Saturday, December 3, 2016

In the end, we are all chimeras

Image from early 18th century, by Anonymous. Source.

As I say in the title of this blog, "we are all chimeras."  This phylosophical piece, written by "Reason," from the blog "fight aging," is in perfect agreement with the concept.


The Slow Death of the Self that is Produced by the Normal Operation of Human Memory

Posted by Reason

People are terrified of dementia, by the loss of the self that results from the final stages of the accumulation of age-related damage in the brain. Whether this is loss of data or merely loss of access to data, that data being encoded in the structures of neurons and their connecting synapses, depends upon the details along the way. Either option amounts to the same thing for someone in the midst of the condition when there is only faint prospect of therapies arriving soon enough to matter. But if dementia is an asymptotic approach to 100% loss of data, what to make of the fact that we are, on a day to day basis, largely accepting of our normal relationship with the data of the mind, in which we lose 98% of everything that we experience within a few weeks of the event? A week from now you will not remember reading this, nor will there be any trace of what took place in the surrounding minutes before and after. You will have to guess at how you spent your time, what you were thinking, who you were at that moment. We are, every one of us, thin and translucent ghosts of our own history, mere summaries of a rich set of data that is now gone.

Yet we get by. Normal is normal, but that doesn't mean it is good, or that it should go unexamined. To put this another way, there was a person who lived a few decades ago in the UK, and got by. Later, there was another person who came to the US and spent time here, as people do. I know about as much about those individuals as I do about friends of long standing, perhaps just a little more. Yet both of them were me. All of that remains of them, of their richness of data, are the echoes I carry with me now. I have the memories burned in by adrenaline or, to a lesser extent, by sheer boring repetition, but those are just signposts in the mist by this point. Ask me who I was back then, and the answer will be largely extrapolation. Are those individuals dead? Am I so different that such a question makes sense to ask? To what extent is the self burning away and vanishing because we have a poor capacity for remembrance? To what extent is change death, in other words? Here of course I do little more than wave my hands at questions that have been debated at great length in the philosophy community.

Those of us who are generally opposed to the idea of being scanned, uploaded, and copied have the view that a copy of the self is not the self. It is its own separate individual. Individuality stems from the combination of pattern of information and the matter that the pattern is bound to. It isn't clear that, for example, an emulation running in an abstraction layer over computing hardware can be considered a continuous entity, rather than a unending series of nanosecond individuals assembled and then destroyed. In the continuity view of identity, a Ship of Theseus sort of a viewpoint, you are still you even if all your component parts are slowly replaced over time. There is a sizable grey area at the border between small parts and slow replacement, which is fine, and large parts and rapid replacement, which is the same as death. If someone removes half of your brain in one go and replaces it with a hypothetical machine that accepts exactly the same inputs and produces exactly the same outputs where it connects to the remaining brain tissue, I would say that this means that you just died, even though an entity that thinks in the same way as you did continues onward. Conversely, replacing neurons one by one with machines that perform the same functions, and allowing time for each neuron to reach equilibrium with its neighbors, seems acceptable.

Continuity comes attached at the hip to change of the self over time. Life is change, and we celebrate it. But we lose so very much in the course of that change that it seems matters really could be better managed. The figure for 98% loss of memory over weeks arises from self-experiments carried out by a determined fellow in the late 1800s, and which have been repeated every so often by the research community ever since. A replication paper was published just last year, for example. This enormous loss is the way things work for normal humans, and coupled with the adrenaline mechanism for selective additional memory of events that matter, one can see how this sort of a system might have evolved. A prehistoric lifespan is the same few tasks with very minor variations repeated over and again until death or disability, interspersed with a much smaller number of painful and terrifying learning experiences, with each new generation running the same rat wheel as the previous.

There are claims of people with extraordinary memory, or even eidetic or photographic memory, but the scientific community is far from settled on the question of the degree to which these claims result from (a) misinterpreting the top end of the curve for normal variation in memory capacity, versus (b) narrowly specialized memory training, versus (c) some form of genuinely unusual and exceptional ability based on neurobiological differences yet to be described. The mechanisms of memory are being deciphered in the laboratory, however, and there are various demonstrations of a modest degree of enhanced memory in animal studies. The question of whether greatly enhanced memory can be induced through near future medicine remains open: it will certainly happen eventually, but when will it start in earnest, and when will it go beyond adding only few more percentage points to the fraction of events we recall from our lives? It seems to me that this is a goal that should be given a far greater priority than is the case today. Consider that if we had perfect memory, what would we think of someone who forget near everything he or she did? We would call it a medical condition and offer support, in the same way that the medical community seeks to treat and aid people suffering age-related cognitive decline or amnesia today. If there were a great many of those people, there would be an enormous investment in the search for a cure, just as we do today for Alzheimer's disease. But because our disability is normal and shared, there is no such effort.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Something out there: if we don't have a narrative of the future, we will have no future

This post was inspired by the recent cli-fi novel by Bruno Arpaia "Something out there" ("Qualcosa là fuori," in Italian). It is the story of a group of people desperately seeking a refuge in the North of Europe, running away from the Mediterranean lands devastated by climate change. Not an easy novel, but that does what literature should do: describing a possible future and helping us understand it.

Do you remember the great season of science fiction, mid 20th century? It was not just entertainment, it was a narrative about science, about the marvels of the future: spaceships, robots, flying cars, and all the rest. It was not just about technological marvels, it could be harsh, dystopic, difficult, and it didn't shy away from describing nuclear wars, political oppression, planetary catastrophes, and more. But it was the soul of an age: without that season of science fiction, nobody would have imagined of sending men to the moon.

Science fiction withered as a literary genre with the late 20th century, together with its twin: science. Today, science fiction themes in movies are reduced to little more than a tired repetition of the idea of exploring space ("The Martian") while scientists, then, have reduced themselves to the role of ridiculous priests of a dead deity called "technological progress." They are still engaged in their kludgy incantations that should save the world and that never do. They seem unable to realize that if so many people say that the exploration of the Moon  was a hoax, there is a reason. And it is not that it was a hoax.

So, what are we left with that tells us of our future? Not much. During the 20th century, there was another great literature season that had to do with social justice and change. In the US, think of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" (1939) and, in the Soviet Union, think of Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago". (1973). But all that is gone, as remote to us as the Sumerian hymns to the Goddess Inanna of three thousand years ago. What has survived of the 20th-century literature is, mostly, the genre we call "Epic Fantasy", with endless filmic versions of the Trilogy of the Ring by Tolkien. On the screen, we keep seeing hordes of orcs, goblins, trolls, and assorted monsters battling shiny heroes; all full of sound and fury and signifying only that we are terribly afraid of what we don't understand.

Yet, the future is there; looming upon us, and we cannot ignore it. And we have an instrument to understand it: it is narrative. Only by means of a story our brains can come to terms with our future. Think of Dante's "Comedy", not a novel in the modern sense of the term, but a story that encapsulates a whole vision of the universe. The "Comedy" was not entertainment, it was a roadmap for the future; a story that starts with despair, goes through redemption, and ends with enlightenment. The Comedy is literature at its best, in a nearly pure form. A vision of the universe and a vision of hope. 

So, in this difficult moment, we are seeing something moving, out there. A new form of literature that embodies our future, makes it real, tells us about it. And it is not a good future. It is a terrible future. It is a future that most of us refuse to contemplate, even though we know that it is there, even though we refuse to admit it. This new literary genre takes sometimes the name of "climate fiction" or "Cli-Fi", in reference to science fiction, of which it is in some ways the continuation.  

It is still an embryonic genre that reminds in many cases the early, naive, science fiction of the 1930s. And yet, it is growing and turning into literature. Bruno Arpaia has written a harsh and unforgiving cli-fi book titled "Something out There", the story of a group of dispossessed migrants who try to reach Northern Europe, leaving an Italy devastated by climate change. Only a few will make it. Surely not an optimistic book, although it has elements of hope. But it is a book that does the work that a literary piece must do: showing to you the change ahead.

It is not by chance that I cited Dante; a book like Arpaia's one is comparable to the comedy's first cantica, the one about Hell. It sounds like the very first lines of the Comedy, where Dante tells of having been lost in a "dark wood," which is a typical cli-fi theme: people desperately looking to escape from the climate disaster. And it is our situation: we are completely lost; unable to find our way out. Someone still has to write the cli-fi equivalents of the other two canticas of the Comedy, the one about Purgatory and the one about Paradise, and that will make it possible for us to understand what is in store for us. Can narrative take us out of Hell? Hard to say, but it is certain that without a narrative of the future, we can have no future.

"Qualcosa là fuori" is written by a professional novelist who creates a fast moving story with well-designed characters and impressive mastery of the scenery. Although he is not a scientists, Arpaia understands the science of climate and he describes a scenario that may be somewhat extreme, but well within what the current models indicate as possible. Personally, I found that the many flashbacks that interrupt the main story are distracting and sometimes overlong and over-dramatized. But flashbacks add a scientific background to the main story and contain a number of fascinating remarks about how the human minds work. In these sections, we follow the work of the protagonist, an active neuroscientist in the early novel-time, who studies how the mind continuously creates narratives in order to understand reality.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

My paper on Cellini's Medusa

So, the book on "Cnidaria", better known as "jellyfish" is out, published by Springer. It is a massive book of more than 800 pages, mostly about biology and contains a good number of very technical papers. Some are rather general and interesting also for the non-specialist in Cnidaria. And it also contains four contributions about the ancient myth of Medusa, supposed to be a member of the Cnidarian family. One of these contributions is my piece on Cellini's Medusa, the statuary piece that you can admire today in Florence. You can find an early version of this paper in this blog.

Here is how Cellini interpreted the figure of the mythological Medusa. Not exactly a jellyfish, but artists have a lot of leeway in their work

Friday, November 18, 2016

God Bless America!

God bless America!

- For having given me a job, a career, and a new language

- For my first home, where I lived with the woman who is still my wife after 40 years

- For being the land where my son was born

- For the fog of San Francisco's bay, for the great trees of the Sequoia National Park, for the Japanese gardens on the hill

- For the raccoons cavorting in the garden, for the blue jays landing on the window sill, for the lone coyote trotting along the street.

- For the bottomless cup of coffee, for the champagne brunch, for the maple syrup and the pancakes

- For Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Leonard Cohen

- For John Muir, Rachel Carson, and Donella Meadows

- For Ursula Le Guin, Robert Anson Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov

- For all that and so much more

God bless America. She needs that. Badly.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Making peace with our chimeras: the incredible resilience of myths

This is a text that I posted in 2012 on the "Cassandra Legacy" blog and that I am reposting here with some minimal modifications

The Etruscan statue known as the "Chimera of Arezzo". It is an ancient representation of the creature called "Chimera" which was killed by Bellerophon, the hero. This post derives from the talk I gave at a conference on the Chimera myth in Florence in 2010. The gist of my talk was that the myth is still very relevant today for us and that we can survive the challenges we face only if we can make peace with our Chimeras. Here is a written version of the talk, where I have added headings for clarity.


Ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure to be here today and, first of all, I would like to introduce myself. I am not here as an archaeologist or an art historian, as the distinguished colleagues who spoke before me. My research is on very different matters; so I am speaking to you just as a friend of the Chimera. And if I tell you that I am a friend of the Chimera, it is because I feel something for it or, put simply, I like it. I like the story so much that I wrote an entire book on the subject. You can see it here, it is titled "The book of the Chimera."  I wrote it mainly because I couldn't find a book like it. You always write the book you would like to read.

So, after so much work, today I could tell you a lot of things about the myth of the Chimera but, as you may know, the art of boredom consists in telling everything. So, I would just like to tell you how this myth may still be relevant for us after thousands of years from its origin. Actually, it could be a lot more relevant for us than you may think. This relevance has to do with the way we communicate with our fellow human beings, how we deal with what we call the "environment," how we relate with everything which is not human on this planet. In this respect, we have been doing everything wrong: we have been destroying our environment as if we were killing one chimera after the other. That has not been a good idea - the environment is what makes us live. We need to make peace with our chimeras. But let me try to explain what I mean.

Origins of the myth of the Chimera

You surely know the story of the Chimera: there was this monster; a mix of lion, goat, and snake. It also sprouted fire from one of its mouths, or perhaps from all three of them. It seems to have been a rather nasty creature and so a hero, Bellerophon, was dispatched to get rid of it. Bellerophon did his job with the help of his flying horse, Pegasus. It can't have been such a difficult task, since the Chimera couldn't fly.

This is the myth; as you see, it can be expressed in just one paragraph and that's is the way it is described in the Iliad: just a few lines. In these terms, it doesn't look like anything special: you could, actually, condense it into a single sentence. Something like, "shiny hero kills ugly monster". But there is much more than this in the myth and let me try to explain why.

The story of the Chimera is very ancient; it is one of the most ancient myths of our civilization. With that name, "Chimera" or "Kimaira," it goes back all the way to, probably, the ninth century BC, about three thousand years ago. It is from that time that we start finding images and descriptions of this weird creature. But the core of the story is much older. With different names, the myth of the fire-breathing lion goes back to the Babylonian and Sumerian civilizations, all the way to the third millennium BC. That is, it goes back to around five thousand years ago and it is probably even older than that. It may very well go back to our Paleolithic ancestors although, of course, we'll never know what stories they were telling to each other in the evening, while sitting around the fire.

The curious thing is that such an old story is still with us, not very much changed. Over these five thousand years, empires and civilizations have appeared and disappeared, languages and writing systems were created and, also, disappeared. But we still know what a Chimera looks like and it is possible that our descendants will still know that in a far away future. Think about that: do you think that in 5000 years from now someone will care who was president of the United States today or who won the national soccer championship?

So, the myth of the Chimera, just as many other myths, has this characteristic of being highly "resilient;" impossible to destroy. It changes in name and in the details, but it persists in its basic form for long, long times. Why is that? If some concepts survive for such long times, there has to be something that makes them survive - something important. Let me try to discuss this point a little.

The Iron Goat

Now, let me tell you something that I learned from my friend and colleague, Alessandro Fornari who, unfortunately, is not any more with us. He was a "field anthropologist", someone who wouldn't just sit at a desk and write books. He would spend most of his time collecting and preserving folk tales. He had a special talent in convincing old peasant ladies to tell him stories and sing for him old songs.

One of the stories that I heard from Fornari is that of the "Capra Ferrata," the "Iron Goat," that comes from the Appennino mountains, in Tuscany. It is a simple story of a rather nasty monster, but the way Fornari would tell it, well, it became something special. You know, he had learned from his old peasant ladies plenty of trick on how to tell these stories. So, when describing how the Iron Goat appears at the door of the house, Fornari would speak in hoarse voice, as any good monster is supposed to speak. Let me try to do that as Fornari did; something like, "I am the Iron Goat, I have burning eyes and a sharp tongue" (in Italian, it rhymes, "Sono la capra ferrata, dagli occhi di fuoco e la lingua arrotata!"). Well, Fornari was much better than me at telling this story, but I did my best!

This Iron Goat, clearly, has something to do with the myth of the Chimera. I discussed this point with Fornari himself and he agreed with me. One detail is that, of course, both stories mention a goat as part of the monster. But believe me if I tell you that there is much more in terms of similarities than just the goat: the structure of the story, the settings, the role of the characters, but we'll go back to that in a moment. Right now, let me just note a point: how is it that in the 1950s, in the mountains of Tuscany, old peasants would tell a story that is at least 3000 years old? Is it possible that the story has been passed to us from Etruscan times hopping from father to son? (or, more likely, from grand-mother to grand-daughter?)

Of course, we'll never know, but it might even be: anthropologists have discovered that stories told by word of mouth tend to survive for long times, centuries or more. That doesn't mean that the story of the Iron Goat is five thousand years old, of course, but it does show that some stories tend to be told over and over, in different versions, maintaining some core features. So, in the 1950s the story of the Chimera, or at least a story that was very similar to the one of the Chimera, was being told in Tuscany in an oral version that probably didn't derive from the literary or graphic versions recorded in books. It is a manifestation of the incredible resilience of the main features of the myth; something that we must try to explain.

Myths as viral transmission

Written stories, just as some wines, don't age well. When the story of the Chimera was written down in an age when people had become literate, in Classic Times, the myth was literally torn to pieces. So, Plato tells us of the Chimera only as a useless absurdity. For Virgil, it is a decorative accessory for his poems. There was a Roman writer named Servius Onoratus who said that the Chimera was really the description of a volcano; because it emits flames. About this, I think that if I were to meet Servius someday, in the Elysian Fields, I would tell him something like, "Come on, Servius, don't you think that your ancestors should have been able to tell a lion from a volcano?" But this is how it goes. Once written down, a myth loses much of its consistency, its logic, and also its resilience. It becomes a dead myth; maybe still full of force and fury, but without meaning.

Why is that? It has to do, I believe, with the limits of the human mind. I read not long ago that the memory available in our brain is not larger than a few hundred megabytes. I am not sure about what exactly that means, but it does make some sense: our mental capabilities are extremely limited. Look at my book on the Chimera; it is about 80,000 words. I wrote it, but I couldn't recite it to you without reading it. Think instead of Homer's Iliad. In its English translation it is about 150,000 words. But I am sure that Homer could recite the whole Iliad to you, and not just the Iliad - also the Odyssey and probably more epic poems. And Homer, most likely, couldn't read or write.

So, there is a basic point here. We all have plenty of books in our shelves at home, but most likely we don't know even a single one by heart. It was the opposite for Homer and the people of his time. Now, surely you wouldn't say that people at the time of Homer were smarter than we are. Simply, they had a different way of organizing information in their brains. Not having the kind of external support that we have in the form of books, and now as the Internet, the information that they had needed to be in forms that could be memorized.

Poems such as the Odyssey and the Iliad were made from the beginning with that idea in mind: easy to memorize. Rhyming, of course, was a device used for this purpose, but not just that. The very structure of these poems is made in such a way to be easy to assimilate. If you have had the time to read the Iliad, you'll see what I mean: the story is compact; extremely dense, it has no space for details. Compare the Iliad or the Odyssey with a modern novel and you'll see the difference. Think of Ulysses by James Joyce. Theoretically, Joyce wanted to write something like a modern version of the Odyssey but, gosh, the result is completely different, even though there are connections - maybe. And that's not just a question of Joyce - it is the structure of the modern novel in general that has changed. You could make several modern novels with a single page of the Iliad.

Now, think of the Chimera myth. It was conceived much before the existence of writing. So, it was told in a form easy to memorize and, as such, extremely compact. ; in the Iliad it is described in just a few lines. It was left to the story teller to enliven these few lines by the tone, the expression, the acting, and - possibly - adding extra details. It was just what Alessandro Fornari would do when he told the story of the Iron Goat in his unique way of doing it. He had acquired, I think, some of the capabilities of ancient storytellers!

In modern terms, we could say that a myth is a form of viral communication. It is a fashionable concept, nowadays, but it is a correct interpretation of a common phenomenon, also very ancient. It is simply that, when you transmit a message, it has to be de-codified by the receiver. So, you can send a very compact message that the receiver will "unpack" or "unzip." So, my 80,000 words book is a way to unpack the few lines of description of the Chimera given by Homer and by others. You could say that everything that I wrote in my book was already contained, albeit virtually, in the few lines that Homer wrote.

Being so compact, a real communication virus, the myth is easy transmitted; it does not require a support other than the mind of a peasant grandmother. And when it has taken root in a mind, it stays there because it is memorized as a whole. Just because of this, it is very difficult - almost impossible - to destroy it. It is transmitted generation after generation, always the same, because it is so simple and compact.  I think we could say that the myth is the "atomic unit" of communication. In a sense, we could say that a myth is a "mind sized" piece of information, to use a term invented by Seymour Papert.

The myth's struggle for survival  

Being compact, although important for a myth, can't be sufficient to ensure its survival. Like a biological virus, in order to replicate a myth needs to have the capability of adapting to its host; it needs to be able to utilize the host's reproductive system. In the case of a myth, it needs to convince the host - typically the mind of a peasant grandmother - to retell it. Not all myths succeed in the same way. Perhaps in ancient Greece there were many more myths and stories than those we know nowadays, but those who didn't have this survival ability, didn't survive. There must have been a harsh selection process over thousands of years. So, what is that makes the story of the Chimera so resilient?

You know what makes a good story: there has to be meaning. Typically, that means it is a moral or an ethical issue to be solved. There has to be some kind of conflict, a problem to be solved. That's what makes a good story live.

There are many examples of myths that embody conflicts of considerable complexity. There comes to my mind the story of Antigone, you may remember it. She was killed because she had refused to obey the law that forbade her to bury the body of her dead brother. It is the conflict of human laws and natural laws; an extremely modern myth that would be very interesting to discuss, but let's go on.

On the opposite side, some myths look rather silly. Do you remember the story of Pyramus and Thisbe? The play within the play in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream?" It is the story of a young couple who end up killing themselves by mistake. Doesn't seem to be a very deep conflict - just an invitation to be a bit more careful! But if the myth survived, there has to be a reason. Maybe it is just because it is so silly; and indeed Shakespeare seems to think of it just in these terms in his play. But, then, you may remember also that another of Shakespeare's plays, "Romeo and Juliet" is based exactly on the story of Pyramus and Thisbe! So it may not be such a silly myth, after all.

Ancient myths are often like that. They may look silly on the surface, but there is always a layer of complexity below. There must be a deep meaning in these ancient stories because they survived a process of natural selection lasting thousands of year. It is Darwin's survival of the fittest translated to mythology.

It is the same for the myth of the Chimera. At first sight, it doesn't look so complex. As I said before, we could compress it into one sentence: "shiny hero kills ugly beast". What kind of ethical conflict is involved with that? It looks like the mission statement of a pest extermination company. But things are not so simple and if that was all what was in the myth, it wouldn't have survived all these millennia. There is much, much more.

The meaning of the Chimera myth

To explain the meaning of the myth of the Chimera, we may go back to the story of the "Iron Goat." The beast, the strange creature, is an emanation of the wilderness that, in the story, knocks at the door and comes inside the house. This is the basic point of the story: the conflict of civilization and wilderness, the problem to be solved. This is what gives meaning to the story.

The problem of the relation of human spaces and wilderness is very ancient and we haven't solved it, even today. We live mostly in an urban environment and we don't expect monsters to be knocking at our door. But the idea is still there and it keeps reappearing: think of a movie such as "Avatar". It is so dense of ancient myths that you would think it was turned in Sumerian times. You see how the roles are cast: there is exactly this contrast: wilderness and civilization. In Avatar, the humans are civilization and the Pandorians are the wilderness. That is what makes the film fascinating; not the battles or the various monsters. The story has a meaning, there is a tension, a conflict to be solved.

So, you see how modern is the myth of the Chimera. At its root, there is this conflict: civilization versus wilderness. The Chimera is the trees we cut to pave the land to build a shopping center. It is the mountains we destroy to get at the coal seams below. It is the people we bomb because we think they are dangerous to us. It is everything we don't want to see, and we want to destroy, while we think we are safe inside our homes. But, in reality, we are not and we know that very well.  The environment is not really something "outside", the environment is all those things that make us live. If we destroy the environment, we destroy ourselves.

These considerations are all there, inside the myth of the Chimera, once you unpack it and you take care of some details that seem to be marginal and, instead, are fundamental. So, in the Iliad that the Chimera is explicitly referred to as "Theon", which means "divine". The Chimera is no mere monster, it is a God. And no mortal can kill a God because Gods are immortal. At most, it is possible to kill the "avatar" of a God. And killing a God - even if just its avatar -  is not something that common mortals can do lightly. It brings misfortune; not rewards. Indeed, Bellerophon ends his life blind and accursed as a punishment for what he has done. So, you see? The story of the Chimera is by no means simple; it is not black and white, not good versus evil. The story is subtle and dense and it carries a lot of meaning that we can still understand if we just spend a little time in exploring it.

Today, we don't listen any more to old stories told by grandmothers. But our minds have not changed from that age and the messages we exchange must still be "mind sized," even though we tend to think that we have somehow progressed beyond that. It may well be that, with the Internet, we are going back to a rapid and "viral" kind of communication which was typical of old story telling. Of course, the Internet, right now, is full of silly and useless stories but we saw how there exists also a natural selection for stories. Silly stories don't survive for long; important ones do. The story of the Chimera is something that may take a new life today if we learn how to tell it. Movies such as "Avatar" may be just such a way. So, there may be hope to convey today the meaning that the ancient myth has been carrying for millennia: if we destroy what we think are monsters, we destroy ourselves. Our only hope for the future is to make peace with our chimeras.

This image by Ferdnand Knhopff doesn't show Bellerophon and the Chimera but rather Oedipus and the Sphinx. But it does not matter, it is the same ancient myth and the idea that the protagonists must make peace with each other (h/t Lino Polegato)

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Where have our dreams gone? The death of the Western literature

Reposted from "Cassandra's Legacy" Jan 2015

The novel by Vladimir Dudintsev "Not by bread alone" was published in 1956 (*). It was a big hit in the Soviet Union with its criticism of the stagnating and inefficient Soviet ways. Together with other Russian authors, such as Vasily Grossman and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Dudintsev was part of a wave of novelists who tried to use literature to change the ways of society. That kind of approach seems to have withered out, both in the countries of the old Soviet Union and in the West.

At some moment, between the second and the third century AD, the Latin literature died out in the Roman Empire. Not that people stopped writing; on the contrary, the late Western Roman Empire saw a minor revival of Latin Literature; it was just that they didn't seem to have anything interesting to say anymore.

If we consider the high times of the Empire, around the first century BC, it is likely that most of us would be able to come up with at least some names of literates of that time: poets such as Virgil and Horace, philosophers like Seneca, historians like Tacitus. But move to the late centuries of the Western Empire and chances are that you won't be able to come up with any name unless you read Gibbon and you remember that he cites the 4th-century poet Ausonius to evidence the bad taste of those times. It seems that the Roman Empire had lost its soul much before having disappeared as a political organization.

Often, I have the impression that we are following the same path to collapse that the Roman Empire followed, but faster. Ask yourself this question: can you cite a recent (intended as less than - say - 10-20 years old) piece of literature that you think posterity will remember? (and not as an example of bad taste). Personally, I can't. And I think that it could be said that literature in the Western world declined in the 1970s or so and that today is not a vital form of art any longer.

Of course, perceptions in these matters may be very different, but I can cite plenty of great novels published during the first half of the 20th century; novels that changed the way people looked at the world. Think of the great season of the American writers in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s; think of Hemingway, of Fitzgerald, of Gertrude Stein and many others. And of how American literature continued to produce masterpieces, from John Steinbeck to Jack Kerouac and others. Now, can you cite a later equivalent American writer? Think of a great writer such as JohnGardner, who wrote in the 1970s and is today mostly forgotten. Something similar seems to have taken place on the other side of the Iron Curtain; where a number of gifted Soviet writers (Dudintsev, Grossman, Solzhenitsyn, and others) produced a literary corpus in the 1950s and 1960s that strongly challenged the Soviet orthodoxy and played a role in the fall of the Soviet Union. But there doesn't seem to exist anything comparable anymore in Eastern European countries that could compare with those novels.

It is not just a question of written literature; visual arts seem to have gone through the same withering process: think of Picasso's Guernica (1937) as an example. Can you think of anything painted during the past few decades with an even remotely comparable impact? About movies, which ones were really original or changed our perception of the world? Maybe with movies we are doing better than with written literature; at least some movies didn't go unnoticed, even though their literary merits are questionable. Think of  "The night of the living dead", by George Romero, which goes back to1968 and has generated a tsunami of imitations. Think of "Star Wars" (1977), which shaped an entire strategic plan of the US military. But during the past decade or so, the film industry doesn't seem to have been able to do better than hurling legions of zombies and assorted monsters at the spectators.

Not that we don't have bestsellers anymore, just as we have blockbuster movies. But can we produce anything original and relevant? It seems that we have gone the way the Roman Empire went: we cannot produce a Virgil anymore, at best an equivalent of Ausonius.

And there is a reason for that. Literature, the great kind, is all about changing the reader's view of the world. A great novel, a great poem, are not just about an interesting plot or beautiful images. Good literature brings forth a dream: the dream of a different world. And that dream changes the reader, makes her different. But, in order to perform this deed, the reader must be able to dream of a change. He must live in a society where it is possible, theoretically at least, to put dreams into practice. This is not always the case.

In the Roman Empire of the 4th and 5th century AD, the dream was gone. The Romans had retreated behind their fortifications and had sacrificed everything - including their freedom - in the name of their security. Poetry had become merely praising the rulers of the day, philosophy the compilation of previous works, and history a mere chronicle. Something like that is happening to us: where have our dreams gone?

But it is also  true that man doesn't live by bread alone. We need dreams as much as we need food. And dreams are something that Art can bring to us, in the form of literature or other forms; it doesn't matter. It is the power of dreams that can never disappear. If the Roman Literature had disappeared as an original source of dreams, it could still work as a vehicle for dreams coming from outside the empire. From the Eastern Border of the Empire, the cults of Mitrha and of Christ would make deep inroads into the Roman minds. In the early 5th century, in a southern provincial town besieged by barbarians, Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, completed his "The City of God", a book that we still read today and that changed forever the concept of narrative, perhaps the first novel - in the modern sense - ever written. A few centuries later, when the Empire was nothing more than a ghostly memory, an unknown poet composed the Beowulf and, later still, the Nibelungenlied appeared. During this period, tales about a warlord of Britannia started to appear and would later coalesce into the Arthurian cycle, perhaps the core of our modern vision of epic literature.

So, the dream is not dead. Somewhere, at the edges of the empire, or perhaps outside of it, someone is dreaming a beautiful dream (**). Maybe she will write it down in a remote language, or maybe she will use the Imperial Language. Maybe he will use a different medium than the written word; we cannot say. What we can say is that, one day, this new dream will change the world.

(*) A brief comment on Dutintsev's novel, which I bought and read in an English translation as a little exercise in cultural archaeology. Read more than half a century after its release, it is difficult to see it as still "sensational" as it was described at that time in the Western press, which had clearly tried to cash an easy propaganda victory against the Soviet Union. As a novel, it is slow and overdrawn, although that may be a result of the Internet-caused attention deficit which affects most of us. In any case, the novel has defects. One is the protagonist, Dmitri Lopatkin, so heavily characterized as a perfect altruist to make him totally unbelievable as a real world person. But the book is still charming in its description of a Moscow, which is no more, but which remains perfectly recognizable, even though so much changed today. To see the characters of the book in action, you can watch the movie made in 2005. I already commented a short story by Dudintsev in this post.

 (**) From a group of remote islands known as Japan, a man has been producing one masterpiece movie after another; Hayao Miyazaki. To understand the decline of the Western forms of narrative, you have just to compare two animation movies which came out together in 2014: the nearly ignored  "The wind rises" by Miyazaki and the blockbuster "Frozen" by Walt Disney Studios. It is like comparing Augustine and Ausonius and the ongoing collapse of the Western Empire is all there.  

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The King's Mountain: the Battle of Faesulae, 1610 years ago

This post was published on "Resource Crisis" in 2012. It is republished here in occasion of a new anniversary of the battle of Faesulae, on Aug 23, 406 AD.

The southern side of the Mugnone Valley, in Tuscany. The narrow passage that you see between the two hills in the background marks the road to the central plains of Italy, toward Rome. It is here that, in 406 A.D., the Roman Army stopped the invading Goths in a memorable battle that lasted a few days. On Aug 23 of that year, Radagaisus, King of the Goths, was captured and executed on the hill that today takes the name of MonteReggi ("Mons Regis", the King's Mountain)

If you visit the Mugnone Valley, near the city of Fiesole, in Italy, you'll see a quiet place, mainly inhabited by people who commute everyday to Florence, just a few km away. But you may also note how the hills at the southern side of the valley mark the last natural obstacle for those who follow the road that goes through the Appennino mountains and leads to the central plains of Italy. Those hills have played the role of a line of defense more than once in history. Today, August 23rd, is the anniversary of the final act of the "battle of Faesulae" that raged there for a few days in the year 406 A.D. and that saw the attempt of the Goths to reach Rome stopped by a Roman Army.

In those years, Rome was entering what was to be the last century of the Western Roman Empire. The Roman society was experiencing a new phase of decline and collapse that led, among other things, to the loss of the fortifications that had protected the Empire's territory for centuries. Then, the peoples of the Eastern Regions, whom the Romans called "Barbarians," found that the road to to the Empire's territories was open for them. Entire populations moved onward and, in 406 A.D. the Goths, led by their King, Radagaisus, were marching South with the objective of conquering Rome.

The task of stopping the Goths fell on Flavius Stilicho, magister militum of the armies of the West and himself of Barbarian origin. He was acting on behalf of Emperor Honorius who, in the meantime, did nothing but hide in Ravenna, protected by the marshes surrounding the city. In Gibbon's words (chapter 30 of "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire")

..... such was the feeble and exhausted state of the empire, that it was impossible to restore the fortifications of the Danube, or to prevent, by a vigorous effort, the invasion of the Germans. The hopes of the vigilant minister of Honorius were confined to the defence of Italy. He once more abandoned the provinces, recalled the troops, pressed the new levies, which were rigorously exacted, and pusillanimously eluded; employed the most efficacious means to arrest, or allure, the deserters; and offered the gift of freedom, and of two pieces of gold, to all the slaves who would enlist

We don't have many details on how exactly the battle went, but it seems that the Goths first besieged Florence, then were forced to retreat and finally were trapped in the Mugnone valley; blocked by the fortifications built around the city of Faesulae. Gibbon tells us (chapter 30) that:

Conscious that he (Stilicho) commanded the last army of the republic, his prudence would not expose it, in the open field, to the headstrong fury of the Germans. The method of surrounding the enemy with strong lines of circumvallation, which he had twice employed against the Gothic king, was repeated on a larger scale, and with more considerable effect.

Surrounded, the Goths had no escape. The Romans and their Hunnic allies had turned the valley into a killing zone. After a few days of battle, they surrendered in great numbers; so many that the slave market is said to have collapsed for a brief period. King Radagaisus himself was captured and beheaded, putting an end forever to his attempt of conquering Rome.

That was not to be the last time that the Romans could defeat an army of invading barbarians. But each victory left Rome a little weaker and closer to the final collapse. The battle of Faesulae was not an exception: it was a great victory that brought nothing but disaster to the Romans. Just two years later, in 408 A.D., almost on the same date when Radagaisus had been executed (Aug 22), Stilicho was betrayed, captured and beheaded in Ravenna at the orders of Emperor Honorius. Being a general is always a dangerous job but, apparently, being a successful general is even more dangerous if you have to deal with a suspicious and tyrannical Emperor. Without Stilicho, the Roman army melted away, leaving Italy defenseless. Two more years later, in 410 A.D., Rome was to fall to another Gothic King, Alaric. The Empire survived this event, but it was another step along the way that would lead the Western Empire to its final demise with the last decades of the 5th century A.D.

Image of Montereggi taken on Aug 22nd 2012, showing also your modest author, Ugo Bardi. More pictures of the city of Fiesole can be found at my blog "Foto di Fiesole"

Of those remote times, little more than a few lines in history books remain. But, in the Mugnone Valley, you can still find a hill that takes the name of Montereggi, from the Latin "Mons Regis", the King's Mountain. It is the place where, it is said, King Radagaisus was beheaded. We can still walk there and find a small Christian church surrounded by cypress trees. There is also a pile of stones with a sign that says "Ave crux, spes nostra" (Hail, cross, our hope). We have no reason to believe that it was the exact point where the king was beheaded, but surely it is a suggestive place.

Perhaps another echo of this ancient battle is the old legend that has that in the early times of the city of Florence, a king named "Fiorino" defended the city from the Etruscans of Faesulae and was killed in battle. It is said that the blood of king Fiorino turned red the irises flowering in the fields and that was the origin of the symbol of Florence, the red fleur de lys.

It is just a legend and surely no king with that name ever ruled Florence. But the links with the historical fate of King Radagaisus are evident and the legend might well be a garbled rendition of the ancient battle of Faesulae. After all, many of the defeated Goths must have remained in the area around the valley, either as slaves or fugitives. A little of their blood may well still be with us, today.

For more information about the tumultuous 5th century and the characters of the time, you can give a look at my article on Empress Galla Placidia "Chemistry of an Empire"