Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Secret Lives of Slaves

Homer was a very shrewd observer of human life and personality.  This is from Fagles' translation of Book XIX, where Achilles and the Greeks all mourn the death of Achilles' friend Patroclus:

And so Briseis returned, like golden Aphrodite,
but when she saw Patroclus lying torn by the bronze
she flung herself on his body, gave a piercing cry 
 and with both hands clawing deep at her breasts, 
her soft throat and lovely face, she sobbed, 
a woman like a goddess in her grief,
"So now I mourn your death—I will never stop— 
you were always kind." 
                                        Her voice, rang out in tears 
and the women wailed in answer, grief for Patroclus  
calling forth each woman's private sorrows.
Whoever he was, Homer understood the secret lives of slaves, society's losers without control over their lives or even their own bodies.  City taken, men killed, the surviving women were distributed among the victorious warriors: to launder their clothes, prepare their food, and warm their beds - sometimes for the rest of their lives.  They had no easy outlet for their sorrows, until a great man mourned.  Then they were called on to mourn likewise.

Brises, though a slave of the Greeks, had her reasons for being grateful to Patroclus and lamented his loss.  The other slave women had no such feelings to draw upon, though they had no trouble finding things to lament.  See how easy and quickly the wails came forth - in immediate echo to Brises'.

The powerful often exert a powerful control over those around them, but they can never possess the hearts of the humble.  The great and mighty can never be sure what thoughts hide behind a crying or smiling face.

Psalms 137:1-4 is also very relevant:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Death Scene

Old Lodge Skins doesn't actually die here, but he's ready for the change.  As portrayed by the actor Chief Dan George, in the film Little Big Man.  (Link):
Come out and fight!  It is a good day to die!  Thank you for making me a human being.  Thank you for helping me to become a warrior.  Thank you for my victories and for my defeats.  Thank you for my vision, and the blindness in which I saw further.  You make all things and direct them in their ways, o grandfathers.  And now, you have decided the human beings will soon walk a road that leads nowhere.  I am going to die now, unless death wants to fight.  And I ask you for the last time, to grant me my old power to make things happen.  Take care of my son here.  See that he doesn't go crazy.
(lays down and closes eyes for a time)

Am I still in this world?  I was afraid of that.  Well, sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn't.

Thursday, February 21, 2013


Here's an interesting contrast within a parallel.

First from Rouse's translation of The Iliad.  When Hector challenges the Greeks to send forth a champion to fight him singly, he offers these conditions:
...if Apollo grant me success, and I strike him down, I will strip off his armor and take it into sacred Troy...but the body I will give back, that his friends may carry it to their camp, to give him funeral and build him a barrow beside the broad Hellespont.  Then men will say in far distant generations to come, as they sail along the shore, 'Yonder is the barrow of a man dead long ago, a champion whom famous Hector slew.'  So my fame will never be forgotten.
What a pistol.  It's a different story at the end of Beowulf when, fatally wounded by a dragon, Beowulf says:
Command the battle-warriors, after the funeral fire,
to build a fine barrow overlooking the sea;
let it tower high on Whaleness
as a reminder to my people.
And let it be known as Beowulf's Barrow
to all seafarers, to men who steer their ships
from far over the swell and the saltspray.
Funny that such a grand ambition could appear humble and unassuming compared to the hubris of Hector.  Beowulf saw his end and wanted geography to remember him.  Hector, though, his pride had not been blunted.  The gods had not inspired him to know that, though never forgotten, his fame would be as the champion whom famous Achilles slew.


From Rouse's translation of the Iliad.  After Apollo and Athena encourage Hector to challenge the Greek host to send someone forward to fight him singly:

Apollo and Athena in the form of two vultures perched upon the tall oak tree, and looked on with great enjoyment.
Vultures, how very fitting.  In the poem the whole Trojan war was started over rivalry between gods, and the conflict was a proxy one - men dying at the behest of the powerful and immortal.  Their vanity consuming the lives and flesh of lowly men.  Very vulture-like, and much like some generals I can think of.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What a Great Plague Year

Samuel Pepys' diary, the last entry of 1665.  His opinions on events of the year seem to suffer somewhat from distorted emphasis:

The great evil of this year, and the only one endeed, is the fall of my Lord of Sandwich, whose mistake about the prizes hath undone him, I believe...
A dreadful thing, I suppose - his father's cousin Sandwich packed off to Spain by his enemies at court.  Oh ho what a downfall.  Apparently not, in Mr. Pepys' estimation, any comparison to the Great Plague of London, an epidemic disaster in his hometown that carried away one out of every five Londoners, including some of his relatives:
My whole family hath been well all this while, and all my friends I know of, saving my Aunt Bell, who is dad, and some childrn of my Cosen Sarah's, of the plague. But many of such as I know very well, dead. Yet to our great joy, the town fills apace, and shops begin to open again. Pray God continue the plague's decrease - for that keeps the Court away from the place of business, and so all goes to wrack as to public matters, they at this distance not thinking of it.
Can it be that a wealthy man like Samuel found he and his so little affected by this plague - the shops?  He describes it almost as an economic disaster, not a human one.

Perhaps I am being unfair.  Seeing signs that life was returning to normal must have been encouraging for many people.  London as a ghost town for that dreadful summer of 1665 must have put many people out of sorts.  From the same entry:
It is true we have gone through great melancholy because of the great plague, and I put to great charges by it, by keeping my family long at Woolwich, and myself and another part of my family, my clerks, at my charge at Greenwich, and a maid at London. But I hope the King will give us some satisfaction for that. But now the plague is abated almost to nothing, and I entending to get to London as fast as I can, my family, that is, my wife and maids, having been there these two or three weeks.
Or maybe I am not being unfair:
I have never lived so merrily (besides that I never got so much) as I have done this plague-time...and great store of dancings we have had at my cost (which I was willing to indulge myself and my wife) at my lodgings.
People respond to crises in different ways - and sometimes the same ways.  People do tend to seek forgetfulness in dreadful times.  Indeed, long before Pepys dancing and death were coupled together most alarmingly:

Danse Macabre

This is really on the nose, as is this.

I'm also reading Daniel DeFoe's dramatized account of the plague year, and it reads very differently that Pepys'.  It should; it is about the plague and nothing else, and tried to draw the dimensions of the last great bubonic disaster of the Anglo Saxon world.  Pepys was content to concern himself with the plague only about as much as the plague concerned itself with him, which as we see was not very much.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Learning to Fight

How armies turn kids into soldiers.  From Gwynne Dyer's book War (excerpted here):

The way armies produce this sense of brotherhood in a peacetime environment is basic training: a feat of psychological manipulation on the grand scale which has been so consistently successful and so universal that we fail to notice it as remarkable.
The training, when it starts, seems impossibly demanding physically for most of the recruits - and then it gets harder week by week. There is a constant barrage of abuse and insults aimed at the recruits, with the deliberate purpose of breaking down their pride and so destroying their ability to resist the transformation of values and attitudes that the Corps intends them to undergo...The aim is to keep the training arduous but just within most of the recruits' capability to withstand. One of the most striking achievements of the drill instructors is to create and maintain the illusion that basic training is an extraordinary challenge, one that will set those who graduate apart from others, when in fact almost everyone can succeed.

...Nothing is quite so effective in building up a group's morale and solidarity, though, as a steady diet of small triumphs. Quite early in basic training, the recruits begin to do things that seem, at first sight, quite dangerous: descend by ropes from fifty-foot towers, cross yawning gaps hand-over-hand on high wires (known as the Slide for Life, of course), and the like. The common denominator is that these activities are daunting but not really, dangerous: the ropes will prevent anyone from falling to his death off the rappelling tower, and there is a pond of just the right depth - deep enough to cushion a falling man, but not deep enough that he is likely to drown - under the Slide for Life. The goal is not to kill recruits, but to build up their confidence as individuals and as a group by allowing them to overcome apparently frightening obstacles.

...But there is nothing in all this (except the weapons drill) that would not be found in the training camp of a professional football team.
I remember reading once about the relaxed training fitness standards for female military recruits, and being upset at how progressive social engineers were ruining the US military as a fighting force.  I'm sure many in the military felt the same way, but we all of us were buying into the mythology described above.  What matters for recruits is that the challenges are superable, not that they turn out a person of a certain physical caliber.  For how many active military train and condition so fanatically once their basic training is done?  Surely not so many?  It's the tone of their brains, not necessarily their muscles, that makes them capable soldiers.

Even more true nowadays, where war is fought more and more by joystick and remote than sticking knives in people.  The only question for female soldiers is whether they are willing to do as they are told and kill whom they are told.  

Friday, February 08, 2013

War, Peace, Fire, Water

Lord Philip Nowell Baker:

Well, the militarists say, 'If you want peace, prepare for war.'  An ancient Roman adage - it's nonsense.  The whole of history has proved it's wrong.  If you want peace, prepare for peace.

Interviewed in War: A Commentary by Gwynne Dyer.  His whole statement is very striking.  I encourage you to listen to it.

I like his saying much better than the old Roman adage, but the Roman version is (no surprise) much more popular in our world.  Do a Google search for each, in quotes and you see that one version appears on the internet 3.7 million times, while the other a paltry 23 thousand and change.

There is also a considerable disparity between "fight fire with fire" and "fight fire with water", though not so great in amplitude.

Polite Terminology

From Robert Graves' Good-bye to All That, describing a relative's mansion that he explored as a child:

In one corner was a dark hole closed by a gate: a secret passage from the house to a ruined monastery, a mile away--so we were told.  My uncles had once been down some distance, but the air got bad and they came back; the gate had been put up to prevent others from trying it and losing their senses.  Come to think of it, they were probably teasing us, and the hole led to the bottom of the garde-robe--which is a polite name for a medieval earth closet.

...and "earth closet" is a polite name for a latrine, which is a polite french name derived from lavare, "to wash".

I'm sure Graves was clever enough to have written that on purpose.

I am also never more jealous than when I read of privileged children having old castles to tumble around and explore.  I want that childhood.  Makes me want to tunnel out some secret passages in my back yard for my boys to discover some day.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Anybody's Son Will Do

Gwynne Dyer's wonderful documentary about war shows US Marine recruits at Parris Island waking up for their first morning of training.  Among other things, they are made to chant:

"...highly motivated, truly dedicated, rompin' stompin' blood-thirsty kill-crazy United States Marine Corps recruits, sir!"

Wow.  Volunteer military, so I guess they knew what they were getting into.  I wonder if they could get conscripts to scream that kind of thing.  I think I'd rather risk embarrassment and discomfort than say such a dreadful thing.  But I'm 38.  Maybe twenty years ago I would have.  Would have been poison in my mouth, or would there have been an animal thrill?

Dyer also wrote a book with similar themes, and one chapter describes boot camp in detail, about how strategic the chants, trials and humiliations are: they want to make young human beings capable of dreadful things.  The chapter is available here.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

French and English Weren't Always the Same Thing

From Seamus Heaney's popular translation of Beowulf, starting line 2401:

The lord of the Geats took eleven comrades
and went in a rage to reconnoitre.

Well, the sense of reconnoitre is a military survey or field intelligence-gathering exercise.  Usually patience and caution are the watchwords; you aren't looking for a fight.  And in this case the lord of the Geats was not.  The idea of conducting one in a blood-lusty berserker rage is farcical, but never mind - in my opinion that is the least of this sentence's transgressions.

I'm sure Heaney's Anglo Saxon is better than mine, but I would not have ended the sentence thus.  "Reconnoitre" is jarringly out of place, as a neologism borrowed from French maybe a thousand years after the story took place.  (Heaney even went with the French spelling over the anglicized "reconnoiter" - zut alors!)

I know I am being unfair - Heaney's version is in Modern English, of which language "reconnoiter" is a perfectly acceptable member, along with many other words that the original poet would never have recognized, but still get stuffed in his mouth by Heaney and every other scholar who has attempted a translation.

And according to my Anglo Saxon dictionary, the word may have an original Anglo Saxon root; the same that led us to the word "reckon".  But tone has to matter for something.  Whether the word accurately describes the action or not, I can't imagine someone like Beowulf performing "reconnaissance" - it's too modern, and far too French.  I would have expected a poet and man of letter such as Heaney to be more careful.

I'm also pretty sure Beowulf didn't have any "élan", either.

(Edit: I note that many online academic courses and quizzes about Beowulf utilize Heaney's translation and include "reconnoitre" as one of the vocabulary words, so it's good to know that this Anglo Saxon masterpiece is encouraging people to learn their modern French cognates.)

Friday, February 01, 2013

Legal Warning

From a description of in-room spa service at the Las Vegas Wynn:

For a truly relaxing experience, enjoy a massage in the comfort of your room or suite.  Please note, our therapists adhere to all Nevada state and local laws.

Oh bra-VO, anonymous scribe, for saying the thing without saying it.  Las Vegas is a marvelous place, the kind of place where competent hospitality professionals have to be pre-announced as "not prostitutes".

Emergency Aparthied

The fire safety guide in the Guest Instruction Manual I found in my room at the Las Vegas Wynn Hotel this week:
If your exit is blocked
If the stairwell is filled with smoke, try the other exits at the end of the hallway.
If both exit stairwells are filled with smoke, return to your room.  It is the safest place for you.

Discouraging that the best option is to go back to your room to await deep-frying, but the advice is sensible enough.

Also incomplete.  "Both exit stairwells" refer to the stairways at either end of the hallway on my floor, the 25th.  However, my hallway only took up half the 25th floor - the other half was a hallway of fancier suite rooms, access blocked by a room key reader to keep the peasants out.  Only suite guests could get through.

I don't suppose there was any reason for my going over into the other hallway uninvited, but there was no reason NOT to.  Not like I could do anything once I got there.  I think the division is to maintain a certain exclusivity for the more expensive rooms.

There are two other stairways over there, too.  Supposing there was a fire where my stairways were smoke-ridden, but theirs were not?  Escape would be a simple thing, except for the security door dividing us. (Though in fairness, I am not certain whether folks on the other side have their access restricted as well.)

Funny to imagine a hotel with one set of emergency exits for the economy-room peons and another for the fancier suite stayers, but that's exactly what they've got at the Wynn.

Preventors of Information Flow

..."tokens" [are] a virtual currency that you can redeem for eBook downloads. It will say 2/2, or some other configuration, which means you have 2 tokens for this week, and you have 2 tokens remaining.
Different books cost different token amounts. The token amount required for a book is labeled clearly on the book display. Unused tokens roll over to the following week. Every 4 weeks, unused tokens expire.
That's from the "Freading" page of the Salt Lake City Public Library, describing the restrictions on access to eBooks that are available to library patrons.

Used to be that books had a built-in limitation - as a physical item they could only be read by one person at a time, and copying was arduous and expensive.  Providing content for free, public libraries have traditionally posed a threat to the profits of booksellers.  For decades the threat was muted by the difficulty of passing the physical object from person to person with any sort of dispatch - getting to keep the object for almost a month meant only 12-20 people could consume any single book in a year.

The digital age has made information easily and readily available, and libraries could now provide unlimited virtual versions of books to patrons at little or no cost to anyone.  Those restrictions have continued, only now they are artificial.  Libraries, once enthusiastic purveyors of knowledge, are now cast in the odd role of guardians and gatekeepers, making sure you don't consume more knowledge in a week than you deserve to.