books


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.

 

 

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.

 

 

This got a little too long for the blog, so it’s on my main page: a review of Tim Powers, one of my favorite sf writers.

I’ve finally read Gilgamesh.  Three times.

hamurabi

This is not Gilgamesh but Ashurbanipal, but that’s fine: the best copies of the epic are from his library. Really!

News to me department: apparently you say gil-GA-mesh.

First, who was Gilgamesh? Well, he’s listed on the Sumerian King List as one of the kings of Uruk. The King List says that he ruled for 126 years, while his grandfather Lugalbanda ruled for 1200 years and his son Ur-Nungal for 30 years. Scholars tend to believe that these numbers are a bit exaggerated. He probably ruled sometime between 2800 and 2500 BCE.

And that’s about it for history. Oh, and his real name was Bilgames. More on that later.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is not Sumerian, but Akkadian. Akkadian was the Semitic language that took over from Sumerian by 2000 or so, and was spoken by both the Assyrians and Babylonians. It was spoken and written for 2000 years, though in the last centuries of that period the spoken language gave way to Aramaic. The epic was also translated into Hittite and Hurrian. There are two major Akkadian versions, the “Old Babylonian” version from around 1800 BCE, and a longer “standard version” from about 1000 BCE, the one in Ashurbanipal’s library. We even have the name of the compiler, Sîn-lēqi-unninni.

Here’s the basic story:

Gilgamesh is the mighty king of Uruk, whose massive brick walls (which the king had built) the reader is invited to examine. He is, strangely, “two thirds divine and one third human”. This is because his mother is the goddess Ninsun. In the epic Lugalbanda is his father rather than his grandfather.

However, he has a deplorable habit of bothering the young men and women of the town. They complain to the gods, who decide that he needs a companion.

They create Enkidu, a shaggy-haired wild man who lives with the beasts outside the civilized world. A hunter complains that he is undoing his traps, preventing him from getting food. His father sends him to Gilgamesh with a plan: send a temple prostitute, Shamhat, out to civilize the wild man with sex.

This works.  After making love for a week, Enkidu is no longer attuned to the natural world (the beasts flee from him), but more reasonable. He talks with Shamhat, who convinces him to come to Uruk. There’s an amusing moment when she gives him bread and beer to eat, and he doesn’t know what they are.  

After a quick fight, Enkidu and Gilgamesh become fast friends. Ninsun adopts him as a brother to Gilgamesh. 

They decide to find and kill Humbaba, a monster who guards a forest in Lebanon. Before doing so, they ask for the counsel and blessings of the elders of Uruk, the young men of Uruk, and Ninsun. The elders at first counsel against the attempt, but relent; Ninsun also wonders why her son has such a “restless spirit.”

They travel to Lebanon and fight Humbaba, who is defended by multiple auras; but the sun god Shamash comes to their aid, sending the winds to strip off the monster’s auras, allowing the heroes to kill him.

Now Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, asks Gilgamesh to be her consort. He refuses contemptuously, pointing out that most of her previous consorts have ended up dead or miserable. Angrily, she asks her father Anu to send the Bull of Heaven against Uruk. It kills several hundred of Uruk’s warriors, but the two heroes manage to kill it.

This, however, is too much for the gods. They decree that Enkidu should die, and they send him a sickness that kills him. Gilgamesh mourns him, refuses to bury him “until a worm dropped out of his nose”, and decides that he must defeat death itself.

He leaves Uruk, letting his hair grow and wearing hides, and wanders in search of Uta-napishti, who survived the Flood and became immortal. A theme of this section of the epic is self-sabotage. He keeps coming close to the secret of immortality, and messing up. E.g. Uta-napishti asks him to stay awake for a week, and he falls asleep immediately. He is shown where a plant grows that regains one’s youth and grabs it– but loses it to a snake. (On the plus side: now we know why snakes can shed their skin, rejuvenating themselves.)

Uta-napishti narrates the story of the Flood. Another myth makes the Akkadian notion of the Flood clearer: the gods sent the Flood not because of human sin, but because humans, being immortal, were too numerous. After the Flood they revoked the gift of immortality, except for Uta-napishti and his wife, and also made sure to keep human numbers in check with wild animals, plagues, and famine. 

There’s not much epilogue: Gilgamesh returns home, and shows Uta-napishti’s boatman the walls of Uruk, echoing the beginning of the epic. The idea seems to be that he has given up on deification, and will be satisfied with lasting renown as a great king.

So, how is it and should you read it?

If you like fantasy, mythology, or epic, I think you’ll find it interesting. It’s not as polished as the Iliad or the Ramayana… but you’d be kind of surprised and disappointed if it were, wouldn’t you? This is early stuff, from a culture we don’t entirely understand.

The text makes a lot of choices we wouldn’t. E.g., it relies heavily on repetition: on the way to Humbaba’s forest, Gilgamesh has ominous dreams– five of them. The language is highly repetitive and yet breezy; a modern writer would surely be content with one dream, more vividly realized. There are a lot of details about Gilgamesh’s consultations with the assemblies, Ninsun’s prayer before the heroes’ trip, Enkidu’s funeral, that take a surprising amount of the text. On the other hand, the actual fights are not described in much detail, and the ending is very abrupt.

What easily sticks in memory is the friendship of the two heroes, and Gilgamesh’s bitter grief over his loss. He doesn’t seem to recognize that taking on divine monsters was a bad idea… but arguably the text does. Gilgamesh is a big unthinking bruiser, exploiting his people until Enkidu comes along, then ignoring the duties of kingship to undertake various unnecessary quests. Pretty much everyone who talks to him explains with more or less politeness that he should be doing something else instead.

It’s striking that, after all, Gilgamesh fails in his quest for immortality.  At the same time, the original audience presumably knew that Gilgamesh did end up with a semidivine role: he was a judge of the dead in the Underworld.

Western readers may be surprised to see, in polytheistic form, a version of the Genesis Flood story. Some literalist Christians might get a little excited about this: ooh, confirmation that the Flood happened!  Others might be disturbed, because the story starts to seem less like divine inspiration than a borrowing from a common stock of Semitic folklore.

Which version should you read? I started with a “rendering” by David Ferry, from 1992. Ferry knows no Akkadian; he’s a poet, working from scholarly translations. His aim was to create a poetic version that would be readable and coherent in English. In this he succeeded; I don’t think you’ll go wrong reading it. I should note that it’s barely a hundred pages– Sîn-lēqi-unninni was no George R.R. Martin. But it may leave you wondering if you’ve read the original epic, or a retelling.

I wanted to know what those scholarly translations were like, and I read two: The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by Andrew George, from 1999; and Myths from Mesopotamia, translated by Stephanie Dalley, from 2000. Both are very good and I can’t recommend one over the other. Both come with plentiful explanations, and include the earlier Old Babylonian version of the epic. George also includes five Sumerian myths about Bilgames. These did not form a connected narrative for the Sumerians, but they were obviously a source for the Akkadian epic, and they have some interesting variations. E.g., in the Sumerian myth, Bilgames defeats Humbaba by trickery: he persuades him to give up his protective auras by offering him a succession of gifts.

(If you’re deciding between the two, I should note that, as the title indicates, Dalley includes a few other myths too, including a separate, longer version of the Flood story.)

The major difference between Ferry and the scholarly translations is that the latter respect the fragmentary nature of our text. There are a lot of gaps, from single words to entire columns… we have perhaps only 80% of the original text. There are also uncertain translations, or words we don’t quite understand.

(Avoid translations earlier than these: we’re always learning more about Akkadian, and getting better and more complete texts, so earlier translations will not be as complete or as reliable.)

As a comparison, here’s a part of the first tablet, first in Dalley’s version:

Look for the copper tablet-box,
Undo its bronze lock.
Open the door to its secret,
Lift out the lapis lazuli tablet and read it.
The story of that man, Gilgamesh, who went through all kinds of sufferings.
He was superior to other kings, a warrior lord of great stature,
A hero born of Uruk, a goring wild bull.
He marches at the front as leader,
He goes behind, the support of his brothers.
Son of Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh, perfect in strength,
Son of the lofty cow, the wild cow Ninsun.

George:

[See] the tablet-box of cedar,
[release] its clasp of bronze!
[Lift] the lid of its secret,
[pick] up the tablet of lapis lazuli and read out
the travails of Gilgamesh, all that he went through.

Surpassing all other kings, heroic in stature,
brave scion of Uruk, wild bull on the rampage!
Going at the fore he was the vanguard,
going at the rear, one his comrades could trust!

Wild bull of Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh, the perfect in strength,
suckling of the august Wild Cow, the goddess Ninsun!

Ferry:

This is Uruk, the city of Gilgamesh
the Wild Ox, son of Lugalbanda, son

of the Lady Wildcow Ninsun. Gilgamesh
the vanguard and the rear guard of the army. 

Open the copper chest with the iron locks:
the tablet of lapis lazuli tells the story.

You could write an epic, at least as long as that of Gilgamesh, about how we came to have the epic of Gilgamesh. The first tablets were dug up in 1853, at a time when Akkadian couldn’t even be read.

The key to reading it was the trilingual inscriptions at Persepolis, from the period of the Persian Empire, written in Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian. They were known to Europeans from the 1500s. All are cuneiform, but it was noticed in the late 1700s that there were three languages, and the first (using only a couple dozen symbols) was alphabetic. By the end of the century the Avesta was studied, giving scholars an understanding of Old Persian. By 1850 the Old Persian could be read.

The next step was to understand the Akkadian. Progress was made rapidly during the 1850s, and received a big credibility boost when a new text was discovered and sent to four different scholars; their translations were close enough that it seemed like the project was on firm ground.

Sumerian, by the way, was discovered at the same time. Many tablets were obviously themselves bilingual: Sumerian-Akkadian vocabulary lists and interlinear translations. Later, it was recognized that some tablets, the oldest ones, were in Sumerian only.

George gives an example of the enormous difficulty of getting Akkadian texts. One particular tablet is broken in three pieces. They were discovered separately: one piece in 1850, one in 1874, one in 1878. It was not until the 1920s that someone realized that two of the pieces fit together, and the third wasn’t fitted to them until the 1980s.

And that’s just one tablet! He shows a photograph of it– it’s still a mess, with a huge chunk missing. Only the left part of the column of text is readable. Fortunately there are other tablets that include the same text… one includes just the right-hand portion; another shows about 3/4 of the column, missing just the right-hand side. The texts have to be painstakingly collated, glyph by glyph, before you can even read the text.

By now we have over 80 versions of the epic. That still isn’t enough to restore the whole text; nor do they all belong to the standard version, that of Sîn-lēqi-unninni. Not infrequently, to get a coherent story we have to consult the Old Babylonian version, or even the Hittite translation.

 

 

 

You may be wondering, or if not you should: what’s my next book?

It’s books. But the next one should be my Quechua reference grammar.

cusco-market

Based on some quick quizzes on Twitter and the ZBB, it seemed that people are more interested in a reference grammar than a textbook. Which is good, because I more or less have one! I wrote the grammar (and a dictionary) for my own use when I was studying Quechua in the 1990s.

It needs quite a bit of work yet, partly to make the text as good as possible, and partly because I need to go over some of the source materials in much more detail. But, that work is underway now.

If you’ve been following the blog, you’ve probably seen that I’m also doing research on the Middle East. Now, in theory this should be no harder than distilling all of India or China into a book. But, well, it isn’t. China is largely the story of one people and language. India is much more miscellaneous, but it’s mostly one civilization, whatever exactly that means. I could cover everything from Sumer to Khomeini in one volume, but it would mean compressing each bit into near unrecognizability.

So, my current idea is two books. One will cover the Ancient Middle East— concentrating on Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Persia, more or less up to Alexander. (That is, I don’t expect to cover Egypt or Anatolia in detail.) That’s certainly doable. After all, histories of Mesopotamia alone have to cover a lot of this material, because its empires were all over the Levant, and were eventually conquered by Persia. And most of the area was occupied by Semitic speakers, and shared a good deal of culture and cosmology. The obvious languages to cover would be Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hebrew.

There are a couple of really interesting puzzles to cover:

  • How did agriculture get started, and more importantly, why? People seemed happier without it.
  • How did one unimportant subgroup of Semites, of the same language and culture as the entire Levant, come up with a fervent monotheism?

Naturally, the latter question could take over the whole book, but I don’t intend to let it. I just read a history of ancient Israel, and though it’s interesting, what I crave is precisely the larger context. The Bible, and thus most historians, present Israel as somehow totally distinct from their neighbors. But they weren’t, at all; they basically spoke the same language, and indeed if you read a little closer they actually had enormous trouble keeping separate from those neighbors. And then there’s the tantalizing Persian connection— they interacted closely with the other monotheistic religion in the area. More on that later.

Book Two would cover the same area from about 600 to the present. That’s mostly the Islamic era, but also includes the very interesting 600s, when the age-old war between the Byzantines and Persians heated up, well, more than it ever had. The languages covered would be Persian and probably Arabic.

Clever people may note that there’s a gap of nearly a millennium in between. That’s intentional. I expect to cover the Persian part of the story, but what’s missing is the Greeks and Romans, and early Christianity. That’s nowhere near as new to most of my readers, I think; and covering them would require a different base area anyway.

Now, that’s plenty to do, but one day recently I woke up with my head full of Xurno. That is, I was thinking about the plot for Diary of the Prose Wars, my unfinished Almean novel. I read over the material I had. I think it’s in worse shape than I remembered, but that’s fine. The real problem was the plot, and I worked on that a bit. (For what it’s worth, it does focus the mind a bit when one’s own country is going to pot. “Oh, that’s how awful authoritarian regimes are formed.”) This won’t be a high priority, but apparently my subconscious was working on it, and I look forward to seeing it do some more.

 

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

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

tormance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One poem has some interesting comments on asceticism:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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