2001: A Space Iliad

Nick reminded me yesterday of the excellent Washington Post competition from 1999, asking people to amalgamate literary classics into strange new forms:

Green Eggs and Hamlet — Would you kill him in his bed? Thrust a dagger through his head? I would not, could not, kill the King. I could not do that evil thing. I would not wed this girl, you see. Now get her to a nunnery.

Catch-22 in the Rye — Holden learns that if you’re insane, you’ll probably flunk out of prep school, but if you’re flunking out of prep school, you’re probably not insane.

2001: A Space Iliad — The Hal 9000 computer wages an insane 10-year war against the Greeks after falling victim to the Y2K bug.

The others are very good, too (and they include some not on the list you sent me, Nick): follow the link above to see the rest.

Happy birthday, James Joyce!

You’re one hundred and twenty today, on the second day of the second month of the second year of the new millennium, which makes this day also the eightieth anniversary of the publication of your Ulysses. A fine, fine anniversary.

Katy writes [3.2.2002]: I think he’d have enjoyed the almost palindromic date. Did you know he insisted on publishing Ulysses on his 40th birthday, hence the cackhanded and corrupt 1922 edition? And then, he was too flushed with success and booze to ever get round to correcting a second edition? Fine man.

Right-Wing Politicians Seek the Hobbit Vote

From Reuters (with thanks to Naunihal for passing this my way):

ROME (Reuters) – The rest of the world may see box office smash The Lord of the Rings as a mythical tale of hobbits and goblins but some young members of Italy’s far right hope to use the film to promote their political ideals.

“We want to use the event as an incredible volcano to help people understand our view of the world,” said Basilio Catanoso, youth wing leader of the far-right National Alliance party.

Right-wing thinkers and publishers, who introduced the Italian public to the fantasy classic in the 1970s, see the 1,000-page tome by Britain’s J.R.R. Tolkien as a celebration of their own values of physical strength, leadership and integrity.

The National Alliance youth wing is looking back to the 1970s when Italian rightists spun its own interpretation of Tolkien’s mythical world to bolster their image, already imbued with Celtic legends, knights and a cult of personal strength.

“There is a deep significance to this work. The Lord of the Rings is the battle between community and individuality,” Catanoso said.

But the tale can be seen supporting either end of the political spectrum. ”The destruction of the ring of power, the multiracial aspect — hobbits, elves, men and dwarfs united against evil are all leftist ideals,” said Francesco Alo’, editor of Italian film Web site www.caltanet.it.

Tolkien always denied any political intent in the book.

The story follows the struggle of a young hobbit named Frodo Baggins, played by Elijah Wood in the film, to destroy a ring of power which holds the key to the future of civilization.

The cult book evokes a fantasy world peopled by goblins, hobbits and elves.

“Only in Italy is The Lord of the Rings seen as right wing, no other country in the world has a similar reading of Tolkien,” said Valerio Evangelisti, an Italian fantasy writer.

In the 1970s, neo-fascist summer training centers nicknamed ”Hobbit Camps” were set up by the National Alliance’s predecessor, the neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI).

The National Alliance split from the MSI in the mid-1990s. Its current leader, Gianfranco Fini, who is also deputy prime minister, has tried to give the party a new image.

The National Alliance has five ministers in the center-right government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

But tradition still echoes in the party’s ranks.

National Alliance’s youth wing plans a campaign to boost membership, inviting students to “enter the fellowship,” an allusion to The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book of the Tolkien trilogy.

The film opened on Friday in 700 cinemas in Italy. So far it has grossed more than $500 million worldwide.

I’ll stop posting tonight soon, I promise.

James Joyce

From “The Dead”, in Dubliners:

It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

In memoriam James Augustine Aloysius Joyce, died this day, 1941.


Another book to recommend, this time by a former flatmate. (That’s Jennifer, not Alexis).

Alexis de Tocqueville, Writings on Empire and Slavery, edited and translated by Jennifer Pitts, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. “In order for us to colonize to any extent, we must necessarily use not only violent measures, but visibly iniquitous ones. The quarrel is no longer between governments, but between races… the day a European plough touches the soil”. Some people are surprised to learn that the celebrated author of Democracy in America was also a strong partisan of the violent French subjugation of Algeria in the 1840s. Jennifer Pitts’ excellent edition translates several of Tocqueville’s influential political essays on Algeria and slavery into English, astonishingly enough for the first time, and provides useful background and commentary in a valuable introduction. Currently only in hardback; let’s hope this one goes into paperback soon.

Good Books

What’s the point in having a weblog if you don’t get to plug good books by your estimable friends, colleagues and teachers?

Bonnie Honig, Democracy and the Foreigner, Princeton University Press, 2001. Readers in England will be especially interested in Bonnie Honig’s excellent new book, since her account of the ways in which foreign energies simultaneously supplement and subvert the project of democratic citizenship perfectly theorises the role of England football manager Sven-Goran Eriksson in the life of the nation. (Her analysis may even extend to Millennium Dome Supremo Pierre-Yves Gerbeau, too). With illuminating discussions of Machiavelli on founding, Shane, the Book of Ruth, Strictly Ballroom, Rousseau on Poland, the international marriage trade, The Wizard of Oz and Michael Walzer’s What It Means To Be an American, this book presents contemporary academic political theory at its most exciting and least stuffy. A fine, short, and not-too-expensive book. Highly recommended.

Sasha Abramsky, Hard Time Blues: how politics built a prison nation, St Martin’s Press, 2002. New York journalist Sasha Abramsky’s first book – published early next year – won’t be shipped to British bookshops, alas, so you may have to acquire it over the internet, or by getting a friendly US-based colleague to buy a copy over there. But if his writing in The Atlantic Monthly is anything to go by, promises to be a well-researched and exceedingly interesting account of the rise of the mass incarcertation regime in today’s America, where an astonishing two million people are today in the custody of the state and federal authorities’ prison-industrial complex.

David Renton, This Rough Game: Fascism and Anti-Fascism, Sutton Publishing, 2001. The ever-prolific David Renton has yet another book published, hard on the heels of his Fascism: Theory and Practice, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and the State in Britain in the 1940s and Marx on Globalisation. This Rough Game brings together a collection of his recent-ish essays on the subject(s), all of them lively and engaged; and one of them, I am very pleased to say, first published in the pages of The Voice of the Turtle.

Patrick Riley, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau, Cambridge University Press, 2001. This is where I declare an interest, since my own essay on the Stoic and Augustinian origins of Rousseau’s political thought has been published in these pages. The rest of the volume, however, looks superb, and Patrick Riley has done a fine job of assembling a set of essays which provide a comphrehensive overview of Rousseau’s many-sided achievement without a dull moment in sight. Good stuff. Available in bookshops now in an expensive hardback and cheap paperback edition. Buy the paperback.

Launches & Relaunches

It is a time for launches and relaunches. My undergraduate Politics tutor Adam Swift officially launched his new book Political Philosophy: a Beginners’ Guide for Students and Politicians at a party at Politico’s Bookshop in London on Wednesday evening. It was originally to be subtitled A Guide for Students and Prime Ministers, as the book was written so that even Tony Blair might understand it, but the publisher vetoed the title owing to concerns about its prospects in the American market. Then it was going to be … for Students and Statesmen, which is nicely alliterative and has a useful Platonic echo, but that was insufficiently gender-neutral, so now we have … for Students and Politicians instead. (I’m still worrying about the position of the apostrophe in Beginners’). It was a good party, and it is a good book, certainly up there with Jonathan Wolff’s An Introduction to Political Philosophy as one of the best recent treatments of a surprisingly tricky topic.

State of the World

I was in the Little Bookshop in Oxford’s Covered Market earlier today, looking for the usual left-wing books that I tend to buy when I think I have spare cash, and I found a secondhand copy of the The State of the World Atlas, first edition, 1981, on sale for £1.50, edited my Michael Kidron and Ronald Segal. I bought it without hesitation: a bargain.

After a gap of many years, I began thinking about this book again after reading Franco Moretti’s marvellous Atlas of the European Novel last year, another book which uses imaginative maps in a creative way to make very serious points. Then I found myself wondering just how implicated The State of the World Atlas and its successor volumes — including at least one edition of The War Atlas — are in the decade-plus-long process of my political opinions shifting ever leftwards, from 1988 or so to the present.

I think that I must have been given a copy of the book in 1982 or 1983, not too long after it was first published. It must have been before 1984, as that was when The New State of the World Atlas was released, and we had a copy of that, too, though not, I think, any of the successor volumes published in 1987, 1991 or 1995 (though I did have a copy of the 1985 State of the Nation Atlas, an altogether less interesting book in the same vein).

For when I started reading the Atlas, aged nine or so, I loved it. I was interested by the different ways in which the maps were drawn and coloured, in order to present different kinds of information on any number of subjects. At first I looked at the images; it was a couple of years at least before I began reading the small print in the endnotes at all carefully, and finding out what the sources of the information presented were, and it was many years later that I would have come to the conscious realisation that the people who put together this wonderful volume were very left-wing indeed, and that the Atlas was a first-rate piece of entirely admirable and (in my case) terribly effective propaganda.

The Atlas did many things. It taught me that the UNESCO-backed Peters projection of the face of the globe was a horrible distortion on page one. By the time we get to maps 7 to 12, I was being taught something about military conflict in the world, about the arms industry, and about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Map 24 displayed patterns of international indebtedness; map 37 introduced me to the idea of a tax haven; maps 53 and 54 to the extent of the pollution of the face of the earth. Flipping through the book’s pages tonight, I am reminded of just how much my opinions about the state of the world are stuck in a 1981 timewarp, because of the powerful impression this book made on me at the time.

It is at the end of the book that the political agenda becomes most apparent. Some of the maps seem dated: map 56 is of “The First Inflationary Crest”, and graphically displays the various national inflation rates of 1974. Others seem prescient: map 62 depicts “Russia’s Ununited Republics” and emphasises the strains of ethnic and national politics in what we can now – but not then – call the former Soviet Union. And the book closes with maps showing changing abortion laws, and patterns of 1960s student protest and 1970s urban insurrections. The significance of these meant absolutely nothing to me in 1982-3, nor for a time afterwards — but I know that I pored over these pages and that something from them entered into my soul.

In the last few years, there have been a few tenth anniversaries to get used to. People my age tend to think they are too young to have to have the feeling that something they remember happened a decade ago, but it crops up too often to be ignored. I can remember newspaper articles from 1988, the revolutions of 1989, the resignation of Mrs Thatcher in 1990, all as if they took place yesterday. The State of the World Atlas is now twenty years old for me, a rather alarming thought, but twenty years later it remains a wonderful, wonderful book, and it is delightful to remake its acquaintance again, after a gap of so many years.