Here's Dostoyevski's mode of proceeding, and it's maddening. One, here's what I'm about to tell you; two, now here I am actually telling it to you; anHere's Dostoyevski's mode of proceeding, and it's maddening. One, here's what I'm about to tell you; two, now here I am actually telling it to you; and three, now let's review what I've just told you. Every point is handled thus. The tedium! Nevertheless, it's D so I forced myself to read most of it. In the end the book fell heavily from my hands and I woke....more
Ironically, for this second volume describes the achievement of Burton's quest--that is, his entry into Medina and Mecca--I found it not as stirring aIronically, for this second volume describes the achievement of Burton's quest--that is, his entry into Medina and Mecca--I found it not as stirring as Volume 1. This from the perspective of someone seeking sprightly travel writing and insight into past cultures. A lot of this volume is dogma and history of Islam. Though the descriptions of the Ka'abba and other holy sites are interesting, there are far too many of them. Far too much visiting of graveyards and mosques and discussion of the punctilio of religious ceremonies and the layout of holy places. The problem for this reader was that there was no way to avoid Volume 2 once I'd read Volume 1. This volume is for specialists. The first volume is far more accessible to general readers. Recommended....more
This is a treat. The narrative is thin but consistent. Waley gives us excerpts from several Chinese-language sources about the nefarious doings of theThis is a treat. The narrative is thin but consistent. Waley gives us excerpts from several Chinese-language sources about the nefarious doings of the British. The first and the longest is the diary of Lin Tse-hsü, the famous Commissioner Lin, who, at the behest of the Qing emperor Tao-kuang (or Daoguang) sought to destroy the opium trade in China. An impossibility, of course, in a nation with such an endless unguarded coast. But Lin gave it his all. When about halfway through Lin's diary we read of the Emperor' insistence that Lin complete his task (again, an impossible one) so he can take up the reigns of a governorship in another part of China, we realize he is doomed. In time, when he can't deliver, he is investigated though not tried, and reduced in rank. It's sad to see the Chinese of the 1840s trying to respond militarily to the British. There is no command and control, no training, no planning. Lin's section, the longest, verges on a character study. It's fascinating. Subsequent diaries, one by Pei Ch'ing-ch'iao, a young man of no rank but with a gung-ho father, gives us the Chinese military's Keystones Cops-like response to British arms under General I-Ching. It would be laughable were it not so tragic. Further diaries include Chu Chih-yün's, a poet who lived near the Grand Canal outside the walls of Chinkiang, ninety miles up the Yangtze estuary. He tells us of the British encroachment on that town and "the horror, the horror," experienced by the residents. It's hard to believe Niall Ferguson now wants us to look on the gentle side of empire. Just think of all the wonderful things it gave to the world, he says. Ok, like what, bureaucracy? Sorry, Niall. That just won't square the Brits with China. Besides the Chinese were already known for their own homegrown style of administration back when the British were still crawling from the sea on vestigial limbs. It simply strikes one dumb to think that the Brits thought it their right to sell opium to the Chinese, thus creating a vast class of addicts, something of course never permitted in Merry England. Highly recommended....more
The thing I like about this book is both its strong narrative, almost novelistic, thrust, and its heavy footnoting throughout (at the end of most chapThe thing I like about this book is both its strong narrative, almost novelistic, thrust, and its heavy footnoting throughout (at the end of most chapters there's a little bibliographic essay). Prescott's familiarity with his sources seems exhaustive. Reading him is a little bit like reading Gibbon. One has to make provision for the passage of time and the change of values. "Conquest" is hardly the word we would use today. Today the word is the neutral contact--pre-contact, post-contact.
The book to my mind does not really begin until chapter 6 (p. 122 in this edition) when we learn about the golden age of Tezcucan civilization. This was one of three affiliated Aztec city states living in close allegiance in the Valley of Mexico. All that precedes this is a rather patchy look at state religion (hideous, of course), law, regional politics, astronomy, the famous calendar, etc. I don't recommend skipping the beginning though for it contains essential information you'll need in later reading.
About halfway through, when Cortés and his men climb from the buggy, malarial gulf coast, up to the tableland (7,500 feet) on which the Valley of Mexico sits, the writing becomes incredibly vivid. How Prescott, a partly blind man, was able to do this — it couldn't have been easy for a sighted person — makes his achievement all the more astonishing. He's particularly good at showing us the pristine-looking Aztec state as it sits among its network of lakes from the surrounding cordilleras. Along the way the Spaniards are welcomed by a jubilant public which line the road and celebrate their progress.
Unfortunately for the Aztecs, a myth told the story of Quetzalcoatl, god of the air, who, incurring the wrath of one of the principal gods:
. . . was compelled to abandon the country . . . When he reached the shores of the Mexican gulf, he took a leave of his followers, promising that he and his descendants would revisit hereafter . . . . The Mexicans looked confidently to the return of the benevolent deity and this remarkable tradition, deeply cherished in their hearts, prepared the way . . . for the future success of the Spaniards. (p. 53)
A few favorite quotes. The first on Aztec religious practices:
Scarcely any author pretends to estimate the yearly sacrifices [of captive pow's] throughout the empire at less than twenty thousand, and some carry the number as high as fifty. (p. 64)
And about the early career of Hernando Cortés:
He became familiar with toil and danger, and with those deeds of cruelty which have too often, alas! stained the bright scutcheons of the Castilian chivalry in the New World. (p. 174)
And on the forced conversion of the Indians:
The sword was a good argument, when the tongue failed; and the spread of Mahometanism had shown that seeds sown by the hand of violence, far from perishing in the ground, would spring up and bear fruit to after time. (p. 196)
The picture drawn here of Aztec religious practice and its attendant cannibalism is appalling. At one point Cortés' small force comes upon several priests at a local ziggurat or teocalli smeared black with blood from head to toe. The inner sactum held a tray under a depiction of the god of war Huitzilopotchli containing human hearts ripped from the chests of unfortunate victims. At another point they come upon a cache of 130,000 human skulls. In light of such revelations, the prostelitizing Christianity they force feed the natives seems tame. And much as I dislike the depredations of Christianity, its hard to deny that part of what Spain did here -- in addition to enriching itself enormously, and enslaving millions -- was to stop a carnage that may have been without precedent in human history.
I have to admit that I think Prescott was something of a naïve puppy. The worst depredations of the Spanish he never believes and argues away. He hagiographizes Cortés. His was the Great White Male school of historiography, which is not to be entirely disdained because of its great literary merit. One wonders though if this good man, Prescott himself, wasn't simply too good to believe in the great evil perpetrated by Cortés et al. Sometimes he does not hesitate to question claims of past historians, but then he'll produce a quote from one of his fellows like this, with regard to the "conqueror's" desperate fighting retreat from the Mexican capital:
"There was no people so capable of supporting hunger as the Spaniards, and none of them who were ever more severely tried than the soldiers of Cortés." (p. 607)
Really? How about the Greeks at Thermopylae?-- to chose the first example that springs to mind. And then again:
The period which we are reviewing was still the age of chivalry; that stirring and adventurous age, of which we can form little conception in the present day of sober, practical reality. The Spaniard, with his nice point of honor, high romance, and proud, vainglorious vaunt, was the true representative of that age. (p. 715)
But knights as a class, as Steven Runciman and others have shown, were predacious and murderous beings who used the cross as the ultimate justification. I mean, it's not as if examples of this don't occur in the present text. Such teeming cognitive dissonance seems bizarre at times, especially in a scholar of the Spanish Empire, and I can't see how it might be a result of my own failure to understand the past.
By the way, you may also wish to consult Nigel Davies' The Aztecs: A History. Moreover, I would lay odds that Euclides da Cunha's Backlands: The Canudos Campaign--about a late 19-century millenarian revolt in Brazil--was at least in part inspired by Prescott, whose history was translated into ten languages not long after its 1843 publication....more
As if you needed to revisit it, friends, yet here it is: Hamsun's excruciatingly true-to-life depiction of the exaltation and despair of young love. IAs if you needed to revisit it, friends, yet here it is: Hamsun's excruciatingly true-to-life depiction of the exaltation and despair of young love. In his later years, the novelist Anthony Burgess had a pat blurb for certain novels he liked. Of them he would say: "Almost unbearably moving!" That blurb applies perfectly to Pan. This novella is so emotionally affecting! It is so on the money! The reader goes through the entire exhausting emotional cycle here. From initial lusting, to growing interest, to first titallations of physical contact, to record-breaking Olympic coitus, to a sense of routine and boredom, to the first bickerings of leave taking, to heartbreak, heartbreak, heartbreak and yearning that only makes one's suffering worse. The novella is mercifully short--120 pages. I simply can't imagine 300 pages of this. It's brilliance lies in how it neatly crystallizes the entire range of emotions experienced in erotic love affairs. The magnificent heights of lovemaking, the impossible megalomania of it all, to the lowest lows. That it's set in northern Norway and narrated by a man who lives in a bucolic setting with his hunting dog, all that's interesting too. The man, Lt. Glahn, records his trips into the woods to hunt. There's beautiful description of the Norwegian countryside that reminded me of Per Petterson and Hallidór Laxness, though the latter was an Icelander. Glahn's love object is a silly fickle girl-child called Edvarda. My God, the hatred! The vindictiveness they mete out to each other! Finally, the book is about how such "love" changes us forever. It's a life event for which there is no closure. We become, all of us, the walking wounded. Quite a story. Highly recommended....more
1. I have finished 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. Exquisite. His main device is the catalog. He inventories America, good and bad. He loves the tota1. I have finished 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. Exquisite. His main device is the catalog. He inventories America, good and bad. He loves the totality. I adored this first edition and look forward to reading final edition (1891-92) soon.
What a paean to masculinity, its physicality, the play of physique through clothing--and without clothing. The naked male is here iconographic. It's always a surprise to me how very transparent he was in his preferences so early in our history. Women by contrast, though he seeks to balance his men with them, lack physical detail that brings the lusty descriptions of men to life. ("The Female equally with the Male I sing.") Yet women are far more likely to be described by their setting, the home, or their place amid a tumult of children, than for their sheer physicality. Part of this was simply the age, when there was great outrage against prurient feminine depiction, among so-called civilized society at least. Part seems to be Whitman's disinterest. I'm reminded of Michelangelo's Medici Tombs in Florence, whose female nudes have been criticized as too male, their musculature wrong, their breasts appended almost as an afterthought.
3. Reading Specimen Days next, his big prose miscellany. This begins with an overview of both the paternal and maternal branches of his family and their lives on Long Island, New York, in the early 1800s. The description of L.I. Includes some of his boyish activities there, his friends and their exploits. It's a vivid dispatch from another world. That he writes of these matters so late in life--he visits the old family graveyards and resurrects his dead--lends special poignance. He moves on to his well-known visits to the bedsides of injured Civil War (1861-65) soldiers, mostly Union but Confederate also, among whom his brother George lay convalescing for a time. He writes letters home for the soldiers, distributes small amounts of money, listens to their tales, reads them the Bible, kisses a few, and watches them die. Most are amputees, some gravely ill with typhoid. Some laid helpless on the field of battle for days before being brought to primitive field hospitals.
Oh heavens, what scene is this? – is this indeed humanity – these butcher's shambles? There are several of them. There they lie, in the largest, in an open space in the woods, from 200 to 300 poor fellows – the groans and screams – the odor of blood, mixed with the fresh scent of the night, the grass, the trees – the slaughter-house! O well is it their mothers, their sisters cannot see them – cannot conceive, and never conceived, these things.
In the section called "A Cavalry Camp," Whitman's enthusiasm--can we call it ecstasy?--at for the first time being among actual soldiers, and not only the sick, seems to me keen. Back in Washington in August of 1863, he daily sees President Lincoln on L'Enfant's broad, dusty avenues. Before long they have a nodding acquaintence with each other. Sometimes the president is in a barouche, at other times he rides a grey horse amid a detachment of uniformed cavalry, swords drawn.
Let me say this at the halfway point of Specimen Days, everything works! Every phrase is compelling. I have never read a more riveting collection of miscellaneous pieces. After the war, Whitman stayed in Washington to work in in the Office of the Attorney General in 1866 and '67 and, he says, "for some time afterward." In February 1873 he's stricken with a "paralysis" that sounds to me like stroke. It forces him to retreat to the famous little house in Camden, New Jersey. He's bed-ridden there through 1875 and '76. On recovery he is still partly disabled but is able to retreat to a country farm belonging to his friends the Staffords on "Timber Creek, twelve or thirteen miles from where it enters the Delaware." Here the book enters a nature phase. All I see before me now are descriptions of nature. It remains to be seen if I will be as beguiled by these pages as I was by his war recollections.
3.5 stars. One can see why Confessions was such a favorite among the drug-addled youngsters of the 60s and 70s. The title is catchy but--surprise!--it3.5 stars. One can see why Confessions was such a favorite among the drug-addled youngsters of the 60s and 70s. The title is catchy but--surprise!--its not primarily a book about drug experiences, only the last 20 or so pages plumb that. It's about suffering, homelessness, and penury. There were passages that reminded me of 1993's Travels With Lizbeth by Lars Eighner, a wonderfully written book about homelessness.
The class system of Britain, thank God it's dying, systemically prevented true eleemosynary activity. Anyone deemed to be a victim of their own excess was not considered worthy of care. As de Quincey states:
The stream of London charity flows in a channel which, though deep and mighty, is yet noiseless and underground; not obvious or readily accessible to poor houseless wanderers; and it cannot be denied that the outside air and framework of London society is harsh, cruel, and repulsive.
It took me ten pages to acclimate to the slightly archaic diction, but once I did the reading was enjoyable. There's a guardedness about certain episodes in the author's life which evoked wonder and curiosity in this reader. He focuses on opium addiction almost to the utter exclusion of everything else. The focus is laser-like. Recommended....more
This severe, judgemental little book is solely about the politics -- internal and external -- of the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary in the yearsThis severe, judgemental little book is solely about the politics -- internal and external -- of the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary in the years stated. There is nothing in it about wars fought, just passing references to their having occurred. There's virtually nothing in it about cultural life. The biographies of those involved are kept slender. The focus is exclusively on the Emperors' courts at Vienna and the many permutations that the monarchy went through -- who its ministers were and what their mistakes and successes were and who they dealt with abroad -- to manage a vast, polyglot state which eventually collapsed along nationalist and cultural lines. Lacking descriptive color, it can be very dry. On the other hand, I know of no more condensed survey of all the socio-historic trends and economic pressures the state was subject to in that period. Especially recommended for those with an interest in how Austria handled the Revolution of 1848 and it's run-up to the first world war....more
Excellent. This is actually three books. The first one--up to p. 140 or so--is about the origins of the Crimean war. At the Church of the Holy SepulchExcellent. This is actually three books. The first one--up to p. 140 or so--is about the origins of the Crimean war. At the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem Catholic and Orthodox Christians would fight each other to the death for the right to, say, be the first to celebrate the Easter Mass. Disingenuously, Nicholas I of Russia used a concern for the Orthodox living under Turkish rule as an opportunity for imperialist expansion. He really wanted to partition Turkey. Russophobic Britain was having none of it. They believed, not without reason, that Russia wanted India. This pushed them into an alliance with France to challenge Russia when it occupied the Danubian Principalities, Ottoman territory.
The second book is an account of the conflict itself, which was brutal and marked by an appalling lack of planning and leadership on all but the French side. For the British it devolves to the point of travesty. The incompetence of British officers leaves one astonished, gaping. For example, no provision was made for the Crimea's harsh winter because they thought it would be a short campaign. When the harsh weather came the ensuing tragedy had to make headlines in London before asses were gotten in gear and the appropriate supplies made available. By then of course it was too late for the first winter. The tommies in their made-for-summer tents, soaked through for months at a time, died in their thousands.
The third and final book is on the aftermath of the war. How it affected the principal combatants (France, Britain, Russia, Turkey) economically and politically. Russia's humiliating loss became a significant factor in her decision to free the serfs. One can't after all fight with an army of slaves; there's a certain problem of motivation. Tolstoy was at the Siege of Sevastopol and his comments, taken from Sevastopal Sketches as well as his letters, deepen the book in surprising ways. The first great battle, fought in the fog at Balaclava, is a breathtaking read.
What I liked most was the way the book served as a linking narrative for me for many events I had read about--from Napoleon's Retreat from Moscow in 1812 through World War II. Written in simple, declarative prose there is little or no use of tedious novelistic devices. I warmly recommend The Crimean War. Now, if you would be so kind, please sign the Charter for Compassion at http://charterforcompassion.org.