Saturday, October 29, 2016

Quotes: Stability of personal identity

C. J. Ducasse:

"A mind, then, is a set of capacities of the three generic kinds mentioned, qua interrelated in the systematic manner which constitutes them a more or less thoroughly integrated personality; and the mind, of which we say that it "has" those capacities, is not something existentially independent of them, but "has" them in the sense in which a week has days or an automobile has a motor. That a mind exists during a certain period means that, during that period, ones or others of the capacities, which together define the particular sort of mind it is, function. That is, the existing of a mind of a particular description is the series of actual occurrences which, as causally related one to another, constitute exercisings of that mind's capacities. A mind's existing thus consists not just of its having a particular nature, but of its having in addition a history."

Mircea Eliade:

"The world (that is, our world) is a universe within which the sacred has already manifested itself, in which, consequently, the break-through from plane to plane has become possible and repeatable."

Johannes Climacus:

"Can a historical point of departure be given for an eternal consciousness; how can such a point of departure be of more than historical interest; can an eternal happiness be built on historical knowledge?"

John Locke:

"[Consciousness is] a present representation of a past action.

Rollo May:

"History – that selective treasure house of the past which each age bequeaths to those that follow – has formed us in the present so that we may embrace the future. What does it matter if our insights, the new forms which play around the fringes of our minds, always lead us into virginal land where, like it or not, we stand on strange and bewildering ground? The only way out is ahead, and our choice is whether we shall cringe from it or affirm it.


C. J. Ducasse, The Belief in a Life After Death, p 55

Mircea Eliade. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion: The Significance of Religious Myth, Symbolism, and Ritual within Life and Culture. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957, 1959, 1961. p 30.

Johannes Climacus (Soren Kierkegaard), Philosophical Fragments. ed. and trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press, 1985. p 1.

Rollo May, Love and Will, New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1969. p 325.

Friday, October 28, 2016

On perception and the unconscious

R. W. Fevre:

"Well, perhaps we can make use of this awareness [of ourselves and our world and how our actions affect the world], but this is not going to be easy because human beings do a lot more things than make sense, and some of these things — pursuing power, money, status, security and so on; or simply taking our ease — can get in the way of making sense.

Calvin Luther Martin:

"The words of the magician snaked in and out of my consciousness: 'It has become clear to me that perception has to be understood and recognized as a reciprocal exchange. When we see things we are also being seen by them. When we hear things we are also being heard. Perception is a type of communication that precedes language.'"

Alan Watts:

"There may be no reason to believe that a return to the lost feeling will cost us the sacrifice of the individualized consciousness, for the two are not incompatible. We can see an individual leaf in all its clarity without losing sight of its relation to the tree."

Antonio R. Damasio:

"Some organisms have both behavior and cognition. Some have intelligent actions but no mind. No organism seems to have mind but no action. My view then is that having a mind means that an organism forms neural representations which can become images, be manipulated in a process called thought, and eventually influence behavior by helping predict the future, plan accordingly, and choose the next action."

Jonah Lehrer:

"'The conscious brain may get all the attention,' says Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at NYU. 'But consciousness is a small part of what the brain does, and it's a slave to everything that works beneath it.'"

Norman Mailer:

"Sometimes I think you have to groom the unconscious after you've used it, swab it down, treat it like a prize horse who's a finer animal than you."

G. W. F. Hegel:

"Only when spiritual unity steps beyond this circle of feeling and natural love, and arrives at the consciousness of personality, does that obscure and rigid nucleus emerge in which neither nature nor spirit are open and transparent and where both can become open and transparent only through the further working of that self-conscious will and, indeed, through the long drawn-out cultural process, the goal of which is very remote. For consciousness alone is that which is open, that to which God and anything else can reveal itself."


R. W. Fevre. The Demoralization of Western Culture: Social Theory and the Dilemmas of Modern Living. London: Continuum, 2000. p 196.

Calvin Luther Martin, In the Spirit of the Earth, p 24

Alan Watts. Nature, Man, and Woman (1958). New York: Vintage Books, 1991. p 8.

Antonio R. Damasio. Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Avon Books, 1998. p 90.

Jonah Lehrer. How We Decide. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. p. 23.

Norman Mailer. The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing. New York: Random House, 2004. p. 142.

G. W. F. Hegel. Reason in History: A General Introduction to the Philosophy of History. Translated by Robert S. Hartman. Indianapolis: Library of Liberal Arts, Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1953. (Originally 1837.) p 74.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Eunuchs in the 'Percheron Saga' by Fiona McIntosh

Fiona McIntosh's trilogy The Percheron Saga contains the novels Odalisque, Emissary, and Goddess. The first book is set in the royal harem in the imaginary city of Percheron, which is a fantasy version of the Turkish harem in Constantinople. In her acknowledgments, McIntosh writes that she based her fictional world on the old account of a travel writer (though she doesn't say which one). Palace eunuchs feature in the story and, in particular, the head eunuch, Salmeo, is a quintessential example of the "evil eunuch" trope. Everything he does is pure cruelty and manipulation, which is explained as owed to his frustration over his castration, on top of which he is described as being physically repulsive. He has no redeeming characteristics or moments whatsoever. As the most influential person in the harem, he controls the sequence of events in the novel.

This post contains spoilers about the Percheron Saga in the process of revealing Salmeo's character.

Salmeo in Percheron #1 ('Odalisque')

As Grand Master Eunuch, apart from the Zar (the Percherese word for the Sultan), he is "the most powerful man within the palace," rich and influential, fearing no one except the Valide (the former Zar's widow and mother of the young Zar). He authorizes all activity, significant and insignificant, within the harem. He buys clothes for the harem women and gives individual permission to female merchants to trade their goods. He orders individual eunuchs to perform physical tasks. He keeps track of when the Zar consorts with any concubine. After the death of the Zar, the Valide indicates that his young heir's private conversation with a harem girl "terribly incensed Salmeo," and when the heir asks Salmeo to leave the room, Salmeo "bristled." The young Zar acknowledges who really has power: "I don't have as much say as everyone seems to think. Salmeo and the Valide are the King and Queen of the harem."

Salmeo's body repulses the other characters. His cheek is scarred. The scar has the shape of a rope and it sometimes twitches or "lifted with the man's sly grin." His face is "normally unreadable," sometimes "blank," though sometimes he "smirks" or is "sour-looking." He "flounced in confidently," acknowledges the Zar with a "soft, bouncing bow" and speaks in an "effeminate, lisping way" that, despite being "gentle," is used to intimidate. Only when necessary, he "bellowed." Even the simplest, smallest act of taking a bite of food is described grotesquely: "He bit down on the grape, enjoying the explosion of juice, letting it trickle down his throat as he considered his position. He spat the seeds out." Even his attempt at hygiene with a signature scent is disgusting: He sweetens his breath with violet perfume that he "habitually blew over all those he spoke with."

His obesity is frequently pointed out. His body is described as "bulk" multiple times. He is a "silent mountain of black flesh," "huge," "enormous," affecting people with his "sheer size," "his folds of loose, flabby skin...that had to be lifted away in order for him to be cleaned," "flesh wobbling tremulously," and, when the Zar appears, "Salmeo took longer than anyone to kneel" and requires "much grunting." Sometimes he is just "the fat black eunuch," "the fat eunuch," or "the fat man." His "flabby face wobbled with the effort of holding back his own rage."

He is intimidating.

  • "He put the fear of a thousand angry gods into most people around the palace..."
  • "Now Salmeo did allow the broad smile to break across his wide face, revealing the cavernous gap in his front teeth. His tongue flicked into and out of the hole like a snake tasting vibrations in the air. He saw the girl's flinch of disgust, fed on it."
  • "He matched his revolting looks with a vicious demeanor..." It seems that "intimidation was always his intention despite his avuncular tone." "He enjoyed it too — enjoyed it especially because he knew she could never win."
  • "He was also cruelty personified...but then you didn't become Grand Master of the Eunuchs without taking a perverse pleasure in punishment." He believes that "everyone could be bought if you threatened those they loved. That's why no one could ever compromise the Grand Master Eunuch — he loved none but himself."
  • "Salmeo obviously intended to crush Ana's spirit well before she acquired any delusions that she might survive the harem with her integrity and personality intact."

He is negative to the core, down to his anatomical heart: "Salmeo's heart was pumping hard and it was not only pushing blood around his body. Anger throbbed in tandem. The eunuch hated to reveal when his emotions were being stirred; he preferred that no one know what he was thinking or how he was reacting to a situation."

Furthermore, he is "horrid," "vile," just plain bad. Other eunuchs "could feel the hate emanating" from him. He knows: "Fear was power." It is explained that "the chief eunuch took his own cruel form of pleasure at the expense of the harem women." His right index fingernail is always kept sharp, as he uses it to perform physical investigations of girls who join the harem and he likes to hurt and humiliate them when he does it, and he keeps it painted red so that they always see it and remember it. A slave maintains his nails for him. When a girl says, "I hate you, Salmeo," he answers with a grin, "Everyone does."

"No one appreciated the need for absolute supremacy more than Salmeo." The Valide, who has the marvelous epithet First Wife and Absolute Favorite, dislikes eunuchs and refers to them as "half men." She especially "detests" Salmeo, but knows she needs him as an ally.

When the Zar dies unexpectedly, one male heir must be selected, and all other male children are killed at the Valide's orders. Salmeo arranges for the women to be taken to another location and distracted so that their children can be collected, and then tells the boys that they will play a game that involves hiding in sacks, and then has them trampled by elephants and burned. "Salmeo embodied so many unpalatable characteristics, it was hard to imagine how they all came together in one person."

The most complimentary thing ever said about him is that he is smart, but this is only in the service of evil. He is "calculating," with an "agile mind," and is specifically "the cleverest, most sly man she had ever cunning as he was dangerous..."

The Elim

Salmeo commands a eunuch warrior guard called, in plural, the Elim. Most of them were castrated as adults. They indicate their privilege over other palace eunuchs by wearing red robes. They worship Zarab and believe in an afterlife. In Odalisque, they are not shown fighting, but they perform bodyguard functions such as catching a fainting concubine. In any case, Salmeo manipulates and frames the head of the Elim and an apprentice torturer, and makes the senior torturer lie. Only once, at the end, does he weep, when it seems that he may be about to be caught for a serious crime that would lead to execution, and "to hear him cry was the most uncomfortable moment Boaz [the young Zar] had known in his life." Salmeo tells the head of the Elim: "I need a scapegoat and you're the perfect solution. I can't possibly take the blame myself." He promises the unfortunate man that he will care for his children after his death. "It's how much I value what you will do for me. I pledge it. All this will occur if you'll lie for me...and die for me. You are Elim, after all." When the man pauses while delivering his false confession, Salmeo "nudged [him] with his toe" to get him going again. As for the apprentice torturer, when his mentor asks, weeping, "What will happen to [him]?," Salmeo answers, "Who cares?" ("smiling cruelly," of course), and reminds the man that he'll receive a cash reward to "ease your troubled conscience."

Castration in Percheron

Why is he so evil? Because he was castrated. This is the only explanation given. "Salmeo had been cut at the age of seven...He was an 'almost complete': nothing much was left of his manhood save the painful yearning of desire. No toys, no tricks, no magicks helped ease Salmeo with his frustrations, so he took his pleasures in other ways." This is later defined as "Yerzah," the amputation of only the penis. (Other types of castration in Percheron are "Xarob," the destruction of the testicles, and "Varen," the removal of penis and testicles.)

The Valide remembers Salmeo once ordering a castration and commenting: "the wretch died anyway but it was wonderful to watch a Galinsean's manhood removed...They are the most arrogant of races and the hardest to tame." In the novel, he takes pleasure in castrating a young boy who trespassed in the harem. For this hasty ceremony, the lighting in the room was dimmed and candles were placed around the boy. Salmeo indicated that witnesses were to keep its details secret. "In this rare instance it is being used as punishment," he explained, "but Kett will appreciate in time to come that he is privileged. It is a high honor to serve in this way." The priest throws powder on the candles to cause them to flare. The boy's abdomen and thighs are bound with linen. He is drugged and bathed with an ointment of pepper water and juniper, both for medical sterility and spiritual purity. The Valide chooses the type of castration and says she wants to personally keep the preserved organs. The urethra is plugged for three days until he heals and is allowed to urinate.

Percheron has a legend from centuries previously in which an incompletely castrated "eunuch" managed to impregnate one of the Zar's wives. To save the girl from execution, the eunuch volunteered to die on her behalf. (He was killed by being thrown onto hooks and left to hang on them.) This was the most famous instance of a rule by which someone may volunteer to take another's punishment.

Salmeo in Percheron #2 ('Emissary')

Emissary opens nearly a year after Kett was castrated and Ana entered the harem. Kett is identified as a “black eunuch boy” with a shaved head. “The memory of Kett’s emasculation had always hung between them, an unspoken grief of an evening in which both had shared much despair.” Kett says to Ana: “I am recovered and almost fully resigned to my situation…It was never your fault.” Ana still felt “connected to him, sad for him,” while Kett is in love with her. “I’ve seen you before in this state [naked] and it was my undoing…Please don’t be embarrassed on my behalf. All that makes me a man has gone, Miss Ana....No feelings at all. I’m told they got me early enough to take away the manly urges.” When they are escaping, her parting words to him are: “You have a fortune in jewelry. Sell it wisely and you will be a made man.” She realizes her blunder on the “made man” phrase.

In the harem, Ana only meets “half men.” The eunuch guard, the Elim, still figure in this book. At the mutilation of warriors to turn them into deaf-mutes, the Elim “chanted a song of farewell, similar to that sung prior to the eunuchs’ cutting.” In another scene, the executioner, Faraz, is one of the Elim. He is a “huge black man”.

As for Salmeo, he is:

”...the Grand Master Eunuch, who would have been incensed at the humiliation he had suffered for Ana’s original escape, and who was vicious enough to order death to the person who had so painfully pointed out his failure. Salmeo was worse than a scorned woman. He was cruel and spiteful, and being in a position of power, he could have coerced any number of people below him to do his bidding. And Lazar was sure Salmeo would have covered his tracks very well, cowed each person in that line of dirty deeds with so much fear that no one would speak the truth.”

In case readers have forgotten his physical attributes, he is a “black castrate.” Four times his lips are described as either "thick" or "fat." His lips may be "pursed" or "pulled into a pert grin”.

He is a “fat eunuch,” a "massive eunuch," an “enormous eunuch” with a “monstrously large form” and, lest they think he is large only from the front, they are told that he also has a “massive back.” His body is “bulk”. He is "your fat eunuch, who covers your every movement.” He has a “huge hand”. "Boaz turned to stare up into the eunuch’s hooded gaze, his eyes buried deeply amongst the folds of flesh. The man never failed to revolt him."

Yet he is sneaky and is described as “light of toe”. When “he glided away, curiously light on his feet,” the Zar asks, “How does such a huge man tread so softly”? Ana has a similar thought when “she watched the huge man lightly glide away.”

He dresses in “swathes of ruffled silks” or “multicolored silks” and has a “chubby, bejeweled finger”. He can be found “rocking on the balls of his slippered feet, wearing a smug expression.”

He lisps. A lot. When addressing the throne as “Highness” or "Zar," his dialogue is “lisped” on at least four occasions. His lisp can be “soft,” but when he speaks with “no aggression,” it is emphasized. He “lisped in a lover’s voice” when sexually violating Ana, and lisps again when taunting her, after he tried to kill her, by telling her that she looks sexy. “His lisp was worst when he was in his flirtatious mood.” Maliz the demon “wondered how many had assumed incorrectly that such an affectation meant the man was in some way gentle.”

His lisp may be due to the gap between his teeth, through which his tongue always "flicks," a word that is used repeatedly and makes him sound like an animal. In the examples below, he is described as "lizard," "reptile," "snake."

  • “Salmeo blinked, slow as a lizard, as if weighing up carefully what the Vizier was saying, testing it for guile.”
  • “Salmeo blinked slowly, his tongue flicking out to lick his lips in a ritual that Boaz thought made him look like a reptile.”
  • “Salmeo’s scar lifted as he smiled, the gap in his teeth looking cavernous, now and then filled with the plump pink tongue that seemed to taste the air like a snake’s.”

And yet more tongue, with the animal identification only implicit:

  • “Salmeo’s tongue flicked out between the gap in his teeth to wet his lips and then say something...”
  • "...his tongue flicking out between the gap in his teeth as he smiled fondly at her.“
  • “...the cavernous gap in his teeth was filled now and then by a bright pink tongue that seemed to taste the air.”
  • “...his tongue darting out to moisten” his lips
  • “From the moment she had seen Salmeo licking his lips in that doorway of the bazaar..."

He is frequently described as "cunning." He's Herezah’s “fat partner in cunning,” for example. Herezah snaps, “Don’t be disingenuous with me, eunuch. I know your mind is as cunning as my own". Ana thinks: “The best way to hurt Salmeo was to beat him at his own game of cunning”. He has “eagle eyes” that his prey must avoid. When he traps the Zar verbally, Ana notices “Salmeo’s eyelids narrow a fraction”. No one should fall for “the eunuch’s honeyed words”. “The Grand Master Eunuch was nothing if not philosophical” — by which the author seems to mean guided by pragmatic resignation and adaptability — “about life in the palace and would always work to find a way to turn every new situation to his advantage.” Salmeo thinks to himself that he needs to remain on Herezah’s good side to “buy my own protection" in case his role in a murder is ever brought to light. Artistically, Herezah has at least one “bloodred painted fingernail” that happens to match Salmeo’s, as, for some reason not explained in Book 2, he also paints at least one of his nails. Herezah acknowledges that their motives are the same; just like Salmeo, “ I simply want control of a regime that is rightly mine—and I shall have it.”

He is just plain manipulative. Ana notices “how easily Salmeo manipulated the harem” with promises of favors and trinkets. “Salmeo uses me for errands,” Kett says. When Kett prays aloud immediately before his drowning, Salmeo says: “Stick that knife of yours into him, executioner. We cannot bear the noise.” The executioner refuses. It is Salmeo who then gives the order to drop the condemned prisoners into the water.

Things usually go Salmeo’s way, so “it was rare for him to feel quite so helpless” as he does when at last they do not. Herezah tells Maliz that Salmeo “stands on shaky ground” and “would no longer be drawing breath” if the young Zar were aware of his crimes.

He wears too much perfume. Always the same “unmistakable fragrance of violets," just as in Book 1. Sometimes he is smelled before he is seen. At the market, Ana hears Salmeo’s voice “suddenly...from behind her, the waft of violets sickening as it enveloped her.” When he gesticulates, "the fragrance of violets assaulted Ana.” And: "The smell of violets had assaulted her as he spoke and, combined with Salmeo’s cloying sweetness, had set her nerves jangling.“ And: “Boaz smelled the violets on the man’s breath and was again reminded of his slippery ways.“

On at least one occasion, he “carefully controlled the fire in his voice," but, for the most part, he has no appropriate moral reactions. Either he fakes something appropriate, as in “a contrived look of sympathy” or “well-practiced indignation,” or he fails to hide something inappropriate, as in “not-very-well-disguised mirth” or “delight in his Zar’s discomfort [that] was all too plain to read on the eunuch’s face.” When he reminds Ana not to rebel, he says it “lightly, giggling,” and “she could see only delight in the eunuch’s eyes.” He “giggled like one of the young girls in the harem” when informing her of her imminent execution, and introduces her to her executioner “as lightly as if he were introducing a guest for dinner.” She talks back to him, and she sees “all his visible flesh quivering with rage.” Later, too, after she survives her execution, he is, anew, “unexpectedly enraged by her boldness”, threatening the lives of her family, and, alternately, lasciviously leering at her body, joking, "The drowning seems to have caused no long-term damage." When Ana defends herself in language that Salmeo doesn’t understand, he “simply looked amused”.

No one likes him. Maliz the demon noticed that the young Zar’s body language indicated his discomfort around Salmeo. It seems to Ana, too, that the Zar already knows that "Salmeo’s truth would be spun with dark threads of lies.” In life, the Grand Vizier, Tariq, was locked in “intensely mutual” hate with Salmeo. In Emissary, this is a problem for the demon Maliz who now possesses Tariq’s body and wishes he could have a better relationship with Salmeo. Ana believes that “Salmeo would never understand childhood needs,” and she knows that “Salmeo for sure will take every advantage" of a situation. She reacts to him by telling him: “You can no longer hurt or threaten me, Salmeo. I despise you. But you are nothing, the mere slime that gathers around any powerful person.”

When Boaz says he wants to give the harem members more freedom to walk around the palace with him without asking formal permission, he says: “I know Salmeo considers it an encroachment on his personal status rather than on tradition. He cares not for the old ways so much as for his territory.

When the Vizier interrupts Salmeo’s discussion with the Zar, “Salmeo scowled,” and then, “Salmeo’s scowl darkened.” He gets competitive and tells the Zar that if the Vizier can’t find the dwarf, he could “have him hunted down”. The Zar complains: ““He’s not an animal, Grand Master Eunuch...You make it sound as if you’d enjoy the chase.”

When Boaz talks back to Salmeo to assert his authority: “Salmeo actually took a step back. Boaz liked that he’d shocked the fat eunuch.“

Herezah reminds him that he is not a woman (“If you were a woman you’d understand”) and implies to him that he is inferior to both men and women (“Intuition. I’ve told you before, Salmeo, you may be more woman than man but you cannot think like one of us.”).

Salmeo's role in the novel's plot

The young Zar is sixteen going on seventeen. Ana, relatively new to the harem, is fifteen going on sixteen. They are both virgins, but it appears that they are destined for each other. This does not make the jealous Zar's mother happy.

Once upon a time, Ana is told, before Salmeo was in charge of the harem, an odalisque escaped. “Salmeo,” the manipulator teased Ana, “said such a thing would never happen under his keep.” When Salmeo suggests to Herezah he could have Ana killed (he offers either to make it appear as an accident or to “manufacture a culprit”), Herezah decides they should simply tempt Ana to make an escape attempt, which, when she is caught, will place her in an “unforgivable position” from whose legal consequences she “cannot be saved.” They’ve plotted this together, so: “She knew from this moment on her future was tied to that of Salmeo’s. Her grand notion to align herself with Tariq, keeping Salmeo at a more subservient distance, had not unfolded as she had hoped.“ Salmeo is, as Herezah’s son Boaz reminds her, “the same man who taunted and persecuted you for a great deal of your life...who tested your virginity at eight years old and then viciously destroyed it at barely thirteen, no doubt smiling that gap-toothed grin of his the whole time.” She replies to Boaz: “I am the one thing standing between his sharp fingernail and Odalisque Ana’s virginity....when that time comes, it will be only because of me that Salmeo will be forced to be gentle. I would counsel you on taking a less disdainful approach with the chief eunuch and a less authoritarian approach with me. I am your mother. I demand respect.”

When the Zar tells Salmeo to prepare Ana to come to his bedchamber (which she, sadly for her, does not want to do), there is a full day of ritual preparation for Ana. Some of the bathing is outsourced to lower-ranking women and eunuch servants. Meanwhile, Ana still “reveled in the notion that she could cheat Salmeo and Herezah.” After Salmeo “cruelly” dismisses a woman whom Ana wants to stay in the preparation room, Salmeo privately warns Ana: “you can make this easy, or if you fight me, you can make it hurt.” By tradition, Salmeo is supposed to digitally deflower Ana. From her perspective, it's complicated. “Although his touch made bile rise to her throat,” she experiences a pleasurable “soft throb [from] his pudgy fingers,” leaving her “hating herself for responding physically.” He gives her a bit of sex coaching in a “voice thick with his own lust,” telling her that the young Zar will “be all clumsy thrusts and eagerness, I’m sure, not precise and soft...and knowledgeable like Salmeo”. During this, “his tongue flicked out to moisten his lips” and he “put his stained red nail to its ugly purpose,” later decorating her with jewels. After this, “death did not frighten her.” She resolves to escape, knowing that, if she succeeds, she can’t allow herself be found at home, or “Salmeo would likely have her family killed out of spite.” Later that day, Salmeo “proudly swept his gaze appreciatively across her body” where her nipples are visible through her gown. He taunts her: “I hope you’re not too sore from our intimate time together this afternoon". After she attempts escape and is caught, she reflects that, especially after the way in which Salmeo sexually violated her and strangely manipulated her feelings, “she would do anything to distance herself from his repulsive being”. Again, she “would rather die than be returned to Salmeo and Herezah’s care.” Salmeo, says Ana, “is so repulsive to me that I would rather make love to a monkey from your zoo than with him.” After the marriage consummation with the Zar, because foreign dignitaries are present for the wedding, Salmeo arranges to display a stained bedsheet (for which “His voice took on a conspiratorial tone and the men laughed”) because, for some reason in this story, they want to act as if it is not their custom for the eunuch to cause the girl to bleed first.

Salmeo in Percheron #3 ('Goddess')

Salmeo appears infrequently at the beginning of this book, which means we get somewhat less of “the fat eunuch,” “the great black eunuch” and “his immense bulk," the "towering eunuch" who has difficulty “lowering his bulk in deference to the royal” and who remains “breathing heavily in his uncomfortable position” until “the huge man labored to his feet” than we did in the previous book. Less of “the doorway was filled amply by the chief eunuch, giving his best gap-toothed smile.” Perhaps no more than twice does he "feign[ed/ing] injury" in conversation. When he does appear, as usual: “The smell of violets accompanied the swish of silks”. Not to fear — he has a crucial role toward the end.

We get a backstory on him. He was not Percherese by birth. His parents named him Yokabi, which meant “‘chieftain’...’king!’...’power!’” and was “branded on his mother’s back as proof that she had birthed a new king.” Unfortunately, when he was a small child, slavers raided his village.

“The children had watched their mother’s throat slashed open with such force it had nearly taken off her head when she’d fought back against the attackers. He wondered at the luck of his two older brothers to be playing in the cave network above their village at the time of the raid. And he had watched with wonder the fight go out of his father — a huge, proud man, leader of his tribe — as the slavers had systematically begun killing a child of the village each time he refused to cooperate. In the end his father had no choice but to capitulate to their demands; the three members of their family had been selected to go with the caravan back to Percheron. The slavers had not been Percherese, of course, but that mattered not to the young boy — Percheron was the destination and that made it the culprit in his shocked, immature mind.”

The four-year-old Yokabi, his seven-year-old sister, and their father were taken hostage. His father, wounded and chained up next to a dead animal, then killed himself by smearing the animal’s excrement into his wounds, deliberately causing infection. Salmeo saw him do it, and he saw when the captors left his father behind two days later to die.

“That moment of despair for Salmeo but triumph for his proud father had shaped the boy. Just a few years later, when a cleric was proclaiming him ‘of age’ and Salmeo realized what was to happen to him, he had sworn that he would rise above being simply eunuch; he would carve his own position, his own base of power. He might bow to a new royal, but privately he would never give loyalty, and everything he would do in the future would be for his own gain. He hated the world for what it had done to his family; he especially hated the Percherese and their pampered Zars.”

Salmeo’s father, dying, had asked him to look after his sister. Salmeo killed her after a man purchased her, age ten, as a sex slave, to prevent her from having to go to him. (It is not said explicitly here, but Salmeo would have then been only seven, the age at which he was castrated.)

Because of this history, he secretly dislikes being called by the name Salmeo, but no one knows his real name.

He doesn't keep this story private forever. At the end, confronted by the Spur Lazar who intends to kill him, Salmeo gets this off his chest and confides in Lazar:

“I am also the son of a king. I am an heir to a throne. But Percherese slavers slashed the throat of my mother, humiliated my father until he took his own life, dying in dirt on the roadside to Percheron. They made a whore of my sister, a princess. They cut away my manhood. In spite of all that, I remain a prince. I was born to rule, to lead, to be a man for my people to look up to. But I was denied my birthright, turning instead into what you see.”

Lazar is “incredulous at the eunuch’s dark tale.” It is not stated where he thinks Salmeo came from or whether he thinks Salmeo had a happy life. In fact, when Salmeo first went missing, everyone at the palace realized they didn't know how old he was or where he originally came from (and Salmeo had stolen the record books with this information).

Salmeo continues, telling him that “you at least were permitted to fight your way to freedom, an opportunity that was not offered to a black slave boy from a village in the eastern provinces.”

We hear that he speaks “the pidgin Percherese of the harem, one of the oldest languages of the realm and known only to the members of the harem.”

Boaz sees

“the large, dark bulk of Salmeo. The eunuch looked smug, no doubt fully confident of his own safety. Boaz was certain the Grand Master Eunuch had already set up his own escape route for when the time came to flee. How unlike Salmeo was to the Elim he ruled; those warriors would gladly give their lives rather than yield their courage. The chief eunuch, by contrast, wouldn’t think twice even about the women — girls, in fact, that he would leave behind to face the abuse of of the Galinsean soldiers.

Boaz blinked as the fat eunuch’s gaze met his and he watched with a grinding hate low in his gut as Salmeo’s tongue slipped out, wetting his lips in that habitual way. Then the Grand Master Eunuch’s head nodded, a soft smile of acknowledgement lifting the rope scar along his cheek. And Boaz felt deep satisfaction that his mother would finally have status beyond Salmeo.”

We learn that Salmeo had killed two previous Zars by poison and not been caught. He had Shaz try to kill the Spur, and then he had Shaz killed for knowing too much. Remembering all these things, he “smiled at his own cleverness”.

Salmeo in the plot

Herezah takes in the ailing Spur to nurse him back to health. Salmeo has an “amused gaze” and he comments: “Rather intriguing to see him look so wasted.”

Excluded from helping with the Spur’s recovery, Salmeo nevertheless approaches the chamber as Herezah is seducing the Spur. As he enters the room, the couple noticed “sandalwood overlaid by the fragrance of violets.” Salmeo “tittered” and “lisped” as he saw what had been happening; in response to Herezah’s fury, he “bowed, and adopted a virtuous expression,” and tells them he’ll kindly “overlook“ their transgression. “He grinned angelically, his tongue flicking between the gap in his teeth. Herezah hated him.” The Spur addresses Salmeo as “eunuch” and warns him that if he ever insults Herezah in front of him again, he’ll slay him. This left Salmeo posturing with “bowed bulk” until given permission to leave, when “[t]he great black man straightened…”

Herezah thinks: “The memory of Salmeo’s cunning smile haunted her and she wondered again how he would make her pay for his knowledge.” When Herezah’s son Boaz learns of the matter, he acknowledges that Salmeo “is certainly an opportunist”, but tells his mother: “Salmeo will not be permitted to use this knowledge against you.” Herezah doesn’t think it will be that easy.

Boaz delivers a “prewar speech” which is only recognized as such by Salmeo, who “was canny enough to know that remaining in Percheron, should the situation escalate to war, would be suicide. And his escape plans were well advanced.” He’s already stashed money and supplies on his escape route, and he expects to have two armed men (“not Elim”) to row him.

Boaz tells everyone that, in his absence while he is on a military campaign, his mother will be in charge, essentially as acting Zar, and anyone who defies her orders will be executed upon his return. She is no longer a harem slave under Salmeo, and one of her first announcements is that she will not be taking instructions from him anymore. Salmeo realizes that Herezah will use this opportunity to get him. He objects to deferring to Herezah, as he thinks she’s perhaps “his equal” but may simply be “the most important slave of his harem”. She insists on deference and he “reined in his fury”. He lisps when he recommends to her that they remain loyal to each other.

She asks him to be her personal servant on a trip, and taunts: “I hope your size doesn’t preclude you from being able to steer me to my destination aboard the royal barge, Salmeo.” In response to which insult: “His tongue unconsciously flicked between the large gap in his front teeth.” She tells him she has selected him for his “slippery, cunning mind” in outwitting the queen. Insulting Salmeo is not the way to get his help. He remembered his father’s advice to him: “The lion does not turn around when a small dog barks.”

Herezah realizes their relationship

“was now clearly at an end....for once Herezah had held the upper hand. She had found the lure to intimidate him irresistible. He would, of course, make her pay. Salmeo was an interminably patient man and she knew he would wait for his best opportunity to humiliate her, likely when — and if — she was returned to the harem.”

Salmeo, rowing for Herezah as her personal servant on this mission to meet the Galinsean Queen (the Spur Lazar's mother), was “not his usual effeminate self, whispering and lisping at her. Instead he was silent and withdrawn." He has plotted to poison Herezah, and places the poisoned cup in front of her. Then: “He withdrew silently, just a waft of violets reminding Herezah that he was even present.” The Galinsean Queen takes Herezah's cup, imagining it will be safer, never thinking that Herezah's own servant might be trying to poison Herezah at this moment. Salmeo, seeing the unexpected turn of events, flees the scene before the foreign queen dies. Herezah and the suddenly bereaved foreign king together realize what has happened. Herezah apologizes to him, referring to Salmeo as a "snake": “Zar Boaz wanted only peace and I was arrogant enough to believe I could broker it for him, little realizing the enemy was not the Galinseans but a snake in our own courtyard.”

On the run, Salmeo as usual “scowled” at others, and when he speaks, he is romantically fat, ”looking enormous in the falling dusk.”

Avenging his mother, Lazar finds Salmeo. Salmeo greets him “in his feminine lisping way.” Lazar assesses him: “He was as cold as the lizard he looked like when his tongue flicked out between that hideous gap in his teeth.” Salmeo does not apologize, but merely “shrugged” and says he meant to kill Boaz’s mother instead. Lazar had “imagined hacking the eunuch, limb from limb, leaving him dismembered in a bloodied pile for the ants to finish off,” but, instead, he asks Salmeo whether he’d like to die by sword or poison. Salmeo replies, “Swords are so messy. And these are my favorite traveling silks. Let’s go with the poison.” Salmeo drinks the poison he has been carrying with him, dies, and Lazar decapitates him, wraps the head and carries it in a sack. “Herezah would no doubt enjoy seeing Salmeo’s head on a spike, but until he delivered it to her, he would treat the chieftain with the respect due a king.”

Quotes: A mythic interpretation of relationships

Mircea Eliade:

"Speaking for myself, the definition that seems least inadequate because most embracing is this: Myth narrates a sacred history; it relates an event that took place in primordial Time, the fabled time of the ‘beginnings.’ ... Myth, then, is always an account of a ‘creation’...

* * *

Myth teaches him the primordial ‘stories’ that have constituted him existentially; and everything connected with his existence and his legitimate mode of existence in the Cosmos concerns him directly."

Allan Bloom:

"A father must prefer his child to other children, a citizen his country to others. That is why there are myths — to justify these attachments."

Lawrence Kushner:

"I'll let you in on a trade secret: After you do enough weddings, you realize that every bride and groom are the same. Don't misunderstand me, of course each one is unique. But in a broader context, every bride and every groom are Adam and Eve. They are players in an eternal drama. They look at one another, their heart's desire, and realize that the other person is a stranger. They live together for forty or fifty years and realize that, for all of their love, the other person is still a mystery. The power of their love is that these feelings transcend them as individuals. That mystery smelts us down into one lump of humanity and makes literature and art possible. The greater the emotion the more intensely personal and intimate the feeling, the more likely it is shared with all human beings."

Joseph Campbell:

"Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to he center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world."


Mircea Eliade. Myth and Reality. (1963) Translated from the French by Willard R. Trask. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1975. pp. 5-6, 12.

Allan Bloom. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987. p. 37.

Lawrence Kushner, "'Our Town'," in I'm God; You're Not: Observations on Organized Religion & Other Disguises of the Ego. Jewish Lights Pub, 2010.

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. (1949) Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 2008 (third edition). p. 18.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Writing what you don't know

"There are only two or three human stories," said Willa Cather, "and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before." When a story is told enough, it becomes a "ritual of truth," to use Thomas Dumm's phrase. He wrote that "democracy itself depends upon the continuing and autonomous iteration and reiteration of the meaning of words, sentences, paragraphs, and fragments. Instead of reaching final conclusions, perhaps we would do better to think in terms of the rituals of truth that govern our lives together and apart, truths that are radically historical in character." Why isn't a truth-ritual a final conclusion? Because a truth-ritual is a story, and stories contain unresolved ideas. Joan Didion wrote: "The idea that fiction has certain irreducible ambiguities seemed never to occur to these women, nor should it have, for fiction is in most ways hostile to ideology." Those unresolved ideas are why the stories repeat as if they'd never happened before, to answer Willa Cather's question.

Arthur Herzog explained C. Wright Mills' use of the term "sponge words," meaning words that are vague and flexible.

The verbal concoctions dripping from our lips can easily lead to illusion and error, and result in the inflamed rhetoric and unceasing cant of our day. Words are means of doing things, and chaos in language brings chaos in deed.

* * *

Let us take an example from business. As a red-blooded American businessman, you might say (in fact, you do say) that the American business system is historically unique. But you also claim that free enterprise is natural to human beings. Logically, it is impossible to have it both ways. Either free enterprise as practiced here is unique, in which case it can hardly be called natural, or it is natural, in which case it is not unique. Rather than facing up to the contradiction, the temptation is to summon what the sociologist C. Wright Mills called sponge words — such as "freedom" — which soak up the inconsistency.

Iris Murdoch said that we should strive for more "verbal precision" since it is through language that we are able to reveal truth. To deliberately strive for precision is good, and to deliberately obfuscate to gain power is evil. (Note the distinction between the idea that truth is revealed and that, as suggested earlier, it is created through ritual.)

Words constitute the ultimate texture and stuff of our moral being, since they are the most refined and delicate and detailed, as well as the most universally used and understood of the symbolisms whereby we express ourselves into existence.

We become spiritual animals when we become verbal animals. The fundamental distinctions can only be made in words. Words are spirit. Of course eloquence is no guarantee of goodness, and an inarticulate man can be virtuous. But the quality of a civilization depends upon its ability to discern and reveal truth and this depends upon the scope and purity of its language.

Any dictator attempts to degrade the language because this is a way to mystify. And many of the quasi-automatic operations of capitalist industrial society tend also toward mystification and the blunting of verbal precision.

"Every story arises out of perplexity," said Manohar Shyam Joshi:

"I started writing and found that composing a story about perplexity was itself a perplexing and troubling thing, partly because perplexity is beyond words and partly because words themselves produce perplexity. Even by being written down, no final form and no fixed denouement could be given the story of the perplexity of Hariya Hercules. Every story arises out of perplexity and it is the responsibility of every story to explain that perplexity in the idiom of everyday language. But where in the idiom of everyday language is there any scope for perplexity?"

Mo Willems said:

“I learned that I love writing for kids because you don’t have to deal with cultural modifiers. I’m just writing about emotions. I like to say: ‘Love, jealousy, hatred, wanting to drive a bus — the fundamental, core things.’ As I’ve evolved, I’ve started to realize that every book that I write is a philosophical question that I don’t know the answer to. And therefore it interests me. If I know the answer, I won’t make a book out of it.”

This drive to explain the perplexity is a drive to transform mere data into usable information. “Many people think all written words and numbers are information," said Richard Saul Wurman, "but if they don’t inform — if you do not understand them — they are data, not information.”

A novel by Sharad P. Paul poses this question: "This is the paradox of journalism. If it is all about uncovering the truth, then why are their newspaper articles called 'articles'? Sometimes I have found that truth can be like one of those Russian dolls. You know the ones I mean, the ones with sequentially smaller dolls inside larger ones. Sometimes you have to open many dolls before you find the real one." Uncovering the truth is difficult because people hide it. As Julie Jensen put it: "Now a human truth and also a character truth: Characters, like most people, almost never tell the truth. Sometimes they're protecting themselves, sometimes they're manipulating others, sometimes they've got a skewed vision of the world. And sometimes they're just polite and go along when someone else seems to know more." People's truth-telling is often confined to private journals, which are, themselves, written in "ambiguous language" to maintain privacy. One of Amin Maalouf's fictional characters said:

"But sometimes I ask myself: why keep a diary, and in this ambiguous language, when I know no one will ever read it? When in fact I don’t even want anyone to read it? I do it precisely because it helps me to clarify my thoughts and memories without having to tell my travelling companions about them.

Other people write as they speak. I write as I stay silent."


Willa Cather, quoted in the Ithaca, NY Journal, quoted in The Week, Feb. 11, 2011, p. 21.

Thomas Dumm. Loneliness as a Way of Life. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008. p. 34.

Joan Didion. The White Album (1979). New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1990. p. 112.

Arthur Herzog. The B.S. Factor: The Theory and Technique of Faking It in America. (1973) Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books Inc., 1974. p. 22.

Iris Murdoch, reported in The Times. Quoted in Arthur Herzog. The B.S. Factor: The Theory and Technique of Faking It in America. (1973) Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books Inc., 1974. p. 202.

Manohar Shyam Joshi. The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules. Translated from the Hindi by Robert E. Hueckstedt. New Delhi, India: Penguin, 2009. p. 154.

“Thinking like a child.” Mo Willems, as told to Visi Tilak. Boston Globe Magazine. June 14, 2015. p. 10.

Richard Saul Wurman, interviewed by Nadine Epstein, “In Search of the God of Understanding.” Moment Magazine, Sept/Oct 2013, p. 31.

Sharad P. Paul. Cool Cut. London: Picador, 2007. p. 145.

"Playwriting Quick and Dirty." Julie Jensen. Printed in The Writer's Handbook, 1998 Edition. Ed. Sylvia K. Burack. Boston: The Writer, Inc., 1997. p. 422.

Amin Maalouf, Balthasar's Odyssey (2000) Translated from the French by Barbara Bray. New York: Arcade, 2002. p. 50.