Monday, December 07, 2009

One from City Journal. Mark Riebling reviews Paul Johnson's new biography of Churchill. Riebling finds the book surprisingly lacking, but does a nice job himself of getting at the complexity of the twentieth century's essential man.

Two from City Journal. "Romantic Science," by Michael Knox Beran, a review of Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. Beran writes:

If Enlightenment thinkers built on the metaphor of the well-ordered machine, the Romantics sought to understand the spark that makes a thing live, whether it be a human being, a work of art, or a nation-state. The framers of the American Constitution were deeply influenced by the Enlightenment and labored to perfect a republican mechanics of checks and balances. Bismarck and Lincoln, by contrast, grew up reading the Romantic poets and conceived of their nations as organic growths. The German nation was for Bismarck a living thing, with a right “to exist, to breathe, to be united.” Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address, described the foundation of the United States as a species of live birth: the republic was “conceived in liberty” and “brought forth” by the “fathers.” Like a human being, the nation was capable of undergoing a second, spiritual birth, “a new birth of freedom.”

The organic vitalism of the Romantics did something to correct what Cardinal Newman called the “dry and superficial” thinking of the eighteenth century. But the Romantic approach held its own dangers. It is one thing to seek the secret of life, another to dabble in diablerie. Romantic wonder is closely connected to Romantic nightmare. The literary monsters of Byron, Beckford, and Mary Shelley find a political counterpart in the monstrous qualities of Bismarck’s German Reich, and perhaps a scientific one in the temptations of today’s genetic technology. It’s easy to play God, but difficult to keep hold of one’s beast.
Reading this, it's almost as if he believes there was something like Western civilization. How dare he impose his narrative structures on the chaos of existence? What power structure is he trying to impose under the guise of "understanding"? How topical am I for questioning postmodernism a decade after the fact? How many rhetorical questions can I ask in a row before it becomes obnoxious?

Three from City Journal. Also from Beran, "Can the Polis Live Again?", an essay on public spaces through a critique of Hannah Arendt. I confess that I have not done my due diligence in reading Arendt, so this blurb stood out to me:

Studying Eichmann in the dock, Arendt concluded that he was not an evil genius but a fool: “Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a ‘monster,’ but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.” He was “genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché,” Arendt wrote; in his aphasic helplessness, he could but repeat, in “officialese” (“my only language,” he said), the formulas he had learned to parrot. “The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected to his inability to think.”
Unfortunately, her description of Eichmann sounds all too familiar to me in my professional life. Before anyone panics out there, let's not go too far with the parallels. The U.S. military is not producing a bunch of Nazis--the banality of Eichmann's evil, not the evil itself, is at issue here. Arendt, had she a greater sense of humor--or art, as Beran points out--could have beaten Scott Adams to the punch. I don't work with the SS, our banalities are benign, but I am definitely in a Dilbert world, where the repetition of cliches replaces thinking all the time.

Finally, a reminder that the book will be out by the early spring. It's called A Nation Forged in War: How World War II Taught Americans to Get Along, and it's about how military service in World War II led to widespread tolerance among white ethnic and religious groups in the United States. Think I can get City Journal to review it?

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

1 comment:

Stephen said...

Nice little post.