Saturday, March 21, 2015

Why study literature?

In 1987, political philosophy professor Allan Bloom published his bestseller The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. Over a million copies were printed.

The book "hit the scene at a time when universities were embroiled in the so-called canon wars, in which traditionalists in favor of centering the curriculum on classic works of literature faced off against multiculturalists who wanted to include more works by women and members of minorities," Rachel Donadio wrote in the New York Times in 2007. As she put it, he argued "that abandoning the Western canon had dumbed down universities, while the 'relativism' that had replaced it had 'extinguished the real motive of education, the search for a good life'; that rock music 'ruins the imagination of young people'; that America had produced no significant contributions to intellectual life since the 1950s; and that many earlier contributions were just watered-down versions of Heidegger, Nietzsche, Weber, Freud and other Continental thinkers." These claims were controversial among academics, who had to contend with a "zero-sum game: for every writer added, another is dropped," and in a context of the relative newness of American literature, which has barely had generations enough to form any canon at all, let alone one formed against a background of social inclusion of race and gender for writers and readers. For Bloom, the zero-sum game had a time constraint, too, since an American's years in college "are civilization's only chance to get to him."

Donadio quoted Mark Lilla, professor of political philosophy and religion, as saying that Americans seek "self-recognition" in literature and tend to find obscure, foreign texts to be "alienating" in comparison. She explained that philosophy professor John Searle remarked on the irony that texts which had been traditionally believed to teach critical thinking were now being criticized themselves. Searle wrote: "The texts once served an unmasking function; now we are told that it is the texts which must be unmasked."

Canon or no canon, acquiring skills of critical inquiry is central to the humanities. Prof T. Kari Kitao wrote in 1999:

“Professionalism may prepare us for a career but liberal arts education prepares us for a resourceful life. In short, liberal arts education liberates us.

I don’t just mean that it makes a knowledgeable person, a person who can recite a Shakespeare sonnet, a person who, watching a ballet, can recognize a grand jeté pas de chat, or a person who can debate medieval thinkers, Boethius vs. Anselm. I mean a certain predisposition that urges a person to be inquisitive, widely interested in a variety of subjects, old and new, those in fashion and out of fashion, those of different cultures, including your own. I mean developing a multilayered personality, a person who is infinitely interesting.”

Then there is the perspective that literature and philosophy does not only teach us how to think, but it also affords us an opportunity to feel deeply, which is another way of understanding our condition and our place in the world.

Lee Siegel wrote in 2013 that "the humanities" as institutionalized in academia can be its own worst enemy. Not only is the classroom setting an ill-equipped place to understand literature that is subversive or charged with dissent, but it is also typically the wrong place to enjoy its beauty. For every great teacher of literature, "there were countless others who made the reading of literary masterpieces seem like two hours in the periodontist's chair." People can read literature without majoring in it, and he suggests that it is probably not true that "large numbers of people devoting four years mostly to studying novels, poems and plays are all that stand between us and sociocultural nightfall." It is a "sentimental fantasy" that the absence of formal education in literature leads to "the inability to think critically, to write clearly, to empathize with other people, to be curious about other people and places, to engage with great literature after graduation, to recognize truth, beauty and goodness."

"Every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and methods. Literature requires only that you be human. It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught. Why does Hector's infant son, Astyanax, cry when he sees his father put on his helmet? All you need to understand that is a heart."

Before the end of the 19th century, he said, literature was "part of the leisure of everyday life," not part of formal education, and "it was only after World War II that the study of literature as a type of wisdom, relevant to actual, contemporary life, put down widespread institutional roots," when returning American soldiers had the opportunity to go to school under the GI Bill and "yearned to make sense of their lives after the carnage they had witnessed and survived." Of the classics, he says: "They are places of quiet, useless stillness in a world that despises any activity that is not profitable or productive."


"Revisiting the Canon Wars," by Rachel Donadio, New York Times, Sept. 16, 2007.
“The Usefulness of Uselessness,” Prof. T. Kari Kitao, 1999. Swarthmore pamphlet.
"Who Ruined the Humanities?" by Lee Siegel, in the Saturday Essay for The Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2013.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Aga Mohamed Khan, 18th century Persian eunuch

Sir Percy Sykes wrote:

The memory of few Persians is so universally execrated as that of Aga Mohamed Khan, the founder of the Kajar dynasty. The eldest of the nine sons of Mohamed Husayn Khan, he was captured and castrated by Adil Shah when a boy of five, and this misfortune would sufficiently account for the vindictiveness and cruelty which have branded the Eunuch-Monarch for all time. (Sykes, p. 289)

Aga Mohamed lived at the court of Karim Khan, who was married to Aga Mohamed’s sister. Karim Khan referred to the boy as “Piran-wisa, after the celebrated Vizier of Afrasiab, the legendary King of Turan.” When he learned that Karim Khan was dead, he rode over three hundred miles north in three days, continued to Mazanderan where he seized a caravan, and contended with his half-brother Murtaza Kuli until he was able to become “master of the Caspian provinces.” (Sykes, p. 276)

In 1783, he conquered the province of Georgia. John Piggot wrote:

"The neighbouring provinces were awed into submission, after the sack of the capital, and now Aga consented to assume the crown; for though he had enjoyed supreme power more than a year, he objected to be crowned until he had subdued the enemies of Persia. He told the assembled courtiers that if they wished him to wear a crown, they must agree to help him to regain 'as much power as had been enjoyed by the greatest sovereign of Persia.' Even then he would not assume the magnificent crown of Nadir Shah, but merely a pearl-studded circlet. To the great delight of the religious, he pledged himself to the advancement of the Shiah faith, by wearing a sword consecrated at the tomb of the monarch who established that belief in Persia, Ismail Shah." (Piggot, pp. 67-68)

Stephen Howarth wrote:

Agha Mohammed Khan was an unpleasant person in every way. To look at, he was slight and wasted; a portrait of him shows a thin, morose, lined face wearing an enormous jewelled crown, spindly shoulders supporting heavily jewelled robes, the outsize garments making the mean body look even smaller. His sole loves were jewels and power; both his avarice and his cruelty became legendary. He was incapable of other loves; at the age of five he had been castrated by Ali Quli Khan, Nadir's [nephew and] successor, for he was the eldest son of an antagonistic and powerful tribal prince. It has been suggested that this personal disaster was the motive for all his later viciousness, but this seems superficial psychology. Evil can become a successful way of life for more easily than good; Agha Mohammed was one of those personalities whom weaker people follow for their own safety.

But not even his own people were safe from his capricious acts. One of his less disgusting habits was personally to disembowel any servant who might displease him. With this man, the use of blinding as a punishment – and as a means of making his enemies as impotent as himself – reached a kind of climax. In 1794, the city of Kerman, in south Persia, was taken by Agha Mohammed's forces. With his own hands he dug out the eyes of his last rival; and then he ordered that 20,000 pairs of eyes be brought to him from the conquered city. When they were duly delivered, heaped on trays, he counted them with the point of his dagger, saying to the officer who brought them, 'If one be missing, your own will make up the account.' But all the 40,000 eyes were there. (Howarth, pp. 91-92)

In over 300 pages, Piggot does not mention that Persia generally had eunuchs and does not mention any particular eunuch, save Aga Mohammed.

"...Aga Mohammed Khan, who, by the defeat of Lootf Ali, last monarch of the Zend dynasty, ascended the Persian throne.

This event took place in 1794, and the conduct of Aga, in his contest with Lootf Ali, prepared the country for a cruel government. Early in life this king had fallen into the power of Nadir Shah's nephew and successor, Adil Shah, who ordered him to be made an eunuch. We have mentioned his captivity at Shiraz under Kureem Khan, and his escape from the city on the death of that monarch, at which time he was thirty-six years of age. His confinement at Shiraz gave him plenty of opportunity for study, which he knew would be of use to him in the high position he longed to occupy. Though treated more as the friend than the captive of Kureem Khan, he never lost sight of the fact that to his captor he was indebted for the ruin of his house, and, when he had the opportunity, gratified his thirst for revenge. That opportunity occurred when, at the age of fifty-one he mounted the throne of Persia, and ordered every one of the tribe of Zend who was even remotely connected with the late royal family to be put to death, or to be deprived of their eyes. It is only fair to mention that he did not treat in the same manner the rival branch of the Kajar tribe, though it was chiefly owing to the conduct of its chief that his father had been slain. But Aga Mohammed saw that by reconciling the two branches of the Kajar tribe he should consolidate his power, and by blinding or killing members of the blood royal of the house of Zend he should prevent any member of that dynasty from aspiring to the throne." (Piggot, pp. 63-64) "But Aga gratified a revenge of a most contemptible nature, when he had the bones of Nadir Shah and Kureem Khan disinterred and buried at the entrance of his palace, so that he might daily have the satisfaction of trampling upon them." (Piggot, p. 65) "Aga Mohammed removed his capital from Shiraz to Teheran, which city was in a much more convenient situation for the government of the country. * * * In Teheran Aga Mohammed buit several of these ["large inns or caravanserais for the accommodation of travellers"), one or two of very large size. In almost every city in Persia a large building, or series of buildings, was strongly fortified and called the ark or citadel. In this the garrison retired when the walls had been stormed, and sustained a second siege. A parallel to this in our own country [England] is the keep of a mediæval castle. The ark at Teheran occupied about a fourth of the city, and contained the king's palace." (Piggot, p. 66)

After Aga Mohamed was crowned Shah of Persia in 1796, he pursued Nadir's grandson, the 61-year-old Shah Rukh Mirza. Both men had suffered misfortunes as small children. Just as Aga Mohamed had been castrated at the age of five, Shah Rukh had been blinded at the age of five.

Shah Rukh had nominally come to the throne as a boy of five following the brief rule of Adil Shah (Ali Kuli), 1747-1748; Adil Shah was blinded by his brother Ibrahim and then assassinated by Ibrahim’s soldiers, who also killed Ibrahim. The next ruler, the small boy Shah Rukh Mirza, was vulnerable as Mirza Sayyid Mohamed (Sulayman) incited fear that the five-year-old Shah Rukh would grow up to “continue his grandfather’s policy of subverting the Shia doctrine”. Sulayman captured and blinded Shah Rukh, but then Shah Rukh’s general, Yusuf Ali, rescued him and was installed as regent for Shah Rukh. (Yusuf Ali subsequently captured, blinded, and executed Sulayman and also executed Sulayman’s two sons in retribution.) (Sykes, p. 276)

At the approach of Aga Mohamed, Shah Rukh's two sons fled to Afghanistan. Aga Mohamed then set his sights on Shah Rukh's hidden jewels. These Shah Rukh would not reveal, so he was put to torture.

“On the fall of Shahrukh, Ahmed Shah had allowed him to reside in Meshed, and govern it and the surrounding district. Thousands of pilgrims annually resorted to the sacred tomb or shrine of the Imam Riza. Aga Mohammed, who advanced with a force to that city, pretended to be merely one of these. His real reason for the expedition was this: when Shahrukh went to Meshed, the fallen monarch took with him many jewels of great value, part of the spoils which Nadir had brought from India. Aga Mohammed, like Nadir, was passionately fond of jewel,s and after he had prayed at the holy tomb, he requested the blind monarch to deliver up the gems. He, however, protested that he had none, so he was ordered to be tortured, and revealed the hiding-places of stones of great value. The last torture was diabolical: a circle of paste was put on his head and boiling oil was poured in, its effect being that an immense ruby, which had been in the crown of Aurungzebe, was given up. The poor king died soon after from the injuries he received.” (Piggot, p. 68)
“Day by day, under the influence of the agony inflicted, he revealed the secret hiding-places of his hoarded wealth. The celebrated ruby of Aurangzeb was produced only when a circle of paste had ben put upon his head and molten lead poured on to it. Aga Mohamed, with whom love of jewelry was almost a mania, was overjoyed at securing this priceless stone. He gave orders for the tortures to cease; but they had been too much for the descendant of Nadir Shah, who died soon afterwards from their effects.” (Sykes, p. 294)

Similarly, Howarth wrote:

The eunuch was not a person to hesitate at torture, and one by one the hiding-places of the gems were revealed. The process went on for several days; after each revelation Shah Rukh swore he had no more to give, but each new torture brought new treasures to light. So though the Koh-i-noor [a famous diamond] was actually in Afghanistan, Agha Mohammed remained convinced that the Shah still had it. The last gem to be disclosed was a great ruby taken by Nadir at the sack of Delhi; and to gain this, the final torture in the hunt for the crown jewels was a macabre mimicry of coronation. Shah Rukh's head was shaved, and a circle of thick paste as put around his bare scalp; then, into the circle, Agha Mohammed poured a pitcherful of molten lead. (Howarth, pp. 92-93)


"Persians love to think that this stone [the Deryai Noor, or Ocean of Light], with our Koh-i-noor, decorated the sword of Afrasiab, who lived three thousand years before our era. They add that Timour (or Tamerlane) carried them to India, where they remained until Nadir Shah's memorable expedition." (Piggot, pp. 291-292)

Aga Mohamed went on to capture the fortress at Shisha (Sykes, p. 294).

He was assassinated in the spring of 1797 at age 63. He had sentenced two personal attendants to death, but as it was Friday evening, a sacred time to Muslims, he said that they should not be executed until the morning. For some reason, the condemned men were not imprisoned, and they convinced a third man to help them stab Aga Mohammed in his tent. Piggot suspects "that one of the leading generals, Sadek Khan Shekaki, knew something beforehand of this deed, for he protected the assassins, and received from them the crown jewels, including the celebrated diamonds, the Taj-Mah (or crown of the moon) and the Derya-i-noor (or sea of light)." (Piggot, p. 70)


Stephen Howarth, The Koh-i-noor Diamond: The History and the Legend. London: Quartet Books, 1980.

John Piggot, F.S.A., F.G.S., F.R.G.S. Persia: Ancient & Modern. London: Henry S. King & Co, 1874.

Sir Percy Sykes, A History Of Persia, Volume 2 (1915), third edition (1969), reprinted 2004 by RoutledgeCurzon in Oxon, England. Chapter LXXIV, “The Founding of the Kajar Dynasty.”

Notes on further sources:
- A footnote in Sykes (p. 289) says: “The character of Aga Mohamed is well portrayed in the historical novel Zohrab the Hostage by James Morier. G. A. Olivier in vol. v. of his Voyage en Perse also gives an excellent contemporary account.” Sykes includes a quote from Olivier who refers to Aga Mohamed as "atroce" (atrocious).
- James Justinian Morier's novel Zohrab the Hostage was published in 1832 in three volumes: Vol. I, Vol. II, Vol. III
- A picture of Aga Mohamed appeared in Sir John Malcolm’s History of Persia, 1815, vol. ii and was reprinted in Sykes, p. 296.
- Selected pages of Sykes' work are available free online through Google Books. However, crucial pages about Aga Mohamed are missing from the Google Books version. It is recommended to find a print copy. It can also be purchased or rented through Amazon Kindle: Vol. I, Vol. II.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Summary of 'Aphrodisiacs and Anti-aphrodisiacs' by John Davenport

John Davenport self-published Aphrodisiacs and Anti-Aphrodisiacs in 1869. The third essay is about the title topic; the first and second essays are shorter and not quite on the same topic. Most of the book is in English, though some passages are in French and untranslated, and a few are in Latin, including one in the third essay that Davenport prints in Latin but refuses to translate because of its "disgusting obscenity."

Some of the book's points are summarized here. The information would not be considered medically accurate today, but it is of historical interest.

Essay I

The Olympian gods were "more occupied with amatory delights than with the government of the universe," and so the ancient writers, sculptors and painters were "unrestrained" in the depiction of sexual subjects, as they "could not see any moral turpitude in actions regarded by them as the design of nature, and as the acme of felicity."

Many ancient peoples used the image of a phallus to represent "the reproductive power of the sun in spring-time, as well as the action of that power on all sentient beings." This was popular in "Egypt and Syria, Persia, Asia Minor, Greece and Italy," and in modern times "in India and many parts of Africa, and was even found in America on its discovery by the Spaniards."

One writer believes that Ireland's round towers honor the sun "under the name of Sol, Phoebus, Apollo, Abad, or Budh." [Footnoted to Henry O'Brien, Round Towers of Ireland, London, 1834, Chapter viii.)

The ancient Hebrews honored male genitals, as evidenced by Abraham asking others to swear by putting their hands under his thigh, and by David's naked dance before the Ark, for disapproval of which his wife Michal was punished. The ancient Egyptians also swore by holding the phallus; the author provides an image of the Egyptian god Osiris doing this (Caylus, Vol. VI, Plate I, figure 4). In Dublin and London, the phrase "S'elp my taters!" (so help my testes) gives emphasis to an assertion.


the Cross (symbol T), although generally thought to be exclusively emblematical of eternal life, has also an account of its fancied similarity to the membrum virile, been considered by many as typical of the reproductive powers of nature. * * * The letter Tau symbol T, being the last one of the ancient alphabets, was made to typify, not only the end, boundary, or terminus of districts, but also the generative power of the eternal transmigratory life, and was used indiscriminately with the Phallus; it was, in fact, the Phallus.

Essay II

"The canon law distinguished three kinds of impotency – viz., that which proceeds from frigidity; that which is caused by sorcery (ligature or point-tying), and that which proceeding from some defect of conformation is properly designated as impotentia coeundi."

The one [impotency] most to be dreaded is that which results from the excessive and premature exercise of the reproductive functions, for, as has been well observed, 'the too frequent indulgence of a natural propensity at first increases the concomitant desire and makes its gratification a part of the periodical circle of action; but by degrees the over excitement of the organs, abating their tone and vitality, unfits them for the discharge of their office, the accompanying pleasures are blunted, and give place to satiety and disgust. Such unfortunate persons as are the victims of this kind of anaphrodisia become old long before their natural time, and have all their generative apparatus blasted with impotency. Their testicles withered and dried up secrete nothing but a serous fluid void of all virtue; the erectile tissue no longer admits into its plexus the quantum of blood necessary for turgescence, the principal organ of the reproductive act remains in a state of flaccidity, insensible to the reiterated and most stimulating solicitations; the muscles destined to favour erection are stricken with paralysis, and he violence of their desires, joined to the want of power to gratify them, drives the unhappy victim to acts of the most revolting lubricity and thence to despair.

In France, point tying (nouer l'aiguillette) was believed to be a kind of witchcraft by which one person could make a man unable to get an erection. An aiguillette was the "point" at the top of a man's hose that he would unfasten to undress. To tie the points, metaphorically, was to render him unable to undress. The writer Bodin said that there were fifty ways to cast the spell. Principally, the spellcaster would tie three knots in a cord, reciting "Ribald," "Nabal," "Vanarbi" while the victim's marriage ceremony was underway. In the 16th through 18th centuries, France sentenced people to death for casting such spells. Similar hexes were also reported in ancient Roman and Greek literature, and for such a reason Theodoric was said to be unable to consummate his marriage to Herméberge, daughter of the King of Spain.

France also introduced a Judicial Congress after a man, "being accused of impotency, demanded permission to exhibit proof of his powers before witnesses". Wives were able to call their husbands before the Congress with the complaint of the husband's impotence. Davenport points out the unlikelihood that "two persons embittered by a law-suit, agitated with hate and fury against each other," would be able to perform sexually before the Congress.

"Experience has shown that, of ten men the most vigorous and powerful, hardly one was found that came out of this shameful combat with success; it is equally certain that he who had unjustly suffered dissolution of his marriage, for not having given a proof of his capacity in the infamous Congress, had given real and authentic evidences of it in a subsequent marriage. This degrading mode of proof, in short, far from discovering the truth, was but the cause and foundation for impotence and falsehood."

The Parliament of Paris forbid the practice of the Judicial Congress, along with any other courts, in 1677.

This essay ends with a passage from a Dr. Willick, who calls semen "the most subtle and spiritous part of the human frame" that "contributes to the support of the nerves." Willicks says that "the emission of semen enfeebles the body more than the loss of twenty times the same quantity of blood".

Essay III

This deals with charms and potions meant to increase the sex drive. He discusses mandrake and what the dudaim in the Bible might have been. The Romans used "the remora, or sucking-fish, certain bones of the frog, the astroit, or star-fish, and the hippomanes [a piece of flesh that a mare bites off the forehead of her newly foaled offspring]...dried human marrow and liver...nail-parings, sundry metals, reptiles, and the intestines of particular birds and fishes, and even semen virile and sanguis menstruus." Albertus Magnus recommended powdered partridge brains in red wine.

Davenport says that nourishing food is the best aphrodisiac. This includes any food that is easily digested (analeptics). It also includes meat of adult animals that includes azezome, a substance that makes the meat appear red when uncooked and brown when cooked. This substance also appears in mushrooms and oysters. Fish, truffles, and chocolate – although not analeptics – are said to be aphrodisiac. (Jean Franco Raucher in the 17th century forbid monks to drink chocolate because of its aphrodisiac property; Davenport says that, "fearful of losing their character, or, what, perhaps, was dearer to them, their chocolate, the worthy cenobites were so diligent in suppressing Raucher's work that four copies only of it are said to be in existence.")

Among drugs, phosphorus is believed to be "essentially an energetic stimulant of the genital organs" but may also produce "the most horrible and fatal results." Ambergris is less strong in its effects both good and bad.

The Indians use Bang and the Turks use Maslac, both derivatives of hemp. In the East Indies, hashish is grown, and in Arabic its most potent form is called Maijun. The Chinese use an opium product called Affion.

Among the anti-aphrodisiacs he counts "milk, vegetables, such as lettuce, waterpurslain, cucumbers, &c., and especially of fruits in which the acid principle predominates".

"...fibulation, from the Latin word fibula (a buckle or ring) was the very reverse of circumcision, since the operation consisted in drawing the prepuce over the glans, and preventing its return, by the insertion of the ring [footnote 201: Comment. in Boerh. Aphor. sec. 1063, Vol. III]. ... Meinsius thinks that the custom of infibulating may be traced back to the time of the siege of troy, for the singer Demodocus, who was left with Clytemnestra by Agamemnon [footnote 205: Odyssey VIII. line 477], appears to that critic, to have been a eunuch, or, at least, to have been infibulated. [footnote 206: Introd. to Hesoid, cap. VI. p. 14. Edit. Plautin, 1603, in voice aoidos.]"

The Romans infibulated singers, actors, dancers, and gladiators, believing that by controlling their lust, they could improve the quality of their performance. "...their overseers closed their shame with a case of metal having a sharp spike..." This was also done by religious people in India. However, "since the lock, which obstructs the extremity of the prepuce only, cannot hinder a kind of erection, nor, indeed, of effusion of the seminal fluid, it cannot do more than oppose the introduction of the male organ into the receptacle destined for it."

The book

John Davenport. Aphrodisiacs and Anti-Aphrodisiacs: Three essays on the powers of reproduction, with some account of the judicial 'congress' as practised in France during the seventeenth century. London: Privately printed, 1869. Project Gutenberg: Free ebook