December 16, 2013

1. Weird Writers

I’ve been digging a little deeper into the writers whom I discussed in the last issue. I read the first few sections of Lord Dunsany’s Gods of Pegana, but it didn’t inspire me to read further. I also read “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book,” the first story in M. R. James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. It was about what I expected — well-written, entertaining, horrible, not very deep or thoughtful. Then I read Algernon Blackwood’s story “The Willows,” and was much impressed. It tells of a canoe trip on the Danube, from the river’s source in the Black Forest to its mouth in the Black Sea. Blackwood is clearly an expert outdoorsman. “The Willows” is also an entertaining ghost story. Blackwood is a deep thinker who can throw light on human nature and on the occult.

Blackwood describes the animals on the river:

Cormorants lined the banks in lonely places in rows like short black palings; grey crows crowded the shingle-beds; storks stood fishing in the vistas of shallower water that opened up between the islands, and hawks, swans, and marsh birds of all sorts filled the air with glinting wings and singing, petulant cries.... Often we saw fawns peering at us from the underbrush, or looked straight into the brown eyes of a stag as we charged full tilt round a corner and entered another reach of the river. Foxes, too, everywhere haunted the banks, tripping daintily among the driftwood and disappearing so suddenly that it was impossible to see how they managed it.

The setting of “The Willows” is a particular stretch of the Danube, which is described in the first sentence of the story:

After leaving Vienna, and long before you come to Budapest, the Danube enters a region of singular loneliness and desolation, where its waters spread away on all sides regardless of a main channel, and the country becomes a swamp for miles upon miles, covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes.

The narrator and his friend camp on a small island, which is gradually being submerged by the rising river. But the experienced paddlers aren’t concerned by high water, just as cyclists wouldn’t be concerned by a downhill route:

The flood, indeed, had no terrors for us; we could get off at ten minutes’ notice, and the more water the better we liked it. It meant an increasing current and the obliteration of the treacherous shingle-beds that so often threatened to tear the bottom out of our canoe.

Before they enter the willow swamp, they’re warned of danger, but they scoff at the warnings:

These Hungarians believe in all sorts of rubbish; you remember the shopwoman at Pressburg warning us that no one ever landed here because it belonged to some sort of beings outside man’s world! I suppose they believe in fairies and elementals, possibly demons, too.

Popular superstition turns out to be popular wisdom. The willow swamp is filled with life, with spirits, with divinities. “The Romans must have haunted all this region more or less with their shrines and sacred groves and elemental deities.” The narrator speaks of “the gods of the trees and wilderness.”

The swamp demons seem to be privy to the thoughts of the campers, and the campers must control their thoughts in order to escape the demons. “They feel us, but cannot actually see us. We must keep our minds quiet — it’s our minds they feel. We must control our thoughts, or it’s all up with us.”

Telepathic communication is often facilitated by a name. Native Americans changed their name periodically, so that enemy witch-doctors couldn’t reach them. The narrator’s friend says,

Do not mention them more than you can help. Do not refer to them by name. To name is to reveal; it is the inevitable clue, and our only hope lies in ignoring them, in order that they may ignore us.

I look forward to reading more Blackwood, perhaps one of his novels, or his autobiographical work Episodes Before Thirty.

Finally, I read Arthur Machen’s acclaimed novella, The Great God Pan. It’s a lively, engrossing story, but I don’t think it has the depth of Blackwood’s “Willows.” It deals with the figure of Pan, an image of lust, hate, evil, etc.1

2. Writing Advice

I was recently asked for advice about writing. I don’t see myself as a writer, let alone a successful writer; for me, writing just happens, just emerges. But I tried to offer whatever advice I could:

As far as writing is concerned, I don’t think that everyone has to be a writer. Just because you’re an avid reader, and have a good command of English, doesn’t mean that you should write. The art of living is more important than the art of writing. It would be refreshing to occasionally meet someone who was content to be a reader.

That said, my taste in writing is for simplicity. I think many writers get too fancy, too cute. If you’ll allow me to quote myself,
“The art of writing: get out of the way, and let the truth speak for itself.”

Imaginative writing is a gift, a gift that I don’t have. Philosophical writing also requires a certain knack. If you don’t feel called in the direction of imaginative or philosophical writing, you might consider historical writing, or biographical writing, or travel writing. Perhaps something about your own town, or your own state. It could be a printed book, or an e-book, or a website.

Strive for quality; pretend you’re writing for posterity as well as for your contemporaries. If you strive for quality, maybe you will interest posterity. Don’t think about quantity or sales-potential. Write the work that you’d want to read if you were a reader. If you travel to Japan, and you don’t find the book about Japan that you want, then write that book. Write something that your grandchildren, or grand-nephews, would be proud to show their neighbor when you and I are long gone.

3. Donald Kagan on Ancient Greece

I’m enjoying Donald Kagan’s lectures on ancient Greece, a series of 24 YouTube videos drawn from a class at Yale. Kagan’s lectures are notable for their clarity and their intellectual rigor — he’s careful to distinguish statements based on evidence from statements based on speculation.

Poetry is common in early societies, prose comes later. Kagan says that poetry is common before writing is invented, because poetic meter is an aid to memory, a mnemonic device. Before writing is invented, all literature is oral literature, and it must be committed to memory.

Kagan tells us the etymology of the word “trophy.” A trophy was a piece of enemy equipment — a helmet, for example — that was hung on a pole at the place where the enemy soldiers turned and ran. “Trophy” comes from “turning.”

Kagan says his attitude is “the higher naivete,” which believes that if the Greeks said it, it’s probably true. This was Schliemann’s attitude: he believed Homer, believed that Troy actually existed, and dug until he found it. One of Kagan’s students, John R. Hale, believed that the temple at Delphi really had the ability to inspire. He found that a gas was rising out of the earth at the location of the temple, a gas that inspired the priestess.2

Kagan compares the Peloponnesian War to the Cold War. He says that the Delian League (led by Athens) is analogous to NATO, while the Peloponnesian League (led by Sparta) is analogous to the Warsaw Pact. The Greek Alliance (formed earlier to resist Persia) is analogous to the U.N. Athens and Sparta joined together to defeat Persia, as the Americans and Soviets joined together to defeat the Nazis. But after Persia was defeated, Athens and Sparta had a falling-out, as did the Americans and Soviets.

Kagan says that Thucydides was a revisionist; he revised the prevailing view that Pericles had started the war, and had mis-managed the war. Thucydides was a champion of Pericles.

Pericles argued that Athens couldn’t be defeated if it stayed behind its walls, and allowed the Spartans (and their allies) to ravage the Attic countryside. While Athens (and its allies) couldn’t hope for victory in land battles, they had a good chance of success in naval battles. But Pericles’ strategy wasn’t successful. Athens suffered heavy losses from a plague, which may have resulted from country people crowding into the walled city.

After Pericles died, Athens launched some successful attacks on the periphery of the Peloponnesus (such as the attack on the island of Sphacteria). The critics of Pericles argue that such attacks should have been launched earlier. Pericles’ strategy was passive, it didn’t raise the spirits of his people, and it didn’t strike fear into his enemies.

Kagan says that the fault of Pericles’ strategy is that it depended too much on reason. This is precisely the criticism that I make of the philosophers of Pericles’ time — they’re too rational. Perhaps Pericles was a quasi-intellectual, in tune with the intellectual currents of his time, and perhaps this is why he fell into the same mistake (hyper-rationalism) that the philosophers of his time fell into.

Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War is incomplete; his narrative concludes before the war is over. Xenophon’s Hellenica is a continuation of Thucydides. (Kagan’s series of lectures should probably have 25 videos, not 24; one video, about the latter part of the Peloponessian War, seems to be missing.)

Though Athens was a democracy, its political system and legal system was quite different from their American counterparts. In Athens, many decisions were made by a popular assembly, rather than by elected representatives. Kagan says that Athenian democracy was moderate and respectful of property, but the Founding Fathers, when framing the American Constitution, were influenced by the critics of Athenian democracy, hence they wanted a “popular republic,” not a pure democracy.

The last video deals with Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great. Kagan describes how Philip put together a powerful army, perhaps the best army that Greece had ever seen. Demosthenes, the famous Athenian orator, tried to inspire the Greeks to challenge Philip, and tried to build a coalition of city-states to oppose him (Demosthenes delivered a series of speeches called “Philippics”). Kagan compares Demosthenes to Churchill, and Philip to Hitler. Finally the city-states fought the Macedonians at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC. The city-states were defeated, and self-government gave way to empire — first the Macedonian empire, later the Roman empire.

German historians, Kagan tells us, argue that Demosthenes represented the past, and Philip the future (just as Mommsen argued that Cato the Younger represented the past, and Caesar the future). But Kagan insists that the city-states almost won the Battle of Chaeronea. He says that Demosthenes, like Churchill, understood that freedom must be fought for. Though the city-states were defeated, Kagan says (quoting Churchill) that “this was their finest hour.”

Doubtless Kagan thinks that Greek history is relevant to our own time; he and his two sons advocate a strong national defense. For neocons like the Kagans, Churchill is the ultimate modern hero, and they probably view their own work as a kind of continuation of Churchill’s, as Demosthenes was a precursor of Churchill.

4. Cloud-hidden, Whereabouts Unknown

Many subjects can now be studied through YouTube. For a writer like myself, YouTube is tough competition! One of the pioneers of multimedia teaching was Alan Watts, the apostle of Zen, who became popular during the 1950s through his broadcasts on a Berkeley radio station; for 20 years, Watts had a weekly radio show. Many Watts audios are available on the Internet, and some Watts videos, too.

Click here for an interesting talk on haiku. Watts says that haiku appears artless and effortless, appears to be a work of nature not art. (I once compared good prose to a wave breaking on a beach.)

I watched a 30-minute talk called “On Being Vague,” and found it both impressive and moving. Watts describes a classic Chinese poem, about a man who visits a famous sage. The sage isn’t at home. The man sees a boy nearby and asks him where the sage is. The boy says that the sage is somewhere in the mountains, among the clouds, gathering herbs — he doesn’t know exactly where. Here’s a literal translation from Wikipedia:

Seeking the Master but not Meeting

Beneath a pine I asked a little child.
He said the Master went to gather herbs.
Alone was he upon this mountainside,
The clouds so deep he knew not where he was.

Watts quotes a different translation:

Seeking for the Hermit In Vain

I asked the boy beneath the pine
He said, “The master’s gone alone, herb-picking,
Somewhere on the mountain,
Cloud-hidden, whereabouts unknown.”

One of Watts’ last books was called Cloud-hidden, Whereabouts Unknown: A Mountain Journal. Watts says that the sage’s absence gives the visitor a better understanding of him than he would have gotten from a face-to-face meeting. In Asian culture, Watts says, much is left vague, undefined. According to Watts,

The whole power of the poem is in the mysterious imprecision of the old man’s whereabouts, which, somehow or other, brings the spirit of the hermit-sage closer to the inquirer than an actual meeting. His absence says more than his presence. Lost somewhere on the cloud-hidden mountain, he communicates far more than if he had come down to explain himself.

We associate the sage with mountain, with clouds, with nature.

5. Miscellaneous

A. A young American named Dale Stephens started a website called, which helps people to bypass college. The motto of UnCollege is a quote from Good Will Hunting: “You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.” Stephens also published a book called Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will. Stephens got an early start with self-education: he dropped out of elementary school, and became an un-schooler.

In 2010, Stephens was one of the first group of Thiel Fellows; each fellow receives $100,000 to forego college for two years and focus on their passions. The Thiel Fellowship was started by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who seems to share Stephens’ skeptical attitude toward college. Thiel said, “Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.”3

Some people believe in learning through MOOCs (massive open online courses), organized by companies like Coursera, Udacity, and edX.

B. I discovered a British writer on philosophy named Bryan Magee. He’s now 83. He’s known for his book on Schopenhauer, for his autobiographical Confessions of a Philosopher, and for his TV appearances, which are available on YouTube.4

One might compare Magee with the American philosophy professor Hubert Dreyfus, who’s now 84. Dreyfus has become popular on iTunes and YouTube. Dreyfus is known as a Heidegger commentator; he wrote a book called Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s “Being and Time”. Click here for a conversation between Magee and Dreyfus.5

C. I recently visited the Boston Athenaeum, a private library near the State House. It has an art collection as well as a book collection (the Chinese word for library is TuShuGuan, meaning PictureBookPlace). In recent months, the Athenaeum has had some interesting speakers, including

D. I discovered a writer on economics named Todd Buchholz. He has academic experience (he received a teaching award from the Harvard Economics Department), business experience (he was a hedge fund director), and political experience (he served in the White House under Bush père). He has been called “one of the top 21 speakers of the 21st century.” Buchholz wrote From Here to Economy: A Shortcut to Economic Literacy. He also wrote New Ideas from Dead Economists: An Introduction to Modern Economic Thought. “Buchholz’s 1999 book Market Shock warned that the Eurozone was unstable and headed toward political turmoil. In a chapter subtitled ‘How European Unity Splinters,’ Buchholz pointed out that eventually the Mediterranean nations and Ireland would stumble because those countries required a different monetary policy than the core countries of Germany and France.” Click here for an interview with Buchholz.8

E. I discovered a Chinese novel called The Plum in the Golden Vase (Jin Ping Mei). It was written in the late 1500s, and it’s known for its pornographic content. It has been called one of the four classic novels written during the Ming Dynasty, along with Water Margin, Journey to the West, and Three Kingdoms. David Tod Roy recently completed a five-volume translation of the novel.

F. I discovered a British historian named Margaret MacMillan. She’s 70 years old, and is on the Oxford faculty. She recently published The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. According to Wikipedia,

Her most successful work is Peacemakers: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War, also published as Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. Peacemakers won the Duff Cooper Prize for outstanding literary work in the field of history, biography or politics; the Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History; the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize for the best work of non-fiction published in the United Kingdom and the 2003 Governor General’s Literary Award in Canada.9

MacMillan is the great-granddaughter of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who was a key player at the Paris Peace Conference.

MacMillan was born in Toronto, and graduated from the University of Toronto. She wrote a biography of Canadian writer Stephen Leacock. “It was said in 1911 that more people had heard of Stephen Leacock than had heard of Canada.... Between the years 1915 and 1925, Leacock was the most popular humorist in the English-speaking world.”

Like Margaret MacMillan, David Fromkin has written about the origin of World War I, and its aftermath. Fromkin is best known for A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914–1922. Fromkin also wrote Europe’s Last Summer: Who started the Great War in 1914? and a survey of human history called The Way of the World.

G. In my Realms of Gold, I said, “An interesting book on the watery part of the world is Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky.” I recently discovered a similar book: The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail, by Jeffrey Bolster. Mortal Sea won the Bancroft Prize.

H. The FDA is cracking down on hydrogenated oil. Hydrogenated oil is cooking oil which has been injected with hydrogen gas, converting it from a liquid to a solid. Partially hydrogenated oil is partly solid, partly liquid. Hydrogenated oil lasts longer than regular oil, just as white flour lasts longer than whole wheat flour. Another benefit of hydrogenation is “the way the fat mixes with flour produces a more desirable texture in the baked product.”10 So food companies have been tempted to use it, though it’s notoriously unhealthy.

6. Harold Nicolson

I discovered an English writer named Harold Nicolson. Nicolson wrote a variety of works, including historical books, literary studies, and novels.

It is perhaps his diary, of all of his voluminous oeuvre, for which Harold Nicolson will be most remembered, as the author was variously an acquaintance, associate, friend, or intimate to such figures as Ramsay MacDonald, David Lloyd George, Duff Cooper, Charles de Gaulle, Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill, along with a host of literary and artistic figures.11

Nicolson was born in Iran, where his father was a diplomat. Nicolson himself was a diplomat and a Member of Parliament. At the end of World War I, Nicolson was involved with the Paris Peace Conference, and he later wrote Peacemaking 1919.

Nicolson was married to Vita Sackville-West, also a writer in various genres. Both Nicolson and his wife were bi-sexual; Sackville-West had a well-known affair with Virginia Woolf. Woolf drew a fictional portrait of Sackville-West in her novel Orlando.

Sackville-West was descended from the Sackvilles, owners of Knole House, which was built in the 1400s and is one of England’s largest houses. Sackville-West wrote a book called Knole and the Sackvilles, which Wikipedia calls “a classic in the literature of English country houses.” Virginia Woolf’s Orlando draws on the history of the house and the family.

Nicolson and Sackville-West lived at Sissinghurst Castle, where they created a famous garden, now open to the public. They had two sons, Nigel and Benedict. Benedict was an art historian. Nigel was a writer, mostly of historical and travel literature; among his books are Great Houses of Britain and The World of Jane Austen. Nigel also edited three volumes of his father’s diaries and letters, and six volumes of Virginia Woolf’s letters.

7. An Apology for Idlers

An interesting essay on leisure in the New York Times. I knew that Thoreau was a champion of leisure, and the essay mentions Thoreau. But I didn’t realize that Robert Louis Stevenson was also a champion of leisure. Stevenson wrote a piece called “An Apology for Idlers.” Stevenson

relished a day spent unaware of the hour, walking, pondering and lingering at the side of the road whenever the mood struck. During that drift, it seemed “almost as if the millennium were arrived, when we shall throw out clocks and watches over the housetop, and remember time and seasons no more. You have no idea, unless you have tried it, how endlessly long is a summer’s day that you measure out only by hunger, and bring to an end only when you are drowsy.”

The essay also mentions John Cage:

The composer John Cage believed in the Zen-inflected potency of achieving nothingness. “When nothing is securely possessed one is free to accept any of the somethings,” he wrote. “How many are there? They roll up at your feet.”12

© L. James Hammond 2013
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1. I think Ruskin encountered the Pan image somewhere, and was horrified by it. back
2. “During the 20th century, most scholars adopted a skeptical attitude towards the ancient traditions about Delphi, denying that there had ever been a fissure or a gaseous emission in the crypt of the temple. However, in 1995 an interdisciplinary team was created to study not only the archaeology of Delphi, but also the evidence from geology, chemistry, and toxicology that related to the oracle. The results of the research vindicated the ancient sources.” website back
3. Wikipedia back
4. A Phlit subscriber in Ohio tells me that the 1997 edition of The Philosophy of Schopenhauer is slightly better than the original, 1983 edition. He also says that several chapters of Magee’s Confessions are an attack on analytical philosophy. He says, “Magee truly loves Philosophy, appreciates it as a way of life, and has a lot of charm.” back
5. I watched a 45-minute conversation between Magee and J. P. Stern, a scholar who wrote about various German writers, including Nietzsche, Kafka, and Mann; the topic of the conversation was Nietzsche. Both Magee and Stern are impressive — articulate and knowledgeable. But neither had anything surprising or original to offer. back
6. George F. Kennan wrote a similar book, The Marquis de Custine and his “Russia in 1839”. One might compare Custine’s study of Russia with Tocqueville’s study of America. back
7. In a recent issue, I mentioned a study of Paris by Alistair Horne (Seven Ages of Paris). back
8. Wikipedia back
9. Duff Cooper was a British diplomat/statesman who wrote a well-regarded biography of Talleyrand, an autobiography called Old Men Forget, and other works.

Another notable book about modern history/diplomacy is Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Power’s book won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003; Wikipedia describes it as “a study of the U.S. foreign policy response to genocide.” Click here for an article by Powers about her tenure as U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

MacMillan’s book on the years leading up to World War I might be compared to Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. back

10. Wikipedia back
11. Wikipedia back
12. I’m reminded of Kafka, whose Zennish spirit I discussed in an earlier issue: “There’s a strong Zen flavor in some of Kafka’s aphorisms and reflections, and it’s expressed with Kafka’s usual eloquence and power. ‘You do not need to leave your room,’ Kafka writes, ‘be quite still... the world will freely offer itself... it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.’” back