Showing posts with label history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label history. Show all posts

Thursday, August 24, 2017

My First Experience at Appreciating Metaphysics

"The great uncertainty I found in metaphysical reasonings disgusted me, and I quitted that kind of reading and study for others more satisfactory."
Good old Ben Franklin.  Thus he dismissed metaphysics from his life, and went on to accomplish real things. I reached the same conclusion years ago. So it is ironic that, relatively late in life, I've actually enjoyed a book about metaphysics.

Hardly a day goes by when there isn't news about Islamist terrorism. I am actually sick of the whole topic. Consider how much of your short life can be wasted on following the news on this subject, and yet, you end up understanding nothing! But being buried under trivial and repetitive news makes a person suspicious that something fundamentally important has been overlooked.

This put me in the mood to go back to the early days of Islamic thought. Where and when was the fork in the road for Islamic thinkers? Why did they take a different fork than Christian ones?

After reading Robert Reilly's "Closing of the Muslim Mind," I still wonder "why" Islam took the opposite turn from Christianity. But at least the When, How, and Where are more clear. He also did a good job in explaining how general orientations in patterns of thought have consequences in the daily news of the modern world.

Monday, February 20, 2017

How Someone Should Write History

I should probably offer an excuse for talking about a book about the French Revolution, lest somebody say, "Yea but how is that, like, relevant, man?"  The answer is that much of what we call political news and "current events" is really just fighting the French Revolution all over again.

Details. Do I ever hate details in history books. Consider a book on the causes of the French Revolution: the author could grind through the legal system, economic conditions, etc. All very important of course. But what a tedious bore!

Consider the rather different approach used by Simon Schama, in "Citizens," A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Old-regime France had been no stranger to public ceremonies and spectacles. But your place near the viewing stand was controlled by the aristocratic pecking order.

Then, in the 1780s, public spectacles saw a radical change. Balloons became the high-tech rage. Once they were in the air, it all viewers had the same view.
In other words, [the balloonists] succeeded in establishing a direct and unmediated relationship of comradeship with enormous multitudes of people.
...As a spectacle it was unpredictable; its crowds were incoherent, spontaneous and viscerally roused...
The sense that they were witnessing a liberating event--and augury of a free-floating future--gave them a kind of temporary fellowship in the open air... exemplified the philosopher's vision of a festival of freedom: uplifting glimpses of the Sublime in which the experience, not the audience, was noble.
What a gorgeous metaphor! I will always think of it first when reading about any kind of revolution.

Monday, January 2, 2017

When a Significant Book Strikes You

Occasionally the lyrics of a song can make a great impression on the listener. They aren't just trying to rhyme. Nor are they wailing about their frustrated lusts and infatuations. The thoughts are important and fundamental, and they managed to make them so concise that they fit into a song. Incredible!

Books can be like that, too. The 'soul' of the reader is so weary of being insignificant flotsam, rushed along by the cultural effluvium of the times. If it manages to get even a glimpse of a truthful Big Picture, then life hasn't been wasted.

That is the effect that reading a book had on me, recently. The book was Pat Buchanan's "Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War." You may enjoy the book even if you don't agree with every opinion of his.

Here we are, a century after the 'Great War,' and we are still suffering the consequences of World Wars I and II and the Cold War. None of the fundamental assumptions of the American Empire ever get talked about in the daily news. 

The glorification of the military can not be questioned in America. Flying on an airplane for the first time in 20 years, I noticed them announcing that military personnel were allowed to board the plane first. How hopeful it would have made me if ten civilians had shouted 'Why?' when that announcement was made. At least I had the satisfaction of boycotting my sister's burial in a national military cemetery, you know, with all the other "heroes who have sacrificed to protect our freedoms." I would believe in the Easter Bunny before I believed that whopper.

By taking aim at the foundation (or 'creation') myth of the American Empire, the "Good War" of World War II, Buchanan is doing a bold thing. Doesn't it seem strange that an Irish Catholic kid like Pat would be such a radical debunker of the prevailing myth of modern America?

Perhaps not. Maybe the greatest courage is likely to be demonstrated by the believers in one myth, such as Buchanan's Catholicism, when they take aim at a rival myth.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Understanding the Driving Force of a Movement

For a traveler of the interior West, few books are more natural to choose than Wallace Stegner's "Mormon Country." Nevertheless I had never read it until recently, after a friend put it into my hands. Stegner did an admirable job of being unprejudiced about Mormonism per se. Clearly, he was more interested in the human story of the Mormons than theological doctrines, and rightly so, considering the drama of the Mormon story.

Somewhere in the book, Stegner said (more or less), "After the faith had subsided a bit, the driving force was still there." But then he didn't say what that driving force was! That is really the question that interests me. Although the non-Mormon reader today may have no interest in Mormon theology, it was important to the Mormons of the time. Their great efforts were predicated on a theology that convinced them...but of what?

Stegner can be forgiven for not really explaining what the Driving Force was. It is difficult to look back into time and guess people's psychology merely from external actions or their beliefs-on-paper.

Cause and effect become confused here. Was there something unique in the theology that created the Driving Force, or was the theology merely the rationale for real forces that lay underneath?

One clue comes from looking at the geography of their birthplace: western New York state, a land of displaced New Englanders. Harvard didn't believe in God anymore. The thin soup of Deism and Unitarianism didn't meet people's emotional needs, which is really what religion is all about. But perhaps the Puritan DNA was looking to erupt in some new direction, and Mormonism was one of those outlets. (Abolitionism and Prohibitionism were others.)

Mormon culture took on characteristics redolent of the early Puritan settlers of New England, who had suffered persecution in the old country, and had crossed the Atlantic Ocean in an era when that was no small accomplishment. The Puritans had carved their New Jerusalem out of a wilderness; and had established a theocracy and a culture of hard work, cleanliness, and order.

But let's put aside the Puritan-American perspective in looking at the Mormons, and look for something more universal. Consider the psychology of the early days of the French Revolution or the Bolshevik takeover of the Romanov dynasty in Russia. It might seem paradoxical to compare religious eruptions to overtly atheistic revolutions. But the two extremes share more than they think: they are intoxicated by the notion that 'all things are now possible', and that the old world of vice and suffering are to be left behind. They all visualize a New Jerusalem, a shining city on the hill, and a heaven on earth.

Normally most people have more common sense than that. What would intoxicate them with the idea of Utopia becoming real? They needed to feel strong and confident because of some all-powerful outside force: Liberté! Egalité! et Fraternité! in the French Revolution, 'History' and Dialectical Materialism with the Bolsheviks. 

Here again, the Mormons had an advantage over other Protestant cults during the Second Great Awakening. The rest of them were too mainstream. Pioneering in the American West was a popular and prevalent idea for many impoverished Americans of that era. But Mormon theology was way out of the mainstream: it was a New Dispensation, a new vision, and not just a tweeking of the Protestant revolution of northern Europe in the 1500s. 

Make an analogy with the stock market: the New Dispensation of Joseph Smith was like a new semiconductor transistor stock in the 1960s, or Amazon in 1999.  Mormon competitors were like today's Intel or Hewlett-Packard announcing a new product line.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Why Is It Easier to Appreciate Things, With Time?

Surely I am not the first person to notice that he can now appreciate things that he used to yawn at, or even positively dislike. Perhaps it really is true that 'it is a shame that Youth is wasted on young people..."

For example, the other day I came back from a tour of a historic ranch, in arid Arizona, and rewatched the movie, "Jean de Florette." I liked it the first time I saw it, 30 (!) years ago. But this time I was cooing with pleasure. How do you explain this?

The movie is easy to like -- despite being French: dry rural scenery in southern France, farms and old stone buildings, a musical score inspired by Verdi's "La Forza del Destino" a beautiful girl, and a depiction of a different way to live, about a century ago. Even the story was pretty good, which is the last thing you have a right to ask from a movie.

But such things were true 30 years ago when it was made, and when I first watched it. So what has changed? Earlier in the day, two RV friends and I had visited a historic ranch that dates back to the Arizona territory. It was located in the remarkable "Palouse" of southeastern Arizona. It tries my patience to take an official tour with a docent. Just isn't my style.

We were surrounded by vast grasslands of scrawny and tawny grass. The day was unusually hot for this time of year. Thank goodness there was a working water pump available. The ranch was situated near a soggy bosque of huge cottonwood trees -- los alamos, in Spanish. They are the great water-sponges of the Southwest.

The supreme importance of water sank into my head during this tour. Later, it drastically enhanced my appreciation of "Jean de Florette", since the scarcity of water was an important part of the plot.

Even better, my RV friends were city slickers-turned-agriculturists. (Notice I did not say, 'hobby farmers.') This added another layer to my appreciation, because the main character in the movie had some things in common with them.

We could say that this higher level of appreciation proves that 'the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.' But that is too easy. Instead, let's invoke a word that is seldom used, difficult (but fun) to pronounce, and which expresses a beautiful idea: autochthonous. Used here, it means we can think of appreciation of this movie as a plant that grows from the soil of travel experience, and watered by a natural (if austere) beauty, discomfort, and friends bringing something new to the party.

More generally, as we grow older we draw on deeper aquifers of experience. The result is a better appreciation of many things.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Finally, a Success at Reading a Russian Novel

It is always a bit of a triumph when I survive a Russian novel, in this case a historical novel by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, "August 1914". A worthy book.

I'd like to do something I haven't done before on this blog: show what I've been doing most of my adult life when I read a book. What good is a book if the words go into one eyeball and out the other? In order for the book to have any effect on your life, you must retain the best parts of it -- its juicy but condensed nuggets of goodness. And then you can digest and assimilate these nuggets into your own organism.

To mix metaphors, let's look for the book's classic quotes, its pemmican of wisdom, and turn them into building blocks for our own mental skyscrapers in the future. 

Just a few years ago now, baby kaBLOOnie and his siblings being programmed and brainwashed by their schoolteacher father.
p. 107/622:  He had not expected to find much to hearten him at Second Army Headquarters...
Vorotyntsev was still depressed whenever experience confirmed the invariable rule that every headquarters was staffed by people who were selfish, rank-conscious, hidebound...
They regarded the army as a convenient, highly polished, and well-carpeted staircase, upon whose steps medals and badges of rank were handed out. It never occurred to them that this staircase involved obligations rather than rewards...

For the staircase was so arranged as to encourage the ascent of slow-witted men who did what they were told, rather than those with brains and independence of mind. Provided you stuck to the letter of regulations, orders, and directives, you could make as many blunders as you liked; you could be defeated, you could retreat, be routed, run away--no one would ever blame you and you would not be called upon to investigate the cause of your failure. But woe unto you if you once diverged the letter, if you ever thought for yourself or acted on your own initiative; then you would not even be forgiven your successes, and if you failed, you would be eaten alive.
Well, I'll bet this quote registers with anyone who has worked in a large organization, including, perhaps, even the modern USA military. (Of course, as the exceptional nation, perhaps these diseases of headquarters only afflict other countries.) 

The odd thing is that people of different political opinions might experience the same frustrations in a centralized bureaucracy, on a personal level. But only some of them will still believe in a top-down approach to society; that is, they won't apply what they experience on a personal level to an abstract or general level.
p.111/622:  Stimulated by the ride through the warm, dark, still countryside, Vorotyntsev soon experienced the wonderful sense of buoyancy familiar to every officer...when the flimsy threads which bind one to a settled existence are snapped clean, when one's body is fighting fit, one's hands are free, one feels the satisfying tug of a weapon at one's side, and one's mind is wholly concentrated on the task at hand. He had been created for moments like this; he lived for them.

Yes, indeed. But one needn't be a horse-mounted warrior to experience this. A fast moving sportsman can, as well. Such as a bicycle racer, sea kayaker, or sailor. Maybe even an ATVer. On the other hand, a hiker probably can't relate to this quote because they are too much like the slow moving grunts in the infantry. I have written about this mood when I bicycled with the Yuma club in the winter.

p.125/622:  People talked a great deal about loving the peasants; in the Kharitonov family the talk had been of nothing else: what was there to live for if not the good of the peasants? Yet somehow they never actually saw the peasants, one was not even allowed to go to the nearby market without permission from one's parents and afterward one had to wash one's hands and change one's shirt. There was no way of coming into contact with the peasants, no common ground on which to talk with them, because one would be embarrassed and not know what to say.

Well, well, that sort of sounds like a certain poseur in modern politics. 

p193/622:  There had been a time when as a young man he had hotly contested everything, but after his long years of service, frustration had tightened the skin around his cheekbones, and he had learned to be silent--when to shut his mouth, and when to keep it shut.
This is redolent of what I was posting about recently, in the flaws of conversation.

p. 306/622:  Behind the low wall at the back of the yard was an empty lot; beyond it a two-story house with a mansad roof was blazing. One by one the tiles on the dormer window exploded with little pops. At first thick black smoke poured out of the dormer, than all at once several broad, steady tongues of flame broke through.

No one ran to put out the fire.

Crackling, the smoke and flames consumed the abandoned wealth, the now useless products of German ingenuity and German labor, and the fiery voices hissed and groaned. All was now lost, they said: chaos and hatred were come, and the old life was gone forever.
page 460/622:  Instead, he was thinking how hard it was for the Tsar to choose the right advisers. Evil, selfish men were more self-assertive than the good and loyal ones; it was always they who tried hardest to show off their false loyalty and their pretended abilities to the Tsar; yet how was he, a mere man,to acquire the godlike insight needed to see into the dark corners of other men's souls? Thus it was he who became the victim of his mistaken choices, and his self-seeking appointees were gnawing like worms at the strong tree trunk that was Russia.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Immortality in a Threatening Wind

What a nice morning it had been: moderately cool, calm, and sunny. Coffee Girl and I had just finished a mountain bike ride up an arroyo where, at the beginning of my travel career, I had stumbled onto a "cliff dwelling." Not an official one, of course. But it was possible to imagine turning it into a cliff dwelling or emergency shelter. Back then I took a chance in dragging my trailer upstream in the gravel arroyo, with only my rear wheel drive van. And I camped there that night, and made a fire in the little cliff dwelling, and amused myself with making shadows on the ceiling. (Plato would have been impressed.)

Alas, the cliff dwelling seemed less romantic today than it did way-back-when. This stung. Did it mean that my travel lifestyle had become too predictable and tame?

We laid down for the usual post-ride siesta, relaxing to a movie with a good musical score. But it became difficult to hear the movie because of the howling wind. What the hell was going on, out there!? Since I had already learned the hard way about opening 32" wide doors in the wind, I had a good cord attached to the side-door. Curiosity got the better of me. I opened the door no more than 6" before it almost exploded open into the wind. The finger holding the cord got a nasty rope-burn. 

But I was surprised and relieved that the door had not literally been blown off the hinges. The standard RV doors on cargo trailers are nothing more than aluminum-foil-clad styro-foam laminates, held on by thin aluminum trim that is glued to the door's perimeter. There is no tube frame!

I could not even re-close the door, let alone latch it. And all the time the wind was trying to rip it out of my hands. It was like being a sailor on deck during a storm, and grabbing ropes and ducking masts, all in a state of desperation.  I had to surrender by opening the door fully, which made it parallel to the wind, and therefore, stable.

Now what? Panic, that is what. I started trying to pound the door back into shape with a block of wood and a hammer. Eventually it did close, but it was so tight that it wouldn't re-open.

So I unlocked the ramp door in the back (aka, the stern) of the trailer. It opened by lowering directly into the wind. Thank goodness it wasn't the barn door geometry, like at the back of a van.

But now stuff was blowing out of my trailer, streaming across the mesa. I went chasing it. To a spectator, it must have looked like some slapstick comedy from the silent movie era.

A photo from the archives. It expresses the idea of this post.
But from my point of view, it was no joke. Objects seem to take on a life of their own in the wind. They balance and spin upright, like a spinning bicycle wheel. Sometimes your hand is a matter of inches away from grabbing the object, and then a gust removes it from your reach. These objects and the wind had become almost sentient and malevolent.

After a couple days, I have recovered full operation of the door and rebuilt the inner wood screen door, which had shattered. From the point of view of hindsight, this was a worthwhile experience, an authentic experience with nature.

Long-suffering readers are used to me advertising any experience with nature other than postcard idolatry, which I relegate to the tourist trade. Perhaps the reader has taken a sailing or windsurfing lesson, and experienced fear and panic from a strong wind. It is a primal force in nature.

But just think of humankind's relationship with the wind, through the ages. Most of all, think of what sailors went through in storms, when they were heeled over at 45 degrees, and sliding all over the decks. Most of them couldn't swim, and even if they could, hypothermia would have killed them anyway. At least my trailer and mesa stayed horizontal during this madness!

What courage and skill they had! And then look at me: I hadn't even noticed which corner of the trailer was making the most noise. If I had, it would have told me the wind direction.

While the fear and embarrassment were still fresh, I persisted in dwelling on the heroes of the past. Is it too swoony and moony to say that appreciating their courage and skill was an act of connecting with the eternal, the immortal?

Another photo from the archives, in this case, from my first blog post.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Flag Controversy and the Meaning of Travel

Somehow I have gotten sucked into the thankless and unpopular task of shaming reforming the travel blogosphere. After a thousand-and-one microscopic how-to details, somebody needs to ask What is the Point of travel? What does it mean? What are the fundamental benefits?

In fact it has long been recognized that 'travel broadens your perspective.' That's an interesting word, perspective.

So let's light one candle rather than curse the darkness when it comes to the Confederate flag controversy that has been raging the last couple weeks.  As a young man I spent some time in the South. My background was that of a typical, smug, brainwashed yankee -- from the Land of Lincoln, no less.

I had a part-time job at a Holiday Inn as a bus boy. Many of the cooks and waitresses were negroes, the first negroes that I had ever been around. One night, a pretty young negro waitress pulled me over with "...kaBLOOnie, I have a friend who would be just perfect for you..."  Actually she gave a pretty good sales pitch, but a young buck is usually suspicious of hearing about somebody's friend with a 'wonderful personality', and all that.

After running through all the girl's attractions, she rather matter-of-factly concluded "...and she is white." The way she said that made an impression on me that I still remember. She was slightly embarrassed, but not much. She sounded so natural, low-key, and common-sensical.

I came away from this experience, and others, wondering if I had been fed a pile of crap about race relations in the South, about the "Civil" War, Father Abraham, righteous freedom-loving yankees, etc. At the very least, my smug yankee moral superiority was taken down a notch.

Looking back on it, this was a travel experience at its best. No matter how many terabytes of "information" we absorb from our surroundings, and no matter how books we read by the winners of a war, our perspective is freakishly narrow, and yet we don't even know it.

I am skeptical about reading and political generalities and slogans. There is nothing that keeps your mental "feet" on the ground like actual experience. And travel experiences can be the best kind because they are outside your own milieu: they make you ask questions you never asked before.

Unfortunately most of the noise about the Confederate flag is the usual cant and catchphrases. Once again the blogosphere has missed an opportunity to contribute something that traditional media couldn't succeed at.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Historical Picture for the Modern Fourth of July?

Will internet search engines ever get better? They are supposed to be so good now, but I don't believe it. All they do is match keywords, buzzwords.  And then use your search as the input to an advertising algorithm. They don't respond to thoughts or ideas.

For instance, we are on the eve of  "our" most obscene national holiday. A more optimistic person would have merely said "most ludicrous and hypocritical" holiday. I have trained myself to tune it out, rather than dwell on it with sourness, and then lash out at what America has become.

But it would be better to find something more constructive. What if internet search engines were actually good, and I came to them with a thought instead of a keyword? What history books or novels could I read that would inform on the situation an American finds them-self in, today? 

Who else has experienced pride in their country when they were young, and then grew to despise their country? Was it only grouchy old men who did so, and if that were true, did that alone invalidate their opinions? How did they handle the transition from Pride to Disgust? Did they manage to put it to good use?

There are probably illustrations from societies that have experienced defeat.  Consider what the southern states went through, in light of the novel, "Gone with the Wind." Or consider what Germany went through in the 1920s.

But those are defeat-based pessimisms. In contrast, modern America has not been conquered by outsiders, militarily or otherwise. Perhaps the existence of nuclear weapons will ensure that it never will be conquered militarily. Instead, it has merely degenerated, voluntarily, to a travesty of what it once was. The most relevant society and historical epoch might be nominally-successful Rome, which degenerated into a militaristic empire by the time of Julius Caesar.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Hitting a Home Run in the Book Department

Bertrand Russell, in his eighties, was killing time in an airport, reading a novel that pleased him. He told somebody, "I've dedicated the first 80 years of my life to philosophy. The next eighty go to fiction." He lived to 98. With that inspiration, it is certainly worth tooting my horn over a rare success in the book department, especially because it resulted from deliberate flexibility.

A reader's life has not been wasted if they end up with a good understanding of the Great War and the French Revolution. Although I've yet to find a book on the Great War that really blew me away, I have bumbled onto a great book on the French Revolution. Once, when reading a Tolstoy novel, one of his characters was said to be reading Taine, a popular French writer of that era. I had never heard of him, nor have many modern readers, I suppose. What a shame.

Actually he wrote a series of seven books about the ancien regime, the Revolution proper, and then the Napoleonic sequel.  His perspective is very anti-Jacobin, therefore the book might be hard to like for many "leftists" of today. (And when did 'left' and 'right' become political labels?) That is too bad, because there is much in his books that transcends the left/right split that can get tiresome and predictable.

Taine is at his best when he is attacking the prevailing mindset of intellectuals and dilettantes of the late 1700s, most of whom were slaves of Jean Jacques Rousseau. I am reluctant to regurgitate his conclusions. It is too much like giving away spoilers in a movie review. 

A better analogy: I dislike giving out GPS coordinates of dispersed camping sites. I would rather encourage people to check out a certain general area, and let them discover things for themselves. That is where the excitement is.

For what it is worth, these are the most important history books that I have ever read.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Second-best Sensual Pleasure Outdoors

Sometimes you just have to slow down and soak it up.  My campsite was broadside to the west wind, coming off a large sagebrush flat near Cuba, NM. It was the hottest time indoors, 4 o'clock. But soon the shade from one large ponderosa pine would cool off my trailer. This was proof of how few trees a summer camper really needs.

I hardly ever sit outside in a chair, therefore I was paying Mother Nature a genuine honor to move a chair into the shade of that lone ponderosa, and do absolutely nothing. Normally it is more comfortable and useful to be inside my little igloo on wheels. Usually people don't use 'windy' as a compliment, but they should: not only does it cool you, but it keeps the bugs off.

But this afternoon I just sat there, indolently and contentedly, in the shade of that lone ponderosa, and took a wind-bath in la brisa fresca from the west. Since I dislike heat, and this was the hottest day since February in Yuma, it was easy to appreciate the cool breeze almost to the point of sighing. I was, as a poet once said, 'feeding on the shadow of perfection.' 

Now I know what you are thinking: somebody was playing with his Picasa or Photoshop and saturated the crap out of this sunset. But I didn't. I cheerfully set aside my prejudice against sunset postcards in order to honor this view that I got from the same campsite described in the post.

I confess to being skin-oriented (dermo-centric?) in my appreciation of nature, unlike most people, and all tourists, who are opto-centric.  But warmth causes a neglected sense to flare up: the world smells more interesting in warm weather. This can bring on waves of nostalgia for boyhood on my grandparents' farm, not unlike what Henry Adams experienced at the old president's farmhouse in Quincy, MA:

Winter and summer, cold and heat, town and country, force and freedom, marked two modes of life and thought, balanced like lobes of the brain. Town was winter confinement, school, rule, discipline; straight, gloomy streets, piled with six feet of snow in the middle; frosts that made the snow sing under wheels or runners; thaws when the streets became dangerous to cross; society of uncles, aunts, and cousins who expected children to behave themselves, and who were not always gratified; above all else, winter represented the desire to escape and go free. Town was restraint, law, unity. Country, only seven miles away, was liberty, diversity, outlawry, the endless delight of mere sense impressions given by nature for nothing, and breathed by boys without knowing it.

Boys are wild animals, rich in the treasures of sense, but the New England boy had a wider range of emotions than boys of more equable climates. He felt his nature crudely, as it was meant. To the boy Henry Adams, summer was drunken. Among senses, smell was the strongest -- smell of hot pine-woods and sweet-fern in the scorching summer noon; of new-mown hay; of ploughed earth; of box hedges; of peaches, lilacs, syringas; of stables, barns, cow-yards; of salt water and low tide on the marshes; nothing came amiss.
There he goes again, some incorrigible reader says, quoting mouldy ol' books that have nothing to do with the Here and the Now. But the quote above is not so far afield. One of the episodes that Henry Adams experienced on his presidential grandfather's farmhouse was a boyish temper tantrum, when he was forced to go to school. The old president came downstairs, grabbed little Henry by the hand, and silently led him a mile to the schoolhouse. 

Looking back on it from age 70, Henry Adams thought the silence of the old president was perhaps caused by his preoccupation with the conquest of northern Mexico by President Polk (from a slave-state.) It was that very conquest -- nasty as it was at the time -- that was responsible for me lying in the shade in New Mexico on that warm day.

Perhaps the real value of the word "classic" lies in some things being so fine that they should be immortal. Since my own carcass and memory are not long for this world, I want to believe that something transcends these limitations. I am glad to have experienced those 'ancestral acres' and the nostalgia for them, especially since it is dying as a part of our culture. Perhaps it has been preserved for all time by Henry Adams's quote above.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Admiring Ascetics as Athletes of the Will

It is so easy to poke fun at ascetics -- or moral posturers of any type -- that I usually give in to the temptation. Their philosophy does not agree with the Prime Directive of this blog: living at the point of diminishing returns.

I have no interest in renouncing the Prime Directive since I am thoroughly convinced that it is sane, prudent, rational, and adult. If I were acting as if I were going to renounce it, the readers should be suspicious of an April Fool's joke. That sort of thing does not appeal to me.

Rather than renounce a good principle, it is better to think of 'exceptions that prove the rule.'  Any essay on asceticism fits in with the tradition of New Year's resolutions. It also coincides with the biography I have just finished, "Gandhi Before India," by Ramachandra Guha.

Before talking about asceticism I would like to praise biographies of a certain type. This biography was about a man, not a "Mahatma." Those of you who have seen the well-known movie by director Richard Attenborough, "Gandhi," might remember how interesting the main character was at the beginning of his career, in South Africa, and how uninteresting and unsympathetic the "Mahatma" was in India. Why, he was virtually a "moral terrorist," with his hunger strikes and endless moral posing. If he tried that on me, I would have let him starve to death.

This may well be the case with biographies of many of the great men of history. I once read a non-hagiography of Robert E. Lee, and liked it for the same reason as this non-hagiography of Gandhi. Men are boring when they become "the great man on horseback," immortalized in a bronze or marble statue. As a reader, I want to be a pigeon who poops on the statue.

In a non-hagiography we get to speculate about how the man got started down a certain track. What was he visualizing? How did he overcome the fear of failure or recover from setbacks? How did he manage the competing pressures of being a husband and father? How important was sheer luck? Who were the unsung heroes along the way?

Good grief I haven't even said anything about asceticism yet. Let it wait until next time.

Monday, December 29, 2014


One of the uses of old age is to develop the "muscles" that can actually improve with age. By that I mean developing the capabilities and habits of Appreciation, Gratitude, and Admiration. Today's focus is on Admiration.

I once used an inspiring speech by an anti-hero, "The Hustler," in the 1962 black-and-white film noir movie starring Paul Newman, George C. Scott, and Jackie Gleason. But before re-quoting it, let's first ask why it inspired at all. Art, according to Tolstoy's "What is Art", is not really about "beauty," as most people mistakenly suppose; rather, Art is the infecting of the viewer/reader with the emotional experience of the artist, by words, pictures, or sounds. And the makers of "The Hustler" certainly did that to me. 

Maybe their trick was to exploit the inherent advantages of an anti-hero. (Does that trick also apply in the blogosphere?) If a goodie-two-shoes, follow-the-rules, smiley-face had made the same speech, I would have merely discounted it as a routine pep-talk, better off inside a Hallmark card or stuck to somebody's bumper.

Most of the scenes were dark and grim and interior, except one: the Hustler (Newman) and his girlfriend leave the urban grit of New York City and head off for a picnic on a slope above a lake. They relaxed on a blanket and took in the view.
The Hustler to his girlfriend: Do you think I'm a loser?
He had been told that he was by the Gambler (George C. Scott), who recognized the young man's talent at pool, but also saw his character flaws. The Hustler started to wonder if it might be true, as he recounted a string of recent mistakes.

Girlfriend: Does it bother you what he said? Hustler: Yea. Yea, it bothers me a lot.
One of his mistakes was showing how good he was and winning a lot of money from some second-rate players, instead of disguising his ability, as a good hustler should. It got him beaten up.

Hustler: I could have beaten those creeps and punks cold, and they never would have known. I just had to show 'em what the game is like when it's really great. Anything can be great. Bricklaying can be great, as long as the guy knows what he's doing, and why, and if he can make it come off.

And when I'm going, when I'm really goin', I feel like a jockey must feel. He's sittin' on his horse, he's got all that speed and power underneath him, and he's coming into the stretch and the pressure's on him. He just knows when to let it go and by how much, because he's got everything working for him, timing, touch... that's a great feeling.

It's like all of a sudden I got oil in my arm. The pool cue is part of me. It's a piece of wood, with nerves in it. You can feel the roll of those balls. You don't have to look -- you just know. You make shots that nobody's ever made before. Ya play that game like nobody's ever played it before.

Girlfriend: You're not a loser, you're a winner. Some men never get to feel that way about anything.
I then ended my sermon with a rhetorical question: why don't travelers seem to care whether they are good at travel? Why don't they 'raise the high jump bar,' instead of settling for imitating other losers?

Well, there is at least a partial answer to that. But let's ignore it today and focus on the rare winners that can be found from time to time.

Recall, last episode, I was romanticizing the Eurasian steppe and its way of life, and promising to find a bicycle touring blog that went through the steppe. As it turned out, this was pretty easy. Consider this post and photo, by Terry Ward, on :

Click here for a larger version of the picture
(Eyelashes fluttering...swoon.)

This photo by Mr. Ward shows how I would like to live, if transported by some magic carpet or time machine. The Lone Rider of the Eurasian steppe. Off-the-leash. Rampaging and marauding for thousands of miles, sacking the cities of decadent civilizations, with his loyal War Dog at his side. (Of course, I would be on a mountain bike instead of a horse. But the principle is the same.)

In this post, Mr. Ward showed what a great traveler is capable of:

The herds were always carefully watched by herders who were mounted on magnificent large horses. The horses are a wonderful feature of this region as everyone, including men, women and children ride easily on the tallest of horses. I saw a father lift a tiny girl who was possibly as young as three years old onto the back of a long-legged horse and then he smacked the horse on the rump. The girl sat easily in the saddle and held the reins expertly in her tiny hands. When they arrived at her yurt the horse stopped next to a tall pile of dirt, at which place the toddler slid off the saddle onto the top of the mound of dirt and then hopped down its side and entered her home.

I stopped breathing when I read that paragraph.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Wanted: More "David Lean Style" Novels

It might be fair to describe the David Lean style movies (e.g., Bridge On the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago) as consisting of a close-up drama of the main characters, usually during wars or revolutions, and with a huge landscape in the background. (Doctor Zhivago was the only one in the list that was pulled down by love triangles, adultery, and all the rest of that puke. And that wasn't really Lean's fault.)

To be a happier novel-reader I need to find books that remind me of Lean's movies. By luck I did. Tolstoy's "Hadji Murat" was written late in Tolstoy's life. The short novel took place in the same setting where young Tolstoy served in the Czar's army, the Caucasus, between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.

Reading this short novel will probably make you feel like the ideal traveler, who learns about radically different ways of life, and not just silly scenery tourism. Of course there is plenty of scenery in the neighborhood, including an 18,000 ft high mountain! The main character, Hadji Murat, was a warrior in one of the Muslim tribes there.

The Caucasus was the southern boundary of czarist Russia, and what a boundary it was, ethnically, linguistically, and culturally! Muslims versus Eastern Orthodox Christianity.  Turkic versus Indo-European languages. The Silk Route went through there. It was the eastern edge of the ancient Greco-Roman world: the legendary Jason and the Argonaut looked for the Golden Fleece there. It was Josef Stalin's home country.

The Black Sea isn't the Russian equivalent of North America's Great Lakes. Salty water flows into the Black Sea from the Mediterranean along the bottom, while freshwater flows out to the Mediterranean along the top. The deepest spot in the Black Sea is over 7000 feet, compared to about 1000 feet in Lake Superior.

My goodness, what a map nerd I am! It's time to find some bicycle touring blogs that roamed the Caucasus.

Let's say you are a "Caucasian." Hasn't it always seemed strange to be affiliated with a place-name that you could barely point to on a map? The Indo-Europeans of the Caucasus became important to the world because that is probably where the horse was domesticated. Soon after, they learned to put a chariot behind a team of two horses; one guy managed the horses, while the second guy blasted away with a bow and arrow. They even learned to make lighter, spoked wheels.

What an important region the Eurasian steppe (grasslands) used to be! They connected eastern Europe with China. All of the ancient civilizations, except maybe the Egyptian, were invaded and conquered by horse and chariot warriers. It was the classic battle of Cain versus Abel. 

Anyway, this is the proper backdrop for an interesting short novel. It is so much better than the parlour and ballroom combat of 19th Century novels written for lady novel readers, or the modern novels, dominated by the perverse proclivities of New York City.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Sun Winds Down

It was better than a colorful sunset. Surprisingly I had never done this before: drive out of my way to a spot where the mountains didn't block the last hour of the sun. Then I made a cup of tea and sat on the front step of the RV and watched the sun set. What did I think? That if I sipped the tea slowly the sun would slow in its descent, and I could suck out another five minutes of daylight?

But the leisurely sipping seemed to honor the sun and season. It is that time of year again, when I always getting a funny feeling in the stomach and a lump in the throat. It is time to retreat from the highest altitudes. No matter how many times I have done this, it still seems significant and dramatic.

But why does this funny feeling only come at the beginning of autumn? It never feels this way in the spring. Shouldn't it be symmetric?

My best guess is that we gringo/palefaces have a tribal memory of winter: winter is dangerous, winter is suffering. To escape winter by heading downhill and southward is a very dramatic thing.

This ritual had been so pleasant and satisfying, I couldn't help but think about how informal and inconsistent rituals of any kind have become. In 19th century novels, rituals are mentioned so often. Were they really considered that important by folks back then, or was the novelist just filling the page with ink in an easy way?

The decline of ritual might be a part of the decline of Formality, in general. There is no distinction between people any more. The Young do not honor the Old by calling them 'Uncle' or 'Mister.' Men do not honor women with little gallantries of daily behavior. Everybody is on a first-name basis with everybody else. A gentleman and a peasant wear the same slob-clothing. Everybody listens to the same ghetto music.

Formality is undemocratic, I guess. We keep extending the French Revolution to more and more categories. When do we get bored with this endless leveling?

This slouching in the standards of civilization has been going on all during my life. But civilization can't just slouch into informality forever, or it would have ceased to exist millennia ago. When does civilization take a spike upward? Are those rare and rapid events in human history, followed by many generations of slouching?

Yes, I know. Grouchy old men have always had that point of view. I was rereading the beginning of Boswell's "Life of Johnson" the other day. Even back in the late 1700s Boswell, a genuine Scottish laird after all, was complaining how meaningless the term 'gentleman' had become in degenerate modern times.
[Samuel Johnson's] father is there stiled Gentleman, a circumstance of which an ignorant panegyrist has praised him for not being proud; when the truth is, that the appellation of Gentleman, though now lost in the indiscriminate assumption of Esquire, was commonly taken by those who could not boast of gentility.
This topic is too long and difficult for this morning, and I am too lazy. The only thing that is certain is that there is no better place to think of these issues than a land delineated by orogeny and erosion, a land of mountain and canyon, of lifting up and wearing away.

Extra credit to any reader who can identify this peak in the Tucson area where I play out the spring equinox ritual. In a couple weeks it will be time for the Autumn Equinox ritual of camping with the sun setting or rising on some fine topographic feature.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

A Practical Way to Get Started on the Origins of World War I

If you are interested in the centenary of the Great War but don't know where to get started, consider this brief article by Eric Margolis. Recall the old quote by the Latin poet, Horace, that "fleeing vice is the beginning of virtue." In studying the origins of the Great War, the first mistake you must avoid is the British bias, which is also the bias of Anglophiles in the power establishment of the American Northeast.

Many people see diplomats as empty talk, talk, talkers, as well as duplicitous scoundrels. But the diplomats at the end of the Napoleonic wars crafted a peace that lasted a hundred years in Europe -- not complete peace of course, but there were no general European-wide wars for a hundred years after their peace treaty.

But halfway through that remarkable century of progress, something new happened: Germany became a united country, and started industrializing and arming itself at a rate that soon threatened to make it the Big Cheese of Europe. The former Big Cheeses couldn't stand to see themselves become second-rate powers. It is not an easy transition. The Balance of Power in Europe simply failed to accommodate a rising Germany. 

The USA faces the same problem today. It must gracefully bow out of running the planet and let China take over meddling, bombing, invading, and occupying half of the countries on the planet. A lot of good it will do them. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Living History

The Great War started 100 years ago. Besides being of enormous importance to the world over this past century, it is an uncanny illustration of the old adage, 'the more things change, the more they stay the same.' An incident -- the assassination in Sarajevo -- was turned into the opportunity to kill millions by the blundering politicians and emperors that the sheeple stayed loyal to. A couple years later a suspicious or misinterpreted incident, the sinking of the Lusitania, was used to suck the USA into an unnecessary war.

Consider such things in light of what has been going on in Ukraine the last week. And yet the general public learns nothing about how politicians use incidents to start wars.

It is not easy finding good histories of the Great War. Oh sure, I've read Barbara Tuchman, Niall Ferguson, and Martin Gilbert. The difficulty is in finding a book not written from the British or American-interventionist angle. I had almost lost hope until Thomas Fleming's "The Illusion of Victory..."  I will bring up its points in later posts.

What a shame that those of us who knew someone in that dreadful war didn't really learn much from him about the war. I've only seen one photograph of my grandfather in action: he was a midwestern farmboy, and a recent immigrant from Sweden, who they put to work handling the horses that moved the cannons.

Ah dear, I can't find the photograph of Walmart plastic shopping sacks blowing downwind into New Mexican cholla, and being impaled of course. And there were so many sacks that day! It is hard to believe that mere plastic sacks could look so macabre. What a perfect visual representation of the trench, barbed wire, and machine gun warfare on the Western Front! 

I would really appreciate any suggestions from readers about good history books of the Great War.