David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: August 2011 (page 2 of 3)

The Cretan Epic Poem in World War II

Bernard Knox, in writing about Moses Finley’s The World of Odysseus, tells the amazing story of James Notopoulos, who got to witness the oral tradition in action in 1953 in Crete.

In 1953 the late Professor James Notopoulos was recording oral heroic song in the Sfakia district of western Crete, where illiterate oral bards were still to be found. He asked one of them, who had sung of his own war experience, if he knew a song about the capture of the German general and the bard proceeded to improvise one. The historical facts are well known and quite secure. In April 1944 two British officers, Major Patrick Leigh Fermor and Captain Stanley Moss, parachuted into Crete, made contact with Cretan guerrillas, and kidnapped the German commanding general of the island, one Karl Kreipe.

The general was living in the Villa Ariadne at Knossos, the house Evans had built for himself during the excavations. Every day, at the same time, the general was driven south from the Villa to the neighboring small town of Arkhanes, where his headquarters were located. He came home every night at eight o’clock for dinner. The two British officers, dressed in German uniforms, stopped the car on its way home to Knossos; the Cretan partisans overpowered the chauffeur and the general. The two officers then drove the car through the German roadblocks in Heraklion (the general silent with a knife at his throat) and left the car on the coast road to Rethymo. They then hiked through the mountains to the south coast, made rendezvous with a British submarine, and took General Kreipe to Alexandria and on to Middle East Headquarters in Cairo.

Nine years after these events, this is how the bard rendered them. Differences between the real story and the bard’s song are in brackets; there are a lot of them.

An order comes from British and American headquarters in Cairo to capture General Kreipe, dead or alive; the motive is revenge for his cruelty to the Cretans. A Cretan partisan, Lefteris Tambakis [not one of the actual guerrilla band] appears before the English general [Fermor and Moss are combined into one and elevated in rank] and volunteers for the dangerous mission. The general reads the order and the hero accepts the mission for the honor of Cretan arms. The hero goes to Heraklion, where he hears that a beautiful Cretan girl is the secretary of General Kreipe.

In disguise the partisan proceeds to her house and in her absence reads the [English] general’s order to her mother. When the girl returns he again reads the general’s order. Telling her the honor of Crete depends on her, he catalogues the German cruelties. If she would help in the mission, her name would become immortal in Cretan history. The girl consents and asks for three days time in which to perform her role. To achieve Cretan honor she sacrifices her woman’s honor with General Kreipe in the role of a spy. She gives the hero General Kreipe’s plans for the next day.

Our hero then goes to Knossos to meet the guerrillas and the English general. ‘Yiassou general,’ he says. ‘I will perform the mission.’ The guerrillas go to Arkhanes to get a long car with which to blockade the road. Our hero, mounted on a horse by the side of the blockading car, awaits the car of Kaiseri [that is what the bard calls Kreipe]. The English general orders the pistols to be ready. When Kreipe’s car slows down at the turn he is attacked by the guerrillas. Kreipe is stripped of his uniform [only his cap in the actual event] and begs for mercy for the sake of his children [a stock motif in Cretan poetry].

After the capture the frantic Germans begin to hunt with dogs [airplanes in the actual event]. The guerrillas start on the trek to Mount Ida and by stages the party reaches the district of Sfakia [the home of the singer and his audience; actually the general left the island southwest of Mount Ida]. The guards have to protect the general from the mob of enraged Sfakians. Soon the British submarine arrives and takes the general to Egypt. Our bard concludes the poem with a traditional epilogue—that never before in the history of the world has such a deed been done. He then gives his name, his village, his service to his country.

This is a fantastic example of how memory and history can work in the absence of written records. (Walter Ong’s over-general and overrated Orality and Literacy makes no mention of it.) Imagine playing Telephone with the history of your people. In brief, here are some of the key modifications:

  1. Fabrication of national hero as protagonist.
  2. Fabrication of romantic foil as plot contrivance.
  3. Elevation of core value of national honor to main motivator of hero and girl.
  4. Pledges of allegiance to family, love, other traditional values on behalf of hero, girl, and villain (universalization of these values).
  5. Additional humiliation of villain.

In other words, the changes built up the Cretan people and the esteem of the hero. The story was grafted onto readymade forms and tropes.

Not that this is in any way disparaging. These mechanisms kick in when facts get lost, mutated, or are otherwise unavailable. It applies to history as it is written today. As the ever-grouchy Christopher Tyerman said when reviewing a few recent books about the poorly documented Crusades:

[The authors] paint landscapes, imagine thoughts, display cultural stereotypes and reduce intricate historical forces to the experience of individuals. Each creates characters to inhabit swashbuckling narratives. [Their views], while accurate and up to date, are as much those of the 1950s and the age of Hollywood as of the twenty-first century and the digital age.

Nagarjuna’s List of 119 Auspicious Mental Events

This list is given as part of a posited rebuttal to Nagarjuna’s position that mental events are without substance, part of the general theory of emptiness that is part of the Buddhist Madhyamaka philosophy.

People who know the state of things have the 119 auspicious things in mind.

Thus the following are auspicious in one of their aspects: (1) cognition, (2) feeling, (3) discrimination, (4) volition, (5) touch, (6) attention, (7) aspiration, (8) devotion, (9) effort, (10) memory, (11) meditative stabilization, (12) wisdom, (13) equanimity, (14) practice, (15) complete practice, (16) attainment, (17) noble intention, (18) freedom from anger, (19) joy, (20) effort, (21) zeal, (22) connection with ignorance, (23) perseverance, (24) freedom from obstacles, (25) possession of power, (26) aversion, (27) absence of repentance, (28) grasping, (29) not grasping, (30) recollection, (31) firmness, (32) special adherence, (33) freedom from effort, (34) freedom from delusion, (35) freedom from exertion, (36) striving, (37) aspiration, (38) satisfaction, (39) being disjoint from the object, (40) being not conducive to liberation, (41) birth, (42) enduring, (43) impermanence, (44) possession, (45) old age, (46) utter torment, (47) dissatisfaction, (48) deliberation, (49) pleasure, (50) clarity, (51) grasping the discordant, (52) affection, (53) discordance, (54) grasping the concordant, (55) fearlessness, (56) reverence, (57) veneration, (58) devotion, (59) lack of devotion, (60) obedience, (61) respect, (62) lack of respect, (63) suppleness, (64) ebullience, (65) speech, (66) agitation, (67) attainment, (68) lack of faith, (69) lack of suppleness, (70) purification, (71) steadfastness, (72) gentleness, (73) repentance, (74) anguish, (75) confusion, (76) arrogance, (77) grasping the unfavorable, (78) doubt, (79) pure discipline, (80) inner serenity, (81) fear; moreover, there is (82) faith, (83) bashfulness, (84) rectitude, (85) being not deceived, (86) pacification, (87) being without fickleness, (88) conscientiousness, (89) kindness, (90) discriminating comprehension, (91) freedom from anger, (92) freedom from desire, (93) lack of self-infatuation, (94) lack of attachment, (95) lack of hatred, (96) lack of ignorance, (97) omniscience, (98) non-abandonment, (99) affluence, (100) modesty, (101) lack of concealment, (102) unobstructed intention, (103) compassion, (104) loving kindness, (105) non-discouragement, (106) absence of passion, (107) magical powers, (108) lack of attachment, (109) lack of envy, (110) a mind free from eradication, (111) patience, (112) renunciation, (113) lack of gentleness, (114) being in accordance with one’s resources, (115) merit, (116) attainment of the state of non-conception, (117) being conducive to liberation, (118) lack of omniscience, (119) uncompounded phenomena.

Nagarjuna’s Vigrahavyavartanı (The Dispeller of Disputes), tr. Jan Westerhoff

Westerhoff theorizes that the “inauspicious intruders” in the list were added later as part of a list of mental events of all types. It’s still a pretty fantastic list.

Rod Humble and the Marriage: Not Labels, Not Pointers, but Live Fragments

A few years ago, Rod Humble wrote a short, abstract game called The Marriage. The action consists of trying to get two squares not to shrink or fade out while circles drift around them. You control the blue circle. The pink circle is not under your direct control.

But the game interests me less than the rhetoric of Humble’s explanation for the game. I really am not picking on Humble here, who seems like a reasonable person. It’s just worth observing how utterly foreign his analogical mindset is from that of the best writers.

He wrote the game in an attempt to get away from concrete, visual representation of ideas and concepts, yet what resulted was something conceptually very concrete.

Here is his interpretation that guided the game’s construction:

The game is my expression of how a marriage feels. The blue and pink squares represent the masculine and feminine of a marriage. They have differing rules which must be balanced to keep the marriage going.

The circles represent outside elements entering the marriage. This can be anything. Work, family, ideas, each marriage is unique and the players response should be individual.

The size of each square represents the amount of space that person is taking up within the marriage. So for example we often say that one person’s ego is dominating a marriage or perhaps a large personality. In the game this would be one square being so large that the other one simply is trapped within the space of it unable to get to circles and more importantly unable to “kiss” edge to edge.

The transparency of the squares represents how engaged that person is in the marriage. When one person fades out of the marriage and becomes emotionally distant then the marriage is over.

Your controls reveal the agency of the game. You are only capable of making the squares move towards each other at the same time or removing a circle by sacrificing the size of the pink square. You are playing the agency of Love trying to make the system of the marriage work. Not only does this mean that the mechanics of attraction and sacrifice communicate love but also the physical way the game is controlled, I wanted a gentle almost stroking like feel to playing the game, that’s why clicking or rapid motion was not appropriate.

The backdrop’s colour has meaning. It starts off blue representing the world of the masculine. The club scene perhaps or adventures and exuberant experimentation. It then over time transitions to purple a mix of blue and pink representing the beginnings of a more permanent relationship. Then to pink as we enter fully the world of the feminine such as a home made together or emotionally the relationship becoming more kind. Next onto green colour of life and renewal, this represents a giving back to the world by the marriage, perhaps creatively, perhaps by having children or caring for others. Finally it becomes black symbolizing that at the end of the marriage when life is done there is nothing but each other. The only break in the blackness is at the bottom, where the strip of light representing memories of the marriage has been built up.

The game mechanics are designed such that the game is fragile. Its easy to break. This is deliberate as marriages are fragile and they feel fragile, I wanted to get this across.

The final part of the game comes if the marriage ends while the backdrop is black. At every point the two squares have kissed during the game a pair of tiny squares is created and drift off the screen, as the last one leaves the game ends.

Now, without getting into heavy analysis, some points should already be clear.

  1. The incredible literalness of the mapping from game elements to concepts.
  2. The stripped-down simplicity of the conceptual vocabulary in order to allow for such a literal mapping.
  3. The received nature of the concepts, taking stereotypical notions like the blue masculine and the pink feminine in order to obtain an easily-grasped mapping.

(In 1910 pink was considered a very masculine color, so the symbols are culturally relative, but some relatively common symbol set within a community must always exist, and is probably always trite by its very nature.)

None of these are inherently bad tendencies. In many ways, they are necessary ones for making playable games. But the risks and problems of applying such an ambiguous conceptual vocabulary onto a literal representation should be apparent as well. It encourages a fallback onto the most common of common knowledge in order to make such a mapping comprehensible. Subjective metonymy within a simple framework (the “stroking feel” being linked to love, the various meanings of all the colors) is the key dynamic at work.

But it’s not even the particular symbols used (pink feminine, blue masculine), so much as the need for such a simple framework itself. Let’s say we need two things in a game to represent the male and the female. Is there anything satisfactory that isn’t either reductive or opaque?

  • The Mars and Venus gender symbols
  • Sword and pillow
  • Square and circle
  • Drum and cymbal
  • Hot dog and donut

The use of pink and blue didn’t produce a more sophisticated set of symbols, just a less blatant set. The metonymy was at the same concrete level as any of the duos above. And it applies to metonyms like the transparency equating to engagement.

It is the mindset of a Gene Wolfe, then, where every element, no matter how obscure, has a single definite meaning, rather than the mindset of a James Joyce, where the embrace of ambiguity and contradiction on lexical, semantic, and structural levels yields greater riches than a single postulated meaning.

My contention is that this sort of Platonic, atomistic thinking goes hat in hand with the sort of thinking used in constructing and utilizing scientific models of the world, as opposed to the messier business of human language and human relationships where a far greater degree of ambiguity is both acceptable and accommodated. This ambiguity inevitably leads to misunderstanding, sometimes destructively (say, in a marriage). The question is whether sufficient clarity can be achieved without adopting such a reductive, game-like model. Otherwise, you’ve adopted a view of the world (or of love, or of a marriage) that could easily fail you.

Ironically, this is the sort of analysis often performed in literary criticism. Thomas Karshan’s recent article on Nabokov in the TLS quoted this scabrous response from Nabokov in response to W. W. Rowe’s finding sexual innuendos in Pale Fire such as “wick” in “wickedly folding moth”:

The various words that Mr. Rowe mistakes for the “symbols” of academic jargon, supposedly planted by an idiotically sly novelist to keep schoolmen busy, are not labels, not pointers, and certainly not the garbage cans of a Viennese tenement, but live fragments of specific description, rudiments of metaphor, and echoes of creative emotion. The fatal flaw in Mr. Rowe’s treatment of recurrent words, such as “garden” or “water”, is his regarding them as abstractions, and not realizing that the sound of a bath being filled, say, in the world of Laughter in the Dark, is as different from the limes rustling in the rain of Speak, Memory as the Garden of Delights in Ada is from the lawns in Lolita.

Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov appeals to a hermeneutic holism that defeats such easy metonymic models. It’s not that the richer worlds of which he speaks cannot be quantified as such, just that the vocabulary required is so dauntingly extensive as to require lived human experience. No such sophisticated symbolic model for this experience yet exists, and I don’t see one coming any time soon. A model cannot capture the live fragments of which Nabokov speaks. When rendering such fragments in a game, the abandonment of complexity disguises itself by using a sufficiently obscure model, so that the model does not seem banal.

Nabokov hated Freud and psychoanalysis (hence the veiled reference to Vienna), and indeed, this sort of atomistic symbolism makes me think of something Ernest Gellner said about psychoanalysis in The Cunning of Unreason: the psychoanalytic model had to walk the line between scientific precision and mythical ambiguity so as not to seem banal or spurious.

A purely hermeneutic psychoanalysis would not sound like science, confer no power, and few men would turn to it in distress; a purely physicalist or biological psychoanalysis would have been too much like a science, and no fun. But the plausible-sounding fusion of both is very different, and most attractive.

Ernest Gellner, The Cunning of Unreason

And weaker writers rely on exactly this careful navigation between the Scylla of simplistic allegory and the Charybdis of pointless ambiguity, so that they may seem profound when they really are not. I am thinking her of Alberto Moravia’s endless rationalism, where there is a neatly placed psychological explanation for every character trait and every movement proceeds from the careful arrangement of forces logically arrayed. (See The Conformist.) Moravia does it so well that the ultimate weakness of construction is a shame. (Removing the explanations, as was done in the wonderful movie of L’Ennui, can produce amazing results.)

L'Ennui: "I could tell you what I'm thinking but it would make the movie less interesting."

I know: The Marriage is just a game. Humble did not mean to make any sweeping statement about marriage in general, and the game is clearly so personal to him that I feel a little bad using it to exemplify a certain type of thinking. But speaking just personally, if my partner wrote this game and explained the game to me in that way, I would be frightened out of my wits.

Update: Rod Humble has responded kindly in the comments, and I appreciate his openness to discussion and critique. I also wanted to point out Derek Badman’s essay on Lewis Trondheim’s Bleu, since comics rely on the sort of abstracted narrative visual representation that games do as well. Bleu “tells” of the interaction of a green blob with two stars and two dots. To the best of my knowledge, there is no “key” to the abstraction. Yet the similarity is striking!

a page from Lewis Trondheim's Bleu

Christianity in the 3rd Century: Gnosticism and Worldliness

Peter Brown writes in his great (and short) The World of Late Antiquity of the years leading up to Christianity’s big break, when Constantine converted in 312:

The Christian Church differed from the other oriental cults, which it resembled in so many other ways, through its intolerance of the outside world. The cults were exclusive, and, often, the jealously guarded preserve of foreigners; but they never set themselves up against the traditional religious observances of the society round them. They never enjoyed the publicity of intermittent persecution. While the oriental cults provided special means to salvation in the next world, they took the position of their devotees in this world for granted. The Christian Church offered a way of living in this world. The skillful elaboration of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the sense of belonging to a distinctive group with carefully prescribed habits and increasing resources heightened the impression that the Christian Church made on the uncertain generations of the third century. Seldom has a small minority played so successfully on the anxieties of society as did the Christians. They remained a small group: but they succeeded in becoming a big problem.

For men whose confusions came partly from no longer feeling embedded in their home environment, the Christian Church offered a drastic experiment in social living, reinforced by the excitement and occasional perils of a break with one’s past and one’s neighbors.

The suggestion, with a nod to Hans Blumenberg, is that Christianity grew in part through a cultish, gnostic mentality that allowed it to offer a niche, elite appeal. This mentality then had to be discarded by Augustine and the Church itself once the movement had reached a critical mass of acceptance. Yet by Brown’s account, the preparations for such a prioritization of this world were there from the beginning, which is what enabled it to make the transition successfully.

Special Limited Time Google+ Offer

Google+ invites available through this link: Join Google+ — it’s linked to my own account and there are something like 150 invites available through it before they run out.

I’m not a partisan of Google+, but for what it’s worth, I am fairly frustrated with Facebook’s privacy violations and I do think that Google+ is a better product. YMMV.

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