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In Retrospect, Like Meaning

I was on the back porch smoking when it occurred to me to check the date of my account deletion. It has to have been a year, I thought, because it wasn’t so long ago that my sister texted me on the anniversary of my grandmother’s death. I read it out to my kids, because my son heard my weird exhalation and wondered why. They like to shoulder-surf me. They like to know why I respond like I do to screen ephemera.

Several weeks ago, I was weeping, loud, curled like a corpse. Or no, that’s not right: corpses arch, which is why fossils of dinosaurs always have their long necks stretched back. I was weeping like a woman has been suffering from “minor major depression” for as long as she can remember, which is about two years, maybe more, maybe it’s all roots and memories that stretch back as long as I can remember. That’s the thing about depression: it’s virulent and metastasizes, and all your cells bend to it eventually. All of me was bent.

When I rolled over, I saw her there, a shadow, my daughter, watching me from the doorway. The worst thing in all of this has been figuring how to talk to these beautiful, difficult children I’ve created about how sick I am, and how that is not their fault or responsibility. I remember being this age, and how, even at eight, I would bottle and stopper my emotions because, even then, I was afraid of being stupid or embarrassing. I still feel like I’m stupid or embarrassing most of the time. I wish there was a time when I could feel like a grown up, not this gangly impostor who cannot fit in the children’s chairs at parent-teacher conferences.

She came and laid herself across my body, hip to hip, her head on my chest. I figured how to quiet myself, but I could feel the tears roll down the sides of my skull and into my hair. I talked to her about myself, about my depression. She wants to know if this is something she can catch, which made me pause for a long while. I can see me in them both, my children, good things and bad, all the genetic comeuppance we joke about. No, I said, but this isn’t strictly true.

Later that week, she’ll ask me to go to a website with some silly signs — the kind that are mostly photoshopped — that we’d looked at some time in the last month. When I ask her why, she says it’s because she wants to see me happy, and she thought I was happy the last time we looked at these together. This kills me. Happiness is such an ephemeral quality, seen out of the side of the eye, like stars, or in retrospect, like meaning.

So, a year and a day ago I deleted my Goodreads account, two weeks after my grandmother’s death, in the long fallow darkness of a depression that only got worse. I have doubted that decision — I’m not going to lie — but not much. I know it was a misstep in some ways, but, as I said at the time, my reasons were mostly personal, and had very little to do with whatever the fuck bullshit was going on on this site. But there were missteps, unkindnesses that I was responsible for, maybe even cruelty. This kills me too.

Early in my therapy, I was ordered to stop apologizing, to stop assuming I was the one always at fault because I am the one who is always the worst. A part of me still thinks this is true, but I’ve mostly pinned her down, hip to hip, my head on her chest, my tears rolling down her face. I am not clear-eyed; I know this. But I still want to offer, at the very least, an explanation of my abrupt ending out here in the ‘verse. I was suffering from grief and depression, and I needed to cut myself off. I needed to stop. I did.

I said to my husband, in all the rictus of my coming to understand my illness, that my life felt like a limb that had fallen asleep, and was now coming to life. It hurts. It’s pins and needles all the time, and then bubbles, and then I can slowly put weight on it. I’m putting weight on it here, but it’s a dangerous, broken act.

I broke my foot this year too, like an asshole, kicking the edge of storm window leaned up in the back hall. Jesus, what a numbly stupid metaphorics. I could see the break, in the ghostly x-ray, and it was all frustration to clump around in an orthopedic boot. At night, in the dark, I would walk with a roll on the edge of my foot to protect my brokenness. Numb, dumb metaphors, they are everywhere.

One of my reawakening limbs has been writing again, because I cut that off a year ago with so much else. It’s taken me a long while to decide that writing wasn’t a problem — that it helped me more than it hurt — but it’s been hard to disentangle shit that’s bad for me from shit that’s good. I’m still iffy on whether this is good for me to write in this specific place, but I do want to perfectly and exactly apologize, in the capacity I can, for any I hurt I may have caused, and this is the place for it.

The really fucked thing about this declension of my brokenness is that I still haven’t come clean to many of my friends and family about the…about all of this. God, it’s so hard trying to be a person again, and even this may be wrong-footing my long process of recovering. Whatever, I guess. Every confession is a lightening. All words are stones on the ground. We’ll see if these words remain past a morning’s reconsideration.

The Influence of Seapower Upon History


Are we still doing Soapboxing? The last post here was in May. Well, I hope it’s still around. Here’s my latest effort:

This book has a revered place in the military history literary canon, and is said to have profoundly influenced British, American, Japanese and German naval strategy from World War 1 on. Theodore Roosevelt’s showing of the American “Great White Fleet” from 1907- 1909 is in part attributed to the impact of Mahan’s work.

“The Great White Fleet”

This book can be roughly divided into three parts, so I will divide my review accordingly.

Part 1
The first hundred or so pages truly lived up to the title’s promise: an analysis of the influence of sea power upon history. The oceans are the great commons of our planet, and one of their most valuable utilities to man has been as the cheapest means of transporting goods. Even though the vast expanse of blue may appear homogeneous wherever you look, there are some particular well-worn pathways- by virtue of their directness and the predominant winds and currents, which have been the mainstays for transportation of goods and military force. In examples spanning from the Roman Empire to just before the Napoleonic Wars, Mahan makes his case that control of these trade routes is a vital strategic interest for any nation wishing to assure its prosperity through trade and its security through projection of force.

The narration starts with an analysis of the Second Punic War which shows beyond any question how Roman victory over Carthage was inevitable, once the Roman fleet asserted her dominance over the Mediterranean.

From there, he jumps ahead to the Age of Exploration and the early days of European colonialization. The Dutch and Portuguese made impressive early gains in foreign trade long before the era of British dominance. Dutch traders established footholds in Indonesia, South Africa and Japan, while the Portuguese were active in India and South America.


Both powers failed to grow empires like the British because various factors prevented them from growing and maintaining sufficient military (i.e. naval) force to provide coverage ensuring safe passage, and to drive off competition (or more likely to allow for competition but only on favorable terms).

Part 2
This gets into the period Mahan really wants to examine, from 1660-1783. At the onset, France is the preeminent European military power of the day, but Britain- having no land borders to defend- is free to concentrate all her efforts and resources into developing her navy. Situated as she is between the Netherlands and the open ocean, England recognizes that she can cut the vast Dutch trading empire off from her homelands, if she can dominate the North Sea. The Dutch failure to oppose England in this endeavor can be attributed to both distractions on her land borders which sap vital funds from her navy, and essentially cheapness- a reluctance of the Dutch government to make the short-term investments in her navy which would have paid off so handsomely, if only she were able to meet the English navy on equal terms. What trade concessions and territories (e.g. New York) England can’t extract from the Dutch by force, she eventually takes through leveraged negotiation (e.g. trade and navigation concessions), relegating the Netherlands to a second-rate power by the mid-1700′s.

France proves to be more of a challenge. Louis XIV’s interest in his navy waxes and wanes, and the military fortunes of France fluctuate in exact accordance with Mahan’s thesis. When the French navy is strong, she prospers and enjoys fortune in battle. When the French navy is let to lag in supplies or design, or falls into disrepair or laxity of discipline, French fortunes fall.

Maybe his ministers can be blamed for turning Louis XIV’s attention to draining and ultimately unprofitable land wars in Europe, but Mahan deftly shows how France squandered numerous opportunities to wrest naval superiority from the British during the “Sun King’s” reign. More embarrassing still: once Britain acquires Gibraltar, she begins to assert her interests in the Mediterranean, taking Minorca and Malta as permanent bases of operation, and establishing through the Suez shorter passage to India, where a nascent French East India Company in Madras is slowly overshadowed and beat down.

The British Empire

For most of part 2, England appears to be an unstoppable military/commercial juggernaut, thanks to her mastery of the seas. It is only late in the game when France and Spain- united under the House of Burbon, decide to build up their navies and strike at the maritime source of British power. Spain wins back Minorca, and France successfully assists England’s most populated, most prosperous colony (the United States) in breaking free of the British crown. Mahan shines again as brightly here as he did with the Punic Wars, offering thoughtful analysis on why French naval power, in conjunction with American commerce-raiding, were key to successful revolution.

It is all very satisfying reading up until

Part 3
Seriously, Mahan should have quit around page 350, because the last 180 pages or so only cover a period of about five years, and became ground down in painful detail about British-French wrangling in the Caribbean from 1778-1783.

For some reason, Mahan becomes obsessed here in the tactical minusca of ship-to-ship fighting between wind-driven ships of the line. There is a lot of technical language about ships being leeward, and having the weather gauge, and accounts of battles turning with shifts in the wind… no doubt some readers out there will totally groove on that sort of thing, but it is NO LONGER the discussion promised by the book’s title (i.e. an examination on how sea power has affected the course of history).

Rating them separately, I would award 5 stars to Part 1, 4 stars to Part 2, and 1 star to Part 3. Essentially I recommend you read this book up to around page 350.

After reading this, I think it’s natural to wonder what lessons or observations it has to offer on our present-day world. I have my own biases and worldview, but the issue of China leaps out at me. They obviously haven’t heard of Mahan, or if they have, they haven’t taken his instructions to heart. With over a billion inhabitants, a rocketing economy based on vigorous international trade, and a coastline which provides access to the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Yellow Sea -it seems pretty obvious that China’s current naval power is far smaller than what her interests would demand.

Looking at the state of China in 2014, it seems ridiculous that even today she shakes her fist in impotent frustration at the “rogue province” of Taiwan, and disputed islands in Japan. A Mahanian China would have a robust navy which would long ago have cut Taiwan off from her Western trading partners and brought her into the fold of the mainland provinces.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying I wish this would happen. China is a formidable enough frienemy as it is. I’m just saying that it seems only a matter of time that China – like France and Spain before her- smartens up and realizes how much advantage a forceful navy brings a nation. With a decades-long forward presence in Japan, Guam, the Philipines, and more recently Australia, it seems the U.S. anticipates this eventuality.

Looking elsewhere, it seems bizarre to me that there are so many areas in the world which remain plagued by pirates.

One of the basic tenets of Mahan’s views seems to be that a nation must keep the seas free and safe for commerce. In this day and age, with the combined interests of Europe, North America, and East Asia at stake, it seems like it would be a small matter to drive renegade stateless commerce raiders from the world’s oceans. Somebody more informed about this can chime in on the discussion thread, if you will.

And speaking of the Middle East (as I was, tangentially): I believe history will deal severely with Middle Eastern powers who have enjoyed so many decades of rich petroleum trade, but who have not channeled any of these profits into building up their own maritime forces. I have never read anything in the popular press about a Saudi Arabian navy, or a navy of any other Middle Eastern oil exporter. I understand that they have built up their respective infrastructures in other areas, and have extensive cash investments around the world. It just seems that Mahan’s book is so clearly correct in observing how closely a (non-landlocked) nation’s fortunes are aligned with the power and respect which its navy commands. The lesson seems lost on the petrodollar-fueled nations of the Middle East.

Again, don’t get me wrong: I’m not particularly eager to hear about a powerful Saudi navy asserting itself. It’s just that Mahan has made some convincing arguments in this book, and I wonder why they haven’t been more universally accepted.


Tell me something Nhu

I had never heard of Madame Nhu before I came across this book, and that’s too bad, because she’s a fascinating character, and from beginning to end, her circumstances gave her unique “front row seats” to the complicated story of Vietnamese history between the period of French colonialism and the 1975 fall to Communism.

Tran (Nhu) Thi Le Xuan, the titular “Madame Nhu” was born to parents with long, aristocratic pedigrees which extend back to the last Emperor of Vietnam, who lost his kingdom to the French in the mid-1800′s. When the French ruled Indochina, the Chuongs (her maiden name) collaborated, going so far as to convert to Catholicism, and prospered as part of the tiny native Vietnamese landowning Elite. Nhu was born at the tail end of this era, in 1924. When the Japanese drove the French out in World War II, the Chuongs collaborated with them. When the Japanese were in turn driven out, and the French (briefly) returned, fortune nevertheless shone on the Chuongs, as Thi Le Xuan’s husband Dinh Nhu built up his older brother’s (Diem Ngo’s) political career. Through complicated intrigues, Diem would become President of South Vietnam, and Dinh Nhu the leader of his political party and de facto Vice President (who in Vietnam has powers akin to the American Secretaries of State and the Treasury). Diem was a lifelong batchelor, so the very public Madame Nhu came to be regarded as Vietnam’s “First Lady” even though she was technically the Lady Vice President. (“Second Lady”?)

So yes, this is a mercenary, ambitious, Machiavellian family, exhibiting not much in the way of idealism or loyalty… even to each other. When Nhu was First Lady, and her parents the Vietnamese ambassadors to the US, they publicly denounced her just prior to the coup which saw her husband and brother-in-law assassinated.

Most readers won’t actually like any of the characters in this book, but that’s besides the point, isn’t it? The enjoyment I derived from this book came from (1) having a lot of my questions about the genesis of the Vietnam War answered, and (2) boggling at the amount and complexity of cloak-and-dagger intrigues it details. Seriously, some of this stuff is so bizarre, I would have thought it was bad James Bond fan fiction, if author Monique Demery wasn’t such a credible writer.

To give you a little taste of what I’m talking about: the 1963 coup which took down the Diem regime began as a fake coup, engineered by Diem himself, and brother/advisor Dinh Ngo. Diem had been unpopular since a 1962 crackdown on dissident Buddhist monks, which ended in several displays of public self-immoliation (always a sympathy-grabber.) The fake coup was supposed to be controllable, as it would be started and orchestrated by Diem operatives who wouldn’t let it get out of hand. The faux-coup would disrupt commerce and cause general disorder, which would turn public opinion against Diem’s opposition, and which would give Diem an excuse to institute martial law, and a purge of moderates. Great idea, no? The thing is, the CIA knew about the secretly fake coup, and turned one of Diem’s generals into a double agent. So the CIA operated a double-secret REAL coup within Diem’s fake coup. Diem and Dinh Nhu didn’t catch on until the supposedly-rebelling soldiers -whom Diem had secretly ordered to shut down traffic in Saigon- didn’t follow script and stand down to Diem’s police. After a lame attempt to flee, Diem and Dinh Nhu were hunted down and stabbed to death in the back of an armored troop carrier. When Madame Nhu heard the brothers had been assassinated, she didn’t accept the news as real for three months. She assumed (as, actually, my own wife probably would) that he had faked his death, and was probably waiting somewhere for her out of the country.

And that’s just one of two death-faking stories in this book… and only one of three false-flag attacks… and Diem was only in power for nine years! That’s a average of one false-flag event for every three years in power. I wonder if that’s a record. (I am so naïve.)

Oh, did I mention that Diem was put in power by the French, because they expected him to fail? They figured his political inexperience and corruption would mismanage South Vietnam so badly that the public would be clamoring for a (pseudo)return to French (neo)colonial rule.

Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. This was a family of tenacious survivors, and Madame Nhu was at least as streetwise as her husband and brother-in-law, and maybe considerably more. When a pirate problem on Vietnamese inland waterways became so bad it threatened the economy, Diem and Dinh Ngo were prepared to negotiate. It was Madame Nhu working behind the scenes who convinced them to confront and destroy the underworld pirate/gangsters, which turns out to have been the right decision.

She was tough (love that front cover pic), but also knew how to turn on the charm. Her flirtations with then-VP LBJ were “credited” (if one may use such a positive term) with bringing hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid into Vietnam. That’s just one of many instances in this book when the “Dragon Lady” used her sex appeal to political ends. Obviously, the appellation “Dragon Lady” -with all its racial and gender stereotypical undertones- is problematic, but I’ll leave those discussions for some other reviewer.

No doubt the CIA would have been happy to kill off Madame Nhu along with her husband, but she was fortuitously having a minor operation in the United States at the time (removal of a conjunctival cyst). This saved her life, and she lived as a recluse for the next fifty years, first in Paris, and in old age with one of her sons in a suburb of Rome. Throughout the book, as she is telling Madame Nhu’s life story, the author also tells the parallel story of how this book was researched, and how she came to know Madame Nhu personally. This is not a heavy-hitting scholarly work, but a very readable account of a minor historical figure who probably deserves more attention.

A few unexpected tidbits:

Vietnamese resistance to French recolonializing efforts after World War II were in part the result of Japanese propaganda during the war. Even though Imperial Japanese forces were cruel masters, their Asian solidarity propaganda found purchase among Vietnamese who suffered long under humiliating French colonial rule. For all their evils, the Imperial Japanese broke the myth of unchallengeable European commercial, military, and technological superiority.

One of Madame Nhu’s other brother-in-laws was a Catholic cardinal who “went rogue” and started ordaining bishops without Vatican approval. Eventually he was ousted from the church, when they uncovered a plot by him and some others to elect a second pope who would challenge the sitting pope.

The Vietnam War arguably started with American CIA orchestration of the 1963 coup. There is a long list of reasons why the US wanted to oust Diem and his brother- mostly they were too independent-minded to take uncritical instructions from the US, but also because the Kennedy administration felt that Diem’s regime didn’t project a favorable enough image of what a liberal democracy should be, in contrast to Ho Chi Minh’s regime up in the North. President Diem appeared a bit too opulent and corrupt, and as part of the miniscule Catholic minority, it looked bad when he cracked down on Buddhist monks. One has to wonder whether the crackdown, and subsequent coup, and subsequent Vietnam War would have happened at all, if Madame Nhu’s family had been Buddhist instead of Catholic.

¡Viva la Revolución!

The Counter-Revolution Of Science


Freemasonry and central banks will bring about the apocalypse, of course, but it’s interesting to hear that from a book about the evolution of scientific thought from 1700 to 1825, isn’t it?

The Enlightenment of the 1600′s and 1700′s saw more scientific advancement in the West in the space of 100 years than had been achieved by the preceeding seven centuries. Luminaries like Isaac Newton, Karl Gauss, Edmund Halley, Henry Cavendish, Antoine Lavoisier, and others demonstrated the power of observation and the scientific method to unravel nature’s mysteries. The rapid developments in the natural sciences at this time is sometimes called “The Scientific Revolution” (in the company of the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution). Two important consequences of this revolution were the advancement of technology (applied science), and its stimulation of market capitalism (and its political symbiote, democracy).

With most revolutions, there is a countercurrent of resistance- a counterrevolution. That’s the topic of this book, although it wasn’t what I thought it would be. I figured it would be reactionary forces of the Church, or the feudalism rebelling against Science. According to Hayek, the counterrevolution is represented by social philosophers who embraced, but misapplied the tools of science.

As the natural sciences rocketed by them, so-called “social philosophers” of the 18th century struggled to figure out how the scientific method could advance their own fields. These were the early beginnings of Sociology and Political Science. My apologies to any Sociologists or Political Scientists out there, but you should know this book completely rips into the foundations of your respective studies. I don’t have a dog in that fight, but Hayek makes some interesting observations:

1) The natural sciences tend to observe behaviors of “the whole” (i.e. macroscopic bodies, such as chemical solutions, individual organisms, planets, etc) and to use these observations to deduce information about the “the components” (i.e. microscopic or molecular bodies, such as individual atoms, organs, etc) Conversely, social fields tend to observe the behavior individual persons (i.e. components) to deduce overarching principles about greater society (i.e. “the whole”).

2) One of the premises in studying nature is the assumption of uniformity. Under similar conditions, every hydrogen atom (or whatever) in Wisconsin, in 2014, should be expected to behave exactly the same as every hydrogen atom did in France three hundred years ago. The study of people is much different; observations made about senior citizens in California in the 1950′s may have no relevance to observations about senior citizens in New Zealand in 2000. There can be no assumptions of uniformity when dealing with people, cultural values, social mores, etc… which is one of the things which makes “social philosophies” so interesting, but which may lead to flawed conclusions, when rigorous scientific methods are applied. Even the same individual may behave differently, if observed at different times. People are capable of illogical, novel, and inconsistent behavior -a complication which the natural sciences has never needed to control for.

3) Context. One of the great breakthroughs in science has been the practice of making objective observations about phenomena. Observers try to completely divorce themselves from extraneous associations which tend to complicate the formation of hypotheses. For example, when Newton describes the behavior of masses in motion, it doesn’t particularly matter whether the mass is a stone or a box full of apples, etc. When studying the behavior of people, it is impossible to remove cultural context from the study, because behaviors are shaped by all sorts of associations which are in part the SUBJECT of the study.

Well, that’s interesting and all, but so what?  Who cares if humanistic studies aren’t as well-suited to scientific analysis as the natural world?

That’s what the second half of the book is about. Hayek develops his thesis that it was the misapplication of scientific thinking (or “scientistic thinking”, as Hayek calls it) which led influential “social philosophers” like Henry Saint-Simon, Auguste Compte (“Father of Modern Sociology”), and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel to come to grotesque and flawed conclusions about the nature and fate of mankind. Worse still, just as technology is the practical application of hard science, social policies, “social engineering”, governance, propaganda/advertising, and studies of social manipulation are the practical application of social sciences. Resting as they do on a flawed foundation, Hayek takes issue with how these fields have developed.

The idea of looking at individuals as uniform components of a “whole” (society) drew their philosophies away from Enlightenment ideals of individualism and liberty, and towards a worldview where individuals were themselves only consequential as beign part of a medium for greater historical principles to manifest. Saint-Simon’s utopianism envisioned a society based entirely on the applied scientific principles of scientistic social philosophy… policies and laws were elements of “social technology”, or applied social science, aimed at achieving “scientifically objective” social good (whatever that could possibly mean), with no regard for the desires or aptitudes of the individual, or for cultural values science could not incorporate or account for. What we end up with are grand social engineering schemes, which by their very nature cannot help but be authoritarian.

Sure enough, Hayek links the scientistic misunderstanding of man to 20th century totalitarianism, by showing how profoundly Karl Marx was affected by Compte, Hegel and Saint-Simon. To a lesser degree, “secular humanism” and other philosophical spinoffs of scientistic Sociology are observed in the liberal democratic/capitalistic West.

It’s fascinating stuff… a bit out of my area, and very dry reading in parts, but worthwhile food for thought. I’m sure some of this is bound to be controversial, but don’t expect me to respond to comments below; I’m not sure how I feel about parts of this book, and I’m definitely not versed in it well enough to engage anybody in debate. Just read it and post your own review.

Oh yeah- the part about Freemasons and central banks bringing about the apocalypse: it’s veiled, but it’s in there.


Stages of Enlightenment

families like mine which owe everything to the Declaration of the Rights of Man. (Rimbaud, “Bad Blood”) Above my cradle loomed the bookcase where / Latin ashes and the dust of Greece / Mingled with novels, history, and verse / In one dark Babel. I was folio-high / When I first heard the voices.  (Baudelaire, “The Voice”)

“The Voice” always reminds me that Baudelaire’s father, a former priest, was the Directorate’s Assistant Commissioner “for the selection of books from the libraries of convents, émigrés or condemned persons” – he dissolved, commingled and dispersed private libraries for the revolutionary regime. Osip Mandelstam grew up outside the Pale of Settlement, in Imperial Petersburg, a middle-class Jew enrolled in the “military, privileged, almost aristocratic” Tenishev School (Nabokov went there too).  In The Noise of Time Mandelstam wrote that in the jumble of his parents’ bookcase he could discern the strata of their different “spiritual efforts.” His father, a leather merchant born in a shtetl, owned Schiller, Goethe, and the Tieck Shakespeare — “all this was my father fighting his way as an autodidact into the German world out of the Talmudic wilds.” Mandelstam’s mother was “the first in her family to achieve the pure and clear Russian sounds”; the household’s Pushkin set was the prize-book of a proud schoolgirl.

Among my father’s books there were no classics but Bunyan and the Bible – The Pilgrim’s Progress in imitation leather, and a strange paperback printing of the New Testament called Soul Food, whose cover showed black teenagers gathered around a picnic table, grinning broadly under their afros. My father’s library was a collection of atlases, encyclopedias, heavily illustrated histories, and glossy museum catalogues. A library of vicarious travel, famed vistas. All that the photography of the time could capture and relay. The library of a rural youth, one of the last products of segregated Southern schooling; dyslexic, mocked, called retarded, ever-remedial, a Bible college scholarship athlete, a basketball recruit tutored by white girlfriends who upon graduation headed to Los Angeles, there to be startled by California’s commingling of peoples, by revisions of textbook history heard on left-wing radio, by a trip across Europe – Paris to Croatian ports – and ever after given to lament all that he’d not been “exposed to” as a boy. He didn’t hear about the Holocaust until he visited Poland. Whether he acquired his books as souvenirs of his exposure, or guarantees of mine, I could never tell. The gatherer of this expansive knowledge, this explorer’s library, has been for decades remote, or when present, rancorous. He has ranted, and taunted, but he has rarely spoken.

I’ve heard attributed to Winston Churchill the axiom that one develops a taste for history when young, or never. Reading Gibbon in the library of Blenheim Palace is an auspicious way of acquiring the taste. I made due with the kind of library newly middle-class Americans once ordered at a swoop, often as furniture – the Time-Life Books shipped in installments and the illustrated volumes available to subscribers of National Geographic Magazine. My favorite, the book I kept in my room, was Men, Ships, and the Sea, by Alan Villiers. I never needed another adventure book. Between the prologue picture of a naked aboriginal standing on a raft of mangrove logs, and a culminating helicopter shot of the nuclear Nimitz underway, its dress-white sailors formed to spell E=mc2 across the flight-deck, I found an unforgettable album of dangerous poses. Boys need heroes. Mine were calm captains. The whalemen in old engravings never flinch or falter – they are flung, pardonably helpless, or they stand in the monster’s wroth, coolly spearing. The whalemen were white; the image of an American crew as a racial motley of laborers “federated along one keel” would have to wait until I was old enough for Melville. In Farragut at Mobile Bay, by the English naval painter William Overend, the Admiral leans out from the Hartford‘s rigging, looks down on his ship’s meeting of muzzles with those of the rebel ironclad as if it were a cockfight at his feet. Prominent down on deck is a black gunner, his broad back to the viewer; his head is wrapped in a bright kerchief; there’s a cutlass strapped around his narrow waist, and a ramrod in his hands. In the civil war to restore the United States and destroy slavery, the Federal government’s batteries and regiments of foot were segregated, but its warships sailed with mixed crews. I recall asking my father, who won the Civil War? “We did,” he said.


The Time-Life books were little museums. The French Revolution and the American Civil War weren’t slats on a timeline, but chests of coats and weapons. Paging through them now – when I’m sure he won’t be home – I admire the mingling of heroic period prints and forensic photographs of the blunt tools – grim old guns, heavy-looking blades, riddled banners and bloodstained tunics. Such a mingling might prepare young readers for the dissonance of accounts, prepare them to discern hard times in moonlit memoirs, butchery in utopian slogans.

My reading changed in high school. The poem rose above the tale – the mood above the deed. Changing books I changed calm captains for deranging poets, crisp calls (“Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”) for doubtful lines; the tight ship for Le Bateau ivre, the adventurous mission – duty always visible through storm and strife – for Baudelaire’s vague voyages to an oblivious Indies. My father’s library, and the volumes of picturesque battles and warplane schematics I had collected in its image, became less important to me, dismissed as remnants of a naïve, merely fact-gathering era of my thinking, and I wondered why we had no literature. The shelves in my friends’ homes displayed distant syllabi, paperback poets, frail, dusty, yellowed, unread for decades and unable to sing before first clearing their throats – the crack of old glued bindings! – but they were nonetheless available to the household, or to any weirdo wallflower invited over. I asked my father what he did with his college classics. He said he tossed them in the dumpster behind his first apartment. This packrat and near-hoarder said he just didn’t need those books anymore. I pretended to accept his explanation. I nodded as if answered. I knew not to press. Literature was a refinement of his humiliation.

 Now I like to think I might reconcile the two stages of reading. For me, for many years, history meant society, meant race; meant blackness, that nightmare from which I was trying to awake into some imaginary homeland of apolitical aestheticism. Only recently – well, since 2009, the year a not-inconsiderable number of white Americans lost their minds,  or revealed just how racist they are, and also the year I happened upon Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star, which illuminates this country’s crazy like a slowly falling flare - have I felt the need to situate my person in history. This is an awkward initial essay.

“If I were asked to name the chief event in my life” – Borges – “I should say my father’s library.” It is my event: the platting of the centuries, backwards from my birth, and the slow peopling of the past, with pioneer images, with facts I would relate to other facts, and soon to memories and dreams. 
Like the stereopticon slides Holly salvages from her father’s torched house in Malick’s Badlands, my father’s books were cheap glimpses of the faraway and they whispered that I was just a boy, in California – continent’s edge – with just so many years to live.


If you like that sort of thing…


Niagara 1814: America Invades Canada - Richard V. Barbuto

As it is, the War of 1812 is a barely-remembered chapter of American history. If it is recalled at all, the most prominent images are the British burning of Washington DC (including the White House), and the battle of Ft McHenry, as memorialized by the Star Spangled Banner.


But there was an entire other theatre in that war: the Western theatre, which in those early days of the Republic referred to the Great Lakes region. War hawks in Congress dreamt of glory, and imagined a campaign in which the US could wrest all of Canada from British hands, more than doubling our nation’s land area. This book is dedicated to examining that fight.


One might be forgiven for thinking this book was written in present day, and that it contains thinly-veiled commentary on U.S. adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the ingredients are there: war-hawk Congressmen who had themselves never fought in the military, yet were eager to gamble the lives of their fellow countrymen;  an ill-conceived war of aggression on foreign soil; and an American public who gradually became less enthusiastic as the conflict ground on.  …But no, this book was written in 1999 by a thoughtful and apparently impartial retired Army former Lt.Col, (Richard Barbuto) who presents the material in a meticulous and dispassionate style.




What I enjoyed most was Barbuto’s thorough discussion of how the conflict was shaped by geographical factors.



British forces were supplied solely through their one unassailable North American port, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Troops, munitions, and food were shipped down the St. Lawrence seaway to strongholds in Quebec City and Montreal (the real prizes American warhawks coveted). There were very few roads west of Montreal at that time, so further projection of power depended on shipping on the Great Lakes- which was disputed by the American Great Lakes fleet, ably (for the most part) led by Issac Chauncey. As one proceeded Westward, British supply routes became more and more tenuous.


American forces were much more diffuse, and better developed in the West. Thus, the US faced no such limitations. This advantage decided the battle of Ft Erie, and kept the Great Lakes west of Buffalo NY firmly under American primacy (with the temporary embarrassing exception of a needless surrender of the American fort in Detroit, 1811).


A few factors helped balance the equation in favor of the British:


1) American forces comprised a much smaller percentage of “regulars” (i.e. full-time active duty soldiers). Most soldiers were short-term (usually from 6 months to 2 years) volunteers with no former battle experience.   In contrast, the British North American army was composed nearly entirely of full-time professional soldiers, who had been unified, disciplined, and battle hardened in the recent ongoing Napoleonic Wars.


2) For reasons not entirely explained in this book, the British seemed to have much better relations with the local Native Americans, who fought on the British side in much larger numbers than they did for the U.S.  Indian guides with their knowledge of local geography, flora, and fauna provided priceless advice to British commanders traveling overland, along the northern shore of Lake Ontario.


3) American leaders- particularly those aforementioned Congressional war hawks- failed to take into account  the attitudes of the Canadian populace. After the Revolutionary War (only 35 years prior) British loyalists moved en masse to Canada. Thus, the larger portion of Canadians ranged from indifferent to rabidly hostile toward American invaders. When (U.S.) Gen. Jacob Brown landed his forces on the Niagara peninsula, the opposing (British) Gen. Gordon Drummond had little need of spies to assess the Americans’ numbers and movements; average Canadian citizens were willing and able to report these to him.


This is probably the largest strategic flaw behind the American attempt to conquer Canada:  whereas it may have been reasonable to imagine that the U.S. could conquer Canada (e.g. -if only the Napoleonic Wars had lasted a little longer, tying up the bulk of British military power in the European theatre), it was completely unreasonable to imagine that America could ever HOLD Canada.  It was simply too large a landmass for our nascent military to occupy, indefinitely, in the face of Canada’s openly-hostile population.



Having said that, American forces- particularly the U.S. Navy, acquitted themselves admirably, throughout most of the war. The U.S. Navy completely dominated the British in Lake Erie, and fought on par with the British on Lake Ontario, even in the face of superior firepower, when the giant warship St Lawrence  was completed at the Kingston shipworks, towards the end of the war.


The American Army didn’t do quite as well, on the lower Niagara peninsula- where most of the Canadian campaign took place. Part of this is due to the failure of the U.S. Army and Navy to work together. Chauncy failed to support Brown’s defense of Ft. Niagara or Ft. George, and so both were lost to the British.


A lot of tactical blow-by-blow narration describes the Battles of Lundy’s Lane and the defense of Ft. Erie. It’s a bit too detailed for my tastes, but you may be into that sort of thing.


The end of the war contains several cliffhangers:  As soon as Napoleon concedes Waterloo, a massive British force (over 10,000 shock troops) file into Canada, and poise to take the Adirondak region of northern New York State.  It is only through a tactical blunder that British forces on Lake Champlain face the American Navy before the Plattsburgh navy base falls under ground attack. In a devastating route, American Navy vessels obtain a complete surrender of all British forces on the Lake, before turning to support Plattsburgh’s defense with shipfire. (British) Major General George Prevost got a courts-martial for that little incident, which saw the massive British force running back over the Canadian border to reconsider strategies.


This stunning turn of events severely altered the peace negotiations: to that point, the British were demanding a revision of the US/Canadian border further southwards; a change that would have made Maine a Canadian province, along with much of northern New York State and Vermont.


Barbuto touches on actions along the Atlantic coast, to include the burning of Washington, and the defense of Ft. McHenry- but the book is solidly focused on the campaign for Canada. Overall, it is an informative, if sometimes dry, account. I particularly recommend it, if you are native to Buffalo, NY, as a lot of familiar places show up, and some place names have their origins in this era.


The town of Ft. Erie is mostly known today for having the region’s largest strip club, but was the site of a hard-fought battle which was unexpectedly decided by the explosion of an American gunpowder reserve, just as the British were capturing it. The massive explosion killed over 900 British soldiers in one swift blow- a slap which they never recovered from.


Lundy’s Lane today is mostly known for garish Niagara Falls souvenir stores:



but was the site of the largest conflict of the 1814 campaign- an unsatisfying affair which counted as a technical victory for the Americans (having captured more guns, taken a strategically-important hilltop, and having killed more enemy soldiers), but a strategic victory for the British (causing American General Winfield Scott to overextend himself before General Brown’s support units could arrive- resulting in the Americans being unable to hold their hard-fought gains, and ultimately driving them back to refuge in Ft. Erie).




Porter Road in Buffalo is named after the Congressional war-hawk Peter Porter, who asserted that the capture of Canada would take “no substantial effort”, and Williamsville, NY- the upscale area where people with money live in Buffalo today- was the site of the area’s largest military hospital.


Good stuff,  and the best book I know of on this subject.  3.5 stars because the order-of-battle stuff about Lundy’s Lane just goes on forever, and is just a bit too detailed.

The Awakening And Her Sisters


“It may all sound very petty to complain about, but I tell you that sort of thing settles down on one like a fine dust.”
-Warner, Lolly Willowes

This book is an early distillation of a particular kind of novel that was being written periodically throughout the early twentieth century. These novels are all variations on the same theme, but the basic outline is the same. This one will serve to give you a pretty good idea of the lot:

Edna Pontellier is the rather well-to-do wife of a New Orleans businessman with two children, a well-appointed home, servants and a clear, clearly fulfilled place in her particular social circle. Her husband is kind to her in many conventional ways: he spares no expense on the household, takes something of an interest in the raising of the children, buys her personal and lavish presents and summer holidays, seems to offer periodic compliments and is not at all jealous or possessive. He has his faults of course- he likes his routines to be how they are and he places great importance on his wife fulfilling her “feminine” role in the household and society- dealing with the servants, ensuring high quality dinners, ministering to his needs and generally putting him first when he is home, being constantly involved with children, paying the same morning calls to the same wives of business associates that she always has. None of these expectations is particularly out-of-line for her time and place, and indeed she has never had to bear some of the extra morally horrible but legally acceptable extra burdens other wives have to shoulder without questioning. Her husband is occasionally rude and out of temper, he sometimes spends his evening out with his friends and blames her unfairly for occurrences that are blown all out of proportion. But that’s about it.

And yet, “It may all sound very petty to complain about, but I tell you that sort of thing settles down on one like a fine dust.”

Of course, as we know, this is not the real problem. The problem is with the underlying foundations of the Patriarchal System of Various Assumptions and Ground Rules. In this case, the System manifests in her husband’s casual assumption that she sees her “occupation” as he does, to live her life as a recommendation and added enticement to her husband’s business career, or even to further it. There’s a scene where he recommends that she accept and reject calling cards and invitations on the basis of whether each woman in question has a husband that will further his career. He expects to everything at home reflect his success out of the home, including the dinner he eats (which he seems to be more upset about on the basis that it does not suit his status than anything). He conceptualizes her private life as a “public” one (since she has no “public” one to add to his), bound by all the same accommodations and professional decisions that a person in a career might make. When she deviates from her conventionally feminine choices, he assumes she may need medical treatment.

Like the feminine version of Bartleby the Scrivener, the rebellion phase begins with “I would prefer not to,” and continues until she’s figured out she would simply prefer not to live most of her life at all. Then of course, she has to decide what to do next.

This is where a lot of the stories differ. In Lolly Willowes, perhaps the clearest parallel to this book, the book brings to the surface all the guilt and self-hatred that the “fine dust” can arouse in a woman used to a lifetime of its constraints. Lolly actually conceives herself to be a witch, an actual servant of the devil, because she finally chooses to live a life according to her desires, to ignore the claims and needs of others that she has spent her life seeing to. This especially dramatic is encouraged by the fact that Lolly has never achieved that supposed “highest calling” for women: a husband and children. Thus, all she is supposed to have to offer is a life of selfless service to others that she is dependent on. Thus it makes sense for her to consider herself not only less than nothing, but actually actively evil for denying to further repay what is seen as her only natural duty and place. All Passion Spent is another, perhaps more mature parallel. In this iteration, Lady Slane actually has achieved the husband and children. What is more, they are grown and successful, with children of their own. Her husband was an eminent public servant, and she fulfilled her “role” (just like Edna’s husband had requested) for all of her life. As Edna states clearly and expressively in The Awakening:

“at a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life- that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.”

Lady Slane has maintained this and chosen not to tell anyone for decades upon decades of marriage, so much so that even her family forgot that she was an actual person rather than a precious objects, of sorts, to be taken care of much as an heirloom might be. Her Bartleby moment comes through in a meeting deciding her future where her children have almost forgotten that she is a participant in the conversation. She decides to live out her life, like Lolly, in a house of her own. In this case it is the house itself, rather than an imaginary relationship with the devil, that becomes Lady Slane’s rebellion. A quirky, falling apart house with a sympathetic caretaker, becomes, bafflingly to her family, of greater interest to her than her children and grandchildren.

The Enchanted April is a luxurious, loving and-all-too-temporary bath of the golden sunlight of the prime of this story. It’s presented as a fantasy of escape. The women involved take a house in Italy and spend charmed, perpetually-twilight-hour weeks of stillness, contemplation, repressed anger and joy escaping their obligations to their family, to their husbands or other men, their poses to the world and their need to repress their feelings. There is one woman, indeed, who sometimes barely seems to move at all, perpetually walking around with a suppressed, blissful smile on her face. There are men in the novel, but they enter what is clearly a world of women, enchanted indeed by their fantasies and repressed longings. Some women place more boundaries and limitations on letting themselves go than others, but the trend is there, and it is the opposite of what is found on the outside. Even this brief moment of suspension and stillness restores some of the women enough to go on, some couples leave transformed, more or less, and we fade out with quiet, with sheer quiet still the ultimate dream of nirvana.

Mrs. Dalloway provides a different, more kaleidoscopic perspective on the same theme, perhaps even a slightly more optimistic and loving one in its own way. Clarissa Dalloway actually finds a kind of fulfillment in her duties as a housewife, in her every day errands and domestic creations. The interesting change of perspective here is that it seems like Woolf’s attempt to understand how this can be the case when she herself is so unlike this, rather than having the perspective be explaining a “different” woman to a mass of people who understand and live her opposite. Clarissa Dalloway, like Edna, understands that split between the interior and exterior life and instinctively lives it out each day. She, like these other women, has desires beyond her household, but has found reasons not to fulfill them. She has found her own way of making her life her own- even with a husband that she seems to have not much connection to, with a former lover for whom she can still have strong feelings after all these years, and with an unsatisfying daughter who is decidedly not her double in any way. She’s able to make these obligations into a kind of mission and to see the tiny beauty in the every day things that she achieves, or at least to come to see it after a daily struggle with her whole situation that mirrors some of the feelings these other women have, even if she justifies it to herself and thinks through it differently. Her slightly more optimistic conclusion (in its way) about the business of fulfilling her role as a woman and what it can lead to, at its best, does not at all lessen the struggles and doubts and reflections that we see her go through. Her success in repressing them might make her stronger in some ways, but it doesn’t mean that she, like Lady Slane, has seemingly ceased to be a person in the eyes and become only outward show. She maintains her personhood throughout, which is triumph most of these ladies desire to achieve anyway.

Of course, the most obvious precursor to all this is the infamous Emma Bovary’s disastrous venture into speculation and dreams, due to her insatiable longing for something more, something higher to believe in than the calling she’s been given as a woman. Anna Karenina has its own piece to share as well, of course, in its way. But these headlong, rush-to-the-head statements, these explosions of joy and rage are screams in the night, almost in a category by themselves, one separate from the whispers, the candlelight dreams and embedded-in-the-everyday transformations that are the rest of these books. Those ladies seek to destroy, to smash, in a way, whereas these ladies seek to simply… exist in a different way. They want to find a way for themselves that is slightly different, not the expected, but not…publicly. These are still private individuals still interested in keeping their privacy and existing within most bounds. They are at most…. Slightly off, in the context of their day, or perhaps in the case of Clarissa Dalloway, not outwardly “off” at all. They are interested in delving into and acting on some specific and long cherished thoughts that are not necessarily radically out of the norm. It is the sort of “odd” that earns you sideways looks from your children and a “Well, I just never thought that you,” or “I just don’t know what you mean by…,” when you push them as to what exactly is wrong. It’s eccentricity, not revolutionary.

I think the better predecessors are the more-or-less coded versions of the narrative that we find in Villette and Jane Eyre, and a wistful, painful statement of it through Dorothea in Middlemarch. Charlotte’s versions of it are covered over with the Victorian balm of marriage, of course, in the end. But both Lucy and Jane are interested in the sort of honesty, the sort of “to thine own self be true” that leads so many of the other ladies above to question what it is that they want and why. Villette, especially, offers its audience an ending that is, at best, deeply ambiguous as to whether it is marriage itself (rather than the act of it) that sets Lucy free or not. Her husband will never be any sort of ideal, and the way that he speaks to her has what would politely be called bracing honesty for a virtue. With Jane, of course, while she allows marriage to be more of an ideal achieved for her, the ideal is not achieved until they can meet as both financial and intellectual equals with something both material and spiritual to bring to the marriage, to assure anyone judging them that Jane has something worthwhile to contribute. This echoes Edna’s abandonment of her home and everything her husband ever bought her, her fixation on her husband’s money as the thing that binds her and keeps her in servitude, the same way that Jane refused the finery Rochester offered for their first wedding.

Dorothea’s Saint Theresa is a more or less open presentation of a woman with more passion, intelligence and drive to achieve something than the bounds of her life will allow. Like Lolly, her dreams and thoughts of how to conceptualize these capacities inside of her are bounded by the perceptions and assumptions that are presented to her by society. Thus, she dreams of assisting a “Great Man,” of the sort of loving service that Lolly has been condemned to provide, if of a more intellectual sort. When women are encouraged to make ideals of men, to see them as the “superior sex,” those sorts of personalities that are inclined to want the best for themselves, to reach for all life has to offer, will take actions to see that they are a part of that. Her disillusionment is both expected and painful to read about. What is interesting about her is that she actually is a person who wants obligations to fulfill and to provide the sort of self-sacrificial service that women are demanded to provide. She’s begging for it- her problem is that the obligations given to her are not enough. In the end, she too finds happiness in the “better marriage,” that allows her more outlet to take on more obligations and be happy doing it. And yet, her end still leads to one of my favorite expressions of the reasons why feminism exists and is still so necessary:

“Many who knew her, thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done.”

It’s tossed in the middle of a paragraph in the midst of an epilogue that includes the entire main cast- coded, in its own way then and robbed of the end-of-book statement it should have enjoyed, but we still end on Saint Teresa, contemplating the great sacrifices that Dorothea was capable of, and questioning what more she might have achieved without these every day obligations pressing on her.

Thus Edna Pontellier had many eloquent sisters saying, painting, singing, and subliminally messaging all the shades of this message for decades before The Awakening gained a wide, or almost any, audience. But she was one of the ones who did it both first and openly (remember again that the Brontes and George Eliot did it in more coded ways, and that Madame Bovary was, after all French and a scandal for decades.) In 1899, while not banned, the book was widely rejected and shunned by the reading public. Libraries refused to carry it. It got mixed reviews, but even the good ones who shied away from prudish or “conventional” condemnation of morality and unorthodox gender roles chose the secondary criticism of those who find it distasteful but realize that to say so would make them look backwards of bourgeois: the condescending complaint that she could have chosen a loftier, better subject for her talents rather than “entering into the overworked field of sex-fiction,” as a writer for the Chicago Times Herald put it.

Of course I understand that in 1899 writing about women having any sort of sexual feeling or longing would have made this smut, automatically. But looking at the book from a modern reader’s point of view, I would be hard pressed to call this “sex fiction” of any kind. What I appreciate, and what I think other modern readers may appreciate about this particular iteration of the theme was how honest and free of…. devices, I guess would be the best word, that it was. There were minimal metaphors used to try to describe what she was trying to say, nor was the thing encased in the alternate, inner universe of thought. The book was almost… naïve, childlike, even sentimental about the way that it depicted Edna’s realization and actualization of her freedom. I thought that it was very earnest about trying to just… almost just record a series of moments that added up to Edna’s inability to deny what she had been feeling.

Therefore, like these other quiet, figuring-it-out- ladies above, we get to go from her smallest feeling of “oddness” and difference through to her growing desire to act on it. The first major stand-off starts from a desire that Edna has to sleep outside on a hammock on a warm evening, rather than come inside. It is a small thing that increasingly becomes important the harder her husband pushes her on it. Eventually, he joins her outside to smoke his cigar and pretend to anyone watching that this was a communal desire. Slowly, this crushes out any magic her rebellion has until she slowly slips inside. We see her little by little move from stand-offs to the simple refusal to do ever larger things, withdrawing herself by choice from her life, from every thing that does not matter in itself, but, when added up, constitutes the life that she has been living in its entire. I think that this method of doing it was quite powerful, since we get to see all the little things that prick her and needle her into, after years of repetition, making the huge change that she does.

Eventually, Edna has a frank conversation with one of her closest friends, trying to explain the essential difference between this woman’s priorities and her own. She finally tells her:

“I would give up the unessential; I would give up my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.”

The woman doesn’t understand, and says so, but the important part is that we see Edna trying to think through this and express her own new limits and boundaries and define them as different than others. Which is of course, as we saw above, the real work of becoming a person on your own, rather than an accessory, or someone acting out a defined role for themselves that does not require them to think out their own feelings or desires.

This was my favorite part about what Edna’s journey tries to show us. That, sexuality and all, one of the major essences of feminism is, as someone said, that women are people. All Edna is doing in this book is testing out her likes and dislikes, finding friends that she herself enjoys, finding an occupation that fulfills her, and rooting out those things from her life which she does not like or need.

I mean, that sounds like college to me. High school, college, my twenties. Edna is twenty-eight and has had really, none of that experience except brief infatuations, conquered quickly. She’s missed out on it all, and this is about her realizing that she has missed out on something. Which, as Chopin eloquently tells us, is more than most women of her class and status get the chance to realize, given the confines, expectations, obligations and, frankly, apparent rewards and the something-like-happiness endings that many are able to achieve, at least according to the script they’ve had since they were little girls:

“A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her- the light which, showing the way, forbids [her realization of why she was doing what she was doing]. At that early period it served but to bewilder her. It moved her to dreams, to thoughtfulness, to the shadowy anguish which had overcome her the midnight when she had abandoned herself to tears.

In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her. This may seem like a ponderous weight of wisdom to descend upon the soul of a young woman of twenty-eight- perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually vouchsafed to any woman.

But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such a beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!”

Do you see what I mean by how straightforward it is? Naïve, even? It’ s so earnest it is almost cloying to read at times. And yet it’s so crystal clear and honestly stated that I have absolutely no desire to roll my eyes. It’s extraordinary, even, for a woman of her time and situation to express it in such a still-relatable and recognizable way. Chopin thought this through admirably. I respond to it in the same way that I respond to Tolstoy’s writing, head-in-his-hands and tearing out his hair because he honestly can’t solve the problem he has, so he’s just presenting his thought process on it as best he can.

“It moved her to dreams,” may become one of those phrases that haunts me.)

I didn’t quite understand why she needed to meet the end that she did. I suppose I do, in the abstract, but I didn’t think we had been building towards a train in this one. I thought that we had been building towards Great Mop, towards a house in Italy, a faded artist’s garret, a husband denying reality for as long as possible. I didn’t think her heroine was out of options. Whether her lover left her or not, even she seemed to realize what she was doing was not entirely about him.

The only explanation that Chopin offers is somewhat mystical, bound up with the myths and spirituality of women that we were to see revived in the ‘60s (perhaps another reason that explains this book’s discovery during that time period):

“The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.

The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.”

The only real peace I could make with the end was to think of it like the Enchanted April. A house in Italy, with swirling voices all silenced, after a struggle of passions, in your head. It is the escape hatch that is always offered when the pressure is too much. While I didn’t see the need to press the button to jettison in this particular book, perhaps that is also part of the point. You never know when the pressure building is too much for the woman in particular, and, in most cases, it is not considered by those around her. “Abysses of solitude.” That’s the sort of phrase that it seems that one can never get enough of. It was hard for me to judge someone overindulging in it, in the end.


Memoirs of My Life and Writings

Re-reading this has primed me for some more Austen. For six months Persuasion has been a brick in my bedside to-read tower, and at no point of that time have I found myself in the mood to read the novel. I’m in the mood now. In the lofty ironic style with which he traced the dissipation of Roman dynasties and the dispersion of Roman power, Gibbon recounts the household anxieties – and squalors and disasters – of three generations of precarious English gentry. There’s a general background of mercantile humiliation, cruel entail, and mortgaged rural seats. Gibbon’s father was a well meaning but hopelessly improvident patriarch who squandered much of his inheritance paying down lifelong debts contracted in a few short seasons of fashionable metropolitan appearance. His mother was one of those wives constantly impregnated until she died of it. Gibbon had a ghost family of siblings dead in their first months. Six male infants were successively christened “Edward” in hope that one might survive to carry his father’s name; and one did. “My five brothers, whose names may be found in the Parish register of Putney, I shall not pretend to lament…”

This is one of the great literary testaments (it exists in a number of incomplete manuscripts, combined differently by various editors; I think I first read Sheffield’s, in a textbook; this one was made by Georges Bonnard). Through sickliness and neglect and straitened finances Gibbon struggled to get an education, and beyond that a classical command of Greek and Latin; through abortive experiments to find his subject, to master the sources, and to find a style that had “the proper tone, the peculiar mode of historical eloquence,” “the middle tone between a dull Chronicle and a Rhetorical reclamation”; to build his library, and fund his independence (“I might say with truth that I was never less alone than when by myself”). Love and marriage are breezily, and probably sincerely dismissed. Studious bachelorhood was his perfect state.

Freedom is the first wish our heart; freedom is the first blessing of our nature: and, unless we bind ourselves with the voluntary chains of interest or passion, we advance in freedom as we advance in years.

As English stylists I have always associated Gibbon and Santayana. And now as men. Gibbon’s book made me slightly pity Santayana, who from the evidence of Persons and Places(published in 1944 by Scribners whose editors arranged to have the manuscript smuggled out of Axis Rome, where the middle-aged Santayana had settled in 1912 “after the fashion of the ancient philosophers, often in exile, but always in sight of the marketplace and the theatre”) had a much longer journey through family obligation and wage-earning to “solitude and independence,” “philosophic freedom,” worldly hermeticism.

I laughed when Gibbon revisited Lausanne. As a youthfully rebellious Catholic convert he had been confined to and deprogrammed in the house of a Protestant pastor there. There he had also mastered French, prepared his first compositions, and cut a respectable figure among the locals. During his second sojourn, drinking habits picked up in the army during the Seven Year’s War

betrayed me into some riotous acts of intemperance; and before my departure, I had deservedly forfeited the public opinion which had been acquired by the virtues of my better days.

There is much more to say about this book but I am tired.

On France: But upon the whole I had reason to praise the national urbanity which from court has diffused its gentle influence to the shop, the cottage and the schools.

On the linguistic empire founded with England’s military-commercial one: The conquests of the language and literature are not confined to Europe alone; and the writer who succeeds in London is speedily read on the banks of the Delaware and the Ganges.

On cutting a figure: The miseries of a vacant life were never known to a man whose hours were insufficient for the inexhaustible pleasures of study. But I lamented, that at the proper age, I had not embraced the lucrative pursuits of law or of trade, the chances of civil office or India adventure, or even the fat slumbers of the Church…

On immortality: In old age, the consolation of hope is reserved for the tenderness of parents, who commence a new life in their children; the faith of enthusiasts, who sing Hallelujahs above the clouds; and the vanity of authors, who presume the immortality of their name and writing.

Closer to Cracking the Voynich Manuscript

In 1912 in northern Italy, book dealer Wilifred Voynich bought an illuminated codex in an unknown writing system. Containing about 240 pages (though some are missing), the manuscript is written on vellum, and has been carbon-dated to the early 15th C. The manuscript has long been assumed to be a cipher – though that wasn’t exactly proven until analysis discovered a semantic pattern in the text; it could have been gibberish – and both amateur and professional codebreakers have taken cracks at it over the years. Nada. From this void of understanding, all manner of crackpot theories have emerged, with an emphasis on the alien/Atlantean memeplex of doom. Having a 15th Century unbroken cipher is like the god of the gaps of the secret history.

three pages from the Voynich manuscript, showing script and botanical drawings

But now, there’s been a pretty significant breakthrough with the manuscript. A botanist and an information technologist (I think this is a fancy term for librarian) compared the botanical illustrations with plant distributions of the time of the manuscript’s first recorded appearance, which is the late 1500s. (Why this doesn’t jibe with the carbon dating, who knows. Maybe the vellum was produced earlier or something; I’m no archivist.) The researchers eventually identified 37 plants and six animals in the codex from the New World, specifically post-Conquest Nueva España (New Spain). (Which is totally bananas on several levels; badumptss.) In addition to the New World plants, there appear to be similarities with a Mexican codex written at the roughly the same time, and the captions on many of the plants are in Nahuatl. Their full analysis can be found published at HerbalGram, and is entitled “A Preliminary Analysis of the Botany, Zoology, and Mineralogy of the Voynich Manuscript.” (Nice Oxford comma, bros.)

Once you place the manuscript on the right continent (or planet, even), it’s just a matter of time to break the whole thing. Like the Navajo code talkers, the codex wasn’t exactly in code, it was in a (now) obscure language. Given that the Spanish put so much of Central and South America’s cultural history to the match, the Voynich manuscript could end up being this profoundly important window into lost history. Jeepers, that’s just the coolest.


The Unknown Battle of Midway

This half-memoir half-history is one of those bleak books that seem designed to confirm Sartre’s claim that a victory described in detail is indistinguishable from a defeat. On June 4, 1942, US Navy dive-bombers sank four Japanese aircraft carriers – all of which had been present at the attack on Pearl Harbor seven months prior – in one of the most spectacular naval revenges in history. But at other points of the battle, the American “Wildcat” fighters were found to be useless against the Japanese Zero, and the three squadrons of “Devastator” torpedo bombers were obliterated – 41 planes took off, 6 returned, and none scored a single hit on a Japanese ship. The crews of the Devastators flew obsolete aircraft, carried faulty torpedoes, and used terrible tactics: they flew straight at the Japanese carriers, low and slow, in tight formation; many were shot down by Japanese fighters before they could release, and those that did release “belly-flopped” their torpedoes into the waves, which probably damaged the delicate propulsion and guidance innards. The destruction of the torpedo squadrons is always justified by the fact that their attacks kept the Japanese fighters off the American dive-bombers (the real hit men, lurking high above), and disrupted flight operations so much that the Japanese were unable to launch their own planned strike, and so hundreds of veteran Japanese pilots, waiting to take off, were incinerated in their cockpits.

Kernan, author of the completely engrossing memoir Crossing the Line: A Bluejacket’s Odyssey in WWII, was a member of one of those torpedo squadrons, not a flier but an eighteen-year-old ordinance trundler and torpedo-attacher aboard the carrier USS Enterprise. He reminds us that accidents and snafus complicate victories, that the early clashes of any war are fought by clumsy combatants desperately trying to learn their business while under fire. (The fighter and dive-bomber squadrons from the USS Hornet, nearly one-third of the American strike force, flew away from the battle, on a mistaken heading, under a commander whose navigation was rusty, and played no part.) I thought of Shiloh, in 1862, another momentous battle early in a long war, whose victor made fewer mistakes than the vanquished, where Grant and Sherman, future war masters, didn’t even think to have their troops entrench, and were surprised and nearly routed when the rebels attacked out of the dawn mist.

As in Crossing the Line, Kernan is here a great military sociologist. Later in the war enlisted service personnel like young Kernan were permanently assigned to a carrier or a naval air station; early on, however, they were members of the squadrons, which moved about like the old baggage-laden British infantry regiments, microcosmic households with aristocrats (the pilots), scullions (junior grease monkeys like young Kernan), and several grades of variously skilled, variously privileged technicians (radiomen, armorers, metal smiths, parachute-riggers) falling in between. This household quality made the aftermath of Midway eerie for the torpedo bomber squadrons: they remained, but most of the planes were destroyed and most of the pilots dead. I dated this girl whose father was a deeply traumatized Vietnam vet, but he wasn’t the former grunt you always picture – he had been ground crew at an Air Force fighter-bomber base in Thailand, and he spoke of the horror of having to witness the steady attrition of the aircrew, week in and week out, each rotation of fresh faces containing a statistically inevitable – and often predictable – number of dead men.



Pilots of the Hornet‘s Torpedo Squadron 8. (Each plane carried two other crew members, a gunner and a bombardier.) Ensign Gay, kneeling forth from the right, was the sole survivor of Midway.