April 28, 2007

A thought on the US Presidential Race

Shockingly for an election that is over a year away, speculation and a media frenzy has already started around those who would be running for US President in November 2008, if they could. On the Democrat side, the attention has mostly gathered around Senators Obama, Clinton and Edwards, on the Republican side around Senator McCain, Governor Romney, Senator Thompson (who isn't even running officially yet) and Mayor Guiliani. I don't at the moment have a particular preference- partly because it seems slightly crazy to me to make a choice of someone who one would like others to elect in over two years time- for example who knows what issues will be central to American politics by then, we can all assume but history has a way of surprising us- it may be that America requires a burst of new hope that a character like Obama or Romney might provide or the steady hand or an experienced McCain or Clinton. Despite that journalists have started writing profiles and discussing candidates already- for instance Reason magazine ran an item this month on McCain and it seems worthwhile to assess exactly what questions we ought to be asking (if indeed we ought to be asking any) at the moment.

The United States is at present engaged within two tragic conflicts which are costing lives (both American and non-American)- one in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. It is conventionally assumed that the success or failure of both operations is linked in some way to terrorist activity- that Al Quaeda has been strengthened by the comparative failure to settle Iraq but was weakened by the successful military operations in Afghanistan. Consequently the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan tie into a wider struggle, some have misnamed the war on terror, against Islamic militancy. At the moment, the US is pursuing a particular strategy in both nations- in Afghanistan it is supporting the Afghan government and putting pressure on the Pakistani government to sweep out the last strongholds of the Taliban in the south, in Iraq the United States has embarked on a surge of armed forces- for reasons I've outlined and criticised here. Both these operations are obviously at the front of the current campaign- but I think the debate on them is curiously misguided- and needs to be redressed.

Let us reemphasize what the Americans are doing- they are not choosing an American President to take office now but choosing one to take office on the 1st January 2009. By then particularly in Iraq, most supporters and opponents of the surge accept that we will either know whether the operation has succeeded or failed- we will know what has happenned. In that context, either the next President will have an easy task- to declare that operations are complete or that Iraq is improving and keep going, or s/he will have a much more difficult task, to work out what to do next. What other options are there out there and what should be done for American interests in the circumstances of the failure of the surge? (I don't think what happens should the surge succeed is very difficult to calculate- but even its most steadfast proponents must accept that there is a percentage chance of failure.)

On that basis Senator McCain's recent confession that he didn't know what to do should the surge fail is particularly puzzling- that is exactly what should he be elected he might have to deal with. By the time of such an election, the question of whether to do the surge or not would be a question of past not future politics- so why is everyone so worried about it? Partly because it demonstrates the judgement of the candidates involved, they are being asked because it might indicate what they would do as President- however one must notice two facts about that particular way of thinking that make it a bit ludicrous- firstly that they don't have the intelligence and the sophisticated work that underpins any decision from the White House and secondly they aren't in the seat, they don't have to make the decision. All they have to do is pontificate. Under pressure, character changes- no more so than with the current President who entered the White House sceptical of nation building and has become the biggest nation builder of all US Presidents since Harry Truman.

Why are we all involved in this? This next election won't be about President Bush- wise or foolish his time will have passed but the voters and the media and the candidates want it to be about President Bush because it gives them something to talk about. The truth is that noone knows what the circumstances of 2008 might be- a major terrorist attack on the continental United States or escalating casualties in Baghdad or peace in Iraq all might give the campaign a different set of contours and face candidates with a different set of questions than those facing President Bush at the moment. I would prefer to see, if I have to, the candidates discuss some of the options for what might be true in 2009, rather than what should be done in the here and now. So what about some options for what happens should the surge fail? What about some thoughts on what if the US would withdraw their attitude would be to Iranian influence inside Iraq? What about some gaming for the future instead of concentrating on decisions that neither the candidates nor the electorate can influence.

There are obviously reasons that the candidates are unwilling to do this- a fear of binding their hands, a fear of alienating people through their answers (what would be the response of a Democrat to an Iranian nuclear test for example, or of a Republican to the American casualty rate hitting hundreds or even thousands in Iraq)- but I think it points out the difficulty of these campaigns starting so early. Afterall Mayor Guiliani's view of the surge is about as relevant as Jim Baker's- its his view of what comes next should the surge succeed or fail that's more interesting- because he might be presiding over it.

April 27, 2007

For UK Readers

For UK readers aware that there is a local election and that the BNP may win seats, this campaign that Harry's Place refers to is very worthwhile.

Carnival of Cinema

The Carnival of Cinema, managed normally by Scott Nehring normally has set itself down here for a week and as you'd expect, this week being the week Ingrid Bergman signed on to perform in Casablanca that there are some wonderful posts about there about films ancient and modern. Hopefully they'll wet your appetite for film and make you go and watch a DVD, that afterall is what this should all be about.

So where to start- well Shakespeare's birthday fell this week and obviously prompted a lot of bloggers into thinking about Shakespeare and film. Emma at All about my Movies listed what in her opinion were the best five Hamlets on film, with added reasons. The Critic after Dark went wild over Orson Welles's adaptation of four Shakespeare plays in two hours of film- a rather impressive effort by the enfant terrible of cinema! Peter offered a review of Omkara and plenty more Shakespearian cinematic stuff- which you can find at the bottom of his post.

Akira Kurosawa made one of the great Shakespeare adaptations for the screen in the Throne of Blood. Amongst the greatest of his films is a masterpiece about the problems of knowledge, Rashomon and should you feel having read that, that you don't want to watch a Kurosawa, here are some Notes on Cinema which would inform you that you really should. For anyone who likes great directors and great films- I'd go see Jules et Jim and this wonderful review of Truffaut's masterpiece. Amongst great American directors, Robert Altman stands tall and proud- this is an interesting retrospective on his seventies film noir, The Long Goodbye starring Donald Sutherland. And should you need any convincing to see classic films and Donald Sutherland, then this little essay might help.

Well, well, well these streets are looking dark and mean, and the word noir has already been mentioned. Its one of the themes of this week's cinematic strutting- my own post on Double Indemnity strives to get to the bottom of that film. One of the greatest film noirs is undoubtedly the Big Sleep, Obsessed with Film agrees with me and has kindly posted the trailer. The Film Noir of the Week though isn't anything as famous as those two but a neglected work called The Burglar, given its stars- Dan Duryea and Jayne Mansfield and its writer David Goodis, Steve O wonders why its been neglected.

We've had film noir, we've had great filmmakers- what about looking at some contemporary films. Well we've got a great selection of those this week too- Paul Martin went to see the European film Offset in Melbourne this week. Europe- I hear you cry, how stereotypically Western, what about something else, some variety in our viewing. Well we can provide- what about going to see Jigthar, if you want to the Bhutan film blog has more. And now the Marxists are unhappy, they are screaming about feudal overlords and all the rest, well just to shut em up- they should realise that we film bloggers write about all sorts- the Flick Filosopher has been concerned this week with films about American miscarriages of justice. Meanwhile Alexius also looks at the dark underside of American society- particularly at the racist subculture described in American History X. Scott Nehring, the true beggetter of this carnival, though wants to bind together the American and the third world- he views the plight of contemporary ethics through the prism of The Last King of Scotland. On a similar theme, my review on Bits of News of the Lives of Others focuses on the wider issues at stake in that political drama. Ethics, shmethics, what we want is good mystical science fiction- if that's what you are after, we have got the review for you, come and see what a Top Movie The Butterfly Effect was. I can hear you say oh no, that's not what we want, we want a good college movie- well just shove off and pick from this list put together by the guys at the campus grotto, will you? Or why not go for some real sexy melodrama, yep that's right the Canadian Cinephile thinks we should all remember how fatal attraction can be. Actually stick around- we've got attacks and savaging next- yep the blood and fur is flying...

Too much of this is far too positive- I mean its as if all films were great and all film makers were. But anyone who has watched enough knows the disappointment of a bad film- J C Calhoun wonders whether Grindhouse represents the end of Quentin Tarantino as a film maker, Alexander Rubio agrees- he thinks Tarentino is so 1990s darling. Matt Sinclair though is furious about film makers with little discernable talent- Matt is a good chap who has a very extensive taste in film, I know him well so when he gets this angry about Pathfinder its worth listening to him. Furthermore Matt must be right, Mike at Kaboom Review despite loving Action movies and Vikings, hates this. Conan Stevens isn't angry about the awfulness of films that he has paid to see, but about the lies about a 300 workout, impossible he says they were stuntmen. (A passing note on 300, did anyone notice the image from the Watchmen comic books, Jim Squires did). Michael Hwang though doesn't feel very much about Little Miss Sunshine, he just thinks its mediocre.

My word- its almost done- but there are still a couple of bits of news out there to survey- for instance feel like becoming a film star, well get you going down into the internet cafes to check out second life- apparantly Paul Verhoeven, director of such controversial films as Basic Instinct and Showgirls is auditioning actors in Second Life- you hear everything these days.

I'd reccomend you read all that- and then settle back with a nice DVD and a cup of tea (hey I'm British don't knock tea), only a word of caution (we bloggers are looking out for your best interests) don't especially if you are Chinese get a pirated version you may not get what you were after!

Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity is a conventional film noir in many ways- a femme fatale seduces the hero, an insurance agent, into murdering her husband in a complex insurance fraud. The main character Walter Neff is as intrigued by the prospect of doing a murder in this way, as he is by the girl. He wants to perform the act in such a way that his own company would be unable to detect it. Consequently the act is planned methodically and in such a way as to extract the most money from a Double Indemnity life insurance scheme. In a way Neff uses the murder not to say something to the Femme Fatale but to say something to his colleague- Barton Keyes- the chief investigator at the insurance company. The scheme breaks down because of the human failings of the femme fatale and of Neff- it breaks apart and leaves both of them spluttering out bloody orisons.

If the film is about anything it is about the relations between these three characters- Phyllis Deitrichson, Neff and Keyes. The murder in many ways is merely a symbolic thing that allows each of the three to exert power over the other one. Phyllis allures Walter into committing the murder. Walter convinces Phyllis about the way to do it and gives her the plan, he controls her movements and repeats his tense warnings to her constantly. Keyes of course is the inquisitor and Walter hopes to evade his investigation- by evading it in some way Walter will reveal himself as a more inspired investigator than Keyes, he will control him. In the end at the last moment as Walter breathes his life out upon the floor, Keyes is left standing the man in control. He even in a symbolic break with what has gone before lights Walter's cigarette.

In this sense the film is less about a murder- we see very little of the actual killing- we see less of the victim. All the other characters like Phyllis's step daughter are ciphers for the main three. The issue within the film though is how we define the relation of love- again the characters commodify love- they use it to exchange with each other. Keyes uses Walter's respect for him to try and tempt him to a new job under Keyes's direct supervision. Walter uses his professions of love to in some way justify himself to Keyes (remember that we are told the story through Walter's eyes), even at the end of his life as he tells the story he is trying to control our and Keyes's memory of the story. Phyllis uses love and desire both as a tool to get men into her pocket, greeting Walter in a towell, attracting him with a sexy anklet on her leg but also uses professions of love to create the duty of protection from others towards her. When Phyllis says I love you, what she really means is I need your sympathy and because I love you, you have to give me that sympathy. Love in the eyes of all three characters becomes a tool of power.

Post modernist Philosophers often talk about the relationship between truth and power- the relationship between the scientist and his subject, the observor and the object. This film in the characters of Walter, Phyllis and Barton Keyes brings that out again. Walter and Phyllis are separated by the murder- they can't see each other- so that after the murder what we have are three characters each moving through a solitary landscape trying to work out the motivations of the others. Keyes has a straightforward problem- to find the murderer- to find a matter of fact and he finds it. The other two though aren't trying to find out a fact, they know the facts, they are trying to find out each other's dispositions- they are trying to communicate because ultimately each wields the axe over the other, a confession and they are both dead. Hence it is that it is Keyes whose search is more dispassionate- despite the fact that he lives only for his work- rather than Walter or Phyllis who succeeds in his search for the truth.

The film is a meditation on all kinds of themes within human life- but perhaps at its most powerful it evokes Sartre. The ideas within Double Indemnity focus on the relationship between truth, love and power. The problem is that personal engagement, the film seems to say, brings with it a desire for love which brings with it a desire for power. The characters who get involved in life, become embroiled in struggle from which there is no exit- a struggle that ends with them dead. Keyes because he doesn't get involved, because he subsumes his own intellect and ego within the company, survives both spiritually (he doesn't commit a crime) and also actually- he is the one left alive at the end of the picture. The conclusion of the picture therefore is unremittingly depressing and ultimately too reductive- but it does present a picture of human relationships which is true to some degree. Love and murder smell like honeysuckle- power and affection are related- and in the mean streets of Film Noir their relation leads on to disaster.

April 26, 2007

Interesting Program

This is a program well worth watching on the internet about the way that the American media helped the American administration go to war in Iraq.

On a personal note one thing that is brought up is that the major journalists didn't go and find their own facts but phoned not the most expert professional but the most telegenic person with an opinion. I have been involved in making a television program about a historical period as a researcher and remember that I was told to ring up experts rather than find out my own information and do research. I offered my producer a contributor, a Professor from Cambridge who is the most eminent scholar in the area (trust me its an area I myself am to a much lesser degree expert), my producer decided that the Professor was not telegenic enough, and went for Richard Holmes, one of the nicest guys I've ever met, a good scholar I am sure, but a man who admitted to me that he had no expertise in this particular area. The mentality of disrespect for expertise in favour of punditry and seeking expert opinion only if it is presented by an attractive telegenic personality is something that corrodes the whole media arena.

Lets put it as basically as this- if we had trusted and relied upon experts with PhDs and work in an area- then we would not be in Iraq. If we had relied upon not those whose expertise was in public relations and appearing on television but on actual real Middle Eastern affairs- we would not be there. And its not just the Middle East- people with real expertise are often treated with contempt by the media, and having worked in the Media I know this, this results in our political discourse being hurt by pundits and public relations executives as opposed to experts and civil servants.

The politics of Translating the Bible in the 18th Century

Often within the blogging community the question of how far you can identify a religion easily through what its holy texts say. The question of to what degree there is a common Muslim position on anything or a common Christian position is often discussed or assumed by commentators. However of course things aren't that straightforward. Intelligent Christians consider often the dating of various of the gospels and what that means for their own theology and the way that they defend the faith that they hold to. Given the nature of the texts in question, their age and provenance, such debates aren't going to go away.

The ways that they affect the content of what people beleive though is often forgotten- there are many examples of the impact that new translations of the Bible can have upon believers and what they do in the context of their beliefs. The Reformation can be described as a battle between various attempts to translate the Bible. We can see this on a minor level in the work of Neil Hitchin upon the Anglican Church and debates within it during the 18th Century about a new translation for the Bible.

As Hitchin unfolds it there were plenty of reasons for a new translation of the Bible to be made in the 18th Century. The last translation had been performed in 1611, by seventeenth century divines. As many ministers and scholars noted techniques of translation and knowledge of the languages involved had advanced a great deal in the subsequent 100 years. The Authorised Version was transparantly out of date- both in terms of its style of English and also in its translation of terms. Edward Harwood, the Presbyterian scholar, suggested that young men and women turned away from the Bible because of its archaisms- he attempted to translate the Bible into the language of Hume and Cicero rather than the archaic seventeenth century version: he rendered for instance John iii 16 'For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life' to be 'For the supreme God was affected with such immense compassion and love for the human race, that he deputed his son from heaven to instruct them- in order that everyone who embraces and obeys his religion might not finally perish, but secure everlasting happiness'. Any reader can see the distinctions in style between the versions of the James I's scholars and that of Harwood. William Jones of Nayland argued that one might by translating the Bible fix the meaning of a seventeenth century text which had become over the passage of time rather uncertain and unclear.

But the distinctions of style were not the major issue at stake here- political issues also errupted into how one might translate the scriptures. The Authorised Version, James MacKnight moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, argued was based too closely upon the Latin Vulgate, widely thought of as a Catholic text. Men like MacKnight wanted a new translation which would not be based on the Vulgate and did not follow (as the Authorised Version did) the Bishop's Bible of 1537 (a bible put together under Henry VIII's supervision). For example the translators of the Authorised version used the word 'church' to translate ekklesia, as opposed to the reformed translation which was 'congregation'. Edward Law, Master of Peterhouse and future Bishop of Carlisle in 1757 compared the Authorised Version with the Geneva Bible produced by Calvin, he argued that the Geneva version was much closer to the original Hebrew than was the Anglican version. Less reformed ministers sought instead of a re-translation a modification of the Authorised version- looking to ammend it in places rather than discard it. Most advocates of reform looked back on the process that had produced the Authorised version- a committee of the learned clerics and dons of the realm- and saw in that process the way forwards to performing a new translation. Of course they failed and no new translation was made or authorised officially in the eighteenth century.

Partly this, Hitchin argues, was because it was blocked by the Church and possibly by ministers at Court. Working from a set of letters, Hitchin demonstrates at least a plausible reason for thinking that Archbishop Secker of Canterbury (an early advocate of re-translation) was the key influence in blocking what he had earlier supported. Hitchin argues that the fear that Secker and others like him had was that the translating the Bible would blow the Anglican compromise sky high- and would risk conceding too much to the dissenters whilst alienating more moderate and high clergymen. Consequently Secker suggested to several scholars the preparation of a much less politically contentious authorised Hebrew version- the kind of enterprise that would make full use of the new learning but have very few implications for the Church.

The dilemmas of 18th Century Bible translation suggest to me the fact that at most times through history the contours of religion have remained indeterminate. What is and is not a source? What is and is not the true contemporary word to use for an ancient concept in another language? All these questions bedevil all faiths- and ultimately suggest, not that faith itself is a folly- but that too precise interpretations of what Christianity or Islam are are follies. Faiths change as the texts and the interpretations of the texts that they are based upon change. Often minor changes in the text can prompt major theological shifts- ekklesia's re-translations from church to congregation for example- but more even than that combat over the essense of faith is possible because it takes place within what is always a difficult task, the translation of documents left from long ago, by people we know little of.


This is how to do it according to the most powerful man in the world!

Labour and Wales

Rhodri Morgan, the First Minister of Wales, was interviewed by the Guardian yesterday. His comments are fairly standard for what most politicians say and should say at election time. However he said one thing that got me thinking, he compared voting Labour in Wales to English people declaring they are Anglican when unsure on the census, the vote he suggested was unconscious and natural. Certainly the figures bear him out- Wales is a naturally Labour area and its hard to see any other party forming a majority government on their own any time soon- similar things might be said about Scotland.

In my view though that isn't healthy. It strikes me that to have such a dominant party is the very antithesis of democracy- afterall democratic choice isn't just about voting it is about the sense that there is a choice, there are alternatives and that there can be change. I wonder what others think but if what Mr Morgan says is true, then I hope for the good of Wales, an opposition party to Labour emerges soon.

April 25, 2007

Meditations on the theme of the Moral Economy of Capitalism

This post is a beggining of a thought- not the end- I have been thinking about these themes for months and no doubt have years more to think about them and will abandon much of what I write here- but prompted by a post on this subject elsewhere (linked in the text) I thought I'd put something down on paper partly for my own elucidation.

Rousseau in his Discourse on Inequality bemoaned the fact that

Society no longer offers to the eyes of the wise man anything but an assemblage of artificial men and factitious passions which are the product of these new relations [of civil captitalism] and have no true foundation in nature...savage man and civilised man differ so much in thier inmost heart and inclinations that what constitutes the supreme happiness of the one would reduce the other to despair. The first breathes nothing but repose and freedom, he wants to live and remain idle.... By contrast the citizen forever active, sweats, scurries, constantly agonises in search of ever more strenuous occupations: he works to death, even rushes towards it in order to be in a position to live... the savage lives within himself: sociable man always outside himself is capable of living only in the opinion of others and so to speak derives the sentiment of his own existance solely from their judgement.

Rousseau's view of the way that capitalism is a society which engenders a new kind of self-esteem, competitive and opposed to others' self esteem, is a morbid one. He argues that capitalism is destructive of all human good. It is interesting in the light of this to think about the psychological literature around the observer perspective- the assumption by socially phobic individuals that what matters is the way that others see them and that they have an insight into that and are in effect their own spin doctors. As the Observer reported last year, cases of depression and psychological disorders have been rising within the general population. It is interesting to observe how much in earlier ages say in the films of Frank Capra, like Its a Wonderful Life the world in which we live is seen as a dystopia- the perversion not the realisation of capitalism. The influence for instance of blogs concerned with rating socialites or indeed the increasingly hysterical cult of vituperation all tend to emphasize to me some of the impact of what one might describe as the cultural consequences of capitalism.

Many of these consequences are atomistic- breaking apart social networks and people. Such trends within Capitalism have long been noticed by theorists like Rousseau himself and even in the 19th Century William Morris. The issues though are highlighted in this post which draws very well upon ideas about anarchism. The problem is that socialism over the last century in the forms that it took in Russia and China or even to a milder degree in Europe seems discredited. And yet capitalism allows for the breaking down of freedom between individuals to such a degree that they lose the self reliance that allows proper relationships to develop. Rousseau argued that capitalism transforms us into slaves of those we work for, and into competing egos with our equals. The most popular gossip sites on the internet or gossip magazines are not those that build up but those that destroy stars- like Heat in Britain with its routine photographs of the fashion failures at the top- they bring people the sense that they are better than, look better than or are more moral than those that they adulate. Capitalism in that sense effects the actual psyche of individuals. Alan Sugar recently told a contestant on the British Program the Apprentice that a moral sense was redundant in the world of business- one wonders what individuals the Sugars and Heats of this world create, ego driven competitive and dependant on others for praise.

Quentin Skinner in his Regius Lectures at Cambridge came closest I think to defining what is going on when he redefined liberty in his third lecture. He argued that liberty was not the absense of constraint from government, nor the positive acheivement of some end, but the ability for the will to will something whilst not being dependent on another whatever the decision it took. Dependance is the crux for Rousseau ultimately- our insecurities make us vicious and our insecurities are the result of our dependence. Skinner provided further examples from Milton and Harrington of intellectuals in the seventeenth century who tackled this problem and thought deeply about it. What is going on inside Skinner's thinking and inside much of the left libertarian critique of capitalism is a consideration of how capitalism reconfigures the individual- of how it leaves him or her with moral agency or makes him or her into a competing drone, whose kindnesses are weakness and whose competitive ego is the highest form of fulfilment.

I don't have answers to how we should think about freedom, nor how we should think about the state, but the reason that I and many like me find arguments made by left libertarians attractive is that they seem to begin to provide the beggining of some sort of answer to these problems- which are fundamentally problems about the encouragement of social pathology in our societies through the spectre of managed capitalism. This post is not worked out- it is full of errors- and states doubts rather than certainties- but there is something going on here which in my view demonstrates that contra Fukuyama history has not ended and capitalism is not the best formation for societies.

The Tube

Courtesy of Devil's Kitchen and for Londoners and anyone else who has ever been stuck in a tunnel trying to get down the Northern line, I bring you this rather wonderful website full of the sayings of London tube drivers announcing things to their passengers: my personal favourite is the driver that announced,

"Hello this is xxx speaking, I am the captain of your train, and we will be departing shortly, we will be cruising at an altitude of approximately zero feet, and our scheduled arrival time in Morden is 3:15pm. The temperature in Morden is approximately 15 degrees celsius, and Morden is in the same time zone as Mill Hill east, so there's no need to adjust your watches."

The only word for such a man is genius!

April 23, 2007

HIgham tears me apart in a nice way!

One of the virtues of the blogosphere is making friends- I'd count James Higham amongst my friends and I just thought I'd link to this post, me and James have been involved in an argument about immigration but I'll leave that going on his blog- suffice it to say that I think I'm right of course- but he says a lot of nice things whilst pointing out why he thinks I'm absolutely wrong, nice things which make debating with him a pleasurable experience.

Amongst the things I appreciate about the blogging world, perhaps because I'm new, is that I've made a lot of friends who disagree with me and often disagree with me in a friendly and charming way. There has been lots of pretty vicious debate going on recently- sometimes that is a good thing- but I do think that the recent debates I've had with Matt Sinclair and with James and most of the regular commenters on this blog demonstrate that it isn't the only way to debate. I'd cite other blogging debates as well in the same vein as similar examples. My own personal inclination is that friendly debate is always better- one can respect someone and disagree violently with them at the same time!

Gracchi on his travels

Just a little note for those interested- I've just posted an article about the French general elections basically analysing what happened on Bits of News- I think these are very interesting elections for France, turnout seems to have gone up, the major parties have done well compared to last time and the centre has done well but we shall see what the longterm trends look like.

I also posted an article reviewing the pretty poor film, LoveCRacked, which I was sent by a DVD company to review- suffice it to say I wasn't that impressed but I tried to give it a fair write up, so if you are in to teen humour, horror and low budget pictures you might like to read the review- if not, I am not sure how relevant it is to you.

April 22, 2007

Meditations on a theme of Alexander and Empire

Having just finished Peter Green's biographical volume about Alexander the Great it occurred to me that it was worth thinking a little in print about Alexander himself and the legacy of empire that he left. Alexander has been adopted by many in their causes- many claim him as a founder of a tolerant quest for unity and the brotherhood of man, others have seen him as a prototype for empire and imperial designs, still more for totalitarian passions and the havoc that they reap. The images of Alexander are worthy of their own history- from the Iskander of the Persian poets to the Alexander of the Romances there is plenty of material for a historian of literature to consider- we hear Alexander's own contemporaries now only in echoes through other sources- Plutarch, Arian and others, echoes coming out of the dark, out of the impenetrable dark and many of the key events of his life, as Green acknowledges, are veiled in mystery- including his succession to the crown and his own death.

Recently since the film 300 came out there have been a never ending series of prognostications on how the West needs to defend itself as the Greeks did all those years ago at Thermopylae. The history of Alexander allows us to defuse some of the more extravagant myths surrounding the Macedonian Kings. For instance Green suggests that the model which sees Alexander as a Greek Westerner invading the evil barbaric East is incredibly incorrect. It is almost certain that more Greeks fought with his opponent Darius against Alexander than fought with Alexander. Constantly the Greek city states thought of and attempted rebellion against Alexander and he repressed their attempts with occasional severity- the city of Thebes was destroyed and wiped from history by the Macedonian King. He himself though was attacked for neglecting Macedonian custom and becoming Persian- his soldiers, battle hardened Macedonians, despised the Persians that Alexander cultivated. Many of those whom he 'liberated' were not so keen on their liberation as the propagandist Alexandrines would let us know, as soon as they could they rebelled against him. His empire was not one of liberty nor was it one of the West- his empire belonged to a set of groups at the edge of the Greek world who succeeded in dominating that world (to the envy and fear of the traditional centres of Greek power) and then through a series of chances and feats of military command succeeded in overthrowing the Persian Empire, that many Greeks supported.

Even this though, is not the most surprising nor the most interesting disorientation for any modern reader about Alexander to go through when trying to reconstruct his biography. Alexander, Green conjectures, built his empire in conscious emulation of the Homeric hero, of Achilles and Hercules with whom he identified and whose blood he beleived that he bore within his veins. Achilles in the Illiad chose to die early and be remembered forever rather than live to a grand old age, with a wife and children. Achilles chose an existance contingent upon the honour that he would receive because of his reputation. Its interesting to read Green's biography in the light of that thought- Alexander cared a great deal for his dignity, a great deal for lese majesty but almost nothing for the continuation of his empire. He showed little concern about who would succeed him- he didn't marry until he reached India and even then waited before he had children. Alexander was always planning further conquests- as Augustine argued a millennia later in the City of God, Alexander was motivated by a lust for domination, a lust for the honour of victory and fame. Neitzsche's suggestion that Greek ethics was the ethic of an aristocracy seems to make more sense in the light of reading about Alexander.

When he constructed his empire- what he did was swiftly move through regions and areas- less than twenty years took him from the Hellespont to the passes of the Hindu Kush, through the deserts of Egypt, the cities of Mesopotamia and the plains of the far north of Bactria. But such an empire was acheived at the price of permanent instability- no sooner did Alexander leave a region than revolution sprung up behind him. Even his own appointed satraps might swiftly rebel as did Harpalus, his own treasurer, in Babylon towards the end of his reign. Indeed it was possibly a plot by his own governors, those whom he had trusted and left behind, which eventually led to his doom. Alexander swiftly rode through, occupied and designated a governor and a garrison before moving on, unlike Augustus he set no structure in place and made no attempt to preserve his empire. At one point, he loosed thousands of mercenaries throughout Asia and Greece to solve a temporary political problem. An empire conquered so swiftly fell apart as swiftly and was swallowed in factional and civil strife.

Alexander's Greece was very different to us, his boundaries were very different from ours. As much as our division between West and East might seem natural- those divisions were different. Alexander's aspiration was different, he sought eternal glory not salvation in the forgiveness of a gentle God or comfort in a brief moment of existance. Alexander wished to be Achilles. The empire that he erected was administratively chaotic, his power depended upon the collection of booty and built so quickly, that it fell apart almost as fast and he bequeathed as a legacy 40 years of civil war to his heirs. It is so easy to remember too much about Alexander, just those three thoughts ought to teach us not to remember too much.