Parade o’ books

Any of these books deserves a full review, with neat facts plucked from the pages to entice you– but at this point, that would require a lot of re-reading. So a quick survey will have to do.

Emily Willingham, Phallacy: Life Lessons from the Animal Penis (2020). Yep, a book about the penis in all its forms in the animal kingdom. Willingham has a serious point here: researchers and outsiders often import archaic attitudes into biology, getting the penis wrong and forgetting the vagina. But it’s also both educational and entertaining to simply look at the weird stuff animals get up to. A good place to start is trying to figure out what is a penis and what isn’t… there are some wacky edge cases, such as at least one invertebrate which inserts its eggs into the male with a copulatory organ. Or there’s the spiders which lose their penises when they copulate. It’s not that bad: they have two.

This is one of a number of books by women that offer a lighthearted critique of misguided male scientists, who are often eager to push an idea of aggressive promiscuous males and picky, passive females. Oh, there is so much more variation than that. Others in this genre include Olivia Judson’s Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation, Meredith Small’s What’s Love Got to Do with It?, and Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography. Nature is weird, and does not inherently support alt-right prejudices.

Benjamin Brose, Xuanzang: China’s Legendary Pilgrim and Translator (2021). If you read my China Construction Kit, you’ll remember Xuanzang, the Chinese Buddhist monk who took and arduous trip to India in the 600s to understand Buddhism better, coming back 16 years later with hundreds of precious manuscripts. This story is the key to the classic Chinese novel, Journey to the West. But the real story behind it is just as interesting, though perhaps it’s disappointing to learn that only the first couple weeks of the journey were perilous, as he set off alone. As soon as he reached the first stop, he met the local king, who received him graciously and sent him on to the next local ruler, and so on for years. Brose explains what Xuanzang wanted to know and how he affected Buddhism, and includes several narrative passages from the man himself.

Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan from Tokugawa times to the present (2003). I read this because I thought I could borrow some modern Japanese history for Almea, and I did. The book covers nearly 500 years, which allows quite a lot of detail but not exactly depth– e.g. WWII is covered in just one chapter. The chapters on the Meiji period are the most interesting. I was most interested to understand how Japan could modernize when China didn’t (until Deng).

The Meiji ‘restoration’ was more or less a top-down revolution: two of the most advanced daimyo (nobles) took over militarily. Or more broadly, the revolution empowered two classes that were near but, crucially, not at the top: the samurai, and the nouveau-riche rural elite, who had worked their way up from peasants to craftsmen to notables in the last century or so. (A peculiarity of Japan was that the prosperous bourgeois class in the 1800s was not in the big cities but in small rural towns.) And in Japan, that was enough to get things going; whereas in China merely getting rid of the Manchu did not give power to any more modern or modernizing class.

Another fascinating tidbit: Japan’s 1889 constitution, which lasted till the end of WWII, produced a lot more democracy than its writers expected or wanted. The winners of the revolution really only wanted to stay on as the new rulers. They made sure that the new Diet did not control the army, or even really the ministries. They also limited suffrage, in hopes that the members would be well-off and conservative. They only allowed the Diet at all because people were already writing constitutions and hoping for democracy, and they thought they’d better get their own version out fast. But the very existence of the Diet, and national propaganda for building the nation, encouraged national debate, expectations that the Diet would matter, and expectations that the Japanese people should all benefit from modernization. The constitution allowed the elite to govern without the Diet, but in practice (and until the 1930s) power was essentially shared between the army, the bureaucrats, and the parties.

Paul Lockhart, Firepower: How weapons shaped warfare (2021). If your conworld gets at all beyond the medieval period, you should read this or something like it. It’s about guns, including their big brothers artillery and cannons. I’m still in the middle of it, but one of the main takeaways is that like most technology, it’s a matter of small but constant improvements– and ongoing challenges. E.g. I knew that rifling was important: if you cut a spiral groove in the barrel of a gun and make bullets engage it, they get a spin that makes them far more accurate and deadly. This was known from the 15th century, so why didn’t it take over till the 1800s? Well, because firing a gun (especially with black powder) produces residues that clog the interior. You can’t fire too many shots before the balls don’t fit– unlike a musket which has more leeway. Good rifles had to wait till the ball was replaced with the bullet, and rifles had mechanisms to deform the bullet to force it into the rifling. Another example: breech loading is far more efficient than ramming shot in through the barrel. This too was known early on, but didn’t entirely take over till the late 1800s. Here too there were just many little technical problems to overcome: early breech loaders had a tendency to blow up, or leak hot gases.

Another takeaway: any old empire could afford muskets and cannons. But as the technology developed, only great powers could afford the newest guns– and they had to acquire them (and in enormous quantities) at any cost, because falling behind in the arms race was devastating. When explosive shells were developed that set wooden ships on fire– well, everyone had to shift to ironclads if they could. It’s no coincidence that nearly-free nobles were subjugated to kings, and smaller states became the prey of great powers. Even in the 1800s, the hot new tech might only last for a couple of decades.

The Dawn of Everything

I just finished The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow. Sadly this was Graeber’s last book. There is a lot to this book, I wish I’d read it before finishing the MECK, and anyone interesting in history or conworlding should run out and get it. But there are caveats, oh yes. They can be too breezy, they don’t always prove their points, and sometimes prove the wrong points.

What says “hierarchy” more than the temple of a divinized king? (Šu-Sin, of Sumer, circa 2000 BCE.)

I liked Debt: The First 5000 Years when it stuck to Graeber’s specialty, anthropology: his account of modern times was, as the kids say, cringe. This book barely discusses anything past 1800, which is a huge improvement. His co-author is an archeologist, and this helps too.

They started out to write a history of inequality, and (spoiler alert) found out that there could be no such thing. Too many assumptions, you see. The whole idea depends on what “inequality” is, and there is no real definition; and neither anthropology nor archeology unearths a period when there was equality and then a sudden, inexorable eruption of inequality after it.

Rousseau vs Hobbes

They trace our received notions back to two opposing theorists, Rousseau and Hobbes. Jean-Jacques Rousseau didn’t really talk about the “noble savage”, but that’s a fair summary of his ideas. His 1754 Discourse on the Origins and the Foundations of Inequality Among Mankind supposed that prehistoric humans lived in idyllic conditions, which were egalitarian but only because there was no way not to be. Then agriculture and the state came in, and everything went to hell: we got not only inequality, but patriarchy, war, debt, property, and slavery.

In the other corner, we have Thomas Hobbes, whose 1651 Leviathan famously asserted that prehistoric life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” A state of continual war and poverty, in other words, only ended when people started living in cities (civitas > civilization; polis > politics and politeness).

The first thing to notice is that political theorists have barged in and chosen sides. Conservatives tend to like Hobbes: they like the past, but not the far far past… they tend to be happiest with the 19th century UK or USA, and think that Western civilization was a matter of progress and prosperity, until the hippies appeared. Plus, you know, they like inequality, so they blame Rousseau for even questioning the idea, and probably causing the American and French revolutions.

Now, if you keep up with these topics at all– or if you’ve simply read my books– you know that Hobbes was simply wrong. Anthropologists have found that hunter-gatherers are pretty happy in general: they are usually egalitarian, they work only about 10 hours a week, they have an impressive command of their local environment. And archeology confirms that when people take up agriculture, they live shorter lives, are unhealthier, pick up diseases and parasites, and of course suffer from patriarchy and all those other ills. When comparing time periods, people often bring up modern medicine; but modern medicine got going surprisingly late: well into the 20th century. Any time prior to 1900, you were better off as a hunter-gatherer than as a peasant.

This is so well established that the Davids don’t spend much time on Hobbes. (They don’t engage with conservatism at all, really.) Rousseau is another matter.

We can now get to the thesis of the book:

  • Things were way more complicated– and more interesting– than Rousseau thought. (To be fair, Rousseau was consciously idealizing.)
  • Historical utopianism is just as alienating and dismissive as dystopianism. If hunter-gatherers were happy because of their lifestyle, they have nothing to teach us, because we sure as hell aren’t going to adopt it.
  • Viewing prehistory as an idyll also means that nothing really happened in it. It’s like the doctrine of the Fall: it’s an explanatory myth, but also a distancing one: as we can’t recapture paradise, we can dismiss it.

Do they make a case for this? Well, they do later. First they focus on something rather more interesting.

The indigenous critique

Their Chapter 2 is the most brilliant part of the book. It addresses what they call the indigenous critique of European culture. This means, what native Americans thought of European settlers in the 1600s and 1700s, of how they lived and related to each other, and (once they visited) of how they lived in Europe. They weren’t impressed.

Here’s a French report from 1611, about the Mikmaq: “They consider themselves better than the French: “For [they say] you are always fighting and quarreling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; you are thieves and deceivers; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbor.”

Another friar, from 1632, about the Wendat (Hurons): “For our excessive and insatiable greed in acquiring the goods of this life, we are justly and with reason reproved by their quiet life and tranquil disposition. …They reciprocate hospitality and give such assistance to one another that the necessities of all are provided for without there being an indigent beggar in all their towns and villages.”

The indigenous critique focused on several elements:

  • The greed and combattiveness of the settlers.
  • The fact that they did not take care of each other.
  • The fact that they constantly gave orders and expected them to be followed.
  • (Once they could see Europe for themselves:) The way they let kings lord it over them.

In the native societies of eastern North America, there were chiefs, but no one had to obey them. No one could force a native to do what they didn’t want to do. There was not even punishment of crimes. (Payments could be required, but there was no way to force even that.) If someone really didn’t like their situation, they could simply leave– and they could find a place even hundreds of miles away, across tribal and language barriers. This was in part due to the clan system, which extended almost all the way across the continent: you could find someone of your clan far away, and they would take you in.

Under such conditions no one could be a tyrant. But a good chief was a persuasive one, and both men and women were good talkers.

Also of note: it was extremely hard to assimilate natives to European norms, but quite a few Europeans went to live with the natives.

(If your recollection of Native North American history is rusty, by the way, we’re not talking about hunter-gatherers, though both activities were common and important. They grew a wide range of crops, and their towns could be large. Their political groupings could be respectably large: e.g. the Iroquois Confederacy included most of New York State, an area about the size of Ireland.)

Rousseau’s book was an entry in a contest sponored by a French academy, to answer the question “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?” The Davids point out what an odd question this was to ask in 1754. Every country in Europe was steeped in hierarchy, and most people and philosophers took this as the natural condition of mankind, established by God. This was before the revolutions; it was not a commonplace then, as it would be today, that society ought to aim at liberté, égalité, fraternité. Why did an institution in the middle of Catholic France under Louis XV (le Bien-Aimé) ask such a question?

In part, we learn, because Europeans were fascinated by the indigenous critique. Reports by the early friars were eagerly read, and the Baron de Lahontan achieved great success with his Dialogues with a Savage (1703), which consisted of dialogs between himself and a Wendat chief, Kondiaronk. Soon all the scholars were inventing foreigners to teach Europeans to criticize their own societies. The academy in Dijon was if anything late to the party. Two decades later and the French were ready to throw out their king– agreeing with Kondiaronk who alleged that kingship turned the French into slaves.

It’s become common to acknowledge that the US Founders were well aware of the Iroquois Confederacy and imitated some of its features; but the indigenous critique and its reception in Europe were new to me.

How do we know that the Europeans were impressed with the natives? Well, because they said so in contemporary books. History tends to ignore the natives’ role, however, presenting the modern ideas of liberty and equality as a pure European invention. It turns out to be a lot more like modern art, which owes an immense debt to African and Japanese art.

Another data point: around 1700, Leibniz admired and advocated the Chinese system of government. Within a couple of centuries, European countries were governed by people given a liberal education concentrating on ancient classics, gated by competitive entrance exams… that is, roughly like the Chinese system. The Davids don’t claim that this was direct causation, but they point out that it doesn’t seem like complete coincidence either. This system was entirely unlike any previous European system of governance, and ideas obviously bounce around the punditosphere long before they’re adopted. And a lot of the ideas that transformed Europe came from the cultures that it encountered as it expanded.

(One cavil– there will be many more later: the Chinese system turned out not to be helpful with, well, running China after 1905. Tech schools were much more important for a developing nation. They were in the West too.)

What and when is equality?

Now so far, their actual discussion is fairly Rousseauvian. They mention that early European descriptions of Native Americans were nuanced, but their own is not: they hold up Wendat and Iroquois society as an ideal, and use it to define the three basic freedoms of pre-state societies:

  • everyone’s freedom from coercion
  • everyone’s freedom to move
  • communities’ freedom to think about and choose their own structures

Somehow, they say, we’ve lost especially that last one– we’ve “got stuck” in hierarchy.

If they’d stopped there, this would still be a provocative and fascinating study; but they are emphatic about not stopping there; they want to criticize pure Rousseauvianism. This takes them most of the book, and gets far more speculative, and isn’t always convincing.

Frankly, their major point is related to modern politics without addressing it directly: they want to make room for their basic freedoms in dense, advanced societies. Rousseau leaves them cold because he places paradise solely and ineluctably in the past: the freedom of primitive humanity cannot be recovered today. They would, it’s pretty obvious, like a modern but anarchist society, so they reject Rousseau’s closed door.

Now, this point might be better addressed directly: if you think a modern anarchist society is possible, describe how it works and/or how we’d get there; cover all the obvious objections; think about what mores and values would prevent a relapse. (They’re actually quite conscious about how good systems can go bad, so this is not a big ask.) Well, suffice it to say that this program would be an entirely different book, and way out of their fields. It’s why the second half of Debt is nowhere near as good as the first half.

What can they do remaining in the far past, and in their own fields? Mostly, point to examples where the traditional view doesn’t quite work. Thus, they emphasize:

  • Forager societies can be quite complex, and undertake megaprojects. The picture of foragers living in bands of 10 to 25 people, forced by circumstances to be egalitarian, is misleading at best, quite wrong at worst.
  • Forager societies can be dense, creating state-level entities, can accumulate wealth, can be despotic, can even include wars and slavery. (Examples of the latter include the NW Pacific Coast and Florida.)
  • Agricultural societies can function for millennia without any detectable hierarchy.
  • Cities can function for centuries without any detectable hierarchy.
  • Fairly advanced societies can throw out overlords and purposely establish an egalitarian settlement of thousands of people.
  • Kings are not inevitable; alongside kings and empires you can have republics. An unexpected one is Tlaxcala, in the time of the Aztecs.
  • A system where land reverts to the community when the owner dies is not uncommon. Nor do you have to go anywhere exotic to find them: there are examples in medieval England, Germany, and Russia.
  • “Egalitarian” societies may have systems of temporary despotism: seasons or situations where someone can tell you what to do.
  • Literal patriarchy– the despotic rule by men– is not inevitable either. Though there was no “matriarchal period”, there are cultures where women held substantial power, and at least one case (Minoan Crete) which arguably really was a matriarchy.

Again, if they’d stopped there they’d have a lot to say to historians, anthropologists and archeologists, and conworlders. Theories of a uniform progression– or regression– from bands to tribes to chiefdoms to kingdoms, theories that agriculture or cities per se ruin everything, theories that state formation is irreversible, are all dubious.

The main takeaway here is that the range of options is far greater than we might have imagined. If you know about the Kalahari Bushmen or the Yanomamo or the Pirahã, great– but they are not the only models of premodern people. If you’re a conworlder thinking about how agriculture or the state developed– slow down, there are multiple stages involved in each, and you needn’t be in a hurry to throw in power-mad pharaohs and emperors.

Some but not all of this you may have absorbed from James Scott, either directly or from my discussion of him.

The Davids don’t seem to have read Marvin Harris (he’s not in their bibliography), but they are out of sympathy with cultural materialism, because they don’t like the idea that material conditions determine the forms of human society. They think that people in all periods are perfectly capable of sitting down and debating how society should work, and that people who reject hierarchy and the state know exactly what they’re doing.

A lot of this is backed up mostly by their discussion of the Wendat and Iroquois. That’s great as far as it goes, but by their own account, these people were dealing with massive historical changes: not only the European settlers, but a rather coercive (proto-?)state based in Cahokia that had collapsed just a few centuries before. Their prickly individualism, and their interest in rich debate, may be reactions to a particular historical situation.

I’ll have a list of cavils later, but the lessons above are pretty solid, I think.

The villainous state

As the Davids recognize, the problem in all this for their political project is that despite all these nuances, the State seems to have won almost everywhere: not only in Europe but in India, China, Arabia, Africa, Central America, and the Andes.

(Scott’s nuance, which the Davids accept, is that a pretty wide range of people was an exception up till at least 1800: the nomads, some large populations of foragers or horticulturalists, and some resilient populations of state-avoidant people, e.g. in SE Asia. For most of history they could resist states, and the nomads could even conquer states. But this escape route is now closed.)

Rather than a simple takeover by despotism, they divide the state into three types of coercion:

  • sovereignty: a despot’s ability to use violence to enforce his will
  • administration: the ability to govern a large territory with rules
  • personal charisma: the ability to sway or rule people by force of personality and heroic deeds, often in competition with others; in later versions, politics

This is not uninteresting, as examples exist where only one or two of these strands is present. E.g. there are cultures where a chief can do as he likes, but only in his own village: that’s sovereignty alone. Administration alone exists in cultures where megaprojects are created without apparent coercion. Ancient Egypt can be described as sovereignty plus administration. But eventually all three threads engage and, as the Davids say, we’re stuck.

Of course, they would like to believe that we don’t have to be, even in a technological society. We’re just not used to thinking we have alternatives, and we’ll do better when we open Rousseau’s closed door. This is a hopeful but speculative point, and all I’ll say now is that given threats like climate change and oil depletion, to say nothing of fascist resurgence, we’re either going to solve these problems or have them solved for us by civilizational collapse.

Cavils and comments

This section will be quite miscellaneous; it’s drawn from the notes I took from reading– some positive, some negative. Page numbers refer to the hardcover edition.

Paradoxically, they’ve shown that modern ideas of freedom and equality owe much to indigenous peoples; yet when they look at modern society as a whole it’s horrible. Do they really disapprove that much of (say) Denmark or the Netherlands? Maybe so, but it’s worth pointing out that they’re willing to give a huge benefit of the doubt to particular past societies, from the ‘Ubaid to Tlaxcala to the Wendat: their whole point is that partial freedom is not a nightmare. But when they look at modern times, it’s just a constellation of horrors.

(155) The coastal settlement of the Americas is now accepted. People used to insist that the interior could only be reached by a narrow inland corridor… this is extremely strange as walking or boating along the coast is a no-brainer.

(158) The first idea of property may have been tied to the sacred: secret knowledge, particular patterns or objects with ritual meaning, hidden from others. This could occur even when everyday life was quite egalitarian.

(167) A very cursory treatment of language change and language families which could have been cribbed from a pop sci article. It even invokes William Jones, who was emphatically not the first person to recognize a language family.

The Davids’ disdain for other scholars– even as they rifle the journals for supporting data– gets tedious. One of their favorite words is “silly”.

(220) They use art to argue that Çatalhöyük may have been “matriarchal”. As they admit, there’s no evidence from skeletons of differential treatment; but there are female figurines that seem to depict aged females, and none of aged men. On the other hand, wall decorations feature depictions of all-male hunters.

They use this sort of argument in several places, without ever making an argument why art tells us anything about power relationships. If you look at 19th century European art, you would surely conclude that Europeans were fascinated by women, and that European women spent half their time nude. I’d also point out that depictions of older women are not uncommon.

It’s not that we can’t tell anything from art. It may well be significant that ancient Egyptian art, but not Mesopotamian art, emphasizes elite women. A king seemed to require a queen by his side. (The female king Hatshepsut had to depict her daughter next to her.) What exactly this tells us is less clear, and has to be carefully hedged: I do suspect it tells us something about royal ideology, but also that it tells us precisely zilch about peasant women.

(250) Here are the examples of co-operative land management in Europe and elsewhere. These are interesting examples of non-inheritance, but their examples all seem to be of practices beneath the notice of the elite, or in accordance with their overall lordship. I don’t think the Davids mean to say that medieval Europe was a hotbed of communism, free of violent greedy elites. Rather, an oppressive system can make use of cooperative or communal subsystems. There are advantages, after all, if the peasants run their own affairs and don’t have to be micromanaged.

(280) Foragers often travel in family groups… except when they don’t. It’s not uncommon for bands to include members who are only related in the sense that they belong to the overall ethnic group. For that matter it’s quite possible to join a band hundreds of miles away from your family of origin.

(289) The first cities were in… Ukraine? Talianki, Maidanetske, Nebelivka, dating to 3500 or earlier. (I’ve updated the Davids’ spelling.) They say that these “existed even before the earliest known cities in Mesopotamia”, but here they are misinformed: Uruk was settled by 5000, though its more imposing structures weren’t built till 3400 or so. But Talianki is pretty impressive: 335 hectares (Uruk was 450 ha), possibly with 15,000 residents. The sites show no evidence of social stratification (i.e. the villainous State). The Ukrainians grew crops, kept cattle, supplemented their diet with hunting.

(300) I’m not buying this rehabilitation of corvée labor— here, in Sumer. Curiously, in Debt Graeber described the miseries of Mesopotamians; here, for his purposes, urban work was done in a “festive spirit.” He cites an Akkadian myth where the minor gods did forced labor, while seemingly forgetting the part where the minor gods went on strike, whereupon the major gods created humanity to do menial labor instead. In the MECK I quoted multiple ancient sources which acknowledged the brutality of labor, the oppression of kings, and the none-too-happy position of people at the bottom of the social ladder. But for their overall purposes they want to delay the entry of the villain, so they paint the Mesopotamians as far happier than probably were.

A bit later on they describe the temples of Sumer, which managed enormous areas of land, included workshops, and could employ over a thousand people. This is supposed to indicate that all this organization didn’t require the state or kings. But it only requires a small reorientation of perspective to view these institutions as totalitarian. (Do they think getting out of temple work was easier than changing jobs in the modern US?) The temples were economic enterprises rather than “churches”, yes. The same can be said of medieval European monasteries. But they’re not anarchist communes either, and if they weren’t “the state” they were precursors to it.

(Why do temples have workshops at all? Probably for the same reason that the first Middle Eastern kings had workshops: because they had to create what they wanted. Markets came later; when they did, gods and kings could just go shopping.)

They also make much of the Sumerian and Akkadian assemblies. Now, it is good to bear these in mind, and not portray the Mesopotamian kings as unfettered absolute monarchs. But we also don’t know too much about how they operated, and we do know that they did not prevent wars, slavery, or the fall of families into crippling debt that Graeber eloquently deplored in Debt. In short they were not like Iroquois councils, where everyone debated and no one gave real orders.

(317) They discuss the Hindu varnas in the context of Harappan civilization. Now this is more than a stretch; it’s one or two thousand years too soon. Their description of “wealth, power or prosperity [being] of lesser value… than the purity of the priestly class” is a mindless repetition of brahmin propaganda (as in Manu). Manu and other writers– 2000 years after Harappa– wrote about the superiority of brahmins because they were ruled by non-brahmins and didn’t like it. And really, anyone who thinks that the exaltation of brahmins was a reflection of “spirituality” or something knows nothing about Indian history.

(324) They talk about cities on China— the Longshan culture, dated 3000 to 1900 BCE– before the first historically certain dynasty, the Shang, from -1600. By the Davids’ own account, there was plenty of evidence for social stratification and warfare. I didn’t talk about these cultures much in my China book, and now I wish I had. The problem is that there isn’t much that can be said. We often start with the literate cultures not because the previous ones are uninteresting, but because we can know and learn so much more from people who can talk to us. E.g. the Davids mention Shimao, from -2000, which at 400 ha was also comparable to Uruk, and possibly practiced human sacrifice. But… they devote a paragraph to it, and the Wikipedia article isn’t much longer. About all we learn from the site is that there’s a tranche of Chinese prehistory that was probably pretty lively, but which we just don’t know about in detail.

(342) Teotihuacan, which flourished from about 50 to 550, is notable because it may preserve signs of an egalitarian revolution. There is evidence for stratification until about 300, when a major temple was desecrated, and after that the city was filled with hundreds of comfortable stone dwellings of about the same size. It’s hard not to see this as a quite purposive egalitarianism. The overall population might have been 100,000.

Reading this section, I wondered what archeologists would make of Nālandā if they had no literary evidence. It was a Buddhist monastery in northern India, which housed between 3000 and 10,000 monks at its height in the first millennium. It was the major destination for the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, who reported (and archeology confirms) that it consisted of multiple large buildings with small individual monks’ cubicles opening into a central courtyard.

If you just look at the physical remains, life at Nālandā was thoroughly egalitarian, especially compared to other settlements in India. But Xuanzang reports that it was extraordinarily hierarchical: not only were the monks strictly ranked, but the more accomplished ones had servants. Moreover, the entire establishment was supported by royal grants– that is, it was fed by taxing the local peasants. Nor was Indian society of the time in any way egalitarian.

My point is not to dismiss the Davids’ speculations about egalitarianism based on equal-sized living quarters, but to recall that other interpretations are possible, and may be lost to time.

(346) Next they discuss Tlaxcala, which was a republic in Aztec times. Spanish sources compare it to Genoa and Venice, and recount the lively debates in its council on whether they should ally with the Spanish against the Aztecs. (Spoiler alert: they did, and helped the Spanish conquer Tenochtitlan.)

This is cool to know, and it’s good to recall that the historical landscape is not just kingdoms. But what the Davids don’t discuss, because it doesn’t fit into their agenda of chiding scholars, is that republics are pretty common… and can be very far from being democratic. Besides Athens, there’s Novgorod, the medieval Italian city-states, the Swiss, some ancient Indian ones, and the Iroquois. Oh, and several hundred modern states.

Now a republic has one big moral advantage over a kingdom: it has no king. But it may not be much better: it may be a republic because it’s an oligarchy, and no one notable has enough power to dominate the city. The fact that the Spanish chronicles compare Tlaxcala to Genoa and Venice may not prove what the Davids want it to prove: these were notorious oligarchies.

(392) As an example of sovereignty without the other aspects of the state, they discuss the Natchez, who had an absolute monarch residing in what was called the Great Village. He had the power of life and death and was known for killing his people… but only within his village. He could give orders to neighboring villages, but they would often be ignored.

They suggest that the Great Village was fully populated only part of the year– which probably meant that it was some sort of ritual center. Anthropologists are probably too free with the words “ritual” and “religion”, but it is true that some very unusual behaviors can occur when some things or people become sacred. In this context (the origin of hierarchy) the important point is that one of those unusual behaviors may be hierarchical authority itself. In the book the Davids describe a society where there are sacred enforcers who have power for only three months out of the year. This turns out to be not uncommon, and suggests a progression: an “egalitarian” people might agree to give absolute power to someone temporarily for “ritual” reasons (that is, for reasons we don’t really understand, but which are probably very compelling to them). That isn’t kingship… but it may create the idea for it, to be revived and generalized under other conditions.

(409) I’m pleased that they believe, as I do, that Memphis was a ceremonial center rather than a “real city”.

(412) The Shang reliance on oracles stands in “striking contrast” to the other societies discussed? Um, hello, what about the hundreds of Akkadian omen texts? What about the oracles that dotted Greece and Anatolia, constantly consulted by the kings?

(413) “Mesopotamia, where regional hegemony rarely lasted for longer than a generation or two”. This is supposed to be a contrast with Egypt, where kingdoms could last centuries. But, there’s the Kassites who ruled for nearly 500 years, and Assyria, which dominated the region for a millennium.

(416) They give Egypt as an example of a state or proto-state which had mastered sovereignty and administration, but not politics– the competition for power based on personal charisma. Well, technically they’re just talking the Old Kingdom. But what we know of the Middle Kingdom looks like it has plenty of politics: powerful factions among royal women; Hatshepsut’s unusual reign, Akhenaten’s revolution; multiple coups after Tutankhamen. Was the Old Kingdom really different, or is it just that we have better records of the Middle Kingdom?

(434) Here’s the description of matriarchal Crete. The evidence is mostly from art, and I complained about that above. But they make rather a better case here. The authority figures in pictures are female. They’re depicted as larger than men, and men are shown bringing them tribute or bowing down. They’re shown conducting rituals or sitting on thrones or meeting together. There are depictions of men, too, often graceful naked athletes. It’s like a parodic inversion of every other Middle Eastern society.

None of this is a proof, but in this case the Davids’ point is good: if there is little evidence of other matriarchies, there is also little evidence of any male-run state whose art depicted only females as rulers and males only as subservient.

(499) They make a snarky comment that the inventor of bread would probably not be called “white” today. This is pretty silly. Bread seems to go back to ancient Canaan, and outside racist circles, Middle Easterners are generally considered white. (E.g. that’s what the US Census Bureau thinks. Maybe this was Wengrow’s contribution: the UK census seems to disagree. But the point is: who the fuck cares? No one who reads this book is likely to be a white supremacist.)

(506) “Even in Homeric-style warfare”, war was a matter of a few heroic champions grappling in front of a crowd, with only a handful of deaths. Um, dudes. Troy was destroyed. If you read Romance of the Three Kingdoms, you’d think 3C Chinese warfare was a matter of heroic grappling too. It wasn’t; it was like any state warfare, a matter of tens or hundreds of thousands of troops. Epics talk about heroes grappling because it’s great narrative.

And if they’re thinking of horticulturalist warfare– well, they should look up the Maring, discussed in detail by Harris. Yeah, in general casualties were low. But a war could easily turn into a rout with a much higher casualty rate.

tl;dr

If you’ve read this far, you’re ready to take on the Davids– their book is 526 pages of text, plus nearly a hundred pages of notes.

If this is your sort of thing, you’ll probably get a lot out of it– and disagree with a lot of it, not necessarily the parts I disagreed with.

Anthropology is perhaps the most fun part of the social sciences. It not only tells interesting stories, it tells what (to most of us) are new kinds of stories. Actual human history and ethnography is far weirder than you might imagine from school textbooks and fantasy novels. And putting just some of that weirdness into your own works will deepen them considerably.

Putin’s Ukraine problem

So, Ukraine. Kind of a big deal, huh?

I have no special expertise here, so I’m heavily relying on those who do:

Destroyed Russian tanks in Ukraine. (Reuters)

Another caution: the fog of war is heavy. We know the basics, but we don’t have solid numbers and precise maps. Putin of course does not want honest reporting, and in the kind of war Ukraine is fighting, it’s hardly going to say exactly where its forces are. All those omnisicient military retellings (“General Daring had two options available…”) will be written far in the future.

What did Putin want?

It seems pretty clear that Putin expected a walkover. He thought the Ukrainians would be overwhelmed or wouldn’t fight; he sent in riot police to secure Kyiv; three squads were sent to murder Zelenskyy. The model was probably the 2014 invasion of Crimea. It would be so fast that, confronted with a fait accompli and a quickly installed puppet regime, the West wouldn’t bother to apply major sanctions. All this failed.

There was a good deal of Russian bullshit in the air in February. Tucker Carlson is the most famous Putin apologist, but many others gravely opined that NATO expansion had somehow been too much for Putin. Sadly, the DSA has also decided to repeat this fascist excuse and blame the war on US “imperialism”.

This is easy enough to refute. You don’t mount a 200,000-man invasion in order to keep the status quo happening. Ukraine was not and is not a member of NATO. It’s been talked about as far back as 2008, and nothing has happened. If that was what Putin wanted, he’d have got it by simply doing nothing. The invasion was not precipitated by any Ukrainian or Western moves. The NATO stuff was a smokescreen, dropped to confuse some useful idiots.

In November of last year NATO commander Jens Stoltenberg was quite clear about why Ukraine wasn’t accepted: “30 allies have to agree, and we don’t have consensus agreement in NATO now on inviting Ukraine into becoming a full member.” That means someone is vetoing the idea for some reason. So membership isn’t just slowed down, it’s halted. Putin’s supposed fear was not about anything real.

You also don’t demonstrate that there’s nothing to fear from Russia by invading your neighbor, sending murder squads after its president, and levelling its cities. That in fact demonstrates that Russia is a very real threat and small countries are very vulnerable. Thanks to Putin, countries like Sweden and Finland, which sat out the entire Cold War, are considering joining NATO. Putin accomplished in one week what US presidents for the last 20 years were unable to do: get Germany to spend more than 2% of its GNP on defense, and export weapons.

Why did Putin want Ukraine? He thought it was low-lying fruit, and he’d be a hero in Russia for reversing a little bit of the Soviet collapse. And he’d already got away with slicing off Crimea, with minimal blowback. In two decades he’s issued a long string of provocations which were never successfully resisted; he thought he could pull off one more. A war is also his go-to move when he’s losing popularity.

A few pundits have mentioned that since Putin closed down Russian access to Twitter, trolls in their mentions have plummeted. This is just one bit of a culture war Putin has been waging for a decade: support extremists and sow confusion in the West, at little cost to himself. Russian money has been deeply involved in Tory Britain, and of course Russian TV openly gloated in 2017 that Trump was theirs. Trump didn’t care about Russia invading and stealing Crimea, and actually held up military aid to Zelenskyy in hopes of getting some dirt on Hunter Biden.

Fox is still showcasing the pro-Putin Carlson, but it looks like Putin has lost a lot of his right-wing support. In a Pew poll, 85% of Americans favor maintaining strong sanctions against Russia; 74% think the US is providing enough or not enough aid to Ukraine, as opposed to just 7% who think it’s too much.

A bit more on the Democratic Socialists, because they disappointed me so much. They’ve fallen into one of the oldest traps, the one most ideologues and conspiracy theorists fall into: the single-villain ideology. For them the only agent in the world is the US government; everything it does is bad, and no one else has any moral agency at all. Confronted with a murderous despot actively trying to reinstate the Russian empire, their brains just cannot compute. “Imperialism… that… isn’t… American? Inconceivable!” Instead they actually take the position that a defensive alliance against fascist Russia is bad, and that Ukrainian resistance should not be encouraged (i.e. by giving them arms so the Russian conquest fails). It’s not surprising at this point that fascist elements in the GOP support Putin, but it’s absolutely vile when so-called leftists are parroting fascist talking points.

Why did it go wrong?

  • Military failures, as described in the links above. Almost unbelievable logistic incompetence, leading to thousands of Russian troops dead. In three weeks Russia suffered 1/3 or 1/2 of the combat deaths it suffered in ten years in Afghanistan.
  • It turned out Ukraine doesn’t consider itself Russian and is willing to fight to prove it. In addition to uniting Europe against Russian aggression, Putin managed to de-Russify eastern Ukraine. Handing over the separatist bits of Donbass to criminal gangs, and bombing the rest to rubble, turns out not to make people want to join Russia.
  • It turned out Zelenskyy is brave as fuck and is a master of inspiring Ukrainians and the world.
  • Ukraine won the info war. Maybe easy to do when you just have to underline that a fascist dictator is invading you for no reason, but once the invasion started no one outside the horseshoe far right and far left believed in Putin’s pre-war bullshit. Ukraine has been exposing Russian criminality and showcasing Ukrainian resilience, while Putin has basically given up on making any case for himself to the outside world.
  • The West was unified, and applied devastating sanctions immediately.

All of this is important, but perhaps the biggest factor: Putin was living in a dream world. Comparisons with The Death of Stalin are in order… Putin has a created a massive machine for enriching himself and ruling Russia, but to do it he’s surrounded himself with terrified yes-men. So when he decided that Ukraine loved him as much as Russians have to pretend they love him, no one could tell him he was wrong, no one could tell him the army wasn’t up to it, no one could tell him he was going to tank the economy, no one could tell him that he’ll be lucky to last out the year.

Recent pictures of him are almost comic: why is no one allowed to be within 20 feet of him? What sort of fear does he have of these people, the very ones he handpicked to work for him?

As the military guys point out, occupying a country is hard work, destructive not only to the invaded but to the invaders. And to prepare his troops to do this, Putin… lied to them. They were told they were just on a training mission. Apparently Russian military structure is intensely top-down: lower-level units have no autonomy, which is part of why the invasion has stalled. Low-level troops are stuck, out of gas, eating expired food or raiding grocery stores, attacked by the locals they were told would welcome them. How the fuck does Putin think treating his own army that way will work out for him?

Why we’re not fighting Russia

To a lot of people– including Zelenskyy– the next step seems obvious: get involved directly. But Biden refuses to send US troops; according to Pew, 62% of Americans agree with him.

And they’re right. If it was a matter of conventional weapons– yeah, if Russia is having trouble with Ukraine they’d sure as hell have trouble with NATO. But Russia has nuclear weapons, and having Russians and Americans directly fighting would greatly increase the chance of nuclear war. And let’s not get stupid: we all lose a nuclear war.

For 40 years, the Cold War ran on the somewhat cynical principle that direct conflict was out, but indirect was OK. The Russians helped the Vietnamese; we helped the Afghans. Both sides let themselves get embroiled in things they should have stayed out of– but they also avoided direct conflicts that could easily have escalated.

Perhaps it’s not obvious: a no-fly zone is sending US (or NATO) troops to Ukraine, albeit sending them in planes. A no-fly zone means shooting down enemy planes, and facing enemy attempts to shoot back. We are not at war with Russia, but if we tried that we soon would be. Besides, Russia’s bombs are not mainly from planes, but from missiles fired from Russia.

What happens next?

Who knows, except that it’ll be enormous suffering for the Ukrainians. In frustration, the Russians are using the same tactic they used in Chechnya and Syria: attack civilians with indiscriminate bombing. Any pretense of “these people are really Russians” has been abandoned; they’re just destroying as much as they can.

At the same time, the West is sending more anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. I’m not a military dude, so I don’t know if that will work or not. At least it should devastate those Russian convoys, and hopefully shoot down more and more planes and missiles.

There’s been some talk of Russia’s “peace” conditions. One of them is handing over the Donbass; this is probably a non-starter. For one thing, to Westerners it probably implies recognizing the little slivers of rebel territory; to Putin it almost certainly means the entire Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, 8% of Ukraine’s territory. Only 1/3 of this territory is held by the rebels now, and Kamil Galeev does a great job here explaining how Putin destroyed the economy of the very area he occupied and handed it over to gangsters, and how this so disgusted the rest of Donbass, as well as all of Russophone Ukraine, that they want nothing to do with him.

Ukraine faces some tricky decisions here. It’s easy for outsiders to say it should keep resisting, and to point out that Putin has zero credibility in anything he proposes or agrees to. On the other hand, it’s questionable whether Russia can keep up the fight. It’s very possible that a very large fraction of that 190,000-man army will be cut to pieces, and it’s not like Putin saved his best troops for later.

At this point it’s hard to think of an exit Putin can take. He could just admit it didn’t work and back out, but dictators don’t think that way, even when their life is on the line. Saddam Hussein simply could not admit that he had no nukes– even though continuing that particular Big Lie ended up with him surrendering in a ditch. Besides, there is just no button labeled “Go back to December 2021.” Europe and Ukraine now know, and will take into account, that Putin is an invasion-happy fascist.

Ukraine itself is suggesting “neutrality” in an interesting new sense: no NATO membership, but “in case of war signatories provide weapons and air defense immediately without bureaucratic procedures or conditions”. That’s an almost cheeky way of saying “We’ll do this all again if we have to.” But Putin could play it up as “no NATO membership” I guess? He’d be wise to take the deal; too bad he’s not wise.

The Russian Revolution

I just finished China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution. It’s about Russia.

If you don’t know, Miéville is chiefly known as an sf novelist. Here’s my reviews of his Perdido Street Station and Kraken.

I knew very little going in: that there were two revolutions; some guy named Kerensky was in power in between; the Bolsheviks took over in October. (October by the Orthodox calendar then in use in Russia; November to outsiders.) And from Solzhenitsyn I remembered the stew of factions: the Kadets (constitutional democrats), SRs (Socialist Revolutionary Party, divided into Left and Right), Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, anarchists, and more.

It is of course a much wider and weirder story, and Miéville tells it with gusto. It’s tempting to recount the story here, but I’d probably have to read the book again. Still, some points that surprised me:

  • Lenin was not the major player until very late: he spent much of the year in exile, external or internal, and very often was at odds with the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks.
  • Similarly, Stalin barely appears.
  • The Feb-to-Oct period was characterized by Двоевластие “dual power”, meaning that power was shared by the Duma (the Provisional Revolutionary Government) and the Soviet (Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies), an amalgation of workers and peasants based in Petrograd, the capital. They both arose during the February Revolution and even used the same building, the Tauride Palace.
  • Kerensky didn’t become prime minister till July. He wasn’t a bourgeois but a socialist, a member of the SRs. He was one of the few people who had a leading role in both the Duma and the Soviet.
  • From Solzhenitsyn I learned about the Bolsheviks’ slow, totalitarian destruction of every other party, ending with a cannibalistic attack on its own. This had barely started in 1917; but what was new to me was that almost everyone (i.e. the other parties) wanted to do away with one or another political party at one time or another.
  • The final crisis was precipitated by an attempted counterrevolutionary coup, led by general Kornilov, who was in negotiations with Kerensky. They wanted what counterrevolutionaries always want: a vindictive military dictatorship. Partly due to a comedy of errors that the book gleefully recounts, Kerensky turned against it at the last minute, but he was hopelessly discredited, and the Soviet increasingly chose to rely only on itself.
  • Everyone was enthusiastically democratic during this year– soldiers wanted to elect officers, workers were electing soviets to run factories, peasants burned the landlords’ mansions and organized rural soviets. It was a strangely bureaucratic revolution, proceeding through endless meetings, special committees, votes, debates, rants published in the innumerable newspapers.
  • By world standards, both revolutions were amazingly bloodless. Large elements of the army had gone over to the Soviets, which for the most part was enough to make the regime defenders (the tsar in February, the PRG in October) surrender. More than once a wavering counterrevolutionary force was overcome by sending people to debate the soldiers. The fabled taking of the PRG’s Winter Palace in October was almost anticlimactic, so much so that the Bolsheviks had to rewrite it for their mythology as a bloody struggle. (The real blood came later on, when the counterrevolutionaries (the Whites) started a civil war.)
  • The tsar was a perfect illustration of Orwell’s analysis of conservatism as deeply imbued with stupidity. Nikolai seemed completely unable to understand anything that was going on, including the danger to his own rule. About his only response to events in Petrograd was to impatiently order the generals to suppress the unrest. The idea of even making conciliatory gestures seemed not even to register in his brain.

It’s pretty clear from the book– though this may not be Miéville’s intention– that the determining factor in 1917 was World War I. Russia was losing, it was tired of the war; the army was plagued by desertions; food was getting scarce in the cities. There was a sort of pre-revolution in 1905, when the Duma was created, but the tsarist system was able to largely ignore reformism until the war. The officers were almost all loyalists, but their military doctrine included harsh treatment of the soldiers: one of the first demands the rebelling soldiers made was for basic courtesy. The officers’ attitude (plus, you know, the threat of useless death) was a big part of why the army sided with the revolutionaries.

The war also put the PRG in a bind. It was effectively impossible to keep the war going. Kerensky convinced himself otherwise, and organized a small offensive that succeeded for only a few days, then failed. The army was barely up for defense, much less offense; nothing was done to address food shortages. Shackling itself to a deeply unpopular cause, the PRG was doomed. The only party that consistently took an anti-war position was the Bolsheviks, which contributed to their rising popularity.

Finally, when Lenin took power, his decision to make peace with the Germans– at the cost of losing the Baltics, Finland, Belarus, and Ukraine (March 1918)– committed Russia to going it alone, and set the stage for nearly a century of polarized world politics. This was not Lenin’s intent– he thought Germany, at least, would turn communist. And it’s hard to imagine what else he could do. The irony remains, though, that he signed a disastrous peace treaty with the power that lost the war just six months later.

What Miéville probably wants the reader to focus on is the possibility of a workers’ revolt, as seen in one place where it really did happen. His sympathies are clearly with the Bolsheviks, though he is quite willing to criticize their frequent missteps and internal contradictions. But the real hero of the book is, fittingly, the mass of soldiers, workers, and peasants who rose up, demanded a voice, defeated the tsarists and counterrevolutionaries, embraced debate and democracy, and did their best to start work on a better state of their world. The politicians on either side of the Dual Power often had to scramble to keep up with the masses.

Miéville describes the odd theoretical predicament the socialists of all stripes found themselves in: Marx had told them that you couldn’t go straight from feudalism to socialism. First the bourgeois had to revolt and take power, and then you could take power from them. This makes some sense of the French and American revolutions, and it was what people were trying and failing to do in 1848; it was a poor match for Russia in 1917, even in its advanced and untypical heart, Petrograd.

The Kadets are usually described as “liberals”, though this is unhelpful if you take either the American or the French meaning. They were actually on the left in the Duma before the war, and were frustrated by the intransigence of the tsarist government. After the February revolution, they were the only major non-socialist party– thus the natural target of everyone else. If you want ruination for a centrist party, give them power during a war or a depression.

In any case, as representatives of the “bourgeois”, the Kadets and Right SRs were expected to take power and fail, and that’s more or less what they did. There were calls from the masses for the Soviet to take power directly, but it refused to do so, partly from this theoretical deference to the bourgeois, partly (possibly more likely) from the realization that actually governing would mean being blamed for the deteriorating condition of the country.

Any student of political power, in fact, would expect the idea of “Dual Power” would soon collapse, though the particular way it collapsed was arbitrary. From this book, it’s hard to see that either the PRG or the Soviet was engaged in what we’d call government at all. There were plenty of demands (for peace, for land reform, for recognition of national minorities), but everybody’s response was just to call for a new conference or congress. If anyone was (e.g.) drafting legislation for the peaceful transfer of land to the peasants, we don’t hear about it here. There’s a sense that the officials on both sides of the Dual Power had much less sway in the rest of the country than they hoped they had.

(One oddity Miéville picks up on: the revolution was also determined by trains: the trains connecting the cities to the front, the sealed train that sped Lenin from Switzerland to Russia; the train the tsar was traveling in the events leading to his abdication; the train lines torn up to prevent Kornilov’s coup. Almost as important was the control of telegraph lines.)

People have debated for a century whether Stalinism was the culmination of communism, or a terrible aberration, and if so whether it’s Stalin’s fault, or Lenin’s, or something else. Miéville is no tankie; he knows that something went terribly wrong, and the last chapter of the book is more or less a rueful admission of this, though he doesn’t go so far as to explain what exactly the error was.

I’m no expert either, but one smoking gun is surely Lenin’s rebuke to the early demands of “all power to the Soviet”. He countered with, in effect, “all power to the Bolsheviks.” He was, as Miéville fully admits, an argumentative and uncompromising person– not infrequently he took positions that shocked and hobbled his own party. (This was in part because for much of the year he wasn’t even on the scene, in contact with colleagues and opponents. He spent a lot of his time alone, writing polemics.)

As I noted, suppressing entire parties wasn’t just a Bolshevik notion: after a failed ultra-left uprising in July, many wanted the Bolsheviks suppressed, and after the Korilov attempted coup, the socialists largely agreed on suppressing the Kadets. And from other revolutions, especially in the wake of decolonization, we know that a nationalist movement easily turns into a one-party state. In times of great agitation, parties get polarized and stop recognizing that their opponents even have a right to exist.

You can make a case that the Bolsheviks could hardly compromise on the war, that the Dual Power was bound to fail and had to end in a takeover by one side or another, and even that by October the Bolsheviks were closest to the spirit of the workers and soldiers. Still, the story told by Solzhenitsyn is sad, even outrageous. Eliminating all your opponents is an admission that you cannot answer them honestly. Once you’ve taken that step, it’s a short further step to decide that fractious debate in the soviets themselves is “counter-revolutionary”, and the promise of actual worker democracy has been sacrificed. And for what? Wasn’t the whole point actual worker control? When you’ve throttled that, all you have left is a new way of oppressing the workers.

And yes, I’m aware of all the tankie justifications– the isolation of the Soviet state, the greater cruelty of the right-wing counter-revolutionaries. The thing is, revolutions are often necessary– but they are not the same as government, and they are not even the same as justice. At their best they open the way to a new and more just system. But the actions and habits of mind that produce a successful revolution are often precisely opposite to those needed to actually create that new system.

If it’s not clear– I liked Miéville’s book a lot, more than his novels in fact. He’s an engaging guide, with a nose for absurdities. He’s pretty far-left himself (he used to belong to a Trotskyite party), but he focuses on the story rather than political theory. I can’t say I’ll remember all the names and events in the story, but that’s hardly his fault: a revolution takes a lot of people. (For what it’s worth, I recognized all the names in the picture above.)

Lucian

One question I used to have was, when did modern comedy appear? Not comedy itself, but the absurdist, completely cynical type that dominates American and British humor? Bugs Bunny, the Marx Brothers, Monty Python, MAD Magazine, Sam & Max, the Hitchhiker’s Guide. There’s hints of this style in Mark Twain and Jerome K. Jerome, maybe a bit in Moliere, but how early does it go?

One answer is: back to Lucian of Samosata. Or Λουκιανος, to his mother. He was a Syrian (Samosata is on the Euphrates, in present-day Turkey) who wrote excellent Greek, and was one of the most popular writers of the 2nd century. More than 80 of his works survive, a very high number for an ancient author. I just read a good selection, Lionel Casson’s Selected Satires of Lucian (1962).

I first met him with his “Sale of the Philosophers”, where Lucian imagines Zeus and Hermes running a slave market, selling philosophers. His satire of the various schools is vicious and irreverent, and especially funny if (say) you’ve just finished a yearlong course in philosophy. His work must have been widely copied and criticized (or maybe he read the piece as a performance) because he found it necessary to write a sequel, “the Fishermen”, which carefully explains that he loves all the actual philosophers; he just hates their modern representatives, who happen to mostly be sophistical, greedy hypocrites.

Lucian is also cited in histories of science fiction, as his “True Story” is a novella of absurdist adventure, a parody of the Odyssey with a few jabs at credulous historians like Herodotus. After noting that the story is a pure lie, he describes taking a ship of adventurers past the Pillars of Hercules and into the Atlantic, where a storm blew them up to the Moon.

Whether it’s sf or not depends on how you split your hairs; it’s certainly an early form of fantasy (but so is Gilgamesh). Lucian’s method is to pile on absurdities:

Moonmen have artificial penises, generally of ivory but, in the case of the poor, of wood… They never die of old age but dissolve and turn into air, like smoke. The diet is the same for everyone: frog. … They don’t urinate or defecate. They have no anal orifice so, instead of the anus, boys offer for intercourse the hollow of the knee above the calf, since there’s an opening there.

This is probably the best story in the volume– always entertaining and inventive, if not very deep.

One of the more curious selections is the story of a man turned into a donkey by magic. (Pro tip: don’t ask a witch for a demonstration of her transformation magic.) The most notable bit is how much abuse the donkey is in for. It’s hard to say what Lucian intended here: to a modern, it reads like a condemnation of human cruelty to animals, but it’s possible Lucian thought it was comic, like Shakespeare’s Bottom given an ass’s head.

Lucian was known for comic dialogues– which etymologically is ‘conversation’, not limited to two people. (It’s δια ‘with’, not δί ‘two’.) The ones in this volume rely heavily on gods and mythological figures, though there’s also one featuring various literary courtesans.

His own beliefs come out most clearly in a dialog set in Hades, where the Cynic philosopher Menippus has a grand time mocking the other newly dead. This mostly amounts to making fun of dictators and rich men, who have lost all their power and gold– the afterlife is a democracy of misery. There a certain acerbic morality to this– a rebuke to greed and vanity and authority because they are all ultimately meaningless; it’s the same sort of wisdom as the medieval scholar who keeps a skull on his desk as a reminder that we all die. At the same time… well, it’s pretty nihilistic, isn’t it? “We’re all dead and equally miserable in Hades” is a great position for attacking pretension, but I kind of prefer an ideology that promotes actual benevolence.

One of the more interesting pieces is a biographical sketch of a prophet and oracle, Alexander of Abonoteichos. Lucian is not a fan, to put it mildly. By his account, the prophet is a scammer, whose shtick is to interpret the words of a new god, Glycon, who consists of a tame snake plus a hand puppet. (If you want to scam your own flock, make sure you do this in a dark room, and speak in an eldritch voice when you pass on the words of Glycon.) His method is to read and respond to sealed scrolls. This is done only after an interval– which gives Alexander time to use various methods to unseal the scrolls, read the question, and create an appropriate response. One trick was to slice through the wax, and later reheat and reseal it. Another was to make an impression of the seal in clay; the seal could then be broken, and resealed using the clay model. If the scroll was too hard to unseal, Alexander would simply give an outlandishly obscure prophecy– he would even allow associates to interpret the obscurities for an additional fee.

We don’t have Alexander’s side of the story, but we know he was real– coins were struck with the image of Glycon. Whether Lucian was an accurate reporter can be doubted (e.g. he inserts his own confrontation with the prophet– he bites his hand– which is hard to credit.) Still, it’s a convincing portrait of a charlatan, and suggests the sorts of methods that such people have always used.

Would you like Lucian? Well, you may or may not find the laughs. I don’t respond to absurdist humor quite as much as I used to; your mileage may vary. I found it most interesting as anthropology– a reminder that not everyone in the past was serious and reverent. The echoes to modern humorists may be misleading: as I noted above, his appreciation for Cynicism is precisely the sort of rebuke to the material world that philosophers valued in almost every era. I also suspect that his style of satire is not as populist as it sometimes sounds: Lucian is too well educated to be a real voice of the masses. A pose of disaffected virtue has long been popular with the more literate strata of the elite.)

On the other hand, it may be relevant that he lived in perhaps the most peaceful and best-governed century of the Roman Empire. It’s not that, as he himself might have believed, his targets were particularly decadent– that the Golden Age had passed. It’s that a culture may need a certain maturity to laugh at itself. And maybe a certain spiritual tiredness: he can treat Zeus and the gods with levity precisely because the elite no longer really believed in them (but still knew all the stories).

I like Casson’s translation on the whole– it’s lively and colloquial. Two cavils, though. One, I really wish he wouldn’t give money references in “dollars”. I understand that it’s shorthand, but I’d rather know what Lucian actually wrote– and not have to worry about what a dollar was worth 59 years ago. Second, it bugs me when he translates the wordplay and doesn’t give the original, even in a footnote. E.g. the “True Story” refers to the Saladbirds, the Fastcentaurs, and Waterburg. I’d like to at least know the Greek terms, especially since Casson leaves in most of the names of gods and historical figures, however obscure.

(Oh, another word on the original question. Lucian certainly didn’t invent the humorous dialog; the Egyptians had the “Dialog of a Man and his Soul”; the Akkadians wrote debates between inanimate objects. It’s not quite the same, but it also probably indicates that there was more of the same that’s been lost. In premodern times literature was preserved when people copied it, and probably a lot of comedy was lost because the targets were no longer understood.)

The Fremen Mirage

Here’s a great set of articles, by Bret Devereaux, on what he calls the Fremen Mirage, or what might be called the Myth of the Warrior Race. There’s also a great sub-series on Sparta, one of the most pernicious of these myths. All this should be of great interest to conworlders, as well as people interested in the history of our planet.

A warning, though: there’s a lot to read. I spend most of Friday on these.

dunefight

Pedantic note: Devereaux likes the miniseries, but this is from the Lynch film, which is the only one I saw, and whose costume design rocks.

The basic elements of the myth are:

  • Empires are started by virile, manly men full of manliness.
  • They get weak because of luxuries, corruption, and sex.  They may actually lisp.
  • They are then taken over by virile manly men from warrior cultures.

Dune happens to be a shining exemplar of this; in the Sparta series he invokes 300. His use of the name invites digressions on the book, and he provides one, but it’s probably better than limiting the idea to one real-world exemplar, or using squishy words like “barbarian”. I’ll just use “barbarian”, but do imagine scare quotes used throughout.

To summarize the rebuttal:

  • States have little to fear from barbarian bands, which they normally beat or co-opt. Their major preoccupation is advanced states similar to their own: either neighbors or opposing factions in a civil war.
  • Agricultural states have no problem creating a professional army which, pound for pound, can beat barbarian bands.
  • On an individual basis, your basic state soldier was probably more fearsome than the barbarian, not less.
  • Corruption and sex have nothing to do with the decline of states.
  • Sparta was a pretty horrible place and its elite cruelty destroyed its own power in not much more than a century.
  • The myth generally has no interest in the accurate description of barbarians; it’s always a self-criticism from within the advanced states. To be more precise, it’s the whining of certain elites within those states, used against other parts of the elite.

The obvious counter-rebuttals, and the counters to those:

  • But the fall of Rome. Yes, all empires have to fall sooner or later. But people get inordinately interested in the 400s alone. Devereaux goes over Roman history from one sack of Rome to another– 390 BCE to 410 CE.  Think about that: that’s 800 years of solid power.  And in the East, another 1100 years. Barbarians win sometimes, but the state is forever.
  • But the Mongols.  The steppeland of Eurasia has a long and important history, and was a major threat to multiple civilizations. Nomad power is real. But the Mongols were just the high-water mark of a tide that, in the larger view, was controllable. China was almost always ruled by Han Chinese, and anyway was very good at assimilating conquerors.

Kind of amusingly, the Warrior Race trope is often used for and against the same people. E.g. the Greeks were manly warriors when fighting Persia, corrupt softees when fighting Rome. The Romans were manly outsiders when they took over Greece, softees when fighting Germans. The Arabs were virile outsiders during the Caliphate, and unutterably corrupt for the 19C Europeans.

But again, it’s never really about the barbarians. The myth was elaborated, though undoubtedly not originated, by Roman writers around 100 BCE to 100 AD… that is, the height of Roman power, when Rome was still expanding and the Germans were nothing to worry about. It was basically the complaint of one bunch of rich Romans against another. None of those making the complaint gave up their wealth and went to live in military camps in order to build up their manliness. Few of them actually visited any of the barbarians they praised. (Caesar did, but he was fighting them; he wasn’t engaged in conservative whining so much as flattering his own enemies in order to puff up his victories over them.)

Sparta is a fascinating story, and when you really look at it, it proves just about the opposite of what its fans think. Consider this: there were just 8000 full Spartiates– males with full citizenship– in 480. It was the largest state in Greece, and it was able to send just 5000 hoplites to Plataea. Athens sent 9000. Aristotle notes that if worked like other Greek states, Sparta could have supplied 30,000 hoplites. So its 85%-slave social system made it underperform in number of troops, a key metric for military success.

Nor were they that much better than other Greek troops. They shared the same equipment and tactics of all Greek states, and phalanx warfare was a matter of group action, not individual prowess. The Spartans may have had no profession but war, but they didn’t bother to train much.  Sparta did defeat Athens in 404– with the help of Persian funds. When it attempted to defy Persia, Persia simply switched its subsidies to Athens, and Sparta’s response was to appease the Persians by giving them the Ionian cities. Very manly!

And that was Sparta’s height. By 418, Spartiate strength was down to 3500.  By 371, it was 1500. Not coincidentally, Thebes was then able to shatter Sparta’s power and free Messenia, the territory that supplied most of its slaves. Devereaux goes into the reasons why, but in short: the Spartan elite was self-inoculated against all change. Their system was based on exclusion: excluding the helots, excluding elite members who couldn’t pass the agoge training system or maintain the common mess, excluding impoverished Spartiates. They had no way of maintaining their numbers without changing at least some of their ideology.

The myth was revived in the 19th century, added to the malodorous stew of European racism. Tacitus’ praise of the Germans (who he had never met) were intended to shore up Roman manliness, but they found a new audience in Germany, which liked to see itself as a scrappy and manly warrior race. France found its warrior race in ses ancêtres les Gaulois, while the Brits chose the Celts. (Not that this made the English particularly appreciate their sister nations.) The British in particular loved to divide their own subject people into warrior and non-warrior races… not the least reason they lastingly screwed up Indian politics.

One thing Devereaux doesn’t quite go into is the importance of the Fremen Mirage to modern conservatism. A lot of conservative ideas make no sense unless you interpret them in its light. Adapting the adage that American vote as if they were temporarily distressed millionaires, we may say that conservatives see themselves as temporarily comfortable Spartans. Yes, they live in nice suburban houses and have nice office jobs, but in their minds they’re living in a mess hall with other manly men, ready to lay waste to the softies. Spartan attitudes about the 85% of slaves below them in the hierarchy are relevant as well. Conservatives are fond of hazing rituals, even for themselves; but they also approve of pure misery for the lowest swaths of society (i.e., everybody but themselves).

What can you do with all this in your conworld?

One, throw out your Warrior Race– your Klingons, your Dothraki, your Cimmerians, your orcs. These are all fantasies made by civilized people who are tired of civilization but don’t want to leave it.

This doesn’t, of course, mean that you can’t have warriors, or war. War is hell, but storytellers can hardly do without it. But get rid of the notion that civilized states are bad at it, or that barbarians are particularly cruel. Agriculturalist empires are very good at cruelty in war.

The main threat to your civilized states will be other civilized states, or themselves.

At the same time, you should balance Devereaux with Scott.  (Not that they conflict, but they have different emphases.) The state has been near-unstoppable for the 5000 years since its invention. But until recently, it had real trouble extending its power over the people who lived in non-grain areas (marshes, mountains, jungle), and over nomads. The first group may be sizeable, but is not usually a threat to states; the second is.

But your nomads should be based on real nomads, not on the mythical Warrior Race. Some generalizations about real nomads:

  • They’re trained on horse-riding and archery, which makes them a great natural cavalry. Occasionally this can be parlayed into the conquest of an agricultural state… but that’s a) a rare reward, and b) a poisoned one. Nomads are rarely good or lasting rulers. (Mongol rule lasted less than 75 years after Khubilai Khan. The Qing held on much longer, but they weren’t really nomads.)
  • The first resort of states is to co-opt nomads. And that works pretty well!
  • Nomads don’t disdain city luxuries; in fact they’re quite fond of them. Historically they have a great interest in civilized religions, and nomad elites are good at joining agricultural elites.
  • Nomad societies are not extraordinarily macho; in fact their women are often far freer than in agricultural states.

Due to geography, Europe, India, and China were never going to be overwhelmed forever by nomads anyway. They just have too many people. Arguably Mesopotamia did not have this advantage, and that’s why it was not a major power after 500 BCE. More on that in my upcoming book…

States do decline, but it’s not due to luxury and corruption. More often, it’s due to the concentration of wealth, or ecological factors, or the elite losing interest in supporting the central power.

Finally: unlike individual humans, an aged state can rejuvenate itself. This may be as simple as a vigorous new dynasty taking over. Both Rome and China had some dramatic periods of instability or civil war, and yet kept picking themselves up for centuries.

 

 

More Talmud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joshua: With the placenta of a mule.

Elders: Does a mule have a placenta?

Joshua: Does salt go bad?

Elders: Build us a house in the air!

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

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

Joshua: It goes out the way it came in!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Egypt Lit

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

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

hunefer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Book of the Dead

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

hunefer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing resembling the  “dazzling illusion of life”!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Diary of Lady Murasaki

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

Murasaki_Shikibu_by_Hiroshige

Picture of Murasaki by Hiroshige, 1880

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

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

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

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

There’s a constant theme of melancholy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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