Sunday, December 20, 2015

Description of the World - Part 30

First Shelf

Mort Rosenblum, Mission to Civilize: the French Way (As he himself insists, Rosenblum is not a historian but a journalist. Even so, historians take his book seriously. I met a grad student writing his dissertation on the cultural pretensions of French imperialism. He was surprised I was familiar with Rosenblum, who, or so I gathered from our conversation, was the center of academic debate on what to make of the peculiar French mixture of particularism and universality. Well, it is funny that West African school kids with shiny black faces used to begin their educations by reading how “our ancestors the Gauls were big and strong,” but it’s no more peculiar than an immigrant from a dying planet pledging himself to truth, justice, and the American way. Even in an era when English is the nearest thing to a world language, the French continue to punch far above their weight in cultural matters. They get laughed at for the pretensions, but the same Conservative intellectuals that publicly despise them retire to the South of France if they can manage it because, after all, those people do know something about how to live.)

Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: a Biography (I acquired a copy of the Confessions when I was a kid—the Harvard Classics edition cost me a quarter.  I’ve been reading the Saint’s works for a very long time—one of the essay questions on my Master’s exam was about his theory of the soul and I certainly chewed over this ideas in a more personal way when I went through my phase of reading Calvin and Luther. I read the Brown biography only a couple of years ago. By then I was less interested in sin and grace and focused on a couple of other things.

Reading about how Augustine’s monastic community in Hippo grew out of his earlier circle of friends, underscored that there was more to monasticism than asceticism and gloom, that it had roots in classical ideas of fellowship and the dream of a realm—bubble?—of freedom and peace. The Abbey of Thélème, which, according to Rabelais, the Giant Gargantua built for Friar John of the Funnels, is often described as an anti-monastery because its only rule is “Do what you will,” but it was actually an Augustinian foundation since “Do what you will” is just the last half of Augustine’s injunction “Love well and do what you will”—I don’t know if that makes Aleister Crowley an Augustinian, too, since he actually built an Abbey of Thélème or Thelema, as he spelled it, in Sicily.

What  “Love well” means depends on the context. So does sweet reason. Augustine had a redoubtable mind, whatever you think of his premises; and you assume he must have been exceedingly persuasive in person. Certainly his writings against the Donatist schismatics of North Africa are formidable pieces of polemic. When it came down to it, however, the Bishop called in the Roman civil authorities to squelch them. Force isn’t just the ultima ratio for kings.)  

R.R. Palmer, The Age of Democratic Revolutions, Volume 1 the Challenge (R.R.Palmer was the author of a History of the Modern World, which was the standard textbook for decades. I kept a dog-eared copy around for reference until last year when I gave it to a friend of mine who loved to read pop histories but had no sense of where the various Henrys, Elizabeths, Fredericks, and Catherines fit in the longer story. I only got around to reading the Age of Democratic Revolutions this Spring because I found a copy for $10 a volume and I have finished the second volume yet, though I will. I expected that plowing through these tomes would be a duty read, but Palmer writes very well indeed and the subject matter is highly relevant. Palmer famously pursued the project of writing an Atlantic history that isn’t about Britain or France or the Colonies but, in his words, “put all these national histories together.” He was writing in particular about the era between the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, but important historical events are seldom local and the other great passages of history were also global or as nearly global as the times allowed. Politics never stops at the water’s edge, and revolutions are contagious—’89, ’48, ’68, the Arab Spring.)

Paul Plass, Wit and the Writing of History: The Rhetoric of Historiography in Imperial Rome (The most interesting action in certain chess games takes place in the variations that both sides are aware of and just for that reason don’t actually end up playing. This little book appears to be a scholarly exercise about pedantic trifles, but a desperate and fascinating struggle takes place in the notes over the nature of history and even more over how to talk about political reality in an era of dissimulation. In the days when I read with a pen in my hand, I could tell how much I engaged with a book by how many notes I wrote in the margin. This battered paperback has many annotations. One example: “Tacitus, like any other writer in a despotism, is in the position of a salesman, i.e., somebody suspiciously sensitive about his reputation for candor and veracity.” Plass writes elsewhere; “…claims to free speech on the part of his subjects are acts of submission. Tacitus can accordingly see public talk about candor ‘as the last form of flattery.’”—I wrote in the margin, “This is absolutely normal business behavior.”

It’s no wonder that Tacitus has always been read with close attention in eras like ours—his writings had also a vogue in the late 16th Century, an age of ideological struggle, courtiers, and dissimulation. (In Stendhal’s novel the Red and the Black, Julian Sorel’s ecclesiastical patron gives him the works of Tacitus as a prize, wondering out loud how appropriate such cynical works are for a seminary student.) The fundamental question for Tacitus is how to be a virtuous hypocrite while writing about other virtuous or not entirely virtuous hypocrites. Wit is one recurrent tactic; despair might as well be amusing. Satires multiply because they change nothing. You keep knocking on the door because nobody answers.)

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