Sunday, December 06, 2015

Description of the World - Part 20

John Lothrop Motley, The Rise of the Dutch Republic: A History (This saga of thirty plus years of the Dutch revolt against Philip II apparently has a bad reputation among professional historians for various scholarly failures but especially for its bias against the Catholics and Spaniards. I don’t know if the modern Spaniards pay it much mind, but it certainly exemplifies what they denounce as the Black Legend (Le Leyenda Negra), the centuries-long defamation campaign against all things Hispanic. The thing about the Black Legend, however, is that it is not obvious if we should regard it as Protestant propaganda or as a more-or-less accurate reflection of the historical record or perhaps both. Especially in the New World but also in its attempts to subjugate the Low Countries, the Spanish were extraordinarily barbarous. My question is whether the Italians, French, English, Dutch, Germans, Aztecs, and Incas of the 16th Century were a great deal better. Motley is not as uniformly hostile to Philip. Philip’s many written reflections on his own actions survive, and its difficult to have a one-dimensional view of a person you get to know so well, though Motley surely wasn’t fond of the “prudent prince.” I suspect that the reason nobody much reads the Rise of the Dutch Republic anymore is because people regard history as they regard science, a cumulative and self-correcting enterprise whose progress makes old books obsolete. I disagree, even though it is indisputable that a hundred and fifty years of research has uncovered many new facts and refuted many old interpretations. Our prejudices are not necessarily more distorting than Motley’s. Meanwhile, the literary quality of his book remains.)

R.J.W. Evans, The Making of the Habsburg Monarchy (Back in 1515, Charles the Fifth’s hapless grandfather Maximillian I hired Albrecht Dürer to create an enormous woodcut of a triumphant arch. Dover printed a version of it as a book that you could disassemble and put up on a wall, which is how it happened that I spent three years in a railroad apartment in Hartford, Connecticut looking at this amazing piece of imperial propaganda. The thing was nearly twelve feet tall and viewed in moonlight from my bedroom, made it look as if there was a portal to another world across the way, an impression that could set off some memorable fantasies with the help of a funny cigarette or two. Dürer had trouble getting paid for the work—Habsburg emperors were almost as good at dodging creditors as marrying well—and Maximilian was better at what has been called “paper grandeur” than the genuine article. The Dürer piece symbolized the Habsburgs for me ever since, but Evans book makes the case that if the dynasty often went in for ornate display and ingrown eccentricity, its apparent futility was extraordinarily successful for a very long time against Turks, Protestants Hungarians, the Valois, the Dutch, the English, and the Bourbons. Evans begins his history by pointing out that in the early years of the 16th Century, Austrian lands were apparently lost to the Lutherans, Italy was in an uproar, the Pope was conniving with the French, and the Turks had recently overrun Hungary; yet the family would prevail, albeit while wearing out several of the emperors and kings of the dynasty who didn’t simply go mad.)

Victor-Lucien Tapié, The Rise and Fall of the Habsburg Monarchy (I apparently swiped this book from the Washington, Pennsylvania public library. Evans’ book covers not quite two centuries of the dynasty’s story. Tapié takes the history of the family right down to the end of the empire. I have considerable sympathy for the Austrian empire, at least in its later phases. It retained to the end something of the spirit of the old Holy Roman Empire. Its leaders weren’t tyrants or monsters and actually tried to accommodate the interests and rights of the many nations in its sphere—if World War I hadn’t intervened, the Dual Monarchy might have become a Triune Monarchy with equal legal standing for the Slavs. Even early, the emperors demonstrated a certain degree of idealism. Joseph II, the ridiculous emperor played by Jeffrey Jones in Amadeus, was a major reformer in his time who tried to end serfdom in all his domains and curb the arbitrary power of local oligarchs. There was once something called Josephism, in fact.)

Fifth Shelf

Edward Lytton Bulwer, English & the English (I forgot that I bought this book and certainly never read it. I probably acquired it as part of an intermittent attempt to right an old prejudice about things English, not an uncommon attitude in the Francophile 60s. I gather that nobody considers Bulwer’s work first rate—at least this one doesn’t begin “it was a dark and stormy night—but there’s a case to be made for reading solidly second rate books if you want to understand what was really going on in a period. Last year’s best sellers are on today’s remainder table, but they were what people were reading and taking seriously. Wait a minute. The underlings show I actually did read at least part of this book; the corner of page 55 is folded over. That I didn’t get further isn’t too surprising. Sez Bulwer of his tribe “It is reserved for us to counteract the gloomiest climate by the dullest customs!” Not very encouraging to the reader.)

Carolly Erickson, The First Elizabeth (I may have got my sad image of the dying queen from this biography. “It was a long, slow, wearying death, without drama or color—a death out of keeping with Elizabeth’s flamboyant life. Glassy-eyed and emaciated, she lingered on admit her cushions, her body malodorous from disease, her fingers in her mouth like an idiot or a dazed child….” Hard to type these words two years after my sister’s death, which was not dissimilar to the queen’s and also marked the ending of a vibrant life. A remarkable collection of great actresses have portrayed Elizabeth, which makes it difficult to form an impression of her that doesn’t have the face of Betty Davis or Cate Blanchett; but you can get to know her from her voice in the same way you can get to know her great enemy. She was a highly educated woman and could write with great eloquence. We sometimes forget that the Elizabeth and Philip knew each other personally. They were family. When Bloody Mary died there was briefly talk of a marriage between her widower and Elizabeth—I wonder how many people even know that Philip had been the prince consort of England at the same time he was King of Spain and lord of the Indies.)

A.T.Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (Supposedly this book inspired the Kaiser to get into an arms race with the British before World War I. Actually, reading the book should have convinced him of the unwisdom of challenging the British. I read it simply to understand what naval war was like up to the Napoleonic period. There is a fascinating chapter about Suffren’s campaign in Indian waters during the American Revolution. The Frenchman commanded a small squadron of indifferent quality and had to contend with mutinous and incompetent subordinates, but nevertheless managed to outfight a superior force in a series of engagements. Most famous military and naval leaders had the benefit of superior armies and fleets. There are plenty of examples of advantage squandered, but few of succeeding with mediocre means. Well, brilliance is overrated. Suffren’s determination and skill accomplished nothing. Meanwhile, the Battle of the Capes, the engagement that sealed the fate of Cornwallis’ army at Yorktown, was a dull business conducted by mediocrities—no daring maneuvers, no prodigies of valor, no crossing of the T, just a couple of fleets pounding away at each other for a couple of hours and then disengaging. It mattered.)

The Capitalist World-Economy: Essays by Immanuel Wallerstein (At the end of one of these essays, I scribbled “a sermon.”  I’m not sure if my bitch was that Wallerstein is preaching or that I belong to a slightly different denomination. In another place, I wrote “that capitalism will go down the tubes is very likely; it’s the millennial nature of its replacement that is doubtful.” Wallerstein deserves some credit, though, because he realized back in the 70s that “slavery and so-called ‘second serfdom’ are not to be regarded as anomalies in a capitalist system.” I tend to think that Wallerstein’s coworker and successor, Giovanni Arrighi, greatly improved the world-system perspective on history. I never found W as convincing.)

Ferdinand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life: Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century, Volume I (It wasn’t so long ago that half the intellectuals of France called themselves Marxists, even people like Levi-Strauss who is nobody’s idea of a revolutionary. Braudel did too, even though his view of capitalism is strikingly different than Marx’s. For Braudel, capitalism isn’t a phase that arrived with the industrial revolution, though it became dominant in the modern world system. It isn’t about manufacturing, production, or even exchange, though it affects everything. It’s a way of using information and other forms of leverage to extract advantage. It isn’t something that arrived recently, but a layer that has been superimposed upon other material human activities for a very long time: merchants were capitalists long before manufacturing became central to the economy. Civilization and Capitalism is not as impressive a book as the Mediterranean in the Age of Philip II, Braudel’s great work; and it struck me as the world’s most intelligent coffee table book when I first acquired it—it’s extraordinarily well illustrated. Still, looking through it this afternoon made me wish I had a much larger mind that could contain so many fascinating particulars—that would be a sufficient apotheosis for me, to be, in the terminology of Bill’s Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, a god, not the god.)

Ferdinand Braudel, The Wheels of Commerce: Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century, Volume 2 (I’ve always liked the old bit about the guy who insists he’s not afraid of hard work. “I can watch people work for hours. Doesn’t bother me a bit.” These volumes, which come across as Richard Scary books for adults, are crammed with sheer activity, some of which is so arduous that it can weary even a voyeur of other people’s efforts like me—I’d marked the place where Braudel notes that it took lead miners in Upper Silesia eight hours to advance five centimeters. “incredibly demoralizing.” A quote from the end of the book that seems apropos: “As far as European capitalism is concerned, the social order based on economic power no doubt benefited from lying in second place; by contrast with the social order based merely on privileged birth, it was able to gain acceptance as standing for moderation, prudence, hard work, and a degree of justification. The politically dominant class attracted hostile attention just as church steeples attract lightning. And in this way the privilege of the seigneur once more made people forget about the privilege of the merchant.” Maybe the Koch brothers should keep their heads down.)

Ferdinand Braudel, The Perspective of the World: Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century, Volume 3 (Braudel is famous for his focus on the longue durée, but this book is about change, which, I note parenthetically, didn’t start to accelerate just yesterday. The book opened to a pair of maps depicting how long it took to travel from Paris to the rest of France in 1765 and then fifteen years later. Without the introduction of railroads or steam engines, the times to many destinations roughly halved) over this period.)

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