A Dangerous Language

February 2, 2019 § Leave a comment

Body Language (Fast, Julius)

As an MBA and rookie salesman many moons ago, I was confidently and repeatedly assured that only 7% of human communication is verbal in nature, and that a large part of the non-verbal communication boils down to ‘body language’: the ‘thousands of bits of information exchanged between human beings within moments’, that Fast talks about in this book.

Kinesics is the technical term for the interpretation of body motion communication: the word was coined by the anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell as recently as 1952. The subject caught the imagination of the public soon, along with the catchy phrase ‘Body Language’. The last book I read had Irving Berlin bitterly attacking those who tried to look for patterns and symbols in past events, and reduce history to a deterministic science; he would have bust a blood vessel over the ‘science’ of body language.

As Fast notes, crossed arms, a supposedly classic body language “tell”, could mean either:

I am sitting here with a closed mind. No matter what you say I am unwilling to listen. We just can’t meet.


I am frustrated. I am not getting what I need. I am closed in, locked in, let me out. I can be approached and am readily available.

If interpretations as vastly different as these may be attached to the same symbol, surely kinesics is closer to a parlor game or to astrology, than it is to a science? A single change of body posture does not signify a sentence uniquely by itself, Fast hastens to tell us: the meaning lies only in relation to a context. “The real trouble in kinesics,” he goes on to say, “lies in separating the significant from the insignificant…the meaningless from the purely random, or from the carefully learned.” This sounds very similar to the problem of a historian trying to fashion a narrative from a collection of trivial or important past events, or, to use a modern analogy, the problem of a social media data analyst. Every one of these is an attempt to make sense and order out of what looks like chaos, and it is tempting to convince oneself that there is hidden insight buried somewhere amidst the mind-numbingly mundane, that may be unearthed by following a sequence of simple steps.

Is that a pout, or is she constipated? We may never know. (Credit: Georges Biard, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9054822)

The context that Fast cautions us about could very well be cultural, or social-class related. Most of what was said about body language in its initial years pertained to the mannerisms of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans. While Fast mentions a few examples of how body language could be radically different in other parts of the world and thus prone to being misinterpreted during intercultural interactions, the focus of his book (and probably its intended readership) is still WASP American in nature. The world described in this book was a different place than it is today. Fast makes breezy pronouncements like this seem shocking today:

In eastern countries …the custom of women wearing veils is primarily to allow them to conceal their true emotions and so protect them from any male aggression. In these countries body language is so well recognized that it becomes an accepted fact that a man, with the slightest encouragement, will try to force sexual intercourse upon a woman.

Some of the parts of the book that have aged worst pertain to sexual relations between men and women. How may a man identify and successfully acquire an appropriate partner for casual sex, Fast asks. Clearly this is a question he feels his readership will be very interested in: so much so that the book cover features a mini-skirted and demurely cross-legged young lady, with questions scrawled around her, including ‘Does her body say that she’s a loose woman?’ and ‘Does her body say that she’s lonely?

Julius Fast has recommendations for the (presumably) young man who buys this book in search of answers to such questions. His methodology is anecdotal: he follows (with apparent admiration) the technique of a pickup artist friend named Mike.

Mike’s eyes do far more talking than his voice. They linger on the woman’s throat, on her breasts, her body. They linger sensuously and with promise. Mike touches his tongue to his lips, narrows his eyes, and invariably, the woman becomes uneasy and excited. Remember she’s not just any woman but that particular susceptible woman who has responded to Mike’s opening gambit. She has returned his flattering attentions, and now she is in too deep to protest.

And anyway, what could she protest against? Just what has Mike done? He hasn’t touched her. He hasn’t made any suggestive remark. He is, by all the standards of society, a perfect gentleman. If his eyes are a bit too hot, a bit too bold, this is still a matter of interpretation. If the girl doesn’t like it she has only to be rude and move off….

The sexually insecure person, the quarry in the inevitable hunt, desperately needs to avoid humiliation, to save face. This puts her at a tremendous disadvantage in the game. The aggressor can manipulate the quarry, using loss of face as a threat

So, in summary, you must approach a woman whom you sense to be insecure. Couch your aggressive but subtle signals in genteel socially appropriate behaviour: the woman will get the message, and be flattered to be singled out thus. By the time she realizes that the situation is escalating faster than she is prepared for, she would have to be rude to stop it from continuing, and would risk the embarrassment of either being told that she has misunderstood your innocent intentions or that it is she who deliberately led you on. Add an asymmetry of power, wealth or influence, and voila! you are a bona-fide #MeToo monster!

Every new science brings in its wake a long tail of pseudo-messianic frauds pretending to make it accessible for the lay public. A lot of nonsense has been written about the metaphysical implications of quantum mechanics, for instance: luckily, the neutrinos are not affected by what we think about them. In the case of kinesics, the situation is different. People constantly send unintended signals and misconstrue received signals, even when culture and context are shared; outside those confines, every signal is suspect. The charlatans who claimed to break down the science into easy-to-follow steps for roadside Romeos, job interviewers, salespeople, police investigators and others, are ultimately responsible for real damage. The danger is compounded when they recommend using the ‘science’ to manipulate others.

It is undeniable that information is transmitted and received, often unconsciously, in non-verbal ways. But we should leave the conscious study of it to trained professionals, and not try and learn it off a book like this one.


Speaking of History

January 20, 2019 § 1 Comment

Historical Inevitability (Berlin, Isaiah)

Writer: Isaiah Berlin
Name of Book: Historical Inevitability
Summary: He doesn’t believe in it.

That last sentence is both factually accurate and ironical. Sir Isiah Berlin, OM, CBE FBA was many things: Russian, British, Jewish, political theorist, social thinker, philosopher and historian of ideas. In his obituary, the Independent gushed that he was “the world’s greatest talker, the century’s most inspired reader, one of the finest minds of our time…” What he was not, however, is a man of few words. Here’s a sentence randomly chosen from the book under review:

When everything has been said in favour of attributing responsibility for character and action to natural and institutional causes; when everything possible has been done to correct blind or over-simple interpretations of conduct which fix too much blame on individuals and their free acts; when, in fact there is strong evidence to show that it was difficult or impossible for men to do otherwise than they did, given their material environment or education  or the influence upon them of various ‘social pressures’; when every relevant psychological and sociological consideration has been taken into account, every impersonal factor given due weight; after ‘hegemonist’, nationalist, and other historical heresies have been exposed and refuted; after every effort has been made to induce history to aspire, so far as it can without open absurdity, after the pure condition of a science; after all these severities, we continue to praise and to blame.

Born in 1909 and dying in 1997, Berlin was a 20th century man, through and through, and had no truck with the quintessentially 21st century pastime of expressing thought in 140 characters or fewer: the quoted sentence, at a whopping 149 WORDS, is pretty representative of Berlin’s prose.

Berlin talking (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vib2rqJKS08)

Interestingly, Berlin hated writing, and his published works were usually transcribed from taped dictations (which means he thought and spoke in long sentences). In the case of the book under consideration, it was transcribed from a single lecture he delivered on 12 May 1953 at the London School of Economics and Political Science. It is a slim enough volume, at 79 pages, but with all the super-saturated semi-colonization, it was a pretty difficult read. I spent days re-reading the same lines in incomprehension until I hit upon the solution, which was to read the words aloud to myself slowly, and to pretend I was listening to him.

The theme of the lecture-essay is as relevant in the 21st century as it was at the time of Berlin’s lecture, though I believe we now have the technological tools to answer many of the questions that went unanswered then.

Berlin speaks about the main paradigms in the study of history. One (to which Berlin, too, subscribed) is that history is caused by the actions of (great?) men and women – actions that the protagonists were responsible for, and could be held accountable for. By definition, the course of history is incompletely predictable and riddled with randomness. However, the past is not ambiguous in the least: a competent historian could (and should) be able to provide crisp, coherent narratives involving the actions, motives and characters of individuals, that explain all of history. In this view, history is not a science in the way physics or chemistry is: it doesn’t have neat laws that simultaneously explain the past and predict the future.

Opposed to this view was the one held by such luminaries as Fichte, Hegel, Spengler, Marx, Toynbee, Pareto, etc., which looked at history as a sequence of discernible patterns. One immediate consequence, Berlin points out, is a belief in determinism and historical inevitability – that things happened the way they did, not because of Hitler, or Chengiz Khan, or Albert Einstein, but because of some super-human cause. For some, it was all down to a grand divine design that could not be tampered with. For others, (like Marx), it was the ‘inexorable tidal wave of history’, socio-economic or cultural trends that swept entire nations and societies in their wake. If Isaac Newton had dozed off when that apple fell, or had died in childhood of the plague, someone else would have discovered the same laws at around the same time, and so on. For many, this view had origins in a wistful desire to model history along the lines of natural science. But then, Berlin says, this means the monsters of history were blame-free, the saints and geniuses of history were diminished, freedom of human choice was denied and all this runs unacceptably counter to our daily experience.

A second bone that Berlin has to pick with the ‘scientific approach’ to history concerns how it talks of the birth, rises, falls, triumphs, tragedies or death of nations, cultures and civilizations : these are abstract concepts, says Berlin, and it is meaningless to speak of them as if they were human.

The other popular trend in historiography that Berlin finds abhorrent is relativism. According to it, actions of people of different times may not be judged by today’s historians either because we have an unfair advantage over them – we know far more than they did – or because we don’t know enough about their specific circumstances (either way, the theory goes, if we had been subject to identical inputs, we might have behaved similarly) Nonsense, says Berlin: there is right and wrong, and it is the moral imperative of a good historian to take a stand.

To Berlin, the options were binary: either history is a science, and so is subject to the errors of relativism, teleology and determinism, or it isn’t a science. But this was before the mathematical methods to describe human societies (and other dynamical systems) had been fully developed. Today, societies are routinely modelled as complex adaptive systems, and we can model their ebbs and flows probabilistically, allow for waves that are largely predictable, as well as for unexpected events caused by exceptional people, without succumbing to the pitfalls of determinism. It is now entirely possible to scientifically steer our ship between the “Scylla of populating the world with imaginary powers” and the “Charybdis of reducing everything to the verifiable behaviour of identifiable men and women”.

That said, debates rage even today on this subject or thereabouts. Should we judge Christopher Columbus, or Aurangzeb, for their treatment of native Americans and Indians? Did Trump win because of a cyclical right-wing wave, or because he spoke good sense? Was the colonization of much of the world by a handful of European nations an accident of history or a triumph of capitalism, Christianity, western technology or superior white genes? If you are interested in these themes, you might want to give Isaiah Berlin a try. But you’d be wise to get it in audio-book form.

Razm, Bazm and all that Jazz

January 2, 2019 § Leave a comment

Chandrakanta (Khatri, Devki Nandan, translated by Chowdhury, Rohini)

The dashing prince Birendra Singh and the beautiful princess Chandrakanta of a neighbouring land, fall deeply in love with each other. They haven’t yet spoken to each other, mind you – they keep swooning away when they meet, so powerful is their love – but they plan to overcome this minor handicap soon and get married. However, evil ministers, greedy warlords and spooky sorcerers get in the way of the star-crossed pair. Luckily, Birendra and Chandrakanta have extraordinarily ingenious spies (“aiyaars”) at their service: spies who double up as best friends, counselors, jesters, gadget freaks, engineers, artistes, athletes, martial arts pros, linguists, con artists and experts in disguise. Unfortunately, the villains have equally adept spies at their disposal, too. A mysterious Forest Maiden and her masked associates, assorted kings and queens, and a yogi who appears and disappears at will, complete the cast of characters. They all gallivant merrily around spooky ruins with hidden trapdoors and strange mechanical devices, enchanted forests, rivers and valleys. The eponymous princess gets herself kidnapped by the ‘bad’ spies early on, and the action largely revolves about the prince and the ‘good’ spies trying to rescue her. When they accomplish this, eventually, it turns out she didn’t need much rescuing anyway – but one way or another, all the bad people get punished in the end, and all the good people live happily ever after.

All that jism,,,from the TV serial Chandrakanta

As you can imagine, Devki Nandan Khatri’s Chandrakanta is not exactly literature. It isn’t even particularly readable adult fiction. But it is the first work of prose ever published in the Hindi language, and as such, it deserves respect. Every “first” attempts to fit an existing tradition into a new medium: in addition, Khatri attempted to take an old Persian tradition and make it fit an Indian story.

The dastan or qissa is an ancient genre of oral story-telling whose rules were documented by the Iranian Abd al-Nabi Fakhr al-Zamani in the 17th century, in his handbook for storytellers, the Tiraz al Akhbar. The four essential components of a dastan, al Zamani tells us, are razm (battle and warfare), bazm (courtly assemblies), husn-o-ishq (beauty and romance) and aiyaari (trickery). Ghalib Lakhnawi, who published a 19th century Urdu language version of the famous Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, adds a new essential component to the mix: tilisma (enchantments). A dastangoi, or master story-teller, would stop the narrative midstream to regale his audience with stock descriptions of natural and feminine beauty, of warriors in shimmering armour advancing in battle order, or with long lists of noblemen and couriers at royal banquets and assemblies. These were formulaic ways of slowing the action for long enough for the narrator to catch his breath and mentally plot the course forward, even while keeping his audience occupied. This exact technique is used by story-tellers around the world from the time of Homer and Vyasa, as detailed in Albert Lord’s Singer of Tales.

Razm, bazm, husn-o-ishq, tilisma, aiyaari: Khatri had no need for the formulaic devices of the past. Khatri’s Chandrakanta was never narrated orally. It was serialized in a magazine, and only appeared as a single book after the popular success of the story. But Khatri retained the formulas for reasons of reader familiarity and continuity; and he perceptively added formulaic devices that were essential for the new medium of print. Here, his main concern wasn’t author fatigue. It was audience ennui. The oral raconteur had an advantage: he could fix a shrewd eye on his audience, and decide in real time when to speed up or slow down the action based on the levels of interest; the writer in print had to guess at reader reaction, and somehow, to ensure that the reader turns up for the next chapter. Khatri shrewdly ends each chapter with unresolved questions and with a build-up of dramatic tension. (It comes as no surprise that he is also the father of the Hindi detective novel)

I have read Ghalib Lakhnawi’s Dastan-e-Amir Hamza a few years ago (the Musharraf Ali Farooqi translation) and I had the same feeling about it as I did about Chandrakanta. These stories haven’t aged well: not the convoluted and repetitive plots, not the stock descriptions, and definitely not the value systems. Amir Hamza was misogynist and placed a pious adherence to Islam ahead of all other ethical considerations, including murder and rape. Chandrakanta’s women are a lot more assertive and able, but it is clear on where its sympathies lay as well: every positive character is a high-caste Hindu (Brahmins and Kshatriyas) while every villainous, weak, untrustworthy character is Muslim (in fact, the Hindu heroes often openly discuss the untrustworthy nature of the Muslims, and have no compunctions about slaughtering them). Both books were published in North India during the second half of the 19th century, and it isn’t difficult to see in them the bitter divisions in Indian society that eventually led to partition and violent bloodshed through the next century.

Some books are great entertainment; some are educational, some thought-provoking; a few, like Chandrakanta, have relevance only as historical curiosities. In a world where the Game of Thrones and Harry Potter rule the roost, and kids rediscover magic and royalty, perhaps Chandrakanta will see a return to favour, too, though probably not as a book. I know that there is a new TV serial now that attempts to resurrect the novel, though I don’t know how well it has been received: yet again, a new medium tries to play host to an old story, with the razm, bazm and quite a bit of jism, too.

Easy to Love

December 19, 2018 § 2 Comments

Difficult Loves (Calvino, Italo)

What makes a good short story?

Pick a character. Maybe two characters, perhaps a handful, not too many – never too many.

Don’t waste time with extraordinary characters. Make them very common, non-exceptional in every sense, but describe their distinct characteristics in loving detail – every mannerism, every mole, their family background, their social class. Your readers need to see this person in front of them. More. They need to think they have known this person all their lives.

Next, drop them into an interesting situation, like slices of onion in simmering oil. The circumstances by which the characters landed up in this situation should be easy to explain in a few sentences. No more than a single paragraph – never dwell on it. It is in the past. The past is not what’s it all about.

The story is about – is IN – the present. It is linked to the past, true, but by a single uninteresting thread. What is more interesting are the many potential threads that stretch out into the unknown future.

For now, just allow it all to sizzle. Turn it over a few times in the pan. Stir well. Let it turn translucent.

How do the characters react to the situation in which they find themselves? What do they see, hear, smell, feel? What do they fear, cherish, desire? Every moment is a minor dilemma. Every word and act is a decision. It tells them something about the character, the situation, themselves. Uncertainty about how the situation will resolve itself is what provides the nervous tension for the tale – but this nervous tension, felt by the characters and sympathetically mirrored by the readers – IS the tale, and how the situation eventually resolves itself is a boring question that the author ignores.

Two men walk through a thick forest – one of them is armed, and leads the other, ostensibly towards ‘the headquarters’, for a friendly chat with ‘the authorities’. The two make casual conversation as they walk. The unarmed man is nervous. Are the authorities really friendly? Is he under suspicion of being a spy? Is he being taken deep into the forest to be executed? Does he dare to make a run for it? Will he survive?

Anything beyond (who are these men? What war are they fighting? Will they win? What did the unarmed man actually do before the story took place?) is unanswered and irrelevant.

A thief on the run turns up at the door of his favorite prostitute. Her husband sleepily lets him in. Another regular customer shows up shortly thereafter. He is a constable in search of the same thief, who now hides in the prostitute’s closet. What will the prostitute do? What will the husband say? Will the constable catch the thief? (But was he really guilty of the crime he is accused? And what happened the next day? Who cares!)

A young soldier on a train is surprised to see a heavily veiled and shapely woman sit next to him – even though there are empty seats elsewhere in the compartment. She sits motionless, her intentions inscrutable. Her calf brushes against his, and sets his pulse racing. Is she sending amorous signals? Should he reciprocate? Would she be offended if he did? Would she be embarrassed if he didn’t? Would others in the compartment be scandalized? Should he be slightly bolder? How should her silence be interpreted? What if she slaps him? Is she pretending to have fallen asleep? (How old is she? Is she pretty? Is she even alive? We will never know)

A near-sighted man has recently acquired spectacles with a thick black frame. He goes back to the city of his youth, in the hope of reconnecting with his old friends and with a certain woman from long ago. He takes a leisurely stroll down the town’s main street in the evening, as is the local fashion. After a while, he realizes he has a problem: none of his acquaintances can recognize him with the glasses on; and he cannot recognize anyone with them off. Should he keep them on or off? What if She had passed and smiled at him and he had looked through her? What should he do? Should he retrace his steps? (Will he meet up with the woman? What had caused them to break up in the past? Will there be a rapprochement? Is contact lens the solution? None of that is resolved!)

There is something elemental and primeval about Italo Calvino’s short stories. In another book (Cybernetics and Ghosts), he describes the ancient storyteller of the tribe telling a wide-eyed audience about a young man – some king’s younger son, perhaps – getting lost in some forest:

“He sees a light in the distance, he walks and walks. The fable unwinds from sentence to sentence, and where is it leading?…Through the forest of fairy-tale the vibrancy of myth passes like a shudder of wind.”

That vibrancy of myth, Calvino shows, lies not in loftiness of setting, complexity of characterization or convolution of plot, but simply, in how the tale unfolds, in the story-teller’s puppeteer-like control over his audience’s attention, his ability to slow time down to a crawl, until each sentence is heavily pregnant with the suggestions for many possible next sentences, out of which exactly one would be chosen, and we the readers bate our breath and have no choice but to wait for it.

What makes a good short story? Anything by Italo Calvino.

In Shadows and Metaphors

December 16, 2018 § 2 Comments

The Pilgrim’s Progress (Bunyan, John)

The 16th and 17th centuries were a confusing time to be protestant in England.The Papal religion went out of royal favor under Henry VIII, the reformation remained in force under Elizabeth, but the Stuarts vacillated, and non-conformists were alternately persecuted and tolerated as the country lurched from faith to faith.

In the midst of all this, in 1661, a man called John Bunyan was arrested in the fields near Bedford, England for openly preaching a fiery Puritanism– a dangerous profession,with Charles II on the throne. Steadfastly refusing to renounce the heretical livelihood,he languished in prison for 12 long years, with his wife and children suffering in poverty for his obduracy. From every practical consideration, his conduct was foolish, criminal or both, and he had to dig deep into his reserves of faith to continue on his chosen path. Yet persist he did, through this and a subsequent imprisonment, and the spiritual torment he underwent through this entire process gave birth first to an autobiographical account (Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners), and then to the Pilgrim’s Progress, an inspired retelling of the same torturous process as an allegorical journey of a character called Christian, from the ‘City of Destruction’, through unbearable hardships and tests, and towards a ‘Celestial City’.

Bunyan conceived of his book as an allegory – with characters like the weak Pliable, the odious Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, the cruel Lord Hate-Good, the gloomy Giant Despair. The path of the devout human on the route to salvation lies through wearisomeness, painfulness, hunger, perils, nakedness, swords, lions, dragons, darkness, and in a word, death and what not, says Bunyan. Yet must the human pick their way carefully through the Slough of Despond, the Valley of Humiliation, the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Vanity Fair, the Doubting Castle and the Enchanted Grounds. The traveler will have Evangelists, Interpreters and Great-Hearts as guides,and Mercy and Faithful as companions, but traps and temptations abound, and the price of straying from the straight and narrow path is eternal damnation.

Christian battles the monster Apollyon (courtesy http://www.reformedforum.org)

Yet not all Bunyan’s anthropomorphic characters can be simplified into elementary morals. It is more than a simple allegory. Scholars have called the Pilgrim’s Progress a work of mythology: he taps into emotions. instincts and fears that are universal. Bunyan is not merely a preacher of fire and brimstone. He is a master story-teller as well, and some of his characters are far more than the caricatures and stereotypes one expects from a morality parable. In fact, my favorite character in the book is the nuanced Ignorance, a pilgrim himself, cordial and cheerful,a believer in the primacy of good acts and intentions, but a man ‘for the picking and choosing of truth’, as in, he believes selectively in the words of the Book, and is broad-minded enough to allow the peaceful coexistence of doctrines other than the ones to which he himself subscribes. Those traits make him a heretic in Bunyan’s book, and he is last seen being dragged off to hell, just as Christian is ushered into Mount Zion. 

The story works on other levels as well. Some scholars have argued that The Pilgrim’s Progress is a folk epic of Bunyan’s times. It could symbolize the many tribulations of English Protestants through the turbulent Stuart years, up until the Golden Revolution of 1688, where those who kept the faith against all odds were rewarded.

“By metaphors I speak,” thunders Bunyan, “was not God’s Laws, his Gospel laws in olden time,held forth by types, shadows and metaphors?”

Religious metaphor, particularly of the prim and austere Calvinist faith of Bunyan, are not of any interest to me, personally. Yet even I found myself deeply engrossed in Christian’s various encounters, and cheering him on to his final destination. And perhaps, in this lies the key to why Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is an acknowledged literary classic, whereas its source material, the autobiographical Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, is an obscure tract.

 It seems to me that among the universal laws stumbled upon by Bunyan is one more ancient and fundamental to human nature than even religion. it is that we are profoundly influenced by dramatic narrative – by stories in which we can immerse ourselves, empathize deeply or even get into the character of a protagonist, and experience all that they undergo. There is no stronger power for a preacher or poet to harness.

Time to Talk Turkey

November 19, 2018 § Leave a comment

pamukIstanbul: Memories and the City (Pamuk, Orhan)

Pamuk quotes Walter Benjamin as noting that fewer books about cities are written by native-born writers, than by foreign visitors. But there is a qualitative as well as a quantitative difference at play. Outsiders who write about a city look for and notice the exotic, the buildings, the things. When a native writer talks about his city, Pamuk notes, he doesn’t notice the city by itself, but only through the prism of his memories. It is inward-looking, meditative, and personal.

When Pamuk was 35, he dreamt of writing a great novel about Istanbul “along the lines of Ulysses”. His “The Black Book”, which I read years ago and reviewed here, was surely an attempt at doing this, and while it is a clever, thoughtful novel, I have no idea if it scales Joycean altitudes. “Istanbul”, on the other hand, is non-fiction, a memoir, an account of the Nobel Prize winning author’s life as a child and young man, a life inextricably interwoven with the city in which he grew up, between the 1950s and the early 1970s – so inextricably, in fact, that it is difficult to figure out if it is the city that infects him with misery or his own moodiness that colors his opinion of the city. He was miserable; he wanted to be miserable; the city was miserable; he loved the city. In his own words, ‘I loved Istanbul for its ruins, its huzun, for the glories it once possessed and then lost.

Huzun is central to Pamuk’s thesis. it hangs over the book and the city, unshakeable and impenetrable, like a thick dull grey fog in the dead of winter. But what is it?


By Bertil Videt – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=637757

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The Fear of Death and How to Deal with it

October 27, 2018 § Leave a comment

gilgameshGilgamesh: A New English Version (Mitchell, Stephen, tr.)

The Persian Empire reached its zenith under the rule of Darius I. He counted the people of 24 nations among his subjects: the world lay at his feet. “This is what I did…in one and the same year after that I became king,” he wrote, “Nineteen battles I fought; by the favor of Ahura Mazda I smote them and took prisoner nine kings.”

But Darius was not content. These achievements were ephemeral: at some point, he would die and with his death would vanish the memory of his grandness. So he did something that no king had done before him: he wrote an autobiography, a detailed account of his reign in all its glory, leaving out not one single triumph or accomplishment. And because he was emperor of the civilized world, he wrote his autobiography in a way no king after him has done: he had it inscribed in three languages, on the side of a mountain, at Behistun, overlooking the ancient thoroughfare that ran from Babylon to Ecbatana, so that travellers would read it and remember him with respect. Indeed, he was quite clear about his wishes, ending his story with a stern admonition.

“Underling, vigorously make known how great I am and how great my skills, and how great my superiority… Underling, let not that be made trifling to you which has been done by me. Let not the king have to inflict punishment.”

Perhaps the inscription was too high up on the mountain, perhaps the surroundings were too picturesque to focus on the words, but there is something Ozymandian in what happened next. Within a century of Darius’ death (a few decades before an upstart Macedonian smashed through his empire), a Greek visitor to those parts saw the cliffs, asked the locals about the writing, but nobody knew what it said, who put it there and why. O quam cito transit gloria mundi.

Many centuries later, in 1835, Henry Rawlinson was able to decipher one of the three scripts: it was Old Persian, a phonetic alphabet not too dissimilar to other Indo-European scripts. Using this, scholars raced to decipher the second script, Akkadian, a complex one with 300 cuneiform characters. It was a Semitic language, of the same family as a series of tablets discovered during excavations of the library of Ashurbanipal, in Nineveh. In 1857, the code was cracked, and the tablets of Nineveh could be read, and what was on the tablets was a story, a strange and moving story, a story written down 3500 years ago, at a time when both the Mahabharata and the Iliad were probably accounts of battles that were yet to take place. Today, across all mankind, we know of no story that is older.

It is the story of Gilgamesh.

As I read Stephen Mitchell’s version of the Gilgamesh (it isn’t a ‘translation’, but a poem that he has authored after comparing several authentic translations), I was overcome by the atavistic reverence one feels in the presence of very old, fragile, precious things. On every page, I could hear ancient murmurs, echoes from around the world; and the hair stood on the back of my neck.


Gilgamesh (courtey LeWebFrancais)

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