Thursday, July 30, 2015

the Reverend Mr Arthur Bovary and Emma Dimmesdale

I cannot help thinking, while finishing up the novel, that The Scarlet Letter is a precursor to Madame Bovary, that Bovary is a version of Letter. Certainly Hawthorne's book was known in France before Flaubert wrote Bovary. Critic Émile Montégut had been writing about Emerson and Hawthorne since 1848, and I believe The Scarlet Letter was being read in France by 1852, when Montégut's essay about Hawthorne's novels was published. Flaubert is supposed to be more of a realist than Hawthorne, but who can deny the network of allegory and symbolism so tightly-woven throughout Bovary, making it almost as thickly unreal as The Scarlet Letter? Flaubert created a surface realism affixed to a metaphorical world; he did not actually create The Realist Novel. I digress, though.

There are differences between the books, of course, but they seem to me quite the same thing in many ways. Both are rather intimate tales of adultery and death by poisoning (real poison in one case, moral poisoning in the other) in somewhat repressive remote locations, with dreams of escape to freedom in the big city. In both novels, the physician husband is seen by the straying wife as the villain of the piece. The two wives are both deeply interested in clothing. The men with whom the wives commit adultery are symbols of a possible new and better life. Did Flaubert read Hawthorne?

Thursday, July 23, 2015

regime change, Athenian style

Pisander, in the midst of much opposition and abuse, came forward, and taking each of his opponents aside asked him the following question: In the face of the fact that the Peloponnesians had as many ships as their own confronting them at sea, more cities in alliance with them, and the King and Tissaphernes to supply them with money, of which the Athenians had none left, had he any hope of saving the state, unless someone could induce the King to come over to their side? Upon their replying that they had not, he then plainly said to them: “This we cannot have unless we have a more moderate form of government, and put the offices into fewer hands, and so gain the King’s confidence, and forthwith restore Alcibiades, who is the only man living that can bring this about. The safety of the state, not the form of its government, is for the moment the most pressing question, as we can always change afterwards whatever we do not like.”

The people were at first highly irritated at the mention of an oligarchy, but upon understanding clearly from Pisander that this was the only resource left, they took counsel of their fears, and promised themselves some day to change the government again, and gave way.

...the authors of the revolution were really to govern. However, the Assembly and the Council of the Bean still met notwithstanding, although they discussed nothing that was not approved of by the conspirators, who both supplied the speakers and reviewed in advance what they were to say. Fear, and the sight of the numbers of the conspirators, closed the mouths of the rest; or if any ventured to rise in opposition, he was presently put to death in some convenient way, and there was neither search for the murderers nor justice to be had against them if suspected; but the people remained motionless, being so thoroughly cowed that men thought themselves lucky to escape violence, even when they held their tongues. An exaggerated belief in the numbers of the conspirators also demoralized the people, rendered helpless by the magnitude of the city, and by their want of intelligence with each other, and being without means of finding out what those numbers really were. For the same reason it was impossible for any one to open his grief to a neighbour and to concert measures to defend himself, as he would have had to speak either to one whom he did not know, or whom he knew but did not trust. Indeed all the popular party approached each other with suspicion, each thinking his neighbour concerned in what was going on, the conspirators having in their ranks persons whom no one could ever have believed capable of joining an oligarchy; and these it was who made the many so suspicious, and so helped to procure impunity for the few, by confirming the commons in their mistrust of one another.
--Thucydides, Crawley translation.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

sending the mercenaries home

...everything the city required had to be imported from abroad, and instead of a city it became a fortress. Summer and winter the Athenians were worn out by having to keep guard on the fortifications, during the day by turns, by night all together, the cavalry excepted, at the different military posts or upon the wall. But what most oppressed them was that they had two wars at once, and had thus reached a pitch of frenzy which no one would have believed possible if he had heard of it before it had come to pass. For could any one have imagined that even when besieged by the Peloponnesians entrenched in Attica, they would still, instead of withdrawing from Sicily, stay on there besieging in like manner Syracuse, a town (taken as a town) in no way inferior to Athens, or would so thoroughly upset the Hellenic estimate of their strength and audacity, as to give the spectacle of a people which, at the beginning of the war, some thought might hold out one year, some two, none more than three, if the Peloponnesians invaded their country, now seventeen years after the first invasion, after having already suffered from all the evils of war, going to Sicily and undertaking a new war nothing inferior to that which they already had with the Peloponnesians? These causes, the great losses from Decelea, and the other heavy charges that fell upon them, produced their financial embarrassment; and it was at this time that they imposed upon their subjects, instead of the tribute, the tax of a twentieth upon all imports and exports by sea, which they thought would bring them in more money; their expenditure being now not the same as at first, but having grown with the war while their revenues decayed.

Accordingly, not wishing to incur expense in their present want of money, they sent back at once the Thracians who came too late for Demosthenes, under the conduct of Diitrephes, who was instructed, as they were to pass through the Euripus, to make use of them if possible in the voyage alongshore to injure the enemy. Diitrephes first landed them at Tanagra and hastily snatched some booty; he then sailed across the Euripus in the evening from Chalcis in Euboea and disembarking in Boeotia led them against Mycalessus. The night he passed unobserved near the temple of Hermes, not quite two miles from Mycalessus, and at daybreak assaulted and took the town, which is not a large one; the inhabitants being off their guard and not expecting that any one would ever come up so far from the sea to molest them, the wall too being weak, and in some places having tumbled down, while in others it had not been built to any height, and the gates also being left open through their feeling of security. The Thracians bursting into Mycalessus sacked the houses and temples, and butchered the inhabitants, sparing neither youth nor age, but killing all they fell in with, one after the other, children and women, and even beasts of burden, and whatever other living creatures they saw; the Thracian race, like the bloodiest of the barbarians, being even more so when it has nothing to fear. Everywhere confusion reigned and death in all its shapes; and in particular they attacked a boys' school, the largest that there was in the place, into which the children had just gone, and massacred them all. In short, the disaster falling upon the whole town was unsurpassed in magnitude, and unapproached by any in suddenness and in horror.
--Thucydides, The History of the Peloppenesian War, translated by Richard Crawley. The war in Sicily against the Syracusans has been lost, the greatest military force in Athenian history (20,000+ men, 200+ ships) all dead, imprisoned or sold into slavery. Nicias and Demosthenes both murdered by the Syracusans after their surrender. Back in Hellas, the Spartans have built a fort 12 miles from Athens, visible to the Athenian citizens, from which they sally forth every day to ravage the Athenian countryside. Things are coming to an end. In a decade Sparta will overthrow Athens, by 404 BC no longer a democracy, no longer the Athens of Pericles.

This morning I add the following passages, where Thucydides describes the reaction of the Athenians to news of the loss of their military in Sicily:
When the news was brought to Athens, for a long while they disbelieved even the most respectable of the soldiers who had themselves escaped from the scene of action and clearly reported the matter, a destruction so complete not being thought credible. When the conviction was forced upon them, they were angry with the orators who had joined in promoting the expedition, just as if they had not themselves voted it, and were enraged also with the reciters of oracles and soothsayers, and all other omen-mongers of the time who had encouraged them to hope that they should conquer Sicily. Already distressed at all points and in all quarters, after what had now happened, they were seized by a fear and consternation quite without example. It was grievous enough for the state and for every man in his proper person to lose so many heavy infantry, cavalry, and able-bodied troops, and to see none left to replace them; but when they saw, also, that they had not sufficient ships in their docks, or money in the treasury, or crews for the ships, they began to despair of salvation. They thought that their enemies in Sicily would immediately sail with their fleet against Piraeus, inflamed by so signal a victory; while their adversaries at home, redoubling all their preparations, would vigorously attack them by sea and land at once, aided by their own revolted confederates. Nevertheless, with such means as they had, it was determined to resist to the last, and to provide timber and money, and to equip a fleet as they best could, to take steps to secure their confederates and above all Euboea, to reform things in the city upon a more economical footing, and to elect a board of elders to advise upon the state of affairs as occasion should arise. In short, as is the way of a democracy, in the panic of the moment they were ready to be as prudent as possible.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Let's have a war: hawks and doves in ancient Athens

“Indeed, even if we leave Athens with a force not only equal to that of the enemy except in the number of heavy infantry in the field, but even at all points superior to him, we shall still find it difficult to conquer Sicily or save ourselves. We must not disguise from ourselves that we go to found a city among strangers and enemies, and that he who undertakes such an enterprise should be prepared to become master of the country the first day he lands, or failing in this to find everything hostile to him. Fearing this, and knowing that we shall have need of much good counsel and more good fortune — a hard matter for mortal man to aspire to — I wish as far as may be to make myself independent of fortune before sailing, and when I do sail, to be as safe as a strong force can make me. This I believe to be surest for the country at large, and safest for us who are to go on the expedition. If any one thinks differently I resign to him my command.”

With this Nicias concluded, thinking that he should either disgust the Athenians by the magnitude of the undertaking, or, if obliged to sail on the expedition, would thus do so in the safest way possible. The Athenians, however, far from having their taste for the voyage taken away by the burdensomeness of the preparations, became more eager for it than ever; and just the contrary took place of what Nicias had thought, as it was held that he had given good advice, and that the expedition would be the safest in the world. All alike fell in love with the enterprise. The older men thought that they would either subdue the places against which they were to sail, or at all events, with so large a force, meet with no disaster; those in the prime of life felt a longing for foreign sights and spectacles, and had no doubt that they should come safe home again; while the idea of the common people and the soldiery was to earn wages at the moment, and make conquests that would supply a never-ending fund of pay for the future. With this enthusiasm of the majority, the few that liked it not, feared to appear unpatriotic by holding up their hands against it, and so kept quiet.
From Book Six, Chapter XVIII of The History of the Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides, translated by Richard Crawley. Alcibiades is exhorting Athens to mount a campaign to subdue the island of Sicily and so extend Athens' (and his) political power and increase Athens' (and his) wealth. Nicias, the other general of Athenian forces, vainly urges caution and is ignored when he points out that the island of Sicily is as big as the Peloponnesian peninsula and as heavily populated and hey, remember how we failed to subdue the Peloponnese? Alcibiades successfully appeals to Athenian pride and greed. This Sicilian campaign is the very thing that raises up stodgy old Sparta and her allies once again against Athens and leads, finally, to the complete and final defeat of Athens, the destruction of the defensive walls the Athenians have taken shelter behind for decades, the end of the Athenian "Golden Age."

Thursday, July 16, 2015

"after which he immediately led off the army without giving any explanation" Sparta versus Argos

In the middle of the next summer the Lacedaemonians, seeing the Epidaurians, their allies, in distress, and the rest of Peloponnese either in revolt or disaffected, concluded that it was high time for them to interfere if they wished to stop the progress of the evil, and accordingly with their full force, the Helots included, took the field against Argos, under the command of Agis, son of Archidamus, king of the Lacedaemonians. The Tegeans and the other Arcadian allies of Lacedaemon joined in the expedition. The allies from the rest of Peloponnese and from outside mustered at Phlius; the Boeotians with five thousand heavy infantry and as many light troops, and five hundred horse and the same number of dismounted troopers; the Corinthians with two thousand heavy infantry; the rest more or less as might happen; and the Phliasians with all their forces, the army being in their country.

The preparations of the Lacedaemonians from the first had been known to the Argives, who did not, however, take the field until the enemy was on his road to join the rest at Phlius. Reinforced by the Mantineans with their allies, and by three thousand Elean heavy infantry, they advanced and fell in with the Lacedaemonians at Methydrium in Arcadia. Each party took up its position upon a hill, and the Argives prepared to engage the Lacedaemonians while they were alone; but Agis eluded them by breaking up his camp in the night, and proceeded to join the rest of the allies at Phlius. The Argives discovering this at daybreak, marched first to Argos and then to the Nemean road, by which they expected the Lacedaemonians and their allies would come down. However, Agis, instead of taking this road as they expected, gave the Lacedaemonians, Arcadians, and Epidaurians their orders, and went along another difficult road, and descended into the plain of Argos. The Corinthians, Pellenians, and Phliasians marched by another steep road; while the Boeotians, Megarians, and Sicyonians had instructions to come down by the Nemean road where the Argives were posted, in order that, if the enemy advanced into the plain against the troops of Agis, they might fall upon his rear with their cavalry. These dispositions concluded, Agis invaded the plain and began to ravage Saminthus and other places.

Discovering this, the Argives came up from Nemea, day having now dawned. On their way they fell in with the troops of the Phliasians and Corinthians, and killed a few of the Phliasians and had perhaps a few more of their own men killed by the Corinthians. Meanwhile the Boeotians, Megarians, and Sicyonians, advancing upon Nemea according to their instructions, found the Argives no longer there, as they had gone down on seeing their property ravaged, and were now forming for battle, the Lacedaemonians imitating their example. The Argives were now completely surrounded; from the plain the Lacedaemonians and their allies shut them off from their city; above them were the Corinthians, Phliasians, and Pellenians; and on the side of Nemea the Boeotians, Sicyonians, and Megarians. Meanwhile their army was without cavalry, the Athenians alone among the allies not having yet arrived. Now the bulk of the Argives and their allies did not see the danger of their position, but thought that they could not have a fairer field, having intercepted the Lacedaemonians in their own country and close to the city.
The Spartans, at long last, have the Argives right where they want them: surrounded, outnumbered, and clueless. Naturally, the Spartans walk away from this battle. The Spartans were not what you might call a decisive people. Their innate cautiousness could easily be mistaken for inactivity. Or a coma.

The war has been going on for sixteen or seventeen years at this point. You can feel Thucydides' growing exhaustion and cynicism. He served as an Athenian general at Amphipolis and his poor performance there has earned our historian an exile from Athens. He spends this time wandering around the Greek territories, researching his history, getting the perspectives of the opponents of Athens. By now Athens is no longer the heroic democracy coming to aid free cities against the repression of places like Corinth. Athens is an imperialist power looking to expand and conquer. When the Athenian forces land at Melos, offering to destroy the Melians if they don't submit to Athenian rule, they excuse their aggression thusly:
They [the other free cities] think...that if any maintain their independence it is because they are strong, and that if we do not molest them it is because we are afraid; so that besides extending our empire we should gain in security by your subjection; the fact that you are islanders and weaker than others rendering it all the more important that you should not succeed in baffling the masters of the sea.
In other words, Athens must act like a superpower in order to remain a superpower; being a superpower is of course its own reward. It's amusing (and tiresome) that the Athenian delegation once again trots out the hoary old claim that they have a right to rule all of Greece because they did, after all, defeat Xerxes once upon a time. They freed Greece from the Persians in order to rule it in the name of democracy. The Spartans, a non-democratic kingdom, are ironically cast in the role of liberators. This is all fascinating and unsettling.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The wrath of Bulgakov: running through the night with the White Guard

I seem to be reading a lot of war literature just now; I'm not sure how that happened. I am however happy with my reading choices: Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War and Bulgakov's first novel White Guard are absolutely fantastic. I was going to write a post that compared the two books, claiming that the use of the military in pressing political agendas has not changed in 2500 years (I was also going to point out the parallels between the way military alliances shifted during the ancient Greek war and the way the Ukrainians allied themselves out of political expediency with the Germans--or perhaps I should say the way the Germans allied themselves with the Ukrainians in order to place a large number of troops in Kiev during 1918, until the Germans abandoned Kiev after the fall of the Kaiser back in Berlin), but I have decided that is all less interesting than the observation that Bulgakov's White Guard is a parody of Tolstoy's War and Peace, as well as a version of Dostoyevsky's Devils. The most important thing to keep in mind when reading Bulgakov's novel, I think, is that the author was angry. Very, very angry.

White Guard is set in December 1918. Tsarist Russia has been overthrown in the October Revolution, the Russian army has withdrawn from World War I, and Russia is being torn apart by a civil war. Ukraine, now an independent state, is a battleground as four armies (the Imperial German army, the Whites (monarchists), the Reds (Bolsheviks), and the Ukrainian Nationalists (led by a warlord named Petlyura)) fight for control. Bulgakov's novel dramatizes the fall of Kiev--capitol city of Ukraine--as the Germans withdraw, the White army collapses and the Ukrainian Nationalists sweep into Kiev while the Red army marches south from Moscow. Bulgakov lived through the events of White Guard and gives a detailed and scathing account of both the high-level political maneuvering and the intimate lives of the citizens caught up in the fall of Kiev. In this way the novel is modeled on War and Peace, as the action shifts between troop movements on the battlefield and terrified lovers hiding in darkened houses as gunfire rattles on the other side of the wall.

I seem to be losing my topic as I write, there being so many things in this novel to distract the essyist, so I will just throw out these other signs that Bulgakov is alluding to War and Peace: the central action of Tolstoy's novel is the Battle of Borodino, a huge conflict between the Russian army and the army of Napoleon, a struggle to stop Napoleon's advance on Moscow. The Russians lost the battle but declared it a victory so as not to demoralize the army. Soon after Borodino, Napoleon's troops walked the streets of Moscow. Bulgakov mentions Borodino a dozen times and the White army commanders who hope to defend Kiev invoke the "victory" at Borodino to rally the troops. The irony is, of course, that Borodino was a defeat for the Russians, and just as Moscow fell, so will Kiev. In White Guard, Bulgakov focuses his attention on a Kiev artillery division that is formed from cadets and civilians, is given uniforms, weapons and a day's training, and is then disbanded the following day without having seen combat when the unit's commander learns that Kiev's government has abandoned the city. Tolstoy, of course, served in the Imperial Russian artillery, and cannons (and cannonballs) play a tremendous role in Tolstoy's telling of the Borodino fight. In Bulgakov's novel, the Kiev artillery is impotent, unused or futile. One of Bulgakov's artillery officers has read only one novel: War and Peace. So we are meant, I believe, not only to see that the battle to save Kiev for the Whites was doomed from the start and the political leaders of Kiev's resistance were self-serving cowards, but also to consider that tales of patriotic heroism and grand struggles to save empires are just grand historical lies.

When a novelist mentions books in a work of fiction, I always suspect that I am being given a hint. Bulgakov mentions three works of literature in White Guard: Tolstoy's War and Peace, Dostoyevsky's Devils (a pointer to the madness which descends upon Kiev, the evil chaos personified by the followers of Petlyura's Ukranian Nationalists), and unnamed "literary journals from the 1860s" which are used as tinder by the artillery division to light their heating stoves. I am not quite sure what Bulgakov is saying with that last bit, ha ha.

Whatever, man. This whole post is just an excuse to quote two of my favorite passages from the novel:
Deep in the snow, some five miles beyond the outskirts of the City to the north, in an abandoned watchman's hut completely buried in white snow sat a staff captain. On the little table was a crust of bread, the case of a portable field telephone and a small hurricane lamp with a bulbous, sooty glass. The last embers were fading in the stove. The captain was a short man with a long sharp nose, and wearing a greatcoat with a large collar. With his left hand he squeezed and crumbled the crust of bread, whilst pressing the knob of the telephone with his right. But the telephone seemed to have died and gave no response.

For three miles around the captain there was nothing but darkness, blizzard and snowdrift. [...]the telephone rang.

"Is that Number 6 Battery?" asked a distant voice.

"Yes, yes," the captain replied, wild with excitement.

"Open fire at once on the target area..." quacked the blurred voice down the line, "...with maximum fire power..." the voice broke off. "...I have the impression..." At this the voice was again cut off.

"Yes, I'm listening," the captain screamed into the receiver, grinding his teeth in despair. There was a long pause. "I can't open fire," the captain said into the mouthpiece, compelled to speak although well aware that he was talking into nothingness. "All the gun crews and my three lieutenants have deserted. I'm the only man left in the battery. Pass the message on to Post-Volynsk."

The captain sat for another hour, then went out. The snowstorm was blowing with great violence. The four grim, terrible, field guns were already half buried in snow and icicles had already begun to festoon their muzzles and breech mechanisms. In the cold of the screaming, whirling snowstorm the captain fumbled like a blind man. Working entirely by feel, it was a long time before he was able to remove the first breech block. He was about to throw it into the well behind the watchman's hut, but changed his mind and went into the hut. He went out three more times, until he had removed the four breech blocks from all the guns and hidden them under a trap door in the floor, where potatoes were stored. Then, having first put out the lamp, he went out into the darkness. He walked for about two hours, unseen and unseeing through the darkness until he reached the highway leading into the City, lit by a few faint sparse streetlamps. Under the first of these lamps he was sabred to death by a party of pigtailed horsemen, who removed his boots and his watch.

The same voice came to life in the receiver of a telephone in a dugout four miles to the west of the watchman's hut. "Open fire at once on the target area. I have the impression that the enemy has passed between your position and ours and is making for the City."

[...] Three officers and three cadets clambered out of the dugout with lanterns. The fourth officer and two cadets were already in the gun position, standing around a lantern which the storm was doing its best to put out. Five minutes later the guns began to jump and fire into the darkness. They filled the countryside for ten miles around with their terrible roar [...]

Prancing through the snow, a troop of cavalry leaped out of the dark beyond the lamplight and killed all the cadets and four of the officers. The battery commander, who had stayed by the telephone in the dugout, shot himself in the mouth. The battery commander's last words were: "Those swine at headquarters. It's enough to make one turn Bolshevik."
Before 1914 Kozyr had spent all his life as a village schoolmaster. Mobilized into a regiment of dragoons at the outbreak of war, in 1917 he had been commissioned. And now the dawn of December 14th 1918, found Kozyr a colonel in Petlyura's army and no one on earth (least of all Kozyr himself) could have said how it had happened. It had come about because war was Kozyr's true vocation and his years of teaching school had been nothing more than a protracted and serious mistake.

This, of course, is something that happens more often than not in life. A man may be engaged in some occupation for twenty whole years, such as studying Roman law, and then in the twenty-first year it suddenly transpires that Roman law is a complete waste of time, that he not only doesn't understand it and dislikes it too, but that he is really a born gardener and has an unquenchable love of flowers. This is presumably the result of some imperfection in our social system, which seems to ensure that people frequently only find their proper metier towards the end of their lives. Kozyr had found his at the age of forty-five. Until then he had been a bad teacher, boring and cruel to his pupils.
In 1926 Bulgakov wrote a stage play based on White Guard which was immensely popular in Moscow despite a sympathetic portrayal of the White Guard officers. It was apparently a favorite of Stalin's. This baffles me, given the intensely anti-revolutionary slant of the novel, but it's true that Stalin had the crazy in his head. I have not seen/read the play. It's been nearly forty years since I read War and Peace.