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Yo, Claudio

I, ClaudiusI, Claudius by Robert Graves

My Rating★★★★★

The review I really have in mind will be attempted for this book only after I finish reading Claudius the God (to quench the burning curiosity of how this ‘Clau-Clau-Claudius’, a man, who in the first shock of being made emperor had this outrageous thought come rushing to his mind – “So, I’m Emperor, am I? What nonsense! But at least I’ll be able to make people read my books now.”, will conduct himself as a God-Emperor), The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic, so that I can apply the same criteria for reviewing any work of history, as suggested by Claudius (original source for much of Pliny’s work) himself, through Livius and Pollio (all works unfortunately lost).

Meanwhile, have a short and enjoyable snapshot sampling of the book by going through the-easy-to-follow family tree given below. Ah, the tales that can be told while tracing those lines…

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Posted by on September 7, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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The Greatest Story Ever Told

One day, next to the wine dark sea,
…….I awoke and I realized —
…………..I had dreamt The Greatest Story Ever Told.
How excited was I, how thrilled the world,
…….How restless the morning and how anxious the winds:
…………..Every bird called to me, every cloud stopped to watch,
…………………Every ear of nature tuned in silent concentration.
I woke and I stretched, all luxurious, at ease,
…….What is the hurry now, the greatest work is done.
I sat down gently, next to the smoothest boulder on shore,
…….As the wine dark sea held its breath, and stilled its roar,
…………..I looked at the dust covering the stone,
…………………and the breeze cleaned it away, hurriedly;
…………..I got ready to write,
…………………and the birds brought a scroll, double-quick;
…………..I opened my hands,
…………………and a pen appeared, nature’s rules no longer patient —
For The Greatest Story Ever Told
…….Was about to be told.

 
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Posted by on July 20, 2012 in Books, Creative, Philosophy, Poetry, Thoughts

 

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Sisyphus Speaks

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Tired of your unceasing pity,

Of your allusions to hubris well rewarded,

Tired of being the symbol for absurdity,

And the one first invoked at failure,

Sisyphus speaks out now aloud:

I ask you — what of yourself?

The absurd hero is seen in you, not me!

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Doomed to eternal failure I might be,

But blessed am I in every way,

When I stand next to you,

You common man of today:

Blundering though your life,

Never knowing a goal or a path,

How can you know that taste –

The sweet taste of success, when

You are not even blessed enough,

To know the strong spice of failure!


So stop your pitying glances,

And envy me, you foolish rats:

Symbol for failure I might assuredly be,

But at the least I know what my success is.

Have you seen its form this life,

Or even conceived dimly of the thought?

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— For I see my goal everyday so clear,

And feel the exhalation of glory near,

I taste the spice of failure everyday;

And I live so I can fail and fail,

And try again the very next day,

Doomed to fail yet untiring, questing,

What greater success there be ever?

To strive in sweat to that distant goal,

And come tumbling down in grand despair!

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Yes I would choose this lot of mine,

Over your blind and stumbling life,

With no grand goal, no glimpse of glory,

Just a sodden tramp in them marshes;

Rolling your stone on in the pointless plains,

Straining for nothing, attaining nothing,

And pitying me, for you dare risk nothing!

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Sisyphus speaks out now aloud:

Come join me if you care to live a little –

Take that rock and start the impossible (Sisyphean?) quest!

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Posted by on July 16, 2012 in Creative, Philosophy, Poetry, Puzzles, Thoughts

 

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An Evening In Paris

 

These thoughts are yours, O Paris,

You who still stays so far away;

Every dream as it arises,

Why don’t you laugh and sway?

 

An evening in Paris is my bliss,

And a night when I no longer travel;

To have a last embrace and a kiss,

Before every lie conspires to unravel.

 

Like a poem built up of sweet jingles,

Every part of you stands just perfect;

Every cornice and every single egress,

They are all so exact and circumspect.

 

But, to find meaning in your labyrinths,

Why do I have to descend to the sewers;

Even as my dreams grow colorful,

Why do they have to lose rhythm and substance?

 
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Posted by on July 14, 2012 in Creative, Poetry, Thoughts

 

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A Drifting Boat: Chinese Zen Poetry

A Drifting Boat: Chinese Zen PoetryA Drifting Boat: Chinese Zen Poetry by Dennis Maloney

My Rating★★★★☆

All the poems are so well translated and seems to keep true to their original innocence and wonder. Each piece in this collection should be repeated multiple times to feel its true resonance – like the humming and the mumbling that these poets talk of when they talk of chanting poetry.

The gibbons chattering, the moonlight flowing over you, the soft wind caressing, the lofty mountains for friends, the white clouds playful all around and the other minute yet infinite details of a secluded life take special meaning in each repetitive but strangely innovative verse.

And of course, the boats keep drifting, empty, alone; filled only with the silver moonlight.

My favorite one:

River. Snow.

A thousand mountains.
Flying birds vanish.
Ten thousand paths.
Human traces erased.
One boat, bamboo hat, bark cape — an old man.
Alone with his hook. Cold river. Snow.

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Posted by on July 1, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Creative, Poetry, Thoughts

 

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Invisible Cities; Imagined Lives

Invisible CitiesInvisible Cities by Italo Calvino

My Rating: ★★★★★

Marco Polo was a dreamer. He had great ambitions – wanting to be a traveller, a writer and a favored courtier. He wanted to live in the lap of luxury in his lifetime and in the best illustrated pages of history later. But he could only be a dreamer and never much more. Was it good enough? He never travelled anywhere and spent his life dreaming away in his Venice and is remembered to this day as the greatest explorer and travel writer of all time. How did that come about? It is a tale about the triumph of imagination over experience.

In Venice, that city of water, a network of canals and a network of streets span and intersect each other. Marco Polo was traveling in a little boat in that Venice and thinking of the Marco Polo he was meant to be when his imagination began to soar. All the travelogues he wanted to write started coming to his mind. A whole book of descriptions, all made of poems that would describe the beauty of this city like those waves reflecting it in varied shapes among their ripples. He watched the people moving along the streets, each eye seeing the same city differently, dependent on the angle of observation, and speaking in a language of symbols and images that is more powerful than words can ever be. The river is the story, the river is the book, arranged in perfect sinusoidal waves of its own and choosing as its reader the greatest of all appreciators, the book catches the splendor of the city and reflects it for your patient eyes in a sort of primitive cubism, leaving it to you to make out all its meaning and all its poetry and to see ultimately yourself in that reflection of all the cities that imagination could possibly build.

He started going on long voyages into his own mind, into the reflections of Venice, and into the reflections of those reflections. And then he wrote them down and he spoke of them and he sang of them. Men stopped to listen. They paid to hear him, first with time, then with gold, then with diamonds and great honors.

The Venetian was soon summoned to the court of the great Kublai Khan, who was also a dreamer. He envisioned himself to be the greatest of rulers, his kingdom expanding and pouring over the whole vast world until all the world was under him. He knew that information was power and he wanted to know of every single city under him, and of every city that was to be under him. ‘On the day when I know all the cities,’ he thought, ‘I shall be able to possess my empire, at last!’ He wanted Marco polo to be his eyes and ears and sent him off, with instructions to visit the most far flung and exotic provinces and to understand the soul of every city and to report back to him.

Marco Polo bowed every time and with great aplomb set off for his great voyages. Next week he would be in his beloved Venice, dreaming up the world, a world more real than reality, with all the ingredients needed to construct a city – memories, desires, signs, skies, trade, eyes, sounds, shapes, names and the dead. He spoke of old cities with gods and demons in it, of cities yet to be, with airplanes and atomic bombs coloring their movements, and of cities that should have been, with happiness and sorrow apportioned in balance. What separates the dream’s reality from the dreamer’s reality? He pondered on this mystery with every city. Maybe all successful men dream our lives as it should be while rotting in some sewer and maybe all unhappy men dream their unhappiness in life while rotting in some palace? Maybe we can only continue our chosen destinies and everything else is a dream. It is only invisible cities we can construct. And we can reflect on them only through imagination, and fiction. He knew his cities were real.

It took many years for the Great Khan to realize that Marco Polo wasn’t describing cities so much as the human mind and experience. He realized that every city, whether imagined by Marco Polo or constructed by planned blueprints or grown from slow accretion are all dreams given shape by human hands, by human ambition, by a desire for a future that can be shaped. In fact, Marco Polo’s cities started to seem to him more real than any he knew to be real. He learned that if men and women began to live their ephemeral dreams, every phantom would become a city in which to begin a story of pursuits, pretenses, misunderstandings, clashes, oppressions, and the carousel of fantasies would stop.

Khan now knew how to travel, to really travel. He could now accompany the great explorer in his prophetic journeys. He could describe cities to Marco Polo and he could listen to him, even as he filled in the details. They could sit together in the courtyard and be silent and still travel through the most exotic and most truthful of cities.

Then came a day when Marco Polo had to inform the Khan, ‘Sire, now I have told you about all the cities I know.

There is still one of which you never speak.

Marco Polo bowed his head.

Venice,’ the Khan said.

Marco smiled. ‘What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?

The emperor did not turn a hair. ‘And yet I have never heard you mention that name.

And Polo said: ‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.

When I ask you about other cities, I want to hear about them. And about Venice, when I ask you about Venice.‘ Khan made an attempt at looking angry but he knew his friend could see through faces and all such masks.

To distinguish the other cities’ qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice. For those who pass it without entering, the city is one thing; it is another for those who are trapped by it and never leave. There is the city where you arrive for the first time; and there is another city which you leave never to return. Each deserves a different name; perhaps I have already spoken of Venice under other names; perhaps I have spoken only of Venice.

You should then describe for me Venice – as it is, all of it, not omitting anything you remember of it.

Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,‘ Polo said. ‘Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.

Kublai looked at Polo. He understood. To tell a story you have to start from what you know best. You have to put your soul in the story and then build the flesh, the hair, the face and the clothes around it. The more stories you tell, the more of your soul you invest and lay bare to the world. When do you start fearing that you are as invisible as the cities you create? Kublai continued to look sadly at his friend.

Kublai asks Marco, ‘When you return to the West, will you repeat to your people the same tales you tell me?

I speak and speak,‘ Marco says, ‘but the listener retains only the words he is expecting. It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.

Then Khan knew that the sadness he felt so pressingly as he tried to force the wine down was not for his dear friend but for himself, he now knew that as he was listening to all the stories that Marco Polo was describing to him, he was only hearing stories that he was telling himself. The cities were all real, but they were not reflections of Marco Polo’s soul, they were not reflecting his Venice. They were reflecting Kublai Khan’s own soul, his own empire, ambitions, desires and fears.

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Post Script: I got a message from a goodreader asking me why I put up the whole story of the book without a spoiler warning…

Please go ahead and read the review without any fear of spoilers, the connection with the plot of the book (if any) is very tenuous – this is an imagined plot/backstory for a book that deliberately lacks one.

 
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Posted by on June 18, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Creative, Poetry, Thoughts

 

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Civilizations : Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature

Civilizations : Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of NatureCivilizations : Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature by Felipe Fernández-Armesto

My Rating★★★★☆

The eloquent historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto has clearly meant this book to be a counter-proposal to the geographic determinism espoused by scholars such as Jared Diamond. And for the most part he does an admirable job of convincing the reader that ‘civilization’, as defined by him, is a truly random and almost inevitable accretion wherever human societies develop. Even though he agrees that geography has always been a vital factor in any civilization’s progress, thus providing ammunition for the “geography is destiny’ cry of the determinists, he also quickly pulls that argument down.

In Armesto’s vision, the geography a civilization finds itself in, or the latitude to be more accurate, is not a determining factor in its history, but a limiting factor in their growth. It is something to be overcome, a basic tenet of the ‘civilizing impulse’ that Armesto believes is a part of all of mankind – the desire to modify the environment as much as possible. To show that geography can be transcended thus, he takes us on a long tour that encompasses all the major geographic niches that the earth has to offer – spanning the frigid snow-lands, the arid deserts, the sultry tropics, the gloomy marshes, the cloudy highlands, the loamy riversides, the stormy coastal areas and the lonely islands – and shows magnificent examples of stunning civilizational attempts that flourished and faded on those vastly different habitats in every latitude of the world. The current predominance of certain civilizations is less than a few centuries old, and could just be a freak of history; after all quite a few civilizations that were less strategically placed geographically have had longer reigns in the past. Armesto makes a compelling case and argues that a lot of things go into the cauldron that spawns civilization and to limit the explanation to any single ingredient is clearly an over simplification.

But then, Armesto too is a historian and like all historians, unfortunately, he cannot avoid trying to construct a story that can explain the present from the past. Why write a history book if it has no thesis to offer on how things got this way? So Armesto proposes his own counter-thesis: Though he struggles throughout the book to avoid any kind of determinism, he goes on to admit in his concluding argument that “geography, in the broadest sense, the palpable realities of the planet, the exigencies of nature, the soils and seeds, the winds and waves has shaped the world presented in these pages.”

He says that even though civilizations might have grown out of their environments of origin, they have been borne by the wind. This forms his principal argument of the book, and it takes shape only at the very end, catching the reader by surprise, after lulling him into the belief that civilizations are a chaotic emergent phenomena of complex human interactions. I would have liked him to stop there and I really don’t buy his causation arguments that make up the last 100 odd pages of the book. But, they are still compelling and thought-provoking and deserves to be presented too.

The crux of Armesto’s final argument then is that instead of the 10,000 BC that Diamond takes to be the point of divergence that led to the current state of the world, Armesto chooses 1490 AD (or the 1490s) as the diverging year that scripted the story of modern colonizations and formed our present. Armesto claims that the unique location of the ‘Western Civilization”, which he prefers to call the “Atlantic Civilization” along with their extremely fine timing to choose their moment for civilizational expansion was what contributed to their world domination – a case of luck and industry going hand in hand. The Europeans, he argues, were always backward in terms of technology, especially sea-faring tech, in comparison to China, India and even the Ottomans,.While they had trade across the Mediterranean (inherited from the Romans), the Atlantic was largely an unexplored territory even while the Indian Ocean had established itself as the preeminent, busiest and most profitable trade route in history. This was due to the fact that the civilizations that rimmed the Indian Ocean enjoyed the Monsoon winds which helped in promoting trade and making travel safe, fast and orderly, with its cyclic nature and seasonal reversal – aiding ships to and fro in their travels.

The unidirectional and turbulent winds of the Atlantic were much harder to decode, especially by sailors anxious about how they would ever make it back if they hitched a ride on these winds that never returned. Armesto claims that the Indian Ocean was so busy and so rewarding that it used up all the available resources (ships) in its own internal trade and the rich nations there had no reason to risk the treacherous voyage to the Atlantic and to Western Europe. The Western Europeans on the other hand, wanted to be in on the high-return trade of the Indian Ocean and was willing to take risks, and over time they decoded the cipher that is the Trade Winds of the Atlantic and eventually learned how to link the two wind systems (trade winds and the monsoon) when Vasco da Gama finally reached Calicut. Armesto says:

That may be the simple reason why Vasco da Gama appeared in Calicut, before an Indian or Arab or Chinese or Indonesian merchant “discovered” Europe by sea, despite the superior equipment and longer tradition enjoyed by the seafarers of the East. It was not because of any superiority on the Europeans part but, on the contrary, because of the urgings of a kind of inferiority: laggards have to catch up. In pursuit of the kind of advice Lazarillo de Tormes got from his mother, “the relatively poor reach out to the relatively rich in the hope that something will rub off”

This along with Columbus linking Europe to the New World set in motion the period in which Atlantic took over as the oceanic center of trade, catapulting all the countries on its rim (Armesto calls them the Rimlands) first into financial security, then trade dominance, then imperial eminence and finally into a common civilizational bowl. This western civilization coalesced into a single gel and then set about trying to remake the rest of the world in its image, borne by the new-found winds, and fueled by missionary zeal; infecting the coastal regions first and gradually encroaching inwards. The consequence was the creation of a single Atlantic civilization which spanned both shores of the ocean. In the seventeenth century, this inchoate civilization came to embrace North as well as Central and South America, and Africa as well as Europe, steadily seeping into the rest of the world as well.

That then is Armesto’s thesis, except for the concluding chapter which sketches a possible future in which the power base shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific, thus altering everything again. This is not as believable since the world we know today is not shaped by marine trade as much as the world of the East India Companies.

This scholarly and poetic work tries to give us the history of civilization by giving us glimpses of the images that were the high-watermarks of each of the great civilizations that has graced this world. It is evocative of the splendor of these ancient wonders, even while being more descriptive than narrative. The sheer ease with which Armesto manages to make us feel that we are traveling with a Marco Polo or an Ibn Batutta of our own, enjoying the rise and fall of Rome, pondering the mysterious disappearances of the central American cultures, navigating the glory of Venice in its prime and shuddering at the all-conquering Ottomans bearing down on us – all these experiences ensures that the laborious and careful reading that a book like this demands is entirely worth the effort. Armesto’s masterpiece leaves you with a sense that you have witnessed history in all its nebulousness and that there is no history, no single narrative that can ever be told. It can only be glimpsed and appreciated, never understood.

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Posted by on June 14, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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