Monday, July 25, 2016

The Two Cities

Dum haec aguntur in Iebus, terribilis de occidente rumor adfertur osbsideri Romam....Capitur urbs, quae totum cepit orbem, immo fame perit ante quam gladio et vix pauci, qui caperentur, inventi sunt.

Thus St. Jerome, writing a few years later, about the news of the siege of Rome by the Goths, of its fall in 410  through hunger and the sword, and of the few survivors taken in the city that had once taken the world.

It is probably impossible to sufficiently realize how profoundly this sack of Rome demoralized those who heard the news.  Granted, Constantine had, almost a century before, moved the Empire's capital from Rome to Byzantium, surely, in part, because it was a more defensible location. Nevertheless, in the year 1163 ab urbe condita, it had been some seven centuries since Rome had been sacked by a foreign enemy.

Now I recognize that almost any particular time, from its own vantage point, seems extraordinarily fraught with danger and anxiety.  Our particular current problems with senseless mass murder, frequent ordinary murder (private and official), deadly retaliation,  endless unresolvable wars and coups--all in the context of a growing disfunction of those institutions meant to translate the people's will into policy (i.e., democracy)--undoubtedly are feeding a kind of unease.  And perhaps for that reason I have myself been returning to St. Augustine's de civitate Dei--The City of God.

I have a lengthy history with it. While in high school a friend worked in a small local bookstore where  a single copy of the old Modern Library edition seemed always on the shelf, perennially unbought, and seemingly there only so that we might occasionally marvel at its length and apparent impenetrability. 

I was actually introduced to Augustine in college, in a course on Medieval Philosophy.  In such a survey course there was no time to read anything but short extracts, with those focusing on more strictly philosophical topics like the nature of time, the concept of evil as privatio boni, and the tripartite faculties of the soul.   My third year in law school I thought I'd like to audit some course at the nearby divinity school, but my first choice, a survey of Augustine, conflicted with my required classes.  Nevertheless, my second choice, a survey of John Calvin, necessarily included an emphasis on how central certain aspects of Augustine's thought were to the Protestant Reformation, and I did manage at that time to read the Confessions for the first time.

So, I never actually read the City of God till the early eighties, in a volume of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series.  I was newly married, a Catholic catechumen,  and just starting to practice law at a large firm.  Another new lawyer,  starting a second career after some years as a clergyman,  discovered I had started it and advised against continuing  He didn't see much point to it.  But I persevered, and what I found in it was a kind of serial historical review, first of Roman history, then of biblical history.  Roman history I basically knew nothing about until a third year course in Roman Law, where at least some rudiments of republican and imperial history were needed (and I should note that it was about the same time that "I, Claudius" was first broadcast on PBS, followed closely every week on the dorm TV).  The Roman review was the more narrowly focused section, answering the charge that Christianity was responsible for the catastrophe, but by means of a rather sporatic survey of Roman politics, conquest, religion, and philosophy.

The second section was a sort of chronological biblical review, from creation to apocalypse, material I was quite familiar with, shot through with much speculation (some of it verging on the bizarre), considerable allegorical reading of the scripture (plainly not the historical-critical approach I was most used to), and all under the general schemata of "The Two Cities," the City of God and the City of Man, conceptually distinct, but inextricably intermingled.

I didn't much come back to it, and eventually gave it away.  Around the turn of the millenium Cambridge University Press published a new translation, which I acquired, but by that time I thought of City of God as kind of a miscellany, great fun to open randomly, but I never gave it the serious perusal I had originally intended, and in some ways I thought that that was right, that perhaps Augustine's august reputation too much hid his tentative side, the sense that he was engaged in meditation rather than pontification.

I sense that this is getting to be too much, but it's really the first time I've thought about this odd read/dispose/return cycle.  Eventually I got rid of the Dyson translation, but a decade later thought that perhaps I should try to tackle the thing in Latin--enter a used, slightly battered set published as part of the  Biblioteca scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana  series.  I read through the first three books in my usual halting, hit-and-miss fashion, and then naturally the Folio Society published a very handsome two-volume edition, using the 19th century Marcus Dods translation--the one used, of course, in that old Modern Library edition of my high school days, and I thought, well, I suppose it's meant to be, and I will do my best to stay with the Latin but check with the English.

So what does any of this have to do with the City of God or contemporary anxiety?  Just the sense that there's something there, something not necessarily unsuspected all along, but articulated in a certain time and place that gives it a kind of weight, a re-assurance that, however often it is felt that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, it never seems to go.  The model of the two cities supports a double acceptance of both hope and realism.  The universality of primal sin doesn't so much explain anything as set bounds for expectation, without enabling or providing a foundation for despair.

It is often remarked that Augustine's conception of the secular city as organized banditry, distinguished from ordinary crime only by size and the degree to which some measure of justice is realized, is fundamentally anti-utopian, radically skeptical about the extent to which any existing government can aspire to Christian values.  It reminds me of the question of Thomas More's irony in proposing his Utopia, especially in light of the fact that, as a young man, More was invited, and did in fact give a series of lectures at St. Lawrence Jewry on Augustine's City of God.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Lepanto for Cervantes and Braudel

In an earlier post on arms and letters I think I mentioned that Cervantes participated in the battle of Lepanto, the 1571 sea battle that decisively ended Ottoman naval supremecy in the Mediterranean.

In my agonizingly slow meandering through Don Quijote I have now come to Chapter XXXIX of the First Part, "Donde el cautivo cuenta su vida y sucesos," ("The Captive's  Tale").  What is interesting is how this particular tale gives the novel an autobiographical turn:

Súpose cierto que venía por general desta liga el serenísimo don Juan de Austria, hermano natural de nuestro buen rey don Felipe. Divulgóse el grandísimo aparato de guerra que se hacía. Todo lo cual me incitó y conmovió el ánimo y el deseo de verme en la jornada que se esperaba; y, aunque tenía barruntos, y casi promesas ciertas, de que en la primera ocasión que se ofreciese sería promovido a capitán, lo quise dejar todo y venirme, como me vine, a Italia. Y quiso mi buena suerte que el señor don Juan de Austria acababa de llegar a Génova, que pasaba a Nápoles a juntarse con la armada de Venecia, como después lo hizo en Mecina.
»Digo, en fin, que yo me hallé en aquella felicísima jornada, ya hecho capitán de infantería, a cuyo honroso cargo me subió mi buena suerte, más que mis merecimientos. Y aquel día, que fue para la cristiandad tan dichoso, porque en él se desengañó el mundo y todas las naciones del error en que estaban, creyendo que los turcos eran invencibles por la mar: en aquel día, digo, donde quedó el orgullo y soberbia otomana quebrantada, entre tantos venturosos como allí hubo (porque más ventura tuvieron los cristianos que allí murieron que los que vivos y vencedores quedaron), yo solo fui el desdichado, pues, en cambio de que pudiera esperar, si fuera en los romanos siglos, alguna naval corona, me vi aquella noche que siguió a tan famoso día con cadenas a los pies y esposas a las manos.

 »Y fue desta suerte: que, habiendo el Uchalí, rey de Argel, atrevido y venturoso cosario, embestido y rendido la capitana de Malta, que solos tres caballeros quedaron vivos en ella, y éstos malheridos, acudió la capitana de Juan Andrea a socorrella, en la cual yo iba con mi compañía; y, haciendo lo que debía en ocasión semejante, salté en la galera contraria, la cual, desviándose de la que la había embestido, estorbó que mis soldados me siguiesen, y así, me hallé solo entre mis enemigos, a quien no pude resistir, por ser tantos; en fin, me rindieron lleno de heridas. Y, como ya habréis, señores, oído decir que el Uchalí se salvó con toda su escuadra, vine yo a quedar cautivo en su poder, y solo fui el triste entre tantos alegres y el cautivo entre tantos libres; porque fueron quince mil cristianos los que aquel día alcanzaron la deseada libertad, que todos venían al remo en la turquesca armada.

The parallel isn't exact.  Cervantes was not captured at the battle of Lepanto but four years later off the Catalonian coast, seized by Ottoman pirates and sold in Algiers.  He was five years a slave before ransomed and returned to Spain.

Now to me one of the curious facets of Don Quijote is the conceit, first alluded to at the beginning of Chapter IX of the first part, that Cervantes, far from composing this narrative, is merely translating it from an Arabic manuscipt by "Cide Hamete Benengeli, historiador arabigo."  Many a commentator has noted how the "book within a book" spawns metalayers of meaning.  But I've always wondered why a soldier of Christendom, a late crusader, and a slave in Moslem North Africa, should attribute his magnum opus to an Arab at a time of fairly strenuous and continuous warfare between the two civilizations.

Fast-forward now to the middle of the twentieth century.  A young French historian is working on his first major project, a history of the battle of Lepanto.  But the year is 1939, and he enters the French Army and becomes a prisoner of war.  Unexpectedly, in the years of his captivity, he composes the first draft for what is later recognized as one of the great histories of his generation, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II.  By the time it's completed it is still focused, allegedly, on Lepanto.  But he feels that some context is needed.  So, in the three-volume edition/translation I own, the entire first volume is dedicated to geography--the mountains, the coasts, the islands, the cross-roads, the great plain of the sea itself--all the physical constraints within which the merely human history that plays itself out.  The second volume addresses long term human structures and fault lines--economies and civilizations which, though lacking the permanance of geography, nevertheless change little over the centuries.  Only in the last volume do we come to people and politics, and they by this time seem rather insignificant.

Cervantes' life could have been a great novel in itself, but he subordinated it to the great work of the Quijote, and then wrote himself in as a digression.  Braudel began with a conventional aim to tell the story of a great battle.  Did his own battle, and captivity, drive him to drawing back, more and more, to subordinating his subject to the greater world, and under that aspect become newly perceived as a mere episode?

Two writers, two soldiers, two captives, one battle.  A distancing absurdity and a diminution worked by geological time.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Journalist as Economist

My recent post on Chesterton, "The Journalist as Theologian," was "topical," in the sense that there was a contemporary dust-up about a journalist writing about theology.  But the reason that Chesterton was on my mind was a recent perusal of a book almost entirely directed to economics, The Outline of Sanity.

The practical tendency of all trade and business to-day is towards big commercial combinations, often more imperial, more impersonal, more international than many a communist commonwealth--things that are at least collective if not collectivist. It is all very well to repeat distractedly, "What are we coming to, with all this Bolshevism?" It is equally relevant to add, "What are we coming to, even without Bolshevism?" The obvious answer is--Monopoly. It is certainly not private enterprise. The American Trust is not private enterprise. It would be truer to call the Spanish Inquisition private judgment. Monopoly is neither private nor enterprising. It exists to prevent private enterprise. And that system of trust or monopoly, that complete destruction of property, would still be the present goal of all our progress, if there were not a Bolshevist in the world.

Now I am one of those who believe that the cure for centralization is decentralization. It has been described as a paradox. There is apparently something elvish and fantastic about saying that when capital has come to be too much in the hands of the few, the right thing is to restore it into the hands of the many.

I'm not sure that "economist" is quite the right word.  What we call economics aspires to the status of a science.  We call it a "social science" in partial recognition of its failure to attain it.  I certainly hesitate to claim any detailed knowledge of it.  I took freshman economics some four decades ago and learned the basics, both classical and Keynesian, and have occasionally dipped into Marx and his successors (increasingly a subject for antiquaries).

But economics can also be understood as a branch of moral philosophy--not, "what must an individual or nation do to obtain wealth?", but "what should an individual or nation do to best meet the material needs of a good life?"

What Chesterton came to call "distributism" is typically characterized today as a romantic, reactionary and unrealistic call to return to medieval guilds. But I think that dismissiveness comes largely from an almost universal presupposition of economic determinism. Can the "clock be turned back?" The question itself has come to mean, "Can one do the impossible?" But Chesterton's advocacy of peasant proprietorship, small shops and limits on wealth differences was not so much advocacy of returning to some past golden age, but an assertion, very much in the face of the spirit of the age, that the monstrous collectivism of multinational corporations and of banks "too large to fail" resulted, not from any invisible hand, or necessary dialectic development of world history, but from human choices. And if an inhuman, soul-crushing system of production arose out of human choice, it can be reformed by human choice as well.

Many of Chesterton's most important social and economic works can be found in volumes four and five of the Ignatius Press edition of Chesterton's collected works, but I should say a word about some of the introductory material. This series was inaugurated in the late eighties, and was encouraged, and to some extent associated, with some who came to be known as the "theo-cons." The parallel, secular neoconservative movement of the eighties has lost a considerable amount of its credibility due to later association with some of the foreign policy excesses of the administrations of Bush fils

But I mention the Ignatius editions because, in volume five, there is considerable introductory and following material trying to assure the reader that what Chesterton calls "capitalism" is not what they promoted as "capitalism," and that Chesterton's vision of a distributist society was largely realized in contemporary America. This "framing" of Chesterton's work, which today looks embarrassingly clueless, helpfully suggests that Chesterton is rather more radical, and more critical of the status quo than his greatest promoters cared to admit. It's not that I say, "Avoid the Ignatius editions"--I think we owe Ignatius a considerable debt of gratitude for bringing back into circulation practically the only editions of many of these works still in print. But read the introductory material in the light of Chesterton, and not vice versa.

I conclude with Two French Postscripts:

(1)  A year or two there was an economics book that made quite a splash, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. Its message was one of a stubborn and growing gap between the rich and the poor, and its universally-derided-as-unrealistic remedy was a wealth tax to start closing that gap. Somehow, much, much later, it occurred to me that that was not too distant from: "when capital has come to be too much in the hands of the few, the right thing is to restore it into the hand of the many."

(2) This last Christmas my wife gave me a copy of the recently-published English translation of Michel Houellebecq's Submission. I'm not quite sure what to make of it, a tale of the triumph of Islam in France in the near future. It's less, I think, about Islam than the collapsing convictions of the French intelligentsia, a phenomenon I'm not exactly up on. I only mention it because, toward the end, one character mentions that the new Muslim president, Ben Abbas, is promoting "distributism." Apparently it's not entirely unknown among the French, even if associated with the novelty (and fear) of a different civilization arguably having in common with traditional Christendom a distrust of an autonomous optimization of overall wealth without a concomitant interest in distribution and the largely ignored question of general human happiness.


Monday, March 28, 2016

Utopia at Five Hundred

DE OPTIMO REIPUBLICAE STATU DEQUE NOVA INSULA UTOPIA, libellus vere aureus, nec minus salutaris quam festivus, clarrissime divertissimique viri THOMAE MORI inclutae civitatis Londinensis civis et Vicecomitis

Which is to say, "ON THE BEST STATE OF A COMMONWEALTH AND ON THE NEW ISLAND OF UTOPIA, a truly golden handbook, no less beneficial than entertaining, by the most distinguished and elegant author THOMAS MORE citizen and undersheriff of the famous city of London."  Though we are usually content with, simply, Utopia.

To us Thomas More and Utopia are practically synonymous.  Surprisingly, the book is mentioned neither in More's first biography, that of his son-in-law William Roper, nor in the late Tudor, probably-partly-Shakespearean play, "The Booke of Sir Thomas More."

There is no trace of the original autograph.  We know that More entrusted the manuscript to his friend Erasmus in the latter part of 1516, and that the first printing was done in Louvain before the end of the year.  The engraving above comes from that first printing.

Utopia was required reading in the mandatory cultural heritage course at my undergraduate college.  Whether it is still read as a "canonical" text from the Renaissance I don't really know (or whether, for that matter, the Renaissance retains its central place in the liberal arts curriculum)..  Be that as it may, Utopia quite rightly partakes of the qualities we think of as distinctively "Renaissance"  first, as the renewal of a genuine classical genre, the ideal polity (think The Republic), but, second, as a strikingly original composition, a new departure.

Utopia primarily calls to mind the detailed account of Utopian society, but that description applies only to the second part.  Part one is a dialogue grounded in English and European realities, focused primarily on the question of whether a humanist should enter public service to give "good counsel" to his prince.  More precisely it's a dialogue within a dialogue, the first between More and one Raphael Hythlodaeus, a voyager of wide experience,  who, in the coure of his discussion, harks back to a conversation between himself, Cardinal Morton (in whose household More was educated), a common lawyer, a friar and the Cardinal's fool.  The character "More" in this dialogue remains largely uncommitted, as does the Cardinal.  Most outspoken are Hythlodaeus and the lawyer, who defends the status quo.

There is little talk of radical change (except to the extent that critical examination of current practices can be seen as radical).  Hythlodaeus decries the rapacity of kings who, lusting for new conquests, are quite unable to wisely govern their own possessions (I've quoted at some length from this portion in a much earlier blog post, "More Folly," of  March 14, 2008).  We can certainly applaud this stance while recognizing it to be a relatively conventional humanist call to kings to act justly and to avoid war.

More unusual is Hythlodaeus' response to the question of why theft remains in England when so many thieves are hanged for it.   His answer rests partly on simple reason--savage punishments won't deter if people have to steal to eat--but he also puts the question into the context of other interrelated ills.  A kingdom's commitment to war results in soldiers returning to society wounded, displaced and with no skills except those of a soldier:  violence and theft.  The wealth of the aristocracy, combined with their disdain for useful work, divides the country into idle courtiers and overworked peasants.  And the enclosure by the wealthy of customarily common pasturage, for their private husbandry of sheep, makes the position of the poor even more precarious:  "Oves...vestrae, quae tam mites tamque exiguo solent ali, nunc (ubi fertur) tam edaces atque indomitae esse coeperunt ut homines devorent ipsos:  agros, domos, oppida, vastent ac depopulentur.  ("Your sheep..., that commonly are so meek and eat so little; now. as I hear, they have become so greedy and fierce that they devour human beings themselves.  They devastate and depopulate fields, houses and towns.")

This talk of ills and remedies concludes with Hythlodaeus reaching what he considers the root of these social problems:  "Adeo mihi certe persuadeo res aequabili ac iusta aliqua ratione distribui aut feliciter agi cum rebum mortalium, nisi sublata prorsus proprietate, no posse."  (""Thus I am wholly convinced that unless private property is entirely abolished, there can be no fair or just distribution of goods, nor can the business of mortals be conducted happily.")

To the claim that such a society could not exist, Hythlodaeus asserts, to the contrary, that such a society does indeed exist, in Utopia, an island he visited after having separated from a New World expedition under Amerigo Vespucci.  And so we move from the dialogues of the first part to Hythlodaeus' description of the society of the Utopians in the second part.

That More presents Utopia through the admiring, but distinct, voice of Hythlodaeus has always given rise to caution against identifying Hythlodaeus' admiration with More's.  The Utopians are happy, moderately properous and peaceful.  Per Hythlodaeus' observation at the end of the first part they have forsaken the use of private property, all citizens working a six-hour day and  taking turns at the more laborious tasks like agriculture,   In many ways it looks like a society patterned on a well-run monastery.

Nevertheless, one difference between the way we read Utopia today and the way we read it when I was in college is that, at that time, not so very long ago, a large part of the world was under the sway of an ideology dedicated in large part to following More in eradicating private property, or at least private capital, and in creating republics of workers, for workers.  It's odd to think that Thomas More, who in the last twenty years has been most conspicuously the darling of neo-conservatives, was within living memory (at least in mine) rather suspect as a fellow traveller with Marx and Engels.

R.W. Chambers' biography of More, from the mid-1930's, catches something of the older wideness of appeal that came out of Utopia:

"That the love of Thomas More unites those who might seem to be separated by a considerable gulf is shown by the fact that the Karl-Marx-Engels Instittute of the Central Executive Committee of the Union of Soviet Republics should have been seeking for information about that great Communist Sir Thomas More from the Sisters of the Beaufort Street Convent...."

This has perhaps gone on long enough for now.  But I hope to return to this topic as our anniversary year progresses, and as our own would-be rulers furiously pursue these topics of war, poverty and the gulf between the haves and have-nots.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Simon Winder's Central Europe

In college, for reasons mostly forgotten, I decided to study German, taking the usual undergraduate four semesters of "beginning" and "intermediate.'  Shortly thereafter I decided to major in philosophy, and the two made a good fit--I was always more taken with Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger than with Descartes or Locke or John Stuart Mill.

So I've kept up my German, in a halting, imperfect way, and have slowly made my way through some of those philosophers in their native tongue, with the dividend of  novelists and poets and theologians.   In a more recent realization of the extent of my ignorance of garden variety German history (aside from the Nazi period) I've begun reading tomes like Robert Kann's History of the Habsburg Empire and Christopher Clark's Iron Kingdom:  A History of Prussia.  These are solid, competent chronological narratives, admittedly a little dull, but filling in a story I've too long ignored.

A third book I started last year is Nancy Mitford's Frederick the Great. Those of you acquainted with this Mitford sister might be more familiar with her romantic comedies--The Pursuit of Love or Love in a Cold Climate.  Her histories--and I'm thinking especially of The Sun King and Madame de Pompadour--show what a novelist's ear for character and incident can do for the non-academic historian.  And if Frederick the Great lacks much of the sparkle of Mitford's French histories, that can probably be attributed to the ploddingly masculine character of Frederick's court.

But the real impetus for this post was my recent completion of Simon Winder's Germania and Danubia.  Unlike the more ponderous tomes mentioned above, I ran through Winder's two volumes in less than two months, a matter of both recommendation and caution.  They are "personal histories" of Central Europe, the first focusing on the lands within the current Federal Republic of Germany, the second on the intersecting area of lands ruled in various capacities by the Austrian Habsburg dynasty.

Winder is irreverent in matters religious, unmoved by appeals to the venerable past, and contemptuous of the various nationalisms that have guided our collective enthusiasms of the last couple of centuries.  A long-lapsed Catholic, he retains a kind of grudging respect for Catholic grandeur and a scathing eye for Catholic kitsch (there is one unforgettable digression about vermin-infested macrame banners in a Chicago parish in the seventies).  His narrative rambles more or less chronologically, and in all his travels he retains the firm conviction that what was schlock in the middle ages, or in any time thereafter, remains schlock today--not that that should keep us from enjoying it  The reader is never more primed than when our narrator announces some godawful monument to a war or massacre or cartoon-cutout princeling:

This historicist monster [the Vökerschlachtdenkmal] was built to mark the centenary of the 1813 Battle of Leipzig….Leipzig is a musical and mercantile city and it is strange that only a tram-ride from Schumann’s rather funny-smelling favorite restaurant an object of such immense, humourless, Aztec gloom should be languishing….It is the work of Bruno Schmitz, the world’s worst architect, who unleashed his wretched talents on ruining several previously charming sites (the Kyffhäuser mountain, the point where the Rhine and the Mosel join) and smothering them in industrialized pseudo-mythology.  The contrast between the pretty landscaping of the park and the monstrous memorial of rough, blackened granite that lurks in it is really disturbing.  Something that should be found in the heart of a jungle, lying half strewn about and choked with jungle creepers, bats, snakes and poisonous flowers, has been set down in what looks like a quiet bit of Central Park….Once inside you are threatened by immense stone figures—the worst being the medieval madness of the eighteen-foot-high “Guards of the Dead” in full armour, awaiting activation in some pathetic horror film….The united German authorities have, with their usual bludgeoning seriousness, decided that they have a duty to later generations (who might just possibly have so degraded an aesthetic sense as to not find the memorial hideous) to restore it at a cost of millions of euros.
I found myself a little surprised at my sympathy with Winder's attitudes, being myself rather habitually reverent and respectful of tradition.  It helps that he is very funny.  But where we click, I think, is in his horror of nationalism.  Much of this history is of (ethinic) German unification and (ethnic) German domination of the various Magyars, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Ruthenians, Italians, Romanians, Slovaks, Czechs, and others.  Winder loves the jigsaw-puzzle madness of the ragtag kings, dukes, margraves, electors, prince-archbishops and free imperial cities constituting the Holy Roman Empire.  He therefore mourns the triumphant progress of German unity under Prussia.

Nevertheless, he makes two important caveats about Prussian aggression.  First, he notes that for all of Prussia's vaunted miltarism, its territorial gains during the nineteenth century rather paled compared to the U.S.'s expansion to the Pacific, or Great Britain's acquisition of a world-wide empire, or Russia's march across Siberia and Central Asia.  Second, he reminds us that, for all the marching around on parade, in snappy uniforms, Prussia's wars were, comparatively, few and far between, and usually decided by a single engagement.  Winder continually makes an important point about German history, that reading it in the light of the two world wars of the twentieth century invariably distorts our judgment.

So Winder's narrative in Germania returns again and again to this theme of the Germans wanting an ethnically and linguistically homogenous nation-state as the English had in England, the French in France, the Spanish in Spain, and as the Italians were contemporaneously building in Italy.

 By way of contrast, Danubia moves our focus eastward, from ethnically-and- linguistically-German Austria, the historic center of Habsburg authority, out into the ethnically and linguistically diverse lands of what Winder insists is Central Europe (Eastern Europe, he always reminds us, is the Russian Empire and the western part of the Ottoman Empire).  Here a single German family supplies a Holy Roman Emperor before 1806 and an Austrian Emperor thereafter.  That same family, through its succession to (or seizure of) the crowns of Bohemia and Hungary, comes to rule all of this miscellaneous Europe bounded by Prussia, Russia, Ottoman Turks, and, when not dismantled, Poland.

Like Joseph Roth, Winder loves the idea of the multi-ethnic Empire, and appreciates the irony of how national self-determination for, say, Hungary resulted in  Magyar domination of minority ethnic Romanians.  There are ethnic areas, and memories of glorious ethnic kingdoms from the middle ages, but no remaining clear ethnic boundaries, so that the concept of ethnic states--the germ of our modern Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Italy, Croatia, Serbia (not to mention modern Germany and Austria)--sets the stage for disaster.  Here Winder does engage in a great deal of anticipatory history, not in the sense of a militant Prussia showing the Germans to be natural Nazis, but in the inevitable disaster of translating the western European ideal of the nation-state to central Europe, whose one-time rationale for unity, as the great bulwark against the inroads of Islamic civilization, dissolved with the decline of the Ottomans.

Danubia remains comedy, but black comedy, the comedy of the absurd, and by no means the comedy of "drama with a happy ending."  But this is bearable because Winder remains sympathetic, not cynical, sorrowful, not despairing.  His Habsburg rulers are almost all pathetic, but their rather arbitrary domination is arguably justified because its destruction would, and did, unleash something worse.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Another punt

I must again apologize for the lack of posting, and can only repeat that I once more seem to have gotten very busy, and hope to get back to some of this after March.  It's not a bad kind of busy, but it will be nice when things lighten up.

In the meantime, I will provide a little filler from last spring's vacation files, which I can probably stretch out for years.

Here's a Roman panorama, by pure coincidence not far from a view described by Chesterton in The Resurrection of Rome, which I picked up this December:

And though I am usually reticent, because of privacy concerns, to publish pictures of myself and others, I will offer this unretouched photo of myself and my daughter at the Musee d'Orsay:

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Travelogue: Apologies

I have obviously not been able to post something every ten days or so as I said I'd try to do last year.  It's been a busy holiday season.

So, just to throw in a little filler, above is one of my photos of Mont-Saint-Victoire that I said, somewhere upthread, that I wouldn't be posting.

Have a happy Christmas and wonderful new year.