Tuesday, February 09, 2016


Too Long for Twitter, Too Short for a Blog


The perennial bleat about how this candidate or that is fighting the establishment isn’t just boring. It simply doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Unless you buy into some romantic theory of perpetual revolution, isn’t the whole point of political action to replace the current establishment or, more realistically, to change some of its personnel while altering the outlook of the rest? My bitch with the elite is that it’s not very goddam elite, that it’s doing a rotten job of leading the country, dealing with real problems, and maintaining our basic values. I want a better establishment, not the elimination of establishments.

Monday, February 08, 2016


Description of the World- Part 51


Richard Trexler, Public Life in Renaissance Florence (The old rhetoricians treated invention as belonging to memory whereas we seem to assume that in imagination we possess a magical, if not divine creative power. I’ve been a skeptic about that since I was tasked to write a one-act play about the assassination of Lincoln and suddenly realized how blank a sheet of white paper can be. I don’t remember how far I got with it, but my attempt began with John Wilkes Booth delivering a drunken soliloquy in his hotel room. If I were writing it now, I’d have his demented reverie interrupted by a knock on the door; and Booth would prove himself a competent actor, if not a competent conspirator, by snapping into character as a born leader, convincing his accomplices to fall in line with a display of steely resolve® and thus moving the action on to the next plot point. At the time, I hadn’t read or seen enough plays to figure out what to do next, and I had to beg off the assignment. Miss Tinkle, the American history teacher—I don’t remember her real name—was visibly disappointed. The episode made me understand that a play is not just any collection of actors doing and saying things on a stage and, more generally, that genre rules, though they can certainly impede creativity, make it possible in the first place. The need for structure is just as great in ordinary life, though we are so accustomed to the roles, scripts, and rituals that we are ordinarily unconscious of how many of our choices have been made in advance. That doesn’t mean that we’re mindless jute boxes, just that we normally express our creativity by the way we play covers. Trexler’s book is about the rituals of public life in Florence. He’s like a historical Irving Goffman. I especially appreciated his treatment of the various ways that Florentines made a virtue out of acting naturally, much in the same way that our ads for mass produced cars endlessly extol individuality. A contemporary commented: “I don’t want to say that they do bad who tell you they don’t want you to use ceremony with them. Indeed I praise it. Because to say this is another type of ceremony and breeding, with which one suppresses ambition.” Sometimes Trexler violates the rule that learned people must present themselves as just plain folks as when he wrote the phrase “Cleisthnian disregard for chthonic solidarities.” I kinda like that one.)

Piero Camporesi, Bread of Dreams (Those who don’t have nouns, have adjectives, which accounts for the luxuriant verbal creativity of inner-city America. Or, in the Italian case:  “Many people, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, were reduced to living mainly on beau langage and feasting on names instead of tasting things.” Camporesi doesn’t leave it at verbal delirium. It’s his thesis that hunger, adulterated food, low-level infections, and dubious medicines combined to create a peasant class that lived in a more or less permanent hallucination. Most of the evidence is indirect as is the usual situation when anybody tries to discover or even simply imagine what was going on in the dark matter of human history. Camporesi relies on records and literary echoes about life in what were then the Papal States. That struck me as a little ironic since Pellegrino Artusi, author of the first great Italian cookbook came from this same hungry neck of the woods.)

C.W.C.Oman, The Art of War in the Middle Ages (When I cared about such things, I’d pick up books like this because I liked their maps.)

John Ellis, The Social History of the Machine Gun (The machine gun, which was originally a symbol of the triumph of technology over courage, became democratized. One of my favorite illustrations in this little book is an ad for a Thompson machine gun that shows a cowboy using a tommy gun to fend off attacking Indians. Ellis’ book was written too early to    witness the later stages of this story in the long era of the AK-47, but he saw it coming: “The machine gun has now become personalised, itself the means by which men desperately try to make their mark on a world in which they feel increasingly powerless. In the fantasy world at least technology is turned against itself.” In the fantasy world and also in Eastern Oregon.)
  
Alvin D. Coox, Nomonhan: Japan Against Russia, 1939, two volumes (These books were designed by a friend of mine, Lisa Mirski, who gave them to me. The topic is esoteric, but not insignificant, a unofficial border fight between the Soviets and the Japanese in Eastern Mongolia. Led by general Zhukov, who was to become much more famous in the upcoming European war, the Reds crushed the Kwantung Army and gave the Japanese a lesson they took to heart. Nomonhan was in the background of the Japanese decision not to attack the USSR in ’41. The book provides a wonderful display of the mindlessness of military nationalism.)

Saturday, February 06, 2016


Description of the World - Part 50


Jonathan I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment (Whatever else he’s accomplished, Israel has certainly documented the enormous if often underground influence of Spinoza in the 18th Century—not the metaphysician Spinoza of the Ethics but the political and social philosopher Spinoza of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. That little book was forbidden everywhere—it sometimes appeared between phony covers—but orthodox theologians and philosophers couldn’t resist refuting it, and that spread the infection as efficiently as the book itself. What seemed tremendously radical in 1680 may sound tame these days—religious tolerance, reading scripture in its historical context as the work of fallible human authors, discounting the miraculous, a naturalistic version of God, a thoroughgoing rationalism—but if you taught it to high school seniors, you’d still find yourself tarred and feathered in many districts. I have a family relationship to Spinoza. My father, who got his degree in geology, worked as a chemical engineer, and wound up running a small construction company, was very careful to avoid making any comments about his philosophical beliefs; but it struck me that his outlook was very similar to Spinoza right down to the deus sive natura. I always assumed, however, that Dad had arrived at this point of view by a parallel evolution of thought. Shortly before his death, either because his guard was down or the previous death of my mother meant he could be frank without upsetting a Christian, he told me he had read Spinoza at UCLA and simply decided the man was right.)

Alexander Murray, Reason and Society in the Middle Ages (I’ve read this book twice. What struck me most the first time was how terrified and ignorant of basic arithmetic the learned men of Europe were before 1000 and even after—Murray is interested in what motivated the rise of mathematical knowledge, but the footnotes and asides of the central section of the work provide raw material for a history of math phobia. The second time I read the book, I probably did the author’s intentions more justice by paying attention to his account of how Europe developed an intellectual elite and his study of the role of the nobility in religion. Murray provides a useful, philological correction/refinement to Nietzsche. Christianity may have been part of a slave revolt in morality, but the nobility looked on holiness as another form of arete, virtù as well as virtue.)

Companion to Historiography, ed. Michael Bentley (I often find myself writing in praise of dullness perhaps because my existence is standing proof of the futility of cleverness. Anyhow, this collection of historiographic essays is mostly sufficiently dull, but it is also very useful if you decide you want to know the state of play of historical issues such as the origin of the modern state or the causes of the French Revolution. I don’t know if it’s fair to history professors to suggest that what they look for from their students is more a mastery of the recent bibliography of an era or topic than a familiarity with what took place or a fresh take on what it all meant. If I were prepping for a blue book exam for a senior course, however, I’d sure find Bentley’s collection a superior cheat sheet. Is there such a thing as post-graduate Monarch Notes?)

Jonathan I. Israel, Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790 (This is actually the third of Israel’s huge Enlightenment books—if publish or perish is the true rule, Israel may live forever. After defining a radical enlightenment and contrasting it with a moderate, compromising enlightenment in the previous volumes, Israel addresses the political efficacy of a set of ideas that came down from Spinoza and Pierre Bayle. One of his general themes in this and a subsequent work on the French Revolution is that under particular circumstances definable, specific ideas can explain political change. The set of ideas* that Israel identifies as decisive in this era are not deep or subtle. For many people now, in fact, they are practically common sense; and Israel seems to think that there cogency was obvious even at the beginning of the 18th Century, hence the vehement efforts right thinking men had to exert to suppress them. I'd tweak his list, if you were trying to come up with a secular version of the Laws of Noah, Spinoza would be a good place to start.

*Israel defines the radical enlightenment "as a package of basic concepts and values [that] may be summarized in eight cardinal points: (1) adoption of philosophical (mathematical-historical) reason as the only and exclusive criterion of what is true; (2) rejection of all supernatural agency, magic, disembodied spirits, and divine providence; (3) equality of all mankind (racial and sexual); (4) secular ‘universalism’ in ethics anchored in equality and chiefly stressing equity, justice, and charity; (5) comprehensive toleration and freedom of thought based on independent critical thinking; (6) personal liberty of lifestyle and sexual conduct between consenting adults, safeguarding the dignity and freedom of the unmarried and homosexuals; (7) freedom of expression, political criticism, and the press, in the public sphere; (8) democratic republicanism as the most legitimate form of politics.”)

Donald Kagan, The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (I have trouble keeping the various Kagans straight. Donald is the patriarch of the three—there are more if you count the wives. Among those who interpret the Peloponnesian War allegorically for modern purposes, my current favorite is Marshall Sahlins. I can hardly recall Kagan’s take.)

Nelson Reed, The Caste War of Yucatan (For more than seventy years, the Mayans of the Yucatan engaged the Mexican central government and their local Europeanized oppressors in a series of revolts, sometimes maintaining themselves in independent territories and even winning recognition from the British. Reed’s book isn’t as memorable as the Rebellion in the Badlands (Os Sertões) of Euclides da Chunha, which tells the tale of another doomed insurrection, religious fanaticism, and “rational” racism; but is sufficiently depressing.)

Barbara W. Tuchman, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (I guess this item was too entertaining for me. I apparently never got past page 23.)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


Description of the World - Part 49


Alan Riding, Distant Neighbors: a Portrait of the Mexicans (For me, Mexico is at once a hallucination and the most ordinary place in the world because I grew up with Chicanos and worked summer jobs digging ditches with them but I also dreamed about the Aztecs and Mayans and flamboyant Mexican baroque and Under the Volcano and Don Juan the Yaqui shaman, not to mention Sor Juana. I don’t think Riding contributed anything much to the stew.)

John Keegan, The Price of Admiralty (This is Keegan’s attempt to do for naval warfare what he did for land warfare in Face of Battle. He wanted to capture the experience of sea battles as he had for land battles.)

Ki-baik Lee, A New History of Korea (Perhaps because I grew up in a town with a large Japanese-American population, I took it for granted that understanding history had to involve more than understanding the doings of one scraggly peninsula—Europe, that is, not Korea—and I’ve dutifully followed that up by reading histories of most of the countries of the world. Assimilating all that information is another matter, of course. I’ve spent enough time with Japanese, Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Indian history to have a sense of places and times. What I retain of Korean history is largely a sense that there is a considerable there there. The rest is fragments. On the other hand, I’ve known many Koreans and, as a denizen of the Pacific Rim, don’t confuse them with the Chinese or Japanese. Whatever your skepticism about national characteristics, the Koreans I’ve spoken with believe in them, insisting in particular on the contrast between their individualism and Japanese group think. My experience is congruent with that, at least as far as the Koreans go. The Koreans I’ve been friendly with would all make lousy ants.)

Mark Edward Lewis, The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (I’m obviously a person afflicted by curiosity, but as wide-ranging (or defuse) as my interests may be, I have a fairly small number of questions to ask the world. I just ask the questions of more parts of it. One of the fattest dossiers I maintain is on issue of how radically the world’s various traditions of thinking differ from one another. How big is the space of possible modes of understanding and how much of the space has ever been occupied? The domestic policy version of the question is the true extent of the internal diversity of Western philosophy—as it might have been put in my youth, is there more to English philosophy than cricket jokes? Is continental philosophy theosophy for the carriage trade? The foreign policy version has to do with whether Nagarjuna or Mo Ti were philosophers or perhaps practitioners of a distinct but analogous occupation. Of course a similar set of questions can be and often is asked about science, mathematics, theology, jurisprudence, philology, and literary criticism considered not in regards their results but their practices. If you assume that philosophy and the rest ask inevitable, obvious questions, the game is over before it begins. You’re like a Newtonian who thinks of infinite space and eternal time as a given. I’m taking the side of Leibniz side of this one. We ants shouldn’t just take it for granted that we’re crawling across an infinite plane. Maybe we’re on a sphere. Maybe on a donut. We’ll have to figure that out from right here. Similarly, I’m not willing to simply assume that philosophy comes down to figuring out the answer to the traditional obvious questions of what is, how do we know, and what should we do. I want to look and see.

Well, that’s kind of a tangent, not that I’m adverse to those. But the connection to the Lewis’ book is this: One way of looking at the question of modes of thinking is the relationship of thinking to power. The scribal sages who developed the international proverb business in the ancient Middle East presumably sought the ear of the king just as the sophists sold rhetoric lessons to the leaders and would-be leaders of the Demos. Just what the political vocation of the philosophers, strictu sensu, was is somewhat harder to say. Like Vito Corleone, Thales claimed to buy and sell olive oil for a living, but that was just his day job. Plato famously got in trouble trying to advise a tyrant; and Aristotle “played the taws upon the bottom of a king of kings,” though Alexander didn’t use the Politics as a practical guide to conquering the world. It’s in China that a tradition of sages grew up that not only aspired to advise kings but eventually succeeded in creating an imperial ideology, or rather two of them, the totalitarian legalism of the Qin and the Confucian humanism of the Han. If the Chinese sages are philosophers, as Europeans in the Enlightenment certainly thought they were, then China provides one of the first instances before 1917 of philosophy (supposedly) in charge. Can secular thinkers design a world and call it into being? What are the limits of that ambition? We think of China so often as the homeland of spontaneity, of the Tao, of inaction (wu wei), of the sage doing nothing and everything being accomplished that we forget that it’s institutions were premeditated to a remarkable degree.

The legalist thinkers devised a plan and the Qin monarchs followed it, eventually unifying the warring kingdoms. It was a top-down operation. Confucian and Taoist orthodoxy did a pretty good job of obscuring how much they learned from this ruthless program. The apologists for the Han claimed that they corrected the violence and inhumanity of the Qin, but the Han and subsequent dynasties continued many its fundamental innovations: the insistence that the empire is “all under heaven,” the central role of the Emperor, and the establishment and standardization of a single writing system. If the Chinese imperial system had an author, it was Lord Shang, not Master Kung.

Of course the Legalists were extremely hostile to the humanistic doctrines of the other sages. According to the Book of Lord Shang, which is more than a little analogous to the Management of Savagery, the state suffers when it is infested by the twelve lice: rites, music, odes, history, moral culture, filial piety, brotherly love, sincerity, benevolence, duty, criticism of the army, and being ashamed of fighting. It’s small wonder the Han successors were anxious to disassociated themselves from this cruel purism; but it built the state once and for all, which is why the Communists rehabilitated the Legalists; and to this day make sure that the First Emperor, Shi Huangdi, is always represented deferentially in historical movies.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2016


Description of the World - Part 48


Fourth Shelf

John Keegan, The Mask of Command (I kept reading Keegan even though he never produced another book with the freshness and virtuosity of the Face of Battle. Writers on military subjects are at risk for becoming hacks. I don’t think Keegan succumbed to temptation in this book, but this brief treatise on military leadership would have been more credible, if less commercial, if he’d written a section on the greatest of 20th Century generals, George Marshall.)

Bernard Bailyn, Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution (I used to be a bigger fan of demographic explanations than I am now, but how many remains a fundamental question in history. The big battalions don’t always win—or starve—but more is usually more. Bailyn's book makes you suspect that a crucial reason why the Colonists won the Revolution was because America received a large infusion of population in the years before Lexington. It wasn’t just numbers. The earlier edition of the huddled masses arrived with a chip on their shoulder. It was like spraying nitro in the carburetor. One of the quarrels between Great Britain and North America was about frontier policy. Parliament wanted to put the breaks on the headlong expansion of settlement into Indian country. The Americans, especially the newest Americans, were looking for room. Bailyn’s books are full of charts and tables; but like Braudel’s works, they are anything but dry and analytic. There’s no contradiction between statistics and an interest in human lives. Every number in the count is a somebody.)

Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings, ed. Roy Basler (I’m not quite ready to write an essay on Lincoln as Raskolnikov, but it is true that the aspiration to become a world-historical individual wasn’t limited to ax murderers. That was just Dostoevsky’s black comedy cover of Hegel’s tune. In an address all the way back in 1838, Lincoln spoke of “towering genius,” which “thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.” I don’t think Lincoln would have cultivated the pose of harmless humorist so assiduously if he weren’t aware that he was a dangerous man, someone whose moral passion depended on an essential supplement of amoral ambition. Somebody suggested to me that Daniel Day Lewis overplayed Lincoln’s sufferings; and it’s true that after seeing the movie, you’re like to find yourself thinking, “Heck, Jesus just had that one bad day…” Reading some of Lincoln’s writings makes you wonder if is there’s such a thing as longing for the cross and feeling guilty about it long in advance of the crucifixion?)

Jack A. Goldstone, Revolution and Rebellion in the Modern World (This book attempts to explain “the periodic waves of state breakdown in the early modern world.” The work that operates at the intersection of history, sociology, and political science, a sweet spot to my way of thinking. When I read it, I was impressed with Goldstone’s specific diagnosis of the factors, especially demographic factors, that lead to widespread disorder and misery—this author is not a romantic about revolutions. What upset the historians about the book was its author’s attempt to quantify things, something I had barely taken notice of on a first reading—what he arrived at were something like the figures of merit engineers sometimes use to rank the quality of refrigerators. Since we’re a long way away from being able to do dimensional analysis on history, I tend to ignore such efforts. Anyhow, I thought Goldstone picked up some very important recurring features that lead to failing states and violent revolutions, in particular, the unwillingness of elites to pay the freight for the system even though they depended on it for their own well being. Conservatives are always complaining about high taxes, but inadequate taxation is a central part of the story of the English and French Revolutions and, more recently, of the collapse of the Manchu dynasty. I’ve talked to people who assume that the French kings and Chinese emperors were like the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood movies, perpetually squeezing the peasants. In the real world, it’s the local powers that who do most of the squeezing; and things go to Hell because they aren’t squeezed enough themselves. Another leading indicator is too many well educated people with disappointed prospects—I don’t know if that means that we should expect the Winter Palace to be stormed by unemployed law students this time around, but the impossibility of democratizing privilege is surely a plausible explanation for what happened in 1968. That’s the very short version of Pierre Bourdieu’s take on it. What Goldstone calls “ideologies of rectification and transformation” are also requisite, though he doesn’t believe that which candidate ideology wins out is predictable. Of course all the causes Goldstone identifies have causes of their own: I expect if he rewrote the book today, he’d look more closely at climatic changes as a reason that times of trouble are so often synchronized across countries or ever continents. Of course any work of historical sociology is bound to have implications for the current situation. Looking over my underlinings, I came across a paragraph that perfectly makes a point that I’ve tried to make on countless occasions. I don’t know whether it is where I got the idea or not. The author writes “One clear sign of America’s lack of understanding of the coming crisis is the nature of the debate over the federal budget and budgeting for social security…. the ability to pay off deficits and provide a secure retirement for the baby boomers depends primarily on future U.S. production. No matter how many dollars are ‘saved,’ they will be useless to holders of government bonds or to those receiving social security checks unless the economy is producing enough goods and services for recipients to make desired purchases.” At this point, I usually add a complaint about the superstitious faith people place on the mathematics of compound interest. Same rant though.)
  
Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: a History of the World, 1914-1991 (This book is almost more of a memoir than a history. It certainly isn’t up to the standard of Hobsbawm’s 19th Century histories, which are exemplary; but Hobsbawm is perfectly aware of its shortcoming. He quotes twelve people’s summaries of the short 20th Century at the outset of the book. I think Franco Venturi’s comes closest to his own: “Historians can’t answer this question. For me the twentieth century is only the ever-renewed effort to understand it.”)

What Do Republicans Want?


What are policies intended to accomplish? It seems a little naive to take the word of the supporters on that; and even if you aren’t completely cynical about politicians, it’s obvious that a great many proposals are floated for sheerly tactical reasons or to to advertise an attitude rather than directly seek to change the way things are done. Since different segments of political parties and movements want different things from the same policies, there won’t be a single answer in any case. It’s also true that talking about the objective intentions of a class of people in the way the old Marxists used to do is high-handed and also presumes that anonymous social processes have purposes of their own. Still, we can perform the following experiment, which might teach us something even if we understand that it wouldn’t teach us everything. What would you guess the Republicans were trying to do if you simply considered the predicable effects of their preferred policies and ignored their explanations?  In other words, let us play dumb—the other side is free to claim we aren’t actually playing at that. Anyhow, here’s the short list I came up with this rainy morning of policies and their predicable results:

1.  Lower taxes on the rich, weaken unions, oppose raising the minimum wage, etc.: Increased economic inequality
2.  Reneging on the Iran deal: A nuclear Iran and/or another war in the Middle East
3.  Destroying the ACA: Lower life expectancy among the poor
4.  Wage the drug war with increased intensity: Ensuring the profits of the drug cartels by providing price support for illegal narcotics
5.  Outlaw abortion, reduce the availability of contraception, and eliminate sex education: More teenage pregnancy and a larger number of illegal abortions
6.  Take no steps to deal with climate change: Protecting old industries while slowing the growth of new industries

Outcomes aren’t everything. I’m well aware that there are deontological justifications for many Conservative policies, i.e., they’re right just because they’re right, damn it. For example, many, especially in the rank and file, oppose progressive taxation or the whole notion of an income tax simply because they don’t think it’s fair. Overturning Roe vs Wade won’t cut down on the number of abortions, but allowing it to stand strikes makes many right wingers feel like they are complicit in a great crime. That admitted, I do think that it is telling that conservatives care enough about consequences to devise elaborate, implausible theories of how their policies will do the reverse of what it appears they were designed to do. Trickle down economics is so counter-intuitive that it shouldn’t have taken forty years of experience and Thomas Piketty’s 900 pages to discredit it. It’s still around because it’s useful, not because it's cogent. I simply don’t believe Republicans are dedicated to slopping the hogs because they want to make bacon. We know who's running Animal Farm. 

Monday, January 18, 2016


Description of the World - Part 47


Ernest Gellner, Plough, Sword and Book: the Structure of Human History (This ambitious book appeared in the late 80s, but I think of it as belonging to a somewhat earlier period, perhaps because I haven’t heard Gellner’s name mentioned much recently or because Gellner’s particular brand of grand sociological synthesis seems a bit dated. Trying to figure out what happened in history is also a preoccupation of mine, of course, so I’m not complaining about the general program. What altitude you chose to fly when you take your panoramic picture, matters a great deal, however, though there may not be a single best choice. I once suggested to some grad students the following exercise: write a one sentence, a one paragraph, a one page, and a ten page history of the human race and then decide which view was the most illuminating. Everybody thought that was an interesting idea, but nobody actually did it. Well, I did write a one-page history of mankind once, though I don’t know where I put it. I do remember my one sentence summary: History is the struggle between elites over who who gets to exploit the others. Of course putting things that way is mostly just an expression of annoyance. It’s rather like Gellner’s tic of calling the powerful of the Earth thugs, which he does quite often. Looking over my marginalia, I find myself thinking that Gellner’s view of the development of human thought if not human society is surprisingly like Comte’s, which may simply reflect the extent to which Comte was simply right, much as we’d like to hope for something more exiting.)

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (I don’t know if it is possible to read a book that has been read as often and as badly as this one. I gave up trying long ago. I didn’t happen upon one phrase in the book that demonstrates that the author’s view of the country is perhaps a bit dated: “…the people are therefore the real directing power.”)

George Pernoud and Sabine Flaissier, The French Revolution (This is actually an anthology of eye-witness accounts. It tends to focus on sensational events, which tends to leave the reader with the impression that the Revolution was all about the Terror. Because other accounts are similarly structured, I suspect most people have a foreshortened view of what happened. The Bastille fell on July 14, 1789. The terror didn’t begin until September of 1783, a full four years later, the equivalent or the full term of an American presidency.)

Iris Origo, The Merchant of Prado: Francesco di Marco Datini 1335-1410 (Dantini was a self-made man who left behind an enormous volume of letters and other records. The book makes an excellent counterpart to Peter Brown’s Eye of the Needle. Brown wrote about how the early Christians dealt with the contradiction between the radical critique of wealth found in the New Testament with the need to incorporate the rich into the church. Origo wrote about how that same resolution or perpetual lack of resolution took place in an individual merchant.)

Paul Fussell, Wartime (Fusell’s book on the first war, The Great War and Modern Memory is a much better known work, and when I think of Fussell I recall an essay he published about Hiroshima, which was not so much an argument in favor of the rightness of dropping the bomb as an avowal of how obvious the decision seemed to him back in ’45 when he was recovering from war wounds and faced with his comrades the prospect of yet more war in a different theater. As a some time copy editor, i’ve recast many thousands of sentences from the passive to the active voice, sometimes more out of the custom and usage of my trade than any serious reason, indeed, in technical writing the passive is more natural than the active because engineers and scientists are more concerned with what objects than subjects. Fussell reconstructs one edit of this sort that did matter. When Eisenhower composed the message he would sent in case the Normandy invasion failed, he originally wrote “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and the troops have been withdrawn.’ He changed that to “I have withdrawn the troops” before he stuck the paper in his pocket. Fussell was a literary critic by trade, an expert on prosody in fact, but he was interested in the ethics of forms, not formalism.)

Pius II, Commentaries, Volume 2 (Before he became Pope in 1458, Pius II started out as the humanist Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini. I’ve got the first volume of these memoirs around here some place. He called them Commentaries in analogy with Caesar’s works, which neither man called histories because they are too unadorned and straightforward to deserve a title reserved for the more artful efforts of genuine historians. Of course it’s the very fact that Pius didn’t strive for elegant effects that makes his account of his life readable to us—he certainly knew how to pile on the rhetoric. This volume, which is mostly about the frustrations of trying to rally the Italians, Germans, and French against the Turkish menace was less entertaining than the first, which includes a memorable account of what it’s like to get elected Pope.)

J. Eric S. Thompson, Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, 3rd edition (This tome is a monument to an influential error. Thompson was the great mavin of Mayan studies for many years, but his belief that Mayan hieroglyphs symbolized ideas instead of words in the Mayan language held back the decipherment of the script for decades. The same seductive error retarded efforts to read Egyptian hieroglyphics. Thompson was rather like a later-day Athanasius Kircher on this score, though his work was less fantastic, and he did manage to decode the calendar signs. The physicist Richard Feynman played a minor but genuine role in getting past Thompson’s mistake, a fact duly noted in Feynman’s official obituary and perhaps included because the obituary writer was familiar with the Thompson book, indeed with this very copy, and had been inspired by it into reading up on the subject.)

Sunday, January 17, 2016


Description of the World - Part 46


Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (My first encounter with Himmelfarb was her book on Darwin. She came across as a classic liberal arts idiot in that effort: she simply didn’t get the science involved. That display of ignorance soured me on her far more than her politics or even her role in whelping Bill Kristol, the Bagdad Bob of the American right. I should probably reread this book, which actually has a fine reputation, especially since my knowledge of the first half of the 19th Century in England is not what it should be granted how important those events were. If you read as much as I have, you can begin to believe that you don’t have to figure out where all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle go. You can guess the rest of the picture from the shape of the hole. Unfortunately, that method doesn’t work very well. A modern Tory may well be the right person to consult on the origins of attitudes towards the poor and their identity or distinction from the working class. The timing would be right for me as well since I’ve recently been doing a lot of thinking about the dark matter of human history, i.e., the ignorable, ignored, and largely invisible majority of mankind.)

John B. Wolf, The Barbary Coast: Algeria Under the Turks (It’s more than a little unfair to characterize the North African regimes as republics of cut throats and thieves as the blurb writer did on the back of this book—every sea coast of the early modern world turned out its share of pirates and privateers. The world depicted in this history is nevertheless startling. In the divan or ruling council of the janissary court, it was forbidden to use your fist to make a point, but you could kick or stomp on anybody that offended you, something that happened to a French consul. Mel Gibson would have felt right at home.)

Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel, Utopian Thought in the Western World (I believe in reading prefaces because the acknowledgements reveal the exclusiveness and stability of the various invisible colleges that dominate serious thinking. The same names appear over and over. There are other rewards to preface reading, however, including occasional admissions like the concluding comments in the preface to this impressive tome: “For errors of fact and the vagaries of our interpretations, we have no one to blame but ourselves—or rather, each other. One of the joys of collaborations is the almost limitless opportunity it affords for mutual recrimination.” Wikipedia informs me that the authors stayed together for all that. I wrote at the end of the chapter on Bruno, “These historians cheat a bit. Bruno comes across differently in Yates who, of course, is the far greater scholar.” Allow me to recant the ‘of course” if not the whole remark. Despite my snark, I took this book very seriously as witness the great many annotations. Alas, one of the principal reasons I regret not being God is that I can’t remember what I’ve read, even what I read in books I obviously enjoyed tremendously. One line of thought that apparently impressed me was the connection between cities and utopias. The authors quote a declaration of the commune of Brescia justifying a law that forbade the destruction of a building that had been owned by a felon: “Quod civitates facte sunt ad similitudiem paradisis.” — Englished by the Manuels as “For cities are made in the likeness of paradise.” This isn’t just a theological theme—the City of God, the heavenly Zion. The original perfect republic was a city, and the Greeks not only imagined ideal cities, they actually built ‘em—Hellenistic cities were laid out and contrast strongly with other foundations in the same region that simply happened willy nilly. Whether devised by a god or a sage, a utopia is a system created according to a rational plan, never just the happy outcome of an anonymous process.) 

Manilla folder with some assorted writings of mine (Includes a translation of the first act of Macbeth into modern English. There have been many such translations and adaptations, but I wanted to see if I could keep the meter and yet be clear. The main lesson I learned from this exercise is just how easy it is to assume you know what Shakespeare meant in lines you’ve heard a hundred times and perhaps know by heart. Rump-fed ronyon? I came up with fat-assed housewife. Suggestions? A couple of tries were fun to write—or invent. I have no shame—like Wonder Wart Hog, I’m lucky my superpowers don’t include pride. Shakespeare has the Sergeant describe Macbeth and Banquo’s attack on the Norwegians like this:  “As cannons overcharged with double cracks, so they/Doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe:/Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds,/Or memorise another Golgotha…” I managed “There blood still up, they broke heads and carved/Terrible reeking wounds in Norwegian flesh./it was a second Calvary, I tell you, but on that Mountain of Skulls/They were all thieves and died for their own sins.” That has next to nothing to do with the original, but it was fun to write. There are some loose sheets in the folder with some random thoughts, one of which is apropos of all the historiography books I’ve mentioned in this survey: “I rate the ideas and judgments of historians separately because they are the results of contrasting mental operations. Since good historians are often feeble theoreticians, I generally pay more attention to their judgments than their arguments. For that matter, I trust my own judgments more than my deductions, having noticed that my sense of things is a much sounder oracle than any system I ever contrived.” Speaking of unsound system, the last item in the folder is a six page summary of my thinking entitled Descriptio Mundi, not to be confused with the Description of the World.  It reads like a demented Monadology except that the original Monadology was already sufficiently demented for most people’s tastes. Maybe the better analogy would be to the fragments of Heraclitus. After all, I used to be called Heraclitus of Aphasia back in the day. Of course, Heraclitus didn’t set out to write fragments as I do. Saves time. It’s convenient, rather like getting run over by an ambulance. One paragraph that bears on something I wrote about Assmann the other day: “Hegel, among many others, recognized that God was perfectly incomprehensible as a solitary in-itself. Indeed, it is the impossibility of God that motivates the creation. The world has to come into existence so that God could be proleptically posited as its ground and cause. By such means, the theologians postponed atheism for a while.”)