The agreeable eye

an eudæmonistarchives

October 2008

the ugly byzantine

2 October 2008, around 1.43.

Byzantine diplomacy was very expensive. Dowries, gifts, subsidies to whole nations, all involved the treasury in enormous sums. Even economic blockades, sometimes effectively employed towards the Saracens, were costly for the Empire also. The Government was moreover perfectly willing to pay its enemies direct not to invade its territory. Lawless princes across the frontier thus became clients, almost wage-earners, much preferring a regular income of Byzantine gold to the uncertain takings of a raid. At times even, if Byzantium was for some reason unwilling to undertake a war, a yearly some of money would go to Baghdad or Preslav. The Calif or the Tsar might call it a tribute, if he chose. To the Emperor it was merely a wise investment; when he was ready to fight the payment would cease. But it all depended on a full treasury. So long as the money was there Byzantine diplomacy flourished. But when Constantinople was no longer the financial centre of the world then there came the decline.

—Steven Runciman
(Byzantine Civilization, p. 129)


21 October 2008, around 2.15.

In the morning we wake to the sound of the neighbor’s two cows walking up the road to pasture. They walk slowly, as though their feet hurt. That’s at about quarter after six. The temptation to stay in bed, rather than venturing into the dismal cold of the room (especially shocking after a night of rain) is great, but overcome. The first person up makes coffee and sits and reads in the warmth of the kitchen (preparing even a small pot of coffee heats the whole room) for a half hour or so, with the kettle on for tea and laundry. In the half-sleep of that time, the pattern on the kitchen rug fascinates, geometric flowers and rectangles with eyes squinted shut.

By seven the water is hot and it’s time for breakfast: an egg boiled or fried (but usually boiled), yesterday’s bread, maybe some cheese or butter or even շոռ1 if we’re lucky. Sometimes we make oatmeal,2 but that hasn’t happened often. After breakfast it’s time for tea: one teabag lasting for cup after cup – saving on sugar and honey, and tea of course, since there’s no milk to make the difference; and we set a small load of laundry to soak in the washroom. Up to this point the morning moves slowly and it seems a small eternity must pass before it’s time to go to work. Around eight, though the family begins to wake and it’s time to put papers in bags and prepare a lunch if needed and put on shoes and socks. Even the neighbors are awake and phalanx upon phalanx of schoolchildren march down the main road, two blocks away – out of sight, but still within hearing. The light tumbles down into the valley through the fog and clouds.

  1. Shorr. Also known in Russian as творог; strangely, given the prevalence of Russian making a palimpsest of the local language, our family referred to this substance by its Armenian name. In dictionaries this is usually translated as ‘cottage cheese’ but that gives entirely the wrong idea of tvorog’s appearance, consistency, and taste. It is a white, dry, crumbly, cheese-like substance (curds in fact), with a taste somewhere between sweet and fizzy, somewhat like ricotta, except entirely different. It is possible to make at home by draining and pressing kefir (after removing the kefir curds, which are in fact not curds at all but look like cauliflower) into a cheesy consistency. Tvorog is very good on bread, or on its own, with jam, especially blueberry jam. []
  2. Or gerkyles, if you prefer. []


28 October 2008, around 2.43.

tea kettle in Khndzoresk

And a fog settled over the village.

Citation (36)

31 October 2008, around 0.15.

Even today, the majority of people in poor countries learn all their language skills without any paid tutorship, without any attempt whatsoever to teach them how to speak. And they learn to speak in a way that nowhere compares with the self-conscious, self-important, colorless mumbling that, after a long stay in villages in South America and Southeast Asia, always shocks me when I visit an American college. I feel sorrow for those students whom education has made tone deaf; they have lost the faculty of hearing the difference between the desiccated utterance of standard television English and the living speech of the unschooled. What else can I expect, though, from people who are not brought up at a mother’s breast, but on formula? On canned milk, if they are from poor families, and on a brew prepared under the nose of Ralph Nader if they are born among the enlightened?

—Ivan Illich, ‘The War Against Subsistence’ (in Shadow Work, p. 66)

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