books


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.

 

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One poem has some interesting comments on asceticism:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pogo-khayyam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

jemisin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just finished this book by James C. Scott, and it’s amazing. It’s one of those books that’ll unwind your mind and rethread your head. I’m tempted to rewrite the early history of Almea, and you may want to do the same with your worlds. Oh, hey, is it clear that the post title is the book title? It’s called Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.

hamurabi

Actually a bad guy

Everything you know is wrong

At some point, maybe in sixth grade, you probably read some histories that suggested, more or less:

  • humanity progressed from foraging, to pastoralism, to agriculture, the last being true civilization
  • each of these steps was an advance in freedom and prosperity
  • nomads and foragers did not understand agriculture, otherwise they would have immediately adopted it
  • agriculture was necessary for large permanent settlements
  • since agriculture developed, the world has been dominated by large agricultural states

All of these statements are wrong. A truer set of statements would be:

  • People prefer foraging or pastoralism, but can be coerced into agriculture
  • Agriculture (and to a lesser extent pastoralism) is a step backwards in freedom and prosperity
  • Nomads and foragers understand how crops work and sometimes plant them, but prefer not to be tied down to a much more tedious and unhealthy lifestyle
  • Large permanent settlements preceded agriculture by a few thousand years
  • For most of history, the bulk of humanity has lived outside the effective control of states

There’s a simple reason the state dominates history, as opposed to humanity: because that’s what generated stone cities and writing that survived. It takes a lot more work to uncover what happened before states appeared, or in areas where the towns were built from perishable materials. Quite a lot of that work has been done in Mesopotamia, which is the focus of the book. (On the other hand, there’s a huge amount that we’ll just never know.)

Our secret weapon: Fire

A nice trendy argument is when the Anthropocene began: the geological era dominated by humans. Was it when we noticed global warming, or when the industrial revolution began? Scott makes a case that it began 400,000 years ago, when hominins mastered fire. Fire greatly changed our diet, and our own bodies and brains, because it allowed us to cook both meat and vegetables, unlocking a great deal more nutrients. Our huge brains are the product of fire: the other great apes can’t support equally sized brains with their diet of raw food. Fire has shortened our guts, which are about a third as long as those of chimps’, because we don’t need as much digestion. We can eat a wider range of things; that, and the warmth of fires, allowed us to greatly expand our habitat.

What’s less realized is that we also used fire to transform the landscape. Sometimes this was accidental; sometimes a purposeful hunting/foraging technique. Fire could be used to chase prey into a killing zone. More subtly, it encourages certain crops which we happen to find useful, and animals that grazed on those crops. Just about every landscape we consider “natural” has already been modified, thousands of years ago, by humanity, largely through fire.

A little fact which underlies the scale of this change: when Europeans reached the New World, their diseases killed off perhaps a majority of the natives– who for centuries had been using fire to clear the forest. The forests sprang back, incidentally absorbing so much CO2 that global climate cooled, from roughly 1500 to 1850.

Next there’s an extended discussion of what happened in lower Mesopotamia and when. The first oddity is that it looks like there were permanent settlements by 6500 BCE, about 1500 years before solid evidence for agrarian villages. The second is that it took another 2000 years before states developed. (Mesopotamia was not the pioneer in sedentism; there was year-long settlement at various sites around 10,000 BCE.)

What sort of area could support sedentism before agriculture? Not the arid desert that much of this region is today… but at that time it wasn’t desert, it was wetlands, if not actually under the sea: almost half of the current land from Baghdad to the Persian Gulf was then part of the gulf.  Ancient Ur was on the coast. The land was about 10 meters below the current level; the difference is due to 10,000 years of sediment from the Tigris and Euphrates.

It was very rich in resources, especially as it was a mixture of coastal and river environments. Frequent changes of the watercourse allowed planting on rich, naturally cleared silt without irrigation. Animals and birds abounded, and migratory gazelles and asses came through, and could be corralled into narrow areas for hunting. If an area is sufficiently rich, you don’t need cultivated fields to support villages.  (Another such area is the pre-Columbian Pacific Northwest.)

Agriculture isn’t an either-or proposition. The same people could hunt, forage, take care of animals. The same plants that were later cultivated grew wild, and foragers had long had the equipment to harvest it and prepare the seeds for cooking. The sort of opportunistic sowing just described (right after a flood) took little extra effort.

This ecological zone survived to modern times, but farther south, and the lifestyle did too, among the Marsh Arabs. Saddam Hussein drained the marshes in the 1990s, displacing half a million people and turning the marshes to desert. The dikes were breached after the US invasion; the marshes are partially restored but few of the people have moved back.

Why plant?

The big question is: if things were so good, why did Mesopotamia move to agriculture at all?

Ester Boserup posited that the change must be out of desperation, e.g. overcrowding, the loss of large game, climate change. For Mesopotamia, there doesn’t seem to be evidence for any of these. Scott can’t suggest anything better, so really we don’t know why the changeover happened.

Of course, once it has happened, it has a certain inertia. You can support a much higher population with agriculture– which means that though individuals can and do retreat from the lifestyle, entire populations can’t.

Co-evolution in the village

There’s a section on what Scott calls “late Neolithic multi-species resettlement camps”… that is, farming villages. The jargon is meant to underline that a bunch of co-evolution was going on, as crops, weeds, domestic animals, uninvited vermin, and people all adapted to living together.

A lot of this was driven by the humans, of course. In general we want crops with increased fruit or grain size, no toxins, no hard cases or spiky protrusions, and which are easy to harvest– e.g., heads that don’t shatter. For animals we want docility, increased fertility, tolerance for cramped conditions and a monotonous diet, and comfort around humans. We also get some unintended consequences: less genetic diversity and robustness; and among the animals, neoteny, reduced sexual dimorphism, and a certain stupidity. (This even affected our vermin: rats and mice who live among us, for instance, are smaller than their wild counterparts.) Many of our crops and domestic animals couldn’t survive without us.

Something that affected all the species was disease. Cramped and unsanitary conditions spread diseases not only within but between species. (Measles comes from sheep or goats; smallpox from camels; influenza from waterfowl.) And epidemics were one of the failure modes of this lifestyle: they could wipe out a settlement, a kingdom, or an army.

More subtly, living in villages affected us too. Evolution did not stop with the Cro-Magnons; we’ve become adapted not only to cooking but to grains and to large quantities of alcohol (historically healthier than the nearby water). In the West, we’re adapted to drinking milk in adulthood. We have some resistance to all those new diseases. Arguably we too are domesticated animals, subject to some of the same changes, including smaller size, duller teeth, neoteny, less sexual dimorphism, and tolerance for crowding and stress.

The bad guy enters

Cue the Imperial March, because now our villain enters: The State. States appear in Mesopotamia around 3100 BC, and everything goes to hell.

In brief: with the state, you get all the drudgery of agriculture, plus coercion and oppression. Someone evidently noticed that if 90% of the people were farmers, a quarter or half their produce could be taken from them, supporting an elite: kings, nobles, priests, soldiers, merchants, craftsmen. (To be precise: if left alone, the people wouldn’t produce this surplus; the state coerces them to produce more than they otherwise would.)

It’s a bad bargain for the farmer… which is why, to the extent of their power, the authorities kept them from leaving. And that’s if they were free to begin with: there was extensive use of slaves, and one of the main purposes of war was not to conquer territory, but to grab captives.

Scott’s particular insight is that states worldwide, up to at least 1800 CE, were based on grain, and that this was no accident. (For the purposes of this discussion that includes rice and maize.) Grain is a tax collector’s dream: it ripens all at the same time, so you can go right in and take a large part of the harvest. (To ensure this uniformity, states often mandated that fields be planted at a particular time.) Grain can be stored for years, and it’s one of the highest nutrient-per-weight foods, so it can be transported long distances.

Can you have a state based on tubers or manioc instead? Not nearly as easily. Tubers don’t have to be harvested all at once; indeed, the best place to store them is in the ground, till they’re needed. If the tax man wants a share, he has to go and dig them up, and if he does, he has a wagonload that’s heavy, easily spoiled, and barely worth transporting.

All the major empires, Scott asserts, are based on grain– and their effective area of control, as opposed to the lines they or we draw on maps, is the limit of grain cultivation. Beyond that are two major populations.

The misfits

One is the non-grain-growers: people who don’t fit, or don’t want to fit, into the tax man’s grain system. Scott has written another book, The Art of Not Being Governed, about the huge region that never quite fit into the East Asian states: southwestern China, northern Vietnam, Thailand, and Burma, and Assam. These are largely mountainous areas where it was hard to grow grain, and where the people grew other things, as well as raising animals, and if necessary melted away when the administrators and armies attempted to enforce control.

The other exception is the pastoralists, as well as mixed groups (like the ancient Germans and the Jurchens) who farmed or herded as circumstances warranted. Though his picture of states is grim, he presents the nomads as far healthier, happier, and more egalitarian.

One reason, it must be said, is that the nomads noticed that the surplus of the peasants could be skimmed off as easily by themselves as by their own elites. So the peasants endured not only the depradations of the taxman, but that of the horselord.

States naturally fought back, but it’s not easy to defeat nomads, who after all have no cities to loot, and can easily melt away into the steppes. But cooperation was often preferable to war. Nearer nomads could be bribed to fight farther ones, or be co-opted as cavalry.

Most of our sources come from states, and we should be skeptical when states claim that non-grain areas or nomads acknowledge their suzerainty. That was a way of saving face; the reality was often that effective control over either was impossible, and huge sums were spent to keep the nomads happy.

Collapse

The whole structure of states was precarious. States could collapse due to defeat in war, or ecological change, or epidemics, or by peasant revolts, or by the increasing toll of deforestation and salinization. In early Mesopotamia, states were particularly prone to collapse– as Scott puts it, the interregna outnumbered the regna. One historian, Robert Adams, notes that the Third Dynasty of Ur was unusual in lasting a hundred years. Mesopotamia as a whole seems to have collapsed from 1800 BCE to 700 BCE; during this period urban settlements had 1/4 the area they’d had previously. The Greeks famously collapsed around 1100 BCE, losing their cities and literacy for hundreds of years.

Such times are called dark ages, but given the general misery under state control, they may well have been a relatively pleasant breathing space for the people. They were certainly more egalitarian, and cultural output was probably not less; it simply switched from written to oral modes. (The Iliad and the Odyssey are products of Greece’s dark age.)

If you put all this together, and try to look at humanity as a whole before 1500, it may well be that the majority of humans were outside state control, and all the better for it.

Lessons

If there’s a takeaway for your understanding of history, or for your conworld, I’d suggest something like this:

  • The fluidity of people about foraging/herding/agriculture. It’s not a progression, and the same population, or individuals, might engage in all three.
  • How long it takes between sedentism and states. (I’m sure I didn’t leave enough time in Arcél…)
  • The importance of grain. Think hard about starting a state outside river valleys suitable for grain production.
  • The frequency of collapse in the first millennia.
  • The fact that states are bad news for much of the population.

These are not ironclad rules, especially in fantasy. It’s not that all cities were hellholes. (Just one detail: Chinese cities were probably healthier than European ones, simply because the manure was a valuable substance and removed from the city.)

There were also mitigations Scott doesn’t mention, such as debt jubilees. (See David Graeber… I think that’s the first time I’ve cited him as being more cheerful than another book.)

Some grains of salt

As ever, I have a few cavils. One is that Scott can be annoyingly low on details. You won’t get any explanations of how Sumerian city-states differed from the Assyrian or Babylonian empires. He gives population estimates without explaining where they came from or how reliable they are. He admits that slavery and war pre-existed states, which surely undercuts his major villain, but he provides no way to estimate how much.

More seriously, I’m not sure that his ideas apply so well to Africa, or the Americas, or India.

  • There were kingdoms in Africa, for instance, but so far as I know agriculture never depended mostly on grain, as it did in Egypt or Mesopotamia or China.
  • He mentions the Inka and Maya, but on his own admission maize is not as easy for the tax collector as wheat– it can be left in the field to dry.
  • As for India, at one point Scott says that only two large empires appeared in its history, the Guptas and the Mughals– a statement of colossal ignorance.

I’m inclined to think his ideas apply well enough to temperate areas, but he should have left tropical areas to another study.

Finally, I think he over-paints the picture of the state as tyranny and “barbarism” as pleasant and egalitarian. You could be captured and sold into slavery by nomads, or as a nomad. Or you could be forced to serve in the khan’s wars. And the state/nomad balance didn’t always favor the latter: e.g. Rome was not really bothered by the Germans until the 200s.

And the lot of peasants varied– e.g. it seems to have always been better to be a colonist, when your numbers were few and therefore you had to be treated fairly well. I’m inclined to think it’d be better to be a Chinese peasant in the 1C than the 18C, because game and trees were still available.  For that matter, you’d really want to be born in the beginning rather than the end of a dynasty: taxes were lower, the state was more organized, and bandits were held in check.

(Also, wasn’t 19C Ireland a potato state? Scott doesn’t even mention it.)

Taat’s the title of a new book by Josephine Quinn. Her hot take is that the Phoenicians never existed– that is, that they were not really a nation, an ethnic group, or a civilization as we understand these terms.

tinnit

The Carthaginian goddess Tinnit

I don’t think she proves her case, but she does show that it’s complicated. First, it’s quite true that the Phoenicians were never “a nation”. They were usually divided into city-states, and from about -600 the Levantine cities were ruled by one empire after another.

(The major cities were Sidon and Tyre, which are both in modern Lebanon. The first was natively Ṣīdūn, today Ṣaydā; the second was Ṣūr— we owe the T to the Greeks. Carthage was Qart-ḥadašt ‘new city’.)

But you can have a people without a nation. The Greeks and the Romans certainly thought of the Phoenicians as a people, mostly a competing people. They spoke a common language, they were gifted in commerce, and they were said to be very religious, and also duplicitous. Greek φοῖνιξ refers to a Phoenician, to the characteristic and expensive dye (Tyrian purple) they sold, and to the date palm. Later it was applied to the mythical bird. (Before reading Quinn’s book I had never made the connection between Phoenicia and phoenix.) The Romans adapted φοῖνιξ as poenus, at a time when they didn’t bother to mark Greek aspiration. This gave the adjective pūnicus, the source of Punic.

We also have the viewpoint of the Israelites. A modern reader of the Bible may be tempted to see Israel’s neighbors– the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Philistines, the Edomites, and the Phoenicians– as entirely unlike them. In fact most of them belonged to the same linguistic group, Northwest Semitic, and were (according to Quinn) mutually intelligible. If you look at what the Bible actually describes, the Canaanite gods and goddesses were broadly worshipped in Israel, to the distress of the prophets; it wasn’t until after the Exile that the Jews emerged as uniformly monotheistic. Several Israelite kings married Phoenician princesses.

From a Middle Eastern point of view, then, the Phoenicians were simply the coastal, seafaring part of the general Canaanite population. Aramaic is another member of the family, basically derived from the dialect of Damascus; it became the lingua franca of the entire Levant and Mesopotamia until the Arab conquest.

What did the Phoenicians call themselves? Probably they didn’t. Reviewing hundreds of years of inscriptions, Quinn finds that they mostly identified with their cities (i.e. Tyre, Sidon, Carthage, etc.). There doesn’t seem to be a Phoenician word for Phoenician. There are a tiny number of references to KN’N (Canaan).

In architecture and sculpture, the Phoenicians didn’t seem to have a style of their own; they freely borrowed from Egyptian, Greek, and Persian styles.

They were not united by religion. There were a number of Canaanite gods, and it seems that each city picked a different small number to worship. There are two entirely separate cults associated with Carthage.

  • One was associated with Baal Hammon and Tinnit; their worshippers erected temples which focused on sacrifice of animals and occasionally infants. This cult seems to be limited to two sites in Africa (including Carthage), plus Malta, Motya in Sicily, and six sites in Sardinia.
  • An entirely different cult was centered on the god Melqart (‘king of the city’), who was particularly favored in Tyre. Melqart was worshipped in Carthage, Cadiz, Utica, and a few other cities. The Greeks identified him with Herakles; they routinely did this with foreign gods, but the Carthaginians seemed to agree: they borrowed Herakles’ lion poncho for representations of Melqart.

The strongest argument against Quinn’s thesis (to her credit, she brings this up herself) is that starting in -410, Carthage minted coins that featured a date palm.  This seems to be an acceptance of the Greek term φοῖνιξ as a marker of “Phoenicity”, issued just at the time Carthage was assuming greater control over the western Mediterranean.  (It was never exactly an empire in the Roman sense; its territories were more allies than subjects.) Tyre itself minted coins with a palm tree about two centuries later.

Carthage always remembered its relationship with its founding city Tyre, and was said to send tithes there regularly. At the same time, Quinn points to a particular moment of diplomacy where a Tyrian was treated as a foreigner. These facts aren’t hard to reconcile, if you think of the relationship between the US and Britain, or Brazil and Portugal. You can feel that there’s a special relationship while also being conscious of the differences.

You could settle all this by looking at Phoenician literature… only there’s almost none to consult, just a bunch of short inscriptions. Perhaps, unlike the Greeks and Israelites but like the Persians, they simply didn’t have much to say. But more likely we’ve just lost it all. Carthage is said to have had a library, which the Romans donated to local kings, keeping only a treatise on agriculture. If you get hold of a time machine, I urge you to get to Carthage before its conquest and record the contents.

The Phoenicians have a long tail in history. The tophet cult only increased after the Roman conquest: there’s something like 75 sites in the eastern Maghreb with tophets dated to the -2C through the 2C. Punic continued to be spoken in the region until the time of St Augustine (fl. 400). And quite a few nations have seen themselves in the Phoenicians, including the British, the Irish, and the Lebanese.

Oh! I think I forgot to say how the book is. I enjoyed it a lot, and learned a lot; don’t take my statement that she doesn’t quite prove her thesis as a complaint. She assembles all the evidence she can and is willing to look at it in new ways, and I think that’s the proper way to handle history.

Time for another excursion into non-Western literature. Today it’s Farid Attar’s The Conference of the Birds.  This is a classic of Persian literature, written around 1187. It’s about the search for God. By birds.

hoopoe

It’s a long poem, in rhymed couplets, where a few hundred thousand birds get together and talk about finding the mythical king of the gods, the Simorgh. They decide they need a king, and elect the hoopoe.

The what? About all I knew about hoopoes was that they were biblical, somehow. That’s a hoopoe above.  It’s certainly a pretty bird, and apparently in Arab legend, Solomon was shielded by hoopoes from the burning sun, and in return gave them a crown-like crest of feathers. The hoopoe in Attar does say he gained his wisdom from Solomon.

And what’s the Simorgh? It’s a creature of Zoroastrian (that is, ancient Persian) mythology, ancient and semi-divine. (It’s also normally considered to be female, but this doesn’t appear in Attar.)

You may be expecting an allegorical epic now, like Journey to the West.  Well, no.  It’s inspirational Sufi poetry. The Simorgh is God, as he appears to birds. Various birds express their fears and hesitations about the voyage to find God, and the hoopoe responds eloquently. Much of his discourse is in the form of parables about real or imagined figures, often designed to undermine traditional religious ideas.

Sufism is the mystical side of Islam, and so far as I can see, it’s pretty much identical to certain traditions in Christianity, and also to the bhakti movement in Hinduism. It’s all about love, you see.  You are supposed not just to love God, you fall in love with him, with all the unrestrained passion of the most carnal love affair. You give up everything, he forgives everything, you live in poverty and pain in this world and simultaneously in ecstasy.

All of these traditions are a revolt against rules and doctrines and divisions and stodginess, so the first order of business is generally shock, as old ideas have to be questioned. An early parable is about the Sufi spiritual leader Sanan, who runs off to Rome and falls in love with a Christian girl. From an Islamic point of view, this is shameful and heretical, but the point, I think, is that if you don’t have that much passion, your more orthodox faith is worthless. (It all ends happily, though– the Prophet himself intervenes, and brings both the wayward leader and the girl back to the faith.)

So, there’s lots of stories of people discovering and losing great treasures, and Joseph in Egypt (a great symbol of a person of great worth despised by his peers), and kings being rebuked for their worldly splendor. There seems to be a progression: the early stories are mostly about the passion of God for us and us for God, and later chapters lay on the difficulties of the path.

Eventually– about 90% of the way through the book– the actual journey takes place, and of all the throng of birds, only thirty make it to the antechamber of the Simorgh. At this point Attar unveils the pun that perhaps led to the creation of the whole work: they see the Simorgh, but what they see is si morgh, ‘thirty birds’.

They gazed, and dared at last to comprehend
They were the Simorgh, and the journey’s end.

That is, more or less: they find God, but God is immanent in the world, and thus in them. As they have finally defeated the Self, all that remains in them is God, and so they see him– and disappear in him.

So, should you run out and read this? Well, it depends on your tolerance for this type of religious thought. The translators (Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis) emphasize the earthiness and variety of the parables. But honestly, you’ll have more fun reading (say) The Ten Princes. The religious message is not, to put it mildly, hidden under a bushel. If you don’t think there is a God, falling in love with him probably won’t make much sense or have much appeal.

Now, if your idea of religion is that it’s all stupid rituals and oppressive rules, in service to the powers that be, then maybe you should read it to understand that there is an ecstatic and anti-authoritarian side to religion. Whatever you might think of their goals, a Sufi was someone who could thumb their nose at kings and rich men. (And if all you know about Islam is shari’a and jihads and religious fighters, Attar is a good counterweight.)

How is the poetry?  I’m no great judge, but here’s a sample of the translators’ work:

A naked madman, gnawed by hunger, went
Along the road – his shivering frame was bent
Beneath the icy sleet; no house stood there
To offer shelter from the wintry air.
He saw a ruined hut and with a dash
Stood underneath its roof; a sudden crash
Rang out – a tile had fallen on his head,
And how the gaping gash it cut there bled!
He looked up at the sky and yelled, “Enough!
Why can’t you clobber me with better stuff?”

I’ve been studying some Persian, so maybe in a few months or years I’ll be able to tell you how the original sounds. But I’m not sure that the English rhymes or the pentameter add much.

Wikipedia, by the way, informs me that the poet’s name is properly ʿAṭṭār. But this is an Arabicization; there are no emphatic or pharyngeal consonants in Persian, so his name really is just Attar. It’s really a pen name, ‘perfumer’, after his profession. The old name ‘attar of roses’, for rose oil, is a cognate.

Next Page »