Sunday, December 13, 2015

March Up Country (Anabasis) - Xenophon

Though for their part victorious at Cunaxa, the death of Cyrus left the Ten Thousand Hellenes deep in Persia, with few prospects. Without supplies and soon-to-be leaderless, the Hellenic mercenaries would turn to Xenophon, something of an aide-de-camp who was along primarily for the adventure.

Anabasis ("going up") is the story of how the Ten Thousand Hellenes survived and made it ever-closer to Greece, through hostile Persian territory. Xenophon's prose is straight-forward, even somewhat terse. Though he can clearly deliver a stirring oration with the best, when it comes to relating an army's actions or the account of a march, Xenophon is all economy. One gets the sense that, while the settings and challenges are to be accounted for, what matters most is the right way to respond. Settings, particularities: these change. Right thinking and action transcend.

Xenophon makes a different kind of protagonist: he answers to what the world gives him. He is a marked departure from the mythological basileus; a very classical Greek hero. Achilles was all rage, destruction, petulance, and mayhem. Odysseus was the man of many talents, the skilled and learned, crafty and able. Xenophon is the honorable, the right-thinking, the philosopher-soldier. He provides a new kind of Greek ideal.

Xenophon's influence redounds. It is said that Alexander the Great carried the Anabasis as a field manual. Christiaan de Wet had a copy always at hand as he rode and hid in the veld during the Boer War. Xenophon espouses a particular philosophy of leadership: a transparency, a straight-forward practicality, a soldier's ethic. One wonders what it would mean to adopt it beyond the campaign. Maybe there is nothing beyond it. Much as the Ten Thousand seek a way home, we too wish to lay our burden down. Maybe there is no rest.

"thálatta, thálatta"

Friday, December 11, 2015

Guns, Race, and Power in Colonial South Africa - William Kelleher Storey

Firearms were not simply tools or weapons which colonials and natives picked up and put down. They were symbols of power, source of legal wranglings, and the means through which power and independence were exercised. Here tools and discourse were interwoven; each shaping the other.

Storey looks at the role of firearms throughout the colonial period in South Africa (ending with the Boer War). Firearms, he finds, were diversely manifest through time. They developed from wildly inaccurate muzzle-loaders to more precise breech-loaders. On the frontier of the veld they were seen to serve one function, on farms another, near urban areas still another. British bureaucrats and law-makers, both in the metropole and within the colonial center (Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, D'urbanville) tried to control access to firearms, as a means of controlling the social sphere. Of course, firearms could also be means to challenge power. Therein lay much of the foundation for wrangling over access to firearms.

As a lens through which to view the social sphere firearms allow us to see particular things well - access to political power and speech, changing aspects of self-sufficiency and freedom - yet they can also be manifestations of these things. The question of which comes first tends to ground-out in circularity - each led to the other through a dynamic relationship. Do we find this a satisfying category of historical explanation? It is certainly a common one. This seems indicative of a broader ontology within historical scholarship.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Boer War - Thomas Pakenham

The commitment, even quixotic commitment, of the Boers. The irrepressible weight of the British military. In its time the Boer War seemed the defining moment, not just for a young and divided South Africa, but for British imperial prospects. Yet, in retrospect, twentieth century events would diminish the conflict's import. Global geopolitical winds and contestations rendered it little more than, as TE Lawrence might have said, "a side-show of a side-show." Afterwards the British interest would recede. The Boers of the Free State and the Transvaal would have their sovereignty. This was the last imperial gasp. The British gained their victory. It, like the Union of South Africa, would come at a terrible cost.

Thomas Pakenham's The Boer War is the history of the twentieth century's first war. In this remote corner of Africa, the set-piece battle of the imperial period gave way to methods of the guerrilla, to the tactics of the trench. The British shipped-off to Natal, the Transvaal, the Cape Colony, and the Free State, unprepared for what they would encounter. It was to be a "walk-over." "Christmas in Pretoria," they said. Yet, out on the veld, British troops were ill-prepared for the costs the Boers would hazard. Only by subjugating women and children, and, yes, even the land, could the British steamroller achieve victory.

Pakenham can rightly be criticized for his marginalization of the native population. Too often armies and commandos march and slip across the landscape; invisible are the inhabitants whose very lives and livelihoods hung in the balance of the conflict. Yet, this oversight is all the more apparent because the fighting feels so fresh, so present. The Boers and the British ushered in a new age of destruction, to be fully realized at Verdun and the Somme.

Though the British would prove victorious, the Boer War marked the end of the colonial period in South Africa. The peace brokered set the stage for the country's independence, a few years later. Pakenham's story, sometimes too often of military might and back-room politics, recounts the first hints that a global order was in retreat. Similarly, this account can be read as a somewhat bygone mode of history. Nevertheless, the humanity and savagery of the Boers and the British, and the lessons which Pakenham draws from it, resonate still.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert Pirsig

Pirsig's emphasis on the relationship between thought context and care binds this work. What we think, and how these are manifest in what is said and done, indicates a type of psychic position in relation to our caring. Care is an investment in the arena of concern; an interested-ness, both in it, and the self's relation to it. Pirsig's concern is the source of the seeming alienation between the modern self, and our thoughts and actions regarding the world and each other. The prevailing thought context is one in which the distance between care and thought, as well as the distance between care and action, has been deemed unimportant. Rationality, in conception and exercise, looks at the distancing of care from thought and action, and finds no grounds to suggest that they ought to be unified. This, Pirsig argues, is a short-coming of rationality, a short-coming which demands that rationality be expanded.

Prisig's answer to the modern feeling of alienation requires that we turn that feeling upon itself; in essence both using this pre-intellectual awareness as an entry point and holding it up for interrogation. Alienation is born from the awareness that our lived context - the social world we inhabit - is somehow unsatisfactory. Yet, our thought context does not readily provide us with the tools to interrogate and voice such dissatisfaction. This was the germ for the counter-cultural movement, for consciousness-expanding practices and narcotics, for the draw of charismatic religions and religious figures; each taps into a subtle but pervasive discontent with acceptable expressions of how our minds relate to the social world we inhabit. Like a muscle, a particular perspective on the world is strengthened or weakened by use. If we do not ignore the pre-intellectual awareness of discontent, if it serves as the foundation to build modes of thought unrecognized in narrow rationality, then people might learn to see differently.

But the sense of alienation cannot simply be overcome by the imposition of a new thought program. The psychic relationship between care and thought context must recognize that care is related to thought. Expressed in the world, care is the flip-side of Pirsig's Quality. Care in thought and action is both reinforced by Quality and helps to generate Quality in the world. The relationship between thought context and care is, for Pirsig, primarily defined in regards to its treatment of Quality - as it exists within the individual, within the world, and within the relationship between the two. Right thought comes from right attitudes Its having the right attitudes that is hard.

"Don't worry... Keep going!"

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Scramble for Africa - Thomas Pakenham

The dark continent. Before the rivers and lakes were charted, before trading routes were hacked through the bush, before maps became filled with lines and the blank spaces were seen to contain numerous tribes, Africa was a foreboding darkness suggesting both untold dangers, and undreamed of possibilities. Between Cairo and the Cape, was a vast hinterland. While missionaries and explorers led the way, bringing back news and rumor, Europe's colonial powers played their diplomats and colonial offices against one another - parsing out vast tracts, with only a cursory appreciation for what the land contained. Though hoped-for fields of gold, ivory, and palm oil could titillate the dreams of men like Stanley and Brazza, European dreams of African promise were often left to colonial administrators; men whose charge was rationalizing and managing a wilderness. Behind Livingstone's banner of the "three C's" - commerce, Christianity, and civilization - colonial rhetoric often traded on the possible future of a continent to be manged without the yoke of a past.

Pakenham's work provides a single-volume account of the transition from the years of exploration, through the period of colonial wrangling, and into the early forays of Africans trying to assert their right to self determination. These years of the so-called "Scramble for Africa" saw some of Europe's most famous, and infamous, 19th century statesmen contesting with one another to extend their nations' claim to empire and African hegemony. Here we witness Disraeli and Gladstone, Bismarck and Leopold, extending empires and contending with foes, both foreign and domestic. While the careful reader might find that Pakenham gives short shrift to the untold millions of Africans who became, some knowingly, most unknowingly, dispossessed of their homelands, his approach is one which clearly prizes the political and diplomatic character of the period. In essence, the streets of London, Berlin, Rome, and Paris, the political whims of European peoples and governments, encroached upon African villages and people, many of whom had never seen a European. As the fingers of empire reached deeper into the continent, European political and military action was broadly manifest. Attempts at control and custodianship of African lands often pivoted-upon political and diplomatic relationships far away. In the hands of the few, the livelihoods, homes, and freedom of many unaccounted for - primarily black - faces were bandied about and, all-so-often, overlooked. As commerce, Christianity, and civilization illuminated Africa, Africans themselves increasingly became a part of a globalized world in which their concerns were given scant consideration.

Pakenham's work is a triumph for weaving together the colonial and metropolitan experiences which spanned both continents. By placing these numerous colonial stories into a single volume, disparate places are brought into stronger contrast and conversation with one another. While this cannot but short-change indigenous peoples, it provides an overview of the continent as it was conceived in the halls of power: a vast blank territory, ripe for the taking.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Leviathan and the Air-Pump - Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer

"solutions to the problem of knowledge are embedded within the practical solutions to the problem of social order... practical solutions to the problem of social order encapsulate practical solutions to the problem of knowledge." p. 15

What is the role of experimentation and the experimenter-as-scientist in society? What counts as knowledge and who gets to judge? In this seminal work, Shapin and Schaffer look back to experiment in its infancy. Before experimentation was the given mode of creating scientific matters of fact, the role of experiment was the source of great controversy. Robert Boyle and the Royal Society of London sought to create a safe space of expertise where experiments could take place and be carefully examined as to the knowledge of the natural world which they conveyed. Pitted against these gentlemen-experimentalists (the term scientist would not be coined until much later) was Thomas Hobbes, dean of 17th century political philosophy and an accomplished natural philosopher in his own right. While Boyle and his associates claimed to be working towards a true account of nature, Hobbes saw a closed society of patricians seeking to rival his hoped-for undivided and all-powerful sovereign. For Hobbes, who held the right to speak on behalf of nature was always a fraught proposition. Any arena in which the state took a back seat to alternate moods of power and truth - whether it be an experimental society or the Church - was potentially an arena in which rebellion and social unrest could foment. Boyle believed his experiments could speak to truths which existed in addition to the given social order. Hobbes knew that speaking for nature would always be potentially transformative for the state.

Shapin and Schaffer agree with Hobbes: "We argue that the problem of generating knowledge is a problem of politics, and, conversely that the problem of political order always involves solutions to the problems of knowledge." There's is a political sociology of knowledge production. Yet, this is not to fall into a social constructivist trap. Recognizing that who is authorized to speak for the world will impact what is spoken of the natural world need not suggest that reality is entirely fabricated by the human component. How do we recognize when something has attained the status of fact? What methods are employed to render experiment intelligible, both to those present and also those absent? What is the measure of sufficient proof? What conventions of practice would be accepted? These are all questions pertaining to, but not defined-by, experimental epistemology. Boyle inverted the necessity of such question by claiming that only things which could be tested via experiment could attain the lofty status of facts. In relation to the above questions this is a form of putting the cart before the horse. For Boyle, knowledge was a matter of shared belief. True belief was only able to be examined collectively via demonstration - this would always overrule an individual's singular position. For Hobbes, the problem was the disparity existing in the distance between causes and effects. Boyle looked to effects first and sought to explain them; Hobbes found this an irreducible difficulty (similar to the problem of infinite hypotheses) and thought only that which was made by people, could be understood. For Hobbes, knowledge comes from the common assent of first principles, which then lead to a knowledge which is clearly manifest within the human purview. Authority, not wisdom, makes all laws.

It would seem that Boyle wins the battle. Scientific experiment appears as the premier mode of constructing knowledge within the world. Yet, Shapin and Schaffer argue, both Hobbes and Boyle saw a causal connection between the structure of knowledge communities and the acceptance of the knowledge produced. What Boyle did not recognize was that his ability to create knowledge, within the experimental or any other space, was contingent upon a variety of political and social factors. What is known by people is always by the hand of people. It is not the story of triumphalism over nature, but of great work, both seen and unseen, to create spaces and techniques where knowledge is possible. Experiment is a social and political activity which is both dependent and bears upon the world and the society we inhabit.

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien

Upon my third (perhaps fourth) reading of Tolkien's classic, I am struck by how little the story provides to the reader. Tolkien's work rarely feels heavy-handed and indeed puts a tremendous burden upon the reader to make their way in a world which is only gradually, and never completely, revealed to them. A deserved charge is that the tale too frequently references people, places, and events which otherwise go unacknowledged within this vast created world. While such references often allude to magical occurrences and fanciful creatures, the limited information provided suggests, rather than explains, a broader world which stretches beyond the character's times and actions. As the stakes and the scope grow, the reader, along with the four hobbits, gradually moves beyond their own parochialism. Thrust into world-altering events, the four hobbits grow as we would expect of a youth coming into adulthood. Throughout their journey they are exposed to, though never fully engaged with, a more 'adult' world of the powerful and terrible. The mystery they move through remains only partially illuminated. Similarly, to whom is the world ever fully understood?

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The History of Ornithology - Peter Bircham

If, as mentioned in an earlier review, there is no such thing as 'art,' only artists, we might similarly add that there is no such thing as 'ornithology', only ornithologists. Specifically, Bircham's account tells us only that the history of British ornithology has been composed by individuals (almost exclusively men) who are best understood within the confines of their era, their educational and field training, and the mode of biological and ecological science that prevailed in their lifetimes.

Much of this recounted history is as uninspiring as many non-ornithologists might assume. Too often it reads as a catalog of amateurs and academics. Debates surrounding Linnean nomenclature and listing techniques (among other issues) are treated primarily as esoteric territory battles with little exploration of how ornithology and ornithologists impacted the broader biological sciences. By keeping the focus narrowly upon ornithology, but not pursuing any specific aspect in too much depth, topics of certain interest - the first British bird book written, studies of migration, species classification - are sometimes subsumed to the inclusion of biographical synopsis of ornithologists' lives. At its weaker moments this history reads more like a chronicle. Relatively unexplored is the question of why a history of British ornithology is necessary and what it teaches us not only about the field and the biological sciences, but about our evolving relationship to birds and the environment at-large.

There are some great mysteries and wonders of the past, which Bircham touches upon; these convey a sense of how ornithological understanding has changed. We do well to remember that many of our scientific matters of fact are mediated and authorized by technological developments. How could proto-ornithologists have known where swallows migrated before the exploration of interior Africa? Without radio tracking how could avian movements be traced from county to county? Let alone country to country? Physical and social technologies (e.g. the development of laboratory sciences) were never a given as ornithology moved beyond bird-watching and cataloging to stand as a robust field of inquiry. Early chapters of Bircham's account transport the reader to a time when even the term scientist was unheard. These provide interesting moments of reflection. Missing is a more explicit engagement in these moments, and more clear discussion of why they raise questions which are pertinent for the modern reader.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Simians, Cyborgs, and Women - Donna Haraway

Lenses through which we see and languages through which we speak, are each integrally constitutive of how and what we know. Of the world we create and thus inhabit. The (re)invention of nature will be composed of how we imagine the divide between ourselves and the world - thus how we envision ourselves. In this collection of essays, Donna Haraway seeks to replace the closed, coherent imagined self with a social and world-inhabiting and creating identity which is more thoroughly local, contingent, and provisional. Simians, cyborgs, and women all represent alternate not-quite-fully human identities which have been used to draw boundaries in the hegemonic, masculine, reductionist, economic western patriarchy. Haraway seeks an alternate epistemology which is specifically located and thus not parochial, but which is strengthened through its intimate familiarity of perspective. The view from nowhere, she suggests, is no view at all.

Haraway takes the perspective that all scientific texts are situated entities susceptible to critique. Taking the position of social-embeddedness to a logical conclusion, she asks how the modes of metaphor and seeing through which we experience the natural, say studies of primatology, will condition our ways of understanding the always partially uncertain world. Visions of dominance hierarchies which focus upon aggression within primate communities risk overlooking how mutualistic interactions may also play a central role in group functioning and maintenance. When we draw parallels between our primate relatives and the human social world - as though chimps were somehow archaic people 'unpolluted' by the cultural factor - suddenly 'human nature' is imagined to likewise be expressive of dominant-subordinate relationships. This perspective feeds-back: our perspective along these lines deepen, altering how we see the world.

Rather than juxtapose the human with the natural, Haraway suggests that we are all more emblematic of the cyborg. That is, our bodies have been, and will continue to be, hybrids, composed of the natural world and technologies. She rejects the question, but what, underneath it all, is truly the human? There is no 'underneath it all.' The relationships which we embody are constitutive of reality. Hope to separate the human from the world - as though we would each have an unpolluted essence - are always false hopes. We are positioned and thus privileged within that unique position to know and express one of many worlds. Reality is the ever-transforming meeting place between the mind and the world. Never closed, always partial.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Birth of Tragedy - Friedrich Nietzsche

If "existence and the world appear justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon" (p. 128), then what is real is that which is created at the interstitial meeting point of the observer and the observed. The real is thus local and created; it is explicitly positional.

Nietzsche examines the dual-nature of the inherited western perspective, what he terms the Apollonian and Dionysian, and critiques the disappearance of the Dionysian perspective. The Apollonian, or the rational, the knowable, has subsumed the older, more primal Dionysian. Using the metaphor of Olympian Gods and Titans, Nietzsche believes the expulsion of the Titans, of a certain naturalness which prefigures the social, has left western thought and western society both impoverished and incoherent. How are we to know that, pace Socrates, 'knowledge is virtue'? The compulsion which drives the scientist or the philosopher, the spirit which animates the use of the rational approach and/or the dialectic, comes not from phenomena, but from that deeper, hidden aspect of the real. Nietzsche would echo - and somewhat alter - Schopenhauer,  in terming this hidden aspect the will.

It is a somewhat fine point to differentiate between that which underpins Nietzsche's world and that which Socrates/Plato would term the eternal and the changeless (often the Forms). Nietzsche's main complaint is that Socrates/Plato has taken one side of the Apollonian-Dionysian duality and subsumed all of reality to an Apollonian perspective. The triumph of reason is, and has been, for Nietzsche, groundless, somewhat ironic, and has contributed to a widespread cultural impoverishment that 19th century Germany suffered greatly from (the sympathetic reader might extend this assessment to our contemporary situation). Whether this was Plato's intent or not, is debatable (see Zuckert 1985, Nietzsche's Rereading of Plato). What is clear is that Nietzsche takes the philosopher, and his teacher, very seriously. The implications he draws from these Athenians' teachings suggest we should as well. They have crafted the position we inhabit and thus the real we embody.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Story of Art - E.H. Gombrich

"There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists."

Gombrich's history of western art, from the antecedents of the Greeks to the modern era, traces the developments of artistic style and expression. Gombrich's investigation is, by needs, somewhat bifurcated. Early art is examined for the developments of technique, while art following the achievements of the Greeks primarily emphasizes how different artists responded to the legacies of their forebears. Gombrich is quick to recognize, and eager to reiterate, that we cannot view post-Roman art as simply progress beyond the imperfect attempts of the earlier eras. Besides the exquisite form of Greek statuary (known primarily through Roman copies), fresco, relief, and architectural works sought to convey the natural world in a different manner than we might today.

The truth of perception, as it related to absolute perspective versus the perspective of the individual, is a matter of intellectual history, and has evolved greatly over time. The last two hundred or so years of western art history mirror much of the varying pendulum swings which encapsulate the broad array of perspectives on how the individual sees, ought to see, or might possibly see the world. And the extent to which this problem is worth pursuing. The shift to individual perspective (primarily expressed through painting), maps onto changes in the subject matter for art. As individual perspective replaced the divine or total viewpoint, the subjects of art evolved from the sacred, towards the actions of the royal and powerful, and finally towards the common or volk. Though Gombrich does not emphasize this aspect, the reader can project transformations in social and political arenas which would have accompanied, reacted too, and been anticipated by much of the art which has reflected and shaped the western world.

Gombrich's account stays close to the central question of humanity's relationship with a world not of our making. The man-nature relationship - as mediated by the social, the political, the religious, and the economic (among many other contemporary labels) - is, in Gombrich's estimation, the central concern of the artist. Within this arena we may recognize men's and women's relationships with themselves. We are each somewhat an unknown quantity; not of our own creation. If Gombrich has a criticism of modern art it is that this wrestling has become obscured - overshadowed by the purely personal and the need to express the novel. We might, similarly, read this into the modern condition: the question of what is good being replaced by what is new. Whether this reflects, anticipates, or is in response to the broader social prospect is the question of the artists' role in society. This too has changed, and will no doubt continue to evolve.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

My First Summer in the Sierra - John Muir

Wonder is an emotion often left unshared, unstated. Perhaps wonder is principally born of novelty. Yet when novelty becomes almost de rigueur in our daily experience, might we then lose the capacity to wonder, to marvel at the unexpected and the unforeseen? Perhaps novelty which ensconces us can no longer deserve the name. Or, perhaps, wonder is indicative of the truly meaningful. John Muir speaks of, and revels within, a sense of wonder.

The mysteries of the universe are legion. Within his small corner of it John Muir sought to, step by step, trace these mysteries in the hopes that he might find them more easily understood. Muir found the nourishment of his wonder in the big outside beyond man's confining structures. My First Summer in the Sierra is primarily an account of discovery at the nexus of the self and the natural world. For Muir, the evocations which are drawn from him rely upon the experience of wonder at the natural - what he and his contemporaries would have called the sublime. It is marvelous to note that Muir's capacity for awe and wonder is undiminished. He seems nurtured by the natural which he inhabits. In its vastness and intricacies the world makes and remakes Muir anew each day. The sustaining power speaks to a spiritual fullness.

Muir's account occasionally overflows with details of plants and animals that the uninitiated may find distracting. Yet, we see that his careful attention to particularity, his learned knowledge of the world, helps to foster his feelings of connection and wonder. In this we can see that the world is also of our making. While the landscape may impose its grandeur upon Muir, he has also turned himself into a willing vessel for the message. By making his eyes that see, ears that hear, and feet that feel the compulsion to explore, Muir has also helped to create a world which is capable of imparting lessons, both quiet and thunderous. The world is both of his making and forever slightly beyond his reach. Thus the mystery remains and as knowledge deepens Muir's wonder grows apace.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown

Once again, Robert Langdon is on the run. Chasing truth; being chased by shadowy forces. This time the setting is Washington DC and the Masons are Langdon's historical interlocutor. Puzzles, twists, art, history, attractive and brilliant women in their thirties - The Lost Symbol is a Brown page turner much like any other.

There isn't much particularly novel to say about Brown's work, nor much that separates this one from any other. So I wanted to take a second to ponder the hidden reality that Brown evokes in this and the other adventures of Robert Langdon. Though each tale is clearly a work of fiction, the reality they inhabit/create is meant to serve as a referent for our own. The possibility of these stories is informed by a history we can imagine to exist below the one we have generally agreed upon. Brown almost seems to argue that, if we have eyes to look properly, we might view the lessons and passages of history very differently. That taking a different approach to what we understand about our common past can drastically reorient our shared present.

The loss of the modern - frequently espoused by Langdon - is that we have forgotten that the knowledge of the present has not necessarily superseded the wisdom of the ancients. Rather than pit modern ways of knowing against past understandings, Brown constructs a world in which the forgotten messages of the past are crucial to a deeper perspective on the present. To this end he may be one of History's (as a discipline) most notable contemporary proponents. However, we are mistaken if we assume that Brown is little more than a history geek and conspiracy buff. If we take his writing to be indicative of his ethics, Brown believes that the ultimate service of historical understanding is the formation of the complete person. The historical message we read in his work, time and again, is that of a divided society replicated in divided people. Both the world and the people who strive within it can only be healed by reconciling the shared reality of reason and faith.The whole person, like the whole society, must necessarily contain and be amenable to the teachings of both.

Surely the fast-paced action and twisting intrigue of Brown's stories are the method for keeping the reader enraptured within his shade of a fiction that we imagine as possible. The hook is the hope that secrets, which we can imagine could be true, are revealed. Yet the moral is that the past is a rich field of meaning; one which the present remains connected to. If it seems that our modern condition is that of floating in a space of uncertainty, Brown reminds us to pay attention to the pathways which lead us to the past - they might point us towards the future.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Trojan War: A New History - Barry Strauss

That there was once a city, indeed many cities, named Troy is now largely a matter agreement among historians. Its position at the mouth of the Hellespont, as an important center of trade linking the Mediterranean world with Asia, placed Troy at the crossroads of civilizations. Prosperous and cosmopolitan, Troy would have been an enticing target for raiders looking to avail themselves of the riches within the cities walls. Homer's Illiad tells the story of the Trojan War from a decidedly Greek perspective. Strauss uses a Homer as a foundational text, yet takes a step backwards to imagine how such a possible conflict might have taken place.

While it is widely acknowledged that much of Homer's account is grounded in history, it is also recognized that The Illiad was committed to writing some two to three centuries after the 'real' Trojan War took place. As such, historians and archaeologists are at pains to reconstruct what a Trojan War would have been like. Written for readers with only a passing familiarity with the conflict and the history of the region, Strauss' The Trojan War moves through the war, primarily as set down by Homer, as an attempt to reconstruct the events and the historical actors as they might have been. Strauss is clear that much of this work is an exercise in historical imagination, though one that is based in the evidence as currently understood. The reader is presented with the characters of Hector and Helen, Agamemnon and Menelaus as they might have been. They would have been arrayed in the finery of their day, much, Strauss suggests, as Hittite or Egyptian chieftains and rulers would have been. Greek phalanxes and Trojan soldiers would have likely shared war tactics and practices with other armies of the day, and Strauss casts a wide net across the Mediterranean and west Asian world to make sense of Homer's account. That the Trojan War took place is Strauss' assertion; his project is to reconstruct the event as occurrence.

The work moves swiftly through the conflict and characters, perhaps too swiftly for some readers. As an introductory text it blends historical and narrative approaches to create a modern understanding of the history . Yet this thoroughly modern account leaves the reader wondering why the Trojan War would have been of such seminal importance - particularly for a Greek audience. That it was believed may have been entirely separate from what about the history rendered the telling of such crucial importance. In reconstructing a picture of the Trojan War with a minimal gloss of Homer's interpretation we are treated to a skirmish on the shores of a far land in a bygone time. The Trojan War loomed large in the minds of the Greeks (not to mention the Romans and other societies who have traced their roots to antiquity); we are left wondering why such is the case.

Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad

“I tried to break the spell—the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness—that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified monstrous passions. This alone, I was convinced, had driven him out to the edge of the forest, to the bush, towards the gleam of fires, the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations; this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations… There was nothing either above or below him, and I knew it. He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! he had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air.” p. 82

Adrift beyond the bonds that tie men to their own world, Marlowe comes to the precipice of edge of the world, and of the known self. Each step along the path, each bend in that vast and winding river, separates him further from the life he understands; one that provides him reference. Cast-off from life's moorings, he comes face-to-face with the shadowy specter of Kurtz, The difference, we are told, is that Kurtz did not flinch to cross the precipice, to step beyond the world and allow himself to become enveloped by the darkness. This primeval, primordial darkness is both an external and an internal geography. Loosed from the bonds of things with which we fill our lives, the human soul is confronted by itself. The blank spaces of the map are places of creation and, potentially, of reinvention.

The difference between Marlowe and Kurtz is that Marlowe appears unable to sever the gauzy threads which connect him. Whether the knitting crones behind him, or the imagined voice of Kurtz compelling him forward, Marlowe draws the linkage between himself, his actions, and the world which he inhabits. He touches the precipice, only to return to his origins; to plant his feet once again in his former world. Yet, as the doctor noted at the outset: he has been irrevocably changed. Kurtz, however, endeavors to become one of the immortals; to exist out of time and space; defined only by himself and in reference to himself. Kurtz seeks to create his own world as he sees fit. He creates his small flickering flame within the darkness. Perhaps this is the answer to his final riddle.

Kurtz claims to have wanted justice - likely a justice of his own creation.Though Marlowe ends his tale with a lie, perhaps in this lie he has given Kurtz the justice he would have desired. Marlowe becomes the single gauzy thread tying Kurtz's last moments to a broader world of association. Rather than shackle Kurtz to this world, Marlowe cuts the cord and sets Kurtz free. Free to drift into the darkness and inhabit the world of his own creation.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Lawrence in Arabia - Scott Anderson

How to uncover the man behind the legend of TE Lawrence? Certainly Lawrence was one of his own most successful mythologists. Seven Pillars of Wisdom casts a critical eye not only upon the "revolt in the desert" but upon the man who would direct it, and who would eventually be undone by it. Scott Anderson's account strives to situate TE Lawrence within the broader theater of the Arab Revolt, which, by Lawrence's own account, was "a sideshow of a sideshow" to the calamitous war which divided the western world. Lawrence is both a man apart and of his time, thus Anderson's protagonist remains somewhat enigmatic to the reader, as he may be to both Anderson and himself. As a historical actor this is one of Lawrence's strengths: he remains a riddle; or even a canvas upon which we may cast the best, and perhaps the worst, of ourselves. His humanity speaks to the reader, urging us to wonder how our own actions and values compare; both as we idealize them and embody them.

Anderson reminds us that this hero, Lawrence of Arabia, for all his outsize accomplishment, was a major player in a relatively minor theater upon the global stage. As was captured at the end of David Lean's masterpiece, once the fighting was over, more seasoned, powerful, perhaps cynical and maybe less informed minds took to the task of carving up the Middle East. As a man of humane letters we are left wondering if more of Lawrence's insight and spirit might have put the region on a less destructive path. Anderson's work centers upon Lawrence and a handful of his contemporaries who sought to shape the region and were largely eclipsed by the political vagaries of powerful victorious nations following the conflict. We are left to believe that the last throes of imperialism remain evident across the Middle East, and that our world is still dealing with the consequences.

But, of course, Lawrence too was an imperial character. His was an imperialism fated to end. Lawrence could scarcely have existed outside of his British upbringing, or been given such a freehand with a region of people while still being largely supported by the vast British military were it not for the imperial world he inhabited. Lawrence's early travels in the regions left him well positioned to play his British and Arab fellows against one another. Though his motives may have seemed noble, we do well to recognize that Lawrence himself wondered whether this was the case. Just as the colonial and imperial system was crashing down in the ruin of World War I, a new world was being born in which the old modes of governance and international relations were being redefined. TE Lawrence was educated and dreamed in the manner of the disappearing world. Yet his time in the Middle East may have pulled him forward into a new world in which these old approaches no longer provided sufficient answers to life's contradictions. As Anderson tells it, Lawrence was unable to escape his years in the desert and was unable to move beyond the lived and dreamed conflicts he saw and experienced within himself. Lawrence's tragedy is the clash of times coming together, as well as those tearing him apart.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Story of Philosophy - Will Durant

Durant's has become a classic overview of the lives and thoughts of western philosophers. The men which fill Durant's pages are widely familiar, if, perhaps, not entirely understood. What Durant's work provides is a brief examination of many great minds, bringing these philosophers into conversation with one another, and into contact with the uninitiated reader. That their stories remain relevant to our modern context is the animating spirit of Durant's work; one that remains of import, even if that context is changed since the book's original publication of 1924.

The lives of western philosophers have been treated in thousands of works. Durant's volume is noteworthy for the ethos behind it. Originally published among the series of 'Little Blue Books' Durant's work was crafted specifically for the uninitiated; what historian Carl Becker called "Mr. Everyman." It was the belief of Durant, and of the Little Blue Books' publisher Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, that each person should have inexpensive access to the great works of thought and literature which have helped to define our modern world. That society could be founded upon a working class of liberally educated people, via the medium of cheap printed paperback books, and that this could also be a financially lucrative enterprise, was an idea which stood Little Blue Books in good stead for more than fifty years.

While Durant's work may seem innocuous for its subject matter, many of the implications a careful reader of Spinoza or Kant, Bacon and Nietzsche, could draw from even these brief treatments of their works and lives, in relation to his or her place in the social sphere, are anything but innocent. Durant does not shy away from the difficulties of his subjects, though he does specifically highlight them either. It is worth noting that Machiavelli and Hobbes, two more overtly politically antagonistic western minds, are not emphasized. But Durant's project is not, at least not overtly, political in nature. Yet this work provides the gateway to a broader world of complex philosophical thought - that such is appropriate for "Mr. Everyman" would be a claim almost universally agreed upon today, though widely dismissed in practice as unnecessary. Increasingly philosophy is the garden of the scant few. Our practical efforts favor innovation, novelty, and results. The contemplation of deeper, perhaps more troubling, ideas which have riven the western world - and some might say divide it still - can be seen as enacted in people's lives every day. There is a measure of trust in human capability to believe that a familiarity with such concerns might strengthen the broader social body. It was this cleavage between the power and the danger of ideas which would largely serve to be the undoing of the Little Blue Books.

The question of the education of the people remains vital. We should wonder if our commitment to a broadly educated and thoughtful citizenry is similarly as lively.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Minnesota: a history of the state - Theodore Blegen

A chronicle of the state he always called home, Blegen's history takes on the difficult and unenviable task of encapsulating both the being and meaning of Minnesota as it has grown and changed over time. From the geologic foundations and the coming of the first peoples, to pioneer days and statehood, Blegen has crafted a narrative of the state that is at once broad and rich.

Though he focuses primarily on Minnesota's (and Minnesotan's) successes, rather than their hardships and difficulties, Blegen's picture of the state pays heed to its tenuous foundations and uncertain early years. Perhaps the strongest part of the work is Blegen's ability to interweave the territorial (and then state) story within the broader context of the nation as Minnesota was finding its footing. As the first years of statehood would also see the United States tested by Civil War, striking this balance is a noteworthy feat. How Minnesota grows as both an autonomous entity and one member state among many, is a fluid stream kept close to the reader's attention.

Blegen's work is also a product of its time, and the contemporary reader might wonder at the relative scantiness which the natural environment, indigenous and minority peoples, and the non-agrarian working classes are given. We do well to keep in mind that much societal thinking has changed since 1960, and that Blegen was writing for his time and place, before Minnesota became, or was recognized to be, so broadly diverse. Yet Blegen does not ignore the different strains of Minnesotan identity. His emphasis on immigrations, geographies, and place names, traces the story of a transforming state continuously in the process of becoming. His account is in some ways mythic (not as untrue, but as a type of interpretive rubric), and resonates with certain aspects of the broader mythos of Minnesota.

In focusing on currents and threads, tracing changing actors and transforming landscapes, Blegen has achieved the rare feat of encapsulating the spirit of place. That his work was penned more than fifty years ago should be cause for reflection: how does the past continue to constitute our present, and how we imagine the future?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Ravens in Winter - Bernd Heinrich

Alone in the Western Maine woods, Bernd Heinrich spends the winter watching ravens. Watching, and wondering. The wonder-full Ravens in Winter is a book of field biology through-and-through. It is both a powerful evocation of the care that a scientist can have for 'his' subjects, and the lengths which one must be willing to go to craft a lucid and nuanced scientific argument. Rather than hide his missteps and difficulties, his mistaken hypotheses and failed experiments, it is precisely Heinrich's transparency which communicates that most elusive of scientific matters, the relationship between investigator and subject.

Heinrich starts from a simple premise: why do ravens appear to share food in the winter? Of what benefit could this possibly be in the northwoods where conditions can be exceedingly harsh and food often scarce? For five winters Heinrich sets natural experiments, trying as best the field scientist can to isolate variables, rule out false hypotheses, and remain aware of the role his own lens plays on how he sees the problem. However, what Heinrich recognizes is that, to speak meaningfully about the ravens he follows so closely, he cannot suppose to maintain a type of neutral distance. Witness the lone biologist racing the sunrise to climb a 70-feet plus pine, so as to better understand the formations which the ravens fly in each morning. See, also, how he rears numerous ravens in a hand-made aviary in his backyard, trying different foods, different social arrangements, and different stimuli. Heinrich throws himself into the ravens' world and finds many unexpected surprises.

Primarily an account of scientific research, Ravens in Winter builds to an adventure of the mind and spirit. We learn about Heinrich's home in the woods, and, indeed, about the biologist himself from the ravens which he has come to study. As his work is to tell the story of these birds, the ravens, also, tell a story about how a biologist makes sense of his work. While his methods may be occasionally unorthodox, what is clear is that Heinrich cares for his work. It may be suggested that it is precisely this care which allows him to speak so meaningfully about these mysterious and wonderful creatures.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Inferno - Dan Brown

Another of Robert Langdon's breathless adventures through a historic European city and their famous art. This time we are taken on a whirlwind tour of Florence (the home of Dante), Venice, and, moving a bit further afield, Istanbul (spoiler). With Brown and Langdon we know what we are getting ourselves into and, though he throws us a bit of a monkey-wrench this time through, the eagerly expectant reader will not be disappointed.

As usual, Langdon is more or less a vehicle to tell Brown's story and obliquely deal with a larger point of social morality. This time over-population is on docket - don't worry, Malthus gets his fair share of air time. Brown appears to be a close scholar of art (from my own grossly under-informed perspective). The same cannot be said for his treatment of the population conundrum. Admittedly we get a one-sided perspective of the issue from the deranged antagonist, but within this world of circulating elites, doctors, and professors, we cannot help but wish for at least one slightly more nuanced conversation about such a complex, and charged issue. Brown is, once again, asking us to reflect on our daily exercise of unexamined moral issues. However, in this case, overpopulation reads as too much of a rhetorical crutch. This, along with Brown's other normal hooks, do not quite come together. The reader is left waiting for the big unifying moment. Left waiting.

By the end Langdon's adventures truly are a sideshow to Brown's fetish for a type of illusive truth which our modern world misses. At heart his stories are broadly declensionist treatments of the modern situation and how voices from the past would or can speak to them. Brown's juxtaposition of modern technologies against classic works of art and poetry suggest a critique of the contemporary state of grand human endeavors. Once again technology is the weapon and the creations of yesteryear provide the map to our hoped-for safety. The popularity of his stories might suggest something profound, and perhaps profoundly troubling, concerning our modern condition.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Unitiarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1801-1865

During the early years of the 19th century, the Unitarian intellectuals represented one of the preeminent voices of progressive American social and religious thought. Perhaps most famous for giving birth to the Transcendental movement of Emerson and Thoreau, the Boston community of Unitarians was, in the early years of the American republic, a driving force in its own right. The ministry of such men as William Ellery Channing, Henry Ware Jr., and Levi Frisbee, along with their relationship to America's leading light in education - Harvard University - brought a galvanizing voice to that much needed American position which held religion and reason hand-in-hand.

Forged and tempered in the philosophical schools of Burke and Locke, and broadly educated in the liberal arts, the Harvard trained Unitarians sought to reconcile nature and intellect, empiricism and aesthetics within a unified, coherent, thought system. In the face of a not inconsequential rise in Calvinism, this community often provided a starkly contrasting voice concerning the issues of the day. This is not suggest a base relativism or simply liberal heterodoxy. This community of preachers and writers was secure that the foundations of their faith were strongly constructed. Their conception of the holy was not undermined, but rather was strengthened, by contemporary developments in the sciences. In one of his most famous sermons, Unitarian Christianity, William Ellery Channing would proclaim his faith that, "God never contradicts in revelation what He teaches in his works." Channing's faith was grounded in his conception of the perfect Divine, and he would not let an overbearing Calvinism, nor a type of anything-goes universalism of the Transcendentalists, pervert what he saw as a unification of the intuitively understood and immediately apprehended experience.

While Howe's work paints a clear picture of the Unitarians, it is less clear why the Transcendentalists and Unitarian's differences proved insuperable. While it is true that the universalist thread of transcendentalism has become inextricably linked to much of American Unitarianism, it would be incorrect to assume either that such was fated, or that those who fought against the eventuality of this transformation provided a reason and faith system that was either incoherent, or that was easily discarded. While the relative conservatism of the mainline Boston Unitarians struggled to adapt its views to the slavery question, or to the type of radical social democratic thought that would come to define much of American protestantism and liberal political discourse, the conceptual worldviews held by these broadly educated and deep-thinking men provided real alternate conceptions of moral leadership in a democracy. The questions which they struggled  with, how to reconcile liberty with order, and how to bring reason and conscience to bear upon the problems of society, are with us still. As clear voices for a modern bourgeois values system, the Unitarians provided insight into the world approaching the coming generations of Americans.