Friday, May 24, 2013, 3:49 PM
Francis was a great grammatician of gratitude. So, according to Chesterton, was Chaucer: “He is as awakening as a cool wind on a hot day, because he breathes forth something that has fallen into great neglect in our time, something that very seldom stirs the stuffy atmosphere of self-satisfaction or self-worship. And that is gratitude, or the theory of thanks. He was a great poet of gratitude; he was grateful to God; but he was also grateful to Gower. He was grateful to the everlasting Romance of the Rose; he was still more grateful to Ovid and grateful to Virgil and grateful to Petrarch and Boccaccio. He is always eager to show us over his little library and to tell us where all his tales come from. He is prouder of having read the book than of written the poems” (quoted in Kevin Belmonte, Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton, 243).
What was that about anxieties of influence?
Friday, May 24, 2013, 3:26 PM
Chesterton, Ker says (G. K. Chesterton: A Biography), recognized that playing with children is like “wrestling for hours with gigantic angels and devils.” It requires “principles of the highest morality,” to decide, for instance,
“before the awful eyes of innocence, whether, when a sister has knocked down a brother’s bricks, in revenge for the brother having taken two sweets out of his turn, it is endurable that the brother should retaliate by scribbling on the sister’s picture-book, and whether such conduct does not justify the sister in blowing out the brother’s unlawfully lit match” (257).
Friday, May 24, 2013, 3:12 PM
One of Handel’s go-to techniques was “madrigalism,” which took its name from its use in Renaissance madrigals. Calvin Stapert defines madrigalism as “imitation of a word or phrase by the music – for example, an ascending scale on the word ‘climb,’ fast notes on ‘run,’ a sharp dissonance on ‘pain’” (Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People, 83). It was a device of musical “rhetoric,” which is how Baroque theorists categorized it.
Stapert admits that the technique seems “naive,” and adds that “music doesn’t have to resort to such obvious bits of imitation to express a text effectively; any two-bit composer can do it.” Thing is, composers who cannot be described as “two-bit” have been known to use the same kinds of tricks: “if composers as great as Josquin and Lassus, Monteverdi and Schutz, Bach and Handel, and Beethoven and Brahms used such seemingly naive tricks, perhaps we should think twice before dismissing their importance for effective text-expression.”
Friday, May 24, 2013, 2:42 PM
In one of the essays in The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States, Gordon Wood notes that American policy concerning the Western frontier “rested on the assumption that settlement of the western territories would be neat and orderly.” If wasn’t. Far from it:
“The people moving west ignored the federal government’s Indian policies and refused to buy land at the expensive prices at which it was being offered. They shunned the speculator’s land, violated Indian treaty rights, and moved irregularly, chaotically, unevenly, jumping from place to place and leaving huge chunks of unsettled land and pockets of hemmed-in Indians behind them. The government responded, and continued to respond until the Homestead Act of 1863, in a series of desperate efforts to keep up with popular pressures. It continually lowered the price of land, increased the credit it offered, and reduced the size of the parcels of land people had to buy; and still people complained and ignored the laws. Eventually the federal government recognized the rights of squatters to preempt the land, and finally it just gave the land away. It took more than a half century for governmental leaders to come to terms fully with the reality of popular settlement of the West” (270).
Among other things, this chaotic expansion “exploded” the dreams of the Federalists, the desire to create “a strong, mercantilist, European-like state.” Jefferson swam with the current, and his success “insofar as he had any, was his unwitting surrender to these popular commercial forces” (271).
Friday, May 24, 2013, 2:35 PM
Between the end of the nineteenth century and the 1970s, the US engaged in a series of Asian wars. They were “not separate and unconnected,” as often believed, argue Michael Hunt and Steven Levine in Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam. Rather, “they were phases in a U.S. attempt to establish and maintain a dominant position in eastern Asia sustained over some seven decades against considerable resistance. . . . The Philippines set the scene, Japan’s defeat brought the American protagonists to the apogee of their dominance, soon challenged in Korea and then broken in Vietnam.” The results were “profound” for both Asia and the US.
Hunt and Levine believe that the history they recount has important contemporary import: “The history of American empire building and warfare in one region speaks to the current imbroglio across the Middle East and Central Asia in a striking variety of ways. U.S. policymakers have ignored or have deliberately forgotten the lessons from the conflicts in eastern Asia. They have revived a misplaced faith in the efficacy of military power to shape a regional agenda to American liking.” The authors believe we are again likely to see “how beautiful dreams of democracy and development can easily turn into nightmares of death and destruction” (7-8).
Friday, May 24, 2013, 2:31 PM
Dubai came to the world’s attention only a few years ago, writes Daniel Brook in A History of Future Cities. It looked like an unprecedented miracle: “The instant global metropolis with a ‘skyline on crack’ captivated the world with record-setting skyscrapers, indoor ski slopes, and a stunningly diverse population. With 96 percent of its population foreign-born, Dubai makes even New York City’s diversity – 37 percent of New Yorkers are immigrants – seem mundane. As a pair of American observers put it, Dubai is a city where ‘everyone and everything in it – its luxuries, laborers, architects, accents, even its aspirations – was flown in from someplace else” (5-6).
Dubai was new. The idea of Dubai was not: “For three hundred years, instant cities modeled on the West have been built in the developing world in audacious attempts to wrench a lagging region into the modern world.” In addition to Dubai, Brook looks at the establishment of St. Petersburg, Shanghai, and Mumbai. “The idea of Dubai” is “also the idea of St. Petersburg, Shanghai, and Mumbai,” and Brook thinks it’s “the idea of our time” too (9).
Friday, May 24, 2013, 5:06 AM
Thursday, May 23, 2013, 2:41 PM
In her contribution to Last Things: Death and the Apocalypse in the Middle Ages (The Middle Ages Series), Anna Harrison concludes that “Bernard [of Clairvaux's] conception of community among the saints in heaven is limited” (204).
She elaborates: “Although he does talk about common experience among the saints and about reciprocity, or sharing of experience, interaction among the saints simply does not figure prominently in his thought. It appears that Bernard has not fully worked out the relationship between self, God, and the other who is a friend. Longing for the ecstatic loss of self in God in heaven, he nevertheless betrays some trepidation about what that loss of self seems to imply for the precious relationships we have established on earth. Known for the fervent friendships he carefully cultivated in life, Bernard’s heaven is not . . . restitution for the toll on friendship that death takes. Although memory guarantees the continuation of self, the way we love in heaven seems to move us away from the self we were on earth as our wills dissolve into the will of God. Nor does Bernard have a conception of community after the resurrection that is distinct from the community among all souls before the Final Judgment. Indeed, Bernard has a far greater interest in the resurrected person than in the resurrection community. In his vision of the glory of eternity, it is this self . . . that enthralls Bernard” (204).
Thursday, May 23, 2013, 2:28 PM
Time exists, argues Lee Smolin Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe. Space, though – space is secondary, an emergent property, a manifestation of some deeper reality. What might that be?
In his NYRB review of Smolin’s book, James Gleick anwers: “For space, the deeper reality is a network of relationships. Things are related to other things; they are connected, and it is the relationships that define space rather than the other way around. This is a venerable notion: Smolin traces the idea of a relational world back to Newton’s great rival, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: ‘Space is nothing else, but That Order or Relation; and is nothing at all without Bodies, but the Possibility of placing them.’ Nothing useful came of that, while Newton’s contrary view—that space exists independently of the objects it contains—made a revolution in the ability of science to predict and control the world. But the relational theory has some enduring appeal; some scientists and philosophers such as Smolin have been trying to revive it.”
Wednesday, May 22, 2013, 3:02 PM
Before the Federal Vision, there was the Norman Shepherd controversy, which shook Westminster Seminary in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Though repeatedly exonerated, Shepherd was ultimately dismissed for the good of the seminary.
It was a convoluted and intensely personal and political battle, and fortunately we now have Ian Hewitson’s Trust and Obey (Norman Shepherd and the Justification Controversy at Westminister Seminary) to help us sort through the mess and learn some lessons.
The seminary’s board, Hewiston concludes, “acted on the basis of expediency, not because of doctrinal errors, or any other errors, on Shepherd’s part” (223). But “at its heart, this struggle was over theology,” not so much this or that formulation but over the task of theology per se. As Hewitson notes, Shepherd “believed that the church can and should continue to learn from the Bible and the church must always be examining her teachings in the light of Scripture,” while his opponents “were convicted that these matters had been settled at the time of the Reformation” (220). This debate is certainly far from resolved.
Hewitson aims not only to describe and explain what happened but to clear Shepherd’s reputation and to expose an injustice. With meticulous research and dispassionate analysis, his book accomplishes all that and more.
Wednesday, May 22, 2013, 2:48 PM
When the Presbyterian General Assembly determined that Catholic baptism was not valid, Charles Hodge was “overwhelmed.” He was sure it was an anomaly, and that most Presbyterians would not believe that Catholics “lived and died unbaptized,” since such a position was “in opposition to all previous practice, and to the principles of every other Protestant church.”
He was wrong. As Paul Gutjahr notes in his Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy (236-9), Hodge’s argument for the validity of Catholic baptism was “tremendously unpopular” among Presbyterians. Hodge claimed that the Catholic church was “corrupted and overlaid by false and soul-destroying abuses and errors,” but that it was still a body of believers and Catholics were members of the visible church. Catholic baptism was done with the “intention of complying with the command of Christ,” and thus should be accepted as Christian baptism.
He worried too that Presbyterian sectarianism would “unchurch almost the whole Christian world; and Presbyterians, instead of being the most catholic of churches, and admitting the being of a church, wherever we see the fruits of the Spirit, would become one of the narrowest and most bigoted of sects.”
Wednesday, May 22, 2013, 11:19 AM
Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 is intended as a monument to members of his family, and to the 30 million others, who died in Mao’s famine.
The famine left horrors in its wake: “Some villages transported corpses by the truckload for burial in common graves. In villages where survivors lacked the strength for proper interment, the limbs of the dead protruded from the ground. In some places, the dead remained along the roadsides where they had dropped in their futile search for food. More than a few were simply left in their homes, where rats gnawed at their noses and eyes” (13).
Not just rats: “Cannibalism was no longer exceptional . . . during the Great Famine, some families resorted to eating their own children. . . . Reliable evidence indicates that there were thousands of cases of cannibalism throughout China” (14).
It was unprecedented because it was not due to war, climate change, or epidemics. It was, Jisheng makes clear, Mao’s famine.
Wednesday, May 22, 2013, 10:49 AM
World War II didn’t end when World War II ended, Keith Lowe shows in his numbing Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II. Instead of concentrating on the European miracle of recovery, he focuses on “the period before such attempts at rehabilitation were even a possibility, when most of Europe was still extremely volatile, and violence could flare up once again at the slightest provocation.” (xvii).
It was chaotic indeed: “in some parts of Europe, ethnic tensions actually became worse. Jews continued to be victimized, just as they had been during the war itself. Minorities everywhere became political targets once again, and in some areas this led to atrocities that were just as repugnant as those committed by the Nazis. The aftermath of the war also saw the logical conclusion of all the Nazis’ efforts to categorize and segregate different races. Between 1945 and 1947 tens of millions of men, women and children were expelled from their countries in some of the biggest acts of ethnic cleansing the world has ever seen” (xvi).
Europeans struggled for food and shelter. In many German cities, more than half the living space had been destroyed – 70% in Cologne. Reprisals occurred everywhere – Ukrainians attacking Poles and vice versa, Soviet troops raping their way through Eastern Europe, famine ravaging much of the continent.
Lowe’s book is an effort “to describe chaos.”
Wednesday, May 22, 2013, 8:59 AM
Ma Jian reports in the NYT today about the inequities and brutalities of China’s self-imposed genocide.
Wealthy Chinese circumvent the one-child policy with comparative ease. Not so the poor in the many villages of China: “Village family-planning officers vigilantly chart the menstrual cycle and pelvic-exam results of every woman of childbearing age in their area. If a woman gets pregnant without permission and is unable to pay the often exorbitant fine for violating the policy, she risks being subjected to a forced abortion. According to Chinese Health Ministry data released in March, 336 million abortions and 222 million sterilizations have been carried out since 1971.” This is doubly oppressive, preying on the weakest members of the poorest and weakest sectors of Chinese society.
Jian adds: “It is not surprising that China has the highest rate of female suicide in the world. The one-child policy has reduced women to numbers, objects, a means of production; it has denied them control of their bodies and the basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children. Baby girls are also victims of the policy. Under family pressure to ensure that their only child is a son, women often choose to abort baby girls or discard them at birth, practices that have skewed China’s sex ratio to 118 boys for every 100 girls.”
Wednesday, May 22, 2013, 8:41 AM
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Reviewing two new books about the internet at TLS, Michael Saler sketches the religious ideology of Silicon Valley:
“The ‘Valley’ is not merely a byword for technological innovation and economic growth: it is the lush seedbed for a new ideology of the twenty-first century, one that fills the void left by the Cold War. This ideology revolves around the internet. Its fundamentalist narrative has been spun over several decades from such diverse strands as free-market economics, techno-mysticism, anarchist leanings and utopian longings, and has now assumed a prominent place in everyday conversation alongside the technologies that inspired it. The internet ideology provides a quasi-religious vision of how human relationships will be transformed, material abundance created, and transcendence attained through human–machine interactions. Its prophets cite its decentralized and open structure as the model for a free, egalitarian and transparent world order. Their holy writ is Moore’s Law, which suggests that computers will “evolve” exponentially, doubling their prowess every two years or so. Their eschatology is the Singularity, which predicts that machines will outstrip humans in the near future, and benevolently uplift (or simply upload) mere mortals to nerd Nirvana. In the interim, the messy stuff of ordinary existence will be tamed by quantifying it into the bits and bytes of Information Theory, and transformed into profitable ‘Big Data’ for the Information Economy.”