Saturday, September 28, 2013

Tim Powers, Declare


Opening Passage:

The young captain's hands were sticky with blood on the steering wheel as he cautiously backed the jeep in a tight turn off the rutted mud track onto a patch of level snow that shone in the intermittent moonlight on the edge of the gorge, and then his left hand seemed to freeze on to the gear-shift knob after he reached down to clank the lever up into first gear. He had been inching down the mountain path in reverse for an hour, peering over his shoulder at the dark trail, but the looming peak of Mount Ararat had not receded at all, still eclipsed half of the night sky above him, and more than anything else he needed to get away from it.

Summary: Declare is a supernatural espionage thriller, following the fortunes of a spy, Andrew Hale, as he finds himself utterly entangled -- indeed, he has been entangled since his birth -- in an operation, code-named Declare, that goes far beyond any ordinary intelligence operation. On Mount Ararat there is the entrance to a might city of djinn, genies, fallen angels, and the powers of the world are in a constant state of maneuvering in an attempt to control the power they represent. The Russians managed to capture a djinn in 1883, who by the mid-twentieth century guaranteeing the protection of the Soviet Union in exchange for a terrible price of blood. The Berlin Wall is built on human sacrifice to form a bulwark of the Soviet Union. The British and the French are, independently, attempting to destroy the djinn forever.

The djinn are a more primordial form of life than we are, and they speak in Vico's language of the gods: they speak and think with things, so that for a djinn to think something is to make it be in some way, either directly or in representation, so that there thoughts might be anything from little representations in gold to earthquakes and whirlwinds to disturbances and anomalies in the Heaviside layer. and their mere attention is almost shattering, as we find ourselves in the presence of something in comparison with which we cannot help but regard ourselves as insignificant. One of the well-done minor themes throughout the book is that everyone is embarrassed at their involvement in the supernatural, because to meet a djinn is humiliating. It is to be utterly overshadowed and helpless.

Another minor theme throughout is that of rhythm, and I think this is less well done. I suppose the idea is that different rhythms put one in tune, so to speak, with the djinn, so that, for instance, walking with a certain beat makes it difficult for human beings to see you and makes the djinn notice you. It was not very clear the first time I read it, and not much more clear the second time.

There is a great deal going on in the story. I liked the interactions between Andrew Hale and Elena Teresa Ceniza-Bendiga, who have a sort of star-crossed romance, and both of them age very plausibly in the story. I was less interested in the interactions between Hale and Kim Philby. Philby is the historical core of the novel, being a famous traitor in British intelligence who was funneling information to the Soviets. Powers goes through extraordinary lengths to keep Philby's often rather puzzling life true to fact and chronology, which is part of what seems to be behind the complexity of the book. But I find that Philby remains something of an enigma, and not as interesting a character as I think Powers found him. At least, I didn't think him all that interesting.

Favorite Passage:

Bending down over the gorge, he held McNally's body in a hand made of wind, and the upward-tumbling human body, with its random motions and unchanging appearance, was no less expressive than living men were. On another side of the McNally form he could see other men, and their constricted bendings held no meaning, and the clothes and hair that were their substances were as imbecilically constant as the shapes of the cliffs. Thought and identity consisted of moving agitation--the verb in the leap of stones, the whirling of mirth in infinite grains of sand in a storm, questions in falling rain and answers int eh bubbling liberation of water into exploding steam--expressed across miles of desert or turbulent sea; and to this vibrant dialogue men could contribute only accidental statements, like the airplanes and bullets they moved through the air, or the narrow wave-sequences they projected from their mouths to kink the air and from their radios to flatten the fields of the sky. (p. 396)

Recommendation: It's a good book. There are parts that are gripping. I think you get more out of it if you like either supernatural thrillers or spy thrillers, since it's a combination of both. I don't think it is as good as it is sometimes hyped to be; but the genre of which it is a part, secret history, is a very difficult genre to write in, and I think you could argue that it is perhaps the best example of the genre. So I go both ways: Recommended if it comes your way, but I'm not sure it's in any way a must-read.

Tim Powers, Declare, HarperTorch (New York: 2001).

Music on My Mind

The Band, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down". This fictional tale of "Virgil Caine", who barely out of boyhood had served in the Confederate Army in the last days of the Civil War, is often considered one of the best expressions ever written of what it is like to face inevitable and crushing defeat, and justly, I think; nothing quite hits like the lines talking about the death of his older brother, or the sad comment that the Army should never have taken the very best.

Here's a good site on the Fall of Richmond, when, as the song notes, it was literally the case that women and children were starving in the streets because of the combination of the devastating Union advance and the greed of Confederate war profiteers -- and that was only the beginning, and not the worst of it.

Joan Baez did a famous cover of this song. When Baez first started performing the song, she had never seen the lyrics -- she just performed it by ear and memory -- and so you can notice several lines in her (earlier) versions that have shifted to very different but similar-sounding lines, although a few changes, like the shift from "I will work the land" to "I'm a working man" could possibly be deliberate. The tune was also used for a big German hit, Am Tag als Conny Kramer starb, but not the words; the German song is an anti-drug song.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Deuterocanon Friday: Consultation

Do not consult the one who regards you with suspicion;
hide your intentions from those who are jealous of you.
Do not consult with a woman about her rival
or with a coward about war,
with a merchant about business
or with a buyer about selling,
with a miser about generosity
or with the merciless about kindness,
with an idler about any work
or with a seasonal laborer about completing his work,
with a lazy servant about a big task—
pay no attention to any advice they give.
But associate with a godly person
whom you know to be a keeper of the commandments,
who is like-minded with yourself,
and who will grieve with you if you fail.
And heed the counsel of your own heart,
for no one is more faithful to you than it is.
For our own mind sometimes keeps us better informed
than seven sentinels sitting high on a watchtower.
But above all pray to the Most High
that he may direct your way in truth.

Sirach 37:10-15 (NRSV-C)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ambassador, Part I

This is the first part of a short story draft.

The Matriarch of Syan does not at first give an impression of extraordinary power. One hears of Matriarchs who have done so, but it is not the look that makes a Matriarch. I am not sure what does; but perhaps it is the the ability to smile coolly at the destruction of enemies. And I have no doubt that the Matriarch was smiling coolly as my predecessor sat down to dinner with her.

He was a cautious man, my predecessor, and carefully ate nothing except what was tasted by the food-tasters, a young man and a young woman. I hope they were well-paid for what must be a harrowing occupation; but perhaps they, like canaries in the coal mine, were simply drafted. But everything was tasted by one or the other, and the Matriarch herself began to eat, and so he ate.

"I have heard an interesting rumor," the Matriarch said abstractedly as she looked down at her wine and swirled it in her cup. "I have heard that you have had a meeting with the ambassador from the Five Cities Republic."

"'Having a meeting' is hardly the name for it," said the ambassador. "We happened to meet in passing and exchanged some words."

"Half an hour of words, it seems."

"That is certainly an exaggeration." You have to give the man credit; he must have been part steel, to lie like that and calmly continue eating.

"Rumors often are," she said carelessly. "I only bring it up because there are interesting things happening in the Republic. Or perhaps they are rumors, as well."

"Those rumors I have heard," he said, clearing his throat, then clearing his throat again. He drank some wine. "The Republic appears less stable than it used to be."

"Republics are always less stable than they used to be," said the Matriarch. "I am thinking more particularly of the tales I've heard that certain statesman there are interested in trying to destabilize the Matriarchate."

The ambassador perhaps turned slightly pale, but no other sign of distress showed. "Indeed? But I am not really surprised. The Five Cities are always a cesspool of intrigue, as you know. I am sure that they are plotting and plotting to unsettle the Empire in half a dozen ways, as well."

"No doubt," said the Matriarch. "The Republican ambassador said nothing to you about the matter."

"Nothing whatsoever," was the reply.

"Interesting." The Matriarch carefully cut her steak. It is a quirk of hers, the extraordinary care with which she eats her food, everything in precise bites.

After a few minutes of quiet eating, she spoke again. "One of the things I actually wanted to ask you about was the Imperial training exercises."

The ambassador cleared his throat. "Training exercises?" he said. His forehead was getting slightly damp.

"Training exercises," she said. "That is what the excuse would have been, would it not? 'We are not really building up our forces. It is a training exercise. is only near your borders because the location allows for' -- what would it be? -- 'because the location is ideal for practicing mountain maneuvers'? Let's see. Ah, yes, 'all routine; if you would like we can arrange for observers from Syan, but it would take time to get the permission, since you would have to notify the Imperial City and the local commanders.' Something like that would be the excuse, would it not?"

"Well," said the ambassador, perhaps a little weakly, "there are some training maneuvers going on, but there always are, you know. They don't keep me informed of every detail. Surely it is not so many that you could regard it as a serious threat."

"I am sorry to be so blunt, Your Excellency, but the Empire is long past being a serious threat to anyone, regardless of numbers. Nonetheless, it seems somewhat reckless to engage in 'training exercises' so close to the border without any prior notification. It seems only a matter of courtesy to let us know. After all, it could be taken very badly. To take just an example, there are all these rumors about the Five Cities plotting to assassinate me, and should I be out of the way, who would not think that the Empire might be tempted to annex the mines across the border, just to take advantage of a temporary moment of weakness on the part of Syan? Or perhaps to lend troops in assisting the Five Cities in opposing the Infanta? Or perhaps the Empire would be happy to cut a deal with the Republic to recognize and support its invasion in exchange for some valuable favors? There are so many possibilities for bad interpretation in the whole matter."

The pallor of the face and the beads of sweat on the forehead were quite pronounced. The ambassador cleared his throat. "If you wish," he said weakly, "I can file an official report registering your protest, in addition to any your ambassador to the Empire might file directly." He cleared his throat again.

"That would be very kind," she said. "You see, it is not the single event that causes consternation. But there are combinations of things that should always be avoided, even if singly they are perfectly harmless." She took a drink of wine.

"I heard about one that will no doubt amuse you," she said. "There was an incident in my predecessors day of someone important dying suddenly and mysteriously. And it turned out that the cause of death was two completely harmless substances. You see, when they separate, they have no ill effect. But if you were to mix the two under just the right circumstances, they convert to a highly toxic compound. As it happened, one of the substances had been in the food, and another in the drink. If he had just taken wine, or had water instead of the wine, he would have been perfectly fine; but he had both, and as it turns out, the acids of the stomach are the perfect conditions for the combination of the two compounds. Is that not remarkable?"

Whether the ambassador thought it remarkable was difficult to determine, since he was by this point sweating profusely, breathing raspily, and doubled over as if in pain. It was not long before he slid onto the floor, dead.

The Matriarch had his body shipped back to the Empire in grandest honors, expressing her deepest sorrow at having lost someone who had worked so hard for the mutual benefit of the Empire and the Matriarchate. The official story was food poisoning; which I suppose was completely true.

Of course, no one knows precisely what happened except the Matriarch; this is all just how I imagine it happened, based on what little I have been able to find out about it. I like to think that my predecessor took it stoically, in the finest Imperial tradition, as his forefathers would have. I hated the man myself, but he was an Imperial citizen, after all, of an old senatorial family, and I would hope that some of that would show itself in the end. And, I suppose, being killed by the Matriarch, which you can guarantee will be an inconveniently undignified and unpleasant death, cannot but make me have some sympathy for him.

Obviously my own involvement in the matter began after the body had been shipped back to the Empire with all the crocodile tears the Matriarch could ship with it.

to be continued

Talked and Walked with Trees

The Poet
by T. E. Hulme

Over a large table, smooth, he leaned in ecstasies,
In a dream.
He had been to woods, and talked and walked with trees.
Had left the world
And brought back round globes and stone images,
Of gems, colours, hard and definite.
With these he played, in a dream,
On the smooth table.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

No Future Hope, No Fear For Evermore

by Christina Rossetti

It is a land with neither night nor day,
Nor heat nor cold, nor any wind, nor rain,
Nor hills nor valleys: but one even plain
Stretches through long unbroken miles away,
While through the sluggish air a twilight grey
Broodeth: no moons or seasons wax and wane,
No ebb and flow are there among the main,
No bud-time, no leaf-falling, there for aye:–
No ripple on the sea, no shifting sand,
No beat of wings to stir the stagnant space:
No pulse of life through all the loveless land
And loveless sea; no trace of days before,
No guarded home, no time-worn resting-place
No future hope, no fear for evermore.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Tablet Magazine's 101 Great Jewish Books

This is Tablet Magazine's 101 Great Jewish Books -- they deliberately avoid saying 'the greatest', and are just listing 101 books they think make up part of "the collective inheritance of the Jewish people as read by Jews like us in America". There are a number of books on the list that I've intended to get around to but never have -- I really want to read the Benjamin-Scholem correspondence, for instance, since I've read a fair amount of Scholem and have two of his books on my shelves -- and there are quite a few others others I've dipped into in one way or another but can't exactly say I've read (e.g., while I've looked at Rashi's commentaries -- on Mishlei, for instance -- I can't imagine just sitting down with them); but the ones I've really read, cover to cover, are in bold.


Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth (1969)
The Savage Mind, Claude Lévi-Strauss (1962)
Satan in Goray, Isaac Bashevis Singer (1955)
The Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer (1968)
The Dialectic of Sex, Shulamith Firestone (1970)
The Power Broker, Robert Caro (1974)
Fear of Flying, Erica Jong (1973)
Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak (1963)
Justine, Lawrence Durrell (1957)
Dr. Ruth’s Guide to Good Sex, Dr. Ruth Westheimer (1983)
What Makes Sammy Run?, Budd Schulberg (1941)
Auto-da-Fé, Elias Canetti (1935)
The Mind-Body Problem, Rebecca Goldstein (1993)
The Passion According to GH, Clarice Lispector (1964)

Authenticity & Experimentation

The Counterlife, Philip Roth (1986)
The Rise of David Levinsky, Abraham Cahan (1917)
The Diary of Anne Frank, Anne Frank (1947)
Call It Sleep, Henry Roth (1934)
Two Concepts of Liberty, Isaiah Berlin (1958)
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2000)
The Memoir of Glückel of Hamelin, Glückel of Hamelin (1700)
Correspondence, Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem (1992)
Making It, Norman Podhoretz (1967)
The Adventures of K’Ton Ton, Sadie Rose Weilerstein (1935)
Exodus, Leon Uris (1958)
Altneuland, Theodor Herzl (1902)
The Chosen, Chaim Potok (1967)
In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, Delmore Schwartz (1938)
Really the Blues, Mezz Mezzrow (1946)
Only Yesterday, S.Y. Agnon (1945)
Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman (1983)
Marjorie Morningstar, Herman Wouk (1955)

Laughing & Complaining

Herzog, Saul Bellow (1964)
The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan (1963)
Auto-Emancipation, Leo Pinsker (1882)
Without Feathers, Woody Allen (1975)
Das Kapital, Karl Marx (1867)
Adam Resurrected, Yoram Kaniuk (1971)
The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom (1973)
Ethics, Baruch Spinoza (1677)
Catch-22, Joseph Heller (1961)
Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953)
Breakdown and Bereavement, Joseph Haim Brenner (1920)
The Street of Crocodiles, Bruno Schulz (1934)
Hungry Hearts, Anzia Yezierska (1920)

The Jew in the World

The Norton Anthology of English Literature, edited by M.H. Abrams (1962)
All-of-a-Kind Family, Sydney Taylor (1951)
Ulysses, James Joyce (1922)
Red Cavalry, Isaac Babel (1920s)
Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust (1913)
Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud (1900)
Foundation Series, Isaac Asimov (1951)
History of the Jews, Heinrich Graetz (1891)
Beginning to See the Light, Ellen Willis (1981)
Samson the Nazerite, Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1927)
The Puttermesser Papers, Cynthia Ozick (1997)
Daniel Deronda, George Eliot (1876)
The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn (1972)
On Photography, Susan Sontag (1977)
Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt (1963)
Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, Judy Blume (1970)
A Walker in the City, Alfred Kazin (1951)
Writing and Difference, Jacques Derrida (1967)
Later the Same Day, Grace Paley (1985)

The Old Country

Tevye, Sholem Aleichem (1914)
The Fixer, Bernard Malamud (1966)
The Dybbuk, S. Ansky (1914)
The Family Mashber, Der Nister (1939)
World of Our Fathers, Irving Howe (1976)
The Jewish Government, Lamed Shapiro (1919)
The Yeshiva, Chaim Grade (1968)
Folk-Style Stories, I.L. Peretz (1908)

Suffering & Loss

Ringelblum Archive (1944)
A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz (2002)
The Destruction of the European Jews, Raul Hilberg (1961)
Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman (1959)
Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi (1947)
The Jewish War, Flavius Josephus (75)
King of the Jews, Leslie Epstein (1979)
The Ghetto Fights, Marek Edelman (1945)
The Trial, Franz Kafka (1915)
Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl (1946)
Night, Elie Wiesel (1960)
Dolly City, Orly Castel-Bloom (1992)
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Giorgio Bassani (1962)
Maus, Art Spiegelman (1991)
Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, Jacobo Timerman (1981)
Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler (1940)
The Iron Tracks, Aharon Appelfeld (1998)

What is Judaism?

The Bible
Babylonian Talmud (770)
Birnbaum Siddur, Philip Birnbaum (1977)
Tsene-Rene (1590s)
Kaddish, Leon Wieseltier (1998)
Commentary, Rashi (11th c.)
Sefer Hasidim, Rabbi Judah of Regensburg (early 13th c.)
From There Shall You Seek, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (1978)
Sipurei Masiyos, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1816)
Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides (12th c.)
Shulchan Aruch, Yosef Karo (1565)
Man Is Not Alone, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1951)

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Theban Legion

It won't get celebrated in any liturgies today, since it is Sunday, but today is the memorial for the Theban Legion. The Theban Legion, as its name implies, was originally garrisoned in Thebes, Egypt; but, it is said, they were sent by the Emperor Maximian to Gaul to try to keep things in order there. This is very plausible historically, although not all details of the Theban Legion legend are. The commander of the Legion was Mauritius, usually known as St. Maurice, and a lot of the officers, at least, were Christians -- here, too, it was not an uncommon thing for soldiers in this period to be members of an eastern religion like Christianity, particularly on the borders of the empire. The Theban Legion, according to legend, was given the order to sacrifice to the emperor, and St. Maurice and his officers refused. Given the close connection between legions and their officers, it is perhaps not surprising that the entire legion followed their lead. In response the legion was decimated -- every tenth man killed -- as punishment; and when the legion still refused to sacrifice, it was repeatedly decimated until all were dead.

The plausibilities and implausibilities are interesting here -- it's implausible that there was an entire legion that was Christian to a man, but soldiers sticking with their captains is not implausible, and the Gaul campaign is perfectly historical, although our information about it is somewhat sketchy. Our earliest definite reference to the Theban Legion is about a century and a half afterwards, which leaves time for embroidery, and some historians have concluded, on the basis of what other information we have about that campaign (how many soldiers seem to have been involved, etc.), that if it occurred, it was probably a cohort, not an entire legion, that was martyred, or to put it another way, probably several hundred men rather than several thousand. That's a plausible way in which legends form around historical events. Some historians have argued that the decimation is implausible at this point, having long since fallen out of use; on the other hand, if we're talking about a group of soldiers refusing to show recognition to the Emperor in the midst of a major campaign, we're not talking slap-on-the-wrist, either. Others have argued that Christian participation in the Roman military at this stage of the game was actually fairly rare; but, again, the basic structure of the story requires little more than a few officers capable of inspiring loyalty in men. Having organized the plausibilities here we're probably at the edge of what we can actually know about the real roots of the Theban Legion legend, barring some unanticipatable discovery of new direct evidence.

There is a famous painting of the Martyrdom of St. Maurice and the Theban Legion by El Greco.