By Michael F. Holt.
Hill and Wang. 168pp. $20.
This is a book that has everything going for it except its arbitrarily imposed—and quite unpersuasive—thesis. Holt, a historian at the University of Virginia, has already written two highly regarded scholarly works on the politics of slavery extension and the coming of the Civil War. He revisits that territory in the hope, he says, of reaching a broader, non-scholarly audience. The result is a readable, intelligent, and highly competent survey of the intense sectional controversies that arose over the issue of the extension of slavery to the western territories from the 1840s until the outbreak of war. The argument is very tightly packed—one doubts that the author will garner the popular audience he seeks—but it does justice to the complexities of the subject. Except, that is, for the author’s recurring attacks on the politicians of the era for acting . . . well, like politicians. Rather than concerning themselves with “any long-term concern for the health, indeed, the very preservation, of the Union,” Holt says, representatives of both North and South “made decisions from short-term calculations of partisan, factional, or personal advantage.” Does this mean, as the dust jacket baldly states, that politicians were to blame for an otherwise avoidable war? Not really. Holt is too good a historian to deny the deep moral, political, and economic differences over slavery extension that were the heart of the matter and that ultimately caused secession and war. Politicians of the era no doubt bungled aplenty—they normally do—but to focus on the bungling is gravely to mistake how it is that war came. Fortunately, the author for the most part tells his story with his eye on the essentials. Readers can concentrate on the main, and mostly dependable, story line and simply pass over the halfhearted gratuitous editorializing that mars an otherwise commendable effort.
Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century.
By Mark Sedgwick.
Oxford University Press. 370pp. $35.
There’s tradition, and then there’s Tradition (or “Traditionalism,” as this fascinating survey would have it). Traditionalism has little to do with the conservative’s respect for the real historical past. Rather, hard-core Traditionalists dismiss almost the whole of the post-medieval West as a doomed falling away from the primordial ideal of the spiritual society. In a sort of reverse Orientalism, Traditionalists find that ideal in a decontextualized harmony of the sacred texts of non-Western societies, and particularly in Islam. In its different incarnations, Traditionalism has sometimes managed to be “perennialist,” revolutionary, and apocalyptic at the same time. The author, Mark Sedgwick, teaches at the American University in Cairo. The pattern of influence he describes starts with René Guénon, the founder of modern Traditionalism, and the little world of French occultism. However, it quickly expands to prominent and unexpected places. There are strange parts to this story. One facet is the largely clandestine spread of Sufi orders among influential artists and intellectuals in the West in the first half of the twentieth century. Another is the esoteric fascism of Julius Evola, an important factor in European terrorism of all political stripes in the 1960s and ’70s. Traditionalism never sought a mass audience, but it measurably affected the general culture through its largely unacknowledged influence on the development of the field of “religious studies.” Traditionalism is not the key to understanding the twentieth century. Neither is it fundamentally sinister, Sedgwick assures us. Be that as it may, a school of thought that influenced not just Mircea Eliade and Huston Smith, but also André Gide, Thomas Merton, and E.F. Schumacher ought to be better known. After reading this book, you will never see an allusion to the “transcendental unity of religions” in quite the same light again.
—John J. Reilly
Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art.
By Eleanor Heartney.
Midmarch Arts Press. 198 pp. $24.
Few critics would seem more qualified to write about contemporary art than Eleanor Heartney, and her latest book, with cover endorsements from Arthur Danto and Andrew Greeley, has the look of an important contribution. In this collection of essays Heartney undertakes to expose the hidden Catholicism in the works of controversial artists ranging from Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano to Karen Finley and Carolee Schneeman, and to explain their perceived irreligious tendencies as misunderstood impulses towards the divine. By interpreting these artists as “religious seekers” she intends to help her readers to “enlarge” their “definitions of religion” and to reclaim “the real message of Jesus and his gospel of love and tolerance.” But things go awry before the end of the book’s preface, in which the self-professed “good Catholic girl” makes clear her rejection of the unjust Christian god. She goes on to reject many of his followers as well, with William Donohue, Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, and many others being scourged, while she assiduously crafts sympathetic glosses on anti-Christian artworks. Billed as a book to build bridges across our cultural divides, it is in reality a one-way conduit for self-serving pontifications. To situate Mapplethorpe, et al., within the ranks of Catholicism requires Heartney to stretch terms such as “Catholic” and “sacramental” into forms devoid of theological meaning, and Heartney’s tendentious commentary on art requires from the reader a measure of generosity that the author never extends to her ideological foes.
The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art.
By Roger Kimball.
Encounter Books. 186 pp. $25.95.
Roger Kimball takes a hard look at the depredations visited on great and good paintings by contemporary art historians. Kimball brings to our attention such paintings as Courbet’s The Quarry, Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, Rubens’ Drunken Silenus, Homer’s The Gulf Stream, and others, and examines the interpretations of them offered, or rather perpetrated, by some leading art historians, such as David Lubin of Wake Forest University and Albert Boime of the University of California at Los Angeles. The treatment of the paintings by these historians is, among other things, weird, obtuse, sex-obsessed, and, above all, ideological. Kimball brilliantly ridicules their nonsense, and does so in the serious cause of saving our ability to see and to appreciate. As Kimball rightly argues, such criticism has “the power to taint, to adulterate, to besmirch our experience of art.” The shortcoming of this brief book, perhaps inherent in the author’s polemical task, is that it is negative, and to see how well Kimball conveys his own appreciations of great art a reader must look to his other works (his rich essays on Eakins and Delacroix, for instance, in his collection titled Art’s Prospect). But that quibble seems almost impertinent today, when the main task is to repel the invasion of the ideologues and to restore sanity to art history.
—Gregory J. Sullivan
Watch Me Grow!
By Stuart Campbell, M.D.
St. Martin’s Press. 112pp. $24.95.
Putting an exclamation point in your title is not usually a good idea. But this title might well claim three or four more of them, so remarkable is the little book that it introduces. “A unique, three-dimensional week-by-week look at baby’s behavior and development in the womb” is the subtitle of this collection of 3-D and 4-D ultrasound scans of living unborn babies. Dr. Campbell, a distinguished obstetrician and a pioneer in ultrasound use, says that “many years ago my colleagues and I showed that the conventional 2-D scan was helpful in promoting bonding before birth; but now, with the experience I have gained over the years, I can say confidently that 3-D and 4-D is much superior in this regard. The reaction of parents to ‘seeing’ their as yet unborn baby is extraordinary.” The reaction of any person who begins to leaf through this illustrated chronicle of human gestation will surely be extraordinary as well, and the book should be helpful in promoting “bonding” of all readers with all unborn babies, as it graphically documents the contention (made, for example, in this issue by William Saunders) that from zygote to embryo to fetus to birth, each human organism is nothing but human. These are not the grainy, gray-black, flat images that one associates with the phrase “fetal ultrasound,” but golden-toned images of fully rounded tiny creatures going about their incredible lives and preparing to join us in the extrauterine world. The accompanying text is clear, concise, and memorable. Watch Me Grow! would be a superb gift for any prospective parent, an eye-opening presentation of fetal growth for any student, and, even, a useful addition to the library (or the waiting-room literature) of any medical professional. Dr.Campbell has made an invaluable contribution to our comprehension of the most intimate of human matters and the most controverted of public policy issues.
Translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem.
Oxford University Press. 463 pp. $27.
Since September 11, there has been a bull market in literature on Islam as Westerners wonder what on earth it is that “those people” believe. The best place to begin is with the text of the putative revelations to Mohammed fourteen hundred years ago. The most commonly
used English translation is that of N. J. Dawood, published by Penguin in 1956. Haleem, who is professor of Islamic studies at London University, believes that Dawood is excessively belligerent in his rendering of some sayings, especially those dealing with “disbelievers” (meaning mainly Christians and Jews), but Haleem’s own, presumably more irenic, translation is bloodcurdling enough. The Qur’an (the spelling now fast replacing “Koran”) is not meant to be read straight through and has little of the narrative form of Jewish and Christian Scripture. It is composed of 114 suras, or sayings, ranging from a few verses to as many as twenty pages. The suras are the written form, in Arabic, of the oral revelations “sent down” to Mohammed. The Haleem translation contains many useful footnotes and an admirably complete index. In view of the dramatically changed religious, cultural, and geopolitical realities of the twenty-first century, no educated reader can be without an elementary familiarity with the fundamental text of Islam, and this new translation is therefore to be warmly welcomed.
Freedom of Speech: Rights and Liberties under the Law.
By Ken I. Kersch.
ABC-Clio. 394 pp. $55.
Carrying an epilogue by the conservative (aka classically liberal) James Fitzjames Stephen, this suggests itself as a worthy textbook on a subject of perennial importance. In addition to a reliable historical survey, 150 pages are given to texts of pertinent American documents and court decisions.
The War for Righteousness.
By Richard Gamble.
ISI. 300 pp. $15 paper.
“God is on our side.” “This President is the instrument of America’s divinely appointed destiny.” “The God-given task of America is to bring freedom and democracy to the world.” That fanatical religious right is at it again? Not quite. Gamble’s subtitle is “Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation.” And the President referred to above is Woodrow Wilson. Eighty years ago, the conflation of God’s purposes in history, the Christian mission, civilizational progress, and American power was affirmed with dogmatic certitude by the most influential liberal religionists, Harry Emerson Fosdick prominent among them. The World War I story of “preachers presenting arms” has been told before, but Gamble tells it well. The heirs of liberal Protestantism today are more likely to demonize American power than to glorify it, and one wishes the author had offered some explanation of how that came to be. But what he has done is of great importance. Cautions against the streak of national messianism in the American experience are always relevant, and not least of all today.
Rising ’44: The Battle for Warsaw.
By Norman Davies.
Viking. 785 pp. $32.95.
Not to be confused with the much better known uprising of the Warsaw ghetto a year earlier, the rising of the title refers to the insurgency of Poles, including the remaining Polish Jews, against the Nazi occupation. It began on August 1, 1944, and ended with the German obliteration of Warsaw two months later. Despite the author’s idiosyncratic and condescending substitution of nicknames for Polish surnames he assumes readers will not be able to keep straight, the story is fast-paced and keeps in play the action in Warsaw as well as the diplomatic dramas in London, Moscow, and Washington. As Poles involved in the rising died by the thousands every day, the massive Soviet army sat passively by on the far side of the Vistula, Churchill and the British anguished over their broken promises, and Roosevelt could hardly have cared less. The Soviet betrayal of agreements at Yalta, Davies plausibly argues, marks the beginning of the Cold War. The book gives respectful but brief attention to the central role of Catholicism in the rising and in the larger history of Polish national aspirations. Rising ’44 makes shamefully clear why Poland and neighboring countries that fell to “the evil empire” had little cause to celebrate the ending of World War II.
Paul, Thessalonica, and Early Christianity.
By Karl Paul Donfried.
Eerdmans. 347 pp. $26 paper.
A noted Lutheran scholar and authority on I Thessalonians provides a rich appreciation of the text read in close conversation with the world of Qumran and the ineradicable Jewishness of Paul. Among other points of interest, Donfried makes a convincing case that, whatever might be said for the Reformation theology of justification by faith alone, it cannot credibly appeal to the gospel as preached by Paul.
The Vatican-Israel Accords.
Edited by Marshall J. Breger.
Notre Dame University Press. 416 pp. $55.
In 1993, the Holy See and the state of Israel established formal diplomatic relations. This book of essays by American, Israeli, and European authors examines both the original accords and how they have been observed and ignored in subsequent years. A valuable contribution to understanding a frequently troubled relationship.