Saturday, January 02, 2016

Description of the World - Part 35

Second Shelf

George Sansom, A History of Japan to 1334 (I spent most of my childhood in Gardena, California, a small town with a large Japanese-American population—several of my school friends were born in relocation camps, including the lovely Sumiko Nishi, who, on good nights, sometimes appears in my dreams all these years later. (Not so surprising in one respect: even then, all I could do was dream about her.) The town had a large Jodo-Shinshu Buddhist temple that had an outreach program on Buddhism and Japanese culture. The services, which I attended a couple of times, were strongly reminiscent of Methodism—they actually sang a hymn that began “Buddha loves me. This I know, ‘cause the Dhammapada told me so.” Well, you leave the cucumber in the brine long enough, you gotta expect pickles. By the same mechanism, third generation Japanese-American teenagers were just American kids. They needed courses on Japanese culture, too. I read the Sansom book at a fairly early age because of the interest in things Japanese I acquired in Gardena. It took some external motivation to get through this rather dry history, though the author shows more spirit once he reaches the Genpei War.)

Carl Köhler, A History of Costume (Another one of the wonderful Dover reprints. I’ve never tried to read this book; but I’ve leafed through it many times. It has pictures of every style of clothing up to 1870 or so, though only for the ancient Middle East and Europe. It’s easy to think that nothing much happened during long stretches of history or that what change did occur took place with glacial slowness. Styles could succeed one another at a rapid pace even in premodern societies, however. Fashion is old hat. Speaking of a hat, Kate in the Taming of the Shrew says, “This doth fit the time,” even if Petruchio denounces it as “a knack, a toy, a trick, a baby’s cap.”

Henry Charles Lea, The Duel and the Oath (Countless movies feature trial by combat (“every tried and true effect/For the umpteenth time we’ll resurrect”—the Court Jester) What was more surprising about this little book about Medieval justice was the procedure in Canon law by which the accused could prove his innocence by assembling enough supporters to attest to it, the so-called canonical purgation. Duals, oaths, and ordeals, which Lea also wrote about, seem bizarre as ways of determining guilt, but the rational methods that came into use with the revival of Roman law were often harder on defendants. The Roman law demanded two witnesses to establish guilt—circumstantial evidence could only count for half a proof—so torture was widely used to meet the standard by wringing a confession and therefore a full proof from the defendant.)

Donald Cameron Watt, How War Came: The Immediate Origins of the Second World War 1938-1939 (This book was extremely well received when it first appeared and won various awards, but I knew nothing about that when I ran across it. I picked it up because I wondered what there was to say about the run up to the war that would require 600+ pages. The narrative that I had internalized was that the capitulation of Munich led inexorably to the Invasion of Poland—as a matter of theoretical understanding, I didn’t accept the clockwork theory of history, but I hadn’t applied that highfalutin meta understanding to the day-by-day object language of history. Watt’s book helped me do that. That grief was coming to all seems obvious in retrospect because of Hitler’s obsessions, but what side Italy, Spain, the USSR, Japan, and even Poland would be on was very much up in the air in 1938. In history as in thermodynamics, it is possible to predict the global end state of a process but not the path to that end state. In history, however, the path taken matters very much to the participant observers.)

Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (All these years later—I probably bought it around 1980—I just realized that I never got around to reading this little book. I certainly will since it is parallel to his Lincoln at Gettysburg, an admirable work.)

Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work? (This book should be understood in its context: it was published in 2006, and its conclusions reflect the Bush administration’s disappointing performance.  “…American democracy is not functioning well. Democracy increasingly takes place without—or without enough—information, accountability, institutions, disinterest, and justice.” Of course, things look much worse now, which makes Wolfe’s pessimism look like optimism and his suggested remedies for manageable problems merely quaint. It says something about the passage of time—only ten years in this case—that the index of this book has no entries for economic inequality, oligarchy, or plutocracy. Does American democracy still work? The issue now is whether democracy is still a concept that matters, here or anywhere else. The aspiration of the liberals is to achieve a more decent form of oligarchy, and they’re the good guys.)
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. Rev. James Ingram (Who can forget 671? “That year happened that great destruction among the fowls.” The entries for the later years are much more detailed. This little Everyman edition probably cost me $.50 so that I’ve probably got my money’s worth from reading the monkish account of 1066 and a few other doings.)

Jacob Burckhardt, Force and Freedom: Reflections on History (It’s hard to boil down the thinking of historians. It’s like trying to summarize an atlas. Or as Burckhardt wrote: “The philosophy of history is a centaur, a contradiction in terms, for history co-ordinates, and hence is unphilosophical, while philosophy subordinates, and hence is unhistorical.”  Another remark I underlined “Today, a man must be very rich to allow others to take from him without protest, without “claiming,” his ideas as his own, without squabbling about priority. And then comes the intellectual pest of our time—originality.” In this connection, I note that before print, people just didn’t talk much about plagiarism. The word only came into use in the 17th Century. Before then, the universal literary vice was reverse plagiarism, i.e., attributing your writings to somebody else.)
Pierre Goubert, The Course of French History (Goubert is not or was not obscure in France, but I got this book as part of my on-going attempt to understand the outlines of French history. I was giving myself a course in French History so the title seemed right. I wanted a Monarch Notes with real monarchs. I didn’t abstract any overarching theme from this book. The author’s thinking intrudes among the names and dates in the form of a sprinkling of sarcastic asides, the French version of Attic salt.)

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Description of the World - Part 34

Microhistory & the Lost Peoples of Europe, ed. Edward Muir and Guido Ruggiero (When I started this exercise, I expected the many of the books that sit on my shelves were never read. When I first picked up this collection of historical papers this afternoon, I couldn’t remember anything about it, but leafing through I realized that I had read it or lots of it, especially the seminar paper on ritual pillaging, the ancient custom of ransacking the personal property of bishops at their death and the tale of a Jewish banker who fell afoul of the Christian laity in Mantua in 1493 when he removed a picture of the Madonna from a house he had purchased even though he had ecclesiastical permission to paint over the image. These bits stuck in my head, though I certainly forgot where I heard about ‘em. Characteristically, the details made more of an impression than the intent of the collection, which was to demonstrate what microhistory is all about: In his introduction, Edward Muir writes of the authors of these pieces: “Their work responds to the once dominant preoccupation among historians with quantitative social science, the longue duree, and immobile history, and it returns to interpreting utterances and beliefs, to describing brief dramatic events, and to envisioning a past characterized more by abrupt changes than by deep structural continuities.”  Like the new historicism, microhistory is…essays. Come to think of it, I guess I don’t buy the notion that there is so great a contrast between the details and the generalities. Even a unprecedented and unrepeated event can be an instance of a rule. Muir chooses a remark by Sherlock Holmes as an epigraph: “You know my method. It is founded on trifles.” Yep, but Sherlock was interested in trifles that solved a mystery.)

Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou: the Promised Land of Error (Speaking of the peaceful co-existence of details and generalities… This account of the social life of a medieval village on the French side of the Pyrenees is full of fascinating detail, but Ladurie, who is otherwise famous for “quantitative social science,” uses the rich testimony he found in Inquisitorial records to illuminate patterns practices and customs that belong to the longue duree. The book became a best seller because of the stories it tells about a lecherous priest; but what I found fascinating about it was the long-range ethnography, in particular the way in which Ladurie was able to reconstruct how the geography of the world looked to a 14th Century villager and Catholic moral theology appeared to a poorly educated cleric. My former wife gave me this book for my birthday back in the 70s—we proved to be an immiscible combination, but I have to admit that she gave me some wonderful presents.)

Winfred P. Lehmann, Historical Linguistics, 3rd edition (Back in ’67 or ’68, I decided I ought to learn at least a little bit about linguistics since I was in the philosophy business during the latter stages of the linguistic turn. I asked for advice on what to read from Rulon Wells, who was both a theoretical linguist and a philosopher. I think he recommended a book by a guy named Lyons—it’s in my office in if i still have it—but I mention this small bit of personal history because it was like the cute meet at the beginning of an unhappy love affair. I’ve been reading formal linguistics off and on for nearly 50 years and have mostly just succeeded in demonstrated to myself the limitations of self education. Still, it can come in handy once and a while to know about Kurylowicz’ 4th Law of Analogy if only to impress the natives. For the most part, I know about linguistics to the same extent that Amerigo Vespucci knew about America, i.e., that it’s there and very big. Well, I do know that historical linguistics is less perilous to the dilettante than the theoretical variety. The linguistics book that’s been the ruin of many a poor boy (and girl) is Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale. Textbooks like Lehmann’s aren't the hard stuff.)

Hemchandra Raychaudhuri, Political History of Ancient India (I may have unfairly dismissed this book after reading a few chapters because the author seemed to treat the legendary material in the Indian epics as historical as if it could be assumed that there really was a War of the Kurus—the great war in the Mahabharata—and that the war was a central event in early Indian history.  He certainly puts more weight on such evidence than I would. I tend to think that both the Indian and the Greek version of their early history reflected an essentially mythological pattern that called for a great war—Trojan for the Greeks, the Bharata war for the Indians. Thing is, while it is unclear if it makes sense to talk about the Trojan war, Trojan wars were real enough. Similarly, maybe there was some sort of Bharata war, even if nobody, including Raychaudhuri, thinks it was a struggle between five brothers and a hundred sons over a game of dice. Depending on old literary sources is problematic, not because such works don’t preserve bits and pieces of the genuine past; but because you can’t tell the surviving fragments from the later additions and inventions in the absence of some sort of corroboration from outside sources or archaeology or something. In any case, though i continue to rely on the much more skeptical Romila Thapar for my ancient Indian history, the old-school version represented by Raychaudhuri retains some interest quite apart from its credibility, especially now that the Modi and his Hindutva allies are in the ascendent in what has to be one of the three or four most important countries on Earth. In spinning a heroic narrative about India, the Hindutvas, like certain celebratory American historians, are not above mere fabrication; but their job is made easier by the obscurity of the Indian past. The history of India is a wonderful inkblot if you want to project an ideology. I once gave a week of lectures on Indian history at a  Junior College in Pennsylvania—too bad they didn’t need a tango instructor, too—and ended up telling a pretty traditional story. precisely because I did know enough to know I was talking through my hat. Thing is, when it comes to a great many features of Indian history, even those who know what they are talking about are talking through their hat.)

Jacques Le Goft, Your Money or Your Life (Le Goff claims, apropos of what took place towards the end of the Middle Ages, “The hope of escaping Hell, thanks to Purgatory, permitted the usurer to propel the economy and society of the thirteenth century ahead towards capitalism.” Seems to me that the whole machinery of indulgences and interventions for the dead was an elaboration of an older compromise that finessed Christ’s apparently absolute denunciation of the rich by allowing them to pay off their guilt by contributions to the Church. You cannot serve God and Mammon, but there is a loophole big enough to drive a truck or at least a camel. At the end of the book I wrote “A graceful but rather slight essay..”)

Claude Manceron, Towards the Brink (This is the fourth volume of Manceron’s account of the Age of the French Revolution—I don’t think he got beyond Volume 5, which at least saw off the Bastille. The fourth volume begins with the arrest of Beaumarchais, who got in trouble because of the egalitarian ideas of the Marriage of Figaro, his spectacularly popular hit. Truth told, Louis XVI didn’t want to put the screws to Beaumarchais. Like everybody else, he loved the play; and at the end of the 18th Century, you couldn’t know which side of the revolution the kings would wind up on. They had their own complaints about the nobility; and, after all, the first of the Bourbon monarchs of France had practically ran for the throne on a populist platform—Henri IV’s slogan was “a chicken in every pot.” Well, Louis XVI doesn’t get much credit for wisdom or wit; but he showed a bit of flair by imprisoning Beaumarchais in a reform school for the wayward offspring of the high born. I read the other volumes of this history in library copies and enjoyed them all. As I wrote in the fly leaf of this one, “This guy has written the Thomas Pynchon version of the French Revolution.”)

Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (My sister happened to pick up this book and begin to read it during a visit back in the 90s. She was especially taken with the first essay in the collection, an account of what real French folk stories say about the French. She wondered out loud where I found these fascinating books. Now my sister didn’t read as much as me—nobody does—but everyone in my extended family read a lot; and her husband filled their place with books, though I don’t think he made my mistake of usually reading what he bought. They did tend to read popular books, however, and that perhaps accounts for her surprise at how engrossing mine were. Thing is, books written for American adults are really children’s books for old children. Books written for mass audience aren’t simply less trustworthy as sources of information or less original in point of the ideas they convey. They are less entertaining, though admittedly it requires more effort to read fully adult works than books written for superannuated young adults.)

Bernard DeVoto, The Year of Decision 1846 (This is a fancy presentation edition of an old standby history, which is probably why it only cost me $7.50—nobody thought anybody would ever actually read it. Like the text of National Geographic articles and the last three hundred pages of the Critique of Pure Reason, the words in American Heritage books are in a rain shadow where few eyes ever fall. DeVoto is actually a good narrative historian, and he’s right about the salience of ’46. In American history the date is like ’48 in European history.)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Description of the World - Part 33

S.L.A. Marshall, World War I (Marshall became well known as a military historian for his claim, supposedly based on extensive interviewing, that most American soldiers didn’t actually fire their weapons at the enemy in combat during World War II and Korea. The idea was that normal Americans had a difficult time overcoming their civilian reluctance to do violence. To say the least, this thesis has lost most of its credibility; but while it was still commonly believed, you heard that Americans had become far more murderous since the early 50s, which was supposed to be why soldiers in Vietnam showed no reluctance to try to kill their opponents. The ascribed peaceableness of World War II draftees created the impression of special bloodthirstiness on the part of contemporary Americans. The World War I book is just a potboiler. Though Marshall fought as a sergeant at San Michael and the Argonne and might be expected to have some special insight into the conflict, his narrative is routine. I probably bought the book because it does have some interesting maps.)

Annabel Patterson, Reading Holinshed’s Chronicles (Even in 1610 the Chronicles had their critics—“vast, vulgar Tomes…recovered out of innumerable Ruins.” Shakespeare cribbed his history from them, and they must have served as something like a History Channel for the Elizabethans. Everything was crammed in since selection would have been more work than inclusion. The net effect is populist because what a more fastidious historian would omit is not so much trivial as common.  Of course some of the material preserved in this vast work is anything but democratic. Here’s one Sir John Cheke admonishing a mob in 1549: “And to have no gentlemen, because ye be none your selves, is to bring down an estate and to mend none...If there should be such equalitie, then ye take awaie all hope from yours to come in anie better estate than you now leave them.” I’ve heard that one before.)

Andrew Large, The Artificial Language Movement (Some considerable minds have dreamed of a premeditated language that would banish all obscurity and presumably bring the millennium: the philosopher Leibniz, Peano the mathematician, John Wilkins, Robert Hooke, even Sir Thomas Urquhart, translator of Rabelais, whose proposed language featured eleven cases and eleven genders. Heck, I invented one when I was a kid, Rhetorice Glossman, though I never managed to speak it without an accent—as I recall it was a bit like Peano’s Latine sine flexione but took off from Greek instead of Latin. Optimism about the prospects of a perfected language is also a continuing feature—writes Large “The Chinese Esperanto League had only 500 adherents but the works of Mao Tse-tung were published in Esperanto in tens of thousands of copies.”  Over and beyond the reluctance of the population to switch over, the same problem bedevils the projectors who can never quite settle on a single standard for the new language. This book tells the story of some of the desperate struggles that the founders of Volapük and Esperanto had with the heretics. Of course even natural languages have a tendency to fission—if mankind lasts long enough, I expect Indian English and American English will eventually be as distinct as French and Romanian. As Heraclitus pointed out long ago (and his fragments cover pretty much all cases) “Even the sacred barley water separates if it is not stirred.”)