Saturday, January 16, 2016

Description of the World – Part 45

David Halberstam, The Powers that Be (This book appeared in 1979, but I would have guessed that it was older, in part because mass-market paperbacks of that vintage were printed on paper that turned yellow in a few years. I never managed to get into it.)

Robert Darnton, The Business of Enlightenment: a Publishing History of the Encyclopédie (Darnton has written extensively about the role of “philosophical” books in the run up to the French Revolution, where “philosophical” pretty much means pornographic, a terminological quirk that may seem unfair to philosophers, even if parents really should warn their daughters and often enough their sons about philosophy profs. The Encyclopédie certainly wasn’t pornographic or aimed at a mass market like the publications of the Bibliothèque bleue, but it’s hard to imagine the Revolution could have taken place without it, Darnton looks at in this book as a business proposition. “The publishers made a fortune from it. On an initial investment of about 70,000 livres, their profit may have reached as much as 2,500,000 livres.” I’ve always assumed that projectors of big publishing projects are motivated by vanity—it’s their version of empire building—but at least in this case, Diderot and co. made it pay. That sucyh ventures don’t always pan out was shown by the fate of the sequel. The last editor of the Encyclopédie, Panckouke, eventually produced an even more ambitious work, the L’Encyclopédie méthodique of some 210 volumes, which no one remembers. It has achieved, in fact, the ultimate in oblivion; for “it has not aroused the appetite of a single, thesis-hungry graduate student.”)

Harry Elmer Barnes, A History of Historical Writing, 2nd revised edition (Dover reprinted a number of titles such as this one that are useful as sources of information because nobody cares much about the opinions of the author. For the record, Barnes came down on the Germany-wasn’t-responsible side of the war guilt debate between the wars and ended his career as a holocaust denier—he was an old-school anti-semite of the sort you could still encounter in the Ivy League back in the 60s. For my purposes, the problem with Barnes isn’t his politics or his prejudices but his lack of insight into what the philosophers actually thought about history. His Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche are pop versions. Of course you can argue that intellectual historians err when they try to figure out what any significant thinker actually thought since what plays a role in subsequent history is normally the received misunderstanding, not the actual philosophy. Anyhow, I didn’t read Barnes to find out about Hegel. Barnes could be memorably obtuse, however. One comment I marked off: “in politics we still rely upon rhetoric, which was but a Hellenistic elaboration of shamanistic incantations and formalistic deliverances of chieftains.” I don’t know if that’s more unfair to modern rhetoricians or to ancient shamans. Barnes is a pretty good quoter, though. I liked this bit he copied from J.B.Black, commenting on Gibbon’s style: “The specific gravity of his style is so high that it seems capable of floating anything, from the interminable Persian and Byzantine wars to the abstruse theological disputes of the early Church and the technicalities of Justinian’s legal reforms.” I also appreciated the long paragraph from Karl Pearson that makes fun of theories of racial purity and national mentalities by detailing the mongrel ancestry of Charles Darwin.)

John R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality (Searle takes the sensible approach of acknowledging that human agreement creates some of the facts of the world without getting particularly excited about it. Since the realities created by social convention include money and marriage, I’m not quite so dismissive, having found these entities sufficiently formidable. There are national styles in the tone you take about your ideas and these stances are only irrelevant if you have decided they are. Searle has made this point himself by noting how modern French thinkers find it professionally necessary to write obscurely in order to lend an air of mystery and grandeur to ideas that are cogent and valuable but not necessarily very surprising or alarming absent a complicated exposition and studied dramatization. Searle claimed in an interview that Foucault told him that he wrote badly or at least unclearly on purpose in order to establish his bona fides. Since Searle is completely fluent in French and Foucault was his colleague and friend at Berkeley, I can well believe the story. Still, writing with exaggerated plainness is also a stylistic and political choice; and you can turn the Searle’s point around. I agree that the rock is there even when we don’t think about it and it’s the same thing however we think about it when we do get around to thinking about it. Kicking the rock, however, is rhetoric. I’m not agitated about the objects, but find objectivity more problematic.)

Alan Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination (I used to fantasize about a political atlas of the Earth that didn’t play favorites. One section would lay out all the territories of individual dogs, another the contested borderlands between one ant hill and the next, and so on. Of course, once you imagine that, the next thing is the historical atlas version—the library had better be pretty big. Corbin’s book proposes a different set of alternative maps, a geography and history of France that’s anthropocentric but set in a different sensory key: What the last three centuries smelled like and what different conclusions do you come to if sniff this time instead of looking. Versailles in smell-o-vision: “The unpleasant odors of the park, gardens, even the chateau, make one’s gorge rise. The communicating passages, courtyards, buildings in the wings, corridors, are full of urine and feces; a pork butcher actually sticks and roasts his pigs at the bottom of the minsters’ wing every morning, the avenue Saint-Cloudis covered with stagnant water and dead cats.” Of course the author was more interested in making some points a la Foucault about all of this, but the book comes across as the non-fiction version of Suskind’s novel Perfume.)

Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln (I was taught that one way of drawing a likeness was to lightly and carelessly outline the features over and over again. Every version got something wrong, but as you redrew the face on the same sheet, something recognizable emerged from the overlapping lines. I can’t honestly recall much about this particular biography of Lincoln, except that the author frequently quotes Lincoln’s law partner Herndon; but it and countless other books, movies, and Lincoln’s own writings have built up a strong image of the man in my mind that creates an effect of realism, though perhaps a misleading one.)

Edward Schaffer, The Vermillion Bird: T’ang Images of the South (To a great extent, our understanding of the world is built up of views of particular countries and cultures as they appear to us. If we’re a bit more sophisticated we may take into account how we appear to them. The human fact, however, properly includes how other peoples have appeared to each other.* This is a book about how the ancient Chinese made sense or tried to make sense of their exotic southern neighbors, especially the Vietnamese. Schaffer wrote a companion book that deals with the Chinese understanding of Central Asia.

*The Egyptologist Assmann claimed that becoming aware of the existence of other peoples was a critical moment in the development of the civilization of Egypt and West Asia. From very early on, the rulers of the emerging states developed the notion of brother kings. Something similar is basic to the historical religions, all of which are really meta-religions. Even the faiths that claim to have been original—Judaism, Hinduism, Shintoism—took definite form after the emergence of challengers. They became original after the fact. Religions are about other religions.)

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