"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).

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Notes on the London Review of Books 41

The venerable London Review of Books recently tempted me to subscribe with one of those sharply discounted promos that as a half-Scot I am constitutionally incapable of resisting. So now every two weeks a lovely treat arrives chez moi full of fascinating reviews, essays, and short notices. (I am just old enough to have grown up on the eve of the digital revolution, and therefore still prefer newspapers and reviews like this in print, but the print subscription gives me access to their on-line archives, too, which is a bonus.)

Part of the reason for having this blog in the first place was to share word of new books in one area--Eastern Christianity--so if, from time to time, I post some ad hoc, unsystematic notes on what I've been reading in the newest LRB it is for the same reason--viz., so that you, too, may benefit from what I've been reading of recent reviews of books across a wide array of subjects. Sometimes these reviews are so comprehensive and skillfully done that I think "Right. I don't need to read anything more." But other times, of course, one is tempted to order the book and read the whole thing oneself.

Volume 41, dated 21 March 2019, is a goldmine of things, including an essay by Madawi Al-Rasheed on the perpetual lies, corruption, despotism, and tyranny of Saudi Arabia, a regime of whose horrors no conscious person should require convincing--unless, that is, you are a part of, e.g., the US government under any and every president and party.

Michael Kulikowski, an historian at Penn State, has a long and fascinating discussion of The Codex of Justinian, trans. Fred. H. Blume and ed. Bruce W. Frier, 3 vols. (Cambridge UP, 2016), 2963pp.

The size, and cost, of this enormous collection would likely limit it to academic libraries, or private libraries of exceptional means, but the influence of the Codex is still considerable even today.

Kulikowski, however, is--as I have been seeing for a decade now among academic historians, especially of antique or medieval Christianity, when they stumble into trying to understand, much less describe, anything theological--utterly unreliable and embarrassingly so when he attempts to sum up the theological debates of the fifth century by saying that "the central controversy was Christological: did father and son [sic] have two different natures in one indivisible divine person, or was their nature single and indivisible." All such questions are quickly dismissed as "hair-splitting" and "baroque episcopal politics...[and] contorted sectarian tractates," which tells us everything we need to know of the ignorance and snobbery of Kulikowski and nothing of the debates themselves. (To be fair, in a letter to the editor in the next issue, Kulikowski, tail firmly between his legs, corrects the error with enough overcompensating bluster as to suggest he's desperately trying to show he really does understand basic theology, or at least convince himself that he does.)

Michael Wood lavishly studs his review of The Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht, trans. and ed. by Tom Kuhn and David Constantine (Norton, 2018, 1286pp.) with many excerpts of those poems, to great effect. I have only read a bit of Brecht, but this collection really does make me want to read more.

I think the most interesting review in this issue is Rosemary Hill's. She discusses Desmond Fitz-Gibbon, Marketable Values: Inventing the Property Market in Modern Britain (University of Chicago Press, 2018), 240pp.

I find all such recent works in a range of areas fascinating because I am increasingly convinced of two things: first, our images of, and from, "history" are as much a product of current politics and unconscious desires as anything; and second because a book like this merely illustrates something that others more interesting and intelligent than I--Zizek, Todd McGowan, Terry Eagleton, inter alia--have been arguing for some time: the basic practices and beliefs of so-called free-market capitalism are recondite mysteries and simulacra more properly classified as "religion" requiring a level of faith that makes believing in the hypostatic union easy.

When you think of how highly regulated, and litigated, questions of "property" are today, and all the complexities and intricacies of stock markets, bonds, debts, and the international market in the same, it will astonish you to read Fitz-Gibbon's book about the slap-dash way in which so much of this developed in the United Kingdom, and so recently, too: he notes that in some parts of England there was no agreed upon land registry until as late as 1991.

Michele Pridmore-Brown's review of Edith Sheffer, Asperger's Children: the Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna (Norton, 2018), 316pp. is, not surprisingly, very sobering reading when she describes the horrifying practices of this period.

I have fond memories of my time in that Habsburg capital in 2016, not least my pilgrimage to our father among the saints, Sigmund of Vienna's house at Bergasse 19. But I knew, of course, of the dark shadows hanging over Vienna after the Anschluss, whose effects Freud and his immediately family only barely managed to escape--those harrowing days are well covered in any number of books, including all his biographers; and, in a particular way, the study of Mark Edmundson and the book by Freud's last physician Max Schur.

But I was only vaguely aware of the sinister "medical" and "scientific" experiments going on in Austria in the antebellum period (from 1934 onward). Sheffer's book, according to Pridmore-Brown's review, relays all kinds of horrifying details about the career of Hans Asperger and others around him, who often condemned children to their deaths--while also managing to help some of them. His sounds like a truly complex life.

Beyond the political horrors of the period, the review and book both raise good questions about the politics of "science" which we must always keep before us. Those who claim, as I regularly hear from students and others, that they "don't believe in God because I believe in 'science.'" utter fatuous nonsense, of course, but it seems that they--and too many of us--fail to realize that "science" is not infrequently gratuitously invested with un-challengeable deified authority to dispatch people because of perceived "defects," whether mental or physical. That should make our blood run cold as we realize that too often "science" is just an idol whose politics of devotion requires the destruction of thousands of children for what Asperger and others called "Gemüt poverty"--soul poverty.

In this light, and to conclude, let me note that news is emerging of Jean Vanier's move into palliative care at the end of his long and extraordinary life caring for precisely those kinds of "defective" kids and adults dispatched by Nazi doctors with that banal and ruthless efficiency so well documented by Lifton, Arendt, and others.

Vanier's life stands as an eloquent rebuke to all this, which is surely part of the reason for him being given the Templeton Prize in 2015, as noted here.

I first heard Vanier on CBC radio in the 1990s when his Massey Lectures were broadcast. You can listen to some of that here, but the Ideas website has many links to many broadcasts with him over the years, all of them worth your time. And of course his many books may be found here, including a new one I noted here just last month.

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