Mildly Malevolent

"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

contact info:

ecohn-at-uchicago-dot-edu

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Saturday, December 06, 2003

Book snob that I am, I often complain about the Sunday book review at The New York Times. (I'm not a big fan of this week's review of a collection of White House tape transcripts, which takes one kind of interesting point--JFK and LBJ sometimes didn't act as we expected!--and pads it out with lots of bland observations about history.) Nevertheless, this week's issue featured a really fascinating review--a review that captured part of what I was trying to say in the trite and poorly written post just below this one.

Gerald Kilroy begins his review of a new book on the English impostor Perkin Warbeck with a quotation from George Orwell. I approved. The heart of his review, moreover, catches the essence of good history:

Wroe's exciting and colorful book immerses itself not only in the sources -- mainly Polydore Vergil's ''Twenty-Six Books of English History'' -- but in the costumes and ideological world of the late 15th century. At every point she tells us what clothes Richard Plantagenet, duke of York (for so Warbeck styled himself), was wearing, what cloths and tapestries lined the streets of Malines (now Mechlin, Belgium), where Margaret of York, the dowager duchess of Burgundy, had her court, and what the wild men of the woods in Ireland were eating. Even more usefully, she continually recreates the cultural world of the period, and is particularly detailed in her investigation of the new brightness offered by the increasing number, size and clarity of windows and the reflections of that in art and poetry. Detailed too are the accounts of provisions and armaments; those who remember their Latin can enjoy her quotations from the original, compare her translations and enjoy her commentary on the nuances of mood and meaning. The effect of this painstaking scholarship is to provide a vivid sense of authenticity, all the more necessary in a story whose very foundations shift in the treacherous sands of rumor and political opportunism.

Ann Wroe may, of course, overdo this--one can easily imagine a historian drowning us in details of weapons and clothes. (Wouldn't that be a fantastic way to appeal to both girly and macho history fans?) But you often can't get at what made the past fascinating without a detailed and discerning look at how people viewed the world around them. Some historians--like Robert Darnton--are masterful in taking an anthropological approach to past cultures, but you don't need to be a friend of Clifford Geertz to show how the viewpoints and lives of long-dead people differed from our own in unexpected ways. An investigation of the number of windows in a long-gone household is an excellent way of illuminating the past.

Moreover, the review goes beyond the book itself to make a point about the portrayal of history in different countries: the myth of the Tudors is alive and well in Britain, Kilroy writes.

In England, Richard III will always be the evil hunchback immortalized by Shakespeare, and Elizabeth will always be the glorious Virgin Queen recently recycled in David Starkey's historical romance. In England it is easier to voice doubts about weapons of mass destruction than about Tudor monarchs; in America, the reverse may be true.

Of course, that last sentence strikes me as a little silly--it's easy to express doubts about weapons of mass destruction everywhere, though the consqeuences may differ in Britain and America--but I liked the review overall.


Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if Robert Graves had chosen a slightly different subject for his best-known work and published the novel I, Caligula. (Yes, I realize that Caligula wasn't exactly the autobiographical type, but I still find the idea intriguing, though difficult to pull off.) This week's Spectator reviews a new Caligula novel by Alan Massie, and it sounds like fun:

The warts are many and of large proportions. Caligula was incestuous, homicidal, increasingly crazed. He was fond of torturing his victims personally and enjoyed hearing their screams. He believed that the moon goddess Diana visited his bed on a regular basis. He would summon senators in the middle of the night, dance for them in the dress of a Syrian dancing girl, then have them whipped for not applauding enthusiastically enough. Massie does what he can to bring a more sympathetic light to bear on this half-demented creature, giving due weight to his lonely and fearful early youth, his unpreparedness for power, his initial good intentions. But it is difficult to regard him as in any way likeable. Nor does he provide a fitting example of character destroyed through absolute power -- he was too much damaged to begin with.

Which makes me wonder: why are there so many novels about the Romans? Graves and Massie aren't the only novelists to discuss Roman emperors--Colleen McCullough is another prominent example. Browse through any good bookstore, and you'll find historical novels dealing with certain figures (Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Cleopatra), but not others. (You see plenty of historical novels on the American past, but they only occasionally feature George Washington or Abraham Lincolns as major characters.) I suspect that Roman emperors are among the most popular subjects of historical novels, and I'm somewhat curious why.

My feeling is that Roman emperors are simultaneously fascinating, distant, and alien: it's easy to be intrigued by an emperor who named his horse to the Senate, but it's hard to get carried away by a boring old history book. (That's what a lot of people would tell you, anyway, but they've obviously never read Suetonius.) What intrigues people about the Romans are the stories, and a novel is a good way to tell these stories while placing them in an understandable context. At the same time, historical monographs sometimes present the alien feel of the past in a way that turns off readers--Roman society was so different from our own, in so many ways, that readers who don't know much about it can be swamped in details. A novel can cut through to the story and spare readers a lot of trouble--even if it ends up presenting a view of Roman life that seems awfully American in its sensibility.

The danger, of course, is that by removing the alien feel from the lives of their subjects, novelists will tell contemporary stories involving ancient characters--which can be great for entertainment, but is questionable as history. The "alien feel" of ancient history that I mentioned above is what I most enjoy about it; the best historical fiction doesn't just mine the past for fun stories, but presents it as a different, sometimes bizarre world that can be difficult for contemporary readers to understand. I wish I had examples in mind, but I think it's fair to say that some historical novels deal with the problem of the past by simplifying it and presenting it in present-day terms, while others find manageable ways to present it to modern readers. I'm sure you can all guess which approach I think is preferable.


The historian Jeremy Noakes describes Hitler's secret book--a little-known and unpublished sequel to Mein Kampf--and explains what it tells us about the development of Hitler's views on foreign policy.


In The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman describes a controversial book of photos just published in Germany--photographs that depict the results of the Allied bombing of the country. "If you like looking at these photos, you're crazy, and you need a doctor," says the author, whose book has been criticized for portraying the Germans as victims and for vagueness in describing the origins of the pictures it presents.


Terry Pratchett is a charming man. Consider these excerpts from his charming new essay from today's Guardian:

The first thing I do when I finish a book is start a new one. This was a course of action suggested, I believe, by the late Douglas Adams, although regrettably he famously failed to follow his own advice. The last few months of a book are taxing. Emails zip back and forth, the overtones of the English word "cacky" are explained to the US editor who soberly agrees that "poop" is no substitute, authors stare at text they've read so often that they've lost all grasp of it as a narrative, and rewrite and tinker and then hit "Send" - and it's gone without even, in these modern times, the therapeutic experience of printing it out. One minute you're a writer, next minute you have written.

...

People are magnificent research, almost the best there is. An old copper will tell you more about policing than a textbook ever will. An old lady is happy to talk about life as a midwife in the 1930s, a long way from any doctor, while your blood runs cold. A retired postman tells you it's not just the front ends of dogs that can make early-morning deliveries so fraught.

Some of his advice is good for historians as well as science fiction writers.


The Guardian reviews a new edition of William the Conqueror's Domesday Book:

In the year 1085, William the Conqueror spent Christmas at Gloucester. There, according to the author of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he had "much thought and deep discussion with his council about this country, how it was occupied and with what sort of people". The outcome of the king's "deep discussion" was the famous survey of England, which later became known as the Domesday Book. It is the oldest surviving public record of the English state, and one of the oldest of any European state. It is also one of the most remarkable: an early example of the obsessional nosiness of governments, and their perennial urge to number and classify. Despite several attempts, nothing comparable was produced until the 19th century. In medieval societies, as in modern ones, the main constraint on the power of the state was its ignorance. William, the most authoritarian ruler this country ever had, was determined to do something about that.

...

What we still do not really know is what exactly William the Conqueror wanted all these facts for. Nineteenth-century scholars and 11th-century landowners may not have had much in common, but they did share a profound suspicion of the state and all its doings, especially its financial doings. They were agreed that Domesday was all about maximising tax revenue. This is not in fact very likely, because the information was extracted and presented in a way that made its use for tax assessment difficult. The book was quite often used as a kind of glorified land register, to resolve disputes about title, but it must very quickly have become useless for that purpose. Land was changing hands even while the survey was being done. Much the most plausible theory is that it was designed to inform the king about his own rights as land-owner. It enabled him better to exploit his demesne revenues, and to know roughly what he was doing when he granted and confiscated land. It must have come in useful when Bigod [a Norman mentioned in the book and described in the review] took part in a rebellion in 1088 and temporarily lost Framlingham, together with all his other estates. And serve him right.

The review is a fascinating read, but--for me--it raised more questions than it answered. What does it mean to say that William I was "the most authoritarian ruler this country ever had"? What was the book intended to do? How can one compare the Domesday Book to censuses and land records of subsequent centuries? What are the consequences (if any) of this theory of "obsessional nosiness" to theories about the rise and role of the state?

There are days when I think it would be cool to be a medievalist. This is one of them.

Friday, December 05, 2003

The College Board is creating new AP exams in Chinese and Italian--thanks to funding from the Chinese and Italian governments. Critics have attacked this plan:

"What is the Chinese or Italian government buying for their sponsorship?" asked Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FAIRTEST). "Will they be able to specify or influence the content of the exams which is, in turn, designed to drive the AP course curriculum? Can they, for example, urge the inclusion of reading passages from the 'Little Red Book'?"

In an interview, Caperton, a former governor of West Virginia, rejected such concerns as "foolish." He said, "The reason that we are doing this is, one, we think languages are becoming increasingly important for students to know and, number two, is to really give deeper understanding of other cultures which we think in this world is critical to understanding and better world relations."

The $1.37 million cost of developing the equivalent of a college-level third year course and exam in Chinese for high school students will be split equally between the Chinese government grant and private foundations, Caperton said. The Italian government announced in September that it will spend $300,000, with an additional $200,000 from charitable groups and foundations, for an AP Italian Language and Culture course and exam. The Italian program is cheaper because the language, for American students, is not as difficult as China's tonal spoken language and ideographic written language.

I'm not terribly worried about Schaeffer's concerns, but I still have mixed feelings about the program. I'm generally unimpressed by AP exams--an AP course in most any field is typically much weaker than a good course at a top college, after all. (In history, I also tend to think that high school classes should be fundamentally different from college classes: they should have more emphasis on learning the factual backbone that students will need later on, but not enough to keep students from learning the more conceptual side of history.) I'm skeptical of AP exams in foreign languages in general. But if this program gets more high school kids learning Chinese, I think that will be a good thing.

Update The New York Times reports on the new exams, explaining that Russian and Japanese will also be added.


Does Howard Dean have a better chance at being elected president than most people believe? Jonathan Rauch argues that it will be harder than most people expect to paint Dean as another George McGovern:

Has Dean mortgaged his future to his far-left supporters? Doubtful. Liberals' enthusiasm for Dean is not necessarily the same thing as Dean's enthusiasm for liberals. He governed as a moderate in Vermont, and his two decades in politics mark him as a centrist, a fact with which he would ceaselessly regale his audiences beginning the day after winning the nomination. Even if he has "drunk the Kool-Aid of his own campaign" (as one political observer put it), he will have plenty of time to swallow the centrist antidote next year. Most voters, apart from fierce Democratic partisans, will not tune in until then.

The article as a whole is compelling, but it's hard to quote effectively or to sum up in an interesting way. Rauch--a fairly conservative writer with libertarian leanings--writes that "the Dean campaign may be set to the music of firebrand liberalism, but its words belie the notion that Dean has painted himself into a far-left corner." Even on Iraq, Dean is more conservative than many of his supporters.

This argument is correct, as far as it goes, and is a perfect counter to people who believe that Dean is a sitting duck for the Republicans. My biggest doubt about Dean's chances has never been with the substance of his campaign, however--it's with Dean's style. He seems too angry to be elected president, and I'm not convinced that he'll be able to change styles mid-campaign. The better comparison to Dean, I believe, isn't George McGovern, but Michael Dukakis--who was far more conservative than many people realize. (He was undeniably a liberal Democrat, but was, say, midway between Paul Tsongas and Ted Kennedy ideologically.) Dukakis ran a brilliant, disciplined primary campaign, winning the nomination against more prominent rivals, but he couldn't change campaigning styles and win in November. Dean's campaign seems less disciplined and more narrowly targeted at core voters, but could suffer a similar fate--especially if the economy improves. Only time will tell if he's a savvy politician who can adapt to new circumstances or if he's merely succeeded in developing an effective primary strategy.


J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, an article in Salon suggests, formed "the real fellowship of the ring." There is little that's terribly new or exciting in the article for big Tolkien fans, but it can be a fun read nonetheless:

Lewis approached "the North" from the literary side, while Tolkien was a philologist immersed in the sound and history of languages. He could be spiky and opinionated: After their initial meeting, Lewis called him "a smooth, pale fluent little chap -- no harm in him: only needs a smack or so." But by the next year, Tolkien had invited him to join a group known as the Coalbiters, who were devoted to reading the Icelandic sagas in the original Old Norse. (The name was a play on "kolbitars," an old Icelandic term for tale-swappers who sat so close to the communal fire that they were almost literally biting the coals.)

The article does a nice job summarizing why Tolkien disliked The Chronicles of Narnia (Narnia was unsystematic and inconsistent, with Greco-Roman gods rubbing shoulders with Father Christmas). What struck me most, however, was its discussion of literary gamesmanship in the works of the two writers. The article claims that John Ransom, the hero of Lewis's Space Trilogy, was modeled on Tolkien:

In "Out of the Silent Planet," Ransom finds himself confronted by terrifying monsters on the red planet Malacandra (aka Mars), but immediately lays plans for a grammar as soon as he discovers the creatures use language. "If you are not yourself a philologist," Lewis explains, "I'm afraid you must take on trust the prodigious emotional consequences of this realization on Ransom's mind ... The love of knowledge is a kind of madness." In "That Hideous Strength," the final book of the Space Trilogy, Lewis gives Ransom a speech that might have been lifted whole from one of Tolkien's letters:

"However far you went you would find the machines, the crowded cities, the empty thrones, the false writings, the barren books: men maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshipping the iron works of their own hands, cut off from Earth their mother and the Father in Heaven. You might go East so far that East became West and returned to Britain across the great ocean, but even so you would not have come out anywhere into the light. The shadow of one dark wing is over all."

It's been a long time since I read the Space Trilogy, but this makes sense--and I can't remember reading about this argument much before. (A.N. Wilson, apparently, says that Tolkien was "fairly unlike" Ransom.) I was less convinced by the article's subsequent claim:

Tolkien repaid the favor in "The Lord of the Rings" by giving some of Lewis' mannerisms to Treebeard, the ligneous leader of the tree-like Ents -- chiefly his booming voice and constant throat-clearing. And it's not too far a stretch to find a faint dig at Lewis' nonstop literary productivity when Tolkien has Treebeard describe Entish as "a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it unless it is worth taking a long time to say."

This connection seems more tenuous. It's a charming idea and it may be true, but there isn't a lot of evidence here.

Update The commentaries on the extended DVD of The Two Towers also suggest that Treebeard's mannerisms were based in part on C.S. Lewis. One person to make this part--the actor John Rhys-Davies--isn't exactly a noted Tolkien scholar. I'd barely heard of the other person who wrote about the Lewis-Treebeard resemblance, the writer of one of the books meant to be a companion to the movie. Still, I found the comments very interesting. (I'll have more comments on the DVD later...)


Question of the day: whatever happened to Scott Ritter? Ritter was a former Iraqi weapons inspector who argued that the Bush administration was exaggerating--or lying about--the Iraqi weapons program's size as a reason to go to war. (Here's a Time Magazine article from a year ago profiling Ritter.) Ritter was eventually revealed to have been caught in an internet sex sting and hasn't been heard from since, to my knowledge.

The sex scandal undoubtedly hurt Ritter's reputation. Ritter looked like a publicity hound to me back when he was visiting Iraq and attacking the administration: I assumed (as everyone did) that he was understating the Iraqi government's weapons policy. Now, I have no idea whether he was right or wrong, and I'm surprised that no one (to my knowledge) has either tracked him down to look at his charges again or has compared his charges to what we've learned about the Iraqi weapons program since the war. This seems like an interesting story...


Stanley Kauffman, The New Republic's movie critic, didn't like Master and Commander very much. "Peter Weir and his producers must have deep faith in Jung," he begins.

Here they come with a naval epic set in 1805, offered to a modern world that is not only heavy with its own conflicts but is also haunted by a unique foreboding of universal change. Still, Weir and co. seem to believe that we can be turned to this old-time seafaring epic through Jung's collective unconscious. Deep within us, this film assumes, we have all been touched by the remote experiences of mankind. Beneath the tumult of today's names and places, Weir must think, lies our ancient connection with the sea, with our buried memory of struggle with it and on it.

I think that movie critics who take themselves seriously must feel a burning need to make unusual cultural references in their writing--A.O. Scott, after all, wrote that he "would not have been surprised to see Edmund Burke's name in the credits" (while describing Master and Commander's British-style conservatism) and likened the film's protagonist to Harry Potter (for reasons clear only to himself.)

Kauffman's review asks a question that also occurred to Susan: "The costumes almost feel authentic, as if we could touch the cloth, though I still wonder about those top hats and tricornes that officers wore. How did they stay on in that weather?" I still wonder about the answer...

I saw Master and Commander on Wednesday night as part of a post-lecture celebration. It's worth seeing, but my reaction to it was similar to my reaction to the handful of O'Brian novels I've read: they're not bad, but I can't say why other people are so rhapsodically enthusiastic about them. (I tend to like reading O'Brian on airplanes, which should tell you something.) Overall, it would be more accurate to say that I admired the film than to say that I loved it. It had a more subtle, restrained feel than most Hollywood movies--there were fewer big chase scenes with dramatic music than I'd expected. Like Christopher Hitchens, I wished that Stephen Maturin had gotten more attention in the story, though I liked the film better than he did overall. Perhaps it's an O'Brian movie for people who aren't huge O'Brian fans, or for self-important critics who like to make shallow references to David Lean films while gratuitously explaining that they like reading O'Brian novels too.


In The Moscow Times, Michele Berdy has written two articles on the language used in Russian political campaigns.


This Guardian article (found via the History News Network) discusses a Nature article whose authors "decided to treat language as if it was DNA and compared selected words from 87 languages to build an evolutionary tree of the Indo-European languages." The Hittites had a really important place on the tree. I'm not really sure of the significance of the article, which struck me as kind of unsophisticated in places (like its early reference to Basque, subsequently corrected.)


Gore Vidal has written a new book on the Founding Fathers. In The Philadelphia Inquirer, Allen Barra (a New York Times sportswriter) describes the book:

Gore Vidal's Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson might have been subtitled "Bad Stuff About the Founding Fathers." Written less in the style of the great Roman historians and more in the vein of Suetonius, author of The Lives of the Twelve Caesars -- a man whom Vidal once praised as the "gossip columnist of the Roman Empire" -- Inventing a Nation seems to have been written with the intention of highlighting every venal act, thought or deed ever attributed to the Founding Fathers.

We need more Suetonius-style histories. The historian Edmund Morgan has a different, more complicated take:

Inventing a Nation is a rambling, deceptively simple talk--there is no better word for it. One can almost hear Vidal speaking, going on at length about some things, skipping by free association to others, occasionally picking up a volume of the published papers of the Founders to make his points about them in their own words. He cannot bear to write or speak a dull sentence and prefers vivid images to abstruse analysis: Washington's hands shaking and voice trembling at his inaugural, an inaugural dinner consumed in silence because of "the principals' absence of teeth for the task," which also accounts for Vice President Adams's "pronounced lisp of the dentally challenged, to use a twenty-first-century locution." Such locutions decorate the talk throughout. In the XYZ affair the French minister Talleyrand tried to extract a bribe from the American envoys: "$250,000 up front, rather like a twenty-first-century Afghan warlord"; Washington "had a Rube Goldberg side to him"; Thomas Paine told Americans "it was time to get their act together."

... Here he is offering a benign, almost affectionate view of the creators of his old Republic. They are good friends with whom he became intimate thirty-odd years ago, but as usual he is not uncritical of friends...

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that he has delivered his charming talk not because he has anything new to say about the Old Republic, but for the sake of the brief asides that highlight the narrative.

If that is his purpose, it has to be said that the strategy works. His strictures against the Global Empire, reduced to a few matter-of-fact sentences, take on new force when placed in contrast to the record of what the Founders did and said. Vidal is bringing his outsider's view back inside. Take the sentences that close his account of Washington's ceremonial departure from office after Adams's inauguration as the second president:

Then, slowly, majestically, Washington, having won his last victory in the Mount Rushmore sweepstakes, walked gravely out of the Federal Building and into the wildly cheering crowd, not to mention into the hearts of his countrymen forever. Or until they pretty much forgot him when a later president (and former president of Princeton) decided to conduct a world war in order to make the unsuspecting world "safe for democracy," a word that appears nowhere in the American Constitution, or, indeed in our lives except as an occasional rhetorical flourish when we are up to mischief in foreign lands.


It's interesting to see what different reviewers make of the same book. One of these days, I plan to read some Vidal: I tend to like his prose a lot (from what little I've seen of it), but I don't necessarily think his ideas are all that interesting, nuanced, or original. Perhaps I'll soon find out...


"Stop Purring, Ladies, and Pounce" is the headline of this Janet Maslin article in today's New York Times, a review of two history books on courtesans and seductresses. The first book talks about the past and future prospects for seductresses:

In the interest of explicating the "pure hubba-hubba" shared by her many subjects, Ms. Prioleau veers from Cleopatra to Lola Montez, from Catherine the Great to Martha Gellhorn ("a killer siren who wowed men, notched up the choice honeys on her garter belt, and walked out of three marriages"), from Aphrodite to Heidi Fleiss and Lil' Kim. As this may indicate, the author fears that the sexpot has fallen on hard times at present.

Nevertheless, she sees cause for optimism. Warning that "it may not be all smooth sailing" because "seduction riles and dismantles patriarchal domination," she still looks to the red-hot mamas of the future. "The 2050 temptress will also be something new," she writes, "a goddess-trippin' siren with technocharms we can only imagine."

What makes the man-trap tick? Are higher ideals involved, or is it just that "we were born to lark and ramble and philander"? Whether it's cosmic or just Cosmo, this book's advice invokes Mr. Right with the idea that "with a few seductive smarts, she-rovers can get and keep all the men and marriage proposals they want."

Hey, it worked for Wallis Simpson. It can work for you.

The author, Maslin writes, comes across not just as a "scholar and teacher" raised in a "Southern belle culture" (as the dust jacket proclaims), but as the "cheerleader-in-chief for a generic brand of pedestal queen." The second book, she writes, takes a more pragmatic approach: "here is a book that will tell you how much a 19th-century woman in the business of erotica needed to spend on hairdressing, hoop skirts and hay." I don't feel a burning need to read either book, but the review was kind of fun.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

A.S. Byatt is working on a new project:

In her latest project, a novel, Byatt plans to revert back to her traditional use of the fairy tale. For this, she felt obliged to subject herself to a viewing of that popular U.S. TV show The Bachelor, which was, in a sense, a modern fairy story. "But it was horrible, says Byatt, "because it was real." The beauty of fairy tales, she argues, is that they are not real. They follow a strict code of rules and patterns. The characters are stereotypes and they engage our imagination. But the best thing, she says, is that they represent hope. No matter what horrible things happen, the story always ends on an up beat.

Byatt is reluctant to talk too much about the details of the new novel for fear that someone will pinch her ideas. But she finds herself unable to resist talking about the novel's fairy story. "It's about a girl who has a gold dress and a silver dress and a dress like the stars and she runs away and wears a cloak of all sorts of fur ..." In the middle of telling her tale, Byatt abruptly stops. "I mustn't say too much," she says, smiling enigmatically.

Read this profile from The National Post for more.


What does the hiring of history professors share with the Rankin-Bass special Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer? It shows that it be hard to be a "misfit".


Here's charming article on Bush's visit to London that I only now found.


The recognition of the victims of Franco has proven controversial in Spain.

Also in The Guardian: Terry Eagleton is feeling combative.


You should all check out Cliopatria, a new group blog at the History News Network formed by a group of historians. It includes both Ralph Luker and one of my former college professors, Tim Burke, among its members, and will definitely be a good blog to watch.


Is Russia about to become a petrostate, where fights over the control and distribution of petroleum will dominate politics? A New York Times op-ed piece discusses this question.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

According to Orlando Bloom, "He's as cool as an elf, he has the heart of a hobbit and is as mad as a wizard." (Of course, I'm not sure that Tolkien's wizards are mad--except, conceivably, for Radagast.) The Observer profiles Peter Jackson.


The London Review looks at An Underworld at War, Donald Thomas's new history of "spivs, deserters, racketeers and civilians in the Second World War." What kinds of activities does this book describe?

It is tempting, on the evidence of this book, to compile a list of disgracefully honest answers to the question: 'What did you do in World War Two, Daddy/Mummy?' These could run: 'I inspected housewives' larders to make sure that they had no more than a week's food'; 'I drove young women round town, sending them into shops to see if they could trick the assistants into supplying goods off ration'; 'I was sent to jail for hiding my Canadian Army lover in a wall cupboard for a month'; 'I blew safes in the Blitz, relying on bombs to drown out the noise'; 'I blew safes for the Army, in North Africa and Italy'; 'I flogged coffin lids from the crematorium to cabinet-makers and shrouds to the underwear workshops'; 'I reported publicans for decorating their premises without a licence'; 'I was a tart, under orders to badger my clients for petrol coupons'; 'I was in Army Intelligence and was loaned to the police to help stamp out crown and anchor games'; 'I was a policeman trying to stop people sending flowers from Cornwall to London by rail'; 'I worked for the London County Council making sure that fan-dancers gave nothing away, and that comics were not corrupting servicemen with dirty jokes.' (Not all enforcers were against dirty jokes. Was there not a censor who, having scissored a hole in a soldier's letter, and realising that he had spoiled a salty story on the other side, carefully wrote in the pay-off along the margin?)

Sounds like a fun book.


Slate reports on the foreign policy lessons of Georgia's velvet revolution: the United States should stop aiding Central Asian and Caucasian dictators.


The Village Voice reviews Gilbert Adair's Death in Venice -- The Real Tadzio, a "secret history"of the Polish boy who played a key role in the Thomas Mann novella. (The boy's nickname was actually "Adzio.") One passage from the review:

Born in 1900 to an upper-class family, Adzio was so beautiful a child as to attract the attention of yet another Nobel Prize winner, Polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz, author of Quo Vadis, who bounced the little boy on his knee at a wedding (and quickly removed him when Adzio peed on him). Spared the mundane life of a paper manufacturer by a depression, two World Wars, and a prison camp, Moes lived a life of near impoverished gentility for more than seven decades, "A dandy to the end of his life, no mean achievement in Communist Poland."

Adzio decided to return to Venice soon before he died, but--ironically--was stopped by an outbreak of cholera (the disease that killed the protagonist of the novella.)


Can Bush depend on the support of "Walmart voters"? The answer to this question, posed by Rick Perlstein in The Village Voice, may surprise you.


Rebecca West didn't just write about Yugoslavia. The Boston Globe reviews her posthumously published book about Mexico. Excerpts:

Her range of reference is staggering. In describing ancient statues she writes, "There is the Lord of the Flowers, patron of love and dancing and games, sitting cross-legged and beautiful as Cassius Clay, and as bitchy about this beauty, but also an angel. Intimations of reality as remote as float on Rilke's lines are here made concrete." She describes Puvis de Chavannes, a French ancestor of the Mexican muralists, "as the reconstructor of an antique world populated by wan nudes who had evidently been boiled for soup."

History is past but also permanently present. "We can grasp Montezuma's position only if we imagine the British and American governments of today faced with phenomena which might be either a hostile expeditionary force of spacemen or the second coming of Christ."

Every paragraph holds a plum, but after a while the style does not draw attention to itself but to insight and morality; human frailty sometimes amuses her, but her indignation is mighty.

Of the misdeeds of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella she writes: "They were entering their forties, a time when men and women should have committed enough sins to be afraid of further guilt and developed the intelligence to dodge it."

West, for those of you who don't know, was the journalist and travel writer who wrote Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (about Yugoslavia) and also had an illegitimate son with H.G. Wells.


The history of high-profile English crime can be rather charming:

The London Monster of 1789 was halfway between Jack the Ripper of 1889 and Whipping Tom of the 1680s. He was a lot less evil than the Ripper, but more dangerous than the flagellant Tom, who got his kicks out of pulling up the skirts of unaccompanied women, smacking their bottoms and crying "Spanko!" As with both villains, the Monster's identity is still unknown.

The quotation comes from a review in The Independent of a book about the London Monster.


Yet another reason why "don't ask, don't tell" is a bad idea: The Washington Post discusses the case of a gay army linguist who had to leave the military because of the policy. (via Ralph Luker)


Lynne Truss's book on grammar still sounds like fun (and here's yet another review.)

For the joke behind the book's title, check out this Languagelog entry. It's just the lame sort of joke I most enjoy...


A review in The Financial Times argues that Renaissance art is often viewed in a distorted way:

There was a time, not so long ago, when art-historical orthodoxy held the Renaissance to be all but exclusively an Italian creature and possession. And it followed, by that same convenient orthodoxy, that the contemporaneous artists of northern Europe, and of Flanders and Burgundy especially, in the later 15th and early 16th centuries, were labelled the Flemish Primitives. Well, Flemish, for the most part they were, but primitive they certainly were not.

...

The picture that has emerged is of a Europe in which the courts of the Burgundian, French and German princes were at least the equal of those of northern Italy in their magnificence and political ambition, and of course the patronage and ostentation by which they were expressed. Europe was open, international travel common, and the traffic and exchange between north and south, as much cultural as commercial, flowed in a constant stream.

(Found via ArtsJournal)

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Via Languagehat, I just read this neat New York Times article about color cognition. An excerpt (also cited by Languagehat):

The world clearly has many shades of color meaning. Literary Welsh has no words that correspond with green, blue, gray or brown in English, but it uses others that English speakers don't (including one that covers part of green, part of gray and the whole of our blue). Hungarian has two words for what we call red; Navajo, a single word for blue and green but two words for black. Ancient Greek's emphases on variables like luminosity (as opposed to just hue) led some scholars to wonder seriously whether the culture at large was colorblind.

In a series of classic studies conducted during the late 1960's, Eleanor Rosch, now with the University of California at Berkeley, compared color discrimination by Americans with that of the Dani people of Indonesia. English speakers typically use 11 separate ''elemental'' color words (including black, white and gray), whereas the Dani use only two. Rosch tested the color memory of the two groups' members -- first showing them a color, then (after a short delay) asking them to find it in a separate group of similar colors. Despite the groups' big difference in nomenclature, she found that they were perceiving colors in the same way. Rosch's findings were seized upon by advocates of universality, who said terminology doesn't affect cognition: color transcends culture.

But recent studies conducted by Debi Roberson, Ian Davies and Jules Davidoff (at the universities of Essex, Surrey and London) suggest otherwise. They examined the hunter-gatherer Berinmo tribe of Papua, New Guinea, a people with five basic color terms who don't distinguish blue from green. (They do, however, have a distinction for shades of green -- called nol and wor -- that are not shared by Westerners.) In essence, they found that the Berinmo handled their nol-wor differences better than their blue v. green (while it was vice versa for English speakers). After practice, both groups were able to improve their discernment of the distinction that they previously hadn't shared with their counterparts. "These results," Davidoff and his colleagues contended, "indicate that categorical perception occurs, but only for speakers of the language that marks the categorical distinction, which is consistent with the linguistic relativity hypothesis." (The relativity of color naming is just one manifestation of this broader concept, for which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a formula: "large differences in language lead to large differences in thought.")

Fun stuff!


A Chronicle of Higher Education article by Scott McLemee reports on a recent conference on Marxism and education. An excerpt:

Running into Mr. Green in the hallway later, I suggest that the Marxism and Education conference next spring could take place in very interesting times indeed -- what with the revolution coming in the meantime, and all. He looks exasperated, but also amused.

"Incredible." he says. "I've never believed that sort of thing. I tell people that we have to think in terms of decades. That it might not be until later in this century that the socialist movement is on track."

It is, by any standard, a long-term perspective. For the moment, I am not quite sure whether Mr. Green sounds optimistic or pessimistic. Then again, there are passages in Marx himself that are equally ambiguous. In Das Kapital, for example, he even hints that the world of dog-eat-dog capitalism might continue for a very long time -- until, finally, one gigantic corporation has control over the economy of the entire planet. (Thereby presumably making things easier for the revolutionaries: It cuts way down on the number of capitalists they have to overthrow.)

If you've ever wondered what Marxist education scholars think about the present and future (and haven't we all?), read this article.


Amazing... There was a time when the New York Times book review was good?


What's Bill Watterson (the creator of Calvin and Hobbes) doing in his retirement? This article (found via Crescat Sententia) answers that question.

Don't worry: I'll post less fluff later on, when I'm less tired.


The inventor of the bear-proof suit has a new idea, according to The National Post.


Clark Kerr, a fellow Swarthmore alum who went on to become president of the University of California, has died at 92.

Update The Los Angeles Times has published its own Kerr obituary.


Welcome to the wonderful world of North Korean tourism! An excerpt from The Washington Post:

No act of the Kims is too small to be noted on these ancient rocks, now coated with more than 4,000 monuments, etchings and other commemorative inscriptions to the clan. A spot where Kim Il Sung is said to have especially appreciated the view is dutifully marked with a six-foot-tall stone tablet. Elsewhere a young guard stood by an etching commemorating the exact location where Kim Jong Sook, mother of the younger Kim, once rested her weary bones.

This is an important landmark, insisted the female guard, who watches over foreign visitors and keeps out unauthorized North Koreans. Her eyes went wide when asked about the need for a monument in a place of such natural beauty.

"She was the beloved wife of the Great Leader!" fumed the guard in her fashionable red jacket with a matching propaganda pin bearing Kim Il Sung's face. "Don't you have a father? Isn't he the absolute ruler of your family? Mustn't he be obeyed? You must understand, Kim Il Sung is the father of our nation and we are his children. Everything related to him must be celebrated."

"Including his wife?" she is asked.

"Do not just call her his wife! Use her title!" she demanded.

What title?

"Her title! How can you not know her title?" Exasperated, the guard explained that Kim's wife must be referred to as "Great Revolutionary General Kim Jong Sook."

Isn't North Korea wonderful?


I came, I saw, I lectured. Earlier today I have my first lecture (on Catherine the Great and her Nakaz of 1767) to my European Civilization class. Now I need a nap.

Monday, December 01, 2003

Hugh Kenner was cool.


Aldus Manutius the Elder was a great man. He didn't just invent italic typeface--he was also the first to use the semi-colon. (So says this review of a charming-sounding book, which I found via Ralph Luker.) Good ol' Aldus Manutius is thus a candidate for the title of little-known person who invented the most stuff that we now take for granted, though there are certainly other people who should be ranked ahead of him.


Posting will be light for a day or two, I'm afraid. Once my lecture and tomorrow's workshop are out of the way, I'll be back to a more regular posting schedule.


Bulwer-Lytton was cool. And not just for the writing contest in his honor...


In The London Review of Books, Bruce Cumings (a historian in the department here) looks at the crisis in Korea:

The 'North Korean problem' is an outgrowth of a terrible history going all the way back to the collapse of the international system in the Great Depression and the world war that followed it, a history throughout which the Korean people have suffered beyond measure and beyond any American's imagination. We could have solved the North Korean problem years ago but our leaders have chosen not to try (Clinton is an exception), and in this new century we are all the worse for it.

I suspect that I'm more opposed to the North Korean regime than Cumings is, but his article is still worth reading.


Alessandra Mussolini objects to the vilification of her grandfather, Benito.

Sunday, November 30, 2003

"October was a busy month for bigotry," Ian Buruma notes in The Financial Times. He makes some interesting points, though I'm not sure why he's talking about events from October at the end of November.


More writers (and more people generally) should be unavailable for interviews. Even if they're not as cool as Vladimir Nabokov. (via Arts and Letters Daily)


The Telegraph reports on the E-Puzzler, a sophisticated machine that will reconstruct documents shredded by the Stasi, East Germany's secret police. Meanwhile, The Guardian reports that Konrad Adenauer is likely to be named the greatest German in history on a TV show. Such shows are rather silly, I think it's fair to say, but it's interesting to see the public perception of history offered by such series. (The top ten also includes Bach, Goethe, Einstein, Bismarck, Marx Luther, former chancellor Willy Brandt, and two anti-Nazi student resistance leaders--Sophie and Hans Scholl.) (both links via HNN)


In The Wall Street Journal, David Gelernter discusses the guy who thinks he should have gotten a Nobel for the MRI. An excerpt:

There are two false premises at the bottom of Dr. Damadian's campaign: No one is entitled to a Nobel Prize, and in history's big picture it barely matters anyway. Churchill got one in 1953 but was too busy to pick it up; his wife went instead. The great philosopher Wittgenstein never got one--and (for good measure) the only house he ever designed (a first-rate Wittgensteinian masterpiece) was nearly rezoned out of existence by the ever-helpful Viennese; it was saved only at the last moment. I picture the late Lubavitcher Rebbe busily changing the world, addressing a rapt mammoth crowd; he never got one (for Charismatic Talmudics?)--and somehow I doubt whether it would have mattered a lot to him one way or other. Of the best thinkers and artists of the last 100 years--such people as Freud and Turing, von Neumann and William Foxwell Albright, Giacometti and Soloveitchik and de Kooning, Frank Lloyd Wright, Orwell and Nabokov--none got the prize; few were even candidates. There are no Nobels for abstract expressionism, mathematics, computer science, philosophy, neoconservatism, artificial intelligence, architecture, getting your girl to marry you, rearing your child all the way up to thoughtful adulthood, not being a jerk despite all the provocations, or any other of the hard achievements that really matter.

Personally, I think we should add a Nobel for "not being a jerk despite all the provocations." Should I feel silly not to know who William Foxwell Albright is?


Was Nero as bad as most people think? According to Jonathan Yardley, a new biography suggests that even though Nero was "a bad man and a bad ruler," his rule has been seriously mispresented by history.

There's some neat stuff in the review:

Champlin, a professor of classics at Princeton, makes a persuasive case that immediately after his death and for many centuries thereafter, Nero "had an afterlife that was unique in antiquity." Like Alexander the Great, indeed like Jesus Christ, he was widely seen in the popular imagination as "the man who has not died but will return, and the man who died but whose reputation is a powerful living force," and was thus "a man who was very much missed." The "evolution of a historical person into a folkloric hero says little about the actual person," Champlin writes, "but much about what some people, the 'folk,' believe. . . . [T]he immortal hero of folklore embodies a longing for the past, an explanation for the present, and, most powerfully, a justification for the future."

Honor was paid to Nero by many people in many places long after his death; many venerated him as a hero. His "vibrant afterlife should direct our attention not so much to what Nero's real intentions may have been or what his actions really were . . . as to how he might have wished them to be perceived, and how they might indeed have been perceived by a receptive audience." The case that Champlin builds as he works toward a revisionist view of Nero is carefully argued and complex, but it is not oversimplification to say that he sees Nero as closely attuned to popular sentiment and skillful at manipulating it, an accomplished performer on the public stage who had "a fondness for pleasure among low company, so strong as to lead to identification with the masses." A Roman Prince Hal, if you will.

I'm not sure the Jesus comparison makes sense, and there were other places where the review slightly rubbed me the wrong way, but this sounds like a neat book (even if it's completely wrong.)


The liberal European Muslim leader Tariq Ramadan is profiled in today's Boston Globe ideas section, which asks whether he's turning moderates into Islamists or Islamists into moderates.


Why do the British and the Americans write so much about the Third Reich? Neal Ascherson asks questions like this in The Guardian; I wish he'd written more about the German view of Nazism, as he said he wanted to do.

The Guardian also looks at a recently republished Elizabethan history of the Turks.


Thanksgiving in Naperville was good.

Two links from the weekend:

  • Maurice Sendak and Tony Kushner have collaborated on a new work, a picture book based on a 1938 Czech opera by a Jewish composer.
  • From The Chicago Tribune: how has education reform affected gifted and talented programs in Illinois?

I'll probably post another entry or two, before grading more papers and working on my Catherine the Great lecture.