Monday, February 08, 2016

Description of the World- Part 51

Richard Trexler, Public Life in Renaissance Florence (The old rhetoricians treated invention as belonging to memory whereas we seem to assume that in imagination we possess a magical, if not divine creative power. I’ve been a skeptic about that since I was tasked to write a one-act play about the assassination of Lincoln and suddenly realized how blank a sheet of white paper can be. I don’t remember how far I got with it, but my attempt began with John Wilkes Booth delivering a drunken soliloquy in his hotel room. If I were writing it now, I’d have his demented reverie interrupted by a knock on the door; and Booth would prove himself a competent actor, if not a competent conspirator, by snapping into character as a born leader, convincing his accomplices to fall in line with a display of steely resolve® and thus moving the action on to the next plot point. At the time, I hadn’t read or seen enough plays to figure out what to do next, and I had to beg off the assignment. Miss Tinkle, the American history teacher—I don’t remember her real name—was visibly disappointed. The episode made me understand that a play is not just any collection of actors doing and saying things on a stage and, more generally, that genre rules, though they can certainly impede creativity, make it possible in the first place. The need for structure is just as great in ordinary life, though we are so accustomed to the roles, scripts, and rituals that we are ordinarily unconscious of how many of our choices have been made in advance. That doesn’t mean that we’re mindless jute boxes, just that we normally express our creativity by the way we play covers. Trexler’s book is about the rituals of public life in Florence. He’s like a historical Irving Goffman. I especially appreciated his treatment of the various ways that Florentines made a virtue out of acting naturally, much in the same way that our ads for mass produced cars endlessly extol individuality. A contemporary commented: “I don’t want to say that they do bad who tell you they don’t want you to use ceremony with them. Indeed I praise it. Because to say this is another type of ceremony and breeding, with which one suppresses ambition.” Sometimes Trexler violates the rule that learned people must present themselves as just plain folks as when he wrote the phrase “Cleisthnian disregard for chthonic solidarities.” I kinda like that one.)

Piero Camporesi, Bread of Dreams (Those who don’t have nouns, have adjectives, which accounts for the luxuriant verbal creativity of inner-city America. Or, in the Italian case:  “Many people, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, were reduced to living mainly on beau langage and feasting on names instead of tasting things.” Camporesi doesn’t leave it at verbal delirium. It’s his thesis that hunger, adulterated food, low-level infections, and dubious medicines combined to create a peasant class that lived in a more or less permanent hallucination. Most of the evidence is indirect as is the usual situation when anybody tries to discover or even simply imagine what was going on in the dark matter of human history. Camporesi relies on records and literary echoes about life in what were then the Papal States. That struck me as a little ironic since Pellegrino Artusi, author of the first great Italian cookbook came from this same hungry neck of the woods.)

C.W.C.Oman, The Art of War in the Middle Ages (When I cared about such things, I’d pick up books like this because I liked their maps.)

John Ellis, The Social History of the Machine Gun (The machine gun, which was originally a symbol of the triumph of technology over courage, became democratized. One of my favorite illustrations in this little book is an ad for a Thompson machine gun that shows a cowboy using a tommy gun to fend off attacking Indians. Ellis’ book was written too early to    witness the later stages of this story in the long era of the AK-47, but he saw it coming: “The machine gun has now become personalised, itself the means by which men desperately try to make their mark on a world in which they feel increasingly powerless. In the fantasy world at least technology is turned against itself.” In the fantasy world and also in Eastern Oregon.)
Alvin D. Coox, Nomonhan: Japan Against Russia, 1939, two volumes (These books were designed by a friend of mine, Lisa Mirski, who gave them to me. The topic is esoteric, but not insignificant, a unofficial border fight between the Soviets and the Japanese in Eastern Mongolia. Led by general Zhukov, who was to become much more famous in the upcoming European war, the Reds crushed the Kwantung Army and gave the Japanese a lesson they took to heart. Nomonhan was in the background of the Japanese decision not to attack the USSR in ’41. The book provides a wonderful display of the mindlessness of military nationalism.)

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