Archive for the 'The Oikoumenê' Category

The world’s pin codes

January 31 2014

Hans Rosling, professor of global health, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, via David Pilling, FT. Article.

The “pincode of the world” is 1114. 1 bn people live in Europe, 1 bn in the Americas, 1 bn in Africa, 4 bn in Asia.

By 2050 it will be 1125. Europe and the Americas will stay the same, Africa will have doubled, Asia will peak at 5 bn.

By 2100 it will be 1145. The global population will peak at 11 bn, with 4 bn in Africa and 5 bn in Asia. The main maritime thoroughfare will be the Indian Ocean, not the Pacific. The Indian Ocean will link 9 bn of the world’s 11 bn inhabitants.

Numbers may not mean much, but the world will be blacker.

Pining in a gold cage

December 10 2013

Keynes buoyant as Britain comes off the gold standard after the financial crisis of 1931. It had come off it in 1914, but returned in 1925. In 2013, no countries use a gold standard.

YouTube:

Friedrich Hayek on Keynes

Milton Friedman on Keynes

Harold Wilson and the 1967 devaluation: his metaphor is not cage but straitjacket.

The perfect polyglot

November 4 2013

Has one person ever been able to speak, read and write Greek, Latin, Chinese, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Persian, Arabic, French, English, German, Italian, Spanish and Russian, or one version of each, fluently?

Japanese, Norse, Portuguese, Urdu, others are somehow less elementary.

Putin fact-checked

September 12 2013

By Max Fisher, Washington Post. There’s a kind of historical interest in all this.

Higher hunters

August 12 2013

[The] continuing war with Nature was still being waged, even in this technologically precocious [Modern Western] society, by such “higher hunters” as the trawler and the whaler, as well as by their younger brothers the husbandman and the shepherd.

And by a lower hunter, surely, the common fisherman.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954 (footnote)

The coalescence of the Oikoumenê

June 12 2013

By the year A.D. 1952 the initiative and skill of Western Man had been engaged for some four and a half centuries in knitting together the whole habitable and traversable surface of the planet by a system of communications that was unprecedented in the two features of being literally world-wide and being operated by a technique which was constantly surpassing itself at a perpetually accelerating pace. The wooden caravels and galleons, rigged for sailing in the eye of the wind, which had sufficed to enable the pioneer mariners of Modern Western Europe to make themselves masters of all the oceans, had given way [in the 1840s] to mechanically propelled iron-built ships of relatively gigantic size [some smaller steamships had wooden hulls]; “dirt-tracks” travelled by six-horse coaches had been replaced by macadamized and concrete-floored roads travelled by automobiles; railways had been invented to compete with roads, and aircraft to compete with all land-borne or water-borne conveyances. Concurrently, means of [instantaneous] communication which did not require the physical transportation of human bodies had been conjured up, and put into operation on a world-wide scale, in the shape of telegraphs, telephones, and wireless transmission – visual as well as auditory – by radio. The movement of sea-borne and airborne traffic had been made detectable at long range by radar. There had been no period in the history of any other civilization in which so large an area had been made so highly conductive for every form of human intercourse.

From this perspective, the creation of an electronic World Wide Web (for non-privileged users) in 1994 was the latest stage of a process that had begun with the discovery of Madeira by the Portuguese in 1419.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

The ship

June 11 2013

The key-notes of the fifteenth-century acceleration in the shipwright’s and the navigator’s art were its suddenness and its speed.

“In the fifteenth century … there was a swift and momentous change in the building of ships. It was a great era of architecture. In the space of fifty years the sea-going sailing-ship developed from a single-master into a three-master carrying five or six sails.” [Footnote: Bassett-Lowke, J. W. [that should be W. J.], and Holland, G.: Ships and Men (London 1946, Harrap), p. 46. [...]]

The revolution in navigation was the development of the sea astrolabe.

And this technological revolution in the West not only gave its authors access to all quarters of the Globe by making them masters of Oceanic navigation; it also gave them an ascendancy over all non-Western mariners whom they encountered in any seas.

“At the beginning of the fifteenth century the seaborne trade of Europe was carried in ships markedly inferior in design and workmanship to the vessels used in many parts of the East; but at the end of the sixteenth century the West European ships were the best in the World. They were, perhaps, less handy and less weatherly than the junks of the China seas, but in general, in their combination of seaworthiness, endurance, carrying capacity, and fighting power, they proved superior to anything else afloat.” [Footnote: Parry, J. H.: Europe and a Wider World, 1415-1715 (London 1949, Hutchinson), p. 21.]

This new-fangled Western type of vessel is the most characteristic emblem of a Modern Age of Western history (currebat circa A.D. 1475-1875) during which its unchallenged supremacy was proclaimed in its monopoly of the title “ship”, by which it came to be known par excellence. The “ship’s” distinctive virtue, in which it surpassed its successors as conspicuously as its predecessors, was its power to keep the sea for an almost unlimited length of time on end; and this virtue has been divined and lauded by a nineteenth-century Western man of letters who lived to see the “ship” reach its peak of technical perfection, and all but lived on to see it disappear from the seas as suddenly as it had invaded them some four hundred years earlier.

“L’ancien navire de Christophe Colomb et de Ruyter est un des grands chefs-d’œuvre de l’homme. Il est inépuisable en force comme l’infini en souffles, il emmagasine le vent dans sa voile, il est précis dans l’immense diffusion des vagues, il flotte et il règne.” [Footnote: Hugo, Victor: Les Misérables, Part II, Book II, chap. 3.]

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

The last days of sail

June 9 2013

The writer of this Study had the good fortune, as a child, to catch a last glimpse of the sailing-ship before she vanished from the seas, and to be initiated into the lore of her divers rigs by the former master of an East Indiaman, his great-uncle Captain Henry Toynbee (vivebat A.D. 1819-1909), who had retired from the sea in A.D. 1866 without ever having seen service on a steamship or indeed on any build of sailing-vessel other than a full ship since his first voyage at a tender age on a barque [which is a “full ship”]. On summer holidays in the eighteen-nineties at St. Margaret’s Bay on the English shore of the Straits of Dover, under the eye of the South Foreland lighthouse, the small boy learnt the rigs from the old sailor as the ships came gliding past: schooners and three-masted schooners and top-sail schooners (very common); brigantines and brigs (rather rare); barquentines and barques; and full-rigged ships ranging from classic three-masters to the four-masters and five-masters that were a nineteenth-century revival of a sixteenth-century fashion. He learnt to know and love them all, without ever suspecting that he would live to see the disappearance of this divine work of Man’s hands which, in his uncle’s confident eyes, was as much a part of the eternal order of Nature as the chalk cliff on which they were standing, or as the water which gave the measure of the distance from the shore to the passing ship. In the eighteen-nineties the sailing-ships plying through the Straits were still far more numerous than the steamships (though doubtless steam had by then long since outstripped sail in aggregate tonnage). As late as the summer of 1910, there used always to be several four-masted sailing-ships at anchor in Falmouth harbour, and in the summer of 1911 the wreck of one huge sailing-ship was lying huddled against the cliffs between the South Foreland and Dover. Yet, already, forty years back, sail was being driven by steam off one sea-route after another. The China tea clippers had been put out of business by the opening of the Suez Canal in A.D. 1869, which had deprived them of their advantage over steamships trying to compete with them on the long voyage round the Cape; by A.D. 1875 all routes except the Australian had been captured by steamships; and in A.D. 1881 the Australian route itself was conquered for steam by the S.S. Aberdeen with her triple expansion engines, though the wool clippers went on fighting their losing battle till the end of the decade. The interval between the first two world wars saw the process of extinguishing the sailing-ship completed.

Clippers were very fast sailing-ships that appeared in their classic form at the same time as steamships and competed with them for a generation.

Footnotes refer to three works previously cited:

Clowes, G. S. L.: Sailing Ships, their History and Development: Part I: Historical Notes (London 1932, H.M. Stationery Office) [...].

Abell, W.: The Shipwright’s Trade (Cambridge 1948, University Press) [...].

Bassett-Lowke, J. W. [that should be W. J.], and Holland, G.: Ships and Men (London 1946, Harrap) [...].

Footnote on Uncle Harry:

“Captain Henry Toynbee was one of the most scientific navigators of his day. … ‘He was always sure of his longitude within five miles,’ writes one of his officers. And his wonderful landfalls were the admiration of his passengers.

“Toynbee … went to sea in 1833 at the age of fourteen as a midshipman in the East Indiaman Dunvegan Castle. … Toynbee’s first command was the Ellenborough; and he had also commanded the Gloriana and Marlborough before he took over the Hotspur, the command of which he resigned in 1866 in order to succeed Admiral Fitzroy as Marine Superintendent of the Meteorological Office. He retired in 1888, and lived to be over ninety years of age, an example of all that an officer in our mercantile marine should be” (Lubbock, Basil: The Blackwall Frigates, 2nd edition (Glasgow 1950, Brown, Son, & Ferguson), pp. 145-6).

Additional footnote:

In The Times of the 25th January, 1951, a photograph will be found of “the Pamir and Passat, the last two sailing barques to take part in the traditional grain race from Australia to England, lying at Penarth Docks. They will be taken in tow to Antwerp for breaking up.”

Petschili in the English Channel

The four-masted barque Petschili in the English Channel between 1903 and 1918; the Petschili was built in Hamburg in 1903 and beached in 1919 in Valparaiso and was a sister ship of the Pamir and Passat just mentioned; Wikimedia Commons

HS Tuke, Four-Masted Barque, 1914

One of those four-masted sailing-ships at anchor in Falmouth harbour, watercolour, Henry Scott Tuke, 1914

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954 (footnotes)

Steamships

June 8 2013

“The power-ship opens a new era in water-transport [circa 1840]. She is not evolutionary but revolutionary, for she represents a complete break with tradition. Any compromise with the sailing-ship works to her disadvantage both in efficiency and aesthetically. … Not till conservative tradition had been scrapped could the power-ship evolve in accordance with her own needs. For the power-ship is modern, different, and original. Her life is not in the sails but [in] [bracket in original] the engine-room. Her natural home is the port rather than the sea. She is tied to her fuel supplies and crosses the oceans sailing to a time-table. Her officers are composed of scientists and technicians, specialists confined to special departments – deck or engine-room – and her crews have specialised duties. The engine-room staff is proportionately bigger than the deck-staff, which grows less and less numerous.” [Footnote: Bassett-Lowke and Holland, op. cit., p. 163.]

The reference in Toynbee is to

Bassett-Lowke, J. W. [that should be W. J.], and Holland, G.: Ships and Men (London 1946, Harrap) [...].

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954 (footnote)

Essence and accidents

May 26 2013

How, in an Oikoumenê that was being united on a literally world-wide range within a Western framework, were Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus to make further progress in disengaging the essence of Religion from the accidents? The only way open to these fellow seekers after spiritual light was the hard road of spiritual travail along which their predecessors, with God’s help, had arrived at the degree of religious enlightenment represented by the living higher religions at the stage in which they found themselves at this crucial moment in Mankind’s history. By comparison with the stage embodied in Primitive Paganism, the state of relative enlightenment to which the adherents of the higher religions had attained by a date midway through the twentieth century of the Christian Era manifestly represented a marvellous spiritual advance; yet, marvellous though it might be, they had now become aware that they could no longer go on living parasitically on God’s past mercies to their forefathers and on their own forefathers’ past spiritual endeavours to win a fuller vision of God, and a closer communion with Him, for themselves and for their children. They knew that they could no longer rest on their predecessors’ spiritual labours because, in their generation, they were being racked by a conflict between heart and head which they could not leave unresolved with impunity, and which could be resolved only by a fresh spiritual move forward.

As the pilgrims girded themselves to take the hard road again, they might draw some encouragement from divers past successes of Mankind in discarding veils which had served as windows in their time. In default of fuller light, there had been a glimmer of spiritual enlightenment in the faint translucency of Man’s vision of God through the animal creation. In the demonic physical energies of untamed wild beasts Man had caught a glimpse of a divine power surpassing Man’s own strength; in the hunter’s game and in the shepherd’s flock he had caught a glimpse of God’s beneficence as the giver and sustainer of life; and a primitive worship of God in animal form had lived on to play a leading role in the religion of the Egyptiac Civilization. Yet, in the World as it was in A.D. 1952, this dim “theriomorphic” vision of God, though still a living reality for unsophisticated souls at the lower levels of Hinduism, was on the whole on the wane. In the Christian consciousness the lamb, the dove, and the fish stood, not for literal likenesses of God, but for poetic images of His ineffable nature – just as the rock on which the Church was built according to the Roman Catholic Christian belief was not a literal stone like the stone that had once embodied the Emesan divinity Elagabalus or the stone that still supported the wall of a Meccan Kaʿbah.

There were, however, some relics of past stages of enlightenment which might not prove so easy to purge away. The Muslims, who had resolutely rejected all visual representations of God in the physical likeness of living creatures, including “the human form divine” [Blake, The Divine Image], had not yet summoned up the resolution to break with that older and cruder phase of idolatry which had been embedded in Islam by the founder Muhammad himself – against the grain of his own prophetic mission – when he had given his sanction to the adoration of the Black Stone as part of a compromise with the vested interests of an ancien régime at Mecca. [Would Muslims say “revere” rather than “adore”?] Even the puritanical Wahhābī reformers, who had twice entered Mecca as conquerors pledged to purge Islam of idolatrous accretions, had left the Black Stone untouched both in A.D. 1804 and in A.D. 1924. To Christian minds the Muslims’ reluctance to part with the Black Stone seemed a quaint anachronism in glaring contradiction with the abhorrence of idolatry and devotion to monotheism that were the twin beacon-lights of Islam; and, conversely, Muslim minds found stumbling-blocks in the idolatry and the polytheism which, as they saw it, were still being practised by Christians, as well as by Buddhists and Hindus. In Muslim eyes the Christians’ persistent idolatry betrayed itself in the visual representation of God in the forms of a man, a bird, and an animal, and their persistent polytheism in their doctrine of the Trinity and their cults of the saints, while in a Protestant Christian’s eyes the sacrament of the pagan mysteries survived in the Catholic “Sacrifice of the Mass”, and the worship of the Great Mother had been withdrawn from Ishtar, Astarte, Isis, Cybele, and Inanna only to be paid, by Catholic devotees, to the same Mother of God under the name of Mary. [Footnote: [...] Catholic Christians, of course, did not admit the Protestant allegation that their adoration of Mary amounted to the worship of a goddess. According to the Catholic Christian doctrine, Mary was one of God’s creatures, and the qualities that Catholics adored in her were gifts to her from her Creator.]

[...]

This was the challenge that confronted the followers of the historic higher religions in a world in which they had suddenly been brought to close quarters with one another and with a Modern Western Science owing to the rapid spread of a secularized Western Civilization over the whole habitable and traversable surface of the planet. In the year A.D. 1952 the living generation of Mankind did not yet know how they were going to negotiate this next stage of their present “climbers’ pitch”; still less did they know whether they would succeed in scaling it; but they could see that they stood no chance of succeeding unless they could settle their latter-day conflict between Heart and Head, and that therefore a sincere and earnest attempt to recapture a lost spiritual harmony was an indispensable prelude to grappling with the formidable precipice that towered above them.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Geo-guessing

May 21 2013

Clever time-wasters:

http://pursued.nemesys.hu

and

http://geoguessr.com

Extreme points

November 22 2012

List of lists of extreme points.

Derbent, the southernmost town in Russia, in Dagestan; Narin-kala, a Sassanian citadel, in the background

Islands

November 22 2012

List of lists of islands.

The Shamanka or female shaman, a holy rock on Olkhon

The Age We Made

November 18 2012

Four-part BBC radio series on the Anthropocene geological epoch. Available permanently, starting here. Presented by Gaia Vince, produced by Andrew Luck-Baker.

Genus Homo

November 7 2012

Hominidae, a family of primates, include four extant genera: chimpanzees and bonobos (Pan), gorillas (Gorilla), humans (Homo) and orangutans (Pongo). Collectively great apes. Extinct genera include (for example) Australopithecus.

The word hominid is also used in the restricted sense of member or species of genus Homo. In this usage, all hominid species other than Homo sapiens are extinct.

Homo habilis

Homo rudolfensis

Homo ergaster

Homo georgicus

Homo erectus

Homo cepranensis

Homo antecessor

Homo heidelbergensis

Homo rhodesiensis

Homo neanderthalensis

Homo sapiens

Homo sapiens idaltu

Archaic Homo sapiens (Cro-magnon)

Homo floresiensis

Approximate chronological order of appearance. But not a linear progression. Some were branches and offshoots, and there was overlapping.

Neanderthals in popular culture.

Two ages of uniformity

November 7 2012

During all but the last 70,000 or 40,000 years of [...] two million years of tool-making, the hominid family’s potential command over the biosphere hardly began to be translated into accomplished fact. There was, of course, some technological progress during the Lower Palaeolithic Age, but in that age this progress was slow and feeble, and each of the successive technological innovations spread uniformly throughout the Oikoumenê (in the Lower Palaeolithic Age, the Oikoumenê did not yet include the Americas). The dissemination of Lower Palaeolithic technological innovations was slow; for the new type of tool had to be transmitted by pedestrians from one community to another, and, in this food-gathering stage of economy, human communities could not live close to each other, since each party required a large area to roam over in order to pick up its livelihood.

Though there was perhaps some ocean travel even by Middle Palaeolithic hominids.

Lower Palaeolithic runs from c 2.6 million years ago. Middle Palaeolithic from c 300,000. Upper from c 50,000, soon after homo sapiens had left Africa, until the invention of agriculture c 10,000 years ago.

If you distinguish only Lower and Upper, homo sapiens appears in Lower. Otherwise, he can be said to have reached anatomical modernity during Middle.

Moreover, we may guess that Lower Palaeolithic hominids, including the most successful species, homo sapiens, were conservative-minded, and that they were shy of adopting an innovation, even when they had the new pattern in their hands. The reason why, nevertheless, new types of tool spread uniformly throughout the Oikoumenê was that, though transmission was slow, innovation was infrequent. The time-intervals between successive innovations were long enough to allow each innovation to spread throughout the Oikoumenê before the next one followed.

In the history of technology the Upper Palaeolithic revolution, which broke out about 70,000/40,000 years ago, was epoch-making. From this time until the present day, improvements in tools of all kinds have accelerated, and, though there have been local and temporary pauses, and even relapses, acceleration has been the paramount tendency in the history of technology during this latest age.

But the age of relative uniformity continued until the beginning of civilisation.

During the period c. 3000 B.C.-A.D. 1500, the respective speeds of dissemination and innovation were reversed. New types of tools were invented before the previously current types had time to spread throughout the Oikoumenê. Consequently the ecumenical uniformity that was characteristic of the Lower Palaeolithic Age [and Upper] gave way, during the subsequent ages, to differentiation. New inventions did not have time to travel from their place of origin to the farthest extremities of the Oikoumenê before they were superseded regionally by further inventions.

The speed of dissemination did not overtake and surpass the speed of invention again till after the fifteenth century A.D. when the conductivity of the Oikoumenê was suddenly increased by the West-European peoples’ invention of a new type of sailing-ship which could stay at sea for months on end and could therefore reach every shore and could circumnavigate the globe.

Now uniformity has returned.

Within the last five hundred years, the speed of both the dissemination and the invention of tools has become immensely greater than it was during the first two million years of tool-making. But the Modern Age and the Lower Palaeolithic Age have one feature in common with each other. In the Modern Age [post-AD 1500] and the Lower Palaeolithic Age alike, the speed of invention has not kept pace with the speed of dissemination, and in both cases the consequence, on the technological plane, has been a high degree of ecumenical uniformity.

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous

Plus ultra!

September 7 2012

In A.D. 1952 [...] the feat that had to be performed by Western navigators on the face of the waters of History was to pilot their vessel, without disaster, through perilous straits in the hope of making their way into more open waters beyond; and in this post-Christian Odyssey there was more than one passage to be negotiated and more than one kind of ordeal to be faced.

To paraphrase and anticipate, sailing between Scylla and Charybdis: abjuring war without sinking into consumerism.

Sailing between the Pillars of Hercules: negotiating a spiritual passage between a Christian heresy, Communism, on one shore and a backward-looking Christian orthodoxy on the other.

In terms of our Mediterranean maritime simile, we may compare the social and spiritual enterprise to which these Western adventurers were committed in the twentieth century of the Christian Era with the navigational task confronting Hellenic mariners in the sixth century B.C. who had bidden farewell to their Ionian homeland and had set sail westward rather than submit to the alien dominion of un-Hellenic-minded Achaemenidae. Following in Odysseus’ wake, these Phocaean seafarers would have first to negotiate the straits between Sicily and Italy without approaching either an Italian shore where they would be pounced upon by the monster Scylla or a Sicilian shore where they would be engulfed by the whirlpool Charybdis; but, if, by managing to steer their course along the narrow fairway through this first danger-zone, they should succeed in making the friendly port of Marseilles, they would not there find themselves at rest in the haven where they would be; [footnote: Ps. cvii. 30.] for their bold and skilful negotiation of the Straits of Messina would merely have carried them from the inner basin into the outer basin of the Mediterranean, without having liberated them from the imprisoning shores of their landlocked native sea.

I’m not sure why the open waters of the Atlantic would have been a haven for them. Nor did the Persians reach the outer basin. But the speculation is half-fanciful. Rather than submit to Persian rule, the Phocaeans, or some of them, had abandoned Ionia. Where did they sail to, in fact? Some, perhaps, to Chios, some to Phocaean colonies on Corsica and elsewhere. Massalia or Massilia, Marseille (Marseilles, the English sometimes call it), was an existing Phocaean colony: it was an independent Greek city from 600 BC until Caesar conquered it in 49 BC. Some became the founders of Elea, or Velia, in Campania. Some eventually returned to Phocaea.

What were the actual political dangers of Scylla and Charybdis? The straits were controlled by Greeks (Messenians, at least on the Calabrian side), not Carthaginians.

If they were to reach the boundless waters of a globe-encompassing Ocean, these voyagers must put to sea again from the sheltering harbour of their mother country’s daughter city in order to make for the Straits of Gibraltar between the Pillars of Hercules, where this pair of menacing mountains, towering above the African and the European shore and threatening, from either flank, to fall upon any ship audacious enough to run the gauntlet without their leave, were visible embodiments of Imperial Carthage’s decree that no Hellenic vessel was ever to sail on through this golden gate leading out from the landlocked waters into the main.

Since Carthage controlled both sides of the straits, such a decree would not be surprising, but what source tells us that it was made? Were the Carthaginians in part protecting access to Madeira, the Canaries, Cape Verde, the Azores? Some of these islands must have lain behind the tradition of the Hesperides, which Hercules had visited.

A Phoenician fleet had circumnavigated Africa by about 600 BC in the other direction. Herodotus describes how the Pharaoh Necho II sent out an expedition manned by Phoenician sailors. They sailed out of the Red Sea, rounded the Cape, and headed north to the Mediterranean. They paused on the African coast in two successive years to sow and harvest grain, and reached Egypt in the course of the third year.

A Carthaginian, Hanno, probably early in the 5th century BC, sailed to the Bight of Bonny, probably as far as Sherbro Island off Sierra Leone or Cape Palmas off Liberia. An account of his periplus was engraved in Punic on a bronze tablet set up in the temple of Baal at Carthage. It was translated into Greek. The translation survives, and is the only piece of Carthaginian literature we have. His account was used by Ptolemy and remained the standard guide for seafarers until the Portuguese explorations of the 15th century.

We have fragmentary evidence that a certain Euthymenes of Massalia sailed down the west coast of Africa as far as a river which was infested with crocodiles and whose waters were driven back by strong sea breezes. He thought that this river was the Nile. It may have been the Senegal River. We are not sure what century Euthymenes lived in, but there is a statue of him on the façade of the Marseille bourse.

Pytheas sailed from Massalia past the Pillars of Hercules to northern Europe, including Britain, c 325 BC. (The odd thing is that Queen Elizabeth II has never visited Greece.)

Polybius passed them after Carthage had been destroyed. Pliny the Elder tells us that he sailed down the west coast of Africa c 146 BC in ships lent to him by the destroyer, Scipio Aemilianus. He may have seen Mount Kakulima in Guinea.

So the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks and presumably Persians were aware that Africa was surrounded by sea except where it was connected to Asia. Bartolomeu Dias sailed round the Cape in 1488. Vasco da Gama sailed round most of Africa in 1497-98 on his way to India.

And here woe betide the Hellenic mariner who allowed himself [if he wanted to reach his haven] to be intimidated by his adversary’s veto into following the Theban Pindar’s poor-spirited advice to his Agrigentine patron Thêrôn.

“And now Thêrôn’s achievements have carried him to the limit: they have brought him to the Pillars of Hercules on his long voyage from home; and what lies beyond this terminus is out of bounds (ἂβατον) for all men, wise or witless. I will not pursue this venture. I should deserve to lose my senses if I did this senseless thing!” [Footnote: Pindar: Odes in Honour of Victors in the Olympic Games, Ode iii, ll. 43-45.]

Theron had reached a metaphorical Pillars of Hercules by his unsurpassable excellence in the Olympic chariot race in 476 BC.

Ne plus ultra! These were the very words that a forbidding Carthaginian statesmanship had been intending to extort from defeatist Hellenic lips; and, so long as this self-imposed Hellenic psychological inhibition held, no Hellenic explorer would ever sail on to test the truth of a later poet’s intuition that the untried passage of the Ocean would prove to be the avenue to a New World. [Footnote: Seneca: Medea, ll. 364-79 [...].] More than two thousand years were to pass before Columbus’s victorious defiance of the veto once imposed by a jealous Carthage was to be commemorated, in the device of “the dollar sign”, by the first sovereign on whose globe-encircling dominions the Sun could never set. On coins minted for Charles V out of American bullion, the antistrophic words Plus ultra! were triumphantly inscribed on a scroll displayed behind the minatory pair of pillars; and the moral was one which a twentieth-century Odysseus ought to take to heart if this series of episodes in the history of the art of navigation was an apt parable of the spiritual voyage on which his sails were set.

According to a Renaissance tradition, the pillars had been inscribed with the words Ne plus ultra as a warning to sailors and navigators to go no further. There is no version of the phrase in Greek.

Luigi Marliano, doctor and advisor to the young King of Spain, proposed Plus Oultre for his motto as an encouragement to ignore the ancient warnings, take risks. (The OED can find no example of the phrase Ne plus ultra from before 1637, but that means in English sources.)

Plus ultra is on the present Spanish coat of arms as an inscription on a banner linking two pillars. Its history between Charles V and now includes use thus on the Spanish dollar (current in the Spanish Empire 1497-19th century; the main currency within Spain was the real). The Spanish dollar was contemporary with the German Thaler and was the basis of the American dollar.

The wrapped pillars do not appear on US dollars, but may be the origin of the US dollar sign.

Future post: global histories of anna, cent, centime, crown, cruzado, cruzeiro, denarius, dinar, dollar, drachma, escudo, florin, franc, Groschen, guinea, gulden, Kreuzer, krone, lira, livre, Mark, penny, peseta, peso, pfennig, piastre, pound, real, rial, ruble, rupee, Schilling, shekel, shilling, solidus, sovereign, talent, Thaler, zloty.

In the interpretation of this parable in terms of the Western Civilization’s prospects, the finding of a passage between Scylla and Charybdis signified the negotiation of the Western World’s immediate problem of finding some way of avoiding self-destruction without falling into self-stultification. Mid-way through the twentieth century of the Christian Era the Western Society was in imminent danger of destroying itself by failing to stop making War now that a demonic drive had been put into War by the progress of a Western physical science; and it was in hardly less imminent danger of stultifying itself by seeking asylum from War and Class-Conflict in Circe’s pig-sty. If post-Christian Western souls did succeed in threading their way between these two immediate perils, they would owe their happy issue out of this affliction to an inspiration to take Religion as the mark on which they were once more to set their course; but an impulse to return to Religion would not in itself suffice to bring the Western pilgrims’ ships out of inland waters into open sea; for the call of Religion was being uttered in diverse tongues; [footnote: 1 Cor. xii. 28.] and the questions to which the agnostic Western pioneer in search of a Christian oracle would have, at his own peril, to find an answer for himself, were:

“Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? … Have all the gifts of healing? … Do all interpret?” [Footnote: 1 Cor. xii. 29-30.]

In this spiritual ordeal the forbidding Pillars of Hercules were a pair of rival authoritarian and dogmatic faiths, both of which alike were offering to the storm-tossed voyager an everlasting Nirvāna in their stony bosoms and were threatening him with the eternal punishment that had been inflicted on the Flying Dutchman if he were to be so impious and so fool-hardy as to reject their offer and sail on past them out into the blue. From the one shore this ultimatum was being delivered to Western souls by a Christian heresy in which the stone of Communism had been substituted for the bread [footnote: Matt. vii. 9; Luke xi. 11.] of the Gospel, and from the other shore by a Christian Orthodoxy in which the body of Christ, [footnote: 1 Cor. xii. 27; Eph. iv. 12.] who had “come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly”, [footnote: John x. 10.] had been petrified into a pillar of salt [footnote: Gen. xix. 26.] by a backward-looking ecclesiastical tradition. To dare the passage between these two frowning Pillars of Hercules was a venture that might daunt even a mariner whose moral had been fortified by a previous success in making his way safely between Scylla and Charybdis. But, if, at this supremely critical point in his voyage, the pilgrim were to feel his heart failing, he might recover his courage and initiative by taking his oracle from Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians:

“Covet earnestly the best gifts; and yet show I unto you a more excellent way.” [Footnote: 1 Cor. xii. 31.]

OED defines petrify as “turn (an organic body) into a stony concretion by gradually replacing its original substance with a calcareous, siliceous, or other mineral deposit”, which I suppose makes “petrify into a pillar of salt” not quite a mixed metaphor.

If a contrite humility was the first of the Christian virtues that were necessary for the Western pilgrim’s salvation, an indomitable endurance was the second. What was required of him at this hour was to hold on his course and to trust in God’s grace; and, if he prayed God to grant him a pilot for the perilous passage, he would find the bodhisattva [in the Mahayana, an enlightened being who has voluntarily delayed his entry into Nirvana in order to help his suffering fellow-beings] psychopompus [conductor of souls through the underworld] whom he was seeking in a Francesco Bernardone of Assisi, who was the most god-like soul that had been born into the Western World so far. A disciple of Saint Francis who followed faithfully enough in the saint’s footsteps to participate in the saint’s gift of receiving Christ’s stigmata would know, with the knowledge that comes only through suffering, that his sacrifice had been accepted by the Lord. [Footnote: Gen. iv. 3-7.] Asperges me hyssopo et mundabor. [Footnote: Ps. l. 9, in the Vulgate Latin text, Ps. li. 7, in the English Authorized Version.]

Seville Town Hall (Ayuntamiento), reign of Charles V

A footnote after “minatory pair of pillars” advises us to

See Raymond, Wayte: The Silver Dollars of North and South America (New York 1939, Wayte Raymond, Inc.) for photographs of dollars coined for the Spanish Crown, over a series of reigns ranging from Charles V’s (regnabat A.D. 1516-56) to the break-up of the Spanish Empire of the Indies in the nineteenth century of the Christian Era, which display the pair of pillars with the motto Plus ultra. On 46 of the 67 specimens (not counting “necessity coins” [small mintings of little value]) of “pillar type” coins here reproduced, including the earliest in the series, Charles V’s coin from Santo Domingo (p. 18, No. 1), the two words are inscribed on a single scroll linking the pillars (and passing behind an heraldic shield inserted between the pillars on coins of this type minted for the Bourbons). On fifteen specimens, each of the two pillars is wreathed in a separate scroll of its own, with “Plus” inscribed on the left-hand scroll and “Ultra” on the right-hand scroll. On six specimens, including Philip II’s dollar minted in Peru (reproduced in Supplement, p. 3, No. A 1), the motto is inscribed behind or above the pillars without being mounted on a scroll.

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

World Directory of Minorities

June 28 2012

Important and underrated, and actively maintained, historical resource at Minority Rights Group International.

The Silk Road

June 22 2012

Maps of the Silk Road differ and are often approximate if not inaccurate. Nor is there one Silk Road. I’ll take this one, which appears to be in the public domain, as a simple reference. It shows the main route from Chang’an, now Xi’an, in Shaanxi province, going north and south of the Taklamakan desert or Tarim Basin. The westernmost city in modern China here is Kashgar or Kashi. From there the road passes through Tajikistan (and perhaps Kyrgyzstan) into Uzbekistan – in other words, through Sogdiana – and from there into Turkmenistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria.

This does not show an alternative southern route which began west of Kashgar and passed through Bactria, north of the Hindu Kush, before rejoining the main route north of Merv.

Another road left China to cross the Karakoram into what is now Pakistan.

The Silk Road is not a steppe route. It runs south of the steppe. It is a mountain and desert route.

Buddhism entered China on the Silk Road via the Kushan Empire in the first century of the Christian era.

Digital Now

June 17 2012

I’ve added a comment under my post about Czerski’s “Web kids” manifesto.

“Of course, living in an ‘endless Now’ is compatible with a very strong sense of history. There are signs (I think) that many people are feeling closer to the past than they used to, not more alienated from it.

“Aristocrats used to speak of events in their family histories as if they were all ‘Now’.”

We, the Web kids

June 14 2012

Not being a “Web kid”, I only became aware of this text a few weeks ago. It seems to have been published in February. (Quaintly historical-minded of me to mention that!) Here it is in full at pastebin.

It’s Piotr Czerski’s statement about the generation that grew up with the Internet. Czerski is a polski poeta i prozaik, a także współzałożyciel zespołu muzycznego Towary Zastępcze. Polish poet and novelist, as well as a member (founder?) of a music group, Towary Zastępcze.

“We do not ‘surf’ and the internet to us is not a ‘place’ or ‘virtual space’. The Internet to us is not something external to reality but a part of it: an invisible yet constantly present layer intertwined with the physical environment. We do not use the Internet, we live on the Internet and along it. If we were to tell our bildnungsroman to you, the analog, we could say there was a natural Internet aspect to every single experience that has shaped us. We made friends and enemies online, we prepared cribs for tests online, we planned parties and studying sessions online, we fell in love and broke up online. The Web to us is not a technology which we had to learn and which we managed to get a grip of. The Web is a process, happening continuously and continuously transforming before our eyes; with us and through us. Technologies appear and then dissolve in the peripheries, websites are built, they bloom and then pass away, but the Web continues, because we are the Web; we, communicating with one another in a way that comes naturally to us, more intense and more efficient than ever before in the history of mankind.”

And so on. It’s an articulate piece: We, the Web kids addressing You, the analog. It’s also insufferable, but more on that in a moment.

“There is not a trace in us of that humble acceptance displayed by our parents, who were convinced that administrative issues were of utmost importance and who considered interaction with the state as something to be celebrated. We do not feel that respect, rooted in the distance between the lonely citizen and the majestic heights where the ruling class reside, barely visible through the clouds. Our view of the social structure is different from yours: society is a network, not a hierarchy.”

The US constitution, whose preamble is alluded to in the title of his piece, is a manifesto of the analogs. He takes us, the analogs, to the springs of current protest movements:

“We do not feel a religious respect for ‘institutions of democracy’ in their current form, we do not believe in their axiomatic role, as do those who see ‘institutions of democracy’ as a monument for and by themselves. We do not need monuments. We need a system that will live up to our expectations, a system that is transparent and proficient. And we have learned that change is possible: that every uncomfortable system can be replaced and is replaced by a new one, one that is more efficient, better suited to our needs, giving more opportunities.

“What we value the most is freedom: freedom of speech, freedom of access to information and to culture. We feel that it is thanks to freedom that the Web is what it is, and that it is our duty to protect that freedom. We owe that to next generations, just as much as we owe to protect the environment.

“Perhaps we have not yet given it a name, perhaps we are not yet fully aware of it, but I guess what we want is real, genuine democracy. Democracy that, perhaps, is more than is dreamt of in your journalism.”

James Bridle alludes to Czerski’s statement and various others in a recent post of his own. He also quotes William Gibson:

“For the past decade or so, the only critics of science fiction I pay any attention to, all three of them, have been slyly declaring that the Future is over. I wouldn’t blame anyone for assuming that this is akin to the declaration that history was over, and just as silly. But really I think they’re talking about the capital-F Future, which in my lifetime has been a cult, if not a religion. People my age are products of the culture of the capital-F Future. The younger you are, the less you are a product of that. If you’re fifteen or so, today, I suspect that you inhabit a sort of endless digital Now, a state of atemporality enabled by our increasingly efficient communal prosthetic memory. I also suspect that you don’t know it, because, as anthropologists tell us, one cannot know one’s own culture.”

That’s the point I was making here when I said (comment): “I don’t think the young element in the audience [Royal Opera House, December 6 2008] thinks of ‘modern’ music any more, or hears it as modern, or distinguishes it from ‘real classical’.” It’s all just sounds. It’s also connected with the point I was making here: “With a world continually reminded of itself in video playback, is fashion going to change more slowly? Did styles only change because we weren’t always watching ourselves and kept forgetting what we looked like?”

The critical abilities of which Czerski boasts were acquired by analogs before the Web existed and applied by them perfectly satisfactorily to it. What’s missing with the Web kids as characterised by the polski poeta? Animal warmth? That has been leaking out of public mores for a long time now. Modesty? Charm? Kindness? Tendency not to look like Julian Assange? Humour and irony! Sophisticated humour is not developed among those who “live on the Internet and along it”. Contact me below if I need to pay an old-fashioned fee for this photograph – analog word – by T. Dąbrowski:

Skyboxification

May 13 2012

Thomas Friedman on Michael Sandel. New York Times Sunday Review.

Quasi-public spaces (old post).

Here I quoted Arundhati Roy on the “most successful secessionist struggle in India”. She was referring to the ominous retreat of the Indian middle and upper classes to gated residential communities.

Facebook is a gated community, though not for the rich. I prefer the public squares of the web.

Jeffrey Sachs

March 4 2012

Are there any arguments against him heading the World Bank?

Why he wants to.

Quasi-public spaces

October 16 2011

“[The New York demonstrations have] turned an unexpected spotlight on the bankruptcy of so much of what in the last couple of generations has passed for public space in America. Most of it is token gestures by developers in return for erecting bigger, taller buildings. Think of the atrium of the I.B.M. tower on Madison Avenue and countless other places like it: public spaces that are not really public at all but quasi-public, controlled by their landlords. Zuccotti [Park, near Ground Zero] in principle is subject to Brookfield’s [Brookfield Office Properties] rules prohibiting tarps [tarpaulin sheets], sleeping bags and the storage of personal property on the site. The whole situation illustrates just how far we have allowed the ancient civic ideal of public space to drift from an arena of public expression and public assembly (Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, say) to a commercial sop (the foyer of the Time Warner Center).”

Brian Pickett, occupier in Zuccotti Park: “‘We do Facebook alone. But people are not alone here.’” Facebook users discover strangers in the flesh.

___

Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic of The New York Times, NYT, October 16 (words between quotation marks).

Steve Jobs and religious art

October 7 2011

I don’t think Steve Jobs’s aim was to build a personality cult around himself or even a cult around his products. He did give credit to his colleagues. And:

“Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”

The respect people gave him wasn’t cultish.

“In a world of second-rate products [of corner-cutting], where people only care about the bottom line, where excellence is for pussies, I revere Steve Jobs and Apple”: Bob Lefsetz in 2009, expressing what most people felt.

Some of the post-mortem journalism has been silly. Not anything by Walt Mossberg, the Common User, who talks plain English, like Jobs. Mossberg’s piece on the Jobs he knew is here.

Bryan Appleyard on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday:

“[Jobs] had an almost spiritual sense of his products, he believed in them being well designed in areas you couldn’t see [ie the inside and the back]. He thought design ran through the whole product.”

The spiritual analogy holds water.

Graham Carey, Catholic Art Quarterly, Easter 1955, about a bronze crucifix by Jean Lambert-Rucki:

“The back is left with the unfinish of commercial callousness. What does not show does not matter.”

I’m sure that the makers of icons in Orthodox Christianity paid attention to the wood that that they were about to treat and paint.

Why these things mattered in Christian art is explained by Carey and has of course nothing exactly to do with what motivated Jobs. But Appleyard’s “almost spiritual” is a valid analogy.

Carey:

“If [Lambert-Rucki’s crucifix] were the idea [my italics: as distinct from representation] of Christ in a body of bronze, that body would have been finished in those parts that do not appear as well as in those that do. The nails would have been real bronze nails, and the attachment of the corpus by them would have been a real attachment. This would have been quite easy. But no. The nails are nails of appearance only, heads without any function other than visual effect. The real attachments are two rough iron pins, one in the left heel and one in the back.”

I don’t want to drive this point too hard, or be sent into pseuds’ corner, but Jonathan Ive would understand, in secular design terms, what that passage meant.

___

Most of what Jobs said was memorable. He didn’t speak corporate jargon. Even on the Beatles: “They were four guys that kept each other’s negative tendencies in check; they balanced each other”, and from his challenge to Sculley: did he want to “sell sugar water for the rest of [his] life or come with me and change the world?” to his Stanford commencement speech.

Substance and concision are the mark of a mind. Jobs always showed them. So is a certain simplicity, which he had. Mossberg doesn’t glorify him and mentions his “nasty, mercurial side”.

Jobs was blessed by the counter-culture of the ’60s although born too late to be part of it.

The long early Playboy interview, published in February 1985, a few months before he was fired from Apple (beginning his dreaded computer dark ages, but a seminal period for him), is interesting.

“We’re living in the wake of the petrochemical revolution of 100 years ago. The petrochemical revolution gave us free energy – free mechanical energy, in this case. It changed the texture of society in most ways. This revolution, the information revolution, is a revolution of free energy as well, but of another kind: free intellectual energy. It’s very crude today, yet our Macintosh computer takes less power than a 100-watt lightbulb to run and it can save you hours a day. What will it be able to do ten or 20 years from now, or 50 years from now? This revolution will dwarf the petrochemical revolution.”

My favourite Jobs moment is this, from 1996, I assume after Apple had announced that it would buy NeXT, but certainly before Apple’s rapprochement with Microsoft, which happened in the following year (how irrelevant that seems now):

Admittedly, there is a slight non-sequitur at the end of Jobs’s statement.

Modern towns

June 24 2011

Tyler Brûlé recently.

Excessive veneration of social media by entities such as the BBC and the World Economic Forum:

“Why should it be only Facebook and Twitter that get namechecked as vehicles where people make statements or do stupid things? Why should all things digital get so much attention? What happened to people just ‘making a comment’? Do we really care where they SMS-ed it or tweeted it? If companies such as Bic, Pentel, Conqueror, FedEx and Panasonic were all more aggressive they would demand that newsreaders, copy editors and announcers stop plugging Twitter and Facebook or else ensure their brands also get a mention in relation to public statements.

“‘The politician wrote in Bic blue ink on Conqueror 100 gramme paper that he’s a confirmed family man and the name-calling must stop.’ Or ‘in a telephone conference over Deutsche Telekom landline the footballer explained …’ Anyway, you get the idea.” (FT, May 27.)

Brûlé occasionally makes serious points. This is the man who writes about Brand Nippon and Brand Beirut. (I never thought Wallpaper was the best-looking magazine ever. And why does Monocle have the fogeyish name?)

He has some stunningly superficial ideas which have a grain of truth in them. The British economy would get a boost if water-pressure was stronger and people had proper showers before going to work. But he is genuinely interested in urban planning and in public services, for old people as well as for young.

His world is essentially Canada, northern Europe, Switzerland and Japan. In his cities people lead modern lives. Monocle contains articles, never long (there are many photographs, but none full-page), about coffee-shops in Kagoshima, waste disposal in Wuhan and policemen in Porto. The first issue (in 2007) had articles on the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, Chinese investment in Africa (could that have been fresh then?), the best Portuguese-language Sunday newspapers. Monocle is staid. It is not about popular culture.

City liveability ranking in the current issue:

1) Helsinki, 2) Zürich, 3) Copenhagen, 4) Munich, 5) Melbourne, 6) Vienna, 7) Sydney, 8) Berlin, 9) Tokyo, 10) Madrid, 11) Stockholm, 12) Paris, 13) Auckland, 14) Barcelona, 15) Singapore, 16) Fukuoka, 17) Hong Kong, 18) Portland, 19) Honolulu, 20) Vancouver, 21) Kyoto, 22) Hamburg, 23) Lisbon, 24) Montréal, 25) Seattle.

A very Brûlé list. Last year the winner was Munich. BMW designer’s comment in Brûlé’s Munich podcast: (paraphasing) “If you want to attract creative people, the city must give them energy, not take it away.” That’s the difference between exciting and exhausting. It’s received wisdom in the English-speaking world that German cities are dull. They were all bombed and the architecture of their rebuilding, if it wasn’t replication, took nothing that was interesting from the German past, a past about which Germans were anyway uncertain, and much from the dullest tendencies of the mid-twentieth century. The socialist architecture of the ’20s could be depressing as well, but its best German elements could have been reused.

But the post-war buildings have mellowed. Our eyes have periodised them. They have been discovered to have their own style after all. They have been broken up and set off by newer buildings. Trees have been planted or have matured. Early and horrible Fussgängerzonen have been replaced by better ones. And a few large towns survived, such as Heidelberg.

“The English, for example, like nothing more than having a go at German cities, beating them up for being boring while failing to mention that it’s far easier and cheaper to get a good glass of wine at 2am, secure a palatial apartment and get around by bike in Berlin than it is in London.” (FT, June 10.)

Germans, on the whole, live in bigger spaces than English people do. Even if it’s a boring flat, it will have a cellar space that exceeds the total storage space of an English flat. Houses in the suburbs are big. Look at the size of German farmhouses.

“When I first travelled to South Korea seven years ago I found it grey, a little grumpy and largely unattractive. In less than a decade it’s fashioned itself into a major passenger and logistics hub, is home to some of the best hotels in the world and crackles around the clock. Korea Inc’s executives want to work and learn from the best and leaders at both the local and national level have embraced the liveability mantra to retain and attract talent.

“As I crossed Oxford Street on Saturday afternoon there was little of this sort of crackle – just a lot of crack. Up and down the street tummies were hanging out over jeans, food was being stuffed into faces, and bums were falling out of trousers. Was this a nation at rest and play on a gorgeous spring day? Perhaps. Was this also a fleeting snapshot of a nation that’s lost its dignity and sense of pride? For sure.” (FT, May 1 2010.)

Did it take a big airport and expensive hotels to make Brûlé like Seoul? I first went there in 1984 and loved it then. Occasionally you have moments when you connect with a place so much that you realise you are slipping into a life there, but life pulls you out. It was a rough place, still traumatised by the Korean War. The nightly curfew in the city had only been lifted in the previous year. Nobody wore jeans. Few people knew any English (even the word hello). I haven’t been back in the last seven years, but I’m sure I’d still love it. The Korean countryside is also wonderful. I am surprised Seoul does not get into his liveable cities list.

But his point about London touches on something true, and troubling. I walked though Covent Garden and Soho yesterday evening and I have never seen it look less attractive, further removed from any sort of urban douceur de vie. This was not even one hundredth of one per cent of what city life should be like. In ordinary liveability indeces, London always scores badly, even though it has so many points in its favour. On the other hand, it is the city of pageantry, and the city of choice of the world’s rich, nearly all of whom have a stake in it.

The causes of this dichotomy could take a book to analyse. London is not the capital of a republic and doesn’t feel like one. And what people enjoy in London is not, for the most part, the achievement of this generation or the previous one or the one before that. It’s something inherited. Other cities are improving themselves now, partly through having properly-empowered mayors.

Lance Knobel (blogrolled here) wants the FT to sack Brûlé, I suppose on grounds of shallowness, although he shares many of his interests: urban planning and progressive local government and everything that they entail, and industrial design.

I share Brûlé’s scepticism about magazines on the iPad. They look wonderful, but I suspect the renewal rates will be low. And I love Kindle for books (with reservations that could fill another post).

Most Japanese love London. If you ask them what they don’t like, you will get different answers. It’s expensive: most insist it is compared to legendarily-expensive Tokyo, the myth of whose expensiveness has been generated by Americans who don’t know what to look for. The Internet is slow. Public transport is still unreliable. People don’t recycle much. The thing they will agree on is Wagamama: no Japanese person will enter it knowingly more than once. It stands for a whole class of ersatz Asian food served in places (Yo! Sushi is another) which would not survive a day in Japan.

Posts here:

China and Japan (about cities of the whole and cities of parts)

London in 1927

Shepherds as a moral reserve bank

June 15 2011

In a Third World War fought with atomic or bacteriological weapons, it seemed, indeed, improbable that the Angel of Death would overlook even those nooks and corners of Man’s terrestrial habitat which, till recently, had been either so uninviting or so inaccessible, or both, as to give their poor, weak, backward inhabitants a virtual immunity against the unwelcome attentions of “civilized” militarists. In a talk given at Princeton [footnote: See Toynbee, A. J.: Civilization on Trial (London 1948, Oxford University Press), pp. 150-63.] just three weeks before the enunciation of the Truman Doctrine of American support for Greece and Turkey against Russian pressure, [footnote: The Truman Doctrine was made public on the 12th March, 1947; the writer's talk, here mentioned, was delivered on the 20th February, 1947.] the writer had given play, half seriously and not wholly in joke, to the fancy that, if a Westernizing World were to allow itself to fall into a Third World War, the sequel might be a rendering, in real life, of one of Plato’s myths in which the Athenian philosopher imagines the mountain-shepherds periodically issuing from their fastnesses in order to build up a new civilization on the vacated site of an old one that has perished in the latest of a number of periodic cataclysms. [Footnote: See Plato: Timaeus, 21 E-23 C [...].] In the imagery of a Collective Subconscious Psyche in the Age of the Civilizations, “shepherds” had come to symbolize the unspent and unspoiled primitive human potentialities for creation that God had still held in reserve after He had led a sophisticated majority of Mankind into the temptations that had worsted Cain the husbandman [footnote: Gen. iv. 3.] and Cain’s son Enoch the city-builder, [footnote: Gen. iv. 17.] and their heir Tubal-Cain the smith. [Footnote: Gen. iv. 22.] Whenever Man in Process of Civilization had come to grief in essaying this most recent, and perhaps most hazardous, of all human enterprises up to date, he had always, so far, counted on being able to draw upon the reserve power latent in still primitive brethren of his whom he had driven out of those choicer portions of the Earth that he had appropriated as his own domain, “to wander about in sheepskins and goatskins in deserts and in mountains”; [footnote: Heb. xi. 37-38.] and, in the past, these comparatively innocent survivors of the children of Abel had heaped coals of fire [no footnote, but Romans 12:20] on the heads of the children of Cain by coming to their murderers’ rescue when the Cainites’ sins had found them out. A shepherd from Ascra, on the foothills of Mount Helicon, [Hesiod] had spoken the prologue to the tragedy of Hellenic history, and shepherds from the Negeb, on the fringes of the Arabian Desert, had stood by the cradle of Christianity in Bethlehem. In his Platonizing jeu d’esprit the present writer had suggested in A.D. 1947 that, if the Western Civilization in which he and his audience were implicated were to inflict some major catastrophe on the Oikoumenê, the task of launching, all over again, a cultural enterprise that had been on foot for the last five or six thousand years might perhaps fall to Tibetans hitherto safely ensconced behind the ramparts of their plateau or to Esquimaux hitherto snugly nestling against an innocently inclement ice-cap that was a less vicious neighbour than any homo homini lupus. Within the three and a half years that had elapsed between the delivery of that address and the writing of the present lines in the still peaceful precincts of the same university town, these tentative fancies had been overtaken and ridden down by the march of historical events. At the moment of writing in December 1950, an invading Chinese Communist expeditionary force was reported to be en route for Lhasa [hardly the first invasion of Tibet, but one takes the point], while Esquimaux who had formerly been happy in having no foe or friend except Physical Nature found themselves in the fairway of a transpolar bombing-route between the basins of the Volga and the Mississippi, and of a ventre-à-terre invasion-route, across the ice-floes of the Behring Straits, from the once sequestered habitat of the primitive denizens of the north-eastern tip of Russia-in-Asia into an Alaska that was divided from the main body of the Continental United States by nothing but a Canadian “Polish  Corridor”.

Thus a now ubiquitous Western Society held the fate of all Mankind in its hands at a moment when the West’s own fate lay on the finger-tip of one man in Moscow and one man in Washington who, by pressing a button, could detonate an atom-bomb.

Perhaps “the reserve power latent in [the city-dweller’s] still primitive brethren” was felt to be present in fishermen, too. Several of Christ’s apostles were fishermen. None was a shepherd. I had a friend who lived in Ghana in the ’70s and thought that the fishermen there were the exact types of the apostles.

In what way was a discovery of a moral reserve power different from nonsense about the virtues of simple folk? The ancient world was as prone to that as the modern has been.

It was a matter of recognising purity of heart and receptivity, but they are ambivalent qualities. Those who thought that the world’s previously-sleeping rural masses would be a cleansing force when old régimes were swept away in the early twentieth century were mistaken.

People still travel to find “unspent and unspoiled primitive human potentialities”, but as they arrive at their destinations the people they came to see start to move into towns. In 2008, Cains outnumbered Abels in the world for the first time. Suddenly we need to find the reserve power in townspeople.

In 2011, progressive reformers in the Middle East are hoping to find reserve power in a historically-new post-ideological, post-innocent urban maturity that hasn’t been forged through decades of painful democratic growth.

Monks were the reserve power in the Dark Ages.

Bronzino, Adoration of the Shepherds (1535-40), Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest (the shepherd’s back still has some medieval knobbliness, like the front of his Andrea Doria as Neptune)

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

Dirt

May 4 2011

Wellcome Collection, museum of the Wellcome Foundation, London, until August 31.

Events. Events. Images. Films. Book. Flickr.

India 2007

Vienna, March 1 1938

Untouchable

The end of freshness

In the Roman Campagna 2

Yuri Gagarin

April 12 2011

Completed single Earth orbit in Vostok spacecraft April 12 1961. “I see no God up here.”

Thesiger in Africa

December 14 2010

Alexander Maitland on a new book, Wilfred Thesiger in Africa. Various contributors. No text by Thesiger, but his African photographs are there and in an exhibition at the Pitt Rivers Museum which runs until June 5 2011.

See also Thesiger’s The Life of My Choice (1987), My Kenya Days (1994) and The Danakil Diary: Journeys through Abyssinia, 1930-34 (1996).

My Kenya Days (old-fashioned title for a book in 1994) took us to the eve of his return to London, though he said at the end of it that he hoped to die in Kenya.

No modern explorer travelled as much or for as long or so austerely, or retreated to comfort so rarely, or wrote so well when he did retreat or was a better photographer. When he travelled, his camera and, in some cases, medicines, not mainly for himself, were the only possessions which distinguished him from his local companions. No traveller was so little corrupted by voyeurism or careerism.

None has shown such detestation of modern life without being a dropout from his own society or a sentimentalist. He was a proud (his word) Englishman who spent little time in England. He knew that people, including himself, were happier in the old ways of life and that the Earth was being ruined. The British Empire would serve (he did not say this explicitly), where it ruled, as a guarantor of stasis.

When men landed on the moon, Thesiger was at Lake Turkana in Kenya.

Samburu youth, near Maralal, Kenya, 1977

Thesiger at 100

Thesiger’s question

Thesiger at 100

December 13 2010

BBC Radio 4 documentary, with Frank Gardner. Until December 20.

Audio slideshow.

___

Arabian Sands:

“I knew that I had made my last journey in the Empty Quarter [1949-50] and that a phase in my life was ended. Here in the desert I had found all that I asked; I knew that I should never find it again. But it was not only this personal sorrow that distressed me. I realized that the Bedu with whom I had lived and travelled, and in whose company I had found contentment, were doomed. Some people maintain that they will be better off when they have exchanged the hardship and poverty of the desert for the security of a materialistic world. This I do not believe. I shall always remember how often I was humbled by those illiterate herdsmen who possessed, in so much greater measure than I, generosity and courage, endurance, patience, and lighthearted gallantry. Among no other people have I ever felt the same sense of personal inferiority.

“On the last evening, as bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha were tying up the few things they had bought, Codrai said, looking at the two small bundles, ‘It is rather pathetic that this is all they have.’ I understood what he meant; I had often felt the same. Yet I knew that for them the danger lay, not in the hardship of their lives, but in the boredom and frustration they would feel when they renounced it. The tragedy was that the choice would not be theirs; economic forces beyond their control would eventually drive them into the towns to hang about street-corners as ‘unskilled labour’.

“The lorry arrived after breakfast. We embraced for the last time. I said, ‘Go in peace,’ and they answered together, ‘Remain in the safe keeping of God, Umbarak.’ Then they scrambled up on to a pile of petrol drums beside a Palestinian refugee in oil-stained dungarees. A few minutes later they were out of sight round a corner. I was glad when Codrai took me to the aerodrome at Sharja. As the plane climbed over the town and swung out above the sea I knew how it felt to go into exile.”

Immovable

August 6 2010

There’s a legal distinction between movable and immovable property, immovable being real estate. Here is an idle stab at a list of everything man-made that is immovable.

Airport runways, helicopter landing pads, rocket and missile launch pads
Aqueducts
Artificial beaches
Aviaries, large cages
Bollards
Bomb, shell craters
Bridges
Buildings, shelters
Buried and undersea cables
Canals
Cave paintings, graffiti, murals
Cities, megalopolises
Cuttings
Dams, dykes, water barriers, locks, sluices
Ditches, channels, irrigation
Escarpments
Fences, railings
Fields, lawns
Flagpoles, maypoles
Forests
Gardens
Gates, barriers
Graves, tombs
Gutters, manholes, drains, sewers, sewage pipes
Hamlets
Harbours, dry docks
Hedges
Industrial plants, oil rigs and refineries, power stations
Landscaping, golf course bunkers
Level crossings
Megaliths (Stonehenge, Pyramids, Great Wall), colossi
Mines
Monuments, fountains
Mounds
Observatories, as in Jaipur; and large satellite dishes
Open air sports facilities, ice rinks, racecourses, ski runs
Orchards
Parks, public gardens, zoos
Pastures
Paved, bricked, tarmacced spaces
Pavements, verges
Pictures in the landscape (White Horses)
Piers, jetties
Pipelines, water pipes, gas pipes
Plantations
Quais, embankments, ghats
Quarries, excavations
Radio telescopes, large satellite dishes
Railways, monorails
Ramparts
Reclaimed land
Reservoirs
Roads, flyovers, paths, tracks; lamps, milestones, signs, painted lines
Rubbish dumps, pollution
Ruins, foundations
Shrines
Songlines
Station platforms
Steps on a hillside
Stiles
Subterranean shelters, dwellings, cellars
Suburbs, urban sprawl, shanty towns
Telegraph posts and wires, pylons, towers made of iron girders, aerials, signals, public telephones
Terraces, rice terraces
Towns
Trenches
Tunnels
Viaducts
Villages
Walls, moats
Water towers
Wells, pumps
Windmills, water mills

Rice field, China, location not stated, Wikimedia Commons

Landscapes

Stability and dynamism

July 31 2010

The wych-elm

I remember Henri Frankfort criticizing me on a point [...]. I had apparently disparaged the ancient Egyptian civilization for being static. Frankfort said: Why on earth disparage it for that? Why isn’t the Egyptian ideal of keeping society static just as good as your wretched modern, Western idea of dynamism? And when we look at the world today we see there is a great deal in what he said, and we are beginning to think we must stabilize our civilization.

Toynbee on Toynbee, A Conversation between Arnold J Toynbee and GR Urban, New York, OUP, 1974

Recorded for the 1972-73 programmes of Radio Free Europe.

The lawns of Los Angeles

July 11 2010

At a time when this question of the relation between the Will and Intellect and the Subconscious Psyche was much on the writer’s mind, he found himself in Southern California among the green lawns of Los Angeles. The city is so extensive when measured by the standard of mobility even of the driver of an automobile that the pedestrian visitor is prone to forget that, on the map of the continent as seen by a traveller in an aeroplane, this garden-city which, on the ground, seems boundless, is merely a tiny patch of verdure marooned in the midst of a vast desert. Moreover, the green is so perpetual that the spectator is also prone to forget that it is kept in existence only by a likewise perpetual tour de force. Though on every lawn he sees the sprinklers twisting and turning all day long, he soon comes to take the lawns for granted, as if they had been natural products of a non-existent rainfall. So it gives him a shock when on some vacant lot – kept vacant, perhaps, by a speculator in the hope of rising prices – he sees the savage desert sage-brush bristling up out of a parched and dusty ground. He then realizes that, under the artificial green lawns, the same savage Nature that has here broken its way to the surface is all the time eagerly waiting for an opportunity thus to come into its own again. This is the precarious position of the Intellect and Will.

The gardens of Hofuf (old post).

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956

Garbage

July 8 2010

New Delhi. “From the amount of garbage thrown outside the walls of the house, you knew that rich people lived there.”

___

Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger (2008).

Straits

May 1 2010

Wikipedia list.

In the age of water-transport, the main lines of communication were determined by the configuration of the water-surface of the biosphere. The most precious maritime waterways were straits (e.g. besides the Straits of Malacca, the narrow waters linking the Black Sea with the Aegean, the Straits of Gibraltar, the Straits of Dover, and the narrow waters linking the Baltic with the North Sea).

The Kanmon, or Shimonoseki, Strait, Japan, between Honshu and Kyushu

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous

Portages

May 1 2010

Wikipedia list. Covers the world, but incomplete.

In the age of water-transport, the key pieces of the land-surface of the Oikoumenê were those that offered portages from one sea or from one navigable river to another. Egypt itself was a portage area, since the Nile debouches into the Mediterranean, and, from the Nile to the Red Sea coast, there is a short portage from the easternmost arm of the Delta to Suez via the Wadi Tumilat, and another via the Wadi Hammamat from Coptos, in Upper Egypt, to El Qusayr (Leukos Limen).

These portages are the points where the Delta/Nile is closest to the Gulf of Suez/Red Sea. The second of them is a little north of Luxor. The Wadis are dry river beds that are flooded during rain.

Indeed, the portage across the Isthmus of Suez between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean is part of a wider portage area that includes Egypt to the west and Iraq to the east. In this area the Mediterranean, which is a backwater of the Atlantic Ocean, and the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, which are backwaters of the Indian Ocean, are separated from each other by the narrowest extent of intervening dry land, and the passage from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea via the Nile is duplicated by the passage to the Persian Gulf via the Euphrates.

If you look at a map, it’s obvious that the key city in the Mediterranean-Euphrates portage is Aleppo.

Two other portages have been of outstanding historical importance: the portage between the rivers debouching into the Baltic and those debouching into the Caspian and the Black Sea, and the portage across the North China plain between the lower courses of the Yangtse, the Hwai, the Yellow River, and the Pei Ho – a portage that has been turned into a waterway by the digging of the Grand Canal. However, the Chinese and Russian portages are on the fringe of the Old-World Oikoumenê; they are surpassed in historical importance by the central portage between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.

In the seventh century BC, the Corinthian tyrant Periander built the Diolkos, a paved track which allowed boats to be carried across the Isthmus of Corinth between the Gulf of Corinth and the Saronic Gulf.

He had thought of building a canal. So did the Diadoch Demetrius (336–283 BC). So, according to Suetonius, did Julius Caesar and Nero. Nero actually began work, breaking the ground with a pickaxe himself and removing the first basket-load of soil. Six thousand Jewish prisoners of war started digging. The work stopped when Nero died. The modern Corinth Canal was built between 1881 and ’93.

The Diolkos

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous

Passes

April 30 2010

Wikipedia list.

I’d like to see a study or atlas showing the historical function of each.

The Bernina Pass (which we crossed here), looking in the direction of Pontresina

The modern city and the modern novel

February 9 2010

“Some cities are really successful, and present the solid and definite achievement of the thing at which their builders aimed; and when they do this, they present, just as a fine statue presents, something of the direct divinity of man, something immeasurably superior to mere nature, to mere common mountains, to mere vulgar seas. … The modern city is ugly, not because it is a city, but because it is not enough of a city, because it is a jungle, because it is confused and anarchic, and surging with selfish and materialistic energies. In short, the modern town is offensive because it is a great deal too like nature, a great deal too like the country.”

Chesterton, Lunacy and Letters, 1958, a posthumous collection of Daily News pieces, therefore probably written 1901-13. I quoted this passage in a piece on cities of the parts and cities of the whole.

The trouble is that those who live in solid and definite cities are not better, and may not even be better-governed, than those who live in confused and anarchic ones. The same energies surge.

Cf Loving your city. Chesterton, of course, loved London.

___

“A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales – because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.”

Orthodoxy, 1908.

The War Game 3

November 10 2009

I predicted that the YouTube clips of The War Game in my November 1 post would not be available for long and they have already been removed. This is petty-minded of the BBC, which has earned enough by now by licensing the film it refused to show on television, while the film’s maker, Peter Watkins, has earned nothing. The BBC’s public service remit alone should require it to disseminate it free of charge. You can probably get it on other sites.

The War Game

The War Game 2

The War Game 2

November 2 2009

Citizens of West European countries were haunted [in the post-war world] by fears that some American decision, in which the West European peoples might have had no say, might inadvertently bring Russian atomic missiles hurtling down on Dutch, Danish, French, and British heads. Such West European fears of dire consequences descending upon Western Europe as unintended by-products of some impulsive American retort to some provocative Russian act of aggression were anxieties that might or might not be well founded, but their currency in Western Europe was a fact, and this psychological fact exposed a constitutional flaw in the structure of a commonwealth of Western nations in which all the partners, with the crucial exception of one partner whose “fiat” was “law”, were exposed to the risk of being involved in a perhaps irretrievable catastrophe as a consequence of decisions in which they might have had no voice, on issues in which, for them, the stakes were life and death.

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

The War Game

November 1 2009

The films about the possible end of human life that we are being asked to watch now (October 29 and 30 posts) are divertissements compared with the docudrama that I was made to watch at school in 1968 or ’69.

Peter Watkins’s The War Game (UK, 1965) was intended for the BBC, but “The effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.”

The final passage must be the bleakest ever filmed. More below.

The War Game had been scheduled for transmission on August 6 1966, the anniversary of the Hiroshima attack. The BBC decided in November 1965 not to show it. Watkins asked it to allow a limited release in cinemas. This compromise was approved in March 1966. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament arranged many of the early screenings in the UK, and the film was seen on US college campuses in 1966 and ’67. It represented the UK in the 1966 Venice Film Festival and won an Academy Award in the same year. The BBC did not show it until 1985.

Watkins left Britain soon after making The War Game. He has been forgotten there and now lives in Sweden. Wikipedia links are at the top of this post. Here is his website.

The BBC retains all rights to the film, wherever shown. Consequently, these YouTube clips may not survive for long.

The scenario.

The US authorises tactical nuclear warfare against the Chinese, who have invaded American-occupied South Vietnam. (Against the Chinese in Vietnam or in China?) Russia and East Germany threaten to invade West Berlin if the US does not withdraw its decision. The US does not yield. Two US Army divisions attempt to fight their way into East Berlin, but the Russian and East German forces defeat them. The US launches a pre-emptive, NATO tactical nuclear attack on the eastern bloc. We are not told on what targets. Russian missiles strike Britain.

The story’s centre is Rochester in Kent, which is struck by an off-target missile aimed at Heathrow airport. Other targets mentioned are RAF Manston and the Maidstone barracks. The credits at the end tell us that much of the film was based on information obtained from the bombings of Dresden, Darmstadt, Hamburg, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and from the 1954 Nevada Desert nuclear tests.

The film contains a quotation from Stephen Vincent Benét’s poem Song for Three Soldiers:

“Oh, where are you coming from, soldier, gaunt soldier,
With weapons beyond any reach of my mind,
With weapons so deadly the world must grow older
And die in its tracks, if it does not turn kind?”

(It was a line of Benét’s poetry that gave the title to Dee Brown’s history of the destruction of Native American tribes by the United States, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.)

The other anti-war film we were shown in the same school hall at roughly the same time was Joseph Losey’s King and Country (UK, 1964).

Peter Watkins

Watkins