A Gift of Water

Sometimes the smallest gestures can mean the most, even to people who already have a lot. Here’s a story told about the Persian King Artaxerxes II and how he graciously received a humble gift.

Once when people were presenting him with various gifts along the road, a poor farmer who could come up with nothing else at the moment ran to the river, scooped up water in his hands, and offered it to the king. Artaxerxes was so delighted that he sent the man a golden cup and a thousand darics.

– Plutarch, Life of Artaxerxes 5.1

(My own translation.)

A daric was a golden coin worth about a month’s pay for a soldier or skilled artisan. A thousand darics was an unimaginable fortune to a poor farmer.

Like most such anecdotes, this story may or may not be true. Plutrach tells it as an illustration of Artaxerxes’ good-natured personality. Still, it makes a good illustration of the point that what matters isn’t always how much you can do for other people but your willingness to do what you can.

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Quotes: Because the World Is Yours and It Is up to You

I remember reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising pentalogy in a Finnish translation as a child. This summer I read them all in the original English. I didn’t remember much of them at all, just impressions, and was struck by how much more simplistic the story was than I’d thought.

Current Reading The Dark Is Rising

There was only one section in the whole 1,000+-word tome that the present-day me reponded to:

“We [Old Ones] have delivered you [humakind] from evil, but the evil that is inside men is at the last matter for men to control. The responsibility and the hope and the promise are in your hands—your hands and the hands of the children of all men on this earth. The future cannot blame the present, just as the present cannot blame the past. The hope is always there, always alive, but only your fierce caring can fan it into a fire to warm the world.

“[…] and you may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and it is up to you. Now especially since man has the strength to destroy this world, it is the responsibility of man to keep it alive, in all its beauty and marvellous joy.”

– Merriman in Susan Cooper’s novel Silver on the Tree

The novel this quote comes from, Silver on the Tree, was originally published in 1977. I wonder whether World War II and/or the fear of atomic power might have been behind this paragraph? For me, however, it clearly applies to the current climate crisis.

Cooper, Susan. The Dark Is Rising: The Complete Sequence. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, p. 1079.

Image by Eppu Jensen

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Alexander and the Sea Monsters

Sea monsters prevented Alexander from building Alexandria. He took a wooden container in which a glass box was inserted, and dived in it to the bottom of the sea. There he drew pictures of the devilish monsters he saw. He then had metal effigies of these animals made and set them up opposite the place where building was going on. When the monsters came out and saw the effigies, they fled. Alexander was thus able to complete the building of Alexandria.

– Ibn Khaldun, Kitab al-‘Ibar

Translated by Franz Rosenthal

This wild tale about the foundation of Alexandria is cited by the 14th-century North African historian Ibn Khaldun as an example of the ludicrous fictions that some earlier historians had filled their histories with but that had no place in the kind of scientific, rational history he set out to write.

The story as Ibn Khaldun relates it seem to go back to a legend in the Alexander Romance, a highly fictionalized account of Alexander the Great’s campaigns, about a large snake that frightened the workers who were building the city of Alexandria on the coast of Egypt until Alexander had the snake caught and killed. Over centuries of retelling, the hunt for one big snake turned into a struggle against terrible sea monsters.

The story of Alexander and the sea monsters is fiction, not history, as Ibn Khaldun rightly points out, but what a story it is! Wood and glass submarines! Ancient kaiju! Tactical deployment of art! How has no one made a movie out of this already?

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Quotes: Where Despotism Can Be Taken Pure

Abraham Lincoln, later the President of the U.S., is reported to have reacted to the white supremacist movement of 1840s thus:

“As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, exept Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” [original emphasis]

– Abraham Lincoln

Whoa, that’s pretty pointed. Granted, it’s decades since my U.S. history classes—not that we were taught that much to begin with, the focus was always on our fellow Nordics, Europe, and Russia—so it’s no wonder I can’t remember coming across this view of Lincoln’s.

Ghaemi, Nassir. A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness. New York: Penguin, 2011, p. 71-72.

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Quotes: Society Works Better Than It Ever Had

Arkady Martine wrote at Tor.com on disaster stories and human behavior, noting a pattern on concentrating on the catastrophic and awful. That, however, has been proven a myth, at least initially:

“Humans do not, under the pressure of an emergency, socially collapse. Rather, they seem to display higher levels of social cohesion, despite what media or government agents might expect… or portray on TV. Humans, after the apocalypse, band together in collectives to help one another—and they do this spontaneously. […]

“Humans all over the world display this behavior after disasters. They display it consistently, no matter what kind of disaster is happening or what culture they come from.

“What really happens after an apocalypse? Society works better than it ever had, for a brief time.” [original emphases]

– Arkady Martine

Yay, us! We did evolve as and still are highly social creatures.

Now, how long this century’s phenomenal technological change takes to alter that and in which ways remains to be seen. I have high hopes of our curiosity and drive to engage with others, however. That may be a bit funny for a huge introvert to say, but there it is. 🙂

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Quotes: Everything in the World Is Beginning to Fail

“No one should be amazed that everything in the world is beginning to fail, since the world itself is already failing and near its end.”

– Cyprian, To Demetrianus 4

(My own translation)

How’s that for a cheery thought to start your week?

We hear a lot of grim takes on the world and its fate these days, but this one is far from recent. This line comes from a letter written by St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in the mid-third century CE. Cyprian had plenty of reason to feel gloomy about the state of the world. The Roman Empire was in disarray, in the midst of a long period of civil wars and violence. When the empire did periodically pull itself together, it engaged in repeated persecution of Christians. On top of this, the Mediterranean was in the midst of a widespread epidemic of a deadly infectious disease, possibly smallpox or a hemorrhagic fever similar to Ebola. It’s no wonder that Cyprian’s world felt like it was coming to an end.

I share this quote not to depress you all further, but as a reminder that, however dire our times may seem, they are not unique. The world didn’t end in the third century. The Roman Empire pulled itself back together again, at least for a while. The persecutions were ended, and Christians were allowed to worship in peace. The epidemic passed. None of these things happened quickly or easily. It took an awful lot of hard work and sacrifice from an awful lot of people to bring the Mediterranean world back from the brink, but it happened.

It’s going to take an awful lot of hard work and sacrifice from an awful lot of people to bring today’s world back from the brink, too, but it can be done. Cyprian was wrong about the end of the world. Let’s make sure that today’s direst predictions turn out to be wrong, too.

Quotes: Sometimes They Develop Entire Research Articles Around Something They Overheard on the Bus

Idle browsing brought me to CD Covington’s article at Tor.com about linguists and the movie Arrival, which is based on Ted Chiang’s short scifi piece “Stories of Your Life”.

“A linguist’s job is to think about language and how it works. Linguists enjoy that and often have conversations about which dialect features they personally have, or sometimes they develop entire research articles around something they overheard on the bus. This is what we do. Not everyone thinks about how language works or is even interested in the subject. So it’s not surprising that Weber is frustrated because he doesn’t think there’s any progress happening, when Dr. Banks knows she’s made considerable progress.” [original emphases]

– CD Covington

Yup—I can attest. I take such geeky, unabashed pleasure over thinking and talking about my favorite linguistic features…! 🙂

(Find my posts about Arrival here.)

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Quotes: There Was No Room for Romance

I don’t usually like to do two quotes posts in a row, but the interview at A Mighty Girl blog with Captain Marvel co-director Anna Boden was too good to pass. So:

“We didn’t take some kind of firm stance like ‘There will be no romance in this movie’ at the beginning. But as we were exploring the character and exploring what the story was really about, it was about her humanity and, ultimately, her friendships. Not just her buddy friendship that she makes with Nick Fury over the course of the journey but that key, essential friendship with Maria Rambeau from her past that helps link her to her own humanity. And even her friendship with Talos, the Skrull leader, which is a surprising friendship, as she kind of recognizes the humanity in him as well. There was no room for romance. That wasn’t the point. The point was about her connection to these friendships. That felt like a more true story to tell for this character.” [original emphasis]

– Captain Marvel co-director Anna Boden

Bang on. It really annoys me when action movie writers deign to put in a lone Smurfette of a woman, they’ll apparently also have to squeeze in a romance—usually poorly written and atrociously justified with respect to the rest of the story. It’s like regardless of the story, the presence of Wimmin Parts Dictates That There Must Be Romance(TM) Because Otherwise the World Will End. (Although sometimes they work for me, like in The Terminator, but that was better justified, not superficially tacked on.)

Women are people, and like most people, we are able to focus on multiple issues and shift our focus as needed. A war-invasion would definitely be the kind of a situation that takes most of one’s concentration! Besides, not everyone is interested in romance.

It makes for more realistic, genuine, accurate storytelling to show people acting like they do in real life, and to show various kinds of people within a group, any group. It’s so refreshing that the writers of Captain Marvel recognized that; I can’t believe Hollywood’s taken this long to realize it (and/or listen to the storytellers that do).

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Quotes: Lords of Creation Don’t Take Advise

I’m (re)reading some things from my childhood, except in English instead of a Finnish translation. This paragraph made me gawk:

“Amy’s lecture did Laurie good, though, of course, he did not own it till long afterward; men seldom do, for when women are the advisers, the lords of creation don’t take the advise till they have persuaded themselves that it is just what they intended to do; then they act upon it, and, if it succeeds, they give the weaker vessel half the credit of it; if it fails, they generously give her the whole.”

– Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

Whoa! Little Women isn’t really the kind of book where you’d expect to see sarcasm this sharp; it sounds more like Jane Austen.

Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. New York: Puffin Books, 1997 [reissued; published by Puffin 1953; first published 1868], p. 571.

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Quotes: Who Do You Want Me to Talk into Loving You This Time?

Rich-throned, immortal Aphrodite,

daughter of crafty Zeus, I beg you,

my lady, do not weigh down my spirit

with overflowing grief,

but come to me now, if ever you came before

when you heard my voice, far away,

leaving your father’s golden house,

you yoked

your chariot and came. Swift and beautiful

sparrows brought you over the dark earth

with a thick whir of wings across the borders of heaven.

At once they brought you, happy one,

with a smile your ageless face,

to ask what troubled me, why

I called you,

and what my frantic spirit

most wished for. “Who do you want me to

talk into loving you this time? Who has

wounded you, Sappho?

If she runs away now, soon she will be chasing you.

If now she won’t take your gifts, she will give to you.

If she doesn’t love you now, soon she will,

even if she doesn’t want to.”

Come to me now, soothe

my anxious mind. Fulfill everything

my heart desires and be

my ally.

– Sappho, quoted in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, On the Arrangement of Words 23

(My own translation)

This is the only poem by the ancient Greek lyric poet Sappho to come down to us from antiquity intact. In its structure and form, it follows the conventions of a prayer: invoking the god or goddess whose help is sought, celebrating their noble lineage and superhuman powers, reminding them of their past relationship with the person making the prayer, and finally imploring them to use their full powers to help with the current problem. Sappho slyly takes this formula and turns it into a love poem about the anxiety of unrequited affection. With a little gentle self-mockery, she pictures herself repeatedly falling into one-sided love and Aphrodite as the long-suffering friend who comforts her when things don’t work out.

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