Monday, November 30, 2015

Description of the World - Part 15

Fourth Shelf

Carlo M. Cipolla, Faith, Reason, and the Plague (I would have loved this little book back in Junior High School when I was writing an epic poem about the great plague—imagine what the Decameron would have been like if the young people had stayed in Florence. Cipolla writes about an outbreak of plague that occurred in 1630 and how the church responded to the threat. Whatever else you can say about the Counter-Reformation, the church got things a lot better organized.)

Hiram Haydn, the Counter-Renaissance (I have a lot of patience for books like this that attempt to provide a synthesis of an age, especially if they contain long quotations from the writers of the times they study. The downside is that so many books quote the same few lines. I think reading Haydn was the first time I encountered Donne’s poem that features the bit about “’Tis all in peeces, all cohaerence gone/All just supply and all Relation” or, just as likely, reading these lines in Haydn was the first time I recognized how exceedingly familiar the lines had become—sometimes the second or nth time is a first time in its own way. In any case, these verses have pursued me across the years like Mormon missionaries. Alright already. Looking at this book provokes a historiographical reflection. It’s becoming commonplace to end an account of some event with a history of how it has been remembered in literature and history—there are long books about the posthumous careers of Cleopatra and Sappho. Where does this sort of thing end? There can be and in fact are accounts of how old interpretations of the past have been interpreted in turn. “So naturalists observe/a flea….”)

Philippe Contamine, War in the Middle Ages (I opened the book at random and found a map of the Battle of Morat, which was the beginning of the end for Charles the Rash, Duke of Burgundy, the great enemy of Louis XI, whose biography is a shelf up. Charles is the guy who called Louis the universal spider. I don’t know what Contamine’s relationship is with the Annales school but he talks about the war in ways reminiscent of how they talk about mentalities, serfs, or amateur female saints. He talks about the art of war, which for a lot of readers is a dance of rectangles over a contour map, but also discusses the price of cannon stones in 1415 and the proportions of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal in gun powder from Roger Bacon to the mid 16th Century—lots more saltpeter as the years went on, which explains why royal governments had to spend so much effort and money to collected it—it was commonly made from horse manure and urine. Lazarre Carnot, organizer of victory during the wars of the French revolutionary, famously had the stuff scraped off the walls of latrines and stables. I do not believe there is a stanza of the Marseilles that refers to this activity.)

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail: the Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (It’s fascinating that a book so relevant to contemporary political economics has collected adoring blurbs from Niall Ferguson and Robert Solow, Kenneth Arrow and Francis Fukuyama. Apparently it’s easy to endorse the author’s message about how the extraction of rents by powerful minorities retards prosperity while the rule of law and inclusive political institutions whether you are spokesman for neoliberal orthodoxy or one of its critics. From where I’m sitting the reason things go to hell is generally because of the unintelligent selfishness of elites. It’s always possible for the few to oppress the many, but it is wiser and certainly nobler to forgo the opportunity. The rabbis used to say that the creation of the world was an act of voluntary limitation on God’s part. He drew back so there could be room for something else in the universe. I don’t know if this piece of theology was originally a political allegory—the guys who start out in a position to lord it over the others are hardly Gods—but I do note that the founding act in the birth of democratic states is commonly one of forbearance. When the artist Benjamin West told King George III that Washington was going to resign command of the new nation’s armies, he said “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”)

Heinrich Fichtenau, Living in the Tenth Century: Mentalities and Social Orders (It’s rather a shame that I’ve lost the ability to write legibly. My old marginalia, though less amusing than monastic droodles, are sometimes pleasant to read. Commenting on the author’s mention that the medievals referred to clerics as men who held the stilus, I wrote “Unfortunately, among those who hold the stilus/Are numbered all the vilest,” which is a pretty good book end to another piece of marginalia of mine "Those who crave the Logos/Don't care if it is bogos." My annotations weren’t all nonsense. I underlined this passage, which conveys a great deal about a vanished world: “…even at the end of the eleventh century a shod horse was worth about twice an unshod one. In an age of mass-produced iron and iron products we can no longer understand why finding a horseshoe was once considered good luck.”)

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Description of the World - Part 14

Horst Fuhrmann, Germany in the High Middle Ages c. 1050-1200 (Looking over all these books puts me in the position of a old billionaire living alone in a mansion so immense that he gets lost in his own place as he wanders about in the dead of night. I certainly don’t remember a huge hell of a lot about the reign of Henry IV or Lothar III though the underlings show that I actually read this book. I can’t even figure out exactly why I was moved to pick out one sentence or other. On the other hand, some random annotations seem accidentally apropos to 2015, for example the remark of the French king Louis VII, who tried to console himself at the thought of how much money the Holy Roman Emperor had by saying “we French only have bread, wine, and joy.”)

Fergus Millar, The Roman Near East 31 BC-AD 337 (The shiny spine of this volume frequently catches my eye, and for some reason noticing it always reminds me of Zeugma, which means crossing in Greek and was a strategic town on the Euphrates that frequently figures in the narrative of the book and is also a rhetorical figure—John Wilkes used zeugma when replying to the 4th Earl of Sandwich: “Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox” said the Earl and Wilkes replied, “That depends, my lord, on whether I embrace your lordship's principles or your mistress.”)

Sun Tzu, The Art of War (I’m still waiting for the corpse of my enemy to float by. It’s been quite a while. When I was in the publishing business, various corporate types would quote Sun Tzu at me. The Art of War really is the ideal businessman’s book, i.e. it’s short.)

J.P.Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology, and Myth (Where the Indo-European languages originated and whether it hugely matters are old questions by now. Mallory represents the scholarly consensus of a quarter of a century ago, which, so far as I know, has held up pretty well: Scythia it is. Mallory is a lot less fun to read than authors with a sharper ax to grind, but he has his entertaining moments, for example, when he illustrates Dumezil’s  theory of the Indo-European tripartite organization of society by reproducing a Breugel etching of the Land of Cockayne that depicts three louts, a clerk, warrior, and a cultivator, stretched out beneath a tree—looks like a group picture of me and my two best friends at grad school. Is that a satire on the pretentiousness of the New Mythology?)

Paul Veyne, Bread and Circuses: Historical Sociology and Political Pluralism (This is officially a treatises on eurgetism in antiquity, the largess that the well off owed to their city and its commons. Since it deals with the local, i.e., historical and contingent, contract between the powerful and the others, what Veyne calls the intermediate layer of politics, it is exceedingly relevant to the contemporary situation because so much of current politics revolves around defining or enforcing, or perhaps even changing our contract between our big men and the rest. “…in the United States, till quite recently, the very general acceptance of the dogmas of government by consent and free competition has concealed the purely local character of the contract, which has passed for the essence of democracy.” There is so much in this book: “It is much less costly to build what archaeologists and tourists call a high culture, rich in monuments, than to feed a population more or less adequately.” But think of this sentence, not apropos what governments do, since these day they don’t even build monuments, but when the corporate sponsor of a golf tournament with a million dollar first prize brags about how much money the affair is contributing to a children’s hospital.)

Claude Levi-Strauss, The View from Afar (I can’t remember a thing about this rather random collection of essays and prefaces written by Levi-Strauss. That’s rather odd, actually, since I was a diligent reader of the man for so many decades—I’m one of the eleven known individuals in North America who actually read all four volumes of his Mythologiques. I even got around to the Way of the Masks the month after Levi-Srauss died in great old age. When I deeply respect a thinker, I feel an obligation to consider their works in totality even if the exercise is largely ceremonial—I was going to write “an empty ceremony” but that’s almost a pleonasm since pointlessness is what makes a ceremony a ceremony, e.g., we see off the dead with elaborate rites even though or perhaps because they have already left.)  

Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen, The World of the Huns (This is a big book—600 pages—so you’d think would be everything you want to know about the Huns. Mostly it’s just a lament about the inadequacy of the sources. Maenchen-Helfen won’t even venture to taxonomize the Hunnic language or provide an firm answer to the old question of whether the Huns that so troubled Rome and Gaul were the same bunch the Chinese called Hsiung-nu. It obviously wasn’t a case of lack of effort on M-H’s part. I’m inclined to think of barbarian hordes as analogous to publishing companies. The names can last a long time, but the personnel change constantly so that its futile to expect that they had anything like a cultural essence or settled identity. The outfits that ravaged Europe were a bit like stock companies. Part of the reason it’s so hard to decide what language family Hunnish belonged to is that individuals from a large number of ethnic groups joined together in temporary associations for fun and plunder. Our historical memory of the Huns is mostly based on the Origin and Deeds of the Getae by “the stammering, confused, and barely literate Jordanes.” You can’t fault M-H for not trying to squeeze what he could from such sources and from archaeology, his own original profession—in his early career, he was an explorer who wrote accounts of Tuva, the mysterious Siberian region that so fascinated Richard Feynman.)  

A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium
, ed. Paul Veyne. (This is the first and by far the best of the four volumes in this series, mostly because it contains two really outstanding essays by Paul Veyne and Peter Brown, who are heroes of mine. The picture they paint of local oligarchs lording it over everyone else, not merely those who were legally slaves, says more about the reality of the old system than idealizing accounts of universal Roman citizenship. It didn’t help you to insist Romanus sum if you didn’t belong among the propertied classes. “Just as the Napoleonic Code stipulated that the word of a master should be accepted in a dispute with a servant over wages, so did the Roman master mete out his own justice if robbed by an employee, as though the employee were a slave.”  This book is another Goldhammer translation, by the way—he gets a great many good gigs.)

A History of Private Life: Revelations of the Medieval World
, ed. Georges Duby (This volume was a let down after the first, though its illustrations are fascinating. On the theory that you should take at least one thing from everything you read, how about this? “In feudal residences there was no room for individual solitude, except perhaps in the moment of death.”)

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Description of the World - Part 13 

Paul Murray Kendall, Louis XI: the Universal Spider (At a distance, French history looks like an unending series of guys named Louis—I know the kings of England, at least the ones on this side of William the Conqueror, but for a long time it was all I could do to remember that Louis XII preceded Louis XIV. Number 9 stands out, not only because he was so ably memorialized by his aide Philip de Commynes and had the good fortune to have colorful enemies like Charles, Duke of Burgundy, but because his reign marked an inflection point in the development of modern nations. Mel Brooks’ Louis XVI asserted that it was good to be the king, but the life of the actual Louis XI demonstrated that it was damned hard work. So many hours in the saddle, so much intrigue and dissimulation. No wonder so many of these figures were utterly worn out in the their 50s.)

Philippe de Communes, Memoirs (And this is the eyewitness version of these events written by a participant who worked first for the Burgundians and then for Louis. Phillipe had few illusions: “We must realize, therefore, considering the wickedness of men, especially the powerful who do not acknowledge or believe there is a God, that it is necessary or each lord or prince to have his opposite to keep him fearful and humble, otherwise no one would be able to live under their rule or anywhere near them.”)

Gwyn Jones, A History of the Vikings (The Thirteenth Warrior is movie based on the Michael Creighton novel of the same name. It’s essentially a demystified version of Beowulf, but Creighton also drew a lot on a book written by an Arab named ibn Fadian, who went on an embassy to the Bulgars of the middle Volga river in 921. Ibn Fadian, who probably never guessed that he would be played by Antonio Banderas in the movie, definitely didn’t go galloping off to Denmark with a passel of Vikings to fight monsters. The Viking ship burial in the film is based on ibn Fadian’s account, though Hollywood left out the part where the deceased’s friends had sex with the Irish slave girl before they strangled her. I mention all this detail because it’s dollars to donuts that Creighton got the ibn Fadian character from an appendix to Jones’ book that reproduces his account of the ship burial.)

Bede,  A History of the English Church and People (What matters changes over time. Livy carefully records monstrous births and other prodigies. The Title of Chapter 12 of Book 3 of this book is “A Little Boy is Cured of Ague at St. Oswald’s Tomb.’)

Eric Christiansen, The Northern Crusades (I read this book while holed up in a sweltering motel room in Baton Rouge. The Northern regions seemed exotic to me at the time so it was easy to identify with the Danes and Germans who pioneered the mysterious pagan East, though the Vikings plied these waters before the crusaders, and the area was never as benighted as I probably imagined because of the status of the Baltic in Monopoly and vague memories of Lower Slabbovia from Al Capp cartoons. This book’s picture of the Teutonic Knights doesn’t improve the impression of ‘em you get from the Eisenstein movie. These guys were formidable in many ways: “The terrible Johann von Gelberstedt of Halle had been so vigorous in secular life that even after receiving the last rites he had been moved to rape his nurse.”)

Georges Duby, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined (This book usually gets featured as an attempt to understand the medieval understanding of society via Dumezil’s notion of the Indoeuropean tripartite ideology: “Here below, some pray, others fight, others work” orare, pugnare, laborare. As in music, the virtuosity is demonstrated more by the variations than the theme. On the other hand, one thought Duby presumably picked up from Dumezil that is more than schematic is the way that the criticism of the second order, the knights, seems rather more an expression of priestly disdain. The need to humble the warriors is built in to some very old stories. In the Mahabharata, for example, the deep cause of the great war is not just the jealousy between clans or a king’s gambling problem. The Kshtriyas must be made to destroy one another in order to save the Earth from their pride and violence. The Trojan war had a similar function in Greek thinking about human history. Duby’s book was translated by Arthur Goldhammer, the prince of translators—he most recently got credit for the great clarity of his translation of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century. The Three Orders was his second translation.

Jacques Le Goff, The Medieval Imagination (Le Goff is well known for his attempts to write a history of the imagination. I had forgotten how much the attempt owed to Levi-Strauss. You end up calling a chapter Vestimentary and Alimentary Codes in Erec et Enide because of his example. That sort of thing is catching. Back in the day, I tried to come up with a Levi-Straussian taxonomy of the shapes of women’s legs. By the way, Goldhammer did this translation, too.)

Sir John Froisssart, The Chronicles of England, France, and Spain (Another book it would be fun to read out loud to the right kid though you might not want to do so in the spirit of the author who wrote “to encourage all valorous hearts, and to show them honorable examples.” Fans of Game of Thrones might also enjoy the book which manages to be enthusiastic about an era of unrelenting violence, albeit without dragons. Its interesting to compare Froissart’s enthusiasm for what could be accomplished with edged weapons with the melancholy retrospection of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror that covers the same time period.

M.A. Murray, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (This is one of those books that’s fascinating to read even though you are aware that the author’s theory is essentially a crank. Believing that witchcraft was real—not that old women went flying around on broomsticks, for course, but that the covens and ceremonies reflected the survival and perhaps revival of ancient traditions—is apparently irresistible to judge by the number of times it has been floated. That folkloric vestiges lay behind the elaborated accounts of the witch hunters is likely enough, just as actual floods featuring real water did occur before the Mesopotamians cooked up Utnapishtim, but interpretation, i.e., what happens in transmission, is more important than the initiating facts, which are generally rather insignificant even when they can be determined. If you want to know how the old folkways were submerged by modernity read Keith Thomas Religion and the Decline of Magic. Murray’s a better guilty pleasure, right up there with Jane Ellen Harrison.)

Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives (The longer you work at remembering a dream the more coherent it becomes. The dream as experienced is hardly recoverable at all. It’s a virtual object we have to postulate even to make the point that the overt dream is a fiction. Davis studied how 16th Century people in England created stories to go along with their requests for pardons. It’s not so much that their accounts of various, sometimes hair raising events were all lies, though many of them were surely that, but that they all evince a process analogous to dream work. Ought to give historians pause. What actually happened is as unrecoverable as what the dream was before we woke up and explained it to ourselves.)

Friday, November 27, 2015

Description of the World - Part 12

Romilly Jenkins, Byzantium: the Imperial Centuries A.D. 610-1071 (I got my ideas about the Eastern Roman Empire from Gibbon who famously lost patience and greatly increased the pace of his narrative in the last several volumes of his history. Since then I’ve recognized that the Byzantines were actually doing pretty damned well almost up to the Battle of Manzikert (1071). The Muslims were on the defensive for centuries before then and the empire, though somewhat smaller in area, was flourishing economically. One thought about Manzikert: some of the same soldiers who had fought for King Harold at Hastings (1066) traveled East looking for work and managed to be on hand for a second world-historical thrashing. Reminds me of the poor Japanese guy who lived through both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks (Auerbach uses an episode from this history as the basis for one of the chapters in Mimesis: the Representation of Reality in Western Literature. I expect that most of the people at all familiar with Gregory heard about him from this much more famous book. For me, the great thing about Gregory’s history is its first line: “A good many things keep happening, some of them good, some of them bad.” That’s right up there with the first line of Njal’s Saga, “There was a man named Mord Fiddle.” When I imagine the sordid happenings in Merovingian Gaul, the scenes are all as dark and gloomy as Summer in San Francisco. You have to remind yourself that the Dark Ages is just an expression. The sun shines just as brightly on misbegotten eras—I guess that’s my version of Herder’s bit about all ages being equally close to God.

David Christie-Murray, A History of Heresy (This is a history, but it reads like a field guide. The author is a Christian and holds to the last page the belief that there is, as he puts it, a red line around the true faith. I’m not a Christian and don’t have an existential interest in the question, but I agree with him in one respect. Most of the movements that were declared heretical were, intellectually and politically speaking, pretty sorry affairs. Churches are human institutions that can’t ignore political, economic, and social realities even if they are dedicated to imaginary beings. A raging prophet with two dozen acolytes can propose any damn thing. The orthodox may defend tenants that are objectively false and morally deplorable, but they are usually coherently worked out if only because the core of the faith has been defined and defended by generations of intelligent men. The more embarrassing (Mary mother of God) and dangerous (drawing practical conclusions from apocalyptic prophesy) elements are explained away or carefully sequestered in ecclesiastical thermos bottles. Meanwhile, suicide cults die out. Which is why even an atheist like me can find himself laughing at the reflexive way that heretics are esteemed. Before you canonize ‘em, you ought to look and see what actual heretics were like.)

Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (I wrote a blog post about this book a while ago so I’ll just report that a friend of mine who was induced into reading it by my comments has just about forgiven me. It’s not that he found the book wanting, but he’s quite right that it is extremely depressing, especially since the detailed account of how climatic change works itself out in misery and confusion is ever so apropos to us. I always hankered to be an American version of Lucien Herr, the librarian at the École normale supérieure who wrote nothing but supposedly shaped the course of French intellectual history for decades by handing out just the right book to Jean Jaurès or Charles Péguy. On the evidence, I’m not doing so hot at that.)

G.Q. Bowersock, Peter Brown, Oleg Grabar, Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World (There are folks, including people like Bryan Ward-Perkins who actually work in the field, who think that the upswing in interest in late antiquity is a bad omen. That may be—compare Derrida and Plotinus. On the other hand, somebody is always announcing the decadence of the West (or the East). Back in the 60s it was me claiming that the fin de siècle was coming early this time around. What’s probably true when you say that the world is coming to an end is that your world is coming to an end. Anybody who is self reflexive enough to have a world view will feel that the foundations of the deep are shaking beneath their feet. Fortunately, most people change as the world changes and are unaware of the relative motion—Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis. For them nothing changes but pop music and the length of skirts. They’re like fish who doubt the existence of water: I’ll believe it when I see it.)

A DVD of American Splendor (I never managed to sit through this film. I have a friend who is the world champion of reading the first twenty or thirty pages of books. I’m like that with movies. Two hours in a theater seems awfully long, and even the fast forward button doesn’t completely cure my restlessness. I feel like I’m in control when I read and that makes me far more patient. It’s the same reason I so hate dentistry. The pain wouldn’t be so bad if you inflicted it on yourself.)

Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (This is the ’89 version of Chomsky, not enormously different from the ’15 version. You have to wonder what’s the point of being right if your efforts to make the point always convince the same people or their children.)

J.E.A. Jolliffe, The Constitutional History of Medieval England from the English settlement to 1485 (The origins of English law, like botany and contract bridge, is a subject I feel I ought to understand better but have little ambition to study. At least I know enough not to share the 19th Century enthusiasm for Anglo-Saxon attitudes that Lewis Carroll made fun of in Through the Looking Glass, though, come to think of it, in this area of history, as in many others, what people imaged about the past is more interesting and important than the eigentlich gewesen bit.)

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Description of the World - Part 11

Marc Bloch, French Rural History (Perhaps because it’s only a couple of days after the attacks in Paris,  I’m minded to note that this fine French historian was killed by the Gestapo for his participation in the Resistance ten days after the Normandy invasion. He belonged to a generation of Frenchmen who explored the interstitial spaces of history, in his case, what was literally between the roads, i.e., the fields.)

Michael Psellus, Fourteen Byzantine Rulers (I try to at least sample old history books. We think of history as an exercise in remembering, but that’s ambiguous. The modern accounts of Byzantium are attempts at recovering the past, but books like this one are attempts to create memory for the future. He was throwing a message in a bottle into the ocean, not examining the flotsam that had washed up on the shore. Of course people still write about events in a projective way, especially aging politicians, but I wish professional historians would do it as well.

René Grousset, The Empire of the Steppes: a History of Central Asia (Most of the Mojave desert east of LA is anything but a picturesque desert. A lot of it looks like an immense vacant lot full of scrubby weeds and blowing trash. You might also liken it to the back of your computer, a dusty region of tangled wires because this is where the power lines and railroads that power LA plug in—if EM radiation is bad for you, it’s a wonder anybody survives stopping for lunch in Victorville. I think of Central Asia as another obscure site of vital connections—I mean the steppes, not the urbanized regions of the Stans, which are crucial to human history in other ways as Frederic Starr explained recently in Lost Enlightenment. Religions, armies, diseases, and languages moved back and forth across these immense spaces, not to mention the silk that gave the routes their name. The Romans called Scythia, the Western part of this expanse, vagina gentium, which means both the womb and scabbard of peoples. While making sure I was spelling vagina gentium correctly, I ran across a white power website that bewailed the fact that central Asia was no longer what it once was, the womb of the white race. I guess they don’t count the Turks, Mongols, Huns, etc. as peoples. Apparently real humanity pretty much means Caucasians for these folks, and Caucasian is understood literally. The mystique of the Indo-European still lives as well as the notion, belied by the history of Eurasia, that purity, not mixture is the secret of creativity.)

Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources. (Most of what I know about the kings and battles sort of history of Anglo-Saxon England comes from having read the first volume of David Hume’s History of England, which, unfortunately I lost. Casualty of a divorce. I haven’t gotten into the source materials much.)

Jacques Le Goff, Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages (Modern historians are like Wellington’s army. They have to be willing to go anywhere and do anything, in a determined quest to understand all the planes and aspects of human life irrespective of the monoglot disciplines that claims sovereignty over the various particulars. Most traditional histories were quite different. For a long time, history was essentially a branch of rhetoric that focused on politics and personalities and assembled moral exempla and useful instances for public purposes—that’s what the biographies of Michael Psellus or the Roman history of Livy were like and a good deal of pop history is still like. Some of the old historians tried to extract general conclusions from the evidence—Thucydides, Polybius, Tacitus, Machiavelli, Guicciardini—but trying to understand the past more broadly wasn’t very common. (Herodotus was an exception, he ought to be enrolled among the Annales school honoris causa.) The real predecessors of historians like Le Goff were the philologists and antiquaries who practiced an Archimboldian science, i.e., a practice of assembling sense out of heterogenous materials. Example of what I mean: Le Goff makes a connection between the scholastic notion of the just price and the fact that the denizens of the medieval universities formed a consumer society of fair size—1,500 academics at Oxford in 1380. In an era of low crop yields, it took a great many peasants to fill that many academic gullets and a great effort on the part of urban bourgeoisie to figure out how to pay for their upkeep. Demographics, agriculture, mentalities, economics, politics…)

George Duby, The Knight the Lady and the Priest: the Makingof Modern Marriage in Medieval France (A book I never got around to reading, but may yet. This exercise is like visiting a bookstore except that I don’t have to pay for anything.)

George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State (A line I underlined for some reason: “The very year in which the victories of Byzantine Empire over the Persian began is the Muslim year of the Hijra.” The first edition of the book appeared in 1940. I must have read it at the end of the 60’s or the beginning of the 70’s when the Middle East wasn’t the focus of international politics and Islam was mostly just considered an unpleasant relic of the Middle Ages. I recall a science fiction novel from that era about a classics prof who somehow traveled back in time to 6th Century Italy. The prof threw in with the Ostrogoths, but wrote a letter to Justinian advising him to send an army to central Arabia to take care of take care of a certain rabble rouser. In those days, it was simply taken for granted whose side you’d be on.)

Ferdinand Gregorovius, Rome and Medieval Culture (I forget which Italian made the point—Machiavelli?—that no territory could be ruled so badly as the papal states unless it were in the power of a sacred authority. A secular authority would have been overthrown and replaced with something more competent. Rome itself typified this idea in the Dark and Middle Ages: it was a failed state that Europe would never let fail once anf for all, a permanent Somalia, but a Somalia that mattered very much no matter how wretched it became. Much of the history reads like a parody of the ancient struggle of the patricians and plebs. The local nobility early on achieved and then somehow maintained an extreme level of decadence while the Roman mob retained an absurd sense of entitlement and importance, even in the era when cows grazed the slopes of the Palatine. Gregorovius was a 19th Century German Protestant who had to struggle against his own distaste for his chosen subject matter to be objective by the lights of the historiography of his times. This reader of chronicles of nonsense and disorder doesn’t always feel the imperative need to try.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Description of the World - Part 10

Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital 1848-1875 (Too bad nobody has written an equally convincing account of what happened in the 27 years 1988-2015. It would take somebody with astonishing powers of synthesis to make sense out of the collapse of Communism, the triumph of neoliberalism, the decline of democracy, the rise of China, the new Thirty Years War in the Middle East, the electronic integration of the planet, and the arrival of global warming in 300 pages or so. Not that Hobsbawm’s task was that much easier.

Donald Leach, Asia in the Making of Europe, Volume 1 The Century of Discovery (One of the pleasures of this exercise in impressionistic bibliography is recalling how much I enjoyed reading all these books. I’m not much of traveler; but in one respect, at least, I’m a born tourist, the original sessile nomad. Particular books connect with episodes in my private life, too. I met Charles Boxer at Yale, where he was famous for leading undergraduates in choruses of dirty songs at drunken parties. Boxer, who started out as a professional soldier, became well known later on in his life as a historian of the Indian Ocean and the Portuguese empire—he was better or at least luckier at history than soldiering. As second in command at Hong Kong in 1941, he lost an arm defending the Gin Drinker’s line and spent the war in a Japanese prison camp. One of the themes of the Leach book is how the Portuguese lucked into an incredibly good thing and quickly learned that a small country can easily have too much good fortune.)

Carlin A. Barton, The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster (I wrote a brief review of this book in Indoor Ornithology, praising it for recognizing that there are monsters of the ego as well as monsters of the id, a comment Barton apparently endorsed. Glancing through the book, I noticed that I underlined a quotations from one of Flaubert’s letters. “Because I wanted to understand everything, everything is a mystery” and commented in the margin “This from the author of Bouvard et Pécuchet.” That “Know Thyself” isn’t a cure all is something both Flaubert and I should keep in mind.)

Jacques LeGoff, Medieval Civilization (The plan of the Monastery of St Gall reproduced in this volume should suffice to convey the complexity of medieval societies. I didn’t get the message from this book, though. I originally got that from my aunt’s travel book with its many photos of the walled city of Carcassonne, and I’ve been to Chartres. The Medievals didn’t inhabit ruins—it was once all new—and the invisible cathedrals of their ideas were as elaborate as the marble ones that still stand.) 

Blood, Sweat, and Tears: the Speeches of Winston Churchill
, ed. David Cannadine (I understand that Churchill wrote out his speeches in lines one breath long so they looked like verse. The approach works best for perorations delivered at times of crisis and those are what we remember best since they were designed to be memorable. I don’t think Churchill was as good at making an argument as, for example, Lincoln. Most speakers tell people what they think they want to hear, the honest ones more or less accurately report their own thoughts, but Lincoln’s extended speeches come across as thinking out loud. I don’t get that from Churchill.)

Nathan Rosenberg and L.E. Birdell, Jr., How the West Grew Rich (I can’t remember a thing about this book. It must have seemed virtuous to acquire it, and I’m certainly interested in the general topic of the great divergence; but I apparently forget I owned it.)

Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (To judge by the marginal notes, I read this book carefully; and leafing through it, I begin to recall why I took it seriously. Since I read it, though, my regard for Wallerstein has been influence by reading his later writings, which tend to endlessly repeat the same themes—core/periphery, bosses, henchmen, subjects—in a rather lifeless way. Eventually you end up writing textbook accounts of your own ideas, assuming you can remember what they were. That shouldn’t ruin your reputation. That would be like thinking that a love affair was a failure because it didn’t last. Many great marriages end in divorce just as many great love affairs end in marriage.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Description of the World - Part 9

Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire 1875-1914 (There’s a 500 dong bill wedged at the beginning of Chapter 7, Who’s Who or the Uncertainties of the Bourgeoisie. I have absolutely no clue how a piece of Vietnamese money found its way into this history of the end of the long 19th Century. I do note that this item is just about the only thing obviously communist in this book written by a historian who is probably most famous for dying an unrepentant Red. The usual moral drawn from the objectivity and obvious quality of Hobsbawm’s historical work is something about the virtues of professionalism. I sometimes wonder, however, if the true, but unthinkable explanation, is that opting for Marxist/Leninism wasn’t that crazy a choice. There is no need to come up with pop psychological theories about how the wrong-headed Hobsbawm could somehow also be a profound historian. He wasn’t an Adolf Wölfli, the dangerous paranoid schizophrenic who was also a world-class painter. I was never been a fan of the Soviet Union or an apologist for its activities, but this business of declaring or even implying that certain attitudes and ideas are unthinkable is unphilosophical. If there are thought crimes in the world, one has an obligation to commit them.)

Jesse L. Byock, Medieval Iceland (I admired Iceland even before they told the bankers to go piss up a rope. The place had me at Njal’s Saga. This is a dull book about a fascinating society. It’s chock full of detail, however, and I can supply the motivation. Note: whatever the newspaper writers bleat, the devil is not in the details. God is in the details.)

Christopher Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution (People occasionally say that you can get anything out of scripture. You don’t have to rely on the cliche, though. Books like this supply the evidence. More generally, the English Civil War provides a lot of evidence that universal literacy and a free press have a significant downside.)

A Concise Encyclopaedia of the Italian Renaissance, ed. J.R.Hale (I don’t buy reference books to consult ‘em. I actually read them. I’ve met quite a few people who do the same, though some of ‘em are embarrassed about doing do.)

Justine Davis Randers-Pehrson, Barbarians and Romans (Simultaneously scholarly and gossipy, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’ve always had fantasies about Galla Placidia—so you’ve married the Gothic king and now you’re upstairs and Athaulf doffs his scarlet cloak and says “Well, here we are…”)

Alfred Zimmern, The Greek Commonwealth (I think I found this book on a remainder table or maybe I bought it from a garage sale. Tried to read it once or twice but found its pedagogic tone irritating and quit a hundred pages in. I guess the Modern Library folks thought it was a classic, a choice that reminds me of the time that the Nobel Prize was awarded to a guy who had invented a mining lantern. I did just learn, however, that Zimmern, who was a supporter of the British Labor party introduced the expression welfare state.)

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, The Ancien Regime (The aristocrats, bishops, and lawyers of this era didn’t think they were living in a fossilized kingdom. By their own lights, they were thoroughly modern.)

Edwin Williamson, The Penguin History of Latin America (I always seem to glimpse Latin America, at least South America, out of the corner of my eye so I read this perfectly adequate if somewhat pedestrian history. I don’t know if it was the subject matter or the fact that I read the book while I was taking care of my desperately ill sister, but I still can’t keep the wars and dictators straight. Like the Chinese dinner of the cliche, half an hour after you consume a book like this, you’re hungry again.)

The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective ed. Arjun Appadurai (I got this collection of papers out of a brief interest in the Medieval trade in relics, though there’s only one essay on this topic in the book. I also probably liked the title, which reminded me of a book by Norman, which was originally called the Psychology of Everyday Things.