Saturday, May 26, 2007

BOOK: V. G. Liulevicius, "War Land on the Eastern Front"

Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius: War Land on the Eastern Front: Culture, National Identity and German Occupation in World War I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 0521661579. viii + 310 pp.


During the First World War, Germany was quite successful on the Eastern front, and managed to occupy a considerable amount of territory that had formerly belonged to the Russian empire. Some of this territory, such as Poland, was governed by civilian occupation authorities, but some of it remained under military administration. This was known as the “Ober Ost’ and covered the area of the present-day Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and a bit of Belarus. War Land on the Eastern Front is a book about the Ober Ost, the German occupation policies there, and about how the German experiences in the Ober Ost during the WW1 affected their mental picture of the East during the Weimar and Nazi periods.

I first heard of this book in Richard Evans' Coming of the Third Reich. However, it's quite expensive; currently, the hardcover costs $75 at amazon and the paperback costs $40. So I set up a notification on eBay and waited; eventually, a copy of the hardcover in very good condition turned up for $25 and I bought it.

As the price suggests, this book is probably targeted mostly at the academic market rather than at the general public, which is another reason why I was somewhat hesitant whether I should buy and read it or not; but fortunately it turned out that most of it is actually fairly readable and accessible. There's no obvious reason why it shouldn't be of interest to the general public, except that the subject is perhaps too obscure and narrow to be of interest to many people. But I was very curious to learn more about what was going on in the areas gained by Germany in the East during the WW1 (see my posts about Wheeler-Bennett's Brest-Litovsk: The Forgotten Peace); in particular, I'm fascinated by the many parallels and similarities that exist between the German attitudes, policies, and territorial ambitions regarding the East during the WW1 and those during the WW2. One is always shocked by the immensity and horror of the Nazi plans regarding the East, but it turns out that in many ways they went just a couple of steps further than their predecessors during the WW1. Anyway, if you are also curious about this topic, this is definitely just the right book for you. I found it very interesting.

My favourite parts of this book were the first few chapters, which describe the German occupation policies in the Ober Ost during the WW1. In some of the last chapters things turn a little bit more nebulous and abstract, as they are more about the development of ideas, views, opinions (that the Germans had about the East) rather than about simple narrative history and statements of facts. I didn't enjoy this part of the book as much as the earlier chapters, but even so it was still fairly pleasant to read; and anyway, for many people, and probably for the author himself, it is probably this latter part of the book that is the most valuable and interesting. The style of these latter chapters sometimes reminded me a little of Modris Eksteins' Rites of Spring (which I read last year but haven't yet written about it here on this blog — alas, my draft about it is a hopeless, ridiculously overlong jumble, little more than a summary; I can only hope that I'll get around to sorting it out eventually): pleasant to read, almost exciting sometimes (although the style of War Land on the Eastern Front is never even remotely as excited and breathless as that of the Rites of Spring), but fairly abstract and after I've read a few pages I don't necessarily feel much wiser or have the impression that anything much of what I've just read will stick in my mind. [Interestingly, both authors are Balts — Eksteins is from Latvia, and Liulevicius I guess is probably of Lithuanian origin, given the large amount of Lithuanian sources cited in his book.]

German impressions of the East

The Baltic lands, when the German army entered them, were in a state of devastation; the Russian army observed a scorched-earth policy during its retreat. The Germans' “initial impressions were crucial, shaping the way they responded to the territory and its peoples [. . .] they took the abnormal conditions and effects of war to be characteristic of the place, part of its essential character.” (P. 30.)

It is known that the Baltic lands were some of the last parts of Europe to be converted from paganism, but it seems that the influence of paganism lasted even longer than I thought. “For all practical purposes, the [Lithuanian] countryside only truly accepted Roman Catholic Christianity in the eighteenth century. Even then, what evolved was a complex synthesis of older beliefs with new religion.” (P. 31.) See also p. 69: “farmers plow around large and small stones in their fields” rather than removing them, due to “their animistic sense that the stones [. . .] had spirits and a right to be where they were”. “Germans marveled at the prehistoric stick plows used by natives [. . .] Even local breeds of swine were closer to wild boars, it seemed, than to German varieties.” (P. 69.)

“Among its many disconcerting qualities was how much history [the ground] seemed to hold. Army engineers' spades, building fortifications, found burial sites and weapons from a dim past of Baltic–Indo-European tribalism. [. . .] The most startling element was that here the prehistoric level was so close to the surface.” (P. 37.)

The Germans were also disgusted by the filth and squalor they encountered in the occupied areas. “To officials' disgusted amazement, cleaning of one particularly filthy urban thoroughfare struck proper cobbled pavement underneath, buried for decades under trash and dirt. Natives were as surprised as the soldiers. In another case, cleaning exposed a human skeleton — it was unclear how or when it had ended up there.” (P. 44.) “In one archetypal moment, Germans claimed that in Wilna, retreating Russians had ‘dirtied and stunk up [the place] un the most unspeakable way. On the ground floor of City Hall, horse manure lay three-quarters of a meter high. On the upper floor, which horses could not reach, their riders took over the animal act. [. . .]’ ” (P. 154.) The Germans promptly forced sixty native women to spend the next two weeks cleaning the place up, and henceforth never ceased pointing to it as an example of how Germans are more civilized than the Russians (p. 160).

Before the war, most Germans knew little about the Russian empire and thought of it as a rather homogeneous, monolithic entity, but “now it dissolved into a chaotic, ragged patchwork of nationalities and cultures” (p. 22).

‘Elective ethnicity’

Among the many things that confused, and to some extent appalled, the German occupiers in the Ober Ost was the complicated nature of national identities there. A number of nationalities were present in that area, all hopelessly mixed with one another, and national identity wasn't correlated too well either with language or with religion; and many people were unsure of their identity anyway. “[E]thnicity seemed very much determined by choice. ‘Elective ethnicity’ ruled. [. . .] Newly arrived Germans, trying to discern order in the land, found this disconcerting. [. . .] ‘[. . .] There are “Lithuanians” who speak no word of Lithuanian, and vice versa there are committed “Poles,” in a religious or other tradition, who speak only Lithuanian. Often members of one family count themselvers to different nationalities. [. . .]’ ” (P. 34.)

This is illustrated by a splendid anecdote of the ‘three Smiths’ in a town in Lithuania: “Mr. Schmidt [. . .] professes himself an incarnate nationalist Pole, Mr. Kowalski as a thorough Russian and [. . .] Mr. Kusnjetzow as a genuine German.” (P. 34.) “This confusion bothered soldiers because their own national identity was a recent construct [. . .] It was disconcerting for them to see how much ethnicity depended on historical circumstance and (to them this seemed most obscene) on personal choice and commitment.” (P. 35.) “[L]anguage (so important a determinant to German concepts of national identity) did not completely define ethnicity, either” (p. 121).

See also p. 185 for more interesting discussion about the concept of nationhood among the Baltic peoples. The author explains this using the etymology of the Lithuanian word for a nation, tauta: “ ‘Nation’ locates identity in birth (‘natio’). Tauta, however, is different, originally meaning ‘troop,’ ‘crowd,’ or ‘a band of riders’ (Indo-European ‘teuta’). The unifying principle, here, in contrast to ‘nation,’ is from the outset voluntaristic, pointing to a common, shared project defining the group.” In other words, this was a concept of “ ‘elective ethnicity,’ nationality as a conscious choice” (p. 186); the “Ober Ost saw not merely the clash of German and native nationalisms, but [. . .] the collision of markedly different kinds of nationalisms” (p. 186).

German occupation policies

The German administration in the Ober Ost strictly excluded non-Germans from positions of influence: “Besides being exclusively military, it was also to be exclusively German. [. . .] the ‘Order of Rule’ decreed that official titles of all offices bore the prefix ‘German.’ [. . .] A general precept written into the ‘Order of Rule’ stated that no native could command or be set above any German. Natives could only be drawn in to work as helpers, and then received no pay for their services, could not refuse service or resign from assigned responsibilities.” (P. 58.)

I was really rather shocked by this paragraph — it seems that the only difference between their policies and those of the Nazis during the WW2 was that extermination and genocides were not on the menu in the WW1. Otherwise, we see here the concept of the Germans as a master race, strictly above and separated from the natives, with the natives being little more than slaves. It isn't surprising that the author consistently uses the word ‘natives’, which we otherwise usually encounter when talking about European colonies in Africa or some other such downtrodden part of the world.

“If the army took from the land what it needed, claiming everything as its property, the same lordly treatment was applied to natives. In the streets, natives were required to make way for German officials, saluting and bowing. Violence became increasingly routine, with reported public beatings. There were numerous complaints of German soldiers raping and mistreating native girls and women, while men trying to defend them were beaten and threatened with death. Brutality towards natives went unchecked from above, due to the imperative of presenting a unified front.” (P. 63.)

Again I am quite shocked by all this, but I must admit that one thing that I find even more disconcerting is that much the same things were going on at the same time throughout the European colonies in Africa and Asia, and *I was never shocked by that*. Of course this sort of treatment of the natives in the colonies is atrocious and unacceptable, but I never found it shocking — it always seemed somehow obvious and unsurprising that such things would be going on in the colonies. But here, when I read about such things having been practiced by the Germans in the Baltic lands, I found it shocking. And this is the disconcerting thing here. Being more shocked when the people being oppressed happen to share one's skin color than when they don't is perhaps natural, but it is hardly commendable.

“The administration became a curious mix of ambitious competence and even more ambitious incompetence.” (P. 58.)

The administrative confusion and the oppression of the natives even reached such levels that, “most intolerable to [the Ober Ost] officials, the distant Reichstag could be heard, periodically demanding civil administration (in both senses of the term) for the occupied territories” :-) (p. 64).

One of the big goals of the Ober Ost administration was to make the territory autarchic: it “would be run from its own resources, while providing for armies in the East, placing no demands on the Fatherland” (p. 64). This led to various policies intended to maximize the economic exploitation of the area: introduction of various new taxes; the state claimed a monopoly on the trade with cigarettes and certain other items; there were requisitions and confiscations of all sorts of things, livestock, and real estate; “[e]ach harvest was confiscated entire and had to be sold to the army at prices which it fixed itself” (pp. 65–6); farmers were also required to provide certain amounts of various other agricultural products (chickens, milk, etc.), and these requirements did not necessarily take into account how little their farms were actually able to produce (p. 66). The transport system (old roads, old carts) was unable to cope with the increased strain (p. 67). To prevent their horses from being requisitioned, farmers tried all sorts of desperate measures; eventually, the invisible hand stepped in: “tired, bad horses commanded higher prices than good ones, as they were less likely to be requisitioned” (p. 68). Many people were recruited to work on roads and construction projects, often in very bad conditions and with little or even no pay; “According to the ‘Order of Rule,’ natives had no right to refuse assigned duties” (p. 73). “When their workday ended at 4 p.m., natives were driven back to unheated barracks and locked in for the night, without warmth or light.” (P. 74.) The difference between this and the treatment of forced labourers in Nazi Germany seems smaller than I would have expected.

Another typically colonial phenomenon: legal discrimination. “Courts were independent of German legal norms at home. Russian law was administered ‘in German fashion,’ in German language which natives could not understand. [. ,. .] Ober Ost law was applicable only to natives, while Germans were to be judged by German law. [. . .] Punishments were brutal, with crippling fines for slight infractions and death sentences for a native's possession of a weapon.” (P. 76.)

The administration's efforts towards total control of the area resulted in a flood of orders and regulations. Of course all these were originally written in German, which few of the natives understood. When they provided translations into other languages, these were often spectacularly bad (another problem was that these other languages often lacked some of the more specialized legal and administrative terms). “[B]ecause of an orthographic mistake, one legendary announcement read in Lithuanian, instead of ‘The German court judged,’ ‘The German excrement shitted’ [. . .] The problem was finally ‘solved’ by fiat: when laws appeared in German, they went into effect regardless of whether they were understood. Thus, the problem was ‘happily resolved. It was specifically determined, that for all orders and regulations, the German language sufficed.’ ” (Pp. 77–8.)

The area of the Ober Ost was divided into administrative units of various levels, and crossing the borders of these units was difficult: “internal borders [were] guarded by police and stationed troops. Natives were not allowed to move over the official boundaries. [. . .] Natives sometimes could not cross boundaries to visit neighbors, relatives, even parish churches. Traveling Jewish merchants lost their livelihood entirely. Huge fines, crippling penalties, and confiscations were imposed by military courts or district captains for infractions of these borders. [. . .] In a typical peasant response, natives drew back into themselves and their households, frustrating German expectations of revitalized economic activity.” (P. 93.)

The German administration had a veritable obsession with something called ‘movement policy’ (Verkehrspolitik), i.e. with the aim of controlling all movement of both people and goods within the Ober Ost; see also p. 101: “ ‘[. . .] every person, in whatever place and for whatever purpose they might find themselves in the occupied territory, must be in possession of some identifying certification [. . .]’ ”; thus, personal identification documents were issued to all inhabitants over the age of ten (p. 101). Frequent inspections of these documents were carried out for no better reason than to get the people used to this and to the need for carrying the documents (p. 104).

Regulations were even “instructing natives precisely how to walk on the sidewalks”: all natives “ ‘[. . .] must politely greet the German officers of the German army [. . . and] must give the right of way in the street to German soldiers and if need be should step down from the boardwalk. Resistance will be sharply punished.’ ” (P. 104.) Compare this with the decree issued in 1941 by a Nazi administrator in occupied Poland: “I decree that Poles of both sexes must salute all military vehicles and vehicles bearing pennants. This decree is necessary for two reasons: (1) Because the Poles have become cheeky and presumptuous, (2) Because the reputation and standing of the German reich” requires it (cited in Burleigh's The Third Reich: A New History, ch. 6, sec. 3, p. 451).

At some point, the administration “carried out a ‘people and livestock count’ [. . .] the description speaks volumes about the occupiers' perspective” (p. 94).

The results of these policies are unsurprising: “The popular mood turned against the Germans, where before it had been tentative, expecting normalization and the return of order. [. . .] Ordinary peasants who had cared nothing for politics now were forced into political understanding in ethnic terms.” (P. 75.) See also p. 181: “Paradoxically, the administration inadvertently created objective conditions for the formation of independent native identities and political consciousness. [. . .] The clash of cultures with the occupiers compelled natives to articulate values earlier inchoate and implicit in their traditions and ways of life, as an alternative to intolerable present conditions.”

Of course, the German authorities also controlled the press. Most of the newspapers were in German, which few of the natives understood: “The only concession made to this reality was to print German text in Latin type rather than Gothic” (p. 116). “All press underwent double censorship, before and after being typeset, in a regime given to ridiculous excesses of caution” (p. 119).

Another tightly regulated area was education. “These programs' ultimate aim was to produce client nationalities within a German framework [. . .] distinct blocs of ethnic groups, accustomed to German manner and method, but requiring German supervision.” (P. 127.) The goal was not germanization; “Instead, authorities aimed at gaining a foothold in each pupil's consciousness through language lessons and inculcating German manner, a German way of doing things, and German method” (ibid.). Higher education was very limited, as natives would “have no need for an intelligentsia” in the envisioned future of the area (ibid.). The state didn't really accomplish much in the field of education, besides “shutting down schools and stoping out grassroots educational efforts” (p. 128); “natives fell back on a tradition of a clandestine schooling” (p. 127).

Here's another example of the ridiculously ham-fisted way in which the German authorities tried to promote the superior German culture among the poor benighted natives: theatre. “Reportedly, locals were crowded into these military temples of art, after being forced to pay to see dramas in a language they did not understand.” (Pp. 140–1.)

[To be continued in a few days.]

Labels: , ,

Saturday, May 19, 2007

BOOK: Maffeo Vegio, "Short Epics" (cont.)

Maffeo Vegio: Short Epics. Edited and translated by Michael C. J. Putnam. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 15. Harvard University Press, 2004. 0674014839. lviii + 184 pp.

[Continued from last week.]

The Golden Fleece

Finally an enjoyable epic poem. This one is a bit longer than the previous two (approx. 1000 lines). It tells a part of the story of the Argonauts, from the time of their arrival to Colchis to the time they escape, together with Medea and the Golden Fleece. The poet finally managed to tone down his obsession with speeches somewhat, so that at least some parts of the poem actually consist of action rather than just rhetoric. Additionally, unlike the previous two poems, this one actually tells something that you could call a normal coherent story, with a head and a tail, unlike the previous two poems that read more like postscripts to the Aeneid and the Iliad. And the story is interesting for its own sake; it has the same qualities that would make a fine tragedy, with plenty of raging passions and the crimes to which they lead. Medea's father Aeëtes himself, although he is quite friendly in this poem and one tends to sympathize with him, is guilty of the murder of his father and of his son-in-law Phrixus (3.45, 3.172). And then there's Medea, who murders her younger brother Absyrtus here for no very good reason (4.197–206, mostly in the hope, justified as it turns out, that the resulting grief will prevent her father from chasing her and the Argonauts). And at the end of the poem, Aeëtes pronounces a heavy curse, foretelling that Medea will end up discarded by her husband and murdering her children, which as we know from the rest of the Argonaut story indeed turns out to be the case.

One complaint that I do have about this poem, however, is that the gods interfere so much in human affairs. The poet drags a whole host of deities into the intrigues, with some of them supporting one side and some the other: Venus (2.1–6; supports the Greeks, orders Cupid to strike Medea with an arrow so that she will fall in love with Jason), Helios (2.95; he is the father of Aeëtes and thus wants to foil Venus's plans), Athena (2.119; Helios asks her for help since she used to be a kind of patron to Medea, what with the latter being a studious type and all (witchcraft, herbalism and spells, etc.); Athena now tries to get Medea to come back to her senses and not allow her lust for Jason to cause her to bring ruin upon her father and her native country), Aeolus (3.1; supports Jason, who is descended from Aeolus; besides, Aeëtes' son-in-law Phrixus, whom Aeëtes had killed, was Aeolus' grandson, 3.27), Juno (3.41; asked by Aeolus to help, and with good reason, as it was she who gave the golden fleece to Phrixus, and Aeëtes only got it after killing him, 3.31), and even the Fury Tisiphone (4.179–96; she comes to harangue Medea, encouraging her to kill her little brother).

In view of all this interference from the gods, it's sometimes difficult to shake off the feeling that the human characters in this poem are not really actors of their own — they are just puppets in the hands of the gods. They are thus robbed of a fair amount of their free will and the events in which they are enmeshed are not nearly so tragical any more. If a person causes a big mess due to his own mistakes and decisions, this can be a tragedy; but if a person causes a big mess due to the gods' bidding and control, this is just collateral damage — business as usual for the gods, to whom nothing really tragic can happen anyway. You can still sympathize with the human victims of the gods' intrigues, but they remain just that — victims, not tragic heroes. I would have been happier if the gods hadn't been involved so closely in the action of this poem.

On the subject of gods' interference in the story, there's one god who conspicuously refuses to interfere: Jupiter, who, both here (4.10–19) and in Astyanax (ll. 104–121) implies that everything has already been decided by fate and that he cannot change anything. He even makes similar excuses in both cases: in Astyanax he says to Venus, who asks him to prevent Astyanax from being killed, that the revenge of her beloved Trojans will come later, when Rome (founded by the escaped Trojan Aeneas) will conquer Greece; and in The Golden Fleece, he says to Athena that she has to wait until the Trojan war when Juno and Venus will be her allies rather than opponents.

Incidentally, the English translation contains the phrase “murder most foul” (3.178). I wonder why the translator didn't avoid it — surely he must have known that everyone would be reminded of Agatha Christie's crime novels (or the films based thereon). In fact I now notice that one of them actually bears this exact same title, but for me my first thought upon reading that phrase was the Poirot movies of the 1990s, with the inimitable David Suchet in the lead role, where he uses this phrase on several occasions. It's amusing, but the association is so jarringly out of place here: on the one hand we have the meticulous Hercule Poirot, the epitome of manners and self-control, and on the other we have Medea's sister furiously spurring her on to “[e]scape this brutish house and leave behind murder most foul and a land of greed”... :-)

P.S. While poking around the Wikipedia, I noticed that there exists a Golden Fleece Award, “presented to those public officials in the United States who the judges feel waste public money” :)))


This is again a fairly short poem, approx. 500 lines, and its subject is a sketch from the life of St. Antony, the famous hermit. The first half or so of the story strikes me as rather ridiculously contrived: a thought somehow comes into Antony's head that he might actually be the first Christian hermit in the Egyptian desert; however, to disabuse him of this mistaken notion, God sends him an angel commanding him to visit a certain St. Paul, who is also a hermit and some twenty years older than Antony to boot. This projected meeting of two aged monks in the middle of the desert brings great concern to Satan in Hell, who takes a break from his usual haranguing of his followers with laments on the decline on their fortune to point out that “ ‘good reason warns me to fear, that, if opportunity comes for them to enclose each other in tender embrace, to speak each in turn, and to clasp hand in hand, the meeting of the aged fathers spells ruin for us’ ” (2.28–30). He therefore goes into the desert and tries to detract and tempt Antony, but without success. Antony then goes to visit Paul, who is on the verge of dying and sends Antony back to bring a shroud in which he is to be buried. Upon returning, Antony finds Paul already dead and two lions, miraculously meek, come from the desert to help him dig a grave for Paul.

I didn't particularly enjoy this poem either. As I said above, the motivation for several parts of the story is somewhat silly; and, what is more, there's so little of the story — it's just a sketch really. Perhaps my problem is with the ‘minor epic’ as a genre; maybe I should just stick to reading proper epics, long poems with a big story that has a proper beginning and an end, with enough room to afford episodes, subplots, a number of characters, etc.

But I'm not saying that there weren't some nice things even in the Antoniad. I enjoyed the passage where a satyr appears before Antony and asks him for help: “ ‘[. . .] Ours is not an empty image that has deceived your eyes. I also am mortal and sprung from mortal blood. [. . .] I am of that troop whom the awestruck ancient world blindly labeled gods, satyrs and fauns. The mass of my comrades sends me forth as legate to you. One and all we beseech you, hallowed father, that you deign to pray to our mutual Lord for our salvation.’ ” (2.73–82). This was fairly touching. Antony is moved to tears of joy and proceeds to bemoan the follies of paganism: “ ‘Alas for you, pagan people of Alexandria, who rear altars to empty gods [. . .] who dare to despise the true Savior of mankind to whom a gentle beast willingly confessed belief and reverently asked for His help with prayer.’ ” (2.96–101.) However, the satyr runs away at this, which suggests that he was just Satan in disguise, in another effort to distract Antony (introduction, p. xxxviii).

Another touching passage is near the end of the poem, when two lions come to lament Paul's death and help dig a grave for him.


  • While writing the above rant about the Aeneid, it occurred to me that it would be good to give Virgil's other poems a try: the Eclogues and the Georgics. I like pastoral poetry, so it might well turn out that I will like these poems much better than I did the Aeneid.

  • On the subject of the Aeneid, it occurred to me that I might try to read it in a different translation. The one I've read so far is the translation of Fran Bradač, in good solid hexameters, published in 1962 but written in a language that feels several decades older. I have no complaints about that translation, but seeing as I don't enjoy the contents for their own sake, it might be that a different translation would make reading the poem more interesting. In particular, I'd like to read Dryden's translation into English — good fun baroque heroic couplets, with a nice flow and lots of apostrophes. What's not to like?

  • Another supplement to the Aeneid was attempted by one Pier Candido Decembrio in 1419, although it is much shorter and incomplete than Vegio's. It can be found on this web site, which also contains an Elizabethan translation of Vegio's supplement.

  • Reading Vegio's poem about Medea and the Argonauts reminded me of another poem that has been waiting unread on one of my shelves for several years: the Argonautika, a hellenistic epic by Apollonius of Rhodes. But alas, now I notice that I have the paperback edition, which lacks the 162-page translator's commentary that is included in the hardcover edition. But the latter is fairly expensive and I'm not sure if I want to devote so much attention to this poem anyway.

  • Reading about St. Antony in the Antoniad reminds me of another work inspired by St. Antony, namely Flaubert's Temptation of Saint Anthony, a marvellously bizarre cornucopia of a book in which an endless procession of exotic things make an appearance. It may have been written in the middle of the 19th century, by an author who is nowadays mostly remembered for his sober realistic prose, but in its style and spirit the Temptation reminds one much more of late-19th-century decadence than of mid-19th-century realism. I have read it quite some time ago, and really enjoyed it, and maybe it would now be a good time to read it again.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, May 12, 2007

BOOK: Maffeo Vegio, "Short Epics"

Maffeo Vegio: Short Epics. Edited and translated by Michael C. J. Putnam. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 15. Harvard University Press, 2004. 0674014839. lviii + 184 pp.

Vegio was an Italian author of the first half of the 15th century. Among other things, he wrote several short epic poems, four of which are collected in this book. There's also an impressively long and thorough introduction by the translator, longer than is usually the case in other volumes of the I Tatti Renaissance Library series. It runs to about 50 pages and he dissects each poem endlessly, pointing out every conceivable instance where a particular passage in Vegio has been influenced by some particular passage in a classical author (his main influences being Virgil and, to a lesser extent, Ovid and Seneca); he even gives precise counts of the Homeric similes in each poem and discusses many of them individually, again mentioning similarities with Virgil's similes where appropriate. I am impressed by this assiduity; I cannot say that I found these things very interesting, but I'm sure they will be appreciated by people who earnestly wish to study Vegio's poems and their relationship to their classical sources.

As for the poems themselves, they are somewhat of a mixed bag. But I have learned by now not to expect too much from the works I find in the ITRL volumes, so I was not terribly disappointed. Of the four poems in this book, the only one I've really enjoyed was the third one, The Golden Fleece. I often felt that I might enjoy these poems better if they were translated into verse rather than prose. I don't say that the translator isn't making an honest effort to imbue the prose with a certain poetic quality, but still it isn't quite the same as if you were reading genuine hexameters. I wonder why the English-speaking people feel that the English language isn't suitable for hexameters. Have they ever even seriously tried? I should try reading something about this subject some time. So far, the only discussion of this sort that I've read is in the letters of Edmund Spenser and Gabriel Harvey, where Spenser doesn't seem to be particularly averse to the idea of English hexameters. But, anyway, in the absence of hexameters I'd be satisfied even with ordinary English blank verse (with iambic pentameters) — whatever it is, as long as it has metre, I'd probably like it better than prose.

Book XIII of the Aeneid

Several renaissance authors tried to write continuations (or ‘supplements’, as they were often called) of Virgil's Aeneid; Vegio's supplement, which runs to some 600 lines, is probably one of the most well-known efforts of this type.

I cannot say that I particularly care for this kind of poetry. First of all, it is a very long time since I read the Aeneid; so, insofar as Vegio's supplement refers to things that should be familiar to the reader from the original Aeneid, I'm probably not in a very good position to understand those references. :-) Besides, I didn't enjoy the Aeneid anyway. There are several reasons for this. First, there's my general contempt for ancient Rome, its civilization, language, culture and everything else related to it. This contempt is as seething as it is absurd. I am fond of ancient Greece and in consequence despise the Romans as stupid, dull, witless, soulless peasants and upstarts who were good at more or less nothing except warfare, road-building, and the law, none of which strikes me as a particularly worthwhile field of endeavour. I hate the Romans for their overweening arrogance, their aggressive imperialism, for the fact that they occupied Greece and appropriated its culture. One of the reasons why I enjoyed Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire so much was precisely the fact that there you can revel, over the course of hundreds and hundreds of pages, in the story of how Rome came to a long-overdue, richly deserved, and satisfyingly resounding crash.

Of course, this contempt of Rome is absurd. First of all, the Greece I'm (equally absurdly) fond of, if it ever existed in the first place — the exotic patchwork of bickering city-states who blithely went on to build a homegrown civilization of their own due to the simple fact that they had nobody conveniently close by to borrow it from; great liars and tellers of tales, just as arrogant in their own way as the Romans, but with an arrogance so obviously absurd that it cannot help appearing cute rather than annoying — that Greece was over by the time of Philip of Macedon, if not already by the time of the Peloponnesian war. The kind of Greece that the Romans conquered was not nearly as much worthy of being lamented. But, there you have it. I always cheer on the underdogs. I hate imperialists, and what I hate even more is successful imperialists. The petty Greek tyrants and princelings you can laugh at; but when a Rome takes over the whole of the Mediterranean — that's no longer funny.

Now, don't get me wrong; I know that the Romans weren't all bad. Some parts of their political history make for a truly great read. Their crazy emperors are a rich source of amusing anecdotes, and I enjoyed Suetonius' Lives of the Caesars greatly. I've read a bit of their lyrical poets, and enjoyed Catullus, and even some Horace. I've even read a play or two by Plautus, and found his comedies much funnier than the Greek ones (I've read two by Aristophanes and one by Menander, none of which was funny at all). So I'm not altogether averse to Roman literature. But the Aeneid I really didn't enjoy. I consider Virgil a reprehensible copycat, shamelessly ripping off both the Iliad and the Odyssey in practically everything, but to what he stole from Homer he also brought an innovation of his own, namely his disgusting sycophancy. With some of the passages I don't doubt that he crawled a mile up Augustus' ass, and I hope that Augustus enjoyed it, but I, with my burning hatred of Roman emperors, definitely didn't.

I guess it all boils down to who the poets had to suck up to. The travelling poets of Homer's age had to suck up to the small noblemen, chieftains, and landowners whose hospitality and support they depended upon; these worthy gentlemen naturally liked to listen to tales of feats and adventures of people similar to them, preferrably those whom they could imagine to have been their ancestors; and so this is the type of heroes that we encounter in Homer's epics, and nobody pretends that what they were doing there was much different than what you can always expect this type of people to do: indulging in a dinky little war, little better than a bit of piracy really, perhaps over a woman but more likely out of a mere thirst for plunder. All of which is natural and human enough and I don't particularly blame them for doing it, nor Homer for singing about it.

But Virgil had to suck up to a considerably different type of person, namely to the emperor of a huge state; an emperor, moreover, who was keen to see himself as something better than merely the chief of a (very) large band of robbers; one who, unlike the petty chiefs of Homer's Greece that were satisfied to consider themselves descended from (demi)gods, also harboured a serious ambition to eventually become revered as a god himself; one who wanted to believe (perhaps even genuinely managed to get himself to believe) that his state had a purpose, a destiny, and that it was a force for the good. And so in the Aeneid we have Aeneas, who is first of all a seriously annoyingly larger-than-life character (and the poet seems to expect us to like him, doesn't he? which is what annoys me — in the Iliad nobody expected us to like Achilles; he's a stubborn and arrogant prick, just as you can expect from that type of person, and nobody's asking you to be fond of him), and secondly, neither he nor the poet can admit that Aeneas is coming there for a bit of looting and pillaging and to uproot the existing inhabitants and settle there with his own men, regardless of whether the existing inhabitants want it or not; no, here in the Aeneid, it all has to be dolled up, Aeneas is coming with practically a mission from the gods (*cough* manifest destiny *cough*), there's no end to the prattling about how successful and glorious his descendants will eventually get to be, etc., etc. All of this makes for terrible reading. I enjoyed the Iliad and the Odyssey, but I hated the Aeneid and was bored to death by it.

Anyway, it is thus not particularly surprising that I didn't care very much for Vegio's supplement to the Aeneid either. Its pupose is to provide a nicer, happier and more well-rounded end of the story — as we know, the Aeneid ends somewhat abruptly, with Aeneas having just slain Turnus on the battlefield. The supplement mostly consists of several speeches, the net result of which is that the Trojans and the Italians conclude peace, they all agree that the last bout of fighting was mostly Turnus' fault, and Aeneas gets married to Lavinia, the daughter of the old Italic king Latinus, who also adopts Aeneas as his son and successor. We also learn that the gods intend to deify Aeneas after he dies, so that he will dwell among them afterwards. I admit that all of this does (to me at least) represent a better end of the story than the sudden and abrupt ending of Virgil's poem; Vegio provides that dénouement that is so completely missing in the Aeneid. I'm not surprised that the Renaissance printed editions of the Aeneid routinely included Vegio's supplement. But anyway, for someone who, like me, doesn't care very much for the Aeneid, the supplement obviously doesn't hold terribly much interest either.


This is an even shorter poem, a bit longer than 300 lines. Astyanax was the son of Hector and Andromache, and, being just a boy, survived until the end of the Trojan war. However, the Greeks have received a prophecy that he will grow up and take revenge on them, so they decide to kill him. Venus warns Andromache in a dream and she sends Astyanax to hide in Hector's grave. The Greeks send Odysseus to Andromache to fetch Astyanax, and he threatens to scatter Hector's ashes if she doesn't disclose where Astyanax is hiding. To me it seems a rather silly threat — after all, isn't it better to have a live son and a graveless husband than a dead son and a decently buried husband? But it seems that the threat would have worked on Andromache. But anyway, she doesn't have a choice really, for if Odysseus were actually to go and try carrying out his threat, he would in the process of this discover where Astyanax is hiding anyway. So she calls the boy out of his hiding-place, Odysseus takes him away and the Greeks kill him.

I didn't particularly enjoy this poem either. Most of it consists of speeches; in this respect the situation is even worse than in the Supplement. Instead of having the story proceed through actions and dialogue, the poet tries to tell it through long orations by the principal characters. (Even the editor comments in the introduction, p. xxx, on the huge proportion of speeches in this poem.) Sure, Homer or Virgil occasionally include that sort of thing too, but not to such an extent. I guess that lovers of Latin oratory might enjoy this poem, but someone who (like me) just reads the English translation for the sake of its content will not be terribly excited.

[To be continued in a few days.]

Labels: , ,

Saturday, May 05, 2007

BOOK: L. Sprague de Camp, "The Ragged Edge of Science" (cont.)

L. Sprague de Camp: The Ragged Edge of Science. Philadelphia, PA: Owlswick Press, 1980. 0913896063. x + 244 pp.

[Continued from Part 1.]


The third part of the book is largely about pseudoscience.

There's a review of Immanuel Velikovsky's notorious 1950 book, Worlds in Collision (pp. 179–83). In bold defiance of not only physics but common sense as well, Velikovsky claimed that various highly dramatic things took place in the Solar system as little as a few millennia ago, with planets moving wildly hither and thither, sometimes colliding, etc., and that this explains the widespread legends about catastrophes (e.g. floods) that we can encounter in almost all parts of the world.

There's a chapter about various pseudoscientific claims involving a supposed fourth dimension, which usually ends up having something to do with time travel (pp. 184–194).

There's a very interesting chapter about the languages of the future (pp. 195–216). This subject often occurs in science fiction, where a story may take place in the future and the author might wish to exhibit a few examples of his characters' speech; or he may even have a character from the present time travel into the future, which leads to the question of how this character will be able to communicate with the inhabitants of the future. Anyway, this chapter is a very nice introduction to the basic mechanisms of language change. It ends up with some educated guesses on what sort of languages and communication problems a science-fiction hero may encounter if he travels into the relatively nearby future, e.g. only a few centuries; but if he goes thousands of years into the future, anything we know of the languages of the present time will be more or less of no use to him.

“Some tribes make them [i.e. their languages] change even faster by deliberately altering the names for things. Kamehameha the Great of Hawaii went too far in 1800 when he celebrated the birth of a son by commanding new words for ‘man,’ ‘woman,’ and ‘dog.’ This law led to a revolt in which the son was slain.” (Pp. 210–1.)

“In 1928, the Turkish dictator Kemal Atatürk decreed that Turkish should be spelt with a modified Latin alphabet instead of the Arabic. He gave the Turks only eight months for the change, which drove most publishers bankrupt. The literacy of Turkey, never high, was thus reduced at one stroke to zero.” (P. 212. But he goes on to say that later things improved, and that the Latin alphabet is better suited to the Turkish language than the Arabic is.)

There's an interesting biography of Ignatius Donnelly (pp. 217–227). Nowadays he is chiefly remembered for his 1882 book, Atlantis: the Antediluvian World, which is pretty much the foundation of all the Atlantis-related pseudoscience from the late 19th century onwards. He also wrote a 1000-page tome claiming that Shakespeare's works were really written by Francis Bacon (The Great Cryptogram, 1888).

I learnt several new things from this chapter, e.g. that he also wrote some very successful science fiction: “Under the name of ‘Edmund Boisgilbert, M.D.’ he wrote a prophetic novel, Caesar's Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century (1890), which sold a million copies. This is probably more sales than those of all the cloth-bound science fiction novels published in the last decade put together. The story is laid in mid-twentieth century;” p. 224.

He also became a notable figure in the Populist Party. “Donnelly's science-fiction novels are shot through with Populist principles, the prohibition of monopolies, the graduated income tax, and a morbid fear of those bogey-men of agrarianism and of Henry Ford, the international bankers.” (Pp. 225–6.) “Of the Populist ideals he fought for, the income tax and anti-trust legislation, at first denounced as communistic, are now accepted facts. Ironically, Donnelly is remembered far more for his pseudo-scientific enthusiasms than for some of his later realized progressive political proposals.” (P. 226.)

“Despite his virtues, [. . .] [h]is ‘discoveries’ have withered away to mere intellectual fossils, amusing but impotent. He wrote on water, because, for all his intelligence, erudition, and goodwill, he lacked the power of self-criticism. Let him who would profit from others' follies ponder the tale of Ignatius Donnelly, pseudomath.” (Pp. 226–7.)

There's an interesting chapter about the efforts to ban the teaching of evolution theory in U.S. schools (pp. 228–239). He discusses the well-known Scopes ‘monkey trial’ in 1925; but, to my surprise, the last court battles of this sort took place as late as the late 1960s (the Epperson case in 1968, when the U.S. Supreme Court finally declared that laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution were unconstitutional).

The 1925 Tennessee law that was the basis for the Scopes trial was enacted in unusual circumstances: “Many non-Fundamentalists voted for it to carry Fundamentalist votes [. . .] expecting the Senate to kill the bill. Pursuing the same logic, the Senate passed the bill, expecting the Governor to veto it. At first dismayed, Governor Peay, under pressure from his fellow Baptists, signed it on March 21, 1925 [. . .] asserting: ‘Nobody believes that it is going to be an active statute.’ He could hardly have been more wrong.” (P. 233.)

In the years following the trial, “the Fundamentalist movement began to flag. Of the monkey bills presented to twelve state legislatures during this time [i.e. in 1927], only Mississippi's passed. Delaware's monkey bill of 1927 was referred to the Committee of Fish, Game, and Oysters, where it died a quiet death.” (Pp. 236–7.)

Finally there's a brief review of von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods? (pp. 240–2). The review is somewhat savage in tone — not that I think that von Däniken deserves to be taken seriously in any way, but I still can't help wondering if de Camp's sarcastic and mocking tone couldn't have been just as well dispensed with.

Incidentally, this is also the only chapter in which he uses the silly notation for centuries, with “+XIX” to mean the nineteenth century AD, and so on. In Citadels of Mystery he used it throughout the book.


I mentioned in my post about Citadels of Mystery that de Camp seems to have held somewhat conservative opinions on some questions, which occasionally show in his writing; there weren't as many examples of this here in The Ragged Edge of Science, but nevertheless here's one from p. 91: “Hordes of people want knowledge without study, health without self-discipline, wealth without work, safety without precautions, and, in general, happiness without earning it.” Yuck. Nothing could be more odious to me than the ridiculous notion that health, wealth, happiness, and other such things should be earned, rather than being the natural and obvious right of everyone, regardless of what he or she did or hasn't done.

Incidentally, De Camp seems to have been pretty good at cannibalizing his material and republishing it several times in different arrangements. In my post about Citadels of Mystery, I already mentioned some similarities between that book and his Lost Continents. Several further examples can be given now, of overlap between those two books and The Ragged Edge of Science. This overlap occurs especially in the first part of REoS, which is about ancient civilizations; which is not surprising as this book partly also draws on the same magazine articles as Citadels of Mystery. Sometimes whole passages of text are nearly identical (but never quite — de Camp seems to have been an inveterate tinkerer with his own text, endlessly touching up and rearranging things, modifying a word here, a sentence there, though I can't say that his changes seem to make any obvious kind of difference one way or the other), and some of the illustrations are the same as well.

Compare for example: count Waldeck, REoS pp. 16–17, CoM pp. 183–16; on the difficulty of reconstructing history from myths and fiction, REoS p. 23, CoM p. 17; how U.S. history might be remembered in myths if the modern civilization collapsed, REoS p. 46, LC p. 159, and a very similar passage appears in REoS pp. 71–2 and CoM p. 159; Madame Blavatsky, REoS p. 130, LC p. 54, CoM p. 228 (but with slight variations each time: in LC she's a “fat middle-aged Russian woman”; in CoM she's a “fat, middle-aged Russian adventuress”; iand in REoS, best of all, she's a “fat Russian hoyden”).

The Troy chapter in REoS is a shorter version of the one in CoM; the same is true of the King Arthur chapter; the early part of the “Faery Lands Forlorn” chapter in REoS (pp. 31–33) is a longer version of the early part of ch. 10 of LC (pp. 233–41).

There's even cannibalization within REoS itself, e.g. being followed by a little green man that disappears whenever you turn to look at him (as a metaphor for an incredible and unverifiable claim which we are therefore allowed to ignore) is used on p. 183 and also on p. 241; and the observation that most people never invented anything or had an original idea is used both on p. 12 (to explain the appeal of diffusionism) and on p. 242 (to explain the appeal of paleo-alien contact a la von Däniken).


This is a very pleasant and readable collection of essays, an excellent and classical example of skeptical writing and debunkery of various kinds of pseudoscientific and paranormal nonsense. De Camp writes in an accessible, down-to-earth style, is often humorous, and in addition to all that a fine teller of tales.

In case someone is addicted to political correctness, he or she may wince at one or two passages, but this is hardly surprising given that much of this material was written in the 50s and 60s. Overall I highly recommend this book, and I'm looking forward to reading more of de Camp's popular-science writing.


  • Edward Foord: The Last Age of Roman Britain (1925). Mentioned on p. 68 as containing “a detailed chronicle of the fall of [Roman] Britain, covering the years of 343 to 582”. But, of course, it would probably be better to read some more recent book on this subject.

  • A. E. Waite: Devil-Worship in France (1896). Cited on p. 163, mentioning the hilarious abominations supposedly practiced by the Freemasons in India. The first edition seems very expensive, but several modern reprints are available (e.g. Red Wheel / Weiser, 2003; Fredonia Books, 2003). The text is also freely available on the web site.

  • J. Jastrow: Wish and Wisdom (NY, 1935). Cited on p. 167 in relation with the Taxil hoax.

  • De Camp's other books, such as Spirits, Stars, and Spells (written together with his wife, Catherine C. de Camp), and Ancient Engineers.

Labels: , , ,