Saturday, December 19, 2015

Description of the World – Part 29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Description of the World – Part 28

Nancy Olmsted, To Walk with a Quiet Mind: Hikes in the Woodlands, Parks and Beaches of the San Francisco Bay Area (I got this little book when I first moved to the Bay area some thirty-five years ago. In the first few years here I walked most of the trails it describes. It saddens me to think how long it’s been since I was an active hiker.)

Joseph W. Moser, 2,001 Most Useful German Words (I suppose Internet apps are making little books like this obsolete.)

Baroque Personae, ed. Rosario Villari (Essays by very good historians on key social roles: statesman, soldier, financier, etc. I’ve been stealing from Daniel Dessert’s piece on financial experts for decades. In his essay on the Baroque secretary, Salvatore Nigro’s quotes one Michele Benvenge’s 1689 book Proteo segretatio describing the job of the ghost writer as he assumes the interests of his patron: “With his varying perspectives he flatters resemblances and puts spine back into the spineless. With his fecundity, he holds the negotiations to one consonant voice, and inflating it without adding to it quantitatively, he makes of it a miracle without a miracle.” Sound familiar to me, though I’ve mostly had to trick out the discourse of Taiwanese statisticians rather than Italian Dukes. Same challenge, but the money isn’t as good.)

Jon R. Stone, Latin for the Illiterati (Despite the cute title, this is a very useful little reference book. It translates the words and brief phrases that show up in older books or serve as mottos of schools and businesses. Latin, presumably, is classier than English. I once tried to sell the publishing company I worked for on replacing its boring motto Education for Truth (or some such) with ex pedantibus pecunia, an apt mission statement for a textbook outfit. Glancing through this book I came upon a sentence that exemplifies the creativity of the theological imagination: videt et erubit lympha pudica Deum—the modest water saw God and blushed. The text explains that the line refers to Christ turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. The notion that water is bashful shows up elsewhere. Sir Thomas Browne wrote about the old idea that female corpses floated face down because the water wants to preserve their modesty. Presumably men float face up, which doesn’t seem particularly decorous, especially if rigor mortis provides the cadaver with a mast.)

Merritt Ruhlen, The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue (The great discovery of historical linguistics was the discovery of the kinship of the various Indo-European languages; but once you define Proto-Indo-European [PIE], the next obvious question is how PIE relates to Proto-Semitic or Proto-Uralic and all the rest. Which eventually raises a methodological question. Almost everybody thinks that the existing human languages are related, but how far back can you reasonably trace them? Ruhlen and his associate Joseph Greenberg think you can very far back indeed on the basis of similarities between basic vocabulary words, a technique that almost guarantees hallucination will set in because of the human propensity to find analogies when you go looking for ‘em. Of course there are other possible lines of evidence—archaeology, genetic affinities, etc.—but things quickly get dicey as you go back in time. What interests me more than the meta question of methodology is the meta, meta question of why the tracing of genealogies is so fascinating. It’s not as if proto-World was the language of the angels. Almost everything changes in known sequences of languages; and, so far as I know, universal trends are few and far between. Languages don’t keep getting simpler in point of syntax or phonology, for example. Greek has more complicated conjugations than Vedic Sanskrit. Fashions in linguistics also change. Tracing affinities was an obsession of the 19th Century while the structural linguistics of the 20th Century, which focuses on how languages work in the here and now, has (or had) more prestige afterwards. Even the historical linguists became more interested in how languages change than in how they have changed. More recently, the phylogeny of language has seemingly made a comeback. Something similar seems to have occurred in anthropology. Circa 1960, I was taught to think that concern about how customs and inventions diffused was rather old fashioned because knowing the origin of something—a myth, a style, a technique of basket weaving—doesn’t really tell you all that much and, in any case, parallel invention is commonplace. Old ethnography joke: an extreme diffusionist is somebody who believes that self abuse was only invented once. In lieu of looking for culture heroes, one was advised to find commonalities that defined human nature—structures, not origins. Yet everything has a history whether or not we know it.)

Ross E. Dunn, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century (There are many Muslim narratives of pilgrimages to Mecca. Ibn Battuta travelled a great deal farther than that, although Dunn is skeptical about his purported visit to China. This book isn’t a translation, but it quotes ibn Battuta at length. Travel writers don’t change all that much. Ibn Battuta was a legal scholar and thought of himself as something of an intellectual, but he comes across as a shallow but agreeable man. He would have made an excellent textbook salesman. What you look for when you hire for that position are people of unquenchable curiosity who never actually learn anything—if they start to actually know what they’re talking about, it will irritate the customers.)

Barbara W. Tuchman, The Proud Tower (With the exception of a Distant Mirror, Tuchman’s books have never made a lasting impression on me. Of course there are an enormous number of books about the run up to World War I, not to mention the BBC serials that always seem to start a few years before the war and involve family members lost on the Titanic. That makes it very hard to remember where you read what. Reading about familiar events is not useless, however, since you have to keep relearning if you want to keep knowing. It’s like plate spinning at the circus where the clowns run ragged trying to keep the plates from falling off the poles.)

S.N. Agnihotri, PhD., Sanskrit without Tears (You have to have a sense of humor to name a book Sanskrit without Tears, especially if you expect anybody to believe they’ll learn Sanskrit from a 76-page spiral bound booklet. I picked this item up because it does provide a reasonable introduction to the Devanagari writing system. Speaking of plates on poles: that plate hit the ground a while ago.)

Francois Ponge, The Nature of Things, translation by Lee Fahnestock (This little collection of poems was called Le parti pris de choses in French. The title has been translated elsewhere as Taking the Side of Things, which seems closer to the intent of the original since Ponge is partial to things, i.e., exhibits partiality on their behalf. Like Gaston Bachelard, whose philosophical books are poetic and gratifying in a similar way, Ponge lovingly contemplates material objects and substances and often achieves an effect by simple description. Of course the literal is more poetic than the figurative—not that Ponge doesn’t cheat like everybody else. A random sample that accidentally continues an earlier idea referenced in these pages:

“Water is colorless and glistening, formless and cool, passive and determined in its single vice: gravity. With exceptional means at its disposal to gratify the vice: circumvention, perforation, infiltration, erosion. The vice plays an inner role as well: water endlessly ravels in upon itself, constantly refuses to assume any form, tends only to self-humiliation, prostrating itself, all but a corpse, like the monks of some orders. Forever lower: that seems to be its motto‚ the very opposite of reaching for the heavens.”)

Theodore C. Burgess and Robert J. Bonner, Elementary Greek (My sister gave me this book as a birthday present. It’s inscribed, “To Jimmy—it’s all Greek to me!” I think I must have been 13 or 14. I wish I could say that I mastered this little text like a less precocious version of John Stuart Mill. In fact I only learned the alphabet and few other things that came in handy when I got to college: the five pages taken up by the paradigm of the regular verb luo (I loosen) were probably enough to discourage me, especially when I realized that luo is just about the only regular verb in the ancient language. All of the rest of ‘em are irregular in some way. Greek has a pataphysical grammar almost entirely made up of exceptions.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Description of the World - Part 27

Robert and Mary Collison, Dictionary of Foreign Quotations (I’ve been addicted to one-liners all my life. Reading them in their original languages makes ‘em more attractive to me. Most of these quotations are so short; they are more like idioms than quotations.)

Marcella Ottolenghi Buxhaum, 1001 Most Useful French Words (I’ve never taken a French course, but I managed to pass a French exam for my Masters by dint of memorizing one of those plastic cheat sheets that summarizes French grammar and leveraging my knowledge of Latin. This little item was a further help in learning some French without really trying. Of course actual French people suffer profoundly when I attempt to speak their language; and the verb tenses utterly flummox me, which isn’t much of a problem when you’re decoding technical stuff but rules out the enjoyment of fiction and poetry.)
Florian Coulmas, The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems (Like many reference books, this encyclopedia is pleasurable to read. It’s like looking out the window at the scenery on a long train trip. I marvel that anybody could manage to decipher the Mongolian script. There are some absolutely fundamental facts about writing explained here along with the descriptive material. “Duality of Patterning: A universal structural characteristic which distinguishes human languages from less complex sign systems. Also known as ‘double articulation,’ it means that language is structured on two different levels: the units of the ‘lower’ level of phonology are arranged to form units of the ‘higher’ level of grammar.” Pretty simple, but it’s the gimmick that makes writing systems work, even the non-alphabetic ones. It was ignoring double articulation that confused people about Egyptian hieroglyphics for hundreds of years. There was a stubborn belief that hieroglyphics stand for ideas when the actually stand for words. Hieroglyphics are a way of writing Egyptian, not a transcription of thoughts. Same error delayed figuring out how to read Mayan.)

Eugene Ehrlich, Ammo, Amas, Amat and More (William Buckley, Jr. wrote a very brief preface for this little book. He’s the right guy to pick to explain the advantages of knowing a few Latin phrases for he was a master at appearing more erudite than he actually was. I understand his approach. As I’ve often said (probably too often), I feel a kinship with Buckley since we both use a lot of big words and know the meaning of some of them. The phrases in this book are short and the explanations perfunctory. The great, supremely witty phrasebook was the Adages, written long ago by Erasmus.)

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, The Territory of the Historian (French intellectuals certainly aren’t all maniacs for theory. They aren’t all latter day Descartes, who expect to figure it all out by pure thought provided they’re allowed to sleep in. In fact, at least in history, but also in other subjects, quite a few of the big names have a decidedly quantitative orientation. That’s certainly true of Braudel, but also of Le Roy Ladurie, whose interest in the effects of climate on history required him to resort to a large-scale program of data gathering. Emmanuel Todd, who famously predicted the fall of the Soviet Union back in 1976 on the basis of demographic trends, is another example of hard-boiled Frenchman. Le Roy Ladurie encouraged him to become a historian.)

Baron de Jomini, The Art of War (Jomini’s name is commonly brought up in connection with his more famous contemporary Clausewitz. I kept hearing about him so I rather pedantically found a copy of his book, which I found rather pedantic. Though he served in both the French and then the Russian armies during the Napoleonic wars, his system has an 18th Century flavor with all the talk of lines of advance and strategic points. I think he was somewhat nostalgic for the cabinet wars of Frederic the Great’s time. “National wars are the most formidable of all” he writes. The nation in arms frightened him.)

Christopher Kendris, French the Easy Way (I call foul on the title of this book. There may be a royal road to geometry, but there is no royal road to languages, unless all you have to do is pass an SAT exam. Some of us are better at guessing than others, but I have it on good advice that le pamplemousse isn’t actually Mickey’s first cousin.)

Howard Rheingold, They Have a Word for It (At least two words entered into my active vocabulary from reading this book: Korinthenkacker and biritilulo. The former is a German term for somebody so obsessed with minutia, he shits raisins. The latter is a New Guinea word that refers to settling disputes by comparing yams in lieu of a duel—more sanitary than a pissing contest.)

Norman Davies, Europe, a History (Reading an immense work like this one gives an intellectual tourist like me the occasional moment of pedantic triumph as I catch the author in an error. (The three Sophocles plays about Thebes aren’t a trilogy crows the Korinthenkacker.) Well, you’re entitled to a few lapses in 1250 pages. Davies is especially good at finding room for significant events, people, and ideas that are usually left out—he wrote a whole book, Vanished Kingdoms, that centers on the marginal places that weren’t marginal in their day. The evenness of tone of this effort is impressive, though I finally detected a joke on page 944: “The Vatican State, which was almost as papist as Eire, was created in 1929…” I find myself consulting the book’s appendix quite often for its tables, maps, and lists.)

Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson, A Guide to Old English, 7th edition (This was a gift. Somebody thought I’d appreciate a grammar + anthology of Anglo-Saxon, though they were unrealistic if they thought a 62-year old was going to learn how to read the Battle of Malden. I have read at this book, though, in part because it simply looks inviting. It’s a pleasure to let yourself imagine you’ve got mind enough to learn another language.)
G.G. Coulton, Medieval Faith and Symbolism, Part I of Art and the Reformation (I may have inherited or swiped this book from my sister. It may have been a text for the medieval history course at Pomona that bored her so thoroughly you’d have to say it was memorable. The book appears to be a bit specialized for an undergraduate course. Its subject matter is narrower than the title suggests, the art and architecture of late Medieval England. I probably looked at the pictures at some point. If this tome is one of the reasons my sister disliked the course, you can understand why.)

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Description of the World - Part 26

On top of second book case

Inside Mad, introduction by John Apatow  (I bought this out of loyalty, much as you watch a Simpson’s episode now and again even though you know it will disappoint you. Even the 80s, the venerable mag had lost its charm. In the 60s, my father used to read my copies of MAD and laugh out loud. He looked through an issue the year before he died at 91 and wondered out loud, “Didn’t these use to be funny?”)

Thorkild Jacobson, The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (Jacobson understands that three thousand years of thought and aspiration can’t be boiled down to a simple formula even if you’re looking at things through the wrong end of the telescope. It’s easy to read Gilgamesh and a few other pieces and summarize what you see in the words the slave of Dionysus uses to describe Hades in the Frogs of Aristophanes. “What do you see?” the God asks. “Darkness and mud.” I made my own minor contribution to this impression long ago by writing a one-act play about Gilgamesh that was performed by a little theater company. The little in little theater was well deserved. There were so few of us that I ended up having to take a bit part my own play. I had to bite my lip on stage to stay in character as the guy who played Gilgamesh shamelessly chewed the scenery.)

Frederick M. Wheelock, Latin: An Introductory Course based on Ancient Authors, 3rd edition (This was the standard textbook in Latin when I was a kid, in fact it was so familiar it was sometimes just called Wheelock. You could almost believe the marble bust on the cover depicted Wheelock instead of some Roman worthy. Because I learned from this book most of the little Latin I know, Wheelock’s version of Latin is what I thought Latin was, which is why, for example, I never realized that the other word for all was cuncta until I read the Vulgate a few years ago,)

Jacques Ferrand, A Treatise on Lovesickness (A Frenchman wrote this book about the same time Robert Burton was beginning the Anatomy of Melancholy, which contains a long section on love melancholy that Burton treats in parallel with religious madness. Ferrand is less methodical than Burton, whose work follows the strict outline method of Peter Ramus—that’s what an anatomy is—but they are similar in many ways. For example, both of ‘em spend many pages on the prevention and cure of love melancholy before concluding, as Burton put it, “Let them have their love.”—Ferrand quotes an anecdote about Diogenes, who got the same advice from Apollo when he consulted the oracle at Delphi about what do about his son’s erotic frenzy. Burton is altogether more entertaining, though. While both of ‘em treat love as the Romans did, i.e., as an evil, albeit a glamorous evil, Burton really puts his heart into explaining why women aren’t worth obsessing over, how they are actually rather disgusting, dangerous, and distracting, before switching over to the “Let them have their love” solution to the problem they pose.)

Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore (Hughes died this summer. I think of him as a historian of the settlement of Australia than as an art critic, though he spent a great deal more time as a critic than a historian. I’ve heard him described as a cultural conservative, but I expect his “conservatism” was more a matter of tone than ideology, a personality trait. If you get impatient with nuances and tend to Sam Johnson-style podium kicking, you sound like a Tory, whatever your politics. Speaking of conservatism. Australia got peopled in the first place largely because of the triumph of conservatism in Great Britain. 18th Century English justice tightened the screws so much that the prisons filled up with reprobates the law condemned but juries couldn’t bring themselves to hang. That’s how we got Aussies. Unfortunately, there’s no obvious Australia to solve the human problem that the triumph of conservatism in America has produced. I don’t think that global warming is up to the task of making the People’s Republic of Antarctica a realistic option.)

Emmanuel Le Roy Laudrie, Times of Feast, Times of Famine: A History of Climate since the Year 1000 (Le Roy Laudrie is probably best known in these parts for his Montaillou, Promised Land of Error, which you can read as a soap-box opera about a priapic priest in a Medieval village or an example of Annales school ethnographic history or as a pure instance of Paul Veyne’s idea of a significant work of history as a true novel based on a discovery in the archives. The Climate book has a rather different character since it is an attempt to relate a natural process and human history. That’s hard to do granted the rhetorical traditions of history and the fact that the science is perpetually tentative. The Climate book was published in ’67 and contains two brief references to the prospect that the climate will warm because of greenhouse gases: the cloud no bigger than a man’s hand.)

Dilip Hiro, Holy Wars: the Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism (This book, which was written by a journalist rather than a historian or sociologist of religion, is a sensible and well-balanced account of the situation as of 1989. The author foresaw very little of what followed. For him, Islamic fundamentalism is an eternal tendency that “derives from the conflict that exists between the egalitarian message of the Quran and the exploitation and iniquity of the real world…”  He certainly doesn’t expect apocalyptic manifestations and global terror, and the most alarming prospect he considers is that Egypt might become a fundamentalist or quasi-fundamentalist state.)

Ernst Breisach, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, & Modern (This book, which is a serviceable narrative account of how people have written and thought about history in Europe from the beginning to the present. was written a bit too soon (1983). The obvious problem at the end of the story is the embarrassment of the historians at their parochialism. The failure of European imperialism meant that armies and fleets wouldn’t solve the problem by making African, Asian, American history a continuation of European history by right of conquest, but the spade work hadn’t been done or even fairly begun that would make it possible to write genuinely planetary history, the general history that Foucault called for the Order of Things. Looking back, but not very far back, I think the bankruptcy of grand narratives that Lyotard proclaimed in the Postmodern Condition (1979 in French, 1984 in English) was, to quote something I wrote in the margin of Breisach’s book, “an exasperated alternative to the exhausted dialectic” rather than a definitive refutation of the project of trying to figure things out on a big scale. You can’t help trying to do that. What you don’t get is a neat little story. The resulting portrait is made out of an assemblage of fruits and vegetables, Vitruvian man replaced by Vertumnus.)