Monday, 28 September 2015

Homer as a "surprisingly accurate observer of anatomy": The Iliad, injury, and mortality rates

No one can hurry me down to Hades before my time, but if a man's hour is come, be he brave or be he coward, there is no escape for him when he has once been born. - The Iliad
Few readers - or academics - could have read The Iliad with more care than P. B. Adamson has.

As a historian of military medicine, he went through Homer's epic poem and listed every single cut and injury, together with the weapon of cause, and whether the wound was fatal or not. 

The Wrath of Achilles (1819), by Michel Drolling

I read about this in Gavin Francis' excellent Adventures in Human Being: a hugely interesting exploration of the body, one part at a time, with frequent intersections from art, literature, history, and broader science.

As Gavin Francis writes of Homer,
The author of The Iliad was a surprisingly accurate observer of anatomy. [...] There are some medically qualified Homer enthusiasts who have gone so far as to propose him as an early battlefield medic. Repeated through The Iliad are careful accounts of spear wounds, arrow strikes and sword blows, which take care not just to describe the part of the body that has been wounded, but the physiological effects of those wounds and, on occasion, specific treatments.
While The Iliad is not a historical document, something that Adamson fully acknowledges, his findings are fascinating nonetheless.

Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis,
published 2015.

Form of attack 

41 per cent of those hit by a stone in Homer's epic end up dead. Archery delivers poorer accuracy than close-up violence: 74 per cent mortality as opposed to 100 per cent for swords and 97 per cent for spear thrusts.

The legs

The legs of Homer's characters are rarely injured, and there are perhaps two main reasons for this. Firstly, the head, neck and trunk are generally the parts of the body aimed for. Secondly, during the Trojan War, men would frequently be fighting thigh-deep in the bodies of their fallen comrades, from the back of a waist-high chariot, or even from the protection of their ships.

The arms 

When the arms are damaged, it’s usually because they are being raised in defence, or injured while themselves raised in violence. 

As Gavin Francis notes in Adventures in Human Being, these patterns are still seen today: when assessing victims of domestic abuse, doctors often check the forearms first, as these are typically raised when warding off an attacker.

Violence and the passing of time

Adamson also explores changes in the form of attack (largely due to developed technology and machinery) and consequent injury, alongside advances in medicine. 

Spears were most deadly during the Trojan War (the setting of The Iliad), while swords had become the most fatal weapon by the time of the Romans described by Virgil in The Aeneid.

From the Crimean War, to WWI, to the present

Despite the horrific squalor and brutality of the Crimean War, the mortality rate from injuries was 26 per cent. 

A similar rate applies to British troops in the First World War. Of two and a quarter million soldiers, under six hundred thousand died as a result of their injuries. 

In World War I, Adamson shows that at their worst, shells and bombs turn up a mortality rate of 29 per cent. This is less than the mortality rate for thrown stones described in The Iliad.

The topic of research is brutal, but brutality - like the fragility of the human body - is hard to gloss over.

But what are men, but leaves that drop from their branches to the earth? Apollo’s speech, The Iliad, Book XXI, v 540

P. B. Adamson. "A Comparison of Ancient and Modern Weapons in the Effectiveness of Producing Battle Casualties", Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps 123 (1977) 93–103.

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Thursday, 24 September 2015

Tolstoy on doing "a lot of bad things, without wishing to - simply from imitating grown-ups"

When researching Tolstoy, I find myself noticing a common theme of failure: of not being quite good enough, of not carrying out goals, and of getting into all kinds of trouble.

In War and Peace, there's Pierre's bumbling insecurity and failure to live up to expectations in the early stages of the novel, culminating in the policeman-tied-to-a-bear incident.

Like Pierre, Tolstoy also suffered from peer pressure in his own life. This was namely the influence of the most good-looking of his brothers, Sergey, who had a reputation for good humour and singing continually (as described in Rosamund Bartlett's biography). 

In his memoirs, Tolstoy admits that he “actually wanted to be him”, and as they entered adolescence, Tolstoy made the bad decision to follow Sergey's choices. 

After Tolstoy turned fourteen in August 1842, Sergey and another of his brothers, Nikolay, took him for the first time to a brothel. As he later admitted to a friend, after his first sexual experience he stood by the woman’s bed and wept. 

Tolstoy regretted the lack of moral guidance during his teenage years, and confided in his diary on 1 January 1900 that: 

No moral rules were instilled into me at all - none; yet round about me grown-ups were self-assuredly smoking, drinking and leading a dissolute life [...] And I did a lot of bad things, without wishing to - simply from imitating grown-ups.

Critic Lisa Zunshine describes Pierre in War and Peace as a "conscious little rock" for having no idea why he acts the way he does and allowing his sensual desires to triumph over rationality.

Much the same could be said for Tolstoy. Yet because of this, Tolstoy and his fiction seem so real. Failure couldn't be more human.

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Wednesday, 23 September 2015

"The universe is made of stories, not atoms": 10 reasons to tell your story, as inspired by Bobette Buster's Do Story

Bobette Buster, a story consultant, lecturer and screenwriter, covers a huge amount in the 112 pages of Do Story

The book - one of the "inspirational pocket guidebooks" by the independent publishing house The Do Book Company - is a beautifully inspiring exploration of storytelling, but is perhaps more so an encouragement to accept vulnerability and open up about ourselves.

This is one of the reasons why I started this website back in 2012, as well as a huge incentive to keep writing. 

But there are many reasons to tell stories, as Do Story explores. Here are some of them. Perhaps use them as encouragement to open up to a friend, think about the storyline of your life so far, or start off by journaling. 

After all, as the wonderful quote by Muriel Rukeyser (and shared in Do Story) goes: "The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."

Some reasons to tell your stories (they're much more important than you think)

1. Stories impact everything we do:
How well you tell your story can make the difference to anything you do – whether that’s convincing someone to love you, buy something you’ve made, or give something of themselves; or how well you make your way in the world; or, simply, in sharing who you are.
2. Stories connect us by illuminating common ground.

3. By telling and hearing stories we become inspired. We can envisage a better life for ourselves and become more courageous.

4. Stories provide clarity. They help us to understand our feelings and interpret the world around us.

5. Stories let us share our vision of ourself, our experience, and the world.

6. Stories develop our self-esteem. As Bobette Buster shares, it's thought that the more a child knows his family’s ‘story’ – the better informed he is about his family and obstacles they have overcome in order to survive and thrive – the ‘stronger a child’s sense of control over his life, the higher his self-esteem’.

7. As Bobette Buster says, stories are "prescriptions for courage":
In short, stories are prescriptions for courage. They illustrate how to run the race. And win. We are not born with courage. We may possess bravado, even arrogance. Youth normally does. But courage is a quiet, spiritual muscle discovered only when you face your greatest fear. Stories embolden, strengthen, and establish how we can become our very best.
8. By talking about the turning points in our lives, we can nurture the possibility of transformation.

9. Storytelling gives us a chance to discover who we are. 

10. Our stories make us unique and exceptional. We're the ones who can share them.

Own your own narrative, risk your vulnerability, and tell your stories well. Do Story provides brilliant help for the journey.

If you like Do Books, you might also like the 99u book series. They're both inspiring and beautifully-produced additions to a bookshelf.

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Monday, 21 September 2015

"Works which made an impression": Leo Tolstoy's favourite books from each stage of his life

Tolstoy, 1895. Published by Cassell and Co, 
NY, 1911.
In 1891, a Petersburg publisher (who was undergoing the impressive feat of asking 2,000 influential luminaries for their favourite books) contacted Leo Tolstoy to ask about the books that had
influenced him.

Somewhat characteristically considering his love for lists, Tolstoy grouped his recommendations into the five stages of his life that he had covered so far, up to the age of 63. For each stage, books were also categorised as "great", "v. great", and "enormous".

The result is the following, as included in R.F. Christian's wonderful collection of Tolstoy's Letters: Volume II (he has also published Tolstoy's diaries in two volumes).

The letter opens with a disclaimer - “I am sending the list I began, but didn’t finish, for your consideration, but not for publication, since it is still far from complete" - and the heading, "WORKS WHICH MADE AN IMPRESSION".

Childhood to the age of 14 or so

Tales from The Thousand and One Nights: the 40 Thieves, Prince Qam-al-Zaman
Pushkin’s poems: Napoleon

"V. great":
The Little Black Hen by Pogorelsky

The story of Joseph from the Bible
Russian byliny folk tales: Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muromets, Alyosha Popovich

Age 14 to 20

Tales of Good and Evil by Nikolai Gogol: Overcoat, The Two Ivans, Nevsky Prospect
The Conquest of Mexico by William Prescott

"V. great":
A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne
Nouvelle Héloise by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Yevgeny Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
Die Räuber by Friedrich Schiller
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
A Sportsman’s Sketches by Ivan Turgenev
Polinka Sachs by Aleksandr Druzhinin
The Hapless Anton by Dmitry Grigorovich
A Hero for our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

Matthew’s Gospel: Sermon on the Mount
Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
"Viy" from "The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol"
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Age 20 to 35

Poems by F.T. Tyutchev
Poems by Koltsov
The Odyssey and The Iliad by Homer (read in Russian)
Poems Afanasy Fet
Phaedo and Symposium by Plato (read by Tolstoy in Cousin’s translation)

"V. great":
Hermann and Dorothea by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

Age 35 to 50

Novels of Mrs. [Henry] Wood
Novels of George Eliot
Novels of Anthony Trollope

"V. great":
The Odyssey and The Iliad (in Greek)
The byliny
Xenophon’s Anabasis

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Age 50 to 63

Discourse on religious subject by Theodore Parker
[Frederick William] Robertson’s sermons
“The Essence of Christianity” by Ludwig Feuerbach

"V. great":Book of Genesis (in Hebrew)
Progress and Poverty by Henry George
Confucius and Mencius

All the Gospels in Greek
Pensées by Blaise Pascal
“Lalita Vistara” by Rajendralala Mitra
Lao-Tzu [Tolstoy read the French translation of S. Julien]

If you enjoyed a first glance at Tolstoy's skill for lists, you might also appreciate his Calendar of Wisdom, or his collection of quotations that he believed to be his most important contribution to humanity. There are also his "Rules of life", including "Visit a brothel only twice a month"

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Saturday, 12 September 2015

Nick Hornby: our appetite for books is the "literary equivalent of salads, or chocolate, or meat and potatoes"

Published in 2004, the book is a collection of Hornby's "Stuff
I've Been Reading" columns in The Believer. 
Our feelings, ambitions, and anxieties often influence what we choose to read, and rightly so. In books we find reassurance, motivation, and kindred spirits. So when I came across this quote from Nick Hornby, I couldn't help but enjoy it:

I’m beginning to see that our appetite for books is the same as our appetite for food, that our brain tells us when we need the literary equivalent of salads, or chocolate, or meat and potatoes.

Nick Hornby, The Polysyllabic Spree

In order to cultivate an inspiring, calming, intellectually nourishing reading habit, we can't just pick up anything. Especially not something we think we're "meant" to read (that's a terrible idea–please try not to do it, and I'll do the same).

Think about where you are in life and what that means for your literary appetite. If you start something and you can't get into it, move on. If you like The Hunger Games, that's no problem at all. We're not always ready for Proust, sometimes we just need a heady book binge.

Reading isn't about ticking boxes, it's about exploring how the stories you read transform your own. Your time is precious; reading time more so.

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Sunday, 6 September 2015

"A hunter knows when to quiet his mind": Sherlock Holmes, Maria Konnikova, and a defence of solitude

I wrote in my last article about the classical scholar Edith Hamilton, who wrote of Aeschylus: "Life for him was an adventure, perilous indeed, but men are not made for safe havens. The fullness of life is in the hazards of life".

Since I published that, I've moved to Switzerland. It was a sudden decision, largely due to being fortunate enough to get a quick job offer, but I think it was a good one. I'm in the middle of the country, in a Swiss-German canton, and surrounded by lots of mountains and a beautiful lake.

Life is quite hectic as I settle in, but it's a welcome reminder of the potential of solitude to help me to focus and come to terms with a new routine. 

My decision to prioritise time alone made think me of Sherlock Holmes, of whom Watson says in Hound of the Baskervilles:

I knew that seclusion and solitude were very necessary for my friend in those hours of intense mental concentration during which he weighed every particle of evidence, constructed alternative theories, balanced one against the other, and made up his mind as to which points were essential and which immaterial.
In Maria Konnikova's Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, she writes of Holmes's pursuit of solitude:

A hunter knows when to quiet his mind. If he allows himself to always take in everything that is there for the taking, his senses will become overwhelmed. They will lose their sharpness. They will lose their ability to focus on the important signs and to filter out the less so. For that kind of vigilance, moments of solitude are essential.
If you need to focus or simply calm your senses, consider sitting quietly for a while and just thinking. Or, perhaps, reading a little something by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

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