MECK readers needed

It’s (finally) that time again: I need readers for the first draft of the Middle East Construction Kit.

The book is similar to my China and India books. It covers the history, culture, religion, and literature of ancient Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Egypt, up till the Macedonian conquest, and includes meaty grammatical sketches of Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hebrew.

If you’re interested and have time, send me e-mail. If you’ve done this before, welcome back! If not, tell me if you have any special expertise. This is not required, as I need general readers too. If I get a load of replies I may save some of you for the second draft.

If you’re curious, that’s king Horemheb above, circa 1300 BCE, greeting Hathor in the afterlife, and hoping no one notices he has two right hands.

Cultural materialism

I just re-read Marvin Harris’s book of this name– subtitle, The Struggle for a Science of Culture. It’s a review of a dozen or so approaches to anthropology– of course he likes his own the best. It’s from 1980, so it’s undoubtedly outdated as a survey of the major schools.

First, should you read it? Oh no, it’s pretty dry, and intended for his colleagues. If you’ve never read Harris, read Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches instead. However, a distinction he makes early on is of interest to conworlders and others.

The distinction is between etic and emic levels of culture. Curiously, these terms were abstracted (by Kenneth Pike) from linguistics. Phonetics is the study of the sounds used for language, and phonemics is the study of the sounds as people speaking a particular language perceive them. We hear and produce the raw sounds, but we think we’re pronouncing the phonemes. See your copy of the LCK for more.

Applied to cultures, the etic level is the physical level: what people do, what constraints they face in resources and ecology, what their technology and social practices are. You could theoretically study all this as a Martian, just observing and measuring. The emic level is what people think. It includes their language, literature, ritual, ideology, their ideas about family and class, what they tell children and each other.

Now, most of the schools Harris discusses differ in how they approach these two levels, and which they consider primary. Oversimplifying broadly, we have

  • Materialists consider that the etic system predominates, and determines the emic level.
  • Idealists put the emic level first, and believe that it determines how cultures work (i.e. the etics).

Now, no one thinks that you can completely ignore either level. You study both, and everyone admits that the levels can influence each other. But your overall orientation influences what questions you ask, what methods you use, and what you consider to be an answer.

To avoid some complications, I’ll use an example from the contemporary US. On the etic level, since the 1960s, the Republican Party has pursued the “Southern Strategy”. Their basic policies are to facilitate the dominance of the rich elite: low taxes, low regulation, a free hand for business, as little redistribution as possible. (Yes, things like tax rates and income levels are etic. They’re objective things, relatively easy to measure; our Martian observer who doesn’t know the language could figure them out.) These things are not very popular, so to win elections the GOP goes for a larger coalition based on region (the South and non-coastal West), race (whites), and religion (mostly Evangelicals). They highlight issues designed to appeal to regional and racial solidarity while hiding their policies (which disadvantage the very populations they are trying to win over). To ensure that the coalition wins, they carefully pass laws to make it harder for the opposition to vote.

The emic level looks very different. Here we look at what the GOP actually says— that febrile stew of resentment of minorities, fear of foreigners, fear of America changing, fear of “socialism”, fear of crime, disgust over homosexuality and abortion, nostalgia for an imagined past, feelings of wounded religious sentiment, and authority worship, with an undercurrent of fantasies of violent suppression of enemies, that we know from figures from McCarthy to Goldwater to Limbaugh to Gingrich to Trump.

If you don’t like that summary, use your own, or a random set of 10-minute segments from Fox News. The point isn’t that the emic level is bad; it’s that it’s different. What you see from the outside is poles apart from what you hear and feel on the inside.

Now, the cultural materialist viewpoint is that the etic facts, most of the time, explain the emic facts. That particular mix of beliefs and preoccupations isn’t random or coincidental; it’s determined by the business elite’s need to win votes for an unpopular set of policies. The easiest way to do so is to hide the actual agenda, and make use of existing resentments.

Another way to see this is to notice how the diversions have changed over time. In the 1950s, the most effective strategy for the GOP was anti-Communism rather than racism. In the 1960s, it was the mainstream’s dismay over hippies, sexual change, and modern art. In the 1980s, the rallying points were Evangelicalism and racism.

The key point is that you’ll understand very little of American politics by looking at what the GOP believes. It may be interesting or frightening, but it’s often quite disposable (note how concern over the deficit completely disappears when the GOP is in power), and it’s a poor guide to what the GOP will do. (Hint: it may or may not pursue culture war issues. It will cut taxes.)

I’m not at all summarizing the book, whose examples mostly relate to non-American cultures. But to use any of those examples I’d have to explain those cultures in fair detail, and that’s not my point here. I should add though that if the analysis sounds rather left-wing to you (all this talk about elites and supremacy)– well, cultural materialism does trend strongly left; it owes a lot in fact to Marx.

What is my point? Well, that the etic/emic distinction, and arguments about which comes first, are useful well beyond anthropology. First, they are relevant to a lot of cultural debates today.

A lot of the anthropological schools Harris discusses prefer the emic level, and some of them feel that this is the only valid level: find out what the natives think, and explicate that with the maximum of empathy and detail. And I think this approach has a strong attraction to anyone interested in other cultures– after all, shouldn’t we study them on their terms rather than ours? Some of the discourse about colonization and privilege falls easily into this point of view, even criticizing “scientific” approaches as objectifying and disrespectful.

Now, if you’re not doing anthropology, your approach should be based on what you’re doing. If you want to be a Buddhist, you of course want to study Buddhism from the inside, and probably shut up the scientific skeptic within you. Reading literature or watching movies or just interacting with people, you can pursue and enjoy the emic level as much as you want. And if you’re not an anthropologist or historian, guesses about the etic level may be quite misguided.

The problems come when you get curious about why things are as they are. You want to know the emic level, it’s very important. But–

  • the emic level is likely to be wrong about why things are as they are.
  • the emic level is likely to be inherently conservative— to put it bluntly, it’s the realm of authoritarian old farts.

The emic level, after all, includes native justifications for slavery, for colonialism and war, for sexism, for foot binding, for the Indian caste system, for Aztec slaughter and cannibalism, for the divine right of kings, for holy wars, for dictatorships and inquisitions and pogroms. If you believe what the culture says and thinks about itself, you’ll accept a lot of immoral trash, almost all of it designed to prop up the local elite.

Not everything in the emic level is tainted, of course. Some of it is purely interesting and enjoyable. Some of it is problematic, but so is almost everything. Some of it you can learn from on its own terms.

I like Harris’s approach, because etic explanations are far more interesting and satisfying. Take sexism, for instance. Emic explanations run toward gender determinism, or else the original-sin-like position that male supremacy is universal yet unmotivated. Gender determinism is itself problematic, and the “universal” position is simply wrong. There are more egalitarian societies, though you may have to go all the way back to hunter-gatherers to find them.

More importantly, there are reasons why all the evils listed above exist, and why some cultures have some evils but not others. Here cultural materialism is critically different from the rather annoying theories that biologists come up with, like evolutionary biology. Cultural materialist explanations may be based on physical constraints, but not on supposed aspects of human nature, because anthropologists know way too much about the diversity of culture. If human nature determined how societies worked, they’d all be the same or virtually so. Instead they’re wildly different in many ways, so these differences have to be examined and explained.

Also, importantly, changing human nature is almost impossible, but changing etic facts is not. So cultural materialism is far more optimistic. If sexism is caused by certain etic constraints, then there’s a hope for eliminating it by changing those constraints. (Indeed, a lot of the progress made in advanced societies is precisely due to changing the etic level.)

Another reason people often prefer emic approaches is that etic ones can seem, well, a little Martian. Just as it’s a little disturbing to take an anatomy class and cut up former humans, it’s a little disturbing to see how cultures are made. Reading about a war, for instance, it’s most rousing if it’s a morality tale, especially if the good guys win. Yet almost all wars can be explained at the level of resources, tactics, and logistics.

For conworlding, you can also take an emic or an etic approach. For the former, I’d point to Lord of the Rings. It’s presented as a literal document from its conworld, written by participants. At all points it adopts the worldview of its protagonists– directly, the hobbits; indirectly, the elves. Tolkien has almost zero interest in ecological constraints, economies, or how power operates, beyond the emic categories of “good kings” vs. “corrupt kings”. At no point in the book does he criticize how Gandalf or the elves think or behave. (I’m aware this is not true of the Silmarillion.)

For a fairly pure etic approach, perhaps take Neuromancer. The focus at almost all times is what people are doing, on a low technical level. Almost all the characters are primarily motivated by practical needs… no one needs or consults an ideology. The organization of society by the elite is directly criticized, without much interest in what the elite has to say for itself emically.

If you’ve been following my conworlds, Almea and the Incatena, you can probably see that I’m equally interested in both levels. I try to indicate what causes various social structure to form– e.g. why Eretald is male dominant and the Bé is female dominant, or why there are far more restrictions on Verdurian kings than there were on Caďinorian emperors. But I also provide extensive presentations of people’s ideological systems.

There’s a scene in Against Peace and Freedom where Agent Morgan more or less explains the etic bias of the Incatena, as opposed to the ideological systems of the antagonists. Morgan says to one of them:

Give us a static society and socionomics will tell you how to turn it into a dynamic one– what to teach the kids in school, what comic books to write, what family behaviors have to change, what sectors to encourage. Of course, a static society won’t like those changes.. that’s why it stays static. No problem… back up a level, we can tell you what to do to generate a liking for them.

Socionomics is essentially far-future cultural materialism. Of course we don’t know today how to do these things, though many people think they do. But the Incatena has way more data.

Again, if all this whets your appetite, try Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches. It’s hard to invent premodern cultures without it. (Or read my books— there’s a lot of Harris in the PCK.)

The Innocents Abroad

One result of the pandemic: I’ve been re-reading what feels like everything on my bookshelves. And I have a lot of bookshelves.

When I was a teenager, I think it was, I loved The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain. I just finished re-reading it. It’s an account of his trip to Europe and the Middle East in 1867 on the Quaker City with about sixty other Americans– most of them, by his count, old fogeys “between 40 and 70”. He was 32 at the time, a failed miner and riverboat pilot, but a rising newspaper humorist. His fare ($1250) was paid by a California paper.

quaker city

The Quaker City advances on Europe

His account is mostly an extended comedy routine, though he’s also attempting to convey to his readers what it was like to travel to these places, and that involves quite a bit of serious description and retelling of stories he’s read, or heard from his guides. It’s clear that he read a lot of contemporary travel guides, and that those told visitors what things to see, what they meant, and what their dimensions were, information he sometimes regurgitates half-chewed.

A lot of the comedy holds up. I like his gentle parodying of his favorite traveling companions. E.g. the Oracle tries to get as many learned words as possible into every sentence, while knowing the meaning of none of them. Then there’s what he calls the “pilgrims”: fellow passengers who are far more religious than he is, and yet have a positive mania for cracking off mementos from famous places. He has a chapter where the subhead “The Ascent of Vesuvius– continued” is repeated at least half a dozen times, as he keeps digressing far away from the volcano. He and his closest companions loved to tease guides, calling them all Ferguson, and tormenting them by asking of any historical figure or statue, “Is he dead?” He’s amusing and drily ironic about Catholic relics, counting how many places had the same bones or the same pieces of the Crown of Thorns.

Comedy these days is mostly fast: one-liners or back-and-forth repartee. Twain, like his English counterpart Jerome K. Jerome, is more a fan of the extended bit, a long anecdote full of buildup and color. He was highly in demand as a lecturer, and I picture him acting out the physical comedy and doing all the voices.

Though he grew up in Missouri and set his most famous novels there, here he presents himself as a Westerner, and indeed is a little too quick to compare all mountains to the Rockies and all lakes to Lake Tahoe. Cities are compared to New York (and he was also contributing dispatches to NY newspapers).

He’s obviously well read, and honestly appreciates a lot of what he sees. Though what he appreciates is a little random. He is completely unimpressed by the Last Supper (probably with reason– it was in bad shape) and in fact by most paintings. He is rapturous about the Pyramids and the Sphinx, mostly because they’re so ancient, and because their hardness resists the hammers of the pilgrims.

Sometimes the country bumpkin act gets a little old. A particularly annoying sort of traveler (often but not exclusively American or British) complains at finding things done differently than they are at home. A little too often Twain is that sort of traveler. That business about Tahoe, for instance. Probably he had read too many guidebooks that depicted everything in Europe as uniquely magnificent, but c’mon, Sam, a two-page encomium of Lake Tahoe back home is not necessary. Similarly, though it’s fascinating that the one town he finds “just like an American city” and wholly approves of is Odessa, it’s extremely provincial to only like things you liked before.

Twain has complicated feelings about poverty. On the one hand, he has a hearty distaste for oppression, and (e.g.) castigates the Catholic Church in Italy for living in luxury while the peasants are miserable. On the other, well, he hates seeing poor people– their rags, their diseases and deformities, their neediness. This particularly applies to all the Muslim cities he sees, but also to Naples, and for that matter to Native Americans. He’s not immune to pity (when the tourists are mobbed by people asking for baksheesh, he and the others give them money), but he can’t get past the feelings of repulsion at the people themselves, and he sometimes expresses the wish to get rid of them.

Such thoughts provoke an aggrieved response in some people, so if you’re thinking of that, just don’t go there. There was a lot to like about Twain, and there are things to dislike. He is not immune to be criticism, and frankly anyone who thinks he is hasn’t really understood him. He was an acerbic critic himself when he wanted to be, which was usually. He himself claims that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”, and it’s hardly unfair to ask him to live up to his own ideals.

(One possible defense is worth a response: that he was joking. First, it’s usually quite clear when he’s joking and when he’s not, and a lot of the xenophobia is not jokes. And second, pretending to be a bigot is not actually a laff riot; all too often, it’s just bigotry hiding behind facetiousness.)

Readers should also be aware that Twain’s description of Palestine as a desolate and barren place has done some real harm, by allowing some moderns to discount the rights or the very existence of the people who lived there. This article is a corrective. It should be noted that Twain visited in the dry season, when the country presented its worst aspect; also that one of his major themes was the discrepancy between romantic or ancient accounts and present realities, and he was not above exaggerating this for effect. He says about the same thing of Greece, by the way– “Greece is a bleak, unsmiling desert, without agriculture, manufacturing, or commerce apparently”. I’m sure he didn’t mean to deceive, but this sort of analysis isn’t any more reliable than modern columnists’ assessment of national opinion based on talks with their cab drivers.

Something that might be surprising is Twain’s small but real piety. I’ve read other books by him that are far more skeptical. But at this point he seemed to be a faithful Protestant, though not a zealous one. He listened courteously to the “pilgrims” (who loved nothing on shipboard more than an evening of religious talks), he knows his scripture, and there is really nothing in the book that could offend a Christian. He criticizes hypocrisy and a few logical errors, and he’s not going to allow the pilgrims to put him off drinking and smoking, but he says nothing against the religion itself.

The best modern travel writing aims at not just describing the sights, but the people. This requires at least knowing the local language, and access to more than tour guides and waiters. Twain does not achieve this. He knows a little French, but by his own account none of the Americans could make their efforts understandable to a Frenchman. The structure of his tour means that he spends almost all of his time in Touristland, and though he freely talks about national character, this is mostly based on meeting people in the tourist industry.

If you can get past all that, the book is still pretty funny; it’s also quite interesting as a portrait of the times. The non-comedy bits– the places where he rhapsodizes over a building or some scenery he happened to like– are not greatly informative. But you get a good idea, I think, of how a smart but not college-educated American of the 1860s would react to the sights and the slights of the Old World. (His advice on Turkish baths: don’t bother.) Even the mechanics of tourism are worth looking at: obviously a lot of people traveled, because there was a network of guides and hotels and textbooks; but of course you couldn’t call ahead, you had no camera, and you weren’t on a strict schedule: if you could afford the trip at all, you were there for months. You also brought a huge trunk or two of gear– but in Twain’s case, this could be left on the ship, while you made your land excursions with a few suitcases.

A Couple of Soles

In politics, the GOP is still fitfully attempting to steal the election. But that’s not good for the blood pressure, so instead let’s look at some 17th century Chinese drama: A Couple of Soles (比目鱼 Bǐmùyú), by 李渔 Lǐ Yú.

I read the 2020 translation by Jing Shen and Robert Hegel, which is apparently the first translation of any of Lǐ Yú’s plays into English. The edition is quite nice, with contextualizing essays and an intimidating set of notes.

The play is part of the 传奇 chuánqí, an early type of Chinese opera. It consists of mixed songs and prose, though we don’t have the actual music. Apparently the prose portions were often ad libbed, but Lǐ Yú wrote them out explicitly. Plays were long, intended to be staged over two days; this one is the size of a short novel.

Soles is particularly interesting because it’s all meta: it’s a play about a theater troupe, and includes scenes of the actors acting out other plays. Moreover, they’re using those scenes to act out their own true feelings, which is pretty damn meta.

The hero is Tán Chǔyù, a scholar too poor to travel to the provincial capital to take the civil service exams. He is earning money as best he can by writing, when he sees a play an falls in love with the leading lady, Liú Miǎogū. The only way he can think of to get to know her better is to join the troupe himself.

Interspersed with his story is that of the righteous official Murong Jie. A righteous official always wants to retire in the countryside, but before he does so he defeats a local bandit chief. Then he and his wife toss out their emblems of status (his black gauze cap, her phoenix crown) and go to live as fishermen.

Liú Miaogu also has a predicament: her mother Liu Jiangxian wants her to be flirtatious with the male clientele, and more than flirtatious with the rich ones, which is a major way the troupe makes its money. Liu Miaogu is aghast; she wants to be virtuous, and indeed only play virtuous roles.

The play (and the commentary) explain that roles are divided into character types:

  • shēng – young male lead, such as Tan Chuyu
  • dàn – young female lead, such as Liu Miaogu
  • jìng – painted face, such as the villain, Qian Wanguan, and the bandit chief
  • chǒu – clown, such as the traitor
  • wài – older male, such as the deity Lord Yan
  • – supporting male, mostly servants
  • 老旦 laodàn – older female
  • 小生 xiǎoshēng – additional male, such as Murong Jie
  • 小旦 xiǎodàn – additional female, such as Murong’s wife, or Liu Miaogu’s mother

Tan Chuyu finds that the troupe strictly keeps its male and female members apart, so he can spend little time with Liu Miaogu— though he does manage to send her a poem declaring his love. He manages to upgrade his role from jìng to shēng, on the strength of his ability to quickly memorize plays. This at least allows him to spend more time rehearsing with Liu Miaogu.

Her mother, however, decides to marry her off, for the significant sum of a thousand taels of silver, to the local rich man, Qian Wanguan. She is to join him immediately.

However, she asks leave to perform one scene of a play for Qian. She chooses a scene from The Thorn Hairpin, in which a wronged woman expounds her troubles, then kills herself. At the climax, she leaps into a convenient nearby river and drowns. Tan Chuyu, watching this, does the same.

But the play is only half over. The local water deity, Lord Yan, accepting sacrifices at various temples, learns about the couple’s death. He decides to turn the two into a couple of soles, and escorts them to the net of Murong Jie, who now calls himself Fisherman Mo.

Meanwhile there’s an inquiry into their death, which is an opportunity for a thorough satire of officialdom. The local official is only interested in the homicide inquiry as a means of profit. He manages to accumulate all the money involved (Qian’s original thousand, plus additional bribes) only to lose it to the next higher official.

In the mountains, Murong Jie fishes out the lovers, hears their story, and marries them off in a parody of a rustic wedding. He then gives them a sum of money so Tan Chuyu can take the provincial examinations. Tan succeeds and is appointed to be an official in the same region. Murong also gives him a book filled with pertinent advice.

There’s trouble, however: the bandit chief defeated earlier is back, and ravaging the country. He hires a man to impersonate Murong Jie and betray the government forces to him.

Tan Chuyu takes his post, following the righteous rules of Murong’s manual. He defeats the bandits, but the traitor escapes. He sends search parties out to look for him, and they find Murong instead. Regretfully, Tan prepares to execute his benefactor. This is sorted out, however, with the aid of the now-captive bandit chief.

Whew, that’s quite a lot of plot.

In the first half of the play, Lǐ Yú has a bit of an agenda: he is trying to show that dramas, and actors, can be morally uplifting. He was a failed scholar himself, as well as a producer and sometimes a bookshop owner; the transition to the new nomad-ruled Qīng dynasty probably didn’t improve the position of scholars. He himself had a reputation for being “wild and unrestrained in speech and behavior.” The moral uplift idea probably didn’t take; though it makes a fine motivator for the plot, Tan and Liu Miaogu’s high-mindedness doesn’t lead to success for the troupe even in the context of the play. Acting was an extremely low profession, one step up (if even that far) from prostitution. (Not that that prevented the gentry from enjoying the plays.)

The second half of the play, focusing on the bandits and the officials, in my view works better. Lǐ Yú was never himself an official, so he can only build up Murong and Tan as idealizations; but the convolutions of the plot which throw them into conflict are very well handled.

Will you actually enjoy it if you read it? (Or see it? It has been revived in modern times.) You can certainly enjoy the clever plot, and the information about Chinese drama and officialdom. (If you’ve read my China Construction Kit you’ll get a lot more out of it… e.g., you’ll catch the reference to the strategist Zhūgě Liàng.)

On the other hand, I’m not sure if the frequent poetry comes off well. E.g., here’s a bit sung by Liu Miaogu’s mother:

The child I bore wastes her flower-like beauty;
Vowing to remain chaste, she is an unworthy daughter.
By losing lots of money and vexing me deeply,
She occupies my mind the whole day long.

I’m sure it’s an adequate translation, yet it loses all the formal aspects and allusive concision of Chinese poetry.

I’ve never read any Chinese plays before, so I found it quite interesting. Also see my post on Kālidāsa, for Sanskrit theater.

The Three-Body Problem

I just read this, by 刘慈欣 Liú Cíxīn, a name almost designed to confuse people who don’t know Chinese. You can get close to it with lyoh tse-sheen. His given name means ‘kind (and) glad’; the surname Liu has no current meaning, but happens to be that of the rulers of the Han dynasty.

I liked the book a lot, though I’m going to have trouble describing it, because it’s written in the form a mystery. So even saying what it’s about is a spoiler. This mystery is initially faced by a nanotech physicist, Wang Miao, and a cop, Shi Qiang. In the near future, they’re called to a strange meeting where they hear about a wave of suicides among top physics researchers. One of the physicists they meet is playing a virtual reality game called Three Body, and that gets Wang playing the game as well. Oh, and the book starts with a sequence set in the Cultural Revolution, focused on a very unlucky physics student, Ye Wenjie.

This sounds rather random and slow, but it’s a whole Chekhov’s armory. Everything ends up being connected and important.

I always skip the testimonials and other stuff that comes before the title page, and now I see that the very first page gives the plot away. But, well, I still won’t. I’ll say, though, that the trilogy of which this is the first book can be described as space opera.

So the first thing I’d say about the book is that it’s very tightly plotted, though it doesn’t seem so at first. And the second thing is that it’s pretty compelling– once I got going, I kept reading till the end.

It’s pretty interesting to see sf from a non-American perspective. Liu has said that he doesn’t write sf to comment on contemporary society; but he does of course write within it. American sf has tracked the corruption of our own society: classic sf came from a confident, ever-more-prosperous society, and largely projected that into the future; as plutocracy took over, sf plunged into endless dystopias. China has almost the opposite trajectory: two centuries of frustrating oppression, of which the Cultural Revolution was only a  part, and then a burst of dizzying progress. But while the Cultural Revolution lives in current memory, there’s not the same triumphalism of 1950s American sf. (In an interview, Liu mentions that Chinese sf is usually dystopian, and he’s considered an optimist.)

If you’ve read my China Construction Kit, that would be excellent preparation for this book, as you’ll already know some historical figures that show up here. (They’re explained in footnotes, but it’s more fun to recognize them rather than be told.)

I would say, on the whole, that Liu is like classic sf in that he’s more interested in ideas than in people. It’s not that he’s bad with people, or that they seem artificial; but it’s definitely not a character study, and for the most part they are fulfilling roles demanded by the plot. So, Wang is just curious enough to go talk to people and play the Three Body game, and react with the appropriate puzzlement or despair; Shi is the cop who doesn’t play by the rules but gets things done, on loan from every cop movie. It works fine, but Liu obviously has more fun when he gets to talk about string theory or the titular problem in celestial mechanics.

(One bit did seem unconvincing: a description of future technology involving a couple of protons. They seemed a bit overpowered. But it is future tech, which is after all pretty hard to talk about.)

One more thought, which I’ll leave in white to avoid spoilers. Liu makes a case that the existence of aliens would be terrifying news. The book has been compared to War of the Worlds, and it’s notable that both Wells and Liu are well aware of the problem of colonialism. China was a great victim of it; Wells had a guilty conscience about it. Americans, by contrast, barely got into the business of direct colonialism; they’re neither conquerors or conquered, so they’re far more likely to think about aliens as exciting and interesting. 

More Talmud

I finished the Talmud, or rather Norman Solomon’s selections from it, which is less than 10% of the whole thing. But at 800 pages I feel that reading even that is an accomplishment.

Now, all too much of the book reads like this:

If someone bends down to drink, the water that comes up on his mouth or his moustache is ki yuttan, but [that which comes up] in his nose or on his head or beard is not ki yuttan.

Ki yuttan is “if it is put”, from Lev. 31:37-38:

If such a carcass falls upon seed grain that is to be sown, it is clean; but if water is put on the seed and any part of a carcass falls upon it, it shall be unclean for you.

You see, don’t you, that ki yuttan implies that the water got there by human intention, so it’s important to clarify what actions are intentional and what are not. Drinking, your intention is to get water in your mouth but not on your head. Why the moustache but not the rest of the beard is ki yuttan I can’t tell you, presumably because Solomon does not include the gemara in this chapter.

So, it’s fun when the rabbis instead decide to include a comedy routine. This comes in the context of a discussion of first-borns. Rabbi Joshua ben Ħanania goes to Athens to debate the Greek elders in their fortified academy. The Greeks had a rule that if the inner guards see a foot enter,  the outer guards are killed for their negligence; if the outer guards see a foot leaving, the inner guards are killed. Joshua places his shoe down facing the interior, then facing the exterior, so that the elders killed both sets of guards, and he could enter.

He then enters a debate with the elders, where they try to trick him and he one-ups them each time:

Elders: If salt goes bad, what do they salt it with?

Joshua: With the placenta of a mule.

Elders: Does a mule have a placenta?

Joshua: Does salt go bad?

Elders: Build us a house in the air!

Joshua uttered a divine Name and suspended himself between the earth and the sky. Pass me up bricks and mortar! he demanded.

Elders: If a chick inside an egg dies, which way does its spirit emerge?

Joshua: It goes out the way it came in!

And so on, for a page or two. Apparently some scholars did not find the comedy and instead tried to extract deep meanings from the debate.

It’s also interesting to find some bits of weird science.

  • There’s a discussion of “refining gold a thousand times”, so that a thousand measures of gold were reduced to one. Gold is an element and can’t be refined. (An alloy can be refined, though something that was just 0.1% gold would hardly be called an alloy of gold!)
  • It was believed that flies and other creatures spontaneously generate in, say, meat. This was relevant to cleanliness rules. Were they part of the meat, or were they separate, unclean “swarming things”?
  • There’s a discussion of what happens when a cow gives birth to a camel, or vice versa. This was considered rare, but a definite possibility and therefore something to worry about, as cows are kosher but camels are not.
  • The rabbis suggested that the father produces a baby’s bones, sinews, and the whites of its eyes, the mother its flesh, skin, pupils, and hair; and God the spirit and the power of sensation and movement. It’s striking that this white/red division of genetic labor was the same as that posited by the Indians. (India Construction Kit p. 179)

Finally, here’s a taste of gematria. Hebrew doesn’t have separate numerals; rather, each letter has a numerical value as well. This means that every word can be read either as a linguistic sign or as a number, and that invites endless esoteric discussion. Proverbs 8:11 states

I endow those who love me with substance;
I will fill their treasuries.

E.g., ‘substance’ yesh is ישׁ. Now שׁ is 300 and י is 10, so the numerical value of yesh is 310. So Rabbi Joshua ben Levi concluded that “the Holy One will reward every righteous person with 310 worlds.”







The Talmud

I’m reading the Talmud right now. It’s good coronavirus reading since there’s 37 volumes in the 1886 Vilna edition. (I am not reading that edition.  I’m reading a one-volume, 800-page selection, translated by Norman Solomon.)

To get you in the mood, here’s a lovely scholarly putdown from the Talmud:

If you learned [Scripture] you did not review it; if you reviewed it you did not go over it a third time; if you went over it a third time they never explained it to you.

You probably know that for many Jews, lifelong study in a yeshiva is the highest aspiration. What are they studying, the Bible?  Not really– it doesn’t take years to read the Bible. They’re studying the Talmud. Here’s the first page of the Vilna edition:


This page has been helpfully color-coded.

  • The pink in the middle is the Mishna (3C)
  • The orange just below it is the gemara (6C), the Babylonian rabbis’ discussion of the Mishna. The pink + orange is the Talmud proper
  • The cyan column to the right is the commentary of Rashi (11C, France)
  • The blue to the left is the commentary of the Tosafists (Rashi’s successors)
  • The yellow is commentary by Nissim ben Jacob (11C)
  • The other colors are cross-references and other helps

And there’s 5500 more pages like that. You can see it’d take awhile to absorb.

So, what is it? Well, the rabbis believed there was an “Oral Torah” which accompanied and explained the written Torah. After the destruction of the Temple in 70, rabbis gathered in yeshivot, first in Yavne near Jerusalem and later in Galilee, to codify the Oral Torah. It was finally written down (edited by Judah ha-Nasi) in the 3C; this is the Mishna.

An example. Exodus gives instructions for Passover: “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day to the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel.”

Now, if you want to take this seriously… and, let’s be honest, if you have a pedantic mindset… this raises a lot of questions. First, do you remove the leaven the first day, or the day before that? The Mishna comments:

This [Ex. 12:15] means on the eve of the festival. Or could it mean on the first day of the festival itself?  No, for it is written, “you shall not slaughter my sacrifice with leaven.” ….But Rabbi Aqiva says, This is not necessary. It says “But on the first day you shall remove leaven from your house”, and it is written, “No work shall be done on those days”; since burning is a principal category of forbidden work, it is clear that the removal of ħametz [food with leaven] should not take place on the festival day itself.

Now, even this wasn’t considered enough by the rabbis. They kept talking for a few more centuries, both in Palestine and in Babylonia, where there was a large community of Jews safe from Roman persecution (whether pagan or Christian). The result was two Talmuds, though the Babylonian (Bavli) Talmud is both more thorough and more authoritative. It was finally written down in the 6C. It took a few more centuries to get to Europe.

Here’s a sampling of the discussion of the above point:

Evidently, [Meir and Judah] both agree that it is forbidden to eat ħametz after the 6th hour [of 14 Nisan, the day before Passover]. On what is this based?

Abbaye said, on two verses. One states, “No leaven shall be found in your houses for seven days”, and the other states, “But on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses.” What does this imply? The 14th of Nisan is added to remove ħametz.

…It was taught in the School of Rabbi Ishmael: “We find that the 14th is called first, as it is said, “In the first, on the 14th day of the month.” Rav Naħman bar Isaac said, “First may mean previous, as when Scripture says “Were you the first of men to be born?” [Job 15:7]

Then what about “You shall take for yourselves on the first day”? Can that mean the previous day? That is different, for it continues, “And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days”; just as the 7th day must be the 7th of the festival, so the 1st day is the first of the festival.

Oh dear, and they’re not done yet. They go on to analyze why “first” has a definite article and what that means, and the use of “first” elsewhere in the Bible. They conclude that indeed you must remove the leaven on the 14th, because burning it on the 15th would be work, which is forbidden. (Which is what the Mishna had already concluded.)

After this there’s a discussion of what to do if there are two houses that are already pure, and a mouse takes a bundle of ħametz, but we don’t know which house it entered. They discuss variations on this for several pages.

Isn’t this faintly ridiculous?  Well, the Talmud isn’t above telling jokes. But it’s a thought experiment, no sillier (and perhaps no more serious) than modern ethicists telling stories about trolleys.

The yeshivot had masters and students, but proceeded by argument and discussion. This is reproduced in both Mishna and Talmud, but it’s an artful editorial creation: the rabbis mentioned lived in different times and centuries. Sometimes the issue is resolved, and sometimes it’s not– Elijah would rule on all the unresolved issues when he came. I like the way that disagreements are recorded– even if a point is resolved, it’s a reminder that things will look different to different sages. It’s evident that the compilers relished a juicy rejoinder or a clever bit of logic.

Linguistic note: the Torah and Mishna are written in Hebrew; the Gemara is written in Aramaic, the spoken language of the time. So you need to know both languages to study the Talmud. (And even so the discussion can be difficult, which is where Rashi is invaluable.)

Now, the rabbis believed that the Mishna might be mistaken, but the Torah itself was inerrant. This led to a good number of problems, which were faced and addressed:

It is written, “Do not answer a fool in accord with his folly” (Proverbs 26:4), and it is written “Answer a fool in accord with his folly (26:5). No problem! One verse refers to matters of Torah, the other to worldly things.

That seems like a stretch, but often the rabbis are pretty free with their interpretations… if a verse anywhere in the Tanakh sounds vaguely appropriate they’ll cite it. A particularly freewheeling example: Abba Arika is discussing astrology, and recounts a discussion between Abraham and God. Abraham says (this is not in the Tanakh!) that his horoscope says he won’t have a son. God replies that if Abraham’s belief is based on Jupiter being in the west, he (God) can move Jupiter to the east. The citation is Isaiah 41:2: “Who has roused a victor from the East, summoned him to His service?” Huh?  As it happens, ṣedeq ‘victory’ is also the name for Jupiter!

The Talmud can be charmingly digressive– e.g. a discussion of the Sabbath leads into this discussion of whether astrology is true (the best rabbis say that it doesn’t apply to Jews). In the middle of the discussion of Passover, the rabbis are suddenly insulting “ignoramuses” (those Jews who didn’t take the Law seriously) and discussing the benefits or disadvantages of marrying a priest’s daughter.

Or, there’s this nice story contrasting Shammai and Hillel, teachers in the -1 to 1C:

A heathen presented himself to Shammai saying, Convert me on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one leg! Shammai drove him away with the builder’s measure he was holding.

He came to Hillel with the same request, and Hillel accepted him as a convert.He said to him, “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you! That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary; go and learn!”

Now, the statement of the Golden Rule is elevating and all that, but the piquancy comes from Hillel’s evasion of the pagan’s trap (teach the Torah in a few moments), as well as the contrast to the irascible Shammai. (Rabbinic Judaism goes with Hillel in the few instances where they disagree, thus the slightly negative picture of Shammai here.)

I’m reading about the Talmud and about Judaism as research for my book on the ancient Middle East. And really, I’m surprised the Talmud is so little known or studied outside Judaism. For one thing, it’s one of the largest troves of literature from its time… we can only dream of a similarly voluminous text from Babylonia or Egypt. (As I’ve noted before, you can read almost all of ancient Egyptian literature in three short volumes.)

The other thing is undoubtedly Christianity’s uneasy relationship with Judaism. Christians read the “Old Testament” basically with the idea that they can ignore the Law… except on those issues where they can use it to support a prejudice of theirs. (E.g. they carefully read the prohibition on male homosexuality, and ignore the bits on forgiving debts.) The overall result is that Christians are very interested in Jews… up till the lifetime of Paul, and after that not at all, except for the occasional persecution.

And the result of that is that I think most Christians imagine that the Jews “just have the Old Testament”– that their religion is focused on the Tanakh as Christianity is focused on the New Testament. No, there’s this whole Talmud thing too!

(It’s more complicated than that, of course. There were those that rejected the Talmud, such as the Karaites. There’s Kaballah, which adds a whole mystical element. And the chaos of modernity, which was as disruptive to Judaism as it was to literalist Christianity.)

There is one group of non-Jews that study the Talmud. That’s… South Koreans, where study and discussion of (a simplified, translated) Talmud is a big craze.


Langmaker book is out!

Jeffrey’s book, Langmaker: Celebrating Conlangs, is out!

File photo of Jeffrey conlanging

Well, the print edition has been out for a couple weeks, but the Kindle edition is finally out too. The Kindle Create program was not cooperative. First, it refused to import the base document, so I had to import a plain text version and redo all the formatting. And then the program got slower and slower till it was almost unusable. It’s fine for touchups but not so good for actually formatting your book.

But never mind that, it’s done! Admire the editing, and Jeffrey’s work too! Did I mention how much groovy Fith is?  And the lovingly satirical Tev’Meckian?  And bask in over a thousand conlangs which will make 2005 live for you once again.

Egypt Lit

Here’s a depressing thought. What if all of British and American literature, in three thousand years, were reduced to this:

  • one book of short stories
  • one book of inspirational poems
  • a couple hundred identical Bible translations
  • some labels from Dr. Bronner’s soap


That’s about where we are with Ancient Egyptian. I’ve just read most of it, in two not-too-large books: The Tale of Sinuhe and other Ancient Egyptian Poems (tr. R.B. Parkinson, 1997), which focuses on stories, and Ancient Egyptian Readings (tr. Wim van den Dungen, 2018), which focuses on wisdom literature.  That’s in addition to the Book of the Dead.  The one thing I haven’t read is the medical-magical literature. Plus, the two books overlap– e.g. you get the Teachings of Ptahhotep in both.

We’ve probably lost an immense lot. For one thing, almost anything in the Nile Valley itself is permanently lost. Papyrus scrolls don’t like humidity, and what wasn’t buried in Nile silt is rotted. Almost everything we have is what someone took the trouble to store in a tomb up in the desert. Mostly the Book of the Dead, but also a few other scrolls. Some of the pieces in these books, originally written in the Middle Kingdom, at least 3500 years ago, only exist in one or two scrolls. It’s probably completely arbitary what survived and what did not.

The longest piece is a complete translation of the Pyramid Text of King Unas– the texts written in his tomb, around 2300 BCE. As such they may be the oldest religious texts in the world, earlier than the Rigveda and far earlier than the Bible. They’re ancestral to the Book of the Dead, and curiously they’re far easier to understand. They are not as filled with allusions and strange metaphors, and mostly they’re pretty straightforward: the record of a large array of sacrifices, then a long set of prayers and spells to introduce Unas to the gods, identify him with Horus and Osiris, and scare off a few minor demons. It’s probably most notable for its extreme confidence, bordering on hubris. No, not bordering on hubris: barging over the border flagrantly. The hymns sound like Unas is going to rule not just alongside the gods but over most of them. He’s going to sit next to Re, and climb on the thighs of Isis and Nephthys, and suckle the breasts of the goddess Ipy. Seems kinda bold, man.

“Sinuhe” is a little tale of adventure. The title character is a courtier accompanying the Prince on an expedition against the Libyans, and overhears a messenger reporting the assassination of King Amenemhat. He’s seized by a terrible panic and flees the Prince’s camp. He doesn’t stop running till he gets to Canaan– which to the Egyptians was a near-desert, a place of lawless nomads who live in tents, don’t dress in fine linen, and don’t attack the army openly like gentlemen. (Why go there at all? Trees, far taller than anything back home.) Nonetheless the Canaanites treat him well and he becomes a chieftain there, marrying a native.

He grows old and, near death, misses Egypt. He prays that he might return rather than dying in a strange land. Mirabile dictu, the king sends him a letter inviting him to return. His desertion is forgiven. He gladly accepts, leaving his family and his tents, and reports to the king, urging him to invade and pacify the land he left. He becomes a councilor before he dies and is buried in a nice though small pyramid.

Honestly the attitudes are those of an Anglo-Indian who carves out a satrapy in the Northwest Frontier Province, but never really took to living among the natives, and dreams of retiring on a little estate back in Stropshire.

The most unusual of the pieces is the “Dialog of a Man and his Soul”, which is in both books. The man is as surprised to be arguing with his soul as you or I would. Philosophical questions aside, the soul’s position is, perhaps surprisingly, that longing for the Afterworld is foolish: one should simply enjoy life while it lasts. The man will have none of it– he’s sick of life, his reputation is ruined anyway, and he has no friends, and the Afterworld will be much more pleasant. Not with that attitude, you might think. But he and his soul patch things up for the moment.

The most amusing piece is the Teaching of Khety. Khety is a scribe, and the piece is propaganda for the profession, and includes a long survey of other jobs and how horrible they are. A sample:

I shall tell you about the wall-builder;
His sides hurt,
for he must be outside in a howling wind,
building without a kilt,
his loincloth is a cord of the weaving shop,
a string for his backside;
his arms are covered with earth,
and mixed with all kinds of shit.
Though he eats bread with his fingers
he can wash himself only once a day.

This was highly popular with scribes, who assigned it to their students to copy, so we have this text in a good number of copies.

For nuggets of wisdom from Ptahhotep about surviving in the rough world of the Egyptian elite, you’ll have to wait for my book. A hint, though: quietness. The ideal official was even-tempered and courteous, as well as pious and full of ma’at (truth/order).

Would you enjoy the book? Well, probably a lot more than the Book of the Dead, and less than Gilgamesh. If you know your Bible, you may be interested to see how the genres of hymnology, lamentations, prophecy, and wisdom were not invented by the Hebrews. Really, Isaiah couldn’t think of harsher rhetoric about Egypt than the Egyptians had already come up with themselves.

(If you’re curious, the Egyptians were not too discriminating when they looked at foreigners– there were Libyans, Nubians, and Aamu (Canaanites), and no one really cared to delve deeper. Even the Babylonians don’t get a mention.)

If you do read these, I recommend the Parkinson translation. It’s more scholarly, though a little less vivid. But really it’s because he has all the best stuff– the stories.

The Book of the Dead

Now I can say I’ve read the Book of the Dead— the real one, not a crankish “symbolic translation“. This one translates the Papyrus of Sobekmose, and the translator is Paul O’Rourke. I don’t feel like uploading a new picture, though.


Sobekmose lived sometime in the New Kingdom (about 1550-1050). He is identified in the text as “Goldworker of Amun”, presumably some sort of jeweler. He got the slightly less expensive version of the Book without so many pretty pictures… but a lot more text. It contains about 75 chapters instead of 3.  (The total from all versions of the Book of the Dead amount to over 200 chapters.) Curiously, the scroll was written in cursive hieroglyphics on the recto, and in hieratic characters on the verso. (Hieratic is basically a faster, simplified form of hieroglyphics.)

So, I’ve read it, but I don’t understand it.  That’s fine, and it’s what I expected. Here, you can see what I mean: here’s a random chapter.

Allowing the Goldworker of Amun Sobekmose, justified, to go forth amongst his enemies. I have hacked up the sky. I have ripened the horizons. I have traveled through the earth (to) its edges. I have put the akhs (and) the great ones in an uproar because I am one who is equipped with his millions, namely with my magic. I eat with my mouth. I defecate with my anus because I am, indeed, a god, lord of the Duat. I was given these things fixed that make the Goldworker of Amun Sobekmose, justified, prosper.

You might hope that it sometimes becomes clear, like some poems in the Rigveda; but not really– it’s all like that.

An akh is a transfigured soul, with superpowers. It’s the desired end state of the whole process of mummification, judgment, and going through the many ordeals of the afterlife. The Duat is the netherworld, both the place where the dead live and the place where the Sun (Re) travels after it dies in the west and is reborn in the east.

The overall purpose of the book is clear, too. It’s a collection of spells and instructions for the deceased to get the best possible afterlife. The Duat turns out to be full of perils. There is the judgment of Anubis and that of the 42 gods to go through, of course. But there are also monsters who want to destroy you.  There’s a ferryman who will take you where you need to go only if you can correctly name all the parts of his ship (and this means the poetic/metaphorical names, not the technical terms):

Tell me my name, says the mooring post. Lady of the Two Lands in the Shrines is your name. Tell me my name, says the mallet. Leg of Apis is your name. Tell me my name, says the prow-rope. Braid of the Mooring-Post of Anubis in the Work of Embalming is your name. Tell me my name, says the steering-post. Columns of the Path of the Necropolis is your name….

Plus, it seems to be a struggle merely to get your body together and working. There are spells to “open the mouth”– you need to speak in order to say the spells. There are spells to keep your organs working, to allow you to move around, to eat proper food. There are spells to turn into an animal temporarily (mostly birds) to avoid dangers or get around better.

Many of the chapters involve a claim to divinity. Sobekmose is supposed to not just invoke Osiris but become Osiris– or other gods– in some way. I suspect this is tied to the origins of the Book of the Dead as Pyramid Texts– spells written on the wall of the king’s tomb. The king was a god, the son of Horus, so of course he would assert his divinity in the Duat. Apparently this was taken as the birthright– excuse me, the deathright– of any Egyptian who could afford mummification.

Here, by the way, is the translation of the same text from my other post:

I am purified on the day that I am born. I am cleansed in the two very great swamp waters which are in Herakleopolis (on) the day of the food offerings of the common people, (for) this great god who is in it.

Nothing resembling the  “dazzling illusion of life”!

When you do come before the 42 gods, you must declare your innocence, but also your knowledge of their names. E.g.:

O bone-breakers who came forth from Herakleopolis, I have not spoken falsehoods.

O lord of truth who came forth from the Two Truths, I have no stolen offering portions.

O traveler who came forth from Bubastis, I have not eavesdropped.

O pale one who came forth from Heliopolis, I have not run at the mouth.

O wammty-snake who came forth from the place of execution, I hav enot commited adultery.

O reciter of words who came forth from Weryt, I have not been hot-tempered.

And so on. Curiously, there’s not much instruction on what to do if you have sinned. Presumably you brazen it out. There are other spells which sound like the gods will purify you if you approach them correctly.

Now, a lot of the obscurity was probably not present for the original writers. It’s easy to imagine a similar text, full of metaphors and allusions, which would only be intelligible to Christians:

Bring me to the promised land, O Word of God. I have been washed in the Jordan. I have been cleansed by the Lamb. I have been through the valley of the shadow of death; I have seen the single set of footprints on the sand. I trust the Shepherd who was born of a virgin, the Carpenter who came riding on a donkey.

It’s also likely, of course, that the original writers were purposefully obscure. If Sobekmose is paying for a book of powerful spells, he might well be disappointed if he could actually understand it. Magic seems more convincing when it’s difficult and suggestive, when it seems to mean something but refuses to explain itself.

There’s also evidence that the texts were difficult even for the scribes copying them, and they made errors as a result. E.g., the list of ferry parts gives the same name for the ferry and the ferryman (“the one who finds faces, who uplifts faces”). O’Rourke suggests that this is a copyist’s error.  Another example: the 42 gods are said to “swallow from their excesses”, which makes no sense. Other versions of the book have “who swallow truth”.