Fact & fiction in "Sultan"

Peter de Lissovoy and I have just read each other's books, and he has now posted a very enthusiastic review of A Gift for the Sultan (it's the latest, so you have to scroll down to the bottom of the review page) — thanks, Pete. And he's asking me the same question that I asked about his Feelgood (see below, 28/7/2011):
But tell me--what is the fact/ fiction ratio in your book? To what extent is this historical novel actually history and to what percent an enthralling tale?
Thanks, Pete, for the "enthralling." Now about the fact/fiction ratio: I've tried to answer part of that question in this list of the cast of characters.

Almost everything I wrote about the historical figures (the two emperors, the sultan, his vizier Ali Pasha, Timur and his son Shah Rukh et alii) really happened, or at least is based on some chronicle by a supposed eye-witness. Of course chroniclers may willfully distort, invent or misinterpret events, and they don't always agree, but that's the best we've got. For example, Sultan Bayezid did (it is reported) really interrupt his military campaign for a day's hunt (one of his stupider acts); Timur really did play chess almost obsessively, and employed the clever strategy described in the book to defeat Bayezid — though the game where he works this out with his son Shah Rukh is a product of my imagination.

Ioannes VII's attempt to surrender the city to Bayezid, secretly, to save himself is attested by at least one contemporary chronicler, and seemed to fit with what I could learn about his character, including that as a child he had been half-blinded by his grandfather the then-emperor, and thus had no reason to love the city.

The gazis were real, but these particular gazis with their names and nicknames and particular attitudes, are imaginary, partly inspired by Turkish pre-Islamic folk tales. Their festive gathering, though, is very much like such events.  Same goes for the Varangians, Frankish knights, janissaries, and others — the chronicles rarely report individual names and never their conversations, so I had to make those up. I think they are all plausible, that is, that my characters act and speak like the real people would (except of course that they would be speaking in their own languages).

The little princess is my invention, though she or someone much like her may really have existed: We know that Manuel II did in fact have bastard children, including a daughter (whose husband, Hilarion, makes a brief appearance in the last part of my novel). 

The "True Blues" are another invention, but also plausible. From everything I could learn about the parlous state of Constantinople under this brutal siege, and from what we know about other cities under stress, it seemed to me almost inevitable that homeless or loosely supervised kids — hungry, frightened and bored by the unending bombardment and the lack of constructive outlet for their energies — would form street gangs, and that these would likely take on a pseudo-patriotic coloring. In my novel they call themselves "Blues" because in the past, when the city had been prosperous enough to hold extravagant sporting events in the Hippodrome, "Blues" had been the name of one of the major sporting factions — rowdy gangs of fans famous for street fighting. 

Race in America - The Christian Science Monitor - CSMonitor.com

This photo-sequence is a good follow-up to Peter de Lissovoy's novel-memoir about civil rights struggles in the South in the '60s. (See review below, posted 16 July.)

Race in America - The Christian Science Monitor - CSMonitor.com


Thought and language

Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other LanguagesThrough the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages by Guy Deutscher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This digressive examination of whether and, if so, how a speaker's language structures his/her thoughts contains two interesting arguments bundled with amusing anecdotes about odd languages and linguists. Some of the descriptions of non-Western languages, and even of Western languages (English among them) at earlier stages of development, show truly surprising ways of putting together information, such as numbers of tenses, whether person and time of action are included in verb or noun or in separate words (as in modern English), and even the number of sounds available to speakers. Current consensus: No language is a prison of thought; the speaker of any language can find a way to express any idea, even if s/he has to invent or borrow new vocabulary for some of it. But some languages oblige the speaker to give information that is optional in other languages. The handiest example is the English pronouns; if I'm speaking of a person, I can't say "it" visited me, I have to let you know whether the person was "he" or "she". If we're speaking Turkish (or any of many other languages with unsexed pronouns), I can leave the sex of the person ambiguous if I choose — or add something if I want to let you know.

The first of the two interesting arguments is about the language of color. As William Gladstone discovered in his monumental study of Homer, there are no color references beyond "black" (meaning dark), "white" or light, and red in the Odyssey or Iliad. (I had had no idea that the politician Gladstone, before becoming PM, had been such an important scholar). The sea or sky are never described as blue, the word sometimes translated as "green" is really much vaguer (could be yellow, or could just mean "ripe"). Later research revealed that no ancient language, or modern language of preliterate simple societies, has a developed vocabulary for all the colors that you or I would see and name and that surround them in their environment. Gladstone and generations of later linguists assumed there was something wrong with primitive and ancient people's color vision. But no: Deutscher reports all the tests that have shown that even people who have no names for many color tones can see them perfectly well if they need to. They don't think of the sky as "blue" because it does not seem to them to be an object, just a vast emptiness, and as people become more aware of different colors blue is always (so far in all the studies) the last to be named, because it just doesn't appear much in their environment (except that empty sky). We today are far more sensitive to colors than our ancestors because of all the colored objects on the market and in our household and on our computer screens etc. For people a few centuries back, distinguishing between bright and dark and red (because of blood, symbolizing life) was quite enough.

The second argument is more amusing though less important: How assigning gender to inanimate objects affects, but only slightly, they way people perceive them. The German "die Brucke" is described as female, graceful, delicate, etc., the Spanish "el puente" as male, big, sturdy, the English "bridge" is simply a thing with no preconception about its delicacy or strength. But all three words refer to the same object. The sexual connotations of dish, spoon, sea, etc. are faint and of little consequence to most speakers in ordinary life, but can add flavor to the poetry in those languages that have not (like English) lost their genders.

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Budget crisis, Tea Party, and the ignorance machine

For years (too many, perhaps) I taught sociology to college students, and had to help us all understand every great social issue that came up — why things are the way they are and what we might have to do to change them. Not that I think sociological reasoning can give us definitive answers, but it should help us frame the questions better by testing various hypotheses and eliminating all the false leads and continuing to test the more promising ones. Though I have no classroom before me now, I'll try again to exercise the sociological imagination for something useful.

So, today's big issue: The impasse in the US Congress (which may or may not be about to break — they've still got to vote) and its likely consequences. Why? And what next?

Everything is the way it is because it got that way, as biologist D'Arcy Thompson is said to have said. (D. C. Dennett, The Evolution of Culture). We start there, with the history. Here's my understanding (a metahypothesis containing several testable assumptions):
  1. Since the beginning of the Republic there has always been a sizable stratum of change-resistant nuts ready to blame everything that makes them uncomfortable on some insidious conspiracy, regardless of any evidence to the contrary, and they're still among us. Foreigners or people with other religious beliefs have been the usual suspects. (Bibliography can be assembled if anybody is interested.) Why the US has so many and why these people insist on believing these things, what drives them and so on, are worthy questions but for now (just to explain the current crisis) we just have to recognize that they are there, almost always have been, and are likely to persist. 
  2. The introduction of truly mass communications (when the telegraph enhanced newspaper reporting) enabled Pulitzer, Hearst and others in the 19th and early 20th centuries, motivated more by profit than by political conviction, to turn that stratum of mostly inchoate and locally harmful conspiracy-seekers into a nationwide mass market and mobilize them; regional media potentates did the same, for example in stimulating Klan outrages in the U.S. South. The Spanish-American War, the nearly genocidal U.S. military campaign in the Philippines, the anti-New Deal, anti-FDR movements in the 1930s are just a few examples of this activity.
  3. Major business groups initially unrelated to media (banks, railroads, oil, steel and later big pharmacy, etc.) saw the advantages of mobilizing that populist anger against any reforms threatening their profits and used their immense resources to enhance enormously the reach of the mob-rallying media, until big media and other big capital actually fused in, among others, the big television broadcasting companies.
  4. Murdoch, Fox News and the Tea Party are thus the predictable culmination of this process. Their main function is the production of ignorance. What I mean is that (at enormous expense and with huge resources) they work to convince people that what they should and could know simply by examining available evidence (assuming they have had a decent elementary education that enables them to read clearly) is untrue, and that the Real Truth includes such things as (for example) the foreign birth of Obama (despite all the evidence), the imminent danger of Islamization in the US, and so on.
I've spelled this out so that we can pick it apart and see how well those assumptions hold up. Until contrary evidence can be presented, that's my hypothesis of how things got this way. Next question: What next? If it's too late to prevent this crisis, what can be done to forestall the next one?

The first thing that suggests itself is disarming that media machine, somehow. Imposing rules as to how far beyond the evidence a broadcaster can go is one possibility, but tricky and dangerous (free speech). Limiting ownership of media outlets is more feasible, but of course will have to overcome the resistance of those big media. Reversing the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision that the Constitution permits corporations to secretly fund, in any amount, phony public interest group's campaigns seems like another important and probably effective check on that machine, but will require a huge amount of work.

In these and other ways, including using whatever resources we have including this little blog, we will need to to combat the production of ignorance by the defence and expansion of knowledge. And to keep asking better questions.