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Aristeia: An aristeia or aristia (/ærᵻˈstiː.ə/; Ancient Greek: ἀριστεία, IPA: [aristěːaː], "excellence") is a scene in the dramatic conventions of epic poetry as in the Iliad, where a hero in battle has his finest moments (aristos = "best").

Also known in contemporary epic (e.g. set piece battles in comic crossovers) as Crowning Moment of Awesome. The relationship seems to go deeper than this, though: the way large comic battles are depicted — the roll calls, the individual combat, the tides and turns — seems, with the obvious changes from an oral to a visual medium, very similar. I think it goes deeper than the straightforward observation that hero is a common term in both, and that metas = (demi)gods; it seems to be a common narrative trait (I'm not familiar with, e.g., Hindu epics, but if I had to bet I'd say that it owes more to the intersection between human cognitive limitations and the synchronous complexity of battles than to an specific cultural tradition).

Anyway, nice to know DC and Marvel do live up to very old traditions (although not even Homer dared have the Greeks do a new siege of troy every year).


Today, in Things That Please Me:

There's a decades-old tradition in Norway of reading crime/detective novels during Easter. It even has the awesome name of påskekrim.

Granted, it's mostly a commercial gimmick. But most near-contemporary traditions are.


Thinking aloud

Has anybody already shot the documentary or wrote the book about how Gog and Magog are actually a reference to the bad hombres south of the Rio Grande, and Trump is a new Alexander/the katechon building a gate to hold them back until everything is quite ready for the big showdown? Or is the prophesy crowd not in the mood for anything that means the End of Days not being around the corner?

By the way, I'm currently reading Heyday, an astounding book about the 1850s with really fascinating characters (Laurence Oliphant: you couldn't make him up if you tried to), almost-events (the British-American War that didn't happen for the slightest of margins, how Russia might not have gotten to the Pacific shore if not for an ignored general that took advantage of the Crimen war to basically walk his way into a huge territory), weird links (how the Victorians fell in love with beards), and structural features I hadn't quite been aware of (the importance of slavery in the US to the economic boom/modernization of the 1850s, the very familiar patterns of speculation during the unprecedented internal migrations in the US, the Caucasus as the Russian Vietnam — making me understand better both the Chechen rebellion and the Russian reaction to it —), etc.


But, from the Wikipedia entry of one highly eminent Dutch-Austrian physician and all-around smartypants Gerard van Swieten:

Especially important is his part in the fight against superstition during the enlightenment, particularly in the case of the vampires, reported from villages in Serbia in the years between 1718 and 1732.

After the last of the wars against the Turks in 1718, some parts of the land, such as Northern Serbia and a part of Bosnia, went to Austria. The parts were settled with refugees with the special status of duty-free farmers. However, they had to take care of the agricultural development and secure the frontiers so reports about vampires reached, for the first time, German-speaking areas.

In 1755 Gerard van Swieten was sent by Empress Maria Theresa to Moravia to investigate the situation relating to vampires. He viewed the vampire myth as a "barbarism of ignorance" and his aim was to eradicate it.

His report, Abhandlung des Daseyns der Gespenster (or Discourse on the Existence of Ghosts), offered an entirely natural explanation for the belief in vampires. He explained the unusual states in the grades, with possible causes such as the processes of fermentation and lack of oxygen being reasons for preventing decomposition. Characteristic for his opinion is this quotation from the preface to his essay of 1768 "that all the fuss doesn't come from anything else than a vain fear, a superstitious credulity, a dark and eventful imagination, simplicity and ignorance among the people." The report made Maria Theresa issue a decree that banned all traditional defenses to vampires being put to the stakes, beheaded and burned.

A cover-up after a vampire eradication campaign, or did the vampires paid/threatened/turned him to write that report and begin their "nah, we're all fictional, what are you, medieval?" campaign? We offer ludicrous and uniformly unrealistic options, you choose between them.

PS: I'm still partial to my idea of Mary Wollstonecraft, Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont, Shelley, and Polidori being an interpersonal-drama-prone crack team of monster hunters. Frankenstein? Leaked mission report hastily relabeled as an unheard-of kind of fiction. The Vampyre? Polidori's exasperated parody of self-proclaimed team leader, absolute diva queen, and, yes, vampire, Lord Byron (before you ask, the way he slept his way through Europe, his chances of being bitten by a female vampire were higher than pretty much anybody else's in the continent). And after the things he saw and did, I don't think anybody should blame Shelley for drinking more laudanum than tea, or for dropping so many hints in his poetry.

The fact that Claire Clairmont is an obviously assumed name only allows me to wildly and irresponsibly speculate about her actual role in the team. A possibility: succubus who had the bad luck of hitting on a vampire (Byron) hence getting herself unprecedentedly pregnant and more than a bit cross, although her expertise became of course useful to the team. Provided they could keep her from going into Byron's room at night and strangling him with his own bedclothes (documented bit: Byron would claim in his letters that she was always trying to seduce him; his teammates could never tell if this was gallows humor or narcissistic self-delusion). From her Wikipedia page, by the way: Clairmont would later say that her relationship with Byron had given her only a few minutes of pleasure, but a lifetime of trouble. I think kids nowadays describe this as a savage and probably factually accurate burn.

All in all, I won't say everybody was happy when Byron was killed during an attempt to use the war in Greece to mask a commando hit on some very old and very above this post's security rating group, but I don't think anybody in what would later be renamed MI9 was particularly devastated. The man had a nice turn of phrase, was handy with a weapon, provided a very nicely public cover to their very non-public activities, and was probably too conceited to understand the concept of his own mortality, let alone feel fear, but what a pain in the ass.


Books! (Slyly Borgesian Edition)

The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization, and Cultural Change, 950-1350 (Robert Bartlett, 2016/#35): Quite a fascinating book. It's easy to imagine the Middle Ages as an static period of time in European history, even when you do your best to keep in mind that it wasn't, quite, but Bartlett shows it at positively bristling with activity: towns are founded (for profit reasons, using standarized legal patterns, as if they were Starbucks), territories settled, frontiers expanded, all looking for land and workers to grow and tax. Yes, scientifically they are almost stalled (and in some social senses they regress; the book shows how racism in its modern form is a mid-to-late Middle Ages development), but it was a period of very active, polyfacetic, enthusiastic development that exported an entire military-economic-social package of techniques and culture from the North of France to pretty much the rest of modern Europe (I hadn't realized, or thought about, the similitudes; there are castles in France and England and Spain, and I had sort of assumed some kind of convergent evolution, when it fact it was very much not). I enjoyed it very much.

The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (Thomas Ligotti), 2016/#36): Ligotti considers consciousness as uncanny, the fountain of horror, and the intrinsic value of existence at least indefensible and more appropriately a monstrous self-delusion. Perhaps not a book one should read while depressed, although it might actually be salutary; it's hard to tell, and an experiment would amount to misconduct in cultural competence.

London Under (Peter Ackroyd, 2016/#37): A collection of sometime interesting data, rather than a comprehensive whole. I don't find him as poetic as he thinks he is, but YMMV.

The Mother Hunt (Rex Stout, 2016/#38): A good Nero Wolfe story.

A Most Dangerous Book (Christopher B. Krebs, 2016/#39): A book on Tacitus' Germania, mostly from the point of view of its effects on later politics and society; it's a good thread to trace the disturbingly long and consistent intellectual and cultural development that was one of the factors leading to Nazi Germany.

Unruly Places (Alastair Bonnett, 2016/#40): A collection of notes on, unsurprisingly, weird places (renamed cities, precisely located islands that turned out not to exist, etc). I didn't enjoy the writing style or the author's musings, but the book doesn't lack interesting tidbits of information.


Good times

I'm spending some time rereading old issues of Byte magazine, courtesy of the Internet Archive. It's triggering a lot of memories, which isn't unreasonable given how much of my time and attention was dedicated to computers. And it's not just the articles (when Windows 95 was still codenamed Chicago, and Win32 address space separation was a big thing), but also the ads. Ads for database systems, my god, all hyperbole, exclamation points, puns, comparison tables, enthusiasm about obscure things. I can distinctly remember knowing, at some point in my life, the pros and cons of different commercial C++ compilers, how SCSI worked, and the details of linking .OBJ files. Ads for PKzip as a product you paid for. The magic of fractal image compression formats.

Now, of course, the industry is infinitely larger and more influential, not just a hobby or a new business tool but rather the atmosphere in which society seems to move, but back then it was, I have to say, it was dorky, people still weren't convinced about it so there was no need to make it fit the "real world," the only billionaire was Bill Gates, who was Evil, you could look at Word and think "oh my god", and you would care about microprocessor architecture just for the sheer fannishness of it.

Just now I read, in a 1994 issue, a short article on this newfangled thing called Linux. Linux, then, was this weirdly free variant of UNIX; nowadays UNIX is mostly the prehistory of Linux. I remember reading that article, being enchanted by the UI screenshot and the idea of a UNIX I could get my hands on, and looking for somewhere in Corrientes where I could somehow get it (this was back when BBS' were still a thing, and "the Internet" was one of a handful of alternatives, most of them commercial). It turned out that the same small place where you could get pirated copies of games as stacks of 5'25 floppies would also sell you Slackware as a stack of 5'25 floppies.

I could say the same about pretty much any period in my life (and isn't that a wonderful thing to be able to say?) but it felt so good to have so much to learn and play with, new things every month in a Cambrian dazzle of useless, endlessly fascinating arcana. Computers were the best toy ever, and they still are.


Interesting: John Dee engaged in a bit of research to justify Elizabeth's claims to the New World.

Amusing: His main argument ended up being that Arthur had conquered it, plus Iceland, Greenland, everything north of Russia, etc.

Fascinating: According to his sources, the North Pole is an inner sea surrounded by a ring of mountains, with a few passes through which strong one-way currents feed into it. On the inner side of that ring there's a number of cities founded or inhabited by the descendants of a group of people Arthur sent there. Apparently, one of their priests visited the court of the King of Norway during the XIIth century.

I started riffing ideas off this, and it got a bit out of hand.Collapse )

Link: John Dee, King Arthur, and the Conquest of the Arctic


Just realized this

You could argue that one of the constants in world history since at least the late 16th century has been the attempts by the Western world to tap into the Chinese market. The Spanish Empire wanted to do that, the Dutch wanted to do that, the British wanted to do that, then there was the Nope era of the communist phase of the Communist Party of China, and now the US wants to do that.

Which makes absolutely perfect sense: it is, and has always been, the largest potential market on the planet.


Time past in time present

The mes or concepts/technologies/institutions Sumerians believed the gods gave to humans as the foundations of civilization is a haunting concept. I'm sure a lot has been changed and added through the multiple layers of translation (we are talking about five thousand years old texts referring to myths that were already two or three thousand years old by then), but still, look how the goddess Inanna described part of what Enki, god of Eridu (if not the oldest city in the world, not much younger than it) gave her as what we might call the building blocks of civilization:

He has given me righteousness. He has given me the plundering of cities. He has given me making lamentations. He has given me rejoicing.

He has given me deceit. He has given me the rebel lands. He has given me kindness. He has given me being on the move. He has given me being sedentary.

He has given me the craft of the carpenter. He has given me the craft of the coppersmith. He has given me the craft of the scribe. He has given me the craft of the smith. He has given me the craft of the leather-worker. He has given me the craft of the fuller. He has given me the craft of the builder. He has given me the craft of the reed-worker.

He has given me wisdom. He has given me attentiveness. He has given me holy purification rites. He has given me the shepherd's hut. He has given me piling up glowing charcoals. He has given me the sheepfold. He has given me respect. He has given me awe. He has given me reverent silence.

He has given me the bitter-toothed (?) ……. He has given me the kindling of fire. He has given me the extinguishing of fire. He has given me hard work. He has given me ……. He has given me the assembled family. He has given me descendants. He has given me strife. He has given me triumph. He has given me counselling.

The list goes on: descent into the netherworld, ascent from the netherworld, sex, prostitution, weapons, the flood, art... I love the concept of me, the list of them, and, very much, the fragment I listed above. Again, it's a translation of a translation of a vague memory mostly made up on the spot, but if we can still be moved by the KJV Bible (and this morning I was thinking about how I walk through the valley of the shadow of death is as perfect a fragment of English as I have ever read), why not enjoy the beauty in this?


From Venice: A Literary Companion

It's an intensely charming book full of the kind of mostly true history that would sound unrealistic most everywhere else.

Here's a letter fragment from Byron, after retelling one of his anecdotes (and actually a tame one):

You need not be alarmed – jealousy is not the order of the day in Venice, and daggers are out of fashion; while duels, on love matters, are unknown — at least, with husbands.

I love those last four words.

By the way, you could teach an entire course or write a very nice book about modern literature just based on that little traveling group of freewheeling debauchery: Percy Shelley, the radical Romantic poet, Lord Byron, who sort of invented (a modern version of) the scandalously hedonistic and stunt-prone international superstar artist, John Polidori, who invented (not the original, but certainly) the modern vampire tale probably just because he was somewhat fed up with said superstar, and nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley, who just said you bunch of amateurs and wrote the seminal science fiction story we're still getting our heads around and kind of using as a to-do list.

There's nothing in this that I don't find both implausible and hilariously inspiring. It makes me feel like going to everybody who thinks literary history is about ponderous Hegelian dialectic developments and tell them "No, no, it was about sex-obsessed superstars, and sardonic doctors, and genius young women, and a volcano had cooled down the planet that year, and then there was this storm, you see. And then the superstar went to lead a guerrilla war and drowned, but that was later."

Seriously, at times I don't know why we bother with alternate history.


cass, can you not

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