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.)

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.)

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…”)

Régis 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.)

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Description of the World - Part 53

Alice Yaeger Kaplan, Reproductions of Banality: Fascism, Literature, and French Intellectual Life (This book came out in ’86, which means that it preceded some of the most notable recent reappraisals of fascism, in particular those undertaken by the French, who took a very long time to get around to settling accounts with Vichy and the collaborationists. Farías’ book on Heidegger and the Nazis didn’t show up until ’87, and the de Man scandal didn’t break until ’88—the de Man affair had to mean a great deal to Kaplan, who was one of his students. I’m not sure when I started to take fascism seriously as an ideology with continuing appeal. If I last long enough I may get around to reading my old journals from that era and finding out. I certainly didn’t read this book with much attention. I probably bought it out of a sense of duty and assumed, inaccurately, as it appears, that it was another manifestation of late Postmodernism. I think I was put off by Russell Berman’s foreword, whose style is redolent of the 80s. Kaplan is far more down to earth. She reminds me a bit of Eva Hoffman, another person who writes about history and ideology in an autobiographical vein. And this from a woman who became the head of the Yale French department.)

Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power, Volume 1 (I’ve been fortunate to stumble across very significant books before they become celebrated. Before everybody weighs in on a book, you can simply read it. Once it becomes a football—or MacGuffin—the text becomes next to unreadable as it sinks below the interpretations like a foundering ship. I’d never heard of Michael Mann when I ran across this paperback edition in the Stanford University Bookstore, but it looked, well, chewy, as indeed it is, full of very specific observations as well as an important general thesis. Example: Mann points out that Rome, unlike many other states before and after, didn’t suffer from periodic fiscal crises brought on by the expense of war because it was always at war. That’s obvious, but also worth the price of admission, even if Mann only takes three sentences to make the point. The big takeaway from the book for me was the idea that statehood was contagious. Once a state emerged in the neighborhood, the other peoples had to match its coercive power or become its victims unless they were protected by topography or climate; and every local big man wanted to have a state of his own. I resisted this explanation when I read the book. Mann suggests that the Mesopotamian example may have encouraged the developments of polities as far away as Shang China by a sort of action at a distance. I wrote, “So what if the Chinese had heard rumors. Without local experience how would they have made sense of them? Or better, since the state isn’t such a nice animal, why should hearing about the state make anyone want to live in one?” To be fair to Mann, he doesn’t make any strong claim for this particular application of his theory. On the other hand, maybe great big simple ideas are at least as communicable as Yersinia pestis.)

Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler, ed. Edward Mead Earle (Best four clams I ever spent. This anthology of essays, published originally in ’43, taught me most of what I know about the subject.  It’s been updated since, but I’ve never seen the expanded version. One essay introduced me to the ideas of Ardant Du Picq, who proposed what amounts to an ethological theory of combat. At least at the point if contact, wars are encounters between troops of mammals who fight or flee. Le choc est un mot. Napoleon made a similar point in one of his maxims: in war the moral is to the physical as three to one. Using the language of forces to explain war is a category mistake analogous to thinking of economics as the physics of money. It’s a commonplace to make fun of the accounts of battles in Livy and other ancient historians because they tell us so little about the dispositions of troops and give so much space to the speeches the generals make to the men before battle. Well, the speeches were invented, but the old writers at least understood that war was a rhetorical activity, especially in the era of edged weapons. You had to persuade the soldiers to fight so they would persuade the enemy to flee. The clever maneuvers beloved of readers of military histories, the boxes and the arrows, don’t mean much if the troops won’t fight.)

Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (I don’t know how well this book is remembered now. It was endlessly discussed when it came out in ’87 when the pundits were all gravely warning about imperial overstretch. As it turned out, the timing of the book was awkward. Kennedy was certainly aware of the deep problems facing the Soviet Union—“the most shocking trend has been the steady deterioration in both life expectancy and infant mortality rates since the 1970s”—but he expected that any crack up would be violent because failing empires don’t usually give up without a fight and I’m sure he was as surprised as anybody else how quickly it all happened—three years later. The travails of the Soviet Union weren’t the focus of book, however. Kennedy was warning the United States about its own relative decline. That hasn’t turned out quite as projected. As much as I deplore America’s excellent adventures in the Middle East, I have to admit that our national problems aren’t really a consequence of military spending. The low rate of real investment over the last forty years means that the economy has plenty of slack in it. We aren’t building the infrastructure we need, but that’s not because we’re building weapons instead. Kennedy also subscribed to the notion that the country’s finances were in a dangerous state because of huge deficits and a dependence on foreign money, but that’s folk economics only fit to provide talking points for Republican presidential debates. Prophesy is risky, especially if you’re a man who writes with rather more clarity that Nostradamus. Somebody may look at your book a quarter of a century later.)

George F. Kennan, The Fateful Alliance (Kennan kept on writing after he composed the long telegram (’46) that proposed the policy for dealing with the Soviet Union that came to be called containment. This little book on the origins of the Franco-Russian alliance came out in ’84. When you think of the long sweep of European history, the last several centuries can be seen as a protracted and eventually successful struggle of the Western Europeans to stifle Russian expansionism—in actual diplomacy as well as the game Diplomacy, Russia was the wicked witch of the East. We tend to forget how menacing the Russians appeared to be or how much effort went in to limiting their power. Partly that’s because there were a couple of notable periods when the process of containment was, as it were, in remission and partly because the checks to what must have seemed like a relentless process of expansion aren’t given much consideration. The Crimean war, the Treaty of Berlin, the Great Game, and the Russo-Japanese war actually were momentous. Now they don’t even come up very often on Jeopardy. The alliance between France and Russia leading up to World War I lasted barely a quarter of a century and was seen as anomalous even at the time—a secular Republic making common cause with a despotic empire. Thing is, it was an anomalous.)