__marcelo (__marcelo) wrote,

Books! (Letters, Movies, and Other Lies Edition)

Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog, 2019/#41): Herzog's journals, offered with little guarantee of factual accuracy. As always, the most interesting thing for me is Herzog himself, his sheer, almost darkly comical obstinacy — less a will-to-do than an strangely self-aware being-possessed-by. But in equal measure: he talks to everybody, pays attention to everybody, and — somebody with the obsession and dedication to push a ship over a mountain in the middle of the jungle, not a model in a studio, because that's what the movie had to be — will drop everything in half a second to fly somebody he doesn't know to a hospital hundreds of kilometers away, without question or second thought. A few quotes below (which in no way summarize the book), with trigger warnings for everything from gore to spousal abuse.

  • A vision had seized hold of me, like the demented fury of a hound that has sunk its teeth into the leg of a deer carcass and is shaking and tugging at the downed game so frantically that the hunter gives up trying to calm him. It was the vision of a large steamship scaling a hill under its own steam, working its way up a steep slope in the jungle, while above this natural landscape, which shatters the weak and the strong with equal ferocity, soars the voice of Caruso, silencing all the pain and all the voices of the primeval forest and drowning out all birdsong. To be more precise: bird cries, for in this setting, left unfinished and abandoned by God in wrath, the birds do not sing; they shriek in pain, and confused trees tangle with one another like battling Titans, from horizon to horizon, in a steaming creation still being formed. Fog-panting and exhausted they stand in this unreal world, in unreal misery—and I, like a stanza in a poem written in an unknown foreign tongue, am shaken to the core.

  • A fairly young, intelligent-looking man with long hair asked me whether filming or being filmed could do harm, whether it could destroy a person. In my heart the answer was yes, but I said no.

  • By noon it was hot, and the wait seemed very long. We rolled the gasoline drums down the bank and pushed them into the water. There they were fished out and loaded onto Segundo’s large boat. This time we will at least get the gasoline to its proper destination, provided nothing goes wrong in the Pongo rapids. Our speedboat is stranded with gasket failure. The boatman forgot to take along spare parts and tools and is now waiting for a miraculous intervention that might revive the engine. Sweat, storm clouds overhead, sleeping dogs. There is a smell of stale urine. In my soup, ants and bugs were swimming among the globules of fat. Lord Almighty, send us an earthquake.

  • In Los Angeles, Sandy Liebersohn confided to me that he was going to resign as president of Fox; no one else had been told, and I should keep it to myself. But insider news like this does not mean a thing to me because I am going to be on my own as a producer. For a moment the feeling crept over me that my work, my vision, is going to destroy me, and for a fleeting moment I let myself take a long, hard look at myself, something I would not otherwise do—out of instinct, on principle, out of self-preservation—look at myself with objective curiosity to see whether my vision has not destroyed me already. I found it comforting to note that I was still breathing.

Beautiful and Impossible Things: Selected Essays of Oscar Wilde (Oscar Wilde, 2019/#42): Not his best, I think. But it's a disservice to see only the careful crafter of epigrammatic paradoxes; his letter about jail conditions — not about what he endured, but mostly what the children there had to — is earnest, passionate, a bit heart-breaking in its plainness.

Peiresc's Mediterranean World (Peter N. Miller, 2019/#43): Another look at Peiresc, complementing Peiresc's Europe (same author, published earlier) with a closer look at the mechanisms and intermediaries that made his work possible. Built upon Peiresc's surviving archive of letters, it leverages, reflects upon, and in part deliberately mirrors this structure, as well as the methodological and epistemic issues involved in any attempt to understand the past. There is of course a world of distance between Peiresc and me, but I can very much relate to his roaming curiosity.

  • The proportion is important; with so much attention devoted to studying early modern correspondence, it is worth remembering that for most scholars the letter, like the printed piece, rests atop a foundation of erudite paper.

  • I call this an “archive” quite self-consciously because Peiresc collected all this material and then organized it for use. This paper was the arsenal he drew upon, a kind of tool for thinking: his “paperware” for our “software.” In keeping his archive, Peiresc was only doing unto himself what he did unto others: he demonstrated a deep familiarity with the organization of diff erent French archives and attended to the physical location of documents— where in the various chambers they were found— and their preservation—in what type of compartment, of which color, and so on. If the work of Peter Stallybrass has led a generation to think about the “material text,” here is a whole archive, and an archival practice, treated already as “material” by its seventeenth-century author. Peiresc, in short, presents to us an early image of the “archives man.” He thought himself so well known for frequenting archives that he once used this as cover when on His Majesty’s Secret Service. The preservation of his own archive, more or less in situ, and more or less as he left it, after all these hundreds of years, enables us not only to reconstruct an early modern learned life but almost to feel as if peering over his shoulder with his pen paused in midthought. I say “thought” because while Peiresc wrote down his thoughts, and while he shared them with friends— a form of scribal publication— he did not publish them in printed form.

  • His ideas came to life in his hands— and this makes his decision to organize his thoughts in letters all the more understandable, since even as a conversation with absent friends, letter-writing remained a species of conversation. The archive he left was his literary creation. This realization led me to want to put as much of his raw materials as possible into the text of this book, in as unmediated a form as possible, though at the same time knowing that some mediation is inevitable. Peiresc published only once, and even then anonymously, but his life surely makes clear that print publication is not the only way to know a writer or to identify him as one.

  • The specific group of letters and related materials that I focus on in this book are those to his Mediterranean correspondents. The period of their creation, the decades from 1620 to 1640, is especially interesting: Venice had lost its dominance in the Levant; Marseille had moved in but would, in turn, be challenged and displaced by the Dutch and the English. But just then, at that brief moment, the Ottoman Mediterranean was presided over from Marseille, whose ships proliferated in the ports of the southern and eastern Mediterranean shores.

  • While most history books relay the past to us as a story, researchers know that the past comes to us not as story, but as proper nouns: as discrete facts that are not themselves inscribed within any story.

  • If storytelling reflects our need to organize our knowledge into modes of explanation (or refutation) that make sense of this world, then it will always need to elide or flatten some of the detail. Research, however, remains closely bound up with what we do not know, as well as what we do .That is why it is so important to me to make research both the content and the form of this study. It is a way of explaining without simplifying; of getting closer without pretending that we are ever going to arrive back at a past that is whole. Nor can we pretend that the kind of narrative history-writing invented by Gibbon and Winckelmann did not triumph over other varieties. We cannot tell a story without narratives of some sort. (With this, I accept that the historian’s role is to interpret sources, not just to publish them.) But perhaps we can use narrative in such a way as to evoke Peiresc the researcher. The different lines of inquiry he carried out through copying, annotating, memo-making, essay-writing, and corresponding do not converge on a single point, and probably could not. Peiresc’s research for his history of Provence is as brilliantly variegated as that of the best-trained twentieth-century historian, but when Peiresc actually wrote his History of Provence it came out looking like any other chronicle. Orhan Pamuk planned to write The Museum of Innocence as a catalog of objects, but ended up writing a traditional narrative. Somewhere between these positions, between notes and the novel, we historians may find a way to tell our readers a story, and at the same time, perhaps by thinking with Peiresc, show them how stories about the past are made.

  • In this environment, Peiresc suggested that a little subterfuge might be necessary to win out, explaining that a small deception was no big crime in matters as urgent as getting the right book: “I am sorry that you have lost the help that you could have received in your little consultations on oriental languages from your Mister Pokak. But since he is so jealous in the matter of books and so unsociable, I am not sorry that he has quit the field and the show, and I think rather that you will now have very good fortune, and perhaps even better than with those fraternal negotiations.” Moreover, he was comfortable with Celestin’s having used 60 piastres on his account, “because it could serve as an excuse and quittance to him who would like to claim it back, when you could say that you had sent it to me in France even though you were still using it. These little officious lies are not big crimes that one has to abstain from in an emergency for the health of a good book, which is sometimes comparable to that of a person because it is the sanctification and work of an author’s whole life.” Peiresc’s sense of a calling, and of a responsibility of the present to the past embodied in a book, is clear and it inspired those who worked with him.

  • In the Peiresc archive we find a whole other side of the “merchant function,” a side that we would in no way have been able to anticipate or divine from those public documents alone. When a ship comes in from Alexandretta or Alexandria and an accounting is given of the goods on board, the letters, books, and crocodiles are never mentioned (just to choose some random examples). From the point of view of the documentary collection system of that time, the activities of Peiresc do not exist.

  • But the correspondence is also full of details about the movement of monies at the Levantine termini. Indeed, the letters to the merchants in the Levant give a real sense of the practical underpinnings— the very conditions of possibility— for Peiresc’s scholarship, especially as it was necessarily in the hands of others. More than the diplomats, it was the merchants who defined the horizons of possibility in the Near East. When, for example, a group of Jesuits on their way to Ethiopia were seized in Egypt, the French consul in Cairo, Gabriel Fernoux, was powerless. He had to borrow money at high rates of interest (2,500 piastres borrowed at 24 percent “from the Jews,” and 3,000 at 20 percent) and still would not have been able to pay the ransom had it not been for a 1,000 piastre interest-free gift from Cesar Lambert, Peiresc’s friend and de Gastines’s partner. When Minuti set off on his first expedition, Peiresc had to establish a system of exchange. For he operated in a world of livres and écus, while his colleagues in the Levant paid in piastres. Hence the importance of what he articulated in a later letter to Father Celestin at Aleppo. If the expense incurred was 80 piasters, it would be covered in Marseille as 80 écus “because to reimburse the indemnity here it is necessary to return an écu for a piastre.” Moreover, Peiresc always offered to pay the change, travel cost, and maritime profit (“change, nolis et profits maritimes”).

  • We have been paying attention to the geography of Peiresc’s financial network. One of its interesting features —in exact parallel to his intellectual network and to wider economic trends in the Mediterranean— is the disappearance of Venice. Venice was not a city in which Peiresc had a direct agent, which means Venice was not a city in which the Marseille merchants felt a need to have a branch. This tells us something important about Marseille’s Mediterranean map but also of the lessened role for Venice in a Mediterranean commercial system weighted toward the Levant— and thus a turning point in the history of both Venice and the Mediterranean. So, in 1633, by which time Peiresc’s system is fully developed, when Peiresc asked Jacques Gaffarel to do some shopping in Venice, he explained that reimbursement would be effected either through a Genoese merchant, Horatio Tridi, or through the Genoese firm of Lumaga based in Lyon. The French consul in Venice would serve as the local respondent, the “piggybacking” failsafe employed by Peiresc elsewhere in the Mediterranean where he lacked Marseille merchant contacts.

  • A letter from Guillaume Guez in Constantinople was received for Peiresc by Aycard in Toulon. Peiresc knew that 50 piastres had been promised there to Minuti. In addition to reimbursing the 50 piastres, Peiresc would pay any additional “changes & proffitz maritimes.” Peiresc added a stock phrase whose precision sheds light on the typical practice: “proportional to what the same sum could have brought in profit to the merchant who had furnished it if it had been employed for goods on that same ship.” Peiresc estimated this at 20 to 30 percent, which, as we have seen, reflected the varied rates charged across the eastern Mediterranean. In other words, however much he was invested in the moral economy, Peiresc understood that there was a commercial one that had to be satisfied too. With Minuti and Aymini in the Levant, the need for a secure financial backbone was imperative, and Peiresc relied on Fort to provide it. Because of this, we know that an import profit of around 20 to 30 percent could be expected. That Peiresc’s generosity seems not to have made him a mark for frauds testifies to the high respect in which he was held, his good judgment of people, and good luck. Eliyahu Ashtor has calculated profit margins in the Venetian trade of the fifteenth century; they are not substantially different from what we can read out of the Peiresc archive for the seventeenth.

  • A side point about Bordeaux and its resources: if we can say that the money that fed Peiresc’s oriental studies came from Guîtres, we can also say that the success of this venture depended on his ability not only to continue increasing its revenue through reuniting to the abbey lands that had drifted into the possession of others, but of warding off his increasingly incessant neighbor, Armand Jean du Plessis, Duke of Fronsac, and Cardinal de Richelieu. From a letter of 1635, we see Peiresc aggrieved at what he saw as the cardinal’s groundless challenge to the legitimacy of the church’s lands and his acute awareness of the peril a too-straightforward opposition could land him in: “not having grounds to throw in doubt the pretentions of His Eminence, despite the little they have of substance, without committing a great crime.”

  • Peiresc’s mental map of Mediterranean communication links extended far beyond the shores of the sea. When a boat loaded with letters for Egypt stayed in Marseille for over a month, Peiresc fretted that he would miss the caravan that left Egypt for Ethiopia around Easter time— and thus spoil his attempt to make contact quickly with Zacharie Vermeil at the emperor’s court there. One reads these passages and can envision Peiresc plotting the courses of ships on a giant map of the Mediterranean, an “as if” Churchill in an “as if” war room. We can say with certainty that Peiresc’s constant search for information about shipping on the move in the Mediterranean was not a form of trainspotting. It was, on the contrary, extremely practical, since having a sense of where everything was meant that in the event he needed to ransom an object that was lost, or quickly orient toward a particular person or object, he would know which “assets” were nearby.

  • About the cartographic implications of the astronomical observations he coordinated: The “most experienced mariners” had for years coped with the discrepancy between cartographic theory and reality through practice, “for which they could never understand the cause and reason.” With these new observational results, however, Peiresc wrote to Jacques Dupuy in Paris, “by reducing the space [of the sea], there was nothing so easy to understand, as you will see when we send you the result of his observation, and of the comparison of it with all the others.” To Thomas d’Arcos in Tunis, Peiresc described those “very most expert mariners of Marseille and those themselves who made marine charts” as being “rapturous and almost beside themselves” to discover the reason for their practice. Peiresc explained that this would all be made clear in the enclosed diagram he had copied out from a letter of Gassendi’s to Wendelin on the subject. This no doubt refers to the one printed in the 1658 Gassendi Opera Omnia (Figure 19). The point is that Peiresc was in contact with mariners and saw an intellectual problem to be solved in the gap between their practice and the governing theory. (although other cartographers had already figured this out much earlier)

  • At this distance in time from Peiresc and the seventeenth century, we might feel that his Mediterranean correspondence network had something of the exotic about it. But by the early seventeenth century, as we see very clearly through the Peiresc archive, Mediterranean communications had become so regularized, despite the corsairs, despite the seeming fragility of its institutions, that Peiresc could instead treat it as something common. Could count on its regularity. This revision of our sensibility comes from being inside Peiresc’s world. [An important qualification is that Peiresc was quite wealthy, and even so had to work very hard to make his communication network work as well as it did. There's a transition when something becomes possible, and a different one when it becomes cheap.]

  • Interestingly, Peiresc’s dearth of correspondents in Spain and his seeming inability to insinuate himself into an existing Marseille merchant network, as he did in Italy and the Levant, would suggest that there was little contact between Marseille and Spain. Yet there was a large volume of Spanish or Spanish- bound shipping, both incoming and outgoing. There was more than twice as much traffic in this direction than to the next-most-trafficked destination, Genoa; three times as much as was Levant-bound; and ten times more than to Rome. This vantage point, then, suggests that Peiresc’s Marseille connections represent but one distinct grouping within the larger community of maritime traders and that as much as this seems to constitute an entire world, it remained but one of Marseille’s many Mediterraneans.

  • But let us pause a moment. Where did Peiresc learn about insurance premiums and lettres d’échange? About working around quarantine regulations? About how captains loaded their ships? Surely not as a young man with the Jesuits in Avignon, or as a youth studying law at Padua and Montpellier, and not at court with his neostoic mentor du Vair and his friend the poet Malherbe. No, this is knowledge he could only have learned from those who did it, day after day, on the quayside in Marseille and in the taverns and counting rooms that lay behind it. And what of the very watchwords by which he lived as a hero of the Republic of Letters? “Commerce,” “communication,” and “correspondence” were part of the discourse of merchants, not professors. We have become attentive as never before to the shifting, and maybe mirage-like, frontier between the practitioners and the book-learned in early modern Europe, and in any number of fields. Might we now imagine that a certain kind of scholarship, embodied by Peiresc, could also straddle the practical and the theoretical? That how the past was studied, or nature anatomized, could have been shaped by everyday exchanges with other people for whom observation and description, precision and practicality, credibility and conjecture were also part of their tool-kits?

  • At the heart of his information architecture was the memorandum, which began, “One would want to know” (“On desireroit sçavoir”). Frequently this took the form of a questionnaire. Sometimes these questions found their way into letters sent off to individuals, and sometimes they remained for Peiresc’s own use .The questionnaire was itself a form that emerged from the Spanish imperial chancery and was used, famously, to find out about the geography of Spanish America. The literature on “relazioni” that developed in Italy converged with that of the questionnaire in focusing on real conditions, whether of government, economy, religion, or war. If José Acosta might have been a familiar name to Peiresc, Giovanni Botero certainly was, and Ulisse Aldrovandi was an early correspondent. Peiresc’s study of non-European societies is a reflection of their successful model of inquiry.

You Should Come With Me Now: Stories of Ghosts (M. John Harrison, 2019/#44): A collection of short stories, some of them very short. Harrison is a master of a certain mood, place, and language, or, if you will, of a certain topology of things.

The Last Trojan Hero: A Cultural History of Virgil's Aeneid (Philip Hardie, 2019/#45:
What it says: a history, or rather a quick sketch, of how the Aeneid was read and used between Virgil's death and the death of Latin literature as a core thread of elite education during 20th-century (the author doesn't put it this way, but you could say that the period ends with the ascendancy of the US, a culture much too apocalyptic to worry about any precedent further in the past than their own Founding Fathers). Not uninteresting, within its limits.
Tags: books

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