Tag Archives: 2017

War and Talk

This is a foray into the mystery of how things happen, based the 164th of the 361 chapters of War and Peace. This chapter contains, in a one-sentence paragraph, a summary of Tolstoy’s theory of history:

Each man lives for himself, using his freedom to attain his personal aims, and feels with his whole being that he can now do or abstain from doing this or that action; but as soon as he has done it, that action performed at a certain moment in time becomes irrevocable and belongs to history, in which it has not a free but a predestined significance.

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On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book III

Index | Text

The Iliad is about the feud between Achilles and Agamemnon, a feud that occurs during the Trojan War. Book III of the Iliad has nothing to do with Achilles, a little to do with Agamemnon, and everything to do with why the whole war is happening at all.

Photo of the tower of books used for this article

Book III has led me to a number of physical books that are in my possession, here in Istanbul, and that I am somehow delighted to be able to make use of. Some of the books, I brought from the US; others, I bought here.

Thus this post is not a continuous narrative of the story of Book III, but I make a number of digressions. I have gone back to analyze the post into sections as follows (I added this index on December 16, 2018, and edited the whole post on December 6, 2020).

  1. A duel could end the war, but does not.

  2. Paris must lack shame, to be such a devotee of Aphrodite—who is called Cyprides because of her origins (as I shall happen to recall in “Antitheses”).

  3. The book opens with two similes.

    1. The Trojans are like cranes, bringing death to Pygmy men. It is not clear whether a later legend of battle between cranes and African Pygmies derives from Homer’s simile; if it does, it could be a misinterpretation, as snake-handling is probably a misinterpretation of the Gospel. Note added April 11, 2019: Thoreau refers to the legend in Walden,Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” just before “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!”

      Still we live meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness. Our life is frittered away by detail.

    2. The Greeks raise a cloud of dust, such as would be grateful to thieves seeking concealment.

  4. Holding up a lance is a sign of wanting to treat; sacrificing lambs is then a sign of good faith.

  5. Chapman elaborates on the virtue of Helen. He uses “offense,” apparently in the sense of a moral stumbling-block; but the passage is obscure.

  6. The old men whom Helen joins on the ramparts are like cicadas with lily-like voice; this leads me to references in the Theogony of Hesiod, the Phaedrus of Plato, and the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius. In this context, Hesiod refers to “an oak or a rock,” as Socrates does too in chastising Phaedrus.

  7. Homer digresses by allowing Helen and Priam to tell some of the backstory.

  8. The rite of pouring out wine as a symbol of blood predates Christianity.

  9. Homer takes us between war and peace, the battlefield and the bedroom.

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The Private, Unskilled One

I went into Istanbul’s Pandora Bookshop a month ago, looking for an English translation of War and Peace, since the Garnett translation I had read at college was falling apart. I was told the Oxford World’s Classics edition (with the Maude translation) was coming the next week, and it did come.

Elif Batuman, The Idiot, in Nesin Matematik Köyü, Kayser Dağı Mevkii, Şirince, Selçuk, İzmir, Turkey, 2017.05.18

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This is about a May Day trip to the second Ottoman capital from the third. In the latter, the government has been suppressing May Day demonstrations in Taksim Square since 2013. That year, the suppression may have helped provoke the Gezi Park protests, as I suggested in “May Day One Month Late.” I reported on the following year’s suppression in “Madness, Stupidity, or Evil?” This year (2017), labor unions held a legal May Day demonstration in Bakırköy, further west in European Istanbul, as reported by the Anadolu Agency (which as far as I know is owned by the Turkish state). My wife and I just got out of town.

Selimiye Mosque, 2017.04.30

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On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book II

Index | Text

Even gods must sleep; but under the weight of his responsibility to Thetis, Zeus cannot. As Achilles pointed out in Book I, “dreams are often sent from Jove”; now we shall have a case in point (Chapman’s lines 4–7).

… Al waies cast; this coūsel seru’d his mind
With most allowance: to dispatch, a harmefull dreame to greet
The king of men; and gaue this charge: Go, to the Achiue fleet,
(Pernicious dreame) …

The dream comes to Agamemnon as Nestor, telling him (lines 19–24):

… (Ioues messenger,) who, though farre off from thee,
Is neare thee yet; in ruth, and care: and giues command by me,
To arme thy whole hoast. Thy strong hand, the broad-waid towne of Troy,
Shall now take in: no more the Gods, dissentiously imploy
Their high-housd powers: Iunos suite, hath wonne them all to her;
And ill fates ouer-hang these towres, addrest by Iupiter.

This is a lie, though one might quibble and say that the Greeks will indeed ultimately take Troy. That is so, but it will not happen now. Homer acknowledges this (lines 28–31):

… O foole, he thought to take
In that next day, old Priams towne; not knowing what affaires
Ioue had in purpose; who prepar’d, (by strong fight) sighes and cares
For Greekes, and Troians …

One is a fool to trust a god! Rather, one is a fool to think one knows the mind of God. There would seem to be many fools abroad today.

Agamemnon calls a council, “of old great minded men, At Nestors ships” (lines 41–2). He relates his dream. He will test the army by proposing to turn tail and run back home. If the men actually try do this, their leaders should stop them.

Can any idea be more stupid than Agamemnon’s?

If anybody else but Agamemnon reported such a dream, Nestor says, one would question it and interpret it as actually recommending flight. This is just what Agamemnon proposes to recommend ironically. Nestor however does not appear to recognize any irony in his own words. He just says they all must accept the dream as true, “since our Generall Affirmes he saw it” (lines 66–7). He does not question Agamemnon’s proposal.

The councillors disperse to call the troops. In a marginal note, Chapman labels a simile as such. The army are like swarming bees (lines 71–8):

… as when, of frequent Bees
Swarmes rise out of a hollow rocke, repairing the degrees
Of their egression endlesly; with euer rising new,
From forth their sweet nest: as their store, still as it faded, grew,
And neuer would ceasse sending forth, her clusters to the spring
They still crowd out so; this flocke here; that there, belabouring
The loaded flowres. So from the ships, and tents, the armies store,
Troopt to these Princes, and the Court; along th’vnmeasur’d shore:

Agamemnon stands up with a scepter, which is given a more detailed history than Achilles’s in Book I. Hephaustus made it and gave it to Zeus, who gave it to Hermes, who gave it to Pelops, who gave it to his son Atreus, who left it to his brother Thyestes, who left it in turn to his nephew, Atreus’s son Agamemnon (lines 87–93):

His scepter, th’elaborate worke, of fierie Mulciber:
Who gaue it to Saturnian Ioue; Ioue to his messenger;
His messenger (Argicides,) to Pelops, skild in horse;
Pelops, to Atreus chiefe of men; he dying, gaue it course
To Prince Thyestes, rich in heards; Thyestes to the hand
Of Agamemnon renderd it, and with it, the command
Of many Iles, and Argos, all …

The Greek army are more than ten times as numerous as the Trojan; however, the Trojan army have been augmented with foreigners (lines 111–2):

But their auxiliarie bands; those brandishers of speares,
(From many cities drawne) are they, that are our hinderers;

We should give up and go home, says Agamemnon. The army agree; they are moved by Agamemnon’s words, just as water and wheatfields are moved by the wind (lines 121–8):

… All the crowd, was shou’d about the shore;
In sway, like rude, and raging waues, rowsd with the feruent blore
Of th’East, and South winds; when they breake, from Ioues clouds, and are borne
On rough backs of th’ Icarian seas: or like a field of corne
High growne, that Zephyrs vehement gusts, bring easily vnderneath,
And make the stiffe-vp-bristl’d eares, do homage to his breath:
For euen so easily, with the breath, Atrides vsde, was swaid
The violent multitude …

Masses of men are easily swayed. The Greeks would leave Troy, did Hera not send Athena to tell Odysseus to stop them. He heeds the call. He wields the scepter of Agamemnon. To the better sort, the “prince, or man of name,” he counsels obedience, saying (line 161),

You know not clearely (though you heard, the kings words) yet his mind.

The worst sort, he cudgels with the scepter and with words of derision (lines 172–3):

We must not all be kings: the rule, is most irregularre,
Where many rule …

The men are now assembled, but their flight has been stopped. Thersites addresses them, taking Achilles’s side in the quarrel with Agamemnon, and urging all to fly home. Perhaps it is not meaningful, in Homer’s terms, to say whether Thersites is actually right. Agamemnon is leading the men into disaster. Nonetheless, Homer describes Thersites as being inferior in body and mind. He is a loudmouth, if not the class clown (lines 181–4):

… A most disorderd store
Of words, he foolishly powrd out; of which his mind held more
Then it could manage; any thing, with which he could procure
Laughter, he neuer could containe …

Odysseus threatens to lash Thersites if he ever speaks this way again. As it is, Odysseus strikes Thersites with Agamemnon’s scepter, and Thersites cries.

Standing with Odysseus, Athena gets the army to listen. According to Odysseus, after nine years of an unsuccessful seige, going home now would be “absurd and vile” (line 259). Back at Aulis, where the Greek fleet assembled, a snake was seen to eat eight sparrow chicks. The mother made a ninth, and then Zeus turned the snake to stone. Calchas explained the meaning: Troy would be taken in the tenth year.

Members and supporters of the ruling party in Turkey today are at war, but as on the plain of Troy, not all are equally keen to fight. Technically here, “party” should be understood loosely, since the president of the country is not supposed to belong to any official political party. He was however a founder of the party that has held a majority in parliament since 2002. Not all supporters of this party supported a yes vote on the referendum of April 16. The question was whether to abolish the office of prime minister, giving all power to the president. The vote was close, and given the “irregularities” observed during the voting, I think the referendum was not rightfully approved by the voters. However, it is being counted as approved. In any case, before the vote, on April 11, apparently a worker for the Istanbul municipality wrote on Facebook:

Dear Friends! The Republican People’s Party [CHP] has openly declared war and is doing all that it can [against us]. The attacks [the CHP] have started at the parliament with all their rhetoric and action now targets yes-sayers. On April 17, after we win the war, their wives and daughters are available as loot [and] as halal to [those who vote] yes.

This is reported by Pınar Tremblay in “Has Turkey’s referendum emboldened hate?” (Al-Monitor, April 21, 2017). Apparently the quoted municipal worker has since closed his Facebook account; but an image of his original post (linked to in the article) was preserved, and I transcribe it:

SEVGİLİ DOSTLAR!!!! Chp açıkça savaş ilan ederek bu hususta elinden geleni ardına koymamaktadır. Meclis de başladıkları saldırganlıklarını tüm eylem ve söylemleri ile EVET çilerin üzerine çevirmişlerdir. 17 Nisan günü savaşı kazanınca, bunların karıları ve kızları GANİMET olarak EVET çilere HELALDİR

The word ganimet here means loot, spoil, booty. The word is Arabic, according to both the Redhouse Turkish-English dictionary and Sevan Nişanyan’s etymological dictionary of Turkish; but it certainly looks like the Greek Ganymede (Γανυμήδης). This came into English as “catamite,” defined delicately in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a boy kept for unnatural purposes.”

The quoted municipal worker is perhaps only following Nestor, who urges the Greek army (lines 310–2),

… let therefore none, once dreame of coward flight,
Till (for his owne) some wife of Troy, he sleepes withall; the rape
Of Hellen wreaking; and our sighes, enforc’t for her escape.

Since our woman was raped, we must rape their women.

Nestor also recommends that Agamemnon have the men “arraid In tribes and nations” (lines 317–8), so that he can see who fights well or not, and who leads well or not. This advice will justify the “Catalogue of Ships,” tedious today, with which the book will end. Meanwhile, if Agamemnon can judge the strengths of the various divisions of his army, then he will be able to know whether to attribute a loss in the war to a false prophecy or to human weakness (lines 321–4):

And then shalt thou, if thou destroist not Troy,
Know if the prophecies defect, or men thou dost employ
In their approu’d arts, want in warre: or lacke of that braue heate
Fit for the ventrous spirits of Greece, was cause to thy defeate.

Agamemnon wishes he had ten counsellors like Nestor: then he could take Troy instantly. If he ever makes friends with Achilles again—and Agamemnon admits he started the quarrel—Troy will fall in an hour. Meanwhile, the army should still prepare to fight, after a good meal; and then, nobody must hold back, on pain of death (lines 345–8):

He said, and such a murmure rose, as on a loftie shore
The waues make, when the Southwind comes, and tumbles them before
Against a rocke, growne neare the strand, which diuersly beset
Is neuer free; but here and there, with varied vprores beat.

For the ritual meal, “The king of men, an Oxe of fiue yeares spring / T’almightie Ioue slue: call’d the Peeres” (lines 351–2); but Menelaus does not need to be called. He can see that something is afoot, and so he comes. This seems to be Homer’s first naming of Menelaus, brother of Agamemnon, husband of Helen, for whose sake the war is being fought. Listeners are expected to know this basic story.

Agamemnon prays to Zeus that the sun may not set before Agamemnon destroys Troy. “Ioue heard him not, but made, more plentifull the birth / Of his sad toiles; yet tooke his gifts” (lines 366–7). God takes what you offer, but may give nothing in return. In the imaginary state that he describes in the Republic, if Socrates wants to raise a “pious generation” as the current Turkish president does, then Socrates would seem to do right in banishing Homer.

Nestor calls for a pep rally. Athena is the cheerleader for the Greeks; in place of pom-poms, she wields the peculiar tasselled aegis (lines 381–90):

The Ioue-kept kings, about the king, all gatherd, with their aide
Rang’d all in tribes and nations. With them the gray-eyd maide
Great Aegis (Ioues bright shield) sustain’d, that can be neuer old;
Neuer corrupted, fring’d about, with serpents forg’d of gold,
As many as suffisde to make, an hundred fringes, worth
A hunderd oxen, euerie snake, all sprawling, all set forth
With wondrous spirit. Through the host, with this the Goddesse ranne
In furie, casting round her eyes; and furnisht euerie man
With strength; exciting all to armes, and fight incessant. None
Now lik’t their lou’d homes like the warres …

That the aegis is Zeus’s shield is Chapman’s interpretation. It seems we don’t quite know what the aegis is.

Homer continues immediately with a long string of similes, though, strangely, Chapman does not indicate this with his marginal notes (at least as they are supplied in the Allardyce Nicoll edition). I enumerate them:

  1. The armor shines like a forest fire.

  2. The men and horses sound like flocks of birds.

  3. They are thick as flowers,

  4. or spring leaves,

  5. or flies on pails of milk.

  6. Their leaders can distinguish them into tribes and nations as easily as goatherds can distinguish their herds.

  7. Agamemnon has eyes like Zeus,

  8. breast like Poseidon,

  9. waist like Ares.

  10. He is the bull of the herd.

Here is the whole passage (lines 390–412):

… And as a fire vpon
A huge wood, on the heights of hils, that farre off hurles his light:
So the diuine brasse shin’d on these, thus thrusting on for fight;
Their splendor through the aire reacht heauen: and as about the flood
Caister, in an Asian meade, flockes of the airie brood,
(Cranes, Geese, or long-neckt Swans) here, there, proud of their pinions flie,
And in their fals lay out such throats, that with their spiritfull crie
The meddow shrikes againe: so here, these many nation’d men,
Flow’d ouer the Scamandrian field; from tents, and ships; the din
Was dreadfull, that the feete of men, and horse, beate out of earth.
And in the florishing meade they stood, thicke as the odorous birth
Of flowres, or leaues bred in the spring; or thicke as swarmes of flies
Throng then to ship-coates; when each swarme, his erring wing applies
To milke deawd on the milke maids pailes: all eagerly disposd,
To giue to ruine th’Ilians. And as in rude heapes closd
Though huge Goate-heards are at their food, the Goate-heards easly yet,
Sort into sundry heards; so here, the Chiefes in battell set,
Here tribes, here nations, ordring all. Amongst whom shin’d the king,
With eyes, like lightning-louing Ioue; his forehead answering,
In breast like Neptune; Mars in waste: and as a goodly Bull
Most eminent of all a heard, most strong, most masterfull;
So Agamemnon, Ioue that day, made ouerheighten clere,
That heauen-bright armie; and preferd, to all th’Heroes there.

Now we have the transition to the Catalogue of Ships, which I have nothing to say about, except that Nestor has prepared us for it. Homer does make a pious acknowledgement of human ignorance (lines 413–6):

Now tell me Muses, you that dwell, in heauenly roofes (for you
Are Goddesses; are present here, are wise, and all things know;
We onely trust the voyce of fame, know nothing:) who they were
That here were captains of the Greekes? Commanding Princes here.

After many verses, we are given a shorter catalogue of the Trojan forces. Iris comes to Priam, reporting that the Greek forces are like autumn leaves, or sand on the beach. Since many have come to fight in defense of Troy, “of other lands and languages,” Hector should organize them. Recognizing the voice of a deity, Hector dismisses the war council and gets to work. The men and horses rush out of the city ports.

The “auxiliary bands” are distinguished, outside of town, at a place that Chapman calls a column, though the Greek is κολώνη “hill.” English “column” comes from Latin and is related to “excel”; the Greek for column or pillar is κίων. So perhaps Chapman made a simple mistake here.

Chapman gives the human name of the hill as Batieia, after the Greek Βατίεια. The Wikipedia article “Batea” currently says the hill is named for King Teucer’s daughter, who would seem to be Priam’s great-great-great grandmother; but the authority for such a claim is not clear. Lattimore calls Batieia the “Hill of the Thicket.”

Whatever the humans call the hill, the gods call it “Myrine’s famous sepulchre, the wondrous active dame.” Apparently we are not too sure who Myrine is either.

In Book III we shall meet Paris, who stole Menelaus’s woman.

Thinking in the age of cyborgs

I am reblogging this article because I like it, and because it may help amplify or refine (or correct?) some ideas I tried to express in “The point of teaching mathematics.” Mathematics should teach both the possibility of peaceful cooperation and the power of our own thought.

Junaid Mubeen, PhD

We have our clearest indication yet that the cyborgs are coming.Elon Musk has formally accepted his invitation to the AI party the only way he knows how: by founding a company. Neuralink will create brain-enhancing digital implants; the first step on the road to merging humans with software. Musk has taken on the mantel of preserving the human race, and he believes the only way to counter the threat of AI’s rapid ascent is by meshing together biological and digital forms of intelligence.

To date, cyborgs have been the preserve of Sci-Fi. But Musk has form for bringing outlandish fantasies to bear. In fact, to Musk the cyborg is no fantasy at all. He recently argued that humans have already merged with technology. Musk is not the first to make the point: over half a century has passed since Marshall McLuhan declared technology “the extensions of man”

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36th Istanbul Film Festival, 2017

This is about seeing six films in the Istanbul Film Festival, which began this year (2017) on Wednesday, April 5.

Kazimer Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1918 (MoMA)

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On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book I

This is the first of twenty-four posts, one on each book of Homer’s Iliad in Chapman’s translation.

Achilles banefull wrath” is to be resounded by the Goddess, whom the poet invokes.

Strife between Achilles and Agamemnon is the story of the Iliad. It begins with Apollo, who has plagued the Greek army.

Homer denies no human responsibility. Apollo has plagued the army, because Agamemnon insists on keeping a man’s daughter as his slave. The woman’s father is a priest of Apollo called Chryses; we shall come to know the daughter’s name only as Chryseis. She has been taken in a Greek raid on her home town, which will be called Chrysa. We shall hear more about the raid later in Book I, when Achilles tells the story to his mother.

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Homer for the Civilian

The source of this essay is an earlier one, written as an email, and an ensuing conversation, in 2009, on the theme of what Homer may mean in one’s life, and whether an application to one’s life involves an abuse of the original text. I wrote in this blog, in July 2016, on analogies in Homer and elsewhere, in “Thinking & Feeling.” My last post considered an apparent instance of abuse of the Hebrew Bible.

At the end of the Iliad, to retrieve the body of his son Hector from its killer, King Priam of Troy visits Achilles in his tent in the evening, in the camp of the hostile Greeks. The scene may recall two political enemies from the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and Congressman Thomas O’Neill, Speaker of the House: these two were able to be on friendly terms “after 6 PM.”

Homer, Iliad, Wordworth edition
Aleksandr Andreevich Ivanov
“King Priam begging Achilles for the Return of Hector’s Body,” 1824
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

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The Hands of an Angry Deity

I first drafted the following essay in late October, 2011, a few days after the first of the earthquakes in Van, and a few weeks after moving to Istanbul from Ankara. I rediscovered the essay recently by chance. It seems worth revisiting now, in the spring of 2017, given the political upheaval in the United States last fall, and the potential for more around the world.

Above Mehmetçik Caddesi in Şişli, one of the most densely populated of Istanbul’s 39 boroughs; 2017.04.02

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