VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Maya of the Yucatan

The accessibility of Mayan sites basically runs in the opposite direction of the expansion of Maya civilization "out of the jungle" and to the North.


  An upcoming trip to the Yucatan has me all excited about the Maya ruins there.  I would say, quite honestly, that the odds of me hitting the Mexican state of Tabasco are about the same as the chances of me hitting the Guatemalan Highlands, so the Yucatan Maya are likely to be it.  The Yucatan Maya are a post-Classic civilization, with a heavy influence by the Mexica/Toltec.  Settlement of the area by pyramid building ambitious types started in the 8th-9th century AD.  Of the three major sites in the Yucatan: Chichen Itza, Mayapan and Uxmal, Mayapan is the most recent with abandonment taking place in the early 15th century, only a hundred years before contact.   Uxmal on the other hand flourished only briefly in the 1000's AD.

   The direct influence of Toltec immigrants seems mostly limited to the Chichen Itza site/polity.  Uxmal is in the style of the Chontal Maya who provided initial settlement of the Yucatan and Mayapan is the product of the existing culture of the Maya after the Toltec arrival.  Additionally, the Chontal Maya themselves came from a place where there were a mixture of settlements by Maya and Mexica.

  The fact that the Yucatan Maya are not a "pure" Mayan civilization is far outweighed by their accessibility.  There's nothing wrong with late period ruins if you are just a casual tourist.  The earlier ruins are, the less impressive and interesting they tend to be for a general audience member.  Both Uxmal and Mayapan have an advantage over Chichen Itza and Tulum in terms of not being totally overrun by tourists already.  The Eastern part of the Yucatan is the tourist nightmare of Cancun, a place I have no intention of visiting.  The western side is centered on the city of Merida, which is experiencing an increase of international awareness due to the efforts of a small group of wealth expatriates to attract attention.

   My experience with the situation vis a vis the Inca sights in the Sacred Valley is that the lesser known sites give as much OR more bang for the buck.  The only thing the better known sites have going for them is more assholes.  If you want to experience an ancient civilization, the less modernity you have surrounding you the better.

  Here are some of my other posts about the Mayans from the past of this blog:

Mayans, Toltecs and Aztecs (10/25/10)
What The Hell Happened To the Maya? (1/26/11)
Maya Resistance to Spanish Rule (9/29/11)
The Conquest of the Last Maya Kingdom (10/9/11)
2nd Take: Maya History and Religion  (2/13/12)

  I think I'm ready to see the ruins!

Book Review: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James Cain

Buddy, you are about to die.  Still from the early movie version of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), by James Cain.


Book Review:
 The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)
by James Cain

  The Postman Always Rings Twice is popular in both book and movie form.  In book form it is most certainly "hard boiled" but it is not detective fiction, because there is no detective involved.  The Postman Always Rings Twice was shocking in its day, and actually got banned in Boston, and it was an immediate hit.   The hard boiled sex and violence mask a complicated moral universe and the minimalist scenery disguises a book that is very grounded in the Southern California environment of the Great Depression.  Frank Chambers, the narrator and central figure, is a classic drifter/hobo.  An interrogation between Chambers and the local district attorney sounds like the description of a classic hobo lifestyle.

  The Postman Always Rings Twice also touches of issues of class, race and gender- all the central issues of 20th century American life, wrapped in a thick blanket of tough guy talk and hottish sex.  I'm a little disappointed that Double Indemnity, the other classic James Cain hit, didn't make the 1001 Books list. Its absence seems clear evidence of an anti-American tendency within the 1001 Books project (understandable most if not all of the selectors are English authors and academics.)

Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Past by Daniel Richter

The site in present day Missouri called "Cahokia" is the largest pre-European settlement in North America.  The above illustration is based on a century plus of excavation.

Book Review
Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Past
by Daniel Richter
p. 2011
The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press

  Any attempt to write the pre-European history is faced with three major problems:

1.  Historical anti-Native bias by European scholars
2.  Lack of written records by pre-European North American civilizations.
3.  Decline of the major civilization centers prior to European "discovery" and the European induced epidemics that wiped out 9/10ths of Native populations prior to extensive contact.

   Which is different than saying that there were no pre-European major North American civilizations.  In Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Past, Daniel Richter draws together archaeological records, mythology and advances in understanding of non-European native culture to make a compelling case that there was really not much separating the Native power centers of Pueblo Bonito(four corners region) or Cahokia(Missouri) from their contemporary European counterparts of the late Middle Ages.

  He does this largely to make the case that there was not as much difference between Europeans and Native Americans in the period prior to contact as is typically supposed.  This is a thesis which flies in the face of popular "historians" like Jared Diamond, whose "Guns, Germs and Steel" does much to advance the opposite interpretation: That European civilizations were "destined to win."  Instead Richter advances a much more nuances thesis that relies heavy on the Early centuries of contact (1500-1700) and the numerous failure by Europeans to secure a place in North America.

  This is a major difference between the history of Central and South America, which it's central theme of European conquest of existing Native American civilizations like the Aztecs and Incans.  The Aztecs and Inca's may have "lost;" but we sure do know a lot about both of them. I think it's commensical to presume that there were North American analogue civilizations, especially since the history of both Aztecs AND Inca's conclusively links to prior civilizations who were extinguished prior to contact.   A common theme of "New World" history is the fragility of complex culture in the face of environmental factors, and in that way the more unknown sites of North America may have MORE to teach us about current events.

   Richter describes a Native North America that was familiar with the concepts of agricultural, government and trade, but also familiar with the "European" ideas of slavery and genocide.  The picture that Richter paints of the less known North American civilization centers that died out prior to European contact is not a hippy-peace lovefest.  The Chaco Canyon site  in the four corners area of the Western United States of America sounds very much like a place that had much in common with the Aztecs and their predecessors in Tenochtitlan.  Additionally the myths of North and South "match" in that the Aztecs speak of coming from the North and the present day Natives of the four corners region speak of post-dissolution groups heading to the south to "forget" the presumably hard times at the end of Chaco Canyon.

Richter makes the case that Chaco Canyon was a multi-ethnic accumulation with a distinct elite who managed to subjugate surrounding tribes and bring them into the geographic orbit of Chaco Canyon, while the center accumulated tribute.   It resembles the scenario in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament/Ancient Near Eastern history with "subject peoples" being enslaved by military conqueror civilizations.

  Similarly, Richter described a well settled Mississippi river valley with it's own power centers and subject peoples.  With both civilizations it seems like the "subject peoples" were just as happy to go out on their own, and winners and losers dispersed over the continent.  You can really see it if you look at the distribution of languages across North America PRIOR to European contact:
map of Pre-Contact North American language distribution
     This map shows the clear remnants of both western and eastern centers, with the Uto Aztecan language group dominating the West.  The Mid-West is dominated by the Siouan-Catawaban, with important areas located as far East as the Atlantic ocean. Caddoan and Muskogean appear to be intertwined with Siouan-Catawaban and the North East has a strong Iroquoian presence.  This all goes into the category of arguing that pre-Contact Native American history is "knowable" in a narrative sense, even if we don't have written records.  Looking at other better known civilizations in the immediate neighborhood and from "our" own European and Near Eastern experiences allows inferences to be made in the absence of direct evidence.

   Before the Revolution contines forward into the European contact period, but I found those portions less valuable since there have been many authors re-visiting the Colonial American period in recent decade.  Whereas his treatment of pre-Contact North American civilizations is an able synthesis of the available scholarly material.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Decline and Fall of Interest in William Faulkner


The Decline and Fall of Interest in William Faulkner

Book Review
Absalom, Absalom (1936)
by William Faulkner

    The Ngram above compares the frequency of mention for Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway.  Woolf, Faulkner and Joyce are all part of the literature of "high modernism" characterized by the abstraction of the form of the novel and the integration of challenging narrative techniques like stream of consciousness, shifts between narrators without signaling breaks in the text of the book, irregular punctuation and vocabulary and experimental grammar.

  The chart above clearly signals that Virginia Woolf is the most popular, likely due to her popularity of being "taught" to college and post-graduate scholars of fiction.  She has written several short novels, ideal for classroom teaching, and her status as a woman with relatively non-controversial subject matter (and highly controversial personal history) make her an ideal exponent of the principles of high modernism.

  Of the remaining three, Joyce has second place probably on the strength of the combination of legal notority of Ulysses and scholarly interest.  Hemingway and Faulkner share American nationality, but Faulkner employs a variation on the distinctive style of Woolf and Joyce, where Hemingway represents a non-experimental style.  The technical innovation of Woolf, Joyce and Faulkner limit their popular appeal.  Faulkner also carries the burden of being utterly unpolitical correct.

 Absalom, Absalom with a "use of the N word per paragraph" rate of something above 1.0, is exhibit A  the catalog of Faulkernian political incorrectness.  Like The Sound of the Fury- whose Quentin Compson is the narrator of Absalom, Absalom shifts back and forward in time and weaves between narrative perspectives with little more than chapter titles.  Modernist technique abounds, with Chapter VI featuring the current holder of the Guinness Book of World Records record for "longest sentence in a work of literature."

  Although Quentin Compson serves as the narrator, the story is about a friend of his grandfathers, a man named Thomas Sutpen, a son of West Virginia, who made his fortune in Haiti, married a woman with "Negro" blood unwittingly, fathered a son with her, abandoned her, moved to Mississippi, built a huge estate, had two children, saw his son from a first marriage attempt to marry his daughter from his second marriage and ends up murdered at the hands of a tenant whose 15 year old daughter he impregnates with the understanding that if she has a son he will marry her.

  Wikipedia describes the "genre" of Absalom, Absalom as "Southern Gothic" which is rather like calling the text of the Old Testament, "Biblical."  Yes, it's true that has all the elements that would come to characterize "southern gothic" but it's also a late classic of the high modernist period.   Like Woolf and Joyce (but not Hemingway) you don't just pick up a copy of Absalom, Absalom and read it while you are waiting for the bus.

  Most, and arguably all of the top texts of high modernist literature is difficult to imbibe.   At least Faulkner has healthy doses of incest and insanity. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

George Frideric Handel: A Life With Friends by Ellen T. Harris


This is a video of the Royal Choral Society performing the CHORUS from Handel's Messiah- the entire piece is more than 2 hours long.

Gerorge Frideric Handel: A Life With Friends
 by Ellen T. Harris
Published September 29th, 2014
W.W. Norton & Company
(BUY IT)


   George Frideric Handel is where the history of the modern music industry begins. Prior to Handel, skilled musicians worked for a specific ruler, the church or both.  Handel essentially created the figure of the musician as artistic celebrity, and he did this in the early and mid 18th century, long before others followed the same path.  Ellen T. Harris has written a Handel biography that, while not harping on the subject, certainly acknowledges the importance of Handel's market-place activity in explaining his long term significance to future listeners.

  This is not to say that Harris, a professor at MIT, lacks the musical chops to explain the stylistic innovations that Handel brought to audiences- quite the opposite.  Some of the most engaging portions of the book involve Harris explaining the specific effects and techniques that grabbed the attention of the audience. For example, Handel used dramatic pauses to heighten the impact of the following music.

  Today, Handel is best known for his soaring "Messiah."  Harris calls it the most important classical work of all time, and I'm inclined to agree, or simply defer, to her expertise.  I don't think there is a single man, woman or child living in modern conditions who hasn't heard, and been touched by the Hallelujah chorus of Handel's Messiah.  In her "Very Select Discography" after the end of the book, she recommends the recordings by Harmonia Mubdi (HMU 907505.52), Chamber Chorus of the University of California, Berkeley, Philharmonia Barogque Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan  (includes performances of many variants made by Handel.)

  Harris draws on the underutilized source of Handel's bank records to give a fuller account of the economic life of Handel.  In considering WHY Handel can be considered either the first or immediate precursor of Modern artist musicians, his financial independence from the patronage model of artistic contribution was critical.   His early career is marked by his struggle to free himself from dependence while remaining cognizant of the fact that such a relationship was the norm.  Here, Harris emphasizes the role that his time in Italy in convincing him that there was a new world of artistic freedom in England.

  The subtitle of "A Life With Friends" testifies to Harris' fascination with Handel's social milieu and I think it is clear from her strong academic background that she must be well advised of the interest in the role of social networks in the dissemination of ideas.   I thought that George Frideric Handel: A Life With Friends by Ellen T. Harris was an excellent work, and likely the go-to for a reader looking for a sophisticated take on Handel's biography, short on the "artist hero" romantic bull shit and long on interesting source material and sophisticated writing style.  

Monday, December 15, 2014

Stray Dog (1949) d. Akira Kurosawa



Stray Dog (1949)
d. Akira Kurosawa
Criterion Collection #233

  Stray Dog is a police procedural Kurosawa released the year before his 1950 break-out Rashomon.  His other major contemporary crime films were from the 1960s: High and Low (1960) and The Bad Sleep Well (1963).  I think you can make the case that Kurosawa's crime films are easier to watch than the period/Samurai stuff that he is famous for.  One of the major achievements of the Criterion Collection period is to keep almost Akira Kurosawa's entire output "in print" and available to stream on Hulu Plus.

  I think the argument that you make for Kurosawa is that he is the Japanese equivalent to Shakespeare: the single Artist the reader must understand to understand the art of the Artists nation. In this way, the crime thrillers are significant since they show Kurosawa working in the present.  The present is very close to the surface in Stray Dog, set in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Rice ration cards are used as currency, and Police Detective Murakami (played by a young Toshiro Mifune) is a solder freshly returned from the end of World War II.

  The story is set in motion when Murakami has his gun lifted from his jacket pocket on the bus coming home from target practice. Its loss sets off a frenzied search by the distraught Detective to find his missing weapon.  Murakami is paired up with the older sage Sato (Takashi Shimura).  The pairing of Shimura with Mifune was a delight, but the real star of the movie is Tokyo in a pre-boom state that provides an unfamiliar perspective on Japan's largest city.

 The scene most often referenced comes when Murakami goes undercover to try and find his gun.  The panoply of misery approaches anything in Italian neo-realism.  The Criterion Collection essay by critic Terrence Rafferty calls Stray Dog Kurosawa's "neo realist" crime drama and that is largely true.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Cold Comfort Farm (1932) by Stella Gibbons

Kate Beckinsale played Flora Poste in the successful film version of Cold Comfort Farm (1932) by Stella Gibson



































      Book Review
Cold Comfort Farm (1932)
by Stella Gibbons

   In an era of literature saturated with satire, Cold Comfort Farm is a parody.  Gibbons was a professional journalist tasked with summarizing prior episodes from a Mary Webb serial in the periodical that was serializing Webbs work.  Webb was like the last representative of the gloomy Victorian romance typified by Thomas Hardy.  By Webb's time, the formula of the sad rural romance was popular enough to support both Webb and a parody- Cold Comfort Farm was an immediate popular success and its commercial popularity essentially ruined Gibbons later attempts to establish herself as a "serious" novelist.

  Although Mary Webb may have been the immediate target of Gibbons parody, any contemporary reader will be more reminded of Thomas Hardy- since no one reads Mary Webb today.  D.H. Lawrence, or rather his fans, are also a target but he is restricted to influencing one of the characters. Flora Poste herself and the basic structure of the plot reference the popular romantic rural genre of the time, but probably will remind the modern reader of Emma by Jane Austen, with Poste in the same vein of the self satisfied officious meddler in human affairs.

  Probably the most famous line in the entire book is Aunt Ada Dooms famous line, "I saw something nasty in the woodshed."  That phrase has entered English as a generic idiom for a hideous secret memory, though for the record the reader never learns what Aunt Doom actually saw in the woodshed, nor what terrible famous secret makes Flora's Aunt Judith feel compelled to host her after the untimely death of Poste's parents at the beginning of the novel.

  Unlike much of the satire from the early part of the 20th century, Cold Comfort Farm is genuinely funny, whether or not you have familiarity with the works being parodied.  The fact that it has survived even as the underlying books have faded from memory is the strongest argument in favor of Cold Comfort Farm  belonging in the 1001 Books Project/literary canon.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Muslim Conquest of Central Asia


This Map shows the path of the Muslim invasion of Central Asia.  The Muslim armies were led by Arabs and had Persian officer corps.  The state-lets of Central Asia had mostly Turkish overlords and Iranian related populations. The Muslim histories tend to discuss it as Arabs vs. Turks, but it was really mixed Arab/Persians vs. Turk/Iranians

The Muslim Conquest of Central Asia

Book Review
The Arab Conquests of Central Asia
by H.A.R. Gibb
originally published 1923
reprint by AMS Press 1970

   The Muslim invasion of Central Asia basically lasted from 645 A.D to 711 A.D.  The invading armies were led by Arabs from the Saudi peninsula but used officers and regular soldiers from Persia.  The situation in Central Asia prior to the invasion was muddled: basically a set of independent city state/oasis type polities who were being invaded and conquered by Turks prior to the invasion.  Some of the city states had maintained their Iranian leadership, but may have used Turkish mercenaries.  To the East, the Chinese were pressing north of the Central Asian city states, but they effectively cut off any potential help from Turks from the North.

  The invading Muslim armies gave people the basic, "Submit or die" pitch. The various city states resisted with various degrees of success.  The first phase of invasion was led by Qutayba, the Arab general from Medina.  Qutayba's conquests are summarized by Gibb:

1.  705 AD: The recovery o Lower Turkestan(Tukharistan in the text)
2.  From 706 AD- 709 AD: The conquest of Bukhara.
3.  From 710 to 712: Consolidation of Arab authority in the Oxus valley and its extension into Sughd.
4.  From 713 to 715: Expeditions into the Jaxarates provinces.

    Qutayba was killed by his own troops after he had an overly confident reaction to a change in power at the heart of Umayyad Empire.  It's fair to say that due to his roots in the movement (he was there at Medina) he thought he was bigger than the Empire at the End, and that was his downfall.  After his death there was a twenty five year period of retrenchment and counter attack from the Turkish princes of the area.

  The Turks went down eventually, then China lost interest in funding rebellion against the Arabs, and the situation settled down to the status quo that would be encountered by Genghis Khan and his invading armies almost 500 years later.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Handful of Dust (1934) by Evelyn Waugh

Kristin Scott Thomas as Brenda Last in a film version of A Handful of Dust (1934) by Evelyn Waugh

Book Review
A Handful of Dust (1934)
 by Evelyn Waugh

  A Handful of Dust is the third book by Evelyn Waugh in the 1001 Books Project, and the only one I would recommend to someone else to read. Neither Decline and Fall (1928) nor Vile Bodies (1930) made much of an impression on me.  In fact, prior to reading A Handful of Dust I had to go back and look at the wikipedia entries for both books so I could remember the plot details of each work.

 While still in the vein of light satire that he established as the overriding tone in the first two books, A Handful of Dust packs a heavier wallop, with a plot that includes infidelity, divorce, the tragic death of a young child, and protagonist Tony Last finding himself held captive in the Amazon rain forest by a deranged settler who forces him to endlessly re-read Charles Dickens out loud.  Last is an English country gentleman, married to the feckless Brenda.  In the early chapters of the book, Brenda embarks on a reckless affair with "idle parasite" John Beavers.  Like all of Waughs works so far, sympathetic characters are hard to find.

  Tony Last behaves as a passive non entity from first to...last.  His wife is inexplicably motivated to pursue a young man who seems to barely tolerate her.  Her young son, also named John, is killed by a kick to the head from a horse while she is away from their country home.  When she is told by a friend, her first thought is to thank god that it is her son, and not her lover, who is deceased.  AND THAT is all you need to know about the character of Brenda Last.

  After Brenda announces she is done with their marriage, Tony duly goes through the necessary arrangements that precede a divorce in post-World War I England, then backs out when he is informed that Brenda intends to ask for thousands a month in alimony.  He decamps for the Amazon on a whim with a professor who is searching for a lost city.  The trip is a nightmare, his companion dies, and he ends up essentially imprisoned by a deranged settler of English background.

  Brenda is left to her own devices and ends up both poor and apparently single, as the repulsive Beavers is unwilling to wed her without her ex husbands money.  It's a sad ending, and a sad novel. Unlike his first two books, A Handful of Dust is more directly based on his personal experience- his young wife left him, and he himself went to the Amazon, and I think that personal experience gives A Handful of Dust some depth compared to Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Revanche (2008) d. Götz Spielmann

Irina Potapenko plays Ukranian prostitute Tamara in Revanche (2008) directed by Gotz Spielmann

Movie Review
Revanche (2008)
d. Götz Spielmann
Criterion Collection #502

  It's not everyday you watch an Austrian film. Götz Spielmann has a smooth, international style that reminded me of Krzysztof Kieslowski and Atom Egoyan.  Revanche splits its time between the seedier precincts of an unnamed German speaking city and the bucolic country side of either Austria or Germany, and Spielmann seems equally drawn to both locales.  There are many, many, many contemplative shots of the landscape, typically with a single character in frame, staring off into the distance.  Call it Euro cinema, but it seems to happen where you have good cameras and technical staff a need to conserve and limit camera movement and fast cut editing for cost purposes.
Johannes Krisch plays Alex in Revanche (2008) directed by Gotz Spielmann
     Despite breaking no new ground in terms of look or feel, Revanche is compelling for the combination of elements: German crook looking for revenge or redemption, Ukrainian prostitutes, Polish gangsters, strip clubs, farm life are compelling and together.  What starts out as a crime caper gone wrong transforms into a very different film once Alex (actor Johannes Krisch) leaves the urban underworld for his fathers farm.

  The happy ending comes as a welcome surprise, and Revanche ends more like a Hollywood movie than a dour European art form.  Only released in 2008, I have to wonder if and when Gotz Spielmann will make it to Hollywood, and what they will have him do.  He is a film maker to watch.

Blog Archive