Saturday, February 26, 2005

Klene domače besede

Ob prebiranju arhivov slovenskih blogov sem naletel na tale stavek:

zakaj dobimo v nabiralnike toliko spama?

zdaj je oskrunjen celo moj arnes, ki sem ga pred vsakršno obliko spolnosti zelo dolgo varovala.

Pa mi je prišlo na misel, kako čudovit glagol je pravzaprav oskruniti. Gotovo je to le posledica moje nekoristne afektacije in vsesplošne nezrelosti, ampak čim se neko dejavnost opisuje kot skrunitev, me obide neizrekljivo močna želja, da bi se začel s to dejavnostjo ukvarjati tudi sam. In kako čudovito besedno družino ima ta glagol v slovenščini! Samo pomislimo na zloženke, kot sta svetoskrunstvo in krvoskrunstvo. Pomenita nekaj takega kot blasfemija in incest (čeprav meni krvoskrunstvo zveni bolj kot miscegenacija; ampak ni dvoma o tem, da ga SSKJ razlaga kot incest); vendar, mar nista slednji dve besedi do onemoglosti puščobni, sterilni, anemični in zvenita kot nekaj, ob čemer bi človek umiral od dolgega časa? In po drugi strani, ko slišite krvoskrunstvo z vsemi temi trdimi r-ji, si ne morete kaj, da ne bi začeli obžalovati pomanjkanja primernih sorodnic, o katerih bi lahko fantazirali. To je ena tistih žal preredkih priložnosti, ko se lahko zavemo, kako dobro je, da imamo še kolikor toliko teh starosvetnih domačih besed, takih pristnih slovanskih s kosmatimi ušesi in medvedovimi kožuhi*, in da nam še niso vseh izpodrinile švohotne, slabokrvne tujke.

Ah, blagodati materinega jezika. [NO, YOU SICK FUCKS, NO!]

* Ideje o kosmatih ušesih se spominjam iz Stritarjevega zbranega dela, vendar številke zvezka in strani zdaj nimam pri roki (medvedovi kožuhi pa so iz VI 247). Menda je Stritar Levstiku očital, da nekatere njegove jezikovne reforme delajo naš jezik manj milozvočen, Levstik pa mu je odgovoril: "Mi Slovani imamo malo bolj kosmata ušesa!"

Saturday, February 19, 2005

BOOK: Michelle Lovric, "The Sweetness of Honey and the Sting of Bees"

Michelle Lovric and Nikiforos Doxiadis Mardas: The Sweetness of Honey and the Sting of Bees: Words of Love from the Ancient Mediterranean. Aurum Press, London, 1997. 1854105175. 96 pp.

This is an anthology of love poetry (and some prose), mostly by ancient Greek and Roman authors, with a handful of pieces from the ancient Egypt.

Naturally, having no experience in such matters, I am not an appropriate person to comment on an anthology such as this, but I must say that I enjoyed it a great deal, and found in it many very pleasant poems; surely anyone who knows more about love than I do, i.e. practically everyone, is likely to enjoy it even more.

One thing I particularly appreciate about this book is its arrangement of poems by topic, covering a very wide array of topics. Although the bulk of the poems, as can be expected, focuses on the more pleasant and enjoyable aspects of love, there are also some poems on its painful aspects, such as rejection and betrayal; there is old Hesiod, ever the sober farmer, advising his brother in The Works and Days not to fall for a woman's wiles, "for she is after your granary" (p. 30); there are a number of cold, sometimes clinical, passages from Lucretius' De Rerum Natura (pp. 33, 79, 87; he is supposed to be an Epicurean, but these passages look like a damned miserable sort of Epicureanism to me); there's Ovid, employing fantastic imagery in a candid description of an embarrasing occurrence of impotence (p. 44); there are a couple of poems by Plato from the Greek Anthology (pp. 25, 63), which make me regret very much that he didn't become a poet rather than a philosopher (I never cared much for his philosophy; another sign that I'm a boor: should I start making a list somewhere? don't like Shakespeare, don't like Plato, don't like modernist novels, etc., etc.); there are a couple of selfish lovers (Philodemus finishing a long praise of his sweetheart with: "So, let Philaenion be my one and only, golden Kypris, at least until I find an even better one", p. 28; and Propertius: "To me you are pretty enough, As long as you come to me often enough", p. 29); there is some advice, sensible I guess, on how to (or not to) try winning the affections of a beloved person (don't start by trying to be just friends, p. 36, and don't turn yourself into an abject supplicant, "slithering in the oiliness of your own solicitations" (a wonderful phrase, applicable, alas, in all too many places and to all too many persons!), p. 37; this last piece also includes the somewhat oblique advice to "practise safe seduction"); there are several pieces on love as a mixture of pleasure and pain (pp. 68-9), including Alkaios' bitter cry: "I hate love"; there's Ovid again, p. 73, using a great sequence of images from the animal kingdom to describe the rage of a woman discovering that her lover is cheating on her (a delightful, if not as laconic, parallel to "Hell hath no fury as a woman scorned"); there's Ovid's horrible curse, "God send my enemies a celibate life!", which I wouldn't wish even on my worst enemies, pp. 50-51; nor is the collection prim and sexless ("she's always there, demanding her pound of flesh, with her hands cupped", Tibullus on p. 63); and there's Longus' medicine for love: "nothing works as well as kissing, and caressing, and lying together naked", p. 90.

"If some god said to me ``Live, but without love'', I'd refuse" (Ovid, p. 69). How gladly I too would have refused this life, had I only been given the opportunity to do so beforehand!

There is a passionate fragment from Rufinus on p. 48, but the last three lines read like a Eurosceptic manifesto: "Europa pillages your mouth/ and sucks your soul/ right out of your fingernails". Not to mention that she prescribes the length of your cucumbers and the curvature of your bananas, I guess.

There is a remarkable example of fetishism in a poem from New Kingdom Egypt, p. 49: "Would that I were, if only for a month, the launderer of my sister's linen cloth!", etc., etc. I suspect that "sister" is just a rhetorical device and he really means just an ordinary girlfriend, but if not, this just makes the poem even more delightfully weird.

On pp. 40-41, there are several translations of Catullus' famous Vivamus mea Lesbia atque amemus, one from each century from the 17th to the 20th. It's a wonderful idea and it makes for a very nice comparison of the various translations. At first I thought it somewhat presumptuous of the editors to have placed their translation alongside those of Crashaw and Landor, who at least took the trouble to make their lines rhyme and conform to some sort of metre, but in the end I can't help feeling that the editors' translation is also quite good, and perhaps more faithful to the original than any of the other three. On pp. 60-61, a fragment of Sappho is treated in the same way, and on pp. 66-7 Catullus' poem on Lesbia's sparrow. This latter is in fact something where I can't quite see how I should respond to it; on the one hand the loss of a pet is surely a great grief, and it's a nice thing that the poet expresses sympathy with his sweetheart in such a situation; but he goes so over the top in his lamentations for the dead sparrow that it almost starts feeling like satire, somewhat like Pope's hilariously exaggerated style in The Rape of the Lock. Or maybe, who knows, maybe I'm just a clod with a heart of stone. Anyway, of the translations of this poem the one I liked best was by G. S. Davies, from 1912, written in Scottish dialect, which gives it a somewhat homelier character and makes it somewhat easier to laugh away the absurd pathos of the opening lines ("Weep, weep, ye Loves and Cupids all,/ And ilka Man o' decent feelin':/ My lassie's lost her wee, wee bird,/ And that's a loss, ye'll ken, past healin'") while still allowing one to feel sympathy and compassion with, maybe not so much the poet or his sweetheart, but with the dead sparrow itself, in the remaining stanzas. It's really a great idea, this presentation of several translations of the same poem, allowing the reader to compare translations. This is in fact a rather new concept to me; I more or less never yet bothered to read several translations of a work, and am in fact often highly frustrated by the fact that several English translations of many works are available, thus putting me into a quandary trying to decide which one to read; with Slovenian translations this is almost never the case, one is glad if even one exists, and I for one tend to assume that that one is Good (or, at any rate, Good Enough For Me), and, for all practical purposes, that combination of poet and translator effectively becomes the poet's voice to me, and I never trouble myself with questions of what the authentic poet's voice may have been like, and in what ways (if any) it has been changed by the translator.

Incidentally, concerning the translations in this anthology in general (almost all of them done by the editors), I found them pleasant to read; one aspect I disliked a little is that practically none of them have any particular metrical structure (a few are in fact just ordinary prose), which I have perhaps naively grown used to expect in the more traditional sort of poetry; that would perhaps really make them somehow less immediate (or "contemporary"), but also (in my eyes at least) somewhat more poetic. But I shouldn't complain too much; they are poetic enough anyway, and if the lack of metre would bother me more in longer poems it is not really so troublesome in these short fragments.

The title of the book comes from a fragment of Sappho (p. 68).

The credits on p. 2 include two "Feline design assistants: Tuck and Spin".

Here are some of the poems and fragments I particularly enjoyed, but didn't mention so far in this post: Sappho pp. 18, 85, Ovid pp. 33, 39, 47, Asklepiades p. 39, Agathias p. 47, Euenos p. 75, Sophocles p. 77, the poem from the Anakreontea on p. 93, Meleager p. 96.

At the end, perhaps I should mention two aspects of the book that I didn't necessarily enjoy that much, or at least not right away, although I did in fact get used to them soon enough. One is the fact that many of the pieces presented in this anthology are more like fragments than like poems in the usual sense of the word; many are just a couple of lines long, perhaps a single sentence or even just a few words. This is either because only fragments of the originals have been preserved, or because the editors of the anthology have decided to include only a line or two out of some larger work. This bothered me a little bit at first, since I am more accustomed to read entire poems, preferably something with a beginning and an end and something reasonably coherent that connects them; but the twentieth century has, after all, discarded all pretence of structure in literature, so that most readers, after all they have gone through, will probably be perfectly comfortable with the fact that this anthology consists largely of fragments. And in fact it is not at all difficult to get used to them, they are perhaps slightly different beasts than poems in the usual sense, but may very well be quite beautiful anyway (cf. "the fragment as a poetic form in its own right"). Most of these fragments are, after all, self-contained thoughts or ideas, and those that aren't, i.e. those that are genuinely fragments, just require a bit more imagination to become interesting.

The other somewhat curious aspect of the book is its design and typography. It looks like an overzealous designer really had a ball with it. It is very heavily illustrated; there is not an inch of empty white paper in the entire book. Every page is covered with different background images, much of which seems to consist of stock drawings, many of them on vaguely classical or architectural themes; the remaining illustrations are Fayum portraits, preserved in ancient Greek and Roman cemeteries in Egypt. These are charming and fascinating portraits, to be sure (see e.g. The Hawara Portfolio, by Flinders Petrie, or the more recent book by Euphrosyne Doxiadis), but the editor's comment that "to me, these vibrant faces express all the sweet wonderment, honeyed seductions and unmendable pains of love" (p. 8) seems a bit far-fetched to me. These were simply portraits of people, hanging originally in their houses but affixed to their mummies or caskets after their death (see e.g. Flinders Petrie's introduction in the above-mentioned book); I don't quite see the specific connection that the editor apparently sees between these portraits and love. Nevertheless they are very nice portraits, and I don't mean to say that they aren't appropriate as illustrations for this anthology, since they at least show people from roughly the same period, and from the same part of the world, as those who wrote and first read the poems included in this book.

But it wasn't really the Fayum portraits that bothered me; they are beautiful and are welcome to stay where they are; but the overall impression of the design was that it was somehow overdone, too busy, verging almost on the garish. Five or six different typefaces regularly appear on the same page, and often two or three within the same poem or fragment. The fragments are arranged here and there all over the page, broken into unusually short lines (I must, however, admit that the line-breaks are usually placed carefully and with a feeling for the flow and structure of the words); the stock drawings in the backgrounds, and the lavish use of color, contribute still further to the busy and gaudy appearance. Nevertheless, after a few pages of this I got used to it and actually started to appreciate it; what seemed to be merely clutter at first, turned out to be wealth; what seemed unwelcome distractions, turned into invitations to explore, relish, enjoy each page, discover its visual elements and their arrangement, and to turn each leaf with curiosity about what will happen on the next page. The frequent mixing of typefaces (and a fairly diverse set of typefaces it is, too) it not as bad as it sounds at the first thought; if little else, changes of typeface within a poem are always used to convey some sort of emphasis or express some sort of break. Thus, all in all, while I might not be happy if this approach to design was used in all books, it works well enough in an anthology of poems and fragments, which is perhaps rather meant to be pecked at here and there than to be read cover to cover like a novel.

And there are some typographic puns that are just plain cute. Thus on pp. 20-21 we have the wavy line "unfurl the loveliness in your eyes", in which the word "unfurl" is literally unfurling and looks somehow extremely cute and delightful. On p. 34, the last letters of the words "hook" and "barb" are actually equipped with some sort of hooks or barbs. And on p. 59, the line "and her blonde curls" is in fact curled at the end.

Thus, all in all, this was a delightful anthology and a wonderful read. I remember noticing it on Amazon way back in 1999 only a couple of years after it was first published; then I sort of forgot about it and only remembered it again after it had more or less gone out of print; after some time I managed to find this fine copy of the Aurum Press edition on eBay, and I'm really glad I did.

Friday, February 11, 2005


Yes! Finally a post full of that blithe irrelevancy that gives blogs such a bad reputation in the eyes of many people. <sarcasm>And so unlike the weighty and sober posts hitherto seen on this blog...</sarcasm>

(1.) A girl's question in the advice column of Antena, xxxxi/6, 7 Feb 2005, p. 39:

I have big breasts. What should I do?

Let me jump in with a bit of advice: Flaunt 'em!!!

(2.) A headline from the most recent Stop magazine (xxxviii/6, 10 Feb 2005, p. 90), from an article about the upcoming local Miss Universe contest, the world finals of which will apparently be in Bangkok later this year:

Bangkok awaits the fairest one!

Either nobody noticed the double entendre, or they figured the readers won't notice it (which is probably true; after all, the headline, like the whole magazine, is in Slovenian, in which there is nothing particularly exciting about the word Bangkok), or they decided they just don't mind. Or is it just me, my mind polluted beyond redemption by all manner of perversities from the web, who cannot help noticing Bangkok and thinking "heh heh, if only half of what is usually written about the modelling business in the papers is true, the winner will surely have to let herself get banged by many cocks if she wants to succeed in her career..."

(3.) Seen in front of the casino at Slovenska cesta, Ljubljana:

No unlucky numbers here.

Of course not; a few numbers are lucky for the gamblers, while all the rest are lucky for the casino.

(4.) Next to the casino, there is a fast food joint that offers "chessburgers" among other things. I guess you get a chess figure between two slices of bread. I wonder if you get to choose which figure it is, and what it's made of. Unfortunately, being the unashamed Luddite that I am, I don't have any digital cameras or anything of the sort, so I can't provide any photographic evidence. Taking a picture with my analog camera and then scanning it would be too much effort, not to mention expense.

Update: others have noticed it too, and a photo is now available. And apparently this is not the only place offering chessburgers in Ljubljana.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

The crystalline voice of Teresa Salgueiro

I was listening to a Madredeus CD the other day, and the thought struck me how often their lead singer's voice is described as "crystalline". Naturally, I know practically nothing about singing and indeed music in general, so this term might just as well have some clearly defined technical meaning of which I am unaware. But anyway, it got me thinking what exactly it's supposed to mean that a voice is crystalline; what does a crystalline voice sound like?

One thing I thought of is that the singing in many, perhaps most, or at least the most well-known, Madredeus songs consists mainly of very long, drawn-out vowels, separated every now and then a bashful consonant or two. Each vowel is in some sense clear and sharp, going on and on like the hard, translucent facet of a crystal; its constant frequency is like the constant straight surface of a facet; then a consonant, i.e. an edge separating two facets; and then another vowel, different from the preceding one, just like two facets of a crystal may differ in shape and be at angles to each other.

Not that there's anything wrong with having a crystalline voice, of course; I like Madredeus a lot, although I cannot help agreeing a bit with those who have described their music as "diluted"; a very felicitous choice of word, I think. Not all of their pieces, it is true, but many, sound like some sort of ambient music, something that can be played unobtrusively in the background while you dedicate yourself to work or whatever else you have in mind to do at the moment. Much of it hardly sounds like something that one would want to explicitly listen to. Maybe the problem is simply that a thick-skulled, thick-skinned boor such as myself needs the kind of music that hits hard straight in the face, and keeps on hitting until at least something of it seeps through to me.

Anyway, I guess the reason why this whole crystalline voice business has been getting on my mind at all is that I am wondering if "crystalline" really is a characteristic of a voice by itself, rather than of the particular combination of voice and the songs they sing. That is, if the same singer sang something that consists of normally flowing text (preferably something where meaning plays a prominent role), rather than being more or less a sequence of very long vowels each melting tastefully into the next one, would her voice still be described as crystalline? Especially if she sings in a language such as Portuguese, which is surely the last that could be accused of treating its vowels with circumspection, and whose abundant sh-like sounds are about as crystalline as mud. Consider the fado singers for example; surely Amália Rodrigues, or some of the younger ones for that matter, Mariza or Mafalda Arnauth for instance, surely these are fine singers with good voices; but just as surely, no matter how they sing, as long as they sing the kind of songs they sing now it wouldn't occur to anybody to describe their voices as crystalline.

P.S. Querying Google for Teresa Salgueiro crystalline returns a curious mixture of results; some refer to Madredeus, and some contain publications of Portuguese and Brazilian chemists and physicists. :-)

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

OpenGL and Direct3D are for sissies...

...real men do their 3-d graphics in PostScript! :-)

What the Cantor dust is in one dimension and the Sierpinski carpet in two, the Menger sponge (also known as the Sierpinski cube) is in three dimensions. Start with a cube and divide it into 3*3*3 smaller cubes; then remove those that do not touch any of the edges of the original cube. This leaves 20 out of the 27 smaller cubes. Now the same step can be performed on them, resulting in an object composed of 400 even smaller cubes, and so on. The volume of the object tends towards zero, but its surface increases beyond all bounds. The picture shown here is the object obtained after we perform this step four times.

Anyway, I thought it would be fun to draw this in PostScript. It doesn't have any particular support for 3-d graphics, so we have to project things by ourselves. The surface of the sponge consists of a number of small squares; we just have to be careful to draw them in the correct order, so that the ones which appear closer to the viewer will be drawn last (and thus won't be obscured by other things). The correct order depends on the angle from which we are looking at the object; the one used by the showCube procedure below is suitable for the particular angles (lat and lon) used, but if these were changed considerably, the procedure might need to be rearranged a bit.

%!PS-Adobe-2.0 EPSF-2.0
%%BoundingBox: 109 199 495 600

/n 4 def   % approximation level of the fractal
/xyColor { 1 0.5 0.5 setrgbcolor } def
/xzColor { 0.5 1 0.5 setrgbcolor } def
/yzColor { 0.5 0.5 1 setrgbcolor } def
/distanceFromCamera 2.5 def
/lon 50 def /lat 36 def  % to rotate the object
/scale 600 def % larger values = larger object

/pow { % a b pow -> a^b
    2 dict begin /b exch def /a exch def
    1 { b 0 le { exit } if
        a mul
        /b b 1 sub def
    } loop
} def

/isPresent { % x y z isPresent --> true/false
    20 dict begin 
    /z exch def /y exch def /x exch def

    x 0 lt y 0 lt or z 0 lt or
    x n3 ge or y n3 ge or z n3 ge or
    { false }
        {   n 0 le { true exit } if
            x 3 mod 1 eq { 1 } { 0 } ifelse
            y 3 mod 1 eq { 1 } { 0 } ifelse
            z 3 mod 1 eq { 1 } { 0 } ifelse
            add add 2 ge { false exit } if
            /x x 3 idiv def
            /y y 3 idiv def
            /z z 3 idiv def
            /n n 1 sub def
        } loop
    } ifelse
} def

/map3dTo2d { % x y z map3dTo2d --> xMapped yMapped
    30 dict begin
    /zi exch   n3 2 div  sub n3 div def
    /yi exch   n3 2 div  sub n3 div def
    /xi exch   n3 2 div  sub n3 div def

    % Rotate by 'lon' degrees around the z-axis.
    xi lon cos mul   yi lon sin mul   sub  % new xi
    xi lon sin mul   yi lon cos mul   add  % new yi
    /yi exch def /xi exch def
    % Rotate by 'lat' degrees around the y-axis.
    xi lat cos mul   zi lat sin mul   sub  % new xi
    xi lat sin mul   zi lat cos mul   add  % new zi
    /zi exch def /xi exch def
    % Project.
    /xi xi distanceFromCamera add def
    yi xi div scale mul
    zi xi div scale mul

} def

/xyfacet {
    30 dict begin 
    /zi exch def /yi exch def /xi exch def
        xi yi zi              map3dTo2d moveto
        xi yi 1 add zi        map3dTo2d lineto
        xi 1 add yi 1 add zi  map3dTo2d lineto
        xi 1 add yi zi        map3dTo2d lineto
        xyColor fill
} def

/xzfacet {
    30 dict begin 
    /zi exch def /yi exch def /xi exch def
        xi yi zi              map3dTo2d moveto
        xi yi zi 1 add        map3dTo2d lineto
        xi 1 add yi zi 1 add  map3dTo2d lineto
        xi 1 add yi zi        map3dTo2d lineto
        xzColor fill
} def

/yzfacet {
    30 dict begin 
    /zi exch def /yi exch def /xi exch def
        xi yi zi              map3dTo2d moveto
        xi yi zi 1 add        map3dTo2d lineto
        xi yi 1 add zi 1 add  map3dTo2d lineto
        xi yi 1 add zi        map3dTo2d lineto
        yzColor fill
} def

    30 dict begin

    0 1  n3 1 sub {
        % We will now show level r 
        % (z-coordinate from r to r+1).
        /r exch def 

        % First show the bottom facets.
        0 1  n3 1 sub  { /yi exch def 
        0 1  n3 1 sub  { /xi exch def
            xi yi r 1 sub isPresent 
            xi yi r isPresent 
            not and { xi yi r xyfacet} if
        } for } for

        % Then show the facets which are not
        % perpendicular to the z-axis.
        0 1  n3  { /yi exch def
            n3 -1 0  { /xi exch def
                xi yi 1 sub r isPresent 
                xi yi r isPresent 
                not and { xi yi r xzfacet } if
            } for
            n3 -1 0  { /xi exch def
                xi yi r isPresent 
                xi 1 sub yi r isPresent 
                not and { xi yi r yzfacet } if
            } for
        } for

        % For the last (topmost) layer,
        % also show the top facets.
        r  n3 1 sub  eq {
            0 1  n3 1 sub  { /yi exch def
            0 1  n3 1 sub  { /xi exch def
                xi yi r isPresent 
                { xi yi r 1 add xyfacet } if
            } for } for
        } if
    } for

} def

0.2 setlinewidth
/n3 3 n pow def
% Center it on the A4 sheet of paper.
0.5 595 mul 0.5 842 mul translate


You can copy the above code into a file and send it to your favourite PostScript printer, or open it in a viewer such as Ghostview.

For a level-4 sponge, such as we see in the picture above, this draws 168192 facets. When I tried converting this PostScript file to PDF, the resulting PDF file was several megabytes long, because PDF is not really a programming language with loops and so forth, and the PDF file simply contained all the objects drawn by the above program. However, of these 168192 facets, most aren't really visible in the end because they are obscured by other facets. I wrote a C++ program to determine which ones are completely obscured by others and may be removed; only approx. 22000 facets were left, and the image when rendered at 1200 DPI was completely unchanged; the resulting PDF file was only about 400 KB long.

P.S. Since the title mentions sissies, this comic should not be missed.

Sunday, February 06, 2005


The thought just struck me — here I sit, browsing and reading the old posts of this blog of mine, the address of which is known to nobody but myself; I read what I have written a few days or weeks ago, and in due time I will sit down to write some more material to which to return and re-read it in future times, and so on; and I begin to wonder: is this not a kind of wankery? Is this any better than one of the scenes with Frodo and Gollum in one of the Lord of the Rings movies, with Frodo fondly stroking his ring, and Gollum sitting a couple of meters away, his back turned towards the camera, and making exactly the same gestures only without a ring in his hands, crouched in almost in the same position as if he were literally masturbating? Are there not some deep and slightly pathological Freudian undertones in all this?

And here's another contribution to the rapidly expanding genre: the concept of monocle polishing, popularized on Doesn't the very term sound like wanking? And whenever I think of it, I think of some aged Victorian-era aristocrat who, having sadly lost the ability to polish his knob (his joints are stiff with gout, except for the one joint that really matters — bwah hah hah, how's that for an execrable pun?), now has to resort to polishing his monocle instead.

And this post, wanking about wankery, does it not fully deserve its title of meta-wankery?

And how many people before me have written about these same things (including the concern expressed by this very sentence, for you lovers of self-reference), vainly trying to pretend that they were being profound? And how many have written about all of this, knowing damn well all the time that they aren't being the least bit clever at all, let alone profound?

Not that I think there's anything wrong with wankery, mind you. On the contrary. But I can't help noticing that it has a somewhat bad reputation in some circles (not in circle-jerking circles, of course; I know, I know, another horrible pun; I couldn't help it). So I can't quite help feeling just a tiny little bit guilty about going through my old posts for the umpteenth time. But I guess I'll get used to it...

BOOK: Cyriac of Ancona, "Later Travels"

Cyriac of Ancona: Later Travels. Edited and translated by Edward W. Bodnar with Clive Foss. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 10. Harvard University Press, 2003. 0674007581. xxxv + 459 pp.

Cyriac was a merchant and diplomat from Ancona who did a lot of travelling in Greece and the Aegean islands in the middle of the 15th century. He was interested in the material remains of classical history, particularly the ancient Greek and Roman inscriptions, many of which he recorded in the letters and diaries which he wrote during his journeys. He also drew some sketches of sculptures, columns and similar things.

Frankly, I am not a very avid reader of travel literature; I often find it boring; so I didn't expect too much from this book. On the other hand, I hoped that through this book I would see some glimpses of life in that part of the Mediterranean during the 15th century, which certainly sounds like a topic that one might be interested to learn more about; particularly since it would be written by a contemporary observer who could have seen things at first hand. In this I was disappointed; Cyriac is really quite the “proto-archaeologist”, much more interested in ancient inscriptions than in the everyday life of his own period. Perhaps he thought everyday life in 15th-century Greece too commonplace and not exotic enough to write home about. Besides, many of these letters of his are to colleagues who have probably also done a lot of travelling in that area, so it wouldn't make much sense for him to write about things that they could have seen by themselves anyway.

When I started reading this book, the first few pages felt extremely, abominably dull. It really felt like suffering and I was terribly disappointed. But soon it started feeling better and I noticed huge amounts of exciting, interesting, curious little things, indeed so many that in the end I feel the book has been an interesting, in many ways even a delightful, read, much more so than many other volumes in the I Tatti Renaissance Library series. I definitely don't regret having read it.

One interesting thing, for example, is Cyriac's bizarre fascination with ancient mythology, particularly nymphs, but also Sirens and muses. For example, in 4.3-4, he describes a voyage and refers to boats and ships as if they were a bunch of cavorting nymphs. "Cyriac was obsessed by the sea-nymphs, of whom he regarded Cymodocea [...] as his special patron." (4.n5.) Visions of nymphs, Sirens and muses abound in his writings, usually connected with meteorological phenomena, often singing songs, e.g. in D4.21-22, 28.3, 30.2-3 (“my spouse, Calliope, sang with holy voice this song to the gods and divinities of the sea”, and Cyriac's hymn to the nymphs duly follows), 32.3 (nymphs, muses, and King Aeolus to boot), 32.5 (“the Nereids rose to felicitate me with great joy”; naturally, being the dirty bastard that I am, my first thought upon seeing the word “felicitate” was a certain other word, which agrees with it in the first and last three letters), 33.2-4, 35.9, 37.4 (on hearing that his friend had gone to the Chian baths, Cyriac hopes that he is now “improving your excellent good health with the assistance of Doto, Clotho, Panopea, and Cymodocea, the most beautiful of all the Nereid nymphs” — honi soit qui mal y pense! :-)), 39.4, 39.9 (where three women of the town of Galata are represented as nymphs), 42.3.

In fact, although I see no reason to suppose that his genuine religious beliefs were anything else than Christian, it is at the same time clear that he has absolutely no problems with invoking the ancient pagan deities and referring to them in a positive light, which I certainly find commendable. Thus he includes, upon embarking on a voyage, a prayer to Mercury in his diary (D3.27), asking for (among other things) “a favouring sea and a chorus of nymphs and nereids”. In 46.3 he utters a brief prayer to Diana. Being a merchant, he probably felt particularly attached to Mercury, who is the god of commerce. In 23.9, he refers to himself as “lover of Hermes” and to the god as “my protecting deity, Mercury”. In 32.10, he is writing on “the 2nd of March, the sacred, favoring, windy and holy day of Mercury, our most propitious patron, 1446”. (March 2, 1446 in the Julian calendar was a Wednesday, Mercurii dies in Latin, mercoledì in Italian, mercredi in French, etc.) Similarly, in 39.7, the 15th of August, 1446 is “ the chaste light-bearer Diana's favorable, clear day”, i.e. a Monday (Moon-day, Lune dies, and Diana was a moon-goddess). In fact the whole of paragraph 39.7 is a very nice example of a peaceful and happy coexistence of ancient pagan and christian religious references. (Incidentally, Cyriac is of course not alone in his enthusiasm for ancient mythology; his friend Domenico Grimani, in a short letter to Cyriac, invokes the ancient deities twice to strengthen his expressions: “by Hercules” in 44.2, and “by Pollux” in 44.3.)

There are some other curious reports related to the ancient religion. On Crete, orthodox priests living near a spring formerly sacred to the goddess Diana, told him that “even in our own day” they sometimes saw Diana and her nymphs bathing naked “in the translucent waters” (D4.14). In his diary, D5.45-46 he briefly describes some local customs from the peninsula of Tainaron in the south of Greece, and mentions that the people “say that their dead, no matter what their religion was, have gone of ``to Hades'', that is, to the lower world”.

He sometimes refers to the Christian god as Jove, e.g. 39.18, 53.2. And in D3.59, the 23rd of April is “Jupiter's favorite, joyful day”, probably because, in 1445, this was a Sunday, i.e. the Lord's day. On the other hand, in 12.3, July 16, 1444 is “Jove's lucky day” because it is a Thursday (Iovis dies, giovedì).

In 12.6, he describes that unusual animal, the zoraphan, i.e. the giraffe. See also 12.n11. Incidentally, this passage, like several others, particularly those involving visions of and encounters with mythological creatures, is narrated as if occurring in a dream. I realize that this is only a literary device, but I find it somewhat silly — in the middle of an otherwise sober and matter-of-fact letter to some recipient who is typically some sober, matter-of-fact merchant, Cyriac jumps, as if this was the most natural thing in the world, into a dream-vision of nymphs or whatever other mythical beings happened to strike his fancy at that moment. I guess I really should read Joscelyn Godwin's Pagan Dream of the Renaissance.

In D2.41, he describes an ancient sculpture of “a fierce struggle between a nude man and a lion”, in which the man is winning. Not that I object to a bit of poetic licence, but surely this is ridiculous. It reminds me of that line from an old text-based adventure game: “With what? Your bare hands? Against his bear hands?”

He records many inscriptions from tombs. It is interesting how often they threaten with fines if somebody should try to bury another body in the tomb in addition to the one for whom it was originally built. “I do not wish any other body to be buried in it. Anyone who dares to do so will pay the city of Thasos a penalty or fine of 5000 gold pieces.” (D2.49.) Apparently this parasitism of graves and urns must have been a widespread phenomenon if the relatives of the deceased felt that such threats were necessary.

He visits the monasteries of Mount Athos, and buys from a monk a volume of manuscripts, containing mostly letters of various ancient persons. There are a few very curious items, in particular “138 letters of Phalaris, the tyrant of Agrigentum, to the Megarians, to Pythagoras, and others” (D2.65). Who would have thought that the letters of Mr. Brazen Bull have been preserved? I sure wonder what he wrote about.

Many of the ancient inscriptions he records are rather formulaic and boring. Typically they are along the lines of: "In memory/honour of So-and-So [or: such-and-such an event], paid for by So-and-so [or: by the city council, etc.]". Many are little more than lists of names. But then I don't mean to suggest that, when an inscription in stone is created nowadays, the writing is any more inspired than this. I guess that stone inscriptions are the sort of thing that attracts mainly dull, glum people, with a slight inclination towards pomposity, and the resulting writing reflects this fact. Nevertheless it is all the more fascinating, almost touching in a way, to see how Cyriac is genuinely curious and excited by all these inscriptions, recording carefully and devoutly even the dullest, minutest, least interesting ones. At the same time some few of the graveyard inscriptions are genuinely touching. See in particular 21.2, from the grave of an 18-year-old girl, survived by her parents, brother, and husband; and D3.68, from the grave of a wife mourned by her loving husband (“Marcus; what use is insatiable grief? Endure; even kings who met with gloomy grief have the pain of such suffering”). Some of the inscriptions end, quite touchingly, by the word “farewell” (χαιρε, or, in plural, χαιρετε): “Philomenos, farewell. Sophia Philoumena, farewell.” (D5.21.) I almost can't help regretting that nowadays the grave inscriptions are usually so short, giving just the name and dates and perhaps an “R.I.P.”, but nothing whatsoever about who the person was and how he or she lived. Looking at the inscriptions in our local graveyard, it seems that before WW2, many inscriptions record at least the occupation of the deceased person, and perhaps a short sentence about his or her life. There are no genuinely long inscriptions comparable to the ancient ones mentioned by Cyriac, perhaps because this habit died long ago and none of the inscriptions in our local graveyard are really old (e.g. older than 100 years). I find it fascinating that there must have existed, in the ancient times, practically an entire semi-literary genre of grave inscriptions. Perhaps I should buy one of the various collections of epitaphs and other graveyard inscriptions, of which there seems to be a considerable selection on amazon. It's a pity that nowadays most people would probably consider the interest in such things as something unhealthy and morbid. I am rather fond of graveyards; they are nice, calm, quiet places; although I don't believe in any form of afterlife I rather like the idea of being “laid to rest” there one day. After all, why should one avoid graveyards? Dead people, as long as they are properly buried, won't harm you (unlike many living ones, one might add). When I went to secondary school, it was located approx. 100 meters away from a graveyard. One of the sides of the building consisted practically of nothing but huge windows, through which you had a magnificent view of (among other things) the graveyard as you ascended the main staircase to get to the third floor, on which most of our classrooms were located. On the first of November everyone brings candles to the graves of their relatives, and in the next few evenings, the sight of the graveyard from those third-floor windows, with the thousands of little twinkling lights emitted by the candle-flames, was really a wondrously beautiful thing.

Incidentally, Wilde also mentions χαιρε in a very nice stanza in his Humanitad:

The quenched-out torch, the lonely cypress-gloom,
     The little dust stored in the narrow urn,
The gentle ΧΑΙΡΕ of the Attic tomb,—
     Were not these better far than to return
To my old fitful restless malady,
Or spend my days within the voiceless cave of misery?

According to the editor's notes on p. 267 of Wilde's collected poems (Oxford UP, 2000), the word can also mean “Welcome”, not just “Farewell”, which makes it even more appropriate for a tomb inscription.

The inscription from the island of Delos, in D3.24, is a nice example of referring to years by the names of people in various official positions.

Cyriac is not only an obsessed collector of ancient inscriptions, but even composed a couple of his own; see 39.6 and 52.2.

One of the nice things about living in the 15th century and being interested in antiquities is that many ancient sites were better preserved then than they are now (see also Gibbon's Decline and Fall, ch. 71). For example, he saw the Parthenon before that lamentable explosion of gunpowder during one of the wars between Turkey and Venice in the 17th century (3.5 and plates I and II, which show Cyriac's sketches of the Parthenon).

Apparently there is, on the island of Chios, a village called Homerica, and the inhabitants show a certain spot as the location of Homer's tomb. Cyriac makes a small excavation, finding nothing, but nevertheless does not doubt the truth of their claims and is duly rapt with pleasure (43.3-4).

Various people have various opinions about the course of human history. Some (e.g. many 18th and 19th century thinkers, and many lovers of technological progress even in our own day) believe things are generally getting better; others (e.g. Hesiod and other believers in a lost “golden age”), that it is getting worse all the time; yet others suggest that things are going down, to be eventually followed by an up (e.g. the Christian millennium); and yet others suggest that history goes in circles (e.g. Oswald Spengler). Well, Cyriac has a nice lament about the decay not only of famous ancient cities, art, and architecture, but also of the “pristine human virtue and renowned integrity of spirit” (D5.55), showing him to be in the camp of those who believe that everything has been going downhill ever since that fabled golden age of old. Well, I for one have an equally hard time believing in progress and in a downfall from a supposed golden age; being a bit of a cynic, I think that we humankind are a hopelessly miserable lot, selfish, dirty, grubby, corrupt beyond help, a veritable scum, a skin-disease of the Earth as Nietzsche said, and I seriously doubt that humankind will ever manage to rise above these defects of ours; and if it does, I think it will have to be so different from the people of today that it will scarcely still be appropriate to call its members humans. — I liked his conclusion a lot, though: “and where they [i.e. virtue and integrity of spirit] had once flourished most, there they had more and more departed”. From my experiences with the grubbier sides of Greek tourist industry, I have a lot of sympathy with this view of the Greeks as thieving, cheating rascals. (And apparently many people enjoy talking about the decay of Greece; “By some, who delight in the contrast, the modern language of Athens is represented as the most corrupt and barbarous of the seventy dialects of the vulgar Greek: this picture is too darkly colored”, Gibbon, ch. 62; and see also Byron's Childe Harold, Canto II, st. 84).

In D4.19, he quotes a paragraph of the ancient Greek epistolary novel Chion of Heraclea, including this gem, written by Chion about a certain man named Archepolis from Lemnos: “I believe that he is also a virtuous merchant because, before he took to commerce, he devoted himself to the study of philosophy.” To a shameless anticapitalist like myself, with a burning hatred of commerce and all those who practice it, the very notion of a “virtuous merchant” is a superbly hilarious oxymoron. How could a man be virtuous and yet sell things at a higher price than he bought them for? How could he be virtuous and yet lie to his customers about the quality of his goods, or how could he not lie and yet avoid going bankrupt? How could a virtuous man take up commerce? The only possible explanation of his story can be that he realized that philosophy is only OK if you are either independently wealthy (like Plato) or willing to live in abject poverty (like Diogenes); otherwise it won't get you far, so Archepolis wisely gave it up and devoted himself to commerce instead. Ah, but I forget that Cyriac was a merchant himself, so it would be unreasonable of him to expect that commerce and virtue do not go together. Heh, perhaps I shouldn't have listened so much to my grandmother's tales of how when, decades ago, she worked as a shop assistant, she would cheerfully tell the customers that certain eggs had been laid that very morning when they had in fact been sitting on the shelf for two weeks.

An inscription in a theater in Miletus, quoted in 30.7, lists the Greek vowels, thus: “Α Ε Η Ι Ο Υ Ω”. The editor's note on p. 221 says that these vowels represent the seven Archangels. Although I find this kind of mysticism which ascribes profound meanings to letters and numbers to be very silly, I must admit that it is silly in a charming kind of way.

In the Latin text, he uses the Greek letter ω in some names like Joannes where (I guess) ω would be used if the whole thing had been written in Greek. Examples of this occur in 1.1 and 19.1. He also uses ζ instead of z when referring to Byzantium, e.g. in 1.2, 1.4, 1.6.

In Cyriac's time, the Italian city-states had considerable influence in Greece and the Aegean islands, and many of these territories were under the control of Italian rulers. They mostly achieved this by taking advantage of the weakness of the Byzantine empire in the preceding few centuries; see e.g. the History of Venice by J. J. Norwich. Many passages in Cyriac's writings reflect this situation, e.g. D2.22, D2.33, D3.39, D5.16-18, 23.1, 25.2, D4.15, 29.5, 39.13, and the editor's note on Francesco Gattilusio on pp. 372-3.

Apparently the Cretans were famous as archers in the ancient times; 23.3-10.

Letter 39 is a long praise of the city of Galata, a Genoese colony near Constantinople. It is exceedingly boring and I am completely unable to understand how anybody can have found this sort of writing interesting; perhaps the vanity of some worthy merchant of Galata may have been pleased by this dull recitation of the virtues, advantages, glory and other praiseworthy aspects of the city, but any other reader must be yawning with boredom soon after the first few paragraphs. And yet the editor's notes (p. 432) say that this genre, laus urbis (praise of a city) was popular during the late middle ages and the Renaissance. What on earth did they see in writings like this? Perhaps they enjoyed the technicalities of the genre, e.g. the artful use of Latin prose, the allusions to classical mythology, rhetoric figures, etc., all of which are of course things that I don't notice, because I don't understand any Latin; but even so, I doubt that the genre would have been popular merely because of technicalities. But I know that I shouldn't laugh at those medieval and renaissance fans of the genre for their admiration of what seems to me but the absurd pomposity of these city-praises; after all, I have no idea how the future centuries will look at the genres that we read and enjoy nowadays. Perhaps the future generations will regard us as naive simpletons, just like these praises seem to me something that only naive simpletons could enjoy. But anyway, something else touched me about this praise of Galata: it was written in 1446, and according to the editor's note 3 on p. 432, the Turks were practically at the doorstep of the city at that time, and conquered it a mere five years later. Cyriac's praise came practically at the very end of the city's two or three centuries of existence as a Genovese colony. Surely the Turkish conquest must have seemed to the citizens of Galata a little bit as if the world was coming to an end. In a way it probably was the end of one particular kind of Galata (although I am sure that life eventually went on and it probably became a perfectly normal Turkish town in due course; it's just a district of Istanbul now). Here in Cyriac's praise, we see a prosperous city, inhabited by a happy populace, everything apparently going well — and yet a mere five years later, that particular culture and way of life are gone, and we find a different people, different customs, practically a new city, set up in place of the old! I often had such feelings while reading this book: that it was a time of waning; while Cyriac was busy travelling around (the letters and diaries in this book are from the 1440s), the sun was setting down on the Byzantine empire and the Italian colonies in the Levant; just a few years later, the Byzantine empire was no more, and within a few decades neither were most of the Italian colonies. Thinking of the collapse of the Byzantine empire always makes me somewhat sad; "Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade/ Of that which once was great, must past away" (Wordsworth On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic). (For more about the historical context of Cyriac's travels, see the editor's notes on pp. 374-5.)

Many of Cyriac's letters are addressed to a friend of his, a merchant from Chios named Andreolo Giustiniani. Cyriac often sends in his letters greetings to Andreolo's family, particularly his wife Carenza. I'm not sure what this name originally meant; Babelfish translates it as deficiency, and I know that gardeners here use a word which sounds the same, and was probably also borrowed from Italian or some such language, to refer to the period of time that must pass after spraying some tree with pesticide or some similar chemical, before it is safe to pluck its fruit and eat it. Either way, I couldn't help finding the name a bit funny every time I saw it, and thinking that it doesn't seem to be an altogether very flattering and appropriate word to be used for a name.

Cyriac expends considerable creativity on the salutations at the end of his letters: “Farewell and fare well. Farewell and again fare well. May you be lastingly happy.” (37.8.) “Again and again, farewell” (35.10, 41.3). “Farewell and again, farewell.” (45.5).

All in all, as the above examples show, I found this book to be full of delights, not at all boring as I feared at first. Of the I Tatti Renaissance Library books that I've read so far, few have been as interesting as Cyriac's Travels.

Friday, February 04, 2005

BOOK: Antony Beevor, "Berlin: The Downfall 1945"

Antony Beevor: Berlin: The Downfall 1945. Viking, 2002 (0670886955). Penguin, 2003 (0140286969), 2004 (0141017473). xxxvii + 490 pp.

I am not really terribly interested in military history, especially not in its details and technicalities. For example, I am fascinated by the diplomatic and political developments that led to the First World War (Robert Massie's Dreadnought, which focuses on the naval arms race in the decades before WW1, is highly recommended), but I am not in the least interested in the details of the battles and the positions of the front lines during the WW1. Similarly, I am definitely curious to learn more about the history and society of Nazi Germany, and to a lesser extent of the other major belligerents of WW2; but military details of the war leave me completely bored.

Thus I am not really the most suitable reader for a book such as this one, which has a strong focus on military history. There are a lot of detailed statements about the movements of various military units and formations, which I guess is interesting for those who are willing and able to recreate the whole battle in their minds and consequently require all these details to be able to form a complete picture; but I basically tried to get over such passages as quickly as possible and didn't bother to really follow what was being said.

Fortunately, however, the book contains many interesting things even for a reader such as me. You don't have to wade through the military details for too long before encountering something interesting, either some anecdote, a bit of political development, or something showing how the people involved in the events actually experienced them and how their daily life was affected.

The book covers the period from January 1945, when the Red Army had just crossed the pre-war German border and entered East Prussia, up to the end of the war in May 1945. Here are some of the things I found interesting:

The Red Army's treatment of German civillians was often rather harsh; of course, this is in a way not suprising given how much the Soviets have suffered during the German invasion of the Soviet Union. East Prussia, which was the first German region to be occupied by the Red Army, suffered the most (p. 420). Rape and looting, and even plain senseless destruction, were very common. See particularly chs. 3 and 27. Many Soviet soldiers were suprised to see that in Germany even the peasants had a relatively high standard of living, and outraged by the fact that Germany had attacked the Soviet Union even though it clearly had no need to do so (p. 34, 66-7). As for looting, the Russians were particularly obsessed with watches (p. 119, 408).

Hitler never stopped meddling with the military strategy, usually with disastrous results. He often forbade retreat, causing many casualties (or surrenders) that could have been avoided if the units could have retreated at a suitable moment. P. 142, 263.

The Soviets were impressed with the construction of Hitler's Wolfsschanze bunker in East Prussia; pp. 97-8.

Some of the most fanatically determined units fighting on the German side consisted of foreign volunteers, e.g. the SS Charlemagne division (p. 116, 257).

At some point, Himmler was given command over a part of the army. He was good at living in luxury but quite incompetent as a commander (p. 130).

On the uselessness of tank ditches (which the civilians were often forced to dig, despite their exhaustion, hunger, etc.) (p. 133).

One of the reasons why the Soviets wanted so much to reach Berlin before the other allies was that they wanted to seize the German uranium reserves, at least part of which was stored at an institute in Dahlem near Berlin. The Soviet atomic bomb program was suffering due to a lack of uranium at the time (pp. xxxiv, 138-9). They also made efforts to capture German scientists (pp. 324-5, 406). Soviet attempts to expropriate the equipment from German factories and workshops were horribly inefficient, however (p. 407).

They also tried to occupy as much territory in Central Europe as possible, hoping that it would remain under their influence after the war. The Americans, and Eisenhower in particular, were apparently not sufficiently aware of that and didn't make any efforts to stop them. The British couldn't do much without the Americans, either. Pp. 139-40.

Some of the reasons why the Germans defended themselves till the bitter end: their propaganda had led them to believe that miracle weapons would save them in the last minute, or that they might make peace with the USA and UK, who would join them in fighting the Soviet Union; apparently even many senior Nazis didn't realize how impossible such a peace treaty would be; Hitler did realize it, however, but was obsessed with fighting to the end and going out in a blaze of glory: if he couldn't win, he didn't care what happened to Germany and its people (p. 144). Propaganda had also led many Germans to believe that the Soviets would enslave the whole population (p. 415, 418); thus the Germans concentrated on defending themselves from the Soviets, perhaps hoping that in this way the Soviets would occupy less of their territory and the western powers more.

Throughout these last months of the war, the German forces were vastly outnumbered by the Soviets (pp. 6, 147), and often suffered from lack of ammunition (p. 133), fuel, and other supplies.

The Soviet authorities treated Soviet citizens who had spent some time in Germany as prisoners of war or forced labourers with great suspicion (p. 167). During the war, the Soviet authorities allowed some more freedom of speech than before, but resumed their usual repression as soon as the war was over (pp. 422-3).

The Nazis tried to organize groups that would continue guerrilla fighting after the war; however, this organization, called Werwolf, achieved very little (pp. 173-5).

Although the Nazi leaders insisted on defense to the end, forbidding retreat and instituting high punishments for desertion and the like, they also made very sure that they themselves did not get into any danger and escaped in time. P. 261.

Apparently the phone system kept on working during the battle of Berlin, leading to some funny situations (p. 267, 299, 300).

The Berliners apparently had a robust and cynical sense of humour (pp. 410, 416).

Incidentally, the author is a very well known military historian. A few years ago he wrote a book about the battle for Stalingrad, which is much in the same vein as this one about the battle for Berlin. If you liked one of these books you will probably also enjoy the other one.