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Meanwhile on planet Plantagenet

Monday, April 24th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — a DoubleQuote too far — or too good to miss? ]
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On the benfits of having been British, even if it was a while back..

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Looks like we Brits would get to reclaim Eleanor‘s Aquitaine.. and it’s hard for me to tell, but I fear we’d miss out on Carcassonne of the Cathars..

Thucydides Roundtable, Addendum: Steve Bannon’s interest in the Peloponnesian War

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — tying our colloquium on Thucydides to current White House events ]
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Well, I’ve been majorly out of it since the Thucydides roundtable started, and am only slowly getting back into the swing of things, but I’d like to bookend my initial roundtable comment with a closing observation, this one concerning Steve Bannon and his interest in the history of warfare. The quote that follows is from the Armchair General‘s column, Steve Bannon’s Long Love Affair With War, in today’s Daily Beast:

You can also find Bannon’s affection for military and strategic ruthlessness in what he reads. According to two of Bannon’s former friends from his West Coast days, two of his favorite books are Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, the hugely influential ancient Chinese text on military strategy, and the Hindu Bhagavad Gita. The latter tells the story of a holy war to establish dharma.

Sun Tzu, check. Bhagavad Gita, double check. Dharma! Indeed!

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The article continues:

Julia Jones, Bannon’s longtime Hollywood writing partner and former close friend, recalls seeing him excitedly flipping through both books, and talking about them lovingly and often. She would frequently see various “books all over [Steve’s place] about battles and things,” among his clutter of possessions and interests. (Late last year, Jones — who identifies as a “Bernie Sanders liberal” — had a falling out with Bannon due to his work on the Trump presidential campaign, a role that she said absolutely “disgusted” her.)

“Steve is a strong militarist, he’s in love with war — it’s almost poetry to him,” Jones told The Daily Beast in an interview last year, well before Trump won the election and Bannon landed his new job. “He’s studied it down through the ages, from Greece, through Rome… every battle, every war… Never back down, never apologize, never show weakness… He lives in a world where it’s always high noon at the O.K. Corral.”

Almost poetry.

And back to dharma:

Jones said that Bannon “used to talk a lot about dharma — he felt very strongly about dharma… one of the strongest principles throughout the Bhagavad Gita.”

I suppose I should write a follow-up about dharma and the battlefield of Kurukshetra, where Krishna instructed Arjuna in the dharma appropriate to a warrior.

And so to our roundtable topic — the Peloponnesian War:

She also noted his “obsession” with the military victories and epic battles of the Roman Empire’s Marcus Aurelius and Julius Caesar. But a personal favorite of Bannon’s was the subject of the Peloponnesian War fought between Athens and Sparta.

“He talked a lot about Sparta — how Sparta defeated Athens, he loved the story,” Jones said. “The password on his [desktop] computer at his office at American Vantage Media in Santa Monica was ‘Sparta,’ in fact.”

This is the mindset of Trump’s top White House aide who just earned himself a seat at the table on the National Security Council.

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You’d like a more direct Bannon Thucydides connection? The topic is smaller than Bannon’s role at the NSC — the “war” between Breitbart and Fox — but Thucydides is front and center. In a Breitbart piece from August 2016, Fox Faces Its Uncertain Future: The Minor Murdochs Take Command, Steve Bannon writes:

Here at Breitbart News, we see ourselves as a small yet up-and-coming competitor to Fox. Yes, you read that right, Breitbart is on the rise, and Fox is in decline. Even the MSM has noticed the changing of the guard; here’s the Washington Post headline from January: “How Breitbart has become a dominant voice in conservative media,” reinforced by Politico just this morning. In this modern-day version of the epic Peloponnesian War, the incumbent Athenians might as well know that the Spartans are coming for them, and there’s not a damn thing they can do about it; indeed, more Spartans are joining us every day. As Thucydides would warn them, if the leaders of Fox choose to pipe Mickey Mouse aboard and give him command on the bridge, well, that will only accelerate Fox’s fall.

See also: Titus in Space (Paris Review, November 2016)

Recommended Reading—Summer 2016

Monday, July 11th, 2016

[by J. Scott Shipman]

Storm of Creativity2017

wright-brothers-biographyserendipities

Paradisejssundertow

white horsewashington

 

The Storm of Creativity, by Kyna Leski

2017 War With Russia, by General Sir Richard Shirreff

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

Serendipities, Language and Lunacy, by Umberto Eco

Paradise, Dante Alighieri, translated by Mark Musa

Undertow, by Stanton S. Coerr

The White Horse Cometh, by Rich Parks

Washington The Indispensable Man, by John Thomas Flexner

This list starts the first week of May, so perhaps the title should be Spring/Summer. Most of these books are quick reads and all are recommended.

I picked up Ms. Leski’s book at an MIT bookshop on a business trip in early May and read on the train ride home. Books on creativity are ubiquitous, but Ms. Leski takes an interesting approach by describing the creative process using the metaphor of a storm. Several ZP readers will find of interest.

2017 was recommended by a friend. The author was the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the book focuses on a Europe/NATO response to a Russian invasion of the Baltics. Written in a Tom Clancy-like style, the plot is fast-paced even though the good general provides sometimes provides detailed insights into the inner workings of NATA and the North Atlantic Council (this is one of the values of the book—bureaucracy writ-large).

David McCullough’s Wright Brothers delivers an approachable and human accounting of the first men of powered flight. Some reviews on Amazon complain McCullough lifts and uses too many quotes to tell the story. At times the quotes were distracting, but not enough to prevent the enjoyment of the story of two brothers who changed the world. This book was a gift otherwise I probably would not have read.

Serendipities is a short book, but was a long read for me. Eco explains how language and the pursuit of the perfect language has confounded thinkers since time immemorial. He refers to Marco Polo’s unicorn (also used in his Kant and the Platypus which is excellent) explaining how language is often twisted to meet a preconceived notion or idea. The first couple of chapters were quite good, chapters three and four did not hold my interest or were over my head. The closing chapter was good enough to convince me I’ll need to read this little book again. (My Eco anti-library has been growing of late.)

Eco’s book led me to reread Musa’s excellent translation of Paradise. My son gave me the deluxe edition with parallel Italian and English, plus commentary. Eco referenced Canto 26 and 27, and I enjoyed the break so much I read the whole thing!

Undertow is my good friend Stan Coerr’s second book of poetry.  His first book Rubicon was a moving collection of poetry of men at war. Undertow deals more with the heart and is quite good, too. You won’t be disappointed.

White Horse is also a book by an old friend, Rich Parks (we’ve known each other since the mid-80’s). White Horse is self-published and in places it shows, but the overall story is quite good for a first book (I’ve already told him his book would make an excellent screenplay.). The plot is quick and entertaining even if a bit unbelievable, but the story is fiction. Rich is following up with a sequel in August in 2016 and I’ll be reading it, too.

Mr. Flexner’s Washington was a gift, too. In this quick biography Washington is made approachable and human. And when I say “quick,” I mean quick…Trenton and Princeton took one chapter compared to David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing which took up a standalone book. If someone were looking for a first Washington biography, this would be a good place to start.

This isn’t the conclusion of my summer reading, but a pretty good start.What are  you reading this summer?

The Center Can Hold

Friday, July 8th, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

dallas16190332494608

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity….”

The sad and shocking events this week have come at a time when America is more politically and socially polarized than any other time in recent memory. This has led to casual comparisons between 2016 and the America of the most turbulent year of the Vietnam War, 1968.

They are not the same.

It is not 1968. That year saw the assassinations of MLK and RFK, race riots and arson in 125 American cities and armed troops on the streets. 16,899 young American men were killed in Vietnam that year while massive anti-war demonstrations closed universities and rocked Washington, DC.  Lyndon Baines Johnson, President of the United States, declined under the pressure to run for re-election and a “police riot” broke out in Mayor Daley’s Chicago on live television. America was torn apart on generational, racial and political lines. This week has certainly been tragic for a variety of reasons that go deep into the American psyche, but thankfully we are not even close to reliving 1968.

It might be useful however, to recall Robert Kennedy’s words, spoken after announcing to his supporters at a campaign stop that Martin Luther King had just been assassinated:

….We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we’ve had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

 

Sunday surprise: three entangled faiths

Monday, June 20th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — two exhibits linking the Abrahamic faiths ]
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For disciplinary as well as doctrinal purposes, the three Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — are generally thought of separately — a separation which the two exhibitions this post revolves around are intended to bring into question.

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One: Of gods and men: how Egypt was a crucible for multiple faiths

For instance, there’s a “stele of Abraham” in the British Museum show from last autumn that is worth pondering:

stele of Abraham

The accompanying text tells us:

On public display for the first time will be a gravestone, or stele, for a man called Abraham. “It commemorates someone with a Jewish name and yet it bears Christian symbols inside a classical frame next to the ankh symbol, the ancient Egyptian sign of life,” said O’Connell. “What is more, the engraving on it says he was ‘the perfected monk’ and is written in Coptic Egyptian.”

More about the show:

Curators at the London museum will use a series of items, many never put on public display before, to demonstrate the level of “entanglement” of religious symbols and rituals; with Egyptian emblems regularly appearing in classical Greek designs, depicting Jewish stories that were decorated with Christian crosses and Roman wreaths.

“Over the last 10 or 15 years in scholarship, there has been growing interest across the disciplines in looking at the way religions interacted, rather than just in isolation,” said Elisabeth O’Connell, a keeper in the museum’s Department of Ancient Egypt and the Sudan and a co-curator of the exhibition. “It is becoming clear that a lot of religious history has been founded on our modern distinctions simply being projected back.”

Note in the next paragraph the use of the terms ” troublesome” and subversive”:

Two hundred of these troublesome objects, many deliberately ignored by scholars in the past, have been gathered together to challenge the conventions of religious history. From architectural fragments, jewellery, paintings, gravestones and toys, to the paraphernalia of religious worship, they are all subversive evidence that faiths were once amalgamated in a way that was accepted by the ordinary people of Egypt, regardless of their birth-race or family’s religion.

Those are the Guardian writer’s words — Vanessa Thorpe‘s — not the words of the curators, but it seems the exhibit is intended to emphasize the “melting pot” side of Egyptian religion across the millennium after the fall of the Pharaohs rather than the separations:

“If you only take the work we have from Dioscorus of Aphrodito, it blows apart these distinctions,” said O’Connell. “He was a lawyer and poet, who lived in Egypt and wrote in Greek, although he was a Christian Copt.

“He is a great example of what was going on widely, because he used biblical sources and also wrote Homeric verse, one of them dedicated to a man with a Christian name, Matthew.”

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Much the same impulse appears to have been behind a British Library exhibit in 2007:

Two: Sacred texts that reveal a common heritage

For the first time, the oldest and most precious surviving texts of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths have gone on display side by side at the British Library. They include a tattered scrap of a Dead Sea Scroll and a Qur’an commissioned for a 14th-century Mongol ruler of modern Iran who was born a shaman, baptised a Christian, and converted first to Buddhism, then Sunni and finally Shia Islam.

Here’s a two-page spread of that “Mosul Qur’an“:

quran
reduced image via the British Library

The Guardian article continues:

The exhibition also has some exotic private loans, including an embroidered 19th-century curtain which once covered the door of the Ka’bah, the shrine which is at the core of the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, a hand embroidered Jewish bridal canopy – and a gold shalwar kameez worn by Jemima Goldsmith in 1995, when she married the former Pakistan cricket captain Imran Khan.

Phew, pop-cultural enthusiasts will at least have had the shalwar kameez to give them comfort!

More:

Graham Shaw, the lead curator, said: “We were determined not to create faith zones, but to show these wonderful manuscripts side by side, and demonstrate how much we share – not least that these are three faiths founded on sacred texts, books of revelation.” Many exhibits are among the oldest of their kind, including a Qur’an made in Arabia within a century of Muhammad’s lifetime.

The exhibition also shows how calligraphers and manuscript illuminators shared influences and styles. The microscopically detailed decorated capital letters of the Lindisfarne Gospels are echoed in Islamic and Jewish manuscripts, while Christian and Jewish texts borrowed Islamic-inspired decoration, so that a 14th century Qur’an and a translation of the gospels into Arabic are indistinguishable at a glance, and two 13th-century French texts, one Christian, one Jewish, use virtually identical images of King David.

And this part tickled my fancy, and will surely find a place in my book on Coronation and Monarchy if it ever finds a publisher:

A later psalter owned by Henry VIII outrageously uses his portrait as the great Jewish king – accompanied by Henry’s court jester, William Somer, beside a text which translates as “the fool says in his heart ‘there is no God'”.

The wise fool Will Somer or Sommers wasn’t quite a member of Henry VIII’s Royal Family, but stands nearby, in the arch far right, in this detail from a family portrait of 1545 or thereabouts:

detail Will Sommers Family_of_Henry_VIII_c_1545


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