The Muse of Lecture

Programming Note: I have been particularly busy of late so my reading has bogged down and substantive post-worthy thoughts are coming in fits and starts, so while there are some things in the works, things are going to remain irregular for the foreseeable future.

I have been thinking a lot about lectures recently because I have been tasked with a bunch of guest lectures, some scheduled, some emergency. Everyone has their own lecture styles, sometimes more than one depending on the type of class. Some are impressionistic, with good information, but refer students to sources where specific information is to be had. Some read from overloaded slides or march the audience through topic after topic, while others have detailed historiographical essays that they spin out as master storytellers.

Everyone needs to find their lecturing style and, ideally, have their muse. My lecturing style is still immature and improving, but I thought I should make mention of the person I consider my muse of the lecture.

Picture this. You arrive to class somewhat early and get out your notebook to make sure that you can write down the lists of names and terms being written up on the blackboard. Sometimes the professor is there writing down the terms, other times it is a TA, but, without fail, there is the list. Some terms, he says, are purely to help with spelling. Other than an occasional map, this will be the only aid and the extensive bank of terms doubles as the study guide for the exams. It is important that you arrive early and start writing because the lecture begins as soon as the class starts and you can’t risk missing anything that is said. When the period is over, your hand is cramped and it is entirely possible that you will need extra sheets of paper for your notebook before the semester is over, but you will have everything you need.

The scene should be familiar to most Brandeis history majors, at least if they took a course from Professor William Kapelle. Everyone has their Kapelle stories, and he certainly had plenty for you. I remember, for instance, a mini-diatribe about the international seafood market and one about the fine print of credit card offers. But then class began, sometimes with an apology if we had to have a lecture about agricultural changes in the Middle Ages, sometimes with no prologue. At one point while I was at Brandeis he began to write his lectures in exam bluebooks, declaring that it was the perfect length for a 50 minute class. In either case, he had a topic of the day and spun it out for a captivated audience of furiously-writing students. There were snarky asides, stories, and jokes, but the lectures were informative and detailed. I still have my lecture notes from his classes.

I owe a debt to Professor Kapelle, including for his willingness to write reference letters that got me into graduate school, but, the more I prepare to teach classes, the more I realize that it is his model that I start from in terms of how I want to lecture.

The Human Division – John Scalzi

I finished this book a few weeks ago and this is the last of the backlogged reviews, if only because life has gotten in the way of my reading.

Every book in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War universe is quite a lot of fun, being smart, clever, and modern military sci-fi. The core premise of the universe is that humanity spread out into the universe under the guiding hand of the Colonial Union and subsequently ran into other races that are stronger, smarter, or more technologically advanced, not to mention pissed that humans are spreading into their territory. To counter these problems, the Colonial Union kept the earth in a sort of stasis in terms of technology, collecting colonists from third-world countries and recruiting soldiers from the elderly in first-world countries. The soldiers do not, of course, keep their old bodies, but instead have their consciousnesses transferred into genetically enhanced bodies with computers in their heads giving them both a wealth of experience and bodies that give them a fighting chance against aliens (though mortality rates are still exceptionally high).

Now the Colonial Union has a problem. Their longstanding scheme to use earth as a source of manpower has been exposed and the people of Earth are furious at being used. The next installment in the series, The Human Division, explores the consequences of this rift.

The Human Division focuses on the exploits of CDF (Colonial Defense Forces) Lieutenant Harry Wilson, his human assistant Hart Schmidt, and Ambassador Abumwe. The first story, aptly named “The B-Team,” sets the tone for the book. When a diplomatic mission goes sideways and a star negotiator and her entire team are killed, the Colonial Union turns to the only available alternative. Abumwe’s team rarely gets things done in the most elegant fashion, but they get results. In these dangerous times, results are all that matter and so the team is assigned to missions where success is desired, but not at all expected.

The Human Division was originally serialized, released in digital form over the course of months in 2013. The project was well-received at the time (I followed the discussion a bit on Twitter), but I only read it in the overall book form. In this project, Scalzi talked about the challenges of writing standalone episodes that also formed a complete novel. While there are some hallmarks of serialization, such as noticeable time-lapses and some skipping around in viewpoints, but each individual episode is a fun story and there is a compelling arc for the entire novel, wherein the recurring characters develop their relationships.

I recommend that people start with the earlier books in the series. It is military sci-fi and, subsequently, tends to be an action romp, but one that carries with it clever dialogue, smart world building, and a progressive message. The action and quip-filled dialogue can threaten to make the characters come across as shallow, but Scalzi injects real emotional depth and real stakes even while the stories remain light and fast-moving.

Life has gotten in the way of my reading recently, between teaching, grading, writing, and job applications, but I am still working through and quite enjoying Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. After that the future is hazy, but I am particularly excited by Ken Liu’s The Wall of Storms, which arrived in the mail yesterday.

Foundation and Empire – Isaac Asimov

The second of what my edition still somewhat quaintly refers to as “the foundation trilogy,” Foundation and Empire picks up the centuries-long epic from where the first book left off. Since I didn’t do an actual review of Foundation, I should recap. In the waning days of the Galactic Empire, the great psycho-historian Hari Seldon foresaw that he needed to found two foundations on the outer reaches of the galaxy, each preserving science and culture. These two settlements would be governed not by the fickleness of self-interested actors, but by the principles of psycho-history, namely that there are underlying forces in societies that may be manipulated to ensure prosperity. Through careful guidance, Seldon’s vision steers the first Foundation through a series of crises. In due time the Foundation exploits its advanced technology and privileged position to wield an economic hegemony on the outer reaches of the galaxy while the empire from whence it sprang crumbles.

Foundation and Empire tells two periods in Foundation’s history, both times when the leaders turn away from Seldon, despite an expected crisis. The first is a showdown with the Galactic Empire, in which the Empire is hopelessly outmatched by the superior technology. The second is a more dire threat because it combines two dangers, the inevitable (sic) crisis between a government that is becoming hereditary and independent-minded traders who value personal freedom, along with an unforeseen crisis in the form of a mutant warlord called The Mule. The powers of The Mule are a threat to the future foreseen by Seldon, but neither is he omnipotent, and while the first Foundation falls, the race to find Second Foundation is on.

I continue to be intrigued by the Foundation series. As a historian, it is an interesting idea for a science-fiction epic and Asimov does a good job at changing how the characters manifest as the society changes. At the same time, I found Foundation and Empire to be wildly uneven, speeding through some developments and dragging past others. I also found some of the reveals about The Mule rather predictable, and, while there were some interesting observations about unforeseen variables and the role of the individual, the novel came to a close without actually resolving much of anything. I enjoyed the read and will read Second Foundation, but I found the lack of resolution frustrating.

Next up, I still have to review John Scalzi’s entertaining The Human Division and I am currently reading Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.

War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

But Petersburg’s daily round – tranquil, luxurious, concerned only with phantoms and reflections of life – continued as before, so that it was not easy, and needed a determined effort, to form any true idea of the peril and the difficulty in which the Russian nation was placed.

Now that he was telling it all to Natasha he experienced the rare happiness men know when women listen to them – not clever women who when they listen are either trying to assimilate what they hear for the sake of enriching their minds and, when opportunity offers, repeating it, or to apply what is told them to their own ideas and promptly bring out clever comments elaborated in their own little mental workshop; but the happiness true women give who are endowed with the capacity to select and absorb all that is best in what a man shows of himself.

Recently I heard an advertisement for a new War and Peace cable miniseries that touted the story as being the greatest novel ever written. I have also seen that printed elsewhere, and while I would not go that far, I did come away with a deep appreciation for Tolstoy’s epic. Once upon a time I had tried to read War and Peace but got lost and gave up; this time around I persevered and, much to my surprise, found it to be a relatively easy read. There is just a lot of book. As in, more than once I looked up at the page number only to despair that after four hundred pages of story, there were still more thousand left to go. But, each time, the number of pages remaining steadily decreased and, lo, War and Peace came to an end.

War and Peace is too enormous to encapsulate in this review, but I am going to try.

Fundamentally, the story of War and Peace traces the conflict between Napoleon Bonaparte and Russian Tsar Alexander I in war and in peace from 1805 until 1812. Tolstoy presents the conflict as a struggle that the Russian people came to with religious fervor, with the eventual defeat of Napoleon treated with providential reverence.

The narrative unfolds from the perspective of members of the Russian aristocracy who are drawn into the conflict. Some of the lesser characters, such as the tragic Vasily Denisov and valiant little Captain Tushin are among the most memorable, but the story is best understood as following the intersection between two triads, one male, one female. The three men are Pierre Besuhov, Andrei Bolkonsky, and Nikolai Rostov, the women Maria Bolkonsky, Natasha Rostov, and Helene Bezuhov (neé Kuragin). Pierre, the adopted heir to his wealthy, natural father, is one of the heroes of the story, experiencing multiple awakenings as he strives to be the best he can be, often without luck. His wife, Helene, is a Europeanized woman, dressing and acting in scandalous ways, while, in contrast, the other two women exemplify Russian virtues. Natasha is at times flighty, but is the embodiment of beauty and innocence, while Maria embodies religious and family virtue. Their brothers similarly take on the mantle of virtues: Nikolai the (annoying) fervent passion for Russia and the Emperor even as he matures through the story, and Andrei modern European values that evidently are only a virtue in men. War and Peace traces the story of these six characters and their friends and acquaintances.

In lieu of a recap (there is war, peace, war, peace, war again, culminating in the capture of Moscow and French retreat), I want to give a few observations I had about War and Peace

First there was a preoccupation with money. Nearly every character was Russian nobility, and the sheer repetition of “prince” in my translation became tiresome, but few characters were actually financially solvent so money is one way Tolstoy drives them together and apart. On the one hand, it is effective, ratcheting up the tension in the various liaisons, but, on the other, it also repeatedly struck me as ironic given that the book is about a particularly privileged class of Russian society that Tolstoy praises for benevolent paternalism.

Second, one of the running themes as War and Peace goes along is the importance of Moscow as the “Asiatic Capital” of the Russian nation, which Tolstoy offers as the reason that it was Napoleon’s target. Now, Moscow likely did have that much symbolic significance, but it kept striking me that Moscow was not the administrative capital of Russia, Petersburg was. The result, which I don’t know enough whether to credit to Tolstoy, is a dissonance between reality and how the characters talk with reference to the importance of the city. For the Bolkonskys, anyway, Moscow is significant because Napoleon’s line of advance passes directly through their ancestral estates.

Third, some of the most moving scenes from my perspective came during the battles. The characters talk about past battles and great heroes who actions save the state, but their actual experiences are narrated from a tight third-person perspective which turns the battles into noisy, bloody, confusing affairs that, more often than not, leave the participants scared and confused.

Fourth, for all of the sexism, classism, and bias that pervades War and Peace,there are a remarkable number of eternal truths, from the terror of battle, to the advice quoted at the start of this piece, to take the best of what your partner has to offer. There’s a lengthy tirade against historians in the second epilogue, something that is foreshadowed by intermittent asides that might be the result of serial publication, but there isn’t one overarching message in this memorialization of the Russian triumph over France and the west. Instead, the story is pregnant with these moments of profundity as each of the characters tries to do what he or she believes to be best.

In sum, not what I would call the best novel of all time, but well worth reading.

I have still been reading, but the start of the semester and all that accompanies that have caused me to fall somewhat behind on reviews. I recently finished Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Empire and John Scalzi’s The Human Division, and am now onto Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. I may be playing catchup for a while, but thoughts on those books are coming.

Trump, taxes, and me

Back in 2012 I wrote a post kvetching about the political discourse concerning taxes. The issue was about the income tax and, specifically, Romney’s infamous 47% comment. At the time, the debate focused on whether the people who don’t pay income tax remain invested in the system. Most people were implying “no”, but I argued that they still pay taxes, in the form of property, sales, and payroll taxes. The only difference is that when tax-day rolls around, they do not owe anything else and often get a refund. These other taxes, which pay for roads and schools, and the refund itself—which means that they prepaid the taxes and are getting it back—mean that they are still invested in the system.

Now it is 2016 and one of the presidential candidates is a) refusing to release his tax returns and b) defending himself against accusations. After the New York Times published a tax form that showed nine hundred and fifteen million dollars in losses and alleged it was Donald Trump’s 1995 filing, the Trump campaign put out a press release. In it they defended the allegation that Trump didn’t need to pay taxes for 18 years because of this one huge loss, pointing out that it was only the federal income tax that was exempted and that Trump has paid millions of dollars in sales/property/excise/etc taxes. (We’ll ignore the statement about charitable giving that is, by most accounts, at best an exaggeration.) In other words, it is okay that Trump doesn’t pay federal income tax because he pays other taxes, just like everyone else. Note that the release does not directly claim that Trump is smarter than other people for not paying taxes, as he did in the debate, nor does it suggest that the tax dollars would be wasted.

The claim in the press release should be familiar after reading the two paragraphs. Other than the scale, it is the same argument I put forward in 2012 to say that not paying income tax is not the same thing as not being invested in the system. Unlike in 2012, the question is never whether or not Trump is invested in the system. Trump’s not paying income tax does not mean that he is not invested in the system, pardon the negatives. Trump wants to be invested in the system so that he can work the system, as his campaign claims about his intimate familiarity of the tax code or the blunt statements that he made political donations to get a seat at the table.

Nor, I should add, am I saying that he should pass up loopholes in the system, though I would prefer to close some of these exemptions. Right now I am talking about optics and discourse. Trump’s statement makes only a vague argument from the tax code, with an ambiguous claim to fix(sic) it.

Trump’s defense for not paying income tax is the same one that can be used in defense of people without money. The concrete position is I pay other taxes, so why is it a problem that I get out of paying income tax?. It is this doublethink that is stuck in my craw: the fact that when people who can barely afford food and shelter don’t pay income taxes they lack buy-in to the system, while a very wealthy person who doesn’t pay income taxes and defends it the same way the poorer people should, it makes him smart. I don’t want to get into the value judgement about what is equitable, but this sort of benefit of the doubt is certainly a privilege of the wealthy.

Could be me

Balashev found Davoust seated on a barrel in the shed of a peasant’s hut, writing – he was auditing accounts. An adjutant stood near him. Better quarters could have been found for him, but Marshal Davoust was one of those men who purposely make the conditions of life as uncomfortable for themselves as possible in order to have an excuse for being gloomy. For the same reason they are always hard at work and in a hurry. ‘How can I think of the bright side of existence when, as you see, I sit perched on a barrel in a dirty shed, hard at work?’ the expression of his face seemed to say. The chief satisfaction and requirement of such people is to make a great parade of their own dreary, persistent activity, whenever they encounter anyone enjoying life. Davoust allowed himself that gratification when Balashev was brought in. He buried himself more deeply than ever in his work when the Russian general entered, and after a glance through his spectacles at Balashev’s face, which was animated by the beauty of the morning and his talk with Murat, he did not rise, did not stir even, but scowled more bleakly than before and smiled malignantly.

Okay, the title is a bit of an exaggeration, but, when I read this passage aloud to my girlfriend, she exclaimed “it’s you!” I took most of Tolstoy’s characterizations in War and Peace with a grain of salt, but I’ve always had a soft spot for The Iron Marshal. This passage just feeds that fondness.

Thermopylae in literature, War and Peace

Maybe it was that I read Stephen Pressfield’s Gates of Fire on the recommendation of my eighth grade social studies teacher, well before I settled on Greek history as a primary field of study and certainly before I had any inkling that graduate school in history was a thing, but Thermopylae has fascinated me for more than half of my life. I have a soft spot for heroism and for desperate last-stands, so the command μολὼν λαβέ (come and take them!) in the right context* gives me chills. As a scholar, the battle perplexes me; I simultaneously don’t believe Herodotus’ version of Leonidas’ sacrifice being at the root of the decision to sacrifice these soldiers and find it the most plausible. Nothing else has convinced me, except that there may be too many levels of myth surrounding the events to ever actually unravel what happened. I don’t mean to get too deeply into Thermopylae, particularly while I am still working on my dissertation in which the battle never comes up, but suffice to say that it is an event that still intrigues me.

*i.e. not when it is a call to arms against gun control.

This background for my interest in Thermopylae is relevant because reference to the battle appeared in a recent non-academic read, War and Peace. What follows is also the first of an occasional series I am going to do talking about instances of classical reception.

The officer with the twin moustaches, Zdrzhinsky by name, grandiloquently described the dam at Saltanov as being a ‘Russian Thermopylae’, and declared the heroic deed of Greneral Raevsky on that dam to be worthy on antiquity…

Rostov looked at him without speaking. ‘To begin with, there must have been such a crush and confusion on the dam they were attacking that if Raevsky had really rushed forward with his sons it could have had no effect except perhaps on the ten or twelve men nearest to him,’ thought Rostov. ‘The rest could not have seen how or with whom Raevsky advanced on to the dam. And then even those who did see could have have been particularly inspired, for what did Raevsky’s tender paternal feelings matter to them when they had their own skins to the think about? And, moreover, the fate of the Fatherland did not depend on whether the Saltanov dam was taken, as we are told was the case at Thermopylae. So what was the use of such a sacrifice?’

There is a lot to unravel about this passage, including how Tolstoy talks about war, which is something I want to explore when I get around to reviewing the novel in the near future. But for now I just want to make two observations.

First it struck me that while the overly-enthusiastic Zdrzhinsky is capable of citing Thermopylae and knows that the battle was important in the final defeat of an invader, he is does not know all of the details. “Thermopylae” is just a symbol for him, pregnant with meaning but devoid of context.

Second, and related, Rostov provides some of that context and I think offers an some insight into Tolstoy’s vision of the interplay between providence and history. His vision of Thermopylae still lacks the Greek cultural context, but gives some broader historical context, namely that the sacrifice was a divine mandate to save Greece, while the battle at Saltanov was an individual moment of foolish heroism of the sort that happens all the time in war but still miss greater purpose. Ironically, I believe that some of the legend and importance of Thermopylae developed out of hindsight, i.e. that since the Greeks won they were able to point at the battle as an important moment. Like Xerxes, Napoleon is defeated, but gone is that glorious moment.