tom moody

Archive for the ‘books’ Category

get ready for work hardening, seniors

"Haircut" is a classic Ring Lardner short story employing an unreliable narrator. A barber describes his swell chum who the reader quickly determines is a complete ingrate. Wired magazine (intentionally -- I think*) uses this device in its recent article Meet the CamperForce, Amazon's Nomadic Retiree Army. Written in a perky, upbeat style, it describes the grimmest of circumstances: a man works his way up the ladder at McDonald’s, retires at 60, loses his savings to shaky investments, and spends his twilight years in a soul-deadening Amazon warehouse job.

And not just by himself: there is a small army of elderly camper nomads in the outbacks of Nevada, Tennessee, Texas, and other states (cheerfully called "workampers" in the article) who are being exploited by Jeff Bezos in the same manner. Their aging bodies aren't accustomed to 10 hour days schlepping consumer goods around the inside of a warehouse so Amazon begins their (seasonal) work cycle with "a period of half-days called 'work hardening,' meant to help newcomers adapt to the physical stress of the job."

Amazon makes arrangements with existing trailer courts to provide space for the "CamperForce," as Amazon calls these itinerants. In the off-season they camp elsewhere: on public land, in the desert... Wired describes the loving, friendly communities of seniors in rickety, leaky RVs, who have all found each other in their post-retirement estrangement from US consumer society (the term Hooverville is not used). As Naked Capitalism commenter Off the Street put it:

Divide and conquer springs to mind. Hard to resist the societal tides as one piece of jetsam. Given the low savings of most Americans, there is an oversupply of potential workamperserfs to depress wages through their remaining nasty, brutish and shortish lives. If there are silver linings, then those may be through human connections, less need for a wired or credit-driven world and more appreciation of what people once had. Who knew that the Mad Max movies were destined to become instruction manuals? What other movies are in the works now ;p

*The tone of Wired's article is difficult to pin down. The essay isn't original to the magazine; it's a teaser from an upcoming book from a major publishing house. Is the author naive, or passive aggressive? Consider this line: "Many of the freshly arrived Camper­Force workers were curious and strangely excited to work alongside the robots that threatened to replace them." Is the author afraid to speak critically of Amazon's brutal labor practices? Is she being constrained to speak by her publisher? The "Haircut" style makes the article less palatable than if she simply took a stand.

- tom moody

October 5th, 2017 at 2:22 pm

Posted in around the web, books

hitler on art

From William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990 edition), pp. 243-4:

The Germany which had given the world a Duerer and a Cranach had not been pre-eminent in the fine arts in modern times, though German expressionism in painting and the Munich Bauhaus architecture were interesting and original movements and German artists had participated in all the twentieth-century evolutions and eruptions represented by impressionism, cubism and Dadaism.
To Hitler, who considered himself a genuine artist despite his early failures as one in Vienna, all modern art was degenerate and senseless. In Mein Kampf he had delivered a long tirade on the subject, and one of his first acts after coming to power was to “cleanse” Germany of its “decadent” art and to attempt to substitute a new “Germanic” art. Some 6,500 modern paintings—not only the works of Germans such as Kokoschka and Grosz but those of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso and many others—were removed from German museums.
What was to replace them was shown in the summer of 1937 when Hitler formally opened the “House of German Art” in Munich in a drab, pseudoclassic building which he had helped design and which he described as “unparalleled and inimitable” in its architecture. In this first exhibition of Nazi art were crammed some nine hundred works, selected from fifteen thousand submitted, of the worst junk this writer has ever seen in any country. Hitler himself made the final selection and, according to some of the party comrades who were with him at the time, had become so incensed at some of the paintings accepted by the Nazi jury presided over by Adolf Ziegler, a mediocre painter who was president of the Reich Chamber of Art, that he had not only ordered them thrown out but had kicked holes with his jack boot through several of them. “I was always determined,” he said in a long speech inaugurating the exhibition, “if fate ever gave us power, not to discuss these matters [of artistic judgment] but to make decisions.” And he had made them.
In his speech -- it was delivered on July 18, 1937 -- he laid down the Nazi line for “German art”:

Works of art that cannot be understood but need a swollen set of instructions to prove their right to exist and find their way to neurotics who are receptive to such stupid or insolent nonsense will no longer openly reach the German nation. Let no one have illusions! National Socialism has set out to purge the German Reich and our people of all those influences threatening its existence and character… With the opening of this exhibition has come the end of artistic lunacy and with it the artistic pollution of our people…

And yet some Germans at least, especially in the art center of Germany which Munich was, preferred to be artistically polluted. In another part of the city in a ramshackle gallery that had to be reached through a narrow stairway was an exhibition of “degenerate art” which Dr. Goebbels had organized to show the people what Hitler was rescuing them from. It contained a splendid selection of modern paintings—Kokoschka, Chagall and expressionist and impressionist works. The day I visited it, after panting through the sprawling House of German Art, it was crammed, with a long line forming down the creaking stairs and out into the street. In fact, the crowds besieging it became so great that Dr. Goebbels, incensed and embarrassed, soon closed it.

- tom moody

September 30th, 2017 at 5:35 am

Posted in books, theory

angela nagle, simon reynolds on rightwing transgression (but what about bullying by the left?)

My years on dump.fm (from which I'm still recovering) saw a constant meme-play tug-of-war between left and right attitudes. Which was better, to shock the left or to be the left?

That question comes up (not in those exact words) in Simon Reynolds' post today discussing Angela Nagle's book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right (alt-right is a Clinton term but we'll let it go since everyone seems to think they know what it means). (FYI, Nagle discusses ideas similar to those in her book in a recent Baffler essay.)

Reynolds notes that Nagle references his 1995 book The Sex Revolts (co-authored with Joy Press). Here's what he has to say today about that book and how it relates to the current situation:

Nagle references The Sex Revolts a couple of times during her thesis. That book is a bit of an orphan in the oeuvre, indeed there have been quite long periods when I've completely forgotten that Joy and I ever wrote it. While I can't quite reconstruct the head that came up with the over-arching thesis on which the thing is scaffolded and which I'm not certain stands up anymore (that was the peak / swan-song of my infatuation with French theory), whenever I've looked back at a specific portion or patch of it - the stuff on grunge, or Siouxsie, or the whole section on psychedelia - it still seems on the money.

Probably the sharpest part is the stuff that relates to Nagle's book, which is the early chapter dissecting the masculinism of all the immediate precursors to rock rebellion - the Beats, the Angry Young Men, James Dean, Ken Kesey, et al - during which we bring up "Momism", a concept coined by Philip Wiley in his 1942 book Generation of Vipers. Wylie identified a form of new American decadence in the growth of consumerism, mass media entertainment like radio, and suburbia, which he linked to matriarchy and domesticity: American virility, the frontier style of rugged martial masculinity on which the nation was founded, was being smothered by over-mothering, comfort and niceness. The Sex Revolts mentions Robert Bly's Iron Man as a modern-day, therapeutically tinged and New Age-y resurgence of the Momism critique, a sort of Jung Thug manifesto. But, published in 1995, our book was a year too early for Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club: angry young men reacting against metrosexual consumerism and sensitivity, a creeping decadence weakening from within.

Fight Club was the book that coined the term "snowflake," and the novel has proved to be a prophetic parable. The ugly contorted face of anti-Momism today is the paranoid impatience with political correctness, safe spaces, trigger warning -- the new proprieties that are felt as intolerable constraints, restrictions on the male right to spite. Underlying it all is the crisis of masculinity that doesn't know what its for anymore, in a demilitarized and post-industrial era. Hence the fixation on guns, on rapacious extraction industries like coal and the removal of protections for Mother Earth, on macho posturing foreign policy - surrogates and displacements for an eroding and increasingly irrelevant style of manhood.

Left-bullying has also grown increasingly macho -- from the virtual stoning of Ryder Ripps a couple of years ago to the nazi-punching video craze -- but it will be a while before a book is written about that. It's too complicated. Angela Nagle sort-of-covers it in Kill the Normies: as Reynolds notes, its thesis "asserts that there is a commonality of psychology in the desire-to-shock, whether manifested on the far right or far left of the political-cultural spectrum." But the nazi-punchers and the Ripps mobbers aren't out to shock. They think they are noble. The shock Nagle is talking about is old-left transgression against the Man -- beatniks not bathing, etc. -- which morphed in the late '70s punk era into "Nuke the Whales" events, the patrician humor of P. J. O'Rourke and other affronts to left-wing pieties. 4Chan is a slightly nastier version of that. (The first time I heard the phrase "politically correct" was in the late '80s. Reverend Ivan Stang of the Church of the Subgenius used it to describe "off limits" humor as dictated by the left -- yet being from Dallas he hated right-wing sanctimony just as much or more.)

- tom moody

September 21st, 2017 at 2:05 pm

Posted in around the web, books

left reactions to Clinton's book of blame; end of "Trump insurgency"

Reviews from the left side of the dial of Hillary Clinton's book Wha' Happened? have not been kind.

Jeffrey St. Clair:

What Happened is a sordid book, petulant and spiteful. It made me feel queasy and dirty while reading it, like the whole 25-year-long experience of Clintonism itself. By the end, I got the sense that its sleazy torrent of invective and blame-mongering was more an attempt to console the frail psyche of the author rather than to repair her shattered image to any readership the book might find. In the years to come, What Happened will prove much more valuable as documentary evidence for psycho-historians than political scientists.

Paul Street:

Wow. This is the thanks that the Hillary Clinton has for Sanders’ energetic and self-effacing efforts to save her sorry, vapid, sold-out, and uninspiring political career. After everything Bernie did for her, after all the exhausting campaign stops he made for her, she still has the sneering sociopathic audacity to lay her abject failure partly at Sanders’ feet. [italics Street's --tm]

Caitlin Johnstone (a Green voter) doesn't actually review the book but contributes a fine, foul-mouthed rant:

As we all know, nobody actually wants Hillary Clinton to keep talking. Nobody, if they’re really honest with themselves, wants her to keep coming back, smearing Bernie Sanders, shitting on progressives, and blaming every living vertebrate not named Hillary Rodham Clinton for her loss in the 2016 election. Even her most ardent supporters are secretly wishing she’d just shut the fuck up and go away at this point so they could stop cleaning up after her and working overtime to spin her bullshit into something vaguely positive.

So why doesn’t she? Why does she keep coming back in, doing interviews, attacking the left, embarrassing her supporters and relitigating a primary election she’d do well to let the world forget? I think I know why.

Johnstone thinks that, having demonized Trump beyond all bounds of civilized imagination during the campaign, Clinton has to keep up the drumbeat now:

In opting for this risky gamble of telling Democrats that something uniquely horrible would happen if Trump won, and then losing, Hillary Clinton was forced into a position where she had to either (A) tell America that everything was going to be okay, thereby admitting that much of what her people had been saying about Trump was a lie, or (B) let the fear persist and try to avoid getting blamed for it. She opted for B.

That seems a bit baroque but this part of Johnstone's rant has the ring of truth:

America was spoonfed a boatload of lies in order to force the election of what the US oligarchs perceived as a more reliable pro-establishment candidate to protect their assets... [Yet] after all the fearmongering and freakouts, we’ve seen conclusively that Trump is essentially a Republican Obama, who was himself essentially a Democratic George W. Bush...

It's too early to say what Trump might have in store for us but he certainly seems to have been brought to heel by the military. The few anti-interventionist noises he made in the campaign will soon be a distant memory.

- tom moody

September 19th, 2017 at 6:46 pm

Posted in around the web, books

anti-natalism (Ligotti vs HBO)

HBO's True Detective, Season 1, famously featured some dour anti-natalist philosophy spoken by detective Rustin Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey:

I'd consider myself a realist, alright? But in philosophical terms I'm what's called a pessimist... I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself - we are creatures that should not exist by natural law... We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, that accretion of sensory experience and feelings, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody's nobody... I think the honorable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming. Stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction - one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.

McConaughey's portrayal of Cohle as a humorless, self-pitying character makes the above lines sound even more bleak than they read.

Several commentators picked up on the connections of this spiel to horror author Thomas Ligotti's book The Conspiracy against the Human Race (in fact, it could be said that HBO put Ligotti "on the map").

What's missing is the sly humor of Ligotti's writing, a kind of eye-twinkle as he dishes out an escalating series of unsayable propositions. For example, this excerpt from Conspiracy:

Consciousness is an existential liability, as every pessimist agrees -- a blunder of blind nature, according to [Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel] Zapffe, that has taken humankind down a black hole of logic. To make it through this life, we must make believe that we are not what we are -- contradictory beings whose continuance only worsens our plight as mutants who embody the contorted logic of a paradox.* To correct this blunder, we should desist from procreating. What could be more judicious or more urgent, existentially speaking, than our self-administered oblivion? At the very least, we might give some regard to this theory of the blunder as a "thought-experiment." All civilizations become defunct. All species die out. There is even an expiration date on the universe itself. Human beings would certainly not be the first phenomenon to go belly up. But we could be the first to precipitate our own passing, abbreviating it before the bodies really started to stack up. Could we know to their most fine-grained details the lives of all who came before us, would we bless them for the care they took to keep the race blundering along? Could we exhume them alive, would we shake their bony, undead hands and promise to pass on the favor of living to future generations? Surely that is what they would want to hear, or at least that is what we want to think they would want to hear. And just as surely that is what we would want to hear from our descendents living in far posterity, strangers though they would be as they shook our bony, undead hands.

The darkly comic image of the bony undead handshake (twice repeated) makes the unsayable more hearable. True Detective writer Nic Pizzolatto softens the message by giving laugh lines to Cohle's cop partner, Marty Hart, played by Woody Harrelson. As Cohle expounds his grim philosophy in the front seat of their police car, Hart answers with "Hmm, that sounds God-fucking-awful, Rust" (IMDb) and "Let's make the car a place of silent reflection from now on." (IMDb)

Another example: here's Cohle talking about his own experience of fatherhood. The daughter he speaks of was killed by a hit and run driver while she was still a toddler:

Think of the hubris it must take to yank a soul out of nonexistence into this... meat, to force a life into this... thresher. That's...
So my daughter, she spared me the sin of being a father.

Bu-u-u-mmer. Again, this does no service to Ligotti, who has wit. Discussing the same undiscussable notion Cohle throws down, Ligotti notes, in Conspiracy:

Almost nobody declares that an ancestral curse contaminates us in utero and pollutes our existence. Doctors do not weep in the delivery room, or not often. They do not lower their heads and say, "The stopwatch has started."

As previously noted, The Conspiracy against the Human Race is a weirdly inspirational book. It is liberating to consider the idea that suffering, guilt, and egomaniac striving -- the "tragedy of human existence" -- began because at some stage in our evolution we acquired “a damning surplus of consciousness" and "life....overshot its target, blowing itself apart" (the latter phrases are Zapffe's). Unlike Cohle (and Pizzolatto), Ligotti readily acknowledges that his own theories may be a perverse symptom of this evolutionary mistake. By writing a book on anti-natalism, he is engaging in artistic sublimation, which is one of the means by which humans "smother consciousness" and its attendant paradoxes,* according to Zapffe. This sublimation may be useful to readers or it may just be another story we tell ourselves. From endnote 3 of Conspiracy:

Under the collective designation of “constructivists,” philosophers, sociologists, and other authorities working in a range of fields have variously deliberated on the fabricated nature of our lives. Examples: P. L. Berger and T. Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality, 1966; Paul Watzlawick, ed., Invented Reality: How Do We Know What We Believe We Know?, 1984; Ernst von Glasefeld, Radical Contructivism: A Way of Learning, 1996. For book-reading intellectuals, this idea is just one of many that fill their days. Its import, however, is not often shared with the masses. But sometimes it is. An instance in cinema where fabrication is hypothesized to be the cornerstone of our lives occurs at the end of Hero (1992), when the character referred to in the title, Bernard LePlant [played by Dustin Hoffman -TM], passes on some words of wisdom to his previously estranged son. “You remember where I said I was going to explain about life, buddy?” he says. “Well, the thing about life is, it gets weird. People are always talking to you about truth, everybody always knows what the truth is, like it was toilet paper or something and they got a supply in the closet. But what you learn as you get older is, there ain’t no truth. All there is, is bullshit. Pardon my vulgarity here. Layers of it. One layer of bullshit on top of another. And what you do in life, like when you get older, is -- you pick the layer of bullshit you prefer, and that’s your bullshit, so to speak. You got that?” Despite the cynicism of LePlant’s words, the object of his fatherly lesson is to create a bond between him and his son. (Hollywood is heavily invested in plotlines in which a broken family is “healed.”) This bond is reliant on the exposure of life as bullshit and is itself bullshit -- since one can have no basis for preferring one layer of bullshit over another without already being full of bullshit -- which makes LePlant’s case that “All there is, is bullshit” without his being aware of it, which is how bullshit works. This is not the message the moviegoer is meant to take away from the mass-audience philosophizing of Hero, but there it is anyway.

*The "paradox" (one of many) Ligotti refers to: "We know we are alive and know we will die. We also know we will suffer during our lives before suffering -- slowly or quickly -- as we draw near to death. This is the knowledge we “enjoy” as the most intelligent organisms to gush from the womb of nature. And being so, we feel shortchanged if there is nothing else for us than to survive, reproduce, and die. We want there to be more to it than that, or to think there is. This is the tragedy: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are -- hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones."

- tom moody

September 4th, 2017 at 1:47 pm

Posted in books, films

Notes for a Daniel Albright bio

Notes for a biographical sketch on the late Daniel Albright, literary critic, musicologist, and theorist of historical Modernism. Albright's Wikipedia entry has a short bio and publication list. Below is a capsule discussion of his career highlights, from web and printed sources. Some additional documentation is still needed.

[Update: This article has been moved to another place of publication. If parts are edited, eventually this post will be the place for an "author's cut" of the Albright bio]

Additional Reading

Panaesthetics website -- site for Albright's next-to-last published book, Panaesthetics, serves as his personal site, posthumously maintained

Harvard Crimson obituary -- "whimsical English and music teacher" seems like faint praise for an influential thinker.

Remembrance of Albright by Andrew Goldstone, author of the book Fictions of Autonomy, in particular, how Albright inspired Goldstone's research.

- tom moody

August 24th, 2017 at 9:01 am

Posted in books, theory

egregious e-book errors: Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The e-book version of Philip K. Dick's 1964 novel The Penultimate Truth contains this passage from Chapter 2:

bag_plague

"This is how it must feel, he thought, to contract the Bag Plague, where those virtues get in and cause your head to expand until it pops like a blown-up paper bag." Virtues? What does this mean? Virtues make your head explode? Is Dick even a good writer?

The perplexed could track down the Belmont original paperback from 1964. Dick may have been a starving hack then but at least he had editors:

bag_plague_original

This bleakly funny, proto-Cronenberg-esque image of body mayhem in the opening pages of the book sets a tone for the desperate lives of Dick's underground dwellers, crowded into shelters after a nuclear world war. Theirs is not merely a dungeon of claustrophobia and rationing but one with scary new diseases. The word "viruses" is critical and important not to flub so of course the publishers type it as "virtues." This error actually appeared in a paperback edition from 1984 and has been dutifully transcribed in every copy since. Was hoping it would be caught and fixed in the e-book but it appears that Dick's estate, the current publisher, and everyone else involved is on Dick Autopilot, slinging out his books for new generations of non-readers as some kind of empty capitalist ritual.

Here's the Belmont cover:

penultimate_truth_cover

- tom moody

August 17th, 2017 at 5:27 pm

Yeats' "The Four Ages"

An earlier draft of the W.B. Yeats poem, "The Four Ages of Man":

THE FOUR AGES

He with Body waged a fight;
Body won and walks upright.

Then he struggled with the Heart;
Innocence and peace depart.

Then he struggled with the mind,
His proud Heart he left behind.

Now his wars with God begin;
At stroke of midnight God shall win.

This version appeared in a 1934 letter from Yeats to Olivia Shakespear, quoted in Richard Ellman's The Identity of Yeats. I prefer the gender-neutral title. The other differences with the finished poem are (i) the words "body" and "heart" aren't in initial caps and (ii) the second line is "But body won; it walks upright" (too many semicolons!).

In any case, this poem offers a capsule version of Yeats' book A Vision -- the cycles apply to the individual as well as historical, collective "ages." I like the poem's elegance, brevity, and certainty.

- tom moody

August 12th, 2017 at 3:21 pm

Posted in books

egregious e-book errors: Bloomsbury

The screenshot below is from page 289 of Daniel Albright's book Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature and the Other Arts (U. of Chicago, 2000).
In the underlined passage he is discussing how music (which is not generally thought of as having a "surrealist" period) could be considered surreal. One of the questions he poses (on page 288) is "Why does surrealist music sound fairly normal, when surrealist painting seems to outrage the eye so flagrantly?" Albright suggests that the music could be normal to the ear but not normal in meaning, because the composer has "tilted its semantic planes," for example, in musical theatre, by having the music emanate from a place or context it's not normally associated with, or in the case of Poulenc, through "surrealizing misquotations" of other people's music:

albright_untwisting

Jonathan D. Kramer's Postmodern Music, Postmodern Listening (Bloomsbury, 2016), is generally sympathetic to Albright's ideas on musical surrealism, although Kramer would prefer the term "postmodernist" to describe the same works. Nevertheless, in explaining Albright, the book flubs that key phrase (screenshot from "Chapter 9.2. -- Music in the Time of Surrealism"):

kramer_albright

This same error may well be in the print version of Kramer's book -- I haven't checked. It may also be a problem of working with a posthumous text (editor Robert Carl rescued the project from Kramer's computer after he died). Regardless, it's a shame to have a book that is sympathetic to Albright's intriguing theories on music miss such a pivotal, well-turned phrase. Here's hoping it can still be corrected.

- tom moody

August 5th, 2017 at 5:53 pm

review by daniel albright (in and out of pull quotes)

I've been working on an informal bio of the late Daniel Albright, a college prof of mine and writer I subsequently became addicted to. I've found quite a bit of material online, including some feisty reviews he wrote for the New York Review of Books. The following post is a detour from the bio but it's a funny example of how publishers massage pull quotes.

In 1983, Prof. Robert M. Adams, one of the founding editors of the Norton Anthology of Literature, produced a volume of English history meant to accompany and contextualize the anthology's writings, titled The Land and Literature of England. Albright, at that time teaching literature at the University of Virginia, wrote a rather scathing NYRB review disguised as a good review, or at least, good enough for the publisher to cobble together some prominently-placed quotations (still in use -- this screenshot is from the current volume):

adams_landandliterature_backcover_crop

What's missing from the clips is an overwhelming tone of bemused contempt. Albright's main beefs are that Adams gives too much space to politicians at the expense of artists in his history, that he has a taste for conventional and orthodox thinking, and he is more interested by artists who deal with historical subjects than airy-fairy or abstract ones. The sly humor in this review of an admittedly pedantic text borders on cruel, and the mocking tone continues in an exchange of letters between Adams and Albright after the former wrote to correct some misimpressions in the review.

So you can get an idea of what's going on here, below are those pull quotes with chunks from the original review excerpted immediately afterward. The review itself is paywalled -- $4.99 -- excerpted under fair use.

"Professor Adams seems to have read the whole library and yet...retained his pith, vigor, suppleness, and good cheer."

Not many people would be capable of writing a book like this one. Professor Adams seems to have read the whole library and yet, instead of turning to dust along with the crumbling books, retained his pith, vigor, suppleness, and good cheer.

"In addition, he knows how to tell a story..."

In addition, he knows how to tell a story:

And their foot soldiers used bows and arrows to rain death from a distance on the Saxons, who had no way to reply. As long as the shield wall stood unbroken, neither cavalry nor arrows could do much execution; but sometimes, after an unsuccessful cavalry charge, the Saxon foot could not resist the temptation to pursue, and then the archers did deadly damage. After a full day of heavy fighting, Harold lay dead with an arrow in his eye…. His mistress, Edith Swanneck, was summoned to make identification, and though the face was mutilated beyond recognition, she knew, by certain marks on the body, that indeed it was Harold.

It is not until some thirty pages later that we hear that the principal source of historical knowledge for any account of the Battle of Hastings is the Bayeux tapestry; and Professor Adams does not mention the historiographical difficulty posed by this fact. One might hesitate to reconstruct the Trojan War if Homer’s Iliad had been lost and only Penelope’s weaving survived; and it is not clear that the weavers of the Bayeux tapestry knew as much about the Battle of Hastings as D. W. Griffith knew about the founding of the Ku Klux Klan; but probably Professor Adams did well to respect the urgencies of storytelling in a book that treats history in relation to literature.

Adams wrote the magazine to gripe that he knew of the extensive writing on the Battle of Hastings and blamed a picture caption for creating the impression that the source was the Bayeux Tapestry. Albright didn't relent, getting in a last crack that the text quoted above was a "cartoon."

"One of the real delights of this book, Professor Adams’s eye for the flinty detail..."

I have not yet spoken of one of the real delights of this book, Professor Adams’s eye for the flinty detail. Students, and readers well past their student years, will be grateful to learn that a fifteenth-century humanist, John Tiptoft, requested on the scaffold that his head be severed, in honor of the Trinity, in three separate strokes; and that the last entry in Napoleon’s schoolboy notebook for his geography class was “Saint Helena, a small island in the South Atlantic”; and that a French wit said of the conservative Lord Liverpool that, if he had been present at the creation, he would have cried, “Mon Dieu, conservons le chaos!” Such examples could be multiplied.

Coming immediately on the heels of a complaint that Swift has been reduced to mediocrity in Adams's account, and immediately preceding a criticism that the book has some "astonishing omissions," the above passage seems ironic -- "flinty" reads as lurid, batty, or irrelevant. Perhaps Albright actually liked these details but it's not all that clear.

"Much of the pleasure....lies in [the book's] rich texture of cross-references between history and literature..."

Much of the pleasure of Professor Adams’s book lies in its rich texture of cross-references between history and literature. Perhaps it would be ungracious to ask for even more. In his reference to the Old English “The Battle of Brunanburh” he might note that Tennyson translated it into modern English, with the help of a crib written by his son. Professor Adams quotes with gusto the climactic lines of “The Battle of Maldon”; Auden translates these same lines in an ode (“Though aware of our rank and alert to obey orders”). When Professor Adams tells the complicated story of Henry II and his two sons, Prince Henry and Richard the Lion-Hearted, he might mention that this history is the basis of Pound’s ambitious attempt to write a long Imagist poem, “Near Perigord.” Professor Adams would like to see something of a circular form to English literary history: he proposes that the rest of the twentieth century may be a recapitulation of the fifteenth (that is, empty of talent), and on his last page he speaks of Seamus Heaney’s poems about bog people as a renewal of prehistoric vitality. The references I have suggested might help to improve the feeling of the convergence of beginnings and endings.

"Exhilarating."

After reading Professor Adams’s exhilarating book, I was chiefly impressed with the disparity between the achievements of the English political life and the achievements of the English literary life. No culture known to me has produced a body of literature superior to that of England; while the political narrative seems, with a few exceptions, a mean tale of temporizing, squalor, sordor, hollow glory. Professor Adams says in his foreword that history is “a matter of fascinating interest in itself,” and so it is, the shimmer of the snake’s rippling scales. In Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra a frightened eunuch runs up to Caesar to tell him that the library of Alexandria, the greatest repository of knowledge in the world, is on fire. Caesar tells him that it is a shameful history—let it burn. Were I tempted to give the same order, I would not want to see Professor Adams’s history perish.

- tom moody

July 19th, 2017 at 7:30 am

Posted in books