Sunday, January 17, 2016

Description of the World - Part 46

Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (My first encounter with Himmelfarb was her book on Darwin. She came across as a classic liberal arts idiot in that effort: she simply didn’t get the science involved. That display of ignorance soured me on her far more than her politics or even her role in whelping Bill Kristol, the Bagdad Bob of the American right. I should probably reread this book, which actually has a fine reputation, especially since my knowledge of the first half of the 19th Century in England is not what it should be granted how important those events were. If you read as much as I have, you can begin to believe that you don’t have to figure out where all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle go. You can guess the rest of the picture from the shape of the hole. Unfortunately, that method doesn’t work very well. A modern Tory may well be the right person to consult on the origins of attitudes towards the poor and their identity or distinction from the working class. The timing would be right for me as well since I’ve recently been doing a lot of thinking about the dark matter of human history, i.e., the ignorable, ignored, and largely invisible majority of mankind.)

John B. Wolf, The Barbary Coast: Algeria Under the Turks (It’s more than a little unfair to characterize the North African regimes as republics of cut throats and thieves as the blurb writer did on the back of this book—every sea coast of the early modern world turned out its share of pirates and privateers. The world depicted in this history is nevertheless startling. In the divan or ruling council of the janissary court, it was forbidden to use your fist to make a point, but you could kick or stomp on anybody that offended you, something that happened to a French consul. Mel Gibson would have felt right at home.)

Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel, Utopian Thought in the Western World (I believe in reading prefaces because the acknowledgements reveal the exclusiveness and stability of the various invisible colleges that dominate serious thinking. The same names appear over and over. There are other rewards to preface reading, however, including occasional admissions like the concluding comments in the preface to this impressive tome: “For errors of fact and the vagaries of our interpretations, we have no one to blame but ourselves—or rather, each other. One of the joys of collaborations is the almost limitless opportunity it affords for mutual recrimination.” Wikipedia informs me that the authors stayed together for all that. I wrote at the end of the chapter on Bruno, “These historians cheat a bit. Bruno comes across differently in Yates who, of course, is the far greater scholar.” Allow me to recant the ‘of course” if not the whole remark. Despite my snark, I took this book very seriously as witness the great many annotations. Alas, one of the principal reasons I regret not being God is that I can’t remember what I’ve read, even what I read in books I obviously enjoyed tremendously. One line of thought that apparently impressed me was the connection between cities and utopias. The authors quote a declaration of the commune of Brescia justifying a law that forbade the destruction of a building that had been owned by a felon: “Quod civitates facte sunt ad similitudiem paradisis.” — Englished by the Manuels as “For cities are made in the likeness of paradise.” This isn’t just a theological theme—the City of God, the heavenly Zion. The original perfect republic was a city, and the Greeks not only imagined ideal cities, they actually built ‘em—Hellenistic cities were laid out and contrast strongly with other foundations in the same region that simply happened willy nilly. Whether devised by a god or a sage, a utopia is a system created according to a rational plan, never just the happy outcome of an anonymous process.) 

Manilla folder with some assorted writings of mine (Includes a translation of the first act of Macbeth into modern English. There have been many such translations and adaptations, but I wanted to see if I could keep the meter and yet be clear. The main lesson I learned from this exercise is just how easy it is to assume you know what Shakespeare meant in lines you’ve heard a hundred times and perhaps know by heart. Rump-fed ronyon? I came up with fat-assed housewife. Suggestions? A couple of tries were fun to write—or invent. I have no shame—like Wonder Wart Hog, I’m lucky my superpowers don’t include pride. Shakespeare has the Sergeant describe Macbeth and Banquo’s attack on the Norwegians like this:  “As cannons overcharged with double cracks, so they/Doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe:/Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds,/Or memorise another Golgotha…” I managed “There blood still up, they broke heads and carved/Terrible reeking wounds in Norwegian flesh./it was a second Calvary, I tell you, but on that Mountain of Skulls/They were all thieves and died for their own sins.” That has next to nothing to do with the original, but it was fun to write. There are some loose sheets in the folder with some random thoughts, one of which is apropos of all the historiography books I’ve mentioned in this survey: “I rate the ideas and judgments of historians separately because they are the results of contrasting mental operations. Since good historians are often feeble theoreticians, I generally pay more attention to their judgments than their arguments. For that matter, I trust my own judgments more than my deductions, having noticed that my sense of things is a much sounder oracle than any system I ever contrived.” Speaking of unsound system, the last item in the folder is a six page summary of my thinking entitled Descriptio Mundi, not to be confused with the Description of the World.  It reads like a demented Monadology except that the original Monadology was already sufficiently demented for most people’s tastes. Maybe the better analogy would be to the fragments of Heraclitus. After all, I used to be called Heraclitus of Aphasia back in the day. Of course, Heraclitus didn’t set out to write fragments as I do. Saves time. It’s convenient, rather like getting run over by an ambulance. One paragraph that bears on something I wrote about Assmann the other day: “Hegel, among many others, recognized that God was perfectly incomprehensible as a solitary in-itself. Indeed, it is the impossibility of God that motivates the creation. The world has to come into existence so that God could be proleptically posited as its ground and cause. By such means, the theologians postponed atheism for a while.”)

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