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:

talmud2

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

hunefer

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.

hunefer

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”.

 

The Diary of Lady Murasaki

I just read Lady Murasaki’s diary, a procedure that fortunately did not require breaking into the Tsuchimikado Palace and burglarizing her room, which would have greatly put her out, but reading Richard Bowring’s Penguin Classics version.

Murasaki_Shikibu_by_Hiroshige

Picture of Murasaki by Hiroshige, 1880

Murasaki Shikibu 紫式部 is an icon of Japanese literature, and indeed world literature, as she’s the author of the world’s first novel, 源氏物語 (Genji Monogatari / The Tale of Genji). Now you know who to blame for all those annoying Genjis in Overwatch. Her novel was recognized as a classic within a century and has remained popular ever since, and naturally it’s been turned into illustrated scrolls, manga, anime, and live-action films.

For all this fame, it’s surprising that we don’t even know her real name. Partly this is due to Heian court etiquette, in which names were avoided as much as possible. Shikibu refers to the Ministry of Ceremonial, which her father briefly ran. Murasaki means ‘purple’ and is a nickname, borrowed from one of the women in her own novel. It’s a native Japanese word, borrowing the kanji from ‘purple’. Shikibu is however a direct borrowing of *shiəkbhǒ ‘style-section’, pronounced shìbù in modern Mandarin.

She was a member of the Fujiwara clan which dominated the capital, Heian 平安 (the earlier name for Kyōto). Its leader, Michinaga no Fujiwara, had arranged for his daughter Shōshi to marry the Emperor, and he appointed Murasaki as a lady-in-waiting to her.  When the diary opens, in 1008, Shōshi was 21 and Murasaki around 34. She was already known for her ongoing writing of Genji, and for knowing Chinese, very unusual for a woman of the time; Michinaga’s choice was undoubtedly made to help build a salon for his daughter. (Murasaki was married but her husband died young. She had a daughter, who isn’t mentioned in the diary, though she must have been about 9— it’s not clear where she was living.)

The diary is short— the introduction is almost as long— and mostly concerned with the events surrounding the birth of Shōshi’s first son. There are long descriptions of the many court ceremonials, with careful attention paid to the subtle signals of Heian court life: where people were seated, what clothes they wore, how close they came to the ideal of being lively without being rowdy or boring. (Don’t picture the kimono with wide obi of our times; rather, women wore multiple kimono tied with a cord.)

There’s a constant theme of melancholy:

But then for some strange reason— if only my appetites were more mundane, I might find more joy in life, regain a little youth, and face it all with equanimity— seeing and hearing these marvelous, auspicious events only served to strengthen my yearnings. I felt downcast, vexed that nothing was turning out as I had hoped and that my misery simply seemed to increase.

Toward the end she offers some portraits of the women she know. Most are carefully positive, but one stands out for its negativity:

Sei Shōnagon, for instance, was dreadfully conceited. She thought herself so clever and littered her writings with Chinese characters, but if you examined them carefully, they left a great deal to be desired. Those who think of themselves as being superior to everyone else in this way will inevitably suffer and come to a bad end, and people who have become so precious that they go out of their way to try and be sensitive in the most unpromising situations, trying to capture every moment of interest, however slight, are bound to look ridiculous and superficial.

This passage is of particular interest because Sei Shōnagon is another prominent Heian female writer, author of the Pillow Book (枕草子 Makura no Sōshi, not a novel but more a book of anecdotes, poems, and essays). Murasaki herself mentions learning Chinese faster and better than her brother, but she mostly hides her learning— though she casually mentions things like a minister in a ceremonial reciting the beginning lines of Sīmǎ Qián’s Records. (Which itself is a telling detail: the ceremonial in question is the baby prince’s first bathing: nothing to do with Chinese history. It’s like reading from Herodotus, in Greek, at a christening.)

The details of court life differ, but the basic humanity comes through. Well, of course, you think— how hard is it to write about small human interactions and one’s own feelings? But we’re used to a thousand year of novels, personal essays, and journalism. A lot of early literature is epics, chronicles, manuals, poetry, or religious stuff, genres where people are normally very serious and aloof. One can only wish that we had anything as quotidian and candid as the diary from, say, Babylonia.

What was Heian court life like? From Murasaki’s account, very crowded. She describes a number of ceremonies that were jam-packed with dozens of nobles. In daily life, she was almost constantly surrounded by other court women and servants. She could retire to her room, but it was small, walls didn’t go up to the ceiling, and people would be bustling about at all hours.

A point of pride for both men and women was being able to quickly improvise verse. She mentions one event where, bored, she was leaving with another woman, when Michinaga himself caught them. He demanded a poem for the new prince, and she answered,

How on this fiftieth day can we possibly count
The countless years of our prince’s reign!

“Oh! Splendid!” he said, reciting it twice to himself; then he gave a very quick reply:

Had I as many years as the crane, then might I count
How many thousand years his eternal reign would be.

Elsewhere she admits that she sometimes (though not on this occasion) prepared poems in advance in case she was asked to improvise one.

Another time, Murasaki is away from court and misses her friend Lady Dainagon. She sends her a poem by letter, and receives back:

Awakening to find no friend to brush away the frost
The mandarin duck longs for her mate at night.

The translator explains that mandarin ducks were believed to make inseparable pair-bonds and were a metaphor for lovers— but then goes on to insist that the poem should be taken as “a conventional exchange between close friends— nothing more.” This is an odd comment!  It’s presumably offered so that we won’t suspect a lesbian affair. But how can a British professor a thousand years later, however learned, know all about the sexuality of Heian courtiers?

Elsewhere Murasaki mentions that she and another lady-in-waiting used to remove the panel between their rooms, making a larger room. Michinaga notices and makes a “tasteless remark” that it would be awkward if one of them had a lover the other didn’t know. But she answers it anyway, in her diary: there would be no problem, because they were “very close.”

From her own account, Murasaki is very attentive to female beauty— though you could say it was part of her job. Then there’s this incident:

I looked in at Lady Saishō’s door, only to find her asleep. She lay with her head pillowed on a writing box, her face all but hidden by a series of robes— dark red lined with green, purple lined with dark red…. The shape of her forehead was enchanting and so delicate. She looked just like one of those princesses you find depicted in illustrations. I pulled back the sleeves that covered her face.

“You remind me of a fairy-tale princess!” I said.

She looked up with a start. “You are dreadful!” she said, propping herself up. “Waking people up like that without a thought!”

That’s a degree of closeness one can describe as pretty darn close. And if it did get closer than friendship, what record would one expect to find after all these years?

The female perspective here reminds me of the Míng novel Golden Lotus. That was an elite but not royal family, and Chinese, and written a few centuries later, but the cultural milieu and the concentration on minor events of daily life are similar. I’m also reminded of the French elite of the 17th century, a time when you might not be expected to improvise a poem on the spot, but where the rich and the erudite mingled and shared their values.

I haven’t read The Tale of Genji itself, though it’s on my list. From reviews, it seems to be extremely lusty— it’s almost entirely devoted to Genji’s many loves. This contrasts with the retiring persona Murasaki presents in her diary— there is not a single hint of any amorous intrigue on her part. The nature of the novel at least explains a passage in the diary, when Michinaga gives her this poem:

She is known for her tartness
So I am sure that no one seeing her
Could pass without a taste.

The continuation— it’s unclear if it’s his or Murasaki’s:

She is a fruit that no one has yet tasted—
Who then can smack his lips and talk of tartness?

From the diary, this is a rather rude imposition. But then, the reserved persona of the diary might have been a conscious presentation, a necessary counterbalance to a rather racy novel.

 

 

Book of the Dead

I’ve been reading about Egypt… I had been trying to keep it out of my book, but it moved itself in, much as Egypt kept moving into Canaan.  The last book I read was the Book of the Dead, translated by Ramses Seleem. In particular, it’s a translation of the Papyrus of Hunefer, one of the shorter versions of the BotD, from around 1300 BCE.

hunefer

That’s Hunefer above, in fact: he got the deluxe illustrated Book for his tomb, with his name in all the spells and pictures of himself and his wife Nasha. (She doesn’t appear in the illo above; the other folks are all gods. To the left Hunefer’s heart is being measured by Anubis against a representation of maat, truth or virtue. Thoth is recording the results. Fortunately, he passes the test, and is ushered into the presence of Osiris, flanked by Isis and Nephthys.)

I’m afraid I can’t recommend Seleem’s version.  The main problem is that he seems to be a believer…. yes, in ancient Egyptian religion. I’m not quite convinced you can be such a thing, but the thing is, he has all of the convert’s convictions that a) he knows things hidden from the experts, and b) whatever he believes is identical to what was believed 3300 years ago.  But religions, like languages, change, and entering into the mindset of people long dead is extremely tricky. Saying you have special insight because you actually believe this stuff only makes it trickier.

To start with, there’s some linguistic BS. For instance, he mentions the Egyptian word for the wrapped body, krst. He then claims that this is “the root of the Latin word corpus” as well as the word Christ. Which is… non-mainstream.  Both words are Indo-European and not even related to each other. (Christ is a nominalization formed from χρῑ́ω ‘rub, anoint’; an actual cognate of this word turns out to be ghee.)  From some quick Googling, this krst nonsense does seem to be widespread, but that just means that cranks have been copying it, one book to another, for a hundred years. A chance similarity just never stops doing its mischief.

Just as bad: he thinks that language derives from lingua (‘tongue’) + age, thus, “the speech of ages.”  Argh!  In fact it’s from French langue (which is from lingua) plus the common nominalizer –age, which isn’t the same as the noun âge.

Well, non-linguists may mess up etymologies. Moving on… he informs us that the Egyptians were not actually polytheists– the words neter ‘god’ and netrit ‘goddess’ should really be ‘law or principle’, masculine and feminine: he suggests yin and yang as equivalents.

Now, I’m no expert– ask me after a few more books– but my suspicions are aroused, because this is how people from polytheistic religions talk when the most privileged religions are monotheistic. You see it in Hinduism and also in ancient Rome: scholars very gravely announce that the gods are illusions and cover an even more ancient monotheism, or even a trinity. (I’m aware, by the way, that the process is very far along in Hinduism.  But that doesn’t mean that such interpretations were what (say) Vedic religion was “really about.”)

One, there’s nothing wrong with multiple gods! You don’t have to give in to Yahweh-envy. And two– if ancient Egypt was monotheistic, it makes it a good deal harder to understand why Akhenaten’s reforms were ultimately resisted.

All of this could be ignored if we can trust his translation. But then he explains that his translations are “symbolic.” E.g., one line from Hunefer literally reads

I am pure in my great double nests, in the city of Sutnny, in the day where the people gave offerings to the great principle in it.

He says that this should instead be translated

I achieved purification of my body and soul in the time of my youth, when other people were busy with the dazzling illusion of life.

I would like a second opinion on this.

If all the Egytologists agree, great. That is, if “double nests” is a way of saying “body and soul”, that’s fine. I’m more wary of “the dazzling illusion of life”, which certainly can’t be explained by anything in the literal translation.

The problem with such interpretive translations is that the translator trusts their own explanations far more than he trusts the actual sacred text. Even if the interpretation is good, it’s theirs more than the writers… and really, it’s a rare interpretation that exceeds the original. Read a commentary on the Dao De Jing, then read a minimalist translation, and see which you get more out of. Or read the parables of Jesus, then some pastor’s book about them. (There’s nothing wrong with writing commentaries… but even as a believer, you should recognize that sages’ words are one thing, disciples commentaries are another. Not a few sages have said just that!)

I much prefer Wendy Doniger’s approach with the Rig Veda. Where the text is maddeningly obscure, she lets it be so. She explains a good deal of it, but separates text and interpretation, and doesn’t over-supply the latter. Yes, it can leave the reader feeling that they don’t understand everything. That’s a plus. It’s no favor to give the reader the illusion of understanding a very old and difficult text.

The other problem with the “symbolic translation”: it bleaches out almost all meaning and interest from the text. Saleem’s version of Egyptian religion turns out to be, well, pretty much like most religious writing. Here’s a random sample from his commentaries:

These three pillars (awakening, purification, and activation) form the earthly triangle. When this has been activated, the heavenly triangle comes into operation. This include the process of rejuvenation. When the body is working correctly, the internal and external energy can be fully utilized. The body then starts to create new skin and tissues in all its organs and muscles, which take about 15 years. 

So… some nice words come together and are given a metaphorical name. There are special disciplines for the elect which allow a fuller life. It’s the message of every religion and completely devoid of any interesting specifics.

By the way, I don’t at all reject spiritual points of view or disciplines. I just find writings about them to be nearly meaningless. I’ve known a few people I consider to be near saintly. The thing is– they talked like any other religious person; it wasn’t their gift. Their quality was in what they did, not what they said. This is undoubtedly why so many religions are based on personal, one-on-one discipleship.

Anyway, I don’t feel I can use much of the book. It does contain a lot of information on Egyptian mythology, and it’s beautifully illustrated.