More So-So Books. . .
Kennedy, John F. Profiles In Courage.
Kennedy wrote this book while a senator. Its subject is the moral courage shown by some senators by espousing certain causes on principle, against their own political interests.
Most of the chapters have no depth. The one justifying Daniel Webster's final position on the slavery compromise may or may not be correct in its analysis of Webster's motives.
That being said, almost all of the chapters can teach one a few details about someone one has already read about (John Quincy Adams, Sam Houston) or cast a new light on someone one feels one knows well (Daniel Webster). I also learned about some people whose names I either didn't know (Edmund G. Ross, George Norris, Lucius Lamar) or about whom I knew little (Robert A. Taft).
Although the main moral virtue discussed in this book is courage, a virtue about which one could easily argue, honesty is mentioned quite a bit. Considering what we have learned about Kennedy since it was first published, it gives one a funny feeling.
Hobsbawm, Eric J. The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848. Vintage, 1996.
Hobsbawm's book is mainly a social and economic analysis of the details, causes, and results of the middle class revolutions which created the modern world. The author concentrates mainly on the British Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution.
Hobsbawm claims that the British had neither technological nor economic superiority at the outset of the industrial revolution. The reasons for their sudden progress were the fact that they were already a bourgeois society before the rest of Europe, that they had a surplus of capital which created a pressure to invest, and that the declining profit rate of the cotton industry provided a gradual stimulus to change the means of production. (Hobsbawm is a Marxist, but seems to be honest and usually avoids the crasser Marxist cliches.)
Hobsbawm's book also has some news about the French Revolution. The French Revolution is the prototype of modern revolutions, and some of the differences between that revolution and its successors result from the fact that they didn't have the French Revolution in their minds to frighten them back. Hobsbawm claims that the French Revolution to this day has much more influence on later political revolutions than the American one did.
Although most of the book is written in an ultra-dry style, full of details, Hobsbawm can occasionally write lyrically, about individuals: "Only unrealistic dreamers can suggest that Louis XVI might have accepted defeat and immediately turned himself into a constitutional monarch, even if he had been a less negligible and stupid man than he was, married to a less chicken-brained and irresponsible woman....". The book is at its best when discussing the fine arts and the more abstract aspects of social history:
Moreover, a culture as profoundly formed by court and aristocracy as the French would not lose its imprint. Thus the marked preoccupation of French prose literature with subtle psychological analyses of personal relationships (which can be traced back to the seventeenth-century aristocratic writers), or the formalized eighteenth-century pattern of sexual campaigning and advertised lovers or mistresses, became an integral part of 'Parisian' bourgeois civilization. Formerly kings had official mistresses, now successful stockjobbers joined them. Courtesans granted their well-paid favours to advertise the success of bankers who could pay for them.... [T]he Revolution preserved aristocratic characteristics of French culture in an exceptionally pure form.... They were taken over by it, assimilated to it, as a desirable heritage from the past, and henceforth protected against the normal evolutionary erosion by it.
Ritter, E. A. Shaka Zulu. Viking, 1987.
Shaka Zulu was the leader of the Zulus about two hundred years ago. He has become an important figure in the mythology both of those British who are interested in southern Africa and of the Black Africans there.
Ritter has written an entertaining book, and one with pretensions to historical accuracy on a subject which is still controversial. Some of his psychological insights seem valid, such as his conjecture that Shaka's insecurity about his legitimacy was the source of much of his love of power. (Remember William the Conquerer? He may have been worrying about a different type of legitimacy, though.) Some of his historical descriptions seem too simplistic to be likely, such as his explanations of the barefootedness of the Zulus and their use of thrusting-spears. Some of his psychological notes are also either unlikely or shallow, such as his description of the way in which the Zulu were willing to die on order out of pure obedience.
A few of Ritter's remarks seem to tend to a barely relevant prurience, but nothing nearly so irrelevant as a would have been added today.
Ramati, Alexander. The Assisi Underground: The Priests Who Rescued Jews.
This is a journalist's book on a controversial subject, the behavior of the Catholic Church toward the Jews during the Nazi Holocaust. The book was written in an 'as told to' format, in the name of the priest who is its subject, by a Jewish journalist. As one might expect, the book oversimplifies: the good guys are almost completely good, and the bad guys are almost completely bad. Whether one should write 'popular' books on a subject like this at all is also a question.
The author (or the priest) does occasionally have the courage to mention real problems. Quoting the priest:
What about Your deputy on earth? Why does he keep silent? Our Pope's condemnation of the Nazis would perhaps make every third one of the German soldiers stop killing, at least stop killing the innocent. Isn't his role as spiritual leader of the Church more important than his role of politician or head of state?... Has he done enough by quietly letting his subordinates help those that are being persecuted? Couldn't he have done more?
The preponderance of the evidence seems to be that most of what is told in this book is true.
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Ratey, John J. and Johnson, Catherine. Shadow Syndromes.
Ratey and Johnson define the "shadow syndromes" as the mild forms of the major neuropathologies of personality, such as attention deficit disorder and autism. They claim that many psychiatric syndromes, both clinical and subclinical, fall into this category, as do many personality traits which are distressing for the person who has them and those around him. There is also a second, underlying theme to the book: that the neuropathologies of personhood in both their severe and mild forms are characterized by a failure by the brain to filter information, a failure which leads to the replacement of information by noise.
Ratey and Johnson tend to cite reports and theories they believe in as fact:
"John Gottman, professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, has actually captured the connection between noise and social deterioration on videotape".
"Other research confirms this finding of a link between poor impulse control and language deficits".
Their constant use of such language suggests that they have never heard of a case where the going theory turned out to be wrong, or where the body of information it was based on turned out to be amenable to a different interpretation.
Like many mind-professionals, they tend to alternate between egregious oversimplifications and bewailing the oversimplifications of earlier generations:
Autism, of course, is no longer considered a mental illness. It is now known to be a developmental disability, a defect in the child's developmental process.
General paresis, of course, is no longer considered a mental illness. It is now known to be a disability caused by an infection. Be that as it may, once one can no longer do anything about the infection, e. g., after it has been eliminated, it might be a good idea to think of it as a mental illness. If the victim is manic, it may be a better idea to advise him to cancel his credit cards than to lecture him about the damage done to the brain by chronic inflammation. In any case, if every mental state has a specific corresponding neurological state, a possibility which even the omniscient Drs. Ratey and Johnson don't deny, it is not clear what the distinction between 'mental' and 'developmental' (in this context) actually means. If the distinction is not useful in helping a suffering person, and is not worth the trouble as an element of theory, what good is it? Social propaganda? Perhaps. "Developmental disability" has a more positive connotation than "mental illness" in many societies, and it may be to the sufferers' advantage to train the people around him to think in such terms. Ratey and Johnson continue:
(Mental retardation is one of the most common and best known of the developmental disabilities.)
No. "Mental retardation" is a term, useful to many government employees, covering thousands of different disabilities related in some way to higher brain functions. Most of these disabilities occur as the result of events during development.
Ratey and Johnson assume that "hereditary" proves "neurological". I first saw that one blown out of the water thirty years ago.
There are actually many good things one could say about this book. It includes many useful references. More important, as with most books about human beings, daydreaming about the observations here can produce some interesting questions:
ADD is believed to be a flaw in the attentional system that makes it difficult for a child, or a grown-up, to pay attention on command. "On command" is the critical phrase here, because the ADD child can and does hyperfocus at times: he can become locked into a subject or activity... and be unable to pull himself away.
One of Oliver Sacks' parkinsonian patients said of her movement disorder that when she starts she can't stop, and when she's stopped she can't start. Let's assume that this is all true. A simple neurological connection is not obvious. What is it about our brains which makes the ability to stop or start a complex activity so basic? What is it about being human which makes this ability so important?
Miles, James A. R. The Legacy of Tienanmen: China is Disarray.
The Legacy of Tienanmen is most successful when viewed as a history of China between 1989 and 1996. As far as general descriptions of current Chinese society, and the special problems produced by privatization and rapid economic development under an authoritarian regime, it covers much of the same ground as Big Dragon, but it does so in much more detail, with extensive references to sources in Chinese. It emphasizes even more the influence of the Chinese leadership's consciousness of history, especially the repeated histories of the fall of Chinese dynasties and the history of popular uprisings in modern China.
There are some other general themes here worth thinking about, such as the Chinese tradition, very different from the modern European one, of basing society on a personal but publicly-oriented morality instead of on law. It is not at all clear that such a structure must diminish the rights of the individual; to take a more distant and therefore clearer example, it is not at all clear that the world-view of the Hebrew prophets was worse for the individual than that of the Talmud. One of the problems with the current Chinese implementation of this structure, however, as most of the books on modern China imply, is the fact that it becomes indecent and cruel when not supported by such basic personal characteristics as honesty and a real emotional respect for others.
Though Miles quite properly takes an anti-authoritarian stance, he points out that it may in fact be true that it is impossible to lead a country the size of China from its present state to Western standards of living under a Western-style government.
Miles' book is even drier in style than Burstein and de Keijzer, and thus even more boring. As a result of both the nature of this book and the death of Deng and the return of Hong Kong, The Legacy of Tienanmen is much more out of date than Fairbank's China: A New History, published six years earlier.
Ransom, John Crowe. Poems and Essays: Selected, Edited, and Arranged by the Author. Vintage, 1955.
Could the poems in the first part of this book possibly be as bad as they seem, or have I completely lost my talent for reading poetry?
The meter and the almost-rhymes seem to be irregular only in order to annoy. It is not always clear whether every word was chosen to represent something, whether object, or feeling, or whatever. Often, the meaning of an entire passage remains obscure:
So there was Janet
Kneeling on the wet grass
Crying her brown hen
(Translated far beyond the daughters of men)
To rise and walk upon it.
"Crying her brown hen." "To rise and walk upon it." Does anyone talk like that? Did we ever?
The critical essays which make up the second part are both precious and affectedly simple. Not an easy thing to do. Some of the ideas, however, are worth reading. Ransom's attack on the Aristotelean unities is much more pertinent than the sometimes childish darts of the Romantics. He points out that even in its strictest sense, there is no logical connection between unity of action and the principle aesthetic function of tragedy, which derives from its cathartic function, and not directly from form at all.
"The reading of technical philosophy... should be fruitful of radical and decisive ideas...." How about true and central ones?
"This book was set on the Linotype in Janson, an excellent example of the influential and sturdy Dutch types...."
Roth, Cecil. The House of Nasi: The Duke of Naxos. Jewish Publication Society, 1992.
In spite of being a book about an engaging personality, and having been written by an erudite scholar, The Duke of Naxos has some faults. It is a tail-book, being the tail of the author's Dona Gracia. It is also an unabashed Zionist tract, dedicated to Chaim Weizmann and including long political asides which are about as entertaining and informative as a Revolution Day speech in Moscow. When judging the author for this latter faults, however, one must take into account that the book was written in 1946. I was also disappointed to find that the book lacks the kind of detail and analysis which could make one feel that one knows the person it was written about.
Now for the other side: This book explains some details which were left mysterious in the History of the Jews in Venice, such as the political cause of Nasi's downfall. The discussions of the relationship between the "practical" but flighty Duke of Naxos and his intellectual but hard-headed aunt and mother-in-law, Dona Gracia, are also good. So are the opportunities the reader has of comparing their personalities.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Dover, 1997.
Some passages of this notebook are worth reading for their historical interest. A few actually contain ideas of enduring value.
Although Nietzsche here is not at his worst, the source of his evil is frequently apparent here. It is a profound contempt for people as people:
Life itself is essentially [his italics] appropriation, injury, conquest of the strange and weak, suppression, severity,... exploitation; but why should one forever use precisely these words on which for ages a disparaging purpose has been stamped?
Whether or not there is a connection between his lack of understanding of the cogito and his lack of respect for people is a question. His speeches against the cogito are of historical interest, but they lose their chance at philosophical importance because the questions he howls about we have seen answered. His point on the historical lack of a philosophical basis for ethics is correct, but justifies nothing.
Richards, I. A. Practical Criticism. Harcourt Brace, 1956.
If an academic publication can have a conceit, the conceit of this one is that it is a work of experimental criticism. Richards distributed thirteen unidentified poems to his students and analyzed the results.
Richards seems to have had a bellyache during the entire term; either that, or he thinks that students are generally contemptible. Much of the book consists of snide remarks about the students' comments. Richards includes the excerpts the which prompted the snide remarks; the remarks rarely seem to have been justified. He also issues fiats which would be difficult to support: "... we shall have little difficulty in agreeing to be illegitimate when he asks for personal emotion...". And why are "sonnet" and "hymn" mutually exclusive?
One of the fun (and educational) aspects of the book is that the poems are identified only in an appendix, so that it is easy for the reader to act the role of the original guinea pigs. Under those circumstances I suddenly noticed that John Donne, whom I normally like, has a disconcerting habit of putting line breaks between subject and predicate, between simple predicate and verb, between modified and modifier. I am now just a little closer to understanding the anti-metaphysicals:
Speaking of poetry, [William Drummond] wrote:
... Some Men of late... consulted on her Reformation, and endeavoured to abstract her to Metaphysical ideas, and Scholastical quiddities, denuding her of her own habits, and those Ornaments with which she hath amused the world some Thousand Years. [F. J. Warnke].
I was happy to see that one of the worst poems mentioned in the book was by Christina Rossetti.
The book does have some good points. Richards warns us against some common traps which often prevent us from appreciating poetry, such as the "summary, 'newspaper' type of reading". He also makes some important observations in aesthetics and the philosophy of mind. His few lines on "thinking of" do much to illuminate the concept of "intentionality" so beloved of the philosophy salesmen.
more not-so-good books. . .
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