Tuesday, 3 May 2016

(Part A): Islands in a Time of Civilizational Decline: Israel, Constantinople-Byzantium

Quality assessment: 

On the 5-point scale current in Estonia, and surely in nearby nations, and familiar to observers of the academic arrangements of the late, unlamented, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (applying the easy and lax standards Kmo deploys in his grubby imaginary "Aleksandr Stepanovitsh Popovi nimeline sangarliku raadio instituut" (the "Alexandr Stepanovitch Popov Institute of Heroic Radio") and his  grubby imaginary "Nikolai Ivanovitsh Lobatshevski nimeline sotsalitsliku matemaatika instituut" (the "Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky Institute of Socialist Mathematics") - where, on the lax and easy grading philosophy of the twin Institutes, 1/5 is "epic fail", 2/5 is "failure not so disastrous as to be epic", 3'5 is "mediocre pass", 4.5 is "good", and 5/5 is "excellent"): 4/5. Justification: There was enough time to develop quite a few points to reasonable length, admittedly while having to make a regrettable cut of the essay into two installments (one for 2016-05-03, the other projected for 2016-05-10). 

Revision history:

  • UTC=20160503T0001Z/version 1.0.0: Kmo  uploaded base version (only partly polished), and as a here-undocumented series of uploads over the period UTC=20160503T0002Z/20160503T0300Z (or so)  made various modest tweaks, as versions 1.0.1, 1.0.2, 1.0.3, ... . 

1. Introductory Remarks

In times of cultural decline and cultural collapse, islands, both physical and virtual, take on a distinctive importance. 

Most of us who are involved with this blog, whether on the writer's or on the reader's side, are anchored in a post-Roman, post-Constantinopolitan, civilization. I here somewhat loosely call it "our current civilization". In using this loose mode of expression,  I hope I give no significant offence to whatever readers I might at some point manage to pick up in, for instance, India or China. 

To a first approximation, our current civilization comprises North, Central, and South America, plus Europe, plus Australia and New Zealand, plus some of the Mediterranean tracts of Africa and Asia (I am not sure where to draw lines in this case), plus the vast stretch of northern Asia (running from the Urals eastward to Vladivostok) currently ruled by Moscow. We may take our current civilization as beginning in Western Europe with the final abandonment of Constantinopolitan attempts to assert military supremacy over the Lombard or Gothic tracts of central Italy, and as beginning in Eastern Europe with the rise of Christianized Kievan Rus. 

Current historians cite the reign of Diocletian as a milestone within the long decline of our current civilization's best-known precursor, Rome. Although under Diocletian there was a recovery of sorts, the radical character of that tyrant's attempted remedies casts a searchlight beam on the rot which was by now consuming his Roman foundations. 

Future historians will perhaps take 1914-06-28 Sarajevo as one key roadmarker in our own current civilization's decline. And in that more localized, but important, topic which is the rising, culmination, and setting of the USA, future historians will perhaps take as one key roadmarker 1963-11-22 Dallas. 

The actual end of our current civilization (our, so to speak, anno Domini 476 dethronement of Romulus) I imagine to be still a century or two away, unless our key institutions should happen to break down suddenly and dramatically. We cannot hope to predict such Spielbergian contingencies in detail. Admittedly, we might, in Spielbergian vein, speculate, piling detail on speculative detail, on three particular topics - on the dramatic possibilities of thermonuclear war, of pandemic, and of runaway climate change. 

What examples from history might help suggest a way forward in the - as I myself imagine it, protracted and slow, not Spielbergian -  atmosphere-warming, fossil-fuels-contracting civilizational decline confronting us and our near descendants? One or two dozen small nations, many of them formal nation-states, from the 20th and late 19th centuries, do in their various ways furnish examples which, if in many instances small, seem nevertheless potentially useful.  

I wish I were competent to write on three particular nations in this grouping (two of them, as of the post-1914/1918 era, nation-states, and one perhaps destined to acquire statehood in coming decades), namely Finland, Ireland, and Scotland. It might additionally be wished that I could write something about the Dominican Republic (as a jurisdiction whose successes contrast markedly with the failures of its immediate neighbour, Haiti), or about parts of South America. 

Working, however, within my limitations, I here pick out just two nations from the grouping, on which I do know something, however limited - namely, Israel and Estonia. 

I additionally consider it helpful here to look farther back, to Constantinople - or, as it tended to call itself in what for our purposes here is its most instructive period, Byzantium. 

2. Israel

Although I am not equipped to comment at worthy length on Israel, I do remark what an eye-opener it has been to buy from a second-hand store, and to read from cover to cover, a humble school textbook, "Book Three" of The Jewish People. The text is by one Deborah Pessin. The numerous line drawings are by one Ruth Levin. This is a book published in New York, in a year variously describable as 1953 and 5713, by the United Synagogue Commission on Jewish Education.

I quote here just one scrap from the primer, selected almost at random, with orthographical and typesetting conventions reproduced as in the original. I happened to open the book today, after four or so other quick dips, to pages 108 and 109. The event recounted on that pair of pages, for children aged perhaps 10 or 15, pertains to the life of the 18th-century Baltic polymath Elijah Ben-Solomon Zalman. 

Ben-Solomon Zalman is in fact claimed as an ancestor by my own 2014 municipal nemesis, our distressingly heritage-inimical Town of Richmond Hill Councillor (in Ward Five) Karen Cilevitz. (She is heritage-inimical in having favoured the partial destruction of the David Dunlap Observatory and Park, in actions which need not be discussed here, but which can be studied from my dedicated Web spaces http://www.karen-vs-toomas-blog.ca and http://www.karen-vs-toomas-legaldocs.ca.) So I am for municipal reasons glad the prized book happened to fall open in the way it did today, fortuitously and serendipitously, without excessive guidance from my own sometimes rather vigorously municipal paw: 

/.../ Elijah refused, for he wanted no public position. He preferred the quiet of his study, where he sat over his books, the Bible, the Talmud, the writings of the rabbis, mathematics, astronomy. From this quiet study, which no noise penetrated, the fame of Elijah went forth, over Vilna, over Lithuania, over all of Europe. When Elijah uttered an opinion, the people accepted it as law, so much did they honor the Gaon of Vilna. 


It happened one day, that a messenger came running into the synagogue where Elijah's favorite pupil, Rabbi Hayyim, sat studying. Elijah wanted him at once, the  messenger said. The Gaon was sick, and he wanted Rabbi Hayyim to come to him.

Rabbi Hayyim rushed off to Elijah's house. In hushed tones, Elijah's wife spoke to Rabbi Hayyim. Elijah had not eaten for three days, she said, because he could not understand a pasage in the Talmud. For three days and nights he had been seeking the meaning, refusing to eat till he found it.

Rabbi Hayyim found Elija in bed, his face pale and drawn, an open Talmud on his knees. "Two heads are better than one," said Elijah. And two heads bent over the page of the Talmud, seeking the meaning of the passage. Master and pupil together, they read and reread the Hebrew words in the quiet room where the blinds were drawn to shut out the movements on the street. At last they found it. Elijah rose from his bed, his illness forgotten. 

And I remark on what an eye-opening experience I am having in studying Biblical Hebrew, with my 2009-11-01/2013-12-09-plus-2016-02-10/2016-04-29 timelog showing a cumulative investment of 216 hours, 12 minutes. Biblical Hebrew - so unlike Estonian, and also so unlike English and the other leading European languages: Biblical Hebrew, so unlike even classical Greek! 

One marvels at the possible hand of God in placing Israel in the one spot in the Middle East devoid of that political curse which is petroleum. I have been told over the tea-table that even Lebanon to the north, and the offshore Mediterranean geological strata to the west, harbour some of that corrupting substance. 

And so, also, does one marvel at the possible hand of God in Israel's language. 

Biblical Hebrew has no system of tenses, as we know tenses from English or classical Greek, or indeed (prescinding for the moment from an eccentric, startling, lack of Future conjugations) as we know tenses from Estonian. Rather, Biblical Hebrew verbs can be "Perfect" or "Imperfect", for "complete" or "incomplete" action in whatever time. And the Biblical verbs then branch out into seven (of course) "Stems": the "Qal" ("He/she/it has fully foobargoozar-ed or now fully foobargoozar-eth, or has been or is now or is going to be in process of foobargoozar-ing"), the "Niphal", or "Simple Passive/Reflexive" ("He/she/it is now or has been fully foobargoozar-ed, or has been or is now or is going to be in process of getting foobargoozar-ed"), the"Piel", or "Intensive Active" ("He/she/it has fully foobargoozar-ed really-really HARD, oy vey ist mir, oy gevalt; or now fully foobargoozar-eth really-really HARD, oy vey ist mir, oy gevalt; or has been or is now or is going to be in process of foobargoozar-ing really-really HARD, oy vey ist mir, oy gevalt"), and so on.

It is easy even for the goyische, like me, to pick out some further remarkable aspects of Jewish cultural survival. 

Hebrew as a subject of study is remarkable not only for its intricate verb, but also for the care that the early mediaeval Masorete Hebrew scholars took in transmitting their heritage of vowels. The texts that those Masoretes had inherited, from the era of Roman rule and before, were written for the most part in consonants, with only the occasional "mater lectionis" constant-serving-as-vowel-marker.  To the Masoretes, the texts were sacred, and therefore outside the scope of any thinkable tampering. (Since some time after World War Two, we in fact know, thanks to Isaiah chapters which turn out to be present somewhere in the Qumran scrolls, that the scribal tradition was capable of transmitting texts from Qumran, i.e., from Roman, times down into the Masoretic period with astonishingly few erring consonants.) And yet knowledge of vowel pronunciations was, by the time of those early-mediaeval Masoretes, fading. What to do? 

The Masoretic solution was ingenious. Let us not, they said, tamper with the Sacred by inserting vowel letters. (This would have constituted an imitation of Hellenic or Roman writing, one of both of which I  in my ill-informed way like to imagine they did know.)  Let us rather, they said, put tiny dots and lines - the Pathach, the Qamets, the Tsere, and the rest - under or between or above our forefathers' now-immutable consonants. 

It is additionally remarkable, even to the goyische like me, how Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (in the usual Gentile date reckoning, born in 1858 and deceased in 1922) singlehandedly ensured that it would be Hebrew, not Yiddish, which would become the eventual prescribed language of the State of Israel. In the teeth of opposition from within the little Jewish communities forming under Jewish immigration into his 19th-century Palestine, Ben-Yehuda insisted that Hebrew, not Yiddish, was the appropriate language for Jewish children and adults in kitchens, in parlours, in marketplaces, in town halls. 

I gather from http://www.beit-ben-yehuda.org/summer-ulpan/ that one can study Hebrew in a three-week summer ulpan not far from central Jerusalem, in a house where Eliezer Ben-Yehuda himself once lived. Prices start at a little under 1000 EUR, inclusive not only of tuition but of bed-and-breakfast. This commercial remark I make without having any commercial links at all to the ulpan. 

What more can, or need, be said here about Israel as a successful instance of heritage conservation?

One of course does well to listen to the anthem Hatikvah ("The Hope"), in its sombre interiority, so unlike the upbeat, and in some instances even triumphalist, tunes favoured by Russia, France, Finland-plus-Estonia, Germany, the United Kingdom, the USA, and Canada. That sombre interiority is in my amateur judgement specially well captured at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eR-xRwPvU6I&feature=related (upload of 2008-10-12, by YouTube user, and conductor, Alexander Tsaliuk in Moscow, under the auspices of the "Musica Viva Academic Chamber Orchestra"). 

Further, one does well to hear "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav", "Jerusalem of Gold". (I do gather here that "shel", as a preposition, is not correctly Biblical: this is a bit like prepositions increasingly wiggling their way into Latin in the days of Jerome or later, contrary to the earlier careful phrasing of that normative prose master, Marcus Tullius Cicero.) One would here recommend the interpretation of the late Ofra Haza, as for instance at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JH8gtdDA5x0. The just-cited upload, by YouTube user Yael Lavie, from 2010-03-07, is helpfully accompanied both by touristic photos and by English-language subtitling. 

Finally, one does well to recall that triumphal arch in the Foro Romano. 

Around it is desolation. 

The sundrenched urban Italian ruins are the result not of storm or earthquake, but of human plundering. Their story of conservation failure is a kind of David Dunlap Observatory and Park magnified a millionfold, projected onto the grand Spengler-or-Toynbee screen of world history. Once forensic and political authorities, including the already-mentioned normative master of clean Latin prose, M.T.Cicero, transacted high business of State in the Foro (or, as they called it, the Forum - in forum ibimus ("We shall go into the Forum"); nunc in foro sumus ("Now we are in - within, inside -  the Forum")). Around or after the boy-emperor Romulus's anno Domini 476 dethronement came people who did not understand or care - careless people who pillaged the buildings for their stone, and who let their livestock graze on such grass as now grew. 

The triumphal arch stands as one of the few reasonably intact things in a eerie downtown-Rome desert. It shows in bas-relief the triumph of the erstwhile political and military power, the universally respected and feared erstwhile "SPQR" ("senatus populusque romanus", "the Roman Senate and Volk"). 

The things in the bas-relief pageant are now consigned to history's trashbin - the soldiers, the powermen - with one exception. That exception is a menorah or similar votive candelabrum. The sculpture represents it as a piece of booty, borne aloft by conquerors. But it is in reality a ceremonial candelabrum of a usage and pattern ubiquitous today in every heritage-respecting Jewish community. 

3. Constantinople-Byzantium

On Byzantium I am again not competent to comment at length. I do, to be sure, plead as a positive factor that four decades ago I spent several years on classical Greek, eventually being able to read Plato with lexicon and grammar book open, and yet with "crib" (in my case, English translation) generally closed. 

But I do remark, commenting tersely, that Byzantium offers us a specially relevant instance of a virtual island. This is an island with a feature relevant to us, as we ourselves - and our children and grandchildren, our nieces and nephews and grandnieces and grandnephews - struggle with our own inexorable civilizational extinction. 

What is unique is not just the protracted Byzantine maintenance of heritage, but on top of this the protracted, and singularly deft, Byzantine management of contraction. 

A feature of early Byzantine history might find its parallels in our own immediate future. For a while, it looked as though Byzantium (or in more imperial parlance Constantinople) was winning out, even to the point of expansion. Under Justinian the Great, Constantinople-Byzantium not only held its own militarily in stretches of the East, but managed to hold much of the shattered, and now de-urbanizing, Roman empire in the West. At its height, in anno Domini 555, Justinian's imperial sway encompassed, incredibly, all of Italy, Sicily included; much of Roman Africa, from the Nile to the waters off Hispania; terrain on both sides of the Pillars of Hercules (including a large swath of Hispania itself); Sardinia and Corsica; and modern-day Sinai, Israel-Gaza-Jordan, Lebanon, and lands farther east; and Turkey, and Greece; and more. I imagine strategists in Constantinople looking at the crude landmass maps of that pre-Mercator era and dreaming of still further advances. Perhaps, they said,  "If we cannot retake the remote, sodden, chilly, and low-value Britannia, at least we can soon embark on the reconquest of Gallia." 

Our own decline might well end up featuring some similar false dawn. 

Or have we, perhaps, already had our False Dawn? Was that False Dawn, perhaps, the seemingly permanent triumph of democracy over totalitarianism in 1945 (for those lucky enough to live west of the River Elbe) and 1991 (for those lucky enough to live west of the Russian frontier)? With the hopes thus aroused destined to be ever so slowly and steadily ground down, not over six decades but over ten, even over twenty? 

After anno Domini 555, things Constantinopolitan went downhill, of course. What is, however, noteworthy is how deftly those particular authorities steered that particular toboggan. 

The Byzantines, first of all, were masters in diplomacy - in their case, in projecting a perhaps not-quite-honestly intimidating bella figura, or "respect-worthy face",  in the absence of fully substantive, policing-capable, land and sea forces. 

Even the humiliating 1204 sack of Constantinople by a new kind of barbarian, the Western-Europe Crusader, was not the end. A kind of government-in-exile carried on. This was a bit like the well-known Polish 1939-through-1990 government-in-exile in Paris, Angers, and (from 1940 onward) London. Or, again, like its less well known 1944-through-1992 Estonian counterpart, I think formally in Oslo and de facto in a way in Stockholm, with notable diplomatic outposts in Washington (this I never saw) and London (this I visited, briefly, in a courtesy call as a very ordinary Estonian citizen, perhaps in the summer of 1985). No doubt there have been other grimly determined governments-in-exile in the Hitler upheaval, of which today's professional diplomatic historians are duly knowlegeable. 

After a couple of generations, or so, of  Crusader usurpation, following the trauma that was 1204, legitimate rulers were restored to the Byzantine throne. 

The frontiers, admittedly, contracted and contracted. Some chronicler, somewhere, recounts how where the imperial palace used to have tapestry hangings, with gemstones, there were now hangings of painted leather, with bits of coloured glass. 

And yet the absolute end did not come until the late spring of 1453. 

Indeed I myself wonder (subject, however, to correction by professional historians or professional diplomatists) whether the final Byzantine chapter has even now been played out. 

If you visit the monasteries of Mount Athos, you are formally travelling in a European Union state, namely in Greece. Nevertheless, I gather that you get a special document authorizing your entry to this particular terrain within the overall governance of Athens. It is a special kind of travel paper - a rather intimidating diploma - bearing some of the heraldic or other documentary stylings of the Byzantine State. I believe - subject to correction by professionals - that this thing, this carnet-de-passage or whatever one is in strict professional accuracy required to call it, is a legal instrument of a type readily intelligible to a Constantinopolitan civil servant from the winter of 1452, or earlier. 

Russians are known for having proclaimed, in recent centuries, their Muscovy - from Ivan the Terrible onward, a pronounced nuisance to, among others, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and the specially subjugated Ukraine - to be a "Third Rome". We may well ridicule a few of the more recent forms of this Muscovite proclamation. We may well point out that Russia, as a state, not only never really recovered from the 1917 late-autumn Party, but  is now a condition of decay, with some of its some key indicators rivalling and surpassing the decline evident in the European Union and North America. Its once-proud universities, even Lomonosov Moscow State, are currently well down in the world ranking tables. Its system of criminal justice is worse than a joke. (I recall the percentage acquittal rate as being being beyond all belief low - perhaps standing at one percent, or two). Even the infant mortality and adult-male life expectancy statistics present a stark, and indeed to the analyst a rather baffling, contrast to the more favourable statistics of neighbouring, far-from-rich, countries. 

And yet it might be that something, some kind of cultural preservation intimately bound up with Russia's Orthodox churches and monasteries (rather direct heirs of the post-1054 Eastern patriarchate), and guided by some future Russian institution's studies in  the subtle theology and subtle philosophy of Byzantium, will be achieved by some future Russian generation. 

[to be continued, with next upload planned for the four-hour "early UTC Tuesday" interval 
20160510T0001Z/20160510T0401Z; it will at that point be necessary to discuss Estonia at some length; and to remark more briefly on the wider philosophical import of our local incipient David Dunlap Observatory and Park heritage-conservation failure, here in Ontario, Canada; and to conclude with some general remarks on conservation-during-social-collapse] 

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