The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Times Literary Supplement, Feb. 16 2007

Posted on: February 23, 2007

The painting of John Brown, eyes bulging with insane passion, as he stands in the foreground with a tornado behind him and a black man below in the left corner is a perfect pairing for Ari Kelman’s review of John Brown, Abolitionist by David S. Reynolds and Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War by Nicolas Lemann in Body and Blood, the leading article in the Feb. 16th TLS.

Kelman finds Reynolds too soft on the violent means Brown took in trying to achieve his abolitionist aims. In the same way Reynolds Northern allies were happy from the “comfort of their studies” so too is Reynolds who takes comfort in his temporal distance. In reading the two books Kelman discerns connections between John Brown’s and his followers with that of the “Redeemers” of the Democratic South. Both firmly believed that their ideologies were firmly based in Christian religion and used that to fuel their violent purposes. It’s quite a good read, particularly if you aren’t familiar with the historical details of these times.

In “A better way to win” Lawrence Douglas reviews The Barbarisation of Warfare, an essay collection edited by George Kassimeris, that claims to take a look at the “complex moral dimensions of warfare”. However is not impressed by the civilised or barbaric dichotomy found in most of the contributions ie that social and moral barbarism that results in horrific war acts. Richard Overy persuasively asserts that it was technological advances that compelled the military to constantly upgrade and improve their weaponry. Joanna Burke, in her essay, points out that it is such polarising “civilised against the barbarians” talk that brings us back to square one. Douglas reminds us that figures like Hitler committed war crimes under the banner of protecting civilisation, and Britain once executed their imperialist aims for such principled ideas.

It was those and other contributors that were the most refreshing, thoughtful and provocative. Niall Ferguson presented the intriguing idea that, to win a war, participants should change their purpose from trying to kill as many of the enemy as possible to creating circumstances that would make the act of surrender his best option. Douglas thought the best one of all, though, was Anthony Dworkin’s essay, which did not fall into the simplification of Bush administration as corrupt renegades, acting in clear opposition to international law. There is a recognition that it is difficult to successfully fight against an enemy that does not fight in accordance to any rules. The Bushadmin’s interpretations are therefore based on a classical view called jus in bello. Dworkin suggests that the law should anchor its rhetoric more firmly in principles of human rights and human dignity, a view Douglas sees as quixotic, but at least goes outside the box.

Beware of false merchants peddling Anglo-Saxon wares and rhapsodising on your great ancestor’s history. Alex Burghart approves of Veronica Ortenberg clearing up many of the myths that surround our idea of the Middle Ages in her book In Search of the Holy Grail. The artificial separation of the period is deceptive, it had Renaissances of its own, and nations, after the break-up of the Roman empire, were too often interested in manipulating their histories to their glorious benefit, to make up for the fact that they weren’t Roman. Burghart himself blames Tolkien, discussed in both Ortenberg and Hill’s books, for contributing to the ill-founded myths. Apparently the darm gave his fictional work such realism, such breadth and gravity, that his readers’ curiousities are sapped; they have no care to do further research. I suppose that pointing out that Tolkien’s stories were heavily influenced by other cultures like the Scandinavians (for one thing) and that, well, it’s fiction (which is how the writer’s reviewed treated them) wouldn’t be an adequate defense. Anyway about Paul Hill’s The Anglo-Saxons: Verdict of History he writes that it is a perfect example of how Middle Age studies has contributed to academics.

The N.B. Commentary is always good for a laugh or two. One titbit tells of someone (a staff member, perhaps? I’ve forgotten) who is impressed by the Hudson News book store interior at the J.F. Kennedy airport. Quotes from Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein and William Burroughs loop each other on the beautiful ceiling and the store boasts at having an impressive breadth and diversity of quality literature. Unfortunately when a sales assistant was asked about a copy of Naked Lunch, she expressed complete ignorance of the text and its author. Neither his or any books by Ginsberg, Creeley and the other authors whose words decorated the walls were also not found on the shelves.

In the Letters section one caught my attention. I highlighted Richard Davenport-Hines’ review of Gay Life and Culture from the January 5th TLS. In it he praised Dover’s previous study of homosexual culture throughout history. But a William A. Percy, a university professor of history at the University of Massachussets, that Dover’s contribution was not nearly so positive. Percy asserts that Dover’s attention to “erotic vase-painting, sarcastic parodies of comedies” and devoting much of one chapter on oratory to a “seamy sexual scandal” was done at the expense of many more weight tomes that extolled the “pedagogical and social value” of intergenerational love. There were even essays in the collection reviewed that supported this criticism, prominently by Lewis Crompton, a person Davenport-Hines also quoted. Percy himself has written a few books on homosexuality throughout history, including Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece.

I’ll do another post on the latest NYRB. I know! They actually had articles worth noting this time around. It happens.


2 Responses to "Times Literary Supplement, Feb. 16 2007"

That Holy Grail book sounds quite interesting — I’d be interested in hearing the truth behind the “myths.” I can’t say I’ll get the book, though…unfortunately.

For the most part the non-fiction books reviewed in the TLS tend to be heftily priced for the academic market. If I do get any it’s usually from my campus library.

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