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Tocqueville, Alexis de. The Old Regime and the French Revolution.
Tocqueville claims that most of the causes of the French Revolution can be traced to the centralization of power in the hands of the king, starting about the Fourteenth Century.
Taxes in France initially discriminated against commoners no more than in the rest of Europe. However, in order to avoid having their actions supervised by the Estates, the kings developed their own more or less legal means of adding to existing personal taxes. As the size of the taxes increased, their discriminatory application became more irksome. In addition, the fact that many French peasants owned land while the peasants of the rest of Europe were still serfs meant that the French peasants suffered from the land taxes as well. As the king appropriated more and more of the nobles' traditional powers, the peasants were in the position not only of being discriminated against in favor of the nobles, but also of having lost the traditional feudal rights which they had held from the seigneur, since the nobles had lost both the power and the interest to fulfill their side of the bargain.
The nobles, having lost all contact with political realities because of their lack of both power and obligations, spent their time disseminating crackpot theories of political philosophy.
Tocqueville's discussions of the way in which the 'French character' contributed to the revolution are entertaining, and indeed strike a chord. He claims that the tendency toward centralization was augmented by the Frenchman's irrational desire to get himself an official title, which led to the richer peasants' leaving the land to become the king's bureaucrats. The political philosophers found it easier to sell their crackpot theories because of a French tradition of philosophizing in the abstract, without a strong tradition of adducing evidence.
As usual, Tocqueville shows an amazing talent for distinguishing what is essential in a society. Whether or not The Old Regime and the French Revolution is really "the most important contribution to our understanding of the French Revolution", it is certainly one of the most literate.
Tocqueville's ideas about the pre-revolutionary philosophers will especially appeal to Americans, as an amusing change from the attitudes toward them which we were fed as children.
Flaubert, Gustave. Three Tales. Oxford UP, 1999.
Flaubert is another of those authors who is always in the curriculum. A useful approach to artists like that is to start from the very beginning. You will often find that they are in the curriculum just because they always have been. Not much of a reason.
Among the artists who really should be studied, some should be studied because of their influence, and some should be studied because of the value of their works.
By the time a hundred years or so have passed, it's not too hard to judge the intrinsic value of a well-known work of literature. Find out how many people are reading it for pleasure, without hope of ever being tested on it or ever publishing anything about it.
In practice, it's not easy to find out how many people are reading a work for pleasure, but we can always ask ourselves if we would read it purely for pleasure.
It's easy to imagine reading the Three Stories for pleasure. As the critics have always pointed out, Flaubert's prose is always perfect, for better and for worse. This is often what the reader needs, if only to escape the grime of everyday life. It is also a trait particularly suited to the short story, where Flaubert's preference for art over content is less noticeable.
Flaubert's art also has historical interest. It is characteristic of an artistic trend which is about to collapse from boredom. Like Hellenistic figurines and late Moorish architectural decoration. Which are also a pleasure.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park.
Most novels worth reading consist of at least two books: an artwork with a plot and structure and an essay on some subject which the author feels important. Jane Austen's novels are almost invariably three: an artwork, a social commentary and an essay.
Each of Jane Austen's novels is significantly different from the artistic point of view. Many have already commented that there's a darkness to the social criticism in Mansfield Park which makes it different from her other works.
I've never seen anyone mention the apparent 'subject' of Mansfield Park. Which isn't surprising, since the subject is religion.
Jane Austen is more willing than most novelists to put her ideas into the mouths of characters at least mildly unpleasant. It's hard to love Edmund, but it's pretty clear that he is the author's permanent representative on the subject of religion. It's also hard for us, at the beginning of the Twenty-first Century, to understand Miss Austen's religion. Some of her critics, who have trouble imagining anything which they have never seen themselves, therefore end up close to accusing her of hypocrisy.
I can't imagine that I would have liked Jane Austen as a person, but I'm glad the question of her religious honesty is not so simple.
Don't forget to read the letters as well before you draw any conclusions. If then.
Some available editions of Mansfield Park
Wheatcroft, Andrew. The Habsburgs: Embodying Empire.
This book is a self-conscious venture into a new kind of history. It is neither a succession of reigns and battles, nor a social history, nor a person-based history in the Distant Mirror tradition. It is an attempt to view the history of Habsburg rule as the product of the family's attitudes to an iconology which they themselves created, and to their own family traditions.
The Habsburgs is thus a variant of post-modernist history, a school which normally gives me the heebie-geebies. However, this book is both amusing and informative. Wheatcroft tempers his innovations and hypotheses with common sense. He also includes entertaining asides about the Habsburgs as people. These include the family's tendency to develop passions for their politically chosen spouses, and Maria Theresa's almost obsessive desire to achieve frequent childbirths, both in herself and in her daughters and daughters-in-law.
These personal anecdotes can't give the same satisfaction as they would if the book were built around one or two main figures, so that we could get to know them better. But the book is fun to read, and it shows the Habsburgs in a new light.
Morita, Akio, et al. Made in Japan: Akio Morita and Sony. New American Library, 1997.
Every culture creates its own heroes. In the fast-moving Western culture of the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries, we create new heroes in every generation.
I have met many people who have not heard of Shakespeare, but who mention "Billgates" frequently.
What has all of this got to do with Akio Morita?
Akio Morita was the Bill Gates of previous generation, especially in Japan. One of the founders of the world's most successful techno-company.
I've never felt I understood William H. Gates, or the Microsoft corporate culture. I thought that if I understood Akio Morita and Sony, I might understand Bill Gates and Microsoft, and maybe understand better the culture which has turned them into heroes.
Sadly, I think I do. Morita frequently talks about how important it is for Sony to remain "human". Morita frequently talks about "communicating" with the customer. Then he explains what it means to communicate with a human being. It means using mass media to persuade millions of people at once to buy something which they never knew they needed.
Morita often talks about listening to the customer. This means reading the reports to see how many thousands of units were sold last month.
Morita doesn't seem to know that the words he uses sometimes have other meanings.
Maybe Aldous Huxley had a point after all. And maybe that point has nothing to do with either technology or politics, or even mass psychology.
Defoe, Daniel. A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain.
There used to be a collection called The Pelican Book of English Prose. The editor of that collection wrote that in it that "the ordinary reader... may see for himself... the prose styles thought impressive at different times, and the ruling interests and attitudes of particular periods...." The blurbiste of the volume on the eighteenth century adds to his list of contemptible customers "the reader whose interest is in the life of the eighteenth century".
It is probably for the better that that collection is out of print. The selections were too short and too varied to satisfy. In any case, the time has come to put limits on the use of anthologies. They have their place, but it's no coincidence that anthologies and encyclopedias are the products of dying civilizations.
If a person wants to learn about eighteenth-century English prose, or eighteenth-century British life, or eighteenth-century anything, Defoe is as good a place as any to start. And A Tour Through The Whole Island..." is as good a place as any to start Defoe.
Pay attention to Defoe's handling of foreign words in English.
Lang, Cecil, ed. The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Circle.
This is a very useful anthology. It brings together the poetry of the original Pre-Raphaelites, of those poets usually associated with them, and of a few poets like Swinburne who probably have little in common with the Pre-Raphaelites aside from being contemporary.
Unlike many anthologies, it also includes a few longer works.
The system and the juxtapositions are useful. Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti somehow seem a lot better when one looks at the totality of their work at once. Christina Rossetti also comes across as a deeper and more interesting person when one sees her love poetry and her religious poetry together.
The convenience of comparing D. G. Rossetti and Swinburne in a book like this makes it easier to analyze their two types of fuzziness: Rossetti's is created largely by his strange syntax and arcane vocabulary, while Swinburne's is created largely by difficulty in understanding the referent.
The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Circle also contains black-and-white plates of Pre-Raphaelite and related works in the visual arts, and a good introduction and notes.
Fowden, Garth. The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind. Princeton UP, 1993.
Hermes Trismegistus weaves his way almost through the length of Western culture. He begins as a syncretic figure in the syncretic world of late antique philosophy, or at least in the poor man's substitute for late antique philosophy. It is this Hermes Trismegistus who is the subject of this book. He later finds himself mentioned or hinted at in serious books of mathematical astronomy and in books of alchemy ranging from the seriously empirical through the philosophical and then the clownish. Not to mention the obvious echoes in the Faust legend. In our own time, these trends continue; Hermes Trismegistus is invoked both by Baudelaire and by kindergarten 'pagans' on the internet.
Garth Fowden is a social historian of philosophy and religion. This book consists mostly of his own meanderings on Hermetism, based on his own knowledge of the sources and (too much, perhaps) on the conclusions of his colleagues. The underlying theme is that there is indeed an underlying theme, something which unites "technical", "theological" and "philosophical Hermetism" and separates them from similar thought systems.
Most readers will appreciate the book mainly for Fowden's occasional insights into the history of philosophy in general, or for his "approach to the late pagan mind".
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Gold-Bug and Other Tales. Dover, 1991.
Add to [Poe's] everlasting and active ambition of his thought, a rare erudition, an objectivity both stunning and antithetical to his subjective nature, an extraordinary power of deduction and analysis, and the habitual precision of his writing, it will not surprise you that we have called him the intellectual leader of his country.
And Henri Peyre answers:
In my innocent youth I enjoyed Poe, but would have felt forced to agree with Peyre. On re-reading these stories, I see that Baudelaire was also right. In what way, and why could only Baudelaire see it?
"There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion." Why? Because our consciousness of the strangeness shocks and sharpens our senses, and makes us more sensitive to the beauty.
Everything in Poe's stories is strange and overheated. The plots are the inevitable result of the extra-ordinary acting on the extreme. The syntax and the vocabulary are crystal clear, but interspersed with neologisms and arcane words which create a strange stimulation. The motives of Poe's characters derive from a similar over-internalization of reality.
All of this could describe Baudelaire as well as Poe, couldn't it?
Levine, Hillel. In Search of Sugihara: The Elusive Japanese Diplomat Who Risked His Life to Rescue 10,000 Jews from the Holocaust. Free Press, 1996.
Chiune Sugihara was a member of the Japanese military who, as consul in Lithuania during World War II, issued irregular transit visas to help many people escape the Nazis. Levine's main intent is to "probe into the culture and personality of the man who opened that door, and analysis of the making of a 'mass rescuer'". Despite his attempt to create mysteries around Sugihara's motives, Sugihara's own version comes across has being the true one: "I acted according to my sense of human justice, out of love of love for mankind.".
Levine also asks a second question: Sugihara seems to have gotten a lot of cooperation, though much of it passive. Is there a "banality of goodness" which makes people want to help their fellow man as a matter of routine, everything else being equal? Levine admits that he is not sure. We would also have to add that in this context, it's not certain that there's a question.
The book is sometimes exciting, and descriptions of the disgraceful behavior of the American and British bureaucrats by someone who seems to have no axe to grind are worth reading.
Gaunt, William. The Pre-Raphaelite Dream.
I used to have a lot of complaints about Pre-Raphaelite painting:
There is a tradition in Western painting of making women alluring, unless the context absolutely forbids. The Pre-Raphaelites tried. Very hard. Unfortunately, they didn't know, and later couldn't accept, Renoir's repeated emphasis on the way a woman's skin "takes the light". When a woman looks like a three-day-old corpse, it is hard for her to be alluring. Though some parts of the Pre-Raphaelite damozels look not like death, but like plastic. The line between the indecent and the silly is often hard to find. The aggressive expression of Rossetti's women deserves particular mention.
The Pre-Raphaelites' use of heavy outlines even around faces makes the faces look like a child's decoupage.
After reading Gaunt's work, I like the Pre-Raphaelites a little better. It would seem that Gaunt himself agrees with me about the artistic value of most of their paintings. However, he makes the Pre-Raphaelites appear a lot more interesting as human beings than they are as painters. Gaunt also puts "the Pre-Raphaelite tragedy" in its context in the cultural history of the West.
Gaunt discusses Pre-Raphaelite poetry, but much less than he discusses their painting.
Gaunt doesn't limit himself to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but includes such related artists as William Morris, the most important of the Post-Pre-Raphaelites.
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