Friday, December 25, 2015

Description of the World – Part 31

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Love, Death and Money in the Pays D’oc ( this interpretation of an old novel about peasant life in the Midi surely owes something to the Mythologiques of Levi-Strauss. Some of the diagrams and tables of inverted versions look familiar, even if the subject matter is different. Le Roy Ladurie shows more obvious interest in material conditions than Levi-Struass—I don’t recall anything exactly comparable to the regression of contributions of wives to husbands in marriage contracts in Beaujolais, 1750-1780 (0.86 if you were wondering); but Levi-Strauss was actually a lot more interested in economics and even history than he’s given credit for. What Le Roy Ladurie attempted in this study of Occitan literature also looks forward to the distant reading program of Franco Moretti. What I mostly got out of it was from the novella by Jean-Baptiste Castor Fabre (1727-83), which is the book’s “rather arbitrary starting point.” A nobleman returning to his castle hears a peasant ahead of him singing joyfully. He catches up to the man and asks him why he’s so happy. “The fact is, I have just buried my wife, and that, believe me, is a great relief to man.” Contrary to what you might think, what I found memorable about this exchange was the way in which nobles and peasants interacted or were supposed to have interacted before the French Revolution. Thirty years ago when I read the book, I was still thinking of the relationship between the classes on the American model in which, despite our official egalitarianism, well off people have practically no contact with the poor. I had assumed that the practical segregation of the classes would have been even greater in a society that valued hierarchy, though I suppose even in 1985 I would have known better if I thought about it.)

The Pastons: A Family in the Wars of the Roses, ed. Richard Barber (Since the Game of Thrones is allegedly modeled on the Wars of the Roses between Yorks and Lancaster, you’d think this collection of letters by the members of a prominent family negotiating the turmoil of the age would be a popular read. I recall practically nothing from it, though when leafing through it, I was interested to note that among one Sir John Paston’s effects was a copy of the Game and Play of Chess, which I was taught to think was the first book printed in England—evidently Caxton published a little romance about Troy earlier.)

Dougals Preston with Mario Spezi, The Monster of Florence (An account of sensational murders and the incompetence and chicanery of the police, prosecutors, and judges who dealt with it. This isn’t the kind of book I usually read. It was given to me by an Italian friend of mine who wanted to make a point about the deplorable state of justice in his home country—the book certainly does that, but then Italy is a country where the judges blame the geologists for the earthquakes so you aren’t entitled to be particularly surprised. The question that remains unanswered is whether the courts in Chicago are better or worse than those in Tuscany.)

Jerome Friedman, The Battle of the Frogs and Fairford’s Flies: Miracles and the Pulp Press During the English Revolution (I’m reading David Wooton’s Invention of Science just now. Wooton makes the important point that the invention of printing made it possible to accumulate reliable knowledge about the world. I don’t disagree with that exactly, but it is only half the story. Printing, like the Internet in our times, inundated the world with nonsense before it provided an infrastructure for enlightenment. Many of the key institutions of the new science can be seen as ways of maintaining some sanity in the midst of the brown flood. Peer review was the non-theological equivalent of the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books. Friedman’s little book is about what printing made possible during the English Revolution when the political control of the press broke down. In some ways, Friedman is telling a story similar to Robert Darnton’s, whose researches show how illicit publications—philosophical books, as they were called—helped destroy the Ancien Regime. The freedom of the Press has always been problematic. In the war of cliches, it remains to be seen whether the wisdom of crowds or Gresham’s Law rules the market place of ideas. Wherever you come down on this, the fantasies retailed by the politicians of the current political season are every bit as grotesque as the Strange and Wonderful Monster illustrated in Mr. Fleetwood’s broadsheet of the same name of 1645.)

E. Papinot, Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Japan (This little reference book, which was originally published in 1910, remains very useful; but it is also pleasurable to pick it up and read. I used to think my habit of reading reference books this way was eccentric, but many people I’ve met confess to the same practice.)
Alex Shoumatoff, The Mountain of Names: a History of the Human Family (It’s only a matter of time before all existing genealogical information is amalgamated into a searchable database—God knows what the LDS has already accomplished. The author of this book, which was published 30 years ago, already made a pilgrimage to Salt Lake City, and Mormons never give up. Computers take some of the fun out of family research through musty archives. I grew up thinking I was a descendent of William Henry Harrison; and it took me a long afternoon in the Sutro library to figure out that I was, only it was a different William Henry Harrison than Ol’ Tippecanoe, the American president who famously only lasted a month in office. Fortunately, I had already made a solemn pilgrimage to the scene of the great triumph of my supposed ancestor before I found out the truth. Well, if he really wasn’t my forebear, it wasn’t really much of a victory. William Henry almost got his army bushwacked by the Shawnee before he managed to pull out a bloody draw. Fortunately, he eventually managed to represent as a success by dint of a letter-writing campaign. I guess that’s why I was so sure he was an appropriate ancestor.)

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