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.)

Sunday, March 13, 2016


Description of the World - Part 60


John S. Robsenow, A Chinese-English Dictionary of Enigmatic Folk Similes (Xieyouyu) (Although it would be hard to devise an excuse for buying this book, especially since it was rather expensive; but few volumes in my library have given me more pleasure. I ran across it in the textbook section of the San Francisco State bookstore where I was supposedly seeing what math texts were on order—I edited math books in those days. The sheer perversity of acquiring a big collection of Chinese folklore probably appealed to me. Or perhaps it was the frontispiece that lured me in, a drawing of a Chinese sage fishing with a barbless, unbaited hook. The picture illustrated the saying “Jiang Tai Gong going fishing—whoever gets hooked does so of his own free will.” That line could serve as an epigraph for inanis et vacua since it perfectly encapsulates my approach to literary self promotion. Many of the similes are drawn from Chinese history or timeless agrarian situations (“killing a rabbit while cutting grass—incidentally”), but there are references to anti-aircraft guns, Mao, and even Elizabeth Taylor, who the Chinese apparently regarded as an overstuffed frump. What I call objective delirium, the shared cultural detritus of a society, is like the unconscious. It is indifferent to contradiction and innocent of chronology. Robsenow’s book was probably used in classes on advanced Chinese. You are hardly fully fluent in a language if you simply understand its grammar and lexicon. That’s perhaps especially true in China. It may not be a case of Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, but a great deal goes over your head if you don’t catch allusions. The one drawback of the book is the difficulty of looking anything up in it. I’ve been using one simile for years now but can’t find where I saw it and wonder if I’m quoting it right. “Throwing boiling water on your lice: it won’t kill ‘em but it will scald ‘em.”)

Literary Debate: Texts and Contexts—Postwar French Thought Volume II, ed Denis Hollier and Jeffrey Mehlman (My reading of this very rich anthology has been regrettably selective. I mostly just picked out a few favorite authors—Ponge, Bachelard, Serres—but I did reread Sartre’s writing on political commitment fairly recently and was surprised to find it so cogent. I came into the theater just as Sartre was being hustled out, but perhaps he’s becoming relevant again. Of course he wrote a great many absurd things, but to recognize that is not to set him apart from the rest of us. It’s like discovering that some politician or artist you like behaved badly in a sexual way as if human sexual behavior weren’t generally deplorable.)

Fernand Braudel, The Identity of France: Volume One: History and Environment (I’m a reader of the late works of famous authors, the books everybody ignores—Ovid’s Fasti, the last five cantos or Orlando Furioso, the Cantos on Mutability of Spencer, Hegel’s Larger Logic, the Mythologiques of Levi-Strauss. It’s probably my way of protesting against mortality as it also was for some of the authors. The old guys have to stick together. Braudel has a different take. In at writing at last about his home country, he celebrates a homecoming. “I have saved my white bread until last: there is still some left for my old age.” I don’t know if there is anything in this work that is novel from a historiographical point of view, but looking at France geographically makes sense of much of its history—I certainly wish that other historians would begin their syntheses with a deep description of the landscape of the events they will narrate and explain. Anyhow, I love the idea of pays, i.e., the distinct nooks and crannies of a country.)

Saturday, March 05, 2016


Description of the World - Part 59


Albert O. Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy (I knew very little about Hirschman when I encountered this book. I don’t think I fully appreciated the wisdom of the man until I read Exit, Voice, Loyalty. I also rather misread the Rhetoric book or at least gave it a bit of spin. Hirschman writes about how reactionary thinkers that projects of political liberation routinely routinely result in less freedom or simply prove impossible or have various bad consequences.  I’ve been more impressed with the same sort of programmatic pessimism applied to technology. Perversity, futility, and jeopardy certainly catch the drift of anti-environmentalism. Liberals who quote Hirschman sometimes miss the other side of his argument: if the right overestimates the difficulties of doing anything, the left tends to under estimate them. Of course Hirschman is also known for the idea of the hiding hand, which points to the advantages of positive thinking, which is to say overly optimistic expectations. It’s perhaps a good thing that we don’t realize that accomplishing great things requires unpredictable creativity. Things always take longer than you expect, but you can’t win if you don’t play.)

J.C.Beaglehole, The Life of Captain James Cook (Great big exhaustive biographies seem to be making a comeback as witness Caro’s L.B.J. biography. Big books seem fitting for big persons. If they’re dull, the fault generally lies with the author, not the subject, though Beaglehole had a head start granted Cook’s adventurous life. Since Cook died in his early 50s, killed by Hawaiians but already ground down by command of three world-spanning expeditions back to back, it’s all the more astonishing that 700 pages doesn’t seem too much. Before Cook left on his first great voyage, he got informal instructions from the Earl of Morton who recommended “to exercise the utmost patience and forbearance with respect to the Natives of the several Lands where the Ship may touch. To check the petulance of the Sailors, and restrain the wanton use of Fire Arms. To have it still in view that sheding the blood of those people is a crime of the highest nature…They are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit…They may naturally and justly attempt to repel intruders, whom they may apprehend are come to disturbs them in the quiet possession of their country, whether that apprehension be well or ill founded.” I wrote in the margin: “the original Prime Directive.” Cook does remind me of Picard, though in the event the British ended up being sufficiently high handed.)

Lawrence M. Friedman, A History of American Law (I considered becoming an attorney for about twenty minutes in 1966, not because I had lost interest in philosophy, but because academia seemed to me a lousy place to practice philosophy and I had to do something. I kept a certain interest in jurisprudence if not law itself later on, even listening to jurisprudence classes from the hallway at Yale. I don’t think much of it stuck. I note that virtually the only note in this tome was appended to an ancient case from colonial Massachusetts: “In 1673, Benjamin Goad, ‘being instigated by the Devil, committed the ‘unnatural & horrid act of Bestiality on a mare in the highway or field.’ This was in the afternoon, ‘the sun being two howers high.’ The Court of Assistants sentenced him to hang; and the court also ordered ‘that the mare you abused before your execution in your sight shall be knocked on the head.’” I wrote in the margin “pretty unfair to the horse.”)

Maria Reidelbach, Complete Mad: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine (This anthology contains several of the Mad pieces that did more to shape my thinking than any point of common law. For example, it reprints the article from Mad #47 ‘How to be a Mad Non-Comformist.’ which I found very meaningful and even comforting at a time when I realized I didn’t fit in very well with people who didn’t fit in very well. All these years later, however, it still bothers me that the description of ordinary non-conformists says they patronize ‘obscure foreign language pictures with the sub-titles in pidgin Swahili,” but the illustration shows a picture subtitled in Sanskrit. Reidelbach also resurrects the “Potrezebie System of Weights and Measures,” which was the first publication of Donald Knuth, the great mavin of computer algorithms. I’m still envious of the juvenile Knuth for getting a publication in Mad with with illustrations by Wood no less.)

Wednesday, March 02, 2016


Description of the World - Part 58


N.J.G.Pounds, An Historical Geography of Europe (I don’t read fact-filled books like this in the expectation that I’ll remember a large fraction of their contents. Mostly I do so to keep my understanding of history and geography at a reasonable level by relearning things I first learned long ago. Meanwhile I apply to reading what amounts to management by exception, looking for the particulars that upset my expectations. I’m also looking for significant details. “In 1546 the emperor Charles V, when passing along the bank of the river Meuse, noted the city of VIllefranche on the opposite shore. ‘Whose is it,’ he asked, ‘mine or the King of France’s?’ Then ‘the records of the district…were brought and examined, and it was shown that the inhabitants…were subject of the French king.’ It was typical of medieval kingship that the limits of its authority were in many areas uncertain or unknown, and when questions arose, it was usual to ask the local population to whom they owned their loyalty. Such uncertainties were one by one cleared up as they arose, but some remained until the eighteenth century.” The ambiguity of frontiers wasn’t news to me. Lucien Febvre had made the same point in a well-known essay, but the anecdote makes it better. Another item, one which reinforces my suspicion that history moves faster than we suppose: “About 1530, corn, the first new World crop to be adopted in the Old, was being gown in Castile.”)

Claude Manceron,The Wind from America (The last four years of the American Revolution narrated as part of the history of France. The culminating event of the period isn’t Yorktown but the birth (finally) of a male heir to Louis XVI. Manceron’s anecdotal approach makes the book a considerably less strenuous read than Franco Venturi, but he cheats—you always know where things are headed.)

Clay Blair, Jr., Silent Victory: the U.S. Submarine War Against Japan (The War in the Pacific was a great demonstration of what human stupidity can accomplish, beginning, of course, with the biggest and best: the Japanese decision to attack a nation they knew would overwhelm them. We couldn’t match that one, but we had our moments. For example, even though we could intercept and decode American military messages, we didn’t ambush and shoot down Douglas MacArthur’s plane, thus ensuring that the war would last an additional six months to a year and that thousands of Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, Chinese, Filipinos, and Japanese would die to satisfy the vanity of an old imperialist. There were smaller errors, too. In the submarine war, we spent the first part of the war bouncing defective torpedoes off Japanese freighters and tankers because of the pig headedness of the relevant Navy departments. That admitted, though, the submariners contributed more to victory than almost any other element of our military. Their performance contrasted sharply with their Japanese counterparts who never loosed their fleet of excellent subs (and excellent torpedoes) against our shipping lanes.)

Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (This copy originally belonged to my ex-wife—I think there’s another copy of the book around here some place. I find reading her annotations more interesting than managing to have yet another thought about a book that has probably been read too many times by too many people to be readable for the foreseeable future. Rita was far more idealistic and morally rigorous than I’ve ever been. She wrote “Let justice be done though the heaven’s fall” on the flyleaf while I’ve more than once protested that even the categorical imperative shouldn’t be treated as a suicide note.)

Peter Gay, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud (I’m not sure when or why I developed an aversion to Peter Gay, but the nit-picking annotations in this book prove that it was very much in evidence circa 1984. I even bitch about his adjectives, quite unfairly. The content of the book interested me enough to overcome my prejudices, however. The book is about sex in a purportedly straight-laced century. “This much should now be plain: the bourgeois experience was far richer than its expression, rich as that was; and it included a substantial measure of sensuality for both sexes, and of candor—in sheltered surroundings.” Gay quotes a length from the diaries of Mabel Loomis Todd to make the point—not even the Curies had so much fun experimenting together as Mabel and David. Well, at least in England, the Regency had been as raunchy as Victoria’s reign was repressed; but an obsession with sexuality, however modulated, appears to be something of a constant in cultural history. There are sex scenes in Tom Clancy novels.* We’re supposedly living in a period of hyper-sexuality, and yet we treat sexual offenses as worse than bloody murder.

*Speaking of constants. Everybody who’s ever written a novel or even begun one has congratulated themselves on the daring of their sex scenes even though their readers, if there are any, are seldom impressed.)

Jane F. Dunnigan and Austin Bay, A Quick & Dirty Guide to War: Briefings on Present and Potential Wars (This instant book came out the same year as Gay’s book and has something in common with it. ’86 was about the last chance to take Freud seriously in an English language publication, and it was also a golden moment for military intellectuals or would-be intellectuals to get their bets down on numbers that shortly wouldn’t be on the wheel. Dunnigan estimates the likelihood of various outcomes for the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan but doesn’t even consider the possibility that the Russians would give up, go home, and then have a revolution. Considering the military confrontation between NATO and the Warsaw pact, he doesn’t include the collapse of communism as even a remote possibility, though he does imagine a war of liberation waged from outside the Union. Bad timing. If you bat .300, you’re a star in baseball. The Mendoza line for war game enthusiasts is closer to .000.)

Carlo Ginzburg, Night Battles: Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth Centuries (The Inquisition knew what it was going to find; and because it had ways of making you talk, it usually found it. The benandanti were peasants who participated in rituals featuring nocturnal dream battles against witches. The Inquisitors managed to interpret their activities as heretical, indeed a form of witchcraft, and eventually even convinced some of the peasants themselves. An old story. If you read the Witches’ Hammer and similar books, you’ll discover that an earlier generation of witch hunters had already turned witchcraft, at least in their own minds, into a form of heresy. For that matter, it’s unclear whether the heretics of Languedoc were really members of a sect of Cathars with a worked out dualist theology and elaborate rituals before all those Dominicans decided they were followers of Mani and created the reality of the heresy. The Inquisitors had learned all about the Manichees from reading Augustine, who had once been one. Maybe they figured that there was no reason to develop arguments against a new enemy when you could simply recycle the old arguments after convincing yourself that you knew what the heretics really thought. The same sort of thing happens in politics. If you hang around the comment threads of the National Review website, you’ll discover that you are actually a 1930s-style fellow traveller and will be earnestly entreated to give up the fantasy that the Soviet Union is a worker’s paradise.)