Monday, May 30, 2022

Emperor Hadrian Ponders the Future

From Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian (1951). Hadrian, embroiled in an ugly war with Jewish rebels, looks toward the horizon:

For some years now people have credited me with strange insight, and with knowledge of divine secrets. But they are mistaken: I have no such power. It is true, however, that during those nights of Bethar some disturbing phantoms passed before my eyes. I admitted that it was indeed vain to hope for an eternity for Athens and for Rome, which is accorded neither to objects nor men, and which the wisest among us deny even to the gods. These subtle and complex forms of life, these civilizations comfortably installed in their refinements of ease and of art, the very freedom of mind to seek and to judge, all this depended upon countless rare changes, upon conditions almost impossible to bring about, and none of which could be expected to endure. We should manage to destroy Simon [bar Kochba]; Arrian would be able to protect Armenia from Alani invasions. But other hordes would come, and other false prophets. Our feeble efforts to ameliorate man's lot would be but vaguely continued by our successors; the seeds of error and of ruin contained even in what is good would, on the contrary, increase to monstrous proportions in the course of centuries. A world wearied of us would seek other masters; what had seemed to us wise would be pointless for them, what we had found beautiful they would abominate. Like the initiate to Mithraism the human race has need, perhaps, of a periodical bloodbath and descent into the grave. I could see the return of barbaric codes, of implacable gods, of unquestioned despotism of savage chieftains, a world broken up into enemy states and eternally prey to insecurity. Other sentinels menaced by arrows would patrol the walls of future cities; the stupid, cruel and obscene game would go on, and the human species in growing older would doubtless add new refinements of horror. Our epoch, the faults and limitations of which I knew better than anyone else, would perhaps be considered one day, by contrast, as one of the golden ages of man.

Nature fails us, fortune changes, a god beholds all things from on high.

Race Wars in Medieval Studies

The Queen of Sheba, from a 16th-Century Manuscript

It is hard to find a stranger expression of the contemporary culture wars than the frequent blow-ups over race in medieval studies. Medieval Europe was, after all, overwhelmingly white, perhaps 98%, perhaps more. The continent was diverse in other ways, such as religion, but there just isn't much in the way of race to write about. In fact much of Europe was so ethnically homogenous that people invented wholly imaginary races, like the Cagots, to have someone to oppress. Not to mention that "race" as a concept hadn't even been invented yet. 

There is a web site called Black Central Europe that collects evidence for black people in the German-speaking lands before the twentieth century. They have many sources for the period after 1700, when Europe was opening to the world. For 1000-1500 they have exactly twenty, half of which are questionable. Two are about demons. Five concern an exotic knight who joins the Round Table in Parzifal, whose dark skin (not "black") is mentioned in an extended passage that portrays him as the strangest and most foreign person ever seen at Arthur's court. One is a letter from Prester John, another bit of medieval exotica about the other side of the world. Three relate to Frederick II's court in Italy. As for actual black people in Central Europe, I am not sure there have documented a single one.

But despite the complete lack of racial diversity in medieval Europe, people still manage to write about it. Like the scholar mentioned in this NY Times essay whose specialty is "race and early medieval England." I strongly suspect that I could count on my fingers the known non-white inhabitants of early medieval England. The main thing I can find out about this scholar's work is that she has waged a campaign against using the label "Anglo-Saxon," which many think has been tainted by its use in pseudo-scientific racism.

To some people the absence of racial diversity in Europe is the problem; some of the grief is about whether we should invest any energy at all into the study of all-white societies. Some people are calling for "medieval" history to expand its focus and take in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, even the Americas. So instead of Medieval Europe we should have courses on "The World between 500 and 1500 AD" or some such. If I put on my rationalist hat and ask about the expenditure of public funds to teach various things, I do see the point; why should Americans care about the doings of small, weak European kingdoms that were mostly irrelevant to world affairs? Most medieval courses these days do bring in some Middle Eastern history, and readings from the Koran are fairly standard. But, still; wasn't Tang Dynasty China about a thousand times more important than Anglo-Saxon –sorry, Early Medieval– England?

Of course the one group of Americans that really loves medieval Europe is white supremacists. Back when I used to post a Castle of the Week I discovered that by far the best collection of castle photographs on the web was at Stormfront. This somewhat unfortunate fact drives another facet of the medievalist culture wars, about whether medievalists are doing enough to fight the appropriation of their work by neo-Nazis. Have you written a sentence implying that Vikings were tougher or more creative than other people, which might appear in a white supremacist blog post? Better revise. Consider this professorial screed:

Today, medievalists have to understand that the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists. The medieval western European Christian past is being weaponized by white supremacist/white nationalist/KKK/Nazi extremist groups who also frequently happen to be college students. Don’t think western European medieval studies is exceptional. As Catherine Cox recently presented at MLA, ISIS/ISIL also weaponizes the idea of the pure medieval Islamic past in their recruiting rhetoric for young male Muslims. If the medieval past (globally) is being weaponized for the aims of extreme, violent supremacist groups, what are you doing, medievalists, in your classrooms? Because you are the authorities teaching medieval subjects in the classroom, you are, in fact, ideological arms dealers. 

So, this is the question I pose to our community of scholars: “Are you, as medievalists, emboldening white nationalists?” The range of white supremacy and medieval studies’ complicity in it include the following: denying the problem exists (or even that there are medievalists who are white supremacists); labeling the backlash and protestations of medievalists of color as alarmist; imagining there are two sides; deciding that you want to give sympathy to the pain of white supremacists; declaring that medieval spaces (IRL or digital) are above contemporary geopolitics; stating that conversations about white supremacy and race are ancillary and “spam”. None of these fix the problem of white supremacy in medieval studies nor make our classrooms an inclusive space for the bodies targeted by the white nationalists—your students who are BIPOC, LGBTQIA, differently abled, Muslim, Jewish, and women. 

My skin scrawls whenever anyone attacks "denying the problem exists," because of the awful history of this formulation. In some times and places, denying that witches were a problem could get you sent to the witch hunters' interrogation chamber; during the Terror, denying that the Revolution was under attack by royalists could get you guillotined. You also have to love the way women and gay people are slipped into a discussion about race, as if there weren't female and gay white supremacists.

But my main objection to this essay is its fuzziness. What would it mean to teach medieval history in an inclusive, anti-racist way? I have been thinking about this, and after all teaching medieval history is something I know a fair amount about. But for the life of me I can't figure out how I would do this. I would certainly have to skip the Vikings, since they were 100 percent white and undeniably badass. How would I deal with the crusades? 

I suppose the easiest way to teach medieval history in an anti-racist way would be to focus on the failures of the epoch. You could take the tone that the closing off on northern Europe from the world led to economic stagnation, political fragmentation, intellectual poverty, and so on, the whole Dark Ages schtick. My problem would be that 1) I don't think this is really true, and 2) it's boring. You could spend a semester on stuff like the struggles of hungry peasants, but who would take such a course? How can you teach medieval history and say nothing about the glorious architecture, the huge economic expansion, or the development of representative institutions? Bleah.

So, yeah, if you really want anti-racist history teaching, the right approach is probably to stop focusing on Europe altogether. And I suspect that will happen, if only because this generation of young people seems a lot more interested in multi-culturalism than Vikings. (My youngest son's favorite part of any historical book is the description of 17th-century Mexico City in 1493, which portrays it as the first "global city.") As history's part of the curriculum shrinks, it makes more sense to focus on more recent periods with more "relevance."

But I think it is flat out silly to teach a course focusing on the whitest period in history while pretending to do it in an anti-racist way. As various wise people have observed, actions speak louder than words.

Mountain Laurel

One of the glories of spring in our woods. Hard to photograph, though, because when the sun is out everything is half in too-bright light and half in shadow, and when  it's cloudy it's just too dark.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Marguerite Yourcenar, "Memoirs of Hadrian"

I've been curious about this famous book for years, but it isn't in my public library and there doesn't seem to be a recorded version in English. But when my eye fell on a cheap used copy, I thought, if not now, when? So I bought it, and I am very glad I did. It has vaulted onto the very small shelf of my favorite historical novels.

It was once fashionable to praise this 1951 book for its perfect recreation of the Roman world, but I didn't see it that way and I gather most contemporary historians feel the same. Yourcenar did not imagine the ancient world the way I do. But Memoirs of Hadrian immerses you in a rich and amazing world of its own, and it draws in much of what is known about Hadrian's life, so it is in its way extraordinary.

Hadrian (reigned 117 to 138 AD) was one of the greatest Roman emperors, and some people think his era saw the absolute peak of Roman civilization. The Memoirs take the form of a letter written by the dying Hadrian to his adoptive grandson Marcus Aurelius. (Marcus's famous Meditations are an obvious influence on the style.) Hadrian relates the main events of his life and reign, but more of the text is reflection than narration. I would say, in fact, that the point of this book is to reflect on life from the perspective of someone who was not a twentieth-century European. Yourcenar's Hadrian is enough like us for his thinking to make sense, but different enough to overturn some of our assumptions and show human life in different ways. Hadrian was also a bisexual slut in a milieu where that was completely unremarkable, giving Yourcenar scope to examine the different kinds of eros, and the differences between loving a woman and loving a man.

Hadrian comes down to us with a reputation for a strange coldness, a man more of policy than emotion. (More Octavian than Julius Caesar.) He was not vicious but he seems at times completely indifferent to whether other people live or die. Yourcenar has him reflect that while he did not especially want to murder any one it was useful for an emperor to be feared. His strongest feelings were for Greek culture, which he adored, and for his lovers, especially a teenager named Antinous who was the passion of his middle age.

Antinous as Osiris, one of an astonishing number of statues of Hadrian's beloved to have come down to us.

Here is Yourcenar's Hadrian on his subjects:

I was not much liked. There was, in fact, no reason why I should have been. . . . It is not that I despise men. If I did I should have no right, and no reason, to try to govern. I know them to be vain, ignorant, greedy, and timorous, capable of almost anything for the sake of success, or for raising themselves in esteem (even in their own eyes), or simply for avoidance of suffering. I know, for I am like them, at least from time to time, or could have been. Between another and myself the differences which I can recognize are too slight to count for much in the final total. . .  The most benighted of men are not without some glimmerings of the divine: that murderer plays passing well upon the flute; this overseer flaying the backs of his slaves is perhaps a dutiful son; this simpleton would share with me his last crust of bread.

That is Memoirs of Hadrian; 300 pages of a thoughtful, philosophical old man reminiscing about his remarkable life and pondering the meaning of it all. It is also in places stunningly beautiful. From the many passages I marked for re-reading as I went I choose this one to share some of the majesty of this book:

From the nights of my childhood, when Marullinus first pointed out to me the constellations above, my curiosity for the world of the spheres has not abated. In the watches of camp life I looked with wonder at the moon as it raced through the clouds of barbarian skies; in later years, in the clear nights of Attica, I listen while Theron of Rhodes, the astronomer, explained his system of the world. In mid Aegean, lying flat on the deck of a ship, I have followed the slow oscillation of the mast as it moved among the stars, swaying first from the red eye of Taurus to the tears of the Pleiades, then from Pegasus to the Swan. I answered as well as I could the naïve questions so gravely put by the youth gazing with me at that same sky. Here at the Villa I have built an observatory, but I can no longer climb its steps. Once in my life I did a rarer thing. I made sacrifice to the constellations of an entire night. It was after my visit to Osroes, coming back through the Syrian desert: lying on my back, wide awake but abandoning for hours every human concern, I gave myself up from nightfall to dawn to the world of crystal and flame. That was the most glorious of all my voyages. Overhead shone the great star of the constellation of Lyra, destined to be the polar star for men who live tens of thousands of years after we have ceased to be. In the last light of the horizon Castor and Pollux gleamed faintly; the Serpent gave way to the Archer; next the Eagle mounted toward the zenith, wings widespread, and beneath him appeared the constellation at that time unnamed by astronomers, but to which I have since given the most cherished of names.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

The Pressure to be Different

This is Scott Siskind, responding to the notion that some people with mental illnesses play them up to make themselves seem interesting:

Since we’re on the topic of Special Snowflakes, a point only tangentially related to mental health.

Right now, our society demands you be a Special Snowflake. Women who aren’t quirky enough are “basic bitches”, men who aren’t quirky enough are “yet another straight white dude”. Just today, I read some dating advice saying that single men need to develop unusual hobbies or interests, because (it asked, in all seriousness) why would a woman want to date someone who doesn’t “stand out”?

Someone on Twitter complained that boring people go to medical school because if you’re a doctor you don’t need to have a personality. Edward Teach complains that people get into sexual fetishes as a replacement for a personality. I’ve even heard someone complain that boring people take up rock-climbing as a personality substitute: it is (they say) the minimum viable quirky pastime. Nobody wants to be caught admitting that their only hobbies are reading and video games, and maybe rock climbing is enough to avoid being relegated to the great mass of boring people. The complainer was arguing that we shouldn’t let these people get away that easily. They need to be quirkier!

A friend read an article once about someone who moved to China for several years to learn to cook rare varieties of tofu. She became insanely jealous; she doesn’t especially like China or tofu, but she felt that if she’d done something like that, she could bank enough quirkiness points that she’d never have to cultivate another hobby again.

In this kind of environment, of course mentally ill people will exploit their illness for quirkiness points! We place such unreasonable quirkiness demands on everybody that you have to take any advantage you can get!

I’m guilty of this myself. I think I’m an interesting person in certain ways. But those ways tend to be things like “I wrote a blog that was condemned by the New York Times”, and “I’m in a group which many people consider a cult” - not the right type of quirky for job interviews. So when I got the inevitable “tell me about yourself and how you’re different from all our other applicants” question, I talked about how I’d struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Which is true. It wasn’t a very interesting struggle, and it didn’t particularly shape my subsequent personality. But I’d never admit that to an admissions officer.

And on one level it’s definitely true that mankind will not be free until the last admissions officer is strangled with the entrails of the last New York Times journalist. But in another sense, we do this to ourselves. We demand quirkiness from our friends, our romantic partners, even our family members. I can’t tell you how many times my mother tried to convince me it was bad that I just sat inside and read all day, and that maybe if I took up rock-climbing or whatever I would be more “well-rounded”. We can stop at any time. We can admit that you don’t need a “personality” beyond being responsible and compassionate. That if you’re good at your job and support your friends, you don’t also need to move to China and study rare varieties of tofu.

But if you do insist on unusual experiences as the measure of a valid person, then there will always be a pressure to exaggerate how unusual your experience is. Everyone will either rock-climb or cultivate a personality disorder, those are the two options. And lots of people are afraid of heights.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Links 27 May 2022

Storks return to a Ukrainian farm destroyed in the war

India's total fertility has fallen below replacement.

The Como Treasure, a hoard of gold coins from the 5th century.

And the Rogozen Treasure, marvelous Thracian gold.

Outside report on the handling of sex abuse allegations within the Southern Baptist Convention finally lands, raising once again the question: can the reputation of any institution survive an honest accounting of what its leaders are and do? (NY Times, CNNChristianity Today)

Using the tiny fossils known as coccolithophores to understand past climate catastrophes.

This is America: "A motel room that Alabama corrections officer Vicky White and escaped fugitive Casey White turned into their hideout now has a waiting list."

Commission ordered by Congress recommends new names for US military bases now named after Confederate heroes.

Margaret Atwood with a flamethrower.

Three mainstream state legislators in Kentucky, committee-chair type guys, ousted in the primaries by Tea Party-aligned populists.

On the other hand, established Georgia Republicans sweep away a challenge from Trump-backed election deniers in races for governor and secretary of state. (NPR)

Thomas Edsall talks to political scientists about polarization, finds that they do not agree at all about how polarized Americans are and whether polarization is wrecking our politics. (NY Times)

If you ask Americans how they feel about "income redistribution," you get a big partisan difference, but if you ask about the various taxation and spending programs that make up government redistribution efforts you get much smaller differences.

An economic historian bashes the New York Times' recent series on Haiti. And more here. Seems to me it has the same basic problem as the 1619 Project: it poses as scholarship but is produced by journalists with a lot of political axes to grind. Yes, academics who attack these series resent the intrusion of a newspaper onto their turf, but they have a point, because newspapers are not set up to produce scholarship.

Interesting that people in both New Guinea (and here) and Canada's northwest coast made sculptures called "spirit canoes" that had important ritual uses.

Ben Pentreath photographs spring in Scotland and Dorset.

Tyler Cowen remains a little obsessed with UFOs. My response is "call me when you have real data." Seriously, there are millions of things in the universe we cannot explain, starting at the very base with our inability to reconcile relativity and quantum mechanics, so a few dozen unexplained radar blips do not impress me.

L. Frank Baum as a creator of fantastic window displays for department stores.

Scott Siskind on the Hearing Voices movement, peer psychiatric counseling, and more. Bonus: Siskind's Cheat Sheet for Reading Popular Articles about Psychiatry. 

Heavy drinking, hiding wine bottles from reporters, fights among the drunken staff, and flouting of Covid rules at No. 10 Downing Street under Boris Johnson. With karaoke machines. Fascinating, the sort of people who end up running the world.

Thinking over the Boris Johnson "partygate" story, I am struck that for some people "partying" – drinking, music, an atmosphere of abandon – is an activity as vital to life as reading and walking are to me.

Ukraine Links

Timothy Snyder: Russia is a Fascist state.

Ukraine's former defense minister explains why Ukraine can win the war.

Zelensky's spokesman Arestovych worries that European nations are buying into Russian propaganda that once they finish their offensive, that is the natural place to make peace, and any Ukrainian efforts to reconquer territory will be warmongering.

Video is circulating showing a trainload of Russian T-62 tanks brought out of storage and sent toward the front. Not only are they 50 years old, they use a size of shell not used by any modern gun, so they would need their own separate supply train. And they have a manual loader that no Russian troops have been trained to operate for years, which has led to speculation that they are intended for the older reservists who may be called up under a new law. But pulling tanks out of deep storage is what you have to do when your army has lost at least 700 tanks during the war.

CNN piece based on an interview with an American volunteer who fought at Irpin in the early stages of the war, interesting.

Below, a series of links on Russia's recent, significant advances in the far east. You can see this as a shrunken remnant of Russia's once grandiose invasion plans (see image above), but on the other hand by concentrating all their artillery and air attacks in a small area the Russians are mauling Ukrainian forces and making real progress. Opinions differ as to whether this is Russia's last gasp, and too small to matter much anyway, or a sign that Russian firepower is finally starting to break Ukrainian resistance. Ukraine's own offensives, around Kharkiv and toward Kherson, seem to have petered out.

Igor Girkin summarizes recent Russian advances and Ukrainian withdrawals in Donbas. 

Thread and map from Jomini covering recent Russian advances.

Interesting NY Times feature on the shrinking area of heavy fighting, with good maps.

Institute for the Study of War summary for May 24, with an assessment of new Russian plans.

Thread by Michael Kofman, who is more impressed by Russian gains and not sure the offensive will run out of steam soon. I agree with him that recent Russian advances are a sign that Ukraine's forces in the east have been significantly degraded.

And another analysis, this one focusing on topography.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Rainy Day Flowers

Johann Melchior Dinglinger, "The Birthday of the Grand Mughal Aurangzeb"

Johann Melchior Dinglinger (1664 – 1731) was court jeweler to Elector Augustus the Strong of Saxony. He made a whole museum's worth of baubles for his patron, many of which you can see in the Green Vaults in Dresden. The most extraordinary of these is the Birthday of the Grand Mughal Aruangzeb, completed between 1702 and 1708 by Johann and two of his brothers.

So far as anybody knows, this was Dinglinger's own conception, not based on any particular work or art or literature. He began it without any special commission from the Elector, but he must have know that Augustus would love it. The Elector was a great lover of pretty things – jewelry, houses, gardens, women – and among other things was responsible for launching Europe's first successful porcelain works at Meissen.

The entire composition measures about 4.3 feet wide, 3.5 feet deep, and 1.9 feet tall (142 x 114 x 58cm). There are 165 separate human and animal figures.

Despite having lost numerous gems over the centuries this is still decorated with 4,909 diamonds, 160 rubies, 164 emeralds, one sapphire, sixteen pearls, and two cameos.


Sunday, May 22, 2022

The Rock Art of Val Camonica

The Val Camonica is a valley in northern Italy that is mysteriously full of petroglyphs. I have long been fascinated by the rock art found in certain Alpine valleys, always places where few people actually lived, and I mentioned Val Camonica on this blog back in 2011. Then last month my elder daughter and I were exploring the amazing warehouse of Second Story Books in Rockville, Maryland when I stumbled on a book I had never heard of: Camonica Valley by Emmanuel Anati (1961, French edition 1960). Anati was a French scholar who led the major effort to document and understand these carvings, carried out mostly between 1954 and 1958. In four years Anati's team recorded nearly 600 carved rocks bearing more than 20,000 images, an extraordinary document of the past.

Of course one of the biggest challenges in understanding rock art is figuring out how old it is. Anati's team made a lot of progress by documenting hundreds of places where later carvings were superimposed on earlier ones. (See above; the original isn't much clearer, which is the point.) They also compared the images to rock art from other parts of Europe, to objects and images from Mycenaean Greece, and to what was known about the prehistoric past of the Alps. They believed that the carvings began around the beginning of the Bronze Age or perhaps in the very late Neolithic, around 2200 BC. Many were made in the Bronze and Iron Ages, and a few as late as 500 BC, since there are a couple of texts in Etruscan. There is quite a bit of guesswork in any such chronology but I am impressed by the work Anati's team put in and am willing to put provisional trust in their conclusions.

The oldest carvings, as you would expect, include a lot of animals. This is the oldest tradition of figurative art, connected by many people to hunting magic. The Greek myths show us that hunting remained prominent in Mediterranean religion and ritual long after farming and fishing became the main food sources, so the prominence of hunting scenes in Bronze Age rock art is hardly surprising.

Anati glosses this image as "a herd of deer pursued by an ox-headed god with a double lance, standing on a horse hobbled as always when bearing a god."

Another challenge of interpreting rock art is guessing which assemblages are random and which are scenes intended by the carvers. There were a limited number of suitable boulders near the sacred sites, which is why there are overlapping carvings. A good example of an ambiguous scene is above. (Notice the daggers, a common symbol from the late Bronze Age.)

There are also several hybrid figures like this stag man, variously interpreted as gods, spirits, or priests. I connect them to the very old European tradition of donning animal or monster costumes at certain holidays.

One of the puzzles of European rock art is the prominence of scenes widely seen as representing sun worship. Not that there is anything weird about sun worship, it's just that older European myth preserves essentially none of it. It is not prominent in Indo-European lore, nor was it a big deal among the Neolothic Anatolians who brought farming to Europe. (Think about Çatalhöyük, lots more bulls and vultures than sun symbols.) According to Anati, it dominates the earlier religious scenes at Camonica. A "horned god" figure emerges later, and toward the end of the series we see what looks like a warrior hero figure, perhaps like Hercules or one of the other semi-divine heroes so prominent in stories from the Iron Age. 

Anati notes that the largest gatherings depicted on the rocks are all scenes of religious worship; he calls this a procession.

This early scene is called The Wedding. Notice the very ancient Neolithic symbol of the bull's head at the far right, below the couple.

Later carvings depict a diversity of human acts. Including war, of course.

But also craftwork. Here are two looms.

Smiths at work; the lower one appears to be wearing a headdress like those shown on many priests. This may be a literal hat or may be a sign that something divine or magical is taking place.

Constructing a wagon.

Several labyrinths  of the Troy Town type are known. Notice that this one appears to have a face in the center.

Anati thinks this represents a being, shown more fully on this example, which he connects to the myth of the Minotaur.

My favorite images are the ones that show houses. It's hard to know exactly how to interpret these but they are certainly wood frame structures with multiple stories, with stairs or ladders to the upper levels. There are also drawings that seem to be schematic representations of small towns, with scratches that may represent property lines or the layout of fields.

These carvings are a wonder, an extraordinary window into the ancient past, and Anati's book is a treasure house for anyone who finds them fascinating.