SF and Late Antiquity

Luna II

In 1959 the Soviet satellite Luna II lifted off from the Kazakh steppes. At the very edge of the atmosphere, on the threshold of deep space, it released a cloud of sodium vapour so bright it could be seen from the Earth. A day later its plunge into the surface of the Moon was observed by the astronomers it had left behind on Earth. The probe was a tremendous success and a testament to Soviet primacy in space. In particular, it demonstrated that the USSR had the capacity to direct a craft through the vacuum between worlds and deliver it effectively (if violently) to its destination. This was a capability that would be critical in the next stage of the space race, for clear guidance is required if one is to study heavenly things.

Just over a week after Luna II’s triumph, André Mandouze delivered a plenary address to the 3rd Oxford Patristics Conference. This conference, which still meets in Oxford, drew over 600 delegates to discuss the Fathers of the Christian Church. Mandouze spoke about the changes in the discipline since 1945, of its expansion in scope, and of the increasing specialisation that was evident among the conference delegates. Specialisations were like demons, he said: each delegate had his or her tormentor, particular to themselves, and unknown to even their closest colleagues. What could be the future for such a fragmented cohort in such a world, he wondered:

In the epoch of artificial satellites and interplanetary rockets, it is certain that the patristician who still keeps some contact with the world cannot be tempted to any excess of style like that provoked by the monstrous successes of the physical sciences. The aureole of the Fathers appears to our contemporaries infinitely less brilliant than those of remote-controlled machines. Who among us, questioned on his speciality, did not grasp in the gaze of such an honest interlocutor successive glimmers, of ignorance, of astonishment, of courtesy, and of commiseration. “Patristic studies … Ah, yes, the Fathers … Of the Church, yes, of course … like, for example? Etc.”

In a blog post written last year, Catherine Chin wrote about the importance of fantasy when historians evoke the past. Metaphor, she says, is an exercise in unreality, but one essential to making the past perceptible to us now. In her words, “[t]he fantastical elements of the metaphors, their impossibility, reinforce that unexpectedness, prolonging the process of recognition and misrecognition.” In the passage above, a saint’s golden halo becomes the sodium-sheened trajectory of a moon probe. Mandouze’s audience had come to Oxford to talk about specialisations that were painfully familiar to them. He launched them into the unknown.

In 1959, when Mandouze delivered his address, the fantastical was already a popular topic. This was the year that Clifford D. Simak won the Hugo Award for his novelette entitled ‘The Big Front Yard.’ In this story a handy-man called Hiram Taine discovers that a group of aliens have converted the front door of his house into an interstellar portal linked to an arid, alien world. As Taine stands outside his house, gaping at the giant wilderness before him, we get a glimpse of his visitors:

A line of tiny animals, if animals they were, came marching down the steps, one behind another. They were four inches high or so and they went on all four feet, although it was plain to see that their front feet were really hands, not feet. They had ratlike faces that were vaguely human, with noses long and pointed. They looked as if they might have scales instead of hide, for their bodies glistened with a rippling motion as they walked. And all of them had tails that looked very much like the coiled-wire tails one finds on certain toys and the tails stuck straight up above them, quivering as they walked. They came down the steps in single file, in perfect military order, with half a foot or so of spacing between each one of them. They came down the steps and walked out into the desert in a straight, undeviating line as if they knew exactly where they might be bound. There was something deadly purposeful about them and yet they didn’t hurry. Taine counted sixteen of them and he watched them go out into the desert until they were almost lost to sight. There go the ones, he thought, who came to live with me.

Hiram Taine’s little family of him, his friend Beasley and his dog, greets these newcomers, who introduce him in turn to other aliens who have come to Earth to trade ideas. This is, then, a story about conferences: about meeting new friends and swapping ideas. It’s also a story about the bonds that tie groups together, and about how tensions within groups can be eased through skilful mediation. Most of all, though, it’s about that collision between the everyday and the impossibly fantastical that Chin identified.

Chin’s blog post focusses on the play of metaphor in Peter Brown’s article “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity.”In this article, Brown shows how Holy Men lived on the fluid borders of everyday life. They were ‘intruders into the settled pattern of social relationships’ that existed in the villages and towns of Late Antique Syria. Stories about Holy Men, Brown argued, are stories about freedom. As old structures of power collapsed in the third and fourth centuries, so the Holy Man became the focus of people’s hopes for protection and of their fear of the vast wild that threatened to tear apart village life.  In the half-wilderness at the edge of town, the Holy Man mediated and then dispersed the violence simmering under the surface of everyday social transactions. This is most striking in accounts of exorcism, when demons are revealed in their animality, as ‘flying blue-bottles, hares or dormice’ (p.89). Here are monsters. Humans encounter, once more,  ‘tiny animals … one behind the other … [walking] into the desert.’ In these stories, social bonds are made and remade.

Demons gather where there are frightened people. They run across the bare toes of Syrian villagers, they climb down Taine’s front porch, and they sit on the shoulders of Patristics specialists. I don’t know how Mandouze’s fantastical space flights were received, but his words were delivered to an audience facing the uncertainties of the late 1950s: the cold war and the space race; secularisation; decolonisation. In his speech, Mandouze reminded them of the training they had received; what bound them together as a cohort was not their specialisations, but their love for what they studied. Take heart, he exhorted them, for even as the physical sciences advance, much remains unknown. This is the space where Patristics works, he says. His audience is united not by a common tradition, but by a questing into that ‘something else’ beyond the world. In this way they continue in the spirit of the Fathers, who yoked together the monstrous and the mundane.


Upcoming paper: EHS Winter Meeting

Not Cambridge, but somewhere close by. Photo by Tamara Polajnar. CC BY-NC 2.0

This weekend (14th January 2017) I’ll be attending the Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society in chilly Cambridge.

The theme this year is Church and Empire.

I’ll be up on my hind hooves, giving a paper entitled ‘The Influence of the Algerian War (1954–62) on Francophone Study of Late Antiquity’.

Satisfyingly vague.

Say hello if you see me.

Ruling the Empire and its readers

An example of imperial order. Basilica Cistern. Theophilos Papadoulos. CCBY-NC-ND 2.0

This blog is part of a wider project looking at the connections between early Christianity and modern colonialism. It comes from a couple of ideas I had while writing a chapter that was recently published on Junillus Africanus and the rules that he thought governed the text of the Bible. Understanding these linguistic rules is necessary, he believed, for understanding the Bible. While focussed on the biblical text, Junillus’s book tells us something about how rule and governance themselves were understood in the Roman Empire.

In the sixth century CE, Justinian, the ruler of the Roman Empire, tried to bring order to the Christian Church. One man who worked closely with Justinian at this time was Junillus Africanus, who acted as Justinian’s quaestor (a sort-of spokesman and drafter of imperial laws). As a legal expert, Junillus also agreed to write a book of divine rules to help people read the Bible. Like the Empire itself, Junillus explained, the Bible was governed by a clear set of rules, the understanding of which would allow the astute reader to prosper in this ordered kingdom.

Continue reading “Ruling the Empire and its readers”

What are universities for?

Salle Wagram, credit: wikimedia commons


Over the summer I was reading police reports detailing the harassment of André Mandouze, an outspoken critic of colonialism in Algeria and professor of Latin philology at the University of Algiers during the first part of the Algerian War. Like others who held explicitly anti-colonial positions (e.g. Robert Barrat), Mandouze was targeted by right-wing activists.

What follows is a brief account of one particular incident. I’ve reconstructed it as best I can from Mandouze’s autobiography and these reports.

In late January 1956 Mandouze had given a speech at the salle Wagram in Paris. He had, he said, arrived in Paris from a war that had come to fill the space of Algiers. He pointed out that the struggle in Algeria would either degenerate into an all-out (à outrance) conflict or there would be a negotiated peace and independence. The international community and the mainland (la métropole) would never countenance such a war, and so a negotiated peace was inevitable. Indeed, if the government wished it, negotiations could begin immediately.

News of this “explosive” address had already reached Algiers when Mandouze and his family returned there at the end of February. On the afternoon of 6 March 1956, he returned to the University of Algiers to teach a class on Latin philology, arriving early to avoid a blockade of “European” students at the front door of the Faculty of Letters. As he began to teach, his classroom was invaded by students, many of whom he knew. These students were angered by Mandouze’s anti-war position and his close association with Algerian Muslims. Police reports say that there were roughly 500 students at the Faculty and that they threw oranges and other fruit. Amid the ensuing melée, Mandouze fled through a door behind his lectern to avoid being assaulted. His course was suspended by the Rector and the Muslim students in his class were escorted back to their accommodation.

The job of historians is to imagine the past and to make that past present. As I’ve been learning about Mandouze and his colleagues during the Algerian War I’ve become conscious that, as much as they studied the past, it was the future that worried them. Like other French historians working in Algeria, Mandouze was acutely aware that the university is a political space and that teaching is an act which calls a particular politics into being.  For Mandouze, a philology lecture focussed around a Latin text could make present a future Algeria. The classroom in the warzone could become an image of the peace to come: two peoples united in a common nationality.

Today I was reminded of Mandouze, his students, and the power of the university to make space for the future. In the below post the university is for the future. The question of what future, and whose, is one that we have to decide.

Educated Optimism

A few weeks ago I found myself on a sunny Wednesday afternoon sitting on a river bank in Uppsala, Sweden, with a group of students and staff from the CEMUS centre, discussing how they might creatively use a new space they have been offered in the centre of the city. Such an opportunity raises hundreds of questions – should this new space be a platform for student work, could it act as a resource for community knowledge building, can research be conducted here, who should govern it?

These questions, and myriad others, keep coming up everywhere I go recently. A couple of days later, I found myself talking to the head of strategy and innovation for a Stockholm municipality, who wants to attract universities to the region. The problem, she says, is finding institutions who want to think creatively about what they are for. A few weeks before that I…

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Testimony, témoignage, martyrion 2: Babel

Part 2 of a series. Part one is here.

Communication towers… Radio towers on Mount Bromo by Matthew Klein. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A letter written to the bishop of Rome in 381 explains why human beings speak different languages. In the beginning, says the letter, all human beings spoke Hebrew and this was the language of creation, the language that Adam and Eve spoke and the original tongue in which things were named. Through this common language, the letter says, human beings were able to organise themselves so that they could build the tower at Babel. In so doing, they caused offence to God who scattered human beings across the earth and rent the fabric of human language.

Continue reading “Testimony, témoignage, martyrion 2: Babel”

On insisting that academic labour is work…

Feminist Nuances

 Or: How to Become a Model Neoliberal Academic Subject.

If you’ve met me recently, online or offline, you’ll know that I’m in the middle of finishing my PhD dissertation. That’s to say: I’m in the middle of finishing a manuscript, a book, the largest piece of writing I’ve ever written. Some 90.000 words, excluding bibliography.

So it should not come as a surprise that writing and everything related to it have been on my mind these past months. How to reduce procrastination time and be more effective in my time management? How to overcome writer’s blocks and deal with the anxiety that comes with trying to finish up a project like this? How to edit your own text and how to be satisfied with what you’ve written?

Because I’m nerdy like that, I also love reading, thinking, talking and even writing about writing. Yeah, that’s some ‘meta’ stuff! The genre of…

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