One Month On


So what have I done with the first month of retirement? Much or little? Does that matter? After all, I am supposedly retired. I don't have to do anything. But as I have noted previously, I do not particularly think of myself as retired.

I begin with the down side. That is simply my way. Nothing is happening on the intellectual and creative front, not as poet, not as essayist, never mind anything ambitious as a novel. Never before have I thought in terms of writer's block, which among other things always seemed to me a too-easy formulation that explains nothing. There have been plenty of times when nothing much was coming. That is how I thought of it, not as blocked, just not much was coming, with the unstated presumption that this was something transitory, a phase to be gotten through, and however frustrating, annoying, discombobulating it might be, it would sooner or later be gotten through. Something qualitatively different seems to be at work these days, and has been for some time. I remain disinclined to speak of a "block" because that still does not seem to quite nail it.

What is the source of this condition or affliction or whatever other appellation might be adopted for it? Ah, but if only I knew that. Among its features are the inability to string together a sequence of coherent thoughts on any particular theme or subject, much less get them down into phrases, sentences, paragraphs, &c., that bear a semblance of style, elegance, and erudition, wit altogether too much to be hoped, this coupled with a reluctance to sit down to the desk and put pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard. The latter is quite new to me. I have always been able to hammer out something, however it might fail to rise above the level of gibberish and balderdash, keeping at it until at last I find my way again. It has been quite a long while since I had any sense of finding my way. Intellectual and artistic honesty compel me to wonder if I should put the malaise down to want of discipline. Last summer I read C.P. Snow's The Realists, which consists of short biographies of eight great realist novelists: Stendhal, Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Galdos, Henry James, and Proust. Now these guys cranked out some writing, not all of it great, but some of it about as good as it gets. But then they were giants. I have never been as disciplined as I would like and will always feel I fall short on this score, but I do not think discipline is at the heart of it either.

So how do I pass my days? Well, I reread The Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles, with introduction and notes by Bernard Knox, and found it magnificent again. Two short books on ancient Greek history and culture proved to be a pleasure: H.D.F. Kitto, The Greeks (1951), which I purchased many years ago, for a freshman history class if memory serves; and Kenneth Dover's The Greeks (1980), based on a four-part BBC television series. Kitto's take on comparative cultures and language he uses to talk about the place of women in Greek society is dated and almost charming if one takes time to consider the context and substance of his remarks rather than judging him by 21st century notions of acceptable discourse. Devotees of political correctness might dissent from this assessment.

From The Iliad I moved to Sophocles' three Theban plays, Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Oedipus at Colonus, also translated by Fagles and with intro and notes by Knox, who provides a general introduction titled "Greece and the Theater" along with an extensive introduction for each play that are quite helpful for someone whose background is an sketchy as mine is. The plays are presented in what is thought to be the chronological order of composition and that is how I read them; thus, Antigone comes first while it falls chronologically at the end of the story, followed by Oedipus the King, which opens the story, and Oedipus at Colonus. I polished off Oedipus at Colonus earlier today.

Finally on the Greek project, I am working my way through Donald Kagan's Introduction to Ancient Greek History, a free online course from Yale recorded in Fall 2007. I find myself enjoying the course even more than I anticipated. Kagan lectures in an old-fashioned, straight-on manner with little by way of class participation. He simply stands at the lectern and talks for 70 minutes give or take. The lectures are interesting because he knows his stuff and communicates it well, sometimes spiced with a bit of low-key or deadpan humor, and the subject is interesting.

Kagan makes no bones about the uncertainty of our knowledge about the subject. To the contrary, he stresses this. Much of what we think we know about Greece before the Classical Period comes from the interpretation of archaeological evidence. Beyond that we have traditions and legends passed on by later Greek and Latin writers. As he says in an early lecture, "we keep finding out how wrong we are about all sorts of things." Then he explains his approach, forewarning students that he is a practitioner of the higher naïveté:

...there's me, the most gullible historian imaginable. My principle is this. I believe anything written in ancient Latin or Greek unless I can't. Now, things that prevent me from believing what I read are that they are internally contradictory, or what they say is impossible, or different ones contradict each other and they can't both be right. So, in those cases I abandon the ancient evidence. Otherwise, you've got to convince me that they're not true.

This approach has a certain appeal.

Military history, strategy, tactics, and so on, is an area that has never much interested me. To my surprise I found Kagan's lecture on the Greek infantry of the polis, the hoplite phalanx, absolutely fascinating. The infantrymen, hoplites, were citizens, mostly in the beginning citizen farmers whoses duty as citizens included serving in the army when needed, after which they returned to their small farms. Of necessity these hoplites were men of some means because the polis did not provide their armor. They had to be able to afford to outfit themselves.

Hoplite comes from hoplon, which is the kind of shield these infantrymen carried. Phalanx means

something like a roller because...[it] would have looked, if you were somewhere up on a hill watching it go by, as though something was rolling across the plain as the men went forward and looking pretty formidable, so that anything in its way would have been mowed down in the normal course of events. (Kagan, Lecture 6)

That shield was wood, covered by leather, sometimes with some bronze, weighing in at 15 to 20 pounds. The head was protected by a bronze helmet, weighing five pounds, with only slits for the eyes so a soldier could pretty much see only straight ahead. His body was protected by 40 pounds of bronze breast plate and shin guard-like deals called greaves, which Homer mentions in The Iliad. Kagan goes on to describe how a hoplite held the shield with his left arm and his spear in his upraised right hand, so that between the shield and the breast plate the left side and front of his body were protected but his right side was exposed. And of course if he turned and ran, he left himself wide open and could come to a bad end, as happens on more than one occasion in The Iliad. They marched in very close formation so that a man's vulnerable right side was shielded by the guy to his right, except of course for the poor fellow who drew the short straw that put him on the far right end of the line. The length of the line was determined by the length of the opponent's line, because you did not want your opponent to outflank you. The depth, the number of rows, was determined by length of the front line and the number of troops. Opposing phalanxes advanced at a trot with flutes playing to keep time so they kept to the close-knit formation.

At one point Kagan calls for volunteers from class whom he uses to demonstrate how it worked. We have this older fellow in a sport jacket and tie, not a lot of hair, showing how the infantry lined up, how a soldier would thrust with spear or sword, what havoc might ensue when a guy in the middle of the line went down, leaving the guy to his left exposed.

He goes on to note that generals prepared their troops for battle with a feast and wine, not to the point of drunkenness, but they are feeling a little feisty and ready to stick it to the other guys. We get this in Homer too. Then there is the matter of what motivates these men, rooted in conceptions of polis, citizenship, honor, and what it is to be human. Fascinating stuff.

For diversion I continue to turn to crime novels I can read with half my brain tied behind my back. This is not to say that they are without some literary or other merit. Sometimes a crime novelist can open new doors, as happened recently when I happened on Ausma Zehanat Khan, a Canadian writer who now lives in Colorado with her husband. Khan has a PhD in International Human Rights Law with a research specialization in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans, practiced immigration law in Canada, taught international human rights law at Northwestern University, and formerly served as chief editor of Muslim Girl magazine. The protagonist of her crime novels is a Toronto police detective named Esa Khattack, a Muslim of Pakistani heritage (I believe it is Pakistani and not Afghan). In Among the Ruins Khattack is vacationing in Iran, touring historic sites, and gets pulled into investigating the murder of an Iranian/Canadian filmmaker whose films are critical of the hardliners in the regime. Elements of the plot put credulity to the test, but the characters are good and descriptions of setting and accounts of life in contemporary Iran plausible. Khan mentioned several references in an epilogue, which took me to Laura Secor's Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran. The book is a challenge because Secor mentions many people with whom I am not familiar and it is sometimes difficult to keep them straight, but definitely worth the read and perhaps the beginning of another project.

When not reading I've played with the camera a bit in Oregon City and St. Johns. I remain the world's worst photographer but enjoy it nonetheless. Maybe I will get better with practice. Only two films in the past month, The Midwife and Blow-Up, both of which I reviewed previously. I intended to catch Jean-Luc Godard's La Chinoise Monday but missed it for typically lame reasons. Allergies laid me low a bit that day. Then a downpour hit just as I was stepping out the door. Getting wet is part of life in Portland, but I am not crazy about sitting in a theater in a damp condition. Between that and the allergies, I decided to bag Godard. Went to bed early and felt better the next day, so it must have been the right move. And oh yes, the running goes well, as I am back to racking up 25 miles a week. It seems I get slower each day, but I can still put one foot in front of the other for a while. I'll keep at it.

#LiteraryampIntellectual

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David Matthews

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