Authorial Voice

Confession time: my biggest challenge as a writer is voice. As in, how does one develop an authorial voice? What distinguishes voice? A second challenge is beginnings, though I suspect that the two are related. In both cases I can recognize both when I read them, but, despite writing for school my entire life, writing here for a decade, and having several publications, I struggle with both.

The issue of voice has been on my mind recently as I turn what little energy is left after the constant bombardment of radiation from the summer sun back to academic writing. On the docket are conference abstracts, articles, a book review, and turning my dissertation into a book manuscript.

If there was one overriding comment during my dissertation defense, it was that the project often lacked for authorial voice. As it was put at one point, there was an impressive quantity and quality of the bricks used in building the structure, but it was lacking voice that forms the mortar.

(A separate issue that contributed to the lack of mortar was the absence of a linear argument in my dissertation, which was partly a quirk in the construction of my project that I am giving a lot of thought to in these revision stages.)

There are features of my writing that I think distinguish it, most notably by an overwriting that I can never quite escape. I try, not often successfully, to write the way that I talk, with the primary difference being to iron out some of the grammatical inconsistencies. I would like to push myself in this direction somewhat further, though, since I am sometimes frustrated with pithy, succinct turns of phrase when in a verbal flow that I can only reproduce on the page in overwrought parody. As an aside, this is why I think that my academic writing is frequently improved when I am able to talk through problems in articulating my argument.

I also have a tendency to imitate the books I read; after all, you are what you read. (To a lesser extent, this could be extended to the words one hears by way of podcasts, etc.) Once, in high school, a friend told me that I “write like a historian” (he did not mean it as a compliment, necessarily), but you can see this tendency particularly when I do a pale mimicry of David Foster Wallace’s style in my blog posts. Usually, those come close on the heels when of my having read a lot of his work, but I also found myself reflecting on this issue while reading Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade, which has an impressively flamboyant voice. Imitation is going to be inevitable at some level, and I sometimes use it to experiment with different styles of non-fiction, but it is still something that I need to be wary of, particularly when it comes to extreme fluctuation.

Thinking about writing in these terms, of course, probably isn’t helping things. When I do, I get particularly self-conscious so I become paralyzed about posting on social media because every word in a piece of writing has to be perfect.

Some blog entries are hammered out in less than an hour and posted straightaway, either because the medium can tend toward the informal and unpolished or because it is for capturing a single, relatively complete thought. Others, including this one, are developed over the course of several days or weeks, being built, edited, compressed, and polished. In actual working time, these posts do not necessarily take much longer than ones written in a single sitting, but the extra time gives the ideas room to breath, at least in theory. Here, my reflection is that perhaps what I ought to be working on is revision, on the level of clause, sentence, paragraph, and chapter because while authorial voice is going to come first from the process of writing, it is honed and polished in these later stages of a writing project. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that I am better at editing for content than for style.

At some level, though, I already know what is going to happen. I am going to fret about voice, but never come to a resolution. Instead, I will simply keep writing until the issue of voice fades into the background. Maybe I will find something clearer and more robust, either in initial drafts or in edits, maybe I won’t, but the more important thing is that I will keep putting words on the page.

Calcification of opinion

I am hardly alone when I say that recent politics has been a major drag on my mental and emotional energy. I don’t know what is going to happen in the near future, but the current direction scares me in more ways than I care to mention. Still, I find myself thinking a lot about politics and doing my best to stay informed because, as difficult as it might be, that remains a civic duty. I also remain problematically addicted to checking my Twitter feed, albeit recently in shorter and less-comprehensive bursts.

These moments of checking Twitter have led me to a realization about the current superficial maelstrom, as epitomized and led by the current resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That realization is this:

There is nothing that President Trump could post to his Twitter account that would change my opinion of him.

Sure, there are things that he could post that would change the trajectory of the country and do good in the world, but that would mean one of three things: 1) the account was hacked; 2) someone else was managing the account; or 3) that President Trump decided to make an about-face in order to be more popular. None of those three options would change my opinion of him, while what he does post simply digs deeper. I still see people retweeting (usually with sarcastic comment) what he says or dredging up past posts looking for inconsistency. Neither genre of tweet does much for me and in many cases both distract from the substance of issues—not to mention that feeding the ego of someone who fundamentally wants to be the center of attention, whose interests run toward habitual misinformation and complaining about media coverage.

I could never bring myself to follow Trump’s twitter account, but, for months, I would regularly check in, caught up in whatever the latest utterance was. No longer. The campaign is over and I don’t need to actually see the latest bout of internet logorrhea in order to know what he said, at least in reasonable facsimile. I can’t live isolated from the news, but that doesn’t mean that I have to partake in online farce.

The Caped Crusade – Glen Weldon

So there you have Batman: a crude, four-color slumgullion of borrowed ideas and stolen art.

It was as if Winnie the Pooh had escaped the Hundred-Acre Wood and run amok on the mean streaks of New York. Where he brutally mauled Piglet. And ate Christopher Robin’s face off.

Because that would be real. That would be badass.

Surprisingly for someone whose early life was largely sheltered from T.V. my Batman is the one from Batman the Animated Series that debuted in 1992. It probably only happened in reruns on a couple of occasions, but I have distinct memories of watching it in a car dealership on the Barre-Montpelier road in Berlin, Vermont. I mostly remember being enthralled, but, then, memory can be a tricky thing.

The reason I started with my Batman is that the concept of an affinity for a particular type of Batman, whether light or dark, is one of the core conceits of Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade. Weldon traces the cultural history of Batman through its various iterations from 1939 roughly through the current version, laying out three principal claims along the way.

First, Weldon situates the evolution of the Batman character within the cultural zeitgeist. In addition to Batman mirroring cultural developments such as 1980s macho culture, Weldon argues that he goes through a three-phrase cycle from lone avenger, to father-cum-partner of Robin, to pater familias to an extended Bat-family and then back again. Within this cycle, there is also the revolving dimmer-switch on Batman’s morality, between the campy, civic-minded Batman, sometimes embracing his billionaire alter-ego, sometimes not, and a grimmer, brutal dark knight.

These two cycles feed into Weldon’s second hypothesis, that everyone has their own personal Batman. Often the personal batman is the one experienced when young, with some allowance for variation in cases of backlash. Weldon makes a compelling case for these wild swings in Batman fandom, even though it ultimately can’t be substantiated and although he does not not totally follow through with the ramifications of this idea given gradual confluence of interested in Batman between nerd culture and “normals.”

Third, much of The Caped Crusade is dedicated to trying to understand the enduring popularity of Batman, which has resulted in his appearance in ten live-action feature films since 1989. Weldon debunks the putative notion of Batman’s “relateability”—the irrepressible idea that ordinary people are more able to identify with Batman because he lacks superpowers. As Weldon points out, though, Batman is supposed to be the world’s wealthiest person, with almost no responsibilities with his company, is a peak athlete who spent years honing his martial arts skills, and, in recent iterations, is a brilliant tactician who is (almost) never wrong. But, beyond that, Batman is totally just like you and me.

Weldon makes the case that the ability for many people to relate to Batman, particularly among people who were for years not in the mainstream, stems from the oath he swears after the death of his parents that he will wage a crusade against all criminals so that no one suffers the way he suffered. This oath, and the single-minded obsession that follows from it, Weldon says, makes Batman the original nerd.

The main difference now is that, somewhere along the way, nerd culture went mainstream.

I have never been much of a comic book person, truth be told. It isn’t so much antipathy as I never made the investment of time or money to get into the stories and I was somewhat turned off by never really knowing where to start reading. As such, some of Weldon’s detailing the ins and outs of the writers and inkers did not mean much to me, but the broad sweeps of the Batman tradition in Weldon’s hands (and lively prose) aptly reflect many of the fissures in American culture for the past seventy five years. The same may well be true of other superheroes (Weldon intimates as much when he talks about larger trends in comic book publishing), but Batman’s stature as among the oldest, most popular, and, importantly, most relate-able (such that he is) heroes makes Batman an apt study for American culture writ-large.


Next up, I am currently reading Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in Mind. It is too soon to tell if I will like the story, but so far I am quite taken with both the structure and the characters.

The Broken Kingdoms – N.K. Jemisin

Ten years have passed since the events in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and the world as entirely changed. Sky, once a radiant white city is now bound to the Wold-Tree, among whose roots the lower city is set. The community has a clear hierarchy, with those of greater wealth and status residing higher in the tree. There is, however, a more fundamental change in the world: Itempas has been deposed, cast into a mortal form, and the children of the three, godlings of many stripes, have been allowed to return the world provided that they remain in the city.

Oree Shoth, a blind street merchant selling trinkets lives in this city, among the shadows of the tree’s massive roots. Most people shy away from Oree because of her peculiar visage, but she has made friends among her fellow artists, among some of the godlings of the city, and with one homeless man she found in the muckbin and took into her home. Oree’s blindness is not total; but the only thing that she can see is magic. This gift will prove both a blessing and a curse, when it comes to light that someone is killing godlings—a development that deeply displeases Nahadoth, who has demanded that the killer be brought to justice with in the next thirty days. Present at the time of the latest murder, Oree and her house-guest find themselves at the center of the conspiracy.

The Broken Kingdoms is a worthy follow-up to Jemisin’s debut novel in just about every way. It deepens the series’ world, both in terms of introducing new races and places and by developing the cosmology. The latter remains a play on traditional cosmological tropes: surprise, the three have children! And these children embody fundamental characteristics such as hunger or mercantilism in their interactions withe world of mortals! But Jemisin fleshes these relationships out, developing what happens when mortals and gods mix (hint: they don’t) and how the traits manifest. For instance, the godling whose nature embodies hunger likes both consuming flesh and consuming the longing lost children have for love. Likewise in terms of story, The Broken Kingdoms retains the basic structure of a young woman without a clear understanding of what is happening interacting with the gods and a deadline come much too soon, trading the upper class for a lower one and the genre of political thriller for deadly mystery.

There are elements of The Broken Kingdoms that will come across as predictable for anyone who has read the first book, but this is not strictly a criticism since Jemisin does a good job at layering developments so that even the obvious feel right. Moreover, the mystery plot largely serves to move the narrative rather than being the be-all, end-all the way it might in a traditional detective novel. Looking at it in this respect, the mystery-on-a-deadline lends the novel with a sense of impending doom and makes sure that it does not lag. Its weakness, however, was also evident in that, for all of Oree’s protestations toward poverty, the immediate danger she is in and her wealthy godling friend had a way of blunting any social commentary established by setting the story in the lower rungs of society. Yes, the issues are there, but they take a back seat to the plot and the way our heroine interacts with gods in this world make them seem more superficial than another sub-genre might have done. This is a minor criticism given the constraints within the rest of the story but is something I noticed despite the thoughtful texturing of the book as a whole.

Some aspects of the writing and the world did not feel as fresh as the inaugural novel, but that is to be expected, and I appreciated the use of a blind character to give a new approach to describing the setting. All in all, I am looking forward to seeing how Jemisin finishes the trilogy.


Next up, I recently finished reading Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade about the history of Batman and the comic’s role in American culture and am now reading Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in my Mind.

Alternate Colors

I am fortunate in my online experience. Not only am I generally identified as a white man, but I have a curated existence and small footprint. I am nevertheless exhausted just as a spectator to the maelstrom. This week the storm again struck the corner of the internet inhabited by ancient history.

Here’s what happened: Dr. Sarah Bond, a professor at the University of Iowa and probably the public historian of the ancient world with the greatest breadth of subjects, published a piece for hyperallergic titled “Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color.” In the article, Bond introduces the readers to the issue of polychromy—the idea that the naked marble of the surviving statues was once garishly painted (not to mention literally dressed and armed). She then transitions to how the naked marble came to represent the classical ideal and explores how this standard allows modern prejudices concerning race to be channeled onto the ancient world.

(Not for nothing, but I am reminded of the Carbon Leaf song “The War Was In Color” about remembering wars from black and white pictures.)

Bond’s article is an excellent introduction to this issue and there was some excited conversation on ancient Twitter about the legacy of the controversial Black Athena and a variety of other issues. I was absolutely delighted to see the article (for reasons I will get into below), and driving discussion of this sort is exactly what it should do. Nobody challenged its fundamental assumptions because the ancient Mediterranean was a variegated quilt of cultures and peoples. How these colors were created and looked may be disputed—I once heard a scholar suggest that the fabled Spartan crimson was actually bright pink based on modern efforts to recreate ancient pigment—but the existence of colors is not.

Outside this conversation there were death threats.

People are so committed to their preconceptions that they would rather threaten the life of an academic in an effort to bully and silence her rather than face fundamental truths. But I am not here to “defend” Bond or to chide the bullies, even leaving alone the willful misreadings of her piece. I planned to write this post before reading about the backlash.

One issue with teaching history is that it runs the risk of presenting the past either as something teleological in an endless progressive march to the present or something static. Since there are political agendas that want ancient Greece to be the self-referential origin for western civilization, it is particular susceptible to these caricatures. And yet, even in antiquity, the definitions of “Europe” and “Greece” were constantly in flux. Ionia, the subject of my dissertation, for instance, consisted of communities that were Greek, but were not in Europe. Ancient orators such as Isocrates tended to gloss issues like this when giving speeches, but the seeming dissonance has cast a long shadow, with historians of colossal stature like Rostovtzeff describing them as “fragments of the western world on the fringe of the eastern.” In point of fact, much of Greek “civilization” developed in communication with the Near East and Egypt.

Similarly, scholars have tied themselves in knots trying to explain Alexander the Great’s behavior in terms of race. At issue were his decisions (personally, and with regard to his men) about marriage and whether marrying Greek men with eastern women, either in a simple east-west binary or in a more complicated and totally anachronistic distinction between Indo-European and Semitic populations.

In both examples, the history of these academic debates was driven by or responding to racially-motivated agendas. As Bond makes clear in her article, not all of the scholars were racist but, intentionally or not, their scholarship worked in tandem to support these agendas. The end result is that the statues became marble-white and Greece became singularly European.

Ancient Greece, ranging far beyond the modern national borders, was deeply enmeshed in the ancient Mediterranean and would have had many different shades, not lease because of the historical movement of people and ideas. The variations became even more pronounced after Alexander’s conquests when there were people who were culturally Greek as far east as central Asia. Redefining Greece is nothing new and was, in fact, a fairly standard feature of diplomacy in the ancient world, including one instance when the Judean kingdom claimed kinship with Sparta. The result was successive layers of definitions that bore only a loose connection to history. These were, and are, political agendas.

To come full circle, then, I want to echo Bond’s core point: the ancient world was awash in color, most of which was not white. Art history is not my wheelhouse, but many of the same forces are at work in scholarship on other issues. Greece was not European adjacent to, but separate from, the Mediterranean. Greece was Mediterranean and shaped by continuous movement of people and ideas in trickles and waves, with all of the colors that go along with that.

Confusion – Stefan Zweig

Editorial note: there will be spoilers in the penultimate paragraph of this post as it is impossible to express my concerns with this novella otherwise. With the understanding that some people disapprove of such reveals even in a ninety year old book, I have kept these until the very end..

This was the first real shock that, at the age of nineteen, I experienced—without a word spoken in anger, it overthrew the whole grandiose house of cards I had built during the last three months, a house constructed out of masculinity, student debauchery and bragging.

Zweig’s Confusion—not a direct translation of the original title—is a novella published first in 1927 that I am of two minds about, one that deeply appreciates some of its psychological observations and graceful structure, and one that is deeply troubled by its politics. In form, Confusion is an eminent professor reflecting on his intellectual life on the occasion of his Festschrift, a publication that memorializes and celebrates his career. Far from the parade of successes that the accompanying biography records, Roland, the professor, recalls a time when he was far more interested in women than in his studies and how he ended up attending a rural university away from the temptations of Berlin. Thus he says:

Everything it says is true—only what genuinely matters is missing. It merely describes me, it says nothing real about me.

It is at this rural university that Roland is mesmerized by the passion of an old English professor who awakens his intellectual curiosity.

Soon, the professor helps set Roland up in the building where he lives with his wife and Roland offers to help the professor by taking dictation on his magnum opus: a history of the English drama in the age of the Globe Theater. The two begin to work on the project diligently, but Roland finds the professor difficult to work with; some days the professor is hale and strong, other times distant and cruel, while still others he is absent altogether. It is during one of these intervals that Roland ends up involved with the professor’s wife.

The heart of Confusion is the relationship between Roland and the couple who live below him, that is, the professor and his wife. The former is Roland’s intellectual father, while the latter takes on the roles of mother, lover, and reminder of his past insecurities.

Zweig’s greatest strengths unfold in the turns in Roland’s relationships. He shows how a student might have limitless potential and how a teacher can (in some cases) change a person’s trajectory, but, even more importantly, Zweig builds into the structure the idea that an intellectual career does not unfold in terms of linear successes. Confusion in this regard is an excellent, subtle coming of age story.

And yet, I had deep reservations about Confusion that far outweigh any I have had about his other work. The dramatic climax in Confusion comes when Roland is tearing himself up over his transgression with the professor’s wife, only to discover that his advisor professes to have no control over what she does, just as she has no control over him. Far from a modern sense of an open marriage, the professor reveals in so many words that he is gay. This revelation fills in the gaps as to the snide comments people had been making about Roland’s relationship with the professor, but my problem wasn’t either this or the suggestion that he was working in oblivion at a rural school because of his sexual tendencies. My issue came in how the professor describes himself to Roland, in that he talks about both the joys and the challenges of constantly being surrounded by young, attractive, and vibrant young men and that it was for this reason that he sometimes went absent. As a plot device it worked well-enough, but it was both a regressive representation of homosexuality and troubling in terms of how it linked intellectual and sexual relationships. Moreover, I found it distasteful because of how it would have played had it been a male professor and female student, which is already a topic in the realm of troubling issues of gender politics on campus.

I don’t want to diminish Zweig’s accomplishments in Confusion. From the outset, I often found myself nodding appreciatively at his observations, but, as the trajectory of the plot became increasingly clear, I became increasingly soured on the entire story.


I also recently finished N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms, the second book in her Inheritance Trilogy and am currently reading Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade.

Odessa – Charles King

Situated on the north-eastern shore of the Black Sea, the site of Odessa was a backwater Turkish fort overlooking a small fishing village. During the reign of Catherine the Great of Russia (1762-1796) the fort fell to Russian forces and Jose Pascual Domingo de Ribas y Boyons, a Neapolitan man born to a Spanish father and Italian mother, then in Catherine’s service, saw potential for the site to become Russia’s southern port. With the empress’ blessing, de Ribas laid out the new city along a European pattern.

Despite problems with sanitation and clean water (the city is not set on a river), outbreaks of plague from Ottoman ships, and intermittent crises over Ottoman control of the Bosporus, Odessa flourished. Hard by three major rivers agricultural goods from the Russian interior converged on the city, while liberal trade policies made it an attractive destination for merchants, its mild climate and European accouterments made it attractive to ex-patriots, and Russian reticence to move south led to economic privileges to Jews that were not common elsewhere in the empire. Odesssa’s newness made it exceptional compared to other cities, with fewer regulations and a wilder population that fostered creativity and crime, particularly in the years before the revolution.

According to Charles King, the popular conception of Odessa (such that one exists) is a fiction made from nostalgia and propaganda that is perpetually being redrawn. After 1918, for instance, Odessa came to be regarded as one of the original cities for the Russian revolution, but this reputation was the product of the movie Battleship Potemkin that valorized a mutiny aboard an imperial naval vessel of that name. Likewise, Odessa changed fundamentally when it was occupied by Romanian forces during World War 2, both because a limited number of episodes added it to the list of Soviet hero cities resisting occupation and because the occupation irreversibly changed the demographics of the city. The Jewish population of Odessa was gone.

There is obviously a good deal more to Odessa than the briefest sketch laid out above, and King wanders into the realm of biography to flesh out the picture of the literary and political luminaries, as well as a number of the criminals, that left their mark on Odessa or had Odessa leave its mark on them. There were time that my attention flagged—I picked Odessa out of the library stacks for no other reason than that members of my family lived there before coming to the United States, though none of them rose to the level of inclusion—but that is going to happen. From a historical perspective, King’s greatest feat and perhaps the most fascinating part of Odessa the city is the extent to which the character of a community is constructed through both stories and monuments. To give one notable example, Odessa’s most famous monument is the Potemkin Steps, a set of staircases that connect the harbor to the city atop which sits a statue of Richelieu, a French expat and early governor of the city. One might assume that the steps were named for Grigory Potemkin, whose military campaign captured the town for Russia or at least for the Battleship Potemkin mutineers, but, in fact, it was neither. Naturally, the steps were named for the movie Battleship Potemkin. King brings this type of layered memorializations to the front of his narrative time and again, building the cultural legacy of Odessa into the series of political and economic decisions that shaped the population that inhabited this comparatively young city.


I also recently finished reading Stefan Zweig’s Confusion, a psychological novel that I found simultaneously insightful and problematic, and the second book in N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, The Broken Kingdoms. Next up is going to be something non-fiction, either Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade or Chuck Klostermann’s What if we’re wrong.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – N.K. Jemisin

Yeine Darr is the ennu of a small, wooded, backwater kingdom in the Northern part of the world, but has had to give that life up because she is summoned to the Arameri city of Sky, a floating palace from which the world is ruled. Though she has never been to Sky and is woefully unprepared for what she will find there, Yeine is not like other outsiders because her mother, now deceased, was the sole daughter and presumed heir to Dekarta, the ruler of Sky and chosen of Itempas (god of order and ruler of the universe). Now Dekarta is nearly dead and Yeine is summoned to join two of her cousins as his potential heirs and so finds herself thrust into a political conflict that, if she is to have any chance at survival, requires her to learn about Arameri customs, hierarchy, and brutality. Complicating matters further, Yeine meets the legendary weapons of the Arameri, Nahadoth, Sieh, Kurue, and Zakkarn, all gods bound by Itempas into servitude at the conclusion of the God’s War thousands of years ago and beings with their own agenda and know more about Yeine than she knows about herself. The ceremony to anoint the next chosen of Itempas is set to take place two weeks after her arrival and Yeine must uncover Arameri secrets, her family secrets, quickly if she is to be more than simply a sacrificial lamb.

There is a lot I really liked about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It is a political thriller set in a fantasy world and like all books that introduce a world, the reader needs to have a way in. The more fantastical the world, the more important this entry is, but, the more time the author spends developing the world, the more he or she may be criticized for caring more about the world than the story. Jemisin does an astoundingly good job of introducing our protagonist (Yeine) who knows some things about the world, but transferring her to a part of the world where she knows nothing so that the reader learns everything right along with her. Combine this with thrusting Yeine immediately into the heart of the action where she must learn about the world in order to survive the conflict and you have a book that is in some ways entirely about introducing the reader to the world without sacrificing the plot for worldbuilding one iota.

The world of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms may be taken in two ways: the cosmology and the mundane setting. The novel’s cosmology is a play on a fairly traditional triad of original deities, one who embodies chaos, one who embodies order, and one who embodies change. From these three deities come all of existence, including their children and their creations. In this world, however, the god of order reigns supreme, because in the dim twilight of history there was an event called the God’s War where Enefa, the god of change, was killed and the god of chaos, Nahadoth, along with their surviving children were bound into servitude. Not only do these divine forces act directly upon the world, but some of them are forced to do so by mortals, which brings me to mundane setting. There are (perhaps) a hundred thousand kingdoms in the world, all with sovereignty, but under “benevolent” Arameri hegemony. The Arameri largely reside in Sky, a palace and city that serve as the seat of world power where disputes are resolved. Peace (order, really) is the objective, provided that the lesser powers bow to Arameri demands. Some of these are to a contemporary mind benevolent—no slavery, human rights restrictions—but Arameri guidance is absolute and any opposition is to be brutally crushed. For plot reasons, the world setting largely takes a backseat to the cosmological one, but it nevertheless serves as a clever way to build contrasting views of the Arameri among whom Yeine finds herself.

I had minor quibbles about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Occasional, passing comments seemed somewhat out of place in their addressing of what seemed likely particularly modern concerns. This is not to say I disagreed with the stances taken, but rather that such comments seemed particularly “of their time.” There were likewise a few scenes, including one involving a bathroom, that I found a little cheesy. None of these should take away from what is an enormously entertaining and very thoughtful debut novel. By way of recommendation, I will say that I am very much looking forward to reading the rest of this trilogy and to pick up Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, which won the Hugo Award for best novel.


I just finished reading a history of the city of Odessa (in Ukraine), chosen in part because I have ancestors who came to the United States from there. Next up is probably going to be Stefan Zweig’s Confusion.

Did Alexander the Great suffer from CTE?

The following are some thoughts on this article, which, in short, suggests that the personality changes over the course of Alexander the Great’s reign could have been caused by Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) perhaps caused by his shorter than average height. In other words, to quote Jake Nabel, Alexander the Great “often got bonked on the head.”

The thrust of the article is as follows: Alexander the Great was short and was therefore closer to his opponents and was struck in the head by at least glancing blows in the sources with some regularity. As has been a topic of concern in the arena of football, repeated head trauma can lead to CTE, which manifests with symptoms such as altered personality, uncommon susceptibility to alcohol, blackouts, extreme emotional swings, paranoia, and violence. All of these symptoms are attributed to Alexander and CTE provides an explanation that accounts for the greatest number of symptoms, ergo Alexander had CTE.

Some of the points made in the article are provocative and worth consideration. The focus on CTE could be poo-pooed as a flash-in-the-pan contemporary concern brought on by modern athletics, but ought to be taken into account in how we think about ancient warfare. Our medical data from antiquity is, effectively, non-existent, but human physiology hasn’t changed that much.

That said, I am skeptical of the larger argument.

First, I think that Alexander’s shortness, while a generally accepted fact, is a bit of a red-herring, not only because he was frequently fighting from horseback, but also because I wonder whether the difference in height would have made a significant difference over, say, his recklessness. Then, is it necessary to single out Alexander from the other Macedonians whose bodily harm receive less attention?

Second, the author implies that Alexander’s men also became more violent as Alexander’s head trauma grew worse. The implication is that they were following Alexander’s orders, but I am mistrustful of such a direct causal relationship, particularly because the author (following the model of the ancient sources) chooses to focus directly on Alexander’s erratic behavior. This is not a problem unique to this article, but is endemic in the thinking about Alexander the Great’s campaigns.

Third, the author too readily accepts the ancient sources at face-value, something which has been called into question, particularly on the issue of wounds (see particularly: Riginos, JHS, 1994). I happen to believe that Alexander the Great was wounded fairly regularly and sometimes severely, but hinging an argument on the specifics of the wounds is problematic, to say the least. This approach sees the symptoms and then goes looking for the wounds to support the thesis, without questioning whether those wounds might not have actually existed.

Fourth, and building from the issues of sources, all of which were composed or written hundreds of years after Alexander died, the article in question seemed to me to downplay any political, social, or literary explanation for the changes in Alexander’s behavior. On the one hand, this is the rhetoric of a journal article, but, on the other, it ignores how a Roman philosophical context shaped the accounts of Alexander murdering Cleitus just as much as it ignores the strains placed on the court by Alexander’s appointing Persian nobility to important positions, thereby challenging the supremacy of the Macedonian elite.

The author concludes by invoking the unsolved mystery that is Alexander’s death and suggesting that Alexander’s greatness should be read in terms of disability because of how long he functioned with a deteriorating brain. (I assume this differs from the alcoholism thesis because the latter is self-inflicted.) Such post-facto, blind diagnoses are deeply problematic, good for a headline, but light on substance.

Like many theories about the ancient world, the idea that Alexander suffered from CTE or a comparable type of trauma cannot be discounted because there is not enough evidence one way or another. The author is certainly correct that a surface-value reading of the evidence does supply evidence for CTE, and I like this explanation better than an anachronistic attribution of “alcoholism.” And yet, it is also necessary to pull back to see where this fits within the larger context rather than looking to isolate CTE as a universal explanation for the changes in Alexander’s behavior.