Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Description of the World - Part 23

Seymour M. Hersh, The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon Whitehouse (Thirty years later Hersh is still muckraking, and his Kissinger book came thirteen years after his Pulitzer Prize for uncovering the My Lai massacre. Well, Kissinger is still with us, as well. We live in an era of long careers. This book is less like journalism and a bit more like history than some of Hersh’s other efforts since he wrote it a decade after Nixon left office. Hersh obviously knew a great many of the players and spoke with them frequently on or off the record, but I don’t get the sense that he really gets much beyond what was in the newspapers of the time, assuming you read ‘em with sufficient cynicism. There aren’t that many secrets in politics. Scandals erupt not because we finally realize the venality or plain evil of politicians but because something happens to make us admit to each other what we already knew all along but found convenient to ignore or bootless to denounce.)

C.V.Wedgwood, The Thirty Years War (“…no right was vindicated by its ragged end. The war solved no problem. Its effects, both immediate and indirect, were either negative or disastrous. Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its causes, devious in its course, futile in its results. It is the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict.” We can save this bit of English for use at the conclusion of a history of the current cycle of wars in the Middle East, though it would have to be determined whether we’re talking about another Thirty Five Years So-Far War beginning with the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the Iranian Revolution, and Saddam’s invasion of Iran or a Forty Years Plus War going back to the Yom Kippur War or even a Fifty Years War beginning with the Israeli Blitzkrieg of ’67. Of course however you recon its starting point, we can’t say how long this endlessly imbricated series of conflicts will last. By any calculation, it will have been rather longer than the German Wars, which lasted a mere 31 years—1914-1945. Of course the first two world wars cost far more lives and were fought more intensely, but it may be early days yet as far as the overall butcher’s bill is concerned. In any case, the war Wedgwood describes is a pretty good analogue to the Middle Eastern mess because both were comprised of many particular conflicts knotted together. One notable difference: To a significant degree, the Thirty Years War was a religious war when it began and became more and more a conflict of nations as it wore on. The Middle Eastern Wars are moving in the reverse direction from cabinet wars and secular insurrections to jihads, crusades, and clashes of civilization. Not necessarily progress.)

Antonio Fraser, Cromwell: the Lord Protector (I can’t recall a thing about this book. Memories, like fossils, are rarer for lower strata, and I would have read this book in the early 70s. To vary the metaphor, it’s been in the compost bin for quite a while. One thought about the subject of the book: after his death and the restoration of the monarchy, the British disinterred Cromwell’s body, hanged it, hacked off its head, and displayed it on a pole at Westminster. Three centuries later the British army named a tank after him.)

Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution (Everybody quotes the America book, but this is my favorite de Tocqueville work, even though it is only first section of what was going to be a longer book. I’m not going to try summarize it’s argument—I’d probably do that inaccurately granted the passage of time–but simply note what I took from it myself, i.e., that the ancien regime was already trying to modernize itself, rationalize and centralize the institutions of government, and ameliorate the condition of the mass of the people before the Revolution declared the rights of man or Napoleon promulgated his code. That the kings were not true opponents of the Revolutionary movements and that they lost their thrones or their heads was rather unjust since the real enemy of the people, in 1789 or 2015 for that matter, were rent-seeking aristocrats. In his own way, even Frederick the Great had been a citizen-king, and Emperor Joseph II was practically on the side of the Belgian democrats.)
Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Hermeticism lost much of its luster when Isaac Casaubon demonstrated philologically that the writings of the Thrice-Great Hermes—Trismegistus—were not of venerable antiquity but dated no further back than Hellenistic times. In the high Renaissance, the Hermetica had had extraordinary prestige. Cosimo d’ Medici insisted that Marsino Ficino translate it along with the dialogues of Plato. Yates managed to get people interested in the Hermetic tradition again in works like this one that ties it and other arcane traditions, most notably the art of memory, to the Scientific Revolution. In any case, from our point of view, the Second Century B.C. is old enough to seem glamorously ancient even if Hermes wasn’t coeval with Moses. The value of ideas is not a function of the authenticity of their sources. Unfortunately, the deeper problem is not the provenance of Hermetic ideas but precisely the intrinsic value or silliness of this Renaissance magus stuff and what it actually contributed to the development of the modern sciences beyond some really impressive allegorical frontispieces. I greatly enjoyed Yates’ books and for many years looked forward to finding the next one in much the same way that a Stephen King fan looks forward to a new novel; but I gradually found Yates a guilty pleasure. The matter is hardly settled, however, not only because some genuinely significant science really was intertwined with mysticism—even John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s wizard, was the author of mathematical works on practical navigation—but because there’s more to civilization than what’s dreamed of by the sciences, at least under the contemporary definition of science.)

No comments: