Simon Schama: “when you’re a historian, you really oughtn’t to be knocking on the doors of power; your job is to keep the powerful awake at night.”
Prospect, August 21, 2013
I am not the stuff of which rule is made. The nearest I ever got to supreme power was when I was Vice President of the American branch of Pen, the writers’ organisation, and I was asked whether I’d think about becoming President. The truth is that President Schama didn’t strike me as anything to be taken seriously.
There is a sense in which, when you’re a historian, you really oughtn’t to be knocking on the doors of power; your job is to keep the powerful awake at night, to turn them into insomniacs. Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of Jewish history and traditionally there has been a fierce debate about what “power” can mean in the Jewish tradition. Moses, for example, is not a ruler; he’s not a king. As soon as kings do show up there are problems with them—David, Solomon and Saul. The debate becomes really fierce at the time of the Hasmonean dynasty. There was a rebellion against the Greeks in the middle of the 2nd century BC and it set up an autonomous Jewish kingdom, which immediately went “conqueror” and started to expand the territories. All the Pharisees would say, “this kingship has only ended up making us like the Greeks.” There’s something ill-fitting about the Jewish tradition and acts of power, so it’s difficult for me to think in ruling terms.
Having said that, there are certain things that I would instantly, dictatorially apply. I would love it to be the case that when you speak too loudly on a mobile phone a small but painful electric charge goes straight into you, to make you stop. I hate people shouting on trains: “Are you there? Oh good, I’m here. When will you be here? I’m here but I’m going to be there.” It’s unbearable.
There are also certain words I’d like to ban—I’m like the George Carlin School of Grumpy Word Abolition. I’d abolish “whatever” and “dude,” and I’m not crazy about “cool” because we used to say that when we were about 15 years old and I slightly resent it coming back. As George Carlin said, I hate people “relating” to each other unless they are actually related. And I would make it completely illegal for flight attendants to presume to tell people how to fasten a seatbelt. Is there anybody in the entire world who doesn’t know how to fasten a seatbelt? It’s so insulting.
I’d love to make it compulsory for people to study history until they’re 16. I would set a minimum of two hours a week, instead of one. I don’t think you can raise questions or tell stories adequately in the pathetic hour of history that kids get at school. The less time they have, the more the lesson will simply become a list of things to learn, and of course they get bored. It was GM Trevelyan who said that “the poetry of history” is that it is about people who in many ways are just like us, but also couldn’t be more different. That’s naturally strange in a bewitching way for the young.
It’s important for children to learn history because if you don’t know where we’ve come from, you don’t have much of an anchorage for the present. For example, once upon a time, Britain was a compulsively, ferociously Christian country. We fought the Civil War over religion and our religious wars didn’t stop until the 18th century. Because of that, we should be in a position to understand when religion, for better or worse, becomes political, as it is in a large part of the world. If I ruled the world, I would make it impossible to make “sin” a crime. I would make it a matter of international human rights that nobody should ever be prosecuted, much less punished, for blasphemy. Jefferson argued for that in 1770 but it doesn’t seem to have come about.
I’m not an atheist, but I do think that everybody should be allowed with absolute impunity to profess whatever religion they have, or none. If you feel that you’re getting instructions from your own particular monopoly of wisdom, your own particular deity, you feel entitled to do horrendous things to people who don’t happen to share that view. If you speak to people of my generation, historians in particular, I think the thing that took us all by surprise was the return of state religion. I spoke to Eric Hobsbawm about this before he died, and he said it had been an extraordinary surprise.
But I’m a perpetual vice president; I’m not good at grand policy decisions. My considered wisdom on monetary policy would fit on a postage stamp. The historian in me, the sceptic, the grandchild of Orwell, always hears the inflation of rhetoric in it. History is a tragic muse. One of its great founding moments is the Peloponnesian War and the whole majestic, terrifying drama of that builds up to the expedition against Syracuse that sees Athens sailing into massive hubris. That is good, honest, western history. It should never be self-congratulation; it should keep people awake at night.
Simon Schama is University Professor of History and History of Art at Columbia. His forthcoming book is “The Story of the Jews” (Bodley Head) and the accompanying BBC documentary begins in September.
Book Review Essay by Steven B. Smith, New York Times Sunday Book Review
August 23, 2013
CRISIS OF THE STRAUSS DIVIDED: Essays on Leo Strauss and Straussianism, East and West, By Harry V. Jaffa with Thomas L. Pangle, John A. Wettergreen, Robert P. Kraynak, Michael P. Zuckert and Leo Strauss, Rowman & Littlefield, 2013
THE ENDURING IMPORTANCE OF LEO STRAUSS, By Laurence Lampert, University of Chicago Press, 2013
When Leo Strauss died in 1973 he was virtually unknown outside the tiny academic circle that he inhabited. Forty years later his name and influence are known almost everywhere. His books and articles have been translated into nearly every European language and several Asian ones. Web sites — both pro and con — are devoted to him. International conferences debate his thought and legacy.
Like all serious teachers, Strauss developed followers, and like all disciples these have split over the meaning of their teacher’s work. Was Strauss on the side of the ancients or the moderns? Was he a defender of biblical revelation or philosophical rationality? Was he, as he often said, a “friend of liberal democracy” or its most severe critic? What we are experiencing, to cite Harry V. Jaffa’s witty paraphrase of Lincoln, is nothing less than a “crisis of the Strauss divided.”
Jaffa is almost single-handedly the creator of what has become known as West Coast Straussianism, so called because its epicenter is Claremont McKenna College in California. At the core of the West Coast doctrine is the study of the American regime, a topic to which Strauss devoted little explicit attention, but to which Jaffa and his followers have given primacy. The West Coasters have created a synthesis of Strauss’s defense of the classical doctrine of natural right — the view that there is a single immutable standard of justice — with the wisdom of the American founding fathers, supplemented by Lincoln and Churchill (recently names like Calvin Coolidge and Clarence Thomas have been added to the list). Contra Strauss, the West Coasters have developed their own theory of American exceptionalism, arguing that the framers uniquely combined features of classical prudence with biblical morality.
“Crisis of the Strauss Divided” consists of 19 essays, the most revealing of which is the semi-autobiographical “Straussian Geography.” Here Jaffa describes his early education as an English major at Yale, where, he says, he “read nothing but good books,” but adds that his real education began only after meeting Strauss, a German-Jewish émigré, at the New School for Social Research in the years around World War II. Jaffa describes this meeting as a conversion experience. “Saul on the road to Damascus was not more stunned, nor more transformed than I,” he writes. Almost 70 years after their first encounter, Jaffa is still able to speak about it with a combination of boyish enthusiasm and a convert’s zeal.
Literary Review, August 13, 2013
Book Review by Peter Marshall
The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honour and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century, by Joel F Harrington, The Bodley Head, 2013
This is a marvellous book about a fascinating subject. It is, in a sense, a portrait of a serial killer. Frantz Schmidt was employed between 1578 and 1618 as the official executioner (and torturer) of the prosperous German city of Nuremberg. Over the course of his career he personally despatched 394 people, and flogged, branded or otherwise maimed many hundreds more. His life is also a tale of honour, duty and a lasting quest for meaning and redemption.
The penal regimes of pre-modern European states were harsh and violent, heavy on deterrence and the symbolism of retribution. Towns such as Nuremberg needed professional executioners to deal with an ever-present threat of criminality through the public infliction of capital and corporal sentences. Punishing malefactors with lengthy periods of incarceration was an idea for the future, and would probably have struck 16th-century people as unnecessarily cruel. Methods ranged from execution with the sword (the most honourable) to hanging (the least), and from the relatively quick and merciful to the dreadful penalty of staking a person to the ground and breaking their limbs one after the other with a heavy cartwheel. This was not a world of mindless violence: the punishments Schmidt imposed were carefully prescribed by the city authorities, down to the number of 'nips' (pieces of flesh torn from the limbs with red-hot tongs) convicts were to receive on their way to the gallows.
By Elizabeth Castelli
The Nation, August 9, 2013
Yes, the author was attacked on Fox News for daring to be a Muslim writing about Jesus. But does his book actually meet the historical standards he claims?
The “most embarrassing interview Fox News has ever done,” in which anchor Lauren Green challenged the legitimacy of author Reza Aslan for writing Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, seemed to be popping up everywhere on social media last week. The absurdity of the spectacle was multifold: Why—why?!—would a Muslim want to write about Jesus, Green kept asking, as though a nefarious plot to undermine Christianity were somehow afoot. Meanwhile, Aslan made a show of insisting that he possesses not only the academic credentials and but also the professional duty to do so (“My job as a scholar of religions with a PhD in the subject is to write about religions”). The story was quickly framed as a battle between the right-wing Islamophobes of Fox News and Aslan, the defender of intellectual life and scholarship.
Then an article in the right-wing Catholic publication, First Things, challenged Aslan’s claims about his academic credentials (his 2009 PhD is in sociology and was awarded on the basis of a 140-page dissertation on contemporary Muslim political activism) and his academic position (he is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside and does not hold either a doctorate nor a teaching position in the academic study of religion).
Those of us in the academic field of religious studies, especially biblical scholars and historians of early Christianity, found the whole business deeply cringe-worthy. The Fox News interview was not just embarrassing but downright offensive. The anti-Muslim bias of Fox is well-documented and is bad enough, whatever the specific context. But for scholars of religion, the Green’s conflation of the academic study of religion with personal religious identification is a familiar misunderstanding. After all, as one friend of mine puts it pithily, “You don’t have to be a zebra to study zoology.”
And then there has been a lot of debate, online and off, about whether Aslan possesses the proper credentials to write the book he has written. On this point, I wish to be quite clear: it is in principle quite possible for a scholar trained in one area of specialization to produce respectable work outside the framework of that field. Some of the most interesting work in the academic study of religion has been produced by scholars who, trained in one subspecialty, extend their studies into other domains.
By Ian Leslie, Medium, August 6, 2013
What The Success of Cubism Teaches Us About Radical Innovation
Paris, 1907. In a ramshackle studio in Montmartre, a twenty-six year-old Spanish artist presented the painting he had been working on day and night for the best part of a year to a small group of fellow artists, dealers and friends. They were visibly aghast.
One considered the work “a veritable cataclysm”. Another concluded that its creator must be on the brink of suicide. None could foresee that it would one day be considered the most influential artwork of the twentieth century.
The painting, then untitled, was later to become known as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. It is credited as the first work of Cubism, and the catalyst for a revolution in Western art and culture.
The reaction of its first viewers that day was understandable. Les Demoiselles was ugly, chaotic and confusing: everything art was not supposed to be. It represented a wrenching, violent rupture with artistic convention. It flouted laws of perspective, representation and beauty that had endured for over four hundred years.
In a predictable world, Les Demoiselles would have been regarded as a regrettable aberration and quickly forgotten. Yet within a few years, Cubism had become the dominant art movement in Europe, and Cubist artists were commanding sky-high prices for their work.
By Charles Hope, The New York Review of Books, August 15, 2013
Book Review Essay
Forged: Why Fakes Are the Great Art of Our Age, by Jonathon Keats, Oxford University Press
Art Forgery: The History of a Modern Obsession, by Thierry Lenain, Reaktion
Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger, by Ken Perenyi, Pegasus Press
The existence of a market for any kind of valuable object almost always encourages the production of counterfeits. It happens with drugs, banknotes, and designer handbags. It also happens with works of art. But whereas counterfeiting banknotes or other documents has always been considered a crime, attitudes toward art forgery have changed greatly over time, as Jonathon Keats and Thierry Lenain explain in their recent books. Keats provides a succinct, intelligent, and very readable summary of the subject, concentrating on some of the most famous modern art forgers, while Lenain, in a notably learned and wide-ranging text, goes into more detail and is more concerned with the broader implications of his topic.
It is often said that art forgery has existed as long as the demand for works of art, but this is not strictly true. There is no clear evidence that art forgeries as such existed in the ancient world. There were plenty of collectors, but they seem to have found copies just as desirable as originals. Even the presence of a signature was not necessarily taken as an indication that the object in question had been made by that artist. The notion of art forgery, as we understand it today, seems to require the idea that originals possess certain qualities not found even in the best copies. It also requires the presence of an expert with the ability to distinguish between the two; but such expertise does not seem to have existed in antiquity.
We get no closer to the modern idea of art forgery in the early or later Middle Ages, when almost all painting and sculpture was meant to serve a religious function. Works of art were commissioned directly from the artist, usually for a specific location (often a church), and were seldom bought and sold. But there was one class of art object for which there was a huge demand, namely miraculous images. The most famous of these originated in the eastern Mediterranean and were supposedly representations of Christ, either made by Christ himself or based on the imprint of his features left on a cloth, or portraits of the Madonna traditionally attributed to Saint Luke. All of them, apart from the Turin shroud, whose established history begins relatively late, were recorded in various versions throughout Europe and the Middle East.
With such images, one might suppose that authenticity was a key issue. But to complicate matters, according to legend a copy of the main image of Christ, known as the Mandylion, was created miraculously shortly after the original. It too supposedly had miraculous powers, as did other copies made subsequently in various ways. The potency of the image therefore did not reside in a single version, but in several. The situation with images of the Madonna was equally confusing, since history (or legend) did not record how many Saint Luke had made.
By Timothy Garton Ash
New York Review of Books, August 15, 2013
There is a new German question. It is this: Can Europe’s most powerful country lead the way in building both a sustainable, internationally competitive eurozone and a strong, internationally credible European Union? Germany’s difficulties in responding convincingly to this challenge are partly the result of earlier German questions and the solutions found to them. Yesterday’s answers have sown the seeds of today’s question.
Before I explore those historical connections, however, let us reflect on everything that this new German question is not. Twenty-three years after unification, the enlarged Federal Republic of Germany is about as solid a bourgeois liberal democracy as you can find on earth. It has not only absorbed the huge costs of unification but also, since 2003, made impressive economic reforms, lowering labor costs by consensus and hence restoring its global competitiveness.
This land is civilized, free, prosperous, law-abiding, moderate, and cautious. Its many virtues might be summarized as “the banality of the good.” Asked by the tabloid BILD-Zeitung what feelings Germany awakes in her, Angela Merkel once famously replied, “I think of well-sealed windows! No other country can make such well-sealed and nice windows [dichte und schöne Fenster].”1 Yet the place is not altogether so banal. Opening the well-sealed windows of my hotel room in Berlin, I look across Unter den Linden to the illuminated, translucent dome of the Reichstag building, at the heart of what is now, after London, Europe’s most exciting city.2
An Israeli friend who has taken German citizenship describes Germany to me as a “balanced” country, and that feels just right. The French leftist politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon caused a stir when he said that “amongst those who have a zest for life, no one wants to be a German.”3 In that case, there must be an awful lot of people who have no zest for life, because according to a twenty-five-nation BBC poll, Germany is the most popular country in the world—ten points ahead of France.4
It also has weaknesses and problems. Who doesn’t? Germany has a rapidly aging population. On a gloomy, no-change extrapolation, it could be down to a ratio of just over one working person to each pensioner by 2030. Without any immigration, its population might fall from over 80 million today to under 60 million in 2050. Immigration therefore has to be a large part of the answer to its demographic challenge, but Germany lags behind France and Britain, let alone Canada and the United States, in emitting those vital, elusive social and cultural signals that enable people of migrant origin to identify with their new homeland.5
By Steven Pinker, The New Republic, August 6, 2013
An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians
The great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment were scientists. Not only did many of them contribute to mathematics, physics, and physiology, but all of them were avid theorists in the sciences of human nature. They were cognitive neuroscientists, who tried to explain thought and emotion in terms of physical mechanisms of the nervous system. They were evolutionary psychologists, who speculated on life in a state of nature and on animal instincts that are “infused into our bosoms.” And they were social psychologists, who wrote of the moral sentiments that draw us together, the selfish passions that inflame us, and the foibles of shortsightedness that frustrate our best-laid plans.
These thinkers—Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith—are all the more remarkable for having crafted their ideas in the absence of formal theory and empirical data. The mathematical theories of information, computation, and games had yet to be invented. The words “neuron,” “hormone,” and “gene” meant nothing to them. When reading these thinkers, I often long to travel back in time and offer them some bit of twenty-first-century freshman science that would fill a gap in their arguments or guide them around a stumbling block. What would these Fausts have given for such knowledge? What could they have done with it?
We don’t have to fantasize about this scenario, because we are living it. We have the works of the great thinkers and their heirs, and we have scientific knowledge they could not have dreamed of. This is an extraordinary time for the understanding of the human condition. Intellectual problems from antiquity are being illuminated by insights from the sciences of mind, brain, genes, and evolution. Powerful tools have been developed to explore them, from genetically engineered neurons that can be controlled with pinpoints of light to the mining of “big data” as a means of understanding how ideas propagate.
One would think that writers in the humanities would be delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences. But one would be wrong. Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented. Just as reviled is the application of scientific reasoning to religion; many writers without a trace of a belief in God maintain that there is something unseemly about scientists weighing in on the biggest questions. In the major journals of opinion, scientific carpetbaggers are regularly accused of determinism, reductionism, essentialism, positivism, and worst of all, something called “scientism.” The past couple years have seen four denunciations of scientism in this magazine alone, together with attacks in Bookforum, The Claremont Review of Books, The Huffington Post, The Nation, National Review Online, The New Atlantis, The New York Times, and Standpoint.
By Jamie Katz, Smithsonian, July 24, 2013
She is Richard Wagner’s great-granddaughter, and her life has been dominated by the light and shade of his genius. But as a teenager growing up in Bavaria in the 1950s and ’60s, Eva Wagner-Pasquier went googly-eyed for an altogether different musical icon: Elvis Presley. She remembers the excitement he stirred up more than half a century ago merely by passing through a neighboring town on maneuvers with the U.S. Army. So last year, joined by her American-born son Antoine, Eva finally trekked off to Graceland to pay homage to the King. “I’ve always wanted to go there,” she said, flipping open her cellphone to display the idealized image of Elvis she uses as wallpaper. “It was superb! We stayed at the Heartbreak Hotel, of course.”
The trip to Memphis was a lighthearted escape from the burdens of running a family business like no other. Since 2008, when Eva and her half-sister Katharina succeeded their father Wolfgang Wagner, they have directed the famed summer opera festival founded in 1876 by Richard Wagner and managed by his heirs ever since. In this bicentennial year of the composer’s birth, Wagner devotees are now setting forth on their annual pilgrimage to the seat of his still-powerful cultural domain: the charming city of Bayreuth (pronounced BY-royt), nestled far from Germany’s urban centers, in the rolling hills of Upper Franconia. “Wagner without Bayreuth,” observes the cultural historian Frederic Spotts, “would have been like a country without a capital, a religion without a church.”
From July 25 through August 28, the faithful will ascend the city’s famed Green Hill to the orange brick–clad Bayreuth Festival Theater—known globally as the Festspielhaus. It was built by Wagner himself to present his revolutionary works—among them his four-part Ring cycle, Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal—in the innovative architecture and stagings he felt they required. The Bayreuth Festival became the first full-fledged music festival of modern times, the granddaddy of everything from Salzburg and Spoleto to Bonnaroo, Burning Man and the Newport Jazz Festival. At Bayreuth, however, only Wagner’s works are presented. After his death in 1883, the festival and the theater became a hallowed shrine for his followers, many of whom embraced his ideology of fierce German nationalism, racial superiority and anti-Semitism. He was idolized by Adolf Hitler, whose rise was abetted by the Wagner family’s support in the early 1920s.
Through all the cataclysms of modern German history, however, the festival has endured. In the same week Eva Wagner was born in a neighboring village in April 1945, Allied warplanes leveled two-thirds of Bayreuth. Wahnfried—the stately home and gravesite that is the Wagners’ equivalent to Graceland—was 45 percent destroyed in the first of four bombing raids that all somehow spared the Festspielhaus. By 1951, the festival was up and running again under the direction of Wieland Wagner, the composer’s grandson, who had reinvented himself as a post-Nazi opera visionary and rebranded Bayreuth as a haven for avant-garde productions that have periodically offended traditionalists. Yet Wagner loyalists have not wavered, queuing up for a decade and more to attend. This year, for some 58,000 tickets offered for the five-week festival, there were 414,000 applications from 87 countries. The payoff, his admirers feel, is a direct encounter with the sublime. Set aside the associations with the Third Reich, they say, and allow this enthralling music and elemental drama to touch your soul.
By Mike Dash, Smithsonian, August 1, 2013
Friedrich Engels’ life appears replete with contradiction. He was a Prussian communist, a keen fox-hunter who despised the landed gentry, and a mill owner whose greatest ambition was to lead the revolution of the working class. As a wealthy member of the bourgeoisie, he provided, for nearly 40 years, the financial support that kept his collaborator Karl Marx at work on world-changing books such as Das Kapital. Yet at least one biographer has argued that while they were eager enough to take Engels’s money, Marx and his aristocratic wife, Jenny von Westphalen, never really accepted him as their social equal.
Amid these oddities lurks another—a puzzle whose solution offers fresh insights into the life and thinking of the midwife of Marxism. The mystery is this: Why did Engels, sent in 1842 to work in the English industrial city of Manchester, choose to lead a double life, maintaining gentleman’s lodgings in one part of the city while renting a series of rooms in workers’ districts? How did this well-groomed scion of privilege contrive to travel safely through Manchester’s noisome slums, collecting information about their inhabitants’ grim lives for his first great work, The Condition of the Working Class in England? Strangest of all, why—when asked many years later about his favorite meal—would a native German like Engels answer: “Irish stew”?
Manchester in 1870, the year Engels left the city he had lived in for 28 years. It was the largest industrial town in England and a noted center of the profitable cotton trade.
To answer these questions, we need to see Engels not as he was toward the end of his long life, the heavily bearded grand old man of international socialism, but as he was at its beginning. The Friedrich Engels of the 1840s was a gregarious young man with a facility for languages, a liking for drink and a preference for lively female company. (“If I had an income of 5,000 francs,” he once confessed to Marx, “I would do nothing but work and amuse myself with women until I went to pieces.”) It was this Engels who arrived in England in December 1842–sent there to help manage a factory part-owned by his wealthy father, by a family desperate to shield their young radical from the Prussian police. And it was this Engels who, to the considerable alarm of his acquaintances, met, fell for and, for the better part of two decades, covertly lived with an Irish woman named Mary Burns.
Burns’ influence on Engels—and hence on communism and on the history of the world in the past century—has long been badly underestimated. She makes at best fleeting appearances in books devoted to Engels, and almost none in any general works on socialism. And since she was illiterate, or nearly so, not to mention Irish, working-class and female, she also left only the faintest of impressions in the contemporary record. The sterling efforts of a few Manchester historians aside, almost nothing is known for certain about who she was, how she lived or what she thought. Yet it is possible, reading between the lines of Engels’ writings, to sense that she had considerable influence on several of her lover’s major works.
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