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Archive for January, 2013

Recently, I watched the documentary, Alexandria, City of Dreams by Bettany Hughes and was reminded of a nagging question: Why did Alexandria fail?

But perhaps this needs more context. Alexandria was a city founded by Alexander (points for being obvious) after his conquest of Egypt to be the center of Greek influence in that region. The city is best known for its two Wonders of the Ancient World: the Pharos Lighthouse and the Great Library.

The shiny thing on the coast was an engineering marvel, one of many, in fact, to be found in classical Alexandria. The first known steam engine was invented there. There’s reason to believe that the Antikythera mechanism had its origins in the city. Temples used machines to open doors automatically, to move images of gods across the ceiling, and to give out holy water from coin-operated dispensers.

And then there was the library. City law mandated the copying of all books brought into the port for inclusion in the stacks. In fact, the story goes that the originals were kept and the copies given to the travellers. The library housed schools. The chief librarians were scholars in their own right. Eratosthenes, for example, used the angles of shadows at noon on the summer solstice in two parts of Egypt to determine the circumference of the Earth–he came within a few percent of the correct number. The book collection is reported to have been an assemblage of the great writings–perhaps even just about all writings–from the ancient world.

So with the blessings of technology and literacy, why did Alexandria fail? This question is important today. We share those two characteristics. If we are to avoid the ancient city’s fate, we have to figure out what didn’t work.

Carl Sagan, in his Cosmos series, argued that slavery was one of the causes. Certainly, the view that machines were mere toys since labor could be done by enslaved humans retarded technological development. Why build machines and make them better when a person can be made to do every job that we can conceive of at the moment? (I ask this question from time to time when I wrestle with my computer.)

But the problem wasn’t just in the fact that some people were held as slaves. The tragic flaw of Alexandrian society was the idea of a privileged few ruling over many subjects. The machines were used mainly to cow visitors to temples into fear and donating. Education was sold to those who could afford it.

The astonishing achievements of Alexandria were reached by a small portion of the population. The city fell to barbarians because the benefits of its technology and learning spread to only a few. There’s debate as to who destroyed the library. Julius Caesar burned the original building by accident. Theodophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, ordered the closure of the library, and a later patriarch, Cyril–named a saint by fools–instigated the killing of the last head librarian, Hypatia. There are claims that when Muslim armies captured Alexandria, they destroyed the books, since anything that agreed with the Qur’an was unnecessary and anything that opposed the Qur’an should be destroyed.

What if instead of a privileged few enjoying the blessings of advancement, the whole of the society had participated? What if instead of a town full of subjects and slaves who were not invested in the knowledge, a militia of citizens had stood up for their Wonder of the World?

I value universal education because I see no other means of assuring that knowledge will progress and no other means of preventing civilization from descending into barbarism. The small-minded and the wicked will always be with us. The answer is to drown out their voices with those of reason. Spreading the blessing of education to everyone is the duty of any society. It is also the essential act of any society that wishes to survive.

Crossposted on http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/

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He left this note on the refrigerator:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Here’s her answer, taped to the front door:

Despite the rain,
I have dumped
your crap
on the lawn

which you should
have mowed weeks
before.

If you had,
you’d have found
the wheelbarrow
you care about
more than me.

Glad you enjoyed
the plums.
They’ll help you
make more “poetry.”

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On the 21st of January 2013, the Chicago Tribune reported on the discovery of an unpublished poem supposedly written by Carl Sandburg.

Here is an image of the document:

sandberg-poem

And this is the text, reproduced in full:

A REVOLVER

Here is a revolver.
It has an amazing language all its own.
It delivers unmistakable ultimatums.
It is the last word.
A simple, little human forefinger can tell a terrible story with it.
Hunger, fear, revenge, robbery hide behind it.
It is the claw of the jungle made quick and powerful.
It is the club of the savage turned to magnificent precision.
It is more rapid than any judge or court of law.
It is less subtle and treacherous than any one lawyer or ten.
When it has spoken, the case can not be appealed to the supreme court, nor any mandamus nor any injunction nor any stay of execution in and interfere with the original purpose.
And nothing in human philosophy persists more strangely than the old belief that God is always on the side of those who have the most revolvers.

The article informs us that this poem was discovered by a volunteer at the library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, one Ernie Gullerud, an eighty-three year old who once taught social work at the school. Gullerud has been entering Sandburg poems into the library’s computer system. His comment about the piece is telling: “Golly, someone could have written this today.”

Indeed.

The Tribune offers no skepticism, but I hereby state mine.

1. Old sheets of paper are easy to come by. So are antique manual typewriters.

2. The timing of this “discovery” is interesting. Gun control is on the political agenda at present, and this poem arrives just in time to suggest that an American icon would stand on one side.

3. More importantly, the language of the poem strikes me as having been written by someone who has read a lot of Sandburg, but isn’t the man himself:

A. Sandburg used specific details to express his point. He focused on the miniature to bring out the important. Phrases like “amazing language,” “umistakable ultimatums,” “terrible story,” “magnificent precision,” and “original purpose” sound wrong. They’re vague, showing me no image, no concrete thing.

B. Sandburg favored the smallest word that would convey his meaning. There are a good many polysyllabic words in the “discovered” poem. Of them, “amazing” is particularly odd. That’s a word that weak writers use when they can’t do a better job of describing what they mean. I’ve looked through Sandburg’s work to check, and while I may have missed it, I haven’t seen any poem in which he used that word.

By contrast, let’s look at a genuine poem of Sandburg’s, one on the same subject:

A.E.F.

There will be a rusty gun on the wall, sweetheart,
The rifle grooves curling with flakes of rust.
A spider will make a silver string nest in the
darkest, warmest corner of it.
The trigger and the range-finder, they too will be rusty.
And no hands will polish the gun, and it will hang on the wall.
Forefingers and thumbs will point casually toward it.
It will be spoken among half-forgotten, wished-to-be-forgotten things.
They will tell the spider: Go on, you’re doing good work.

(A.E.F. stands for American Expeditionary Forces.)

Note the smallness and the specificity of the language. It makes its point without being blunt. It shows tiny details that add up to the main idea. “A REVOLVER” is more of a shotgun than a target pistol.

Based on the evidence, here are my conclusions as to what this poem actually is:

1. It might be an early draft that Sandburg never finished. If so, it shows us the work that he went through to take his creations from idea to art.

2. It’s a fake, made perhaps to push an agenda, but timed to garner the most attention.

I’m going with the latter conclusion.

Crossposted on http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/

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