The way scientists, since at least the eighteenth century, deceived both their public and themselves with pretentions to scientific objectivity, as thThe way scientists, since at least the eighteenth century, deceived both their public and themselves with pretentions to scientific objectivity, as they presented obviously self-serving claims of European racial superiority is at once fascinating, disheartening, and funny. Until recently, the most definitive book on this was The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen J. Gould, who certainly knew how play up both the tragic and comic sides of this story. In retrospect, however, Gould's account seems to be flawed by careless omissions and rhetorical exaggerations. Much of this may come down to Gould's egotism, as he constantly draws attention to himself, through means such as idiosyncratic syntax and personal digressions. David Bindman, author of Ape to Apollo has little of Gould's personal charm, but his treatment of the subject just might be sounder. He explains in detail the conceptions of race in the works of Winckelman, Linnaeus, Kant, Herder, Darwin, Blumenbach, Lavater, Galton, the Foster brothers, and many others, as well as the cultural context in which they worked. He style is clear, direct, and straightforward, and, for the most part, he leaves moralizing to the reader. He might perhaps seem a bit detached to some, but he resists every temptation to caricature the thinkers he discusses. ...more
A young Black man, after being expelled from college, moves from the deep South to New York City in the late 1940s or early 1950s, where many people,A young Black man, after being expelled from college, moves from the deep South to New York City in the late 1940s or early 1950s, where many people, black and white, attempt to exploit him in the service of various causes. These include unions, management, communists, Black nationalists, and lustful women. Though always wary, he is nevertheless swept up for a while in all of these agendas, but abandons them when they go too far. Remarkably, the reader never learns the protagonist's name, which indicates his status as "the invisible man," a person whose individual identity others are unable to recognize. As a reader, I fail to see that as well, and that would normally be considered a failing on the part of the novelist. The character seems to passively accept the identities that others impose on him, at least up to a point, and he comes across more as a void than as a mystery. Since, however, his lack of identity is acknowledged so openly, I remain a bit unsure if Ellison is (perhaps brilliantly) rationalizing a flaw or unfolding a grand design. However that may be, the book presents a wonderfully evocative picture of America, particularly of Harlem, in the mid-twentieth century. ...more
During the French Revolution, the government created a new calendar, which dated years from the beginning of its rule. It renamed the days and the monDuring the French Revolution, the government created a new calendar, which dated years from the beginning of its rule. It renamed the days and the months, and even instituted a new clock. This is because the partisans of the Revolution wished to create the impression of a radical rupture with the past. Through an close analysis of the Revolution's history, especially its intellectual foundations, Furet convincingly demonstrates that this impression of radical novelty was an illusion. According to Furet, pre-revolutionary France was essentially "a republic in the guise of an absolute monarchy," since power was in practice distributed among many agents. The makers of the Revolution retained, and even magnified, the idea of centralized, absolute power, but attempted to transfer this to "the people," conceived in the abstract. But the citizens are not a monolithic body, but, rather, a collection of groups and individuals. The only way in which they could hold, or appear to hold, such power was as embodied in a single person. For a while Robespierre became, in effect, the monarch of France, and soon after that position was taken over by Napoleon, who became far more powerful than the beheaded king had ever been. The major structural change was only that the monarchy was integrated into a predominantly bourgeois, rather than a primarily feudal, social order. The old formula was reversed, and France became "an absolute monarch in the guise of a republic." The changes in the calendar were only used for a very short time, but we still often date the "modern era" from the French Revolution. But if, as Furet maintains, there was no lack of continuity with the preceding period, modernity itself may be, as Bruno LaTour has argued, an illusion. ...more
The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald is marketed as a novel, but blends memoir, history and other genres in a way that defies categorization. It is a cThe Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald is marketed as a novel, but blends memoir, history and other genres in a way that defies categorization. It is a collection of stories and reminiscences, mostly related to Britain's imperial past, inspired by various houses and landscapes the author encounters in wandering around the English countryside. The author recounts adventures of such cultural icons as Browne, Conrad, Casement, Swinburne, Fitzgerald, Chateaubriand and many others who are less well-known, all held together primarily by the motifs of transience and decay. The lack of a systematic plan is itself a method of organization, since it constantly reminds of quirkiness of our experience and the precariousness of our accomplishments. But, for me at least, that is not quite enough. I keep waiting for some larger theme to emerge, and it never does....more
When you have a great story, you don't even need a fine literary style. This book is written as a fairly conventional Gothic novel, but who really carWhen you have a great story, you don't even need a fine literary style. This book is written as a fairly conventional Gothic novel, but who really cares?...more
I think Jane Austen may have been better at the precise description of emotional nuances than any other writer, Shakespeare included, in the English lI think Jane Austen may have been better at the precise description of emotional nuances than any other writer, Shakespeare included, in the English language. In Pride and Prejudice, and in other novels by her, the characters often speak with incredible verbal facility. Could men and women of her era really have been so articulate? Certainly not. This was an era when entertaining conversation was prized and cultivated almost as an art form. Especially for the aristocracy, it also occupied a very substantial portion of the day. I do not doubt that people of the early nineteenth century were far more well-spoken than the vast majority of us today. Nevertheless, I think we have to accept eloquence of people like Elizabeth and Darcy with a certain "suspension of disbelief." When we are accustomed to this convention, the psychological insight makes what might otherwise be relatively mundane events into a thrilling tale, as well as a fascinating historical document....more
In a world where just about everything is reduced to statistics from "likes" and "friends" on Facebook to "hits" on Google, what is the place of all oIn a world where just about everything is reduced to statistics from "likes" and "friends" on Facebook to "hits" on Google, what is the place of all of our half articulate intuitions, faded memories and presentiments? Sebald's answer in his novel Austerlitz is that we need them to find our way. This is the story of a man who, as a Jewish child, had been smuggled out of Prague after the Nazi takeover and adopted by a couple in Wales. Throughout his life, he is troubled by a uncertainty as to who he really is. Finally, after retirement, he finds his way back by hunches, looking for scenes that, often for reasons that at first seem indefinable, appear familiar. One way to interpret the novel is as a sort of allegory of Germany, which remains severed from its past by the Nazi era. Unable to evoke memories, the contemporary landscapes and cities are a bit like a primeval forest, in which citizens must now find a way home.