Tuesday, December 29, 2015


Description of the World - Part 33


S.L.A. Marshall, World War I (Marshall became well known as a military historian for his claim, supposedly based on extensive interviewing, that most American soldiers didn’t actually fire their weapons at the enemy in combat during World War II and Korea. The idea was that normal Americans had a difficult time overcoming their civilian reluctance to do violence. To say the least, this thesis has lost most of its credibility; but while it was still commonly believed, you heard that Americans had become far more murderous since the early 50s, which was supposed to be why soldiers in Vietnam showed no reluctance to try to kill their opponents. The ascribed peaceableness of World War II draftees created the impression of special bloodthirstiness on the part of contemporary Americans. The World War I book is just a potboiler. Though Marshall fought as a sergeant at San Michael and the Argonne and might be expected to have some special insight into the conflict, his narrative is routine. I probably bought the book because it does have some interesting maps.)

Annabel Patterson, Reading Holinshed’s Chronicles (Even in 1610 the Chronicles had their critics—“vast, vulgar Tomes…recovered out of innumerable Ruins.” Shakespeare cribbed his history from them, and they must have served as something like a History Channel for the Elizabethans. Everything was crammed in since selection would have been more work than inclusion. The net effect is populist because what a more fastidious historian would omit is not so much trivial as common.  Of course some of the material preserved in this vast work is anything but democratic. Here’s one Sir John Cheke admonishing a mob in 1549: “And to have no gentlemen, because ye be none your selves, is to bring down an estate and to mend none...If there should be such equalitie, then ye take awaie all hope from yours to come in anie better estate than you now leave them.” I’ve heard that one before.)

Andrew Large, The Artificial Language Movement (Some considerable minds have dreamed of a premeditated language that would banish all obscurity and presumably bring the millennium: the philosopher Leibniz, Peano the mathematician, John Wilkins, Robert Hooke, even Sir Thomas Urquhart, translator of Rabelais, whose proposed language featured eleven cases and eleven genders. Heck, I invented one when I was a kid, Rhetorice Glossman, though I never managed to speak it without an accent—as I recall it was a bit like Peano’s Latine sine flexione but took off from Greek instead of Latin. Optimism about the prospects of a perfected language is also a continuing feature—writes Large “The Chinese Esperanto League had only 500 adherents but the works of Mao Tse-tung were published in Esperanto in tens of thousands of copies.”  Over and beyond the reluctance of the population to switch over, the same problem bedevils the projectors who can never quite settle on a single standard for the new language. This book tells the story of some of the desperate struggles that the founders of Volap√ľk and Esperanto had with the heretics. Of course even natural languages have a tendency to fission—if mankind lasts long enough, I expect Indian English and American English will eventually be as distinct as French and Romanian. As Heraclitus pointed out long ago (and his fragments cover pretty much all cases) “Even the sacred barley water separates if it is not stirred.”)

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