Thursday, February 18, 2016

Description of the World - Part 56

Ramkrishna Mukherjee, The Rise and Fall of the East India Company (This book’s first edition came out in the mid 50s—Mukhyerjee himself finally died this last Fall. I gather his book was a revisionist work at the time. Even Indian historians tended to find nice things to say about the Company much in the same way that in my youth accounts of Reconstruction were all about carpetbaggers and scallywags—the Gone With the Wind version of Civil War history. I don’t think I ever bought into the Romantic dream of the Raj, though I doubt if Mukherjee’s book had much to do with forming my opinions. The account of the Great Mutiny in one of the late volumes of the Great Events by Famous Historians featured a photo of the British executing rebellious sepoys by tying them to the muzzles of field pieces. Looking at that sufficed for me. For the life of me, I can’t understand why American Conservatives, some of whom like to dress up in three-cornered hats, no less, think of anti-colonialism as a dubious attitude. I note that the two great disasters of American foreign policy since World War II all had something to do with an incomplete disavowal of Imperialism. Eisenhower refused to bail out the French in Vietnam, but we reneged on our support for the peace treaty that called for elections and a reunification of the country. In Iran, our policy continued earlier British medaling in Persian domestic affairs. The assassination of Mossadegh and the establishment of the Shah’s dictatorship were jointly orchestrated by the U.K. and the U.S. in ’53 in response to moves to audit the books of the British oil company that eventually became BP. )

John Costello, The Pacific War 1941-1945 (I’ve read many histories of the Pacific War, even nothing special efforts such as this one, because I think of myself as a Pacific rim guy. There’s a family connection too. When my great aunt Cora visited my family many, many years ago, we took her to Redondo Beach—she’d never seen the ocean. She asked us whether it extended to San Diego. That was the funny part. Then she realized that it also extended to the distant island where he son died in the war and began to weep. My father, who had been working as a chemical engineer in a salt mine, spent the war figuring out how to pack landing craft at a naval base at Oxnard so that everything fitted in and the most important stuff was on the outside.)

Alan Janik and Stephen Toulmin, Wittgenstein’s Vienna (Though I once took a course from him, I can’t claim that Toulmin was a major influence on my thinking. We have this much in common, however: we both wanted to think philosophically about the concrete. We didn’t want to leave out the particulars when considering the general. In Toulmin’s case, that led to an interest in what he called field-dependent reasoning and in casuistry, which is moral reasoning on the hoof. It also made him take history seriously. Wittgenstein’s Vienna puts the Tractatus in the context of one of the great scenes of history, a place and time on a par with the Athens of Socrates and Sophocles, the London of Pope and Dean Swift, the Goethezeit, Fin de Siecle Paris, or 254. It usefully reminds us that great minds hunt in packs. The book could serve, along with Lunar Men, as a case study to supplement Randall Collins’ The Sociology of Philosophies. I always felt at home in what Robert Musil called Kakania* because of as much as despite of the sense of decadence and doom that hung over the place along with the fantastic creativity. Perre Menard wanted to write Don Quixote. I wanted to become Karl Kraus.

*The Hapsburg monarchy was formally called kaiserlich und königlich,.i.e., imperial and royal, hence k and k or kakania, which sounds like caca in German as in English. That association shouldn’t really bother anybody with a Teutonic sensibility in view of that civilization’s obsession with excrement, a proclivity documented in Life is Like a Chicken Coop Ladder by the folklorist Alan Dundes, a book that everybody thought was in terrible taste except the Germans. Kakania is like the briar patch in the Uncle Remus story. Who wouldn’t want to be a maggot in a compost bin? Hic porcus. Hic stercus. Hic felicitas.)

Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War: Hindenburg and Ludendorff Conduct World War I (I once assumed that finding commanders willing to kill thousands of foreigners was easier than finding men who are willing to get thousands of their own men killed. Reading military history mostly disabused me of that notion. The generals in this book sound delighted when their rivals campaigns fail with long casualty lists. How the German High Command operated had consequences that lasted a very long time. Even thought their side lost, their methods were copied. When Lenin suddenly found himself with an economy to run, the only available model was the system Ludendorff and Co. had imposed on the lands won from the Russians. Marx had very little to say on the topic: praxis isn’t any more of a plan than hope. The commissars acted like they were an occupying army because they were imitating an occupying army.)

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