Monday, December 28, 2015

Love Poems of Ovid

Love Poems of Ovid selected and translated by Horace Gregory, Mentor Books, Toronto, 1964

Ovid ( - full name Publius Ovidius Naso - is considered one of the greats of Latin literature, up there with Virgil and Horace. Certainly his 'Metamorphosis' is a great work, one that has influenced many other authors, Dante, Boccaccio, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Marlowe, Milton, Chaucer and so on. It's been some time since I have read that book, and I pulled this selection to see if it was of equal worth. I'm afraid not.

The writing of the 'Metamorphosis' was interrupted by Ovid's exile to a small city on the Black Sea in CE 8. There have been endless suggestions and disputes about the reason for this exile, pronounced by Emperor Augustus personally without the intervention of any court. Near the same time Augustus exiled two of his own grandchildren and had the husband of one of them executed for a conspiracy against his life. Perhaps Ovid was a minor player in a conspiracy, or perhaps there are other reasons that might be suggested by his writings prior to Metamorphosis, writings such as the selection presented here.

Augustus was something of a puritan, and it is on record that he struggled mightily to restore what he saw as the moral standards of an earlier Rome. Scandal touched even his own family as he publically complained about the infidelity of his children and grandchildren.

No doubt Ovid could be seen as a contributor to this licentiousness. Before the 'Metamorphosis' his works consisted of love poems with a heavy emphasis on adultery. In fact it seemed to be his only subject. Aside from an excursion into a handbook on women's cosmetics all of his works dealt with love affairs. The book in question here contains selections from three of his works, the "Amores', the 'Art of Love' and the 'Cures for Love'. There were others left out of this collection.

The poems presented are good in parts but nowhere even approaching great literature. Ovid seemed to take himself as some sort of 'expert' on love affairs, the getting into them and the getting out of them. That and the detailing of the psychological manipulation practiced in what makes Rome seem like a gigantic pick up bar. He's quite proud of his accomplishment, but the repetition gives it a 'sameness' that one might get from listening to a braggart talk of his pickups in our time. It also comes across as the height of triviality and boastfulness.

Perhaps the author would play better if a reading was restricted to a very few of his poems or, alternatively, if the full corpus was presented. This selection doesn't work very well. Certainly there are flashes of insight into human motivation, but nothing very great. His devotion to his 'Corinna' often comes across as cloying and exaggerated. The gloating over sneaky past husbands seems quite juvenile.

So... is this a 'must read' book ? Definitely not. Its greatest virtue is that it is short enough to digest in one sitting.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MOTHER JONES   Charles H Kerr Publishing Company, Chicago, 1974

This is one of those 'should read' books that I should probably have read decades ago. Better late than never I guess. Mother (Mary) Harris Jones was one of the greats of the 'golden age' of American labor. It's a select company, Lucy Parsons, Big Bill Haywood, Joe Hill, Eugene Debs. Elizabeth Gurly Flynn, Ralph Chaplin, etc.: It's a bright galaxy to which she belongs.

 She may or may not belong to yet another exclusive club. She as born in Cork Ireland sometime in the 1830s. Today a monument to her memory stands in that city. Her family emigrated to Canada some years later where she initially trained as a teacher in a Toronto Normal School. The actual date of her birth is uncertain. As to her birthday being May 1, May Day, it seems almost too convenient. In terms of the year shortly before her death in 1930 she claimed that the birthday marked her as 100 years old. That would put her in the other exclusive club - of centarians. The question of her birthday has never been resolved. As to her claim remember where she was born. Blarney Castle is not that far from Cork.

In any case she had a long life, and was an outstanding labor militant from the days of the Knights of Labor until the agitation of the Depression. This life was filled with exciting struggles, and it is well worthwhile to hear her description of having guns pointed at here with a death threat attached, of hiking it up mountains via creek beds in the cold to come to the aid of miners surrounded by armed goons in the employ of the mining bosses. Her ability to 'string pull' was perhaps just as interesting as her physical courage. Politicians listened to her.

Her major focus of organizing was in the mining industry, and she became so prominent that the nickname 'the miners' friend' stuck. Her scope in such campaigns was wide, not just the men themselves but their families, local communities and, as mentioned, the far away politicos. She also organized in the silk mills, railroad shops and for the campaigns against child labor.

To here the abstract world of politics was less important than the more mundane everyday life of working men and women. She took part in the founding of the IWW, having signed the call for the Convention (the only woman amongst the signers), and she attended it in Chicago. Other than this she seemed unimpressed with the prospects of the IWW. She did campaign for the Western Federation of Miners and for clemency for various class war IWW members, but her major focus remained the miners of the United Mine Workers, and there was surely enough scope there to occupy anybody's time. She did, however, share the IWW's contempt for many union 'leaders' who feathered their nests at the expense of the interests of the workers. As she says in her autobiography;

"Those ere the days of sacrifice for the cause of labor. Those were the days when we had no halls, when there were no high salaried officers, no feasting with the enemies of labor. Those were the days of the martyrs and saints."

The last chapter of her autobiography is titled, appropriately, 'Progress in spite of leaders'.

Jones faced her share of tragedy during her life. Personal as when she lost her husband and four children and those of the many workers she had met and befriended over the years. Labor disputes often took a fatal toll in those days.

The book is prefaced with an introduction by Fred Thompson and a foreword by Clarence Darrow, both very useful in setting Jones' book it a wider context and pointing out here very occasional errors. All told the book was captivating, and I wish I read it long ago.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

'EARLY ENGLISH' BY JOHN W. CLARK : The Norton Library, New York, 1964

I have a small interest in languages and linguistics in general. Not that I could claim to be even moderately expert on the subject, but I've always found the field fascinating. The history of language is a field to itself, and this book makes a claim to introduce the reader to the development of the English language from Anglo-Saxon/Old English Middle English and on to Early Modern English. I hardly think I am an expert judge, but I think the author did a competent job.

He begins in the middle so to speak with some selections of English texts from various periods. The Bible is always convenient for this sort of thing, and the author tabulates Latin, Old English, Middle English and Modern English versions of a selection from the Vulgate New Testament. The similarities, differences and development are presented, and he sets to work analyzing the changes.

After this brief plunge in the waters he returns to the beginning, setting English amongst its relatives in the Indo-European language family and its Germanic branch. He uses this to introduce theories of how languages develop across geographic distances. Then it's on to an introduction to phonetics. I have to admit that I found this part somewhat hard going though I hope that at least a part of the classification of sounds into voiced/unvoiced, frictive/non-frictive, front, middle and back, high, central and low, diphthongs or not, nasal or not, palatal or not, the presence or absence of 'stops' and so on. He end this section with a chart that I must admit I didn't find as clear as I would have liked. This basic introduction, however, is central to linguists in general and to his presentation of the history of the English in particular.

From there it's into the meat of the subject; how did old English sound and how was it spelt. As to the latter he admits that most of the documentary evidence is from one dialect of Old English ie West Saxon. There is enough evidence, however, to infer the existence of other dialects, their difference from the 'standard' and at least some of the details of their pronunciation and writing. As an interesting little gemmule for those of us who have read and appreciated versions of Beowulf he mentions that OE poetry hardly ever uses rhyme. There is extensive discussion of how OE was spelt, how it was influenced by other languages and its regional variations. The author also presents many interesting items on how OE manuscripts actually physically looked. Just that is novel and fascinating in its own right.

Word forms, dialects and 'literature' (as opposed to didactic works) each receive their own treatment, and the changes English underwent before the Norman invasion are tracked, or at least speculated on. The basics of phonetics that the author previously presented are invaluable for this project, and this rather specialized treatment of one language was something of a revelation to me about the general methods of linguistics which had always seemed rather opaque before.

The discussion of Middle English and its evolution is shorter than that of OE even though the sources are far more numerous than in the earlier period. The influences of French which hardly began with the invasion and Latin are discussed as well as the 'survivals' from OE, and the reappearance of colloquial speech in written texts. The sounds of the language during this period are analysed as well as the appearance of another influence, loan words from Scandinavia.

The Middle English language was the language of Chaucer, but Chaucer was only a small part of what has survived, a corpus far greater than that from OE. Piers Plowman is frequently mentioned, and it reminded me that this work is one that I have never read even though I have seen it mentioned very often. Once more the author goes through the dialects, the development, sounds and physical appearance of the language during its changes into Early Modern English. The section on medieval manuscripts and publishing are fascinating on their on. What was important then differs vastly from what is considered noteworthy today. Attribution for instance.

All told I enjoyed this book immensely even if I am modest about how much of the technical details I actually fully comprehended. One nice little item I did take away - when people use "ye" in imitation of past English it is actually a common mistake. The letter that people misinterpret as a "y" in older manuscripts was actually pronounced "th". Thus (Yus ?) 'Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe' was actually 'The Olde Curiosity Shoppe'. The "e"s at the end of the words have their own story as well.

Monday, December 14, 2015

'Yarns of the Near East'


This was a weird one. I have quite a few folklore/classics/mythology books in my personal library, and I grabbed this one at random hoping for a legitimate collection. Wrong choice. The book, published in 1927, as  fourth reprint from 1920 was something of a manual produced by the author for the World Methodist Missionary Society. It was meant as a Sunday School source for the indoctrination of young boys into a path leading to missionary work. Not a single actual folk story from the area at all. It opens with a dramatization of one of the journeys of St. Paul which counts as 'Near East' because at least some of the action takes place in Anatolia. A good part of it, however, takes place in the Greek city of Philippi in Macedonia, and it is classic triumphalist hagiography of heroism and miracles and the gathering of souls to Christ.

The next story is a hatchet job on the life of Muhammad, and a number of 'exemplary stories' of missionaries in what is now called the Middle east rather than the Near East bulk up the rest. The author is at great pains to point out the value of "believing in Jesus Christ" even though said advantages are hardly spelled out beyond the "Jesus as a nice and charitable guy" level. As if Muslims didn't practice charity at all. There is a cast of Arab characters of the 'wild thief' pattern, and if the author wanted to make a book to introduce youngsters to the actual life of people in the area it does a pretty bad job of it.

The interesting thing is rather that the book is a window into the rather baseless self confidence of the English missionary societies of the day. The society itself was rather disreputable by today's standards as its refusal to acknowledge the massacre at Amritsar (1000 dead) India in 1919 amply demonstrates. Looking back from almost a century one can only wonder at the self confidence of the missionaries. At the time, post WW1, the British Empire was already in hock up to its ears and well advanced in its decline. Some will never notice they are on the way down even if it is obvious from the outside, or with the passage of time.

The present day over-weaning pride of American missionaries reproduces this picture in the time of the decline of the American Empire. The participants soldier on with an optimism buoyed up by ignorance. I actually finished the book. It as short and rather padded. Even if it wasn't what I was looking for it was an interesting look into an enterprise remote from hat most of us are familiar with today.

Thursday, December 10, 2015


Not exactly a biography but more of a year by year recounting of Einstein's scientific papers along with significant events of his personal life and world events to situate the science. The book begins with a brief timeline of the years 1879 (when Einstein was born on March 14) to 1900 and opens in the year 1901 with his first scientific paper 'Conclusions drawn from the Phenomena of Capillarity' in Annalen der Physik. not world stunning, but quite competent. From here it's up and away, but there are still only four more papers until the year 1905 when five papers changed physics forever. 'On a Heuristic point of View Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light' introduced the quantum theory of light. 'On the Motion of Small Particles Suspended in Liquids at Rest' established the mathematical description of Brownian motion and, believe it or not, is Einstein's most cited paper. There was also 'A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions', A rework of Einstein's doctoral thesis.

There were two papers that presented the theory of special relativity: 'On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies' and 'Does the Inertia of a Body Depend On Its Energy Content'. All of these papers were presented in Annalen der Physik. The latter two papers presented postulates such as the constancy of the speed of light, the equivalence of mass and energy and the connectedness of space and time. This was Einstein's 'Miraculous Year' when modern physics was born. Note that he early contributed to the theories of quantum mechanics which were to give him so much worry in later years.

Over the next few years Einstein elaborated on the ideas presented in his papers of 1905 and began to publish in journals other than Annalen der Physik. As he developed his theories other experimentalists such as Rutherford developed the nucleus/electron model of the atom, and the gene theory of heredity was being elaborated. It was a time of rapid advance in many fields not just in physics. While the scientists drove forward in their laboratories the world of politics fell back into the modern barbarism od WW1. With this Einstein began his career as a 'public intellectual' by declaring himself as a pacifist associating himself with anti-war initiatives, all of which were fruitless. The first test of Einstein's theory was to occur by observations of a group of German scientists of an eclipse of the sun in Russia. The eclipse happened on the same day war was declared. The scientists were imprisoned, and the test never happened. The confirmation of relativity waited until 1919 and Eddington's expedition.

While WW1 raged Einstein worked further on his relativity theory. In 1915 three new papers, 'On the General Theory of Relativity', 'Explanation of the Perihelion Motion of Mercury from the General Theory of Relativity' and 'The Field Equations of Gravitation' expanded his 1905 special relativity into the 'general theory of relativity'. The new picture of space and time was complete, or at least as complete as it could be given what was known about the Universe at that time. With these papers the flatness of space-time that remained even in special relativity curled up to produce the curved space of his theory of gravitation. All this time Einstein continued his work in quantum theory and his contribution to pacifist causes.

Others began to work with Einstein's theories. In 1916 Karl Schwarzschild solved Einstein's equations for the area surrounding a star. He showed that as the star's radius shrunk to number less than (2GM)/(c^2) the 'Schwarzschild Radius' the curvature became infinite. Thus was born the idea of the 'black hole'. Einstein began to write popular accounts of his theories. In a 1917 paper on the large scale structure of the Universe he introduced his 'cosmological constant' to account for what was believed at the time to be a static universe. As evidence for an expanding universe came to light he began to describe this as, "my greatest error". Yet further on in history with the discovery of 'dark energy', however, it turned out to be right after all. Efforts began to unify the forces of nature, gravitation with all the others. Only electromagnetism was known at the time; the strong and weak nuclear forces were yet to be discovered. Despite the efforts of Einstein and many others the unification of gravity with the other forces remains unsolved today.

The war ended. A new solar eclipse was due, over the Atlantic, and Einstein's explanation of the bending of starlight around the sun could be tested. Eddington's expedition found the proof, four days before Einstein's wedding. It was a good year for Albert.

After this decade of discovery Einstein's life remained productive but never again "reordered the universe". Einstein intensified his pacifist, democratic socialist and Zionist activity. Though he never joined a Zionist organization and even declared that he was not a Zionist he continued to sympathize with the idea of a homeland for the world's Jewry. His socialism could at times be quite radical. It's not in the book, but in a visit to Barcelona he went out of his way to visit the headquarters of the anarchosyndicalist CNT. His nephew Karl was a more convinced anarchist and fought with their militias during the Spanish Civil War.

The story continues year by year, weaving Einstein's personal life with the events of the day, his popularization of physics, his political activity and his continued scientific work. In 1920 he first conceived the idea of nuclear power, but as yet he had no idea of how it would come about. Einstein was 'in demand', and he soon began to travel the world. With the rise of Nazism in Germany Albert and his family wisely decided to emigrate  In 1933 they sailed for America which was to be his home of the rest of his life. In the face of the rise of Hitler Einstein began to modify his pacifism. With the outbreak of WW2 he was one of the motive forces behind convincing the Americans to develop the atomic bomb for fear that the Nazis might develop it first.

He remained in Princeton through the rest of his life, still productive scientifically and mentoring new generations of physicists. After the war he, like many of the scientists connected to the creation of atomic weaponry, developed great concern with their potential for destruction, and he spend much time in his latter years campaigning for the UN as a 'world government' and for disarmament. His original scientific output declines, but with a younger collaborator he continued publication right up to his death in 1955.

I can  heartily recommend this book. The author manages to present all of Einstein's scientific output with clear explanations appended to the most significant ones. His wider political and philosophic writings are also documented if not in such detail. The yearly almanac formula works masterfully and allows the author to situate the science in the context of Einstein's personal life, world events and developments in other scientific fields. She concludes with a useful bibliography, index and photo credit list.

It was a worthwhile read.

Monday, December 07, 2015


It's been a long time since I have blogged, and it's time to try and get back in the swing of things. There are a couple of book reviews that I have been working on for some time, but they have fallen victim to my inborn tendency to go on and on and on and on. I'm going to try and restrict myself to short reviews of some recent things I've read, both books and articles. The discipline of brevity will hopefully be good for me.

'The Desert Fathers' by Helen Waddell. Vintage Books, New York 1998

This book is part of the 'Vintage Spiritual Classics' series which includes hat are probably more attractive items such as 'The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi' and 'The Imitation of Christ'. Unlike these the author sets herself a formidable task, trying to make the anchorites and hermits of early Christianity attractive. She's not entirely successful at it.

This subject has always brought the picture of St. Anthony of the desert to mind, a strange 'holy man' up on a pillar for decades, food and water hauled up to him, bodily wastes hopefully removed by the faithful before they build up to a hill that the anchorite could easily walk down should he decide that mortification of the flesh is no longer a good idea.

That's there, but it was a small part of the picture, very small. Reading this it seems that the monks, both male and female, certainly did their best to tame the evil of the body. Often in rather petty and frankly repulsive ways as they engaged in show off competitions to determine who was the most "holy" in this practice.

Yes, they were more often monks living in community rather than solitary hermits. It seems that the latter often grew out of the former as the devotee in question gradually moved their habitation further and further from those of the other monks. To preserve the quiet of their communion with God ? Because of good old 'spiritual pride' and the ill-disguised competition mentioned ? Because of the social tensions expected in such communities ? Because they were crazy ? Or simply because they couldn't stand the smell ? You might gather that these sort of communities wouldn't take the old saw "cleanliness is next to Godliness" to heart. Besides that was probably a Protestant byword anyway.

There are both stories and quotations in this book, the quotations often merely the setting of a story. There's a wide cast of characters, male and female, benevolent and obviously antisocial, eminently sane and insightful or suffering from the mother of all obsessive-compulsive disorders. The book is at least a good presentation to some, like me, who have a monochromatic view of this fad in early Christianity.

There is the usual collection of miracles. The Devil drops by no and then to say hello. Wild beasts are tamed or driven off. A lion is convinced to mend his ways and live as a vegetarian for years. The sick are healed. Angels and God himself wander in and out of these desert habitations. Fasts and refusal of water are carried on long beyond any possible believability. And so on.

Some of the sayings have an almost Zen-like flavor. The difference is that they seem to gather around the 'charity pole' much more than this sort of thing does in Buddhism or Daoism. Some of the most attractive sayings and stories are actually examples of violating the rules of monasticism in the service of the higher good of charity. This is a relief from the more bizarre recounting of self punishment in the expectation of divine revelation.

All told interesting, but I hardly think the author has painted an attractive picture of her subjects.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Marie Goldsmith: Her life and thought



     Maria Isidorovna Goldsmith was born on July 19, 1871 in  Russia (1). There is some confusion about both the date and location of her birth. Some assume that she was born in Switzerland, around 1873 probably in Zurich where the family later moved, but this move was years later. Her father Isidor published Znanie, a positivist (2) oriented review. He was exiled to the north for his views, according to the historian Max Nettlau first to Pinega and later to Arkhangsk (3). Nettlau was of the opinion that she was born in one of these places. Her mother, Sofia Ivanova Goldsmith, was a follower of the SR writer Labrov. Like Lavrov she was also interested in the natural sciences, studying at the Faculty of Medicine in Moscow and later receiving her doctorate at the Faculty of Science in Zurich (4). Goldsmith's father died when she was young, and her and her mother's common interests in radical politics and natural sciences was the basis for their lifelong close relationship.(5) In 1888 she and her mother left Russia and eventually settled in Zurich Switzerland.

     Before we go any further a matter of names should be cleared up. Goldsmith went by more than as many names as I have fingers. The last name is an anglicized version of an original Yiddish 'Goldsmid', 'Goldsmit' or 'Goldsmidt'. All four of these were used by various people at various times by people who either knew her or wrote about her. Her first name is also rendered either 'Maria' or 'Marie' depending on the author. To complicate things further she adopted two noms-de-plumes in her political writing. One was 'Korn' (sometimes rendered 'Corn'). The other was 'Isidine'. In both cases either Maria or Marie have been used. Her scientific publications were printed under the name of 'Marie Goldsmith', but whether this was the preferred label is hard to judge. In this essay I use this name as a matter of convenience.


     Goldsmith's first political commitment was in imitation of her mother. She became a member of the International Socialist Revolutionary Students (a branch of the Russian SRs in exile)(6) in June of 1892. She was active in these circles as an editor of their pamphlets. Meanwhile the Goldsmiths relocated to Paris in 1890. Once there she frequented other Russian exile circles and eventually became an anarchist. She still, however, maintained contact with the SRs, actually edited their pamphlets despite her political disagreements with them. As late as 1903 she translated and published the 'Historical Letters' of Labrov. As will be seen later in her relations with other anarchists this was a pattern she held to, never letting differences of opinion to lead to estrangement.

     Goldsmith studied biology at the University of Paris at the Sorbonne. In 1894 she was awarded her undergraduate degree (7), and later her master's.She worked at this institution for many years in association with her fellow biologist Yves Delage. In 1915 she wrote her PhD thesis 'Réactions physiologiques et psychique des poissons' as a graduate student of Delage. It was published by the Institute Géneral Psychologique in the same year. Long before this, however, she had become his indispensible research collaborator, and was the co-author with him of two important books: 'Les Theories de l'Evolution' (1909)(8) and 'Le Parthénogénèse Naturelle et Éxperimentale' (1913). The former book was particularily influential, and was translated into English, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese. It also figured prominantly in the anarchist side of her life as we shall see later.

     Goldsmith had a long and distinguised scientific career, both as an associate of Delage and on her own. Her main interest was in comparative animal psychology, but she also "wrote on marine animals' response to light, psychological evolution in animals, construction of spider webs, and the role of tannins and sugars in sea urchins [and]...on mendelian evolution" (9). Some of her publications include...

-Les theories de l'evoluion 1909 (with Yves Delage)
-La parthénogénèse expérimentale 1913 (with Yves Delage)
-La parthénogénèse naturelle et expérimentale 1913 (with Yves Delage)
-Réactions physiologiques et psychique des poissons 1915
-Le tannin et le sucre dans la parthénogénèse des oursins 1915 (with Yves Delage)
-Les grands problèmes de la biologie générale 1917 (with Yves Delage)
-Le mendélisme et le mécanisme cytologique de l'hérédite 1919
-La psychologie comparée 1927
-La Dictionnaire illustrée d'histoire naturelle 1931

     Goldsmith was also an editor of  'L'année biologique' from 1902 to 1924 (10). As an interesting sidenote she and Delage wrote editorials for this journal defending Konstantin Merezhkovski's symbiotic theory of the origin of chloroplasts. The idea was developed independently by the Russian botanist Andrei Famintsyn who first advanced it in 1906 and 1907. They also wrote a lengthy review of Portier's book 'Les symbiotes' in this journal. This idea fell out of favour for many decades, but it later became famous through the work of Lynn Margulis who rediscovered it without prior knowledge of the Russian biologists who had first advanced it. Herein lies an interesting tale of the history of science.

     Despite her record of publications Goldsmith had to struggle in the last few years of her life to find scientific employment. She worked as a "laboratory preparer" at the École Practique des Hautes Études from 1927 to 1933. She also found employment as a "seminar leader" at the Faculté de Médicine from 1930 to 1933. She laboured under the dual burden of being both female and undoubtedly being known for her radical views despite her use of pseudonoms. This may explain Nettlau's description of her as "very poor".


     Goldsmith was not totally absorbed in her scientific work. As her commitment to the SRs declined she became more and more active amongst the anarchists, particularily the exiles in Paris. In 1897 (11) she began a correspondance with Peter Kropotkin, an exchange of letters that was to continue, at least as sources allow us to speculate, until 1917. There is a problem here in verification as only letters received by Goldsmith have been preserved. In his exile in England Kropotkin was in a perhaps justifiable state of over-precaution. He burned all correspondance. As such we have only his letters to Goldsmith to work from. To complicate matters most of these were written in Russian (12) and only a few are in French. The Russian letters await translation. Goldsmith actually became Kropotkin's major correspondant with almost 400 items having been preserved (12) in the Nicolaevsky Collection in Paris. As such she was one of the major influences on Kropotkin's later thought, no matter how she might disagree with him on certain points. She was actually the major political correspondant in Kropotkin's life in exile. The number of his letters to her is only exceeded by those of Kropotkin to his brother. As Martin A. Miller, one of the most reputable of  Kropotkin's biographers says in his notes to his biography;

     "This is the largest single collection of letters in Kropotkin's entire career with the sole exception of the large correspondance with his brother which, however, was written before Peter's conversion to anarchism". (13)

     The collection contains six volumes, and despite Miller's 'presumed' familiarity with them he makes an egregious error about Goldsmith's opinions during the First World War, as we we see later. Goldsmith became the leading figure amongst the Russian exiles in Paris (14), and their anarchist group meetings were held in her apartment (15). It was during this period that she adopted the nom-de-plume 'Maria Korn'. Goldsmith also began a prolific output for the libertarian press, writing in Russian, French, English, Italian and Yiddish for publications across Europe and North America. (16) According to Paul Avrich she also made the acquitance of another newcomer, Emma Goldman, when the latter was in Europe in 1895-1896 on a tour to campaign for the release of Alexander Berkman from prison. Goldman met with other Parisian anarchists in Goldsmith's home. The pair also became correspondents and she later defended Goldman's attack on Johann Most (17) in the pages of De Vrije Socialist on April 6, 1900.

     Goldsmith was also prominent in non-Russian anarchist circles, though her main focus was on the Russian movement. At the 1906 London conference of Russian anarchists in exile she authored no less than three of the reports, "on the matter of politics and economics, on organization and on the general strike" (18). In 1914 she was one of the speakers in Paris on the anniversary of the death of Bakunin (19). She also help organize meetings on commemorations of the Paris Commune and the Haymarket martyrs though it is unclear if she spoke at these gatherings. Her major contribution, however, was as one of the founders and one of the main writers of the Russian language journal Khleb i Volia (Bread and Freedom) published in Geneva from August 1903 to November 1905 and smuggled into Russia. Under the influence of the recently successful French CGT she promoted the ideas of anarchosyndicalism in her writings. Her writings on this subject were later produced as a pamphlet 'Revolutionary Syndicalism and Anarchism' in Moscow/Petrograd in 1920. The work has, unfortunately, never been translated from the Russian.

     Khleb i Volia was perhaps Goldsmith's most significant activity in these years. This journal was initiated in Geneva under the influence of Kropotkin. It grew out of the Russian language Anarkhicheskaia Biblioteca , a publishing house started by an Armenian Alexander Atakekian who had come to London to ask the 'anarchist sage' about how he could best contribute to his ideals. It began by publishing works of Bakunin and Kropotkin, and it later laid plans for a Russian language newspaper. It was actually Goldsmith who first suggested the idea to Kropotkin in their correspondance (20). Kropotkin in turn provided her with an introduction to two other contacts K. Gogeliia-Orgeiani and his wife Lidiia Ikonnikova (21). Along with another anarchist in Geneva, Maksim Raevskii, the Geneva group began publication with Goldsmith, under the pseudonom of Maria Korn, as an external editor in Paris.

     Kropotkin wrote many pieces for KiV even though he had many differences with the editors including Goldsmith. As Martin Miller says in his biography of Kropotkin,

     "Kropotkin's participation in the publishing of Khleb i Volia took many forms, from contributing to fundraising to advising. To be precise Kropotkin influences the paper but did not control it in any way; in fact, in all his associations with anarchist papers, he may never have had as little to say about the running of the paper as he did with this one." (22)

     Kropotkin's problems with the journal began in 1904 when he was disturbed by a lead article, probably the work of Gogeliia, that seemed to present terrorist tactics in a favourable light. He expressed his displeasure in a letter to Goldsmith, going so far as to suggest that the person he had introduced to her might in fact be a police agent. Goldsmith was definitely on Kropotkin's side in this debate, but for reasons quite different from his. They won the dispute. In the next issue of KiV an article appeared denouncing terrorism. As mentioned before Goldsmith, admiring the work of the French CGT, consistently defended an anarchosyndicalist position in her writings for Khleb i Volia. At the time the growth of syndicalism was a constructive reaction amongst anarchists, and French workers in general, reacting against the blind alley of the individualist pseudo-anarchist trend of 'illegalism' that had disgraced anarchism in fin-de-siecle Europe. What syndicalism provided was a practical outlet whereby anarchists could move beyond dramatic demonstrations to productive activity. Kropotkin, however, harboured doubts about the tactic that Goldsmith did not share. The difference was muted, basically a matter of emphasis. Goldsmith was far more optimistic about syndicalism than Kropotkin and even though all the editors of KiV shared reservations about the possible degeneration of syndicates it was Kropotkin who was most emphatic about this danger. (23) This was the first instance where Goldsmith disagreed with the person she undoubtedly considered a mentor, but it was not the last. It was typical of Goldsmith that their differences didn't lead to a break in their friendship. It was also typical of her that there was no direct confrontation.

     Smuggled into Russia, Khleb i Volia became quite influential amongst workers and young intellectuals. Copies reached as far as the factories in the Urals. Anarchosyndicalists in south Russia where the ideology was most popular appreciated the journal even if they had doubts about how much French ideas were practical in their situation.


     As mentioned above Goldsmith became Kropotkin's primary correspondant in his years of exile. In the beginning the influence was pretty well one way with Kropotkin playing the role of mentor. From September 1890 to June 1896 the exiled anarchist had published a series of article in the English magazine 'The Nineteenth Century' (24) which were later collated in book form in 1902 under the title of 'Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution'. The most popular interpretation of Kropotkin's purpose in wrting the articles was to counter the opinions of Thomas Huxley ("Darwin's Bulldog") who in 1888 published his 'The Struggle for Existence in Human Society' in 'The Nineteenth Century'. Kropotkin mentions this as the motive behind his articles in his introduction to the book's first edition. (25) He also mentions Huxley's 'Ethics' and the opinions of Herbert Spencer whom he also disagreed with. Mutual Aid became an international success and is still considered a classic today. During the composition of his essays Kropotkin wasn't simply writing a political text. To a great extend he was influenced by ideas current amongst Russian naturalists of the time (26) who, unlike people such as Darwin, Wallace and Huxley, carried out their studies in relatively severe climates where intraspecific cooperation was selected for as against competition.

     Whatever its popularity, amongst both left wing circles and the general biological community, 'Mutual Aid' had an obvious deficiency. It may indeed have established the evolutionary importance of cooperation, later to become the scientific fields of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, but it lacked a 'mechanism'. That is to say that there seemed to be no obvious way that cooperative habits could give rise to innate cooperative tendencies. Kropotkin had discussed this question before (27) in The Nineteenth Century , but in a rather superficial way. In 1910 he returned to the question in a series of articles in The Nineteenth Century and After, the successor to The Nineteenth Century. In these essays he was concerned both to exorcise the ghost of Malthusism from Darwinism and to present a theory of heredity that would seem consistent with his views on cooperation. He also attempted to recruit the later Darwin to his point of view, especially the Darwin of  'The Descent of Man'. (28) The first essay in the series, 'The Theory of Evolution and Mutual Aid' (1910) (29) was basically an attempt to "recover the real Darwin" who supposedly became progressively more Lamarkian in his latter years. (30) Kropotkin thought that a form of Lamarkism was the most fertile pathway. In his view natural selection was a mere secondary factor and it was acquired characteristics prepared by the action of the environment that set up the basic raw material that evolution worked upon. It was here that Marie Goldsmith and her academic partner Yves Delage enter the picture.

     As mentioned previously Goldsmith and Delage had published their book 'Les Théories de l'évolution ` in 1909. The first English translation was published in 1910 in England. The first American edition came out in New York in 1912. It`s an open question how much influence their book had on Kropotkin when he was composing his essays. The following should be noted. First, Kropotkin`s scientific career was that of a field naturalist despite his general familiarity with other aspects of biology about which he wrote as a journalist. To a large extent he was very much an outsider to experimental biology and genetics. It was here that his major correspondant, Goldsmith, came to his aid. As Álvaro Girón in his article on Kropotkin and Lamarkism says;

     "Now, Kropotkin was not completely alone when he had to deal with this complexity. He received the critical advise and support of Marie Goldsmith, a brilliant Russian student of Biology, disciple of the French Neolamarkian Yves Delage. Her help was instrumental. Kropotkin was an amateur naturalist of the old school, a complete stranger in the field of experimental Biology." (31)

     There is little doubt that Kropotkin was aware of the problem, perhaps as far back as 1903 (32), and he was aware of the controversies about the nature of heredity as early as the 1890s. He was also a convinced Lamarkian, believing that it would be "a weapon against Malthusianism" (33). There is, however, another thing that is not in doubt ie that he had read Goldsmith and Delage's book before writing his essays. In his third essay, 'The Response of the Animals to Their Environment' their book is mentioned as item # 2 in his notes (34). Finally,there is little doubt that the subject of the mechanisms of evolution had been discussed at length in his correspondence with Goldsmith. It isn't certain that he read the book in its French edition of 1909, though it would be hard to imagine that his good friend Goldsmith wouldn't have forwarded him a copy hot off the press. In the above article Kropotkin references the English edition of 1910, but he was, after all,writing for an English speaking audience. In later essays in the series he referenced Delage and Goldsmith's book in its 1909 French edition. He also references Delage's 1903 book 'L' hérédité et les grands problèmes de la biologie générale` . In 1903 Goldsmith was already associated with Delage, and she had been corresponding with Kropotkin since 1897. It is likely that the ideas presented in Delage's 1903 work had benefitted from Goldsmith's input, and, through her, from Kropotkin's earlier work. This is not unusual in the history of science. Scientific ideas are almost invariably the result of collective effort rather than the lone genius of popular mythology.

     What I would like to present here is the possibility that Kropotkin's ideas in his essays were more or less derivative from those of Goldsmith and Delage. This is not to say that Kropotkin was a plagarist. He adduced a vast number of studies that the Paris pair hadn't dealt with, and the organization of the material was his own. Yet Kropotkin himself mentions their books, amongst others, as useful reviews, and there no other reviews that shared his views, biological and otherwise, so widely. It is also significant that there is proof that he discussed these questions in his correspondance with Goldsmith (35). What follows depends on two publications. One, 'Evolution and Environment' ,(36) is available in print. It contains both Kropotkin's earlier pamphlet 'Modern Science and Anarchism' and the essays in question under the title of 'Thoughts on Evolution'. The other source is the online English language edition of 'The Theories of Evolution' (37). The latter is interesting in its own right in presenting the controversies in turn-of-the-century evolutionary biology, and it would certainly bear inspection by historians of science (38).

     In his introduction to the essays George Woodcock mentions the genesis of the series in a letter Kropotkin wrote to W, Wray Silbeck, then editor of The Nineteenth Century and After in November 1909 ie after the publication of Godsmith and Delage's book;

     "He remarked that his researches for 'Ethics' (39) had led him to the conclusion that before proceeding further he must "discuss seriously the question of Darwinian Struggle for Life - and Mutual Aid. It is a big question as it requires a critical analysis of Natural Selection, but of the deepest interest just now, when Lamarkism is coming so prominently to the front"". (40)

     In other words Kropotkin saw Lamarkian inheritance as a counterweight to what seemed, in the writings of Huxley and others, to be a reactionary use of terms like Natural Selection to justify the socioeconomic system of class rule and statist imperialism. He saw Lamarkinism as more compatible with his own theories of mutual aid. Lamarkism was to be the means whereby sociability became part of the genetic heritage of animals and humans. He was sorely mistaken in this opinion. Nowadays there is a huge corpus of the study of cooperation/sociability within the fields of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, all of it based firmly on the premise of natural selection. In the 1910s, however, these theories and facts were decades away in the future. Mendelian genetics had barely been rediscovered. The function of nucleic acids in heredity was unknown. Even the role of the nucleus was a matter of dispute.

     Goldsmith and Delage were Lamarkians, even though in their book they treated other theories in a fair and balanced manner. The fact that an anarchist, and personal friend, such as Goldsmith could at the same time be an exponent of Lamarkism no doubt suggested to Kropotkin that his "choice of sides" in the dispute over heredity lined up with his political beliefs.There are many parallels between Kropotkin's essays and the themes discussed in 'The Theories of Evolution'. Let's examine a few.

     One of Kropotkin's first goals was to "rescue Darwin". This consisted of two lines of argument. One purpose was to show how Darwinism was separate from the ideas of Thomas Malthus whose 'Essay on Population' influenced Darwin's theory of natural selection (41). The second line of attack was to suggest that Darwin was ambivalent about natural selection as an evolutionary mechanism and that he became more 'Lamarkian' over the years. Much of Kropotkin's first article, 'The Theory of Evolution and Mutual Aid' is devoted to these propositions. This is one area where Kropotkin went beyond Goldsmith and Delage, at least in terms of evidence. Even though the Paris Pair had advanced a similar statement (42) Kropotkin presented a much more convincing case, both from Darwin's published work and from his correspondance. This was actually not so hard to do as, as previously mentioned, Darwin's idea of  'orthogenesis' comes close to assuming a Lamarkian point of view. What the anarchist Prince was trying to prove was that Darwin gradually came to accept his own opinion - that adaption to the environment provided the source of variation and that natural selection was a secondary "editing" influence on evolution. Writing, as he was, before the development of modern genetics Kropotkin felt that there had to be something other than chance that produced the variability that natural selection worked upon. As he says;

     "To be cumulative in its effects, there must be, beside the chance variations, a cause, such as hybridism, or still more so the direct action of the environment, which tends to alter the structure and the forms of the animal or plant in a certain definite direction....But once there is such a cause, there is no need of an acute struggle between the individuals of the species to preserve the effects of variation." (43)

     This was Kropotkin's argument by which he tied his two assertions together. Yes it was logically flawed as the subsequent history of genetics demonstrates, but given the state of knowledge in his time it was at least consistant.








1)The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Marilyn Ogilviet and Ivy Harvey eds, Routledge NY 2000 ISBN 0-203-80145-8; p 1046

2)Positivism was a nineteenth century philosophy propounded by the French philosopher and utopian socialist August Comte. It was an early form of empiricism. It also, however, was linked to a proposed technocratic form of collectivism, like that espoused by Henri St.-Simon for whom Comte was once secretary. At the time this philosophy was coloured with a radical tinge. Hence its attraction for the radical intelligentsia, especially as it promised them a directing role in the society that was to replace capitalism. It was an influence on the later doctrine of technocracy. In a mendacious way it later became smuggled into the socialist movement via the Leninist theory of the Party and the role of the intellectuals in it. Today positivism has mutated almost beyond recognition in at least the English speaking world.

3)Nettlau, Max 'A Memorial Tribute to Marie Goldsmith and Her Mother' Freedom (New York) Vol. 1, No 10, March 18 1933, p2 . See also

4)Confino, Michael and Rubinstein, Daniel 'Kropotkine savant [vingt-cinq lettres inédite de Pierre Kropotkine à Marie Goldsmith` Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique Vol 33, No 33 1992 p245. See also

5)There is very little information available on Sophie Goldsmith, but there is little doubt that she was a remarkable woman. Her studies in Moscow were carried out under two barriers as she was both a woman and a Jew. At the time Jewish registration in institutions of higher education was still restricted under Tsarist laws. There is no information about her attitude to Marie's conversion to anarchism, but the circumstances of her life suggest that she made few objections. Considering the strength of will that she evidenced in her prior career it is doubtful that Marie could have stood out against any strenuous objections on her part. In the early years Marie adopted the SR ideology from her mother. The two women remained incredibly, almost pathologically, close through Marie's life, and Marie in fact committed suicide because of her mother's death. Before jumping to pseudo-scientific psychologizing, however, we should take note of the time and culture in which the women lived. Such family closeness was not as uncommon then and there as it is today.


7)Ogilviet and Harvey Ibid  

8) Les théories de l`évolution B & L Routenberg, Paris 1909. For Yves Delage see Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Yves Delage at . To say the least Delage was a 'character'. His main field of research was marine biology, but he contributed greatly to general physiology. He discovered the function of the vestibular semi-circular canals and was a major influence in evolutionary biology and the growing new field of genetics. Still, even though he was a convinced and often militant atheist and an anti-clerical secularist, he spent (wasted ?) time trying to prove that the Shroud of Turin was authentic !!

9)The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science Marilyn Ogilvie and Joy Harvey, Routledge New York 2000 p 1046


11) See and Michael Confino and Daniel Rubinstein Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique 1992, Vol. 33, No 33 p244



Monday, January 19, 2015

A Devilishly Smart Pope


One of the books I'm reading now is John D. Barrow's 'The Book of Nothing'. The subject is  a look at the concept of 'nothing', the void, emptiness, zero, the vacuum and so on. There's actually quite a bit to say about nothing, and book ranges from a history of the mathematical sign for zero, through the 'philosophic concept' of nothingness, to the idea of the vacuum in physics, its explanation by the 'ether' and the eventual overthrow of that concept. Temperatures (absolute zero) and the place of the vacuum in quantum mechanics, relativity and cosmology come on stage, and the book ends with a return to the philosophic concept itself. Yes, quite complex, and I've barely gotten to chapter 2. Nice to have a roadmap to a blank space. I'll be reviewing the book when done.

But one of the matters that did come up was the story of Pope Sylvester II, one of the few admirable holders of the keys of Peter in the Middle Ages. This is a story appealing enough to shove its way to the front of the 'Molly Line'. Sylvester II was born Gerbert de Aurillac (945 - 1003). He reigned as Pope from 999 to 1003. Yes the Pope in the Chair during the turn of the millennium. The world didn't end, and Gerbert/Sylvester was definitely one of the more capable Popes of the age. A lot of his accomplishments were political and hardly bear mention here. Defending the property of the Church. Playing off one ruler against another though he was usually in alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor of the time.  The politics of Italy at the time were particularly chaotic, and once both he and the Emperor had to flee Rome during one of the revolts. He even tried to reform the Church's organization and reduce abuses such as simony, concubinage and nepotism. This was an Herculean task, and even with the assistance of St. Jude (the patron saint of the impossible) the Church remained just about as corrupt as always. He did, however, succeed in significantly increasing the Church's title holdings. Maybe this goal was in direct contradiction to the idea of making the Church into a more 'Holy' outfit. He also played a major role in the Christianization of Eastern Europe, appointing Metropolitans for both Poland and Hungary, and in the later case naming that country as a 'Kingdom'. Thus the Crown of Hungary became dependent on the Papacy.

His political accomplishments were minor compared to his intellectual contributions to European culture. He had early on spend considerable time as an envoy to the far more civilized Muslim states of southern Spain, and he turned his natural curiosity to good effect there, absorbing much of the culture of Andalucía. When he returned to France he was appointed head of education for the Archdiocese of Rheims, and from there he significantly elevated the clerical level of education throughout the French Kingdom.

 When his patron died he was considered the natural successor, but the Capetan monarchy had other ideas, and a relative of the King was appointed in his stead even though Gerbert was a supporter of Hugh Capet whose reign marked the end of the Carolingian dynasty. Barrow has this matter somewhat confused as he lists this Episcopal position without mentioning that Gerbert's appointment was overthrown. Consistent with the political level of the time the King's appointee was later removed because of suspicion of treason to his sponsor. Gerbert who initially was himself accused of treason to the House of Capet was reappointed, but this was challenged and his appointment declared invalid. When he did finally become Pope he pretty well washed his hands of the matter by declaring his competitor as the legitimate Archbishop. Barrow also confuses another appointment of his, as Archbishop of Ravenna, supposing him to be the 'Abbot' of Ravenna. All this is quite forgivable as the politics of the time, clerical and lay, were by their very nature confusing.

Gerbert was lauded for his scholarly contributions in a number of fields. He became the tutor of both Emperors Otto II and his son Otto III, and, as mentioned above, he was elevated to the Papacy with the support of the latter. Gerbert was a true polymath. He was the accepted authority in the liberal arts in his day and a major influence on theology. He was also something of an engineer, designing a hydraulic organ that didn't require air to continually be pumped in as it played. He is also credited with advances in the art of clock making due to one which he designed for the Cathedral of Magdeburg. Even this is confused. Some sources such as the 'Catholic Encyclopedia' say that he was the inventor of the pendulum clock. Others say that his clock was mechanical but weight driven rather than using a pendulum. Still others say that his clock was actually simply a sundial. It was, however, in the field of science and mathematics that he made his greatest contributions.

Gerbert was credited with a number of innovations. He introduced the abacus to Europe, and also the use of the Arabic/Indian number/decimal system. Both were necessary foundations for the later rise of commercial enterprises in the Renaissance. Hard to do proper accounting with Roman numerals. Not that they were always appreciated. In 1299 the decimal system was outlawed in Florence supposedly because it was more vulnerable to fraud. The worry about this matter delayed the adoption of decimal numbers in northern Europe until the sixteenth century. For Gerbert, however, they were a Godsend, and he was the foremost expert on mathematics, geometry and astronomy of his day. Much of this was based on what he had learned in southern Spain even though he was creative enough in his own right.

He is credited with the reintroduction of the 'armillary sphere' to western Europe. This is a 3D model of the heavens, and fitted with viewing tubes it was an early prototype of the telescope. It should be noted that such a sphere would imply that the Earth itself was a sphere. Not that the idea of a flat Earth was universal in Medieval times, but it was common enough even though the use of spheres such as this proliferated.

Barrow's book corrected a misconception of my own, one that I had held for more than a few years. I knew that Sylvester II was a remarkably educated and knowledgeable man well ahead of his time. I also knew that one of the medieval Popes had been dug up from his grave and the corpse put on trail. I'd always assumed that the uncommunicative defendant was Sylvester. During his lifetime and after his death rumours circulated that he was in league with the Devil, that he had even constructed a bronze head that would answer questions posed to it. Sort of an early robot I guess. I assumed that this was the reason for the exhumation. Wrong I was. The corpse was that of one Pope Formosus, and the charges were much more mundane. After the guilty verdict was pronounced the hapless cadaver was chopped to pieces, burnt and the ashes thrown into the Tiber. That will teach him.

The accusations of witchcraft would certainly be a likely medieval explanation for Sylvester's brilliance, but no - he stayed in the ground. Not that he rested easily though. The legends of his life followed him into the grave, and typically they are also confused. One legend says that when a Pope is due to die that Sylvester's bones rattle in the tomb. Another says that the walls of the crypt weep on the sad occasion. I guess there's no reason they can't both be right.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Molly's Kitchen Sink Writing Problem


     Well it's back to blogging, and my old problem remains - motor mouth of the pen. I've always had a tendency to 'kitchen sink' anything I write. The old 'and another thing and another thing and another thing' habits refuse to die. I've begun to write reviews of books that I've been reading. Production, however, is miniscule. I've had a review of 'Pierre-Joseph Proudhon', one of George Woodcock's many biographies on the burner for some days now, but it's a dish that keeps cooking but never seems to be done. It's been decades since I first read the book, and it's fascinating to return to it with all the (cough) wisdom of age. Yet it seems that the review is developing into a book of its own. Or maybe it's just that I am more inclined to check and recheck things before putting them in final form.

It's still coming though. I promise not to bore readers too much with my writing process. This is just a little explanation. Excuse ? Still the process is interesting in itself.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015


It's been almost a year now that I've been away from blogging, and I'm sure it will take some 'flexibility exercises' to get back in form. Here, however, I am. Ready to ride the waves once more. The first few posts will be more like journal entries and short reviews of recently read material, but I hope to produce more interesting stuff in the near future. Til then...

Glad to be back,