Cultural materialism

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 It’s from 1980, so it’s undoubtedly outdated as a survey of the major schools.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happens to heroes

Some dude named Noah Smith had an interesting opinion about LOTR. (Hat tip to Jeffrey for retweeting it.)

One interesting thing about Lord of the Rings is that the hobbits mostly don’t learn to fight, come of age, get the girl, or win the throne. They’re not Campbellian heroes; they’re soldiers in a war. They do their duty and come home with PTSD.

Now, my immediate reaction is that this is entirely wrong. Merry, Pippin, and Sam do all of these things and get all of these rewards. True, you have to read the appendices to learn all the details, but they’re all there– Sam is Mayor, Merry is Master of Buckland, and Pippin– reverting to his dignified name of Peregrin– becomes Took. For them, it is absolutely a Campbellian journey.

Eressëa (artist’s rendering)

Frodo, yes, has a hell of a case of PTSD. He is also far from the fairly idle and naive fellow of Chapter 1, is able to reorder the Shire to his liking, and actually becomes Mayor. He ends up living as an immortal in Eressëa. (Smith went on to say that he interpreted that as a metaphor for death, but no, that’s not what Eressëa means in Tolkien. Aragorn dies normally, Frodo does not.)

This got me interested in what a Campbellian hero is, so the next stop is Wikipedia. This article is pretty interesting, and I’m tempted to go off in a million directions on it. But let’s just focus on what happens to heroes after they defeat the Big Bad.

Campbell is actually pretty perceptive about the difficulty here:

Many failures attest to the difficulties of this life-affirmative threshold. The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment, the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life. Why re-enter such a world? Why attempt to make plausible, or even interesting, to men and women consumed with passion, the experience of transcendental bliss? As dreams that were momentous by night may seem simply silly in the light of day, so the poet and the prophet can discover themselves playing the idiot before a jury of sober eyes. The easy thing is to commit the whole community to the devil and retire again into the heavenly rock dwelling, close the door, and make it fast.

So a bunch of temporal rewards is not in fact the normal end of the Campbell story. In fact he’s predicting that a return to ordinary life is going to be difficult and unattractive. Frodo’s experience is actually a far better illustration of his point than Sam’s or Aragorn’s.

Let me very unsystematically survey some epics and see what happened at the end.

  • Gilgamesh: The hero completely fails his quest. He just goes home. No rewards to speak of, though he retains his day job (king).
  • The Odyssey: Odysseus ends up with what he wanted: being back at home, with his wife.
  • The Ramayana: Rama loses the girl in a display of nasty suspicion.
  • Three Kingdoms: Liu Bei foolishly dies in battle as he’s pursuing the wrong war, for personal vengeance, rather than paying attention to the overall situation of China.
  • The Mahabharata: The victors give up their happy life to be pilgrims, and most of them die. But of course this isn’t final in Hinduism.
  • Morte D’Arthur: Arthur dies and his circle of knights dissipates.
  • Hamlet: Everybody dies, except the one guy who got very few lines and now becomes king.
  • The Roland/Orlando saga: Roland fails to defeat the Saracens and dies.
  • The Three Musketeers: Porthos and Athos die. Aramis becomes evil. D’Artagnan serves the king faithfully and dies in battle.
  • Narnia: Everyone but Susan dies in a train crash. Before that the kids brought to Narnia to improve their souls long for it interminably and seem not very well adjusted at all.
  • Star Maker: the Cosmos is rebuffed by the Creator and intelligent life, after lasting billions of years, is quietly extinguished in the heat death of the universe.
  • Pullman’s Dust saga: Lyra and Will are separated forever and travel to other worlds is prohibited.
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide: Arthur likes a quiet life in a rural area, as much he ever likes anything.
  • Snow Crash: Hiro becomes a moderately successful security engineer.
  • Laundry novels: I haven’t finished these, but Bob apparently succeeds his boss as some kind of powerful undead.
  • Star Wars: Everybody’s happy. Later retconned to: And then it all happens again.
  • She-Ra and the Princesses of Power: She-Ra gets the girl.
  • Harley Quinn animated series: Harley gets the girl.
  • Rocksteady Arkham games: Batman has a really bad night, pisses off all his allies, and apparently kills himself and murders his butler. (Never got to that scene: too many Riddler trophies to solve.)
  • Sandman: Sandman racks up just enough maturity to realize that he can never change, so it’s better to die and get reincarnated.
  • Little Nemo: Nemo leaves Slumberland and takes a long airship tour. In his very last strip, he goes to watch a farmer shearing sheep.
  • In the Land of Babblers: Whether Beretos gets the girl is unknown. The political situation improves for awhile, but after a century it all goes to hell.

If we learn anything from this– and it’s unsystematic, so feel free to learn nothing– it’s that Smith is wrong: the hero does not always end up with power and romance. Even in pure power fantasies, creators seem to realize that endings are bittersweet, and the celebration often gives way to melancholy. And it’s pretty common for stories, even ancient stories, to end unhappily, or in a mood of existential angst.

Beyond that, as Neil Gaiman noted, if you prolong any story it becomes a story about death.

On the other hand, the next stage, according to Campbell, seems like nonsense:

Freedom to pass back and forth across the world division, from the perspective of the apparitions of time to that of the causal deep and back—not contaminating the principles of the one with those of the other, yet permitting the mind to know the one by virtue of the other—is the talent of the master. The Cosmic Dancer, declares Nietzsche, does not rest heavily in a single spot, but gaily, lightly, turns and leaps from one position to another.

I dunno. Do any of the works above end up with a master who “gaily leaps” from the mundane to the extraordinary and back? The whole idea of an epic, one could say, is that some great evil has to be ended so people can go back to a normal life. If you have to keep going, then you didn’t exactly take care of the problem. True, episodic series (Star Trek, Conan, Batman, the detective novel) have to keep going and keep creating new threats. But the price paid is that there is never any closure.

A Couple of Soles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whew, that’s quite a lot of plot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omar Khayyam

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.


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.




A garota de Ipanema

So Norman Gimbel just died.  I never heard of him either, but he wrote the English lyrics to “The Girl from Ipanema”, so it’s a nice opportunity to compare lyrics and versions.

Here’s the classic Stan Getz / Astrud Gilberto version, and Gimbel’s lyrics:

Tall and tan and young
And lovely the girl from Ipanema
Goes walking and when she passes
Each one she passes goes: Ahhh!
When she walks she’s like
A samba that swings so cool
And sways so gently that when she passes
Each one she passes goes: Ahhh!

Oh, but he watches so sadly
How can he tell her he loves her
Yes, he would give his heart gladly
But each day when she walks to the sea
She looks straight ahead, not at he

This is the quintessential bossa nova song, and it feels like the ’60s, which is a strange thing to feel these days. Things were, if anything, far worse worldwide, but there was a sense of optimism despite that– the sense that right now things were changing for the better. Bossa nova somehow evokes that: super cool, sweet, and tinged with sadness.

Bossa nova means “new bump”, but bossa here apparently means “knack, charm, allure”. As for Ipanema, it’s a beachfront neighborhood in Rio– still fashionable when I was there in the 1990s. In the 20th century, development and coolness spread from downtown southwestward: first Botafogo was the premier beach, then Copacabana, then Ipanema.

Here’s the Portuguese version, performed by the original composer, Tom Jobim, and the lyricist, Vinicius de Moraes:

The interesting thing is that the English lyrics aren’t a translation at all, not even loosely. The only thing the two songs have in common is the notion of a girl walking in Ipanema.

Olha que coisa mais linda
Look what a beautiful thing
Mais cheia de graça
So full of grace
É ela, menina
It’s her, the girl
Que vem e que passa
Who comes and passes by
Num doce balanço
with sweet swaying
A caminho do mar
On the way to the sea

Moça do corpo dourado
Girl with tanned body
Do sol de Ipanema
from the Ipanema sun
O seu balançado é mais que um poema
Her swaying is more than a poem
É a coisa mais linda que eu já vi passar
It’s the most beautiful thing I ever saw
Ah, por que estou tão sozinho?
Ah, why am I so alone?
Ah, por que tudo é tão triste?
Ah, why is everything so sad?
Ah, a beleza que existe
Ah, the beauty that exists
A beleza que não é só minha
The beauty which isn’t just for me
Que também passa sozinha
Which also passes alone
Ah, se ela soubesse
Ah, if she knew
Que quando ela passa
That when she passes by
O mundo inteirinho se enche de graça
The whole world is filled with grace
E fica mais lindo
And becomes more beautiful
Por causa do amor
Because of love

One more thing to note– Portuguese is rich in words for ‘young woman’– in this song alone we have garota, menina, moça.

Here’s another version I like, sung in English and some Portuguese by another Brazilian artist, Joyce:

Also worth noting: there was an actual girl from Ipanema– Helô Pinheiro, who was 17 when she apparently walked by Moraes, in 1962. Here she is on the beach:


Pinheiro parlayed the fame from the song into a modeling and TV hosting career.

By the way, Moraes was 49 at the time, so, just as well he only sat and watched her.

Ask Zompist: European-ish conworlds

I notice that Verduria feels a bit European, which I like. What are some ways that I can replicate that Euro feel in my own stuff?


This was asked on Twitter, but it’s hard to answer in 140 characters.

282 72 Fiesole.jpg

For Westerners creating fantasy worlds, it’s hard not to make it European. The Standard Fantasy Kingdom is mostly European (from medieval to steampunk). The more of these elements you have the more European it’ll feel:

  • A large temperate agricultural zone, sometimes threatened by nomads
  • Kingdoms (with a smattering of republics)
  • Parliaments (especially as a counter-power to the king)
  • A division into multiple ethnic states
  • Powerful nobles who ride horses and live in rural castles
  • Towns, dense in population, without city planning, with a high degree of autonomy
  • At least some maritime nations, with a lot of ship-borne trade
  • Advanced in technology compared to other nations, or at least not dominated by larger civilizations
  • Large forests where you can hide the trolls or nymphs
  • Lots of pretty stone buildings
  • A single religion that crosses national boundaries
  • Monogamy
  • Clothing runs to shirt + pants for men, dresses for women

Visually, you would expect to see gothic cathedrals, big stone castles, Renaissance palaces, pleasant hobbitish villages. Buildings are rectilinear; roofs are either flat or A-framed. Animals, plants, and food are all recognizable to Westerners. Armies consist of horse cavalry, sailing ships, infantrymen wielding swords, bow and arrow, or pikes, with catapults as artillery; the upgrade path is to steamships, muskets, and cannons.

Linguistically, the languages could be directly influenced by Europe (as Verdurian is), and don’t stray too far from European languages.  Thus, mostly—

  • Standard Fantasy Phonology (English plus kh)
  • SVO
  • nominative-accusative
  • Verbs marked by tense, and possibly number + person
  • Articles
  • No gender, or masculine/feminine
  • Prepositions
  • Decimal number system
  • Adjectives may be like nouns, definitely aren’t like verbs

Perhaps more subtly, Europe is old. Everywhere has at least two thousand years of history, and things were probably very different 500 or 1000 years ago— different nations, different languages or religions. (By contrast, China is even more ancient, but as far back as you go, it’s still ethnic Chinese. With India,  whenever anyone invaded or started a new religion, the old peoples and religions are in general still there. And of course the US is by European standards young and low-density).

Now, in all of the above, I’ve not only downplayed differences between European nations (it makes a difference if you’re aiming at England, Italy, or Poland), but also I haven’t been too concerned with actual medieval history, which often differs from the tropes that we get from fantasy and even from medieval literature. If you really want a European flair to your conworld, my usual suggestion is to read less fantasy and more history. Reality is always far weirder than imagination.

Now, Verduria started as a Standard Fantasy Kingdom, and is certainly affected by my own affection for Europe and European languages. Plus I’ve more or less tried to make Almea stranger the farther you go from Verduria, which means Verduria itself is supposed to seem familiar to Western readers.  Still, it’s not designed as a mask of Europe— e.g. particular nations of Eretald are not simply caricatures of particular European nations. It does have some elements that aren’t European at all, and hopefully its history is coherent on its own level— things happen because of their internal logic.

It may be relevant that I aimed at something like 1750s Europe, and if anything pushed that toward 1800 in later work. So one thing you may be noticing is that Verduria is a little more like modern Europe than many fantasy kingdoms— it has steam power, colonies, cannons, universities, joint-stock companies, printing, religious conflicts, and parliamentary politics.

For Americans, Europe has a certain attractive quaintness, fading at the edges into eccentricity or annoyance. We see ourselves as straightforward, pragmatic, and business-oriented, Europeans as alternately charming, hidebound, and arrogant. We imagine that a duchess is somehow much more interesting than a billionaire. Harry Potter’s crumbly old castle of a school is as fantastic an element for us as his magic; Samwise’s forelock-tugging deference to Frodo as alien as the elves. These things would all read very differently to actual Europeans.

I hope that helps— I don’t know exactly what you’ve read about Verduria, and perhaps I haven’t captured what you notice about it at all!

(The picture, by the way, is of Fiesole, Italy, and was taken by my father in 1972.)


Uproar in Heaven

I’m doing research on China, and one of the many arduous research tasks is watching Chinese movies. Here’s a neat one: an animated version of the story of 孙悟空 Sūn Wùkōng, the Monkey King, from Journey to the West. The director is Wàn Làimíng and the movie was made into parts, in 1961 and 1964.

The movie’s name is 大闹天宫 Dà Nào Tiāngōng ‘Big disturbance [in the] heavenly palace’, thus Uproar in Heaven. It’s a rather faithful adaptation of the first chapters of 西遊记 Xī Yóu Jì (Journey to the West), by the Míng writer Wú Chéng’ēn.

If you’ve never met Sūn Wùkōng, one of the best-loved epic heroes of China, the movie is a good introduction. He’s a superhero monkey, born in the Flower-Fruit Mountain on the Eastern Continent. The first chapters of the book are largely Dàoist— the monkey searches for the secret of immortality, learning that as well as the 72 Transformations and the 108,000-mile Cloud Somersault from the immortal Subhūti. He picks up his trademark weapon, a size-changing staff, from his neighbor the Dragon King.

The Dragon King complains to the Jade Emperor in Heaven (he didn’t think Monkey could actually pick up the staff). Amusingly, the bureaucracy of the Chinese empire is projected up into Heaven. One advisor demands war against the monkey, but another suggests a very Chinese-imperial solution: give him a minor post in Heaven, as stablemaster. Sūn Wùkōng happily accepts the position— he likes the horses— until he learns that it’s the lowest-ranking post in Heaven…

The movie is very well done— colorful, inventive, drawing deeply on Chinese opera and painting. What I like most about it is how non-Western it feels. The Japanese made their own version, Saiyūki (which is how you read 西遊记 in Japanese) in 1960, based on the manga version by Osamu Tezuka; it’s very nicely produced but highly Disneyfied— Monkey becomes too damn cute.

The animators also rose to the challenge of making supernatural fights into balletic visual spectacles— one highlight is Sūn Wùkōng’s fight against one of Heaven’s champions, where both shape-shift every few seconds. They remember what many modern animated movies forget: the medium is about drawing and movement, not dialog. (Though the voice acting is good… I like the like “Nnnnn” the Jade Emperor utters while contemplating how to address Monkey’s latest impertinence.)

It’s curious that the movie ends just after Sūn Wùkōng has defeated the Dàoist pantheon— and just before he’s defeated by the Buddha. After that, he’s imprisoned under a mountain for 500 years, which breaks down his rebelliousness. When a supernatural guardian is needed to escort the monk Xuánzàng to India in search of Buddhist scriptures, he is happy to take the role. Every demon between China and India— and there are a lot of them— wants to eat Xuánzàng, so he has his furry little hands full.

(Xuánzàng was real— he made the actual trip to India in the 7th century, and did bring back hundreds of Sanskrit texts, which greatly enriched Buddhist literature in China.)

Animation is expensive, and it’s possible that that the studio planned to continue the story— the Cultural Revolution intervened instead, and the studio was shut down. Leaving out the Monkey King’s redemption makes the film an unusual celebration of pure anarchy. Sūn Wùkōng defies Heaven, eats the Celestial Empress’s peaches of immortality, trashes a banquet hall simply because he wasn’t invited to the feast, defeats every champion sent against him, and returns to the Flower-Fruit Mountain unvanquished.

If you play League of Legends, the champion Wukong is a (rather diminished) version of the Monkey King.

I discovered the movie on this list of less-known animated films, which contains plenty of other stuff to check out.

Ancient civs

I’ve been reading Bruce Trigger’s Early Civilizations, which is a comparative study of Egypt, early Mesopotamia, Shang China, the Maya, the Aztecs, the Inkas, and the Yoruba. It’s a huge book and rather dry, so unfortunately I can’t say I read it all. But for conworlding purposes I thought I’d list some of the stuff that was new to me.

It's got a great beat, and you can dance to it
Early dancers were half the size of the musicians

He finds a significant difference between city-states (Mesopotamia, Maya, Aztecs, Yoruba) and territorial states (Egypt, China, Inkas). Both were governed by kings, were hierarchical, were divided into an elite and a peasantry with little social mobility. But territorial states are likely to have fewer cities (with peasants living in villages rather than the cities), government road systems, and long-distance trade run largely by the government.

My favorite historical atlases, by Colin McEvedy, are apparently out of date on the subject of early trade. Or to be precise, McEvedy gave an accurate picture of the Egyptian state, which had a command economy; but Mesopotamia had a lively trade economy even if it didn’t have marketplaces or coinage. (The picture of early traders in my story “The multipliers” is more accurate than I thought!)

None of the civilizations really valued traders, and indeed often took steps (e.g. with sumptuary laws) to signal that they were not aristocrats. On the other hand, in some civilizations, lesser members of the aristocracy could supplement their income with trade.

The position of women in all the civilizations was lower than the men, and tended to deteriorate over time. E.g. in earlier Egypt and Shang China we see female bureaucrats (often relatives of the king), later replaced by men. Traders among the Yoruba, and innkeepers in Mesopotamia, were often women.

The idea of a straightforward practical manual on anything seems to have eluded the literate societies– what they wanted to write down was magic and rites. Even practical concerns, like metallurgy in Benin and navigation in China, were conducted with rituals and superstitions.

The Tea Party view of the world– a 1% who cannot be coddled enough, the poor who need to be treated ever more badly– is as old as dirt. The social contract was always a rotten bargain. E.g. in China, there was ‘punishment’ (xing) for the lower classes, ‘etiquette’ (li) for the gentry. It was viewed as just and natural for the elite to live off the labor of the masses– and make sure the masses had no real avenues of improvement. When ordinary coercion wasn’t enough, it was always possible to invent even more pretexts for oppressing the poor, e.g. with accusations of witchcraft. Things like the admirable road system of the Inkas were not built as social services– they were for military movements and for provisioning the elite. About the one service the poor could count on was security: times of anarchy and disunion were even worse.

At the same time, management was a very difficult problem for early states. No ruler could keep an eye on everything, and the elite was both a necessity and a threat. The elite had to be kept relatively happy, and it was the only source of people one could delegate authority to, but it also took all the independence it could get. In practice, totalitarian micromanagement was impossible– even conquered groups of people were generally left to rule themselves so long as they paid their taxes.

The book is organized by topic, so you can compare (e.g.) class organization or cosmology across all seven societies. It’s very thorough, but he doesn’t have a gift for making it vivid (as e.g. Marvin Harris or John Fairbank do).

The choice of civs is just a little odd– the Aztecs and Inka were hardly early; there were the culmination of a thousand years of development. He has some excuses for not including anything from India– I think he says we know too little about early civilization there– but if you’re going to include something as late as the Inka Empire, you could certainly include Asoka’s empire.


Charlie Stross recommended this article on myths of female sexuality (by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, reporting on a study by Terri Conley).  It’s quite interesting, and I’d really like to believe its conclusions, but as mythbusting it’s a bust.  Let’s go over the list.

1. “Women value men with powerful status, and men value women who are both youthful and attractive.”  Against this, Conley cites one speed dating scenario. One experiment.  Probably less than 30 participants; certainly less than a hundred.  Contrary evidence: pretty much all of human behavior.  Or if you want something more quantified, check out these awesome stats from OKCupid, based on a sample of 200,000 people.

2. “Women want and actually have fewer sexual partners. Conley and team reviewing relevant studies found that yes, some men do want a large number of sexual partners.”  That is, the first part of the ‘myth’ (about wanting) wasn’t busted, but confirmed.  The twist is that at least one study found that men exaggerate how many conquests they’ve had.  Surely this shouldn’t be a big surprise.  Mathematically, if men report n het encounters, women should report n as well.  But even this finding reinforces that men and women don’t think the same.

3. “Men think about sex more often than women do.” The busting consists of confirming the finding, but adding that men think about food and sleep more, too.

4. Women orgasm less.  The busting: “When in committed relationships, women and men experience orgasm with equal frequency.”  In other words, the ‘myth’ is true!  If you have a generalization that applies to a whole group, it’s not disproved by showing that the generalization doesn’t hold for a fraction of the group.

5. “Women don’t like casual sex as much as men do.”  The classic demonstration was a rather silly experiment where college students were approached with offers of sex— 70% of men were interested, 0% of women.  I call this silly because it’s a completely unnatural setup— this isn’t how people find partners!  Conley did a variation which found that the women were much more interested “if they believe that they can avoid being stigmatized”.  Again, that’s a pretty important nuance!

6. “Women are choosier than men.”  Conley apparently found that whichever sex initiates contact, the other will be choosier— that is, if men approach women, the women seem pickier; if women approach men, the men seem pickier.  This one is hard to evaluate without knowing the exact methodology; it seems like a no-brainer that any offer has a chance of being rejected, so I don’t see how this is a test of choosiness at all.

Whitbourne frames the story in the context of people showing surprise that women are interested in sex and male bodies.  Surely that hasn’t been hot news since about 1925?  (She mentions that e.g. Hollywood loves to show female but not male bodies, but I don’t think this is due to filmmakers calculating that women aren’t interested; it’s more that they think men will be turned off.)

The takeaway here, I think, is to be careful about evidence— especially for findings that confirm what you already believe.  When you read “Studies show…”, be at least as wary as when you read “with this weird old tip”.  Look at how the study was done, how many people it involved, and whether the methodology really tests the hypothesis.

(Also, yeah, I know, it’s Psychology Today.  That’s why I mention that Stross plugged the link— he’s a smart guy, so it seemed worth checking out.)