Saturday, November 28, 2015

Description of the World - Part 13 

Paul Murray Kendall, Louis XI: the Universal Spider (At a distance, French history looks like an unending series of guys named Louis—I know the kings of England, at least the ones on this side of William the Conqueror, but for a long time it was all I could do to remember that Louis XII preceded Louis XIV. Number 9 stands out, not only because he was so ably memorialized by his aide Philip de Commynes and had the good fortune to have colorful enemies like Charles, Duke of Burgundy, but because his reign marked an inflection point in the development of modern nations. Mel Brooks’ Louis XVI asserted that it was good to be the king, but the life of the actual Louis XI demonstrated that it was damned hard work. So many hours in the saddle, so much intrigue and dissimulation. No wonder so many of these figures were utterly worn out in the their 50s.)

Philippe de Communes, Memoirs (And this is the eyewitness version of these events written by a participant who worked first for the Burgundians and then for Louis. Phillipe had few illusions: “We must realize, therefore, considering the wickedness of men, especially the powerful who do not acknowledge or believe there is a God, that it is necessary or each lord or prince to have his opposite to keep him fearful and humble, otherwise no one would be able to live under their rule or anywhere near them.”)

Gwyn Jones, A History of the Vikings (The Thirteenth Warrior is movie based on the Michael Creighton novel of the same name. It’s essentially a demystified version of Beowulf, but Creighton also drew a lot on a book written by an Arab named ibn Fadian, who went on an embassy to the Bulgars of the middle Volga river in 921. Ibn Fadian, who probably never guessed that he would be played by Antonio Banderas in the movie, definitely didn’t go galloping off to Denmark with a passel of Vikings to fight monsters. The Viking ship burial in the film is based on ibn Fadian’s account, though Hollywood left out the part where the deceased’s friends had sex with the Irish slave girl before they strangled her. I mention all this detail because it’s dollars to donuts that Creighton got the ibn Fadian character from an appendix to Jones’ book that reproduces his account of the ship burial.)

Bede,  A History of the English Church and People (What matters changes over time. Livy carefully records monstrous births and other prodigies. The Title of Chapter 12 of Book 3 of this book is “A Little Boy is Cured of Ague at St. Oswald’s Tomb.’)

Eric Christiansen, The Northern Crusades (I read this book while holed up in a sweltering motel room in Baton Rouge. The Northern regions seemed exotic to me at the time so it was easy to identify with the Danes and Germans who pioneered the mysterious pagan East, though the Vikings plied these waters before the crusaders, and the area was never as benighted as I probably imagined because of the status of the Baltic in Monopoly and vague memories of Lower Slabbovia from Al Capp cartoons. This book’s picture of the Teutonic Knights doesn’t improve the impression of ‘em you get from the Eisenstein movie. These guys were formidable in many ways: “The terrible Johann von Gelberstedt of Halle had been so vigorous in secular life that even after receiving the last rites he had been moved to rape his nurse.”)

Georges Duby, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined (This book usually gets featured as an attempt to understand the medieval understanding of society via Dumezil’s notion of the Indoeuropean tripartite ideology: “Here below, some pray, others fight, others work” orare, pugnare, laborare. As in music, the virtuosity is demonstrated more by the variations than the theme. On the other hand, one thought Duby presumably picked up from Dumezil that is more than schematic is the way that the criticism of the second order, the knights, seems rather more an expression of priestly disdain. The need to humble the warriors is built in to some very old stories. In the Mahabharata, for example, the deep cause of the great war is not just the jealousy between clans or a king’s gambling problem. The Kshtriyas must be made to destroy one another in order to save the Earth from their pride and violence. The Trojan war had a similar function in Greek thinking about human history. Duby’s book was translated by Arthur Goldhammer, the prince of translators—he most recently got credit for the great clarity of his translation of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century. The Three Orders was his second translation.

Jacques Le Goff, The Medieval Imagination (Le Goff is well known for his attempts to write a history of the imagination. I had forgotten how much the attempt owed to Levi-Strauss. You end up calling a chapter Vestimentary and Alimentary Codes in Erec et Enide because of his example. That sort of thing is catching. Back in the day, I tried to come up with a Levi-Straussian taxonomy of the shapes of women’s legs. By the way, Goldhammer did this translation, too.)

Sir John Froisssart, The Chronicles of England, France, and Spain (Another book it would be fun to read out loud to the right kid though you might not want to do so in the spirit of the author who wrote “to encourage all valorous hearts, and to show them honorable examples.” Fans of Game of Thrones might also enjoy the book which manages to be enthusiastic about an era of unrelenting violence, albeit without dragons. Its interesting to compare Froissart’s enthusiasm for what could be accomplished with edged weapons with the melancholy retrospection of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror that covers the same time period.

M.A. Murray, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (This is one of those books that’s fascinating to read even though you are aware that the author’s theory is essentially a crank. Believing that witchcraft was real—not that old women went flying around on broomsticks, for course, but that the covens and ceremonies reflected the survival and perhaps revival of ancient traditions—is apparently irresistible to judge by the number of times it has been floated. That folkloric vestiges lay behind the elaborated accounts of the witch hunters is likely enough, just as actual floods featuring real water did occur before the Mesopotamians cooked up Utnapishtim, but interpretation, i.e., what happens in transmission, is more important than the initiating facts, which are generally rather insignificant even when they can be determined. If you want to know how the old folkways were submerged by modernity read Keith Thomas Religion and the Decline of Magic. Murray’s a better guilty pleasure, right up there with Jane Ellen Harrison.)

Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives (The longer you work at remembering a dream the more coherent it becomes. The dream as experienced is hardly recoverable at all. It’s a virtual object we have to postulate even to make the point that the overt dream is a fiction. Davis studied how 16th Century people in England created stories to go along with their requests for pardons. It’s not so much that their accounts of various, sometimes hair raising events were all lies, though many of them were surely that, but that they all evince a process analogous to dream work. Ought to give historians pause. What actually happened is as unrecoverable as what the dream was before we woke up and explained it to ourselves.)

Friday, November 27, 2015

Description of the World - Part 12

Romilly Jenkins, Byzantium: the Imperial Centuries A.D. 610-1071 (I got my ideas about the Eastern Roman Empire from Gibbon who famously lost patience and greatly increased the pace of his narrative in the last several volumes of his history. Since then I’ve recognized that the Byzantines were actually doing pretty damned well almost up to the Battle of Manzikert (1071). The Muslims were on the defensive for centuries before then and the empire, though somewhat smaller in area, was flourishing economically. One thought about Manzikert: some of the same soldiers who had fought for King Harold at Hastings (1066) traveled East looking for work and managed to be on hand for a second world-historical thrashing. Reminds me of the poor Japanese guy who lived through both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks (Auerbach uses an episode from this history as the basis for one of the chapters in Mimesis: the Representation of Reality in Western Literature. I expect that most of the people at all familiar with Gregory heard about him from this much more famous book. For me, the great thing about Gregory’s history is its first line: “A good many things keep happening, some of them good, some of them bad.” That’s right up there with the first line of Njal’s Saga, “There was a man named Mord Fiddle.” When I imagine the sordid happenings in Merovingian Gaul, the scenes are all as dark and gloomy as Summer in San Francisco. You have to remind yourself that the Dark Ages is just an expression. The sun shines just as brightly on misbegotten eras—I guess that’s my version of Herder’s bit about all ages being equally close to God.

David Christie-Murray, A History of Heresy (This is a history, but it reads like a field guide. The author is a Christian and holds to the last page the belief that there is, as he puts it, a red line around the true faith. I’m not a Christian and don’t have an existential interest in the question, but I agree with him in one respect. Most of the movements that were declared heretical were, intellectually and politically speaking, pretty sorry affairs. Churches are human institutions that can’t ignore political, economic, and social realities even if they are dedicated to imaginary beings. A raging prophet with two dozen acolytes can propose any damn thing. The orthodox may defend tenants that are objectively false and morally deplorable, but they are usually coherently worked out if only because the core of the faith has been defined and defended by generations of intelligent men. The more embarrassing (Mary mother of God) and dangerous (drawing practical conclusions from apocalyptic prophesy) elements are explained away or carefully sequestered in ecclesiastical thermos bottles. Meanwhile, suicide cults die out. Which is why even an atheist like me can find himself laughing at the reflexive way that heretics are esteemed. Before you canonize ‘em, you ought to look and see what actual heretics were like.)

Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (I wrote a blog post about this book a while ago so I’ll just report that a friend of mine who was induced into reading it by my comments has just about forgiven me. It’s not that he found the book wanting, but he’s quite right that it is extremely depressing, especially since the detailed account of how climatic change works itself out in misery and confusion is ever so apropos to us. I always hankered to be an American version of Lucien Herr, the librarian at the École normale supérieure who wrote nothing but supposedly shaped the course of French intellectual history for decades by handing out just the right book to Jean Jaurès or Charles Péguy. On the evidence, I’m not doing so hot at that.)

G.Q. Bowersock, Peter Brown, Oleg Grabar, Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World (There are folks, including people like Bryan Ward-Perkins who actually work in the field, who think that the upswing in interest in late antiquity is a bad omen. That may be—compare Derrida and Plotinus. On the other hand, somebody is always announcing the decadence of the West (or the East). Back in the 60s it was me claiming that the fin de siècle was coming early this time around. What’s probably true when you say that the world is coming to an end is that your world is coming to an end. Anybody who is self reflexive enough to have a world view will feel that the foundations of the deep are shaking beneath their feet. Fortunately, most people change as the world changes and are unaware of the relative motion—Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis. For them nothing changes but pop music and the length of skirts. They’re like fish who doubt the existence of water: I’ll believe it when I see it.)

A DVD of American Splendor (I never managed to sit through this film. I have a friend who is the world champion of reading the first twenty or thirty pages of books. I’m like that with movies. Two hours in a theater seems awfully long, and even the fast forward button doesn’t completely cure my restlessness. I feel like I’m in control when I read and that makes me far more patient. It’s the same reason I so hate dentistry. The pain wouldn’t be so bad if you inflicted it on yourself.)

Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (This is the ’89 version of Chomsky, not enormously different from the ’15 version. You have to wonder what’s the point of being right if your efforts to make the point always convince the same people or their children.)

J.E.A. Jolliffe, The Constitutional History of Medieval England from the English settlement to 1485 (The origins of English law, like botany and contract bridge, is a subject I feel I ought to understand better but have little ambition to study. At least I know enough not to share the 19th Century enthusiasm for Anglo-Saxon attitudes that Lewis Carroll made fun of in Through the Looking Glass, though, come to think of it, in this area of history, as in many others, what people imaged about the past is more interesting and important than the eigentlich gewesen bit.)

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Description of the World - Part 11

Marc Bloch, French Rural History (Perhaps because it’s only a couple of days after the attacks in Paris,  I’m minded to note that this fine French historian was killed by the Gestapo for his participation in the Resistance ten days after the Normandy invasion. He belonged to a generation of Frenchmen who explored the interstitial spaces of history, in his case, what was literally between the roads, i.e., the fields.)

Michael Psellus, Fourteen Byzantine Rulers (I try to at least sample old history books. We think of history as an exercise in remembering, but that’s ambiguous. The modern accounts of Byzantium are attempts at recovering the past, but books like this one are attempts to create memory for the future. He was throwing a message in a bottle into the ocean, not examining the flotsam that had washed up on the shore. Of course people still write about events in a projective way, especially aging politicians, but I wish professional historians would do it as well.

René Grousset, The Empire of the Steppes: a History of Central Asia (Most of the Mojave desert east of LA is anything but a picturesque desert. A lot of it looks like an immense vacant lot full of scrubby weeds and blowing trash. You might also liken it to the back of your computer, a dusty region of tangled wires because this is where the power lines and railroads that power LA plug in—if EM radiation is bad for you, it’s a wonder anybody survives stopping for lunch in Victorville. I think of Central Asia as another obscure site of vital connections—I mean the steppes, not the urbanized regions of the Stans, which are crucial to human history in other ways as Frederic Starr explained recently in Lost Enlightenment. Religions, armies, diseases, and languages moved back and forth across these immense spaces, not to mention the silk that gave the routes their name. The Romans called Scythia, the Western part of this expanse, vagina gentium, which means both the womb and scabbard of peoples. While making sure I was spelling vagina gentium correctly, I ran across a white power website that bewailed the fact that central Asia was no longer what it once was, the womb of the white race. I guess they don’t count the Turks, Mongols, Huns, etc. as peoples. Apparently real humanity pretty much means Caucasians for these folks, and Caucasian is understood literally. The mystique of the Indo-European still lives as well as the notion, belied by the history of Eurasia, that purity, not mixture is the secret of creativity.)

Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources. (Most of what I know about the kings and battles sort of history of Anglo-Saxon England comes from having read the first volume of David Hume’s History of England, which, unfortunately I lost. Casualty of a divorce. I haven’t gotten into the source materials much.)

Jacques Le Goff, Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages (Modern historians are like Wellington’s army. They have to be willing to go anywhere and do anything, in a determined quest to understand all the planes and aspects of human life irrespective of the monoglot disciplines that claims sovereignty over the various particulars. Most traditional histories were quite different. For a long time, history was essentially a branch of rhetoric that focused on politics and personalities and assembled moral exempla and useful instances for public purposes—that’s what the biographies of Michael Psellus or the Roman history of Livy were like and a good deal of pop history is still like. Some of the old historians tried to extract general conclusions from the evidence—Thucydides, Polybius, Tacitus, Machiavelli, Guicciardini—but trying to understand the past more broadly wasn’t very common. (Herodotus was an exception, he ought to be enrolled among the Annales school honoris causa.) The real predecessors of historians like Le Goff were the philologists and antiquaries who practiced an Archimboldian science, i.e., a practice of assembling sense out of heterogenous materials. Example of what I mean: Le Goff makes a connection between the scholastic notion of the just price and the fact that the denizens of the medieval universities formed a consumer society of fair size—1,500 academics at Oxford in 1380. In an era of low crop yields, it took a great many peasants to fill that many academic gullets and a great effort on the part of urban bourgeoisie to figure out how to pay for their upkeep. Demographics, agriculture, mentalities, economics, politics…)

George Duby, The Knight the Lady and the Priest: the Makingof Modern Marriage in Medieval France (A book I never got around to reading, but may yet. This exercise is like visiting a bookstore except that I don’t have to pay for anything.)

George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State (A line I underlined for some reason: “The very year in which the victories of Byzantine Empire over the Persian began is the Muslim year of the Hijra.” The first edition of the book appeared in 1940. I must have read it at the end of the 60’s or the beginning of the 70’s when the Middle East wasn’t the focus of international politics and Islam was mostly just considered an unpleasant relic of the Middle Ages. I recall a science fiction novel from that era about a classics prof who somehow traveled back in time to 6th Century Italy. The prof threw in with the Ostrogoths, but wrote a letter to Justinian advising him to send an army to central Arabia to take care of take care of a certain rabble rouser. In those days, it was simply taken for granted whose side you’d be on.)

Ferdinand Gregorovius, Rome and Medieval Culture (I forget which Italian made the point—Machiavelli?—that no territory could be ruled so badly as the papal states unless it were in the power of a sacred authority. A secular authority would have been overthrown and replaced with something more competent. Rome itself typified this idea in the Dark and Middle Ages: it was a failed state that Europe would never let fail once anf for all, a permanent Somalia, but a Somalia that mattered very much no matter how wretched it became. Much of the history reads like a parody of the ancient struggle of the patricians and plebs. The local nobility early on achieved and then somehow maintained an extreme level of decadence while the Roman mob retained an absurd sense of entitlement and importance, even in the era when cows grazed the slopes of the Palatine. Gregorovius was a 19th Century German Protestant who had to struggle against his own distaste for his chosen subject matter to be objective by the lights of the historiography of his times. This reader of chronicles of nonsense and disorder doesn’t always feel the imperative need to try.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Description of the World - Part 10

Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital 1848-1875 (Too bad nobody has written an equally convincing account of what happened in the 27 years 1988-2015. It would take somebody with astonishing powers of synthesis to make sense out of the collapse of Communism, the triumph of neoliberalism, the decline of democracy, the rise of China, the new Thirty Years War in the Middle East, the electronic integration of the planet, and the arrival of global warming in 300 pages or so. Not that Hobsbawm’s task was that much easier.

Donald Leach, Asia in the Making of Europe, Volume 1 The Century of Discovery (One of the pleasures of this exercise in impressionistic bibliography is recalling how much I enjoyed reading all these books. I’m not much of traveler; but in one respect, at least, I’m a born tourist, the original sessile nomad. Particular books connect with episodes in my private life, too. I met Charles Boxer at Yale, where he was famous for leading undergraduates in choruses of dirty songs at drunken parties. Boxer, who started out as a professional soldier, became well known later on in his life as a historian of the Indian Ocean and the Portuguese empire—he was better or at least luckier at history than soldiering. As second in command at Hong Kong in 1941, he lost an arm defending the Gin Drinker’s line and spent the war in a Japanese prison camp. One of the themes of the Leach book is how the Portuguese lucked into an incredibly good thing and quickly learned that a small country can easily have too much good fortune.)

Carlin A. Barton, The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster (I wrote a brief review of this book in Indoor Ornithology, praising it for recognizing that there are monsters of the ego as well as monsters of the id, a comment Barton apparently endorsed. Glancing through the book, I noticed that I underlined a quotations from one of Flaubert’s letters. “Because I wanted to understand everything, everything is a mystery” and commented in the margin “This from the author of Bouvard et Pécuchet.” That “Know Thyself” isn’t a cure all is something both Flaubert and I should keep in mind.)

Jacques LeGoff, Medieval Civilization (The plan of the Monastery of St Gall reproduced in this volume should suffice to convey the complexity of medieval societies. I didn’t get the message from this book, though. I originally got that from my aunt’s travel book with its many photos of the walled city of Carcassonne, and I’ve been to Chartres. The Medievals didn’t inhabit ruins—it was once all new—and the invisible cathedrals of their ideas were as elaborate as the marble ones that still stand.) 

Blood, Sweat, and Tears: the Speeches of Winston Churchill
, ed. David Cannadine (I understand that Churchill wrote out his speeches in lines one breath long so they looked like verse. The approach works best for perorations delivered at times of crisis and those are what we remember best since they were designed to be memorable. I don’t think Churchill was as good at making an argument as, for example, Lincoln. Most speakers tell people what they think they want to hear, the honest ones more or less accurately report their own thoughts, but Lincoln’s extended speeches come across as thinking out loud. I don’t get that from Churchill.)

Nathan Rosenberg and L.E. Birdell, Jr., How the West Grew Rich (I can’t remember a thing about this book. It must have seemed virtuous to acquire it, and I’m certainly interested in the general topic of the great divergence; but I apparently forget I owned it.)

Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (To judge by the marginal notes, I read this book carefully; and leafing through it, I begin to recall why I took it seriously. Since I read it, though, my regard for Wallerstein has been influence by reading his later writings, which tend to endlessly repeat the same themes—core/periphery, bosses, henchmen, subjects—in a rather lifeless way. Eventually you end up writing textbook accounts of your own ideas, assuming you can remember what they were. That shouldn’t ruin your reputation. That would be like thinking that a love affair was a failure because it didn’t last. Many great marriages end in divorce just as many great love affairs end in marriage.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Description of the World - Part 9

Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire 1875-1914 (There’s a 500 dong bill wedged at the beginning of Chapter 7, Who’s Who or the Uncertainties of the Bourgeoisie. I have absolutely no clue how a piece of Vietnamese money found its way into this history of the end of the long 19th Century. I do note that this item is just about the only thing obviously communist in this book written by a historian who is probably most famous for dying an unrepentant Red. The usual moral drawn from the objectivity and obvious quality of Hobsbawm’s historical work is something about the virtues of professionalism. I sometimes wonder, however, if the true, but unthinkable explanation, is that opting for Marxist/Leninism wasn’t that crazy a choice. There is no need to come up with pop psychological theories about how the wrong-headed Hobsbawm could somehow also be a profound historian. He wasn’t an Adolf Wölfli, the dangerous paranoid schizophrenic who was also a world-class painter. I was never been a fan of the Soviet Union or an apologist for its activities, but this business of declaring or even implying that certain attitudes and ideas are unthinkable is unphilosophical. If there are thought crimes in the world, one has an obligation to commit them.)

Jesse L. Byock, Medieval Iceland (I admired Iceland even before they told the bankers to go piss up a rope. The place had me at Njal’s Saga. This is a dull book about a fascinating society. It’s chock full of detail, however, and I can supply the motivation. Note: whatever the newspaper writers bleat, the devil is not in the details. God is in the details.)

Christopher Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution (People occasionally say that you can get anything out of scripture. You don’t have to rely on the cliche, though. Books like this supply the evidence. More generally, the English Civil War provides a lot of evidence that universal literacy and a free press have a significant downside.)

A Concise Encyclopaedia of the Italian Renaissance, ed. J.R.Hale (I don’t buy reference books to consult ‘em. I actually read them. I’ve met quite a few people who do the same, though some of ‘em are embarrassed about doing do.)

Justine Davis Randers-Pehrson, Barbarians and Romans (Simultaneously scholarly and gossipy, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’ve always had fantasies about Galla Placidia—so you’ve married the Gothic king and now you’re upstairs and Athaulf doffs his scarlet cloak and says “Well, here we are…”)

Alfred Zimmern, The Greek Commonwealth (I think I found this book on a remainder table or maybe I bought it from a garage sale. Tried to read it once or twice but found its pedagogic tone irritating and quit a hundred pages in. I guess the Modern Library folks thought it was a classic, a choice that reminds me of the time that the Nobel Prize was awarded to a guy who had invented a mining lantern. I did just learn, however, that Zimmern, who was a supporter of the British Labor party introduced the expression welfare state.)

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, The Ancien Regime (The aristocrats, bishops, and lawyers of this era didn’t think they were living in a fossilized kingdom. By their own lights, they were thoroughly modern.)

Edwin Williamson, The Penguin History of Latin America (I always seem to glimpse Latin America, at least South America, out of the corner of my eye so I read this perfectly adequate if somewhat pedestrian history. I don’t know if it was the subject matter or the fact that I read the book while I was taking care of my desperately ill sister, but I still can’t keep the wars and dictators straight. Like the Chinese dinner of the cliche, half an hour after you consume a book like this, you’re hungry again.)

The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective ed. Arjun Appadurai (I got this collection of papers out of a brief interest in the Medieval trade in relics, though there’s only one essay on this topic in the book. I also probably liked the title, which reminded me of a book by Norman, which was originally called the Psychology of Everyday Things.

Monday, November 23, 2015

I, for One, Look Forward to the Sixth Republic

Walking is a stumble interrupted by a destination. Forms of government are much the same: none of them actually work but they fail slowly enough to count as stable if only because some external force usually intervenes before they succumb to their internal contradictions. Absent climate change or invading army, monarchies are subverted by aristocrats who become oligarchs and are overmastered by democrats whose fearless leader becomes a tyrant and tries to establish a dynasty. Paper, rock, scissors, at least until the world runs down.

I apologize for another repetition of this banality. I know this is an old story with me. I revert to it as a consequence of my mostly-in-transition version of a classical education. The ancients were much more sanguine about such things than we are—the tragic outlook is precisely the recognition that the contradictions of human existence, including the political contradictions, are irreconcilable. Lycurgus and Solon and Lincoln and FDR only produce temporary fixes. The hero can suffer for his city, but in the long run political struggle is a Friday without a Sunday. It does have a Monday, however, and that’s probably what we should focus on. Still, the opposite of the tragic view of politics is very much at work in the form of certain mysterious theoretical optimism. For example:

Discussions of the virtues of liberal democracy (whatever that is) versus the Chinese system (whatever that is) often revolve around questions of which system is sustainable. Since I was trained to be a philosopher, I propose that we approach this question by beginning at the beginning and then work backwards. Why the assumption that any political system is stable? If poly sci were like mathematics, you’d demand an existence proof. If it were like astrophysics, we’d be asking if there is an arrangement of competing forces that guarantees no collisions. Of course coming up with a utopian state is not enough: the system doesn’t have to be proof against the arrival of the asteroid, but it does have to be able to steady itself in the face of routine perturbations and perhaps the odd barbarian horde or technological revolution.

You could look to history and ask which kinds of states do last, but that shift is complicated by the ease with which people imagine continuities. When I took Western Civilization, the defrocked Jesuit who taught the course was fond of asserting that the great historical question was not why the Roman Empire fell but why it didn’t, at least for an interminable period of time. But what persisted from 756 BC to 1453 AD was more a name and a dream than a single form of polity. There’s an philosophical paradox called the Argo about the question of how Jason’s ship could be the same if every plank and rope were replaced over the years, but at least the Argo didn’t mutate from rowboat to aircraft carrier before winding up on the Bosporus as the Raft of the Medusa. The successive versions of the empire did just that. To a remarkable extent the operation was a unitary imperium sine fine only because its citizens, who did keep reading their Virgil, continued to insist it was, just as we go on reading the Declaration and the Constitution as if these were the bones of an animal which, though it has admittedly put on a few pounds, remains the same beast because it supposedly still has the same skeleton. Well, you can keep the same Constitution for an indefinite period of time provided you mean the document under the glass. The real constitution of the country has undergone several revolutions without a name change much as the Chinese regime is vastly different now than it was thirty years ago, though it is still officially Marxist albeit under the Milton Friedman interpretation of the sacred dogmas. So is the current system of either country stable? Related question: is it necessarily a terrible thing if neither nation has arrived at a permanent solution to the problem of governing a large country? Does China have a problem because their current arrangement won’t last, at least a problem worse than the one we face because we haven’t changed ours frequently enough?

Description of the World - Part 8

Edward N. Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire From the First Century A.D. to the Third (Military intellectuals usually cut a rather ridiculous figure, especially when they propose scenarios that look absurd in retrospect as Luttwak certainly did in his sequel to this volume, which dealt with the grand strategy of the Soviet Union and predicted everything but the celebrated quiet ending. Olaf Stapledon’s projected history of the world, First and Last Men, didn’t do any worse when he suggested (in 1930) that the next great European war would be a showdown between France and Italy. Luttwak was much better when he looked backwards. I think that reading this book helped me get through my thick skull that strategy is about preserving the state, not winning victories.)

Jeffrey M. Hurwit, The Art and Culture of Early Greece 1100-480 B.C. (I probably bought this book because I knew Hurwit at Yale. I can barely remember Hurwit now, but I wrote a note in the margin about how he was “a most quirky kid” so I probably had a clear image of him when I read the book back in the mid 80s. My comment was not a dig. I found a lot to like in this book as witness the many substantive annotations, which, unlike most of my marginal notes, are legible, if barely, and not even especially embarrassing. Hurwit spends many pages discussing influence—“weak cultures imitate, strong cultures steal.” Harold Bloom haunts the book: “Homer and Hesiod loomed large over the poet who followed, and the very existence of the Iliad, Odyssey, Theogony, and Works and Days deflected the best (and most anxious) poetic minds towards other genres.” I noted in the margin that Bloom doesn’t appear in the index.)

Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (I read books about this era in much the same way that unreconstructed Southerners read about the Civil war grieving for the Lost Cause though I’m well aware—partly from reading this book among many others—that the paganism of late antiquity had very little in common with the practices and beliefs of the 4th or 5th Centuries BC, i.e. what you see instantiated in the Elgin Marbles or dramatized in the tragedies. It had become, disappointingly, a religion in the modern sense. Fox is, I believe, an atheist but one respectful of Christianity. I tend to think that you are unlikely to understand a religion if you either believe in it or hate it.)

Judith Herrin, The Formation of Christendom (This book focuses on what happened after the conversion of the empire: the Christianizing of the barbarians, the organization of the church under Gregory the Great, the iconoclast controversy, the response of Byzantium to Islam, and the schism between Latin and Greek Christianity.)

Henry Kamen, Philip of Spain (I keep a scrap of paper on which my brother Will wrote me a note. He didn’t have a great deal to say, but I treasure this fragment like a holy relic because it’s all that’s left—Will’s been dead for a quarter of a century, which is not that long, at least compared to Philip II, who died almost 420 years ago. Philip, however, left behind an enormous mass of memoranda and letters—he was a relentless bureaucrat. I have a much clearer idea of his ideas than I do of Will’s, though even the few lines I still have from my brother preserve something of his gentle sadness. Of course the abundance of evidence doesn’t settle the question of what to make of the Prudent King, but I know his voice. Scriptura manet.)

Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory (It would be an illuminating, if exhausting, exercise to map the argument of the Genealogy of Morals onto the known history of institutions. When and how did man become an animal that could make promises? How did pain become a currency in the economy of salvation? The invention of the modern self didn’t take place in a museum of ideal types but in Greece, Italy, Germany. Whitehead famously asserted that philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato but a great deal of anthropology and the history of mentalities is a set of footnotes to Nietzsche.)

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Description of the World - Part 7

Second Shelf

Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (I infer from the price stamp that I bought this copy at the Yale Co-op around 1972. The first edition of the book was published in ’39. It was written in the Hitlerzeit and read by me in the first Nixon administration. My image of Augustus was formed by these optics. I was ready to believe that the man was an unpleasant political operator rather than a wise pater patriae. Maybe that’s why I was puzzled by the rather sympathetic version of Augustus in the I Claudius TV series.)

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 3 vols. (The books are rubberstamped THIS IS THE PROPERTY OF JAMES HARRISON—I made the stamp in a junior high printshop. I know I read Gibbon at about that time because i remember suggesting that Mr. Masters, my 9th grade world history teacher, should assign parts of it to the class. He let me know that wasn’t very practical. I blame Gibbon for giving me a life-long tendency to write periodic sentences.)

Alan K. Bowman, Egypt after the Pharaohs  332BC-AD642 (I had forgotten this book. Of course Hellenistic Egypt is hardly an obscure topic, at least compared to the Despotate of Epirus, but there’s a tradition of looking at everything after Alexander as second class—you know you’ve come to the end of the history of Greece when you encounter the fold-out map of Alexander’s campaigns. I was brought up on this version. I recall a cartoon in an old world history textbook, perhaps the one from Mr Master’s class so long ago, that showed the sun setting on the steps of a Greek temple. The steps were labelled Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, Herodotus, etc. The date was identified as 332 BC. I’ve traversed a great many pages getting away from this late 19th Century commonplace.

Erich Gruen, The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome (Titus Quinctius Flamininus, having vanquished the Macedonians at the Battle of Cynoscephalae (Dog’s Head) proclaimed the liberty of the Greek cities to an applauding audience at the Isthmian Games in Corinth 196 BC. That used to be a famous event: indeed, it was featured in The Great Events by Famous Historians, a 20 volume compendium of mostly Victorian-era narratives I acquired for 25 cents a throw from an old Jewish guy who sold used furniture and had no use for books not written in Yiddish. Of course the liberty of the cities didn’t last very long. The Romans sacked and utterly destroyed Corinth fifty years later. The empire certainly wasn’t an unalloyed disaster for the Greeks—the Roman ruling class identified so much with Greek culture than their great antiquary Varro even tried to sell the claim that Latin is, properly understood, a dialect of Greek and various prominent Greeks gave themselves Latin first names—Claudius Ptolemy, for example.. The unity of the classical world under the empire was rather like the unity of the “free world” in the high cold war—Gruen’s book is about the ambiguities and adjustments of the situation.)

Hans Delbrück, Warfare in Antiquity (My college Greek teacher, Harry Carroll, used to cite Delbrück to debunk the traditional versions of ancient battles, especially the inflated estimates of how many troops were involved. When I finally ran across a copy of the first volume of his main work many years later, I acquired and read it even though I was no longer particularly interested in military history or still offended, as I think I was at 18, to discover that Xerxes probably didn’t lead a million men over the Hellespont. It’s rather like drinking a glass of chocolate milk on principle, not because you like it but simply because when you did like it, you couldn’t get any.) 

Plutarch’s Lives
, Dryden translation (I was thinking about this book the other day. I had the fantasy of reading some of the lives to young teenagers, well, young male teenagers, on the theory that they would identify with the heroic or rascally ancients. I expect the late 17th Century English would defeat the project. You’d also have to interpolate an awful lot of footnotes. Still, it would be an interesting experiment, and I continue to believe that reading books not written in the last twenty minutes has a certain value. Or maybe the better subjects for the trial would be adults. “Even if they can barely talk or understand what you’re saying, it’s worthwhile to read, speak, and sing with your thirty year olds…”)

Arthus D. Kahn, The Education of Julius Caesar (Speaking of ancient lives. Because of the sheer wear and tear involved in military and political life in the pre-modern era, conquering was mostly a young man’s game. Caesar was an exception. He was in his 40s when he began the conquest of Gaul and in his 50s when he crossed the Rubicon. That doesn’t seem particularly old to us, but we don’t spend our nights in tents and our days riding from battlefield to battlefield through rain and snow. Caesar himself seems to have worried about running out of time—it wasn’t just Plutarch who compared Caesar with Alexander and Alexander had conquered the world before Caesar won his first consulship. The upside of peaking late is that it gives you a long education, hence the theme of this book. The book makes a point of Caesar’s interest in Epicureanism. Venus was the ancestor of the Julian clan, the alma Venus Lucretius invoked in the first two lines of de rerum natura. Caesar’s obvious intelligence and literary skill wasn’t news to me, but Kahn’s book alerted me to his connection with the circle of the Epicureans.)

Jacob Burckhardt, The Age of Constantine the Great (Burckhardt’s Renaissance book is much better known, and I certainly remember it better. In fact, the sole reason I’m sure that I actually read this volume is the presence of underlinings and marginal notes. That doesn’t mean I took nothing away from the book, though. As I’ve frequently said—assuming I’m not inadvertently stealing this line as well—the advantage of a faulty memory is that it makes it possible to commit plagiarism with a clear conscience.)

Chris Wikham, The Inheritance of Rome (Taking late antiquity serious, which means with respect, is one thing. From Burckhart and Adolph Harnack to Peter Brown and co. some remarkable intellects have focused on that era. It’s a bit harder to pay the same kind of attention to Gregory of Tours as you do to Augustine, however, because, no matter how you slice it, the Dark Ages were genuinely dark in many ways, at least in Western Europe. The successors to the empire tried to keep the political and cultural traditions alive—the monks knew their Virgil and the knights were milites in the Latin of the chronicles. If their civilization was a dying reverberation, it died very, very slowly.)

Note: Why I call this catalog a description of the world: between the microcosm that is a human person and the macrocosm that is the entirely of things, there is also a mesocosm or rather a series of mesocosms: human civilization, the culture of your society, the Internet, your library.

Gaudeamus Igitur

Discussions of education make everything a question of economic efficiency as if the only reason to pay taxes for schools were to increase America’s international competitiveness and boost the GNP and the only reason to get an education is get a high paying job afterwards—“TV dinner by the pool, Gee I’m glad I finished school.” Here’s a novel thought. Education may be worth it because it increases the quality of people’s lives even if it doesn’t put another nickel in their bank accounts, and it may even be worthwhile to improve the experience of going to school just because the years spent in school are a precious time of life, one’s youth.

Turning schools into industrial test-taking facilities is probably counterproductive even from a narrowly vocational point of view. Many studies have shown that removing the enriching features of school—art, music, sports—actually degrades academic achievement; but even if it were somehow cost effective to turn public schools into minimum security prisons, why would you want to inflict such institutions on your fellow citizens? If governments exist to promote the well being of the citizens, doesn’t the well being of teenagers count?

Along with the other, mostly funny things I remember from the day I graduated from high school, one was astonishingly poignant: catching sight of some of my classmates weeping. It surprised me at the time. Unlike me and my close friends, they weren’t looking forward expectantly to college. What really was a commencement for us was an ending for them, but it wasn’t the imminent prospect of entering the job market and adult responsibilities that upset them—high school grads in 1963, at least the white ones, didn’t face anything like today’s job market and having a high school diploma still meant something. They were sad because of what they were leaving, a special and highly meaningful world. I wonder if graduates in 2016 have the same feelings.

People certainly grumbled about taxes in 1963, but I think most of the adults I knew then would have been astonished at the idea that public education should be narrowly focused on preparing students for work. A sign of this attitude was the way that art and music classes were taken for granted. Of course we want schools to provide such things and are willing to pay for them. They’re our kids, aren’t they? Well, the difference may be that while people still want such things for their kids, they aren’t interested in paying for fluff when it comes to their kids. After all, the books and flowers are wasted on the epsilons. If they get used to a rich and humane environment as children, they’re just going to expect it as adults and they aren’t entitled to that.

Maybe the fundamental problem with American education is a deficit in solidarity. The U.S. is not us.