Saturday, December 19, 2015

Description of the World – Part 29

G.S. Thomspon, Greek Prose Usage (A Textbook inflicted on me by Dr.Harry Carroll. It didn’t leave any marks. About all I remember is that double negatives are OK in classical Greek. As Socrates might have said, “The English rule against double negatives ain’t good for nothing!”)

Gevin Betts and Daniel Franklin, The Big Gold Book of Latin Verbs (Trying to improve your Latin in your 60s is just as much a protest against mortality as half-acre tombs. Cheaper though.)

R.W. Southern, Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe (The Middle Ages had its springtime and that was the 12th Century, before all that Aristotle and, more to the point, before the inquisitions, the witch craze, and the smoke of burning heretics drifting across Languedoc. A lot of the horrors we associate with the Middle Ages are really features of later eras, in particular, the Hundred Years War and the Reformation/Counterreformation. I was aware of how the scene darkened after 1200 and especially after 1300 before I read Southern, but he makes the point very well. The civilization of the deep Middle Ages was less fanatical and in a sense far more rational than what came later, in part because it really was an age of faith. No reason to fear the search for truth if you aren’t afraid what it will turn up. No paranoia about heresy. Southern points out that the fact that the lack of interest in what would later become natural philosophy and then science is part of the reason for this charming if somewhat childlike innocence. Actually learning about how the world works makes it much more difficult to maintain a trusting attitude to the good lord. Whatever the explanation—maybe it was the worsening climate or the looming Malthusian crisis that came with it—a gloomy voluntarism gradually replaced the rational humanism of earlier times much as existentialism and other irrational philosophies would menace the Enlightenment several centuries later.)

J.J.Clarke, Oriental Enlightenment (Most of the Enlightenment accounts of Buddhism I’ve encountered are just wrong. The Jesuits, who you would have expected to do better, mostly just waved it off as superstition. I guess a visiting Buddhist who just noticed all the shrines to the saints wouldn’t draw a similar conclusion about Catholicism. Some versions of Hinduism were easier for Europeans to understand: Schopenhauer figured some things out by reading a Latin translation of a Persian translation of the Upanishads. Mostly people found what resonated with their own beliefs. The more interesting question is whether any genuine inspiration travelled East to West. Clarke wrote before Christopher Beckwith’s book with its thesis that Pyrrho’s skepticism was something he learned from early Buddhists while accompanying Alexander’s invasion. It remains to be seen whether the pan-Eurasian thinking game was more tennis than handball.)

Snorre Sturlason, Heimskringal or the Lives of the Norse Kings (Snorre was an Icelandic Christian, but the grim pagan outlook is much in evidence in this narrative, especially in the old poems that mark the deaths of kings and earls. He explains the Norse Gods as ancient kings that people worshipped after their deaths. Odin, for example: “the Swedes often seemed to see him clearly before great battles; to some he gave victory, but others bid come to him; both fates seemed good to them.”  This great big Dover reprint would make a fine present for alarming male children. These grim and ferocious men didn’t all come to a bad end. Speaking of lived happily ever after: “Rolf the Granger [having been banished by king Harald Hairfair] afterwards crossed the sea to the Hebrides and from there went south-west to France; he harried there and possessed himself of a great jarldom; he settled many Norsemen there and it was afterwards called Normandy.’)

Barbara W. Tuchman, The Zimmerman Telegram (You know the story: the British intercepted a telegram from their ambassador to Mexico, who was trying to strike an alliance with the Mexicans to ally with Germany in the event that unrestricted U-boat warfare led to a war with the U.S.  Mexico was to get the Southwest back as its reward. The Brits had actually hacked the transatlantic cable used by neutrals, but came up with an elaborate cover story about how they got it fair and square by bribery and breaking and entering. Cyber warfare is nothing new.)

Bobby Seale, Seize the Time: the Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton (I have never actually read this book, which originally belonged to my wife Rita and migrated West when we broke up. I certainly remember the Bobby Seale trial in New Haven in May of 1970, though, because I got caught in a cloud of tear gas while trying to walk home from a lunch joint called Hungry Charlie where I had set out the riots that accompanied the trial with a bunch of motorcycle gang members who apparently were into riot tourism. Another event of the times, the bombing of the hockey rink, aka the Yale Whale, took place down the street from where I lived. I didn’t hear about that. I heard it, though the visible evidence of the event was just a cracked sidewalk. In the trial itself, Bobby Seale was never convicted of the murder of the police informant Alex Rackley, but the demonstrations were a bust because the trial occurred at the same time as Nixon’s Cambodian incursion. Outrage at that event stole the thunder from the Black Panthers. Truth told, I had a stronger reaction to it myself. The first two Cambodians I ever met were two forestry students i encountered late one night during that period. They were sitting on the steps of the forestry building and weeping. A lot of protests really are exercises in recreational outrage. There wasn’t anything phony about their reactions, however. They explained to me how fragile the political peace was in their country. How the invasion had upset the equilibrium that their ridiculous-on-purpose monarchy had maintained by a policy of looking the other way.)

Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (I probably got this little book as a kind of high class cheat sheet as if you could really unpack words like liberal or man in a couple of pages. Nietzsche wrote someplace that only words without histories have definitions. Williams tries to summarize the history, and he was a pretty sensible guy, but there is no royal road to ideology, let alone philosophy.)

Benedetto Croce, History of Europe in the Nineteenth Century (I’m not sure how seriously I read this book. Croce’s idealism seemed tepid to me—a Laodacean politics—but that may be unfair to an Italian for whom the reactionary Catholic church, authentic fascists, and Leninists were real enemies. Winning—and maintaining—the bourgeois revolution was not a task that lay behind Croce but in front of him. For that matter, saving the republic from the Republicans isn’t a foregone conclusion these days.)

Tracy Kidder, Among Schoolchildren (Kidder became well known for writing a book about the development of a minicomputer, Soul of a New Machine and I probably bought and read this book because I’d liked that book. Anyhow, I had met Kidder at a publishing trade organization lunch in ’84. I know that the date because the Mac had appeared a few months before. Kidder was there to discuss the future of the computer, but Adam Osborne, who sat at my table, was the loudest voice in the room. Osborne was sure that Apple had made a huge mistake because the new machines couldn’t actually do very much—that much was perfectly true. He thought the Apple product with a future was the Apple IIc. Two months later, as I was getting on the San Diego Freeway in Southern California, I saw Osborne on the side of the road—you couldn’t mistake the guy with his dandified clothes and cute little mustache. He had pulled off on the shoulder and was engaged in what looked like a furious argument with a truck driver. The last thing I saw out of the rearview mirror was the truck driver decking Osborne. Osborne was quite prominent at the time as a computer pioneer, though he’s best remembered now for giving his name to the Osborne effect—he destroyed the sales of his Osborne 1 machine by proclaiming that his next machine would be vastly superior.)

Richard F. Burton, The Book of the Sword (I don’t think this book settled the question of why there have been so many variations on the theme of big knives to cut people up. Partly I expect it’s just fashion, partly genuine technical progress, and partly paper/rock/scissors—you need the right tool for the job and that depends on what the other guy is waving at you. Burton, who was a swashbuckling man if there ever was one, presumably knew what to do with a blade; but most of the book is a display of philological prowess, but Burton doesn’t get nostalgic about the natives he stabbed or slashed while sneaking into Mecca or searching for the source of the Nile.

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