Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Description of the World - Part 42

Sarah Bradford, Disraeli (When I was in grad school, my cohorts and I looked down on everything English (except the Beatles), in part because it was the time of the French invasion but mostly in reaction to the Old Blue reverence for everything British, which was quite obvious at the time even if the temple of the cult, the Yale Center for British Art, didn’t open until ’74. Our attitude was just as parochial as theirs, although I hope it is not a false memory that I occasionally voiced some misgivings about it at the time. I certainly wasn’t above snarking about English civilization and especially English thinkers. “It’s telling,” I used to say, “that the greatest English philosopher was an Austrian.” (These days I’d say, he was a Scot.) Of course when I was young, I didn’t even have much respect for Charles Darwin, a judgment that astonishes me in retrospect. It wasn’t that I had even the slightest doubt about the reality of evolution—as a small child I learned of the overwhelming evidence for it from my father’s historical geology textbook—but I thought of Darwin as a rather unsophisticated fellow who solved the mystery the way beef-witted detectives uncover a crime, i.e., by stumbling over a large corpse. Natural selection? Wasn’t that an obvious idea? You didn’t have to be deep to figure that out. In those days I wanted to be deep. Granted the prejudices I acquired in my school days, it’s rather surprising to discover how much I’ve read about the English over my adult life. Why did I pick up a substantial biography of Disraeli in the early ‘80s? Perhaps it was because I had already encountered and enjoyed some of the writings of his father Isaac and wanted to find out how you get from a scholarly if rather whimsical Jew to a Tory prime minister, who, incidentally, famously took the side of Bishop Wilberforce and the angels against Charles Darwin.)

William H. Prescott, Conquest of Mexico (As I think I mentioned, I don’t know if I got through the Conquest of Peru, but I believe I did read this book. I may have liked it better simply because Cortez is an entirely more attractive character than Pizarro. Even the best of the conquistadors were brutal, of course, which is why the Black Legend is not just a legend. The fact that they, some of ‘em anyhow, were inspired by religious and chivalrous fantasies, doesn’t change that. Don Quixote thought of himself as a sort of Amadis de Castile, but Cervantes portrayed him as more of a dangerous madman than a cute old man all the same. Speaking of madmen: the first parts of Aristo’s poem about another crazy knight [Orlando Furioso] appeared in 1516. Cortez set off for Mexico and adventures comparably romantic, hallucinatory, and bloody in 1519. Fortunately for his reputation, he attacked the only people on Earth who were even crueler than the Spanish.)

Edward Crankshaw, Bismarck (Since defenders of reaction are rather plentiful these days, it perhaps behooves us to pay attention to their character traits. The author writes of the young Bismarck, “… he brought to the defense of reaction the classic behaviour of the young rebel, and the resultant mixture is unusual indeed.” I wrote in the margin “Disraeli?” I could have mentioned a great many less impressive figures. I give Bismarck considerable credit for retaining a sense of realism about his politics, but there really are quite few idiot reactionaries that began their careers as idiot radicals and probably vice versa. I believe the aging William F. Buckley wrote someplace that if he had it to do all over again, he might have been a Communist. These guys are born plotters. Crankshaw says about his subject, “The tragic Bismarckian paradox was that this great hero of the people who liked to be led was not a leader at all. He was a manipulator.” Back in my first year or two of college, when I was still officially a Republican, the would-be supremos of the tiny conservative club at Pomona would scheme behind each other’s backs and pull me aside to get my support for a coup, all in order to seize a chairmanship that wouldn’t even matter on a resume. Of course Bismarck’s schemes did matter. The run-up to the Franco-Prussian war reads like an episode of House of Cards. Apropos of some of his statements at the time, Crankshaw writes, “It would be interesting to know where Bismarck drew the line between lying and not lying. That such a line existed somewhere in his mind is evident from the last remark; but to the outsider it remains invisible.” You could ask the same question about Ted Cruz, the most Bismarckian, or at least the most intelligent, of the current crop.)

Richard Gough, The History of Myddle (The pews in English churches were assigned to local families in order of their standing in the community so that it was possible for the local antiquary Richard Gough to chronicle the whole parish using a chart of the church as an index. The blurbs for the book liken it to Ladurie’s Montaillou, which reconstructs life in a medieval village by recourse to the records of the Inquisition; but at least formally, the better analog is Life: A User’s Manual [La Vie mode d’emploi] a novel by George Perec that narrates the interlocking lives of the inhabitants of a large apartment block in Paris. I can’t claim to have read this book in its entirely, though I’ve dipped into it from time to time. Many of the pages read like the duller parts of the Bible with lots of so and so begot so and so, but some sections are rather racy. Gough had a considerable education by the lights of his time—the book dates to 1700—but he could be rather rough in his judgments of his fellow villagers despite the frequent Latin quotations. In fact, he could be rough using the Latin quotations. For example, “Richard Tyler now living [!], of whom I may say, many had done wickedly, butt hee excelled them all.” Like Gough, I omit a complete list of Tyler’s sins,  which included knocking up somebody’s wife and then eventually knocking up the resulting bastard daughter. “Ex pede Herculem” I can well believe that country life is hardly an idyll. I knew an Englishman who somehow fetched up in a West Virginia college and attempted to begin his career as a rural sociologist by conducting field work in the surrounding hills. His notes had began to resemble the rough draft of a Faulkner novel with accounts of incest and overlooked homicides before he suddenly switched over to writing purely theoretical papers at the extremely persuasive suggestion of a local sheriff who, or so I gathered from the rather sketchy account I got in a bar one night, observed local custom by locking his wife in the basement when he had to be away on business.)

Francis Parkman, France and England in North America, Volume II (I once owned the first volume of this set, but left it in a taxi cab in Fort Lauderdale before I could read more than the first book of the series, The Pioneers of France in the New World. I’ve regretted that ever since. I find Parkman’s narrative highly readable, and there’s something strangely pleasurable about reading of the extraordinarily violent events that took occurred in places with domesticated names. There really was a sack of Schenectady. I marked off one anecdote in particular that tells how a Jesuit nagged one Chief Rat of the Michillimackinac Hurons to put an Iroquois prisoner “in the kettle” in the interest of French policy—the governor was worried that the Hurons were sparing their captive as a prelude to a rapprochement with the Iroquois. Parkman assures us in a footnote, which quotes the French source for this episode that “metter a la chaudière, though derived from cannibal practices, is often used figuratively for torturing and killing.” That’s a relief. Parkman’s account of the deaths of Wolfe and Montcalm at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham is probably the most famous set piece of this series of books, but his account of the capture of Louisbourg by Massachusetts militia men under William Pepperill in 1745 made a bigger impression on me. The successful expedition was a colonial initiative, and thirty years later the Americans remembered what they had been able accomplish on their own. They also remembered that Lousibourg had been trade back to the French in exchange for Madras by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle.

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