When The World Spoke French


9781590173756This book is a collection of miniature biographies, focused on (mostly, though confusingly, not exclusively) non-French figures of the eighteenth century who were deeply influenced by eighteenth century French culture, most especially, the intellectual milieu of the French Enlightenment. The biographies themselves, naturally, focus on these figures’ intersections with French Enlightenment culture.

The book is deeply interesting and provides some lovely insight into well known figures (Frederick the Great of Prussia, Catherine the Great of Russia) and less well known persons (Abbe Galliani).

I did get very irritated around the half way point as the author started dropping the name Grimm. I assumed that it wasn’t one of the famed Brothers Grimm, but it would have been really cool to at least include a first name. At around the three quarter mark, we finally get a bio of Friedrich Melchior Grimm, editor of a famed journal of the Enlightenment, but only after I’ve been made to feel ignorant for not knowing ‘Grimm’ since birth. Similarly, a reference to the Enlightenment loving crowned heads included a list, among whom was Stanislaw. Stanislaw who, you ask? Well, the very last bio is of Stanislaw Augustus II of Poland.

But I shouldn’t gripe. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s a lovely, winding journey through drawing rooms and salons, highlighted by excerpts from letters, of a wonderfully fecund time in European intellectual history.

Offices


The finish to Cicero’s Offices (or On Duties or De Oficiis) was both apropos and unsettling. The book is a missive to his son and most of it is ethical philosophy as light reading. Not to denigrate it! Part of the reason it is light reading, is that Cicero is known as an excellent Latin stylist and while my translation is little old fashioned, it keeps the clearness. But also because Cicero is not Kant and this is not a technical treatise. Yes, he talks about stoicism and he mentions his own school (the sceptics or Academicians) and notes that his son has chosen to study under a peripatetic (which is to say, an Aristotlean) philosopher. But this is a practical guidebook.

Or, at least, that’s how it begins… and actually, that’s how most of it goes.

But his bitterness over his fall (precipitated by his opposition to Julius Caesar’s power grabs; Cicero was not a democratic soul, but believed deeply in the Roman Republic and its institutions) takes over and it’s hard not to read the last twenty pages or so as a pointed attack on the people and institutions he sees as having failed the Republic and contributed to its decline and downfall.

Which might seem appropriate for the times, right? Like most Americans, I voted against Trump, and have, even before he has taken office, been found right in my opposition as he rather publicly dismantles our democratic norms (en route to dismantling our democratic institutions?). But Lord knows that I need a break. I didn’t pick up a two thousand year old book for insight into the current predicament affecting my country. I wanted a bit o’ ancient wisdom and a good read.

Wilmington, Delaware


So, I was in Wilmington, Delaware the other weekend. On Saturday, I walked from Brandywine Park to the Delaware Art Museum, which is famous for its collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings and related works. The museum was originally founded to house and preserve the works of Wilmington based illustrator, Howard Pyle, who died in 1911.

On Sunday, I walked through the park and up a set of stairs and wound up at an eighteenth century Presbyterian church which is only open one day month and only for two hours on that day and, by strange coincidence, I walked up there on that day.

My notes are all mixed up, so I’m just going to post a bunch of pictures up and make whatever comments I want in the caption.

This is from the church, obviously

This is from the church, obviously


You can see the date of its construction written in 'brick' on the side

You can see the date of its construction written in ‘brick’ on the side


Colonial graffiti

Colonial graffiti


The classic colonial pulpit

The classic colonial pulpit


A quintessential subject (Lilith) by the quintessential Pre-Raphaelite artist (Rossetti)

A quintessential subject (Lilith) by the quintessential Pre-Raphaelite artist (Rossetti)


'Hymenaeus,' by Edward Burnes-Jones

‘Hymenaeus,’ by Edward Burnes-Jones


I took a picture of this just because of the salon style display of the works

I took a picture of this just because of the salon style display of the works


Another example of how charmingly welcoming this museum is!

Another example of how charmingly welcoming this museum is!


Most museums won't let you sit in the nice chairs in the galleries

Most museums won’t let you sit in the nice chairs in the galleries


Another very Rossetti-like Rossetti... they did love red-haired women

Another very Rossetti-like Rossetti… they did love red-haired women


From the Pre-Raphaelite gallery; I should note that the museum took a wonderfully liberal view of photographs; no flash, of course, but if the museum owned the piece, you are welcome to snap away

From the Pre-Raphaelite gallery; I should note that the museum took a wonderfully liberal view of photographs; no flash, of course, but if the museum owned the piece, you are welcome to snap away


What I like best is that the man is smiling despite his burden; protecting children is inherently rewarding

What I like best is that the man is smiling despite his burden; protecting children is inherently rewarding


This is a great Motherwell, but also exemplifies the challenge of the smaller, regional museum; how does one work around having an eclectic collection that doesn't really illustrate a movement or artist? What good is one Motherwell, in a way?

This is a great Motherwell, but also exemplifies the challenge of the smaller, regional museum; how does one work around having an eclectic collection that doesn’t really illustrate a movement or artist? What good is one Motherwell, in a way?


Completely random, but cool - a set of Art Deco elevator doors!

Completely random, but cool – a set of Art Deco elevator doors!

Maria Edgeworth, William Wordsworth & David Ricardo


I read this little piece on William Wordsworth’s visit to Ireland and the extent to which he was influenced by what he saw there (both in terms of the political and ecological content of his poems). It also noted his encounter with Maria Edgeworth, the author of Castle Rackrent.

Later, I was re-reading my favorite bit of a beloved book, The Worldly Philosophers. My favorite bit of that book (after the description of Thorstein Veblen washing dishes with a garden hose) is the section on Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In that section, it notes the correspondence (and influence) one Maria Edgeworth had on Ricardo.

When I saw the Edgeworth name on page 85, I wondered, could that be the same one? Flipping over the page, when I saw Castle Rackrent mentioned, I obviously knew it was.

That’s it. Just a fun little thing. But you should definitely read The Worldly Philosophers. I actually had it in my bag because I have been intending, for some time, to loan it to a friend who going to be studying business. My father once semi-famously said that one should never confuse a business degree with an education. I thought that a book about influential economists might split the difference a little bit. So I had it in my bag, in case I should run into him.

‘Burr’ By Gore Vidal


Vidal signed my copy of his early novel, The Judgment of Paris, at the West Hollywood Book Festival some ten years ago. I read it, enjoyed it, but did not give him much more thought.

When The Best of Enemies, about the 1968 Buckley-Vidal debatescame out, I rushed to see it with a friend at the E Street Theater downtown and, for the first time, saw Vidal as a monumental figure.

But, in a way like Christopher Hitchens (who had a fraught relationship with Vidal), you wonder whether there will be any cultural memory of him twenty years after his death. Will his books and essays be read?

So, I decided to read one of his most famous (and best reviewed) novels, Burr.

Will Burr last?

Maybe. Yes. No.

A little, is probably the best answer. Much better than middlebrow (midcult?), but a shade below masterpiece or classic. It’s far, far, far, far, far, far better than Gone With the Wind, but I can see it having a similar lifespan. Mitchell’s novel has maintained an incredible cultural cachet and readership over the years, but is, I think, finally fading (mainly because it is unreconstructed claptrap).

But the real novel in question.

The character of Aaron Burr himself is a fantastic creation and the novel acts as a fantastic apology/redemption for the figure. For those who don’t the story of the novel, a man named Charles Schuyler finds himself becoming the biographer – or, really, the scribe for a memoir – of Burr. The novel jumps between first person sections from Schuyler’s perspective on his own life in New York City in the 1830s and then first person sections from Burr’s perspective, narrating major parts of his history (and, necessarily, the founding of America).

Based on my own (admittedly slight) readings of original texts from the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Vidal has a nice sense of an earthy, pre-Victorian mindset for Burr (though it’s still a modern novel; also, thankfully, with regular and recognizable spelling) – less so for Schuyler. His Burr’s depiction of a craven, political Thomas Jefferson is as frighteningly hilarious as his thin-skinned, conniving, and barely competent George Washington.

American history during this period is not really my forte and I’m not going to act as judge on much of the accuracy of this – I just don’t know enough of Revolutionary and early post-Revolutionary American history to stand in judgment – and I know enough about Vidal to believe that, even if he would fudge for literary reasons, he did voluminous research. It’s certainly not news to say that Vidal is deliberately revisionist, in the sense of changing how we view the sacred icons of our founding fathers.

I have read that Vidal’s so-called ‘Narratives of Empire’ (of which this was the first book) is intended to show the evolution of America into an empire, but Burr ultimately feels elegiac. You could say an elegy for a dream lost to dreams of empire, but that’s not what it feels like to me. Schuyler missed the Revolutionary War and is somewhat in between epochs. Around long enough to hear the myths and truths of a great age, but not old enough to have experienced it.

 

‘A Short History Of Chinese Philosophy’ By Fung Yu-Lan


9780684836348I was really enjoying this and what I was learning, until I stopped to think about it. Fung is very good on the history, but how much had I actually learned about Chinese philosophy from my reading?

Plenty, certainly, but it seemed like it was more about a more or less chronological succession of figures and their relationship to political-historical milieus than actual philosophy. And he allows various major currents, particularly Taoism and Confucianism, to seem surprisingly philosophically undifferentiated, as if the the major differences between them were in the historical place of major thinkers within the traditions, rather than the philosophical traditions themselves.

Now, he does lay out some wonderful categories of major schools in Chinese philosophy and, while acknowledging their limitations, uses them as a wonderful framework for helping the reader keep up. And I don’t want to suggest that I didn’t learn anything from this book, only that I had hoped to learn – or to feel like I had learned – a bit more about philosophy.

His account of more contemporary philosophy feels incomplete and mostly focused on the influences of and correspondences with western thought. There is an account of ‘intuitive mind’ in later neo-Confucianism, which resembles Socrates’ helping a slave to ‘remember’ a priori knowledge in The Meno.

It was also interesting to learn that the first western philosophy to be introduced to China was primarily non- or anti-metaphysical: Betrand Russell, John Dewey, JS Mill, and William Jevons. He says that the introduction of formal logic was the biggest influence from the west, but that it was more of a coincidence that it was analytic texts that first arrived than  any particular affinity.