Friday, January 08, 2016

Description of the World - Part 39

Alexander Adam, Roman Antiquities: or An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Romans Designed to Illustrate the Latin Classics, by Explaining Words and Phrases, from the Rites and Customs to Which They Refer (When I was a kid, some of my classmates could identify the make, year, and model of every car. Some of them could also tell you the batting averages of all the major league ball players. Some of them probably grew up into the enthusiasts who can recite the order of battle of the Union and Confederate forces at Gettysburg down to the regiment or comment lucidly on every detail of the murky mythology of World of Warcraft. The accumulation of information is obviously a pleasure not only for the officially learned, who in my experience are actually less into it than less credentialed folks, but for people with a positive allergy to education. There’s no mystery about that. Lore is easy to accumulate because you don’t have to remodel your mind to enlarge your store. You already have a place for one more convertible, outfielder, brigade, or monster in the cerebral warehouse. Acquiring a new idea, on the other hand, requires fresh construction. It’s work. Assimilation is ever so much more pleasant than accommodation, which is why, for example, it is much easier to get a classroom of students to memorize the formulas for thirty-five statistical tests than actually understand the rationale for using even one of ‘em.

Especially these days, when limitless amounts of information are a couple of clicks away, it’s hard to come up with something good to say about knowing facts. In particular, how is the erudition of a classicist different than the expertise of any other demented hobbyist?* In the case of the compiler of this book, the difference is very clear. Alexander Adam didn’t just pile up details, though he certainly did that too. Taken as a whole, this densely referenced book provides an authoritative picture of Roman institutions, although it is an Archimboldian picture, a mosaic made out of the most heterogeneous materials that are somehow kept inside a single frame. The book challenges the reader to construct a world in their heads and quite a strange world at that. The principle of unity behind the work is that Adam takes the Romans at their word. Unlike a more modern account—the most recent edition of the book dates back to 1792—Roman Antiquities takes what the Romans said about themselves literally without the handicap of our cynicism or the benefit of our archaeology. He reads the classics in the same way that the rabbis read the Bible, assuming that the authors meant what they said and honored their own customs, which of course they often didn’t. For example, it was a settled principle of Roman law that the state could never undertake an aggressive war. “The Romans never carried on any war without solemnly proclaiming it. This was done by a set of priests called the FECIALES. When the Romans thought themselves injured by any nation, they sent one or more of these feciales to demand redress, and if it was not immediately given, thirty-three days were granted to consider the matter after which war might be justly declared. Then the feciales again went to their confines, and having thrown a bloody spear into them, formally declared war against that nation.” The Romans did make one compromise with reality for convenience sake. After the enlargement of the empire, the ceremony with the spear “was performed in a certain field near the city, which was called the AGER HOSTILIS.“ It was quite clever of the Romans to conquer the world while thus remaining on a perpetual defensive. I note, however, that almost all nations have made analogous claims: the Swedes, French, and Germans all defended themselves to or beyond the walls of Moscow, and we’ve taken to defending America is Afghanistan. A great many Americans also follow the Roman precedent by insisting that we have always been in the right, were always the injured party, even when the initiating incident of the conflict was a shot fired on us in a Mexican cornfield. It’s almost a literary convention.

Incidentally, if you are interested in Roman history or literature, I can pretty much guarantee you will find this volume exceedingly useful and a delight to read. I checked on Amazon and found that reprints are available. The version I have was published in 1872. It isn’t at all a rare or valuable used book, but it has to be one of my most prized possessions.

*To be sure, many of the classicists I’ve known in my life were demented, though some of them in a good way. Dr. Harry Carroll, for example, could be counted on to light the wrong end of at least one of his filter-tip cigarettes while delivering a lecture on the Athenian empire in the Western Civilization course. He was also rather bibulous and routinely reeked of retsina at eight in the morning—all seven of us sat pretty close to him in third semester Greek so the effluvia wasn’t that hard to detect. In fact, since Harry was a chain smoker, everybody wondered if the fumes were flammable. Lit or not, I mean professor Carroll, not the fumes, he was incredibly learned, though some of the minutia of his chosen subject cracked him up beyond all reason—his glee at the name of the character in Herodotus the Greeks’ called the Pseudo-Smerdis is the instance I best remember. “As if it weren’t bad enough just to be a Smerdis!” And then he’d start laughing again. He was just as likely to go off on an improvised lecture on the gnomic aorist or the identity of the forms for the neuter noun in both the nominative and accusative case in Latin and Greek while we were all were just trying to puzzle out a line from Prometheus Bound. He apparently knew everything, including the Modern Greek he picked up while working summers as an epigrapher at the Agora dig in Athens. He was also a man with superb taste and not just for wine with resin in it. Beside the vases and busts you’d expect to see at the home of a Classics prof, one wall of his modest tract house had a big museum quality Rothko on it that he apparently bought from the artist himself for a few hundred back in the day. He was likewise fearless—or shameless—in passing judgment on art he didn’t like. When he showed a slide of a wall painting from an Etruscan tomb during an ancient art course, he commented on the bad taste of whoever commissioned it—the depicted couple did look rather wall eyed. I’ve never encountered anybody else who dared to criticize a work of venerable antiquity. Imagine somebody admitting that one of the horses at Lascaux wasn’t very well drawn. This peerlessly eccentric individual** who taught Greek, Latin, history, and art history at Pomona was both beloved and respected. I admit to a certain bias in this appraisal. He had a special relationship with my family, having educated my sister and her husband as well as me.

**It’s hearsay, but I have it from a reliable third party that he thought I was pretty eccentric too. Fair enough to mention that.)

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Description of the World - Part 38

Joseph Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State (One of of my motives in undertaking this survey is to find out how many of my books I’ve actually read. Finding books that I bought and then ignored doesn’t surprise or dismay me. I expected to find many, more than I have found so far. What worries me a bit, however, are books that I’m pretty sure I did read that I can’t recall a thing about, especially when I have reason to believe that their contents have been absorbed into my thinking and the topics they covered are matters I care about. Strayer’s book is in this category. I know I read it because some of the pages have been recently cut, and I certainly have spent a long time thinking about the origins of the modern state. What makes it worse is that this edition only came out in 2005 so I read it within the last decade. I have often joked that a bad memory is helpful insofar as it makes it possible to commit plagiarism with a good conscience. I can only hope what I stole from this book was worthwhile.

W.H. Prescott, Conquest of Peru (I don’t know when I acquired this yellowing, crumbling volume. The edition is undated, a cheap reprint put out by the Book League of America, a junior competitor of the Book of the Month. I do know it cost me a quarter so I probably acquired it when I was 13 or 14 from the old Jewish guy at the used furniture store on Western. I’ve read other accounts of Pizarro’s rampage since so it is rather hard to tell how much of my impression of that thug derives from Prescott. My only lasting impression of this author is a strong dislike for his style. Prescott says that he finished writing the book “with feelings not unlike those of the traveler who, having long journeyed among the dreary forests and dangerous defiles of the mountains, at length emerges on some pleasant landscape smiling in tranquility and peace.” If I actually made my way to the end of the book back in 1959, I probably felt much the same.)

Bandine Kriegel, The State and the Rule of Law (Both the left and the right despise the state. Our rightists want to drown it in a bathtub. The Soviets elevated the party above the state so that when Gorbachev decided to rule as President rather than Party Secretary, it was a clear sign that the end was near. Law is also unpopular with every kind of radical. Donald Trump sounds like he’s channeling Carl Schmitt, albeit a Carl Schmitt with three sheets in the wind,*as he proposes that the strong leader we need and he would be won’t be bothered with legal niceties. Soviet commissars had the same outlook: they were anti-bureaucrats who did what the situation demanded, rules and regulations be damned. They might shoot you in the name of the Revolution, but they wouldn’t bore you to death with paperwork. The regime’s official sense of humor—there was such a thing—relentlessly lampooned raisin-shitting officials and their triplicate forms. Well, the law is in fact an ass; and if Nietzsche overstated things when he claimed that the state is the coldest of cold monsters, it can be cold enough. The current situation in Syria and other places in the Middle East suggests that there is another side to the story, however. Kriegel’s little book, which is not so much a work of history as a heavily footnoted political pamphlet, is a plea for a re-evaluation of the concept of the state that takes off from an argument that Western European monarchy was not a form of despotism but the proximate origin of the concept of legally constituted sovereignty, whether monarchical, oligarchical, or democratic. It’s not a paean dedicated to dead kings and lawyers in fur-lined gowns any more than E.P. Thompson’s famous and much reviled defense of the rule of law in the last pages of Whigs and Hunters, means that the law can’t be an instrument of exploitation and oppression. Kriegel is well aware of what kings were actually like, and Thompson spent much of his career detailing how the enclosure laws served class interests. I’m also a (qualified) supporter of the state and legality. I don’t think Kriegel was very effective in making the (our) case, unfortunately. I’ve seen very few references to the book, even though you’d think that Kriegel, who worked with Foucault towards the end of his career, would have made more of an impression if only because of her connections. On the other hand, the reappraisal of liberalism in Foucault’s late works has also not garnered a great deal of attention either.   

*In case you’re unfamiliar with it, Carl Schmitt’s philosophy of how the leader is superior to the law reprises an old bit from Herodotus. The Persian king asked the elders if there was a law that said he could marry his sister. They told him there wasn’t such a law, but there was a law that said that the king could do what he wants.)

20th Century Culture: A Biographical Companion, edited by Alan Bullock and R.B. Woodlings (I don’t consult reference books like this much any more because the Internet more conveniently fulfills their usual purpose, i.e., figuring out how to spell something. If you had an infinite amount of time on your hands, it might be interesting to see who the editors left out when they finished the book in 1983—what’s left out of books is often as telling as what’s in ‘em. Of course as the humanities catch up with the sciences we may eventually have really distant reading—no readers—and the experiment I propose may be carried out in the bowels of a server farm in Baffin Island. I remember a science fiction novel about a computer scientist who hated nuns. He programmed a computer to write doctoral dissertations and masters theses on any topic that had nun proposed for her advanced degree, thus pre-empting her: Thomas Aquinas and the Question of Why Japanese Men are Obsessed about Young Women with Chubby Calves, etc. Borges thought that it sufficed to come up with the name for imaginary books and he proposed dozens of ‘em. According to him, it would be rather humorless to actually write such books or maybe just too much bother—I don’t think he liked to write very much.  Contra Borges, I think I’d enjoy reading Ars honeste petandi in societate, by Hardouin de Graetz or Luigi Albedo’s Unauthorized Leaks: Enuresis in the Late Works of Henry James. Anyhow, even if these projects have no commercial prospects, it’s only a matter of time before not only writing books but enjoying them is automated, thus making possible the electronic delectation of the subtle insights provided by a compilation of what’s missing in 20th Century Culture. For a work in that spirit see my forthcoming poem in 26 cantos, The Road Really Not Taken, which features the lines “Whose woods these aren’t/I haven’t larn’t.” Either that or keep reading this blog.)

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Description of the World - Part 37

Steven Runciman, The Sicilian Vespers (The massacre of the supporters of Charles of Anjou, the French King of Sicily, wasn’t really the beginning of the mafia, though that was the tale I heard as a kid. The Angevin adventure in the Mediterranean whose collapse began with the events of March 30, 1282 was the first of the long series of French interventions in Italy. Runciman ends the book with an anecdote about another Frenchmen who dreamed about an Italian empire; “…King Henry IV of France boasted to the Spanish ambassador the harm that he could do to the Spanish lands in Italy were the King of Spain to try his patience too far. “I will breakfast in Milan,’ he said, ‘and I will dine in Rome.’ “Then,’ replied the ambassador, ‘Your Majesty will doubtless be in Sicily in time for Vespers.’’)

H.S.Bennett, English Books and Readers, 3 volumes (This series covers the period from 1475 when Caxton began English printing (albeit in Bruges) until the English Civil War, which was a Saturnalia of printing. The bulk of printing was religious—bibles, psalters, catachisms, sermons, tracts—a very important fact since it’s easy to focus on genres that were, commercially speaking, marginal. More people became religious, at least religious in an orthodox way, because of the printing press than ever became unreligious, ruined by a book. Printing increased the bandwidth of cultural memory and made science possible in its modern sense; but whether it increased or decreased enlightenment on the whole, or to put it in a quasi-Hegelian way, whether it increased the ratio of objective reason to objective delirium, is unclear. In England, the Act of 1543 forbade the reading of the Bible in English to “women, artificers, apprentices, journeymen, serving-men of the rank of yeomen and under, husbandmen and labourers;” but the demands of the subject matter and the effective and thorough control of discourse maintained by credentialism and peer review means that a much larger proportion of the population are fenced away from actual science that any 16th Century parliament denied access to scripture. That there has been an increase in what most people know since Gutenberg is surely true, but a lot of what we think of as progress is better understood as separating out.)
Arnaldo Momigliano, Essays on Ancient and Modern Judaism (I count myself fortunate that circumstances have allowed me to reads books like this instead of suffering through the tediousness of novels. The benefit of reading such books is not that the conclusions they contain are correct—being right is a always a matter of luck, after all—but the example of a higher standard of thoughtfulness that they represent.)

Lucien Febvre, The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: the Religion of Rabelais (I actually first read this famous book in French or rather, since the experience was much like reading in a dream, I went through a process that resembled reading. Reading the translation and discovering that I had mostly guessed right was a relief. Febvre writes: “Let us conjure up Francois Rabelais’ contemporaries—their violence and capriciousness, their inability to resist surface impressions, their extraordinary changes of mood, their astonishing quickness to anger, to take offense, to draw the sword and then kiss and make up.” I wrote in the margin “The 15the Century on a bun,” characteristically getting the century wrong. Whether or not these personality traits capture something of the central tendency of the age, they certainly appeal to Febvre, who wrote an astonishingly enthusiastic biography of Martin Luther, which, if I recall it correctly, celebrated his joie de vivre at greater length than his theology. Nietzsche prided himself on having written philological essays that were plotted like romances. The Problem of Unbelief isn’t quite a romance, but it has an equally artful structure. Febvre builds to a very sweeping conclusion about a century that wanted to believe, but begins with a demonstration of scholarly virtuosity—or pedantry—about a very fine point. Some of Plato’s dialogs are like that. Socrates spars with some sophist or other and demonstrates his ability to play their game before he gets down to philosophy and winds up with myth. The end of Febvre’s book is not quite a vision of the form of the good, just the summary judgment that Rabelais could not in fact have been an atheist because the mentality of his age didn’t have a place for such a thought. By the way, what Febvre is claiming is not that the men of the 16th Century were starting from premises that ruled out atheism. He’s not talking about premises. In fact, he was critical of Calvin’s attempt to draw impious conclusions about Servetus “by expressly accusing him of having only one aim, “to destroy religion from top to bottom, totam religionem evertere because this result followed from his denial of the Trinity. I wrote at the end of the chapter: “Well, lotsa folks reason like Calvin to this day. Witness the Marxists. And intellectual historians and even philosophy grad students (experto crede!) tend to argue that if X said A, he must have meant B, too. One tends to think that human reasoning has a firm skeleton, albeit one obscured by the flesh of feelings. It’s a form of optimism.” Febvre claims that we not only assume that people before us argued from different axioms but that they argued as we argue. That’s an even more sweeping result than his official thesis about atheism in the 16th Century. “The critical examination of the poetic evidence…taught us that “man is not Man, but that men change—much more than we imagine, and at a much faster rate.” Obviously Febvre’s book didn’t settle the broader issue once and for all, and even his narrower conclusions about Rabelais have been endlessly contested; but you can’t claim he didn’t present his side of the case brilliantly. I guess I admire him in much the same way he admired Martin Luther.)

A.D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science and Technology in Christendom, two volumes (White is a representative of a prominent variety of 19th Century American right thinking. HIs version of what is now sometimes called scientism is not atheistical—liberal Protestants of his era were decidedly pro-science—and also demonstrated what Lewis Carroll made fun of as Anglo-Saxon attitudes. Imagine writing this sentence now: “That sturdy Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon honesty, which is the best legacy of the Middle Ages to christendom, asserted itself in the strongholds of theological thought, the universities.”  A serious reading of White would have to place him in his time, something that White never tried to do in assembling a dossier against the obscurantists. Even when I was a senior in high school and knew very little history, I recognized that there was something profoundly wrong about White’s methodology. He had simply pilled up every embarrassing quotation he could find as if all the villains on the wrong side of the Manichean struggle had the same outlook. I wondered why it was so hard to figure out when this or that was said. The book has an allergy to dates. I also noticed that his own sturdy Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon honesty didn’t prevent him from writing things he must have known were false. Heroes are not always heroes, and a man like White who had access to excellent libraries and the linguistic skill to read original documents couldn’t claim that he didn’t know that, for example, Galileo wasn’t above traducing his rivals, stealing other peoples ideas and inventions, and coming up with some pretty farfetched theories of his own (comets, tides, etc.). I find it very unlikely that White didn’’t know how misleading, actually obviously false, this sentence was: “Ten years after the martyrdom of Bruno the truth of Copernicus’s doctrine was established by the telescope of Galileo.”  The astronomers, and not only the astronomers who were also Jesuits or theologians, argued about Copernicus for many years after Galileo. You can’t actually see the truth of the Copernican system through a telescope. What you can see are the phases of Venus; but that observation, though it did make Ptolemy obsolete was also perfectly consistent with Tycho Brahe’s system and several others. Of course, simply by living in a later age, you possess the teacher’s edition of the book, the one with the right or at least most recent answers in the back. That makes it all too easy to assume that earlier investigators should have guessed correctly. Darwin said that the Origin of Species was one long argument. Well, the Warfare of Science and Theology is one long brief. Which is why you get more credit for being Darwin than you do for being Jonny Cochran.)

Monday, January 04, 2016

Description of the World  - Part 36

Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (When I was in college, the Dutch got very little respect. Nobody studied the language—I used to think of it as misspelled German myself—and the enormous contributions to modernity of the Netherlands in art, science, commerce, agriculture, and philosophy somehow didn’t register. Schama may not have done much for the scholarly side of the reappraisal that occurred during my adult life, but he surely made an impression on the general reader with books like this one. The Dutch matter because there’s was in many ways the first modern society. In particular, the cultural contradictions of capitalism were all there: prosperity and guilt, relative tolerance in a country dominated by Calvinists, Democratic tendencies overwhelmed by oligarchy, humanity at home combined with vicious imperialism in Asia and the New World, superb art and world-class kitsch, moralism and materialism. More succinctly: tulips and TULIP, where the second TULIP stands for total depravity, unconditional election, etc. in both their theological and secular interpretations. Schama finds apt objective correlates for all this: the etchings of beached whales with prominent pricks, the worldly ascetics martyred by teeth rotted by all that sugar, the jail cell with the pump you have to keep pumping to keep from drowning.)

Andrew Hacker, Two Nations: Black and While, Separate, Hostile, Unequal (This book dates back to 1992, but you have to wonder if a similar compilation of statistical information would come to less pessimistic conclusions today. In ’92 white people were congratulating themselves that racism was over with, but then they were congratulating themselves about that in ’82 and ’72 as well, and especially on election night ’08. The theme is rather like the notion that religion is making a comeback in American life, an announcement that was made every four or five years in a feature article in Time and Newsweek when those two weren’t wheezing their last in a hospice of a website. Hacker’s book is rather like Capital in the 21st Century: lotsa data, very little argument.)

Franco Venturi, The End of the Old Regime in Europe 1768-1776: the First Crisis (Venturi’s account of these years is based on what educated Europeans, mostly Italians, wrote about the events as they unfolded. As he states, one of his intentions was to trace the emergence of organized public opinion in the later Enlightenment. In that respect, his book is similar to Rick Perlstein’s chronicles of the last sixty years of American political history, except, of course, what Perlstein was writing about was a time of enmerdement rather than of enlightenment. Like Venturi, Perlstein relies very heavily on what he finds in old newspapers. In contrast to the talking heads of recent American journalism, the op/ed writers of Milan and Venice don’t come off too badly. They anticipated many of the contradictions that would surface in the revolutionary era to come. In the debate about the abortive Danish experiment in freedom of the press, for example, even the most radical of them recognized that free speech is anything but unproblematic. More generally, the commentators recognized that every insurrection in the name of liberty—and there were plenty of those before the Fall of the Bastille or even Lexington—was fundamentally ambiguous. Were the Peloponnesian cattle thieves who began the Greek revolt against the Turks fighting for or against modernity? Were they restoring the glories of Hellas or mostly just furthering the ambitions of Catherine the Great, who had riled them up as part of her war against the Ottomans and even sent a fleet to the Mediterranean? The self-determination of peoples often amounts to the reassertion of the rights of local elites to dominate in their own backyard without the interference of central power. Speaking of Catherine the Great: was Pugachev’s rebellion a blow for liberty or barbarism? Writes Venturi: “the Pugachev revolt was certainly a response to the increasingly heavy burdens that the war against Turkey imposed on Russia, but it was also a popular reaction against modernization, against the desire for reform, enlightenment introduced from above, and the whole policy of Catherine II.” One item about Pugachev that’s not relevant to the higher theory of history—I wrote in the margin about it, “sounds like a Polish joke”— is from a 1775 account of the death of Pugachev in the Notizie del mondo. “They were supposed to cut off his limbs one after another, but by mistake the executioner cut off his head first, for which he was punished with the knout.”)

Franco Venturi, The End of the Old Regime in Europe, 1776-1789:  The Great States of the West (This volume opens with a detailed account of how Italian intellectuals reacted to the Declaration of Independence. Washington’s Farewell Letter also made a profound impression. The Americans were more than an inspiration (or warning). Thomas Jefferson had a hand in drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789. You risked your life to sail from continent to continent, but even in the 18th Century, the Atlantic wasn’t that wide. The British reaction highlighted the sometimes constructive, sometimes destructive interference between the rights of Englishmen and the rights of man. Often revolution and reaction are a political rabbit-duck. The nearest thing to a storming the Bastille moment the English had was the Gordon riots, which were more destructive of life and property than the Reign of Terror in France but originated in popular protests not against the Aristos, but against the Papists. We’ll teach Parliament to extend toleration!) 

Franco Venturi, The End of the Old Regime in Europe, 1776-1789: Republican Patriotism and the Empires of the East (The centerpiece of this volume is a very long chapter entitled The ‘Grand Project’ of Joseph II, which was where I first found out about Josephism, a movement or rather royal aspiration that R.R. Palmer also wrote about at length. Of course, the whole era was characterized by monarchs who tried to be citizen kings before there were citizen citizens. Their disappointments ought to give pause to the lets-let-the-billionaires-do-it school of thought currently promoted by certain billionaires and Ralph Nader. Venturi gives an excellent account of the several dress rehearsals for the great Revolution—Geneva, Poland, the Netherlands. It seems to me that the wide geographical range of the ferment of the times puts a limit on how chance and occasion rule history. To paraphrase Paul Veyne, how events happen and when they happen are at the mercy of absurd contingencies, but what happens usually makes sense in terms of larger patterns.)

E.H. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries (From time to time, one of my nephews, the prosperous one, floats the idea of disenfranchising anybody who accepts welfare. It seems to him only fair. I guess he imagines that the poor line up first thing in the morning to vote for the Democrats. I’m not a historian, just somebody who reads a lot of history books; but you don’t have to be Otto von Ranke (or a Democratic political operative) to know that the poor just don’t vote, that getting them to the polls is extraordinarily difficult. If you could get them to participate fully in the political life of the country, I expect we’d all be better off, even the conservatives; but effective enfranchisement is a very tall order. The rich and the middle classes may actually believe in the equality of man; but those in the scheduled classes (or whatever they call ‘em in your neighborhood), don’t believe it or they say they believe it is because they think they are required to say they do, rather as many kids accept the Pythagorean theorem because they think they’re supposed to. Subservience is hardly unnatural to human beings. Indeed, inertness is the default case. If you beat a whole stratum of people down for generations and convince them of their unworthiness, they’ll internalize their role and teach it to their children. Which is why the actual masses (as opposed to the well-off peasants, petit bourgeois, and disappointed career seekers who make revolutions) are so remarkably passive. When they are goaded into reaction, which certainly does happen, their demands are usually for a return to more familiar forms of oppression or a remission of taxes or debts, though in some cases they can be swept up in chiliastic religious movements or be persuaded to support local bandits or vigilantes or simply long for revenge—spitting in the soup is also a lot older than Fight Club. Hobsbawm writes about these manifestations. He is supposed to have been the last of the unreconstructed Stalinists, but despite or perhaps because of that, he was utterly unsentimental about the reality of what he calls primitive rebels.)

The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor: A Medieval Guide to the Arts, translated by Jerome Taylor. (I young black guy saw me reading this book at a coffee bar and asked if he could borrow it, which in fact he did. I explained to him that the book was unlikely to interest anybody but specialists. It was an introduction to the arts written in the late 1120s by a master of St Victor, a monastic school that much later became part of the University of Paris. Even I was only marginally interested in the book even though, as should be apparent to anybody who has suffered along with this exercise this far, I’ll read pretty much anything. The Didascalicon does provide an idea of what educated people in Western Europe were expected to know before the new translations of Aristotle and the flowering of scholasticism. Hugh mostly lays out a curriculum that hadn’t changed a great deal since the 5th Century Commentary on the Dream of Scipio by Macrobius and the Marriage of Mercury and Philology by Martianus Capella—the former expounded the mix of Neoplatonism and Aristotle sometimes called the perennial philosophy and the latter defined the seven liberal arts along with the seven various other things. (Scary fact: there is a pdf of Capella’s book on the Internet.) The young man may have thought that book with a title like Didascalicon would contain secret wisdom. After all Didascalicon does sound a bit like Necronomicon. I was actually a little surprised when the book was returned to me two weeks later—in my experience the return rate of loaned books is not very high even when you actually know the borrower. In this case, the borrower actually called me up and made an appointment to get the book back to me. I have wondered ever since what he made of it.)