Sunday, December 13, 2015

Description of the World - Part 26

On top of second book case

Inside Mad, introduction by John Apatow  (I bought this out of loyalty, much as you watch a Simpson’s episode now and again even though you know it will disappoint you. Even the 80s, the venerable mag had lost its charm. In the 60s, my father used to read my copies of MAD and laugh out loud. He looked through an issue the year before he died at 91 and wondered out loud, “Didn’t these use to be funny?”)

Thorkild Jacobson, The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (Jacobson understands that three thousand years of thought and aspiration can’t be boiled down to a simple formula even if you’re looking at things through the wrong end of the telescope. It’s easy to read Gilgamesh and a few other pieces and summarize what you see in the words the slave of Dionysus uses to describe Hades in the Frogs of Aristophanes. “What do you see?” the God asks. “Darkness and mud.” I made my own minor contribution to this impression long ago by writing a one-act play about Gilgamesh that was performed by a little theater company. The little in little theater was well deserved. There were so few of us that I ended up having to take a bit part my own play. I had to bite my lip on stage to stay in character as the guy who played Gilgamesh shamelessly chewed the scenery.)

Frederick M. Wheelock, Latin: An Introductory Course based on Ancient Authors, 3rd edition (This was the standard textbook in Latin when I was a kid, in fact it was so familiar it was sometimes just called Wheelock. You could almost believe the marble bust on the cover depicted Wheelock instead of some Roman worthy. Because I learned from this book most of the little Latin I know, Wheelock’s version of Latin is what I thought Latin was, which is why, for example, I never realized that the other word for all was cuncta until I read the Vulgate a few years ago,)

Jacques Ferrand, A Treatise on Lovesickness (A Frenchman wrote this book about the same time Robert Burton was beginning the Anatomy of Melancholy, which contains a long section on love melancholy that Burton treats in parallel with religious madness. Ferrand is less methodical than Burton, whose work follows the strict outline method of Peter Ramus—that’s what an anatomy is—but they are similar in many ways. For example, both of ‘em spend many pages on the prevention and cure of love melancholy before concluding, as Burton put it, “Let them have their love.”—Ferrand quotes an anecdote about Diogenes, who got the same advice from Apollo when he consulted the oracle at Delphi about what do about his son’s erotic frenzy. Burton is altogether more entertaining, though. While both of ‘em treat love as the Romans did, i.e., as an evil, albeit a glamorous evil, Burton really puts his heart into explaining why women aren’t worth obsessing over, how they are actually rather disgusting, dangerous, and distracting, before switching over to the “Let them have their love” solution to the problem they pose.)

Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore (Hughes died this summer. I think of him as a historian of the settlement of Australia than as an art critic, though he spent a great deal more time as a critic than a historian. I’ve heard him described as a cultural conservative, but I expect his “conservatism” was more a matter of tone than ideology, a personality trait. If you get impatient with nuances and tend to Sam Johnson-style podium kicking, you sound like a Tory, whatever your politics. Speaking of conservatism. Australia got peopled in the first place largely because of the triumph of conservatism in Great Britain. 18th Century English justice tightened the screws so much that the prisons filled up with reprobates the law condemned but juries couldn’t bring themselves to hang. That’s how we got Aussies. Unfortunately, there’s no obvious Australia to solve the human problem that the triumph of conservatism in America has produced. I don’t think that global warming is up to the task of making the People’s Republic of Antarctica a realistic option.)

Emmanuel Le Roy Laudrie, Times of Feast, Times of Famine: A History of Climate since the Year 1000 (Le Roy Laudrie is probably best known in these parts for his Montaillou, Promised Land of Error, which you can read as a soap-box opera about a priapic priest in a Medieval village or an example of Annales school ethnographic history or as a pure instance of Paul Veyne’s idea of a significant work of history as a true novel based on a discovery in the archives. The Climate book has a rather different character since it is an attempt to relate a natural process and human history. That’s hard to do granted the rhetorical traditions of history and the fact that the science is perpetually tentative. The Climate book was published in ’67 and contains two brief references to the prospect that the climate will warm because of greenhouse gases: the cloud no bigger than a man’s hand.)

Dilip Hiro, Holy Wars: the Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism (This book, which was written by a journalist rather than a historian or sociologist of religion, is a sensible and well-balanced account of the situation as of 1989. The author foresaw very little of what followed. For him, Islamic fundamentalism is an eternal tendency that “derives from the conflict that exists between the egalitarian message of the Quran and the exploitation and iniquity of the real world…”  He certainly doesn’t expect apocalyptic manifestations and global terror, and the most alarming prospect he considers is that Egypt might become a fundamentalist or quasi-fundamentalist state.)

Ernst Breisach, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, & Modern (This book, which is a serviceable narrative account of how people have written and thought about history in Europe from the beginning to the present. was written a bit too soon (1983). The obvious problem at the end of the story is the embarrassment of the historians at their parochialism. The failure of European imperialism meant that armies and fleets wouldn’t solve the problem by making African, Asian, American history a continuation of European history by right of conquest, but the spade work hadn’t been done or even fairly begun that would make it possible to write genuinely planetary history, the general history that Foucault called for the Order of Things. Looking back, but not very far back, I think the bankruptcy of grand narratives that Lyotard proclaimed in the Postmodern Condition (1979 in French, 1984 in English) was, to quote something I wrote in the margin of Breisach’s book, “an exasperated alternative to the exhausted dialectic” rather than a definitive refutation of the project of trying to figure things out on a big scale. You can’t help trying to do that. What you don’t get is a neat little story. The resulting portrait is made out of an assemblage of fruits and vegetables, Vitruvian man replaced by Vertumnus.)

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