Isocrates, on corrupt politicians

“For a long time now we have been corrupted by men who have no other ability than to cheat, men who are so disdainful of the mass of ordinary people that whenever they want to incite hostilities against anyone, these men who take money to speak,* they dare to say that we need to imitate our ancestors, not allow those looking on to mock us, and deny the sea to those who are unwilling to pay us their contributions.”

*Probably that they accepted bribes.

διεφθάμεθα γὰρ πολὺν ἤδη χρόνον ὑπ᾽ἀνθρώπων οὐδὲν ἀλλ᾽ἢ φενακίζειν δυναμἐνων, οἳ τοσοῦντον τοῦ πλήθους καταπεφρονήκασιν ὥσθ᾽, ὁπόταν βουληθῶσι πόλεμον πρός τινας ἐξενεγκεῖν, αύτοὶ χρήματα λαμβάνοντες λέγειν τολμῶσιν ὡς χρὴ τοὺς προγόνους μιμεῖσθαι, καὶ μὴ περιορᾶν ἡμᾶς αὐτοὺς καταγελωμένους μηδὲ τὴν θάλατταν πλέοντας τοὺς μὴ τὰς συντάξεις ἐθέλοντας ἡμῖν ὑποτελεῖν.

Isocrates, 8.36

The Greek world was particularly unstable in the 350s BCE and Athens had long since lost most of its dominant position in the Aegean. In this decade, Isocrates, already the Grand Old Man of the Athenian political scene, published his On the Peace, which is dedicated to the virtues of peace. He goes on to ask these politicians what, exactly, they mean by emulating their ancestors and suggesting several possibilities, including the battle of Marathon, which was nearly as long ago in his time as is the American Civil War is to this time. Isocrates then attacks the hypocrisy of these politicians who simultaneously heap praise upon their ancestors and act in the opposite manner.

Isocrates should not be mistaken for a bleeding heart in On The Peace. He can be high-minded in his values, but the overriding concern in this speech is the preservation of Athens and the Athenian democracy. Toward that end, he is unflinching in his opposition of politicians who put their private interests ahead of the state.

“We may restore the polis and make it better, first by appointing as advisors the sort of men for common affairs as those we would wish for our private ones, that we may stop considering sycophants* as public councilors and the men who are good and true** to be of the oligarchic faction, recognizing that no man belongs by nature to one of these, but for each they wish to establish the type of government that will accord them honor.”***

* Here, in the root sense of the word as prosecutors who took up court cases in the hopes of currying favor or receiving money.
** A loaded Greek phrase that probably holds both the meaning of the people in the aristocratic strata of society and “good people”.
*** Honor here is somewhat ambiguous, but probably best encapsulates advancing their political power and, with it, opportunities for economic enhancement.

ἔστι δ᾽ἐξ ὧν ἂν ἐπανορθώσαιμεν τὰ τῆς πόλεως καὶ βελτίω ποιήσαιμεν, πρῶτον μὲν ἢν συμβούλους ποιώμεθα τοιούτους περὶ τῶν κοινῶν, οἵους περ ἂν περὶ τῶν ἰδίων ἡμῖν εἶναι βουληθεῖμεν, καὶ παυσὠμεθα δημοτικοὺς μὲν εἶναι νομίζοντες τοὺς συκοφάντας, ὀλιγαρχικοὺς δὲ τοὺς καλοὺς κἀγαθοὺς τῶν ἀνδρῶν, γνόντες ὅτι φύσει μὲν οὐδεὶς οὐδέτερον τοὐτων ἐστίν, ἐν ᾗ δ᾽ἂν ἕκαστοι τιμῶνται, ταύτην βούλονται καθεστάναι τὴν πολιτείαν.

Isocrates, 8.133

The End of Days – Jenny Erpenbeck

The customs of man are like footholds carved into inhumanity, she thinks, something a person who’s been shipwrecked can clutch at to pull himself up, and nothing more. How much better it would be, she thinks, if the world were ruled by chance and not a God.

Shame, then, is the price one pays for this life of freedom, or is this itself the freedom: that shame no longer matters. Then America really must be Paradise.

Even before this, she’d thought at times that deprivation made people more alike, made their movements, down to the gestures of their hands and fingers even more predictable.

A unnamed female child dies in 1900, in a small village in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This child was born to a Jewish woman and an Catholic civil servant thrust together by events that included the murder of the girl’s grandfather by Poles. Her death tears apart the unlikely couple, but could it have gone differently?

The End of Days is a beautiful, powerful novel divided into five books, each of which is centered on the death of the same mostly unnamed woman. Some, like the first, open with her death and explore how this causes things to unravel, while others, like the second, build toward her death. Her lives and deaths offer a portrait of the twentieth century in these five vignettes: rural Galicia, Vienna after World War One, Moscow during the purges in the 1930s, East Berlin in the 1960s, and finally Berlin in the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The five deaths are bound together by intermezzos that each ask how things could have gone differently, unraveling the events that led to her death and weaving out a new continuation that leads, inevitably, to a different future and a new death.

There is an exploration of the Butterfly Effect, but only in limited ways. Each of the deaths is treated as a confluence of unfortunate events, some with intent and some by accident, but instead of looking at how grand events might have changed, The End of Days focuses treats this one, unnamed woman’s life as the collision point of all the ripples. Thus, the question is: how might this one woman have lived on and how might she have died next.

Each of the other pasts lives on as a dim, mostly forgotten memory of a possible past had things gone differently, and this interplay between remembering and forgetting forms one of the dominant themes in The End of Days. From the outset, unnamed protagonist’s mother does not know her father. He was murdered by Poles and the couple’s treasured collected works of Goethe damaged, but her mother never tells this story either to her daughter or to her granddaughter, while their Jewish heritage is supplanted by marxism, modernism, and German culture. Of course, devotion to Goethe is insufficient to save one from concentration camps. The cycle repeats when the protagonist crafts an autobiography meant to save her from a Siberian labor camp and when she constructs a new past for her son’s absent father. History weighs down every character The End of Days. Yet they find themselves untethered from their family’s past and therefore lacking a sound foundation to appreciate that history.

It would not be entirely untoward to call The End of Days morbid since there a heavy pall of death lingers over the whole novel, but there is a clear affection for this unnamed woman that makes her repeated deaths poignant. In each book, she aspires to live in the shadow of massive events, but her struggles are mundane: to breathe, to find herself as a teen, newly in love and fighting with her mother, to find her husband, to raise a child as a single mother, to reconcile herself to a world changed once more.

These few words do not do justice to how much I loved The End of Days. There is a raw brutality to the story that is bound by tenderness. Time and again I found myself rereading sentences and paragraphs, just lingering on the questions posed or statements offered, including the examples that open the post. This is not to say that The End of Days is limited to one-line quips about modernity. The story builds to each of these observations as a climax before receding slightly and building up again, in a microcosm of how the book as a whole builds to a climax and then unwinds so that it can build up again. The result is an overlapping portrait of a century in Eastern Europe. This is a book I cannot recommend highly enough.

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Next up, I am rereading Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We.

Chaos and Night – Henry de Montherlant

The Spanish Civil War is long-since concluded, the Republican forces defeated. For the past twenty years an old anarchist, Don Celestino, has lived in France with his daughter, daring not return lest he be executed. So he remains in Paris, haunted by memories of the war, writing political tracts, and feeling betrayed by his ex-patriot friends. Then his sister dies in Madrid. Don Celestino feels obliged to return to the world of his aristocratic lineage and so arranges to take his daughter back to their native country for the first time with two objectives: to sort out the inheritance and to get to go to the bullfights one last time.

Chaos and Night is a modern reinterpretation on the story of Don Quixote. In place of an illness, though, Don Celestino is overcome by a peculiar mixture of paranoia and nostalgia. His paranoia is obvious: his actions during the war leave him at risk should he ever return to Spain. His nostalgia requires more explanation. Don Celestino has been fighting the same fight in his head for the past two decades but, for all practical purposes, there is no revolution anymore. His windmills are the ideological opponents that exist only in his head. Consequently, when Don Celestino returns to Spain, he is horrified by the country’s modernization, most notably in the dilution of the bullfighting tradition. While Don Celestino lives in his memories every day, the citizens of Spain seem determined to forget. His daughter, on the other hand, relishes the opportunity to escape Don Celestino’s mental prison.

There were aspects to Chaos and Night that I liked and there were individual scenes such as one in which Don Celestino plays matador for Parisian cars, that stood out. And yet, I found myself underwhelmed by the novel either as a critique of modernization or as a psychological inquiry into paranoiacal nostalgia. It was most successful as a play on Don Quixote, but this alone only takes the story so far. I have a hard time articulating why I was not unmoved because I like each of the book’s major themes and de Montherlant was, in my opinion, successful in characterizing Don Celestino. The closest thing about the book that I can point to is that the extreme focus on Don Celestino happens at the expense of rounding out or even really engaging with any of the other characters, which, in turn, caused the overall story to fall flat. Chaos and Night had its moments, but did not rise to the level of a lot of the books I have recently read, including The End of Days, the book I read immediately after this one.

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With this post I am all caught up on my backlog of posts. I just finished reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, a remarkable book that I am going to write about in the next couple days. Next up, I am planning to reread Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We before indulging the siren’s call coming from my stack of unread books.

Laziness in the Fertile Valley – Albert Cossery

Laziness in the Fertile Valley is the third novel by Albert Cossery and the fifth that I have read. Although living in France, all of Cossery’s novels are biting social satires set in twentieth-century Egypt, which gave him the nickname “Voltaire of the Nile.”

Laziness in the Fertile Valley is a traditional family drama. In a rural house in Egypt live five men: a widower patriarch, his once-wealthy brother, and his three grown sons all determined to, in their own ways, secure their inheritance. When the patriarch decides to remarry, it threatens the careful balance in his home. Then Cossery’s wickedly ironic sense of satire takes over. The patriarch has not left his room in ages, the house seems to emit powerful waves of lethargy, and the inheritance the brothers are seeking to preserve is the freedom to sleep. Galal, the eldest, has been sleeping for seven years, wrapping himself in darkness and silence and rising only to eat and relieve himself. Rafik, the middle son, is an ardent firebrand, but only when it comes to protecting the silence of the home, while the youngest, Serag, is fascinated by the promise of modernity represented by a never-completed factory and by the industry of a young homeless man, even though he can barely stay awake long enough to walk to the hulking ruins.

Work is an anathema to Cossery and the themes in this novel are reputedly stolen from his own experiences. This family uses work as a refuge: from school, from work, from society. Only the work of their housekeeper and cook, a female relative, is tolerated. They are also wealthy enough to do so, minimizing their costs through inactivity. Even as Serag is determined to get a job (he dreams of working in the factory, ignorant that it was never operational), he is cautioned away from it by the rest of the family, who tell him of its oppressive horrors, and the siren’s song of sleep catches back up.

Since Serag’s struggle to join the noise and bustle of the outside world is forever stunted, the main conflict in Laziness in the Fertile Valley comes from the intrusion of a go-between matchmaker in the community who is trying to find a new wife for Hafez (the patriarch). Rafik, in particular, sees this invasion as a threat of catastrophic proportions and makes ready disrupt the proceedings by any means necessary…except leaving the house.

Laziness in the Fertile Valley is my second favorite of Cossery’s novels, behind only The Jokers. Sloth and rest seem good to me right about now, but I also think that using humor as a reprieve from the violence and oppression of social forces is more potent than turning ones back on it. Similarly, there is a deep conservatism baked into Laziness, wherein the ambition is to reject all change. Traces of the same argument might be found in The Jokers, but it is not nearly so pronounced since the characters in that novel do have broader public ambitions. The latter option is a privilege most do not get to enjoy. There was a still an enormous amount of humor in this novel as Cossery subverts tropes of oriental laziness and generational family dramas, but it came up short of The Jokers in my estimation.

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I still have one more book to write about from my reading backlog, Henry de Montherlant’s Chaos and Night, an odd little riff on Don Quixote about a Spanish anarchist living in Paris for two decades after the Spanish Civil War, strangled by his memories and now forced to return to Madrid.This past month has been something of a struggle both in general and in terms of the time I have been able to dedicate to reading. I am persisting, though, and am currently reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s beautiful and deeply moving novel The End of Days.

Privilege and Deportation

A headline caught my attention today: Germany Deports Native-Born Terrorism Suspects. The article explains there were two men born in Germany, but of African descent, who were alleged radicalized and suspected of plotting a terrorist attack. (A raid on their apartment turned up, among other things replica flint-lock pistols.) German authorities decided to deport the two men and a judge rejected their appeal.

I have a few very incomplete thoughts about the specifics of this case, including an American bias native born citizenship, and therefore do not want to talk about the particulars. Instead, I will work through why the headline caught my attention. The kernel of this thought is this: deportation in the modern world is a privilege derived from European imperialism.

Sovereignty, defined in part by the right to govern domestic affairs, is one of the principles of the Westphalian nation-state system. By extension, sovereignty necessarily includes the right to protect and regulate the country’s borders and control the bodies of people who pose a threat to its security. It is possible to construe these terms broadly and I don’t entirely disagree with the sentiments. At the same time, though, the process of deportation amounts to labeling the people being deported undesirable, dangerous, or both and pushing that responsibility for those people onto another country. In this case, the matter is further complicated because the men do not have clear personal relationships to the countries where they are being deported and their indefinite ban on a return to Germany indicates an indifference to where they go, just so long as they are no longer in Germany.

The thousand-foot view reveals much the same relationship with other deportations. There is a general tendency to send the people back to their country of origin, but the point is actually just to put them somewhere other than the country doing the deporting. One assumes that here is a modicum of international cooperation, but, nonetheless, this is where I was struck by the unique privilege European countries (and the United States) get in dictating the movement of peoples, a legacy of an imperial age and histories of immigration controls. The fact that other countries occasionally get to follow the same processes is merely incidental.

Tracking what I read

Just a short thought on how I record what I read, recent changes to that system, and some potential avenues.

I made a point of recording everything I read before graduate school, but as my reading fell off a cliff, I fell out of that habit. When I returned to reading beyond my immediate academic needs, which, not coincidentally, was the same semester I took my comprehensive exams in 2013, I resumed the habit of recording what I read, starting a google doc with a simple list: date, author, title. Recently, I wanted to start digging a little bit more, and have started recording some additional data that correspond with some goals I have related to my reading. The list now includes the same information as before, but also a list of the original languages of the books and a tally of female authors, awards the books won, and, broadly speaking, the genre. Based on this information, I started compiling a spreadsheet that charts my reading by month and (annually) in certain specific categories.

I am now wondering, though, whether tallying my reading by the book is granular enough. I tend to read a lot of really long books, none longer than War and Peace, which I worked through last year, which necessarily cuts into the total number of books I read in a year. As a result, I am toying with the idea of also recording the number of pages in the books completed in a month in order to get a better picture of how much I am reading in a given month. There are of course problems with this, not least of which the logical extreme would be to demand a way to record every word read, which is an absurdist impossibility. I do want a way to give credit for reading longer books, particularly now that I am both aching and mentally bracing to reading Infinite Jest. So, I am curious: has anyone tried charting books this way?

Related to all of this is how I keep tabs of the academic books I read. My relationship to academic work is a topic for another post that I am delaying because my magic eight ball keeps responding with “try again later,” but, in general, falls into two categories: “this is relevant to my work” and “this looks interesting.” I take copious notes (on the same system I developed for myself when I was taking my comprehensive exams), but now with an eye towards things like teaching and potential research projects. Inspired by other folks online, one of the things I would like to do is to become more organized about how I approach academic reading and also to branch out in terms of whose work I read, prioritizing younger and more diverse voices. The other reason I want to start recording this information is to become more aware of exactly how much academic reading I do. The answer is usually a lot, but I also know that it has tailed off this semester since I have been preoccupied with applications, editing my dissertation, and teaching. Most of those things are behind me now and there is no time like the present to get more organized.

Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie

This is the second backlogged write up. I finished reading Ancillary Justice about two weeks ago, so there is a little bit more reflection and a little less that I remember by way of detail.

Ancillary Justice won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel in 2014 and has been on my radar for a few years now both because I heard nothing but good things and because it is part of my conscious effort to read more books written by women. In retrospect, I find it a book completely deserving of winning these awards and, simultaneously, did not like it as much as I feel is its critical reception.

The first part of the novel alternates between two timelines. In the first, an ancillary soldier (more on this in a moment) going by the name Breq is on an icy world searching for a weapon of extraordinary power and stumbles across another soldier, drug addicted, who Breq is sure she knew many hundreds of years ago. This is because Breq is the last splinter of an artificial intelligence known as Justice of Toren that inhabited the systems of a massive starship and thousands of ancillaries–human bodies equipped with technology that allows them to be activated by that AI. The second timeline takes place twenty years earlier on Shis’urna, the last planet annexed by the Radchaai. Despite the power of the Radchaai, their absolute faith in their civilizing mission, and a relative lack of opposition on Shis’urna, the annexation did not go smoothly. When the lieutenant from Justice of Toren uncovers an attempt to frame the local inhabitants for an armed uprising, it sets in motion a series of events that reveal a growing schism in Radchaai, involving their leader, Anaander Mianaai herself. In the fallout, Justice of Toren is destroyed.

The two timelines collapse into a single for narrative for the second part, as Breq and Seivarden, the found soldier, work out a scheme to kill Anaander Mianaai.

Several aspects of Ancillary Justice are refreshing. The AI systems raise issues of dispersed personalities, since each ancillary is simultaneously in its individual role *and* part of an intelligence that has been “alive” for thousands of years, and obliquely address hyper-surveillance.

Another core theme is “civilization.” Within the story Radchaai is: a) a planet; b) an empire; c) the people in the empire and the language they speak, and d) the word for civilization. What’s more, the Radchaai language doesn’t distinguish between men and women, so Leckie uses the female pronoun throughout, except when the characters converse with backward peoples outside Radchaai space, which leads to a great deal of confusion. Within the story, there are people who exhibit masculine or feminine characteristics after a sort and there are sexual encounters, but without our traditional assumptions about the roles. These gender roles are placed by hierarchies dictated by class, both in terms of financial resources and social status. The issues of class are further exacerbated because the Radchaai military is undergoing to a reorganization to allow provincial and lower-class citizens to rise into positions of leadership—a change that is vehemently opposed by many of the older families.

Ancillary Justice was refreshingly disorienting. I spent the first portion of the book reorienting my assumptions and expectations; it was mildly irritating, but I recognized that it was both intentional and novel such that I thought that this was one of the strongest components of the book.

Where I struggled with Ancillary Justice was in determining whether I thought the plot worked. This is not to say this was poorly crafted. The technical elements of the plot are excellent and the twists on an otherwise generic setting make that work too. And yet the plot seemed to me to be overly formulaic, mostly a vehicle for the other concepts at play. On the one hand, this does make issues of class and dispersed personalities come to the fore more clearly; on the other hand, I had to keep asking myself if I found it compelling. In particular, I was underwhelmed by the immediate setting: decayed empire going through transition and fragmentation, which, while perhaps relevant to the contemporary world, also felt like a (somewhat) stale riff on the fall of Rome. This is evergreen material for stories, of course and has been omnipresent in science fiction basically since such thing existed, but it this version didn’t seem to me to be saying anything new on this front.

Rereading the last paragraph has me wondering if I am being harsher than I actually mean to be. Those *were* the issues that kept bubbling up as I read, but it makes it seem as though Ancillary Justice. It was not. There is a lot to like about the novel and I am curious to see whether some of my qualms subside when the (pun intended) ancillary elements of the story is established and therefore requires less attention in the text.

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I have finished reading Albert Cossery’s Laziness in the Fertile Valley and Henry de Montherlant’s Chaos and Night and will be getting to these write-ups in the near future. Next up: Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days.

The World of Ice and Fire – George R.R. Martin, et al

Note: this is the first of two or three book write ups that are part of a backlog that developed because of a) dissertation revisions, b) a leaving town for a conference, and c) grading. I finished this book more than two weeks ago and hope to be able to write more frequently going forward.

One of the things I have always loved about fantasy and science fiction novels is the world building. It was for this reason that I dismiss the (perfectly valid) criticism that a series like the Wheel of Time became too unwieldy and has too many point of view characters to maintain a riveting story. These extra characters that might unbalance the plot a little bit also allow you to explore the world in more depth even while often playing out a take on a familiar apocalyptic story arc.

Full disclosure: I also own and like the flawed The World of the Wheel of Time, which tried many of the same things as The World of Ice and Fire, but, ultimately fell a little bit short. One might also offer the same critique in comparing the world building of the two series.

The World of Ice and Fire is an illustrated, encyclopedic history of the world in which the The Song of Ice and Fire is set, running from the dawn of time up nearly to the most recent books (it is dedicated to King Tommen). It is at once lush and full of detail and maddeningly and clearly incomplete. On the one hand, it explicitly avoids recounting stories told in narrative form elsewhere on the grounds that those histories have already been told; on the other, it is written in the form of a history, meaning that it often alludes to controversies and theories, judging them for which is most accurate, and avoiding mention of subjects that might be touchy for the patron of the work, with no mention of rival kings or Tommen’s parentage. Moreover, it is suggested that this work was in the making for a number of years since the dedication to King Tommen is over one or more names that has been blotted out. Then there is the issue of information unknown even to the Maesters of the Citadel, whether because the necessary documents are lost, the history is unrecorded, or information about a distant land, has just never made its way to Westeros.

Having started in middle school, I have been reading A Song of Ice and Fire at this point for more than half my life. As a fan, I really, really liked this book. The World of Ice and Fire strikes a fantastic balance between offering new information about the world and its deep history, while not devolving into a pure reference book. A few minor quibbles on issues of consistency (for which I can make a case for intentionality) aside, the artwork is also gorgeous, giving new vibrancy. One might have wanted more information about, say, the relationship between Houses Stark and Bolton, but the author of this history makes it clear that that is not the history he is telling. Instead, it is a history of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and their place in the wider world. The detailed history of the North (or the Vale or the Reach or Dorne) is simply not relevant to that project.

I also found The World of Ice and Fire a fascinating read as a historian. The purported historian often offers digressions on topics that might be of interest (e.g. the origins of the Hightower at Oldtown), and engages in debates about over the veracity of myths and mentions the previous research that the work is based on. These fictional histories lend credibility to this work and offer anther layer of depth to the world building. Now: this is a particular vision of history. There is some small focus on the general characteristics of “peoples” (in a crude ethnic sort of sense), but movers of events are the great men and women of the past. This is, after all, a history of the Seven Kingdoms written for the king(s).

In sum, I really like The World of Ice and Fire and highly recommend it for anyone who likes the series.*

*I can’t speak for anyone whose interest in in the TV show.

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Next up, I have a backlog of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Albert Cossery’s Laziness in the Fertile Valley. I am currently reading Henry de Montherlant’s Chaos and Night.

Programming update, March 2017

Life has a way of piling up, and my tableau has been particularly full these past few weeks. In addition to teaching responsibilities, work, basic maintenance, and the mountain of grading I’ve been ignoring, I spent several days in Omaha, Nebraska at the Missouri Valley History Conference, which was equal parts exhausting and inspiring, and, more importantly, spent every spare moment making final edits to my dissertation. I made it through this gauntlet, submitting my dissertation to my outside committee members yesterday afternoon. I defend it, the last big hurdle of my degree, in just over a month.

(Writing this statement gives me palpitations not only for the process itself, but also because of the yawning chasm that awaits me on the other side; I will have more thoughts on this in the near future.)

There is more to go: another conference paper and article revisions, plus funding applications, fellowships, and jobs. Oh, and that mountain of grading that I am slowly but surely mining away. Still, I am hoping that I get to sleep a little bit more than I have and will therefore be able to spend a little bit more time writing here. I have finished three books since my last post here and hope to pick up my reading pace, which slowed down commensurate with the other things that were put on hold. I also hope to finally get around to my 2017 goal of writing more broadly, since the move to almost exclusively writing about books was mostly an accident.

Between my recent schedule and the past couple hours spent grading I am not terribly coherent today, so that is all for now.