Tacitus' "Germania"

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016 08:49 pm
lethargic_man: (Berlin)

A little while ago, having repeatedly come across references to Tacitus' essay "On the Origin and Situation of the Germanic Peoples", better known as "Germania", I decided I ought to read it myself.

This is the oldest work describing the Germanic peoples—it dates from the year 98—hence its interest to modern Germans, and people interested in Germany, myself included—though I should point out that the Roman use of "German" refers to the ancestors of all the Germanic peoples, including today's Nordic peoples, and the peoples of the Low Countries and of England. Indeed, today German distinguishes between "Germanisch", describing the ancients, and "Deutsch", describing today's Germans—and so did English too once upon a time (see below).

Moreover the distinction between Germans and Celts then wasn't as clear cut as it is today; and even the name "German" is possibly of Celtic origin.

Anyhow, I thought I'd write up a little about the essay here, in case anyone's interested, and to record my own reaction for my own futurity; what follows is a combination of my own insights, what I've read online, and what I've heard in the History of English podcast.

Read more... )
lethargic_man: (Default)
I'm in the middle of reading, after hearing the author speaking on the BBC's "The Museum of Curiosity" (though to my chagrin cannot now remember what she said), The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The Mostly True Story of the First Computer by Sydney Padua, a graphic novel with factual footnotes (and endnotes to the footnotes, and footnotes to the endnotes). I can't remember anything which has made me laugh out loud so often since Douglas Adams, possibly not even Terry Pratchett (though this may reflect my memory more than what I've been reading). If you're remotely interested in the history of computers, or in steampunk, or are a geek, or find the conceit of (just to pick one example from hundreds) the Analytical Engine, when Ada Lovelace goes into its internals to sort out a problem, popping up a sign reading "Just what do you think you're doing, Lovelace?" amusing, or (likewise) are interested to learn that, before the invention of the telegraph, Babbage proposed a network of zipwires across London for fast distribution of letters, then run, do not walk, out to buy this book!

When I ordered this book, and was told it was only out in hardback, and was £16.99, I said to the bookseller, "It had better be worth it for that price, then." Well, so far (I'm a third of the way through it), it's worth every penny. The only slight quibble I have with it is that the author is a Canadian, and occasionally the characters' diction reflects her Canadian English rather than the Victorian British English they would actually have spoken. But I suppose that is a small price to pay for Canada's having come up with someone who would think of writing this book in the first place.

Now I need to stop burbling here until I've read the rest of it.
lethargic_man: (reflect)
I've just read Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, who wrote the novel because she was incensed by what she perceived as the one-sided and unfair portrayal of the mad Creole* woman Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre. [Spoilers for Jane Eyre follow... stop laughing; I never read it until I was thirty-eight.]

* "Creole" apparently means one who was born in—and into the culture of—the West Indies; it seems I was wrong to deduce from the linguistic meaning of the term that she was not entirely of white blood.

The premise intrigued me, and the book vaulted to near the top of my to-read list, but when I read it, to be honest I found it a bit disappointing. It's full of the kind of literary symbolism that I never get until it's pointed out to me by reading the book's introduction (almost always written to be read afterwards), but I felt it didn't mesh well with Jane Eyre, and that was a prerequisite for this story. I didn't feel her madness was either well portrayed or well explained. I've come across more convincing (if not necessarily realistic: I wouldn't know about that) portrayals of people going mad in literature. And indeed, it seems less the case that she went mad than that Rochester chooses to perceive her as such, and that it's her subsequent incarceration by him that actually drives her out of her sanity. (Creepily, there is the implication the same may have been the case for her mother as well).

Be that as it may, though, by the time of Jane Eyre (which really doesn't seem after as long an interval as Jane Eyre implied), Antoinette should have been portrayed at the level of wildness we see in that book, and she is not. I'm happy to accept Rochester in Jane Eyre as an unreliable narrator, but not what Jane sees through her own eyes. The Bertha Jane sees, reduced to an animal-like state, indeed sometimes on all fours, and apparently incapable of speech, is incommensurate with the portrayal in Wide Sargasso Sea of an Antoinette capable of rational conversation with Grace Poole, and merely suffering from memory lapses. And while the explanation for why Bertha/Antoinette attacked her brother with a knife then bit him did work well, I didn't buy the portrayal of her setting Thornfield on fire in her dream by accident. In Jane Eyre this does not come out of nowhere; it's set up by the fact she previously tried to burn the place down and kill her husband (prior, one might expect, to herself), when the fire was discovered and put out by Jane Eyre. Which is a pivotal plot moment in that book: it's the point when Rochester falls in love with Jane and starts calling her by her first name.

Indeed, in Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette does not seem aware of Jane at all; the incident in which Bertha rips apart Jane's bridal veil was noticeably lacking in this novel.

I also felt the portrayal of Rochester was not very commensurate with that in Jane Eyre, though there's enough time between Part Two of Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre for Rochester's character to have improved.

At any rate, I found the novel an interesting portrayal of the problems of Jamaican and Dominican society in the decades after the abolition of slavery, just rather disappointing in the aspect which made me read it in the first place.
lethargic_man: (reflect)

Readers of this blog may recall my review of The Bible According to Spike Milligan. When I came across the book The Bible According to Mark Twain, I thought: this I must read.

It is a very different book from Milligan's; but that shouldn't be surprising, as they were very different characters. The book consists of narratives by Twain, some of them previously published, some not, on the two subjects of Adam, Eve, and the antediluvian civilisation (which Twain portrays as a high civilisation, in order to use it to satirise his own—I bet you didn't know Cain and Abel's sisters were called Gladys and Edwina), and Heaven and the afterlife.

Much of the book consists of gentle mockery of an overliteral reading of the Bible and the traditional Christian interpretation of it, for example (from "Adam's Diary"):

[Eve] engages herself in many foolish things: among others, trying to study why the animals called lions and tigers live on grass and flowers, when, as she says, the sort of teeth they wear would indicate that they were intended to eat each other.
(I thought as I was growing up that this kind of argument was fully thrashed out in the mid-nineteenth century (certainly Joseph Herman Hertz, Chief Rabbi in the first half of the twentieth, wrote a wonderful rebuttal of literal Creationism that I can post here if anyone is interested); it's depressing that this has come back as an issue in our day and age.)

I wasn't strongly grabbed by these narratives, and found some of them wandered somewhat, failing to maintain a uniform voice or theme. However, later in the book—corresponding, loosely, to later in the author's life—the narratives grow darker and more theologically challenging, and hence more interesting to myself.

One of the appendices to the book, "God of the Bible vs. God of the Present Day", sets out Mark Twain's views on the nature of God circa 1870, in which he contrasts the pettiness of the scope or scale of God and his interests as portrayed by the Bible, with that as envisaged by the theologians of his day.

The Biblical universe consisted of but one important feature, a miiniature world 8,000 miles in diameter; the minor features were a roof a rocket-flight overhead, containing a toy sun and moon, and speckled with dimensionless sparks, placed there with the avowedly sole object of confining their homage to that little world and humbly serving it. The difference between that universe and the modern one revealed by science is as the difference between dust-flecked ray in a barn and the sublime arch of the Milky Way in the skies. Its God was strictly proportioned to its dimensions. His sole solicitude was about a handful of truculent nomads. [...] One day he coaxed and petted them beyond their due, the next he harried and lashed them beyond their deserts. He sulked, he cursed, he raged, he grieved [...] but all to no purpose; his efforts were all vain, he could not govern them.

In comparison:

The universe discovered by modern men comports with the dignity of the modern God, the God whom we trust, believe in and humbly adore.

And so forth, at greater length than I am willing to beg your indulgence by quoting. He concludes from this:

To trust the God of the Bible is to trust an irascible, vindictive, fierce, and ever fickle and changeful master; to trust the true God is to trust a Being who has uttered no promises, but whose beneficent, exact and changeless ordering of the machinery of his colossal universe is proof that he is at least steadfast to his purposes; whose unwritten laws, so far as they affect man, being equal and impartial show that he is just and fair.

This I found astonishing: He is willing to avow disbelief in much of what the Bible says, yet goes on believing in God. Apparently in this he was much influenced by the classic eighteenth-century deist tract The Age of Reason. I think I shall have to read this now. I'd known about deism in an abstract way, but had never seen belief in God set out alongside outright denial of core Christian values in that way beforehand. (I think I thought of deism and (intellectually informed) theism as both acknowledging the Bible and the evidence from the universe, but differing in which was considered trustworthy for proof.)

It's also interesting that Twain concludes that God is still to be worshipped, as some of the charges that can be put against the Biblical God can also be put against the deistic one. These charges came to the fore as Twain's theological outlook darkened in the 1890s and 1900s. They include the way that God, although claiming to be just and fair, has a habit of punishing not just the guilty, but anyone remotely connected with them.

Here I think Twain is making a theological mistake: He is conflating the ascription to God of attributes we value and should wish to emulate—lovingkindness, etc—with the ancients' attempting to find meaning in a world in which bad things happen to good people by declaring that they must be acts of God, i.e. beyond the human capacity to understand or explain. Without a firm mental separation between the two, you end up with a contradictory depiction of God, which lends itself to the charge of hypocrisy.

Another theological mistake Twain makes is to say that Man is not to blame for his nature, given that that nature is the work of God. It is (as I have heard other theologians say) unfair to blame Adam and Eve for sampling the forbidden fruit when it was both in their nature to do so, and they neither did, nor could, understand the nature of the punishment (without having eaten of the fruit in the first place). Twain's mistake here is to extend that to all Man's nature and actions. He would absolve an adulterer for adultery simply because he is of an adulterous nature. But by that criterion, surely all law systems are in the wrong! But of course without them civilisations would descend into anarchy (which, despite the protestations of some anarchists, is not a good thing, as we have seen in countries deprived of law and order in the last few years). What Twain seems to forget is that what distinguishes Man from the beasts is an ability to overcome his nature. I cannot understand how Twain did not mention this, but of course have only read in this book a selection of his thoughts on the subject.

Twain's darkened theological outlook is captured in his powerful Letters from the Earth (sent by an incredulous Satan back to the other archangels about the nature of life on Earth). These depicts God as having created a universe in which everyone and everything suffers. The fly being eaten by the spider, and the spider by the wasp are all part of this suffering for Twain; indeed for him the situation is even worse for the animals, as they don't even get a heaven to look forward to afterwards. Yet for him the advent of the promise of a Heaven is a double-edged sword, because it resulted in the creation of Hell too. Recognising (implicitly) that neither exist in the Hebrew Bible, he talks about Hell as having come about "When God got religion" or "became Christian".

Of course, Twain's antagonism to these derives from the Christian concept that only a tiny proportion of humanity will get into Heaven, the rest will fry in eternal torment; this concept is mercifully lacking in my own religion.

Twain goes on to criticise God for supposedly being omnipotent but not saving everyone. What perversity is it to cure one leper without curing all lepers? Indeed, what perversity was it to create diseases in the first place? This finds expresson in Twain's treatment of Noah, whom he criticises for having taken the housefly on the Ark, rather than letting it and all the diseases it carries die out.

Which raises the question of whether, then, one still owes such a God worship. In a quotation from his autobiography dating from 1906, Twain concludes emphatically no. It's strange to read Twain going on in this manner, and yet still using the term "God" to describe this entity to which worship is not due. I suppose it's because English doesn't really have a term for an entity that is Creator and Supreme Being but not suitable to be the object of worship. Or, to put it another way, what makes such a being worthy of being called God if worship is not due it?

Twain concludes:

[Man] is flung head over heels into this world without ever a chance to decline, and straightaway he conceives and accepts the notion that he is in some mysterious way under obligations to the unknown Power that inflicted this outrage upon him—and thenceforth he considered himself responsible to that Power for every act of his life, and punishable for such of his acts as do not meet with the approval of that Power—yet that same man would argue quite differently if a human tyrant should capture him and put chains upon him and make him a slave.

Though of course we cannot expect Twain to have heard of Stockholm syndrome! Which raises a question that's been going through my mind in recent years: How much bad does God have to do to the Jewish people before we stop praising God for the few good things God has done in our long history?

The answer to this I think lies in the appeal of the traditional liturgy, as borne out by the history of the Reform movement, which started out by throwing out everything traditional, and then has spent the last two centuries gradually putting it back in again.

This is not, however, for me a closed question. I've spent years looking for a theology which does not leave me unsatisfied. I read Nill Gillman's book Sacred Fragments, which gives a description of all modern such attempts, and none of them really did much for me.

There's a story of a group of rabbis in a concentration camp during the Holocaust who decided to put God on trial for what God had allowed to pass. They assigned counsels for the prosecution and defence, weighed up the evidence, and eventually, after much debate, found God guilty. But they came to pronounce sentence, one of them looked at his watch and said, "It's time for mincha!; so instead of sentencing God, they went off to pray to God instead.

There is a sense that we—they, I—continue because it's what we do. I've posted before about how I came to start reciting בִּרְכוֹת every day because I wanted to express gratitude for things, but got sucked into using theistical language, because it's the language of Jewish prayer. This is the same problem here, just on a wider scope.

lethargic_man: (Default)
A couple of months ago someone by the name of both Alex and Tamar, at Yedid Nefesh, recommended me the book House of God by Samuel Shem, describing it as doing for medicine what Catch-22 did for war.

How have I failed to come across this book before? It's hilarious! (I think Catch-22 might be slightly better in terms of hanging together better—Catch-22 has this clever trick of appearing to constitute unrelated vignettes, with a plot arc only emerging out of them at a very late stage (I've been meaning for the last twenty years to reread that book to get a better handle on how the author does that)—but that's comparing House of God with a high standard.)

This is a short review, but for once it doesn't need to be any longer: if you liked Catch-22, you'll love House of God, and if you haven't read Catch-22, what are you waiting for; go and read it now!
lethargic_man: (Default)
(Contains spoilers, but not for anything not internally given away early in the book.)

I've been meaning to read some H Rider Haggard since reading Misery by Stephen King, which makes reference to She and possibly King Solomon's Mines. A while ago a comment of [livejournal.com profile] carandol's on a blog post of [livejournal.com profile] papersky's made me put Marie onto my reading list, and my impending visit to South Africa five years later made me push it to the top of the pile. I'm glad now I read it before I went.

Marie tells the story of the youth of the Allan Quatermain of the above novels, of how he falls in love with his classmate Marie Marais and, after saving her life, incurs the enmity of her cousin Hernando Pereira, only for Marie and Allan to be sundered because Marie's father, a Boer of French Huguenot ancestry, hates the British with a passion.

The story takes place against a rich historical background, documenting events fundamental to the history of South Africa, of which I had previously had no knowledge. In 1836, a number of Boers, dismayed at their discriminatory treatment under British rule, decide to depart in what became known as the Great Trek, and set up their own Boer republics outside of British rule.

The leader of these is Piet Retief, whom we meet as a character in the novel first in a shooting contest between Quatermain and Pereira; later, after Quatermain has gone north to rescue the Maraises from their desperate situation, we see firsthand how Retief's attempt to buy land for the Boers from the Zulu king Dingaan leads to the Boers' betrayal and massacre by Dingaan's warriors.

As a result of my reading this, I found everything pertaining to this period of history much more meaningful when I visited the Voortrekker Monument, built outside Pretoria to commemorate the centenary of the Great Trek. There I saw articles belonging to Piet Retief, and there too (a copy of) the peace treaty written up by Retief and signed by Dingaan just moments before he gave the order "Kill them all!"

I have no idea how accurate the portrayal of everyone in the novel is; regardless of the answer, I felt I knew these people by the time I saw such artefacts in the Monument, and it made them particularly meaningful to me. At any rate, I found the novel to be reasonably sympathetic to everyone—British, Boers, Bushmen (referred to by their historical name Hottentots) and other indigenous natives—with the notable exceptions of a Frenchman named Leblanc, and Dingaan, who is portrayed as monster, an absolute monarch with the power of life and death over everyone within his domain, who is not afraid to abuse that power to the fullest. (However, there is at least one Zulu in the novel—Naya—who is portrayed sympathetically.)

What makes me wonder is to what extent, despite the sympathetic portrayal of the Boers, the foundations of apartheid were already laid then, over a century before the Nationalist Party came to power and completed the legal consolidation of apartheid. Amongst the Trekboers' complaints against British rule, as listed in a document drawn up by Retief, which was displayed in the Monument (but not, I think, mentioned in the novel) was that the British had outlawed slavery and not recompensed Boer slaveholders appropriately. (That said, Retief does go on to promise the Trekboers will not reinstitute slavery once out of the Cape Colony.) And afterwards, discrimination against the blacks was always greater in the Boer republics than in the Cape Colony. (It was not until a couple of decades after the union of the Boer republics with the Cape Colony in 1910 that the Cape blacks finally lost their limited rights.) As film footage, in the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, of the Voortrekker Monument's opening brought out, Afrikaners venerate the memory of the Great Trek with an almost religious devotion, and in a way that brought to mind other, less pleasant, extreme forms of nationalism in the 1930s and sullied, perhaps, the associations the Voortrekkers had for me.

At any rate, I recommend the novel for anyone who wants to learn more about this period of South African history wrapped up in the form of a combined romance and adventure story, and shall have to read She and King Solomon's Mines myself now.
lethargic_man: (Default)
I've been reading The Rapture of the Nerds, by Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow, which I have been eagerly looking forward to since I first heard of it. As the title implies, it's about the Singularity, or rather the relationship of baseline humanity to a developing Matrioshka brain, a subject Stross's novel Accelerando skirted, by diverting the action away from the solar system during the critical period. The Rapture of the Nerds skirts the subject too—it's a difficult thing to tackle directly—but does so in a significantly closer orbit than Accelerando. Nevertheless, for those who read this kind of thing, there's little in the way of groundbreaking new ideas: reading it, I was thinking, "That's out of Greg Egan's 'Reasons To Be Cheerful', meanwhile he took that from Ken Macleod..." Plus, there's a nice twist on Contact. Nevertheless, it's a fun read, in places lots of fun:
The surviving missiles stab towards them and there's a musical chime from the countermeasures control panel. [...] "You've got mail!" the countermeasures system announces in the syrupy tones of a kindergarten teacher. "Facebook-Goldman-AOL welcomes you to the United States of America. You have 14,023 new friend requests, which you will receive after this message from our sponsors. Your hen wants milking, your goat has been turned into a zombie, there are 14,278,123 new status updates, and you have been defriended 1,974,231 times. There are 5,348,011 updates to the privacy policy for your review."

Bonnie thumps something on the panel, muscles like whipcord standing out on her arm as she glares at the oncoming missiles. Huw backs away. She might actually be a communicant, he realises in absolute horror. She might actually have a Facebook account! She's mad enough.... These days, tales of what Facebook did with its users during the singularity are commonly used to scare naughty children in Wales.
Read more... )
lethargic_man: (capel)

Last time I was at my rabbi's, I saw on his bookshelf the book Selected Poems of Jehudah Halevi. I thought, oh, I should read that, let's see how many I recognise; so I asked to borrow it. The answer turned out to be one and a couple of fragments, pretty much, which surprised me. I thought I'd find piyyutim or zemiros written by him that I knew, but though there were plenty of both that he wrote, along with secular poetry, none were any that I knew; which means that they've fallen out of use today—though it's possible that the Reform movement have revived some: [personal profile] liv, [personal profile] kerrypolka?

Here's the one poem of his I knew:

My heart is in the East, and I in the uttermost West
My food has no taste. How can it be sweet?
How can I fulfil my pledges and my vows,
When Zion is in the power of Edom, and I in the fetters of Arabia?
It will be nothing to me to leave all the goodness of Spain
So rich will it be to see the dust of the ruined sanctuary.
לִבִּי בְמִזְרָח וְאָנֹכִי בְּסוֹף מַעֲרָב
אֵיךְ אֶטְעֲמָה אֵת אֲשֶׁר אֹכַל וְאֵיךְ יֶעֱרָב
אֵיכָה אֲשַׁלֵּם נְדָרַי וָאֱסָרַי, בְּעוֹד
צִיּוֹן בְּחֶבֶל אֱדוֹם וַאֲנִי בְּכֶבֶל עֲרָב
יֵקַל בְּעֵינַי עֲזֹב כָּל טוּב סְפָרַד, כְּמוֹ
יֵקַר בְּעֵינַי רְאוֹת עַפְרוֹת דְּבִיר נֶחֱרָב

In 1141 he set out to fulfil this wish and travel from Spain, leaving behind his daughter and grandson, to the Land of Israel, and the poems reflect his itinerary: We find, in succession (the titles are the translator's, some of them quite different from the original), "My Dream", "Equipped for Flight", "For the Sake of the House of our God: The singer's reply to one who reproved him for his longing to go to the Land of Israel", "When My Soul Longed: The beginning of his journey", then "On the Sea I", "On the Sea II", "On the Sea III", all the way up to "On the Sea VIII" before we finally reach "On the Nile", "Refusal to Tarry in Egypt", "In the Paths of the Ark", etc, then "On Eagles' Wings: On the way from Egypt to Zion" (he went via Tyre and Damascus, though the poems do not reflect this). Then... nothing. According to tradition he was run down and killed by an Arab horseman as he stood before the ruins of Jerusalem, singing his great Ode to Zion.

This poem contains one of the two fragments of his verse I already knew. To quote in context:

I with the jackal's wail have mourned for thee long,
But dreaming of thine own restored anew
I am a harp to sound for thee thy song.
לִבְכוֹת עֱנוּתֵךְ אֲנִי תַנִים וְעֵת אֶחֶלֹם
שִׁיבַת שְׁבוּתֵיךְ אֲנִי כִנּוֹר לְשִׁירָיִךְ

אֲנִי כִנּוֹר לְשִׁירָיִךְ was of course referenced, as הֲלוֹא לְכֹל שִׁירָיִךְ אֲנִי כִנּוֹר ("Am I not a harp for all your songs?"), by Naomi Shemer in her song יְרוּשָלַיִם שֶׁל זָהָב. I rather like this, as Yehudah Halevi's poems are themselves riddled with Biblical quotations; I like the idea of a stack of texts, each layer connected to the adjacent ones with quotations.

The other fragment I recognised was in the poem "Beautiful of Elevation", which begins:

Ps. 48:3 Beautiful of elevation! Joy of the World!
   City of the Great King!
קִרְיָה לְמֶלֶךְ רָב יְפֵה נוֹף מְשׂוֹשׂ תֵּבֵל
Ps. 84:3. For thee my soul is longing from the limits of the west.    מִפַּאֲתֵי מַעְרָב    לְךָ נִכְסְפָה נַפְשִׁי

פַּאֲתֵי מַעְרָב was referenced, reversed, by Naphtali Herz Imber, in the Hatikva, the Zionist (and later Israeli national) anthem, as וּלְפַאֲתֵי מִזְרָח "to the ends of the east".

One other thing about Yehuda Halevi's style that I liked was his frequent playing with words, through multiple meanings of the same word:

Thou waftest me on swallow's [dror] wings, and proclaimest liberty [dror] for me;
Like pure [dror] myrrh from the bundle of spices thou art chosen [cf. Cant. 1:13].
כַּנְפֵי דְרוֹר תָּנִיף וְתִקְרָא־לִי דְרוֹר
וּכְמָר־דְרוֹר מִן־הַצְּרוֹר לָקוּח

...or metathesis (reversing letters in a word, in this case to gain a different meaning):

But beat out [rəqa`] the deep, and tear [qəra`] the heart of the seas וּרְקַע תְּהוֹם וּקְרַע לֵבָב יָמִים

...or simply playing with similar-sounding words:
And when the deep groaneth and roareth beneath me
[və`et tehom təhom taḥtai vətinhom]
וְעֵת תֵּהֹם תְהוֹם תַּחְתַּי וְתִנְהֹם
And the Hittites come down to the stronghold
[Vəhaḥittim nəḥittim bamṣuda]
וְהַחִתִם נְחִתִּים בַּמְצוּדָה
Now I've read this, I'm wondering whether I should also read the great prose work of his, the כתאב אלכ׳זרי, better known by its Hebrew title The Kuzari.
lethargic_man: (serious)

When I mentioned to my father I was reading Josephus, his instant reaction was "He was a turncoat!" Williamson says:

'The traitor of Jerusalem', as Dr Cecil Roth calls him, has damned himself for all time by his own accounts of what he did at Jotapata—surely the most appalling story of cowardice, duplicity and treason ever penned.

Williamson continues further in that vein, so I was expecting the sympathy for Josephus I had built up as a reader of his to evaporate when I got to the point when he went over to the Romans. To my surprise, it did not. Indeed, I would go so far as to say I would have done what he did! It's true that he did suggest defecting during the siege of Jotapata, but he was talked out of this, and continued trying to defend the city until the bitter end.

After the city had fallen and the Romans were destroying it, Josephus hid along with forty VIPs in a cave, where the Romans found him when his location was given away. They offered him safe conduct if he surrendered; Josephus, sceptical about their intent, was reassured when they sent a friend of his to talk him out, and was about to surrender when the others hiding with him raised a stink, demanding he kill himself instead. When Josephus lectured them about Judaism's abhorrence of suicide, they all bar killed him themselves. Eventually he persuaded them to draw lots to kill each other, and somehow managed ("shall we put it down to divine providence or just to luck?" he says, though many suspect he fiddled the lots) to be one of the last two, at which point he persuaded the other survivor to surrender with him.

Choosing to die rather than surrender at this stage would have achieved nothing: the battle was already lost. As for being a traitor, Josephus did not go on to become a military commander for the enemy; his role for the Romans was limited to trying to persuade his countrymen to surrender. In that how was he any different from, say, King Agrippa II, who delivered a speech trying to talk the Judaeans out of war immediately before its start, and continued doing so on the Romans' side throughout the war?

If only the Jews had done as Agrippa urged! There was no way the Jews were going to hold off the might of the Roman Empire* in the best of circumstances—but these were not the best of circumstances: Rather like in Iraq in the last decade, the political instability led to religious fundamentalists trying to take over society. As I mentioned in my last Josephus post, at this point the Romans could almost have stood back and let the Jews get on with destroying their own society.

It's heartbreaking to read. The Talmud talks about the Second Temple being destroyed through שִׂנְאַת חִינָם, baseless hatred, and that's certainly the case. The fundamentalists took over the government in Jerusalem by means of killing the moderates, forced those that would have waited out the Roman siege to fight by burning all the supplies, leading to conditions of appalling deprivation, then waged a civil war against each other whilst the rest of the country was falling to the Romans city by city.

"Because of our sins, we were exiled from our land", the festival Mussaf Amidah says; and you don't even need to believe in God to see how true that is. Every Jew should read this account, as a indication of what lack of unity amongst the Jewish people can lead to, so that we pull back from the brink and never let anything like this happen to us again.

* King Agrippa II's abovementioned speech on this subject (II.18.376) amusingly references both my nationality and [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m's:
Who is there among you that hath not heard of the great number of the Germans? You have, to be sure, yourselves seen them to be strong and tall, and that frequently, since the Romans have them among their captives everywhere; yet these Germans, who dwell in an immense country, who have minds greater than their bodies, and a soul that despises death, and who are in rage more fierce than wild beasts, have the Rhine for the boundary of their enterprises, and are tamed by eight Roman legions. Such of them as were taken captive became their servants; and the rest of the entire nation were obliged to save themselves by flight. Do you also, who depend on the walls of Jerusalem, consider what a wall the Britons had; for the Romans sailed away to them, and subdued them while they were encompassed by the ocean, and inhabited an island that is not less than the [continent of this] habitable earth; and four legions are a sufficient guard to so large an island.

† Indeed, the culture in first century Judaea had more in common with that of contemporary Arab society than that of the Israel of today: the images we see in our media of large crowds of vocal protesters liable to turn rowdy at the drop of a hat recur again and again in Josephus. No orderly camping in Tel Aviv city centre here to try and sort out society's problems!

[Josephus] Josephus notes

lethargic_man: (Default)

Antiquities of the Jews ends immediately prior to the outbreak of the First Revolt against the Romans, in 66 CE. I was going to take a break after reading this, but couldn't leave it on such a cliffhanger, so went on to read The Jewish War as well. However, though I studiously post-it-ed this book's bloggables too, I'm disinclined to put the effort into turning them into blog entries, due to the thin response of my blogging of Antiquities. Yadda yadda yadda. )

On the other hand, there's only about thirty post-its in the book (as the first third, outlining the background to the war, "precapitulates" material Josephus would later cover in Antiquities), so maybe I will make the effort. Demand voiced here might persuade me, though I will expect more feedback from you lot if I do, even if just reponses saying "Very interesting, I didn't know that!"

In place of detailed notes for the time being, here's an overview and book review. Here's the start of G.A. Williamson's introduction to my edition:

History, we are told, is the record of the crimes and follies of mankind. Anyone reading The Jewish War will certainly feel this to be true. It is a tale of unrelieved horror—of brutalities committed by Herod and other Palestinian kings, by provincial governors, by the most enlightened and reasonable of the Roman emperors, by the leaders of the Jewish insurgents, and by Josephus himself. It is a tale of hopeless revolts, of suicidal strife between rival gangsters and warring factions, of incredible heroism achieving nothing but universal ruin and destruction. It is a tale, too, of a country filled with such a wealth of architectural and artistic splendour as has perhaps never been seen elsewhere since the world began, and reduced by crimes and follies to a desert, a mass of shapeless ruins.

The book is half the length of Antiquities, and moves much faster; it therefore comes with a higher recommendation from me (unless of course you're interested in Josephus's take on all of Jewish history). The following passage, describing the outbreak of the Hasmonean revolt exemplifies the difference between War and Antiquities (I use Williamson's translation, for added drama, as it is generally more gripping than Whitston's):

Matthias (son of Asamoneus), a priest from the village of Modin, raised a tiny force consisting of his five sons and himself, and killed Bacchides with cleavers. Fearing the strength of the garrisons, he fled to the hills for the time being, but when many of the common people joined him, he regained confidence, came down again, gave battle, defeated Antiochus' generals and chased them out of Judaea. By that success he achieved supremacy, and in gratitude for his expulsion of the foreigners his countrymen gladly accepted his rule, which on his decease he left to Judas, the eldest of his sons.

This is told at almost eight times the length in Antiquities, and moreover Bacchides does not come into it at all! He only turns up on the scene later, after the death of Mattithyāhu, and far from being killed by Yehudhāh hamMaccabi, he subdues the Jews, and later kills Yehudhāh hamMaccabi himself!

Read more... )

[Josephus] Josephus notes

lethargic_man: Detail from the frontispiece of my (incomplete) novel "A Remnant Shall Be Preserved" (SF/F writer)

Some of you might remember how, after I blogged about trying to teach myself to read cuneiform, I received an email from [livejournal.com profile] claidheamdanns asking for help writing a birthday (and later, also a name) in cuneiform for a novel that would shortly be published. As I blogged at the time, I thought it would be either a five minute google, or completely beyond me, and hence completely failed to predict it would be somewhere in between and suck an entire evening out of me. At the end of the process, I had a page of wedge-shaped marks, a promise of a dedication in the book, and, in the fullness of time, a gratis copy of The Winds of All Worlds by Mikal C. Johnson, with handwritten thank-yous from [livejournal.com profile] claidheamdanns and the author:

View piccy )

([livejournal.com profile] aviva_m: "That's your Limmud presenter blurb!" YHN: "Not any more; this year it's also going to have '...and created the cuneiform texts in a recently published novel.'" :o))

Read review )

In summary, despite all I said above in criticism of the book, I'm reminded of [livejournal.com profile] rysmiel's comments to me on The Armageddon Blues: "about as good as one can expect [for being] written by a [novice] with more imagination than wordskill. He's gotten much better since." And indeed, three books down the line, I was rating the author of that book as excellent; so, assuming his writing likewise improves over time, I have high hopes for Johnson!

lethargic_man: (linguistics geekery)

For my birthday, [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m got me (inter alia) the book Old English and its Closest Relatives by Orrin W. Robinson. You might think this might make for rather dry reading, but that doesn't have to be the case: Tom Shippey's The Road to Middle-Earth, for example, captures the excitement of philologists in the nineteenth century when they realised they could resurrect the history of lost empires based on nothing more than linguistic traces, and their astonishment when, upon discovering a record from the late sixteenth century of Gothic spoken in the Crimea, the best part of a millennium after it had been thought to have gone extinct, the possibility was raised, incorrectly as it turned out, that Gothic had survived even to the present day.

Sadly, Old English and its Closest Relatives is indeed a bit dry compared to The Road to Middle-Earth, but it still has entertaining parts, such as the story of Thor and the Giant Skrymir, taken from the Prose Edda and presented as a reading in the original Old Norse, which reads rather like a Daffy Duck cartoon; or the following extract, from a discussion about the origins of Dutch:

Unfortunately, all that survives from the early period of Old West Low Franconian, beyond a great deal of onomastic material in Latin texts, is the following remarkable West Flemish sentence of the eleventh century, found in England in the binding of a Latin manuscript:
hebban olla vogala nestas hagunnan hinase hi(c) (e)nda thu w(at) (u)ndidan (w)e nu
'All the birds have begun nests except for you and me—what are we waiting for?'

I've also found some interesting things following up references the book didn't give in full, but merely alluded to. For example, it talks about Gothic as the only well-attested member of the East Germanic group of languages. Presumably, I thought, this meant there was little more than personal names recorded of other members of the group, but a bit of poking around on Wikipedia revealed the following snippet of Vandalian (loosely referred to as "Gothic") embedded in a Latin text:

Inter “eils” Goticum “scapia matzia ia drincan!” non audet quisquam dignos educere versus.
Between the Gothic [cries] "Hail" and "Let's get [something to] eat and drink" nobody dares to put forth decent verses.

Another interesting tidbit that wasn't in the book is the earliest attested Germanic, which is an inscription in Etruscan letters on a bronze helmet found in Negau (Negova, Slovenia), dating to the period 450–350 BCE (but with the writing probably added in the second century BCE or later (up until the helmet was buried in ca. 50 BC, shortly before the Roman invasion of the area). The inscription reads (from right to left):

photo of inscription

It is conventionally interpreted as "Harigast the priest". What interested me about this discovery is how far Slovenia was from where the Germanic peoples were to be found at the time. Some time ago I reviewed the books Iron Dawn and Jericho Moon by Matthew Woodring Stover, which begin in Tyre in the thirteenth century BCE, when the city's bars are filled with Trojan War vets spending their whole time reliving their war experiences. The protagonist, Barra, is a Pictish mercenary brought there by Phoenician traders, who has teamed up with an Egyptian and an Achaean (Greek). Leaving aside the fact that (as I mentioned in my reviews) there were no Picts, or indeed Celts, at that time*, and their ancestors (or at any rate, speakers of the language that would eventually evolve into Old Celtic) were all living on the Continent, I thought it dubious that someone from Britain could get as far as the eastern Mediterranean at that time.

* Taking "Celts" as corresponding to the La Tène archaeological culture, and anything further back as "pre-Celts".

Wikipedia, however, furnished evidence that the Phoenicians did get all the way to Britain (they were after the tin, the same thing that originally attracted the Celts); and the presence of a German mercenary serving hundreds of miles from his homeland in Slovenia makes the possibility of finding a Pictish mercenary in the Levant—a much greater distance, but with Phoenician trade routes available to take her the whole way—more believable for me.

Coming back to the Robinson book, one other thing that got me excited was the discovery that the few runic incriptions written in the oldest runic alphabet, the so-called Elder Futhark are not written in Old Norse as are Younger Futhark inscriptions, but rather in what appears to be proto-North/West-Germanic, the parent language of all the Germanic languages except Gothic (and the abovementioned other poorly attested East Germanic languages).

Really, though, it's ridiculous that I should get so excited about this. There's nothing mystical about a reconstructed unattested proto-language. We know lots of examples of attested proto-languages—for example, the Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, Portuguese and Romansch) are descended from Latin, but we don't get all excited about the thought of Latin, because we have hods of texts in it!

Anyhow, one thing reading the book brought home to me is how much not just English but German has changed since the time they separated. I'd previously been struck by how different English and German are nowadays, and had reflected on how much English had changed since the Anglo-Saxon period, putting a substantial degree of the blame on the Norman Conquest, but it turns out Old High German is equally incomprehensible to the modern German speaker (viz. [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m). In fact, all modern Indo-European languages that I am familiar with are very much worn down in their inflections and their vocabulary compared to two thousand years ago, to the extent that the commonality between different subfamilies is hard to spot. By contrast, looking back at the older forms really brings out their common Indo-European heritage: Seeing the older Germanic inflections (and even occasionally modern ones), or looking at, say, the grammar of Proto-Celtic brings out echoes of Latin. Which should not surprise me—it was European scholars having the same reaction to Sanskrit in the nineteenth century that led to the hypothesis of a parent proto-Indo-European language in the first place—but it's nice to see confirmation in languages I personally have been introduced to.

One final point: I was amused to see, in the last reading in the book—from the ninth-century Old High German text Muspilli—a reference to Middle-Earth:

muor varsuuilhit sih, suilizot lougiu der himil,
mano uallit, prinnit mittilagart
(The) moor swallows itself, the heavens burn slowly with flames,
(The) moon falls, (the) world burns

Of course, lots of Germanic languages used to refer to our world as "Middle-Earth"; probably the best-known being Old Norse (midgard). But even English used the name once, too. To give the final word to Tom Shippey in The Road to Middle-Earth, quoting a song recorded in the eighteenth century:

Middle-Earth itself survived in song even after people had forgotten what it meant:
Cocks are crowing a merry mid-larf,
I wat the wild fule boded day;

lethargic_man: (Default)
(All spoilers rot13ed.)

For a bibliophile, I'm not very good at reviewing books, and it's not going to be easy to make an original review after having read other people's reviews, particularly when I've left it a few weeks to do so; so I have no idea of how much of the below I've have unconsciously taken from other people.

Anyhow, [livejournal.com profile] papersky complains in the FAQ at the end of this book that people don't like standalone novels, but I personally think she does well in them: her earlier novels The Prize in the Game and Ha'penny felt like they were suffering a bit from sequelitis compared to the highly original books they followed on from; whereas by contrast her standalones Tooth and Claw, Farthing and Lifelode all came across as refreshingly different from her previous material.

Lifelode tells the story of how the scholar Jankin came to meet Hanethe, who has fled the vengeance of a goddess. Jankin is from the Westmarch, where yeya doesn't work, "yeya" being to "magic" as "armiger" was to "knight" in The King's Peace, i.e. a term that conveys the meaning but without the associations of the term we're used to. Hanethe by contrast, has come back from the east, where "people run together and separate as fast as rainbows on oil, and only the gods can keep themselves whole" (and if that doesn't pique your interest, I don't know what will). The novel takes place in Applekirk, the village of which Hanethe had walked away from being lord sixty years earlier (time running slower the further east you travel). (This whole east/west conceit I learned in the FAQ is an attempt to do <rot13>Ivatr'f Mbarf bs Gubhtug</rot13> in a fantasy setting, which, frankly, I am ashamed of myself for not spotting as I read.)

The novel is told largely (though far from exclusively) from the viewpoint of Taveth, the housekeeper of the Applekirk manor, and in a strange omniscient style that refuses to recognise tenses—appropriate enough for Taveth, who can see echoes of the past and future; perhaps less appropriate when in other people's heads. In this style, bits of speech are reported in advance of when you get to hear them in context, which means they resonate for you when they do, nicely paralleling how Taveth perceives the world.

[livejournal.com profile] papersky talks about the novel being influenced by Rumer Godden's China Court, a book I haven't read. I had got the idea, from what I heard her talk of it on rasf.c many years ago, that that book told its story completely out of sequence, like (to cite a book I have read) Christopher Priest's Fugue for a Darkening Island, with the plot nevertheless still managing to emerge from what might sound chaos; but the narrative style in Lifelode is nothing like that (so maybe I should read China Court to find out).

Along with all of the above comes an exploration of a societal structure which takes polyamory for granted, and one which reacts to the possibility of <rot13>puvyqera bayl orvat pbaprvinoyr jvguva zneevntr</rot13> the opposite way to that in The King's Peace; also one in which no one (bar one teenage PoV character) bats an eyelid at the fact all priests are naked all the time. As with all good fiction, the reader is drawn sufficiently into the world being portrayed that none of this seems at all strange.

I was originally going to wait until the trade paperback came out before reading the book; having concluded that with the crop of awards [livejournal.com profile] papersky had received and been nominated for, she had passed some years ago the stage of needing her hardbacks bought to make sure the paperback came out. Well, [livejournal.com profile] papersky put me right about that, and as it turned out no trade paperback ever appeared. I read somewhere that publishers were wary of the content, thinking it would be a hard sell, so did not market it strongly, as a result of which only part of the limited edition print run has sold.

I think this is a terrible shame, as this is, IMNSHO, a top-class, if slightly unconventional, fantasy novel and ought to be better known. Trying to put a better light on it, I'm reminded of the story of how a few hundred of the Velvet Underground's first album sold. So maybe if you get a copy of the novel now, you can look back when [livejournal.com profile] papersky is rich and famous and the book is a bestseller and say "I have a copy of the first edition!" :o)
lethargic_man: (Default)
The New North London's sedra sheet a week ago (which unfortunately I did not keep to refer back to now), waxed lyrical about the Apocryphal book of Joseph and Aseneth [sic], filling in the blanks from the lack of account in Genesis of the courtship of Joseph with Asenath (Osnat) daughter of Poti-Phera priest of On. (As Wikipedia puts it, what was Joseph, a monotheist, doing marrying the daughter of a priest of the Egyptian pantheon?) So I tracked down an online translation and went off and went off and read it.

The general consensus seems to be that the book was a first-century Jewish work, and apparently it was known to the rabbis of the first millennium, but it doesn't come across as particularly Jewish on reading. Indeed, with its damsel locked in a tower by her father, and its extolling of virginity as a virtue to really rather offputting lengths, it reads in some ways more like a Christian tale from a thousand years later.

The early chapters tell of how Poti-Phera plans to marry Aseneth to Joseph, and Aseneth haughtily rejects him. Then, when she actually meets Joseph, she falls head over heels in love with him, only for him to reject her as a pagan. She then locks herself in her tower, destroys all her possessions, rubs ashes over herself, and fasts for seven days; and on the eighth day sees an angel of the Lord. I have to confess this amused me: if I fasted for eight days, I'd probably be seeing angels of the Lord by the end too.

There's then a strange mystical episode involving bees, then Joseph returns and he and Aseneth finally meet together in the right spirit, and they get together and get married, which you'd have thought would have been the end of the book. Instead, though, it goes on to relate how, when the seven years of plenty had finished, and the seven years of famine started, Joseph's family comes down to Egypt, and Pharaoh's son, who we had been told at the start fancied Aseneth, tries to tempt various of Joseph's brothers into killing him. In the middle of this, there's an amusing episode in which Simeon, who we know is hotheaded from the Dinah/Shechem incident, is all ready to draw his sword and run through Pharaoh's son on the spot, until Levi (who is described, with no Biblical justification, as a prophet) stops him by stamping on his foot.

Whilst the second half of the book succesfully manages to generate tension, I don't really like the mechanism the author used to do it. The Biblical account records that from when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers until after the death of Jacob, rather than continuing to hold the grudge against Joseph that had led them to try and do away with him in the first place, they're fearful that, in his new powerful position as vizier of Egypt, he will try and take revenge against him. Consequently, by inserting this episode into Joseph and Aseneth, in which not all of the brothers spring as readily to Joseph's defence as Simeon and Levi, Joseph and Aseneth is undoing the resolution and character development of the Biblical account.

Of course, this is not the only place where midrash messed with what actually happened in the Joseph story, but still.

One final little detail which annoyed me was in the final chapter, where Pharaoh leaves the crown of Egypt to Joseph, and Joseph was king of Egypt for forty-eight years before ceding the crown back to the Pharaonic line. Is it not enough that Joseph gets made vizier of Egypt? Why do they have to try and elevate him to an even greater pedestal than the one on which he already stood? For me, this was one step too far; I found my suspended disbelief coming down with a thump.
lethargic_man: (Default)
I've had The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon, sitting on my desk since viiber waiting for me to review it; since by now I'll be lucky if I can remember anything about it, I'm going to cheat and quote the blurb verbatim:
For sixty years, Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered in the Federal District of Sitka, a "temporary" safe haven created in the wake of revelations of the Holocaust and the shocking 1948 collapse of the fledgling state of Israel. Proud, grateful, and longing to be American, the Jews of the Sitka District have created their own little world in the Alaskan panhandle, a vibrant, gritty, soulful, and complex frontier city that moves to the music of Yiddish. For sixty years they have been left alone, neglected and half-forgotten in a backwater of history. Now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control, and their dream is coming to an end: once again the tides of history threaten to sweep them up and carry them off into the unknown.

But homicide detective Meyer Landsman of the District Police has enough problems without worrying about the upcoming Reversion. His life is a shambles, his marriage a wreck, his career a disaster. He and his half-Tlingit partner, Berko Shemets, can't catch a break in any of their outstanding cases. Landsman's new supervisor is the love of his life—and also his worst nightmare. And in the cheap hotel where he has washed up, someone has just committed a murder—right under Landsman's nose. Out of habit, obligation, and a mysterious sense that it somehow offers him a shot at redeeming himself, Landsman begins to investigate the killing of his neighbor, a former chess prodigy. But when word comes down from on high that the case is to be dropped immediately, Landsman soon finds himself contending with all the powerful forces of faith, obsession, hopefulness, evil, and salvation that are his heritage—and with the unfinished business of his marriage to Bina Gelbfish, the one person who understands his darkest fears.

At once a gripping whodunit, a love story, an homage to 1940s noir, and an exploration of the mysteries of exile and redemption, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a novel only Michael Chabon could have written.
And if that doesn't make you want to rush off and read it*, I don't know what will. Maybe Amazon's description of it as "a murder-mystery speculative-history Jewish-identity noir chess thriller"? Maybe the lure of chareidi gangsters (all too easy to believe in given the instances in recent history of charedim failing to buy into דִינָא דְמַלְכוּתָא דִינָא)?

* Actually, I can't remember what made me want to read it. This is pretty much unprecedented; an embarrassing hole in my record-keeping.

I found the book loads of fun to read; indeed I got so engrossed in it that whenever I emerged from it, it took me a little while to reorient myself in this world, in which it's the Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew that's all bar died, not the Israeli; and when I went off to Google maps to have a look at the satellite imagery of Sitka, I was shocked to see all the urbanisation of the novel missing!

Of course, alternate history, like science fiction, enables one to look at things differently from how one would in the real world. In our world, we've got deep-ingrained prejudices about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict; we can't look at the issue dispassionately. By setting the story in the Alaskan panhandle (it's between Dundee and Aberdeen, latitude-wise), and replacing Palestinians with Tlingits, the story takes away our ingrained prejudices... and replaces them with another set, it's true; but it still makes you see things differently.

Two slight quibbles: When translating a foreign language, it's best not to go for dropping lots of words in that language into your text, but, though he does use a variety of Yiddish words for slang ("latke" for "cop", "sholem" for "gun"), I think the author was wrong to translate Hebrew loan-words: It comes across as odd to read, for example, "It's about Messiah"; odd in a way that "It's about Moshiach" would not. "It's about the Messiah" would not either, but that comes across subtly different to me, due to the Christian connotations that have accreted around that phraseology. Though Christians and the Christian outlook get almost no look-in in this novel; just in one chapter, that's almost like a bucket of water in the face waking you from out your Yiddish-culture coccoon.

And the second slight quibble? The book's title. The Yiddish Policemen's Union gets hardly a look-in. TBH, the only reason for choosing that as the title I can see is to grab the book-browser's attention.
lethargic_man: (Default)

The subject of the talk of the author's on the basis of which I bought this book was that the destruction of temples was not a Roman thing—no Roman general would want to get on the wrong side of the gods—and it was a peculiarly unfortunate combination of Jewish history with Roman history that resulted first in the destruction of the Second Temple, and secondly in the fact it did not get rebuilt, and anti-Semitism ended up becoming ingrained in western culture.

To summarise (possibly missing some points, since I left it a bit late to write this): At the end of the Year of the Four Emperors, Vespasian needed a military victory to secure his position as emperor (which is why he pushed Titus to securing a victory in Jerusalem fast, rather than waiting for the siege to starve out the city). Secondly, Titus possibly did not intend to destroy the Temple, but once it was on fire, he had to make this out to be deliberate. Thirdly, because of the way Vespasian played this up, with the triumphal procession in Rome, and the construction of the Arch of Titus, the victory of Rome, over not just the Judaeans but Judaism, became a cornerstone of the Flavian emperors' worldview, and, despite the Flavian dynasty lasting only three emperors, ended up becoming part of the policy of almost all subsequent emperors.

I found the book, though, disappointing: most of it was a straightforward comparison of Roman and Jewish culture, and didn't tell me much I didn't know already—though I did learn of a couple of additions to make to my list of Jewish rulers scattered through history: The bandit leaders Asinaeus and Anilaeus who, in the first century, set up their own state and kept it independent of the Parthians for fifteen years; and Izates of Adiabene in Mesopotamia, who, along with his his brother and their mother Helena converted to Judaism in the first century. (Helena donated treasures to the Temple, and some of Izates' sons were present during the siege of Jerusalem in the First Judaean Revolt against the Romans.)

I also disagreed with some of the parts of the author's portrayal of the Romans' treatment of the Jews as unusual. Indeed; he contradicts himself in this respect, citing, for example, the Romans' confessed genocide of the Nasamones. I also found it odd how he kept trying to make the point that until shortly before the revolt began, the Jews got on well with the Romans; that's not the impression I get from elsewhere. (Cf., frex, the Encyclopaedia Judaica: "Before the time of Pontius Pilate (26–36 C.E.) there is no mention of bloodshed in Judea. But from his days and onward there are increasing references to a messianic ferment, to disturbances, and to a gradual disappointment in the Roman administration.")

(Reading up about this in fact moved me sufficiently to use it when I had occasion a couple of years ago to write (for an exercise) a story which was both epistolary and second-person. I can put it up here if anyone's interested.)

In summary, worth reading the prologue and Part III, but unless you're a fast reader, a completionist, or don't know much about Roman and first-century Jewish culture, I'd skim over the intervening material.

lethargic_man: (Default)
Last week I finally watched Apocalypse Now. I'd foresworn Vietnam War films years ago, no longer being prepared to put up with the USA expurgating its guilty conscience over me (as the bad vibes tended to spill over into myself). However, so many things tie into Apocalypse Now—Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Kim Newman's novella "Coppola's Dracula", Alex Garland's The Beach*, etc—that I felt I ought to make the effort. (Even so, the first day I was going to watch it I quailed and bailed out, fearing I wasn't feeling positive enough.)

* "The horror." "What?" "The horror." "What horror?" "The horror."

Actually, if anyone had told me Apocalypse Now had enough of a humorous side to it to counterbalance its heart of darkness, I might have watched it years ago.

Now that I was finally familiar with Apocalypse Now I decided to reread "Coppola's Dracula" (which you can read online—or ask me for a compactly (fifteen sides) typeset version suitable for printing out). "Coppola's Dracula" is the story of the filming of Bram Stoker's novel, as told in the setting of Newman's Anno Dracula books, in which Dracula won, Van Helsing ended up with his head on a spike—and Stoker's novel, written from his political imprisonment at the hands of the Dracularian regime, is a pedagogical alternate history showing how Dracula could have been defeated.

In the alternate world of Anno Dracula, though, Coppola makes his Dracula film in the seventies, and it corresponds, in our world, not with his Dracula but with Apocalypse Now. Which meant that when I first read it, I did not get any of the references, and was rather annoyed by the horrible contortions Newman's Coppola did to the plot of Dracula.

Now, however, with Apocalypse Now fresh in my brain, I found it hilarious (and kept laughing out loud reading it on the Tube to and from work today). As a brief exemplar of why, here's the opening paragraphs:
A treeline at dusk. Tall, straight, Carpathian pines. The red of sunset bleeds into the dark of night. Great flapping sounds. Huge, dark shapes flit languidly between the trees, sinister, dangerous. A vast batwing brushes the treetops.

Jim Morrison's voice wails in despair. 'People Are Strange'.

Fire blossoms. Blue flame, pure as candle light. Black trees are consumed ...

Fade to a face, hanging upside-down in the roiling fire.

Harker's Voice: Wallachia ... shit!
And if you want to find out any more, you're going to have to read it yourself.
lethargic_man: (Default)

Spending, as I did, the second half of Pesach in Newcastle, I had my first experience of the new fourth edition of the Singer's Prayerbook*, as, unlike in the New North London Synagogue, where the centenary edition remains in use, in all United Synagogue and affiliated shuls, all copies of the centenary edition have been withdrawn and replaced with the new one. (And then carted off to be buried, a criminal waste in my opinion since I'm sure there are many people who could have benefited from the opportunity to acquire one (as I managed to) on their way out; but that's another story.)

* I.e. the Authorised Daily Prayer Book of the British Commonwealth, since Rev. Singer's translation was only associated with the first two editions...

† As I understand it. My father's actual words were "to go underground"; I presume this does not mean they're to be donated to the Minhag Anglia Liberation Front...

Visually, the siddur is very different to the previous editions; the "default" version has a larger size, and has commentary along the bottom, and a typeface which at first glance appears the same as in Artscroll books, though a detailed inspection reveals subtle differences. (More on this in a later post.) Between these, it looks very similar to the Artscroll Siddur; and, indeed, the raison d'être of the new edition was the continued attrition of its user base towards the Artscroll siddur and machzorim, with their non-minhag Angli text and distinctive (if not even forceful) religious outlook.

In fact, my first response to seeing the new Singer's was:

The worshipers outside looked from Singer's to Artscroll, and from Artscroll to Singer's, and from Singer's to Artscroll again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

However, on further inspection, I found it was less like the Artscroll than I feared. In particular, when I turned to the long essay by the Chief Rabbi at the front, I was expecting to be so annoyed by the Orthodox theology as to be unable to finish it. Instead, I was very pleasantly surprised. The essay is an absolute tour de force, and extremely enlightening as to the purpose of the structure of the Jewish liturgy. In fact, I would go so far as to say I cannot recommend it highly enough for anyone who davens the Jewish liturgy, and would be tempted to acquire a copy of the book for the essay alone, were it not for the fact that the essay will be there for the rereading any time I set foot into a United Synagogue or affiliated shul.*

* Plus the fact this first impression apparently is riddled with errors (I found a couple myself), which will be corrected in subsequent impressions.

lethargic_man: (Default)

My brother gave me this book for my birthday, along with a card reading "Read this and let me know how far you've got when you've worked out whether it is a piss-take or not." (Stop reading now if you don't want to know the answer!)

Read more... )
lethargic_man: (reflect)
Martin J. Gidron's The Severed Wing (which I read after [livejournal.com profile] embryomystic mentioned it) is not, as the cover might suggest, a World War II novel. Nor is it a WW2 alternate history. Instead, it is something I had not come across before, an alternate history in which the Holocaust never happened. Read detailed review. Summary:  )a thought-provoking read, I recommend it.
Looking back at what I've written, I can see this is very much a [livejournal.com profile] lethargic_man-style review. I would be quite interested to read [livejournal.com profile] livredor's review of this book. But first, we'd (probably) need to get her to read it. :o)

(And now I've squared up to reading this, I suppose I ought to stop shying away from the thought of reading [livejournal.com profile] papersky's Farthing...)


lethargic_man: (Default)
Lethargic Man (anag.)

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