More Good Books. . .
Marguerite de Navarre. The Heptameron. Penguin, 1984.
The Heptameron is a miserable excuse for literature. To paraphrase Barbara Tuchman on Boccaccio, it's soft-core porn for twentieth-century intellectuals who don't want to be caught reading the real stuff. It's also a good introduction to the pleasures of reading the same poor joke seventy times at a stretch.
On the other hand, it does have great historical importance. It's another example of the genre made even more famous by B. and Chaucer, as the feminist reviewer at amazon.com points out, and which was supposedly invented by Emmanuel of Rome, of all people. The same anecdotes-within-a-story, the same drunken, lecherous monks, the same mistaken adulteries by the chaste, etc. And the genre itself is indeed significant in the history of fiction.
The Heptameron will also help one to understand Late Medieval culture more than most histories of the period. (No, I didn't say Renaissance, I said Medieval).
Is it a coincidence that Chaucer uses this framework for middle-class journalism, and Marguerite de Navarre uses it for aristocratic silliness?
Sacks, Oliver. An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales.
I suppose that it's a good thing that the style of Dr. Sacks' books changes so noticeably with time. The 'subjects' of An Anthropologist on Mars are virtually identical to those of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, but the discussions here are much more general and somewhat more abstract. In the tradition of conventional philosophy, Dr. Sacks here summarizes and analyzes the works of his predecessors much more.
The annotated bibliography, in fact, is one of the high points of the book. It will be especially useful to such as the connoisseurs of the older French medical literature who need a modern reference to Tourette's original article, and for those poor souls who are too young to have otherwise run into Edwin Land's "Retinex Theory of Color Vision".
In addition to the human dramas, often distorted by Dr. Sacks' philosophical interests to appear less tragic than they really are, here are good accounts of the history of our understanding of color vision and of memory. As one would expect, the chapter on Temple Grandin in its own way gives much more information on autism than Dr. Grandin's own book; comparing Sacks' and Grandin's account of Grandin and her world is in fact a good introduction to the doctor/patient antinomy which is becoming more important as both medicine and life expectancy change.
Gombrich, Ernst Hans. Norm and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance. Phaidon, 1994.
On the Madonna della Sedia:
What can we say to describe this feeling of a perfect solution that we have in front of such a masterpiece? I have called it self-sufficient, self-contained, classical, and if you read more about these things you will find books new and old ringing the changes on various synonyms of organic unity and integration.
Gombrich here emphasizes the classical side of the High Renaissance. No doubt, someplace he makes similar remarks about High Classical Greek art. But reading between the lines of Norm and Form, one could easily reach the opposite conclusion. Both High Classical and High Renaissance contained more of the seeds of Hellenism and Baroque than they contained of "unity and integration". In Gombrich's "The Renaissance Conception of Artistic Progress", we read about the beginnings of the cult of the artist. So also in Athens. In "Leonardo's Method for Working Out Compositions" and "Raphael's Madonna della Sedia", we have the imitation of nature, impressionism and feeling. Gombrich, the philologist's philologist, discusses the concept of classicism as variations on Aristotle and Vitruvius. Aristotle, the tutor of Alexander. Alexander, the Macedonian king who put an end to Classical Athenian democracy and invented the cultural koine. In "the Renaissance Theory of Art and the Rise of Landscape", Gombrich discusses the appearance of pastoralism and genre. Sounds like something from Brunilde Ridgway, doesn't it?
Padover, Saul K. Jefferson. Mentor, 1993.
The gentlemen at amazon.com have suggested that we'ze Amazon Associates might want to put some Starr Report books on our sites. Unfortunately, I'm not sure exactly who Starr is and what the report is about.
On the other hand, if I've understood right, the Clinton escapades did revive some legal questions worth talking about, questions about executive privilege which popped up in a different form during Marbury v. Madison, when a political appointee named John Marshall decided to score some points for The Party by inventing the United States Supreme Court. The questions popped up in yet another disguise during United States v. Burr. These two were dragged up again by one Richard Nixon for his own executive privilege shenanigans.
Back to Padover and Jefferson:
Here came the crux of Marshall's decision. The subtle chief justice pointed out that under the constitution the Supreme Court had no power to issue writs against executive officers. Should, therefore, the court follow Section 13 of the Act of 1789, or should it follow the Constitution? Marshall's answer was obvious.... In other words, the Constitution was superior to Section 13. In other words, Section 13 was unconstitutional. In other words, the Supreme Court decides what legislative act is unconstitutional.
In other words, John Marshall decides what is unconstitutional. Who said so? John Marshall. And this has been 'the highest law of the land' ever since. And it's been working pretty well.
Back to Padover, and the Supreme Court on constitutionality:
Jefferson's theory was - and James Madison, the "Father of the Constitution", agreed with him - that the framers of the Constitution had intended the three branches of the Government to check, not to dominate, each other.
All in all, pretty good prose for an abridged edition. But then, it was abridged by the author.
Scholem, Gershom. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. Schocken, 1995.
This is a more useful book for the general reader than Scholem's Sabbatai Sevi, The Mystical Messiah, since it includes less bibliographical detail on obscure works and more general discussion on the nature and development of Jewish mysticism. In introducing the subject, Scholem tries to fit it into a few preconceived psychological categories. He neglects to mention that there are other possibilities for categorization at least as valid. On the other hand, his distinctions among the goals of the different types of Jewish mysticism are very useful. So are many of his remarks on the influence of the various schools of mysticism on the standard liturgy.
Scholem's summary of the different guesses at the origin of "Metatron" is entertaining, although his suggestion for emending one of the relevant Talmudic passages is not necessary; neither is his evidence on the origin from the spelling. His work on R. Abraham Abulafia will be news to many. His opinion as to the authorship of the Zohar is well known, but there is a good summary here, as well as useful additions to his other works on Shabtai Tzvi, the Lurianic Kabbalah, and later Hasidism.
Grieve, Mrs. M. A Modern Herbal: The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with All Their Modern Scientific Uses. Dover, 1978.
"Mrs. Grieve" was a memsahib whose mixture of credulity, quasi-science, and common sense reminds one of Lieut-Col. Dr. L. Austine Waddell. Her quasi-science tends to tautologies such as this, on Menyanthes trifoliata:
Constituents. The chief constituents are a small quantity of volatile oil and a bitter principle, a glucoside called Menyanthin.
In the vague farmer's-wife-to-health-store tradition she continues, combining a precise style with undefined terms:
Medicinal Action and Uses. Tonic, cathartic, deobstruent and febrifuge.
She is at her best in classical descriptive botany, when discussing horticulture and the history of pharmacy, and in anecdotes:
In Turkey and Persia this has for many centuries been extracted from the tubers of various kinds of Orchis and exported under the name of Sahlep.... Before coffee supplanted it, it used to be sold at stalls in the streets of London....
Charles Lamb refers to a 'Salopian shop' in Fleet Street, and says that to many tastes it has 'a delicacy beyond the China luxury,' and adds that a basin of it at three-halfpence, accompanied by a slice of bread-and-butter at a halfpenny, is an ideal breakfast for a chimney-sweep. Though Salep is no longer a popular London beverage, before the war it was regularly sold by street merchants in Constantinople as a hot drink during the winter.
The custom is not quite dead in Tel Aviv.
Vol. 1 Vol. 2
Jespersen, Otto. Growth and Structure of the English language. University of Chicago, 1982.
This is the shorter of Jespersen's books on the history and structure of English. It emphasizes the relationship between history and language, and those phenomena which are still significant in modern English. As always, Jespersen's book is refreshingly full of his own prejudices.
The book opens with a discussion of English as a "masculine" language. The idea will annoy many people for many reasons. However, Jespersen's comparisons between English and French, for example, are obviously correct, and his reasoning is always good.
The borrowings of earliest English from the Romans were words for simple, concrete things. "It was not Roman philosophy or the higher mental culture that impressed our Germanic forefathers; they were not yet ripe for that influence". Jespersen never makes the common mistake of confusing the borrowing of words with general linguistic influence. If he mentions no Greek or Latin influence on the structure of Old English, it was because he knew of none.
The Christianization of Britain and close contact between the English and their Scandinavian relatives stimulated a flowering of native inventiveness in English. The story of the conquest relationship between the Normans and the British, and the powerful but selective influence of Norman French on English, is now well known. So is the nature of the second wave of Latinization, but here it is discussed with no toadying to "Johnsonese", which Jespersen hates with a passion.
There are also extensive discussions of the reasons for the structural changes in more recent English, and of the influences on English 'poetic diction'. (Shakespeare is far from the top).
The discussion of Shakespeare's own language is an important contribution to an understanding of his style.
Mahaffy, John Pentland, with Gilman, Arthur. The Empire of Alexander the Great. Barnes and Noble, 1995.
This is mostly history of the war-and-succession variety, but it includes good coverage of some other sides of history as well.
Much of the book concerns the wars of the Diadochi and their successors. (Yes, that's how D. is spelled; this book was originally published in 1898). It also includes, however, the conquests and relevant private life of Alexander himself, the changing political and social structures of the Hellenistic world, and good introductions to Hellenism in the arts. It covers the contacts between the "Greeks" and the non-Classical world better than one would expect, though less than I would have liked, and has quite a bit on Hellenism and the Romans, especially in the East.
I understand why Casander found it necessary to murder Alexander's son, but why Roxane? Did she have political ambitions of her own? How would she have fulfilled them?
Nothing in history is more tragic than the fate of this child of thirteen, for whom all the world waited in anxious expectation; born with no father to protect him, and carried about even as an infant from camp to camp, from province to province, the watchword of parties, the cloak for ambitions, the excuse for murders, in charge of two homicidal princesses, his mother and grandmother. Then he was gradually neglected, confined, imprisoned, and while titular lord of all the Eastern world, was the captive of a cruel and relentless despot. At last he disappears like the English Princes in the tower....
Sacks, Oliver. Awakenings.
Awakenings is the original Sacks book on the neuropathology of identity. The author describes the lives of people confined for many years to a "Hospital for the Sick and Dying" as a result of post-encephalitic parkinsonism. With the invention of L-Dopa treatment, their lives became more strange, not less so.
Awakenings covers many subjects, and is much less doctrinaire than Sacks' recent books. In those days he had more questions than answers, and more curiosity of observation than clearly defined questions. Of course the book discusses the interaction between neuropathology and personality. It also has quite a bit to say about neuropathology and one's relationships with other people, and about the philosophy of clinical neurology. His respect for the classics of the subject is refreshing. When did you last meet a doctor who took the history of medicine seriously, if he ever studied it at all?
Sacks points out that von Economo's encephalitis, a devastating infectious disease about which very little is known, appeared mysteriously, then disappeared mysteriously, and could just as mysteriously reappear. His remark applies just as well to many other diseases which we decided had disappeared. This decision has little basis except the hubris of the mid-twentieth century.
Sacks, Oliver W. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Other Clinical Tales.
This book is a collection of short popular articles on the neuropathology of identity. It is entertaining, and will introduce many readers to a wide range of disorders, as well as to the concept of high-level inhibition. However, as Dr. Sacks' continues to publish, his books tend to become progressively less essential, and more the books of a cult figure. In addition, some of these case histories - e. g., "The Dog Beneath the Skin" - provoke the suspicion that a theoretical preconception caused the author to misunderstand or exaggerate the facts. Remember the misplaced holism in Migraine, a mistake the author later repented?
In the context in which Dr. Sacks mentions it, the business about the "therapeutic moment" is silly sub-Freudian leftovers. I am also unconvinced that Tourette's Syndrome has a lot of good sides; about the only good side I can think of in neuroleptics is that they're probably often better than Tourette's Syndrome. I can see none of the great talent Sacks talks about in the history of the autistic child artist, although his ability to copy detail is amazing. Dr. Sacks generally seems to underestimate the extent to which his 'interesting' patients suffer.
There's a lot of information on neuropathology here, and some of the histories did awaken a loud echo in my heart. It's encouraging that even in this book, Dr. Sacks can admit to some big mistakes.
Grandin, Temple. Thinking in Pictures and other reports from my life with autism. Vintage, 1996.
I'm not sure that this should be the first work one should read about autism, but it provides both a wealth of information and a perspective which I am not certain one could find anywhere else.
Temple Grandin is one of the very few autistic people who have written books. Her book is a badly organized mixture of patches from an autobiography, a theoretical introduction to autism, a handbook for people who have to live with their own or others' autism, and I book about the care and processing of farm animals. (The lack of organization is not a pure fault; the aberrations of this book also teach an outsider much about autism). Dr. Grandin starts with her diagnosis of "mental defect" (more correct than most readers will understand, though she may) and goes on to discuss the problems caused by her lack of the normal ability to understand without conscious effort other people's motives and the rules of society. (One wishes that she had talked about her mother's divorce in more than one word). She also discusses the suffering caused by physical problems associated with her autism and by other people's reactions to her, sometimes understandable, sometimes malicious.
Grandin also discusses at length such practical questions as medical treatments for autism and relationships between autistic people and the opposite sex. She is more open-minded than most on most of the questions she discusses, both practical and theoretical, but she does have a certain tendency to follow the party line of the doctors.
People with practical problems will find the bibliography and "resource list" particularly useful.
Carmi, T., ed. The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse. Penguin, 1997.
This is a wide-ranging anthology of Hebrew poetry in a decently printed (but meanly bound) bilingual edition. It includes all of the well-known poets, a few poets and schools whom the general reader has probably not heard of, and some very useful chapters of anonymous verse.
Carmi seems to have chosen the best work of each poet and each period. His translations are both accurate and readable as English poetry, although of course one can argue about individual points. His biographical notes are useful, and his occasional footnotes on the meaning of the poems themselves are sometimes very illuminating. He also includes what are in effect three short but informative introductions, one on the history of Hebrew poetry, one on the genres, and one on Hebrew meters.
Probably all of the poems here will have something to say to any reader of English poetry. A few of them will lose a lot if the reader is not familiar with the Talmud and other typically Jewish works. Others demand of the reader a knowledge of Medieval European or Islamic poetry for full appreciation.
Watch out for the titles which Carmi has given to some of the unnamed works. They seem to have more to do with advertising than with poetry. The very fact that this is about the worst thing I can find to say about the book points up its excellence.
more Good Books. . .
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