Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Los barcos y las letras

The post below about soldiers and writers got me thinking about sailors and writers, specifically, initially, Samuel Eliot Morison.  In trying to learn something about my dad's service in the Pacific (see also below), I came across Morison's The Liberation of the Philippines, volume XIII of his History of United States Naval Operations in World War I, which contains a brief account of the Mindanao campaign, in which my dad participated in 1945.  Morison, a Harvard historian, had gone to President Roosevelt shortly after America's entry into the war to propose a comprehensive naval history.  Roosevelt thought enough of the proposal to commission Morison as a lieutenant commander, and he spent much of the rest of the war on board ship in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.

But Morison's bona fides as a sailor-writer predated that assignment.  In 1939 he and others, as part of what was called the Harvard Columbus Expedition, fitted out a barkentine, Capitana, and re-created, as nearly as practicable, Columbus' voyages to and around the New World.  This first-hand experience was then incorporated into Morison's biography of Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, published in 1941.

Columbus lived and died almost exactly a century before Cervantes.  We associate him with Spain, but of course he was Genoese, an Italian of the quatrocento.  We don't think of him as a man of letters, certainly not as a Renaissance humanist in the vein of Ficino, Erasmus, Castiglione or Machiavelli.  But Fr. Bartolomé de las Casas, the son of a soldier on Columbus' first voyage, says this about the mariner's learning in his Historia de las Indias:

Siendo, pues, niño le pusieron sus padres á que aprendiese á leer y á escribir, y salió con el arte de escribir formando tan buena y legible letra (la cual yo vide muchas veces), que pudiera con ella ganar de comer. De aquí le sucedió darse juntamente al aritmética y también á debujar y pintar, que lo mismo alcanzara si quisiera vivir por ello; estudió en Pavía los primeros rudimentos de las letras, mayormente la gramática, y quedó bien experto en la lengua latina, y desto lo loa la dicha Historia portuguesa, diciendo, que era elocuente y buen latino; y esto i cuánto le pudo servir para entender las historias humanas y divinas! Estos fueron los principios en que ocupó su niñez, y con que comenzó las otras artes que en su adolescencia y juventud trabajó de adquirir. Y porque Dios le dotó de alto juicio, de gran memoria y de veemente afección, tratando muchas veces con hombres doctos, y con su infatigable trabajo estudioso, y principalmente, alo que yo cierto puedo y debo conjeturar y aun creer, por la gracia singular que le concedió para el ministerio que le cometía, consiguió la médula y sustancia necesaria de las otras ciencias, conviene á saber, de la geometría, geografía , cosmografía , astrología ó astronomía y marinería.

These are remarkable asperations for a young sailor.  We normally see Columbus in light of the unintended consequences of that first voyage, and tend to hold him personally responsible for much of the good and evil that came out of the sudden meeting of Europe and America.  In his own eyes he aspired to greatness, first, as a sailor, by extending the reach of maritime Europe, as the Portuguese had done in Africa, but also as a man of letters, mining the mathematical and human sciences for confirmation of his intuition of what lay over the Ocean Sea.  But of course he was astonishingly wrong about the one thing that most concerned and motivated him, the one thing that the established learning of his day repeatedly threw in the teeth of his ambitions:  the size of the globe.

Columbus, the European discoverer of a new world, never believed that he had come across anything other than the islands scattered about the coast of Cathay.  He was remarkably lucky that America was there to receive him.  But he was remarkably deceived as well.  Look at any globe, and it jumps out at you that there are only two regions in the world with vast areas of ocean occupied by chains of large and small islands.  We call them the East Indies and the West Indies.  Columbus, looking for the former, sailed smack into the latter.  How could he not have believed that, somewhere, just over the horizon, lay the mainland of the Orient?

The Spanish literary revival came a century later.  It is sometimes called the Spanish Renaissance, but more often the Siglo del Oro.  Too counter-reformation to be entirely comfortable with the Italian Renaissance,  its mystics and missionaries, novelists, playwrights and painters evidence a remarkable flowering in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  From my admittedly slight acquaintance with this body of letras, I find it surprising how little the New World comes into it.  Perhaps, as a revival, as a renaissance, as a reformation, as an appeal to an Age of Gold, it necessarily looks first to the Old World, and understandably averts its gaze from the chaotic scramble for wealth, slaves and power that tragically characterizes the flood of European adventurers into the exotic realms of the Aztec, the Maya and the Inca.    

Monday, July 21, 2014

Las armas y las letras

Though I have admittedly lingered a long time at the side of the Caballero de la Triste Figura, I can imagine worse companions.  Much has occurred since we last checked in on him here--his frightful penance in the Sierra Morena, the chance encounters with others fleeing to desolate solitude, the faithful pursuit of the barber and the curate, the re-encounter and reunion of lovers wronged and reconciled, the cautionary tale of the Curioso impertinente, the appearance of the beautiful mora, and don Quijote's mighty battle with the giants, who, utterly vanquished, transformed themselves into busted wine casks.

And so, at the end of chapter XXXVII, we are given a respite from all this furious action, as the don, over supper, holds forth on the question of which profession is noblest--that of arms, or that of letters?

Though we automatically think of Cervantes, first, as a writer, he had much experience as a soldier.  After a brief stint with the future Cardinal Aquaviva in Rome, Cervantes, in 1570, took service on the galley Marquesa and fought in one of the world's decisive battles, Lapanto, where he received a serious and permanent wound to his left hand.  For the next few years he continued as a soldier in a number of companies, until his capture and sale into five year's slavery in North Africa.  

Cervantes is certainly not unique as a soldier-writer.  A moment's thought can turn up a number of them, from Thucydides to T.E. Lawrence.  And "letras" does not, for Cervantes, mean "belles lettres." By the profession of "letters" he means formal learning, formal education for the Church, or law, or the service of a prince.  I don't believe that Cervantes ever took any degree; our automatic impulse, then, to class one of the great writers of all times as a partisan of letters over arms may not be quite warranted.

Don Quijote, in his discourse, judges the two callings by two measures--which has the noblest end, and which makes the greatest demands on its practicioners.  On both accounts, arms takes the palm.

We are rightly of two minds about violence.  It is plainly from arms, from armies, from weapons, from soldiers, that the horrors of war proceed.  But don Quijote asserts, without irony, that peace is his profession:  "[H]ablo de las letras humanas, que es su fin poner en su punto la justicia distributiva y dar a cada uno lo que es suyo, entender y hacer que las buenas leyes se guarden. Fin, por cierto, generoso y alto y digno de grande alabanza, pero no de tanta como merece aquel a que las armas atienden, las cuales tienen por objeto y fin la paz, que es el mayor bien que los hombres pueden desear en esta vida."  Letters (aside from divinity) have as their end justice, and the right ordering of society.  The profession of arms aims at peace, a greater good.

This assertion is repeated, with more conviction, toward the end of the discourse:

"...con las armas se defienden las repúblicas, se conservan los reinos, se guardan las ciudades, se aseguran los caminos, se despejan los mares de cosarios; y, finalmente, si por ellas no fuese, las repúblicas, los reinos, las monarquías, las ciudades, los caminos de mar y tierra estarían sujetos al rigor y a la confusión que trae consigo la guerra el tiempo que dura y tiene licencia de usar de sus previlegios y de sus fuerzas."

This is "arms" as defense, as the force which, necessarily, underlies all earthly order.  It is that which the knight declares to be the highest secular calling.

There is also a moving comparison of the miseries of the student, as compared with the miseries of the soldier.  Don Quijote readily acknowledges the student's life to be hard one, but insists that the soldier's is incomparably harder, carrying with it, in addition to hunger, tedium, poverty, and exposure to the elements, the unique and continual threats of injury, disfigurement and death.  He interestingly takes time to curse the inventor of gunpowder and artillery, who takes from the soldier the honor of facing his enemy man to man, and of testing his valor by the might of his arm.

Don Quijote speaks all this without irony.  Does Cervantes?  My feeling is that, here, the fictional  character speaks for the author.  Yes, we know that Don Quijote is insane.  But his insanity comes from his perceptions, his impeded understanding, not his values.  And though every word that proceeds from his mouth is, by reason of his condition, suspect, Cervantes accords him, at the end, the dignity of having convinced the others:  "El cura le dijo que tenía mucha razón en todo cuanto había dicho en favor de las armas, y que él, aunque letrado y graduado, estaba de su mesmo parecer."



Sunday, July 20, 2014

Finnegans Wake, Part III, first division

Let's just set aside the fact that it seems to start with some sort of vaguely Scandinavian arithmetic.

I have been skeptical about those who confidently people this book with named characters having ascertainable relationships with each other.  But increasingly some of these characters seem to exist as something more than projections of fragments.  And so we come to Shaun.

There is a letter in the midst of this division that begins with the following salutation:  "Letter, carried of Shaun, son of Hek, written of Shem, brother of Shaun, uttered for Alp, mother of Shem...."  For Finnegans Wake this is like an encyclopedia  entry.  Shaun and Shem are the sons of Hek (HCE) and Alp (ALP).

This part begins with typically paragraphed prose.  But soon it turns into something like an interview.  And although the interviewer remains nameless, the other is surprisingly, explicitly, Shaun:  "But have we until now ever besought you, dear Shawn....?"  "Goodbye now, Shaun replied with a voice pure as a churchmode...."  This is too easy (a thrown bone?  a false flagging?).

The end returns to the paragraphed prose, but the  inside "interview" is thrice interrupted.  One break is a fractured fable, much like the earlier-noted "Mooksie and the Gripes," this time, "The Ondt and the Gracehoper," set off by a slightly smaller typeface.  There are also, before and after the fable (but not immediately), two paragraphs, also in the smaller typeface of the fable, that are letters or charters or something or other.

So:  Prose--interview--document--interview--fable--interview--document--interview--prose.

This is too easy.  Except that I forgot to mention that the fable ends with a sort of verse coda, about a third as long as the fable.

So much for form.  What about content?

The center of the division is the fable, the Ondt and the Gracehoper.  It's a rather transparent re-telling of the ant and the grasshopper, one industrious insect who toiled in the summer and saved for the winter, the other an irresponsible idler who plays away the summer and is left to starve when the cold winds blow.  It is not too great a stretch to see Shaun as the Ondt, Shem as the Gracehoper.  "Ondt" I can make nothing of.  "Gracehoper" is easier:  the one who hopes for grace, forgiveness, indulgence.

Now the fable begins thus:  "The Gracehoper was always jigging ajog, hoppy on akkant of his joyicity."  Here the gracehoper plainly links to Joyce.  On the other hand, "The Ondt was a weltall fellow, raumybult and abelboobied, bynear saw altitudinous wee a schelling in kopfers. He was sair sair sullemn and chairmanlooking....."  I think you get the idea, and the fable proceeds.

It ends with this:  "The thing pleased him andt, andt, andt."  I hope I'm not crazy to imagine that Joyce is here imitating the ending of an upanishad:  Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

And who is Shaun?  He is conventional, academic, pretentious, insufferable.  I had to laugh at this question from the "interviewer":  "Still in a way, not to flatter you, we fancy you that you are so strikingly brainy and well letterread in yourshelves as ever were the Shamous Shamonous, Limited, could use worse of yourself, ingenious Shaun, we still so fancied, if only you would take your time so and the trouble of so doing it."  Would that any of us were as "brainy" as our shelves might suggest!

This characterization of Shawn, in conjunction with the more unbridled character of Shem, set out here and earlier (see above, as Shemus), starts to flesh out the double antagonists who recur, from Cain and Abel to Mutt and Jeff.  I can see now why others have asserted that the marginal annotations of the quiz division are plainly attributable, one side to Shem, the other to Shaun.

Just a note here on the old question, "How to read Finnegans Wake?"  There is almost a kind of arbitrariness in reading from cover to cover.  I think about anthologies--say, an old, old volume I have of Alexander Pope's works.  I've had the thing for over thirty years, and have always loved Pope, but certainly haven't read the whole thing.  And in a way that's right, because an anthology isn't made for reading cover to cover.  Now Joyce, of course, published the Wake as a novel (it would appear).  But we know it's end joins back to the beginning, and what one learns as one progresses could as easily have been gleaned by reading backwards from the end.  I guess what I'm saying is that I am increasingly looking back at what I have finished to see it differently.  Now, of course, that can happen in any novel--there is foreshadowing, and seemingly trivial incidents that take on greater import at the action progresses.  Here, though, I'm not sure that there's real progress.  But since the whole does, I think, enlighten the parts, I still think it best to press forward, and much the simpler by simply turning page upon page.   

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Finnegans Wake, Part II, fourth division

No, I'm not really going all-Finnegans-Wake here.  It's just, after announcing in the last post that I would proceed division by division, I discovered that this next division was quite brief, and I read it rather quickly.  And I don't want the first impressions to fade too much.

It begins with a line introducing one of the Wake's most well-known post-publication borrowings:  "Three quarks for Muster Mark."  We know what a quark became, per Murray Gell-Mann.  But who is Mark?  At least two major Marks inhabit this part.  And "[s]ure he hasn't got much of a bark...Fowls, up!  Tristy's the spry young spark." 

Tristy?  He's introduced in this again-unlined quatrain:  "All the birds of the sea they trolled out rightbold when they smacked the big kuss of Trustan with Usolde."  So here we have, I think, a little terra firma:  King Mark is the wronged husband in the tale of Tristan and Isolde (Tristan not to be trusted, King Mark cuckcolded).  A little romance.

But then we have another Mark in a familiar foursome:  "They were the big four, the four maaster waves of Erin, all listening, four.  There was old Matt Gregory, then besides old Matt there was old Marcus Lyons, the four waves, and oftentimes they used to be saying grace together, right enough bausnabeatha, in Miracle Squeer; here now we are the four of us:  old Matt Gregory and old Marcus and old Luke Tarpey:  the four of us and, sure, thank God, there are no more of us:  and, sure now, you would go and forget and leave out the other fellow and old Johnny MacDougall:  the four of us and no more of us and so now pass the fish for Christ' sake, Amen."  Our four evangelists have returned.  Mark gets tied up with his symbol, the lion (who also, as king of beasts, ties him to King Mark) (he also gets thereby tied to Tristan--Sir Tristan de Lyonnes).
Can the other four be tied to their symbols?  Can't see it, except for "Johnny MacDougall"--and only to the extent that there is some small assonance between "-ougall" and "eagle."  

The division begins and ends with italicized verse.  The prose center is the usual riot of puns and nonsense, but it's pretty plain (it may be the only plain thing), in the course of events, that the lovers consummate their passion.  And the four evangelists?

One feature of the prose center is that four paragraphs in the course of the text begin with one of the four names, followed by a period.  Johnny.  Luke.  Mark.  Matt.  Is this somehow intended to suggest a structure like that of the gospels?  The same story told from four different perspectives?  Seems like a great theory, but I can't find in any of the four portions, divided this way, any sort of vindication for this idea.

Again, it's frustrating not to be able to state a real theme, to summarize, to find much more than a thread.  Tristan and Isolde and four evangelists, obvious as they are, are just a small part of the whole.  There's plenty that's funny and in questionable taste:  "all divorced and innasense interdict" jumped out at me.  There are, as always, long passages whose rhythm is intoxicating, but I can't describe them, and it's silly just to paste them here.  In fact, one of the oddities of reading analyses of Finnegans Wake is following some erudite explanation that's making connections, untangling references, clearing up ambiguities, trying to make a story out of this mishmash--but which then, to illustrate the triumph, quotes some passage from the Wake, and it's like cold sea water in the face:  That doesn't get it at all.  The gloss floats free of the glossed.

"Mattheehew, Markeehew, Lukeehew, Johnheehewheehew! Haw! And still a light moves long the river. And stiller the mermen ply their keg. Its pith is full. The way is free. Their lot is cast. So, to john for a john, johnajeams, led it be!"

Thus endeth Part II.



Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Finnegans Wake, Part II, third division

So! I says to myself, if I am going to indeed "blog" Finnegans Wake I should perhaps eschew the silly titles and proceed logically, division by division.  Except, of course, that I am already beginning to doubt what I said in my last FW post about each division having a discernible manner of telling.

If we are dealing with dreams, we can't avoid Freud, and we have to be careful not to make of his dreams Joyce's choices.  For Freud a dream is irrational, but it has a unity.  It is senseless on the surface, but it has a meaning, and a purpose:  wish-fulfillment.  Freud, good man, will bring order and meaning and utility even to the dream.  I'm not sure Joyce does.  And I wonder if those stray phrases which sages say somehow suggest themes and foci of sections of the Wake are arbitrary.  Just a caution ere we fail.

And furthermore:  re the dream theme, I wonder if even that's hit too hard.  We all have dreams and we know what they're like.  I am at some job I held twenty years ago and I don't know what to do and I'm afraid  I'm going to get fired.  Or, I am trying to get a lot of people and luggage packed into a car I've never seen before, and I realize the car doesn't have air conditioning and the road is made of red brick.  The examples are trivial.  A dream is a little situation.  It may be absurd, but its not usually puzzling, or in any way like words on a page.  Finnegans Wake isn't like that at all.  It's a nonstop stream of sentences, mostly incorporating pun upon pun, portmanteau words overflowing into phrases, quotations, song lyrics, liturgical snippets, double entendres, triple entendres, with lengthy incomprehensible stretches, sometimes related to a recognizable subject, sometimes not, sometimes coming back to recursive figures, sometimes not.  If there is any overarching theme it may relate to a fall and a death and a revival.  But even that may be less essential than the "threaded pearls," the atomic bits, that make up the text.

So here we are, paragraph four, not one mention of Part II, third division.  Just another preliminary confession that I don't really know if Joyce has yet bothered to let me in on the joke.

In form this section is mostly text in paragraphs.  Some paragraphs begin with dashes, suggesting spoken conversation.  The only exception is a central dialogue between two characters called Butt and Taff, with occasional "stage directions" in italics.  This calls to mind a similar dialogue between Mutt and Jute near the beginning of the book and (having done a quick flip) a dialogue between Muta and Juva near the end.  "Mutt and Jeff."

I had said in my last post that this section may concern a tavern.  In that I must admit I am influenced by the occasional, inescapable conventional designation, here fortified by an illustration called "The Tavern."  The first sentence (and paragraph) declares:  "It may or not maybe a no concern of the Guinnesses but."  Guinness seems a reference to the famous Dublin beer and brewery.  Our talkers, Butt and Taff, suggest a butt (a cask for beer or wine) fitted with a tap.  But from there...well, I wouldn't bet good money on it.  Some of the passages suggest the sound of someone reading Finnegans Wake drunk (not helpful).  And there's a fairly plain account toward the end of someone (HCE?  King Arthur?  The last king of Ireland?) collecting and imbibing leftover beer and ale and spirits and driving out either the customers or the old inhabitants of Ireland--the "mouldy Firbolgs" and the "Tuatha de Danaan."

Nevertheless, most of the talk in between, to the extent that I can decipher it, seems military, or naval in subject matter--contentious, boastful, aggressive.  There is an occasional quatrain written without the conventional lines:  "His bludgeon's bruk, his drum is tore.  For spuds we'll keep the hat he wore And roll in clover on his clay By wather parted from the say."  And the usual references to Genesis ("Guinnesses," "Giant crash in Aden") and the four evangelists ("Mr Justician Matthews and Mr Justician Marks and Mr Justician Luk de Luc and Mr Justician Johnston-Johnson," "The fore oldsters were aspolootly at the wetsends in the moiling walter, trying to. Hide! Seek!").  All through a glass, darkly.

  

  

Friday, June 27, 2014

Too clever by half

Tim Finnegan's encomium:  Halfway through.

The last two sections of Part I of Finnegans Wake arguably take on, to a more noticeable extent than before, the overt character of dreams.

Readers of Ulysses quickly catch on that each chapter has its own "gimmick;"  that is to say, each chapter takes on a distinctive narrative method.  For instance, the chapter conventionally called the "Oxen of the Sun," proceeds from an initial union of Old English and Latin through the stylistic stages of English over the centuries, mirroring the gestation of an unborn human child.  Finnegans Wake follows something of that kind of pattern in its unnumbered breaks within the four parts.

"Shem is as short for Shemus as Jem is joky for Jacob."  So begins this next section, and the conventional wisdom calls Shem one of the sons of HCE and ALP.  It's an embarrassing section to read when the meaning, in parts, leaks out.  Freud notes that sometimes, in dream experiences, "man habe sich dessen gar nicht geschämt."  Shameless himself here, Shem can indeed be said to shame us in the central action of this section, which I'm hesitant to summarize.  It's more infantile and scatological than anything else, and, when we get to the very point of the action, Joyce switches to a partly intelligible Latin, punctuated with parenthetical bursts of English to assist the Latinfree.  It brings to mind an old English translation I used to own of Kraft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis.  Whenever the text described an unusually disturbing activity, it would switch to Latin, to protect the unlearned.  I imagine that Joyce is here following (or parodying) such procedure.

I don't mean to imply that Shem's actions are entirely clear.  There is as always a deliberate obfuscation, bringing to mind the Freudian observation that dreams veil as much as they reveal.

Section I ends with the washerwomen and the dirty laundry, in the form, mostly, of a dialogue beside a river. These are HCE's and ALP's bed sheets being scrubbed, Joyce continuing his unflinching navigation of the detriments of bodily life, calling to mind some of the less sparkling testimony at the Oscar Wilde trial.

(Here, for the first time, entirely divorced from the action, I realized that, translating "ALP" into Hebrew letters produces "aleph," the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, an appropriate moniker for she who may or may not also be "Chava," "Eve," the mother of all living (as whiskey, which revives poor Tim Finnegan at his wake, is Irish for "water of life."))  (Humiliatingly, then, I find I can do nothing comparable with HCE). 

Part II begins with a relatively clear reference to a playhouse, and a playbill with some recognizable characters or players:  Seumus, Sean, Ann, Hump, an Izod who may become Isolde.  Sometimes it's followable, and sometimes it seems to sink into randomness, and I want to cry, "For God's sake, Joyce, give me a break! throw me a bone!"  Eventually it ends with "Upploud!" and oddly liturgical phrases:  "O Loud, hear the wee beseech of thees, of each of these thy unlitten ones!  Grant sleep in hour's time, O Loud!"  La comedia e finite, the little ones are put to bed, and peace/sleep solicited in the approximate language of compline.

Now since I'm reading the Wake in a pristine, new, and rather costly edition, I am loathe to write in the book itself.  But the thing screams out for annotations--to translate the silly puns into sentences, to see if any themes are emerging, to pat myself on the back for "getting something." 

Then, lo and behold, a new section starts up with annotations (of distinct character) in the left and right margins, and copious footnotes, all of which are as nonsensical and nonsequetrous as the text, and my relative satisfaction at having managed to sail the opaque prose--not with understanding, perhaps, but with relative dispatch--is upended by suddenly having to look left and right and below.

This new section looks first like a journey, then like a lesson.  It veers into math ("While on the other hand, traduced by their comedy nominators to the loafer's terms...."), then to a geometry problem ("O unbox your compasses.  I cain but are you able?").  Now I may be oddly mistaken, but the center of his figure of two intersecting circles reminds me of the rules of proportion governing the classical nude, and the text following suggests coitus, especially from the suggestion of an identification of the lower triangle of the figure.  We are back at the beginning, as man knows woman and Cain and Abel follow, and generations are generated.  And we end the section with epigrams associated with the eminent.

I've mentioned Freud a couple of times in this post.  His Traumdeutung, published about thirty years before Joyce began the Wake, was still, I think, a powerful influence in Joyce's day.  The meaning of dreams, per Freud, was often sexual, fundamentally irrational, but always disguised.  For all Freud's follies I do think he was right that dreams form and function as symbols, in a surprisingly non-random, sophisticated way.  But their meaning is for the sleeper alone.  There can be no encyclopedia of dream meanings; they are individually symbolic.  If I dream of Rudyard Kipling addressing a roomful of Tweedle-dees, the meaning for me is different from what it would be for you.  So, again, if I peep into Joyce's dream, or HCE's what meaning am I to glean from it? It becomes as much mine as his.  Hence the strangely personal experience of this peculiar book.

Just before the halfway point a new section starts.  I think it may be a tavern.  I will report later.


Thucydidean Reason

Given the unparalleled misery, pain and death of war, how can we see it as anything but irrational?

Roughly thirty years ago I read an English translation of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War.  I had trouble following it.  Part of that stemmed from my profound ignorance of eastern Mediterranean geography--seems like most of the time I didn't know where anyone was.  But a greater part stemmed from the paucity of what I expected in a history of a war between Athens and Sparta:  big battles between Athenian and Spartan armies.  Unlike the Persian wars narrated by Herodotus, there is no Marathon, no Thermopylai, no Salamis.

Late last year I thought I'd try to go through it again, slowly, in Greek.  My geography is much improved.  I have some idea what not to expect.  Even so, now that I've reached the end of book I, I find that what I most forgot was how much talk there is in the book.  Much more talking than fighting.

War stories go back a long way.  The war-ballad is one of the first products of almost any literary culture, from the Iliad to the Chanson de Roland to Beowulf.  Accounts of war are commonplace in world literature and history.  But Thucydides, I think, has the distinction that his account is the first where center stage belongs, not to wrongs revenged, or deeds of heroism, or the praiseworthy leadership of the chieftain or the king or the general,  but to the careful, reasoned exposition of calculated advantage.

Τῆς μὲν γνώμης, ὦ Ἀθηναῖοι, αἰεὶ τῆς αὐτῆς ἔχομαι, μὴ εἴκειν Πελοποννησίοις.  So, at the end of Book I, begins Pericles, "ἀνὴρ...πρῶτος Ἀθηναίων," in a long speech advising war, and weighing the factors that will determine its outcome.  It is an appeal neither to honor nor justice, but a careful consideration of the land superiority of the Spartan army, the countervailing utility of Athenian sea power, the relative vulnerability of Attica and the Peloponnese to marauding armies, the capability of each side to remedy their current weaknesses, the relative wealth of Athens, the availability of mercenaries, and the greater reliability of Athens' allies.  The speech has a surprisingly familiar feel to it (perhaps because we, in far different circumstances, and with distressing frequency, continue to publicly discuss going to war).  But it is here merely the last in a series of appeals for help, complaints about interference, and solicitations for alliance.  By and large these speeches deal very little with right, or the will of the gods.  Rather, they weigh the advantages and disadvantages of organized violence.


In Thucydides war is rooted in reason.  And reasoned discourse, that for which we most honor the Greeks, doesn't always get it right, as Pericles, hedging, acknowledges.  And as Thucydides, knowing his readers know the outcome of the war, shows without comment.  As noted by another ancient,

כִּי לֹא לַקַּלִּים הַמֵּרוֹץ וְלֹא לַגִּבּוֹרִים הַמִּלְחָמָה

The race is not always to the swift, nor the war to the mighty.