“Glorious Confusion”

A review of: From Herodotus to H-Net, Jeremy D. Popkin

[Ed. Note: What follows is an attempt to recreate an earlier post that was written earlier this week with access to the text but, with a perfunctory “document could not be saved,” vanished to the devils of technical difficulties.]

Jeremy Popkin’s From Herodotus to H-Net is an excellent introduction to historiography, or the history of writing history. After a brief, but sufficient, introduction, the text is divided into two parts, the origins of history to 1960 and 1960 to the present. The title of this post, “Glorious Confusion,” is taken from the opening chapter of the second part, but could aptly describe the book as a whole.

Popkin has a catholic vision of history and, as such, tries to balance two divergent visions of recounting the past. On the one hand, he walks the reader through what might be termed the “grand narrative” of historiography to show the general developments in how mainstream history has been written; on the other, he tries to show the extreme diversity in terms of representations of the past–so much so that he even name-drops “the Hitler Channel” as a nickname for the History Channel. The result of this diversity is that Popkin implies the “glorious diversity” after 1960 was a radical reinvention of history as an academic discipline post-1960, rather than a revision of how to think about the past.

The two threads to From Herodotus to H-Net frequently results in summary of the major historiographical works. Most of the major figures and/or works make their way into the dizzying series of names such as Marx, Weber, Wallerstein, Foucault, Said, and Chakrabarty. For the ones I have read, Popkin’s summaries and critiques are more than adequate, generally presenting the approach and how it came to be adopted by historians without being dismissive. After all, his objective is to show the multiplicity of historical approaches.

Specialists may quibble with the specific character of “history” in their time period, even though this “problem” actually furthers the core assumptions. For instance, Popkin’s account of ancient historiography is dominated by the canonical authors Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Livy, and Tacitus. Certainly he suggests that these authors were not alone in their writing, but, unlike later periods, there is no recognition that ancient peoples represented the past through poetry, rhetoric, and even plays the way that he acknowledges for later periods. Too, despite nods towards Chinese (and to a lesser extent) Muslim histories, there is an excessive focus on Western historiography, as building toward the creation of history as an academic discipline. As a result, representations of the past in Babylon, Persia, and Africa in both written and non-written forms are given short shrift.

The penultimate chapter, “historians at work” is a radical departure from the preceding historiography that would be of particular interest to undergraduate and MA students. In it, Popkin provides an overview of how one goes from being a history major in college to applying to college to graduate school to applying for jobs, getting tenure or finding jobs outside the academy. The process he gives is somewhat distilled and runs the risk of becoming dated, but is neither overly optimistic nor pessimistic. I appreciated his frank discussion, though it was somewhat surprising that there was no mention of being interdisciplinary in graduate school given the preceding vision of historiography. Another issue that Popkin raises in this chapter is that it is common for students to arrive in college with an aversion to history because of how it is taught in high school. He solution, it seems, is to have his legion of readers, history devotees all, reform how history is taught from the inside, without acknowledging the institutional limitations faced by such instructors.

Despite, or perhaps because of these issues I think that From Herodotus to H-Net is an excellent introductory text to a historiography course. It would, of course, be necessary to pair it with more pointed studies about or using the variety of methods Popkin discusses, but the book sows the fields from which fruitful discussion may grow.

Who needs nuance?

“But now, let’s talk about the bad guys,” Brian Kilmeade began on a Fox and Friends segment called “World on Edge” this week. His guest was Gillian Turner, a former staffer on the National Security Council and associate at Jones Group International, who spent the segment discussing concerns over terrorism in Turkey and other parts of the Middle East.

I first saw the clip in the gym without sound or subtitle, so all I knew about what Ms. Turner said was what the screen infographic said Ms. Turner said:

Turner: Turkey must defeat Assad, then ISIS.

I was so floored by this description declaration that I was fully prepared to dismiss Ms. Turner as an know-nothing hack drummed up by the Fox and Friends crew. Then I went back to the actual video. In fact, Ms. Turner give a short, fair summary of the security issues facing Turkey with regard to the refugee crisis and terrorism, noting that the Turkish government considers (and treats) the PKK as terrorists and that the Turks are accepting refugees with no financial support. The account is, almost by necessity, a bit anodyne, but she also dodges the segment’s premise in terms of the situation in Turkey leading to terrorism in the United States. Nowhere in this account does she actually mention Assad.

Now, I could be misled by a short segment, but nothing in this segment indicated that Turkey should do anything against Assad, let alone doing so unilaterally while Assad is supported by Russia. Turkey has enough of a strained relationship with Russia right now over the violation of airspace and subsequent shooting down of a Russian fighter (Pravda’s most recent coverage, or do a google search).

This sort of manipulation probably happens all the time on cable News shows and is a form of doublespeak where, not only is there vague and euphemistic language, but there can be two disparate statements that are being conveyed at the same time, as Stephen Colbert used to show on his “The Word” segment. Yet, there is one big difference. In my opinion, these cable news shows are not meant to be consumed as an all-encompassing experience. The noisiness of the on-screen information may “add” to the experience of someone listening to the show with the volume on, but is actually designed for gyms, airports, and other public screens that might be tuned to the channel. These screens frequently won’t have even a closed caption, so the shows rely on flashing icons and the movement of the hosts to draw attention to the screen where there is an easily-digested, if misleading, talking point.

As a final, tangentially related point, it sometimes amuses me to watch the Fox and Friends hosts fidget as they try to keep from checking their smartphones, which are set immediately next to them on the couch. Screens are addictive, it isn’t just a young-person problem.

Donald Trump and some assumptions about ISIS

In general my policy here has been to avoid politics because politics online usually results in unwanted headaches, but the latest round of sparring between Pope Francis and Donald Trump touched on something bigger that has been festering. To set this up, though there needs to be the context. Speaking in Mexico, Pope Francis questioned Trump’s Christianity if he were to deport immigrants and build a wall along the border. Not for the first time, these comments incited an outcry of hypocrisy! from right-wing sources who are quick to point out that the Pope lives in the Vatican City, itself surrounded by walls. Of course this is a questionable line of rebuttal because Francis had nothing to do with building those walls, the earliest of which were more than a thousand years old and were built when Vatican City was in fact under attack by marauders. However, Trump directly responded to the Pope on a more contemporary tact:

If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president.

There is no need to investigate this particularly statement with reference to Trump–the target of Trump and ISIS are going to be interchangeable in this sort of invective. Nor is there any point in examining the legitimacy of the statement, which is a topic for foreign policy wonks and strategists. It speaks, however, a broader preoccupation about ISIS targeting Christianity, which I think emerges both from a corruption of history and a good bit of narcissism.

The underlying assumption of Trump’s statement is that ISIS is waging a religiously-motivated war to exterminate Christianity and, by extension, European-American civilization. [Note already how nebulous this concept gets in peddling a vague sense of doom.] Certainly some of the ISIS propaganda calls for attacks on Europe and America and bin Laden made such pronouncements. In the latter case, though, those attacks were retaliatory and, in general, the war between Christianity and Islam comes from the point of view of the Christians, at least in the last thousand years or so. This is not to say that there has not been fighting or attacks by Muslims against Christians, and religion is ever a convenient excuse, but much of the capability for waging such wars come the other direction. Wars in the Middle East targeting Europeans far more frequently had other motivations, such as opposition to colonialism.

This brings me to the ultimate point about the assumptions in Trump’s statement. He declares, whether he believes it or not, that “everyone knows” that Vatican City would be the “ultimate trophy” for ISIS. This is not something that “everyone knows,” it is something that many people might nod their heads about because, the Vatican City (or Rome, more generally) is synonymous with Christianity—even though this is not true for every denomination. There is a reason that most of the Crusades went from Europe to the Middle East rather than the other way around. A curious interlocutor might ask why Jerusalem or Mecca and Medina, or even Damascus, Baghdad or Istanbul would not be a more apt trophy should ISIS be genuinely interested in reestablishing the Caliphate. But this is an arena where facts don’t matter and flying in the face of globalism is a potent clash of civilizations narrative that is constantly being revivified. In this case ISIS is the backward east, Christianity is western civilization and Rome [or Vatican City] is Christianity. Thus distilled, naturally Vatican City is the ultimate trophy for ISIS, and if ISIS buys into these core assumptions they might even think the same way. The irony, of course, is that there is nothing inherent about Vatican City that would make it the ultimate trophy other than the very narratives currently being abused.

Tonio Kröger and other stories – Thomas Mann

all my friends have been demons, hobgoblins, phantoms struck dumb by the profundity of their insight–in other words men of letters

A real artist is not one who has taken up art as his profession, but a man predestined and foredoomed to it; and such an artist can be picked out from a crowd by anyone with the slightest perspicacity. You can read in his face that he is a man apart, a man who does not belong.

No: ‘life’ stands in eternal contrast to intellect and art–but not as a vision of bloodstained greatness and savage beauty. We who are exceptions do not see life as something exceptional; on the contrary! normality, respectability, decency–these are our heart’s desire, this to us is life, life in its seductive banality! No one, my dear has a right to call himself an artist if his profoundest craving is for the refined, the eccentric and the satanic–if his heart knowns no longing for innocence, simplicity and living warmth, for a little friendship and self-surrender and familiarity and human happiness–if he is not secretly devoured…by this longing for the commonplace!

–“Tonio Kröger”

Tonio Kröger and other stories is a collection of six short stories written by Thomas Mann and translated by David Luke. As an aside before talking about the stories themselves, I have a soft-spot for this style of book, namely the Bantam Modern Classic paperback from c.1970 when this was published. The size, page-feel, and covers epitomize what I like about physical books and I have a smattering of them in my collection. Admittedly, they can be a little fragile, but I find something sympathetic about even that.

This collection includes the stories “Little Herr Friedemann,” “The Joker,” “The Road to the Churchyard,” “Gladius Dei,” “Tristan,” and “Tonio Kröger.”

The first two stories are described by the translator as immature works and it easy to see why. This is not to say the stories are bad, but they share a singular preoccupation and do not contain much in the way of subtlety of plot. Both stories fundamentally revolve around young men have created an ascetic life away from society, one on account of physical deformity, the other temperament, but whose worlds are shaken when they meet, fall for, and are rejected by pretty young women. This theme recurs, including in the eponymous story where a young man flees respectable society because the other kids laugh at him during their dance lessons, but those stories do not have the same linear resolution.

A second common theme that unites the stories in this collection is art and artistic sensibilities, particularly in men, versus society at large. Not every story is about artists, though. “Gladius Dei” is about a man who feels compelled by God to condemn the overtly sexual representation of Madonna. The main character is offended by the art that he sees as a perversion, and there is not representation of how the artist feels about it—we are only told that the painting is famous, and the dealer is interested in the print because it will make him money.

Art, as Mann portrays it, is as much a curse as a blessing, since it leaves the artist watching life rather than experiencing life. The artists in these stories never get the girl, so to speak, but are forced to watch in envy, experiencing emotions that are fundamentally different from everyone else. At best the men of artistic temperament (whether they produce art or not) are watchers of people and sad young men; at worst they are bitter wastrels with an over-developed sense of superiority. The most extreme example of this is probably Detlev Spinell in “Tristan,” who is an author who lives in a sanatorium because the company and the decor suits him. Though he is not himself sick there is something sickly about him, as opposed to the healthy men of society.

Mann’s stories and presentation of art simultaneously repulsed and enthralled me. Yet, this translation reminded me just how much I enjoyed Mann’s style when I read Doctor Faustus and reaffirmed my ranking of that book among my all-time favorites. As a final note, it still remains a novelty for me to read short story collections, but also a nice change of pace.

Currently reading: Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. I will finish this one…sometime.

Plebeian Gourmet

You are a gourmet, sir, a plebeian gourmet, a peasant with taste.

What I have said is not abuse: I am merely stating the formula, the quite simple psychological formula of your simple, aesthetically quite uninteresting personality.

So Detlev Spinell writes to Anton Klöterjahn, the husband of Gabriele Klöterjahn in Thomas Mann’s short story “Tristan.” The letter and its setup are farcical; the story takes place in a sanatorium where Frau Klöterjahn is recovering and where Spinell lives. When this letter is written, Herr Klöterjahn happens to be visiting, so envelope returns straightaway to the institution and provokes an immediate confrontation that does not suit Spinell’s strengths.

The story is ethereal and sad, even in its somewhat cliched presentation of an artistic spirit that gravitates to an older style of building now reserved for sick people. Unlike the other patients, Spinell doesn’t suffer from a particular illness or defect, but he likes the decor and the solitude, though not to write for publication since his only production are of letters. On the one hand this description of a wastrel litterateur struck too close to home, but, on the other, the presentation of separate spheres is, even accounting for the date, too much a caricature.

Nevertheless, this particular passage had me laughing aloud, all the while being fixated on the term “plebeian gourmet.” It is evocative, dismissive of the man’s origins and complimentary of his taste. In general one might look at “gourmet” as applying to food, although the letter makes clear that Spinell uses the term more broadly to mean taste in all things, and, particularly, in choosing his wife. Plebeian also evokes a range of meanings: lower class, healthy and robust, of a non-aristocratic family, uneducated. These are phrases that are equally applicable in Europe or America, but in the latter the racial politics of class structure are more pronounced than in the setting of the story.

What sent me down this path was thinking what such a phrase would imply in twenty-first century America. The lack of a traditionally-titled aristocracy per se feeds into an American vision where we are all plebeian, particularly because technology has unmasked a great deal of the mystique of individuals who might have otherwise qualified. Some people have more money than others, but their foibles are exposed for the world to see, too. Some of these same technological innovations have leveled the playing field in terms of platform for people who aspire to participation in the cultural discussion and opened access to the “gourmet,” whether of clothes, essays, books, food, drink, etc. [Taste in people is something else, and I’ll leave that out since both parties have agency.] Certainly not everyone has access to the gourmet, and others choose deprivation from for reasons from philosophical to practical. In other cases, individuals of one temperament condescend those of another, for picayune reasons. The point is that, for most, “plebeian” is a baseline and the “gourmet” is an aspiration. In other words, “plebeian gourmet” is an archaic description, but not an antiquated one.

There are plenty of issues I’ve ignored here, from exploitation of labor in developing countries, to rape of the environment and the temptations of junk food. Spinell certainly sees himself (and Frau Klöterjahn, hence the tension of the story) as being better than other people on the virtue of their artistic sensibilities. The same fissures exist in the average high school, but if one were to hurl “plebeian gourmet” at another, even if actually believed, would be an affectation.

Let me confess to you, sir, that I hate you…You are the stronger man. In our struggle I have only one thing to turn against you, the sublime avenging weapon of the weak: intellect and the power of words. Today I have used this weapon. For this letter–here too let me make an honest admission–is nothing but an act of revenge; and if it contains even a single phrase that is biting and brilliant and beautiful enough to strike home, to make you aware of an alien force, to shake your robust equanimity even for one moment, then I shall exult in that discomfiture.

The Colors of Infamy – Albert Cossery

Honor is an abstract notion, invented like everything else by the dominant caste so that the poorest of the poor can boast about having a phantom good that costs no one anything.

Karamallah was most certainly the prophet of a great eccentric battle against the official agents of deceit.

Everyone with money is a thief, according to The Colors of Infamy, the question is whether that theft is sanctioned by the state. Ossama, a talented pickpocket has learned the secret to pilfering from the wealthy without arousing suspicion: look like a thief of their ilk. He dresses well and even the policemen treat him with deference as he steals the wallets from businessmen in the wealthy part of town. To an extent these earnings go toward supporting Ossama’s lifestyle, but he also uses them to support his father, a former worker who was blinded in a riot during the revolution and now believes his son has reaped the reward for his sacrifice, being promoted into the bureaucracy. Ossama lets him believe this delusion.

Ossama’s simple transactions with the wealthy are complicated when the wallet he takes has in it a letter from the corrupt minister’s brother to a developer whose cost-cutting measures led to the collapse of an apartment building with more than fifty people inside. Unsure of how to proceed, Ossama consults his mentor Nimr and Nimr’s former cell-mate, an eminent writer who now lives in a cemetery. Their conclusion is to seek confrontation.

The Colors of Infamy is Albert Cossery’s eighth and final novel, published in 1999, and the third I have read after The Jokers and Proud Beggars. All three novels are set in Cossery’s Egypt, with its sharp divide between the clean cafes and streets of the wealthy neighborhoods and the filthy slums, and share a consistent world-view. Colors strikes a tone between the irreverent comedy of The Jokers and nihilism of Proud Beggars, and offers an even clearer denunciation of the wealthy as criminal than either. The most likely explanation for this change is that Cossery’s novels, published over a period of six decades, have a general chronological framework. Thus, this one is set in the years after the revolution overthrew the dictator and so the problem is not military crackdown or inept bureaucrats, but the undue influence of money on the system. The result is that the man of infamy is the businessman not the politician.

The aspirations of his characters remain absurdist in their minimalism and all of the characters demonstrate a problematic relationship with women. Even so, Karamallah in particular amused me, with a female student attentively listening to his every word so that she could write a thesis about his philosophy, which includes the insistence that a diploma from an official institution is a ticket to slavery. Like other of Cossery’s heroes, Karamallah maintains that “the majority of humans aspired only to slavery,” whether slavery to money or family or institutions or the dream of those things.

At times Cossery can sound like a broken record as he fleshes out his characters in colorful fashion. At times in The Colors of Infamy it seemed I was reading the epitome of The Jokers, except without the humor and without the aspirations of the characters. In thinking that I was giving the slim story short shrift, particularly since there is an entirely different target of the derision in this novel. The fundamental inactivity stands in stark contrast to a world shown to be humming faster–out of happiness, according to the old worker, or a larger population, according to the thief– and, despite hope for amusement and enlightenment, there is a fatalism in Colors that disquieted me. One of the things I loved so much about The Jokers was a sense of ambition amidst the conviction of false reality. I do suspect, though, that the echoes from The Jokers are by design, as a deliberate callback to the older book in an updated setting.

In the end, Cossery’s penchant for imagery and description keeps me coming back. I may not agree with all of his philosophy, but I like the idea of walking down the sweltering street so repulsed that one cannot help but laugh and so convinced that nothing really matters that one must be happy.


In the next day or so I will also be posting a review of a collection of Thomas Mann short stories I finished last week but haven’t written yet. Up next for reading, I am going to take another crack at Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

Noonball Metrics

I love basketball. I like a lot of sports, including baseball, but there is just something about basketball, which I have been playing the vast majority of my life and have played, refereed, and coached that draws me back to it. I even once came to a philosophy concerning how I approach academia and my dissertation while ironing out an issue with my shot while shooting free throws one morning. One a little more spiritually minded might say the reverse is true now that I am a better shooter than at any other point in my life. I digress, but this is something that points to a great thing about basketball. In baseball you really need two people in order to even play catch. You need more for batting practice, and even more for a game. In basketball, one person with a ball can dribble around. With a hoop s/he can work on shooting. With two there is one on one, four is two on two, six is three on three. At four on four makes for a full-court game.

For the last few years, I have been playing in a competitive pickup game three days a week, from 11 until people have to leave–sometimes going as late as 2. We start once we have ten (provided we expect ten to show), on a first-come basis. People come in and out of the group, but there has been a consistent fifteen or twenty guys who reliably play. The game is 1s and 2s to 16, and the winners get to stay on to play the next team, with guys waiting on the sideline having first dibs on forming the new team. There are certainly shenanigans that take place in this game in terms of schoolyard tricks, people who either do not or can not play defense, and showboating, and it will sometimes devolve into shouting matches or people just lost on the court. However, I like the game because it is frequently of a high quality, running some semblance of an offense that varies between a fast-break secondary break, motion, and high screen and roll, with players who generally like to pass and work together, at least as much as can be expected without a coach. When it is all working it can be quite fun to see guys (who will admit when they arrive that they spent an hour that morning watching Golden State highlights) try make a pass they saw Steph Curry make.

Grantland ran an interesting story last year that talked about pickup basketball and the three pointer, in which it made the case that playing by 1s and 2s makes the deep ball worth significantly more than almost any other shot. Basically, players using that scoring system should basically only ever shoot deep or shoot layups because any shot in-between is statistically worth so much less. This is true in the game I play in, too, and there is always a sizing up period for new players to determine if their jump shot needs to be respected. The next step for the metrics would be to chart steals, turnovers, and rebounds (or, really, offensive rebounds given up), though these stats probably have a less-universal applicability.

The game I play in is very competitive. Some might say too competitive, since most days there is at least one shouting match about whether someone pushed someone else (they did, this is pickup), or who touched the ball last, or whether there was a travel. We even have had a few confrontations about moving screens, to which at least we can say there are enough screens to have this happen. But what has been interesting is to watch how the defenses develop.

Since there is actually some offense rather than just one on one play, the defenses have to keep up. Just like with offense, this works better when the teams are made up of players who know each other and who communicate and are therefore able to switch or trap opposing players, as well as knowing which shooters you can’t leave open. There is plenty of sloppy play on any given day and plenty of players who could be coached up, but just like with players willing to run a team offense, it is nice to see players play a team defense.

In short, I like this game a lot.

I’ll conclude, though, with my five NBA players I’d most enjoy see playing pickup basketball of the type I like–that is defenders who try and will put their bodies on the line, but aren’t going to block most shots, everyone can shoot threes, and are willing passers with a willingness to throw absurd passes. I considered either Karl-Anthony Townes or Anthony Davis for my fifth spot on the grounds that either would feast with the other players passing to them, but eventually decided against them because they didn’t fit my “shoot all the threes, block no shots” vision for pickup. My five are Manu Ginobili, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Boris Diaw.

King of Kings – Asfra-Wossen Asserate

Ras Tafari ruled Ethiopia as regent starting in 1916 and then under the regnal name Haile Selassie when he ascended to the position of Negusa Negast in 1930. His reign lasted until 1974 when the Derg, a council of military officers propelled by famine, military frustrations, and student protests ended the monarchy. This long reign—too long, according to the author—brought about remarkable change in Ethiopia, and Africa more broadly, but those changes quickly left the country behind. Yet, according to King of Kings, the many virtues of Haile Selassie’s rule only became evident in the bloody years of dictatorship, civil war, and now apartheid-esque federation that followed his death.

Descendants of the “House of David” were said to have ruled Ethiopia for three thousand years, but the political landscape of the country into which Ras Tafari was born in 1892 was a patchwork of semi-independent kingdoms all of which traced their descent from Solomon through the Queen of Sheba, with one of those ascending to the position of Negusa Negast. (The way tradition is presented by Asserate, this loose confederacy is actually a precondition of having a a singular Negusa Negast, since without kings underneath him, how could there be a king of kings?) The supreme leadership in Ethiopia was therefore not hereditary, but determined by political alliances, force of personality, and, importantly, the capabilities of each king’s personal army. Ras Tafari was born into a princely family and his father won renown for his role in the Battle of Adwa in 1896, but there were more powerful contenders in 1916 when a regent was chosen for the Empress Zauditu, the daughter of the former emperor Menelik. Ras Tafari was likely chosen because he was not a threat, either in terms of his land holdings or in terms of his physical build. However, his rivals clearly did not count on the young man’s political acumen, and he proceeded to rule the country for nearly six decades.

The Haile Selassie presented by Asfra-Wossen Asserate (whose grandfather was a cousin of H.S.), is a man of contradictions. For instance, he was liberal reformer determined to modernize the country in terms of schools, hospitals, and industry, one who introduced the first two constitutions to Ethiopia, who brought the country into the League of Nations, decried European colonization of Africa, tolerated religious differences, and help found the Organization of African unity. Yet, he used the constitution to centralize power in the absolutist monarchy, firmly believed that he was “The Elect of God,” a title he enshrined in the constitution. By this account, Haile Selassie was the best of paternalistic rulers: he was fair and just, generous with his people, including that he distributed money liberally, paid for students to study outside the country and guaranteed them jobs upon return, and lived frugally himself—-he even accepted the final coup without brutal crackdown. But he also resisted endowing representational bodies with any actual power and became increasingly paranoid about delegating power at all after an attempted coup in 1960 that his oldest son cooperated with. Simultaneously progressive and regressive, Haile Selassie believed himself to be the country and, for a time, he was.

The picture presented here is that Ethiopia was rent apart by two divergent forces, liberalism and conservatism, that, for a time, were successfully united in the person of Haile Selassie to allow modernization. The crisis that precipitated Ras Tafari’s rise to the regency exemplifies these tensions. His cousin, Lij Iyasu, who shared some of the same liberal tendencies (though they evidently hated one another), was designated (though never crowned) emperor of Ethiopia. The monarch was supposed to be chosen by God, but one of the requirements was that he had to belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which, in turn, supported the institution of the monarchy. Lij Iyasu was accused, libelously, of converting to Islam, probably because he endorsed laws upholding some version of freedom of religion. The deeply conservative kings and princes used this as an opportunity to supplant him and raise a man they thought would be more malleable. Of course, they succeeded in empowering a man whose political acumen was greater than his cousin and was able to push a liberal modernizing program in a deeply conservative way.

Asfa-Wossen Asserate suggests that a more flexible monarch and possible a younger one who was willing to accept a constitutional monarchy would have led Ethiopia in a radically different direction. He describes the final coup as taking place slowly over a matter of months where the opposition groups maintained a great deal of reverence for the monarchy, but the monarchy did not change and when they made their first slow attempt on the palace, the whole monarchic system fell apart without resistance and without any popular support.

I went into this book knowing next to nothing about Ethiopia. I can locate it on a map, don’t like their coffee, and a scattered handful of facts like the Italian use of chemical weapons there in the 1930s, but that is it. I came out of King of Kings knowing a little bit more about Ethiopia and a lot more about Haile Selassie. Asfa-Wossen Asserate is at his best when he is teasing out the intrigues within the highest echelon of Ethiopian society, including the royal families, the major players within the army, and the civil service that came into being. In particularly, he does a nice job of charting H.S.’s rise to power and how he managed to position Ethiopia within a radically changing world of colonialism and the early Cold War. However, the accounts of revolts and foreign invasions do not provide a good sense of space and the maps are of limited help. Particularly, I wanted to know more about the regional conflicts within Ethiopia and how these issues contributed to Haile Selassie first gaining and then losing support. As it stands, when someone disappoints H.S., they are dispatched from Addis Ababa to the outer reaches of the Empire and largely cease to matter. These frequently are issues with biography, but my problem with it here was that Asfa-Wossen Asserate had a tendency to overuse shorthands like “student protests” without offering any actual details about the movements.

At times the writing can be a little bit casual and forty page chapters without any sort of section break made King of Kings difficult to read at times. Still, Haile Selassie jumps out of these pages as a remarkable individual who helped guide his country through great upheaval.

What is Making me Happy – Podcasts

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

I have a wildly erratic relationship with music—I like it on in the background and like obscure groups, but only recently started listening to complete albums and don’t ever keep up with recent releases. I also don’t listen to audiobooks, partly because they require too much commitment, partly because I like physical books, partly because I aspire to making enough money to keep the physical book publishing industry alive just with my own purchases. In the place of books–since this is the void it would fill–I listen to a wide range of podcasts, even after I recently unsubscribed from several that have too many piled up episodes. These range from sports teams or sports I like, to more general intellectual or artistic interviews and discussion roundtables. Some of my favorites on my long list are favorites specifically because they are tailor made for people of my given interests, deep-dives into relatively narrow topics that I just happen to love. Others are wider and more likely to bounce from topic to topic. There was a confluence of releases on Friday that dropped something ten individual episodes in a single day–including old standbys and several podcasts that are new or restored ventures by producers I like. While overwhelming, this deluge gave me a moment to reflect on these shows and, by extension, give a few recommendations.

The Jonah Keri Podcast : Jonah Keri has been one of my favorite baseball columnists for quite some time, and I was particularly sad to see his baseball podcast go away when his run at Grantland/ESPN ended. His podcast is back, on the Nerdist, of all places. The new venture is not specifically focused on baseball, though that certainly features prominently, but is a long-form interview podcast about sports and life. His first two, with guests Chris Hardwick and Keith Olbermann, respectively, are not strictly focused on sports, but are thoughtful conversations. Any show like this will be somewhat informed by the guests it brings on, but I like listening to both of the first two guests tell stories and it was really the return of this podcast that inspired this post. I am somewhat wary about podcast bloat—that podcasts seem to finally be embracing that they are not bound by radio time slots and therefore run long—but as long as the conversation is one I am interested in, that is fine.

The Lowe Post : A more sports-centric podcast, Zach Lowe is my favorite NBA writer and one of the main reasons why my interest in the NBA is waxing again. Lowe’s podcasts are another interview show, but specifically focused on individuals associated with the NBA, including players, coaches, former coaches, and writers, and will sometimes go into the nitty-gritty of tactics on the court, trade speculation, player personalities, the art of creating an interesting story, and major news stories. It is a catch-all discussion of the NBA, and the only podcast of its sort I will make a blanket-recommendation for.

The Watch and Pop Culture Happy Hour : The Watch is Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald’s podcast on the Bill Simmons Podcast Network, in large part rebooting Grantland’s Hollywood Prospectus. In this show they talk about the happenings in television, but have started talking more about movies and music now that Greenwald is not first and foremost a television critic. They frequently discuss shows and music I haven’t seen, but I listen regularly anyway. Pop culture Happy Hour likewise covers music, tv, movies, and (to a lesser extent) books, generally in the form of specific topic, general topic, and then a segment of recommendations. (In contrast, The Watch tends to be just talking about shows that are relatively current and that they want to talk about; there is planning involved, but it is not nearly as formulaic.) These two are in the same category because they are my two standbys for discussion of pop culture. I like both, even when they talk about culture I don’t consume because they remind me of conversations with friends that I rarely have these days, ones that are thoughtful and playful. More than even the topic, I think it helps that the people on the shows remind me of friends near and far and I just like the conversation.

There are many others I like, including the podcast version of Fresh Air and BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg, but I am a little pickier about which ones I listen to simply because the topics covered don’t always hold my attention. In contrast, the ones above I listen to regardless of topic.

This barely scratches the surface of my podcast list, but I am also open to suggestions. If there are particularly good shows I ought to be listening to, please share.***

***I have not listened to Serial, I have been told I should listen to Serial, I don’t know that I ever will listen to Serial. However, it is on my radar.

Conquered City – Victor Serge

Peter is the model and precursor of the Revolution. Remember this: “Constraint makes all things happen.” He founded industries, ministries, an army, a fleet, a capital, customs, by means of edicts and executions. He gave the order to cut off the beards, to dress European-style, to open this window on Europe in the Ingrian swamps. The earth was bare, but he said, “Here will rise a city.” He caned his courtiers, drank like a trooper, and ended his life full of suspicion, doubt, and anguish, smelling treason everywhere (and it was everywhere, like today), trusting no one but his grand inquisitor, thinking even of striking the Empress. And he was right. he left a country depopulated in places, bleeding and moaning under the effort, but St. Petersburg was built! And he is still the Great, the greatest, because he hounded the old Russian, even his own son, because he wrenched this ignorant, passive, bloated old country around toward the future the way you pull up a restive horse with bit and spurs. I hear an echo of his edicts in today’s decrees. All this can even be expressed in Marxist terms: the rise of the new classes.

Zvereva took this blow without batting an eye. She knew you had to swallow many affronts before being able to inflict them in turn.

I know that the gallows has a way of making quite suitable heroes out of rather insipid spawn.

When spring comes to a shattered and starving city full of sullen, terrified, and defeated people, young lovers still walk along the river, holding hands and kissing beneath green trees. Amid Conquered City‘s grueling narrative about the defense of St. Petersburg 1919-1920 that unfolds over the course of a year, this is a placid moment. These handful of pages are reminiscent of Orwell’s “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” which is a reflection on the resilience of nature in London, 1940, but unlike Orwell’s exhortation to enjoy the turning of the seasons, Serge plunges his city back into war. Even in this rare moment of human tenderness, bitterness and jealousy infect the scene. Winter comes again.

Victor Serge lived an interesting life–born in Belgium to Russian revolutionary exiles, he participated in revolutionary movements across Europe, including in St. Petersburg in 1919, and was frequently imprisoned for his activities. He also opposed the rise of Stalin and went again into exiles for that stance, eventually dying in Mexico where he received asylum. Originally published in French, Conquered City is a novelization of his time in St. Petersburg, defending the conquered city of the Czars against the counter-revolutionary White army.

Each chapter of Conquered City is a vignette of the siege, each one moving forward in time, sometimes just a few minutes, sometimes a few months. To the extent that there is an overarching plot to the novel, it is an ongoing effort on the part of the authorities on the one hand to encourage unfed and unrewarded workers to keep working and fighting and, on the other, their repeated sweeps of the city to uncover subversive or treasonous plots. Unlike accounts of the revolutionary movements in, for instance, Spain, where the despair is underpinned by determination, Serge shows the workers despondent and the exhortations of the leaders successful, but hollow. However, while this persistent concern is important in the depiction of the siege, the other arm of the narrative, the tracking down and eliminating opponents is the plot that actually keeps the story pushing forward.

At the outset of the story, there are individuals who do not necessarily support the revolution, including the Professor Lytaev, but there is no evidence of plots everywhere. Nevertheless the leadership is convinced that they exist; the lower-ranked comrades are less certain that there are outside conspirators, but they are going to scrutinize their colleagues for weaknesses. Perhaps they are traitors, but perhaps they have just left themselves vulnerable to be torn down for the gain of others. The narrative is relentless and the characters opportunistic and petty, and Serge demonstrates the stratification of resources—who gets to have clean undergarments, for instance—in a city where the palaces of the Czars have been divided up into ministerial offices.

I am light on both plot and characters because Conquered City, while offering some specifics, is more impressionistic, rather like The Case of Comrade Tulayev, which follows the unfolding of a Stalinist era purge. While Richard Greeman, the translator of this edition, describes Conquered City as part of a “cycle of revolution” and places Tulayev with a later “cycle of resistance,” the characterization is influenced by the topic rather than the message. Serge may be accurately portraying the vicious infighting in St. Petersburg in 1919, but the portrayal of a bittersweet victory seems tinged by the Stalinist era, perhaps because it was written while Serge wrote it while imprisoned in the Soviet Union in 1930/1.

In sum, Conquered City was an intellectually interesting novel that had its moments, but I did not find it as moving as The Case of Comrade Tulayev. It is certainly part of an extensive collection of revolutionary and oppressionistic literature that features prominently in twentieth century European literature. I have a number of these novels still on my reading list, including Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt, Gunter Gräss’ Tin Drum, and Klaus Mann’s Mephisto, and, having been pleasantly surprised by Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, I am not willing to entirely write these off. Yet, I am once again starting to glance about for other types of narratives.


Next up, I am currently reading a biography of the Ethiopian king Haile Selassie titled King of Kings and a collection of short stories by Thomas Mann.