Review: The House of Morgan

Review: The House of Morgan

The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance by Ron Chernow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I picked up this book, I assumed it was a biography of the two famous John Pierpont Morgans. But this is far more; indeed it is a true history of the Morgan bank, though admittedly with heavy emphasis on the biographies of the key figures. Given that this history spans over a century and includes a huge number of players, politics, and policies, the fact that Chernow could put out such a polished book in two and a half years is a testament to his skill as a writer and researcher.

The book is most colorful in its beginning and slowly fades into the dullness of contemporary reality. The Bank of Morgan began with the 19th century financier George Peabody, a sort of Dickensian miser turned philanthropist. Lacking a son, Peabody passed on his business to Junius Spencer Morgan, another personality of a bygone age, who managed to combined pious moralizing with strict business. His son, Pierpont, is by far the most colorful character in this panorama. A rabid art collector, an amateur archeologist, and an inveterate womanizer with a swollen nose and an enormous yacht, Pierpont was a central figure in the American economy of his age.

His son, “Jack,” though resembling Pierpont physically, was a far more mild-mannered sort of banker. His life is mostly lacking in racy and romantic stories (except for the time he was shot by a would-be assassin). The Morgan line mostly fizzles off after Jack; but there are many other Morgan bankers to take note of. The most important was undoubtedly Thomas Lamont. Chernow tracks Lamont’s strange journey from the cosmopolitan advocate of the League of Nations to an apologist for Italian fascism and Japanese aggression. It appears wide culture and smooth manners do not immunize one from ugly politics.

The wider historical arc of Chernow’s book gave me a bit of nostalgia. We begin with bankers in top hats and stiff collars, guzzling port wine and sucking on cigars. (Pierpont was a heavy drinker and smoker, and believed that exercise was unhealthy.) These bankers relied on charisma and relationships as much as they did on any technical understanding. The early House of Morgan was paternalistic towards its employees and stressed an esprit de corps—the importance of banking tradition over personal egos. This sleepy world of respectable bankers gives way, in the late twentieth century, to the high-octane world of trading, where highly trained employees work twelve-hour days trying to beat one another in an enormous casino.

The activities of the bankers also change markedly in this history. While nobody would argue that Pierpont was saintly or altruistic, his main activities consisted of reorganizing industrial companies to make them more productive and effective. This is a great contrast with the bankers of the 1980s, who are mainly concentrated on speculative activities and hostile takeovers which seem to have very little to do with work of real value.

Of course, my impressions of this history are colored by the fact that I know relatively little about finance and thus at times had trouble following the business side of things. Chernow, for his part, is typically vague when it comes to any technical details; his preferred style is to focus on individuals and their foibles. This was a bit frustrating, since I felt that I could have learned more had Chernow simply included more in the way of explanation.

But, as it stands, this is an extremely readable and compelling history of one of America’s most important banks. Things have changed since the publication of this book. Morgan Stanley is still going strong, though J.P. Morgan mainly serves as a brand used by Chase bank, and Morgan, Grenfell & Co. does not even exist as a name anymore. Even 23 Wall Street, the iconic home to this iconic bank, now sits empty and unused, apparently owned by a shadowy billionaire who is reportedly sitting in a Chinese jail. Such is the fate of all great empires.



View all my reviews

Review: John Maynard Keynes (a Biography)

Review: John Maynard Keynes (a Biography)

John Maynard Keynes: 1883-1946: Economist, Philosopher, Statesman by Robert Skidelsky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Keynes’s paradox, which few could grasp and which many would find unacceptable today if expressed in ordinary language, is that horrendous events may have trivial causes, and easy remedies.

This is an ambitious and impressive biography of one of the most influential men of the last century. Robert Skidelsky was a pure historian before turning his attention to economics; and in this book he attempts to do justice to Keynes’s moment in history as well as his ideas. It does not make for light reading. After trying to read Keynes’s own General Theory and finding many parts of it impenetrable, I hoped that Skidelsky’s book would provide a gentler introduction to Keynes’s ideas. But this this book is not economics for dummies.

The hardest going sections were not, however, the bits devoted to economic theory, but the detailed reports of negotiations and plans undertaken by Keynes in his many official capacities. Here is just an example:

Keynes’s main effort to get the Stablization Fund to put on the clothes of the Clearing Union was his proposal to monetise unitas. The crucial structural difference between the Clearing Bank and the Stabilization Fund set-ups was that in the Keynes Plan member central banks banked with the central banks. Member central banks would subscribe their quotas to the Fund’s account…

And so on. Probably there are a fair number of readers who could follow this sort of writing with interest, but at the moment I am not one of them.

It would be seriously unfair, however, to suggest that the whole of the book is like this. Many parts are quite entertaining. The beginning years are especially so, when Keynes was in Cambridge and then a member of the famed Bloomsbury Group. I was surprised and amused at the open homosexuality of Keynes’s milieu, and the fluidity of his sexual life. Of more lasting interest, of course, is the intellectual climate in which the young economist was growing up. Skidelsky is wonderful when it comes to intellectual history, and he able shows how the circulating theories shaped Keynes’s attitudes for the rest of his life. I would not have guessed, for example, that Keynes was so deeply influenced by G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica.

Skidelsky is also very skilled in his ability to trace the growth of Keynes’s major intellectual theories. He does this by pairing the influence of the historical moment with the inner machinations of Keynes’s mind, showing how the economist used, adapted, and discarded the economic orthodoxy he inherited when faced with the Great Depression. The chapter on the General Theory—Keyne’s most important book—is lucid and will greatly aid my further understanding of macro-economics. Thus, in the most essential task of a Keynes’s biography, Skidelsky undoubtedly succeeded.

Apart from the dryness and density of some sections of the book—mostly concentrated in the last chapters, when Keynes was heavily involved in planning for the post-WWII economy—the book has other flaws. The most notable, for me, was probably a consequence of Skidelsky’s intellectual seriousness. That is, he is so focused on Keynes’s ideas that Keynes himself can be left behind. Strangely, though one learns a great deal about Keynes, one seldom feels that one has “met” him. The economist’s personality remains rather vague and distant.

It would be generous to call this biography a page-turner. But Keynes is perhaps not the ideal subject for a readable biography. As Skidelsky repeatedly notes, Keynes was born into privilege and remained there the rest of his life. He was a thoroughbred member of the Establishment. Thus there is no spectacle of a struggling underdog or of rags to riches. Further, much of Keynes’s influence and activity resided in the intricacies of trade arrangements, exchange rates, currency valuations, and so on. He can come across as a hyper-competent civil servant.

There was another side to Keynes, however, which is quite a bit more attractive. As already mentioned, he was a member of the Bloomsbury Group—friends with Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf—and deeply valued all of the arts. He spent a great deal of time and money supporting his painter friends, and was heavily involved in the world of ballet and theater through his wife. In spite of his great practical gifts and his flair for finance, Keynes was not a crass materialist and consistently thought that the good life required more than ready cash.

Politically speaking, Keynes appears to have not been particularly ideological. He could not be readily assimilable into the Right or the Left, and instead preached a “middle way” based largely on competence rather than values. As Skidelsky notes, “Keynes was moved to wrath not so much by a ‘fiery passion for justice and equality’, as by ‘an impatience with how badly society was managed’.” This is not an altogether winsome quality, I think; though it does have a certain appeal—a world of ultra-efficient technocrats resolving problems without partisan bickering.

Indeed, as Skidelsky notes, this was largely the promise of the Keynesian Revolution, which more or less collapsed in the 1970s. In the final section of the book Skidelsky includes an even-handed evaluation of the successes and failures of Keynes’s ideas in practice. Certainly I am not qualfied to judge myself. But I do think that, as we look another depression in the face, we will be thinking an awful lot more about Keynes in the coming months.

View all my reviews

Review: Thomas Jefferson (Meacham)

Review: Thomas Jefferson (Meacham)
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I did not enjoy this book. But my opinion might not be entirely fair, since it is colored by having read biographies of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams—two of Jefferson’s political foes—right before this, by two authors (Chernow and McCullough) whom I vastly prefer. This meant that I brought some strong preconceptions to the experience.

Nevertheless, I came to this book with a great deal of hope. Jefferson had come off rather badly in the two above-mentioned biographies. I wanted to see the other side of the man, the side that so many have admired. In fact, I played the audiobook recording of this book on a family trip down to Virginia, on our way to visit Jefferson’s home, Monticello, thinking that Meacham’s biography would whet our thirst for Jefferson history.

The effect was the opposite. All of us came away with a strong distaste for Jefferson, as well as dissatisfaction for Meacham’s apologetic treatment of the man. But before getting into differing opinions of Jefferson—of which there are endless—I shall talk about the writing, of which there may be more agreement.

To do justice to Jefferson the man would require a great deal of psychological subtly. Jefferson was reserved, withdrawn, even sphinx-like, a man full of contradictions. In the hands of an acute writer, Jefferson would make for a fascinating character-study. Yet Meacham is almost wholly uninterested in psychology. Jefferson is painted more vividly in his cameos in the Hamilton and Adams biographies than he is here.

To my mind, Jefferson was a man whom one could never take at face value, yet Meacham is often content to do just that. To pick just one example, in the exchange between Jefferson and Abigail Adams on the scurrilous writings of James Callender, Meacham is content to repeat Jefferson’s bland and disingenuous excuses of his support for Callender’s vilifications of John Adam’s character (that he bailed Callender out of jail merely because they held similar political views). Such instances are repeated throughout the book, with Meacham accepting as honest what I often read as intentionally misleading or simply duplicitous.

In any case, even if Jefferson is put to one side, no other personage in this book comes alive, as do so many in the above-named biographies. John Adams—a raging personality of epic proportion—is hardly more exciting than the taciturn George Washington. I was particularly disappointed at the lack of attention paid to Jefferson’s close and important relationship with James Madison, who is absent far too often in these pages, and who leaves hardly any impression whatever.

Meacham also lacks interest in drama. Good biographies can pull you into the historical moment, and make you feel how contingent the outcome of important events was on the quirks of personality or even simple chance. Yet in this book everything is a fait accompli. Difficult and arduous accomplishments, moments of danger and discord, are all summarized and narrated with a kind of mellow assurance that these events were destined to come to pass. The result is a book that is emotionally flat.

I would have excused these faults if Meacham had dug deep into the historical background or the political issues. But these, too, are given only a superficial treatment. Not nearly enough context is given, for example, for the reader to understand exactly why the Declaration of Independence was such a revolutionary document at that time. The same can be said for the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty.

Instead, Meacham prefers to resort to strings of vague, Latinate adjectives and to draw grand-sounding conclusions. This is his habitual mode. The following passage, from the Prologue, gives a taste of this tone:

In pursuit of his ends, Jefferson sought, acquired, and wielded power, which is the bending of the world to one’s will, the remaking of reality in one’s own image. Our greatest leaders are neither dreamers nor dictators: They are, like Jefferson, those who articulate national aspirations yet master the mechanics of influence and know when to depart from dogma.

This tendency often leads him to substitute clichés for insight:

America has always been torn between the ideal and the real, between noble goals and inevitable compromise. So was Jefferson. In his head and in his heart, as in the nation itself, the perfect warred with the good, the intellectual with the visceral. In him as in America, that conflict was, and is, a war without end.

To me, this is neither good prose nor does it provide any valuable information. You could say all of the same things about virtually any nation or political leader. And in any case I do not think it is even true. Were all of Jefferson’s goals “noble”? Is compromise “inevitable”? Is the “war” between the “ideal and the real” actually similar to the conflict between “the intellectual” and “the visceral”? What does this even mean? This passage is hardly even valid as a platitude.

This leads me to what is my core criticism of the book: Jon Meacham’s understanding of Jefferson. Meacham’s central point is that Jefferson was a man of high ideals, but someone who was willing to compromise on his ideals in order to be an effective politician. This is the “Art of Power.” Thus, all of Jefferson’s pronouncements of principle are taken at face value, and all of his actions that do not align with his stated valued are excused as shrewd maneuvering.

Yet there is a difference between compromising on one’s vision and doing just the opposite. Consider Jefferson’s presidency. After having spent the last twelve years whipping up fears of overbearing central power, Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase and instituted a trade embargo—two huge expansions of federal power. Meacham would have us see these moves as capitulations to circumstances. But I think Jefferson’s tendency to flout the dictates of his own pen are too numerous to excuse. To pick another example, although he often styled himself above politicking and libel, Jefferson frequently employed others to write attacks on his enemies (as in the case of James Callender).

Here is another example. After stoking fear of a national army, and after his strong advocacy of the separation of the legislative and executive powers, once in office Jefferson himself asked a senator to introduce a bill approving military force—a direct contradiction of his stated principles on both counts. Characteristically, Jefferson also requested that the senator burn his note to him, so as not to appear to be meddling in the legislature. This is what Meacham has to say on the subject: “His adversaries might see such maneuvers as hypocritical and underhanded, but in Jefferson’s mind he was doing the right thing the right way. To seize power grandly would threaten the democratic ethos of the country—an ethos he thought essential.”

As an apology for Jefferson’s actions, this makes little sense to me. First, it hardly matters whether Jefferson thought he was doing the right thing in his mind. We all are, always. Second, to consider the mere ethos of democracy important while seizing power is certainly not democratic in any meaningful sense. This is typical of the whole book: where Meacham sees a flexible and enlightened politician, I see a person totally unwilling to live by the principles that he professes.

This is, of course, most flagrantly true in the case of slavery—an area in which Jefferson is inexcusable. To do Meacham credit, he does not attempt to justify Jefferson’s life of slaveholding. Nevertheless, I think he paid far too little attention to Jefferson’s domestic situation, which was totally dominated by slaves: as workers, servants, a sexual partner, and even his own children.

I see the issue of slavery as the most telling fact of Jefferson’s psychology, showcasing his ability to compartmentalize his thoughts. None of his actions were self-consistent. He wrote that slavery was evil and must end one day. But he did nothing to end it. At the same time, he thought that blacks could never co-exist with whites, all while having a life built upon the backs of slaves, living in constant contact with them. If he really believed that slaves were genetically inferior, as he wrote, how could he have had children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves? Could he really believe that his own children with Hemings were naturally inferior? And if he did not, how could he totally relegate these children, his own blood, to a subservient or an invisible role in his life?

These questions leave me with a rather disturbing image. Meacham, however, sees Jefferson as a flawed hero—whose vision of artful politics has much to teach us. Jefferson did likely leave the world better than he found it. And, believe me, I find many aspects of Jefferson extremely admirable. In many ways I aspire to Jefferson’s wide interests and his intellectual greatness. But I think that any honest reckoning of the man will have to deal with these darker shades of his character. The vision of politics that Meacham offers, where high principles exist mostly as rhetoric or ethos, is not for me.

View all my reviews

Review: John Adams (McCullough)

Review: John Adams (McCullough)
John Adams

John Adams by David McCullough

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a wholly enjoyable book, which is the secret of its success. Merely flipping through and scanning a couple passages was enough to convince me to abandon everything else I was reading and to go on a pleasure cruise through history. McCullough’s writing is charming to a rare degree—elevated yet folksy, readable without being simple, and filled with personality without being opinionated. I can see why he is so popular.

Yet it must be said that McCullough achieves this charm by relegating much of the tedious, dreary, or ugly side of Adams’s life to the background. A serious intellectual appraisal of Adams would require a much deeper analysis of his political writings; but here they are minor episodes. A serious appraisal of Adams’s presidency would require a far more thorough review of his policies and legistlation, most obviously the Alien and Sedition Acts. Yet here they are just touched upon. Obviously, such a book as I am describing would be both longer and, almost certainly, duller.

Instead of attempting any kind of definitive appraisal, McCullough gives us a literary biography, a portrait of a man in his times. And Adams is well chosen for the subject of such a book. He left a huge correspondence and a copious diary, writing with rare candor and verve throughout his life, which gives the happy biographer a great deal to work with. Further, Adams was a personality of rare proportion: prickly, warm, passionate, brilliant, stubborn, loyal, foolhardy, blunt, obtuse, principled… the list is endless. As are all of us, Adams was a strange inter-mixture of virtues and vices, yet none of his were moderate.

Even if Adams had been devoid of character, however, the events of his life would still attract attention. He was at the forefront of the Continental Congress, instrumental in driving the early stages of the Revolutionary War: creating an army, appointing Washington to head it, declaring independence, and then choosing Jefferson to draft the declaration. Then, Adams had a long and adventurous life in Europe, working in England, France, and the Netherlands—a feast for the biographer. What is more, Adams was intimately involved with many of the leading personalities of the times, not to mention being the father of another president. So you can see that McCullough had plenty of grist for his mill.

Apart from all of this, John Adams was married to perhaps an even stronger character, Abigail. She comes across as truly John’s better half, if not more intelligent than wiser than he, with a personality more stable but no less fascinating. Thus the biography is, quite often, more of a dual biography of these two extraordinary people. Jefferson receives almost as much attention as Abigail, alternately friend and foe, serving as Adams’s foil: calm, reserved, duplicitous, underhanded, and often unwilling to live by the principles he professes—which makes him a far more effective politician. McCullough turns Adams and Jefferson into the twin poles of the Revolution, much as Chernow did with Hamilton and Jefferson. I suppose I should read something about Jefferson now.

Even if the reader will not come away with an understanding of Adams’s politics and policies, there is still a great deal of value in this book. As with every McCullough book, it is a window into a bygone age, illuminated by bright personalities. And in my case, that is all I wanted.



View all my reviews

Review: Alexander Hamilton (Chernow)

Review: Alexander Hamilton (Chernow)
Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I opened the pages of this book, I knew little about Alexander Hamilton aside from the fact that he wrote most of the Federalist Papers. But that man had a life indeed. I immediately found myself transfixed at a story that seemed more suited to fiction than to fact. No wonder that Hamilton’s life has been made the subject of a musical. (Unfortunately, from what I have heard of the music, it is not to my taste.)

Ron Chernow must have known that he had struck gold once he began research for this book. Hamilton’s story has all of the elements of a good Victorian novel: a poor and unfortunate upbringing (born an orphan out of wedlock); a good deal of bloodshed; an ever greater dose of scheming and argumentation; a tender love story and a sordid affair; and, to cap it off, an arch-rival who brings about a tragic end. Piloting through this maelstrom of adventure is the redoubtable Alexander Hamilton: clear-eyed, bright, industrious, at times imprudent and hasty, and always true to his own nature.

In short, I found this biography both extremely readable and a revealing portrait of the first years of this nation. Chernow is a flexible writer, capable of handling the pathos of melodrama, the intrigue of political scandal, the excitement of intellectual innovation, the frenzy of war, and the private moments of quiet intimacy. His primary strength is arguably his psychological insight. Unlike Robert Caro, who is a historian as much as a biographer, Chernow focuses in on the inner workings of his subject, letting us see history through the man’s eyes rather than the man ensconced in history.

Nevertheless, I do think that Chernow’s focus on psychology can lead him astray. At his worst, he is prone to a kind of cheap psychoanalyzing that I think adds very little to the subtance of this book. This was most in evidence in Chernow’s handling of Hamilton’s childhood on St. Croix. Chernow was quick to invoke this experience whenever he wished to explain Hamilton’s behavior. This is understandable, since it is arguably a biographer’s duty to make sense of their subject’s personality by tracing their experience; and Hamilton’s childhood was unique. However, the logic of psychoanalysis is so flexible as to be able to produce any conclusion you wish to wring from it.

Here is an example. We learn that Hamilton’s mother was accused of being a prostitute, and had children out of wedlock. She was abandoned by Hamilton’s father, cast out from polite society, and then died while Hamilton was quite young—penniless and alone. Now let us imagine that Hamilton, in adulthood, was scrupulously faithful to his wife and had a family life entirely free of scandal. The biographer could then say it was an intense desire to escape this childhood experience. Now let us imagine that Hamilton was a rake and constantly had affairs. The biographer could then say that he had a special sympathy for women on the outskirts of society. And so on. My point is that any subsequent behavior can be viewed as either a result of, or a reaction against, this childhood experience, which makes its use as an explanation extremely dubious.

This is my first critique of this book. My second is Chernow’s tendency to lionize his subject. It would be unfair to accuse him of writing a hagiography. Chernow is by no means blind to Hamilton’s faults. Still, one senses that Chernow for the most part puts a forgiving and generous interpretation on Hamilton’s actions, while casting the behavior of Hamilton’s foes—Adams and Jefferson, notably—in a far less tolerant light. As Chernow did in his biography of John D. Rockefeller, he is more eager to refute allegations against his subjects than to confirm them. In the hands of another biographer, I think that Hamilton could have come across as a less glorious figure.

In any case, Chernow has produced a well-researched biography that is both exhilarating and enlightening. It is a thoroughly fine book.



View all my reviews

Review: The Incomplete Book of Running

Review: The Incomplete Book of Running
The Incomplete Book of Running

The Incomplete Book of Running by Peter Sagal

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of all the people on the face of this green earth, I never thought I would be the one reviewing this book. Indeed, I began this year by writing a blog post about my new year’s resolutions, confidently predicting that, whatever happened, I would not begin to exercise. Yet a month later I found myself in a sportswear store, perplexedly looking at running gear. What happened?

Nothing, really. Unlike Peter Sagal, my foray into running has not been the product of any personal troubles or existential crises. I am 27, too old for my quarter-life crisis, too young to be worried about entering middle age. I haven’t gotten married yet, and so have not had to endure any difficult divorce. I haven’t even had a bad breakup recently. I just decided to try something new, out of a sense of curiosity.

When I was in high school, you see, I dreaded the day when we were made to run a mile in gym class. It seemed like such an impossibly long distance. I was chubby and out of shape, so I could never make it the whole way without walking a considerable portion. Later on, at the ripe age of 17, I had to go to physical therapy for my knees after overstretching in Tae Kwon Do classes. These experiences convinced me that running was not my bent. But last February, feeling experimental, I decided to see whether walking a lot in Europe had inadvertently made me capable, finally, of running a mile without stopping. And it had.

Judging from this book, my experience was not typical. Running seems to be one of those hobbies, like meditation or prayer, that people pick up after some sort of acute trauma. Sagal got into running as he entered his forties, facing a midlife crisis which was to include a difficult divorce. As a comparison, it took the Buddhist author, Pema Chödrön, two divorces to become a celibate nun and celebrated teacher. (Lacking this experience, I am neither particularly enlightened nor especially fast.) Indeed, Sagal’s divorce haunts these pages as a kind of bitter undercurrent which seems to put many readers off. For my part, I do not require radio comedians to write about their ex-wives with saintliness.

I doubt I would have enjoyed this book half as much if I had bought the print version. Sagal is a radio personality, and the audiobook has his skillful delivery and signature voice. Using the audiobook also means that you can listen to the book while running. This is what I did, pledging that I would get through the book’s five hours and twenty-five minutes in five runs or fewer—and I succeeded. Listening to bald man who has struggled with his weight, and who had little natural talent to begin with, was great motivation as I shuffled my own soft body through Madrid’s Retiro Park. Now, here is an athlete I can identify with.

Apart from recounting some of his marathon experiences—which included the 2013 Boston Marathon, where he witnessed the bombing—as well as a few other running anecdotes, Sagal offers a bit of advice—all of it very sensible, and most of which I do not follow: don’t over-train, run with a group, eat healthy, etc. Most interesting to me was Sagal’s advising runners to go without headphones, in order to experience their environment and to mindfully monitor their bodies.

In fact, the way that Sagal describes running often reminded me of meditation books I have read. Both practices involve spending a considerable amount of time alone, paying attention to one’s breath and one’s body. Both practices are supposed to relieve stress and make one generally happier. And, as I mentioned, people tend to turn to these practices when they are having a problem. It is curious that focusing on the body can have such strong therapeutic effects.

One major difference between running and meditation is competitiveness. Runners are relentlessly challenging each other and themselves. This may not be wise, but it is fun on occasion. This foolhardy spirit of competitiveness has led me to sign up for Madrid’s half marathon on April 27. If you are standing near the finish line that day, and you wait long enough, you may see a tall, sweaty, teetering American stumble across the finish line. Wish me luck.



View all my reviews

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 tome for future readers to beat their heads against. I suppose I will have to pick them up sometime soon.



View all my reviews

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.



View all my reviews

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.)

View all my reviews

Review: Autobiography (Darwin)

Review: Autobiography (Darwin)
The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–82

The 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.

View all my reviews