Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Description of the World - Part 55

Fifth Shelf

Jonathan I. Israel, Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670-1752 (This is the middle volume of Israel’s Enlightenment trilogy. It deals extensively with what Israel calls the moderate Enlightenment, men like Locke, Montesquieu, and Voltaire, who insisted on being reasonable as well as rational or, less credibly, shrunk back from the implications of Spinoza’s style of monistic atheism. It wasn’t just a matter of trimming, of course. Voltaire was Frederick the Great’s house philosophe, but the authentically radical Diderot played the same role with Catherine the Great for a while. In Israel’s terminology, many of these moderate figures were providential deists. They hung on to the last crucial feature of traditional religion—a personal, caring God—if only by their fingernails; but were repelled by almost everything else about religion. Which is why, as Israel points out, many Enlightenment figures had a relatively high opinion of Islam, which seemed to them a laudably minimalist faith, closer to the one god at most of modern Unitarians than the three gods at least of the Christians. Less ritual, more coffee.)

Jonathan I. Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806 (Israel definitely owes me lunch. God knows I’ve paid for several of his, and that doesn’t take into account the depreciation charge on my eyeballs. By my calculation, the text of the book is about 2.7 miles long—(4.5 inches X 38 lines X 1000 pages) / 5280). I wouldn’t have read this tome if I didn’t enjoy it, but it is startling to realize that I’ve marched my attention down a tunnel not an eight of an inch tall that would stretch from this armchair to the Golden Gate Bridge. Or imagine this thin ribbon of print coiled back and forth across the walls of a huge warehouse—might make a good conceptual art piece. In the old days, when ads and other printed matter was assembled on a light table before being sent off to the press, I learned how tiny a line of type really is. My retinas remind me of that now and again.)

Eugen Weber, France: Fin de Siècle (You feel familiar with a city or a neighborhood not because you remember all the streets and squares you’ve visited but because you know you strolled there many times. I can’t really distinguish Weber’s account of this era from several others, but paging through the book I found many illustrations that seem to look back at me avec des regards familiers. Of course reading carelessly as I habitually do is a good way to acquire prejudices. At least if you footnote everything, you can blame somebody else. I underlined, “‘I don’t shoot for pleasure,’ a peasant in the Landes explained, ‘It’s to annoy my neighbor,’” and a little later “hommes ratiers who [at fairs], for a few pennies, bit rats to death.” Ah peasants! “Patricide is no rarer than fratricide, though I’ve come across only two cases of lads so naive as to kill their fathers in order to gain exemption from military service as the elder son of a widow.” Weber also talks about how the scientific discovers of the time quickly became fodder for superstition, “If radioscopy works, why shouldn’t crystal balls?” Alfred Russel Wallace, William Crookes, Oliver Lodge, and many other bona fide scientists fans of psychical research and expected results, too. Let us not forget what a precious gift the invention of the radio was to the paranoid schizophrenics—I assume that gravity waves will turn up in case delusions shortly if they haven’t already.)

Robert Bartlett, The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950-1350 (Long before Columbus, European imperialism had two great successes, the Drang nach Osten in which the Germans and Scandinavians created an empire in the East and the occupation and subordination of the Irish, a process that went back to William the Conqueror and is one of the authentic long running atrocities of history. (Bartlett doesn’t deal with the third dress rehearsal for world domination, the Castilian conquest of the Cannery Islands, which began in 1402.) The brutality lessons weren’t all that was involved in the Europeanization of Europe: the periphery was inundated with peasants as well as knights. In America, too, the farmers were much more a threat to the Indians than the pony soldiers.)

Daniel Pool, What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist—the Facts of Daily Life in 19th-Century England (Useful if you’re writing period fiction and want to include some picturesque touches. Novels written at the time generally don’t include much ethnographic detail since nobody’s an anthropologist at home. I used to have a couple of big 19th Century home encyclopedias that had long chapters on elocution, the proper way for a horseman to salute a lady, topics suitable for conversation, and elegant parlor games. Pool covers the etiquette pretty well, but doesn’t have anything to say about how much people worried about which word should be stressed in a sentence or the wealth of party games; but my elegant cyclopedias (one of them was literally called that) were American, and Pool is writing about England, which may account for the differences.)
Jean Gimpel, The Medieval Machine: the Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages (La Société des Moulins du Bazacle, which owned and operated water mills on the Garonne river, was founded in the twelfth century and was eventually nationalized by Electricite du France in the middle of the 20th Century—since I’ve done work for EDF I like to think that I’m associated with a rather well established outfit. This little book isn’t quite as venerable as La Société des Moulins du Bazacle, but it appeared 40 years ago and the idea that the Middle Ages was an era of profound technological progress has lost its novelty. We think of the 12th and 13rd Centuries in terms of what actually happened in the next couple of centuries, which in many ways were darker and crueler than what came before.)

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