Monday, January 18, 2016

Description of the World - Part 47

Ernest Gellner, Plough, Sword and Book: the Structure of Human History (This ambitious book appeared in the late 80s, but I think of it as belonging to a somewhat earlier period, perhaps because I haven’t heard Gellner’s name mentioned much recently or because Gellner’s particular brand of grand sociological synthesis seems a bit dated. Trying to figure out what happened in history is also a preoccupation of mine, of course, so I’m not complaining about the general program. What altitude you chose to fly when you take your panoramic picture, matters a great deal, however, though there may not be a single best choice. I once suggested to some grad students the following exercise: write a one sentence, a one paragraph, a one page, and a ten page history of the human race and then decide which view was the most illuminating. Everybody thought that was an interesting idea, but nobody actually did it. Well, I did write a one-page history of mankind once, though I don’t know where I put it. I do remember my one sentence summary: History is the struggle between elites over who who gets to exploit the others. Of course putting things that way is mostly just an expression of annoyance. It’s rather like Gellner’s tic of calling the powerful of the Earth thugs, which he does quite often. Looking over my marginalia, I find myself thinking that Gellner’s view of the development of human thought if not human society is surprisingly like Comte’s, which may simply reflect the extent to which Comte was simply right, much as we’d like to hope for something more exiting.)

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (I don’t know if it is possible to read a book that has been read as often and as badly as this one. I gave up trying long ago. I didn’t happen upon one phrase in the book that demonstrates that the author’s view of the country is perhaps a bit dated: “…the people are therefore the real directing power.”)

George Pernoud and Sabine Flaissier, The French Revolution (This is actually an anthology of eye-witness accounts. It tends to focus on sensational events, which tends to leave the reader with the impression that the Revolution was all about the Terror. Because other accounts are similarly structured, I suspect most people have a foreshortened view of what happened. The Bastille fell on July 14, 1789. The terror didn’t begin until September of 1783, a full four years later, the equivalent or the full term of an American presidency.)

Iris Origo, The Merchant of Prado: Francesco di Marco Datini 1335-1410 (Dantini was a self-made man who left behind an enormous volume of letters and other records. The book makes an excellent counterpart to Peter Brown’s Eye of the Needle. Brown wrote about how the early Christians dealt with the contradiction between the radical critique of wealth found in the New Testament with the need to incorporate the rich into the church. Origo wrote about how that same resolution or perpetual lack of resolution took place in an individual merchant.)

Paul Fussell, Wartime (Fusell’s book on the first war, The Great War and Modern Memory is a much better known work, and when I think of Fussell I recall an essay he published about Hiroshima, which was not so much an argument in favor of the rightness of dropping the bomb as an avowal of how obvious the decision seemed to him back in ’45 when he was recovering from war wounds and faced with his comrades the prospect of yet more war in a different theater. As a some time copy editor, i’ve recast many thousands of sentences from the passive to the active voice, sometimes more out of the custom and usage of my trade than any serious reason, indeed, in technical writing the passive is more natural than the active because engineers and scientists are more concerned with what objects than subjects. Fussell reconstructs one edit of this sort that did matter. When Eisenhower composed the message he would sent in case the Normandy invasion failed, he originally wrote “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and the troops have been withdrawn.’ He changed that to “I have withdrawn the troops” before he stuck the paper in his pocket. Fussell was a literary critic by trade, an expert on prosody in fact, but he was interested in the ethics of forms, not formalism.)

Pius II, Commentaries, Volume 2 (Before he became Pope in 1458, Pius II started out as the humanist Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini. I’ve got the first volume of these memoirs around here some place. He called them Commentaries in analogy with Caesar’s works, which neither man called histories because they are too unadorned and straightforward to deserve a title reserved for the more artful efforts of genuine historians. Of course it’s the very fact that Pius didn’t strive for elegant effects that makes his account of his life readable to us—he certainly knew how to pile on the rhetoric. This volume, which is mostly about the frustrations of trying to rally the Italians, Germans, and French against the Turkish menace was less entertaining than the first, which includes a memorable account of what it’s like to get elected Pope.)

J. Eric S. Thompson, Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, 3rd edition (This tome is a monument to an influential error. Thompson was the great mavin of Mayan studies for many years, but his belief that Mayan hieroglyphs symbolized ideas instead of words in the Mayan language held back the decipherment of the script for decades. The same seductive error retarded efforts to read Egyptian hieroglyphics. Thompson was rather like a later-day Athanasius Kircher on this score, though his work was less fantastic, and he did manage to decode the calendar signs. The physicist Richard Feynman played a minor but genuine role in getting past Thompson’s mistake, a fact duly noted in Feynman’s official obituary and perhaps included because the obituary writer was familiar with the Thompson book, indeed with this very copy, and had been inspired by it into reading up on the subject.)

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