Hypatia Day

Hypatia of Alexandria

So I gets this message from Facebook, y’see – my Pharyngulite friend Cameron Cole inviting me to an event called Hypatia Day.  Brilliant!  A day for remembering one of the most remarkable women in history.  We need more of those.  And it’s worth punking off the Dojo till tomorrow for this.

This post is for those who just went, “Hypatia who?”  And for those who just went, “Hypatia – woo-hoo!”

I first got to know Hypatia whilst reading a book called Greek Society.  I’d been quite used to history being full of men, men, and more men.  Oh, and did I mention the men?  Sometimes it really did seem like history was his-story, with just the occasional smattering of, “Oh, and there was this cool female poet once – and did we mention these totally awesome men?”  The only ancient women I really knew were ladies like Cleopatra, and the history I’d learned concentrated more on their looks and their effect on men than on their brains.

Then came Greek Society, and this section of four pages talking about a philosopher, Hypatia of Alexandria.  Four pages, you say.  Big fucking deal.  But in a 223 page book spanning Greek history from Mycenaean civilization to the rise of Rome, four pages dedicated to one woman kinda is.

I’d never heard of her, but by the end of four pages, I was in love with her.  And Mr. Frost didn’t even talk about her that much – he spent a lot of his words setting her in context.  But he described her as having an “extravagant intelligence.”  There she was – mathematician, philosopher, astronomer – blazing like a supernova from those pages.  A woman pursuing the intellect and rationality in a very male world that at the time was beginning its slide into the Dark Ages.

Students came from all over the Hellenistic world to follow her.  Her father, Theon, a mathematician and last director of the magnificent Museion in Alexandria, admitted she overshadowed him.  Together, they wrote commentaries on such works as Ptolomey’s Almagest and Euclid’s Elements, works that went on to set the European intellectual world back on fire when they were rediscovered a thousand years later.  Enjoy rational thinking?  Tip a glass to Hypatia:

How important was the survival of Euclid’s Elements to the course of human history?  The Elements was the most influential textbook in history (Boyer, 1991, p.119).  As reformulated by Theon and Hypatia, the Elements became more than just a textbook on geometry.  It became the definitive guide on how to think clearly and reason logically.  The scientists Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton were all influenced by the Elements.  Newton’s interest in mathematics was awakened when he bought and read a copy of this book (Boyer, 1991, p. 391).  He used the style of the Elements, with formal propositions and rigorous proofs, in his Principia, the book which forms the foundation of modern physics.  All of modern mathematics employs the logical, deductive method that was introduced by the Elements.  In short, modern science and technology rests on the firm foundation laid down by Euclid’s Elements.

Yeah.  She’s all that.

All of her rationality and independence and intellect, not to mention her religious affiliation (i.e., not Christian), led a mob of Christians to murder.  Apparently, she was in the way of their brave new world.  So they stripped her naked, dragged her through the streets, and slashed her to death with pottery shards.  And the darkness got that much darker.  Politics and religion killed one of the most brilliant women in history.  Then they killed the city of Alexandria, its great library, and the intellectual genius of the ancient world.  Okay, so barbarians also had a little something to do with all that chaos and destruction, but still: vast majority of it was down to politics and religion.  Science almost didn’t survive, at least in the West.

But embers still burned, and got fanned to flame during the Renaissance.  Hypatia was so influential that Raphael wanted to put her front and center in his magnificent School of Athens.  Christianity shat on her again, refusing to allow a smart pagan woman murdered by Christians to have a part in a fresco created for the Pope’s personal library.  Raphael sneaked her in there anyway.  And there she is.  Do you see her?  She’s that elegant woman in white down towards the left who seems to stand apart from the tumult, for all she’s smack in the middle of it:

School of Athens

Someday, I really need to read up on her life.  I know so little about her.  But I know she was extraordinary, an incredible woman who took her place beside the leading intellectual lights of her day, and lead many others in her turn.  We owe it to her to tell her story.

I’m glad someone thought to give her this day.

Celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Click the link for his “The Other America” Speech.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Don’t go silent.  

On this day, we remember the power of dreams.  We remember the power of a great many good people all coming together for a just cause.  And we remember that the right words, symbolic actions, and a refusal to back down from demands for justice can remake the world.

Thank you, Dr. King. 

The Architecture of the Unexpected

One of the books I picked up during my unexpected side trip to Half-Price Books was Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings, by Edward S. Morse.  It contains surprises.

I didn’t look at it closely before I bought it.  I needed something on non-Western architecture, and it fit the bill.  That’s all I needed to know.  Now I’ve cracked it open, and it’s given me several shocks.  For instance, I didn’t anticipate its antiquity – it was written in 1885.  As Clay Lancaster points out in the Preface to the Dover Edition, this is a good thing – Morse was able to study Japanese architecture before the West left its footprint. 

The second shock is the fact it was written by a scientist.  Morse was in Japan to study brachiopods.  He was teaching zoology at the Imperial University in Tokyo.  Things like art and architecture were a sideline to him, until his friend Dr. Bigelow told him to stop bothering himself with brachiopods.  “For the next generation the Japanese we knew will be as extinct as Belemnites,” Bigelow said.  And thus, a zoologist wrote a book about houses.

Then, reading the Preface by Morse himself, I see him thanking none other than Percival Lowell for “numerous courtesies.”  Small world, isn’t it just?  I’d had no idea that a man studying brachiopods and dwellings in Japan would have anything at all to do with my hometown astronomer, but there it is.

Perhaps the most unexpected shock is this: Morse is a wonderful writer who makes you laugh.  You don’t pick up a book on architecture expecting a good giggle, but how can you not laugh when you come across a passage like this as Morse discusses the influence of Japanese art and architecture already evident in America in the late 1880s:

It was not to be wondered at that many of our best artists – men like Coleman, Vedder, Lafarge, and others – had long before recognized the transcendent merit of Japanese decorative art.  It was however somewhat remarkable that the public at large should come so universally to recognize it, and in so short a time.  Not only our own commercial nation, but art-loving France, musical Germany, and even conservative England yielded to this invasion.  Not that new designs were evolved by us; on the contrary, we were content to adopt Japanese designs outright, oftentimes with a mixture of incongruities that would have driven a Japanese decorator stark mad.  Designs appropriate for the metal mounting of a sword blazed out on our ceilings; motives from a heavy bronze formed the theme for the decoration of friable pottery; and suggestions from the light crape were woven into hot carpets to be trodden upon.  Even with this mongrel admixture, it was a relief by any means to have driven out of our dwelling the nightmares and horrors of design we had before endured so meekly, – such objects, for example, as a child in dead brass, kneeling in perpetual supplication on a dead brass cushion, while adroitly balancing on its head a receptacle for kerosene oil; and a whole regiment of shapes equally monstrous.  Our walls no longer assailed with designs that wearied our eyes and exasperated our brains by their inanities. We were no longer doomed to wipe our feet on cupids, horns of plenty, restless tigers, or scrolls of architectural magnitudes.  Under the benign influence of this new spirit it came to be realized that it was not always necessary to tear a flower in bits to recognize its decorative value; and that teh simplest objects in Nature – a spray of bamboo, a pine cone, a cherry blossom – in the right place were quite sufficient to satisfy our craving for the beautiful.

Isn’t that delightful?  I expected a dry treatise on Japanese architecture.  What I’m getting is plenty of architectural information, but I’m also getting a lesson in style, an intimate glimpse into history, a draught of art, and the delectably dry humor of a man who has  suffered one too many brass children holding lamps.

There’s also something to learn of sociology in here.  Morse says, in his Introduction:

It is extraordinary how blind one may be to the faults and crimes of his own people, and how reluctant to admit them.  We sing heroic soldier-songs with energy and enthusiasm, and are amazed to find numbers in a Japanese audience disapproving, because of the bloody deeds celebrated in such an exultant way.  We read daily in our papers the details of the most blood-curdling crimes, and often of the most abhorrent and unnatural ones; and yet we make no special reflections on the conditions of society where such things are possible, or put ourselves much out of the way to arouse the people to a due sense of the degradation and stain on the community at large because of such things.  But we go to another country and perhaps find a new species of vice; its novelty at once arrests our attention, and forthwith we howl at the enormity of the crime and the degradation of the nation in which such a crime could originate, send home the most exaggerated accounts, malign the people without stint, and then prate to them about Christian charity!
In the study of another people one should if possible look through colorless glasses; though if one is to err in this respect, it were better that his spectacles should be rose-colored than grimed with the smoke of prejudice. 

He’s right, you know.  Utterly, absolutely right.  His observations and advice were excellent then, and they’re excellent now. 

So here we have a book that not only explores Japanese architecture, but art, society, and human nature.  Morse isn’t afraid to compare and contrast.  Many authors engage in that trick, but few are as brave as he is in exposing the warts as well as the wonders both of the society under observation and his own.  In the Introduction, in fact, as he’s mentioning that there are some Japanese houses he doesn’t like, he balances that by noting that English homes aren’t so special, either:

Still another English writer says: “It is unpleasant to live within ugly walls; it is still more unpleasant to live within unstable walls: but to be obliged to live in a tenement which is both unstable and ugly is disagreeable in a tenfold degree.”  He thinks it is quite time to evoke legislation to remedy these evils, and says: “An Englishman’s house was formerly said to be his castle; but in the hands of the speculating builder and advertising tradesman, we may be grateful that it does not oftener become his tomb.”

Morse took seriously the concept that one shouldn’t forget the beam in one’s own eye while whining about the mote in another’s.  Of course, in this case, he was dissing England, not America, but we get the sense that he’s lumping things East and West, by way of comparison – England’s faults, therefore, became our own.

Morse was writing in an age where science wasn’t as segregated as it is now.  Scientists could let their curiosity take them where it would – and if that meant throwing over brachiopods in favor of building materials, that would do.  Adding social studies to the mix, even better.  Books could breathe.  There wasn’t such a rigid focus on sticking to the subject at hand (just ask Melville, who found it perfectly reasonable to insert several chapters on cetaceans in the middle of an epic adventure story).  Tight focus is admirable, but I think sometimes we focus the beam a little too much.  We forget that things are inextricably connected, because we’re so used to erecting partitions.

That’s why it’s nice to read a nineteenth-century book on architecture.  All of the things that go in to architecture – the society, the environment, the history of the culture and the 1,001 things that influence the way a building is built and used – get explored, without apology, and without fear that a dose of opinion and humor will somehow cheapen the work.

We probably don’t need a return to the extremes of 19th century segues (and if you’re wondering what I mean by extremes, pick up an unabridged copy of Les Miserables for a weighty example).  But it certainly wouldn’t hurt if fiction and non-fiction writers of today took a hint from Japanese architecture, and instead of erecting walls, used easily-rearranged partitions instead.

A German Speaks Out About the Shitbags Invoking Hitler

Citisven at Daily Kos has a must-read diary regarding the rabid right’s Hitler-fest. A sampling:

A lot of great diaries have been written about the new meme by Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity and the corporate anti health care enablers to call President Obama a racist and compare him to Adolf Hitler. The assessment of the situation ranges from the last wails of a dying breed to fascism on the rise.

As a German, I’m not only part of my people’s long collective struggle to come to grips with our past, but I have personally grappled with my own family history and how to approach a subject so fraught with emotion and almost mythical proportions. I am so reluctant and utterly shocked to even write in response to such a patently absurd comparison that borders on the mental fringes between frightfully deluded and clinically insane. However, as painful as it is, there are times when we are asked to fearlessly descend into the darkest corners of our consciousness in order to evolve and transcend, and this is one of those times.

[snip]

I’ve often thought about why I get so annoyed when people here in the US sling around the Hitler label. And just to be fair, I never liked seeing signs with Hitler mustaches painted on George W. Bush’s face either. I would usually just kind of shrug it off as kind of a juvenile expression of people’s frustration with a truly horrible warmongering president. But these recent deliberate and preposterous insertions of Hitlerisms into the mainstream of American society are going way too far and need to be exposed as the dangerous and ignorant appeals to our lowest sense they are.

What the people who draw these comparisons are doing is invoke the archetype of Hitler that we have collectively formed in our head, the archetype of something so evil and inhuman that it is beyond our capacity to shake off or transcend. By linking President Obama to the archetype of Hitler they are not trying to make any points about health care or energy or any other policy, but they are attempting to put him into a box out of which nobody could ever escape and from which any kind of soul growth or evolution is impossible. In short, they are trying to make a man who is about as human and compassionate as any man who has ever graced the American political landscape, inhuman. Just like Hitler did with those he didn’t like…

Not that I expect Limbaugh, Beck et al to understand any of this, or modify their behavior. But Citisven’s perspective, and the family history he(?) relates, is something we sorely need.

(Incidentally, in looking over Citisven’s blog, I do believe I’ve discovered our next press-ganging victim… you Elitist Bastards should let me know what you think.)

Pansophic Kitteh Sez: Read This Book

My cat may be homicidal, but she’s also a discerning reader. Here she is, drawing your attention to a particularly interesting passage in Guns, Germs and Steel:


I’m not sure which passage it was, alas. Too busy photographing the cat. It looks to be the Epilogue, but I can tell you that the entire book is an excellent read. You’ll never see the world in quite the same way again. And it answers that pesky question: why were Europeans the ones who pretty much took over the world?

Bad news for those who wish to believe in the inherent superiority of a subset of humanity, I’m afraid.

For those who haven’t read it, but like me spent years intending to, let this be your meaningful nudge: it’s a really fucking excellent book. And my cat says you should read it. When a homicidal feline places a meaningful paw on a book and recommends you peruse it, it’s probably safest just to do what she says.