Friday, December 04, 2015

Description of the Word - Part 18

Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (In the Third Man, Orson Well’s character gives a famous speech that was probably inspired by Burckhardt’s appreciation of Italy as the land of amoral but creative virtu. “Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” In fact, Switzerland produced rather more than cuckoo clocks. As he was going off the deep end, Nietzsche wrote he’d rather be a Basel professor than God. It really was an amazing academic scene in the 1870s. Besides Nietzsche and Burckhardt, the tiny faculty included Overbeck, who is most of us probably known to most of us as the poor guy who had to bring the raving Nietzsche back to Switzerland from Turin but who a notable church historian in his own right. Bachofen, a professor of Roman law, who promoted the influential idea of an ancient era of matriarchy—he was the father of Mutterreich—had given up his chair but was still in town as a private scholar.)

David Hackett Fischer, Champlain’s Dream: The European Founding of North America (Fischer is the creator of a wide-ranging theory of American history whose influence is easily detected in op-ed pieces and even conversations in coffee bars by those who’ve read Albion’s Seed.  Fischer understands much of what happened in these parts as a conversation/struggle between the folkways of the various populations that colonized the country: Puritans from the east of England, cavalier Anglicans from the west of England, Scotch-Irish from the borderlands, and the rather more mixed bag of folks who populated the Middle Atlantic states. Like other theories based on pattern recognition, it’s easy to find confirmation of this taxonomy everywhere. I’m obviously a Gemini—accounts for my skepticism about astrology—and the Tea Party populists are obviously descendants of the irritated Presbyterians who settled the hills and gave us Andrew Jackson and Ted Cruz. I mention Albion’s Dream and its redoubtable persuasiveness here because I no longer have the book in my library, having unwisely given it to a relative of mine who read it and immediately decided that it was a skeleton key that unlocked all the mysteries of American history. Giving books to people who don’t read a great many serious books is risky. It takes many drinks to intoxicate an alcoholic, but the teetotalers are tipsy from a single glass. Same principle applies if you’re teaching philosophy 101. Most people and certainly most freshmen have never encountered a powerful mind so that everything convinces them. They’re Platonists in February, Cartesians in March, Kantians in April, Hegelians in May, and graduate to sophomore as followers of Zarathustra. I think there’s something in Fischer’s take on the peopling of America and its lasting consequences; but I expect even Fischer is a little uncomfortable with the way his book has been received—sudden fantasy: John of Patmos telling everybody “It’s science fiction!” They don’t listen. O, and about the Champlain book: it’s an admirable and extraordinarily well researched account of the founding of French America. Two takeaways: 1. Champlain and the French in general related to the Indians in a vastly different way than the British and Dutch. 2. Founding colonies was extraordinarily difficult. Every single trip across the Atlantic—Champlain made several—was a perilous and miserable ordeal. Astronauts fly first class in comparison; and, in terms of time, at least, going to the moon is a much shorter trip. Of course, from the perspective of an individual settler, it was also a fool’s errand to travel to British America; but Quebec?)

Christopher Duffy, Russia’s Military Way to the West (I’ve collected many books on the Great Divergence, the question of why and how the West came to dominate the Earth, at least temporarily. One of the answers looks to the military and naval prowess of the Europeans, who invested a huge proportion of their resources and ingenuity into war making, in part because no single power was able to achieve hegemony. Relentless competition made them terrible. The other side of the military revolution was the way in which it affected the countries that weren’t simply subjugated. The European threat called forth a modernizing response, albeit one that was very selective. Duffy’s book is about that process in Russia.)

Die Zauberflöte, Metropolitan Opera (My favorite version of this opera is actually the Bergman movie where the opera is sung in Swedish, which works perfectly well.)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (I played a Monty Python movie for my parents maybe thirty years ago—I think it was the Meaning of Life. They were extremely offended. It hadn’t occurred to me how raw the material must have seemed to them, though watching it with them gave me cross-temporal binocular vision and allowed me to see something of what they were seeing. Watching the Holy Grail movie a few months ago produced a somewhat similar divided effect. One eye and one ear saw and heard the movie as they had when it first appeared and were duly entertained. The more contemporary eye and ear were vastly less impressed with what seemed to them a rather patchy performance, frat-house follies, albeit world-class frat-house follies.)

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