Tags: history

cass, can you not

Two things make two-thirds of a post

Detective Comics #1000 was unexpectedly not bad. The general tone of the stories was hopeful (or at least as hopeful as Batman stories can get), and a couple were Very Batman ones, for personal values of Batman.

Also, courtesy of Wikipedia's daily email, the Names of Istanbul page. It turns out that the official renaming from "Constantinople" to "Istambul " only happened officially in 1930, much later than I had thought. On the other hand, "Istanbul" is a variant of the Turkish for, literally, "The City", and had been the informal name in Turkish for the city since even before 1453 (and, in Greek, even before that).

Istanbul means "The City." And it has been called "the city" for a long time regardless of the language.

I'm oversimplifying and focusing on a very narrow slice of a complex and certainly ambiguous history, but, gods, isn't that something?
cass, can you not

Books! (Malta and Murder, but not The Maltese Falcon, Edition)

John Hawkwood: An English Mercenary in Fourteenth-Century Italy (William Caferro , 2018/#86): The biography (as much of it as we know) of John Hawkwood, perhaps the most famous of the condottieri working in 1300's Italy. Some observations: Mercenary companies were much more in the extortion business (Nice city. It'd be a shame if somebody happened to it.) than in the business of inter-state violence. Mercenary societies and their names came and went, reused or anew (sometimes, hilariously, to get out of contractual commitments, e.g. not attacking the city that had bribed you not to a few months ago; although everybody was both very serious about drafting detailed legal contracts and rather cavalier about fulfilling them); captains were into it for direct personal gain, and it was captains, not companies, that got rich and/or not. Italians saw the English as bloodthirsty violence-happy barbarians, and weren't, comparatively speaking, necessarily wrong. This predates nationalities in the 19th century sense, but the English hated the Germans, the Germans hated the English, the Italians hated both (and, as Tom Lehrer sang in National Brotherhood Week, and everybody hates the Jews.). Mercenaries were damn expensive, completely unreliable, and yet more or less the strongest military actors of the area, where by the way cities (even the richest ones, like Florence) lacked the financial resources to pay them off, not that they wouldn't have raised their prices anyway — you can imagine the resulting issues. Hawkwood was a ruthless, shameless, money-hungry negotiator, and better and that than as actual warfare (both the author and his contemporaries made him up to be a genius; maybe it's all a matter of context and expectations?); his good reputation is mostly due to not having taking a bribe to switch sides early in his career (a move he didn't repeat very often) and having died just after conducting a good retreat while working for Florence, which — in the context of inter-city rivalry shown, among other ways, in "my mercenaries were/are better than your mercenaries" comparisons, specially after they were safely dead. That said, he was consistently sought by and bid for most of the Italian city states, who often thought it was money well spent to pay him to keep him from working for somebody else. Hawkwood always saw himself as English, ran diplomatic errands for the English king (actually he did a lot of diplomacy during his career (in his own name and for his own purposes, had a lot of money invested in Florentine debt and the Venetian market, and held a varying assortment of territories, often gave to him as payment or bribes — not a clear-cut difference there — from his employers, including the Pope, who had more territories, or at least was happier to give them away, than money), and kept buying states back home. Interestingly, he died, old and somewhat infirm, after a last military triumph (ok, successful retreat), when he had liquidated his territorial holdings in Italy, collected as much of the money he claimed it was owed to him as he could, married his daughters, and was ready to go back to England. If poetry applied here, I'd say that he might not have thought of himself as Italian, but Italy did see him as hers. (Frankly, if we are to imagine an Spirit of Italy, she'd been more than happy to see that bloodthirsty, unreliable, violent (and a cause of inter-state violence) thug dead or gone as soon as possible.) Doyle's The White Company (which was the name of many companies, one of those the one, made up basically from soldier who had fought in the ongoing French-English war, that Hawkwood rode into Italy as part of) has him as a minor character, by the way.

The Birth of the Archive: A History of Knowledge (Markus Friedrich, 2018/#87): The history of archives from the Late Middle Ages to the Early Modern period, mostly in France and Germany (with the obvious note that there was no such thing as Germany). The emphasis is double: archives are seen as activities rather than places — whatever power they have or enable is only after and through sustained, expensive, complex inputs of energy, political support, money, and resources, and even so never in a continuous or certain way — and how they look and how they are used has not just changed, but changed in ways that are less teleological than adaptive. There's continuity, constant partial disruptions, hybridities, etc. Given that, two important transitions that can be pointed out are first how more formalized (and centralized) concepts of nobility came to find much practical value in genealogical research — Early Modern nobles came to worry about that much more than their ancestors, who after all had more recent and, let's say, practical claims to power —, and second, how the French Revolution and associated disruptions in the Holy German Empire, even if to some degree rolled back, destroyed the charter-based, atomized concept of political power, and thence the very concrete patrimonial value of archives, which up to then were practical repositories that allowed people in power to supply (or, of course, hide) evidence of specific rights. An interesting if necessarily partial book; very little is said of the contemporary papal archives (a pity, although outside its geographical focus), and almost nothing of the Venetian ones (also a pity). But do keep in mind that the intersection of texts and numbers, matter, money, power, news, space, and time is one I find endlessly and viscerally fascinating in a way that's even more aesthetic than intellectual.

Miraculous Mysteries: Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes (ed. Martin Edwards, 2018/#88): A collection of late 19th-century/early 20th-century locked room(and -ish) murder mysteries in the Golden Age tradition. Some of them I had already known, and not everything has aged well — I find myself tolerating much better amateurish construction than editorializing authors (specially the self-describing first person POV), and editorializing authors than the racism and misogyny that pervaded, and/or was at the structural foundation of, those societies, not that we've improved that much — but, my tendency to endless fractal parenthetical asides aside, there were some entertaining stories in the collection.

Dominion: A History of England Volume V (Peter Ackroyd, 2018/#89): The Victorian bits, with the emphasis located on a mixture of Parliamentary politics (reasonable, given the tremendous legal changes during this period, pretty much building up the modern concept of State, if by a weird mixture of religious-social paternalism and short-term expediency) and impressionistic notes on culture and society. No manageable volume could possibly provide a good structured overview of a time in which so many things changed so profoundly — I think it was Vaclav Smil who noted that the last couple of decades of the 19th century, and the first one or two of the 20th, saw more significant change than at any other time before or since — but the overall impression was... muddled. Perhaps by design; one recurrent theme in the book is that nobody in power really new what the hell they were doing, even when (and it wasn't always) they new what they wanted to do. In that sense, it's a good political companion to Engineering Empires: A Cultural History of Technology in Nineteenth-Century Britain, which emphasizes the contingent and, I'd say, Latourian way in which technology developed. Of note: at the local scale, it was a far less violent period than they feared it could or would be, but much more than we usually imagine.

The Final Frontier (ed. Neil Clarke, 2018/#90): A good collection of contemporary short SF around the topic of space travel; there's a very "now" flavor to the technologies and plots, even when that technology is far from ours.

Islands and Military Orders, c.1291-c.1798 (ed. Emanuel Buttigieg and Simon Phillips, 2018/#99): A collection of articles on, well, the mutual interaction between islands (mostly Rhodes, Cyprus, and Malta, with an smattering of others) and European military orders most active during the period in the title (mostly the peripatetic Hospitallers, with a bit of the Teutonic Order and, when looking back, the Templars). Some of the articles focus strongly on the theoretical aspects of life in islands, most making variations of the argument that, given the relative costs of transport by water, islands weren't necessarily disconnected from mainland culture, economy, and politics, as much as compact — I would put it as nodes rather than fields — and that the built-in international nature of the Orders meant that this factor was multiplied. Rhodes and Cyprus had always been well-connected with their regions (after all the Eastern Mediterranean was still, during at least half of that period, the key axis of long-term trade for Europe), but Malta (which, by the way, the Order of St. John never wanted, and only accepted post-Rhodes as their wandering didn't found a better place) went from pretty much a poor rock into a pretty nice State and eventually even something of a stop in the Grand Tour. The book is too heterogeneous for me to recommend or dis-recommend (there are chapters in the numismatics of a small Hospitaller island during a pretty obscure period, a description of some minor castles, the relationship between the Hospitallers and Venice during the Second Ottoman-Venetian war, Papal diplomatic manouvers, water mills in Malta, and even that weird time when the Hospitallers bought a couple of islands in the Caribbean from the French, although they were forced to re-sell them at a pittance later), but you might find something of interest there.
cass, can you not

The adventure of the shifting social context

Yesterday it occurred to me that I'm most likely underestimating the originality, or at least the salience, of Doyle's concept of the Diogenes Club. A club where talk is forbidden is — essentially and leaving for a moment gently aside (but not giving our backs to, ever) gender and class issues — a very posh and utterly quiet Starbucks where you're absolutely safe from being hit on — an inherently and self-evidently attractive concept, I would feel.

And yet I suspect, in the context of Doyle's writing, a "club for the unclubbable" is rather a paradox with airs of chimeric monstrosity (along the lines of a woman voting, etc).

(By the way, and inspired by the way ideas of moral heredity color Doyle's stories, both implicitly and explicitly (and by the other way, my god isn't Gibbons an homophobic, misogynistic, racist idiot, and doesn't that, one suspects with a certain bitter glee, account for a lot of his dubious competence as analytic historian), and thinking back to how a lot of British ideas about race and heredity were indeed prompted by, and a response to, The Whole India Thing... dunno. There's something about the way racism survives but more family-specific concepts of heredity don't that is, I guess, a faint and almost abstract reason for very long-term hope. Or maybe it's just that it's a more generationally segregated culture, and the median racist is as uncomfortable with their specific ancestors (pace more generic chauvinism) as they are with their contemporaries.)
cass, can you not

Most of the people I meet is dead and/or fictional

Just met (metaphorically speaking, although wouldn't that be fun) Raimondo di Sangro: XVIth century Italian noble, inventor, and translator. Had his own printing press. Rumored to have done experiments on... problematically fresh humans. He destroyed his own scientific archive before he died. After his death, his descendants, under threat of excommunication by the Church due to di Sangro's involvement with Freemasonry and alchemy, destroyed what was left of his writings, formulae, laboratory equipment and results of experiments.

(Sounds like somebody you could write a Dan Brown/Umberto Eco thing about.)

Also, and to showcase the depths of my ignorance, I just learned that Stabat Mater is the title of a Catholic hymn about Mary standing at the Crucifixion. And now I have to give Masamune Shirow props, because in Ghost in the Shell: Man-Machine Interface there's a entertainment/religious organization (well, front) ran by a cyborg called Mother (you can guess who) through a literal crucifixion-like linking device. Considering the explicitly religious themes — plot — of the manga, it's not just a nice reference.
cass, can you not

Today I (re)read a bit of History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

It's completely obsolete from a historiographical point of view, of course — never mind the teleological, racist, misogynist, etc., assumptions embedded in Gibbon's worldview — but, still, he's one of the great stylists of the English language, and a very funny writer if you enjoy your dry deadpan in the form of long, beautifully structured pieces (and share enough of the background to pick up some of the less explicit digs; I'm sure I miss more of those than I get).

Read in the right frame of mind (i.e., without demanding historical or sociological insight, or actually not reading it for anything in particular), it works surprisingly well as a quiet, pleasingly pointless comfort read. (And not one you'll run out of very soon.)
cass, can you not

Books! (Secrets and Silence Edition)

The Politics of Disclosure, 1674-1725: Secret History Narratives (Rebecca Bullard, 2018/#51): A look at the very specific British genre of Secret Histories as derived from Procopius's secret history of the Justinian court (secret not so much because it told secrets, but because it remained unpublished for a thousand years, and meta-textually interesting in that it amended a previous "public history" written by Procopius itself). Apparently this ambiguity carried over to the British case; it was used by Whig writers to attack absolutism (the danger of "Arbitrary rule") by exposing the way public policy was driven (in pro-French, pro-Papacy ways) by Charles's erotic affairs, and later by Tory writers — e.g. Swift and Defoe, whose career as a spy I hadn't been aware of — deploying it with more ambivalent (and at least as commercial as political) ends. The book also has a very interesting chapter on how The Spectator repurposed the (politically negative) concept of "public secrecy" into a (socially positive) idea of discretion (composed in equal parts of absolute candor between close friends, and a very conventional and polite discretion in larger assemblies). All in all very interesting, and perhaps worth pondering in our current context (cf. political leaks, social networks, etc).

The Venice Variations: Tracing the Architectural Imagination (Sophia Psarra, 2018/#53): A frustrating combination of interesting observations about Venetian urban history, the practice and history of architecture, Invisible Cities, and a number of other ceteras, but embedded with a lot of (IMHO) not sufficiently grounded arguments based on the network topology and geometry of spaces and cities, as well as the "group theory" of the structure of texts; at its worst, it feels like Lacan's awful "use" of mathematics, and it eventually runs off into a combination of the obvious and the almost christological, an intellectual game that makes free verse look like some hyper-regimented version of chess.

History and Silence: Purge and Rehabilitation of Memory in Late Antiquity (Charles W. Hedrick, 2018/#54): The focus is on an inscription in a Roman monument in the late 430s, rehabilitating (sorta, the sorta being the point of the book) the memory of the elder Flavian, a Senator with a good career and reputation as a historian, who happened to throw his lot with the wrong (i.e., short-lived) usurper of the Western Empire; it turns out he became a bit infamous later on to Christian writers as the last of the active, revanchist pagans, although his motivations aren't quite that clear. Didn't keep his illegitimate consulate from being wiped from records, including that statue, and his memory being generally consigned to a damnatio memoriae. Not quite an abolitio, though, as a few decades later his son (the younger) Flavian, also building quite a nice Senatorial/Imperial asskissing career, got a rehabilitation inscribed over what was probably the erased inscription before. The whole thing is a surprisingly fertile ground for the author to discuss what in fact was and was supposed to be a damnatio memoriae (it was more about honor than forgetfulness, and never assumed to be complete), scribal and reading practices in late antiquity, the parallels in the practice of history and emendatio, the complex transition between paganism and Christianity, Macrobius' Saturnalia, and a whole bunch of slightly mystical musings about the semiotics of silence, aided by the nice coincidence that the ememdated elder Flavian was not just an historian but, as pretty much everybody in his class, including the Emperor, practiced what we'd call proofreading (like all scribal cultures, not to create a perfect text, but to patch the one he was using) and calligraphy, and that the inscription actually seems to have used that metaphor. So it's all a big ball of semiotics, memory, silence, amending texts, practicing history, Tacitus' survivors' guilt, and what not. Dry at times (and at others it breaks your heart over the difficulties of dealing with classical texts and inscriptions), but not at all uninteresting.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle, 2018/#55): A reread.

The Return of Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle, 2018/#56): A reread.

Masterpieces of Mystery in Four Volumes: Detective Stories (ed. Joseph Lewis French, 2018/#57): Quite uneven; as much as can be argued against Doyle's Holmes stories, they do have a certain quality in them that most of those who came afterward couldn't match. The capital-d Detective story isn't just about filling in the blanks.

Masterpieces of Mystery in Four Volumes: Mystic-Humorous Stories (ed. Joseph Lewis French, 2018/#58): As above, with the added difficulties that, while the detective archetype has become quite entrenched in our culture, specific forms of humor age less well, and the mystic fiction (and non-fiction) of late XIXth/early XXth century has definitely gone out of fashion (we still have supernatural fiction and non-fiction, some of it extraordinarily influential, but there isn't a line of descent, artistic or philosophical, from The Great God Pan to Harry Potter, except in the vague sense in which the British are always re-excavating and re-purposing their own, and everybody else's, myths).
cass, can you not

The sort of ridiculous biographical blurb that we call but aspire to

The introduction to Rodrigues Ottolengui's story in Nick Rennison's The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes:

BORN IN CHARLESTON, South Carolina in the year the American Civil War began, Ottolengui moved to New York in his teens to study dentistry and remained there for the rest of his life. When he died in 1937, most of his obituaries concentrated on his career as a pioneering dentist (he was one of the first practitioners in America to make use of Xrays) and on his status as an amateur entomologist who had become one of the world's leading experts on a particular family of moths. Few made much of the crime fiction he had published in the 1890s but Ottolengui's novels and (particularly) short stories featuring the professional detective Mr Barnes and the wealthy amateur Mr Mitchel are well worth reading. 'The Azteck Opal', originally published in The Idler in April 1895, is probably the best of them all.

This demands a Netflix series where he also, secretly, solves crimes or chases spies or something.
cass, can you not

Books! (Sinister Stuff Edition)

Sinister Aesthetics: The Appeal of Evil in Early Modern English Literature (Joel Elliot Slotkin, 2018/#38): This book deals a sort of aesthetic version of the problem of evil: as classical theories of poetry equate Beauty with Goodness, and enjoin the author to use poetry in a morally didactic way, how do you justify the use of evil in poetry — a since-influential but far from unique example in the period being Richard in Richard III — and, most worrisomely, the fact that it attracts people? Is there something wrong with the audience or with the theory? The book paints a picture of Early Modern English authors holding a fundamentally ambiguous position in which they pay lip to normative theories, while at the same time being very well aware of its limits, and therefore going ahead and showing evil anyway. Two factors of interest: the Augustinian understanding of a chiaroscuro Creation in which both evil and goodness are necessary for its proper appreciation (St. Augustine's description of his pleasure in pear-stealing because it was wicked left a nice little problem, if a very realistic and unavoidable one, for further theologians), and the fact that the way sermon preachers and printers, theater authors, and pretty much everybody else had to compete for a significant discretionary and socially diverse budget of time, money, and attention; whatever Plato had said about what should and shouldn't attract people, you had to go, within limits, with what worked in practice.

The book posits, opposed to and complementing normative aesthetics, a sinister aesthetics where people are also attracted to normatively unattractive things in ways that partially overlap and are partially in tension with the usual norms, and a perverse aesthetics where ugliness is deemed attractive because it's ugly. It makes a very interesting analysis of Richard's seduction of Anne (you know, the one literally in front of the newly-bleeding corpse of her husband, whom he killed), noting how both common sense and Richard himself make it untenable to suppose she forgets or excuses any of Richards normatively unattractive aspects, from his physical deformity to the bit about murdering her husband. Rather, Anne falls, not for Richard's falsehoods, but for the chutzpah, skill, and passion of his telling them, which aren't normatively attractive aspects but are certainly not perversely so, as proven by how often we, as audience, find ourselves entranced by the same. It's not my original reading of the scene, but I think it has a lot of value — as the author says, that scene isn't problematic because Richard succeeds, but rather his success is a synecdoche of the problem the play addresses.

The final stretch of the book extends this analysis to Paradise Lost in a most fascinating way. Quoth the author:

It is challenging but not insurmountably difficult to demonstrate, as a matter of doctrinal logic, that humanity is morally responsible for its own sins. Indeed, the Christian theological tradition is littered with such justifications. But God shapes the form that evil takes; as Shuger says, he "plots the didactic narrative of crime and punishment". It is precisely when we see divine providence as a literary narrative—as in the narratives of the Bible, of history, and of personal experience—that troubling questions arise about the sensibilities of the author.


Reconciling audiences aesthetically and emotionally to a teratogenic God is the most difficult element of a successful theodicy [The book engages quite interestingly with the way cheap prints of "monster ballads" and sermons dealt with the popular topic of "prodigious" births]. In order to make their vision of God palatable, religious writers must encourage audiences to cultivate and apply their sinister sensibilities, to take pleasure in God’s punishments rather than being appalled and repulsed by them as a normative framework would demand.

In this framework, Milton's sublime Satan (and in fact the theoretical concept of sublimity in this context was partly derived from attempts to explain the character's aesthetic power) isn't a mistake, or even in conflict with Milton's religious beliefs. It's rather a bold statement of the problem his theodicity has to deal with: not the justice of God's judicial choices, but the acceptability of his aesthetic ones. Milton does this, the author suggests, first by acknowledging the sinister appeal of Satan, and then, instead of making God's normative goodness somewhat seem more appealing, making Him a more deeply and powerfully sinister figure. In the religious world of Milton's age, that fear and dread could be part of the appropriate and pious reactions to the Divinity was much more accepted than in our own; while contemporary critics find Milton's God unappealing, that's in part because our religious normative views are, in a way, more Platonic — the Lord of Hosts was something else. He observes how the narrative shifts around the chronology so we shift from a sinisterly attractive, heroic, sublime Satan to a rather pitiful one under the heel of a much darker and, at least in Milton's intent, even more sinisterly sublime God — it's an aesthetic syllogism designed to teach readers proper appreciation of God's choices not by negating their cruel and horrifying aspects, but by activating and then leveraging the readers' own attraction for cruelty and horror.

Or, still paraphrasing the author, while other poets had to deal with justifying why they used evil in their creations (with partial successes at explanation, and very palpable ones at execution), Milton had to deal with justifying why God did it in His creation, and while the doctrinal explanation (basically, we, all of us, have it coming, whatever it might be) takes some space, the aesthetic appeal of the story itself is Milton's theodicity.

Applications to contemporary literature and media, even in our more secular age, are both obvious and interesting.

Shakespearean Arrivals (Nicholas Luke, 2018/#39): First the regrettable bits: the theoretical underpinnings of this are Hegel (ugh) and Badiou (double ugh; listen: trying to use the mathematical language of Set Theory to try to "prove" things about the metaphysics of political or literary events is either confused or deliberately confusing cargo cult thinking, but, again: Hegel (ugh)). That said, the overall argument on its own, despite the frequent dips into unwarranted metaphysical wordplay-as-argument, is interesting. Luke claims that some of the most interesting characters in Shakespeare don't (even in Watsonian terms) pre-exist their plays. Rather, Romeo and Juliet become Romeo-and-Juliet through, and because, what happens to them in the play and whether or not they choose fidelity this this exogenous, transformative Pauline Event (capital-E in the book) that's not something due to the character or the situation of the play, but rather in excess of it. They may or may not have some sort of previous receptivity — Macbeth isn't Duncan — but it's the Weird Sisters who introduce what I'd call a metanoia in the character, turning Macbeth from whatever he was into the Macbeth we care about (the book has a very ugly way of implying that only transformed characters matter, both in literature and in history, and fuck you — a couple of times it veers into defending revolutions because they are transformative, and screw the sheep and the bloodbath) .

Hamlet, as always, is a pickle. Luke identifies two transformative events: The explicit one is the Ghost, who both tries to re-normalize the situation so Hamlet can Get On With The Program and undermines it drastically by, well, being a bona fide Ghost; Hamlet's sort-of-but-not-quite-action root of his character, in this view, isn't a pre-play feature, but rather emerges from this encounter, as he tries to grapple with both the ghastly (heh) demands of the situation and the obvious inadequacy of the situation itself (what the book frequently and annoyingly calls the Void). The second transformative event isn't fully in our view, or localized in time and space; it's a bit of the trip to England, a bit of the graveyard scene, and a bit of everything, but whatever it is, it's what makes Act V Hamlet who or what he is, whatever the heck that is.

Finally, the book deals with Othello (identifying as the transformative event Desdemona's love; it's an interesting view, and I can see how it can be de-stabilizing for Othello) and King Lear; in the latter, and straining the interpretative framework almost to its limits, but what can you do, Cordelia's Nothing *is* the Event, the unexpected, impossible excess (specially if you're Lear), but instead of transforming her, it ricochets and spreads, transforming the entire kingdom and many of the people in it.

All in all, it's an interesting framework — that Shakespeare's characters *change* is one of the most obvious and powerful things about the plays — you just need to ignore the author's metaphysical underpinnings and slightly problematic (implied) politics.

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Twelve (ed. Jonathan Strahan, 2018/#40): Generally competent but, I don't know, uninspired? The "present concern bits" are handled perhaps too straightforwardly, and the "newness bits" are, by and large, the standard ones.

Society and Individual in Renaissance Florece (ed. William J. Connell, 2018/#41): A set of essays on Renaissance Florentine society, from urban violence to the economics and symbolism of dowries to the ways in which Florentine migrants and exiles did and did not integrate elsewhere. The writing is uneven, and overall it felt less interesting than I thought it'd be.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (Hugh Greene, 2018/#42): Don't be confused by the shared title: this is the collection of Master Detective late Victorian/early Edwardian stories compiled by Graham's brother and journalist/BBC honcho, not the collection of Master Detective late Victorian/early Edwardian stories compiled by Nick Rennison. Anyway, the usual suspects are there: Max Carrados, Dr. Thorndyke, etc. No specifically brilliant stories, but reliably enjoyable if the genre is among your jams.