Chad Comello

Libraries, culture, typewriters

Category: History (page 2 of 7)

Agony and Hilarity in The Iliad

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It was Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult that compelled me to finally read Homer’s The Iliad, one of those ought-to-read books that are easy to avoid because so many newer and less challenging books pop up in its way. But I’m glad I decided to dive in, even if it became my actual beach read over the Fourth of July weekend and beyond. Overall, I was surprised by how violent, funny, and sometimes profound it was, and by how much it made me want to rewatch Troy. *shudder*

After first I consulted the Cliff Notes before each chapter so I could make sure I knew generally what was going on. But about halfway through I switched it up, diving into the text first and then reading the Cliff Notes to fill in context. I grew more comfortable with the tone and flow of the text, which in my translation by Robert Fagles was in poetry form.

Because the book is basically one long battle, the fighting itself—and boy is there a lot of it—can sometimes seem abstract. So I like how in the midst of the seemingly never-ending war, Homer sometimes zooms in on one minor character and briefly tells his life story—right before he dies. Like with Euchenor in Book XIII:

But Paris flared in rage at his comrade’s death,
his friend and guest among all the Paphlagonians.
Incensed, he let loose with a bronze-tipped arrow
aimed at one Euchenor, son of the prophet Polyidus,
a decent, wealthy man who made his home in Corinth.
Well Euchenor knew that boarding the ships for Troy
meant certain death: his father told him so . . .
Time and again the strong old prophet said
he’d die in his own halls of a fatal plague
or go with the ships and die at Trojan hands.
So off Euchenor sailed, both to save his wealth
from the heavy fine the Argives made deserters pay
and himself from wasting illness—no slow plague for him.
Suddenly Paris struck him under the jaw and ear—
and life flew from his limbs
and the hateful darkness had him in its grip.

And that was it for Euchenor.

There are also periodic descriptions of combat that are surprisingly graphic. This again helps to ground the story in the realities of the carnage it was producing. It was sometimes easy to forget between all the monologues and backstories of soldiers that there was an actual war going on, with countless men dying gruesome and forgotten deaths. So the moments when Homer describes entrails spilling out on the ground, for example, were, if not welcome, then at least a crucial part of making such a mythical story feel real.

I expected The Iliad to be serious, but I didn’t expect it to be funny. In Book XIV, for example, Hera called on Hypnos the god of sleep to put Zeus to sleep in order to change the course of the war. But Hypnos was reluctant to do so, since the last time he tricked Zeus to sleep, he was furious when he awoke:

But now you are back, Hera—
you ask me to do the impossible once again.”

Eyes widening, noble Hera coaxed him further:
“So troubled, Sleep, why torture yourself with that?
You think that thundering Zeus, shielding the men of Troy,
will rage as he raged for great Heracles, his own son?
Come now, I will give you one of the younger Graces—
Wed her at once and she’ll be called your wife.”

“On with it!”—Sleep cried, thrilled by the offer—
“Swear to me by the incorruptible tides of Styx,
one hand grasping the earth that feeds mankind,
the other the bright sea, that all may be our witness,
all gods under earth that gather round King Cronus!
Swear you will give me one of the younger Graces,
Pasithea, she’s the one—
all my days I’ve tossed and turned for her!”

That “On with it!” is golden. Later in that scene, Hera, awash in ambrosia and aided by a charm by Aphrodite, goes to seduce the mercurial Zeus. And he is so smitten by her that he tells her:

Never has such a lust for goddess or mortal woman
flooded my pounding heart and overwhelmed me so.
Not even then, when I made love to Ixion’s wife
who bore me Pirithous, rival to all the gods in wisdom . . .
not when I loved Acrisius’ daughter Danae—marvelous ankles—
and Perseus sprang to life and excelled all men…

… and on and on he goes, because nothing will set the mood better than bragging about previous carnal exploits!

Though I can’t compare it to others, I’d highly recommend Fagles’ translation of the text. There’s some beautiful language throughout, and in poetry form it’s allowed to breathe on the page. I didn’t read every word (again with the monologues!), but I finished the journey, and look forward to more in The Odyssey and The Aeneid.

Eventually. After I take a break with some reading from this millennium.

Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich

51MAjxi5d1L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Don’t do drugs, kids. But do give it up for whoever thought of the perfect double entendre title and cover for Norman Ohler’s Blitzed: Drug Use in the Third Reich.

This topic is definitely not something I’ve heard about in the history books, as they say, so perhaps it’s fitting that Ohler is not a historian buta novelist and journalist. His writing style is much more vivid and conjectural than what you’d expect from a typical history book, yet it’s still rooted in the historical record, which makes it all the more riveting. Who knew that the same German scientist who invented Aspirin also discovered heroin? And that the Nazis’ infamous blitzkrieg that toppled France was aided by the entire army being hopped up on meth?

Add to this the (more well-known) fact that Hitler was a morphine, cocaine, and oxycodone addict and needed several injections a day of vitamins, uppers, and animal proteins to keep going. This would explain his volatile mood swings, insatiable megalomania, and disconnection from reality toward the end. It would also explain why he was a terrible military strategist but an excellent demagogue and tyrant.

It doesn’t mean, however, as Ohler is clear to point out, that the drugs turned him into someone he wasn’t. The “pharmacological barricade” he erected around himself in his final years only ossified what was already there:

His drug use did not impinge on his freedom to make decisions. Hitler was always the master of his sense, and he knew exactly what he was doing. He acted always in an alert and cold-blooded way. Within his system, based from the beginning on intoxication and a flight from reality, he acted systematically and with terrible consistency to the end. He was anything but insane.

Highly recommended fast-paced, unorthodox history of a degenerate time and place.


Some informal book notes:

  • Serturner derived morphine from thickened sap of opium poppies in 1805
  • Merck began selling in 1827, and after injections invented in 1850 was used in Civil War
  • Drinks containing morphine and cocaine available at drugstores
  • Hoffman, chemist at Bayer Company, synthesized Aspirin from willow bark and heroin, a derivative of morphine
  • With small operations and low overhead, business boomed especially in Germany, with high stock of engineers, chemists, and education system
  • Germany lost colonial sources of stimulants after Versailles, so had to produce synthetic ones and soon became global leader
  • The Nazis “hated drugs because they wanted to be a drug themselves”; stigmatized and severely punished drug use after 1933
  • Hitler mythologized as anti-drug teetotaler without personal needs
  • Strict anti-drug measures used to deepen surveillance state and prevent addicts from marrying so as not to reproduce faulty genes
  • Jews depicted as pathogen or disease poisoning the Reich needing to be exterminated
  • Celebrity doctor Morell pioneered use of vitamins mixed with stimulants; Hitler made him personal physician
  • Inspired by US’s amphetamine Benzedrine at Berlin Olympic games, pharmacist Hauschild synthesized new methamphetamine Pervitin, like adrenalin but gentler and longer lasting
  • Meth’s long lasting effects kill nerve cells, and once it runs out the hormones take weeks to resupply, leading to lack of drive and joylessness
  • Pervitin became widely used, assumed safe; marketed as slimming agent because it curbed appetite (meth chocolates: “Hildebrand chocolates always delight”)
  • Appeasement wouldn’t work because Hitler, a morphine addict, always needed more
  • Morell revived Czech president Emil Hacha, who had a heart attack before signing papers of capitulation, so he could sign them
  • According to studies Pervitin kept people from sleeping but didn’t make them cleverer, so it was considered ideal for soldiers
  • Blitzkrieg in France fueled by meth, including Rommel; French and British unprepared for constant attack
  • Propagated idea that Germans were superior beings reinforced by meth’s symptom of arrogance
  • Hitler’s inferiority complex made him distrust success of smarter generals
  • Luftwaffe’s Göring a morphine addict and felt victory shouldn’t be left to army, so convinced Hitler to halt Dunkirk advance
  • “Gröfaz” German soldiers’ derogatory acronym for Nazi propaganda’s term for Hitler as “greatest commander of all time”
  • Morell created new vitamin combo Vitamultin, which had unremarkable elements but was marketed solely to Hitler and generals; when Luftwaffe medical chief rejected them Morell got Goring to fire him
  • Word about Pervitin spread in late 1940 and Reich health fuhrer Conti fought to have it eradicated under Reich opium law, but war needs made it essential
  • Pervitin of no use on Russian front, which was attritional
  • Hitler had “severed relations with geopolitical reality” by declaring war with US; out of touch in bunker
  • Mid-1943 started taking Eukodal (oxycodone), twice as powerful as morphine, created euphoric state higher than heroin
  • Hitler was doped up for Valkyrie explosion so didn’t have pain despite busted ear drums and splinters
  • Giesing, ear nose throat specialist summoned after Valkyrie in July 1944, prescribed cocaine, which “erases self-doubt and encourages megalomania”
  • Hitler consented to full-body examination to get more cocaine from reluctant Giesing
  • Erected “pharmacological barricade” around himself, within “deluded totalitarian system”
  • “His drug use did not impinge on his freedom to make decisions. Hitler was always the master of his sense, and he knew exactly what he was doing. He acted always in an alert and cold-blooded way. Within his system, based from the beginning on intoxication and a flight from reality, he acted systematically and with terrible consistency to the end. He was anything but insane.”
  • Used death camp prisoners to test new endurance pills and cocaine-spiked gum, kept awake and marching
  • Started running out of supplies and withdrawing in early 1945

The Bullies Pulpit

From Politico:

More than 100 years ago a Republican president worried that America wasn’t doing enough to protect its most treasured wild and sacred places from over-development, mining and drilling. So Congress passed and President Teddy Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act of 1906, giving presidents the authority to preserve imperiled mountains, forests, cultural treasures and other public lands. Roosevelt condemned the “land grabbers” and “great special interests” who threatened the national lands he protected. “The rights of the public to the [nation’s] natural resources outweigh private rights and must be given its first consideration,” Roosevelt proclaimed. “Our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever.”

Today another Republican president is indicating he is ready to give in to the pressures of corporations and complicit state officials urging the administration to open these protected public lands to mining, drilling and other commercial exploitation. That would deprive future generations of Americans of irreplaceable treasures, both in the beauty of the landscapes that would be scarred and the birds and other wildlife that depend on those protected places for survival.

Whether it’s a good idea for Trump to revoke the protected status of lands designated as national moments is up for debate. (I’m against it.) But what interested me about this op-ed was its comparison of Trump to Theodore Roosevelt. It was negative in this case, but in Robert Merry’s forthcoming biography of William McKinley, Roosevelt comes across as much more Trump-like than TR fans like me would care to acknowledge.

TR is one of my certified History Crushes™. Anyone who reads Edmund Morris’ trilogy on the man’s brief but crowded life can’t help but admire him in some way. But there’s no getting around the fact that Roosevelt was an attention whore. Many others have noted the similarities between the two New Yorkers, but here’s Merry:

The biggest contributor to McKinley’s standing in history was Theodore Roosevelt, whose leadership style could not have been further removed from that of McKinley. Impetuous, voluble, amusing, grandiose, prone to marking his territory with political defiance, Roosevelt stirred the imagination of the American people as McKinley never had. To [McKinley]’s solidity, safety, and caution, the Rough Rider offered a mind that moved “by flashes or whims or sudden impulses,” as William Allen White described it. He took the American people on a political roller-coaster ride, and to many it was thrilling.

But the New Yorker was never one to share the credit with others. His theatrical self-importance led even his children to acknowledge that he wanted to be “the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” It wasn’t surprising that soon he was denigrating the man whose presidency he had extolled through thousands of miles of political campaigning on his way to national power.

“A mind that moved by flashes or whims or sudden impulses,” “theatrical self-importance,” “prone to marking his territory with political defiance”—a little eerie, right? And the public denigration of his predecessor (and successor—poor Taft) certainly aligns with Trump’s modus operandi.

The bull moose-sized caveat here is that Roosevelt was far more qualified for the job and did soooo much more—and so much more good—in his 60 years of life than Trump has (including actually wanting to be president). Ditto that other Trumpish president, Andrew Jackson. To put Trump in their league simply because they were all blustery fellows would be an insult to the presidency and even to other blustery fellows who are otherwise good dudes.

Nevertheless, it’s good to remember that historical analogies are rarely clean, that we can’t disregard unpleasant characteristics of beloved historical figures out of convenience, and that Roosevelt single-handedly chased down and captured three outlaws in Dakota who stole his riverboat and escorted them back overland in a forty-hour marathon with no sleep while finishing a Tolstoy novel.

America in Five Cities

It dawned on me recently how the names and locations of the top 5 most populous cities in the United States tell the story of the nation:

New York, in the east, with the English name, representing the history of our relationship with England.

Los Angeles, in the west, with the Spanish name representing the history of our relationship with Mexico.

Chicago, in the north, from the Potawatomi for “wild garlic place”, representing the history of Native Americans.

Houston, in the south, named after Sam Houston, president of the Republic of Texas, representing the history of the Wild West.

Philadelphia, in the east, Greek for “brotherly love”, representing the ancient origins within the founding of the nation.

This has a nice round feel to it. That is, until Phoenix comes for that fifth spot

Ötzi-quel

This ongoing saga of Ötzi the Iceman fascinates me. I first learned of him from Radiolab a few years ago, but turns out we keep learning more about this mythic Italian mummy:

The more scientists learn, the more recognizable the Iceman becomes. He was 5 feet 5 inches tall (about average height for his time), weighed 110 pounds, had brown eyes and shoulder-length, dark brown hair, and a size 7½ foot. He was about 45, give or take six years, respectably old for the late Neolithic age — but still in his prime.

Still kinda blown away science can figure this stuff out:

From examining traces of pollen in his digestive tract, scientists were able to place the date of Ötzi’s death at sometime in late spring or early summer. In his last two days, they found, he consumed three distinct meals and walked from an elevation of about 6,500 feet, down to the valley floor and then up into the mountains again, where he was found at the crime site, 10,500 feet up.

More to come, I hope.

Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar II

Part of the Cool Civil War Names series.

In addition to being one of two people to serve in the U.S. House and Senate, a President’s Cabinet, and the U.S. Supreme Court, L.Q.C. Lamar was one of eight senators featured in Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy, which is one of those books you’ve heard about but never read.

A lawyer from Georgia, Lamar bounced between Georgia and Mississippi to practice law and teach before getting elected to the Georgia State House of Representatives in 1853, and then three years later in Mississippi to the U.S. House. (Pick a state, man!) When secession time came around, he resigned from the House and joined the Mississippi Secession Convention, drafting the state’s Ordinance of Secession and mustering a regiment. When bad health kept him away from the battlefield, Jefferson Davis appointed him Confederate minister to Russia and special envoy to England and France until the end of the war.

Once former Confederates were allowed to hold office again, Lamar came right back, serving in the U.S. House (again) and then Senate, where he earned his spot in Profiles in Courage by eulogizing Charles Sumner instead of caning him again and voting against the “free silver” movement. Grover Cleveland appointed him Secretary of the Interior in 1885, then two years later nominated him for the U.S. Supreme Court, where he died five years later.

Sources: 1, 2

So Far Advanced

Here’s a funny bit in an otherwise unfunny but fascinating book called A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940. After Finland refused Stalin’s ultimatum, Russia initiated war and installed a puppet Finnish government that signed the “treaty” Stalin had wanted:

Never change, Finland.

Tom, John, Abby & George

The fourth episode of the John Adams miniseries (“Reunion”) contains two of the best scenes in the show. The first is John hanging with Abigail and Thomas Jefferson in Paris. It’s fun to consider now how these titans of American history would have interacted in their time, before they achieved titan status:

The second is when John Adams meets with King George III as the first American ambassador to Great Britain. Giamatti perfectly portrays the range of emotions Adams must have felt serving this role: pride above all, I imagine, in every sense of the word. To represent his new country in such a prestigious role also carried with it the custom of bowing deeply not once, not twice, but thrice, to the monarch he had so vociferously criticized:

Still delighted HBO chose to dedicate a series to the Founding Father who would not land on Mount Rushmore but had an undeniable influence in making it possible one day.

Refer Madness: A Name that Named Names

rmRefer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

A patron who calls regularly — usually looking for the value of an old book or baseball card — had a pretty direct question for me today: “Was Lee J. Cobb blacklisted?”

Nope, but just barely.

Born Leo Jacoby (get it? Lee J. Cobb[y]?), Cobb most iconically featured in 1954’s On the Waterfront and 1957’s 12 Angry Men, two highly regarded and politically aware films that comment on the Red Scare paranoia of 1950s America. According to Victor Navasky’s 1980 book Naming Names, Cobb was accused of being a Communist in a 1951 HUAC testimony by actor and actual former Communist Larry Parks. Called to testify but refusing to do so for two years, Cobb finally relented in 1953 and named twenty former Community Party members.

Cobb’s reason for doing so, as told in Naming Names, is fascinating and blunt:

When the facilities of the government of the United States are drawn on an individual it can be terrifying. The blacklist is just the opening gambit—being deprived of work. Your passport is confiscated. That’s minor. But not being able to move without being tailed is something else. After a certain point it grows to implied as well as articulated threats, and people succumb. My wife did, and she was institutionalized. The HUAC did a deal with me. I was pretty much worn down. I had no money. I couldn’t borrow. I had the expenses of taking care of the children. Why am I subjecting my loved ones to this? If it’s worth dying for, and I am just as idealistic as the next fellow. But I decided it wasn’t worth dying for, and if this gesture was the way of getting out of the penitentiary I’d do it. I had to be employable again.

And he was, the next year, in On the Waterfront, written by Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg, two other Hollywood figures who testified to HUAC.

Sources: 1

Herbert Hoover in the White House

By nature of their office presidents generally believe the press corps is working against them, but there is little question that in Washington in 1932 reporters and editors had a lively antipathy for Hoover, a disdain unmatched by any successor until the next Quaker to occupy the White House—Richard Nixon, some forty years later.

—From Charles Rappleye’s (excellent) forthcoming Herbert Hoover in the White House (which I’m reviewing for publication): a delicious irony that our nation’s only two ostensibly Quaker presidents were active players in a mutually antagonistic relationship with the press.

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