Friday, September 15, 2017

Description of the World - Part 68

Yet Another Resumption of Unclear Jesting in the Atmosphere

Michael Johnston, Political Corruption and Public Policy in America (I’v got this book because it happened to be published by a company I was working for. I also knew its author. He was a freshly minted PhD at the University of Pittsburgh when I met him but already a pretty well known mavin on political corruption. I gather he’s still working on that topic as an emeritus prof at Dartmouth. He’s hardly a fan of graft, but he doesn’t look at it as simply something to be ritually deplored. It is, among other things, a way of getting things done, some of them worth doing, so as with so many other things, it depends. Patrolling the potholed byways of Pennsylvania, you could easily understand why people reacted to the bit about the road to Hell by saying “at least it’s paved!” And if bad intentions work as well or better than good ones? The blogger Atrios wished out loud the other day that the crooked pols of his end of the state would figure out how to make their corrupt profits improving the roads instead of subsidizing useless shopping malls and impractical technologies. We could certainly use a better class of grifters. My wife had very little use for Johnston, who was a big sloppy man who chugged beer with abandon—I thought he was jovial; and big or not, he could certainly play softball. Rita predicted an early death for him, but he’s still around 40 years later. Apparently her actuarial instincts were no better than her taste in husbands.)

David Hunt, Parents & Children in History: The Psychology of Family Life in Early Modern France (Earthquakes have aftershocks of decreasing intensity and so do books. This small volume is an aftershock of Phillippe Aries, Centuries of Childhood, which was officially a BFD in the 1960s, though Aries’ claim that children were regarded as merely little adults before modern times, that childhood was, at it were, invented has lost a lot of ground, in part because of the efforts of people like Hunt. His response to Aries reminds me of the way Foucault was received. “Very interesting,” said one friend of mine apropos of Madness in the Classic Age, “but has he done his homework?” Foucault turned out to be much more fecund than Aries, but the knock is the same. On the other hand, some of the archival material Hunt reviews from the time of Richelieu shows that childhood has certainly changed even if it wasn’t exactly invented. Nobody should really be surprised at this. After all, in the same years when the juvenile Dauphin of France could gaily wave his cock (coq?) in front of the ladies in waiting without getting investigated by the FBI, the young Gargantua was conducting extensive research on the best way to wipe your ass. [Since nobody but me reads old books any more, I should perhaps pause here to report his conclusion in the interest of science, if not hygiene. The optimal butt wipe is a live goose, but you’ve got to keep the beak under control.])

Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition (I was going to say that I never got around to reading this book, but the underlinings show that I did. [here, I took a tenth month break in writing this paragraph the better to enjoy the disaster that probably verified Hofstadter’s conclusions if I could remember what those conclusions were.]

Peter  Vansittart, Voices from the Great War (As I’ve probably remarked too many times already and probably in almost the same words, World War I remains the real Great War for me. The sequel was bigger, vastly more expensive, deadlier, and had much better special effects; but it couldn’t improve on the horror of the founding stupidity of the short Twentieth Century. I also keep up an interest in WWI because I’ve been able to experience how what was still a living memory of a shattering event became the answer to a multiple choice question or, at most, another filler for the History channel. For most Americans, the war has failed to qualify as sacred history, i.e. to pass muster as one of the handful of foundational myths like Washington or the Civil War; but it hasn’t failed by that much, which makes it an interesting case.

But back to the book. This little compilation of very short contemporaneous reports, quotations, and poems arranged in chronological order is depressing rather than challenging unlike Nicholaus Baker’s corresponding effort, Human Smoke, which commits premeditated outrage on pieties about the Good War. Still, there are enough surprises in Voices to remind us that objects as complex as major wars can’t be defined by simple adjectives. For example, it’s easy to think of the famous denunciation of dulce et decorum est as the fundamental message of the war poets, but Wilfred Owen could write:

       As bronze may be much beautified
       By lying in the dark, damp soil,
       So men who fade in dust of warfare fade
       Fairer, and sorrow blooms their soul.

       Like pearls which noble women wear
      And, tarnishing, awhile confide
      Unto the old salt sea to feed,
      Many return more lustrous than they were

That’s not quite 

      I sometimes think that never blows so red
      The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled.

but it isn’t froth corrupted lungs either.

E.P.Thompson, Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (This late work of Thompson about the nature and political meaning of English customs is less forceful that his earlier and better known writings. The ifs, ands, and buts accumulate in the ideological arteries of the old lefty as they do, for that matter, in the circulatory system of any scholar who hasn’t become a booking agent for own greatest hits tour. You keep pouring over the evidence and adjusting your conclusion so that eventually the parts where you take it back choke off the parts where you put it out.

Thompson always knew this much: the lived experience of ordinary people can’t be boiled down to formulae; and the culture of the people is a moving target, not a mass of eternal mores. The Levi-Strauss bit about cold cultures is misleading—the folk have a history same as everybody else. They just they have less ability to remember it, and that creates an effect of antiquity. Seventy years ago is time out of mind for them so folkways of fairly recent vintage seem vestiges of the Dreamtime and are treasured as such. In fact, it’s the people in the big houses that have durable records, though they also overestimate their powers of memory. What they don’t forget is what you owe, which is why burning the charters is such a standard feature of peasant revolts.

Mikhail Heller, Cogs in the Wheel: the Formation of Soviet Man (There’s the event, its tendency, how it was remembered, when it was remembered, how its remembering at a given time was itself an event… Evidently we’re dealing with very few scalars and the tensors in question are of a fairly high order. It’s like writing a time travel story and finding that there just aren’t enough tenses in the English language. This book is interesting to me to look over in 2017 as much because it was written in the middle of the 1980s and translated into English in 1988 as because of any interpretation it supplies of Soviet history. I’m not suggesting it’s dated. All books are dated, though some of ‘em are more suited to having their dates ignored than others.* Fact is, I don’t remember Heller’s book well enough to make a reasoned judgment about that; and, in any case, you have to take into account the time of the initial reading and the time of the reading of the marginal notes by a being who is surely dated himself and unlikely to be eternalized and who, anyhow, read Red Plenty between time t1 and time t2.

Heller was a refugee from the USSR and had an emigre’s chip on his shoulder. That hardly disqualifies his analysis, but the polemical point of his book makes more sense in terms of the time when he escaped Russia than the time when he wrote the book. I’m reminded of a textbook of historical geology I once read that was written by some profs in Michigan. When these fellow started out to write, the pre-tectonic plate understanding of continent formation was still credible and must have seemed very natural to geologists who had done field work all their lives hammering away on ancient metamorphic rocks from the North American craton. By the time they finished, as they admitted in a rather remarkable preface, the evidence for plate tectonics had become overwhelming. Heller’s timing was even worse. The introduction to the English edition was mostly a long warning that Gorbachev would turn out like all the others. It was as if Frege had got the book out before he got the postcard from Bertrand Russell. Heller had a deeper problem, though. He seems to have treated the Soviet system as more monolithic and unchangeable than it ever actually was. Although it’s useful to learn that glasnost and perestroika were invoked by earlier incoming party leaders, even early on in the Gorbachev era—before Heller wrote his Introduction, in fact—it was pretty clear that the meaning of these cliches were mutating. Both the insiders and their external critics had a motive to deny that anything ever changed. The ridiculously stilted party argot was useful to both sides to prove their point. The Reds were always building the new socialist order and creating a new man. The Communists were always constructing an infernal machine to turn men into cogs.

Heller didn’t think that the Soviet system would go on forever. He knew that empires get old and fall, either by internal decay or the intervention of external forces; and he was aware that the technological change was presenting the Reds with a challenge they were especially ill prepared to meet, the advent of the information economy. Still, I tend to be more of a Hegelian about what actually happened than Heller for whom the end of the game must have seemed like the bursting of a bubble. The regime could have persisted for a long time if its leaders continued the old policy of hypocrisy and band aids. It was Gorbachev’s sincerity that finished it off. Trying to live up to the Communist promise was fatal. He actually believed the dream. 

*Reading sub specie aeternitatis is a rather specialized activity. You have to be taught how to ignore context in philosophy school, though a number of history majors seemed to have acquire the skill through independent study. A naive reading looks like the default approach because it is superficially similar to a reading simplified by mere ignorance when it is actually the willful scrubbing of the paint off all those marble statues. We’re talking here about a premeditated innocence. Incidentally. To admit that is not to criticize the approach.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Data Point

I had occasion to recall an incident of my youth in a Quora thread. I repeat it here to establish a reliable historical record.

When I was young, I walked in my sleep. Once while I was at college I woke up with muddy feet, dressed only in a tuxedo jacket. What was especially alarming about that was that at the time the campus was being terrorized (if that’s the right word) by some guy who urinated in the dead of night on the flower beds in front of the women’s dorms. I was afraid I might have been the mad pisser (as people called him). Fortunately for me, the real mad pisser kept getting madder and soon revealed himself in broad daylight by urinating from a bell tower on a passing philosophy professor.

In the Quora thread, somebody misunderstood the story and asked “Philosophy Professor? That seems most appropriate. Why did they consider him mad?” I responded:

The philosopher professor certainly wasn’t mad. In fact he was a rather eminent man in his field—he’s got a Wikipedia page—and was regarded with great respect and affection by the students and faculty. His moral earnestness—I almost wrote innocence—did strike some of the more irreverent among us as amusing, which probably accounts for the “improved” versions of what happened at the end of the mad pisser saga. The story ran that eyewitnesses saw the prof holding out his palm as if to see if it were raining and then looked up… That picture is almost too perfect, and I didn’t include the detail in the interest of journalistic accuracy. It is mere hearsay. On the other hand, it is true that the bell tower, a then recent addition to the school paid for by a rich alumnus named Smith, was known locally as Smith’s last erection.