Monday, July 11, 2016


Boring Radicalism


Disappointed Bernie fans are threatening to vote for Stein or Johnson or even Trump on the theory that half a loaf isn’t even worth half. Of course some of ‘em have bought into the Republican campaign to demonize Clinton and really think that she’s somehow a crook, but I think the deeper reason for this cunning plan to shoot yourself in the foot is the belief that only some sort of drastic, paradigm change will materially improve the situation. From where I’m sitting, there are two problems with this notion:

1.  An earthshaking comprehensive alternative to the neoliberal version of capitalism is simply not on offer. It’s not just that a really radical reorganization of America’s political economy is not politically feasible. It isn’t just the road to utopia that’s missing. It’s a credible utopia. Sanders may get credit for political courage by calling himself a socialist, but that is really a brag since his politics, considered issue by issue, is at most a not particularly left version of routine social democracy. You hear it said that wingnuts are like the dog that chases the truck, i.e., that they don’t have any idea of what to do if they manage to catch up with it; but the crew at the National Review don’t have a patent on that sort of thing. The Left has been searching for a substantive program for a long time now, but only the crankiest of cranks still thinks that a modern economy can dispense with markets. Nobody with any sense proposes to nationalize the toilet paper factory. Sanders certainly doesn’t.
2.  The absence of a vision of a new political economy doesn’t mean that capitalism in its current form is inevitable. Indeed, to judge by the history of the last two centuries, the one thing that apparently is inevitable is that capitalism will change. We still call it capitalism and will probably call its successor capitalism, but the economy of 2016 is a far cry from the economy of the 1950s with its huge centralized factories. Thing is, though, there is no replacement blueprint. That doesn’t mean that political action is futile, however. What the disaffected Left doesn’t seem to notice is that incremental changes can make an enormous difference, which is why the right, which is clearheaded on this score at least, fights apparently commonsensical measures with such passion. Raising the Federal minimum wage to $12 or figuring out how to make college affordable to people of middling means or increasing Social Security benefits or making the income tax more effectively progressive may not reverse the increase in economic inequality that has marked the last three decades but it will accomplish a great deal more than Jill Stein vapor wear. In fact, if you look at the measures of inequality over the last several administrations, you’ll note that for all its ideological impurity the Bill Clinton administration was actually a period during which the Gini coefficient didn’t rise and the incomes of middle class people did. The countless “little” decisions that a regime makes on a routine basis mattered. And there were also all those judges. If four years from now, the Supreme Court has a liberal majority, the entitlement programs are in good shape, we’ve actually taken material steps to deal with global warming, education has become more affordable, the infrastructure is being rebuilt, our immigration policies have been adjusted to reality, and, above all, if the disaffected two-fifths of the nation calms down, it will seem as if a revolution had taken place and not just to hysterical conservatives.

My overall point is this: incremental reform is not only the best outcome anybody can reasonably hope for at this point; it’s actually pretty radical.

Description of the World - Part 66


Top Shelf

Lord Macaulay, The History of England (Despite the title, this history focuses on the Revolution of 1688 and has little to say about the rest of English history except as prologue or consequence of that “Glorious” event. Hugh Trevor-Roper, who wrote the introduction to this abridged edition, sees the work as an answer to Hume, whose own version of the Revolution was the received Tory view. T-R portrays Macaulay as simultaneously hostile to theory and completely dogmatic. That sounds right to me. Macaulay’s Whiggish narrative of progress is political, not scientific; but his assurance that what he says is transparently right is highly reminiscent of the attitude of the New Atheists, who also think they are simply reporting the facts. Hume, who was a philosopher but not a dogmatist, was more empirical as a historian, which is why he didn’t focus so much on political facts and was accordingly sensitive to the emotional atmosphere of various eras. 


Alev Lytle Croutier, Harem: The World Behind the Veil (Of all the books I’ve bought and pretty much forgot I owned, this must be the most unlikely. Although it is a serious account of the custom, the subject is both exotic and erotic and the book is magnificently illustrated. Nevertheless, I don’t seem to have read it. Opening it at random, I came upon one description of one bathing sultana: “She had an indescribably fine complexion! Like fresh feta cheese….”)
K.N. Chaudhuri, Asia Before Europe (I found my summary of this work on the title page: “some interesting information suspended in a jello of useless theorizing.” I think what especially irritated or amused me (the two things are always hard to distinguish in my case) was Chaudhuri’s rather weird invocation of set theory as “a powerful logical instrument for identifying unities and discontinuities.” I read that and then searched in vain for the payoff. It’s not that you can’t think about such things in terms of sets. You can think of absolutely everything in terms of sets. I have plenty of tolerance for theory, but if you’re going to theorize, theorize. Don’t just throw in a “deconstruction” or two. Claim something.)

Robert N. Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (I was a little surprised when I realized that this book came out over 30 years ago, not that I actually thought of it as newer. It would fit just as well in the 70s or 90s or the aughts or last Wednesday since the conflicts in America between individualism and social responsibility and “the monoculture of technical and bureaucratic rationality and the specificity of our concrete commitments” are enduring tensions and certainly enduring themes, especially among mainstream sociologists. The moralizing tradition of what Bullah calls “social sciences as public philosophy” goes back to Talcott Parsons in this country and to figures like Durkheim in France. I don’t mean to denigrate this preoccupation. A critique of the limits of individualism, both as an explanation of what happens in society and as a basis for ethics and politics is absolutely needed. I just wish it weren’t so infernally boring.) 

Harvey J. Graff, The Legacies of Literacy: Continuities and Contradictions in Western Culture and Society (Graff uses quantitative methods to try to figure out not only how literacy advanced across world history but what literacy (or literacies) amounted to in practice. “Measuring the distribution of literacy in a population may in fact reveal relatively little about the uses in which such skills can be put.” For example, religions often promote literacy so that people can read the scriptures, but that doesn’t mean they want lay people to be able to read critically, and it certainly doesn’t mean they want them to read the wrong kinds of book. Almost all Americans can read, at least at a basic level, but few read more than a single book a year; and, as I’ve been complaining about for decades, college educated people seldom read serious nonfiction books at all. Graff calls the notion that literacy per se changes everything the literacy myth—he wrote a book with that title.)

F.J. Monkhouse, A Regional Geography of Western Europe (Despite the title, this work actually covers only France and the Low Countries as per 1967 or so. Readers of European political, military, and economic history will understand how a book like this can be an absorbing read. I enjoyed it for the same reason I watch the Tour de France. It puts a face on all the names. The setting goes a long way towards explaining the play.)

Monday, June 13, 2016


Colonel Blimp on High Strategy


It's pretty hard to figure out what's happening in a war by reading dispatches, but it sure looks to me that Isis is in serious trouble. The Kurds have expanded along the Turkish border making it harder for new recruits to join the radicals. The Syrian government, backed by Russian air power, is advancing on the Caliphate's capital from the Southwest. Fallujah is under siege, and Mosul is probably next. The combatant in the middle normally has the advantage of interior lines—the ability to rapidly switch forces from one front to another in order to achieve local superiority of force—but moving around Iraq and Syria in high summer is a dubious proposition granted all the planes and drones above. The situation with Isis is rather similar to that of the Confederacy in '64. All the Caliphate can hope for now is that its enemies will have a falling out among themselves or lose their nerve and resort to the really stupid strategy of converting a local insurgency into a global religious war. Jefferson Davis could hope that Lincoln would lose his election. Al Baghdadi can hope that Trump wins his.

If I'm right about this, the terrorist manifestations of the last year are signs of the weakness of Isis, not its strength. The South also resorted to desperate moves towards the end (e.g., General Hood's death march). Shooting up nightclubs is a poor substitute for the establishment of a secure territorial base. It can only work if the opponent panics. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it can’t work.

I’m sure that it will be possible to criticize the American response to Isis in retrospect, but I find myself thinking that our current strategy is beginning to look pretty sensible. That’s a desperate thing to have to write in a blog.

Sunday, May 29, 2016


Description of the World - Part 65


John Man, Atlas of the Year 1000 (Things weren’t going swimmingly in Western Europe at the turn of the millennium, but other regions of the Earth were enjoying golden times, the Southern Song especially. The episode that captured my interest in this era, however, was the career of Mahmud of Ghazni who vandalized a good chunk of India in the name of Islam and the pursuit (no fooling) of an immense golden lingam. I know perfectly well that Mahmud was not a typical character, that Muslim invaders didn’t all go in for systematically destroying temples and monuments; but monotheistic religion is a permanent excuse for a certain kind of barbarism and Islam, whose crude purity is so appealing to ferocious young men, has licensed spasms of destruction right up to the demolition of Palmyra. That said, it’s an irony of Mahmud’s career that one of the luminaries of his court was Al-Buruni whose book on the Hindus, called the Indica in the West, is a model for the sympathetic understanding of one culture by another. As Vonnegut used to say, “So it goes.”)

James D. Robertson, The Connoisseur’s Guide to Beer (When the paperback was updated in 1984, there still wasn’t a lot to say about American beer. The revitalization of the Anchor Steam Company went back go the 60s, but Sierra Nevada was only founded in 1980. In those days you were a snob if you ordered Michelob. A good part of the point of this bibliographic exercise is to mark the passage of time—what else are us old men good for, after all—and at least in this one dimension there really has been progress. These days the beer aisle at the local Safeway makes me regret I have but one liver to give for my country. (The organ hasn’t sunk yet, despite the many torpedoes I’ve fired at it.))

Fritz K. Ringer, The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890-1933 (I don’t necessarily believe that once you’ve bewailed the loss of metaphysiche Gesamtwissenschaft, the next thing you know you’re invading Poland. Nevertheless, if cultural conservatism isn’t responsible for the disaster, the profs didn’t do very much to prevent it. Ringer’s book is a sociology of knowledge study analogous to Pierre Bourdieu’s works on the French intellectual scene (Homo Academicus, etc.), but when I first read it (badly, no doubt), it mostly awakened the personal conflicts I’ve got about a tradition I both respect and distrust. I couldn’t get into the empirical part of it very well because I was looking for a homily. Or maybe, as an amateur player of the glass bead game myself, there was an element in self-flagellation in reading about the despair and protest of these men, this collection of characters who were, for all their accomplishments—and what the world owes German scholarship is seldom adequately recognized to this day—were also a prize collection of stuffed shirts who turned out to be criminally naive about the world. I note in passing that a dear friend of mine inherited Ringer's job at Indiana University. There are always connections.)
  
Alexis Lichine’s New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits, 3rd edition (As much as I like wine, I think I got this book because I like maps even more. I’m a sucker for landscapes with texture, the kind of places where great wines grow—featureless plains, plonk. Even when I was a kid, I associated quality with an intricate setting and not just when it came to wine. It struck me that so much of civilization originated in Greece because of its nooks and crannies. What matters is not the average but the deviations. Even a bug collector can share my taste for fine-grained heterogeneity. California is something of a paradise for entomologists because its innumerable microclimates make it home to an enormous range of endemic species.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


Description of the World - Part 64


Top of Third Bookcase

Olaus Magnus the Goth, A Description of the Northern Peoples 1555, Volume I (This is an odd volume from the Hakluyt Society, publishers of old travel narratives. In the fashion of its time, the full title of this work takes up almost a whole page and morphs into a blurb “…so it is filled with enjoyment and pleasure, readily instilling into the reader’s mind the utmost delight.” I own only the first volume. The entire work is five times larger. Olaus, who was the archbishop of Uppsala, mixes quotations from the Bible, Aristotle, and Pliny with observations of natural phenomena and a rather disjointed ethnology of various northern people. He has the curiosity of a Herodotus without the skill, but the little chapters with their woodcut illustrations are charming. Anyhow, if I hadn’t read the book, I wouldn’t have known about snowshoes for horses.)

Herbert H. Clark, Arenas of Language Use (As it is traditionally studied by linguists, language is rather like a specimen preserved in a bottle. It’s hard to tell whether the characteristics you assign to a sample belong to the animal or to the formaldehyde. You ask the informant to pass on whether a sentence is grammatical or not, but that’s a highly artificial questions since, as Clark points out “ it is utterances and not sentences that we actually produce, hear, or read. We never hear a piece of language that isn’t produced by a particular speaker for a particular audience on a particular occasion. Strictly speaking, it is a category mistake to speak of sentence comprehension or sentence production, as many investigators do…In most psychological experiments utterances…are stripped bare, before they are presented to subjects. The subjects are treated as if they had just begun overhearing a conversation between two strangers. Now there is nothing wrong with studying overhearing. But that must not be confused with studying understanding by addressees.” I wrote in the margin, “Us theoretical types can’t help but overhear, though.” It isn’t just the Ph.D. candidate trying to write a grammar for some Papuan dialect who treats language without a context. After all, somebody or other once claimed in the beginning was the Word, i.e., that meaningful language predates the creation of any context. The sciences are sometimes accused (and sometimes celebrated) for seeking the view from nowhere, but one might also asked who it is told to and who is listening. Anyhow, I was thinking about this issue a long time before I encountered Clark, which is why another marginal remark to the preface of the book records a dialogue which took place in the early 80s’: “c.f. [me] is this the ashtray? [Ralph] it is now.” Clark is a psycholinguist and his book deals with some of the empirical issues that become visible and salient when you focus on utterances instead of sentences. For example, he studied what goes on in literal overhearing, verifying the observation that many of us have made in coffee bars that overheard conversations are often unintelligible. He also made a study of nonce language, i.e., words and even grammatical constructions that are made up on the fly. I’m still waiting for a satisfactory psycholinguistic/ethnographic account of allusion.)

Karen Wynn Fonstad, The Atlas of Middle-Earth (I like Tolkien’s books well enough, but I’ve never been a fanatic about ‘em. I like geography so much, however, that maps of actual places aren’t enough. I even used to like paperbound mystery novels that had little maps of the crime scene in the back. When I was in elementary school and got tired of counting the holes in the acoustic tile on the ceiling or watching the house flies on my desk rub their hands together, I passed the time making maps of my own imaginary realms.)

The Tempest: A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare, ed. Horace Howard Furness. (Dover no longer keeps these variorum editions in print. I didn’t value them for their philological value, but for the source material and criticism in the appendices, which, together with the text, allow the patient reader to get some idea of what the play is in four-dimensions. The plain text of the work, even if it hasn’t been cleaned up or modernized, is merely a slice of the whole.)

Twelfth Night or What You Will: A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare, ed. Horace Howard Furness (In honor of Herbert Clark: “A sentence is but a cheu’rill glove to a good wit, how quickely the wrong side may be turn’d outward.” That’s because the good wit, aka the clown, acts like he is overhearing the conversations he is actually a part of and can therefore sport with the infinite possible meanings in his own sentences. Having slipped out of the straight jacket of occasion, “Foolery sir, does walke about the Orbe like the Sun. it shines every where.” Certain rabbis claimed that there were at least as many interpretations of the Torah as there were Israelites wandering around Sinai with Moses, but 603,550 greatly overestimates the range of readings because the Israelites were in the conversation and not all of ‘em were clowns. I note that the relentlessly witty Twelfth Night features a cross-dressing heroine, which, of course, meant that Viola or the actor who played her appeared in a disguise with two layers. He/she/he was a person of Neapolitan gender. The plot is as perverse as the language, which also seems appropriate. Didn’t Alain de Lille insist that figurative speech was the linguistic equivalent of sexual impropriety? The poet, or Nature herself complaining in his name, likened metaphor to homosexuality. I have a special respect for this comedy because of a wonderfully funny production of it I saw at El Camino Junior College in Gardena maybe fifty years ago. Every production since has been a disappointment.)

Jacques Gelis, History of Childbirth (Supposedly a history of childbirth, the book is mostly an assemblage of random information about conception, pregnancy, and birth. I didn’t manage to get past the illustrations of old ways of giving birth; kneeling, between two chairs, standing, and sitting on the edge of a chair or bed. I guess I’m too squeamish.)

Brewer’s Curious Titles, compiled by Ian Crofton (I got this book because I so enjoyed Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable or maybe because I’ve always like titles—the chapter of Rabelais that lists the books in the library of St. Victor is one of my favorite bits. The practice of titling texts had to be invented. Anciently, books were called by their first lines. The Babylonian creation epic, which we call the Enuma elish, was once “When what is above was not yet called the sky.” We may be returning to this practice. At least in Microsoft Word, the default title for an item is the first couple of words.)

W.S.Shears, The Face of England: a Book of the Shires and Counties (A description of England circa 1950. I’m guessing—the book itself has no date of publication. It would be a boon to anybody writing a historical novel who wanted a run down on every halfway impressive church or valley south of Scotland. The author even lists “dishes which may be sampled” for each shire. I don’t think I’ll go to Staffordshire just for the Beasting's pie, though I imagine a custard pie made from the first milk drawn from a cow after she gives birth might be especially rich. The book is rather like the Description of England William Harrison wrote as part of Holinshed’s Chronicles back in 1577—I have or had a copy of that, too, though I’ve only read parts of either book to get a sense of the texture of the country. I actually got further reading Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion, which is the same sort of operation in verse.)

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Description of the World - Part 63


David Freedberg, The Eye of the Lynx: Galileo, His Friends, and the Beginnings of Modern Natural History (Libraries, museums, universities, governments, royal societies, and even department stores are all examples of what I call mesocosms. This book is about another one of these assemblages: the virtual encyclopedia of images produced by the 17th Century circle of adepts and enthusiasts that called itself the Society of the Linceans. Its most famous member was Galileo but much of the natural history work associated with it involved Prince Frederico Cesi. Another important patron was Maffeo Barberini, a Tuscan nobleman and cardinal whose coat of arms featured three bees, which partly accounts for the many images of bees produced by the group—Galileo produced microscopes as well as telescopes and his instruments made accurate drawings of insects possible. Of course Barberini eventually became Pope Urban VIII and loosed the Inquisition on Galileo, more out of pique than any obsession about geocentrism—the Pope, who was remarkably vain, felt that the astronomer had disrespected him. This book is about how the world was made visible.)

Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism: From the French Revolution to the Establishment of the State of Israel (I figure that my assumptions about matters of fact, like the milk cartons in the refrigerator, have a sell-by date. That certainly includes what I think I know about the origins of Zionism, which is why this volume wound up in the to-be-read pile.)

Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the College de France 1975-1976 (I found Foucault’s lectures rather hard to understand, perhaps because he wasn’t so much reporting on what he had already concluded as thinking on the spot. I used to do that myself, though not so successfully, perhaps because the University of Connecticut isn’t the College de France and i’m not Foucault. Since I last looked at this book, I’ve read a great deal of early modern European history. Foucault’s meditations on state and nationality bear crucially on the central issues of those times. The first paragraph of the lecture of 18 February 1976 makes me think I need to go back to Foucault. Thinking about what happened in political history always seems to come back to a series of alternatives that, like false rhymes, don’t quite match up to one another. Romans vs barbarians, Franks vs Gauls, core vs periphery, liberty as privilege vs the rights of man, common law vs civil law, etc.)

Eviatar Zerubavel, Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past (I was once the Raymond Llull of 254 Prospect, contriver of mysterious diagrams, though most of ‘em were attempts to make sense of epistemology by locating the eye (I) in the intersection of physical, social, linguistic, and conceptual arrows or perhaps over on the side somewhere —in those days I had yet to swear off thinking about quantum mechanics without the appropriate licenses and still sent to ask for whom the wave function collapses. Zerubavel’s time maps are less dubious since they diagram ways in which people live historical time. He deals with many of the same questions of social memory that Jan Assmann investigates. If you’re going to integrate the history of man and the universe on the same chart, you better figure out some way to renormalize things or, in the alternative, you’ll have to use very, very small type on the right end of the line. The picture matters, even when you’re restricting yourself to human history. Some times count more than others. For example, a great many different peoples, regimes, and empires have claimed Palestine but the title never clears on that piece of real estate because the contending parties trace the deed back to different sacred times.)

The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose: a Conducted Tour by Frank Muir (Some of the excerpts are actually funny, which is not guaranteed in such anthologies. What I remember from it is the first known printed joke in English—it goes back to Caxton, no less. I paraphrase it for fear of violating copyright in the wake of the most recent trade agreement: A widower planned to remarry a widow. One of the widow’s maid servants warned her about the match. She had heard that the man was so lustful that he had worn out his first wife with lovemaking and caused her death. The widow replied, “I would not mind being dead. Is there not but sorrow and care in this world?”)

James H. Billington, Fire in the Minds of Men (I read this book at about the same time I moved into my present digs—1981—so that I don’t remember it very well even though the copious annotations show that I read it closely.  It dates back to a time when revolutionary aspirations were at a very low ebb indeed. Communism had long since lost its appeal in the West, the Soviet Union was becoming the sick old man of Europe, and neoliberalism of Carter was giving way to the frank reaction of Reagan. Billington picked a good time to look back at the 19th Century revolutionaries with condescension and (some) affection. He writes, “the revolutionary faith was shaped not so much my the critical rationalism of the French Enlightenment (as is generally believed) as by the occultism and proto-romanticism of Germany.” Leszek Kolakowski’s view of the origins of Marxism wasn’t so different; and on the left side of things, the remaining revolutionaries, the Maoists and the Red Brigade, didn’t have much use for scientific socialism. They were more left-Nietzscheans than left-Hegelians, more Bakunin, less Marx. Well, ideas are even less in view these days. Thoughtful people on the left and right despair of useful change for want of any plausible program, compelling narrative, or theory of revolution. Meanwhile the troglodyte reactionaries, fanatical Muslims, and various irredentist nationalists don’t feel the need for deep explanations. Fire’s enough.)

Charles Barber, Early Modern English (I read so much Shakespeare, Spencer, Donne, and Milton in my youth that I don’t register early modern English as an alien dialect. I expect that many people of my vintage feel equally at home with the older authors, though we unconsciously modernize the diction and certainly the pronunciation of 16th and 17th Century English and thereby obscure its unfamiliarity. Barber’s systematic account of the differences between early modern English and whatever it is we’re speaking now has the benefit of making the old writings strange again. English wasn’t domesticated as thoroughly as French was in the 18th Century, but it was considerably tamed. Nice to experience it in its rawer state, especially since my French is nowhere near good enough to get the same effect by reading Rabelais in lieu of Voltaire.)

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


Description of the World - Part 62


Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees, 2 vols. (This famous book is probably more influential because we know it exists than because anybody actually reads it. Mandeville’s message of the economic advantages of vice is not overplayed in the actual work; in fact the author is arguing in favor of a modern complex economy, not writing an encomium to sin. Indeed, the bite of the satire depends on recognizing that bad or dubious behavior really is deplorable even if it serves the good of the hive. Some passages of the verse part of the work sound like Juvenal, easy on the bile: Mandeville writes of lawyers who “to defend a wicked Cause,/Examine’d and survey’d the Laws,/As Burglars Shops and Houses do,/To find out where they’d best break through.”)

Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (I’ve barely established a base camp at the foot of the Everest of a biography.)

William Kneale and Martha Kneale, The Development of Logic (Several of the books in this pile are heavy-duty reads I keep promising myself I’ll undertake. In fact the reason I haven’t posted another installment of Description of the World for a couple of days is that I’ve finally been reading my way into Kneale and Kneale, which I’m enjoying very much, though nobody speed reads a history of logic. I’m certainly no logician, but taught the basic course to hundreds of people back in the day. The standard curriculum for the subject is a mighty smooth pebble by now, having rolled down the stream for a couple of thousand years. It’s fascinating to go back the sources and handle the much more angular original. Anyhow, I always wanted to learn the mnemonic system for naming valid categorical syllogisms—Barbara, Darii, Baroco, Felapton, etc.—and have a better handle on second intentions.)

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Annotated Emerson, ed. David Mikics (Nietzsche grew up reading Emerson. You have to wonder why Emerson ended up being quoted by the late George Apley (at least in the movie) while Nietzsche retains his virulence despite the best efforts of Walter Kaufmann to attenuate it by repeated passage through anodyne translations. For that matter, how come I find it so hard to get through Emerson’s essays? I admire the man for the same reasons Nietzsche did, but while I like his paragraphs but I don’t turn his pages. I have to admit I have trouble getting into many American authors. I guess I suffer from a sort of cultural auto-immune disease, though the prejudice seems to mostly cling to 19th Century Americans. Still, looking over Self Reliance, it occurred to me that it would a real pleasure to read it line by line with a couple of thoughtful friends. Does anybody do that anymore?)

Alain Badiou, Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return of Philosophy (The French still punch above their weight in many cultural areas, but the influential sequence of thinkers that runs from Sartre to the Postmodernists seems to have petered out. Badiou came late to this game; and if he has something distinctive to add, if, to use his own lingo, he is an event, the world of thought will have to catch its breath before it has the energy to recognize it. Or maybe it’s just me who hasn’t managed to marshal the will requisite to assimilate one more French philosopher. Still, there are bits and pieces that attract me. I expect that his claim to make literal use of set theory is mostly theatrical, but I also find the notion of the power set extremely useful, even if I decline to make a stump speech out of it. And then opening this little book to where I stopped reading I find, “I call thinking the non-dialectal or inseparable unity of a theory and a practice. To understand such a unity the simplest case is that of a science; in physics there are theories, concepts and mathematical formulas and there are also technical apparatuses and experiments. But physics as thinking does not separate the two.” That line reminds me a bit of my own definition of science: thinking with things.)

Roland Wilbur Brown, Composition of Scientific Words (This grand reference book, put together by an extremely diligent geologist, allows you look up Latin and Greek words for use in neologism like the scientific names for taxa and, used the other way around, allow you to finally figure out why somebody called a genus of beetles Scotodes—it’s from the Greek skotodinia, which means dizzy.) 

A Cultural History of India, ed. Al.L.Basham (This is really just a collection of essays on particular topics, but I’ve found it extremely useful when I need to sound like I know something about Indian culture on short notice. The book goes back to 1975, and the parts of it I’ve consulted seem to hark back to an era when Indians were less critical of their own traditions.)

Mark Elvin, The Retreat of the Elephants: an environmental history of china (This environmental history of China concludes, “There seems to no case for thinking that, some details apart, the Chinese anthropogenic environment was developed and maintained in the way it was over the long run of more than three millennia because of particular characteristically Chinese beliefs or perceptions.” Brief episodes of reforestation and soil conservation aside, population growth was stronger than imperial ideology or naturalistic philosophy. The epigraph of the book telegraphs the punch: “The straight tree is first to be felled;/First drained dry, the well of sweet water.” (Zhangzi)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016


Description of the World - Part 61


The Stack Behind the Chair

Orrin W. Robinson, Old English and Its Closest Relatives: a Survey of the Earliest Germanic Languages (I’d like to believe that sentences can soldier on alone like the knee in the Christian Morgenstern poem (“Ein Knie geht einsam durch die Welt./Es ist ein Knie, sonst nichts!”) I’ve tried to invent Kugels├Ątze for many years, but that effort is perhaps as contrived as Kugelsatz, a word I just made up only to discover there’s actually a such a word and also a mathematical theorem called the Kugelsatz, though in mathematics Kugelsatz means ball set, not bullet sentence. Robinson’s book contains a veritable Kugelsatz, one which has survived since the not only without a context but without any company in its own language—it’s the only remaining fragment of Old West Franconian: “hebban olla vogala nestas hagunnan hinase hic enda thu wat unbidan we nu.” Which means, “all the birds have begun nests except for you and me—what are we waiting for?”)


Petrarch, Canzoniere trans. Mark Musa (I was using an old deposit slip as a bookmark so I know that I got to Sonnet 123 some time after the fifth of August in 2003. As a kid, I read Petrarch’s poems in a Victorian translation, but after I acquired the Musa version I gave the old book, with its charming tinted picture of Laura, to an airplane stewardess who, as it happened, was named Laura. She had never heard of Petrarch. Well, I used to do jobs for a British engineer named Skelton who’d never heard of John Skelton, the immortal author of the Tunning of Elenor Rumming. Come to think of it, I also worked for an Irish engineer named Dooley, who’d never heard of Mr. Dooley—you probably haven’t either, though this creation of Finley Peter Dunne was frequently quoted at Teddy Roosevelt’s cabinet meetings as Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert might be at Obama’s. Of course a lot of what was once familiar richly deserves to become unfamiliar, but it still saddens me a tad that I can’t use my perfectly good W.C. Fields impersonation without causing bewilderment if not alarm in twenty-something baristas. Anyhow Mr. Dooley really was funny and so was Skelton. For that matter, Petrarch had his moments, though I doubt if the contemporary Laura ever got very far through that 19th Century translation—Victorian translators made ever poet sound like very other poet.)

John F. Collins, A Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin (I got this to help me during a period when I was reading the Vulgate. Maybe it’s my imagination, but Medieval Latin is a lot easier to read than the classical variety.)

Pius II, Commentaries, Volume One (I think I already commented on the second volume of this memoir of the 15th Century humanist Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, aka Pius II. This volume contains a memorable account of his election. Speaking about easy Latin: “Convenere apud latrinas plerique cardinales.” Well, they met in the toilet to plot to elect a rich Frenchman pope, but it didn’t work, and Aeneas was acclaimed.)

San Francisco, an Eyewitness Travel Guide (These DK books don’t list an author. I used to get a new San Francisco guidebook every couple of years, but now that I’ve run out of relatives to show around town, I’ve lost interest, which is a shame, really, because I’m well aware that I haven’t explored all of this Disneyland for adults myself.)

Barry Cunliffe, Facing the Ocean: the Atlantic and its Peoples (Cunliffe takes the Atlantic face of Europe as distinct zone with its own history. Since his timeframe is 10,000 years long, his approach is largely archaeological. That gives the book a geographical flavor, which of course pleases me since I’m a fan of places and maps. Anyhow, I like edges; and the Galatians, Celts, and Bretons lived on a ragged edge.)

What the Koran Really Says: Language, Text, & Commentary, edited with translations by Ibn Warraq (I’ve been pointing out for many years now that it was philology not natural science that did the most damage to religious orthodoxy, at least in Europe. Nothing comparable to the higher criticism roiled Islam until recently. The works of the aggressive apostate Ibn Warraq are an exception. For the most part, Western scholars have been willing to go along with the Muslim version of the early history of the faith. Of course the Koran is a much more homogenous text than the Jewish or Christian Bibles so there’s no question of teasing out separate strands. It’s presumably all Muhammad (or Gabriel), though some of it may be modeled on or lifted from Syriac Christian sources. Trying to figure out the context of particular passages is another matter. When you read translations of the Koran, particular Suras are identified as having been received at Mecca or Medina, but this information is something added to the text and reflects the traditional version of Islamic history that was codified a century or so after Muhammad. The context matters, especially if you’re interpreting crucial texts like Sura IX.29, which became the canonical justification of the poll tax on non-Muslims—what could such a tax have meant before the Arabs established dominion outside of the peninsula? Several of the articles in this anthology chew over this issue. Muslims sometimes brag that their religion, unlike others, was, as it were, conceived with the lights on; but I think it more likely that their history seems unambiguous now mostly because the perpetrators got together later and agreed on a story.)

Henry Kamen, Empire: How Spain Became a World Power (Like everybody else who writes about the subject, Kamen spends more time on the first century of the Spanish empire than on the last, though it is a fascinating question how this ramshackle conglomeration lasted as long as it did. Or maybe in my old age I’m developing a morbid interest on how things end. Some empires persist because of rather in spite of their weakness rather like caterpillars left alive but paralyzed so that the wasp’s offspring can devour ‘em at leisure.)