Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Description of the World - Part 70

Francis L. Wellman, The Art of Cross-Examination (I bought this book in the early 60s from a store across Crenshaw Avenue from El Camino Jr. College. I mention this detail, which I remember for some other inexplicable reason, because it reminds me of how I came to be a reader of such various things. Part of it is simply a reflection of a defect of character, a permanent lack of focus; but the difficulty of acquiring books of any kind had something to do with it too. I read what I could find. Gardena had dreadful libraries and the tiny El Camino shop was the nearest bookstore if you don’t count the used furniture store whose owner was more interested in selling bookcases than books and, in any case, had little use for anything not printed in Hebrew letters. Come to think of it, drug stores commonly had revolving racks of pocketbooks in those days so I acquired things from that source too. For the most part, what I read was all a matter of random access, exacerbated from the fact that I never really had a mentor or adviser to structure my reading. For that matter, very little of what I know was ever taught to me. I’m a living warning of the consequences of self- education. Which is how I came to read a practical guide to grilling a witness even though I never expected to be a lawyer. Oddly, this book is a very good read, especially the interrogations in the back, though I can’t find a transcription of the courtroom downfall of Oscar Wilde there, though I was sure that this book was where I read it. I guess a demonstration of the fallibility of memory is appropriate apropos a book on testimony. I have a certain affinity for Wilde. We both are guilty of a sin that dare not speak its name. Not homosexuality—I prefer girls—but a fatal proclivity for one liners. Wilde got into trouble on the stand when he tried to be too clever during a cross examination and that keyword made me think I’d read about the case in a book on cross examinations.)

Theodore Zeldin, France 1848-1945: Intellect and Pride (This is one section of the author’s big book on France. I have the entire work bound in one or two volumes around here someplace; and in one form or another I’ve read the same chapters several times in the interest of getting and keeping a handle on things French—I have a reputation for having a good memory, but the half life of information in my head is no longer than anybody else’s. I just keep relearning the same things.)

G.J.A. O’Toole, The Spanish War; An American Epic 1898 (Since we acquired Puerto Rico during this brief spasm of traditional imperialism, it seems appropriate to leaf through this book a month after Maria hit. Acquiring bits and pieces of the Caribbean was an obsession of Southerners both before and after the Civil War—Jefferson Davis wrote letters in support of annexing Cuba from exile. Of course the Confederates didn’t have a monopoly on imperial dreams—Grant and his cohorts had designs on getting the Dominican Republic—but it’s interesting to learn how many old Rebs had a hand in the Spanish American War including Robert E. Lee’s nephew Fitzhugh Lee who was the American consul in Havana when the Maine blew up and Joseph Wheeler. Both of them were Generals in both the Civil and Spanish wars. Wheeler, at least was good at it, perhaps as good as the more famous cavalry leader Bedford Forrest. Of course we didn’t actually annex Cuba, and the war seemed to quench for some time the taste of the American public for literal empire building. The permanent anomaly that is Puerto Rico is good evidence of the downside of stealing other people’s real estate. The war, after all, was pure piracy.)

Richard Jenkins, Pierre Bourdieu (In the extremely unlikely event anybody ever comes up with the theory, let me assure everyone here and now my use of the word hexis as a sometime nom de guerre on the Internet and as part of my email address has nothing to do with Pierre Bourdieu, who uses the word and habitus, its Latin semi-equivalent, in somewhat idiosyncratic ways. I just picked up hexis because I liked the sound of it, though I knew it meant something like disposition in GreekI probably encountered it in Ross’ little book on Aristotle. That said, I sometimes find my thinking getting close to Bourdieu’s or to what I imagine Bourdieu was thinking. I make no strong claims on that score. The one thing I’m sure about is that I find his writing extraordinarily opaque, which is why I’ve resorted to high-brow Monarch notes like this one and even looked up habitus on Wikipedia. Incidentally, Jenkins is similarly unsure if he understands what Bourdieu is driving at.

Bourdieu and I have this much in common. We’re both trying to grasp what it’s like to be part of the hive mind of humanity.* In some respects I’m still trying to parse the word “conditioned” as in individual thinking is conditioned by culture. When I was a kid, I rebelled (like everybody else) at the suggestion that I was a puppet whose strings were being pulled by something called Society. That seemed implausible and not simply because the idea violated the American ideology of individualism. For one thing, since there’s nobody here but us chickens, society is just us and our stuff. It isn’t materially separate. Meanwhile, the occurrence of deviancy and creativity has to be accounted for. If Society is God, as Comte taught us, it isn’t just the devil he’s got on a long leash. Agency is not just a nice thing to believe in. It’s a reality, though, a reality that didn’t look very impressive from where I was and am sitting. There are always choices, but they are drastically constrained. You get to play. Indeed, you have to play. Unfortunately (or fortunately) the options are limited by the grammar of the game, which is why deviance so often turns out to be another form of conformity. In the play I wrote for my junior high school graduation, I had a character claim that “People make choices. They’re the only things in the universe that make choices.” Sixty years later, I’m a little less impressed about that.

*According to Nagel, it’s hard to know what it’s like to be a bat because we aren’t bats. I’ve discovered that it’s hard to know what it’s like to be a human being because we are human beings.)

Zeev Sternhell with Mario Sznajder and Maia Asferi, The Birth of Fascist Ideology (Sternhell doesn’t regard fascism as a freak but as an ideology with continuing appeal that can’t be tisk-tisked away as we always and fruitlessly try to do with other persistent right wing ideas. I agree. Nazism really was an aberration, and thinking of it when we hear the word fascism is rather like taking a penguin as your idea of a bird. You can certainly make the case that the word fascism should be reserved for a very specific, time-bound phenomenon, and if I were an empirical social scientist like Michael Mann, I’d probably opt for something like that, though current reactionary-populist movements in the U.S. and many other countries are coming pretty close to satisfying even the most stringent sociological criteria. Sternhell’s somewhat wider version also makes historical sense however. Because the fascist revolt against liberalism and democracy he describes is more specific than a mere revulsion against the Enlightenment, because in its own way it aspires to be hypermodern rather than traditionalist, I think of it as vulgar Nietzscheanism. Sorel, the philosophe who, as Sternhell notes, was never a philosopher and knew it, stood for a revaluation of all values, for a revolution built on myths rather than on some ineluctable historical dialectic. A parody of Zarathustra stands in for Marx and a fortiori for Hegel. There’s a lot of that going on in the strutting il Duce but also in Lenin’s strikingly voluntaristic version of Marxism. Not for nothing did both the Communists and the Fascists send delegations to Sorel’s funeral.

One fragment of from Mussolini’s description of Sorel has stuck with me for years for obvious reasons: “library-devouring pensioner.” Ouch.

A passage worth quoting, which is also rather uncomfortable: “If fascism wished to reap all the benefits of the modern age, to exploit all the technological achievements of capitalism, if it never questioned the idea that market forces and private property were part of the natural order of things, it had a horror of the so-called bourgeois, or as Nietzsche called them, modern values: universalism, individualism, progress, natural rights, and equality. Thus, fascism adopted the economic aspect of liberalism but completely denied its philosophical principles and the intellectual and moral heritage of modernity.”)

Max Hastings,  Bomber Command: Churchill’s Epic Campaign (About the only excuse I can come up with for reading military history is that getting into the details of what war is really is just about the only way for non-participants to come to understand just how vicious and stupid it is. Kids and men who never grow up continue to believe that the virtuous and clever win with acceptable losses against serious opponents when it always comes down to attrition. Maybe we’d have a different view of things if we weren’t always talking to survivors, but it’s hard to debrief the dead. Hasting’s anecdotes are terrifying enough for me.)

Richard Rhodes, The Making of Atomic Bomb (As far as I know, this book, which won a deserved Pulitzer, is still the standard account of the building of the bomb. In the end, the Manhattan Project was a huge exercise in what one of the scientist called “sweet engineering.” It was damned hard to pull off and fortunately still is, but physicists anticipated the possibility a long time before Los Alamos—I underlined the bit about how Rutherford had quipped (in 1903) how “some fool in a laboratory might blow up the universe unawares;” but you didn’t have to be one of the Gods of physics to get the picture. My Dad told me that his physics prof at UCLA had foretold the bomb circa 1930. Once you recognized that atoms had nuclei with mulitiple positively charged particles, it was obvious that only a tremendously strong force could hold them together against their mutual repulsion The nucleus is like a tightly compressed spring. When a fission bomb detonates, the kinetic energy of the particles is actually electro-magnetic in origin, though it would been amateur branding to have called it the electric bomb and other forms of energy release are involved.)