The Transmutean Hypotheses
Plus: Some Important Substack Business
The crucifixion of the lions
A curious passage in Salammbô, Gustave Flaubert’s 1862 Orientalist phantasmagoria, describes a mostly forgotten practice of the ancient Carthaginians:
[A group of Barbarian soldiers] ran to see it. It was a lion, attached to a cross by its four limbs like a criminal. Its enormous muzzle was falling upon its chest, and its two front paws, half-disappearing beneath the abundance of its mane, were spread wide like the two wings of a bird. Its ribs, all lined up, jutted forth beneath its taut skin; its hind legs, nailed alongside one another, rose up somewhat; and the black blood, pouring through its hairs, had collected in stalactites at the end of its tail that hung straight down along the length of the cross. The soldiers amused themselves with it; they called it consul and citizen of Rome and threw pebbles at its eyes to chase away the flies.
One hundred steps further they saw two more, then suddenly there appeared a long line of crosses bearing lions. The ones had been dead for so long that only the debris of their skeletons remained on the wood; others, half-eaten, twisted their faces into a horrible grimace; some of them were enormous, the tree of the cross folded beneath them and they swung in the wind, as above their heads bands of crows circled in the air without stopping. Thus did the Carthaginian peasants avenge themselves when they captured a ferocious beast; they hoped by this example to terrify the others. The Barbarians, when they had stopped laughing, fell into a long astonishment. “Who are these people,” they wondered, “who amuse themselves by crucifying lions!?” [Emphasis added].
Flaubert’s novel had been among the readings in preparation for my stay at the École Normale Supérieure in Tunis earlier this month. I am probably as much in love with Flaubert as with any author — I’ve written in this space before of the ecstasies to which his “Saint Julien L’Hospitalier” has brought me. But previously I could never finish Salammbô, written in part during his own sojourn in Tunis and vicinity in order to escape the stupid controversy in his home country over the purported obscenity of Madame Bovary. It took a stay in Tunisia for me to be able to feel my way into the novel, which reimagines ancient events mostly drawing on source material from Polybius, and other Roman authors who related the history of the Punic wars.
I had been invited to teach a ten-day intensive course on the philosophy of G. W. Leibniz, who, I’m told, will be featured, alongside Aristotle and Edmund Husserl, in at least one question on this year’s Tunisian agrégation. As is typical in my version of Leibniz, no portion of his 1709 Theodicy made the cut for our reading list. But when I read that passage in Flaubert, I immediately had a vague recollection of something I had seen the last time I worked my way through Leibniz’s work on the origins of evil and the vindication of God against the common complaint that it is all his fault. And sure enough, it did not take long for me to find, in an online version of that text, the following reflection, third in an itemized list of examples of cases in which human beings have been known to punish animals, which would seem to present at least a small philosophical problem to the extent that punishment generally presupposes some sort of moral agency, which animals have generally, and prejudicially, been supposed to lack. Leibniz writes:
Thirdly, one would also impose capital punishment on beasts (where it is no longer a matter of correcting the beast that one punishes), if that punishment were able to serve as an example, or to stir some terror in the others, so that they might cease to do harm. Rorarius, in his book on reason in beasts, says that they crucified lions in Africa, in order to keep the other lions away from the cities and oft-visited places… And [this] procedure would still be well-founded, if it worked.
Leibniz is referring to Quod animalia bruta ratione utantur melius homine [That Animals Make Better Use of Reason than Men], the remarkable work of the sixteenth-century Italian philosopher and papal nuncio, Girolamo Rorario. Leibniz likely read the summary of it in the French deist philosopher Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire critique et philosophique of 1697. Beyond this, I was initially unable to say where exactly the classical origin of this curious story lay, and being in Tunisia with several other things to do each day, rather than renewing my subscription to the Loeb Classical Library Online and researching the matter further I decided instead to ask my students whether they might know.
Here as often I have to suppress a number of delightful and significant stories I could tell about this bunch — I always err on the side of caution when it comes to confidentiality. What I can at least say is that the students told me they did not know the Flaubert text, and that in general, in contemporary Tunisia, Carthaginian antiquity is mostly and regrettably neglected in the official curricula. They were however happy to learn of these echoes, however trivial, though I think they were much more happy at the loose comparison I made early in the course, which then grew tighter as we advanced, between Leibniz and the fourteenth-century Tunisian polymath, Ibn Khaldun (to the extent that we can speak of a “Tunisian” identity in the 1300s; if we were speaking French it would be more correct to call him tunisois, referring to the city, than tunisien).
I decided to bring my copy of Flaubert’s Salammbô to class, in order to read the relevant passage side by side with the passage from the Theodicy, as I have done for you here. But I was somewhat uncomfortable doing this, as the editors at Gallimard, in far-away Paris, had made the inadvisable choice of adorning the cover of the novel with an image of Henri-Adrien Tanoux’s 1919 painting, Femme d’Orient, which effectively takes Flaubert’s already over-the-top exoticism about this part of the world to new extremes, as if in pictorial demonstration of a well-known argument from Edward Saïd.
I pondered various unsatisfying solutions, including giving up any mention of Flaubert at all and just getting down to dull Leibnizian business (being part of the obligatory prépa for the agrég can make even the most lively thinker dull). But then I remembered I had a sticker, still unstuck and folded into my wallet, dating from our stay in Athens the month before. And so I pulled it out and stuck it right over that woman’s breasts. I outright censored, that is, Tanoux’s Orientalist phantasm.
Lexikopoleio is a bookstore in the Athens micro-neighborhood of Vatrachonisi, or “Frog Island”, so called because it was built up, if I understood the seller’s story correctly, on unusually swampy land of the sort that tadpoles and what comes from them are known to love. The Modern Greek word for “frog” was one I already knew both from the French batraciens, a somewhat outdated term for amphibians, as well as from Βάτραχοι, the Aristophanes play, which features an instance of onomatopoeic croaking (Βρεκεκεκὲξ κοὰξ κοάξ) of just the sort Leibniz will one day propose as the origin of all language.
It’s a suggestive sticker, I mean, and as far as censorship goes things could have been worse. Still, I felt bad. I knew I wouldn’t have taken this measure if it were a French classroom. As for the United States I have no idea what the norms are anymore (though I’m going have to learn fast, about which more soon).
At Frog Island I bought a used copy of Henry James’s The Bostonians, which lampoons that city’s upper-class progressives and second-generation Transcendentalists — whom Edgar Allen Poe had called the “Frogpondians”, suggesting a curious affinity between Boston and Athens.
The novel provides a good argument for never wading into the US culture wars: they have been stuck in exactly the same spot since at least 1886. Its plot unfolds around the beautiful young Verena Tarrant, whose parents have launched her onto the speaking circuit as a gifted orator in defense of the feminist cause. It is not that the elder Tarrants are themselves feminists; they are just looking for the most surefire entrée into higher society. Her father had been a mesmeric healer, and early in Verena’s career the family act began by his laying hands upon her, which induced a sort of hypnosis in which the girl was better able to traduce her arguments in favour of the cause of women.
A patrician by the name of Olive Chancellor, understood by James and all but the most clueless of readers to be a lesbian, attends one of Verena’s performances, falls in love, and immediately pays off the Tarrants in exchange for bringing Verena into her home in an arrangement that was already known at the time as a “Boston marriage”. But Olive had also made the mistake of bringing along her distant cousin from Mississippi, the smooth lawyer Basil Ransom, who cares not at all for the feminist cause, finds it ridiculous, but also falls in love with Verena. From the moment they laid eyes on her, Olive and Basil were both infatuated with the same girl, and the rest of the story tells of the gripping battle between cousins over their shared love object. As to the substantive issues in play, James takes the only position worthy of a novelist: chivalry, feminism, the hot new ticket on the speaking circuit, are all just so much human comedy, and the players in this comedy are to be lightly mocked, but also loved. They are human and this is the best they can do.
If we were to use Cormac McCarthy’s classificatory scheme, we could say that Salammbô is about “life and death”, while The Bostonians is about “manners”. McCarthy likes the first kind of fiction, while I like both, in part because I think the second kind is always only ever the first kind in disguise. James’s novel features at least one memorable death scene, that of old Mrs. Birdseye (a key link, incidentally, between the history of US progressivism and the earlier history of missionary evangelizing — an elderly abolitionist who brought Bibles to slaves in the pre-war South would end up a maven of secular New England feminism during Reconstruction). But even without this death, it is difficult to see how James’s novel, or any novel at all, could fail at least to be about life, and so also, at least implicitly, about death, since the whole trick of a life is to live it well in a limited time, while the whole comedy of life is sustained by the fact that people almost always have such a foggy and misguided idea as to how to go about this.
In the souk the perfume merchants and rug vendors are shouting false compliments (“On dirait Alain Delon! Non, Brad Pitt!”) and promises of special deals at me. N’importe quoi, I declare as I go. They have no idea how wrong this tree is they’re barking up; I don’t even see their wares, let alone think about buying them. If you want to sell me something it pretty much has to have a price tag already stamped on it.
A cluster of cats, the city’s true djinns, has formed around a pile of fish scraps someone has thrown to them. Some of the cats look healthy; others have sharp ribs jutting up beneath their taut skin, signaling that all this eating will have been in vain as they’ll never be able to keep any of it down. One of the skinny ones steps back, and sneezes, and a brief cloud of atomized spray appears before its nose. One of the particles is larger than the others, a proper wad of something, and it falls to the ground while the fine mist surrounding it disappears upward. Was that about life and death? I wonder when this microevent has passed. Are the fates of the animals, in general, about anything at all? Or do they only start to have meaning when they point to something else?
It seems to me now that it is the suggestion of such pointing, not for humans but for other lions, that makes the case of the Carthaginian crucifixions so compelling. Surely the greatest pseudoprofundity in the history of philosophy is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s dorky claim that “if a lion could speak, we would not understand him”. This seems to miss, among other things, the far more intriguing possibility that the lion is speaking, and not only do we not know what he is saying, but we are not even in a position, in our closed linguistic reality, to recognize what he is saying as speech. But then here comes classical tradition —Polybius? Livy? Cicero?—, filtered down through modern philosophy and into modern literature, positing the lion as a competent cognizer of the most powerful transmitter of semiotic force ever conceived —the Cross—, with all the terror it entails for our earthly lives, and perhaps all the hope it symbolizes for a future life too. Did anyone ever suggest that a felid is capable of comprehending that dimension of crucifixion as well? The lion, for his part, is not saying, or at least does not appear to be.
It is futile to seek to extricate yourself from any hospitality a Tunisian wishes to extend to you. To do so will only prolong the ceremony. Even if you go for the nuclear option, giving a flat “no” and walking away in the other direction, you still cannot be certain that you will be free. And if you are free you are still not really free, because you will end up feeling like such an ungrateful, uncommunal, Western jerk, when you catch a glimpse of the perplexed and disappointed face of your would-be new friend retreating behind you, that you will surely feel it would have been better to humor him in whatever exchange of chronophagous generosities he had proposed to you.
I recognize that I am a certifiable jerk, and an idiot in the original sense of the term: I want to go about my own business, complete my tasks, achieve my goals, without getting mixed up, as I go along, in the lives of others (let alone their deaths). It is therefore bracing, and necessary, for me to spend time in parts of the world where this WEIRD-ass approach to life simply cannot be maintained, and I am forced to “go with the flow”, to “follow the day wherever it takes me”, even when it takes me right into other people’s lives.
After all, times are changing, and in the West and the East alike it’s no longer proper to be a maximizer of individual rational self-interest. Indeed, in the very Westernmost reaches of the West, out in Silicon Valley, there is a peculiar new ethos emerging in which the best way to consolidate your social standing is in fact to pursue the reverse strategy, to do everything you can to establish yourself in the world as an “altruist”.
Witness, for example, the “effective altruist” movement, which seeks to revive something of the logic of the potlatch economy, in which one’s social standing is measured not by how much one has, but by how much one gives away. The billionaire philanthropists who have joined the new potlatch typically try to time their giveaways to match their own expected life-spans, on the reasoning that it’s no use being rich when you’re dead, and so they may as well do what it takes to help ensure their posthumous reputations for magnanimity.
It has seemed to me recently that these men are not going far enough, for there is no more use in having a good reputation, when you’re dead, than there is in being rich. Your earthly reputation will not matter to you in the slightest, and with that in mind it has struck me that conscious reputational self-destruction perhaps ought to be pursued, alongside charitable giving, as a preparation for death, as acknowledgment of one’s mortality, and as a clearing of the way towards one’s ultimate disappearance. If you have offspring, then just as you might wish to deny them the lassitude and inactivity that typically set in wherever a trust-fund is set up, so too might you wish to deprive them of the incorporeal hereditaments by which they might ride in the wake of your reputation without ever having done anything to earn it. If you have no offspring, then the appropriateness of such divestiture prior to death can only be all the more evident.
Of course, if we were ever to implement a new cultural norm such as this, soon enough it would start functioning in a way exactly opposite to its stated rationale. Imagine some prominent old silverback, at the top of his field, who wishes to begin shedding his earthly reputation, and to this end develops a new habit of regularly saying impolitic and “inappropriate” things. If he has come early to this trend, he will probably succeed in his goal: his associates will notice the change, and will do what they can to squeeze him out at the earliest possible occasion, and subsequently to bury the memory of him. Mission accomplished!
But consider his imitators a few years down the road, once reputation-destruction has transformed from a marginal interest of a small number of eccentrics, into a shared social value. Now, when the strange e-mails start to arrive from retirement-age colleagues, the incoherent tirades and off-color jokes, the out-of-place personal comments and the animalistic grunts and obscenities muttered during meetings, instead of being sidelined, the would-be self-destroyer is declared graceful in his selfless plunge into reputational oblivion, a master of the art, worthy of some kind of medal. Soon enough a system of recompenses is set up to honor the greatest of the reputation-kamikazes.
After a time, younger people without much reputation accrued will be encouraged to “start thinking about your reputational future”, by which it is meant that they must start “storing away” instances of scandalous and transgressive behavior, to be kept secret for now, so as to be strategically revealed years later when the stakes are high. A sixty-year-old with a stellar reputation might one-up his coevals, who are just now beginning their belated attempts at undermining their standing, humming “Yakety Sax” during seminars, announcing incongruously in hiring-committee meetings that they, say, love Snickers bars, or hate orange juice, by leaking evidence that thirty years prior he had committed a heinous violent crime. He is sent away to prison, and the institution that formerly employed him awards him, in absentia, first prize in that year’s competition for the greatest display of reputational self-destruction among its employees. The prize is eventually renamed in his honor. A statue is erected of him in front of his former place of employment. New recruits begin devising ever more ingenious ways of moving up through the ranks — committing mass murder in secret while still young, conducting a stellar and faultless career, then hitting “send” on a key bit of evidence, and watching it all come down.
This new spirit generalizes into other domains of social life. The rich initiated the trend by making it desirable to seek to have less of whatever it is one has more of, and before long those who were rich in reputation followed them, only to be followed in turn by those who are rich in talent. Authors began self-consciously to cultivate a “hack” style for their late-career work, painters were now careful to time their own degeneration from ingenious mastery of expressive technique into crude, hasty, and childish fauvism. (No one bothered to extend the new fashion to the shedding of youthful good looks, since that happens universally and as a matter of course.) Soon enough, while regular working people just kept going about their jobs and their lives, the elite institutions had been completely overrun by grossly immoral, criminal, vicious, and physically repulsive people, producing woefully terrible work, all perpetually coming up with new ways to honor their own awfulness and lack of achievement.
I have sometimes felt over the past few years, for reasons that remain mostly opaque to me, that I have undertaken something like the course of reputational self-destruction I have just imagined. And if the ethos I have described seems to me not all that far-fetched, this is not just because human culture is infinitely flexible, as indeed it is, but also because I have the distinct sense that my efforts at ruining my own reputation are not working. Say whatever, Smith, do whatever — you’re an open book, a known commodity at a prix fixe, and from here on out nothing is ever going to change. Even your name predestines you to endure as a pure generic, in a sort of perpetual lieutenancy, as a placeholder of a particular rank. Try to break out of it and we’ll give you a medal.
In the hotel in Tunis I have a dream. As I wake up, I see the words “The Transmutean Hypotheses” before my eyes. That doesn’t mean anything, I tell myself, as I set about my waking life. Later that day we drive to a Berber village on top of a steep and rocky mountain. It’s frigid up there. Around the mountain, beneath the village’s walls, there are men bellowing grunts while hiding themselves in the bushes. A wild boar has been spotted in the vicinity, likely the same one that has raided the village in the past, stealing food and threatening children. The men intend to chase it out and to shoot it, and then to sell its meat to some nearby hôtelier for a great sum of money. The teenaged boy who explains all this to us has a huge smile, and a t-shirt that reads in a sort of English: “Runging with No Chill”. To runge might be to flush a wild boar out of the bushes; it might be simply to go about one’s business on an ordinary January day in one’s native village, except that this is something that the teenager seemed to be doing with considerable chill. No, to runge doesn’t mean anything either. At least not yet.
Back in Tunis, I Google the phrase: “Runging with no chill”. It turns up no hits. As a rule of thumb, I have found that the only fragments of language that turn up no hits in Google are the ones that come to us in dreams. In dreams or on t-shirts throughout the developing world, I shall have to add, where lines of broken English swirl in a vortex of cheap commodities, over-produced and cast off — signifying nothing, until some weary traveller, who even at home has been having trouble staying grounded in reality, comes along and attempts to scry something from it.
Down to business
I am, as I’ve hinted, heading back to my own native land for the next months. This brings with it a complicated cluster of emotions. I have long said that what I would really like is a life in which I get to enjoy European social democracy plus Diet Dr. Pepper and adequate air-conditioning. Is that really too much to ask? There are numerous small things that constitute my deepest identity, emerging from my first appearance in the world as a veritable embodiment of the Turner thesis — a child, that is, for better or worse, of the American frontier, so unlike all the long-settled and well-defined res publicae, most little more than glorified city-states, of the old continent. So I continue to commute across the Atlantic, never quite certain which side suits me better, always a bit longitudinally out of whack.
During the months of this American stay, I am going to move mostly but not entirely into paid-subscriber-only mode, and free subscribers will not be getting many missives from me in the next few months. This is not a ploy to convince you to upgrade and to milk even more money out of this engine than I already have. As long-time readers will know, I did indeed start this ‘stack primarily in view of its lucrative potential. I was hard up at the time, and needed to do something about it. I’ve failed at many things in life, but I am proud to say that this was a rare case of successful bootstrapping. Largely thanks to Substack, to the exposure it gave my writing and the other opportunities this exposure opened up, we are in fact doing quite well now. (To be clear, I do still appreciate the financial dimensions of this Substack operation, and am deeply grateful to all my paid subscribers, who are, after all, paying for some sort of legitimate service.)
The reasons I am shifting to paid-subscriber mode, for now, have to do, first, with my desire to advance in a few long-term writing projects, which it is difficult to do when Substack is absorbing so much of my free time and creative energies. I will probably be sharing, here, for subscribers, fragments of some of this forthcoming work (not least the promised “translation” of the Voynich Manuscript), which I hope will be a reason to stick around during this relative lull.
Second, the shift has to do with a concern to reduce somewhat the volume of my public voice in order to focus on my primary métier. For the past years I’ve had the luxury of working at a day-job in one linguistic reality, while pursuing my public writing in another. Cela me convenait parfaitement, si je peux dire la vérité. Or, dans les mois qui viennent ces deux solitudes se combineront en une seule. Il se peut que je sois juste un petit peu parano, mais pendant cette période je me dis qu’il serait prudent de ma part d’apprendre à pratiquer « l’art du silence », come l’a très bien dit Isaac Babel, ou au moins de tenir un discours « ésotérique » pour les initiés, et un autre, « éxotérique », pour les autres. C’était exactement ça que j’avais l’intention de faire au tout début de mon aventure substackienne, mais chaque fois que j’étais sur le point de cliquer « Publish for Subscribers Only », je pensais à tous ces aimables lecteurs potentiels qui seraient du même coup privés de l’exquis plaisir de lire mes mots, et je décidais au lieu de ça de cliquer « Publish for Everyone ».
I don’t know why I’m writing in French. (I am admittedly old-fashioned, in that I still think this is a legitimate move to make within the body of any larger text written in any European language, whereas shifting suddenly into, say, Udmurt, would not be; and I think the scene of the bal masqué where Thomas Mann operates the same shift over several pages of Der Zauberberg is one of the most sublime moments in the history of literature.) Maybe I’m feeling a bit ambivalent, as I sit here in the United lounge at Charles de Gaulle waiting for my flight to Newark (or “New York (Newark)” as they call it here), surrounded already by some rather dowdy, but very happy, concitoyens and concitoyennes of mine who seem to have just had quite a satisfying vacation, as we hear over the loudspeaker that strangely stressed airport language: “We are currently preboarding active military personnel” (surely they can’t mean just any military personnel? What would happen if, say, some commandante from Western Sahara, with epaulettes and fat moustache, were to take them up on the offer?)
But to get to the point, I am shifting to paid-subscribers-only mode only in order to add an extra layer of protection to what I write — for the next few months, anyone reading me will probably be doing so not because they happen to land on my writing, but because they have a prior and at least somewhat serious commitment to reading me. I still recognize that not everyone is in a position to become a paid subscriber, and it is not at all my intention to exclude anyone who can’t pay. Therefore, if you are one of these people, kindly send me a message letting me know you would like to keep reading, and I promise I will give you a gift subscription. Please be patient if I do not do so right away — I’ve got a great deal of correspondence to handle right now.
Les cornes d’Ammon
Flaubert absconded to Tunis to avoid the worst of the controversy Madame Bovary had triggered, but it is Salammbô that is by far the more obscene of the two novels. The sex is discrete, and the violence is what we would describe today as “cartoonish”, but what makes this work such a masterpiece of inappropriateness is the utter, unflinching delight the author takes in excess of all sorts — the excess of cruelty and riches on the part of his characters, and the excess of language that he himself puts on display. A Carthaginian general who orders up a dainty supper of “roasted phœnicopter tongues” after casually decapitating three prisoners is surely an obscenity to rival James Joyce’s “grey sunken cunt of the world”, even if no one could have thought beforehand to put any of the individual words involved on any index. You may learn from Salammbô several techniques for goading reluctant elephants into battle, of shields made from hippopotamus leather covered in spikes, of the crucifixion of lions; des escarboucles formées par l’urine des lynx, des glossopètres tombés de la lune, des tyanos, des diamants, des sandastrum, des béryls… des opales de la Bactriane qui empêchent les avortements, et des cornes d’Ammon que l’on place sous les lits afin d’avoir des songes.”
An honest living
Here is what it was like to be a writer for the vastly greater part of the millennia-long history of human literacy.
In Ethiopia, sometime in the seventeenth century, a man who had hidden in a cave for two years, avoiding religious persecution by the emperor, makes his way out in the world again after that emperor falls, and looks for a way to make a living:
Once I went in the land of Emfraz to a rich man by the name of Habtu, and I passed a day with him. On the second day I asked him for a pen and a tablet, in order to send a letter to my relations in Aksum. Then this man asked me: ‘Are you literate?’ And I answered: ‘Yes, I am literate.’ He said to me: ‘Stay with me for some days and write out the psalter of David for me. I will give you a reward.’ And I said: ‘Yes,’ and in my heart I gave thanks to God, who had shown me the way to feed myself from the fruit of my labors.
After some months spent fulfilling his scribal duties, the man returns to Habtu with another request:
[T]here was a slave girl by the name of Hirut, not beautiful, but skillful in work, clever, and patient. And I said to Lord Habtu: ‘Give me that girl, so that she may be my wife.’ Lord Habtu replied: ‘Good, from here she will not be my slave, but yours.’ And I said: ‘Not my slave, but my wife; for a husband and wife are equal in marriage, and we should not call them lord and slave, for they are one flesh and one life.’ Lord Habtu said to me: ‘You are a holy man, do as you wish.’ And we called over that girl, and I said to her: ‘Do you want to be my wife?’ And she answered: ‘As it pleases my lord.’ And Lord Habtu said to her: ‘I want it.’ Then she said to me: ‘Good, and where would I find for myself someone better than you?’
A skill first honed in copying out the psalms, writing was then turned to the expression of clear and direct statements of fact. If you were fortunate this could be enough to get you a sponsor, a wife, eventually some oxen.
This work could be dangerous, if, say, the emperor turned against you; but it was honest. At some point, though, a few of the scribes turned away from their true purpose, and began writing words derived not from scripture, and not from everyday affairs, tracking the exchange of bulls or barley, but rather from dreams. Writing itself became a sort of Horn of Ammon, placed beneath the bed both to stimulate and to collect, condensed into words, the obscene and excessive visions that come to us unbidden in the night.
Unlike Ulysses, Joyce’s follow-up, 1939’s Finnegans Wake, passed mostly unnoticed across the radars of the censors. As its author explained, the novel had been the night-time answer, the nocturne or indeed the songe, to the boldly diurnal events of the first novel. For the most part the censors only know how to watch for the clear and distinct images that come to us in the light of day.
I wrote a long essay-review of David Graeber’s exciting, and regrettably posthumous, book, Pirate Enlightenment, or, The Real Libertalia, for The New Statesman. The illustration of Graeber on a beach with a chest full of booty makes me smile every time I look at it.
I’ve taken a hiatus from podcasting, but you can still go back and listen to the rather large archive of “What Is X?” episodes at The Point Magazine.
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Ils y coururent. C’était un lion, attaché à une croix par les quatre membres comme un criminel. Son mufle énorme lui retombait sur la poitrine, et ses deux pattes antérieures, disparaissant à demi sous l’abondance de sa crinière, étaient largement écartées commes les deux ailes d’un oiseau. Ses côtes, une à une, saillissaient sous sa peau tendue ; ses jambes de derrière, clouées l’une contre l’autre, remontaient un peu ; et du sang noir, coulant parmi ses poils, avait amassé des stalactites au bas de sa queue qui pendait toute droite le long de la croix. Les soldats se divertirent autour ; ils l’appelaient consul et citoyen de Rome et lui jetèrent des cailloux dans les yeux, pour faire envoler les moucherons.
Cent pas plus loin ils en virent deux autres, puis tout à coup parut une longue file de croix supportant des lions. Les uns étaient morts depuis si longtemps qu’il ne restait plus contre le bois que les débris de leurs squelettes ; d’autres à moitié rongés tordaient la gueule en faisant une horrible grimace ; il y en avait d’énormes, l’arbre de la croix pliait sous eux et ils se balançaient au vent, tandis que sur leur tête des bandes de corbeaux tournoyaient dans l’air, sans jamais s’arrêter. Ainsi se vengeaient les paysans carthaginois quand ils avaient pris quelque bête féroce ; ils espéraient par cet exemple terrifier les autres. Les Barbares, cessant de rire, tombèrent dans un long étonnement. « Quel est ce peuple, pensaient-ils, qui s’amuse à crucifier les lions ! »
Troisièmement, on infligerait encore aux bètes des peines capitales (où il ne s’agit plus de la correction de la bête qu’on punit), si cette peine pouvait servir d’exemple, ou donner de la terreur aux autres, pour les faire cesser de mal faire. Rorarius dans son livre de la raison des Bêtes, dit qu’on crucifiait les lions en Afrique, pour éloigner les autres lions des villes et des lieux fréquentés ; et qu’il avait remarqué en passant par le pays de Juliers, qu’on y pendait les loups, pour mieux assurer les bergeries. Il y a des gens dans les villages qui clouent des oiseaux de proie aux portes des maisons, dans l’opinion que d’autres oiseaux semblables n’y viendront pas si facilement. Et ces procédures seraient toujours bien fondées, si elles servaient.
Thanks be to God, but your essays are like fine wine, something sublime in all this mess and misery!
I am thrilled to hear that your substack is some kind of financial success. Happy for you because you so throughly deserve it, and also heartened that this kind of very high quality, um, I guess ‘narrowcasting’, can work financially. Cheers