Ishmael Reed, Flight to Canada

As I have noted more than once before, Ishmael Reed is likely my favorite living author and certainly my favorite living satiristFlight to Canada is a very good friend’s Reed book of choice.

This may very well be the Reed book with which to start.  Mumbo Jumbo certainly puts forward a broad critical-theoretical framework in a way that Flight to Canada doesn’t, but by Reed’s standards the fact that Flight to Canada feels, using a more conventional syntax that either Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down or Mumbo Jumbo, like a more conventional read, makes it a good way in.

Reed, as far as substance goes, sacrifices nothing.  Set during and immediately after the United States’ Civil war, the topic here is black resistance.  Correctly, Reed gives us no compliant Blacks in the narrative, but rather shows numerous different, active responses to slavery and racist violence.  There’s the titular escape, but also Uncle Robin’s staying close to Master Swille and ultimate reliance on ancestral gods/spirits to inherit his estate: certainly a victory.  Reed has a sure sense of what resistance is, but a broad notion of what it might be.  Famously, on p. 88 of my edition:

Each man to his own Canada.

Words to live by.

Briefly: Reed’s humor is entirely on display throughout the novel.  Frequently, I laughed out loud, and as far as raw, satirical humor goes, his only equal might be the Marx Brothers at their best.  Truly, he’s that funny.

I’m at a loss for further words and have already returned the book to the library.  Get the book an read it for yourself, and fill with gratitude.


Friedrich Engels, The Peasant War in Germany

The Peasant War in Germany is not the first Engels I’ve read–I read his work on the family about 20 years ago and liked it well enough while having a sense of its limitations by current standards.  I have since developed something of a disrespect for Engels as the junior partner in the relationship with Marx, and an unfair one my reading of the The Peasant War tells me.  He never pretended to be Marx’s equal, but he was in no sense a slouch, and if he certainly wasn’t a tenth the dialectician that Marx was, he had very different contributions of his own to make, and not only as an editor.  Surely, these are not original observations, but to me this was news.  I’d always held what I (and many others) had felt was Engels’ reduction of Marx’s analysis of historical change to a rigid schema of historical change, inevitably proceeding in a predictable direction.  Marx did not think that way.

The introduction to my edition, however, makes the point that Engels, as a historian, was top-notch and deserves our attention.  I could not agree more.  I read The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte more or less 20 years ago, and in the intervening decades I’ve matured enormously as a reader, not only of Marx, but I will say that a lot of it went past me, which was fine by me because I always felt with Marx that, even though I would miss a lot, the things I would get would be of enormous value, and indeed they always were (and continue to be–I’m reading The Civil War in France right now).

Engels’ chief virtue in my mind had always been enormous clarity in his writing and thinking, which at its best, either as a direct collaborator as in The Communist Manifesto, or as an editor, brought out the best, so to speak, in Marx.  That clarity is fully in evidence in The Peasant War.

To the book itself: Engels wrote this in the aftermath of the failure of the German Revolution of 1848 to produce a radical outcome, not necessarily even a socialist one but a bourgeois republic, or parliamentary monarchy in which ministerial responsibility rested with elected officials.  Much of The Peasant War seems aimed at German revolutionaries, dejected, with Engels saying, “chins up, people!  We are not French, but we too have a radical, revolutionary past, were we only to examine it for ourselves!”

Engels subject, the social uprisings in Germany following the Reformation, are rarely discussed in your average history textbooks yet are, for my money, the single most important aspect of the period to understand if one wants to get a sense of the broader development of European and world history that followed.  That is to say, Luther gets it in his head to nail his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenburg, and then all Hell broke loose.  Luther posits a direct, personal relationship of the believer with God.  The clergy, a theologically and therefore institutionally necessary intermediary between the believer and God, no longer is necessary.  This, given the contours of that society, is as radical a proposition as one could get.  It had the equivalent effect of a starter’s pistol on the German peasantry.  You are equal, Luther implied, to all those who lord it over you, in your relationship with God, which is of course the most important thing there is.  Fairly quickly, German peasants rejected their earthly superiors’ superiority in the name of the Reformation.

The book is short–really, it’s a pamphlet.  That said, Engels’ legendary concision is in full display here.  He sketches quickly, but clearly and accurately, antecedents to the Peasant War in both the theological and social movements in the immediately preceding centuries.  Thumbnail sketches of the principals as well as a lengthier discussion of Thomas Muenzer, the most far-seeing–that is, the closest to nineteenth-century socialism–of the various leaders of the revolts–or, I should say, revolution, clarify the personalities without bogging down.  The pace is brisk but not superficial, the mark of a truly excellent writer.

It is important, I think, when dealing with socialism, to point out that while Marx and Engels looked to the future, they were by no means dreamers.  Quite the contrary, and though they emphasized this fact constantly their critics (who, I have to imagine, tend to give them a very cursory read, if that) rarely acknowledge it, they always looked backward to see the future.  Nothing comes out of nothing.  This is important to bear in mind if one wants to have an intellectual discussion of Marx and Marxism, but essential if one actually wants to work for a better, actually existing, society.

Ishmael Reed, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down

This is the second Ishmael Reed novel I’ve read, and the second I’ve loved.  I was given Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down by a friend who swore she couldn’t understand this or others of Reed’s books.  It’s true that Reed’s prose doesn’t follow conventional syntax at all times, but for whatever reason that makes it all the more appealing to me.  The narrative, it turns out, is as linear as one could want.

More of interest is the subject matter–at least, more of interest to me at the time of this writing.  This was Reed’s second novel, to be followed by Mumbo Jumbo, his most famous, on which I have written earlierAnother blogger, reviewing YBRBD, suggested that it was an easier read than Mumbo Jumbo, which may well be true.  The references may be less dense, or possibly more familiar to readers in the United States, as YBRBD is a send-up of sorts of Westerns, a cultural reference-point widely shared in the US, where the centrality of Vodun in Mumbo Jumbo is surely less familiar territory to the average US reader, even, and possibly particularly, to the literate public, so-called.

Really, I do a disservice to Reed in calling the book a send-up, even though coming from me this is the highest of compliments, as I tend to to find more value in the satirizing of something than in the thing satirized itself.  That said, Reed presents us with a Black central character, the Loop Garoo Kid (loup garou=werewolf), Vodun practitioner in the American West, terrorizing the forces of encroaching white capitalism, all the while in-and-out of league with the Pope.  Reed–and I don’t want to suggest that he is anything other than meticulous in his method–gives the feeling of throwing reference after reference onto the page to see which ones stick.  It’s exhilarating.

So, why it’s not a satire (while at the same time, it is): the West Reed describes is closer to the real thing than what one gets in Westerns.  It was (is) not just white cowboys and Indians, but a whole host of people, including, particularly, Black people.  Moreover, Reed very clearly, though briefly, clarifies the driving force behind the westward expansion of the United States as capitalism, not a spirit of adventure or some civilizing mission.  On this, he is demonstrably correct.

Reed recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times wisely pointing out that much white “progressive” critique of Obama mistakenly assumes that Obama has the same options as President as a white person would have, Harry Truman, for example.  Reed caught some predictable flak. Reed is right-on about Obama and white progressives, however, and I think part of the problem stems from the fact that white progressives very often–most often, I’d think–think that something has gone wrong with the United States, as opposed to the more correct idea that something has been wrong with the United States since it started, and before it as well.  Reed falls into the second camp.  And why?  Because the United States was founded as capitalism unfettered, with human capital, chattel slavery, as its most fundamental basis.  The entire cultural, intellectual, political, legal, and economic system of the country was founded with that in mind, and still reflects it.

Reed, and this is possibly even more visible in Mumbo Jumbo, critiques the whole of “Western Civilization.”  That’s what pisses white people off.  The Loop Garoo Kid brings African religious practice to North America.  This reflects historical fact.  Reed critiques Western Civ., but, far from a nihilistic perspective, with clear alternatives in mind.  One can live, in North America today, and not be “Western.”  It takes discipline (a discipline which, in my case, is still a work in progress) but it can be done.

Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms

As one can tell given a prior post on one of his books, I’m on something of a Carlo Ginzburg kick, and this, The Cheese and the Worms, is the book that, when I mentioned a few years ago to some friends that I’d learned about this interesting historian, they each said, “ah, yes, The Cheese and the Worms!”  I had just started The Night Battles, and hadn’t heard of this one, which clearly was the one that got a lot of press in places like the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker.

Ginzburg wrote the Cheese and the Worms in an attempt to simultaneously satisfy the expectations of both “the general reader” or “literate public” and academic history.  That is to say, there are neither foot- nor endnotes proper, but rather appendices which detail source material for pages in question.  I have to think that Ginzburg made this choice because he’d stumbled across an undeniably fantastic subject, a sixteenth century miller, Italian, known as Menocchio, on whom more later.

Ginzburg’s claim to fame is that of “microhistorian” of popular religiosity: he takes very specific data, as far as I can tell most importantly from archives of the Italian Inquisition, and gives them a very close reading in order to read through, so to speak, the bias of the author–the Inquisitor bent on rooting out heresy as he imagines it–to get into, to a remarkably plausible extent, the mind of the accused heretic.  What Ginzburg finds is, not surprisingly, that the actual ideas of the heretic were, while still contrary to or different from High Church orthodoxy, very different from what Inquisitors assumed or imagined the heretics to believe.  Generally, where Inquisitors found heresy, Ginzburg finds popular, peasant religiosity.  Give the paucity of source material from peasants themselves on the subject, the historian relies on other sources.

As I noted above, Ginzburg knew he was on to something good when he found Menocchio.  The book is, above all, a completely fascinating read, and Menocchio himself, doomed to be burned at the stake we know from the start, an intensely sympathetic and literally pathetic figure.  He seems not to have had a mean bone in his body, but rather what seems on the surface to have been a totally idiosyncratic approach to religion.  He developed a unique, but at the same time detailed, cosmology, borrowing freely from written sources as well as oral tradition.  He was literate, but did not, as a working man, have access to large libraries and so his readings were intense and focused, with ample room for his own embellishment of meaning.  Under questioning, Menocchio veered between a willingness to please his questioner and an inability to resist the original thinking which landed him in hot water.  I can’t imagine a person reading this book and not projecting onto Menocchio all or at least some of his or her own difficulties with authority that wanted to stifle one’s originality.

There are three kinds of historian.  A first produces scholarly articles and monographs for other historians and never makes a meaningful dime from writing.  These historians often imagine what it would be like to be widely read, and simultaneously envy and look down upon anyone with a broad, or even slightly broad, audience.  Most historians fall into this category.  A second spends most of a career in the first category and then at some point gets the idea to write something that will actually sell, in the hopes that one can have some residual income when one retires, in addition to one’s pension.   They write the book, usually but not always a textbook, and then finish off a last scholarly monograph or two before calling it a day.  A third category more or less abandons academic history even while she or he draws the largest paycheck in the department because of all the appearances on public or network television as a talking head.  Her books or his are published by Random House, or at minimum one of its subsidiaries, and can be found at Barnes and Noble or Borders, or at minimum ordered there through regular channels.  This third group is, in a word, popular.  Ginzburg is interesting.  He seems to simultaneously be in the first and second categories, by design.

Early in the book Ginzburg references Bakhtin‘s Rabelais and his World, in particular Bakhtin’s notion of a reciprocal relationship in the sixteenth century between popular and high culture, at least in some cases like that of Rabelais.  We have an inarticulate peasant culture–inarticulate as far as written source material goes–centuries old, that, in the cultural fluidity of the sixteenth century, percolated up so to speak through particular, individual writers who, despite their education, remained expressive of that peasant culture.  I have coincidentally read Bakhtin’s book, loved it, and then lost my copy in the course of a couple of moves.  Ginzburg sees in Menocchio a case-in-point of Bakhtin’s model.  This works for me, but for the life of me I think Ginzburg needed another fifty pages to prove it.  The main text of the book is a mere 128 pages, compared to, for example, Bakhtin’s close read of Rabelais which was nearly 500.

All too often, Ginzburg references popular belief generally, leaving the reader with the sense of a formless mass of ideas rather than something real.  One can bring prior knowledge of the subject to Ginzburg’s account, which I did and which is why, I think, I bought his basic idea from the start, because I could fill in the blanks.  I got the impression at times that Ginzburg projected onto this mass of ideas what he wanted rather than what was there.  Peasants felt the world order, with entrenched elites, unjust, and felt that labor created the world.  Anyone who roots for the underdog would want peasants to believe this, and it’s not very profound that they did.  To take a contrary example, Bakhtin’s lengthy discussion about ideas of the body in Rabelais and his World struck me as deeply profound, not entirely expected (to me, anyway), and amply documented.

His general exposition of peasant belief as reflected in Menocchio makes perfect sense to me, but Ginzburg leaves me with a sense that he hasn’t really shown it.  The tension between his niche in academic history, that of microhistorian, focusing on very specific cases-in-point, and his broader ambitions to illuminate a broader culture is nearly too tense to sustain itself.  Interestingly, in the bit I read of The Night Battles a few years ago (I am going reread and complete the book within the year) I never felt that Ginzburg’s pronouncements about peasant belief were under-documented.  Having said that, The Cheese and the Worms is worth the read, both for what it documents about Menocchio, an interesting case if ever there was one, and for what it suggests about broader peasant religiosity.  That, and because Ginzburg, seeking to engage a broader audience, certainly wrote to be read.

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Joseph Dahmus, A History of the Middle Ages

In the last post on Carlo Ginzburg, I said, truthfully, that I prefer academic history to those intended for a wider readership.  On vacation, in a friend’s house, I ran out of books to read, so I picked up Joseph DahmusA History of the Middle Ages off their shelf.  It was the first textbook I’d read in easily 20 years.

There two types of history textbooks: those written by committee and those written by individuals.  Neither is entirely satisfactory, but the second is generally more valuable.  The textbook written by an individual is likely to be a better read, which matters when one is reading a textbook, something one would prefer to avoid.  Dahmus has some sort of authorial voice in his prose.  A second and probably more important point is that an individual author is more likely to make some sort of argument or, rather, to do so more or less transparently.  All textbooks, of course, make arguments.  The problem with those written by a group with the sole purpose of tapping into the lucrative textbook market is that they hide their arguments behind a veil of objectivity.  The arguments are made in the selection and omission of facts.  Dahmus, to his credit, will make statements like “so-and-so argues this about that, but is wrong for this reason and this other.”  We know when an argument is being made.

Carlo Ginzburg, Clues, Myths, and Historical Method

I studied history in school because I liked it, and I can say that I like reading academic history more than histories intended for the general public, most of the time. I say this not to sound elitist, but because the best academic history operates on a much greater level of detail than popular histories, and I find that detail interesting. One of my big questions as a person is that of the relationship between general and specific.

A number of years ago a friend TA’d for a course in which the prof had assigned Carlo Ginzburg‘s The Night Battles: Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries, which on my friend’s recommendation I purchased. I began reading it, liked it, got distracted, and gave it away with the rest of my library when I moved to Senegal. In the intervening years, however, I’ve thought about it quite a bit, and for my birthday I asked my parents each to get me some Ginsburg books. This one, Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, I actually bought myself to round out the set, breaking my rule about not buying books any more. The library didn’t have it, I say in my defense.

The book is a series of articles, the contents of which I checked out before buying it, which seemed most interesting to me when they focus on what Ginsburg is justly famous for: documenting popular culture, witchcraft particularly, using sources hostile to the subject. One title explains the basic point: “The Inquisitor as Anthropologist.” We might actually as a general rule reverse the two and note the Anthropologist as Inquisitor, had not Vine Deloria already done so so beautifully. Ginzburg, however, is dealing with an extreme example of the basic methodological question in history, which is that of source material. Ginsburg uses inquisitorial records of heresy to examine popular religious belief. To do this, he needs to compensate for the inherent bias of the source material, in particular the tendency of inquisitors to understand statements of the accused as recitations of the Church’s notions of heresy–everything leads up to the Witches’ Sabbat–rather than as statements in and of themselves. Nor are the accused speaking freely. Everything the accused says is an attempt to on the one hand be credible to the inquisitor and at the same time innocent of capital crime.

This to me is a fascinating inquiry. As such, the most interesting–and without question, my primary concern to me in reading anything is whether or not I happen to find it interesting–articles in the book are the ones that deal with popular religion and methodology. Codification of eros in Titian is of abstract interest to me, but I’d rather have been told the point in conversation with someone over pints than have taken the time to read the article. I did so as a point of principle, having paid for the book.

Definitely not a starting point for Ginzburg’s work. The Night Battles or, I am told, The Worms and the Cheese are certainly worth anyone’s time. I have those both waiting near my bed to finish by summer’s end.

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