Saturday, October 18, 2014

A Reading on the Eve of Destruction

We know no spectacle in human history more instinct with pathos than that of these twelve million men, busy with the cares, hopes and joys of daily life, working in their fields or mills, or seated these summer evenings by their cottage doors with their wives and children about them, making their simple plans for thrift or festival, unconscious of the fate which now drew near, and which would exact from them there all. Only a signal is needed to transform these multitudes of peaceful peasants and workmen into the mighty hosts which will tear each other to pieces year after year with all the machinery of science, with all the passions of races, and all the loyalties of man.

Yet it should not be supposed by future generations that much direct compulsion was required. Of all the millions who marched to war in August 1914, only a small proportion went unwillingly away. The thrill of excitement ran through the world, and the hearts of even the simplest masses lifted to the trumpet-call. A prodigious event had happened. The monotony of toil and of the daily around was suddenly broken. Everything was strange and new. War aroused the primordial instincts of races born of strife. Adventure beckoned to her children. A larger, nobler life seemed to be about to open upon the world. But it was, in fact, only Death.

p. 93, The Unknown War. Sir Winston Churchill

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Belt of Gold

The Belt of Gold
© 1984 Cecelia Holland
305 pages

     Two Frankish brothers returning home from a pilgrim to Jerusalem become unwittingly involved in a palace coup when they rescue a damsel in distress on the road to Constantinople.  When one is murdered in an inn, the other -- Hagen the White. whose lord is Charlemagne -- vows vengeance.  Alone in a Roman empire that never fell, derided as a barbarian, Hagen's efforts to find his brother's assailants take him into the Imperial Palace itself, into the service of the Empress Irene.  There, navigating the machinations of political conspiracy as well as the vast city of Constantinople,  he struggles to sort out the truth while becoming increasingly undone by love for one of the Empress's servants.

The Belt of Gold is a tale of Byzantine power-plays, interwoven with romance and lots of chariot-racing.  The sporting scenes are used to good effect, not just included to show off research but providing a source of intrigue and later, the scene of the novel's climax.  Hagen is a suitable hero, primally powerful, ruggedly simple, and operating from a straightforward moral code. Keep faith with your lord and friends, do good by them, and kill those who try to kill you.  He's the relief in a cast of schemers, who make plans even in bed with one another (and there are a few pillow scenes), though not dumb. He has wiles of his own, but they don't involve manipulating others.  The Belt of Gold is instantly interesting for its setting of the Byzantine empire, whose subjects are a wonder to Hagen and ourselves. They live in Hagen's world, but they also seem otherworldly; their heads are filled with stories long forgotten by the west, and carry on a tradition since faded away.  Hagen's quest to avenge his brother and the intrigue stirred up by a man planning to seize the throne provide an easy opportunity to escape into this exotic place for a few days.  Holland's research seems to have emphasized the geography of Constantinople and the horseraces, but the main characters in the palace plot did exist,  and did attempt a coup. The Empress Irene was a fascinating political character,  more vicious in real life than depicted here (for the most part).   For the reader looking for a change of scenery -- or one deliberately seeking the Byzantines, as was I -- this may be just the touch.


  • Twelve Byzantine Rulers, a history podcast by Lars Brownworth. I just completed listening to the series, and Irene has her own episode. This is what whetted my appetite, of course, and if I'm still hungry for it after I complete my TBR books, Brownsworth's Lost to the West, a history of the Byzantines, may make an appearance..
  • Constantinople: the Forgotten Empire, Isaac Asimov. Before Brownsworth, the sum of my Byzantine knowledge. 
  • Steven Saylor's Roma sub Rosa series. Obviously, set in western Rome, but you can't get away from palace intrigues in a series that climaxes with Caesar. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Civilisation: A Personal View

Civilisation: A Personal View
© 1959 Sir Kenneth Clark
359 pages

We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion -- poetry, beauty,  romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. (John Keating, Dead Poet's Society

In the mid-20th century, in the wake of a war that destroyed much of Europe and created a new tension between the capitalist West and the collectivist East that threatened to put paid to the rest of the world, Sir Kenneth Clark wondered: we are facing a new dark age?  Having posed the question, he returned to study the aftermath of the last dark age, Europe after the collapse of western Rome in hopes that it might offer an answer. Civilisations, he writes, compose political histories of themselves -- but it is the unofficial histories, the evidence they leave behind them, that really speaks. So to study the revival of Europe, to ascertain whether the 20th century west has again lost its vigor, Clark studies the book of art. Civilisation: A Personal View is a sweeping history of western art, primarily visual with a musical interlude.  A political history reveals the ambitions of its author, or patron; but the arts sweep across the human spectrum.  Lavishly illustrated with scores of full-page color photographs, most of the subjects Clark addresses are glorious sights that strike Awe into the heart of the viewer. They are churches, town palaces, sweeping vistas -- but there are the humbly but artfully-built homes, and the scenes of humbler life, too.  Although Clark comments on the evolving technical aspects of art -- the growing skillfulness at depicting man through the middle ages, for instance, from rudimentary figures with helpful "Image of a Man" labels, to the stunning life-like portraiture of the Renaissance -- he is more concerned with the spiritual import of the art. This means more than scenes of religious devotion; Clark believes that civilizations perish because they are exhausted, as though they were tired of being living things. Great art -- art that looks toward the future, that is intended as a lasting monument -- is one sign of life. For Clark, truth, beauty, and goodness are intermingled, though great monuments are not in themselves evidence of moral greatness.  After a lingering look at Byzantine glory, Clark addresses mostly north-western Europe: Britain, France, and Germany.  There is no discounting the book's richly satisfying content, however, for want of geographic range.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Seeing like a State

Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed
© 1999 James Scott
464 pages

            Seeing like a State scrutinizes the organizational approach of state governments and other large institutions from the Renaissance era onward. In essence ,James C. Scott demonstrates how reductionist top down attempts at understanding and planning tend to be.  In attempting to render comprehensible complex systems – whether those systems are forests, cities, or national economies – vital information is lost.  Scott argues that the greatest value of aggressive organization is to increase the power and control of the organizer; this is in fact the point of organization in most cases, as with mandating last names. In  other cases, like the creation of forest management, power is achieved more indirectly through the state consolidating and advancing its economic agenda.  In reducing forest farming to one species, however, and planning it rigidly, the rich variety that makes a successful forest thrive is lost. The farm becomes susceptible to vigorous disease; monoculture produces the same results everywhere. The order imposed is accomplished at the cost of life; cities disintegrate when their rich diversity is broken up, rigidly segregated with zoning laws, and lumped together in sprawling clumps. Reviewing dying forests, moribund cities, and nations with collapsed collectivist economies,  Scott argues for decentralized approaches that allow practical, experiential knowledge -- metis -- to predominant, instead of abstract, general knowledge, or techne.  The difference between them can be found in ecologically savvy farming of the kind practiced by Joel Salatin, who instead of imposing a system of agriculture on farms he is invited to steward, fleshes one out on an individual site basis, figuring out which natural cycles can be recreated. This decentralized approach works well with cities and farms, which are complex enough to defy successful planning from on high;  it is hard to imagine a revival of manufacturing lead by artisans instead of industrialists, however.  Scott's case leaves no doubt that organization leads to greater power for the organizers,  but is it avoidable?

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer

The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer
© 2010 Joel Salatin
300 pages

Joel Salatin is crazy and glad to be so;  in print and in media like Food, Inc and Fresh, he gleefully rejects what the late 20th century produced as conventional farming.  The Sheer Ectasy of being a Lunatic Farmer is a defense of farming, and in particular a defense of his  kind of farming. While grounded in traditional knowledge, Salatin’s delivery incorporates a lot of modern ecological connections.  His style is folksy in the extreme, the narrative a conversation. Salatin is no rube, though,   His and his father's approach redeemed a swath of dead land, turning it into a thriving business -- and Salatin himself has become a leader in the local foods movement.

Sheer Ectcstasy opens with a history of how Salatin's father gave new life to their purchased farm. They made the foundation of their farm not a good range of machinery, but the health of the soil. Take care of the soil, and everything else will follow. Salatin's work emphasizes closing the nutrient cycle as much as possible; while some nutrients invariably escape (their selling as food being the point of a farm), modern farming is dominated by inputs and outputs. After importing seed, farmers rely on mountains of fertilizer, pesticides, and antibiotics to bring the crop (be it corn or cows) to its marketable size. Every stage relies on finance and import, and nothing from the farm's crop is used to sustain it other than its sale. Salatin's Polyface Farm is different.

Instead of taking his cue from a machine, Salatin looks to nature. Deeply religious, he sees a providential plan in the design of nature, and holds that any human plan that goes against it will ruin itself eventually; it is patently unsustainable. While the libertarian Salatin disdains the label 'organic', being now a certified label issued by a government he regards with contempt, the approach is nevertheless one inspired by life.  Salatin relies an ecological understanding of plants and livestock to power his farm.  While he never lays out his entire plan of operation in the book, each chapter reveals another element, and taken together Salatin appears a genuine maestro conducting a symphony of  eating and excreting.  Cows graze a field, and chickens follow, removing parasites that spread disease. The cows' winter bedding packs are mixed with corn and given over to pigs to root in, creating compost. Instead of being penned in one place, animals are moved on a daily basis in a simulation of their species' natural grazing patterns.   His animals aren't merely the ends of the farm; they are its means.  Salatin sees them as cocreators, with man and beast working together for their mutual advantage.  Salatin's life-inspired approach applies toward disease prevention;  while the natural parasite removal and mock-migrations do their part, he also employs the time-honored method of selective breeding to produce stock that is robust and naturally disease-resistant.

Salatin has been fighting convention for so long he  embraces it on purpose. This sometimes brings him to the border of quackery, as when he investigates the possibility of a tool that collects 'cosmic energy'  and prevents drought. It doesn't work, of course, and he cheerfully admits it, but he's impressed by the salesman' dousing taking him straight to the spot that Salatin would have picked to stick it. This is an example of being in tune with the land. More skeptical minds (mine) would say it's an example of being cold-read. I would not be surprised if the douser picked up on Salatin's body language that inclined him toward a spot, visual tics that told a sly mind when he was getting warmer to Salatin's ideal spot.  Salatin only prescribes advice that is based on evidence, however, on his careful study of the landscape.

On the whole, Sheer Ecstasyis a fun first look at how agriculture can adapt to sustain itself.

Thursday, October 2, 2014


© 1988 Wendell Berry
112 pages

            Andy Catlett is a man far from home, wounded in spirit and in body. His right hand was eaten and destroyed by mechanized farm equipment,  and in attending an agricultural conference he sees only plans to destroy his and his people’s entire way of life. Sinking steadily into a pit of despair and sorrow, thinking of a dying marriage and a threatened town,  he is ultimately restored by a long reflection. The bulk of the novel consists of stories from his family’s history as lived in the town, moving from the Civil War onward.  Ultimately the memory of how he and his wife took an abandoned farm, long broken, and restored it to productive health seems to rescue Andy from merely depressing himself with memories of loss. Although this is a short story about healing -- healing the land and seeing to the soul as well --   there's also a brief defense of family farm agrarianism against agribusiness when Catlett revisits his time spent as a young journalist preparing an article on scientific farming.  It's a fine story for Berry's friends, but it's not consequential enough that I'd reccommend to someone who hasn't first read a larger story like Jayber Crow or Hannah Coulter and already been wooed  to a love of the membership of Port William. 

Inch by Inch: A Reading

"If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked -- but of course this isn't the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and if you did not stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to D.

"And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in -- your nation, your people -- is not the world you were born in at all. The forms are all there,  all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed.

"Life is a continuing process, a flow, not a succession of acts and events at all. It has flowed to a new level, carrying you with it, without any effort on your part. On this new level you live, you have been living more comfortable every day with new morals, new principles. You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things your father, even in Germany, could not have imagined.

"Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or more accurately, what you haven't done, You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if none had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, no one stood. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.

"What then? You must shoot yourself. A few did. Or 'adjust' your principles. Many tried, and some, I suppose, succeeded; not I, however. Or learn to live the rest of your life with your shame. This last is the nearest there is, under the circumstances, to heroism: shame. Many Germans became this poor kind of hero, many more, I think, than the world knows or cares to know."

p. 171-172, They Thought They Were Free: the Germans, '33-'45