Sunday, December 14, 2014

Death Comes for the Archbishop (Willa Cather)

Times have changed so much in the last 150 years that it's hard to fathom.  150 years ago we were fighting the Civil War, and there was a frontier where the living was hard and dangerous, and there was no delicious Willett single barrel 4-year old straight rye whiskey available for bloggers like me to sip on while the desperately try to write something slightly interesting and remotely relevant.  Hard to imagine.  So what did men and women do out on the frontier back in those rugged days if they couldn't fall asleep while trying to read my latest lame blog post?  Well, if you're like the main character of this book, Archbishop Jean Marie Latour, you saved men's souls while doing a lot of horseback/muleback riding.  Yes, it seems that for an archbishop in the old southwest frontier days horseback riding was part of the job description.  An archbishop could drink wine too, apparently, but there was no rye whiskey...or at least none in this novel.  Hard living indeed.

"Death Comes for the Archbishop" is based closely on the life of Jean-Baptiste Lamy, a French Roman Catholic prelate who served as the first archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Lamy was a French priest who got the missionary bug, and came to the US to work in Ohio in 1839.  In 1850, the pope sent him to New Mexico to be a bishop.  He eventually became archbishop, and oversaw the building of the St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe (pictured above), before retiring in 1885 and dying in Santa Fe three years later.  The novel follows Cather's version of Lamy, Jean Marie Latour, as he and his vicar buddy Joseph Vaillant wander around the desert southwest, spreading Catholicism and administering to the whites, the Spanish, the Mexicans, the Native Americans, and everyone else.  They have to contend with snowstorms, windstorms, dust storms, rebellious priests, outlaws, suspicious Native Americans, and the vast loneliness of the desert surroundings.  It's pretty cool actually, the contrast of the spreaders of a very organized European religion lead by an aristocratic French intellectual, with the almost unfathomable vastness of the desert frontier and the myriad of issues and tensions surrounding the coming together of so many cultures...French, Spanish, Native American, mountain men, gold miners, etc.

The novel essentially has no plot.  It is more a collection of anecdotes describing the adventures of the Fathers Latour and Vaillant as they minister across the southwest.  And I use the word "adventures" loosely.  Very loosely.  Sure, there was the time they narrowly escaped being murdered, and rescued their would-be murderer's abused wife.  But most of the stories are much more subtle, describing a clash of cultures that isn't really a clash, just different types of people trying to figure out how to live together.  The book is really almost meditative.  Not all that much happens, yet it's easy to get caught up in the book's subtle rhythm and just go along with it.  Some might call it a slow read, but I think that misses the point.  To me the writing is reminiscent of the southwest itself...calm, vast, inspiring awe.  I'm not a religious man, but I couldn't help admiring the characters' devotions to the people in their diocese.  And while the two main characters are vastly different (Latour is more inward focused and reflective, while Vaillant is a fearless extrovert with a huge personality), they both love each other and the people living in their congregation.

Eventually Latour leads the construction of the cathedral at Santa Fe, while Vaillant is called to minister to an influx of gold miners into Colorado.  The two grow old separately and do not see one another again.  Latour eventually retires. lives for awhile longer just outside of Santa Fe, then becomes ill and dies peacefully.  Which brings me to the book's title.  WTF?  Yes, death came for the archbishop, but not until he had a long, full life.  So why is the title relentlessly focused on his death?  Perhaps the rye whiskey is making me foggy, but I have no idea.  Whatever...this is a good book.  It is very different from My Antonia, but well worth reading to get a flavor of what it was like out on the frontier of this country 150 years ago.  To us it would be like another world, as it was to the archbishop...a world long gone by.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Childhood's End (Arthur C. Clarke)

I started this blog seven years ago.  WTF?!?  I was almost 20 years younger innocent and unknowing of the cold, callous ways of the world.  And now, having read 59 1/3 of the 105 books I originally intended to read, what have I actually learned along the way from this blogging/reading project?  Well, I've learned, relearned actually, just how delicious some alcoholic beverages can be (yes, I'm talking to you, aged rye whiskey).  And I've learned that it takes fucking forever to read 105 books, especially when you're reading them with an addled middle-aged mind.  I've learned that some books quickly fade from memory once they're finished...I'd tell you which one(s) but I can't remember them.  And yet, I've learned that some books not only stay with you after you've read them, but seem to grow in importance long after their covers have been closed.  In particular I'm thinking of Thucydides' "History of the Peloponnesian War".  As readers of this blog may recall (assuming there are readers of this blog, which seems highly unlikely) Thucydides was not the definition of an easy read, and although his book was quite interesting, it was not a page turner.  And yet, I think back onto this book almost daily.  I'm somewhat of a news junkie, and I follow current events and politics fairly closely, and I'm blown away by how the problems of the Greek world of 400BC as described in Thucydides so closely parallel many of the problems faced by our global society today.  The tension between aristocracy and the common people, and the pressures on democracies to become oligarchies, are themes very relevant to society in 2014.  And the rise of demagogues in Athens, and the penchant for such politicians to make decisions that are not in the best interests of the country in the long run, well these seem depressingly similar to the political scene in America today.  History indeed repeats itself.  People are the same as they were 2400 years ago, making the same mistakes and coming to the same dysfunctional ends.  Ugh.  The human race is not evolving, it's just on a stationary treadmill.

But this is not what's going on in Arthur C. Clarke's novel "Childhood's End".  Arthur C. Clarke was a science fiction writer, best known for his book (and the Stanley Kubrick movie based on it) "2001: A Space Odyessey".  "Childhood's End" was an earlier science fiction novel of his, written in 1953.  No, it's not on my list of 105 books for this blog, but I once again veered off the list because I fucking wanted to, and because I haven't read a science fiction novel since maybe the sixth grade.  Plus after a big bite of Plutarch I wanted to read something completely different...a quick read and a page-turner.  Anyway, where was I...oh yeah, this book is all about the evolution of humankind into something higher and better, very similar to the theme of "2001", actually.  And like "2001", aliens are involved.  At the novel's opening, super intelligent aliens in huge spaceships come to Earth.  Their ships hover over all the major cities, and they announce that from now on there will be no more war or violence or unnecessary cruelty towards animals (yay, animals!).  The aliens are unbelievably technologically advanced and don't even need to show themselves, although they eventually agree to after 50 years.  Meanwhile, relieved of all their misery and troubles causes the human race to become, for the most part, relaxed and unmotivated under the new regime of the aliens whom they refer to as "The Overlords".  Why make art or do research when you can just chill out and let The Overlords deal with shit.  So what happens...Are The Overlords good or evil?  How can humans evolve under such circumstances?  Well, I can't really go into much more detail without spoiling it, because there are lots of plot twists and curves.  Some of them are great, while others are kinda meh, but still the fun of this kind of book is having no idea what comes next.  So I will leave you hanging until you read it yourself.

But, barring aliens coming down and hovering over our cities, I fear that Thucydides really nailed the human condition over 2400 years ago.  Times change but human nature does not, as much as we like to think it has.  Maybe someday, but not today.  We're waiting for those aliens, just like they waited for Godot.  Waiting...waiting...

Friday, November 7, 2014

Book #60 (Part 1) - Greek Lives (Plutarch)

Whatever happened to The Classics, anyway?  I have the impression, perhaps based on a combination of wishful thinking and idealization of the pre-antibiotic era, that high school and college students of the 1800s read and studied and were intimately familiar with The Classics, often in their original Greek or Latin, and that the mark of an educated man was having read Homer, Thucydides, Livy, Sophocles, Plato, Plutarch, and the rest of their ilk.  The classics had a cachet, and were thought to contain ancient yet timeless wisdom, that could still benefit those of us born a couple of thousand years later.  So what happened?  When I was in high school we read Homer (The Odyssey), and maybe a play by Sophocles, but that was about it.  The classics were definitely not the core of the curriculum.  Are they anywhere anymore?  And were they really the centerpiece of a good 19th century education, or is that just an idealized fantasy?  I don't know.  What the hell do I know, anyway?  I'm sitting here typing into a computer, sucking down a very strong yet delicious Margarita, made with tequila (Hornitos...mmmm), triple sec, lots of freshly squeezed lime juice, and a splash of orange juice.  Yes, dear reader, if there's one thing in life you get out of this blog, it's not to read the classics or Middlemarch or any other book I've blogged about, but this:  throw in a splash of orange juice when you're making a Margarita at home.  Use the best orange juice you can get, not that cheap frozen, concentrated crap, but real freshly-squeezed, never-frozen stuff, like Odwalla or something, and I guarantee you that your Margarita satisfaction will be upped 1000%.  Trust me.  Then after that, go read Middlemarch and the classics if you want.  Or not.  Whatever.  God, I love Margaritas.

Anyway, where was I?  Oh yeah, The Classics.  I've been on a classics tear lately, having spent some quality time with Thucydides, and I decided to continue with my reading about ancient Greece by reading some of Plutarch's "Lives", specifically a collection of nine of Plutarch's Greek Lives compiled by the Oxford University Press.  Ah, Plutarch...everybody in my idealized 19th century used to read this guy, and who does now?  Well, me at least.  Plutarch, or Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus, was a Greek historian, biographer, essayist, and philosopher, who lived from 46-120 AD.  He was Greek at a time when Greece was part of the Roman empire.  He was born into a wealthy family, and apparently became a leading citizen of his hometown of Chaeronea.  He also became famous as a writer, and wrote a helluva lot of books, only some of which survived down through the millennia.  Perhaps his most famous works, and the ones which I have on my reading list for this blog, is a series of biographies known as the Parallel Lives.  These are biographies of famous Greeks and Romans, which are arranged in pairs to show their common qualities. The surviving Lives contain 23 pairs, each with one Greek Life and one Roman Life, as well as four unpaired single Lives.  The pairs of Lives also have short essays attached to them, comparing the paired Greek and Roman Lives.  My goal for this blog is to read all 50, plus the comparisons, and so I started by reading this collection of nine of Plutarch's Lives of famous Greeks.  The biographies included in this collection are Lycergus, Solon, Themistocles, Cimon, Pericles, Nicias, Alcibiades, Agesilaus, and Alexander the Great.

To start off this discussion of Plutarch, let me just say this it is a tragedy that neither Plutarch, nor any of the nine Greeks whose biographies make up this book, ever got to taste a Margarita.  That is an utter shame, and suggests that perhaps the ancient world was not all it was cracked up to be.  From what I can tell, the ancient Greeks drank mostly wine, and they drank it diluted with water.  Which makes me curious...was ancient Greek wine anything like a modern day Zinfandel from Napa Valley?  Was it delicious and notable and worthy of comparison with any of the wines we drink today?  Or was it real rotgut stuff, which is why they had to dilute it with water?  I don't know.  But wine was important enough to the Greeks for them to have their own god of it, Dionysus.  But how would Dionysus react to a Margarita?  Very favorably, I suspect.  Especially if it contained a splash of freshly-squeezed orange juice.

Anyway, Plutarch...I love this guy! Plutarch, as he himself explains in his Life of Alexander, is not a historian, but is a biographer, and is particularly interested in moral character.  In his biographies he will often skip over major battles and historical events, and instead focus on anecdotes and stories that reveal elements of his subjects' personalities.  He's a philosopher, and is more interested in what makes people's characters than in telling a chronological history of events.  Nonetheless, Plutarch's Lives are invaluable historic resources, since Plutarch had an extensive library which he used to write his biographies, and many or most of the sources he used and cited no longer exist (goddamn passage of time!).  So his Lives are sometimes the only records we have of certain historical events and persons.  But while he had access to many manuscripts lost to history, you and I have access to Margaritas, so perhaps the trade-off is about even.  And Plutarch seems exactly like the kind of guy you'd want to hang out with in your living room while tossing back a few delicious Margaritas and munching on some chips and guacamole.  Not just because the Margarita and the guacamole would have totally blown his mind.  But because his writing is so fun and enchanting.  He's a natural storyteller, and his style is easy and rambling...quite unlike Thucydides whose writing was much more complex and convoluted.  Not that Thucydides wasn't great to read, because he was, but I don't get the impression he'd want to pound back many Margaritas.  But Plutarch, he seems like he'd be game, and would tell you a bunch of cool stories at the same time.

Of course it helps a lot that Plutarch's subjects are so damn interesting to begin with.  Several of the Lives included in this collection were dudes that played prominent roles in Thucydides' "History of the Peloponnesian War".  Like Alcibiades, for instance, possibly my favorite ancient Greek.  This guy was a crazy narcissistic motherfucker, incredibly brilliant and incredibly self-serving, and I can't help but be fascinated by him.  He was incredibly good-looking, according to all the sources (which really says something), and Plutarch hammers it home that he wasn't just good looking when he was young, but that his looks never left him until he died in middle age from a volley of arrows. Many of his misadventures are described by Thucydides (such as his having to flee from Sparta after knocking up the Spartan King's wife...oops) but Plutarch has other sources and goes into more detail about Alcibiades, and also tells of his life after Thucydides' history breaks off, including his death by assassins.  Two other Lives in this particular collection that are also in Thucydides are Pericles, the great Athenian leader at the outset of the Peloponnesian War, and Nicias, the indecisive, waffling general, who commanded the Athenian forces in Sicily, as they suffered complete and utter defeat at the hands of the locals.  Nicias is a portrait in failure...a noble, well-meaning man who just can't take he initiative needed to make victory happen.  Ironically the name "Nicias" is from the Greek "Nike" meaning victory.  Although nowadays it means athletic shoes.

Other Lives in this volume include Lycurgus, Solon, Themistocles, Cimon, Agesilaus, and Alexander the Great.  Lycergus was the man who laid down the law in Sparta.  Sparta, now there's a fascinating place.  Hold on a second and I'll tell you all about it, but first I need to refill my Margarita.  Be right back.  Ahhhhh, much better.  I think it's also the salted rim that really makes the Margarita for me.  I love salt...I'm a salt monster.  It's amazing I'm not in some hypertensive coma right now, actually.  But I digress.  Anyway, those dudes were crazy.  Lycurgus, who may or may not have been a real person, set up many of the Spartan institutions, and in a way Plutarch's biography is more a description of Sparta's unique society than a biography.  Sparta was really a totalitarian military organization disguised as a society.  Per Lycurgus' reforms, all adult males were required to eat in mess halls, where they feasted on some sort of black gruel.  Mmmm.  All children over the age of seven were taken from their parents and sent to the agoge, which were basically military training camps.  They stayed there until they were 17 and could then join the real army.  Spartan society could support all male citizens being in the army because they had a population of slaves, called Helots, who farmed the land and raised food for the Spartans.  Life in Sparta was brutish and militaristic.  When Lycurgus came to power he found that wealth in Sparta was unequally distributed, and so he took everything and distributed it among the population in equal amounts.  Among the Spartan population, that is, not the Helots.  Sorry, Helots.  Let's face it, Sparta was weird, and totally unlike anything else in the ancient Greek world.  And Lycurgus started it all.  According to Plutarch, when Lycergus was done implementing all his reforms, he blew town, making the Spartans take an oath that they must not change his reforms until he returned.  He never returned, and purposefully died on the road, forcing the Spartans to keep to their word indefinitely.  I like his style.  I would definitely make Lycurgus a Margarita.  But he would probably refuse it in favor of a bowl of black gruel.

Then there's Agesilaus, to me one of the more poignant Lives.  Agesilaus was a King of Sparta after the Peloponnesian War, ruling from about 400-360BC.  Agesilaus was partly lame (the FDR of Sparta!) and short in stature, but lead many military campaigns for Sparta.  Unfortunately he suffered some significant defeats, and Sparta went into a long term decline.  His last days were spent as an old man in his 80s fighting as a mercenary in Egypt, and he died on his way home afterwards.  Plutarch's Lives are complex, with good men with noble intentions, like Agesilaus and Nicias, falling to defeat not through vanity or evil character, but through character flaws that in other positions in life wouldn't have mattered, or simply through the circumstances of their situations.  Fuck.  I'd love to give them both Margaritas.

The longest life in this collection was Alexander the Great.  We all sort of know who he was...the Macedonian King, son of Philip II of Macedon, who took Greek forces and smashed through most of the ancient world, conquering his way through the old Persian Empire, that old Greek nemesis, and all the way into India, before his troops rebelled and said "enough".  Alexander is depicted as a complex man, greatly ambitious (duh), fiercely loyal to his friends, but also quick to temper and quick to turn on people on a dime, especially if he'd been drinking.  And he seems to have been drinking a lot.  Many of the more violent anecdotes in his life occurred when he was drunk out of his mind.  Definitely not someone who I would have given a Margarita to.  But hey, the dude conquered the known world.  Then he died of illness at the age of 32.  Wow, way to make me feel insignificant.  I'm way older and no one's ever called me "The Great".  Sigh...where's my Margarita?

Anyway, I'm digging Plutarch, and I highly recommend reading some of his Lives.  They're entertaining, easy to read, and utterly fascinating.  If they were good enough for our great grandparent's generation's education, they're good enough for us!  I have more of his Lives to go...many more...but I think I'll take a break for a bit and read something more modern next.  Um, as soon as I finish this Margarita.  And the one after that.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Carson McCullers)

Normally when I write these posts I try to write them a day or two after I've finished the book.  That way my rapidly aging and booze-addled mind can still remember what the hell it was that I just read.  But alas, this time life intervened in the form of a business trip, so I'm blogging about a book I finished over three weeks ago.  That may seem like a tiny puddle of time to many of you, but to me it's a lifetime.  I mean, I could have died two weeks ago and I probably wouldn't even remember it by now.

Anyway, for those of you who care (i.e. no one) you will have noticed that with this book I strayed off my list of the 105 books I want to read before I die (assuming I haven't died already...see above).  The thing is, after reading Thucydides (which I loved, don't get me wrong) I wanted to venture into a work of fiction that was a little bit of a breezier read, and I've had this classic book on my shelf for years and decided to give it a shot.  I don't know why exactly I didn't include this book on my original list.  After all, the Modern Library put the novel 17th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.  So it must be pretty good, I figured.  Plus the author, Carson McCullers, wrote the book when she was 23, so unlike me her brain was probably still in top working order when she penned it, and not pummeled by years of booze, broads, and whatnot like mine.  Not that I ever got pummeled by broads, except in my dreams.  Sigh.  Still waiting for you to call, Chloe Sevigny.

The book was published in 1940 and takes place during the 1930s, in a small southern town.  Carson herself grew up in Columbus, Georgia, so she knew the South, and the book is pretty much in the Southern Gothic tradition of eccentric, lonely characters in a sleepy town where nothing much happens except for loneliness, detachment, and brooding, until things are punctuated by sudden outbursts of unexpected violence and terror.  Sad, lonely, depressing stuff.  It reminded me somewhat of Flannery O'Conner, whom I read years ago, although the characters in this novel weren't as utterly crazy as some of hers.  But the loneliness and detachment abounds in all the characters.

The focal character of the novel is John Singer, a deaf mute who lives with his fellow deaf mute Spiros Antonapoulous.  Singer dotes on Spiros and puts a lot of effort into their friendship, but Spiros is oblivious, perhaps in part due to the fact that he's mentally ill.  Spiros soon starts to behave in very odd ways and gets committed to an insane asylum.  This leaves Singer lonely and sad.  But soon Singer is befriended by an odd assortment of quirky, lonely characters, including (1) Biff Brannon, the owner of a diner where Singer hangs out, and a man whose wife of many years suddenly dies of cancer, leaving him totally detached and lonely, (2) Jake Blount, a communist labor agitator who's new in town and a raging alcoholic, (3) Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, an idealistic black physician who is totally estranged from his children, mostly because they didn't grow up to become the idealistic, successful role models he had hoped them to be, and (4) Mick Kelly, a tomboyish girl who is obsessed by music and dreams of playing the piano, but whose family is so dirt poor that they'll never be able to afford her a piano or any sort of music lessons.  Mick is the one ray of hope in the lot, because she's young and she's clearly both fascinated by music and has talent for it (we can tell because she seems to have an astounding memory for the classical music she hears on the radio, even though she's never played an instrument).  But in the end, after her family must pay for damages due to an accidental shooting by her brother, she has to drop out of school and go to work as a store clerk, and while there's still some hope for her I suppose, her future looks pretty bleak.  Talent and potential snuffed out by abject poverty at a young age.  Ugh.  And while all these characters are convinced that Singer is their best friend, they really don't know him at all...they assume he's a great and wise person because he doesn't say anything (he is mute, after all), and so they can just see in him what they want to see.  They don't really know him, and they don't know at all about Spiros and how much Singer misses his friend.  Eventually, Singer visits Spiros in the insane asylum only to find that he's died there, and so he kills himself, and all Singer's "friends" are mystified.  Bleak.

God, even writing this review is depressing me.  All these characters are so disconnected and isolated.  Which we can all relate to, because we all go through that, at least at times.  But hopefully for most of us we're not always stranded in a small sleepy town, isolated and lonely and trapped with no one to relate to...stuck in our loneliness like a bear in a steel-jawed trap.  So yes, it's a great well-written book, and well worth reading, but you'd better pray you'll join me in early onset senility to get the lonely memories of this sad tale out of your head.  Sigh...

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Book #59 - History of the Peloponnesian War (Thucydides)

If you're like me, a cranky dude who's getting older and crankier by the minute, you often reflect on the world today and think about how it all totally the government sucks because they're reduced to fighting amongst themselves rather than solving our problems, how the people suck because they keep voting for stupid shit that's not in their own best interests, how the government does stupid shit like get into a preemptive war that's worse than the whatever it is they wanted to know, bullshit sucky stuff like that.  Then sometimes after bumming out from how much it all sucks, maybe you'll be like me and get a glimmer of hope when you think that at least things weren't always this bad, so perhaps some day they won't be so bad once again.  Well, if you want to totally burst that fucking bubble then go read Thucydides and his "History of the Peloponnesian War".  It's an amazing, fascinating, enlightening and totally depressing book because it makes you realize that humanity hasn't changed at all in the last 2400 years, and probably never will because people are still the same stupid fucks they've always been despite now having iPhones and Xboxes.  Goddamn fucking people, WTF?  Can't we all read history, learn from it, and not make the same mistakes over and over again?  Apparently not.  Seriously, this book should be required reading before anyone is allowed to vote.  But it won't be because people are too busy playing with their iPhones and Xboxes to read Thucydides.  Fuck it, I need a drink...bad.

Ahh, better...a Carta Blanca with a slice of lime.  What does that have to do with the Ancient Greeks and the suckiness of humanity?  Nothing.  I just wanted a refreshing Mexican lager and this will suit the bill nicely.

Anyway, just WTF is this Peloponnesian War that this Thucydides dude seems so interested in?  Let me explain.  Avid readers of this blog will recall that two years ago I read Herodotus's Histories.  But since there are no avid readers of this blog, and probably not even readers of any kind, then let me just tell you (the imaginary reader) that two years ago I read Herodotus, who wrote a history of the war fought by the Ancient Greeks against the invading Persian Empire which ended in 479 BC when the Athenians, Spartans, and other Greeks decisively defeated the Persians at the battles of Plataea and Mycale.  So what happened after Herodotus's narrative ends?  Did the Greeks, who had to unite and work together to defeat the mighty invading Persian forces, live happily ever after in peace and harmony because they learned they are stronger working together than fighting against each other?  Well, to get right to the point:  No.  So WTF happened?  It seems that after the Persian wars, the Athenians decided they needed go invent the ancient world equivalent of NATO, which they called the Delian League.  This was a group of Greek city-states, led by Athens, that banded together to defend themselves against the Persian threat in case they ever tried to pull that whole invasion stunt again.  Athens collected money and/or ships from the league members to make a huge navy to patrol the Aegean Sea and make sure everything stayed cool.  But pretty soon it became clear that Athens was using this navy for their own purposes, and becoming the total mob boss of the Delian League, and the soon the Delian League simply turned into an Athenian Empire with Athens collecting tribute from all the members.  This was too much for Sparta and some of her friends, so they split off into their own alliance called the Peloponnesian League.  But Athens still kept gaining more and more power, and their economy boomed, which freaked the Spartans out more and more.  So eventually the Spartans said "Fuck it, we can't take this Athenian bullshit anymore, they're becoming too powerful and freaking us out and their navy is like some kind of WMD so let's just have a war and finish them off and get rid of this threat.  Freedom for the Greeks, WOOOOO!!".  The war that broke out as a result, the Peloponnesian War, lasted a long and bloody 27 years (431-404BC).  Fortunately Thucydides was there to take notes and write a history of the war so that we could all never forget its harsh lessons and never repeat the same terrible mistakes, which of course people ended up doing anyway because who wants to take the time to sit down and read Thucydides except for some cranky old dude who's sipping on a pleasantly bland Mexican beer with a slice of lime?

This book is pretty damn amazing.  Thucydides' history is incredibly detailed.  He even gives entire speeches by some of the major politicians and generals, although it's pretty clear that some of these are just Thucydides making up what he thought they would have said, rather than actual transcripts of the speeches.  Because of the detail, the reading can sometimes be fairly dry.  This is definitely not a quick read.  But just when you're about to give up, Thucydides will recount some episode that is just so vividly and poignantly described that you'll be blown away and ready to continue to pour through more dry details just to find the next part that will draw you in.  This war was a tragedy, and resulted in the destruction of the Athenian Empire, which despite its faults gave us great masterpieces of architecture and literature and philosophy.  As the war went on and on, the violence and barbarism steadily increased, and in the end nothing was really resolved.  Greed and the lust for power and the darkest depths of humanity are on full display.  It's a sad book made even more sadder because, as I said, nothing has really changed.

On an unrelated note, before I go any farther I want to make a comment on the edition I read.  I used the Landmark Thucydides, and it's brilliant:

It's hard for me to imagine not reading this edition.  Thucydides is constantly mentioning names of towns and islands and places where battles are fought, and this edition has maps on every few pages that show where all the places are which are mentioned in the text. So unless you already know where Corcyra and Samos and Miletus are located you will struggle mightily without this edition.  Explanatory notes and summaries of each paragraph are also given, and the year of the events discussed on each page are given at the top of the page, since this gets pretty confusing very fast.  If I had tried to read an unannotated edition I never would have made it.  If you're going to make a go of Thucydides, this is the edition to go to.

Anyway, back to the war.  At the beginning of his book, Thucydides says he started writing his history of the war as soon as it broke out, "believing that it would be a great war, and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it...Indeed this was the greatest movement yet known in history".  The Spartan king Archidamus predicted at the war's beginning that the Spartans would leave the war to their sons, and he was not wrong.

When the war broke out against Sparta and her allies, Athens was a democracy lead by the statesman Pericles.  Pericles' strategy for winning the war was to not fight the Spartans on land, since they had the best, most whacked-out army ever.  Basically Spartan boys were taken from their homes at a very young age and raised in military camps, making them the most feared, most well-trained soldiers ever.  But when the war started Sparta didn't have a navy, while Athens had the most awesome navy the world had known, due to all the money and ships from the Delian League.  So Pericles pulled everyone in the countryside around Athens into the city, and built walls sheltering the port.  Athens could thus send her navy out to sail around and attack Spartan interests, and receive food through its port, while never having to send out much in the way of land forces.  Meanwhile the Spartans could ravage the countryside around Athens, burning property and crops as they saw fit, but they could never get into Athens itself or harm its citizens who were now safely behind the walls surrounding the city.  Pericles' plan was that Athens could basically ride out the war until Sparta exhausted itself.  Well, this might have worked if it weren't for one pesky thing that no one in 430 BC could have imagined, namely that by cramming the city full of refugees from the countryside Athens became dangerously overcrowded, and due to the crowded, unsanitary conditions a plague broke out.  A bad plague, in fact....real bad.  About 25% of the city residents died.  The epidemic broke in early May 430 BC, with subsequent waves in the summer of 428 BC and in the winter of 427-426 BC, and thus lasted 4.5 to 5 years. Pericles was killed by the plague, and Thucydides himself got the disease but fortunately recovered.  Thucydides describes the plague and its symptoms in great and horrific detail, with symptoms like unbearable pain, pustular rash, high fever, and diarrhea.  Not fun at all.  To this day, scientists debate what the plague actually was, as the symptoms don't quite fit with any disease extant today.  Theories range from typhus to smallpox to Ebola to Bubonic Plague to a combination of two or more diseases, but nothing seems to quite fit.  Perhaps it was a virus or bacteria that's gone extinct or mutated from what it once was so that the symptoms are now different.  Whatever it was, it was highly contagious and it laid waste to the city.  This is not good at any time, but especially when trying to fight a war.

Eventually the plague burned itself out, and the war dragged on.  With Pericles dead of plague, other leaders and demagogues took over the democratic assembly.  It's pretty clear that Thucydides really admired and respected Pericles, and did not at all like the new leaders that came up, in particular one named Cleon.  That was perhaps personal, though.  Thucydides, being a member of the aristocracy, became a general for Athens in 424 BC and was sent to lead a fleet to Amphipolis, which was under Spartan attack.  Unfortunately by the time he got there the city had already surrendered to the Spartans.  The Athenians, lead by Cleon, blamed Thucydides for the loss of Amphipolis, even though it wasn't his fault, and sent him into exile for 20 years.  Poor Thucydides.  So while this pissed him off no doubt, and made him hate Cleon, in the long run it was good for us, because being in exile allowed him to travel all around Greece (including to Sparta and her allies) and research his history of the war as it happened.  Sometimes it's good to have the benefit of 2400 year hindsight.

Meanwhile the war dragged on, year after year.  Thucydides describes the battles and the politics in great detail.  Remember, it wasn't just Athens vs. Sparta, but 1/2 the Greek world vs. the other half, so there's lots of intrigue and double-dealing and whatnot.  Sparta tried to turn Athenian allies against Athens, and Athens tried the same with Sparta's allies.  The war was fought all over Greece, since there was basically a stalemate around Athens and Sparta.  Finally Athens scored a big win in 425 BC when they took a bunch of Spartan soldiers captive and seized the island of Pylos, off the coast of the Peloponnesus.  This was one of the great stories told by Thucydides.  The Athenian general Nicias had tried to capture Pylos, but after a long seige he just couldn't do it, and he came back to the democratic assembly in Athens and tried to rationalize why he couldn't succeed.  Cleon, who was leading the assembly at the time, and who was an enemy of Nicias, berated Nicias before the assembly, and in response Nicias said that if Cleon thought he could do a better job then maybe he should just shut up and go capture Pylos himself.  Cleon replied that not only could he do it, but boasted that he could capture the island in 20 days.  Game on! So Cleon takes along another general named Demosthenes, some additional troops, and sails to Pylos, where he indeed captures the island and takes the Spartans prisoner within 20 days.  Basically they just set fire to the island and mopped up the Spartan soldiers as they fled from the flames.

Three years later, Cleon and a major Spartan general named Brasidas were killed in a battle.  The death of these two major figures afforded Nicias the opportunity to set up a peace between Athens and Sparta in 421 BC. And then the war ended, and everyone lived happily ever after, right?  Well, no.  It was a tense peace, and then the Athenians decided to do something really completely stupid.  According to Thucydides, making stupid decisions was one of the hallmarks of Athenian democracy, where all citizens voted on all issues pertaining to the war.  Thucydides would probably have preferred an oligarchy, and to some extent he may have had a point especially in allowing every citizen to vote on every issue, demagogues could arise who used emotions and rhetoric to influence the democratic assembly into making decisions that best served the interests of the demagogues but not the citizens as a whole.  In this instance, what happened was that a new face appeared on the scene in Athens:  the gorgeous, wealthy playboy Alcibiades.  Alcibiades has to be one of the most fascinating characters in ancient Greek history.  According to Thucydides, and other sources as well, he was remarkably hot.  Now think about it, if everyone who's writing the history of an era takes the time to go on and on about how spectacularly good looking one particular dude was, then he was probably pretty damn hot indeed.  And not only that but he was really, really rich too.  Young, ambitious, hot, and rich...always an interesting combo.  Also apparently a man with no real principles who had no problem eventually double-crossing Athens, Sparta, AND the Persian Empire as well, but that just made him all the more interesting.  Anyway, Alcibiades comes on the scene and wants military glory, but realizes that with a peace, there's no chance for that.  So he and others convince the assembly that Athens really needs to invade Sicily and capture the city of Syracuse, who is allied with Sparta.  Sicily is wealthy, so glory and fortune awaits!  Thucydides points out that members of the assembly really had no concept about exactly where Sicily was or how large it was (way bigger than many knew), but no matter, they voted to send an expedition to capture the island which would be led by Nicias and Alcibiades, among others.  Nicias, who really is not into this idea, says to the assembly that they should not do this, that in order to be successful Athens would need to send a far bigger fleet.  Nicias thinks this will discourage the assembly, but instead the assembly votes to send a bigger fleet.  So that's that.  Of course the fleet they're sending is so big that if the expedition is defeated, then Athens will be screwed because the fleet and manpower needed to protect their empire against Sparta would be crippled.  Nonetheless, in 415 BC the Sicilian expedition is launched.  WOOO, let's crush Sicily!!

Well, the Sicilian expedition does not go well from the start.  First, on the eve of the fleet taking off, religious icons across Athens are vandalized, and the political enemies of Alcibiades pin the rap on him, even though he apparently was not involved.  Alcibiades sails with the fleet anyway, but is soon recalled to Athens to face trial, where he would almost certainly be found guilty because his enemies are now in power.  So what does he do?  He escapes and flees to Sparta, where he then starts advising the Spartan king!  Meanwhile the Athenian fleet reaches Sicily, and they eventually get bogged down in a siege of Syracuse.  Nicias makes some really bad mistakes (he doesn't come across as a very good general in Thucydides) and finally sends word to Athens that the expedition is in trouble and maybe they should all just come home.  So what does the ever unwise democratic assembly in Athens do?  They double down once again and send a whole new fleet under the general Demosthenes.  When Demosthenes arrives, he sees that the situation for the Athenian forces is bad, and decides to risk everything on a daring nighttime battle against the Syracusian forces.  Unfortunately, there were no night vision goggles available at the time, and the Athenian forces lose the battle.  Nicias and Demosthenes then say "fuck it" and decide it's time to get the hell out of there and go home.  It's at that point that astronomy intervenes: there's a lunar eclipse!!  Oh no!!  Nicias is a very superstitious and pious man, and he decides this is a sign from the Gods that they shouldn't set sail for a few weeks.  I don't know who his soothsayers were, but that was a really bad move.  As they wait to leave, the Syracusians block the exit from the harbor, trapping the Athenian fleet.  When the Athenians finally decide to leave, they can't break through, and the Athenians are forced to ditch their ships and march overland to escape the Syracuse and Spartan forces.  The account by Thucydides describing the fleeing of the Athenian forces is truly harrowing.  40,000 Athenian soldiers flee, leaving their dead and wounded as they fall (which was an anathema to the Greeks, since all soldiers must be buried in order to reach the underworld after death).  Demosthenes is soon captured along with 6,000 Athenian soldiers, while the rest flee with Nicias to the Assinarus River.  The men rush into the river because they are dying of thirst (apparently it's hot and dry in Sicily).  As they wade into the river to flee the enemy, and to greedily drink the water, many are trampled, many drown becoming entangled in their equipment, and many are killed by Syracusian and Spartan arrows.  Thucydides writes "The Peloponnesians also came down and butchered [the Athenians], especially those in the water, which was thus immediately spoiled, but which they went on drinking just the same, mud and all, bloody as it was, most even fighting to have it".  Those that weren't killed are captured along with Nicias.  Nicias and Demosthenes are immediately executed by the Syracusians, and the rest of the prisoners are held in stone quarries, where exposed to the elements they slowly die of exposure, hunger, and least those who aren't sold into slavery.  The Sicilian expedition is over and Athens has suffered a total defeat.  As Thucydides writes, "They (the Athenians) were beaten at all points and altogether; all that they suffered was great; they were destroyed, as the saying is, with a total destruction, their fleet, their army - everything was destroyed, and few out of many returned home.  Such were the events in Sicily."  Thucydides' account of the Sicilian expedition was for me the high point of the book - vivid, poignant, thrilling, and horrifying.

The rest of the book is somewhat of a denouement.  Following the defeat of the Sicilian expedition in 413 BC, Athens (1) freaks out and (2) somehow miraculously fights on for another 9 years.  For awhile things look really bad as Sparta besieges Athens even more, and some of Athens "allies" rebel against the empire.  The actions shifts to the shores of Ionia (what is now Turkey) where Athens tries to put down rebellions and Sparta tries to incite them.  The Spartans enlist the help of a couple of two governors within the Persian Empire, who have great wealth and could (and eventually do) turn the tide of war in favor of the Peloponnesians.  Meanwhile Athens rebuilds her fleet, or at least part of it, and Alcibiades returns to the scene.  It seems that while in Sparta he had an affair with King Agis's wife and got her knocked up.  When the king found out, Alcibiades wisely decided that his days in Sparta were over and he flees, this time to the court of Tissaphernes, one of the Persian governors.  He then tries to work himself back into the good graces of the Athenians by promising them he can get aid from Persia.  Meanwhile there's a coup in Athens and the democracy is overthrown by an oligarchy of 400 men.  Then the oligarchy is overthrown and democracy is back, although now limited to 5000 people rather than all the citizens.  Alcibiades sees this as a chance to maybe get back to Athens.  The Athenians look like they might make a comeback!  And then...nothing.  Thucydides' narrative breaks off in mid-sentence, while describing the events in the year 411.  Why?  What happened?  We know that Thucydides lived past the end of the war in 404 BC, because he refers in the text to Athens losing the war.  But apparently he died before finishing his history.  It's not simply that the rest of his history was written and then lost, because other historians in antiquity, notably the Greek historian Xenophon, wrote histories of the end of the war, taking up precisely where Thucydides' account breaks off.  This is too bad, because Thucydides was awesome, and the other historians, while narrating the subsequent events, do not analyze the events as deeply as Thucydides.  Bummer.

Anyway, just so you won't stay forever in suspense, I'll tell you what happened:  Athens makes a partial military comeback, Alcibiades regains then falls out of power, and the Spartan general Lysander totally defeats the Athenian fleet in 404 BC.  Athens is then powerless, and surrenders to Sparta, thus ending the Peloponnesian War.  Sparta becomes ruler of Greece, but they can't keep a lid on it, and after awhile Athens regains some of her empire.  Eventually Phillip II of Macedon conquers all of Greece in 338 BC, and his son, Alexander the Great conquers the Persian Empire and a bunch of other stuff as well.  By this time the city-state as a unit of government is gone, and eventually the Roman Empire takes over everything.  But that's a whole different story.  Several stories, actually.

As I was reading Thucydides, I also read Donald Kagan's book "The Peloponnesian War" at the same time.  Kagan is a scholar of Greek history and of Thucydides, and his account both summarizes Thucydides and, perhaps more importantly for me, gives an analysis of Thucydides; specifically an analysis of the events he describes, and what other ancient writers wrote about the war.  Kagan's book greatly enriched my understanding of just what the hell Thucydides was talking about at certain points, and made a great companion to Thucydides book.  Plus he tells what happens after Thucydides' history breaks off.

Thucydides was a tough slog at times, and it's certainly not a book a reader would blow through in two days while laying in the sun at the beach, but it also may be one of the more remarkable books I've ever read.  The events Thucydides describes from 2400 years ago, and the lessons he imparts about human behavior, both at an individual and government level, are as true and vivid today as they were back then.  Thucydides comes across as rather world weary, and it's no wonder, because he lived through such terrible and trying times, and not unlike ours in so many ways.  I wish this book were far more widely read today, because we could all learn from it.  History really does repeat itself, or at least human behavior does.  And speaking of which, it's time for me to have another drink.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Book #58 - Seven Pillars of Wisdom (T.E. Lawrence)

There are lots of things in the world today that did not exist 100 years ago…smart phones, cat videos, Justin Bieber fans.  But for all these modern marvels, there are things they had in 1914 that we don’t have anymore…things like the Ottoman Empire, and badasses like T.E. Lawrence, a British dude who donned Arab clothing and helped guide Arab armies to kick the Turks out of the Middle East during World War I.  I just finished his book “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, in which he recounts his numerous adventures in the desert, riding camels, blowing up bridges and trains, shooting at people, getting shot at by Turks, and advising an army of Arab rebels intent on pushing the Turks out and forming their own Arab state.  Goddamn Turks and their Ottoman Empire!  Get off my lawn!

But first a word of warning:  since Arabs are Muslim, and alcohol is forbidden under the Muslim religion, I am writing this review completely sober…a distinct challenge for me, and perhaps for the first time in this whole sordid sorry excuse for a blog.  I’m not sure if the results will be less typos, and more well-reasoned arguments, or just more boring and banal comments that anyone could make without the thought-inducing power of fine American whiskey.  You be the judge.  Dammit, I need a drink.

So I started reading this book thinking it would be awesome and exciting and hella fast-paced, since I saw the great David Lean movie “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), starring Peter O’Toole as Lawrence (a controversial casting by the way, since Lawrence was a little short guy of 5’4” and O’Toole was well over 6’ tall).  But I was wrong.  The book starts out slow, and contains a riot of weird Arabic place names and a plethora of Arab men with confusing names (which reminded me of “Anna Karenina” and how long it took to sort out those long Russian names in that book), some of whom appear once and then are never heard from again in the book, which makes it hard to keep track of everything, whether you’re drinking whiskey or not.  Plus, I opened the book already knowing that Lawrence was in the Middle East during World War I, working to rally the Arabs to fight the Turks, whose Ottoman Empire was allied with Germany, but I didn’t know much more than that.  Who was Lawrence, and how did this smart, well-educated English badass learn Arabic and know how to ride a camel?  As I read through the initial chapters I realized that not knowing any more background than that was hindering my enjoyment of the book, and as a result, I would read a page or two and then my mind would wander and start to muse about how much more delicious a good American single-barrel bourbon is compared to Scotch whiskey, and just what was the appeal of Justin Bieber anyway, and maybe I need to take a break from reading and go watch that episode of “The Walking Dead” that’s on my DVR.  In other words, it wasn’t going well.

To remedy this, I put aside “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” and picked up another book called “Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East” by Scott Anderson.  This book came out last year (2013) and gives a history of Lawrence and the Middle East in the years running up to and including World War I.  It was invaluable.  While it delayed my reading of Lawrence’s book, it vastly enriched what I got out of it, since I could learn the story behind Lawrence’s story.  The book is very well written, in a fun and accessible style, and weaves a fascinating tale. It gave me the background I needed to appreciate Lawrence’s book.  And it had maps!  How the hell else would I know where Deraa and Hejaz and Akaba and Aleppo are?  I was definitely not in Kansas any more.  I also learned that Lawrence isn’t so straightforward in many parts of his own book – he leaves things out, and glosses over other things, and often doesn’t give the full story – and this book filled me in.  It made me realize he’s a much more complicated man than the one you’d imagine him to be from just reading “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” alone.

What’s not in “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” is that T.E. Lawrence started out as an archaeology student from Oxford who studied Middle Eastern medieval warfare, traveled extensively in the Middle East, and went on archaeological digs in Syria and Egypt.  When World War I broke out he was the perfect person for Britain to use as a Middle East intelligence expert.  He knew the area, he knew the history, he knew the people, he spoke Arabic, and most importantly he knew how to ride a camel.  When “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” opens, he is sent by British intelligence to organize a revolt of the Arab peoples against the Turks, who controlled the Middle East as part of their Ottoman Empire.  As I said before, the Ottoman Empire was allied with Germany during the war, and were considered a weak link in the alliance, so Britain wanted to try to take them out.  But since Britain was preoccupied with sending an entire generation of young men to die miserably in the trenches in Europe, they wanted the Arabs to do some of the heavy lifting against the Turks.  So they sent out Lawrence to help move things along.  Lawrence hangs out with the Arabs, seeking someone with the talent and charisma and power to lead such a revolt, and finally settles on the Arabian sheik Faisal bin Hussein bin Ali al-Hashimi, son of Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca.  Together the two of them work to put together a coalition of Arab forces, which is no easy task because the Arabians consist of a bunch of tribes, many nomadic, and who seem to have all fought with one another.  I was reminded of Herodotus’s description of the coalition of Greek city states that had to unite together to defeat the Persians, instead of fighting among themselves as they were used to doing (and to which they resumed after the Persians were defeated).  Not only that but Lawrence has to coordinate the Arabs with the English as well.  While England did not send troops, until near the end of the war, they did send supplies to help Lawrence and the Arabs.

Times were so very different then, and Lawrence brings this home in his writing.  For much of the war he rode around with the Arabs on camels.  It was indeed like medieval warfare, except with machine guns and explosives.  Lawrence’s writing really describes the day-to-day life of what it was like to fight what we would call today a guerilla war.  Strike forces of Arabs rode out to blow up railroad tracks, bridges, and trains that carried Turkish troops and supplies.  Sometimes this went well, sometimes it didn’t.  Lawrence gets shot and injured a number of times, but fortunately never severely.  Lawrence describes all of this in beautiful, often wonderful writing.  He’s very descriptive, very literate, very poetic.  Yet sometimes, often in fact, he goes on a little too long describing the desert landscapes, and the details of riding from here to there (I think he was almost constantly riding around on a camel for four years).  This makes it a beautiful but flawed book…he could have used an editor to help tighten it up, I think.  Yet it’s a fascinating look at a way of life, and a way of warfare, that have vanished.  Towards the end of the book, the Turkish and English forces start to use airplanes to drop bombs or to do reconnaissance, and Lawrence starts to get the use of armored Rolls Royces to tool around the desert in (note: I want one), so things do get a little more modern.

There are many fascinating episodes.  One, which was famously depicted in the movie (although that depiction differs in many ways from what actually happened), was that Lawrence plans a mission to capture Akaba, a small port city of great strategic importance (now part of Jordan).  The obvious way to try to take Akaba would be from the sea, but Lawrence attacks it from the land side, which is unexpected because it’s so remote.  Lawrence’s successful capture of Akaba is considered one of the great strategic triumphs of World War I, and allowed the English bring in supplies for the Arab forces from Egypt, and also prevented the Turks from threatening the Suez Canal.  In another episode, this one brutal and disturbing, Lawrence goes undercover into the town of Deraa, to scout out the railroad station, which they want to capture or blow up.  Lawrence is taken prisoner by the Turks, and subsequently raped and tortured by the Turkish governor there.  He escapes, but he clearly was damaged by this incident.  From reading about his behavior later in life, it sounds like he had PTSD, and it wouldn’t be surprising if this incident helped engender that (being shot at and wounded a number of times probably didn’t help either).  There are also descriptions of the brutal behavior by the Turks, and how Lawrence and the Arabs became more brutal in their own behavior towards the Turk soldiers as a response to this.    While sometimes it seems like Lawrence leaves graphic details out that might have been included if this book were written today, he also includes details that are shocking to the modern reader, and were probably more shocking when the book came out 90 years ago.

One thing that Lawrence glosses over to a large extent, or tends to mention but only tangentially, is that during the war the British made a deal with the French known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement.  This agreement said that if the allies won the war, the French would get to control Syria.  Lawrence had been able to rally the Arabs to work with the British by promising them that they would get to control Syria as an Arab homeland after the war.  At some point during the war, Lawrence finds out about the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and realizes the British are lying to the Arabs.  In other words, everything he has promised them, and everything they are fighting for, is a lie.  This understandably tortures Lawrence’s conscience.  He does tell Feisal about the agreement (which was probably a treasonous act) so Faisal knows about it, and they continue to fight, hoping that things will work out.  But of course they don’t.  Eventually the Arabs under Faisal and Lawrence capture Damascus, and the Turks leave Syria.  The British forces then enter Damascus and inform Faisal that they are giving Syria to the French, and that the Arabs won’t have control.  At this point Lawrence is so disgusted that he asks the head British general to dismiss him, and he does.  It is here that “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” ends.

Lawrence returns to England broken and discouraged.  He becomes famous for his exploits, which he doesn’t feel comfortable with.  He goes on to serve under assumed names and at lowly ranks (by choice) in the British air force and tank force.  It’s like he wants to hide from his fame and escape into a dull routine military life.  He published “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, and went on to write another book “The Mint” about his experiences and day-to-day life in the air force.  Eventually his true identity is uncovered and he is forced to leave the military.  He retired to the countryside, where shortly afterwards (in 1935) he is killed in a motorcycle accident at the age of 46.  His later years were clearly unhappy and troubled…a man who was seemingly broken by his experiences of the Great War.

Lawrence was a charismatic and brilliant figure, and “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” was fascinating to read.  But if you want to tackle this book, I strongly recommend Scott Anderson’s book as an introduction.  As I said, if I hadn’t read that alongside Lawrence’s book, I wouldn’t have really known what was going on, and what the significance was.  But this history shouldn’t be forgotten like so many things from 100 years ago have been.  The Middle East has changed a lot since Lawrence’s time, and is still screwed up in many ways, and this book tells some of the history of where it was and how it got where it is today.  That’s another thing we had 100 years ago that is still around today…the ability of the great powers to screw up the Middle East, despite their intentions, and despite the presence of smart, fascinating badass dudes like T.E. Lawrence.