Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Description of the World - Part 34

Microhistory & the Lost Peoples of Europe, ed. Edward Muir and Guido Ruggiero (When I started this exercise, I expected the many of the books that sit on my shelves were never read. When I first picked up this collection of historical papers this afternoon, I couldn’t remember anything about it, but leafing through I realized that I had read it or lots of it, especially the seminar paper on ritual pillaging, the ancient custom of ransacking the personal property of bishops at their death and the tale of a Jewish banker who fell afoul of the Christian laity in Mantua in 1493 when he removed a picture of the Madonna from a house he had purchased even though he had ecclesiastical permission to paint over the image. These bits stuck in my head, though I certainly forgot where I heard about ‘em. Characteristically, the details made more of an impression than the intent of the collection, which was to demonstrate what microhistory is all about: In his introduction, Edward Muir writes of the authors of these pieces: “Their work responds to the once dominant preoccupation among historians with quantitative social science, the longue duree, and immobile history, and it returns to interpreting utterances and beliefs, to describing brief dramatic events, and to envisioning a past characterized more by abrupt changes than by deep structural continuities.”  Like the new historicism, microhistory is…essays. Come to think of it, I guess I don’t buy the notion that there is so great a contrast between the details and the generalities. Even a unprecedented and unrepeated event can be an instance of a rule. Muir chooses a remark by Sherlock Holmes as an epigraph: “You know my method. It is founded on trifles.” Yep, but Sherlock was interested in trifles that solved a mystery.)

Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou: the Promised Land of Error (Speaking of the peaceful co-existence of details and generalities… This account of the social life of a medieval village on the French side of the Pyrenees is full of fascinating detail, but Ladurie, who is otherwise famous for “quantitative social science,” uses the rich testimony he found in Inquisitorial records to illuminate patterns practices and customs that belong to the longue duree. The book became a best seller because of the stories it tells about a lecherous priest; but what I found fascinating about it was the long-range ethnography, in particular the way in which Ladurie was able to reconstruct how the geography of the world looked to a 14th Century villager and Catholic moral theology appeared to a poorly educated cleric. My former wife gave me this book for my birthday back in the 70s—we proved to be an immiscible combination, but I have to admit that she gave me some wonderful presents.)

Winfred P. Lehmann, Historical Linguistics, 3rd edition (Back in ’67 or ’68, I decided I ought to learn at least a little bit about linguistics since I was in the philosophy business during the latter stages of the linguistic turn. I asked for advice on what to read from Rulon Wells, who was both a theoretical linguist and a philosopher. I think he recommended a book by a guy named Lyons—it’s in my office in if i still have it—but I mention this small bit of personal history because it was like the cute meet at the beginning of an unhappy love affair. I’ve been reading formal linguistics off and on for nearly 50 years and have mostly just succeeded in demonstrated to myself the limitations of self education. Still, it can come in handy once and a while to know about Kurylowicz’ 4th Law of Analogy if only to impress the natives. For the most part, I know about linguistics to the same extent that Amerigo Vespucci knew about America, i.e., that it’s there and very big. Well, I do know that historical linguistics is less perilous to the dilettante than the theoretical variety. The linguistics book that’s been the ruin of many a poor boy (and girl) is Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale. Textbooks like Lehmann’s aren't the hard stuff.)

Hemchandra Raychaudhuri, Political History of Ancient India (I may have unfairly dismissed this book after reading a few chapters because the author seemed to treat the legendary material in the Indian epics as historical as if it could be assumed that there really was a War of the Kurus—the great war in the Mahabharata—and that the war was a central event in early Indian history.  He certainly puts more weight on such evidence than I would. I tend to think that both the Indian and the Greek version of their early history reflected an essentially mythological pattern that called for a great war—Trojan for the Greeks, the Bharata war for the Indians. Thing is, while it is unclear if it makes sense to talk about the Trojan war, Trojan wars were real enough. Similarly, maybe there was some sort of Bharata war, even if nobody, including Raychaudhuri, thinks it was a struggle between five brothers and a hundred sons over a game of dice. Depending on old literary sources is problematic, not because such works don’t preserve bits and pieces of the genuine past; but because you can’t tell the surviving fragments from the later additions and inventions in the absence of some sort of corroboration from outside sources or archaeology or something. In any case, though i continue to rely on the much more skeptical Romila Thapar for my ancient Indian history, the old-school version represented by Raychaudhuri retains some interest quite apart from its credibility, especially now that the Modi and his Hindutva allies are in the ascendent in what has to be one of the three or four most important countries on Earth. In spinning a heroic narrative about India, the Hindutvas, like certain celebratory American historians, are not above mere fabrication; but their job is made easier by the obscurity of the Indian past. The history of India is a wonderful inkblot if you want to project an ideology. I once gave a week of lectures on Indian history at a  Junior College in Pennsylvania—too bad they didn’t need a tango instructor, too—and ended up telling a pretty traditional story. precisely because I did know enough to know I was talking through my hat. Thing is, when it comes to a great many features of Indian history, even those who know what they are talking about are talking through their hat.)

Jacques Le Goft, Your Money or Your Life (Le Goff claims, apropos of what took place towards the end of the Middle Ages, “The hope of escaping Hell, thanks to Purgatory, permitted the usurer to propel the economy and society of the thirteenth century ahead towards capitalism.” Seems to me that the whole machinery of indulgences and interventions for the dead was an elaboration of an older compromise that finessed Christ’s apparently absolute denunciation of the rich by allowing them to pay off their guilt by contributions to the Church. You cannot serve God and Mammon, but there is a loophole big enough to drive a truck or at least a camel. At the end of the book I wrote “A graceful but rather slight essay..”)

Claude Manceron, Towards the Brink (This is the fourth volume of Manceron’s account of the Age of the French Revolution—I don’t think he got beyond Volume 5, which at least saw off the Bastille. The fourth volume begins with the arrest of Beaumarchais, who got in trouble because of the egalitarian ideas of the Marriage of Figaro, his spectacularly popular hit. Truth told, Louis XVI didn’t want to put the screws to Beaumarchais. Like everybody else, he loved the play; and at the end of the 18th Century, you couldn’t know which side of the revolution the kings would wind up on. They had their own complaints about the nobility; and, after all, the first of the Bourbon monarchs of France had practically ran for the throne on a populist platform—Henri IV’s slogan was “a chicken in every pot.” Well, Louis XVI doesn’t get much credit for wisdom or wit; but he showed a bit of flair by imprisoning Beaumarchais in a reform school for the wayward offspring of the high born. I read the other volumes of this history in library copies and enjoyed them all. As I wrote in the fly leaf of this one, “This guy has written the Thomas Pynchon version of the French Revolution.”)

Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (My sister happened to pick up this book and begin to read it during a visit back in the 90s. She was especially taken with the first essay in the collection, an account of what real French folk stories say about the French. She wondered out loud where I found these fascinating books. Now my sister didn’t read as much as me—nobody does—but everyone in my extended family read a lot; and her husband filled their place with books, though I don’t think he made my mistake of usually reading what he bought. They did tend to read popular books, however, and that perhaps accounts for her surprise at how engrossing mine were. Thing is, books written for American adults are really children’s books for old children. Books written for mass audience aren’t simply less trustworthy as sources of information or less original in point of the ideas they convey. They are less entertaining, though admittedly it requires more effort to read fully adult works than books written for superannuated young adults.)

Bernard DeVoto, The Year of Decision 1846 (This is a fancy presentation edition of an old standby history, which is probably why it only cost me $7.50—nobody thought anybody would ever actually read it. Like the text of National Geographic articles and the last three hundred pages of the Critique of Pure Reason, the words in American Heritage books are in a rain shadow where few eyes ever fall. DeVoto is actually a good narrative historian, and he’s right about the salience of ’46. In American history the date is like ’48 in European history.)

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