Category Archives: Books

War and Talk

This is a foray into the mystery of how things happen, based the 164th of the 361 chapters of War and Peace. This chapter contains, in a one-sentence paragraph, a summary of Tolstoy’s theory of history:

Each man lives for himself, using his freedom to attain his personal aims, and feels with his whole being that he can now do or abstain from doing this or that action; but as soon as he has done it, that action performed at a certain moment in time becomes irrevocable and belongs to history, in which it has not a free but a predestined significance.

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On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book III

Index | Text

The Iliad is about the feud between Achilles and Agamemnon, a feud that occurs during the Trojan War. Book III of the Iliad has nothing to do with Achilles, a little to do with Agamemnon, and everything to do with why the whole war is happening at all.

Photo of the tower of books used for this article

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The Private, Unskilled One

I went into Istanbul’s Pandora Bookshop a month ago, looking for an English translation of War and Peace, since the Garnett translation I had read at college was falling apart. I was told the Oxford World’s Classics edition (with the Maude translation) was coming the next week, and it did come.

Elif Batuman, The Idiot, in Nesin Matematik Köyü, Kayser Dağı Mevkii, Şirince, Selçuk, İzmir, Turkey, 2017.05.18

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On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book II

Index | Text

Even gods must sleep; but under the weight of his responsibility to Thetis, Zeus cannot. As Achilles pointed out in Book I, “dreams are often sent from Jove”; now we shall have a case in point.

All ways cast, this counsel serv’d his mind
With most allowance; to despatch a harmful Dream to greet
The king of men, and gave this charge: ‘Go to the Achive fleet,
Pernicious Dream…’
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On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book I

This is the first of a planned series of articles on the 24 books of Homer’s Iliad. Before turning to the first book, I take up the provocative article of fellow mathematician Cathy O’Neil, “What If We Could Upload Books to Our Brains?” (Bloomberg View, April 13, 2017). It turns out that I first met O’Neil’s doctoral advisor Barry Mazur when he came to St John’s College in Annapolis in my freshman year, 1983–4, to talk about Faltings’ Theorem.

Index to this series | Text of Book I of Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad Continue reading

Homer for the Civilian

The source of this essay is an essay and an ensuing conversation in 2009, on the theme of what Homer may mean in one’s life, and whether an application to one’s life involves an abuse of the original text. I wrote in July 2016 on analogies in Homer and elsewhere in “Thinking & Feeling”; my last post here considered an apparent instance of abuse of the Hebrew Bible.

At the end of the Iliad, to retrieve the body of his son Hector from Hector’s killer, King Priam of Troy visits Achilles in his tent in the evening, in the camp of the hostile Greeks. The scene may recall two political enemies from the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and Congressman Thomas O’Neill, Speaker of the House: these two were able to be on friendly terms “after 6 PM.”

Homer, Iliad,  Wordworth edition

Aleksandr Andreevich Ivanov, “King Priam begging Achilles for the Return of Hector’s Body,“ 1824 (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)


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The Hands of an Angry Deity

I first drafted the following essay in late October, 2011, a few days after the first of the earthquakes in Van, and a few weeks after moving to Istanbul from Ankara. I rediscovered the essay recently by chance. It seems worth revisiting, given the political upheaval in the United States last fall, and the potential for more around the world.

Above Mehmetçik Caddesi in Şişli, one of the most densely populated of Istanbul’s 39 boroughs; 2017.04.02

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Victor Vasarely

Tophane-i Amire

Tophane-i Amire, 2017.03.25

Last week I wrote about the Turkish Impressionist Feyhaman Duran, born in 1886. Now my subject is the Hungarian-French Op Artist born twenty years later as Győző Vásárhelyi. His “Rétrospective en Turquie” is at the Tophane-i Amire Culture and Art Center in an Ottoman cannon foundry.

Vasarely show

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Duty to Nature

Index to this series

This is a synthesis of some ideas from a recent spate of posts in this blog. A theme is the question of why we do what we do, and whether what we do to Nature in particular—how we think of Nature—can change.

Farhang Mehr, The Zoroastrian Tradition, cover with image of Zarathustra Continue reading

NL XVI: “Right”

Index to this series

Follower of Pietro Perugino, Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, c. 1490/1500, tempera on panel (National Gallery of Art, Washington; Samuel H. Kress Collection)

Follower of Pietro Perugino, Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, c. 1490/1500, tempera on panel (National Gallery of Art, Washington; Samuel H. Kress Collection)

We continue to investigate how two purposes x and y can have a relation symbolized by yx. In the previous chapter, the relation was that x was useful for y; now the relation will be that x is right for y, meaning x “conforms with the rule y” (16. 3). Continue reading