Wednesday, August 15, 2018

To Know a Fly by Vincent G. Dethier

To Know a Fly by Vincent G. Dethier
Foreword by N. Tinbergen
Illustrated by Bill Clark and Vincent Dethier
Oakland, California: Holden-Day, Inc., 1962

Although small children have taboos against stepping on ants because such actions are said to bring on rain, there has never seemed to be a taboo against pulling off the legs or wings of flies. Most children eventually outgrow this behavior. Those who do not either come to a bad end or become biologists. (2)

In the forward, N. Tinbergen looks at the distance that had grown between scientists and the public (keep in mind this is in 1962) because the knowledge had become incredibly detailed and technology techniques so specialized. Tinbergen notes that outstanding researcher Vincent Dethier's gift of clear communication helps bridge that gap, especially in works like To Know a Fly, and I have to agree. This book is a delight to read, a time-capsule look into a branch of scientific study and scientific life as it stood over 50 years ago.

Vincent Dethier was a scientist in several fields over his career, but it was his work in entomology that he is best known for. His writings went beyond academic papers and industry-related books, including works on natural history for the general reader as well as humor and children's books. To Know a Fly could be described as a combination of those last three categories, with Dethier detailing some of the work he does as a researcher. He lays out the concerns, discoveries, experiments, and observations in his work with flies, engaging the reader all through the different areas in a lively, anecdotal manner.

Some of the areas he features highlight the ingenuity in developing experiments, coming up with ways to measure the behavior of flies, especially in regard to their senses and feeding habits. As Dethier puts it, "An experiment is a scientist's way of asking nature a question." The most obvious problem when it comes to flies is the subjects' size. The resourceful and innovative ways Dethier and his lab partners develop experiments, despite that issue, portrays the scientific method in action. This is conveyed in a humorous, droll manner, and also demonstrating his claim that properly conducting an experiment can be "an adventure, and expedition, a conquest."

The book can be read and understood from ages 10 and up, although adults would probably appreciate it the most. More than just a cultural artifact from over fifty years ago, Dethier succeeds in bridging the "gap" between scientists and nonscientists to make some of the scientist's work understood and appreciated. As he mentions in the closing, something as insignificant as a fly plays a role in our universe. Demonstrating the work done to unravel the mysteries of a fly, Dethier helps the reader appreciate both nature and those working to understand it.

The instrument of a scientist's destiny may be many things from the ultimate space of the farthest reaches of the universe to the ultimate particles of matter, and all things in between, not excepting man himself. It is of this the scientist partakes. A fly is just as much in the scheme of things as man. No less a person than St. Augustine remarked in the Fourth Century: "For it is inquired, what causes those members so diminutive to grow, what leads so minute a body here and there according to its natural appetite, what moves its feet in numerical order when it is running, what regulates and gives vibrations to its wings when flying? This thing whatever it is in so small a creature towers up so predominantly to one well considering, that it excels any lightning flashing upon the eyes." To know the fly is to share a bit in the sublimity of Knowledge. That is the challenge and the joy of science. (118-9)

Friday, August 10, 2018

Brutus: The Noble Conspirator by Kathryn Tempest

Brutus: The Noble Conspirator by Kathryn Tempest
Yale University Press, 2017
To a considerable extent this book will examine how Brutus' life has been recorded and transmitted from antiquity to today: a central contention is that, to appreciate Brutus the man, we must really probe the sources we use, to understand who is speaking and shy. From there, my aim is to make a significant contribution to the way we think about Brutus' life, as well as the conclusions we reach about how he conducted his political career. ... [T]his book will take an integrated approach to the topic, combining biographical exploration with historiographical and literary analyses. In so doing, it will offer a sense of who Brutus was and why he acted in the way he did, while simultaneously digging far deeper into the presentation of Brutus in the ancient evidence than has hitherto been attempted. As far as possible, then, it places his decisions and actions back into their real time, and it always prioritises an evaluation of the contemporary over later evidence for studying them. Wherever the evidence allows, Brutus is made to speak, argue and justify himself in his own words. Even when we do find ourselves having to rely on the works of later historians, I shall try to take us back to an understanding of them from the point of view of Brutus and his peers.
(Preface, page xi)

In a year where I've read a lot of impressive and enjoyable nonfiction books, Tempest's Brutus: The Noble Conspirator may be my favorite to date and gets my highest recommendation.

Brutus has been a controversial figure through the ages, including during his own lifetime. Some of the earliest references to Brutus treated him with respect. While the works covering Brutus of Titus Livius, Gaius Asinius Pollio, or Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus have not survived, mentions of their passages referring to him reveal that often the conspirators against Julius Caesar were regarded in a positive light. While Plutarch’s biography of Brutus paints a glowing picture, we have to keep in mind the author’s concern, which was drawing moralistic lessons in the comparisons of key historical figures. Plutarch’s pairing of Brutus with Dion, who overthrew the tyrant Dionysus II of Syracus in the 4th century BC, highlights the author’s praise for men who put Platonic ideals into action. Criticisms of Brutus and the conspirators appear early, too, with charges of parricide and banditry common in addition to that of tyrannicide. The letters between Cicero and Brutus and other letters of Cicero that speak of Brutus help provide a portrait of the conspirator, but these also have to be weighed against the concerns and agendas behind the correspondence. Tempest’s approach presents many points of view regarding Brutus in order to let the reader arrive at their own evaluation of the man. As Tempest puts it, “As we go in search of Brutus, this book will take an approach that combines history and historiography, in order to examine what we can learn not just about his life, but about how that life has been recorded and transmitted from antiquity to the present day.” (11)

An issue that is obvious but not always stated is that insight into Brutus' private life before the assassination of Caesar is clouded at best. Works he wrote before the Ides of March 44 B.C., such as On Duties, On Virtue, and On Endurance, now exist only in fragments. On his life after the assassination there is a considerable amount of surviving material but, as mentioned earlier, the views are slanted depending on the author's viewpoint. The sources also muddle actions and dates. What is clear, though, is Julius Caesar's assassination vaulted Brutus from a historical figure into the realms of mythology.

Tempest develops a theme from the sources that Brutus was intent on shaping how he was viewed, from early on in life up to his death. He stressed his family lineage, with ancestors on both his mother's and father's sides deposing or killing kings and tyrants. Although little is known of Brutus' early life, Tempest sets the scene for what a son of nobility would have experienced in Rome, Athens, and Rhodes during his studies and development. She also examines likely influences that would have shaped his thinking during these years. While privileged, Brutus faced challenges from this father's early death and the political climate (such as Sulla's changes in the laws, and Pompey's and Caesar's domination in politics). Since the book is geared for a general readership, Tempest's look at the late Roman republic is a helpful summary, especially when examining the tumultuous 50s (B.C., that is).

During the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, Brutus chose to support Pompey despite Caesar's overtures. After Pompey's loss at Phrasalus (August 48 B.C.), Brutus turns to Caesar and is accepted into his camp, although it's not always clear where Brutus was at various times. Tempest notes, "Brutus' whole career displays a remarkable knack for political side-switching," (66), but it's difficult to fully know how much was opportunism and how much was due to his personal philosophy.

My favorite section of the book is when Tempest turns to Brutus' "philosophical leanings to understand more about his ethics and motives leading up to the assassination" (13). (For more on this topic, also see the article by David Sedley mentioned in the links below.) It must have been quite a struggle in his mind to join (and help lead?) the assassination plot. He was dependent on Caesar for his office, but if he had sworn an oath to and was assisting a tyrant, what were his options to escape such a dilemma? And how much pressure did he put on himself in having emphasized his family's history of insuring Rome's freedom? As stressed here and elsewhere (especially Ronald Syme's book The Roman Revolution), judging Brutus' actions because the assassination led to the final dissolution of the Republic is to judge from the results. The years before and after the assassination show Brutus as having singled himself out as a man with an upright code of conduct and virtue. It's difficult to determine how much his philosophical basis was behind his impetus for participation in the assassination plot, but it did make such involvement consistent with his declarations. There are additional considerations to take into account, such as Brutus' thwarted political ambitions because of Caesar's control on the city's machinery. As Tempest puts this point, "In short, if we want to understand what united the men who conspired to kill Caesar, we need to consider the one thing they all shared in common: political ambition, the desire to accrue dignitas and win glory—both in their lifetimes and beyond."

In conflating their concern about Caesar becoming a tyrant with that of tyranny as criticized by the Greeks the conspirators seemed to severely misread what the populace wanted. They simply wanted the return to the rule of law they had enjoyed beforehand, not the murder of Caesar, which is why there doesn't appear to have been popular support for the assassination. Include the mayhem after Caesar's funeral into the mix and much of the populace may have wished the assassination never happened.

Since there are a great number of extant letters of Cicero, Tempest concentrates on what is in those letters as well as what is between the lines in order to understand how the assassination was received by Brutus’ contemporaries. The conspirators seem not to have thought too far ahead about what would happen after the assassination. Within a month of Caesar’s death, most, if not all, of the assassins had left Rome. By failing to seize the initiative immediately after the assassination, they were at the mercy of what followed from the backers of Caesar. “[O]pinions in how Caesar’s rule was to be remembered represented a new battlefield," (128) and the political and military jockeying had just begun. Routine events and annual spectacles became ways to influence public opinion, and with Antony in Rome he had advantages over the conspirators. Even with a lot of friction between them, Antony and Octavian were able to make a public display of unity which would work against the conspirators.

The conspirators (or liberators, as they billed themselves) and their supporters began to disagree on how best to handle the aftermath of the assassination. Misidentifying the problems they needed to address didn't help.

Yet, here and elsewhere, Cicero has underestimated the extent of the problem; as had Brutus, Cassius, Decimus and the rest of the Liberators. For, as we have seen repeatedly ..., Caesar was more than a man and, dominant though he was, there were far more players batting on his side than we sometimes remember, all with far too many vested interests. In other words, his celebrity, popularity with the veterans and plebs, and the movement Caesar spurred in Roman political life were far greater than the force of the assassins’ daggers. As the disagreements between Cicero and Atticus reveal, from the differing perspectives of two friends and contemporaries, each with his own view of Brutus, there is no simple answer to the question of why the conspiracy failed. Fear, anger, jealousy and pride have all played their part in this narrative, as indeed they did for a large part of republican history. But one thing appears certain: the real enemy was not Caesar, but Caesarism—and that was proving far more difficult to stamp out. (141)

The conspirators mostly separated in order to follow their own agendas although Cassius and Brutus, despite having sizable differences before and after the assassination, continued to work together. They headed to the eastern Mediterranean in order to gather support, funds, and troops. Brutus was able to masterfully take control of rich eastern provinces. What he did once he had that control, though, stained his reputation. His brutal rule called into question his stated defense of the republic. The mass suicide at Xanthus (in Lycia) as a result of his command reflected badly on him, although part of the event may have been driven by Roman rule in general. Cassius' actions were aggressive and cruel, too, which made it easy for opponents to conflate the actions of these two conspirators. Later, the results of the battles at Phillipi were mixed, but they led to the deaths of Cassius and Brutus. The battle for the shaping of public opinion on Brutus, though, didn't stop with his death.

[T]he wrangle over Brutus’ reputation generated competing sides to the man, as his friends and enemies alike tried to shape the memory he was to leave behind; already at his death, different ‘endings’ were being written for Brutus’ life. But these competing narratives in the historical material are a blessing rather than a curse. The legend of Brutus, the complexities of his character, and the questions that surround his legacy are all significantly enriched when we trace them back to the beginning, ... to the life of Brutus and how he was received by his contemporaries. (210)

As Tempest points out, a study of these contemporaries leads to a wide variety of responses, making definitive statements about him difficult beyond noting there were many sides to Brutus. Far from feeling disappointed in the recognition that Brutus was an enigma, Tempest makes the study and analysis of these many sides enjoyable.

In addition to the clear and detailed text, the book has everything I want in such a book (even if I didn't know I did). The maps are relevant and helpful. One appendix lays out the chronology after Caesar's assassination, laying ancient sources side by side so the reader can see where they coincide and when they differ. The endnotes fill in more information and point out alternative opinions, while the bibliography provides a great list of sources to explore. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and hope it gets the wide readership it deserves.

An article on the book at the Yale Books Blog

In Chapter 4 (Thinking about Tyrannicide), Tempest looks at the motives, personal and political, that would have spurred Brutus on toward the assassination of Julius Caesar, including his study of philosophy. One article she uses as the basis for part of the chapter is "The Ethics of Brutus and Cassius" by David Sedley, The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 87 (1997), pp. 41-53. An online search may provide you with access to this article.

Kathryn Tempest is the Educator for this lesson in the TedEd Lessons Series: "The great conspiracy against Julius Caesar"

My notes on the book

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

On the Marble Cliffs by Ernst Jünger

On the Marble Cliffs by Ernst Jünger
Translated from the German by Stuart Hood
New Directions, 1947
Original publication in German in 1939

From The American Scholar, July 20, 2015:
In 1970, the Scholar’s editors polled the literary lights of the day for their opinion on that book published in the past quarter of a century that they believed to have been the most undeservedly neglected.

W. S. Merwin
I’m not anything like well enough read to do justice to your question, and I should probably take some time to ponder it. But the first book that leaps to mind—since I think it’s a great book and virtually no one I’ve ever mentioned it to has read it—is Ernst Jünger’s On the Marble Cliffs (New Directions, 1947). I’d certainly put it high in any such list, anyway. I should say that it’s been a few years since I last read it, myself—too long for me to venture to say much about it just like that.

I ran across Merwin's quote recently when I was looking for ideas on what to read, and since I had never heard of On the Marble Cliffs, much less read it, I thought I would give it a try. I'm glad I did, even though (and maybe because) it's the strangest thing I have ever read. The more I dig into the book and the author, the more intrigued I become.

German author Ernst Jünger presents troubling questions on the role authors play in totalitarian regimes. Jünger was part of the so-called "inner emigrates" during Adolph Hitler's reign, intellectuals staying in Germany during his dictatorship but passively resisting the regime. Some of his between-World Wars works complicates things. In 1943, Thomas Mann in 1943 described those works as "saber rattling," his militant activism contributing to the rise of Nazism. Jünger didn't try to deny or recreate his past once the war was over. I'm going to avoid saying much more on that topic (as best as I can), instead looking at this weird and marvelous book.

On the Marble Cliffs is an allegorical tale of two brothers living on an island who witness and are involved in a battle between islanders and forces allied with a character called the Chief Ranger. The book has a dream-like quality, which seems to be fitting since Jünger stated the idea for the story came to him in a dream. The book is mostly a mosaic of impressions and observations, with a gothic feel at times.

The brothers, former soldiers, have retired to an hermitage overlooking a lake/marina in order to work on classifying the flora. (I'm not convinced they are truly brothers, as the narrator refers to "Brother Otho," which seems more a title or honorific.) The area around the hermitage seems idyllic, a charming place, with splendid views of a marina, where the two men live austerely and immerse themselves in their work studying and categorizing the island's plant life. The people of the island all have different characteristics tied to their geographic location, whether living in the forest, the fields, or the marina city.

The opening lines of the book provides the reader with an idea of the strangeness that will follow:

You all know the wild grief that besets us when we remember times of happiness. How far beyond recall they are, and we are severed from them by something more pitiless than leagues and miles. In the afterlight, too, the images stand out more enticing than before; we think of them as we do of the body of a dead loved one who rests deep in the earth, and who now in his enhanced and spiritual splendour is like a mirage of the desert before which we must tremble.

Nostalgia for happy times is a grief? Akin to remembering a now-dead body? I would think the "wild grief" when thinking of happy times only comes into play during unhappy times, so the narrator and Jünger seem to be telegraphing their feelings about the current situation. That doesn't stop the retelling of such happier times for the narrator, a taste of which follows:

To understand what is meant by living one had to look down to the Marina on one of these gay holidays. Early in the morning the whole gamut of noises rose up to us, fine and distinct, like objects seen through a reversed spy-glass. We heard the bells of the towns and the petards saluting the flag-dressed ships in the harbours, or it would be the hymns of pious processions going on pilgrimage to miraculous images, or the music of the flutes in a bridal train. We heard the chatter of the daws around the weathercocks, the crowing of cocks, the call of cuckoos, the horns of hunters riding out from the town gate to hawk the heron. All mounted up to us in harmonies so quaint that the whole world seemed to be merely a brilliant patchwork; the effect was as heady as wine drunk fasting. (page 31—all references are to the 1947 edition referenced at top)

This and other descriptions portray an idyllic place, but the image of bad things looming arises in the figure of the Chief Ranger, introduced on the first page, on whom the brothers "were on their guard against." A few other descriptions paint him as a ridiculous figure, but one who is still considered a grand master who leaves an imprint on one's memory. The Chief Ranger's power over those that the narrator knew started as rumors heard, "like the first obscure heralds of a pest raging in distant harbors," while a cloud of fear preceded" him "like the mountain mist that presages the storm." (29). Rumors of disturbances related to blood feuds surfaced, but they were "more bitter, ... obscured by new and unusual traits." (35) Violence was rampant and demands for payoffs became unbearable. What made things more menacing "was the fact that all these crimes, which set the land in an uproar and cried for justice, went almost entirely unavenged." (36) There were many signs that signaled a downfall in order and spirit. These signs started small but had a clear, ulterior motive: "the Chief Ranger administering fear in small doses which he gradually increased, and which aimed at crippling resistance." (41)

While on a search for an elusive orchid specimen, the two brothers stumble across what they call the Flayer's Copse. Permit me an extended quote:

They [two large bushes that looked like laurels] grew on either side of an old barn with yawning doors which stood in the clearing. The light which played upon it was unlike any light of the sun, but was hard and shadowless, so that the whitewashed building stood out sharply defined. At intervals the walls were divided off by black beams with tripod bases, and over them rose to a point a grey shingle-roof. Against them, too, leaned stakes and hooks.

Over the dark door on the gable-end a skull was nailed fast, showing its teeth and seeming to invite entry with its grin. Like a jewel in its chain, it was the central link of a narrow gable frieze which appeared to be formed of brown spiders. Suddenly we guessed that it was fashioned of human hands fastened to the wall. So clearly did we see this that we picked out the little peg driven through the palm of each one.

On the trees, too, which ringed the clearing bleached the death's-heads; many a one with eye sockets already mossgrown seemed to scan us with a dark smile. Except for the mad dance in which the cuckoo flitted round the whiteness of the skulls it was absolutely still. I heard Brother Otho whisper half in a dream: "Yes, this is Koppels-Bleek." The interior of the barn lay almost in darkness, and we could distinguish only, close to the entrance, a flaying bench on which a skin was stretched out. Behind it other pale fungoid shapes shimmered out of the dark background. Towards them, as if into a hive, we saw buzzing swarms of steel-coloured and golden flies. Then the shadow of a great bird fell over the spot. Its movements were those of a vulture which swooped down on the teasel field on jagged wings. Only when we saw it rooting with its beak and sinking its red neck into the upturned soil did we become aware that a dwarf was working there with a pick, and that the bird followed his handiwork like a raven behind the plough.

Now the dwarf laid down his pick and, whistling an air, walked over to the barn. He was clad in a grey jerkin, and we saw that he rubbed his hands as if after work well done. When he had entered the barn there began a pounding and scraping on the flaying bench; he whistled his air throughout in elfish merriment. Then we heard the wind rocking itself as if in accompaniment among the pines so that the pale skulls on the trees rattled in chorus. Into its lament was mixed the swaying of the hooks and the twitching of the withered hands on the barn wall. The noise was that of wood and bone, like a puppet show in the kingdom of the dead. At the same time there bore down upon the wind a clinging heavy and sweet smell of corruption, which made us shiver to the marrow of our bones. Within us we felt the melody of life touch its darkest and deepest chord. (73-4)

It may have been a melody of life, but it was being played like a dance of death. The narrator notes that those busy with their jobs, even after seeing sights like this, feel invulnerable as they block it out of their minds. Into this world comes a visiting prince and two noble lords, intent on stop the Chief Ranger but ill prepared for their task. And this is what leads to the strangest passages of the book—an armageddon, complete with spike-collared mastiffs ("legions of hell") fighting first bloodhounds, then native venomous vipers. Conflagrations abound, severed heads are displayed, and survivors have to wade through mutilated corpses of fighters and dogs. The narrator notes his condition was "under the spell of a dream," and it reads like something out of Revelations. The devastation of the countryside and the marina mirrors the destruction felt within the narrator's heart.

It's quite a lot to take in, both for him and for the reader. We've watched an almost-comedic thug rise in power in the country, only to destroy it in his quest for control and power. Even though this was published in Germany in 1939 I wouldn't call it prophetic, although parts of it are eerie in their prescience. I'll take Jünger at his word when he said the book wasn't aimed specifically at Hitler but focused instead on how such evil comes to power anywhere in the world as well as what it does to people. The narrator, smitten with the mission and nobility of the prince and nobles determined to stop the Chief Ranger, sums up his worldview in such times: "I would rather fall with the free men than go in triumph among the slaves." (105)

I wanted to pass on my reading of this short book and my initial reactions to its strangeness. Even though I don't have W. S. Merwin's excuse of it being a while since I read it, I also find myself unable to venture much more about it. There are no easy answers given in the book, although the repetition of the importance of a well-ordered life and the impact of doing nothing give the reader plenty of clues as to what Jünger probably had in mind as a way to combat such tyranny. Whether or not he felt it was enough to make a difference is another matter.

In the opening quote, "The American Scholar" notes that the English translation is difficult to obtain. It was fairly easy for me to get a copy using WorldCat, but if you don't have access to that I just found that the 1947 New Directions' editions is online at The 1970 Penguin Books edition uses the same translation by Stuart Hood and adds an introduction by George Steiner.

The NY Times obit for Ernst Jünger

Ernst Jünger's Wikipedia page

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Ancient Athens by David Stuttard

Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Ancient Athens by David Stuttard
Harvard University Press: April 2018
Hardcover, 400 pages
From the inside book flap:
Alcibiades was one of the most dazzling figures of the Golden Age of Athens. A ward of Pericles and a friend of Socrates, he was spectacularly rich, bewitchingly handsome and charismatic, a skilled general, and a ruthless politician. He was also a serial traitor, infamous for his dizzying changes of loyalty in the Peloponnesian War. Nemesis tells the story of this extraordinary life and the turbulent world that Alcibiades set out to conquer.
Introduction (page 7):
[T]his book is written not for the specialist but for general readership with an interest in the many areas of human experience with which Alcibiades’ biography intersects: politics and society, religion and philosophy, ambition and betrayal, and the drama of a life lived to the fullest by a subject who often seems to have been making up the rules as he went along. There can be no denying the drama of Alcibiades’ life, either in general or in specifically Greek terms. Its arc is that of the quintessential tragic hero who, from a position of great power, engineers his own destruction thanks to bad choices or flawed character.
[Note: it's possible that the antepenultimate word should be "and."]
Definition from the Merriam-Webster dictionary phone app:
Nemesis: the Greek goddess of retributive justice. Usually follows hubris, or exaggerated pride or self-confidence.
When I first read Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War I have to admit that I found the last third of the book a challenge to follow. One thing clear in this section was the character Alcibiades (~452 – 404 BC), a charismatic chameleon constantly changing allegiances, especially when it was necessary to save his neck. He went from being an Athenian general to a Spartan policy-maker hanging out with Persian rulers, then welcomed back in Athenian leadership roles. He was from the infamous Alcmaeonid family on his mother’s side, notorious for polluting sacred grounds in killing suppliants and saddled with rumors of collusion with the Persians during their invasion of Greece. In youth, Alcibiades was renown for looks and athletic skill. He mingled with the finest minds of his day, such as Protagoras, Anaxagoras, Damon, Pheidias, and was a student/follower of Socrates. His father died when he was young and he became the ward of Pericles, Athens' most important political figure of that time. Anecdotes present Alcibiades as headstrong, outrageous, and privileged. He was also a master at public relations and “spin,” presenting himself in a way to keep people talking about him and staying in the public eye.

The Peloponnesian War began in 431 BC just as Alcibiades was coming of age. He fought at several levels, starting as a helot and working his way up to a cavalry post. Along the way he possibly saved Socrates' life and Socrates returned the favor in a separate battle. It was just before the Peace of Nicias, a break in the war about a decade after it had started, when Alcibiades took center stage in Athenian political life. There were problems with the treaty, terms were not always followed, and Alcibiades led political and military actions that helped stir up a hornet's nest of tensions and resentments in the area. A few years later, the Athenian assembly voted for what would be the disastrous Sicilian campaign, an action Alcibiades championed. It was before the Athenian ships sailed to Sicily that the mutilation of the Herms occurred, damage of religious significance that took on political importance when the vandals were not found. Alcibiades' opponents took advantage of the political turmoil and charged him with profaning the Mysteries of Eleusis, recalling him from the Sicilian expedition just as it was beginning. Not placed under arrest, Alcibiades slipped away and escaped to Sparta, where he masterfully spoke to the city's Ecclesia and laid out a blueprint for Sparta to win the war with Athens. Please indulge an extended quote here since it shows that Alcibiades wasn't an empty blowhard but a talented strategist that would strike not just at Athens but personally impact his political enemies there, too:
It was to prove one of the most brilliant moves of the entire war. Everything that Alcibiades predicted came to pass. With a year-round Spartan presence just a few menacing hours from their city walls, the Athenians found their freedoms severely restricted. No one knew where the next Spartan raid might hit. Nor was it like the annual incursions into Attica, which the Peloponnesians had made at the start of the first phase of the war back in the late 430s and early 420s. Then the countryfolk knew that, when the raids were over (and none lasted more than forty days), they could return to their homes and farmsteads, even if these might have sustained damage. Now they must either abandon their rural livelihoods completely, crowd into Athens, and endure the cramped conditions, which in the past had proved such fertile breeding-ground for plague, or brave it out at home, never knowing from one day to the next, when their houses might be torched or when they themselves might face the sharp edge of a Spartan sword.(176-7)

And the slaves at Laurium [silver mines] did indeed desert in droves. From the time that Agis first put out the word that they would receive asylum until the ending of the war, more than twenty thousand managed to escape their labour camps and steal through the mountain glens to safety. For the Athenian economy, it was a massive blow. For slave owners such as Callias, it was catastrophic. Already a spendthrift, with ever slave who made it out to Decclea, he saw his once-enviable wealth dwindle and disappear. And it drained Nicias’ coffers, too.
It was while he was helping Sparta that he also helped himself to the wife of one of the Spartan kings, probably fathering a son by her. I won't rehash all that follows in his work with Sparta, dealings with the Persians, successful return to Athens, warlord status in Thrace, and his escape to Anatolia before assassins caught up with him other than to say it is a fascinating and engaging ride. Everything Alcibiades did was calculated and oversized...and usually successful. One of the strengths of the book is the attempt to analyze possible agendas of the major players in order to see where interests line up and where they diverge. Again, it's guesswork (and presented as such), but helpful in scrutinizing not just what happened but also possibly why it happened. Permit me one last excerpt, an insightful comment on why Alcibiades' personality, so strong and persuasive in person, might have been a hinderance once he wasn't present:
As at Athens, so, too, in Sparta: when Alcibiades was on hand to charm, dazzle, seduce with the sheer force of his magnetic personality, he could convince even many of his harshest critics of his indispensability. Once he was gone, however, his magic evaporated with him. It was like remembering excesses from a riotous symposium in the stark light of the next day’s dawn. Not just sober reconsiderations and hardheaded reappraisals. But a desire to distance oneself as far as possible from the withering evidence of decadence and dissolution. (193-4)

It is that personality of Alcibiades that shines through in Stuttard's writing, an oversized ego feeding a strong drive to achieve and win. His monumental audacity is something to behold, especially when it usually paid off handsomely for him. In reconstructing Alcibiades’ life a modern reader faces problems with the ancient sources. Thucydides probably interviewed Alcibiades as one of his sources for his history, but Alcibiades would have been self-aggrandizing as well as selective in what he relayed, while Thucydides would have been discriminating in what he included in order to fit his agenda. As Stuttard mentions, many details of Alcibiades’ life were later fabrications, spun to reinforce the viewpoint of that author. Despite the challenges, David Stuttard’s lively biography and history covers not just Alcibiades’ life but the events of the Peloponnesian War (especially the second half) so the reader can understand the context of his many dubious actions.

Stuttard’s background in theater and his style seem to be tailor-made for such a dazzling subject and theatrical story. Flourishes abound, metaphors laden, and images drawn out. Stuttard adroitly weaves the many facets of Alcibiades’ life, public and personal, into the seemingly unending Greek conflict of his lifetime. Ancient sources are examined against each other and circumstantial reports so readers can follow up and make up their own mind as to what to believe. It's a lively read, covering one of the major characters during this chaotic span of ancient Greece's history. What emerges is a portrait of a complex figure, as enigmatic today as he probably during his own time. A prior knowledge of this period is helpful, but not required given Stuttard's excellent overview. The provided maps, time line, and family tree are extremely helpful. Very highly recommended.

Update: Mr. Stuttard was nice enough to reply to my tweet and add, "Next up for @Harvard_Press will be Phoenix: Cimon and the Rise of Athens, a very different character, but what an exciting story!" I'm definitely looking forward to it.

David Stuuttard's Website, with more links, including one to this book and also to his old blog.

Alcibiades in the Shadow of Achilles, a condensed version of his recent British Museum presentation on this book at the Harvard University Press blog. Also highly recommended. His talk closes with, " I’ve spent several years of my own life tracking his, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I hope that, if you read the book, you will enjoy it equally." Indeed I did.

My posts to date that mention Alcibiades:

My notes on the book, with additional sources to check out.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Audiobook: Carpenter's Gothic by William Gaddis, narrated by Nick Sullivan

Carpenter's Gothic by William Gaddis
Narrated by Nick Sullivan
Published by Tantor Audio
Running time 9 hrs 34 mins

A few years back I posted a brief note on Nick Sullivan's narration of two of William Gaddis' novels. Mr. Sullivan was kind enough to email me that his narration of Gaddis' Carpenter's Gothic had just been released. Having had a chance to listen to it, I wanted to let others know it is another remarkable performance. The style is similar to J R, with unattributed characters' speech mingled with a narrator's voice (with a much shorter length and fewer characters). Sullivan once again masterfully animates the voices and captures the emotions of the many characters. Although Carpenter's Gothic is not one of my favorite of Gaddis' novels (more on that in a moment), I highly recommend Sullivan's narration whether you have read the novel or not. I don't think I'm overstating things when I say that listening to his narration will help you learn how to read Gaddis and get the most out of the experience.

Regarding Carpenter's Gothic, I guess I have a complicated relationship with it. I read it upon its release, my first exposure to Gaddis. Probably adding to my initial enjoyment was having just moved from near one of the towns mentioned in the book (Smackover) and its portrayed milieu. Its greatest contribution was that it spurred me on to read The Recognitions and J R, the only other books by Gaddis published at the time and each re-released when Carpenter's Gothic came out. While similar in style to J R, I found it less comic (although there are funny parts) and with a bleaker outlook. Gaddis teases the reader, not revealing crucial facts until near the end of the book, but that structure makes what happens in the final chapters more impactful. I found I still liked it, even with some reservations. Saying it's not one of my favorite Gaddis novels, though, is mostly because of the high bar set by his first two novels.

A quick note: Nick Sullivan has agreed to narrate Gaddis' Agapē Agape and a collection of his essays.

Nick Sullivan's website, with a page on the books he has written

The Institute of Contemporary Arts recording of William Gaddis talking with Malcolm Bradbury, recorded on February 20, 1986, just after the release of Carpenter’s Gothic in Great Britain. My notes on the recording.

What got me started on Nick Sullivan's reading of William Gaddis' novels: The Neglected Books Page review of the audio recordings of The Recognitions and J R.

The Gaddis Annotations' page on Carpenter's Gothic, with annotations for each chapter and links to other helpful pages. The link on the page to the Great Books Foundation study guide has changed. The study guide can be found here.

Gaddis' Winter 1987 interview with The Paris Review (sometimes behind a paywall, sometimes not).

Thursday, July 26, 2018

On Grand Strategy by John Lewis Gaddis

On Grand Strategy by John Lewis Gaddis
New York: Penguin Press, 2018

John Lewis Gaddis is the Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military & Naval History at Yale University. He is best known as an author specializing in the Cold War and grand strategy (six of the ten books shown at his faculty page have "Cold War" in the title) and for founding the Brady Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale. He looks at "grand strategy" as "The alignment of potentially infinite aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities." There are other considerations and additional trade-offs to consider, but the leaders he lauds prove to be successful in balancing (or aligning) wants and desires with resources and potential. Gaddis begins with Isaiah Berlin's essay (and later short book) "The Hedgehog and the Fox." Where Berlin used the two animals to evaluate writers, Gaddis uses the dichotomy to look at leaders. Successful leaders combine the two animals' seemingly mutually exclusive traits, hedgehogs and their single central vision balanced with the pursuit by foxes of many ends.

The book considers examples of statesmanship, successes and failures, looking at the lessons that can be drawn from them across the millennia and settings. Those that failed at some point, such as Xerxes, Philip II of Spain, or Napoleon, were unable to adapt to changing conditions and resources, single-mindedly pursuing their goal without taking into account resources and capabilities. Those more successful, his examples include Octavian, Elizabeth I, and Lincoln, maintained their focus on an objective while tailoring tactics to reflect changing resources and priorities, respecting time, space, and scale in pursuing their goals. Being flexible, creative, and in tune to reality greatly increases their chances of success.

Gaddis looks at various competing ideas, such as the polarities of souls and states as articulated through Augustine and Machiavelli, respectively, and many of the chapters pair leaders, sometimes combining history and literature, to see how they balanced desires and resources. Napoleon, for example, is viewed through the lens of Carl von Clausewitz's On War and Tolstoy's War and Peace. In the case of those two writers, Gaddis stresses their regard for both theory and practice “without enslaving themselves to either,” and not confusing numerous ends with finite means. Xerxes' failed invasion of Greece, ignoring his uncle Artabanus' advice on lurking dangers, provides another example.

But Xerxes failed, as is the habit of hedgehogs, to establish a proper relationship between his ends and his means. Because ends exist only in the imagination, they can be infinite: a throne on the moon, perhaps, with a great view. Means, though, are stubbornly finite: they’re boots on the ground, ships in the sea, and the bodies required to fill them. Ends and means have to connect if anything is to happen. They’re never, however, interchangeable.

These character studies are thick with irony, with lessons to be learned from both the successes and the failures. In looking at the syllabuses (in the links below), I see this book is only a brief introduction to the grand strategies course, but a potentially fruitful one. Gaddis looks at his sources and characters with a discerning eye. He's able to praise aspects of Clausewitz's On War while at the same time agreeing with Sir Michael Howard on its “infuriating incoherence.” Here's an example, providing a glimpse at the need for balancing polarities:

Clausewitz died in 1831 before finishing On War, leaving us with a huge, unwieldy, and contradictory book, a close reading of which, I warn my students, risks mental disorientation: you can wind up unsure of what he said and with doubts, even, about who you are. Tolstoy did finish War and Peace, in 1868, but with little clearer sense of what he'd accomplished: "It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed." [Quote is from "A Few Words Apropos of the Book War and Peace] Isaiah Berlin detects in Tolstoy's evasiveness "a tormenting inner conflict"—like the results of too carefully reading Clausewitz?—between the "delusive experience of free will" and "the reality of inexorable historical determinism." But what if Clausewitz and Tolstoy were wrestling with contradictions—perhaps even relishing the contest—rather than agonizing over them?

These analytical studies, using a mixture of classics, philosophers, and statesmen, will frustrate anyone seeking an easy way to develop a strategic plan. There are so many ideas to keep in mind, many of them nebulous. What the reader gets is a blueprint for approaching the development of solutions, not a shortcut to the solution itself. The source material (some of which are listed in my notes link below) deserve further reading in order to appreciate Gaddis' summary of complex works and events. Gaddis' informal style delivers an insightful analysis of history and ideas, providing a splendid introduction to this subject. Very highly recommended.

- Here are previous syllabuses for the Grand Strategy Course at Yale. The seminar looks daunting.

Gaddis' lecture What is Grand Strategy?, delivered February 26, 2009 at Duke University. In it he examined why he believed there was a "grand strategy deficit," the impetus for founding the Yale grand strategy seminar, and how the seminar was meant to "encompass three schools: a school of the classics, a school of surprise, and a school of responsibility." His list of "chroniclers and practitioners of grand strategy" in the seminar make repeated appearances in On Grand Strategy, and he details what students in the courses should learn. As one student put it (and Gaddis agrees), "You're teaching us how to fail." See the link above for syllabuses from previous seminars.

- Recent interviews with Gaddis:

- For an insightful and detailed book review, I highly recommend Henry Suckow-Ziemer's article at the Yale Review of International Studies

- Gaddis' Wikipedia page, which has links to some of his articles

- Some of the books and articles listed in the Notes section of the book

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Hamlet (2015), or the third try's the charm

I finally got to see this version of Hamlet, the 2015 filming of National Theatre Live's production starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. I had intended to see it twice before, but I had been unable to attend either time (even after buying tickets to one of them). I had a strong sense of déjà vu on Sunday when I got caught in stopped traffic due to an accident on the way to the theater, then found myself stuck in an extended line of people at the "will call" window due to ticketing software malfunctions. Despite finally getting into the theater twenty minutes after the stated start time, I only missed a few seconds of the film.

Fortunately it was worth the troubles and the wait. Benedict Cumberbatch's performance was one of the most controlled Hamlet's I've seen, never veering close to real madness, but striking in its own way as he juggles the many contradictions the prince presents. The injections of humor provide a welcome relief, partially offsetting the dissolution of characters and set. For me, this was a Hamlet you actually care about and want to see come to terms with what he feels he must do. Of the other characters, Sian Brooke's Ophelia convincingly emphasizes her brittleness while Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude effectively moves from restraint to her own madness. The set designer, Es Devlin, erected a massive interior that seems to be an additional character in the play. Director Lyndsey Turner's cuts and edits to the play work well most of the time, although some of the symbolism feels forced. There are moments where things don't quite gel or felt rushed, but overall I found it a stimulating production.

Filming a play presents several challenges in addition to a regular production. The most jarring example in this film version is what to do when actors project loudly for the live audience. On film, this seems like empty bombast. I overheard an elderly lady, heading out at intermission, complaining to her family that there was too much shouting. Well, sure. I don't know what the answer is, other than to note that versions filmed in smaller venues find this easier to avoid. I didn't find it as off-putting as that lady, but I could sympathize with her complaint.

- National Theatre Live's Hamlet page, which has screening dates and times.
Go to their main page for additional plays being screened. - An interview with Benedict Cumberbatch on this production of Hamlet

Monday, July 23, 2018

The fate of Legio IX Hispana

A few years ago, the boys and I read Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth, a historical fiction book that looks at the "disappearance" of the Roman Ninth Legion (Legio IX Hispana) from Britain in the second century AD. While we enjoyed the book (and the 2011 movie version, The Eagle), we also looked at alternate theories explaining the disappearance of the legion.

Today I found a link to a 2011 article by Duncan B. Campbell in Ancient Warfare Magazine, titled "The Fate of the Ninth," that lays out additional information that might help explain what really happened. From the introduction of the article:

In 1954, Rosemary Sutcliff published a novel about Roman Britain. It caught the imagination of an entire generation of readers with its tale of the Ninth Legion, destroyed in the mists of Scotland. A BBC dramatisation captivated a fresh generation in 1977. And now a new motion picture is set to revive interest in the fate of the Lost Legion. But was it really destroyed in Britain during the reign of Hadrian? Or have we fallen for a myth that should have been laid to rest fifty years ago?

In the article, Campbell highlights the importance of prosopography, "the study of persons and their careers from the evidence of inscriptions," in framing the debate over what might have happened to the Ninth Legion. He also reviews additional information and finds from the 1960s and '70s that would seem to put to rest some theories. Sutcliff's novel, though, describing what happened as “Sometime about the year AD 117, the Ninth Legion, which was stationed at Eburacum where York now stands, marched north to deal with a rising among the Caledonian tribes, and was never heard of again... no one knows what happened to the Ninth Legion after it marched into the northern mists” still seems to have a grip on the modern imagination.

I highly recommend the article since Campbell lays out the history of evidence, arguments, and cautions (usually ignored) in trying to solve exactly what happened to the Ninth Legion.

More articles on the Ninth Legion:
- The Roman Ninth Legion's mysterious loss
- Legio IX Hispana's Wikipedia page

Thursday, July 12, 2018

An appreciation and note of gratitude for David Womack

I received word that David Womack, a true mentor and influence on my life, passed away on July 11, 2018. For someone that had such a huge, giving heart, it's a sad irony that it was that physical organ that failed him.

For a few semesters when I was in college, I lived at his house in Tuscaloosa. At the time I appreciated all he did, but I wasn't capable until much later to fully fathom what all he had done for me. His selfless actions in the service organization we were a part of was truly inspirational.

It's my fault that a post thanking him for all he did has not appeared here before now, so I guess I'm trying to make up for it. The best I can hope to do is pass on to my boys his spirit of service and dedication to others.

So here's a totally embarrassing pic (yeah, I'm in there somewhere) taken outside of David's house, I'm guessing from the fall of 1982. The poses are an inside joke...

From David's obituary:
David Womack died July 11 at Druid City Hospital of congestive heart failure, but leaves an inspiring legacy through hundreds of members of Circle K (CK) whom he advised for decades at the University of Alabama (UA). He also was District Administrator for CK for years.

David’s calling for the past 43 years was developing young people into leaders in community service. Under David’s Leadership, The University of Alabama’s Circle K and the Alabama district had students elected to district and international offices. Trophies and plaques were won by his members, the Alabama District, and by David himself. Circle K chapter scrapbooks won awards. He was a Tuscaloosa Kiwanian for years, served a term as president and was on the board at the time of his death. His most prized Kiwanis award was the 1989 Circle of Service Award, created to “recognize & honor an individual within Kiwanis International who has made the most outstanding contribution to all of Circle K International.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

FDR, Jefferson, and...Spiderman?

"[G]reat power involves great responsibility."

Sounds like something from Spiderman, but it's part of a line from Franklin D. Roosevelt's undelivered Jefferson Day Speech. Coincidentally, Jefferson Day was officially recognized by FDR beginning in 1938. Anyway...the speech can be found at The American Presidency Project (for now—they note they are working on a new website). Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, Georgia the day before this speech was to be given, and it's an interesting read. Here's one part:
The once powerful, malignant Nazi state is crumbling. The Japanese war lords are receiving, in their own homeland, the retribution for which they asked when they attacked Pearl Harbor.

But the mere conquest of our enemies is not enough.

We must go on to do all in our power to conquer the doubts and the fears, the ignorance and the greed, which made this horror possible.

Thomas Jefferson, himself a distinguished scientist, once spoke of "the brotherly spirit of Science, which unites into one family all its votaries of whatever grade, and however widely dispersed throughout the different quarters of the globe."

Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another.

While science was bringing everyone closer together, it was also working on the Manhattan Project at the time of the undelivered speech, further making isolation impossible.

It's always been easy for me to remember when FDR died since it was a day after my parents were married. Both of them were in the service at the time, but I never heard if it cast a pall on their short honeymoon (nor do I really want to know).

I found this speech thanks to a footnote in John Lewis Gaddis' book On Grand Strategy, which offers a peek into part of the Studies in Grand Strategy course.