...There was a feeling that technologically, economically and politically, as well as culturally, the British had nothing to learn from India and much to teach; it did not take long for imperial arrogance to set in. This arrogance, when combined with the rise of Evangelical Christianity, slowly came to affect all aspects of relations between the British and the Indians. (p. 68)
So a cautionary tale. And I had thought that Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost gave a chilling look at Brussel's genocidal intervention in Congo. Alas, Britain is very much in the same Rogues Gallery.
A fascinating book about the "fierce people." The Yanomamö—a "demographically pristine" stone age population occupying a remote expanse of the OrinocoA fascinating book about the "fierce people." The Yanomamö—a "demographically pristine" stone age population occupying a remote expanse of the Orinoco straddling Brazil and Venezuela. The author spent 30 years with them and came back with robust comparative data that will never be equaled, since, the Yamamanö are now acculturated. That is, their violent but pristine way of life is now mixed irrevocably with that of our world.
Three quarters of the book is about the tribes themselves. Chagnon had to spend years in the field. He started by learning the Yamamanö language from scratch. Eventually, he would discover that it was without precedent. That is, without marked similarities to nearby languages. This suggests the Yamamanö are an exceedingly ancient people, having lived in considerable isolation, perhaps for millennia. Along with the New Guinea Highlanders, they were perhaps the last such pre-contact stone age people to survive into the twentieth century. And Chagnon worked with groups that had never before seen a white man.
There exists among the Yanomamö—a name taboo. Not only is it considered offensive to use the name of someone who has recently died, but even to call a living person by their name out loud is unseemly. Now try to imagine how this affected Chagnon, one of whose tasks was to gather genealogies and censuses. It makes for quite a story, especially when the tribe, the Bisassi-teri, which loved a good scatological joke, deceived him for months on end about the names he was collecting. Naturally, he was furious, but what could he do?
• "On one trip, again with Rerebawä as my guide, we were followed all the way from our canoe to the edge of the village by a jaguar, a walking distance of four hours"; • "The Yanomamö express distance by the number of 'sleeps' it takes to get somewhere"; • The Yanomamö technique of asphyxiating armadillo in their burrows and digging precisely where their quarry has fallen is an astonishing thing to read about; • "The most vile and vulgar insult you can utter in Yamamanö is 'Wa bei kä he shami!' ('Your forehead is filthy!') Any allusion to blemishes, warts, pimples, etc., on someone's skin, especially on or near the forehead, is potentially insulting."
Then there's the time when a monk from the Salesian Mission asks Chagnon—an atheist—to murder one of the mission's fellows, who, it has been discovered, has sired several children with a Yanomamö woman. Now get this, the proposed murder was seen by the monk, Padre Cocco, as a means of saving the Church from further embarrassment. The Salesians were evil, but Chagnon had to remain on good terms with them if he was to get his work done. The monks would take Yanomamö children downstream to mission encampments "...where they were put into dormitories, taught Spanish, and discouraged from using their own language. They were away from their parents and their villages for months at a time." Moreover, in the ongoing struggle to out perform the Protestant missionaries, the Salesians began giving the Yanomamö—a war-making people previously limited to bows and arrows—shotguns.
Noble Savages is also a book of searing, irrefutable truths, of reputations regained. A book by an author who underwent decades of smears. Here is the bottom line: Chagnon determined empirically that of the men in the many tribes he studied over decades, those who killed one or more enemies on raids, had almost three times greater reproductive success (more wives, more offspring) than those who did not kill. See the fascinating tables on pages 275 and 276.
This, Chagnon's biggest finding, connecting Yanomomö war-making with reproductive success started an academic war. For empirical proof that the Yanomamö went to war over women completely upset the anthropological orthodoxy of the day. That orthodoxy said that the "...theory of human behavior had no room for ideas from biology, reproductive competition, and evolutionary theory." That's right, the cultural anthropologists were anti-science! War in primitive societies, they decreed, had to be due to competition over scarce material resources or a reaction to the repression of the western colonial powers. To say otherwise was "contrary to the prevailing anthropological wisdom derived from Marxism."
Now imagine poor Prof. Chagnon. He was 28 at the time the first of his findings were published, and he faced a backlash from the "purists" who smeared him baselessly and who argued without evidence that he was wrong. But he was not wrong. He was correct. The Yanomomö did indeed go to war over women. Thus, the vast edifice of Cultural Anthropology as it was then defined went to war with itself.
How far could Chinese patriarchy go in the early twentieth century to make the lives of women sheer humiliation and misery? Here in Wild Swans we haveHow far could Chinese patriarchy go in the early twentieth century to make the lives of women sheer humiliation and misery? Here in Wild Swans we have that question tidily answered. This is a tale of the lives of three generations of Chinese women: the author, her mother and her grandmother. Author Jung Chang's grandmother had her feet bound—a hideously painful process undertaken solely so that some man might one day find her lustworthy enough to take as a concubine. The years-long process of foot binding—of smashing the toes with a rock and binding them under the sole of the foot—is thoroughly explained.
Author Chang's grandmother was thus encrippled and eventually traded off to a general of one of the factions vying for control of the country in 1920. All this so her wretch of a great-grandfather—Yang—could raise his own material status, buy land and accumulate concubines. I have read of stories purdah, the seraglio and Morman four-wiving, but never have I come across such a harrowing description of the degradation of women that I have found here.
Mind-numbing are the cruel stratagems of the concubines back at the family home to degrade Yang's first wife (Chang's great-grandmother) and freeze her out of her own home. I was aware of this social structure before through works by the writers Jonathan Spence, Anchee Min, Nien Cheng, Harry Wu and others, but never have I had such a vivid picture of how the first wife/concubine pecking order played out in the daily life of a Chinese family as I've had here. It is beyond belief.
Then in 1930, released from her bond of concubinage on the death of the general, the grandmother—whose name Yu fang translates as jade fragrant flowers—falls in love with a Manchu doctor, who is determined to marry her as his wife. This sends his large family into conniptions since it means Jade will have to be accorded reverence in line with the doctor 's strict Manchu standards of filial respect. And at 65 he is almost three times her age. Perhaps if it weren't for his wealth there would be less of a fuss, but a new wife has implications for the eventual distribution of his estate's assets. In protest one of his sons shoots himself dead. This act of greed—for the family is worried only about its own dispossession, nothing more—drives Dr Xia to divide his possessions among his sons and move to a shack on the outskirts of Jinzhou which is a cholera epidemic waiting to happen. Yet there, he and Jade and the author's mother find some happiness despite the fact that the doctor is penniless and must start at the bottom. And all of the above in the book's first 44 pages!
Next we learn of the horrors committed during the Second Sino-Japanese War—the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, in which Jinzhou is located. Dr & Mrs Xia are able to save a friend from the Japanese by befriending the prison garroter, Dong, who promises them not to strangle the man fatally, only partially, so he'll look dead enough to be transported to the foul-smelling communal grave at the end of town. There, the Xias extract him from a tangle of bodies—he's still breathing—take him home and nurse him back to health. This man, Han-Chen, later goes to work for Kuomintang intelligence where he procures a membership ID for Mrs Xia's son which allows him to avoid military service and keep working in the doctor's medicine shop where he's most needed. He even gets Dong a job. After the war there were so many saved by Dong from the Japanese reaper in this way that survivors pooled their monies and bought the former executioner a little house for his retirement. Heroism takes strange forms.
The Japanese were defeated in 1945 and the second and concluding portion of the Chinese Civil War resumed. The author's mother now turns out to be this capable community organizer on the Communist side. She distributes propaganda. The Nationalist bigwigs are seen as corrupt and lacking discipline. The Communists were promising the populace things they would never deliver on, such as the retention of personal property. In Jinzhou, the author says, the Communists were perceived as innovators who would make the lives of the people better. Another sneaky thing the Communists did, while the Nationalists were busy fighting the Japanese, they intensified their propaganda and brought the people over to their side. Anyway, as you may know, neither side comes out smelling like a rose.
Fascinating in the early going here with regard to Empress Maria Theresa and her machinations once named monarch to restore provinces snatched away byFascinating in the early going here with regard to Empress Maria Theresa and her machinations once named monarch to restore provinces snatched away by greedy usurpers. How dare Austria name a woman to lead their country. Well, Maria Theresa in time regained Bohemia, Moravia and part of Silesia after hard bargaining with the Hungarians for military support. Quite a story. This is the first I've read of this monarch's exploits and its proving entertaining. Maria Theresa, or some farsighted advisors, saw the importance of crushing some feudal institutions such as the robot, which gave the nobility control over the working lives of the peasantry, and the tax-free status of the nobles themselves. So, as the authors of Why Nations Fail would say, she decreased the "extractive" burden on the peasantry, believing they and the state would be far better off if they were left to promote their own self-interests. This "began to undermine the very logic behind traditional social hierarchies," i.e. feudalism. Moreover, after the loss of her most commercially active region, Silesia, to Prussia during the War of the Austrian Succession, she made Triest, Fiume and Brody all tax-free zones as a means of spurring trade. ...more
This is a spritely survey text. I admit that sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it is so. Granted, the book becomes something of a slog aroundThis is a spritely survey text. I admit that sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it is so. Granted, the book becomes something of a slog around the Middle Ages. But as a wise old historian once said to me, "It's hard to make the Middle Ages sing." So I give the author a pass there. I'm sure I knew most of this stuff thirty years ago, but with disuse it has fled from my memory. This is a stylish refresher. I was in thrall to the early Roman narrative with its Celts already on site, its Angles and Saxons and the subsequent overrunning of the island by Danes and Norwegians. (See clarifying note from Pete: "Us Celts were ensconced upon this sceptred isle long before Julius arrived c55 bc. What is more we remain the dominant dna & the popular white anglo-saxon protestant is a very rare find, more Vikinga dna than Saxon or Angle or Jute.") The story of the Norman Conquest was the first one I'd come across that did not induce torpor. Everything about the Angevin Empire was news to me. I had no idea that England had held such extensive possessions in France. Great Scot, the holes in my Anglophilia! Also very interesting has been the story of the nasty Puritans, Bloody Mary, wise Elizabeth and her court—perhaps England's greatest monarch, according to the author—Mary Queen of Scots and all the murdering and mayhem leading up to the so-called Glorious Revolution. I learned how Magna Carta, the first instrument between crown and the commons with regard to tenancy rights, eventually expanded to become the foundational document which made the idea of parliament possible. The burning of both Catholics and protestants was news to me, I had not known it was so extensive, as was the long, detailed back and forth between parliament (protestant) and crown (Catholic) with regard to religious questions. England did not entirely escape the madness of the Thirty Years War; it had it's share of bedlam, for the most part inspired by monarchs—Charles I (beheaded), James I and James II (permanently incapacitating nervous breakdown)—who wanted to take the largest protestant population in Europe and return it to Catholism. How's that for hubris?
To think it took just two days in 1959 to record this masterwork. Most of the players get a mini-biography. These are fine in the case of Miles Davis,To think it took just two days in 1959 to record this masterwork. Most of the players get a mini-biography. These are fine in the case of Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Cannonball Adderley, but too meager in the case of John Coltrane and all but nonexistent for bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb. The most interesting part of the book for me was the discussion of George Russell's "Lydian Chromatic Concept for Tonal Organization," a sophisticated modal theory of music which greatly influenced Miles, Coltrane's post-Miles work, Charles Mingus and much of the post-bop generation. With that single exception, though, I think the writing about the music itself is rather thin. But isn't this true of all music writing? Sure, one can convey something of the music's emotional effect, something of its reception and historical importance, even an idea of the labors involved in making it, but in the end it's all simulacra. One is reminded of sex in novels. Nor does the writing itself rise to a level of achievement consonant with its subject matter. That said, the book is a wonderful adjunct to the recording....more
What I most remember about this book is how it came out just before the Fall of the Berlin Wall and showed, by going through the Soviet Union's books,What I most remember about this book is how it came out just before the Fall of the Berlin Wall and showed, by going through the Soviet Union's books, that the empire was vastly underfunded and on the brink of collapse. President Reagan's role in all this was to dramatically increase the U.S. defense budget knowing full well the Soviets could not match him. Shortly before the crash, I remember the truest sign of that Empire's dissolution showing itself in the form of a coup d'état—supposedly in reaction to Gorbachev's reforms while he was on vacation in Crimea. It was led, if we can use that word, by small group of elderly, white-haired Red Army generals sitting at a table. A pathetic display. But author Shelton saw it all coming, making this volume one of the few bits of journalistic clairvoyance it has ever been my pleasure to come across. Before you knew, it was 1991 and the USSR was belly up. May we never see its like again....more
This posthumous volume may be the most emotionally satisfying of the three works comprising the trilogy, which describe the eighteen-year-old author'sThis posthumous volume may be the most emotionally satisfying of the three works comprising the trilogy, which describe the eighteen-year-old author's year-long journey by foot along the Danube in 1934-35. (The first volume was A Time of Gifts and the second, Between the Woods and the Water. See my reviews on both of these.) It's astounding we even have it. The editors have taken several of PLF's unfinished manuscripts and pieced them into a convincing semblance of a third volume.
This volume is a more ruminative book than its predecessors. He muses on the strange nature of memory. For only one of the many notebooks PLF scribbled in during his sojourn would be available to him decades later when he started to write. Perhaps because of this deficit, Fermor enters into imaginative flights that were less prominent in the first two volumes, where historical background seemed to anchor the story. Here first impressions reign more. In addition, there are discursions into the approach the writing should take that now lays before our eyes. Should PLF include information from later trips to these same areas, or not? He decides to do so and to disclose it to the reader. No doubt much of this rumination, and a few inapt metaphors, he would have cut had he seen the volume to publication himself. Editors Thubron and Cooper have had to be much more inclusive.
For example, there are admissions of joy in the lush appurtenances of the great homes he visits outside of Bucharest— their libraries, chauffeur driven cars, frequent lush feasts, etc.—the like of which never appeared in volumes 1 and 2. There the rich châteaux were described, yes, but never was there the level of swooning one gets here. Granted, he is coming off a long period of sleeping outdoors under his great coat, or in flea-ridden, undistinguished hovels, and lately the weather has turned cold so these creature comforts are no doubt more keenly appreciated. Then guilt descends:
Pricked by conscience about this sybaritic way of life a few days later, after being driven (yet again) to luncheon at a country club on the edge of Lake Snagov, some miles outside of Bucharest, I set out to return on foot.
Leigh Fermor was a beauty and a philanderer of extraordinary scope. This third volume seems much more relaxed with regard to the author's female companions than its predecessors. The depiction of Nadejda in the Bulgarian town of Plovdiv is, I think, without parallel in the previous books. This no doubt has much to do with the fact that those earlier books were published during the author's lifetime, when his lady friends and their husbands were still alive. Now with everyone conveniently dead, the editors—one is PLF's biographer—can be forthcoming with textual hints of his libidinous exploits, which, it should be noted, are nothing more than normal hotblooded sexuality.
The triliogy is, among other things, something of a tribute to the peacefulness of Europe even in the face of the Nazi threat of 1934. PLF comes across some strong opinions during his trek from Holland to Istanbul, largely on foot. These often appear in the text. His facility for learning languages on the fly here is astounding. Nothing, however, quite prepares the reader for the night in Tirnovo, Bulgaria, when word is brought to the café where PLF and his host are relaxing, that a Bulgarian assassin has just murdered King Alexander of Yugoslavia and his host, the French foreign minister, Louis Barthou. Everyone in the café, except PLF, erupts into joyous cheers and dancing. At no point in the trilogy up until now has anything so damning been revealed of any of the dozens of peoples the author chronicles. But the Bulgarians make their mark here for blatant xenophobia and nationalist myopia unparalleled even by the Nazis PLF meets in volume one. It's an obscene moment which reveals longstanding Bulgarian suffering for years of poor decisions in the realm of foreign relations. Her hatred of those states surrounding her is beyond the irrational. Greece and Romania and Yugoslavia were all apportioned slivers of Bulgarian land because of the latter's support of Germany in the first world war. She would make the same mistake in the second world war. As PLF puts it:
Bulgarians have a perverse genius for fighting on the wrong side. If they have been guided more by their hearts and less by their political heads, which usually seem to have lacked principal and astuteness in equal measure, their history might have been happier one. (p. 95)
It's interesting to compare francophile Bucharest, Romania, that PLF visits in October 1934—with its vigorous intellectual, artistic, literary and social life—with the dead city of the same name found in Saul Bellow's novel The Dean's December, crushed under the heel of Marxist-Leninist claptrap. Writing of the many wonderful people he'd met there, it was necessary for PLF to mention only those who had left the country or died. For to mention those still living in the country would have been to make them targets of the police state. See Herta Müller's astonishing The Land of Green Plums and The Appointment for an idea of what an unalloyed joy that can be.
PLF gives us the lowdown on the Pharnriots, a Hellenic people who brought the last vestiges of Byzantine culture to Romania after the capture of Constantinople in the late 1400s. This whole area, by the way, Bulgaria mostly, but also Romania and Hungary, faced repeated violent upheaval due to their geographical position as land bridge from Asia to the west. The Huns, Bulgars, Magyars, Pechenegs, etc. all came marauding through this area over a period of many centuries. In 1529, the Turks reached Vienna itself which they would continue to attack from time to time over the next 150 years, but never take.
The passes in the mountain barrier outside were perhaps the funnels through which, in 1241, the hordes of Genghis Kahn had swarmed to tear Europe to bits. (p. 193
What is lost in terms of polish and finish here is more than made up for by the sheer ebullience of the writing. I don't know of any writer who drinks in a landscape the way PLF does. I find the book's descriptive verve, especially toward the end when he is walking along the Black Sea—and later, too, in the Mt. Athos diary which closes the book—so vivid, so moving. When, after almost drowning in a tide pool, our traveler comes back out onto the beach, he discovers a cave sheltering shepherds (Bulgarian) and fishermen (Greek) next to a roaring fire. He is soaking wet and we shudder to think what might have happened had he not, to use his phrase, "struck lucky." In the warm and welcoming cave, there's plenty of slivo to go around and soon this engenders dances by two of the men, to vigorous bagpiping of all things. A table is clenched in one dancer's teeth as he whirls to a blur.
It's vivid stuff, though not always complete. The main deficiency being the much anticipated description of Istanbul, for which the Mount Athos diary is meant to serve as a kind of compensation. It doesn't quite fill the bill though, despite the interesting descriptions of the Greek Orthodox monasteries and their monks, since it's fragmented and tonally different from the rest of the book. Hence, the editors' fitting title....more
Very readable! Author Bakewell brings all the pieces of the existentialist puzzle together here. This is more of what she did so well for Montaigne inVery readable! Author Bakewell brings all the pieces of the existentialist puzzle together here. This is more of what she did so well for Montaigne in How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, which I admired. Bakewell's deft touch makes the turgidities of philosophy dissipate like so much fog over oncoming terrain. The book is so tremendously rich, so filled with great stuff that one wants to memorize it, so just a few highlights here.
2. It was Husserl's conception of phenomenology that first excited Sartre. "The word phenomenon has a special meaning to phenomenologists: it denotes any ordinary thing or object as it presents itself to my experience, rather than as it may or may not be in reality." (p. 40)
3. The section detailing the removal of the Husserl's unpublished manuscripts from a Germany on the precipice of war is pure cloak and dagger. The papers were kept in a big house by Husserl's widow, "officially classed as Jewish despite her Protestant faith," whose civil rights were by this time almost nonexistent. Adding to the urgency was the fact that the papers (40,000+ pages!) were written in an minuscule shorthand that to the untrained eye would probably look like secret code. Fortunately, a small coterie comprised of clergy, Husserl's colleagues and protégées and several nuns eventually got the papers to Louvain, Belgium—by way of Berlin!—where they remain today.
4. When Albert Camus arrives upon the scene in 1942, we learn of the "important philosophical differences" that divide his work from Sartre's.
As Sartre argued in his 1943 review of The Stranger, basic phenomenological principles show that experience comes to us already charged with significance. A piano sonata is a melancholy evocation of longing. If I watch a soccer match, I see it as a soccer match, not as a meaningless scene in which a number of people run around taking turns applying their lower limbs to a spherical object. If the latter is what I'm seeing, then I'm not watching some more essential, truer version of soccer; I am failing to watch it properly as soccer at all.
Sartre knew very well that we can lose sight of the sense of things. If I am sufficiently upset at how my team is doing, or undergoing a crisis in my grasp of the world in general, I might stare hopelessly at the players as though they were indeed a group of random people running around. Many such moments occur in Nausea, when Roquentin finds himself flummoxed by a door knob or a beer glass. But for Sartre, unlike for Camus, such collapses reveal a pathological state: they are failures of intentionality, not glimpses into a greater truth. (p. 151)
5. The philosophy of Heidegger, one of Husserl's protégés, is compared and contrasted with actions in his life, like joining the Nazi party. This is Bakewell's method with all her philosophers, but with Heidegger the approach is especially gripping. Did any of Bakewell's subjects' words diverge more from their actions than Heidegger's? Jaspers spent the immediate postwar years writing The Question of German Guilt. In it:
Jaspers inner voice calls to mind Heidegger's [early] authentic voice of Dasein, [which] calls from within and demands answerability. But Heidegger was now refusing answerability and keeping his own voice to himself. He had told Marcuse he did not want to be one of those who jabber out excuses, while carrying on as though nothing had changed. Jasper similarly felt that facile or hypocritical excuses were no good. But he would not accept Heidegger silence either. (p. 192)
6. Postwar France was an uneasy place. Much of it centered around personal allegiance to the Soviet Union, while the Gaullist's party, Sartre felt, "had become almost fascist in style." The justification for the USSR in those days was that, yes, while Stalin may appear to be running a police state—complete with show trials; prison camps; no human, much less civil rights; state-sanctioned terror, etc. (See Robert Conquest's The Great Terror)—these methods were mere bagatelles, crude, temporary stop gaps in support of the coming socialist paradise. It was a means-justifies-the-ends argument. One might ask how the Existentialists, for whom freedom was a key philosophical pillar, reconciled matters. It's a very good question.
When the Korean war broke out our philosophers and many of their countrymen expected Russia to occupy Paris, much as Germany had done, all as a prelude to the global holocaust of World War III. North Korea's invasion of the South so shocked Merleau-Ponty that he "...thought it showed the Communist world to be just as greedy as the capitalist world and just as inclined to use ideology as a veil." He ultimately turned away from Communism. Never one for the Soviet Union's roughshod methods of expediency, especially if they cost lives, Albert Camus published The Rebel, a theory of political activism that was very different from the Communist-approved one. The book appeared at a time when Sartre was turning more resolutely toward Communism. It proved the end of their already strained friendship.
This is just the sort of writing that I prize. Bakewell has been cognizant of existentialism ever since picking up Sartre's Nausea at age sixteen. One feels she's lived the material here. At The Existentialist Café is foremost a tracing out of existentialism's lineage in a biographical format, but it is also a valuable grounding in its literature. The span of human lives—the philosophers' lives—is the armature on which the principles of phenomenology and existentialism are arrayed and thus given meaning. In that structural sense the book reminds me of Walter Kaufmann's fine Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, though Café is the better written book. Highly recommended.
PS: This was a surprise to me, though perhaps it shouldn't have been, Jean-Paul Sartre apparently loathed the novels of Marcel Proust. No doubt the latter's tales of fin de siècle society cut too close to the bone for someone who'd grown up bourgeois and was now dedicating his life to helping the workers of the world unite....more
Shattering. Edie's story is a tragedy. Wait until you meet her family. Her father should have been taken out at dawn, blindfolded and shot. Moreover,Shattering. Edie's story is a tragedy. Wait until you meet her family. Her father should have been taken out at dawn, blindfolded and shot. Moreover, if you want insight into the 1960s New York art world and contemporary culture as a whole, this is your book. It's redolent of America in the '60s. Fascinating.
On vacation in Martha's Vineyard, this book had me screaming in my sleep, nightly. I had to stop reading it until the vacation was over. Shall we sayOn vacation in Martha's Vineyard, this book had me screaming in my sleep, nightly. I had to stop reading it until the vacation was over. Shall we say it touched a nerve......more
An excellent overview of the work of Diego Velazquez and his standing among the Old Masters. It's also the story of one man transfixed to the point ofAn excellent overview of the work of Diego Velazquez and his standing among the Old Masters. It's also the story of one man transfixed to the point of monomania by one of Velazquez's works, John Snare, a 19th century bookseller and collector. Highly recommended....more
Epistemological inquiry in the form of self-denigrating autobiography. Written in the third person, at times overbearingly acerbic. Author Henry AdamsEpistemological inquiry in the form of self-denigrating autobiography. Written in the third person, at times overbearingly acerbic. Author Henry Adams was grandson of President John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of President John Adams. He was a Boston Puritan born in 1838 who at sixteen attended Harvard College—severely berated here—and went on to pursue a career as a journalist, novelist and historian.
His historical gamut stretches from the American Revolution to the years just before World War I. His writing is wry with patches of brilliance and, less often, turgidity. There are some extraordinary scenes. In one it's 1860 and Henry Adams travels as a courier for the American consulate to Sicily to find Garibaldi "in the Senate house toward sunset, at supper with his picturesque and piratic staff, in the full noise and color of the Palermo revolution." He also meets William Makepeace Thackery, Robert Browning, Algernon Swinburne, Charles Lyell, Ulysses S. Grant, Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson, to name a few.
It was fascinating for me to learn that in 1861, when the author arrived in England as a private secretary to his U.S. diplomat father, that the British recognized the legitimacy of the Confederate belligerency and came close two years later to recognizing the Confederacy as a state. Then came the Trent Affair in which two Confederate diplomats (Mason and Slidel) were seized by a U.S. vessel from a British mail steamer—clearly an act of war. The author describes the tentativeness of their position in London at the time.
Mostly the first half of the book is a merciless dissection of British royalty, society, manners, dining (ugh), and eccentricity in general in the latter half if the 19th century. Adams views it as wholly self-centered and self-regarding, a closed world without lessons to offer him. He's says so in a singular, scabrous overview that's at times very funny.
It occurs to me that the The Education of Henry Adams (1906)—whether intentionally or not—serves as a kind of corrective to James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson (1819). In it many of the assumptions underlying that earlier work are called into question. Dr. Johnson's famous bromide—"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life."—gets a thorough refutation.
Adams' insights come at the expense of himself and anyone nearby. His irony morphs at times into vitriol. Lauded as a unique view on the American story. I think it very well may be. This has for me been one of those great interstitial reads, in which, using the framework of autobiography, the writer is able to cover many of the nooks and crannies of history often overlooked in more general texts. Neil Sheehan does much the same thing but with biography in his Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. I recommend both books highly, though from a literary point of view Sheehan's is the better written work.
Time has not been kind to Adams' style. Though there must have been a day when it was considered muscular, its phrasing today strikes one as slightly archaic and stilted at times. Its historical insights may be unique, but the text's omissions are as telling as its inclusions. Indeed, Henry Adams' world seems strangely Islamic with half its population going unmentioned. Women had virtually no role in the society of his day—they certainly did not have the vote—except as helpmeets and incubators of heirs. It's very strange to read historiography which excludes them so painstakingly.
(Tellingly, Clover, his wife of many years, is completely written out of the book. This seems truly strange when one learns by way of a Wikipedia search that in 1885 she killed herself by drinking darkroom chemicals. Adams takes a page or two to rhapsodize about the Augustus St Gaudens' statue he commissioned for her grave, in Rock Creek Cemetery, but he never tells us it's for his wife. This we must learn by independent means.)
It is the ultimate form of self-denigration to declare that one is beyond education. The kind of almost omniscient learnedness that Adams pursues is a literary convention that dates to the ancients. He returns to this hobbyhorse over and over. It wears thin, for he is only able to keep to his steed by views increasingly abstract. The writing—always a challenge—grow less coherent the deeper into the book we go. So an at times fascinating if ultimately problematic read....more
A learned and textually dense exegesis. An unmatched resource providing a unique overview. There's nothing like it out there in English, not with suchA learned and textually dense exegesis. An unmatched resource providing a unique overview. There's nothing like it out there in English, not with such breadth. The author has taken over two millennia of speculation about angels—what she calls "the four levels of discourse: literal, moral, allegorical and mystical"—and transformed it into something genuinely readable. Praiseworthy....more
A story of the artist's despair told through the unique circumstances that made him who he is—a writer for the ages, a bastard and a socially inept peA story of the artist's despair told through the unique circumstances that made him who he is—a writer for the ages, a bastard and a socially inept person masquerading as an adept. The section showing the young Pat and Vidia in love is too long but contains too much matter relevant to the later narrative to be cut. Still reading......more
I've had the good fortune to read two excellent literary memoirs in the last week or so. This one, and Paul Theroux's Sir Vidia's Shadow. Prime Green:I've had the good fortune to read two excellent literary memoirs in the last week or so. This one, and Paul Theroux's Sir Vidia's Shadow. Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties is and superbly written. The author's ability to compress this picaresque decade of his life into a mere 230 pages is a marvel. Stone has long been considered a writer's writer, still, I would lay odds that some of his nimble phrasing here came from honing these tales at dinner parties and other venues over the years. The book is very funny.
It opens with Stone at the helm of the USS Arneb. At sea he keeps two pictures over his desk: one of Bridget Bardot, the other of the New York City skyline. These he calls the poles of his desire. His descent into yellow journalism is interesting. On discharge he went to work for the New York Daily News, perhaps no worse then than it is today, and later for a few scuzzy National Enquirer-like rags. There he was responsible for headlines such as "Mad Dentist Yanks Girl's Tongue" and "Skydiver Devoured by Starving Birds." He goes to Hollywood with Paul Newman to make his novel A Hall of Mirrors into an apparently bad movie called WUSA. I've never seen it, have you?
He introduces us to Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and other works. I'm very grateful for the introduction because I've always been led to believe Kesey was a charlatan. Au contraire. Stone eulogizes his friend here as a great—if often drug-addled—man of superior learning and charisma. Kesey and his Merry Pranksters are probably most famous for setting off from Northern California in a psychedelic bus for the 1964 New York World's Fair. Neal Cassady was the driver. Yes, that Neal Cassady, Kerouac's friend, the one immortalized in On the Road.
One tale of the Pranksters in Mexico—Kesey was on the run from drug charges—has Cassady clandestinely using a hypodermic to dose a roast pig with LSD and amphetamines, thus sending the many diners—Stone was one—on an unexpected journey. That LSD was originally intended as a Cold War weapon, coming out of CIA-funded studies at Stamford University, and ultimately became a popular drug which "changed the minds" of Baby Boomers and others in many ways during that time of heightened social consciousness, is an irony that resonates to this day.
When Stone goes to Vietnam as a stringer, the narrative grows thin, the prose seems rushed, fragmented. But this is only in the last fifteen pages or so. The rest of the book is quite wonderful....more
3.5 stars. For me, this book was — like Why Nations Fail, Guns, Germs, and Steel and Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers— a keystone narrative that link3.5 stars. For me, this book was — like Why Nations Fail, Guns, Germs, and Steel and Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers— a keystone narrative that linked up many formerly disparate threads of my personal reading. Such books are rare pleasures. I had always known that Alexander von Humboldt’s story was a link missing from my general knowledge. The praises of Oliver Sacks and Stephen Jay Gould alone told me as much. But I didn't know this was generally due to anti-German sentiment so powerful in the U.S. and Europe after World War II.
During his Latin American explorations (1799-1804), Humboldt was front page news in the West. He and his team climbed volcanoes, pressed plants, murdered fascinating new animal species, reset the coordinates, often grossly incorrect, for scores of cartographic features (rivers, mountains, etc.), slept on the shores of the Orinoco River, dodged leopards, crocodiles and other predators, and were eaten alive by mosquitoes. This was a time when his name was a byword for adventure on the lips of every schoolboy, even in the U.S.
Afterward Humboldt returned to Europe, settling in Paris, where he wrote up his findings. What resulted was a series of paradigm-smashing publications for both scientists and general readers. He is the first true naturalist as we understand that term today. It helped that Humboldt was a writer of startling clarity and concision. Until then, it seems, writing for the masses was not considered a career-expanding opportunity by men of science. Author Andrea Wulf does not say why, but I think it probably had something to do with the presumed loss of reputation for so craven an act of moneymaking. Humboldt changed all that. Sacks and Gould and countless other writers would become beneficiaries of his breakthrough.
But his insight into the unplumbed market for science writing is secondary to his real achievement. Humboldt’s revolutionary act was to view nature as a unified force dependent upon myriad interactions and mutual reciprocities, not reduced to mind-numbing categories as taxonomists and other systematists were then doing. Humboldt saw the full ecological impact of forests; therefore, he was the first to warn about deforestation. He saw how greedy cash crops (monoculture), cleared needed forest, leeched the ground of minerals and emptied aquifers, thus touching the fates of countless animal species, including humans. Moreover, he saw the importance of expressing one’s personal emotional responses to nature and he wrote with a passion that repelled some cold men of science, but enlisted scores of readers from all walks of life.
He had as personal acquaintances Simón Bolívar, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, U.S. presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and Napoleon Bonaparte, who had him arrested briefly as a German spy. They all read him. His works constituted an epiphany for Charles Darwin, who took Humboldt’s Personal Narrative on board H.M.S. Beagle with him and who later met his hero. Henry David Thoreau could not have written Walden without Humboldt's example. The English Romantic poets William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Lord Byron all read and were influenced by him; as was Edgar Allan Poe, who dedicated his Eureka to him.
The major figures succeeding Humboldt and carrying his torch, if you will, include George Perkins Marsh, whose Man and Nature coalesced Humboldt’s environmental warnings, previously scattered throughout many volumes, into a clarion call for the conservation of the natural world; Ernst Haeckel, the prolific marine biologist, who virtually broadcast the Humboldtian sensibility to countless millions through his own popular books and articles; and John Muir, the comically ecstatic naturalist largely responsible for creating the U.S. federal parks system.
P.S. Humboldt was almost certainly homosexual. He usually had some slender young man with him in the guise of assistant. He avoided women like the plague, except those who could talk science, and he was said, if we are to believe Wulf (I do), to have disappointed entire cities of women who thought he'd make a fine match. His life was, in part, another bullet to the gizzard of that ridiculous fiction, the celibate bachelor. ...more
Read the Jean Jacques Rousseau and Robert Walser essays. which are vintage Sebald. Waiting to read the works of Mörike, Keller and Hebel, which I don'Read the Jean Jacques Rousseau and Robert Walser essays. which are vintage Sebald. Waiting to read the works of Mörike, Keller and Hebel, which I don't know, before finishing remaining essays....more