October 14th, 2017

cass, can you not

Books! (Empire is a Verb Edition)

Dialogues with the Dead: Egyptology in British Culture and Religion, 1822-1922 (David Gange, 2017/#75): The past is indeed a foreign country: 19th century Britain was so stepped in Biblical culture than for a very, very long while Egyptology was about finding information about Joseph, the Exodus, etc (mirroring how Schliemann was believed to have found not only Troy, but basically the entire settings and props of the very literally accurate Homeric epic). Sometimes it was about pre-Christian prefigurations of Christianity (both occultists of the "Western school" and very traditional Christians believed this). Not a lot of attention was given to Champollion's work for a very long time. When it ceased to be about the Bible, it was because it began to be about eugenics and the entire psychosocial freakout about race. Yay.

The Gothic Cathedral: Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order (Otto Georg Von Simson, 2017/#76): I'm not sure how canonical (pun not intended, but not regreted either) is noawadays this interpretation, but even if a creative misreading in the Bloomian sense, this is a fascinating view of Gothic architecture (in the Medieval original, not post-Medieval interpretation). The basic idea is that, mostly via St Augustine, the Neoplatonists, and a certain St. Dennis that conflated both a medieval local saint and the nearly Apostolic Pseudo-Dionysius, the basic structure of the cosmos was geometrical (in the sense of ratios), which meant musico-mathematical (in the Pythagorean sense), which meant in a way architectonical (in the Augustinan sense in which music and architecture aren't spiritual because they transmit beauty, the transmit beauty because they are spiritual); God was the Architect, His cosmos theologically transparent, the first self-revelation, before the Incarnation. In that sense, a building guided by divine proportions of geometrical nature (1:1, 1:2, 2:3, the "true measure" of the square root of two, the Golden Ratio, etc) wasn't, unlike the Romanesque case, an *image* of the trascendental (which, in the Medieval metaphysics, was the only real), but rather a *model*, and in that sense, sharing, in a way both anagogical and literal, the trascendent. Abbot Suger, whom the author grants a lot of control on the design, is told to have built theology, a phrase I like very much, where light — the least "physical" of the physical phenomena — and proportion were, well, transparently the point. By the way, Solomon's Temple was held to have been the first of the divinely inspired buildings (its measurements, as described by the Bible, of critical architectural-metaphysical (less of a distinction for them) importance). The book doesn't mention this, but *now* I get why the Freemasons traced their origins to the builders of Solomon's temple, through the Medieval ones (this is, before it got mixed with the pre-Champollion pseudo-Egyptian strain of occultism), and why they chose the compass and the angle as symbols. If you grant all of the above metaphysics (in whatever diluted or mostly-forgotten format), then the builders of Solomon's Temple had direct access to metaphysically central secrets about the true structure of the universe, some of which they could conceivably have transmitted through (anachronistic for most of the period) guilds. My impression is that by the time of the Masonic order, they had forgotten the actual theology behind the architectural metaphor, so they used whatever version of the Hermetic Misunderstanding they had at hand (I mean, the idea of macro-micro correspondences is indeed Neoplatonic, but they focused on, as it were, ideographic or linguistic similitudes rather than geometrical (in the contextual sense) anagogical relationships. Even disregarding the Pagan content, I suspect neither Sugernor Augustine would have approved of a God that were less a Musician/Architect than an Edward Nygma. It wasn't how things sounded or looked like, but how they embodied, always imperfectly, metaphysical truths (of course, this is one interpretation of one intellectual strand in one place and time; it could even not be enough to be a good partial description — but it's certainly an interesting description of a fascinating worldview, and that's enough to recommend the book).

Subotai the Valiant: Genghis Khan's Greatest General (Richard A. Gabriel, 2017/#77): A bit hagiographical, and somewhat repetitive, but it's not uninteresting, and it's inarguable that Subotain was one of the greats. It's interesting how, to a larger degree than I thought, the Mongol conquests sort of happened (e.g., the thing with the caravan which ended up with the conquest of the Khwarezmid Empire, a brutal and strategically brilliant campaign). Another thing this book reinforced for me is how, for most of history and for most political organizations, paying tribute/bribes/lunch money to each other was one of those things, and didn't seem to feel like a mortal disgrace to anybody. Plenty of ways to save face, anyway. (I do wonder if democracies are somewhat less rational in that sense.) The author claims that the Mongol operational art ended up influencing WWII Germany through the ideas they picked up from the Soviets before the war, which they learned, surprisingly or perhaps not, not from their painful history with the Mongols, but from historical research of the steppe people in their territory (which the conveniently forgot when Stalin did one of his purges). It's a somewhat tenous link, depending on the influence of specific people at specific moments, but I find it believable enough.

A Tale of Two Monasteries: Westminster and Saint-Denis in the Thirteenth Century (William Chester Jordan, 2017/#78): What the title says. Those two monasteries, playing no small role in the political and religious (not that the difference was that clear at the time) lives of England and sort-of-France, are an interesting point of view to look at those countries at that moment in time, specially because the kings of France and England at the time (two each) were devout in ways closely related to those monasteries.

The Manchu Way (Mark Elliott, 2017/#79): Elliott's thesis is that the root of the Quin dynasty's Eight Banners was ultimately ethnic: by separating physically, culturally, and economically (manchus in the banners system, i.e., manchus, were forbidden from doing anything else except official positions), they attempted to keep a separate identity that guaranteed the survival of the dynasty (initially through old-fashioned intimidation, but, as the reputation of the banners quickly went from being fearsome warriors to being lazy, corrupt, and incompetent, mostly through the fact of separation itself). It was fiscally ruinous, and to the extent that it worked it did so in a circular way: it didn't prevent Manchus from losing not only their traditional martial skills, but also even their ability to speak their original language, but eventually pertencence to the banners, and the corresponding lifestyle characteristics (none of them martial, and mostly based around the fact that their "ate the Emperor's rice"), came to define manchuness. Paraphrasing the author, ethnicity is a characteristic of how an interaction is read, rather than of a population — regardless of which the court's eventual, and futile, attempts to reduce the expenses involved went always along the lines of priviledging "blood" Manchus bannermen over Mongols, but mainly over the Chinese bannermen. All in all, a very interesting look at an aspect of Chinese history I hadn't had the slightlest knowledge of.

Spain in Italy: Politics, Society, and Religion 1500-1700 (Ed. Thomas Dandelet, John Marino, 2017/#80): A quite interesing, if diverse, set of essays about the ways Spain (or the crown of Castile, and/or Charles V/Philip II/Philip III, and/or etc) ruled over, influeced, or failed to different parts and aspects of Italy. It was all very Habsburg even to begin with: they had very different claims over Milan, Naples, and Sicily (and types and levels of influence; Cosimo I's marriage with the daughter of the Toledo viceroy was, apparently, huge at a number of levels), different rights vis a vis the Church, a complex sets of relationships with the (very varied) local societies, etc. A fun factoid: the Spanish — both the crown and the people — paid for a lot of St. Peter's as we know it. Somehow and unsurprisingly Italian tourist guides don't quite mention it.