Friday, December 11, 2015

Description of the World – Part 25

Postwar French Thought, Volume II: Literary Debate, Texts and Contexts, ed. Denis Hollier and Jeffrey Mehlman (To tell the truth, I haven’t made very good use of this impressive anthology. Nevertheless, it made one strong impression. Reading the 1945 manifesto J.P. Sartre’s wrote to inaugurate Le Temps modernes, I was surprised how credible and relevant it seemed after so many years of thinking of Sartre as very old news indeed. When I was a kid, my friends and I would never consult the paper to find out when the movie started. We just went to the theater and stayed there until we’d seen everything and somebody announced, “This is where we came in.” Reading this old piece, which came out the year of my birth, I had a sudden sense of “this is where we came in.” Of course the moment in my own life I’m speaking about wasn’t my biological birth, but the time in my early adolescence when I became aware of existentialism. My sister let me come along with her to a party of her college friends at the apartment of a guy who everybody called Crowbar. My sister’s circle wasn’t all that advanced, but there were genuine beatniks in attendance that night and one of ‘em was amused to ask a fifteen year old what he thought of Sartre’s idea of radical freedom. I think I said something grave about the reality of human nature or some such thing as if my opinion mattered. I knew I was talking through my hat and subsequently attempted to read Being and Nothingness, realized I needed to understand Kant first, and then hurled myself at the First Critique like a pigeon flying into a plate glass window. I eventually found some potted explanation of what existentialism was, though that didn’t help a great deal. When I could read a serious philosophy book, the Sartre that mattered even a little was the author of the Critique of Dialectical Reason and at that, his flirtation with Maoism was making him seem like a foolish old man trying to hang with teenagers. By the time de Gaulle decided, “You don’t arrest Voltaire,” he had become something of a mascot. Personally, I was rather less tolerant of his blind eye for communism. I assigned one of his books, I forget which, at the beginning of a course I taught on contemporary approaches to Marxism. It was rather a gesture since what the students and I really wanted to do was try to make sense of Foucault and Derrida. They had just appeared on the horizon—the Marxism in the course title was something of a cover story—and Sartre was in the dead zone between active thinker and revered or despised ancestor. Reading the old piece in this anthology made me wonder if he might be coming back into focus again. The editors apparently thought so: the last item in the book is Derrida’s reappraisal of Sartre.)
Fernand Braudel, The Identity of France: Volume One: History and Environment (Braudel was a geographer as well as a historian. The first volume of his book on France is essentially geographical. I wish more historians would begin with geography because it is the structure of the scene and diversity of environments that keeps narratives from turning into soapbox operas. Besides, people just don’t know much geography, even the geography of their own country. It’s a routine complaint that Americans can’t find this or that country on a map, but I wonder how many of ‘em have a gestalt of the way North America is laid out? The maps in conventional history books don’t help much, and it is the historian’s obligation to supply the requisite “describing, seeing, making others see”—that Braudel is so good at. It would also help if, at least once in a while, the places mentioned in the text of  history books were marked on their maps! Of course I have a bias towards geography, which why this exercise is labeled a description of the world, even if I’m trying to be the Strabo of a library rather than of a planet.)

Which brings me to the end of the first bookcase. I think I’ll leave it at that until tomorrow in the spirit of one of the first jokes I ever heard: A guy sees a sign in restaurant window that reads, “Any sandwich $2.00.” He’s a smart aleck so he goes in and orders an elephant steak sandwich. The waiter seems unruffled with the request and disappears into the kitchen. He returns a few minutes later. “I’m sorry, but it’s fifteen minutes before closing and the cook doesn’t want to start on a new elephant.”

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Description of the World - Part 24

Garrett Mattingly, The Armada (You don’t understand an event until you’ve read at least a second account of it because until you have, you can’t begin to distinguish the interpretation from the thing interpreted. Following this advice can be a chore but reading this version of 1588 was not. Mattingly’s style is engaging and as a professional historian specializing in the period he obviously knows what he’s talking about. I was going to write that one thing I appreciated about his book was the way in which it related the quarrel of Philip and Elizabeth to what else was going on in Western Europe at the time, especially the French wars of religion. When I consulted the book to make sure that I spelled Coutras right, as in Battle of Coutras, the smashing and unexpected victory of the future Henry IV over the Catholic royalists in 1587, I ended up reading Mattingly’s spirited description of the battle. Stylistically it reminded me of Froissart—the battle itself was something like an all-French reprise of Agincourt: “The flower of the court had accompanied M De Joyeuse [the royalist commander] on his journey to Poitou. More than six-score lords and gentlemen served as troopers in his first rank, most them accompanied by their own armed servants. So the lances with which the duke had insisted they be armed were gay with pennons and bannerets and with knots of colored ribbon in honor of noble ladies, and there was a great display of armor, as much armor as anyone ever saw in combat any more, even to cuisses and gorgets and visored casques, and every conspicuous surface chased and inlaid with curious designs, so that d’Aubigne wrote afterwards that never was an army seen in France so bespangled and covered with gold leaf.”  It’s not much of a spoiler to add a second quote about the end of the battle “…the duke of Joyeuse was cut off by a clump of horsemen as he tried to escape. He flung down his sword and called out, ‘My ransom is a hundred thousand crowns.’ One of his captors put a bullet through his head.”

Christopher Duffy, Siege Warfare: the Fortress in the Early Modern World 1494-1660 (Covers everything from the advent of the Italian trace right up to the time of Vauban, the Frenchman whose name became synonymous with forts and sieges. The details of the elaborate works may only be of interest to buffs, but their enormous expense has a lot to do with the growth of nation states and the development of modern finance. I note parenthetically that of all the geniuses whose IQs were estimated by Francis Galton Hereditary Intelligence, Vauban came dead last.)

James F. Dunnigan, How to Make War: A Comprehensive Guide to Modern Warfare (Since this book came out in 1982, its practical value is probably not much greater than Duffy’s book on Siege Warfare. Dunnigan used to design war games for an outfit called Avalon-Hill, but he also routinely consulted with the actual military. I used to enjoy simulation games myself, if only because of the maps involved; but I was lousy at playing them. I recall getting comprehensively thrashed by a Japanese-American mathematician my friends and I rather unkindly called Hiroshima Nagasaki because he was a conscientious objector whose walls were covered with blueprints for tanks and, unlike me, a master at war games. I played Rommel in the one game I ventured against him. HN played the allies. There was one moment in the encounter, where we both realized that if I threw double sixes, so much for the Suez canal. I didn’t.) 

George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Relations since 1776 (Herring uses various literary tags for his chapter headings. I think a reasonable epigraph for the entire book might be “O it is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it as a giant,” both in view of the ways in which we have and the ways we haven’t used it as a giant. In the days when I published a little magazine called Indoor Ornithology, I was planning to use two maps side-by-side on the cover of an issue, a map depicting the gradual conquest of Italy by the Roman State and map of the American conquest of North America. That never happened due the illness that ended the magazine’s run, but the contrasting maps make a good compare/contrast exercise. People who demur at the idea that America is an imperial power generally do so by ignoring the imperialism of the young nation. It’s true that after the Spanish American War and our absorption of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, we lost our relish for overt colonization; but its cheating not to count what went before.)

T.J. Cornell, The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000-264 BC) (My impression is that there is no consensus on the early history of Rome. Since the Renaissance began to question Livy’s traditional narrative—a secular version of It Ain’t Necessarily So—but centuries of revisionism and archeology leave much unclear, at least to me, for example, whether Rome was ever under Etruscan control, whether the Kings were expelled or demoted to a harmless sacral function like the King Archon in Athens, and what was the nature and significance of the Gallic catastrophe of 390? I look forward to reading Mary Beard’s take. Meanwhile I guess I’ll continue to hum that old Roman spiritual Amazing Geese. At Pagan Christmas we sing it along with the Greek favorite Orestes Fideles.)
E.T. Jaynes, Probability Theory: The Logic of Science (i understand that this book, which was published posthumously, has a considerable underground following among scientists, statisticians, and logicians. I acquired it after running across rumors about it and made an attempt to read it, not the only time I ever slogged through a work that was obviously over my head. In probability as in quantum mechanics, the equations look much the same even if the interpretation put on them and the whole subject is radically different. In any case, the equations aren’t the problem, even for someone of my mediocre mathematical attainments. Still, you don’t have to be jockey, a trainer, or a horse to handicap a horse race, and you don’t have to be a professional statistician to recognize that we’re in the midst of an on-going controversy about how to draw inferences and even what a probability actually is. In that spirit, I tend towards the Bayesian persuasion as does Jaynes, though my I think I was more persuaded by Keynes’ book on the subject than by this one.)

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Description of the World - Part 23

Seymour M. Hersh, The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon Whitehouse (Thirty years later Hersh is still muckraking, and his Kissinger book came thirteen years after his Pulitzer Prize for uncovering the My Lai massacre. Well, Kissinger is still with us, as well. We live in an era of long careers. This book is less like journalism and a bit more like history than some of Hersh’s other efforts since he wrote it a decade after Nixon left office. Hersh obviously knew a great many of the players and spoke with them frequently on or off the record, but I don’t get the sense that he really gets much beyond what was in the newspapers of the time, assuming you read ‘em with sufficient cynicism. There aren’t that many secrets in politics. Scandals erupt not because we finally realize the venality or plain evil of politicians but because something happens to make us admit to each other what we already knew all along but found convenient to ignore or bootless to denounce.)

C.V.Wedgwood, The Thirty Years War (“…no right was vindicated by its ragged end. The war solved no problem. Its effects, both immediate and indirect, were either negative or disastrous. Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its causes, devious in its course, futile in its results. It is the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict.” We can save this bit of English for use at the conclusion of a history of the current cycle of wars in the Middle East, though it would have to be determined whether we’re talking about another Thirty Five Years So-Far War beginning with the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the Iranian Revolution, and Saddam’s invasion of Iran or a Forty Years Plus War going back to the Yom Kippur War or even a Fifty Years War beginning with the Israeli Blitzkrieg of ’67. Of course however you recon its starting point, we can’t say how long this endlessly imbricated series of conflicts will last. By any calculation, it will have been rather longer than the German Wars, which lasted a mere 31 years—1914-1945. Of course the first two world wars cost far more lives and were fought more intensely, but it may be early days yet as far as the overall butcher’s bill is concerned. In any case, the war Wedgwood describes is a pretty good analogue to the Middle Eastern mess because both were comprised of many particular conflicts knotted together. One notable difference: To a significant degree, the Thirty Years War was a religious war when it began and became more and more a conflict of nations as it wore on. The Middle Eastern Wars are moving in the reverse direction from cabinet wars and secular insurrections to jihads, crusades, and clashes of civilization. Not necessarily progress.)

Antonio Fraser, Cromwell: the Lord Protector (I can’t recall a thing about this book. Memories, like fossils, are rarer for lower strata, and I would have read this book in the early 70s. To vary the metaphor, it’s been in the compost bin for quite a while. One thought about the subject of the book: after his death and the restoration of the monarchy, the British disinterred Cromwell’s body, hanged it, hacked off its head, and displayed it on a pole at Westminster. Three centuries later the British army named a tank after him.)

Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution (Everybody quotes the America book, but this is my favorite de Tocqueville work, even though it is only first section of what was going to be a longer book. I’m not going to try summarize it’s argument—I’d probably do that inaccurately granted the passage of time–but simply note what I took from it myself, i.e., that the ancien regime was already trying to modernize itself, rationalize and centralize the institutions of government, and ameliorate the condition of the mass of the people before the Revolution declared the rights of man or Napoleon promulgated his code. That the kings were not true opponents of the Revolutionary movements and that they lost their thrones or their heads was rather unjust since the real enemy of the people, in 1789 or 2015 for that matter, were rent-seeking aristocrats. In his own way, even Frederick the Great had been a citizen-king, and Emperor Joseph II was practically on the side of the Belgian democrats.)
Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Hermeticism lost much of its luster when Isaac Casaubon demonstrated philologically that the writings of the Thrice-Great Hermes—Trismegistus—were not of venerable antiquity but dated no further back than Hellenistic times. In the high Renaissance, the Hermetica had had extraordinary prestige. Cosimo d’ Medici insisted that Marsino Ficino translate it along with the dialogues of Plato. Yates managed to get people interested in the Hermetic tradition again in works like this one that ties it and other arcane traditions, most notably the art of memory, to the Scientific Revolution. In any case, from our point of view, the Second Century B.C. is old enough to seem glamorously ancient even if Hermes wasn’t coeval with Moses. The value of ideas is not a function of the authenticity of their sources. Unfortunately, the deeper problem is not the provenance of Hermetic ideas but precisely the intrinsic value or silliness of this Renaissance magus stuff and what it actually contributed to the development of the modern sciences beyond some really impressive allegorical frontispieces. I greatly enjoyed Yates’ books and for many years looked forward to finding the next one in much the same way that a Stephen King fan looks forward to a new novel; but I gradually found Yates a guilty pleasure. The matter is hardly settled, however, not only because some genuinely significant science really was intertwined with mysticism—even John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s wizard, was the author of mathematical works on practical navigation—but because there’s more to civilization than what’s dreamed of by the sciences, at least under the contemporary definition of science.)

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Description of the World - Part 22

Eric R, Wolf, Europe and the People without History (The point is, even the people without histories have histories even if they don’t remember them very well or very long. In any case, even before non-European nations knew there were Europeans, trade goods and microbes were changing their worlds irretrievably. Also, some of the people without history dealt with in the book damned well had history. It just wasn’t ours or they didn’t know it was bound up with ours. When I started reading anthropology, vestiges remained of the old notion of Naturvölker, primitives who not only lived in a permanent present subjectively but also objectively because their ways of life changed at a glacial pace. In fact, there have always been Napoleons in penis sheaths and charismatic prophets buck naked on the Upper Nile, battles, revolutions, civil wars. And it isn’t just the names of the big men that change. Customs, including basic features like kinship systems can mutate with remarkable speed. Indeed, the very fact that illiterate societies have sharply limited memories may make it harder for them to preserve ancient forms than we do. There are no liturgies among the Nambikwara that are anything as old as kyrie eleison. In the cases where we have evidence of the evolution of practices, some immemorial rites turn out to be quite recent. The Fore of New Guinea, a tribe that became well known because of its affliction with the prion disease kuru, apparently only began to eat their dead a century or two ago. It wasn’t quite a fad, but without writing how do you distinguish a fad from the way of the elders? I read Wolf’s book the same week I spent six or seven hours wearing down a statistician until he agreed to publish his book with my company. He had just returned from a vacation in Papua, New Guinea and showed me the bone nose plugs he brought back. I remember thinking that manufacturing nose plugs had probably already become a local industry up the Fly river.)

Carolly Erickson, Great Harry: the Extravagant Life of Henry VIII (Looking at Henry’s last suit of army in the Tower of London should suffice to make you think that he was more like Charles Laughton than any of the more handsome Harrys we’ve seen in the movies—the armor looks like a pot-bellied stove and you have to wonder if the king could have stood up wearing it. The historical detail that stuck with me from reading Erickson’s bio was the name Harry got as his popularity faded.. “According to the verse prophecy the sixth king (Henry was in fact the twelfth) after King John would be the Mole, or Mouldwarp, a hairy man with a hide like a goatskin whose fate it was first to be greatly praised by his people, then ‘cast down with sin and with pride.’)

Victor-Lucien Tapie, France in the Age of Louis XIII and Richelieu (The Richelieu in Three Musketeer movies is always the old Richelieu, but he was still fairly young during the intrigues involving Anne of Austria and the Duke of Buckingham. Particular historical events with memorable names accumulate in my memory—the Defenestration of Prague, the Punctuation of Ems, the Tennis Court Oath—but I’ve always been partial to the Day of the Dupes—November 10  if you want to celebrate it—when the rebellious nobles were fooled into thinking that the Cardinal was going to be dismissed by the king and ended up compromising themselves. Tapie thinks the event was not a decisive triumph. Richelieu must have enjoyed it though.)

Phillipe Aries, Centuries of Childhood: a Social History of Family Life (This book made a tremendous impression on me and everybody else when it first appeared, in France in 1960 and only two years later in the U.S. The rapidity with which it crossed the Atlantic is evidence of how impressed everybody was with it—the Savage Mind took four years to get translated, the Grammatology nine. Aries made what seemed like a solidly documented case that childhood was a rather modern invention, that parents in the Middle Ages regarded their kids as little adults as soon as they were weaned. That thesis, like the rather sorry looking paperback copy in my library, looks a bit yellowed and shop worn now. I think the basic problem is that Aries assembled evidence for his theory but ignored other material that tended in a different direction. He also put a strong construction on rather equivocal evidence. For example, that people had their children painted in grown-up outfits hardly proves that they thought of them as miniature adults. After all, we’re still dressing kids up in this fashion and we obsess about childhood. The book provided a predictable thrill because it suited the desire of the time for evidence that culture trumps biology—the prejudice now often runs in the reverse direction. I gather the scholarly consensus about Aries now is that he was right that childhood was different in 1400, just not that different. Personally I do think that children were rather more like adults in the past than they are now, but one of the main reasons for that is perhaps that adults in the past were rather more like children or, to be more precise, were expected to be more like children, docile and obedient if they were peasants or workmen, violent and erratic if they were nobles.)

Ehrlich’s Blackstone, 2 volumes (Ehrlich was an American lawyer who  produced a streamlined version of the Commentaries on the Laws of England with the Latin translated and some of the sections abridged. That was 1959. I’ve never looked at an old edition of Blackstone so I have no idea how faithful this version is to the original. I knew that the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, and many supreme court justices took Blackstone as the oracle of the Common Law, which is why I read it. I don’t recall any surprises. Blackstone lists the Right of Private Property as the birthright of every Englishman, but he doesn’t make a fetish of it. He does say ‘the original of private property is probably founded in nature…” but goes on to admit that “certainly the modifications under which we at present find it, the method of conserving it in the preset owner, and of translating it from man to man, are entirely derived from society; and are some of those civil advantages in exchange for which every individual has resigned a part of his natural liberty.” Sensible, even if property was never simply a matter of possession.
Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted (This was a textbook for an American history course taught by Joel Tarr, a historian who was then just starting out  (1963), but later became well known as a promoter of applied history and a mavin of environmental history. I ran into him at Carnegie-Mellon seventeen years later. I remembered both the course, which was exceptionally well taught for a new prof, and Tarr.  Even though the book was assigned, I actually read it.)


To be a Democrat in Trump’s America is to sign on as the permanent designated driver in a nation of drunks. It’s not much fun, and there’s a permanent temptation to have a couple of rounds yourself if only to prove that you’re one of the guys. I assume that’s the rationale of a common response to Obama’s recent speech on Isis. Lots of folks who criticize him about it don’t really have an alternative to his strategy. They simply figure that it is politically necessary to do something stupid in order to appease the public. You don’t have to go balls-out Trump or Cruz. Just some infringements of the rights of Islamic Americans, just some profiling, just some terror bombing of Eastern Syria. A homeopathic dose of fascism. Surely the Muslims will understand.  I’m reminded of the Constable in Fiddler on Roof who assures Tevye that the pogrom won’t be all that bad. 

We’ve heard this line before. When I was a kid, long before the official apologies, people in my town knew that that the resettlement of Japanese Americans to concentration camps had been a violation of fundamental American rights. They justified it retroactively by claiming that it had been necessary to appease public opinion—that’s the good kind of appeasement, apparently. Seems to me that the talking heads who are suggesting that we do unwise things on purpose are using the same logic. They know—doesn’t everybody know?—that if we get hysterical about Middle Easterners, we’ll end up regretting it. Well, on the subway in New York, people say “Excuse me” and then elbow you. I guess we’re planning on elbowing somebody now knowing we’ll be saying “Excuse me” later.  

It’s not that politicians can ignore the visceral responses of the public. They can’t. The Hell of it isn’t that Presidents can’t afford to be morally pure—dirty hands are part of the job description and the good ones are masters at playing rope-a-dope with the idiot press. The problem is that going along with the short-term enthusiasms and panics of the public really can be a slippery slope. Obama, after all, has already made accommodations. He’s getting a great deal of heat now for the deplorable state of Libya (Benghazi!), but his participation in the campaign to oust Qaddafi was anything but enthusiastic—that’s what leading from behind is all about. It may have been worthwhile on balance to see off the dictator in that instance, but the administration knew perfectly well what it was getting in to. Public pressure, here and especially in Europe, had a thumb on the scales. I’m not privy to secrets of state, so I don’t know if the unintelligent policy of supplying arms to Syrian rebels was a similar partial surrender to political reality; but I expect it was. It’s just too easy granted the quantity of lubricant the pundits spread on the road to the bad destination. If Obama succumbs to political gravity and ends up putting substantial numbers of American soldiers on the ground against Isis, i.e., doing exactly what Isis wants us to do, he will have made a mistake that won't be the end of it but the first of many.   

Monday, December 07, 2015

Description of the World - Part 21

Ferdinand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, 2 volumes (I knew a grad student back in the 60s who began her dissertation with the declaration “I love Lake Erie,” an allusion to the celebrated first line of Braudel’s book—it’s actually in the Preface to the First Edition—“I have loved the Mediterranean with passion…” What impressed me about this work from the beginning wasn’t its passion, which is evident enough, but the author’s ability to write an enthralling a book when so much of the content is about quotidian affairs. Writing about what an era was like, how people made a living, what was happening with nothing decisive was happening is vastly more difficult than telling a tale of princes and battles. My sister used to bitterly complain about how dull her history courses were at Pomona College, especially one in particular whose textbooks were by the Medievalist Coulton and featured hundreds of pages on the organization of the feudal manor. The prof in the course, whose name I think I will conveniently forget, though I knew him myself—was one of the world’s leading experts on Justices-of-the-Peace in 14th Century and, in person, was everything you’d expect from somebody obsessed with a topic like that. Braudel, however, isn’t boring. Years ago Val asked me why I was reading the Mediterranean book—she’d never heard of it. I opened it at random and read out loud a couple of paragraph on merchants in Spain or some other equally unpromising topic. We were both surprised how entertaining it somehow was, but she especially. I expect a great many people would actually enjoy the book if they ever read it. When it was first published in English, some editor at Harper & Row vastly overestimated the potential market and ordered a huge printing. Which is why the title turned up on remainder tables for years afterwards. It is really, really hard to persuade educated Americans to buy grown up books and even harder to get ‘em to read them.)

The Oxford Book of Oxford, ed. Jan Morris (Speaking about books bought, but not read. By the looks of it, a candidate for the world’s classiest bathroom book. I think I will relocate it to the loo for that purpose.)

Paul Veyne, Writing History (Writes Veyne: “…Nothing is more disappointing than to read historians, especially the greatest—they have no ideas.” That’s probably a young man’s conclusion; Veyne was only forty or so when he wrote it. Anybody who cares about history should be challenged by Veyne’s perspective on history, however. I certainly include myself in that number since I give history more credit than Veyne does—he denies what I assert, the essentially rhetorical character of history. It’s not that I disagree with the way he proposes to practice history and in fact has practiced history, which I think of as essentially philological. I’m also very much in favor of expanding the reach of the subject into any sort of investigation of what happened—for him, for example, historical sociology is just history, though it hardly matters what we call it. Thing is, it strikes me that opting to care about the interstitial and left behind—the vast bulk of what people have done over the centuries—is just as much a choice as the traditional focus on big events and political leaders. In any case, practicing historians would be well advised to read this book if only in order to apply a sort of spiritual mustard plaster to their complacencies. You could teach an entire seminar around one of Veyne’s many provocative statements such as ‘the deep-rooted causes determine what happens, if it happens; and the superficial causes determine whether it will happen.” Discuss.

E.R. Chamberlin, The Sack of Rome (I suppose the Gothic sack of Rome in 410 is better known—Niall Ferguson made a fool of himself (again) the other day, likening the shootings in Paris to that event. The sack of Rome in 1527 by the forces of the putatively Catholic Charles V was certainly a big deal at the time and an ironic one, to boot, since many of the German soldiers that plundered the city were actually Lutherans who probably took a lot of pleasure in bottling Pope Clement VII up in the Castello Sain’ Angelo and occupying the capital city of the Great Whore for ten months. It was only ten years since Luther nailed the Theses up on the door of the cathedral of Wittenburg so it is a little anachronistic to talk about the struggle of the Protestants and Catholics. The sides hadn’t sorted themselves as clearly as they would later. On the other hand, even after the terms of controversy became starker, it was never a simple case of Catholics + Pope vs Protestants. Cardinal Richelieu famously sided with the Protestants during the Thirty Years War; and when James II was deposed in the Glorious Revolution 1688, many English Catholics actually supported William and Mary because the ultra-montane version of Catholicism promoted by James didn’t suit them. In fact, it wasn’t even popular with the Pope, who had to deal with the same variety of Catholicism in the France of Louis XIV. There’s always more than one struggle in progress. Rome got sacked as part of the match between Habsburgs and Valois—it took place not long after the Battle of Pavia, where King Francois was taken prisoner—“all is lost save honor,” etc. There’s nothing special about Chamberlin’s account of all these events, but the book at least serves to illustrate the home truth that princes (or presidents) never get to deal with one thing at a time.)

Horst de la Croix, Military Considerations in City Planning: Fortifications (I’m not quite as bad as Tristram Shandy’s uncle Toby, but I used to like to look at the plans of fortifications. Maybe my interest reflected a life-long quest for solitude. One more demilune or ravelin and you can keep the rabble out, an obsession which would make more sense if there were any evidence the rabble wanted in.)

Ferdinand Braudel, Capitalism and Material Life 1400-1800 (Seems like an abridged version of Civilization and Capitalism. At least, it covers much of the same ground.)

Anne Denieul-Cormier, Wise and Foolish Kings: The First House of Valois 1328-1498. (Right down to Napoleon the Third, the French couldn’t resist intervening in Italy. Truth told, the temptation predated the invasion by Charles VII; but that unnecessary adventure really was the beginning of an epoch—a catastrophe that little profited the French and marked the end of the political independence of the Italians who would become thereafter a political football kicked around by the great territorial powers of Europe. Obviously the Valois kings accomplished a great deal before Charles VII. They were the monarchs that finally won the Hundred Years War, for example. Nevertheless, what I remember from this and other books about this stretch of time is the stupidity of the invasion and the aptness of Charles’ demise: “…on April 8, 1498, at Ambois, on his way with the Queen to a tennis game, he banged his head violently against the lintel of a door and died on the spot.”
Giovanni Levi, Inheriting Power: the Story of an Exorcist (I don’t remember much about this book which explains the trouble a 17th Century priest got into conducting exorcisms over and beyond having read it. I think I’ll leave it at that.)

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Description of the World - Part 20

John Lothrop Motley, The Rise of the Dutch Republic: A History (This saga of thirty plus years of the Dutch revolt against Philip II apparently has a bad reputation among professional historians for various scholarly failures but especially for its bias against the Catholics and Spaniards. I don’t know if the modern Spaniards pay it much mind, but it certainly exemplifies what they denounce as the Black Legend (Le Leyenda Negra), the centuries-long defamation campaign against all things Hispanic. The thing about the Black Legend, however, is that it is not obvious if we should regard it as Protestant propaganda or as a more-or-less accurate reflection of the historical record or perhaps both. Especially in the New World but also in its attempts to subjugate the Low Countries, the Spanish were extraordinarily barbarous. My question is whether the Italians, French, English, Dutch, Germans, Aztecs, and Incas of the 16th Century were a great deal better. Motley is not as uniformly hostile to Philip. Philip’s many written reflections on his own actions survive, and its difficult to have a one-dimensional view of a person you get to know so well, though Motley surely wasn’t fond of the “prudent prince.” I suspect that the reason nobody much reads the Rise of the Dutch Republic anymore is because people regard history as they regard science, a cumulative and self-correcting enterprise whose progress makes old books obsolete. I disagree, even though it is indisputable that a hundred and fifty years of research has uncovered many new facts and refuted many old interpretations. Our prejudices are not necessarily more distorting than Motley’s. Meanwhile, the literary quality of his book remains.)

R.J.W. Evans, The Making of the Habsburg Monarchy (Back in 1515, Charles the Fifth’s hapless grandfather Maximillian I hired Albrecht Dürer to create an enormous woodcut of a triumphant arch. Dover printed a version of it as a book that you could disassemble and put up on a wall, which is how it happened that I spent three years in a railroad apartment in Hartford, Connecticut looking at this amazing piece of imperial propaganda. The thing was nearly twelve feet tall and viewed in moonlight from my bedroom, made it look as if there was a portal to another world across the way, an impression that could set off some memorable fantasies with the help of a funny cigarette or two. Dürer had trouble getting paid for the work—Habsburg emperors were almost as good at dodging creditors as marrying well—and Maximilian was better at what has been called “paper grandeur” than the genuine article. The Dürer piece symbolized the Habsburgs for me ever since, but Evans book makes the case that if the dynasty often went in for ornate display and ingrown eccentricity, its apparent futility was extraordinarily successful for a very long time against Turks, Protestants Hungarians, the Valois, the Dutch, the English, and the Bourbons. Evans begins his history by pointing out that in the early years of the 16th Century, Austrian lands were apparently lost to the Lutherans, Italy was in an uproar, the Pope was conniving with the French, and the Turks had recently overrun Hungary; yet the family would prevail, albeit while wearing out several of the emperors and kings of the dynasty who didn’t simply go mad.)

Victor-Lucien Tapié, The Rise and Fall of the Habsburg Monarchy (I apparently swiped this book from the Washington, Pennsylvania public library. Evans’ book covers not quite two centuries of the dynasty’s story. Tapié takes the history of the family right down to the end of the empire. I have considerable sympathy for the Austrian empire, at least in its later phases. It retained to the end something of the spirit of the old Holy Roman Empire. Its leaders weren’t tyrants or monsters and actually tried to accommodate the interests and rights of the many nations in its sphere—if World War I hadn’t intervened, the Dual Monarchy might have become a Triune Monarchy with equal legal standing for the Slavs. Even early, the emperors demonstrated a certain degree of idealism. Joseph II, the ridiculous emperor played by Jeffrey Jones in Amadeus, was a major reformer in his time who tried to end serfdom in all his domains and curb the arbitrary power of local oligarchs. There was once something called Josephism, in fact.)

Fifth Shelf

Edward Lytton Bulwer, English & the English (I forgot that I bought this book and certainly never read it. I probably acquired it as part of an intermittent attempt to right an old prejudice about things English, not an uncommon attitude in the Francophile 60s. I gather that nobody considers Bulwer’s work first rate—at least this one doesn’t begin “it was a dark and stormy night—but there’s a case to be made for reading solidly second rate books if you want to understand what was really going on in a period. Last year’s best sellers are on today’s remainder table, but they were what people were reading and taking seriously. Wait a minute. The underlings show I actually did read at least part of this book; the corner of page 55 is folded over. That I didn’t get further isn’t too surprising. Sez Bulwer of his tribe “It is reserved for us to counteract the gloomiest climate by the dullest customs!” Not very encouraging to the reader.)

Carolly Erickson, The First Elizabeth (I may have got my sad image of the dying queen from this biography. “It was a long, slow, wearying death, without drama or color—a death out of keeping with Elizabeth’s flamboyant life. Glassy-eyed and emaciated, she lingered on admit her cushions, her body malodorous from disease, her fingers in her mouth like an idiot or a dazed child….” Hard to type these words two years after my sister’s death, which was not dissimilar to the queen’s and also marked the ending of a vibrant life. A remarkable collection of great actresses have portrayed Elizabeth, which makes it difficult to form an impression of her that doesn’t have the face of Betty Davis or Cate Blanchett; but you can get to know her from her voice in the same way you can get to know her great enemy. She was a highly educated woman and could write with great eloquence. We sometimes forget that the Elizabeth and Philip knew each other personally. They were family. When Bloody Mary died there was briefly talk of a marriage between her widower and Elizabeth—I wonder how many people even know that Philip had been the prince consort of England at the same time he was King of Spain and lord of the Indies.)

A.T.Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (Supposedly this book inspired the Kaiser to get into an arms race with the British before World War I. Actually, reading the book should have convinced him of the unwisdom of challenging the British. I read it simply to understand what naval war was like up to the Napoleonic period. There is a fascinating chapter about Suffren’s campaign in Indian waters during the American Revolution. The Frenchman commanded a small squadron of indifferent quality and had to contend with mutinous and incompetent subordinates, but nevertheless managed to outfight a superior force in a series of engagements. Most famous military and naval leaders had the benefit of superior armies and fleets. There are plenty of examples of advantage squandered, but few of succeeding with mediocre means. Well, brilliance is overrated. Suffren’s determination and skill accomplished nothing. Meanwhile, the Battle of the Capes, the engagement that sealed the fate of Cornwallis’ army at Yorktown, was a dull business conducted by mediocrities—no daring maneuvers, no prodigies of valor, no crossing of the T, just a couple of fleets pounding away at each other for a couple of hours and then disengaging. It mattered.)

The Capitalist World-Economy: Essays by Immanuel Wallerstein (At the end of one of these essays, I scribbled “a sermon.”  I’m not sure if my bitch was that Wallerstein is preaching or that I belong to a slightly different denomination. In another place, I wrote “that capitalism will go down the tubes is very likely; it’s the millennial nature of its replacement that is doubtful.” Wallerstein deserves some credit, though, because he realized back in the 70s that “slavery and so-called ‘second serfdom’ are not to be regarded as anomalies in a capitalist system.” I tend to think that Wallerstein’s coworker and successor, Giovanni Arrighi, greatly improved the world-system perspective on history. I never found W as convincing.)

Ferdinand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life: Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century, Volume I (It wasn’t so long ago that half the intellectuals of France called themselves Marxists, even people like Levi-Strauss who is nobody’s idea of a revolutionary. Braudel did too, even though his view of capitalism is strikingly different than Marx’s. For Braudel, capitalism isn’t a phase that arrived with the industrial revolution, though it became dominant in the modern world system. It isn’t about manufacturing, production, or even exchange, though it affects everything. It’s a way of using information and other forms of leverage to extract advantage. It isn’t something that arrived recently, but a layer that has been superimposed upon other material human activities for a very long time: merchants were capitalists long before manufacturing became central to the economy. Civilization and Capitalism is not as impressive a book as the Mediterranean in the Age of Philip II, Braudel’s great work; and it struck me as the world’s most intelligent coffee table book when I first acquired it—it’s extraordinarily well illustrated. Still, looking through it this afternoon made me wish I had a much larger mind that could contain so many fascinating particulars—that would be a sufficient apotheosis for me, to be, in the terminology of Bill’s Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, a god, not the god.)

Ferdinand Braudel, The Wheels of Commerce: Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century, Volume 2 (I’ve always liked the old bit about the guy who insists he’s not afraid of hard work. “I can watch people work for hours. Doesn’t bother me a bit.” These volumes, which come across as Richard Scary books for adults, are crammed with sheer activity, some of which is so arduous that it can weary even a voyeur of other people’s efforts like me—I’d marked the place where Braudel notes that it took lead miners in Upper Silesia eight hours to advance five centimeters. “incredibly demoralizing.” A quote from the end of the book that seems apropos: “As far as European capitalism is concerned, the social order based on economic power no doubt benefited from lying in second place; by contrast with the social order based merely on privileged birth, it was able to gain acceptance as standing for moderation, prudence, hard work, and a degree of justification. The politically dominant class attracted hostile attention just as church steeples attract lightning. And in this way the privilege of the seigneur once more made people forget about the privilege of the merchant.” Maybe the Koch brothers should keep their heads down.)

Ferdinand Braudel, The Perspective of the World: Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century, Volume 3 (Braudel is famous for his focus on the longue durée, but this book is about change, which, I note parenthetically, didn’t start to accelerate just yesterday. The book opened to a pair of maps depicting how long it took to travel from Paris to the rest of France in 1765 and then fifteen years later. Without the introduction of railroads or steam engines, the times to many destinations roughly halved) over this period.)