The Books of My Numberless Dreams

London Review of Books, Vol. 29, No. 4

Posted on: March 29, 2007

We roll back for the LRB February 22nd issue. The political pieces made the deepest impressions but there was a dash of the literary, historical and even the mathematical.

Fittingly enough the cover of this editions is given entirely to Other lives, M.F. Burnyeat’s review of two books on Pythagoras: Pythagoras: His Life, Teaching and Influence by Christoph Riedweg (translated by Steven Rendall) and Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans: A Brief History by Charles Kahn. Pythagoras is a figure smothered in erroneous myths so Burnyeat deflates them methodically and then judges the latest books primarily on how well the authors have managed to accept the revisions.

Walter Burkert was the historian who combed through numerous obscure ancient sources, many of which were unfamiliar even to experts, to produce Weisheit und Wissenschaft: Studien zu Pythagoras, Philolaus und Platon or Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism, the revised English version published in 1972. Did he discover the Pythagoras theorem? Nope. What about pondering the “harmony of the spheres”? Nope. What about “his most famous accomplishment, analysing the mathematical ratios that structure musical concordances”? Eh, if you want to stretch it. According to Burnyeat very little supports the claim that he first discovered it and even less to swallow the idea that what led him to the discovery was the sound of blacksmiths hammering.

So what is left for historians on Pythagoras to write about? Most of Burnyeat’s approval lay on Kahn’s text as he showed a “cool” acceptance of Burkert’s colossal text, shifted his attention to the late fourth century as the period to learn of Pythagoras’ true life and accomplishments. Riedweg’s, in comparison, exhibited his confusion on what parts of the myth to reject and what to retain, never buying into the fabulous tales of the man predicting earthquakes, but encouraging readers to marvel, which seemed to have encouraged him to accept “indefensible” versions of Pythagoras’ accomplishments, asserting that he created the word ‘philosophy’ and started the ‘world-order’ definition of ‘cosmos’.

But Burnyeat finds one or two things wrong with Kahn’s interpretation of historical sources as well, and he expounds upon that and Greeks who actually made significant mathematical achievements, including Thales of Miletus, Hippocrates of Chios and Pythagoreans like Hippasus of Metapontum. It was a great read, even if you don’t know or care a fig about Math.

Peter Hallward interviewed former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who is still in South African, living in exile. Hallward enquires about Aristide’s rise to power, controversial decisions he made while in power, alleged alliances he had with criminal elements and what really went on Feb. 28, 2004 when he was finally thrown over in a second coup. Aristide is careful to couch many of the actions he made while in power as ones that came about as “group” decisions, but he does freely admit to having had to make compromises, and points to the growing body of evidence that the picture of Haiti and him publicised and the reality were often dissonant.

The other major political article was R.W. Johnson’s report on the dire political and social situation in Zimbabwe. I can’t say that I appreciated the unqualified “thanks” he gave for the “colonial law, order and medicine” brought to the country–especially after a casual “well yes white’s stole land from the blacks but they only took one third!” (paraphrase)–but there is no doubt that Mugabe is an absolute disaster and needs to be seriously dealt with. The widespread violent intimidation, the incredibly high estimated death toll from famine and disease–anywhere from two million to six million, revealing how uncertain and fragile things are–, the critical deterioration of the social structure paints a picture of abject misery. It is the African countries who have any real influence, but the criminally stubborn Mbeki stands by him, working his “quiet diplomacy” (whatever the fuck that is) while Mugabe apes Mengistu Haile-Mariam “forced removals”, which the former Ethiopian dictator did during the Red Terror (1977-78), successfully killing more of his citizens. (Haili-Mariam is currently living exile in Zimbabwe and Mugabe refuses to give him up to face charges.)

Things have changed, perhaps drastically since this report with Mugabe’s loyalists turning against him, and the opposition getting bolder. Somehow Mugabe will spin this as the “white man’s” conspiracy.

Shifting to education of the medieval variety, in “I lerne song” Tom Shippey reviews Medieval Schools: From Roman Britain to Renaissance England by Nicholas Orme. Shippey is sceptical of Orme’s claim that ‘medieval education was not a precursor of modern education, but the same thing in different circumstances’ but ultimately finds the book another excellent and accessible “capstone” to Orme’s long, and exemplary study “devoted to the history of education”. He chartered the post-Roman form of education which was closely linked to monastic, in which all education was centred around church traditions: children had to sing responses in church, learn to read so they could understand the liturgy, and learn Latin, “the language of the Church” and the Bible.

One learns not only of the difficulty of Latin, but the way the medieval curriculum appeared to make it even more difficult. A theme Shippey detects in Orme’s work is, oddly enough, how the rod was an enduring staple in the Latin classroom.

In Aelfric Bata’s Colloquy 28 the wretched child being thrashed cries out that he’s dying, only to be told grimly by the thrasher: ‘Non es mortuus aduc’ (‘You’re not dead yet’). Four hundred years later the bishop of Norwich forbade classes to be held in churches, because the screams of the children interrupted services. When Cambridge appointed a master of ‘glom-eryre’, or grammar, he had to demonstrate his fitness for the post by birching a boy in public, though we are told it was a selected ‘shrewed’, or naughty boy, and he was paid fourpence for his ‘labour’.

Eeeeeeee.

The major question Orme wrestled with is at what point did the present manifestation of primary and secondary school (in the UK) develop from the “ecclesiastical-vocational purpose” to the educational? One possible answer may be found in the churches themselves: the secular ones like Salisbury who ran different schools for choristers and the general public compared to the monastic ones like Canterbury whose schools were run by headed by persons who were not and could never be monks, a situation in which the school’s focus “drifted towards becoming schools for the city rather than the cathedral.” The effects of this could be detected from around the 14th century.

Shippey mentions the upsets in the monastic orders as friars challenged the Benedictine’s prominent position, as well as how schools and teachers were financially supported. There is also a bit the Reformation’s effect on education, and how “professional” teachers actually were considered in light of the fact that children as a group are currently enjoying a period of high societal regard.

Last, but not last, for me was “In Bloody Orkney” Robert Crawford’s review of Maggie Fergusson’s biography, George Mackay Brown: The Life and The Collected Poems of George MacKay Brown, edited by Archie Bevan and Brian Murray. It’s a good mix of close reading of Brown’s poetry and a very positive critique of Fergusson’s writing on Brown’s life. She was careful not to be judgemental and gave significant attention to Stella Cartwright, once Brown’s fiance and “a sacrifice to the culture of male-bonding, heavy drinking and poebiz showing off which constituted the Rose street milieu of 1950’s Edinburgh.” Brown certainly comes off as classic Freudian figure, so enamoured and dependent on his mother that he was unable to form any healthy relationships with other women. Whatever his personal problems, some of the poetry is out-of-control excellent. Some of that excellence I’d show you write now if wordpress allowed me to format poems the way they should be, with all the requisite spaces, but it doesn’t. So you’ll have to take my word for it. :p

Oh poop, I forgot to mention Michael Wood’s nifty little review of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, my favourite! Mifune is a god.

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4 Responses to "London Review of Books, Vol. 29, No. 4"

You’re so thorough! And now I’m going to have to go and read that article on Aristide – Haitian history and politics are an absolute passion of mine.

I always worry if I’m too thorough…and I only mention the articles I read too. Glad I could bring some Haitian stuff to your attention–it’s one of the reasons I like LRB, they look beyond Europe & the US on a regular basis. I do wish they’d do the same gender-wise (I’m lucky if two women are listed as contributors.)

I enjoyed reading this post. Somehow, with Mugabi, it reminded me of something I read by V.S. Naipaul about Mobutu’s Zaire. Cheers!

Thanks. 🙂 You know Naipaul is one of those authors that everyone recommends but whose books I’m sure I may never read.

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