"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Titles Spied While Strolling through the LRB

In the 20 February 2020 issue of the wonderful London Review of Books, the lead review by Erin Maglaque, an historian at Sheffield, examines a book published last July by John Henderson, Florence Under Siege: Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City (Yale UP, 2019), 363pp.

I read this review just as Covid-19 was starting to dominate all the news stories, and just before selfish complainers calling themselves Catholic started whining most disgracefully about having sacraments suspended for a few weeks and all the other horrid inconveniences to their bourgeois life. This crowd, for all their protestations of piety, clearly clip their Bibles, Jefferson-like, to remove any hint of kenosis.

Some of even greater hysterical bent started speculating that this present pandemic is some kind of punishment from God (often for truly absurd things like the Latins giving communion in the hand, a claim which simultaneously functions as a totem and a taboo). As a result of this, we should be placating Him constantly by offering more Masses, etc. For all the problems with Future of an Illusion, as I have demonstrated on here and elsewhere, even Freud never came close to reducing God to such a sadistic figure demanding sacrificial satiation.

Others have revealed their indolence and ignorance alike by claiming that the Catholic Church has never before responded to a plague by closing churches. Maglaque brings out of Henderson's book sufficient evidence to rubbish this claim, showing that in northern Italy starting in the autumn of 1629, as plague swept through there as it has done again this year, all the churches were closed and people forcibly quarantined, and subject to severe penalties for violating the same. Schools, taverns, sports contests, barber shops, and many other enterprises were all closed. This quarantine dragged on until the spring of 1631.

Some enterprising clergy held masses on adroitly chosen street corners that could be viewed by residents from many surrounding buildings. Some others were willing to hear confessions outside closed doors and windows, or outside entirely, while standing at some distance and wearing a waxed cloth as PPE, to use today's acronym. 

As the plague seems to have moved out after the summer of 1631, people began to resume life, but with an estimated 12% of the population now dead. This, we're told, was much lower than Venice (33%), Milan (46%), or Verona (61%). Henderson's book makes it clear, then as now, that the greatest burdens, of both quarantine and death, were born by the poor.

William Davies next reviews a book not entirely removed from Henderson's, and that is Keir Milburn's new work, Generation Left, looking at the economic prospects of those under 30 today. The book focuses on that generation growing up after the 2008 financial crisis and now Brexit.

Much of what is said, however, sounds like it would apply just as much in a comparable analysis of the same cohort on this side of the Atlantic. Once again we see that boomers are the most tied into the comforts of the bourgeois life, and as a result the most reactionary when it comes to things like, e.g., leaving the European Union.

Growing up in Her Britannic Majesty's senior dominion, I of course learned at least a little of the history and occupants of the vice-regal office of governor general. So the name of John Buchan, the Baron Tweedsmuir, was known to me, but not much else about his vast literary career, which is covered in a new book by a distant family member, Ursula Buchan, Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan, reviewed in this issue of the LRB by Christopher Tayler.

Baron Buchan seems to have been of that generation of almost fanatically industrious Scotsmen living during and after the Great War determined to accomplish as much as possible. At the same time, however, as this review makes clear, most of his writing (over 30 books) is marked by then-commonplace imperial prejudices if not outright bigotry.

Prejudices and bigotry abound in the Westboro Baptist Church in uniquely appalling ways, and these are not spared us in James Lasdun's review of Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, by Megan Phelps-Roper (Riverrun, 2019), 289pp.

Phelps-Roper is a granddaughter of the founder of this church, and her book sounds utterly riveting. One reads details of the church's horrifying protests, but more interesting still is the fact her grandfather was not always this way, but started life as a Democrat who ran for many local and state offices, and whose early training was as a civil rights lawyer. He apparently had all his many children go to law school. So he is not a typical know-nothing troglodyte.

Interesting, too, is how Phelps-Roper, brought up on prejudice and hatred with her mother's milk, came to find her way out of that, not least, we're told by engaging with the wider world on (of?) Twitter.

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