Sunday, September 13, 2020

'An Exceedingly Wide Context'

Two of our best poets review books of prose in the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. In “The Sword of the Caliph,” Eric Ormsby looks at God’s Shadow by Alan Mikhail, a biography of the Ottoman sultan Selim (1470-1520). This is history about which, like most Westerners, I know almost nothing. Most of what I know regarding Ottoman history, and Islamic history in general, involves its collisions with European history – an ignorance Ormsby indirectly addresses:

“[Mikhail] sets Selim’s accomplishments within an exceedingly wide context, for he views the persistent Ottoman threat to the West and the panicked response to it, following the capture of Constantinople in 1453, as the catalyst for numerous unrelated events not only in Europe but in the Americas.”

Ormsby says the most interesting chapters in Mikhail’s book deal with Christopher Columbus’ desire for “the destruction of Islam” – a revelation to this reader. Mikhail even refers to “Columbus’s crusade.” Ormsby writes that Columbus “comes across as something of a 15th-century Mr. Magoo, more befuddled than visionary.” More ominously, Ormsby tells us Mikhail describes Turkey’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as “a fervent, indeed fanatical, admirer of Selim the Grim, whom he clearly views as a role model.” One of the reasons I read more history of late is to address my vast ignorance and challenge my lazy assumptions.

In “Greece’s Mythic Heartland,” the wonderful A.E. Stallings reviews Paul Cartledge’s Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece. “The idea that Thebes and Boeotia were somehow uncultured,” she writes, “is easy to debunk by pointing to its poets and writers, among them Hesiod [recently translated by Stallings], Pindar and Plutarch.” We are fortunate to live in a time of such ready access to books. When Stallings writes in her final paragraph -- “Between the radical  but self-destructive democracy of Athens and Sparta’s totalitarian oligarchy (both imperialist), Thebes and Boeotia stand in the middle  as an early model of federalism . . .” – I did the logical thing and ordered Cartledge’s and Mikhail’s books. It’s reassuring to know that at least a few poets remain learned and open to more than the in-bred world of contemporary poetry.

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