Archive for June, 2019

John Donne: The Apparition

June 30, 2019
WHEN by thy scorn, O murd’ress, I am dead,
And that thou thinkst thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,
And thee, feign’d vestal, in worse arms shall see :
Then thy sick taper will begin to wink,
And he, whose thou art then, being tired before,
Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think
Thou call’st for more,
And, in false sleep, will from thee shrink :
And then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bathed in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie,
A verier ghost than I.
What I will say, I will not tell thee now,
Lest that preserve thee ; and since my love is spent,
I’d rather thou shouldst painfully repent,
Than by my threatenings rest still innocent

A nasty poem from John Donne? Surely not? But yes: the woman has rejected him and his advances, and gone to bed with another man, and he wants her to suffer for it.

Look at the power, the vitality, the sheer energy of the opening line: she is a killer, who has done for him by spurning him; when she learns he’s dead she will imagine he’s gone for good and so will stop harassing her, but he will return as a ghost… The multiple alliterations of the second line, through enjambment into the third, seem to help to create that false sense of security in her.

The ghost labels her feign’d vestal, suggesting she rejected the poet to hold on to her virginity for someone else, and that this was a lie, anyway; her lover is not as good a one as he would have been. The image of the sick taper winking – flickering as if it was about to go out, like an expiring candle – is a vivid visual picture. She will be scared, and perhaps seek to waken her partner. Here comes another put-down: he’s tir’d and asleep, with more than a hint of not being able to perform sexually, and will feign sleep when she tries to wake him. There’s a lot of pretending in this poem: her pretended virginity, his pretending to sleep; what about the notion of his shrinking from her: are we meant to imagine what may have shrunk? I think so.

The imagery used to describe her fear at the sight of the ghost – aspen wretch, in a quicksilver sweat – are also visual: she will end up looking more ghost-like than the poet’s ghost!

He taunts her further: he won’t say now what he will tell her then, when he appears as the ghost, in case that undermines the shock effect he intends; he’s over her (allegedly, although I suspect we are invited to think about what he means by my love is spent) and intends her to suffer; he wants her to realise what she’s missed out on…

It’s all a pose, of course, not a poem about a real situation, a real woman or a real rejection. In Donne’s day, any educated man should have been capable of turning out a poem about a rejection. Donne successfully brings out all the anger and spite felt by a man at being rejected sexually, in a poem that manages at the same time to be extremely unpleasant and extremely clever. A consummate artist.

 

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Timothy Snyder: Black Earth

June 29, 2019

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I’ve admired Timothy Snyder’s previous books, The Reconstruction of Nations and Bloodlands, because I’ve comes across nothing else in English that deals so clearly and in so much detail with the history of my father’s part of the world during his lifetime; I was immediately interested when this, his most recent book, came out, but was also warned off by reviews which didn’t like his links between Hitler, ecology and what was happening in the contemporary world.

I was instantly uncertain when reading this late twentieth century term in connection with Hitler and the Holocaust, but it’s clear Snyder has studied and analysed Hitler’s Mein Kampf in great depth, which not many do, and which is the source of his ideas about the struggles between races, for domination and survival. There were times when I did feel Snyder was striving too hard to fit all of 1930s history and politics into his own neat theory.

Snyder’s analysis of inter-war Polish politics and its relations with Germany, together with his explanations of why, ultimately they didn’t become allies in a war against the Soviet Union, are very useful, and we see how in the end Poland, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany all misunderstood each other, and misread each other’s intentions. Poland wanted to sort its Jewish problem through mass emigration to Palestine, and spent time and money training Zionists for their armed struggle against the British who had the mandate; Poland suffered from mass unemployment, and felt it had too many Jews (over 3 million). Jews were regarded as human beings whose presence in the country was economically and politically undesirable. What is so well treated is the complexity of all the issues, including the question of Polish anti-semitism. Equally Snyder is clear about Hitler deliberately provoking crises hoping to embroil Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union in a war, as well as the Soviet Union fomenting tension along its border with Poland.

Where Snyder’s analysis seems to make most sense, and the greatest contribution – at least to this non-historian’s understanding – to analysis of events in Eastern Europe during the Second World War is in his exploration of the gradual way in which Jews were made stateless, ie without any formal protection in law, and how vast tracts of nations were made lawless zones, in which anything became possible. Once again Snyder makes it evident how the West never really understood the Nazis’ intentions and behaviour towards Eastern Europe and its populations, imagining those lands’ experience of war and occupation as being similar to their own, which was never true.

Soviet occupation of the borderlands in 1939-40, consequent on the secret protocols in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, made the Nazis’ work in 1941-42 much easier: Soviet occupation and chaos followed by Nazi occupation and chaos in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland was crucial in facilitating the wholesale massacre of civilians.

Snyder also unpicks different kinds of anti-semitism in different parts of occupied Europe, the differing ways in which the Nazis encouraged and took advantage of it, and the different ways in which the extermination of the Jews was carried out in different countries. In the West we are not usually aware of the fact that most of Europe’s Jews had already been killed before the extermination facilities at Auschwitz were opened; the focus on Auschwitz has allowed Germans to claim that they didn’t know what went on, whereas any German on service in Eastern Europe could not have been ignorant of mass shootings in hundreds if not thousands of locations.

There is also a very interesting chapter of individual stories which reflect how complex relations were between Jews and non-Jews at all levels during the war, and examine why some helped Jews and others did not. Again, Snyder challenges simplistic Western commentary on Polish anti-semitism: not that there was none, for indeed there was, but that many complex factors lay behind people’s behaviour.

After the war there was collusion between the new Soviet-backed regimes and many of those who had in various ways collaborated with the Nazis; in Poland the Holocaust laid the foundations for the new Soviet settlement and transformation of a now Jew-less society.

I am not a historian and so I cannot comment on Snyder’s analysis and how it fits in or doesn’t with what others have written, but for me he does explore issues carefully, sensitively, in detail, makes connections where they haven’t been made before, and provokes further reflection. As I mentioned at the start, I did find his overall thesis somewhat forced; nevertheless he makes the important point that we don’t necessarily now live in a more secure or saner world from which the spectres and horrors of the past have been banished, and indicates where some future dangers may lie. For me, this is the mark of a good historian.

Carol Ann Duffy: Education for Leisure

June 23, 2019

Education for Leisure

Today I am going to kill something. Anything.
I have had enough of being ignored and today
I am going to play God. It is an ordinary day,
a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets.

 

I squash a fly against the window with my thumb.
We did that at school. Shakespeare. It was in
another language and now the fly is in another language.
I breathe out talent on the glass to write my name.

 

I am a genius. I could be anything at all, with half
the chance. But today I am going to change the world.
Something’s world. The cat avoids me. The cat
knows I am a genius, and has hidden itself.

 

I pour the goldfish down the bog. I pull the chain.
I see that it is good. The budgie is panicking.
Once a fortnight, I walk the two miles into town
for signing on. They don’t appreciate my autograph.

 

There is nothing left to kill. I dial the radio
and tell the man he’s talking to a superstar.
He cuts me off. I get our bread-knife and go out.
The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.

 

As I seem, for some reason, to be channelling Carol Ann Duffy at the moment – my post last autumn on The Wound in Time has been my most popular post ever (I would love to know why) – I thought I’d write about another of her poems which I’ve always liked a lot.

Duffy always inveighed against Thatcherism and its consequences, especially for those overlooked by society, and here she gets inside the head of an asocial misfit who feels he has no future in Britain. It’s shocking, powerful, and always provoked debate when we studied it in class in preparation for GCSE.

There’s nothing complex about the language, form or structure of this poem, reflecting the thoughts and mindset of the speaker perhaps: five simple, four-line stanzas and no discernible rhyme-scheme; the narrative is linear. So how does the poem work, and where does it derive its power from?

Immediacy in the opening line: today, and the idea of killing, muted a little by something, then ratcheted up a notch by the full stop, pause and subsequent one-word sentence Anything. The rhyme with the previous word helps the effect, too. The first person is emphasised throughout: count the recurrences of I, me, my. Look at how the I comes at the start of sentences and at the beginnings of lines: extra emphasis there. And there is power in the determination to play God. Nothing special about the day except that the speaker seems to have reached breaking-point: the image of boredom stirring in the streets is vivid, oxymoronic, fits in with the character of the speaker which is gradually built up.

Violence at the start of the second stanza, as well as a disgusting image. The Shakespeare reference is wonderful (King Lear: As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods | They kill us for their sport), reflecting the speaker’s condition, and startling up, perhaps, with the idea that he’s not an unintelligent young man, having studied and understood some literature… then flinging the other language back at us in a witty comparison. We’ve all written our name in mist on glass at some point in our childhood; the speaker breathes out talent. What is Duffy doing with her character here?

Could he be a genius? The real issue is he’s one of many to whom society has not given a chance, for whatever reason. Then we’re back with his desire, intention to make an impact, but he doesn’t know how: something’s world will be changed, though. There is a growing sense of the sinister as the cat avoids him.

More violence: destruction of the goldfish, in the bog: that monosyllable, as well as the slang, the vulgarity of the word, heighten the sense of menace. He has been marauding against dumb creatures so far, but we sense something more. Again a glimpse of his intelligence, as he quotes the Bible: I see that it is good. ‘And God saw that it was good’ is a phrase repeated several times during the creation story in Genesis.

There is the old ritual – which I remember well from my own student days – you had to go to the local employment office to sign on as available to work, in order to receive unemployment or supplementary benefit if you weren’t actually working. Remember the speaker has talent, is a genius: he has an autograph!

Alone back home. Has he done for the budgie now? The radio-station fails to recognise the superstar, and the presumably seven-second delay means his words are never actually broadcast. Then the menace becomes real as he goes out: are the glittering pavements meant to remind us of Hollywood? The final half-line is superb, the perfect ending via the shift in the personal pronoun as the speaker connects specifically, individually with the reader: I touch your arm.

In many ways this seems a rather simple poem. The genius is in the brief but vivid creation of a character and a specific situation or moment; the poet faces us with something we would never have thought to imagine or visualise for ourselves, and briefly we share her creation, her vision and perhaps her anger at the hopelessness of the speaker’s situation. The language is straightforward, economical, and clever at times. Ultimately, however, I think the apparent simplicity of the poem is deceptive: I certainly couldn’t have written it…

Keats: On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

June 19, 2019
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many western islands have I been

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

 

This is another of my all-time favourites. It’s about an epiphany, a sudden moment of revelation, awareness of something not known or understood before, and it works through a comparison that develops throughout the poem. Chapman was the first translator of Homer into English, in the early seventeenth century (1611); before that it was assumed you were educated enough to read the original in classical Greek. And if you couldn’t, like the young Keats, tough, until translations came along; as a young poet he would surely have wanted to read the ur-poet’s work but couldn’t access it until he got hold of Chapman’s version. You can find it online.

Keats likens his exploration of the world of poetry to the travels of the Spanish conquistadors to the New World in the sixteenth century in this Petrarchan sonnet, the octave describing his travels through the world of poetry, and the sestet the effect the discovery of Homer in translation has on him, the wow-moment. The rhyme scheme is regular: count it out, mark it up and see.

The opening quatrain outlines the extent of his familiarity with the poetry, perhaps mainly of western countries. The poets are imagined as countries and islands, and the richness of the poetry is referenced in the gold and the kingdoms, the heritage going back centuries perhaps also alluded to through obsolescent words like bards and fealty. Poets are loyal to Apollo, god of the muses of inspiration… He’s heard about Homerdeep brow’d the adjective traditionally applied to him in history, in the way that all the epic heroes also had their own epithet, which helped summon up the character in the imagination of the listener – but never been able to actually read any. He knows of the poet’s demesne – another archaic word – and finally encounters it with the aid of Chapman.

Keats then wants to make us aware of the powerful effect on him of reading Homer. The two lines which compare it to an astronomer discovering a new planet are superb, close as the poet was in time to the recent discovery (1780) of Uranus by William Herschel. No new planet had been discovered since ancient times; even Homer knew about Saturn. The new planet swimming into his ken is lovely: the planet reveals itself to the astronomer, rather than he finding it, we have both discovery and revelation here.

But the Cortez image is even more powerful. You need to look for the isthmus of Darien on a map of Central America, and think about what actually happened: nobody knew the Pacific Ocean was there! It’s vast, and has never been seen before by a westerner. Cortez and his men climb a mountain and – WTF? There it is, as far as the eye can see in every direction. Look at star’d: why is that good? Why is it better than gazed, for example? It’s often helpful, I’ve found, when you are considering a poet’s choice of a word, to look at what s/he might have used instead, and reflect on why they went with what they chose.

Consider the picture of Cortez’ men looking at each other, and the expressions on their faces as they realise. The power of the single word silent, at the start of a line, the last line, with a pause following it, needs to be taken on board properly; the rest of the final line merely locates them, it’s a let-down after the shock: you are meant to feel as stunned as they are.

There’s a good deal more to find in the language and sounds of this poem if you take the time; again I think it’s a brilliant example of just how much can be packed into such a small space. What Keats wants you to understand and to experience is that sudden flash of realisation, and if there has been one for you about anything in your life, then that will help you get what he means.

Gibson & Sterling: The Difference Engine

June 18, 2019

819+mIobt3L._AC_UL436_ I’m a serious fan of alternate histories; I like to imagine all sorts of ‘what if?’s. Here’s quite a famous one from the early days of steam punk. I’ve read it several times, but not for about ten years so it was time to take another look.

Gibson and Sterling create a convincing and fascinating alternative Victorian Britain deftly though the use of lots of details, in a similar way to how Philip Pullman builds his alternate Oxford in His Dark Materials. The industrial revolution is in full spate, powered by steam, but Charles Babbage’s difference engine has succeeded in permitting computerisation, mass communication and surveillance, again all steam-driven. However, the cost of all this has been a massive increase in pollution: the great stink of real history in Victorian London is far worse here.

Politically the initiative has been seized by radicals who have abolished the aristocracy and established a meritocracy; they are, however, still opposed by anarchists and Luddites, and further afield the territory of the United States has not coalesced into a single nation, but remains a number of smaller states with different interests, and Britain plays for power and influence there, and the statelets are also playing their own games over here. Palaeontology and evolution are at the forefront of contemporary science.

The characters are mostly well-rounded and most of them convince, as does the technology, which is probably the main delight of this yarn – the mechanised transport, card payments, mass surveillance and instant communication of our age translated to the 1850s. Victorian London comes to life as vividly as it does in Conan Doyle’s detective stories, and the central episodes of total anarchy set against the background of pollution are a tour-de-force of nastiness, menace and impending doom: revolution really does seem to be brewing…

It’s a good read, but this time I did find the plotting rather loose and unclear at times, with the action shifting somewhat disjointedly between different locations and groups of characters. Didn’t spoil the story, though.

Shelley: Ozymandias

June 17, 2019

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

I’ve always loved this poem. It says so much, as well as demonstrating a great deal of what poetry is especially good at. And you cannot fully grasp all of it without hearing the poem, so if necessary, read it aloud…

It’s a Petrarchan sonnet, fourteen lines divided into an octave and sestet, though the rhymes are not perfect and the rhyme-scheme is not self-contained within octave and sestet. Look carefully and you will see what I mean. The emphasis shifts from the statue itself in the octave, to the inscription and then reflections on it, in the sestet.

Now see how the poet distances himself from everything: he meets a traveller, so everything is received secondhand rather than personally encountered. What does traveller suggest, nowadays? And back in the early nineteenth century? What is an antique land – why has the poet chosen that word? The speaker reports the traveller’s words. Only the statue’s legs are still upright. Look at vast. How big is vast? These legs of stone | stand in the desert: those two alliterative monosyllables gain considerable power and effect from the enjambment. The caesura slow things down further. There’s further emphasis through another alliteration: sand | Half sunk. Consider shattered – listen to the sound: what is the effect? Is it onomatopoeia?

The traveller now describes the features that can be seen on what’s left of the face – a cruel ruler, it seems: cold command is quite explicit, with the hard ‘c’ sounds and the ‘o’ both long and short; alliteration abounds in the poem but never feels contrived, I suggest. The passions carved into the face are still familiar today, it is suggested; stamped hints both at the features of the face and the idea of power repressing it subject people. Economical use of language, and again the onomatopoeia in the word adds to the effect…

Words on the pedestal are still legible – note the alliteration of the letter ‘p’, quite subtle but pulling the line together. Do you know who Ozymandias was? Nor do I, though we could search for his name and get information. King of Kings, allegedly. The next line is sheer beauty, through the emptiness of the boast and the double meaning which our king will never have been aware of. Despair, at the power of what he achieved, or the ruin to which he and they have been reduced by time. The next half line falls leadenly, three two-syllabled words followed by the full stop and caesura: how powerful is that? Where are all these works to have driven the viewer to despair?

The concluding two and a half lines are truly magical and have to be heard to enjoy the full effect, particularly through the repeated use of long vowels, which magnify the lapse of time and its destructive power for me. What about colossal? How large is that? Is it bigger than vast, which we had earlier? The alliteration of boundless and bare enhances the effect, and then in the final line we have lone and level, and sands stretch, and I can’t help feeling too that all the sibilant ‘s’ sounds throughout the poem are meant to suggest all the sand…

An enormous amount can be crammed into a very short space in a good poem, where the words and the sounds are so carefully chosen to contribute their part to the overall effect. You might try to imagine how long a piece of prose might be needed to achieve anywhere near the same effect or same level of description. And that’s before you reflect on what the poet has sought to have his readers think about: time, eternity, erasing human vanity and achievement, our smallness in the face of the vastness of the universe. If you didn’t read the poem aloud, do it now: use the punctuation to help you know where to pause, because the enjambments in the poem are also important in maintaining the flow of the verse as you read it, and creating and sustaining a reflective tone throughout. Good, isn’t it?

Arthur C Clarke: Childhood’s End

June 15, 2019

81VHNCSOEgL._AC_UL436_  In need of a straightforward and familiar read, I went back to this SF novel which I bought before I left school, in the days when Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov were the big names. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it; I know many used to rate it very highly, but I find it very flawed and certainly it pales beside the far better The City and the Stars.

Very powerful creatures suddenly appear in spaceships above Earth and effortlessly take control, benevolently but firmly, ushering in an unprecedented era of peace and stability. There is no visible occupation, and resistance from those who cherish ‘independence’ is soon rendered pointless. Who are these invaders and what is their real intention?

The novel covers a large time-scale, a century or more, which means that – and this is a sad trait of a good deal of SF from this era – characters are poorly developed. Clarke is developing a cosmic sweep to his novel. The utopian Earth which develops in some ways comes to resemble the utopia of Brave New World, but without its coercion and conditioning: humans are happy, contented, but have lost the curiosity which drove them towards relentless progress in the past. Religion vanishes. In such a world, what will be the future for the species?

It transpires that the purpose of the Overlords, as they are called, it to prevent humans reaching the stars, a goal for which humanity is insufficiently mature. The Overlords are servants of something greater, into which the human race is transformed at the end of the novel, and with it, the Earth vanishes and humanity dies out…

It is a very flawed novel, with cardboard characterisation and some very silly plot elements: a human stowaway to the stars hides inside a fake whale on an alien faster-than-light spaceship? And yet, it’s an ambitious and thought-provoking novel too, wanting its readers to reflect on what the soul of humanity really is, just as Huxley did (rather better, I feel) and what the purpose of our species may ultimately be. It’s a product of the Cold War era in many ways, as well as of a would-be rationalistic and anti-religious mindset. It was worth re-reading but I can’t imagine I’ll bother again – much better writers have emerged to ask and explore these questions.

Vassily Grossman: A Writer at War

June 12, 2019

51A67VDPEHL._AC_UL436_  While I was waiting for Grossman’s novel Stalingrad to be published (it’s the prequel to the stunning Life and Fate, and I now have my copy, though as it’s a 1000-page doorstop, don’t expect a review too soon!) I decided to revisit this collection of his journalism from the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians call their Second World War, which lasted from 1941-45. It’s not pure Grossman, as it’s edited, selected, commented on and analysed, but this has been done well.

Grossman was medically unfit to serve, so became a war correspondent for the army newspaper Krasnaya Zvedza, and followed the war through all the fronts, from the retreat and loss of Bielorussia and Ukraine almost to Moscow, the battle for Stalingrad, the biggest tank battle ever at the Kursk salient, and the push back which took the Red Army to Berlin.

One is immediately struck by the immediacy and the impressionism of his reportage. He chronicles the horrendous start to the war, with the Soviet Union paralysed by Stalin’s unwillingness to believe his erstwhile Nazi ally had dared to attack. This denial of reality seems to have gone on for a long while, worsening the military collapse. Then there was the tragedy of the Ukraine, devastated by Stalin’s starvation tactics and famine ten years previously, which meant that its inhabitants often welcomed the Germans with open arms, not realising what was about to happen to them.

The hectic nature of life under fire and the uncertainty of war come across vividly, as does the astonishing heroism of so many in defence of their motherland. And Grossman was at the front, among it all. I cannot recall any parallel to the extraordinary callousness and brutality of warfare: Grossman paints a picture of Russians fighting for their very existence, rather than just not to be invaded and conquered: here is a very different sense of conflict.

Grossman’s accounts of the battle for Stalingrad are very vivid; he interviewed commanders and men and wrote up his accounts for the newspaper: the men recognised themselves and the deeds he described, and his reputation grew; he was only censored ‘lightly’ because of the patriotic feelings his accounts inspired. Only when he mentioned specifically what was happening to the Jews – he was Jewish – was the blue pencil heavier; the Soviet authorities did not approve of the Jews being viewed as any different from other Soviet citizens, and such anti-semitism was to worsen after the end of the war.

The accounts of the winning back of Soviet territory from the Nazis, and the discovery of the full horror of what the Germans had done in the territories they had occupied, make very unpleasant reading: it is clear that the Nazi approach to Slavs was that they were subhuman and they were treated as such. This did not happen in Western Europe: there are just too many stories we cannot comprehend, just as in Svetlana Alexievich’s accounts of the same war. You need a particularly strong stomach to read his descriptions of the Treblinka extermination camp, culled from interviews with those who lived in the area.

There are those who say that such events are now so long ago in the past that it’s time to forget them. I’m not one of those. Very many Germans – not all, though – have striven to come to terms with this appalling period of their history and what members of their families did, more or less willingly. We do not have the right to forget what bestialities humans inflicted on each other, nor should we blithely imagine that such things are only part of the past.

Fitzroy Maclean: A Person from England

June 9, 2019

51CDaOHf69L._AC_UL436_  A fascinating piece of ‘old school’ travel writing from over sixty years ago, focusing on the ‘Great Game’ of the Victorian era as Britain vied with Russia for influence over Central Asia, the Russians expanding and consolidating their empire and the British looking over their shoulder at the possible threat to India… and nobody managing to do anything effective in Afghanistan – no change there, then.

Maclean tells the stories of a number travellers who got into all sorts of scrapes, particularly if they managed to reach the fabled goal of the emirate of Bukhara. English arrogance astonishes, as does the gung-ho approach to non-British peoples, their laws, beliefs and customs; there is an over-weening pride in Britain, British arms, Christianity. The account of an eccentric clergyman who travels to Bukhara in an attempt to free two captive English officers reads like a Boys’ Own Paper story, such an implausible yarn it seems to be. Alas, the officers have been beheaded before he arrives…

We do learn about the dangers and difficulties facing travellers at that time, crossing territories known to locals but not to outsiders; the Russians also encounter unexpected challenges in their advance, and some of these are documented by an intrepid American reporter. Gradually the entire of Central Asia does fall under Russian suzerainty; they are keen to have the territory pacified and under control so that they can move about freely, but are not that concerned with actually ruling it.

The author’s own attempts to get to Bokhara in 1938, and his tales of evading the NKVD in his efforts, are most entertaining, and sadly, when he returns twenty years later, much of the old attractiveness of Central Asia seems to have gone forever. A good, easy and entertaining read: Maclean writes well.

Catherine Nixey: The Darkening Age

June 4, 2019

91nwQ0TuJhL._AC_UL436_ Some of my readers may be aware of my interest in the early history of Christianity: my wider reading has led me to explore how what seems to have been the original message of the teacher was developed and given a different spin by Paul and others as the new religion gradually spread across the ancient world, and how it gradually moved from an allegedly persecuted creed to one which took over the Roman Empire, and became as intolerant as it accused its predecessors of being…

The Christian world gradually replaced the classical one, and Nixey charts this process in her book. I’m not sure of how academically valid it is, in the sense that she seems to rely on not very many sources very heavily to advance her case, and to follow the modern and somewhat deceptive process of providing reams of notes at the end of the text, most of which merely give the source of a detail, rather than illuminate anything further. However, the general lines of her enquiry are most interesting and I learned a good deal.

Firstly, early Christianity destroyed far more of the classical world than it preserved, and this was for me an unknown story; the deeds of religious bigots and fanatics, egged on by early ‘saints’, were on a parallel with the more recent depredations of the Taliban – destroyers of the Buddhas of Bamiyan – and ISIS, destroyers of the city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert. The entire Graeco-Roman religious system was regarded as a creation of demons and therefore to be eradicated completely. The whole picture makes Henry VIII’s cultural vandalism of Catholic England in the sixteenth century seem rather petty…

Secondly, Roman persecution of Christians was far less deliberate and official than we think we know it to have been, largely due to effective Christian propaganda. Martyrdom was attractive, particularly to fanatics (no change there, then) and according to Nixey, possibly fewer than ten tales of martyrdom from the early Church may be considered reliable. On the contrary, Roman officials apparently went to considerable lengths to avoid executing Christians. A good deal of sanitising of history took place, and the lives of many ‘saints’ of the Church were actually full of intolerance and brutality, racism and anti-semitism, rather than their being the exemplars of the holy life that many believe them to be.

Literature suffered as well as the more obvious buildings and statuary; perhaps ten per cent of classical literature has survived, and maybe only one percent of Latin literature. What survived was censored: that of writers such as Catullus endured well into the twentieth century, and I can recall the classics teacher at school jumping over passages that were not considered suitable for mere schoolboys to read… This anti-intellectualism, this cult of ignorance reminds me of what I have read of the appalling behaviour of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s. Back in the past, anything was deemed acceptable if it was labelled in the service of Christ; like the later Spanish Inquisition, such behaviour was above and outside the law.

I came across the names of a number of classical writers and historians of whom I had not heard – not for want of looking – in whose writing the other side of the history of those times is recorded. As I mentioned above, it may be that the writer has over-egged the pudding in her enthusiasm for telling her story, but all of this material does need to be much more widely known, researched and documented. It’s a necessary read, a profoundly depressing reflection on knowledge and ignorance, tolerance and intolerance; it shows that human beings do not seem to have grown any wiser two thousand years later, either. And lest anyone should feel that the book is an anti-Christian diatribe on her part, or this post one on mine, it is not so; it is the wilful cultivation and worship of ignorance, and the intolerance which flows from that, that is, and must always be, challenged.

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