He currently has a podcast presentation on itunes and hipcast. The blog is for the free and open discussion of Ancient Rome based on Mr. Cain's observations noted in his podcast. Most episodes start out with an original dramatic narration written by Mr. In the podcasts he will include his own unique commentary, and interviews with subject matter experts. Comments are welcome and will be highlighted on the show. Guest editors are welcome and are invited to submit articles. Please contact Mr. Cain at: Rob ancientromerefocused.
Educate through ideas 2. Share with us what you know 3. No profanity 4. Cite your sources if possible 5. Attack ideas not people. And more importantly if you hear or see something on the blog or podcast that you know to be inaccurate or you disagree with let's hear from you. Don't let it pass by, make a comment. The author Steven Saylor 2. The historian Professor Carl J. Richard 4. The graphic novelist Eric Shanower. Jame A. Jordan Harbour of the podcast Twilight Histories. I have granted them dominion, and it has no end. Each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time.
This is a tendency, perhaps due to the retractable nature of evidence, to create myths. I say: "What a lovely mound! Can't we dig here? A quote by her husband, Sir Max Mallowan, noted archeologist, showing his disappointment of not having a site to dig in his field of interest. I'm curious about things people aren't suppose to see -- so, for example I like going to the British Museum, but I would like it better if I could go into all the offices and storage rooms, I want to look in all the drawers and -- discover stuff.
Ghosts of Vesuvius by Charles Pellegrino. Sub title: A new look at the last days of Pompeii, how towers fall, and other strange connections. Copyright A book about a time traveler and her experiences back in ancient Pompeii. Ancient Rome Refocused is a new history podcast that deserves the highest acclaim. This podcast seems to be about Roman history, but in fact is about much more. This is because it is a podcast both of history narrative, which obviously is concentrated on Rome, and of history musings.
On account of the last quality, already, the podcast has been widely compared with Dan Carlin's Hardcore History. Host and maker of the podcast Rob Cain is off on a magnificent start with his series and even now, three episodes into the feed, we must grant him his own ground and assure that he is making something unique, something very good and in addition to that, I am absolutely sure, the history podcast audience is going to adore.
The comparisons with Dan Carlin and Nate DiMeo serve here only as a characterization and not as some example of what Cain is trying to emulate. Cain combines the history musings, like Dan Carlin, with the astonishing narrative qualities of Nate DiMeo. Cain is telling Roman history with a quality of narrative immediacy that equals the impressive standard of DiMeo's Memory Palace and continues to engage in thoughts about that history in the compelling way of Dan Carlin's Hardcore History.
Thus he establishes an impressive combination of styles that both work extremely well in podcast and he does so with his own voice, his own style that bears only comparison, but not similarity with the mentioned predecessors. First of all, I'd simply urge you to go and listen without letting me spoil the surprises in particular and the fun in general feed.
Allow me to highlight just these three identifiers for the first three issues. The second lays out the basics of the Roman reality by projecting time travel. The third delivers a subtle expose on slavery in Rome that dwarfs Dan Carlin's adventure into slavery which is both history, audio drama, a poignant contemporary critique of low wage labor and prostitution as well as the most balanced analysis of Spartacus' slave revolt I have encountered ever.
With even more lines to current times. Even if Rob Cain stops now, he has produced a podcast classic. The idea he is about to deliver a fourth, and likely more episodes has me both reel in anticipation and yet also a bit worried: can he keep up with the towering standard he has set off with? Click here to go to the review on Anne is the Man Blog Site. Just one. I wish I could share with you more than that. It was something I noticed. In fact it is in walking distance. It was not that far from the Senate building where the laws were made, and the emperors sat, and I could imagine that when the wind was good, and the conditions right, 50, voices shouting in their blood lust could be heard through the windows.
I've been thoroughly enjoying the Ancient Rome Refocused podcast. It has the informality and "outside the envelope" thinking that puts one in mind of Hardcore History I have a feeling that Rob Cain is going to get very tired of that comparison. Now I see that his blog is just as entertaining, informative, and thought provoking. Check it out. Click here to go to Forgotten Classics and see the blog site and the review. From the Teacher Toys Blog Site:. This is a podcast by an enthusiastic amateur. He has a lot to say about Ancient Rome.
Since I'm teaching Roman History for the first time this year, I'm finding this pretty useful stuff. Click here to go to Teacher Toys and see the blog site and the review. From the forum myextralife. I can't overstate how much I enjoy this one! But a relatively new one, if you're into Roman history is Ancient Rome Refocused which is a lot more themeatical, rather than chronological, but we're lucky to get a new episode every couple of months.
Comment from Capital Grilling web site:. One episode, for example, focused exclusively on the Roman Triumph. Off-hand comment on Ancient Rome Refocused on a Blog entry on the road construction called 'roundabouts. I was able to figure out that roundabout thing, and even did a few loops around it while listening to Ancient Rome Refocused of course! Blog entry on the No Press Blog site. By this I mean that Cain, in the first episode at least, talks about the Western fascination with ancient Rome and draws some comparisons between their history and that of modern times.
This also means to me that Charles Pellegrino's book Ghosts of Vesuvius, undoubtedly one of the main inspirations behind Cain's first podcast, merits careful attention in its own right. All in all, a very commendable start to what I'm sure will be a podcast that I'll enjoy just as much as I do Duncan's. Give them both a try if you haven't already, because if you love history as much as I do you won't be disappointed. I agree that what makes Rome interesting is how many of the ideas that formed the backbone of the U.
The latest episode of the Ancient Rome Refocused podcast delves into the influence of Cicero, Plutarch, Livy, and Polybius, and how the Founding Fathers' obsession made its way into the fabric of our government btw.. Polybius's ideas of balance of power and government evolution come from Aristotle - thanks to Mike on the tour for pointing this out. As a result, he is the primogeniture for a certain type of rational, secular, progressive, liberal, humane contemporaneity.
Hansmann worked as a peddler on the Lower East Side, until the Homestead Act enticed him to Iowa, where he married a Huguenot woman who bore him 10 children, while he worked as a trader among the Native Americans. He refused to raise his children in any religion—Jewish or Protestant—preferring rather that they should decide upon reaching adulthood.
And so, a union was made between the Jewish and the Low Church Protestant, rejecting both baptism and bris, so that my grandmother born on the frontier had absolutely no religion at all. Born in Constantinople only six years after the Council of Nicaea convened there to define what exactly a Christian was, Julian the Apostate would mount a failed revolution. Julian was of a different perspective, seeing in the resurrection of Apollo and Dionysius, Jupiter and Athena, the rejuvenation of Rome.
He bid his time until military success foisted him onto the throne, and then Julian revealed himself as an initiate into those Eleusinian Mysteries, a celebrant of Persephone and Demeter who greeted the morning sun and prayed for the bounty of the earth, quoted in W. Julian wanted this paganism to be a new faith, an organized, unified, consolidated religion that bore as much similarity to the cohesion of the Christian Church as it did to the rag-tag collection of rituals and superstitions that had defined previous Roman beliefs.
In paganism, Julian approached origin, genesis, birth—less conversion than a return to what you should have been, but was denied. Christian thinkers had long commandeered classical philosophy, now pagan thinkers were able to apply the same analytical standards to their own beliefs, developing theology as sophisticated as that of Christianity.
Vidal is most celebrated for calling the conservative founder of the National Review William F. The problem with a manifesto that defines itself entirely by anti-progress is that such a doctrine can be rather nebulous, and so many of the bright young things Buckley hired for the National Review, such as Joan Didion and Garry Wills, found themselves moving to the left.
As people become harder of hearing and their bone-density decreases, movement from the left to the right does seem the more predictable narrative. But do we really know it? Do we feel it? For all their differences, Buckley and Vidal could at least agree on the martini. Cheever had lived up to the alcoholic reputation of two American tribes—High Church Protestants and Low Church writers.
From the former he inherited both the genes and an affection for gin and scotch on a Westchester porch watching the trains from Grand Central thunder Upstate, and from the later he took the Dionysian myth that conflates the muse with ethanol, pining for inspiration but settling for vomiting in an Iowa City barroom. Cheever was one of the finest short story writers of the 20th century, his prose as crystalline and perfect as a martini. Such was the company of those other addicts, of Ernest Hemingway and F.
The restoration of one man through the simple measure of not drinking was revelatory. Cheever—along with his friend Raymond Carver—is the happy exception to the fallacy that finds romance in the gutter-death of literary genius, and he got sober by doing the hard work of Alcoholics Anonymous. The central text of that organization was compiled by Bill W.
We missed the reality and the beauty of the forest because we were diverted by the ugliness of some of its trees. When Cheever died, he had seven sober years—and they made all the difference. Conversion narratives are the most human of tales, for the drama of redemption is an internal one, played out between the protagonist and his demons.
Certain tropes—the pleasure, the perdition, the contrition, the repentance, the salvation. Into that increasingly secular society would come an English preacher with a thick Gloucester accent named George Whitfield, who first arrived in the New World in Whitfield welcomed worshippers into a massive tent—conversion as a means towards dignity and agency. He bemoaned the mistreatment of the enslaved, while he simultaneously advocated for the economic benefits of that very institution.
Can we tighten this line. As different as they were, Whitfield and Malcolm X were both children of this strange Zion that allows such reinvention. Transformation defined his rejection of Christianity, his membership in the Nation of Islam, and then finally his conversion to orthodox Sunni Islam.
If America is a land of conversion narratives, than The Autobiography of Malcolm X is ironically one of the most American. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an apostate in possession of a brilliant spiritual mind, must be in want of a religion. If none of the religions that already exist will do, then it becomes her prerogative to invent a better one and convert to that. For America is a gene splicing laboratory of mythology, an in vitro fertilization clinic of faith, and we birth gods by the scores.
Drawing freely from Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the free-floating occultism popular in 19th-century America, Ali became one of the first founders of an Afrocentric faith in the United States, his movement the original spiritual home to Wallace Fard Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam. Ali drew heavily from mystical traditions, combining his own idiosyncratic interpretations of Islam alongside Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism.
Such beliefs held that the dead were still among us, closer than our very breath, and that spirits could interact with the inert matter of our world, souls intermingled before the very atoms of our being. Among the important founders of the movement were the Fox Sisters of Hydesville, N. It is a very common delusion.
Scott and Paschal Beverly Randolph embracing abolitionism, temperance, civil rights, suffragism, and labor rights. And of course the great American convert to a religion of his own devising is Joseph Smith. Smith rather made America itself his invented religion. Read cynically, this bible could be seen as a disingenuous use of Chinese terminology so as to make Christianity feel less foreign and more inviting, a Western wolf in Mandarin robes.
More charitably, such syncretism could be interpreted as an attempt to find the universal core between those two religions, a way of honoring truth regardless of language. Conversion not between faiths, but above them. The earliest synthesis between Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity is traceable to the seventh century.
At the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, a cache called the Jingjiao Documents penned during the Tang Dynasty and attributed to the students of a Syrian monk named Alopen were rediscovered in In , Alopen was an evangelist to a pluralistic civilization that had a history that went back millennia. His mission was neither colonial nor mercantile, and as a religious scholar he had to make Christianity appealing to a populace content with their beliefs.
And so, Alopen converted the Chinese by first converting Christianity. As with the translators of the Chinese Version Union bible, Alopen borrowed Taoist and Buddhist concepts, configuring the Logos of John as the Tao, sin as karma, heaven as nirvana, and Christ as an enlightened Bodhisattva. Portuguese priest Alvaro Semedo, known to the court as Xie Wulu, saw the stele as evidence of Christian continuity; other clergy were disturbed that the monument was from a sect that the Church itself had deemed heretical 1, years before. Ricci had taken to wearing the robes of a Confucian scholar, borrowing from both Confucius and Lao-Tzu in arguing that Catholicism was a form of those older religions.
Maybe there is something fallacious in simply pretending all religions are secretly the same. We risk abandoning something beautiful if we reject the unity that Alopen and Ricci worked for, because perhaps there is a flexibility to conversion, a delightful promiscuity to faith. Examining one of the Chinese water-colors of Ricci, resplendent in the heavenly blue silk of the panling lanshan with a regal, heavy, black putou on his head, a Roman inquisitor may have feared who exactly was converting whom.
Francis of Assisi. Kneeling in brown robes, the aristocrat is a penitent in some rocky grove, a hazy blue-grey sfumato marking the countryside visible through a gap in the stones. Some tome—perhaps The Bible?
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Suddenly the prurient grin on the stubbly face of Dashwood makes more sense. Francis, would mark the absurdity of such Societies; and in lieu of the austerities and abstemiousness there practiced, substitute convivial gaiety, unrestrained hilarity, and social felicity. Irreverent, impious, and scandalous though Dashwood may have been, such activities paradoxically confirm faith. A blasphemous conversion, it turns out, may just be another type of conversion. It discloses scenes of pleasure and laughter, and also some of the extremist horrors ever conceived.
It introduces us to cults of the Natural, the Supernatural; to magic, black and otherwise. Fear not the blasphemer, for such is merely a cracked prophet of the Lord. God conquered — now I have only one doubt left—which of the twain was God? She was victim of a world collapsing in on itself, of the political, social, economic, and ecological calamities precipitated by the arrival of the very people whose faith she would convert to, one hand holding a bible and a crucifix, the other a gun—all of them covered in the invisible killing virus.
Of her own accord, Tekakwitha meditated on the words of the Jesuits, her confessor Fr. Much controversy follows such conversions: are we to read Tekakwitha—who endures as a symbol of syncretism between Christianity and indigenous spirituality—as a victim? As a willing penitent? As some cross between the two? She is not an allegory, a parable, a metaphor, or an example—she is Tekakwitha, a woman.
If we are to draw any allegorizing lesson from her example, it must be this—conversion, like death, is something that is finally done alone. Who can we be to parse her reasons for embracing that faith, just as how can we fully inhabit the decisions of Julian, or Spinoza, or Hansmann, or Ricci? Nothing can be more intimate, or sometimes more surprising, than the turn of a soul, the conversion of a woman or man.
Of her true form? Of the beatified face when it looks upon the creator-god Ha-wen-ni-yu? Converts, like saints, do not reconcile the chaos, they exist amidst it. In hagiography, we find not solution, but mystery—as sacred and holy as footprints on a virgin Canadian snow, finally to be erased as the day turns to night.
On an early spring morning in , when the stars were still out and Manhattan glowed in all of its wasteful wattage across the East River, a year-old retired lawyer named David Buckel made his way past the Grand Army Plaza and the Brooklyn Museum down to Prospect Park. In those hours before the dawn, Buckel dug a shallow circle into the black dirt, which investigators believed he made to prevent the spread of the fire he was about to set, having understood that our collective future would have enough burning. Buckel was pronounced dead by a.
It is great to die for God, but it may be greater to die for no God. As we perhaps approach our own collective martyrdom, measuring the rising tide and warmth alike, there is a pressing wisdom that we must grapple with, what the medievals called the Ars morienda, the art of the good death. He brings to bear not the rigid, rigorous, logical arguments of analytical philosophers like A. Ayers, Saul Kripke, and Willard van Orman Quine—men whom for all their brilliance and importance did little to illuminate the philosophical issue of how are we to live? Thus do we honor Socrates, that ugly little gadfly who in acknowledging his ignorance was paradoxically the wisest man in Athens.
Such is the power of the event, the forced drinking of hemlock at the hands of an Athenian state that claimed Socrates had corrupted the youths of the city and preached against her gods. What Bradatan does differently is that he reads the death of Socrates itself as an argument to be interpreted—treating the moment of extinction itself as one would a proof.
The historical Socrates is himself mute; though he appears in a few scenes of the dramatist Xenophon, and while he is the beguiling central character in the dialogues of his student Plato, no actual writing of the founder of Western philosophy itself exists. Yet his silences—whenever they occur…these silences can be unbearable. This is Socrates at his most uncanny. Had Socrates capitulated to the court, had he admitted to wrong-doing and served a lighter sentence, it would be to invalidate his own teaching.
Such consistency of purpose is something that united the martyrs he examines, no matter how different their actual thought may have been. And from his execution, though Bruno was himself an advocate for magic, occultism, and hermeticism, the Italian Enlightenment would find inspiration against the forces of Inquisition and superstition that had condemned him; his death becoming a far more potent argument than anything he ever actually wrote.
Supposedly Hypatia uttered no words or cries. All of us will rendezvous with the eternal one day, and most philosophy professors will die in their beds. The philosopher possesses a radical freedom and powerful powerlessness that is perhaps only matched by that of the jester; she has the agency to confront and compel the truth where others are mired in lies and delusions, and in her sacrifice the philosopher dies so that we may light ourselves out of our ignorance. Something radical is needed. So, I return to my phone, skimming accounts of collapsing ice shelfs and flooding river banks, reading articles about how humanity may have less than a few decades left, pushed to the brink by the irrational, insatiable hungers of our economic system and its supporting faith.
As analysis, Bradatan offers us a claim about how some brave souls die for ideas, how their sacrifices are meant to illuminate those malignancies that threaten a society in collapse. Women and men like Bruno and Hypatia are set aside from the realm of the rest of us, they are, in the original sense of the word, sacred. If ever a people needed a holy sacrifice uttering parrhesia on the scaffold, a sacred scapegoat shouting the truth from a pyre, it is our own.
Rather, Jonson envisioned the travails of his characters on this industrial Styx as less sacred and more profane, lacking transcendence but making up for it in the sheer fecundity of sewage that floated upon the canal that today flows underneath the bohemian environs of Camden Town, and whose tinkling can be heard through sewer grates in Clerkenwell.
Notorious prisons like Ludgate and Newgate were on the banks of that now-subterranean river; plague-ridden slums filled with rural transplants clung to the brown shores of the Fleet. Filth had been a topic of literary expression long before Jonson, one only read Geoffrey Chaucer, Francois Rabelais, or Giovani Boccaccio to know that poets have long sung not just of heaven, but of the asshole, the piss-bucket, and the privy as well. Throughout the 16th-century, London expanded from the former sleepy agrarian capital of a sleepy agrarian kingdom into what would soon be the largest city on Earth.
Only a half-century later and London was home to half-a-million women and men.
That term has become recently trendy in academic discussions of literature, a designation borrowed from geologists and climatologists to clarify the ways in which the Earth has been inextricably altered by humanity. As the period is most spectacularly defined by anthropogenic climate catastrophe, the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, with its harnessing of fossil fuels such as coal and oil, would seem an appropriate starting point.
There are social, cultural, technological, and economic reasons for understanding the 16th and 17th centuries as the earliest decades of the Anthropocene. During those years of snow and ice, Europe appeared radically different from the way it does today, as accounts of Tudor fairs upon the frozen Thames or the grey winter paintings of Peter Breughel attest. There was no escaping the weather. For such lyrics to be written, the conditions of crowded, filthy, industrialized urbanity were required. Though rarely thought of as such, Jonson is an ecopoet at the precise moment in history when we redefined our relationship to nature—for the worse.
Editor Miriam K. For the Cavaliers, the pastoralism of classical poets like Hesiod and Virgil had much to recommend. The early cherry, with the later plum, Fig, grape, and quince, each in his time doth come;The blushing apricot and wooly peachHang on thy walls, that every child may reach. What the country-house poem presents is paradise in verse, a lyric crafted by the human mind as surely as a garden is planted by human hands, with the verse itself becoming a type of perfection that you can step into.
By imagining a world without the fall, poems such as these query us with the possibility of a future where the fall has been reversed, where the exploitation of nature is ceased. Yet pastoralism and its discontents are actually part of the same project; the disjunct between depicting nature in its abundance as well as the exploitation of the environment share a similar ideological underpinning. What their critics might say they lack in ingenuity, the Cavaliers more than make up in ecological prescience. Owing much to a distinction made by Dr. If the Cavaliers were plain-spoken, the metaphysicals were sophisticated; the former literal and physical, the latter metaphorical and spiritual; the first were backward-looking pastoral conservatives, the second forward-looking aesthetic radicals.
Not to mention the coming political and sectarian splits of the English civil wars, with the Cavaliers true to their courtly name associated with High Church religion while fighting on behalf of the Royalist cause. I sing of Maypoles, hock-carts, wassails, wakesOf bride-grooms, brides, and of their bridal-cakes. I write of youth, of love and have accessBy these, to sing of cleanly-wantonness. Nobody would mistake that sentiment for a Puritan ethos. Literary historians often still teach the split between those two 17th-century literary traditions as an archetypal and Manichean struggle between abstraction and literalism, metaphysical sophistication and sentimental pastoralism.
Despite the crudeness of such a formulation, there is a romanticism in understanding seventeenth-century poetry as divided between the head of the Puritan and the heart of the Cavalier. Johnson, it should be said, cared not for the metaphysicals; his poetic conservatism and political royalism predisposed him to the Cavaliers, but this is a position that has not been commonly held for a very long time.
The result is that the Cavaliers have seen a critical eclipse over the course of the last 10 decades. The metaphysicals dwelled amongst the stars, but the Cavaliers were content to muck in the dirt, and perhaps to dwell upon the beauty of the rosebuds while they were there. The ideology of the Cavalier was seen as hopelessly archaic when confronting the complexity of modernity. Not for nothing, the Cavaliers—and their royalist political program—are associated with Maypoles and Mummer parades, feast-days and carnival, and all the rest of the lackadaisical accoutrement conflated with a Merry Old England swept aside by Puritanism and modern capitalism.
The puritan upholds the work ethic and the will to give up pleasure, scourging the soul for flaws. In the cavalier we have the individualist, more attuned to the passing moment and in greater touch with his desires.
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Often dismissed for lacking seriousness, for their enthusiasm for sport and drink, for their indulgence, foppery, and libertinism, could we not identify such values as precisely those that should be valorized? Could we not see in their celebration of fairs, feasts, festivals, flora, and fauna a denunciation of work, industry, commerce, and all the rest of the alienated soullessness that now threatens us with ecological collapse?
Now is the precise moment to consider the earliest body of eco-poems ever penned—at the moment when the Anthropocene dawned. There is as much of Extinction Rebellion in Cavalier poetry as there is royalism. Too often dismissed by the ruthless individualists of modernism as embarrassing throwbacks engaged in Medieval affectations, the Cavaliers actually offered a complex meditation on the relationship of humanity to nature, and how the violation of the later compels the same for the former.
What the modernists saw as so rightly evocative in metaphysical poetry—the abstraction, the ingenuity, the philosophical sophistication—is arguably the foundation of the very alienation that has so easily separated us from nature; an inadvertent capitulation to the inhuman perspective that treats both people and the environment as mere commodities. What the metaphysical poets did accomplish, however, is a certain achievement of abstraction; a product of the age that allowed for mechanistic metaphors for human anatomy, where the French philosopher Rene Descartes could argue contra all experience that animals are simply little machines.
Perhaps the most crucial, if most subtle, difference between the metaphysicals and the Cavaliers is in their approach towards time, mutability, finality, and death. Carpe diem, by contrast, is the drained wine-glass, the chicken bone cleared of meat. Not necessarily mutually exclusive positions, but as aesthetics they differ by giving the metaphysicals a gloss of piety, prayer, and death-obsession; the Cavaliers one of a lusty embrace of the moment.
Without claiming that any of the poets across both traditions were anything other than mostly orthodox Christians, the differences between a memento mori and a carpe diem perspective are crucial. While it would seem that the later would encourage us to live a life that could be wasteful, the opposite is actually true.
Memento mori may ask us to reflect on the singularity of our own death, yet such a view presupposes a passing moment separating this life from the next, an entrance into eternity where all may be reconciled, all may be answered, all may be saved. Carpe diem, contrary to its reputation, does not necessarily hold such a naive faith. Now our task is to preserve it. To the best of our knowledge, until that point no Englishman had ever provided such a complete accounting; such a scrupulous interrogation not of the soul, but of a life—a largely secular exercise in tabulating not just wars, but dinners; not just plagues, but nights at the theater.
Beginning on January 1st upon the first year of Restoration, Pepys would record everything from when fire immolated the city of London to a particularly enjoyable stew of tripe and mustard. Rather, what Pepys offered was something different, but no less impressive—a complete map of an individual human life and mind during that defined period of time. Pepys observed both the plague and the Great Fire of London, the first which decimated the capital and the later which purified it, and the Second Anglo-Dutch War when the English traded the tropical paradise of Suriname for a small village named New Amsterdam on the tip of Manhattan Island.
With large, soulful brown eyes, jutting lower lip, and curly auburn hair, Pepys cut a swath through London society, from the coffee houses and printers of Fleet Street to the book stalls at St. A funny thing which literary anniversaries we choose to commemorate or not. Certain authors come in for posthumous honoring more than others—Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens.
This year sees the th birthday of the great, grey bard of Camden, Walt Whitman, and his work will be rightly celebrated with events throughout his cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. An irony in this, because Pepys is in many ways a prophet of our own self-obsessed age. In Pepys we see Facebook; we see Twitter.
The diary is what his name shall be inextricably linked with, not necessarily for the quality of the prose though Pepys is often a fine stylist , but rather for the raw, honest, unguarded reflection on a sheer multitude of subjects ranging from politics to theater to medicine to sex. Elsewhere he deploys a strange pidgin of English, Spanish, and French to mask his pornographic obsessions—idiosyncratic ciphers that if one can read his shorthand take most readers mere seconds to crack.
Consider the eeriness of his first-hand account of the plague which leveled London in , forcing the court to rusticate themselves as the buboes spread through the capital:. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll tobacco to smell and chew, which took away the apprehension. Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that layoff; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another.
And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down. Think of it as the Restoration equivalent of an Instagrammed food picture. Or Pepys harrowing reminiscence of a surgical procedure, more than two centuries before anesthesia, which removed a kidney stone the size of a tennis ball from his bladder. Then of course there is all of the sex in Pepys, with squeamish Victorian editors deleting whole entries where the diarist both luxuriated and punished himself over perversions both imagined and enacted.
Pepys enumerated the women, from aristocrats to maids, wives and daughters of friends and colleagues, whom he fucks; women united in the status of not being his wife. However, he was unable to resist it, and eventually went back and purchased it in plain binding, took it home, read it and then burned it. Denouncing The School of Venus to his wife, while later purchasing it in plain paper—was Pepys a hypocrite? Of course, he was a hypocrite. Did he feel guilt over his indiscretion?
The ashes of his smut should leave little doubt that he did. Something modern in that position, the enigma of the neurotic. Pepys is our contemporary in that he dwells in a certain negative capability, a fractured ego strung as it is between the public and personal, the spectacle of accountability and the private web browser. In that manner, I see less of Twitter and Facebook in Pepys, less of the carefully manicured self-creation implied by our collective digital subterfuge, and more of a different post-modern literary genre—Samuel Pepys was the first writer of autofiction.
That form, defined as it is by the presence of a narrator who is largely the same as the author but who dwells in the massive complexity of the individual, including all that is hidden perhaps even from the author themselves. We know about the socially aspiring dish of tripe and the randy morning because the man wrote it down. A polished essay is like the woman or man dressed formally for a job interview, clothing dry-cleaned and hair perfectly coifed—the individual self-fashioned into the most presentable of versions.
Diaries are how we actually are more or less all of the time—messy, confused, and impolite. No deletions, no rearrangements, no strike-throughs, but rather a manuscript as a man, all error and contradiction—and the more perfect for it. The entire Western front went silent at exactly 11 a. An armistice had been reached earlier that morning between the Allies and Germany, so it was agreed that hostilities would cease at that precise hour. An eerie, stunning, beautiful sound. The most sacred thing you will ever hear. Everything and nothing is answered in silence as deep as that.
Following such barbarity and horror, the very earth was now enveloped in a deep blanketing quiet. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the voice of God. If dissonance is the question, then silence may be the only answer. Our present world is not quite as loud as it had been on the Western front yet , but still we live mired in a never-ending cacophony. A century after God spoke unto the trenches of the Great War, and the volume is getting louder and louder.
Not artillery shells, but the din of chatter, the thrum of status updates, the vibration of push notification. The hour news cycle forces us to formulate hot-takes and positions on every conceivable event, from issues of political importance to fleeting pop culture phenomenon, and bellicose bloviating announces itself characters at a time from the top on down. If Vonnegut is right that God spoke a century ago, then our current age is too loud to make that voice out today.
Philosophy is traditionally conveyed through debate and argument. A reliance on disputation and dialogue, syllogism and seminar, would seem to proffer a noisy discipline. Yet philosophy can also be defined by a peaceful undercurrent, a metaphysics of silence. If one model of philosophy takes place in the noisy Agora of ancient Athens, long Socratic dialogues among the sellers of lemons and olives, then another way of practicing philosophy emphasizes the quiet, the construction of a space in which thought can grow unhampered, where answers may be found among the still.
Such quiet is its own philosophical method, a type of thought where answers are not generated through dialectic, but from within the soul of the thinker herself. Something instrumental in this, where silence is a means to an end. But such an approach still has noise as its ultimate goal, in the form of declared conclusions. When parsing the significance of silence there are radical conclusions. Stillness can be the space that allows us to find future answers, but there is a wisdom that sees silence itself as an answer. In a Western tradition that very much sees logic as a goal unto itself, where truth is a matter of positive statements about objective reality, silence is its own anarchic technique, its own strange approach to that which we cannot speak.
Silence can be both process and result. Though separated by millennia, both thinkers believed that when the veil of reality is peeled back what mutely announces itself is a profound and deep silence. Rather than circumscribe God with the limitations of mere words, we should pass eternity over in silence. Such a perspective holds that there can be more truth in uttering nothing than in a literal description. What would it mean, in our age of endless distraction and deafening noise, to inculcate silence not just for a bit of peace, but as an answer itself?
What would it mean to engender within our lives an apophatic sensibility? Image credit: Felipe Elioenay. By the release of their 17th album, Everyday Chemistry, in , The Beatles had been wandering for years in a musical wilderness. King and Elvis Presley, rightly derided by critics as filler. Their new music is a cynical ploy by a band for whom it would have perhaps been better to have divorced sometime around Abby Road or Let it Be. All of that engineering work from the last two albums actually served them well as they reentered the studio; true to its title with its connotations of combination and separation, catalyst and reaction, Everyday Chemistry would borrow from the digital manipulations of Krautrock bands like Kraftwerk, and the synthesizer-heavy experimentation of Talking Heads.
Long before I met them, but I was a boogie-woogie guy too, so it was always copacetic. Such a history may seem unusual to you, because undoubtedly you are a citizen of the same dimension that I am. And yet Everyday Chemistry exists as a ghostly artifact in our reality, a digital spirit uploaded to the Internet in by some creative weirdo, who cobbled together an imagined Beatles album from the fragments of their solo careers. Most of my narrative above is my own riffing, but claims that the album is from a parallel universe are part of the mythmaking that makes listening to the record so eerie.
The Sailor-Boy’s Tale
Everyday Chemistry is a seamlessly edited mashup done in the manner of Girl Talk or Danger Mouse, but its ingenious creator made a parallel universe origin of Everyday Chemistry the central conceit. Richards claims that a tape of the album was swiped after he fell into a vortex in the California desert and was gifted Everyday Chemistry by an inter-dimensional Beatles fan. Unless of course it actually is from a parallel universe.
Listening to the album is like finding a red rock from Mars framed by white snow in your yard—a disquieting interjection from an alien world into the mundanity of our lives. All literature imagines alternate worlds. But the parallel universe story makes such a concern explicit, makes it obvious.
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Such narratives rely upon the cognitive ability to not accept the current state of things, to conjecture and wonder at the possibility that our lives could be different from how we experience them in the present. Such questions are built into how women and men experience our lives.
Alternate history is that narrative writ large. Such stories have been told for a long time. In the 19th century, the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne did something similar, albeit for different ideological aims. An epistolary narrative where the titular character, designated by only his first initial, writes about all the still-living Romantic luminaries he encounters in a parallel version of Victorian London.
Lord Byron has become a corpulent, gouty, conservative killjoy; Percy Shelley has rejected radical atheism for a staunch commitment to the Church of England; Napoleon Bonaparte skulks the streets of London, embarrassed and vanquished while kept guard by two police officers; and John Keats has lived into a wise seniority where he alone seems to hold to the old Romantic faith that so animated and inspired Hawthorne.
An exercise in this world might not be great, but think of how much worse it could be. Think of authors like Philip K. Dick in The Man in the High Castle or Robert Harris in Fatherland , both exploring the common trope of imagining a different outcome to the second world war. Such novels present Adolf Hitler running rough-shod over the entire globe, crossing the English Channel and ultimately the Atlantic.
Some of the most popular alternate history depicts a dark and dystopian reality in which polished Nazi jack-boots stomp across muddy English puddles and Confederate generals hang their ugly flag from the dome of the Capital building; where an American Kristallnacht rages across the Midwest, or emancipation never happens. It transcends traditional cultural categories, being simultaneously a sub-field of history, a sub-genre of science fiction, and a mode of expression that can easily assume literary, cinematic, dramatic or analytical forms. While long the purview of geeky enthusiasts, with their multiverses and retconning, alternate history has been embraced by academic historians for whom such conjecture has traditionally been antithetical to the sober plodding of their discipline.
In history no experiment can ever be replicated, for it is we who live in said experiment—which is forever ongoing. There is no author, divine or otherwise; only characters, and unlike in a game a great deal too many of them. That volume included contributions by Hilaire Belloc, who true to his monarchist sympathies imagines a very much non-decapitated Louis XVI returning to the Bourbon throne; his friend G. Churchill concludes the account with his desired reunification of the English speaking peoples, a massive British, Yankee, and Southern empire stopping the Teutonic menace during the Great War.
Lee simply abolishes slavery upon the conclusion of the war, even while the historical general fought in defense of the continuation and expansion of that wicked institution. Counterfactuals raise the question of where exactly these parallel universes are supposed to be, these uncannily familiar storylines that seem as if they inhabit the space at the edge of our vision for a duration as long as an eye-blink.
Did you really have a choice on whether or not you would move to Philly or Milwaukee? Was art history ever a possibility? Maybe Phil was always going to be your date. How can one know what the impact of any one event may be, what the implications are for something happening slightly different at Marathon, or at Lepanto, or at Culloden, or Yorktown?