Philobiblon: February 2005

Monday, February 28, 2005

Final call, final call ...

Only two days to go until the next Carnivalesque, and yes it will be here.

I've had some interesting submissions, but I couldn't exactly say they've been flooding in, so please don't be shy: nominate yourself for a little glory now - enhance your dignitas and auctoritas in the blogsphere. (Yes I have been in ancient Rome for a few days now.)

Submissions of blog posts on any early modern history subject under the sun should be sent to natalieben at as soon as possible. If you're thinking "Carnivalesque?", there's an explanation of this gathering of early modernists here. (For these purposes "early modern" is defined as covering the period between c.1450-1850. Anything posted in the past two months - more or less - is most welcome.)

And to get in the mood, check out History Carnival No 3; no ancient Romans, but Rastafarian visitations to Ethiopia, women during the Meiji Restoration and lots of other fascinating stuff.

P.S. I note that while I've been away my auctoritas has so risen that on the TTLB Ecosystem I've been promoted from a "Flappy Bird" to an "Adorable Little Rodent" - not sure how that came about, but perhaps I should loll around reading for days on end and not posting more often.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Sickbed reading and historical consciousness

Apologies for being away longer than planned; it was a horrible cold, so I had five of those most frustrating days when you have endless hours to read but neither the concentration nor energy to read anything in the serious stacks. Instead, when I'm in this state I just want to read "escape" books - ones in which you disappear into another world for hours at a time, only emerging when the cough gets too pressing or the fever decides to have a spike.

So I dedicated myself to rereading Colleen McCullough's six-volume ancient Rome series. (They're about 800 pages each, so there's plenty of escape.)

And although these are page-turners rather than "great literature", and of course you know how it all comes out in the end (for those unfamiliar, they cover the fall of the Republic, from the rise of Marius to Octavius's defeat of Mark Anthony), they are meticulously researched and well put together - no jarring anachronisms.

Reading the second-last, simply entitled Caesar, which starts with his Gallic Wars, I was reminded that I should have already known about the European headhunters on which I posted recently, since they feature quite prominently. I also learnt that they particularly terrified the Romans since a headless body would have no means of carrying a coin (which was put in the mouth) to pay for the ride across the River Styx into the underworld, so instead all that remained of the person would wander as a demented shade across the earth.

I read the series also musing about the possibility of a historical novelist actually getting inside the head of a character from another time, prompted in part by an interesting recent post on the problems of historical mysteries by The Little Professor and in part by my small role as a research subject on the handling of ancient objects that I do at the British Museum.

I sometimes there share my question - one without an answer, but I find it fascinating nonetheless: if you could jump in your time machine and go back to meet the person who made this hand-axe you are now holding 350,000 years ago, or even further back, to the person making this chopper 1.8 million years ago, would you be able to communicate with them?

Obviously you wouldn't be able to talk to them, but would they understand the body language that communicates peaceful intentions, or a desire for food or water, or other things that I've found can be communicated very well without language in farflung parts of the world today?

I've never come across a discussion of this, but I wonder at what point a grimace - the drawing back of teeth to show threat or anger - became a smile? (Have to be careful with that in the time machine.)

So does McCullough manage it with a far easier subject, on a time from which considerable contemporary writings survive?

In some ways yes, and in the ways you might expect the sources to allow her. She's excellent on dignitas and auctoritas, I think, and not bad on issues of patron-client relationships - overall on the whole way Roman politics worked, not just the theory of it.

How can I judge? Oddly, the place where I've seen something fairly close to what she describes is Thailand; its modern "democracy" bears remarkably resemblances to ancient Rome's, including the centrality of patron-client relationships, the concept of "face" being all-important and broad scale bribery of voters.

It is on the domestic stuff, on really getting inside how people think, that she fails, or perhaps necessarily swerves into the modern. Her Romans are, I think, far too humane, too nice to their slaves, too kind to their relatives, in a society that regarded such behaviour as a weakness and a folly. (Except those characters who are out-and-out villains.)

Her Marius proscribes only when senile dementia has taken hold, her Sulla only for the necessity of state, and Caesar only while being sickened at the need to take action to prevent further bloodshed in the long term.

But then, if her main characters weren't like this, would we not be repulsed by them, or at least insufficiently seduced (and her Caesar in particular is very seductive) to stick with them for 800 or more pages?

Probably not. She is caught like the historical mystery writer by the demands and conventions of her readers. It is perhaps we rather than she who can only go so far into the head of an ancient Roman.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Brief pause

I've got the office lurgy, feeling like hell (if the first person who got it didn't come in but just kept it safely at home how much better the world would be!) so I might not be back for a day or so.

But I take back all the negative things I've said about bureaucracy, at least temporarily, since my application for British citizenship was approved in about a month, the mail this morning told me, when the website says it takes nine months!

Bark, bark. (That's my burning throat, not a dog) - off to bed with The First Man in Rome ...

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Maria Stuart

A couple of weeks ago I discovered the 18th-century German playwright Friedrich Schiller. (Yes, very belatedly.)

Having loved the production of his Don Carlos now in London, I went on Saturday night to the other end of the theatre world to see his Maria Stuart at a fringe venue in Southwark, the Union Theatre.

The friend with whom I went wasn't entirely convinced by the idea, and almost tried to persuade me to see The History Boys instead, but in the end, after some doubtful moments, she was glad she hadn't.

The acting was surprisingly good, in places excellent, particularly by the actress in the lead role, and if Queen Elizabeth at first seemed a bit of an odd presentation, it grew on you.

The trains rattled overhead (the theatre is in the railway arches), they should to do something to stop the CD player on the stage manager's computer whirring all the time, but this is the fringe. What really could be done is to rein in the director's flights of fancy that has the players occasionally moving into arty slow motion dances between scenes, and quite why a telephone suddenly appears at the start of the second act, when the rest is more or less an original-setting production, is utterly beyond me.

But overall it is well worth ten quid if you can get to see it. (The curious "leave a message on the tape if you want tickets" method of booking seems to work.)

And if Maria Stuart appears anyway in the world near you go to see it; this is a spectacularly fine piece of drama.

P.S. I can also recommend the nearby Baltic "vodka shot" bar - very good fun (and the music is at a volume that makes conversation possible!) The ginger vodka is dangerous delicious, and the plum brandy not bad at all.

A tag:

Monday, February 21, 2005

Blog gems

I've been doing lots of blog browsing - checking up for my host role in Carnivalesque, so it counts as work, really!

I'm saving the historical gems for the carnival, but three other glittering posts to share:

1. A joke to be enjoyed by anyone who has ever had any contact with "consultants". (And in my UN development days I was one, at least part-time, which involved in one instance my advising a woman on a country about which I knew nothing, and she'd been doing a PhD in Sydney when I was in nappies - I'm afraid I didn't "value-add" much there, and probably picked out a few "dogs".)

2. Dr Charles muses on the potential medical risks of thongs. (I mean the underwear sort, not the rubber flip-flop sort, for Australian readers.)

3. The serious one. MGK was visiting a Microsoft project trying to realise Vannevar Bush's truly revolutionary post-WWII vision of information management and pointing out some potential hitches in the plans. I find this fascinating because it is something I have wanted ever ince the internet started, and indeed before.

I was one of those odd children who wanted to collect facts and figures and never to forget them - the wall above my desk when I was 11 or so was a sea of nails with folders of facts hang on them, and ever since I've been battling to keep track of everything I want to know. And as I said in my most recent thesis, it is what the internet really needs. (Search for Vannevar to get to the relevant bit.)

On that line, I was interested to read Clioweb's post on the "Scribe" notetaking programme, apparently specifically designed for historians, and a commenter's reference to Endnotes.

Some time soon, and yes I do mean pretty soon, I hope to create a lot more space in my life for historical research, and I will need to move on from my undergraduate-acquired method of research - photocopying everything that doesn't move and scribbling all over it, and filling books with Stick-it notes. Any comments or recommendations would be most welcome.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Essential reading

There's been much talk of the usefulness of the web in research, and it certainly is invaluable in making easily accessible many forms of texts previously rare or hard to reach, but in many ways I can't help feeling we're still about the stage they were on radio when they read out the newspapers for "news" bulletins. Our habitus, to use Bourdieu's invaluable concept, has yet to catch up with our technology.

So I was interested to see a site on research into the effects of the reservations for women of seats in India's local government, the panchayats. The authors say: We seek your inputs regarding the sort of questions we need to ask: Perspectives; Any research studies that may have been done; Questionnaires; Experience at the field level; Anything………"

I can't imagine that too many of the women on the panchayats would have internet access - although I bet there would be a few - but it is easy to see how this model might be used to encourage participation by the subjects of studies in the design of the studies on them, potentially a revolution.


If you are at all interested in science, then you have to read a physics professor's argument for radical science, which addresses, if does not answer, the fascinating question: Where do hypotheses come from?


Iraq as the new Iran? This excellent Washington Post article on Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has some frightening input into this possibility, although is scrupulously fair. And it points out that you can see for yourself at, with his writings available in English, French, Urdu and Arabic. A sample:

Question:I want to ask about talking to ones fiancee on telephone, is it permissible or not?
Answer:If talking is free of provocative words and if there is no fear of falling in sin, there is no objection.


And if you need to find hope for sanity in that other great fundamentalist state, read this account of how to bring up an atheist child in America.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Roll up, roll up ....

The next Carnivalesque will be here, on Wednesday 2 March. But I need your help ...

Submissions of blog posts on any early modern history subject under the sun should be sent to natalieben at as soon as possible. Don't be shy - please nominate the favourites on your own blog, but also particularly any that you've come across off the routes of previous carnivals.

And if you're thinking "Carnivalesque?", there's an explanation of this gathering of early modernists here.

If you've inexplicably missed out on the experience, visit Carnivalesque No 1, on the blog of the founder and carnival mistress extraordinaire Sharon, and then No 2.

For these purposes "early modern" is defined as covering the period between c.1450-1850. If you've just put up or read a brilliant post that doesn't fit that criteria, well then why not send it to the next History Carnival, for which the deadline is February 25. Details here.

Remember Mademoiselle Rose Bertin (milliner to Marie Antoinette): "There is nothing new except what is forgotten"

Friday, February 18, 2005

Medical skulduggery

Was reading that there's nothing new about nefarious practices among drug "companies".

In the early 16th-century a "wonder drug", guaiacum, from the Americas, was discovered, and thought to cure syphillis. (The theory was the disease had come from there, which it hadn't, so the cure must also.)

Ulrich von Hutton wrote a whole treatise on its virtues in 1519, dedicating it to the Archbishop with Mainz with the telling words: "I hope that Your Eminence has escaped the pox but should you catch it (Heaven forbid but you can never tell) I would be glad to treat and heal you."

In 1530 the physician Girolamo Francastoro created the name still use today in a poem on extolling guaiacum's powers, and the merchant house of Fugger, which had the import monopoly, had an extensive "PR" campaign for the chain of hospitals, the only places where it could be obtained.

Paracelsus, who doesn't come off to well in other scientific respects, at least saw through this, denouncing the drug as a scam and recommending the mercury treatment that would continue for centuries. (For my previous posting on this see here - but be warned it is not for the squeamish.)

But, "the Fuggers responded by using their financial muscle to suppress Paracelsus's publications and ridicule his scientific credibility. The ethically dubious world of patent medicines was born," says Jerry Brotton, in The Renaissance Bazaar, pp. 192-3, from which this story is taken.

And not just patent, I'd say.

For Paracelsus see an excellent detailed account at the (US) National Library of Medicine or the short version on Wikipedia. And guaiacum, although the resin not the 16th-century choice of wood, is used by herbalists today.

Footnote: Trying to decide whether to use one or two Ls in the title, I learnt that the term skulduggery is thought to be from Scots sculduddery - "obscenity, fornication". Language is a funny thing.

A tag:

Thursday, February 17, 2005

There was movement at the station ...

... for the word had passed around
That the colt from old Regret had got away,
And had joined the wild bush horses — he was worth a thousand pound,
So all the cracks had gathered to the fray.

... I could go on - I checked this morning on the Tube - I was the muttering woman between Farringdon and Euston Square at about 10.45 - and I can still recite the whole lot. It's here if you're interested.

(And if you've seen the movie you still have the read the poem - there's only a faint relationship between the two.)

I'm no man from Snowy River, having fallen off more than enough horses to prove that, but I am deeply enmeshed in a likely move between flats at present, and the poem brings to mind rounding up estate agents, for which the phrase "mustering wild cats" might have been invented.

So blogging has been a bit quiet lately, but I was inspired today by an article on Banjo Paterson, which contains a full account of the origins of Waltzing Matilda, the unofficial national anthem. It has Scottish/German/left-wing union roots - don't tell John Howard!

(That link will only work for a couple of days.)

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Memory meme

I should be sleeping, but after a rough day have been distracted by the excellent meme, via Purple Pen ...

Which authors have you read more than ten books by?

Mine are (or those I can remember thus far, roughly in the order in which I read them) ...

Enid Blyton
Arthur Ransome
Elyne Mitchell (particularly her brumby books. (Brumbies are wild horses.)
Ruby Ferguson (of the "Jill" pony books - more here)
"Jean Blaidy"
Zane Grey (and probably several other writers of Westerners I've now forgotten)
Patrick O'Brian (and probably several writers of war novels of varying eras whose names I've forgotten)
George Macdonald (Yes the Flashman series; I'm bring brutally honest here - and I was only about 13)
Alastair MacLean
James Michener
Agatha Christie
James Herriot
Dick Francis
John Francome
Peter Corris
Sue Grafton
Colleen McCullough
Lindsey Davis
Anne Perry
Dorothy L Sayers
Elizabeth Peters
Kerry Greenwood (on whom I posted here
Marele Day (a rather good Australian writer of feminist detective stories))
Peter Ackroyd

Some more are sure to pop to mind now I've started this ... but obviously the way to sell lots of books is to write long series of detective novels or thrillers, or at least that is what this list would suggest.

And if you haven't got a dog from whom to get a good cuddle, for some Wednesday canine blog comfort check out this pic, from Living in Egypt, a brilliant blog.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Ticketing 4WDs

ticket, originally uploaded by natalieben.

I mentioned a couple of days ago that I'm a cyclist. One of the banes of my existence is ridiculously large vehicles, particularly 4WDs. (SUVs in American parlance.)

Many of their drivers seem utterly unaware of the poor visibility of these hulks, or indeed even of their real size - near had my shoulder taken off by a Hummer - yes a HUMMER! -- in central London in the early hours of one morning.

But now I'm fighting back!

Above is a "parking ticket", to be put on 4WDs - and I'll be out on the prowl soon ...

You can get your own copies from Alliance Against Urban Four x Fours.

There's more good news on other fronts. In Sydney, a local council will charge more for parking 4WDs.

For a further take on the issue, the Sydney Morning Herald's Spike column is running a series of reader comments. The best I've seen:

"Bill Rayner - after noting that a 2.6-tonne 4WD travelling at the speed limit has the same momentum as a 1.3-tonne sedan travelling twice as fast - had a question: 'If a LandCruiser doing 70 kmh in a 60 zone can do the same damage as a mid-sized car going 140, why isn't [the driver] thrown in jail for it?'"

And you don't want to think about the damage it would do to a cyclist. Susoz pointed out in the comments on my last post on cycling that the home page of the lovely funny article to which I pointed explains that the author had been killed by a drunk driver. As she says, it does make your blood run cold. Then again even if you are in a steel-sided vehicle it may well not offer much protection in those sort of circumstances.

Monday, February 14, 2005

This week's acquisitions

* The Emperor's Giraffe and other Stories of Cultures in Contact, by Samuel M Wilson.

You can read his giraffe story, in which one is shipped from Bengal and the other from Africa to China here. It deals with the way in which China, apparently having the military/economic power to conquer the world, instead decided to draw back into itself. (A story also fascinatingly, if controversially, explored in Gavin Menzies's 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, which concludes the Chinese fleet completed a global circumnavigation.)

The blurb says the book overall examines 23 moments in history "when two cultures previously unknown to each other, first came into contact. Focusing on individuals caught by chance in pivotal times and places, Wilson explores the ways in which seemingly small decisions made during the initial contact period between two cultures have had a huge impact on the course of history." ... not quite the "Great Man" theory of history, more like the "bumbling man".

* Young Medieval Women, Katherine J. Lewis, Noel James Menuge and Kim M Phillips, which contains the delightful quote from a York ordinance of 1301: "No one shall keep pigs which go in the streets by day or night, nor shall any prostitute stay in the city." (p. 172)

* The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to 1870, Gerda Lerner

* The Diary of a Provincial Lady, E.M. Delafield, Virago, 2003, originally published in 1930, which is my current bedtime reading, a delightful text for that. Inevitably Delafield is billed as the "Bridget Jones" of the time, but she's a much better writer, and very clearly feminist.

She is delightfully caustic about human behaviour (including her own) and the book is a wonderful lesson that you can write a great book about anything at all, even the most apparently dull, provincial life.

A sample:

"Receive a letter from Mary K. with postscript: Is it true that Barbara Blenkinsop is engaged to be married? and am also asked the same question by Lady B., who looks in on her way to some ducal function on the other side of the county.

Have no time to enjoy being in the superior position of bestowing information, as Lady B. at once adds that she always advises girls to marry, no matter what the man is like, as any husband is better than none, and there are not nearly enough to go round.

I immediately refer to Rose's collection of distinguished Feminists, giving her to understand that I know that all well and intimately, and have frequently discussed the subject with them. Lady B. waves her hand - (in elegant white kid, new, not cleaned) and declares That may be all very well, but if they could have got husbands they wouldn't be Feminists.

I instantly assert that all have had husbands, and some two or three. This may or may not be true, but have seldom known stronger homicidal impulse. Final straw is added when Lady B. amiably observes that I, at least, have nothing to complain of, as she always thinks Robert such a safe, respectable husband for any woman.

Give her briefly to understand that Robert is in reality a compound of Don Juan, the Marquis de Sade, and Dr Crippen, but that we do not care to let it be known locally.

Cannot say whether she is or is not impressed by this, as she declares herself obliged to go, because ducal function "cannot begin without her". (p 56-57)

A tag:

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Debt to the Arabs

Most of us learnt at some early stage that we use "Arabic numbers", as opposed to the clunky Roman system of putting together Xs and Is. But from Jerry Brotton's The Renaissance Bazaar I have just learnt just how great a debt our maths (and indeed accounting) owe to the East (and that they should apparently be called Hindu-Arabic numbers).

The man who brought many of the concepts and symbols to Europe was Leonardo Pisan, known as Fibonacci, who is 1202 completed is Liber annaci. He explained:

"I joined my father ... as an officer in the customhouse located in Bugia [in Algeria] for the Pisan merchants who thronged to it. He had me marvellously instructed in the Arabic-Hindu numerals and calculation. I enjoyed so much the instruction that I later continued to study mathematics while on business trips to Egypt, Syria, Greece and Provence and there enjoyed discussions and disputations with the scholars of those places. Returning to Pisa I composed this book of 15 chapters which comprises what I feel is the best of Hindu, Arabic and Greek methods."

He brought to Europe not only the numbers, but carefully explained the decimal point system and methods of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division - (he also brought the signs for these operations to Europe), and their application to commercial problems such as weights and measures, bartering, interest and currency exchange.

The term "algebra" comes from the Arabic for restoration "al-jabru". The term "algorithm" comes from the Latinised name of the Persian astronomer Abu Ja'far Mohammed ibn Musa al-Khowarizmi.

(Pages 42-44)

A tag:

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Beware Kyphosis Bicyclistarum

I'm a recent convert to cycling. I was lucky that my former employer was - once my fitness level and skills got to a reasonable level - only 20 minutes or so from home on two wheels, faster than any other method except for a taxi on a Sunday.

Then when I changed jobs it upped to 30 to 40 minutes, which covers about 5 miles. Hah, I hear the enthusiasts say, that's crawling.

Well there are around 20 sets of traffic lights along that route, plus a section of the Thames path littered with dogs, tourists and small children. Some people do cycle it at road pace; I don't trust my reflexes.

And the rest is through central London traffic - which is not as much of a problem as some suggest, since it is seldom going at any great rate, but between bendy buses (a nightmare - that is definitely not joined-up governmental thinking) and taxis that stop suddenly, to get a straight 500m run is a rarity.

To say cycling has changed my life would be a slight overstatement, but it has made me fitter than I've ever been before (not that I claim that is saying a lot), healthier, and generally happier. I cycle in any conditions short of icy - my "magic" fleece balaclava soon warms me up, and if I've worn it on an insufficiently cold day, cooks me.

Even on those days it is hard going, it is nice when you stop. That's an emotion beautifully summed up by Zen and the art of fixing a flat tire [tyre]. (A belly-laughing hat-tip to One more cup of coffee, who is a real cyclist.)

It was from him that I also learned about the dreaded Kyphosis Bicyclistarum caused, they said in the 19th century, from bending over the handlebars.
From Manufacturer and builder
Volume 25, Issue 8, August 1893

"A word of warning is uttered by the well-known medical authority, London Lancet, which young men, and boys in particular, who have the ugly habit of riding the bicycle with a forward stoop, will do well to take seriously to heart. This pernicious habit is by some acquired unconsciously, and by others (and these constitute the larger number of examples) in foolish imitation of the stooping, or humped, posture of the professional racer. For those who are old enough to understand and appreciate the evil consequences of this unwholesome posture in wheeling, which robs the exercise of all its hygienic value, will need no persuasion to break themselves of it at once; while for the thoughtless boys, among whom the habit is most common, and, because of their immaturity, most injurious, the intervention of parental authority is urgently called for. "

There's nothing new about health scares.

Luckily I'm safe from the affliction, since my back only allows me to ride in a "sit up and beg" posture. Looking on the Zen side, I say this is guaranteed to maximise wind resistance and therefore excercise.

Two tags:

Friday, February 11, 2005

European headhunters

For those who still make claims of European moral supremacy: did you know there were "native headhunters" across Europe in the Iron Age?

Browsing through Southern France: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, by Henry Cleere, I came across what he calls the 'severed head' cult.

He says across the region sculptures of "what are indisputably human heads severed are found their bodies" are found, with some of the best examples at Entrement, as even the Tourist Office somewhat reluctantly admits.

There's also documentary evidence, with the Greek scholar Posidonius, via Strabo ...

"There is also that custom, barbarous and exotic, which attends most of the northern tribes...when they depart from the battle they hang the heads of their enemies from the necks or their horses, and when they have brought them home, nail the spectacle to the entrance of their houses. At any rate Posidonius says that himself saw this spectacle in many places, and that, although he first loathed it, afterwards through his familiarity with it, he could bear it calmly." Strabo IV, 4,5. Speaking of the Gauls." From this website which links it to stone carvings across Europe, although many of these are not necessarily "dead" heads.

Cleere notes that Strabo has, however, archaeological support, with "the discovery in excavations at the oppidium of La Cloche (Bouches-du-Rhone) where human skulls were found that appeared to have been mounted over the main gate". (p. 128)

Which was, of course, just what was done with "traitor's" heads over London Bridge many centuries later.

A tag:

Women and the ancient Greeks

As promised, if slightly delayed ...

Aristotle, having spent considerable time and philosophical ingenuity on trying to justify slavery by saying slaves were "naturally" inferior, goes on in the Politics to sum up the position of women in a few words: "A slave does not have the deliberative faculty at all, while a woman has it, but it lacks authority." As Williams has it (see reference below) "the argument is of basically the same shape as that about slaves: there is a need for the division of roles, and nature provides the casting."(p. 135)

And that's about it really - doesn't take you very far, except that it seems there's nothing new about the resurgent claim that women just HAVE to have babies - it is their role in life to be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. (Haven't you noticed how empty the world is getting?)

The other main element running through the book is a discussion of shame versus guilt cultures - something I feel I should have come across before but haven't. Williams says: "The basic experience connected with shame is that of being seen, inappropriately, by the wrong people, in the wrong condition. It is straightforwardly connected with nakedness, particularly in sexual connections. The word aidoia, a derivative of aidos, shame, is a standard Greek word for the genitals, and similar terms are found in other languages." (p. 78)

(Fascinating this - Williams doesn't say if this means related European languages, or across the world. I'd imagine most cultures have the word - that would be a fascinating cross-cultural study of where it has come from within them.)

So, Williams says, shame involves an internalised figure of a watcher or a witness. (They don't have to be actually present.) Guilt, however, involves an internalised figure that is victim or enforcer. "In guilt-centred, autonomous moralities the point is supposedly reached where there is no distance at all between subject and internalised figure, and guilt is pictured as an emotion experienced in the face of an abstraction, the moral law, which has become part of the subject itself."

This usefully explains the whole Asian idea of "face", and many of my difficulties in interacting with workmates when I was in Thailand. They were only concerned with a barely internalised other looking on - as long as what they had done looked OK; whether it was actually really OK, which my internalised guilt character worried about, was utterly irrelevant to them. A comment that was made to me several times was: "Don't think so much - that's a bad thing to do."

Other snippets:

* Heracleitus said: "a man's character is his fate". (p. 136)

* In the Freud "would have had fun" category: Plato was fundamentally concerned with inner freedom of the soul. "In the tripartite soul that he introduced, the requirement was that its highest, reasoning part should not be tyrannized by its other parts, in particular by its desire. These desires present themselves as exigent, as making demands and imposing constraints.

He typically speaks of this as erotikai anangkai, sexual necessities. ... a writer of the 2nd century AD tells us that the penis was then known as 'the Necessity'." (p. 154) (The reference says Artemidorus Oneirocriticon I 79) Somehow I suspect that's a male rather than a female perspective!

A tag:

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Two sides of Iran

Bush and Co. really couldn't be stupid enough to invade, could they? Really?

Last week I came across two interesting articles, a review in the Times Literary Supplement of In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs, by Christopher de Bellaigue (which sounds well worth reading), and a piece about the acceptance there of gender re-assignment surgery, now unfortunately locked up in the LA Times archives.

But my interest in Iran precedes the latest sabre-rattling from the world's rogue super-power. Discovery of the two articles prompted me to dig out an essay on the Iranian Revolution that I wrote some 15 years ago, and it holds up pretty well.

And doesn't this sound so familiar (across religious and cultural boundaries). "An editorial in a women's magazine in 1984 set out the tenets. 'In Western societies where capitalism is dominant, women's liberation is nothing but the liberty to be naked, to prostitute oneself ...

In Iran since the Revolution, 'we witnessed the ultimate ideologisation and instrumentalisation of the woman question. ... Kandiyoti* says that forcing women to conform to extreme Islamic ideas was at the heart of the 'utopian populism' which was trying to exclude the 'Other within' from the true community."

Remind you of anywhere? "Abstinence education", "banning abortion" ...
and now, a small flood of books saying women will have to have more babies.

No mention of the environmental benefits of reduced populations, scarcely a thought for the possibility of changing to a simpler way of life to reduce consumption and thus economic need, or all sorts of other possibilities that might cope with falling, ageing populations.

* D. Kandiyoti 'Introduction' in Kandiyoti (ed) Women, Islam and the State, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1991, p. 8.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

A moral test: Us v Ancient Greeks

Bernard Williams, in Shame and Necessity, says that the ancient Greeks - here talking primarily of the Classical period - did not generally attempt to morally justify slavery.

Instead, since they believed that it was essential to the functioning of their society, particularly domestic slavery, they just hoped that this fate would never fall of themselves or their relatives, then otherwise ignored the problem. "If someone is a slave, he has the same flesh, for no one was ever born a slave by nature: it is chance that has enslaved his body." (p. 109)

(Under Roman law apparently, if a woman conceived a child when she was free, but became a slave by the time that it was born, it was recognised as free.)

Later antiquity "seems to have given up on the question of slavery as a moral problem, trying, unedifyingly instead, to claim that real freedom was freedom of the spirit, also, perhaps even especially, available to slaves. So said Seneca: "It is a mistake to think that slavery goes all the way down into a man. The better part of him remains outside it. The body belongs to the master and is subject to him, but the soul is autonomous and is so free that it cannot be held in any prison ... " (p. 115)

(See where dualism gets you!)

But lest we indulge in a "reflex of self-congratulation", Williams says: "We have social practices in relation to which we are in a situation much like that of the Greeks with slavery. We recognise arbitrary and brutal ways in which people are handled by society, ways that are conditioned, often, by no more than exposure to luck. ... [But are uncertain whether to act] partly because we have seen the corruption and collapse of supposedly alternative systems, partly because we have no settled opinion on the question ... how far the existence of a worthwhile life for some people involves the imposition of suffering on others." (p. 125)

Some other snippets:

Quoting Wilamowitz: "To make the ancients speak, we must feed them with our own blood." (p. 19)

On the lack of the mind/body dualism in Homer: "the word that came to mean something like 'soul' by the time of Plato, psuche, stands in Homer for something that is mentioned only when someone is fainting, dying or dead; when the person is dead, it is pictured as existing in a very flimsy, deprived and unenviable condition .... The later Greek word for the body as opposed to the soul, soma, means a corpse in Homer. (p. 23) The sensibility of Homer "was basically formed by the thought that this thing that will die, which unless it is properly buried will be eaten by dogs and birds, is exactly the thing that one is." (p. 24)

"The Greeks tended to regard the capacity to hold out against feeling or desire as the same capacity, whatever the feeling or desire and however it originated -- whether it was sexual desire or the desire to yield to pain or to run away or to take revenge. For this reason, they tended to put together strengths and weaknesses in ways different from those that have been familiar to what has been, at least until very recently, conventional modern opinion ... they thought that men were better at resisting both fear and sexual desire than women were." (p. 40)

To the claim that Homer's heroes lack and inner life: "we must come back to the question of what the poem is doing. Some characteristics of these figures - the dignity, the distance, the grave acceptance of a fate or fortune that is given ... are features of how they are presented, artefacts of the epic style." (p. 46-7)

Tomorrow: the woman question.
A tag:

Monday, February 07, 2005

Don Carlos - don't miss him

I was planning to spend the evening slaving over a hot computer, but really wasn't feeling in the mood, when I got an email from a lovely Listserv community to which I have belonged for many years reminding me it was my birthday this week. (No, I'm not being deliberately forgetful, nor, I hope, is it a sign of early Alzheimer's, just my family never made a fuss about things so I tend to forget about them.)

So instead I went to see Michael Grandage's production of Don Carlos, and it was a good decision. For once the "stunning" blurb was entirely justified. It is an 18th-century play by Friedrich Schiller, of whom I must confess I had not previously heard. The play is stunning - the plots, the twists, the betrayals, the sheer drama is up there with Macbeth, and that to my mind is high praise indeed.

The language of the adaptation/translation by Mike Poulton is brilliant - serious, courtly, emotional, but never anachronistic, while avoiding the alternative trap of grating archaism (no "thees", "thous" or "sayeths"). It was so perfect you hardly noticed it, which is high praise for a modern traditional dress production.

Derek Jacobi as the Philip II of Spain has huge stage presence, but the other main characters - his wife Elizabeth of Valois, his son, Don Carlos, and most of all the freethinking Marquis of Posa - hold their own against him, giving the play an excellent balance.

It is based on historical fact, in that Elizabeth was originally intended to marry the son, but Philip decided to take her for himself, although a quick internet search suggests the supposed love between the first two was a romantic myth. But the shadow of the Inquisition, which hangs over the whole play, and bursts forth at the end, certainly wasn't, which reminds me I have a "Women of the Inquisition" book somewhere in my "to read" pile.

What struck me on the bus home was how much in intent at least Don Carlos resembled a play that I wrote for a school production at age 17, "The Framework of the Revolution", which was Frederick Forsyth meets George Orwell meets adolescent sense of tragedy, written by someone with no sense of dialogue whatsoever. (All of the youthful rebels got machinegunned in the end.)

It was undoubtedly as bad as that sounds, and went down a treat (I'm sure not) with an audience of private school pupils and parents used to Gilbert and Sullivan done by lots of girls in tights. Oddly enough I have no recollection of the evening of the performance, only of the dress rehearsal, in which hardly any of the 40-odd characters knew their lines, or what was going on. I was up in the lighting room having a scream - remember that bit!)

Unhappily, or probably happily, I don't think I any longer have a copy, and somehow I doubt the school kept one.

Sitting waiting for the phone to ring

.. no, not like that - just boring business stuff. But if you want a quick laugh, check out this quiz ...

I'm pretty damn hard core! Fear me!

Sunday, February 06, 2005

This week's acquisitions

The book sale is still on at the British Museum, and they've got lots of new stock ...

* Oral and Literate Culture in England 1500-1700, Adam Fox, OUP - which was on my Amazon "to buy" list anyway - surprising that it is being remaindered.

*Philip Sidney: a double life, Alan Stewart, bought mostly because I'm interested in his sister, Mary, Countess of Pembroke, the poet.

From it I learned that their grandmother "had been a learned woman, taught by the famed Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives. In 1553 she commissioned two tracts by the scientist John Dee: 'The Philosophical and Poetical Original occasions of the Configurations & names of the heavenly Asterisms' and 'The true cause & account (not vulgar) of Floods & Ebbs.' Evidently encouraged by her mother, the young Mary Dudley [the poets' mother] was taught penmanship and learned Latin and French (as witnessed by her annotations on her copy of Hall's Chronicles). She also spoke fluent Italian and, like her mother, corresponded with Dee." P. 40

I also note that one of Philip's tutors in 1572 and 1573 was "Mistress Maria, the Italian" - interesting a woman tutor (p. 41)

* Shame and Necessity, Bernard Williams. He takes on what he describes as the "progressivist" view of philosophical development - "the Greeks had primitive ideas of action, responsibility, ethical motivation and justice, which in the course of history have been replaced by a more complex and refined set of conceptions that define a more mature form of ethical experience". (p. 5)

He says in the introduction that Nietzsche has a lot to offer on the subject, in addition to the famous "The Greeks were superficial out of profundity", noting that: "One thought that impressed Nietzsche was that in lacking some kinds of reflection and self-consciousness the Greeks - whom he was willing to compare to children - also lacked the capacity for some forms of self-deceit." (p. 10)

But, "rejecting the progressivist view ... had better not leave us with the idea that modernity is just a catastrophic mistake and that outlooks characteristic of the modern world, such as liberalism, for one are mere illusion. As more than one philosopher has remarked, illusion is itself part of reality, and if many of the values of the Enlightenment are not what their advocates have taken them to be, they are certainly something." (p. 11)

Isn't it wonderful - and oh so rare - to read a philosopher writing in comprehensible English!

My evening is now mapped out ... with Bernard.


P.S. Should add, in case I sound excessively scholarly, my final purchase of the week was Colin Watson's Coffin Scarcely Used, a pleasant rush through a Thirties English body-strewn town - plot definitely Christie-ish, but with wry, subversive humour all his own. He's not nearly as good as Dorothy L. Sayers, on whom I have rhapsodised elsewhere, but miles above most of his contemporaries.

And that's what I spent the first half of the evening reading, while recovering from a squash game.

(a tag)

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Feminist miscellany

First and most importantly, defending abortion. Below is posted, as advised by Rad Geek, a small contribution to a "Google bomb" to get an appropriate Google response to the search "Roe v Wade".

Anti-abortion ideologues beware: I'm promoting objective, factual information on:
Roe v. Wade

You can too. Join me in Bombing for Choice.

America is the obvious example of why women have to be vigilant in defending abortion rights, even when they have seemingly been secure for decades, but Australia provides a further warning.


More cheerfully, some women who really made the news, often against all of the odds:

"... Despite the fact that women were restricted from applying for some jobs ( the ban on female General Trainees was only lifted in 1960) they were responsible for some of the BBC's most famous news programmes.

In 1950, Grace Wyndham Goldie pushed the BBC into covering the General Election, she championed the first party political broadcasts and Budget programmes before re-launching Panorama in 1955 and developing Tonight in 1957.

In radio, two women (Janet Quigley and Isa Benzie) saw through the development of the Today programme which was launched in 1957. Isa Benzie was the first producer and inventor of the programme's title.

It was in 1957 that the first woman read the news in the BBC Television Service: Armine Sandford, one of a team of four who presented the West Region's daily television news bulletins from the Bristol studios.

But it was a long while before women were allowed to read the national news. Nan Winton was tried as a newsreader in June 1960 but soon axed. ..."


How did the "Victorian" change into the "modern"? This essay about Kate Chopin's 1899 novel The Awakening suggests one woman writer of the period might have some of the answers ...
For feminist scholars, the text is especially rich because its female author explores and negotiates a fluid border of literary tradition -- examining and playing with, alternately embracing and backing away from, the Victorian literary foremothers' version of "domestic fiction" and the up-and-coming, largely male-dominated, Modernist movement. Chopin as an author, like Edna as a character, is a woman caught in the borderlands between the literary traditions assigned to her as a nineteenth century female writer and the mores of a new era.


I'm not really a fan of the Impressionists, but if you are, as well as knowing about Monet, Renoir, et al, you should also know about Berthe Morisot. There's a new exhibition about her at the (American) National Museum of Women in the Arts.


If you are planning to read Simon Goldhill's Love, Sex, and Tragedy. How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives, which I am one of these days, an essential accompaniment and corrective, it seems, is this excellent review. Also a useful response to the claim we "don't need women's history now, because it is included everywhere".


For anyone alarmed by the Telegraph story about women in Germany being "forced" to work as prostitutes or face a benefit cut, here's a pretty reasonable debunking. The old story, if you think an account is unbelievable, it probably is.


Whew, now I'm on top of my inbox again ...

(a tag)

Friday, February 04, 2005

Not for cat-lovers

cat, originally uploaded by natalieben.

Yes, Friday cat blogging, but not as you know it. Be warned!

It was 1568. Agnes Bowker, 27, daughter of the late Henry Bowker of Harborough, Leicestershire,, a spinster and domestic servant in the same town, found herself with a difficult, but hardly unusual problem - she was pregnant.

Cast out by her employer when her predicament became evident, she seems to have wandered the countryside until on the 16th of January the following year she gave birth, after an apparent gestational period of 53 weeks, with in attendance a midwife and several "gossips" (female matrons).

This, however, is where the story gets very strange indeed. For she gave birth, it seemed, to a "monster", as she called it, or what was clearly a cat, as forensic examiners saw it.

Based on her later testimony, the father might have been another servant, Randal Dowley, who suspiciously fled the area and was never heard from again, it might have been an apparently shape-shifting beast that assumed the form of a cat, a bear or a man, or a sinister schoolmaster, Hugh Brady.

It seems pretty clear, to me anyway, that she was covering up either a late abortion or infanticide. Panic-stricken, she doesn't seem to have thought that this was not a way of quietly covering up what she had done.

That, tragically, in 2005, some girls or women should still find themselves in the same situation is evidenced by the recent discovery of a baby's body on Teeside. I heard on a radio that a girl, 15, had come forward.

But anyway, back to the history - Agnes's tactic eventually worked, in that she escaped punishment - which could have been the rope for infanticide - and disappeared back into history.

One of the remarkable things about this case, and there are many, is the way the local official charged with investigating the case, Anthony Anderson, went about his work.

His is the drawing of the "monster" above, done with meticulous forensic care. "This picture ... containeth the full length, thickness and bigness of the same, measured by a pair of compasses."

The townsfolk had already dissected it, and found a piece of bacon in its throat that obvious convinced most of the men that this was just a piece of trickery.

Now the official charged that another cat be killed and flayed, so that its shape could be compared to the "baby". He found the only difference was in the colour of the eyes. "I cast my flayn cat into boiling water, and pulling the same out again, both in eye and else they were altogether one." (p. 21)

Surprising is the matter of fact "scientific" way he attempted to establish the facts. Was this the perhaps surprisingly early spread of the scientific method out into the countryside, or simply an application of rural commonsense?

Less unexpected was the political use that the appearance of this "apparition" was put; with Elizabeth only uncertainly on the throne, and religious uncertainty still rife, Such births showed something was wrong in the nation, and God was sending a sign to say: "Fix it."

This is the title story in the book by David Cressy from which I posted that nice collection of curses yesterday.

Sharon asked me a couple of weeks ago what I think of it. Well it has some wonderful stories and period detail, as this story suggests, but I do find it curiously lacking in theory or even a coherent approach.

There's a nod to "postmodernism" at the start, but it seems to take this to mean just presenting competing narratives without attempting to draw any distinctions between them, a rather simplistic idea of the approach.

Associated is an expressed desire not to draw conclusions, although as the book progresses it is increasingly dotted with them, often it seem to me on very flimsy grounds.

On factual topics on which I have some knowledge I also have some doubts. e.g. on p. 66-67 "A variety of medicines was used 'to bring down or provoke a woman' flowers', to stimulate menstruation, or 'to hasten the bringing forth' of a child from the womb and this knowledge was widely distributed through printed herbals and through women's lore."

The reference given for this is John M Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance; and possibly David Cressy, Birth, Marriage and Death: Ritual, Religion and the Life Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England 47-50).

But this seems to contradict everything I've read on this issue, which says while the midwife's oath included a promise not to use such substances - suggesting they were known to exist - such dangerous, illegal knowledge was never written down.

Can anyone comment on that?

A tag:

LATE ADDITION: I notice that "Ephelia" has just posted on another similar case, that of Mary Toft, who claimed to have given birth to rabbits (having apparently experienced a series of miscarriages).

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Have a good swear

Was woken this morning by a phone call about a problem at work, sleepwalked my way through a yoga class, and am now wondering what life would be like without living in a perpetual state of sleep-deprivation.

I can remember waking up about three weeks ago one day before the alarm went off, having had more than nine hours sleep and it really felt odd - good, but odd. I don't get many opportunities to follow Isobel's advice.

So that might be influencing this post, although hasty reassurance to any workmate reading, this is not directed at you.

Agnew Bowker's Cat: Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England, by David Cressy, has a lovely little collection of the abuse vented by clergymen at their congregations in the 17th century:

* Directed at someone who put his hat on during a sermon (maybe his head was cold?): "lob, saucy goose, idiot, widgeon and cuckoo, scabbed sheep, none of my flock"

* The whole congregation: "sowded pigs, bursten rams and speckled frogs"; or, "black mouthed hell hounds, limbs of the devil, fire brands of hell, plow joggers, bawling dogs, weaverly jacks and church robbers. If I could call you worse I could."

* When members protested about ceremonial changes: "black toads, spotted toads, and venomous toads, like Jack Straw and Wat Tyler". (all p. 157)

Nice to know they were restrained by being "men of God".

Translations: lob - a lazy, clumsy person, a lout; widgeon - a type of duck (although I don't know why it is a term of abuse); "bursten ram" - perhaps a reference to diseased genitals?; plow joggers (a term of abuse that continued into the 19th century and I guess means roughly "peasant"; weaverly jacks????

This reminds me of an Australian play that I read for my HSC. I can't of course remember the title or the author, but I do remember it was set in the early 20th-century federal parliament and involved lots of unparliamentary language of a colourful sort. It was where I learnt the world scrofulous, which does roll off the tongue beautifully as an insult. Anyone recognise the play?

A tag:

Why so mean?

Fitting in neatly with the book I discussed yesterday about the "school slut" is another, a recent academic remainder purchase, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, by Rachel Simmons.

It argues that arising out of the strong pressures on girls to be "good" and "nice" is a resultant inevitable nastiness, in the form of bullying as a means to express anger. This takes the form not of physical or even direct verbal aggression, but the use of "sly", "mean" tactics - being nice to someone for one day then cold-shouldering them without explanation, spreading rumours (eg about sexual behaviour, as per yesterday's book) about someone behind their back.

What makes this so particularly damaging is that the victim of the bullying feels that she must have done something wrong, there must be something wrong with her, to attract this sort of behaviour from her "friends".

A sixth-grader is quoted: "Most teachers think, 'Oh well, she's not hurting you. Don't worry about it.' But really they are hurting you. They're hurting your feelings." (p. 47)

The book argues: "We need to freeze those fleeting moments and name them so that girls are no longer besieged by doubts about what's happening, so that they no longer believe it's their fault when it does." p. 37.

Definitely a book teachers, and probably parents of girls, should read - not that it offers many helpful suggestions about what that can be done about it. But it might at least help adults to understand why the problem is so serious for the victims.

I largely avoided this problem by dropping out from all contact with my peers from about grade four onwards, but as an "outsider" over the years I was sometimes the person the bullied victim came to as a "safe haven". At my private all-girls' high school the interaction was frequently vicious.

(a tag, if I've understood the explanation properly!)

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The school slut

Now I think about it, every school, college and similar collection of adolescents or young adults with which I have been involved had a school slut, or, to be more precise, had a girl or woman identified as such.

At primary school, there was Sharon* who, reputedly, would let you watch her kissing boys if you paid her. She was the only one of us who came from a working-class, perhaps even under-class background. She was different, and was so labelled.

At high school, there was Melinda, who when I look back now was almost certainly a victim of some form of abuse. She claimed never to be able to do PE because she wasn't wearing any undies (knickers), claimed to have had sex with boys in railway waiting rooms. She disappeared for unexplained reasons in Year 11.

Later, as a tutor in a university college, I overheard a young man of 20-odd hotly denying that he had intercourse with Sue, the college slut, supposed to have slept with just about every male there, and usually seen in a angry drunken condition very early at any event. He had a reputation as a lady-killer, and that was all to his benefit in the student hierarchy, but he obviously thought sleeping with Sue would lower that. "She only slept on my floor," he said. He obviously wasn't believed.

I was moved to muse on this by Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut, by Emily White, which documents the phenomenon in America. She documents how girls who develop secondary sexual characteristics earlier than their peers, those who are, like Sharon, of a different class to their peers, who have unusual family set-ups, who stand out even in ways that would seem to have no particularly link to sexuality, can suddenly be labelled; the same stories - particularly "the football team myth" told about them.

It is The Lord of the Flies, with sex.

And of course there is so much around today, as always, to support this demonisation, while a boy who sleeps around is utterly different, a Don Juan, as in my college case, someone to be admired.

White quotes the alarming example from 1930 of the Catholic "philosopher" Dietrich Von Hildebrand, who wrote In Defense of Purity that the "loose" woman is indulging in a "significant squandering of self" and when a man sleeps with a loose woman he enters a "mystery of terrible sin" in which he is in danger of losing his soul. "In this black-hearted woman's embrace, man is in the grip of a 'diabolically evil lust'." (p. 90)

It is noticeable that White doesn't quote modern authors along these lines - although reading all of the posts Feminist Blogs about abstinence-only sex "education" in the US I bet she could have found plenty. If she was trying to avoid controversy and to get the book read in places where it might do some good, I can only sympathise.

Some of White's case studies just make you want to cry. She's reporting on a boring school assembly at which the pupils start to talk among themselves.

"The rumour goes like this: Heather Adams masturbates. Pass it on!

The rumour begins among the jocks behind me. Soon it has been heard by a dozen kids or more. Pass it on, pass it on. Over and over the phrase is repeated, cupped hands touching ears, the whisper as loud as a stage whisper: "Heather Adams masturbates. Pass it on!"

"Gross!" says the female recipient of this news, a red-faced beanpole. She hesitates for a moment, then whispers the news into the ear of the girl sitting in front of her . "Are you kidding?" the girl shouts. "She is soooo sick!"

The rumour moves west through the crowd. The point of the rumour, its defining quality, is that it moves. The rumour can't stop. It's a hot rock that must be passed quickly before it begins to burn." (p.33-34)

When I compare this to my post a couple of days ago on ancient Roman sex - a gift of Venus to be enjoyed by all - I can only think that Christianity has an awful lot to answer for.

*It was a long time ago, but I've changed all these names just in case.