New Testament II
Yes, Satan has been defeated, but now Satan’s son Sataneus is back for revenge. A generation later, Jesus has to incarnate again and re-save mankind… just as the Romans are mobilizing to wage war against the Jews.

Henry V II, III, IV, V
After successfully conquering France, Henry goes on to conquer Spain, Arabia, Barsoom, and Atlantis.

Three Kingdoms Two
The three kingdoms of Wei, Wu, and Shu Han have been reunited under the Jin dynasty. But the Jin dynasty too becomes corrupt, and the last Jin empress, Lee, is the puppet of warlords. The Cao, Sun, and Liu families once more intrigue and war across the plains of China and, this time, India. Finally, with the aid of Candragupta, Sammy Liu helps Lee restore the Jin Empire.

Journey to the South
The Monkey King is assigned to accompany Sanzang’s daughter Mulan on an epic journey to the south, southeast, and west, representing on a spiritual level the journeys of the Ming treasure fleets.

Lord of the New Rings
Sauron has been destroyed, but a set of nine new Rings have fallen from the sky, and Thorthaur, Sauron’s son by a previously unknown orc-maiden, seeks to use them to subdue Middle Earth. Arajulie, daughter of Aragorn and Arwen, assembles a coalition of heroes to destroy the New Rings and oppose Thorthaur’s human champion, the Wild Man turned rebel Ghân-buri-Ghân-buri-Ghân.

The Sitayana
Sita has left Rama for casting doubts on her purity while she was in Sri Lanka. But then she hears that Rama has been kidnaped by Navana, the king of the Nagas. She teams up with Hanuman, Durga, and her sister Rita to rescue him. Then she must decide whether or not she can forgive the big lout.

The Divine Bromance
Dante enjoys his life with Beatrice in Heaven, but after a foolish quarrel he’s thrown out. He happens upon Virgil, who has been thrown out of the Pagan Paradise. This time the unlikely pair must explore the para-worlds of Greek and Roman mythology, seeking justice for Virgil. Should he seek reconciliation with Beatrice, or just stay with the Roman poet?

Gilgamesh Part Min
Gilgamesh has gone into a sulk when his favorite temple prostitute dies. The spirit of Enkidu must rouse him from his apathy, and he has just the thing: urge him to take once more to the road to find the secret of immortality. And this time, the companions know what mistakes to avoid.

Orlando Ritirato
Having been in love, and then cursed with madness out of love, Orlando is now in retirement, but the Emperor comes to him for one last job, as the Moors are invading France.

King Arthur Redux
The Holy Grail, used by Jesus at the Last Supper, has been taken care of. But now the knights of Arthur must pause their lusty shenanigans to quest for Jesus’s carpentry tools, the wine jug from Cana, and St. Paul’s reed pen.

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I’ve been replaying Conan Exiles, and I’d like to highlight (again) its most sophisticated feature: the utter lack of quest handholding. E.g., take this body:

conan-body

I discovered it randomly near the Nameless City. (Which has a name, by the way.  It’s called “Nameless City”.) The little bag next to him is a manuscript; the dead dude explains that he’s going to jump to get away from the undead and it may kill him, but he’s left some treasure nearby.

Now, in almost every other game, you’d get something like this.

  • There is a board where people post quests.  Despite there being hundreds of people in-world, you are the only one who ever reads the board and accepts them.
  • One quest is about finding someone’s cousin or friend or whatever.
  • A marker appears on your map, pointing you to precisely the location of the cousin’s corpse. (In really advanced games: it only points you to a 20-meter circle containing the corpse; but the corpse is highlighted in detective vision.)
  • You go find the corpse, read the note.  There is now a marker to the treasure.
  • You go find the treasure. This may involve some platforming or monster-killing, but you can easily see where the goal is at all times.
  • You go back to the board and hand in the treasure, receiving a new weapon or something.

Unless it’s Skyrim, in which the quest inevitably involves going into a dungeon and killing everything in it.

Now, I’m only mildly mocking the idea of waypoints and handholding. I’m not saying it’s wrong, only that the Exiles approach is very different. There is no quest journal, no waypoints to follow, no indication that this is a quest at all. You randomly run across the corpse or you don’t.  If you do, you may or may not find the treasure.

And this is only one instance of a general design philosophy. There are dungeons, boss monsters, high-level weapon recipes, a few rare friendly NPCs, Conan himself, and an entire main quest in the game… and there is no UI to point you to them. You could spend your whole time fairly enjoyably in the game, near the river, building castles and defeating the local cannibals, and never realize that these things are there. The only thing that can drive you is curiosity: what are those weird ruins over there?  where does the river go? can I climb these mountains instead of avoiding them?

There are hints here and there, but even they are hidden. E.g. there’s a rare friendly NPC you can find by the river, and he’ll mention a city of relic hunters “up north”.  Sure enough, you can go find it: a fairly large city where, strangely, not everyone is trying to kill you.  Of course, eventually you realize that you get massive XP by discovering things, and strike out in new directions just to see what’s there.

Again, I don’t want to get all Dark Souls on you and tell you that this is way better or more realistic or more immersive or whatever. I do think it can be a good model, however. An open world where every item of interest is highlighted is just railroading in a different form. One where you can discover things just by exploring feels more like a real world, and it makes the player feel like they’re doing things, not being led along on a leash.

Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas sometimes come near to using this approach, though only in their early stages. E.g., in Fallout 3 you come out of the vault and no one tells you where to go.  The level design nudges you to the nearest city, and it’s hard not to find Megaton, but you feel like you’re discovering them, not being pointed at them. Similarly, I still remember seeing the giant statue in FNV and going toward it just to see what it was.  But both games soon become far more railroaded.  (FNV almost fatally so; in the last hours you can hear nothing but the creaking of plot points.)

The main quest in the Dishonored games is railroaded, but it still gives you an unusual amount of leeway. Its levels are small, but you really can traverse them very freely, obstacles can be circumvented in three or four ways, and the ultimate target can be dispatched in many ways. Plus, a good deal of story is conveyed by runes and other things you have to hunt for.

For instance, here’s Mindy Blanchard:

dish-mandy

This tough-looking dame calls you over if you’re near the Black Market in the first Karnaca mission, and asks you to steal a body.  “Don’t worry, it’s already dead,” she assures you. She wants you to steal it from the Overseers’ outpost nearby.

Well, it’s on the way to where you’re going, and choking Overseers is always a good time, so you go find her friend. He turns out to be a tattoo artist– the Overseers have a broad definition of heresy, and it includes tattooing. You carry the body over to Mindy, who’s been digging a grave. There are a couple of dead Overseers in the basement she’s in.  She declines to explain a thing, but does do a favor for you.

You can find out just a bit more, by exploring. You can find the dude’s apartment, with a note from Mindy. You can find the Overseers’ notes on torturing him to death. (Have I mentioned that the Overseers are nasty people? And what that implies for you, the Empress?) In a later mission you can find Mindy’s tattoo parlor, as well as a photography studio where she apparently has a habit of having pictures taken and never paying for them.

It’s a neat little vignette, though I have questions, like why Mindy couldn’t do this task herself, and why she was so confident that a stranger would do it that she hung out in the cellar digging a grave. But I like that fact that much of the story is implied rather than told. Mindy cares about this tattooist for some reason, and the story tells us indirectly about the totalitarian callousness of the Overseers more than simply finding a dead body in a room.

I should add that a game had better decide if it’s going to be exploratory or railroady and not mix it up too much. Not knowing what to do is unpleasant, and all the more so if you’re in an open world rather than a level you can explore exhaustively.

Oh, another nice thing about Conan Exiles: it’s a seemingly rare example of a big company which used the Early Access model and made it work. It was quite playable even at the start, but the final game had three times the territory, filled out that hidden main quest, added a nice climbing mechanic and a much better map, and greatly improved combat. Other games, like Anthem and Destiny 2, have instead crunched their way to a major release without really, y’know, being done.

Time for another business report, dedicated to the patron saint of sales— St. François de Sales.

The occasion is that total sales for all books, over nine years, have just kicked over 30,000.  Here’s a breakdown by title:

sales-to-2019

As you can see, nearly half of sales (almost 14,000) are due to the LCK alone. Of course, it’s been out for the longest. A chart of just the last 3 months looks similar, except

  • the Syntax Construction Kit is a much bigger slice, on par with the other linguistics books and the PCK
  • the China and India slices are a tad wider; they sell about three times the rate of the novels

Print books make up 61% of sales, which is about the same as it was in the last report. Print is not dead!

What else can I tell you?

  • People either don’t care for hardcovers, or don’t know they can buy them. (You can get hardcover versions of the LCK and the Lexipedia. And it’s worth it; they stand up to constant use much better.)
  • About 15% of sales are from outside the US.
  • I’ve had 11 clients for whom I created conlangs.
  • The smallest slice in the above chart, the Historical Atlas, is 100 copies, which is pretty good for a fictional history.

 

David Lindsay published this in 1920, and Ballantine re-issued it in the ’60s when they and everyone were waiting for Tolkien to finish the Silmarillion. I just re-read it; where Eddison is hit-or-miss, Lindsay is remarkable. Better than the Silmarillion, in fact.

I made the map below for my own use when I read it as a teenager. I wish I had a ball-point pen that fine today.

tormance

Lindsay has had many admirers, of many types: Alan Moore, Michael Moorcock, Harold Bloom, C.S. Lewis. Lewis notes that a reader may appreciate the weirdness shown in the first chapter, but will expect that it can’t be sustained:

Tormance, when we reach it, he forbodes, will be  less interesting than Tormance seen from the Earth. But never will he have been more mistaken. Unaided by any special skill or even any sound taste in language, the author leads us up a stair of unpredictables. In each chapter we think we have found his final position; each time we are utterly mistaken. He builds whole worlds of imagery and passion, any one of which would have served another writer for a whole book, only to pull each of them to pieces and pour scorn on it. The physical dangers, which are plentiful, here count for nothing: it is we ourselves and the author who walk through a world of spiritual dangers which makes them seem trivial.

Lewis is quite right. But let me step back a moment and set up the plot. Some posh Londoners are having a séance— the psychic, Mr. Backhouse, is a dour, uncharismatic man who promises a spectacle and duly produces one: a man materializes in the room. But an uninvited guest, Krag, mocks the apparition and snaps its neck. He then goes up to one of the other guests, Maskull, and asks him, “Wouldn’t you like to see the land where this sort of fruit grows wild?”

Maskull is interested enough to follow the man outside, along with his friend Nightspore. (Yes, Lindsay’s names are rather gothic.) Krag explains that he and Nightspore are traveling to Arcturus— specifically to its planet Tormance.

Well, it wouldn’t be much of a story if Maskull declined. He and Nightspore travel to a Scottish observatory where the trip is to start. Putting aside some atmospheric intrigue (the place seems long deserted): Krag appears with bullet-shaped vessel. They will use “Arcturan back-rays” to travel. These are light rays that strain to return to their source; they are used to propel the vessel.  Maskull falls asleep on the journey.

He wakes up naked and alone in a red desert, with scattered purple plants. Tormance is larger than Earth, so the gravity is overwhelming. Fortunately a native rescues him— a woman named Joiwind. By sharing blood, he is enabled to stand up and walk.

Tormance is one of the strangest planets in sf. Lindsay is no scientist, but he has plenty of striking ideas. The inhabitants are humanoid, but they— and Maskull— develop special organs: extra eyes, tentacles. One belongs to a third sex, the phaens, and gets new pronouns (ae, aer). There’s water you can walk on, terrain subject to brutal rearrangements, horse-sized insects, wheeling three-legged animals, trees that trap large animals. There are two new colors: jale and ulfire. You see, there are two suns; one has red, yellow, and blue as its primary colors, and the other has blue, jale, and ulfire. (As it happens, “primary colors” happen in our eyes, not in light, but it’s actually correct that if you had the receptors to see extra colors, you’d get them in pairs.)

(If you’ve read Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis’s sensoriness owes something to Lindsay. Most sf authors want to get down to colonizing or shooting or whatever, and neglect to tell us what it’s like to be on a completely alien planet.)

The structure of the book is episodic: Maskull meets one or two natives, talks with them, often develops whatever local organs they have. (Some of these special organs account for everyone’s ability to speak to each other.)  More importantly, each of the natives expounds an entire way of life, generally completely contradicting whatever the last one believed.

Joiwind, for instance, is a loving and benevolent soul— she has sensed Maskull’s arrival and walked many miles to rescue him. She lives on nothing but water, believing that even to strip a leaf off a plant is criminal. On the other hand, he soon meets Oceaxe, who comes from a land where the ego is king, and people do only what will benefit them.

If this is beginning to sound like a morality story— no, it’s much deeper and more surprising than that. Lindsay is very unusual in being able to portray characters of wildly differing moralities and let them explain themselves as well as they can. The reader can judge them, but none of them is the sort of cardboard figure that most authors produce when depicting someone of an ideology they dislike. Generally Maskull learns to act in accordance with the local mores; as he is a new element, this often leads to change and tragedy. He keeps moving, looking for answers. Here there’s a society of men only that despises all pleasure; here’s an musician whose art is so powerful that it kills anyone who listens to it; here’s a phaen who is driven to find a spiritual underground world though it is sure to kill aer…

All of this works surprisingly well: Lindsay doesn’t run out of novel philosophies, nor odd characters to explain them, and Maskull is a perfect foil— each encounter changes him, not always for the better, and compels him to act.

The show has to end somewhere, and one might presume that the final chapter contains Lindsay’s final point of view. What’s presented is a sort of Gnosticism— the universe is described as created by one god, but corrupted by another. And maybe that’s exactly what Lindsay believed— but I doubt it; books meant to end with a particular ideology of any kind usually get there much faster, and treat the alternatives far less graciously. Though Lewis talks about him “pouring scorn” on each viewpoint as he leaves it, that’s not the feeling I get. I don’t think Lindsay is writing a Gnostic tract with instructive moral tales about the failures of non-Gnostic approaches. It’s more like a catalog: look, here’s how the self-sacrificing and compassionate Joiwind speaks and acts; here’s how the entirely self-serving Oceaxe thinks and lives.

I didn’t find the last chapter satisfying, but I’m not sure what would have worked instead.  Tales of spiritual journeys are interesting only until the point when the protagonist has all the answers: even if you accept the final destination, the genre is about the doubts and slips along the way.

As well, up to that point the book succeeds despite almost entirely ignoring the normal notions of plot and character. Maskull wants to find out all he can about Tormance and its God or gods. That sets up the catalog, but it’s not a plot, and a childish part of me rebels at the end because, as a plot, the end makes no sense. Oh well… I usually find the endings of video games unsatisfying too.

Edit: There’s one near-constant in the ideologies Lindsay catalogs: suffering and sacrifice. That’s the one bedrock value that he seems to have, and it’s why so many of the stories end in death: the only worldviews worth having, to him, are the ones you’d die for. Almost the only exception is the land of egotists (including Oceaxe), and it’s hardly necessary to add any moral condemnation there; he simply shows the natural consequences of their views.

I should warn modern readers of one thing— Lindsay likes to play with gender essentialism. This doesn’t mean that he’s misogynistic (though some of his characters are). If anything, he does well with his female characters— and this is a rare classic sf novel which has plenty of them. And it’s worth remembering that feminism, circa the seventies, used to dip heavily into gender essentialism itself. But it’s in disrepute today, for good reasons— no one should be limited by what someone else thinks their sex should be like.

Since I quoted Lewis’s disparaging remarks on Lindsay’s style, I should also add that I don’t agree. I find Eddison’s style disagreeable; Lindsay is straightforward and quite readable. The wonder is in the ideas; there’s no need for him to dress up the style as well.

It’d be interesting to make the book into a video game. Faithfully, I mean— at least, as faithfully as it could be done without a monitor that can properly render jale and ulfire. It’d mostly be a walking (and talking) simulator. Imagine having to walk across the desert with Joiwind, for maybe an hour, and if you stop too many time to talk to her you both weaken and die.  I think it’d be a big big hit.

 

I just finished Rūmī: Poet and Mystic, an anthology translated by Reynold Nicholson. And by finished I mean struggled through. I love Khayyam, and I appreciated Attar, but Rumi is a slog.

Which may be surprising, because Rumi is booming right now. Checking Amazon right now, he’s got the #30 bestseller spot under “Poetry”, and takes 4 of the 50 top slots under “Ancient, Classical, and Medieval Poetry”, including #3. That’s pretty impressive for a Persian dude who died in 1273, and for a Sufi Muslim.

At least I can say after reading Rumi how un-Sufi Khayyam is. The contrast is evident when Rumi uses one of the same subjects, wine:

He comes, a Moon whose like the sky ne’er saw, awake or dreaming,
Crowned with eternal flame no flood can lay.
Lo, from the flagon of Thy love, O Lord, my soul is swimming,
And ruined all my body’s house of clay.

When first the Giver of the grape my lonely heart befriended,
Wine fired my bosom and my veins filled up,
But when His Image all my eye possessed, a voice descended:
“Well done, O Sovereign Wine and peerless Cup!”

This is obviously about God– there’s no worry that the poet is secretly tippling; he’s just using a quick metaphor of wine overflowing a cup. It’s a million miles away from

And much as Wine has play’d the Infidel,
And robb’d me of my Robe of Honour— well,
I wonder often what the Vintners buy
One half as precious as the stuff they sell.

It may not be mysterious that people who like devotional poetry like Rumi. It’s not hard to see that his message is all about a loving though imperious God, about the devotion expected of his disciples, about God’s omnipotence and even his own craving for communion with humanity. It could equally appeal to a Muslim, a Christian, or a bhakta of Shiva or Vishnu. However, it’s not likely to appeal to someone who just doesn’t believe that a god like that exists, or that devotion to one is lovely and moving.

And to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with devotional poetry. And it would be odd to complain that there’s not much here besides the devotion: why would we expect there to be? It would be like complaining that fantasy contains a lot of fantastical elements. But, well, in other poets sometimes there is more. Attar is more readable, if nothing else because he’s also telling a story, and because his paradoxes (like the Sufi saint who falls in love with a Christian) are striking. Sometimes devotional works have other things with wider appeal, such as a fervor for social justice, or a celebration of human love, or just really groovy language.

Nicholson’s edition, at least, makes it very clear that Rumi was firmly rooted in both Sufism and Islam. Sufis are the mystics of Islam, and big on love and devotion and God’s immanence. Sometime this looks like pantheism: some Sufis said “I am God”, but this was not a claim to be divine; it was a claim (or dream) to have so defeated the self that nothing was present in them any more but God.

But they take Muhammad’s pre-eminence for granted, and are full of quotations from the Qur’an. Rumi even makes it clear that he’s Sunni rather than Shi’a, and throws a few barbs at the Christians. And the Zoroastrians, for that matter. (He has a dialog where a pious Muslim tears up a foolish Zoroastrian; this might have been a literary trope even in his time, but the old Persian religion was undoubtedly far stronger then than it is today.)

One of the barbs, by the way, was the supposed preference of Christians for hermitage. (Islam arose when hermits were a big thing in the Christian East.) Islam is big on community; it seemed strange and wrong for supposed holy men to go off to live by themselves. Plus, Rumi says, there’s no great worth in avoiding temptation by running away from it. “Hark, do not castrate yourself, do not become a monk: chastity depends on the existence of lust.”

One poem has some interesting comments on asceticism:

The mystic ascends to the Throne in a moment; the ascetic needs a month for one day’s journey. […]
Love (maabbat) and ardent love (‘ishq) also, is an attribute of God; Fear is an attribute of the slave to lust and appetite. […]
The timorous ascetic runs on foot; the lovers of God fly more quickly than lightning.
May Divine Favour free thee from this wayfaring! None but the royal falcon hath found the way to the King.

And yet there are also justifications for the tribulation of the world: the Sufi saint accepts mortification and asceticism as the purifying fire of God.  It’s a very old paradox, found in many religions: someone comes along and breaks all the rules, emphasizes that the Path is simple and made of love, and invites even the sinful to walk it. But then that simplicity offends others, who put all the rules back (or invent a new set), because salvation should require overt virtue and work.  (For ease of exposition I talk about this as if it’s a cycle in time requiring opposite personality types, and often it is; but in any mature religion it’s possible to have both tropes coexisting in the same person.)

By the way, his name was really Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī. The epithet Rūmī simply means ‘Roman’! Or to be precise, it refers to Rūm. In the Qur’an, this means what we call the Byzantine Empire, but which till its very end called itself Rome. When the Turks conquered Anatolia, they continued to call it Rūm. Rumi lived for years in Anatolia, thus the name. (Balkhī means ‘from Balkh’, which was his home town.)

The “whirling dervishes” belong mostly to the Mevlevi order of Sufis– which was founded by Rumi’s followers, and is still led by one of his lineal descendants. The dance is a form of worship. Atatürk banned the order, but the dances are now allowed because tourists like them.

A curiosity of Rumi’s life was his intense devotion to a male companion. The first was Shamsu’l-Din of Tabriz; he so monopolized Rumi’s time that his followers chased him to Damascus, twice. Rumi sent his son to bring him back each time. He named one of his major works (“The Lyrics of Shams of Tabriz”) after him. And when Shams disappeared, he had similar relationships with other Sufi men, one of which succeeded him as head of the Mevlevi order.

These days, this is bound to arouse speculation that he was gay (or bisexual). His followers generally insist that it was a deep love but entirely non-sexual. But gay writers are quick to point out that at lot of these historical “oh they were just really close friends” judgments are rife with homophobia. So who knows?

I don’t like most poetry. I don’t know why, I lack the gene for it or something. But some stuff gets past the blocks. Chinese poetry, for one, but also the Ruba’iyyat of Omar Khayyam, the 12C Persian poet and scholar.

pogo-khayyam

Wake! For the Sun, who scatter’d into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night,
Drives Night along with them from Heaven, and strikes
The Sultán’s Turret with a Shaft of Light.

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread— and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant drum!

You know, my Friends, with what a brave Carouse
I made a second Marriage in my house;
Divorced old barren Reason from my Bed
And took the Daughter of the Vine to Spouse.

But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.

The Moving Finger writes, and having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

Yesterday This Day’s Madness did prepare;
To-morrow’s Silence, Triumph, or Despair:
Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why;
Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where.

And much as Wine has play’d the Infidel,
And robb’d me of my Robe of Honour— well,
I wonder often what the Vintners buy
One half as precious as the stuff they sell.

These are all in Edward FitzGerald’s translation— the 5th edition, from 1875. The first edition in 1859 was remaindered, and sold for a penny a copy. The artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the poet Algernon Swinburne happened to buy copies, and fell in love with the poems, leading to a craze for Khayyam for a century, at least. Thus the illo above, a 1950 strip from Walt Kelly’s Pogo.

It’s easy to feel that we’ve got the number of FitzGerald’s Khayyam. They’re melancholy and yet hedonistic, fiercely appreciative of the human predicament and skeptical of all cosmological doctrines. They frequently refer to wine-drinking— forbidden to Muslims— and yet one intuits that the drunkenness is not real; these are far from the musings of an alcoholic.

Who was the real Khayyam? Perhaps a glance at one of his scholarly works is in order.

If it is said that existence is a concept that cannot be described through existence by negating the attribute, that is: not to negate either of the two sides even if it is said, “either it is an existent or a non-existent in reality.” We ask them, moreover, that both sides be negated and we say, “is existence an existent in a reality or is it non-existent in reality?” So, if the answer is positive, it becomes necessary for what is axiomatic to become impossible, and if the answer is negative, then existent is not existent in reality and this position is false.

This is less likely to be quoted in a popular comic strip.

I just finished a book which attempts to explain all sides of Khayyam: The Wine of Wisdom: The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam, by Mehdi Aminrazavi (2005). In his time, Khayyam was known as a mathematician and an astronomer.

  • He attempted to shore up Euclid’s fifth postulate, making use of Saccheri quadrilaterals, which were adopted by Western science half a millennium later.
  • He made a systematic study of cubic and quadratic equations, finding ways to solve them all, though his analysis is marred by considering only positive roots. He closely linked algebra with geometry, which was a new thing.
  • He used continued fractions to deal with rational numbers, and was one of the first to seriously consider four or more spatial dimensions.
  • He led a Seljuk commission to create a new solar calendar, the Jalāli, which is slightly more accurate than the Gregorian calendar we use. A variant of this is still used in Iran.

In philosophy, he was a follower of Avicenna, and more remotely of Aristotle. If you’ve read some early philosophy, Khayyam’s philosophical treatises (which are included in Aminrazavi’s book) will seem dense but unsurprising. Essence and existence are concepts that go back to Aristotle, as is Khayyam’s deriving the idea of God from that of causation: everything we see has a cause, but there can be no infinite chain of causation, so something is the uncaused cause of everything else, and that is God.

He considers the problem of evil, concluding that by creating good attributes, God could not help but create their opposites, without intending to. That leads to the meta-question: wouldn’t he know that creating those goods would also bring in evil, and therefore avoid it? But, he maintains, the sheer quantity of good to evil is overwhelming, and to deprive the universe of those goods simply to prevent a small amount of evil would itself be wrong.

There’s also a version of the ontological argument for God:

The Necessary Being… is an essence that is not possible to be conceived except by an existent. Therefore, the attribute of existence before the the intellect is due to His essence and not because one has placed it there.

It all sounds familiar because Aristotle, Avicenna, and Averroes influenced Anselm and Acquinas, so such concepts are part of Catholic theology. To put it another way, Muslims and Christians think very similarly about God, except for the bit about Jesus. And yes, the divinity of Jesus is a big deal, but not when you’re at the level of uncaused causes and essences that include existence.

So far, it looks like Khayyam is an orthodox philosopher who believed in a rationally supported God who was (with some steps better left unexamined) that worshipped by the local religion. He studied Islamic theology and jurisprudence, and was seen in his own time as a respected scholar and even called imām. What he’s not known for is entering the theological disputes of his time. He didn’t write discourses about them, not least because this could be dangerous.

But he treated them indirectly in Ruba’iyyat, taking advantage of the greater freedom offered to poets. His position was consistently skeptical: issues of life after death, or the justice of the world, or the nature of the attributes of God, could not be resolved and the disputes were not worth one’s time.

The sphere upon which mortals come and go,
Has no end or beginning that we know
And none there is to tell us in plain truth
Whence do we come and whither do we go.

All the biographical information we have on Khayyam relates to his scholarly life. He lived most of his life in Nishapur, a city in eastern Iran, at the west end of the Silk Road; for a time it was the capital of the Seljuk Empire. He took some students (apparently reluctantly), but lived on a generous stipend from the Nizam al-Mulk, the Seljuk vizier. He’s said to have had a photographic memory: twice he traveled to read a manuscript he was not allowed to copy, and came home to dictate a near-perfect match. (The poet Attar was also from Nishapur; he was born a few years after Khayyam’s death.)

The first ruba’iyyat (quatrains) attributed to Khayyam— not much more than a dozen— occur in manuscripts dated about a century after his death. We can add about twenty more in books about a century later. Over the centuries the total mushroomed to over a thousand.

This makes for a huge textual puzzle, and many scholars have attempted to find the “authentic” ruba’iyyat. The puzzle is really impossible to solve, because it becomes an investigation into what the poet Khayyam really was: FitzGerald’s hedonist Epicurean? The Aristotelian deist of the scholarly works? An eccentric but orthodox Sufi?  Which answer you choose affects which ruba’iyyat you consider authentic. Aminrazavi suggests that the quest is futile, and that one might as well just call the whole mass the Khayyamian school of poetry.

In Persia, the received wisdom is that he was a Sufi. This is the mystical side of Islam, which emphasizes divine love and simple living, sometimes shocks the fundamentalists, and has little patience for doctrine and ritual. On the plus side, the philosophical Khayyam, in On the knowledge of the universal principles of existence, reviews four possible paths: theologians; philosophers; Ismā’ilis, and Sufis, and declares of Sufism, “This path is the best of them all.” Khayyam is known to have preferred solitude and a relatively simple life, though there’s also that stipend, an indication that he was no ascetic. There’s no evidence that he had a Sufi master or adhered to any particular Sufi school.

Aminrazavi concludes that the poet was comfortable with Sufism and used Sufi themes, but wasn’t a Sufi. It’s true that the Sufis were also fond of the metaphor of wine; a French translator carefully footnotes every reference to wine in the Ruba’iyyat with the annotation Dieu. I have to say I agree with Aminrazavi, simply because the atmosphere of the Ruba’iyyat is a thousand miles (or about 250 parasangs) from that of Attar, who was an actual Sufi poet. Like many a religious teacher, Attar likes to shock the student with paradox, but it’s all in the service of an ascetic though emotional devotion to God. And Attar’s allegories are not at all hard to decipher (hint: one of the parties represents God, another the human).

Khayyam (or if you like the Khayyamian school) doesn’t seem to talk about devotion to God at all. God is referred to, but as the inscrutable hand behind fate and the mixed justice and injustice in the world. The jug of wine in the wilderness is not a jug of God. It might not be a real jug of wine, but if not it still represents the pleasures of this world, the only one we can be certain of.

Could the same man who wrote those very dry treatises also have written the Ruba’iyyat? Well, sure. It’s a bad scholarly habit to declare that the same person couldn’t have created very different kinds of works. As a modern example, Richard Feynman was both a serious scientist, a musician, and a humorous storyteller with a taste for roguish adventures.

If you want to know more, pick up FitzGerald’s translation. It’s short— my copy is only about a hundred pages and includes three of his five editions. Curiously, Aminrazavi agrees: he says that FitzGerald is still the best gateway for readers who don’t know Persian, that he captured the spirit of Khayyam better than translators who were trying to be more accurate. He did choose the more Epicurean ruba’iyyat, and his idea of translation is very free, but it’s hard to argue with a version that comes alive so fiercely.

And if you want to know more than that, read Aminrazavi’s book. It reviews both Persian and Western scholarship and attempts to reconcile the scholarly and the poetic Khayyam. I do think he spends too little time on the scientific works (admittedly it would probably take a long and difficult chapter to do justice to them), and a little too much on various “Omar Khayyam Clubs” in the West. Though there’s probably a lesson about research there: once he had all that material, it was difficult not to use it.

 

 

 

I just finished this, the 2010 novel by N.K. Jemisin.  It’s great. I wonder if in India it’s known as One Lakh of Kingdoms.

jemisin

The story: one Yeine, is chieftain of Darr, an insignificant barbarian nation somewhere in the north. But the entire world is subject to a single clan, the Arameri. She is summoned to the capital, where the aged patriarch of the Arameri informs her that she is now his heir. She knows a bit about world politics: she asks, doesn’t he already have an heir?  Oh, yes, two of them; they will fight out who will succeed him.

It’s a nice setup: as an outsider, Yeine is placed to discover how this strange and cruel clan operates (and explain it to us), and it looks like it’s going to be involve a lot of power struggles. And it does, though the story has a way of shaking itself and twisting into new forms, each time raising the stakes for Yeine and everyone else.

For one thing, Yeine is not quite so much a nobody as it seems at first. Her mother was Arameri, and was once the heir to the empire. But she renounced this position and went off to live with the man she’d fallen in love with, in Darr. (Yeine takes after her father, so she is brown-skinned where the Arameri are white.)

For another, there are gods involved, and not remote ones. Much of the story involves coming to understand the theology and history of the gods, so I won’t explain in detail. But the power of the Arameri over the world is because several of the gods are enslaved to them.

I think the thing I like the most about the book is how thoroughly it’s suffused with gods and magic. The Arameri believe they rule the world justly, but they’re ancient and corrupt and nasty. But they would be, with the power of gods at their fingertips. There are human plots for Yeine to worry about, but there are also divine plots.  She spends most of the book as a detective, uncovering each of them.

At one point she asks a counselor if there’s any important politician or family member yet to meet. He says no, not really, she’s met them all. Which isn’t very naturalistic, but it makes excellent narrative sense. There’s about half a dozen humans and about the same number of gods to worry about, and that’s quite enough. We don’t learn about very many of the hundred thousand kingdoms, but that’s just as well; it lets Jemisin close out the story in just over four hundred pages.

It turns out to be the first book in a trilogy, but I suspect Jemisin herself didn’t know that when she wrote the final words.  It doesn’t read like 1/3 of a story; it’s complete in itself and would be hard to continue in a conventional way.  (I haven’t read the next book, but I know that it has a different protagonist.)

If you haven’t read her, she doesn’t write anything like Neil Gaiman, but her material is similar: the mixture of mortals and gods, the deeply human motivations and imperfections of the gods.

There’s also something deeply subversive about the book— which is refreshing in a work of fantasy, which too often is enamored of old stone keeps and the old stony-faced tyrants within. All power is suspect here, including the gods’. At the same time, it’s not just that everything is weird and corrupt, as in China Miéville. The Arameri are presented as complex characters; only one is truly villainous. And Yeine is driven by the hope that at least some of the world’s ills can be put right.