Crows

November 25, 2009

About 10:30 this morning I had just checked my e-mail and was getting ready to sit down to work on the lecture I am scheduled to deliver in Ohio next week on the subject of the Filioque controversy — a subject about which the Preacher, the son of David, may have been prophetically thinking when he observed that he who increases knowledge increases sorrow, that of the making of books there is no end, and that much study is a weariness of the flesh. Much other business also urgently awaits my attention: I need to clean up the house and make other preparations in advance of a visit from an aunt and uncle, who are coming down from Boston this Friday to attend my Aunt Becky’s funeral (she died early this past Monday, aged 80, of cancer of the liver; with all the misery and horror of approaching death, she managed to look beautiful even to the end). Anyway, at just about 10:30 a.m. I heard a scuffling noise outside, a great, noisy confabulation, which seemed to be coming from all directions. I looked out the window and saw that the roof and the ground and the bare trees were all covered with crows, like an army of well-trained paratroopers, surveying the territory or moving about in search of food; many of them were scouring the gutters of my house for insects, pulling out the decaying leaves that had collected there and letting them fall to the ground, making easier for me the job I will eventually have to do to clean these gutters out. From the kitchen window, I could see their tails moving directly overhead as they scavenged, while others, on adjacent parts of the roof, looked about, with sharp, no-nonsense eyes and bluish heads: certainly enough to strike terror into the heart of any beetle or ant who should have had the misfortune of being caught out in the open. I was wondering to myself how many they were, and was thinking that there must have been at least a thousand of them; after some minutes, when I sat down and began working on the computer, the birds must have been startled by a noise which I didn’t hear, or by a movement somewhere which I didn’t see, because they all suddenly took off like a great black horde, briefly filling the whole grey sky like a dark, self-propelled cloud; and I could see that my guess of a thousand was a serious underestimate: there may well have been ten thousand of them or more.

And now, as I write this, and look again out the window, they seem to be returning, perhaps flattered at having received all this attention. I had better get to work on more serious things.

The following article by the historian Judith Herrin was posted yesterday to openDemocracy. The article on which it comments, “Take Me Back to Constantinople,” by Edward Luttwak, appears in the November/December issue of Foreign Policy. I hope people in the government read Luttwak’s article and his book (The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire), and take his very sane advice to heart.

Back to the eleventh century?

Judith Herrin, 17 November 2009

It is a great pleasure to read a contemporary appreciation of Byzantium which stresses its civilisation of quality, intelligence and success, and even a model from which we can learn. It is especially refreshing as it suggests that the stereotype of Byzantium, its very name an insult, may finally wane.

Only last Monday I read in Maureen Dowd’s op-ed piece, which I usually enjoy for her sharp and original judgements: “Obama will resist blinders as he grapples with the byzantine, seemingly bottomless conflicts he inherited”. Bottomless, maybe; Byzantine, no.

This notion of the Byzantine as complex and ill-begotten can be traced back to the treacherous destruction of the Christian city of Constantine in the Spring of 1204 by the Fourth Crusade – and the projection of the West’s bad faith since that day.

But I fear that Edward Luttwak may be stretching the argument a little when he proposes Byzantium as a model power for the United States. Or rather, it may be too late for Washington to absorb the lessons of Constantinople that he eloquently proposes, if it ever could.

As I attempted to show in my book, Byzantium, the surprising life of a medieval empire (which Luttwak reviewed most generously in the Times Literary Supplement) the core strength of Byzantium came from its inner Greek fire, a unique combination of pagan energy, Greek education, Roman law and administration, and Christian faith.

When the capital city was inaugurated in 330, all these elements were present and the society that resulted, with its extraordinary self-belief, was “born old”. This was the cultural background to its capacity to play the long game when necessary. It also gave it immense self-confidence and flexibility, permitting innovation and invention, from the unprecedented domed structure of Hagia Sophia to the secret of Greek fire itself. It was quite capable of delivering ruthless and crushing defeats as well as developing the arts, techniques and insignia of diplomacy that Luttwak praises.

Luttwak is right to stress Byzantium’s grasp of the long term as an instrument of rule. This in part stemmed from its historic sense of itself as Roman, but in a different way from Rome. Why, then, do I feel it is unlikely that the United States, which also has a capacity to be a cosmopolitan society like Byzantium, is not going to prove itself capable of taking Luttwak’s advice?

The core driver of American self-belief is surely the market, and the market has delivered to Obama most of the bottomless conflicts he grapples with. Byzantium’s defining force was the ideological combination of imperial rule and church rather than its economic system. However, it was the supposedly devious empire that grasped the simple but fundamental importance of a stable currency for radiating influence and exercising hegemony over its opponents. The gold solidus (or besant) was small in the hand but loomed large in the mind. It was to be minted by emperor after emperor (and even by some empresses, another aspect of Byzantium’s uniqueness) for almost 700 years from the fourth to the eleventh century without being debased or devalued – a period over twice as long as the current history of the USA.

Much of Byzantium’s military influence and diplomatic success was established on the basis of its reliable gold coin, and its devaluation proved very damaging. Today, Washington, after less than 200 years as a major trading country, happily devalues the dollar to diminish the value of its debt to China and make its goods cheaper to export. Sixty years ago the eminent economic historian Lopez described the Byzantine solidus as ‘the dollar of the middle ages’ – an analogy meant to communicate its universal attraction and trusted value. Today, such a comparison would be laughable.

It is hard, therefore, for a Byzantinist not to sense that when it comes to the United States it is back to the eleventh century. Given the acceleration of events, at this rate perhaps we can expect Washington to fall in less than a hundred years – unless the great power game itself is abandoned, a much more attractive alternative.

None of which is to diminish the military lessons Luttwak proposes or his framework of comparison. For too long the myths of classical Roman power, symbolically inscribed in the neo-classical architecture of Washington, have monopolised the idea of greatness and command held by US presidents, their staff, armed forces and media. Here too is another stereotype which should be abandoned.

Poems for the war dead

November 11, 2009

Today is commemorated the ending of the First World War, at 11:00 a.m. on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, what in Europe is still called Armistice Day, and, in the United States, is now called Veterans’ Day. In memory of the 16 million people who died in this war, and to bring to mind those who are dying in wars at present, I present here a couple of poems, taken from the collection, The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (2nd ed., 1981), edited by Jon Silkin.

F. S. Flint : Lament

The young men of the world
Are condemned to death.
They have been called up to die
For the crime of their fathers.

The young men of the world,
The growing, the ripening fruit,
Have been torn from their branches,
While the memory of the blossom
Is sweet in women’s hearts;
They have been cast for a cruel purpose
Into the mashing-press and furnace.

The young men of the world
Look into each other’s eyes,
And read there the same words:
Not yet! Not yet!
But soon perhaps, and perhaps certain.

The young men of the world
No longer possess the road:
The road possesses them.
They no longer inherit the earth:
The earth inherits them.
They are no longer the masters of fire:
Fire is their master;
They serve him, he destroys them.
They no longer rule the waters:
The genius of the seas
Has invented a new monster,
And they fly from its teeth.
They no longer breathe freely:
The genius of the air
Has contrived a new terror
That rends them into pieces.

The young men of the world
Are encompassed with death
He is all about them
In a circle of fire and bayonets.

Weep, weep, o women,
And old men break your hearts.

Georg Trakl : In the East

Like the wild organs of the winter storm
Is the people’s gloomy rage,
The purple billow of battle
Of stars leaf-stripped.
With broken brows, silvery arms
The night beckons to dying soldiers.
In the autumnal ash-tree’s shade
The ghosts of the killed are sighing.

Thorny wilderness surrounds the town.
From steps that bleed the moon
Drives off dumbfounded women.
Wild wolves have burst through the gate.

Translated from the German by Michael Hamburger.

From Brussels with love

November 5, 2009

From Brussels the verdict comes down:
No crucifix is to be shown
In schools of a public domain;
That’s something that Europe’s outgrown.

To buildings of private address
It’s well that your faith be confined.
With symbols you there may obsess,
And if you pray there, we don’t mind.

In Europe’s academied halls
Grave tutors cough mildly and nod
And say: “It is right that our youth
Be freed of this baggage of God.

A crucified God is a sign
That we are not fully our own.
It says we have lost the divine.
It says that our hearts are as stone.

We don’t want young people to think
There’s a flaw in this world we have built.
Let them go see a film, or a shrink,
If they’re plagued with despair, or with guilt.”

From Brussels the verdict comes nigh,
And here in my home I must weep
That those who have birthright so high
Should sell it for pottage so cheap.

Half a Century

November 4, 2009

The following poem was sent yesterday to my friend David Auerbach/John Q. Blood, musician, poet, philosopher, and sometime house painter, on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday. Happy Birthday, Johny!

At half a century
our thoughts begin to tend
towards how we may support ourselves
when colder days descend

At half a century
through spectacles we look
and must resort to stronger ones
when we would read a book

At half a century
one feels assorted aches
and some of them may have to do
with thoughts of past mistakes

At half a century
new lines on face appear
and what we’ve made ourselves to be
becomes a bit more clear

At half a century
old questions still remain
they rattle round and round within
a more hard-wired brain

At half a century
a friend is still a friend
and may God grant you many years
before your years shall end

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