Saturday, January 16, 2016

Description of the World – Part 45

David Halberstam, The Powers that Be (This book appeared in 1979, but I would have guessed that it was older, in part because mass-market paperbacks of that vintage were printed on paper that turned yellow in a few years. I never managed to get into it.)

Robert Darnton, The Business of Enlightenment: a Publishing History of the Encyclopédie (Darnton has written extensively about the role of “philosophical” books in the run up to the French Revolution, where “philosophical” pretty much means pornographic, a terminological quirk that may seem unfair to philosophers, even if parents really should warn their daughters and often enough their sons about philosophy profs. The Encyclopédie certainly wasn’t pornographic or aimed at a mass market like the publications of the Bibliothèque bleue, but it’s hard to imagine the Revolution could have taken place without it, Darnton looks at in this book as a business proposition. “The publishers made a fortune from it. On an initial investment of about 70,000 livres, their profit may have reached as much as 2,500,000 livres.” I’ve always assumed that projectors of big publishing projects are motivated by vanity—it’s their version of empire building—but at least in this case, Diderot and co. made it pay. That sucyh ventures don’t always pan out was shown by the fate of the sequel. The last editor of the Encyclopédie, Panckouke, eventually produced an even more ambitious work, the L’Encyclopédie méthodique of some 210 volumes, which no one remembers. It has achieved, in fact, the ultimate in oblivion; for “it has not aroused the appetite of a single, thesis-hungry graduate student.”)

Harry Elmer Barnes, A History of Historical Writing, 2nd revised edition (Dover reprinted a number of titles such as this one that are useful as sources of information because nobody cares much about the opinions of the author. For the record, Barnes came down on the Germany-wasn’t-responsible side of the war guilt debate between the wars and ended his career as a holocaust denier—he was an old-school anti-semite of the sort you could still encounter in the Ivy League back in the 60s. For my purposes, the problem with Barnes isn’t his politics or his prejudices but his lack of insight into what the philosophers actually thought about history. His Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche are pop versions. Of course you can argue that intellectual historians err when they try to figure out what any significant thinker actually thought since what plays a role in subsequent history is normally the received misunderstanding, not the actual philosophy. Anyhow, I didn’t read Barnes to find out about Hegel. Barnes could be memorably obtuse, however. One comment I marked off: “in politics we still rely upon rhetoric, which was but a Hellenistic elaboration of shamanistic incantations and formalistic deliverances of chieftains.” I don’t know if that’s more unfair to modern rhetoricians or to ancient shamans. Barnes is a pretty good quoter, though. I liked this bit he copied from J.B.Black, commenting on Gibbon’s style: “The specific gravity of his style is so high that it seems capable of floating anything, from the interminable Persian and Byzantine wars to the abstruse theological disputes of the early Church and the technicalities of Justinian’s legal reforms.” I also appreciated the long paragraph from Karl Pearson that makes fun of theories of racial purity and national mentalities by detailing the mongrel ancestry of Charles Darwin.)

John R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality (Searle takes the sensible approach of acknowledging that human agreement creates some of the facts of the world without getting particularly excited about it. Since the realities created by social convention include money and marriage, I’m not quite so dismissive, having found these entities sufficiently formidable. There are national styles in the tone you take about your ideas and these stances are only irrelevant if you have decided they are. Searle has made this point himself by noting how modern French thinkers find it professionally necessary to write obscurely in order to lend an air of mystery and grandeur to ideas that are cogent and valuable but not necessarily very surprising or alarming absent a complicated exposition and studied dramatization. Searle claimed in an interview that Foucault told him that he wrote badly or at least unclearly on purpose in order to establish his bona fides. Since Searle is completely fluent in French and Foucault was his colleague and friend at Berkeley, I can well believe the story. Still, writing with exaggerated plainness is also a stylistic and political choice; and you can turn the Searle’s point around. I agree that the rock is there even when we don’t think about it and it’s the same thing however we think about it when we do get around to thinking about it. Kicking the rock, however, is rhetoric. I’m not agitated about the objects, but find objectivity more problematic.)

Alan Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination (I used to fantasize about a political atlas of the Earth that didn’t play favorites. One section would lay out all the territories of individual dogs, another the contested borderlands between one ant hill and the next, and so on. Of course, once you imagine that, the next thing is the historical atlas version—the library had better be pretty big. Corbin’s book proposes a different set of alternative maps, a geography and history of France that’s anthropocentric but set in a different sensory key: What the last three centuries smelled like and what different conclusions do you come to if sniff this time instead of looking. Versailles in smell-o-vision: “The unpleasant odors of the park, gardens, even the chateau, make one’s gorge rise. The communicating passages, courtyards, buildings in the wings, corridors, are full of urine and feces; a pork butcher actually sticks and roasts his pigs at the bottom of the minsters’ wing every morning, the avenue Saint-Cloudis covered with stagnant water and dead cats.” Of course the author was more interested in making some points a la Foucault about all of this, but the book comes across as the non-fiction version of Suskind’s novel Perfume.)

Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln (I was taught that one way of drawing a likeness was to lightly and carelessly outline the features over and over again. Every version got something wrong, but as you redrew the face on the same sheet, something recognizable emerged from the overlapping lines. I can’t honestly recall much about this particular biography of Lincoln, except that the author frequently quotes Lincoln’s law partner Herndon; but it and countless other books, movies, and Lincoln’s own writings have built up a strong image of the man in my mind that creates an effect of realism, though perhaps a misleading one.)

Edward Schaffer, The Vermillion Bird: T’ang Images of the South (To a great extent, our understanding of the world is built up of views of particular countries and cultures as they appear to us. If we’re a bit more sophisticated we may take into account how we appear to them. The human fact, however, properly includes how other peoples have appeared to each other.* This is a book about how the ancient Chinese made sense or tried to make sense of their exotic southern neighbors, especially the Vietnamese. Schaffer wrote a companion book that deals with the Chinese understanding of Central Asia.

*The Egyptologist Assmann claimed that becoming aware of the existence of other peoples was a critical moment in the development of the civilization of Egypt and West Asia. From very early on, the rulers of the emerging states developed the notion of brother kings. Something similar is basic to the historical religions, all of which are really meta-religions. Even the faiths that claim to have been original—Judaism, Hinduism, Shintoism—took definite form after the emergence of challengers. They became original after the fact. Religions are about other religions.)

Friday, January 15, 2016

Description of the World - Part 44

Consumer Reports, How to Clean Practically Anything (Belongs in the kitchen.)

The Baffler #19 (You often hear that the political left has no new ideas and if you mean it lacks some overarching new theoretical foundation comparable to Marxism in either scope or seductiveness, that’s quite true. There’s been plenty of less grandiose, more empirical thinking, however.
The problem is that when an accurate diagnosis of political and social problems doesn’t result in actions that either ameliorate the problems or at least create new ones, the repetition of the diagnosis is just depressing. Which is probably why I didn’t subscribe to the Baffler after reading this issue even though the contributors are mostly people I respect or at least think are usefully wrong.)

Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism (Kolko argued that political progressivism, far from representing a revolt against the business interests, was a way that they could maintain and even increase their control over the economy and the workers. I don’t know what to think about the specific thesis of this book, but I have developed my own suspicions about Teddy and Woodrow’s versions of reform in the years since I read it. I prefer to call myself a liberal instead of a progressive because, in Roosevelt’s version at least, progressivism was high-handed, top-down, careless about civil and political liberty, and stood for an aggressive, imperialistic foreign policy. Of course Democratic politicians use the word progressive because they think liberal has become poisonous, but there is something Daddy-Warbucks-like in the politics of at least some of the modern progressives that is reminiscent of Rooseveltian noblesse oblige. Bloomberg comes to mind; but so does Obama’s especially when he does trade policy via secretive commissions. That is not necessarily disastrous; and, as I’ve often written, it may be the best we may hope for in the post-democracy era. I think that government has to play a major role in a modern economy, not only on the distribution but the supply side—the alternative is stagnation and environmental degradation—but if the people have no effective and on-going voice in the process, the result will not be a rationalized economy but an economy organized in favor of the few and just for that reason one that is not that dynamic or efficient either.)

Wallace Sterner, The Spectator Bird (Like many another novel in my collection, I never got around to reading this one. I was going to say that my semi-allergy to fiction is based on the prejudice that half of the novels I encounter begin with a description of the weather. Then I opened this paperback and read “On a February morning, when a weather front is off the Pacific, but has not quite arrived….”)

Peter Gay, Weimar Culture (This copy has many underlined passages, but I know the annotations aren’t mine because they carefully identify the main points instead of pointing out quirky bits as mine are prone to do. I did read it, however, and found it rather better than some of Gay’s other efforts, perhaps because Gay lived through the era he describes in the book. I’ve had the suspicion for some time that his later books, the big ones especially, were like Rubens paintings, i.e., creations of the studio, impressive canvasses not all of whose brush strokes were made by the master. Well, I’m probably being unfair. I have a certain antipathy to Gay left over from a long argument I had with him about something or other at a cocktail party—only the memory of the bad feelings remain. Incidentally, I don’t mention having met the man by way of name dropping, though it probably comes across that way, when I make comments like that. To me it is just the reverse—not a way of bragging but simply more evidence that I am, indeed, a human tangent line that over his life touched a great many things, ideas, and people, some of them important, but only at a point. Anyhow, it’s no trick to meet eminent historians, philosophers, and scientists, at least until they become celebrities. It’s mostly the insignificant people of the day that have the armed guards. You can exchange emails with the folks who will be discussed in 22nd Century intellectual history courses.)
Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (I first read this book in a library copy when it first came out and was delighted to acquire my own copy when it was reissued in a single-volume paperback I could mark up. This is my favorite scholarly book, bar none. A great deal has been written about the advent of the book and its consequences since; and, of course, the idea that printing “altered the face and state of the world” [Bacon] is hardly new. Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin wrote a notable work on the subject. In my opinion neither the old nor the new works on this topic compare to Eisenstein—I noticed that David Wooton, the British historian, came to the same conclusion in his recent Invention of Science. For Eisenstein’s larger findings, you really need to read the book, which is hardly an unpleasant assignment; but little observations and facts lend her work much of its richness. For example, she points out that Gutenberg’s first print job was not the Bible, but an indulgence and in another place that when “ they handled manuscript books copied by eleventh and twelfth-century scribes, quattrocento literati thought they were looking at texts that came right out of the bookshops of ancient Rome.”)

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Description of the World - Part 43

Mario Rabinowitz, “Beamed Black Hole Radiation: Cosmology and Ball Lightening Connected” an offprint from Infinite Energy, Issue 25, 1999 (Mario used to give me offprints from time to time. Like many other physicists, he has a taste for speculation, in this instance, a proposal that little black holes (LBHs) may actually be quite common in the universe and that radiation from them may occur by other, less violent means than Hawking radiation (the process described in the movie Theory of Everything). He proposed that LBHs may explain mysterious but apparently quite real terrestrial phenomena like ball lightening, account for much of the missing mass in the Universe, and even cause the acceleration of cosmic expansion. They might also serve as an energy source, a veritable Mr. Fusion. Is any of this likely? Probably not. On the day after the big drawing, however, it occurs to me that the chances that Rabinowitz guessed correctly, though very small, are nevertheless considerably greater than the odds were of winning the Powerball apocalypse and three people did that.)

J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle (Hannah Arendt wrote an introduction to this edition of Gray’s meditation on his four-year long experience of war. Arendt noted that the book made no stir at its first appearance and only gradually developed a following “of readers in very different walks of life who cherished it as a triumph of personal discovery and, perhaps for this very personal reason, began to think of its author in terms of affinity, closeness and affection, which are very rarely felt even in the presence of masterpieces.”  She wrote that back in the earliest 70s. Since then the book seems to have gradually disappeared from awareness. I know I haven’t thought about it for years. It wasn’t that I ever made quite the emotional connection with it that Arendt mentions; but looking through it now, I recall the strong impression it made on me then and something of the way the impression diminished very slowly afterwards like the sound of a bell fading away when you listen to it in a quiet place. It may be a good time to strike that bell again since America is now living in a time when the vast majority never experience war directly and yet glorify its practitioners while a large few experience the effects captured by some of Gray’s chapter headings, especially the “Enduring Appeals of Battle” and “the Ache of Guilt.” We should be very careful. It is simply not the case that the experience of war always turns thoughtless adolescents into life-long pacifists. The reality is vastly more complex. Historically, some of the most politically dangerous people have been veterans, even authentic war heroes. To think that no one could want renewed war if they knew what it was really like is not true at all; it’s the All-Quiet-On-the-Western-Front fallacy. Gray writes about men who found the experience of peace profoundly empty, so empty that it could produce a nostalgia for times when things happened and one’s relationships with others was not perpetually optional. That doesn’t mean that the returning soldiers don’t remember how awful it all had been, but that the boredom of a life without events can sometimes seem even worse. Succumbing to that can be and is resisted, of course, but that it is one of the lingering wounds of war is a fact.) 

Richard White, Railroaded: the Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (There aren’t any quantum leaps in history. If the great transitions in society seem mysterious, it’s simply because we mostly don’t bother to figure out how they took place or, as is certainly the case with many of the most momentous passages of American history, the processes are too embarrassing to recall. Several years ago it occurred to me that countless books, many of them admirable, have been published about the Founders and Abraham Lincoln but that works that covered the period between the end of the Civil War and the Progressive era have been far fewer or at least far more obscure. Even the dead zone between Jackson and Lincoln, the administrations of the Presidents that Jeopardy contestants get wrong, attracted more attention (Schlesinger, Sellers, Howe, Sean Wilentz). I scanned the shelves at Borders—it was towards the end of their run—but found an obvious gap, and it didn’t much help to ask the professional historians I know for some recommendations. What makes this lacuna surprising is that the Gilded Age was the inflation phase of the American Big Bang. It was in those years that the U.S. caught up with and then passed the other industrial powers and it became clear that our political power would also be decisive in the future. If you squint at the 19th Century to see the big shapes, the looming fact is that of the two monster powers, Russia was kept in check by the others while we were not. Of course there are some explanations for the lack of interest in the period. One of them is how badly we behaved as a people in the aftermath of the Civil War. That makes us reluctant to linger over our failures. One of the few really impressive historical works about the era is Eric Foner’s Reconstruction, a history as painful to read as Thucydides. It’s also true that the age was marked by a struggle between labor and capital that any serious historian would have to address. Not much commercial potential in writing labor history or retroactive muckraking. Or maybe it’s just that the period bores people. Evidently it bores me, I left the bookmark at page 88 of this well-written book even though I’m supposed to be interested in the topic.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Description of the World - Part 42

Sarah Bradford, Disraeli (When I was in grad school, my cohorts and I looked down on everything English (except the Beatles), in part because it was the time of the French invasion but mostly in reaction to the Old Blue reverence for everything British, which was quite obvious at the time even if the temple of the cult, the Yale Center for British Art, didn’t open until ’74. Our attitude was just as parochial as theirs, although I hope it is not a false memory that I occasionally voiced some misgivings about it at the time. I certainly wasn’t above snarking about English civilization and especially English thinkers. “It’s telling,” I used to say, “that the greatest English philosopher was an Austrian.” (These days I’d say, he was a Scot.) Of course when I was young, I didn’t even have much respect for Charles Darwin, a judgment that astonishes me in retrospect. It wasn’t that I had even the slightest doubt about the reality of evolution—as a small child I learned of the overwhelming evidence for it from my father’s historical geology textbook—but I thought of Darwin as a rather unsophisticated fellow who solved the mystery the way beef-witted detectives uncover a crime, i.e., by stumbling over a large corpse. Natural selection? Wasn’t that an obvious idea? You didn’t have to be deep to figure that out. In those days I wanted to be deep. Granted the prejudices I acquired in my school days, it’s rather surprising to discover how much I’ve read about the English over my adult life. Why did I pick up a substantial biography of Disraeli in the early ‘80s? Perhaps it was because I had already encountered and enjoyed some of the writings of his father Isaac and wanted to find out how you get from a scholarly if rather whimsical Jew to a Tory prime minister, who, incidentally, famously took the side of Bishop Wilberforce and the angels against Charles Darwin.)

William H. Prescott, Conquest of Mexico (As I think I mentioned, I don’t know if I got through the Conquest of Peru, but I believe I did read this book. I may have liked it better simply because Cortez is an entirely more attractive character than Pizarro. Even the best of the conquistadors were brutal, of course, which is why the Black Legend is not just a legend. The fact that they, some of ‘em anyhow, were inspired by religious and chivalrous fantasies, doesn’t change that. Don Quixote thought of himself as a sort of Amadis de Castile, but Cervantes portrayed him as more of a dangerous madman than a cute old man all the same. Speaking of madmen: the first parts of Aristo’s poem about another crazy knight [Orlando Furioso] appeared in 1516. Cortez set off for Mexico and adventures comparably romantic, hallucinatory, and bloody in 1519. Fortunately for his reputation, he attacked the only people on Earth who were even crueler than the Spanish.)

Edward Crankshaw, Bismarck (Since defenders of reaction are rather plentiful these days, it perhaps behooves us to pay attention to their character traits. The author writes of the young Bismarck, “… he brought to the defense of reaction the classic behaviour of the young rebel, and the resultant mixture is unusual indeed.” I wrote in the margin “Disraeli?” I could have mentioned a great many less impressive figures. I give Bismarck considerable credit for retaining a sense of realism about his politics, but there really are quite few idiot reactionaries that began their careers as idiot radicals and probably vice versa. I believe the aging William F. Buckley wrote someplace that if he had it to do all over again, he might have been a Communist. These guys are born plotters. Crankshaw says about his subject, “The tragic Bismarckian paradox was that this great hero of the people who liked to be led was not a leader at all. He was a manipulator.” Back in my first year or two of college, when I was still officially a Republican, the would-be supremos of the tiny conservative club at Pomona would scheme behind each other’s backs and pull me aside to get my support for a coup, all in order to seize a chairmanship that wouldn’t even matter on a resume. Of course Bismarck’s schemes did matter. The run-up to the Franco-Prussian war reads like an episode of House of Cards. Apropos of some of his statements at the time, Crankshaw writes, “It would be interesting to know where Bismarck drew the line between lying and not lying. That such a line existed somewhere in his mind is evident from the last remark; but to the outsider it remains invisible.” You could ask the same question about Ted Cruz, the most Bismarckian, or at least the most intelligent, of the current crop.)

Richard Gough, The History of Myddle (The pews in English churches were assigned to local families in order of their standing in the community so that it was possible for the local antiquary Richard Gough to chronicle the whole parish using a chart of the church as an index. The blurbs for the book liken it to Ladurie’s Montaillou, which reconstructs life in a medieval village by recourse to the records of the Inquisition; but at least formally, the better analog is Life: A User’s Manual [La Vie mode d’emploi] a novel by George Perec that narrates the interlocking lives of the inhabitants of a large apartment block in Paris. I can’t claim to have read this book in its entirely, though I’ve dipped into it from time to time. Many of the pages read like the duller parts of the Bible with lots of so and so begot so and so, but some sections are rather racy. Gough had a considerable education by the lights of his time—the book dates to 1700—but he could be rather rough in his judgments of his fellow villagers despite the frequent Latin quotations. In fact, he could be rough using the Latin quotations. For example, “Richard Tyler now living [!], of whom I may say, many had done wickedly, butt hee excelled them all.” Like Gough, I omit a complete list of Tyler’s sins,  which included knocking up somebody’s wife and then eventually knocking up the resulting bastard daughter. “Ex pede Herculem” I can well believe that country life is hardly an idyll. I knew an Englishman who somehow fetched up in a West Virginia college and attempted to begin his career as a rural sociologist by conducting field work in the surrounding hills. His notes had began to resemble the rough draft of a Faulkner novel with accounts of incest and overlooked homicides before he suddenly switched over to writing purely theoretical papers at the extremely persuasive suggestion of a local sheriff who, or so I gathered from the rather sketchy account I got in a bar one night, observed local custom by locking his wife in the basement when he had to be away on business.)

Francis Parkman, France and England in North America, Volume II (I once owned the first volume of this set, but left it in a taxi cab in Fort Lauderdale before I could read more than the first book of the series, The Pioneers of France in the New World. I’ve regretted that ever since. I find Parkman’s narrative highly readable, and there’s something strangely pleasurable about reading of the extraordinarily violent events that took occurred in places with domesticated names. There really was a sack of Schenectady. I marked off one anecdote in particular that tells how a Jesuit nagged one Chief Rat of the Michillimackinac Hurons to put an Iroquois prisoner “in the kettle” in the interest of French policy—the governor was worried that the Hurons were sparing their captive as a prelude to a rapprochement with the Iroquois. Parkman assures us in a footnote, which quotes the French source for this episode that “metter a la chaudière, though derived from cannibal practices, is often used figuratively for torturing and killing.” That’s a relief. Parkman’s account of the deaths of Wolfe and Montcalm at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham is probably the most famous set piece of this series of books, but his account of the capture of Louisbourg by Massachusetts militia men under William Pepperill in 1745 made a bigger impression on me. The successful expedition was a colonial initiative, and thirty years later the Americans remembered what they had been able accomplish on their own. They also remembered that Lousibourg had been trade back to the French in exchange for Madras by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Description of the World - Part 41

Third shelf

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 14th edition (An entertaining compendium of cultural detritus that was my go-to bathroom reading in the constipated 90s. Where else would you learn about the Limbus Fatuorum where the souls of those too stupid to blame and yet an embarrassment to heaven are stored after death. “All these, upwhirled aloft,/Fly o’er the backside of the world far-off/Into a Limbo large and broad, once called/the Paradise of Fools.” [Milton]*  I also particularly enjoyed the proverb “Great cry and little wool, as the Devil said when he sheared the hogs.” Pretty well describes the results of trolling the commentators on the National Review website.

*Question for class discussion. When I was 14, I got the measles and was seriously ill for weeks, indeed, I was delirious with fever for several days. Since I couldn’t sleep, the radio was left on beside my bed and I had to listen to the Battle of New Orleans Song—“In 1814 we took a little trip/Along with Gen’ral Jackson/Down the mighty Mississip’”—over and over again. When that wasn’t going on, my mother read to me. In fact she read me Paradise Lost in its entirely, more because she actually liked Milton a lot than because it was an obvious therapeutic choice. So here’s my question. If you seriously believe that everything you experience leaves a memory, albeit one you can’t retrieve by normal recollection, does that mean that I read the passage about the Paradise of Fools differently when I encountered it in Brewer’s than I would have had I never heard it before? Really?)

Mario Rabinowitz, “Weighing the Universe and its Smallest Constituents,” a paper from the IEEE Engineering review, November 1990 (I did some work for Dr. Rabinowitz in the 90s—as I see from the inscription, he gave me this offprint in ’92. He calculates the mass the the universe at approximately 1054 kilograms. It should be remembered that this was the weight a quarter of a century ago. The universe should report any unexplained weight loss that occurred since that time to its physicist.)

John Assmann, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization (Assmann is an egyptologist from Heidelberg University; but his ideas about the nature of social memory, the role of literary canons, and the origins of history are not the work of a narrow specialist—the chart on page 257 reflects an extraordinary level of theoretical ambition. Assmann never discusses the Axial Age concept, but his work reminded me of Jaspers nonetheless, not in its conclusions but in its scope. In the years after World War II, German thinkers were under a cloud for obvious reasons; and, with the exception of Heidegger and some of the Frankfort school people, the foreign intellectuals who agitated Americans were mostly French. For the last couple of decades, I’ve found myself reading Germans more and swiping their ideas. The notion that I’ve appropriate most shamelessly from Assmann is his distinction between the long-term memory of societies, which can span centuries or millennia, and the living memory of people, which is barely 80 years or so. Actually, Assmann’s system is three-fold because long-term memory is typically divided between the memory of origins, which is typically vivid and mythologized, celebrated in ritual and solemnly recounted in canonical writings, and the stuff that happened between the founders and your grandparents, i.e., the stuff that only professional historians give a damn about.)

Valorie Hutt, The Aquarian: 1995-1997 (This is a bound copy of the astrology magazine my sister published and mostly wrote for a couple of years. It’s a meaningful memento to me because of her even though nothing is more alien to my way of thinking than astrology. I used to tell my sister and her compatriots that she had to forgive my skepticism.—“You know how us Geminis are!”—but I’m not exactly a skeptic on this topic.  My antipathy towards astrology isn’t fundamentally because of its obvious shortcomings as an explanation of anything, however. Being wrong’s OK—I’m probably wrong about everything I think and that doesn’t make me nervous or and it certainly doesn’t shut me up. I also collect and cherish the improbably theories of others. I just don’t like astrology aesthetically. It’s right up there with Kern Country, raspberry ribbon candy, and the shape of Scotland in the list of things for which I feel an inexplicable dislike. Val had a better sense of humor about all this than I do. She even reprinted in her magazine a nonsense poem I sent her in a letter:

As Good as it Gets

All on a hot and wintry day,
Right here, which is to say,
Very far away,

I came to like a catastrophe,
My rusty eyes
Focusing on the pimple-spangled fundament 
of a departing dream,
Obscure astrology.
Then, for the first time in my life,
As I often do,
I blessed the children and the animals
Just in case I’m God almighty and forgot.
If the sigh I heard were my own,
I would have been alone,
But as it was
There was nobody there but me.)

R.J.W.Evans, Rudolf II and His World: A Study in Intellectual History 1576-1612 (I’ve long had a certain affection for Rudolf, perhaps because he looked a little like my Uncle Ralph if you judge by his bust and not by Archimboldo’s portrait of him as the God Vertumnus. He had some other things going for him: he was a notable patron of the arts, the employer of Kepler and host to Tycho Brahe, and a keeper of the peace as the Holy Roman Emperor. On the other hand, he was also a devotee of the occult, at the end a weak and indecisive leader, and perhaps frankly mad. He belonged to a sliver of time between the dying Renaissance and the early Baroque, the same time as Shakespeare and Cervantes. After his brother Matthias deposed him and the Hapsburgs reverted to their role as active defenders of the Roman faith, the stage was set for the Defenestration of Prague and the catastrophe of the Thirty Years War that followed it. The Evans book focuses on the intellectual and artistic side of a great historical transition, but it’s perhaps more about an ending than a beginning.)

Monday, January 11, 2016

Description of the World - Part 40

Jeffrey Herf, Reactionary Modernism: Technology, culture, and politics in Weimar and the Third Reich (It’s easy to think of the various right-wing dictators as cynics who reject the values that go along with modern science but not the weapons and other technologies that science makes possible. I’ve done that myself, though I should know better. You can’t help living in your own times, and the reactionaries of the last two centuries were modernists in their own fashion. The reactionaries didn’t simply reject technology or put up with it for purely utilitarian reasons. They mythologized it, glamorized it, sometimes saw it as a visible and terrible manifestation of human will. That’s still true. The same American politicians who angrily reject the conclusions of the climatologists love Tom Clancy novels and fetishize guns and drones.)

Ernst Nolte, Three Faces of Fascism: Action Francaise, Italian Fascism, National Socialism (What I know of Nolte’s take on fascism is derived from secondary sources and things I read about the author’s later controversial statements about Nazism and the Holocaust. The English translation of the book came out in ’65, and in those days I didn’t always read what I bought. I doubt if my work habits got any better, more that reading books becomes easier and easier because you already have a framework for the new facts and opinions you encounter. Nolte looked on the various forms of fascism as negative phenomena, specifically as rejections of transcendence, aka, Marxism and modernity. He didn’t have very much patience for the sociological explanations I favor. As a cultural conservative and German philosopher—he studied under Heidegger—it’s small wonder that he understood events in a highfalutin, meta-historical fashion. On the other hand, in his later career he rejected the idea that Nazism had been an unprecedented and inexplicable event. He saw the Shoah, in particular as having been partly inspired by the Armenian genocide and the Soviet Gulag, claims that set off a noisy debate in Germany, the so-called Historikerstreit. I’m inclined to think that fascism, sensu latu, that is actually a business-as-usual political stance; but we find difficult to understand it as such because we judge it by its most obscene outlier. Nationalism, machismo, xenophobia, authoritarianism, and contempt for parliamentary democracy are a routine and recurrent constellation of traits that has never wanted for defenders among the intellectuals as well as the people at large. Since we’ve got to deal with this sort of thing again these days, it behooves us not to mystify the phenomenon or get complacent about Trump or Cruz because it is perfectly true that neither one of them is Hitler. Still, I don’t think that we should even romanticize the Holocaust as a unique horror as if it were the only apocalyptic manifestation of the last century: I count the Gulag, Nanking, and Hiroshima on my short list. I also keep in mind that the leaders of the most powerful nations spent most of the last seventy years preparing to destroy the Northern hemisphere.)  

Ellen Dwyer, Homes for the Mad: Life Inside Two Nineteenth Century Asylums (Ellen Dwyer is an old friend of mine and I would have read her book whatever its subject, but I have had an interest in the confinement of the insane for a long time and appreciated her careful examination of the institutional and human reality of the practice. It isn’t ancient history, after all. People forget that thought the building of asylums took place on an industrial scale in 19th Century America, it continued in the next and only began to end with the emptying of the asylums in the 60s and 70s. I was born in Santa Paula, California not all that far from Camarillo State Mental Hospital, an immense facility that had over 7,000 patients/inmates in it heyday. I remember seeing the place from the freeway. Jokes about Camarillo were common on early television. The transition to the current system or non system in which the insane are treated as outpatients, housed in prisons, or left on their own to roam the streets took place during my early adulthood. It was a major issue of intellectual debate and political contention, a snag that that formed as several tendencies and themes latched on to one another. Foucault’s first major book was on the topic of the confinement of the insane. Although the reality of the condition is merely miserable, certain forms of insanity, especially schizophrenia, were romanticized during the psychedelic era, not only by literary folks, musicians, and cultural entrepreneurs but by psychiatrists such as R.D. Laing. Like drug use and political utopianism, it was part of the search for transcendence that defined the times. Phenomenological approaches to madness focused neither on its material or functional causes or its possible cure but obsessed on the inward experiences of the mad, which were regarded with respect if not envy. How helpful this attitude was to the patient is unclear. It seemed you could always tell if you were reading a case study by a practitioner of existential psychiatry because the patient commits suicide at the end. For those in this current of thought, confining a person because of their nonstandard view of the world seemed like a denial of their dignity, of the validity of their inwardness. There was also a libertarian version of this line of thought. Thomas Szasz denied that there was such a thing as mental illness, though people certainly suffered from what he called problems in living, some of which could benefit from psychiatric treatment—Szasz was an orthodox Freudian in his own practice. He maintained that many of the insane were simply faking it and many others were people whose behavior or ideas were criminal or merely inconvenient to their families or to political authority. Szasz drew on a large literature about the abuse of commitment by families and governments. Railroading, as it was called, was certainly a real thing; and the Soviets resorted to psychiatric confinement in the ‘60s and ‘70s as a replacement for the Gulag. Whatever you think of Szasz, there sociological evidence of the rationality if not premeditation involved in the behavior of the insane surfaced at about the same time. The social psychologist Benjamin Braginski is best know for studies that showed that chronic schizophrenics could control their behavior, appearing crazier when they were afraid they were going to be released and less crazy when they were trying to get moved to a less restrictive ward. He once showed me an enormous map of Connecticut that was stuck with pushpins for every person who had been committed to a mental hospital. It looked like one of those old cholera maps. The cases were obviously clustered, especially in poorer areas. Braginski figured that the example of one person who escaped their unpleasant social and familial circumstances by escaping to the asylum would inspire others in the neighborhood to follow suit—the subtitle of Methods of Madness, the book he wrote with his wife, is the Mental Hospital as a Last Resort. I don’t know if Braginski was a liberal or a conservative in politics; there was opposition to mass commitment from both sides. The Conservatives thought of the big mental hospitals as welfare and their inmates as freeloaders, and many of them were also concerned that the men in white coats might be coming for them—paranoia was one of the most prevalent problems in living of the radial right in the ‘50s and ‘60s just as it is today. The liberals had their own civil rights concerns about commitment and also believed, with good reason, that institutionalization was both ineffective and inhumane. Meanwhile, the advent of new pharmaceuticals made it feasible to control some of the worst manifestations of insanity without locking people up; and governments were less and less willing or able to pay for the big asylums. Granted the political realities, how the emptying of madhouses played out shouldn’t have surprised anybody. The evicted patients weren’t supposed to be thrown out on the street without help. The optimists imagined that out patient programs and help with housing and jobs would await them, but the states and localities had every reason not to do that. Anyhow, during a period of rapidly rising crime rates the public was more eager to punish deviants than to treat them even if the prisons were more expensive than the hospitals. Anyhow, since the insurance companies were not going to pay for long-term psychotherapy anymore, it was conveniently concluded that talking doesn’t work even when it does and pills do work, even when they don’t. You don’t need in-patient hospitals to hand out pills. The approach to dealing with insanity which has characterized the last several decades seems to be failing, which is to say, it is beginning to be recognized as a failure; but what new policies are possible is unclear. Even the NRA calls for improvements in the mental health system, but what does that mean in practice? Changing the laws so that those of dubious sanity will be subject to intense surveillance and control raises its own civil rights issues since it makes the whole country into an asylum, a madhouse without walls. Do we really care enough about the inhabitants of the nation to pay for psychiatrists who are something better than parole officers?  )