More than a discourse

Luke Skywalker walks into a bar and orders a drink. Dr. Cornelius Evazan [1] grabs him, tells him that he is liked by neither the doctor nor his friend and then threatens to kill Luke. According to Wookiepedia, the online depository for all information about the Star Wars galaxy, Evazan threatens Luke because he is a sociopath. Evazan doesn’t want money or power or prestige or food or sex. He just wants to kill Luke because he doesn’t like him. The Emperor/Darth Vader/Grand Moff Tarkin may want to kill Luke to continue to hold onto their grip on inter-planetary power, the Sand People may want to kill Luke because he trespasses on their territory and they would like to take his stuff, and Boba Fett [2] may want to kill Luke because he is a getting paid to do so, but Evazan just doesn’t like him.

The example used here from Star Wars is an extreme example of the point I am building towards. For something more mundane, there are people I don’t like and I feel guilty about disliking some of them. It can be a personality issue, or their behavior or their voice, particularly on days when I am irritable. It can also be the circumstances under which we met or that I was decaffeinated. And, most of the time, I can be perfectly pleasant with the person I dislike–the rest of the time we can not interact. Certainly I wouldn’t try to kill that person. The point is that most of the time my dislike is not due to a rivalry for a mate/food/prestige/power or the external manifestation of a cultural discourse of alterity/machismo/nationalism/spirituality, although it may also be any of those.

I mention this because it is something that often seems forgotten when writing a historical narrative. The explanation for this is that the historian is supposed to find reasonable causes events that rely on evidence that is demonstrable. For instance, to say that two people disliked each other is acceptable, but it would be preferable to say that those two people disliked each other because they were rivals for m/f/p/p or that the antipathy is the externalization of a cultural discourse of a/m/n/s. Even an attested “s/he looked cross-ways at my spouse” provides a reasonable and acceptable explanation. Unexplained maugre doesn’t happen in history. Naturally. Well, not really.

Inevitably, there are explanations for the dislike, but they are just of the sort that are not passed down in the historical record or are terribly satisfying and, often, the picayune cause for dislike exacerbates the rivalry or the cultural discourse and vice-versa. I am not suggesting that historians should seek to explain interpersonal relationships through a simple love/hate lens. Rather, I am musing that when there is evidence for a dislike that stems from a conflict of personalities or other similarly nebulous explanations, those should not be glossed over in favor of the rivalry for m/f/p/p or a discourse of a/m/n/s.

To take one example from the histories of Alexander the Great, Craterus was, arguably, Alexander’s most skilled military commander after the execution of Parmenion and was reputed to be a friend to the king. Hephaestion was Alexander’s childhood friend and likely homosexual companion and was reputed to be a friend to Alexander. These two men certainly were in a competition for power within Alexander’s army when they drew swords and attacked each other while in India. Each had a different avenue to power and prestige within the army and each had his own partisans who participated in the melee. They were also manifesting an agonistic masculine Macedonian discourse and, at that moment, transcending the issue of alterity in order to come to blows several thousand miles from home. But there is part of me that suspects, without any specific evidence, [4] that pointing out the rivalries and discourses doesn’t actually explain why the two men didn’t get along. Maybe, just maybe, Craterus also told stupid jokes and Hephaestion made slurping sounds when drinking his wine. But this is the purview of the historical novelist more than that of the historian.[5]

[1] Yes, he has a name. No, he’s probably not a real doctor. Yes, he calls himself a doctor. No, to the extent that the galaxy has bureaucratic regulations that control who is and is not a doctor across worlds, no world recognizes Evazan as a doctor because they think he’s crazy, but the galaxy was a big place so he could evidently pass himself off as one. Yes, there is an implied question at the start of each sentence in this footnote.
[2] And the other mooks. [3]
[3] Storm Troopers, Palace Guards, etc.
[4] If I remember correctly, Plutarch says that they didn’t like each other and both seem to have been notoriously prickly characters. But that isn’t much.
[5] Then again, it has been argued time and again for millenia that the purpose of fiction is to reveal greater truths than non-fiction ever can.

Myth of Egyptian Nationalism in the Arab Spring

In some ways the dominant legacy of colonialism is that the nation states formed since the withdrawal of the military and political attention of the colonial powers [1] are usually artificial constructions that more closely align to treaty boundaries between western powers than they do to any sort of natural boundary, be it geographic, ethnic, or otherwise. Despite ideological claims that democracy will create a peaceful and stable world, repressive military regimes in the Middle East actually created a more stable international scene. So the democratic revolutions in the Arab Spring were welcomed as the birth of democracy, particularly when it meant the overthrow of an anti-Western leader like Qaddafi.[2] Where the protests were against more stable (from the American point of view) leaders, the protests were more hesitantly supported.

In early 2011 the Arab Spring reached Egypt and interested peoples watched the demonstrations in Tahrir Square from streaming web cam. The protests ended with the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and, eventually, Muhammed Morsi became the first civilian President of Egypt. Since that time a military coup has deposed Morsi, protests resumed, and violence escalated.

There have been some touching stories from the tragedies in Egypt, including neighbors of different religions helping each other out and the protection of Egyptian museums. I recall reading at the time that these stories and the reluctance of the military to fire upon protesters were indicative of Egypt’s uniqueness in the Arab world. Egypt was said to have a long tradition of “nationalism,” a national ride in Egyptian Heritage, and a geography that nullified many of the problems of tribalism possessed by other Arab states.

Of course this narrative could be exposed merely by pointing out that much of the Sinai is governed by Bedouin tribes and there is little to no government oversight of the peninsula. But that exception not withstanding, one need only point out that the Nile, even with its annual floods curtailed by the construction of the Aswan High Dam, is the constant thread between today, Napoleon trying to conquer the Orient, Crusaders facing ignominious defeat, Julius Caesar cavorting with Cleopatra, Alexander laying out the design for a massive city, the construction of the pyramids, and the settlement of a tribe of semi-nomadic pastoralists from the Levant at the behest of one mythical Joseph. With the Nile as a foundation, the long national unity of Egypt is a seductive notion. The problem is that it is another myth of national unity, a fiction of uniqueness that obscures another country dominated by a military establishment.

The story in Turkey is that the military would overthrow elected officials who threatened the secular republican legacy of Ataturk, although their opposition to Erdogan has been limited. The stated motivations for coups in Egypt are not nearly so Romantic. The Wikipedia page for Tahrir Square says that the protests went on long enough that the military (presumably the establishment, people such as al-Sisi) an opportunity to remove Mubarak. There was a brief experiment with democracy, but for this second round of protests the army has not been as reluctant to use violence. It seems that the Wikipedia page is on to something. Perhaps the reason that Egypt under Mubarak did not more resemble Syria under Assad is that individuals in the Egyptian military wanted to remove Mubarak themselves.

[1] This is not to say a complete removal of imperialism since former colonial powers frequently maintain an economic presence and interest in the former colonies. This economic imperialism can quickly turn into military force, particularly if the internationally recognized government requests assistance, as was the case in Mali last year.
[2] One of my favorite moments in the pilot of “The West Wing” is when Leo McGary calls the editor of the New York Times crossword to yell at him about using Qaddafi as one of the answers. This is one of the ways in which the pilot, in particular, dates itself. For another, there are also multiple jokes and appearances of pagers.

Preconceptions, self fashioning, and the dissertation topic

I like latin american coffees and Irish breakfast tea. I like tastefully flavored black beans, wheat bread, tomatoes, hot salsa, and sharp cheddar cheese. I like pilsner beer and rye whiskey. I like Hemingway and Orwell, Kazantzakis and Pamuk. I like the banjo and the acoustic guitar, bluegrass and rock.

These are not limits to what I like or what I will consume, either, though there is another list of things I have no taste for and therefore shy away from (IPAs, cream teas, Dickens, sweet white wine, to name a few). The first list helps me make decisions when I am out to eat, when I am choosing what to read next, or when looking for new music. This is my palate, the things I have learned that I like over a number of years and while experimenting and trying new things is, generally speaking, a good thing, knowing what I like has served me well. But these are also preconceptions that I hold with me each time that I go into a restaurant.

A similar thing happens in what I choose to study in history. I know what I have worked on before and (at least to a limited extent) the type of paper that I did not enjoy writing or did not write well for whatever reason. I do believe that there are certain people who are suited for certain topics. For instance, I have no interest in poetry studies per se; my interest is purely the message and not at all the medium. As such, I am fascinated by the social and cultural messages wrapped up in Archaic Greek lyric poetry, but would not want to study the poetics of the poetry. My strengths (which generally run parallel to my interests since if I don’t have any ability when it comes to a topic I usually get frustrated and drop it) tend towards reading prose authors in the world, geography, and political and diplomatic considerations.

Some of these “strengths” stem from the papers I have written and presented upon in the past, or standing interests of mine since, well, as long as I can remember. I was teased for “reading” maps and atlases when I was in middle school. But there is also a measure of confirmation bias in this statement. I have written papers on only a small handful of topics in graduate school and basically none of those directly correspond to the dissertation topics presently on the table.

What I am struggling with is that I am in trying to choose a dissertation topic, but most of the potential topics do not correspond to any of those preconceptions about what I study, or, frequently, I have no previous experience with studying. In light of this, I am concerned that pushing myself towards something may or may not play to my strengths. To be sure, I will acquire new skills. I am well aware that any dissertation topic would force me to expand my skill set. If that were not the case, then the dissertation would merely be a formality, so even if I had been able to pursue my initial topic that would have played more into my strengths, there would have still been a learning curve. Nevertheless, most of the potential topics (and yes, I have struggled through a half-dozen potential topics in the past few months) are so far beyond anything that I have previously done that it feels as though I am starting from scratch. Starting over could be good, allowing me to come at a topic unencumbered by preconceptions and biases, but it would also be a slower road, and one that is far less certain and with more risk that it would be a topic that I would be incapable of realizing the potential of as a result of limited experience or lack of conviction.

I need to make a decision this week and so here I am on Wednesday night, unable to decide, unable to determine even how much I should weigh these different factors in making the decision. Until this week I stressed about the potential to produce a monograph from the dissertation and articles along the way. Now that worry seems overly ambitious. Now I need to decide how much I should accede to these preconceptions about myself and how I have defined my research thus far. Admittedly, though, there is only the faintest thread of continuity thus far and that same slight thread could run through any of these potential topics, too. I need to decide this week, but it is Wednesday and I am further from a decision than I was on Monday.

Memories in a City [1]

One of the few mass email lists I have not unsubscribed from is from Lonely Planet, the travel company. I started getting an email newsletter when I used several of their guides to travel around Greece and Istanbul. I now keep the newsletter because there are occasionally interesting articles about places I wish to someday see. In short, there is enough of a return for me to bother with deleting the ones I don’t care about or don’t have time for.

This past week the headline story was Five reasons to wake at dawn as a traveller. Each of the five reasons featured a different location and explained why going there first thing in the morning is so much better than going there at any other time of day. I agree with the reasoning in the article and my favorite thing to do (if possible) is to be awake and doing the “tourist” things early in the morning so that the afternoons and evenings can largely be spent just enjoying the place, whether that is people watching, dining in a cafe, or learning how to play backgammon from a local person with whom you hardly share a language. [2]

The fifth item on the list is the reason for this entry. Lonely Planet suggests being awake for the early morning call to prayer at Fes, Morocco, preferably from a rooftop in the city. I have never been to Fes, or anywhere else in Morocco, but I was awake for the early morning call to prayer in Istanbul the first morning I was there. Quite by accident, too. I had actually meant to sleep in the airport and catch a train into town early in the morning, but I ended up going into the city with a family I met in Amsterdam and walking around the city at around one in the morning before sleeping just outside the Blue Mosque. So I was awake for the call to prayer blaring from speakers on the minaret directly overhead. I was already awake and writing at the time, seated on the same spot where I slept. Lonely Planet was right, it was a cool experience. [3] And already being awake means that you can beat the travel crowds. That trip was this time three years ago.

[1] The title is, of course, an homage to Orhan Pamuk’s memoir Istanbul.
[2] In this case the guy was the night man at the hostel. He got frustrated when I beat him with his help in the first game and mad when I beat him mostly without his help in the second. He was really nice and I liked him a lot.
[3] I also thought it was neat to sleep outside in a foreign country in 2010. Modern comforts are nice, but there is something exciting about getting to experience something like the time of P.L. Fermor while traveling. Next time I want to bring a tent and do more camping.

Full Body Scanners

“What do you have against technology?” was the question my brother posed after the TSA agent finished patting me down on Thursday. I had opted out of the full body scan. I glibly responded “everything,” but my answer isn’t actually true. I have a problem with the TSA full body scans on a few levels–invasion of privacy and all that–but, mostly, it seems like a bit of technology for the sake of technology, a doohicky to make people feel safer rather than be safer. Besides, if you do the pat down, you don’t even go through the metal detector.

TSA security is about quickly, at least in relative terms, [1] doing a basic screening of large numbers of people to make sure that guns, machetes, explosives, sword-canes, hatchets, and other bladed objects do not make it onto the plane or into the gate area. [2] Just like any quality assurance system in an assembly line, most mistakes are caught, but, then, most people trying to get on the plane don’t need to carry weapons on board. And while there are probably studies, at least internally at the TSA, that show that full body scans provide such-and-such benefit over the metal detectors when it comes to fishing out terror, [3] but numbers can be made to show just about anything. I am unmoved by the standard explanation that the scan is perfectly safe [4] because I am not opting out because the machines an insufficiently tested. I am doing so because I consider it technology for its own sake, the latest in the long line of forms and machines created in a bureaucratic society to justify the existence of the bureaucracy. [5] At the same time, so many of the machines are meant to organize and enable an overcrowded world moving at breakneck speed.

I want to fly and I am sympathetic to the need for airport security; after all, I know exactly where I was when I saw the second plane fly into the world trade center in New York. But I am going to opt out of using this bit of technology until provided a compelling reason for its existence. Thus far I have not be provided one.

[1] One must recall that the quickness and efficiency of bureaucracy is not about quickness on an individual level, but in bulk.
[2] These days there is probably a greater threat to the airline personnel delivering the news about delayed flights than there is to other passengers or the airplane crew.
[3] Literally. I am hard pressed to argue, but they aren’t referring to the emotion.
[4] The agents assumed I knew the speech they are supposed to give me about the safety of the device and never completed it. I had actually not heard this speech about the ways in which the device is safe, but implied that I had heard it all before and they spared me.
[5] I am reminded of the opening “miracle of life” scene in Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life” where the doctors make a point to request “the most expensive machine – in case the Administrator comes.” Of course the administrator arrives and says: “Ah, I see you have the machine that goes ‘ping!’. This is my favorite. “

July 2013 Reading Recap

Considering that I wrote reviews for three of these five books, this shouldn’t be a v. long post.

Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon
A meditation on existence.

The City and the Mountains,Jose M. Eca de Queiroz
The perils of modernity

To Have and Have Not Ernest Hemingway
Love and death in Key West.

Roumeli: Travels in N. Greece, Patrick Leigh Fermor
PLF is one of the most famous travel writers of the 20th century, somewhat notoriously having walked the length of Europe (Holland to Constantinople) as an eighteen year old in 1933. He took with him some clothes, letters of introduction, a book of English verse and a volume of Horace’s odes, making the trip in just over a year. He was fluent in Greek and this volume of his travel writing covers his experiences in Northern Greece. It is a fascinating read for anyone interested in Greece, but he tends towards specific and esoteric bits of flora and philology that might make this volume challenging for anyone who doesn’t have external motivation. He is an interesting fellow and a hero of mine in the sense that I have a soft spot for eccentric British men who used to do this sort of thing as though they hadn’t a care in the world.

The Name of the Wind Patrick Rothfuss
A reread, Rothfuss is one of the top fantasy authors currently working and I get something new out of the books each time I read them. The Name of the Wind is the first book in what will be a trilogy about Kvothe, the most famous hero/villain/scapegoat/antihero in his world. Except that he is now an innkeeper who is telling the true story of what his life was actually like as a hero of legend and why he is now playing dead. The story plays out on two levels. The first take the form of interludes in the time when the story takes place, while the main narrative where people get to understand who Kvothe is and how he develops is narrated over the course of three days (books one and two are the first two days). Although Rothfuss has hardly neglected the world, the story is not driven by it the way that (I think, anyway) many fantasy stories are. Instead, the story is driven by the character of Kvothe and his interaction with the variety of supporting characters–if you find yourself disliking Kvothe, I would imagine that the series gets old quickly. But, what can I say? I like the guy and am eagerly awaiting the third installment.

Love and Death in Key West: To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway

The first edition published for Scribner Classics pimps To Have and Have Not as “a novel of rum running between Cuba and Key West in the 1930s, creating in the durable Harry Morgan one of the most remarkable of Hemingway’s characters.” In its defense, the novel is set in Key West and Cuba in the 1930s, Harry Morgan is the protagonist by most definitions, and there is an instance of rum running between the two settings. My quibble, besides being vaguely off put by the prose, is that the description doesn’t actually tell the interested reader what THaHN is about, but relies on the reputation of Hemingway to draw in the potential reader/buyer. To wit, the accompanying biography of Hemingway is more than twice as long as the teaser for the novel. I venture that the six word title for this review gives a truer sense of the novel than does the evocative promise of a novel about rum running. But I should begin at the beginning.

Hemingway is most noted for writing novels with one of two settings, Europe or the Caribbean. My own proclivity is to favor the former, but THaHN takes place in the second of the settings. Harry Morgan is a fisherman who charters his boat, usually for fishing trips, but also for smuggling runs when he is desperate. During prohibition he smuggled rum from Cuba, but prohibition is over, so the profits are no longer worth the risk. The first portion of THaHN follows the activities of Harry Morgan trolling the waters between Key West and Havana, but, gradually, the novel opens and pulls back from this narrow perspective, revealing for the reader characters such as Marie Morgan, Harry’s wife, Helen and Richard Gordon (a novelist and his wife), and Professor MacWalsey. As Hemingway broadens the perspective, THaHN ceases to be a novel even about smuggling or sailing between Key West and Havana. It is about people falling into and out of love in Depression-era South Florida.

This is not to say that other Hemingway novels are devoid of emotional attachment between men and women, quite the contrary. I found there to be genuine affection between Robert Jordan and Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and the relationship between Lady Ashley and Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises has a number of different levels to it, [1] but in THaHN the dominant emotion. In contrast, THaHN has a protagonist, Harry Morgan, who is in love with his wife Marie and sees her one way, but that impression is radically different from what Richard Gordon imagines her to be; Richard Gordon has his relationship snarls with his wife and others, while his wife has her own issues.[2] And at the same time Hemingway highlights the relationships of minor characters, including some who only exist in a sort of panoramic scene that sweeps through the harbor. In this way the novel is more generally about these emotions than any one relationship as is the case in some of Hemingway’s other work.

Of course a Hemingway novel would be incomplete without alcohol. But rather than rum running, the alcohol in THaHN tends to be more mundane drinking, particularly to avoid problems. So Professor MacWalsey:

”I am ashamed and disgusted with myself and hate what I have done. It may turn out badly, too. I will return to the anaesthetic I have used for seventeen years and will not need much longer. Although it is probably a vice now for which I only invent excuses. Though at least it is a vice for which I am well suited.”

To Have and Have Not is a beautiful little book. Critics of Hemingway will be sure to find something to become riled up about,[3] but none of the language seemed particularly excessive. I still like tSAR the best among the Hemingway books I have read, [4] but THaHN is a close second.

Next up, I am nearly through reading both Kafka’s The Castle [5] and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

[1] This relationship and its limits is one of the obvious through-lines of the entire story and (in my own opinion, naturally) the two have an emotional closeness that is made all the more heart-wrenching from the narrator’s point of view because he is utterly incapable of bringing the relationship to fruition. This is the long way of saying that I find Hemingway’s work to be loaded with emotion.
[2] It is cliche to point out that Hemingway was looking to write a true story, but when a couple is having a falling out, it seemed particularly apropos for them to snap at each to snap at the other about his or her sexual prowess, or lack thereof.
[3] In particular I am thinking of some of the descriptions of African Americans and Cubans, but I am generally willing to forgive that sort of descriptions if it enhance the novel.
[4] The Sun Also Rises, To Have and Have Not, For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Moveable Feast, The Green Hills of Africa.
[5] My impression of it so far is that Kafka wrote a brilliant story about the problems bureaucracy in which seems to be playing a grand, incomprehensible joke on the protagonist and the reader alike.