‘From Dawn To Decadence: 1500 To The Present: 500 Years Of Western Cultural Life’ By Jacques Barzun


I knew of Barzun as one of one of the New York intellectuals of the fifties and sixties, but only knew of him; I’d never read him.

But after reading an essay by someone who knew him (I can’t remember where I read; some right leaning publication, I believe, but one of those who mostly try to ignore Trump and assert some intellectual legitimacy to the right), I thought I should rectify that.

For better or worse, all the library had was his immensely long, late in life, magnum opus.

A couple of things struck me while reading it.

First, a fascinating aside about Hamlet within another aside about Shakespeare. He points out that it is a modern understanding to think of him a vacillating. In fact, Barzun argues, he was being judicious in a difficult environment. It is no small thing to kill a king and dangerous if you fail; also dangerous if you succeed, because you are vulnerable in the short term to popular unrest or the ambitions of nobleman who sees opportunity in the inevitable chaos. That he was not indecisive is proven, he writes, by Fortinbras saying, upon finding the scene of slaughter at the end (I am giving nothing away, I hope), that Hamlet would have made a great king. Surely, if Hamlet were the waffling type, this would not be the case. He also suggests that Laertes is included to point out the contrast between an impetuous character and a careful one; Laertes’ recklessness makes him an easy tool for Hamlet’s uncle. It also nicely matched an interesting (but not great) production of Hamlet that I saw at the Folger, where the director challenged the actors and audience not to focus on psychology, but on the actions of the characters.

Second, I am an elitist. I already knew this. But Barzun is writing elite, cultural history. He is not Braudel. He’s not even a Durant. He is an apostle of high culture. And, well, I like reading about that. That said, his brand patrician elitism can elide decency and slip into something distasteful, as in his off hand, Malthusian remark about “the rapid increase in people as hygiene and medication recklessly prolong life.” He was in his nineties when he wrote this book.

What did I learn? Well, it is the sort of magisterial, grand work one doesn’t find so much anymore, so one does learn a lot. Too much to sum up. But…

I’m not sure that counts as learning, but his thesis that monarchism is the key to unlocking an understanding of the baroque was fascinating, even if I am not qualified to judge it.

His portraits of cities as exemplars of particular times – Venice in the mid seventeenth century or London in 1715 – are as masterful as they delightful, until they are not. Paris in 1830 is oddly, mostly about German thought. His pastiche of 1895 showed an unsurprising indifference.

It feels like, and this especially struck reading his reading of the twentieth century, that the figures he most enjoys are more contemporary ones whose style harkens back to the witty and learned diaries, essays, and criticisms of Samuels Pepys and Johnson and the men who filled the pages of the Tatler and its siblings of the eighteenth century. But he does namecheck Garbage, one of the great bands of the nineties (the 1990s, that is), even if disparagingly (in the context of band names that are… bad? Dirty? Filthy?)

Should you read Barzun? Probably. He is Eurocentric and not terribly interested in non-white cultures, but these deep flaws don’t make him unreadable. Indeed, he is a witty writer. Lines like “a thin slice of antiquity for a large spread of modern butter,” in reference to French baroque culture’s preference for Roman over Greek antiquity struck me very nicely.

Thomas Jefferson & Doctor Dolittle


While reading it to my daughter (having not realized when I began it, how mightily I would struggle to skip over and elide the racist sections; though I will give some credit for a wonderfully concise criticism of colonialism: an African king says that the last white man to come through, dug holes all over his kingdom and took all the gold and killed all the elephants and took all the ivory and then left without saying this thank you; sadly, this moment of criticism was overwhelmed by subsequent racism, often of a most crudely worded kind), I saw a passage where Dolittle consults Buffon, looking to see if a particular animal is mentioned.

Surely this was the Comte de Buffon whose theory of the decadence of American animals and men had so inflamed Jefferson and inspired some of his most interesting taxonomic efforts?

Guest Post – Polar Bears


Today, we have a special guest blogger, Miss BB.

Miss BB a noted local artist and YouTube star, but is maybe best known to readers of this blog from her review of Katie Woo: The Big Lie.

Polar bears live in the Arctic. Polar Bear has two kinds of fur like undercoat, and guard hairs. Polar Bear fur is black. Polar bears must be fat so they will not drown into the water. Polar Bear has very small ears because they live in the Arctic. Polar Bear has fur on the paws and the paws are about 30cm. Polar Bears can run for 40 kilometer per hour. Polar bears have a hard time catching food from the sea. Polar bears can swim 100 km away from the land. Polar Bear favorite food is seals and seals are fat. Polar Bear mom stays in a cave and it is also called torpor too. Polar Bear can have 1 to 3 cubs at a time. Polar Bear cubs usually born in the summer. The cubs can weigh more than half a kilogram.

A Vindication Of The Rights Of Women


To me, the heart of her argument’s current value (assuming that we can all agree that women are not inherently inferior to men and don’t need to be told that anymore; though it is still almost certainly true the we do still need to be told) is an educational one (perhaps why she take special offense at the educational writings of Rousseau). Proper education leads to people of any gender becoming fully moral creatures. The failure to properly educate women leads to them lacking, in most cases, full moral agency. At the same time, the rearing of children, who we want to be grow into moral creatures, is left to them, so shouldn’t we educate them properly so that they can raise the next generation of moral agents? Read more

Notes On Virginia


You can see Jefferson’s regular topics and conceits clearly here. A chapter on religion is mainly about the religious freedom he so assiduously (and successfully; he wrote the statute) championed in Virginia. On education, it reflect the inadequacy of both the physical and curricular structure of William & Mary, then the state’s only college; arguments no doubt in support of his quest to establish the University of Virginia at the base of his mountain. You see Jefferson the amateur scientist (and a fascinating digression into some amateur archaeology that he undertook on a Native American burial mound.

On manufacturing, his disdain for large scale production is clear (despite the fact that very nearly his only profitable venture was a nail factory he built on his lands). It feels a little naive, to disdain creating finished goods here, beyond basic items, but it fits with his pastoral/agricultural republicanism. Like Socrates, he seems to think smaller polities are better.

On race… the less said the better. He was at a point where his views were evolving and not for the better. He is open to the idea that the native peoples could achieve a cultural status close to whites, but that “generosity” only reminds the modern reader of the anti-black racism running through his brain.

Takeaway quote (from the religion section):

It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.

And you know what? In this day, his vigorous, anthropological critique of religious oppression may seem commonsensical today, in the eighteenth century it was far more daring and outre.

Doesn’t make up for the racism, though.

‘Through Nature To God’ By John Fiske


Have you ever had one of those experiences where you agree with someone, but really wish you didn’t, because the person was so annoying?

That is how I felt about Through Nature to God.

How did I even come to this point? I was reading through a selected works of the great American philosopher, Josiah Royce, and came across some references to some other American philosophers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including… John Fiske. I decided, foolishly, to look for him and found Through Nature to God.

Whether it was the unsupported leaps, the leaning on poorly understood science (giving, though, some allowance for the fact that our understanding has grown since Fiske was writing), or the references to Herbert Spencer, which always, to me, at least, carry a pungent whiff of social darwinism.

He argues that the biological sciences, mostly, though not exclusively, evolution, argue for  God. He does not make a particular argument for the Judeo-Christian God, but clearly for a theistic one.

While I do, personally, see God working, at a distance, through evolution, his strident tones and arch language make it all seem… icky.

The best thing I can say about it… it’s a short book.

Ice


Ice is considered a sort of lost classic and it didn’t disappoint. Technically science fiction in a post-apocalyptic mode, it takes place after an event (probably man made, but the unnamed protagonist honestly does not know for sure) results in a quickly creeping ice age enveloping the earth, constantly narrowing the band of habitable land and resulting in civil breakdown, wars for ever more scarce resources and the rise of local warlords.

The protagonist is obsessed with a girl with pale skin and nearly white hair who has known since she was a child. Abused in some way, she is drawn to abusive men. The protagonist, it is made clear, is probably no more than the best of a bad bunch.

The tone is stark and nameless (no names of people nor countries) and matched by the first person narration of a soldier for hire who is driven by his obsession/love/nostalgia for this mostly unattainable woman (partly because she is often kept by more violent and powerful men than he).

I hate to use this term, but I kept on thinking of this as Kafkaesque. The lack of definite names and quest for something close, but unattainable and also incomprehensible.

Great book. Really. Great.

‘Essays Towards A Theory Of Knowledge’ By Alexander Philip


While a respected public intellectual in his day (the early twentieth century), he’s certainly not someone anyone would recognize today as being a top tier epistemologist, metaphysician, nor thinker. Which would probably come as a surprise to Mr. Philip, who clearly felt that he had hit upon some excellent truths, whose veracity was easy to see once he’d made his thinly supported assertions clear.

Read more

The Marsh At The End Of The World


I don’t really have much to add or say, I just thought that this was a wonderful and painfully elegiac piece of ‘scientific pastoral’ about the decay of coastal marshes.

‘The Marsh at the End of the World,’ by Elizabeth Rush, printed in Guernica

The Sunday Paper – Shuffling The Tarot Deck


Economic model or astrological tool?
Economic model or astrological tool?

Economists use ‘mathiness’ to disguise their astrologies.

Old fashioned literary hate mail is the best literary hate mail. Today’s internet trolls just can’t compare to the greats of the genre.

We just don’t make good polymaths anymore.