Friday, July 31, 2009

The 8th Floor

I recently blogged about the Codices latini antiquiores, a series of 12 volumes containing descriptions of all known manuscripts written in Latin before AD 800. I wrote the blog entry after finally seeing a copy of vol 1, which I got through inter-library loan. Well, yesterday -- I don't know why it took me so long. I live in Ann Arbor, after all -- I finally went to the Papyrology Department on the 8th floor of the University of Michigan Graduate Library, where they have 11 of the 12 volumes. That was some interesting browsing. I was looking at volume 11, concerning manuscripts currently held in Hungary, Luxembourg, Poland, Russia, Spain, Sweden, the United States and Yugoslavia. Each of the volumes is roughly the same size, describing 100 to 200 manuscripts or so, but Italy, France and Germany take up the first 9 volumes. Those three countries are where the significant Latin manuscripts mostly are. It was interesting, paging through vol 11, to see what treasures are tucked away in unexpected, exotic -- from the point of view of this academic discipline -- locations. The Pierpoint Library in New York City, it turns out, has a huge number of these pre-Carolingian Latin manuscripts. And then -- again, I don't know why it took so long for it to occur to me -- I looked up the University of Michigan, and sure enough, three items were listed as being housed there. Perhaps, for all, I knew, right on the other side of that locked steel door beside which I was sitting.

I could've asked someone about about that, asked to see the actual manuscripts, but there was already more than enough to entertain me in that small room on the 8th floor where a half-dozen people were excitedly huddled over microfilm viewers and computer screens and darting back and forth from their seats to the shelves and discussing things in several different languages including Latin and, I believe, ancient Greek and Egyptian, plenty to occupy my mind and justify future visits. Besides the CLA there were also many volumes of the Oxford Oxyrhychus papyrii series, and a series, which I didn't get around to inspecting at all yesterday, with a title very similar to Codices latini antiquiores, Codices latini[...] something else, which the courteous library employee at first thought I was looking for -- I mumble sometimes -- and many other things, many reasons for further visits to the 8th floor. There was a book printed in the 19th century entitled Das Antike Buchwesen in Seinem Verhaltniss zur Litteratur."Buchwesen," I don't even know for sure what exactly that means, but I'm pretty sure that it's one of those wonderful German words which would be very difficult to translate into English, perhaps impossible to translate even half-well without using a lot of English words. Shelved near that book was another with a title something like Das Buchwesen im Mittelalter, Buchwesen in the Middle Ages. I'm hoping that "Buchwesen" includes statistics or at least estimates of the numbers of books in circulation in the Roman Empire and medieval Europe, because that's something about which I've been very curious, but unable to find much information at all. Perhaps German scholarship has been all over such questions for over a century. Those wacky Germans, you gotta love 'em.

Besides the items pertaining to Latin, there were lots of things having to do with ancient Greek in that little room on the 8th floor, probably lots more than to do with Latin. (This would make sense, because this it the Papyrology Department after all, and as far as I know, many times more ancient papyrii written in Greek have been preserved and discovered than those written in Latin.) I saw a lot of things pertaining to ancient Egyptian writing. I saw a few volumes of documents in Coptic edited by E. A. Wallis Budge. I saw things pertaining to many other languages. There is so much gloriously fascinating stuff in this world, and I've just discovered a place where quite a lot of it which interests me personally is concentrated.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Inventing Jesus

Lately I've been obsessed with the theory that Christianity was actually begun, not by Jesus, but by St Paul, and that Jesus may actually be a fictional character created by Paul.

The earliest Christian writings are those of Paul, and not those of Jesus's disciples. That seems a little odd to me. But then, as far as that goes, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Who wrote them? And why don't people ask this more often?

Perhaps Christianity began with Paul's vision of Christ on the road to Damascus. This would mean, of course, that some details of Paul's earlier biography had to have been changed -- he could have persecuted heretics before then, but not Christians. This does not seem like a big difficulty to me, compared to all the miracles and coincidences and historical inaccuracies which Christian apologists now have to explain away if they wish to assign any historical credibility to the traditional New Testament.

It seems to me that the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70 and the expulsion of the Jews from their capital and holy city must have been a tremendously traumatic experience, especially for the more pious ones. And it is in traumatic times that people are most susceptible to myth. This natural susceptibility and the drastic disruption of historical records which must have accompanied the disaster of AD 70 seem to me to place the burden of proof on the topic of Jesus historicity more on the side of those who argue that He did exist, than generally seems to be the case in even the most serious discussions of early Christianity.

So, one thing I'm curious about is how many other people before me have wondered whether St Paul made it all up. It seems to me like a rather obvious possibility and one which would explain a lot which otherwise is mysterious, including the way Paul absolutely dominates early Christian theology.

I also wonder whether it is hard to be taken seriously among American biblical scholars if one questions Jesus's existence, and whether perhaps that theory is more widely accepted among the scholars, and perhaps even the churches, of countries other than my native USA.

One thing which makes me particularly dubious of Jesus' actual existence is how his biography seems to be cobbled together from Old Testament prophecy -- his supposedly being a descendant of David, being born in Bethlehem but living in Nazareth -- and borrowings from the biographies of others: as with Moses, an evil king supposedly had all male babies in the land killed in order to rid himself of a prophecied challenge to his rule. (I find it very hard to believe that either Pharaoh or Herod did any such thing. Attempting something like that is the sort of thing which gets kings overthrown and killed.) As with Mithras, Jesus was born to a virgin around the winter solstice. As with Dionysis, He returned from the dead in the spring as a savior. Take away the parts of the story of Jesus which are borrowed from other stories, and, it seems to me, little is left. This is more characteristic of fictional characters than of actual people.

The most prominent figure I know of who has expressed doubts about Jesus' existence is Rudolf Augstein, the publisher of the Spiegel, the most influential news magazine of postwar Germany. In 1972 he published a book entitled Jesus Menschensohn (Jesus Son of Man), which appeared in a revised version in 1999. The second-most famous would have to be Bruno Bauer, who is most famous for his feud with Karl Marx.

Atheists and agnostics -- and progressive Moslems and modern Pagans and what have you -- who are convinced that Jesus never existed -- for example, there is a -- these people I find just as unconvincing as the believers, and for very similar reasons. It's just a theory, I'm not convinced about anything one way or the other here. I'm not convinced that there wasn't actually a wandering preacher named Jesus who got himself crucified by Pilate. As far as that goes: there were lots of wandering preachers in Judea and Galilee and environs at that time, and Jesus was a very common name, and so, it seems quite possible to me that several different wandering preachers named Jesus could have gotten themselves crucified by Pilate, in which case the biographies of several of them could have contributed to the story of Jesus. On the other hand, if the story of Jesus is mythical, 100% mythical as opposed to being someone's actual biography with mythical elements added, then someone had to create that myth, no?

James George Frazer, in a footnote in volume IX, p. 412 of the unabridged version of The Golden Bough,published in 1920, dismisses the notion that Jesus was not an historical figure, dismisses it in fact quite emphatically:

As my views on this subject appear to have been strangely misunderstood, I desire to point out explicitly that my theory assumes the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth as a great religious and moral teacher, who founded Christianity and was crucified at Jerusalem under the governorship of Pontius Pilate. The testimony of the Gospels, confirmed by the hostile evidence of Tactius (Annals, xv. 44) and the younger Pliny (Epist. x. 96), appears amply sufficient to establish these facts to the satisfaction of all unprejudiced enquirers. It is only the details of the life and death of Christ that remain, and will probably always remain, shrouded in the mists of uncertainty. The doubts which have been cast on the historical reality of Jesus are in my judgement unworthy of serious attention. Quite apart from the positive evidence of history and tradition, the origin of a great religious and moral reform is inexplicable without the personal existence of a great reformer. To dissolve the founder of Christianity into a myth, as some would do, is hardly less absurd than it would be to do the same for Mohammed, Luther, and Calvin. Such dissolving views are for the most part the dreams of students who know the great world chiefly through its pale reflection in books. These extravagances of skepticism have been well exposed by Professor C.F. Lehmann-Haupt in his Israel, seine Entwicklung im Rahmen der Weltgeschichte (Tubingen, 1911), pp. 275-285

-- but at least he acknowledges that the question has been raised. The makers of the PBS series From Jesus to Christ: The First Christiansdo not. In fact, in the opening minutes of the program, the narration, written by Marilyn Mellowes, flatly states: "We know[...]" -- that he was born over 2,000 years ago, that he lived in Palestine, was baptized, became a preacher and was publicly executed. "It is a fact" that Jesus was a subject of the Roman Empire.

We know. It's a fact. Huh. Despite such quibbles, From Jesus to Christ is still the best documentary about early Christianity of which I know.

(I'm not familiar with Professor Lehmann-Haupt's book, not yet, but I include Frazer's reference to it in my quotation from The Golden Bough just in case anyone is interested.)


[...]the origin of a great religious and moral reform is inexplicable without the personal existence of a great reformer.

Well, I don't doubt the existence of St Paul.

Stick to Comedy, Terry. Please!

The series Barbariansrecently made the rounds of some dubious places on TV such as History International. It's hosted and written by Terry Jones, the fat one from Monty Python who has directed movies including Monty Python & the Holy Grail and Monty Python's Life of Brian and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life and played Brian's mum.

The series isn't quite as bad as the run of the mill History Channel stuff, but it's still pretty bad. Jones' point of departure is that the Romans considered anyone who wasn't a Roman to be a barbarian -- wrong: they didn't consider the Greeks to be barbarians, for example. In fact, the word "barbarian" derives from the Greek, and the Romans were in fact a lot less xenophobic than some of the Greeks. The localism of the Greek city-states persisted to a large degree through the political unification of the Persian wars and the Macedonian domination, and there was a lot of cultural variation from city to city within Greece. The Spartans, for example, showed a disdain and disinterest for the rest of the world far more extreme than Rome ever did. Rome adopted huge chunks of Greek culture, they welcomed the cult of Isis from Egypt, they eventually adopted Christianity from the East.

Not only is Jone's statement about Rome considering all non-Romans to be barbarians wrong, he also doesn't seem to realize that the word "barbarian" was one of the things which they took from the Greeks.

But the Celts, the Germanic tribes, the Huns, these were, in fact, as Jones states, referred to by the Romans as barbarians. And Jones is also right that our concept of these people comes in large part from Roman historians, and that these Roman writers tended to be one-sided and unfair.

Then, however, Jones presents a version of events which is at least as one-sided and unfair in the other direction.

For example: the remains of a broad and solid wooden road pre-dating the time of Roman contact has recently been discovered by archaeologists in Ireland. It crossed a boggy area where otherwise the unwary traveler might have have sunk to his death in the muck.

Jones points to this wooden road, and another similar one in Germany he's apparently only heard of but not seen, as evidence that the maligned Celts were in fact better road-builders than the Romans. Well, bullshit, Terry: you're comparing several miles of structure on one hand to many thousands of miles of Roman stone roads on the other, and although we can be sure that the Romans didn't build these fine broad wooden roads, we don't know it was Celts that built them either. It could have been Phoenicians, it could've been some civilization you and I have not yet heard of.

Over and over again Jones seizes on some artifact like this and hurries to assign the crudest possible Rome-bad, "barbarians"-good interpretation to it. He does nothing more than to replace one set of bigoted prejudices -- which, by the way, has been criticized and revised and corrected by serious historians for a long time already, and was not nearly as extreme in the ancient world as Jones, selectively quoting and spinning everything against Rome, would have you believe. Tacitus, for example, admired the Germanic tribes in many ways and held them up as an example from which Rome ought to learn -- with another. While scrunching up his face and grinning buffoonishly and bugging his eyes and so forth.

Civilisation My Arse, Sir Kenneth!

Kenneth Clark, 1903-1983, the art critic and historian, OM, CH, KCB, FBA -- in other words: about as upper-crusty British as one could be without actually belonging to the royal family -- probably best known, like Carl Sagan and J Bronowski, for a public-television series, in Clark's case entitled "Civilisation," and the book associated with the series, Ah say Ah say Kenneth Clark seems to have been a very nice, very charming man. I probably would've liked him if I'd ever known him, it seems that most people did. But then, would a common "unwashed" American "ethnic" person such as myself ever actually have met Clark? He may have had staff members charged primarily with the duty to see to it that such meetings never took place. He may well have spent most of his time in the company of royals, and very little time with anyone who was not titled.

Such insulation would help to explain the nature of his work. I do not like Clark's work. I do not like it in a tree, I do not like it with a bee, I do not like it with a crutch, I do not like it very much, I do not like it here or there, I do not like it anywhere, I do not like it with grape jam, I do not like it, Sam I Am! Bertrand Russell boldly asserts that the ancient Greeks invented philosophy. Whatever the Egyptians and Chinese and Indians and other were doing before Thales & Co,. it wasn't philosophy, according to Russell. I think Russell is wrong about that. Way wrong. Well, Clark goes Russell one better and asserts that the ancient Greeks invented civilisation. What is often referred to as Western civilisation is the only truly civilized state of things, according to Clark. Clark also repeats the traditional Western mistake of missing how tenuous is the connection between ancient Greek and the modern West, and not only tenuous, but very much dependent upon the links of Moslem and Byzantine culture, which kept the legacy of Greek philosophy and science and literature and art alive while the West sank into very deep and dark barbarism indeed. Islam is cited only 3 times in the index of Civilisation, China and Japan not at all, Africa only that one time at the beginning, where Clark politely puts down the civilisation represented by that African mask about which he apparently knows nothing, about which he clearly wishes to know nothing.

At this point people may want to defend Clark by saying that "Civilisation"/Civilisation is only about Western civilisation. Yes, clearly it is. But Clark could've called it Western Civilisation. He didn't. He also doesn't mention all the long list of things that the West has taken from other cultures and then claimed as its own. No, he's one of the ones ignorantly claiming them.

At the beginning of Civilization, the book and television series, Clark is in Paris, the center of his idea of civilization. He talks about how in the 9th century, Vikings -- not civilized, according to Clark -- almost captured Paris, and oh what a calamity that would've been! Then he shows a picture of an ancient Greek sculpture of Apollo, and asserts that it represents a much higher state of civilisation than an African mask. (If Clark had any idea what part of Africa the mask came from, or what it represented, or anything else about it, he kept all that info to himself.) (That is my sarcastic way of pointing out that Clark was pretty ignorant of the African culture he was disparaging in his pleasant and polite way.)

Clark asserts that civilsation is something you can feel. In, I think, a very similar way, Oswald Spengler asserts in the Untergang des Abendlandes that race is something you can feel. I don't feel what Clark or Spengler is feeling, but in both cases I feel the presence of bigotry.

Let's get back to Paris and the Vikings -- would it have been such a calamity if the Vikings had taken Paris? Would that act have threatened to extinguish civilisation, as Clark implies?

What the fuck was so civilised about Paris in the ninth century? The Carolingians were busily waging war against each other and destroying the Empire Charlemagne had established. The kings and nobles were not caring well for their peasants. The economy was still mostly barter. A lot of people starved to death. Civilisation my ass. Having the Vikings take over could've actually improved things in lots of ways. They didn't want to plunder and destroy like the Huns or the Conquistadors -- or like the Carolingians were still for the most part attempting to do, except that Charlemagne's descendants weren't nearly as good at waging war as he was, and were primarily waging futile war against each other, whereas Charlemagne at least had pacified the very large area under his control -- the Vikings wanted to rule, and they ruled pretty well, from England to Russia and lots of places in between.

In the ninth century the Vikings were still un-Christian and illiterate. I don't think the non-Christianity was a bad thing. I would agree with Clark that literacy is a good thing. However, I think it was a bad thing that the Christian Church had such a thorough monopoly on literacy in Western Europe at the time. For one thing, the contemporary accounts of encounters between Christians, such as those in and around Paris in the ninth century, and illiterate non-Christians such as the invading Vikings, were all written by Christians. Lately it has occurred to historians how one-sided such depictions were, how distorted at the expense of the non-Christians. Clark was not part of the re-assessment and correction of the traditional Western view of the world. He was a staunch traditionalist. Where the West encountered literate peoples, whether Byzantine or Arab or Copt or Syriac or Chinese or Mayan or what have you, Clark does not avail himself of the non-Western records -- well, it's very hard for anyone to avail themselves of the Mayan records, since the Conquistadors burnt almost all the Mayan books and killed all the Mayans who could read them. Oops! -- and does not seem to be the slightest bit interested in the possibility that his traditional, pro-Western view of the world could be wrong.

It is wrong. Way, way wrong. It wouldn't have been cutting-edge in the 18th century, let alone the 20th.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Things I Thought of to Say Too Late

It seems most people are very familiar with such things. After the fact, seconds or years later, when the opportunity has passed, you think of the perfect thing to say.

I have some pockmarks on my face, neck, chest and back, scars left over from severe acne, and occasionally I've been very self-conscious about them. I read a short story by John Updike once, about an actor who'd been successful in leading-man roles despite a similar problem. Then, later, Updike published a volume of non-fiction, Self-Consciousness,which contained an essay in which he discusses his psoriasis. I had stopped reading Updike by this time, but just by chance I read a review of Self-Consciousness. It and the short story about the actor combined to make me sort of almost like Updike. I could write a whole long essay about my problems with Updike, but why? It's been done exhaustively and competently by others already, and if I were to do it right I would need to re-read at least several volumes of his work and read several more for the first time. I think he was a mean-spirited, narrow-hearted a-hole. For more detail on the matter, I would refer the reader to William H. Gass, who, in an essay in his first non-fiction collection, Fiction and the Figures of Life,tore Updike a suitably thorough new one.

I have to say, though, that Updike's style, his evocation of the sensual world through words, is brilliant. But in my praise as in my condemnation of Updike I've hardly got a thing to say which hasn't been said and said and said, and this essay is supposed to be about things left unsaid. I was talking about my acne scars. To picture me, think of F. Murray Abraham, Ray Liotta, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Trejo, Edward James Olmos -- and yes, John Updike belonged to my club, too. One of us! One of us! In 1990, I was sitting around getting high with some people in Germany, and this German who was a big admirer of Nietzsche, and whose hair and huge moustache were -- it seems clear to me in retrospect -- deliberately copied from Nietzsche's look -- it was a very popular style in the late 19th century, but it didn't really work in 1990, just as this guy's crude and overbearing personality weren't good advertising for Nietzsche's philosophy, any more than was Kevin Kline's Otto in A Fish Called Wanda-- this guy said to me: "You know, Shteefen, Iff I vas a voman, you know vat I vould like most about you? Your face. Your sveet scah face."

The reply to that which occurred to me too late should be fairly obvious: "And how would you feel if you were a man?" I'm not a fan of James Cameron, but it may well be that the obvious reply never occurred to me until after I a watched an actress say something very similar in Aliens.She was playing one of a squad of US Marines sent to deal with the Aliens, she had some big beautiful arm muscles, and while she was doing a set of pull-ups a male Marine asked her if she'd ever been mistaken for a man, and she replied, "No, have you?"

Sometimes the thing you should have said is short and pithy like that, sometimes it's more involved. In 1996 a man who several months before had offered me a couch for the night when I was homeless, then changed his mind as we were walking toward his place, came up and gave me a deep and searching look and offered me his hand to shake. He didn't have to say anything: he was forgiving me for the particularly hurtful things I had said after I'd suddenly found I didn't have a place to stay that night after all. Of course, he also wanted to feel like a good guy, like he and I were friends, even though he'd turned me out into the cold NYC night. It's not at all clear if this second part was conscious in his mind. But I shook his hand, might even have accepted his hug. (We ran with a very huggy crowd.)

Ever since, I've regretted making up with him. I want so bad to take back that handshake, and to say something like, "No, we're not cool. We're not friends, are you fucking kidding me? Don't worry about it, though. I was not your responsibility, any more than all the thousands of other homeless in this city are my responsibility now that I have a place of my own. I realize you feel very awkward seeing me now, and you want me to shake your hand, maybe hug you, too, and make you feel better. Well, go fuck yourself, life is awkward. If you really want to be cool and deep, you might want to start by trying to grasp that basic little fact. Twerp. We're not friends, I meant all those terrible things I said, each and every one of them, and more. Maybe you are a really good guy. I'll never know, will I? What the Hell do I know about you? You and I will never get close enough for me to tell. You've got absolutely nothing to feel guilty about. Like you said that night, you had to worry about your own well-being first. Absolutely correct. That's what you had to keep in mind. Each and every one of us should take that attitude, or else we'll never be much good to ourselves or anyone else. I really, sincerely do not blame you for a thing -- except, that night and right now, you want to have your cake and eat it, too. Turning a homeless person out into the night is not a crime. No single one of us can bear the weight of the world. But have the fucking tact not to turn them out and ask for their blessing at the same time. Don't explain your problems to them right at the same moment you decide there's no room at the inn after all. Not at that moment. It's just not the time, don't you get that? That's what pissed me off, and what is pissing me off again now -- not that you didn't help me. That's nothing, that much you have in common with almost the entire rest of the world."

There's no end to that answer, to what I should have said when he came up to me with that I'm-such-a-good-dude sincere deep expression on his face and held out his hand. Some replies you didn't think of are short and sweet, some are endless, you could never even begin them properly.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


A newscast

ANCHORMAN: The world bids farewell to a dear friend tonight.

Over the ANCHORMAN's shoulder a screen shows a picture of a white-haired man, grinning open-mouthed with his eyes squeezed shut, wearing a nice but disheveled suit and a St Louis Cardinals baseball cap worn sideways, with the caption: "Richard Simpson, 1963-2037."



ANCHORMAN: Richard Simpson was a talented scientist and a hard-working executive. (CUT TO: MONTAGE of still photos of a young, dark-haired RICHARD working in chemical laboratories and at computer keyboards, receiving a diploma, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase in the company of other young execs.) After receiving degrees from Cal Tech and Cornell, he began to rapidly climb to corporate ladder at Dow Chemical Company. But all that suddenly changed (CUT TO: grainy video footage showing RICHARD and others execs in hard hats and business attire, inside a factory. RICHARD is holding rolled-up blueprints, talking and pointing. Factory sounds are audible below the ANCHORMAN's voice.) one day in 2010. Just by chance someone was videotaping that fateful meeting on his or her cell phone. (A LABORER in dirty work clothes walks by RICHARD and his group, carry something large and long over his shoulder.) A freak accident (The LABORER turns suddenly as if someone has called to him, and hits RICHARD in the front oh his helmet with what he's carrying, like a bat hitting a baseball. We hear a loud collision and a sharp grunt.) changed Richard Simnpson's life forever. (The video zooms in, first on RICHARD's hard hat lying on the ground, shattered in front, then on RICHARD, lying on his back in a pool of blood with both hands over his face.) Richard Simpson would never solve a mathematical equation or make a presentation to a board meeting again. (CUT TO: EXTERIOR SHOT of a hospital) Years after the fact, Sarah Morgan, the nurse on the trauma ward where Richard Simpson was treated, (CUT TO: MEDIUM SHOT of middle-aged SARAH MORGAN in a nurse's uniform.) gave this interview.

SARAH MORGAN: He regained consciousness after 10 days. He stayed on the ward for three months, and he never said anything but "Eee-beee-DEEEEE!"

CUT TO: MONTAGE of still and video footage of Richard, in various attire, in various situations, at various ages. In all shots of RICHARD from this point on, he is smiling and wearing a St Louis Cardinals baseball cap sideways.

ANCHORMAN: And for the past 27 years, to the best of my knowledge, he has never said anything but "Eee-beee-DEEEEE!" (The montage shows footage of RICHARD dressed in the white running gear of an Olympic torchbearer, plus the sideways baseball cap, bearing the Olympic torch.) It remains a mystery just exactly how Richard got himself into all those situations. (Instead of running in one direction as a torchbearer is supposed to, RICHARD is running around in circles, waving the torch at frightened onlookers who scream and run back, evading the fire. RICHARD stops and looks at the fire, evidently fascinated, tries to touch it, yelps in pain, then smiles again and runs around in circles while officials try to gain control of him, smiling and yelling "Eee-beee-DEEEEE!") Perhaps, in some way in which the science of neurology cannot yet grasp, a part of his mind which used to make him a brilliant scientist and executive now became brilliant at gaining him access to exclusive areas of life. (CUT TO: A tennis match at center court at Wimbledon. In the middle of a point, a large and ungainly ball boy runs into the middle of the court, batting at the ball with his hands, chasing after it like a toddler. At first the players are upset, but then it seems that RICHARD's childlike excitement and happiness are contagious. The PLAYERS begin to laugh. The crowd begins to laugh. The UMPIRE, in the middle of a stern admonition to the gentleman to please remove himself, begins to laugh. Shot of the crowd include QUEEN ELIZABETH, trying to retain her composure, but eventually she too begins to laugh and to clap, as RICHARD runs excitedly around the court, chasing a great number of balls which somehow have spilled all over the court, and repeatedly shouting "Eee-beee-DEEEEE!") Even, very famously, the headquarters of the United Nations.

CUT TO: INTERIOR of the United Nations General Assembly hall. The ISRAELI AMBASSADOR and the SYRIAN AMBASSADOR are in the midst of a heated argument. Suddenly there is a loud shout of "Eee-beee-DEEEEE!" The camera, its operator apparently momentarily disoriented, swings around wildly before settling on RICHARD at the podium, dressed like a diplomat except that his suit is somewhat disheveled, and for the omnipresent, sideways baseball cap. RICHARD, grinning broadly, jumps up and down excitedly behind the podium and repeatedly shouts "Eee-beee-DEEEEE!" Shots of Richard are interspersed with shots of the assembled diplomats. Like the the players and officials and the crowd at Wimbledon, at first they are upset and confused, and then they relax and start to laugh.


SYRIAN AMBASSADOR: (In Arabic with voiceover translation) I was very angry with my colleague. Both of us (Exchanges glances and nods with the ISRAELI AMBASSADOR) were very angry. But then this, this fool was suddenly there with his childlike grin, jumping up and down behind the podium and yelling "Eee-beee-DEEEEE! Eee-beee-DEEEEE!" And, like everyone else, I began to relax, and then to laugh. And I looked at my colleague from Israel, and I saw that he, too, was shaking with laughter. And suddenly, you know, I felt our common humanity in a way I hadn't before. That evening the two of us met one-to-one for the first time. Before you knew it, our families had become friends.

CUT TO: MONTAGE of Richard: running around the stage at the Academy Awards with an Oscar, while the crowd howls with laughter and applauds; excitedly kicking a golf ball around the 18th green at Pebble Beach during a tournament; in the Space Station; wearing a judge's robe and the baseball cap over a judge's wig in an English court; etc.

ANCHORMAN: And so the Middle East embarked upon an unprecedented period of peace. And so, all over the world, we've laughed a lot more, and cut each other a lot more slack.

The MONTAGE winds up with several consecutive shots of RICHARD shouting "Eee-beee-DEEEEE!"

CUT TO: ANCHORMAN, with the same screen of RICHARD and the dates of his birth and death with which we began the newscast.

ANCHORMAN: Yes, ee-bee-dee, old friend. (CUT TO: FULL SCREEN of the shot of white-haired RICHARD with birth and death dates.) Ee-bee-dee.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Christians and Atheists Discussing Religion

Is it possible for Christians and atheists (and agnostics and skeptics and so forth) to discuss religion without the discussion either remaining on such a superficial level that it hardly deserves to be called a discussion at all, with the participants either politely avoiding the subject entirely or ignoring their opponents' arguments, and/or or quickly degenerating into a bitter fight which threatens to permanently ruin friendships? I cannot recall a single example of a discussion which avoided both of these pitfalls. And I've seen a lot of discussions of religion between believers and non-. And yet here I am, trying again.

On January 20th of this year, someone noted in an Internet forum that on that day in the year 250, the Roman Emperor Decius began a persecution of Christians. Only with difficulty did I resist the temptation to make some flippant comment such as "A good start." or "And 1,759 years later, so much remains to be done."

I don't actually advocate killing Christians just because of their religion. But they do tend to weary me, when they talk about their religion. Otherwise, they're not necessarily any different to me than anyone else.

A few years ago, Jonathan Miller made a series for the BBC entitled "A Brief History of Disbelief." It's thoroughly excellent, I recommend it highly. Miller says he is an atheist, but that until recently he had been reluctant to describe himself so, and had given the matter little thought. I have heard many other disbelievers make comments similar to both of these. I find this very strange. Perhaps having been raised to believe in God, as I was, and then rejecting belief, causes one to be more inclined to think about the subject, and to think of oneself as an atheist rather than as an agnostic or to resist such labels altogether. Frankly, people who identify themselves as agnostics annoy me. It seems to me that their worldviews tend to be the same as those of us atheists, and that they're splitting hairs and being solipsistic. Strictly speaking, they're right: no-one can be certain whether God does or does not exist. But strictly speaking, nobody can be certain about anything else, either, and yet we get on with our lives as if we were certain of all sorts of things, and agnostics, for the most part, don't get solipsistic about a lot of other things.

Miller does a very good job in his program of showing how recent, in Christendom, is the phenomenon of fully open atheism. (Before Christianity, of course, and in parts of the world where Christianity has not dominated, speech was a bit freer.) He points out that even the Baron D'Holbach (1723-1789), often referred to as the "Newton of atheism," was not all that free and open in his atheism, and that people of his time often preferred to refer to themselves as deists -- sometimes because they were deists, and sometimes because deism was much safer than atheism. Between the 4th and the 18th centuries, in Christendom, you really have to read between the lines and guess just exactly how skeptical this person or that may have been. Besides deism, there arose in the 18th century (and persists to this day among, for example, many neoconservatives) the phenomenon of "elite atheism," where one, assuming oneself to belong to an elite, is an atheist, but believes it unwise to let atheism spread to the masses. Just very gradually did we get to the point of openness and tolerance of debate of such things which we enjoy today. And things could be more open still.

Not that I'm bitching or claiming I'm oppressed. Others still are, but me -- not so much. One unproductive result of Christianity -- and perhaps of many other religions. I don't know them nearly as well as I know Christianity -- is how it has spread the completely unrealistic idea of perfection. (Christianity inherited a lot on the subject of perfection from Plato and his followers.) I'm a firm believer that nobody and nothing is perfect. I admire Miller and Richard Dawkins and Spinoza and Einstein and Leibniz and Voltaire quite highly, even though Miller in his series on disbelief keeps referring to "Christianity" as if Western, that is, Catholic and then also Protestant, Christianity were the only sort there ever was, as if he had never heard of Byzantium and Orthodoxy, let alone the Armenian and Coptic and other assorted Churches; even though Dawkins starts off his fine book The Selfish Gene by quoting approvingly some jackass to the effect of the uselessness of philosophy before Darwin, and despite the fact, a fact which seems to have partly dawned on Dawkins himself, that The Selfish Gene is a very poor title for his very good book; even though Spinoza and Einstein made such easily-misunderstood comments about God; despite Leibniz' thedicee; and even though Voltaire reduced Leibniz, in his famous character Dr Pangloss, to this theodicee, even though Leibniz had all sorts of thoroughly brilliant things to say on a staggeringly wide variety of subjects other than religion. Hate the sin, love the sinner, say some Christians. I say, let's be as decent to them as we can, and not, however eyerollingly teethgringingly painful it may be when they get theological, mistake the belief for the whole believer. Peace out.

Friday, July 17, 2009


As recently as 3,000 years ago, as far as we can tell, most or all peoples all over the world believed that there were a number of different gods and goddesses. (As long as 2,500 years ago or so, it appears that some troublemakers, at least in Greece, had the nerve to say out loud in public that there were no gods at all, that it was all pretty much just a scam to scare people and keep them in line, but that's another story for another blog post.)

Who first came up with the notion of one all-powerful God? The answer seems to depend upon whom one asks. The most popular answer in Western culture seems to be that it was the Jews. This answer may come with a much different date attached to it than a couple of centuries ago, for in the last couple of centuries, Biblical scholars first ceased to think of Abraham as an historical figure, living around 1800 BC, and now most of them have very serious doubts about whether Moses or anyone remotely like him actually existed, around 1200 or 1400 BC. And recent archaeological findings suggest that the Jews may have been polytheistic up until the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BC. Still, some scholars who dispute neither the ahistoricity of Abraham and Moses nor the persistence of polytheism until the Babylonian captivity speak as if there were no doubt that it was the Jews who introduced into the world the completely new and original concept of one God.

Others assume that it was Zoroaster, or Zarathustra if you will, who invented monotheism, and that the Jews first encountered the concept during their exile in Babylonia among Zoroastrians. Still others insist that monotheism originated much earlier in Egypt. Sigmund Freud assumed that Moses did exist, and advanced the theory, in the last book he wrote, that Moses was an Egyptian prince who rebelled against his own people and invented Judaism, although monotheism may have been an idea in Egypt before Moses' time. Ancient Egypt was particularly monolithic, the Pharoah particularly absolute in his power, the cult of the monarchy particularly pronounced. So much about ancient Egypt positively screams, "Unity! Oneness! Absolute power, absolute authority!" and so forth. One very unified culture ruled in Egypt for over 3,000 years, while, for example, just to their east in Mesopotamia, many kingdoms and cultures rose and fell. It seems to me that the concept of monotheism fits in very well with the extreme persistence and stability and one-ness of ancient Egypt.

But I certainly don't know that monotheism first arose there.

Some say that the supposedly very polytheistic ancient Greece had very strong monotheistic tendencies, with Zeus being God and the other gods more like what we would call demigods or archangels.

In general I see an amazing amount of hastiness and closedmindedness on the subject of the origins of monotheism. I have nothing against the theory that the Israelites were the first monotheists, or that they adopted monotheism from Egypt, in the reign of Akhenaten from 1353 BC – 1336 BC or 1351– 1334 BC, as Freud argues, with or without an historical Moses; or that they came up with the idea much later; or that Zoroaster was the first monotheist; or that it was some earlier Persian or Mesopotamian; or that montheism first arose in India in the Vedic period; or that it arose simultaneously in several different places --

(Some people, of course, actually believe in capital-G God, the one and only universal and omnipotent Being, and if they're in an oecumenical vein they may argue that He has naturally been discovered, been felt, all over the world, regardless of distinctions of mere culture. Yeah. Whaddya gonna do, some people still believe all of that. I suspect that an especially high percentage of the academics investigating these sorts of questions, the theologians, Biblical scholars, Koranic scholars, Buddhists monks and nuns and so forth believe all of that. I suspect that some Hindu scholars have been talking it all with several grains of salt for a very long time, but I don't know. Perhaps I was given a false impression by a couple of very charming and worldly students of Hinduism.)

-- or still other theories which circulate on the topic. What does bother me is the way in which some proponents of each of these theories behave as though the matter were settled and their specific theory the right one, and don't bother to mention, let alone discuss and consider, any of the other theories. That bothers me, it perturbs me, it even amazes me.

Monday, July 13, 2009


I've been writing a lot of stuff since the age of 11, if not longer. I believe that was when I wrote my first short stories. I turned 11 in 1972. Not much more than a decade ago, I was still writing mostly with a pen on paper. Then, in 1997, I started to become curious about this Internet thingy, and everything changed...

In January 1st of this year, I started writing with pen on paper again, in Moleskinenotebooks with a PilotGS-2 Pro, on pretty much a daily basis. I enjoyed that. I found out that it was Bruce Chatwinwho had given Moleskines their name; I browsed through one of his books and didn't think it was for me, although that remains a very cursory first impression from which no-one should draw conclusions. Anyway, in May of this year I pretty much stopped with the Pilot and the Moleskines, because I had started with this blog, and I'm doing here very much the same thing that I was doing in the Moleskines, except that I'm trying to be more careful here, more polished in my prose style and more reserved with my judgements, and more discreet, because this is going public right away and that wasn't. Some of what I've written here I've copied from the Moleskines. I miss writing in the Moleskines, they and the GS-2 Pro have aesthetic qualities which this keyboard and monitor completely lack, but this blog has pretty much replaced them, whaddya gonna do. After this blog makes me a multimillionaire, I will have the option of writing in nice notebooks with nice pens again, I will be able to pay someone well for typing and data entry, right? Right. Since starting the blog, I've written a page and a half in the Moleskine. A page and a half in a month and a half, noting when I started using a new disposable razor, when I set a new personal best in the number of reps of the Upward Dog I could do in a set, and not a whole lot more than that. A page and a half. I was averaging more than that in a day.

I used to be downright hostile toward computers, in a way which seems to me, in retrospect, quite neo-Luddite. I used to say that I wanted to chisel my writing into granite, rather than enter it into a database via a keyboard. (I never have learned to chisel granite, despite those repeated blustering pronouncements.) It is clear, in retrospect, that my hostility was based in ignorance, and in the frustration of having tried a few times to use computers, and failed, a frustration familiar to many of us not that IT has spread so wide. I eventually learned to do a few things with computers and with the Inner Tubes, as have so many of us.

I can't be objective about the quality of my own writing, I never have been able to do that. It's very often painful to look at things I've written. Kurt Vonnegut'scomment about how he felt lousy about all the books he'd written, and Samuel Beckett'scomment about how to write is to fail, both resonate strongly with me. So I just get through each piece of writing as best I can, hope that it's not too much of an affront to my readers' taste and intelligence, and then get on to the next one. I can say of myself with some confidence that I'm a good reader, and I think there's often a connection between that and writing well, and so that gives me hope that it may not have been fully futile, all the time I've spent writing so many different things, two unpublished novels, large chunks of several more which I may or may not ever finished, who knows how many short stories, essays, letters, journal essays, emails, Internet forum posts, blog posts. Queries... Reflections on the pleasures of well-made notebooks and pens, on the frustrations and ironies and trade-offs of life.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Very widely-repeated, way, way wrong statements about numbers of certain manuscripts

In the Wrong Monkey blog post Am I an Historian? I offered as one definition of an historian "someone who not only studies historical topics a lot, but also often has questions, the answers to which he does not find in other peoples' historical writings, and is seized by the strong desire to search among primary documents and artifacts as well as in secondary sources until he finds those answers, and then writes about what he has found." Oftentimes I would like to have the answers to these questions provided for me by someone else; I don't necessarily want to do it myself, but for some reasons -- What reasons? I'll leave any answers to that question to whatever psychologists may be interested -- I feel that I must.

Sometimes I'm confronted, not with a total lack of answers, but with answers which are clearly wrong. There is a meme widely represented on the Internet by Christian apologists, comparing the number of manuscripts of the Bible with those of other works from antiquity, which repeats, on many different websites, the assertion that there are only 20 extant manuscripts of Livy. Google bible caesar livy manuscripts and you'll see a lot of sites repeating this claim: 20 extent manuscripts of Livy. Let's leave aside their claim that a greater number of manuscripts reflects a greater degree of truth in what is contained in the texts -- as opposed to, say, its reflecting a millenium and more in which one doctrine dominated and conflicting views were suppressed, or something like that. Let's just concentrate on this one figure for the moment: 20 extant manuscripts of Livy, a figure which is repeated many times on the WWW.

(But before we get to Livy: I found it amusing that one of these sites claimed that there are "only 10 Greek manuscripts" of some work by Caesar. because, you know: Caesar wrote in Latin. 10 Greek manuscripts would actually be a surprisingly high figure, if it turned out to be accurate.)

I'll just be listing the manuscripts individually in the materials I have at hand. And I am but a humble farmer.

In my copy of the Oxford Classical Texts edition of vol 1, books 1-5, of Livy's ab urbe condita, the editor, Robert Maxwell Ogilve, mentions 11 manuscripts from which he has worked: Pap. Oxyrh. 1379, V, M, Vorm., H, W, K, E, O, P, and U, as well as 6 other manuscripts which he has not used: R, D, L. A, F and B. (pp. xi, xii, and xxiv.)

That's 17. Moving on to the older vol 2, books 6-10, edited by Charles Flamstead Walters and Robert Seymour Conway, we find mention of no manuscripts not already mentioned in volume I. Holding at 17.

Vol 3, books 21-25, also edited by Walters and Conway, mentions a different P, Parisiis, Bibl. Nat. Lat., Cod. Lat. 5730. The P used in the first two volumes is 5725 in the same library. There is also now a C, a different R -- hey, we're up to 20 already! -- a different M, a B, a different D, an N and an F.-M. (p. xxx) 25 different manuscripts through vol. III.

In vol 4, books 26-30, the editors Conway and Stephen Keymer Johnson have made use of a different H, a different V, a different W, a J, a different K, an X, a Y, a Z and a different F. (pp. xxxvii-xxxviii.) That makes 34 different manuscripts of Livy, and we've got 3 more five-book volumes to go, plus a couple more things.

In his edition of vol 5, books 31-35, Alexander Hugh McDonald uses 9 manuscripts, all new to our list: F, B, N, V, L, P, A, E, and R. (pp. xliv-xxv.) We're up to 43 manuscripts.

Vol 6, books 36-40, edited by P.G. Walsh, adds no manuscripts to our list.

That's as far as the Oxford Classical Texts currently go. In the Teubner series edition of books 41-45, one more manuscript is mentioned (p. xiii), and we're up to 44.

Then there was a palimpsest of about 1,000 words from Book XCI discovered by Cardinal Angelo Mai in the 19th century, and just a few words from Book XI found in excavations at Naqlun in the 1980's.

That's 46. Assuming I counted correctly. But please, if it matters at all to you, count for yourselves if you like, see if I goofed. Where did those guys get their figure of 20? Maybe they were looking in the same places I was, but they didn't realize that the same letter didn't always mean the same manuscript? (The editors use letters to refer, at the bottom of the page, to their source for every bit of the text which appears in their editions. There's a siglia, a key, before the text, telling the reader what each letter means in that particular volume. Because it's easier to put "N" at the bottom of the page, for example, than "Oxon. Bibl. Coll. Novi 279.")

But, should we assume that the editors of these fine volumes by Oxford and Teubner have used every single existing manuscript of the books of Livy contained in the volumes they prepared? Or that they know of every manuscript, or that they even attempted to find out how many there were?

I don't know. Like I said, it would be nice if some expert somewhere had tallied everything up for me. Maybe someone has, and I just don't know where the figures are recorded.

The Google search I mentioned

Some of the top hits:

Compare this with other ancient historical writings:
a. Caesar's "Gallic Wars" - only 10 Greek manuscripts
b. "Annals" of Tacitus - 2
c. Livy - 20; Plato - 7; Sophocles - 100

Plato 427-347 B.C. 900 A.D. 1,200 yrs. 7
Tacitus 100 A.D. 1,100 A.D. 1,000 yrs. 20
Ceasar 100-44 B.C. 900 A.D. 1,000 yrs 10
Livy 59 B.C.-17A.D. --- --- 20
Pliny 61-113 A.D. 850 A.D. 750 yrs. 7

There are presently 5,686 Greek manuscripts in existence today for the New Testament.1 If we were to compare the number of New Testament manuscripts to other ancient writings, we find that the New Testament manuscripts far outweigh the others in quantity

PS, 1 March 2012: I continue to learn things. In Studies in Latin literature and its tradition: In honour of C.O. Brink (Supplementary volume), p 107, Professor M D Reeve mentions that he knows of 154 manuscripts of the third decade (that's books 21 through 30, kiddies) of Livy.

PPS, 8 July 2013: In his article "Die Platonhandschriften und ihre gegenseitigen beziehungen," published in 1887, Martin Wohlrab discusses 147 manuscripts of Plato known to him, and predicts that many more would come to the public's attention, and many more have.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Codices latini antiquiores --

-- also known as CLA, edited by E A Lowe. It's a description of old Latin books; more specifically, Latin literary manuscripts from before the ninth century. It excludes "-- with certain exceptions -- all business or official acts and documents, graffiti or other casual scribblings." (vol. 1, vii.)

I'd been eagerly searching high and low for reasonably-priced copies of the CLA. Finally, yesterday, I got Vol I: The Vatican Cityvia inter-library loan.

It's not what I expected. I had gathered from library catalogue descriptions and such that the volumes were 45 centimeters tall. Somehow I had managed to overlook in the same descriptions the number of pages per volume. I was expecting huge heavy tombstones full of fine print, probably all in Latin, of tens of thousands of manuscripts per volume.

But no, there are xii+44 pages in this first volume, plus 35 pages of illustrations, and the other volumes seem to be of a comparable size, and several pages of these 44 are taken up by bibliographies, and the print isn't particularly fine, and it's mostly in English. A total of 34 pages of this first volume are devoted to the sort of description I had imagined. Facing each of these 34 pages are full-sized photographic reproductions of parts of the manuscripts being described. 4 reproductions to a big page, sometimes more than one reproduction of the same manuscript. 117 in all in the first volume. Counting palimspests as 2, the primary and the secondary. There are a lot of palimspsests in this volume.

Of the 117 manuscripts described and photographed here, I counted 24 from pagan authors: Terrence, Cicero, Sallust, Vergil, Livy, Probus Seneca, Lucan, Juvenal, Gellius, Fronto, Symmachus. These manuscripts account for 20 and one-half percent of the total. Besides these 24, I'm not sure how to categorize a few others. Irony being what it is, I would not be at all surprised if the percentage of pagan authors described by the CLA in collections outside the Vatican were much lower. I would not be surprised, because, in the period before AD 800, there was an especially fervent effort in Western Europe to spread the learning of the Bible and of Christian authors, and an especially widespread -- although by no means universal -- condemnation of pagan Classical antiquity, including all of the writing of all of the individual authors I listed above. Books were burned. (Others were written over and then later rediscovered in palimpsest form.) It has been asserted, although it is controversial and remains unproven, that Gregory the Great, Pope from 590 to 604, ordered all copies of Livy, listed above, which could be found to be destroyed. It's unproven, but it seems to me that if someone, Gregory or not, had been busily engaged in such destruction, it would help to explain why only 35 books, plus a few fragments, of such a popular author as Livy survive today, when as late as AD 401 the pagan patrician Symmachus, listed above, was busily engaged in making an edition of all 142 books. Symmachus appears in CLA, vol 1, in palimpsest form, as does a long palimpsest fragment of Livy's book 91 which had been gone from view for a long, long, long, long time. Whether or not it was the active destruction of Gregory the Great, and/or some other churchmen, which accounts for the disappearance of almost 107 books of Livy, which seems likely to me, there is no doubt that many Classical texts have been restored to the world through the effort of churchmen like the great 19th-century paleograher and specialist in palimpsest, Cardinal Angelo Mai, who worked under the instructions of and with the direct blessing of the Vatican, and that many Popes, and countless among their followers, have been great friends to and supporters of Classical scholarship. The Church giveth in this regard, it doth not only take away. Its ways are mysterious sometimes.

As I said, I was surprised to get a general idea of how many Latin literary manuscripts from before AD 800 survive, that is to say: I'm surprised by how few there are. I was also surprised when I found out that only 31 classical Greek tragedies survive, by only three authors. In that case also I had assumed that the number was much higher. It is naturally disappointing in each case to find that the numbers are lower than one had thought, but there is an ironic upside, as well: it emphasizes the significance of each new find. And new finds are made occasionally, papyrii in the Middle Eastern desert, palimpsests in existing texts.

Foolishly, I dream of finding the missing books of Livy in some place like a garage sale. Yes, these are the kinds of daydreams I have. Many experts snicker good-naturedly at dreams of finding any more significant amounts of Classical texts anywhere -- say, an entire lost book or 10 of Livy, or an entire lost play by Sophocles. (It is said that Sophocles wrote over 100 plays. We have 7 today, plus fragments of others.) They're the experts, I'm not one of them. Still, to my inexpert mind it seems irrational to dismiss the possibility of some really huge find, someday, somewhere: in a papyrus in Egypt or Israel, in a palimpsest in a library, among the possessions of an eccentric recluse. As recently as the 1980's they found a previously-unknown fragment of Livy's book 11, dating from the 5th century, while excavating the site of the monastery of Naqlun in Egypt. Yeah, so the fragment was only 40 words long, that doesn't mean that the next find won't be 40,000 words long.

So, yeah, the experts, some of them, think I'm daft. Other experts are as daft as I am when it comes to hoping for new discoveries. Maybe we are quite mad, who's to say.

I cannot emphasize enough how inexpert I am in such things. I've never been near an archaeological dig. I probably never will be, as I intensely dislike dirt and strong sunlight. I also have never had any inclination to study old manuscripts after someone else has gone to the trouble of finding them, cleaning them up, restoring a palimpsest if they contain one, etc. I have always been content to wait until they are transcribed into editions with contemporary typefaces and punctuation and so forth. And I had seen pictures of manuscripts similar to the one reproduced in this volume of CLA -- in some cases, pictures of the same manuscripts. For some, reason, when I saw the pictures of manuscripts in the CLA, I became interested in them in a way I had not been before. They're illegible to me at the moment. Look at this:

Can YOU read that? I can't. It's not one of the Vatican manuscripts, but it's similar. It's in the collection of the Library of Congress, which describes it as a page from a manuscript of Vergil's Georgics and Bucolics, written in the 5th or 6th century. Sorry, I was looking for a linkable image of one of the manuscripts from the book I'm talking about, but it was slim pickings and I didn't feel like looking all day. My reaction to this sort of manuscript before yesterday was, It's purty, but I'll stick to my Oxford Classical Texts editionwith its modern typefaces and punctuation, thanks just the same. (Punctuation as we know it evolved slowly during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.) Now, when I'm old enough to need glasses to read lots of things, now suddenly these strange, exotic old things catch my interest.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


Along about 2006 I saw a 2005 reunion concert by Cream at Albert Hallon PBS. They sounded good. At times they sounded wonderful. But, let me just say it, they looked pretty scary. Not Eric Clapton, he's omnipresent on the tube, you know what he looks like these days whether you want to or not. I don't particularly want to, I don't care for most of Clapton's music. Someone once called Clapton chameleon-like as a musician, and I think that's very apt: he solos with the Beatles or teams up with Duane Allman, and he's as good as anyone ever gets; he plays "Layla" with his latest collection of slick hired-gun studio musicians, and he just sounds like another hired gun. Boring boring boring, makes you want to hear some teenage garage band with no chops play "Layla" : they'd butcher it, but they might put at least some of the passion back into it, too.

I hadn't seen Jack Bruce for a long time, though. I wasn't prepared to see him looking like what he is: a man over 60. I was reminded of Frank Zappa's snarky comment about nostalgia, about it being like a bunch of old guys sitting around playing rock 'n roll, because, for part of the concert, Bruce was actually sitting down. He still sounded like Jack Bruce, though. Ginger Baker sounded like Ginger Baker. And Clapton? As always: a chameleon. Back with Bruce and Baker, suddenly he sounded like the guitarist from Cream again. It was not exactly the same Cream as back then: all three of them have more chops now, and the solos didn't go on for nearly as long. What I mean is: suddenly Clapton was being challenged again to keep up with Bruce and Baker, and once again he soared magnificently to meet the challenge, and played so much better then he has for most of the past several decades. (What do I know. 10 million or so Clapton fans think that he's better than ever, apparently. Clapton certainly shouldn't lose any sleep over some non-guitar-playing naysayer such as myself.) The music was dazzling, it was alive. For a lot of the concert I just listened, and didn't look at the screen.

Reunion concerts and reunion tours seem to be very big these days, with rock and soul groups from the sixties, like Cream, coming back from who knows where, punk and disco bands from the seventies too, and younger bands. (Seven years elapsed between the Beastie Boys' "Hello Nasty" and "to the 5 Boroughs." Does that qualify it as a reunion album?)

Still for some reason it was disturbing. Maybe because the band originally was together for only a couple of years, and so those songs were associated, in my mind, with those specific hairy young men dressed in colorful brocade and puffy shirts who first played them, and that specific time, when Lyndon Johnson and Jimi Hendrix were still alive, when the Vietnam war and the protest culture it had generated were both in full swing. The appearance of a generation gap seemed to be more or less mandatory among rock musicians. Clapton and some others, of course, acknowledged their debt to older blues musicians, and when they covered a blues song they even made sure that the record companies and radio stations paid the composer his royalties for a change. Still, they were marketed to look like a short-lived incandescent world of their own. Gruesome death in Vietnam was in the news every day. Then several young rock fans died in gruesome circumstances at Altamont, and then several students were killed at Kent State, and then Janis Joplin died, and Jimi Hendrix died, and Jim Morrison died, and apparently Eric Clapton almost died from heroin addiction, and Duane Allman died... "Hope I die before I get old" ... and by 1974 Eric Clapton sounded like someone else. That earlier Clapton seemed as thoroughly gone as Hendrix or Morrison.

I don't blame Clapton for changing musical styles, although to me he was a lot more interesting back then. For one thing, I don't think that celebrities owe their fans anything. For another, breaking out of one specific genre and trying new things is a good thing -- whether I like the results or not, which is another way of saying: Clapton doesn't owe me anything. For another thing: before he kicked heroin, Clapton seemed pretty miserable. In Cream, his gloom was offset to a considerable degree by Bruce's bouyant good humor, but Derek & the Dominoe's was his band, his show, and he had the opportunity to really wallow in his misery. "Layla," the seven-minute title track, not the whole album, is certainly a magnificent piece of music, but it's also the portrait of a man going completely to pieces. You couldn't expect anyone to stay like THAT. I'm glad he survived. I don't think it's surprising that his music changed so much.

The youth culture of the late sixties, seen in retrospect, had a lot of embarrassing aspects to it. Any time that young people decide to completely break with the past, they're going to say and do a lot of stupid things, and believe that they're being original when they're just behaving like young people always have. If you say things like "Don't trust anyone over 30," and don't die before you turn 30, you've created a nice little dilemma for yourself. In many ways the sixties youth culture seemed to have a built-in self-destruct mechanism.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

New Discoveries About Old Texts

I do not engage in scholarly editing, but I have great admiration for those who do, and I am very grateful for their efforts. I read the prefaces to the volumes of the Teubner and Oxford editions of classical Latin texts -- I've read a few prefaces to the editions of the Greek classics, too, although I can barely read any Greek at all -- and I'm thrilled by the stories of how this or that Classical text survived until our day.

"Survived" is the right word. And "dark," I believe, is a very appropriate term to describe the Dark Ages in Western Europe. I'm using the term "Dark Ages," not as synonymous with "Middle Ages," but only to describe the first part of them: the time between the fall of the Western part of the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD, and the rise of Charlemagne, emphatically punctuated by his crowning in Rome as Emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day, AD 800. Yes, this talk of a renewed Roman Empire was a little silly and presumptuous on the part of Charlemagne and Leo; no, the Empire which began in 800 never compared to the ancient Western Empire, nor to its contemporary the Eastern Empire, usually referred to in the West as Byzantine; and yes, Charlemegne's empire fell to pieces when he died, not least because he maintained tradition of Germanic chieftains of dividing his land among his male heirs, instead of the Imperial tradition of choosing one chief heir to rule after him and finding other occupations for his other legitimate sons.

Despite all of that, however, it does make a lot of sense to state that the Dark Ages came to an end with the reign of Charlemagne, and one very dramatic measure of this is the number of manuscripts of ancient, Classical Latin authors which survive today dating from the time of Charlemagne and later, compared with those dating from the time before. Aside from copies of the Bible and of Christian authors, almost all of those manuscripts date from the 9th century and later; then there are a few from the late Western Empire; and from the Dark Ages, almost nothing. Charlemagne gave massive support to monasteries, not just for doing things like copying Bibles and chanting hymns, but also for things like copying Classical texts. Although the Empire fell apart when Charlemagne died, the program of preserving the work of Classical authors survived and grew and flourished.

One of the many problems facing a scholarly editor of an ancient Latin text, attempting to produce the best version he or she can of that text, is that the very idea of preserving old manuscripts, of valuing them precisely because they are old, seems to have occurred to very few people before the past several centuries. And so the manuscripts which survive are mostly relatively recent, copies of copies of copies of... repeat a few times, or a lot of times. And just like in the game where people sit in a circle, and one person whispers into the ear of the person seated next to them, and that person repeats what they think they've heard, and by the time the whispering has gone all the way around the circle the result is comically different than what was whispered first, so a lot gets lost and changed as manuscripts are copied and recopied many times over the centuries, and the older copies get lost. Except that with the manuscripts, the original statements have almost always disappeared, and not many people think that the changes are very funny. On the contrary. This is one area where change is almost always considered bad.

So, any discovery of an old manuscript, from before the age of printing, is a great sensation in the scholarly world, and an especially old manuscript is a bigger sensation, because, it is hoped, it may be closer to the original text of the ancient author, and so it is diligently compared to the other manuscripts, and revisions of printed texts may be in order. Older is not always considered to be better -- not always, but most of the time, all other considerations being equal.

Before the idea of older manuscripts being better just for the sake of being older became widespread, however, the writing was sometimes scraped off of older parchments in order to make room for something else to be written. In such cases, the indentation left by the pen when the older text was written may remain although the ink of the older text is gone. These indentations are called palimpsests, and in the 19th century, in a new field of scholarship largely pioneered through the efforts of a Catholic Cardinal named Angelo Mai, many very old palimpsests began to be deciphered, and some texts which up until then had disappeared from the view of the scholarly world re-appeared: the letters of Fronto for example, Cicero's Republic, a large fragment of book 91 of Livy's history of Rome -- these and quite a few other ancient texts are available for our perusal today only because some whip-smart scholar somewhere, examining a manuscript, noticed that something had been written on it once and then scraped off, and was able to recover the text just from the indentations, from the palimpsest. In the late 19th century archaeologists began to dig up scraps of papyrus in Egypt with writing on them, mostly Greek writing but also some Latin and Coptic and other languages, scraps which had been mostly thrown away, but the ancient world's garbage is now our gold, because these papyri were written on between the 2nd century BC and the 6th century AD, and remember the whispering circle, older is better, even an old raggedy scrap of garbage can cause a sensation if it contains a copy of a passage by Homer or Hesiod or Vergil centuries older than the oldest previously-known copy of that passage. Thousands of such scraps have been found, better methods keep on being found of deciphering texts on pieces of papyrus which in some cases have thousands of years' worth of dirt on them -- I don't mean to sound overly dramatic, but big things have been happening lately in the intersection of Classical scholarship, archaeology and other things like laser-imaging technology.

It's sort of a shame that the general level of interest in Greek and Latin antiquity has been dropping over the past couple of centuries, while at the same time so much more of that ancient world has been re-discovered.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Chess and I

A few months ago, sometime early in 2009, I finally came to the conclusion that I was never going to make any significant amount of money as a professional chess player. Not that I was ever sure that I would. Or that I didn't realize that it was a little silly for someone who had started so late to have dreams of great success in chess. I count my start in chess from the mid-1990's, from my mid-30's. I learned the moves sometime in my early childhood, and played some games all through my life, and I actually won a school chess tourney in the 5th or 6th grade, the finale of which was recorded on the school video equipment by a teacher who also provided a chess set for the finale, with large non-standard pieces, and who may well have been much more enthusiastic about the tournament than any of the participants. But I don't consider that to have been serious chess. It so happened that no-one in my grade in the school that year was really interested in chess. If someone had been, they would have stood apart from the crowd. Or, more likely, if that someone had shown an aptitude for the game, the crowd, his or her classmates, the school and the entire small town would have rallied around him or her, perhaps other cases of aptitude would've appeared, sales of chess books would have skyrocketed, the school would've hired a good chess coach and voila, there would've been a bona fine chess team in our small-town school. But, as I say, apart from that teacher, I don't think anyone was much into it at the time. I myself found chess pretty tedious.

Until my mid-30's. I don't know why, but suddenly it got interesting. I began to buy and study chess books. I was at the Manhattan Chess Club one evening, thinking about buying a chess set, when a man asked me if I'd like to play. I said I wasn't a club member, he said that was okay, he was a member and I could come in and play as his guest. A door behind the counter led to a large area filled with tables with chessboards inlaid with different colored wood. A few moves into our game, another member happened by, and asked my opponent if this other guy, me, was any good. My opponent was very polite, but already, just a few moves in, he could not suppress a rather disappointed expression on his face. I answered that I didn't really know how good I was.

A few moves later it was clearer to me why my opponent seemed disappointed. I was not good enough to make the game other than a lopsided win for him.

I bought a set from the club, a standard set with plastic pieces and a vinyl board which rolled and folded up. It all fit into a case about the size of a fanny pack. I played as often as I could find opponents, which wasn't as often as I wanted to play. Dues at the Manhattan Chess Club were beyond my means. At Bryant Part, a few blocks from the club, people were getting together informally in the early evenings for blitz games. Most of them beat me handily.

When I couldn't find opponents I studied chess books. Most of the books I got early on were collections of top-level games. I played the games out on my set and attempted to understand what was going on, attempted to understand the commentary included in the books for most of the games. Most of the time I couldn't keep up at all. I was happy if I was able to move the pieces correctly so that the position on my board matched the diagrams in the books. I didn't manage that much all the time. (I still don't, although I've gotten better at it.) Once when I was in Bryant Park following the moves from one of these books, the guy from the club, who had asked if this new guy was any good, walked by, and asked what book I was looking at. I showed him the cover: the 1974 Soviet Union championship. "Pretty advanced stuff, " he remarked. "I'm just pushing the pieces and trying to understand what's going on," I replied. He asked whether I had a chess coach, or a computer. I told him no on both counts. He said both were important if I wanted to get good.

The books were crucial in helping me get better. More helpful than the collections of grandmaster games, which remain way above my head, have been books written for beginners, the most helpful of which for me have been Jose Raul Capablanca's Chess Fundamentalsand Modern Chess Openings.I am fairly certain that I never would have advanced nearly as I far as I have in chess -- and let's be crystal clear about it: I haven't advanced very far -- without the books. I have met a couple of players who were stronger than I am who never cracked a chess book, but they seem to me to be anomalies, and if they could get over their aversion to the books I'm sure they'd get much better very quickly. Everybody who's anybody in chess studies what the masters have done in the past. If nothing else, the chess books point out certain basic errors so that you don't have to repeat them.

By the late 90's I had a PC and an Internet connection and I was playing online, at first against a chess program at, then at sites which were the equivalent of postal chess -- make a move, wait for hours or days, make another move -- I'm not knocking it, but it's not my thing -- and eventually at sites which host live games between humans, like FICS, the Free Internet Chess Server, a wonderful, a glorious site. That's where I play now, mostly. I have been a member of a couple of different chess clubs, where I played in USCF rated tournaments. I like FICS better, perhaps in large part due to my Asperger's.

I still have a lot of those chess books on my shelves. If I had really studied them thoroughly, I would be a much stronger player. I gave up my dreams of a pro chess career because it was becoming clearer to me how much effort and time it would've taken for me to even possibly have a chance at it. And even then it would have been possibly no chance at all. I don't have a really strong aptitude for chess. And the players who have pro careers typically start in with the books and the coaches -- and the sophisticated computerized training programs these days, too, about which I could tell you very little -- well before their teens.

So now I play for pleasure, not hoping for any greater reward than that. My blitz rating at FICS is currently a little under 1200. Yeah, not very good at all. Recently I was up to around 1250, which was within a few wins of a new personal best for me. My best on the site is in the 1280's. Yeah, still not very good at all. I bragged when I got back up to 1250 the other day, and, it seldom seems to fail, bragging was closely followed by many losses and a steep drop in my rating. Cracking 1300 would be awesome.

Sadly, the Manhattan Chess Club closed in 2002, one of the most venerable and storied chess clubs in the nation, Fischer's club, Reshevsky's club. It's a shame. In other countries, they have parades for chess champions. To my knowledge that has never occurred in the US. Maybe they had a parade for Fischer when he won the world championship. But in some other countries chess is in the bloodstream like basketball is in the US. Take an American and a Russian at random, have them play chess and one-on-one hoops, bet on the Russian in chess and the American in basketball, and you'll very likely make money. You're welcome. Some of the top chess players in the world today live in the US, but most of this group was born somewhere else.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Blind Spots

The Winged Victory of Samothrace:

-- excavated in the 1860's and on display in the Louvre since the 1880's, has become one of the most familiar images in Western culture. It is known to the modern world only in its current fragmentary state, missing its head and arms; as in the case of the Venus de Milo, one struggles to imagine how it once looked in its pristine state, or how being more complete could make it more beautiful. The fragment has been accepted as a whole. When one rounds a corner in the Louvre and sees this statue at the top of a broad staircase at the other end of a vast hall, the effect is grand, thrilling. Not incomplete.

They say that when someone has a blind spot, the mind, or the eye, fills it in. One doesn't see a black or blurry spot in the middle of the field of vision. You don't see that something is missing. The old joke goes: A man goes to the doctor for a check-up, the doctor asks him to describe his routine upon waking up, the man says, "I urinate, I move my bowels, I vomit, I wash my face and hands, I shower, I sha-" "Hold on there," says the doctor. "What was that between moving your bowels and washing your face and hands?" "I vomit." "You vomit every morning?" "Doesn't everyone?"

We tend to accept whatever we're used to, to think of it as normal, whether it's living in a mansion surrounded my many acres of our land tended to by several full-time caretakers, or in a constant succession of hotel rooms, or in a small and noisy one-room apartment, or with no home at all, eating gourmet meals or dog food, eating much too much or not nearly enough, having sex daily with our choice of appealing partners, or once week in a monogamous relationship, or with no-one, being inebriated daily, or never, or somewhere in between. Very few people, or so it seems to me, think of themselves as very rich or very poor, very good or very bad, very pampered or very deprived. Their situations vary enormously, but they tend to think of themselves as pretty average and their situations as nothing special one way or another. The blind spots get filled in. "Yes, I have -- " fill in the blank: a leg amputated above the knee; 43 million dollars; a munitions dump next door to me where they're always exploding old ordinance that's too dangerous to try to disarm; six months to live; dozens of outstanding warrants for my arrest; 127 eels as pets; "-- but I'm just an average person and my life is pretty normal."

Not only do most people tend to think of themselves as normal and average: they very often ridicule or otherwise criticize any people who dare to describe themselves differently. "You think you're a genius just because you can perform those mathematical calculations 5,000 times faster than average? What an arrogant jerk!" "You think you've got it so rough just because you're a blind, deaf quadraplegic? Everybody has problems! Grow up!"

Okay so I'm exaggerating. (Am I?) Still, there is this tendency, to deny the differences in our situations. Often supported by a deep reluctance to really investigate in detail what it is like for others. It may be considered rude to poke one's nose in. Socially we mostly gravitate to the company of people in similar situations. Or if it's found out that someone has not, suspicion arises, whether it's the well-off being suspicious of a social climber (what a phrase!), or the poor suspecting condescension and false friendship, ulterior motives.

We're all pretty much the same, in pretty much similar circumstances. Well, clearly we're not, but let's shun anyone who's in a different sort of jam so that we can pretend we're all in more or less the same one.

Maybe that's not typical thinking and behavior at all. It's widespread, certainly, but how would I know whether most people really are so willfully blind. I have these tendencies, certainly. They say that the Winged Victory one had her hands cupped around her mouth to shout her joyous news; yet I cringe at knowing or even imagining what the statue looked like whole.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

What Origins?

In the introductory essay, "Homer and his Influence," to the anthology A Companion to Homerpublished by Macmillan in 1962, J.A.K. Thomson remarks that Homer, while standing at the head and beginning of the Western tradition of literature of which we know, may in turn have been the culmination of a whole other literary tradition. This remark barely caught my attention the first time I read it, but later it sort of blew my mind.

An entire literature known to us only through Homer. How far into the past before Homer may this literature have stretched? For how long was it written if, before Homer, it was written at all? The experts say that it is clear that Homer is very close to oral storytelling. But that does not tell us how long, if at all, written and oral Greek literature may have existed side by side before Homer. And what does that mean, "before Homer" ? Was there ever an individual poet named Homer? If so, when did he live? Could he write? (Could he see?) Are the Illiadand Odysseyin any meaningful sense the work of an individual (Or two individuals?) or are they the result of a long communal process of storytelling?

As far as I know, the answer of leading scholarship to all of these questions and many related ones remains a resounding "We don't know." There are certainly strong opinions on all these questions, but not much certainty. The Iliad and Odyssey were probably in written form by the 6th century BC in Athens. Some scholars would argue that this was their first written form, others that they were written in Linear B several centuries earlier, and plenty of others for all sorts of dates for the first written version in between.

In some respects -- the dates postulated, the variety and vehemence of opinions about the dates, the cultural implications of the current state of knowledge and possible future discoveries -- the debate about the composition of the Homeric epics resembles that over the composition of the Bible. The Exodus, if it ever happened, is supposed to have occurred in roughly the same era as the Trojan War, it it ever happened. 1200-1400 BC in each case, give or take a few centuries. Traditionally it was believed that Moses wrote the first books of the Bible, now it's not all certain whether he existed, and if he did, if he or any other of his people were literate at all. Did the Greek alphabet originally come from the Hebrew? Or vice versa? Who knows? Not me. They appear to be rather closely related, and both to have come from hieroglyphs and cuneiform, which appeared in Egypt and Mesopotamia sometime before 3000 BC. "Appeared," that is: that's when the experts date the earliest known writing. Probably older in Mesopotamia, it probably spread to Egypt from there. Nobody knows for certain.

In any case, it seems clear that neither Homer nor the Old Testament can lay claim to being the oldest written literature of all, for the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgameshis preserved on clay tablets some of which date to the 3rd millenium BC, making it the oldest longer literary text. Of which we know. So far. Maybe Gilgamesh represents the culmination of a literature which stretches thousands of years further back into the past...

All I know is that older and older human artifacts are being discovered all the time. Artworks from more than 30,000 years ago. Stone weapons and tools made by humanoids millions of years ago. Long, mysterious, tantalizing gaps between the ages of the artifacts discovered so far. We're a long way from figuring out how we got to be the way we are.