Today at the DBR: About that line in the sand…
Archive for the ‘Dates’ Category
Today at the DBR: Kwasi Kwarteng’s Ghosts of Empire, a book with important lessons for Americans that have nothing to do with empire.
OMG! We meant “Pakistan”! (BBC News)
¶ Matins: Paul Krugman addresses our most dangerous problem: the growing power of a right-wing rump without any interest in governing and with every intention of preventing others from governing: “the GOP has been taken over by the people it used to exploit. (NYT)
¶ Lauds: Duran Duran bassist John Taylor, who “became a teenager in 1972,” fears that the Internet has not been a positive force for popular culture. He seems troubled by the fact that it makes too much old stuff too easy to get, thus reducing the need for new stuff. (BBC News; via Arts Journal)
¶ Tierce: In an admirable move, Attorney General Eric Holder has dropped charges against former Alaska senator Ted Stevens — who would probably still be senator if it hadn’t been for his conviction of ethics violations.
¶ Compline: Gmail turned 5 yesterday. Seems like just yesterday… and yet, how did we live without it? Just thinking about it is a sort of April Fool’s joke. Michael Calore sends an ecard from Wired. (Via Snarkmarket)
¶ Lauds: Terry Teachout writes about the unglamorous side of being an opera librettist. Asked how he does it all, the man of letters gives the manly answer:
I’m extremely humble about whatever gifts I may have, but I am not modest about the work I do. I work extremely hard and all the time.
¶ Prime: Now that it’s over, I can read about it: the era of Press Bush. Errol Morris asks three wire-service photographers to talk about their most illustrative photographs of the late President. (via kottke.org)
¶ Tierce: Preserving the death camp at Auschwitz poses a peculiar problem: the installation wasn’t built to last. And parts of it were blown up by the evacuating Germans, who assuredly weren’t concerned about the difficulty of maintaining a ruin.
¶ Nones: And here I thought that “slumdog” was a standard insult in Mumbai, applied to anyone (particularly anyone Muslim) from the city’s rather ghastly slums. Not so.
The screenplay writer, Simon Beaufoy, said people should not read too much into the title. “I just made up the word. I liked the idea. I didn’t mean to offend anyone,” he said.
¶ Vespers: Notwithstanding his prodigious output, John Updike was too young, at 76, to leave us. The commodore of American letters, he guided a convoy of writers from the avowedly amoral shoals of modernism to a native harbor of immanence, and he set his ships a high example for polished decks.
The blooming of literature about the Hundred Days probably has a lot to do with Barack Obama’s assuming the presidency at a moment of economic breakdown just as Roosevelt did seventy-six years ago. Parallels like this are hard for historians and journalists to resist. Could history be repeating itself? It never does, of course. Still, there are similarities too interesting to be discarded without a glance.
¶ Lauds: Carnegie Hall announces its first “recessional” season.
The Kronos Quartet, China, Papa Haydn, Louis Andriessen, and a Polish double bill: the Chopin bicentennial and a Szymanowski festival. Interesting!
¶ Prime: A young man who used to live in Chinatown — I knew him then — has relocated to a great university in the West, where the ghosts of Mmes Child and Fisher have inspired him (apparently) to take up cooking. I shall refer to him as “Deipnosophistos” — the Learned Banqueter — in honor of his new Web log, which demonstrates that classics scholars may indeed know more about leftovers than the rest of us. We’ll call him “Deep” for short.
¶ Nones: Inevitable, I suppose: In the wake of the success of Slumdog Millionaire, an organization called Realty Tours & Travel offers 4½ hour, £12 tours of Dharavi, “the biggest slum in Asia,” on the north side of Mumbai. Nigel Richardson reports in the Telegraph.
The more I learn about George Kennan, the more clearly he stands out as my favorite American. After an unexceptional start, he became just about the only man in this country’s foreign service capable of grasping the fact that, in Russia,
what had really happened during the purges of the 1930s was that “the ship of state had been cut loose from the bonds of Communist dogma”; that Stalin was a limitless autocrat, a peasant tsar, and not an international revolutionary.
That’s John Lukacs, writing in George Kennan: A Study of Character (Yale, 2007). A few pages later, a footnote ends: “…at a time when ideological anticommunism became not only an element of but a virtual substitution for American patriotism.” Indeed. The thought strikes an interesting chord: for many on the conservative side of American political life, Christianity has taken the place, exactly as Mr Lukacs limns it, of “ideological anticommunism.” I find patriotism tiresome to the extent that it doesn’t involve the defense of the nation from actual, manifest attack; but if there have to be patriots, I prefer them to take Clint Eastwood as their model, and to eschew position statements. Mr Eastwood inclines toward the right, if ever more loosely, but I don’t doubt for a minute that he would agree with Kennan that the enemy, during the Cold War, was Russia, not the Soviet Union. Have you ever asked yourself how it was that the Soviet Union came to a virtually bloodless end, in a puff of gay bravado? Kennan, Mr Lukacs tells us, addressed the Foreign Service School in 1938 thus:
We will get nearer to the truth if we abandon for a time the hackneyed question of how far Bolshevism has changed Russia and turn our attention to the question of how far Russia has changed Bolshevism.
As for Mr Lukacs, he is something of a conservative himself, in the old, old sense: his books about Churchill’s conduct of the Battle of Britain give the measure of that. It’s no real surprise, then, to read the following gratuity:
Their friendship was an example of the condition that the sessence of true friendship between men is almost always intellectual: a genuine appreciation of a friend’s mental and spiritual, rather than of his physical or material qualities.
Excuse me while I choke! The observation is fundamentally so true that one must wonder why Mr Lukacs makes it. Does he wish to defend his late friend from the implications, whatever they might be, of having “a kind of sensitivity so fine as to be somehow feminine — surely feminine rather than masculine”? (And what’s that about, the “feminine” nature of a “sensitive” mind?) Then there’s the Cartesian dualism inherent in Mr Lukacs’s analysis of friendship: men bond with their minds and overlook their bodies. Which I rather doubt. The tall and dominating, deep-voiced man will invite far less rigorous review of his opinions than the stammering pipsqueak. But it’s the tail of the observation that stings: the implication that relations between men and women are “physical and material.”
It would be naive to deny that that’s exactly what they are in many, perhaps most cases; but it would be obtuse to deny they’re that way largely because it is convenient for men so to limit them.
If I fuss, it’s because I admire John Lukacs. A man of compleat and correct education, fluent in a second language, he thinks, as one might have said, nobly. But it raises an eyebrow, does it not, to read that he is “past president-elect” (?) of the American Catholic Historical Association. That suggests the kind of nobility that the West has been trying to shrug off since 1789.
For today’s Morning Read, I thought I would finish off AN Wilson’s After the Victorians: The Decline of Britain in the World. This is a very rich book, and if I were teaching history at the graduate level I would use it as the text for a discussion seminar, to keep doctoral candidates from getting lost in their theses. Every one of the thirty-seven chapters makes at least three or four controversial statements — or, rather, statements that were deemed controversial while they still conflicted with official propaganda. Example: the United States deployed nuclear weapons against Japan in order to shorten World War II.
Of course the overwhelming view of those who actually knew about the atomic bomb, and its effects upon human lives, was that its use was an obscenity. Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, Szilard were all utterly opposed. It took tremendous lies, of a Goebbelesque scale of magnitude, to persuade two or three generations that instead of being acts of gratuitous mass murder, the bombardments of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were almost benign — first, because they avoided the supposed deaths of half a million American troops (the estimated numbers of casualties had America conquered Japan by an invasion of infantry — a pretext utterly ruled out by the brevity of the time lapse between the dropping of the two weapons); and second, because it was better the weapon should be in the hands of Good Guys rather than truly wicked people such as Hitler or Stalin. Both these views, enlivened with a dash of Bible Christianity, helped to put the President’s mind at rest as he meditated upon it all in his diary.
After the Victorians does not believe in Good Guys, only Better and Worse ones; and there is no guarantee that being a Better Guy today will rule out being much, much Worse tomorrow. (Note to anti-”relativists”: Mr Wilson is gifted with an abiding sense of right and wrong, but he understands the difficulty of knowing one from the other in the heat of crisis. If the book were boiled down to his account of Churchill’s career, it would become more complex than it is.) And because After the Victorian necessarily charts the decline of that fairly recent invention, the British Empire, and covers two world wars as well, the UK is only the principal among many players. The book features not one but two chapters devoted to the “Special Relationship” between Britain and the United States.
After the Victorians, however, quickly turned out to be a bad choice for the Morning Reads. The point of the Morning Read is to familiarize myself, somewhat remedially, with books that I haven’t read. These books are either classics — last year, I read the Aeneid, which I rather despised, and Decameron, which I loved (and which helped me to grasp, for the first time, the fundamentally humanist bent of this blog) — or collections (poems, letters). The encounter is not intended to be very serious, but rather to replicate, as far as possible, the wide range of the college survey course. “So that’s what Moby-Dick is like (and no wonder I avoided it!).” Mr Wilson’s book is utterly incompatible with the speed-dating aspect of the Morning Reads — and certainly with the speed-writing notes that I scribble down afterward.
At the same time, After the Victorians is a difficult book to read alone. As a history, it is not even a secondary source of information. The reader who actually learns things from the book is at a disadvantage to the reader who can attend, instead, to the author’s handling of his material, which is sharp and provocative. My idea of heaven would be a book club that met to discuss one chapter every two or three weeks. We would be in no hurry to finish.
Medici Money is the kind of book that didn’t exist when I went to school. Histories in those days were either ponderous or pop. Monographs were too scholarly for lay readers. Some things, I’m happy to say, have changed for the better.
Tim Parks has his own approach to Renaissance government and finance, and he sees Renaissance art as — contemporaneously, not for us — so much whiting on the sepulchre. He also explains how things worked, when fast minds had to do without fast technology. His wrong-end-of-the-telescope view could not be handier. Don’t miss it!
Moral of the story: the Middle Ages did not exist until they were over! Read on at Portico…
Or perhaps this is the moral: what was originally the very stuff of history has now become a genre, popular with middle-aged men: Military History.
¶ Rental: From Sam Roberts’s story in the Times, this morning, about the dodginess of “1625″ as the founding date of our fair city (Nieuw Amsterdam):
The first settlers apparently arrived in 1624 (or 1623) and encamped on Governors Island. In 1625, they shipped their cattle to Lower Manhattan, where more land and water were available, and a fort was planned there. In 1626, Peter Minuit made his famous purchase of Manhattan (except that he bought it from Indians who did not own it and that in their view, he was, like many subsequent residents of Manhattan, merely a renter, not an owner).
You gotta love it.
¶ Supreme: Try to make some time — this evening, perhaps, or first thing tomorrow morning — to read the envoi of Times Supreme Court commentator, Linda Greenhouse. After nearly thirty years on the beat, she is retiring (to Yale).
¶ Warrant: Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court at the Hague, has submitted a warrant for the arrest of Omar Hassan al-Bashir, president of Sudan, charging him with genocide. It’s a first.
¶ Beady: Is there any language quite so jaundiced as the English in which the British discuss the French Revolution? In the Telegraph, Anthony Peregrine conducts readers on tour of Parisian Revolutionary sites, from Tobias Schmidt’s harpsichord shop (home of the guillotine) to La Fayette’s tomb.
Americans in contrast, might be less informative on the subject, but much more interesting, as, for example, La Maîtresse.
Bon week-end a tous!
¶ DIRL: What with following one link to another, I came across a nice, long comment thread (at Marginal Revolution) proposing books to take to Africa on a research project that will take a year, with only visit home. Somebody asked for advice.
¶ Pectavensis: How’s your Latin? It doesn’t have to be very good, to read Gregory of Tours, a Sixth-Century bishop who wrote pretty good history, considering it was the Dark Ages and all. Plus, he writes about a scandal at a convent in Poitou (in monasterio Pectavense). Nudge, nudge!
Consider the Boston Tea Party. 16 December 1773. Sam Adams and his “Mohawks” unload the Dartmouth, the Beaver, and the Eleanor into Boston Harbor. William J Bernstein, in A Splendid Exchange, makes me sit up in my chair when I read his account of this mythically well-known event. This is not what I was taught in school!
¶ Matins: Kathleen is off to Albany this evening, for an overnight trip. Shame about the awful weather; if it were nice, she could pretend that she was in North By Northwest. As, er, one of the extras — not Eva Marie Saint.
¶ Vespers: God, I’m complicated. Do I go to the movies tonight, and, if so, where; but, if I go tomorrow, then to which one? And what about Friday? Yikes! But here’s the deal: Roman de Gare tomorrow, at the Angelika. Then She Found Me on Friday morning, at the Sunshine.
Before we get to today’s book, I’d like to thank George Snyder, the author of 1904: The Year Everything Important Happened, for stopping by on a busy trip to New York. We met over a pot of coffee at my place, and I think I may say that we found an immediate rapport, discussing together some of the things that both of us talk about online. Then we marveled at the technology that, without our having to think about it very much, discovered us to one another.
Colin Wells’s book about the impact of Byzantium upon the rest of the world has one of those impossible subtitles that promises romance or staggering accomplishment, but it delivers an impressive amount of information in a small space. I was very grateful to have been tipped off to it by another friend named George.