A Student of History

A Student of History

The title image is of my brother (left) with Greg in Marseille.

Greg Valdespino is one of my oldest and best friends. But this doesn’t mean we were always friendly. We began our friendship competing for the best grades in class. For a while I was on top (I’m good at exams), and I wasn’t afraid to brag. But in high school, Greg shot forward, and it was his turn to rub it in. Greg quite dramatically won our long competition by graduating third in our class and going off to become a true scholar. (I wasn’t either 1st or 2nd.)

Now that we’re adults—or trying to be—Greg has become an even better friend than before, in part for his rare ability to be simultaneously serious and silly. It is difficult to combine a strong sense of what is right with an ability to laugh at oneself, but Greg somehow manages it. He also manages to make me feel like I don’t know the first thing about history. Here’s our conversation:


ROY LOTZ: Can you give me some description of your education? Do any professors or classes stand out for special mention?

GREG VALDESPINO: I went to public school in Sleepy Hollow, from Kindergarten to twelfth grade. And I do remember most of my history teachers from this time. There are phrases and quotes of individuals I remember about why history is important to them. 

But the big influence was Ms. Heskestad, who was my eighth and tenth grade teacher, who was a foundational, educational figure in my life. She really kind of let me deeply geek out and engage in history, as something you can really get obsessed with, making history the big thing I pursued. (And of course she’s French, and I’m a sucker for France.) I would even go to her office every day before school—or once or twice a week at least—and just talk about the readings that we had for AP European History. And I don’t know why she let me do this, but I did. She had better things to do with her time.

Then, after Sleepy Hollow, I went to Stanford for four years. At first I was hesitant to do history, since I didn’t just want to do the thing that I was really good at in high school. And I took a history class on medieval Europe and I hated it. Or I loved it, but I was really bad at it. It was at 9 a.m. and I kept falling asleep. And the professor slapped the table pretty frequently to wake me up. (It was a twelve-person class, so it wasn’t like I could be hiding in the back.) And since I was always the last person to arrive to class, I would have to sit right next to the professor, so he’d be in the perfect position to slap the table. It was not a great introduction to higher learning.

But then I took a class while I was studying abroad, with professor Caroline Winterer, who is a historian of American intellectual and cultural history in the eighteenth century. She did a class on French-American connections since the colonial period. And it was just spectacular. She had this marvelous, beautiful way of using history to reveal the complexity of the past, and the impossibility of pigeonholing past actors, and the astoundingly complex ways that they thought about their world, and that the ways that they thought evolved over time and produced the way we think… And she gave these beautiful lectures about construction of forms of knowledge and ways of approaching the world. I didn’t think it would be so moving, but it was.

Then I got the chance to do my own research in France, where after studying 18th-century intellectual history, I was in this village, talking to people about memories of World War II. To go from an intellectual approach of history to people’s actual relationships with the past—two different ways of looking at history—was a kind of master-class in the subject. So after that I was totally committed to being a historian. Within a year, I went from “Do I want to major in this?” to being like “I want this to be my life.” Even though Caroline Winterer kept telling me that it was a bad idea. 

There’s a thing Rabbis do with converts, where they have to push them away three times to find out if they’re really committed. And the first three times I told Professor Winterer I wanted to go to grad school, she admonished me about how terrible an idea that was, and how awful grad school is, and how I’ll never get a job. Then, only by senior year, the fourth time I did it, she started making a game-plan.

I finished Stanford with a history degree, knowing that I wanted to be a historian. After two years off, I started a Ph.D. in history as the University of Chicago, where I work under Leora Auslander, who is a historian of modern Europe, and Emily Osborn, who studies social history and history in West Africa. And they are glorious, and they are very different, and very wonderful.

RL: Why did you choose history as opposed to any other discipline?

GV: I think I started studying history because I was interested in stories. And I found real stories more interesting than fiction. I thought that looking at past events was an interesting way of understanding humanity, and “the human condition” (except that the longer I studied it I realized I don’t believe in anything called “the human condition,” or if I do it’s very qualified).

As I go through my Ph.D. I think less and less that the reason to study history is stories—even though I love stories—and instead I think that we study history to understand the formation of ways of being and thinking, and how they emerged and evolved and changed over time, and how they’re always doing it.

One of my advisors says that “history is the study of change over time.” And we’re always within that. We are the inheritors and the products of change over time, but at the same time we are also producing and participating in that flow of new changes. So it’s a way of viewing the world that’s in constant flux. And there’s a humility to that which I appreciate. It gives me the ability to think beyond the moment. Or at least try to.

RL: What are some of the books—both academic and non-academic—that inspire you the most?

GV: In high school, one summer, I read both King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild—about the Belgium Congo (spoiler alert: it was bad)—and Things Fall Apart by the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. So it’s two very different—not complementary—perspectives on how to think about colonialism in Africa. I think that was the first time I ever thought about the history of Africa in any serious way.

In college, the most important book I read was probably The Wretched of the Earth, by Franz Fanon. As far as my intellectual trajectory goes, this book was foundational.

RL: That’s about colonialism right?

GV: Yeah, he’s a psychoanalyst thinking about the consequences of colonialism for black men—and it’s very much about black men, not at all about black women, very misogynistic. It’s a classic psychoanalytical, existentialist approach, like “the black man is created by the white gaze”—these things that have become very common knowledge now. But he was one of these pioneering thinkers. He was one of the main intellectuals of decolonization. So reading that was like a bolt of lightning. And I remember in my class of 90 people only one other person liked it (who now studies black radical thought) because Fanon advocates violence as a form of self-affirmation. It’s a very controversial book. And I bought into it, immediately.

There’s a wonderful book called Affective Communities, by Leela Gandhi, where she talks about the relationships between South Asian and British radicals in turn-of-the-century London. And she looks as vegetarians, spiritualists, anti-colonialists, homosexuals, and how they were imagining different kinds of political relationships that weren’t about similarity. Where the basis of political community isn’t forming bonds with people who are like you. And she has a wonderful theory of political action, rejecting identity politics in the sense of communities formed to include people like us and exclude others.

Then there’s this awesome book by James H. Sweet, called Domingos Álvarez, and it’s a micro-history, a history of one person. It’s based on these inquisition files for this guy who is from what is now Benin. He’s kind of magical healer who gets enslaved and sent to Brazil. But he eventually gets freed, and he becomes a healer in a community in what is now Rio de Janeiro. Then he gets accused of witchcraft, captured by the Inquisition, and sent to Lisbon in the 1760s. There he’s interviewed, producing hundreds of pages about his life. Sweet’s book is an astounding intellectual biography of him, and his efforts to use his medicinal practices to form a community and resist the social death of slavery. It’s a beautiful resurrection of a man’s life, but it also opens up a way for us to understand African intellectual traditions in the creation of the modern world.

RL: What qualities do you think a good historian should have? 

GV: A good historian definitely needs patience and the persistence to get through archival work, which is often extremely boring. They need to be simultaneously self-critical and confident. Self-critical, in order to not just use their own biases to explain the past. But confident, to believe that they are saying something worth discussing. And they need to be endearingly excited about things. Without irony, and without a need for an audience.

RL: Is there one worst intellectual sin that a historian can commit?

GV: I mean the classic answer is an anachronism, of course. That means using a term or a logic or a conceptual framework of the present to explain the past. It’s a sin because it doesn’t do service to actually explaining the past or its relationship to the present. But of course some people, including myself, believe that we shouldn’t separate the present from the past, because we really can’t escape the present or put it aside. But the anachronism is the classic great sin of historians.

But I think the real great sin is looking for documents and evidence that feed your pre-existing theory as opposed to letting your theory emerge from the evidence. That you don’t go into an archive knowing what your argument is going to be. Your argument emerges from the research. Otherwise, you just do bad work. You won’t move knowledge forward in any meaningful way. Of course, it’s the same problem in any kind of research, and it’s extremely difficult not to do this, at least a little bit. 

RL: How do you think history should be taught at the university level?

GV: I think that it’s important to assign a combination of secondary and primary sources. People need to get excited about engaging with the objects of the past. And you need to give them direct access to the words of people who came before us. But if you just give them those words, images, or objects without any framework, then people will have no ability to understand how exciting they are, beyond just “This is cool!”

You get them in with the coolness, with the story, but they become historians by learning how to analyze it. The most important thing is to teach people that history is a debate, and an analysis, and they have the right to do that analysis, to be historians, to debate it. As opposed to a high school style, which is “Here is the narrative.” People need to be given permission to make the narrative. And in order to do that they need to have access to both the data points and the broader debates.

RL: But do you think there’s a danger to this, in a sense that it gives people the license to write history to reinforce their own preferred narratives?

GV: I’ve gone past my postmodern crisis in college. Obviously all positions are personal and subjective. But that doesn’t mean that some positions aren’t more accurate than others. You need to ground historical study in evidence. Everyone has a right to be a historian. But in order to be a historian, you have to work with the sources, you have to do the analytical work. And if I can prove you didn’t do the work, or I have contrary evidence, I can disprove you. That’s what makes it different from story-telling. 

RL: Can you describe some of your doctoral research?

GV: The basic question of my dissertation is: When, where, and why did West Africans’ ability to feel at home become a political and social issue in France and Senegal in the 20th century. So essentially what I’m asking is: When did individuals’ ability to feel physical senses of comfort and social senses of belonging within certain spaces become central to certain people’s understandings of broader social and political debates. What role did these debates play in colonialism? And how does studying this allow us to rethink our understandings of colonial cultures and ideas of segregation, separation, unity, and multiculturalism in the 20th century?

RL: Can you tell us something about how you went about researching it?

GV: I’ve done archival work in France and Senegal. I did a year in France and about three months in Senegal, and I’ve spent the past year writing. The archives were mostly government archives: the National Archives of Senegal, the National Archives of France, the Colonial Archives of France, various regional archives in France, a few archives of housing agencies, or police archives. I’ve done some oral history, I’ve spoken with some nuns and missionaries. So I’ve gone all over looking at textual sources, a lot of photographs, films, novels.

RL: What kind of textual sources were they, exactly?

GV: It can be anything from a police file, to a census record, to shipping inventories. A problem is a lot of my actors aren’t literate. So even though I would love to have more letters—and I have a good amount—they mostly aren’t there. And they didn’t end up in government archives all the time, for obvious reasons. But I do have a lot of soldiers’ letters that were intercepted by censors. I have letters that individuals wrote to state officials when they were either trying to get support after their homes were destroyed by the state, trying to get support for community centers, trying to get interventions in insalubrious housing. But I don’t have a ton of interpersonal letters, unfortunately.

Each chapter in my dissertation is oriented around a specific kind of space that was seen as a solution to, or the cause of, the problem of how to make West Africans feel at home. And a big source-base for pretty much every chapter are inspections or plans of those spaces. Those can be textual inspections but also drawings, blueprints, photographs, audiovisual records, interviews with residents… it runs the whole gamut.

RL: How do you approach writing up your research? What are you trying to accomplish?

GV: I’ll answer the second part of the question first, because I think it’s harder. Basically, I’m trying to make an argument—that’s the core. An argument that allows us to view something in a new way. The structure of my dissertation is it moves chronologically from 1914 to 1974, and each chapter is about a different time and place. So I’m trying to use home as a lens to reinterpret a certain period that people have been studying. I want to make an argument that allows us to see something in a new way. And which allows us to see West Africans and their sense of belonging as essential to this time period.

On the whole, I’m trying to produce a new understanding of empire. People say that empire is always predicated on distance and separation, and that’s true in many ways. But closeness is also a central part of empire. The paradox of empire is that it’s an entity that is predicated simultaneously on unity and division, which is very counterintuitive to our understanding of politics. So the reason empire’s didn’t work is that they’re based on the politics of differentiation when politics is supposed to be based on similarity.

But for so many people this wasn’t a paradox, and so many West Africans and French people were trying to think of make this distance and closeness work politically. So I’m trying to produce a new understanding of empire that acknowledges that, for many people, the distance did not preclude it from also being intimate. And I don’t mean “intimate” in the sense of sex, I mean that you can bring these political structures close into your life. That’s my overall argument—changing our ideas of empire and why it worked or didn’t work in certain moments.

As far as when I’m writing—a totally different question, I suppose—it’s about getting all of those little arguments in each chapter that will get me to the big argument. And in the process, the first phase is what I call “word vomiting”: just write, write, write. Get all the quotes from all the sources I think are relevant and then I just kind of stream-of-consciousness analyze them. I kind of arrange them roughly into a sequence I think might be interesting, but I don’t really know what I’m going to say about them when I start writing. I write about them, and write around each of these quotes, until I get to an end.

And that’s the first draft. It’s usually about sixty pages of absolute gobbledygook. And then I ask: What’s the argument here? And then I spend weeks trying to craft an argument out of that word vomit. So I imagine vomiting onto my computer and then scrubbing it away, until I get to the argument that was underneath the vomit. 

RL: Just like Michelangelo. You remove every part of the stone that doesn’t look like a beautiful sculpture. Just like you remove every part of the vomit that doesn’t look like a dissertation.

GV: Beautifully put. I even have a separate word document that’s just called “Scraps,” because I find it much easier to delete things if I know they’re going somewhere and not just being deleted.

So, basically, the writing is the thinking. You can’t think without writing—or at least I can’t. That means that you’re going to do a lot of crumpling up paper and throwing it away. But you have to write down those thoughts first

I try to get a good chapter draft done in 4-6 weeks. When I’m in the writing phase, I write about 4 hours a day. So with that pace, by the end of a few weeks, I should have a pretty solid chapter draft that has gone through 2 or 3 revisions. My goal is to have six substantive chapters and an introduction and a conclusion. Each chapter is about 40 pages. So, pretty thick.

RL: More broadly, why do you think it’s important for society to have good historians?

GV: I was thinking about this, because we had a round-table for the history department, examining COVID-19 from a historical perspective. And I think what a historian can contribute is narration. Not storytelling, but an analytic narration. Because the way we narrate the past determines the lessons that we draw from it.

So, for example, if the narration of the coronavirus crisis is: “There was a problem in 2020 and science solved it,” then this will overlook the months of social and economic dislocation that occurred before a vaccine was (hopefully) found. Rather, we need to emphasize that long-term changes in our economy and social structure made us vulnerable so that, when there was a disruption that required time to develop a technical response, we weren’t able to handle it. The lesson we draw then isn’t “Make a technical fix,” but “Make a technical fix, and design the economic and social infrastructure that can handle the time in-between the appearance of the problem and the solution.”

That’s just the COVID example. The way that you narrate the way that something happened completely structures how you move forward into the future.

RL: So do you think that history is about learning from our mistakes?

GV: To some extent it is learning from our mistakes. But what does that really mean? We can say “We know slavery is bad,” but the bigger question is “Why did slavery emerge?” In fact, slavery is the rule, historically. It’s only the last two hundred years where it’s been banished from certain parts of the world.

So I do think learning from our mistakes is important. I don’t think that history is bound to repeat itself. That’s not how the world works. History echoes, maybe, but it never repeats. So we learn from our mistakes, but we need to understand why those mistakes occurred. Because many of the structures that created those mistakes in the past are still with us.

But to make another point, we should also learn that there were roads not taken in history that maybe we should try to take. That’s a big part of what I do. Part of the reason I study empire and the way people tried to make empire work at home is because now we have the narrative of the failure of multiculturalism in Europe. But I’m part of a group of historians who say that there were people who tried to make empire work by trying to imagine a society that wasn’t premised on similarity, but difference, and that difference wouldn’t be an obstacle to solidarity and unity. Why did that vision fail? And how could we resurrect that vision?

The historian E.P. Thomson said that we must save the past “from the enormous condescension of posterity.” The people in the past were not worse or more foolish than we are, and we aren’t smarter than them because we came after them. We can learn a lot from them. And we can be better by trying to be more like them in certain ways. That’s what I dislike about a lot of liberalism and a lot of progressive politics is that there’s always a move “forward.” But some things might have been better in the past. 

A great example is that living in multi-generational housing might actually be better. And that used to be the norm. I think we’ve lost a lot. History is not progress and it’s not loss. It’s loss and gain. We need to understand what we’ve lost and try to resurrect it, or at least get it back in some way. 

And the last thing I like about history is that historians don’t panic as much. Because we know that human beings have survived horrible things. Not individuals, of course, but humanity. Historians have the benefit and advantage of seeing things in the long term. Horrible things happen, but I think historians are less crisis-prone. Or maybe just I am. Even in wars and holocausts, people survive—and I mean people with a capital “P.” 

So there’s analytic narration, there’s learning from the past, and there’s the ability to avoid crisis-thinking. Because we don’t think well when we think in terms of crises.

Review: Debt

Review: Debt

Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For a very long time, the intellectual consensus has been that we can no longer ask Great Questions. Increasingly, it’s looking like we have no other choice.

Three years ago, I went on vacation in the north of Spain, to the city of A Coruña. There, perched on the jagged rocks below the Roman lighthouse, I read Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. The crashing sound of ocean waves just seemed an appropriate accompaniment to Spengler’s grandiose attempt to analyze all of human history.

At it happened, I ended up reading David Graeber’s Debt in the exact same circumstances. And perhaps this coincidence highlighted the odd similarities between Graeber’s book and Spengler’s. On the surface, the two men are quite radically opposed: Spengler is mystical, conservative, and mainly preoccupied with ‘high culture,’ while Graeber is conversational, leftist, and usually focused on more humdrum human affairs. But both The Decline of the West and Debt are sweeping scholarly exercises which attempt to completely alter our view of history. As a consequence, the books have similar merits—a large perspective, unusual connections, an original angle—while suffering from the same basic weakness: the attempt to strap history into a Procrustean bed.

But I am getting ahead of myself, as I should explain what this book is about. Graeber set out to write about debt, partly as a response to the 2008 financial crash, but also to respond to a certain moral confusion he noticed in the general culture. This is the notion that one always ought to ‘pay one’s debts.’ Most of us, I suspect, would agree that this is the right and proper thing to do. But there are many cases in which debt can be morally questionable. Consider a man who had an unexpected heart attack and was taken to a hospital out of his insurance network, or a young student who took out college loans but then had to drop out because her father had a heart attack, or a family who had agreed to a predatory mortgage for a house that the bank knew they could not afford, or a poor country forced to adopt austerity policies by the IMF in order to pay their debts richer countries—in any of these cases, is it moral to pay one’s debts?

As Graeber points out, standard economic theory does not hold that all debts must be repaid. Rather, both the lender and the debtor enter into an arrangement with a certain amount of risk. The loan is, in a sense, an investment like buying stock, and may or may not yield money according to the fortunes of the debtor. But this is not how we typically treat debt. Bolstered by our moral sense that debts should be paid, we accept a moral lopsidedness in the relationship, giving lenders quite extraordinary powers (garnishing wages, confiscating property) to extract money from debtors. Yet Graeber is not an economist, and does not want to restore a balance to the arrangement. Rather, he is disturbed by the very concept of debt. For what sets debt apart from an obligation is that it can be precisely quantified. This means debts require a system of money.

This leads Graeber to examine the origins of money, which for me was easily the strongest section of the book. Most economist textbooks explain money by pointing out that money solves the problem of a double coincidence of wants. That is, if I have some extra boots, and I would like to trade them for some beer, it is quite possible the brewer already has all the boots he needs. But if I can sell the boots for money, and the brewer accepts cash payments, then we are in business. The problem with this story is that there is no historical evidence that such a thing happened. Indeed, this hypothetical situation is rather bizarre—essentially taking a world very much like our own, and then removing the money.

Instead, it appears from the historical record that credit systems developed before actual money. These could be formal or quite informal. As an example of the latter, imagine you are living in a small village. One day, you see your neighbor wearing a nice pair of boots, and you ask if he has any extras. He does, and offers them to you as a gift. Next month, you make a big brew of beer and then give him a jug of it, offering it as a gift. The key is that, using such a credit system, you effectively get around the double coincidence of wants, since there is a very good chance that you will eventually have something your neighbor wants, and vice versa. This is just one informal example of how such a credit system could work with ‘virtual money.’ Graeber, being an anthropologist, is full of fun examples of exchange practices from around the world, all of which fly in the face of our idealized notions of purely economic transactions.

After quite effectively demolishing what Graeber calls the ‘myth of barter,’ he embarks on a grand tour of history. And here is where the book fell off the rails for me. Now, this is not to say I did not enjoy the ride: Graeber is an engaging writer and is full of fascinating factoids and radical notions. But I was constantly bugged by the sensation that either I was misunderstanding Graeber, or that he was not proving what he thought he was proving. To give you a smattering of Graeber’s points, he argues that the use of coinage influenced ancient Greek philosophers’ concepts of matter, that religions emphasizing selfless charity arose in reactions to markets emphasizing selfish acquisition, that our notions of property derive through Roman law from slavery, that money was actually introduced by kings who used it to debt-finance wars, and that the Spanish conquistadores were driven to commit such atrocities because they were in debt.

As you can see, that is an awful lot of material to cover; and this is just a sample. Each of these arguments is, in my opinion, quite interesting (if not always convincing). But, again, I was always unsure as to the larger point that Graeber was trying to make. On the one hand, Graeber seemed to be saying that money and debt are inextricably bound up in an ugly history of violence; but on the other, Graeber demonstrates that debt financing is a remarkably old and persistent practice, and is partly responsible for what we (pretentiously) call ‘civilization.’ At the end of the book, Graeber states that his purpose was to give his readers a wider taste of what is possible, so that we can reimagine our society. However, one of Graeber’s main insights is that history is cyclical: alternating from periods of hard money (like precious metals) and virtual money (like IOUs and fiat currency)—though both of these systems involve debt. If anything, then, this book left me with the impression that debt is an inescapable part of life.

Allow me, if you please, to mention one of my pet peeves here. Graeber is a big fan of etymologies. This book is peppered with words and their unexpected origins, which Graeber often uses as evidence in his arguments. In my opinion, this is a very lazy and unconvincing way of arguing. Do not misunderstand me: I like a good etymology as much as anyone. But the fact that a word once meant one thing and now means another does not, in my opinion, prove that these two concepts are somehow secretly connected. I would have much preferred more detailed examinations of historical evidence; but Graeber actually goes out of his way in the afterward to criticize historians for being overly empirical. This is not a message I can get behind.

But enough of that. I am sorry to be writing even a moderately critical review in the wake of Graeber’s tragic passing. For all of this book’s (perceived) faults, I am very glad to have read it. Like Spengler, Graeber had a mind full of fire, and was always letting off sparks in every direction. He was, in advertising parlance, an idea man; and this book is full of bold new ways of seeing our past and present. And even if Graeber’s grand theories about society and history do not, ultimately, pan out, one can say of Graeber what Walter Pater said of aesthetic theorists:

Many writers have been made by writers on art and poetry to define beauty in the abstract, and express it in the most general terms, to find a universal formula for it. The value of these attempts has most often been in the suggestive and penetrating things said by the way.

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Review: Plagues and Peoples

Review: Plagues and Peoples

Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Looked at from the point of view of other organisms, humankind therefore resembles an acute epidemic disease, whose occasional lapses into less virulent forms of behavior have never sufficed to permit any really stable, chronic relationship to establish itself.

It is risky to write a book like this. When William H. McNeill set out to analyze the manifold ways that infectious diseases have shaped world history, it was almost an entirely novel venture. Though people had been writing history for millennia, specialized works focusing on the ways that civilizations have been shaped by illness were few and far between. This seems rather strange when you consider that it was only in the twentieth century when disease reliably caused fewer casualties than enemy action during war.

Perhaps thinking about faceless enemies like viruses and bacteria simply does not come naturally to us. We personify the heavens readily enough, and do our best to appease it. But it is more difficult to personify a disease: it strikes too randomly, too mysteriously, and often too suddenly. It is, in other words, a completely amoral agent; and the thought that we are at the mercy of such an agent is painful to consider.

This tendency to leave diseases out of history books has come down to our own day. The 1918 flu pandemic is given a fraction of the coverage in standard textbooks as the First World War, even though the former caused more casualties. Curiously, however, that terrible disease did not even leave a lasting impression on those who survived it, judging by its absence in the works of the major writers of the day. It seems that memory of disease fades fast, at least most of the time. The 1968 Hong Kong flu killed 100,000 Americans that year (which would translate to 160,000 today), and yet neither of my parents remembers it.

This is why I think this book was a risky venture: there was not much precedent for successful books written about the history of diseases. Further, since there was not much in the way of prior research, much of this book must perforce consist of speculation using the spotty records that existed. While this does leave the historian open to the criticism of making unfounded claims, as McNeill himself says, such speculations can usefully precede a more thorough inquiry, since at least it gives researchers an orientation in the form of theories to test. Indeed, in my opinion, speculative works have just as important a role as careful research in the advancement of knowledge.

McNeill most certainly cannot be accused of a lack of ambition. He had completed an enormous amount of research to write his seminal book on world history, The Rise of the West; and this book has an equally catholic orientation. He begins with the emergence of our species and ends with the twentieth century, examining every inhabited continent (though admittedly not in equal detail). The result is a tantalizing view of how the long arc of history has been bent and broken by creatures lighter than a dust mite.

Some obvious patterns emerge. The rise of agriculture and cities created population densities capable of supporting endemic diseases, unknown to hunter-gatherers. Living near large masses of domesticated animals contributed much to our disease regimes; and the lack of such animals was decisive in the New World, leaving indigenous populations vulnerable to the invading Europeans’ microbes. Another recurring pattern is that of equilibrium and disturbance. Whenever a new disease breaks in upon a virgin population, the results are disastrous. But eventually stasis is achieved, and population begins to rebound.

One of McNeill’s most interesting claims is that the great population growth that began in the 18th century was partly a result of a new disease regime. By that time, fast overland and sea travel had exposed most major urban centers to common diseases from around the world, thus rendering them less vulnerable to new shocks. I was also surprised to learn that it was only the rise of modern sanitation and medicine—in the mid 19th century—that allowed city populations to be self-sustaining. Before this, cities were population sinks because of endemic diseases, and required constant replenishment from the countryside in order to maintain their numbers.

As I hope you can see, almost fifty years after publication, this book still puts forward a compelling view of world history. And I think it is a view that we still have trouble digesting, since it challenges our basic sense of self-determination. Perhaps one small benefit of the current crisis will be an increased general curiosity about how we still are, and have always been, mired in the invisible web of the microscopic world.



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Review: A Journal of the Plague Year

Review: A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was a very ill time to be sick in…

My pandemic reading continues with this classic work about one of the worst diseases in European history: bubonic plague. Daniel Defoe wrote this account when the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction were looser. He freely mixes invention, hearsay, anecdote, and real statistics, in pursuit of a gripping yarn. Defoe himself was only a young boy when the Great Plague struck London, in 1664-6; but he writes the story in the person of a well-to-do, curious, if somewhat unimaginative burgher, with the initials “H.F.” The result is one of literature’s most enduring portraits of a city besieged by disease.

Though this account purports to be a “journal,” it is not written as a series of dated entries, but as one long scrawl. What is more, Defoe’s narrator is not the most orderly of writers, and frequently repeats himself or gets sidetracked. The book is, thus, rather slow and painful to read, since it lacks any conspicuous structure to grasp onto, but approaches a kind of bumbled stream-of-consciousness. Even so, there are so many memorable details and stories in this book that it is worth the time one spends with it.

The Great Plague carried off one fourth of London’s population—about 100,000 souls—and it was not even the worst outbreak of plague in the city. The original wave of the Black Death, in the middle ages, was undoubtedly worse. Still, losing a quarter of a city’s population is something that is difficult for most of us to even imagine. And when you consider that the Great Fire of London was quick on the plague’s heels, you come to the conclusion that this was not the best time to be a Londoner.

What is most striking about reading this book now is how familiar it is. The coronavirus is no bubonic plague, but it seems our reactions to disease have not come a long way. There are, of course, the scenes of desolation: empty streets and mass graves. The citizens anxiously read the statistics in the newspaper, to see if the numbers are trending upwards or downwards. And then there are the quacks and mountebanks, selling sham remedies and magical elixirs to the desperate. We also see the ways that disease affects the rich and the poor differently: the rich could afford to flee the city, while the poor faced disease and starvation. And the economic consequences were dreadful—shutting up business, leaving thousands unemployed, and halting commerce.

Medical science was entirely useless against the disease. Nowadays, we can effectively treat the plague with antibiotics (though the mortality rate is still 10%). But at the time, little could be done. Infection with the bacillus causes swollen lymph nodes—in the groin, armpits, and neck—called buboes, and it was believed that the swellings had to be punctured and drained. This likely did more harm than good, and in practice the plague doctors’ only useful purpose was to keep records of the dead.

Quite interesting to observe were the antique forms of social distancing (a term that of course did not exist) that the Londoners practiced. As now, people tried to avoid going out of their homes as much as possible, and if they did go out they tried to keep a distance from others and to avoid touching anything. Defoe describes people picking up their own meat at the butcher’s and dropping their money into a pan of vinegar to disinfect it. There was also state-mandated quarantining, as any house with an infection got “shut up”—meaning the inhabitants could not leave.

Ironically, though these measures would have been wise had the disease been viral, they made little sense for a disease communicated by rat fleas. (Defoe does mention, by the way, that the people put out rat poison—which probably helped more than all of the distancing.)

One more commonality is that the virus outlasted people’s patience and prudence. As soon as an abatement was observed in the weekly deaths, citizens rushed out to embrace each other and resume normal life, despite the warning of the town’s physicians. Not much has changed, after all.

So while not exactly pleasant to read, A Journal of the Plague Year is at least humbling for the contemporary reader, as it reminds us that perhaps we have not come so far as we thought. And it is also a timely reminder that, far from a novel and unpredictable event, the current crisis is one of many plagues that we have weathered in our time on this perilous globe.

[Cover photo by Rita Greer; licensed under FAL; taken from Wikimedia Commons.]

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Return to Venice

Return to Venice

My first footsteps in Europe were in the airport in Venice. It was in 2007, when I was a sophomore in high school, some time before my sixteenth birthday. Typical of that age, I was awkward, hormonal, pubescent, immature. During this trip, I was exposed to the most beautiful things that I had ever seen, and was largely unimpressed. Teenagers are too wrapped up in themselves to care much for the outside world. I had a digital camera that my mom had lent me; but over half of the photos I brought back from the trip are of my friends, or cats, or other nonsense. The only thing that roused me to enthusiasm was the food, which was quite excellent.

Eleven years later, I finally returned to the city, to see what I had missed. It was quite a lot. 

Me in 2007
Me in 2018

As usual, I was travelling on a budget. This pretty much ruled out the possibility of staying on the island of Venice itself. Small, antique, and exclusively devoted to tourism, accommodations are not cheap. Thankfully, there is the Mestre—the mainland of Venice (not the old city), which is generally quite a bit more reasonably priced. I stayed at an Airbnb in a quiet neighborhood and very much enjoyed the experience.

Frankly, I think staying in Mestre was better than staying in Venice itself, partly because I could get away from the crowds at night. And unlike the island of Venice, this quiet neighborhood had a real community of locals, which certainly improved the atmosphere. I had some beautiful mornings sipping coffee at a corner café, while I watched senior citizens come in for their morning glass of wine. And being close to affordable restaurants and supermarkets was also quite nice.

My memories of my first day in Venice, in 2007, are all a blur. We arrived early in the morning, all of us disoriented and jetlagged. Our hotel was right in the city center. Since virtually all of the buildings on the island are old, the rooms were tiny and the elevator only fit for one or two people. Most amusingly, our bathroom fan made a screeching, wailing noise that I will never forget. All of us badly wanted to take a nap, but our Irish tour guide insisted that we stay awake all day in order to adjust to the jet lag. By the time we had dinner, kids were falling asleep at the table. I nearly did the same.

Coming from Spain, at least I did not have to deal with jet lag this time.

The Mestre is very well connected to the city center with public transportation. In my case, all I needed was about a twenty-minute bus ride. Soon I arrived at the train station, stepped off, and confronted the new but strangely familiar profile of Venice. 

Now, I have called the center of Venice “an island,” but that is not accurate. Rather, it is a collection of small islands—over 100—which are connected with bridges. The city occupies a lagoon between two rivers. This oddity of location is what gives the city its charm. Though Amsterdam and even New York may have more individual bridges, no city I know of is more dominated by the presence of water. But of course, having a city built on a lagoon entails unique challenges. The foundation of the city has been sinking, partly as a result of settling, and partly as a result of pumping groundwater (causing buildings to sink further into the ground). This, combined with climate change-induced rises in sea-levels, have worsened the periodic floods suffered by the city. Already, many ground floors are uninhabitable.

(In 2003, a massive engineering project was initiated, called MOSE, but it stalled because so much money had been siphoned off due to corruption. Work seems underway again, as global warming exacerbates the flooding problem. The flooding in 2019 was the worst in fifty years, causing widespread damage to the city’s cultural heritage.)

Building a city on a lagoon also entails unique transportation challenges. The lagoon is far too unstable for a subway, and the city is too cramped for either trains or buses; so the only option within the old center is by boat. The Venetian equivalent to a bus is the vaporetto, or water taxi, fair sized ferries that patrol the city in 19 lines. Line 1 is popular with tourists, since it goes down the Grand Canal. The other famous option for water transport is the gondola—operated by a single gondolier, pushing the elegant boat through the water with an oar. Nowadays the gondola exists exclusively for tourists, and the price reflects that: 80 euros for about half an hour, and more at night.

As I walked through the city, I have to admit that my first impressions were rather mixed. Venice is obviously and undeniably beautiful; indeed, judged purely in terms of its buildings, I believe it has a claim to being the most beautiful city in Europe. But the atmosphere of Venice is odd and empty. Keep in mind that I was visiting during the high tourist season, in July, when many locals go on holiday (about 55,000 live in the old center). This meant that whatever local life that Venice may have was largely dead. Instead, the streets were dominated by people carrying cameras, and others dragging suitcases. It felt like being in the world’s most beautiful airport. Or perhaps Venice is better compared to an enormous, open-air museum. This meant that one of the chief charms of travel—taking part in local life—was off the table.

Venice is probably at its most lively in the weeks leading up to carnival. During this time, people dress up in beautiful masks and elaborate costumes, now famous throughout the world. You may be surprised to learn that this is a modern tradition, though it has historical roots. Masks were banned in Venice for about two hundred years, from the 18th to the 20th century. It was only in the 1970s that the tradition was revived. When I visited in 2007 it was mid February, and the streets were full of these disguised Venetians. For the most part these seemed to be street performers, however, who only dressed up so that tourists would pay to take photos with them. 


If you look at the old center from the air, you will see an S-shaped gash running through the city. This is the Grand Canal, the largest canal in the city. For many years it was the main artery of Venice, since there was only one bridge which crossed it (the Rialto). As a result, it became something like Fifth Avenue in New York City: a place for the wealthy of the city to flaunt their success. As the canal was the central thoroughfare, the magnificent façades of private palaces face the water, displaying a variety of different architectural styles from the city’s history. The Ponte de Rialto is the oldest of the four bridges that cross the Grand Canal. It provides a lovely view as well as being quite attractive in itself. However, like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, it is covered in shops, which makes it rather cramped. (For centuries the bridge in this spot was a wooden construction; but multiple collapses convinced the authorities to rebuild it in stone.)

After crossing the bridge, and taking the obligatory photo, I continued making my way to the central square: the Piazza San Marco. This is easily the most famous area of the city. For the most part the plaza is dominated by long buildings composed of many levels of arcades. At the far end is St. Mark’s Cathedral (which I will describe later) and its marvelous campanile, or bell tower. At nearly 100 meters, this tower is the tallest structure in the old city, and quite attractive in spite of its simple form.

Not far off is the clocktower (Torre dell’Orogio), another of the city’s landmarks. Two bronze shepherds with hammers ring the bell on the top, while a winged lion (the symbol of St. Mark) holds an open book below them. (A statue of the Doge once accompanied these lions, but Napoleon had him removed.) Below the lion sits the Virgin and child; and twice a year (on Epiphany and Ascension) mechanical figures of the three wise men emerge from the adjacent door and make their bows as they pass. For the time it was created—during the Renaissance—this was an impressive engineering feat.

The face of the clock itself is also a marvel. The sun travels along the twenty-four hours of the day, against the background of the zodiac. In accordance with Ptolemaic astronomy, the earth sits right at the center of the clock, while the sun, moon, and stars rotate around it. Bad science aside, the clock’s combination of blue and gold is quite pleasing on the eyes.

If you are standing at the end of the square, with the clock tower to your left and the basilica directly ahead, you will see the space open up to your right. This is called the Piazzetta, and it leads directly to the sea. The view is framed by two columns topped with statues—one of St. Theodore (who was one of Venice’s patron saints) and the lion of St. Mark.

Proceeding forward, you arrive at yet another iconic area of the city, the Riva degli Schiavoni, a waterfront promenade. At almost any time of year (except during a pandemic) this place is extremely crowded. Gondolas bounce up and down in the waves, while people sell all sorts of knick knacks from stalls. The waters around this area are typically quite busy, with ferries going back and forth, as this is near one of the mouths of the Grand Canal. The view is characterized by the distant form of San Giorgio Maggiore, an enormous basilica that sits on an eponymous island across the waters. Its campanile looks quite like the San Marco’s, creating a pleasing symmetry.

Now the first major stop on our tour has arrived: the Doge’s Palace. If you are looking out at the water, this palace will be right behind you, though you may not have paid it much attention. In the context of Venice, the building’s exterior is not immediately eye-catching (though I will return to it later). But within is a palace of quite astonishing dimensions. I recommend going early, as there can be long lines to enter. I arrived at around ten in the morning and was basically able to walk right inside. The visit began with a small exhibition space, where I was delighted to find some drawings by John Ruskin. The famous art critic was also a talented draughtsman, and he made dozens of meticulous sketches of the city in preparation for his monumental book, The Stones of Venice. As I happened to be reading the book at the time, this seemed to bode well for my visit.

On display were also the forty-two original capitals of the stone pillars on the palace’s exterior. (Those there now are replacements.) Ruskin considered these capitals—which most of us overlook—to be the most significant artistic statement of the palace, and devoted much attention to their analysis. I will leave my own commentary for the end, and will instead embark now on the palace interior.

But before moving on, it is worth asking: What is a “doge”? This title, sometimes translated as “duke,” is unique to Venice. It is a cross between a king and a president: a ruler given royal prerogatives who was elected for life. The political organization of Venice was somewhat complicated, but suffice to say that it was an aristocracy with a touch of republicanism. The ruling class was basically hereditary; but they were divided into governing bodies—councils, parliaments, senates—and held elections (within their own ranks); and there were some checks on arbitrary power.

If the cases of Athens, Amsterdam, and England can be trusted, there seems to be some connection between a maritime, mercantile orientation and democratic forms of government. This is the case of the Republic of Venice as well, which rose to wealth and power through sea trade rather than conquest (though it was not averse to war). This, perhaps, is one reason why the city’s government—with its separation of powers and its checks on authority—developed the way it did. This also explains the moderate degree of intellectual freedom allowed in Venice, where the censors of the Catholic world could not reach. Venice also had a degree of religious autonomy, as its highest religious figure was the Patriarch of Venice, who himself was elected by the senate (from among its own ranks, of course).

From Venice’s beginnings in the 8th century, as a satellite of the Byzantine Empire, the city-state gradually rose in power and influence. It was a major staging ground during the crusades and profited enormously from trade with Asia along the Silk Road. By the Renaissance, the Republic had the wealth and the means to compete with the Ottomon Empire for control of the Mediterranean. But the “discovery” of America by Europe spelled the end of Venice’s high-point, as trade gradually shifted away from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Thus began a long, gradual period of decline which ended in 1797, when Napoleon conquered the city and formally ended the rule of the Doge. All told, the Republic of Venice survived some thousand years.

With this brief history lesson out of the way, let us see how this humble Doge lived. After passing the courtyard (enclosed on the far side by St. Mark’s Basilica), and ascending a flight of stairs, the visitor enters into a succession of brilliantly decorated rooms. The rooms are so ornate, in fact, that it even impressed my fifteen-year-old self. The second time around, I was stunned. Every ceiling is covered with carved engravings and panelling, and every wall is adorned with enormous paintings. Though the palace was built in the 14th century, and thus owes its form to the Venetian gothic, several fires required the interior rooms to be redecorated. Luckily, the great painter Tintoretto was on hand to provide much of the new decoration. The painters Veronese and Tiepolo, and the architect Andrea Palladio, also contributed; so there was no shortage of talent. 

A courtyard in the palace

The palace contains some rooms that you would expect to find in any palace: luxuriant apartments for the ruler and antechambers where ambassadors could cool their heels. (Unfortunately, the Doge’s apartments were closed for renovation when I visited.) But there are also many sorts of rooms that you will not find in any other European palace. There is a Council Chamber, a Senate Chamber, a chamber for the Council of Ten, and rooms for the administration of justice. Judging from the size of the room’s alone, they were not built for a single ruler, but for hundreds. This did not stop them from decorating like kings.

There are simply too many rooms and too much decoration to enter into too much detail. I will let the photos do the talking:

One chamber does, however, stand out for special comment. This is the Grand Council Chamber, which is not only the biggest room in the palace, but one of the biggest rooms in all of Europe. It is simply massive: 1325 square meters (over 14,200 square feet!). The room had to be big because the Grand Council included all of the patrician males over age 25 into its ranks, which amounted to well over one thousand men. This may not sound inclusive to us, but for its day this was radical. One of this council’s tasks was the election of the Doge, who sat on the podium at the far end of the room. Behind this podium is one of the largest oil paintings in the world: El Paraiso, by Tintoretto (though largely executed by his son). The painting stretches over 25 meters and includes many dozens of figures. Ruskin thought that it was an artistic masterpiece, though I found its sheer size more impressive than its artistic quality.

The other noteworthy aspect of the room are the portraits of the first 76 Doges running around the top of the room. These, too, were commissioned to Tintoretto, but were mostly done by his son (the painter was quite old at the time). Each of the Doges is present along with a scroll, on which are written their most important achievements. The one exception to this is Marino Faliero, a Doge who attempted a coup d’etat and was beheaded. In place of a portrait, there is a black cloth for this tratorious duke. History is not kind to the subverters of democracy. (Well, perhaps Julius Caesar is a partial exception to this. Napoleon as well, I suppose.)

Note the black shroud

After the grand tour of the regal rooms used by the Venetian government, I entered the prison. This dreary space has been known as the Pozzi (the wells) and the Piombi (lead), and it deserves both names, as it is a damp space with a leaden atmosphere. (You can tell that the Venetians were concerned with laws and their efficacy, since they built the major prison next to the center of government.) The “old” prison is connected to the “new” prison (built several hundred years apart) via the “Bridge of Sighs,” which was so known because it was the last place a prisoner could see a bit of sunlight and utter a weary sight before his long confinement. In 1756, the infamous Giacomo Casanova effected a daring escape from these prisons by climbing onto the roof.

Thus ended my tour. But before moving on, I ought finally to address the columns on the outside of the building. John Ruskin was extremely fond of the sculptures carved into the capitals of these columns, and devoted ample space to them in his book on Venice. Indeed, by common consent they are masterpieces of gothic sculpture. Inspired by Ruskin, I spent a good thirty minutes examining these columns in detail, and I was glad I did (even though, as mentioned before, the columns currently outside the palace are copies of the originals inside). They generally consist of figures interspersed within vegetable patterns, usually demonstrating some allegorical significance. Rather than launching on a giant Ruskinian rant myself, I will be content with a few photos:

Thus ended my tour of the Doge’s Palace. But I did not have time for a break. After all, St. Mark’s Basilica is right next door.

No monument in Venice better illustrates the city’s role as a conduit between the Catholic and Byzantine worlds. St. Mark’s embodies both influences. Neither wholly gothic nor wholly byzantine, the church is an alluring hybrid structure, unlike anything else in the world. At a first glance, the basilica (it is also a cathedral, though more commonly called a basilica) presented a chaotic forest of towers, domes, and semi-domes. It bears very little resemblance to the towering gothic spires that are so common elsewhere in Europe. Rather than awe the viewer with harmony or height, the basilica is profuse in details of decoration. Mosaic scenes from the life of Jesus—quite lovely in its bright colors and gold backgrounds—adorn the surface, while statues of saints stand guard above.

The most famous figures on the cathedral are the four bronze horses that adorn the roof, right above the entrance. They are Roman copies of Greek originals, supposedly designed by the famed Greek sculptor Lysippos (more probably they adorned a Roman triumphal arch). Certainly they are wonderful works of art. The reason they are here is because the Fourth Crusade went sour, and culminated in the sacking of Constantinople (a Christian city) by the Catholic forces. Napoleon had the horses taken to Paris in 1797, but they were eventually returned after his defeat, in 1815.

The other famous decorations are the tetrarchs. This is a rather odd and unsettling sculpture, made in the fourth century and, like the horses, taken from Constantiple during the Fourth Crusade. By the time this work was made, the Roman Empire was in disarray, and the Emperor Diocletian decided that he needed to divide power between three additional co-rulers in order to maintain order. This sculpture represents the co-dependence of these four rulers. But the four men do not seem like confident allies; rather, they seem scared out of their wits. Certainly it is not a work that inspires confidence—they clutch each other in fearful desperation. The sculpture is also remarkable for the degree of abstraction. The great Roman tradition of realistic sculpture (as epitomized by the horses) had already been lost by this time.

Saint Mark’s owes its name to a Venetian trick. According to the story, two wily Venetian merchants smuggled the saint’s body from Alexandria to Venice in the 9th century. (Supposedly, they covered the body with pork to prevent Muslims from investigating.) The story is extremely difficult to believe, if only because the body would have already been nine centuries old and unrecognizably decayed. However, standards of evidence were not very high in the Middle Ages; and in any case the city had much to gain by being the home of the evangelist’s relics. The story seemed doubly dubious when one considers that, according to legend, the saint’s relics could not be found when construction began on the basilica; Mark himself had to appear to direct the Venetians to his mortal remains.

Well, eternal resting place of St. Mark or not, the basilica is an immortal work of art. Entrance to St. Mark’s is free. All one has to do is stand in a long line and wait. Once inside, you will find yourself in a space quite unlike any other European cathedral. The floorplan is a Grecian rather than a Latin cross, meaning that the building is as wide as it is long. But St. Mark’s is not like a gothic cathedral, which impresses with its architectural majesty. Rather, basilica’s outstanding feature is its decoration. The overwhelming impression is of light, gold, and color. Every inch of the interior is covered in mosaics with gilded backgrounds. Unfortunately, many of these have been retouched or restored, most often with a definite loss in quality. Even so, the whole has a power greater than the sum of its parts—hypnotic in its use of color.

My next stop was the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Even though this building is called a “school,” it is really the historical seat of a powerful religious confraternity. (A confraternity is essentially a private club that promotes a religious cause. San Rocco—”Saint Roch”—was a saint commonly invoked against the plague.) Though magnificent enough, the façade of this building does not attract attention in the context of Venice. But the inside is special indeed. As in the Doge’s Palace, there are several enormous rooms, all of them richly decorated. Unlike the Doge’s Palace, however, much of the decoration in the Scuola Grande was provided by one man: Tintoretto.

After Titian, Tintoretto is probably the most highly-regarded painter of the Venetian school. Nicknamed “il furioso” for the energy of his brushwork, he was known for working fast and rough. He was no perfectionist. By general consent, the quality of his work is highly uneven. But his style was very well-suited to the semi-darkness of these enormous rooms, where his figures could dazzle with their suggestiveness rather than their perfection of form. His paintings are notable for the drama and movement of their subject, rather than the typical Renaissance solidity and harmony. I would be lying if I ranked Tintoretto among my own personal favorites, though Ruskin was quite wildly fond of him. For me, the wooden carvings in the seats along the walls were, if anything, more charming than Tintoretto’s great pictorial spread. But I do admire his productivity.

After this I made my way to one of Venice’s many museums: the Gallerie dell’Accademia. This museum is the Venetian equivalent of the Uffizi in Florence: housing a massive collection of Italian art, from the medieval period to the 19th century. It is housed in another former confraternity building, this one the Scuola della Caritá. When I visited, parts of the museum were undergoing restorations, and so were unavailable. Even so, the museum has an impressive collection.

As usual, I was most captivated by the works of Hieronymous Bosch. There are three major works by this Dutch painter to be seen. One is the triptych The Hermit Saints, which shows three saints resisting temptation in the wilderness. In keeping with his typical, bizarre style, Bosch represents these temptations in a series of absurd little figures—monsters, skeletons, nun’s heads—that surround these simple, pious men. Another triptych is The Crucifixion of St. Julia, which shows us a bearded woman nailed to the cross. Christians explained the beard with a story about a woman who prayed to God to make her repulsive (and thus protect her virginity); but probably the historical reason involves images of Christ from Eastern Europe, in which Christ’s dress was misinterpreted by Westerners as being that of a woman.

My favorite work, however, is a series of four paintings called Visions of the Hereafter. Here, as usual, Bosch sets his vivid imagination to work picturing the world beyond our own. The most captivating of these images is the Ascent of the Blessed, which shows us the infinite white light that leads to paradise. To our modern eyes, the image cannot but remind us of some space exploration movie. We have used the same sort of image to represent portals to other dimensions or accelerations to speeds beyond light. Bosch proves himself, once again, to be one of the modern age’s visual godfathers.

The museum has works by Titian and Tintoretto, of course. But a more elusive Venetian painter is also on display: Giorgione. A few years older than Titian, Giorgione is normally regarded as one of the great innovators of Venetian painting. The trouble is that it has historically been difficult to definitively attribute works to him. Indeed, an air of mystery seems to surround Giorgione, which is apparent in his painting The Tempest. It shows a young woman suckling a baby, while a traveller looks on with a curious expression. In the background we can see an Italian village, while a storm rages overhead (thus the title).

The execution is quite beautiful indeed. Its meaning, however, is difficult to decipher. To my eye it looks like a depiction of the “rest on the flight from Egypt,” when the Virgin Mary escaped Egypt with the infant Jesus, and stopped to suckle him on the road. But the woman—almost completely naked, and staring rather boldly at the viewer—is unlike any other depicting of the  Virgin. Contemporaries referred to her as a “gypsy” and the man as a “shepherd,” but art historians, straining for cohesion, have proposed obscure stories from classical mythology and fanciful allegorical meanings. Yet none of these interpretations sheds light on the particular power of this painting, in which the heavy and humid atmosphere of a storm, the grey, shadowy light through the clouds, is so palpable. I can see why it was Lord Byron’s favorite.

I cannot leave the museum without mentioning, if not the greatest, than the painter who did the most to show Venice to the world: Canaletto. This was not his real name, of course; he was called “little canal” because his paintings were so often focused on Venice’s many waterways. His paintings are consistently impressive, capturing the city with photographic accuracy. Personally I cannot fathom how much time it would take in order to create such a scrupulously detailed image. But in a world before photography, this was the only way that wealthy nobles could catch a glimpse of the city from afar. Canaletto was more than a mere technician of monumental patience, however. His paintings have a very charming, wistful emotion running through them, a kind of atmospheric joy. They are absorbing and refreshing works.

My next stop was another church: Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (normally just called the “Frari”). After St. Mark’s itself, this is perhaps the most important church building in Venice. If you only saw the exterior, however, you would be excused for not thinking so. The basilica’s brick façade and relatively plain decoration do not make it stand out in the context of Venice. Nevertheless, it is certainly worth a visit. From the inside, the basilica looks like unlike any church building I have seen. It is an incongruous mixture of dark materials and open windows, of plain surfaces and rich decorations. The entire building does not come together as an organic whole; rather it seems like a warehouse for art and monuments. But it is a beautiful warehouse.

Among the artwork, the best may be the large-scale paintings by Titian. I found the Pesero Madonna especially beautiful for the shimmering effect of the brightly-colored robes. Titian is also responsible for the painting in the main altarpiece, a wonderful depiction of the Assumption of the Virgin. But what really caught my attention were the funerary monuments. The Frari is the resting place of many Doges, as well as some of the city’s most gifted artists. Titian himself is buried here, commemorated by an enormous marble sculpture by Antonio Canova—erected centuries after the artist’s death. Canova himself (arguably the greatest neoclassical sculptor) is buried here, in a stunning pyramidal cenotaph—my favorite work in the whole basilica. I also found myself captivated by the monument to the Doge Giovanni Pesaro (not the same Pesaro as in Titian’s painting). This gruesome monument features black skeletons emerging between African servants, who support the monument’s upper half. It is disturbing for many reasons.

It is worth mentioning another of Venice’s many basilicas, Santi Giovanni e Paolo. In appearance it is quite similar to the Frari, and it likewise is the final resting place of many Doges. However, I think the most impressive thing to see is not inside, but next to this old structure: the equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni. This was done by Andrea del Verrochio, most famous for being Leonardo da Vinci’s mentor. But he was a great artist in his own right, as this sculpture proves. It is really a marvelous work: the horse is rippling with muscle, and confidently striding forward. The condottiero is both heroic and ruthless: his face is ugly and yet compelling, and his pose one of unquestionable command. It is one of the finest depictions of a military leader.

After all of this glorious art and all of these magnificent monuments, my last stop is rather depressing: the Venetian Ghetto. This is the neighborhood where Jews were forced to live for hundreds of years. In fact, the word “ghetto” itself comes from this area of Venice. The derivation of the word remains rather difficult to pin down. It may come from a German word for street (many of the Venetian Jews spoke a German dialect), or a diminutive form of an Italian word (“borghetto,” or little town), or perhaps from a Hebrew word. We visited the Venetian Ghetto on my school trip, back in 2007; and I still remember our guide explaining that the buildings were taller in this area because the Jews did not have room to build anywhere else.

The Venetian Ghetto is split into two sections, the Ghetto Nuovo and the Ghetto Vecchio (the “new” and “old” ghettos), though this classification refers to when the area was used as foundries, not as a place of Jewish residence. (Indeed, one hypothesis for the word “ghetto” is that it comes from the Italian “getto,” which means to pour molten metal into a mold. Many foundries existed in this area.) Two bridges connect this part of Venice to the surrounding area; and Jews had to be sure to return to the ghetto before the nightly curfew, or face a stiff fine.

One of the two bridges leading into the Venetian Ghetto

Even in my brief time walking through the ghetto, I noticed that there was still a significant Jewish presence here. There are several synagogues, cultural centers, and even a kosher restaurant. There is also several monument to the victims of the holocaust. Fortunately, the Jewish community largely escaped Nazi percesution in Venice, and this was thanks to the heroism of Giuseppe Jona. Jona was a Jewish physician who, like many Jews, was deprived of his profession during the Nazi occupation. He took it upon himself to stay in Venice and to help organize the Venetian Jewish community. In 1943 the Nazis ordered him to help them locate the Jews in the city. Instead of cooperating, Jona burned every document in his possession that could be used, and took his own life. He is memorialized in the Venetian Ghetto, and certainly deserves it.

As I walked through this distinct corner of the city—so strangely marked by tragedy and hope—I reflected on the long history of anti-Semitism in Europe. The Nazis were merely the last and worst in a long line of Jew-haters. Even great works of art are marred by this sentiment. The most obvious example of this is, perhaps, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which reflects many of the worst stereotypes of Jews. (Because Shylock is so compelling a character, some have argued that the play is not actually anti-semitic; however, I think the work is incoherent if you consider Shylock the real hero rather than, as I believe Shakespeare intended, the villain.) It is depressing to think that even a man with as free a mind as Shakespeare’s could not entirely escape prejudice. But prejudice runs very deep. The ramshackle buildings of the Venetian Ghetto are a testimony to this lasting hatred and also to the community’s lasting resilience.

This does it for my return to Venice. But listing the monuments does not do justice to the real experience of visiting the city. Venice is one gigantic work of art. Virtually every angle of the old city is picturesque—from the impressive works of architecture to the forgotten corners of run-down buildings. Venice is palpably an abandoned city, a floating relic, which gives it a kind of romantic charm. But the city is also refreshing—for the ocean breeze that blows through it, for the ever-present sight of water. Admittedly, for all of its beauty, Venice does lack the most charming part of any city: street-life. I cannot say it is my favorite European destination. Even so, the memories Venice evokes—of awkward pubescence, of my first window into a wider world—will always make the city special for me.

Before my flight home, I found a café and sat outside sipping grappa, the strong Italian brandy. I have to admit that I actually had no idea what grappa was. I thought it was some sort of wine, and I winced when I took my first taste (I normally do not drink liquor). Even so, sitting outside in the sunshine, sipping on this flaming beverage, I could not help but feel rather satisfied with the way that my life had turned out. When I visited Venice in 2007, I could never have guessed that I would be living in Europe ten years later.

If you know anything about Venice, you will know that this post has left out virtually everything beyond the city center itself. There are many smaller islands that are also worth visiting. But that will have to wait for another post.

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Letters from Spain #20: The Spanish Civil War

Letters from Spain #20: The Spanish Civil War

Here is the final episode of season 2 of my podcast series about life in Spain. This one takes a look at history.

This is the link to the Apple Podcast:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-20-the-spanish-civil-war/id1469809686?i=1000470642054

And here is the video on YouTube:

See the transcript below:


Hello,

As I mentioned in my last podcast, it’s pretty hard to do a podcast about Spanish life when everything has been turned upside down. Normally I take inspiration from what I can see in any given week, or from a recent trip. But I’ve just been seeing the inside of my apartment and, occasionally, of the nearby grocery stores. However, I can’t leave this podcast season incomplete. After all, I just have one episode to go to make a nice, round, even twenty episodes. And since it’s hard to talk about day-to-day Spanish life during the coronavirus times, I thought it would be good to revisit the last time in Spain’s history when daily life was so completely turned upside down.

I’m talking, of course, about the Civil War of 1936-39. Of course, in this podcast I can’t hope to do a real thorough history of this war. If you want that, there are plenty of great books on the market. If I tried to even list the major writers on the war, I’d be here all night. In fact, the Spanish Civil War is only behind World War II in the number of books dedicated to the subject. That is pretty crazy, considering that far more people died in World War I or even the Vietnam War. But the conflict has an enduring fascination, for quite a few reasons.

So here’s the basic background. Spain came out of the 19th century in pretty bad shape. The Napoleonic invasions, in the early 1800s, successfully introduced the idea of constitutional government into the country. After that, things were never quite the same for the Spanish monarchy. There were tensions everywhere: between the monarchy and the church, between the church and the people, between advocates for different branches of the royal family, between the rich and the poor, between liberals, monarchists, carlists, and anarchists, and that’s just the beginning. Spain was steadily losing its overseas colonies, a process that ended in the humiliating defeat in the Spanish-American war in 1898, when the decadence of Spain’s power finally sunk in for a lot of people.

In the early 20th century, Spain was economically backward. Industrialization had come late to the country, and for the most part hadn’t come at all. Spain was still mostly agricultural. Not only that, but the country was highly decentralized, as it is now. Each region had its own organization, its own politics, and many regions had their own languages. In the places where industrialization had taken hold, like in Barcelona and Asturias, organized labor had become a powerful force. Meanwhile, in an attempt to get rid of the corrupt and inefficient government, Miguel Primo de Rivera seized power in a military coup in 1923. (Spain has had a lot of military coups.) He ruled for about seven years, until he too had to renounce power. By then there was popular support for democracy. The king absconded, and the Second Republic was born. 

The Second Republic survived for five tense years, 1931 to 1936. As you can imagine, democratic government didn’t exactly heal the rifts in Spanish society. Political tensions spilled into violence all too often. There were street fights, riots, brutality between bosses and workers, and even a violent uprising in Asturias (which was put down by Franco). Basically nobody was satisfied. There were conservative parties, fascist parties, liberal parties, and anarchists and socialists who thought the entire system was broken—which it undoubtedly was. An unsteady and ineffective center-left coalition was in control in 1936. But that was just the beginning.

The military had secretly begun planning an uprising to seize control, as they had done many times in the past. The spark that set off the conflict was the assassination of José Calvo Sotelo, a conservative politician, who was killed by the bodyguards of the socialist party leader. Shortly thereafter, all around the country, military units attempted to seize control. If the plan had gone perfectly, there would have been no war. But it didn’t go as plan—at least not everywhere. In the weeks following the start of the uprising, on July 17, the rebel forces controlled about a third of the country. This included most of Spain’s north, a lot of the center, and a pocket of the southern coast. The government maintained control of Madrid, as well as the prosperous eastern coast—including Valencia and Barcelona.

At this point, the government didn’t seem to be in such a bad position. After all, they had more fighting men. They had the big cities and the big factories. They had the money. Most of the areas that the rebels conquered had a low population density and were mainly agricultural. If no outside party had gotten involved, then I think it fairly probable that the rebellion would have been defeated. But of course that was not to be. Spain, instead, became the laboratory of Europe, where all of the newly radical ideologies came to clash for the first time.

Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany came to the aide of the rebels, while Stalin’s Soviet Russia offered supplies to the government forces. The rest of the world’s governments, however, wanted no part in the conflict. They were understandably wary of being dragged into another world war, after the terrible experience of the last one (though of course they couldn’t avoid it in the end). So England, France, and the United States signed a non-intervention pact, which forbid them to give or even to sell weapons to the Spanish government.

Meanwhile, people from all over the world began to pour into the country. There were lots of Italian and German soldiers, of course. (My girlfriend’s grandfather was one of these Italian soldiers, which is why she has an Italian last name.) On the Republican side, there were volunteers from all over—Ireland, England, the United States, France, and even some Germans and Italians. For the most part, these were inexperienced, idealistic young men who wanted a chance to fight against fasicsm. George Orwell was one of them. They formed the famous International Brigades.

Needless to say, the idealism and heroism of young volunteers wasn’t enough to stop German tanks and fighter planes and bombs. Simply put, the Republic soon found itself outgunned. Meanwhile, the organization of the rebel side soon consolidated under Francisco Franco, who was relatively young at the time, but who made a name for himself by leading the crack African troops in Spain’s wars to suppress its colonial uprisings in North Africa. (In fact, Franco had been sent to the Canary Islands right before the war, but he managed to return with his North African troops.) The Republican side, on the other hand, did not consolidate so easily. There were many different left-wing parties which had their own organizations, and which often did not agree. When George Orwell finally fled Spain, it wasn’t from the fascists, but from the Stalinists which had seized control in Barcelona.

In a series of bloody battles, the rebel forces gradually wore down the Republicans. Life for the civilian population had also taken a dark turn. There were summary executions on both sides of the lines. Neighbors denounced neighbors, and people were taken from their houses, shot, and buried in anonymous graves. The famous poet, Federico García Lorca, was killed, as well as countless others. To this day, Spain is the country with the most mass graves in the world, after Cambodia. Hundreds of thousands still remain buried across the country, many still undiscovered.

To make a very long and sad story short, the rebels won. Franco seized power in 1939, and he didn’t give it up until his death in 1975. His rule effectively kept the country poor and backward for another thirty years. To this day, the people who grew up in the opening years of his reign—people who are senior citizens now—are very noticeably shorter than their children and grandchildren, largely because of the widespread malnutrition in those years. After Franco’s very timely demise, Spain did finally make the transition to democracy, in no small part thanks to King Juan Carlos I, whom Franco had appointed as his successor. The Spanish constitution was voted into being in 1978, thus inaugurating modern Spain.

As you can see, Spain has historically had a lot of tensions running through it. And the same is true today. Spain still has regional tensions, most notably in Catalonia and the Basque Country. And it is still difficult to talk about the Civil War. Franco’s Spain didn’t end that long ago. Many people alive remember it well. Some people actively supported it. There are still living veterans of the Spanish Civil War, on both sides. In any case, Civil Wars are just inherently painful—the sense of betrayal and distrust is everywhere. Even though America’s Civil War happened a long time before Spain’s, it still causes controversy.It will be interesting to see how this current crisis affects Spain. Maybe nothing will really change, and we’ll all go back to normal. Maybe it will strengthen xenophobia and the populist right party, Vox. Or maybe it will engender a new sense of solidarity and unity in its citizens. I really have no idea. Spanish politics, as ever, are difficult to predict. But Spanish culture is a different matter. Spanish culture managed to emerge from a century of conflict, a bloody civil war, and a repressive dictatorship, and I know that Spanish culture will emerge from this crisis, too. It’s only a matter of time.

Review: The Great Influenza

Review: The Great Influenza

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

People write about war. They write about the Holocaust. They write about the horrors that people inflict on people. Apparently they forget the horrors that nature inflicts on people, the horrors that make humans least significant.

Like so many people nowadays, I have been scrambling to wrap my mind around the current pandemic. This led me, naturally, to the last major worldwide outbreak: the 1918 influenza. I have a distant connection to this disease. My great-grandfather (after whom I was named) was drafted out of Cornell’s veterinary school to work as a nurse in a temporary hospital set up for flu victims. I read the letters he sent to his mother, describing the experience.

John Barry’s account of this virulent flu is sobering to say the least. In a matter of months, the flu spread across the world and caused between 50 and 100 million deaths. More American soldiers died from this flu than from the entire Vietnam War. In most places the mortality rate hovered around two percent, but it struck much more fiercely elsewhere. In the Fiji Islands, 14 percent of its population succumbed; in Western Samoa, twenty-two percent; and in Labrador, a third of the population died. And because the disease mainly struck young people—people in their twenties and thirties—thousands were left orphans.

Barry’s book is not, however, simply a record of deaths. He sets the historical scene by giving a brief overview of contemporary medicine. In the early 1900s, modern medicine was just coming into its own. After centuries in which it was thought that bad air (“miasma”) caused illness, and in which bleeding was the most popular “cure,” researchers were beginning to discover viruses and bacteria, and were beginning to understand how the immune system combats these germs. Major public health initiatives were just getting underway. The John Hopkins School of Public Health had been founded, and the Rockefeller Institute was making new types of research possible. It was not the Dark Ages.

The other major piece of historical context is, of course, the First World War. Undoubtedly this played a major role in the epidemic. Not only did troop movements help to spread the disease, but press censorship virtually guaranteed that communities were unprepared. Barry notes how newspapers all across the country consistently downplayed the danger, which ironically only further increased panic. (The pandemic is sometimes called the “Spanish flu,” because the press in neutral Spain was uncensored, and so reported freely on the disease.) The war effort overrode all of the warnings of disease experts; and by the time the disease struck many communities, most of the available doctors and nurses had been sent to the military.

Barry’s narration mainly focuses on the United States. Partly this is because this is where he believes the disease originated (there are several competing theories), partly this is because the disease’s impact in Europe was overshadowed by the war, and partly this is simply because of the amount of easily available sources. I did wish he had spent more time on other countries—especially on India, which suffered horribly. The sections on science—both on the history of science, and summarizing what we know now about flu viruses—were in general quite strong. What was lacking, for me, were sections on the cultural impact of the disease.

But perhaps there are not so many. As Barry notes, no major novelist of the time—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Lawrence—mentioned the pandemic in their works. I have noticed the same thing myself. I cannot recall a single mention of this flue in biographies and autobiographies of people who lived through the pandemic, such as John Maynard Keynes or even John D. Rockefeller (who personally funded research on the disease). This is perhaps understandable in Europe, where the deaths from the pandemic were swallowed up in news of the war; but it seems odd elsewhere. What is more, the pandemic did not seem to exacerbate existing racial or class tensions. In many ways the virus seems to have swept through communities and then disappeared from memory.

(Barry does have one fairly controversial claim in the book: that Woodrow Wilson contracted the flu while negotiating the treaty of Versailles, and that it caused him to capitulate to Clemenceau’s demands. If this is true, it would be a major historical consequence.)

It is illuminating to compare the 1918 pandemic to the current crisis. There are many similarities. Both are caused by easily transmissible viruses, and both spread around the world. The H1N1 flu virus and the SARS-CoV-2 virus both infect the respiratory system, causing fever, coughing, and in severe cases pneumonia and ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome). In both cases, no vaccine is available and no known treatment is effective. As in 1918, doctors are turning desperately to other therapies and medicines—those developed for other, unrelated diseases like malaria—and as in 1918, researchers are publishing at a frantic pace, with no time for peer review. Police are again wearing masks, hospitals are again overrun, and officials are struggling to catch up with the progress of the virus.

But of course, there are many important differences, too. One is the disease itself. The 1918 flu was almost certainly worse than the novel coronavirus. It was more deadly in general, and it killed younger people in far greater numbers—which resulted in a much bigger dip in life expectancy. (Young people died because their immune systems overreacted in what is called a “cytokine storm.”) The H1N1 flu also had a far shorter incubation period. This meant that the gap between infection and the first symptoms was short—often within 24 hours—and patients deteriorated far more quickly. Barry describes people being struck down within mere hours of showing their first symptoms. The challenge of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, however, is the very long incubation period—potentially up to two weeks—in which people may be infectious and yet not show symptoms. This makes it very difficult to keep track of who has it.

The explanation for this difference lies in the nature of the virus. A virus is basically a free-floating piece of genetic code incased in a protein shell. It needs to highjack animal cells in order to reproduce; and it infiltrates cells using proteins that link up with structures on the cells’ surface. Once inside, the virus begins to replicate until the cell literally bursts, spilling virus into adjacent cells, which in turn get infected, and which in turn burst. Each burst can release thousands of copies. The rate at which the virus replicates within the cells determine the incubation period (between first infection and first symptoms), and coronaviruses replicate significantly more slowly in animal cells, thus explaining the slower onset of symptoms. Their greater speed also means that flu viruses change faster, undergoing antigenic drift and antigenic shift, meaning that new strains of the virus are inevitable. The novel coronavirus is (likely) more stable.

Another potential difference is seasonality. Flu viruses come in seasonal waves. The 1918 virus struck first in spring, receded in summer, and then returned in autumn and one last time in the winter of 1919. Every wave hit very quickly—and then left just as quickly. Most cities experienced a sharp drop-off in cases after about six weeks of the first patients. The seasonality of the 1918 flu was partly a result of the genetic drift just mentioned, as the different waves of this flu were all at least subtly different strains of the virus. Atmospheric conditions—humidity and temperature—also presumably make some difference in the flu virus’s spread. COVID-19 may exhibit a very different pattern. It may, perhaps, be less affected by atmospheric conditions; and if it mutates and reproduces more slowly, it may linger around for one long wave rather than several short ones. This is just my speculation.

Well, so much for the virus. How about us? The world has changed a lot since 1918. However, not all of those changes have made us better prepared. Fast and cheap air travel allowed the virus to spread more quickly. And economic globalization did not help, either, as both medicines and medical equipment are often produced overseas and then imported, thus rendering countries more vulnerable to supply-chain disruption than in the past. As we witness countries and states compete for supplies, this vulnerability is very apparent.

But of course we have many advantages, too. Many of the deaths caused by the flu and the coronavirus are not from the virus infection itself, but because the virus renders us vulnerable to secondary infections by bacteria, causing pneumonia. Antibiotics (which did not exist in 1918) can save many lives. Another advantage is medical care. The most severe patients of both epidemics were struck with ARDS, a condition with an almost 100% mortality rate for those who do not receive intensive medical care (using a ventilator machine). In 1918 they were able to administer oxygen, but far less effectively than we can. Even so, even with the best intensive care, the survival rate of ARDS is between 40-60%. And our ability to administer intensive care is quite limited. The ventilator shortage has become a global emergency in itself, as hospitals are overrun.

Medical science has also advanced considerably. Now we can isolate the virus (which they could not do in 1918), test individuals for it, and work on a vaccine. However, testing has so far been unable to keep up with the virus. And the most optimistic estimate of an available vaccine is in a year. Arguably a much bigger advantage is information technology. The press is not censored—so citizens have a much better idea of the risks involved—and experts can communicate with each other in real time. We can coordinate large-scale societal responses to the pandemic, and can potentially even use technology to track individual cases. As we come to better understand the virus, we will be able to use more sophisticated statistical methods to understand its progress. None of this was possible in 1918.

One thing that we will have to contend with—something that is hardly even mentioned in Barry’s book—is the economic toll that this virus will take. Even in the ugliest days of the 1918 pandemic, governments did not require businesses or restaurants to close. War preparations went on unabated. (In 1918, after years of slaughter and at the height of the war, life was simply cheaper than it is now.) Our societal response will likely mitigate the health crisis but will create a secondary economic crisis that may ultimately be more difficult to solve. The solutions to this crisis could be our most lasting legacies. Already Spain’s government is talking of adopting universal basic income. Though of course it is far too early to predict anything with confidence.

Comparisons with 1918 are partly depressing, and partly uplifting. Depressing, because we knew this was possible and did not prepare. Depressing, because so many governments have gone through the same cycle of early denial and disorganized response as they did back then. Uplifting, because we do know much more than we did. Uplifting, because—after our early fumbles—we are finally coordinating as a global community to deal with the crisis. Perhaps most uplifting of all, despite some ugly stories here and there, the crisis has revealed a basic sense of solidarity in the face of a universal threat. Hopefully, unlike 1918, we will not do our best to forget about this one.



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Review: A Manual of Greek Mathematics

Review: A Manual of Greek Mathematics

A Manual of Greek Mathematics by Thomas L. Heath

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the case of mathematics, it is the Greek contribution which it is most essential to know, for it was the Greeks who first made mathematics a science.


As a supplement to my interest in the history of science, I figured that I ought to take a look into the history of mathematics, since the two are quite intimately related. This naturally led me to the Greeks and to Sir Thomas L. Heath, who remains the most noteworthy translator, divulgator, and commentator in English eighty years after his death. This book is likely the best single volume you can get on the subject, as it covers all of the major mathematicians in some detail while giving a complete overview.

It is also reasonably accessible (“reasonably” being the operative word). Certainly it is no work of popular math in the modern sense; it is not pleasure reading, and Heath assumes a certain amount of knowledge on the reader’s part. A thorough knowledge of algebra and geometry is assumed, and a few words in ancient Greek are not translated. What is more, large sections of the book are essentially extended summaries and explications of Greek treatises, which makes them almost impossible to read without the original text alongside. Personally I would certainly have appreciated more spoon-feeding, as it was quite difficult for me to prevent my eyes from glazing over.

The book is divided primarily by subject-matter and secondarily by chronology. Heath introduces us to notation, fractions, and techniques of calculation, and then on to arithmetic. Geometry, of course, dominates the book, as it was the primarily form of Greek mathematical thought. Heath summarizes the contributions to geometry by Pythagoras and his followers, and the scattered mathematicians we know of in the years between Thales and Euclid. Once Euclid appears, he writes his famous Elements, which encapsulates the entire subject and which rendered many previous works obsolete. After Euclid we come to the divine Archimedes and the great Apollonius, who put the capstone on the tradition. Ptolemy (among others) made great advances in trigonometry, while Diophantus made strides in algebra (as well as inspired Fermat).

Heath’s account of these mathematicians is largely internal, meaning that he is focused on the growth of their ideas rather than anything external to the science. Reading this convinced me—as if further evidence was needed—that I do not have the moral fiber or intellectual temper to appreciate mathematics. Heath writes admiringly of the works of Euclid and Archimedes, finding them not only brilliant but beautiful. While I can normally appreciate the brilliance, the beauty normally escapes me. Ratios, volumes, lines, and equations simply do not make my heart beat.

Indeed, the questions that I find most fascinating are those that are hardly touched upon in this book. Most important, perhaps, is this: What aspect of a culture or a society is conducive to the development of pure mathematics? Though claims of Greek specialness or superiority seem antiqued at best nowadays, it is true that the Greeks made outstanding contributions to science and math; while the Roman contribution to those fields—at least on the theoretical side—is close to nil. The mathematics of Ancient Egypt amount to techniques for practical calculations. Admittedly, as Otto Neugebauer wrote about in his Exact Sciences of Antiquity, the Babylonians had quite advanced mathematics, allowing them to solve complex polynomials; they also had impressive tabulations of the heavenly motions.

Even so, it was the Greeks who created science and math in the modern sense, by focusing on generality. That is, rather than collect data or develop techniques for specific problems, the Greeks were intent on proving theorems that would hold in every case. This also characterizes their philosophy and science: a rigorous search after an absolute truth. This cultural orientation towards the truth in the most general, absolute form seems quite historically special. It arose in one fairly limited area, and lasted for only a few centuries. Most striking is the Greek disdain of the practical—something that runs from Pythagoras, through Plato, to Archimedes.

Of the top of my head, here are some possible factors for this cultural development. The Greek economy was based on slavery, so that citizens often could afford to disdain the practical. What is more, the Greek political model was based on the city-state—a small, close-knit community with limited expansionist aims and thus with limited need for great infrastructure or novel weapons. The relative lack of economic, political, or military pressure perhaps freed intellectuals to pursue wholly theoretical projects, with standards that arose from pure logic rather than necessity. Maybe this seems plausible; but I am sure many other societies fit this description, not just the Greeks. The development of culture is something that we do not fully understand, to say the least.

This has taken me quite far afield. In sum, this book is an excellent place to start—either by itself, or as a companion to the original Greek works—if you are interested in learning something about this astounding intellectual tradition. That the Greeks could get so far using geometry alone—that is, without variables or equations—is a testament to human genius and persistence.



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Quotes & Commentary #67: Thucydides

Quotes & Commentary #67: Thucydides

Not many days after their arrival in Attica the plague first began to show itself among the Athenians. It was said that it had broken out in many places previously in the neighbourhood of Lemnos and elsewhere; but a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered. Neither were the physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it, but they died themselves the most thickly, as they visited the sick most often; nor did any human art succeed any better. Supplications in the temples, divinations, and so forth were found equally futile, till the overwhelming nature of the disaster at last put a stop to them altogether.

—Thucydides

The plague of Athens is one of the most famous epidemics in history. It struck the city-state hard, and played a decisive role in Athens’ loss to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. The historian Thucydides, who suffered the disease himself, gives a clinical description of the symptoms. Many are rather garden variety: headache, sore throat, a bad cough, diarrhea, and vomiting. Apart from this, victims suffered ulcers on the skin, and a fever so bad that people tore off their clothes. Thucydides also describes an unquenchable thirst. Tens of thousands died—in a city that was not, by modern standards, especially big—including the great statesman, Pericles; and it created ripples in society that lasted for many years after the plague ended.

(It is still unknown what germ caused the Athenian plague. One theory is typhus.)

It is impossible to make any sort of prediction when it comes to the novel coronavirus. In the beginning, I saw much commentary in the news criticizing China’s heavy-handed approach to dealing with the virus. Back then, most of the political commentary centered on whether an authoritarian regime could adequately cope. Now, Western governments are not looking very good by comparison. The outbreak has caught the leaders off guard, and there were many weeks of downplaying the threat before serious action was taken. And, in the end, Europe will likely have to enact many of the same measures as were put in place in China.

People of any political persuasion can find grist for their mills. I have already mentioned the criticism of China’s heavy-handed approach. Marxists are using the shortages at supermarkets as evidence of the shortcomings of capitalism; while conservatives point to the government’s inadequate response as evidence of bureaucratic incompetence. Trump, as usual, has said many false or misleading things, and the economic downturn caused by the virus could possibly hurt his chances for re-election. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, cites the virus as a good argument for universal healthcare. And so on.

Certainly some of these perspectives have merit. And there is plenty of blame to go around. Judging from the state of things here in Spain, the government was unprepared for the virus, even though they had weeks to observe its progress in China and then Italy. Speaking for myself, the outbreak has been an exercise in humility, since in the past few weeks I consistently downplayed its importance and severity. A week ago I was feeling totally secure, as if my normal life could not be affected. So I do have some sympathy for everyone who underestimated the danger. (On the other hand, the people in power are the ones who are supposed to know, of course.)

To continue my exercise in humility, I think I will refrain from making any definite predictions about the weeks and months to come. There are too many variables. It is unknown how long these measures will have to be enacted; and it is equally unclear exactly what effect this will have on the economy. Further down the line, we cannot predict if, how, or to what extent the crisis will affect the political situation. Big events like September 11 and the 2008 financial crisis had long-lasting political aftershocks, still reverberating today. Will the coronavirus be decisive in the 2020 American presidential elections? Will Spain’s socialist government lose credibility?

The plague of Athens was a major turning point in the history of Ancient Greece. Without Pericles, and reeling from the depopulation, Athens lost to Sparta, which henceforth became the leading power in the Peninsula. The Golden Age of Ancient Greece thus came to an end. How might history have turned out differently if Athens had won instead? Such counterfactuals are impossible to definitively answer. Now, all we can really do is sit in our homes and wait. But perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that, despite all of our missteps, we are far better positioned to deal with the coronavirus than the Athenians were ready to deal with their plague (whatever it was). For one thing, we understand how diseases spread; and thus each of us can do our part to stop it.

Review: The Works of Archimedes

Review: The Works of Archimedes

The Works of Archimedes by Archimedes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In fact, how many theorems in geometry which have seemed at first impracticable are in time successfully worked out!

Many of the most influential and ingenious books ever written possess the strange quality of being simultaneously exhilarating and quite boring. Unless you are among that rare class of people who enjoy a mathematical demonstration more than a symphony, this book will likely possess this odd duality. I admit this is the case for me. Reading this book was a constant exercise in fighting the tendency for my eyes to glaze over. But I am happy to report that it is worth the trouble.

Archimedes lived in the 3rd century BCE, somewhat after Euclid, in Syracuse on the island of Sicily. Apart from this, not much else can be said with certainty about the man. But he is the subject of many memorable stories. Everybody knows, for example, the story of his taking a bath and then running through the streets naked, shouting “Eureka!” We also hear of Archimedes using levers to move massive boats, and claiming that he could move the whole earth if he just had a place to stand on. Even his death is the subject of legend. After keeping the invading Romans at bay using ingenious weapons—catapults, cranes, and even mirrors to set ships afire—Archimedes was killed by a Roman soldier, too preoccupied with a mathematical problem to care for his own well-being.

True or not, good stories tend to accumulate around figures who are worthy of our attention. And Archimedes is certainly worthy. Archimedes did not leave us any extended works, but instead a collection of treatises on several topics. The central concern in these different works—the keystone to Archimedes’s method—is measurement. Archimedes set his brilliant mind to measuring things that many have concerned impossible to reckon. His work, then, is an almost literal demonstration of the human mind’s ability to scan, delimit, and calculate things far outside the scope of our experience.

As a simple example of this, Archimedes established the ratios between the surface areas and volumes of spheres and cylinders—an accomplishment the mathematician was so proud of that he apparently asked for it to be inscribed on his tombstone. Cicero describes coming across this tombstone in a dilapidated state, so perhaps this story is true. Archimedes also set to work on giving an accurate estimation of the value of pi, which he accomplished by inscribing and circumscribing 96-sided polygons around a circle, and calculating their perimeters. If this sounds relatively simple to you, keep in mind that Archimedes was operating without variables or equations, in the wholly-geometrical style of the Greeks.

Archimedes’s works on conoids, spheroids, and spirals show a similar preoccupation with measurement. What all of these figures have in common is, of course, that they are composed of curved lines. How to calculate the areas contained by such figures is not at all obvious. To do so, Archimedes had to invent a procedure that was essentially equivalent to the modern integral calculus. That is, Archimedes used a method of exhaustion, inscribing and circumscribing ever-more figures composed of straight lines, until an arbitrarily small gap remained between his approximations and what he was attempting to measure. To employ such a method in an age before analytic geometry had even been invented is, I think, an accomplishment difficult to fully appreciate. When the calculus was finally invented, about two thousand years later, it was by men who were “standing on the shoulders of giants.” In his time, Archimedes had few shoulders to stand on.

The most literal example of Archimedes’s concern with measurement is his short work, The Sand Reckoner. In this, he attempts to calculate the number of grains of sand that would be needed to fill up the whole universe. We owe to this bizarre little exercise our knowledge of Aristarchus of Samos, the ancient astronomer who argued that the sun is positioned at the center of the universe. Archimedes mentions Aristarchus because a heliocentric universe would have to be considerably bigger than a geocentric one (since there is no parallax observed of the stars); and Archimedes wanted to calculate the biggest universe possible. He arrives at a number is quite literally astronomical. The point of the exercise, however, is not in the specific number arrived at, but in formulating a way of writing very large numbers. (This was not easy in the ancient Greek numeral system.) Thus, we partly owe to Archimedes our concept of orders of magnitude.

Archimedes’s contributions to natural science are just as significant as his work in pure mathematics. Indeed, one can make the case that Archimedes is the originator of our entire approach to the natural sciences; since it was he who most convincingly demonstrated that physical relationships could be described in purely mathematical form. In his work on levers, for example, Archimedes shows how the center of gravity can be found, and how simple principles can explain the mechanical operation of counterbalancing weights. Contrast this with the approach taken by Aristotle in his Physics, who uses wholly qualitative descriptions and categories to give a causal explanation of physical motion. Archimedes, by contrast, pays no attention to cause whatever, but describes the physical relationship in quantitative terms. This is the exact approach taken by Galileo and Newton.

Arguably, the greatest masterpiece in this collection is On Floating Bodies. Here, Archimedes describes a physical relationship that still bears his name: the relationship of density and shape to buoyancy. While everyone knows thpe story of Archimedes and the crown, it is possible that Archimedes’s attention was turned to this problem while working on the design for an enormous ship, the Syracusia, built to be given as a present to Ptolemy III of Egypt. This would explain Book II, which is devoted to finding the resting position of several different parabolas (more or less the shape of a ship’s hull) in a fluid. The mathematical analysis is truly stunning—so very far beyond what any of his contemporaries were capable of that it can seem even eerie in its sophistication. Even today, it would take a skilled physicist to calculate how a given parabola would rest when placed in a fluid. To do so in ancient times was simply extraordinary.

Typical of ancient Greek mathematics, the results in Archimedes’s works are given in such a way that it is difficult to tell how he originally arrived at these conclusions. Surely, he did not follow the steps of the final proof as it is presented. But then how did he do it? This question was answered quite unexpectedly, with the discovery of the Archimedes Palimpsest in the early 1900s. This was a medieval prayer book that contained the remains of two previously unknown works of Archimedes. (Parchment was so expensive that scribes often scraped old books off to write new ones; but the faded impression of the original work is still visible on the manuscript.) One of these works was the Ostomachion, a collection of different shapes that can be recombined to form a square in thousands of different ways (and it was the task of the mathematician to determine how many).

The other was the Method, which is Archimedes’s account of how he made his geometrical discoveries. Apparently, he did so by clever use of weights and balances, imagining how different shapes could be made to balance one another. His method of exhaustion was also a crucial component, since it allowed Archimedes to calculate the areas of irregular shapes. A proper Greek, Archimedes considered mechanical means to be intellectually unsatisfactory, and so re-cast the results obtained using this method into pure geometrical form for his other treatises. If it were not for the serendipitous discovery of this manuscript, and the dedicated work of many scholars, this insight into his method would have been forever lost to history.

As I hope you can see, Archimedes was a genius among geniuses, a thinker of the rarest caliber. His works are exhilarating demonstrations of the power of the human mind. And yet, they are also—let us admit it—not the most exciting things to read, at least for most of us mere mortals. Speaking for myself, I would need a patient expert as a guide if I wanted to understand any of these works in detail. Even then, it would be hard work. Indeed, I have to admit that, on the whole, I find mathematicians to be a strange group. For the life of me I cannot get excited about the ratio of a sphere to a cylinder—something that Archimedes saw as the culmination of his entire life.

Archimedes is the very embodiment of the man absorbed in impractical pursuits—so obsessed with the world of spirals and curves that he could not even avoid a real sword thrust his way. And yet, if subsequent history has shown anything, it is that these apparently impractical, frigid, and abstract pursuits can reveal deep truths about the universe we live in—much deeper than the high-flown speculations of our philosophers. I think this lesson is worth suffering through a little boredom.



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