Saturday, January 02, 2016


Description of the World - Part 35


Second Shelf


George Sansom, A History of Japan to 1334 (I spent most of my childhood in Gardena, California, a small town with a large Japanese-American population—several of my school friends were born in relocation camps, including the lovely Sumiko Nishi, who, on good nights, sometimes appears in my dreams all these years later. (Not so surprising in one respect: even then, all I could do was dream about her.) The town had a large Jodo-Shinshu Buddhist temple that had an outreach program on Buddhism and Japanese culture. The services, which I attended a couple of times, were strongly reminiscent of Methodism—they actually sang a hymn that began “Buddha loves me. This I know, ‘cause the Dhammapada told me so.” Well, you leave the cucumber in the brine long enough, you gotta expect pickles. By the same mechanism, third generation Japanese-American teenagers were just American kids. They needed courses on Japanese culture, too. I read the Sansom book at a fairly early age because of the interest in things Japanese I acquired in Gardena. It took some external motivation to get through this rather dry history, though the author shows more spirit once he reaches the Genpei War.)

Carl K√∂hler, A History of Costume (Another one of the wonderful Dover reprints. I’ve never tried to read this book; but I’ve leafed through it many times. It has pictures of every style of clothing up to 1870 or so, though only for the ancient Middle East and Europe. It’s easy to think that nothing much happened during long stretches of history or that what change did occur took place with glacial slowness. Styles could succeed one another at a rapid pace even in premodern societies, however. Fashion is old hat. Speaking of a hat, Kate in the Taming of the Shrew says, “This doth fit the time,” even if Petruchio denounces it as “a knack, a toy, a trick, a baby’s cap.”


Henry Charles Lea, The Duel and the Oath (Countless movies feature trial by combat (“every tried and true effect/For the umpteenth time we’ll resurrect”—the Court Jester) What was more surprising about this little book about Medieval justice was the procedure in Canon law by which the accused could prove his innocence by assembling enough supporters to attest to it, the so-called canonical purgation. Duals, oaths, and ordeals, which Lea also wrote about, seem bizarre as ways of determining guilt, but the rational methods that came into use with the revival of Roman law were often harder on defendants. The Roman law demanded two witnesses to establish guilt—circumstantial evidence could only count for half a proof—so torture was widely used to meet the standard by wringing a confession and therefore a full proof from the defendant.)


Donald Cameron Watt, How War Came: The Immediate Origins of the Second World War 1938-1939 (This book was extremely well received when it first appeared and won various awards, but I knew nothing about that when I ran across it. I picked it up because I wondered what there was to say about the run up to the war that would require 600+ pages. The narrative that I had internalized was that the capitulation of Munich led inexorably to the Invasion of Poland—as a matter of theoretical understanding, I didn’t accept the clockwork theory of history, but I hadn’t applied that highfalutin meta understanding to the day-by-day object language of history. Watt’s book helped me do that. That grief was coming to all seems obvious in retrospect because of Hitler’s obsessions, but what side Italy, Spain, the USSR, Japan, and even Poland would be on was very much up in the air in 1938. In history as in thermodynamics, it is possible to predict the global end state of a process but not the path to that end state. In history, however, the path taken matters very much to the participant observers.)

Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (All these years later—I probably bought it around 1980—I just realized that I never got around to reading this little book. I certainly will since it is parallel to his Lincoln at Gettysburg, an admirable work.)

Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work? (This book should be understood in its context: it was published in 2006, and its conclusions reflect the Bush administration’s disappointing performance.  “…American democracy is not functioning well. Democracy increasingly takes place without—or without enough—information, accountability, institutions, disinterest, and justice.” Of course, things look much worse now, which makes Wolfe’s pessimism look like optimism and his suggested remedies for manageable problems merely quaint. It says something about the passage of time—only ten years in this case—that the index of this book has no entries for economic inequality, oligarchy, or plutocracy. Does American democracy still work? The issue now is whether democracy is still a concept that matters, here or anywhere else. The aspiration of the liberals is to achieve a more decent form of oligarchy, and they’re the good guys.)
  
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. Rev. James Ingram (Who can forget 671? “That year happened that great destruction among the fowls.” The entries for the later years are much more detailed. This little Everyman edition probably cost me $.50 so that I’ve probably got my money’s worth from reading the monkish account of 1066 and a few other doings.)


Jacob Burckhardt, Force and Freedom: Reflections on History (It’s hard to boil down the thinking of historians. It’s like trying to summarize an atlas. Or as Burckhardt wrote: “The philosophy of history is a centaur, a contradiction in terms, for history co-ordinates, and hence is unphilosophical, while philosophy subordinates, and hence is unhistorical.”  Another remark I underlined “Today, a man must be very rich to allow others to take from him without protest, without “claiming,” his ideas as his own, without squabbling about priority. And then comes the intellectual pest of our time—originality.” In this connection, I note that before print, people just didn’t talk much about plagiarism. The word only came into use in the 17th Century. Before then, the universal literary vice was reverse plagiarism, i.e., attributing your writings to somebody else.)
  
Pierre Goubert, The Course of French History (Goubert is not or was not obscure in France, but I got this book as part of my on-going attempt to understand the outlines of French history. I was giving myself a course in French History so the title seemed right. I wanted a Monarch Notes with real monarchs. I didn’t abstract any overarching theme from this book. The author’s thinking intrudes among the names and dates in the form of a sprinkling of sarcastic asides, the French version of Attic salt.)

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