Carthage’s urns of little bones

When future archeologists, two millennia hence, dig out our civilization — our bombing ranges or nuclear sites, for example — what will they infer about us? Inevitably, their values will be so different from ours that we will seem alien to them. So they will try to refrain from judgment and focus merely on understanding.

We’re in the same situation when we dig out the past. When we dug out Carthage, for example.

We know that the Carthaginians, like their Phoenician ancestors and apparently all Canaanites, sacrificed their first-born sons at times of crisis, apparently to appease gods like Baal and Tanit (roughly Zeus and Juno), Melqart, Astarte, et cetera.

We countenance the story of Abraham and Isaac (Sarah’s first-born though not Abraham’s) in the Bible, allegedly “our” book, largely because Yahweh withdrew his request to sacrifice Isaac at the last moment. But we might just as well contemplate how 1) Abraham had not, up to that point, considered the demand all that  unusual, and 2) how most other situations at the time would indeed have ended with the sacrifice.

We know that the sacrifices were common in Carthage, too, because we found the “tophets”, or furnaces, where the infants were killed. They contain charred, calcified bones of both animals and human children. For a while, we comforted ourselves with theories that they might have burnt stillborn or dead infants, that these were really burial grounds disguised as human-sacrifice altars. But most scholars now believe that they really did, on occasion, kill their own sons, right up to the time of Hannibal.

I just finished Richard Miles’ “Carthage Must Be Destroyed,” a new history of Carthage and a last-minute addition to my bibliography (almost certainly the last, because I’m essentially done).

Admittedly, those of you just getting into ancient history (perhaps through The Hannibal Blog?) might prefer to start with Rome or Greece, but if you’re interested in Carthage, this is as good a history as any. Well-written, not pompous, aimed at normal readers not fellow academics.

Miles deals elegantly with issues like the child sacrifice. He also unifies the entire history of Carthage — from its Phoenician (Tyrian) beginnings to its end in the Roman genocide.

It’s a good book.

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Why I chose to write the book I’m writing

Here is David McCullough, author of fantastic biographies and histories including Truman, which is in my bibliography, speaking words that might have come out of my own mouth verbatim.

So, when somebody asks why I chose Hannibal, Fabius, Scipio (and Cleopatra, Ludwig Erhard, Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Carl Jung and the rest of them)–as the characters for a book about success and failure today, I could just play this clip:

Tennessee Williams’ “catastrophe of success”

Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams

In 1944, at the age of thirty-three, Tennessee Williams scored a soaring triumph with his play The Glass Menagerie. And then? Catastrophe.

That’s not my word, it’s his. He even wrote an essay called “The Catastrophe of Success”, which is nowadays appended to copies of the play.

He could, of course, have used a different word for his success: Impostor. That’s what Kipling called it, and what I’m calling it (as well as disaster) in my book. Williams’ essay is, naturally, in my bibliography.

But why would Williams say that? Success, he wrote, is “a kind of death, I think, and it can come to you in a storm of royalty checks beside a kidney-shaped pool in Beverly Hills or anywhere at all that is removed from the conditions that made you an artist.”

I will add: Or the conditions that made you a warrior, such as Hannibal. Or a politician, or a businessman, or an athlete, or….

Einstein, non-conformity and creativity

Impudently yours

Impudently yours

What made Einstein so creative?

It was not his brain, which they literally embalmed after his death, says Walter Isaacson in his biography of the great man, which will be in the bibliography of my book. It was his utter disregard of authority, his refusal to conform.

What Einstein recognized in people like Galileo was “the passionate fight against any kind of dogma based on authority.” Another time, he wrote a friend  that “A foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth.”

“Long live impudence!” he liked to say, and practiced what he preached.

But he did so with a wry humility. He ignored conventional wisdom more than he rebelled against it. It bored him.

But the world astonished him as it usually astonishes only children but not adults. He himself attributed this child-like ability to be amazed to his late development. Because he learned about space and time later than other toddlers, he thought about these things more deeply.

Several things spring to mind randomly:

One is that Einstein (and Newton and Galileo …) represents the best and most complete refutation–and indeed indictment–of all rote learning, all Confucian/Asian education, and indeed much of traditional education full stop.

Another thought, more in tune with the theme of my book, is that even Einstein’s mental freshness could not last. Something happened to ensure that he would spend the first thirty years of his career as a rebel and the next thirty as a resister. “To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself,” he joked.

What was this treacherous something? It’ll be in Chapter 8 of my book.


Ernest Shackleton

Ernest Shackleton

Earlier this month, I told you how frustrating it is when, in the course of the research for my book, I follow a trail into a dead end. Back then I had been reading about Casanova until I had to admit to myself that he didn’t fit into the chapter that I was re-writing. I swallowed and moved on.

Greg Balco

Greg Balco

Well, the opposite can happen too. Almost a year ago, my friend Greg Balco (who has since proposed that I rename this blog An Inconvenient Kluth) suggested that I look into the life of Ernest Shackleton as one of my subsidiary stories. Shackleton took a ship named Endurance to explore the Antarctic, but got stuck in the ice, lost the ship and found himself and his crew, truly, facing a Disaster. What happened next was all about character!

Anyway, I read the book that Greg recommended and loved it–in part because there is a lot of Greg in it. He is a geochronologist and his idea of fun is to camp in the Antarctic ice and drill for snow, or perhaps rocks; or perhaps they just go sledding. He would know exactly what Shackleton and his men endured when they subsisted on blubber on floes of ice for a year, with no light in the winter and no darkness in the summer.

But as my own storyline was evolving Shackleton didn’t seem to fit. Now, a year later, I am reopening the middle chapters to make them perfect. Suddenly one of them has a gaping hole that cries out for a life, a character to fill it.

This is the chapter about the least known of my three main characters: Fabius, the old Roman Senator who fought Hannibal by not fighting him, until the young and dashing Scipio came onto the scene. That doesn’t tell you about the context of the chapter, or about the hole in it that needs filling. Suffice it to say that Shackleton, suddenly, seems to be a perfect fit. Endurance hereby re-enters my bibliography.

The Parthian Shot

Parting Parthian

Parting Parthian

You’ve heard people talk about a “parting shot”, when, for example, somebody makes a miffed exit and on the way out emits a toxic word or two. Well, that’s wrong. It’s not a “parting” shot. It’s a Parthian shot. Who were the Parthians that we name a shot after them?

I bring this up because I’m still reading about Cleopatra as research for my book. And I’m now approaching the bit where Mark Antony, her second lover (after Julius Caesar, the first), is preparing to head east to conquer those Parthians, even as Cleopatra was four or five months pregnant with their third child.

Those are the same Parthians that had succeeded the mighty Persian empire, and who had only a generation before slaughtered an entire Roman army under Crassus, after presenting him his son’s head on a stake. They were utterly not to be messed with. Indeed, Mark Antony, too, would turn back in disaster, with two-fifths of his army killed. The Parthians would remain invincible for another century and a half.

Now to the point: Their most insidious and effective tactic was the retreat, real or feigned. The mounted Parthian archers would suddenly gallop away, drawing the enemy army after them in hot pursuit. But the archers, in full gallop (no reins or stirrups needed), would turn and shoot back, arrow after arrow.

In short, a great party trick, to this day.

From Casanova to Cleo

Well, this is frustrating, but it does happen when you write a book. Sometimes you go down one path in your research before discovering that it’s a dead end.

Then you have a choice: You can somehow finagle it into your book and hope that it works. Journalists do that a lot, because they don’t like admitting (to themselves) that they wasted time searching in the wrong place.

Or you cut your losses, say ‘Oh well’, and keep searching for the perfect and sublime.

That’s what I just decided to do, after much agonizing. As you know from several previous posts, I was reading into the life of Casanova as one of my characters for a particular chapter. He led a fascinating life, but it just doesn’t work in my specific context, at least not perfectly.

I considered replacing him with Mata Hari. (In general, I want more female lives in the book.) Also not a perfect fit.

Now I’m onto Cleopatra.

Con: She’s an “ancient”, as are the protagonists in the book (Hannibal, Fabius and Scipio). So there may be too much of that.

Pro: People love her, she’s fascinating, she’s female, and…. she fits!!!

If you’re trying to figure out what these people have in common and why I need one of them in my book, I’ve dropped a veiled hint here. Feel free to guess.

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When Casanova didn’t find his writer’s voice

By coincidence, I came across a passage in Giacomo Casanova’s memoirs that seems to sum up perfectly the mystery surrounding a writer’s voice that Cheri and I talked about yesterday.

Casanova, a Venetian, was studying French and visiting a teacher three times a week for an entire year. Once, he composed some poetry and showed it to his teacher.

Teacher: Your thought is noble and very poetic; your language is flawless; your verses are good and quite correctly measured; and yet in spite of all that, your octave is bad.

Casanova: How so?

Teacher: I haven’t any idea. What’s lacking is that certain something. Imagine seeing a man whom you find handsome, well-built, pleasing, full of intelligence and wit: in a word, perfect in your severest judgment. A woman arrives, gives the man a look and after considering him well, tells you, as she leaves, that she doesn’t find him at all attractive. ‘But Madame,’ you say, ‘tell me what you don’t like about him.’ ‘I haven’t the vaguest idea,’ she says. You return to this man, look at him more carefully, and you finally realize that he’s a castrato. ‘Ah,’ you say, ‘now I see why that woman didn’t find him to her liking.’ (page 169 here)

Fortunately for Casanova, he discovered that in his primary field of endeavor in life, which was not writing, he had rather enough of that certain something.
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Peaking early or climbing slowly

Back to the bibliography for my book. Today: David Galenson, “Old Masters and Young Geniuses.”

Folks, this is an important book. Notice I did not say “riveting” or “thrilling” or “entertaining”. It’s short and academic, not for the beach. But let me say it again: It’s important.

Galenson has looked into the life cycles of creative types. And he has found something. Gaze at this table for a while and try to figure out why these artists are split into two columns:

Picasso Cézanne
Munch Pissaro
Braque Degas
Derain Kandinsky
Lichtenstein Pollock
Rauschenberg de Kooning
Warhol Rothko
Eliot Frost
Pound Lowell
Cummings Stevens
Fitzgerald Dickens
Hemingway Twain
Joyce Woolf
Melville James

On the left are what Galenson calls “conceptual” types. They are the “young geniuses”.

  • They tend to succeed early in life, in their twenties or thirties, with huge breakthroughs of the imagination.
  • They have a big idea, then execute it boldly.
  • Their youth and inexperience, rather than hurting them, helps them because they don’t let the complexity of life experience confuse them.
  • They often cannot follow up later in life with more success.

On the right are “experimental” types, the “old masters”.

  • They tend to succeed late in life and gradually build toward a legacy.
  • They don’t have one big idea, but try things out, refine their craft, work hard, learn and discover.
  • They get better with age and experience, because they incorporate the complexity of life into their art.
  • They often succeed right up to the end.

By now, you will have figured out how this plays into my book. For some of the young geniuses, early success is an impostor, as Kipling would say, while for some of the old masters, early failure is an impostor.

Which type are you?
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Ruined by success

Syd Barret

Syd Barret

Thanks to Abhishek for pointing out a life story that fits the theme of my book, which is that success and failure can be impostors, as Kipling would say. Abhishek emailed that

The other day, I downloaded a documentary on Syd Barret [the co-founder of the band Pink Floyd] from You tube. This is a classic story of Hannibal of the 1970’s. A 22 year old Barret was at his peak as the lead singer of Pink Floyd and then he lost it all to LSD. During concerts, he stood on the stage stoned and out of sorts strumming his guitar playing all the wrong notes. His colleagues would somehow cover it up, but one fine day they had to pick up their bags and leave him behind…

Now, this actually not a “story of Hannibal,” because Hannibal’s life trajectory had more twists and turns and was more perplexing. But I do have a chapter where I explore this–ie, Barret’s–sort of life trajectory, which we might call “premature success.”

Contemplating his premature success

Contemplating his success

Contemplating Barret, I think of people like Diego Maradona, who soar to fame, success or some other kind of triumph in their field, but apparently too early in life to be able to cope with it. Then they fall apart. Drugs, alcohol, or less obvious but equally insidious lapses of personal discipline. They become wrecks.

The book in my bibliography in this regard, which I recommend, is Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage : Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West.

Meriwether Lewis, you recall, is the first half of the Lewis & Clark expedition that explored the North American continent west of the Mississippi and to the Pacific after Thomas Jefferson bought those lands from Napoleon. Lewis is, in many ways, an American Hannibal: a young, dashing hero who did what many thought was impossible.

Meriwether Lewis

Meriwether Lewis

But what came next? Whereas his friend William Clark, upon their return, married and lived happily, Lewis fell apart. He couldn’t handle the fame. No luck with women. Booze, later even morphine. He did not publish his famous Journals. Jefferson made him governor of the territory he had explored, but he failed in every respect, defaulting on his debts and drinking himself into oblivion. In his mere thirties, only a few years after his breathtaking success, he killed himself in a dingy Tennessee tavern (although the event remains a bit of a mystery).

Impostor triumph indeed. To me, this sort of tale is not the end of a story but the beginning of one. What happens to these people?

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