Posted by Ed
The current issue of The Christian Science Monitor features a review of a new book by Richard Cullen Rath, How Early America Sounded. In that book, the Monitor notes, Rath attempts to develop a cultural history of the perception of sound in colonial America. "Just as the noises we make when talking are considered the articulations of intelligence," the review says, "so the sounds of thunder or church bells were understood by early Americans to be the products of spiritual, not mechanical, forces. They were active, not passive emanations." Rath suggests that sounds often embodied people's identity and exerted social influence on society--some early Americans even felt a need to baptize their church bells, for example. Early America, he believes, experienced an "ear-based way of life"--and the wide variety in "soundways" among the colonists may have delayed the development of a unified American sense of identity until the growth of a mass print culture in the 18th century.
I wasn't terribly impressed by the Monitor's review, I have to admit, and I don't know enough about Rath's book to judge it. I wished that the review had done a better job explaining what it means to say that sounds are the "product of spiritual forces", or how Rath arrived at this conclusion. From the review alone, I don't have a very clear sense of whether How Early America Sounded is an original and compelling book or a jargon-laden and shallow attempt to rewrite American social or cultural history.
My original plan for this blog entry, then, was to do a little looking around and report on my findings about a slightly larger topic: the history of the senses. Until earlier today, all I could tell you about it was that the French historian Lucien Febvre had once written an essay on "Smells, Tastes, and Sounds" in history--and that other French historians had argued that historians' bias toward the visual was an impediment toward true understanding of the past.
For now, I'm going to hold off on that plan--in part because I'm feeling too lazy and too busy to do that right now, and in part because I found that Emily Eakin has written a New York Times article on the subject. (Those of you who are really curious can also read this 2003 article from The Journal of Social History.) What seems clear is that the history of the senses (and, in particular, sound) has experienced rapid growth over the last few years. Peter Charles Hoffer, a historian at the University of Georgia, has made the radical claim that "sensation and perception affected some of those great events whose cause and course we historians conventionally attribute to deep cultural structures and overarching material forces." (He argues that rebellious colonists in Boston engaged in "sensory warfare" against the British, for example, and says that "elementary sensory perceptions are causes, dictating in a thousand ways how we respond" to historical events.) The French historian Alain Corbin, meanwhile, has written what sounds like a fascinating book on church bells in 19th-century France.
I don't know exactly how I'd respond to any one of these books, and I'm skeptical of some of the more radical claims of the practitioners of the history of the senses, but this field sounds like a fascinating new branch of historical research. I'll look forward to learning more about it.
Posted by Ed
Here are some links that have struck my fancy of late:
1066: the Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry is based on solid research, but it also belongs to the "mists of time" school of history, in which anything unknown (which accounts for almost everything in the 11th century) is presumed to be part of a thrilling mystery. Thus, the bearded dwarf labelled "Turold", who is seen holding his master's horses, just might be the "Turoldus" who wrote or copied out the first masterpiece of French literature, the Chanson de Roland.
"Did he cast himself in a modest cameo role within his own masterpiece," wonders Bridgeford, "much as Alfred Hitchcock was to do in our own times?" However, as he also points out, Turold was a common name, and it may refer not to the dwarf but to the soldier standing next to him, and the dwarf may not be a dwarf at all but a crude attempt at perspective.
This "mystery" approach owes more to TV documentary than to scholarship, which Bridgeford refers to as "the dry journals and dusty tomes of academia". (Never trust a historian who allows himself to be distracted by "dust".) Ironically, speculation about secret codes and previously unsuspected scandals only serves to rub our noses in our ignorance of the period and it weakens otherwise plausible arguments.
Posted by Ed
This week's New Yorker features a fascinating article on anthropometric history--the study of how certain physical characteristics (most prominently, height) have changed with time, and of what this says about the health and wealth of the populations being studied. The article discusses a fascinating fact, that the average height of native-born Americans has quit increasing since the mid-twentieth century, while the average height of Europeans has continued to grow; this disparity may be the result of inferior pre- and post-natal care in the U.S. (along with the unhealthy diet of American teenagers.) The article also looks at other changes in height over time:
I wish that this article had discussed the scholarship connected to anthropometric history in more detail. It's fascinating stuff, though I get the sense that the science is more complicated than the article gives it credit for, and that it's more difficult to discuss its significance than the author of this piece believes. (What's more, it can be hard to find all the necessary data on height in the past.) Even so, The New Yorker has published an entertaining article on one of the more esoteric branches of social history, with a nice profile of one of that branch's pioneers.
Update: If you're dying to learn more about anthropometric history, the April 2004 issue of the journal Social History of Medicine includes a review of the book Classics in Anthropometric History (edited by John Komlos and Timothy Cuff). (The site I've linked to includes a pdf of the review, which discusses the history of the field.) The Spring 1999 issue of Slavic Review features several articles on anthropometric studies of the Soviet Union; this website includes abstracts of the articles.
Posted by Ed
Spring break at Chicago is about to end, and now I plan to return to several of my usual routines. First, though I haven't exactly been goofing off lately, I plan to spend more time on dissertation research. (I've read a lot of Soviet history over the last week, but I've still only been working at about half or two-thirds my usual rate.) Second, I plan to return to a more usual blogging schedule. Third, I expect that I'll be watching fewer movies over the next month, since I've seen more movies in the last week than in all the rest of the year combined.
I felt an urge to write something for this blog tonight, and since I was short on ideas, here are some random thoughts on the three movies I saw over break:
What impressed me most about Eternal Sunshine was its sense of realism--which surprised me, given that the movie's surrealistic scenes have gotten a lot more attention. I was really struck by how the movie portrayed the relationship between Joel and Clementine, for example. The opening dialogue between them was extremely engaging, and got me hooked on the movie; Winslet appears as an ebullient, eccentric, and (perhaps) self-destructive woman, while Carrey portrayed a shy but likable man. Each of these performances was convincing. I've often felt that Carrey missed the opportunity of a lifetime when he decided against becoming a mime, since he clearly has some talent as a physical comedian but becomes unbearably annoying once he opens his mouth; in this movie, he restrained himself and put in a creditable performance. (His character may have been a bit dull and underdeveloped, but that could just as easily be the fault of the script--or it may be that Joel was meant to be an unexciting but likeable man.) Clementine, furthermore, came across as the sort of character who's lots of fun to watch, but who you wouldn't want to have to deal with on a personal basis. Eternal Sunshine presented both characters as real, flawed, intriguing, and sympathetic characters, and by the end, their relationship--and the problems within it--also seemed very real. When Clementine and Joel describe what drove them crazy about their former lovers near the end of the movie, you get the sense that each person's criticisms were both convincing and largely correct.
My reaction to the movie wasn't completely straightforward and positive, however. Eternal Sunshine featured several subplots involving the people who worked at Lacuna, and I didn't think these subplots were terribly successful. (I can't really explain why without spoiling some of the movie's plot twists, though in each case, I suspect that viewers will be able to figure out what's going on without too much help anyway.) For a variety of reasons, the movie lost momentum about half or two thirds of the way through, though there were still some very good scenes late in the movie.
One of the problems with a movie like Eternal Sunshine is that lots of people will feel that they really ought to like it, to the point that they don't notice its flaws. In this sense, it's a lot like Shakespeare in Love, one of the most over-rated--and shallow--movies of recent years, which has somehow won a reputation as a "smart" movie. Eternal Sunshine is much better, but reading reviews and commentary about it, I get the sense that a lot of people enjoyed the movie without really understanding it. I'm not even convinced that I caught on to all its twists, but that might just be another sign that the movie succeeds in looking smart without necessarily being smart... There are several places where the story line isn't completely logical, but the script does its best to hide the flaws in the plot.
Finally, a lot of viewers see Eternal Sunshine as they want to see it--and not necessarily as it's meant to be seen. I've seen several different reviews and commentaries that describe the movie as romantic, for example. But is this really true? In several scenes, Clementine urges Joel to hang on to his memories of her, which might give sentimental viewers the idea that the movie is meant to be romantic; if you really think about the movie, however, you realize that the Clementine who urges Joel to remember her is a figment of his imagination, and that the real Clementine never had second thoughts about her decision. And it's a serious mistake to view the conclusion to the movie as an unambigously happy ending. It seems overly simplistic to describe Eternal Sunshine as a romantic movie, and its complexity is one of its main strengths.
(For an interesting essay on the science behind the movie, see this Steven Johnson article in Slate.)
Posted by Susan
I've just been informed that Karl Weintraub has passed away after a long illness. For many students at Chicago Mr. Weintraub, who was the Thomas E. Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Department of History, the Committee on Social Thought, the Committee on the History of Culture, and the College, represented a living link with Chicago's past. He was one of the greatest champions of the Core Curriculum (and of the importance of the Western canon in general).
He will be missed.
Update: the University has put up an obituary.
Posted by Ed
I've always been intrigued by the idea of graphomania. You come across the concept with some frequency when you look at Soviet history and literature; when you belong to an email list for discussion among history grad students, you meet your share of graphomaniacs with a compulsion to subject others to all their thoughts and opinions (in the form of lengthy essays on politics and society). Even the compulsion to blog can be seen as a form of graphomania, and I'll freely admit that I suffer from that ailment.
In Sunday's Newsday, Scott McLemee reviews a new book on the biology behind hypergraphia and writing. It's fascinating stuff. I'd have liked some more details in the review, but perhaps I'll just have to go read the book...
On an unrelated note, there's hope for journalism yet: it seems that The Onion's post-9/11 coverage was considered for a Pulitzer Prize. (via Maud Newton)
Posted by Matt
As Ed mentioned, the University of Chicago is on spring break. I started my break by visiting Harvard. Their physics department really impressed me: the theory area is very nice, with open areas with blackboards for discussions. It seemed pretty lively; postdocs and grad students and professors were all talking to each other. I like the atmosphere. I got to go to lunch with Nima Arkani-Hamed and various grad students and postdocs, which was a pleasure. Nima is pretty persuasive, but I will have to see the other departments I've applied to before I make a decision. Next week, I miss my first week of spring quarter classes to visit Stanford, Berkeley, and Cornell.
At the moment, I'm in New York City, along with a couple of my suitemates from Chicago, one of whom is from New York. If any of you ever want to get between New York and Boston cheaply, I suggest the "Fung Wah" bus. It costs $10, and it runs between Chinatowns. It was fairly comfortable, very cheap, and they run every hour, which makes it very convenient.
On my flight to Boston I finished reading Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson, which was a fun read. It's a satirical novel about Oxford. The characters are somewhat flat, as caricatures tend to be, but the story is entertaining. It includes such observations as "You cannot make a man by standing a sheep on its hindlegs. But by standing a flock of sheep in that position you can make a crowd of men." One passage, in which the Duke of Dorset tries to woo Zuleika, reminded me of the Onion's Smoove B, oddly enough.
On the bus ride between Boston and New York I read most of Lewis Thomas's Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony, a book of essays. As these are compiled from different sources, the book is somewhat repetitive. I'm not sure to what extent I would say it's worth reading. He has some interesting thoughts, but most of what he says is fairly sensible and unobjectionable, as far as I can tell. Maybe this is just an indication that I share his dislike of nuclear weapons research, or of psychoanalysis, for instance. But I'm not sure that anything in the volume is well-written enough or profound enough to justify seeking this book out. Still, it's a pleasant and interesting read, and was a good way to pass a bus ride.
One last note from my travels: the New York Aquarium (at Coney Island) is not as nice as Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, but it's cheaper, with no extra fee to see the seahorses or the marine mammals, as you would have in Chicago. It's a good way to spend an afternoon.
I won't promise any more posts in the near future. I'll be trying to do fun things in New York (I've only spent a couple of days here in the past), visiting a friend in New Haven, and then visiting grad schools. Within two weeks I should know which graduate school I'll be going to.
Posted by Ed
In case you're wondering why posting has been so light, Chicago is now on spring break. I'm in Boston, where I've been eating and sleeping more than usual, reading lots of Soviet history, going to more movies than is typical for me, visiting the bookstores of Harvard Square, and spending less time than usual online. I'll probably post a few more times before the quarter begins again on Monday, but don't expect the usual barrage of posting. (I may write about one of the two movies I've seen this week or the non-Soviet book I've been reading--Spartan and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are both worth seeing, and Robert Paxton's Anatomy of Fascism is an excellent book so far.)
Posted by Ed
Have you ever doubted that the public's understanding of the past helps shape politics in the present? (I hope not. That would be kind of dumb...) Three articles I've read today cast light on this issue. The first, published in this morning's New York Times, describes how Spaniards from both the left and the right have sought to rewrite the history of their country's civil war to further their political goals. The second article, from The Guardian, discusses recent statements by Nobel leaureate V.S. Naipaul that seem to endorse the ruling Hindu nationalist party in India--and that call his vision of Indian history into question.
But the article that interested me most was an essay by Sean Wilentz in the current New Republic, reviewing Gary Wills's new book on Thomas Jefferson and a recent history of George Washington's slave-holding practices. The article is a fascinating read. It sometimes verges on pettiness--Wilentz criticizes everyone from Edmund Wilson to Joseph Ellis, and I thought I detected veiled jabs at David McCullough and other prominent writers who Wilentz didn't want to address by name--but it presents its readers with fascinating details about slave life and 19th-century politics. Wilentz is harshly critical of historians eager to denigrate Thomas Jefferson, arguing that on the slavery question a "public hypocrite" like Jefferson did the country more good than a "private convert" like Washington, and argues that the strongest abolitionists in 19th-century politics were northern Jeffersonians, not Federalists. Wilentz's essay struck me as cranky but convincing, though I admit that I began reading the article with a predisposition to agree with him.
Posted by Ed
J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote that the piece of fan mail that gave him the most pleasure came from the historical novelist Mary Renault. Renault is fairly obscure today, but she was once quite well-known for her novels about ancient Greece: The Last of the Wine describes Athens in the time of Socrates, a trilogy of novels recounts the life of Alexander the Great, and two novels--The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea--attempt to reconstruct the legend of Theseus in historically plausible terms. These books sound like exactly the type of novel I'd most enjoy, and so--armed with Tolkien's glowing recommendation--I decided to give Renault's first Theseus novel a try.
The King Must Die is the sort of book that I would have loved when I was twelve years old. (I hope I don't sound arrogant or overly cute writing this; I consider the comment high praise. Not everyone can write a historical novel capable of capturing the imagination of a pre-adolescent, after all.) Renault has painted a vivid portrait of life in the eastern Mediterranean, with especially detailed descriptions of a thriving and multi-racial Cretan empire and of a religious cult on the island of Naxos. She has also carefully considered the personality and character of Theseus, arguing that he was most likely a crafty wrestler with a wiry build, not a gigantic Bronze Age Warrior:
If one examines the legend in this light, a well-defined personality emerges. It is that of a light-weight; brave and aggressive, physically tough and quick; highly sexed and rather promiscuous; touchily proud, but with a feeling for the underdog; resembling Alexander in his precocious competence, gift of leadership, and romantic sense of destiny.
Renault's greatest strength, then, was to create an extremely convincing portrait of life in the world of ancient Greece; in this sense, I don't think it's a coincidence that J.R.R. Tolkien loved her work, since his greatest achievement was the creation of another fully realized fictional world, Middle Earth. In fact, Tolkien seems to have been a major influence on Renault: according to a biography by David Sweetman, Renault knew Tolkien as a tutor when she was an Oxford student (before he'd written The Hobbit), considered his portrayal of an alternate world in The Lord of the Rings a model for her own work, and frequently discussed his writing in her letters. Another source even claims that Renault wrote a Tolkien-influenced medieval novel--an unpublished work of fantasy--before turning to the Greek world for inspiration.
According to Sweetman, Renault was also a fan (and friend) of Patrick O'Brian. She was so impressed by Master and Commander that she sent him a glowing note praising his writing; she later helped him research The Mauritius Command by sending him long descriptions of the Cape of Good Hope. (O'Brian thanked her by dedicating the book to her.) Here's an excerpt from Renault's first letter to O'Brian:
For years and years I have been saying that nothing, not even Zoe Oldenbourg's The Cornerstone, has ever quite equalled Rose Macaulay's They Were Defeated for that real empathy with the life-style of a period, which is the result of applying imagination, and a deep humanity, to a knowledge of the sources so thorough that it merges into instinct. This book of yours equals if not surpasses it. I can't express to you the excitement and delight with which I have been following characters so real in universal humanity, drawn with so much sympathy totally without softness, so individual, and at the same time perfectly men of their age. So real do they become that one never conceives of their not continuing to exist when the last page has been turned; and thousands of readers will pay you the supreme tribute of slight resentment at your ceasing to recount their lives.
Theseus, I'd argue, never appears in The King Must Die as a fully convincing character. We learn the basic contours of his personality early on, and his actions are consistent with those personality traits, but we never really get a perfect sense of what makes him tick. This problem is compounded by Renault's decision to make Theseus the novel's narrator, which adds an unfortunate layer of self-consciousness to his thoughts and actions.
The bigger problem, however, was that Theseus never struck me as "a perfect man of his age." Renault sometimes refers to the Greek concepts that shaped his mentality and world-view, like moira, but she never really shows us how this concept differed from the Western conception of fate. Moreover, she has a tendency to use English terms that felt anachronistic to me, like "gentleman" and "baron." She never explains how an ancient Greek viewed the concept of "gentlemanly behavior" or tells us what a "gentleman" was; she talks about the differences between kings and commoners, but never goes beyond that to discuss differences between the common people and "nobles" (to use another anachronistic term.) The result is that Theseus sometimes feels like a twentieth-century Englishman sent backwards in time to Minoan Crete. (Would anyone but a Brit care so much about acting like a "gentleman"?) Furthermore, when Renault moves beyond Theseus to discuss the thoughts and actions of the other characters, she often ends up explaining them or telling us about them--not showing us what they did and describing the world in their own words. This tendency gave the novel an overly didactic air, and sometimes kept me from fully empathizing with her characters.
I don't want to suggest that Renault's goal should have been complete authenticity--an objective that would have left her readers hopelessly confused and frustrated if it could somehow have been achieved. But her look into the mind of Theseus struck me as underdeveloped. To be fair, this was probably the greatest challenge facing Renault in her writing, and even if she'd succeeded in this goal, she'd have left many of her readers unsatisfied. How does one recreate the mentality of a borderline illiterate, after all? How does one reconstruct the modes of thought of an ancient king in a manner that's simultaneously lively, historically accurate, and comprehensible to modern readers? How does one balance the need to explain people's thoughts and to let them speak in their own (seemingly bizarre) way? How does one combine the modern art of novel-writing with the ancient art of story-telling?
Even so, my overall opinion of The King Must Die was more positive than negative. In one sense, after all, it's unfair to hold Renault to such exacting standards: I think it's fair to say that historians of the 1950s were less concerned with the mentality of their subjects than are historians today, and Renault seems more aware of the challenges facing her than many historical novelists of the present day. I don't feel a burning need to read The Bull From the Sea, Renault's second Theseus novel, but I may well return to her work someday. After all, her sense of the ancient Greek world seems far too convincing for me to abandon it completely.
Posted by Ed
One of the joys of living in Chicago is having the chance to watch the local Fox affiliate's delightful 9:00 newscast. My favorite moment from the show came during my first year in Chicago, when the program gave viewers the chance to call in and take part in a poll about whether Jesus should be cloned. (Their answer: no.) More recently, one of the anchors admitted--following a story about the so-called "Seussentennial"--that she could name only two books by Dr. Seuss. Even then, I'm not sure that she deserves credit for both of her answers, since she could only come up with "The Grinch" (rather than "How the Grinch Saved Christmas") because of the recent Jim Carrey movie.
Something tells me that Fox News Chicago's anchors wouldn't do very well on this Dr. Seuss quiz, brought to us by The Guardian. I answered 8 out of 10 questions correctly (in part by guessing that Seuss's name was really pronounced like "ZOYCE"), and I'm embarrassed to have done better on this quiz than on past Guardian quizzes on Orwell and Shakespeare. At least my Yertle the Turtle knowledge has finally been put to good use...
Posted by Ed
I won't have much time to blog today, but here's a quick link to tide you over until tomorrow: in The London Review of Books, Graham Robb discusses a new edition of the memoirs of Eugène-François Vidocq, everyone's favorite criminal-turned-detective. Here's a fun excerpt that touches on attitudes toward the police in 19th-century France:
Despite Vidocq's unusually methodical approach, the real foundation of his prestige was superstition rather than reason. When he first went forth with pliers and crowbar, belief in wizardry was still widespread. As late as 1835 a witch was burned to death with the collusion of local officials at Beaumont-en-Cambrésis, a day's walk from Vidocq's home town. The judicial system was perceived as an evil intrusion, even by victims of crime: a common prayer asked for deliverance from Satan and Justice; the trickster with supernatural powers was the hero of many folk-tales. Vidocq was the archetypal will-o'-the-wisp with fists of steel, the man who could walk through walls and make fools of the authorities. Once, he was told by an unsuspecting policeman's daughter that the great Vidocq could turn himself into 'a truss of hay'. 'A truss of hay! How?' 'Yes, monsieur. One day my father followed him, and just as he was going to put his hand on his collar, he grasped only a wisp of hay. That's not all talk, the whole brigade saw the hay, which was burned.'
Until tomorrow, I have more important things to do than blog. (Happy Birthday, Susan!)
Posted by Ed
Posted by Ed
It can be really hard to be a liberal Democrat these days: the Democratic party has been trending toward the center for over a decade now, and the number of liberals running for office is always meager. Moreover, I've been unimpressed by Illinois politics since I arrived in the state three years ago. All the candidates for governor two years ago were underwhelming, to say the least; about the only Illinois state office-holder I like is Senator Dick Durbin, who I hope will be in the running to become John Kerry's running mate.
That's why I'm excited by today's Illinois primary results: the easy winner in the Democratic Senate primary was Barack Obama, a prominent state senator who teaches constitutional law here at the University of Chicago. Obama strikes me as one of the smartest and most talented people in public life today, and has an impressive life story: if I'm not mistaken, he was the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review. My one concern about his candidacy is my fear that the state won't want to elect a liberal African-American with a foreign name, but Obama's decisive primary victory is reassuring. Moreover, the Republicans have nominated Jack Ryan--an unimpressive businessman whose main strength is his personal fortune, and whose campaign has been dogged by rumors about his messy divorce from the actress Jeri Ryan. Ryan can't be counted out, but I think Obama's chances look good--and I'm excited by the prospect of his joining the Senate. On to November!
Posted by Ed
I learned something shocking today: Jeanne Phillips (the author of the "Dear Abby" advice column) doesn't watch the Simpsons.
Consider the following letter that Dear Abby answers today:
Dear Abby: I am 34 and have three children. My husband, "Gene," and I have been married for 10 years. He is greedy, selfish, inconsiderate and rude. I don't know why I married him, nor why our marriage has lasted this long.
Gene put off getting me a birthday gift for as long as he could; then he bought me a bowling ball. It was the last straw. Not only do I not bowl -- he had the holes drilled for his fingers and his name was on it.
The next day I went to the bowling alley determined to keep the ball and learn to bowl. It was there that I met "Franco." Franco is kind, considerate and loving -- the polar opposite of Gene.
Franco and I began bowling together, and he bought me a glove in my size with my name on it. Shortly thereafter, our affair began. (I didn't mention that I was married.)
When Gene saw the bowling glove on our dresser, he became depressed because he realized that I'd met someone. I feel sorry for Gene, but the last time I saw Franco, he proposed.
I no longer love Gene. I want to divorce him and marry Franco. At the same time, I'm worried that Gene won't be able to move on with his life. I also think our kids would be devastated.
What should I do?
-- Stuck In A Love Triangle
Update: According to the corrections section in the Tribune today (March 16), someone at the syndicate figured out that this letter was a hoax, so they sent out a replacement column. The Trib ended up printing the wrong column, though. I'm still really amused by this situation, though--doesn't the letter look fake even if you don't know The Simpsons at all?
Posted by Ed
In the current History Today, Simon Sebag Montefiore discusses some of the issues that he considered while writing a book on Stalin's inner circle. I was really struck by one particular series of anecdotes:
When I was researching Stalin, I learned that most of the great decisions of his rule took place not in the Kremlin but in his dachas, particularly those in the south. Few historians had visited all these so I set off to find them in the bandit republic of Abkhazia on the Black Sea, which can only be reached by UN Peacekeeping helicopter. When I was at one of them, I asked the old caretaker if anyone else had visited them all, fearing that she would answer that Robert Service or Richard Overy had just left. 'No,' she answered, 'but in the 1970s there was an Arab gentleman who visited every one.' 'Who was that?' 'Saddam Hussein.'
Saddam was obsessed with Stalin, and Ba'athism was an Arabist pastiche of Bolshevism. When a Kurdish leader was invited into Saddam's personal apartments to negotiate, he was amazed to find, in addition to bottles of Johnny Walker whisky, virtually everything written about Stalin translated into Arabic. The comparisons were legion--and not lost on Saddam: Tikrit and Gori are just a few hundred miles apart. Both men were brought up by strong mothers, rejected by weak fathers, protected and inspired by stepfather figures. Both rose through terrorist exploits. Saddam, born in 1937 the year of the Soviet Great Terror, seemed to directly ape Stalin's Central Committee Plenums of that year when he took power and held his famous meeting when his leadership rivals were arrested. But Saddam, despite his attempts at fiction writing, lacked Stalin's subtlety, statesmanship, vision, his mastery of men, the power of his fanatical Marxism--and his intellectualism. 'I'm seventy and I never stop studying,' said Stalin.
These issues highlight one of the main questions of Sebag Montefiore's essay: the relationship between history and biography. It can be easy for the biographer of a dictator to equate his subject with the political system he ruled--a pitfall that has been dodged by social historians like Ian Kershaw (who wrote an excellent two-volume life of Hitler.) Nevertheless, certain biographical details can be startling or thought-provoking. I'm not especially struck by the proximity of Tikrit to Gori (except to the extent that it strengthened Saddam Hussein's feelings of affinity with Stalin), but other seemingly random geographical facts can be more enlightening. As Alfred Rieber recently pointed out in a recent AHR article on Stalin's background, three of the great conquerors of recent history--Stalin, Hitler, and Napoleon--grew up in peripheral regions of the empires they later ruled. (Stalin was from Georgia, Hitler from Austria, and Napoleon from Corsica.) This may be a coincidence, and it would be a mistake to over-emphasize facts like this; nevertheless, it seems likely that, on some level, the peripheral origins of these three men shaped their attitudes toward nation, empire, and political power. Biographies, I would argue, can sometimes add another key facet to our understanding of the past, leading us to insights that would escape us if we focused exclusively on other concerns.
Posted by Ed
This week's Nation features a fascinating article by Eric Foner, the Columbia University historian. It seems that Chief Justice William Rehnquist has just published a book on the disputed election of 1876, relying on outdated scholarship, that is an "elaborate, although indirect, apologia for the Court's decision in Bush v. Gore." The article is an interesting look at the intermingling of history and politics and at the way that historical interpretations change with time.
Posted by Matt
As I've probably mentioned here, I'm in the process of trying to decide where to go to graduate school. For me this involves trying to absorb a sizable fraction of the papers written by the particle theorists at the six schools I'm considering (Cornell, Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, U. Washington-Seattle, and Chicago), as well as talking to people at the schools, to try to get a feel for what both life and research would be like at each. It also involves a lot of thinking about what sort of physics I would like to do. With all of this on my mind, and schoolwork over for the quarter (except for a commutative algebra final on Wednesday), this seems like a good time to write down some thoughts about high-energy physics.
If you're not too familiar with physics, the things that come to mind might be the subjects of an introductory course -- blocks on planes, rotating objects, simple circuits -- and while these things are of practical interest, and introduce some important concepts, they don't give much of a feel for what a typical physicist is interested in. Broadly speaking, physicists who are not astrophysicists usually fall under the rubric of either "condensed matter" physicists or "high energy" physicists. [This is oversimplifying: atomic/molecular physics, for instance, is somewhere in between.] Condensed matter physics concerns itself with systems in which there is a large amount of matter in a relatively small volume; solid-state physics, for instance, is a subset. This area borders on chemistry and on many engineering applications, but it also includes some fascinating abstract and theoretical topics.
High energy physics is the physics of high energies, or of small distance scales. In some vague sense, these are equivalent. To see things at small distances, you need to probe them with something of small wavelength, and wavelength and energy are inversely related. High energy physics also is intimately related to cosmology, the study of the early universe and the evolution of the universe over time. This all sounds very vague, but hopefully over the course of several posts I can explain some of these ideas and why they are so fascinating to me.
First, let's take a historical perspective on the development of particle physics. "Atomic theory" as a philosophical idea is very old, but in scientific form (i.e., as a precise and empirically validated statement about nature) arose only recently in history, with the early chemists. Over the course of the 19th century this became much better understood: the matter we see around us is made up of discrete building blocks, with properties that recur in interesting patterns. The periodic table displays these strange recurring properties of the elements. A modern understanding reveals that these patterns arise from the solutions of Schroedinger's equation; rather than simply categorizing elements, we now understand underlying principles that explain the properties. Gell-Mann in the 1960s similarly systematized the classification of certain particles called hadrons that were seen in particle accelerators. In the case of the periodic table, the explanation for the pattern comes from the fact that atoms are a positively charged nucleus (as Rutherford found) surrounded by a cloud of electrons (first discovered by J. J. Thomson). In the case of hadrons, the properties come from the fact that they are made out of quarks. What seems to be just the boring work of classifying a list of constituents of matter always turns out to be not so boring: the categorization reveals mathematical patterns, symmetries, that point to a deeper understanding of nature.
High-energy physics is our current continuation of this process of investigating the underlying constituents of matter. Our current understanding has changed sharply since around 1970. At one time it was possible to debate whether quarks, for instance, are "real" or merely a mathematical bookkeeping device. This question seems rather silly now. The modern perspective, due to people like Wilson and Kadanoff, is that the theories we deal with in high-energy physics are "effective field theories." This means that they are theories that are valid over some particular regime of energy scales, not "the" underlying theory. For instance, in a superconductor, electrons pair up into "Cooper pairs." Imagine that there is some life form that lives in superconductors, and at some point they start doing physics. They will conclude that Cooper pairs are one of the fundamental constituents of matter. Cooper pairs are elementary quanta in the effective field theory describing superconductors. Of course, we know that these are "really" just bound states of electrons. But it is entirely possible that in a more fundamental theory -- one that holds at higher energies and reduces to our current theory at a certain scale -- electrons are also not fundamental.
I would say that if any physicist tells you he or she is trying to find "the" theory of everything, you should be rather skeptical. It is an attitude that one hears sometimes -- but I think that we should always say that we are looking for a better, more generally valid, effective theory. The goal is always to better understand the universe we live in, but we should not expect to attain a final answer. In this sense the distinction between high-energy physics and condensed matter is somewhat blurred, as both are taking some system and trying to construct effective pictures describing it.
As for the relation to cosmology: we have a great deal of evidence, dating back to Hubble, that the universe used to be much smaller and hotter. Penzias and Wilson discovered the "cosmic microwave background" that gives further evidence of this "Big Bang" hypothesis. Perhaps some day I'll get around to trying to explain why this background arises. The reason particle physics has something to tell us about cosmology is that quantum mechanics predicts that the number of particles in the universe is not constant. Particle/antiparticle pairs, for instance, can be produced from the vacuum. In the early, extremely hot, universe, a large number of particles of all types would be produced by the huge amounts of energy available. The initial number of them would be controlled by the laws of thermodynamics. Over time they would interact according to the laws of particle physics, changing the ratios of different types of particles available. For instance, a huge mystery is why the universe seems full of matter but not of antimatter. We do know of one source of an asymmetry between them -- called CP violation -- but the known types of CP violation are not nearly large enough to explain the discrepancy. A better understanding of this could come either from particle physics, or from cosmology. Particle physics tells us something about the large-scale matter content of the universe. One of Einstein's greatest insights was that gravity is just the geometry of spacetime, and that this is influenced by all sources of energy and momentum. Thus the particle content created by the Big Bang feeds back on the geometry of spacetime, a process that continues to this day. The fairly recent discovery of dark energy shows that there is some constituent of the energy of the universe that we don't understand. This has to fit in somehow with our picture of particle physics, but we don't know how. This makes it a very exciting research topic.
Hopefully, this rather rushed summary gives you some idea of why particle physics and cosmology are closely bound together. You'll note that I tend to use "particle physics" and "high-energy physics" roughly interchangably. This is pretty common -- although recently high-energy theory has developed a picture in which, beyond just particles, strings and higher-dimensional objects ("branes") are also important. On the other hand, there are signs that stringy theories tend to be equivalent to ordinary quantum field theories of point particles, and this relates to the fascinating notion of "holography." But, I am getting ahead of myself. I'll talk more about these things later.
Posted by Ed
This morning Arts and Letters Daily linked to a fascinating Independent article about Genghis Khan. The article is a charming read and I'd strongly recommend it.
What struck me most wasn't the review's discussion of medieval Mongolian carnage, its suggestion that the "Mongol Peace" allowed massive cultural cross-fertilization, or its use of atrocious puns like "steppes toward the future." Instead, the line that really sparked my interest was the following: "If recent research in Oxford's biochemistry department is to be believed, [Genghis Khan] was one of history's most philoprogenitive studs, with 16 million living descendents." The author of this article seems to think that it's surprising that a medieval Mongol emperor has so many descenfants alive today, but if anything, I'd be surprised if so few descendants of Genghis still walked the earth.
Consider this 2002 Atlantic Monthly article, which discusses the research of Yale statistician Joseph Chang:
In a 1999 paper titled "Recent Common Ancestors of All Present-Day Individuals," Chang showed how to reconcile the potentially huge number of our ancestors with the quantities of people who actually lived in the past. His model is a mathematical proof that relies on such abstractions as Poisson distributions and Markov chains, but it can readily be applied to the real world. Under the conditions laid out in his paper, the most recent common ancestor of every European today (except for recent immigrants to the Continent) was someone who lived in Europe in the surprisingly recent past—only about 600 years ago. In other words, all Europeans alive today have among their ancestors the same man or woman who lived around 1400. Before that date, according to Chang's model, the number of ancestors common to all Europeans today increased, until, about a thousand years ago, a peculiar situation prevailed: 20 percent of the adult Europeans alive in 1000 would turn out to be the ancestors of no one living today (that is, they had no children or all their descendants eventually died childless); each of the remaining 80 percent would turn out to be a direct ancestor of every European living today.
Chang's model has even more dramatic implications. Because people are always migrating from continent to continent, networks of descent quickly interconnect. This means that the most recent common ancestor of all six billion people on earth today probably lived just a couple of thousand years ago. And not long before that the majority of the people on the planet were the direct ancestors of everyone alive today. Confucius, Nefertiti, and just about any other ancient historical figure who was even moderately prolific must today be counted among everyone's ancestors.
Later on, I may read through some of the actual research, to get a better sense of what Chang and Tyler-Smith really argue. (One of the articles I've linked to says that there are 16 million Genghis Khan descendants in Asia, not Central Asia or the world...) I wouldn't be at all surprised if I've gotten some of Chang's and Tyler-Smith's findings wrong, since this is outside my field of research, I'm reading popular accounts of their work, and I haven't given either question much thought. It's fascinating stuff, though--and with consequences for how we view genealogy and history.
Update: One of my informants has sent me a link to Chang's paper (and some discussion of it.) He also provides the following commentary: "The interesting thing about it is that he gives a very precise analysis and for example computes exactly what fraction of people in the distinct past are common ancestors. However, the random mating assumption in the model is grossly unrealistic (and it's not the only simplification; he also assumes a fixed population size). Chang never intended it to predict anything precise about the real world, just to illustrate that one can precisely analyze a toy model and that the answers are quite different from the sorts of one-parent models used in studying mitochondrial Eve.
"The Atlantic Monthly article makes some pretty implausible claims. I think it's almost certain true that humanity's most recent common ancestor is more recent than the couple hundred thousand years to mitchondrial Eve. However, I can't imagine that the couple thousand year figure from the article is accurate. I suspect it's true for most people of European descent, but I'd be surprised if the time for the entire world is under ten thousand years."
The author of The Atlantic article responds to the point that Chang's model assumes a fixed population size in the letters section of a subsequent issue (scroll down to "Common Ancestors.") My sense is that my informant and the letter-writer are correct that Chang's model wasn't intended to lead to precise predictions about the real world, and I have no idea what consequences it has for our understanding of how many people are descended from Genghis Khan. (Maybe I'll spend some more time reading these papers...) Even so, it's fascinating stuff.
Posted by Ed
Every so often, I make an effort to read the works of Isaiah Berlin, everyone's favorite Latvian-born British philosopher. He has a reputation as a sort of secular saint of liberal philosophy; my impression, from the Berlin essays I've read and the biographies I've browsed in, is that he was a fascinating man and a delightful writer. Nevertheless, whenever I actually try to read his writings in depth, I end up feeling frustrated, underwhelmed, and unimpressed. As much as I enjoy reading his essays ("The Hedgehog and the Fox" is an especially fun read), I simply don't understand his reputation as a deep thinker.
I was struck, then, by the first sentence in this review of a new volume of Berlin's letters: "Isaiah Berlin liked to claim that he had been lucky enough to be over-estimated all his life, drily adding 'Long may it continue!'" Berlin presumably didn't intend this quotation to be taken seriously--the Irish historian Roy Foster, who wrote the review, clearly does not--but I think it says something interesting about him. Berlin, at his best, is unquestionably clever and lively. (This quotation demonstrates his charm.) But is he a profound thinker? I haven't read enough of his writing to know, but what I've read has never convinced me that his reputation (in certain circles) is defensible. If any of my readers can enlighten me on this point (or refer me to Berlin's best writings), then I'd be interested in finding out more.
Special bonus: Here's an excerpt of Isaiah Berlin's recollections of the time that Winston Churchill accidentally had lunch with Irving Berlin (thinking he was the Latvian-British philosopher.)
Posted by Susan
I've been working on my cell biology final today (the confluence of finals, presentations, and really late midterms has been consuming most of my time lately). Without going into too much complaining, let's just say that this test has made me wonder this: what are the worst test questions that you have seen (both those that have been posed to you as a student and those that you've seen in other contexts)?
My strongest candidates are those that weren't asked of me; a friend of mine once was asked to "describe the importance of the book in history" on an Ancient Near East history exam, while I believe Kathleen was asked to "describe the trajectory of Western history since 1789" (is it graphable?) in Western Civ (though this may have been a paper prompt rather than an exam question). While I'm irritated by finding three (!) questions on my cell bio exam that ask me to expand acronyms (SCF, RING, and CDC, in case you were curious), I don't think they quite measure up to those two.
Posted by Susan
Beth Plocharczyk wonders how scientists plan to use DNA testing to confirm that bones found under Seville Cathedral are those of Christopher Columbus. Chris Lawrence responds that all they need is a descendent and refers to the case of Eston Hemings Jefferson.*
I would like to specify that they need a direct male-line descendent--the usual procedure is to track a haplotype (basically, a specific set) of polymorphic markers on the nonrecombining portion of the Y chromosome. Since these markers are quite stable over time (given their nonrecombining nature), they are useful for this sort of long-range comparison.
*The Nature article (and all of the comments on it) can be found here. As Lawrence notes, it was never definitively proven that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings Jefferson; it looks like David Abbey got the last word by pointing out that Randolph Jefferson (Thomas's brother) and his five sons are also candidates for paternity. Due to the limits of two-century postdated genetics, the field can't be narrowed down any further.
Posted by Ed
Posted by Ed
According to an article in tomorrow's Moscow Times, readers in the West have access to 190 biographies of Dwight D. Eisenhower, 65 biographies of Bernard Montgomery, 45 books on George Patton, and only 3 books on Marshal Georgii Zhukov--the Soviet general who almost certainly played a larger role in winning World War II than any of the other men listed above.
That's a shame. I don't, of course, think that it's terribly surprising that American readers are more interested in learning about military leaders from the U.S. and Britain than they are in finding out about the life of a Russian general: I'm sure that Moscow book-buyers can find more volumes on Zhukov than on Patton or MacArthur. Even so, I think that many Americans have a skewed view of the war. Unlike most war-time Americans, we remember the war against the Nazis in far more detail than we can recall the war against Japan; we think of D-Day and the Normandy invasion as the crucial episodes in the conflict, even though the Eastern Front was far more important to the outcome of the war. (Benjamin Schwarz made a similar point in a savage Atlantic Monthly review of one of Stephen Ambrose's books.) In an age when analysts and political leaders love to liken the contemporary situation to World War II, it's especially important for us to remember the magnitude and the nature of our victory in 1945.
Posted by Ed
I have a horrible confession to make: For the last week or two, as I worked my way through newspaper accounts of Soviet hooliganism and books discussing Weber and Foucault, one of my guilty pleasures has been reading an obscure 1976 novel called The Canfield Decision. That book is, in many ways, a typical (if byzantine) political thriller: it describes the downfall of Vice President Porter Canfield after his White House bid becomes entangled in an Iranian/Jewish attempt to derail detente. One detail makes the novel extremely unusual, however: it was written by former Vice President Spiro Agnew.
I wish I could tell you that Agnew was a better novelist than he was a vice president. Unfortunately, however, The Canfield Decision is pedestrian at its best and embarrassing at its worst. The dialogue is atrocious. The sex scenes are hilarious. The writing style resembles that of a new-comer to creative writing; Agnew seems to have thought that he'd look smart if he used lots of adjectives and pretended to understand big words like "esurience." The book can be entertaining in small doses, but if you read too much at a time, you can get a really bad headache. That's why I've only read about the first third of the novel, as well as a bunch of random chapters from later in the book.
What's really interesting about the novel isn't the writing, however--it's the way it helps us understand Agnew's view of politics. How did Agnew think the world would look less than a decade after he took up his pen? In The Canfield Decision, the domino theory has hit Southeast Asia, resulting in Thailand's fall to Communism. The book's villains include members of a radical Jewish group--an unseemly plot device, to say the least. The news media are as unscrupulous as ever. (In the first chapter alone, Agnew complains about the rise of "advocacy journalism" and about how "revisionist" journalist are "sanctifying" past liberal presidents, for example.) Liberal intellectuals, finally, are often cast in a negative light: one major character is a college professor and presidential adviser who isn't as smart as he thinks he is.
I don't know much about Spiro Agnew, but this novel confirms my sense that he wasn't one of the great visionaries of American politics. His portrait of American politics and world affairs seems narrow and unimaginative: reading The Canfield Decision, you almost get the sense that Agnew actually believed some of the sillier things he said, but couldn't develop his prejudices into a more detailed vision of American politics. (At one 1968 campaign rally, he told the crowd that "To a certain extent, if you've seen one city slum you've seen them all," for example, and he was known for his criticism of the news media.) The plot of The Canfield Decision is byzantine and preposterous, but from what I've seen so far, it isn't terribly amusing; the story just seems to be a parade of uninteresting conservative stereotypes. If this is how Agnew really viewed the world, then we should be very glad that he never became president.
Nevertheless, The Canfield Decision does make me wonder if the Nixon presidency deserves a rethinking. Fans of the Kennedy administration liked to point out that even the postmaster general, Edward Day, had written a novel, but the Nixon administration's literary pretensions were just as large. After all, John Ehrlichman has written three political thrillers (The China Card, The Company, and The Whole Truth), and Chuck Colson's political novels make Agnew's book seem restrained. Have other presidential aides tried their hand at potboiler fiction?
Posted by Ed
What do you do once you're ABD? Read a bunch of random magazine articles and blog entries, of course! Should you be so inclined, check out these links:
Two random comments on movie casting:
Posted by Ed
Have you ever wondered where Scrabble champions come from? This week's Boston Globe Magazine may have part of the answer. The magazine includes a short article describing a pair of Massachusetts middle school students who'll be defending their National School Scrabble Championship at a tournament next month. Some Scrabble players, it seems, start out very young.
If you've ever read Word Freak, by Stefan Fatsis, you'll have some sense of what the world of competitive Scrabble is like. You can also find out about the Scrabble circuit from this National Post article about the Scrabble career of the novelist W. P. Kinsella, who's retired from writing and taken up game-playing. Here's an excerpt from the article:
Like all the others who participated, Kinsella is a Scrabble freak. He practises two hours a day on the Internet, playing 25 games at any given time. He regularly reads the Scrabble dictionary, hoping the words "will cling to me like lint." His strategy, he says, is to simply hope for good letter tiles.
"I like the competition," he said. "I am a lower division player and I can't play with the big dogs, never will, but I like finding weird words."
And yet, for a writer who once won the Stephen Leacock award for humour, he is surprisingly lackadaisical about the definition of the words. He doesn't care if he understands the words he spells out, as long as they are "good" -- meaning they are listed in the official Scrabble dictionary.
"I'm just looking for the points," he laughed. "Who cares what they mean?"
John Chew, director of the Toronto Club, says it's a common misconception that people who are well-read or hyper-articulate are the best at Scrabble. In fact, he says many mathematicians, such as himself, make the top players. The idea is to get the most points, not create the best or most flashy words -- a rookie mistake.
"It takes the ability to memorize large quantities of otherwise useless information," he said. "You need solid analytical skills, the ability to perform under pressure, and an unshaken confidence in the laws of probability, so that when you draw nothing but vowels you know you will eventually get your consonants later."
Posted by Ed
Readers of this blog probably know that I'm a big fan of Philip Pullman, a children's fantasy novelist whose best-known series is a modern-day retelling of Milton, set in a multiverse where people are joined by personal companions called daemons and where scholars debate the nature of a mysterious particle known as Dust. I was therefore delighted to see that the current New York Review of Books features an essay on Pullman's writing by the novelist Michael Chabon. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm declined when I actually read the essay, which strikes me as a ponderous and pompous waste of space.
To be fair, Chabon's review is sometimes a decent introduction to the His Dark Materials novels for those who don't know them. Here, for example, is his discussion of daemons:
The goddess of writers was smiling upon Philip Pullman on the day he came up with the idea for daemons. These are, in Lyra's world, the inseparable life companions of every human being. Daemons take the shapes of animals, but they have reason and the power of speech. Lyra's is named Pantalaimon—she calls him Pan—and at first we take him to be her animal familiar, but we soon learn that he is in fact the equivalent of what is known in our world as the soul. The bond between human and daemon is fundamental, essential, empathic, and at times telepathic. When a daemon's human being dies, its own life ends; the daemon winks out of existence, snuffed like a candle flame. Pan, like all children's daemons, has not yet "settled"—that is, he can take on, at will, the shape of any animal he wishes, a power he will retain until Lyra reaches puberty. When Pan is frightened or anxious to conceal himself, he is a moth, or a mouse; when he wishes to intimidate or to repel attack he becomes a snarling wildcat; when Lyra is feeling lonely or cold he becomes a soft, warm ermine and drapes himself tenderly around her neck.
As the story unfolds, new wrinkles and refinements in the relationship between human and daemon keep occurring to Pullman, and he reports them to us at once with the palpable storyteller's excitement that animates (and at times undermines) the entire series: while people generally have daemons of the opposite gender to their own, some rare oddballs have a same-sex daemon; people tend to get the daemons they deserve (schemers have snake daemons, servants have dog daemons); there is a painful limit to the distance by which a human and a daemon can stand to be separated, except in the case of the witches of the North—those Lapland witches mentioned by Milton in Book II of Paradise Lost?—who undergo a fearsome initiation rite that enables them and their daemons to travel separately. And so on. My eight-year-old daughter expressed what I imagine is a near-universal response of readers, young and old, to His Dark Materials (and probably the ultimate secret of the series' success): "I wonder what kind of daemon I would have!"
Nevertheless, I often found the review rather pompous and unpleasant. Chabon, it seems, is a master of name-dropping determined to show off his erudition. He isn't content to describe the streets of one world as "desolate," but feels driven to describe them as "di Chirico." He fits in unnecessary references to lots of science fiction writers, from Jack Vance to Michael Moorcock, and isn't shy about giving judgments about who "the greatest writer of post-Tolkien British fantasy" is. Not content to wow us with his erudition, he even feels the need to compare characters in Pullman's world to Harriet the Spy, Blue Duck (from Lonesome Dove), and Lee Marvin. This would be annoying under the best of circumstances, but Chabon doesn't even get his facts right all the time:
While Pullman alludes to Nabokov (one of the characters in The Subtle Knife voyages to Nova Zembla), his paired Oxfords stand in a very different relation from that of Ada's Terra and Antiterra, which reflect and comment only upon each other, locked in a transdimensional self-regard which in turn mirrors that of the vain Van Veen.
In short, if you want a good review that will introduce you to Pullman's world, skip Chabon's egotistical musings and read this Michael Dirda column instead. Dirda does a better job of conveying to readers both the strengths and the weaknesses in Pullman's work; he makes as many literary and pop culture allusions as Chabon does, but he doesn't seem as proud of himself for his knowledge. Or, better yet, don't bother with either review--and go straight to Pullman's writing itself!
Update: In unrelated Pullman news, Rowan Williams (the Archbishop of Canterbury) has praised the two-part play based on His Dark Materials in a Guardian article.
Posted by Ed
Today's Washington Post features a fascinating article that casts doubt on claims that the current generation of American high school students is especially igorant of history:
A test administered in 1915 and 1916 to hundreds of high school and college students who were about to face World War I found that they did not know what happened in 1776 and confused Thomas Jefferson with Jefferson Davis. A 1943 test showed that only a quarter of college students could name two contributions made by either Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, leading historian Allan Nevins to fret that such a historically illiterate bunch might be a liability on the battlefields of Europe in World War II.
And still, Americans won both wars, and many of the 1943 students who said the United States purchased Alaska from the Dutch and Hawaii from Norway were later lionized in books, movies and television as "the Greatest Generation."
"If anything," writes Sam Wineburg, a Stanford University education professor in a new Journal of American History article, "test results across the last century point to a peculiar American neurosis: each generation's obsession with testing its young only to discover -- and rediscover -- their 'shameful' ignorance. The consistency of results across time casts doubt on a presumed golden age of fact retention.
Now I'm very curious about Wineburg's journal article and book, which I may check out when my dissertation proposal hearing is out of the way this afternoon. (For a profile of Wineburg from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, click here.)
Posted by Ed
In this morning's New York Times, Sarah Lyall reports on a series of questions that have intrigued the British press for months: did Charlie the parrot (who lives in Reigate) once belong to Winston Churchill, and does she like to swear at long-dead Nazis?
Posted by Matt
On my way to visit the University of Washington Department of Physics (my first grad school visit), I finished reading Nabokov's Bend Sinister. While I wouldn't recommend it as highly as Pale Fire or Lolita or Ada, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Briefly, it is the story of philosopher Adam Krug, struggling to live a quiet life with his son in the wake of his wife's death. However, at the time that his wife was dying, his country has been taken over by a totalitarian regime led by one of his schoolmates, Paduk, referred to as "The Toad." The prose is typically Nabokovian, full of wit and puns (his preface elaborates on the meaning of some of this "paronomasia," meant to be a "verbal sickness" reflecting the sickness of the state). I'll try not to give away too much of the story, though as with all Nabokov novels, the real pleasure in reading this is to revel in the prose. (And I do give away one aspect of the ending -- though not all of it -- so, if you haven't read the book, read on at your own peril.)
Despite the brilliant Nabokovian prose, and the motifs skillfully woven throughout the novel, I think there are more apparent weaknesses in this book than in the other Nabokov novels I have read. As Nabokov points out in his introduction, the real focus of the story is the emotional connection between Adam Krug and his son, and the father's tragic attempt to secure safety for his child. Nabokov did not intend this to be a political statement, or so he would have us think. But in reading the book, the focus seems to be on the politics, and on the pettiness of the dictator that leads to atrocities. The father/child scenes are not as poignant as one might hope, in part because Nabokov does not seem to be able to write good child characters. (In Ada, for instance, the children seem preternaturally precocious, not realistic -- at least when they are still very young.) Further, the depiction of Paduk's government often seems to come to the fore. His henchmen often seem playful or naive, not conscious of the pain they are causing. The state seems too bumbling and innocent to be capable of evil, and perhaps this is why Krug does not seem to properly appreciate the danger he is in, even as his friends disappear one by one from around him. At one point that strongly hints of systematic murders, I began thinking this was a weakness in the book: Nabokov has been failing to convey the extent of the horror of this regime, then springs a Nazi-like touch on us without warning. In retrospect, I think he was trying to have the reader, like Krug, only gradually suspect the extent of the danger.
I recommend reading this book, though not as your first encounter with Nabokov. It was quite good, though I think it does not really achieve Nabokov's stated goal of focusing on the love of Krug for his son. The political elements are too strong to ignore, and Nabokov's claim that he meant to make no political statement is hard to believe. The running thread of the subordination of the University to the government's aims is also an important one, and it is clear that there is satire, and politics, lurking behind this. The ending invokes a deus ex machina that seems not especially clever, in which Nabokov-as-deity intervenes to make Krug understand that he is just an author's creation. I fail to see how this is anything other than an easy way out of resolving the story in a clean way; one can see it as a manifestation of Nabokov's fascination with frame stories or with fiction-within-fiction, but it strikes me as inelegant and disappointing. Still, the novel is well worth reading. I've perhaps sounded overly critical, but the best way to praise the good parts of this book would be to quote the beautiful prose, and I'll just suggest you read the whole thing for those passages.
Posted by Ed
Languagehat has linked to this fascinating Chicago Tribune article profiling the Jesuit scholar who wrote the script for Mel Gibson's The Passion. It sounds like the Rev. William Fulco, a Jesuit priest and professor of ancient Mediterranean studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, had some fun when he wrote the script and subtitles for the movie:
Fulco left Greek out of "The Passion," substituting Latin in occasional cases where Greek might have been used. He also made mostly imperceptible distinctions between the elegant Latin of Pilate and the crude Latin of soldiers, thanks to an X-rated source he found on his shelf.
"I tracked down some obscene graffiti from Roman army camps," Fulco said. "Somebody who knows Latin really well, their ears will fall off. We didn't subtitle those words."
Fulco even confessed to some linguistic mischief.
"Here and there I put in playful things which nobody will know. There's one scene where Caiaphas turns to his cohorts and says something in Aramaic. The subtitle says, `You take care of it.' He's actually saying, `Take care of my laundry.'"
Other linguistic tricks of Fulco's serve a function in the script.
For example, he incorporated deliberate dialogue errors in the scenes where the Roman soldiers, speaking Aramaic, are shouting to Jewish crowds, who respond in Latin. To illustrate the groups' inability to communicate with each other, each side speaks with incorrect pronunciations and word endings.
Later, "there's an exchange where Pilate addresses Jesus in Aramaic, and Jesus answers in Latin. It's kind of a nifty little symbolic thing: Jesus is going to beat him at his own game," Fulco said. "One line [in that exchange] I kind of enjoyed is when Jesus says, `My power is given from above, otherwise my followers would not have allowed this.' That's [spoken in] the pluperfect subjunctive."
Posted by Ed
In recent weeks, I've seen quite a few newspaper and magazine articles describing untraditional historical studies. Just today, for example, Michael Kammen of Cornell has published a Chronicle of Higher Education article describing his new book on how the four seasons have been viewed in American history. Of all the books I've come across, however, the most entertaining is probably Katherine Watson's "lip-smackingly gruesome history of poisoning," which was reviewed in Saturday's Guardian. It doesn't exactly sound like profound history, but it does sound like an entertaining read.
What makes the book sound so intriguing? Consider these paragraphs from The Guardian:
The typical Victorian poisoning took place in a home which was poor, but with enough spare capital to make killing worth the trouble. The typical murderer sat down to a meal with the victim.
In this lip-smackingly gruesome study of poisoning, the historian Katherine Watson examines poison from 1752, when the first scientific evidence of poisoning was presented in court, until the first world war. There were more than 50 different substances used in the 540 cases she has uncovered, but you kill according to your means and the poor used arsenic: in Yorkshire in the 1840s citizens could buy an ounce of it for twopence.
Juries often needed no medical evidence; they convicted on circumstantial evidence and their worldly knowledge. Theirs was a time in which, though men were as likely to use poison as women, the most common relationship of poisoner to victim was mother or stepmother (with wife being the second most common). Female domestic servants resorted to it to dispatch abusive employers. Women were also more likely to appear as multiple poisoners (several at one go) and as serial poisoners (repeated murders, often of successive husbands). In at least one case, in 1842, two teenage girls killed a female lodger in what today would be called a "thrill kill".
Men alone were likely to kill people while poisoning them as part of a practical joke, though how funny the victim found it, even if they survived to laugh, is questionable. Children were surprisingly likely to use poison. A Punch cartoon showed a child barely able to see over a druggist's counter buying arsenic; the youngest poisoner Watson encountered was just 11 years old.
Children were also quite likely to be poisoned. Between 1863 and 1887, homicide victims (from all causes) were more likely to be children under five than all other age groups combined, and poison took its share of this grisly toll. "I'll poison you out of the road" was a threat easily understood by children of the Victorian poor.
Courts forcing fathers to pay for the upbringing of their illegitimate children often resulted in a swift dispatch of the infant. Even more miserable were cases such as that of Rebecca Smith, who poisoned eight of her babies for fear they might "come to want", so that she could give what little food she had to the remaining child. In 1849 she became the last women to be hanged in England for the murder of her own baby
The Guardian's review left me a little confused, I have to admit: why were there so many poisonings in 18th- and 19th-century English history? (Or were there? Perhaps the cases described by Watson were more noteworthy for their gruesomeness than for their frequency...) Was the lack of regulation of poisons the main cause? How did the crime rate compare to the murder rate today?
Then again, perhaps it's the present day--when poison isn't a terribly common means of murder--that's atypical. Reading The Guardian's review, I have no idea how serious a work of history Watson's book really is. Even so, I get the clear sense that I'm ignorant of a lot of Victorian history. What makes this review so intriguing, I think, is the way it combines the familiar with the unexpected. No one who's even vaguely familiar with Dickens should be surprised that poverty and starvation faced a lot of Victorians. Nevertheless, the fact that English children were able to resort to poisoning, and the idea that this didn't surprise the readers of Punch, comes as something of a shock. But should it?
One of these days I may get around to writing about some more serious history. For now, though, I'll just indulge my interest in English crime as I wait for my dissertation proposal hearing. The excitement never dies!
Posted by Ed
Recent events have led me to ponder a profound question: In all of American history, who's the most famous convicted felon to have written a cookbook? Beyond the obvious, front-runners include Bobby Seale and Michael Milken. Any other candidates?
Posted by Ed
Is it just me, or is Saturday typically the day when The New York Times publishes some of its best stuff? Today, I thought, wasn't a fantastic day for the NYT, but the paper did publish this interesting article on the Turkish historian Taner Akcam (the first Turkish historian to publicly use the word "genocide" to describe his country's early 20th-century treatment of the Armenians); I'd be delighted if more newspapers published articles on people and issues in academia. What's more, the Saturday Times op-ed page often publishes interesting articles that aren't "serious" enough for the weekly paper. I preferred last Saturday's essay by Sylvain Chomet (of Triplets of Belleville fame), but this column on how Nancy Drew mysteries have been revised for a new era isn't bad. Articles like these almost make up for silly David Brooks op-ed pieces...
Posted by Ed
In need of some quick articles to read? Try these:
Posted by Ed
LA Weekly has published two articles on Michael Moore. I'd strongly recommend the second, by Marc Cooper; Cooper begins by explaining how the comic Mort Sahl won him over to liberalism in the 1960s, concluding:
I cannot imagine Michael Moore having that sort of transformational effect on anyone. Moore arrives before us not with a newspaper under his arm, but rather with a bullhorn and a sledgehammer. Sahl engaged his audience in subtle, complicated dialogue, enticing his fans to think beyond the conventional wisdom. Moore's style is to bully and bluster. Sahl helped teach me how to think. Moore purports to tell us what to think.
Which wouldn't be so objectionable if there was evidence that Moore had any depth, any nuance or at least some consistency to his own thought.
Posted by Ed
Last week, A.N. Wilson published a fascinating "world of books" column in The Telegraph. Wilson begins by discussing a recent book on the role of British "Bible Protestants" in early Zionism, before he goes on to two related questions: the interpretation of the Bible as history and the importance of related questions in the world today.
Here's how Wilson's column begins:
I have been reading a fascinating book by Jill Hamilton, God, Guns and Israel, published by Sutton Publishing at £20. Its subtitle explains its huge range - "Britain, the First World War and the Jews in the Holy Land". Running through the book like a Golden Thread is the contention that nearly all the key gentile players in the Zionist story were in origin Bible Protestants. Lloyd George was not notably religious but, as he said: "I was taught in school far more about the history of the Jews than about the history of my own land. I could tell you all the kings of Israel. But I doubt whether I could have named half a dozen of the kings of England and no more of the kings of Wales."
Even so, the book cited by Wilson argues that Lloyd George was more important than Arthur Balfour in securing British support for an independent Jewish state, a role he performed as the solicitor employed by the Zionists to put their case to the Colonial Secretary. Wilson goes on to note that "It is astounding that all these otherwise intelligent people, such as Lloyd George, Balfour and others, should have read the Bible as a piece of literal history, rather than being, what it so obviously is, a piece of spiritual mythology":
Read such excellent books as Northrop Frye's The Great Code or Thomas L Thompson's The Bible in History (Jonathan Cape, 1999) for the actual relationship between the "historical" books of the Bible and real history. The Bible "histories" were perhaps based on various bits of ancient Jewish mythology but they were almost certainly written in post-exilic times, and probably only a couple of centuries before Christ.
There is no archaeological evidence for Jerusalem being a City of the legendary David or for Solomon having built a Temple, any more than there is for King Arthur's Camelot. That simply isn't the sort of book the Bible is. Very few Jews ever thought it was, incidentally, until outer political circumstances in Russia and later Germany changed the desire for a Jewish homeland from a romantic dream of the few into a matter of dire urgency for the many.
It also would have been fascinating to know more about the specific views of British "Bible Protestants" in the context of the time. Historians often treat William Jennings Bryan, one of Lloyd George's American contemporaries, as an idiot––after all, it isn't hard to make fun of a man who claimed that the fact that we could break the law of gravity by jumping was evidence that miracles were possible. When you think about it, is it really "astounding" that "all these otherwise intelligent people" believed in the literal truth of the Bible as history? I have my doubts about this... That view seems silly to me, writing in the early twenty-first century, but I suspect that Wilson is greatly underestimating the number of people who shared these views just a century ago (not to mention today.)
Wilson concludes by discussing the contemporary importance of these questions:
Such fundamentalist creeds, such fundamentally false readings of the Bible as history, underlie, one suspects, the thinking of George W Bush and Tony Blair when they consider the Middle East. It would be wonderful if they could spare the time to read Thomas L Thompson's book.
Update: Brian Ulrich has written some more commentary related to this article.
Posted by Ed
The 2004 USA Memory Championship was held in New York last Saturday. Here's how Wired described the event:
The three-day international event pits mnemonic experts from around the globe in competitions that include memorizing a previously unpublished and non-rhyming lengthy poem in 15 minutes, and writing it down complete with proper spelling and punctuation; memorizing a list of 400 random words and reciting them back in order; and the dreaded "binary competition," in which competitors have a half hour to memorize a random string of thousands of 1s and 0s.
In last year's international competition, Hagwood managed to recall 552 numbers in the binary string. Competitor Gunther Karsten remembered 3,009. Hagwood came in 12th out of 46 contestants in 2003; this year he hopes to place in the top five.
Hagwood said he wasn't born with an outstanding ability to memorize, and claims anyone can learn the skill. There are specific techniques that mnemonic masters use -- such as associating images with each number and suit when memorizing card positions -- but in general it all comes down to keeping your brain synapses in good working order.
Posted by Ed
I don't know whether to be excited or worried: according to Reuters, Walden Media and Disney have struck a deal to make a film version of C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The director will be Andrew Adamson of Shrek, filming will begin this summer, and the movie will be released in time for Christmas 2005.
The movie could, of course, be wonderful, but I have my doubts. (Then again, I was expecting the worst from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy...) I also have to wonder exactly how the book's Christian themes will be portrayed on film--and, whatever happens, I expect controversy to ensue. (Remember the debate that followed a 2001 New York Times article claiming that the Narnia books would be given a more secular spin by their new publisher?) Given that Mel Gibson isn't slated to direct, I don't expect fireworks, but one never knows for sure.
But here's an idea that really intrigues me: according to the Internet Movie Database, a film version of Philip Pullman's novel The Golden Compass is also due for release in 2005. Pullman, another children's fantasy novelist, is a harsh critic of Lewis; in fact, his best-known trilogy has been criticized by English church officials as a strident attack on organized religion, though it might be more accurate to call it a retelling of Paradise Lost in a fantasy world of alternate universes, angelic sub-atomic particles, and personified consciences known as daemons. (Here's a recent New York Times article on Pullman, and here's a mediocre Atlantic Monthly article defending Lewis from Pullman's critique.)
I'm a big fan of both Lewis and Pullman, and the prospect of a head-to-head box-office showdown between the two writers fills me with an odd combination of excitement and dread. I worry that one or both films will be hurt by its transition to the screen and wonder whether religious controversy will distract people from the high quality of both series, but, if all goes well, we could be in for a real treat.
(If you're curious, here are a handful of entries on related topics that I wrote at my old blog.)
Posted by Ed
This week's New Yorker features an interesting "Talk of the Town" piece by David Remnick, discussing how the religious scholar Elaine Pagels reacted to Mel Gibson's movie about the passion. (Pagels, for those of you who don't know, is a Princeton professor best known for a study of the Nag Hammadi library called The Gnostic Gospels and for her book Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, both of which I recommend.) Pagels describes the movie's "preposterous dialectic" between good Romans and bad Jews, details the negative portrait of Pontius Pilate painted by early historians, and describes the context in which the Gospels were written. Her comments are generally intelligent and compelling, but she ends with a remark so dismissive of another work of pop culture that it seems almost sacrilegious to me: "Gibson’s movie," she declares, "is no more subtle than 'The Lord of the Rings.' "
To be fair, plenty of writers these days enjoy portraying The Lord of the Rings as a boringly black-and-white story of good versus evil, but this view doesn't give Tolkien's work enough credit for its moral sophistication. Sauron, of course, is an unambiguously evil figure, but he never actually appears in the trilogy. Saruman, meanwhile, turns bad via a complex process of corruption, in which his desire for knowledge without a corresponding desire to do good pushes him to reshape the world according to his own whims. Gollum, though largely corrupt, is oddly receptive to the kindness and cruelty of those around him. Finally, as most readers of The Silmarillion or The Book of Lost Tales could tell you, even Galadriel's place in Tolkien's universe is not unambigiously good: she's kind of like a fallen angel who's still an ally of the good guys.
At least one writer, the Anglo-Saxon scholar Tom Shippey, has argued that The Lord of the Rings betrays a sense of ambivalence about the nature of evil, a view that was shaped by Tolkien's discussions with C.S. Lewis. Tolkien's writing sometimes supports a "Boethian" view that evil is merely the absence of good, Shippey argues, and sometimes supports a "Manichean" reading that portrays a life-and-death struggle between darkness and light; the Manichean view sees evil and good as external forces in the world, while the Boethian view portrays them as internal to mankind, the result of human weakness. This conflict is exemplified by a passage in which Gandalf asks Frodo for the ring, but the hobbit could only give it to him with difficulty, "as if either it or Frodo himself was in some way reluctant for Gandalf to touch it." To what extent does the ring have a will of its own? How much of Frodo's struggle is caused by a conflict within him, and how much is the result of an evil external force? Questions like this have a crucial role in the narrative, casting light on everything from the personalities of the major characters (and their reaction to the ring and to evil itself) to the issue of whether the ring was destroyed by chance or by design.
Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings is, admittedly, more one-sided in its portrayal of good and evil. Jackson occasionally succeeds in making the story less black-and-white: Aragorn needs to grow into his role as a heroic leader of the the forces of good, for example, and Elrond often looks like a petty old half-elf (rather than a uniformly wise and benevolent leader of Sauron's foes.) But, far more often, Jackson simplifies the story and makes it less complex. The explanation of Saruman's corruption is completely absent, after all; moreover, Jackson highlights Gollum's split personality and downplays whatever conflicted feelings Smeagol may still harbor. Moreover, as Chris Mooney has written, the orcs in Jackson's Lord of the Rings seem almost too evil. One can hardly imagine Tolkien's almost-sympathetic portrayal of a conversation between the orcs Shagrat and Gorbag appearing in the movie, and the Rohirrim would be accused of war crimes if present-day ideals were applied to Middle Earth. It sometimes seems that in Jackson's Middle Earth, nothing done to oppose Sauron can be wrong (short of seizing the ring), since the orcs and their masters are irredeemably genocidal and violent.
This isn't necessarily a major criticism of Peter Jackson, mind you: it would have been essentially impossible to translate the complexity of Tolkien's vision to the silver screen. There are even times when Jackson seems to capture the essence of Tolkien in an accidental fashion. The Lord of the Rings was meant to embody Tolkien's ideal of anglo-Saxon and pre-Christian heroism; the heroes of Middle Earth, like the Norse heroes at Ragnarrok, would fight to the finish, even in the face of certain death, because that was the right thing to do--there was little moral calculation in their minds. When I first watched Jackson's version of The Two Towers, I felt that the film version had captured this element of Tolkien's moral universe in its portrayal of the battle of Helm's Deep, when Aragorn convinces Theoden not to despair, but to ride against the orcs in one final showdown. I was disappointed to learn, from the DVD commentary, that Peter Jackson and company meant to show that Aragorn was certain that Gandalf would return to save them--not that he felt that a last stand was the moral course of action. Sometimes, it seems, film-makers can capture the moral essence of their work even by accident.
My argument here could easily be exaggerated. I don't want to argue that Tolkien was a brilliant moral thinker or that The Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece of world literature; far too many Tolkien fans lose their credibility when they go overboard in defense of the author they love. Instead, I'd merely like to suggest that the moral universe of Middle Earth was shaped by everything from the pre-Christian conception of heroism to the Catholic theology that Tolkien read in his youth. Perhaps Elaine Pagels would realize this if she'd read The Lord of the Rings.
Posted by Ed
Here are a handful of links to entertain you: