Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for May, 2008

Catapaults

I must admit: Roman history actually doesn’t interest me very much. As a Canadian, I have little experience with the tangible remnants of Roman rule: no ruins down the road, no aqueducts, no Roman highways as the basis of modern roads, no Roman law as the basis of existing law, no direct Latin origins to my language, no amateur archaeological societies digging up Roman villas in the countryside. Canada was never a part of the Roman empire: the empires I know are British, American…and Canadian (“from sea to shining sea”). My public school and ‘aristocracy of labour’ upbringing did not emphasis the Greek and Roman classics, whether Herodotus or Marcus Aurelius, and frankly the amount of attention and enthusisam reserved for ancient Rome bores me, to a certain extent (though the underlying social and economic history is quite interesting, as is the intellectual history).

This review, nonetheless, from Mr. Richard Carrier, for a splendidly voluminous and exhaustively well-researched book on catapults, is absolutely astonishing:

“In her study of this machine there are two things Rihll accomplishes of particular note (apart from producing a fully up-to-date synthesis of the whole of catapult history that reflects all the new developments in the field that few careful observers may already have known about from otherwise scattered reading). First, she establishes beyond doubt that catapult technology advanced considerably and importantly during the early Roman Empire (something that had often been denied), including the best case yet that they developed the metal-framed inswinger catapult, greatly magnifying power output (and leaving many modern reconstructions obsolete). Secondly, she also establishes beyond doubt the widespread use of small hand-held torsion catapults. In other words, the ancient equivalent of rifles (examples with three-foot stocks, for example, being commonplace), and even handguns (with models as small as nine or ten inches in total length).

“The latter is perhaps the most astonishing. Expert observers will already have heard of growing evidence of Roman advances, but might have missed entirely the evidence of small catapults–yet as Rihll reveals, the evidence is surprisingly vast, if you know where to look for it, and what to look for. These weapons were apparently abundantly supplied in the Roman legions, and were so powerful that a typical stone-throwing smallarm could penetrate a human body with a lead bullet at a hundred yards–scaring the hell out of otherwise fearless Gauls, for example, who got totally freaked out when Roman bullets at such unbelievable range went right on into their bodies and didn’t come back out again. In the modern age of firearms we take such an effect for granted, but you can imagine how terrifying it would be in a world that had never heard of such a thing.”

Read Full Post »

Almost every lecturer or professor who has instructed in the last few years has this to say about Wikipedia: “Don’t Use it As A Source.” A golden rule, that, and one most of us who have been educated in a university setting or intelligent enough on our own, and there are plenty of us, realize Wikipedia can only ever be a shorthand for more dedicated research. Like any short hand, it can be very useful for quickly conveying the broadest outlines or even some true gems, but frequently falls victim to the strangest of mistranslations and alterations. Not of course, that official history can’t be and isn’t frequently manipulated, altered, cajoled, snipped and trimmed into shape for whatever ideological project its author (s) see fit to support or unwittingly belong to and support.

As an aside, there is far too much harping on about Wikipedia’s quality standards and not enough harping on the standards of popular academics, like Niall Ferguson or Anthony Padgen, who continue to get published and subsidized by prestigious universities, supposedly the bastions of the most original research performed with integrity, who nonetheless continue to write history full of the kind of glib simplifications, reductionisms and generalizations that generally historians are supposed to avoid. Don’t tell me I’m being biased here: I dislike a good deal of the most rigid or dogmatic Marxist interpretations of history, but generally Hobsbawm or Davis, even at their “worst”, use footnotes and subtlety and research to get across a point, rather then relying on their opinion, a la Ferguson or Padgen, that the ‘West’ is innately superior, rational, technological, democratic, what have you.

To return to the topic at hand, a few months ago I was researching Chinese history, or at least searching for print sources to further my understanding of the periods of dynastic breakdown in Chinese history (my pet subject as a junior historian is historical regime change). Through this Wikipedia research I discovered a useful piece of work, Richard L. Davis’ superb translation of the 11th century historian Ouyang Xiu’s New History of the Five Dynasties, known as The Historical Records of the Five Dynasties in English. Ouyang Xiu was Song China’s premier historian in the middle of the 11th century (ironic, yes, but here is the wikipedia article on him).

Composed in a pseudo-classical style aimed at being more accessible and yet more eloquent, The New History of the Five Dynasties was meant to replace an earlier history written by Xue Jucheng, a scholar-official tasked by the Song rulers with a compilation of the history of the myriad dynasties (five in north China in the three quarters of a century after the fall of the T’ang) preceding their own. Xue Jucheng’s work was eventually superseded by Ouyang Xiu’s, and now only fragments of the first History of the Five Dynasties remain.

Davis’ lengthy introduction to the Historical Records of the Five Dynasties relates that one of the chief reasons for the fall from favour of Xue Jucheng’s work was length and style: that is, Ouyang Xiu shortened the first work considerably with heavy editing (though not always judicious) and used his own unique literary style to improve its readability, to its Chinese scholar-official audience at least, which means for us highly formal language: Confucian scholars are hardly a prime demographic anymore. Ouyang Xiu’s work, as a brief read of any of its biographical entries or basic annals reveals, and confirmed by Davis’ introduction, is highly didactic and concerned with demonstrating the moral character and moral values of correct Confucian officials and rulers, as well as demonstrating how very immoral and bloodthirsty the warlords and Turks who ruled the north of China a century before his life had been. Ouyang Xiu is sarcastic, bitter, harsh; he opens every entry with a lamentation of woe, and even uses a particularly patriarchal Confucian tactic, shaming the memory of various rulers, warlords and officials by comparing their unvirtuous behauviour to that of their virtuous wives, women of course being much less capable of displaying true virtue in the Confucian mode then men.

Ouyang Xiu and Xue Jucheng are both concerned, however, with legitimating the rule of the Song by establishing the precedent of earlier dynasties to carry the Mandate of Heaven, to demonstrate the unbroken ‘legitimate’ lineage of the earlier Five Dynasties by their possession of the ancient Chinese heartland and correct Confucian practice, at the expense of the southern Chinese kingdoms. This also involved accommodating the Sha-t’uo Turks who dominated three of the five dynasties, by arguing that they were legitimate in so far as they as adopted Confucian norms, dressed like Chinese, hired Chinese, ate Chinese food, followed all the norms of Chinese high culture (which the Sha-T’uo did very well, thus avoiding the clash between ‘progressives’ and ‘traditionalists’ that had undermined early dynasties and would undermine more to come). Now, there is much more I could write about these historical works, and much more about the actual history behind the chronicles, reams of pages indeed, as Davis’ introduction is almost a hundred pages long.

More on the Five Dynasties and their history in a bit. Let us return to Wikipedia.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

I first read Alfred Jarry’s The Supermale in French many years ago, a part of a massive Gallimand paperback collection of all of Jarry’s work. I read it in my teenage years, on the advice of Sam Lundwall’s 1977 Illustrated History of Science Fiction, because he claimed Jarry, along with Wells, Verne and George Griffith, as one of the giants of early science fiction.  I read The Supermale in a language I was still shaky in at the time, despite ten years of immersion. So I read it again this year, in English, and then passed it off to my girlfriend.  It was a disquieting reminder both of the failures of memory and the difficulties of translation, even if the translation is occurring instantaneously, almost subliminally, in my head. I had forgotten much of the story and dialogue, even if, as a slim book, there isn’t even all that much to forget.

The action takes places in only a few scenes, a diner, a short conversation, a transcontinental bicycle race, a stupendously long and ultimately fatal display of sexual prowess the likes of which Ron Jeremy, I am certain, would be envious. Having read it so long ago, I imbibed the spirit of the book’s irrationality, and internatlised it to a certain extent, so that I failed to realise how strange it would appear to the people I have lent it too (undoubtedly stranger and more outrageous for those who read it a hundred years ago). I had forgotten the sheer lewdness and bawdiness of the book, including its climax, all puns intended, what with the marathon sex scene, 82 goes and all. Most disappointing for me, and yet pleasant in re-acquaintance, was the sheer poetry of the thing: an exuberance of langauge and stunning metaphors (at least to me, perhaps they seem overblown in an age that has read Hemingway and Updike and all that, but still, exuberant is the best possible word and (world) ), such as this:

“Bereft of ornaments and comforts, under a simple coat of red-lead paint, the machine exhibited without modesty, almost with pride, its organs of propulsion. It seemed like a lewd and fabulous god carrying off the girl. But with a sort of crown, she turned the head of the docile monster, wherever she willed, to left and to right. The dragons of legend are all crowned.

The metallic beast, like a huge beetle, fluttered its wing-sheaths, scratched the ground, trembled, agitated its feelers, and departed.

Ellen, in her pale green dress, seemed like a tiny alga clinging to a gigantic coral trunk being carried away by a rushing torrent.”

Or this:

“The germ is that God in two persons, that God born of the union of the two most infinitesimal of living things, the half-cells known as the Spermatoozoon and the Ovum.

Both inhabit abysses of night and hazy red, in the midst of streams – our blood – which bear globules spaced apart like planets.

There are eighteen million queens, the female half-cells waiting in the depths of their cavern.

They penetrate and govern worlds with their glance. They are perfect goddesses. For them, no physical laws obtain – they disobey the law of gravitation. To the universal attraction of the scientists they oppose affinities proper unto themselves. Nothing exists for them but what they wish.

In other, equally formidable, chasms they are there, the millions of Gods whom reside the Power, and who created Adam on the first day.”

These images are often very hard to remember or translate from the French, in the sense that when I read it, I missed some of the words, associations, conceits that make up the richness of Jarry’s language. Likewise, the opening of the book, a dinner conversation led by Andre Marceuil, a balding bourgeois nobody (again the Ron Jeremy image emerges) leading his dignified, proper scientific and military friends in conversation, is brilliant: their language is dignified and reserved, in that middle class intellectual fashion, subtle and intelligent and very learned, making the most of a reverence to a complex of Greek philosophers, geographers and historians much more obscure then I could have imagined…and yet the conversation turns around how many times and how long a man can have sex. Marceuil, our supermale, is a freak because of his huge unit: he seeks to prove that the “Indian so famed by Theophrastus’ really could have made love more then forty times, if love means mechanical, repetitious sex, and to prove that both sex and bicycle riding are easy, as they require mere mechanical repetition, and nothing more. The trans-continental bicycle race, dreamy and eerie, is the high-point of the novel, with roses blooming on the high speed locomotive and the dead pedaling tandem across Russia. Bound by rods to their machines, the crew of the five man bicycle hurtle race against an express train. The riders, paced by jet cars and flying machines, reach speeds of 300 kilometres an hour thanks to their diet of Perpetual Motion Food, a volatile mixture of alcohol and strychnine. It is against them that Marceuil pits himself, shadowing them in such a way that the bicylists blame his appearance on hallucinations.

(more…)

Read Full Post »


I was eagerly anticipating this book; that explains my disappointment, and the
frustration I felt at the near impossibility of actually finishing the thing. This is Chris
Hedges third book, and as a long veteran of the New York Times, as a man who lived
through Sarajevo, who tracked Al-Qaeda through the Middle East, who can speak
Arabic and lived in the Middle East for many years, he should have been able to
deliver more than this. As a rebuttal to the atheist polemics of Richard Dawkins,
Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, amongst others, it falls very short of the mark.
Not because his purpose, examples and arguments are somehow more juvenile or
simplistic than those employed by Harris or Hitchens, but because Hedges cannot rise
above the polemical style of his opponents, nor has he a mastery over its language or
that of the philosophy he employs to buttress his argument.

I Don’t Believe in Atheists is deeply repetitive, so much so I was
discomforted reading it, every page becoming a struggle, the kind usually experienced
by, say, Ezra Pound or ancient Japanese chronicles. In those cases, density of text,
allusions and references beyond my cultural scope, length and language conspire to
make the going tough. With I Don’t Believe in Atheists, the feeling of
insurmountable length and tediousness set in early, after working through the
introduction. At that point, I realised I could not expect much new from the rest of
the book, no new revelations or barbs on the next page Chris Hedges is not skilled at
didacticism, and could never match the kind of polemical writing that Christopher
Hitchens, one of his prime targets, excels at, with all that self-indulgent literary
referencing and subtle, sneaking skill with the word. This is a tremendous shame,
because the polemical and philosophical style Hedges adopts does not rely on any of
his strengths, and the tendacious repetition of the book denudes his argument of the
force it has and must carry.

Hedges is a brave, intelligent and experienced journalist, one with a deep
sense of integrity and knowledge of the wrongs committed by our governments, all
our governments, firsthand knowledge of the complexities of the Balkans and the
Middle East, of the world itself. Undoubtedly it is this dedication to substantive
journalism, and his long experience with his own religion, now lapsed to a certain
extent, a genuine acquaintance with the Arab Muslim world, and with its many
tragedies and triumphs, that led to this book. This is Hedges’ real asset against the
most vociferous of the ‘New Atheists’ and their sometimes pugnacious followers.
His ‘on the ground’ knowledge gives him potent arguments against those he criticizes
for not understanding any sort of religious experience, of having no sympathy for why
religion occupies an important place in the lives of billions, for occasionally treating
all believers, of any sort, as misguided idiots or ‘brainwashed’, and for reducing the
many problems of the ‘Muslim world’ to a problem of religion alone.

In the introduction, Hedges admits the book was partially generated by his
debates against Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. So, during those debates,
Hedges drew on some of his experience in Palestine to make sharp rebuttals against
the more egregious remarks made by Harris, that Muslims jubilated after 9/11 or
successful suicide bombings, and thus their religion teaches no remorse; Hedges has
been to these funerals, and can say with much more certainty what the actual humans
are doing. He uses the same technique against Hitchens, who bombastically attacks
Hedges for excusing suicide bombings when, Hedges, and not Hitchens, has actually
experienced such a bombing.

When he deigns to use these experiences in I Don’t Believe In Atheists,
Hedges is at a best. He points out that suicide bombing has no monopoly on Muslims
and has been a tactic of Japanese, Hindu Tamils and was perfected in Palestine and
Lebanon by nationalists and communists, not Muslims. (As an aside, it is interesting
to note that the egregious anti-Arab racism in eighties film has been transformed into
a more nebulous and easier to defend attack on Islam). Hedges is, I think, quite right
to consider despair, occupation, cultural humiliation, globalization, poverty, anger
and frustration central to the dilemma in Palestine, Iraq, Somalia and Nigeria that
mobilizes religious fundamentalism, and that religion alone may be an important
factor, but is never the only one. Nonetheless, I Don’t Believe in Atheists is fairly
thin when it comes to using the historical, sociological and political work that would
back up Hedges’ claims, and aside from the dearth of hard facts his investigative
work is sorely missed.

That leads me to question why he wrote this book at all, aside from getting a
larger audience. A series of articles in a magazine would have done the job. As he
strangely avoids more empirical details, Hedges instead repeats again and again, and
again, the rough equation of fundamentalists of religion and atheism, and how they
are both deluded by ideas of moral progress, that they both make the same mistake in
simplifying and externalizing evil into something foreign and strange to them, with all
the consequent lapses in ethical and moral judgment, and the resulting demonization,
that entails. Again, these are valid philosophical and political stances to take, but they
are repeated so often, like seem like sutras, Greco-Roman papyri spells or political
slogans, as if their constant repetition would make their tenet more true. Without any
variety, with little concrete to add credence to them, reading becomes tedious. And
I’m used to reading those Japanese historical chronicles. More then my own stylistic
discontent, the sheer volume of repetition leads me to wonder if Hedges is as certain
about his position as he seems. If one cannot write something new but cogent to the
argument on every page, over two hundred page book, about one of the most
important public debates in the West, then perhaps that argument might have some
serious weaknesses.

As a reader, as a fan of Chris Hedges journalistic work and as a supporter of
the position he adheres to in the book, I was gifted with glimpses of what might have
been, shimmering behind obscuring lines of superfluous text. Several times, Hedges
quotes his debates with Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. These debates are
very interesting, amusing, riveting, even; one wishes there was more of them in I
Don’t Believe in Atheists. Indeed, reprinting transcripts of these interviews, with
commentary from Hedges, would have been much preferable to the often incoherent
mess that is this book. It would have allowed his opponents, theatrical, disdainful and
sometimes foolish, to hang themselves from their own petards. It would have cut
down the sheer mass of repetition and interesting but overused quotations from
Proust, Conrad and Beckett. It would have concentrated Hedges’ arguments into
their most compelling and compact. And it would have saved him from the
embarrassing philosophizing that is so out of place here.

To add weight, literally, in the form of pages, Hedges falls back,
unfortunately, on philosophy to bolster his position; instead of letting the criticisms
speak for themselves in a small essay, he must put forward a coherent philosophical
and moral programme, just like Dawkins or Hitchens. And it is equally unconvincing
and often as shallow as the New Atheists faith in modernity. Hedges may be right to
remark on the basic existentialist futility of much of our life, or that modernity, reason
and science are not automatically synonymous with good, that penicillin, Internet and
electricity are the bedfellows of bombers, gas chambers and eugenics, and that we are
not heading toward some glorious future, but are mired in the basic, unchanging
problems of human existence.

Fine. I can accept that. But making a coherent philosophical argument isn’t
a requirement of refuting some of the worst parts of the New Atheists, their
arrogance, hatred and reductionism, and it makes Hedges seem more the fool then
Dawkins, for instance, especially because attacking his humanism seems petty and
unfortunate for a journalist, ending up fighting the scientist. Worse, it separates his
book from any sort of solid grounding, and overwhelms and isolates the key
arguments, and the best, in a layer of unfortunately poor philosophical blubber.

That is the a major problem of this book. Chris Hedges’ philosophical system
owes a deep debt to John Gray, who I have previously reviewed, and Karl Reinhold
Niebuhr; I can’t help but feel that reading either of those thinkers would have been
much superior to reading Hedges’ own less fluent and disjointed thoughts. And
reading Robert Pape’s Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism might
have held more empirical meaning than Hedges’ own quotations of him and his brief
recountings of his experiences in the Middle East. In short, the sum of this book’s
sources are better than the whole of I Don’t Believe in Atheist, leaving me deeply
unsatisfied with what could have been something very important and even necessary
to our current debate on religion.

This is especially glaring when compared to Hedges’ last book, on the
Christian right in the United States. Deeply hostile to what he considers “the most
dangerous mass movement in American history,” American Fascists, despite its
alarmist tone, was at least well researched and argued, more like a history than a
polemic, and substantiated by interviews that allowed his target to speak for
themselves. American Fascists also established Hedges’ dislike of rigorous
fundamentalism, which forms the key rhetorical argument of his book: atheists, like
religious fundamentalists, can very easily work themselves into precluding strange
points of view, other cultures and alien thought.

Instead, Hedges ends up overstepping himself when he equates Dawkins or
Harris with the Christian Right, at least in terms of strength of numbers and political
influence. Certainly I would rather have Dawkins as my ally then any of those
fundamentalist goons with auto-satirical, hypocritical and judgmental mega-churches.
I do have to ask, rhetorically of course, whether his combative tone and simplification
of atheist thought might be counterproductive: it both gives the ‘New Atheists’ more
credit, more influence, than is due and then berates them savagely and with angry
vigour for an entire book, reducing them, as they reduce the religious, to a caricature.
Nonetheless, Hedges is right to point out the dangers inherent in some of the
positions held by the ‘New Atheist’, especially as regards Iraq and torture, for
instance. I just wish he could have made that argument better, and let it stand on its
own.

Read Full Post »