"So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information." --George Orwell
"Anbody can make history. Only a great man can write it."--Oscar Wilde
Saturday, November 15, 2003
Robert Graves had a way with words. His description of Dylan Thomas: "a demagogic Welsh masturbator who failed to pay his bills." That quotation appears in a discussion of Thomas's posthumous reputation, and includes lots of interesting tidbits. (Kingsley Amis, for instance, was an executor of Thomas's estate.)
Today's Guardian also includes a review of Norman Davies's new book on the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1944 and a review of two new studies of the Warsaw ghetto more generally. These reviews are interesting in their own right, but they also reminded me of my reaction to the discussion in a Polish history class I once took. "Ever since his remarkable history of Poland, God's Playground," The Guardian writes, "Davies has been widely recognised as the historian of that benighted country." This is a somewhat surprising development, I would argue, since Davies is a British scholar--and one might expect the most prominent historian of any given country to be one of that country's natives. (I suspect that Poland's Communist past--and hence the inability of Polish historians to write honest accounts of their country's history--made it easier for a foreigner to rise to such prominence. If I'm not mistaken, Davies is something of a celebrity in Poland.) There are times, I suspect, when every historian of a foreign country wonders whether he (or she) should have chosen a different subject of study--I know vastly more about American history than I'll ever know about Russia, for instance, and the same is presumably true of most Americans.
The history of the Warsaw ghetto, however, is a case study of how it can be good for the historical profession when historians from one country look at the past of another. When the Warsaw uprising came up in my Polish history class, a student from Poland loudly denounced the Soviet Union for its attitude toward the uprising and denied that any Polish soldiers had killed Jews who escaped the uprising. Her opinions didn't just seem strong--they seemed unshakable, and impervious to debate or reasoned argument. As it happens, I think that her first conclusion was probably correct; according to The Guardian's review, Davies writes that
The second Guardian review, however, calls the role of the Poles into question. Gunnar Paulsson, it says, has "unearth[ed] shocking evidence that units of the Polish Home Army actually massacred Jews who emerged from hiding during the uprising in 1944." There's nothing stopping a Polish historian from openmindedly discussing the role of Poles in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, or a German from detailing Nazi atrocities. Nevertheless, it's sometimes easier to be objective when your background is different from that of the people you're studying.
The Cold War International History Project has posted an article on what one historian calls "the Cold War's longest coverup," the Soviet Union's role in instigating 1967's Six Day War between Israel and its neighbors. (via The History News Network) The question of whether the USSR intentionally sparked the war is apparently a matter of some controversy, but the article (and the information it links to) is interesting reading whatever you think of the question.
It's also fascinating for another reason: twelve years ago, when the USSR fell, historians hoped that the opening of the archives would settle some of the Cold War's most contested historiographical debates. Now, more than a decade later, some of the documents needed to udnerstand Soviet history have been released--but they often haven't had the effect that researchers had hoped. (Not to put the point too strongly, of course: newly released documents have made it possible to research many historical topics that would have been unthinkable before 1991.) This article is a case in point. The release of a secret 1967 report by Brezhnev has led one scholar to argue that the USSR "had no intention of inciting an armed conflict in the Middle East and that the June 1967 war was the result of grave miscalculations and of Soviet inability to control the Arabs" and another to claim that "intentionally instigated the Six-Day War by knowingly disinforming Egypt in mid-May 1967 that Israel was amassing troops on the Syrian frontier." Historical research, like life, is never simple.
What should you do if you want to become a famous historical novelist of naval adventures? As Jeet Heer writers in The National Post, you can start by fabricating lots of details about your personal life, just as Patrick O'Brian and C.S. Forester did.
What, exactly, is an Arab-American? Answering that question is one of the many challenges facing the organizers of a survey of changing attitudes since September 11.
Did the decline of written English begin with the excesses of the 1960s? John McWhorter apparently thinks so. McWhorter, a self-taught speaker of 12 languages and "the world's only straight musical-theater cast-album fanatic," argues in a new book that the decline of English was caused by the collapse of the distinction between the written and the oral.
Friday, November 14, 2003
This week's Spectator reviews a book called Great Smaller Museums of Europe. The book sounds charming, but not all the examples cited by the reviewer were as charming as he thought they were.
Regular readers of this blog know that I'm not a huge fan of Christopher Hitchens, as charming as he can sometimes be. I tend to prefer his articles on literature to his articles on politics, however, and this Hitchens article in Slate (about Master and Commander) is worth reading.
In my limited reading of O'Brian, I've always found Stephen Maturin more interesting than Jack Aubrey, so I'm highly sympathetic to Hitchens's argument. (I'd already noticed that Maturin was getting far less attention in the pre-film publicity.) An excerpt:
This is a great argument--and I'll refrain from commenting on how surprised I am to see Hitchens making it! I suspect that he's right in his criticism of how Peter Weir adapted two O'Brian novels to film, but I want to see the movie nonetheless...
Sid Blumenthal, a former Bill Clinton aide, has an article in the Guardian about Bush's betrayal of Tony Blair. Its conclusion? "Harold Macmillan remarked that after empire the British would act towards the Americans as the Greeks to the Romans. Though the Greeks were often tutors to the Romans, Macmillan neglected to mention that the Greeks were slaves." That's one way to put it, I suppose...
Via Arts and Letters Daily, I found this fascinating Asia Times article on America's leading foreign intelligence problem--the lack of spies adequately trained in Arabic and other languages. An excerpt:
This is an aspect of the problem that I'd never considered before. (In the past, I'd only thought of America's inability to train enough Americans in foreign languages; as the article puts it, "German and British universities once produced spies who could speak half a dozen Arab dialects and recite the Koran from memory. Today's only superpower cannot recruit enough Arabic translators to handle routine intercepts.") This article does not make me confident about the future...
What do Edward VII, Ernest Shackleford's disreputable brother, the theft of the Irish crown jewels, and a royal cover-up of a gay sex scandal have in common? According to a new TV documentary, they were all part of a 1907 scandal hidden by King Edward VII.
From today's Moscow Times:
The excitement never dies in Russia, it seems!
Sometimes I'm not totally sure what to make of A.O. Scott's movie reviews in The New York Times: he can be more intelligent and insightful than other reviewers, but sometimes he just misses the point. I enjoyed reading his review of Master and Commander (which I now want to see), though occasional comments of his amused me. "Aubrey (Mr. Crowe) is an ideal personification of modern executive authority," Scott writes, "the Harry Potter of the managerial class." Does that sentence sound bizarre to anyone else?
Thursday, November 13, 2003
The teaser trailer for the third Harry Potter movie is now available on the web. I'll have to watch it once I get home.
In general, I don't know whether I should be glad that they've hired a real director for the third movie, or whether I should worry that by far the best book in the series is about to be Hollywood-ized...
In other random Harry Potter news, the first book in the series has now been translated into Hindi. (The translator had to read the book 35 times in English to get a good feel for how the language sounded, he says.)
The Village Voice looks at the creation of the Iraqi Media Network, a Pentagon-sponsored media operation.
Jacqueline Kennedy may have considered suicide after JFK's assassination, according to recently released notes taken by a priest who counseled her. The release of these notes has sparked an ethics debate...
I'm glad I don't live in Albania. Consider the first paragraph of this New York Times article:
All isn't well in Eastern Europe, it seems...
Does everyone love Reagan? In Slate, David Greenberg looks at the transformation of Ronald Reagan's reputation over the last few years.
It would have been nice if Greenberg had discussed the ups and downs of Reagan's reputation in a little more detail (and hadn't used the start of his article to repeat uninteresting facts about a mediocre cancelled documentary.) One of his main points, however, bears repeating: "In forsaking insight into the antipathy he often engendered, [Reagan boosters] seek to render him a sunny, universally adored, wholly benign, and two-dimensional figurehead--a portrait that, even more than this idiotic docudrama, would utterly conceal for posterity the reasons that Ronald Reagan mattered." What's more, I think that if conservatives succeed in portraying Reagan as a bland, benign, and avuncular figure, he'll cease to be an effective political symbol--which, I'd argue, is a good thing.
Wednesday, November 12, 2003
In his essay "Such, Such Were the Joys," George Orwell describes his experiences in boarding school. The essay is charming at times (like many Orwell works), though it's far from the best that its author wrote. One passage, in particular, interested me:
Some random commentary:
On a mostly unrelated note, Susan and I appeared on WGN's radio show Extension 720 with Milt Rosenberg last night to compete with Northwestern in a QB-style competition. We won. Thankfully, we didn't need to tell Milt who plundered the Begams (or even who the Begams were.)
Update: A reader informs me that the line about bathing Whigs comes from an 1845 speech by Benjamin Disraeli, who said that "The right honorable gentleman [Sir Robert Peel] caught the Whigs bathing and walked away with their clothes." (The line refers more generally to an instance when one party steals the positions of another party for its own.)
Update 2: It seems that a man named William de la Pole, the first duke of Suffolk, was the man who was "beheaded in an open boat." (Jack Cade's revolt broke out soon afterward.) I wonder what an equivalently obscure fact from American history would be...
Mark Greif (my former TAP colleague) isn't a big fan of Pierre Bourdieu's latest collection of essays, which--he says--"reads like a string of back-to-back editorials from The Nation." Ouch!
A.N. Wilson--the charming writer of a biography of C.S. Lewis and a history of 19th-century disbelief in God--has written a review of a book on World War I's impact on J.R.R. Tolkien.
Kurt Vonnegut on writing and punctuation:
Is this true? Semi-colons always strike me as the punctuation mark of choice for high school students who want to look like they've been to college, but don't most college students grow out of their use relatively quickly? I'm also not convinced that it's useful to say that semi-colons " stand for absolutely nothing." They're inelegant and frequently used by lazy writers who think their writing will look more grown up if it includes fancy punctuation, but do they stand for anything less than other punctuation marks?
This Vonnegut article--or, rather, this collection of random Vonnegut remarks--confirms my impression that Vonnegut can be kind of witty (sometimes), but doesn't really have much to say. (Aren't all his books exactly the same thing rewritten in slightly different form?) I thought he'd announced that he wasn't writing any more novels, but the intro to this article seems to suggest that I was wrong about that.
Wesley Clark probably just lost any chance at my vote: he endorsed a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration.
The federal government has, for the first time, approved a memorial to Confederate soldiers designed by the Daughters of the Confederacy. (It's located in Rock Island, Illinois.) (via The History News Network)
Montaigne was cool.
Should God be written into the new European constitution?
Douglas Brinkley reviews a history of the Republican party by the University of Texas historian who inspired Karl Rove's interest in U.S. history.
Tuesday, November 11, 2003
Monuments in a public park are the source of controversy in Casper, Wyoming, according to this Slate article.
How much damage did Guy Fawkes really want to cause?
The Guardian reviews a biography of Robert Byron, a great (but little-known) pre-war travel writer.
Alan Lightman discusses problem-solving and the love of science in The New York Times.
Monday, November 10, 2003
D.H. Lawrence, according to The Guardian, "might have been a modern Blake - if he had been able to draw." A new volume of his paintings is about to be published.
Being a scholar just isn't what it used to be, it seems.
Should Ivan the Terrible be canonized? Lots of Russians think so--and also favor sainthood for Rasputin.
There are some neat details in this New Yorker profile of Wesley Clark:
I'm amused at the idea that poor Wes always had to play a Yankee when the kids played Civil War...
I was also interested in this article about Rimbaud. It has a charming title ("Arse Poetica") and was fun to read:
Wesley Clark and Arthur Rimbaud were both precocious youths, it seems...
Tangent: wouldn't the First Blood movies be much better if they were about Rimbaud rather than Rambo?
Sunday, November 09, 2003
The biggest tragedy in America today: Congress has become boring.
The Washington Post article I've linked to offers several explanations for why Congress has become blander. The silliest: "One reason for the decline of the colorful pol, [Congressman Sander] Levin suggests, is an increase in partisanship. 'When you become highly partisan, that inhibits individualism.' " (Bob Dornan and Newt Gingrich, Levin seems to believe, either weren't very colorful or weren't very partisan.) Dornan himself offers another theory:
Dornan's argument seems to me like evidence against what Sanders says: strong views (and most likely partisanship) often go hand in hand with eccentricity.
The article was interesting, but I had some issues with it. Consider this passage:
A picky observation: Robert Byrd isn't "the last of the great 19th-century orators"; he's a pompous old blowhard. (Then again, so were a lot of "great" 19th-century orators, I suppose...) On a deeper level, I'm not sure how many of the politicians listed above can be described as colorful. Frank and Burton are plausible choices. But unless you believe that "ornery," "witty," and "drunk" aren't synonyms for "colorful," I'm not sure that Delay, Obey, and Kennedy qualify. You could probably make a case for any of these people as a colorful personality. But you wouldn't need to make a similar case for Traficant or Dornan, since they were so colorful that everyone knew about them. That fact alone shows just how bland Congress has become...
[Then again, if you'd asked me what I thought of Dennis Kucinich a year ago, I'd have said he was an idiot, but I wouldn't have considered him especially colorful. Now I know that he's a colorful idiot, if his presidential campaign is any indication. There may be other closet colorful congressmen out there...]
Were the French right? National Journal asks that question in this week's cover story on the Iraq war.
A question I find more interesting: whether or not the French were right in their pre-war critique of the invasion of Iraq, why have so few Americans been willing to look back at what the French (and the other Europeans) said before the war? (Beyond the fact that no one seems to like the French much and that Jacques Chirac is obnoxious, I mean.) News reports have been reconsidering pre-war U.S. intelligence, the Bush administration's pre-war rhetoric, and plenty of other issues--but essentially no one in the U.S. has compared what's happened in Iraq to what the French and Germans said would happen.
Of all my views, the opinion most likely to offend my friends and acquaintances is my low regard for collegiate study abroad programs. Don't get me wrong: I think it's really important for all Americans--including college students--to get to know foreign cultures better, and one of my main regrets from college is that I never studied in Russia. I tend to believe, however, that most foreign study programs have very little academic rigor, that relatively few students gain real knowledge of a foreign country by studying there for a semester, and that it would make more sense for American college students to go on vacation abroad than to spend time in a foreign country "studying."
(The main reason to study abroad, I would argue, is to get really in-depth practice with a foreign language. Studying abroad in England--as a colelge student, that is--strikes me as fun but kind of pointless, unless there's some good academic reason to do so. Getting a master's degree in England sometimes make more sense, but not always.)
Jay Mathews discusses some of these issues in today's Washington Post. He describes the lack of academic focus in many programs, noting that:
This strikes me as a simplistic, but decent, description of the problem. I wouldn't limit the issue--as Matthews does--to the high number of short, 10-week programs (as opposed to rigorous semester-long programs.) Undergrads I knew at Swarthmore often studied abroad for a semester; my sense is that some of them went to Oxford (where they never had to do much work and instead spent lots of time sight-seeing) or went on feel-good, environmentally-friendly programs in Latin America. I don't think they learned all that much, and I'm not convinced that they picked up much knowledge of foreign cultures. (They probably learned more by studying in Latin America than by going to Oxbridge, however.)
Jay Mathews comes to a very different conclusion, however:
The problem with this article is that Mathews never differentiates among programs or among students: he simply asserts that foreign study programs could have an "enormous" impact on students. One of the examples he describes--that of a Barnard College student who studied Sufism in Mali--may fit that description. (I can't imagine that she could learn French or Bambara nearly as well back in New York, after all.) Mathews notes that the proportion of American college students going to Africa and Latin America has risen, while the percentage going to Europe has fallen--which is, indeed, a good sign. But I'm not convinced that it makes much sense for someone to study film in Australia for less than a semester--it's a lot of fun, I'm sure, but seems more like being a tourist than being a real student. Moreover, my sense is that there are plenty of study abroad programs in exotic places that isolate their students from the real world, preventing the sort of cultural immersion that would be really beneficial.
Anyway, I've ranted longer than I planned, probably convincing all my readers that I'm a cranky old conservative when it comes to questions of education. Maybe I am. Just to be clear, I'm sure that there are many wonderful foreign study programs out there--I just think that a majority of the American students who go abroad to study would be better off staying home and then going overseas as tourists or to work.
Derrida and Hawking: together at last! (Well, almost, anyway.)
What should you do if you want your employees to be more productive? Let them play computer games, of course!
David Greenberg reviews Lou Cannon's new book about Ronald Reagan. The book, as other reviewers have noted, shows that Reagan was less dogmatically conservative than often believed when he served as governor of California. One interesting excerpt from the review:
Reagan's obliviousness, it seems, wasn't merely a sign of his age. (Cannon suggests that it would be a mistake to write Reagan off as a simpleton, and he's probably right; Greenberg writes that he does a good job of keeping Reagan's career in the right perspective.)
Another NYT book review discusses the life of George Orwell, the "patron saint of inconsistency."
Does financial aid cause tuition increases?
Geoffrey Nunberg discusses past debates over "media bias" in The New York Times.