Monday, 13 November 2017

Book Review - Anabasis of Alexander by Arrian

Anabasis of Alexander by Arrian. English translation by P. A. Brunt (in 2 Vols, including Indica)

Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1976

Have you ever had that strange feeling when you drive past the site of a recently demolished building in your neighbourhood and you can't remember what was there? That makes it even more amazing to me that we still know so much about the life of Alexander the Great. The fact that we do so is due to the survivial of this work of Arrian, amongst others.

The Loeb Classics two volume edition, which also includes the Indica is a fine edition on many levels. For the properly educated, one can compare the Ancient Greek to the English translation, and for us lesser mortals, the copious notes, appendices and informative introduction ensure we know what to make of the text, and where controviersies arise in comparing this work to other surviving sources. There is also a useful index.

All of us know, or think we know, the story of Alexander's conquest of most of the known world, so it's fascinating to go back to authors such as Arrian and Curtius and see what they wrote. Arrian saw himself as writing the definitive history of Alexander, combining all sources available to him and choosing the most reliable, sometimes putting down all he'd found out when he couldn't decide where the truth lay. What is interesting is that he obviously didn't know of Curtius' history, even though the scholars think it was written a hundred years earlier than Arrian's work.

The image of Alexander's army rampaging through the Near East is in fact only partly true - much (most?) of his conquests were peaceful, in the sense that cities and kingdoms surrendered without a fight, rather that risk defeat under arms. The reason so many took this option was that Alexander was often magniminous to those who surrendered, and could (and did) destroy utterly those who bore arms against him.

Things that stand out for me on reading Arrian is how few actual Macedonian troops Alexander had for much of his conquests: as he moved further away from home he relied more and more on local levies of troops and on arrogating to himself troops that once fought for Persia. The other point that I feel I hadn't adequately considered before reading this was just how Alexander ran the lands he conquered. He appointed trusted generals as satraps and on occasion even local rulers got to continue their rule, after paying obesiance and tribute to Alexander. It is interesting how often Arrian (who on the whole is a supporter of Alexander) describes how recently conquered territories had risen in revolt against Alexander, and needed to be repressed. The idea of Alexander rolling across the Near East and crushing all resistance is in some ways a false one.

The sense of Alexander one is left with after reading Arrian is of a man who was perhaps not interested in the art of governing. He was interested in conquering and winning battles, and as long as someone was keeping the rear in check and getting enough money for him to keep his army on the go, he was happy with that. Certainly after his death the empire quickly crumbled, as each kingdom quickly reverted to local rule, apart from some exceptions (Ptolemy in Egypt, for example).

One gets a whiff from Arrian (something which is more emphasised in Curtius), that Alexander's conquests eventually debauched his character: he moves from being a great and noble commander into an "Oriental tyrant". Whatever the thoughts about his character, none can detract from his deeds - a hero to some, a monster to others.

The Loeb edition also includes Arrian's Indica, which is a narrative of Nearchus' voyage from India to Persia. This perhaps is more interesting as a historical document, and would have been even more so when Arrian wrote it, as much of that part of the world was a mystery to most Greeks.

I've enjoyed reading Arrian, perhaps more than I expected.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Book Review - Chinese Shadows by Simon Leys

Chinese shadows by Simon Leys

New York: Viking Press, 1977                 ISBN 0670219185

A few years ago I really enjoyed reading Hall of uselessness by Simon Leys  (the pen-name of Sinologist Pierre Ryckmans), and having read other glowing reviews of his work, including the volume under review here, I will slowly hunt them down and read them.

Chinese shadows consists of a selection of impressions from a six-month visit to China in 1974, when the country was still endeavouring to recover from the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. Ryckmans casts a critical eye over not only the state of the country at that time, but at the standard of critical commentary coming from the West about China and its recent history.

The book has longer and shorter vignettes and reflections on just how badly the Maoist experiment had gone wrong, and how all totalitarian societies end up with the same problems, no matter whether they espouse a leftist or a rightist philosophy (Ryckmans has a lot of fun with the forms of words used by the Chinese government and bureaucracy "sometimes,...leftism is a rightist error").

Ryckmans has several larger points to make in this work. The first is that the first thing that suffers under totalitarian rule is culture. This applies especially to Communist totalitarian regimes, where all of history must lead to the inevitable success of the revolution. When, as had happened in China, some heroes of that history needed to be purged, or the importance of an historical moment changed, one needed to try to change history. This resulted in China in the closure of museums, the destruction of monuments, and the censorship of literature and opera, to the extent that the only theatre that could be shown was that written by Mao's wife, the only books on the shelves were those by Stalin or Mao, and Ryckmans could not visit any University classes or academics in his entire six month sojourn. The destructive power of this sort of repression on a culture is hard to gauge.

The reaction of the lower functionaries in a system where white can be black, and the established structure and hierarchy can change in an instant, is another theme in this book. Ryckmans is constantly frustrated in his attempts to visit archaeological sites, or to meet people, or even in the simple act of asking directions. This, as he explains, is down to the natural fear of functionaries to give him permission to do something when the view of the regime is unclear on whether permission is allowed. It is easier, and safer for the flunky involved, to do nothing and admit nothing. As he writes of the cadres - "...we should consider how unrewarding and dangerous their job is....Directives from on high are deliberately ambiguous; in case of failure, the leaders thus have a fall-back position, while those who applied the policy are stranded and unprotected, and can be sacrificed to the rancor of the masses. It is unfair to criticize Maoist bureaucrats for their slowness and inertia: most often nonaction is their best chance of survival."

Ryckmans is more scathing of those apologists in the West who were writing paeans about China at the time - as he writes about one of them "She could have written in Europe, without leaving her room, if she had had some issues of Peking Review at her disposal; she would have gotten the same results. Her China experience was limited to a visit of a few weeks, and to three dozen interviews." He points out that many of the so-called Sinologists cannot speak or read the language, and have no understanding of the history or culture of China. Yet it is their views that were in the ascendancy at the time of writing.

All of the above smacks of the polemic, but Chinese shadows is much more than that: an elegy to what was lost during the Cultural Revolution, a celebration of innate Chinese cheerfulness, and a corrective to a flawed Western understanding of Chinese history - "If the start of the industrial revolution in Europe had coincided with one of those times when China was wide open to the outside world - which was its normal historical situation - China would never have been out-distanced in the modern 'race to progress'....In fact, because of this fatal historical accident - the establishment of the isolationist and totalitarian Ming system...China confronted the modern world blind and paralyzed, with the worst possible political heritage."

As a reminder of the path taken by China to get to where she is today, and as a book that still has a lot to give the reader, Chinese shadows is worth picking up.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell