A Journal Of The Plague Year

This is the second time I have read Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. The first time was when I was a young man (late teens? twenties?) and was only the second book by Defoe I’d ever read (true to this day; the other being his book of the English Civil War, Memoirs of a Cavalier; incidentally, the use of ‘a’ rather than ‘the’ is interesting; I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, wherein the use of the indefinite pronoun and the implied rejection of a certain authorial omniscience makes the works feel more trustworthy).

The first time was not, as it is now, a plague year in the United States (or, leastways, not for me; I don’t want to dismiss the damage being done to gay men and oft ignored by straight men in the 80s and 90s by AIDS). However much I might have loved the book before, I could not have understood the frightening prescience of his writing.

From complaints about the government withholding information (I’m looking not just at the president, but also at the governor of Florida), especially in the early days of its reaching our shores (I forgot to note that Defoe is writing an account of the bubonic plague outbreak with struck England, and especially London, in 1665, arriving, the narrator believes, from Holland); to the ways in which the wealthy were able to ignore the rules and insulate themselves; to the suffering of families forced to quarantine separately from one of more members. Towards the end, there is even an anecdote about a merchant who saw things getting better, to so ended his family’s social distancing (they were waiting things out in the country) and brought them back to London, opened his shop, and threw himself back into normal life. Then the whole family got sick and died. So, yeah… let’s reopen the country! 

As cabin fever kicks in, I find myself envious of the peripatetic narrator. Taking most reasonable precautions known at the time (a writer from the first half of the 18th century, writing about about an event from the second half of the 17th century which he knows about from foggy childhood memories and, apparently, much research into what we would now call primary sources), he walks London and comments sympathetically in the travails of those sick with the ‘distemper’ and calls out the MAGA trolls of the day who ignored safety guidelines (which included congregating in large groups and social distancing). My own feelings of confinement are intense and I long to be a more active observer.

Which also makes his descriptions of the breakdown of safety measures pertinent. People became inured to the smells of death and the bodies being carted out and began to crowd churches. I won’t claim to be very religious, but during these times, the inability to take the sacraments is something I feel very keenly, to the point it becomes painful, and I am sympathetic to the desire, if not to the reckless pastors and parishioners putting communities at risk (I also feel a certain chauvinism; if you don’t believe the Eucharist is real, how urgent is it for you to attend services?). But the sort of faith people felt then is a driver in a way it is not now, even if the desire for societal connections denied by the plague played a role equal or greater than religious fervor.

Finally, the book is also a reminder that the 18th century was a time of beautiful and often very clear (to contemporary ears) writing. If you can make your way past certain spelling conventions, Defoe, Johnson, Hume, Addison, Gibbon, Burke, etc. are all easily understood and appreciated by the modern reader.



Ways Of Heaven: An Introduction To Chinese Thought

I begin to see why my wife criticizes my photography

Though not stated openly, Sterckx, for the majority of the book, sets Chinese thought as a sort of rivalry between Confucianism and Mohism. You can easily see a bias towards the former, though he is not unkind towards the latter (Legalism, however, receives only a lukewarm defense).

He takes a topic and writes about the Confucian view and then (usually) Mozi’s view, with sprinklings of Legalistic and Daoist views (Buddhism doesn’t come up in detail until 3/4 of the way through the book).

Though he talks about Chinese philosophy, he is not really writing a book about Chinese philosophy. I struggled to best explain what he is doing and I settled on calling it ‘intellectual history of the elites.’ It was fascinating read and I love that he has some a long section with additional suggested reading, but it still felt just a little thin. For a thick tome, it was strangely shallow.

Letter Of Henry St. John, First Viscount Bolingbroke, To Sir William Windham

Various causes have made me want to read eighteenth century English political philosophy and other causes have made it less easy than you might suppose.

But this letter I found, and though I would have rather been introduced to Bolingbroke by other works, beggars can’t be choosers, especially in a pandemic and facing the uncertain financial consequences thereof.

This letter is not political philosophy, except that his constant appeal to party (he was a Tory) is a useful thing to keep in mind. Party loyalty, above all, seems to be his excuse. Excuse for what? Siding with the Pretender and supporting to Scottish rebellion of 1715 against George I.

If it is not philosophy it is a fascinating, if presumably biased and unreliable, history of a period I am not well versed on. He wrote the letter in an attempt to win allies who might secure his pardon, which is why he frames his support for a so-called pretender to the crown in terms of service to the Tories. It all sounds pretty weird these days. And perhaps scary as we see one party maintain mostly blind loyalty to a mostly willfully blind and cruel leader.

Oh… and he ends the whole thing with an aside that basically comes down, you can’t trust Catholics, even good ones, because Popery will always lead them astray.

I Almost Didn’t Finish ‘The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American’

Not because he doesn’t make good points, but they are too strident and not new and I wasn’t feeling patient. But I persevered.

I know that George Washington was famously present in church, but would neither stand nor kneel nor take communion.

I know that Franklin tended to think that religion was a useful opium for the masses.

And that Jefferson was not a Christian in any useful sense of the word.

I also know that right wing people are using Christianity as an excuse to peddle corporate tax cuts and their own neuroses.

So if I’m going to read about this, I expect to learn something in the first fifty odd pages, but somehow failed to. And I don’t think it’s my fault.

The Bible has many issues. Or rather, I have many issues with much of the Bible. Seidel lays them all out, but I didn’t pick up a book on why the Bible is contradictory or even hypocritical, but rather (I thought) on constitutional issues. And you lose a certain status which contributes to credibility when you are so gleeful about it.

At some point, I finally realized my objection. Seidel quotes and references Christopher Hitchens several times and it was after reading one, particularly Hitchensesque Hitchens quote that it finally became clear.

I wanted to read a book about constitutional history, theory, and practice.

If I had wanted to read a screed against Christianity, I would have picked up a copy of one of Hitchens many books with such things. While I might not have agreed with his ultimate conclusions, I would have been greatly amused by the last, great eighteenth century political wit of the twenty-first century.

‘Lincoln’ By Gore Vidal

One of his most famous novels (second only, these days, perhaps, to Burr), but I was somewhat disappointed. The quality improves immensely towards the end, but I am trying not let the magnificent writing of the last quarter of the novel (and recency bias) to make me overlook the first seventy-five percent. Part of the improvement is that he mostly drops – until the very end – a subplot about one of Booth’s fellow conspirators: a callow fellow named David. The less of him the better!

His Abraham Lincoln is compelling but too distant. Aaron Burr loomed large and his young protege interested; and in my own favorite, Julian, the titular emperor and his two chroniclers are compelling, catty, and captivating. No one steps up so in the absence of Lincoln.

The writing is good, but not great. I believe that he understands the politics of the time pretty well and he is a good commentator on the realpolitik of eras predating ours. And his small details are wonderful. For example, we generally see General George McClellan as a ditherer, who let the war drag on. But Vidal portrays Washington society as worshipful of the man they called ‘Young Napoleon.’ I hadn’t realized he was so young, much less that he was ever compared to Napoleon, but I trust the author enough to believe it (though I will hold my fire on the venereal controversy).

But it is not enough. Perhaps one wishes that he had dived deeper into Lincoln’s psyche and written from his perspective.

To the reader, Lincoln sits opaquely, fascinatingly at the center, but for much of the book, the characters who orbit the man view him as a weak figure, easily stymied by his generals and hangers on and a man of wan, waffling convictions. I mention this because though I cannot for the life of me remember the title, I recently read a review of a newish history that suggests just that: Lincoln was actually rather weak and most of the credit for victory should go to the so-called Radical Republicans.

Thomas Jefferson’s Education

Gentle reader, you have no doubt noticed that I am a fool for a new take on Thomas Jefferson, one that dodges standard biography. This one dodges so far as not to be sure what to make of itself.

It is sort of a history of the founding University of Virginia; sort of history of education in Virginia during Jefferson’s lifetime; and sort of a collection of anecdotes of Jeffersonianisms, towards the end of compiling an unsystematic intellectual biography of the planter philosopher. And a surprising quantity of text devoted to Jefferson’s extended family, hangers on, and the financial ruin of his family.

The Plot To Betray America

I thought I was done with these kinds of books, but I read a good review and the wait to get it from the library wasn’t long, so here we are.

While acknowledging that, yes, Trump is incompetent and ignorant of the sort of basic facts known to a person who reads the Sunday edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer once a month, the focus is on the creeping influence of Russian intelligence agencies over him. It’s nothing we didn’t already know, but set down so clearly and altogether… it creates a sensation of, oh yeah, I forgot our president is basically a Russian asset. Followed by a sensation of, well, that sucks, doesn’t it?