Culture


So a while ago I started to write a review about David Andress’ beautiful work: “Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France” and for reasons beyond my control I kept forgetting to finish it. The review is more of a fragmant and a sketch than a full review, but I thought it was worth posting in its rough shape because: a) its a great book and every person should pick a copy up ASAP, b) I’m bored  and c) it’s my blog.

Thus:

History tends to remember the blade that fell on Louis XI neck, while forgetting the tens of thousands of necks it also separated. Of course, few of those whose death was to take place under the “Terror”, the period of time when the Committee of Public Safety, were to be remembered in such vivid terms as Louis Bourbon.

Andress is skillful in humanizing the twelve men who for a brief period of time were the ultimate power over the whole of France and outwardly were a monolithic institution, but behind the doors of the Tuilleries, the power struggle that was being waged daily was sometimes comical, sometimes horrifying in its turbulence.

It is important to reiterate what others, notably Adam Thorpe in The Guardian has said: none of these men who ran the Terror were “great men” to couch the term in historiographic terms. While Danton is often written about as a giant of the Revolution, not just because of his physical but also his political stature, even he suffers moments where his leadership skills are left wanting.

Danton takes the mystique out of the men who have been at various times villains and heroes of the political order. To some on the Left, Robespierre is virtue embodied. Willing to sacrifice the whole of the body politic in service of greater Rousseau virtue. To conservatives, the Terror is an extreme example of revolutions run amok. It is after all, from Edmund Burke we get the model for modern parliamentary conservatism.

I’ve linked to it before, but its worth taking another look at Zizek’s comments on Jacobinism pace Andress and the skeptics:

Andress’ work is wonderous is scope and character. Engaging and well-written, it is a brave and forthright account that eschews ideology in sake of truth.

 

 

 

Advertisements

91+Lue-yzDLVolume II of Peter Ackroyd’s ambitious historical project charting the history of England from its earliest days to the present focuses on the reign of Henry VIII, his son and two daughters.

While Henry VIII was  not the first Tudor,(Henry VII was technically the first king from this welsh household), no other ruler besides perhaps his daughter Elizabeth exemplified the manic energy of their clan.

Ackroyd is not the first historian to chart English history through the rise of either the English church or the relatively brief dynastic reign of the Tudor clan. What makes Ackroyd so successful is the delight he seems to take in telling this story.

While this is not a critical examination of the Tudors (there are already enough of those), it is not a whitewash of a dynasty either. Ackroyd is perfectly keen to note Elizabeth’s indecisiveness, Edwards gullibility, Mary’s messianic drive, and Henry’s general disregard for decency. but while he shows us the flaws that make these rulers, “all too human”, he is also emphatic that the sometimes murky orders Henry, Edward, and Elizabeth especially gave helped to slowly etch away at what had been the Catholic church in England and ended up becoming a distinctly English invention: the Anglican Church (Church of England). Put another way, ecclesiastical matters went from being dealt as the Church IN England to the Church OF  England.

Describing the development of the Anglican Church, starting as it does in fits and spurts, has been a difficult endeavor for historians and faithful alike. surprisingly, Ackroyd is able to describe the whole evolution of the English Reformation from the dissolution of the monasteries to the settlement  under Elizabeth with surprising ease. His transitions from reign to reign are assisted by the presence of a colourful supporting cast from Sir Thomas More to Archbishop Cranmer to Elizabeth’s cousin Mary Queen of Scots. The rise and fall of  these eclectic persons add wonderful context to the events that surround the monarch and provide anecdotal support to Ackroyd’s interpretation of events.

Most refreshing in Ackroyd’s volume is the distinct absence of sentiment or interest regarding the love affairs of the Tudor dynasty. Henry VIII was a notorious philanderer with an obsession concerning male progeny that borders on compulsion. Additionally, Elizabeth’s oft written on-off affair with Robert Dudley does not feature as prominently a narrative device. Instead, Ackroyd spends a great deal of time on the administrative costs of war, poverty, and reformation/counter-reform.

None of which is to say that Ackroyd’s story is devoid of rhetorical flourishes. Instead, he brings the reader’s focus back to the ground amid the dirty streets of London or the bloody marshes battlefields in Calais. In both respects Ackroyd’s talent as a storyteller is on display. abjuring sensationalist stories, Ackroyd spends time to weave complex narrative into a digestible, if long, tapestry.

Tudors: The History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I by Peter Ackroyd. St. Martin’s Griffin 2014. 528 pages. Purchased Copy

2014 is rolling right along, and I have been reading some great works of history in this short time. Right now, I am reading Sophie Wahnich’s brave work, “In Defense of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution“. By far one of the bravest things I have yet read in historical analysis. Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek writes the introduction.

I am almost finished with Simon Schama’s tome, “Citizens“. I am glad I paid $8 at Half Price and not the $25 cover price. On the plus side I now have a nice and large coaster for my wine glass.

I got new running shoes for Xmas from my wife, and after playing around with the lacing, I found the right combination that helps with rubbing.

I’m in DC at the end of the month for work and while I have been there twice, always appreciate tips. drop some in the comments below if you feel so inclined.

Cheers!

 

 

 

Marxist historians have generally been infatuated with the story of the French Revolution. In the 1970s and earlier, the revolution which overthrew the ancien regime of the French Bourbon monarchy slid easily in the political conceptions of class and egalitarianism.

A forceful and bloody siege upon the forces of feudalism that dragged humanity kicking and screaming into the modern age, the French revolution is in fact more complex than either the Marxists would love to believe or as pitiful as the Edmund burke’s of the world have seen it.

Inevitably any discussion then pivots to agency and guilt. of the persons actvely involved in what would historically become known as “the terror”, the most recognizable if not most popular is the enigmatic Maximillien Robespierre.

Robespierre, a pronvincial lawyer from northwestern France wth little to no background in politics, was also the man who sent thousands to the guillotine, and would eventually be swallowed up in the sea of violence he had so desperately created, is an alternately hated and beloved historical figure.

To critics of the Revolution, he was at least permissive, if not entirely guilty of mass genocide, torture and the suspension of law. To others, his willingness to take unpopular and violent methods to achieve real tangible goals was justified.

I am currently reading Ruth Scurr’s brilliant biography of Robespierre, Fatal Purity. Her principal diagnosis, that Robespierre can best be understood by his times and the actions of those around him, is  a fresh approach that does not fall for the familiar tropes of good and evil.

A full book review is forthcoming, but I wanted to post this YouTube series of a BBC documentary on Robespierre that includes Scurr, Simon Schama, and Slavoj Zizek, amongst others.

A fabulous video with great acting and analysis, it should be a primer before reading Scurr, and certainly helped me conceptualize a period of time much more easily.

One of the aspects to the science-fiction television show, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, is the recurring story of guilt and war memory from the fictional Cardassian occupation of Bajor. I already blogged about this once, but after viewing the Season 5 episode “Things Past“, I felt the need to write more words.

As previously mentioned, The evil Cardassians occupy a small planet called Bajor. After 50 years, they have still to quell the resistance that has fought occupation through bombings and assassinations. Into this scene enter the former shape-shifter Odo. As head of security at the time on Tarak Nor (the Cardassian name for the station, later called Deep Space Nine by the Federation), Odo is remembered by the majority of Bajorans in the postwar period as a judicious peacekeeper impartial to both Cardassian pressure and Bajoran influence. Employed by the Cardassians as a kind of Ombudsman security official, Odo was supposed to have independence of his office from influence, though he is extremely uncomfortable with any characterization of his actions as heroic in the episode opener, it is obvious a good deal of Bajorans look upon him as a lamb among wolves/ conscience in a unsconscionable time.

Through the episode, several characters are placed into the bodies of Bajoran men whom are sentenced to die for a crime (attempted assassination) they believe they did not commit. The head of security in this altered world is the station’s previous caretaker, Thrax, whom Odo was supposed to replace. This all culminates in Odo’s breakdown and admission that it was he, not Thrax, that had ordered the three Bajoran men guilty of murder. This admission ends the alternate reality the characters had all awoken in, as they had been the unwitting victims of a plasma storm that temporarily extended the powers of Odo’s ability to pyschologically link with others. This dark episode ends with Major Kira Nerys, Bajoran military representative, former paramiliary resistance fighter and also Odo’s lover confronting Odo about what he had admitted to his friends in their ‘link’. Odo shockingly admits that he no longer is sure if those were the only mistaken arrests he made during the occupation, and Kira admits she has a hard time looking at him after the revelation. Further, she feels crestfallen that the one person she thought was above moral culpability was just as dirty as everybody else.

While the idea of a plasma storm and etc is indeed a classic fantastical premise, the frank discussion of who comes out of scenarios as ‘guilty’ and who is ‘innocent’ becomes a complicated and a beautiful analogy for the ultimately futility of this act. Odo saw himself as preserving justice, but later admitted that his need for order cost lives. Similarity could be drawn between that experience and the community leaders in Jewish ghettos, who saw themselves as serving thew greater good while ultimately being used by the occupiers and genocidal overlords.

The problem for social historians since the Second World War is that in matters of occupation and morality, there are no easy answers and many times the brightest of humanity are among the most patently guilty. The example of Heidegger, chair in philosophy at university and in full knowledge of Nazi crimes, chose instead to stay silent. His later admission of sadness he felt goes a long way toward understanding the difficulty of German persons to vocalise the feelings of collective suffering and guilt remained for a long time and eventually became part of the study of social history.

tony_judt-400x294

The title of this blog post is likely one of the more bombastic posts concerning the life of the late Anglo American historian and public intellectual. In addition to being three years late, it will undoubtedly be less well poised and written than those who knew doctor Judt or had spent any time with him.

Nonetheless, I propose to do some of my own positing in the mention of his unfortunate and untimely demise.

I admit I opened my first chapters of Judt’s magnum opus Postwar just as the last pages of his life were being written by ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). In 2009 I was studying at the University of Salzburg in the aforementioned city in Austria, studying in the department of history with coursework in contemporary and historical roots of fascism through the lens of affected central European nations. On the assigned coursework for the year was Judt, along with synonymous names on Europe: Mazower, Kershaw et al.

Judt’s work had the effect on me like the crashing sound of a sheet of glass. I was in my third year studying history, had read Mazower and Kershaw of course, and embarrassingly had spent a great deal of time reading Hobsbawm and EP Thompson and Marxist theories of history, trying in vain to get my older and jaded professors who had slumped toward something less than my admitted fantasist manner to see the error of their ways.

Previously, the history of Europe after the Second World War had had little to no interest in me. I was more concerned issues that, (to me) had greater urgency: grain strikes in France in 1789 or the establishment of the Spartacus League in 1917. These looked and sounded more appealing to me, and I wondered what on earth I could learn from the formation of homogenized nations in an increasingly peaceful Europe?

Judt showed quite eloquently, and quite impressively, that the urgency and scope that involved the creation of nation states after the Second World War was not the neat and tidy reorganization American school children are fed. It was messy, violent and at times corrosive to civil society. Despite this, the formation of new and more equitable Europe coalesced. Understanding how nations dealt with the trauma of war and walked back is impressive enough. That Judt wrote it in a readable manner as such is a scholastic achievement worth noting.

After I completed my studies, I went back to the United States and with my thesis research project on the election of Waldheim in 1980 fully underway, I parted ways with Judt’s work if only intending for it to be a moment.

In spring of that next year, 2010, I was reading the New York Times in a not unlovable diner in Milwaukee, my hometown, when I glanced over the obituaries only to find a neatly printed eulogy to a man whose works I had so valued and then forgotten. I still have the clipping from that day’s paper.

Since then, I have changed jobs several times, gotten married and moved, but when Judt’s posthumous: Thinking the Twentieth Century was published, I knew I had to read it. And re read it. I now own a copy of every one of his works. I try to re-read them from time to time to maintain a clear head. Anytime I despair about the rightness of social-democracy I open to the front page his minor work, Ill Fares the Land and read the quote: “There is something wrong with the way we live today” and feel hope that I was not the only one to have ever felt thusly.

Judt made many enemies with his calls for what he believed to be justice in the case of a multinational Palestine, and for a more collective USA. I think that those beliefs came from the heart and the head, and if they do not occur, it does not make him any less of a brave thinker for having spoken the words.

As a full time professor, researcher and writer for a myriad of organizations and papers, Judt was not featured frequently as a talking head on Cable TV. His words appeared in publications and his interviews look to be generally egalitarian.

Unlike his fellow Anglo-American, the late polemicist Christopher Hitchens, Judt’s face does not appear on a wide variety of images in the web. Top among my favorite of those small number is one in which Judt, kneeling between the partition separating his bedroom and another room, looks off camera with a sort of still calm. Holding a simple glass, and behind his left shoulder at the foot of a bed lies an unfurled newspaper with a pen set beside it. The bed is a clean white and made neatly. Unassuming except for the red piece of cloth lying at the foot of the bed, the room and the surroundings are a fantastic image of the man’s life itself. Eloquent, tidy, and unassuming.  Judt never seems to have sought fanfare or prestige. His work was what counted, and much like the man in the picture, the rest is just filler.

I am finishing up the last book in Richard J Evans’ trilogy on the history of the Third Reich and one of the most striking things I find about his narrative is the way it eerily presents some of the fixtures of post-war West Germany and later the reunified Germany. In essence what I mean is the way that when the more conservative historical fixtures of society saw that the war would end soon and that Nazism was not easily defeated by internal agencies, they laid in wait until the postwar era in order to ‘revitalize’ Germany through a platform that appealed to natural social-Christian elements of the prewar period. Namely these involved the reintroduction of conservative Catholic or Protestant Christian idealism paired with a fairly large objection to secularism or state monopoly.

Viewed through this lens, I think the post-war Chrisian conservative attraction to the populous a large makes a lot of sense. after ~10 years of a rigidly secular or quasi-occultist nationalism, the return to a ‘previous’ Germany that was almost entirely obliterated by war, famine and genocide is understandably attractive.

Next Page »