Thomas Jefferson: A Modern Prometheus


First, let me credit Professor Moses with being the first person I have read to refer to Thomas Jefferson as ‘the Count of Monticello.’ As someone deeply impacted by both Thomas Jefferson and Dumas’ epic novel of revenge, The Count of Monte Cristo, I applaud without reservation.

Jeffersonian agrarianism from Locke’s idea that property derived from making use of the land. Against speculators, rentier capitalism, and… American Indiana making ‘unprofitable’ use of the land.

On the whole, his criticism and occasional fury are well merited, I must allow. His showing that Jefferson was not the child prodigy and possibly not as intellectually gifted as Franklin and Hamilton feels a little petty, but is possibly a necessary corrective to Jefferson’s (unwarranted, I reckon Moses would say) reputation for such great intellectual gifts as inspired Kennedy to make his famous remark about Jefferson dining alone to a group of Nobel Prize recipients. He actually spends almost the entire chapter on genius casting shade on Jeffersonian claims to it, before ending that chapter by concluding that, yeah, he actually was pretty darn smart.

Moses also made some nice references to Jefferson’s relationship to various works of history and philosophy, some based on direct knowledge (because Jefferson wrote down his thoughts) and some conjectural (like suggesting that Jefferson must have absolutely hated Plato’s dialogue, Crito).

I must also allow that when I defend Jefferson or feel defensive when he is attacked is possibly my own white privilege rearing it’s fish belly pale head.

I must also allow that this an absolutely terrific book. I don’t know who you are, reading this blog (besides my mother, of course), but whoever you are, this a fantastically researched, elegantly thought out work and you should read it.

I think I am the first to read this copy, which I borrowed from the library. The paper feels wonderfully new and so lovely to the touch. I remember in the Tin Drum, the narrator asking for a ream of virgin paper. This paper, too, feels virgin.

Snow Country


I don’t know why I put this book on hold at the library, but I’m glad I did (sorry, DC Public Library, for being late returning it!). A kind of melancholy minimalism and claustrophobic stasis afflicts the characters, of whom there are really only three: Shinamura, an apparently wealthy man (or, at least, a man of sufficient means not to need to work); Komako, the geisha (who begins, rather, as a sort of geisha in training) who becomes his lover; and Yoko, another sort of geisha in training.

It takes place in a sort of middle class vacation spot in the titular snow country, where people ski in winter and enjoy hot springs the rest of the year. Neither wealthy nor sophisticated, the geishas who work here have neither the luxury nor the illusion of their profession’s official distance from sex work.

Shinamura is married back in Tokyo, though only one short scene takes place there. He returns frequently to the hot springs town to see Komako, though the memory of an early sighting of Yoko stays with him and both he and Komako struggle with both love and ambivalence towards her.

Though obviously not needing to work, Shinamura is first seen traveling third class on the train and stays in a resort that is rather obviously not fancy. But his independence still sets him apart from the women, whose lives are precarious, options limited, and who work in a career where their livelihood doesn’t last much longer than their looks.

The ending is notably ambiguous, but it is obvious that Shinamura was never going to give either woman a happy ending. It’s not that he’s indecisive, but rather… I can’t say. If you read it, you’d understand what I mean. Perhaps that his money and gender protect him from having to ever make a truly difficult decision?

A Cruelty Special To Our Species


Just… just a wonderful collection. I missed her when she came to town and read at East City Bookshop, but was glad when I finally picked up book.

The most common theme is alienation in some of its most disturbing forms. There is the alienation of being non-white seeking affirmation and a place in a white world, but the heart of the book are series of naturalistic biographical poems (often a form of prose poem) describing the lives of Korean comfort women, kidnapped by Japanese soldiers in World War II, and of Korean women who were abused by American soldiers during the Korean War (should I say, what we call the Korean War). The most heartbreaking parts about the emotionally and physically damaged women living in the long thereafter that followed the end of hostilities.

Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle To Remake America


The author is, quite clearly conservative (though I read that he received no little flak for having admitted to having voted for Obama in 2008). Not a Republican writer, per se, but something one might find favorably mentioned by the folks at the James Wilson Institute. Unsettlingly, Gutzman, while (grudgingly?) acknowledging Jefferson’s fathering of Sally Hemmings children, he also writes sympathetically of unreconstructed historians who rejected the idea.

But, I should be fair. He does not shy away from criticism of Jefferson on issues of race and slavery. Indeed, he is rather cutting. For example, he notes that our third president wrote rather deceptively of Benjamin Banneker. He suggests without evidence that a white friend might have given him help in creating his almanac (specifically, in doing the mathematical calculations) and criticizes his writing style as being indicative of an average mind, whereas Gutzman found it to clearly be from a man of cultivated intellect and sensibilities.

The section which covers in the most detail Jefferson’s thoughts on race and slavery is, I found, one of the weaker sections. Gutzman’s heart is clearly in the first part, when he outlines the Virginian’s federalism. Yes, a little jarring that the party opposed to Jefferson’s politics was called the Federalist Party, but he is using federalism correctly, at least in current usage, which, is, of course, a strict view of the limitations on federal power, with the greatest balance of government authority in the hands of the states.

Some of the other sections lacked, I felt, partly because Gutzman’s ideas on Jefferson and federalism were relatively new to me and many other topics were not. Under a chapter on education though, there is a remark that Jefferson was a fan of Henry Home, Lord Kames. That particular Lord Kames was actually David Hume’s uncle (Hume changed the spelling of his name, because when he spelled it ‘Home,’ Englishmen kept mispronouncing it) and my interest was piqued not just because I have an interest in Hume, but because of a particular letter in which Jefferson roundly attacked him.

The Cave Dwellers


I am not familiar with DC old money or their habits, but I do know that smart senators do not move their families to the District anymore (rarely since Santorum and surely never since Robert’s easy chair in Kansas).

I also know that if Fox News invites a Senator to appear as a talking head, he can’t just send his press secretary in his place; the network will decline and find a Senator who will come in person.

And, let’s be honest, newly elected Republican Senator from North Carolina is not, in 2020 (the year this book was published), going to take the lead on expanding the Violence Against Women Act to include ‘psychological coercion.’

But it was a reminder of the so-called cave dwellers, nickname for the very rich, socialite families who are mostly not directly tied to politics, but too old money and who hobnob with cable tv personalities, establishment figures in the Cabinet, and a sprinkling of foreign diplomats and their families. It is no longer a case where much is decided in their drawing rooms, as in a Gore Vidal novel, but I am at least aware they still exist. The depiction of the adolescents, whose antics took up much of the novel, were rather depictions from an R rated Gossip Girl, mixed with an early Jay McInery novel. And the ending was a reminder how the invulnerable world of the one percent both has, but mostly has not changed.

The Paris Years Of Thomas Jefferson


Jefferson’s time in Paris was, clearly, incredibly powerful influence on all the years the followed, especially aesthetically (reminding me to sit down with Thomas Jefferson Among the Arts, a book I bought on my last trip to visit Monticello, at a wonderful look riverfront bookstore in Yorktown).

It is not a chronological history, but rather picks up several topics and explores them in the context of his Paris interlude. Topics include the arts, science and philosophy, and… women (in the last one, the author claims that the mighty Abigail Adams was a disciple of Edmund Burke, which I loved).

Early in the chapter discussing his actual work as a diplomat (which was mixed with a role as sort of trade representative for the fledging nation), his little book, Notes on Virginia, is described as being as ‘a kind of philosophical blueprint to guide him in devising a coherent foreign policy.’

While emphasizing that (even noting that, to his friends, he seemed almost foreign, when he returned), William Howard Adams also returns to Jefferson’s… standoffishness? He was, in his own way, an introvert. He enjoyed the company of small groups of intellectuals rather than the stylish salons that Benjamin Franklin famously enjoyed during his years in Paris (possibly helped by his love of the company of women, compared to rather more ‘naive, as the author says, Jefferson). He even used to retire to a monastery for a week at a time when work was pressing

I suppose that I am seeing elements of myself in him. Which is probably why, in my inflated self-regard, I keep returning to him. And perhaps why his failings hit me so powerfully. What do his powerful and important failings say about me?

Finally, Adams quoted at length from the great American political theorist, Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition:

…deep ambiguities in his thinking, which made any effort of consistency impossible. Ever since Jefferson’s death, scholars have been trying to discern order in – or impose it upon – his elusive, unsystematic thought, but without much success. It simply dos not lend itself to ordinary standards of consistency.

I Did Not Read Winston Groom’s ‘The Patriots’ Because I Quickly Decided It Was C–p


Didn’t take me long at all the reach the decision.

First, there was slight nagging in the back of one’s head: is this written at a seventh grade level? Because it doesn’t seem like it was written at the level of a reasonably educated adult.

Then, I was inspired to look up a note in the back and I came across the citations. A lot of biographies by more or less modern writers. Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, for example. This seems remarkably lazy and surely I’d be better off reading Chernow? I mean, I’m not. Well, I guess I could read Alexander Hamilton. I will definitely finish the musical, because it’s on Disney+ and I think my daughter should watch it because apparently everyone knows all the songs already. But I’m not reading this. This is clearly terrible.

For those of you (I’m speaking to my mother and to the other person who reads this blog who, interestingly enough, is neither my wife nor my sister, neither of whom read my blog) who are thinking, hey, this is the second week in a row that you haven’t technically read a book. Well, I’m going to blow your mind. I’m writing this on February 2, 2021. Mind… blown.

Philosophy: Principles And Problems


I did not read Philosophy: Principles and Problems, or rather, I did read it. It turns out, it is just a reprint of The Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy.

The main difference is that the conservative, more or less intellectually-minded imprint, Bloomsbury, changed the title. My guess is to make it sound less populist and more… I don’t know. High-minded.

Whatever. I got from the library in an orgy of Roger Scruton borrowing, so I guess, not much lost. Perhaps even a net benefit because I might have gained some small amount of muscle from carrying it home. Not much though. It’s an even smaller book in this edition.

‘The Enigma Of Clarence Thomas’ By Corey Robin


When I started reading this book, I didn’t realize that I’d already read a book by this author. And it arguably contains some of the same flaws, which is to say, a certain tendentiousness. Which is not to say uninteresting.

Robin makes an fascinating case for Clarence Thomas as being counterintuitively driven by a sense of black nationalism. I was frankly too lazy to read all the end notes and double check it all, so I’m taking the author’s word for it, at least insofar as the citations go. No reason to doubt, I should add.

Thomas, he argues (and this, to be honest, is not really debatable), was always a political creature and that was his route to the Supreme Court. He had never been a prominent nor respected jurist nor anything like a leading legal mind. In fact, he claims that Thomas literally hired two legal scholars to help him come up with a legal philosophy, because he was angling for seat on the Supreme Court and knew he needed one, or at least he needed to plausibly claim one.

Despite this political background, he believes that politics is ultimately incapable of solving anything for black Americans. His opposition to voting rights and support for gerrymandering is really, Robin argues, about weaning black people from the idea that there can ever be a political solution.

There are more arguments like that and… it’s frankly pretty nihilistic. Which, let’s face it, Thomas’ record is pretty nihilistic.

Something more than mid way through, perhaps around the 2/3 mark, there is a remark which struck me because it encapsulated something in head and which also, I believe, explains well the judicial philosophy of the late (great?) Antonin Scalia:

There is little doubt, however, that the originalist Constitution, the vision of the text as it was written and understood at a distant point in time, plays an outsized role in Thomas’s imagination. The originalist Constitution functions as an organizing myth, a holy fire Thomas is forever nearing, an idea more important for its “expressive function” – what is says to Thomas and what he means to say by invoking it – than for its regulatory role in his jurisprudence.

The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, pp 151-152

‘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.