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Women of the Silk – Gail Tsukiyama

I read The Samurai’s Garden early in 2016 in my push to start reading a more diverse array of books and liked it well enough that I decided to pick up a copy of Tsukiyama’s acclaimed debut novel, Women of the Silk.

Women of the Silk is a slow story that unfolds over nineteen years (1919-1938) in southern China. Pei is the second daughter of a peasant son-less farmer who dedicated his life to mulberry bushes and fish ponds. A series of lean years force the family to make difficult decisions, one of which is to ostensibly sell Pei, about age eleven, into servitude at the Yung Kee silk factory where her wages will help support the family. The novel unfolds slowly, following Pei and her new family (the eponymous women of the silk), be they her surrogate mother Auntie Yee or her friends like Mei Li and Lin. It is a story about friendship and everyday life, with characters grappling with love, labor, and their liminal position between the truly rural existence that Pei was born in and the urban environments of Hong Kong. There are limited climaxes as tension builds over some conflict, but the story ultimately builds to the end of this existence when there appears the specter of war with Japan.

Unlike most stories that deal with child labor, Women of the Silk portrays the situation in terms of sadness, not horror. The work is difficult, but, while there is one incident of labor unrest, it is not brutal and the women are taken care of. Moreover, Tsukiyama focuses on how Pei and the other women formed a surrogate community within a culture extremely dependent on family, doubly so when the women perform a commitment ceremony to symbolically wed the work. Work is difficult, but the pay offers freedom that did not exist for women like Pei’s biological sister whose life is entirely at the whim of her father or husband. Thus, silk work is likewise attractive even to Lin, whose background is diametrically opposite Pei and equally as restricting.

Tsukiyama’s prose is lyrical in a way that suits Women of the Silk‘s narrative as it builds the relationships in the silk factory. That said, I found myself frustrated because the book seemed to be giving vignettes of particular importance that I did not think were all completely earned. It goes without saying any book will have to focus on these episodes and none of them were necessarily inappropriate for the characters, but in several the story drops in without either developing the characters directly involved in the episode or focusing on Pei’s reaction to the events. The result is a dissonant sensation where the prose gives a sense of depth, but the story only sometimes allows for this to be realized. It was for this reason that while I didn’t dislike Women of the Silk, I much preferred The Samurai’s Garden. In other words, Women of the Silk is a first novel with a lot of promise, but left me wanting more.

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Next up, I finished Andrey Platonov’s curious and increasingly esoteric novel The Foundation Pit and am now reading nobel laureate Mo Yan’s The Republic of Wine.

The City & The City – China Miéville

China Miéville is an author whose work has been vaguely on my radar for maybe a decade now, but I never I picked up or even learned more about it than a few titles. I was aware, barely, that there were people who like his books, but, other than that, he existed in an enormous blind spot. Until now. I finally picked up a copy of The City & The City and read it in two days.

The City & The City is, in some respects, a straightforward murder mystery noir, following Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad as he looks into the death of a young woman. What sets The City & The City apart from most noir is that its setting that forces Borlú into a unique course of action.

Borlú is a detective in the city of Beszel, an ally of the United States with Balkan overtones; twinned and overlapping with Beszel, though, is Ul Qoma, interdicted by the United States based on Cold War allegiances, though that has not dampened recent Ul Qoman economic prosperity. There is speculation that the two cities stem from a common “Pre-Cleavage” ancestor, but they have been rivals and opponents since time immemorial. Large portions of both cities are cross-hatched such that many buildings and streets exist simultaneously in both, so existence requires a constant “unseeing” of vehicles or people that threaten collision should they end up in the same space. Rarely are there physical boundaries, but the chasm is preserved by tradition and by Breach—a mysterious and magical force that exists primarily to protect the balance. Borlú’s case thus becomes significantly more complicated when he learns that his victim was killed in Ul Qoma and transported to Beszel. Even more perplexing is when his request for Breach to take over the case is rejected because, in fact, no Breach had occurred.

Borlú doesn’t particularly stand out as a protagonist and mystery novels are so plot-driven that I hesitate to say more about it. Both are competently realized, but what made The City & the City such an achievement is how Mieville melds these traditional elements with the breathtaking setting that speaks to a huge number of contemporary issues. Alluded to above, the touchstones for the setting were almost all Eastern European, building on resonances of the Muslim and Christian cultures of the Balkans. Then there is a commentary about split cities like (Cold War) Berlin and (contemporary) Jerusalem, but intertwined to an extreme degree. But, even more, Mieville weaves in a subtler critique of modern cities with the idea of “Unseeing”, that is, seeing what is happening enough to avoid it, but actively and immediately forgetting what was just seen. Unseeing is a plot device in terms of Breach, but it can also be seen as a commentary about issues of economic inequality and the homeless—worlds that are intertwined, but, ultimately, entirely distinct.

I have found myself saying some variation on this a lot lately, but I am ashamed it took me as long as it did to read anything by Mieville, but am glad that I got around to it eventually. It won’t take me nearly as long to read something else of his.

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I built up a bit of a reading backlog this week, finishing Gail Tsukiyama’s Women of the Silk and Andrey Platonov’s The Foundation Pit. Now I am between books and don’t know what I am going to pick up next.

A catalogue of Greek breads

“Tryphon of Alexandria, in the book on the nature of plants sets out a typology of loaves (if I remember them): the leavened loaf, the unleavened, the loaf made of the finest wheat flour, the one made of groats, the loaf made of leftover flour (this, he says, is better for digestion than the one from spotless flour of wheat), the loaf from rye (or spelt), from single-grain wheat, and from millet. The loaf made of groats, he says, are from wheat, because there are no barley groats.”

Τρύφων ὁ Ἀλεχανδρεὺς ἐν τοῖς φυτικοῖς ἐπιγραφομένοις ἄρτων ἐκτίθεται γένη, εἴ τι κάγὠ μέμνημαι, ζυμίτην, ἄζυμον, σεμιδαλίτην, χονδρίτην, συγκομιστόν τοῦτον δ᾽ εἶναἰ φησι καὶ διαχωρητικώτερον τοῦ καθαροῦ τὸν ἐξ ὀλυρῶν, τὸν ἐκ τιφῶν, τὸν ἐκ μελινῶν. γίνεται μέν, φησίν, ὀ χονδρίτης ἐκ τῶν ζειῶν, ἐκ γὰρ κριθῆς χόνδρον μὴ γίνεσθαι.

“And according to its roasting there is a loaf called ipnites.”

παρὰ δὲ τὰς ὀπτήσεις ὀνομάζεσθαι ἰπνίτην… oven baked bread.

ἐσχαρίτης…escharites, baked over a fire, reputedly served warm with a sweet sauce.

ἀταβυρίτην… tabyrites, loaf of some sort (distinction unclear).

ἀχαίνας… achainas, large loaves baked by women for religious festivals.

“And in the festival called the Megalartia, it is the name give by those who carry loaves: ‘Munch on achainas plump with fat!'”

καὶ ἑορτὴ καλεῖται Μεγαλάρτια ἐπιλεγόντων τῶν φερόντων: ἀχαίνην στέατος ἔμπλεων τράγον.

κριβανίτην… cribanites, pan loaves likely baked in covered earthen vessels mentioned by Aristophanes with reference to their whiteness.

ἐγκρυφίαν… encryphias, secret loaves baked in ashes?

δίπυνον… dipyrus, twice baked loaves.

λάγανον… laganon, light cake, not particularly nutritious (wholesome), perhaps being made with suet (see below).

ἀπανθρακίς…apanthracis, cake baked over coals that is even less nutritious than laganon.

ἡμιάρτιον…hemiartion, half loaf.

πλακίτης…placite or flat loaf.

τυρῶντος ἄρτος…cheese loaf given to children.

δάρατον…daratos, unleavened bread called Cilician by a comic poet.

ἀγελαῖος…agelai, common loaves, without other specification.

αὐτόπυρος…autopyrus, loaves made from wheat meal.

ὀρίνδης…orindes, bread made from rice.

κὀλλαβος…collabos, a sort of individual roll made with milk and new wheat.

μηκονίδων (or μακωνίδων)…maconidos, topped with poppy seeds.

κρυσόκολλος…chrysocollos, bread made of honey and flax, with a name implying a golden color.

κολλύρα…collyra, and likely old-timey bread of uncertain makeup.

ὀβελίας…obelias (pennyloaf), named either after its cost (an obol) or because it is baked on spits, perhaps in ashes.

ἐτνίτης or λεκιθίτης…etnites or lekithites, two names for a kind of roll.

ναστός…nastos, a large, white, leavened loaf.

Ἡρακλεών…heracleon, a kind of flat (possibly cheese?) cake.

θρόνος…thronos, a type of loaf served to old men with mean, so perhaps a high status.

ἀποπυρίας…apopurias, a loaf baked or toasted on ashes, sometimes leavened.

ἀρτοπτίκινος…a bread baked in a different type best made with hard leaven.

Καππαδόκιος…”Cappadocian” bread, a tender loaf made with milk, oil and salt.

βωλητίνος…boletinos, a bread shaped like a mushroom where the kneading trough is covered in poppies and baked on top of groats.

στρεπτίκιος…strepticias, a bread made with a little milk, pepper, and sometimes oil. when suet is used in place of oil, it makes a bread called artolaganon.

This list is taken from Athenaeus’s Deipnosophistae, 3.75-9, and is the first of what will likely be multiple posts about Greek bread.

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

“We know you need wifi like you need air.” – hotel commercial.

“We want unlimited entertainment.” – Mark Wahlberg, in a phone commercial.

“Nobody but Ludditic granola-crunching freaks would call bad what no one can imagine being without.” – Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace’s opus Infinite Jest is a notoriously complex and torturous novel, full of arcana, errata, and opacity. IJ is set in a dystopic near-future where chemical accidents have created a toxic “Concavity” (or Convexity, depending on P.O.V.) in what was once upstate New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, creating something of a no-man’s land infested by feral hamsters where children are born without skulls. Enormous fans north of Boston keep the toxins from spreading south. The U.S., Canada, and Mexico have merged into a singular entity called O.N.A.N. (note the pun) under the presidential leadership of the singer Johnny Gentle, though many decisions are actually made by Rod “the God” Tine, director of the “Office of Unspecified Services,” an agency formed by combining law enforcement and intelligence services. Johnny Gentle’s presidency, largely post democratic and deeply corporate (naming rights to years are purchased, such that much of IJ takes place in “The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment”) is marked by “experialist” policies, which consist of forcing other countries to accept pieces of land (that are often now toxic) which contribute to fairly widespread separatism, particularly in Quebec.

Functionally, IJ has three narrative pieces that are variously interwoven. The basic plot of IJ is an operation by Tine’s agent Hugh (sometimes Helen) Steeply meeting with Remy Marathe, a member of Les Assassins en Fauteuils Roulants (Wheelchair Assassins, a.k.a. the A.F.R.) and turning him with promise of medical treatment for his wife born in the Concavity. Steeply needs information from Marathe because the A.F.R. are looking for a weapon of mass destruction: a movie created by the apres-garde director James O. Incandenza (a.k.a. The Mad Stork; Himself) titled Infinite Jest that, when watched, renders the viewer mad, with no ambitions other than repeatedly and endlessly watching the film. Steeply spends one night with Marathe in Arizona to thwart the A.F.R.

The scenes between Steeply and Marathe form the narrative backbone for IJ, but they are equal parts philosophical dialogue and framing device for the bulk of novel, which largely takes place in two parallel institutions in “Enfield,” MA (in the vicinity of Allston-Brighton), the Enfield Tennis Academy and the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol House. The Ennet House story follows Don Gately, a enormous, small-time crook and drug addict who, after a stint in jail and rehab, is now a live-in staffer at Ennet House. The story at Enfield Tennis Academy is that of the Incandenza family—Himself, now deceased, his widow Avril (tall, beautiful Quebecker, militant grammarian, strange sexual tendencies, a.k.a The Moms), brother-in-law Charles Tavis, and two youngest sons Mario (deformed, childlike) and Hal (brilliant intellectually and athletically, habitual drug user), though the latter is the primary character for this arc. Both stories are linked by the past relationship between Orin Incandenza (oldest son, now NFL punter with troublesome erotic tendencies) and Joelle van Dyne (former cheerleader, star of Infinite Jest, drug addict, cripplingly beautiful, member of the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed, a.k.a. radio personality Madam Psychosis). Further, the relationship to J.O. Incandenza make all of these characters A.F.R.-targets in their pursuit of the master tape of IJ.

Explaining IJ in these terms, however, understates its complexity, neuters its brilliance, and doesn’t even touch on what the book is actually about.*

[*To the extent even that one person can claim any sort of authoritative understanding.]

Drugs and alcohol feature prominently in IJ, both in the sense that most of the characters (ab)use substances or are in N/AA and in that there are many endnotes that are nothing more than the commercial details of the drugs mentioned in the story. These features, however, more serve as an entry point for a novel that is, in a much more catholic sense, about addiction and longing. My understanding of IJ is that it is about the universal human desire to have some sort of meaningful connection in the world.

We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately — the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly.

As simple as this sounds, it is actually heinously complex. The world, not so different from modern America, is consumed by tele-entertainment, consumerism, looks, and unapproachable idols such as (in a slightly dated reference that stood out to me because of teaching last semester) Raquel Welch. Everyone wants to feel something and to find some sort of connection, but most of what people actually do in pursuit of meaningful connection leaves them addicted and alone. Usually the act in question is some form of drug abuse, but for others it is sex. One such is Orin Incandenza, a serial adulterer whose perversion is in seducing young, often married, mothers and needing them to fall desperately, totally in love with him before he breaks off the relationship. In dialogue with Steeply, Marathe posits that Americans fetishize freedom, but that their definition of freedom is a “freedom from…constraint” and, elsewhere, there is a discussion of “idolatry of uniqueness.” Of course, the bounds of these freedoms are set by the entertainment because that entertainment sets the parameters of what it means to be hip, which is equated with being admired and accepted. Each new innovation adds depth and complexity to omnipresent social anxiety.

“Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves.”

There is a tension between the need for connection with other people and the superficiality of a world saturated with entertainment promising immediate freedom from displeasure without regard for anyone other than the individual. When people go to increasingly depraved lengths, whether to find connection or relieve their neurasthenia, they become increasingly isolated—in no small part because they end up hurting the people around them.

This summation only scratches IJ‘s surface. There are individual scenes that are particularly disturbing to read and others that made me laugh aloud, including a film presentation that is nothing but a real-time film of the audience and lasts exactly as long as there are people in the theater and Eschaton, an abstract global war game using tennis balls in place of nuclear warheads. There are the roots of all the reasons why a particular type of man idolizes Wallace’s exacting and raw style, only doing so in such a way that might repulse women, and there is plenty of fodder for a discussion about the gender and sexual politics in D.F.W.’s writing*. There are limitations in his setting, in terms of globalization and nationalism. There are deep readings to be had about the literary qualities of IJ‘s postmodernism**, and reading it in line with Hamlet where “Infinite Jest” is used in the scene with the skull, adding another layer to Concavity’s effects because it causes children to be born without skulls, and with its lengthy scenes with a ghost. Likewise: the whole story takes place as a flashback, so is Hal’s condition at the start of IJ the result of his consuming a drug or is it a symptom of withdrawal? (I believe it is the latter.) Could the whole story be a hallucination? If so, whose? If not, who is the author? Is there also the hand of an editor? And on and on.

[*I asked a friend whether, had he lived, Wallace might receive similar critical reception that Dave Chapelle had with his latest specials, only on the issues of gender.

**A term that can mean anything or nothing. I mean something specific in this sense, but don’t want to get into it here because I have already gone on too long.]

Let me conclude with this question: did I like Infinite Jest? I certainly appreciated it. I have appreciated everything I’ve read of Wallace’s, improving my vocabulary at the very least and usually coming away with a deeper appreciation for something in the world. It is a book that lingers, that you start to see everywhere, and, in final calculation, I think I did like it.

This does not mean, however, that I recommend that everyone go pick up a copy. Reading IJ is a chore that, partly because of several stretches where I wasn’t able to read at all, it took me nearly a month and a half to do and even then I felt that I missed a lot. Reading IJ takes time and determination and lends itself to a particular type of stubborn personality that crops up again and again in the book. If you made it this far but reading this post gave you palpitations, then I would not recommend the book; if you’re intrigued and want to give it a read, then I can promise that there is something to be gained in the investment.

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Next up, my palate cleanser from Infinite Jest was China Mieville’s excellent The City & The City, a fantastical noir story set in twinned and overlapping rival cities in Eastern Europe. I am now reading Gail Tsukiyama’s acclaimed first novel, Women of Silk.

Thucydides on Public Outcry

Lately I have been thinking about about “The Four Hundred,” an oligarchic coup in Athens in the year 411 BCE when the Assembly voted away their rights. Here is how Thucydides describes the scene:

“Thus by the actions of these (intelligent) men even unnatural deeds of such enormity came to pass; to have their freedom curtailed nearly a century after the tyrants were cast down was bitter for the Athenian demos, not only having not been ruled, but for half that time being accustomed to ruling over others. Since no one spoke in opposition, the assembly ratified the proposal and was dissolved.”

ὥστε ἀπ᾽ἀνδρῶν πολλῶν καὶ ξυνετῶν πραχθὲν τὸ ἔργον οὐκ ἀπεικότως καίπερ μέγα ὂν προυχώρησεν, χαλεπὸν γὰρ ἦν τὸν Ἀθηναίον δῆμον ἐπ᾽ ἔτει ἑκατοστῷ μάλιστα ἐπειδὴ οἱ τύραννοι κατελύθησαν ἐλευθερίας παῦσαι, καὶ οὐ μόνον μὴ ὑπήκοον ὄντα, ἀλλὰ καὶ ὑπὲρ ἥμισυ τοῦ χρόνου τούτου αὐτὸν ἄλλων ἄρχειν εἰωυόντα. ἐπειδὴ δὲ ἡ ἐκκλησία οὐδενὸς ἀντειπόντος, ἀλλὰ κυρώσασα ταῦτα διελύθη…

Thuc. 8.68-9

“…and the rest of the citizens did not resist, but kept quiet.”

…καὶ οἱ ἄλλοι πολῖται οὐδὲν ἐνεωτέριζον, ἀλλ᾽ ἡσύχαζον.

Thuc. 8.70

Did the assembly passively and silently vote away their liberty with nary a dissenting voice? I have my doubts. Thucydides emphasizes bloody revolution and counter-revolution on Samos in a nearby passage, not to mention elsewhere in his work, so he was clearly aware of what could happen in these situations. The episode is crafted to emphasize the gravity of the situation after the fiasco in Sicily and the privileges that the Athenians were giving up, with nods to the uncanny ability of the conspirators. All the while, the Athenians were still at war with Sparta.

This passivity did not last, and the democracy was restored after a brief civil war. I am nevertheless intrigued by how Thucydides describes recalcitrant, argumentative, and litigious people passively handing over their freedoms.

2017 has been a year of protests, but what this actually looks like varies by news outlet. How one views the world depends a great deal on which version of events is being consumed. Then there ongoing processes of the legislative bodies acquiescing to handing power to another branch of government. What will this year look like in ten years, let alone several thousand? Will the reports focus on the protests or the legislature? Will the reports be sanitized to quash even the possibility of dissent in the model of 1984? Or could these protests be signs of a crisis to restore the democratic system after the start of a silent coup that dates back more than fifteen years?

Thucydides offer no answers, but, then, history is often best used to think with rather than looked to for a solution.

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

Note: this is a post reflecting on aspects of my experience in graduate school at the University of Missoui.

On Saturday evening I officially graduated from the University of Missouri with a PhD in history. On Monday there was a budget forum about the future of the university in light of the 12% budget cut for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, the latest of a succession of cuts that is part of a multi-year cycle of budget problems related to declining enrollment, pay for top university officials, and stagnant (at best) state appropriations. The result is austerity. The library budget has been at starvation levels for years, raises have been hard to come by, and the administration is looking around for further savings. This round will include the loss of some 400 jobs.

These cuts often result in self-fulfilling prophecies when it comes to, for instance, campus atmosphere because the cuts reduce services, course offerings and services, and research facilities, which, in turn reduce enrollment. The forum proposed further troubling issues, too, such as reducing investment in diversity services (diversity was one of the core issues in the campus protests two years ago), but it was another bad idea floated that is connected to my time here: cutting tuition waivers for graduate students, described as an unexplored source of revenue.

I would not have come to the University of Missouri for graduate school if not for funding as a graduate student. There were other reasons why I came here, sure, including to work with my advisor and a solid array of supporting faculty members, but the tipping point for me was the funding. I did not have independent resources to support a graduate career, and Missouri offered stable funding that included health insurance, tuition waiver, and a stipend. The stipend was small, particularly given the workloads and the fees not covered by the waiver, but it was guaranteed for more years than most and the combination of health insurance and tuition waiver were attractive complements to that modest income.

Now both graduate student health insurance and tuition waivers are in limbo.

Graduate school is an investment. It is an investment of time and money and energy, and, at least in monetary terms, that investment is unlikely to pay off in monetary terms. I was warned about all of this by my professors before I handed over the steep application fees (twice). I stubbornly applied anyway and am almost entirely glad that I did, but I did heed one bit of their advice: don’t go unless there is at least the prospect of a stipend. I can understand going unfunded for one year, particularly if you’re also going to be working a second job, which I also did for the first two years I when I was on only the MA stipend, but not going to a school where there is no promise of the waiver. There are other reasons why I would not come to Missouri if I were starting over right now, too, but irrespective of all those, the finances alone would be enough to scare me away.

The phrase “penny wise, pound foolish” comes to mind. The University of Missouri-Columbia is the flagship institution of the state university system. In the history department, graduate students are employed teaching sections (and some entire classes) of the American history surveys, courses that undergraduates are required to take by Missouri law, while other departments teach sections of writing intensive courses, intro language sections, and the intro writing courses. The University already exploits graduate students for cheap labor to teach vast numbers of its students, on top of the research that is expected of an R1 institution. Many of us love to teach, finding it a rewarding endeavor, but that doesn’t change either the underlying reality or time commitments. If the university starts looking to graduate students as a source of revenue on top of a source of labor, it is likely to result in fewer and fewer people willing to sign up for that process. The university will survive in some form, but it is hard to imagine that it will remain at the level it historically aspired to.

American Doublethink

Doublethink, n, the acceptance of contrary opinions or beliefs at the same time.

Listing examples of modern American doublethink (as developed by George Orwell in 1984) in even a cursory manner would require too much time, but out of this past election cycle there has been one particular example bandied about with disconcerting frequency: the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

  1. Lincoln was a Republican.
  2. The Civil War was caused by the failures of (northern, Republican) leadership.

On the one hand, Lincoln has to be considered among the greatest US presidents for him to be worth claiming for his Republican lineage. After all, his face is on a mountain in South Dakota and he has a Doric temple that you enter through a queer side door to see him seated in all his majesty.

On the other, though, there are people who consider the Civil War to be a war of Northern aggression and certainly a trauma in American history that the country would have been better off avoiding. Clearly it was a failure that a forceful leader would have resolved in short order.

Now, I suspect that most people in America hold one or the other of these two positions, but both have been discussed by the president in just the last three months. I am horrified by the general lack of understanding about the historical evolution of the American party system and therefore seem to spend disproportionate amounts of time going through it with my students, but that is not unique to this particular situation. The collective doublethink that is fronted by the figure of the president I find more troubling. It is emblematic that 2017 is formally the first year of the post-fact era that had its soft opening some time ago.

Alexander, Ephesus, and Plutarch

One category of the legends about Alexander the Great were the omens surrounding his birth. The most calamitous of these was that on the very day the future conqueror was born, the temple of Artemis at Ephesus went up in flames, supposedly the victim of arson. Despite a mundane explanation, the connection to Alexander caused this story to take on a life of its own, and people soon began to say that the reason that the goddess was not home to protect her temple was that she was busy watching over Alexander’s birth.

(Despite Plutarch’s implication that Artemis was there to watch over the newborn, one of her duties was to protect women during childbirth. Our male correspondents say nothing about whether Olympias’ labor when birthing Alexander was particularly difficult, but one wonders.)

According to Plutarch, the magi (sic) in Ephesus rent their clothes, convinced that this was an omen of one destined to conquer Asia was born. More likely, the lamentations were caused by panic at seeing the temple go up in flames and I suspect Plutarch’s mention of “magi” here isn’t connected to actual Persians though there were indubitably those, but rather that he using the term to refer generally to the sacred staff at the sanctuary where at least one of the priests bore the Persian title Megabyxus. Framing the episode this way pushes the vision of Ephesus as Asian and has a way of further magnifying Alexander’s importance.

From Arrian we hear that Alexander exploited the story linking the conflagration with his birth by offering to pay for repairs. The offer was not spurious and would demonstrate his wealth, magnanimity, and piety while binding Ephesus to him. Why the Ephesians rejected the donation is a matter of some debate, but, needless to say, served as fodder for even more fanciful stories.

Here’s the catch: Plutarch, our main source for the story about Artemis and Alexander’s birth, never mentions Alexander’s offer to pay for the repairs at the temple. The absence of any given episode in Plutarch’s life of Alexander is not itself notable. Early on in the work, perhaps by way of preemptive explanation, Plutarch makes a point of saying that he will focus on small events and gestures that have moral value. Nor is it necessarily surprising when an ancient author doesn’t follow up on a topic, but it is somewhat curious for Plutarch to establish the connection between Alexander and Ephesus only to gloss over the period when Alexander was actually there.

I don’t want to speculate as to Plutarch’s purpose in leaving out any mention of Alexander in Ephesus, though there are certainly plausible rhetorical explanations. What interests me in this instance is that the only source among the surviving accounts to mention Ephesus in conjunction with the birth is Plutarch and the only one to mention what he did there is Arrian. Aside from giving me a historiographical headache at the moment, this ought to be a reminder just how constructed are our histories of Alexander’s reign, particularly when it comes to imputing his motivations.

A broken record

I have spent most of the last month feeling downright foggy as I ran the gamut of teaching, revision, and paperwork in the final weeks of my graduate career. But this only partly explains my general silence. I am still working on putting thoughts in order about life, the universe, and everything, and in so doing am developing a newfound appreciation for the genre of “fragment” posts where the author tossing out snippets, thoughts, excerpts, and musings that are explicitly incomplete.

The more ominous issue is one I have had before, namely that I don’t want to sound like a broken record. I think this is why I like writing down reflections (or reviews) of books. It is a genre that allows for a little creativity and reflection, while providing a clear prompt and definite strictures. Increasingly, though, I find myself writing things that I get halfway through only to find them repetitive. Some I find are my own hobbyhorses generally, but also the current political climate has me feeling very much like the topics I think about are ever more limited. Others, though, come from a more debilitating premonition that whatever joke, insight, or observation that I am about to write here or on Twitter has already been said better, but that the extreme fragmentation online means that I have missed it. My fear, then, is that I will be but a pale shadow chasing after someone else’s moment or that I am making a mountain out of a fairly banal, commonly known truism.

At some level I know that I will turn a corner as I work into a new writing routine in the coming weeks, finding new tidbits in my research and teaching. More practically, though, the solution may be that if something is worth saying, it is probably worth saying more than once. Real-time maps of internet traffic are mesmerizing and drive home just how much is said online, so it is a fools errand to be ashamed of repetition. Give credit where it is due, and don’t infringe on people’s economic livelihood, but life is too short to give in to this sort of shame.

What’s Making Me Happy: Uncharted Atlas

I haven’t done one of these in a while, so….following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

I have always loved maps. I loved maps so much in middle school that girls teased me about how I would “read” atlases. (The fact that it was girls doing this is not important, but it amuses me in hindsight.) I am an absolute sucker for all sorts of maps, whether fictional or actual, old or new. A good map is essential to my love of fantasy series, even if many of those maps are provocatively incomplete and I have a deep and abiding love of geological histories of fantasy series. In another set of circumstances, I easily could see myself having been a cartographer or geographer.

All of that is by way of preface. This week I found a twitter account @UnchartedAtlas that sends out a tweet every hour with a new, randomly generated fantasy map. There is also a website that explains the method for generating the maps and lets you play with the tools. This is because these maps start with a random point generator that then connects them in a rough outline, adds terrain and rivers, erodes that terrain based on earth-like geology, and then populates it with cities based on a set of criteria. A paired code generates the names.

Certainly not every factor is accounted for, particularly in terms of city placement, but the maps represent a fascinating blend of criteria derived from historical geology and derived from the predilections of fantasy authors. I’ve been loving the map updates and the processes of creation, both, and thinking about what lies beyond the text of the maps. The inner map geek in me is like a kid in a candy store with this site.

Below are a few of my favorite maps from recent updates.