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The Witch Elm

Toby describes himself as lucky, his cousin Leon says that he gets away with everything. He has always had things easy: a rugby star in school, smart, attractive, from an affluent background, and always able to talk his way out of jam––a skill that comes in handy in his job promoting an art gallery. He makes friends easily, has kept close friends since school, and has devoted girlfriend, Melissa.

Outside a minor scrape at work, life is good. That is, until he is beaten within an inch of his life during a home invasion.

The assault lands Toby in the hospital and suffering from brain injuries that leave him physically and emotionally fragile and struggling to speak. Around the time that he is to be released from the hospital, the second of his two cousins, Susanna approaches Toby about moving in to the Ivy House, the family estate where the three cousins spent summers as children, because his uncle Hugo has been diagnosed with late-stage cancer.

Melissa agrees to move in with Toby while he recovers, so the couple relocates to the old home. The new arrangement, alternating between quiet genealogical work with Hugo and the overwhelming activity of family gatherings, is good for Toby’s health. Life settles into predictable routines and, gradually, he recovers. Hugo’s health declines in step, though, and what will happen to the house after his death hovers over the proceedings.

Then one of Susanna’s kids finds a skull in the old Witch Elm tree in the back yard and their lives are thrown into chaos. The police cut down the tree and tear up the yard in their investigation. Once the identity of the body is determined to have been Dominic Ganly, an old classmate of Toby, Susanna, and Leon’s who was reported to have committed suicide just after they graduated, Toby begins his own investigation. He thinks he remembers the dead man as a friendly acquaitance, but could he have been wrong? Is his failure to remember the result of the brain injury or repressed memory? Could he have killed Dominic?

Tana French distinguished herself with the Dublin Murder Squad stories in her ability to spin out tight psychological dramas that build both suspense and emotional depth to relatively simple cases that her detectives solve. In The Witch Elm she flips the script, building a tight psychological drama in two separate cases, this time from the perspective of the victim of one of the crimes. We rarely get to see what the police do to solve the cases, and their methods only serve to exacerbate Toby’s anguish, leading eventually to an explosive late turn that worked after a sort, but put the rest of the story in a different the rest of the story in a different hue that was, in my opinion unnecessary.

(In broad terms, the twist shapes the form the story takes, adding depth to some of the questions of memory and call into question the entire story, but since they are impossible to talk about without spoilers for the whole book, so I will not talk about them here.)

Toby’s PTSD shapes the story, but the overriding themes are memory and identity. The assault and subsequent investigations force Toby to question who he is, even while Melissa tries to keep him grounded. First, the injuries fundamentally change how he interacts with the world and leave him with blanks in his memory. Then, when the skull turns up, everything he remembers about high school and his younger self is called into question.

In Toby’s memory, high school was generally fun, the other people generally benign. But, as Leon and Susanna are quick to point out, Toby has always had things easy. He was a popular, intelligent athlete. For Leon, a gay and eccentric loner, and Susanna, a quiet, nerdy girl, high school was not so fun and their classmates not so harmless. In truth, I came away from this part of the story rethinking what my own high school experience was like since, in some respects, my background was similar to Toby’s.

Lingering over everything is the question of whether or not Toby is a good guy. Melissa certainly thinks so and Hugo agrees, as do his friends, all of whom reassure him that he was the generally benign person that he saw in everyone else. Even Susanna and Leon generally agree, albeit with some minor qualifications. Before the assault, Toby would have taken this as his due; once he is forced to face the consequences of his actions, he is not so sure.

Minor issues with the final twist notwithstanding, The Witch Elm is a powerful and compelling drama that dives deep into questions of memory and family. I went into this novel with high expectations based on having read two of her earlier novels, Broken Harbor and The Trespasser, and a couple of positive reviews, and French more than met them. This is just more evidence that French is one of, if not the best mystery-suspense writer currently working.

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I am now reading Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, the first book in the Gentleman Bastards series.

Teaching College

Through the heat-scorched landscape of late July, it is almost possible to feel the first winds of autumn, which means that it is time to be thinking about the courses for the fall semester. In preparation for teaching I have once again gone back to the well of teaching books and done another thread for the #PhDSkills tag on Twitter, this time reading Norman Eng’s lauded book, Teaching College.

This post follows the model I used for my previous threads, on John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write and Helen Sword’s The Writer’s Diet, as well as the posts I wrote after reading Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom, James Lang’s Small Teaching, and Mark Carnes’ Minds on Fire. A longer list of resources can be found here, in a post with collected suggestions for guides on how to teach in the humanities that I solicited a year or so ago. I have added to the original posts as I find new resources.

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Norman Eng’s Teaching College often comes up on lists of books for college instructors to read. It promises to be a practical guide to teaching and learning, with lessons from the worlds of marketing and K–12 teaching, fields Eng worked in before getting his ED.D.

You can find my sprawling reading notes in this Twitter thread.

Eng tries to do everything in Teaching College, and the result is a lot of useful tips. Even with the book by his own admission being less useful for humanities classes, I do not disagree with most of what Eng writes. For instance, he stresses reflective practice, both on the part of the teacher and for the students, and the importance of creating a safe learning environment. I think both of these are central to good pedagogy, as is making sure that you are finding ways to keep the class engaged through active learning exercises and discussions. This can be easier said than done, but Eng advocates a “less is more” approach in getting students to learn rather than to simply commit facts to short-term memory––which Kevin Gannon, among others, have suggested is the best way to improve even the bloated survey courses.

( I think we teach history backward, but I also teach in the system we have.)

For as useful as Teaching College was at points, though, I was often frustrated with it. This frustration came in several different forms, but they started early on with an unrelated book. One of the media groups in Columbia, MO has been running the same set of radio ads for the past few years promoting the book The Wizard of Ads with a series of tips on marketing strategies. The Wizard of Ads promises to teach the reader simple rules to ensure marketing success. Teaching College came across like an educational version of that book. This is not to say that either book is necessarily wrong, just that there is something about the tone promising quick fixes that rubbed me the wrong way.

But my issues went beyond the superficial.

First, Eng’s approach to class structure struck me as overly formulaic, even when he offered variations. In his defense, he added the caveat that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to teaching, but in the body of the text he blows right past that advice. I will be taking his advice that I need to make sure that I am being aware of how much interaction I plan because when I get overwhelmed I tend to just talk, but I am unlikely to entirely jettison things that are working in my classes.

Second, while Eng offers some additional reading (or Ted talks to watch) and some citations, it often came across like a Ted talk where one person with a particular expertise tells the audience how to improve––ironically unlike his advice for how to teach. He is persuasive, I thought, in showing how college professors could learn from marketers and K–12 teachers, though we have all had our share of poor teachers there, too, but the fact that it is generally heavy on personal stories and light on relating scholarship about best practices in teaching and learning made Teaching College seem insubstantial.

Third, Eng tries to cover too much, offering panaceas for everything from classroom management to syllabus design to readings. On the one hand, this means that he is arguing for a comprehensive overhaul with prescribed changes, but, on the other, there is also limited space dedicated to explaining the purpose of any of the changes. Compare this to James Lang’s Small Teaching, which similarly covers a lot, but with the explicit purpose of making small tweaks to improve a class rather than a full overhaul.

Fourth and finally, perhaps my biggest frustration is that other than a critique of using a single midterm to assess student performance, there was almost no discussion of assessment. My issue here is that reflection on how we are assessing students is about as important as reflecting on why students are not doing the reading. You can’t have one without the other, and I find that particularly in history and civ surveys the course aims and course assessment are wildly mismatched. Eng boils this problem down to thinking about your client profile (the students, with their big-picture goals) and aligning your course goals accordingly, but identifying these and adjusting the class procedure only does so much good if the assessment remains out of alignment with what you want the students to take from the course.

In sum, I wonder if I would have found more utility in Teaching College if I hadn’t read Small Teaching and Discussion in the College Classroom first. This is a useful little book that gave me a few ideas, but much of what it offers can be found in more detail in other resources.

The Tombs of Atuan

When I finished A Wizard of Earthsea, I concluded that it was a good story, but clearly geared toward a younger audience. Friends on Twitter convinced me that I should keep reading and, in short, I never should have doubted Le Guin.

The Tombs of Atuan is an old temple complex in the Kargish lands (a region left unexplored in A Wizard of Earthsea). The complex contains multiple temples, including for the Godking and the God-brothers, but the oldest is the Place of the Tombs, a sanctuary dedicated to the Nameless Ones. According to tradition, the priestess of the tombs is forever reborn, her essence transferred into a new body born at the moment of the old priestess’ death. That child becomes “The Eaten One,” her soul consumed by the Nameless Ones and her body raised by the temple as the new priestess.

Year by year, Arha (formerly Tenar) learns of her charge. The eunuch Manan is her faithful companion and the older priestesses of lesser gods see to her education, teaching her the lore of the Tombs and about the soulless magic-users of the western lands. But the rest are forbidden from entering the Labyrinth beneath the tombs, so the most important parts of Arha’s training must be self taught. She must discover the secret paths and the long-forgotten offerings for herself––and, equally important, Arha must see to the appropriate sacrifices. Human sacrifices.

Arha’s youth puts her at a disadvantage to the other priestesses. Her primary rival is Kossil, the priestess of the Godking, who regards the Tombs as a forgotten relic of little consequence. Arha has to tread carefully, lest Kossil have her killed and conveniently forget to replace the priestess.

The arrival of a stranger, a thief from the Western Islands trapped beneath the labyrinth, disrupts their tenuous balance of power. That stranger is Ged/Sparrowhawk, come to steal the greatest treasure held in the Tombs: half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, which, when joined with its other half, promises to reveal a rune that could bring peace to the world. Curiosity stays Arha’s hand, but this initiates a dangerous game with Kossil, who demands his execution.

The Tombs of Atuan is a brilliant novel, and a leap in complexity from the youthful coming of age story in A Wizard of Earthsea, despite the latter’s subtle sophistication.

(As a note, I cannot recommend the new afterwords Le Guin wrote for the series enough. They combine reflection on the process of writing, reflection on development of the genre, and a keen eye for literary analysis.)

Le Guin comments in her afterword how The Tombs of Atuan is, in some ways, a direct inversion of A Wizard of Earthsea, much of which stems from the protagonist’s gender. She writes:

Be that as it may, when I wrote the book, it took more imagination than I had to create a girl character who, offered great power, could accept it as her right and due. Such as situation didn’t then seem plausible to me. But since I was writing about the people who in most societies have not been given much power––women––it seemed perfectly plausible to place my heroine in a situation that led her to question the nature and value of power itself.

The word power has two different meanings. There is power to: strength, gift, skill, art, the mastery of a craft, the authority of knowledge. And there is power over: rule, dominion, supremacy, might, mastery of slaves, authority over others.

Ged was offered both kinds of power. Tenar was offered one…

In such a world, I could put a girl at the heart of my story, but I couldn’t give her a man’s freedom, or chances to equal a man’s chances. She couldn’t be a hero in the hero-tale sense.

And it is true. Tenar is the protagonist in The Tombs of Atuan, but Ged is the hero. That is, Tenar undergoes the emotional journey that drives the story, but her evolution is contingent on Ged as the doer of great deeds.

Le Guin rightly and astutely comments on the issue of gender in her afterword, but makes no mention of a second issue that features prominently in the book: the power of belief. This power forms the basis of the conflict between Kossil and Arha/Tenar in that Kossil is an ardent non-believer (though her non-belief may itself be corrupted) whose interests lie in the exercise of power over the younger priestess.

Despite the sinister overtones of human sacrifice, severe routines, and an indoctrinated child, the circumstances could be set for a more benign sort of story. In Arha/Tenar’s privileged position, this cult and culture is not inherently evil. Her charge simply is, so her questioning of the power is caught up in her struggle with Kossil. Only when Ged arrives does Tenar begin to question what she had been taught about the “soulless” westerners and the very nature of the religion.

Fantasy worlds allow for primordial and magical powers to exist, but the power of belief is no less real in life than it is in books. Tenar’s struggle for liberation from the only life that she has ever known elevates The Tombs of Atuan into a masterpiece and reduces Ged’s quest for an artifact that promises to bring good governance, a worthy ambition in its own right, to just a McGuffin.

In short, I loved this book. Simon and Schuster markets it as a teen fantasy, but in Le Guin’s masterful hands it is a brilliant sequel to A Wizard of Earthsea and I look forward to reading the next book in the series with eager anticipation.

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Work and travel have interfered with regular updates. The ship may have sailed on a full writeup A Long Day’s Evening, a philosophical novel by the Turkish novelist Bilge Karasu, though I still hope to write some notes. I have also finished Tana French’s The Witch Elm and have a full post planned about that one. I am now reading The Lies of Locke Lamora, the first book in Scott Lynch’s The Gentlemen Bastards series. I’m enjoying its cleverly interwoven origin and heist stories, but a small part of my brain is hung up on aspects of the world building that so far are a little too on the nose for Renaissance North Italy and Germany.

The best Sherlock Holmes adaptation is on network TV

After about the tenth time a host on the Writing Excuses podcast plugged the show Elementary to illustrate a point about plot or characterization I decided to give it a shot. I needed a new show to watch on the exercise bike or to have in on the background while baking, anyway. What I discovered is, by far, my favorite adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic character.

I mentioned this on Twitter recently and received a lot of pushback, so I’ll put my cards out on the table. No one defended the Will Farrell or the Robert Downey Jr. versions (I have seen the latter, but not the former), and I have not seen the Ian McKellen Holmes, where he plays an aging detective struggling with dementia. There are other adaptations, some of which I have seen (e.g. House), but many that I have not.

The main pushback came from fans of the Benedict Cumberbatch modern take on the character that leaned into Holmes’ sociopathy and Moriarty’s manic energy. This version is fine––the acting is top notch, the production great, but the series ultimately left me flat because it doesn’t really develop the characters beyond a particular interpretation of the Doyle text.

Character development is not a problem in Elementary. I was ready to declare this my favorite adaptation after one season, but, nearly three seasons into the show, I continue to be surprised by smart developments that continue to add depth to the archetypal character.

Jonny Lee Miller plays Sherlock Holmes, a consulting detective who once worked for Scotland Yard, but now lives in New York City consulting for the NYPD. Holmes is also a recovering drug addict, and we are introduced to Lucy Liu’s Joan Watson, a former surgeon, who Holmes’ wealthy father contracted to be a live-in companion to monitor his sobriety. Other recurring characters include a mix of competently drawn crime-a-week stock type characters like Captain Gregson of the NYPD (Aidan Quinn) and Detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill) and characters pulled from Doyles’ stories such as Mycroft Holmes (Rhys Ifans) and Jamie Moriarty (Natalie Dormer) that capture the essence of the text while offering creative spins on it.

The case-a-week drama is a perfect vehicle to showcase Sherlock Holmes. In this iteration, Holmes comes from a wealthy family and so can work for free, selectively choosing cases that pique his interest, and each week offers an opportunity to demonstrate his deductive process in solving the crimes. Once Watson transitions from sober companion to consulting detective in her own right over the course of season two, their ongoing partnership offers her as a counterpoint: complementary in terms of methods, but different in their needs and relationship to the work.

In addition to being an astute choice of medium, the writers have clearly taken care to lay the groundwork for the sort of esoterica that Holmes would know, from the cigarette ash of different brands to having a source for moose cheese as a barter chip. At the same time, they don’t fall into a common trap of shows trying to show their characters are smart by having them banter in factoids that sound erudite, but fail to pass muster. I am sure there are slips and fanciful exaggerations because it is a television show, but based on summary review of the bits I either knew or cared to look up, including the moose cheese, Holmes is sufficiently right to establish his bona fides.

But these two points are necessary prerequisites. The choices the show makes in character development are what sets this version apart.

When we meet Sherlock Holmes in Elementary he is effectively insufferable. A recovering addict who doesn’t want help and is absolutely convinced that he is smarter than everyone around him. Like the Cumberbatch version, this Holmes struggles to understand emotions, turning to sex for physical release rather than for intimacy, but here his incapacity results in an underlying desire and overcompensation.

From that single character decision comes a series of further choices.

Elementary establishes early on that Sherlock is smarter than everyone else around him, but with that intelligence he then overestimates them. He knows that other people can provide services and relies on his own consultants, but always on his own terms, never just in the run of daily life. The show uses this weakness in a number of ways. In one, Holmes believes that he has hidden his addiction from everyone, but is forced to realize that the police know his secret and work with him anyway. In another, Holmes learns that Watson is also intelligent, turning their companionship into a genuine partnership and believable friendship rather than a superior-inferior relationship. Then, in season three, Holmes comes up against the possibility that he killed someone during the period of his addiction.

But the smartest choices that the show makes might be in the direction of their relationships. It would have been all-too easy for a male Holmes and a female Watson to hook up, but their relationship is one of friendship. Much more interesting is to offer a twist on Irene Adler-Jamie Moriarty character. Other receptions of Sherlock Holmes have done something similar with Adler, pushing a romantic angle on the proper Victorian admiration of Doyles’ text. Without going into details for the sake of spoilers, Elementary doesn’t stop there, twisting Holmes’ emotions and using Adler/Moriarty as an opportunity to reflect on his relationship to society, a choice that gains power as the show layers additional depth on the character.

Sherlock Holmes in Elementary is in few respects a Victorian detective, but that is not the nature of reception. Instead, the show interprets and develops the characters in ways that are both eminently watchable and imbue it with more depth than it has any right to.

A Midyear Writing Reflection

I aim to spend an hour a day writing. Only time actually spent writing without interruption counts, and my calculation can be idiosyncratic. Distractions from Twitter, non-musical background noise, etc. don’t count, obviously, but neither does dedicated reading or research, while editing for style and working through an article for a footnote does, provided that I have the manuscript open. Writing here is bonus.

I subscribe to the opinion that a scholar and aspiring writer in my position should write every day, minimum five days a week. (I have kept my resolution of one weekend day entirely free from work this year, and most summer weekends are totally work-free.) Sometimes this is easier said than done, and in the roughly two years I have been tracking the time I spend writing as a form of accountability there are predictable dips at the height of the semester.

I have tried to find ways to work around the fact that my brain is pretty well shot after I finish teaching in the semester, whether by writing first thing in the morning (sometimes as early as 4 AM) or by taking a nap before buckling down for a short period or just hoping that I can find a groove in a twenty-minute Pomodoro session and keep going. Realistically, the distractions of grading and course-prep often mean I do not write at all some days.

By contrast, I know I am in a good place with my work when not only do I look forward to getting into the writing, but I end up in a trance-like state that I more associate with the feeling of being on fire on a basketball court. On a lot of recent days, for instance, I will start in on one of my current writing projects, get into a rhythm, write for an hour or more without looking up, take a break to use the restroom and get a drink of water, and then do it again.

This is a summertime rhythm. There are few distractions on campus and while I could be spending more time preparing for my fall classes, neither am I totally neglecting them. Writing like this is fun.

I still get frustrated that all of these projects weren’t finished yesterday, of course, but in these times it is easier to focus on finishing a paragraph, a section, a topic, or just a footnote.

It helps that I am happy with how the projects are shaping up, but neither is this a prerequisite. The in-progress piece I think is best is one that I spent most of last semester wrestling with, while the things I am euphorically banging out now have some good ideas embedded in them, but will need a lot of cleanup. Today was particularly troublesome on that front, taking a while to find a rhythm and, once I was there, mostly resulted in identifying problems with the section rather than finding answers. But all of this is okay because I can see progress toward a final product.

I have been trying to write this post for over a week now, ironically during the period when I have been able to find that rhythm in my academic writing. Then I go to write this post and find that I lack words, think it would be better as a Twitter thread, and come up blank there too, because this is not a straightforward project update or a frivolous, frolicky ode to summer writing.

Instead, I have been grappling with the question “why now?” The answer, I think, lies in my mental health.

I spent most of the past academic year depressed, with the condition exacerbated by exhaustion and anxiety. I acknowledged as much in a reflection at the end of last year, but it wasn’t until several weeks after the end of the spring semester that I started to see progress. Anxiety about the future, money, and the job market and exhaustion from following the news have not gone anywhere. Thinking about either too much is liable to produce a visceral reaction, but for the past several weeks they have been easier to cope with.

Not much has changed. I made minor tweaks to my diet to eat better and have been losing a little weight, but I didn’t start seeing a therapist or taking medication. Even my deliberate mindfulness, as gamified through Headspace, has lapsed, though I have been working to apply those principles to my daily life. Mostly, I have strategically been trying to do less, and to focus on doing what I do well.

This post is, in effect, an exercise in mindfulness. I wanted to acknowledge my struggles with anxiety and depression, particularly over the past six months, so that when I start to feel the effects again I can be proactive. But I also admire people who are open about mental health issues in academia and wanted to acknowledge one of the ways in which they have affected me.

Writing is hard. I end a good day’s writing session mentally tired much the way I emerge from a strenuous workout physically tired. Depression and anxiety are equally exhausting, but in a far less rewarding way. Dealing with both simultaneously might as well be one of the labors of Heracles.

(Full disclosure, I was looking for another metaphor, but, not finding one, decided that Hera would have foiled the big lunk with this challenge.)

If any of this sounds familiar, know that you are not alone, but also that you should address the underlying depression. Use therapy if that works for you, or find time every day to go for a walk away from the constant thrum of rage coming from the smart phone. Whatever works for you. Life is much more manageable when you’re not exhausted from constantly wrangling mental health issues.

Should any graduate students and other academics who happen to read this want a sympathetic ear, please hit me up, but I hear one of my writing projects calling my name now.

One More Parade

Like any form of exhibition, parades are an expression of identity and agenda on the part of the people putting them on.

The political and religious calendar in ancient Athens, for instance, was full of processions and parades. The Panathenaia, a multi-day festival in honor of the patron deity of the city, was the crowning event. Its schedule was constrained by tradition, meaning of course that it changed over time: athletic games, poetic competitions, and a procession that invited the goddess back into the city.

Four citizen girls led the procession, carrying the peplos, the ceremonial garment for the goddess. Behind them came the priestesses and women, then the sacrificial animals, musicians, soldiers and finally ordinary citizens.

At another festival in fifth-century Athens, the Dionysia, part of the festivities included a pompe, that is a parade of the actors and sponsors of the festival and a proagon (a pre-festival procession) that included war orphans, the children of men killed in battle during the war.

Each procession differed in form and composition, but they all served to construct community by delineating who was allowed to participate and who could only watch.

Each procession also projected a martial undercurrent.

Such an inspiration it would have been see, Agesilaus in the lead and then the other soldiers coming from the gymnasium, garlanded, and the garlands having been dedicated to Artemis.

ἐπερρώσθη δ᾽ ἄν κἀκεῖνο ἰδῶν, Ἀγησίλαον μὲν πρῶτον, ἔπειτα δὲ καὶ τοὺς ἄλλους στρατιώτας ἐστεφανωμένους τε ὅπου ἀπὸ γυμνασίων ἴοιεν, καὶ ἀνατιθέντας τοὺς στεφάνους τῇ Ἀρτέμιδι.

Xenophon, Agesilaus 1.27

Although the Athenian processions are the most famous in the ancient world, they are the norm rather than the exception in the Greek world. The fourth-century took spectacles to a new level. During his campaign in Asia Minor, the Spartan king Agesilaus leading his soldiers in a garlanded procession to the temple of Artemis at Ephesus––a procession emulated by Alexander the Great some sixty years later. Both displays came in moments of nominal liberations, so both kings used them to demonstrate that it was through their force of arms that the Greeks would defeat the Persians.

[Alexander] himself remained in Ephesus where he made offerings to Artemis and ordered a pompe with his soldiers fully armed and arrayed for battle.

αὐτὸς δὲ ὑπομείνας ἐν Ἐφέσῳ θυσίαν τε ἔθυσε τῇ Ἀρτέμιδι καὶ πομπῆν ἔπεμψε ξὺν τῆ στρατιᾷ πάσῃ ὡπλισμένῃ τε καὶ ὡς ἐς μάχην ξυντεταγμένῃ.

Arrian, Anabasis 1.18.2

Kings such as Ptolemy II expanded the spectacle still further in the Hellenistic period. Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae (Learned Banqueteers) preserves a lengthy description of Ptolemy’s pompe written by the contemporary historian Callixenus of Rhodes. The procession included a menagerie of animals and what we might call floats, with personifications of imperial territories and divinities designed to demonstrate the king’s wealth, power, and largesse. Much like subsequent pompes, this procession also included soldiers.

After all of that a units of cavalry and infantry paraded by, all fully and spectacularly equipped. The foot numbered 57,200, the horse 23,200. All of these marched in formation, each draped with a stole and carrying their appropriate weapons and armor.

ἐπὶ δὲ πᾶσιν ἐπόμπευσαν αἱ δυνάμεις αἱ ἱππικαὶ καὶ πεζικαὶ, πᾶσαι καθωπλισμέναι θαυμασίως. πεζοὶ μὲν πέντε μυριάδας καὶ ἑπτακισχιλίους καὶ ἑξακοσίους, ἱππεῖς δὲ δισμύριοι τρισχίλιοι διακίσιοι. πάντες δ᾽ οὗτοι ἐπόμπευσαν τὴν ἁρμόζουσαν ἑκάστῳ ἠμφιεσμένοι στολὴν καὶ τὰς προσηκούσας ἔχοντες πανοπλίας.

Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 5.35

Then there were victory parades. The Roman Senate awarded generals Triumphs for military victories. This was the only time generals could legally bring their soldiers into the city, where they marched through Rome displaying captives and booty. Josephus, a captive witness to the triumph that followed end of the Jewish revolt of the 60s CE, wrote that he was without device (ἀμήχανον) to adequately describe the spectacle.

Then [Vespasian] returned to the gates out of which they always dispatch the Triumphs, from which it gets its name. From there…they launched the triumph, marching it through the theaters so that they might be more easily seen by the masses.

πρὸς δὲ τὴν πύλην αὐτὸς ἀνεχώρει τὴν ἀπὸ τοῦ πέμπεσθαι δι᾽ αὐτῆς αἰεὶ τοὺς θριάμβους τῆς προσηγορίας ἀπ᾽ αὐτῶν τετυχυῖαν. ἐνταῦθα…ἔπεμπον τὸν θρίαμβον διὰ τῶν θεάτρων διεξελαύνοντες, ὅπως εἴη τοῖς πλήθεσιν ἡ θέα ῥᾴων.

Josephus, BJ 7.129–32

Compared to the Athenian festivals, the Hellenistic pompe and Roman Triumph were more explicitly military celebrations, but they too were expressions of identity. Hellenistic monarchies legitimized themselves as rulers of spear-won territory in the shadow of Alexander the Great and by the time of Vespasian triumphs marked the restoration of the Roman peace as much as they did new conquests.

The same is true of American victory parades, from the one marking the end of the Civil War and the reunification of the country through force of arms to the ones at the close of both World War One and World War Two, a war to end all wars and a war for global freedom, respectively.

President Trump has wanted a military revue since he took office. On July 4, 2019 he got one in “Salute to America,” an event inspired by the military parade he attended for Bastille Day in France.

The French Bastille Day (fête nationale) commemorates the storming of the Bastille by revolutionary militias on July 14, 1789, a symbolic triumph of the people over royal oppression. The history of both the storming of the Bastille and of the national festival is, of course, more complicated than the memory; the Bastille only held seven prisoners at the time and there was a temporary reconciliation with the king in the immediate aftermath. Preliminary plans for a national festival in honor of the republic were formed that same year. In memory, though the storming of the Bastille is a military victory and since the passage of a law in 1880, the celebration has included a triumph on behalf of the French citizens in remembrance of those who shed blood for French unity.

American independence day, by contrast, is neither a triumph nor a pompe. The United States does not measure its freedom from Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown on October 17, 1781 or the first blood at Concord and Lexington on April 19, 1775, but from July 4, 1776 when delegates from the thirteen colonies signed a document declaring that they held “these truths to be self evident, that all Men are endowed by their creator to be equal.”

Defenders of “Salute to America” call it harmless or imply that the only way to be patriotic is to celebrate the military. It may be true that young people will be interested in the military technology––I know I am drawn to collections of weapons in museums and remain fascinated by military history––but I am also uncomfortable with overt martial displays masquerading as patriotism.

Modern America has altogether too many of these displays already.

For a lot of Americans the July 4 holiday is an opportunity to wear star spangled bathing suits, grill out, and shoot off fireworks. Others ask whether the United States is a country that ought to be celebrated. In truth, it is sometimes hard to point out individual things past or present (other than the US National Soccer Team, which just won the Women’s World Cup) that warrant celebration because anything positive is subsumed by a wave of individual, institutional, and cultural sins.

But for all that, I like July 4. Not the ambient American jingoism that can accompany the holiday or the fireworks that fill the streets this time of year (give me functional fires, thanks), but because of the aspirational enlightenment ideals it nominally commemorates.

Beyond the obvious parallels between “Salute to America” and military parades in North Korea or Russia, this is why holding it on July 4 is particularly toxic. At a time when individual rights are being rolled back across the country and thousands of people are being detained in camps, “Salute to America” reduced the celebration to warlike display, as if to say that this defines what America is and aspires to be.

Cold hard stares on faces so proud
Kisses from the girls and cheers from the crowd
And the widows from the last war cry into their shrouds
Here comes the big parade
Don’t be afraid, price is paid

Phil Ochs, “One More Parade”

Fast Food Nation

“There is nothing inevitable about the fast food nation that surrounds us –– about its marketing strategies, labor policies, and agricultural techniques, about its relentless drive for conformity and cheapness. The triumph of McDonald’s and its imitators was by no means preordained.”

“Our competitors are our friends, and our customers are our enemies” – the former president of Archer Daniels Midland

The most recognizable symbols of Americana are brand names such as McDonalds, Subway, Coca Cola, and now Starbucks. Fast Food Nation is Eric Schlosser’s classic work of investigative reportage that looks at the food and labor systems that led to the first major wave of these corporations.

Schlosser traces the fast food phenomenon to California in the 1940s and 50s where drive-in hotdog and burger joints began to pop up, catering to the newfound car culture. At the heart of these restaurants was the “Speedee” system that applied the principles of the assembly line to food service, simultaneously ensuring a consistent product across locations and reducing the need for skilled staff.

Allowing for some variation––Ray Kroc, for instance, expanded McDonalds by purchasing land for new franchisees and becoming their landlord––the model is simple: offer large quantities of tasty food to consumers at the lowest possible price point, while making a profit through a) volume and b) reducing the cost of both labor and supply. The superficially-attractive combination of taste, quantity, and cost feeds into the first, while the second is accomplished through increased efficiency, industrial supply chains, and anti-union activity.

From the point of sale, which takes up the entirety of part one, in part two, Schlosser works backward through the supply chain, profiling the conditions in the potato and meat industry in a reprise of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. The common thread in Schlosser’s account is the overwhelming priority on corporate profit that pushes the speed in slaughterhouses past the point of safety for either workers or consumers.

Fast Food Nation is dated. Schlosser does not predict, for instance, the meteoric rise of pizza chains and Starbucks (admittedly, the story of coffee supply chains follows a different form of exploitation) or the local and slow food movement, and his cautionary tale about mad cow disease is more at home in the 1990s than in the 2010s. Public discussion of the industry also continued after 2001 when this was published. In 2004, the documentary Super Size Me set out to demonstrate the catastrophic health consequences of eating a McDonalds-based diet, in 2012 there was outrage surrounding “Pink Slime,” a finely processed meat product added to hamburger meat, and in 2016, The Founder dramatized Ray Kroc’s takeover of the McDonald’s franchise.

And yet, while non-historical details have changed, the broad strokes of Fast Food Nation remain relevant.

Fast food, both of the sort Schlosser profiles and of the so-called fast-casual variety, remains ubiquitous in the American foodscape. Reading about the corporate systems gave me flashbacks to the years 2009 through 2012 when I worked in Quiznos restaurants. Everything about the menu, from the recipes to prep to the script with customers was finely choreographed. The production line had four stations even though by the time I worked there we almost never had even four people working at the same time. Every station assembled food from prepared ingredients according to recipes on easy-to-follow job aids. Drinks were the largest profit item on the menu, at the time a $1.99 drink cost $.27 in paper and syrup––the credit card transaction fee was higher––and most skilled job (other than customer service) was handling the bladed tools for slicing meat, cheese, and tomatoes.

Quiznos marketed itself as a cut above fast food, with quality recipes, ingredients, and sauces, putting it in a class with the likes of Panera. In some ways this is true, but its primary competition was Subway, a fact immediately apparent in the handful of regional corporate meetings I attended. Most notably, in the wake of the 2008 financial crash (the year I graduated college, which, in part, led to this employment), Quiznos was trying to stay competitive with Subway at a time when it worried that a premium price point was driving customers away. Their solution introduced 5-dollar large sandwiches: basic subs without fancy sauces to match the Subway 5-dollar footlong.

Quiznos had already peaked by the time I worked there, beginning a decline that saw it lose more than 90% of its locations in about ten years. Cutting corners on supply and labor couldn’t compensate for discounted prices and the restaurant was no longer profitable for franchisees. Nevertheless, the fingerprints of the fast food revolution were all over the Quiznos experience, from the shiny but sterile veneer designed to draw people in while being easy to clean to the Taylorization that had inspectors time how long it took employees to make a sandwich at each station. The only things lacking were cars and the overt marketing to children.

As Fast Food Nation approaches its 20-year anniversary, I am left reflecting on how the financial crisis of 2008 might have contributed to its continuing relevance. There has been a renaissance in food culture in the past decade, with food competitions and explorations splashed across the television landscape and waves of excellent food––high class, diverse, local, ethical food–– have sprung up across the country. We don’t yet have a taco truck on every corner, but we’re inching in that direction.

Yet, it seems that the only thing that millennials are not killing is fast food, with the possible exception of McDonalds (depending on who you believe). Fast food continues to dominate the restaurant marketshare, with particular growth in pizza restaurants.

(A few years back I read an investigative feature on fast food pizza that looked at cheese consumption and how the industry’s demand for cheap tomatoes was warping the Nigerian economy, but I can’t remember which outlet had it and can’t find a link. Sorry.)

The war for which company can offer the greatest combination of taste and quantity at the lowest price…while paying workers as little as possible, rages on. Schlosser’s story details how entrepreneurial innovation can metastasize into runaway greed and remains relevant at time when fast food workers have been protesting for a living wage. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But there is also a larger point. The ubiquitous fast food restaurants that dot American highways, cities and malls are just one manifestation of the larger systems that lie behind the American diet. These corporations might have started a seismic shift in US food systems, but these same systems lie behind the American diet from readily available processed foods in stores to innumerable restaurants that all purchase from the same suppliers. In short, the US remains a fast food nation.

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I have since finished another of Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunthor novels, 2017’s Trace, and have begun reading A Long Day’s Evening, a Turkish novel by Bilge Karasu. Largely set in 8th century Byzantium, the novel offers a meditation on the obligations between the individual and authority.

The Greek War of Independence

I have studied and taught students about ancient Greece for years now, but have only been able to spend a small amount of time there and my awareness of the recent history of the nation is woefully inadequate. It was with this in mind that I picked up David Brewer’s The Greek War of Independence after stumbling across a copy in my local library.

Brewer’s book is a straightforward narrative history that covers the events between about 1820 when the war of independence broke out and 1831 when the Bavarian prince Otto became king of Greece. Overall, I found the book a somewhat dry account of the conflict in the Peloponnese and Roumeli, with one notable exception to discuss the massacre on Chios. Rather than a recap, for which there is a Wikipedia entry, I will be focusing on a few broader impressions.

In Brewer’s account, the impetus for the revolution did not start in Greece itself, but among a community of ex-patriot merchants and phil-hellenic Europeans influenced by the Enlightenment. In 1820 a group of these exiles created the Filiki Eteria, a fraternal organization led by Alexander Ypsilantis dedicated to liberating Greece from the Ottomans. Despite dreams of securing Russian support and raising Balkan Christians in rebellion, though, the Filiki Eteria’s main expedition was an expedition across the Danube that failed to elicit significant Russian aid and was denounced by the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople.

This failure did not spell failure for the revolution altogether, but pointed to a significant weakness, particularly in its early years. Again following Brewer’s account, most of the early successes came in the Peloponnese, but the rebellion was hindered by disunion. At one point Brewer quips:

“Greek society was criss-crossed by a large number of fault lines, and was so divided that perhaps it should not be called a society at all.”

He does not follow up, but it is possible to read between the lines. Most of the Greek soldiers were erstwhile bandits loyal to individual captains whose interest was in plunder and would variously serve Greek or Turkish forces. (Even later in the war, the Greek forces often consisted of foreign mercenaries.) Moreover, there was conflict between representatives from the different regions of Greece. But the biggest threat to the cause was tension between the First National Assembly and the military leadership (most notably with Theodoros Kolokotronis, who had won the most significant Greek victory to that point) over who ought to be in control of the conflict––tension that broke out into two civil wars in 1824–1825.

These obstacles, as well as the chronic lack of money, made the eventual Greek victory all the more remarkable.

Perhaps my greatest frustration with The Greek War of Independence was with Brewer’s narrow focus on the war. He places the conflict in a bit of a broader context with a few words about the Enlightenment ideas that influenced some of the instigators and about the external pressures facing the Ottoman Empire. Ultimately, though, the only wider context Brewer is interested in is how the UK, France, and Russia entered the war––support that brought about the Battle of Navarino in 1827 where their combined fleet destroyed the Ottoman forces and effectively ended the war.

Between this battle, British loans, and the installation of a German king, Brewer is undoubtedly correct that getting European support was a crucial factor in the Greek independence movement, but this is also illustrative of my frustration. The Ottoman Empire, except for Mehmed Ali the ruler of Egypt, generally appears as a singular enemy, not unlike how many histories of the American Revolution present the British. This left me with questions about the relationship between the Ottoman state and its Greek provinces––including the wider war on islands like Crete and Cyprus. Presenting the war in a strictly Greek context did a disservice to both the complexity of the situation and gave only a partial explanation for the Greek success.

I had an interesting exchange on Twitter while reading The Greek War of Independence, with one of the lines of discussion being David Brewer as a historian. My correspondent was critical on the grounds that Brewer came up as a scholar of Classical Greece and admits to his limits with more recent Greek sources. I don’t have the background with early modern Greek history to render judgement about his use of sources, but am inclined to believe the criticism. Brewer leans heavily on contemporary British and French sources in his account, which I also suspect informed his choice of narrative arc.

As someone currently trying to write his first history book I can appreciate the challenges involved in this project, particularly in its complexity and unfamiliarity to a general anglophone audience, but, overall, I found The Greek War of Independence frustrating. The narrow, largely political scope meant a barrage of names and a twisty narrative, without either doing enough to contextualize the conflict or to analyze it. I was particularly left with questions about Ottoman “oppression,” the war’s aftermath and how it was remembered (not exclusively about the massacre of Chios), and how the non-political and military actors received their independence. At the same, Brewer’s aim to give an authoritative account largely takes the life out of a series of what seem to be flamboyant characters. I am glad to know a bit more about the war that created the modern Greek nation, but I can’t rightly recommend this book.

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I am now reading Eric Schlosser’s classic Fast Food Nation. Published in 2001, some of the reportage is out of date, including the price of potatoes and food, salaries, and the total number of stores in operation, but the underlying features remain true.

The Twilight of the Blogs

A few months ago Bill Caraher declared that this is a “golden age” of blogging about the ancient world, a sentiment that I find hard to disagree with despite the popular idea of a blogpocaplyse. And yet when Neville Morley posted last week about a decline in blog traffic, that, too rang true.

Caraher subsequently posted a reflection on the changing rhythm of blogs, suggesting: “Instead of blogs maturing into a less-formal and more intimate complement to the scholarly discourse, blogs have become places where we negotiate the social conscience of our fields.

I am perhaps a little too aware of my blog traffic. Since switching to the WordPress platform I have had slow, but steady year over year growth. Although much of this growth is attributable to the WordPress reader, the single largest referrer, particularly when a post blows up, is Twitter.

(The exception to this statement is an intermittent flurry of activity from India any time there is an election because I once wrote about Intizar Husain’s Basti.)

Ultimately, though, I am small potatoes. “Growth” here is relative in that I started virtually from scratch and do very little promotion outside linking to each post in a tweet.

Nor do I really engage with scholarship or sources like most substantial classics-related blogs. I’ve written about this before, but, in short, my writing has passed through several iterations before settling into what it is now: a catchall where I can write about things for which I do not have another outlet. Writing helps me organize my thoughts, and, for instance, I don’t write about books for any other outlet (at the moment––I would love to start), so those posts go here.

At the same time, blog posts are as resource where I can direct people should I not have space to give a substantial answer. To give just one example, a Twitter-friend asked about The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, a book I wrote about last year and so in addition to a short answer on Twitter, I was able to point to the longer thoughts here. Similarly, I wrote reflections about the Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting in San Diego and in defense of graduate programs at non-elite schools, as well as posting a reading list for teaching at the college level. Like the examples Caraher gives, the most trafficked posts are those grappling with the social or structural issues in academia and rely on viral (at least by my standards) transmission.

Other platforms serve other purposes. Podcasts give the sense of being a silent participant in the conversation. Instagram allows me to post pictures of things I bake and places I go. Twitter tends toward the ephemeral, albeit with a long public record, as it flies by in quick drips that fit both hot-take culture and the large number of demands on our attention.

Does this mean that the current blog landscape is populated not by survivors living in a new Eden, but those who are already dead and just don’t know it?

Yes and no. A few years ago I noticed that a blurring between reportage and analysis or opinion on news sites. The suggested “articles” were increasingly from the latter category, on blogs hosted by the site. This says to me that the problem of declining traffic isn’t a matter of “blogs,” but of unaffiliated blogs. Based on the comments on Morley’s post, I am hardly alone in struggling to see value in writing substantial posts for a personal blog since the odds of it being picked up are significantly lower.

But, as Caraher notes, blogging has matured in a somewhat different direction, and each blog will reflect the individual author(s). Traffic is a sort of validation, but reasons to blog exist beyond that alone. So long as I see value in using this space to organize my thoughts I will continue to blog. At the moment I am confident enough that I plan to use student-run blogs in two of my classes for the upcoming semester.

A Wizard of Earthsea

Coming to Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels as a mature reader, I started with her mature works The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. These novels are philosophical and profound, part of her allegorical Hainish Cycle. By contrast, I put off reading A Wizard of Earthsea because it is simple, a book for a younger audience.

Sparrowhawk (real name: Ged) is a promising young mage from Gont, an island in the archipelago on Earthsea with a reputation for giving birth to powerful mages. As a child he manages to repel a Kargish raid on his village and is subsequently taken in by the Mage Ogion. The novel is, in effect, a chronicle of Sparrowhawk’s early exploits where he demonstrates his power by binding the powerful dragon Yevaud to Pendor and achieves his first great triumph: defeating a shadow that he himself summoned into the world.

In short, this is a classic Bildungsroman for a young wizard. I have found myself increasingly bored by stories about preternaturally talented young men and this concern lingered the entire time I was reading this book that is clearly written for younger readers.

But to dismiss A Wizard of Earthsea as shallow or rote is to give Le Guin too little credit. As she notes in the Afterword, this is a story about a person of color who is betrayed by light-skinned characters. He is explicitly a good and well-intentioned person with a positive male friendship, and is his own enemy. This is story without overt militarism or wars that define the fantasy genre from the Arthurian models through Tolkien and beyond.

Le Guin writes:

War as a moral metaphor is limited, limiting, and dangerous. By reducing the choices of action to “a war against” whatever-it-is, you divide the war Me or Us (good) and Them or It (bad) and reduce the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off. This is puerile, misleading, and degrading. In stories, it evades any solution but violence and offers the reader mere infantile reassurance. All too often the heroes of such fantasies behave exactly as the villains do, acting with mindless violence, but the hero is on the “right” side and therefore will win. Right makes might.

Or does might make right?

If war is the only game going, yes. Might makes right. Which is why I don’t play war games.

A Wizard of Earthsea came out in 1968, far before the start of the recent golden age of fantasy literature. The best that the modern genre has to offer (e.g. N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season) offer more complex plots and more fully developed characters, but this just makes it easier to underestimate her achievement. Even today, too many fantasy novels default to a faux-Medieval Europe setting and feature heroes whose “best” skill is their ability to end lives. Wrestling with the morality of this skill may be a common feature in recent novels, but there remains a residual attraction to sword-wielding prodigies.

I remain in awe of Le Guin, whose keen insight imbues this attractive mid-grade novel with subtle depth. Still, I was not the primary audience for this book and had difficulty connecting with the characters because of the tendency to narrate at a remove rather than embedding the reader in their points of view––something that heightens the superficial resemblance to Arthurian Romance.

All of this to say: I am glad to have finally read A Wizard of Earthsea, but I’m not sure that I will read on in the series.

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I am about a third of the way through a history of the Greek War of Independence that broke out in 1820. The book has turned into a bit of a slog. The most interesting thing, though, is exploring the difficulties of creating a nation at a time when seemingly the only people who conceived of “Greece” were educated people from Western Europe who visited the region with their eyes filled with visions of the distant past and a society of ex-pat merchants and soldiers of fortune.