Maquina Lectora

Notes of a curious mind

Category: Authors (Page 1 of 22)

On a Rereading of “The Name of the Rose”

When it’s cold, dark and rainy or I’ m just tired and I just want to cuddle up with a book and a blanket, I choose to read a book – preferably a novel – that I know and I like. In one of these dark, wet and rainy evenings, as I was looking for a book, the cover of The Name of the Rose caught my eye.

I first read Umberto Eco’s bestselling book in 1985, in Greek translation. I read it again, around 2000, the English translation this time, and, while I was learning Italian, I made an attempt to read it in its original language, albeit unsuccessfully. I don’t think I read more than 20 pages. I went back to Greek and English translations.

The Name of the Rose_ The 1985 Greek edition.

Needless to say, I love this book.  A monastic library built as a labyrinth in Italy during the Middle Ages, a lost book of Aristotelian philosophy devoted to laughter and comedy, raging theological debates over the question of ownership of property by Christ and the apostles and a series of murders that the Franciscan monk, William of Baskerville attempts to solve with the help of his young student Adso of Melk. The highly intelligent, curious, and voracious reader William of Baskerville is essentially a medieval Sherlock Holmes in a monastery, and Adso, his Watson. What’s not to like!

The Name of The Rose is a book about books. It’s also about people, men in particular, with their weaknesses and failings, their desires and fears, their ambitions and passions, men who have dedicated their lives to knowledge and they are ready to do anything in order to put their hands on a certain, rare book.

“Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors.”

The Name of the Rose is not an easy book. The first 100 pages are particularly difficult. You need a good Latin dictionary and some working knowledge of the politics of the papacy to understand the diversity and the complex political structure of Europe in the Middle Ages.

Celestine V was succeeded by Boniface VIII, and this Pope promptly demonstrated scant indulgence for Spirituals and Fraticelli in general: in the last years of the dying century he signed a bull, Firma cautela, in which with one stroke he condemned bizochi, vagabond mendicants who roamed about at the far edge of the Franciscan order, and the Spirituals themselves, who had left the life of the order and retired to a hermitage.

After the death of Boniface VIII, the Spirituals tried to obtain from certain of his successors, among them Clement V, permission to leave the order peaceably. I believe they would have succeeded, but the advent of John XXII robbed them of all hope. When he was elected in 1316, he wrote to the King of Sicily telling him to expel those monks from his lands, where many had taken refuge; and John had Angelus Clarenus and the Spirituals of Provence put in chains.

Reading this passage, I couldn’t help but wondering if I had I understood anything of this when I first read the book, in 1985, without internet and google search to help me find information about certain people and places. Luckily, I had been taught Latin at school and I was able to understand  some of the – many – Latin quotes.

The Name of the Rose is an amazing and enjoyable book. Read it as many times as you wish, in any language, it never disappoints. It is one of these book that makes you want to start reciting the words of Thomas à Kempis “In omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro.”

Women and Power by Mary Beard

Mary Beard has written a powerful and beautiful book. A book that you can carry in your bag, read it and then re-read it, and read it once more (I have already read it twice).

We live in an era that women, around the world, have more power than ever before.  But women are less represented in the sectors and positions with the most power – men still dominate decision-making and our cultural and mental template for a powerful person remains absolutely male.

If we close our eyes and try to conjure up the image of a president or – to move into the knowledge economy – a professor, what most of us see is not a woman. And that is just as true even if you are a woman professor.: the cultural stereotype is so strong that, at the level of those close-your-eyes fantasies, it is still hard for me to imagine me, or someone like me, in my role.

Mary Beard

Mary Beard’s subject is the ways women get silenced in public discourse. From Ancient Greece to Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton. From Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, 3000 year ago, when Telemachus effectively told her to “shut up” to Senator Elizabeth Warren which, on February 2017, was silenced for reading at the Senate, a 30-year-old letter written by Coretta Scott King criticizing attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions.[1]  But Senate Republicans notably didn’t object when Sanders and three other male senators[2] —— later read portions of the same letter on the Senate floor.

But the book is not only about women in the highest echelons of power in international politics. It is about all of us, all women that work and participate in public life. Women that are often subject to sexism and prejudice. Yes, there is misogyny, and misogyny is a good place to start in understanding the general phenomenon, but what is going on today is a bit more complicated.  It has to do with authority, male authority to be precise.

Women pay a very high price for being heard. Many women, including Mary Beard, have been the targets of misogynistic abuse via social media. Such hateful and hostile reactions are frequently directed at women who challenge men’s power and authority and they are liable to be written off as nasty, greedy, selfish and domineering.  Misogyny and abuse are corrosive of women’s participation in public life, but this is something entirely different, it is about demeaning, trivialising, even threatening, it is an enforced silencing of women.

But the more I have looked at the threats and insults that women have received, the more they seem to fit into the old patterns that I have talking about. For a start it doesn’t matter what line you take as a woman, if you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It is not what you say that prompts it, it is simply the fact that you are saying it.

Mary Beard

Medusa has been used for centuries to criticize powerful women. In Western culture, strong women have historically been imagined as threats that need to be controlled and, for centuries, Medusa, a symbol of seduction and power, feminist and castration threat, has been used to criticise and demonize female authority. It is no surprise then, that Medusa has cropped up repeatedly to depict influential female figures as the mythological snake-haired monster.  A few minutes on google search shows that it is a trend, to photoshop women in power as Medusas. Nancy Pelosi, Angela Merkel, Teresa May, Hillary Clinton, all are presented with snaky hair.

At the end of the 19th Susan B. Anthony identified the lack of women on newspapers,

“If the men own the paper- that is, if the men control the management of the paper- then the women who write for these papers must echo the sentiment of these men. And if they do not do that, their heads are cut off.”

Susan B. Anthony

But this is the 21st century. We have been silenced for too long. Not anymore.

[1] In it, King had argued that as a federal prosecutor, Sessions had used his power to “chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.” McConnell stood by his accusation that Warren had violated Rule 19, a rarely evoked chamber regulation that prohibits senators from insulting each other on the Senate floor. “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” #ShePersisted immediately a battle cry and a hashtag used by liberals and feminists to support Elizabeth Warren.

[2] New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley

The Age of Em by Robin Hanson

I really don’t know what to make of this book.  It was on my bedside table for more than 3 weeks. This is very, very unusual. It is not that I couldn’t read it, it was actually quite interesting but I could manage only a few pages at a time, and that’s because I needed time to think about and reflect on what I had just read. It sounded so weird and so unbelievable that I wasn’t sure if this was a serious work from an accomplished academic, as Dr Robin Hanson, or a science fiction dystopia. Perhaps, it’s both.

Ok, let’s start.  Nowadays, our economy doubles roughly every 15 years, from every 1000 years during the farming period. If this trend were to continue, we should expect, according to the statistics models, that sometime during the next century, our economy to go to doubling every one month, or so.  This will last for a couple of years maybe, and then something entirely different will happen that would change everything. What will cause that disruptive change? The arrival of artificial intelligence, that is robots, smart enough to substitute wholesale for human workers.

There are several stories how this will become possible. One scenario is that we will keep writing and accumulating better software. At this rate, we need about three to four centuries for a full AI. Another scenario is that humans would be able to modify their biology so as to achieve a superhuman intelligence. Robin Hanson, who studied physics and was a software engineer before he become an economics professor at George Mason University, believes there is an entirely different way, and that is porting software from where it already exists, and that is the human brain.

To do that we need three things. First, fast computers, much faster than those today, second, scanning machines that will be able to produce a most detailed scan of the human brain with all its particular cell features and connections, and finally, computer models that would be able to process signals for each brain cell.  If we have all these, then we can have robots which will be whole brain emulations or “ems,” for short.  Robin Hanson expects that the first ems will appear within roughly a century or so.

Emulations are not a new idea, there have been in science fiction for many decades. Arthur Clarke investigated this idea in his novel The City and the Stars, in 1956 and more recently in 2003, in his novella The Cookie Monster, Vernor Vinge explores the idea of conscious computer simulations.

In The Age of Em, Robin Hanson focus on robots and how the world would look like at the next big era after ours. He explores what happens in this strange world that it is dominated by trillions of ems that live and work in liquid-cooled skyscrapers, in very dense and very hot cities where they can quickly interact with other ems. He talks about the physics the economy, the organisation and their attitudes to law, politics, love, sex, and a lot of different other things.

Ems are smart, efficient, conscientious and workaholics. They basically work all the time but despite their hard work, they earn just enough to survive. Because they are so many and because it is easy – although not inexpensive – to make a lot more, the value of the work goes down. It is the supply- demand concept of economics.

Ems congregate in related “clans” and make use of Decision Markers to make key group decisions. Psychologically are very human.  They are not ordinary humans, but they have all the psychological tendencies that humans have. They are after all emulation of human brains that are put on a computer. Therefore, they develop relationships, they have friends, lovers, work connections. Some ems have bodies, others do not.

Emulations do not have to feel pain, or hunger. They don’t have to face death as they can make billions of copies of themselves.  Em ethics are different from ours. Their society is less democratic and gender-balanced, more divided into district classes, and its leaders are more accessible and trusted.

But what about humans? If they survive, they will retire somewhere outside the dense cities and will live on pensions doing whatever they want to do. It is not very clear, humans are not the purpose of Robin Hanson.

The Age of Em is an efficiency, undemocratic utopia or dystopia, depending on your perspective.  The em scenario is not entirely persuasive to me but the book provides a baseline for future study in the important topic of artificial intelligence.

Ο Αγνωστος Καραμανλής του Κωνσταντίνου Τσάτσου

«Δεν νομίζω ότι υπήρξα μεγάλος. Φαίνομαι ίσως μεγάλος, γιατί δεν είχα άξιους αντιπάλους.»

Κωνσταντίνος Καραμανλής

Πρωτοδιάβασα  το  Ο Άγνωστος Καραμανλής του Κωνσταντίνου Τσάτσου το 1984. Ο Κωνσταντίνος Καραμανλής έκτιε την πρώτη του προεδρική θητεία (μέχρι το 1985 που τον  διαδέχθηκε ο Χρήστος Σαρτζετάκης). Δεν είμαι σίγουρη ότι είχα τότε αξιολογήσει σωστά ούτε το βιβλίο, ούτε ειχα σκεφτεί αρκετά για τον Κ. Καραμανλή. Κάποια πράγματα απαιτούν μια  απόσταση και  μια ωριμότητα, τόσο χρονική όσο και συναισθηματική.  Το να  διαβάζεις για έναν πολιτικό, όταν ακόμα αυτός βρίσκεται εν ζωή, σε μια εποχή έντονων μεταβολών τόσο σε επίπεδο κοινωνικών συμπεριφορών όσο και σε επίπεδο πολιτικών και διοικητικών θεσμών, ίσως  να μην ειναι και  ο καλύτερος τρόπος να αποτιμήσεις την πορεία, το πολιτικό έργο και τον χαρακτήρα ενός πολιτικού.

Οι αυταπάτες, οι παλινωδίες και οι λαϊκίστικες εξάρσεις των τελευταίων χρόνων, με έκαναν να γυρίσω πίσω,  να ξαναδιαβάσω για το παρελθόν, όχι τόσο για να καταλάβω το παρόν, αλλά περισσότερο για να θυμηθώ και να ξαναγνωρίσω έναν από τους ανθρώπους που διαμόρφωσε την νεώτερη πολιτική πορεία της χώρας και που ξεχώρισε για τον πολιτικό πραγματισμό του, αλλα και για τα στοιχεία, θετικά και αρνητικά, που συνέθεταν την προσωπικότητα του.

Η φιλία και η εκτίμηση του Κωνσταντίνου Τσάτσου προς τον Κωνσταντίνο Καραμανλή είναι γνωστή. Παρόλο που Κ. Καραμανλής δεν ταυτίστηκε απόλυτα με τη φιλοσοφία του Κ. Τσάτσου η εκτίμηση ήταν αμοιβαία και ο Τσάτσος υπηρέτησε ως υπουργός στις κυβερνήσεις του. Ο φόβος του κομμουνισμού αποτελούσε τον κεντρικό άξονα των πολιτικών και θεσμικών επίλογων του  Κ. Τσάτσου, ενώ ο Κ. Καραμανλής δεν πίστευε στην ιδεολογική απομόνωση και δεν είχε μιλήσει “για κομμουνι­στική απειλή ούτε για ανάγκη να περιορισθούν τα δικαιώματα των μη εθνικοφρόνων.” [1]

Ο Άγνωστος Καραμανλής  είναι ένα δοκίμιο που αποβλέπει σε μια ενδοσκόπηση της προσωπικότητας του Κ.  Καραμανλή. Μελετά τον Καραμανλή σαν προσωπικότητα, τον εσωτερικό άνθρωπο, το ήθος και τον χαρακτήρα. Πως, αυτός άνθρωπος, με αυτόν τον χαρακτήρα, έρχεται σε επαφή  και πως συνεργάζεται με τον κόσμο γύρω του.

To βιβλίο δεν είναι ιστορικό, ωστόσο o K. Τσάτσος αναφέρεται σε ορισμένα ιστορικά γεγονότα, κυρίως των ετών 1955-1967 που συνδέονται με το πρόσωπο του Καραμανλή, για να γίνει πιο πλήρης η σκιαγράφηση της προσωπικότητάς του και για να εξηγήσει την θέση του Καραμανλή μπρος στην Ευρώπη και τον κόσμο. Στο δοκίμιο περιλαμβάνονται και κάποιες επιστολές του Κ. Καραμανλή όπου εμφανίζεται η πολιτική σκέψη του.

Απόσπασμα από επιστολή του Κ. Καραμανλή το 1945

Δυο πράγματα στον Καραμανλή εντυπωσίασαν τον Κ. Τσάτσο. Πρώτα ότι η πολιτική πορεία του Καραμανλή ήταν ευθύγραμμη. Οι βασικές του αρχές και σκέψεις  ήταν οι ίδιες από την νεαρή του ηλικία, στην περίοδο της Κατοχής και ήταν πολύ προοδευτικότερες από εκείνες που επικρατούσαν στην παράταξη από την οποία προερχόταν.  Δεύτερον, την ενδεχόμενη πολιτική άνοδό του την αισθανόταν σαν κάτι φυσικό.

Το πήδημα από τη θέση του υπουργού, του πετυχημένου εκτελεστή, στη θέση του πρωθυπουργού μου φάνηκε ότι το έκανε χωρίς δυσκολία, διότι μέσα του το είχε εκτελέσει ήδη προ πολλού ….. Χωρίς να το δείχνη, χωρις να το διακηρύσση, αναγνώριζε στον εαυτό του την ιδιότητα του ηγέτη, σαν να είχε γεννηθη γι’ αυτή την αποστολή.

Ο Καραμανλής έζησε μια μοναχική ζωή. Ενσυνείδητα  και προμελετημένα είχε πλάσει την εμφάνισή του, αυστηρή, αινιγματική και δυσπρόσιτη για να κρατά τον τρίτο σε απόσταση.  Πίσω όμως από τη βιτρίνα του απρόσιτου, λακωνικού, ακόμη και αγριωπού πολιτικού ηγέτη υπήρχε ένας βαθύτατα συναισθηματικός άνθρωπος, που όμως δεν επέτρεπε να ξεφύγει τίποτε από μέσα του που θα μπορούσε να χαλάσει την εικόνα του εαυτού του, όπως την ήθελε ο ίδιος να παρουσιάζεται στους άλλους.

Ουσιαστικά,  ο Κ. Καραμανλής έκτισε απο πολύ νωρίς, αυτό που σήμερα ονομάζουμε πολιτικό branding. Μια εικόνα / προιόν (brand) δηλαδή που ενισχύει το κυρίαρχο αίσθημα και την εντύπωση που έχει το κοινό ή  ο λαός για έναν πολιτικό, και δημιουργεί – παρ’ όλα τα αρνητικά χαρακτηριστικά που αυτό το  πρόσωπο μπορεί να έχει – ένα αίσθημα και μια σχέση εμπιστοσύνης μεταξύ του πολιτικού και του λαού.

[1] Ν. Αλιβιζάτος Ο Κ. Τσάτσος και το Σύνταγμα του 1952, 1947-1967.

Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide by Lynsey Hanley

Class is a Communist concept. It groups people as bundles and sets them against one another,”  wrote Margaret Thatcher in 1992. A couple of year later, John Major hailed Britain’s “classless society” and just before the 1997 elections John Prescott announced that “we’re all middle class now”.

Politicians used to pretend that there are no class differences in Britain and therefore the “class gap” received almost no attention at all. But pretending does not mean that class differences don’t exist or that they are no longer important.

Each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty,” wrote thirty years ago the British sociologist Richard Hoggart. In the second decade of the 21st century, class distinctions still pervade almost all aspects of English culture and life.  And continuously, find new ways of expressing themselves.

According to a BBC survey in 2013, the traditional categories of working, middle and upper class are outdated (only 39% of the people in Britain fit in these three categories). They have been replaced by seven social classes which include, in addition to traditional occupation, wealth and education, the economic (income, savings, house ) and cultural (interests and activities) capital.

Class is such a complex concept, after 20 years living and working in the UK, I am still struggling to grasp all the aspects of class divide and social mobility. We have known that social mobility is lower in the UK than elsewhere in Europe and that is failing; the university access gap between rich and poor has actually widened in recent years.

In her book Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide,  Lynsey Hanley describes her upbringing on the Chelmsley Wood council estate in the 1980080s, as well as the experience and the significance of undertaking social mobility in the context of wider social inequality.

Hanley also writes about respectability as a condition within working class communities. Respectability as against rough. She examines the idea of respectability as a way of how individuals are preserving dignity and self-respect and also as a way of getting closer to the values of dominant society.

“Respectability is a property of your specific circumstances: circumstances which permit you, or at least make it easier, to maintain the appearances and felling of self-respect.”

Richard Hoggart, and especially his book in The Uses of Literacy (1957) is a great influence to Lynsey Hanley. Following Hoggard’s detailed description of British urban working-class people in the years spanning the second world war, Lynsey Hanley also sets her book and the story of social mobility in a specific time and place.

“This is an attempt to make, out of a personal story, a sense rather more than the personal.”

_Richard Hoggart

Lynsey Hanley’s book helps to bring class back on the map and the conversation. She also sets a few existential questions about social mobility and describes how the physical walls of council estates sustain what she calls ‘walls in the head’ – the ‘invisible barriers to knowledge, self-awareness and social mobility’. It is a fantastic book.


Little Nothing by Marisa Silver

“Think of a flower blooming,” says the midwife to Agata. “A rose opening, the petals pushing out ….out …..”

But childbirth is not as gentle as the opening of a rose, and the baby girl is not the perfect baby, her parents have dreamed.  She looks “like a rag doll sewn together from cast-off parts,” cries the mother. The baby girl is a dwarf, a disfigured little thing with a big head and short limps that smells of roses. The mother called her Pavla, which literally means little.

Pavla lives in a small village somewhere in Eastern Europe in the late 1800s, at the turn of the century, perhaps. When her parents let her attend school, the other children call Pavla Little Nothing and they assault her in a deliberately humiliating way. These humiliations prepare her for the struggles that await her in the next years.   As she matures, something enticing happens, ‘an unmistakable loveliness reveals itself.’ Her beauty agitates the villagers, makes them wonder if she is really real.

Fearing for their daughter’s future, her parents visit local doctors looking for a treatment to her dwarfism. It is when one of these “doctors” slowly stretches her apart that Pavla’s physical form makes a radical change, the first of several body transformations that seem to be motivated by some existential experience: life and death, meaning and happiness, good and evil.

“How easy is to admire evil, to become entranced by its singularity of purpose and its amoral beauty.”

Little Nothing reaches back into a magical and horrified world of gypsy curses, circus shows, werewolves, war and rural poverty. It a story about love, but it is not a love story, not in the classic sense anyway. It is a love that exists beyond the realm of the physical, it is a love that motivates, it is a way to find out who you are.

Marisa Silver’s writing is raw, intense and vivid. Little Nothing is not an easy book, the impossibility of some of the events may not appeal to everyone.  It is a thrilling and wonderful book, an allegorical, complex and ambiguous fairy tale about metamorphosis.

“Marcus fell silent. Danilo looked at the sky and watched the sound disappear into the vast emptiness where nothing and everything exists and where all stories begin.”

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