Monday, January 30, 2006

I am become goatse, the destroyer of blogs

What's this world coming to? Last evening, I noticed a blog post that mentioned a truly inordinate amount of stretching, and I couldn't help posting a comment that included two or three goatse links. (Don't click if easily offended. You've been warned.) The author of the post replied a bit later, and judging from that reply I guess that my attempt to be funny didn't come across too well.

But nothing prepared me for what I saw this morning: the author of the post that I had commented on now appears to have deleted all his posts from that blog (the blog had another contributor, whose posts were untouched). Not only that, but the three or four other blogs kept by the same author seem to be gone as well (admittedly none of them had had any new posts for several months, and I'm not sure if they were deleted today or perhaps some time ago).

Is it just a coincidence, having nothing to do with my silly comment the night before? I hope so, but it's hard to be sure.

For pete's sake, folks, I may have a sick and twisted sense of humour, but that's no reason to overreact in this way...

Friday, January 27, 2006

Giant Jellyfish Invade Japan

It's all over the news.

Next thing you know, they'll start raping all the schoolgirls... :-)

Sunday, January 22, 2006

BOOK: Nancy Mitford, "The Blessing"

Nancy Mitford: Love in a Cold Climate and other novels. Penguin Books, 2000. 0141181494. xii + 487 pp.

This book contains three novels by Nancy Mitford: The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, and The Blessing. I read the first two several years ago (in 2002, I believe), so I don't remember very much and this post is mostly going to be about The Blessing, which I read a few weeks ago.

I think the first time I'd heard of Nancy Mitford was probably in David Cannadine's splendid book The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. Nancy and her sisters were from a declining aristocratic family, and are mentioned by Cannadine as examples of the various responses that people made to those circumstances. Nancy ended up becoming quite a successful writer; it's true that her works are not masterpieces of highbrow literature, but they are enjoyable, humorous, and generally great fun to read. She drew inspiration from the upper-class milieu with which she had been familiar, and often modeled characters and events in her stories upon real people and anecdotes.

<spoiler warning> Briefly, the story of The Blessing is this: an upper-class Englishwoman named Grace gets married to an even more upper-class Frenchman named Charles-Edouard and goes to live with him in France. This is a bit of a culture shock for her, and the differences between English and French customs and culture are the subject of much of the novel. Eventually, it transpires that Charles-Edouard is seeing one or two mistresses, which in his (French) view seems like a fairly harmless and above all perfectly natural thing to do, but in her (English) view this sort of thing makes further married life impossible, and she returns to England and starts contemplating divorce. The couple, however, have a son, a boy named Sigismond, who has felt somewhat neglected and bored until now — much of the time he seems to be told to ‘run along’ and keep out of the way of his parents' active and exciting social life. But now, after his parents' separation, he gets to live partly with his father and partly with his mother, and is spoiled in a major way on both sides. He therefore resolves that if this happy arrangement is to be preserved, he must at all costs prevent his parents from getting together again. Both parents actually want to resume their marriage, and a single honest conversation would suffice to bring this about, but for a while Sigismond manages to sabotage all efforts in that direction. Eventually his machinations come to light, however, and Grace and Charles-Edouard are happily reunited. </spoiler warning>

The book, as I mentioned above, is more or less light-hearted fun, full of amusing anecdotes and little jokes, and almost all of the story takes place among upper-class people that haven't got the slightest serious trouble or worry in the world; but nevertheless the book also touches upon some slightly more serious subjects, and gives us a few glimpses at the state of the world at the time it was written. Opinions that different nations have on each other are a prominent topic. We see instances of Francophilia among the English (ch. 1.2, p. 328), as well as Francophobia, the chief example of which is Nanny, with her deep-seated distrust of everything French (there are numerous instances throughout the book; see e.g. ch. 1.11, p. 394; and after returning to England, she tells her friends about France: “ ‘Say what you choose, France is a wonderful country [. . .] But there is one drawback, nobody there can cook. They've got all the materials in the world but they cannot serve up a decent meal—funny, isn't it?’ ”, ch. 2.1, p. 421). There are some French opinions on the English (“very eccentric [. . .] all half mad, a country of enormous, fair, mad atheists”, ch. 1.5, p. 348); how a Frenchwoman would react to a cheating husband (p. 349); French prejudice against Freemasons (ch. 1.6, pp. 357–8); Grace's feelings on the difficulty of fitting into the French high society (ch. 2.4, p. 435–6); there are a few glimpses on the subject of decline of the landed aristocracy in England (ch. 2.9, p. 471); indeed France seems better off than England, where “ ‘even the nouveaux riches are poor’ ” (p. 470).

There are also some signs of uneasiness between Europe (declining, war-torn, worn-out, etc., especially France) and America (rising superpower, appropriately brash and arrogant, etc; see e.g. ch. 2.4, pp. 438–9). The latter is present in the form of a curious side character, Hector Dexter, a ridiculously self-important and long-winded American politician (see e.g. ch. 1.13, p. 404). His opinion on homosexuals: “ ‘[. . .] they are dangerous because politically contaminated, a political contamination that can, in every traceable case, be traced to Moscow.’/ “I say, hold on, Heck,’ said Hughie. ‘All the old queens I know are terrific old Tories.’ ” (P. 405.) “ ‘And I am very very glad to say that this very unpleasant problem does not exist in the States. We have no pederasts.’/ ‘How funny,’ said Grace, ‘all the Americans here are.’ ” (P. 406.)

An interesting contrast is also shown in the attitude towards youth: on p. 454 (ch. 2.6), Dexter asks a Frenchwoman how come that there aren't any young people on any parties and entertainments that he's been invited to: “ ‘How do your French teen-agers amuse themselves, Madame Innouïs?’/ ‘They are young, surely that is enough,’ she said indignantly. ‘Surely they don't need to amuse themselves as well.’/ ‘But in the States, Madame Innouïs, we think it our duty to make sure that precisely what while they are young they are having the best years of their lives. [. . .]’ ” He continues on p. 456: “ ‘In the States we just worship youth, Madame Innouïs, it seems to us that human beings were put on this earth to be young; youth seems to us the most desirable of all human attributes.’ ” And compare these observations by two English nannies on p. 442 (ch. 2.5): “‘I don't care for these youths on the wireless much, do you?’/ ‘Not at all. There seems to be nothing else nowadays, youth this and youth that. Nobody thought of it when I was young.’ ” And although Dexter is overall an unlikeable character, I cannot help agreeing with him here: I think it's preferable that a society tries to ensure that its young people are having a good time, rather than pushing them aside and making them wait until they are ‘old enough’ to join the ‘mature’ ‘adult’ world. But anyway, these different opinions cited here suggest that the ‘cult of youth’ that we can observe in all pores of our contemporary culture is really a relatively recent thing, something that largely started only in the middle of the 20th century (which is not to say that it doesn't have earlier precursors, e.g. in literary romanticism), a bit earlier perhaps in the U.S. and a bit later in other countries, where it has been perhaps partly spread under U.S. influence. And it has to be admitted that the cult of youth is by no means without its undesirable aspects; just think of the immense amounts of time, money, and effort expended by people in a vain struggle against the external aspects of aging. Is it not more difficult to come to terms with aging nowadays than it was in the past? How is one to face the fact that one is growing older, when all the popular culture and the media are overwhelmingly dominated by almost nothing but the images of youth? The cult of youth would be a perfect thing as long as the people could be finished off at the age of thirty or so (like in some science-fiction dystopia that I vaguely remember having heard about; it was the film Logan's Run, I think; but anyway, why wait until thirty? twenty-five would do the trick even better, I say; that way I'd already have been put out of my misery), but it certainly leads to some difficulties in a world where people actually grow old (and indeed spend an increasingly large proportion of their lives as old people, thanks to increasing life expectancy). Nevertheless, I think the cult of youth is overall a good thing. Undoubtedly the only reason why it has not existed formerly (if indeed it has not existed) was because of wide-scale repression of the young on part of the drab, dowdy, ‘respectable’ middle-aged and old parts of society.

Incidentally, in the end it turns out that Dexter and his wife were really communists and actually spies in Soviet employ (ch. 2.12, pp. 488–9: “ ‘He's supposed to have gone straight off for a conference with Beria. Well, I feel awfully sory for Beria.’ ”); so perhaps we aren't intended to generalize too easily and hastily from our opinion of the Dexters to an opinion of America as a whole.

Another little detail that cannot help attracting notice nowadays are the mentions of strict customs controls at Dover (ch. 2.3, p. 434; ch. 2.12, p. 490–1). Nowadays we are so used to the free flow of goods across borders that customs officers are hardly ever seen by a typical traveller. Apparently smuggling pound notes out of England was a serious offense at the time.

Here's a hilarious passage from ch. 1.8, p. 374. “Grace [. . ] was wondering desperately what she could talk about to M. de la Ferté when, greatly to her relief, he turned to her and said that he had just read Les Hauts de Hurlevent by a talented young English writer./ ‘I wondered if you knew her,’ he said. ‘Mademoiselle Emilie Brontë.’ ” Incidentally, this reminds me of an anecdote mentioned by Bertrand Russell in his autobiography (ch. 6, letter from February 18, 1906): a French matematician told him “he had read an English poem called ‘le vieux matelot’; I couldn't think who had written anything called ‘the old sailor’ and began to think there might be something by Hood of that name, when the truth flashed upon me.”

Some other notable passages: Charles-Edouard's aunt spreads hilarious sex-related rumours about people living in the vicinity (p. 351); a visit to a White Russian night club (p. 407); the scene when Grace finds her husband in bed with a mistress is marvellously funny (ch. 1.14, p. 413); Sigismond becomes friendly with a burglar, even offering to help him (ch. 2.2, p. 425). We get a rather bleak picture of Eton in ch. 2.9 (“Miles, looking with disfavour at the seat of his chair, asked if he could have a cushion. The waitress quite understood, and went off to get him one”, p. 469).

Charles-Edouard fought in the Free French forces during the war, and this is what he has to say about collaborators: “ ‘So perhaps we'll visit my lawyer. I've had to make a change, such a nuisance, but hte old one of all my life was a terrible collaborator and you don't realize what that means. Two hours of self-justification before one can get down to any business. There's no bore like a collabo in all the wide world.’ ” (ch. 2.3, p. 429).

Another interesting episode involves the ‘captain’ and crew of a very highbrow theatre, which gives the author plenty of opportunities to poke fun at their pretentious intellectualism, unwatchable performances, and the extreme cosmopolitanism of their intellectual world, which must have seemed rather caricatured and ridiculous to many of the more old-fashioned readers at the time. “Neither he nor the Crew were every likely to forget the first night of Factory 46 when Jiři Mucha, Nanos Valaoritis, Umbro Apollonio, Chun Chan Yeh, and Odysseus Sikelberg had all graciously announced their intention of being present” (ch. 2.8, p. 461; I can't find anything about Sikelberg, but the other four are all real authors; Mucha was in fact the son of the art nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha). Or in ch. 2.10, p. 475: “The Crew pushed their hair out of their eyes and read quantities of manuscripts, many of them in the original Catalan, Finnish, or Bantu”. This is still funny nowadays if one isn't too uptight about these things; but at the same time I can't help feeling this sort of humour to be just a bit offensive: surely the implication hidden underneath is that reading manuscripts in these languages is quite absurd, probably because nothing worth performing could possibly ever be written in them. (There's the old spectre of cultural chauvinism, which humankind is only now slowly managing to lay to rest.) In a similar vein, Eastern Europe provides some opportunities for jokes as well: “a certain member of the Crew had been teasing the Captain for quite a long time to put on a play she had translated from some Bratislavian dialect [. . .] In English it seemed rather dreary. But now this play was being very much discussed on the Continent. [. . .] and was said to have run clandestinely for several months in Lvov.” (P. 475.)

Incidentally, I cannot resist adding a small-minded pedantic complaint against the publisher. The book begins with an introduction, which is new to this edition from the year 2000. However, the rest of the book is plainly a photographic reprint of some earlier edition. Like in many books, the pages in the introduction are numbered by Roman numerals. There's nothing wrong with that. However, once the Roman-numbered pages come to an end, and Arabic numbering beings, you should begin with page 1. However, in this book, Arabic numbering begins at page 7 (actually there are three unnumbered pages and then page 10). Apparently, the older edition that they were reprinting didn't have an introduction or anything else of that sort, and started numbering pages with Arabic numbers from the beginning of the book, so that by the time you get past the title page and the table of contents, the first novel begins at page 7 rather than page 1. So the publisher was not only too lazy (or too cheap) to typeset the novels anew, they didn't even bother to correct the page numbers (which should surely not be too difficult in this age of computerized image manipulation). Shame on them.


  • Nancy Mitford wrote several other novels; I guess they are all in the same vein as these three: light-hearted and pleasant to read. I wouldn't mind reading some more of them. In particular, I hope to eventually read her 1935 novel Wigs on the Green, in which Nancy is poking fun at the British fascist movement (her sister Diana was the lover, and later the wife, of the British fascist leader, Oswald Mosley), as well as at her sister Unity's silly infatuation with nazism. (See e.g. Anne de Courcy's biography, Diana Mosley, ch. XV, p. 139.) Nancy also wrote a few works of nonfiction, biographies of Madame de Pompadour, Louis XIV, etc., which I don't think I particularly want to read.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Sieg Heil

Ho ho ho :)))) I realize that these silly web quizes are sometimes liable to produce weird results, but this one was more bizarre than most I've seen so far :))

Your Inner Blood Type is Type A
You seem cool and collected, though a bit shy.
You are highly driven and a perfectionist, but that's a side you keep to yourself.
Creative and artistic, you are a very unique person who doesn't quite fit in.
People accept you more than you realize, seeing you as trustworthy and loyal.

You are most compatible with: A and AB

Famous Type A's: Britney Spears and Hilter
What's Your Inner Blood Type?

Of course, Hitler is just the sort of person who might have taken this loony “inner blood type” nonsense seriously...

The Hitler-cum-Britney image above is also quite priceless. Oh, the inappropriate associations this gives one. “Oops! I did it again,” (s)he'd say as the appeasers would let him/her grab away another bit of territory in Central Europe. “I'm a Slave 4U” would be the daily anthem of the millions of forced labourers. Zyklon-B pellets would be dropped into the ventilation shafts to the sounds of “Toxic”. And “Hit Me Baby One More Time” would be the perfect soundtrack for the last months of the war, as the Reich industrial and population centres take night after night of vicious carpet-bombing...

I feel I should also record for posterity this phrase (and link), which was formerly used as a signature by the K5 user strlen: “Britney Spears: vast silicone mounds of right wing conspiracy”.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

BOOK: R. A. Skelton et al., "The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation"

R. A. Skelton, Thomas E. Marston, George D. Painter: The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995. 0300065205. lxvi + 291 pp.

The Vinland Map is a late medieval map of the world. Most of it is not particularly notable and was not the work of a cutting-edge cartographer at the time when the map was supposedly produced. Unlike other medieval maps, however, the Vinland Map also shows Greenland and ‘Vinland’, i.e. the parts of North American coast that had been visited by the Vikings in the 10th and 11th centuries. It even has a legend mentioning Leif Eiriksson. If the map is genuine, it would be the earliest known map showing the American coast with any reference (though indirect) to actual observations (rather than just as an imaginary doodle at the edge of the map). It would also be a very rare example of a map based on Viking voyages: it is known that the Vikings weren't terribly keen on drawing maps, and they mostly passed on their geographical knowledge in the form of verbal navigation directions. However, there are many doubts that the map is genuine. The authors of this book, The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation, support the authenticity of the map. I don't know enough about medieval cartography and similar topics to be able to form any kind of intelligent opinion about this. The arguments shown in this book seem plausible enough to me, but I'm quite sure that after I'll have read some book arguing that the map is a forgery (e.g. Seaver's book, see below), the arguments there will look just as plausible to me.

The ‘Tartar Relation’ is a description of a 13th-century mission to the Mongol court, led by a Franciscan monk named Carpini (and predating the similar expeditions of Rubruck and of the Polos; p. liii). Carpini left his own report of the expedition, while the Tartar Relation is based on the notes of one of his companions, a certain Friar Benedict (p. 42). There are no doubts about the authenticity of the Tartar Relation. It contains some information absent from Carpini's account (and vice versa).

The Vinland map and the Tartar Relation first emerged in the antiquarian book trade in the 1950s, bound together as a single manuscript; they were eventually donated to Yale after several experts had declared that both the map and the Relation were authentic. Yale University Press then published the first edition of The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation (1965), containing a fascimile of the map and the manuscript, the text and translation of the Tartar Relation, and various studies, notes, and commentaries. I am amazed to hear that this fairly boring book became a bestseller and a popular choice in various ‘book of the month’ clubs (p. viii); perhaps the American public was fascinated by the fact that this is the earliest map that shows at least a part of the American continent. In 1995, an updated edition was published, containing the complete unaltered contents of the first edition, with a few extra chapters (and a list of errata to the first edition) inserted at the beginning of the book. It's a big, clumsy, ostentatious volume; 23 by 29 cm, and the paper, although it doesn't feel particularly luxurious to the touch, is quite thick so that the whole book is about 4 cm thick even though it has less than 400 pages. I'm not entirely sure whom they are expecting to sucker into buying this book for $85, which is currently its price at Amazon. I got a near-fine copy from a secondhand bookseller at ABE for only $22.50, and having read it I think it wasn't worth even that much.

One of the arguments against the authenticity of the map is that traces of some titanium compound were found in the ink of the map, and that this compound doesn't appear in genuine medieval inks. In one of the chapters of this book, Thomas Cahill and Bruce Kusko argue against this, reporting on their experiments which show that if you actually use a 20th-century ink the amount of titanium will be far higher than the one actually found on the Vinland map (pp. xxxvii–xxxviii). This sounds reasonable enough but, as I said above, it's one of those areas where I really don't know enough to be able to evaluate the soundness of arguments like these.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this book (for me at least) was the chapter contributed by Laurence Witten, the American bookdealer who first brought the Vinland map and the Tartar relation to the U.S. (having bought them in Geneva in 1957 during one of his book-buying trips). It affords several glimpses into the genteel world of high-ticket book collecting in the early post-war period. Due to the economic hardship in the first years after the war, many libraries and collectors were trying to raise money by selling their books, and “books of quality fairly rained on the market” (p. xlii).

Another fascinating aspect of Witten's essay is the story of the wormholes. As mentioned above, the Vinland map and the Tartar Relation were bound together when he bought them, but the wormholes on the map didn't match those of the Relation (p. xliv). Some time later, he discovered by chance among the manuscripts in the collection of Tom Marston, a Yale librarian, another old manuscript from a similar period and in a similar style; to his amazement, the wormholes on one side of this manuscript matched perfectly with those of the Vinland map, and on the other side with those of the Tartar Relation! Thus all three must have been bound together originally, and must have been separated later, probably in the early 20th century (p. xlviii).

At the time of the first publication of this book in 1965, the idea that the Vikings reached America much before Columbus was still somewhat of a novelty, at least among the wider public. The Vinland voyages mentioned in the sagas were known, but it wasn't quite clear how much was fiction and how much was fact. It was only the discovery of the remnants of a Viking settlement on Newfoundland that put the matter beyond doubt. Skelton mentions these excavations in several passages as a very recent discovery that has not yet been formally published in some scientific venue (p. 240). Witten describes (p. lii) the great uproar caused by the 1965 publication among those who felt that Columbus's memory and achievement were being slighted.

The efforts to discover the provenance of the manuscript were also quite interesting, but sadly unsuccessful. The Geneva dealer from whom Witten bought the book had got it from a “runner” named Enzo Ferrajoli, an Italian living in Spain (p. xlii). However, despite Witten's repeated requests, Ferrajoli refused to tell where he got the manuscript from (pp. liv–lviii). Washburn's preface on pp. xxiii–xxv tells of subsequent efforts to trace the provenance of the manuscript; there are some signs that it may have formerly belonged to some collateral branch of the descendants of Columbus.

I'm afraid that I found most of the main part of this book extremely boring. The Tartar relation is included both in its Latin original and in English translation, with a lengthy introduction and extremely copious footnotes by George Painter. All of these things are positively bristling with obscure and unpronounceable names of people, nations, and all manner of geographical entities, in Mongol and various other central Asian languages. Painter must have been a real pedant's pedant and evidently had a ball editing this text. The footnotes groan under the weight of references to all sorts of publications, from editions of medieval texts to obscure journal papers.

The first half of the Tartar Relation is mostly about Mongol history — an infinite series of dynastic squabbles and wars of conquest. I soon gave up trying to keep in mind the names of the numerous Mongol chiefs involved in all this, let alone the names of the countries and cities mentioned. And behind almost each of these things there's a footnote pointing out some disputed issue, some mistake, or some comparison with some other source.

From ¶35 onwards, the Tartar Relation speaks mostly about Mongol customs and habits, which is a lot more interesting. More interesting to me, that is; the poor editor must have lost all interest, however, for at that point the ratio of footnotes to text drops precipitously. :-)

For instance, there are a few curious mentions of rampant alcoholism among Genghis Khan's successors. Several actually died of drink. See e.g. p. 33: “Ogedei, however, died on 11 December 1241 of drink, to which he had become increasingly addicted since the death of Tolui from the same cause in 1323: ‘whenever he was drunk,’ records a chronicler, ‘he used to remember Tolui and weep’.” Genghis Khan's code of laws, the Yasa, opposed drunkenness but this was largely ignored: “ ‘If a man must drink,’ said Chingis Khan, ‘he should try to get drunk only thrice in amonth; twice or once would be better still, and never at all would be best of all—but where shall such a man be found?’ ” (P. 91.)

And on p. 96: “They are more given to drunkenness than any other nation on earth, and however much excessive drink they unload from their bellies, they at once begin again to drink on the sport, and it is their habit to do so several times in the same day. The also are accustomed to drink every kind of milk. They eat immoderately all forms of unclean food, wolves, foxes, dogs, carrion, afterbirths of animals, mice, and, when necessary, human flesh. Similarly, they reject no species of bird, but eat clean and unclean alike. They do not use napkins or tablecloths at dinner and so eat in excessive filth.” The editor comments that Carpini and his companions only noted those kinds of meat that they considered exotic; in addition to these, the Mongols also ate beef, mutton, and horse meat, and the exotic things mentioned above were really just a minority of their diet.

Painter even makes a few rather dry efforts at humour in his footnotes. For instance, ¶18 of the Tartar Relation describes a land where there are no men, and women mate with dogs, which “are exceptionally shaggy”, prompting Painter to remark in a footnote: “Evidently one of the earliest occurrences of a shaggy dog story.” (P. 72.) And when ¶55 says of the Mongols “Among themselves, however, they are peaceable, fornication and adultery are very rare, and their women excel those of other nations in chastity, except that they often use shameless words when jesting”, Painter adds in a footnote (p. 98): “ ‘They have not changed since then’, remarks the experienced Rockhill (p. 97, n. 2).” The reference is to W. W. Rockhill's edition of The Journey of William of Rubruck, published in 1900.

And then there's the long essay by R. A. Skelton on the Vinland map. Again I was greatly impressed by the pedantry; the description of the map where not even the slightest jotting escaped the eagle eyes of the editor; the footnotes, full of references to 19th-century treatises in Scandinavian languages; a comparison of an interminable number of late-medieval maps; etc., etc. There are a few interesting tidbits among all this, but they are hidden like needles in a haystack. My feeling when reading this is best described by Coleridge's line: “And Wit congeal'd stands fix'd in wintry trance.”

There are a few interesting sentences about mentions of the Himalayas in classical authors: “Emodus or Emodorum montes of Ptolemy (VI.15, 16) [. . .] Imaus mons promontorium Emodorum in Pliny (VI.64); and Pauly-Wissowa (s.v. Emodon) notes that the form given by Pomponius Mela (1.81), Hammodes or Haemodes, comes nearest to preserving the Sanskrit aspirate.” (Pp. 132–3.)

According to Skelton's reconstruction (p. 142), the Vinland Map is a copy (not necessarily a very good one) of an earlier map, which is a compilation of elements form one or possibly two earlier maps and information gleaned from texts such as the Tartar Relation.

The traditional medieval way of drawing a map of the world was the ‘T-O’ scheme. As new geographical information was coming in during the late middle ages, it took some time before this approach was abandoned; meanwhile cartographers tried to somehow graft new information on to the old T-O scheme (p. 146). The Vinland map largely adheres to the T-O model as well, except for the addition of Greenland and Vinland on the left. It also avoids including the Earthly Paradise, a feature of many earlier maps (p. 148).

The Carpini mission travelled fairly quickly. Thanks to the Mongolian post system, they made 3000 miles in 106 days (p. 149).

There were two Norse settlements in Greenland, called the Western and the Eastern Settlement but actually both located in the southwest of Greenland. “A version of Ivar Bardsson's description of Greenland, which came into currency in Holland and England, provided the Dutch cartographers with the place names of the Norse settlements and hunting grounds; and the Dutch maps, beginning with those of 1626 and 1634 by Joris Carolus of Enkhuizen, set down many of these names on the east coast of Greenland. In this they were followed by the Icelandic mapmakers” (p. 207) and it took some time before the confusion was cleared up. This also shows that by that time the Icelanders themselves had very little knowledge left of Greenland. There are no signs that these 17th-century Icelandic mapmakers had any medieval maps of Greenland at their disposal (p. 207).

There's an interesting overview of the extant written sources regarding the voyages to Vinland in the 10th and 11th centuries on pp. 209–13; see in particular the table on p. 212. There are basically two written sources, the Saga of Eirik the Red and the Tale of the Greenlanders, with many differences between the two (p. 211).

There's a number of fairly detailed plates showing various medieval maps between pp. 146–7. I remember seeing some of these maps in Seaver's The Frozen Echo, but the plates here show them in more detail.

An Icelandic annal mentions that a bishop Eirik visited Vinland in 1121; if this is true, some suggest it may indicate that a Norse settlement was present there during the 12th century. However, as there is no other evidence, this hypothesis seems more romantic than probable (p. 257). But George Painter in his concluding remarks (p. 262) seems to think it fairly likely, especially as one of the legends on the Vinland map refers to Eirik's visit to Vinland (p. 140).

A few other interesting passages from the book: on the reasons for the large-scale killings by Mongols of the civilian population of conquered territories (“the Mongol custom of tribal massacre led, in a civilized country of farmers and town-dwellers, to the tragic slaughter of noncombatant millions”, pp. 29–30); nevertheless the Mongol conquests brought peace and stability to a large part of Asia (p. 34); on the difficulty of establishing the date and area where a manuscript originated based on the handwriting style (pp. 6–7); origins of the Prester John legend (p. 48); medieval allegations (false as it turns out) of cannibalism in Tibet (p. 72); on the Cherkesses: “The inhabitants of this land are pagans, and grow no hair on their faces, and when a man's father dies he cuts a strip of skin a long his chin from one ear to the other to show his grief and sorow for his father's death” (pp. 84); Friar Julian, a Dominican, traveled in 1237 to “Old Hungary east of the Volga at the request of King Bela of European Hungary [. . . He] found the Old Hungarians near the Volga. They still spoke intelligible Hungarian, and he converted several to Christianity” (p. 104).

A splendid quote from Mark Twain on p. 215: “The researches of many commentators have already thrown much darkness on this subject, and it is probable that, if they continue, we shall soon know nothing at all about it.”

From the point of view of typography, this book is quite nice. As I mentioned above, the pages are fairly large, which together with the thickness of the book makes it somewhat clumsy and uncomfortable to read. However, one cannot blame them for the large page size as it allows the maps and fascimiles of the manuscript to be reproduced in greater detail. The margins are splendid, old-fashionedly luxurious; the outer ones are nearly two inches wide. The letters are comfortably large and well leaded (around 11.5/14 pt, I'd say). I also appreciated the book's decent moderation in the variation of type sizes, its use of small caps, and the avoidance of bold type. I only wish that the lines were somewhat narrower; they are approx. 6 in wide, with about 75 characters per line; a bit less than that would make it easier to read. When puzzling my way through these long, boring lines of tedious pedantry, struggling to stay awake, I couldn't help being reminded many times of Robert Bringhurst's wise observation: “Early Egyptian scribes [. . ] tended to write a long line and a wide column. This long Egyptian line reappears in other contexts over the centuries [. . .] and in many poorly designed twentieth-century works of academic prose. It is a sign, generally speaking, that the emphasis is on the writing instead of the reading, and that writing is seen as an instrument of power, not an instrument of freedom.” (The Elements of Typographic Style, sec. 8.3.3, p. 161.)

To conclude: if you are a cartographic pedant, or a fan of medieval central Asian geography, or of pedigrees of Mongol rulers, or a hopeless insomniac, or if lots of footnotes turn you on, this is the book for you. Otherwise, avoid it like the plague.


  • The story of the 14th-century North Atlantic voyages of two Venetian brothers, Nicolò and Antonio Zeno, seems to be largely fictitious, but it looks potentially interesting nevertheless (p. 197; supposedly the narrative includes a “relation of the Latin books found in the King's library in Estotiland”, Estotiland being one of the fictitious islands formerly imagined to exist in the North Atlantic and drawn on many maps until subsequent voyages showed that they don't exist). A note on p. 197 mentions two editions of the Zeno narrative, one by R. H. Major (The Voyages of the Venetian Brothers Zeno to the Northern Seas in the Fourteenth Century, Hakluyt Society, First Series, Vol. 50, 1873, ciii + 64 pp.) and one by F. W. Lucas (The Annals of the Voyages of the brothers Nicolò and Antonio Zeno in the North Atlantic, London: H. Stevens Son & Stiles, 1898, xiv + 233 pp.). Unfortunately both seem to be fairly obscure. Of Major's edition I found only one expensive copy on ABE, and of Lucas' more copious edition I found none at all. According to this splendid article, Lucas' version is far more reliable, for Major stubbornly tried to bludgeon the text into proving that the fictitious Prince Zichmni mentioned in the Zeno narrative is actually the Earl of Orkney.
  • Other potentially interesting books about early travels and exploration:
    • S. E. Morison: Portuguese Voyages to America in the Fifteenth Century (1940). Mentioned on p. 235. I remember reading a bit about this subject in ch. 10 of Seaver's Frozen Echo, and it might be interesting to read more.
    • L. Olschki: Marco Polo's Precursors (1943) and Guillaume Boucher: A French Artist at the Court of the Khans (1946). Both mentioned on p. 149.
    • M. Letts: Mandeville's Travels (1953).
    • Helge Ingstad: Vinland Ruins Prove Vikings Found the New World. National Geographic Magazine, November 1964, pp. 708–734. Account of his discovery of the Viking settlement in New Foundland.
    • W. W. Rockhill: The Journey of William of Rubruck. Also contains two accounts of the Carpini expedition. Hakluyt Society, 2nd Series, Vol. 4, 1900; various reprints, e.g. Asian Educational Services, 1998. A more recent Hakluyt Society edition is the one by Peter Jackson, 2nd Series, Vol. 173, 1990.
  • Witten's mentions of the world of big-ticket book collecting remind me of a book that has been waiting unread on one of my shelves for some time: A Gentle Madness by Nicholas Basbanes.
  • I first heard about the Vinland map after reading Kirsten Seaver's Frozen Echo and noticing her more recent book about the Vinland map, Maps, Myths, and Men. Seaver argues that the map is a forgery, made in the 20th century by a Jesuit scholar named Josef Fischer. Apparently she first wrote about this hypothesis in a 1995 journal article, and later also mentioned it briefly on pp. 164–5 of The Frozen Echo. Wilcomb E. Washburn mentions her hypothesis in his preface (p. xxvi) to The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation. Apparently there were also earlier hypotheses about the map being a forgery, mostly blaming a Dalmatian Franciscan friar named Luka Jelič. Washburn supports the authenticity of the map, however, and his main complaint about these hypotheses is that they don't explain the motives of the forgers sufficiently well. I'm certainly looking forward to reading Seaver's Maps, Myths, and Men to see her side of the story.

Monday, January 09, 2006

BOOK: William Golding, "Envoy Extraordinary"

William Golding: The Scorpion God: Three Short Novels. London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1973. 0571102328. 178 pp.

[Continued from last week and the week before.]

<spoiler warning>

The third story, Envoy Extraordinary, is in my opinion the most accessible and the most entertaining of the three. It is set in the ancient Roman times, at an unspecified period. The Emperor (whose name is not given) is an old man, and in the opening pages of the story we find him in conversation with his grandson Mamillius, who is not yet twenty years old (p. 144) but is already quite bored with life and the world (pp. 120, 122). The Emperor tries to show him that the world is bigger and more diverse than he thinks, and mentions the scant but fascinating information that is known to him about China (p. 120). We learn that the Emperor's position is somewhat weak; he has an heir-apparent, Posthumus, who is currently leading the army in Illyria but may come back to depose him at any moment should he think that the Emperor or Mamillius were likely to try taking a more active role in politics (p. 121).

Two visitors from Egypt are then announced: Phanocles, formerly a librarian at Alexandria (p. 124), with his sister Euphrosyne, who is apparently very beautiful but terribly shy and never says anything nor shows more than the upper half of her face (p. 126). Phanocles is a naturalist and an inventor; in the Emperor he finds a more patient and open-minded listener than in most other people (pp. 128–9). He presents his proposed design for a steamship, and persuades the Emperor to support him in actually building such a ship (pp. 131–3). The Emperor, a keen gourmet, is however even more delighted by another new use for steam: a pressure-cooker. Phanocles also mentions another revolutionary invention, an explosive; and says there is also a third thing which he will however unveil later (p. 134).

Phanocles takes up his work; a cannon is duly constructed to make use of the gunpowder he invented (p. 138), and work also progresses on his steamship, the Amphitrite (he has learnt about the need for a safety valve after a hilarious incident with a pressure-cooker, p. 142). Mamillus visits him to see how the work is going, and Phanocles points out another possible use of steam: on a nearby ship, a group of slaves is laboriously lifting a metallic ‘crab’ that is thrown in battles to damage or sink an enemy's ship (p. 140). How much more easily it could be lifted by the power of steam! However, moments afterwards, the crab falls onto Amphitrite, damaging it and narrowly missing Phanocles and Mamillus (p. 143). The incident is not cleared up immediately, as the slave who had cut the rope commits suicide, but it seems likely that it was an assassination attempt against Mamillus, organized by Posthumus who is probably unhappy to see that Mamillus and the Emperor are taking an interest in new military technology (p. 146). Soon afterwards the Emperor comes to the harbour, as he had been planning to come for a short test voyage aboard Amphitrite (p. 145). Before this can begin, however, Posthumus' ships appear in the harbour (p. 149), full of soldiers and of loot from Illyria (p. 151).

Posthumus himself disembarks soon afterwards; he had received news of the steamship and the cannon, and is sure that the Emperor and Mamillus were plotting against him; he is now quite ready to take matters into his own hands, and get rid of his supposed rival by force if necessary (pp. 152–3). Nor does he seem to fully grasp the potential of Phanocles' inventions (pp. 154–5). Posthumus leaves the Emperor, Mamillus and Phanocles under the guard of his soldiers while he himself runs back to the harbour where Amphitrite is running out of control and seems likely to explode (p. 156–7). The Emperor — still nominally the supreme commander of the army after all — wishes to formally inspect the soldiers, and orders them to stand at attention while bearing huge loads of loot and gear. The band begins to play, the Emperor walks slowly between their ranks, saying a few words to each soldier in turn; the blazing heat of the sun eventually begins to have its effects, and one by one they fall unconscious (p. 157–63). Eventually they are so incapacitated that Mamillus has the opportunity to sneak away and return with a group of guards loyal to the Emperor; they seize Posthumus as he returns (pp. 162–3).

In the discussion that follows, it transpires that the assassination attempt with the crab had actually been directed at Phanocles, organized by rowers — slaves who, although they disliked their work, were horrified by the idea that it would be made redundant (pp. 165–6). As for Phanocles' other invention, the cannon, a nearby officer whose opinion they ask seems to be distinctly unhappy about the changes it seems likely to bring to warfare (pp. 167–8). This officer and Posthumus manage to escape, and the Emperor's downfall seems near-certain, but moments afterwards Posthumus is shot by the cannon — by Euphrosyne apparently (p. 171).

Now that Posthumus' soldiers are deprived of their leader, it will be possible to reassert the Emperor's authority, and Mamillus will become his heir (pp. 170, 174). The Emperor, who has by now realized that Euphrosyne's unwillingness to speak or show her face is not due to some sort of extreme shyness or modesty but to a physical defect — a harelip in fact — now announces his intention to marry her, to provide her with some security and peace (p. 172). As for the steamship and the cannon, he finds them amusing but does not think work on them should continue; the one invention by Phanocles that he really admires is the pressure-cooker (pp. 174–6). Phanocles mentions his idea for a device that would always point North (p. 176). But his third invention, which he mentioned at the beginning of the story, turns out to be a printing press (p. 177). The Emperor is intrigued by the idea but horrified at the prospect of the mass of bad writing that will deluge the world. To reward Phanocles for his invention of the pressure-cooker, he appoints him the Roman Envoy Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary — to China (p. 178).

</spoiler warning>

Of the three stories in this book, this one is definitely my favourite. It touches on a number of fascinating subjects, it isn't as hard to follow as the other two, and it even has a number of really funny passages.

The subject of connections between ancient Rome and China is most intriguing. I was vaguely aware that the Romans had sent an embassy to China at some point, but the Wikipedia page on Sino-Roman relations mentions several other embassies as well, including unsuccessful Chinese efforts to reach Rome. And, most tantalizingly: “In 116 the Roman Emperor Trajan advanced into Parthia to Ctesiphon and came within one day's march of the Chinese border garrisons, but direct contacts never took place.” Nevertheless, Roman geographers were clearly aware of the existence of China, and of its general whereabouts. Besides, there was trade: Rome imported a lot of Chinese silk, of course through middlemen rather than directly. But the idea that several of the famous Chinese discoveries, such as gunpowder, printing, and the compass, actually originated (several centuries before we really first see them mentioned in China) from a brilliant individual who came from the Roman world but left it because it was unable to grasp and accept his ideas — this is truly a charming, masterly stroke of historical what-iffery. There are so many things in us that respond with delight to this concept. We all love to admire the lonely, misunderstood inventor, producing wonderful things in his garret while his unappreciative contemporaries laugh at him; we all love to imagine how the course of history would have changed if this or that important discovery had been made somewhere else, and at an earlier date than it really was; we all love to imagine how it might have been if the great ancient civilizations had had more direct contacts with each other and had not been each merely an isolated island unto itself.

As for the discovery of the steam engine, it is often said that the ancient Greeks and Romans were not very far from discovering it, but didn't have enough motivation for this kind of research: since they had plenty of slaves to do all the hard work, they didn't feel the need to develop machinery (cf. p. 141). I wonder if this explanation is really quite satisfactory; at least from the point of view of the cut-throat capitalism of the present age, the fact that a machine could do the job more cheaply than a group of slaves would be a sufficient reason to develop the machine. Once you had a working steam engine that cost less to maintain than an equivalent group of slaves, it would pay itself off in a few years; and if you found that you have no further need for your slaves, you could still cut their throats and thus save on the upkeep (after all, if you didn't hesitate to exploit them, whip them, torture them, etc., why would you hesitate to kill them?). But perhaps the Roman slaveowners weren't used to thinking in such practical terms after all. Anyhow, if the Romans had invented the steam engine, the course of history might have been significantly altered after all. With the power of steam, Rome would have been in a better position to defend itself from barbarian invasions. Railroads might eventually have been built, greatly facilitating communications and trade. (Indeed it's my opinion that one of the main reasons for the decline of the Roman empire was that the country practically fell apart, as, given the poor communications (despite the many good roads that the Romans had built), it was too difficult to hold it together once trouble got under way on all sides at the same time.) And steam-powered ships could make long voyages much easier to accomplish, and might lead to an earlier discovery of America or an establishment of direct trade links with South and East Asia.

One thing that struck me as somewhat curious in this story is the attitude of the rowing slaves towards the steamship; they make several attempts to damage it and to assassinate its inventor, Phanocles. As one of them argues on p. 166, they were worried that after the discovery of steam, there would be no further need for rowers; he admits that as rowers they suffer a lot, and when asked why they oppose the steamship then, he quotes Achilles from the Odyssey (book 11): “ ‘I had rather be slave to a smallholder than rule in hell over all the ghosts of men.’ ” I'm not quite sure what to make of this. Perhaps he does expect that the rower-slaves, once they would be made redundant and useless by the steam engine, would be simply killed.

Even more debatable is the attitude of the officer on pp. 167–8 towards the invention of gunpowder. Everyone in that discussion realizes that warfare will be quite changed: the shiny metal armour will be quite useless and will be replaced by camouflage uniforms and crawling in the mud, amidst the din of terrible explosions. And although all this is surely quite horrible, yet I don't see why the old method of warfare, i.e. coming up close to your enemy and trying to stab him with your sword before he stabs you, is really that much better. Injuries are horrible no matter how you get them, but if you have the comparably good fortune of getting killed, isn't it better and more painless to be blasted away by a big explosion rather than being slowly hacked to pieces with a sword? And besides, progress in warfare has shown that there is no weapon that can not be opposed by some suitable counter-measure, as long as the enemy has enough resources at his disposal to develop such a counter-measure. So from that point of view, Rome should really have had no reason to reject the idea of gunpowder.

Both of these concerns — the rower's and the officer's — bring me back to one of my favourite rant topics, namely progress. Does not much of what passes for progress nowadays make our lives more miserable rather than better, and our world uglier rather than prettier? And much of it, although not exactly changes for the worse, are not really changes for the better either, and are thus essentially quite superfluous, a waste of our time and resources? I don't, incidentally, think that gunpowder and the steam engine fall into this class of useless discoveries and illusory progress. But much of our present-day ‘progress’ does strike me as being of that character. How many useless gadgets are invented every day, purporting to solve problems of whose existence we were blissfully unaware until then! No, I am firmly convinced that further technological progress cannot really solve, at least not for quite some time, any of the major fundamental problems of our time. Social and political changes, rather than technological ones, are necessary for that. We are overworked and miserable, our environment is getting ruined, and we live in increasingly crowded conditions where we cannot help treading on each other's toes all the time. But it is vain to expect technology to solve these problems: we must solve them by consuming less; also by producing less but distributing more carefully the things we do produce; also by reducing the world's population to some decent and reasonably sustainable level, no more than a thousand millions, preferrably by some painless method such as not having children. We may live better now than we did in Mamillus' time, but I doubt that we really live any better than we did twenty years ago. All the supposed progress of the last two or three decades has been largely an illusion. Of course it may be argued that I'm not fit to judge this since I'm not old enough to remember well what things were like twenty years ago. But I know for sure that I wasn't any happier ten years ago with a 14" monitor than I am now with a 21" one. Progress will never make us happy; we grow accustomed to it too soon, and trying to keep coming up with new technological advances won't do the trick.

Another interesting subject addressed by this story is the nature of science and the character of scientists. Phanocles' ideas are of the sort that you would hardly expect to find before the seventeenth century, perhaps before the eighteenth. His world is a reasonable, predictable place; indeed “ ‘[t]he universe is a machine’ ” (p. 129). This strikes Mamillus as a very dull universe, but Phanocles answers with the passionate zeal of a true scientist: “ ‘My life is passed in a condition of ravished astonishment.’ ” This is in a way enviable and admirable; but at the same time I cannot help agreeing with the Emperor that there is also something selfish (p. 173) and hubristic (p. 128) about Phanocles and his science. He pursues his inventions because he is interested in them, but he gives little thought to the impact of his work on other people (“ ‘You are alone in your universe with natural law and people are an interruption, an intrusion’ ”, says the Emperor on p. 173). This story is in fact atypical in the sense that the politician rejects the scientist's discoveries with their potential military applications; in reality, of course, the story is usually different: a scientist of much ability and passion for his work, but relatively little concern about its impact on the rest of the world, would be welcomed as the perfect helper by an ambitious government keen to exploit his work to increase its own power. After all, this is how the atom bomb had come to be invented just a few years before Envoy Extraordinary was written. The mechanistic view of someone like Phanocles is a great basis for discovering natural laws but a terrible basis for planning a policy. If everything is an object and a mechanism, then people are objects too, just a bit more complicated than some other objects. How can a person with such a world-view (and I know this world-view quite well, since I subscribe to it myself) be prevented from perpetrating horrors? I see no other means than by ensuring that each such individual is weak and is aware that others will retaliate if he attempts to treat them as objects. But when such an individual finds himself in a position of power, the results can be terrible.

A related aspect of the relations between science and society at large, also explored by this story, is the possibility of deliberate rejection of some scientific advance, or of refusal to pursue a particular avenue of research. This is what the Emperor does in this story: he deliberately decides that the Roman world will be better off without steam engines and gunpowder and printing, and therefore sends Phanocles away and doesn't make use of his inventions. I am sympathetic to the Emperor's point of view here, for I often feel that many technological inventions cause more problems than they solve, and that the world would be better without them. But in the long term, it's difficult to block the progress of science and technology, as well as dangerous if you have less scrupulous competitors. For example, I am glad that efforts are presently being made to block the progress of genetic engineering, especially regarding the manipulation of crops, livestock, and human embryos, but I'm afraid that in the long term unscrupulous parties will find ways to proceed with this research and we'll have to live with its consequences no matter how much we tried to prevent them from coming about. Several other examples of conscious decisions not to pursue or adopt a certain technology are known from history. The Amish are a well known example, and they illustrate that a tightly-knit group willing to remain largely isolated from the outside world can actually manage to avoid going with the flow of technological progress if it really wants to. If I remember correctly, Jared Diamond argues in his Guns, Germs, and Steel that one of the reasons why economic and technological progress came earlier and faster in the old world than in the new was the fact that in the old world there was a larger number of competing civilizations; if one of them discovered something, others soon learnt of it and did not have to invent it by themselves, and on the other hand if one of them spurned some advance, it would sooner or latter be defeated by its more advanced neighbours. Similar reasons may have contributed to the fact that the industrial revolution started in Europe rather than in the Far East: a European country at the time would simply not be able to afford to retreat into isolation and ignore the progress of technology the way China or Japan might have done, for its neighbours would soon be at its throat. Eventually, of course, the perils of ignoring the progress of technology caught up with China and Japan as well, making China easy prey for the western imperialists, as Japan might also have become if it hadn't caught up with the west in the second half of the 19th century. The moral of this story, I guess, is that technology can only be successfully spurned if the whole world agrees to do it; or at least so much of the world that the remaining parts, the ones that are willing to proceed with some particular technological advance, are weak and harmless. But alas, it would be hard to get the whole world to agree on anything, much less on ignoring tehcnological progress; most people are too enamoured of it.

Mamillus' ennui is an interesting thing; something I can quite sympathise with. He says on p. 120 (echoed by the Emperor on p. 125) that “ ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ ” — this, of course, is a biblical reference (Ecclesiastes 1.9), but there aren't any other references to Christianity whatsoever in this story, so I'm not quite sure what to make of it. Perhaps the author introduced it on purpose; after all, this story is full of toying with historical fact, things being moved to a different time or place, and links imagined where none had in fact existed. Anyhow, Mamillus continues with: “ ‘Everything has been invented, everything has been written. Time has had a stop.’ ” This feeling strikes a chord with me, because I am often inclined to feel the same way myself. But it also forces me to wonder — admittedly, in view of all the wonderful things that have been written and invented between Mamillus' age and our own, his claim that everything had been written and invented by then does strike one as just a wee bit premature. And so, if somebody a hundred or a thousand years from now looks back at the 20th or the 21st century, won't my belief that everything worthwhile has been written and invented by now seem equally absurd to them as Mamillus' belief seems to me? Perhaps the problem is that the things written and invented nowadays include such an overwhelmingly large proportion of pure, absolute, utterly worthless junk that it's quite difficult to keep in mind that there also exist some valuable things hidden amidst all this junk.

Incidentally, to return to the subject of Mamillus' ennui (he is quite a well-read young man, and has some inclinations to be a poet): he also inverts the well-known sentence of Pliny on p. 122, saying: “ ‘There is nothing new, even out of Africa.’ ” As for Mamillus' poetic ambitions, they provide material for one of the most hilarious passages in the story, namely when Posthumus describes what his spies have reported him (pp. 153–4): “ ‘He is corresponding with the Emperor and others in code under cover of writing poetry [. . .] It has not yet been found possible to break this code. [. . .] it proved to be composed of quotations fom Moschus, Erinna, Mimnermus, and sources not yet identified. Research is proceeding.’ ” This brings poor Mamillus to tears. But I think that the value of originality, in poetry as well as in other fields, is much exaggerated.

There are several other funny passages in the story. On p. 142, there is a conversation between Phanocles and Mamillus in the course of which we first learn that an experiment with the pressure-cooker must have gone awry; then we hear than a “mammoth” (an elephant?) was involved; and finally that the Emperor is still “sorry about the three cooks and the north wing of the villa”! :-)

The Emperor is quite keen on gastronomy, and has curious opinions about it. For him, it seems to be mostly about the pleasrue of reliving, in his old years, memories of pleasant things he has tasted in his youth: “ ‘Gastronomy is not the pleasure of youth but the evocation of it.’ ” (P. 119.) “ ‘I have always been a primitive where meat is concerned. Elephant's foot and mammoth, your rarities, spices, unguents, they are unworthy and vulgar. [. . .] To taste meat in its exquisite simplicity would be a return to those experiences of youth that time has blunted. There should be a wood fire, a healthy tiredness in the limbs, and if possible a sense of peril.’ ” (P. 132.) As another example, the Emperor reminisces about one of the experiences of his youth on p. 175, describing it with much passion and buildup of pressure, and ending with: “ ‘Now—! A convulsion of two bodies, sense of terror, of rape—she flies in the air and I grab with lion's claws. She is out, she is mine—my first trout.’ ” I think it's a nice contribution to the genre of stories with a surprise ending where you're made to think it's about sex all the time until the end when it turns out to be something quite innocent. This poem is another nice example, as is this one. But there are also some that don't have such an innocent ending, of course.

(I'm not quite sure what to make of the mammoth reference mentioned above, though. I reappears on p. 142. It can't really be mammoth meat, although there do exist occasional claims that people ate the meat of frozen mammoth carcasses found in Siberia. See e.g. this article in the Skeptical Inquirer (2002, no. 4), which says that most of the meat had rotten before freezing, and was inedible: “What really appears to have happened [. . .] is that one of them made a heroic attempt to take a bite out of the 40,000 year old meat but was unable to keep it down, in spite of a generous use of spices.” Anyway, I think it's a great pity that the mammoths, as well as several other large ice-ace species, went extinct. It would be splendid if genetic engineering would be able to ‘revive’ them some day; it would be so much better if they spent their efforts at some inspiring task such as this and not only at producing monstrous genetically modified vegetables for the benefit of the multinational agribusinesses...)

The story has an interesting structure: it is divided into four sections, the last one being titled “L'Envoy” and much shorter than the previous three. This is doubly appropriate, since this fourth section does end with Phanocles' appointment as envoy, but it also means that the whole story immitates the structure of a ballade.

The author is very good at describing situations where several things are going on at the same time, and his narrative jumps between them so as to make them quite interwoven and the reader is really observing them all simultaneously. The best example is on pp. 157–63: the Emperor is inspecting the soldiers, the band is playing in the background, his lengthy speech goes on and on, the soldiers are falling unconscious one after another, and meanwhile there is all this confusion going in in the harbour, the Amphitrite spinning out of control, fire spreading to the city. It was a nice idea to use the indentation of the paragraphs to signify this jumping back and forth between the two strands of narrative.


  • After this positive experience with Golding, it might not be a bad idea after all to read his best-known work, The Lord of the Flies. For some reason, I never felt any curiosity or attraction towards this book, even though I knew nothing definite about it. I don't see any clear reason for my antipathy, unless it is because the concept was also mentioned in a boring existentialist drama by Sartre that I read at some point (I forget the title but it was probably The Flies; Jove is mentioned as ‘The Lord of Flies and Death’ or something like that), and so the concept of a lord of the flies may have become associated with dulness in my subconsciousness.
  • The theme of incest in The Scorpion God reminded me of a paper with the fabulously bizarre title of UFOs and Royal Incest, by a certain Dr. MacDowell. I heard it mentioned some time ago on the Hall of Maat forum. Of course I have no realistic hope of finding such an obscure publication. But the very idea of such a paper is hilarious.
  • On a more serious note, it might be interesting to learn a bit more about pre-dynastic Egypt. But then, more likely than not, this would be yet another of those topics that look interesting at a distance but then turn out to be humdrum and boring as soon as you dive into details. Archaeologists, as always, would go on and on endlessly about pots and knives and whetstones and fibulae and god knows what other irrelevant everyday objects, while being able to tell almost nothing about the civic, social, spiritual, etc. developments of that period. Of course one cannot blame them for that — after all, they've got nothing but material sources to work with. Thus we have no choice but to resort to fiction if we wish to imagine that period.
  • The theme of relations between the two sexes in Clonk Clonk reminded me that it might be interesting to read some book about anthropology, to see what sort of differences between the roles of men and women really existed among various ‘primitive’ cultures. But I don't know any suitable titles. The only one that comes to mind is (oh boy, can I ever see the Google queries coming after this one) Malinowski's The Sexual Life of Savages. I don't think it's really quite about the subject I mentioned, but anyway, how can you resist reading a book with such a delightfully bizare title?

Monday, January 02, 2006

BOOK: William Golding, "Clonk Clonk"

William Golding: The Scorpion God: Three Short Novels. London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1973. 0571102328. 178 pp.

[Continued from last week.]

<spoiler warning>

The second story, Clonk Clonk, takes place in Africa at some unspecified prehistoric time. The back cover of the book says ‘more than 70,000 years ago’, but the only time reference in the story is the mention that a nearby volcano erupted a hundred thousand years after the events of the story took place, and that ‘by that time there were plenty of people in other places’ (p. 114). Perhaps an upper limit could be obtained by the fact that the people in this story speak quite normally and fluently, an ability which evolved relatively recently during human evolution. The environment consists partly of open plains and partly of forests. The small tribe which we observe in this story appears to practice a fairly thorough division of labour based on sex: the men are mostly hunters and the women are mostly gatherers. One thing that struck me as curious is the fairly large gap between the two sexes — almost as if you were looking at two separate and distinct cultures. Perhaps it's got something to do with the long periods of separation while the hunters are away on their multi-day hunting expeditions. The men are referred to as ‘Leopard Men’, wear leopard skins and have a communal house called the Lodge of the Leopard Men.

On the whole, the women appear to be more practical and indeed sometimes seem to look somewhat patronizingly at the men, as at something to be humoured rather than taken quite seriously. For instance, Palm on p. 71 finds herself briefly wondering how a mountain sometimes seems to stare up and sometimes down, and then reproaches herself: “ ‘A mountain is a mountain! Palm, you think like a man!’ ” (Another example: on p. 90, Palm is looking for a while at the rising full moon, but then says to herself: “ ‘The Sky Woman is just the Sky Woman. That is all. To think anything else is to be young—is to think like a man—’ ”) And I'm not trying to say that this attitude is not justified; as far as contributing to the food supply of the community is concerned, the men seem to be far less successful than the women. Palm says on p. 67 “ ‘There is too much food. Not meat perhaps, but fish, eggs, roots, honey, leaves and buds—’ ”, from which I would guess that the men as hunters aren't doing their job, and it's the women as gatherers who bring in most of the food.

Palm, incidentally, is one of the leading characters of the story, a woman entering middle age (and becoming somewhat concerned about her biological clock, p. 70); she is also ‘She Who Names The Women’ (p. 70), i.e. selects a name for the new-borns. The men are away on a hunting trip, and Palm seems to have some designs involving drinking and their Lodge of the Leopard Men (p. 73), but at this point it isn't very clear what will come of it.

In the next section we get to follow the Leopard Men, and they sure are a curious bunch. They have colourful names such as Forest Fire, Furious Lion and Beautiful Bird, and any sufficiently interesting incident may prompt one to assume (as long as the Elder of Elders approves it) a new name connected to the incident (p. 76). Forest Fire spends two pages gathering some nice-looking red feathers from a nest and distributing them to his friends, which results in such ardent expressions of friendship and affection (p. 75) that we aren't at all surprised to find on p. 78 that a bit of homosexuality seems to be a widely practiced thing among these hunters. Overall they seem a jolly, carefree lot, and act as if they were hikers on a pleasure-trip rather than hunters on a serious effort to provide food for the tribe. A comment on their conversation (p. 77): “It was not speech that Palm or Minnow would have bothered to understand. They would have recognized, being women, that it was not useful speech. It was no more than an expression of an emotional state, so that in that sense, each Leopard Man was talking or singing to himself.” The next day, they reach the end of the forest and actually try to do a bit of hunting for antelopes on the open plain (pp. 80–3). Descending into a ravine, the hunters are engulfed by a mudslide, all except one, Chimp, who had been standing somewhat higher up the slope and was thus able to avoid the mess. Seeing his colleagues extricate themselves from the mud, he laughs at them so hard that they become angry at him and chase him away (pp. 87–8) (they seem to have been annoyed with him before this already; he had had trouble keeping up with them because of an injury, p. 78, and was a bit clumsy during the hunting, p. 83). Alone and worried, Chimp heads for home (p. 89).

Meanwhile back at the settlement, the full moon is rising and the women are getting ready to spend the night feasting and drinking (they are even brewing some kind of intoxicating drink especially for the occasion, p. 93). This seems to be a common practice when the moon is full (p. 99).

Chimp returns to the settlement in the middle of the night and finds the Lodge of the Leopard Men full of women, sitting roaring drunk around the fire and, o blasphemy, drinking out of the leopard skulls (p. 101) of which apparently there had been a large stock in the Lodge (p. 92). Chimp seems to be quite inexperienced with women (expecting teeth in their nether areas, p. 102), and is terrorized when they catch him, hold him down, force him to drink, and Palm starts giving him a handjob (p. 103). But the drink soon starts to have its effect, Chimp's fear goes away, he realizes that Palm is not at all bad looking, and ends up sleeping with her (pp. 104–5).

Their conversation next morning covers a number of curious points. Now that he is sober, Chimp realizes she is ”neither young nor beautiful” (p. 106). She, I don't understand why, regards him for a while with some kind of hatred (p. 106) and some impatience (p. 112). Nevertheless she suggests him to come live with her, which he happily accepts (p. 110). Chimp is apparently unaware of the fact that children are caused by sex (p. 110). Palm convinces him that everything he had witnessed at the Lodge of the Leopard Men the night before was more or less a dream, and at any rate shouldn't be told to the other Leopard Men (who wouldn't believe it anyway); p. 111. Meanwhile it turns out that the other men will shortly be returning from their hunting expedition, and the women are busy clearing away the traces of their feasting and drinking (p. 111).

The men return, carrying a leopard they have caught; Chimp rejoins them, as it turns out they are no longer mad at him. Palm praises them for their hunting success, and publicly acknowledges Chimp as her husband. She ends with this masterpiece of patronising sarcasm: “ ‘So go to your secret place, mighty Leopard Men. Take the awful strength of the leopard with you, while we women wonder, and cower; and humbly prepare you a feast of nourishing termite soup, and of dried fish, roots and fruit, and cool, clear water.’ ” (P. 114.)

</spoiler warning>

This is a fascinating and delightful story, but I have no idea what to make of this curious culture it describes, with its huge gap between men and women. This would be easier to understand if the story had been written by some man-hating feminist bent on proving that men are useless; but as I have no reason to suppose that Golding was a man-hating feminist, I don't think the explanation can be so simple. But the fact is that the men in this story are useless; happy-go-lucky and largely harmless, they talk more like poets than like hunters, and their hunting efforts seem to be mostly focused on useless prey such as leopards, whose skulls they obsessively accumulate in their communal house. Given all this, it is not surprising that the women look down at them. At the same time, I find this whole massive deception to be regrettable, and hard to excuse: I mean the fact that the men are left to imagine that their communal house is off-limits to women, and that the skulls of their leopards are kept there with much reverence, but the truth is that while the men are away hunting, the women spend whole nights carousing in the men's house, drinking out of the leopard skulls, etc. I can't help feeling that this kind of long-term, silent deception implies an attitude of contempt towards the men that are being deceived: as if they don't in the least deserve to be consulted in this matter, as if it's perfectly OK to not only disregard their opinions but even keep them in the dark of the fact that these opinions are being disregarded. As if it isn't a matter worth quarreling about: it's better to just keep the men in the dark and let them imagine that they are in control of the situation while the women do as they please behind their backs. How can this curious situation have come about? The men in this story don't seem to be some sort of grim-faced patriarchalists; it isn't obvious to me that the women wouldn't be able to, if they had wanted to, organize their own drinking parties without having to do it all behind the men's backs and involve all this massive deceit. Similarly, if the women's contempt for the men stems from the fact that the men have an unpractical nature and are useless as breadwinners, surely there should be a way to discuss these things and sort them out without having to adopt this permanent attitude of good-natured but patronizing contempt towards the men.

But perhaps the story is not really trying to say anything about the relations between men and women in real life. Perhaps it is just an exercise in imagination, an exploration of a what-if scenario that is not necessarily meant to be directly applicable to reality. One interesting subject that this story explores, for instance, is this: in the story, both the men and the women seem largely happy with the relations between the two sexes in their culture. (Of course, this is just a short story; it doesn't give out too much information; perhaps, if we learnt more about this tribe, we would find more discontent than meets the eye at first sight.) At the same time, these relations seem somewhat unfortunate to an observer from our world, because of all the deception and the patronizing contempt with which the women humour the men rather than trying to engage them in a debate and get them to improve their unsatisfactory behaviour and attitudes (e.g. their impracticalness and their uselessness at hunting). The interesting question here is: is it sufficient that both sides are relatively happy with the bargain, even though it involves a mild amount of contempt and deception on one side? Or should we, if we were able to give advice to this tribe, recommend their women to try to educate their men and bring them to a point where they will be able to regard them as their equals rather than as their inferiors, as little better than children?

Another interesting question in relation to this story is to what extent can similar phenomena be found in real life. If we compare the relations between the sexes in real life and in this story, is the story more like a caricature (showing true characterstics but emphasizing them out of proportion) or more like an inversion, showing things the opposite of what they are in reality? For example, in this story the women are practical while the men are largely useless daydreamers. What about real life? Can we say that one sex is more practical than the other? There seem to be plenty of stereotypes going in both directions. On the one hand, it is sometimes said that women are more practical than men, because men are more likely to find themselves preoccupied with (or at least interested in) impractical things where most of them don't really have the power to achieve anything definite (things such as philosophy, politics, idealism, ideology, etc.), while women are more likely to focus on practical things in their own lives and in the lives of their family and community (things like raising a family, maintaining a household, and earning a living). On the other hand, it is sometimes said that men are more practical than women, because they go out into the world, compete against the others, build houses, run the economy, fight wars and don't dream about romantic things such as princes on white horses. But I think that the most reasonable conclusion should be that real-life human beings are much more diverse and complex and are not really amenable to the sort of easy stereotyping that we see in this story. I like to consider myself an equal-opportunity misanthrope, and to say that there exist such significant differences between the sexes seems to me to run against common sense.

Incidentally, another interesting topic in this story is that of naming. All the names used in the book have a clear meaning, and usually seem to be derived directly from some anecdote that actually happened to the person in question. Furthermore one may easily assume a new name if some new interesting thing happens to one. I find this idea interesting and somehow touching. At the same time I wonder what were the naming practices of real prehistoric societies. For example, nowadays we rarely change our names, at least first names (and it is really only the first name, rather than the surname, that is really quite one's own). Additionally, nowadays we don't understand the meaning of most of our names, which is hardly surprising because most of them originated hundreds or even thousands of years ago and have in many cases reached us only after being borrowed from one language to another several times, and undergoing modifications and corruptions all the time. Even when the original meaning of a name is known, it is rarely evident to us (unless we've read about it in some book); and for many of the names, the meaning is unknown, and more and more names are being made up for the sake of their acoustic quality only, with no pretense to meaning whatsoever. Hardly ever is the name chosen with a view to any relation between its meaning and the life of the person being named. I wonder what are the actual naming practices of ‘primitive’ peoples. Do they as a rule use names whose meaning they recognize? And is this meaning supposed to have something to do with the life of the bearer of the name? Or does it also happen to them, as it did to us, that a name remains in use for centuries until its original meaning becomes quite obscure and forgotten (or even that a name is borrowed from one tribe to the next, whose language gives them no clue as to the name's meaning, etc.)?

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Funny referral URLs

The dog turns to his vomit again.     
2 Peter 2:22

I installed SiteMeter on this blog a few months ago. Naturally it doesn't get many visitors, but a few amusingly weird referral URLs and query phrases have cropped up in SiteMeter's reports nevertheless.

  • enslave sissies N11
    And from of all places? This completely changes my opinion of the Swiss people :-)
    “CENTRAVET veterinary surgeon shareholders”
    Needless to say, that web page contains nothing even remotely resembling a link to this blog. I can only guess that some spider, or perhaps somebody using a bizarre browser plugin, is reporting randomly selected referral URLs.
  • Breast-Litovsk ( how the people felt)
    Must have felt good, no doubt! :-) I guess that Freud might have something to say about this one. But the joke is really on me; although I reread many of my posts several times over the weeks after they are posted, I apparently never noticed that I had misspelled Brest-Litovsk. Now I decided to keep the misspelling as it is, just for the amusement value.
  • incest torrents
    Ah, the delightful whiff of notoriety. Too bad I can't claim the credit for the juxtaposition of incest and torrents; they come from appear in (you sick bastard) two quite unrelated posts. It does remind me, however, of that well-known limerick:
    There was a young lady from Florence
    Who for fucking professed an abhorrence;
         But they found her in bed,
         Her quim flaming red
    And her poodle-dog spending in torrents.
    I know, I know. It's true that it doesn't have any incest in it, but it's got torrents and bestiality, which should surely count for something.
  • Ahnenerbe "intelligent design"
    Two great tastes that taste great together! I do wonder, however, what do they have in common, except that they are both about pseudoscience with a bit of a political agenda.
  • big ass slim waste
    I'm not entirely sure what they hoped to find by searching for ‘big ass slim waste’, but the phrase reminds me of the title of an old Ninjashot post, the joys of which I'll let you discover on your own.
  • sad britney
    I guess it's only a matter of time before some bored Farker comes up with a sad Britney in snow picture...
  • gollum wanking
    I can proudly report that my post used to rank third place in this MSN search at some point. However, I think that Google returns better results for these query terms (alas, my post doesn't seem to be among them). See in particular this one.
  • "really really lousy sex"
    The only hit for this phrase in Google! Yep, ladies and gentlemen, if it's really really lousy sex you want, now you know where to go for it! :-)
  • Crowell Female perversion in marriage
    This query returns a delightfully quirky set of hits. My blog appears among them by pure chance (the words are scattered over two or three different posts), but it's kind of nice to be in such bizarre company anyway. By the way, the query seems to be the title of a book by one Anthony Crowell. Sounds like a prospective entry for my ToRead list. There's a paperback copy from the 60s on ABE (Brandon House, North Hollywood, CA, 1968), but surprisingly I can't find anything about this book in the catalogue of the Library of Congress, nor in the British Library.
  • shameless blog
    Weird: as can be seen from the URL, this person was looking specifically for Slovenian-language web pages containing the English words "shameless" and "blog"... Still, the word shameless brings back nice memories of one of my favourite poems by Swinburne:
    The shameless nameless love that makes
         Hell's iron gin
    Shut on you like a trap that breaks
         The soul, Faustine.
  • sex theatre
    Yep, don't mess with the Swiss.
  • manacles not monocles
    Proudly sponsored by the Association of Anticapitalist Submissives!
  • petrarca frozen
    Those Italians will turn anything into ice-cream.
  • recipes +starlings
    Poor starlings...
  • totaly shocking
    Like, totaly! :) How they must have been disappointed... Besides, what's the use of searching the web for ‘total[l]y shocking’ when you can just go to and be done with it? [P.S. Shame on commenters who introduce spelling errors to my blog! :)]
  • wife of osbert burdett
    I'm intrigued. I've just barely heard of Osbert Burdett, but now it seems that his wife is also a topic of interest...
  • I wrote a book report on Rubicon by Tom Holland
    So did I, but you don't see me bragging about it to Google.
  • hermaphrodite genitalia picture
    From a search engine called ‘Dogpile’, using a bewildering list of hyphens and slashes in the URL, and mentioning a ‘dogpl’ file extension...
  • nikiforos mardas girlfriend
    Oh, great. You read a book, write a post about it, and people start coming to you for gossip about the author's family.
  • himmler's furniture
    Why beat about the bush like this? For better results, be honest and search for ‘human skin lampshade’.
  • what are the advantages of dieting
    Here the naive person would answer: “weight loss”. But the real advantages of dieting are the following two: (1) that smug feeling you get when people around you look at your loss of weight with envy and say things like “I'd have to lose some weight too”, and (2) the cheap and easy feeling of accomplishment — you don't have to think or plan or do anything, you just eat a little less and yet you are rewarded, day after day, by the pleasant sight of seeing your weight decrease every morning when you step on the scales. It's really a perfect thing for the indolent underachiever.
  • illustrated erotic incest stories
    Somehow this person managed to avoid all the genuine porn on the web and reach my blog instead...
  • Memoirs, most memorable whores
    I have no idea what this person was looking for and what they found on my blog. MSN's results for this query don't seem to offer anything very coherent.
  • The Mahabharata coffee book edition
    Yes! A coffee-table book version of the Mahabharata — just the thing for India's burgeoning middle classes. Somebody should tell Taschen about this lucrative new niche. Finally they'll have the opportunity to produce something bigger and more expensive than even the Champion's Edition of GOAT.
  • "everywhere barefoot"
    This person went through practically all 23 pages of Google results for this query. What the heck were they looking for? Resources for wannabe hobbits?
  • diana mosley slimness
    Impressive — somebody is interested in her slimness rather than all the things she was actually famous and/or notorious for...
    Again a French page that doesn't contain anything even vaguely resembling a link to my blog. Perhaps it was caused by the same source as the one about French veterinarians.
  • petrarca ww1
    What on earth does Petrarca have to do with WW1? Maybe the Italian soldiers read his sonnets in the rare moments when they weren't busy getting massacred in the trenches?
  • what happened to savages on blondes
    So now I'm supposed to be some kind of chronicler of the ups and downs of the porn industry? The server does appear to be down, but I've no idea why, nor if it's coming back or not. Maybe the blondes have taken their revenge on the site administrators :-)
  • German Nuns raped
    I recommend this webcomic and this joke.
  • nude couple portraits by, Petrie
    Ah, it's nice to be visited by a connoisseur of fine Egyptological porn. Perhaps I may also interest you in our line of topless Cretan snake goddess figurines? Brought to you by Ill-Advised Excavations LLC, purveyors of sleazy antiquities since 2005.

One funny thing about many of these referral URLs from the search engines is that if I visit the same URL, hoping to see one of my posts among the search results for that query, it often happens that none of the results actually point to my blog (even on the previous/next page of the search results, etc.). Apparently the ranking of search results can be fairly unstable and can change quite quickly.

Of course, by posting a list like this, you increase the chances that the same (or similar) search phrases will lead people to your site in the future, not because of the posts that originally inspired those hits, but because of the appearance of these phrases in a list of interesting phrases such as the one above (*cough* naming no names *cough* :-)). Unfortunately I don't know how to prevent it. Some of the HTML <meta> tags can try to discourage robots from indexing a page, but here the content will be placed into several pages by Blogger's software, and I probably don't have control over their <meta> tags anyway. It would be great if a disable-indexing flag was available on a finer-grained basis as well (e.g. as an attribute of <div> or <span>). Another possibility would be to post the list as an image, with no useful text in the alt attribute; but that would be clumsy. So for the time being, I'll just publish the list as it is, and if similar query terms reappear later and seem to be inspired by this list, I'll try to disregard them when compiling similar lists in the future.