Gaia is the word for "unity-of-life-processes". The experiment here is to unify the various threads of voice and sense of self together into an undivided unity. Spirituality, economics, politics, science and ordinary life interleaved.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Fear and Loathing in the Ancient Peloponnese: Reading Book One of Thucydides.

Last night I read the first book of the History of the Peloponnesian War.

Thucydides starts in high drama and vivid circumstance with the Cocyrians asking the Athenians for help. Let's combine our navies, the Cocyrians beg, and we will hold strong against the Corinthians.

Because of a peace treaty they made ten years before the Athenians cannot attack the Corinthians, but they can defend, so after much discussion Athens agrees to defend but not fight. A fine line there is crossed.

Next a long messy battle goes down over the Corinthian city of Potidaea. It creates bad blood. Cocyrians and Athenians descend on Sparta to beg Sparta to fight, to save Potidaea. The Athenians speak up and freak out the Spartans with their arrogance. So the rest of Greece decides they hate the Athenians and want war. Problem is, Athens has overwhelming strength in Greece, so they can't do anything yet. Less than a year later they fight anyway because Athens is so hated.

That's the plot of book one. It's a train wreck of a story, full of drama and outraged speeches.

But there's a load of really cool extras in book one. The dialog between the Athenians and the Cocyrians, the Introduction which gives the ethnology of how Greece was settled (written in a style very like Herodotus), the marvellous debate at Sparta which unsparingly shows the vitality and arrogance of the Athenians, and the awesome digression named the 'Pentacontaetia'.

The theme of the first book of Thucydides is that fear breeds fear. Just before war starts, Pericles speaks. He tells the Athenians to not give into Spartan demands because that will make them look scared. But the Spartans made the demands in the first place because they were afraid of the overwhelming power of Athens! The fear seeded in Cocyra and grown in Potidaea bears fruit in the Spartan diplomatic demands.

What are we to make of Pericles' argument that they have to treat Sparta with consistent defiance? No doubt Pericles is correct when he says "there is often no more logic in the course of events than there is in the plans of men, and that is why we usually blame our luck when things happen in ways we didn't expect." This obscure statement is is Rex Warner's translation, Book 1:40.

Let's look at two other versions:

Crawley: "For sometimes the course of things is as arbitrary as the plans of man; indeed this is why we usually blame chance for whatever does not happen as we expected."

Jowett:"The movement of events is often as wayward and incomprehensible as the course of human thought; and this is why we ascribe to chance whatever belies our calculation."

Translation gossip aside, Pericles seems to be saying that since the plans of others and roll of the dice of luck cannot be relied upon, at least we, the Athenians, can pursue a consistent policy of zero tolerance towards the Spartans. How confident his words must have fallen on his countrymen's ears, and how misplaced his pride in the power of Athens! He would better have been able to practice some small humility and conceed:- but even as I write that I see it's foolish: nothing Pericles or the Athenians could have done would have avoided war by that time. Things already had gone too far.

And that is why, when the famous 'Pentecontaetia', a marvel of concision, tells how Athens came to be so very powerful and arrogant over the previous 50 years, it is so bittersweet to read: we read it foreknowing the end of Athens. This 'Pentcontaetia' sharpens the urgency of the present moment; we feel the fear of the Spartans and the thirst of Athen's enemies for power, and we sense the largeness and centrality of the Greek consciousness becoming both narrow and fanatical as expressed through the Athenians.

Perhaps, I thought as I read this, perhaps the Greeks have not changed at all throughout history? Perhaps the one great Greek virtue and vice is their shining individualism, and, as Pericles suggests, throughout time they keep a single consistent policy of bright selfishness?

Perhaps the chaos of history and chance has not changed Greece one bit from ancient times to today, and the fanatical and ferocious and intellectual and political powers displayed in Thucydides are actually the attendant spirits of the main genius of the age, its vibrant and unrivalled sense of the power and potential of the individual human being?

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

How to Read a Difficult Book.

Thucydides is next on my reading list, and I'm highly motivated to read his book 'The Peloponnesian War'.

The problem is, it's a long and complex story. I read the two legendary passages in a previous pass - the Melian Dialog and the Funeral Oration of Pericles. Then I tried to read it through and got stuck. I need help.

So what I've done is great guidance for reading any difficult book.

Start by doing one of these two things first. Either:

- Read through the introduction and notes briefly looking for single words or phrases that praise the book, seeking to just appreciate the text and get a bit of positive emotion flowing. (For example, the intro to Thucydides calls his prose "muscular" - which I find interesting!)


- Simply count the number of pages of the actual text only. Don't count the opening pages, notes, and outside matter. For example, the introduction to Thucydides is 30 pages long. The text, minus the notes, ends at 600 pages. So the text to read it 570 pages long.

Either get an objective measure of how much you must read to complete the book, or generate a subjective sense of how much you could potentially enjoy the book. Simple!

After you've done that, then you can extend both the subjective and objective approach further.

I'll start with objective.

Thucydides' book is 570 pages long. He divided it up into eight books. How many pages per book roughly? Well, eight times seven is 56, therefore each of the eight books of Thucydides is on average seventy pages long. That's the size of a medium sized novella.

Now for the subjective:

If we examine how the writer organized the book itself into eight books, the book seems to suggest is that we read Thucydides not like a 570 page history, but like eight novellas about the same topic. Immediately I can feel relieved knowing I can read an eighth of the book and put it aside for a week to do something else. I don't have to hold the whole thing in mind. Instead of one huge book, Thucydides is now eight short books.

So, if the 'Peloponnesian War' is really 8 books in one, what are they about? How do they relate together?

There are three ports of call to answer this question: the table of contents, the opening paragraph of each book, and the closing paragraph of each book. Reading all of those will let me find nice dramatic interesting titles for each book. And notice it's a fun way to get subjectively engaged with the book, once again?

From a glance at book one, I wrote "Fear Brings War." That's my personal title for book one of Thucycides - the way I think about and feel about that text. This creates a sense of engagement and ownership of the meaning of the text. It's my book, not just any old book.

Book two - Noble Athens under pressure.
Book three - Civil war in Cocyra.
Book four - Athens kicks ass.
Book five - Athens violates integrity.
Book six - Athens versus Sicily, and the treachery of Alcidiades.
Book seven - War at sea.
Book eight - The end of democracy in Greece.

Now, many of these will be inaccurate or irrelevant; the point is not truth but stimulating interest and passion to read. The point is to engage with the text. At this stage of reading I just want a hook to get and keep me interested.

I will be dipping into the first book now looking for what interests me most. In a sense I will be creating the text in myself rather than passively allowing it to pour into me like historical sludge.

In conclusion, a hard book is not a hard book unless you read it in a hard way. If you read a hard book like you would read Harry Potter, by starting at the start and just pushing through, then you'll probably lose your way at the first difficult passage.


1 - engage with the text in nonlinear ways
2 - move between gathering information on the structure of the book and appreciating the qualities of the book
3 - find words and ideas that get you excited and motivated to read on.

If you do this, you'll certainly enjoy the best books more and more, no matter how difficult they are to others.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Reading the Jewish Book of Samuel, Part One and Two

I was delighted to read the two books of Samuel in the old testament in the last week, as part of my Great Books readings.

The two books form one story, which is the transition of the rulership of Israel from priestly judges to kings. One can assume this is the shift from oligarchy, or perhaps a federated tribal system, to a centralized monarchy.

In many ways the books of Samuel parallel the Annals of Tacitus when he writes about Tiberius. The same transition from a loose system of government to a focused one is taking place. But in the books of Samuel the transition is located in a kind of primitive mythical state of consciousness.

That is not to say the history is not good. Rather, the characters about which the history are written think in simple terms about complex issues. For example, time and time again, reading about Saul's psychotic jealousy and David's brutal and ruthless realpolitik, I find evidence of the most base desires and instincts in these folk heroes. And what are we to make of Jahweh himself, a character who seems at best whimsical? At times the god of the books of Samuel kowtows to the Israelites, and at other times he reacts with brutal unfairness. The Jahweh of the books of Samuel makes Homer's Zeus look positively humane!

In any case, the way the story is written is remarkable given its antiquity and coherence. I found it an enjoyable read somewhat similar to reading a Robert Jordan fantasy novel, and just as barbaric.

Some subjective impressions:

I keep wanting (as Harold Bloom adjures us) to admire King David, and finding in him nothing to admire beyond the machiavellian intrigue of a Renaissance head of state. I find his brutality disarming. Is this is the blessing of Jahweh, the mercy of the Israeli's? Obviously harsh times require barbaric measures, but more than once I find myself dismayed by David's ethical conduct.

Absalom is an sympathetic character. The tragic dimensions of father against son seem obvious to me, with Greek drama under my belt, but to the historians of old Israel they see only a harsh justice against he in whom Jahweh is not pleased. Absalom dies and David triumphs, but one cannot help but wonder what kind of king Absalom would have made instead of Solomon.

I notice the high quality of the story. Knowing the end of the story from earliest childhood, I cannot help but find these histories exciting reading. At times I try to reconcile this violent and primitive folk story with what I know of Jesus, and cannot. The books of Samuel fall so far short of the gospels as to be hardly of the same dimension of existence. Jesus is to David like salt is to sand; Christ accumulates on top of the ancient king's story without being at all the same as it.

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Henry James and His Path to Individuation in 'The American'

I just read Henry James' novel, "The American".

I was inspired to read it by the Great Books suggested novels list. I looked it up on Amazon and it sounded fun and easier to read than the later James novels, and so it was. The style is wonderful, humorous, and vibrant. The prose is luxuriant and jewels up into a bon mot every few pages.

It starts with Christopher Newman, a charming character with a kind of flexible moral fibre that can take almost any kind of shock - except those shocks entailed by the plot of the novel.

Newman is very much a free American, and so he is attracted to the bondage of old European values as his path to individuality and wholeness. His attraction to Madame De Cintre has all the hallmarks of a shadow attraction - the inner feminine draws Newman into contact with his vengefulness, hatred, bitterness, narrowness, and evil side - in other words, his shadow. The solitude and loneliness of Newman's character at the end of the novel can be read as a kind of belated adolescence in him - he finally has come to grips with his shadow side as represented by the Bellegarde family.

The Jungian typology is quite convenient for explaining James' novel, because he plays the opposites of European and American with an open hand about his mixed feelings for both sides of the Atlantic. The charged polarities of emotion represent a sort of gateway for the reader into the authorial consciousness itself, which for me is the deepest and most satisfying experience of reading Henry James.

(James is just a wonderful man - the experience of his living consciousness through the text is ineffable. I do not feel I know him yet, but I should want to, and I intend to read "Daisy Miller", "What Maisie Knew", "Turn of the Screw" and "Portrait of a Lady" to discover more about him.)

But back to "The American".

It is as if by externalizing his European-ness and American-ness, Henry James becomes something larger than both. The effort at becoming aware is tangible by the number of times James reverted to the material of the novel in his long career.

Henry James sought perhaps that intoxicating liberty from culture that came from transcending experiencing itself, and instead, it seems, fell into entrapment in the gravity well of Great Britain's culture. Anglophilic became British. Plain-spoken became ornate. The image of the American unconsciously became something more universal through Henry James' conscious rejection of American moeurs.

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Friday, May 14, 2010

On Henry James: 'the Simpler Manners of Men Live Forever'

In discussing Henry James' influences, Carl Van Doren in 'The American Novel' writes thus:

'Balzac, of course, James greatly preferred to either Flaubert or George Sand, for his great range and close texture: “He has against him,” James however added, “that he lacks that slight but needful thing—charm.” '

I laughed when I read this. How often have I read some clumsy attempt at graciousness in Balzac fall flat! You read it and say "Well, he tried!" but the fact is he kept trying and trying to charm and failing quite completely. The interest of the Comedie Humaine seems less in its charm than in its vitality. By attempting, Balzac would make it so. But words alone do not a novel make.

In concluding his brilliant commentary, Carl Van Doren writes this remarkable and lucid passage. It is written as a single par but I have broken it up for the medium of a blog:

'James’s essential limitation may rather accurately be expressed by saying that he attempted, in a democratic age, to write courtly romances.

'He did not, naturally, go back for his models to the Roman de la Rose or Morte d’Arthur or Sidney’s Arcadia or the Grand Cyrus. But he did devote himself to those classes in modern society which descend from the classes represented by the romancers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. His characters, for the most part, neither toil nor spin, trade nor make war, bear children in pain nor bring them up with sacrifices. The characters who do such things in his novels are likely to be the servants or dependents of others more comfortably established. His books consequently lack the interest of that fiction which shows men and women making some kind of way in the world—except the interest which can be taken in the arts by which the penniless creep into the golden favor of the rich or the socially unarrived wriggle into an envied caste. James is the laureate of leisure. Moreover the leisure he cared to write about concerns itself in not the slightest degree with any action whatsoever, even games or sports. Love of course concerns it, as with all novelists. Yet even love in this chosen universe must constantly run the gauntlet of a decorum incomprehensible to all but the initiate.

'Decorum is what damns James with the public. In one of Chrétien de Troyes’s romances Lancelot, on his way to rescue Guinevere from a most precarious situation, commits the blunder of riding part of the way in a cart and thereby brings upon himself a disgrace which his most gallant deeds can scarcely wipe out. Sensible citizens who may have happened upon this narrative in the twelfth century probably felt mystified at the pother much as do their congeners in the twentieth who stare at the wounds which James’s heroes and heroines suffer from blunders intrinsically no more serious than Lancelot’s. How much leisure these persons must enjoy, the sensible citizen thinks, to have evolved and to keep up this mandarin formality; and how little use they make of it!

'Only readers accustomed to such decorums can walk entirely at ease in the universe James constructed. But they have the privileges of a domain unprecedented and unmatched in modern literature. It is not merely that he is the most fascinating historian of the most elegant society of the century. He is the creator of a world immensely beautiful in its own right: a world of international proportions, peopled by charming human beings who live graceful lives in settings lovely almost beyond description; a world which vibrates with the finest instincts and sentiments and trembles at vulgarity and ugliness; a world full of works of art and learning and intelligence, a world infinitely refined, a world perfectly civilized.

'In real life the danger to such a world is that it may be overwhelmed by some burly rush of actuality from without. In literature the danger is that such a world will gradually fade out as dreams fade, and as the old romances of feudalism have already faded. Elaborate systems of decorum pass away; it is only the simpler manners of men which live forever.'

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Goddess as the Sublime: Anxiety and Exhilaration in Beyonce's 'Single Ladies'

This glorious pagan production manages to be both tasteful, tasteless, and transcend taste altogether. Viewing this clip you see the Sublime in its present cultural incarnation.

Notice the long chords represent anxiety underneath the song and whirring sounds?

Here is a song which can be understood by a toddler and an old-timer. Everyone gets the sense of the song - everyone. It is quintessentially human.

Notice the dance. If you try it out for yourself you feel the meaning of the song. The meaning is: anxiety and exhilaration blur into a single motion of the core of the body-muscles. The body is not about sex but about society - the body belong to society. That is the Sublime invention of the body in Beyonce's 'Single Ladies'.

It is not a Lunar song, not Venusian. Note how relations reflect on inner feelings, rather than on other people? Lunar. Notice how the constant motion of dancing moves in and out of darkness and luminosity? Lunar. Finally, note the three dancers represent the 3 Fates in motion - the weaving and bobbing motions symbolizing the power of the Divine Feminine to shape, cut short, and create human life.

Beyonce herself symbolizes the Lunar Fate that cuts, shortens human life - Hecate, the Dark Side of the Moon. And by doing so she symbolizes the female power to create and end relationships. Simultaneously she cuts us off from reality - the dream of 'Single Ladies' is lunatic, a strange, giddy, emotional high. She signals the capacity of the moon to inspire dreams and reflections, ideas and images, by secluding oneself from everyday life, and also the lunar capacity for distraction and dazzlement at the modern era. And as such, 'Single Ladies' is very much the image of the moment.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A middle path between gradual reform and revolution in Australian politics.

Gradual reform is not working. Australia can manage her finances prudently by backing into a corner whereby corporations globalize or vanish into backwaters, but she cannot manage her politics that way. The only way is to turn around and take the bull by the horns. Australians need to come to grips with reforming capitalist democracy.

But the commonest middle path between reform and revolution is based on evolution. This posits a blind force which selects for advantage in the moment, thereby giving rise to advantage for the greater whole. But trusting nature leads to winners and losers. Nature to be compelled must be understood, and we can see through the eyes of evolution that change proceeds through disaster, stochastically by chaos, if we take the evolutionary route. This ought not be allowed to happen.

I want to suggest that evolution is not the mean between reform and revolution. I want to suggest evolution is a false friend, and a mimic of the true change we are seeking for. It is by asking for a new way to change we find it, because open questions reduce us to first principles. At the level of first principles we are equals, and that is where I propose to search.

Aristotle proposes an ethics as the basis of a politics. His Nichomachean Ethics follows directly before the Politics, and one echoes the other substantively. Putting aside the theory for a moment, the form itself teaches us that before we can presume on political reforms, we must be clear on what ethical reforms we might want to make to ourselves.

Confucius makes this point explicit when he states that in order to have a good country we most need to be a good child to our parents, a good parent to our children, a good spouse to our partner, a good worker to our business, and a good leader to our community. Practical politics starts and ends in every day ethics.

So the form of political reform must reflect real world and actual ethical reforms. Practical politics advances from hypocrisy to hypocrisy - we tolerate less the more civilized we become, and we must refine our brutal measures of control the more sophisticated we become. I should say, practical politics advances from brutal hypocrisy to cruel hypocrisy to invisible hypocrisy. There is nothing wrong with being a hypocrite - we all fall short, are only human, and can be trusted to let ourselves and others down sometimes. The ill is in failing to try.

Without ethical reform there can be no political reform - is this true?

If so, then ethical reform is the path of choice for capitalist democracy to move forwards.

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Australian Political Reform and Global Business Leadership

A Dose of Political Reality...

As democratic citizens, we Australians have 1 choice every 4 years between Liberals (who care for Australia globally) and Labor (who take good care of Australia locally).

We swing between the two because Australia as a quasi-corporation swings between credit (Liberal rulership) and debit (Labor rulership).

Australia Ltd. performs so poorly financially because as a democracy we are hampered by the need to keep up the appearance of civil liberties.

Therefore any issue other than Australia's financial accounting is IRRELEVANT to real-world political dialogue.


The Australian Greens, Democrats and Independents merely foster the illusion of democratic process, while remaining well outside the range of a voting mandate.

Because nothing else matters other than the profit/loss statement of Australia as a business, the impotence of the Greens and Independent is reflected in their lack of leadership-level voting.

Bottom line...

ALL Australian politics is just financial accounting and keeping up the appearence of democracy.

The only useful way to talk about Australian politics is talk about the reform of capitalist democracy.

The rest is media spin, "democratic" white noise, failure of courage and lack of imagination.

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