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.)

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