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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.

A funny quote, and a terrifying one

From The Royal Hunt in Eurasian History, on the training of cheetahs for hunting. After finding the prey, they unleash the cheetah (very funny fact: the cheetah rode on the same horse as his handler, sitting on the back) and set their

head toward the Prey; if he sees it, he gives a shriek, leaps down, falls on the Beast, and pulls it down; if he missed it he is commonly discouraged, and stops; the Master goes to him, comforts him, makes much of him, and tells him it is not his Fault, and that he had not been set directly before the Beast. They say he [the cat] understands that Excuse, and is satisfied with it.

Anybody who ever owned a cat will recognize the situation.

And from Eliot's The Dry Salvages:

The bone's prayer to Death its God. Only the hardly, barely prayable
Prayer of the one Annunciation.

As usual, Eliot's theology is terrifying (and insane for any self-professed Catholic). Death its God is bleak in a relatively naive way, but Prayer of the one Annunciation in that context is starkly existentialist, even and more so because it's not secular.

The more I reread Four Quartets, the more interesting I find it.


Pastoral nomadism as a lifeway was (and still is) a flexible strategy enabled by co-community with herd animals and the cultural embedding of mobility (Honeychurch and Amartuvshin 2007; Frachetti 2008). These adaptations created social and productive expertise in socio-spatial dynamics and movement that included ways of binding together and maintaining human communities in the face of geographic dispersal. I argue that this capacity gave a unique spatial and temporal foundation for social relationships among Inner Asian nomads, and as a result, we should expect that politics and statehood assumed quite different configurations from those of sedentary and agricultural peoples. (Inner Asia and the Spatial Politics of Empire)

That's a fascinating concept: social technologies that aren't just sedentary social ties stretched over long distances, but rather purpose-built, so to speak, with distance in mind.

The physical destruction is conceptualized in the City Laments as an expression of the destruction of the mythological infrastructure of the city’s existence. Thus, what are actually being destroyed are the city’s ‘plans’ (ĝišhur), ‘rituals’ (ĝarza), and ‘rational judgment’ (umuš, ĝalga, or dim). Above all, the city loses its me, the divine essence that is the basis of its cultural, social, and religious institutions and enables its existence. (The Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur)

I can't overstate how gleeful that makes me. Not the destruction of Ur, I hasten to say (I got nothing against them), but the idea that (at least priestly) Sumerians thought of the physical end of a city as first taking place in the realm of mythology and ideas. Destroy its plans (as in blueprints? gods, what a concept), its rituals, and its rational judgement (John Boyd would approve), and then the walls will fall. It's an idea of sheer beauty, and you an see it echoing (or echoes sharing a same root) all through history.


[...] and I tell you it is an inspiriting thing to be alive and trying to write English.

From Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's On the Art of Writing

I love the word choices here, particularly trying. It's always a tussle, sometimes playful, sometimes, it feels, to the death. Quoth Eliot,

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

I think I've quoted those lines before; they get me every time I reread them.


Relevant to Doc Savage fans:

Officials forbid inmates from sending mail or calling each other. They can use pay phones, but officials often monitor and record these conversations. Many gang members learn obscure languages to obfuscate their discussions, such as the ancient Aztec language Nahuatl.

(Alright, it's Nahuatl instead of Mayan, but the principle remains.)

A quote that works at many levels.

This is the theological mystery of perfect prose.

Gershom Scholem, discussing Kafka in a letter to Walter Benjamin. (My second-hand translation.)


You've got to be kidding me

One of the stories in Daredevil 1.50 (the 50th anniversary issue) shows Matt and Foggy watching an old video of Matt pretending to be his non-existing twin brother Mike, which very publicly admitted to being Daredevil. This was par for the course for Matt's rather bizarre approach to secret identity management (swear, between this and his "I'm not Daredevil" t-shirt...).

Now, near the end of the story, "Mike" gives a few hints of wisdom. Let me quote two:

  • Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot! Dress accordingly!

  • No matter how bad things get, Spider-Man's life is always worse! Always!


Such a shift in connotations of the razor will allow me to nudge the notion of “ontology” away from its excessively grandiose pedigree. Even though “ontology” has been defined as the science of “Being as Being” (and here you may want to overhear the loud organs of German philosophical requiem played at full volume), I take it as a relational and highly practical term. Ontology is what you engage whenever you wish not to shock those you are encountering by granting the wrong type of reality to the agencies that keep them moving. In that sense, ontology is close to a form of diplomacy. (Bruno Latour)


An optimistic quote

Love and terror are the true realities. (Thomas Ligotti)

(And what's love, a tiny voice tells me, if not utterly terrifying?)


I think this summarizes the book pretty well

Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-5


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