I’ve been thinking in very broad and still tentative terms about my next major research project, which will not – so help me Clio! – focus on late 20th century U.S. intellectual history. I’m ready to roam a little bit in terms of periodization and scope; I’ve got the range for it. Besides, life’s too short to put off doing whatever it is that enlivens your mind or enlarges your soul. So I’ve been doing a little bit of off-road reading, and I’ve really enjoyed it.
Here are my picks (and pics) for the month of September.
Books I read:
Donald R. Kelley, Faces of History: Historical Inquiry from Herodotus to Herder (Yale, 1988)
Kelley is a good and trusty guide through “the Western canon” of historical writing. But I especially appreciate that he included a major section on the Byzantine historiographic tradition. Kelley explained, “In general, the historiography of the ‘second Rome may be peripheral to the Western canon under consideration here, but it does form a bridge between classical antiquity and those Christian conceptions of the human condition which would so profoundly reshape Western visions of the human past” (74).
Thanks to two intriguing paragraphs from that section of his book, I found my way to this absolutely essential read:
Leonora Neville, Anna Komnene: the Life & Work of a Medieval Historian (Oxford, 2016)
Anna Komnene (often transliterated Comnena) was the extraordinarily well-educated daughter of Emperor Alexius Comnenus. Anna was a witness to the First Crusade, and her account of connected events in the Alexiad, a history of her father’s reign, is one of the only such sources we have written from a Byzantine point of view.
Some later Byzantine historians and many Western scholars who turned to the Alexiad in later centuries constructed a narrative of Komnene as a Lady Macbeth-like power hungry woman who wanted to ascend to the throne instead of her brother John. But Kelley presents a riveting alternate reading that explains Komnene’s major work as a brilliantly crafted narrative that was trying to do two completely incompatible things at once: stand as an exemplary text in the long and well-developed Byzantine tradition of formal historical writing (a man’s work) while at the same time honoring and remaining within the equally well-developed expectations of what is and is not properly the work of a good woman in Byzantine culture. Given the constraints of the genre, how can a woman – even a brilliantly-educated one – claim and demonstrate masterful authority in this sphere of writing without making herself, and hence her family, disreputable?
It’s a riveting read, and I think this is the kind of book I’d assign for a “historical methods” or “historiography” course, especially the course enrolls students from various subdisciplines. This one I’d mark as a “must read” for historians concerned with the intersections of gender and historical writing. And I would note: the Byzantine era may be very far away, but some of the challenges Anna Komnene faced and tried to overcome as an author and a woman are still very much with us (yes, even with us historians), as this recent New York Times op ed suggests.
Carl L. Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, 2nd edition (Yale,  2003)
This was a real pleasure to read. It’s not long – four lectures Becker delivered at Yale and then edited for publication. His argument, in a nutshell, is that the philosophes did not replace benighted faith with dispassionate reason, but that their reason was an impassioned sort of millennialism that sought a new heaven and a new earth, but shifted the temporal locus of those hopes from a time beyond time to a time within time. Basically, secularization has been less secular than it seems – a point he makes in his concluding chapter by considering the millennial hopes of Karl Marx. It’s a fine argument, though not an uncontested one, certainly, but it’s so lightly and lovingly made in this book.
And, for those of us who do “history of sensibilities” or “the cultural history of ideas,” one crucial passage in the second chapter bears consideration:
If we would discover the little backstairs door that for any age serves as the secret entranceway to knowledge, we will do well to look for certain unobtrusive words with uncertain meanings that are permitted to slip off the tongue or the pen without fear and without research; words which, having from constant repetition lost their metaphorical significance, are unconsciously mistaken for objective realities. In the thirteenth century the key words would no doubt be God, sin, grace, salvation, heaven, and the like; in the nineteenth century, matter, fact, matter-of-fact, evolution, progress; in the twentieth century, relativity, process, adjustment, function, complex. In the eighteenth century the words without which no enlightened person could reach a restful conclusion were nature, natural law, first cause, reason, sentiment, humanity, perfectibility (these last three being necessary only for the more tender-minded, perhaps).
In each age these magic words have their entrances and their exits . And how unobtrusively they come in and go out! We should scarcely be aware either of their approach or their departure, except for a slight feeling of discomfort, a shy self-consciousness in the use of them. The word ‘progress’ has long been in good standing, but just now we are beginning to feel, in introducing it into the highest circles, the need of easing it in with quotation marks, that conventional apology that will save all our faces. Words of more ancient lineage trouble us more….As for God, sin, grace, salvation–the introduction of these ghosts from the dead past we regard as inexcusable, so completely do their unfamiliar presences put us out of countenance, so effectively do they, even under the most favorable circumstances, cramp our style.
In the eighteenth century these grand magisterial words, although still to be seen, were already going out of fashion, at least in high intellectual society….
–Charles Becker, “The Laws of Nature,” The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers (1932)
Books I’m reading:
Montaigne’s Essays and Selected Writings: A Bilingual Edition, translated and edited by Donald M. Frame (1963)
While reading Becker, who takes you back, I decided I wanted to go back a little farther even. I figured it was time to re-read Montaigne, which takes me back very far indeed: to the Renaissance Literature survey course taught by the much-admired Ron Rebholz. He taught Montaigne early in the semester, paired with Thomas Wyatt. Rebholz had edited the Penguin Edition of Wyatt’s poems – it’s a fine edition, and I still turn to it regularly. Montaigne, I had lost somewhere along the way. But given the project I’m mulling over, it seemed to me that it was time to reunite with that traveler and essay once more to meet him on the page.
Anyway, I ordered the same edition of Montaigne that we had used in that class. It arrived day before yesterday. Alas, yesterday, my annual rendezvous with debilitating strep throat also arrived, so I have been listless in my reading. However, the lovely thing about a bilingual edition (this works for Loeb volumes as well) is that you can read them lying down, and you don’t have to shift the position of the book as you turn the pages. Just pick your side – French or English, left or right – prop the book up against a pillow, and read while resting.
Surekha Davies, Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps and Monsters (Cambridge, 2016; 2017 paperback)
When I can sit up comfortably again (thank heaven for laptops!), I will resume reading this fine work by Surekha Davies, an early co-laborer on the Grafton Line. I am looking not only for an avenue of entry into the larger question that’s sort of rattling around in my head, but also (always) for a more engaging way to teach the U.S. history survey. I have used the maps and ethnographic drawings of John White to talk about the way that Europeans sought to sort out the near-upending of their whole cosmology (even as they went about upending the cultural practices and daily lives of the peoples they encountered). But Surekha’s view is broader and will help me discuss and illustrate more richly just what it meant and what it took to “make room” conceptually for the peopled worlds they encountered.
Up next (whenever it gets here!):
Anthony B. Chaney, Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness (UNC 2017)
I read this project as a bound dissertation. Anthony kindly lent me his finished dissertation, at my request, so that I could see what a well-written dissertation that had the makings of a book would look like. I was amazed, but not at all encouraged – his prose was clear and lovely. And who writes clear and lovely prose in a dissertation?! But I’m glad I read it then, and I will be more than glad to return to the 20th century to read the book that promises to be even better.
But then I’m headed back to the prose of the Renaissance and will move forward from then/there – though I will always have time for a poem or two by Thomas Wyatt. Here are two of my favorites: “My galley charged with forgetfulness” and “Whoso list to hunt…”
Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.