Posts Tagged ‘Books’

Historical Writing

August 2, 2011

One more note on the previous post:

It’s not fair of me to expect the same level of juicy detail from ancient history as there is (or can be) in classical or modern history; there is simply more information about the more recent periods. As far as I know the Egyptians had no analogs of the wonderfully chatty and gossipy (and unreliable) classical historians, and although they were great record-keepers there just isn’t the same sort of detail we have about more recent times. But I’ll compare anyway. Here’s the sort of thing I love, from Strange Victory , by Ernest May (which I recommend!):

Canaris was a strange character. There were many such, of course, at the center of the Third Reich, but Canaris stands out among them…. Five feet four, with prematurely white hair, he detested tall men and, above all, tall men with small ears. The loves of his life were Seppel and Sabine, two dachshunds from whom he was almost inseparable. When traveling, he would require from his staff frequent reports on their apparent emotions and their bowel movements…

…[A]other possibility is anger over encroachments in his domain by Reinhard Heydrich, the head of Himmler’s security service. Outwardly, his relationship with Heydrich was cordial; the Canarises and the Heydrichs were neighbors and dined together. But Heydrich was thought repulsive by men who had no such reaction to Himmler or Bormann. Also, he was very tall and had small ears.

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt

August 2, 2011

For years I’ve loved ancient history without really knowing much about it. I’ve never been able to keep the Babylonians and Assyrians completely straight, let alone the Akkadians, and what any of them have to do with the Sumerians (my knowledge of whom comes primarily from having seen The Mole People at an impressionable age). I’ve never been quite sure of who the Hittites and Amorites and Mittanians and Chaldeans were. Those Sumerian city states have great names like Uruk and Ur and Lagash and Eridu but (apart from Abraham’s alleged origin in Ur of the Chaldees; doubtless he left to escape the mole people) I have no idea which is which or why we should care. The comings and goings of the MInoans and Mycenaeans and Achaeans and Dorians and other proto-Greeks are a mystery to me, providing only a little background for the Iliad and Odyssey and some half-remembered Mary Renault novels.


And then there’s Egypt. Egypt is far more familiar to us American rubes than Babylonians and Assyrians and Mittanians. It’s hard not to be exposed to all sorts of things about Egypt, romantic things like pyramids and mummies and sarcophagi for cats and animal-headed gods and King Tut. Yul Brynner and Anne Baxter (“Mo-o-o-ossses…”) are deeply ingrained as my Platonic forms of Pharaoh and Pharaohess (Pharaoness? Pharessa?). But the ancient Egyptian civilization lasted for 3,000 years. That is a long time, half as long again as it’s been since it it became part of Rome until now, and apart from “Cleopatra was at the end” all that history is compressed in our collective unconscious into an undifferentiated mass of pyramids and mummies and sarcophagi for cats and animal-headed gods and King Tut and Yul Brynner and Anne Baxter.

So when I read about Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, a popular history of the entire civilization, I hied me to the library and found a copy. It serves its purpose well: I’m much clearer—well, somewhat less vague—on what the difference between the Old and Middle and New Kingdoms, and where Memphis was (and why), and who the Hyksos and the Sea People were, and even to a certain extent which king was which and which did what. I know now where the word “Pharaoh” comes from (“Per-aa,” or “Great House,” applied metonymically to its inhabitant) and why (awkwardness about what to call Hatshepsut—there was no such thing as a “Queen”). The book is easy to read, and it zips right along. If you’re looking for a summary of all of ancient Egyptian history, bearing in mind that a “summary of all of ancient Egyptian history” will necessarily be a few hundred pages, this is it.


One of the highlights (I thought) comes at the very beginning of the Egyptian kingdom. Among the artifacts of that era, now a highlight of the Egyptian Museum of Cairo (and of Adrian Veidt’s—Ozymandias’s!—office in Watchmen) is the Narmer Palette. That’s “palette” as in a thing for mixing paints, in particular cosmetics; the ur-Eqyptians apparently used them as ceremonial objects in those days, a development of sacred face painting among in nomadic cultures or some such. The Narmer palette (apparently) commemorates the very unification of the Two Kingdoms of Egypt under Narmer, Egypt’s possibly mythical first king and founder of its First Dynasty. The obverse is full of Mespotamian motifs: the king as a bull destroying a walled town, those “serpopards” whose intertwined necks frame the pigment-mixing depression. The reverse is more distinctly Egyptian, with the now-human king wearing the crown of Upper Egypt. Although to my untrained and untrustworthy eye there is still some of Mesopotamia there—the king’s calf muscles look distinctly Assyrian to me, and I wonder how much those cows at the top (proto-Hathors, apparently) owe to Mesopotamian predecessors—the Narmer palette represents the very beginning not only of the Egyptian kingdom but of Egyptian, which (again to my untrained eye) remained remarkably consistent for millennia thereafter.

But this isn’t a perfect book. Reading it is a great first step in understanding Egyptian history, but all those kings still blur together. To some extent, I suppose that’s unavoidable—there were a lot of them, after all, and really I don’t know that there is always much to distinguish them. But Wilkinson’s (I hate to say it) somewhat cliched writing doesn’t really help. There are too many “brilliant demonstrations of the unite-and-rule concept” and “brilliant flashes of inspiration” and “brilliant but simple expedients.” I’m sure there is precious little that can really be said about any individual, king or otherwise, especially given Egyptian kings’ perennial habit of erasing all record of their predecessors, but I would desperately like more indivuating details, and anecdotes.

And I’d also like to know more about the Egyptian religion (or should that be religions?). Gods and priests and temples obviously permeate Egyptian history and life, but really all I can say I got from the book is that there were a confusingly large number of gods, whose cults were more or less important in various cities. How did those cults develop, and split and merge, and relate to each other in general? How did perceptions of the gods and details of their cults change over time? What did all those priests do all day, anyway?

So, definite thumbs up, but I am left wanting more. Which is certainly better than left wanting less—

"I killed a man in France"

November 30, 2008

The other day I blogged a bit about the differences between Wicked, the book, and Wicked, the musical, about how the play is somewhat…lighter than the book. Not that I’ve seen a whole lot of musicals based on books, especially complex and subtle books, but certainly that sort of dumbing-down isn’t unique to Wicked. My favorite example is from South Pacific. Yes, the play is one of the great classics of music theatre (and, in touch as I am with my inner Broadway-Loving Gay Man I still sometimes get songs from it lodged in my head1). But it lacks a certain gritty je ne sais quoi that pervaded James Michener’s book.

In both book and play, Emile de Becque fled France in his youth, having killed the town bully. From he play2:

EMILE. He could do anything… take anything. I did not like that, I was young. I stood up in the public square and made a speech. I called upon everyone to stand with me against this man.

NELLIE. What did they do?

EMILE. They walked away.


EMILE. Because they saw him standing behind me. I turned and he said to me “I am going to kill you now.” We fought. I was never so strong. I knocked him to the ground. And when he fell his head struck a stone and… [Shrug.]

And here’s the book:

“How did you kill him?” Nellie asked, surprised at her courage.

“With a knife,” Emile said, showing some satisfaction, even at that distance.

And I won’t even start with Lieutenant/Commander (book and play, respectively) Harbison’s attempted rape of Nellie…


1. Damn, “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair” is there now… Couldn’t it at least be “Bali Hai” or “Younger than Springtime?”

2. Quoted from the libretto that was moldering in a box in my attic, A relic of my high school play one year. I played Henry, Emile de Becaue’s Polynesian servant. I had six lines, in French, a language I did not speak. Since then my theatrical experience has been restricted to playing various woodwinds in orchestras.

Michael Crichton, RIP

November 27, 2008

[Belated, but better late than never…]

My fond memories of Michael Crichton, who died a few weeks ago, long predate his latter-day status as reactionary alarmist. As a lad I saw The Andromeda Strain when it was first on TV, and, being nerdly even then, I was captivated. The alien virus plot—hm, come to think of it, maybe he was a reactionary alarmist even then—was (especially to a nine-year-old) clever and thought-provoking; the five-level super-sterile top-secret government germ-fighting lab (with computer-controlled lasers!) was as nifty as the Enterprise (for which I of course had “blueprints”); the pseudo-factual quasi-documentary style was impressive. And best of all, the heroes were brainy science guys (and one gal), just like I wanted to be. I was hooked.

Crichton wasn’t exactly a great writer, but then, most bestsellers aren’t written by great writers, and his prose was certainly sturdy and serviceable. His great gifts included a rare ability to work meticulously through details and present them in a completely understandable way. His plot devices were often wildly imaginative, but always tethered to reality. Not only did Jurassic Park give you resurrected dinosaurs, it convinced you that resurrected dinosaurs were entirely possible, probably even inevitable. Even Crichton’s wilder plots and weaker books—I’m talking about Sphere here—had a certain weird plausibility to them, and were chock full of interesting ideas.

For Attention To Detail I don’t think one can beat The Great Train Robbery. I’ve just reread it (having decided to read something by Crichton in memoriam, and that being the first of his books to hand), and I enjoyed it as much as when I first read it thirty years ago. I’m not sure whether it’s a novel chock full of seamy Victoriana, or an essay about seamy Victoriana in novel form. I also don’t know how closely it follows the real robbery, but that hardly matters. The mechanics of the robbery, fiction or not, are fascinating, the criminal slang (doubtless dumbed down, insofar as it is accurate, or else it would be completely incomprehensible) is atmospheric, the discourses on criminals and prostitutes and London life in general wonderfully lurid.

And Crichton himself directed the movie of The Great Train Robbery. I haven’t seen that in years, but I remember liking it as much as I liked the book. How not, with Sean Connery at the height of his suavity as the master criminal, Donald Sutherland as his sidekick, and mind-blowingly gorgeous Lesley-Anne Down as his mistress? I’ve just talked myself into seeing it again; on the Netflix queue it goes.

The Late George Apley

May 26, 2008

I married into a Boston Brahmin family. My parents-in-law and their set have an accent—and a way of life, really—I didn’t know still existed. My wife, although she herself resolutely avoids all Brahmin manners, had for some time been pestering me to read John P. Marquand‘s Pulitzer-Prize-winning satire The Late George Apley, that I might better understand her people, and because she thought I’d like it. As usual I finally gave in to the pestering, and as usual she was right.

The novel is in the form of a biography of George Apley, a recently deceased (recently in 1933), very proper Bostonian. This biography Apley’s son has commissioned Will Willing, an old family friend and distinguished author, to write, based on Apley’s letters and other papers, with special instructions not to produce the usual anodyne eulogy:

How would it be if these letters should tell the truth about him? Not that I insinuate you do not always tell the truth — I mean that on this occasion you may leave matters in the record which your conscience and loyalty might otherwise blot out.

Apley was born in 1867—making him, unbelievably, a contemporary of my grandfather-in-law (they bred very late in that family)—into a family that had made a great deal of money first from clipper ships and then from mills. In a sort of synecdoche for the progression of New England economic life, the family went from daring entrepreneurs to flinty industrialists to—well, not much of anything, really. Apley becomes a lawyer (Harvard-educated, of course) and his father and uncle, finding him too soft for mill management, find him a sinecure at a convenient law firm. Here Apley seems to practice very little actual law, instead leading a life mostly dedicated to fulfilling a myriad of social obligations, attending functions of his many clubs, serving on innumerable committees, and engaging in obscure disputes with family, fellow club members, and in one disastrous case, a wily politician.

The humor—and tragedy—of the novel lies in the fact that Apley really doesn’t want to do anything of the sort. From his youth he finds his family and his society have determined his entire life for him:

He once said of himself: “I am the sort of man I am, because environment prevented my becoming anything else.

After college he travels to Europe and England and finds only Bostonians. Much later he buys a lake island in Maine as a rustic getaway, only to have his wife and sister follow him and establish a set of rules and traditions as ridiculous and annoying as Boston’s social conventions. The only way a proper Bostonian can escape Boston is to leave it physically and never return, and that Apley cannot do.

More seriously Apley is not allowed to marry the only woman he really loves, an Irish—and hence utterly unsuitable—girl he meets at Harvard. Instead he pleases his family by marrying the woman they have long had in mind for him, the daughter of an impeccable (and infuriating) family.

And of course Apley internalizes all of his society’s strictures. In time he becomes one of Boston’s leading men, fighting to preserve the traditions that have so utterly trapped him. He is disappointed in his own son for not having proper respect for Boston society, and for committing the appalling sin of moving to New York.

The novel’s genius lies in the oblique way much of its story is told. Mr. Willing, our narrator, is himself a proper (and pompous) Bostonian, and shares none of Apley’s doubts about society. These he considers deplorable lapses in an otherwise stellar character, and he includes them only reluctantly, at the insistence of Apley’s son. The chapter describing Apley’s college love is subtitled “Dealing with a Subject Which Would Not Ordinarily Be Discussed in a Work of This Nature.” Telling information is revealed only in throwaway sentences. Here is all we ever hear of Catharine Apley’s appearance, in a letter from Apley’s father:

… her position and yours in the scheme of things are such that there will be none of the frictions due to divergent backgrounds, which might occur for instance in a New York and Boston union. You have shown the good sense, too, to realize that beauty is only skin deep and that there are more important elements in the holy bond of matrimony.

The novel paints a vivid portrait of the early twentieth-century Brahmins, living in shabby grandeur, lamenting and resisting progress at every turn, taking highly principled stands based on principles only they understand. They are utterly convinced of their own superiority that they are genuinely confused and offended if accused of snobbery; the other side of that, though, is that they view themselves as enormously responsible to their community. And above all they are bound to rigid standards of behavior. John Apley laments:

Lord knows there are peculiar enough eccentric types but even these conform to a definite pattern of eccentricity.

For those of us who have lived in Boston, it’s also interesting to see an earlier stage in the city’s physical and cultural evolution. During the course of the book the Charles River Basin is created and the T (not yet called that, of course) is built: “eventually Boston would be twelve minutes, instead of an hour’s distance, from Cambridge.” Culturally this was the era when the political power of the Brahmins waned and that of the Irish Bostonians waxed, when the Cabots and Lodges gave way to the Fitzgeralds and Curleys. This Apley cannot completely understand.

I see that the novel was made into a play and then a movie, starring Ronald Colman. The IMDB gives the movies tagline as “Stop apologizing for sex, George Apley…you didn’t invent it!” It would be difficult to imagine a less relevant tagline for the book. It’s far deeper, and funnier, than that.

Semi-colons, then and now

May 6, 2008

Via Language Log, here’s a blog post/article by Helen DeWitt about the horrors of copy-editing, or rather of having one’s work copy-edited. The experience sounds hellish, and makes me glad I’m not an actual writer who might some day have to endure that indignity. It’s also makes for entertaining reading, so by all means check it out it right now.

I write about that here because of the hook, and indeed the title, Cormac McCarthy & The Semi-Colon:

[McCarthy] said at one point he had a job, he was working for someone who was writing a book that included excerpts from 18th-century writers, and he was given an assignment: Go away and fix the punctuation. So he read the texts. The writing was wonderful, he said, but the punctuation, there were semi-colons cluttering up the sentences, so he started on an essay, a piece by, it might be, Swift, and he went through and fixed the punctuation, and he gave it back to the professor who said that’s just right. So he realised that punctuation was very important. He doesn’t like semi-colons, never uses them. He uses periods, commas, capitalisation. Occasionally a colon, before a list of things

Is that shocking, or what? Well, it shocked me. From what (very little, admittedly) I’ve seen of his writing, McCarthy does not strike me as someone who would take kindly to having his own punctuation “corrected.”

Like Ms. DeWitt, l like 18th-century punctuation, in 18th century texts. Punctuation is part of the language1, and changing it changes the style and character of the writing. The exact interpretations of commas and semi-colons have clearly changed a little since Swift’s time, but any confusion and distraction they cause us moderns is (to me) very minor compared to the violence wrought by removing them altogether. And at least in my experience it takes about a minute of reading to get past the distraction.

I freely admit that this line of thought of thing pretty quickly gets into murky areas. What about modernizing spelling, for example? Is that as important to the style as punctuation? And how abut typography? Are those long S‘s2 important to the gestalt of the day, or just annoying? How about the general equivalence of u’s and v’s in older typography? The abbreviation of “the” as “ye 3?” Capitalization and italicization practices? 18th-century orthography and typographical conventions are probably close enough to our own that those are minor points, but how about Shakespeare? The older the writing, the closer reading (or editing) it becomes to reading/translating a foreign language—by the time you get to Chaucer’s Middle English it is a foreign language—and I don’t pretend to have a line to draw

Anyway, I recently ran into an actual example of de-styling 18th-century prose. Inspired by an article in The New Yorker, I’ve started reading things by Royall Tyler. It’s great stuff, about which I hope to write much more later. For now I’ll say that I started with The Bay Boy, an uncompleted semi-autobiographical novel. I thought when I read it that it seemed awfully un-18th-century—the average sentence length was too short, and there just weren’t enough commas and semi-colons. I also worried that it might have been a bit bowdlerized—having also read the “shockingly blasphemous” (Jill Lepore’s words, from that New Yorker aritcle) poem The Origin of Evil, I knew what Tyler was capable of.

And indeed I now have confirmation! The Bay Boy was a reworking of the first part of The Algerine Captive, of which I found a facsimile edition. A couple of chapters are virtually identical between the two, and so provide a comparison. Here are a couple of passages, illustrating both stylistic dumbing-down and omission of classical references so as not to confuse us benighted moderns. (Caveat: I don’t know what changes Tyler himself might have made, but I strongly suspect nothing in these examples). First, a few passages from the modernized Bay Boy:

The same afternoon a tall, raw-boned man called me to the door, immediately collaring me with one hand, and holding a cart whip over my head with the other. With fury in his face he vowed he would whip the skin from my bones if I ever struck Jotham again. Aye, he would do it that moment if he was not afraid I would take the law on him…

Fatigued with the vexations of my school, I one evening repaired to the tavern and mixed with some of the young men of the town. Their conversation I could not relish, as the subject was race horses. I thought of famous horses in Greek history, but they had never heard of them…

I was about retiring, fatigued and disgusted, when it was hinted to me that I should wait on Miss Mina home. I declined. Rumors were spread about me throughout the town…

And the far more robust original:

The same afternoon, a tall raw-boned man called me to the door: immediately collaring me with one hand, and holding a cart-whip over my head with the other, with fury in his face, he vowed he would whip the skin from my bones if I ever struck Jotham again: ay, he would do it that very moment, if he was not afraid I would take the law of him…

Fatigued with the vexations of my school, I one evening repaired to the tavern, and mixed with some of the younger men of the town. Their conversation I could not relish; mine they could not comprehend. The subject of racehorses being introduced, I ventured to descant upon Xanthus, the immortal courser of Achilles. They had never heard of ’squire Achilles or his horse; but they offered to bet two to one that Bajazet, the Old Roan, or the deacon’s mare, Pumpkin and Milk, would beat him, and challenged me to appoint time and place…

I was about retiring, fatigued and disgusted, when it was hinted to me, that I might wait miss Mima home; but as I could recollect no word in the Greek which would construe into bundling, or any of Homer’s heroes who got the bag, I declined. In the Latin, it is true, that Æneas and Dido, in the cave, seem something like a precedent. It was reported all over town the next day, that master was a papish, as he had talked French two hours.

I am giving serous thought to seeing if I can spend a day at the Vermont Historical Society perusing Tyler’s original manuscripts.

1 Of the written language, that is, but we’re talking about writing here. Written and spoken languages are obviously different—in interesting ways—but I’m not competent to say much about that.

2 Long s looks like the letter f, but doesn’t have a whole crossbar, just a nub on the left side, or nothing at all: ſ.

3 That “y” was originally a thorn (þ).

Brideshead Revisited, Revisited

May 3, 2008

The trailer for the new film of Brideshead Revisited does not, I fear, fill me with hope.  It appears to be dominated by Emma Thompson’s Lady Marchmain, by raging passions, and by, um, a score heavy on the drums and electric guitar.  It has admittedly been a while since I read the book, or saw the wonderful 1981 miniseries, but if I recall correctly the dominant themes were not so much passion and controlling mothers as change, decay, and the passing of old ways.  And a certain amount of Catholic guilt.

The trailer is also completely devoid of humor, which is barely conceivable in anything adapted from a book by Evelyn Waugh, one of the funniest writers in the English language.  Brideshead Revisited might not be the vicious satire of Scoop or Vile Bodies, but it’s hardly humorless.

But I’m sure I’ll see the movie anyway (although frankly I thought it sounded more interesting when the cast was to include Jude Law, Paul Bettany, and Jennifer Connelly).  Trailers don’t necessarily have much to do with their movies (see these examples!), and in this case admittedly Emma Thompson is the marquee star, passion is more interesting to most people than decay, and, well, actually I can’t explain the guitar.

Ring of Words

April 27, 2008

All nerds idolize J. R. R. Tolkien, and many of us realize that Tolkien’s greatness was due in part to the depth and detail of his language, both in English and in his many invented languages. Ring of Words, by OED editors Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner, details just how complex are the roots of Tolkien’s wordcraft.

Tolkien himself worked on the OED early in his career—something I for one did not know. Part I of Ring of Words details Tolkien’s life as a lexicographer, working in the minutiae of the W’s. I confess that even I found this section too esoterically detailed to read all the way through. If, however, you are interested in the etymology of “walnut” and “waistcoat” and “wallop,” by all means check it out—“walnut” is more complicated than you can possibly imagine.

Parts II and III are more generally interesting. Part II, “Tolkien as Wordwright,” concerns Tolkien’s work as a writer and as a philologist. It begins with a discussion of what “philology” means. The authors (and, they say, Tolkien) prefer a sense of the word more general than “simple” linguistics, an older and more general one.

The study of texts, whether ‘literary’ or not, leads naturally both ‘out’ to the study of the society and culture to which the texts belong, and ‘in’ to the study of the language in which the text is written. Tolkien and Gordon’s edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, may seem specialized to those unfamiliar with such scholarly texts, but in fact it is multidisciplinary in its scope: it includes an an analysis of the 14th-century dialect in which the poem is written, the verse techniques, the characteristics of characterization and narrative, the historical, fictional, and mythological sources, and the ideology and customs of the text’s contemporary audience. A philologist has to be able to handle all these areas…

…The modern term linguistics is a poor substitute, implying as it does a sole rather than a primary focus on language.

[I don’t know whether linguists would agree with that characterization of their discipline.]

From this RoW goes on to discuss Tolkien’s love for the raw sounds of words (reflected in customs of the Elves in his “legendarium”); his propensity for “compulsive fascination” with individual words, allowing them to “put down roots” and lead to great flights of creative imagination (most spectacularly in the case of the Ents, from the obscure Old English word ent); and then his use of creative archaism. Tolkien was an admirer of William Morris, who following in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott filled his historical romances and fantasies with mock-archaic language. Much 19th century (and come to think of it, 20th and 21st century) pseudo-archaism is fairly dreadful. Tolkien, with his deep knowledge of actual archaism, was able to make a much better job of it than Scott and Morris and their lesser imitators.

Tolkien, writing pure fantasy, was not exactly faking ‘period’ idioms; rather, he used Old English and Middle English language and literature as sources for his invented language and idiom. This is actually a rather subtle business. Tolkien tended not to use archaic Old English words directly, but rather extrapolated how they might have evolved had they survived into modern English. He also shaded his language to fit specific contexts, both in narrative and in dialog. He writes of the Shire in ordinary modern English, but of the Elves and the men of Rohan and Gondor in “higher” language. Even individual characters—particularly sensitive Frodo and well-traveled Aragorn—change their diction to suit the circumstances.

Part III, “Word Studies,” is simply a list of interesting words used by Tolkien, where he got them, and how he adapted them. Some words I would have thought he simply invented himself—“bee-hunter” as applied to Beorn, “elf-friend,” “sister-son”—turn out to have fairly deep linguistic and cultural roots. Some—“Arkenstone,” “mathom,” “smial”—are modernized versions of Old English words. Some, especially Rohirric words such as “éored” and “Mearas,” are delibarately un-modernized Old English words. Fun fact: the word “dumbledore” actually means “bumblebee,” appears in (some versions of) Tolkien’s poem “Errantry.” In reading the word studies I was repeatedly struck not only by how much I didn’t know, but by how much there was to know.

[Several of the word studies—Elf, Fairy, Faërie, Dwarf, Gnome, Goblin—remark on Tolkien’s annoyance at the light and sentimental popular conception of those mythical beings. I have to assume he would be heartened by the modern reinterpretations of such by the likes of Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke. If you have somehow not yet read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, for goodness’s sake do so at once.]

To close, two pretentious typographical notes:

  • I was greatly pleased by the books free and casual use of the archaic letters þ, ȝ, ð, and æ.
  • The body text of the book is set Minion, a typeface heavily inspired by typefaces of the late Renaissance. It is not however in any way an actual revival of those old fonts, even a creative one (as are, say, Bembo and the various Garamonds), but a modern creation. In that it is a sort of typographical analog of Tolkien’s reinterpretations and modernizations of ancient words. Was that intended, or am I merely being pompous?

A little more about Hitchens, and a lot about Hell

April 10, 2008

Previously in this space, I mentioned that there were interesting points embedded in Christopher Hitchens’ explanation of Martin Luther King’s patent atheism. Specifically, in this passage:

…it is only in the reported observations of Jesus that we find any mention of hell and eternal punishment. The god of Moses would brusquely call for other tribes, including his favorite one, to suffer massacre and plague and even extirpation, but when the grave closed over his victims he was essentially finished with them unless he remembered to curse their succeeding progeny. Not until the advent of the Prince of Peace do we hear of the ghastly idea of further punishing and torturing the dead.

HellThat is surprisingly close to being correct. The New Testament, and Christianity, are indeed much more focused on the afterlife, as both reward and punishment, than are Judaism and its scriptures. Search for the word “Hell” in the NIV, and you’ll only find results in the New Testament.1

The early Israelites do not seem to have had much concept of individuals’ survival after death. Having their progeny succeed and multiply was a far more meaningful “life after death.” But there are obvious exceptions, most strikingly the summoning of Samuel’s spirit for Saul by the witch of Endor.2

And there is an abode of the dead in the Hebrew scriptures. Sheol is very much the equivalent of the Greek Hades (which is how the Septuagint translates it), a sort of gloomy half-world, where all the dead go, whatever they were in life. It is not a place of punishment, and indeed can provide a welcome (if metaphorical) rest from the woes of earthly life. From Job 3:13-19:

For now should I have lain still and been quiet, I should have slept: then had I been at rest, with kings and counselors of the earth, which build desolate places for themselves; or with princes that had gold, who filled their houses with silver: or as an hidden untimely birth I had not been; as infants which never saw light. There the wicked cease from troubling; and there the weary be at rest. There the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor. The small and great are there; and the servant is free from his master.

In older translations of the Bible “Sheol” is often rendered as “Hell”; in newer ones, as “the grave,” or “the pit.” (Hence the specification the NIV, a translation I don’t particularly like, in the search above.) It appears most frequently in the more poetic books—Job, and the Psalms—or in the allegorical prophetic books, and hence may have been more a literary device than a statement of belief.

The Inferno, by BarolomeoThe Gospels do (apparently) introduce another version of Hell. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus refers to “Gehenna,” the exact nature of which is not clear, but which seems very bad indeed. It’s a place of fire and torment, where not only bodies but souls are destroyed. It is the negation of the Kingdom of Heaven. The word is derived from the valley of Hinnom, just outside Jerusalem. According to the historical books of the OT, and the prophet Jeremiah, human sacrifices were performed there, an practice that was ended by King Josiah. By Jesus’ time it had taken on a more abstract and otherworldly meaning, no longer an earthly abomination but a place of endless torment.

That is one manifestation of a more general phenomenon: in general the New Testament is abstract where the old is concrete. Compare, for example, the Magnficat with its original, the Song of Hannah. We should perhaps be cautious in extrapolating from the texts themselves to their authors’ and adherents’ beliefs, as concrete language can be interpreted abstractly and abstract language interpreted concretely. This is especially true of Jesus, who (very much in the early rabbinical tradition) spoke figuratively and taught in parables. He certainly went into no detail about the nature of Gehenna3, and may well not have meant to imply a literal eternal punishment.

What Christopher Hitchens—he got us here originally, remember—gets wrong is that this use of Hell, even assuming it means what later Christians think it means, was new with Jesus. It certainly was not. Jesus was after all a first-century Jew, who lived and worked entirely among other first-century Jews, and used language and ideas that were familiar to them. These could vary considerably from the language in the Old Testament, most of which (the apocrypha and the book of Daniel being the exceptions) was written hundreds of years previously, before the arrival and infusion of Hellenistic culture and ideas, in a language that few common people of Jesus’ time knew.

When Jesus4 used the term Gehenna he was quoting early versions of the Targums, translations of the Hebrew scriptures into Aramaic (see this article by Frederica Matthewes-Green and this by Craig Evans; in the second you should probably ignore the top part of the page completely and scroll to the quoted article). And the concept of an afterlife, including eternal punishment for the wicked, was certainly not foreign. Josephus ascribes such beliefs to the Pharisees (Jewish War II.8.14): “They say that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies,—but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment.” In this he was probably wrong—the Pharisees more likely believed in the resurrection of the body, a belief long metaphorically associated with the rebirth of the nation of Israel5—but his citation is at least evidence that the belief was not unheard-of.

SatanHow Satan—previously a senior member of God’s court—came to be the ruler of Hell is story for another time.


1 See this handy chart for all the “Hell words” in the Bible, excluding the apocrypha.
2 Here is an article by James Tabor about the afterlife in the Bible.
3 unlike some of his later followers, who so delight in the details of how the God of Love will burn, dismember, impale, and otherwise torture the apostate and the heretical.
4 Or rather, the evangelists, who wrote decades after Jesus’ death. And we can’t even be sure of what the evangelists themselves wrote, as the earliest extant copies of the Gospels are from later still, and may represent considerable editing. See this blog post by April DeConick.
5 See Daniel 12:2, and that most vivid of prophetic visions, Ezekiel 37.

The Jane Austen Book Club

April 5, 2008

Still more Janeblogging! Sort of; rather than real Austen, this is all about the fluff. Yes, I saw The Jane Austen Book Club, and thanks to the magic of low expectations, I even enjoyed it.

[I liked a chick flick! Crap, am I gay? Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it would be terribly inconvenient.]

Anyway. Five women and one guy (a handsome, charming, rich, and sensitive guy who likes older women1, it is worth pointing out) form a book club to discuss the novels of Jane Austen. They find their own lives and problems mirroring the books they’re reading (very vaguely and loosely), and with the aid and inspiration of said books are able to work out said problems (very unconvincingly, but that’s a quibble in this sort of movie).

It’s nice to see characters in a movie actually reading books, and not only reading them but caring about them and talking about them and thinking about them. Admittedly, their thoughts are on the shallow side—said the pot to the kettle; I’ve never had a deep thought in my life2—but it’s still nice. Usually in movies and on TV reading is something done only incidentally, or more often decorously left unmentioned, like using the bathroom or watching trashy television.3

What made the movie work for me, besides the low expectations, was mostly the very agreeable cast. Even when they were being charmingly annoying, Maria Bello and Amy Brenneman and Kathy Baker and Maggie Grace and Hugh Dancy were all just adorable. You sorta want to be their galpal (Damn! Still gay!). Of the central characters only Emily Blunt—so wonderful in the otherwise mediocre The Devil Wears Prada4—got a bum deal, forced to play the most unpleasant of our heroines, a pretentious, bitchy, and unhappy culture snob. Her unbearable superiority is indicated in part by the way she refers to Austen as “Jane”—but don’t we all do that?

The actors in minor roles fare less well. The great Lynn Redgrave is positively abused as Blunt’s mother, whose function in the story is to explain why Blunt is such a witch. Jimmy Smits and Mark Blucas, as the respectively unfaithful and insensitive husbands of Brenneman and Blunt, are treated with the usual clueless broadness reserved for husbands in this sort of story. Nancy Travis, whom I’ve liked ever since So I Married An Axe Murderer (no, really! I loved that movie!), is thrown away in a tiny part.

The Jane Austen Book Club has no particular insights into human nature, no great wit, and no characters I’ll remember in a month. If you want those, read Jane Austen. But if you’re looking for a pleasant time-waster you could do worse than this.


1 At least when they look like Maria Bello.
2 Actually, I did have one once. It was about modal logic.
3 Married With Children, Seinfeld, and The Simpsons being exceptions.
4 Emily Blunt, Stanley Tucci, and Meryl Streep seemed to be in a completely different, much better, movie than Anne Hathaway. My first thought was that a script doctor had worked over an originally flat screenplay, but hadn’t gotten to the whole thing. It turns out that at least Blunt improvised many of her lines.