Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Description of the World - Part 63

David Freedberg, The Eye of the Lynx: Galileo, His Friends, and the Beginnings of Modern Natural History (Libraries, museums, universities, governments, royal societies, and even department stores are all examples of what I call mesocosms. This book is about another one of these assemblages: the virtual encyclopedia of images produced by the 17th Century circle of adepts and enthusiasts that called itself the Society of the Linceans. Its most famous member was Galileo but much of the natural history work associated with it involved Prince Frederico Cesi. Another important patron was Maffeo Barberini, a Tuscan nobleman and cardinal whose coat of arms featured three bees, which partly accounts for the many images of bees produced by the group—Galileo produced microscopes as well as telescopes and his instruments made accurate drawings of insects possible. Of course Barberini eventually became Pope Urban VIII and loosed the Inquisition on Galileo, more out of pique than any obsession about geocentrism—the Pope, who was remarkably vain, felt that the astronomer had disrespected him. This book is about how the world was made visible.)

Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism: From the French Revolution to the Establishment of the State of Israel (I figure that my assumptions about matters of fact, like the milk cartons in the refrigerator, have a sell-by date. That certainly includes what I think I know about the origins of Zionism, which is why this volume wound up in the to-be-read pile.)

Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the College de France 1975-1976 (I found Foucault’s lectures rather hard to understand, perhaps because he wasn’t so much reporting on what he had already concluded as thinking on the spot. I used to do that myself, though not so successfully, perhaps because the University of Connecticut isn’t the College de France and i’m not Foucault. Since I last looked at this book, I’ve read a great deal of early modern European history. Foucault’s meditations on state and nationality bear crucially on the central issues of those times. The first paragraph of the lecture of 18 February 1976 makes me think I need to go back to Foucault. Thinking about what happened in political history always seems to come back to a series of alternatives that, like false rhymes, don’t quite match up to one another. Romans vs barbarians, Franks vs Gauls, core vs periphery, liberty as privilege vs the rights of man, common law vs civil law, etc.)

Eviatar Zerubavel, Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past (I was once the Raymond Llull of 254 Prospect, contriver of mysterious diagrams, though most of ‘em were attempts to make sense of epistemology by locating the eye (I) in the intersection of physical, social, linguistic, and conceptual arrows or perhaps over on the side somewhere —in those days I had yet to swear off thinking about quantum mechanics without the appropriate licenses and still sent to ask for whom the wave function collapses. Zerubavel’s time maps are less dubious since they diagram ways in which people live historical time. He deals with many of the same questions of social memory that Jan Assmann investigates. If you’re going to integrate the history of man and the universe on the same chart, you better figure out some way to renormalize things or, in the alternative, you’ll have to use very, very small type on the right end of the line. The picture matters, even when you’re restricting yourself to human history. Some times count more than others. For example, a great many different peoples, regimes, and empires have claimed Palestine but the title never clears on that piece of real estate because the contending parties trace the deed back to different sacred times.)

The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose: a Conducted Tour by Frank Muir (Some of the excerpts are actually funny, which is not guaranteed in such anthologies. What I remember from it is the first known printed joke in English—it goes back to Caxton, no less. I paraphrase it for fear of violating copyright in the wake of the most recent trade agreement: A widower planned to remarry a widow. One of the widow’s maid servants warned her about the match. She had heard that the man was so lustful that he had worn out his first wife with lovemaking and caused her death. The widow replied, “I would not mind being dead. Is there not but sorrow and care in this world?”)

James H. Billington, Fire in the Minds of Men (I read this book at about the same time I moved into my present digs—1981—so that I don’t remember it very well even though the copious annotations show that I read it closely.  It dates back to a time when revolutionary aspirations were at a very low ebb indeed. Communism had long since lost its appeal in the West, the Soviet Union was becoming the sick old man of Europe, and neoliberalism of Carter was giving way to the frank reaction of Reagan. Billington picked a good time to look back at the 19th Century revolutionaries with condescension and (some) affection. He writes, “the revolutionary faith was shaped not so much my the critical rationalism of the French Enlightenment (as is generally believed) as by the occultism and proto-romanticism of Germany.” Leszek Kolakowski’s view of the origins of Marxism wasn’t so different; and on the left side of things, the remaining revolutionaries, the Maoists and the Red Brigade, didn’t have much use for scientific socialism. They were more left-Nietzscheans than left-Hegelians, more Bakunin, less Marx. Well, ideas are even less in view these days. Thoughtful people on the left and right despair of useful change for want of any plausible program, compelling narrative, or theory of revolution. Meanwhile the troglodyte reactionaries, fanatical Muslims, and various irredentist nationalists don’t feel the need for deep explanations. Fire’s enough.)

Charles Barber, Early Modern English (I read so much Shakespeare, Spencer, Donne, and Milton in my youth that I don’t register early modern English as an alien dialect. I expect that many people of my vintage feel equally at home with the older authors, though we unconsciously modernize the diction and certainly the pronunciation of 16th and 17th Century English and thereby obscure its unfamiliarity. Barber’s systematic account of the differences between early modern English and whatever it is we’re speaking now has the benefit of making the old writings strange again. English wasn’t domesticated as thoroughly as French was in the 18th Century, but it was considerably tamed. Nice to experience it in its rawer state, especially since my French is nowhere near good enough to get the same effect by reading Rabelais in lieu of Voltaire.)