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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, October 27, 2008

on hiatus

Friends, I seem to be on hiatus for the time being.

Now in the mornings I find myself often wanting just to press on with my research notes rather than pausing to write a blog-post. With a project so long in the making, I'm following that impulse.

Things are going reasonably well. The mornings are dark now: it's still mostly dark outside my blinds, which I have yet to open. I was out in the chilly morning to take out the recycling and unlock the garbage-box behind our building. I really like the autumn, a time of promise in some obscure way. In the bustle of work, especially in the dark of morning, when people are returning to their tasks after lounging in the summer, I feel a sense of quiet ease and relaxation--and did even when I was part of that bustle. The world continues to be beautiful, even as people rush through it. You just have to tune your attention to it.

So that's it: I'm officially on vacation from my blog. Many thanks to all of you who have dropped by and read my thoughts. I wish you well.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

disaster redux

Autumn descends on us, with the mornings turning chilly and damp. Roofers have been at work on our building over the past two weeks, and in the past three days have been right over our unit, ripping and thumping, making the wooden structure tremble. Down here in my office I'm as far from that action as I can get, but I do have young guys passing to and fro by my office window, carrying sheets of plywood and answering calls to their cell-phones.

Kimmie is still undergoing the long tail of this headcold (mine is pretty much completely gone). Her voice is still wispy and her ears are plugged. Another way of marking the change of season.

In the wider world we have the ructions of the financial and stock markets. We're overdue for an economic depression, so I'm expecting one--and expecting it to be long and severe. I believe that when historians look back on this era, they will shake their heads at how so many government policies and private practices could have been undertaken that were so wrongheaded and that led so surely to disaster--much as historians now look at the policies and practices that led to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Ben Bernanke, the head of the U.S. Federal Reserve, is a scholar of the Great Depression. But policymakers, like generals, are always refighting the last war rather than addressing the situation before them.

I've mentioned before how events have the look of the three-stage unfolding of an ancient Greek tragedy: koros, hubris, and ate (surfeit, outrageous behavior, and disaster). By the time of the great tragedians of Athens, ate had come to mean objective, external disaster--retribution for one's ill-starred actions. But as E. R. Dodds observes in his book The Greeks and the Irrational, the term ate in earlier, Homeric times had a different meaning:

Always, or practically always, ate is a state of mind--a temporary clouding or bewildering of the normal consciousness. It is, in fact, a partial and temporary insanity...

But what is insanity? Literally, it means mental unhealthiness or unwholesomeness. A disconnect from reality.

That sounds like what starts the tragic cycle. For koros is "surfeit" according to Arnold J. Toynbee--doing too much of something. But doing too much of something is itself a sign of lack of realism: you have too high a regard for your own powers to control things, to make things go as you wish. You lack humility, and so are led on to hubris, "outrageous action"--doing things that reflect your unrealistic self-assessment. You make big mistakes. And the locomotive of big mistakes pulls a train of painful consequences--ate.

So I suppose ate, the painful consequences, can be viewed from either the external angle (disaster) or from the internal angle ("insanity"). For external disaster in itself is neutral, you might say; it is our response to it, our feelings about it, that constitute its pain and suffering. Ate then seems to be both the disasters caused by our foolish actions, and the suffering that results.

One dark note of the "insanity" model is that it doesn't suggest learning. The crazy person, after an "episode", gradually becomes quiescent again. Peace returns--and further opportunities for surfeit...

I think it was Voltaire who said:

History never repeats itself;
Man always does.

What can I say? Here we go again.

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Monday, October 06, 2008

darkness ahead

Where have I been, you ask?

Well, Kimmie and I have been working our way through a headcold, caught we know not where. I got it first, and probably passed it on to her. I'm very much better, but Kimmie is going through the middle of hers. Indeed, she's decided to take today off work.

I've been chipping away at my mighty work, and at the ideas surrounding and supporting it. This is a huge task, and one that I don't think I can really discuss in this blog, since I don't want to go too deeply into my own views of the meanings of my still unfinished work.

Then I'm feeling a certain blog-fatigue, as I did a couple of years ago. This blog, begun as a kind of lark or experiment back in 2005, has become a kind of commitment. I've often told myself that even if not many people read it, it can still serve as a personal record--a kind of diary of my own thoughts, if not of my life exactly, during this time of creation.

Then there's the world falling about our ears: a worldwide financial meltdown and the wintry prospects beyond. It feels almost irresponsible not to address these grave and urgent matters--but what do I know about them? I suspect that even those in the know don't really know much about what's going on. As I write these words, the U.S. House of Representatives is still grappling with the $700- (or is it $800-) billion bailout bill for Wall Street. This is almost certainly a further waste of money--a mere playing for time in order to keep things from collapsing before the federal election. The legislation, at least as it exists till now, includes these words in its Section 8:

Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.

Is it constitutional to put decisions and individuals beyond the reach of law? That I don't know, but the fact that the framers of the bill are trying it tells me that we've got something that looks much like what happened at times of crisis in ancient Rome. It was the Romans who invented the office of the dictator: a person who could be invested with supreme command over the state and the army and who could rule by decree for a fixed period of exactly six months.

In Rome the dictatorship was a perfectly constitutional office that had its own defined limits. One could be appointed in times of grave stress or threat to the Republic, and he would lapse back to ordinary citizenship again when he had done his task and restored normalcy to the polity.

The U.S. of course has no such provision in its constitution. The ever-increasing tendency to place persons in authority beyond the reach of law or oversight is a sign of creeping tyranny, and the prospect of an unconstitutional dictatorship draws ever closer. Section 8 of this bill gives certain people great power while removing any accountability from them. It's a very bad sign when a preoccupation of the regime is how to escape prosecution for its actions.

Arnold J. Toynbee, in his A Study of History, describes how every society goes through the transition from being guided by leaders--people who inspire others to follow them on the basis of their vision and personal qualities--to being dominated by rulers--those who have inherited the levers of power, but who lack the charisma of actual leaders. In the U.S., we've had the transition from leaders such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who stirred and inspired their fellow citizens, to rulers such as George W. Bush and Richard Cheney, who have been preoccupied with world domination and shaping their own country into something closer to a police state.

As I've mentioned before, Toynbee also discusses the threefold progress of a typical Greek tragedy as it applies to the catastrophic undoing of such a ruling regime. Those three stages are koros, hubris, and ate. He translates these as "surfeit", "outrageous behavior", and "disaster". I believe we've seen plenty of the first two of these; now the third is looming into view.

The U.S. has the largest military in the world. They may feel they need it if large segments of its population, thrown out of their houses and their jobs, their retirements savings wiped out, become agitated. Voila: full-on military dictatorship.

Preposterous? Maybe. But maybe that's what they thought in Burma too. And I expect that real estate is still very affordable there.

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