Coming to America

I’ve been looking for my own copy of Gia-fu Feng and Jane English’s edition of Chuang Tsu for at least five years.  I found one the other night at the Brookline Booksmith.  My parents have one; almost as soon as I moved I was able to find a copy of the matching Tao Te Ching.  I mentioned it here.  I was surprised to find the Chuang Tsu at all.  Although it seems a reissue is available on Amazon, the copy I found is dated 1974, and I’m sure it’s less common than the Tao Te Ching.  Chuang Tsu is described as the Plato to Lao Tsu’s Socrates, his Inner Chapters the “perfect expression” of Taoism.  He is the source of the image of the man who dreams he is a butterfly wondering if he is a butterfly dreaming of being a man.  I’ve actually read the poetic and epigrammatic Tao Te Ching, but I have to admit it may be some time before I do more than look at the gorgeous pictures in this one.

Gia-fu Feng came to the United States after the Japanese invasion of China in 1937.  The period comprising the fall of the emperor, the Japanese invasion, World War II, and the communist takeover was obviously a time of great chaos and destruction.  I know almost nothing about it, and, what’s maybe worse, I don’t even know a book I should read.  The 25th anniversary edition of Feng’s Tao Te Ching contains a tiny snippet of autobiography; here and elsewhere there are tantalizing hints of a longer memoir.

This post was precipitated by a thought that struck me suddenly while poking around after information about Gi-fu Feng: After the fall of the old order in China, there must have been an exodus on the same order as that following the Russian revolution, and yet it doesn’t seem to be given nearly the same credit, so to speak.  I would say that in my mental map of the twentieth century American intellect, the influence of the Russian diaspora far outweighs that of China’s.

This is truly shocking to me, after a fashion, not least because one of my best friends growing up was a recent Chinese immigrant.  But I am really not thinking in such personal terms.  I know almost nothing about it, so perhaps I’m wrong, or merely repeating western prejudice.  It may even be a matter of East Coast versus West Coast, of New York and Boston versus California.  Unlike my father, I never went to school in the western U.S.  It also occurs to me that the Russian influence is closely related to the colossal impact of the Holocaust.  Indeed, it appears that Vladimir Nabokov, the only figure that immediately jumps to mind as a Russian emigre of great importance for American culture (perhaps quite sufficient on his own), lived in Berlin after leaving Russia, and it’s easy to guess why he left.  The cultural effect of the revolution was not immediate, and, similarly, Einstein had his annus mirabilis of 1905 long before he removed to the United States.  Perhaps the impact of the Cultural Revolution is yet to be appreciated here.

Here’s what I want to know: does the cultural impact of the Russian Revolution on America really outweigh that of China’s, despite the obvious parallels?  How far does the effect extend, and are there vast intellectual movements, a hundred and more years old now, whose stories have yet to be told?  Is the translation empire of Pevear and Volokhonsky rooted in the upheavals at the beginning of the twentieth century?  Who, besides Nabokov, am I missing?  Leafing through the Inner Chapters, I found a discussion between Confucius and one Yen Hui.  What is Confucius doing in the Taoist text?  Is there any parallel in the Platonic dialogues of philosophers and demagogues, and the efforts of later and lesser writers like Philostratus to untangle them?  Who can tell?  Without greater cognizance of these matters, do we in our political moment risk throwing away something of inestimable value?

Spring Follows Summer

I’m still around, I haven’t given up books, and I feel a little guilty about not sharing my thoughts recently. I thought I’d pick up again with something light.

I’ve been reading Don Quixote for almost a year now. It’s occurred to me that there are classics everyone gets even if it’s hard to say what they are about. The baggiest Dickens is melodrama with some good characters, some bad, and some ridiculous. Middlemarch is similar. Don Quixote, however, is about a crazy man playing at chivalry, but I don’t understand it. It’s funny when the ingenious gentleman attacks a bad poet, or when Sancho is tied up like a turtle between a pair of shields and trampled. Yet I hear others are appalled by the violence. Is it comedy or tragedy?

At the beginning of Chapter 53 of the second part, Sancho’s governorship is drawing to its close, and we read that “To imagine that things in this life are always to remain as they are is an idle dream… everything moves in a circle: spring follows summer, summer the harvest, harvest autumn, autumn winter, and winter spring…” This is explicitly credited to the fictional narrator Cid Hamete Benengeli in the midst of a flight of mock eastern philosophizing. It’s funny enough for the double take alone. Despite this it has, according to Samuel Putnam, provoked real debate between those who would let it stand and those, including the Spanish Academy, who would emend the text.

I would love to know of similar cases where a passage in the work of a great humorist has given rise to a such a grammatical controversy boiling down to “did he mean it or not?”  I think that even if it is a mistake, it should probably stand.  And what of the end of Sancho’s rule?  His farcical battle is followed by a resignation worthy of Cincinnatus.  Will I ever understand Don Quixote?

Literal Immortality?

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson

I’d been feeling like my reading lately had been a bit lightweight.  (Larry McMurtry and Kim Stanley Robinson probably won’t make it up on here.)  My solution?  The Life of Johnson.  Borges contends that although Johnson’s literary work was outstanding in itself (he wrote a dictionary all by himself), it was the devoted work of his younger, less talented friend Boswell that assured their immortality.  Boswell wrote that his plan for the Life included “not only relating all the most important events of it in their order, but interweaving what he privately wrote, and said, and thought…”  In effect, he wrote down everything he ever heard Johnson say.  “Had his other friends been as diligent and ardent as I was, he might have been almost entirely preserved.”  Later he speaks of biographies in which Johnson himself “has embalmed so many eminent persons”.  Keep up your Twitter and Facebook, your diary and your correspondence; you never know.

Arch-pirates choose the Loeb Classical Library

I started off reading Livy in Penguin editions, but the last volume of their set is apparently abridged, so when I recently started back up on the history of Rome Ab Urbe Condita, I started borrowing the Loebs.  The Loeb Classical Library is well known for its red and green volumes of Latin and Greek text with facing translations.  It’s sometimes criticized for prosy or out of date translations, and it would be a bit of a stretch for me to claim that the original texts are really any use to me.  But here are some wonderful words and phrases I would have completely missed out on if it weren’t for the Loebs:

“superos inferosque deos”


“magistro elephantorum”

“sed rerum natura”

“Quid autem, si vox libera non sit, liberum esse?”

“cogitatoque hiemis quam longa siet.”


“Superos inferosque deos” means “gods above and below”, “inferosque” being cognate to “infernal”, I imagine.  The -que is a suffix meaning “and”, which often adds a poetic ring, as in “arma virumque cano”.

“Archipirata” should be obvious: pirate captain.  This turns up in an interesting and nasty conflict between two Rhodian captains during the war with King Antiochus of Asia.  The Greek island of Rhodes had an excellent navy; they were allied to the Romans but one of their exiled nobles was admiral for Antiochus.  This exiled captain pretended that he wished to defect, and promised the leader of the Rhodian allies, whom he hated, that he would let the fleet under his command grow slack and give them up.  Livy reports how the allied captain became every bit as slack and unwary as the man he hoped to bring in.  In an action involving the “archipirata” as well as the Rhodian exile, the Roman fleet was badly mauled and the credulous admiral killed.

“Magistro elephantorum” is another obvious one, the master of elephants.  War elephants, in this context.  Livy pulls out the stops describing the Battle of Magnesia, where Antiochus’ power was broken.  Some fifty elephants are said to have worn head armor and carried towers holding four men each.  They didn’t save the king, however, and the treaty he made with the Romans specified that he would give up all of his elephants, which must have made him very sad.

“Sed rerum natura” echoes the title of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, meaning On the Nature of Things.  Here it means something like “but that’s the way things are”, but it obviously sounds much better.  If I remember correctly, this was uttered by the more democratic Greek allies of Rome who began to make awkward demands with regard to another Roman ally, King Eumenes.  Democrats and autocrats can never really get along, it’s the nature of things.

“What, pray, was free, if there was no free speech?”  In a similar situation, Greek cities complained that Philip of Macedon, once defeated and now a Roman ally, was infringing on the freedoms guaranteed by the Romans themselves.  It sounds great but in other places Livy is rather contemptuous of this kind of thing.  Somewhere else he describes Athenian ships so laden down with decrees praising the Romans and attacking their enemies that they could hardly move.

“Cogitatoque hiemis quam longa siet.”  “And remember how long winter lasts.”  This last is from Cato the Elder’s work on farming, giving advice on storing fodder for animals.  Elm leaves were good, apparently.  I’m reading Cato because he shows up in Livy around this time, 200 b.c., as an all around formidable guy, and his one surviving book is one of the oldest Latin prose texts in existence.  He would definitely have gotten along with the Starks.

And if you’ve read along this far, I’ll tell you that on page 329 of volume eleven, the Romans held a council “at Clitoris in Arcadia”.  This is not how the place name is rendered in other translations.

What do you think, should the Loeb Classical Library give me a sponsorship?

Human Smoke: A Strong Case for Pacifism

I’m forever getting reacquainted with the big, unreadable books on my shelves; last night it was The Oxford Companion to Philosophy.  I was trying once again to figure out structuralism and post-structuralism.  Somehow I found myself back at Pyrrhonian skepticism and from there, Diogenes Laertius.  One sentence in the short notice drew my attention: “He had a taste for anecdote and paradox, but no talent for philosophical exposition.”  The same has been said of Nicholson Baker, and in much the same narrow minded spirit.

I finally read Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.  For a long time I was put off by the way  it’s put together: Human Smoke is strung together out of snippets from newspapers, diaries and a variety of other contemporary reports.  There’s little commentary and few signs of a thesis.  I ended up being won over, however.  Before I say more, let me admit that Baker’s interview on Amazon explains much better than I could what he was about.  A friend also wrote a note on her blog that I think is pretty much right on.

We generally appreciate that the bombing campaigns of World War II were pretty horrific. What is less appreciated is that the campaigns’ military effectiveness is still debated.  Alongside of evidence of bombing’s colossal waste and the futile, sick fantasy that punishing civilians would lead to compromise, Baker steadily focuses on the many thwarted efforts to actually help the people, the Jews and other refugees, that we sometimes think this good war was fought for.  By ending his book with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Baker ensures that phases like the phony war, that might be skipped over to get to the “good stuff”, are given due weight.  It’s remarkable that nothing about the war feels inevitable in this treatment.  I’m not quite to the point of agreeing with Baker that the pacifists were right, as he says in the end, but I’m thinking about it.

On Monday I bought Baker’s recent collection of essays, The Way the World Works.    The title seems like a bit much, but I was won over by a piece on video games.  I’m glad he shares my high opinion of the adventure/shooter Uncharted 2.  There’s also an essay called “Why I am a Pacifist” I’m very curious about.

The Most Interesting Word in the World

Not just according to my old tutor, Eva Brann, but according to the thing itself, the most interesting word in Western philosophy is logos.  I’ve just read Brann’s book The Logos of Heraclitus: The First Philosopher of the West on its Most Interesting Term.  The Ancient Greek “pre Socratic” philosopher Heraclitus may be best known for saying that you can’t set foot in the same river twice.  Among other things, Brann makes the case that to remember him for this doctrine that “everything flows” is to misunderstand him.

I feel I should make the probably unhelpful confession that I am not quite on board with metaphysics.  That is, I feel a restlessness come over me when I am faced with a statement like “all is one”, or an argument in favor of accepting paradox.  Great, you might say, why should I hear your thoughts on this book when you admit you’re prejudiced against it?  Well, this isn’t a deliberate position of mine, but a vague state of mind that troubled me as I read.  I think it’s to Brann’s credit that no sooner had I begun to fret over this than I was drawn in by some striking arguments.

What if, for example, the usual translation of hen panta, all is one, misses the mark somewhat?  Brann’s contention, well within the realm of grammatical possibility, is that Heraclitus intended something more like “one: everything”, the colon being the same notation used to denote mathematical ratios, or in Greek, logoi.  I find it much more plausible that Heraclitus is drawing our attention to the relationship, whatever it may be, between one and many, than that he is simply identifying them.  Brann draws our attention to two examples of relations, ratios, or logoi: that which obtains between numbers, and that which makes a poetic metaphor.  They seem to be of two different sorts, but where is the boundary?  Is it always easy to say where that boundary lies in science, or rhetoric, or law?  Is one sort more fundamental to our thinking?

There’s a lot to the book I haven’t said much about.  Does Heraclitus somehow think the world is made of fire?  Why is War king of all?  I could easily stand to read it again, and follow up with the rest of the pre Socratics, Plato, Euclid, maybe even Aristotle.  It’s worth thinking about.

One last thought: Is logos really an English word?  Should it be?  And how?

The Dueling Censors

A fun part of reading Livy is puzzling out the working of the Roman state.  What’s a pro praetor?   A plebeian aedile?  Sure, I could read Wikipedia or even a book, but that would mean less time reading the war with Hannibal.  Besides, how do historians figure out all that stuff?

One of the highest Roman offices was the censorship.  At first, the two censors were charged with carrying out the census, but it appears that under Rome’s democratic but not egalitarian system the power entailed in counting the citizens and enrolling them in the proper electoral list brought the office closer to what we now understand by “censorship”.  The censors were involved in a strange episode towards the end of the Second Punic War, but I have to go back a little way to describe it.

Right in the thick of the war, the consul Marcellus suggested that he and his fellow consul Crispinus take a few horsemen and ride out to reconnoiter some hills near camp.  They were caught in an ambush; Marcellus was killed and Crispinus mortally wounded.  It was an ignominious end for the general who had taken the rich Sicilian city of Syracuse and inadvertently killed one of the great mathematicians of all time.  Rome found itself in need of military talent.

As Livy tells it, they turned to Gaius Claudius Nero first, and then, seeking to balance his wildness, sought out the disgraced ex consul Marcus Livius.  After conviction on unspecified charges he had exiled himself in the country and only returned a short time before, when he was still so angry he wouldn’t change his shirt until he was made to.  Nero was affronted and Livius felt it.  Somehow Livy gives him an underdog appeal; I admit I was cheering for him when the senate went out of its way to reconcile them, and later when Nero with a rapid march up much of the length of Italy combined forces with him to inflict a fatal defeat on Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal.

So the two won a famous victory and later were elected to the censorship.  Apparently they had a falling out again, and this is where, for the first time in Livy, I found myself almost laughing out loud on the subway.  While revising the list of knights, Nero, who as censor must have had power over such technicalities, forced Livius to get rid of his horse.  Livius did the same to him.  Then Nero demoted Livius to the lowest class of citizen (aerarii), whereupon Livius

declared the entire Roman people, thirty-four tribes of them, as aerarii because they had unjustly condemned him, and then, despite the condemnation, made him first consul and then censor

Then Livy opines:

As a squabble between the censors… this was a most improper proceeding, but as a sharp criticism of popular frivolity, it was in the true tradition of the censors’ office and worthy of the high seriousness of those days.

I don’t really know what to make of this.  I’m afraid of taking it too seriously.  Livy doesn’t seem to make many jokes and this would be a good one.  If it isn’t, I guess it goes to show just how seriously he took the impossible task of the censors.  It’s tragic.  It always seems like public morals are declining and the electorate deserves a rebuke, but who can deliver it?

How did they keep it together?

(This is the last installment in my Livy top five.)

By far the most enthralling aspect of Livy is the working of the republic itself and the never ending struggle between the people and the patricians, the rich and the poor.  Rome came close to civil war more than once in the period covered by his first ten books, down to 290 BC or so.  The contentions were clearly rooted in money and class.  Veterans were enslaved for debt, there were illegal appropriations of public land, famine followed outbreaks of plague.  When especially aggrieved, the people refused military service, and twice they abandoned the city.  Somehow they held it together.  Livy is straightforward about these causes of political strife, and Machiavelli devoted one of his discourses to arguing that Rome was powerful precisely because of it.

It’s easy to become invested in this account and the question of how free or how equal Rome became.  On one hand, over more than a hundred years there was a broad trend of increasing rights for the plebeians.  Shortly after the expulsion of King Tarquin the Proud, the people became so incensed over their debts that they left Rome in a body and encamped peacefully outside the city.  They returned only after the tribunes were created, officers to whom the people could appeal and whose personal safety was solemnly guaranteed.  Later it became legal for plebeians to marry patricians, and still later they won the right to be elected consuls and priests.

On the other hand, the issue of land distribution was, after two hundred years and ten books of history, not really settled, and the rare outbreaks of actual violence sometimes broke out are hard to interpret.  A consul named Cassius was put to death after bringing up land reform.  Livy implies that the people began to suspect him of aiming at kingship, and that the conviction was legal, but the story is vague.  Maelius supplied the people with grain, and then was suspected of gathering arms for an attempt on the state.  When he was accused by the Dictator, he fled.  As the Master of Horse rode him down, he cried to the people, “because I was your friend!”

Of the classical historians I’ve read, Livy presents the strongest temptations to sympathize and to draw topical conclusions.  It’s been a while since I read them, but Herodotus seems too broad and dramatic, Thucydides too narrow and gloomy to go where Livy takes us, which is somewhere very close to home.  Perhaps the dishonest way class warfare is nowadays invoked as a terrible bogey when people so much as talk about economic inequality and taxation accounts for why I found Livy’s frank treatment so interesting.

Decius Leads Enemy Armies Down to Hell

(This is the last but one of my Livy top five.)

In 340 BC the Romans were dealing with the revolt of their closest allies and neighbors, the Latins.  As Machiavelli emphasizes, these men had fought beside the Romans and knew their way of fighting as well as they did.  The night before the battle, both consuls had the same dream: The gods of the underworld wanted one army and one general, and they would take them from opposing sides.  The consuls agreed that whichever wing faltered first, the consul in command there would sacrifice himself.  So Publius Decius Mus, when his side began to give way, performed the devotio.  He put on purple, stood on a spear, said a simple prayer to the gods “new and native”, and rode into the enemy ranks, where he made such an impression that it was some time before he was brought down with ranged weapons.   Needless to say, the Romans won.