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Book Review: The Discovery of Middle Earth

Friday, September 5th, 2014

[reviewed by Lynn C. Rees]

As The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts nears its end and appeals to Geoffrey of Monmouth as a source of historical truth proliferate, even the most oblivious reader starts to get the joke: Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae was a milestone in the genre of historical fiction satirizing historical non-fiction by posing as historical non-fiction.

Geoffrey succeeded so well that he earned 900 years worth of cranks mistaking his fiction for fact. As with Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, Geoffrey’s character of King Arthur is so compelling that many Historia readers keep insisting that Arthur must be real. This insistence is yet another demonstration that fiction believed shapes history as much as fact believed. The ideal of the real (but fake) Arthur shaped how Latin Christian rulers portrayed themselves and (sometimes) acted, and how their subjects thought they should portray themselves and act. Edward I even resorted to digging up Arthur’s bones to co-opt fiction to support his conquest of Free Britain.

Longshanks to Britons: See here? Arthur’s bones. No Once and Future King can save you now.

(Twirls mustache).

The Discovery of Middle Earth does not approach works by titans of its genre like Rachel Carson or Umberto Eco; the library Discovery of Middle Earth belongs in would explode in swirls of subatomic particles if it ever brushed against Eco’s antilibrary. But, even if it does not belong in Eco’s library, it does belong in another Eco chamber. Like Eco’s Foucault’s PendulumDiscovery of Middle Earth satirizes independent scholars who start drinking their own research. Though it lacks the deep scholarly verve and meticulous revelry in small details that makes Eco’s masterpiece a feast for readers, Discovery of Middle Earth is more approachable to readers who might get lost in Foucault’s weeds of arcana but who want more than the thin swill of the Dan Brown corpus.

The protagonist of The Discovery of Middle Earth (a thinly veiled pastiche of best-selling British highbrow tourist guide author Graham Robb) is an English independent scholar who spirals down into madness as an artifact recovered in the backyard of his Oxford cottage leads him to discover a previously unseen “Celtic” geography of lines drawn across Europe by “Druids” so contemporary that they would not be out of place at a Davos symposium. Soon enough he starts seeing this pattern staring back at him from obscure rural corners of France and later Britain and Ireland. As with all madness, he first becomes one with the pattern and then descends below that oneness when he finds the pattern staring back into him.

As he unravels, the pretensions of the self-reverential by self-referential auto-didactic are lampooned. The scholar comedically cherry picks from Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de bello gallico. He elevates Caesar to multicultural anthropologist when Caesar comes, Caesar sees, Caesar supports his mania. He dismisses Caesar as a lumpen proletariat boor when Caesar leaves, Caesar blinks, Caesar disses his mania. The author’s joke on his protagonist is obvious: for Caesar to be a consistent informer of any reimagining of ancient Gaul, Caesar’s history must be above suspicion. You can’t have it both ways.

Ha. The reader gets the joke.

In the lead character’s ravings, the Celts are a doom-laden lot, led like giant blond sheep to the slaughter by eerily modern Druids. The Druids construct a sort of proto-Europeon Union, acting as sacrosanct and impartial arbiters who smooth the frictions between feuding tribes and lead them to orderly settle west to central Europe on sites carefully chosen for their adherence to a Druid discovered system of meridian-esque lines and connected by remarkably straight roads.

Seeming intersections abound:

  • Hannibal, a self-appointed Herakles aware of these straight lines and straight roads after growing among Celts in Hispania, followed one prominent “Path of Herakles” from the Sacred Promontory through the Pyrenees and southern France until it crossed the Alps at the Matrona Pass.
  • Druids launch Celtic raids against RomeDelphi, and other places, not for loot but because they fell on fateful intersections of those lines.
  • The Celts line up to be slaughtered by the boorish Caesar at Alesia because it’s an auspicious spot and Druid prophecy said it must be so. Later Roman massacres of resigned Celts like the battle of Watling Street are consigned to the same genre of Celtic death by meridian.
  • The Romans hunt down the Druids like the proto-Knights Templar they were, exterminating their last redoubt on the Sacred Isle (itself crossing an auspicous line) like an army of knuckle-dragging Phillip the Fairs.

Satire of The Da Vinci Code, a target ever ripe, finds its way in. The English scholar, deep into self-referential madness, wanders into a rural French chapel and reflects on how the blood spattered Christ, hung upon the cross, was a direct and more bloody descendent of the antiseptic human sacrifice Druids oversaw in their sacred groves. Why, he muses, this chapel is merely a continuation of Celtitics with the addition of other (Roman) means.

Throughout, modern geographical information systems are lauded for the empowerment they bestow on even the lowliest of cranks. Google Earth. What sins are committed in thy name.

By the end, the English scholar is drawing imaginary lines through Britain and Ireland, consulting with the local tourist bureau of the smear on a map he promotes to Arthur’s Camelot, and raving about London coffee shops on the right meridian. His fictional work within this work of fiction can, as Wikipedia does with the Historia, be damned with faint praise: “Historians have a difficult time deciding what is historical fact and what is merely legend, making the book a reliable read for someone studying historiography, but unreliable for someone seeking historical facts”.

The moral of the story: any sufficiently advanced historical scholarship is indistinguishable from the History Channel. Scratch a Druid, find a Knights Templar.

The Discovery of Middle Earth is not powerful enough to cure the crimes it savages. Only a true masterwork of satire can do that, as Cervantes was ultimately the cure for Geoffrey. In Don Quixote, King Arthur met his antimatter twin. In The Discovery of Middle Earth, the Druids only meet a whoopee cushion.

Recommended for the lover of things Celtic in your life. For example, one of my nephews once liked Lord of the Dance. He even danced to it. He had a good excuse though: he was two years old. He didn’t know better.

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Warren McCulloch’s lifetime koan

Saturday, March 15th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- from intuitive leap to confirmation in a celebrated paper by neurophysiologist and cybernetician Warren McCulloch ]
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As I mentioned in my earlier post, Close reading, Synoptic- and Sembl-style, for parallels, patterns, there are times when my HipBone-influenced style of reading suggests the presence of a hidden piece of text that forms the basis for the part that’s readily available — in that case, the Qur’anic passage on which a major speech by Bin Laden was based.

Something very similar happened the other day, while I was reading the cybernetician Warren McCulloch‘s paper What is a number, that a man may know it, and a man, that he may know a number? thoroughly for the first time.

McCulloch’s title itself triggered an intuitive leap — call it a HipBone / Sembl move — to the Prologue to St John’s Gospel, familiar to me since my altar-boy childhood as the Last Gospel recited by the priest at the end of Mass.

I’ll have more to say about St John’s Prologue, and scripture more generally, later in this post, when I’ve told you how my “intuitive leap” was confirmed by further readings, and what that means in terms of intuition and verification.

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I call that move from McCulloch to St John an intuitive leap — but as with all such leaps, it is important to verify that the leap is well-founded at both ends.

Reading on past the title, then, I found McCulloch’s description of his own background, which is relevcant here:

I was destined for the ministry. Among my teen-age acquaintances were Henry Sloan Coffin, Harry Emerson Fosdick, H. K. W. Kumm, Hecker – of the Church of All Nations – sundry Episcopalian theologians, and that great Quaker philosopher, Rufus Jones.

In the fall of 1917, I entered Haverford College with two strings to my bow – facility in Latin and a sure foundation in mathematics. I “honored” in the latter and was seduced by it. That winter Rufus Jones called me in. “Warren,” said he, “what is thee going to be?” And I said, “I don’t know.” “And what is thee going to do?” And again I said, “I have no idea; but there is one question I would like to answer: What is a number, that a man may know it, and a man, that he may know a number?” He smiled and said, “Friend, thee will be busy as long as thee lives.”

In Zen (Buddhist) parlance, Rufus Jones is telling Warren McCulloch that he has found an authentic koan, a paradox to explore and deepen into, sufficient for a lifetime.

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It’s only a little later in McCulloch’s paper that my intuitive leap is “verified” in McCulloch’s own words:

This lecture might be called, “In Quest of the Logos” or, more appropriately – perverting St. Bonaventura’s famous title – “An Itinerary to Man.” Its proper preface is that St. Augustine says that it was a pagan philosopher – a Neoplatonist – who wrote, “In the beginning was the Logos, without the Logos was not anything made that was made … So begins our Christian theology.”

But McCulloch doesn’t stop there, he continues right on from theology into mathematics:

So begins our Christian theology. It rests on four principles. The first is the eternal verities. Listen to the thunder of that saint, in about A.D. 500: “7 and 3 are 10; 7 and 3 have always been 10; 7 and 3 at no time and in no way have ever been anything but 10; 7 and 3 will always be 10. I said that these indestructible truths of arithmetic are common to all who reason.” An eternal verity, any cornerstone of theology is a statement that is true regardless of the time and place of its utterance. Each he calls an idea in the Mind of God, which we can understand but can never comprehend.

The idea (“mathematics”) and the thinker (“man”) — McCulloch is working at the interface of “mind and matter” — “word and flesh” — the eternal and the temporal. He’s working at what is these days called the “hard problem of consciousness”.

St John, too, was working at that interface, and brilliantly so — regardless of what credence you put in his theology of the Incarnation of God in Man, it is a brilliant attempt to join the Hebrew “In the Beginning” of Genesis with the Greek “In the Beginning” of his own writings.

My own point here is this: that an intuitive leap, once made, needs to be grounded or confirmed by slower, more explicit, rational or experimental means.

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Having made my point, I’d like to add some further notes here, for those interested in scriptural matters…

Here’s John 1.1-14, the celebrated “Prologue” to St John’s Gospel, in the King James version, worth reading whether you know it or not for the comparison that follows with St Augustine’s stunnning reading of the same text:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

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Here is Augustine’s comment, from his Confesssions, book VII:

Thou procuredst for me, by means of one puffed up with most unnatural pride, certain books of the Platonists, translated from Greek into Latin. And therein I read, not indeed in the very words, but to the very same purpose, enforced by many and divers reasons, that In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God: the Same was in the beginning with God: all things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made: that which was made by Him is life, and the life was the light of men, and the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not. And that the soul of man, though it bears witness to the light, yet itself is not that light; but the Word of God, being God, is that true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. And that He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. But, that He came unto His own, and His own received Him not; but as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, as many as believed in His name; this I read not there.

Again I read there, that God the Word was born not of flesh nor of blood, nor of the will of man, nor of the will of the flesh, but of God. But that the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, I read not there.

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That quote from St Augustine is a striking one — by way of comparison I would like to offer this no-less fascinating excerpt from the Islamic historiographer Ibn Khaldun‘s Muqaddimah, describing developments in the early church from the death of Christ to the establishment of the canon of scriptures:

The Apostles divided into different groups. Most of them went to the country of the Romans and made propaganda for the Christian religion. Peter was the greatest of them. He settled in Rome, the seat of the Roman emperors. They 420 then wrote down the Gospel that had been revealed to Jesus, in four recensions according to their different traditions. Matthew wrote his Gospel in Jerusalem in Hebrew. It was translated into Latin by John, the son of Zebedee, one of (the Apostles). (The Apostle) Luke wrote his Gospel in Latin for a Roman dignitary. (The Apostle) John, the son of Zebedee, wrote his Gospel in Rome. Peter wrote his Gospel in Latin and ascribed it to his pupil Mark. These four recensions of the Gospel differ from each other. Not all of it is pure revelation, but (the Gospels) have an admixture of the words of Jesus and of the Apostles. Most of (their contents) consists of sermons and stories. There are very few laws in them.

The Apostles came together at that time in Rome and laid down the rules of the Christian community. They entrusted them to Clement, a pupil of Peter, noting in them the list of books that are to be accepted and in accordance with which one must act…

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Theology, once the Queen of Sciences and now largely ignored, has been laying fallow for centuries. There are rich findings here for those who choose to dig.

h/t Derek Robinson.

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Adding to the Bookpile

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]
  

Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq by John Dower 

Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941 by William Shirer

Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II by Michael Burleigh 

Picked up a few more books for the antilibrary.

Dower is best known for his prizewinning Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, which unfortunately, I have never read.  Berlin Diaries I have previously skimmed through for research purposes but I did not own a copy. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany was an immensely bestselling book which nearly everyone interested in WWII reads at some point in time. I would put in a good word for Shirer’s lesser known The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940 . It was a very readable introduction to the deep political schisms of France during the interwar and Vichy years which ( as I am not focused on French history) later made reading Ian Ousby’s Occupation: The Ordeal of France 1940-1944 more profitable.

I am a fan of the vigorous prose of British historian Michael Burleigh, having previously reviewed  Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism here and can give a strong recommendation for his The Third Reich: A New History.  Burleigh here is tackling moral choices in war and also conflict at what Colonel John Boyd termed “the moral level of war” in a scenario containing the greatest moral extremes in human history, the Second World War.

The more I try to read, the further behind I fall!

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Book Review: Hitlerland by Andrew Nagorski

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Hitlerland by Andrew Nagorski 

Recent cyber problems here at ZP (as well as work commitments) have left me with an enormous backlog of book-related posts and reviews with which to wade through this month, including re-starting the aborted “friends of zenpundit.com who wrote books” posts.  Here is the first of what hopefully should be many posts to help readers add to their antilibrary:
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I recently picked up Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power by journalist Andrew Nagorski and found it to be an enjoyable read. Nagorski is telling the tale of Americans in Germany, predominantly journalists and diplomats, who witnessed the death of the Weimar Republic  at the hands of the Nazis and the subsequent construction of the totalitarian Third Reich under the messianic leadership of Adolf Hitler. It is, to be sure, a cautionary tale that is well-known at a superficial level where “Munich” – the 1938 diplomatic agreement where British and French leaders surrendered Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s aggressive designs – is a shorthand today for ill-considered appeasement of dictatorial regimes.

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That said, the deep reluctance of American officials and the public back home to acknowledge intellectually the nature of Nazi Germany and the threat it represented at the time, to the frustration of reporters like William Shirer, is less familiar and too often acknowledged only sheepishly – perhaps because the same “see no evil” pattern was replicated in regard to Stalin’s Russia until well after WWII ended. Indeed, one of the book’s more pathetic figures, Martha Dodd,  the irresponsible party-girl daughter of the American ambassador, transitioned seamlessly from being an enthusiastic useful idiot for Nazism to a slavishly loyal Stalinist and lifelong Soviet agent. A phenomena that mirrored that of many young German men who in the latter years of the Weimar Republic found themselves shifting between Communist fighting groups and membership in the Nazi SA without any democratic or liberal waystation in between.

Some thoughts about Hitlerland in no particular order:

  • Nagorski, like most journalists, is an excellent writer and more skilled at weaving a story than are most historians. Hitlerland is extremely “readable” for the general layman who is the target audience of the author.
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  • If you are well read enough on the subject of the Third Reich to be familiar with Nagorski’s major primary sources you will not see much that is original here as the same texts have been relied upon very heavily by many other writers and historians of the Nazi period. I learned only a few details or anecdotes that were new to me. What Nagorski did that is new is to bring together the stories of the Americans in Germany into one book for a synthesis and explained it smoothly and concisely.
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  • One of the more famous of the primary sources, Dr. Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, who wrote a memoir about Hitler and was a very early (if minor) member of the Nazi Party leadership, a P.R. mentor and court jester of sorts to Adolf Hitler, is given close scrutiny. Nagorski brings out the more sinister and machiavellian side of Hanfstaengl, whose ability to charm and play the clown and his influential Harvard connections helped him escape any kind of punishment for his numerous contributions toward Hitler’s regime.
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  • The inescapability of street level Nazi brutality, the crude and fanatical anti-semitism and the increasing enthusiasm of the German people, even relative anti-Nazi Germans, for accepting the regime’s propaganda claims with credulity after years of being submerged in them is an excellent feature of Hitlerland. Propaganda does damage simply by crowding out truth, even when it is not believed.

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Recommended.

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Yet More Biographies…..

Monday, June 17th, 2013

     

Alexander The Great by Robin Lane Fox  

Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris 

Shadow Warrior: William Egan Colby and the CIA  by Randall Woods 

The first, was one of the works cited by Paul Cartledge in his own biography of Alexander the Great. Fox is an eminent historian at Oxford, now emeritus and his biography was a an important work in the field.

The next two were gifts from my own students. Now that I have Colonel Roosevelt, I will have to read the prize-winning trilogy as I have copies of the first two volumes (somewhere). The impression Morris made with his Reagan biography, Dutch, was very strange, but this will probably redeem him.

Not very familiar with Woods, but William Colby was a fascinating, controversial and contradictory DCI whose intelligence career spanned the OSS and much of the Cold War, dying in retirement under mysterious circumstances.

Added to the pile…..

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