Monday, February 15, 2016

Description of the World - Part 54

Mark Martin & Marsha Porter, DVD & Video Guide 2006 (In the early days of VCRs I came upon a revolving rack of tapes in a bookstore, immediately thought that it was wonderful that classic movies were now cheaply available, and then realized that I really wasn’t all that eager to watch Casablanca again. I’ve had the same set of reactions to Blockbuster, Netflix, and Amazon Prime. The utopia of choice quickly becomes another chore and infinite options a desert of abundance. All Buridan’s ass had to do was flip a coin. It’s not so easy for us. Maybe I’m complaining because of a personal lack of energy. After all, as I’ve bragged before, I’m the Don Juan of sloth. Still I can’t be the only one who’s noticed that consumption work can be as taxing as productive work. On the other hand, maybe it’s the medium. Movies and plays entrain your attention. The images are in charge. You’re the boss when you read so the library is less daunting than the video store. I have the patience to slog through 5,000 pages of Jonathan Israel while two hours in a movie theater seems like a prison term even if I like the flick.)

John M. Blunt, Edmund S. Morgan, Willie Lee Rose, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Kenneth M. Stamp, C. Vann Woodward, The National Experience: a history of the United States to 1877, Part One (I bought this ragged used copy for the election results and maps in the Appendix—even in 1973 I knew the committee of big names on the title page had little to do with the contents. From the publisher’s point of view, what matters in a history textbook is the prestige of the authors. There are doubtless exceptions—R.R.Palmer’s book comes to mind—but the textbook business is a low trade.)

William Manchester, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill; Alone 1932-1940 (The epigraph to this volume of the biography is from Macaulay’s Lay of Ancient Rome, the bit about Horatius at the gate. “To every man upon this earth/Death cometh soon or late. /And how can man die better/Than facing fearful odds, /For the ashes of his fathers, /And the temples of his gods?” I once wrote about how this little jingle with its adolescent idealism may have had a surprising causal role in making Churchill the man he became—Winston memorized it as a thirteen-year old for a school declamation exercise and it apparently gave him a lasting taste for phrase making and declaiming things.)

Wolfgang Leonhard, Child of the Revolution (I met Leonhard at Yale. He gave some of us grad students informal lessons in how to read Pravda and just what it betokened when an opinion piece began “Your Marxism is very good, Comrade, however….” I once spent a whole night arguing with the President of the Communist Party of Massachusetts. He was a young man—I don’t remember his name—who had apparently achieved his position by primogeniture—he was a red diaper baby if there ever were such a thing. Of course the house he lived in wasn’t exactly Versailles. It was, in fact, a pigsty whose dirt and clutter offended even my not particularly rigorous standards of housekeeping. I got the impression that even this low standard of living was only maintained by Soviet subsidies and the dues paid by FBI informants. I was very well read on Marxism in those days—I actually taught a course on contemporary Marxist theory—but I wasn’t a Marxist, a fact that the President of the Communist Party of Massachusetts just couldn’t accept because I could speak the language like a native. Our argument, which lasted till dawn, was about the essential irrelevance of doctrinaire Marxist-Leninism to American leftists—it was around 1975—and the fellow obviously had trouble with that, no doubt because it was as obvious to him as it was to me. Nevertheless, I almost snorted when he finally said, almost in canonical form, “Your Marxism is very good, however…”)

RĂ©gis Debray, Teachers, Writers, Celebrities: the intellectuals of Modern France (Debray was glamorous during the era of romantic leftism, but managed to suffer serial disillusionment from Castro, Che, Allende, and Mitterrand. He was a slow learner; Plato didn’t need four tyrants to get the memo and even a 30-year Bolivian prison sentence didn’t slow Debray down for long—he only served three. This little book attempts to be simultaneously sociological and clever about the French intellectual scene—the French have learned how to use statistical tables in order to be snide. I think Pierre Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus, which was written by a real sociologist, is more credible on these things, though just as snide in its own way. Still, Debray has his moments. “But from the point of view of Playboy and the ads, Kant and Lenin are all one…..From a distance, these quarrels between two philosophers reveal an identity of culture rather than an opposition between cultures.” Another good one: “The Atlantic world lives in the era of the scoop. Atlantic France has manufactured the ideological scoop.” Those of us who lived through existentialism, structuralism, post structuralism, and postmodernism will understand that.)

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