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.