30 January 2010
1453, 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West, Alien Covenant, Artillery, Assassin's Creed Revelations, Blue, Byzantine Empire, Constantinople, Fall of Constantinople, Greek Fire, Gun Powder, history, Janissaries, Mehmed II, millenarianism, Orban, Orban Supergun, Ottoman Empire, Overly Sarcastic Productions, Philosophy, religion, Roger Crowley, Roman Empire, Rome, Shadiversity, Stronghold Crusader
There are, really, two facts in life. The first is that one’s personal integrity should always be maintained in the face of exterior pressure and outside influences. And the second is that without a doubt the most obnoxious fighters in the Assassin’s Creed franchise are the Janissaries.
Seriously, like these guys are awful.
You’re always fighting four dudes at once, and they always manage to block your attacks and receive no damage, meanwhile while some punk dagger-guard grabs you from behind the Jannisary always takes a step back and retrieves his pistol and before you can shake them off he shoots you and you don’t just lose one health square, you lose like eight, and of course you haven’t healed because you’re lost in the heat of the moment and so you die right there and you have to start ALL the way back at the entrance of the Hagia Sophia, and it was one of those obnoxious fuck-for-fuck stalking missions and at that point you just have to rage quit and drown your sorrows in coffee and Oreos.
None of which explains why I began Roger Crowley’s book 1453: the Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West. Well, it might explain it a little.
I am a man of many moods, my emotions contain multitudes, and this, in turn, can create some lasting conflict with my day-to-day goals vs. long-term ambitions (one day I WILL control the Balkans, and on that day all of France will tremble, tremble I say). But while I make plans for bloody conquest and/or senility in a retirement home, I’ve been trying to focus more on the present and what I can make that time into. As of this writing, most of my efforts are spent cataloging books for the Library, specifically the Local History room and while I spend my days learning the difference between a publication field number and a contents field number, I’m usually plugged into history vlogs and podcasts on Youtube: specifically Overly Sarcastic Productions and Shadiversity.
I cannot begin to convey how much I adore both of these channels, and how much happiness they have brought me. Whether it’s learning about the manufacture and use of the Katana on Shadiversity or listening for the fourth time the four-part Venice series (that’s four times four, that’s like, 16 Deadpool references) this constant exposure to history has rekindled my passion for History as a subject and so I’ve turned back to several of the dusty history books on my shelves which I’ve been putting off for too long, one of which happened to be Crowley’s 1453. I picked this book up again shortly after Blue released the Ottoman Empire video.
Crowley’s 1453 covers the siege of the city of Constantinople by Mehmet II, the then emperor of the Ottoman Empire, and tries to understand how this particular battle represented not just the beginning of a new modern period, but also the death of the ancient world and one of the most decisive conflicts between the religion of Christianity and Islam. Needless to say, this book has a lot to accomplish in its mere 260 pages, and I have a lot to accomplish in trying to write a significant review of it. The first part is to clarify something so my reader has reasonable expectations going forward.
History is part of the humanities and so it’s important to note one’s biases up front so the reader can have a balanced expectation or your argument: I am an atheist, and I’m not fond of religion as an institution or as a practical working philosophy. Still, despite the fact that I don’t like religion I cannot deny that it is a fundamental part of the history of humanity and trying to ignore it influences is like trying to avoid the fact that I only thought I could dance in high school, it would just be embarrassing. The second caveat I had to provide is the fact that I am not a historian, I am a history enthusiast. I love history, I love reading history, I love listening to podcasts about history, I love talking to historians and other history enthusiasts about history, but I cannot say that I am an authority on the subject. This is important because as much as I would love to say I am an authority, making such a claim would be not only dubious, it would disrespectful to actual historians who have worked towards the degree as well as contributing substantial research to the field. Historians are amazing people who perform a vital function in our society and so it’s important to give them the respect that they’ve earned and deserve and not to take credit for their work as pass it off as your own.
All right, with this boyscout bullshit out of the way, I can continue. And before you ask, yes I was a boy scout, I made it to Tenderfoot thank you very much.
Crowley’s book tackles not just the actual siege of Constantinople, which btw is today known as Istanbul in case you didn’t know, but the larger conflict that Constantinople represented which was, largely, the clash between Islam and Christianity. Since Constantinople had been changed from its origin of Byzantium (I know the names get confusing, just listen to this song and you’ll get the whole story) the city had come to represent a bastion of Christian resolve in the face of the overwhelming political and military might of the new religion. As the Muslim empires attempted again and again to attack the city Constantinople remained seemingly impenetrable and Crowley offers a keen insight into it:
Byzantium has proved the most obdurate of enemies, and Constantinople itself remains for Muslims both a scar and a source of deep longing. Many martyrs had perished at its walls, including the Prophet’s standard-bearer Ayyub in 669. Their deaths designated the city as a holy place for Islam and imparted a messianic significance to the project for its capture. The sieges left a rich legacy of myth and folklore that was handed down the centuries. It included among the Hadith, the body of sayings attributed to Muhammad, prophecies that foretold a cycle of defeat, death, and final victory for the warriors of the faith: […]. It was to be a long-range struggle. (15).
Crowley begins 1453 by observing that, to many Muslims, Constantinople was known as the Red Apple (immediately making me wonder whether or not Wes Anderson used that for his Grand Budapest Hotel painting bit, but that’s for another essay). As the previous passage explains well the city was a seen as a kind of jewel, an opportunity to achieve greatness not only for the actual political and economic benefits the city would bring; Constantinople was a chance to prove the might of Islam. What’s fantastic about Crowley’s book is the way he uses this clash against religion to great effect.
Reading about the state of Constantinople the city was, not in ruins, but clearly, a dying institution as most of the city had never really recovered after the looting which occurred in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, and many civilians were held by deep superstitions and millenarian sentiments. Millenarian for the record is a philosophy in which the world is coming to an end. Constantine XI, the then monarch of the city, as Crowley writes him, is the last of a long line of kings who saw themselves as the actual Roman Emperors, and so the rising threat of Ottoman Expansion was not just a military threat, it was also a psychological one.
And speaking of fun psychological threats one of the most incredible passages in the book describes Orban gun. The Ottomans were impressive warriors and one of the first empires to really employ gun-powder as an effective military weapon, their cannons being the stuff of nightmares to the Europeans. When Mehmet II made to sack Constantinople, he hired the best cannon maker in the empire and Orban, to his credit and lasting legacy, did not disappoint. Crowley describes the monstrous weapon that brought even Constantinople’s walls to its knees:
They[Ottomans] fired stone balls that ranged from 200 pounds up to a colossal 1500 pounds, in the case of Orban’s monster gun. […]. Mehmet probably had about sixty-nine cannons in total, a huge artillery force by the standards of the day, that were supported at various points by other, more antique technologies for hurling stones, such as the trebuchet, a counterweighted traction catapult. The trebuchet had been enormously influential in the Muslim capture of crusader castles three hundred years earlier. Now it looks merely like a device from another age. (112).
Now the teenage boy who played Stronghold Crusader literally almost every day after high school (that is when I wasn’t watching Lord of the Rings over and over again) would love to go in depth into the fun military history that is the use of the trebuchet, but my reader is used to more personal analysis than this and besides there’s always YouTube. Crowley’s point with the cannons is to provide some explanation as to how the siege took place, but he’s also really great at showing that the use of such a colossal gun wasn’t just for military purposes, it also had a real effect upon the sieged peoples:
The psychological effects of artillery bombardment on the defenders were initially even more severe than its material consequences. The noise and vibration of the massed guns, the clouds of smoke, the shattering impact of stone on stone dismayed seasoned defenders. To the civilian population, it was a glimpse of the coming apocalypse and a retribution for sin. It sounded, according to one Ottoman chronicler, “like the awful resurrection blast.” People ran out of their houses beating their chests, crossing themselves and shouting, “Kyrie Eleison! What is going to happen now?” Women fainted in the streets. The churches were thronged with people “voicing petitions and prayers, wailing and exclaiming: ‘Lord, Lord! We moved far away from You. All that fell upon us and Your Holy City was accomplished through righteous and true judgments for our sins.” (115).
I suppose though at this point I have to address my regular contester. So what? What does this matter to me? This battle took place over 565 years ago, and the Ottoman Empire disbanded following World War I. Not only is this not relevant to me today, but it also shouldn’t be relevant to anybody period. People should be far more concerned about things like ISIS, and whether or not people use the word irregardless synonymously with regardless.
As always my contester is a buzz-kill, and only half right: people who use the word irregardless are monsters, but according to the OED, they are simply using a non-standard form of a perfectly normal word. There’s only so much you can do for people. As for the lasting relevance of 1453 as a relevant document, I’m afraid they’ve missed the point. Again, as I stated before, I simply wanted to write about this book because I am a history enthusiast and wanted to write about how great I thought the book was. But at the same time, at least in my experience, the best historians and historical writers manage to craft some sort of relevant moral or intellectual lesson through a historical narrative.
History is the study of humanity, the trends that govern human behavior in terms of politics, economics, warfare, culture, and philosophy and how they can change (or as is often the case not change) over time. Looking at 1453 what became terribly relevant to the text was how Crowley observed the battle of Constantinople was not just some random accident, there were a series of political, social, and religious events which created a slow decline of the Byzantine empire and the rise of the Ottoman empire. The fact of the matter is that civilizations change, whether it be because of technological developments, cultural ideologies, or new ideas of governmental action. The Byzantine empire attempted and failed to expand their territory, or consolidate their power in a manful way, and after the capital was sacked by Crusaders in 1204, it was impossible to come back in a significant way. Crowley tries to show his reader that the Ottoman Empire, and by extension Islam, succeeded in becoming a significant new power because they embraced new technologies and possessed a spirit to succeed that the Byzantines just couldn’t match.
And while the immediate relevance may not be terribly clear, this is a lesson that recurs throughout history. The key to success is not by hiding behind walls and past glories, it’s by pushing forward, developing new innovation, rallying people with a powerful and functional ideology, and remembering that Mehmet II was a badass, bisexual conqueror who could not be denied his glory.
And as for the city of Constantinople, it suffered unimaginable ruin. I could probably continue all day citing passage after passage of this incredible book, but that would just become pedantic and besides I have a stack of books about the Ottoman Empire I need to read and so I can always return for reference.
I suppose in the final summation I can only say that I adored Crowley’s book because every page was like listening to a dynamic and charismatic story-teller. Whether it was Constantine XI making patrols around the walls, Mehmet II literally taking apart his navy and dragging it upriver to surprise his enemy, or the endless descriptions of the people of Constantinople who saw their way of life being destroyed, I couldn’t stop reading this book. And like any great storyteller, Crowley leaves his reader with a haunting passage that I can’t help but end on:
There is one other powerful protagonist of the spring of 1453 still to be discovered within the modern city—the cannon themselves. They lie scattered across Istanbul, snoozing beside walls and in museum courtyards—primitive hooped tubes largely unaffected by five hundred years of weather—sometimes accompanied by the perfectly spherical granite or marble balls that they fired. Of Orban’s supergun there is now no trace—it was probably melted down in the Ottoman gun foundry at Tophane, followed sometime later by the giant equestrian statue of Justinian. Mehmet took the statue down on the advice of his astrologers, but it appears to have lain in the square for a long time before finally being hauled off to the smelting house. The French scholar Piere Gilles saw some portions of the leg of Justinian, which exceeded my height, and his nose, which was over nine inches long. I dared not publicly measure the horse’s legs and the on the ground but privately measured one of the hoofs and found it to be nine inches in height.” It was a last glimpse of the great emperor—and of the outsize grandeur of Byzantium—before the furnace consumed them. (259-60).
There was an idea and a vision that was Rome, or so the movies and pulp fiction romances tell me. And it’s both chilling and deeply fascinating to observe that the last lingering glory of that vision became yet another in a long line of really bad Ozymandias rip-offs. Although I suppose at least this rip-off would give humanity the pistols of Janissaries that kill you in an arguably underrated Assassin’s Creed video game, while Ridley Scott’s just gave us Alien Covenant.
There are greater tragedies I suppose, but it still hurts damn it.
All quotes cited from 1453: : The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West were quoted from the paperback Hyperion edition.
"arrow of time", 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Brief History of Time, A Brief History of Time: From The Big Bang to Black Holes, Abram Adams, Alan Moore, Back to the Future, Bender, Bender's Big Score, Book Review, clocks, Comics, Cube, Dave Gibbons, Divinity, Dr. Manhattan, evolution, Film, film review, Fourth Dimension, Futurama, geometry, graphic novel, H.G. Wells, Human evolution, Literature, Math, Novel, Perception of Time, Philosophy, Reality, Role of Science Fiction in society, Science, science fiction, Space, Stanley Kubrick, State of Being, Stephen Hawking, The Monolith, The Time Machine, The Time Traveler, Third Dimension, time, Time Travel, U.S.S.R., Watchmen
I’ve tried once to explore the fourth dimension, but only in writing. I was taking a creative writing course and riding the high of being one of the few top writers in the class. This wasn’t ego on my part, because if it hasn’t been made apparent at this point in my life my fatal flaw is my inability to sing my own praises. Whatever the case most of the students in the class would confide in me and tell me that they thought I was a great writer and the teacher seemed to support this sentiment, and riding that high I thought about Stanley Kubrick.
Kubrick is a bit of an acquired taste, and sometimes I do honestly believe some critics sing the man’s praises because they want to make other people think that they understand his creative ethos, but being a teenager I suffered the delusion that I would be a film director and so I began watching interviews with film makers who would often drop the man’s name. On a small tangent my desire to be a director shifted after reading Slash’s autobiography and so for a number of years I suffered under the delusion that I could be a rock star. This faded when I remembered I had little to no musical talent. Kubrick was a film maker that I enjoyed because his narratives were so eclectic. Looking at just few years he made in respective order: Paths of Glory, Sparticus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon, and to put this in perspective he moved from a World War I epic to a gladiator rebellion, to a Pedophile capturing a young girl, to the Nuclear apocalypse, to a science fiction philosophy opera, to a dystopian nightmare, and finally to a period piece about an Irish peasant ascending to the British Nobility.
2001: A Space Odyssey is probably one of his best known films, though often because many people in the 70s got stoned and watched it with their kids. What they missed in their induced state was that in his own way Kubrick was attempting to do what I tried in my own small essay about how we tell stories.
Human beings exist in the third dimension, and if I can remind you of your brief high school geometry class the third dimension’s quality is that it allows figures to move through space. In the first dimension objects and organisms could only move to the left or right, whereas in the second objects could then move up and down left and right. The Third dimension allows objects and organisms to move forward and back and they do this by moving through space. Human beings exist and interact with a three dimensional reality, and it needs to be made clear this is a simplistic breakdown of a complicated philosophical, mathematical, and psychological problem. Many scientists turned philosophers have mused about our three dimensional reality, and looking to inspiration from science fiction authors, the next frontier seems to be to understand if it possible to break into the reality of the fourth dimension who’s defining quality and nature is time.
Steven Hawking, the noted theoretical physicist and part-time Simpsons character, explores this in his book A Brief History of Time. When I first read the book I was fresh out of high school and it should be noted that at the time I understood little if any of the actual text, however over time this changed. That’s a bad joke so I’ll move on. In a chapter dealing with wormholes, pockets of space in which it is believed human beings might, and a big emphasis on might there, be able to move through large stretches of the galaxy relatively quickly Hawking writes:
Because there is no unique standard of time, but rather observers each have their own time as measured by clocks that they carry with them, it is possible for the journey to seem to be much shorter for the space travelers than for those who remain on earth. But there would not be much joy in returning from a spae voyage a few years older to find that everyone you had left behind was dead and gone thousands of years ago. So in order to have any human interest in their stories, science fiction writers had to suppose that we would one day discover how to travel faster than light. (161-2).
It’s important to note that, while Hawking is an unapologetic science fiction fan even once appearing on an episode of Star Trek, the passages immediately following this quote explains why these writers’ descriptions of travels through space and time were rather inaccurate or else impossible. The problem of human beings entering or attempting to move through the fourth dimension is either plagued by the actual science, or the fact that actually passing into that dimension requires individuals who are willing to do so without concern of what they’re leaving behind. As such I look back to Kubrick, but before I do I look to H.G. Wells.
Hawking actually bothers to mention Wells at the beginning of the chapter from which I received the previous quote, and the reason for this is Wells’s small novel The Time Machine. The book is a slim narrative but contained within its pages is in fact some of the earliest inclinations of the science that men like Steven Hawking would write into reality. Wells, it should be noted, is often considered one of the “founding fathers” of science fiction, and while it should be noted that there were other writers writing into similar territories and ideas, Wells work boosted the aesthetic of science fiction into something concrete and often inspired future engineers and scientists. Looking at just the opening pages of The Time Traveler it’s incredible to see the man’s foresight:
“Can a cube that does not last for any time at all have a real existence?”
Filby became pensive. “Clearly,” the Time Traveler proceeded,” any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have length, breadth, Thickness, and—Duration. But through a natural infirmity of the flesh, which I will explain to you in a moment, we incline to overlook this fact. There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time. There is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former three dimensions and the latter, because it happens that our consciousness moves intermittently in one direction along the latter from the beginning to the end of our lives. (4).
The” arrow of time” is a concept that is explored even outside the studies of physicists and mathematicians for poets and writers have been relying on that damned symbol almost since the first arrow was painted on a wall. It should be noted that part of the reason for this is that the shape is incredibly phallic, but I don’t have the time to explain that all of history is just men measuring dicks.
The Time Machine made its first appearance in 1895 and, according to some, effectively established the genre of science fiction though this last point is debatable. What’s still incredible about the book is how well Wells managed to explain out the idea of dimensions in just one paragraph. Employing the “arrow of time” in order to convince his companions about his ideas concerning the fourth dimension, The Time Traveler, who is never named by the narrator thus launching him into the territory of archetype, manages to begin the first question: can man step out of his comfort in the third dimension in order to see his potential.
That last word has been chosen carefully as I get closer to my later conclusions.
But along with his observations of the abstract concept of time the Time Traveler also makes a fascinating observation about human beings:
“Well, I do not mind telling you I have been at work upon this geometry of Four Dimensions for some time. Some of my results are curious. For instance, here is a portrait of a man at eight years old, another at fifteen, another at seventeen, another at twenty-three, and so on. All these are evidently sections, as it were, Three Dimensional representations of his Four-Dimensional being, which is a fixed and unalterable thing. (6).
From here the Time Traveler makes his argument that it would be possible for man to break free from the “arrow of time” from which he is forever caught by his perceptions, and, given the supposed hypothetical conditions, almost anything could be possible, specifically time travel. Because this is the late Victorian period and science had only proceeded so far The Time Traveler produces the Time Machine, and it’s important to note how that dates the book, but not necessarily in a bad way. It’s through an external device or machine that man is going to be able to achieve his destiny and this idea of man riding a kind of time traveling vessel is not outdated for the Back to the Future movies proved that this concept is still alive and well. What changed over time is revealed in this second quote.
The Time Traveler notes that human beings are three-dimensional beings but that is only because they haven’t unlocked the ability to see and observe their true potential. This is actually a brilliant idea being expressed that, while it has enormous philosophical implications, seems to counter act the very necessity of a time machine. Simply put, human beings are Fourth-Dimensional creatures they just haven’t realized how to actually tap into that reality. Human beings typically perceive their existence like a three dimensional cube. They recognize the length, width, and girth of the physical space they occupy, but because they can only perceive time as an arrow moving through time they don’t recognize that they are actually able to be a four-dimensional cube, a shape that, in its true form is malleable and constantly regenerating itself. I don’t want to suggest that this is immortality, but the direction two science fiction narratives have taken seems to be just that.
I had no real intention of reading Divinity because before I saw the advertisement in the back of Faith Vol.1 I had no idea that it actually existed. The image of an astronaut, later revealed to be a cosmonaut, caught me because despite my trepidation I do actually enjoy science fiction stories they just have to be grounded in or around planet Earth or its history. I asked my friend Michael (one of the three Michael’s I know and talk to regularly) what the book was about seeing as how he is the go-to Valiant expert. His exact description was: “I mean, I liked it. If you ever watched 2001 and were like “man, this sure would be better as a superhero comic”, well, that’s Divinity in a nutshell.” Given the fact that I loved 2001: A Space Odyssey (though let’s be fair I really like the idea of it far more than the actual film) I was intrigued and so I bought the book a week later and devoured it in four days. The only reason it took four was because I tend to read books one chapter at a time per day; it helps me get through a lot of books.
Divinity is about a cosmonaut named Abram Adams who assigned a top secret task of being launched into space. The U.S.S.R., desperate to defeat the Americans launches Adams to the very edge of the galaxy and when he arrives at his destination after years of isolation and Cryogenic stasis he encounters an energy force, a plane of white light that some would call god and other might refer to as the ground of being, that enters his body and alters his consciousness. Abrams effectively becomes a god but what’s most important is the fact that the story is told is a splintered fashion. Rather than follow Adams and then show MI-6 sending in The Eternal Warrior and X-O Manowar to take him down, Matt Kindt writes the book so that events are taking place in the past, in the present, in the future, in individual’s imaginations, and in people’s memories all at the same time.
Abram Adams hasn’t just become just a superhero, his has accessed his fourth dimensional being.
Reading Divinity I was struck by how much I thought of the graphic novel Watchman and my favorite character from that book Dr. Manhattan.
Watchmen was published through the years of 1986 through 1987 in twelve installments, which is rather fitting given the clock imagery deliberately inserted throughout the book. If the reader has never read it before that’s a terrible shame because there really are few great books in existence and Watchmen most certainly fits that category. The graphic novel follows a group of superheroes in the year 1985 right after one of them, the sociopath ex-government agent The Comedian, is thrown from his apartment window and killed. From there the characters Rorschach, Silk Specter, Night Owl, Ozymandias, and Dr. Manhattan each in their own way try to discover who is trying to kill former superheroes and why, while in the background a nuclear war is looming against the U.S.S.R. and President Richard Nixon seems only to be baiting and encouraging it. There’s also a pirate comic book that’s being read throughout the text but that’s for another essay. While each hero has at least one issue dedicated to them, it was the Dr. Manhattan chapter that always intrigued me (Rorschach’s is really fun too, though I use the word “fun” loosely) because it’s written from his perspective after he retreats from planet earth to live on Mars. Dr. Manhattan is more or less a god and became so after he was working on a particle physics experiment that went horribly wrong and ripped every atom of his body apart. He eventually pulled himself back together and became Dr. Manhattan, but what’s most important about his character’s chapter is its narrative structure.
Like Divinity, Dr. Manhattan is experiencing the past, present, and future seemingly all at the same time and looking at just a few passages from the book it becomes clear that his perception of time far exceeds human understanding.
I should finally address my contester however, for they remind me that most people cannot or will not perceive anything outside their own dimension. What the point, or why should I care about books that are written about people outside of my own perception? It’s impossible for human beings to break free from the “arrow of time” and spending your life trying clearly will only leave you isolated or destroyed or alienated from society, so why not try and enjoy your life?
These are all excellent points, and to be fair I’m not sure I have a satisfying answer to them. Carpe Diem, or seize the day, may be a platitude but it’s one that leaves average people generally satisfied and happy with their lives. Human beings have yet to reach a point in their evolution so that they would be able to access the Fourth-Dimensional being that they are, and it’s likely that such a stage is hundreds, if not thousands, of years away anyway, but books and films like Divinity, The Time Machine, Watchmen, and even 2001: A Space Odyssey try to offer up ideas of how human beings might access that next level. For the most part it seems that humans will have to wait until a supernatural entity, whether it’s the black monolith or the white plane, arrives and bestows knowledge of being to them, but at least in the case of Watchmen and The Time Machine there’s an idea that, through their own devices, humans might make the next step themselves. Even if it is through technology, humans might be able to expand their awareness and being and that’s an important idea, because in many ways we’re already trying to do just that.
Steven Hawking ends A Brief History of Time with a thought concerning the future of physics, philosophy, and possibly that of mankind:
Up to now, most scientists have been too occupied with the development of new theories that describe what the universe is to ask the question why. On the other hand, the people who business it is to ask why, the philosophers, have not been able to keep up with the advancements of scientific theories.
He concludes then:
However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question why it is we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason-for then we would know the mind of God. (191).
The purpose of science fiction is largely to ask questions either about the nature of human beings, or their future. While many have taken the opportunity to explore thought experiments and the more morbid conclusions concerning the future of humanity a few select have decided to question what if human beings could become more and explore a new dimension of being? A while the general conclusion is that the result of this experiment would result in alienation or some kind of self-destruction I would argue that that reaction is rooted more in those left behind than those moving forward.
The closest success human beings have made in understanding this new state of being is fiction, and that’s perhaps the most telling but also the most encouraging. Scientific enterprise depends upon imagination, and as more and more writers explore the notions of time travel and accessing new states of being, so too will scientists who will change our world in ways we can’t possibly even imagine.
Though if we ever get to the point where we start sending Bender back in time to steal precious masterpieces, we may have taken it a step too far.
While I was working on this review I found this essay on The New Yorker Website. Enjoy:
I’ve included links to three videos below. The first is the “star gate” sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey
The second link is the final three minutes of the film in which the astronaut Dave ascends to a new state of being:
I’ve also found a small documentary a YouTuber produced in which he explains the Monolith. This interpretation, as he notes, created a bit of a controversy because many fans loved the idea but certain film scholars didn’t. I’ve posted Part 1 here:
Art, Art Culture, artistic integrity, BANKSY, Benjamin Netanyahu, Book Review, CCTV, Corporate Influence, Discipline and Punish, elitism, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Gaza Wall, graffiti, Humor, Individual Will, Israel, Michel Foucault, monkeys, Palestine, panopticon, Politics, rats, Satire, surveillance, Tate Gallery, Totalitarianism, urban landscape, Wall and Piece
It doesn’t take much to piss off Benjamin Netanyahu, except apparently, spray paint. While looking for photos for a possible essay idea I stumbled upon an image cited on World News Daily Report, a Zionist online newspaper, and after BANKSY has defaced the Gaza wall that separates Palestinians from Jews, along with a few stones from an ancient jewish temple, the Prime Minister is billowing his usual boisterous ballyhoo. Sorry. Couldn’t resist. This isn’t the first time the notorious graffiti artist has actually tagged said wall before. I know this because at one point my little sister was obsessed by the artist BANKSY, particularly one book that I would skim through over and over again.
I’ll admit I’m beginning this essay with great trepidation. That makes me sound like a fucking Victorian novelist, but I am expressing honest concern. I’m not used to writing about art, or artists for that matter, but I know books and so when I finally bought myself a copy of Wall and Piece I placed it on my shelf and immediately forgot about it focusing instead on Jim Henson: The Biography. Muppets trump all you know.
For that last statement I shall be drawn and quartered by rats.
Before my punishment comes though I did want to convey my impression of the importance of such a book, and before the reader assumes that I’ll wax philosophic about the importance of individual expression and the rotting corruption of capitalism, I really just want to look at a few of BANKSY’s paintings and the writings that accompany them in the book.
On the first page BANKSY provides a kind of artistic statement over a picture of himself spray painting the “cut-out” lines that is part of his signature style:
I’m going to speak my mind, so this won’t take very long.
Despite what they say graffiti is not the lowest form of art. Although you might have to creep about at night and lie to your mum it’s actually one of the more honest art forms available. There is no elitism or hype, it exhibits on the best walls a town has to offer and nobody is put off by the price of admission.
A wall has always been the best place to publish your work.
The people who run our cities don’t understand graffiti because they think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit, which makes their opinion worthless.
They say graffiti frightens people and is symbolic off the decline of society, but graffiti is only dangerous in the minds of three kinds of people; politicians, advertising executives, and graffiti writers.
The people who truly deface our neighborhoods are the companies that scrawl slogans across the buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff. They expect to be able to shout their message un your face from every available surface but you’ve never allowed to answer back. Well, they started the fight and the wall is the weapon of choice to hit them back.
Some people became cops because they want to make the world a better place. Some people become vandals because they want to make the world a better looking place.
I really don’t want to kiss BANKSY’s ass because the internet is loaded with hipsters, wannabe’s, and “graffiti scholars” who prattle endlessly about the man’s daring, insight, and ability and what gets lost is the real sense of bedlam. BANKSY’s art, the first time a viewer sees it, really shakes you up because it’s unashamedly reminding the viewer that they live in the Panopticon and they’re happy to do so. If the reader has no idea what that is I’ll explain.
In his book Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault the French historian describes the modern man as existing in a prison known as the Panopticon. This is based on a real prison design created by Jeremy Bentham during the 1700s. It’s a circular space and on every side are single cells in which prisoners are occupied. Each prisoner cannot look into the other cells and is afforded only the entrance of their cell, which looks out onto the ground floor where a single guard tower is occupied. Within the tower, which has one-way windows, there is a prison guard able to see into every cell. The guard cannot watch every cell at once, but the key idea in the design is that the prisoner can never tell when the guard is watching him. Foucault explains that part of the Postmodern condition is the state in which man is always aware that he is under scrutiny, and as security and traffic cameras have become more and more prolific it becomes difficult for human beings to live without the awareness that somebody, somewhere, is watching them and monitoring their behavior.
BANKSY’s art remains unique then, because he screws the Panopticon, “tagging” the tower with a monkey holding a sign that says “I wish I could get paid to watch people all day,” and reminds people that they’re free. Whether it’s his monkeys reminding people to “Keep it Real,” or his Rats wreaking havoc and reminding people that they’ll rule once again, or else his police officers making out or arresting little girls, BANKSY’s art is subversive for the fact that he doesn’t seem to be pointing a finger at the “oppressor’s” because ultimately the only power they have is within the minds of the governed and consumers.
At this point the reader may roll their eyes and wonder how thick is the foil hat I wear, which is unfortunate because I only wear one layer, that’s all you need to keep the space aliens and CIA away. In all seriousness though this idea isn’t unfounded and Wall and Piece reminds its reader of that as every photo BANKSY provides the reader comes with the location of the piece shown, the date, and usually how long it lasts before it is painted over, taken down, or destroyed.
As he pointed out in the opening section, by openly mocking the institution of public property one can become a criminal, or else vermin rather quickly. I like to think of BANKSY’s art more along the lines of opening the window of the Panopticon. Rather than inviting the chaos of a jailbreak, BANKSY’s book shows through images and brief impressions of life that human beings seem lethargic in the capitalist and government systems, and by having somebody who is willing to deliberately shake that system and not apologize for it, but in fact to claim artistic credibility for it is not only a shock to the system, it offers people the chance to wake up and remember that they can express opinions about how public space is controlled and manipulated and used. Graffitti artists are often sold as either criminals or geniuses, but apart from BANKSY I have yet to really find another artist that fits that description.
That isn’t because of the “mystery” factor, because that’s ultimately fleeting. Every man, every artist, every king, every CEO is ultimately forgotten, their works like the stone legs of Ozymandias standing in an empty sea of desert for miles. The fact that most of BANKSY’s art has already been destroyed by public officials and public servants only further demonstrates that.
What then is the value of a book by BANKSY?
The only answer I have is two small passages. The first involves the Tate Gallery, the second returns the reader to Gaza.
Before BANKSY places his copy of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and provides a small little clip about his sister destroying most of his art, there’s a two-page spread of him posting a picture up in the Tate Gallery in London and he provides two paragraphs:
Art is not like other culture because its success is not made its audience. The public fill concert halls and cinemas every day, we read novels by the millions and buy records by the billions. We, the people, affect the making and quality of most of our culture, but not our art.
The art we look at is made by only a select few. A small group create, promote, purchase, exhibit, and decide the success of Art. Only a few hundred people in the world have any real say. When you go to an Art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires.
It’s difficult to really assess honest recognition, or really it’s difficult to describe it and then explain it out. BANKSY’s documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop did a marvelous job of demonstrating the way that art is held firmly in the grip of a super class that enjoy the privilege of possessing art for themselves, often simply for the sake of owning it or appearing to derive some pleasure from it. As a writer you’re afforded some freedom in that regard. True a few collectors may own the first editions of a book you have written, but depending on the success of your book there’s always reprints and so there is solace there. The artist, whether they paint or sculpt, can find their work appropriated by the rich if said social club decides that their work is “in” this season.
The best example is a self-portrait by BANKSY which recently sold £198,000. A rat painted onto the side of a cell-phone shack would have been cleaned off within a weak, and now the avant-garde are devouring the works of graffiti artists desperate to get in on the hype oblivious to the creative intent.
I look back to Gaza however, for in 2005 BANKSY went to Palestine and “tagged” the walls dividing the Palestinians from the Jewish communities, and while he painted he was approached by an old man who spoke to him:
Old Man: You make the wall look beautiful
Old Man: We don’t want it to be beautiful. We hate this wall, go home.
Rats bother human beings because they bite people, they spread disease, they destroy the infrastructure of homes, and they tend to live off of refuse. But what I believe bothers human beings about rats the most is not that they’re ugly or nasty, it’s the fact that they tend to survive in the same environments as humans and they don’t mind being nasty or dirty to do so. Rats in many ways offer up a mirror image to those that live in the cold concrete of urban environments and BANKSY offers up a summation himself:
They exist without permission. They are hated, hunted and persecuted. They live in quiet desperation amongst the filth. And yet they are capable of bringing entire civilizations to their knees.
If you are dirty, insignificant and unloved then rats are the ultimate role model.
As I said before I’m unused to writing about art, but fortunately for me BANKSY offers up writing alongside his work and so in that I am able to gain an impression of the creative goal of Wall and Piece. Mankind in the 21st century is surrounded by space and places that do not belong to them. They live in a space that is constantly filled with corporate advertisement that are entirely impersonal and ruthlessly mercenary. They rely on infrastructure paid for with their tax dollars but owned by their government. These realities divorce people from the fact that they exist and have free will or even choice. The choices usually offered in the hyper-capitalist society tend to devolve down to whether or not you should buy Burger King or McDonalds. BANKSY’s book takes pot-shots at corporations, government, and mundane realities not to judge society or place himself above it, but just to remind people that the power these institutions derive is not from divinity or supreme power, but truly from the individual consumer. It’s the person who buys the Dr. Pepper thinking the pirate, or rocket ship, or monster truck logo on the wrapper in some way defines their personality oblivious to the fact that every bottle contains the same substance.
The Panopticon of CCTV, McDonalds, Disneyland, and Traffic cameras may always be watching, but there’s a kind of victory by scribbling a rat holding a sign that says “We will Rule” on the walls, if only so that someone will see you and be offended by your very existence.
Here’s the article below that started up my inspiration for this essay, or at least the gumption to attempt it. I have no idea if this website is legit or not, and honestly I really don’t care because even if it wasn’t true it did give me the kick in the ass to try and write about a book about art.
I do NOT condone the defacing of public or private property for amusement or “artistic purposes,” unless it is for entirely selfish or badass reasons, then by all means go ahead.
Just in case, if BANKSY is reading this I love your work I promise I am not an art whore who will kiss your ass.
American Empire, Blood, Class, and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies, British Empire, Carl Sagan, Christopher Hitchens, class, Coffee With Jammer, Constantine, Egyptian Empire, Empire, Fall Out 4, Horace Smith, Julius Caesar, Literature, Ozymandias, Pale Blue Dot, Percy Shelley, Poetry, Rameses II, Rejected Addresses: Or, The New Theatrum Poetarum, Roman Empire, Rome, Sonnet, The North American Society for the Study of Romanticism, Victorianism
This essay was originally published on The North American Society for the Study of Romanticism’s blog. The full essay can be read on their home page by accessing the link at the end.
Every chance I get, I read Ozymandias. I should clarify, though, because that makes it sound like all I do is read the same poem over and over again (in the shower, in lines at Burger King, or mowing the lawn)—that’s just not the case at all. Fall Out 4 recently came out, and my lovely-lady-scientist wife bought it for me as an birthday present. In between the soul-crushing bouts of non-stop homework, I play it endlessly. That is, of course when I’m not busy reading graphic novels for a book club I participate in every two weeks, and when I’m not playing with my puppy Huckleberry, or talking to friends over a weekly meeting I call “Coffee with Jammer” (I’m currently in talks with PBS about making it into a series) or when…you know, perhaps it’s better to be honest, and say whenever I stumble upon the poem, I take the time to read it.
I struggled over what to write for this month’s essay, and while at first I was tempted to discuss my personal feelings about Pride & Prejudice & Zombies (Spoiler: it’s a negative opinion, but not for the reason you probably think), I recognized that I would be doing a disservice to my previous English teachers as well as my regular readers if I did not take the time to write at some point about Ozymandias. Or, at the very least, my reflections on Ozymandias.
I’ll cite the whole poem before I move forward. I know you just read it because all you read is Romantic poetry and never Twilight even though you told yourself you were just buying it as a joke and you keep it in the bathroom and you read the first page and even though you know its malarkey and rubbish you keep reading and…anyway, the poem:
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
My first thought whenever I read the poem is Rome—though that may be because I’m an American. For whatever reason, the Roman Empire haunts the creative and political imagination of Americans, and if you don’t believe me, look at the architecture of many of the monuments in Washington D.C. I suspect on some level, it’s a recognition of the parallels between the physical and political cultures. America is so big, our power seems endless, and the state of Texas alone can engulf Britain and still leave plenty of room for countries like Italy, Portugal, and Belgium combined. With all that in mind, and recognizing the way Americans have been involved in world affairs ever since the Second World War, the notion that our country, that hallmark of democratic virtue and liberty, is a kind of empire that spans the known world, exists in our consciousness creating a grandiosity that, apart from perhaps the British Empire (but I’ll get to that in a minute), only Rome could equal our power.
This consciousness, however, is plagued by paranoia, for as an Empire we recognize that there is a failing in us, something that makes us vulnerable to outside influence or internal corruption, and so “the idea that was Rome” becomes a trope in movies, historical fiction, and atrocious lines in hipster poetry slams.
TO SEE THE FULL ARTICLE FOLLOW THE LINK TO THE NASSR BLOG HOME PAGE HERE: