Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Description of the World - Part 34

Microhistory & the Lost Peoples of Europe, ed. Edward Muir and Guido Ruggiero (When I started this exercise, I expected the many of the books that sit on my shelves were never read. When I first picked up this collection of historical papers this afternoon, I couldn’t remember anything about it, but leafing through I realized that I had read it or lots of it, especially the seminar paper on ritual pillaging, the ancient custom of ransacking the personal property of bishops at their death and the tale of a Jewish banker who fell afoul of the Christian laity in Mantua in 1493 when he removed a picture of the Madonna from a house he had purchased even though he had ecclesiastical permission to paint over the image. These bits stuck in my head, though I certainly forgot where I heard about ‘em. Characteristically, the details made more of an impression than the intent of the collection, which was to demonstrate what microhistory is all about: In his introduction, Edward Muir writes of the authors of these pieces: “Their work responds to the once dominant preoccupation among historians with quantitative social science, the longue duree, and immobile history, and it returns to interpreting utterances and beliefs, to describing brief dramatic events, and to envisioning a past characterized more by abrupt changes than by deep structural continuities.”  Like the new historicism, microhistory is…essays. Come to think of it, I guess I don’t buy the notion that there is so great a contrast between the details and the generalities. Even a unprecedented and unrepeated event can be an instance of a rule. Muir chooses a remark by Sherlock Holmes as an epigraph: “You know my method. It is founded on trifles.” Yep, but Sherlock was interested in trifles that solved a mystery.)

Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou: the Promised Land of Error (Speaking of the peaceful co-existence of details and generalities… This account of the social life of a medieval village on the French side of the Pyrenees is full of fascinating detail, but Ladurie, who is otherwise famous for “quantitative social science,” uses the rich testimony he found in Inquisitorial records to illuminate patterns practices and customs that belong to the longue duree. The book became a best seller because of the stories it tells about a lecherous priest; but what I found fascinating about it was the long-range ethnography, in particular the way in which Ladurie was able to reconstruct how the geography of the world looked to a 14th Century villager and Catholic moral theology appeared to a poorly educated cleric. My former wife gave me this book for my birthday back in the 70s—we proved to be an immiscible combination, but I have to admit that she gave me some wonderful presents.)

Winfred P. Lehmann, Historical Linguistics, 3rd edition (Back in ’67 or ’68, I decided I ought to learn at least a little bit about linguistics since I was in the philosophy business during the latter stages of the linguistic turn. I asked for advice on what to read from Rulon Wells, who was both a theoretical linguist and a philosopher. I think he recommended a book by a guy named Lyons—it’s in my office in if i still have it—but I mention this small bit of personal history because it was like the cute meet at the beginning of an unhappy love affair. I’ve been reading formal linguistics off and on for nearly 50 years and have mostly just succeeded in demonstrated to myself the limitations of self education. Still, it can come in handy once and a while to know about Kurylowicz’ 4th Law of Analogy if only to impress the natives. For the most part, I know about linguistics to the same extent that Amerigo Vespucci knew about America, i.e., that it’s there and very big. Well, I do know that historical linguistics is less perilous to the dilettante than the theoretical variety. The linguistics book that’s been the ruin of many a poor boy (and girl) is Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale. Textbooks like Lehmann’s aren't the hard stuff.)

Hemchandra Raychaudhuri, Political History of Ancient India (I may have unfairly dismissed this book after reading a few chapters because the author seemed to treat the legendary material in the Indian epics as historical as if it could be assumed that there really was a War of the Kurus—the great war in the Mahabharata—and that the war was a central event in early Indian history.  He certainly puts more weight on such evidence than I would. I tend to think that both the Indian and the Greek version of their early history reflected an essentially mythological pattern that called for a great war—Trojan for the Greeks, the Bharata war for the Indians. Thing is, while it is unclear if it makes sense to talk about the Trojan war, Trojan wars were real enough. Similarly, maybe there was some sort of Bharata war, even if nobody, including Raychaudhuri, thinks it was a struggle between five brothers and a hundred sons over a game of dice. Depending on old literary sources is problematic, not because such works don’t preserve bits and pieces of the genuine past; but because you can’t tell the surviving fragments from the later additions and inventions in the absence of some sort of corroboration from outside sources or archaeology or something. In any case, though i continue to rely on the much more skeptical Romila Thapar for my ancient Indian history, the old-school version represented by Raychaudhuri retains some interest quite apart from its credibility, especially now that the Modi and his Hindutva allies are in the ascendent in what has to be one of the three or four most important countries on Earth. In spinning a heroic narrative about India, the Hindutvas, like certain celebratory American historians, are not above mere fabrication; but their job is made easier by the obscurity of the Indian past. The history of India is a wonderful inkblot if you want to project an ideology. I once gave a week of lectures on Indian history at a  Junior College in Pennsylvania—too bad they didn’t need a tango instructor, too—and ended up telling a pretty traditional story. precisely because I did know enough to know I was talking through my hat. Thing is, when it comes to a great many features of Indian history, even those who know what they are talking about are talking through their hat.)

Jacques Le Goft, Your Money or Your Life (Le Goff claims, apropos of what took place towards the end of the Middle Ages, “The hope of escaping Hell, thanks to Purgatory, permitted the usurer to propel the economy and society of the thirteenth century ahead towards capitalism.” Seems to me that the whole machinery of indulgences and interventions for the dead was an elaboration of an older compromise that finessed Christ’s apparently absolute denunciation of the rich by allowing them to pay off their guilt by contributions to the Church. You cannot serve God and Mammon, but there is a loophole big enough to drive a truck or at least a camel. At the end of the book I wrote “A graceful but rather slight essay..”)

Claude Manceron, Towards the Brink (This is the fourth volume of Manceron’s account of the Age of the French Revolution—I don’t think he got beyond Volume 5, which at least saw off the Bastille. The fourth volume begins with the arrest of Beaumarchais, who got in trouble because of the egalitarian ideas of the Marriage of Figaro, his spectacularly popular hit. Truth told, Louis XVI didn’t want to put the screws to Beaumarchais. Like everybody else, he loved the play; and at the end of the 18th Century, you couldn’t know which side of the revolution the kings would wind up on. They had their own complaints about the nobility; and, after all, the first of the Bourbon monarchs of France had practically ran for the throne on a populist platform—Henri IV’s slogan was “a chicken in every pot.” Well, Louis XVI doesn’t get much credit for wisdom or wit; but he showed a bit of flair by imprisoning Beaumarchais in a reform school for the wayward offspring of the high born. I read the other volumes of this history in library copies and enjoyed them all. As I wrote in the fly leaf of this one, “This guy has written the Thomas Pynchon version of the French Revolution.”)

Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (My sister happened to pick up this book and begin to read it during a visit back in the 90s. She was especially taken with the first essay in the collection, an account of what real French folk stories say about the French. She wondered out loud where I found these fascinating books. Now my sister didn’t read as much as me—nobody does—but everyone in my extended family read a lot; and her husband filled their place with books, though I don’t think he made my mistake of usually reading what he bought. They did tend to read popular books, however, and that perhaps accounts for her surprise at how engrossing mine were. Thing is, books written for American adults are really children’s books for old children. Books written for mass audience aren’t simply less trustworthy as sources of information or less original in point of the ideas they convey. They are less entertaining, though admittedly it requires more effort to read fully adult works than books written for superannuated young adults.)

Bernard DeVoto, The Year of Decision 1846 (This is a fancy presentation edition of an old standby history, which is probably why it only cost me $7.50—nobody thought anybody would ever actually read it. Like the text of National Geographic articles and the last three hundred pages of the Critique of Pure Reason, the words in American Heritage books are in a rain shadow where few eyes ever fall. DeVoto is actually a good narrative historian, and he’s right about the salience of ’46. In American history the date is like ’48 in European history.)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Description of the World - Part 33

S.L.A. Marshall, World War I (Marshall became well known as a military historian for his claim, supposedly based on extensive interviewing, that most American soldiers didn’t actually fire their weapons at the enemy in combat during World War II and Korea. The idea was that normal Americans had a difficult time overcoming their civilian reluctance to do violence. To say the least, this thesis has lost most of its credibility; but while it was still commonly believed, you heard that Americans had become far more murderous since the early 50s, which was supposed to be why soldiers in Vietnam showed no reluctance to try to kill their opponents. The ascribed peaceableness of World War II draftees created the impression of special bloodthirstiness on the part of contemporary Americans. The World War I book is just a potboiler. Though Marshall fought as a sergeant at San Michael and the Argonne and might be expected to have some special insight into the conflict, his narrative is routine. I probably bought the book because it does have some interesting maps.)

Annabel Patterson, Reading Holinshed’s Chronicles (Even in 1610 the Chronicles had their critics—“vast, vulgar Tomes…recovered out of innumerable Ruins.” Shakespeare cribbed his history from them, and they must have served as something like a History Channel for the Elizabethans. Everything was crammed in since selection would have been more work than inclusion. The net effect is populist because what a more fastidious historian would omit is not so much trivial as common.  Of course some of the material preserved in this vast work is anything but democratic. Here’s one Sir John Cheke admonishing a mob in 1549: “And to have no gentlemen, because ye be none your selves, is to bring down an estate and to mend none...If there should be such equalitie, then ye take awaie all hope from yours to come in anie better estate than you now leave them.” I’ve heard that one before.)

Andrew Large, The Artificial Language Movement (Some considerable minds have dreamed of a premeditated language that would banish all obscurity and presumably bring the millennium: the philosopher Leibniz, Peano the mathematician, John Wilkins, Robert Hooke, even Sir Thomas Urquhart, translator of Rabelais, whose proposed language featured eleven cases and eleven genders. Heck, I invented one when I was a kid, Rhetorice Glossman, though I never managed to speak it without an accent—as I recall it was a bit like Peano’s Latine sine flexione but took off from Greek instead of Latin. Optimism about the prospects of a perfected language is also a continuing feature—writes Large “The Chinese Esperanto League had only 500 adherents but the works of Mao Tse-tung were published in Esperanto in tens of thousands of copies.”  Over and beyond the reluctance of the population to switch over, the same problem bedevils the projectors who can never quite settle on a single standard for the new language. This book tells the story of some of the desperate struggles that the founders of Volapük and Esperanto had with the heretics. Of course even natural languages have a tendency to fission—if mankind lasts long enough, I expect Indian English and American English will eventually be as distinct as French and Romanian. As Heraclitus pointed out long ago (and his fragments cover pretty much all cases) “Even the sacred barley water separates if it is not stirred.”)

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Description of the World – Part 32

The Nature of Fascism, ed. S.J.Woolf (Back in the 70s I read so much about fascism that it was hard to keep all the books and articles straight, and I don’t think I came to any conclusion about the phenomenon. The confusion wasn’t mine alone. In those days, even leftist historians were recognizing the limitations of the orthodox Marxist interpretation; and the Hannah Arendt subsumption of the Nazis and the Stalinists under the rubric of totalitarianism was also getting a little long in the tooth, more a club swung by the anti-communists than a serious theory about fascism itself. Personally, I blame the Nazis. As my Dad used to joke, Nazism was so bad it gave fascism a bad name. In its original Italian version and many other variants, fascism simply wasn’t that unprecedented or inexplicable. Ordinary historical sociology is perfectly capable of defining and explaining it, and there’s no reason to be surprised when analogous movements appear and win the support of large parts of the electorate in Europe and America.)

Carl Von Clausewitz, On War (I’ve never read an unabridged version of Vom Kriege. It usually makes me uncomfortable to leave my understanding of an important book at the mercy of the editor; but as perspicacious as Clausewitz sometimes is, I have no desire to put up with any longer sample of his attempt to be the Immanuel Kant of the organized violence. It’s possible to be clever about a stupid subject, but the intellectual effort is like spraying air freshener over a corpse. At least Clausewitz, who was no stranger to actual battlefields, doesn’t mistake the object of war. He isn’t like so many politicians and at least some of the so-called military intellectuals, those overgrown children who talk about war as if it were a board game. He knows that the goal of strategy is the welfare of the state, not the winning of battles.)

Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: the Origins of the Avant-Garde in France 1885 to World War I (I’m not sure if I became a fan of Erik Satie before or after I read this book; but his piano pieces invariably summon up Shattuck’s word picture of the composer. I’m fond of the other heroes of this book, but since it’s Satie’s music that plays in my head, he’s the one the book reminds me of and that’s true even though you’d think that somebody shaped like Ubu Roi would have more of affinity with Alfred Jarry. I once persuaded a young woman of my acquaintance to play Satie for her audition at Julliard—she got in—so maybe I think of Satie as good luck.)

Edward Beach, The United States Navy: a 200-Year History (Apparently a rather celebratory history of the navy. The book made no impression on me at all.)

James MacGregor Burns, Roosevelt: the Soldier of Freedom 1940-1945 (This book was published 25 years after the end of the war, perhaps the last time that such a book could be addressed to readers for whom the events of the early 40s were lived experience and not manufactured nostalgia. I suppose the post post war period actually began when Kennedy was assassinated—the ten years after Dallas were like watching in slow motion as a giant stumbled and fell to the ground—but I personally perceived the early 70s as the end of an era. For me, the precise inflection point occurred when Nixon abolished the draft “Now we put away the toys,” I told my friends. It was incredibly depressing to realize that’s all it took to end political idealism in the United States not only for other people but for us as well. But about the book: the take home for me was how Roosevelt had to play the generals, politicians, and bureaucrats off against each other in order to keep some control over the war effort. As Mohammad (or the Angel Gabriel) said of Allah, there are many connivers, who think to work their will, but he was the greatest conniver of them all.)

Friday, December 25, 2015

Description of the World – Part 31

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Love, Death and Money in the Pays D’oc ( this interpretation of an old novel about peasant life in the Midi surely owes something to the Mythologiques of Levi-Strauss. Some of the diagrams and tables of inverted versions look familiar, even if the subject matter is different. Le Roy Ladurie shows more obvious interest in material conditions than Levi-Struass—I don’t recall anything exactly comparable to the regression of contributions of wives to husbands in marriage contracts in Beaujolais, 1750-1780 (0.86 if you were wondering); but Levi-Strauss was actually a lot more interested in economics and even history than he’s given credit for. What Le Roy Ladurie attempted in this study of Occitan literature also looks forward to the distant reading program of Franco Moretti. What I mostly got out of it was from the novella by Jean-Baptiste Castor Fabre (1727-83), which is the book’s “rather arbitrary starting point.” A nobleman returning to his castle hears a peasant ahead of him singing joyfully. He catches up to the man and asks him why he’s so happy. “The fact is, I have just buried my wife, and that, believe me, is a great relief to man.” Contrary to what you might think, what I found memorable about this exchange was the way in which nobles and peasants interacted or were supposed to have interacted before the French Revolution. Thirty years ago when I read the book, I was still thinking of the relationship between the classes on the American model in which, despite our official egalitarianism, well off people have practically no contact with the poor. I had assumed that the practical segregation of the classes would have been even greater in a society that valued hierarchy, though I suppose even in 1985 I would have known better if I thought about it.)

The Pastons: A Family in the Wars of the Roses, ed. Richard Barber (Since the Game of Thrones is allegedly modeled on the Wars of the Roses between Yorks and Lancaster, you’d think this collection of letters by the members of a prominent family negotiating the turmoil of the age would be a popular read. I recall practically nothing from it, though when leafing through it, I was interested to note that among one Sir John Paston’s effects was a copy of the Game and Play of Chess, which I was taught to think was the first book printed in England—evidently Caxton published a little romance about Troy earlier.)

Dougals Preston with Mario Spezi, The Monster of Florence (An account of sensational murders and the incompetence and chicanery of the police, prosecutors, and judges who dealt with it. This isn’t the kind of book I usually read. It was given to me by an Italian friend of mine who wanted to make a point about the deplorable state of justice in his home country—the book certainly does that, but then Italy is a country where the judges blame the geologists for the earthquakes so you aren’t entitled to be particularly surprised. The question that remains unanswered is whether the courts in Chicago are better or worse than those in Tuscany.)

Jerome Friedman, The Battle of the Frogs and Fairford’s Flies: Miracles and the Pulp Press During the English Revolution (I’m reading David Wooton’s Invention of Science just now. Wooton makes the important point that the invention of printing made it possible to accumulate reliable knowledge about the world. I don’t disagree with that exactly, but it is only half the story. Printing, like the Internet in our times, inundated the world with nonsense before it provided an infrastructure for enlightenment. Many of the key institutions of the new science can be seen as ways of maintaining some sanity in the midst of the brown flood. Peer review was the non-theological equivalent of the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books. Friedman’s little book is about what printing made possible during the English Revolution when the political control of the press broke down. In some ways, Friedman is telling a story similar to Robert Darnton’s, whose researches show how illicit publications—philosophical books, as they were called—helped destroy the Ancien Regime. The freedom of the Press has always been problematic. In the war of cliches, it remains to be seen whether the wisdom of crowds or Gresham’s Law rules the market place of ideas. Wherever you come down on this, the fantasies retailed by the politicians of the current political season are every bit as grotesque as the Strange and Wonderful Monster illustrated in Mr. Fleetwood’s broadsheet of the same name of 1645.)

E. Papinot, Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Japan (This little reference book, which was originally published in 1910, remains very useful; but it is also pleasurable to pick it up and read. I used to think my habit of reading reference books this way was eccentric, but many people I’ve met confess to the same practice.)
Alex Shoumatoff, The Mountain of Names: a History of the Human Family (It’s only a matter of time before all existing genealogical information is amalgamated into a searchable database—God knows what the LDS has already accomplished. The author of this book, which was published 30 years ago, already made a pilgrimage to Salt Lake City, and Mormons never give up. Computers take some of the fun out of family research through musty archives. I grew up thinking I was a descendent of William Henry Harrison; and it took me a long afternoon in the Sutro library to figure out that I was, only it was a different William Henry Harrison than Ol’ Tippecanoe, the American president who famously only lasted a month in office. Fortunately, I had already made a solemn pilgrimage to the scene of the great triumph of my supposed ancestor before I found out the truth. Well, if he really wasn’t my forebear, it wasn’t really much of a victory. William Henry almost got his army bushwacked by the Shawnee before he managed to pull out a bloody draw. Fortunately, he eventually managed to represent as a success by dint of a letter-writing campaign. I guess that’s why I was so sure he was an appropriate ancestor.)

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Description of the World - Part 30

First Shelf

Mort Rosenblum, Mission to Civilize: the French Way (As he himself insists, Rosenblum is not a historian but a journalist. Even so, historians take his book seriously. I met a grad student writing his dissertation on the cultural pretensions of French imperialism. He was surprised I was familiar with Rosenblum, who, or so I gathered from our conversation, was the center of academic debate on what to make of the peculiar French mixture of particularism and universality. Well, it is funny that West African school kids with shiny black faces used to begin their educations by reading how “our ancestors the Gauls were big and strong,” but it’s no more peculiar than an immigrant from a dying planet pledging himself to truth, justice, and the American way. Even in an era when English is the nearest thing to a world language, the French continue to punch far above their weight in cultural matters. They get laughed at for the pretensions, but the same Conservative intellectuals that publicly despise them retire to the South of France if they can manage it because, after all, those people do know something about how to live.)

Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: a Biography (I acquired a copy of the Confessions when I was a kid—the Harvard Classics edition cost me a quarter.  I’ve been reading the Saint’s works for a very long time—one of the essay questions on my Master’s exam was about his theory of the soul and I certainly chewed over this ideas in a more personal way when I went through my phase of reading Calvin and Luther. I read the Brown biography only a couple of years ago. By then I was less interested in sin and grace and focused on a couple of other things.

Reading about how Augustine’s monastic community in Hippo grew out of his earlier circle of friends, underscored that there was more to monasticism than asceticism and gloom, that it had roots in classical ideas of fellowship and the dream of a realm—bubble?—of freedom and peace. The Abbey of Thélème, which, according to Rabelais, the Giant Gargantua built for Friar John of the Funnels, is often described as an anti-monastery because its only rule is “Do what you will,” but it was actually an Augustinian foundation since “Do what you will” is just the last half of Augustine’s injunction “Love well and do what you will”—I don’t know if that makes Aleister Crowley an Augustinian, too, since he actually built an Abbey of Thélème or Thelema, as he spelled it, in Sicily.

What  “Love well” means depends on the context. So does sweet reason. Augustine had a redoubtable mind, whatever you think of his premises; and you assume he must have been exceedingly persuasive in person. Certainly his writings against the Donatist schismatics of North Africa are formidable pieces of polemic. When it came down to it, however, the Bishop called in the Roman civil authorities to squelch them. Force isn’t just the ultima ratio for kings.)  

R.R. Palmer, The Age of Democratic Revolutions, Volume 1 the Challenge (R.R.Palmer was the author of a History of the Modern World, which was the standard textbook for decades. I kept a dog-eared copy around for reference until last year when I gave it to a friend of mine who loved to read pop histories but had no sense of where the various Henrys, Elizabeths, Fredericks, and Catherines fit in the longer story. I only got around to reading the Age of Democratic Revolutions this Spring because I found a copy for $10 a volume and I have finished the second volume yet, though I will. I expected that plowing through these tomes would be a duty read, but Palmer writes very well indeed and the subject matter is highly relevant. Palmer famously pursued the project of writing an Atlantic history that isn’t about Britain or France or the Colonies but, in his words, “put all these national histories together.” He was writing in particular about the era between the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, but important historical events are seldom local and the other great passages of history were also global or as nearly global as the times allowed. Politics never stops at the water’s edge, and revolutions are contagious—’89, ’48, ’68, the Arab Spring.)

Paul Plass, Wit and the Writing of History: The Rhetoric of Historiography in Imperial Rome (The most interesting action in certain chess games takes place in the variations that both sides are aware of and just for that reason don’t actually end up playing. This little book appears to be a scholarly exercise about pedantic trifles, but a desperate and fascinating struggle takes place in the notes over the nature of history and even more over how to talk about political reality in an era of dissimulation. In the days when I read with a pen in my hand, I could tell how much I engaged with a book by how many notes I wrote in the margin. This battered paperback has many annotations. One example: “Tacitus, like any other writer in a despotism, is in the position of a salesman, i.e., somebody suspiciously sensitive about his reputation for candor and veracity.” Plass writes elsewhere; “…claims to free speech on the part of his subjects are acts of submission. Tacitus can accordingly see public talk about candor ‘as the last form of flattery.’”—I wrote in the margin, “This is absolutely normal business behavior.”

It’s no wonder that Tacitus has always been read with close attention in eras like ours—his writings had also a vogue in the late 16th Century, an age of ideological struggle, courtiers, and dissimulation. (In Stendhal’s novel the Red and the Black, Julian Sorel’s ecclesiastical patron gives him the works of Tacitus as a prize, wondering out loud how appropriate such cynical works are for a seminary student.) The fundamental question for Tacitus is how to be a virtuous hypocrite while writing about other virtuous or not entirely virtuous hypocrites. Wit is one recurrent tactic; despair might as well be amusing. Satires multiply because they change nothing. You keep knocking on the door because nobody answers.)

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Description of the World – Part 29

G.S. Thomspon, Greek Prose Usage (A Textbook inflicted on me by Dr.Harry Carroll. It didn’t leave any marks. About all I remember is that double negatives are OK in classical Greek. As Socrates might have said, “The English rule against double negatives ain’t good for nothing!”)

Gevin Betts and Daniel Franklin, The Big Gold Book of Latin Verbs (Trying to improve your Latin in your 60s is just as much a protest against mortality as half-acre tombs. Cheaper though.)

R.W. Southern, Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe (The Middle Ages had its springtime and that was the 12th Century, before all that Aristotle and, more to the point, before the inquisitions, the witch craze, and the smoke of burning heretics drifting across Languedoc. A lot of the horrors we associate with the Middle Ages are really features of later eras, in particular, the Hundred Years War and the Reformation/Counterreformation. I was aware of how the scene darkened after 1200 and especially after 1300 before I read Southern, but he makes the point very well. The civilization of the deep Middle Ages was less fanatical and in a sense far more rational than what came later, in part because it really was an age of faith. No reason to fear the search for truth if you aren’t afraid what it will turn up. No paranoia about heresy. Southern points out that the fact that the lack of interest in what would later become natural philosophy and then science is part of the reason for this charming if somewhat childlike innocence. Actually learning about how the world works makes it much more difficult to maintain a trusting attitude to the good lord. Whatever the explanation—maybe it was the worsening climate or the looming Malthusian crisis that came with it—a gloomy voluntarism gradually replaced the rational humanism of earlier times much as existentialism and other irrational philosophies would menace the Enlightenment several centuries later.)

J.J.Clarke, Oriental Enlightenment (Most of the Enlightenment accounts of Buddhism I’ve encountered are just wrong. The Jesuits, who you would have expected to do better, mostly just waved it off as superstition. I guess a visiting Buddhist who just noticed all the shrines to the saints wouldn’t draw a similar conclusion about Catholicism. Some versions of Hinduism were easier for Europeans to understand: Schopenhauer figured some things out by reading a Latin translation of a Persian translation of the Upanishads. Mostly people found what resonated with their own beliefs. The more interesting question is whether any genuine inspiration travelled East to West. Clarke wrote before Christopher Beckwith’s book with its thesis that Pyrrho’s skepticism was something he learned from early Buddhists while accompanying Alexander’s invasion. It remains to be seen whether the pan-Eurasian thinking game was more tennis than handball.)

Snorre Sturlason, Heimskringal or the Lives of the Norse Kings (Snorre was an Icelandic Christian, but the grim pagan outlook is much in evidence in this narrative, especially in the old poems that mark the deaths of kings and earls. He explains the Norse Gods as ancient kings that people worshipped after their deaths. Odin, for example: “the Swedes often seemed to see him clearly before great battles; to some he gave victory, but others bid come to him; both fates seemed good to them.”  This great big Dover reprint would make a fine present for alarming male children. These grim and ferocious men didn’t all come to a bad end. Speaking of lived happily ever after: “Rolf the Granger [having been banished by king Harald Hairfair] afterwards crossed the sea to the Hebrides and from there went south-west to France; he harried there and possessed himself of a great jarldom; he settled many Norsemen there and it was afterwards called Normandy.’)

Barbara W. Tuchman, The Zimmerman Telegram (You know the story: the British intercepted a telegram from their ambassador to Mexico, who was trying to strike an alliance with the Mexicans to ally with Germany in the event that unrestricted U-boat warfare led to a war with the U.S.  Mexico was to get the Southwest back as its reward. The Brits had actually hacked the transatlantic cable used by neutrals, but came up with an elaborate cover story about how they got it fair and square by bribery and breaking and entering. Cyber warfare is nothing new.)

Bobby Seale, Seize the Time: the Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton (I have never actually read this book, which originally belonged to my wife Rita and migrated West when we broke up. I certainly remember the Bobby Seale trial in New Haven in May of 1970, though, because I got caught in a cloud of tear gas while trying to walk home from a lunch joint called Hungry Charlie where I had set out the riots that accompanied the trial with a bunch of motorcycle gang members who apparently were into riot tourism. Another event of the times, the bombing of the hockey rink, aka the Yale Whale, took place down the street from where I lived. I didn’t hear about that. I heard it, though the visible evidence of the event was just a cracked sidewalk. In the trial itself, Bobby Seale was never convicted of the murder of the police informant Alex Rackley, but the demonstrations were a bust because the trial occurred at the same time as Nixon’s Cambodian incursion. Outrage at that event stole the thunder from the Black Panthers. Truth told, I had a stronger reaction to it myself. The first two Cambodians I ever met were two forestry students i encountered late one night during that period. They were sitting on the steps of the forestry building and weeping. A lot of protests really are exercises in recreational outrage. There wasn’t anything phony about their reactions, however. They explained to me how fragile the political peace was in their country. How the invasion had upset the equilibrium that their ridiculous-on-purpose monarchy had maintained by a policy of looking the other way.)

Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (I probably got this little book as a kind of high class cheat sheet as if you could really unpack words like liberal or man in a couple of pages. Nietzsche wrote someplace that only words without histories have definitions. Williams tries to summarize the history, and he was a pretty sensible guy, but there is no royal road to ideology, let alone philosophy.)

Benedetto Croce, History of Europe in the Nineteenth Century (I’m not sure how seriously I read this book. Croce’s idealism seemed tepid to me—a Laodacean politics—but that may be unfair to an Italian for whom the reactionary Catholic church, authentic fascists, and Leninists were real enemies. Winning—and maintaining—the bourgeois revolution was not a task that lay behind Croce but in front of him. For that matter, saving the republic from the Republicans isn’t a foregone conclusion these days.)

Tracy Kidder, Among Schoolchildren (Kidder became well known for writing a book about the development of a minicomputer, Soul of a New Machine and I probably bought and read this book because I’d liked that book. Anyhow, I had met Kidder at a publishing trade organization lunch in ’84. I know that the date because the Mac had appeared a few months before. Kidder was there to discuss the future of the computer, but Adam Osborne, who sat at my table, was the loudest voice in the room. Osborne was sure that Apple had made a huge mistake because the new machines couldn’t actually do very much—that much was perfectly true. He thought the Apple product with a future was the Apple IIc. Two months later, as I was getting on the San Diego Freeway in Southern California, I saw Osborne on the side of the road—you couldn’t mistake the guy with his dandified clothes and cute little mustache. He had pulled off on the shoulder and was engaged in what looked like a furious argument with a truck driver. The last thing I saw out of the rearview mirror was the truck driver decking Osborne. Osborne was quite prominent at the time as a computer pioneer, though he’s best remembered now for giving his name to the Osborne effect—he destroyed the sales of his Osborne 1 machine by proclaiming that his next machine would be vastly superior.)

Richard F. Burton, The Book of the Sword (I don’t think this book settled the question of why there have been so many variations on the theme of big knives to cut people up. Partly I expect it’s just fashion, partly genuine technical progress, and partly paper/rock/scissors—you need the right tool for the job and that depends on what the other guy is waving at you. Burton, who was a swashbuckling man if there ever was one, presumably knew what to do with a blade; but most of the book is a display of philological prowess, but Burton doesn’t get nostalgic about the natives he stabbed or slashed while sneaking into Mecca or searching for the source of the Nile.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Description of the World – Part 28

Nancy Olmsted, To Walk with a Quiet Mind: Hikes in the Woodlands, Parks and Beaches of the San Francisco Bay Area (I got this little book when I first moved to the Bay area some thirty-five years ago. In the first few years here I walked most of the trails it describes. It saddens me to think how long it’s been since I was an active hiker.)

Joseph W. Moser, 2,001 Most Useful German Words (I suppose Internet apps are making little books like this obsolete.)

Baroque Personae, ed. Rosario Villari (Essays by very good historians on key social roles: statesman, soldier, financier, etc. I’ve been stealing from Daniel Dessert’s piece on financial experts for decades. In his essay on the Baroque secretary, Salvatore Nigro’s quotes one Michele Benvenge’s 1689 book Proteo segretatio describing the job of the ghost writer as he assumes the interests of his patron: “With his varying perspectives he flatters resemblances and puts spine back into the spineless. With his fecundity, he holds the negotiations to one consonant voice, and inflating it without adding to it quantitatively, he makes of it a miracle without a miracle.” Sound familiar to me, though I’ve mostly had to trick out the discourse of Taiwanese statisticians rather than Italian Dukes. Same challenge, but the money isn’t as good.)

Jon R. Stone, Latin for the Illiterati (Despite the cute title, this is a very useful little reference book. It translates the words and brief phrases that show up in older books or serve as mottos of schools and businesses. Latin, presumably, is classier than English. I once tried to sell the publishing company I worked for on replacing its boring motto Education for Truth (or some such) with ex pedantibus pecunia, an apt mission statement for a textbook outfit. Glancing through this book I came upon a sentence that exemplifies the creativity of the theological imagination: videt et erubit lympha pudica Deum—the modest water saw God and blushed. The text explains that the line refers to Christ turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. The notion that water is bashful shows up elsewhere. Sir Thomas Browne wrote about the old idea that female corpses floated face down because the water wants to preserve their modesty. Presumably men float face up, which doesn’t seem particularly decorous, especially if rigor mortis provides the cadaver with a mast.)

Merritt Ruhlen, The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue (The great discovery of historical linguistics was the discovery of the kinship of the various Indo-European languages; but once you define Proto-Indo-European [PIE], the next obvious question is how PIE relates to Proto-Semitic or Proto-Uralic and all the rest. Which eventually raises a methodological question. Almost everybody thinks that the existing human languages are related, but how far back can you reasonably trace them? Ruhlen and his associate Joseph Greenberg think you can very far back indeed on the basis of similarities between basic vocabulary words, a technique that almost guarantees hallucination will set in because of the human propensity to find analogies when you go looking for ‘em. Of course there are other possible lines of evidence—archaeology, genetic affinities, etc.—but things quickly get dicey as you go back in time. What interests me more than the meta question of methodology is the meta, meta question of why the tracing of genealogies is so fascinating. It’s not as if proto-World was the language of the angels. Almost everything changes in known sequences of languages; and, so far as I know, universal trends are few and far between. Languages don’t keep getting simpler in point of syntax or phonology, for example. Greek has more complicated conjugations than Vedic Sanskrit. Fashions in linguistics also change. Tracing affinities was an obsession of the 19th Century while the structural linguistics of the 20th Century, which focuses on how languages work in the here and now, has (or had) more prestige afterwards. Even the historical linguists became more interested in how languages change than in how they have changed. More recently, the phylogeny of language has seemingly made a comeback. Something similar seems to have occurred in anthropology. Circa 1960, I was taught to think that concern about how customs and inventions diffused was rather old fashioned because knowing the origin of something—a myth, a style, a technique of basket weaving—doesn’t really tell you all that much and, in any case, parallel invention is commonplace. Old ethnography joke: an extreme diffusionist is somebody who believes that self abuse was only invented once. In lieu of looking for culture heroes, one was advised to find commonalities that defined human nature—structures, not origins. Yet everything has a history whether or not we know it.)

Ross E. Dunn, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century (There are many Muslim narratives of pilgrimages to Mecca. Ibn Battuta travelled a great deal farther than that, although Dunn is skeptical about his purported visit to China. This book isn’t a translation, but it quotes ibn Battuta at length. Travel writers don’t change all that much. Ibn Battuta was a legal scholar and thought of himself as something of an intellectual, but he comes across as a shallow but agreeable man. He would have made an excellent textbook salesman. What you look for when you hire for that position are people of unquenchable curiosity who never actually learn anything—if they start to actually know what they’re talking about, it will irritate the customers.)

Barbara W. Tuchman, The Proud Tower (With the exception of a Distant Mirror, Tuchman’s books have never made a lasting impression on me. Of course there are an enormous number of books about the run up to World War I, not to mention the BBC serials that always seem to start a few years before the war and involve family members lost on the Titanic. That makes it very hard to remember where you read what. Reading about familiar events is not useless, however, since you have to keep relearning if you want to keep knowing. It’s like plate spinning at the circus where the clowns run ragged trying to keep the plates from falling off the poles.)

S.N. Agnihotri, PhD., Sanskrit without Tears (You have to have a sense of humor to name a book Sanskrit without Tears, especially if you expect anybody to believe they’ll learn Sanskrit from a 76-page spiral bound booklet. I picked this item up because it does provide a reasonable introduction to the Devanagari writing system. Speaking of plates on poles: that plate hit the ground a while ago.)

Francois Ponge, The Nature of Things, translation by Lee Fahnestock (This little collection of poems was called Le parti pris de choses in French. The title has been translated elsewhere as Taking the Side of Things, which seems closer to the intent of the original since Ponge is partial to things, i.e., exhibits partiality on their behalf. Like Gaston Bachelard, whose philosophical books are poetic and gratifying in a similar way, Ponge lovingly contemplates material objects and substances and often achieves an effect by simple description. Of course the literal is more poetic than the figurative—not that Ponge doesn’t cheat like everybody else. A random sample that accidentally continues an earlier idea referenced in these pages:

“Water is colorless and glistening, formless and cool, passive and determined in its single vice: gravity. With exceptional means at its disposal to gratify the vice: circumvention, perforation, infiltration, erosion. The vice plays an inner role as well: water endlessly ravels in upon itself, constantly refuses to assume any form, tends only to self-humiliation, prostrating itself, all but a corpse, like the monks of some orders. Forever lower: that seems to be its motto‚ the very opposite of reaching for the heavens.”)

Theodore C. Burgess and Robert J. Bonner, Elementary Greek (My sister gave me this book as a birthday present. It’s inscribed, “To Jimmy—it’s all Greek to me!” I think I must have been 13 or 14. I wish I could say that I mastered this little text like a less precocious version of John Stuart Mill. In fact I only learned the alphabet and few other things that came in handy when I got to college: the five pages taken up by the paradigm of the regular verb luo (I loosen) were probably enough to discourage me, especially when I realized that luo is just about the only regular verb in the ancient language. All of the rest of ‘em are irregular in some way. Greek has a pataphysical grammar almost entirely made up of exceptions.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Description of the World - Part 27

Robert and Mary Collison, Dictionary of Foreign Quotations (I’ve been addicted to one-liners all my life. Reading them in their original languages makes ‘em more attractive to me. Most of these quotations are so short; they are more like idioms than quotations.)

Marcella Ottolenghi Buxhaum, 1001 Most Useful French Words (I’ve never taken a French course, but I managed to pass a French exam for my Masters by dint of memorizing one of those plastic cheat sheets that summarizes French grammar and leveraging my knowledge of Latin. This little item was a further help in learning some French without really trying. Of course actual French people suffer profoundly when I attempt to speak their language; and the verb tenses utterly flummox me, which isn’t much of a problem when you’re decoding technical stuff but rules out the enjoyment of fiction and poetry.)
Florian Coulmas, The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems (Like many reference books, this encyclopedia is pleasurable to read. It’s like looking out the window at the scenery on a long train trip. I marvel that anybody could manage to decipher the Mongolian script. There are some absolutely fundamental facts about writing explained here along with the descriptive material. “Duality of Patterning: A universal structural characteristic which distinguishes human languages from less complex sign systems. Also known as ‘double articulation,’ it means that language is structured on two different levels: the units of the ‘lower’ level of phonology are arranged to form units of the ‘higher’ level of grammar.” Pretty simple, but it’s the gimmick that makes writing systems work, even the non-alphabetic ones. It was ignoring double articulation that confused people about Egyptian hieroglyphics for hundreds of years. There was a stubborn belief that hieroglyphics stand for ideas when the actually stand for words. Hieroglyphics are a way of writing Egyptian, not a transcription of thoughts. Same error delayed figuring out how to read Mayan.)

Eugene Ehrlich, Ammo, Amas, Amat and More (William Buckley, Jr. wrote a very brief preface for this little book. He’s the right guy to pick to explain the advantages of knowing a few Latin phrases for he was a master at appearing more erudite than he actually was. I understand his approach. As I’ve often said (probably too often), I feel a kinship with Buckley since we both use a lot of big words and know the meaning of some of them. The phrases in this book are short and the explanations perfunctory. The great, supremely witty phrasebook was the Adages, written long ago by Erasmus.)

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, The Territory of the Historian (French intellectuals certainly aren’t all maniacs for theory. They aren’t all latter day Descartes, who expect to figure it all out by pure thought provided they’re allowed to sleep in. In fact, at least in history, but also in other subjects, quite a few of the big names have a decidedly quantitative orientation. That’s certainly true of Braudel, but also of Le Roy Ladurie, whose interest in the effects of climate on history required him to resort to a large-scale program of data gathering. Emmanuel Todd, who famously predicted the fall of the Soviet Union back in 1976 on the basis of demographic trends, is another example of hard-boiled Frenchman. Le Roy Ladurie encouraged him to become a historian.)

Baron de Jomini, The Art of War (Jomini’s name is commonly brought up in connection with his more famous contemporary Clausewitz. I kept hearing about him so I rather pedantically found a copy of his book, which I found rather pedantic. Though he served in both the French and then the Russian armies during the Napoleonic wars, his system has an 18th Century flavor with all the talk of lines of advance and strategic points. I think he was somewhat nostalgic for the cabinet wars of Frederic the Great’s time. “National wars are the most formidable of all” he writes. The nation in arms frightened him.)

Christopher Kendris, French the Easy Way (I call foul on the title of this book. There may be a royal road to geometry, but there is no royal road to languages, unless all you have to do is pass an SAT exam. Some of us are better at guessing than others, but I have it on good advice that le pamplemousse isn’t actually Mickey’s first cousin.)

Howard Rheingold, They Have a Word for It (At least two words entered into my active vocabulary from reading this book: Korinthenkacker and biritilulo. The former is a German term for somebody so obsessed with minutia, he shits raisins. The latter is a New Guinea word that refers to settling disputes by comparing yams in lieu of a duel—more sanitary than a pissing contest.)

Norman Davies, Europe, a History (Reading an immense work like this one gives an intellectual tourist like me the occasional moment of pedantic triumph as I catch the author in an error. (The three Sophocles plays about Thebes aren’t a trilogy crows the Korinthenkacker.) Well, you’re entitled to a few lapses in 1250 pages. Davies is especially good at finding room for significant events, people, and ideas that are usually left out—he wrote a whole book, Vanished Kingdoms, that centers on the marginal places that weren’t marginal in their day. The evenness of tone of this effort is impressive, though I finally detected a joke on page 944: “The Vatican State, which was almost as papist as Eire, was created in 1929…” I find myself consulting the book’s appendix quite often for its tables, maps, and lists.)

Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson, A Guide to Old English, 7th edition (This was a gift. Somebody thought I’d appreciate a grammar + anthology of Anglo-Saxon, though they were unrealistic if they thought a 62-year old was going to learn how to read the Battle of Malden. I have read at this book, though, in part because it simply looks inviting. It’s a pleasure to let yourself imagine you’ve got mind enough to learn another language.)
G.G. Coulton, Medieval Faith and Symbolism, Part I of Art and the Reformation (I may have inherited or swiped this book from my sister. It may have been a text for the medieval history course at Pomona that bored her so thoroughly you’d have to say it was memorable. The book appears to be a bit specialized for an undergraduate course. Its subject matter is narrower than the title suggests, the art and architecture of late Medieval England. I probably looked at the pictures at some point. If this tome is one of the reasons my sister disliked the course, you can understand why.)

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Description of the World - Part 26

On top of second book case

Inside Mad, introduction by John Apatow  (I bought this out of loyalty, much as you watch a Simpson’s episode now and again even though you know it will disappoint you. Even the 80s, the venerable mag had lost its charm. In the 60s, my father used to read my copies of MAD and laugh out loud. He looked through an issue the year before he died at 91 and wondered out loud, “Didn’t these use to be funny?”)

Thorkild Jacobson, The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (Jacobson understands that three thousand years of thought and aspiration can’t be boiled down to a simple formula even if you’re looking at things through the wrong end of the telescope. It’s easy to read Gilgamesh and a few other pieces and summarize what you see in the words the slave of Dionysus uses to describe Hades in the Frogs of Aristophanes. “What do you see?” the God asks. “Darkness and mud.” I made my own minor contribution to this impression long ago by writing a one-act play about Gilgamesh that was performed by a little theater company. The little in little theater was well deserved. There were so few of us that I ended up having to take a bit part my own play. I had to bite my lip on stage to stay in character as the guy who played Gilgamesh shamelessly chewed the scenery.)

Frederick M. Wheelock, Latin: An Introductory Course based on Ancient Authors, 3rd edition (This was the standard textbook in Latin when I was a kid, in fact it was so familiar it was sometimes just called Wheelock. You could almost believe the marble bust on the cover depicted Wheelock instead of some Roman worthy. Because I learned from this book most of the little Latin I know, Wheelock’s version of Latin is what I thought Latin was, which is why, for example, I never realized that the other word for all was cuncta until I read the Vulgate a few years ago,)

Jacques Ferrand, A Treatise on Lovesickness (A Frenchman wrote this book about the same time Robert Burton was beginning the Anatomy of Melancholy, which contains a long section on love melancholy that Burton treats in parallel with religious madness. Ferrand is less methodical than Burton, whose work follows the strict outline method of Peter Ramus—that’s what an anatomy is—but they are similar in many ways. For example, both of ‘em spend many pages on the prevention and cure of love melancholy before concluding, as Burton put it, “Let them have their love.”—Ferrand quotes an anecdote about Diogenes, who got the same advice from Apollo when he consulted the oracle at Delphi about what do about his son’s erotic frenzy. Burton is altogether more entertaining, though. While both of ‘em treat love as the Romans did, i.e., as an evil, albeit a glamorous evil, Burton really puts his heart into explaining why women aren’t worth obsessing over, how they are actually rather disgusting, dangerous, and distracting, before switching over to the “Let them have their love” solution to the problem they pose.)

Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore (Hughes died this summer. I think of him as a historian of the settlement of Australia than as an art critic, though he spent a great deal more time as a critic than a historian. I’ve heard him described as a cultural conservative, but I expect his “conservatism” was more a matter of tone than ideology, a personality trait. If you get impatient with nuances and tend to Sam Johnson-style podium kicking, you sound like a Tory, whatever your politics. Speaking of conservatism. Australia got peopled in the first place largely because of the triumph of conservatism in Great Britain. 18th Century English justice tightened the screws so much that the prisons filled up with reprobates the law condemned but juries couldn’t bring themselves to hang. That’s how we got Aussies. Unfortunately, there’s no obvious Australia to solve the human problem that the triumph of conservatism in America has produced. I don’t think that global warming is up to the task of making the People’s Republic of Antarctica a realistic option.)

Emmanuel Le Roy Laudrie, Times of Feast, Times of Famine: A History of Climate since the Year 1000 (Le Roy Laudrie is probably best known in these parts for his Montaillou, Promised Land of Error, which you can read as a soap-box opera about a priapic priest in a Medieval village or an example of Annales school ethnographic history or as a pure instance of Paul Veyne’s idea of a significant work of history as a true novel based on a discovery in the archives. The Climate book has a rather different character since it is an attempt to relate a natural process and human history. That’s hard to do granted the rhetorical traditions of history and the fact that the science is perpetually tentative. The Climate book was published in ’67 and contains two brief references to the prospect that the climate will warm because of greenhouse gases: the cloud no bigger than a man’s hand.)

Dilip Hiro, Holy Wars: the Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism (This book, which was written by a journalist rather than a historian or sociologist of religion, is a sensible and well-balanced account of the situation as of 1989. The author foresaw very little of what followed. For him, Islamic fundamentalism is an eternal tendency that “derives from the conflict that exists between the egalitarian message of the Quran and the exploitation and iniquity of the real world…”  He certainly doesn’t expect apocalyptic manifestations and global terror, and the most alarming prospect he considers is that Egypt might become a fundamentalist or quasi-fundamentalist state.)

Ernst Breisach, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, & Modern (This book, which is a serviceable narrative account of how people have written and thought about history in Europe from the beginning to the present. was written a bit too soon (1983). The obvious problem at the end of the story is the embarrassment of the historians at their parochialism. The failure of European imperialism meant that armies and fleets wouldn’t solve the problem by making African, Asian, American history a continuation of European history by right of conquest, but the spade work hadn’t been done or even fairly begun that would make it possible to write genuinely planetary history, the general history that Foucault called for the Order of Things. Looking back, but not very far back, I think the bankruptcy of grand narratives that Lyotard proclaimed in the Postmodern Condition (1979 in French, 1984 in English) was, to quote something I wrote in the margin of Breisach’s book, “an exasperated alternative to the exhausted dialectic” rather than a definitive refutation of the project of trying to figure things out on a big scale. You can’t help trying to do that. What you don’t get is a neat little story. The resulting portrait is made out of an assemblage of fruits and vegetables, Vitruvian man replaced by Vertumnus.)

Friday, December 11, 2015

Description of the World – Part 25

Postwar French Thought, Volume II: Literary Debate, Texts and Contexts, ed. Denis Hollier and Jeffrey Mehlman (To tell the truth, I haven’t made very good use of this impressive anthology. Nevertheless, it made one strong impression. Reading the 1945 manifesto J.P. Sartre’s wrote to inaugurate Le Temps modernes, I was surprised how credible and relevant it seemed after so many years of thinking of Sartre as very old news indeed. When I was a kid, my friends and I would never consult the paper to find out when the movie started. We just went to the theater and stayed there until we’d seen everything and somebody announced, “This is where we came in.” Reading this old piece, which came out the year of my birth, I had a sudden sense of “this is where we came in.” Of course the moment in my own life I’m speaking about wasn’t my biological birth, but the time in my early adolescence when I became aware of existentialism. My sister let me come along with her to a party of her college friends at the apartment of a guy who everybody called Crowbar. My sister’s circle wasn’t all that advanced, but there were genuine beatniks in attendance that night and one of ‘em was amused to ask a fifteen year old what he thought of Sartre’s idea of radical freedom. I think I said something grave about the reality of human nature or some such thing as if my opinion mattered. I knew I was talking through my hat and subsequently attempted to read Being and Nothingness, realized I needed to understand Kant first, and then hurled myself at the First Critique like a pigeon flying into a plate glass window. I eventually found some potted explanation of what existentialism was, though that didn’t help a great deal. When I could read a serious philosophy book, the Sartre that mattered even a little was the author of the Critique of Dialectical Reason and at that, his flirtation with Maoism was making him seem like a foolish old man trying to hang with teenagers. By the time de Gaulle decided, “You don’t arrest Voltaire,” he had become something of a mascot. Personally, I was rather less tolerant of his blind eye for communism. I assigned one of his books, I forget which, at the beginning of a course I taught on contemporary approaches to Marxism. It was rather a gesture since what the students and I really wanted to do was try to make sense of Foucault and Derrida. They had just appeared on the horizon—the Marxism in the course title was something of a cover story—and Sartre was in the dead zone between active thinker and revered or despised ancestor. Reading the old piece in this anthology made me wonder if he might be coming back into focus again. The editors apparently thought so: the last item in the book is Derrida’s reappraisal of Sartre.)
Fernand Braudel, The Identity of France: Volume One: History and Environment (Braudel was a geographer as well as a historian. The first volume of his book on France is essentially geographical. I wish more historians would begin with geography because it is the structure of the scene and diversity of environments that keeps narratives from turning into soapbox operas. Besides, people just don’t know much geography, even the geography of their own country. It’s a routine complaint that Americans can’t find this or that country on a map, but I wonder how many of ‘em have a gestalt of the way North America is laid out? The maps in conventional history books don’t help much, and it is the historian’s obligation to supply the requisite “describing, seeing, making others see”—that Braudel is so good at. It would also help if, at least once in a while, the places mentioned in the text of  history books were marked on their maps! Of course I have a bias towards geography, which why this exercise is labeled a description of the world, even if I’m trying to be the Strabo of a library rather than of a planet.)

Which brings me to the end of the first bookcase. I think I’ll leave it at that until tomorrow in the spirit of one of the first jokes I ever heard: A guy sees a sign in restaurant window that reads, “Any sandwich $2.00.” He’s a smart aleck so he goes in and orders an elephant steak sandwich. The waiter seems unruffled with the request and disappears into the kitchen. He returns a few minutes later. “I’m sorry, but it’s fifteen minutes before closing and the cook doesn’t want to start on a new elephant.”