Sunday, 24 July 2011

Vis Nulla Resolvet

A lovely print I've just stumbled across in the VD-16 electronic library, while looking for something else. It was made to celebrate the 1685 union of Maximilian Emmanuel of Bavaria and Maria Antonia of Austria. I like the underlying suggestion that love is more effective at achieving consensus and peace than force. Although this marriage was successful in producing a possible male heir to succeed the Habsburg king of Spain Charles II, the Infante Joseph Ferdinand, Prince of the Asturias, died in 1699 at the age of seven.

The marriage was unhappy, to say the least, and did not live up to the words spoken by the two in this engraving: 'Whatever happiness I will find comes with him/ her.' A great image, though, which can be downloaded here.

Monday, 11 July 2011

"Yea, I put eyes to see/ Into the face of fire, and gave to him/ A fount of vision that before was dim."

A few of my posts recently have noted men who were of the classicist scholar-warrior tradition. On a break today I read a review of John Lewis-Stempel's Six Weeks: The Short but Gallant Life of the British Officer in the Great War, from which I take another example of the typology. Apparently when the future British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was seriously wounded at the Somme, where he was shot in the left thigh and pelvis, he took refuge in a shell hole for three days until rescued. Whilst there he read, in between bouts of unconsciousness, the pocket edition of the Greek text of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound he had been carrying in his tunic, a work he found 'not inappropriate to my position...' I've read elsewhere that it was actually only a day reading Aeschylus in a slit-trench, which I think only slightly diminishes the story.

I've taken the title from the play. These words of Prometheus make the claim that he was responsible for awakening man's higher instincts. I'm not sure it's the most appropriate extract of the play for this entry, but there's something about it that I like. The full passage is as follows:

"Fulfilment bear; I read the inward mind
Of the unintended word and the stray sign
Met by the road. . . .
Thus man to knowledge came of things to be,
Deep hid before. Yea, I put eyes to see
Into the face of fire, and gave to him
A fount of vision that before was dim."

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Thermopylae II


J.E. Brookes
A private soldier doubtless suffers less 
from his privations than from ignorance 
of what is going on; in terms of chess, 
he is a pawn. But the significance 
of our deployment on the forward slopes 
of this position was not lost on us.
No purpose served consulting horoscopes 
at Delphi; students of Herodotus 
would know withdrawal to Thermopylae 
and putting up barbed wire could only mean 
fighting a rearguard action Q.E.D., 
as Euclid would have put it. 
We had been deposited into the warlike lap 
of ancient deities. I said to Blue, 
my Aussie mate, "There was this famous chap 
Leonidas, he was the Spartan 
who defended it with just 300 men 
against an army." Bluey took a draw 
upon his cigarette. "Well stuff'im then!" 
a pungent comment on the art of war. 
Foreboding we looked back across the plain 
which we had crossed, towards Lamia, towards 
the north just as the Spartans must have lain 
with spear and sword and watched the Persian hordes 
amassing for the battle long ago.
It was deserted, a proscenium 
where once Leonidas heard trumpets blow, 
a theatre whose auditorium, 
the home of gods, was mountains, and whose stage 
was lapped by Homer's wine-dark seas as blue 
as lapis lazuli, where in a rage
Poseidon wrecked Odysseus and his crew 
and siren voices tempted. In the wings 
of history we waited for a roll 
of other drums and strident trumpetings
to usher in the gods of war. 
The soul of Sparta stirred, could but the brave 
Leonidas renew his mortal span 
instead of merely turning in his grave, 
and all his hoplites, perished to a man, 
but resurrect themselves. . . . I said "They wore 
long hair, the Spartans, a visible proof 
that they were free, not helots, and before 
the battle they would gravely sit aloof 
and garland it with flowers." Bluey spat.
Continuing to watch the empty road 
across the plain he took off his tin-hat 
(a proof that he was bald) and said "A load 
of bloody poufdahs!" Thus he laid the ghost 
of brave Leonidas. Herodotus 
informs us Xerxes, leader of the host, 
when told was equally incredulous, 
though whether from a soldier's point of view 
of army discipline or on the grounds 
of social prejudice like my mate Blue, 
was not elaborated. With the sounds 
of planes we kept our heads down. After dark 
we dug slit-trenches neath the April moon 
in silence broken only by the bark 
of some Greek shepherd's dog while our platoon
commander and the sergeant walked about 
discussing fields of fire. We lit a smoke,
which made the section corporal shout "Put out 
that bloody light!" It was the Colonel broke 
the news, like some deus ex machina
descending from above.  THEY SHALL NOT PASS...
all sentiments of which Leonidas 
would have approved, and as he disappeared 
into the moonlight, with a martial air, 
a crown and two pips, everybody cheered 
instead of putting flowers in their hair, 
but muted just in case the Germans were
in earshot and from feeling (for myself
at any rate) that we should much prefer
that history did not repeat itself. 
And later with our cigarettes concealed
behind cupped hands we peered into the night 
across the darkened plain and it revealed
first one and then another point of light,
and then a hundred of them, moving down 
the distant backcloth, shining off and on 
like tiny jewels sparkling on a crown 
of moonlit mountains, a phenomenon 
caused by the winding path of their descent 
round liair-pin bends cascading from the heights 
beyond Lamia, our first presentiment 
of evil genius - they were the lights 
of Hitler's war machines! So fate had cast 
us in the role of heroes in the same
arena where the heroes of the past 
had closed their ranks and perished in the name 
of freedom. Was there one of those among 
the Spartans who, at the eleventh hour 
upon the eve of battle, while he hung 
his hair with many a patient-wreathed flower, 
prayed that some unpredictable event 
like Xerxes dropping dead, some miracle, 
might even yet occur and thus prevent 
the battle being joined the oracle 
at Delphi notwithstanding? "Time to pick 
the flowers Blue, that bloom upon the steep 
hillside" I said "make daisy-chains and stick 
the buggers in our hair !" He was asleep. 
So all night long I watched and when the skies 
had lightened with the dawn (doubtless the last 
that I should ever see with mortal eyes 
before we joined those heroes of the past 
in the Elysian fields) and bold day broke
across the misted plain on mythic banks 
of white and yellow asphodel he woke
and heard combustion engines. German tanks?

I said a private soldier suffers less 
from his privations than from ignorance
of what is going on, but we could guess
that some extraordinary circumstance 
had made the sergeant, full pack, rifle slung, 
rise up before us blotting out the sun.
Phoebus Apollo? Götterdämmerung
more likely! GREEKS CAPITULATED ... HUN 
the Lord for it and meanwhile Bluey cussed 
and our lance-corporal said he'd been outflanked 
at Passchendaele and got away with it.
As Bluey put it "if some bloody mug
brasshat had only warned us, used a bit
of common sense we never need have dug 
that something something slit-trench!' (Stuff 'im then?) 
But as we drove away I must confess 
it felt like a desertion. Those few men 
with flowers in their hair were heroes! Yes!

Written April 25, 1941, in Salonika P.O.W camp.

Since I posted a link to this poem a few weeks' ago, I've kept returning to thinking on it, wondering amongst other things, whether I should post it here. It's made me think that I'd like to track down the collection of John Brookes' work, Verses: Private and General (Badger Press, 1989), as I'd like to see if  Brookes' other work is this dense with structure, classical mythology and empathy. I've only read one other of his poems, which has the same wry British take on Australians and their sense of humour which this does. 

A few links: a discussion, including more biographical details from a relation of J.E. Brookes, here and also on the Salamander Poets site here and a blog on Brookes here with links to one of his other poems. 

Thursday, 7 July 2011

"Ah, it goes, is lost"/ "am sustineant onus/ siluae laborantes, geluque/ flumina constiterint acuto."

A quick entry on a few obituaries I've found moving recently, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Cy Twombly, men of the old-school they don't make 'em like that variety steeped in a vigorous classicism and a seemingly indefatigable capacity for making connections between things that ought not to be connected. 

I'd seen Cy Twombly's work before I actually saw it. I'd seen a few pictures somewhere, walked past the Studies of the Temaire at the Art Gallery of NSW around 2003, was vaguely aware of the name. But on a trip to London in 2004 I was gobsmacked by Twombly's work when I read an exhibition catalogue that was a permanent fixture on (or beneath) my brother's coffee table. I was slowly killing an afternoon, waiting for something or someone when I picked it up in an incidental reach of the arm. Within moments, I was sstruck dumb by the realization that there was an artist who in a weird twist of genealogy had, even years before I was even born, pinched and funneled all my ideas about ancient history and classical mythology and art and how human experience of the present can be illuminated by the human experience of the past in one mighty flash of everything all at once that Twombly has at his best. 

Scrawled across the painting of Twombly's I've seen the most in person,  the Quattro Stagioni in the Tate Modern, are the words "Ah, it goes, is lost," which struck me as being a great cry of loss in both the realms of the personal and our shared experience, speaking of the human experience as we grow, lose our old selves to our new selves in a constant cycle of remaking and reshaping, as violent and destructive as it is beautiful and nurturing. Spring's torrents are soon winter's dearth (death?)  But there is also something else to Twombly's work, which speaks of how humans experience  history, the giant thing of the past, both chasm and monolith, both noise and silence. "Ah, it goes, is lost..."

I know far less about Patrick Leigh Fermor, but was struck by obituaries by James Campbell in The Guardian and one by Christopher Hitchens at  The Slate. In particular, I liked the story of his wartime mission to kidnap the German general Heinrich Kreipe, who was then overseeing the Nazi occupation of Crete. The mission was successful and the kidnapping party hid in a cave until it was safe to move the general to Europe. Looking out onto snow-capped mountains, bored, the general recited a few lines of Horace's ode 1.9, Ad Thaliarchum. Leigh Fermor said later, "As luck had it, this was one I knew by heart" and when the general's memory ran out, he carried it on until its end (this happens a lot among my friends, you know, recital of Roman poets in Latin from memory. What do you mean, this doesn't happen in the circles you move in...?)

Roman poets, love of Greece, wanderers, married to European aristocrats, dead in the same week...  

Friday, 1 July 2011

A Richness of Martens II

A note about my post A Richness of Martens.

I've just noticed in Jennifer Mori's latest book, The culture of Diplomacy: Britain in Europe, c.1750-1830 a reference to G.F. Martens' Summary of the Law of Nations. It's an interesting reference that's reminded me why I'm interested in the general sweep of international political and diplomatic history.

She says that an early-nineteenth century English diplomat, James Justinian (known to his family as Jem), commented that he wanted to get another edition of Martens as the 1795 English edition he owned
had been translated into English by "that rogue [William] Cobbett..."

She continues by making a comment on how we can see what contemporary diplomats thought about international relations by looking at the ideas contained in the books they owned. In Jem's case, this edition of Martens and Vattel's Law of Nations. These books, she says, 'both presented the European community as a system of states bound together by an enlightened self-interest that drove its members to co-operate with each other, even in times of war. Utility, rather than civility or abstract morality, was therefore the invisible hand at the heart of international relations...'

It's a good point, one that academic historians tend to forget repeatedly and which I've been waiting quite a long time to hear. Rather than being a mechanism that was formed solely as an extension or expression of competitiveness, mutual suspicion and Machiavellian agitation between states, the formation of systems of diplomacy should be interpreted as doing fundamentally useful things in the moderation of politics between states. Not taking this idea at least on board, and academics run the risk of relegating the diplomat  to being performer in the meaningless rituals of courtly life or, at worst, as little more than a spy.  It's  a point one that I've been thinking about ever since I decided that diplomatic history of the early modern period has been not sufficiently studied. Or, I think sometimes, that when it has been studied, it's been looked at the wrong way.

You can download a copy of Cobbett's translation of Martens from google books here. And even if I'm never going to read any of the books that have about and by Cobbett, how can I resist a link to them?

Thursday, 30 June 2011

I said to Blue, my Aussie mate, "There was this famous chap..."

This was in something I was reading the other day: "Plutarch tells of a temple dedicated to Diana in Artemisium. On one of its pillars was carved a verse commemorating the dead of the naval battle between Persian and Greek in the straits of Euboea: With numerous tribes from Asia’s regions brought/ The sons of Athens on these waters fought;/ Erecting, after they had quelled the Mede,/ To Artemis this record of the deed.

There is still a place still to be seen upon this shore, where, in the middle of a great heap of sand, they take out from the bottom a dark powder of ashes, or something that has passed the fire; and here, it is supposed, the shipwrecks and bodies of the dead were burnt.’"

It made me think I should start keeping a record of the way battles have been commemorated as I come across them, to build up some kind of collection from which something interesting may emerge at some point. Of course, this would have much to do with not only commemorating particular battles, but the ways in which cultures choose what to commemorate in the present, particularly when we're talking about not just years or decades between battles and their commemoration but centuries or milennia. 

A good example is the land battle at Thermopylae in 481 BC, which happened simultaneously to the Persian-Greek sea battle at straits of Artemesium that Plutarch was talking about. Thermopylae is perhaps best known for the legend of Leonidas and the 300 Spartans holding the narrow pass, the Hot Gates/ Pillars (thermo pylae), against Xerxes' far-stronger army. 

The 300 were eventually slaughtered and were buried under a mound of earth, topped by a slab with a famous commemorative verse by Simonides carved in it:   "Stranger, announce to the Spartans that here/ We lie, having fulfilled their orders." Indeed, there is still a memorial with these words upon it at Thermopylae, although not the one described by Herodotus, but one made more recently in 1955. A further modern monument commemorated Leonidas himself (pictured above), which was dedicated in the same year by King Paul of Greece. Lastly, there is an even more recent memorial from 1997, recognising the seven hundred Thespians who also died in the battle.  

What makes the interplay of history and historical memory here even more interesting is that this location has been one that has been the site of significant battles more than once in history. In 279BC  Greek and Gaulish armies clashd here; 191BC saw Antiochus III of Syria's army attempting to repeat Spartan heroics against Rome. Similarly, in more modern times, the Battle of Alamana in 1821, part of the  Greek War of Independence, saw Athanasios Diakos and his men make a stand against a far-superior Turkish army, in which Diakos was captured. (One account suggests that when he was offered a choice between conversion to Islam and death, he ended up being barbecued on a spit by his captors (above, his memorial at Thermopylae.)

Lastly, the area was the site of another battle in the Second World War, this time between German and British/ ANZAC forces, actually the only joint ANZAC action in the Second World War. NZ units were actually deployed in the same pass as Leonidas' Spartans so many years before, so it's appropriate that it also became known as the Battle of Thermopylae.  This action is commemorated in the Australian-Hellenic Monument in Canberra, which is just opposite the Australian War Memorial. This is an amphitheatre with a corridor cut through it symbolising pass at Thermopylae, which I know well from long-past lunch breaks, having once been employed at the AWM soon after I left school. The 1941 battle is also commemorated by the larger monument in Crete that covers the whole Greek campaign of 1941.  I wonder if there's any onsite commemoration of this battle, as there is for so many other conflicts of the World Wars last century.  

There's a good account of the five battles of Thermopylae here. An outstanding poem written by an Australian soldier who was there in 1941 is here. It's where I got the title of this post too, in case you were wondering...

Saturday, 25 June 2011

"And then there are French cameramen..."/"...but the dead are the mightiest, they can rend bits of heaven..."

Two pieces from toady's Observer. The first follows on from my last post about photographers covering wars. It's an extract from Janine di Giovanni's autobiography of her life as a war correspondent. Her book Madness Visible is on my longlist of things to read. I can't say I'm that keen for the film of it, as it's been by Julia Robert's production company and I suffered through about twenty minutes of Eat, Pray, Love on my last intercontinental flight.

The second is an article about a piece of historical detective work I'd also like to read more about. The historian Miguel Caballero Pérez claims that he has solved the mystery of Federico Garcia Lorca's death in the Spanish Civil War by looking into Spanish police and military archives. I'll be keen to see if the  archaeology backs him up. Here's a link to a poem of his, Abandoned Church (Ballad of the Great War), which I think has themes that dovetail with di Giovanni's article.

Now, could someone do the same kind of mystery solving for Walter Benjamin's death?