Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ category

The Legend of the Middle Ages, by Rémi Brague

September 13, 2017

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade . . .
Yeats, “Byzantium”

In an essay, “The Denial of Humanity: On the Judgment ‘Those People Are Not Men’ in Some Ancient and Medieval Texts,” Brague invites philosophers (including himself) “to a historical and corporative examination of conscience.” The translator’s choice of “corporative” is not delightful, but to get to the point, Brague reads medieval Christian, Jewish, and Islamic philosophers for their treatment of certain human beings as “not men.”

Aristotle writes in the Politics, “A man who is incapable of entering into partnership, or who is so self-sufficing that he has no need to do so, is no part of a state, so that he must be either a lower animal (therion) or a god.” Cicero writes that men who are “on a level with the beasts of the field,” meaning that they have “no thought except for sensual pleasure,” “are men only in name, not in fact.” Seneca says the same thing–“There is no difference between the one [beasts of the field] and the other [men who act without use of their reason].” Epictetus: “Here is one whose sense of self-respect (to aidemon) has grown numb; he is useless (akhrestos), a sheep, anything but a human being.”

In his interpretation of Ezekiel 34:31, Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai in the Babylonian Talmud says to the Israelites, “You are classified as man, and gentiles are not classified as man.”

Boethius writes that “evil men . . . by turning to wickedness . . . have by that same act lost their human nature . . . So he who having left goodness (probitas) aside has ceased to be a man, since he cannot pass over into the divine state, turns into a beast (bellua).”

The Koran: “For the worst of beasts in the sight of Allah are the deaf and the dumb–those who do not understand.”

The Muslim Spanish philosopher Ibn Bajja (Avempace) writes, “And for that reason also, the one whose animal soul dominates the rational soul to the point that it lets itself always get carried away by its passions, contrary to what his reason dictates to him, is indeed a man, but the worst of beasts is better than he. And it is even just to say that he is a beast . . . .”

Maimonides writes in the Guide for the Perplexed that those who are far from knowledge of God have a status “like that of irrational animals. To my mind they do not have the rank of men, but have among the beings a rank lower than the rank of man but higher than the rank of the apes. For they have the external shape and lineaments of a man and a faculty of discernment that is superior to that of the apes.”

Brague concludes his brief, admittedly non-exhaustive survey with some reflections on the texts:

“Within the works of these philosophers, such texts are not the product of a slippage due to the intrusion of biographical elements that can be charged to the man rather than the thinker–supposing that to be a legitimate distinction, of course. They can be deduced from the very act by which the philosopher defines himself as such–that is, as a man of reason, hence the man most worthy of his own humanity. And in fact it is indeed the philosopher, in the polarization of humanity he proposes, who occupies the summit of a pyramid, the base of which (or perhaps the basement) is represented by those whose humanity he values least . . . .

“These texts are in fact the direct consequence of the classic definition of man by the closest genre (animal) and a differentiation of species (reasonable). If the specific difference is absent, we return to the close genre alone: a non-reasonable animal is not a man, or is one only by abuse of language.

“More generally, and even more disquieting, one might wonder just what purpose a definition of man might serve.”

Brague adds some tantalizing, brief questions about the importance of the body in the definition of humanity. If the definition of man is reduced to reasonableness alone (which would seem to make all social and ethnic distinctions irrelevant), then those without reason (as judged by the philosophers) are not human at all. “It is possible, on the other hand, that the body, in that which makes it human and cannot be reduced to the intellectual, can take the role of an ultimate guarantee before attitudes such as those displayed in the examples I have taken from the philosophers.”

He is as much as advocating the Christian view of the person as a unity of body and soul, with the soul as the seat of reason. In our world, there is no soul (not even Plato’s) without a body, and no living body without a soul. One forgets these things when other people are incomprehensible.

 

Dying Gaul

 

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Duty Well Performed: The Twenty-First Ohio Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War, by Bradley Quinlin & Joshua Haugh

June 11, 2017

I awoke under the bronze of winged monuments,
Under the griffins of a Masonic temple
With the dying ash of a cigar.
–Czeslaw Milosz, “The Spirit of the Laws”

This short bit of history records the activity of an Ohio Regiment in the Civil War. A few months of garrison duty around Nashville in late 1862 was the preparation for the Battle of Stones River. They recovered in Murfreesboro for six months before marching south and taking part in the Battle of Chickamauga. There were some months of rest near Chattanooga before invading Georgia and serving minor roles in the Atlanta campaign. Some members reached the end of a three-year term in September 1864 and went home, while the others marched to Savannah in time for Christmas.

When the war ended, the Twenty-First Ohio was somewhere near Bentonville, North Carolina. A grateful nation called them to the capital for the Grand Review, and they did their duty, marching to Alexandria, Virginia, in twenty days. This was a little harder work than the annual visits of national champion athletes to D.C. for a group photo.

The Grand Review took two days. The last General Order of Lt. Col. Arnold McMahan began, “Comrades:–Our services are no longer required.”

 

Horseshoe Ridge, Chickamauga

 

“The Concept of History, Ancient and Modern,” by Hannah Arendt

June 6, 2017

–All history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God.
–Mr. Deasy, Ulysses

To Herodotus, history’s purpose was “to preserve that which owes its existence to men.” The subject of history is the outstanding deed that breaks the circular motion of life. It keeps alive what otherwise would fade away.

“Greatness was easily recognizable as that which by itself aspired to immortality–that is, negatively speaking, as a heroic contempt for all that merely comes and passes away, for all individual life, one’s own included. This sense of greatness could not possibly survive intact into the Christian era for the very simple reason that, according to Christian teachings, the relationship between life and world is the exact opposite to that in Greek and Latin antiquity: in Christianity neither the world nor the ever-recurring cycle of life is immortal, only the single living individual. It is the world that will pass away; men will live forever.”

The achievements of science have transformed history. Man’s power over nature has led to dominion over history: “We know today that though we cannot ‘make’ nature in the sense of creation, we are quite capable of starting new natural processes, and that in a sense therefore we ‘make nature,’ to the extent, that is, that we ‘make history.'”

Arendt does not believe that Christianity created a new view of history. The death and resurrection of Christ is treated as a singular event, but other human events remained as before–great men come and go, empires erupt and crash, and life goes on. The world will end someday at Christ’s return.

Our modern view of history begins with Hegel and has its source in the consciousness, not in events out there in the world. History is separated from the immortality of great deeds (the ancient view) and the immortality of the soul (the Christian view). History is what is useful. Marx pushed history beyond Hegel, transforming meaning and meaningfulness into ends. “But neither freedom nor any other meaning,” Arendt writes, “can ever be the product of a human activity in the sense in which the table is clearly the end-product of the carpenter’s activity.”

One wonders how much of an audience she ever really had for her style of political analysis. To really take her on, you would need to be able to judge her use of classic sources. With Unicode, we can all write Greek, even if we don’t understand it literally or in context.

This essay is in a collection entitled Between Past and Future. Other essays in the collection are worthwhile, especially Truth and Politics. This story that she tells there gets back to the question of history:

During the twenties, so a story goes, Clemenceau, shortly before his death, found himself engaged in a friendly talk with a representative of the Weimar Republic on the question of guilt for the outbreak of the First World War. “What, in your opinion,” Clemenceau was asked, “will future historians think of this troublesome and controversial issue?” He replied, “This I don’t know. But I know for certain that they will not say that Belgium invaded Germany.”

 

Vermeer, “The Art of Painting,” with model as Clio, Muse of History

The Von Hassell Diaries, by Ulrich von Hassell

December 22, 2016

You had enough of sorrow before death
Yeats, “To A Shade”

These are the notes of a Prussian who talked for years about finding some alternative to Hitler, but never succeeded.

Starting soon after his recall by Hitler from his posting as ambassador to Italy (1932-38), Hassell kept this diary of his meetings over the next six years with those of similar feeling. His position with the Mitteleuropäischer Wirtschaftstage (Middle-European Economic Conference) enabled him to travel to other countries and keep track of current events. The impression on the reader is of an old German, one who tried to accommodate with the existing regime (he joined the Nazi party when he became ambassador) while remaining true to the best traditions of his country as he saw them. The diary also records extremely valuable impressions of events as they were occurring, though filtered through the author’s own limitations of bias and opportunity to investigate. From the beginning, the diary records the beliefs of many that the Nazi regime could never last because of its official proclamation of “immoral principles.” (11) Hassell was not yet of this mind.

After Kristallnacht, he wrote on November 25, 1938: “Not since the World War have we lost so much credit in the world. But my chief concern is not with the effects abroad, not with what kind of foreign political reaction we may expect–at least not for the moment. I am most deeply troubled about the effect on our national life, which is dominated ever more inexorably by a system capable of such things.” (20) On December 20, 1938, he wrote that Goering had “condemned the progrom most sharply and openly before all the Cabinet ministers and Gauleiters,” but would not take a public stand against the SS. (25)

Throughout 1938 and 1939, a constant theme is the financial precariousness of the regime. The annexation of the Sudetenland brings in “Czech gold,” (41) but economic conditions worsen. In July, Hassell visited with former Cabinet ministers and discussed “the necessity of preparations in the event of a Nazi collapse.” (51) There were shortages of gasoline, raw materials, and food. (55) In August, he wrote: “Some people believe we must go through the catastrophe of a world war, in which the chances of defeat are 80 per cent, in order to achieve healthy conditions here at home. I cannot share this view, and consider the whole business an irresponsible adventure, both from the National Socialist point of view and from that of an enemy of the Nazi regime.” (58)

When war came, Hassell blamed England, France, and Poland itself for failing to avoid it. Remarkably, he writes that “Mussolini did all in his power to avoid war. His mediation proposal of September 2 offered no more hope of success because England no longer could or would back down.” (71) Hassell saw as early as October 11, 1939, that Hitler “secretly plans to attack Russia later.” (72) At this stage, Hassell was meeting to discuss a possible coup by the generals, Brauchitsch the most involved, with Goering as the replacement head of government, at least for a temporary period. (72) Reports of atrocities were immediately circulating, as early as October 1939. “When people use their revolvers to shoot down a group of Jews herded into a synagogue one is filled with shame.” (76)

Hassell records jokes that circulated, as always under an oppressive state: “Why doesn’t the Fuehrer visit the front any more? Because on his departure the soldiers would cry: ‘Fuehrer, we will follow you!'” (104) “[T]he temperature is still being measured according to the foreign standards of Celsius and Réamur. Hitler orders that in the future measurements be made according to the ‘German’ Fahrenheit. We thereby gain 65 degrees of heat and automatically solve the coal shortage!” (159)

In February 1940, Hassell took the audacious step of meeting with an Englishman and handing him a memo with a statement of principles for a negotiation of peace and “reconstruction of Europe,” including “principles of Christian ethics,” “justice and law as fundamental elements of public life,” and “liberty of thought, conscience, and intellectual activity,” all of which were of course lacking under Nazi control. (111)

Hassell deplores “[t]he systematic and uncontrolled killing of the so-called ‘criminally insane'” as early as November 1940. (147) In April 1941, he writes, “The Army is an incredibly brilliant instrument, with all the stronger characteristics of the German people, and filled with absolute self-confidence. It is tragic! With this magnificent instrument the destruction of Europe is being accomplished to perfection.” (171)

He records the conflict among church leaders about how to react to the attacks on religion and whether to speak out against atrocities. Bishop Galen of Münster and other “proponents of drastic action” were in the minority; the majority were opposed to open struggle. (203) Hassell’s view in 1941 was that protests had an effect, citing a protest by the Evangelical Pastors’ Association against a decree that would expel all clerics from the Red Cross because of its “interconfessional nature.” (203) Still, “The morals of the people have deteriorated through the battle against Christianity as well as through the spreading corruption and various other sinister phenomena.” (204)

Things turn personally grimmer for Hassell with the diary entry for April 27, 1942, where he records a meeting with Foreign Minister Ernst von Weizsäcker, who “carefully closed the windows and doors, and announced with some emphasis that he had a very serious matter to discuss with me. . . I had no idea, he said, how people were after me (the Gestapo). Every step I took was observed. I should certainly burn everything I had in the way of notes which covered conversations in which one or another had said this or that. Apparently he meant himself.” (232) By April 1943, Hassell knew that his phone was tapped. (269)

June 1943: “[T]he unhappy remnants of the Jews prepared to defend themselves, and there is heavy fighting which will certainly lead to their complete extermination by the SS. It is Hitler’s achievement that the German has become the most loathed animal in the whole world.” (272)

His last diary entry is July 13, 1944. He was rounded up in the investigation of the plot of July 20, 1944, and sent to Ravensbrück. His case went before the People’s Court of the notorious Judge Roland Freisler. Hassell was hanged on February 2, 1945, along with Johannes Popitz and Jesuit Fr. Delp, none of whom were directly involved in the plot.

St. Ulrich of Augsburg

St. Ulrich of Augsburg, first saint to be officially canonized

Kurt Weill: An Illustrated Life, by Jürgen Schebera

October 22, 2016

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
–Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 14

As the title says, this biography is amply illustrated, with black-and-white photos on nearly every page of Weill, his friends and family, programs and posters, and productions. It is almost a scrapbook.

The industriousness of the man is clear. From his early years in Dessau, he was dedicated to music. Weill’s father was a cantor. In 1920, Weill went to Berlin and studied with Busoni, where he composed symphonies and other pieces in the traditional classical way. He met the dancer Karoline Blamauer in 1924. Her stage name was Lotte Lenya.

Around this same time, Weill began his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht, out of which came Weill’s most famous pieces, “The Alabama Song” (from The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) and “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer,” otherwise known as “Mack the Knife,” from Die Dreigrochenoper.

The new powers classified Weill’s works as degenerate, and he moved on to Paris and Vienna, before sailing to the U.S. in 1935 with his second wife, Lenya (they had divorced and then remarried). He devoted himself thereafter to musical theater on Broadway. The author sympathizes with Weill’s view that opera in the U.S. consisted of “‘museum-piece’ reproductions of European works and performance styles.” Weill also worked on film scores briefly. His collaborators on Broadway included Ira Gershwin, Moss Hart, and Langston Hughes (the latter for Street Scene, maybe Weill’s most successful work from his American period). Lenya continued to perform in his shows.

Weill had no interest in returning to Germany and left his Germanness behind when he crossed the border. His Jewishness stayed with him. In March 1943, with Ben Hecht, he put on a “pageant play,” We Will Never Die, a protest against the persecution of the Jewish people. There is a great photo of Weill and Maxwell Anderson looking out for enemy planes. Weill was a volunteer Air Warden with the U.S. Army’s Aircraft Warning Service.

One is impressed at the end by his industriousness and dedication to popular music. His shows dating from his move to the U.S. haven’t really lasted, but how many shows from the 1930s and 1940s are still performed or remembered now by many?

Unlike Brecht, he stayed in the U.S. and did not return to Germany. The difference between the two men in that respect is that Brecht’s religion won out in the newly created GDR. Weill’s and Lenya’s parents made a new home in Israel. He wrote to his parents after the war, “I do not believe that in all of human history any nation has experienced as terrible a defeat as Germany–or that any people has deserved humiliation as much as these barbarians who have taken it upon themselves to destroy everything good and decent that people have achieved over millennia.”

Weill had a heart attack in 1950 and is buried in Haverstraw, just outside of New York City. Lenya was buried there after her death in 1981. They had no children.

Kurt Weill, Elmer Rice, and Langston Hughes discussing their work "Street Scene"

Kurt Weill, Elmer Rice, and Langston Hughes discussing their work “Street Scene”

 

Gustav Mahler: An Introduction to His Music, by Deryck Cooke

October 4, 2016

O’er many a frozen, many a fiery Alp . . . .
Paradise Lost, II.620

This is a posthumous project, drawn from a booklet that Cooke wrote for the BBC as part of a celebration of Mahler’s one-hundredth birthday in 1960. The editors expanded the original “Mahler as Man and Artist,” drawing on Cooke’s program notes written over the years. All eleven symphonies (1-8, Das Lied von der Erde, 9, and the unfinished 10) are included, along with some early works, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the Kindertotenlieder, and the Rückert Lieder.

The whole thing is 127 pages, including the index. There is something to be said for compactness, and how delightful with this subject! The editors have included all the texts of the free-standing songs and those that are part of the symphonies, but not a single measure of the music is reproduced.

There is a bit of biography set alongside the musical analysis. In 1895-96, Mahler used his time after the conducting season in Hamburg to work on his Third Symphony in the Austrian village of Steinbach am Attersee in the Salzburg Alps. There, he drew directly on nature for his inspiration, giving the work an initial program that read:

THE JOYFUL KNOWLEDGE
A Summer Morning’s Dream
I. Summer marches in
II. What the meadow flowers tell me
III. What the creatures of the forest tell me
IV. What night tells me (mankind)
V. What the morning bells tell me (the angels)
VI. What love tells me
VII. The heavenly life (what the child tells me)

Mahler removed that last section from the already loose baggy monster of the Third and made it the end of his charming Fourth, a setting of “Das himmlische Leben” from the Wunderhorn collection. He also discarded the program titles from what remained.

He was so immersed in nature in writing the Third that the story goes, according to his wife, Alma:

“One day in the summer he came running down from his hut in a perspiration, scarcely able to breathe. At last he came out with it: it was the heat, the stillness, the Pan-ic horror. He was overcome by this feeling of the goat-god’s frightful and vivid eye upon him in his solitude, and he had to take refuge in the house among human beings, and go on with his work there.”

 

Alma Mahler

Alma Schindler Mahler-Gropius-Werfel

 

Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth) is a symphony, and like the Second, Third, Fourth, and Eighth, it includes a text. Unlike those, the text is not from Wunderhorn, the Christian liturgy, Goethe, or Klopstock, but rather from Chinese poems, as translated into German by Hans Bethge in his “The Chinese Flute.” Mahler declined to call this work his Ninth Symphony out of superstition that because Beethoven only completed nine symphonies, once he himself did so, it would be the end. So he then safely called the next symphony his Ninth (because he had written eight), but it was really the tenth one, if you’re counting symphonies. He assumed “the danger was over.” Then on to the Tenth, which he didn’t finish. That’s fate for you.

Mahler’s modernness comes through in the discussion of the Tenth Symphony. He completed a four-stave score and notes on elaboration of this “piano-duet layout” into a full score, but stopped halfway through. Cooke completed a version for performance. What is so contemporary about this is what Cooke drops as a casual detail–Mahler had left “three folders” containing drafts of two full-length movements and the first thirty bars of another. “And so he did not even begin the third stage–the elaboration of the full-score draft into the final definitive full score of the completed work. He had, however, decided on the order of the movements, having written blue-pencil roman numerals on the covers of five of the folders.” A symphony in folders! Did Richard Strauss have folders for Salome?

 

mahler-das-lied-von-der-erde-cd-cover

Das Lied von der Erde, or Symphony No. 9, as you please

Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy, by Rüdiger Safranski

September 10, 2016

There was an old person of Buda,
Whose conduct grew ruder and ruder,
Till at last with a hammer,
They silenced his clamour,
By smashing that Person of Buda.

–Edmund Lear

Kant, Fichte, Schelling, the Romantics, Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx in his youth all made some noise in the early nineteenth centuries. Reality at last was becoming knowable and malleable. These were the “wild years of philosophy.” Schopenhauer’s great work, The World as Will and Representation (1814-18), took decades to be noticed, during which time the philosopher carried on in spite of the world.

The book is a biography of Schopenhauer with a great deal of summary of his and others’ philosophies mixed in, largely with success. There would not have been a philosopher Schopenhauer but for some circumstances. His father was a merchant in Hamburg, and wanted Arthur to follow in the family business. Arthur had studied literature and preferred it to trade. The father gave Arthur a choice in 1803, when he was fifteen: He could take a tour of several months to England, Holland, France, Austria, and Switzerland to see the world’s great architecture, paintings, and sculpture, and come home to start a life of business; or, he could skip the tour and live his own life that he chose. Arthur chose the tour, but then something intervened. The father died suddenly in 1805,  giving Arthur an inheritance and the opportunity and security to study.

With his mother, Johanna, he moved to Weimar, where he met Goethe. (The mother, who wrote several novels and was not bashful about promoting her work, deserves her own biography.) Young Arthur’s discussions with Goethe on the theory of colors got his own philosophy of sensation underway.

He never married, but had a keen appreciation of women. There were several affairs, but never a serious engagement. At forty-three, he proposed to a seventeen-year-old girl. The father was flabbergasted: “But she is only a child!” Schopenhauer’s philosophy frankly admits the sex drive as one of many expressions of the “Will,’ that chaotic urge behind all things.

He was appointed lecturer at Berlin University, where he scheduled his lectures at the same time as the celebrity Hegel, as if out of spite. No one came. No one came for fifteen years. It takes a certain self-confidence to carry on in such a fashion. Eventually, Schopenhauer took a new position at Frankfurt, but remained out of sight of all but a few. He declined to be relevant or to make philosophy serve the state, as tempted Fichte and Hegel.

There were two journeys to Italy. At the Café Greco in Rome, he “would sit and irritate people.” To a group of “Nazarene-German” artistic amateurs he praised the Olympic gods. His tablemates preferred the apostles, but Schopenhauer snorted, “Spare me your twelve philistines from Jerusalem!”

He wrote for three hours every morning and for consolation, played Rossini on the flute. The author says that Schopenhauer could play all of Rossini’s works, which is saying something. His greatest influence arguably is in aesthetics. It is in contemplation of the work of art that one overcomes the Wahn (madness, as Hans Sachs sings) of hither-and-yon activity. This attitude is all over Thomas Mann and James Joyce, to name two. Think of Stephen Dedalus explaining the artist to Lynch, “indifferent, paring his fingernails.”

There is only passing mention of Wagner in the book. Schopenhauer would be Wagner’s greatest philosophical influence. If one were to look for a “Schopenhauer for Dummies,” this would not be the book to read. Instead, take in the Tristan Prelude. Nietzsche called it the heartbeat of the Will.

Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld in the first production of Tristan und Isolde, Munich 1865

Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld in the first production of Tristan und Isolde, Munich 1865