Review: At the Existentialist Café

Review: At the Existentialist Café
At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.

Sarah Bakewell has followed her lovely book about Montaigne with an equally lovely book about the existentialist movement. Comparing the books, one can see an obvious theme emerge in Bakewell’s writing: the interest in practical philosophy. Montaigne and the existentialists share the tendency to write about their own lives and, in various ways, to attempt to live out the tenets of their philosophies. This makes Bakewell’s biographical method especially revealing and rewarding, while at the same time adding a subtle, highbrow self-help aspect to her books—life lessons with the imprimatur of big names and fine prose.

Bakewell attempts to tell the story of the existentialist movement from its twentieth-century beginnings (skipping over precursors such as Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard) to its apparent end, with the deaths of its principle architects. The four main protagonists are Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre (who, unsurprisingly, is the dominant personality), along with shorter appearances by other thinkers: Husserl, Camus, Raymond Aron, Karl Jaspers, and Simone Weil, to name the most prominent. When you consider the sheer amount of biographical and philosophical material this list represents, you realize the magnitude of the task set before Bakewell, and the consequent skill she demonstrated in producing a readable, elegant, and stimulating book.

I am sorry to say that I have read very little of the writings of the principle actors, with the exception of Heidegger. Bakewell’s account of him mostly confirmed my own experiences with the infuriating metaphysician, especially in his disturbing lack of character and, indeed, of basic humanity. Sartre comes across as far more human, if not exactly more likable. Few people could hear of Sartre’s enormous philosophical, biographical, journalistic, and literary output, over so many years, without feeling a sense of awe. Nevertheless, Sartre’s opinions rarely struck me as measured or reasonable. Though I often mourn the decline of the public intellectual, Sartre’s example gives me pause, for his influence on contemporary politics was not necessarily salubrious. Perhaps it is true that intellectuals, seeking consistency and clarity, are naturally inclined towards extreme positions. Sartre was, in any case, and it led him into some foolish and even reprehensible positions.

By contrast to these two giants, Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty come off rather well in this story. The former tempered her political opinions with a greater subtlety, thoroughness, and empathy; while the latter lived a quietly productive and happy life, while creating a philosophy that Bakewell argues constitutes the greatest intellectual legacy of the bunch.

Just as Bakewell argued that Montaigne’s writings are newly relevant for his sense of moderation, so she argues that the existentialists are newly relevant for exploring the questions of authenticity and freedom. Not having read most of their work, I cannot comment on this. But what I found most inspiring was their burning desire to think and to write—and to write like mad, for hours each day, in every genre, for decades on end. Though most of this writing was born today to die tomorrow, each one of them produced a magisterial tomb for future readers to beat their heads against. I suppose I will have to pick them up sometime soon.



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Review: The Invention of Nature

Review: The Invention of Nature
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Alexander von Humboldt was a remarkable man. Simultaneously a savant and an explorer, he knew everyone, studied everything, and did his best to travel everywhere. Andrea Wulf brings together the many seemingly divergent worlds that he bridged: the worlds of Thomas Jefferson, Simón Bolívar, Napoleon, Goethe, Charles Darwin, and even Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He left his fingerprints on the worlds of science, literature, art, and even politics. Yet today he is (or was, before Wulf) a fairly obscure figure in the English-speaking world.

Thus this book is not simply a biography, but an attempt at rehabilitation. Wulf wishes to restore Humboldt to his place of honor; and she does this by arguing that his influence has been fundamental and pervasive. But before she can deal with Humboldt’s reputation, she must first narrate the scientist’s own coming of age. Humboldt was one of these figures with seemingly boundless energy, who threw himself into his work with complete abandon. We watch the young Humboldt as he struggles with, and finally throws off, the expectations of his upbringing, and then dashes away to South America. Once he embarks on his voyage, it does not take a strong writer—which Wulf is—to make his story exciting. Humboldt’s own travelogues were bestsellers.

Humboldt emerges from his travels with a concept of nature which, Wulf argues, was revolutionary and which became extremely influential. Wulf identifies three new elements of Humboldt’s approach to nature: First, that nature cannot be understood without both the scientific and the poetic eye; analysis and sentiment are necessary to do justice to the natural world. Second, that the living world must be understood as a gestalt, with organisms depending on one another in an intimate set of relationships that boggles the intellect. And third, that scientists must think on a global scale if they wish to understand the complex interactions between plants, animals, and climates.

This is the meat of the book. Yet it is here that I began to shift from enchantment to disappointment. For Wulf does not do nearly enough work to convince the skeptical reader that Humboldt’s view of nature was so entirely new. I would have appreciated far more background on previous conceptualizations of the natural world. Without this, it is hard to tell where Humboldt was innovative. Further, Wulf is always rather vague with Humboldt’s actual scientific contributions. She elects to keep the narrative pace driving forward, which doubtless helped her sales; yet I would have appreciated an explanation of Humboldt’s thought in more detail, with a good deal more quoting of the man.

Conversely, Wulf could have greatly reduced the space devoted to the men Humboldt influenced. She has individual chapters for John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, George Perkins Marsh, and Ernst Haeckel—space that she uses as opportunities to prove her thesis that Humboldt’s writings were fundamental to their success. But I found the biographical detail for these men excessive, and her point overstated. She makes it seem as if these men owed their accomplishments—if not wholly, at least in large part—to Humboldt’s influence. But you cannot measure influence, and you cannot prove a counterfactual (what would they have done without Humboldt?). In any case, the point is entirely abstract without a more careful discussion of Humboldt’s ideas; lacking that, it is not possible to say where his influence begins or ends.

By now I am convinced that Humboldt was an important and compelling figure in the history of science. But I am far from convinced that his late obscurity was a mere result of anti-German prejudice caused by the two World Wars, as Wulf claims in the Epilogue. Too many other German scientists and philosophers remained famous. Rather, I think Humboldt may have fallen into obscurity because it is difficult to do justice to the nature of his contribution. Unlike Darwin, he did not originate any major scientific theory that could unify a great many phenomena under a simple explanation. Humboldt’s major contributions seems to be perspectival: seeing nature as complex yet whole, as godless yet beautiful, as vast and inhuman yet spiritually refreshing. And it is difficult to work that into a textbook.



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Review: TITAN: the Life of John D. Rockefeller

Review: TITAN: the Life of John D. Rockefeller

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

He played golf assiduously, always alone, matching his record on one day against his record on another; just what the saints do when they daily examine their conscience… Such was probably also the interest dominating Rockefeller’s chase after millions. He was beyond comparing himself with his competitors; he compared himself with himself.

—George Santayana

As a child of Sleepy Hollow, I have almost literally grown up in Rockefeller’s shadow. The best walking paths in the area are in the Rockefeller State Park Preserve, an expansive and beautiful slice of forest made from a part of Rockefeller’s former estate. I can also walk to Rockwood, a park with a gorgeous view of the Hudson River, where John’s brother William had his mansion (since demolished). John D. Rockefeller’s own mansion, Kykuit, sits atop the nearby Pocantico Hills, and is a popular tourist destination. And yet, aside from his reputation as an ultra-rich monopolist, I knew almost nothing about the man.

Thus I turned to Ron Chernow, and I am glad I did. For Rockefeller presents a challenging subject for would-be biographers. A private, reserved, and even a secretive man, John D. Rockefeller was a beguiling mixture of avarice and piety; and throughout his life he has provoked both passionate praise and vicious criticism. Since Rockefeller himself was so guarded during his lifetime, never spontaneous or candid, while achieving such historical importance, it is hard to resist the urge to simplify his character—merely to fill up the lacunae he left. Luckily, Chernow’s patience and sensitivity allow him to paint a convincing and unforgettable portrait of this evasive figure.

As Chernow himself says, Rockefeller was the walking embodiment of Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic. He was actuated by a faith which told him that it was his holy duty to work zealously, and which taught him to see his own success as divine favor and his rivals’ failure as divine retribution. This faith in his mission and his rectitude gave him a purpose and a justification, pushing him to work more devotedly than his colleagues, and to feel no pangs of remorse for those he bruised along the way. His outstanding strengths were his iron will and his extreme deliberation. He kept to a rigid schedule, never acted impulsively, tabulated all of his personal expenses in a little booklet, and even showed up to work on his wedding day. This was a man who made money with the morbid devotion of a saint.

During the sections charting Rockefeller’s rise to success, I was filled with a horrified disgust with the man. Such a joyless, self-righteous hypocrite—filling his pockets with gold and wagging his fingers at the poor. I did not see anything to praise in his religion of money. Simple greed is noxious enough, but sanctimonious greed is revolting.

Yet by the end of the book I found that I both liked and admired the man, or at least the man he later became. For Rockefeller, while full of his own vices, was free of many of the vices we associate with the rich. He was neither ostentatious nor profligate; and if his puritan strictness seems joyless—his hatred of drink, cards, smoking, or anything remotely racy—it at least saved him from hedonistic debauchery. And as he grew older, he became more playful, giving away dimes to strangers, riding around in sporty automobiles, and obsessively playing golf. I was surprised to learn that Rockefeller retired early from his post at the helm of Standard Oil, ceasing all regular duties in his fifties, only retaining a symbolic title. Clearly, he saw more to life than work and money.

But Rockefeller’s greatest virtue was his charity. He gave profusely and generously throughout his life, even more than Andrew Carnegie. Much of this was new to me (for example, I had no idea he founded the University of Chicago); and this is no accident, since Rockefeller did not like putting his name on things. (His name was so vilified anyway it would likely have hampered his charities.) And contrary to what you might expect, Rockefeller’s philanthropic impulse was deep and genuine, something he had from the beginning of his life. According to Chernow, Rockefeller’s contributions to medical research revolutionized the field. So on a purely utilitarian tabulation of pain and pleasure inflicted, Rockefeller probably comes out positive in the end. (Rockefeller himself, of course, thought that his life had been virtuous from beginning to end, and never conceived charity as recompense.)

As I hope I have made clear, Rockefeller was a complex man—or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that he continually resists attempts to stereotype him, which is always uncomfortable. And it is a testament to Chernow’s ability that he captures Rockefeller in all these aspects. Now, this was my first Chernow biography and, I admit, I was somewhat disappointed at first. Naturally, I measured this book against Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, and found Chernow’s book very thin on historical background by comparison. But Chernow partially compensates for this with his fine psychological sensitivity, as sharp as a first-rate novelist. The result is a thoroughly engrossing biography, so good that I am left wishing Chernow had made it longer—specifically during Rockefeller’s early years. And you know a book is good when 700 pages does not satisfy.

 


(As an afterthought, I would like to note how gratifying it is when different books serendipitously overlap. I knew of Charles Strong as one of George Santayana’s best friends, familiar to me from Santayana’s autobiography and his letters. But I did not remember that Strong married Bessie Rockefeller, John’s eldest child, who went insane and died at the age of forty. Santayana helped to look after Bessie’s daughter, Margaret, and even handed her off during her wedding.)

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Review: Autobiography (Darwin)

Review: Autobiography (Darwin)

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–82The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–82 by Charles Darwin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have attempted to write the following account of myself, as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life. Nor have I found this difficult, for life is nearly over with me. I have taken no pains about my style of writing.

This is the quintessential scientific autobiography, a brief and charming book that Darwin wrote “for nearly an hour on most afternoons” for a little over two months. Originally published in 1887—five years after the naturalist’s death—it was somewhat censored, the more controversial religious opinions being taken out. It was only in 1958, to celebrate the centennial of The Origin of Species, that the full version was restored, edited by one of Darwin’s granddaughters, Nora Barlow.

The religious opinions that Darwin expresses are, nowadays, not enough to raise eyebrows. In short, his travels and his research slowly eroded his faith until all that remained was an untroubled agnosticism. What is interesting is that Darwin attributes to his loss of faith his further loss of sensitivity to music and to grand natural scenes. Apparently, in later life he found himself unable to experience the sublime. His scientific work also caused him to lose his appreciation for music, pictures, and poetry, which he heartily regrets: “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts,” he says, and attributes to this the fact that “for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry.”

The most striking and lovable of Darwin’s qualities is his humility. He notes his lack of facility with foreign languages (which partially caused him to refuse Marx’s offer to dedicate Kapital to him), his terrible ear for music, his difficulty with writing, his incompetence in mathematics, and repeatedly laments his lack of higher aesthetic sensitivities. His explanation for his great scientific breakthrough is merely a talent for observation and dogged persistence. He even ends the book by saying: “With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that thus I should have influenced to a considerable extent the beliefs of scientific men on some important point.” It is remarkable that such a modest and retiring man should have stirred up one of the greatest revolutions in Western thought. Few thinkers have been more averse to controversy.

This little book also offers some reflection on the development of his theory—with the oft-quoted paragraph about reading Malthus—as well as several good portraits of contemporary thinkers. But the autobiography is not nearly as full as one might expect, since Darwin skips over his voyage on the Beagle (he had already written an excellent book about it) and since the second half of his life was extremely uneventful. For Darwin developed a mysterious ailment that kept his mostly house-bound, so much so that he did not even go to his father’s funeral. The explanation eluded doctors in his time and has resisted firm diagnosis ever since. But the consensus seems to be that it was at least in part psychological. It did give Darwin a convenient excuse to avoid society and focus on his work.

The final portrait which emerges is that of a scrupulous, methodical, honest, plainspoken, diffident, and level-headed fellow. It is easy to imagine him as a retiring uncle or a reserved high school teacher. That such a man, through a combination of genius and circumstance—and do not forget that he almost did not go on that famous voyage—could scandalize the public and make a fundamental contribution to our picture of the universe, is perhaps the greatest argument that ever was against the eccentric genius trope.

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Review: Lives of the Artists

Review: Lives of the Artists

Lives of the ArtistsLives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An artist lives and acquires fame through his works; but with the passing of time, which consumes everything, these works—the first, then the second, and the third—fade away.

After Plutarch’s Lives, Vasari’s Lives of the Artists is likely the most iconic collection of biographies of famous men. He published two editions of the book, the first in 1550, the second in 1568; and both found success in Vasari’s lifetime and have continued to sell well ever since. In life Vasari was a typical Renaissance man, achieving fame for his paintings (he decorated the Palazzo Vecchio) and his architecture (he was responsible for the loggia of the Uffizi), in addition to his work as a biographer. Granted, his paintings are not highly regarded nowadays (though many are pleasing enough to my eyes); but this posthumous verdict did not prevent him from making a fine living. And when you write the first book of art history in the history of art, the rest hardly matters.

The edition I own is highly abridged, as are nearly all popular versions, since the original contains dozens upon dozens of painters, sculptors, and architects—most of whom the casual reader does not know of or care for. This explains why most of the Lives are so short. Indeed, fans of any particular Renaissance artist are liable to be disappointed by Vasari’s treatment. He runs through Sandro Botticelli in all of ten pages, for example, barely pausing to mention the Birth of Venus. Indeed, many of these biographies are hardly biographies at all, just extended catalogues of works. This is certainly useful for the art historian (though Vasari made many mistakes) but it does not make for electrifying reading.

The modern psychoanalyzing mode of artistic biographies was, of course, entirely alien to Vasari, and he seems to regard the artist’s personality as a source of gossip but not of insight. This does not prevent him from including many good stories. Like Plutarch himself, Vasari is rich in anecdote—and, as in Plutarch, half of them are probably false. Fact or fiction, a good story is preferable to a dry fact, and this is when Vasari’s Lives really come alive. We hear of Cimabue agreeing to take on Giotto as a pupil, after seeing the young boy scratching on a stone; or of Paolo Uccello staying up long nights to work on problems of perspective. Whether these stories help us to understand the paintings is doubtful; but they do help to bring alive this amazing time in history.

Vasari begins the book with a sketch of the history of art as he understood it. His opinion is not a masterpiece of subtlety. In essence, the Greeks and Romans understood that art begins by copying nature, and so produced excellent works; then art fell into barbarism (Vasari coined the term “gothic” to describe medieval art) in which the ancient knowledge was lost and artists had no knowledge of proper technique; finally the painter Giotto came and revived the arts, inaugurating a process that culminated in the works of Michelangelo. I must say that this view, though little more than naked prejudice, is at least refreshing in Vasari’s conviction that art was ascending and culminating in his own epoch. (Most of us are disposed to think it is declining.) It is striking that Michelangelo’s historic importance was understood even during his own lifetime. This was not an age of poor Van Goghs working in lonely shacks. The great artists were recognized and rewarded when they lived; and younger artists were seen to have surpassed their masters—novel concepts in our romantic age.

The Life of Michelangelo, whom Vasari knew and worshipped, is by far the longest and forms the core of this collection. Indeed, all the other lives can be seen as mere leadup to the great Florentine, who fulfils all the promise of former ages. Vasari here turns from chronicler to hagiographer, praising Michelangelo with every breath. You might even say that Vasari turns into quite the Boswell, including various bits of Michelangelo’s conversation, and also several letters written to him by the great artist, as if to prove that Michelangelo really was his friend. All this makes for good reading, even if the worshipful tone is grating. The second longest Life in my collection is that of another Florentine (Vasari was a fierce patriot of his home city), Filippo Brunelleschi. This life is perhaps even better than that of Michelangelo, as Vasari charts the squabbles and drama behind the scenes of Brunelleschi’s dome.

Vasari’s style is easygoing and almost conversational, and the pages go by quickly. He strikes me as a man full of shallow opinions but of a generous mind and a steady judgment. This book—full of errors, lacking any historical context, and greatly out of step with modern opinion—could hardly be read as a standalone volume on Renaissance painting. But every book on the subject borrows, knowingly or unknowingly, from Vasari, who has given bread to scholars and delight to readers for generations with this charming book.

I have endeavored not only to record what the artists have done but to distinguish between the good, the better, and the best, and to note with some care the methods, manners, styles, behavior, and ideas of the painters and sculptors; I have tried as well as I know how to help people who cannot find out for themselves to understand the sources and origins of various styles, and the reasons for the improvement or decline of the arts at various times and among different people.

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Review: Plutarch’s Lives

Review: Plutarch’s Lives

Parallel LivesParallel Lives by Plutarch

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ease, and speed of execution, seldom produces work of any permanent value or delicacy. It is the time which is spent in laborious production for which we are repaid by the durable character of the result.

In the course of his grand theory of history, Oswald Spengler distinguishes what he sees as the fundamental difference between the ancient Greco-Roman and the contemporary Western cultures: the Greek’s ideal concept was of bounded, perfect forms, while the Western soul craves the boundless, the formless, and the infinite. It is a somewhat vague statement, I know, but I kept coming back to Spengler’s idea as I read Plutarch’s Lives.

Specifically, I kept thinking of Spengler’s idea as I mentally compared Plutarch’s conception of personality with Montaigne’s. I could not help making this comparison, you see, since it was Montaigne who led me to Plutarch. The Frenchman idolized the Greek; and the Essays are full of quotes of and references to Plutarch. Indeed, Montaigne specifically praises Plutarch for his insight into human nature:

The historians are my right ball, for they are pleasant and easy, and where man, in general, the knowledge of whom I hunt after, appears more vividly and entire than anywhere else… the variety and truth of his internal qualities, in gross and piecemeal, the diversity of means by which he is united and knit, and the accidents that threaten him. Now those that write lives, by reason they insist more upon counsels than events, more upon what sallies from within, than upon what happens from without, are the most proper for my reading; and, therefore, above all others, Plutarch is the man for me.

For my part this quote better describes Montaigne than Plutarch. Since it is exactly in this—the representation of personality—that I think Spengler’s idea most aptly applies in these two writers.

Compare the representation of a person in a classical Greek statue and in a portrait by Rembrandt, and I think you will catch my meaning. The first is all surface—shapely limbs, a well-proportioned body, a harmonious face, whose eyes nevertheless stare out serenely into vacancy, suggesting nothing internal. In Rembrandt it is exactly the reverse: the face may be ugly, the body largely hidden in shadows, yet all the energy is focused on the expression—an expression of endless suggestion, which brings to us a definite human personality.

I feel the same contrast between Plutarch and Montaigne. Plutarch’s method of characterization is statuesque. He enumerates his heroes’ virtues and qualities as if they were set in stone; and he derives all of their actions from these static characteristics. Montaigne is completely the reverse: he contradicts himself a thousand times in his book, and in the process reveals the qualities of his mind far more exquisitely than any straightforward description could accomplish. Plutarch’s heroes never change: their character is their destiny; whereas Montaigne is nothing but change. Indeed, for me it is hard to say that Plutarch’s heroes have “personality,” in the sense that I can imagine meeting them. They are no more relatable than a Greek statue.

They were certainly relatable to Plutarch himself, however, as he writes in a famous passage:

It was for the sake of others that I first undertook to write biographies, but I soon began to dwell upon and delight in them for myself, endeavoring to the best of my ability to regulate my own life, and to make it like that of those who were reflected in their history as it were in a mirror before me. By the study of their biographies, we receive each man as a guest into our minds, and we seem to understand their character as the result of personal acquaintance, because we have obtained from their acts the best and most important means of forming an opinion about them.

This quote also illustrates Plutarch’s moral purpose. For a book written by a Greek living under Roman domination, comparing the lives of Greeks and Romans, he seems to have been quite bereft of political purpose. He is, rather, a moralist. Through his biographies he hopes to determine which actions are noble, which nobler, and which noblest, an analysis he performs through his comparisons at the end of the paired lives. He writes biographies in the conviction that we naturally imitate which we see and admire; we are drawn in by the attraction we feel for noble characters, and become ennobled ourselves in the process. This is why Plutarch eschews writing strict history:

I am writing biography, not history; and often a man’s most brilliant actions prove nothing as to his true character, while some trifling incident, some casual remark or jest, will throw more light upon what manner of man he was than the bloodiest battle, the greatest array of armies, or the most important siege. Therefore, just as portrait painters pay most attention to those peculiarities of the face and eyes, in which the likeness consists, and care but little for the rest of the figure, so it is my duty to dwell especially upon those actions which reveal the workings of my heroes’ minds, and from these to construct the portraits of their respective lives, leaving their battles and their great deeds to be recorded by others.

This sounds promising enough: teaching moral lessons through depicting great personalities. My problem—aside from not being able to relate to the heroes—was that I questioned the very greatness of their actions. Of course there are many virtuous actions recorded here, worthy of praise and emulation. However, nearly all of Plutarch’s heroes are military commanders; and these pages are spattered with blood. The cutthroat world of ancient political squabbles, territorial conquests, internal strife, did not strike me as promising ground to teach virtue. Voltaire was perhaps thinking of Plutarch when he made this remark:

Not long since the trite and frivolous question was was debated in a very polite and learned company, viz., Who was the greatest man, Caesar, Alexander, Tamerlane, Cromwell, etc.? Somebody answered that Sir Isaac Newton excelled them all. The gentleman’s assertion was very just; … those politicians and conquerors (and all ages produce some) were generally so many illustrious wicked men. That man claims respect who commands over the minds of the rest of the world by force of truth, not those who enslave their fellow-creatures: he who is acquainted with the universe, not they who deface it.

Plutarch, to his credit, does give a remarkable portrait of the Newton of his time: Archimedes. But this is tucked away in his life of the Roman general, Marcellus.

For these reasons I had a great deal of difficulty in finishing this book. After every couple Lives I had to take a break; so it took me three years of on-again, off-again reading to finally get to the end. My ignorance did not help, either. Plutarch, being an ancient author, sometimes presumed a great deal more knowledge that I possessed about the relevant political history; and so I found myself frequently lost. And his style, though eloquent, is also monotonous (at least in translation), which was another challenge to my attention.

But I am glad I read Plutarch. This book is an extraordinary historical document, an invaluable (but not infallible) source of information about these ancient figures. Plutarch loved a good story and these pages are rich in anecdote—some of them so famous that it is likely you know one even if you have not read Plutarch. And though I struggled through many of the less famous figures, I was entranced by Plutarch’s biographies of the heroes I was acquainted with: Pompey, Alexander, Cicero, Brutus, and Antony. (Shakespeare followed the latter two Lives very closely in his Roman plays.) If Plutarch was good enough for Montaigne then, by Jove, he is good enough for me.

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Review: Two Books by Henry Adams

Review: Two Books by Henry Adams

The Education of Henry Adams : An AutobiographyThe Education of Henry Adams : An Autobiography by Henry Adams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Once more! this is a story of education, not of adventure! It is meant to help young men—or such as have intelligence enough to seek help—but it is not meant to amuse them.

Everyone agrees that this book is difficult and odd. An autobiography of an American man of letters, the son of a diplomat, grandson of a president, historian, journalist, secretary, all told in the third person, written for his private circle of friends. At once claiming to be the story of one man’s life, a critique of the educational methods of the nineteenth century, a parable of the fin de siècle, and a new theory of history, the book is, in reality, none of the above, and is instead the sigh of an old man looking back on his life.

I must admit that I found this book exasperating in the extreme. One quickly gets the impression that, when Adams uses the word “education,” it is meaningless or worse than meaningless. He goes to London with his father, and becomes intimately acquainted with the workings of British politics, all during the difficult years of the American Civil War, and complains that he received no useful “education.” He teaches at Harvard for seven years, a professor of Medieval History, and concludes: “On the whole, he was content neither with what he had taught nor with the way he had taught it. The seven years in teaching seemed to him lost.” He becomes a journalist in the capital, and then works on a seven-volume history of America during Jefferson’s presidency; and still, after all this, he insists he has received no useful “education.” And after every phase of his life, when Adams rings the same gloomy bell, the reader asks: “What on earth would satisfy you, Mr. Adams?”

Another exasperating element is the degree to which Adams assumes a familiarity with the intricacies of 19th century politics. Reading the chapters when he was in England felt like reading a grocer’s shopkeeping books. It was disjointed, jerky, and, worst of all, didn’t explain a thing. At first, I assumed this difficulty resulted from Adams’s originally writing the book for his circle of friends; but the obscurity goes even further: it is as if Adams wrote the book only for himself. The book swings wildly in tone from dry note-taking to half-formed and half-coherent abstractions, all written in a prose style lucidly opaque.

Adams also gives the impression of being a bit muddle-headed. He spends some time talking about Lyell’s geology and Darwin’s evolution, and it soon becomes apparent he understands neither. He goes on long tangents about “force,” while it is obvious that what Adams means by that word is as meaningless as what he means by “education.” He ends the book on a very confused and seemingly pointless attempt to give a mathematical explanation of history, but never reaches above vague commonplaces, endlessly repeated. I seldom came across an insight of his that was insightful.

In short, the impression was that Adams had taken all of the stuff of his life—his doings, his friendships, his thoughts, his career, his background—and left it out to bake in the hot sun, until all the savor and succulence was scorched out of it, leaving only a tough jerky that wearies the jaw in the attempt to chew the husk.

Still, after all this, I must admit that this book has a strange power. There were times I could not put it down, even when I felt I wasn’t understanding a thing. Adams always seemed to be only two steps away from a great insight, an astounding thought; but he never quite reaches it, which is why the book can seem so tragic. He was always searching and never finding; and the reader is left in doubt what he was searching for, and whether anyone will ever find it. In his elegant, knotty prose, he turns out aphorism after aphorism—all apparently insightful, but in reality empty—popping like soap bubbles leaving nothing but air. And what saves the book is that Adams knew this, and yet could do nothing better.


Mont-Saint-Michel and ChartresMont-Saint-Michel and Chartres by Henry Adams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

Saint Thomas did not allow the Deity the right to contradict Himself, which is one of man’s chief pleasures.

I read this book in preparation for my visit to Chartres, which was just last week. I had not been very fond of Adam’s most famous book, his Education, but I had high hopes that his writing would improve when his focus shifted to something other than his own life. Yet I have found the two books discouragingly similar.

As a stylist Adams appears, at least superficially, quite strong. His sentences are clear and mostly elegant, occasionally epigrammatic. But stylistic problems appear on a higher level of organization. Both Adam’s autobiography and this book were not originally written for publication, but for his close circle of family and friends; and as a result, Adams seems to explain everything except what most needs to be explained. His ideas float against a background that he does not provide, making his train of thought appear out of context. In this he reminds me of George Santayana, who similarly omits to signal where he is going and why he is going there, though Adams lacks the philosopher’s occasionally forays into sublimity to compensate. The result is rather irritating, superficially clear but actually opaque, like overhearing an eloquent old man talk to himself.

But my gravest complaint about Adams, both here and in his autobiography, is his tendency to organize his books around central ideas that I find vague and vapid. In the Education, this takes the form of his armchair theorizing about “force,” the Dynamo, and the laws of physics as applied to history, and even more prominently in his main theme of “education,” his conception of which remains unclear to the very end. In this book it mainly takes the form of his insistence that “The Virgen” was personally involved in the construction of Chartres Cathedral. To be fair, he tends to treat these ideas (and himself) with a considerable amount of irony; but the irony does not amount to full satire, leaving it unclear whether he is merely kidding or if he intends these ideas to be somehow insightful.

Again, just as in his autobiography, here the dominant mood is notalgia. Though extremely successful, Adams apparently felt out of harmony with his world and yearned for a time when society was simpler and more unified. This leads him quite naturally to the Middle Ages, to the poetry, to the great cathedrals, and to the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, which unite art and science into a seamless whole. Consequently this book, far from being historical analysis, is more of a personal appreciation of the French Medieval period, spinning off into fantasy or speculation wherever it suits him. This self-indulgent tone is grating to somebody trying to learn about Chartres.

Now that I have gotten all this criticism out of the way, I must admit that the book, like his autobiography, has its merits and charms. He is obviously fond of this period, and so writes in a tone of enthusiastic admiration that proves quite infectious. This keen appreciation for the “spirit” of the Medieval period is the book’s most useful attribute, helping to put the reader in the mindset to appreciate the epoch’s art, poetry, and thought. I found Adams’s chapters on architecture, specifically on Chartres, to be stuffy and difficult to follow—for here, as in his chapters on British politics in the Education—he assumes a level of familiarity (specifically about the French royal family) that the reader is unlikely to possess. But when context is provided by an external source, Adams can be quite pleasant. When I visited Chartres, and saw its magnificent stained glass for myself, his chapters ceased to be so vexing.

The chapters I most enjoyed were the final three, about philosophy—specifically, Abelard, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Thomas Aquinas—since here my background was not so lacking. Yet even here it must be said that Adams’s comments are more in the spirit of an amateurish aficionado rather than a serious student. He interprets Aquinas as an “artist” rather than a thinker, repeatedly disqualifying himself from passing sentence on Aquinas’s arguments (though he says some perceptive things in spite of this).

By contrast I thought the chapters on poetry were the worst, since they mainly consisted of excerpts of poetry, in Latin or Medieval French, with repeated assurances of their high quality and their untranslatable beauty. (His mostly bland translations serve to prove his point.) But in general Adams’s approach to poetry is the same as his approach to architecture and theology, mostly confined to passionate declarations of affection, without much attempt at analysis or insight.

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(Cover photo by Benh LIEU SONG; licensed under CC BY 2.5; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

Review: The Aeronautic Adventure

Review: The Aeronautic Adventure

La aventura aeronáutica: Emilio Herrera, Juan de la CiervaLa aventura aeronáutica: Emilio Herrera, Juan de la Cierva by Carlos Lazaro Avila

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has the very modest distinction of being the only book I’ve read whose author I have interviewed. Carlos Lázaro is a history teacher at the school in which I work; and when he is not scolding students or grading reports, he is researching Spanish military aviation history. This is one of the numerous books he has published on this topic.

La aventura aeonáutica is a dual biography of two of the most important innovators in Spanish aviation history: Emilio Herrera and Juan de la Cierva. Herrera was of the same generation as the Wright Brothers. His specialty was lighter-than-air crafts—dirigibles, zeppelins, and so on—to which he made great practical and theoretical contributions. Among his many accomplishments was his participation in the first intercontinental flight of the Graf Zeppelin, which earned him a ticker-tape parade in New York City. He also designed what is considered the first spacesuit, for a planned but never realized ascension to the stratosphere. Later in life he was also important for his loyalty to the Spanish Republic in exile, even becoming its (mostly ceremonial) president.

Juan de la Cierva is mainly remembered for his invention of the autogiro, or autogyro. This was a sort of early-generation helicopter, designed to fly at speeds impossibly slow for fixed-wing aircraft. The principle of the autogyro is, however, quite different from that of a helicopter. Most notably, the rotor on top is completely unpowered. Forward thrust is provided by a small frontal propeller. This motion pushes air up into the rotor, causing it to spin—though notably, unlike in a helicopter, the air flows through the rotor upwards, not downwards. The rotor’s blades are angled so that the rotation provides lift. You may think of an autogyro as a plane whose wings rotate rather than stay fixed. For this reason autogyros cannot take off and land vertically, nor can they hover, unless there is a countervailing breeze. In any case, I hope you can see from this description that this was an ingenious and original contribution to aeronautic technology.

Like Herrera, De la Cierva was politically active; unlike Herrera, De la Cierva was a committed member of the Right, and threw his support behind Franco. His life was cut short in a plane crash—ironically a passenger plane, not any experimental flight—while trying to organize international support for the coup.

I found the lives of these two men fascinating, since I had not even known their names beforehand, much less any of their accomplishments. The book is admirably informative and concise, full of attractive photos and nifty little side-panels. Hopefully I will visit the Museo del Aire in Madrid soon, to see some of these historical craft for myself.

[Cover photo licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons; author unknown.]

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Review: Some Still Live

Review: Some Still Live

Some Still LiveSome Still Live by Frances Smith McCamic Tinker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You can’t even surrender in an airplane; your opponent wouldn’t know whether you were joking or not.

I am fortunate enough to have a colleague who studies the Spanish Civil War professionally. And when he heard that I was interested in learning about the conflict, he generously lent me this book, the memoirs of an American pilot who fought during the war. Considering that this book is out of print and hard to get your hands on, this was luck indeed.

Frank Glasgow Tinker, Jr. was an American boy from Louisiana who came to Spain in 1936 to take part in the war. He had learned to fly in the US Navel Academy, and spent some time in the Navy until he was discharged for drinking and brawling (which, if you think about it, is pretty impressive). His main motivation for joining the war, it seems, was just the opportunity to fly combat missions: “When the fighting broke out in Spain in 1936, I was not quite sure which side was fighting for what. I gathered that each was slaughtering the other for being or doing something that the other side did not like.”

After sneaking in by obtaining a fake passport in Mexico, and pretending to be a Spanish citizen—despite his total innocence of the Spanish language—he spent seven months here flying and fighting. Tinker fought on the “loyalist” side, alongside Spaniards, Americans, and Russians, mainly against Italian and German pilots—which shows how international the “civil” war really was. He flew both older biplanes and more modern monoplanes, both of Russian make, against Italian Fiats and German Heinkels and Messerschmitts. And he was good. He shot down at least eight enemy planes, possibly more, making him one of the most successful pilots in Spanish aviation history.

He flew up to three flights a day—responding to alarms, accompanying bombers, strafing trenches, dive-bombing enemy targets, blowing up bridges and trains, driving off enemy bombing squads, and fighting in dogfight after dogfight. The bulk of his fighting took place in the vicinity of Madrid, but he also fought all over the north of Spain. After seven months of this he packed up his bags and went back to the States. Going back wasn’t easy, since he had arrived in Spain with a fake passport and didn’t have any identification; but eventually he succeeded in returning to the States, where he began writing and going on radio programs.

Some mystery still surrounds his death. The accepted explanation is that he suffered from PTSD and ended his own life; but some have suggested that the FBI may have been responsible. As his own tombstone says, ¿Quién Sabe?

Simply as a historical document, this book is invaluable. It contains maps of the air bases used by the government side, photographs by the reporter Robert Capa of wartime Spain, and a vivid picture of the Government Air Force, not to mention reams of information about aviation. Tinker obviously knew what he was doing when it came to flying; the book is filled with aviation jargon—altitude, weather, engines, weapons, rates of climbing and diving, difficulties of landing and taking off.

Even more impressively, this book is successful simply as a book. For somebody who was not a man of letters, Trinker is a strong writer. He sticks to the facts, and relates them with such vividness, candor, and energy that I often had trouble putting the book down. He never overwrites, he never bogs the book down with too many details, and he never uses flowery rhetoric. His time in Spain was so interesting that no embellishment is needed; the bare facts are fascinating enough.

Apart from his doings, Tinker himself is memorable. He is a uniquely American type. He brawls, he jokes, he drinks, he pranks, he gambles, he womanizes, and he drinks some more, and he flies and fights, and he betrays no ideals beyond good-natured hedonism, fierce loyalty, and a kind of warrior’s respect for bravery and skill. There is not a single political statement in this book, and not any indication that his understanding of the war’s causes ever progressed beyond the very basics. He was a soldier.

I will leave you with my favorite paragraph from the book:

Whitey had managed to get the elevator down (it was one of those automatic affairs), but after he got inside he couldn’t reach the control buttons to make it go up again. He was also unable to reopen the door to get out. After about two minutes of this a huge fellow with a mustache came along and wanted to go up on the elevator, too, but as he saw Whitey was already inside he waited awhile, expecting him to go either up or down. When Whitey failed to do either, the large stranger opened the door and asked him, in Spanish, what the hell he thought he was doing. Whitey, not understanding him, asked, in English, why in hell he hadn’t opened the door instead of standing there with his mouth full of teeth. Whereupon the stranger, in perfectly good American, answered that people shouldn’t get into strange elevators unless they were sure they could get out of them. Whitey almost fell on his face when he heard himself answered in English, but soon recovered and explained his predicament and had the stranger do his button-pushing for him. I saw the last part of this act and asked the man at the desk who the stranger was. He proved to be no other than Ernest Hemingway, the famous writer.

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Review: Storm of Steel

Review: Storm of Steel

The Storm of SteelThe Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

War means the destruction of the enemy without scruple and by any means. War is the harshest of all trades, and the masters of it can only entertain humane feelings so long as they do no harm.

Ernst Jünger was a born soldier:neither risk-averse nor foolhardy, able to command the loyalty of others and to follow orders without question, able to fight without malice and kill without scruple. These are his captivating memoirs of fighting during the First World War.

The consensus of posterity regarding this war is that it was bloody, tragic, and ultimately inconclusive—the exemplar of a brutal, pointless war. Erich Maria Remarque, who fought on the same side and on the same front as Jünger—albeit far more briefly—writes of his experience with trauma and disgust. Yet Jünger’s memoirs, equally as bloody as All Quiet on the Western Front, are strangely warm and cheery. A born soldier, he felt right at home.

As regards the basic experiences of the war, Jünger’s memoirs cover all the bases: bloody hand-to-hand combat, endless artillery shelling, taking cover in shell-holes and scrambling to put on one’s gas-mask, swarms of flying shrapnel and bullets, and death forever prowling. But out of this basic fabric of experiences Jünger weaves a heroic and even jaunty tale, a battle narrative of gallantry and daring. Each soldier, in Jünger’s archaizing eyes, is a knight locked in a gentlemanly joust with an enemy, motivated by duty and honor. I often wondered whether this quaint way of viewing the war was some kind of subtle psychological defense mechanism, shutting out its horrors with a chivalrous fantasy; but Jünger seems to have carried this perspective with him before the fight even began.

In many ways Jünger reminds me of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Both war heroes, both adrenaline junkies, both of a seemingly inexhaustible vitality—Leigh Fermor lived to 96, Jünger to 104—and both obscenely well-educated, these two authors tend to see life as a legend. Jünger’s prose has little of that cinematographic immediacy as has Remarque’s. By comparison his writing is highly stylized, like a Byzantine mosaic or Homeric verse. Admittedly, this is more true of the first half than the second, which becomes quite thrilling. In any case it takes a special kind of person to compare an artillery bombardment to “a witch’s cauldron,” or to motivate oneself in battle by quoting a verse from Ariosto.

The ending of the book contains, in brief, some of Jünger’s thoughts on the significance of the war. Clausewitz’s famous aphorism, that war is “politics by other means,” seems to have been lost on Jünger. For him the war’s value was not in accomplishing any concrete objective—which was, in any case, foiled for Germany—but in hardening the fighting men. You might say that, for Jünger, the war was valuable for its own sake. The extreme circumstances of war roused in the soldiers an equally extreme dedication to an ideal beyond themselves, the ability to yield themselves completely to their Fatherland; and he thought that future generations would look on the soldiers much as saints:

And so, strange as it may sound, I learned from this very four years of schooling in force and in all the fantastic extravagance of material warfare, that life has no depth of meaning except when it is pledged for an ideal, and that there are ideals in comparison with which the life of an individual and even of a people has no weight.

Personally I find this view disturbing, as I’m sure many do. The nationalistic dreams of Kaisers are nothing in comparison with even one life. In any case I think history has amply proven Jünger mistaken; the very hardening anvil of war he praised led, in just a few years, to another, even more deadly war—under a regime which Jünger himself despised. And whatever we may think of the heroism displayed by individual soldiers, it is outweighed by the sheer horror of it all. I also must say that I am incredulous that someone who lost so many friends and comrades—and who himself narrowly escaped death, getting wounded 14 times—could talk in such fanciful, romantic, and vague terms about the lessons of the war—and again I wonder, was this some kind of defense mechanism?

In sum, this must be one of the oddest war memoirs ever published, equal parts exciting, off-putting, and exacerbating. For those interested in the First World War, certainly it is required reading.

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