Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Impressions of Africa (1910) by Raymond Roussel

Book Review
Impressions of Africa (1910)
 by Raymond Roussel

  I'm not one of those people who says, "You have to read x in its original language."  However, I would say that when you are reading a book that is based on formal restraints based on homonymic puns (in French.)  Since neither homonyms NOR puns typically translate between languages, that makes reading Impressions of Africa in English nearly incoherent.  Basically, the entire book is "about" these European visitors who are stranded in an African city, watching a series of carnival esque escapades.  Near as I can tell, they are a group of people who are invited to this African city by the despotic ruler, only to be kidnapped by a bandit-king type on the way out of town.  I think.

  The idea of creating art around formal constraints is of course at the heart of any "classical" aesthetic, though not specifically.  One can think of Matthew Barney's early work which is LITERALLY him working against literal physical restraints (the drawing restraint series) or Lars Von Trier with his 'Dogme 95' set of film making rules, meant to create a "more authentic" film art.  Unfortunately when the formal restraints are homonymic puns in a different language, a contemporary reader is left in the dark.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Book Review: Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by S. Frederick Starr

These are the nations of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Iran and Afghanistan.
Book Review:
Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane
by S. Frederick Starr
Published October 13th, 2013.
Princeton University Press, First Edition

  You can't seriously be interested in the category of "world news" without realizing that "the Middle East" is one of the most consistently popular subjects within the world news rubric.  As I write this right now, I would imagine that the number one subject in world news right now is the current Gaza Strip conflict between Israel and Hamas and that the number three subject is the expansion of ISIS across northern Syria and Iraq.  Then you've probably got the Syrian civil war in the top 10, and also Afghanistan and then Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan are all top 20 countries of interest for various reasons.
The ruins at Balkh

  The "Middle East" typically includes the areas of Arabia, Northern Africa/Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran.  This definition of the Middle East excludes Afghanistan, Pakistan and all the countries of former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Kirghistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.   In fact, these nations together with (arguably) Iran and Pakistan comprise a separate subject, "Central Asia."  Because the present day states in Central Asia proper are so obscure, interest in the history of this region is weak.

  That is a shame, because as S. Frederick Starr comprehensively demonstrates in his magisterial treatment of the history of this region in Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, the Central Asian enlightenment between 800-1300 A.D. is one of the Golden Ages of world civilization, on a par with the European Renaissance (thought preceding it) or the Graeco-Roman phosphorescence of the "Ancient World."

   Lost Enlightenment exists to right a number of misunderstandings about Central Asia.  Primary among those misunderstandings it the frequent characterization by Western scholars that Central Asian scientists that wrote in Arabic were in fact Arab.  Thus, what we have historically referred to as scientific/artistic achievements of the Arab/Muslim Middle Ages were often neither Arab NOR Muslim in origination, simply written down in Arabic.

  The second major misunderstanding about Central Asia that Starr confronts is the idea that the only interesting subject to modern scholars about the Central Asian civilization of the early middle ages is it's "decline and fall."  This is a subject that is very much en vogue in the currents of "popular history."  The primary exponent of this thesis is Jared Diamond.

  To a lesser degree, Starr also explains in authoritative fashions the relationship between language and ethnicity in Central Asia during this period.  The Golden Age of Central Asia typically starts after the Arab conquest only because everything could be written down in Arabic, and because classic Greek works were translated into Arabic.  Crucial to understanding the history of Central Asia is understanding that the civilization PRE Arabic conquest was vital, being mostly Oases centered city-states run by different Iranic speaking native of the region.  The two places that figure most prominently in this pre-Conquest narrative are Balkh (located in the far north of Afghanistan) and Samarkand (southern Uzbekistan.)   These cities were the center of larger Iranic speaking ethnic/religious groups.  The most well know of these are the Sogdians, who were centered around Samarkand.

  Although conquered by the Arabs (more or less) in the 6th century, they had pre-existing relationships with India, and at the time of conquest there were Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Manichean, Christians and Jews.   Generally speaking, the Buddhists and Manicheans were treated harshly, Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews held on for centuries, much as they did in other parts of the Islamic empire outside the Arab heartland.

  After the Arab Conquest of Central Asia, Turkic speaking tribes play a long running roll, starting as barbaric nomads and ending up as conquerors with hybrid Turkic-Persianate Sunni and Shia Muslims ruling over the entire Middle East and most of India via the Ottomans, Savarids and Mughals.   The role of actual Arabs in Central Asia after the conquest is analogous to the role that the Roman Empire played in Northern Europe: the people there aren't "Roman" in any way, but their development has been dramatically impacted by the Roman presence.

  Other then literally explaining these very basic and true facts about a little-known region of the world, Starr sets out to explain the constituent elements of the Central Asian Golden Age by drawing biographies of the leading exponents and detailing their accomplishments in general-reader level detail. It isn't "pop history" but Starr leans towards making good footnotes and sparing the reader debates interesting only to academics in the field.

  He also gingerly moves towards a conclusion about the "decline and fall" that is careful to avoid easy generalizations and takes into the account the utter lack of familiarity that most writers have about the actual facts and arguments of this period.  This "decline and fall" links directly to the larger subject of "the Middle East" since it implicates the entire Arabic writing intellectual world and mirrors the actual debate about the "closing of the Arab mind" that happened in the thirteenth and fourteenth century.
Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058-1111):  responsible for the phenomenon of "the closing of the Islamic mind."
   This "closing of the Arab mind" issue is probably the most controversial in the non-popular field of Middle Eastern history, but you can't really discuss that subject without implicating Central Asia, because all of the non closed minds were non-Arabs who were raised in Central Asia not speaking Arabic.  I felt like Starr kind of buried the lede here.  Ultimately, the most responsible part in the Authors mind is the writing of Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058-1111) who emerges as a kind of Central Asian Middle Ages equivalent of a Rush Limbaugh in the mid 1990s.   He attacked scientific/rational/philosophical thought in a classic text called The Incoherence of Philosophers.  His argument was essentially adopted wholesale by the Sunni Muslim academic teaching apparatus, and his followers essentially ended debate after a few generations of struggles.

  To this day the ideas of al-Ghazali remain unquestioned  and it is quite easy to trace from al-Ghazali directly to al-Queda and it's affiliated groups and ideology.    Starr also gently opines on the vexatious question of the failure of the Middle East to Modernize in the way of the West.  Here he firmly lays blame at the foot of the Turkic/Persian influenced Empires of the early modern Period.  These "gunpowder" Empires were essentially castes of Turkic speaking Calvary officers under the influence of Perisan-ate court culture who were quick on subjects like equipping an entire army with guns and artillery, but weak on adopting the printing press and subject to the restrictive Sunni Muslim ideology about rational thought and science.

  Starr does not dwell at all on the depressing present of any of these nations.   You can see the history of the region of the actual names of the countries.  Tajikistan means "Persians" and they speak an Iranic language.  Turkmenistan is Turks speaking Turkish, and the Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyistan represent different Turkic speaking tribes who arrived at different times in the area from the North and East.

  In conclusion, Lost Enlightenment is a must read for anyone with a deeper than average interest in world news, let alone an active interest in world history.  To my knowledge, this is the first comprehensive history of this time and place, and it is a welcome addition to any well compiled reading library in the subject area of World History or World News, for that matter.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Seduced and Abandoned (1964) d. Pietro Germi

Stefania Sandrelli plays Agnese Ascalone in Seduced and Abandoned,directed by Pietro Germi

Movie Review
Seduced and Abandoned (1964)
d. Pietro Germi
Criterion Collection #350

  Italian film maker Pietro Germi is best known state-side for Divorce Italian Style (1961), which actually won an Academy Award in 1962 for best original screen play.  Both Divorce Italian Style and Seduced and Abandoned are scathing satires of the male chauvinism of Sicily circa early 1960.  This is a world where marrying the 16 year old you rape and impregnated is a get out of jail free card.  The satire is mean and pointed, the characters almost universally unsympathetic.

   Like Luis Bunuel, Germi is not portraying his particular social milieu with affection. A major plot point of Seduced and Abandoned is that Peppino Califano, the seducer, doesn't want to marry Agnese, the 16 year old he seduced and impregnated because he has a right to marry a virgin.  After the initial discovery that Agnese is not only NOT a virgin but also pregnant, family patriarch Vincenzo (Don Vincenzo) swings into action, taking a number of comical steps to ensure the honor of his family.

   Over the two hours of the film, Vincenzo slaps his pregnant teenage daughter around, repeatedly, calls her a whore, locks her in a spare bedroom and refuses to let her out of the house, etc. etc. etc.  After initially bullying Peppino's family into agreeing to marry Agnese, there are a serious of set-backs largely centered around Peppino's unwillingness to marry "that whore."  He is abetted by his parents.  One critical scene features Peppino asking his Dad whether he would have married his mother if she had fucked him before marriage.  His response is the summary of the attitude of the characters of the film, "A man has a right to ask, a woman has a duty to refuse."

  It's clear that Germi despises the attitudes on display as much as a film maker like Bunuel, or for someone closer to home, John Waters.  The idea of this film as a comedy may sound strange to those more comfortable with the American comedy-industrial complex, but if you enjoy Noah Baumbach or Woody Allen you should be basically on comfortable ground.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Greeks and Their Eastern Neighbors / Studies in the relations between Greece and the countries of the Near East in the 8th & 7th centuries B.C. by T. J. Dunbabin

Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson wears the skin of the Nemean lion in the big budget Hollywood film Hercules this summer.  This was a myth lifted whole-cloth from the East by Greek poets.

The Greeks and Their Eastern Neighbors:
Studies in the relations between Greece and the countries of the Near East in the 8th & 7th centuries B.C. (1957)
by T. J. Dunbabin
with a foreword by Sir John Beazley
Edited by John Boardman
Ares Publishing Facsimile Edition

   This title from my 229-book-long Amazon Wish List was added on July 6th, 2009- that is almost five years ago.  The Wish List dates all the way back to 2005, but I only have one book from 2005, two from 2007, two from 2008- the list doesn't really get started till 2009.  The subject of what, if any, influence the Near East exercised on the development of Greek civilization is important, but it is easy to see why several generations of Western historians have been not so interested in the subject.  First, there is the difficulty of doing archaeological work in countries like Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.  Between two World Wars, the Cold War and the present situation getting on the ground has been hard.  Second, there is the ideological bias of the west that sees Greece as being separate and apart (and superior) to the civilizations of the Near East. Finally there are issue with learning anything about the time period between 1200 B.C. and 700 B.C., a 1st Millenium B.C. "dark age" brought about by the depredations of the "Sea People."

   Add to that the fact that Dunbabin himself died before he could even complete this book, meaning it's been published as an incomplete text and essentially consists of transcripts of lectures he gave on the subject of the relationship of Greek civilization to the civilizations of the East.  Once you get beyond the "Greece was different" ideology, the case linking East to West is straight forward.  Dunbabin's case is based on a combination of archaeological evidence (finding Eastern pottery in the West and vice versa) and cultural evidence (the Eastern derivation of Greek mythological narratives like the perils of Hercules, and creatures like Griffin's and the Centaur.  An especially compelling point regards the motif of Hercules and his slaying of the lion: Lions were nowhere near Greece in the 8th and 7th century BC, but they were present in the hunting gardens of the Assyrian king, and any first hand observation of a lion by a Greek poet of the 7th century BC is ridiculously unlikely.

   Dunbabin also provides a good overview of two lesser known Greek-related civilizations of the near east- the Lydians and the Phygians.  Note for readers: this book is only 80 pages long.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Plumed Serpent (1926) by D.H. Lawrence

D.H. Lawrence: Seven titles in the 1001 Books Project

Book Review
The Plumed Serpent (1926)
 by  D.H. Lawrence

  Soooo many D.H. Lawrence books within the 1001 Books project.   You've got: The Rainbow (1915) , Sons and Lovers (1913), Lady Chatterley’s Lover(1928), Aaron's Rod, The Fox (1922) and Women in Love.  Including The Plumed Serpent that is seven titles.  The Plumed Serpent is his second to last novel on the list chronologically speaking,  The Plumed Serpent ranks a distant second to Lady Chatterley's Lover in terms of the D.H. Lawrence controversy index.

  Personally, I found the quasi-fascism and dubious racialism of The Plumed Serpent much more troubling than the bourgeois sexuality of Lady Chatterley's Lover.  The Plumed Serpent is also Lawrence's "colonial" novel, with the setting firmly in Mexico (but with a seeming hat tip to the landscape of New Mexico.)  Lawrence, of course, was an earlier settler in the Taos area, with his own "Lawrence Ranch" during the time he wrote The Plumed Serpent.

  Kate Leslie, the once widowed, once divorced, Irish divorcee is the protagonist.  She starts out among expatriate society around Mexico City but finds the company boohhrringg.  For lack of something better to do, she drifts out to a rural area where she has heard rumors that "the old gods are coming back."  Once there, she befriends local landowning Patron Don Ramon and Don Ciripano, a Mexican general.  They are not so subtlety trying to revive the "old religion" becoming Gods in the process.

  It was hard not to read The Plumed Serpent as an anticipation of "magical realism,"  though I feel like the fascistic/racist elements in Lawrences' imagined religious revival of Aztec deities.  There is a LOT of speculation about the importance of "the blood" and frankly Nietzschian soliloquies on the part of the would-be deities.  It was the kind of literary radicalism that is peculiar to the 20s, after World War I forced artists to question the existing world but before World War II made theories based on blood and race forbidden to intellectuals.

  Another observation about The Plumed Serpent is that it is twice the length of any of his prior Novels.  Some of his titles have been less than 100 pages, The Plumed Serpent was 433 pages in the Vantage Paperback edition I read.  With more generous margins it would have easily topped 500 pages.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Book Review: The Land of the Elephant Kings (2014) by Peter Kosmin

Map of the Seleucid Empire in Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Turkey

Book Review:
The Land of the Elephant Kings (2014)
 by Peter Kosmin
Published April 2014
Harvard University Press

  I was in THE Harvard University book store in Boston a couple weeks ago and saw The Land of the Elephant Kings by Peter Kosmin sitting on the shelf.  I don't mind confessing that I got pretty excited, but then picked up the slimmish volume and saw that the price was fifty bucks.   Fifty bucks for an academic history of Seleucid Empire?  I'm interested, but not fifty bucks interested.  Returning to Southern California, I didn't forget about The Land of the Elephant Kings, rather I used the Inter Library Loan function at the San Diego Public Library to request it from the UCSD library.

   As far as I know this is the first book length treatment of the Seleucid Empire in the modern era (I'm just guessing) so despite some substantial issues with readability, The Land of the Elephant Kings is a must for anyone who is seriously trying to get a grip on the history of the pre-Islamic Middle East.   The Seleucid's were a dynasty that emerged in the aftermath of the untimely death of Alexander the Great.  Selecus I Nicator was a contemporary of Alexander the Great, and his dynasty controlled the empire shown above from roughly 305 B.C. to 65 B.C., collapsing via excessive dynastic struggle.

   The Seleucids have not been a favorite of modern historians, who prefer either the pre-Alexander empires or the post-Islamic period. The Seleucids were essentially foreign occupiers, and they didn't introduce a religion, nor did they represent any kind of "new era."  All of this is freely admitted by Kosmin, who also repeatedly states that there is not much information of any kind to be found anywhere about the Seleucids.  This gives The Land of the Elephant Kings both a fragmentary and elliptical feel, like a coloring book only half colored in.

   The Land of the Elephant Kings is not a conventional narrative history, rather Kosmin embraces the "spatial turn" in social sciences, wherein historians use the metaphor of space to describe the behaviors of less conventional states and empires in history.  Historically, The Seleucids were typically discounted as being a "weak" empire with little or no state structure, and the main thrust of Kosmin's argument is to demonstrate that in their own way the Seleucid monarchs were most active.

  Mainly he does this by drawing on archaeology to point out how many colonies they founded.  The Seleucids were nuts for founding colonies, and they put dozens down, many of them in the area of Syria.  He also makes the case that the Selecuids were constantly "on the go" travelling in and around their Empire in a constant attempt to put down rebellions and "show the flag" to their vassals. Additionally, the made one limited but important contribution to wider world culture, being the first Kings to refer to time via their own era, judging each year as being part of the "Seleucid Era."  This was picked up by Christians and other Near Eastern cultures and is responsible for our own use of "B.C." and "A.D." today.

  Unfortunately there is little in The Land of the Elephant Kings to appeal to a non-specialists.  That's a pity considering the paucity of other books on this same subject, but fully understandable considering the limitations of source material.  Perhaps this book will serve as a stimulus for further advances in Seleucid studies.

The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction by Jonathan Sterne

His Masters Voice: original painting.  Is the talk sitting on his dead masters coffin?  That is the argument of Jonathan Sterne

The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction
by Jonathan Sterne
Duke University press, 2003

   This is another title from the depths of my Amazon Wish List- circa.... 2006?  Eight years since I wanted to read this book?  Sounds about right.  The Audible Past is interesting, but only to academics or would be academics.  Sterne has many interesting points to make about the cultural origins of sound reproduction, but he often couches his prose in the post-modern cultural theory that is the bane of turn of the century cultural academics.  His subject sits at the intersection of cultural studies and the history of technology, so some jargon is to be expected.

  Sterne has two main points to make: First, that the origins of sound reproduction extend back in time beyond the 20th century.  His main examples are the development of the stethoscope and telegraph in the 19th century.  Here he seems to be combating the idea that sound reproduction somehow sprang fully formed from Bell and his telephone, with the phonograph being the important successor technology.

   His second point is that there were a variety of different purposes for sound reproduction in the beginning of the phonograph era, and the idea of reproducing music on vinyl disc was not the first, second or third choice.  He delves into the example of using the phonograph to record the voices of dead people, and the idea that it would be primarily used as a substitute for stenographers.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Schizopolis (1996) d. Steven Soderbergh

Movie Review
Schizopolis (1996)
d. Steven Soderbergh
Criterion Collection #199

  So like, lesser films of greater film makers- that is a big Criterion Collection category, presumably because they are available and lack prior DVD editions.  Schizopolis was made during Soderburgh's self imposed Hollywood exile after his break-out film Sex, Lies & Videotape, before he settled into the type of guy who could drop 100,000,000 grossing pictures in back-to-back years.  Schizopolis actually stars Soderburgh himself in a double role.  The phenomenon of doubling is seemingly at the center of 400 years of narrative story telling- the popular "early" example is Doctor Jeckl and Mr. Hyde but there were doubles long before that.

  Soderburgh plays Fletcher Munson, a speech writer for a Scientology type religion/marketing outfit.  his double is a dentist, Dr. Jeffrey Korshek.  There are long periods where one or both of the characters speak in an un subtitled foreign language.  An early scene between Munson and his wife is conducted entirely in generic descriptions of verbal interactions, "Unenthusiastic greeting. Terse description of day at work, etc." spoken by both characters.

    Soderburgh adds extra edge by casting his soon-to-be-ex wife as the love interest of both characters.  Schizopolis is kind of funny the way Godard is kind of funny, not very.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Sanders of the River (1935) d. Zoltán Korda

Paul Robeson playing "Bosambo" in the regrettable Sanders of the River

Sanders of the River (1935)
d. Zoltán Korda
Criterion Collection #372
From Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist boxed set, Criterion Collection #369

  Included in the excellent boxed set, Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist, Sanders of the River is not what you would call a career highlight.  In fact, the description on the Criterion Collection site calls Sanders of the River, "deeply embarrassing" to Robeson- as in- he was deeply embarrassed by the resulting film, which can only be called a "glorification of the British Empire" while simultaneously being deeply insulting to Africans.  I suppose there is some value to Sanders of the River as the first film that Robeson made after departing the United States for England, but as a watchable film? Negatory.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s by Winifred Hughes

Black Bess: popular penny dreadful.

Book Review
The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s
by Winifred Hughes
Princeton University Press 1981

  I have a list of a few hundred books on my Amazon wish list, all books that were too expensive to acquire when I was interested.  Thought I might use my new library card to address that situation.  The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s has been on the list for half a decade- it is out of print and will run you at least 30 bucks on Amazon.  The hardcover edition I checked out from the San Diego Public Library will run you one hundred and twenty.  Hard to believe it has gone out of print like that- but the says that there is a new paperback edition coming out next month.

  In the 1001 Books project, the Sensation Novels of the 1860s are represented by two titles, both by Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone and The Woman in White.   According to Hughes, The Woman in White is the quintessential Sensation Novel, and The Moonstone is the main link between the sensation novel and it's successors: the detective novel and the thriller.   The Sensation novel is significant because it happened at a time when the over-all Audience for novels expanded greatly as a result of increases in the literacy rate.  The Sensation Novel was preceded by the Penny Dreadful, shorter descriptions of horrific "real life" events in fictionalized form.

   In addition Hughes runs through some of the lesser remembered exponents of the genre with separate chapters on Charles Reade and a shared chapter on M.E. Braddon (female author) and Mrs. Henry Wood.  To Hughes, the primary characteristic of the Sensation Novels of the 1860s is the melding of "Romantic fantasy" with "realism."   The Sensation Novel was also notable in how it evoked a tremendously serious (and negative) response, largely because they were so popular with Audiences.  This critical dynamic of "highbrow" critics looking down on "lowbrow" popular arts would hold for two generations, virtually unopposed until after the first World War. 

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