A whilom history major

In an effort to get myself to sleep during a recent spate of insomnia and to enrich my understanding of ancient Roman history after reading Beard’s SPQR earlier this year, I have been reading a 1904 anthology of historians writing on various topics pertaining to the early Roman republic. History writing has changed a great deal in the past century; perhaps the historians of yesteryear were entertaining and concise by the standards of the time, but perhaps there is a reason history has a reputation for being dry. It is an undeserved reputation, in my opinion, yet I admit to finding a few of these fin de siècle commentaries soporific.

These historians toss names around as though we readers could be expected to know one 3rd-century BC general from another and assume we are already well-versed in the Punic Wars. Admittedly, it is likely the average educated reader in 1904 had more Western Civ background than the educated reader has today. I have heard of the Punic Wars, but I was rather hoping the historians could frame them for me in a way a modern reader might understand. So far, no luck with this anthology.

Perhaps that is not possible anyway–a modern reader really cannot fathom what life was like so long ago, or what constituted “civilization;” although current re-creation attempts offer a sort of immersion, no one can know how accurate they are (see: experimental archaeology). Contemporary historians, however, seem more willing to do a bit of cultural speculation, relying on archeology and artifacts as much as–or more than–upon the ancient texts listing wars, generals, leaders and enemies. One reason I decided not to pursue a history major in college long ago is that the discipline required so much task-reading of names, dates, and places before the student could move into the interesting materials of everyday life, food, culture, livelihoods, skills, crafts, religion, the arts…the kinds of things that interest me. I lacked discipline.

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But words interest me. Another reason the 1904 book is so helpful at bedtime is the general pacing of the prose, but the word choices are fascinating. I do not just refer here to archaic history jargon but to vocabulary in general. It’s what one of my colleagues among the English instructors terms “ornamental.” Ornamental prose has its place, and there are times I relish its languid character, but it tends to drag for the reader more accustomed to contemporary American-English conciseness. So I get sleepy.

There are charming rewards to this stuff. Last week, the word whilom kept me from slumber. I had to find out what it meant before going to sleep and was about to throw off the blankets and get my dictionary. My kind spouse had the smartphone on the bedstand, however, and dictionary.com identified it as “archaic; erstwhile.” Here’s a little bio of the word from worldwidewords. Reading a compendium such as this one offers me insights not only into ancient Rome but into the world of scholars of 100 years ago–quite a different culture from today.

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Ann E. Michael is a whilom history student and umquhile psychology major who turned to philosophy and English and then earned a graduate degree in Creative Writing. She recommends The Historians’ History of the World Volume 5 (ed. Henry Smith Williams) as both educational and snooze-inducing.     🙂

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Protest (Selma)

The past 10 months have been especially notable for public protest here and abroad. As it happens, I’ve been trying to write a poem about my father’s participation in the voting-rights march (1965, Selma to Montgomery AL), a kind of occasional poem to commemorate the 50-year anniversary. Then the movie “Selma” was released, which I just saw at the cinema.

The film, like all “based on a true story” dramatizations, may have focused on perspectives of the protest that worked best for the scriptwriter, may have some historical inaccuracies, may raise some controversy. But as a child whose parents were, though marginally, connected with civil rights through the churches’ participation, the movie felt true in the big way: “capital T” True. Funny, the aspects of the film that engaged me: how I could immediately identify who the actors were portraying (Abernathy, Young, Lewis); the way so many important discussions took place in church basements and classrooms (as the child of a minister, I am intimately familiar with church basements and classrooms); the televising of Bloody Sunday.

And another True thing:  the familiar, biblical-style, preacher-cadence and allusions in King’s speech. People do not talk that way anymore. But they once did, and I recall it well. Rhythm and intonation and the use of allusions and analogies impress the sort of listeners who eventually become poets, I am sure of it.

Right now, I am struggling with my poem. I am not sure I will ever complete a draft that I feel pleased with–maybe it will end  up in my “dead poems” file. What I will do instead is to devote my next post to my father’s depiction of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, from his point of view, looking back 50 years.

Trees & tombs

On a brisk and clear autumn day, I visited Brooklyn’s magnificent and park-like Green-Wood Cemetery. Established in 1838, the burial grounds were planned as a gently-rolling landscape of hills, winding paths, ponds, and specimen trees in what was then rural Long Island. The “History” tab of the National Historic Site’s webpage says:

By 1860, Green-Wood was attracting 500,000 visitors a year, rivaling Niagara Falls as the country’s greatest tourist attraction. Crowds flocked to Green-Wood to enjoy family outings, carriage rides and sculpture viewing in the finest of first generation American landscapes. Green-Wood’s popularity helped inspire the creation of public parks, including New York City’s Central and Prospect Parks.

These days, US citizens feel far less connected to death, and the concept of picnicking among gravesites may seem creepy. The organization devoted to keeping up the cemetery as a historic site (it is, by the way, still an active cemetery) offers tours: visitors can tour the catacombs, visit graves of famous people, take an architectural monument & mausoleum tour, and see the sculptural highlights of the cemetery.

The sculptures are largely figural pieces and tend toward the Gothic sentimentality of the late 19th century: draped urns, weeping maidens wearing Greek chitons, triumphant angels, busts and full-length portraiture, columns and more columns (Corinthian being far and away the favorite). If such monuments appeal to you, Green-Wood is decidedly worth a visit; it is also a favorite among history buffs. A Revolutionary battle was fought on those grounds, and there are some early graves from the Dutch pre-Revolutionary era, not to mention the inherent historical interest of a major city mortuary established in the 1830s.

Here’s a flickr site devoted to images of Green-Wood.

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While history and art interest me a great deal, what most arrested my attention at Green-Wood were the trees. Seldom do I get to see dozens of 170-year-old oaks, 100-year-old weeping beeches draping their boughs over paths and tombstones, large female gingko trees that drop their smelly orange fruits on the ground, old elms that survived Dutch elm disease, enormous cedars and firs of every description, majestic walnut trees (the woodlot at my house sports only some weedy black walnuts). Three tall, long-armed people embraced the circumference of one of these old oaks…

GreenwoodTree2-26Oct2013

Loving up the trees at Green-Wood.

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There are hundreds of species of trees at Green-Wood, aptly named; and in fall the colors are handsome. I can imagine the pastel colors of the flowering trees there in spring!

So I think of the place of the dead as a fantastic terrarium of living things encased in city streets, a bubble of micro-environment–470+ acres–wherein thrive trees, a wide variety of birds, ornamental grasses and flowers, shrubs (too many hydrangeas, perhaps), squirrels and, judging by the dug-up divots evident in grassy areas, skunks, opossums, and possibly raccoons.

And yes, I recognize that cemeteries have a reputation for good soil because the plants are “fertilized” by human remains–undeserved reputation in modern times due to sanitation requirements and at Green-Wood, where many of the interred are not even in the ground. Even if and when human decay complements the soil nutrients, the idea doesn’t bother me. I am enough of a scientist, and enough of a Buddhist, to appreciate the biocycle.

Philosophy of cities

I’m going to let the late Lewis Mumford speak for himself in a couple of excerpts from The City in History. Even though I love history and have perused many a book on the subject(s), I learned a great deal about Western history from this book. What intrigues me most as I’ve read, though, is Mumford’s roles as historian-as-sociocultural-critic and historian-as-philosopher. When writing a book of this scope, no matter how founded on data, archeological and textual records, it’s hard for this writer to avoid thoughtful forays into philosophy. Mumford looks forward, too, speculating on city life in the future–and he takes rather a dim view of where megalopolises were heading in 1961. He was prescient indeed. While today’s citizens may argue that his judgments are overly negative, it is difficult to refute the accuracy of his speculations, particularly when he foretells the modern city’s environmental impact on society and on earth’s resources.

So much of the book is a warning: cities have a tendency to collapse, and there are reasons for that. Such reasons have to do with greed, power, poorly-applied technology, lack of foresight, overcrowding, ignorance of the need for balance in any system–governmental, agricultural, environmental, social, economic, etc. He sounds like a Cassandra at times, and we all know that aphorism about being doomed to repeat history, as does Mumford. But ultimately, he makes a passionate call to creativity and human life, warning us not to let our burgeoning technology reduce human activity to the level of the hive. He revels in the arts, in the conscious purpose of human living, in the genuine communication among persons, and in the joys available to those who understand an organic system must be balanced.

[He refers to men and mankind using the typical non-gender-neutral language of the era, which I am not going to alter in these excerpts.]

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A bit of green…

Here he is discussing the “Green Matrix.” Remember, he’s writing in 1961!

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“The maintenance of the regional setting, the green matrix, is essential for the culture of cities. Where this setting has been defaced, despoiled, or obliterated, the deterioration of the city must follow, for the relationship is symbiotic. The difficulty of maintaining this balance has been temporarily increased, not merely by the incontinent spread of low-grade urban tissue everywhere, dribbling off into endless roadside stands, motels, garages, motor sales agencies, and building lots, but by the rapid industrialization of farming itself, which has turned it from a way of life into a mechanical processing business no different in content or aim or outlook from any other metropolitan occupation…”

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Following Mumford’s observation that overpopulation is often a result of privation, rather than the expected other way around, and leads to the “bursting” of the city as a healthy, organic system, he notes (with clear reference to his much earlier chapters on the decline of Rome):

“No profit-oriented, pleasure-dominated economy can cope with such demands: no power-dominated society can permanently suppress them. Should the same attitude spread toward the organs of education, art, and culture–man’s super-biological means of reproduction–it would alter the entire human prospect, for public service would take precedence over private profit, and public funds would be available for the building and rebuilding of villages, neighborhoods, cities, and regions on more generous lines than the aristocracies of the past were ever able to afford for themselves. Such a change would restore the discipline and the delight of the garden to every aspect of life; and it might do more to balance the birthrate, by its concern with the quality of life, than any other collective measure….significant improvements come only through applying art and thought to the city’s central concerns, with a fresh dedication to the cosmic and ecological processes that enfold all being…the best economy of cities is the care and culture of men.”

The care and culture of “men” meaning, “human beings”: that’s a lovely purpose for a city–or a nation–a noble one, and one too many people tend to forget as we occupy ourselves with the busy-ness of our own isolated lives.

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Of note: The USA’s 50 “greenest” cities…which does not mean they are good cities by Mumford’s definition, but which is probably a good start. Click here.

Fragments

The web journal qarrtsiluni is running an issue on “fragments.” I feel a bit fragmented myself lately. Here are a few recent, fragmentary thoughts.

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I am reading Lewis Mumford’s tome The City in History and enjoying it for a number of reasons. One is Mumford’s ability to employ words such as “forfend” in a correct and even natural way. Another reason is the approach he takes to trying to reason through and tease out strains of pre-history that lead up to the establishment of cities world-wide, a kind of philosophical anthropology. Sixty years of subsequent archeological discovery and interpretation may alter his theories, or perhaps lean toward confirming them; I’m not enough of a scholar to know. I do, however, find his speculations appealing. One of his theories suggests that war developed along with hierarchical religion, kingship, and the city. It makes sense that militarization on any significant scale was not “invented” until there was population enough to support it and reasons (defend the king, the god, or the goods) to deploy a military body.

He does not say human beings are not inherently aggressive. He merely suggests that when we live in smaller, more isolated groups it is in our best interest to cooperate rather than to expend resources on warfare (soldiers, arms, defenses). Something to meditate upon in current times.

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Mumford was researching and writing this book in the late 1950s (publication date was 1961). Interesting to me, he cites Jung’s archetypes and theories–though not in a way that implies Mumford was in any way a Jungian–about the feminine and the masculine as regards the development of human social structures. Bachelard, writing at about the same time, also cites Jung when he discusses the poetic space. I think of Bachelard’s brief passage about how a bird creates its nest with its own body, its breast molding the shape of the container that is its temporary home, and how this correlates with Mumford’s observation that the tent, hut, or village dwelling–indeed, often the village itself (and later, the city)–tends toward a cup-shape; it is a container. The earliest communities of human beings needed to develop containers in order to improve their chances of survival: jugs, skins, gourds for water and covered bowls or jars for grain and seed storage. Once humans could last through times when game or gathered food was scarce, they could procreate more efficiently. Mumford defines irrigation ditches as containers, too, as “feminine” objects as per Jung.

The garden wall, the city wall contained the human community or the sustenance for the human community, especially once domesticated animals were added to our communities.

As for the masculine/phallic, Mumford’s examples are all the expected objects: tools and weapons and stele.

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The ancient Persian word that is the root for our “paradise” comes from the term for garden, specifically a walled garden. The Egyptian hieroglyph for “city” is a circle with “crossroads” inside it. A link to one of Notre Dame’s open course lecture pages has an illustration comparing this hieroglyph with other ancient representations of cities. (Notre Dame course on the geometry of buildings that demonstrates some of the universality of “containers” as Mumford observed: Geometry of Buildings.)

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Also, I wonder whether Jung’s archetype theories were still new enough in 1960 that it was kind of a trend to cite him in works like these two books. Jung does not seem to be as popular these days except among his devoted followers–a niche audience. Perhaps his ideas are now just accepted as given? Not all of his ideas, but the general understanding of archetypes, I mean. Or is he out of fashion? Or am I just missing the current books that base a significant understanding of human cultural development upon these aspects of his thinking?

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Man and His Symbols was an important book for me when I was a college freshman.

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I keep thinking of the places I find in the meadow where the deer bed down. They are round, cup-shaped, molded to the bodies of the deer. Containers, temporarily, for the warm animal that sleeps, that breathes.