October 31, 2017 § Leave a comment
I read Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others last week. For some reason, Sontag has always loomed on the fringes of my cultural radar, but I had never read anything by her, other than a few essays or excerpts over the years. In some ways, I found her glib and in others, profound. But I also found her presentist.
At the start of the second chapter, she quotes Gustave Moynier, who in 1899, wrote that “We know what happens every day throughout the whole world,” as he goes onto discuss the news of war and calamity and chaos in the newspapers of the day. Sontag takes issue with this: “[I]t was obviously an exaggeration, in 1899, to say that one knew what happened ‘every day throughout the whole world.'”
We like to think globalization is a new phenomenon, that it was invented in the past 30 years or so and sped up with the advent of the internet and, especially social media, as we began to wear clothes made in China, rather than the US or Canada or Europe. Balderdash. Globalization has been underway since approximately forever. Europeans in the Ancient World had a fascination with the Far East, and trade goods slowly made their way across the Eurasian landmass from China to Italy and Greece. Similarly, the Chinese knew vaguely of the faraway Europeans. In the Americas, archaeological evidence shows that trade goods made their way from what is now Canada to South America, and vice versa. Homer describes a United Nations amassing to fight for the Persian Empire against the Greeks.
Trade has always existed, it has always shrunk the world. Even the manner in which we think of globalization today, based on the trade of goods and ideas, became common place by the 18th century through the great European empires (meanwhile, in Asia, this process had long been underway, given the cultural connections between China and all the smaller nations around it from Japan to Vietnam).
For Sontag, though, her issue is with photographs. Throughout Regarding the Pain of Others, she keeps returning to photographs. She is, of course, one of the foremost thinkers when it comes to photographs, her landmark On Photography (1977) is still highly regarded. In many ways, Sontag seems to believe in the credo ‘pics or it didn’t happen.’
Thus, we return to Moynier and his claim to know what was going on in the four corners of the world in 1899. Sontag, besides taking issue with the lack of photographs, also calls on the fact that ‘the world’ Moynier spoke of, or we see in the news today, is a curated world. No kidding. But that doesn’t make Moynier’s claim any less valid than the New York Times’ claim to ‘print all the news that’s fit to print.’ That is also a carefully curated news source.
In Moynier’s era, Europeans and North Americans, at least the literate class, did know what was happening throughout the world. The columns of newspapers were full of international, national, and local news, just like today. And certainly, this news was curated. And certainly, the news tended to be from the great European empires. And that news about war tended to be about war between the great European empires and the colonized peoples, or occasionally between those great European empires. But that doesn’t make Moynier’s claim any less valid. He did know what was going on around the world. He just didn’t know all that was going on. Nor do I today in 2017, despite the multitude of news sources available for me. The totality of goings on world wide is unknowable.
And Sontag’s issue with Moynier is both a strawman and hair-splitting.
August 2, 2017 § 4 Comments
I am reading Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People. For those who don’t know, Painter is Professor Emeritus of History at Princeton University. She is, in academic parlance, a heavyweight. This might be one of the most frustrating books I have ever read. Not for its content argument and its basic argument, which is to trace the history of ‘whiteness’ as a social construct in American society, stretching back to the Greeks. Rather, it is frustrating for a certain sloppiness and factual inaccuracy that dogs the book.
Part of what we base our reputation and claims to authority on, as historians, is our attention to detail and our attempts to make sure we remain factually correct.
To wit, only seven pages in, in discussing the great Greek historian, Herodotus, Painter writes:
Herodotus’ world is still flat — that notion would stand for another thousand years.
She is correct, Herodotus did believe the world was flat. So, too, did, amongst others, Homer. But, for many Greek philosophers (to the Greeks, philosophy and science was the same thing), the world was anything but flat. Pythagoras (he of the theorem) was amongst many Greek thinkers who believed in a spherical Earth. Plato believed the world was spherical. So, too, did Aristotle. Eratosthenes, around 240, attempted to estimate the Earth’s circumference. He did this without any modern tools, of course, and though he was wrong in his estimation, he was only off by around 10%. The great Ptolemy thought the Earth spherical. So, too, did the Romans. Even the early Christian Church believed in the spherical nature of the Earth. Indeed, the belief in a spherical Earth lasted into the Middle Ages and beyond. Stephen Jay Gould argued that the belief in a flat Earth was non-existant amongst the educated classes of Medieval Europe. So, clearly, Herodotus’ error in the belief in a flat Earth did not stand for another thousand years.
Other anachronisms abound. For example, she discusses Samuel Stanhope Smith’s views on race during his academic career in late 18th and early 19th centuries. And while, when introducing him as the president of the College of New Jersey, she notes that said college is now Princeton University, on the very next page, she calls Smith the President of Princeton. He was not. Princeton did not exist until 1896, until then, it was the College of New Jersey.
And then there is a long discussion of the works of Gustave de Beaumont, a French lawyer, more famous for his fiction and quasi-sociological studies of the United States and Ireland. Beaumont is even more famous for being the second fiddle to Alexis de Tocqueville. Beaumont and Tocqueville were life-long friends and Beaumont accompanied Tocqueville on his famous tour of the United States that led to his legendary Democracy in America. In fact, Beaumont published his own work, a novel, that examined that which Tocqueville did not, race in America. But, his Marie, or Slavery in the United States, a Picture of American Manners, while it won the Prix Montyon of the Académie Française, quickly faded from view. Following their tour of the United States, the two French gentlemen made their way to Ireland, and were rather shocked by the wretchedness of the Irish peasants.
But here, Painter engages in some very sloppy and lazy historical accounting. The Irish Famine was from 1845-52. During the Famine, any number of ‘journalists’ headed out from London and other English cities to the Irish countryside, to see the conditions of the starving nation first-hand. Painter is correct to suggest many of these journalists thought the news reports sensationalized. They discovered they were not. But, she conflates, for example, Thomas Carlyle toured Ireland in 1849, two years after the worst of the Famine in 1847, but in the midst of the Famine. Painter conflates the trip of Beaumont and Tocqueville a decade earlier, before the Famine. She also goes on about the Famine conditions Beaumont saw and wrote about. Except, of course, he was in Ireland six years prior to the Famine.
She also, I should add, claims that the Irish were slaves in North America. That is the subject of another post, at an another time.
This is nothing but sloppy and lazy scholarship. Painter is flat-out wrong in her characterizations of views of the shape of the Earth and Beaumont’s journey to Ireland vis-à-vis the Famine. She severely mis-characterizes what Smith was president of. Errors like this should cause the reader to stop and question the author. Is the author to be trusted? How could she make such lazy mistakes?
And this is most unfortunate. Because The History of White People is a fascinating read for the very fact that Painter historocizes and problematizes whiteness as a category. Anyone who knows anything about race and science knows that race is social, not scientific construct, and yet it still dominates our society. So, quite frankly, unpacking the constructions of whiteness in the US is an important historical, sociological, and political act. I would say that this is a book that everyone should read, but such egregious errors with historical fact makes me hesitant.
December 15, 2014 § 8 Comments
I read my colleague Emerson Baker’s fantastic A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience this weekend. Salem bills itself as “Witch City, USA”, the image of a witch on a broom adorns the police cars here. My wife is on the board of the Salem Award Foundation, which seeks to draw
upon the lessons of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, [to promote] awareness, understanding and empathy in support of human rights, tolerance and social justice. We advance social change through educational programming, stewardship of the Salem Witch Trials Memorial as a place of reflection, and by awarding and celebrating contemporary champions who embody our mission.
As a public historian, the Hallowe’en silliness has fascinated me, as ‘ghost walks’ are held all around town, showing some of the locations sort of connected to the Witch Trials. I say ‘sort of’ because most of the action did not take place in Salem. Most of the accused came from Salem Village (then apart of Salem, now Danvers) and Andover. Some of the trials took place here, though. Nonetheless, every year, hundreds of thousands of people come to Salem, in the wake of the murder of twenty innocent people in 1692-3, most of them on Gallows Hill, to engage in revelry and have fun.
But, this is the first time I’ve engaged seriously in the actual history of the events. I knew the stories, I knew the outlines of what happened here and how those twenty people came to be killed in an explosion of mass hysteria. But, in reading Barker’s book I’ve been impressed at just how deeply held was the beliefs in witches in 17th century New England. Baker makes this argument forcefully, noting how a belief in witches, and in the wickedness of Satan drove Puritan beliefs. In this way, as he argues, witches became a convenient scapegoat in tumultuous times in Massachusetts. There was war with the aboriginals on the frontiers, from what is now Maine to towns located 15-20 miles inland from Salem, like Billerica. The economy was suffering. Puritans felt themselves under attack as religious toleration was extended.
Salem is itself named after the Hebrew word shalom, meaning peace, and is a shortened version of Jerusalem, or City of Peace. Massachusetts was established as a city on the hill, and Salem is amongst the oldest towns in Massachusetts, settled in 1626 by Roger Conant and a group of Puritans, and is two years older than Boston. In 17th century Massachusetts, Salem and Boston were the two major commercial and administrative centres in Massachusetts. All of this was under attack in the late 17th century.
The story Baker tells is not unlike that told by Angela Bourke in one of my favourite books, The Burning of Bridget Cleary, the story of the burning to death of Bridget Cleary, a 25-year old woman, by her husband, Michael, in 1895 in Ballyvadlea, in rural Co. Tipperary, Ireland. What seems a straight-forward case of domestic violence is more than that. Michael Cleary claimed his wife had been taken away by the faeries, and he killed the changeling posing as his wife, as the real Bridget would return from the nearby ringfort, where she had been held captive by the faeries. Bourke then ties the case of Bridget Cleary into larger stories of Irish nationalism and the fight for Home Rule; faeries, then, were a traditional folkway for the people of rural Ireland in a rapidly changing time.
Bridget is often called the ‘last witch’ to be burned in Ireland. She was never accused of witchcraft, so that’s unfair (yes, I am aware of my title). But what is interesting in the similarity of these two stories.
March 13, 2014 § Leave a comment
Last weekend, I read Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, the second of her dystopian trilogy (Oryx & Crake is the first part and MaddAddam is part three). I mentioned Oryx & Crake briefly in my post in January about my 2013 reading. There I noted I’ve never been an Atwood fan. But this trilogy is making me re-think my position. I spent a lot of time with both Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood simply overwhelmed with the world Atwood has created for this trilogy. I can see influences from outside sources, and with her previous fascinations with dystopia, most notably in The Handmaid’s Tale, but mostly I’m just impressed that Atwood could invent this alternate universe.
At any rate. Throughout The Year of the Flood, I appreciated reading a Canadian author, maybe out of a sense of missing home, or maybe just enjoying Atwood’s sly humour. The religious cult that is at the centre of this book, God’s Gardeners, have sanctified various ecologists, biologists, zoologists, and others who worked to protect the animals and the environment. God’s Gardeners are a pacifist, vegan sect who believe in the sanctity of all life, incorporating various aspects of Christianity, Buddhism, and the scientific revolution into their belief systems. When Adam One, the leader of God’s Gardeners gives a speech for the Feast of Saint Dian Fossey, Atwood slyly slips in Canadian content:
Today is Saint Dian’s Day, consecrated to interspecies empathy. On this day, we invoke Saint Jerome of Lions, Saint Robert Brown of Mice, and Saint Christopher Smart of Cats; also Saint Farley Mowat of Wolves, and the Ikhwan al-Safa and their Letter of the Animals. But especially Saint Dian Fossey, who gave her life while defending the Gorillas from ruthless exploitation. She laboured for a Peaceable Kingdom, in which all Life would be respected.
“Saint” Farley Mowat is one of Canada’s best-loved authors, at least he used to be. He’s still kicking around at age 92, but he reached the pinnacle of his fame in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. He is most known for his work on the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic and the wolves of the Canadian tundra. For me, though, he is the author of the children’s lit Canadian classic, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be. I loved that book when I was a child.
The “peaceable kingdom,” is a biblical reference, yes. But it is also a reference to Canada, the land of “peace, order, and good government,” according to the Constitution (though the latter has been lacking since January 2006).
March 10, 2014 § Leave a comment
I have just finished reading Jeremy Treglown’s fantastic Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory since 1936. Treglown is a literary critic, so he approaches history and memory in a manner rather different than a historian, nonetheless, there is definite overlap in methodologies. I must say, I was originally concerned when I picked up the book and read this on the dust jacket: “True or False: Memory is not the same thing as History.” Um, yeah, true. No kidding. But, the whims of publishers are rather different than the arguments of authors.
Treglown does a fantastic job of dealing with the complexities of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9 and then the long Francoist dictatorship from 1939 until the Generalisimo’s death in 1975 and the transition to democracy that followed. Treglown works very hard against the myth that Republicans = Good and Nationalists = bad during the Civil War. He also works hard against the myth that Franco’s régime was purely repressive and oppressive vis-à-vis art and artists, noting that a great amount of art (film, literature, music, visual art, sculpture) emerged in Francoist Spain. This is not to say that Treglown paints a rosy picture of Francoist Spain. He doesn’t. He doesn’t glorify Franco, but he seeks to complicate the dictator and the community of artists in Spain during and since the Civil War. He also deals with the complexity of characters like Camilo José Cela.
Cela was a nationalist soldier during the Civil War, and later worked as the censor for the Francoist state. And yet, he was also himself a novelist, and remarkably blunt and sensitive in his work. He began a literary journal in 1956 “as a way of countering cultural officialdom and giving space to the ideas of Spanish writers living abroad.” A noble sentiment, given that most of those expat Spanish writers were expatriates due to the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship.
Treglown points to Cela’s most famous work, San Camilo, 1936. While San Camilo, 1936, has been criticised for a lack of morality, both due to the amount of time the characters spend in brothels and Cela’s avoidance of the larger issues of the war, it is in the details that the novel works. Cela shows the moral and actual ambiguity of war, in Treglown’s words:
Above all, San Camilo, 1936 grieves for Spain, gazing at a graveyard full of flowers of all colors, ignoring the shouts of “¡Viva la república!” and “¡Viva España!” because “it is no use being too enthusiastic when melancholy nests in the heart.
But what mostly interests me about Treglown’s discussion about San Camilo, 1936 is the intersection between memory and forgetting. As Cela writes, “No one knows whether it is better to remember or to forget. Memory is sad and forgetting on the other hand usually repairs and heals.” Nevertheless, as Treglown notes, San Camilo, 1936, is essentially a “puzzled, angry act of commemoration.” In other words, Cela and his characters remain ambivalent with what is to be done with trauma, history and memory.
I find Cela’ claims about the virtues of forgetting to be interesting. We live in an era that seems to believe the opposite in many ways. In our times, cultural historical memories have been exhumed and examined in public. Sometimes this takes the form of commemoration, (such as in Cork, Ireland, in the summer of 1997, marking the 150th anniversary of the Famine) or commissions of Truth and Reconciliation (such as in South Africa after Apartheid). Treglown himself recounts attempts by the caretakers of Franco’s memory to maintain his dignity, three decades later at the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), a huge monument outside of Madrid to honour the Nationalist fallen of the Civil War. Meanwhile, since the end of the dictatorship in 1975, the Spanish have attempted to exhume the bodies of massacred Republican soldiers and sympathisers. Indeed, the balance of power has tipped in favour of the Republicans, to the point where the atrocities committed by them during the Civil War have been whitewashed, just as the Francoists whitewashed the Nationalist atrocities.
Cela’s words, however, led me to think about Marc Bloch’s blistering Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence Written in 1940, about the quick Fall of France at the start of the Second World War. Bloch, a captain in the French Army and the country’s most famous historian, wrote this on the run from the Nazis (who eventually killed him). Strange Defeat is a searing book, almost painful to read, written by a fierce French patriot stunned and shocked his nation collapsed in defeat at the hands of the Nazis. Bloch blames France’s political and military leaders for failing to have prepared for modern warfare. And while Bloch remains an annaliste (the school of historical scholarship Bloch pioneered) in writing Strange Defeat, the immediacy of the events he’s describing and his anger and fury are clear.
Bloch was too close to the events, and too involved, to provide a long-view analysis of the Fall of France (nor, for that matter, did he wish to). The same can be said of Cela, a Nobel laureate. San Camilo, 1936 was published in 1969, thirty years after the end of the Civil War, while Franco was still alive and in power. Cela, like Bloch, was involved in the events his novel attempts (or doesn’t attempt) to deal with, and his view on the past, memory, and forgetting is perhaps not surprising.
My grandfather, Rodney Browne, was 17 when he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1943. He was a tail gunner, which meant his chances of survival were pretty slim. And yet he did survive, and he came home to Montréal in 1945 with the conclusion of the war. But he was traumatised, deeply. He suffered silently, primarily by drinking. And he was restless, unable to settle into a job or family life, until his late 40s/early 50s, nearly thirty years after the war. By the time I was born, Rod was settled, married again, and he was a good grandfather. It is from him that I gained an historical consciousness about the Irish in Montréal. He didn’t talk about his past much, and he never talked about the war. I later found out that this was pretty common for men of his generation who served in the Second World War. He didn’t want to remember, which is why he drank when he got home, trying to obliterate those memories.
So maybe, it is the generation who lives through the worst of the trauma that wishes to forget, to never have to think of the atrocities they saw or committed. It is their descendants who feel the need to excavate these memories. Either way, these are not complete thoughts on memory, commemorations, and forgetting. Memory and forgetting remain incredibly powerful tools in historical scholarship.
February 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
Last February, I was back in Vancouver for a visit. I love visiting Vancouver, a city I know well (having grown up there). Everytime I’m back in town, I go to Blackberry Books on Granville Island. I have bought many, many books there over the years. This time when I was in, I got into a long chat with the guy working there about history and fiction (two of my favourite subjects) and he recommended Karl Marlantes’ sprawling Vietnam War book, Matterhorn. It’s an epic novel, telling the story of a young Marine lieutenant, Waino Mellas, and his indoctrination into the jungle war. It takes a long, long time to get going, I must say, but eventually it became engrossing and nearly impossible to put down. The guy at Blackberry Books said that he doesn’t read long fiction anymore, but this book was an exception to his rule. I agree. For some odd reason, probably due to the amount of American history I’ve taught of late, I’ve read a lot of Vietnam War fiction, and Matterhorn is definitely up there with Tim O’Brien’s two works, The Things They Carried and If I Die in A Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home.
January 2, 2014 § 5 Comments
I read. A lot. In 2013, I decided to track the books I read for pleasure, so I created this stack. It got dangerously tall and slightly unsteady around November. This also doesn’t include the other two dozen books I read for classes and research purposes in 2013. But of this stack of 33 books I read in 2013, I can happily report that almost all of them were excellent reads and all but a couple were, at least for me, important reads. I have blogged about some them already. (Kim Eichlen’s The Disappeared; Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints (and here) Teofilio Ruiz’s The Terror of History; C.J. Shivers’ The Gun; Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind (also here); Terry Eagleton’s On Evil; and Amy Waldman’s The Submission). Time permitting, I will write about more of these books.
So, for those wondering, the best non-fiction book I read last year was Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind, with Eagleton’s On Evil a close second. As far as fiction goes, I’d say it was a tie between Hilary Mantel’s Bringing Up the Bodies, Zadie Smith’s NW and the grande dame of CanLit, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. Here’s the interesting thing: I’ve never liked Atwood. I’ve always thought that her ability as a writer couldn’t cash the cheques here imagination wrote. But Oryx and Crake has caused me to re-think my position. The next two books in that trilogy, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam are in my stack of books to read already.
The only truly disappointing book I read in 2013 was the 1993 Booker Prize winner, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, by Roddy Doyle, the great Irish novelist whose work I have always enjoyed. Tant pis.