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Asimov’s Foundation analogy

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I just decided to reread the Foundation series, which I firt read in junior high, and thanks to modern technology, I had determined through an easy Google search the best order in which to read them:

  1. The Complete Robot (1982) Collection of 31 Short Stories about robots.
  2. The Caves of Steel (1954) His first Robot novel.
  3. The Naked Sun (1957) The second Robot novel.
  4. The Robots of Dawn (1983) The third Robot novel.
  5. Robots and Empire (1985) The fourth (final) Robot novel.
  6. The Currents of Space (1952) The first Empire novel.
  7. The Stars, Like Dust– (1951) The second Empire novel.
  8. Pebble in the Sky (1950) The third and final Empire novel.
  9. Prelude to Foundation (1988) The first Foundation novel.
  10. Forward the Foundation (1992) The second Foundation novel.
  11. Foundation (1951) The third Foundation novel, comprising 5 stories.
  12. Foundation and Empire (1952) The fourth Foundation novel, comprising 2 stories.
  13. Second Foundation (1953) The fifth Foundation novel, comprising 2 stories.
  14. Foundation’s Edge (1982) The sixth Foundation novel.
  15. Foundation and Earth (1983) The seventh Foundation novel.

Having determined that, I decided that I really wanted the Foundation part, so I bought the 9th book in the list and had it on my Kindle in 10 seconds if that. “Impulse purchase” doesn’t touch it.

At any rate, I was stunned to see Trantor as a clear analogue of the United States, and the specificity with which the mindset described in the book corresponds to the mindset of the US. I would say that the analogy is deliberate. (And maybe that’s well known—that I just figured it out doesn’t mean that it’s not a well-established reading.)

Hari Seldon, I take it, represents Asimov.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 November 2017 at 12:39 pm

How Seinfeld, the Sitcom Famously “About Nothing,” Is Like Gustave Flaubert’s Novels About Nothing

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An interesting comment, but I wanted more about Flaubert and less about Seinfeld. This is from Colin Marshall’s blog post at Open Culture, where he writes:

“A show about nothing”: people have described Seinfeld that way for decades, but creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David didn’t set out to create anything of the kind. In fact, with Seinfeld himself already established as a stand-up comedian, they originally pitched to NBC a show about how a comic finds material in his day-to-day life. But in its 43rd episode, when the series had become a major cultural phenomenon, Seinfeld’s character and Jason Alexander’s George Costanza (whom David based on himself) pitch a show to television executives where “nothing happens,” and fans seized upon the truth about Seinfeld they saw reflected in that joke.

In the video essay above, Evan Puschak, known as the Nerdwriter, figures out why. It’s a cultural and intellectual journey that takes him back to the 19th-century novels of Gustave Flaubert. “Flaubert was a pioneer of literary realism, in large part responsible for raising the status of the novel to that of a high art,” says Puschak.

In 1852, Flaubert wrote a letter describing his ambition to write “a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the internal strength of its style.” Instead of wanting to “string you along with multiple suspense-heightening narrative developments,” in Puschak’s view, “he wants to bring you into the text itself, to look there for the carefully constructed meanings that he’s built for you.”

And so, in their own way, do Seinfeld and David in the sitcom that became and remains so beloved in large part with its numerous departures from the traditions the form had established over the past forty years. . .

Continue reading.

It may be time to read Madame Bovary again.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 November 2017 at 4:39 pm

Posted in Books, Movies & TV

The Grim Food Served on 17th-Century Sea Voyages Wasn’t All Bad

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I found this of interest, although the voyages recounted in Patrick O’Brien’s wondeful series of British Naval novels with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin are late 18th century. Still the Naval food stores seems not to have changed all that much at that point.

Paula Meija writes in Gastro Obscura:

Sailors in the 17th century had it rough. For months, they were away at sea, sustaining themselves on an unsteady diet that included brined beef, dirty water, and tough crackers known as ship biscuit. In the days before pasteurization, seasickness likely came more often from the food than the waves.

A handful of cookbooks and ship journals detail the odious smells and tastes of 17th-century ship fare. But we can only imagine the decomposing food and its effect on the health of sailors.

Until now, that is. These questions led Grace Tsai, a PhD student specializing in nautical archaeology, to recreate ship food aboard an old-timey vessel. She and her fellow researchers at Texas A&M University have spent over three years on what they dubbed the Ship Biscuit & Salted Beef Research Project. They’re now analyzing beef as gnarly as what sailors ate, and are planning to give the rest of us a taste of a sailor’s life.

In August, the team mounted their barrels of ship food, which included salted beef, ship biscuits, peas, and beer, aboard the Elissa in the port of Galveston, TexasTheir model was the English galleon the Warwick, a ship sunk by a hurricane in Bermuda’s Castle Harbor in 1619. A team of archaeologists began excavating the Warwick’s remains in 2010. Among the wreckage, they discovered glass shards containing beer and wine, as well as cow bones. So Tsai packed for Bermuda.

“There are just a handful of ships where you can find remains like this,” Tsai says. “We have a good archaeological record of the bones that are on board.” Studying those (mostly beef) bones gave Tsai a sense of the cuts of meat sailors brought—knowledge she used to butcher beef for the Elissa. Working from an additional year of archival research, she and her team slaughtered and butchered a hog and steer, then made salted food according to a 1682 recipe. Each food and drink put onboard was the product of a similar process, and the plan was to let everything sit for two months. . .

Continue reading.

At the link there are interesting photos along with more text.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 November 2017 at 11:33 am

The best books on Climate Change and Uncertainty

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Five Books interviews Kate Marvel:

‘When we talk about climate change, we sometimes assume people will be swayed by one more graph, one more coherent argument. But that’s not how people work. More facts don’t change minds, and deeply held views don’t always dictate behaviour.’ How, then, to grapple with a future that ‘might be weirder than we realise’? Kate Marvel, Associate Research Scientist at Columbia University and NASA, recommends an essential reading list for those ready to confront climate change and the uncertainties it brings.

OK, let’s start with some basics. What can we say for sure about anthropogenic climate change, and what can we not say for sure?

First, we know that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. We know what its molecular structure looks like, and we know that this structure means that it absorbs infrared radiation. If we’re wrong about this, we’re wrong about the very basics of physics and chemistry.

Second, we know that burning fossil fuels increases carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The chemical reactions that produce energy when we burn oil, gas, or coal inevitably produce CO2 as a byproduct. And that CO2 goes into the atmosphere. We have excellent measurements of atmospheric CO2, and they clearly show a dramatic increase since the industrial revolution.

Third, we know the climate has been changing. Multiple independent datasets show the global temperature rising. But that’s not all that’s been happening. There is more water vapour in the atmosphere. Spring is coming earlier. Rainfall patterns are shifting. Glaciers and sea ice are melting. There are more and deadlier heat waves.

Fourth, we know that these changes are very, very likely to be due to human activities. We know that the climate changes due to natural factors, but we also have a fairly good understanding of what the climate would look like without us. We can model this natural variability using powerful supercomputers, and we can also study the climate of the past using things like tree rings and ice cores. The changes we’ve observed are too large and too rapid to be attributable to any known natural factors. And they’re very consistent with what we expect increased carbon dioxide to do to the planet. An alternate explanation would have to come up with a plausible natural mechanism for these changes and explain why CO2 doesn’t act the way we think it should – and that’s a very tall order.

But we don’t know everything (otherwise my job would be very boring). We don’t know exactly how hot it’s going to get. That’s largely because we don’t know what society will do in the future – will we take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or will it be business as usual? But even leaving aside this uncertainty, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the physical climate system. The planet responds to warming in ways that could either speed up or slow down that warming. A good example is ice melt: the north and south pole are covered in ice right now, and that ice is very good at reflecting sunlight. As the Earth warms, the ice melts, exposing darker ground or water. Without that reflective ice coating more sunlight gets absorbed and the planet gets even warmer, melting even more ice. It’s a vicious cycle, but one we understand fairly well. There are other effects that are much less well understood. For example, we’re pretty sure that global warming will change cloud cover, but we’re not sure exactly how, and we’re not sure if these changes will slow down or speed up the warming. This is an exciting scientific field, and we’re making considerable progress.

We also don’t know exactly how climate change will affect specific areas. Policymakers often want information about what to expect and when, and we’ll never have an exact answer. The computer models we use to project the future are improving, but we’ll always have to make decisions in an uncertain environment.

In a TED talk earlier this year you stressed the uncertainties relating to how cloud cover change – that they might help us out with global warming, but they might make it much worse. You also said in that talk that there was no observational evidence that clouds would substantially slow down global warming. Just now you told me that scientists like yourself are making considerable progress on this issue. Does that mean you and others are getting close to a significant reduction in uncertainty here?

That’s certainly the hope! Clouds are a real headache for climate scientists because we’re not sure what’s going to happen to them as the planet heats up. And that’s unfortunate, because clouds are incredibly important in regulating the climate. High clouds act a bit like a warm blanket, trapping heat from the planet below. This means that clouds have a very powerful greenhouse effect and make us much warmer. But clouds also play an opposite role. Anyone who’s ever had an outdoor party spoiled by clouds knows that they’re very effective at blocking sunlight. On a global scale, clouds block an enormous amount of sunlight that would otherwise warm the Earth, and so make it much colder. You can see right away how difficult it is to understand what’s going to happen. How will global warming change the greenhouse effect of clouds? Will it cause them to block more or less sunlight?

We’re making progress. Unfortunately, it’s mostly bad news. We’re now fairly confident that global warming will make the cloud greenhouse effect more powerful. This will, in turn, cause global warming to get worse. We’re less confident in this, but we have reasons to believe that the future may be sunnier: clouds will block less solar energy. And this also makes global warming worse. There’s still a lot to learn, but I wouldn’t place any bets on clouds saving us from ourselves.

Let’s look at your first book choice, Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe (2006). What do you like about this book, and how does it help us think about uncertainty?

I have a shocking confession to make: I don’t enjoy reading popular books about climate science. Given what I actually do all day, it all feels a bit too much like hard work. I’d rather read something that entertains me or teaches me something I don’t know already. But I think this book is an important one: it largely gets the science right, and it helps give a sense of the scale of the problem. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 November 2017 at 12:23 pm

The Noble Goethe

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In the Weekly Standard Algis Valiunas writes a pæan to Goethe:

There have been very few Renaissance men since the Renaissance—and they weren’t exactly thick on the ground even in their glory days. No modern figure is more worthy of that appellation than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who was not only the greatest German poet, playwright, autobiographer, and novelist (beside Thomas Mann), but also a painter at a time when that required ability and expertise, a statesman who effectively took over the administration of a small dukedom in his mid-twenties, and a scientist who made suggestive discoveries in zoology and botany and mounted an audacious challenge to Newton’s theory of optics. And Goethe was also a prime virile specimen who relished the pleasures of the body as well as those of the mind. His secretary Friedrich Riemer goggled in wonder at the physical grace and power of the middle-aged Goethe, a born athlete who had gained in muscle and finesse by extensive youthful practice: “One must see him, how strong and firm he stands on his feet, with what bodily agility and sure step he moves. Early gymnastic training, dancing, fencing, skating, riding, even coursing and racing, had given him this mobility and suppleness; he could never make a false step on the worst path or be in danger of slipping or falling; easily and swiftly he passed over smooth ice, narrow foot-paths and bridges, and rocky steeps.”

Leonardo da Vinci proclaimed that it is easy to make oneself a universal man; after all, to do so required of him only to be born a singular genius and to devote all his energy to developing his preternatural mind, eye, and hand. With Goethe as well Nature was profligate in dispensing her manifold capacities and charms, but he would not indulge in swaggering bravado about how easily he accomplished what he did. Despite his reputation for insufferable serenity, late in life he said that he had never known an interval of restful ease; his entire life had been one of striving, of unrelenting effort to cultivate his various talents and to harmonize the naturally discordant aspects of his character. Not that he was unaware of the great good fortune in his endowment; he would speak of the “inborn merit” that a natural aristocrat possesses and of his winning “the big prize” in the lottery of birth. But it took a lifetime’s hard work for that inborn merit to become the superior merit of extraordinary achievement.

What did it take for Goethe to become Goethe? What do his life and works mean for the rest of us? Rüdiger Safranski, the German biographer of Schiller, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, has ably confronted if not definitively answered these questions in Goethe: Life as a Work of Art. As remarkable as Goethe’s life was, Nietzsche said it was an event without consequences: While German intellectual historians refer to die Goethezeit (the Age of Goethe), he was not a world-historical individual in the Hegelian sense, one who embodied an epoch and who directed the course of human events as a Napoleon did. But Safranski for his part discerns abundant consequence in Goethe’s being “the exemplar of a life combining intellectual riches, creative power, and worldly wisdom. .  .  . It is the individual shape of this life that is endlessly fascinating. By no means was its course a foregone conclusion.”

In our hyper-egalitarian time, when identity politics compels persons of goodwill to think the thoughts prescribed for their caste, and the rough edges of individual difference abrade those too delicate to withstand the indignities caused by other people’s freedom, the man who devotes himself to discovering his true nature and living accordingly is a rarity, and an egregious one in the eyes of the multitude. That happens to be true even though our contemporary culture is rife with exhortations simply to be yourself; indeed, that pop-culture sales pitch stands today as necessary and sufficient moral wisdom, while its exponents remain oblivious to the nearly insuperable obstacles to its serious realization that the cult of equality throws in its way.

How does one become himself—his best self—when democracy tends to make each of us more and more like everyone else? Goethe was fortunate not only in being born Goethe but also in living during the birth of the democratic era, that poignantly hopeful time when it seemed possible that ordinary men and women might be capable of genuine nobility, that freedom and equality might join forces to nurture the robust individuality of human beings at their highest reach. Those hopes have died very hard, leaking away in the lifeblood of the wounded left on the battlefield where freedom and equality, unable to be reconciled, have met in fateful collision. To speak today of personal nobility as democracy’s rightful aim would get you sneered at for unconscionable elitism or impossible dreaminess. Yet that is the very exaltation that Goethe wanted, not only for himself, but for everyone capable of overcoming his own flawed nature, an indifferent upbringing and education, and the tidal surge, already in Goethe’s day gathering all but irresistible momentum, toward universal mediocrity. Safranski does not quite reach such an understanding of Goethe’s significance, but this biography testifies to the singular glory that was Goethe’s life and suggests that with Goethe’s teaching as a guide the hope for democratic nobility might not yet be extinguished for good.

* * *

Goethe was born nearly dead, the umbilical cord a noose around his neck. He grew up in Frankfurt in commodious upper-middle-class surroundings; his maternal grandfather had been the imperial city’s mayor, and his father had come into a substantial inheritance and had purchased the lofty title of imperial councilor. The elder Goethe saw great promise in his only surviving son and provided him with a fine education; in his youth Goethe learned Italian, French, English, Latin, Greek, and some Hebrew, studied drawing and music, wrote poetry, and received personal instruction from his father in geography, history, and law—the profession in which the father intended the son to follow him. Defying the patriarchal will on this count required bold resolution on the young man’s part, and Goethe knuckled under before he overcame, studying law at university rather than classics as he wanted to and practicing law for several years until literary success freed him from the paternal grasp—although as Safranski points out, his father helped support Goethe’s writing habit while they were working together. His first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, which appeared when he was 25, remains the most famous tale since Romeo and Juliet of lovelorn suicide, and as Safranski writes it is an object lesson in the perils of Romantic taedium vitae. The book made Goethe a European celebrity.

Bookish he certainly was from the beginning, but exploring the city excited him as much as reading did, as he writes in his autobiography, Poetry and Truth. To take in as much of the world as his mind could hold was a habit formed early: Everything interested the boy as it would the man, as he developed a taste for

observing the conditions of mankind in their manifold variety and naturalness, without regard to their importance or beauty. .  .  . We saw many thousand people amid their little domestic and secluded circumstances. From the ornamental and show gardens of the rich, to the orchards of the citizen, anxious about his necessities; from thence to the factories, bleaching-grounds, and similar establishments, even to the burying-grounds .  .  . we passed a varied, strange spectacle.

The earthly spectacle never wearied Goethe. Experience became his watchword. Although Bildung (self-development) was his foremost lifelong concern, obsession with one’s interior life repelled him. Late in life, in a passage Safranski cites, he declared suspect the philosopher’s imperative “Know thyself,” which tends to “entice [one] away from activity in the external world and into a false, inner contemplativeness. Man knows himself only to the extent that he knows the world, and he becomes aware of the world only in himself and of himself in it.” Bildungdemanded that one come to know his true self by searching, probing, ransacking the vast world outside himself. For Goethe the project of self-development involved the intake on a heroic scale of other men’s works, as well as a fruitful gregariousness; the import of reading, looking at paintings and sculptures, listening to music, and encountering men quite different from himself lay principally in learning what most closely implicated his own nature and enhanced his own energy and productiveness. Goethe was the paragon of encyclopedic cultivation, the most learned of the modern masters, immersing himself in the acquired wisdom and beauty of the ages, incorporating with the intention of embodying the best in art, philosophy, religion, history, statesmanship, and science, and transforming these accumulated riches into a treasure uniquely his own.

Nor was his knowledge limited to . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 November 2017 at 12:48 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life

Why the AR-15 Is So Lethal

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In the Atlantic James Fallow reprises an article from 1981, newly relevant today. I vividly recall it all in his excellent book National Defense (and note the full text of the AR-15 story is available at a link in the story):

Americans who know nothing else about firearms are all too familiar with the name AR-15. It’s the semi-automatic weapon that murderers have used in many of the most notorious and highest-casualty gun killings of recent years: Aurora, Colorado. Newtown, Connecticut. Orlando, Florida, San Bernardino, California.  Now, with modified versions, in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Sutherland Springs, Texas.

What is this gun? Why is it the weapon that people who want to kill a lot of other people, in a hurry, mainly choose? Tim Dickinson offered a useful history of the AR-15’s emergence as the main implement of mass murder last year in Rolling Stone (“All-American Killer: How the AR-15 Became Mass Shooters’ Weapon of Choice”), and Megan O’Dea in Fortune and Aaron Smith for CNN also had valuable reports.

But there’s another angle of the AR-15 saga that has slightly slipped from view. It is why this particular weapon is so unusually effective in killing things—even when compared with other firearms.

As it happens, I did an Atlantic article on exactly this subject, back in a very different era of American politics. In 1981, I published a book called National Defensewhich was popular at the time and was excerpted in three installments in the magazine. One of the installments was called “The M-16: A Bureaucratic Horror Story,” and it included the origin story of the AR-15. That article was not previously available online, but my colleague Annika Neklason has just digitized it from the archives, and it’s now available.

* * *

The AR-15 was newsworthy in those days mainly as the original civilian version of what became the U.S. military’s standard M-16 combat rifle. The problem with the M-16, from the perspective of many of the Americans who had been using it during the 1960s and 1970s in Vietnam, is that it too often failed at the fundamental task of combat weaponry: killing troops on the other side.

The M-16 jammed. It was touchy if it got wet or dirty—which, in jungle warfare, weapons generally did. Veterans’ stories about the M-16, which became newspaper exposés, which became congressional hearings, concerned the battles in which an American soldier or marine was found shot to death by an enemy AK-47, a jammed M-16 clutched in the American’s hands.

The point of my story was to explain how the Army’s procurement bureaucracy had systematically, and knowingly if not intentionally, converted the early-model AR-15 into the fully “militarized” but vastly less reliable M-16. Those were the comparisons that mattered most in the aftermath of Vietnam: the M-16 versus its AR-15 predecessor, and the M-16 against the adversary’s practically indestructible AK-47.

Along the way, I examined the other side of the comparison: why the AR-15 was such a revolution in killing power. That’s the part of the story that is most relevant now.

* * *

The AR-15, created by the celebrated armaments designed Eugene Stoner, had many advantages, but a crucial one was that . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

7 November 2017 at 4:06 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Military

The Healing Power of Greek Tragedy

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Jeff MacGregor writes in Smithsonian:

Make them wish they’d never come, the director says, almost absently. He means the audience. The actress nods. She makes a mark in her script next to the stage direction:

[An inhuman cry]

And they go on rehearsing. The room is quiet. Late afternoon light angles across the floor.

An hour later from the stage her terrible howl rises over the audience to the ceiling, ringing against the walls and out the doors and down the stairs; rises from somewhere inside her to fill the building and the streets and the sky with her pain and her anger and her sadness. It is a terrifying sound, not because it is inhuman, but because it is too human. It is the sound not only of shock and of loss but of every shock and of every loss, of a grief beyond language understood everywhere by everyone.

The audience shifts uncomfortably in their seats. Then silence covers them all. This is the moment the director wanted, the moment of maximum discomfort. This is where the healing starts.

Later, the audience starts talking. They won’t stop.

“I don’t know what happened,” the actress will say in a few days. “That reading, that particular night, broke open a lot of people. And in a great way.”

This is Theater of War.

The creation of director and co-founder Bryan Doerries, Brooklyn-based Theater of War Productions bills itself as “an innovative public health project that presents readings of ancient Greek plays, including Sophocles’ Ajax, as a catalyst for town hall discussions about the challenges faced by service men and women, veterans, their families, caregivers and communities.”

And tonight in the Milbank Chapel of Teachers College at Columbia University, they’ve done just that, performing Ajax for a roomful of veterans and mental health professionals. Actor Chris Henry Coffey reads Ajax. The scream came from Gloria Reuben, the actress playing Tecmessa, Ajax’s wife.

Sophocles wrote the play 2,500 years ago, during a century of war and plague in Greece. It was part of the spring City Dionysia, the dramatic festival of Athens at which the great tragedies and comedies of the age were performed for every citizen. It is the wrenching story of the famed Greek warrior Ajax, betrayed and humiliated by his own generals, exhausted by war, undone by violence and pride and fate and hopelessness until at last, seeing no way forward, he takes his own life.


Doerries, 41, slim and earnest, energetic, explains all this to the audience that night. As he sometimes does, he will read the role of the chorus, too. He promises that the important work of discovery and empathy will begin during the discussion following the reading. The play is just the vehicle they’ll use to get there.

A self-described classics nerd, Doer­ries was born and raised in Newport News, Virginia. His parents were both psychologists. A smart kid in a smart household, he appeared in his first Greek play at the age of 8, as one of the children in Euripides’ Medea. He’ll tell you it was a seminal experience. “I was one of the children who were killed by their pathologically jealous mother—and I still remember my lines and the experience of screaming them, belting them backstage while a couple of college students pretended to bludgeon me and my friend. And I remember the sort of wonderment, the sense of awe, of limitless possibilities that the theater presented and associating that with Greek tragedy at a very early age.”

He was an indifferent high school student who bloomed in college. “My first week as a freshman at Kenyon, I met with my adviser—who just happened to be a classics professor assigned to me—and decided to take ancient Greek.

“I learned to commit to something hard and that it would result in incredible dividends. And so that’s when I started adding other ancient languages and doing Hebrew and Latin and a little Aramaic and a tiny bit of German and having this classical education that was about a deep dive into language, and the sense of early Greek thinking.” For his senior thesis he translated and staged Euripides’ The Bacchae.

He might have gone on to a fine and forgettable career as an academic; a philologist. But his origin story is more complicated than that, as most origin stories are, and has at its heart a tragedy.

In 2003, following a long illness, Doerries’ girlfriend, Laura, died. In the weeks and months of grief that followed he found comfort where he expected none: in the tragedies of ancient Greece. He was 26. All of which he explains in his remarkable 2015 book The Theater of War.

“Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, witnessing Laura’s graceful death opened my eyes to what the Greek tragedies I had studied in school were trying to convey. Through tragedy, the great Athenian poets were not articulating a pessimistic or fatalistic view of human experience; nor were they bent on filling audiences with despair. Instead, they were giving voice to timeless human experiences—of suffering and grief—that, when viewed by a large audience that had shared those experiences, fostered compassion, understanding and a deeply felt interconnection. Through tragedy, the Greeks faced the darkness of human existence as a community.”

But that’s the book version. Tidy. Well-considered. The truth of it was messier.

Coming out of graduate school in California, . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more, and it’s good.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 November 2017 at 9:37 am

Posted in Art, Books, Daily life, Education

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