Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Description of the World - Part 58

N.J.G.Pounds, An Historical Geography of Europe (I don’t read fact-filled books like this in the expectation that I’ll remember a large fraction of their contents. Mostly I do so to keep my understanding of history and geography at a reasonable level by relearning things I first learned long ago. Meanwhile I apply to reading what amounts to management by exception, looking for the particulars that upset my expectations. I’m also looking for significant details. “In 1546 the emperor Charles V, when passing along the bank of the river Meuse, noted the city of VIllefranche on the opposite shore. ‘Whose is it,’ he asked, ‘mine or the King of France’s?’ Then ‘the records of the district…were brought and examined, and it was shown that the inhabitants…were subject of the French king.’ It was typical of medieval kingship that the limits of its authority were in many areas uncertain or unknown, and when questions arose, it was usual to ask the local population to whom they owned their loyalty. Such uncertainties were one by one cleared up as they arose, but some remained until the eighteenth century.” The ambiguity of frontiers wasn’t news to me. Lucien Febvre had made the same point in a well-known essay, but the anecdote makes it better. Another item, one which reinforces my suspicion that history moves faster than we suppose: “About 1530, corn, the first new World crop to be adopted in the Old, was being gown in Castile.”)

Claude Manceron,The Wind from America (The last four years of the American Revolution narrated as part of the history of France. The culminating event of the period isn’t Yorktown but the birth (finally) of a male heir to Louis XVI. Manceron’s anecdotal approach makes the book a considerably less strenuous read than Franco Venturi, but he cheats—you always know where things are headed.)

Clay Blair, Jr., Silent Victory: the U.S. Submarine War Against Japan (The War in the Pacific was a great demonstration of what human stupidity can accomplish, beginning, of course, with the biggest and best: the Japanese decision to attack a nation they knew would overwhelm them. We couldn’t match that one, but we had our moments. For example, even though we could intercept and decode American military messages, we didn’t ambush and shoot down Douglas MacArthur’s plane, thus ensuring that the war would last an additional six months to a year and that thousands of Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, Chinese, Filipinos, and Japanese would die to satisfy the vanity of an old imperialist. There were smaller errors, too. In the submarine war, we spent the first part of the war bouncing defective torpedoes off Japanese freighters and tankers because of the pig headedness of the relevant Navy departments. That admitted, though, the submariners contributed more to victory than almost any other element of our military. Their performance contrasted sharply with their Japanese counterparts who never loosed their fleet of excellent subs (and excellent torpedoes) against our shipping lanes.)

Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (This copy originally belonged to my ex-wife—I think there’s another copy of the book around here some place. I find reading her annotations more interesting than managing to have yet another thought about a book that has probably been read too many times by too many people to be readable for the foreseeable future. Rita was far more idealistic and morally rigorous than I’ve ever been. She wrote “Let justice be done though the heaven’s fall” on the flyleaf while I’ve more than once protested that even the categorical imperative shouldn’t be treated as a suicide note.)

Peter Gay, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud (I’m not sure when or why I developed an aversion to Peter Gay, but the nit-picking annotations in this book prove that it was very much in evidence circa 1984. I even bitch about his adjectives, quite unfairly. The content of the book interested me enough to overcome my prejudices, however. The book is about sex in a purportedly straight-laced century. “This much should now be plain: the bourgeois experience was far richer than its expression, rich as that was; and it included a substantial measure of sensuality for both sexes, and of candor—in sheltered surroundings.” Gay quotes a length from the diaries of Mabel Loomis Todd to make the point—not even the Curies had so much fun experimenting together as Mabel and David. Well, at least in England, the Regency had been as raunchy as Victoria’s reign was repressed; but an obsession with sexuality, however modulated, appears to be something of a constant in cultural history. There are sex scenes in Tom Clancy novels.* We’re supposedly living in a period of hyper-sexuality, and yet we treat sexual offenses as worse than bloody murder.

*Speaking of constants. Everybody who’s ever written a novel or even begun one has congratulated themselves on the daring of their sex scenes even though their readers, if there are any, are seldom impressed.)

Jane F. Dunnigan and Austin Bay, A Quick & Dirty Guide to War: Briefings on Present and Potential Wars (This instant book came out the same year as Gay’s book and has something in common with it. ’86 was about the last chance to take Freud seriously in an English language publication, and it was also a golden moment for military intellectuals or would-be intellectuals to get their bets down on numbers that shortly wouldn’t be on the wheel. Dunnigan estimates the likelihood of various outcomes for the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan but doesn’t even consider the possibility that the Russians would give up, go home, and then have a revolution. Considering the military confrontation between NATO and the Warsaw pact, he doesn’t include the collapse of communism as even a remote possibility, though he does imagine a war of liberation waged from outside the Union. Bad timing. If you bat .300, you’re a star in baseball. The Mendoza line for war game enthusiasts is closer to .000.)

Carlo Ginzburg, Night Battles: Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth Centuries (The Inquisition knew what it was going to find; and because it had ways of making you talk, it usually found it. The benandanti were peasants who participated in rituals featuring nocturnal dream battles against witches. The Inquisitors managed to interpret their activities as heretical, indeed a form of witchcraft, and eventually even convinced some of the peasants themselves. An old story. If you read the Witches’ Hammer and similar books, you’ll discover that an earlier generation of witch hunters had already turned witchcraft, at least in their own minds, into a form of heresy. For that matter, it’s unclear whether the heretics of Languedoc were really members of a sect of Cathars with a worked out dualist theology and elaborate rituals before all those Dominicans decided they were followers of Mani and created the reality of the heresy. The Inquisitors had learned all about the Manichees from reading Augustine, who had once been one. Maybe they figured that there was no reason to develop arguments against a new enemy when you could simply recycle the old arguments after convincing yourself that you knew what the heretics really thought. The same sort of thing happens in politics. If you hang around the comment threads of the National Review website, you’ll discover that you are actually a 1930s-style fellow traveller and will be earnestly entreated to give up the fantasy that the Soviet Union is a worker’s paradise.)

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