Sunday, December 18, 2016

Trotando por las iglesias de Santiago de Chile


En Santiago hace casi siempre buen tiempo. Todos los domingos de mañana la municipalidad cierra el paso de vehículos cerca del rio Mapocho para actividades de recreo, la Ciclorecreovía, lo que crea excelentes condiciones para correr en seguridad y frente a los locales más bellos de la ciudad. Solo corro una vez a la semana y no me gusta estar a competir para mejorar tiempos o distancias. Sin embargo, hace unos meses decidí que podría hacer mis recorridos más entretenidos y juntar dos actividades agradables: correr y visitar nuevos locales. ¡Así corro siempre un circuito diferente! Hoy público un foto-álbum de mis visitas a las lindas iglesias de Santiago:

Foto-álbum:
https://www.facebook.com/pg/themillionhistory/photos/?tab=album&album_id=1109421029156041

Dicen los cuentos que todos los hombres sufren de una angustia profunda. Solo se conoce la tranquilidad por breves momentos al ver el amanecer del sol o un bello atardecer. Yo añadiría que entrar en una iglesia es como un contrapunto humano a la luz solar, como una experiencia de crepúsculo, silencio y sombras apaciguadoras en un mundo de movimientos y ruidos. Las iglesias son edificios que reúnen el mejor arte, ingenio arquitectónico, belleza y las más profundas emociones humanas. No me canso nunca de visitar iglesias, sea aquí en Chile, en Portugal, Italia u otros países. Además, son locales frecuentados por una comunidad viva, personas que viven sus alegrías y tristezas ahí. Es como un peregrinaje dentro de mi propia ciudad. Hago unos 10-20 km de recorrido total (suma de ida y vuelta). Desde septiembre hasta hoy ya visité cerca de 25 locales religiosos en esta hermosa ciudad de Santiago. Muchas veces otros fieles o los curas me ayudan tomándome fotos y soy siempre muy bien recibido.

Inicio siempre el recorrido frente al Parque de las Esculturas de Providencia (ver foto). Utilizo aún un par de tenis / zapatillas que adquirí al terminar la universidad en julio de 2002 en un Jumbo de Portugal por el módico precio de 9 euros. Son tenis milagrosos. Los uso continuamente hace más de 14 años y ya han caminado y corrido por cuatro continentes, incluyendo diversas partes de Europa, Estados Unidos, Chile, Australia y China!

Comunas visitadas: Providencia, Santiago, Recoleta, Independencia, Vitacura, Las Condes, Quinta Normal.

Calendario de visitas (con links a sitios web):
2016
25 septiembre: Iglesia de San Isidro Labrador
2 octubre: Congregación del Buen Pastor, Iglesia y Convento de La Merced
8 octubre: Iglesia y Convento de Santo Domingo Guzmán, Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago, Parroquia El Sagrario, Iglesia y Convento de Recoleta Franciscana
9 octubre: Iglesia y Convento San Francisco
30 octubre: Basilica del Santisimo Sacramento o Iglesia de los Sacramentinos, Iglesia de San Isidro Labrador (revisita)
1 noviembre: Iglesia de la Divina Providencia
6 noviembre: Iglesia de San Ignacio, Iglesia del Colegio Universitario Inglés y Hermanas del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús
13 noviembre: Iglesia de San Agustín
20 noviembre: Iglesia de la Gratitud Nacional y Centro Salesianos Alameda
27 noviembre: Catedral Castrense de Chile o Catedral Militar de Chile, Iglesia de San Ramón de Providencia
4 diciembre: Iglesia de los Santos Ángeles Custodios, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile
8 diciembre: Iglesia de la Vera Cruz, Iglesia de Nuestra Señora Del Carmen o Iglesia Matriz de las Hermanas de la Providencia
11 diciembre: Iglesia de San Juan Evangelista
18 diciembre: Capilla de la Casa de la Ciudadanía, Colegio Salesiano El Patrocinio de San José, Iglesia de la Epifanía del Señor y Población León XIII, Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Victoria
25 diciembre: Iglesia Jesús Nazareno, Capilla del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús (Universidad Autónoma de Chile), Iglesia Católica Ortodoxa de la Santisima Virgen Maria

2017
1 enero: Convento y Iglesia de la Recoleta DominicaIglesia La Viñita y Santuario Nuestra Señora de MontserratCementerio General de Santiago en la Recoleta, Colegio Padres Dominicos
8 enero: Iglesia de la Preciosa SangreIglesia de Santa Ana
15 enero: Iglesia de San Lázaro, Centro Él Agora y Colegio Filipense, Universidad Alberto Hurtado, Vicaria de la Esperanza Joven, Iglesia de Santa Ana (revisita), Iglesia y Convento de Santo Domingo Guzmán (revisita)
22 enero: Basilica del Santisimo Sacramento o Iglesia de los Sacramentinos (revisita), Parroquia San Rafael Arcángel, Colegio María Auxiliadora de Santiago, Iglesia del Santísimo Sacramento en Av Manuel Antonio Matta cerca de Gendarmería de Chile, Colegio Hispano Americano, Iglesia de Carmen en Carmen con Coquimbo, Iglesia de San Juan Evangelista (revisita), Iglesia San Miguel Arcangel
5 febrero: Iglesia Evangélica Presbiteriana, Basílica del Corazón de María/Santuario San Judas Tadeo, Iglesia de San Isidro Labrador (revisita), Iglesia San Miguel Arcangel (revisita)
12 febrero: Capilla del antiguo Lazareto de San Vicente de PaulIglesia de la Estampa de Nuestra Señora del CarmenIglesia del Carmen de San RafaelIglesia del Milagroso Niño Jesús de Praga
18 febrero: Colegio Santa Úrsula de Vitacura
26 febrero: Iglesia de las Agustinas (Moneda con Nueva York)
4 marzo: Iglesia Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles (Las Condes)
11 marzo: corrida por la Costanera y Av San Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer junto al rio Mapocho hasta la Casa Piedra
25 marzo: Colegio El Carmen Teresiano, Parroquia San Francisco de Sales
1 abril: Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepción, Velatorio de la Resurrección
9 abril: corrida por Apoquindo, pasando por el Mall Costanera, Escuela Militar, Plaza Turquia, Centro Cultural Las Condes, Mall Alto Las Condes, Av Padre Hurtado, y terminando en la Iglesia Santa María de Las Condes donde las familias y niños celebraban el Domingo de Ramos; regreso trotando a Providencia
14 abril: viernes santo, Iglesia San Juan Apóstol
16 abril: domingo de pascua, Iglesia Siloé de las Naciones, Iglesia Corpus Domi, Colegio San Sebastián, Colegio Maristas, Iglesia San Capuchinos / Parroquia San Antonio de Padua / Casa Provincial de Capuchinos de Chile, Colegio San Antonio, Misión Cristiana, Iglesia San Saturnino / Plaza Yungay, Museo de la Memoria, Santuario Cristo PobreBasílica de Nuestra Señora de Lourdes / Gruta de Lourdes
19 abril: dia del censo - Iglesia Católica Ortodoxa de la Santisima Virgen Maria
23 abril:
abril

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Trump and the role of executive versus ceremonial rulers

During the last US presidential elections several pundits expressed concerns over whether Trump represented a returning trend towards the populist and authoritarian politicians that took over Europe and Latin America for several decades. Honestly, I do not believe such reasons for alarm, since the US has constitutional checks and balances in the Senate and Congress that should counteract a President that goes too far in his agenda.

However, for me the greatest surprise of the election was that some of the promises of Trump are so unrealistic that they sound a bit like the projects of ancient Roman emperors or Chinese rulers. After all, it must be in the mind of many that the proposed Mexican wall would be many times bigger than Hadrian’s Wall and quite comparable in size to the Chinese wall.

The fact that so many candidates in different countries decide to go for the election of head of state for reasons of fame and prestige with vague slogans like “make the country great again” makes me think that there are some advantages to countries in which the maximum head of state plays a mere ceremonial role. The reason is that the head of state is required to be a part of many ceremonies, such as receiving other heads of state, which can distract him from the harder tasks of ruling. Therefore some countries elect a head of state which has mostly a ceremonial function, while keeping some core powers that can be used to balance abuses from others (such as being able to dismiss a dysfunctional government and calling for new elections). The President gets to keep fame and the right to major speeches during all the important holidays, while the real decision power and unpleasant details such as negotiating a parliamentary majority are left to a prime minister or head of government.

A good thing about this is that candidates that are passionate about fame, but bored by the actual negotiations of real politics run for the Presidential election and get the right to do their harmless speech a few times a year. Politicians who actually have a project for the country will run for Prime Minister and get a less prestigious role, but a much more relevant one and with all the onerous tasks of negotiations and administration. This could be seen as Political Economy case of a separating equilibrium – offer two different contracts to politicians and each candidate will choose the role that suits them best. If America had such a system, then they could have fame-seeking Trump as President and Hillary as Prime Minister.

Curiously, the Western Roman Empire had learned this before their demise in the 5th century. After Theodosius, his descendants became prestigious Emperors with a glory similar to the Pope. However, the real source of power lay with the magister militum, which was a professional general in charge of the army plus negotiating taxation, administration and budgets.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Halloween: My favorite word in Portuguese means Sorrow

One word for the day of the lost, the departed, the abandoned and the grieving.

All languages are special but the saying goes that one’s feelings are always stronger in one’s native language. Language theory says that different cultures add more words to their vocabulary according to the objects and feelings that are more frequently used by the people. As one word becomes too much in use, its meaning is deemed to be too general and people create more specific words to denote more precise meanings and create a more complete communication. Say, for example the word computer originated in the English/American culture which created such objects first, but, as the term became too widespread, new words appeared to differentiate objects with different usages: computers became desktops, laptops, playstations, notebooks, readers, smartphones and smartwatches. Words are also "borrowed" from other cultures with whom we have trade (for example, "boutique" or "rouge" are borrowed from French). Some words come into disuse and disappear or "die" from the vocabulary, remaining perhaps only as archaisms, left to poems, novels, dictionaries and museums.

Well, the same principle applies for the feelings or immaterial ideas that each culture expresses. Cultures where people more often feel nostalgia, happiness, gloom or indecision will create more words to denote more specific emotions. If a culture stops expressing certain emotions or discusses them less often, then the words for such emotions will disappear from daily use.

In Portuguese my favorite word is “mágoa”, which could be translated as “sorrow” or "burden". Portuguese use “mágoa” to denote a feeling of sadness and grief that is often not so extreme (unlike depression or suicidal thoughts), but it is felt permanently and lingers with you for a long time, often for one’s entire life. The loss of a loved one or a bitter painful disappointment early one's life and yet never entirely forgotten could be said to be "mágoa" or a deep wound inside one's heart. "Mágoa" is a feeling of discordant emotions, an inner conflict, it can both be sad and beautiful, as something forever lost and yet even with its pain you wished it here always with you. The word can also be used in a less common way as "resentment" or "feeling deception".

“Mágoa” comes from the Latin “macula” which means “stain” or "flaw" (do not confuse macula with dracula, dracul and vampire lore). However, popular tales also say that the word “mágoa” originates from the combination of the Portuguese words for bad water (“má agua”) and what is bitterer than drinking the devil’s water? That is why I both love the meaning, feeling and sound of this word. What could be more tragically beautiful than a feeling so acutely yours that it lingers a lifetime, it penetrates deeply as an unwashable stain,  it bleeds like a wound that never fully scarred, and yet it sounds just like water, the most precious thing of all? "Mágoa" denotes lasting sorrow and yet it resonates as beautiful as water, a symbol of life and hope. The British poet Auden in prison once remarked "Thousands have lived without love, not one without water." I believe many live despite their "mágoas". Some scholars believe that the deep origin of the words "mágoa" and "mácula" comes from the Proto-Italic (smatlo) or from the Proto-Indo-European (smhatlo) and Ancient Greek (σμάω, smáō), which means "wiping, cleansing". Therefore all these burdens and "mágoas" cleanse us from the grief and deceptions we all lived through.

All Latin languages have one or two words from the root “macula” and yet Portuguese has seven! Therefore one could say Portuguese feel seven times the sorrows of other western Europeans. In several countries, however, the word descendants of "macula" do not mean sorrow at all, like in Portuguese. In Spanish and English "macula" means the iris or the oval stain of ink inside the eye. In Portuguese "mácula", besides the anatomical meaning, is most commonly applied to mean sin. See why I absolutely love such a word? If the eyes are the doors to the soul, then they must also be the mirror of our sorrows and sins.

One can see the descendants of the Latin root “macula” in nearly any Romance language and even some other European languages: Asturian (mancha), Catalan (malla, macula), Czech (machule), English (macula, mail, macle, mackle, macule, macchia, maquis), French (maille, macule), Friulian (magle), Galician (mágoa, mancha), Italian (macchia, macula), Occitan (malha), Sicilian (macchia), Slovak (machuľa), Spanish (mancha, macula, mangla), and Venetian (macia).

The Portuguese have seven different kinds of stains either to express abstract feelings or real stains such as those caused by blood or ink: mancha, malha, mágoa, mácula, macla, mangra, maquis. Both Portuguese and English had a tradition of navy and sailing from its medieval and renaissance times. Perhaps their vocabularies drew on words heard in ports all over Europe. Travel opens the windows to the eyes, the ears and the heart! It is interesting to note that several of the Portuguese and English words derived from "macula" had its origin in medieval French and yet those words came into disuse in its original French culture.

What do you think readers? The famous singer, Amália Rodrigues, once sang that Fado was born from the bosom of a sailor on whose lips died a sorrowful song full of wasted desires and nostalgia. Amália also had the feeling that Portuguese women felt burdened with sorrows, seeing their husbands and children leave on sea trips or immigrate to distant countries. Fado may have been at first born in ports and sang by sailor men, but it eventually bloomed in the voices of sorrowful women, with hair and dress as black as ravens, that sang despairingly their heartfelt emotions of abandonment and loneliness. I leave you now to listen to Amália, whose voice means so much more than its words:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1YriVM8sC7M

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Evoking a love memory from the Iliad while listening to Lana Del Rey

Lana Del Rey often makes reference that she studied philosophy and considered becoming a poet, which is something that reflects on her lyrics from the very first albums. Her song “Off to the races” quotes a cute line from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, “Light of my life, fire of my loins”. Another song “Body Electric” is an obvious allusion to the Walt Whitman’s poem.

However, for me the most special poetic moment is how Lana evokes a bit of Homer in her song “Videogames”. I say evoke instead of quote, since I do not think there is any intention of quoting the Greek bard. Rather, I would say it is my interpretation and emotional feeling of those lines that reminds me of a similar theme in the Iliad. Obviously, Lana has already stated that Videogames is a happy song about living with a boyfriend that was focused on games.

In my favorite line Lana sings “They say that the world was built for two, Only worth living if somebody is loving you”. This line evokes in me a scene when Achilles watches Patroclus leave for battle. Achilles reminds his friend not to put himself in danger for he values him above all else: “Once you push the Trojans from the ships, come back. (…) Make sure you come back here again, once your saving light has reached our ships. Let others keep on fighting”. Achilles then prays that rather everyone else would die if only he and Patroclus would live: “Oh, Father Zeus, Athena, and Apollo— if only no single Trojan or Achaean could escape death, and just we two alone were not destroyed, so that by ourselves we could take Troy's sacred battlements.”

While the words used to express this feeling are way different from Lana’s, I would say both reflect a relationship that is felt so strongly that it overcomes everything else! In “Videogames” the line is just a metaphor for the desire to be special and loved in a way that the world feels warmer just for you. In the Iliad – which curiously refers to War Games – Achilles expresses to Patroclus that their bond is stronger than their ties to other men and without him he cares little for this world. That is why later on the death of Patroclus seals Achilles fate, for he knows that joining the war again will lead him to an early death. The death of Patroclus is Achilles’ death sentence because it deprived him of the joy of life. Later when Achilles is weeping over his friend’s dead body, he confesses his friend was dearer to him than his own father and he rather hoped for his own death than his friend’s loss: “But now thou liest here mangled, and my heart will have naught of meat and drink, though they be here at hand, through yearning for thee. Naught more grievous than this could I suffer, not though I should hear of the death of mine own father (…) For until now the heart in my breast had hope that I alone should perish far from horse-pasturing Argos, here in the land of Troy, but that thou shouldest return to Phthia, that so thou mightest take my child in thy swift, black ship from Scyrus, and show him all things”.

Recently, a friend quoted on Facebook the famous line by Star Trek’s character Spock “The Needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. I immediately replied “Not so. Sometimes one can love one thing or one person so strongly that the whole world matters less. In the Iliad Achilles says that he would rather wish all the Greeks died if only Patroclus would live. That is how much he loved him!” And now I ask you my friends/readers, who do you resemble the most – Spock or Achilles? Lana Del Rey sounds like an Achilles type of person.

The photo above shows Achilles mourning the dead Patroclus”, a scene from the front panel of a Roman sarcophagus that is currently at the museum of Berlin.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

THE COURAGE TO ACT: A MEMOIR OF A CRISIS AND ITS AFTERMATH

Comentario al libro
“THE COURAGE TO ACT: A MEMOIR OF A CRISIS AND ITS AFTERMATH”
de Ben S. Bernanke

"Desafiamos los augurios. Hay providencia especial en la caída de un gorrión. Si ha de ser ahora, no será más tarde; si no ha de ser más tarde, será ahora; si no ha de ser ahora, ocurrirá de todos modos. Lo principal es estar preparado." – (Hamlet, William Shakespeare)

The Courage to Act es el relato autobiográfico de Ben Bernanke y de su rol como presidente de la Reserva Federal de Estados Unidos durante la Gran Recesión (2008-09), la crisis económica más profunda sufrida por ese país desde la Gran Depresión (1929-33). Aunque las crisis financieras son impredecibles, estas suceden tarde o temprano. Bernanke confiesa que fue totalmente sorprendido por la crisis e incluso en 2006 no vislumbró el caos que se aproximaba. Sin embargo, Bernanke estaba singularmente preparado para responder al colapso económico de 2008, dadas sus reflexiones sobre la Gran Depresión de 1929 y las crisis más recientes de Japón y Suecia.

Este es el inicio de mi artículo acerca de la autobiografía de Ben Bernanke. ¿Quién diría que la economía puede ser tan dramática e poética como Hamlet? Pueden leer el texto completo en este link:

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The first ecological writings appear in the Iliad

Recently I was saddened by the news of a horse who dropped dead from exhaustion in Chile. Yet those news of a horse reaching the end of his strength reminded me of a beautiful story in the Iliad of a pair of noble horses who at the limit of their effort cried abundant tears. Although I am not an ancient scholar, I would say this is the oldest text I know of in defense of animal feelings.

In Iliad’s book 17 Homer sings how the two immortal horses of Achilles cried for the death of Patroclus, his corpse covered in dust and blood. The horses detained their race and looked down upon their fallen master, so young and beautiful. Just a few moments before he was full of life and the two animals remembered his fond caresses and love tenderly. Automedon, companion of Patroclus and the rider of the horse carriage, tries to push the exhausted animals, mixing pleas and lashes. Yet the horses do not move, unable to raise their eyes from the sad body of their beautiful young master lain on the ground, immobile just as equine statues over a tomb. They cry ardent tears from their black eyes, disconsolately shaking their long manes. Zeus from his heavenly throne looks upon the suffering animals “Unhappy pair, why did we give you, ageless and immortal, to that mortal king, Peleus? Did we mean you to sorrow with these wretched men? For what is there more miserable than man, among all the things that move and breathe on earth?” The 20th century poet Cavafy in his short poem “The horses of Achilles” follows Homer’s poem almost line by line and yet he adds a surprising twist! For those horses were far more sensitive and human than the great Zeus imagined – they cried not just for the gentle Patroclus, but also for all the endless deaths of war:


At that instant Homer relates the two animals recovered strength, shook the dust from their dark fur and took Automedon far from the murderous battle, so that at least one of their masters survived the horror. To me this is one of the most moving scenes of European literature and one that shows that Homer, even without a sophisticated literary technique, was able to depict beautiful images in its war epic. I do not feel it was a mere coincidence that the epic poet dedicated some of his most beautiful phrases to two horses, for he wanted to show how heartfelt and noble the feelings in animals were. Some of the great kings and royal kin in the Iliad fail to show such depth of emotion.

However, Homer did not just write about the nobility of animals and went on to do something even more original by scripting the first environmental defense! On book 21 of the Iliad, the warrior Achilles wishes to avenge his friend Patroclus and kills all the enemies he can, throwing their corpses to the river Xanthus. The river Xanthus stinks with the pestilence of rotten bodies and its waters run full of blood and flesh. The great river god asks Achilles to stop contaminating its waters, formerly clean and crystalline. Achilles replies that he will throw whatever he wants wherever he so chooses! The great river god then raises himself, pounding with turbulent waters and tides upon Achilles who begins to drown. Achilles is only saved thanks to the help of the god Vulcan who burns the river with fire.

These are two beautiful and entirely original scenes in Homer, ones of which we do not find of a similar kind in all of Greek mythology. This leads me to believe that doubtless Homer was an animal rights and environmental activist, the first one in history! The images show the horses of Achilles mourning for Patroclus, Automedon attempting to control the horses, and Achilles drowning in the river Xanthus. A friend of mine also reminded me that the great philosopher Nietzche suffered an emotional collapse after witnessing a horse being flogged, the first event of a prolonged sickness that led to his death.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Challenges of being a Mom and Dad: Roman Emperor Augustus and Empress Irene

Mother’s month is gone and Dad’s month as well. That made me think that being a parent is always a challenge, even among the most powerful. Ironically, while many men and women have sought power in order to create their dynasties, history does not lack examples of successful men who failed at being good parents. There are the obvious cases of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great who did not live long enough to provide for the safety of their children, while emperors Trajan and Hadrian did not leave descendants. Revered emperors such as Marcus Aurelius and Septimius Severus were followed by their reviled offspring, Commodus and Caracalla.

Yet perhaps most surprising of all is that Augustus, first Roman Emperor and perhaps the most powerful man in European history, was also a failed parent. Augustus only biological child was his daughter Julia. Being forced into an unhappy marriage with Augustus’ stepson Tiberius, she was found later to be guilty of adultery and treason, being accused of plotting with her lovers against her husband’s own life. Among ancient writers Julia is almost universally remembered for her flagrant and promiscuous conduct and even prostitution behavior, although some of the worst tales are likely to be exaggerations of her actions. Her father Augustus loved her deeply, admired her wit and indulged her, hesitating for some time to accuse her. Reluctant to execute her, Augustus decided on Julia's exile, in harsh conditions. She was confined on the small island of Pandateria, with no men in sight, forbidden even to drink wine and only allowed the visitors approved by her father. Suetonius reports that Augustus would remark "If only I had never married, or had died childless". Historian Macrobius, however, writes that Julia was loved by the roman people due to her gentleness and generosity. Unfortunately, perhaps due to male sexism, the sex scandals give a reputation as negative to historical characters as the murderous behavior of power hungry men.

Perhaps even more surprising is the case of byzantine Empress Irene, the first woman to be an official empress of the Roman Empire which at the time was limited to its eastern half. Her real story is even more bizarre and full of cruelty than the fictional Cersei’s life in Game of Thrones!

Irene became Empress Regent after the death of her imperial husband, being responsible for the care of her son, the official emperor Constantine VI. As Constantine approached maturity he began to grow restless under Irene’s influence. Her son Constantine VI was proclaimed as the sole ruler. Once in control of the state, Constantine proved incapable of sound governance. His army was defeated by the Arabs and Bulgarians. A movement developed in favor of his uncle Nikephoros. Constantine had his uncle's eyes put out and the tongues of his father's four other half-brothers cut off. Constantine blinded his Armenian general Alexios Mosele and then cruelly repressed the revolt of his supporters. He then divorced his wife Maria of Amnia, who had failed to provide him with a male heir, and married his mistress Theodote, an unpopular and illegal act.  On 19 April 797 Constantine was captured, blinded, and imprisoned by the supporters of his mother, who had organized a conspiracy, leaving Irene to be crowned as first Empress regnant of Constantinople.

As a sole ruler Irene restored the adoration of icons in the Byzantine Empire. In 800 Pope Leo III crowned the Carolygian king Charlemagne as Roman Emperor. Irene had previously failed to make a marriage between her son and Charlemagne’s daughter. Relations between the two empires remained difficult. Irene is said to have endeavoured a marriage alliance between herself and Charlemagne, but according to Theophanes the Confessor, who alone mentions it, the scheme was frustrated by Aetios, one of her favourites.

In the end Irene’s grasp for power did not last and her end was an unfortunate one. A conspiracy of noblemen deposed Irene in 802, exiling her to Lesbos, where she was forced to support herself by spinning wool. She died the following year.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

A Monk, a Fox, a Bitter Man and the Three Goddesses of Destiny

Sometimes I enjoy revisiting the same books. A good language experiment is learned from reading a book in a new translation and then thinking of the subtle differences in expression relative to the original language. Recently I re-read “The Sandman: Dream Hunters” by Neil Gaiman, with illustrations by Yoshitaka Amano. I was fascinated by this book for the first time some 16 years ago in its original English edition and now I bought it in a Spanish translation.
My second reading of Neil Gaiman’s tale made me think about the power relationship between men and women. In the story a monk and a fox with the spirit of a woman fall in love, but their idyll is disturbed by a powerful wizard who wants to rob the monk’s happiness. The wizard commands three witches to aid him, one is an old woman, the second a beautiful and naked youth, and the third is a woman neither young nor old. He asks the witches why he suffers with fear and cannot feel tranquility. The young woman, who possessed an eerie beauty for one could not say whether she was alive or dead, answered that the magician was afraid because he was alive. The old woman replied that men only achieve peace in the grave or for a brief moment while contemplating the sunset. The woman who was neither young nor old offered a solution to the magician, pointing out that a young monk who had no wealth or power nevertheless enjoyed all the tranquility of this world. The wizard must therefore kill the young monk to rob him of the tranquility and love in his heart!

It is a beautiful tale, full of meaning, and it captured my imagination all these years. I am particularly fascinated by the intense relationship of the male characters (the monk and the wizard) with the women (the fox and the witches). In my personal interpretation Gaiman’s story is a dreamy and emotional retelling of the difficult choices men face when dealing with beauty and loneliness. In ancient cultures men use their power and strength to get what they want and desire, but it is not the same to possess something out of force or fear than receiving love freely. Men, especially the most powerful, dominate their women, first their mothers (the old woman), then their wives (the woman neither young nor old), and finally their daughters or second brides (the young woman) whose youth shows a vigor that instills awe and jealousy in the older men who fear death. But what does the Wizard get out of his power? The Beauty in his captive witches (for they are his servants) is enthralling and yet it feels as something terrible for it is devoid of any real affection. Instead of love the master wizard only receives spite, resentment and hatred. The wizard understands this, but it is different knowing the truth and relinquishing control to free one’s destiny. Power is too seductive and no person in its possession gives it up freely. Kings, but also parents, spouses and each one of us experiences such temptations.

The old woman’s reply that Man only lives tranquil briefly while enjoying the dying sunlight at day's end is also an implication on how Beauty relates to us. The sunset is beautiful and yet it is a beauty outside the influence of men. It shines for everyone equally, poor or rich. Yet the monk owns things even more prized than the radiant sun. One, the buddhist peaceful enlightenment. Two, he is loved by the fox spirit who never wishes to abandon him. Unlike the sun which shines independently of our merits these loving gifts are only received from others’ free choice and that makes them even more precious. Generosity and love are more prized than sunlight!

Neil Gaiman wrote an epilogue that erroneously claims the story to be based on a Japanese folk tale, which was a joke intended to deceive those who dislike giving the due worth to modern authors. However, the love story between the fox spirit and the monk does resemble some Japanese and Chinese folk tales, which remain popular even nowadays and have been adapted to the cinema. Other elements of Gaiman's book do differ a lot from these eastern stories, so one cannot state the book is a simple adaptation of an old tale or that its inspiration is based on a single source. What matters is that The Dream Hunters is my favorite book by Neil Gaiman and it is definitely an original work and one deeply imbued with lessons, passion and dreams.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

A Night Train to Lisbon, a House of Spirits and a Sailor between Chile and Portugal

As a Portuguese arriving to live in Chile seven years ago my first thoughts were entwined on the coincidences between both countries’ cultural, political and cinematic experiences. My embracing of this country was entirely unplanned and the result of a twist of fate (or “fado” as the Portuguese call it). As I was completing my studies in the United States, the economic crisis in Europe gave me the idea of looking at another continent for prospects. I and my Chilean supervisor thought “why not Chile” and a life changing project was born to answer such question. I had never been in Chile before, had met only three Chileans in my whole life until that moment, and I realized with some mixed feelings of anxiety and expectation that Chile is the farthest country on Earth from Portugal. I had no clue then that I would stay so many years in Chile, but afterwards each single second here inspired me with passion, serenity and an eagerness to embrace a new life born equally out of destiny, random chance and my deep inner self.

My airborne thoughts in that cloudy grey May morning as the plane descended over Santiago turned to the subtle links between Chile and my birth country. Both countries lie at the extremes of their continents, giving the feeling of lands at the end of the world, where poets contemplate the dark foamy sea and drown their thoughts in the sound of the waves. Interestingly, there is a very famous Chilean novelist, Luis Sepúlveda, who lives in Spain and sells millions of books in Portugal and Spain, and yet is completely unknown in Chile. Thinking about this I wondered if I too could be more successful in Chile than in Portugal. Want to listen to Fado/Destiny? My favorite place as a child - 8 to 12 years old - was the big supermarket Jumbo in Lisbon! I didn't know then it was a Chilean supermarket, but I was in love with its design, the elephant logo and its books section. One could say I loved Chilean grocery before I knew it.

Most strikingly, Chilean and Portuguese political culture were joined together four decades ago. In the early 1970s a Portuguese underground political movement flourished even under a brutal repression of a nationalistic right-wing regime. Two consecutive generations of Portuguese reached adulthood without a local model of what a democracy and its leaders should be. The oldest of the repressed generations had a cynical view that nothing would ever change, but the youngest – among them my parents and cousins – saw the world as a blank state where all kinds of communities and ideas were possible. Young people were fragmented in different political parties and groups. Many such groups sought inspiration from other political movements in the wider world, including Latin America. Chile was taken by some as a cultural model with songs borrowed from Víctor Jara, poems from Neruda and fiery speeches from Salvador Allende. Brigada Víctor Jara is of the most famous Portuguese folk music groups of the last 40 years and was directly inspired by Víctor Jara’s brave resistance and death. In 1973/74 Chile changed from a democratic regime to a dictatorship, while Portugal became a free nation, although one confused by the many possibilities offered by freedom. The Portuguese had to learn that not all free choices are good and that beautiful pipe dreams only flourish if sustained by hard reality.


However, even more surprising is that both countries are symbiotically linked through the cinema. Chilean director Raoul Ruiz used Lisbon to create Valparaiso in his movies, since his long political exile blocked him from filming in Chile. One example is the movie Three Crowns of the Sailor, where a drunken sailor in a ghostly ship travels from Valparaiso to other ports, living strange fantasies. Also, Ruiz' last movie "Mysteries of Lisbon" adapts a Portuguese novel by Camilo de Castelo Branco and again shows how much Portuguese culture impacts Chilean art.

Another movie on my mind that day was the celebrated adaptation of House of Spirits from Chilean novelist Isabel Allende, which was filmed in Lisbon and Alentejo in Portugal. Two generations of a Chilean family: one lives in a democracy plagued by wealth and land inequality, the second is crushed by a military coup. More recently, a movie by the same director Bille August adapts the novel “A Night Train to Lisbon” by Swiss author Pascal Mercier. The movie is about a Swiss literature professor who travels to Lisbon in search of a little known Portuguese writer and ends up finding how the Portuguese dictatorship broke his friendships apart. One of the major scenes in “A night train to Lisbon” shows a Portuguese communist activist, João Eça, being captured by the secret police at his home. João is forced to play the piano in front of his torturers, only to have his hands broken and his fingers smashed. I cannot remember such an incident being reported against a Portuguese musician during the dictatorship times, but it is quite possible that Bille August and Pascal Mercier may have been inspired by a similar incident which happened to Víctor Jara, who was forced to play and sing by his torturers after having his hands and finger nails broken. Again Portugal and Chile are united through dark political events and their experiences were mixed to form a great novel and cinematic piece.

Now Bille August is perhaps the only director who can claim to have made movies about both the Chilean and the Portuguese dictatorships, with both movies being filmed in Portugal. And both works feature a stellar acting by Jeremy Irons! Let’s hope Bille August and Jeremy Irons return to Portugal and film a third movie as passionate, enthralling and literary as these.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Keynesian and Monetarist Policy of Alexander the Great

Archaeological evidence shows that interest rates for business loans hovered around 30% in the ancient world. Gold and silver currency were hard to find and many merchants had to trade goods for other goods. Just think how hard the life of an ancient merchant was without good and widely accepted coins. Instead of using money to pay for his items, the merchant would have to carry goods (say, cereal) and then trade such goods for his new merchandise (say, pottery) somewhere else. Obviously, this involved having to carry heavy goods in horse-pulled wagons both ways. This changed after Alexander’s conquests.
Perhaps without intention, Alexander the Great was a revolutionary in economic policy. After capturing an enormous quantity of gold and silver talents from the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great sponsored temple reconstruction, road building, monuments and art. This was a Keynesian policy in the style of an ancient conqueror! However, Alexander also implemented a monetarist policy, issuing huge amounts of gold and silver coins, which lowered interest rates from 30% to 6%. This differed from the Persian policies regarding currency, since they preferred to accumulated gold and silver in huge reserves in their treasuries. Money went from treasury keepers to the business men. City-states however had to borrow at slightly higher interest rates, perhaps because lenders were afraid that city governors (which at the time could control small armies) would refuse to pay unless by force.  Entrepreneurs in trade, art and construction projects benefited from the new coins issued by the Hellenes all over the Western Asia and the Middle East. Artists and builders could get funding for their projects. Merchants found currency easily available to buy their merchandise in other countries, without pulling heavy wagons with goods on their way, which saved their troubles for at least half of the path. A new age of Hellenistic art and economic prosperity started.

Of course, anti-cyclical policy or concerns about unemployment or potential GDP were far from Alexander's concerns. His reign coincided with a big increase in expenditures, because he had a concern for grandiose projects. The increase in money issue was certainly only driven for two reasons: one, to finance his expenditures in military (Alexander had to repay a big debt inherited from his father Phillip II's Persian expedition preparations) and big monuments, and second, because new coins were a good way to celebrate the glorious events of a new reign. Still, in ancient times just as now, monetary expansion has an inflation cost. Historical evidence shows that in cities such as Tyre, Gaza and Babylon, there was an increase in prices, perhaps by twice as much, and the economic boom ended in a recession. However, the economy and trade did boom back again after the Diadochi conflicts subsided into a relatively more peaceful era.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Why do we have a Facebook and not a Voicebook?

I just realized something. Over the centuries the human cultures have always preserved visual depictions such as paintings and portraits quite well. Even better we have 3D visual representations of humans such as sculptures, busts and statues. We have lifelike representations of Greek and Roman men and women in painting and sculpture, although several other civilizations (Persia, China, India) can claim similar achievements. Below and on the left I show a mosaic of a Mycenaean woman, a roman copy of an ancient Greek original now called the Borghese Ares, and another roman copy of the Aphrodite by the Greek sculptor Praxiteles. In all of these representations the movement and expression are so bursting with life that we feel the sculptures are about to walk and touch us. And yet such perfect images always have a certain sadness, since we know they are unable to speak. All statues therefore look like beautiful figures of mutes, perfect in their looks and yet forever trapped in their inability to speak, to scream what they feel.
But the truth is that humanity was unable to preserve voice and sounds for most of its history. We know the written language of Homer, Sappho and Pindar, and the meaning of their poems, but no one knows how their language sounded. Some scholars speculate their language had no accent on the syllables and that it may have sounded like a flowing rhythm as some French poets speak in modern days. Only in the late 19th century did Edison invent the sound recording. However, in the late 20th century it is quite easy for us to make sound recordings or even video recordings of ourselves, therefore mixing both sound and image as memories.

But how many of us do indeed preserve sound as a memory? For decades most families collect photo albums as a sort of memory book. High schools and college graduates would keep books with photographs of their classmates, either as individuals or together in a group photo. But how many of us preserved sound recordings of our family? Or of our classmates?

Even more troubling. Why do we now have on Facebook photo memories of all our friends' special moments, their family, beach vacations, travels and even dinner events? Why don't we have sound memories or recordings kept on a sort of Voicebook? Humans are the only animal that can speak and sing. Many birds, cats and dogs look beautiful, yet none of them speak. Words and emotions of grief, passion and empathy, are what makes us special and unique.

Is it because we have plenty of interest in looking at each other as eye-candy and yet we have nothing to say? Maybe that explains why we all feel misunderstood and unheard. Not even a thousand of photos of us at the gym, beach or touristic spots, will ever make a single word heard! Maybe we should go beyond just looks and listen more. We have dreams, hopes and pains to speak. I finish my thoughts with one of my favorite poems by Cavafy. It really makes my heart beat, because the poet has forgotten how his loved one looked like, yet the impression of his voice, his words still fills him with memories, meaning and sound.

"December, 1903" (Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard)
And if I cannot speak about my love—
if I do not talk about your hair, your lips, your eyes,
still your face that I keep within my heart,
the sound of your voice that I keep within my mind,
the days of September that rise in my dreams,
give shape and color to my words, my sentences,
whatever theme I touch, whatever thought I utter.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

A peaceful emperor haphazardly started the first Jewish genocide and their European diaspora

Hadrian is the Roman emperor associated with the longest period of peace. Although the definition of peace is somewhat difficult to define in an empire with such large borders, Hadrian made serious attempts to make peace in the East with the Parthian empire and strengthened the defensive borders along Scotland, the Rhine and the Danube. In general Hadrian’s reign was marked by an absence of major conflicts and the Roman army was so peaceful that Hadrian decided to create fake alarms and drills to keep the soldiers disciplined and to signal that the army was always alert to possible invaders. Imperial policy was also benevolent towards business, including trade relations with the Arabs and the Parthians.

However, while Hadrian (see his bust on the left) is often labelled as one of the “five good emperors”, it is nevertheless true that his reign witnessed a brutal war between Romans and Jews, which resulted in over half a million victims (according to Dio Cassio, although some modern historians believe this number to be exaggerated) and the general depopulation of Judea. There were large numbers of victims caused by both sides, including internecine fights among opposing parties of Jews. After the 2nd century Hadrian became the prototype of the antisemitic Evil King in every Jewish tale and in the teachings of rabbis, which often mention “Hadrian, may his bones be crushed”. However, most modern historians believe that the idea of an antisemitic Hadrian is an anachronistic image written well after the events and that the war started due to bad planning and communication of the Roman authorities. Using a bit of an anachronistic example I would suggest Hadrian’s mistake was trying to impose a pagan Hellenistic culture (which was tolerant of naked sports, homosexual love, and all sorts of religious rituals with drugs and animals such as serpents) upon a conservative, traditional and monotheistic population. Just imagine how people would react nowadays if a powerful politician would announce the building of an arena for drugs, sex, and rock n’roll, right in front of a major church and a sanctuary of holy ground. Such was the mistake of Hadrian almost 2000 years ago. I make this remark as a metaphor and do not intend it to be either a criticism of modern culture or a precise description of the Roman-Jewish conflict.

After the Bar-Kokhba Revolt, which lasted from 132 to 136 AD, the majority of the Jewish population of Judea was killed, exiled, or sold into slavery, and Jewish religious and political authority was suppressed. Archaeological remains show that the depopulation impact of Hadrian’s Jewish War was much worse than the First Roman-Jewish War fought by Vespasian and Titus. Jerusalem was rebuilt as a purely Roman city. Hadrian forbid the Jews and Christians from entering Jerusalem, and his persecutions started the Jewish diaspora towards other Roman provinces. In order to erase any relationship between Jews and the land, Hadrian changed the name of Judea to Syria-Palestina. Several historians view the Roman actions as so brutal that these should be classified as genocide. Jews disappeared from history as a political nation until the 20th century and remained only as a religious-ethnic community.

Unfortunately, there are few reliable historical documents about how and why both sides started the war. The scanty Greco-Roman texts are either too brief (as in the case of Dio Cassius’ book) or tainted by the stain of untrustworthiness (as in the case of Historia Augusta). Cassius Dio, 69, 12, 1, relates: “At Jerusalem Hadrian founded a city in place of the one which had been razed to the ground, naming it Aelia Capitolina, and on the site of the temple of the god he raised a new temple to Jupiter. This brought on a war of no slight importance nor of brief duration, for the Jews deemed it intolerable that foreign races should be settled in their city and foreign religious rites planted there”. There are also several ancient Jewish and Christian documents mentioning Hadrian’s hatred of Jews, but such texts were written one century or more after the events.

There is archaeological evidence that Hadrian visited Israel in 130 AD, just 2 years before the war, therefore it is quite possible that the rebellion erupted after some measures he proposed then. However, some modern historians believe this particular passage of Cassius Dio was modified by the late Byzantine author Xiphilinus. Building a pagan temple on top of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem would have been an obvious catalyst for war, since the traditional Jews would have rebelled against it. This plan is therefore judged to be highly unlikely to be part of Hadrian and the Romans’ intentions. Hadrian had at his disposal plenty of examples of the Jewish sensitivity to the presence of idolatrous cults or simply images on the Temple site. Also, Hadrian’s was more inclined to peace rather than provoking wars.

Some modern historians speculate that Hadrian's real plan may have been to rebuild Jerusalem as a Roman colony. Perhaps Hadrian expected that a new Roman colony would have been well received by the Jewish population, since these colonies had honorific and tax privileges. Several wealthy Jews and business men may have seen benefits in a better Roman administration. However, the local Jewish population in these Roman colonies could be recruited as soldiers and even be used to fight against their countrymen. Epigraphic texts show that Jewish citizens from Caesarea Maritima (see images above) fought in favor of the Roman army during the Roman-Jewish wars of 66 and 132. Another aspect of a Roman colony in Jerusalem which could have offended the traditional Israelites is the introduction of pagan and imperial cults in the future city, even if standard Roman policy exempted Jews from participating in Roman religious rituals.

Also, perhaps some of the younger generations and the more liberal minded may actually have enjoyed the Roman and Hellenistic culture, with its temples and baths where men would exercise mostly naked. Archeological and numismatic evidence shows that Hadrian’s policy gained some approval because of its privileges and benefits, which is particularly clear in the ruins of cities such as Tiberias (see image on the left) and Sepphoris (see images below) in Galilee where a majority of the population was Jewish. In these cities elegies were dedicated to the cult of the emperor Hadrian. This evidence demonstrates the rationality of Hadrian’s project which was not a mere provocative act against Israel, but could have met some approval.

Another sign of local Roman support is that the Jewish rebel leader, Simon Bar Kokhba, punished severely any Jew and Christian who refused to join his ranks, applying mutilation of fingers and hands to the disobedient. The images below are of the Cave of Letters which was found in the Judean desert in 1960. In this cave they found a tied bundle letters from Bar-Kokhba, next to a woman's belongings: wool, cosmetic tools, beads, a perfume flask and a mirror. Most of the Bar-Kokhba letters are orders to punish and steal the crops of wealthy Jewish landowners who refused to cooperate with him. Therefore not all Jews were against Rome.


Some historians also speculate that Hadrian may have been driven by a religious syncretism policy in an attempt to unify the imperial religions as a support for his autocracy. Roman-Greco culture rejected circumcision as a violence exercised on a perfect human body and also because circumcision was seen as a political symbol of hostility towards the Roman-Hellenic world. Hadrian may have therefore implemented harsher measures against circumcision in an attempt to impulse Israelite assimilation. Historian Giovanni Bazzana compares Hadrian’s policies to Saint Paul’s suggestion of abandoning circumcision in order for Christianity to be accepted in the wider world. Saint Paul's ideals were successful because they were only about social and religious precepts and not about a new political order.

Hadrian had already tried to unite the traditional Greek cults by creating a coherent belief system that could be spread across the whole empire, a project that had already been devised earlier by Hellenized Jewish intellectuals such as Philo. In Judaea there was already a Hellenized Jewish population, the Samaritans, which integrated their religious rites with Hellenistic ones such as the worship of Zeus. Although nowadays the Samaritans are only a few thousands of people, there were around one million Samaritans in Roman times, which can be easily confirmed by the large number of times a Samaritan appears in the New Testament or in the ancient Jewish literature. This attempt at conciliation between Judaism and Hellenism foundered when faced with strict Jewish traditions and monotheism, which caused the uprising against Rome.

Perhaps the biggest historical surprise is that Christianity became the Roman Empire’s dominant religion less than 200 years after Hadrian’s visit to Israel. Undoubtedly, Hadrian saw Jews and Christians as backward fanatics, which were destined to disappear in the middle of an enlightened Hellenistic-Roman era. My bet is that almost all Romans and pagan scholars shared Hadrian’s opinion that Jewish-Christianity was a backward and dwindling faith. Who would have guessed then that almost two thousand years later both Christianity and the Jewish religion represent the most vibrant communities of the western world? Even more surprising is that such different and opposing sources merged so well that our entire law systems are now jointly supported by these three pillars: Jewish-Christian faith and love, Hellenistic philosophy and knowledge, and Roman legislation. And as Saint Paul would say in his Epistle to the Corinthians, from all of these pillars the greatest and most important one is Love.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Inflation and Unpaid Wages destroyed the Roman Empire

Historians still debate the decline and end of the Roman Empire, a subject which inspired Edward Gibbon’s masterpiece, perhaps the most widely read history books ever. This blog will just add my personal views on a topic that has been covered many times by other authors. Many hypothesis have been proposed for the Roman decline. Some point to Christianity as a source of imperial Rome's weakness. However, the Eastern Empire was also Christian and remained a strong power until the 12th century at least. Others point out that too much lead in the water supplies was slowly poisoning the Roman population. However, it feels to me that the barbarians that penetrated the Roman empire, such as the Vandals and Visigoths, were also getting water from the same sources as the Romans, therefore I feel this to be a weak explanation.

The Roman Empire started a slow decline after the Antonine plague, which some estimate killed five million people or more than 10% of the empire’s population. The plague ended the period of greatest economic prosperity of the Roman Empire. It happened just at the climax of the greatest political and military influence of the Empire, since their major rivals, the Parthians, had been repeatedly defeated by the Romans. However, a plague does not always imply the decline of a civilization. In the late middle ages the Black Plague killed a substantial part of the European population and some economic historians say that this disease increased the wages of workers (since now there were fewer people than land) and this increase in wages may have given impulse to new industries and the long term development of Europe.

The reason why the Roman Empire may have declined and eventually disintegrated is therefore probably not due to a plague nor due to military defeats. Urban populations after a plague can employ new workers at higher wages and find new arts and industries in order to recover their wealth and splendor. Also, the Roman Empire had suffered defeats far worse than the famous disaster of Adrianopole in the late 4th century. In particular, it is easy to argue that the military defeats against Hannibal during the Punic wars, the disasters against the Teutons around 105 BC, or the rebellion of the Italian provinces during the Social War of 88 BC, were far bigger than the battle of Adrianopole. The long lasting nature of the Romans was not that their armies were always invincible, but their ability to persuade their citizens to form a new army even after suffering major defeats. Presumably, persuading your citizens to join the military effort was easier in an oligarchy or autocracy that had some respect for citizen rights. However, after the 2nd century the Romans became a military regime in which only the generals and their troops counted for something, a bit like the Soviet Union which had the largest army in the world and yet was unable to produce decent products such as toilet paper or bread. In such a military regime probably the citizens were afraid of their Roman oppressors as much as of their barbarian invaders. After a military defeat in the 4th or 5th century few Romans would cooperate with their generals and authorities, because Roman generals feared that their fellow citizens could be rivals in the competition for power and therefore even if the new generals were successful these could be murdered afterward when they were no longer convenient. This meant that the late Roman authorities would find few allies and would lose power easily after military defeats.

In my view perhaps a decisive moment in Roman history were the budget and monetary policies adopted by a very successful emperor Septimius Severus. Severus is one of the few generals in history who won large battles in three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa. Some historians believe that the battle of Lugdunum in which Severus confirmed his power was the bloodiest battle in all of roman history. Severus then enlarged the army in order to make further wars in Asia, Africa and Britain. He also increased the wage of each soldier by 30% in order to guarantee their loyalty. Above I show a picture of me and my twin brother – I am the one with longer hair – on top of the Roman wall in the city of York, England, which was where Severus died in sickness while planning to conquer Scotland. Below I show a picture of the roman theater in the African home town of Severus, Leptis Magna.

In order to pay for this large army expenses, Severus debased the coins and started an inflationary period from which Rome never recovered. As economists know, debasing the currency and creating rampant inflation is the worst possible way for a government to make revenues. It is much better to raise taxes, since the more inflation you make to pay something then you need even more inflation in the future to pay for the same things. The inflation process can go out of control and the government is unable to use money anymore. Also, ordinary business men and people stop using money and lose their confidence in the government. Inflation was already understood as a bad decision even in ancient times. Severus only adopted this bad measure because he came to power as a military dictator and only valued his soldiers. In fact Severus famous last words to his sons in York were: "Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men". Being unable to persuade the Senate to cooperate, Severus was limited to the worst policy option to finance his wars, which was inflation.

During the  3rd and 4th centuries it was clear that inflation was damaging the roman economy and their government system. Laws were passed authorizing generals to directly seize products and valuables for use of the army, therefore ordinary taxes paid in money fell out of use. Also, since workers and business men did not want to work in industries that were more easily “taxable” or “seized”, the Roman authorities ended up passing laws obliging people to stay in the area where they had been born and to work in the same occupation as their parents. Feudalism had started. The free and vibrant economy had been replaced by a planned and rigid system.

The Roman army was never actually defeated by the barbarian invaders. Even after losses such as Adrianopole the Roman leaders were able to persuade the “winners” to become cheap mercenaries for them. Therefore the barbarians could be described as a form of cheap labor in the official Roman army. Some historians, such as Peter Heather, even argue that these cheap Barbarian soldiers were actually what kept the Roman Empire running well and efficiently during the 5th century. However, the Western Roman Empire was dependent on revenues from the large olive oil fields and other agricultural farms in modern day Tunisia. When a corrupt province governor and a group of barbarians, the Vandals, managed to occupy Tunisia, then Roman emperors lost a major source of revenue. After a few decades and an exhaustive war with the Huns, the Western Roman Empire was out of revenue and the Barbarian soldiers employed by the Emperor decided to rebel and simply run Italy as a kingdom for themselves. Therefore one could say that mismanagement in the form of inflation to pay for a military dictatorship and a lack of money to pay the wages of soldiers was the end of the Roman Empire. The Eastern Roman Empire was much more urbanized, had a stronger economy, and was therefore able to resist invasions from the Balkans, the Middle East and from Central Asia for several centuries more.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

La influencia de Safo en Enrique Bunbury

El cantante español Enrique Bunbury retira inspiración de diversas fuentes musicales (sonidos latinos, árabes, Elvis Presley, Pink Floyd) e literarias. Entre las obras literarias que han inspirado sus canciones están piezas teatrales de Wilde y Antonio Vallejo, la filosofía de Nietzche, novelas de Kafka, Dickens y Jules Verne, o la poesía de Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Alberti y Kipling. El cantante-compositor hizo una carrera de música con contenido e influencias diversas, pero siempre sellada por su forma personal de sentir.
«Enrique Bunbury en concierto en 2012: Carlos Delgado; CC-BY-SA»

Pero hoy me gustaría señalar una influencia algo desconocida de los inmensos admiradores de Bunbury que es como la influencia de 
Safo se insinúa de forma tan sutil en la canción El Rescate del álbum El Viaje a Ninguna Parte. No debería, sin embargo, ser sorpresa que Bunbury haya buscado inspiración en la poetisa griega de Lesbos, una vez que los temas gay-lesbianos son parte integral de la carrera del cantante desde su inicio. El propio nombre artístico Bunbury proviene de un personaje de La importancia de llamarse Ernesto de Oscar Wilde, cuyo significado es deliberadamente ambiguo. Muchos lectores y estudiosos de Wilde, incluyendo su amigo Aleister Crowley, creen que el personaje Bunbury representa la vida doble de Oscar Wilde, ocultando un amor homosexual y secreto del escritor.


Safo tiene un impacto muy particular en la historia de la literatura, ni que sea solo porque hubo muy pocas mujeres escritoras hasta los últimos dos siglos. En la antigüedad los poetas eran casi todos hombres y también su audiencia eres masculina. Los poemas y canciones eran acompañados de música y cantados durante las cenas extravagantes donde hombres comían en exceso y se emborrachaban de vino. Las únicas mujeres presentes en estos simposios eran danzarinas, flautistas y prostitutas o cortesanas, destinadas al entretenimiento de los invitados. Dado que toda la poesía antigua tenía interpretes masculinos y audiencia masculina no es de sorprender que sus temas incidían sobre la guerra, la búsqueda de gloria, la fuerza del deseo masculino o el amor homosexual. Safo probablemente enseñaba poesía y canciones a otras mujeres antes que estas se casasen con sus hombres. Los poemas de Safo abordaban materias bien distintas y representan una autora que valoraba el amor más que todas las cosas. También son poemas particularmente sensibles al sufrimiento y con un lenguaje muy directo y simple, pero que al mismo tiempo apelan a emociones poderosas, sentimientos y obsesiones imposibles de ignorar. Por eso es muy fácil reconocer la influencia directa de Safo en mucha de la poesía erótica u amorosa de otros autores, desde los romanos como Catulo y Ovidio hasta los escritores Anglo-saxones del siglo 19 como Thomas Hardy, Byron, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Swinburne, Lord Tennyson y William Carlos Williams.

El Rescate tiene como tema el precio a pagar por el amor apasionado que uno dedica a alguien que nos desprecia. Es una canción de extremada vulnerabilidad y el compositor se revela como alguien desesperado, consciente de que sus esfuerzos son inútiles, pero que paradojalmente valora más al amor que cualquier bien material del mundo, sea dinero o casas grandiosas. Abajo presento el refrán  de la canción y en seguida explico cómo Bunbury se inspiró directamente en dos poemas de Safo. Ni siquiera es una casualidad que en el mismo año del lanzamiento del disco de Bunbury fue publicada una traducción completa de los poemas de Safo en español de la autoría de Aurora Luque y que fue un éxito literario.

“No hay dinero, ni castillos, ni avales, ni talonarios,
no hay en este mundo, -aunque parezca absurdo-,
ni en planetas por descubrir, lo que aquí te pido.
Y no te obligo a nada que no quieras.
Las fuerzas me fallan, mis piernas no responden;
te conocen, pero no llegan a ti.”

Bueno, la enumeración de El Rescate es extraordinariamente similar al poema 16 de Safo, que habla que ni la riqueza, poder y los ejércitos tan valorados por los hombres, ni ninguna cosa sobre la tierra, nada de eso vale nada relativamente a la persona de la cual se está enamorada. No es un acaso que Enrique Bunbury menciona lo mismo en una forma más moderna “ni dinero, castillos, avales, talonarios”. La lista de Safo de cosas inútiles apreciadas por los reyes y generales es una imagen de la antigüedad, pero la lista de Bunbury es válida para todos los hombres ricos y pobres de espirito que viven en los días de hoy. Repárese además que el título de la canción de Bunbury es “El Rescate” y el poema de Safo refiere claramente que ninguna promesa de gloria o de bienes materiales, ni siquiera la amenaza de guerra, sirvió para pagar el rescate más famoso de la historia que fue el rapto de Helena de Troya.  Una tercera similitud entre la canción rock y el poema griego es que ambos tratan de amantes que están lejos y ausentes, Anactoria en el caso de Safo y un arrebatador amor anónimo en el caso de Bunbury.

Poema-Fragmento 16 de Safo
“Hay quienes dicen que los hombres montados a caballo,
o un ejército de soldados o una flota de naves,
son lo más hermoso sobre la tierra negra,
pero yo digo que es aquello de lo que una está enamorada.

Es muy fácil que todos comprendan esto,
pues la bella Helena abandonó a su esposo,
el mejor de los príncipes, se fue navegando hacia Troya,
y no se acordó de su hija ni de sus queridos padres.

Ahora recuerdo a Anactoria que no está presente.
Yo quisiera ver su amable paso y el resplandor radiante de su rostro
más que los carros de los lidios y los soldados de armaduras relucientes.”

Pero la influencia sáfica no acaba aquí, porque existe una cuarta característica de la canción de Bunbury inspirada muy claramente en otro poema de Safo. Es muy difícil a un hombre admitir su debilidad, pero Enrique confiesa que sus fuerzas le fallan al extremo “Las fuerzas me fallan, mis piernas no responden”. La mayoría de las canciones y poemas masculinos inciden sobre la belleza del cuerpo femenino o sobre la gran confianza del hombre que es más bello, fuerte y seductor que los otros. Por lo tanto es muy raro que Enrique – un hombre de éxito, admirado por el mundo, con una imagen de cowboy y macho duro – hable que no tiene piernas ni fuerza. En verdad esa vulnerabilidad extrema de Bunbury es algo muy bien capturado y de una expresión femenina muy evidente. Nadie mejor que Safo expresó la palidez que le causa a uno mirar la persona que se ama y perder la voz, la vista, y sentir las piernas flaquear, con un pulso acelerado como si estuviésemos enfermos y a punto de morir.

Poema-Fragmento 31 de Safo
“Igual a los dioses se me parece
ese hombre que, sentado frente a ti,
de cerca escucha tu dulce voz y tu risa adorable;
ello me ha dado un vuelco al corazón dentro del pecho;
pues apenas te miro, ya hablar no me es posible
sino que mi lengua se quiebra, un leve
fuego al punto me corre bajo la piel,
nada pueden ver mis ojos, me zumban los oídos
me cubre el sudor, un temblor me posee toda,
me siento más pálida que la hierba
y a mí misma me parece que estoy cerca de morir.”

El poema-fragmento 31 es quizá el poema más conocido de Safo y ha sido imitado por inmenso autores de diversas lenguas al largo de los últimos siglos. La frase “Las fuerzas me fallan, mis piernas no responden” tiene realmente una similitud enorme no solo con el poema original de Safo, pero además con los poetas inspirados por esta, tal como el homenaje de John Hollander al fragmento 31 de Safo “my tongue collapses, my legs flag”.

Enrique Bunbury es realmente un compositor de una sensibilidad fabulosa, porque en 2500 años de poemas y canciones no hubo nadie a capturar de forma más actual, tan linda y sensible estos sentimientos. La poetisa griega es linda, porque al leer sus palabras siento una emoción absurda, como si alguien que conociera me escribiera una carta enviada a través de  un océano y muchos siglos de distancia. El cantante español es el más original de todos los poetas-cantantes que alguna vez se han inspirado en Safo, una vez que su canción no es una copia de sus poemas griegos. Los poemas de Safo son tan impecablemente hermosos, tan poderosos y difíciles de mejorar, que mismo los mejores escritores han casi copiado palabra por palabra los poemas originales, solamente restando una línea o dos. Bunbury es el único que hizo su propia versión con una actualidad poderosísima y una belleza increíbles. ¡Hasta creo que Safo diría que su discípulo masculino logró cantar tan bien o mejor que el original! Aquí queda mi homenaje a mi canción preferida del rock n’ roll español y a mi escritora preferida. Feliz Pascua.