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.