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.”)

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