November 12, 2004

The Universe of Allusions

Matthew Yglesias writes:

Matthew Yglesias: Listen To Omar: Via Justin Logan, Imperial Hubris author Mike Scheuer is speaking out again despite orders not to, and basically getting fired for his trouble.... To essentially re-say something I said before, "The Wire's" Omar remarks in Season One that "if you come at the king, you best not miss."...

Now I first learned this line from Garrett Mattingly's The Armada, in which Mattingly writes of how Alessandro Farnese, Prince of Parma (and the finest general but one of the late sixteenth century), said that Henri de Guise had never learned an old Italian maxim: "He who draws his sword against the prince needs to throw away his scabbard."

Is anything wrong in having this maxim enter our current culture via the fictional "Omar" of "The Wire" rather than through the very historical Alessandro Farnese? Alessandro does have a greater degree of authority on the subject. He commanded 20,000 of the toughest soldiers the sixteenth-century world saw: the veterans of the Spanish tercios. If not for Alessandro, odds are there would be no such thing as "Belgium": just a Dutch-French border running roughly along the linguistic frontier. Omar, by contrast, has a hard time keeping the surviving three members of his crew--Dante, Butchie, and Kimmy--alive, and is clearly outclassed by Avon Barksdale, Marlo Stanfield, and Howard Colvin.


UPDATE: And I am overtrumped by Arcane Gazebo, who writes:

Arcane Gazebo: Recommended reading: Brad DeLong looks into the historical origins of a line from "The Wire": "If you come at the king, you best not miss." I first encountered this idea from Cersei Lannister: "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die."

When is the next volume in George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire coming out, anyway?

Posted by DeLong at November 12, 2004 12:27 PM | TrackBack
Comments

I learned the maxim,in the form "If you shoot at the king, kill him." from James V. DeLong, who was my boss in my first job out of school at the FTC c. 1975.

One other management guru slogan (and a very good one it is) that I recall from him is "You haven't really learned to delegate authority until you've signed off on a decision you disagree with."

Posted by: Martin at November 12, 2004 12:56 PM

Oh come now. I think you undersell Omar and oversell at least Avon. And how does Stringer Bell not make the list?

The story of Omar is not a matter of his quality but of his place. He's a semi-Robin Hood figure opposing Avon "I Guess I'm just a Gangsta" Barksdale's drugland sheriff. Toss in his lingering respect for the lawmen (if not the law) and, while his power may be circumscribed, he is hardly outclassed.

It is precisely his out on a thin limb with barely a crew to carry him status which makes his statement, "if you come at the king, you best not miss" all the more true (for the record, at the time he spoke this he had no crew with his companion Brandon having recently been slain).

Posted by: tegwar at November 12, 2004 12:57 PM

Isn't there yet another famous phrase like this? Something about, "If you strike the king, kill the king?" Surely some Shakespearean character puts this just right somewhere.

Posted by: ogged at November 12, 2004 01:00 PM

Who was the finer general? I'm drawing a blank.

Posted by: Andy B at November 12, 2004 01:09 PM

Omar seems to have read Ralph Waldo Emerson:

"When you strike at a king you must kill him."

The Prince of Parma's saying does not mean quite the same thing. Omar and Emerson are warning of the dangers of failure; Farnese is saying that any such attempt will result in further conflict.

Posted by: Mike Travers at November 12, 2004 01:11 PM

Omar seems to have read Ralph Waldo Emerson:

"When you strike at a king you must kill him."

The Prince of Parma's saying does not mean quite the same thing. Omar and Emerson are warning of the dangers of failure; Farnese is saying that any such attempt will result in further conflict.

Posted by: mtraven at November 12, 2004 01:12 PM

Lots of maxims re-enter the discourse through strange routes. Doubtless a few people attribute "all the world's a stage and we are merely players" to Geddy Lee, for example.

Posted by: P O'Neill at November 12, 2004 01:46 PM

according to louis menand's *the metaphysical club* (p.25), emerson said to a young oliver wendell holmes "when you strike at a king, you must *kill* him." the occassion was that holmes had written an essay, specially for emerson's approval, calling some of plato's views outdated. that doesn't seem controversial to me, but i guess it did to emerson (and young holmes WORSHIPPED emerson).

Posted by: bruce gottlieb at November 12, 2004 02:33 PM

Alternate version for today's pop-culture generation who aren't altogether clear where Belgium is:

"How do you shoot the Devil in the back? What if you miss?"

Verbal Kint, "The Usual Suspects"

Posted by: Dan Ryan at November 12, 2004 02:43 PM

What's "The Wire"?

Posted by: Walt Pohl at November 12, 2004 03:07 PM

Often misattributations are propagated for memetic reasons. The misattribution makes the remark more likely to be repeated. People just care more about what Mark Twain said.

The quote "writing about music is like dancing about architecture" is often misatributed to Thelonious Monk. No cool points for quoting martin mull.

When a quote with an attribution is repeated, it implies that the hearer either knows or should know of the person or movie to whom the quote is attributed. Because each person could tell the quote to multiple people, there is an exponential effect. A slight change in the percieved probablities of listeners' receptivity to attribution can radically affect the propagation of the attributed quote.

A cool related paper concerns chain letter evolution. The exponential effect is even greater with chain mail which is copied 10+ times by anyone who decides to pass the chain mail along. Letters with minor typos can quickly become the dominant form of the chain letter if the typo slightly improves the likelyhood that a letter will be copied.

http://www.silcom.com/~barnowl/chain-letter/evolution.html

Posted by: joe o at November 12, 2004 03:18 PM

Often misattributations are propagated for memetic reasons. The misattribution makes the remark more likely to be repeated. People just care more about what Mark Twain said.

The quote "writing about music is like dancing about architecture" is often misatributed to Thelonious Monk. No cool points for quoting martin mull.

When a quote with an attribution is repeated, it implies that the hearer either knows or should know of the person or movie to whom the quote is attributed. Because each person could tell the quote to multiple other people, there is an exponential effect. A slight change in the percieved probablities of listeners' receptivity to an attribution can radically affect the propagation of the attributed quote.

A cool related paper concerns chain letter evolution. The exponential effect is even greater for chain mail which is copied 10+ times by anyone who decides to pass the chain mail along. Chain letters with minor typos can quickly become the dominant form of the chain letter if the typo slightly improves the likelyhood that the chain letter will be copied.

http://www.silcom.com/~barnowl/chain-letter/evolution.html

Posted by: joe o at November 12, 2004 03:21 PM

Often misattributations are propagated for memetic reasons. The misattribution makes the remark more likely to be repeated. People just care more about what Mark Twain said.

The quote "writing about music is like dancing about architecture" is often misatributed to Thelonious Monk. No cool points for quoting martin mull.

When a quote with an attribution is repeated, it implies that the hearer either knows or should know of the person or movie to whom the quote is attributed. Because each person could tell the quote to multiple other people, there is an exponential effect. A slight change in the percieved probablities of listeners' receptivity to an attribution can radically affect the propagation of the attributed quote.

A cool related paper concerns chain letter evolution. The exponential effect is even greater for chain mail which is copied 10+ times by anyone who decides to pass the chain mail along. Chain letters with minor typos can quickly become the dominant form of the chain letter if the typo slightly improves the likelyhood that the chain letter will be copied.

http://www.silcom.com/~barnowl/chain-letter/evolution.html

Posted by: joe o at November 12, 2004 03:29 PM

I took the 'throw away his scabbard' line to mean 'victory or death; no negotiated peace'.

Posted by: Barry at November 12, 2004 03:46 PM

"Who was the finer general? I'm drawing a blank"

My first thought was Gustav Adolphus but that's
a few decades off. So yeah, I'm stuck too.
Someone enlighten us.

Posted by: radek at November 12, 2004 05:08 PM

Henry of Navarre? You know, the "Paris is worth a mass" king.

Posted by: Larry M. at November 12, 2004 05:31 PM

Oops, I meant Henry IV. Not Henry of Navarre, though Henry IV was King of Navarre before becoming King of France.

And probably not the person Brad was referring to; was very good, but not as good as Parma (Duke, not Prince).

So I'm still stumped.

Posted by: Larry M at November 12, 2004 05:53 PM

Are you saying it's *not* an old Klingon proverb?

More seriously -- to the collection, add George Will's constant quoting of Napoleon as saying "If you set out to take Vienna, *take Vienna*".

Posted by: DonBoy at November 12, 2004 08:49 PM

George R R Martin updated his site earlier this week:


So where am I now?

Back at work on A FEAST FOR CROWS, mostly. Revised and rewrote one of Arya's chapters yesterday. Today I mostly worked with Sam, and a little bit with Cersei. I still hope to finish by year's end, but of course I have said that before. We will see how it goes.

So.

Next November, maybe.

Posted by: ahpook at November 12, 2004 10:34 PM

No matter the elegance or origin of the quotation, it's nonsense. Consider the historical case of the death of Richard the Lion Heart.

He was shot by a sniper during a siege in France, and the wound became infected. As he lay on his deathbed the besieged castle fell, and the arbalestier was brought before him. The sniper gave a sound and courageous account of himself, and the King graciously pardoned him (in his capacity as Duke of Normandy, I suppose).

Then the King died, and his angry followers skinned the sniper alive. He would have been better off missing.

I think a better quotation would be the one from Webster's Duchess of Malfi, about how Princes deal rewards at their own hands but death and punishment at the hands of others.

Posted by: P.M.Lawrence at November 12, 2004 11:52 PM

What is the point here? Is someone recommending
an assasination?

Posted by: SEC Overreach at November 13, 2004 05:12 AM

The Wire is a great show on HBO.. Just watched Season 1 on DVD.

Posted by: WireFan at November 13, 2004 05:28 AM

So Brad, come on, who were you thinking of (best late 16th century general)? Us military history geeks are dying to know.

Posted by: Larry M at November 13, 2004 06:06 AM

Maurice of Nassau fought against Farnese and established the independence of the Netherlands. He revolutionized many aspects of military training, discipline, and organization. Many of his innovations were further developed by the Swedes under Gustavus Adolphus and others. My guess is that Brad meant Gustavus.

In their day many of the small nations of Europe were military brutes. The Swedes portrayed in the early novel "Simplicimus" look horrific -- a "Swedish cocktail" was a mixture of urine and manure used to make reluctant witness talk.

Descartes served in the Swedish army and perhaps the Dutch. As I remember, Foucault said somewhere that Descartes may have been influenced Maurice's analytic rationalization of the military, which involved breaking down each action (e.g. loading and firing a musket) into its parts, as in time-and-motion study. Descartes made a deliberate attempt to get out of intellectual circles and learn from non-elite sources. He spent a number of years "on the road" just in order to broaden and diversify his experience.

One of the late Roman empires was a military man of Gothic descent named Gustavus. He ruled for over a month.

Posted by: Zizka at November 13, 2004 07:43 AM

Emperors.

And Descartes did serve in the Dutch Army, but not the Swedish, though he spent time in Queen Christina's court. There's a portrait of the swarthy, rather toadlike Descartes at the Swedish court leering at the milkfed princess.

Posted by: Zizka at November 13, 2004 09:25 AM

Machiavelli, somewhere: "It's the downside of conspiracies that they have to succeed" (or words to that effect).

Posted by: alabama at November 13, 2004 02:19 PM

Unrelatedly I was rewatching "Shogun" last night.
(roughly paraphrased)

Toranaga (through Mariko, the interpeter):
I am told that until recently Holland was a
vassal of the Spanish. How do you justify
rebellion against a lawful lord?

Blackthorn:
There were mitigating circumstances.

Toranaga (forcefully):
There are no mitigating circumstances. Not in
a rebellion of a vassal against his lord.

Blackthorn (pauses):
Unless you win.

Toranaga (laughs for awhile):
Yes, yes, foreigner with the impossible-to-
pronounce-name, you name the one mitigating
circumstance which justifies it...


Anyway, Gustav Adolf is still a few decades
off to be the one Brad meant. Unless he meant
"born in late 16th century" rather than "of the
late 16th century".

Other obvious possibility would be Suleiman
The Lawgiver, The Magnificent. But that's more
of a great statesman than a general and it's
middle of 16th century. Probably I'm missing something obvious.

Posted by: radek at November 13, 2004 10:12 PM

RE GRRM's Song of Ice and Fire: George is working diligently away at it and expects to be done sometime soon (maybe a few months?). I'm sure they'll rush it to press as quickly as they can thereafter. Possibly even by next summer. But I may be being overly optimistic...

The book is ENORMOUS. Even bigger than prior volumes. I've read snippets, and they are scrumptious.

-l.

Posted by: Laura J. Mixon at November 14, 2004 06:08 AM

Here's an original quote.

"The prince who sticks his sword in a small enemy then waves his scabbard at a big enemy is basically a fuckwit."

Posted by: Nabakov at November 14, 2004 06:28 AM

I like Omar, but the credit for the line has to go to Machiavelli in The Prince.

Posted by: gene at November 15, 2004 06:55 PM

The loss of Belgium would have had great impact on Galactic artistic expression. From the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series:

"The Most Gratuitous Use of the Word "Belgium" in a Serious Screenplay. It's very prestigious."
"The most gratuitous use of which word?" asked Arthur, with a determined attempt to keep his brain in neutral.
"Belgium," said the girl, "I hardly like to say it."
"Belgium?" exclaimed Arthur.
A drunken seven-toed sloth staggered past, gawked at the word and threw itself backward at a blurry-eyed pterodactyl, roaring with displeasure.
"Are we talking," said Arthur, "about the very flat country, with all the EEC and the fog?"
"What?" said the girl.
"Belgium," said Arthur.
"Raaaaaarrrchchchchch!" screeched the pterodactyl.
"Grrruuuuuurrrghhhh," agreed the seven-toed sloth.
"They must be thinking of Ostend Hoverport," muttered Arthur. He turned back to the girl.
"Have you ever been to Belgium in fact?" he asked brightly and she nearly hit him.
"I think," she said, restraining herself, "that you should restrict that sort of remark to something artistic."
"You sound as if I just said something unspeakable rude."
"You did."
In today's modern Galaxy there is of course very little still held to be unspeakable. Many words and expressions which only a matter of decades ago were considered so distastefully explicit that, were they merely to be breathed in public, the perpetrator would be shunned, barred from polite society, and in extreme cases shot through the lungs, are now thought to be very healthy and proper, and their use in everyday speech and writing is seen as evidence of a well-adjusted, relaxed and totally un****ed-up personality.
So, for instance, when in a recent national speech the Financial Minister of the Royal World Estate of Quarlvista actually dared to say that due to one thing and another and the fact that no one had made any food for a while and the king seemed to have died and most of the population had been on holiday now for over three years, the economy was now in what he called "one whole joojooflop situation," everyone was so pleased that he felt able to come out and say it that they quite failed to note that their entire five-thousand-year-old civilization had just collapsed overnight.
But even though words like "joojooflop," "swut," and "turlingdrome" are now perfectly acceptable in common usage there is one word that is still beyond the pale. The concept it embodies is so revolting that the publication or broadcast of the word is utterly forbidden in all parts of the Galaxy except for use in Serious Screenplays. There is also, or _was_, one planet where they didn't know what it meant, the stupid turlingdromes.

"I see," said Arthur, who didn't, "so what do you get for using the name of a perfectly innocent if slightly dull European country gratuitously in a Serious Screenplay?"

Posted by: ymr049c at November 16, 2004 07:18 AM