More Good Books. . .
Quiros, Felipe Torroba Bernaldo de. The Spanish Jews. Sucs. de Rivadeneyra (Madrid), 1972.
Despite its size, The Spanish Jews is a comprehensive and detailed history, from the possibility of Jews in the Iberian peninsula in the Biblical period until today. De Quiros has surveyed the sources thoroughly and summarizes them thoroughly, although his strange use of quotation marks sometimes makes it difficult to know who is being quoted. His book includes city by city and sometimes personage by personage histories, as well as descriptions of places sometimes at the single-building level. He also includes much legend, properly noted as such, and much cultural history.
One curious point to note is the large number of legends involving a Spanish Christian aristocrat and a Jewish woman. From the more verifiable sources, one gets the impression that connections between Jewish men and Spanish women were actually at least as common. Perhaps there is a tendency for the legend-makers to put the male on the winning side, 'our' side, and the woman on the losing side.
Quoting Menendez y Pelayo on the Proverbs of R. Shem Tov of Carrion:
His poetic talent triumphs in the very aridity of direct moral teaching, and despite the disorder in which the axioms, warnings and instructions appear, he succeeds in clothing all this didactic material with forms that are sometimes elegant and pleasing, sometimes emphatic and strange. His style, constantly rhetorical, full of metaphors and comparisons which seem like scattered pearls from a Persian or Syrian necklace, is at one swift and closely allied to the intimacy of the concept. It is difficult to believe that this work, so profoundly Semitic, so bare of all classical or Christian influence, should have been born in Tierra de Campos....
Perhaps this flowery account will help us to understand the relationship between prosody and content in more famous books of proverbs.
The section on the history of the concept of 'purity of blood' in Spain also has a lot to offer.
The editing and format are abominable.
Mann, Thomas. Joseph and His Brothers. Minerva, 1997.
Joseph and His Brothers has all of the virtues of the more popular Magic Mountain, with fewer faults. Joseph again uses the technique of recurring phrases which is characteristic of Mann, but it also produces a second kind of resonance through the elaboration of a culturally ingrained plot-line. Indeed, the fact that Joseph has a fully developed plot and characters is itself a great virtue.
Mann's conceit is to fill in the human details of the Biblical deed. Writing of Joseph's attitude to the three fathers, Mann describes an attitude toward history and myth which probably has more to contribute to a fully modern and fully rationalist approach to the Bible than the compromises of the Medieval Aristoteleans. Mann also, typically, goes concisely but deeply into Dinah's and Shechem's side of their story.
Maybe that is why Joseph and His Brothers is much more fun to read than most "great" novels. Because Mann refuses to abandon the story under any circumstances.
Wilenski, R. H. Modern French Painters. Harcourt Brace, 1954.
The metaphor of this book is to present the development of French painting between 1863 and the 1940s as a play, divided into acts and scenes. The conceit is far from overpowering, and Wilenski does a good job of relating the development of painting to developments in the other arts, to political events, and to events in the lives of the artists.
Wilenski also makes some good individual points. Impressionism seems to have developed out of Realism not only technically but philosophically. Seurat's influence as a Classicist should not be overlooked; neither should Renoir's Classicism in his second period, between his two impressionisms. And the figure of Ingres looms eerily even in the least expected places, partly through his personal but indirect influence on Seurat.
The author also makes some claims which would not be easy to substantiate:
A look at Wilenski's own reproduction of Les grandes baigneuses shows how right the "dilettanti" and the sellout Renoir were. And they could have said more.
Among the connections one notices when reading this book is that between the institution of the official Salon in France and the tendency of nineteenth- and twentieth century artists to form official movements, often with manifestos.
Wilenski provides a good unification of his subjects, and has some important observations to make, especially about the distinctions among the various twentieth-century sub-schools, such as the different varieties of cubism and surrealism. He has little to say about what we used to call 'style'.
I find myself entirely out of sympathy with this concept of the art-activity as a kind of amateur psychopathology concerned to illustrate the secrets habitually reserved for confessionals and clinics.
Wilenski never notices how close his ideal Picasso sometimes comes to the same pathological state.
Saadiah Gaon. The Book of Beliefs and Opinions. Yale, 1989.
Both Maimonides and the modern researchers tend to treat Saadiah and his fellow Mutazilites as eclectic polemicists, and hardly real philosophers. This doesn't do them justice. It's true that the structure of Beliefs and Opinions, based as it is largely on evidence quoted from the Bible, will appeal to modern readers much less than the Guide for the Perplexed. The fact that the earlier book, however, places intuition and common sense, above strict formal logic, will appeal to the Year 2000 reader more than Aristoteleanism of the Guide. Similarly, Saadiah's principle of interpreting the Bible literally except when necessary to do otherwise may appeal to the modern reader more than Maimonides' Aristotelean allegory at any cost.
There are some points on which the Beliefs and Opinions illuminates Maimonides' more famous work. Perhaps the most important example is the solution to the apparent contradiction between foreknowledge and free will, where Maimonides' explanation, in both the Guide and the Mishneh Torah, is mysterious, to say the least.
Saadiah's work also has historical interest where it foreshadows Maimonides' work, such as his answer as to why the Omnipotent cannot do something which is logically impossible. Similarly, it both foreshadows and illuminates many of the opinions of Ibn Ezra.
Samuel Rosenblatt's translation is very readable, although some of the remarks he adds parenthetically would be difficult to defend. Some of his footnotes are useful, although many are repetitive and distracting. The introduction is good.
Weinberg, Steven. The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe. Basic Books, 1993.
The First Three Minutes is a classic both in the sense of being the best and in the sense of being the archetype of its class. As to its popularity and cultural importance, just look at the titles of Paul Davies' The Last Three Minutes and After the First Three Minutes (American Institute of Physics Conference Proceedings no. 222). The First Three Minutes seems to have been the first of a flock of popular cosmology books which add the personal and historical elements to the genre invented by Gamow, one of the protagonists of the present book. Weinberg's book is not condescending. Unlike some later and more famous writers on the same subject, Weinberg can discuss metaphysics without making any obvious boo-boos. He can even discuss religion in a way which those who disagree with his basic view admire.
The main subject of the book, as the title says, is the beginning of the Universe, from the time when we can start talking about it until the time when the apparent physics became pretty much that which we know. There is also quite a bit about the history of cosmology, and some speculations about those questions of the Beginning which hardly belong to physics yet, and those which never will.
The 'movie' metaphor isn't too cute, and the language is often first-rate.
Carroll, Lewis. The Annotated Alice: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Wings Press, 1998.
Somebody-or-other once said that Lewis Carroll's children's books were all half mathematics, and his books on mathematics are half children's stories. This aspect of 'Alice in Wonderland' is part of the reason for the popularity of The Annotated Alice. In addition, the Alice books have become a cult among a certain ilk of logicians. In any case, now that literary criticism has become a genre in itself, one hardly needs a reason.
Martin Gardner's famous notes are both scholarly and entertaining. They including explanations of objects and expressions with which the average modern reader is not sufficiently acquainted and notes on obscure works of nineteenth-century pedantry which Carroll similarly parodies. Of course, Gardner's notes also include explanations of Carroll's mathematical games.
This edition includes the Tenniel illustrations, to which Gardner's notes also sometimes refer, so it is eminently suitable for older children, as well as adults.
Savitt, Steven F., ed. Time's Arrow Today: Recent Physical and Philosophical Work on the Direction of Time.
Time's Arrow Today is one of many books published recently on the nature of time, its apparent irreversibility, and its apparently uniform 'rate of flow'. Anyone who doesn't read this one is missing something. Most of the articles in this collection are good, but I particularly enjoyed four of them.
The first is Savitt's historical overview of modern discussions of the direction of time. Unruh's discussion of the new role of time in general relativity and quantum mechanics. Unruh begins by saying the Newton "tells us that it is unnecessary to define time, but then proceeds to do just that". Unruh misunderstands Newton, who indeed leaves time undefined; what Unruh thinks is a definition is a warning not to confuse physical time, which needs no substrate, with common concepts of time based on recurrent phenomena in concrete objects. It's when Unruh talks about relativistic time that he really comes into his own. He explains that gravitation is an inherent consequence, an epiphenomenon, of the concept of spacetime. Few of his colleagues try to explain what gravity is, one of the really basic questions; they delude themselves into thinking they have done so when they have really only described anew how is behaves quantitatively. He also has a section on time in quantum mechanics which can serve as an ultrashort introduction to some of the basic concepts of that entire subject (assuming that George Steiner is wrong, and there is some point in writing an introduction to the subject).
The second of Sklar's articles here is mainly a critique of attempts to explain perceived time in terms of entropy. Most of his objections can be countered by replacing the concept of entropy in systems external to the person by that of neurochemical systems which are inherently asymmetrical under physiological constraints, but his discussion is deep and enlightening.
Barrett and Sober point out that entropy, the most popular word in modern explanations of time, "is well-defined [only] for chambers of gases", and proceed to construct an abstract mathematical concept of entropy which will also be useful in discussions of time.
In addition to their other virtues, most of the articles in this book, including these four, are literate
Only elementary mathematics, if any, is really necessary.
Friedrich, Johannes. Extinct Languages.
The Decipherment of Extinct Languages would have been a more literal and correct translation of the title of this book. Friedrich discusses the histories and cultural backgrounds of the ancient Egyptian, cuneiform and Hittite writing systems, as well as several others, but the main subject of the book is their decipherment. He also discusses the general principles underlying the decipherment of ancient languages.
Friedrich is intelligent and knowledgeable, and paying attention to what he says could save one from many of the more common mistakes of history and archeology:
The reader must rely on his knowledge of the language and on his familiarity with that particular kind of text in order to decide more or less accurately which syllabic value is the right one in the given grammatical and syntactical situation.
Thus, a given word can be read and also of course translated in different ways. Consequently, a considerable degree of uncertainty will have to be taken into account with reference to all future translations of texts written in the Linear Class B script.
I am not talking about crackpot New-Age "interpretations" of the Phaistos Disk. I'm talking about the way that theories about "Dionysos" in the Linear B texts or references to ritual harlotry in ancient Near Eastern documents turn into facts when repeated farther and farther from the sources.
Amazingly, Frank Gaynor managed to turn Friedrich's German into good English.
Three out-of-print editions "available" on amazon.com search.
Fry, Roger. Vision and Design. Dover, 1998.
Roger Fry reminds me of Ernst Gombrich. Like Gombrich's, Fry's articles mix theoretical aesthetics with traditional conoisseurship. Unlike Gombrich, though, Fry writes on aesthetics openly, not between the lines like he's stealing something. When writing about aesthetics, Fry often finds himself reciting Santayana, perhaps without realizing it. Some of Fry's best articles are based on comparisons between the Western and non-Western traditions, which Gombrich hardly mentions.
In Fry's article on South African Bushman art, he talks a lot about the difference between the almost wholly conceptual world-view of Western art and the perceptual world of the Bushmen.
[T]hey appear to have been at a stage of intellectual development where the concepts were not so clearly grasped as to have begun to interfere with perception, and where therefore the retinal image passed into a clear memory picture with scarcely any intervening mental process.
The best explanation I've seen of the 'eidetic hypothesis' of primitive art, usually presented with wild seriousness by overdegreed dunderheads.
Fry's treatment of the sculpture of Black Africa is the first trenchant one I've seen; it is not patronizing, Romantic, or aimed at the people running the affirmative-action fund.
Fry frequently breaks into the human without breaking out of traditional academic style:
The treatment [the Bushmen] have received at the hands of the white settlers does not seem to have been conspicuously more sympathetic or intelligent than that meted out to them by negro conquerers....
Steiner, George. Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman. Yale, 1998?.
Language and Silence consists of six collections of essays, roughly on four subjects: the current changes in our use of language, literature and human humaneness (with its obverse: language, literature, and Nazism), great writers and critics, and Marxism and literature. Steiner on the first two subjects is depressing: he not only holds that humanization by literature is a myth, he holds that our current loss of literacy is unstoppable and partly inevitable, since the ideas of modern physics cannot be expressed verbally.
Steiner actually has some good points to make about literature and Marxism. He gives a detailed history of the conflict between the advocates of Engelian nonpartisanship (e. g., Brecht) and the advocates of party loyalty (Lenin, Walter Benjamin at his worst). He manages to break through political mumbo-jumbo of a different kind to write what should be written about Sylvia Plath. His essay on the history of English translations of the Bible is also very good. I'm glad to see that Steiner seems to like Merimée as much as I do (did?), though I'm not sure that he got the whole point.
Steiner succeeds in writing poetry of criticism, a talent which he wrongly attributes to Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin.
more Good Books. . .
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