Saturday, March 05, 2016

Description of the World - Part 59

Albert O. Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy (I knew very little about Hirschman when I encountered this book. I don’t think I fully appreciated the wisdom of the man until I read Exit, Voice, Loyalty. I also rather misread the Rhetoric book or at least gave it a bit of spin. Hirschman writes about how reactionary thinkers that projects of political liberation routinely routinely result in less freedom or simply prove impossible or have various bad consequences.  I’ve been more impressed with the same sort of programmatic pessimism applied to technology. Perversity, futility, and jeopardy certainly catch the drift of anti-environmentalism. Liberals who quote Hirschman sometimes miss the other side of his argument: if the right overestimates the difficulties of doing anything, the left tends to under estimate them. Of course Hirschman is also known for the idea of the hiding hand, which points to the advantages of positive thinking, which is to say overly optimistic expectations. It’s perhaps a good thing that we don’t realize that accomplishing great things requires unpredictable creativity. Things always take longer than you expect, but you can’t win if you don’t play.)

J.C.Beaglehole, The Life of Captain James Cook (Great big exhaustive biographies seem to be making a comeback as witness Caro’s L.B.J. biography. Big books seem fitting for big persons. If they’re dull, the fault generally lies with the author, not the subject, though Beaglehole had a head start granted Cook’s adventurous life. Since Cook died in his early 50s, killed by Hawaiians but already ground down by command of three world-spanning expeditions back to back, it’s all the more astonishing that 700 pages doesn’t seem too much. Before Cook left on his first great voyage, he got informal instructions from the Earl of Morton who recommended “to exercise the utmost patience and forbearance with respect to the Natives of the several Lands where the Ship may touch. To check the petulance of the Sailors, and restrain the wanton use of Fire Arms. To have it still in view that sheding the blood of those people is a crime of the highest nature…They are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit…They may naturally and justly attempt to repel intruders, whom they may apprehend are come to disturbs them in the quiet possession of their country, whether that apprehension be well or ill founded.” I wrote in the margin: “the original Prime Directive.” Cook does remind me of Picard, though in the event the British ended up being sufficiently high handed.)

Lawrence M. Friedman, A History of American Law (I considered becoming an attorney for about twenty minutes in 1966, not because I had lost interest in philosophy, but because academia seemed to me a lousy place to practice philosophy and I had to do something. I kept a certain interest in jurisprudence if not law itself later on, even listening to jurisprudence classes from the hallway at Yale. I don’t think much of it stuck. I note that virtually the only note in this tome was appended to an ancient case from colonial Massachusetts: “In 1673, Benjamin Goad, ‘being instigated by the Devil, committed the ‘unnatural & horrid act of Bestiality on a mare in the highway or field.’ This was in the afternoon, ‘the sun being two howers high.’ The Court of Assistants sentenced him to hang; and the court also ordered ‘that the mare you abused before your execution in your sight shall be knocked on the head.’” I wrote in the margin “pretty unfair to the horse.”)

Maria Reidelbach, Complete Mad: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine (This anthology contains several of the Mad pieces that did more to shape my thinking than any point of common law. For example, it reprints the article from Mad #47 ‘How to be a Mad Non-Comformist.’ which I found very meaningful and even comforting at a time when I realized I didn’t fit in very well with people who didn’t fit in very well. All these years later, however, it still bothers me that the description of ordinary non-conformists says they patronize ‘obscure foreign language pictures with the sub-titles in pidgin Swahili,” but the illustration shows a picture subtitled in Sanskrit. Reidelbach also resurrects the “Potrezebie System of Weights and Measures,” which was the first publication of Donald Knuth, the great mavin of computer algorithms. I’m still envious of the juvenile Knuth for getting a publication in Mad with with illustrations by Wood no less.)

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Description of the World - Part 58

N.J.G.Pounds, An Historical Geography of Europe (I don’t read fact-filled books like this in the expectation that I’ll remember a large fraction of their contents. Mostly I do so to keep my understanding of history and geography at a reasonable level by relearning things I first learned long ago. Meanwhile I apply to reading what amounts to management by exception, looking for the particulars that upset my expectations. I’m also looking for significant details. “In 1546 the emperor Charles V, when passing along the bank of the river Meuse, noted the city of VIllefranche on the opposite shore. ‘Whose is it,’ he asked, ‘mine or the King of France’s?’ Then ‘the records of the district…were brought and examined, and it was shown that the inhabitants…were subject of the French king.’ It was typical of medieval kingship that the limits of its authority were in many areas uncertain or unknown, and when questions arose, it was usual to ask the local population to whom they owned their loyalty. Such uncertainties were one by one cleared up as they arose, but some remained until the eighteenth century.” The ambiguity of frontiers wasn’t news to me. Lucien Febvre had made the same point in a well-known essay, but the anecdote makes it better. Another item, one which reinforces my suspicion that history moves faster than we suppose: “About 1530, corn, the first new World crop to be adopted in the Old, was being gown in Castile.”)

Claude Manceron,The Wind from America (The last four years of the American Revolution narrated as part of the history of France. The culminating event of the period isn’t Yorktown but the birth (finally) of a male heir to Louis XVI. Manceron’s anecdotal approach makes the book a considerably less strenuous read than Franco Venturi, but he cheats—you always know where things are headed.)

Clay Blair, Jr., Silent Victory: the U.S. Submarine War Against Japan (The War in the Pacific was a great demonstration of what human stupidity can accomplish, beginning, of course, with the biggest and best: the Japanese decision to attack a nation they knew would overwhelm them. We couldn’t match that one, but we had our moments. For example, even though we could intercept and decode American military messages, we didn’t ambush and shoot down Douglas MacArthur’s plane, thus ensuring that the war would last an additional six months to a year and that thousands of Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, Chinese, Filipinos, and Japanese would die to satisfy the vanity of an old imperialist. There were smaller errors, too. In the submarine war, we spent the first part of the war bouncing defective torpedoes off Japanese freighters and tankers because of the pig headedness of the relevant Navy departments. That admitted, though, the submariners contributed more to victory than almost any other element of our military. Their performance contrasted sharply with their Japanese counterparts who never loosed their fleet of excellent subs (and excellent torpedoes) against our shipping lanes.)

Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (This copy originally belonged to my ex-wife—I think there’s another copy of the book around here some place. I find reading her annotations more interesting than managing to have yet another thought about a book that has probably been read too many times by too many people to be readable for the foreseeable future. Rita was far more idealistic and morally rigorous than I’ve ever been. She wrote “Let justice be done though the heaven’s fall” on the flyleaf while I’ve more than once protested that even the categorical imperative shouldn’t be treated as a suicide note.)

Peter Gay, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud (I’m not sure when or why I developed an aversion to Peter Gay, but the nit-picking annotations in this book prove that it was very much in evidence circa 1984. I even bitch about his adjectives, quite unfairly. The content of the book interested me enough to overcome my prejudices, however. The book is about sex in a purportedly straight-laced century. “This much should now be plain: the bourgeois experience was far richer than its expression, rich as that was; and it included a substantial measure of sensuality for both sexes, and of candor—in sheltered surroundings.” Gay quotes a length from the diaries of Mabel Loomis Todd to make the point—not even the Curies had so much fun experimenting together as Mabel and David. Well, at least in England, the Regency had been as raunchy as Victoria’s reign was repressed; but an obsession with sexuality, however modulated, appears to be something of a constant in cultural history. There are sex scenes in Tom Clancy novels.* We’re supposedly living in a period of hyper-sexuality, and yet we treat sexual offenses as worse than bloody murder.

*Speaking of constants. Everybody who’s ever written a novel or even begun one has congratulated themselves on the daring of their sex scenes even though their readers, if there are any, are seldom impressed.)

Jane F. Dunnigan and Austin Bay, A Quick & Dirty Guide to War: Briefings on Present and Potential Wars (This instant book came out the same year as Gay’s book and has something in common with it. ’86 was about the last chance to take Freud seriously in an English language publication, and it was also a golden moment for military intellectuals or would-be intellectuals to get their bets down on numbers that shortly wouldn’t be on the wheel. Dunnigan estimates the likelihood of various outcomes for the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan but doesn’t even consider the possibility that the Russians would give up, go home, and then have a revolution. Considering the military confrontation between NATO and the Warsaw pact, he doesn’t include the collapse of communism as even a remote possibility, though he does imagine a war of liberation waged from outside the Union. Bad timing. If you bat .300, you’re a star in baseball. The Mendoza line for war game enthusiasts is closer to .000.)

Carlo Ginzburg, Night Battles: Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth Centuries (The Inquisition knew what it was going to find; and because it had ways of making you talk, it usually found it. The benandanti were peasants who participated in rituals featuring nocturnal dream battles against witches. The Inquisitors managed to interpret their activities as heretical, indeed a form of witchcraft, and eventually even convinced some of the peasants themselves. An old story. If you read the Witches’ Hammer and similar books, you’ll discover that an earlier generation of witch hunters had already turned witchcraft, at least in their own minds, into a form of heresy. For that matter, it’s unclear whether the heretics of Languedoc were really members of a sect of Cathars with a worked out dualist theology and elaborate rituals before all those Dominicans decided they were followers of Mani and created the reality of the heresy. The Inquisitors had learned all about the Manichees from reading Augustine, who had once been one. Maybe they figured that there was no reason to develop arguments against a new enemy when you could simply recycle the old arguments after convincing yourself that you knew what the heretics really thought. The same sort of thing happens in politics. If you hang around the comment threads of the National Review website, you’ll discover that you are actually a 1930s-style fellow traveller and will be earnestly entreated to give up the fantasy that the Soviet Union is a worker’s paradise.)