January 27, 2015

1. Appointment in Samarra

In an earlier issue, I wrote,

One of the high-school students who died in the Columbine shootings, Rachel Scott, seemed to anticipate early death, and referred to it in diary entries and drawings. Death casts a kind of shadow before it; death is a visitor who rarely drops in unannounced, death calls ahead and says “I’m coming over.” Hence it isn’t surprising that a Columbine victim had an inkling beforehand.

Here’s an ancient legend that deals with the same subject:

There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions. The servant came back, white and trembling, and said, “Master, when I was in the marketplace, I was jostled by a woman in the crowd, and when I turned I saw it was Death. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra, and there Death will not find me.” The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and dug his spurs in its flanks, and rode as fast as the horse could gallop.

Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and saw Death standing in the crowd. He came to Death and said, “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant this morning?” “That was not a threatening gesture,” Death said, “it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

2. John O’Hara

I discovered an American fiction writer, John O’Hara. He was born in 1905, six years after Hemingway. Like Hemingway, O’Hara was known initially for his short stories, and like Hemingway, he was a well-known novelist by the time he turned 30. His first novel, Appointment in Samarra, is his most highly-regarded. Hemingway wrote, “If you want to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read Appointment in Samarra.”1A

O’Hara grew up in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. His family was probably upper-middle-class. He attended boarding school, but when his father died, O’Hara couldn’t afford to attend college (his goal had been to attend Yale). This seems to have left him with a deep sense of social inferiority. Hemingway said, “Someone should take up a collection to send John O’Hara to Yale.” Issues of class loom large in O’Hara’s writings. O’Hara was often described as a bitter, difficult person. In some towns, his fiction was banned because of its sexual content. In Pottsville, the public library banned his works because of their acerbic remarks on locals.

O’Hara (right) with Hemingway about 1934

O’Hara hungered for prizes and glory: “I want the Nobel prize... so bad I can taste it.” When Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962, O’Hara wrote him, “I can think of only one other author I’d rather see get it.” Wikipedia speaks of O’Hara’s “vigorous self-promotion.” O’Hara wrote the epitaph for his own tombstone: “Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time.”

He published more than 200 short stories in The New Yorker. Many of his stories, and some of his novels, are set in Gibbsville, a fictionalized version of Pottsville. John Updike was one of O’Hara’s fans; Updike compared him to Chekhov. Several of O’Hara’s works were made into films, including BUtterfield 8 and From the Terrace.1

In addition to fiction, O’Hara wrote various articles for newspapers. His political views were somewhat conservative; in this respect, he reminds me of Dos Passos.

3. Ancient Rome

A. Rome’s Wars with the Macedonians

When Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, his empire was divided up, and the so-called Hellenistic Period began. The Hellenistic Period lasted for about 300 years — until Rome overcame and replaced the major Hellenistic powers. Doubtless this period is called “Hellenistic” because, during these three centuries, the Greeks (or “Hellenes”) had considerable influence in Egypt, the Near East, etc.

In the Hellenistic world, there were three major powers:

  1. the Macedonians (also called the Antigonid Dynasty), who ruled Macedon (northeast Greece), Thessaly (north-central Greece), and sometimes parts of “lower Greece”
  2. the Seleucids, who were based in Antioch in northern Syria, and ruled the southern half of Asia Minor, and Alexander’s eastern provinces (Mesopotamia, Persia, etc.)
  3. the Ptolemies, who were based in Alexandria, and ruled Egypt, southern Syria, etc. (The first of the Ptolemies founded the famous Library of Alexandria about 300 BC.)

Of these three Hellenistic powers, Rome clashed first with the Macedonians, perhaps because they were closest to Rome. Even before Rome destroyed Carthage in 146 BC, Rome had begun fighting a series of wars against the Macedonians. Though Rome defeated Macedon, Rome was reluctant to annex territory in Greece/Macedonia, and rule it directly, perhaps because Rome didn’t want the responsibility, and the burden, of a larger empire. Around 200 BC, Rome drove the Macedonians out of “lower Greece,” left Greek cities in the control of hand-picked aristocracies, and announced to the Greek people, gathered at the Isthmian Games in Corinth, that they were free.

But Rome could never completely extricate itself from Greece. Sometimes it wanted to aid its aristocratic allies against the debtor class. Sometimes it wanted to check the rising power of a Macedonian monarch. There was always a motive for Rome to re-involve itself in Greek affairs.

Rome wanted to pacify Greece once and for all, so it took harsh measures against opponents. Anyone suspected of being anti-Roman was subject to arrest, deportation, or murder. (One of the Greeks deported to Italy was the historian Polybius.) When the people of Epirus (in northeast Greece) sided with the Macedonians in their war with Rome, the Roman Senate decided to punish them, though they hadn’t actually assisted the Macedonians in a tangible way. In 167 BC, the Roman army spread itself through Epirus, took about 150,000 prisoners, and sold them into slavery.

Finally, in 148 BC, the Romans opted for annexation and direct rule, creating a province from Macedonia, Thessaly, and Epirus. The governor of this new province was authorized to interfere in other parts of Greece, to promote Roman interests, maintain order, etc. In 146 BC, after an uprising in Corinth, the Romans destroyed the city, and sold its people into slavery. After 146, Greek freedom was a thing of the past, but the Greeks enjoyed “an enduring peace such as they had never been able to establish of their own free will.”2

B. Rome’s Wars in the Near East

Gaining control of the Near East was even easier for Rome than gaining control of Greece. There was only one major power in the Near East, the Seleucid kingdom, and one battle sufficed to defeat that kingdom.

Around 205 BC, the Seleucid king, Antiochus III, had restored Seleucid authority in the eastern provinces. His conquests stretched all the way to what is now Pakistan, and he was dubbed “Antiochus The Great.” His growing power caused concern in Pergamum and in other independent cities on the coast of Asia Minor. These cities appealed to Rome for help, and tried to stir up a war between Rome and the Seleucid kingdom.

In 192 BC, Antiochus III marched into Greece, and the Romans feared that he might attack Italy next. Hannibal had found refuge at the court of Antiochus, and it was rumored that Hannibal was going to attack Italy with a Seleucid army. Rome declared war on Antiochus, and in 190 BC, a Roman army crossed the Dardanelles into Asia.

The Romans had about 30,000 troops, Antiochus about 70,000. But Antiochus knew that his army didn’t have the training and coordination of the Roman army, so at the last minute, he tried to negotiate with the Romans, and offered various concessions. When the negotiations broke down, hostilities commenced. Roman slings were effective against Seleucid chariots, and Roman javelins were effective against Seleucid elephants. The elephants stampeded through the Seleucid infantry, breaking apart their formations. Antiochus was defeated in what is known as the Battle of Magnesia. After this battle, the Romans withdrew their forces from the Near East; they weren’t eager to rule the Near East, just as they weren’t eager to rule Greece.

The Romans imposed harsh terms on Antiochus, limiting his navy to ten ships, etc. His weakened kingdom was unable to hold onto its eastern provinces. Cary and Scullard regard this as a setback not only for Antiochus, but for Greek civilization in the region. The breakup of the Seleucid kingdom drew Rome into the affairs of the region against its will. The Romans “could no more disentangle themselves from [Asia] than they could abandon their hold on European Greece.”3

One people who benefited from the breakup of the Seleucid kingdom were the Jews, who became independent around 140 BC.

Before leaving the Near East, let’s glance briefly at the kingdom of Pergamum. Located on the coast of Asia Minor, Pergamum had once been part of the Seleucid kingdom, but had gained its independence. The Seleucids controlled the land around Pergamum, leaving it as a kind of island in a Seleucid sea. Pergamum was ruled by the Attalid Dynasty. One of the kings of Pergamum, Eumenes, assisted the Romans at the Battle of Magnesia, and afterwards he was given some of the territories of the defeated Seleucids. Pergamum was riding high.

Eumenes built the Pergamon Altar, which was unearthed by a German archeologist and re-assembled at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin; it’s now one of Berlin’s chief tourist attractions. The sculptures on the altar are in the style known as “Pergamene baroque,” the same style as the Laocoon sculpture. We don’t know where and when the original Laocoon was created, but it’s a good bet that it was created in the Pergamum of Eumenes.

The Pergamon Altar, as it may have looked in the time of Eumenes


The Pergamon Altar, as it looks today at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum


The sculptures on the altar depict the battle of gods and giants


The Laocoon, long considered one of the greatest achievements of ancient art.
When Goethe saw it, he said that it “gripped my whole being....
I was in ecstasies over it.”

Pergamum’s Attalid Dynasty lasted until 133 BC, when Attalus III died childless. In his will, he gave his kingdom to Rome. The Romans were becoming rulers of the world despite themselves.

C. Roman Slings

I mentioned above that Roman slings were effective against Seleucid chariots. A sling, such as the Romans used, is quite different from a slingshot. A slingshot is made of elastic material, and is pulled straight back. Slingshots weren’t developed until rubber was developed, about 1850.

A sling is made of non-elastic material, often leather.

A sling has a small cradle or pouch in the middle of two lengths of cord. The sling stone is placed in the pouch. The middle finger or thumb is placed through a loop on the end of one cord, and a tab at the end of the other cord is placed between the thumb and forefinger. The sling is swung in an arc, and the tab released at a precise moment. This frees the projectile to fly to the target. The sling essentially works by extending the length of a human arm, thus allowing stones to be thrown much farther than they could be by hand.

The Romans called the sling funda, slingers funditores, and sling-stones glandes. Sometimes they called slingers Balearics, since they often came from the Balearic Islands (as archers came from Crete, and horsemen from Numidia in North Africa). Children in the Balearic Islands were trained to sling from an early age; Livy says they weren’t given bread unless they could hit it with their sling.

Slingers on Trajan’s Column. “They are shown unarmored, wearing a short tunic. They carry a cloth bag, slung in front, to hold their shot.” The left hand holds an oval shield (clipeus), while the right hand (throwing hand) prepares to whirl the sling.

The sling is a very ancient weapon, cheap to make, easy to carry, popular with shepherds for fighting wolves and other predators. According to legend, the Jewish shepherd David used a sling to kill Goliath. “Caches of sling ammunition have been found at the sites of Iron Age hill forts; some 40,000 sling stones were found at Maiden Castle, Dorset.”

A sling could also be attached to a stick; this kind of sling is sometimes called a “staff sling.” A catapult can be thought of as a giant staff sling.

While the sling was a very efficacious and important instrument of ancient warfare, stones thrown with the hand alone were also much in use both among the Romans and with other nations. The Libyans carried no other arms than three spears and a bag full of stones.

4. Silver Linings Playbook

I saw Silver Linings Playbook (2012), which was popular with both critics and the public. Like many Hollywood movies, it’s “rude, crude, and unattractive” (to quote my 2nd-grade teacher, who was wont to describe her charges this way). David Denby, a conservative film critic for The New Yorker, describes the protagonist of Silver Linings Playbook thus:

He talks non-stop about his wife, who has left him, and he throws A Farewell to Arms through a closed window in the middle of the night and then wakes up Mom (Jacki Weaver) and Dad (Robert De Niro) to talk about the book’s plot. Pat [the protagonist, played by Bradley Cooper] is mainly just silly and infantile — a self-absorbed manic chatterbox.... Russell [screenwriter/director David O. Russell] overloads scenes with talk and fights.

Denby is now retiring as NewYorker film critic, and some people are glad to see him go. “So nice,” said one, “that David Denby won’t have to spend any more time watching his hated motion pictures.” Denby graduated from Columbia in 1965, re-enrolled at Columbia 30 years later, went through Columbia’s classics-oriented CoreCurriculum, and wrote about the experience in Great Books, which became a bestseller.

Another conservative film critic, John Podhoretz of the Weekly Standard, also took a dim view of Silver Linings Playbook:

[Movies] work only when they convince you that, in spite of all the obvious silliness, something honest or vivid or emotionally accurate is going on.... There aren’t three consecutive truthful seconds in Silver Linings Playbook — not in the setup, the characters, the setting, the relationships, or the plot developments.

Today’s movie-makers seem to think that, in order to be true, all you need to do is be rude and crude — scream at people, throw books through windows, etc.

5. Miscellaneous

A. I saw a movie called Apollo 13 (1995). I recommend it — it’s riveting, interesting, true. It was popular with critics and with the public. It’s based on a book called Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, by Jeffrey Kluger and James Lovell. If you grew up with the space program, as I did, it’s easy to take it for granted, to forget what a dramatic story it is. This movie reminds us of an exciting chapter in modern history.

Perhaps the best short documentary on the space program is a Nova documentary called First Man On The Moon (2014). It’s about one hour long, and focuses on Neil Armstrong.

I also recommend In the Shadow of the Moon, a 2007 documentary about the voyages to the moon. It interviews astronauts, including Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin; Collins and Aldrin were part of Apollo 11, the first moon landing. It also interviews Edgar Mitchell, an astronaut known for his mystical experiences and his interest in the paranormal. The film does a great job of showing how it felt to be an astronaut, but it fails to explain the nuts-and-bolts of a moon voyage — for example, it doesn’t explain what sort of fuel is used, it doesn’t explain the different parts of the rocket, it doesn’t explain how pioneers like Robert Goddard contributed to the development of rocket technology, etc.4

I also saw a documentary about the space program called When We Left Earth. It was made by the Discovery Channel, and consists of six 1-hour episodes. It shows how the early flights (Mercury and Gemini) paved the way for the Apollo flights. It also describes the post-Apollo flights — the space-shuttle program (including the Challenger and Columbia disasters), the Hubble Telescope, and the space-station program. It’s a good documentary — comprehensive but never dull.

B. Cast Away (2000), starring Tom Hanks, earned $430 million, and cost $90 million to make. I can’t understand why it cost so much to make, or why it was so popular. It has little suspense, little thought, and little humor. It doesn’t achieve “suspension of disbelief”; I never forgot that I was watching a movie, that these were actors, not real people. Cast Away is somewhat enjoyable to watch, but far from a great movie.

Early in the movie, there are some snatches of a Russian folk song, “Fields, My Fields” also known as “Meadowland” or “Polyushka Polye.” If you like this song, you might also like “On the March,” sometimes called “On the Road,” “Kalinka,” “Volga Boatmen,” the Soviet anthem, and other songs by the Red Army Choir.

C. There have been three revolutions in the history of literature:

  1. from oral literature to written literature
  2. from books produced by hand to books produced on a printing-press
  3. from books of paper-and-ink to e-books

Each of these revolutions has meant a cheapening of literature, but literature has proven resilient, and has survived. Each of these revolutions has had benefits as well as drawbacks.

6. Modern Russian Writers

I discovered a modern Russian novelist, Andrei Bely. He’s best known for Petersburg (1913), which is described as a Symbolist novel; Bely is often compared to Joyce. Bely wrote poetry and criticism as well as fiction. In addition to Petersburg, several other Bely novels have been translated into English, as well as a volume of short stories and a volume of essays. Bely wrote three volumes of memoirs.

Bely grew up in a prominent Moscow family; his father was a well-known intellectual, specializing in math. Bely had a strong interest in philosophy, he’s considered part of the Russian neo-Kantian school. Wikipedia says that Bely’s works “feature a striking mysticism”; in his later years, Bely was influenced by Rudolf Steiner, and became a friend of Steiner’s. “Andrei Bely” was actually his pen name; his real name was Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev. Bely died in 1934 at age 53, apparently of natural causes.

I also discovered a Russian critic from more recent times, Mikhail Bakhtin. Like Bely, Bakhtin came from a prominent Russian family. Several of his books deal with Dostoevsky and Rabelais. Bakhtin is popular with modern literary theorists and critics.5 He wrote about aspects of philosophy that don’t interest me, such as the philosophy of language.

Finally, I discovered the Soviet writing team known as Ilf and Petrov (Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov). Both “Ilya Ilf” and “Yevgeny Petrov” were pen names. Both men hailed from Odessa, Ukraine. Ilf and Petrov were active in the 1930s. They’re known for two satirical novels, The Twelve Chairs and The Little Golden Calf; both novels feature a con man named Ostap Bender. According to Wikipedia, these two novels are “among the most widely read and quoted books in Russian culture,” and have often been turned into movies. Ilf and Petrov travelled across the U.S. in the 1930s. The trip resulted in a book, Little Golden America, and a photo essay. Both men died young, Ilf from illness, Petrov from a plane crash.

Ilf (on the right?) and Petrov

© L. James Hammond 2015
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1A. O’Hara became interested in the Samarra legend through Somerset Maugham’s play Sheppey. back
1. I enjoyed watching From the Terrace, though it’s somewhat sugary and silly. It deals with the Morgan bank, which I have some interest in. back
2. Ch. 15, #8 back
3. Ch. 16, #3 back
4. There’s also a book called In the Shadow of the Moon (2007). Though it deals with voyages to the moon, it has no connection to the documentary, and it doesn’t seem to be a good choice for the layman. back
5. Bakhtin’s name appears in an earlier issue of this e-zine: “Epstein discusses a book by Barbara Foley, a left-wing professor in the Northwestern English Department: ‘Its first 103 pages are given over to the new literary theory gradually becoming regnant in English graduate studies. Devotees of this theory will find many old friends cited in her pages: Foucault, Bakhtin, Derrida, Barthes, Lacan.... The highest new jargonese is everywhere employed.’” back