real way.
The man-shaped universe does not appeal to me. It is not necessary, nor is it remarkable. It does not make things grander and more wonderful, it makes it small and personal and simple.
This world is already magical and fantastical to me. I already find it beautiful and surprising and beyond comprehension. To sit and study the tiny fraction of what we know and understand delights and overwhelms me. Why obsess over a world of false fantasies when there is a world of real, living, breathing miracles out there waiting for you, every day?
When a thinker creates and inhabits an empty world of hopes and sympathies, he murders everything sublime and touching in life. It is a tragic thing to kill real wonder in the name of false.(less)
In the late Victorian, an eighteen-year-old Edith Hamilton graduated from Bryn Mawr College. Enraptured by the spirit of Classical Antiquity, she did...moreIn the late Victorian, an eighteen-year-old Edith Hamilton graduated from Bryn Mawr College. Enraptured by the spirit of Classical Antiquity, she did what any academic would and traveled to the center of Greek and Roman studies, Germany, to continue her education. She was the first woman to attend classes in these great European colleges, though she could not pursue a degree, instead she had to audit, watching lectures from s specially-built booth that screened her from the view of her classmates so they would not be scandalized by female intrusion.
She was not allowed to ask questions, but soon began to tire of the German method. The professors were always distant from the material, discussing in the greatest depth which verb cases Pindar used while never once acknowledging that he was a poet, or a human being.
It recalls one to the scene in Forester's 'Maurice' where a group of young students are reading aloud, translating as they go, on the topic of the glories of male love, while at every other paragraph, the professor instructs them to omit the 'unspeakable vice of the Greeks'. They must study and translate the text, but never once consider its content or meaning.
So Hamilton returned to the United States, and to her alma mater, where she became headmistress, continuing her studies and teaching the classics for the next twenty-six years. It was not until her early sixties that she wrote her first book, The Greek Way, which stands in opposition to the German style, seeking to understand and explicate the Greek mind.
This compilation of considerations, assembled at the end of a lengthy career, might be seen as a series of lectures on related topics, each chapter tackling a different author or concept, giving an introduction, facilitating understanding, and gradually, producing an overarching theory concerning the Greek mind and the Greek, himself.
It is a most unusually personal look at the Greeks, from someone who spent her life growing near to them, and it is entirely full of extraordinary theories and observations, all backed up by quotes from the great thinkers, not only of Greece, but of all ages. Hamilton seeks to connect us to Greece, to bridge the gap of time and thought and allow us to think of the Greeks as authors, artists, and people. She removes them from their pedestals and proffers them to us, though not without care, respect, and passion.
There is something of a worship for Greek thought and ways here, an attempt to convince us that, despite all we have achieved, we cannot equal or excel the Greeks. Hamilton by no means grudges us our growth, our change, our recognition of the importance of the individual, but implores us to learn something from the ways of old Greece.
Her encyclopedic use of quotations, her deferring to those who have, for all posterity, 'said it better' is charming, and also connects Greece to the thinkers and artists she inspired, inviting us to understand them by comparison. For any scholar of Nietzsche, as an example, it is easy to see how Hamilton plays with the many themes he drew from Greek thought, including the Apollonian/Dionysian split and the arete which defined both the best Greeks and his notion of 'Superman'.
I have always been partial to arete, myself; there is no reason we cannot all strive to be wise, sociable, fit, and knowledgeable in every field, from philosophy to history. The idea that the strong man can afford to be a dullard or the knowledgeable man a scatterbrained outcast is to accept that we should be less than we are.
Her comparison between Kant, who was as detached from the world as his theories, and Socrates, who developed his ideas while talking and laughing with friends, shows that a passion for the mind need not make one withdrawn or unpleasant. After all, Chekhov wrote at his desk at parties, taking characters and ideas from his guests, and has yet to be matched as a psychological realist.
I was also tickled that she used a passage from Tacitus in her definition of 'Tragedy' which I have used as a similar example since being taken by it. That chapter is the weakest in the book, at turns ingenious and unsure. Her observations remain insightful, but are not as polished or convincing as the rest of the book. She may be right in what she says, but her arguments are incomplete.
Hamilton would go on to write two more books, a similar volume on Rome and her 'Mythology', the definitive classroom text. Though she was, throughout her life, kept at arm's length from academia, and is still criticized for being insufficiently scholarly, this book is an achievement, insightful and wide-reaching.
Her conclusions may sometimes be grandiose, but never naively so. Her personalized, holistic style prefigures much of modern academia, and though it took some time, the world has, at last, caught up with her notion that there is nothing unspeakable about seeking a more personal relationship with our past.(less)
History is full of faltering heirs, of legacies that died with fathers. Some subsist on their fathers' names for a time, spending his honor like coin,...moreHistory is full of faltering heirs, of legacies that died with fathers. Some subsist on their fathers' names for a time, spending his honor like coin, but lacking the necessary traits to add to the capital. Others squander all at once, consumed by enemies, or by incompetence. Rare is it for the son to possess all that is required to further what was started. Some others, blessed with such a character, were not born into a position to use it.
Money, armies, and position Crassus had, and died in Parthia. For students of Greek and Roman history, Parthia is a graveyard for audacious generals. When Xenophon wrote an account of his greatest military achievement it was not a battle won or nation conquered, but escaping that desert alive.
But Alexander crosses it. His only precedents for such a campaign are the gods themselves, Dionysus and Hercules, who often failed in myth to do what Alexander achieves in life. Arrian, himself, points out that authors often attach Hercules' name to impossible tasks, so that the hero's failures could be said to mark the limits of reality.
But they are not Alexander's limits. Plato imagined the Mediterranean as a pond, the Greeks as frogs squatting at its shore, a symbol equally fitting for the Romans, so that whenever we hear of 'The World' and of its limits, our exotic locales are Egypt, Libya, Ethiopia, Spain, or another Herculean limit, 'The Pillar of Hercules' at Gibraltar. After some centuries, Caesar alights briefly at Britain, but it's nothing to match the scope of Alexander.
There is a certain shock when reading the ease at which Alexander overcomes these legendary lands, as if he were a hero of Lucian's and vaulting to the moon. One almost expects him to return bearing a phoenix and a cynocephalid (he doesn't, though there is one bucephalid). To conquer Parthia would be impressive enough, but to lay low all of Persia, the ineffable shadow over Greece, seems a dream. Then Scythia, Bactria, and all the way to the Indus.
It is the sort of achievement, like Genghis Khan's, which seems superhuman, inexplicable, unrepeatable, and so it was. One is left wondering whether Alexander would have achieved more had he lived past thirty-two, whether the Greek world would have met India and China, what sort of a history might have resulted. But such speculation is mere fancy.
Truly, Alexander seemed to have everything needed for success: high birth, loyal troops, a tactical mind, a generous nature, unassuming charm, political acumen, a tireless spirit, and unlimited vision. Though Arrian's history is primarily militaristic, we do get a portrait of the man, and come away understanding the unique character that allowed his achievements. He was also a man of flaws, dying a reveler, sometimes losing reason to passion, and with an obsessive desire which would not have stopped at the Indus without the near-mutiny of his troops.
But there was one thing he did not have: a writer worthy to record his exploits, either in history or epic. He had no Thucydides or Herodotus, not even a Xenophon. Though many tried, none succeeded in capturing the man, and so, all the works of his time, whether of history or romance, disappeared, not worthy to recall. Arrian's own was compiled some time after events transpired, a combination of sources of varying veracity. His legacy was one of dissolution, leaving both his empire and his story fragmented.
But we are not entirely destitute, and I, for one, am glad for the opportunity to enjoy what remains of a story too large for the histories to hold.(less)
If, in reading a passage of Greek or Roman history, you find yourself growing bored, chances are, it is because you do not really understand what was...moreIf, in reading a passage of Greek or Roman history, you find yourself growing bored, chances are, it is because you do not really understand what was going on. While pages of troop movements and the names of officers might seem dull to you, I can assure that to some people, these things have meaning. In fact, they can be downright fascinating.
In hopes of becoming more easily fascinated, I was glad to find an edition of this book came free with my burger at The Traveler (along with the Odes of Horace, and I'm always happy that the taste of the clientele there means that the potboilers move like hotcakes but there are always histories and the scant copy of 'The Sadeian Woman' waiting for me).
I was excited to learn all about flanks and cataphracts and cavalry manouvers, but before we even get to that, Warry always gives a list of major sources, which couldn't please me more. I always enjoy having someone in the field let me know what it is worth my time to read, as it saves a lot of searching.
Nor was I disappointed when at last, the cataphracts appeared. This took several chapters, since the book is nicely laid out by period, which makes it helpful as a companion piece. Whether you're about to tackle Caesar's 'Conquest of Gaul' or Thucidydes account of the Pelopenesian War, just turn to the chapter of interest and you'll find a rundown of events and analysis of the units, equipment, and tactics involved.
Warry even throws in a few jokes here or there, and some of those amusing historical anecdotes which no scholar can resist. His style is clear and entertaining, and while he admits that this book is little more than a primer, sometimes, that's what I'm looking for.
Apparently, the original version of this book was illustrated, but the cheap Barnes & Noble edition I happened upon was not, even though a lone reference remains guiding the reader to a figure which does not exist. And that's not the only typographical problem with that particular edition, but I'm hardly complaining. Even without the pictures, the book is a useful and informative companion piece to studies of Classical Rome and Greece.(less)
Ultimately misguided, hyperbolic, self-serving, and blinded by bitterness. It is impossible to speak about the author without speaking of her pretensi...moreUltimately misguided, hyperbolic, self-serving, and blinded by bitterness. It is impossible to speak about the author without speaking of her pretension, of her insistence that her pseudonym not be capitalized. She says it is because the author is not important, the name not important. We all know the best way to convince people that you don't consider yourself important is by insisting that they give you special, privileged treatment.
Instead of making the author's name transparent, she has instead made it needlessly and artificially important. This shows either her inability to express her ideas, or a hypocritical obsession with her own importance. Perhaps a bit of both. It shows how she twists her rhetoric to justify her affectations, and just how blind she must be to let her method so undermine her supposed intent.
The introduction to this work is a long lamentation that no one will listen to her, that she is not taken seriously, that someone always criticizes her, and that someone will always bring up her race. Apparently, she thinks this effect is somehow unique to her (and Black women), and that it is a systematic oppression, instead of merely the nature of human discourse. Yes, there will always be an asshole out there who will attack you, no matter what they say, and they will always find a way to avoid addressing your arguments by instead blaming your race, sex, gender, orientation, class, or any other feature they can identify.
It seems possible, reading that introduction, that the reason no one listened to her was because she hasn't actually said anything worthwhile. Emotionally charged, yes, heartfelt, yes, but not original, not insightful, in the end, not useful. A bitter, reactionary voice overwhelmed by the intensity of its own position.
I couldn't help but compare her to Angela Carter, who, instead of whining about how no one listens to her, instead boldly and precisely said something worth listening to; something powerful and inescapable. She never apologizes or laments being a woman. She does not insist that we pity her or restore her, but instead restores herself, whether we like it or not.
But then, Carter's work is critical, literary, steeped in rhetoric, rife with example and rational argument. Contrarily, 'killing rage' (which, apparently, I'm also not supposed to capitalize?) is a book spilling over with anecdote, with personal feelings, and with a lot of complex vocabulary which lends no greater meaning or understanding, merely more insular pretension.
Pretension can be a kind of defense, a way to impress and overawe, to dazzle the reader. To a reader unfamiliar with it, such complex language is impressive--an easy sign of the author's sure superiority. When combined with emotional appeals, bombast becomes mere propaganda. Such overwrought language is not a symptom of greatness in social criticism, but a disease that confuses and muddles writing.
Yet it often goes undetected, because few in the field feel confident enough to call bullshit, especially with a well-known, powerful figure. We can see the chinks in the armor of academia from events like the Sokal affair, or from the delightful Post-Modern Essay Generator. When reading a journal, no matter how peer-reviewed, we must strive to be our own judges, lest we prove ourselves short-sighted fools.
The fact that the author laments not being taken seriously when she is, in fact, one of the most notable and influential writers in her field is a rather staggering incongruity, but then, in her mind, no amount of popularity or notoriety can free the Black woman from her plight. The complex linguistic structure of arguments she has built up around this fundamental obsession with her own unchangeable worthlessness is remarkable, such that she feels justified in declaring any personal hardship or shortfall a malicious act of 'hegemony'.
'Hegemony' is a popular term in discrimination studies, and it basically means that there is a privileged, all-powerful force of people who control our lives and seek to destroy us because of our race, class, sex, gender, or what have you. If this sounds like a paranoid conspiracy theory to you, well, it is. By definition, the idea that an all-powerful shadowy regime is intent on taking you down is paranoia.
Of course, there is always some modicum of truth to such claims, and by tying these small truths to a grand conclusion, authors can create very effective propaganda, indeed. But what should make us wary of such tactics is the realization that fanatical belief in an untestable idea is the definition of religion.
The theory that white people, or men, or white men, or any group are always discriminatory and destructive, no matter what they do, even if they are completely ignorant of it, even if they are actively trying to help, is an untestable hypothesis. It creates a situation where, no matter how a person acts or what they do, you can state that they are bad people and the cause of your problems.
Adopting such a belief is the definition of the phrase 'when you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail'. When you build a massive persecution structure, you can blame everything on it. All your faults, all your problems can be externalized. Nothing is your fault, and if only life were fair, you would have unlimited success.
This is what we call a 'persecution complex', and it's another popular and effective propagandist technique. It also feeds rather nicely into any obsessions with self-importance. The irrationality of this worldview might best be represented by the fact that Christians have been using it for years in their fight against scientific fact. It's one thing to say that you are being persecuted as a Black woman, because there's some truth to that, it's another thing to claim that, as the power-holding majority, you, too, are under persecution. But insecurity and self-importance know no bounds.
There is a comfort in being attacked, in always being on the defensive, because it makes you feel righteous and worthwhile. But just because something has a certain emotional appeal does not make it productive, honest, or healthy.
An extreme example of this reactionary 'hammer and nail' rhetoric comes from the opening of this book, where the author has a shitty day at the airport. She and her friend are treated poorly by the people at the desk, and all the white men in line are impatient about it. Then, they get on the plane and a young man comes up, declaring that he is holding the ticket for her friend's seat. An argument ensues and the flight attendants step in, talking to her friend as if she were 'a child' and making her move.
So, she had a fairly average day of flying, one which should surprise no one. The ticket people were brusque, the lines of business men were annoyed, and flight attendants spoke like you were a child. There are a lot of explanations for this, and the leading one is not 'this is a conspiracy against me because of who I am'. Yes, the business men got better treatment than you, not because they were white men, but because they are the most profitable part of the airline business and are familiar with its ins, outs, and etiquette.
Yet what she takes away from this is that the world is out to get her and the young man with a ticket for a first class seat is a terrible person because he didn't take this opportunity to stand up against racism and let someone else have it. Does she presume he would have given it up for another white man, or a white woman, or anyone?
She doesn't say so, and if not, then his behavior wasn't racially motivated. In fact, it would be racist to insist that he give that seat up specifically because he is white and the other person is a black woman. More telling is that she says she wished she had a gun in her purse to shoot him with for wanting the seat he had a ticket for.
She goes on to say that this 'Black rage' is justified and that people should let it out rather than keeping it in. This sounds a lot like 'Primal Scream' therapy, which ignores the fact that the more often someone engages in an activity, the more ingrained it becomes. The more often you give into rage, the more enraged you will be.
It also shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Grier and Cobb's book 'Black Rage', which suggests that when people are subjugated and persecuted, they will react with aberrant and irrational behavior, which is a far cry from advocating irrational violence.
Sure, what happened at the airport wasn't fair, and it doesn't make for a nice day, but how does bringing centuries of emotional and racial baggage to every human interaction combat racism? It's just sensationalism and another way to demand your own specialness in a world that is fundamentally uncaring and unfair.
There is no group in the world that has not been enslaved, raped, killed, and persecuted, and there is no group that has not done this to others, in turn. Even in colonial America, Africans weren't the only ones brought here and enslaved. The Irish were also rounded up against their will and shipped over to work, in fact, in several years, more Irish than African slaves wee imported.
They were brought as indentured servants, meaning they were cheaper than African slaves, and more prone to being mistreated. They were also interbred with Africans so plantation owners could birth new slaves instead of buying them. This practice became so widespread it threatened the slaving industry and was outlawed, which explains why blues and rock sound suspiciously like Irish folk music.
It almost feels cliche to point out that the Irish do not suffer from the same damaging cultural backlash of poverty and persecution. And some studies suggest it isn't even a matter of skin color, since recent African immigrants don't show the same pattern of underachievement as slave descendants, though part of that is likely the fact that only the top performers in Africa make it to the US.
I'm certainly no expert, but Bill Cosby's divisive assertion that there is something wrong in the culture itself might not be entirely out of line. But then, I'm a White Man, so why not just write me off, and anything I might have to say about race, society, or humanity? I mean, White Men have had their say, right? If we get a little downtrodden, isn't turnaround fair play? The seniors hazed me as a freshman, so I haze the new class, and call it fairness.
Being Black isn't easy, and being a woman isn't easy, and programs like affirmative action and mandatory Women's Studies in college aren't a good solution, because they reduce competition. If you automatically have an in, there's no motivation to fight for one. That doesn't mean that people who get into these programs don't have to fight, but less competition means less achievement, overall. It also doesn't mean we should get rid of these programs, because it's not like we have a better solution at hand.
I won't pretend my struggles are the same as anyone else's, but we are all human beings, and we all struggle. I don't find fault with the author as a Black woman, I find fault in her as an author. If I accepted this bitter screed from her while rejecting it from a White male author, that would be discrimination. Better to hold both to the same standard.
In some ways, she reminds me of Richard Dawkins, whose long immersion in another emotionally-charged debate has left his books cynical, reactionary, and over-simplified: always looking to fend off the fangs of ignorance, whether or not it is actually there. But at least he hasn't created an entire self-supporting sociological structure out of being defensive. Well, not yet.
It's not that hard to do. First, you take a few basic ideas (like hegemony), then base everything else off of them. The chief benefit is that the entire thing will be internally consistent. The problem is that this consistency is achieved by ignoring or denying all conflicting data. It's easy enough to ignore them when everything else has been justified.
In the end, it's just a semantic exercise, which plays into her avowed "right as a subject in resistance to define reality". Unfortunately, it seems her need to define reality is just her way of avoiding living in it.(less)
Non-fiction seems so easy some times. All you have to do is lead an interesting life and it's all taken care of for you: plot, characterization, twist...moreNon-fiction seems so easy some times. All you have to do is lead an interesting life and it's all taken care of for you: plot, characterization, twists, insights. All that remains is the compiling and editing, which is no minute task, but there is a sort of unpredictable depth in non-fiction which is hard to replicate. Many have tried, but verisimilitude is the mark of the master.
Here we have a foreigner--a Frenchman--who does not even speak the language, going on a very real modern adventure into the heart of a dangerous, forbidding, war-torn country. Here at my computer, safe and comfortable, it can be easy to forget that such adventures still exist out there, in the world, for those brave enough to grasp them.
We read our fantasies, romances, and suspense stories forgetting there are people who actually live these lives. Our small, unprepared hero wanders on tired legs with a pack-horse by his side, meeting tribal chieftains, warlords, bandits, and caravans. Overhead, Russian helicopters pass by like dragons, sending all who hear them running for cover from their merciless, capricious breaths of fire. There are long stretches where the land is blighted with mines, and all who leave the path risk being lost forever.
People believe in their religions in a surprisingly literal way, in the way which none of us could ever replicate, for their world is not one of surrounding doubts and differing opinions. Didier expresses the difficulty of this gulf: admitting he doubts existence of god, he'd hardly be believed, inciting either derision or violence.
But, of course, it is ethnocentric folly to imagine that the Afghanis are in any way a glimpse into 'primitive life', as it was long ago. They are a nation and a culture of the modern world, as uninformed or poverty-stricken as any individual member may be.
Didier and the doctor's are here to help these people, to confront this cultural conflict, and trite as it sounds, what is remarkable is not the differences they find with the locals, but the points of similarity. They work together and communicate, and despite the great differences, they find companionship, friendship, and some remarkable insights.
It perplexes me to think that reading the account of a foreigner, new to the country, ignorant of the language, naive about the culture, is able to provide a deeper and more lasting insight into this culture and the joy of its people than a fictional outing like 'The Kite Runner', even though the latter was written by a born Afghan.
Yet that book shows all the things that make realist fiction so fraught: the author is always tempted to include not only his experiences, but his own philosophies and conclusions, often through romanticized portrayals and overloaded symbolism. Thus it soon becomes a politicized mess, all the insights it might have had being lost in the author's message, showing little more knowledge of the country than one might have gotten from the past few decades of world news.
Perhaps it shouldn't surprise me that an outsider would be able to reveal so much, especially as he transmits to us the understanding of other outsiders who have since become enmeshed with the culture. Bias and blindness to those things most important to us are common threads in humanity, which must be constantly fought against lest they overtake us unawares. One approaching a culture from the outside still has biases, but uninformed biases are easier to shake then those which are bred in.
Didier's portrayal is kind, sometimes bordering on politically correct, though he never excuses the ignorance or meaness of individuals, expressing his frustration and disgust with the prevalent violence. But the book is also full of respect and gratitude for those to whom he connected, and with his enchantment with the land and its people, both stark, beautiful, and yet welcoming.
The form of the book is curious: Didier's photographs are interwoven with comic panels, creating a visual narrative of the journey and his experiences. The art is decidedly french, with sparse, even gestural lines and simple, expressive characters. Didier compares his journeys to his childhood memories of Tintin, and there is surely a parallel in this young Frenchman, lost in a foreign land, meeting native people friendly and menacing, escaping one danger only to slip into another, grateful for a mouthful of water, a corner to sleep in, or a smiling face.
But then such real adventures are always compelling, especially when accompanied by evocative photos. The story of the West and the Mid-East is still central to us, still unsure, alternately budding and withering, making this tale especially poignant; so much so that it takes a moment to realize that the events described herein occured thirty years ago.
There is always some fictionalization, some coyness in the portrayals even in nonfiction. The author still decides what we are shown, what is highlighted; such is the nature of journalism, or of storytelling. Taking this tale with a grain of salt, it is still inviting, mysterious, surprising, bearing the mark of verisimilitude, and I am tempted to accept it, as it is, if only because to falsify it has proven to be beyond the skill of most writers, even those with the knowledge required to create it.