Monday, January 04, 2016

Description of the World  - Part 36

Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (When I was in college, the Dutch got very little respect. Nobody studied the language—I used to think of it as misspelled German myself—and the enormous contributions to modernity of the Netherlands in art, science, commerce, agriculture, and philosophy somehow didn’t register. Schama may not have done much for the scholarly side of the reappraisal that occurred during my adult life, but he surely made an impression on the general reader with books like this one. The Dutch matter because there’s was in many ways the first modern society. In particular, the cultural contradictions of capitalism were all there: prosperity and guilt, relative tolerance in a country dominated by Calvinists, Democratic tendencies overwhelmed by oligarchy, humanity at home combined with vicious imperialism in Asia and the New World, superb art and world-class kitsch, moralism and materialism. More succinctly: tulips and TULIP, where the second TULIP stands for total depravity, unconditional election, etc. in both their theological and secular interpretations. Schama finds apt objective correlates for all this: the etchings of beached whales with prominent pricks, the worldly ascetics martyred by teeth rotted by all that sugar, the jail cell with the pump you have to keep pumping to keep from drowning.)

Andrew Hacker, Two Nations: Black and While, Separate, Hostile, Unequal (This book dates back to 1992, but you have to wonder if a similar compilation of statistical information would come to less pessimistic conclusions today. In ’92 white people were congratulating themselves that racism was over with, but then they were congratulating themselves about that in ’82 and ’72 as well, and especially on election night ’08. The theme is rather like the notion that religion is making a comeback in American life, an announcement that was made every four or five years in a feature article in Time and Newsweek when those two weren’t wheezing their last in a hospice of a website. Hacker’s book is rather like Capital in the 21st Century: lotsa data, very little argument.)

Franco Venturi, The End of the Old Regime in Europe 1768-1776: the First Crisis (Venturi’s account of these years is based on what educated Europeans, mostly Italians, wrote about the events as they unfolded. As he states, one of his intentions was to trace the emergence of organized public opinion in the later Enlightenment. In that respect, his book is similar to Rick Perlstein’s chronicles of the last sixty years of American political history, except, of course, what Perlstein was writing about was a time of enmerdement rather than of enlightenment. Like Venturi, Perlstein relies very heavily on what he finds in old newspapers. In contrast to the talking heads of recent American journalism, the op/ed writers of Milan and Venice don’t come off too badly. They anticipated many of the contradictions that would surface in the revolutionary era to come. In the debate about the abortive Danish experiment in freedom of the press, for example, even the most radical of them recognized that free speech is anything but unproblematic. More generally, the commentators recognized that every insurrection in the name of liberty—and there were plenty of those before the Fall of the Bastille or even Lexington—was fundamentally ambiguous. Were the Peloponnesian cattle thieves who began the Greek revolt against the Turks fighting for or against modernity? Were they restoring the glories of Hellas or mostly just furthering the ambitions of Catherine the Great, who had riled them up as part of her war against the Ottomans and even sent a fleet to the Mediterranean? The self-determination of peoples often amounts to the reassertion of the rights of local elites to dominate in their own backyard without the interference of central power. Speaking of Catherine the Great: was Pugachev’s rebellion a blow for liberty or barbarism? Writes Venturi: “the Pugachev revolt was certainly a response to the increasingly heavy burdens that the war against Turkey imposed on Russia, but it was also a popular reaction against modernization, against the desire for reform, enlightenment introduced from above, and the whole policy of Catherine II.” One item about Pugachev that’s not relevant to the higher theory of history—I wrote in the margin about it, “sounds like a Polish joke”— is from a 1775 account of the death of Pugachev in the Notizie del mondo. “They were supposed to cut off his limbs one after another, but by mistake the executioner cut off his head first, for which he was punished with the knout.”)

Franco Venturi, The End of the Old Regime in Europe, 1776-1789:  The Great States of the West (This volume opens with a detailed account of how Italian intellectuals reacted to the Declaration of Independence. Washington’s Farewell Letter also made a profound impression. The Americans were more than an inspiration (or warning). Thomas Jefferson had a hand in drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789. You risked your life to sail from continent to continent, but even in the 18th Century, the Atlantic wasn’t that wide. The British reaction highlighted the sometimes constructive, sometimes destructive interference between the rights of Englishmen and the rights of man. Often revolution and reaction are a political rabbit-duck. The nearest thing to a storming the Bastille moment the English had was the Gordon riots, which were more destructive of life and property than the Reign of Terror in France but originated in popular protests not against the Aristos, but against the Papists. We’ll teach Parliament to extend toleration!) 

Franco Venturi, The End of the Old Regime in Europe, 1776-1789: Republican Patriotism and the Empires of the East (The centerpiece of this volume is a very long chapter entitled The ‘Grand Project’ of Joseph II, which was where I first found out about Josephism, a movement or rather royal aspiration that R.R. Palmer also wrote about at length. Of course, the whole era was characterized by monarchs who tried to be citizen kings before there were citizen citizens. Their disappointments ought to give pause to the lets-let-the-billionaires-do-it school of thought currently promoted by certain billionaires and Ralph Nader. Venturi gives an excellent account of the several dress rehearsals for the great Revolution—Geneva, Poland, the Netherlands. It seems to me that the wide geographical range of the ferment of the times puts a limit on how chance and occasion rule history. To paraphrase Paul Veyne, how events happen and when they happen are at the mercy of absurd contingencies, but what happens usually makes sense in terms of larger patterns.)

E.H. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries (From time to time, one of my nephews, the prosperous one, floats the idea of disenfranchising anybody who accepts welfare. It seems to him only fair. I guess he imagines that the poor line up first thing in the morning to vote for the Democrats. I’m not a historian, just somebody who reads a lot of history books; but you don’t have to be Otto von Ranke (or a Democratic political operative) to know that the poor just don’t vote, that getting them to the polls is extraordinarily difficult. If you could get them to participate fully in the political life of the country, I expect we’d all be better off, even the conservatives; but effective enfranchisement is a very tall order. The rich and the middle classes may actually believe in the equality of man; but those in the scheduled classes (or whatever they call ‘em in your neighborhood), don’t believe it or they say they believe it is because they think they are required to say they do, rather as many kids accept the Pythagorean theorem because they think they’re supposed to. Subservience is hardly unnatural to human beings. Indeed, inertness is the default case. If you beat a whole stratum of people down for generations and convince them of their unworthiness, they’ll internalize their role and teach it to their children. Which is why the actual masses (as opposed to the well-off peasants, petit bourgeois, and disappointed career seekers who make revolutions) are so remarkably passive. When they are goaded into reaction, which certainly does happen, their demands are usually for a return to more familiar forms of oppression or a remission of taxes or debts, though in some cases they can be swept up in chiliastic religious movements or be persuaded to support local bandits or vigilantes or simply long for revenge—spitting in the soup is also a lot older than Fight Club. Hobsbawm writes about these manifestations. He is supposed to have been the last of the unreconstructed Stalinists, but despite or perhaps because of that, he was utterly unsentimental about the reality of what he calls primitive rebels.)

The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor: A Medieval Guide to the Arts, translated by Jerome Taylor. (I young black guy saw me reading this book at a coffee bar and asked if he could borrow it, which in fact he did. I explained to him that the book was unlikely to interest anybody but specialists. It was an introduction to the arts written in the late 1120s by a master of St Victor, a monastic school that much later became part of the University of Paris. Even I was only marginally interested in the book even though, as should be apparent to anybody who has suffered along with this exercise this far, I’ll read pretty much anything. The Didascalicon does provide an idea of what educated people in Western Europe were expected to know before the new translations of Aristotle and the flowering of scholasticism. Hugh mostly lays out a curriculum that hadn’t changed a great deal since the 5th Century Commentary on the Dream of Scipio by Macrobius and the Marriage of Mercury and Philology by Martianus Capella—the former expounded the mix of Neoplatonism and Aristotle sometimes called the perennial philosophy and the latter defined the seven liberal arts along with the seven various other things. (Scary fact: there is a pdf of Capella’s book on the Internet.) The young man may have thought that book with a title like Didascalicon would contain secret wisdom. After all Didascalicon does sound a bit like Necronomicon. I was actually a little surprised when the book was returned to me two weeks later—in my experience the return rate of loaned books is not very high even when you actually know the borrower. In this case, the borrower actually called me up and made an appointment to get the book back to me. I have wondered ever since what he made of it.) 

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