Art and Genocide: The Führer who Loved Only Buildings

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In this blog post, I want to attack the idea that art (including fiction) and religion are inherently good or noble.  I don’t think they’re inherently bad or evil, but I’d like to try thinking about them in evolutionary terms.

I also want to attack the idea that the concepts of racism, greed, impiety, or evil have explanatory power, though that’s only a secondary focus.

Art and religion are sometimes said to be things that distinguish us from animals, the things that make us human.  Leaving aside the aesthetic taste of bowerbirds, it would be at least as accurate to say that art and religion are the things that make us inhuman.  That word is only ever applied to humans, to describe cruelty or violence taken to levels and scales not found in non-human species.  This violence is often motivated by differences over art and religion.

SIDEBAR: Why am I grouping art and religion together?

Artistic taste and religion are both mysterious, complex systems that give us preferences or values we can’t explain.  Today, we think of religions as elaborate systems of ethical beliefs, like Christianity or Buddhism, and of art as aesthetic systems.  Values and aesthetics seem, to most people other than Nietzsche and me, to be different things.

But if we go back far enough in time, art, magic, and religion may have a common ancestor.  (Webster 1939) traces the history of how the ancient Greeks thought about art.  The oldest word for sculpture, from before Homer, is kolossos, ‘a substitute’, indicating the sculpture has a magical connection with a specific person, possibly denoting sacrifice or the deflection of supernatural attention.  The next word is agalma, which first meant ‘a source of joy’, then ‘a source of joy to a god’ or ‘an offering’, and then came to mean ‘a statue’.  This suggests statues were still ritualistic objects, but the relationship of man to god had shifted from fearful appeasement or deception to an attempt to give pleasure.  In the 5th century B.C., the time of Socrates and of the most-famous Athenian playwrights, they began using the words eikon (‘a likeness’: a statue is an object that looks like something else) and xoanon (‘something carved’: a statue is a created object).  This suggests that that was when people began making statues not only to please gods, but also to please humans.

AFAIK, every known culture has or had an artistic tradition and a religion.  Many people have argued that religion is necessary to make us good. But the hypothesis that religion makes people act morally cannot be reliably demonstrated, experimentally or historically.

The hypothesis that religion is needed make a civilization act immorally, however, has never been tested.  In evolutionary terms, genocide is often the best possible thing for us to do, as long as we’re the ones committing the genocide.  We just need to get those irksome morals out of the way when it comes to people who aren’t part of our genetic in-group.  Art and religion are good at that. [1]

If that hypothesis contains some truth, it would mean that art and religion are systems that evolved to shut down or bypass our moral reasoning.  That would require us to be unconscious of what we’re doing when we’re being artsy or religious.  It might even mean that one of the primary functions of art and religion is to sabotage our insight into the operation of art and religion.  So we might have mental blocks or short-circuits that, when it comes to art and religion, direct our attention away from obvious but uncomfortable conclusions.

Let’s talk about—

 

Art and the Nazis

The Daily Beast, Nov. 30 2014: Top Nazis And Their Complicated Relationship With Artists

[a review of Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany (Petropoulos 2014)]

In the stories shared by Petropoulos, what really stands out, however, is the shocking level of personal involvement by the top leaders of Germany in minute decisions about the lives of artists. While Hitler’s interest in art as a failed artist is well known, one would think that his top lieutenants like Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, and others would have more than enough on their hands to worry about the latest music from Strauss. …
While issues of art sometimes bubble to the surface in the American political conversation—Robert Mapplethorpe in 1989 for his homoerotic images or the trashing on Capitol Hill that Frank Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial proposal has received—it is hard to imagine President Obama or any of the former 20th-century presidents, or any of their top military and political advisors focusing so much of their time on whether dissonant sounds in music are acceptable, or how realistic painting should be.

The Daily Beast, Feb. 7 2014: Inside Hitler’s Fantasy Museum

When Monuments Men Robert Posey and Lincoln Kirstein walked into the white-washed cottage in the German forest that housed Hermann Bunjes, the Harvard-educated one-time SS officer and art advisor to Herman Goring, they learned of an elaborate plan involving the wholesale looting of Europe’s art treasures.. Bunjes… told these fellow art historians about the ERR—the Nazi art theft unit—and about Hitler’s plan to create a city-wide museum in his boyhood town of Linz, Austria: a “super museum” that would contain every important artwork in the world, including a wing of “degenerate art,” a sort of chamber of horrors to demonstrate from what monstrosities the Nazis had saved the world. …  The Monuments Men had heard rumors of art theft and looting throughout the war, but had no idea of the scale (some estimate that around 5 million cultural objects were looted, lost, or mishandled during the war), the advanced level of organization (scores of Nazi officers and hundreds of soldiers were assigned exclusively to the confiscation, transport, and maintenance of looted art and archival material), and the ultimate destination of the choicest pieces—the Führermuseum. …
Hitler’s plan for his museum been on his mind for more than a decade, at least since 1934—for Hitler had long stewed upon the idea of capturing The Ghent Altarpiece for Germany, and had even dispatched a Nazi art detective (and Hitler lookalike), Heinrich Köhn, to find the Righteous Judges panel, one of the twelve that comprises The Ghent Altarpiece, which was stolen from St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent in 1934, and has never been recovered. … An estimated 36 kilometers of galleries were included in the plan—to put that in perspective, the enormous and labyrinthine V&A Museum in London has about 8 kilometers of galleries, to display some 27,000 objects.

Consider that for a moment:  The Nazi’s first act of international aggression was to steal a 500 year-old painting from Belgium.

Why was art so important to the Nazis?

Art, literature, religion, and politics have always been closely connected.  The classical view was that reason determined art, politics, and economics.  Christians give religion priority.  Marxists gave economics priority.  No philosophical tradition that I know of takes art seriously as a driving force of social change, though it inspires people much more than reason does.

Maybe the evolutionary purpose of culture is less to give you something to love about your people than to give you something to hate about other people, and maybe this means it would be awkward to admit the role art plays in this.  You can prioritize reason and say they’re wrong, prioritize religion and say they’re evil, or prioritize economics and say they’re oppressive.  But after you’ve slaughtered your enemies, raped their women, taken their stuff, and salted their land, it would sound lame to say you did it because their art was bad.

 

Racism is Not an Explanation

The standard explanation for the Jewish Holocaust is that the Nazis were racists.  Well, yeah, the Nazis were racists.  That doesn’t explain the Holocaust any more than Rocky Marciano’s 49-0 boxing record is explained by saying that he was a really good boxer.  Thinkers today pride themselves on not being taken in by “God of the gaps” arguments that do nothing but stop somebody from asking questions, e.g., “the sky is blue because God made it blue”.  But saying “the Nazis were racist” is exactly that kind of useless question-stopping.  Why were they racist?

For Adolf Hitler, and possibly for some of his inner circle, a big part of the reason was art.

 

The Two Things that Were Most Important to Adolf Hitler

1. He hated Jews.

2. He loved architecture.

Lapham’s Quarterly. Oct. 4 2010: The Master Architect

“Hitler was an astonishing walking encyclopedia of architecture. He carried in his head the detailed plans of most of the important buildings in Europe. Look at these sketches he gave me. This is the Pantheon in Paris and Les Invalides drawn by him from his memory of plans he studied before he’d ever seen them. And here is an outsized triumphal arch and domed hall he sketched in 1925 when even he believed his political dreams were over. ‘I wish I’d been an architect!’ he often used to say. … To him, architecture was a magic word. It was his hobby and his passion.” … He disappeared into the house, reappearing moments later with a pile of paper and a few big tomes. It seemed rehearsed almost, and I guessed he’d done this before. “See here. These are architectural drawings Hitler made in his beer-hall days in Munich when he’d never been anywhere. He gave them to me: detailed drawings, models, plans. Such things he found spellbinding.”
… As he walked me to my car, he asked whether I knew what the very last photograph ever taken of Hitler was. “The very last one—the final image of the Führer—was taken in the bunker,” he said. “It shows him intently examining a model of his beloved Linz. He intended to rebuild the little city on the Danube where he’d been a boy and turn it into the culture capital of the whole of Germany. What he was staring at were Hermann Giessler’s plans, with great museums and theaters and the like. Now, with Russian shells exploding forty feet above his concrete reinforced head, and Berlin in flames, it was of course nothing but a pathetic dream. Yet there he is, like Wagner’s Rienzi, bitterly imagining what might have been.”
—Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect

We drove directly to the opera, Charles Garnier’s great neobaroque building. A white-haired attendant accompanied our small group through the deserted building. Hitler had actually studied the plans of the Paris opera house with great care. Near the proscenium box he found a salon missing, remarked on it, and turned out to be right. The attendant said that this room had been eliminated in renovations many years ago.
—Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich

The Guardian, Nov. 29 2002: Mies and the Nazis

And, of course, there was Hitler’s special commission, the complete rebuilding of Berlin, followed by every other major German city.  Hitler so adored Speer’s vast detailed model of a Berlin reborn, complete with ambitious domes and giant’s avenues, that he would gaze lovingly at what might have been while burrowed deep in his bunker in 1945, with the allies at the door.

This war will set us back many years in our building programme. It is a tragedy. I did not become Chancellor of the Greater German Reich to fight wars.
—Adolf Hitler, to his friend August Kubizek, quoted in (Wikipedia: August  Kubizek)

Art historian Birgit Schwarz said in 2009 that historians have consistently underplayed the importance of Hitler’s love of art.  But even Schwarz sees this as important only for making Hitler arrogant.  Oddly, hardly anyone says that Hitler’s decisions were in some way affected by his beliefs about the one thing in life that he seemed to care about most.

Let’s consult a seldom-cited expert on Hitler: Hitler.  Turn with me now to volume 1, chapter 2 in your copies of Mein Kampf.

 

Was Hitler always a racist?

He said no.

p. 52-53:
To-day it is hard and almost impossible for me to say when the word ‘Jew’ first began to raise any particular thought in my mind. I do not remember even having heard the word at home during my father’s lifetime. If this name were mentioned in a derogatory sense I think the old gentleman would just have considered those who used it in this way as being uneducated reactionaries. In the course of his career he had come to be more or less a cosmopolitan, with strong views on nationalism, which had its effect on me as well. In school, too, I found no reason to alter the picture of things I had formed at home. At the Realschule I knew one Jewish boy. We were all on our guard in our relations with him, but only because his reticence and certain actions of his warned us to be discreet. Beyond that my companions and myself formed no particular opinions in regard to him.
It was not until I was fourteen or fifteen years old that I frequently ran up against the word ‘Jew’, partly in connection with political controversies. These references aroused a slight aversion in me, and I could not avoid an uncomfortable feeling which always came over me when I had to listen to religious disputes. But at that time I had no other feelings about the Jewish question.
There were very few Jews in Linz… As I thought that they were persecuted on account of their Faith my aversion to hearing remarks against them grew almost into a feeling of abhorrence. I did not in the least suspect that there could be such a thing as a systematic anti-Semitism.
Then I came to Vienna. [This was in 1908. 92% of Austria’s Jews lived in Vienna in 1934, comprising 10% of Vienna’s population.]

In the Jew I still saw only a man who was of a different religion, and therefore, on grounds of human tolerance, I was against the idea that he should be attacked because he had a different faith. And so I considered that the tone adopted by the anti-Semitic Press in Vienna was unworthy of the cultural traditions of a great people. The memory of certain events which happened in the middle ages came into my mind, and I felt that I should not like to see them repeated. Generally speaking,these anti-Semitic newspapers did not belong to the first rank – but I did not then understand the reason of this – and so I regarded them more as the products of jealousy and envy rather than the expression of a sincere, though wrong-headed, feeling.

Why did Hitler become a racist?

Hitler made 7 claims that he said made him hate the Jews. I’ll spare you the quotations and summarize them:

p. 55: All Jews are secretly Zionists. (I don’t understand why Hitler would have cared.)

p. 56: They created “hideous” art, literature, and drama.

p. 57: They controlled the liberal press.

p. 57: They controlled prostitution and the “whiteslave traffic” [?].

p. 58: They controlled & manipulated the Social Democrats (SDs), whom Hitler hated.

p. 59-60: The SDs use language deceptively and debate dishonestly.

p. 61: Marx was Jewish, and Marxism would end human life on Earth [not sure if this was hyperbole or madness].

He said nothing about bankers.  This is an eccentric list of reasons to hate Jews.  The ones that seemed to be primary, and to upset him the most, were his claims that they made bad art, and that they controlled the SDs.

In my eyes the charge against Judaism became a grave one the moment I discovered the Jewish activities in the Press, in art, in literature and the theatre. All unctuous protests were now more or less futile. One needed only to look at the posters announcing the hideous productions of the cinema and theatre, and study the names of the authors who were highly lauded there in order to become permanently adamant on Jewish questions. Here was a pestilence, a moral pestilence, with which the public was being infected. It was worse than the Black Plague of long ago. … The fact that nine-tenths of all the smutty literature, artistic tripe and theatrical banalities, had to be charged to the account of people who formed scarcely one per cent of the nation—that fact could not be gainsaid.
—p. 56

His charge regarding the SDs is part of his hatred of Marxism.  This seems to have begun earlier, perhaps in 1908, though it’s hard to determine the chronology, as Hitler jumps forward and backward in time in the narrative here without giving dates.  He began a new job and was told he had to join a union.  He refused, indignant at being told what to do.  Over the next few months, the union men, who were social democrats, talked politics during the lunch hour.

But all that I heard had the effect of arousing the strongest antagonism in me. Everything was disparaged – the nation, because it was held to be an invention of the ‘capitalist’ class (how often I had to listen to that phrase!); the Fatherland, because it was held to be an instrument in the hands of the bourgeoisie for the exploitation of’ the working masses; the authority of the law, because that was a means of holding down the proletariat; religion, as a means of doping the people, so as to exploit them afterwards; morality, as a badge of stupid and sheepish docility. There was nothing that they did not drag in the mud.
—p. 43 (volume 1, chapter 1)

He began to argue with them, and they began to argue back, and eventually “ordered me to leave the building or else get flung down from the scaffolding.”  So he quit his job.

He did not say that any of these men were Jews!

There is a long discussion—too long for me to read—of the SDs and the Jews in (Jacobs 1993) chapter 4, “Austrian Social Democrats and the Jews: A Study in Ambivalence”, p. 86-117.  It begins:

The SDAP[Oe] was far less influenced by anti-Semitism than any of its major competitors and was the most important opponent of anti-Semitic political movements.  The SDAP[Oe], moreover, allowed a large number of individuals of Jewish origin to take highly visible roles within the party itself.  It ought also to be noted that the SDAP[Oe] provided both material and moral support for those East European Jewish refugees who continued to live in Vienna during the later years of the First Republic.  These facts notwithstanding, the party publicly claimed that so-called philo-Semitism was every bit as noxious to social democrats as was anti-Semitism, declined opportunities to defend individuals who had been the victims of anti-Semitic attack, and used anti-Semitic stereotypes in its publications…

… and ends…

By the final years of the First Republic, the SDs were receiving approximate ¾ of the Viennese Jewish vote.  But precisely because the SDs understood that they could count on the Jewish vote, the Austrian SD party did not engage in strenuous efforts to solicit Jewish support…  By accepting the premise that Jewish origin was a burden to the party, by allowing unflattering stereotypes to be used in socialist literature, and by refusing to defend Jews per se, Austrian SDs allowed themselves to be put on the defensive.  Precisely because there were so many Jews prominent in Austrian socialist ranks, the defensive policy on the Jewish question followed by the party ultimately tended to undercut the party itself.
—p. 117

Their founder, Victor Adler, had been Jewish, but had converted to Christianity.  And Marx, of course, was genetically Jewish.  But the SDs were not a Jewish party, and would not associate either with Poland’s Jewish Social Democratic Party or with Socialist Zionism.  The chapter says that the SDs were anti-Zionist, because their Jewish members were pro-assimilation and so against Jewish nationalism.  According to Jacobs, they were not so much pro-Jewish as they were less anti-Semitic than everyone else.  But this made them the party of choice for Vienna’s Jews, which was sufficient for Hitler.

 

What did Hitler do and think about in Vienna while he was becoming a racist?

Hitler was orphaned at age 16, and left for Vienna a few months after, in 1908.

I went to Vienna to take the entrance examination for the Academy of Fine Arts…. I felt convinced that I should pass the examination quite easily. At the Realschule I was by far the best student in the drawing class, and since that time I had made more than ordinary progress in the practice of drawing….
But there was one misgiving: It seemed to me that I was better qualified for drawing than for painting, especially in the various branches of architectural drawing. At the same time my interest in architecture was constantly increasing…. I went to the Hof Museum to study the paintings in the art gallery there; but the building itself captured almost all my interest, from early morning until late at night I spent all my time visiting the various public buildings. And it was the buildings themselves that were always the principal attraction for me. For hours and hours I could stand in wonderment before the Opera and the Parliament. The whole Ring Strasse had a magic effect upon me, as if it were a scene from the Thousand-and-one-Nights.

I went to see the Rector and asked him to explain the reasons why they refused to accept me as a student in the general School of Painting… He said that the sketches which I had brought with me unquestionably showed that painting was not what I was suited for but that the same sketches gave clear indications of my aptitude for architectural designing… Within a few days I myself also knew that I ought to become an architect.
—p. 28-29

During the years when he came to hate Jews, Hitler was occupied with art all day, every day, for work, study, and all leisure outside of books.

These were years when well-off Jews in Vienna were a major clientele for modernist designers and architects such as the Wiener Werkstätte and Adolf Loos (BedoireShapira 2016Wikipedia).  Many upper-class Viennese Jews wanted to distance themselves from Zionism and their Jewish heritage and show they were becoming culturally Viennese, and did this by prominently supporting the latest German artistic movements  (Shapira 2006).  Ironically, it was this attempt to assimilate into German culture that led Hitler to hate them—for Hitler hated those artistic movements.

Jews built, or had built for them, structures like this:


The Steiner House, by Adolf Loos, 1910

and this…


The Fagus Factory, by Adolf Meyer, 1913

Hitler was not wrong to associate Jews with the SDs, but he was wrong to identify the Jews among the SDs with the Jews who funded modern art and theatre.  The former were radical Marxists; the latter were the rich bourgeois parents they were rebelling against.

Hitler wrote that, meanwhile, he spent his spare time adoring these classical and Beaux-Arts buildings:


The Hof Museum


The State Opera


The Parliament

Lapham’s Quarterly. Oct. 4 2010: The Master Architect

“In my opinion,” Speer told me as we watched the long slow twilight settle in over the Palatine hills, “Hitler’s true architectural tastes never really progressed beyond the style of the Viennese Ringstrasse which he first set eyes on in 1907 as an impressionable eighteen year old. He arrived from provincial Linz to sit the entrance exam of the visual arts academy, and was bowled over by Null’s opera house and the other grand buildings in the center. Yes, he pretended to embrace a kind of neoclassicism later on and used it to dramatic effect. But deeper down, all his tastes, all his ideas—artistic, architectural, and political—came from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century world of his youth.”

Hitler was obsessed with art and architecture before he was obsessed with Jews.  Jews were a minority among the SDs and among modern artists.  I propose it was only because he was angry about Marxism and art at the same time that he hit on blaming it on the Jews.

 

Art and Genocide

Many of Hitler’s inner circle, notably Goebbels and Goering, were also obsessed with art and architecture.  Hitler even made his architect, Albert Speer, his Minister of Armaments and War Production, apparently so he could talk to him more often about architecture.

Did their hatred of modern art fuel their racism more than their racism fuel their hatred of modern art? [2]  I suspect so.  There was plenty of anti-Semitism in Europe at that time, but as far as I know, it wasn’t usually directed at modern art outside of the Nazi party.  Correct me if I’m wrong.

I eventually found one book that emphasized the importance of art to the Nazis: Michaud & Lloyd’s 2004 The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany.

The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany presents a new interpretation of National Socialism, arguing that art in the Third Reich was not simply an instrument of the regime, but actually became a source of the racist politics upon which its ideology was founded. Through the myth of the “Aryan race,” a race pronounced superior because it alone creates culture, Nazism asserted art as the sole raison d’être of a regime defined by Hitler as the “dictatorship of genius.” Michaud shows the important link between the religious nature of Nazi art and the political movement, revealing that in Nazi Germany art was considered to be less a witness of history than a force capable of producing future, the actor capable of accelerating the coming of a reality immanent to art itself.
—from the jacket cover

Hitler himself wrote (p. 223) that “the struggle between the various species does not arise from a feeling of mutual antipathy but rather from hunger and love.”  There is no doubt he was thinking of his own “struggle” against the Jews, and that was his way of saying that he struggled not because he hated Jews, but because he loved… well, who or what did he love?

He spoke about hypothetical other people being motivated by love of their families, yet he himself apparently loved no one.  He wrote endlessly about loving Germany and Germans in the abstract, but the only named people or things he mentioned having strong positive feelings for were certain buildings in Vienna; the city of Munich, particularly its art; and his father and his mother, who were both dead.

Hitler uses the word “friend” or its inflections 30 times in Mein Kampf: sarcastically on pages 29, 51, 54, 110, 121, 189, 223, 237, 245, 286, and 432; comically on page 71; to refer to political allies on pages 68, 89, 133, 144, 165, 276, 472, 475, 477, 483, and 521; as a very bad way of describing German demands for “Lebensraum” on p. 118; to refer to other people’s friends on p. 281; to talk about worthless friends on p. 284; to describe Destiny on p. 310; and to talk about military comrades, though only in general, on p. 144, 164, 426-427, 513.  It appears he did not, at any time between 1907 and 1924, have a friend.  He had, in fact, had just one friend, for two or more years, August Kubizek (Waite p. 41), but Hitler cut off contact with him in 1908 (Wikipedia: August  Kubizek).

Even when designing cities, he forgot the people.

He had no real interest in the rest of the plan, in residential districts, traffic plans, parks. Obviously I had to deal with those things behind his back. You can’t just have monuments. There must be an organic urban scheme as well. I can hear him now when I showed the other districts of the city I was working on. ‘But where are the plans for the Grand Avenue, Speer? …’ To him it was one gigantic operatic stage.
The Master Architect

In short, Hitler was able to hate so powerfully because he was so passionate about art and architecture.  The only possessions he mentioned in his will, written the day before he shot himself, were his art collection.  In his last minutes, he was not thinking of all the people who had died for him, but of art and of the buildings that would not be born.  One of the last things he said was, “Ah, what an artist dies in me!” (Waite 1977 p. 64) He was a monster to people because he only cared about paintings and buildings.


[1] I use “morals” to mean “values and behavior that benefit the in-group more than the individual.”

[2] The notion that all Nazis hated modern art, or that Hitler and his associates hated all modern art, is incorrect.  In the early
Thirties, there was an internal Nazi debate on the subject, with one group led by Alfred Rosenberg, the party’s ideologue on racial
matters, denouncing all Modernism as “degenerate”. But another, led by the Berlin League of National Socialist Students, argued that
Expressionism had “Nordic roots” and was an integral part of the Nazi revolution” (The Telegraph).  See also  Top Nazis And Their Complicated Relationship With Artists.


References

Fredric Bedoire & Robert Tanner 2004. The Jewish Contribution to Modern Architecture, 1830-1930. Ktav Pub.

Adolf Hitler 1926. Mein Kampf, volumes 1 and 2. Translated 1939 by James Murphy. London: Hurst & Blackett.  I’m using a differently-formatted version of this edition, which has an additional Epilogue and a different pagination, running to 525 pages.  You could probably download it from your friendly neighborhood white supremacist website, but they use huge fonts and never have page numbers.

Jack Jacobs 1993. On Socialists and “the Jewish Question” After Marx. NYC, NY: NYU Press.

Eric Michaud & Janet Lloyd 2004. The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Jonathan Petropoulos 2014. Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Elana Shapira 2006.  “Modernism and Jewish Identity in Early Twentieth-Century Vienna: Fritz Waerndorfer and His House for an Art Lover.” Studies in the Decorative Arts Vol. 13, No. 2 (SPRING-SUMMER 2006), p. 52-92.

Elana Shapira 2016.  Style and Seduction: Jewish Patrons, Architecture, and Design in Fin de Siècle Vienna. Brandeis.

Albert Speer.  Inside the Third Reich. MacMillan.

T. B. L. Webster 1939. Greek Theories of Art and Literature down to 400 B. C.. The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 3/4 (Jul. – Oct., 1939), pp. 166-179.

Review: William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying

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As I Lay Dying is one of the most-famous novels in American literature. I came in with pretty high expectations. I wasn’t exactly disappointed: It does what famous 20th-century literary novels do, which is combine insight into characters with stylistic innovations. But it sure has a lot of flaws.

There are “spoilers” in here, but this isn’t the kind of story that relies on plot twists to keep you reading. I’d have appreciated it better if I’d known what was going to happen (and, often, what was happening).

Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy invites obvious comparison with Faulkner’s work: Both are written by country folk about country folk, are full of details of rural life, and focus at least as much on their characters’ psychology as on action sequences. Both have a unique style that combines startling poetic passages with disregard for whether the reader can tell what’s going on.

STYLE

Let me start with the style, as that’s the most divisive thing about both men’s writing, but in different ways. Both of them have a flashy big-S Style, and a precious little-s style.

By little-s style I mean the way they construct sentences, supposing someone told them what each sentence had to say and gave them a bag of words they could use. Both make unusual choices about apostrophes, speech tags, and clause-joining. In Faulkner’s case he seems to have decided to lexicalize certain contractions but not others, to avoid deliberately-ordered sentence structures such as this one, and to avoid all speech tags but “said”. In McCarthy’s case it’s just part of a rebellion against grammar, whose transparent purpose is to keep his books from being shelved together with Louis L’Amour.

The problem with Faulkner’s little-s style isn’t that it’s bad in Faulkner’s work; the problem is that it leads to Cormac McCarthy. So many critics have praised Faulkner’s style, but it’s hard to tell when they’re praising the good things about his style, and when they’re praising him merely for being weird. McCarthy learned all the wrong lessons from Faulkner, throwing out quotation marks, apostrophes, and commas as a declaration of literary intent rather than because his characters talk that way. Faulkner avoids semi-colons because his characters never plan their sentences, and a semi-colon occurs only where a speaker has thought about the structure of the sentence before speaking it and broken it down into clauses and sub-clauses. McCarthy just converts semi-colons into commas, to look like Faulkner. Faulkner uses “says” everywhere to be simple. McCarthy omits quotation marks and speech tags everywhere to be simpler, with the result that he has long dialogues with no speech tags that are literally impossible, as he lost track somewhere in the middle of who was speaking, and comes out the other end having swapped speakers.

By big-S style I mean the way Faulkner’s characters come out with sudden poetic metaphors, or the way McCarthy lingers over the landscape and then explodes into a long run-on burst of poetry. Faulkner is dazzling but distracting. He takes care to have characters say things the way country folk would say them, then ruins it by sprinkling bits in their internal monologue like “her leg coming long from beneath her tightening dress: that lever which moves the world; one of that caliper which measures the length and breadth of life,” that no farmer would ever say outside of a church, let alone about his sister. He tosses four-syllable Oxford English Dictionary vocabulary and avant-garde analogies into their internal thoughts at random, just because he thought of it at that point. These are uneducated farmers who speak in words of one and two syllables, and I had to use a dictionary to figure out what they were thinking sometimes. McCarthy uses his poetry and metaphors strategically, focusing the reader on important elements and important transitions. Faulkner jizzes metaphors all over inappropriate characters at inappropriate times, which sometimes make no sense. McCarthy is in control; Faulkner seems to be writing drunk.

Both Faulkner and McCarthy have problems with ambiguity. In McCarthy’s case, it’s mere carelessness. If you find a “he” or a “him” in one of his sentences, there’s no guarantee that you can look to the left and to the right and figure out who it is. Important dialogue might be unattributed to a specific character, or in Spanish.

In Faulkner’s case, it’s deliberate. He loves to introduce a character into a scene without telling us who it is, or whether they are male or female, or how old they are, until later; or even to slip the character in in a way designed to mislead us into thinking it’s someone else (as is done at a critical point in Addie’s chapter, portraying her infidelity in a way designed to mislead us into thinking there was no infidelity).

Ambiguity has been fetishized by literary critics. A fetish is something that has been involved in sexual pleasure frequently enough that the pleasure is associated with that thing, and it seems as pleasing to the fetishist as the original stimuli. Valid literary ambiguity is when the characters have ambiguous thoughts, feelings, or ways of describing what happened. That’s like at the climax of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, when John Singer doesn’t know what he is feeling.

Faulkner specializes in phony ambiguity created by deliberately concealing critical parts of a character’s thought. This is a valid literary technique when an unreliable narrator is deliberately concealing things from the reader. But it’s just a gimmick when Faulkner use it to create ambiguity. Dewey Dell obsesses over Peabody and thinks how he could “make everything right for her,” misleading us into thinking she has romantic feelings for him, until we find out much later that she wants him to give her an abortion. But Dewey Dell knows perfectly well what she wants from him, and isn’t aware of being a narrator, so this “ambiguity” only detracts from the story being told by fooling us into constructing some other story. When Addie narrates her infidelity in a way to conceal the fact that the man she was screwing was not her husband, this wasn’t a valid literary technique to show that Addie is deceiving herself; it was Faulkner leaving the necessary words out. Addie knew perfectly well whom she was screwing, and the words of her narrative showed that she thought of it as infidelity, which is why it was (deliberately) confusing. When Vardaman spills his stream-of-consciousness internal monologue on us in early chapters, we have no idea what he’s talking about until nearly the end of the book, at which point we learn he was thinking about a train he saw in a store window. But Vardaman knew exactly what he was talking about! This ambiguity isn’t a reflection of life’s and language’s complexity; it’s a distracting guessing game that conceals the story unnaturally.

CONTENT

When I began the novel, I thought Faulkner had the win in this regard. McCarthy tells westerns. They may dwell on the thoughts and feelings of the characters more than Louis L’Amour does, and they may be disguised by strange grammar and punctuation, but the stories themselves are westerns about strong, virtuous men thrown into bad circumstances and fighting their way out. Faulkner seemed to be writing about normal people with normal problems. But as usually happens with Faulkner, I gradually realized he had leaned a little toward a Southern Gothic freak show. If the Bundren family were here today, they would get their own reality TV show. Instead of normal people dealing with normal problems, we have a dysfunctional, disconnected family creating their own problems of flood, fire, and insanity. It’s a bunch of improbable sadfics mushed together. Cash is a good man with bad luck who doesn’t stand up to the morons around him. Jewel is his own worst enemy. Dewey Dell has lost her virtue. Addie didn’t love her husband. Etc. The characters act on each other mechanically, as weights and pulleys, rather than having emotional ties. The wordcount-eating subplot with Darl going insane, committing arson, and being taken away was one big WTF that ate up the last third of the novel and didn’t connect with anything else. I guess Faulkner just wanted to get a fire in there after his flood, for the sake of completeness.

The strength of the novel should then be in portraying each of the characters realistically. But character portrayal is always two steps forward, two steps back. The Southern Gothic problem runs through much of Faulkner’s work, making it implausible and not very relevant for people who aren’t insane or from dysfunctional families. Another aspect is the stylistic problem I already mentioned, throwing jarring academic language into the thoughts of “simple Southern folk”. And Faulkner sometimes throws one such startling metaphor into one character’s thoughts, and then throws the same metaphor in the same words into another character’s thoughts later, not only disrupting both characters but homogenizing them.

Then we have the most-irritating problem with Faulkner: Stream of consciousness. It’s what he’s famous for. As I mentioned before, he uses it to throw phony ambiguity everywhere.

Paragraphs, sentences, or words in internal monologues are italicized at random. In the worst cases, the italics indicate an intrusion into this character’s thoughts by some other unidentified character or characters. This is Faulkner being cute by not telling us things. If you want to do a stream of consciousness, fine; but give us the whole stream. If a character, during one conversation, mentally recollects an earlier conversation, he also recollects who he was talking to, and when and where it was. Faulkner just jams in the dialogue with no indication of who is/was speaking, deliberately disorienting us in a way that is not true to life.

But usually it’s just a section of their ongoing monologue that is continuous with what’s around it, but set off by italics in random places, as if Faulkner had a sticky “italics” key on his keyboard. I found it enormously distracting and time-consuming to stare at it until I concluded it was meaningless.

Another problem with his stream of consciousness is that he likes to use children and mental defectives as narrators, but has no idea how such people think. It seems like he just grabbed a fifth of whatever alcohol was nearest when he needed to write such a character, then vomited drunken meaninglessness across the page. Here’s a section that is supposed to represent the thoughts of a child:

The train is behind the glass, red on the track. When it runs the track shines on and off. Pa said flour and sugar and coffee costs so much. Because I am a country boy because boys in town. Bicycles. Why do flour and sugar and coffee cost so much when he is a country boy. “Wouldn’ t you ruther have some bananas instead?” Bananas are gone, eaten. Gone. When it runs on the track shines again. “Why aint I a town boy, pa?” I said. God made me. I did not said to God to made me in the country. If He can make the train, why cant He make them all in the town because flour and sugar and coffee.

This isn’t how little kids think. They don’t even talk quite this disjointedly, but imagining that they think like this, well, that would take someone who doesn’t interact with children and has forgotten what it was like to be one.

Here’s the way he writes the thoughts of a man beginning to go crazy:

In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I dont know what I am. I dont know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not.

Or maybe it’s just a man starting to fall asleep. Ordinarily I’d say it isn’t, since the narrator never said anything like “And then I lay down and tried to sleep,” but Faulkner wouldn’t give us plain statements of fact like that, because that would spoil the fun of puzzling out what the hell was going on.

The narrative voice in this novel is different from other first-person novels. It feels like they’re thinking, or talking to themselves, not like they’re talking to you. But it’s hard to put my finger on why. Maybe this is the good part about his stream-of-consciousness style. If so, that isn’t the part that people usually imitate when they do stream-of-consciousness. I associate it with broken grammar, sentence fragments, and thoughts that crash into each other in a heap. But maybe it also means this simple, direct, un-self-conscious first-person narration. I can’t say how he does it, but it is different.

The more that I think about it, the more I think that what makes it work is exactly what I’ve been complaining about—the lack of context or explanation. In a normal first-person story, every time the narrator gives you background or context, it shows she’s aware of you, the reader. Faulkner’s characters never give you the background or context you need to interpret them. That’s what makes them so confusing, but that’s also what makes the narrative seem like a window into their minds, which abolishes any fear of deliberate manipulation or misleading of the reader.

A person doesn’t usually think to themselves, “My ma is 45 years old,” or, “I have always hated lemons,” so you see how that makes it difficult to introduce context. Still, I think Faulkner takes it too far. There are ways to go back, recognize that certain information must be introduced, and have the characters say something that implies it. And Faulkner habitually leaves out critical information that the characters would have been thinking to themselves, which seems deliberate.

Faulkner’s “simple folk wisdom” sometimes makes his characters phony. Darl thinks too much, so he goes crazy. I reckon that’s what happens when you get too much book-learnin’, Floyd. We have genetic determinism in the horses and in the character of Jewel. (When a horse is mean, it’s because he comes from bad stock, not because you beat him every day.) And we have the “Christians are all fanatics and hypocrites” meme in Cora and the minister, and the way Anse uses the word “Christian” to manipulate people.

I had maybe more problems than I should have with simple plausibility issues.
– There’s one point where Darl says Jewel is following them 300 yards behind, and then gives a detailed description of what the folks 300 yards behind are doing and look like.
– There’s a crucial scene fording a river, which is described as being nearly 100 yards wide normally and the water so high now you can’t even tell where the river is. Aside from the insanity of trying to drive a wagon underwater through a ford after a long thunderstorm, we then have people diving into the river to retrieve all of the tools that they dropped when their wagon was swept away. Now, a river under such circumstances is wild beyond endurance, and as much mud as water; and those tools would be spread out over an area 100 feet wide, 10-20 feet deep, and half a mile long, and the description of them diving into it and retrieving the tools made me want to set the book down and laugh.
– The story is supposed to be realistic, but there’s one paragraph where a character speaks a remarkably specific prophecy that comes true later, not accomplishing anything thematically or story-wise, yet turning the whole novel into a fantasy.

Maybe my biggest problem was the lack of basic cues that would help us figure out who these people were and what their relationships to each other were. Things like what century it is, whether the town they’re in is big or small, or how old they are. The text makes it sound like Addie’s about 80 when she dies, but the ages of her children (which you don’t find out until later) imply she’s about 45. That makes a big difference to how we expect folk to feel when someone dies. We’re told lots about Anse’s reluctance to do hard physical work, but not whether he’s young or old, which would help us interpret this. Jewel bullies the brothers about and seems to be the oldest son; near the end of the book we find out he’s 10 years younger than Darl. (When someone has an entire novel about a set of brothers and we can’t tell which one is the oldest, they’ve failed.) I think Dewey Dell is a little girl, maybe thirteen, then find out near the end that she’s 17 and beautiful, and this is crucial information that would have helped me understand what she was doing all through the book.

CONCLUSION
I believe this could have been a better book if Faulkner had resisted the temptation of giving everybody their own sad story. The good stuff was diluted by too many chapters devoted to too many underdeveloped and under-integrated characters, especially Dewey Dell, who should’ve been eliminated from the book, and Vardaman, who got too much screen time, especially since his thoughts usually didn’t make sense. I also think that a book about a family should have some points where the family members understand each other and reach out to each other. The lack of that makes the novel something of a grotesque. If you want Southern Gothic, go for it.

The novel has many great things about it, mostly the way folks talk, the characters that are clearly-portrayed and interesting (Anse, Cash, and Vernon Tull), and the insights into why people do what they do. I should list a few of these:

– Anse, the father, is determined to bury his wife far away at Jefferson, when he hardly ever gets determined about anything, and it seems like he gets some sort of gratification out of the difficulty of it, as if it were a proof that he had hard luck.
– Vernon notes that Anse isn’t lazy about doing things, he’s lazy about changing what he’s doing, so that he hates to start a job, and then hates to stop it when he should.
– Vardaman, the little boy, beats the doctor’s horses because he blames the doctor for killing his ma. And he’s right. The doctor came; she saw him and decided it was time to die. The curious thing was that the father hated to call a doctor because of the expense, and yet at the last moment, when nothing could be done, the adults all believed that they had to call a doctor because that’s what one does, while only the little boy looked at the situation and saw it clearly.
– Darl is institutionalized, but Anse, Jewel, and maybe Cash are all crazier than he is.

I didn’t emphasize them because I’m so ticked off about it being admired and imitated for all the wrong reasons. It’s recognized as a classic for its use of stream of consciousness, and for its realistic portrayal of realistic people. I got more out of it than I did out of All the Pretty Horses, but I think its stream of consciousness was a gimmick, poorly done, that was part of a larger infuriating game Faulkner was playing called “confuse the reader”. The characters were not very representative of reality, and their portrayals were a mix, stylistically and in content, oscillating wildly between realistic and insightful, and fake and shallow. Most importantly, the family members didn’t seem to have a history with each other and their stories didn’t connect with each other. You could say that was a meditation on the loneliness possible in a large family, but I, having experience with large families, would call it sloppy writing. I find myself wondering whether someone in search of honest portrayals of country folk wouldn’t be better off reading a James Herriot book.

The Arian Heresy and the Fall of Rome

Standard

Before talking about the Arian [10] heresy and the fall of Rome, I should probably explain why it’s important to fiction.

The hardest problem in understanding what makes a story good or bad is figuring out what aspects of stories are important because of human nature, and what aspects are important to specific cultures. I approach this by looking for patterns in Western art across history. (I include literature, but it’s usually easier & quicker to see trends in visual art.) No properties of stories or of visual art have remained constant, but some recur continually, some usually appear together, and some never appear together.

The patterns in stories correspond to patterns in the priorities, beliefs, and hegemonic powers of the civilizations that made the stories [13]. Usually, people wrote about why they made art the way they did, and this is a good entry point into decoding the patterns. We can also form and test theories about these correspondences by looking at times when religion, art, politics, and technology had strong effects on each other. A rough summary of my conclusion is that there is an art of order and an art of chaos, and major artistic clashes represent political differences over whether society needs more order, unity, and stasis, or more freedom, diversity, and change.

This post is about one such time: the Arian controversy in the Christian church. I don’t care about the controversy itself; I’m interested in its political consequences. So I’ll spend little time on the theological disputes of the 4th century, and more on the wars of the 5th and 6th centuries.

Here I’m looking not at art, but at religion. The controversy is relevant to art because it used religion the same way art is sometimes used: it sublimated a political dispute into a dispute that was reputedly more high-minded and noble, and which, by virtue of being thought of as more noble, was ironically more able to incite people to kill.

The episode is interesting because the participants openly admitted how religion motivated their violence. Art may help inspire people to violence, as we’ll see in my posts on WW1 and WW2, but those people seldom admit it afterwards. Here we have, if anything, the opposite problem–the suspicion that people may have overstated the degree to which their violence was inspired by religion.

A cheap way of summarizing it would be to say that the Arian challenge was a bid for freedom of thought, and the Catholic response proved that they would rather destroy civilization than allow that. That overstates the degree to which it was a conscious choice, though. I still blame the Church for being unreasonable, but I don’t think the church elders meant to start a war. But when secular leaders needed (or wanted) to take military action, the links between church and state made most conflicts line up along the same axis across Europe.

By itself, this post may not seem relevant to understanding art. But with a series of similar posts, we can begin connecting the dots of art, religion, and politics. I’ve already written one giving an overview across history, one on the Iliad, one on medieval art which I need to rewrite, one on modernism and World War 1, and one on the Nazis and art. I also want to write one about the role of real numbers in the Renaissance, one on the similarities and differences between Stalinist, fascist, modern, medieval Catholic, and primitive art, and one tracing the cultures at war in America’s current political disputes back to the different cultures that colonized the United States. [12]

I’ve studied this history for a few weeks, and some people have studied it their entire lives, so this may be bollocks. But all of these posts are going to be like that.

That said, let’s look at one of the most literally epic fails in history, the story of how the Roman civilization tore itself to shreds and brought on the Dark Age thanks to a 500-year theological dispute over whether Jesus and God the Father were con-substantial, or merely of like essence.

If you don’t know what that means, don’t worry. None of the people who fought over it did, either.


[10] “Arian” and “Aryan” have nothing to do with each other, except that “Aryan” is sometimes misspelled “Arian”, and Google will often “helpfully” change “Arian” to “Aryan” in searches.

[12] I’d like to learn and write about the relationships between Romanticism and Marxism, and between the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and neo-classicism, though I’m afraid that may be prohibitively complex and time-consuming. In case I never post the one on the colonial US, I’d mostly be repeating stuff from Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. It’s like a cross between The Nine Nations of North America and Albion’s Seed.

[13] I have already concluded that the variability in literatures is greater than the variability in human nature, and that this is because hegemonic powers allow people to tell only the kinds of stories which the powers think are advantageous to them.

(The rest of the footnotes are at the end of the post.)


Rome and the Barbarians

One traditional date for the fall of Rome, that used by Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), is 476 A.D., when Flavius Odoacer deposed the Western Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus.

A problem with this date is that “Emperor” Romulus had been appointed Emperor by a rebel general, and was not recognized by the Roman Senate. Odoacer was not a Roman citizen, but was an officer in the Roman army, and had the support of the Roman Senate, and ruled Italy for many years afterwards in the name of Rome, in theory subordinate to the Senate and/or Emperor (when one existed), following Roman laws and maintaining Roman institutions. Saying Rome fell in 476 because Odoacer took over is a little like saying America fell in 1960 because an Irish-Catholic American became President.

Many history books say that the Germanic tribes became more and more important militarily in late Rome because Romans didn’t want to serve in the military anymore. This is an absurd claim which is either false, or is covering up the reason why Romans wouldn’t serve in the military. There must have been some reason–the Roman Senate couldn’t pay them, the Church said they shouldn’t, something. Possibly there were too few Romans to run an empire, or the Romans came to trust the Germans more as they became more Roman.

Anyway, the Western Roman Empire kept on Roming for many years after 476, but its people were increasingly of Germanic descent. They weren’t barbarians who burned Roman cities and destroyed their art. Often they built better buildings and made better art.

I included this famous mosaic of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian in a post I haven’t posted yet, as an example of how much better Roman and Dark Age art was than Christian representational art of the High Middle Ages.

It turns out this mosaic is as much barbarian as it is Roman. There’s a very similar mosaic in a nearby Arian basilica, made at the same time, likely by the same person, which is probably of the Ostrogoth emperor Theodoric. Both emperors are wearing not Roman crowns, but Lombard crowns, like this one:

Golden crown of the Langobardian queen Teodelinda, circa 590 [7]

The Justinian mosaic is in this basilica in Ravenna, Italy:

Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

The Romans had moved their capital to Ravenna by the time the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410. Odoacer, the barbarian of unknown ethnicity who overthrew the emperor in 476, did so in Ravenna. The Ostrogoths captured it in 493. The basilica was built during the rule of the Ostrogoths, for a Roman Catholic bishop, and paid for by a Roman citizen. It was started in 527 A.D. and finished in 547, 7 years after the Byzantine (Eastern) Romans conquered the city.

Is it Roman, or Ostrogothic? The distinction is meaningless. Ravenna was culturally Roman the whole time. The Ostrogoths were Arian instead of Catholic, but they didn’t interfere with Catholic worship.

The Ostrogoths have a more-secure claim to be the sole builders of this originally-Arian basilica:

Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

… and of Theodoric’s tomb:

The Visigoths weren’t shabby, either:

[1]

Oh, and the barbarians wrote books.

Codex Argenteus, circa 520 A.D., one of the three surviving books in Gothic

Books which have nearly all vanished today, because nobody copied them, because nobody could read them. [6] Because the people who made those buildings were replaced by the people who made… this one.

Baptistery of St. John, Poitiers, France

This was built by the Franks, the people who conquered Western Europe (except for Spain and Britain) from the other Germanic tribes in the name of defeating Arianism. It’s one of their most-impressive remaining pieces of architecture from that time.


The Arian Heresy

The early Catholic Church did not have a doctrine of the Trinity. They said that Jesus was definitely God, and God the Father was definitely God, but Jesus was definitely not God the Father. Also, Jesus was definitely God the Father’s son, but God the Father definitely did not exist before Jesus. The Arian heresy was the first of many attempts to make sense of that, all of which were declared heretical by today’s Catholic Church. It begins by saying Jesus was God’s begotten (biologically-ish fathered) son, since that was what the Bible appeared to say in several places.

The opponents of the Arians are sometimes called Athanasian, Trinitarian, Catholic, or Orthodox. Athanasian is too specific, the doctrine of the Trinity was not developed until the late 4th century, and Catholic and Orthodox effectively just mean “the winners.” I’ll use the term Nicene, because the first formulation in reaction against Arianism was the Nicene Creed. It says you have to believe the aforementioned contradictory things, and it’s a Mystery. The Nicenes say the Arians deny Jesus divinity, but that’s only if you use the Nicene definition of divinity.

Other ways of making sense of the Trinity include Monophysitism, which says that whatever Jesus is, he’s one kind of thing, can we agree on that? No; the official position is that Jesus has two natures at the same time, and it’s a Mystery. So a third position, Miaphysitism, tries to compromise between these positions…

… look, you really don’t want to know [2]. The point is that people killed each other and countries had wars and civil wars over “Christology”, the study of the ontology of Jesus, a thing not one person in Europe understood, because at base it made no sense. The Arian Wars were one part of an even larger, longer battle between people who wanted to make sense of the Trinity, and a Church which had taken a stand and would not tolerate dissent nor legitimize this dangerous “making sense” idea. A partial account is in Philip Jenkins’ The Jesus Wars, which I haven’t read, but which sounds like the most fun book ever written on 5th-century Christian theology. [8]

Fighting over it isn’t as stupid as it sounds, because one real issue at stake was freedom of thought [3]. The Arian Wars were the first conclusive test of the question, “Can Christians disagree with official Church doctrine on points that the Bible gives no remotely clear answer to, which have no effect on behavior or salvation, and that nobody understands anyway?” The Church’s determined answer [5] was, “No.” It was the principle of the thing. Arianism stood for free thought, and it had to be stamped out.


The Arian Wars

There are lots of theories over what caused “Rome’s” fall. If we restate this slightly and ask, “Why did Roman culture fall?” or “What caused the Dark Ages?”, the most-obvious answer is, “The Christology Wars.”

Googling “Arian Wars” turns up mostly pages about an online Star Wars roleplaying game. Here’s a quote from the first non-Star-Wars-related Google hit:

Gregory Nazianzen, who lived in Constantinople in the midst of the Arian wars, describes the division and hostility which this polemic spirit introduced between parents and children, husbands and wives, old and young, masters and slaves, priests and people. “It has gone so far that the whole market resounds with the discourses of heretics, every banquet is corrupted by this babbling even to nausea, every merrymaking is transformed into a mourning, and every funeral solemnity is almost alleviated by this brawling as a still greater evil; even the chambers of women, the nurseries of simplicity, are disturbed thereby, and the flowers of modesty are crushed by this precocious practice of dispute.”
–Philip Schaff, 1910, The Christian Church from the 1st to the 20th Century, vol 3, chapter 9, sections 117-119 (no page numbers)

Some more chosen at random:

The church was no fooner delivered from external opprefion, but unhappy differences were fomented within itſelf, and its concord broken by internal diffentions. Amongſt thefe, few were more fatal than the controverfies between Arius, a preſbyter of the church of Alexandria, and Alexander, a biſhop of the fame city, concerning the divinity of Jefus Chrift. This difpute confuſed, and deſtroyed, the peace of the church in almoſt every corner.
–Joseph Strutt, 1779, The Chronicle of England, part III, p. 206

The father of Constantius, Constantine the Great, is undoubtedly responsible for having communicated to Christianity that secular character, which, during succeeding centuries, gave the Church so much sway over the temporal affairs of the world, as totally for a time to submerge the spiritual simplicity of its original… The peace of the empire was disturbed by the conflicts between Arius and Athanasius. Constantius was an Arian, and, though our ecclesiastical writers were too courtly to charge on the emperor all the evils which his Arian bias occasioned, yet they spare no abuse in describing the pestilential nature of the doctrines. “The holy union,” continues Gildas, “between Christ the Head and the members of His Church, was interrupted by the Arian treason, which, fatal as a serpent, and vomiting its poison from beyond the sea, caused deadly dissension between brothers inhabiting the same house, and thus, as if a road were made across the sea, like wild beasts of all descriptions, and darting the poison of every heresy from their jaws,they inflicted dreadful wounds upon their country, which is ever desirous to hear something new, and remains constant long to nothing.”
–J. A . Giles, 1847, History of the Ancient Britons, chpt. 19, p. 313-314

Gildas was plagiarizing Bede:

The churches of Britain remained at peace until the time of the Arian madness, which corrupted the whole world and even infected this island, sundered so far from the rest of its mankind, with the poison of its error. This quickly opened up the way for every foul heresy from across the Ocean to pour into an island which always delights in hearing something new and holds firmly to no sure belief.
–Bede, 731, quoted in Rowley p. 79

The Lombard invasion [in 553] brought into the church’s territory a large number of refugees, and the Roman population recovered some of its old energy in the double hatred for barbarians and Arians.
–Williams, p. 531

Those quotes testify to a furor over Arianism in Rome and in three corners of the Roman Empire–Britain, Constantinople, and Alexandria. The city of Rome was ruled by Arian emperors from 335-378 [11] and 476-538, and had four waves of imperial persecution–three persecuting Arians, and one persecuting Niceans. Church and State were not separate; the Emperor ruled the Church and used it as a political tool–which meant schisms over doctrine were a form of rebellion against the Emperor. (The Empire during most of this time period had two emperors at the same time, which made this especially awkward when they disagreed.)

How important was Arianism and the Arian Wars?

Let’s look at a map of Europe in 500 A.D.:

Here’s a map of Europe in 500 A.D. [14], with diagonal white stripes across the Nicene territories and horizontal black stripes across the Arian territories:

europead500.jpg

Here’s another map, with diagonal white stripes across the territories of cultures that survived into the 9th century, and horizontal black stripes across the cultures that were conquered, enslaved, dispersed, or exterminated:

europead500.jpg

Notice it’s the same map.

The Arian Wars extended beyond this map. All of North Africa, and most of Syria and Armenia, were Arian or something like it–they all rejected the 451 A.D. Definition of Chalcedon, which was supposed to lay Arianism to rest. The parts of those areas that broke free of Rome were all reconquered by Justinian in the 6th century, then soon after overrun by Persians and/or Muslims.

All these people would have fought wars anyway. But it was the injection of a two-sided religious controversy into the political area that wrecked western Europe. Everyone had to line up on one side or the other of the religious controversy, and that polarization turned what had been an assortment of independent conflicts into one Great War of extermination. Ordinary conflicts would have resulted in treaties and shifting alliances, but the Arian Wars weren’t stopped until one side–the Arians–was eliminated. Some by the Franks, and the rest hung out to dry when the Muslim invasions came.

We call the Dark Age (~400-800 A.D.) “dark” because we don’t know what happened, because we have few books. History books say that classical writings fell out of use in the desperate Dark Age, only to be recovered in the 8th-9th centuries from Ireland, Spain, and Rome (Wolff), and in 12th-13th centuries from Constantinople (see e.g. Recovery of Aristotle). In other words, mostly from those areas of Europe which had not been Arian, and remained loyal to the Latin Church, and so kept copying books in Latin or Greek.

Well, maybe. But the Arians built cathedrals and monasteries. They had monks. Maybe they wrote books, and the Catholics burned the books because they were Arian, or let them rot because they couldn’t read them. Maybe the multiple cultural genocides of the Arian Wars, which saw the settled, sophisticated, Romanized, Arian “barbarian” cultures wiped out by the less-sophisticated Franks by 800 A.D., turned the centuries before them into a Dark Age retrospectively, and lost everything that had been set down in Gothic and other writing.

A civilization might make no books, or a civilization might make a lot of books–but three books? That’s like finding a civilization that made three automobiles.

“Guys, let’s make an alphabet. Then we’ll build a monastery and teach a bunch of monks how to read. Then we can train them in calligraphy, and develop parchment and inks and staining and bookbinding. Then we’ll learn how to inlay gold and silver leaf on the lettering. Then we can make a book.”

“No way, man. If we go to all that work, we ought to make, like, three books.”

It might seem unlikely that they could have written many books, and left only three–but how many Roman manuscripts are left? The Roman composition of which we have the most ancient copies, and which was by far its most-popular and most-quoted work–it’s said we could reconstruct the entire text from quotations of it–is the Aeneid, written in the first century B.C.. We have only four nearly-complete copies from the 4th and 5th centuries (Frieze & Dennison p. 24). All of our many other copies, are copies of copies of copies of copies of copies. Julius Caesar’s accounts of the Gallic Wars are perhaps the next most-famous and popular Roman writings, but there are no Roman copies of it–the oldest manuscripts are three partial copies made in the 9th century.

And how many of the writings of Arius do we have–the writings that began the Great Arian War, that were followed by all Western Europe at one time or another? Nothing but a few letters–because the Catholics burned everything else. The emperors Constantine and Honorius prescribed death for anyone who did not hand over any writings of Arius to be burnt (Penny Cyclopedia, “Office, Holy”, p. 406; many other sources as well). Emperor Theodosius also burned his writings. (I’m not sure he condemned people who hid his books to death, though that was standard Roman practice regarding books you didn’t want people to read.)

What would a good Catholic conqueror have done, confronted with a Gothic codex he could not read? Trust a Goth that it didn’t say anything Arian, and maybe risk death? Or burn it?


Emperor Constantine burning Arian books. Manuscript CLXV, Biblioteca Capitolare, Vercelli, Italy, 825.


The Importance of Pretending to be Earnest

Did any of these rulers, or their subjects, really care about doctrine?

As far as I can tell, some of them cared quite a lot about doctrine. The large fraction of emperors in the 4th and 5th centuries who adopted a position contrary to most of their subjects in this and other controversies, and so caused themselves great difficulties, suggests sincerity.

They certainly cared about what people said they cared about. Religious beliefs about things no one understood weren’t beliefs in any meaningful sense; they were political claims about who had religious authority. Why did the Byzantines ally in the Great War with the Franks, a still culturally-pagan people, against the Romanized Goths and Vandals? The only answer I’ve found in history books is, Because Clovis was Catholic. A Catholic whose subjects still sometimes made pagan sacrifices, but, hey, at least he wasn’t Arian. That was, as shown above, a Big Deal. The Byzantines couldn’t and wouldn’t ally themselves with Arians.

Let’s look at a little bit of the timeline–mostly the war parts–to see how much Arianism mattered.

 

325 A.D., Council of Nicea

This was the council emperor Constantine called to resolve the dispute between Arius and Athanasius. It produced the Nicene Creed and anathematized Arianism.

 

439 A.D., Vandal occupation of Carthage

I watched a BBC video on the fall of Carthage–the second fall, when the Vandals took it in 439–which said that the Vandals just walked into the city on a day with a really important set of Hippodrome races, and the Romans thought it was more important to finish the races than to fight them off.

This seems highly unlikely, but Wikipedia backs it up. And Wikipedia can’t be wrong!

I still thought that sounded fishy, so I looked to see if there were a religious aspect. There was. Carthage was the stronghold of Donatism, a Catholic heresy which began with “we don’t want to take communion from priests who cooperated with the persecution of Christians,” then progressed to “we won’t take communion from priests ordained by those priests,” and so on. It was persecuted severely by the Romans for over a hundred years (thanks largely to Augustine, patron saint of kicking the shit out of other Christians for obscure theological differences [9]) before the “fall” of Carthage. The Vandals were Arians, so they freed Carthage from the Roman church, which is what Carthage had been struggling for since about 313 AD. That’s probably why the Carthaginians let the Vandals walk in.

(Then the Vandals persecuted them for being Nicene.)

 

451 A.D., Council of Chalcedon, near Constantinople

This council met to try to resolve the Arian controversy. The result was a permanent estrangement between European Christianity, which accepted the council’s creed, and the Church in the Middle East and Africa, which did not. This critically weakened Byzantium and helped the Muslims conquer those regions which had split from the Roman church.

 

sometime by the 490s A.D., Franks conquer Western Roman Empire

Once Clovis had conquered all the Franks and Western Romans left to conquer, he wanted to keep on conquering his neighbors. To do that, he needed an alliance with somebody who wasn’t his neighbor, and the best candidate was the Eastern Romans (the Byzantines). This would be kind of awkward, as he’d just conquered what remained of independent Western Rome. How could he make peace with them?

 

variously reported as 493, 496, 497, or 498 A.D., Frankish king Clovis I converts to Catholicism

The pagan king Clovis suddenly converted to Catholicism, and all his people (according to Bishop Gregory of Tours) welcomed this change. So did the Byzantines. Now they had one potential Catholic ally in Europe.

 

507 A.D., defeat of the Visigoths by Clovis I of the Franks

Clovis said that he made war against the Visigoths to rescue his Germanic brethren from the Arian heresy. I have read a quote by him to this effect, but I can’t find it now, darn it. In any case, the Franks allied themselves permanently with the Roman Catholic church.

The Frankish monarchy became the ardent supporter of the papacy during the early Middle Ages. Frankish kings crossed the Alps many times to save the Roman bishop from his [Arian] enemies in Italy.
–Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, p. 123

It is evident, from the language of Gregory of Tours, that this conflict between the Franks and the Visigoths was regarded by the orthodox party of his own and preceding ages as a religious war, on which, humanly speaking, the prevalence of the Catholic or the Arian creed in western Europe depended.
–Walter Copland Perry, The Franks, from their first appearance in history to the death of King Pepin, p. 85.
This quote and many more from http://www.patmospapers.com/daniel/in508.htm

Among all the Germanic nations, the Franks alone had become Catholic from their first rise in the provinces of the Roman Empire. This acknowledgment of the Roman see had secured important advantages to the Frankish nation. In the Catholic subjects of their Arian enemies, the western Goths and Burgundians, the Franks found natural allies. We read so much of the miracles by which Clovis was favoured — how St. Martin showed him the ford over the Vienne by means of a hind, how St. Hilary preceded his armies
in a column of fire — that we shall not greatly err if we conclude these legends to shadow forth the material succours afforded by the [Nicene] natives to those who shared their creed, and for whom, according to Gregory of Tours, they desired victory “with eager inclination.”
–Williams, p. 525

The Great Arian War began in earnest at this point, as an alliance between the Franks, the Catholic Church, and the Byzantines, against all the rest of Western Europe and North Africa, and sometimes even the Persians, who synchronized their invasion of the Byzantine Empire with the Ostrogoths.

 

533-554 A.D., Justinian’s reconquista

This was the other major action in the Great Arian War. Justinian’s armies reconquered much of the Western Roman Empire from Arians in just 20 years, but the effort left his empire so weakened that it was torn apart from all sides almost immediately after he died in 565, leading directly to the Dark Age.

Justinian seems to have been genuinely interested in theology, but is usually said to have waged war motivated by the desire to recreate the Roman Empire. This was, however, in the wake of hostility between the Byzantines and the Ostrogoths created by the Arian controversy. All the monarchs in this conflict probably just wanted to fight and expand their land, but the interweaving of church and state made it impractical for anyone to ally with someone on the other side of the Arian controversy.

With the ascension of Justin I in 518, a more harmonious relationship seemed to be restored. Eutharic, Theoderic’s son-in-law and designated successor, was appointed consul for the year 519, while in 522, to celebrate the healing of the Acacian schism, Justin allowed both consuls to be appointed by Theoderic [the Arian Goth]. Soon, however, renewed tension would result from Justin’s anti-Arian legislation, and tensions grew between the Goths and the [Roman] Senate, whose members, as Chalcedonians [non-Arians], now shifted their support to the [Byzantine] Emperor.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ostrogothic_Kingdom

774 A.D., Charlemagne conquers the Lombards

Charlemagne conquered the Lombards, the last free Arians. Charlemagne was a fanatical Catholic, although his grasp of theology is questionable, as it was his practice to offer conquered people a choice between Catholicism, or death.

The Carolingian Emperor Charlemagne led a series of campaigns against the Saxons, a Germanic tribe, in order to pressure them to convert to Christianity. This included the destruction of the Saxons’ holy site at Irminsul and the massacre of 4500 Saxon captives at Verden in 782. Three years later the Saxon leadership and peoples surrendered and accepted baptism.
How Christianity came to Europe

Charlemagne called his empire the Holy Roman Empire, a name which was ridiculed in the 20th century. It is accurate, however, in that the Franks’ two main allies in the 300-year battle to create this empire were the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church.


In summary, it’s a reasonable hypothesis that Western Europe’s “Dark Age” of 400-800 A.D. appears dark mainly because Western Europe was ruled entirely by people who were wiped out, and their writings destroyed or simply not copied, in a 300-year-long war to wipe out Arianism and re-establish the Roman (Catholic) Empire.

Even if that’s not true, it seems that the Arian controversy increased the cultural destructiveness of the wars. Perhaps just as many battles would have been fought without the Arian controversy, but it does not seem likely that the large alliance needed to wipe out all six Arian kingdoms could have been maintained for 300 years if a two-sided religious dispute had not made alternative alliances impossible. What probably would have happened is that the different kingdoms would have fought each other sporadically, power-balancing politics would have favored the weak, and cultural transfer would have had more time to preserve knowledge of the period.

You might wonder whether or not people intended for their argument about religion to have these effects. If we’re asking about the “purpose” of religion, though, then this might not matter. If you think that religion is a product of rationality and proceeds rationally, then that would be a reasonable question. If you think religion evolved to serve a social function, then whether or not something was the intent of the human agents that caused it is irrelevant to whether that is its function.


[1] Lombards and Vandal architecture is, unfortunately, un-googlable, the Vandals because “vandal architecture” returns lists of vandalized architecture, and the Lombards because the region of Italy where they lived is called Lombardy and “Lombard architecture” is used for much-later Carolingian architecture built in Lombardy.

[2] If you really do want to know, start by word-searching your Bible for the phrase “only begotten”. You’ll find several verses calling Jesus God’s only begotten son, including the famous John 3:16. Here’s where that word came from:

Greek monogenes → Latin unigenitus → English “only-begotten”

Christians are still fighting over this translation. Orthodox Nicenes say that monogenes refers to something that is “the chosen one,” something in a special relationship. (The Wikipedia page on monogenes was written by such anti-Arian propagandists.) Evil heretics point out that ancient Greeks only used the word to refer to sons or daughters or metaphorical fatherings, so “genesis”, a kind of creation, is still part of the meaning in any case, so the word still imples that Jesus was a creation and the focus on “the special one” (the “mono” part) is a smokescreen. St. Jerome, who chose the word “unigenitus”, did so in the middle of a fierce Arian war in Rome itself in 383 A.D., and may have chosen that word to be anti-Arian, though I see it as pro-Arian. On the other hand, it’s the obvious literal translation of monogenes. It has been dropped from many modern translations–according to some Christians, for being pro-Arian, and according to others, for being anti-Arian.

The Arians have been dead for over a thousand years, so this continued vigilance against them might surprise you if you aren’t familiar with the Catholic Church. A better discussion of the issues re. the translations is here, and a reasonable defense of the orthodox view is here, and you can find many others, though honestly I don’t advise reading any of them. The discussion itself is ultimately nonsense–a twisting of words trying to find some way of resolving Bible passages that are either contradictory, or so metaphorical that they shouldn’t be interpreted in such corporeal ways. What’s important is its consequences.

[3] It may also have been a political power-play. Some contemporary historians think that the “Arian heresy” was the majority view of the original Church, and that the now-“orthodox” view was a doctrine that a radical group used to take over. Citation needed, but I’ve got to finish this and you can look it up yourself if you care. Personally, I think that the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were Arian, while the book of John and the writings of Paul were Nicene. I have a very high opinion of the authority of Mark; I think it’s the only book in the New Testament which might have information about the historical Jesus. I have a low opinion of the book of John and the writings of Paul; I consider them to be full of fanciful, invented theology, apparently written in ignorance of the events and the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels, and they contain most of the objectionable parts of the New Testament. Together with Revelations, they are the parts of the New Testament which should not have been included. So perhaps I would be Arian if I were Christian.

[5] It’s only fair to note that the people who turned the Arian controversy hot and dangerous were a series of Roman emperors–Constantine (mostly Nicene), Valentius (Arian), and Theodosius (Nicene).

[6] There are still some northern Italians who call themselves Lombards today, but AFAIK no Goths, Vandals, Burgundians, or Huns since the 7th century. What happened to them?

The Romans dispersed the Vandals. The Ostrogoths joined up with the Lombards. The Merovingian and Carolingian (Frankish) kings constantly raided their neighboring kingdoms for slaves (Wolff 1968), so it’s a good guess that the Franks enslaved the other tribes they conquered, which was all of Western Europe except Britain, Spain, and the heel of Italy. That may have been how serfdom originated. Procopius of Caesarea, a historian who travelled with the Roman general Belisarius, wrote that the Franks

began to sacrifice the women and children of the Goths whom they had found at hand and to throw their bodies into the river as the first fruits of war. For these barbarians , though they had become Christians, preserve the greater part of their ancient religion; for they still make human sacrifices and other sacrifices of an unholy nature, and it is in connection with these that they make their prophecies.
–(De Bello Gothico, 6.25.1-18)

However, he also wrote that Justinian was a demon whose head sometimes vanished, so take that with a grain of salt.

[7] This is weird, since neither the Romans nor the Ostrogoths were Lombards. Possibly Odoacer was. If anybody can clear this up for me, please do.

[8] In between the time when the Western Roman Empire tore itself apart over Christology, and the time when the Western and Eastern Church ruptured over Christology, the Eastern Roman Empire nearly destroyed itself over whether drawing pictures of saints was evil.

[9] Also patron saint of kicking your common-law wife and son out into the street in order to be ordained as a bishop.

[11] I’m counting Constantine I’s last 2 years as pro-Arian, because he recalled Arius from exile and exiled Athanaius.

[14] Based on one from timemaps.com.


References

The Venerable Bede 731. Ecclesiastical History. (Latin; Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum)

Earle E. Cairns 1954. Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church.

Henry Frieze & Walter Dennison, editors, 1902. Virgil’s Aeneid, Books 1-12. New York City: American Book Company.

J.A. Giles 1847. History of the Ancient Britons, from the Earliest Period to the Invasion of the Saxons. London: George Bell, 186 Fleet Street.

The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge 1840. Penny Cyclopaedia, vol. 16: Murillo–Organ. London: Charles Knight & Co., 22 Ludgate St.

Walter Copland Perry 1857. The Franks, from their first appearance in history to the death of King Pepin. London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts.

Sharon M. Rowley 2011. The Old English Version of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica. D. S. Brewer.

Philip Schaff 1910. The Christian Church from the 1st to the 20th Century.

Joseph Strutt 1779. The Chronicle of England; or, A compleat history, civil, military and ecclesiastical, of the ancient Britons and Saxons, from the landing of Julius Caesar in Britain, to the Norman conquest. London: Printed by Joseph Cooper for T. Evans in Pater Noster Row and Robert Faulder No. 42 New Bond Street.

Henry Smith Williams 1907. The Historians’ History of the World, vol 8: Parthians, Sassanids, and Arabs; the crusades and the Papacy. London & NYC: Hooper & Jackson.

Philippe Wolff 1968. The Cultural Awakening. New York: Pantheon. (A book on several key figures of the early middle ages.)

Writing: Plotters and pantsers in other walks of life, and Commedia dell’Arte

Standard

To plot, or not to plot?

You know about the eternal feud friendly debates between plotters and pantsers, right?  Plotters make a plot outline or at least know how a story will end before they write it.  (Seat-of-the)-pantsers don’t, saying they need the spontaneity to make characters come to life.

I have a book on management called Maestro: A surprising story about leading by listening.  It’s a story of an executive learning how to manage from a great orchestra conductor.  Partly, it’s about how the leader communicates a grand vision without micro-managing and in a way that allows the input of the players to influence the vision.

I just saw the title of another book, Organizational Jazz: Extraordinary performance through extraordinary leadership.  Presumably this is about an executive learning how to manage from a jazz band.  Presumably, this executive will not learn how to communicate a grand vision to his team, but how to train his team to work improvisationally.

It struck me that symphony orchestras are plotters, and jazz bands are pantsers.  (And, apparently, executives can be plotters or pantsers, too.)

This is a significant clue–that an entire genre of music may lend itself to either plotting or pantsing.

Computer programmers can also be plotters or pantsers.  A plotter makes a complete requirements specification, then does a top-down design.  Now, a coding pantser doesn’t just sit down and start writing code at the beginning, stop when she reaches the end, and try to compile it.  (Well, I started out writing code that way, and now I’ve written enough code that sometimes I can do it that way, but only to show off.)  A code pantser might not write down a list of requirements, but might instead start coding up little object classes that he’s pretty sure he’s going to need, in a bottom-up approach.  A code-pantser will probably use an incremental design, first developing the simplest version of the program that can run, maybe with lots of functionality dummied or stubbed.

People in other occupations can also probably be plotters or pantsers.  Parents, military leaders, and pickup artists can all plan what they’re going to do in detail, or wing it.  I don’t know, but I’m going to guess that not only are different people more inclined toward one approach or the other, but also one approach or the other is better for different kinds of kids, battles, and women.

 

Commedia dell’Arte

For an example closer to writing, consider live theater.  A performance can rely on plotting or pantsing actors.  Shakespeare wrote down every word for every actor.  At the same time, the most-popular performances on the continent were Italian Commedia dell’Arte. These were improvisational plays (usually comedies) in which the actors would, without the aide of a writer, construct by mere permutation one variation on a standard plot structure using a standard cast of characters, maybe rehearse it once, then jump on stage and improvise.

In a basic commedia scenario, there is an initial conflict between the older generation and the younger generation about the choice of a marital partner.  Through machinations of the old and the young, carried out by their servants, the conflict is eliminated, predominantly through the actions of the servants.  Additional complications occur through the middle of the plot, but all is eventually settled, ends happily, and the young people get married.

–Dina Ternullo,  Characters & Scenarios of Early Commedia dell’Arte (2016, The Compleat Anachronist #172), p. 33

Typically, the story would involve two noble houses, and at least one young man and young woman from opposite houses who fall in love over the objections of both houses’ patriarchs (C&SoECdA p. 38).  (The story would not involve love between people of the same gender or of different social classes.)

CdA operated in a time when the Italian Church and state were simultaneously weak and at odds with each other, and could be played off each other to avoid censorship and control.  The Church still forbade women to perform on stage, but the commedians just did it anyway, and this–having beautiful women perform in public–was one of their main appeals.  The improvisation was partly to evade censorship. The authorities couldn’t censor a script that didn’t exist.

The character of these two types of plays are radically different.  A Shakespeare play is tightly controlled; the actors, even in a farce, walk naturally and act somewhat like real people.  CdA, on the other hand, resembles a Keystone Kops show: rapid, out-of-control farce.  The pace is faster.  The actors exaggerate every line and every action wildly, stomping about on stage, shouting and being as emotional as possible.  The stomping and shouting of Commedia actors was one of the regular background noises at Pennsic.

The reason Shakespeare comedies are so bad is that Shakespeare was trying to adapt the Commedia for the English stage, as shown by the fact that many (most?) of his comedies are commedia scenarios using commedia characters, often set in an Italian city-state.  Commedia troupes were very popular, but weren’t allowed to perform in England because they used female actors.

According to Characters & Scenarios of Early Commedia dell’ArteTwelfth Night, which I think I’ve mentioned two or five times is a terrible play, was based on a 1532 commedia erudita (early Commedia dell’Arte) named Gli inganniti.  But the plot of a Commedia is farcical, and only goes over right with a farcical, pantser performance, not with naturalistic acting and Shakespearian elevated speech.  Shakespeare was possibly the worst possible playwright to try to adapt the Commedia.

On the other hand, changing a Commedia plot into a tragedy gave him Romeo and Juliet.

So a big part of the answer to “Plot or pants?” is probably, “Depends what you want to write.” I mean, obviously you want to plot a mystery novel. But some styles of story probably benefit from coming off the cuff. Say, a wacky absurdist comedy like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which Douglas Adams wrote like a fanfiction, writing each episode after broadcasting the previous one.

(Okay, that’s a lame and obvious conclusion. Mostly I wanted to tell you about Commedia dell’Arte.)

Review of the Iliad

Standard

Western civilization began with the ancient Greeks, and the ancient Greeks agreed unanimously that their religion, ethics, and poetry began with The Iliad. So that’s where my review of Western literature will begin.

The Greeks would have said “Homer”, and they would have meant the person who wrote at least The Iliad and The Odyssey. I haven’t done any stylometrics on ancient Greek, but even supposing it were meaningful to talk about the “person” who wrote either, I don’t think it’s useful to group the Iliad and the Odyssey together. The Iliad is a civilization-founding work of philosophy. The Odyssey is a boy’s adventure tale, not meriting special attention. It is more fun to read, though.

I remembered the Iliad as a surprisingly gutsy story for one so old, that took a tough look at the morality of war, duty, honor, and love. Then I read a plot summary of it, and realized I was remembering Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida instead.

When I read the thing itself, I initially hated it. All I saw was a badly-written story with revolting values praised to the heavens so old people who’d gone to Oxbridge could pretend to be the arbiters of taste. But over time, I saw its importance in Western history, and some of the genius behind it. The analysis I’ll present here is unique; nobody’s come to these conclusions before. But I don’t think they’re difficult. People are just stupid when they elevate something to the level of a scripture. It makes it impossible to see it for itself anymore.

Rating the Iliad as a 21st century American is a little silly. The Iliad is the exemplar of the values and aesthetics of its time. By reading it, we can learn how much humanity has changed in 2800 years, and how much it’s stayed the same. We can ask whether great literature is timeless or transient. So the Iliad is important.

What it isn’t, though, is a good read for a modern person. It turns out great literature isn’t timeless after all.

Did I read the whole thing? Absolutely not. I got halfway through before turning to condensed versions and the Cliffs Notes.

There are spoilers here. But come on. You’ve had 2,800 years to read it.

Which Iliad?

I tried Alexander Pope’s 1720 translation, which reads like a ghastly nursery rhyme:

The Greeks in shouts their joint assent declare,
The priest to reverence, and release the fair.
Not so Atrides; he, with kingly pride,
Repulsed the sacred sire, and thus replied:

Chapman’s 1598 translation is longer (230,000 words!), and only marginally better:

Achilles’ baneful wrath resound, O Goddess, that imposed
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls losed

Los-ed? Seriously?

I plunged ahead with Samuel Butler’s 1898 translation. It doesn’t try to versify; it renders it as prose. The words seemed stronger and easier to read. All three translations changed the names of the Greek gods into their Roman equivalents, which I found irritating and, frankly, disrespectful. Supposedly the Richmond Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald, Martin Hammond, and Rodney Merrill translations are much better, but they cost money. Oddly, for the most renowned story in Western literature, I had a hard time finding a pirated copy. There are free online versions by Ian Johnston and Anthony Kline (2009).

(Pirates are probably all reading the Odyssey.)

I eventually found Robert Fagles’ 1990 translation, which is free verse. It has a poetic feel like Butler’s, with meter and consonance, without grasping at weak words to fill in the meter, or falling into sing-song whine as Chapman and Pope do.

If you really want to try reading the thing, try the abridged Ian Johnston (pdf here.) It’s only 50,000 words, and this sucker is at least 150,000 words otherwise.

Judging the Iliad in 2018: The Aesthetics

Reading the Iliad in 2018 demands an answer to the question of whether there is a timeless, objective “good” for literature. This story was valued far above all others throughout ancient Greece–it was heresy to say otherwise–and was the most-popular candidate for greatest work of fiction of all time at least until the 19th century, and maybe until James Joyce’s Ulysses. [1] Since that claim has been made, I’ll evaluate The Iliad aesthetically first.

It’s easy to point out that the Iliad is formulaic, unstructured, and about 5 times as long as it ought to be, but this is a feature, not a bug. The text we see may be more like the source code to the Iliad than like what most ancient Greeks heard. A bard would memorize the whole thing, then tell each audience just the parts he thought they’d be most-interested in, or that they had time for. That’s why it’s so formulaic and unstructured. It’s modular: you can skip paragraphs or whole chapters without missing much. This makes the Iliad a bad model for written fiction. Oral poetry can be tailored by a good bard to a specific audience, but in return it gives up the power of a complex, dramatic, thematically-unified structure.

The Good

There are many poetic lines. But I can’t tell how much is the poetry of Homer, and how much that of the translator. I like this translation by Fagle:

Like the generation of leaves, the lives of mortal men.
Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth,
now the living timber bursts with the new buds
and spring comes round again. And so with men:
as one generation comes to life, another dies away.

But Butler’s translation is trite and obvious:

Men come and go as leaves year by year upon the trees. Those of autumn the wind sheds upon the ground, but when spring returns the forest buds forth with fresh vines. Even so is it with the generations of mankind, the new spring up as the old are passing away.

Which was Homer?

Here Stanley Lombardo’s translation has poetry:

“Who could blame either the Trojans or the Greeks
For suffering so long for a woman like this.
Her eyes are not human.
Whatever she is, let her go back with the ships.” (III, 164-167)

where Fagles’ translation has none:

Who on earth could blame them? Ah, no wonder
the men of Troy and Argives under arms have suffered
years of agony all for her. for such a woman.
Beauty, terrible beauty!
A deathless goddess–so she strikes our eyes!
But still,
ravishing as she is, let her go home in the long ships.

Homer uses powerful, clean language, full of quick metaphors, similes, and bits of physical detail. He maintains a heroic style but seldom falls into purple prose. This comes across best in the prose translations:

Thus did he pray, and Apollo heard his prayer. He came down furious from the summits of Olympus, with his bow and his quiver upon his shoulder, and the arrows rattled on his back with the rage that trembled within him. He sat himself down away from the ships with a face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his arrow in the midst of them. First he smote their mules and their hounds, but presently he aimed his shafts at the people themselves, and all day long the pyres of the dead were burning.

Now and then he adds little details that make me think, yeah, this guy might have fought in a war.

With these words she put heart and soul into them all, while Minerva sprang to the side of the son of Tydeus, whom she found near his chariot and horses, cooling the wound that Pandarus had given him. For the sweat caused by the hand that bore the weight of his shield irritated the hurt: his arm was weary with pain, and he was lifting up the strap to wipe away the blood.

But there are few instances like this–so few that, I know from experience, he could have gotten all of them by talking to a few guys in a bar. And there are other instances where those little details are clearly fabricated:

Antilochus rushed towards him and struck him on the temples with his sword, whereon he fell head first from the chariot to the ground. There he stood for a while with his head and shoulders buried deep in the dust–for he had fallen on sandy soil–till his horses kicked him and laid him flat on the ground, as Antilochus lashed them and drove them off to the host of the Achaeans.

The work from later times which it resembles most in style (AFAIK) is Beowulf, but it’s surprisingly similar, even in 18th and 19th-century translations, to American fiction post-Hemingway: strong verbs, few adverbs, and a nearly-neutral external viewpoint that, more than most literature after it, shows instead of telling. The bard comments on the courage and strength of the characters, but reviewers don’t notice that he’s usually silent on the larger moral questions. Is Achilles’ rage justified? When does pride become a vice? This is a key question everywhere, but Homer doesn’t answer it. Men and gods argue, and don’t agree. Western writers failed to learn “show, don’t tell” from Homer for 2,700 years, despite chanting all the while that writers must only imitate Homer. People are stupid.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, in a 1766 essay, “Laokoon”, explains why (in his opinion) paintings of Homer’s scenes are boring: Homer describes things with actions and histories, not images. When he wants to describe Agamemnon’s armor, he doesn’t pause the action to describe it; he has Agamemnon put it on, piece by piece. When he wants to describe the bow of Pandarus, he describes how it was made. He would rather describe the history than the appearance of people and things. All those swords whose histories Tolkien describes so lovingly–that’s straight from Homer. And the histories tell you more important things about them than a description would.

He renders few authorial opinions other than whether a man was courageous, wise, generous, or of noble or divine descent. He doesn’t say whether the war, or Achilles’ pride, or Zeus’ lies, are moral or immoral. He has other characters comment on these things, but when one god accuses Achilles of pride, another speaks in his defense, and Homer doesn’t say which is right. Most interpreters don’t seem to notice this, reading their own prejudices into Homer. My reading is that Homer was saying that even the gods can’t agree what’s wrong and what’s right, so forget about it and do whatever brings you personal honor.

The poetry in the original Greek is supposedly really special. Here’s a New Yorker article describing how Homer supposedly used stress patterns to imitate the sounds of a raging sea.

 

The Bad

The Iliad is often praised for the distinctness of its characters. I don’t see it. The major characters differ in wisdom, restraint, cleverness, and bravery, but all have the same values and the same tiresome heroic cast, and all but Hector are narcissistic and brutal.

Homer repeats sentences and entire paragraphs frequently. I imagined at first he was going for some hypnotic effect, like the chorus of a song. But I can’t see it, given the great differences in repetition length, spacing, and similarity of context. It seems to me the bard was just being lazy. Some of this repetition just needs a pass from an editor:

The earth groaned beneath them as when the lord of thunder is angry and lashes the land about Typhoeus among the Arimi, where they say Typhoeus lies. Even so did the earth groan beneath them as they sped over the plain.

The dramatic structure is also repetitive. A well-constructed story has a dramatic arc, driven by the decisions of the key characters, with rising action, a climax, and a reversal hinging on some realization related to the theme. There is an identifiable climax in the Iliad, when Achilles finally decides to fight, but before it are 100,000 words of formulaic repetition: One side is about to win the war. Some god interferes and turns the tide. Repeat. I can’t even count how many times this happened. The characters wash up and down the battlefield with the regularity of tides, at the whims of the gods.

It’s formulaic on a fine scale as well. Each battle is merely a string of individual fights, and each fight gives a name, a city of origin, a parentage, a brief history, and an entrance wound for the loser. Piling up hundreds of deaths of walk-ons adds horror, but not weight. It’s like the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan”: numbing, but not grieving. Here’s a typical passage:

First, Ajax son of Telamon, tower of strength to the Achaeans, broke a phalanx of the Trojans, and came to the assistance of his comrades by killing Acamas son of Eussorus, the best man among the Thracians, being both brave and of great stature. The spear struck the projecting peak of his helmet: its bronze point then went through his forehead into the brain, and darkness veiled his eyes.

Then Diomed killed Axylus son of Teuthranus, a rich man who lived in the strong city of Arisbe, and was beloved by all men; for he had a house by the roadside, and entertained every one who passed; howbeit not one of his guests stood before him to save his life, and Diomed killed both him and his squire Calesius, who was then his charioteer–so the pair passed beneath the earth.

Euryalus killed Dresus and Opheltius, and then went in pursuit of Aesepus and Pedasus, whom the naiad nymph Abarbarea had borne to noble Bucolion. Bucolion was eldest son to Laomedon, but he was a bastard. While tending his sheep he had converse with the nymph, and she conceived twin sons; these the son of Mecisteus now slew, and he stripped the armour from their shoulders. Polypoetes then killed Astyalus, Ulysses Pidytes of Percote, and Teucer Aretaon. Ablerus fell by the spear of Nestor’s son Antilochus, and Agamemnon, king of men, killed Elatus who dwelt in Pedasus by the banks of the river Satnioeis. Leitus killed Phylacus as he was flying, and Eurypylus slew Melanthus.

Butler’s translation is 153,000 words long. About 40,000 of those words are variations of the above. (I estimated using random samples.) Pick a hero; make up a name for a victim, a few facts about his history, and an entry and exit wound. Repeat. This is the inventiveness that Alexander Pope calls “the greatest invention of any writer whatever” by “the greatest writer that ever touched the hearts of men by the power of song.”

Heroes spout great monologues in the middle of heated battle, digressing like Tristram Shandy:

When they were close up to one another Diomed of the loud war-cry was the first to speak. “Who, my good sir,” said he, “who are you among men? I have never seen you in battle until now, but you are daring beyond all others if you abide my onset. Woe to those fathers whose sons face my might. If, however, you are one of the immortals and have come down from heaven, I will not fight you; for even valiant Lycurgus, son of Dryas, did not live long when he took to fighting with the gods. He it was that drove the nursing women who were in charge of frenzied Bacchus through the land of Nysa, and they flung their thyrsi on the ground as murderous Lycurgus beat them with his oxgoad. Bacchus himself plunged terror-stricken into the sea, and Thetis took him to her bosom to comfort him, for he was scared by the fury with which the man reviled him. Thereon the gods who live at ease were angry with Lycurgus and the son of Saturn struck him blind, nor did he live much longer after he had become hateful to the immortals. Therefore I will not fight with the blessed gods; but if you are of them that eat the fruit of the ground, draw near and meet your doom.”

(Glaucus’ reply is three times as long.)

And here’s where the Iliad really falls down: Even after we recognize that Homer’s themes are repugnant to us, his characters unsympathetic, his plot unbelievable, what still draws people to the Iliad is the action. But the action is not that good.

Homer’s description through actions and histories rather than images may have been a virtue made of necessity: he’s a wiz at describing the sound and the feel of things, but seems unable to visualize anything. Maybe he really was blind. We have no idea what Troy looks like, how big it is, how high its walls are, or how close to the sea it is. About halfway into the Iliad we learn it’s near a bay with a sandy beach, and that’s it for description. We have no idea what the land they’re fighting on looks like or how large it is. In battle, we seldom have any idea where anyone is standing. Each duel seems to take place in its own separate misty no-man’s land, with endless room around it for chases on foot and in chariots [2]. So there is no larger tension about the ebb and flow of the battle. It is a grinding recital of who killed whom, and what their lineages were.

A battle, like a story, has structure. It changes over time. The changing tides of battle can be managed as a dramatic arc, to provide suspense. Homer can’t do that, because he hasn’t visualized any of the fights, and so can’t say how they come together to make a battle. There are no causal relations between the elements. There are no tactics, no logistics, no terrain, no real planning, no cavalry charges or infantry maneuvers, no successful use of phalanxes [3], no shifting front lines, no confusion. So there is no dramatic structure to the battles or to the war. We simply watch people being killed until some random events changes the tide at the last moment.

So the bulk of the Iliad is a series of formulaic events, strung together without causal connection, interspersed with irrelevant monologues, which progress in one direction until some random event turns things around and moves them in the other direction. This is not the structure of a good book; it’s the structure of a daytime soap opera.

 

Judging the Iliad in 2018: The Ethics

You wanna talk about oppression? This is a world in which murder, rape, and theft aren’t just good, they’re the greatest good. A man is esteemed according to how many men he’s murdered, how many beautiful women he’s raped, and how much stuff he’s stolen.

The Iliad is about a bunch of guys fighting over who gets to rape whom. The Greeks have come to Troy to stop Paris raping Helen. Apollo fights the Greeks because Agamemnon won’t stop raping his priest’s daughter Chryses. Agamemnon has to give up Chryses, so he takes Briseis instead, whom Achilles had wanted to rape, and Achilles stomps off in a huff and prays to his mother Thetis to help the Trojans kill his fellow Greeks. Women are literally trophies; they give them away as awards at sports competitions. Whenever I find some 19th-century Victorian scholar who would have been shocked to see a woman’s ankle in public go on about the Iliad containing all of the ethics needed for civilization, I consider it a vindication of Freud. Throughout history, the more sexually repressed England was, the more its men loved the Iliad.

Homer doesn’t angst over the cycle of violence, either. One of the few places where the narrator expresses a moral opinion is in upholding the obligation for revenge:

Then Menelaus of the loud war-cry took Adrestus alive, for his horses ran into a tamarisk bush, as they were flying wildly over the plain, and broke the pole from the car; they went on towards the city along with the others in full flight, but Adrestus rolled out, and fell in the dust flat on his face by the wheel of his chariot; Menelaus came up to him spear in hand, but Adrestus caught him by the knees begging for his life. “Take me alive,” he cried, “son of Atreus, and you shall have a full ransom for me: my father is rich and has much treasure of gold, bronze, and wrought iron laid by in his house. From this store he will give you a large ransom should he hear of my being alive and at the ships of the Achaeans.”

Thus did he plead, and Menelaus was for yielding and giving him to a squire to take to the ships of the Achaeans, but Agamemnon came running up to him and rebuked him. “My good Menelaus,” said he, “this is no time for giving quarter. Has, then, your house fared so well at the hands of the Trojans? Let us not spare a single one of them–not even the child unborn and in its mother’s womb; let not a man of them be left alive, but let all in Ilius perish, unheeded and forgotten.”

Thus did he speak, and his brother was persuaded by him, for his words were just. Menelaus, therefore, thrust Adrestus from him, whereon King Agamemnon struck him in the flank, and he fell: then the son of Atreus planted his foot upon his breast to draw his spear from the body.

The Iliad’s ethics are grotesque by our standards, but were appropriate for Homer’s times (the Greek Dark Ages), and for the centuries after when Greece fought Persia. They needed a reputation for ruthlessness against their enemies, and they needed brave fighting men at any cost, even that of reducing half of their population to commodities. This is why great literature is not timeless.

Actually, this is an interesting point: Who needed brave fighting men at any cost? Answer: The men did. If we look at tribal societies, conflicts between neighbors were usually over territory or over women. “Territory”, however, really meant “the territory of a group of males”, in the same way that it does for birds. Females were always welcome. You could argue that tribes, cities, and civilizations were things men built to keep other men from stealing their women. That is, in fact, what the Iliad is about: the Greeks trying and repeatedly failing to achieve civilization-level cooperation in order to stop the Trojans from stealing their women (Helen).

The result, though, was to value fighting men so highly that civilization wasn’t a very good deal for women. Maybe they would have been better off without it if it weren’t for the tendency of men to kill the babies of the women they captured.

In fact, the main ethical take-away I get from the Iliad is that there are way too many of these damn men. They’re pests, like swarms of flies. They are just getting in the way, building walls around cities, standing outside of cities, preventing people from farming, making other men lay down their hoes and pick up swords, and eventually killing or raping everybody. And then they write non-ironic literature glorifying doing all that stuff.

If the birth ratio were, say, 4 women to 1 man, things would be just about perfect [4]. We have the technology to make this happen today. I say, go for it. Kickstarter, anyone?

The historical position of the Iliad, right at the beginning of Greek civilization, and its focus on the construction of a civilization as a method to maintain access to women, highlights the importance of sex to civilization. Society is, at root, how we decide who gets to have sex with whom. Men deny that society tries to control women. Women deny their sexual power over men. Hence we argue and argue and ignore the fundamental issues.

 

Judging the Iliad in 2018: The Philosophy

Okay. Now that I’ve got that out of my system: the Iliad is important as philosophy, not as … fiction. I was going to say “literature”, but the Iliad literally defined what literature was: a triad of fiction, philosophy, and ethics.

There are several really interesting things about the Iliad. The first is that it’s the Greek national story, but the Greeks are all assholes. The only admirable, likable character is Hector, son of King Priam and the leader of the Trojan warriors. He even gets a cute scene playing with his baby son. (By contrast, the leader of the Greeks, Agamemnon, sacrificed his daughter to Artemis so the fleet could have winds to sail to Troy.)

The second is that the Iliad is usually interpreted as a condemnation of the pride (“hubris”) of Achilles, but the text doesn’t support that. I looked for it, and it isn’t there, except in the first line in Chapman’s translation, which I suspect is Chapman’s own interpretation [5]. Achilles is very, very proud, but he is also very, very great, and the text explicitly says that great men should act proud, demand respect and submission from their inferiors, and not tolerate insults.

The plot resembles 20th-century absurdist theater. The characters are all nearly helpless. Agamemnon is a shitty “king” [6] who no one likes. He’s greedy, ungrateful, disliked, impetuous, murderous, deceptive, foolish, and has kept the Greeks here to fight a pointless war that isn’t worth the trouble even if they win. The smart thing to do would either be to go home, or to work out a deal or compromise with the Trojans, and the Greeks try to do both. Nothing ever works. The Greeks should be able to walk right over the Trojans, but they cause themselves more problems than the Trojans do, and if some stupid Greek doesn’t mess things up, some god does. They are stuck on Troy’s shores like Estragon and Vladimir are stuck waiting for Godot, and the first half of the plot, for all its deaths, is about as consequential as the first half of Waiting for Godot. Neither side wants to fight, and neither side wants Helen–most of the Greeks don’t care, and most of the Trojans would like to throw either Paris or her over the walls–yet they keep fighting and fighting.

And Homer is weirdly okay with that. He’s like, That’s just how the world is. That guy over there is just like you, and he doesn’t want to fight, and you don’t want to fight, but you gotta fight, and one of you has to die.

The most-important odd thing about the Iliad is that its heroes have no morality. When I say “morality”, I mean “a code of behavior which demands actions from a person which do not benefit that person sufficiently to be worth her while.” We’re so used to morality that we see it everywhere, but it isn’t in the Iliad. If a hero does something brave, or shows mercy to an enemy, it’s because he expects to get something from it. He isn’t doing it for the sake of his nation (he doesn’t have one) or even his tribe, and certainly not for his god (unless he hopes to get something from his god). (Maybe for his brother, but loyalty doesn’t feature prominently in the Iliad.) The things that appear to be exceptions to this amorality, I’ll argue, are what the Iliad is about.

The Iliad is the foundational story of Greek civilization because its question is how to build a civilization. It posits a world in which men are selfish, war is inevitable, reason and kindness are helpless, and morality–what’s that? The Greeks and the Trojans must fight, and one side must die. To live, a side needs many great warriors to work together.

And there’s the rub. The Greeks have come together for this great collective deed, the siege of Troy, and they’ve got the manpower and the talent, but not the organizational skills. To be a great warrior, a man must be proud, violent, and high-spirited, but when you bring hundreds of proud, violent, high-spirited men together, they fight each other. To defeat the Trojans, many Greeks must die, but the treasures to be won aren’t rationally worth the risk to the individuals fighting. The puzzle the Iliad poses in the persons of Achilles and Hector is, How do we train selfish men to be violent killers, and then convince them not to fight each other, but to die for their nation?

The answer is clever. You might call it evil, but let’s remember that it worked. Remember the Greeks were not Christians. They weren’t trying to convince men to win treasures in heaven, or to fight because it was the Right Thing to Do. The Greeks had gods who were assholes. They had no transcendental realm or God governing right and wrong. They were basically Nietzschians.

This is a hard thing for Christians to grasp. They think morality has to be dictated or revealed by some transcendent being. The Greeks did not believe that. They had what Christians would consider an unspiritual worldview. Their gods were not transcendent beings. They were just big frat boys. Zeus said how things would go down, and you’d be foolish to oppose him, but that didn’t make him right or just. Humans had to choose what to do on their own. Prometheus was a hero for defying the gods.

So the Iliad invented self-interested, libertarian, civic virtue.

Achilles is sitting in his tent, and warriors come and try to persuade him to join the fight. He knows [7] that if he fights, he will die but win everlasting glory, while if he does not fight, he will return home and live to old age [8]. So why should he fight?

Hector is behind the walls of Troy, and faced with growing discontent from the Trojans, who want him to hand over Helen to the Greeks. He wants to hand over Helen to the Greeks instead of fighting. If he fights, he and his family will die. Homer devoted scenes to showing how much Hector loves his family. So why should he fight?

They should fight, the Iliad argues (though not directly), because life is overrated. Life is an endless cycle of flailing about helplessly in a universe that doesn’t care. Life is being the plaything of the gods. The best thing for you, personally, is to win glory for yourself; that’s more valuable than more of this life stuff. It doesn’t last anyway.

This was a very interesting pivot point in the history of the West. This was a point where the West could have veered left like everybody else, but veered right instead. The obvious choice was for Homer to say that a man should fight for his people because he loves them and he loves his family and wants to defend them. The obvious choice would be to say civilization should be based on morality.

Homer didn’t do that. He said civilization should be based on selfishness.

And that’s when Western civilization was created.

On that hypothesis, the Greeks built a civilization of nation-states, each defended by amoral, basically irreligious warriors, who were willing to give their lives for their state for selfish reasons. And then it was this small civilization, in which men were encouraged and expected to do great deeds to seek their own glory, that almost immediately had the greatest, most intense burst of artistic and intellectual creativity and inventiveness in the world’s history.

Selfish civic virtue was eventually diluted by morality, but the West still honors selfishness and individuality more than other civilizations. This is a large part of why the West has been so successful.


[1] Joyce meant for his book to bring in a new era of literature. Its quick victory over public opinion was the result of a careful propaganda campaign which Ezra Pound had been laying the groundwork of for years. Joyce chose for this purpose to retell a story of Homer’s, not to honor Homer but to bury him, to turn Homer on his head and declare that everything had changed, that what had been good was now bad and what had been bad was now good.

(Joyce chose an easy target; Homer had been turned on his head, one way or another, many times before: by Euripides, by the Christian church, by Shakespeare, by the Enlightenment, by the 19th-century naturalists.)

[2] The word “phalanx”, the key component of Greek warfare, appears only four times. One of them describes a march to the battle; the other three describe a lone hero easily smashing through a phalanx.

[3] There is support for this view of Dark Ages Greek war in The Warrior State: How Military Organization Structures Politics by Everett C. Dolman, page 51-55:

Battles [in 1000-800 BCE, at least 200 years after the alleged Trojan War, but during the accepted time of Homer] were exclusively characterized by groups of high-born champions facing each other in single combat, and were “fluid, free-for-all encounters in which the great aristocrats of one state dueled with those of another.” … Military rank was bestowed as a birthright, and promotion was based on noble association…. about 900 BCE the individual had almost no rights, being absorbed into a totalitarian kinship group, in a system of such groups with no state and no real idea of public authority…. The phalanx formation probably developed between 750 and 650 BCE…. The Homeric Kings, who went out before their people to challenge their equals in single combat, had no place in the phalanx… A dominant leader was, in the age of the phalanx, not a heroic warrior, but a master tactician and organizer.

This would explain why Homer doesn’t use the phalanx correctly, though not how he mentions it at all, if it hadn’t been invented when he wrote, let alone when the events took place hundreds of years before. But that could easily be a later interpolation; the earliest full manuscript of the Iliad is from the 9th century A.D.

[4] So why is the birth ratio 1:1? Very good question! It’s not like fixing that would be too complicated for evolution. I don’t know the answer, but I suspect it’s group selection, more specifically the evolution of traits that enable evolution. Most selection in mammals is probably not the result of animals dying, but of males failing to breed. Producing too many males and then forcing them to fight it out over females is the most-important selection mechanism. Western monogamous societies circumvent this. This slows most evolution, but increases the force of kin selection, because a person growing up in a monogamous culture shares half her genes with her siblings, as opposed to between 1/4 and 1/2 in a polygamous culture. This means monogamous societies should, over time, produce people who are stupid and weak, but very nice to each other and cooperative. Quite a conundrum for those trying to decide which is “better”.

[5] Tip: If you’re going to translate something, don’t start at the beginning and translate as you go. Read it first. I remember the Reader’s Digest condensed edition of the Bible. The last paragraph of the Bible says, “If anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city.” They decided to leave that out.

[6] Agamemnon isn’t the king of the Greeks. He’s the warlord with the most men.

[7] We think Achilles knows! This is Homer’s most-critical screw-up. We really need to know whether Achilles knows this or not, but Achilles gives several reasons for not fighting, and it isn’t clear which is his real reason, and it isn’t clear whether he was really told this prophecy, or is making it up for his own purposes.

[8] There is a great irony in interpreting Achilles’ dilemma in light of the further history of the Greeks. It was the philosophers of Athens, not the warriors of Sparta, who brought ancient Greece the most undying fame and glory. Yet the philosophical Greece did not survive long–only about a hundred years from Euripides to Alexander the Great. The decision that faced Greece at the dawn of its golden age, had they known it, may have been the obverse of that faced by Achilles: continue to honor valor in combat above all, and survive, or dare a hundred years of free thought, and die, but with everlasting glory.

Pretentiousness comes from modern art comes from Plato

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Ross James just posted a great essay, Annihilation — on Pretentiousness in Media. I feel like he’s saved me a blog post; I would’ve had to have written something similar eventually.

It’s on his Patreon site, but if I’m reading the tags right, it’s free to read. Some excerpts:

… if being entertaining was the primary objective of media, The Room would be a fantastic movie. We can say that The Room is a terrible movie while also being entertained by it, so we need to understand what other criteria we are thinking about when we call a movie ‘good’ or ‘bad’. … The danger is that when your meaning isn’t clear, when your story isn’t well delivered, the criticism doesn’t get directed at the work. …

A symptom of this is, strangely, a certain style of debate about the analysis of your movie. In a well-constructed movie, ideas about what something means are tied back to elements of the movie as evidence. [Analyzing?] Movies that fall into the pitfall of pretension — or the kind I have roughly laid out in my mind — are more about explaining what a scene had to mean by tying ideas to it. Think about the debate about the spinning top in Inception; they focus on trying to debate what scenes were actually trying to say first before they can work out what they actually meant.

In other words: If you’re spending more effort trying to figure out what the story said than you are re-evaluating your beliefs in light of what the story said, the story may be pretentious. If the story is difficult because the subject matter is difficult, that’s legit, but if it’s difficult because the author didn’t try to make it clear, or deliberately made it unclear, that’s pretentious.

(I’m okay with the spinning top in Inception, because the question left unanswered, as to whether the final world is real or not, is a question the characters are themselves asking. It’s not something you have to answer to interpret the story; it’s part of the story.)

James’ essay elaborates on this. He doesn’t, however, explain where this trend over the past century for “great” art to be pretentious came from. It’s actually deliberate.

Persian Flaws

There’s supposedly an old Persian tradition that every carpet made must have a deliberate flaw in it, because “only Allah makes things perfectly, and therefore to weave a perfect rug or carpet would be an offence to Allah.”

Hopefully you see the flaw in the reasoning: If only Allah makes things perfectly, you don’t have to worry about creating something perfect. This alleged tradition has always struck me as tremendously arrogant–an artist supposing she or he could create a perfect work.

Modern (20th-century) art and literature suffers the same arrogance. We see this first in the great stress that modern artists and modernist writers placed on reminding the viewer or reader that their art was not reality, but just a picture of reality.

Caption: “This is not a pipe”

The most-common justification for this obsession was the idea that art was a tool of the bourgoisie, used to suppress the proletariat by showing them false images of reality. Creating revolutionary consciousness required first making people aware that the paintings they looked at weren’t actually real things, and that the novels they read weren’t true life stories. You can find examples of this argument in Bertolt Brecht’s director’s notes for The Threepenny Opera (1928), in Lennard Davis’ 1987 book Resisting Novels, and an especially paranoid lunatic version of it in Theodor Adorno’s 1944 “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”.

So many modernist writers add deliberate “flaws” to their works, disruptive elements to break the reader’s immersion and keep the reader detached and at a distance.  In The Threepenny Opera, Brecht broke up the play’s continuity and immersiveness by having actors intersperse narration with raised billboards, of the type that separated scenes in silent films, by using these billboards to break dramatic tension by telling the spectator what was going to happen, and by directing the actors to act in a manner meant to break the fourth wall. “In drama, too, we should introduce footnotes and the practice of thumbing through and checking up… Thinking about the flow of the play is more important than thinking from within the flow of the play,” he wrote. “The spectator must not be misled along the path of empathy.”

In other modernist literature, breaking the reader’s immersion is done by breaking up and re-arranging the story in ways that confuse the reader and destroy rather than heighten drama, such as the tedious circling about the actual story, bouncing back and forth between past and future, in Arundhati Roy’s 1997 Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things, or the way David Mitchell split all his stories in two and inserted the pieces inside each other in his critically-acclaimed Cloud Atlas (2004).  You would be hard-pressed to find a critically-acclaimed novel from the past 20 years that told a straightforward story using a traditional structure that was meant to heighten rather than dispel drama. Chapter 1 of Annie Dillard’s 1982 Living By Fiction, “Fiction in Bits”, is about this phenomenon, as is much of “A Reader’s Manifesto” (2001).

One modernist technique for breaking immersion and creating distance is ambiguity.

Ambiguity

I’m not complaining about the kind of ambiguity where you can’t decide whether an artwork’s message is right or wrong, or the kind where the subject is difficult, or the kind where the subject is ambiguity itself. I mean ambiguity that is added to the story to obstruct your attempts to figure it out. That’s the kind of ambiguity Ross James is calling pretentious: ambiguity that makes you argue over what a work of art is trying to say, rather than about the thing it’s saying. The claim that this sort of ambiguity is good comes from modernist philosophy.

The informational content of a work of art, like the information in a sentence, comes more from how its parts are combined than from the meanings of the individual parts, e.g., “the dog bit the man” doesn’t mean the same thing as “the man bit the dog”.

But Modernism is based on ancient Platonist metaphysics, which claims that meaning exists only in the essences of individual things, not in how those things are combined. So modernists have difficulty conceiving of the information content of a representational work of art as being significant. They tend to think the significance of a representation is just the sum of the significances of the things represented. A representational work of art only shows you a collection of things you’ve seen before; therefore, it contains no new essences, and (they would argue) you can learn nothing from it.

This is why modernists imagine they could produce perfect art if they wanted to; they’re blind to the art part of a work of art, and see only the technique. They’re reverting to the medieval and ancient Greek conception of “art”, which meant about the same as our “craft” or “technical skill”. (You can read a post-modernist whining about how the Enlightenment led people to invent the artificial concept of “Art” in Larry Shiner’s 2001 The Invention of Art.)

To make a work challenging or interesting, dedicated modernists believe it must do one of these things:

– It must give us new views of essences.  This means either giving direct access to transcendental essences never perceived before, or depicting essences more truly than they have been depicted before.  Either option requires not using a realistic style. This is the primary purpose of modern art. You can find this spelled out in, for instance, various writings by Cubist painters circa ~1920, e.g. (Gleizes & Metzinger 1912 p. 195).  The description of cubism in ancient and primitive art in (Boas 1927 p. 351) gives the same explanation.

– It must use a new style or technique.

– The challenge can’t lie in the meaning of a work of art, but it can lie in the challenge of discovering that meaning. That is, art can’t lie in the interpretation of a work of art–an interpretation merely spells out what is being represented–but it can lie in the difficulty of discovering an interpretation. Nothing the artist has to say can be very interesting, but figuring out what the artist is saying–or producing your own meaning from a Rorschach-blot-like work of art–can be fun and interesting.

The Alleged Insufficiency of Language

Another theme of modern literature and philosophy is that language is incapable of communicating meaning, and actually serves to mislead people more than to enlighten them. You find this, for example, in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, in which he said that “Language disguises […] thought; so that from the external form of the clothes one cannot infer the form of the thought they clothe, because the external form of the clothes is constructed with quite another object than to let the form of the body be recognized.” You also find it in Derrida’s “infinite chain of deferral of meaning” (Derrida 1967). This belief comes not from any actual failure of language, but, again, from Platonist metaphysics, which says that meaning resides in a transcendent realm which words can never reach.

In modernist literature, this sometimes results in authors trying to prove that language can’t communicate meaning by writing stories which fail to communicate clearly.

William Faulkner is a good example. Just today I heard a lecturer (David Thorburn, Masterworks of Early 20th-Century Literature, lecture 21, “Faulkner’s World–Our Frantic Steeplechase”) say that one of Faulkner’s themes was “the treacherous limitations of language as an instrument for describing and understanding experience.”

But Faulkner never demonstrated this legitimately, by showing a failure of language. He deliberately obscured his meaning, for instance, by using phony stream-of-consciousness in which he imagines that the interior thoughts of a mentally subnormal person, or of a child, are simply the things that person or child might say out loud if asked about his thoughts. Or, in many instances in As I Lay Dying, by again using stream-of-consciousness dishonestly, having a character’s interior monologue not say things that the character already knew–always the most crucial elements in figuring out what that character was thinking about–to give the impression that true inner experience was incommunicable.

A survey of modernist literature would turn up more instances of stories written in a deliberately obscure style specifically to prove that language is incapable of communicating meaning. I’ve given at least one example in a previous blog post, but I don’t remember what it was right now.

Conclusion: Blame Plato

So ambiguity of interpretation–what Ross James calls “pretentiousness”–came to be seen as inherently good, because people can argue over the meaning of an ambiguous work of art, and because ambiguity “proves” that language can’t communicate meaning and that we need to find a transcendent source of meaning. It’s deliberately cultivated by modernists, as a consequence of their belief that representational content is unimportant and the real (physical) world is unimportant, as a consequence of their Platonist metaphysics.


Franz Boas, 1927. Primitive Art. Oslo: H. Aschehoug & Co. Page numbers reported from Dover 1955 reprint.

Bertold Brecht, 1928, transl. Eric Bentley 1949, exigesis Eric Bentley. The Threepenny Opera. First performed in Berlin. New York: Grove Press.

Lennard Davis, 1987. Resisting Novels: Ideology & Fiction. Methuen, Inc., NYC NY.

Jacques Derrida, 1967, transl. 1976. Of Grammatology. Extracts in Leitch 2010 p. 1688-1697.

Annie Dillard, 1982. Living By Fiction. NYC: Harper & Row.

Albert Gleizes & Jean Metzinger, 1912. “Cubism.” In Harrison & Wood 1992, p. 187-196.

Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, eds., 1992. Art in Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

Max Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno 1944, transl. 2002. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” In Dialectics of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, Stanford U. Press, 2002.

Vincent Leitch et al., eds. 2nd ed. 2010, The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. New York: Norton.

B. R. Meyers, 2001. “A Reader’s Manifesto”. The Atlantic, July/Aug 2001.

Larry Shiner, 1990. The Invention of Art: A Cultural History. U. of Chicago Press.

Near and Far–Construal and Psychological Distance

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Near and Far

A current area of research in psychology called “construal-level theory” (CLT) is—I promise—relevant to literature.  It talks about a very general phenomenon called “psychological distance”.  In popular accounts, it’s called the “near / far” distinction.  Robin Hanson summarized it on Overcoming Bias.  The more-detailed review (Trope & Liberman 2010) calls these things Near and Far:

Abstraction and idealism appear to make up the dominant dimension:  Far things are more abstract and more idealized.  Distance seems to me peripheral; only near / far in space and in time relate to distance [1].

CLT claims that:

  1. Every object of thought has many different attributes (rows of the table) which distance can be a metaphor for.  Distance itself, of course; and distance in time is similar.  More metaphorical distances include level of familiarity (familiar = near, strange = far) and abstraction (detailed = near, abstract = far).  The distance metaphor has even been stretched to include color (red = near, blue = far) and transactional direction (buy = near, sell = far), though I’m not convinced.
  2. In all [2] experiments reported in (Trope & Liberman 2010), being shown anything from the Near column of the Near / Far table makes people think in Near terms for every other row of the table. Similarly for things from the Far column. For example, subjects asked to mark points far away from each other on a graph, and then asked how close they were to their family, reported being “farther away” socially from their families than subjects who were asked to mark points that were close together on the graph (Trope & Liberman 2010 p. 443).  Many experiments used a Stroop-effect task to show interference (longer reaction time) when the priming attribute was near (far) and the tested attribute was far (near).
  3. Therefore, near / far is, or can be regarded as, a single mode of human thought.  Perceptions of nearness of one attribute are not merely correlated with perceptions of nearness of other object attributes; they cause other attributes to be perceived as near, or to be approached or thought about (construed) in the manner one would if they were near.  Near / far is thus a mode of human thought, and while a person can be in a mode between near and far, a person cannot perceive some attributes of a mental object in far mode, while simultaneously perceiving other attributes or other mental objects in near mode.

Near and Far in Art & Culture

I claim, additionally, that Near and Far characterize not just how individuals think at a given moment, but characterize artistic movements, literary genres, and entire cultures.  These works, artists, genres, and cultures can be classed as usually endorsing or displaying either Near or Far values:

Far: The AeneidBeowulf, Chaucer’s Troilus and CriseydePilgrim’s Progress; John Milton; heroic fantasy, superhero comics; Christianity, Nazism

Near: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; Robert Frost, Raymond Chandler; realist and naturalist novels, hard-boiled detective fiction; empirical science

The history of European art, science, and culture from 1300 up until 1900 was, excepting the 18th century, one of moving gradually from Far to Near mode.  The first-person POV in fictional narrative was (I think) an invention of the 18th century, and the 20th-century dictums “write what you know” and “show, don’t tell” are both commands to write in near rather than far mode.

The novel that began Modernist literature, James Joyce’s Ulysses, is all about confusing the Near and the Far.  It takes a narrative that is very, very Far—an Archaic Greek epic poem about an idealized, overconfident, noble hero—and superimposes it on a protagonist who is very Near—an irreligious Irish Jew whose mundane, pathetic, and comical inner thoughts and bodily functions are described in more detail than anyone had ever described any character’s before.

Near and Far will be important concepts in understanding the history of art and culture.  They are so important that they were discovered independently several times before.

Using Near and Far in Writing

Ursula LeGuin wrote an essay called “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” which I think is pretty awful.  She tried to pin down what made something fantasy rather than ordinary fiction with dragons and swords, and she started out right—

Let us consider Elfland as a great national park, a vast beautiful place where a person goes by himself, on foot, to get in touch with reality in a special, private, profound fashion.

The phrase “get in touch with reality“, used to talk about something that is definitively unreal, is instantly diagnostic of philosophical realism, also called Idealism.  That’s the belief that reality isn’t real, but instead some fantasy world of yours, an imagined ideal world such as Plato’s cave, is real.  Plato, Jesus, Hegel, and Heidegger are probably the most-famous Idealists.

Idealism is indeed the basis of classic heroic fantasy, although now, in the age of democracy, we’ve got hobbits as heroes.  Idealism seems to mean nearly the same thing as Far mode.

However, she goes on to say…

What is it, then, that I believe has gone wrong in the book and the passage quoted from it? I think it is the style.

Not heroism, idealistic principles, or karma in the world, as Tolkien would have said.  No; LeGuin says true fantasy is anything written in a genuine phony archaic style.

I think style is certainly not the causative or definitive feature we want to find, but it is not as useless a conclusion as it first appeared to me. For a style specifies how one approaches the objects one writes about.  Does one describe them concretely or abstractly? Does one focus on the physical details, or on purposes and meanings? Does the wording create distance or intimacy?  All the choices presented in the “Near / Far” table could be called stylistic.  A style, then, positions a text on the Near / Far continuum.

Knowing what is Near and what is Far will therefore help you keep your style more psychologically plausible, by not mixing Near and Far stylistic elements.

(Trope & Liberman 2010) mentioned some research on Near vs. Far style.  Here “dispositional” means saying someone did something because of their character, versus “situational”, which means saying someone did something because of the situation they were in.

It has been shown, for example, that personal memories of behaviors that were recalled from a third-person perspective (e.g., “try to remember your first day at school, as if you are now watching the kid you were”) rather than from a first-person perspective (“try to remember your first day at school, as if you are a kid again”) tended to use dispositional (as opposed to situational) terms (Frank & Gilovich, 1989; Nigro & Neisser, 1983). In a similar vein, Libby and Eibach (2002, Study 4) found that imagining performing an activity (e.g., rock climbing, playing drums) from a third-person perspective produced less vivid and rich reports of the activity than imagining the same activity from a first-person perspective. In terms of CLT, this means that a third-person perspective, which imposes more distance than a first-person perspective, induces a higher level of construal. Indeed, Pronin and Ross (2006) showed that taking a third person perspective rather a first-person perspective on one’s own behavior promoted attribution of the behavior to personality traits rather than to specific situational factors.  — Trope & Liberman 2010 p. 447-8

All this means that your choice of first or third person point of view should take into account the construal mode you want to invoke in your reader.  If you want to work in high fantasy, and have your reader concerned with romantic ideals and to see codes of ethics as absolute and inviolable, you should write in third person.  If you want to confront your reader with unpleasant or messy truths and shake them out of dogmatic complacency, or bring them into close empathy with a unique individual, first-person would do better. This is why Tolkien and LeGuin’s fantasies are in third person, while Glen Cook’s Black Company and Roger Zelazney’s Chronicles of Amber, both subversions of heroic fantasy, are in first person. It’s also why Raymond Chandler’s gritty, cynical detective novels are in first person.

These are not absolutes. Third person is extremely flexible.  Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine is in a third person that is so close-in to the protagonist that it might as well be first-person. Hemingway’s third person is so objective and concrete, and carefully stripped of Far-mode subjective judgments and abstractions, that it probably puts the reader in Near mode rather than Far.


[1] Even many of the experiments that attempted to measure distance also measured familiarity and abstraction, as they contrasted  a nearby, well known place with a distant, unknown place which the subjects could only envision abstractly.  So we should really call this the concrete / abstract dimension.  But near / far is a more concrete way of describing it.

[2] Trope & Liberman report on about 100 experiments, and in every case the results agreed with the predictions. This is literally too good to be true.  Either the authors, the journals, or the reviewers consistently filtered out all adverse results.  One important study has been retracted for being fraudulent.


References

Yaacov Trope & Nira Liberman, 2010. Construal-Level Theory of Psychological DistancePsychological Review117(2): 440 – 463.