Saturday, December 26, 2015

Description of the World – Part 32

The Nature of Fascism, ed. S.J.Woolf (Back in the 70s I read so much about fascism that it was hard to keep all the books and articles straight, and I don’t think I came to any conclusion about the phenomenon. The confusion wasn’t mine alone. In those days, even leftist historians were recognizing the limitations of the orthodox Marxist interpretation; and the Hannah Arendt subsumption of the Nazis and the Stalinists under the rubric of totalitarianism was also getting a little long in the tooth, more a club swung by the anti-communists than a serious theory about fascism itself. Personally, I blame the Nazis. As my Dad used to joke, Nazism was so bad it gave fascism a bad name. In its original Italian version and many other variants, fascism simply wasn’t that unprecedented or inexplicable. Ordinary historical sociology is perfectly capable of defining and explaining it, and there’s no reason to be surprised when analogous movements appear and win the support of large parts of the electorate in Europe and America.)

Carl Von Clausewitz, On War (I’ve never read an unabridged version of Vom Kriege. It usually makes me uncomfortable to leave my understanding of an important book at the mercy of the editor; but as perspicacious as Clausewitz sometimes is, I have no desire to put up with any longer sample of his attempt to be the Immanuel Kant of the organized violence. It’s possible to be clever about a stupid subject, but the intellectual effort is like spraying air freshener over a corpse. At least Clausewitz, who was no stranger to actual battlefields, doesn’t mistake the object of war. He isn’t like so many politicians and at least some of the so-called military intellectuals, those overgrown children who talk about war as if it were a board game. He knows that the goal of strategy is the welfare of the state, not the winning of battles.)

Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: the Origins of the Avant-Garde in France 1885 to World War I (I’m not sure if I became a fan of Erik Satie before or after I read this book; but his piano pieces invariably summon up Shattuck’s word picture of the composer. I’m fond of the other heroes of this book, but since it’s Satie’s music that plays in my head, he’s the one the book reminds me of and that’s true even though you’d think that somebody shaped like Ubu Roi would have more of affinity with Alfred Jarry. I once persuaded a young woman of my acquaintance to play Satie for her audition at Julliard—she got in—so maybe I think of Satie as good luck.)

Edward Beach, The United States Navy: a 200-Year History (Apparently a rather celebratory history of the navy. The book made no impression on me at all.)

James MacGregor Burns, Roosevelt: the Soldier of Freedom 1940-1945 (This book was published 25 years after the end of the war, perhaps the last time that such a book could be addressed to readers for whom the events of the early 40s were lived experience and not manufactured nostalgia. I suppose the post post war period actually began when Kennedy was assassinated—the ten years after Dallas were like watching in slow motion as a giant stumbled and fell to the ground—but I personally perceived the early 70s as the end of an era. For me, the precise inflection point occurred when Nixon abolished the draft “Now we put away the toys,” I told my friends. It was incredibly depressing to realize that’s all it took to end political idealism in the United States not only for other people but for us as well. But about the book: the take home for me was how Roosevelt had to play the generals, politicians, and bureaucrats off against each other in order to keep some control over the war effort. As Mohammad (or the Angel Gabriel) said of Allah, there are many connivers, who think to work their will, but he was the greatest conniver of them all.)

Friday, December 25, 2015

Description of the World – Part 31

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Description of the World - Part 30

First Shelf

Mort Rosenblum, Mission to Civilize: the French Way (As he himself insists, Rosenblum is not a historian but a journalist. Even so, historians take his book seriously. I met a grad student writing his dissertation on the cultural pretensions of French imperialism. He was surprised I was familiar with Rosenblum, who, or so I gathered from our conversation, was the center of academic debate on what to make of the peculiar French mixture of particularism and universality. Well, it is funny that West African school kids with shiny black faces used to begin their educations by reading how “our ancestors the Gauls were big and strong,” but it’s no more peculiar than an immigrant from a dying planet pledging himself to truth, justice, and the American way. Even in an era when English is the nearest thing to a world language, the French continue to punch far above their weight in cultural matters. They get laughed at for the pretensions, but the same Conservative intellectuals that publicly despise them retire to the South of France if they can manage it because, after all, those people do know something about how to live.)

Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: a Biography (I acquired a copy of the Confessions when I was a kid—the Harvard Classics edition cost me a quarter.  I’ve been reading the Saint’s works for a very long time—one of the essay questions on my Master’s exam was about his theory of the soul and I certainly chewed over this ideas in a more personal way when I went through my phase of reading Calvin and Luther. I read the Brown biography only a couple of years ago. By then I was less interested in sin and grace and focused on a couple of other things.

Reading about how Augustine’s monastic community in Hippo grew out of his earlier circle of friends, underscored that there was more to monasticism than asceticism and gloom, that it had roots in classical ideas of fellowship and the dream of a realm—bubble?—of freedom and peace. The Abbey of Thélème, which, according to Rabelais, the Giant Gargantua built for Friar John of the Funnels, is often described as an anti-monastery because its only rule is “Do what you will,” but it was actually an Augustinian foundation since “Do what you will” is just the last half of Augustine’s injunction “Love well and do what you will”—I don’t know if that makes Aleister Crowley an Augustinian, too, since he actually built an Abbey of Thélème or Thelema, as he spelled it, in Sicily.

What  “Love well” means depends on the context. So does sweet reason. Augustine had a redoubtable mind, whatever you think of his premises; and you assume he must have been exceedingly persuasive in person. Certainly his writings against the Donatist schismatics of North Africa are formidable pieces of polemic. When it came down to it, however, the Bishop called in the Roman civil authorities to squelch them. Force isn’t just the ultima ratio for kings.)  

R.R. Palmer, The Age of Democratic Revolutions, Volume 1 the Challenge (R.R.Palmer was the author of a History of the Modern World, which was the standard textbook for decades. I kept a dog-eared copy around for reference until last year when I gave it to a friend of mine who loved to read pop histories but had no sense of where the various Henrys, Elizabeths, Fredericks, and Catherines fit in the longer story. I only got around to reading the Age of Democratic Revolutions this Spring because I found a copy for $10 a volume and I have finished the second volume yet, though I will. I expected that plowing through these tomes would be a duty read, but Palmer writes very well indeed and the subject matter is highly relevant. Palmer famously pursued the project of writing an Atlantic history that isn’t about Britain or France or the Colonies but, in his words, “put all these national histories together.” He was writing in particular about the era between the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, but important historical events are seldom local and the other great passages of history were also global or as nearly global as the times allowed. Politics never stops at the water’s edge, and revolutions are contagious—’89, ’48, ’68, the Arab Spring.)

Paul Plass, Wit and the Writing of History: The Rhetoric of Historiography in Imperial Rome (The most interesting action in certain chess games takes place in the variations that both sides are aware of and just for that reason don’t actually end up playing. This little book appears to be a scholarly exercise about pedantic trifles, but a desperate and fascinating struggle takes place in the notes over the nature of history and even more over how to talk about political reality in an era of dissimulation. In the days when I read with a pen in my hand, I could tell how much I engaged with a book by how many notes I wrote in the margin. This battered paperback has many annotations. One example: “Tacitus, like any other writer in a despotism, is in the position of a salesman, i.e., somebody suspiciously sensitive about his reputation for candor and veracity.” Plass writes elsewhere; “…claims to free speech on the part of his subjects are acts of submission. Tacitus can accordingly see public talk about candor ‘as the last form of flattery.’”—I wrote in the margin, “This is absolutely normal business behavior.”

It’s no wonder that Tacitus has always been read with close attention in eras like ours—his writings had also a vogue in the late 16th Century, an age of ideological struggle, courtiers, and dissimulation. (In Stendhal’s novel the Red and the Black, Julian Sorel’s ecclesiastical patron gives him the works of Tacitus as a prize, wondering out loud how appropriate such cynical works are for a seminary student.) The fundamental question for Tacitus is how to be a virtuous hypocrite while writing about other virtuous or not entirely virtuous hypocrites. Wit is one recurrent tactic; despair might as well be amusing. Satires multiply because they change nothing. You keep knocking on the door because nobody answers.)