Pluto Fly By

Pluto heart

A big day today in astronomical circles as the NASA New Horizons space probe makes its closest pass to the dwarf planet Pluto.  The latest image to capture the imagination of the public is a picture of Pluto with a Heart Shaped coloration.  The latest data also suggests that like Mars, the planetoid Pluto is coloured red.  A veritable love heart in the outer reaches of the solar system.

So I thought the poem below seemed appropriate to mark the day.  Hades was the Greek lord of the underworld, Pluto the Roman equivalent.  Both share the tale of doomed love with the daughter of Demeter,the Goddess of Fertility.  The myth is that Persephone refused all food and drink, which would have allowed her to gain freedom from the underworld.  But she was tempted by a pomegranate and sucked out 90 of the 365 seeds in the fruit (I haven’t gotten around to counting a real fruit yet).   For three months she was bound to remain in Hades.  As a result, every year, we have 90 days when all plants die, and we call it winter.

A Myth of Devotion; by Louise Glück

When Hades decided he loved this girl
he built for her a duplicate of earth,
everything the same, down to the meadow,
but with a bed added.

Everything the same, including sunlight,
because it would be hard on a young girl
to go so quickly from bright light to utter darkness

Gradually, he thought, he’d introduce the night,
first as the shadows of fluttering leaves.
Then moon, then stars. Then no moon, no stars.
Let Persephone get used to it slowly.
In the end, he thought, she’d find it comforting.

A replica of earth
except there was love here.
Doesn’t everyone want love?

He waited many years,
building a world, watching
Persephone in the meadow.
Persephone, a smeller, a taster.
If you have one appetite, he thought,
you have them all.

Doesn’t everyone want to feel in the night
the beloved body, compass, polestar,
to hear the quiet breathing that says
I am alive, that means also
you are alive, because you hear me,
you are here with me. And when one turns,
the other turns—

That’s what he felt, the lord of darkness,
looking at the world he had
constructed for Persephone. It never crossed his mind
that there’d be no more smelling here,
certainly no more eating.

Guilt? Terror? The fear of love?
These things he couldn’t imagine;
no lover ever imagines them.

He dreams, he wonders what to call this place.
First he thinks: The New Hell. Then: The Garden.
In the end, he decides to name it
Persephone’s Girlhood.

A soft light rising above the level meadow,
behind the bed. He takes her in his arms.
He wants to say I love you, nothing can hurt you

but he thinks
this is a lie, so he says in the end
you’re dead, nothing can hurt you
which seems to him
a more promising beginning, more true.

Remember Rainbow Warrior

Rainbow Warrior

It is incredible to think that it is 30 years ago today that Rainbow Warrior sank with the tragic loss of the life of Fernando Pereira.

Rainbow Warrior was used by Greenpeace to spearhead their anti-nuclear protests.  In 1985 she was in the South Pacific to protest nuclear weapons testing in Moruroa Atoll in French Polynesia.  Their plan was to land people on the Atoll to delay or prevent the testing.

The French infiltrated the Greenpeace offices in Auckland and stole the plans.  French intelligence agents then planted two bombs on the ship, and blew it up, sinking the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour.

The death of Pereira sparked a murder investigation.  A number of French agents were tracked down and arrested.  When it was revealed that the French intelligence service was responsible it sparked an international crisis.  The Minister of Defense resigned.  The captured agents were turned over to French custody and it emerged that they served their “incarceration” in a tropical holiday camp in the Caribbean.  French behaviour in this situation was inexcusable.  What they did was wrong.  Getting caught doing it was a catastrophe for their intelligence service.  They then protected their agents by telling a pack of lies to the international community.  The French never revealed the identities of the agents who carried out the bombing.

Bombing the ship was an act of moral turpitude.  It was a cowardly act and an ugly one.  The acts of the French sit in stark contrast to the bravery and commitment of the Greenpeace activists who fought for good and right.  This anniversary is a day of shame for France.  For Greenpeace it should be a day of pride.

An international tribunal in Geneva found the French Government to be guilty to the tune of $8.1 million, which was paid to Greenpeace in 1987.

A Song on the End of the World; by Czeslaw Milosz (Trans: Anthony Milosz)
On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
There will be no other end of the world,
There will be no other end of the world.

Gunboat Diplomacy

Roosevelt

On July 8th 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Edo bay (now Tokyo) with a flotilla of ships.  He had the ships sail past the nearby town and fire blanks “in celebration of US Independence day”.

He ordered his ships boats to commence survey operations.

He refused requests by the Japanese to proceed to Nagasaki, the only Japanese port open to Europeans.

He insisted on delivering a letter of introduction to treat, with a white flag, a symbol of intent to destroy any armed resistance.

In the face of such overwhelming firepower the Japanese had little option but to treat with the Americans.  The incident ended 200 years of medieval Japanese isolation and led to the rapid industrialisation of Japan.

It is a perfect example of gunboat diplomacy, negotiating in a “friendly” manner under the guns of your ships.

It came with the threat of a waning moon
And the wail of an ebbing tide,
But many a woman has lived for less,
And many a man has died;
For life upon life took hold and passed,
Strong in a fate set free,
Out of the deep into the dark
On for the years to be.

Between the gloom of a waning moon
And the song of an ebbing tide,
Chance upon chance of love and death
Took wing for the world so wide.
O, leaf out of leaf is the way of the land,
Wave out of wave of the sea
And who shall reckon what lives may live
In the life that we bade to be?

William Ernest Henley

The death of Sparta

300_spartans

In 371 BC, on the 6th of July, the Spartan army lost the battle of Leuctra.  In the process they lost their dominance as a land army and lost the myth of the unbeatable army which had lasted since the defense to the death at Thermopylae in 480 BC and the defeat of Persia at Platea in 479 BC.

A loss in battle 100 years before was not a death knell for Sparta, so what went so wrong in 371 BC?  To answer that you must understand the economics of the Spartan system.

Spartan boys were taken from their homes as children and raised in barracks as soldiers.  Each soldier was maintained in his position as a military professional by his estate.  The estates, large farms, were worked by slaves and the Spartan system was entirely reliant upon the goodwill of slaves to function.  Initially there were a large number of small estates.  Over time estates became larger and the number of soldier citizens diminished.  At the time of the battle of Platea the Helots were said to outnumber the Spartans by 7 to 1.

At any given time Sparta could only field about 5,000 elite troops.  These ‘special forces’ relied on lesser trained allies and even slave soldiers to supply weight of numbers.  The Spartan elite were the greatest and best trained soldiers in the world in their day.  On the battlefield they were marked by their red cloaks and their silent drill.  While other armies roared and sang and shouted the Spartans advanced in a silent wall of death.

Because there were so few elite Spartans, any serious loss of their numbers could have serious repercussions.  There were simply not enough estates and enough slaves to support a larger Spartan elite.  They tried to bridge this manpower gap by according a special elevated status to the sons of Spartans born to Helot mothers.  These boys could serve as middle level administrators and auxiliary soldiers.  But they could never rise to the rank of soldier citizen.

The nature of Greek warfare also helped to underscore the immortality of the Spartans.  Greek heavy infantry fought in a phalanx, a tightly packed line of spear men, ten to twelve ranks deep.  Your own shield, the great round pylon, protected your left hand side.  For protection on the right you relied on the shield of your neighbor.  The hoplites tended to lean in to the right to stay protected by their neighbors shield.  As a result there was a tendency for the phalanx to move gradually to the right.  To prevent this impetus armies would put their best trained and most veteran troops on the right flank.  This was the place of honour.  These troops would stand firm and prevent right hand drift.

In any battle with allies, the Spartan elite held the right flank.  This meant that they were facing the weak flank of their enemy.  The success of the Spartan elite was continually reinforced by facing them against weak foes.

The Theban general, Epaminondas, introduced three ground breaking innovations to the Greek way of war.  Firstly he placed his strongest troops in the left flank, directly facing the Spartans.  Secondly he arranged them in a phalanx 50 lines deep.  This provided an irresistible weight of numbers against the Spartan phalanx of only 12 deep.  Finally, he organised his remaining troops in echelon instead of phalanx.  They formed a series of blocks stepped further and further away from the Spartan line.  This denied the Spartan left flank contact with the weaker right flank of the Thebans.

At Leuctra the Spartan elite were smashed.  They lost between 1,000 and 4,000 troops.  The important thing is that most of the losses were elite Spartan troops instead of allies and slave soldiers.  These were irreplaceable Spartan Citizen soldiers, the product of 20 years of training.

Leuctra also shattered the illusion of invincibility of the Spartan troops.  The spell was broken, and the economic system was broken.  Sparta declined and became a bucolic backwater and an economic dead end.

At the same time, in the north, Philip of Macedon paid close attention to the Theban tactics.  The oblique line and the massed wedge became a trademark of the Macedonian war machine, and enabled Alexander to conquer the world.

Epitaph of Simonides at Thermopylae:

Go tell the Spartans, thou who passes by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Mid-Point

July 2nd is an interesting day in the calendar.  In a normal (non leap) year it is the midpoint of the calendar year.  There are 182 days before and 182 days after July 2nd.

It was on this mid-point day in the year 1494 that Castille signed the treaty of Tordesillas.  The treaty was designed by the pope to avert military conflict between Castille and Portugal over newly discovered lands.  Only two years after Columbus discovered the new world it looked like the new lands would spark a global war between the two superpowers of the Christian world.  In effect the treaty divided the “New World” in half, giving half to each kingdom.

It is because of this treaty that the Brazilians speak Portuguese while the other South Americans mostly speak Castilian Spanish.

A subsequent treaty, the treaty of Zaragoza in 1529, set down the anti-meridian in the pacific ocean and had the effect of making the Philippines Spanish while East Timor and Japan fell under Portuguese influence.

500 years later these events continue to have ramifications for the people in these countries.

In Japan deep fried food, tempura, is known as the Portuguese method!

Prawn Tempura

Prawn Tempura

So hot its rude

heavy humidity heralds July

cloche-close airless weather

hot house heat plants

hang listless gasping for air

the canal exudes vegetable white scum

fecund slimy fertile spawn

uberous feracious turgid hours when

flesh slithers over sweat drenched skin

slipping sliding slathering on

sultry salt scented bodies

circling slack mouthed sphincters

dopey and dazed in sticky soggy swelter.

Fucking weather

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Donal Clancy © July 1, 2015