Saturday, January 30, 2021

The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill (#ccspin)

John Stuart Mill's Autobiography only appeared after he had passed away, in 1873. It was written in stages; the first and largest part in the 1850s, later parts in a couple of goes in the 1860s. Mill married Harriet Taylor in 1851, and she edited that first portion, but she herself died in 1858, probably of tuberculosis. The later sections reflect on her importance to his life and thinking after her death and also on his brief parliamentary career.

It's the earlier sections, though, on his earlier life, that are the most comprehensive, and the most interesting. His youthful education is the wackiest part. Mill always insisted he was not by nature a genius; that it was only his unusual education that enabled him to achieve anything. That education was definitely unusual. 

His father was James Mill, a fairly important British intellectual in his own right, and the author of an important work on the governance of India, but perhaps more notably, a close friend of David Ricardo, the economist, and of Jeremy Bentham, the inventor of Utilitarianism. Both of those august gentlemen were around the house while young Mill was growing up. 

Mill, Sr., had some definite views on education and did the homeschooling himself.

It's hard to imagine them being implemented now. Should you be in possession of three-year-old whom you're planning to educate, you might find some hints, though more likely you'll find counter-examples you'll want to flee like the wind. Young Mill in the book insists his childhood was happy, though one might wonder. It did involve learning classical Greek from the age of three and Latin from the age of eight. Since Liddell and Scott had not yet written their dictionary, and the only Greek dictionaries that existed were Greek to Latin, when young John wanted to know the meaning of a word in Greek, he had to ask his father. It seems to his father's credit, he had no objection to being interrupted from whatever he might be trying to do to explain the meaning of Άνθρωπος.

It also involved separation from other children his age, because of their potentially corrupting influence. Again Mill says he didn't mind this and enjoyed long walks by himself. (He did have a bunch of younger siblings so there might have been somebody to play with.) It also seems young Mill got to spend a great deal of time with his father.

As for his mother, presumably he had one, but you wouldn't know it from this book. According to another biography I got from the library, by the 1850s, he was somewhat estranged from his mother, and some of his siblings, because of the way they treated Harriet Taylor, who had become his wife by then.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this upbringing led to a psychological crisis at age twenty. He contemplated suicide: "I frequently asked myself if I could, or if I was bound to go on living, when life must be passed in this manner." You'll be glad to hear he came out of it by reading a book. (Jean-Francois Marmontel's Memoires. I'd never heard of it. Must be powerful stuff.) He rethought--a bit--the idea of happiness he'd received during his Benthamite upbringing.

It may also have helped that he met a girl. Harriet Taylor was a year younger than him and considered a great beauty. (As you can see, Mill himself was not.) Even more importantly, though, was she was his intellectual equal, even, as he says in the autobiography, his superior. The only downside was that she was already married. They began an intimate (but innocent, Mill assures us) friendship and intellectual partnership that lasted until her death in 1858 and was only regularized, as it were, by their marriage in 1851 after Harriet Taylor's first husband died. 

As we get into the period of Mill's own intellectual productions, the autobiography becomes swifter. Mill served one term in parliament. Not all that much is said about it. (He dismisses his maiden speech.) He was a strong supporter of increased home rule for Ireland, and, I was amused to discover, claims some credit for the origins of 'responsible government' (or home rule) in Canada: after the Upper Canada Rebellion, Lord Durham came to Canada to investigate and issued a fairly liberal report that led to the first bits of self-government in Canada. Mill was a strong supporter of Durham.

Mill was also friends with Carlyle which Mill admits was a bit of an odd couple pairing. Mill's maid was the one responsible for burning the first draft of Carlyle's French Revolution.

It's pretty readable. A slightly orotund prose style, but for a philosopher or a political economist, it's downright snappy.

Some quotes:

"It was in the same year, 1819, that he [my father] took me through a complete course of political economy." Mill was then thirteen.

"I am thus one of the very few examples, in this country, of who has not thrown off religious belief, but never had it."

"They [my books] were always written out at least twice over; a first draft of the entire work was completed to the very end of the subject, then the whole begun de novo, but incorporating in the second writing, all sentences and parts of sentences of the old draft, which appeared as suitable to my purpose as anything I could write in lieu of them."

[Summarizing the creed held by Bentham and his father.] "In psychology, the fundamental doctrine was the formation of all human character by circumstances, through the universal Principal of Association, and the consequent unlimited possibility of improving the moral and intellectual condition of mankind by education."

"Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way." 

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Men of Iron (Children's Classic)

 "...that special providence which guards reckless lads befriended them, as it has thousands of their kind before and since..."

It's the year 1400 in England and King Henry IV has just taken over from Richard II. It was not a peaceful transition and the blind Baron Falworth lost his estates as an outcome early in Henry's reign. The Falworths are living quietly in poverty.

Our hero is Myles Falworth, the only child of the blind baron, and he's eight that year. He's our reckless lad. 

Myles is sent to squire for the powerful Earl of Mackworth, an old friend of his father, but one who has managed to stay on the right side of Henry IV. The novel has three main adventures for Myles: the castle has a fagging system where the older apprentice knights demand service of the younger ones; Myles resents this and resists it. Later, chasing a ball into a forbidden garden, he meets the Earl's daughter and niece.

The third adventure is the especially suspenseful one, and you'll just have to read it! But it does involve the future Henry V.

Howard Pyle was an American illustrator and author of children's 
books who died youngish in 1911. Men of Iron came out in 1891. He also did a version of Robin Hood and various volumes of Arthuriana. He drew the illustrations for the volume I have.

The copy I have was my Dad's when he was a child and it was one of his favorites. He got it as a Christmas gift in 1939. And I read it more than once myself as a kid... It still holds up pretty well, I think.

My Dad (around the age he got this book) with my Grandfather and Tam.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Zachary Carter's The Price of Peace (On Keynes & Keynesianism)

"Keynesian economics was formulated as a defense against fascism...But Keynesianism was also developed to prevent war, and it remains one of the great tragic ironies of intellectual history that the very catastrophe Keynes had attempted to avert for nearly two decades [in 1939] would be the event that finally demonstrated the viability of his economic ideas on the world stage."[p.309]

This book has gotten a lot of buzz--see Carter's website for a list of the accolades--and I have to say I think they're deserved. But it's better thought of as a biography of Keynesianism than of Keynes. Naturally Keynes himself would be important in such a book. It starts with a short introductory episode where he meets his wife-to-be, in 1922, but it doesn't really go back in time very much. No parents, no birth, no childhood. Not much about his youthful hound-dog homosexuality. A little bit about his Bloomsbury connections, because who doesn't like a bit of Bloomsbury gossip? (Vanessa Bell really didn't like his wife.) But there's not much at all in the book about him before 1914, and Keynes turned 31 that year. 

But you could say that's when his real intellectual life began.

He'd studied math, working on probability theory, at Cambridge, with Bertrand Russell among others. Such a thing as an economics department scarcely existed at that point in any case, but Keynes' background was in analytic philosophy more than anything else. When the First World War started, Keynes ended up in Treasury, where he was critically important to Britain's ability to finance the war. His brilliance and indispensability were recognized, he moved up, and by the time of Versailles, he was a key player. He was in the room when the Big Three--David Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson, and Georges Clemenceau--were having 'private' discussions. He quickly realized that the terms of the Versailles treaty were likely to be poisonous and he could do nothing about it. So he quit before the terms were finalized.

And wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace. (Which will be war again, he said. And was right.) This book turned out to be an enormous bestseller and made Keynes quite a lot of money, but its primary intellectual effect in the short term turned out to be as one of the contributing agents to the U.S. rejecting the League of Nations, not Keynes' intent at all. 

In the 1920s Keynes made money. It's like somebody said, if you're so smart, why aren't you rich? Keynes said, good question, and went about fixing that. He worked as a well-paid journalist; his writing can be delightfully witty. He invested and was enormously successful in his investments, leading him to be the financier of Bloomsbury: he funded Hogarth press until Virginia Woolf's books started to sell; he made sure that Duncan Grant had enough money to paint, etc., etc. But these are also the writings in which Keynes is beginning to work out the economics of Keynesianism, and its purposes; to stop fascism and prevent war. Forward thinking in 1925 might have achieved both; it was only later that it was one or the other. Carter struck me as both lucid and astute on Keynes' intellectual development at this point. Keynes' thinking is not the same at all points in time.

Keynes worked for a stint in Ramsay MacDonald's Labour government, but in the end with little effect; he has more intellectual impact on (and becomes friendly with) FDR and the American government, but worries that he's mostly seen as a witty journalist. He holes up Cambridge with some early disciples (Joan Robinson seemed particularly interesting to me from this period) and works out the elements of The General Theory, the main statement of his ideas. That book is still percolating through the intellectual world when the Second World War starts, and Keynes is called back once again to sort Britain's wartime finances. 

He's again crucially important to the war effort, and is a key player at the Bretton Woods conference, but Keynes had already had his first heart attack in the 1930s, and by the end of the war, he's dying, and dies in 1946. 

The book is only 2/3rds of the way through, though. I found its coverage of the next twenty-five years fascinating. Keynesianism won as an intellectual discipline; "we are all Keynesians now" wasn't first said until later, but might have been said as early as 1946. But under the pressure of McCarthyite stooges and loyalty tests, Keynesianism split into left and right factions, with some players moving from one to the other camp. Keynes recognized fiscal stimulus can be achieved by building houses, building highways, or building the machines of war; he had preferences, though, and not for the machines of war. For Carter, John Kenneth Galbraith is the key figure in this period, but also Paul Samuelson, Joan Robinson again, even Milton Friedman. Friedrich Hayek is the one arch-non-Keynesian. 

Another ongoing question is, to what extent is Keynesianism a purely mathematical project? Keynes himself was a brilliant mathematician, but didn't always depend upon it. It's not in Carter's bibliography, probably because it's too introductory, but I suspect this part is a bit under the influence of Heilbroner's Worldly Philosophers.

The book carries through to the recovery from the Great Recession. I found its coverage of the last years the weakest. Carter is a financial journalist, not an academic, and as such, writes well. His most prominent affiliation seems to be Huffington Post, and I assume he's pretty lefty. (Well, I am, too.) But he tends to gloss over those later conservative presidencies and then attacks those of Bill Clinton or Obama from the left. Sigh. A little perspective, please. 

Ah, well. It's very good and pretty fascinating on the whole. It's quite readable; no math required. Because it covers a lot of ground, it's consequently a bit thin in places. But then that's on me: one of these years I'll read Skidelsky. But until then, this was very good.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Italy books: his and hers

His: Poets In A Landscape

In the mid-50s Gilbert Highet, then a professor in Classics at Columbia, took a trip through Italy. He seeks out places associated with the famous Roman poets: Catullus, Vergil, Propertius, Horace, Tibullus, Ovid, and Juvenal. The organizing principle is geographical, starting in the north: Catullus' birthplace is Sirmione, on the Lago di Garda; Juvenal is likely from Aquinum, the modern Aquino, southeast of Rome, also the origin of St. Thomas Aquinas. Highet and his traveling companion visit places from north to south. Some of the identifications are tenuous. Is the Villa d'Orazio Horace's actual villa? Who knows? But it doesn't really matter. Highet is a good travel writer. Italy, especially in the countryside, was still quite poor in the mid-50s, but Highet enjoys meeting people, his descriptions of the landscape are evocative, the things he sees are fun.

A second aspect of the book is the poetry. Highet gives his own translations from the poets. I think he's a sensitive and strong translator, with a real feel for the metrics. He's also an enormously civilized individual, quoting Eliot or Pound or Tennyson appropriately. For instance he cites Tennyson's witty 'Hendecasyllabics' in discussing Catullus. Highet isn't known as a translator, but based on this he could have been.

The weak link in the book is the criticism of the poetry. It's not exactly wrong, but it's terribly flat-footed. It wouldn't have been out of place in the Victorian era, but Highet was born in 1906. It's possible to read his criticism for amusement, but that's about all. Highet has the grace to quote Yeats' poem 'The Scholars' but doesn't manage to escape its mockery of 'bald heads forgetful of their sins' reading Catullus.

It would be a wonderful book to take with (or read in advance) should you be able to take a trip to Italy. ***Heavy sigh***

Highet dedicated his book to his 'Travelling Companion'. Turns out she was writing a book, too.

Hers: North From Rome

The introduction to Highet's book says if he's remembered at all, he's remembered for this, that, and the other. He was a famous enough man in his day, a great teacher, author of various books, judge at Book of the Month Club, editor at Cyril Connolly's Horizon, radio personality (you can hear him on YouTube). Still. Balderdash. If Gilbert Highet is remembered at all these days, he's remembered as Mr. Helen MacInnes.

I probably read North From Rome when I was teenager, but if so I didn't remember it, and it felt blissfully new. 

The American Bill Lammiter has written one hit play. He's there for rewrites in New York during the production; he goes to Hollywood to consult because they're going to make it into a movie. His fiancée Eleanor Halley has broken it off with him because of his unavailability and has subsequently announced she's going to marry an Italian count.

The novel starts with Bill living in a Roman hotel on the Via Vittorio Veneto, near the Pincian Gate. He's been there four months, making no progress either on his next play or in winning Eleanor back, and he's thinking about chucking it all and heading back to the U.S. 

Late that very night, smoking on his balcony, he sees a man jump out of a car and attack a pretty Italian girl. He yells, they run off, and our story is off, too. Pretty great.

It was amusing to read them together. At one point Bill visits a professor staying at the American Academy in Rome. Well, Highet in his acknowledgements gives thanks to the American Academy in Rome. I imagine Gilbert looking for signs of Propertius' farm in the countryside near Perugia, while Helen was there pacing off a possible shoot-out between Bill Lammiter and some Communist goons. 

Her dedication also reads, "To my travelling companion."

Good times.

Starting off this year's tour of Europe on a high note!

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Thomas Carlyle's On Heroes and Hero-Worship

"On all sides, are we not driven to the conclusion that, of the things which man can do or make here below, by far the most momentous, wonderful and worthy are the the things we call Books! Those poor bits of rag-paper with black ink on them;--from the Daily Newspaper to the sacred Hebrew Book, what have they not done, what are they not doing!" [From the lecture on the Man of Letters, p. 164 in my edition]

As a book-person, I can forgive Carlyle quite a lot given this praise, this enthusiasm, so extravagantly expressed, for books. And indeed, there are only two things for which one might need to forgive Carlyle. It's just that they are: the form and the content!

On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History is based on a series of lectures Carlyle gave in London over three weeks, on Tuesdays and Fridays, in May of 1840. It comes early, but not at the beginning of his career; his one novel, Sartor Resartus, is by then six years old; his history of the French Revolution had come out three years earlier. He had given educational public lectures before, but this is the first set he published. Carl Niemeyer, who wrote the introduction to my volume, says the lectures must have been rewritten after they were given. We know that the lectures lasted an hour when he gave them, but read these aloud and they take well over an hour. It was a format he found congenial; several of his later books were given first as lectures and then published.

The Form

Ah, the Carlylean style. Here's another example, also from the Man of Letters lecture, ostensibly describing Samuel Johnson's prose style: [p.183]

"They are sincere words, those of his; he means things by them. A wondrous buckram style,--the best he could get to then; a measured grandiloquence, stepping or rather stalking along in a very solemn way, grown obsolete now; sometimes a tumid size of phraseology not in proportion to the contents of it: all this you will put-up with. For the phraseology, tumid or not, has always something within it."

One may wonder, though, do I see Johnson's style here described or do I see Carlyle's? Well, Carlyle means things by his words, and sincerity is a great watchword with him. Buckram is stiff and a little coarse in his weave. Hmm. There's grandiloquence to be sure, and well, perhaps the prose is just a little swollen in its phraseology. Maybe it's a style you can put-up with. But still it does always have something in it... 😉

I don't know. The prose might drive you mad, of course, but I find it entertaining in its extravagance. It takes a little getting used to, but is not difficult after that. Granted, it is extreme, even compared to how we otherwise perceive Victorian prose. Still an influential prose style. I've been thinking about returning to Carlyle since reading Moby-Dick a year ago.

The prose is a bit catching, though, a thing to be watched out for. I'm no minimalist, but in writing this I see semi-colons, colons, exclamation marks, an apostrophizing ah, neologisms, italicizing words for emphasis. I fear I might even resort to the dreaded semi-colon-dash;--a thing, a thing of terror to grammarian purists, a thing no longer approved, no longer recommended, perhaps, no longer even allowed!

Heh. And it's not just nowadays we recognize the danger (though maybe also the fun): even the arch-Victorian Matthew Arnold said, 'Flee Carlylese as the very devil!'*

The Content

I started reading this book once before, but punted on it. I don't really remember why, and since, as I do occasionally with abandoned books, I had stripped the bookmark from it, for reuse, I also don't know where. But for the reasons given above, I doubt it was the style. I love Sartor Resartus and have read it a few times; I enjoyed Carlyle's book on the French Revolution and weirdly have its epilogue nearly memorized. ('Toilsome was our journeying together.') Carlyle's form--in measured doses--works for me.

No, I'm pretty sure it was the content. While I don't mind celebrating excellence, I'm pretty allergic to the worship of Great Men (and such worship is nearly always--as it is here--men.) Carlyle is not a systematic thinker--and that's a good thing--because if he had a system, he would talk himself out of his own occasional good instincts. 

The great men in this are divided into six categories, as Divinity--Odin; as Prophet--Mohammad; as Poet--Dante and Shakespeare; as Priest--Luther and Knox; as Man of Letters--Samuel Johnson, but also Robert Burns; and as King--Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon. You may wonder about Odin, but Carlyle adheres to a euhemerizing read of the Heimskringla, and thinks Odin was a real person before he was a god.

Niemeyer observes in his introduction that for Carlyle all of these figures are men who started with little or nothing and made good by their hard work and native genius, that even the 'kings' started from nothing. I also add, for a Victorian and a protestant Scot, he's surprisingly tolerant of the Catholic Dante, and even the Muslim Mohammad. 

But those are the good moments. He's not generally tolerant. His approval of theocracy; his willingness to allow law to be subverted in the interest of great men is hard to swallow, especially after yesterday's events. "He was ready to glorify every historic vagabond!" wrote Henry James, Sr. You'd like to think he would see through some of the bad ones, but you just can't be sure. Reading it led to me write out a bunch of notes: p.62, wrong! p.99, horrible! But I won't reproduce them here.

So, though this is probably his most famous work, I might recommend Sartor Resartus, the story of Herr Teufelsdrockh, Professor of Clothes, instead...

This was the last book of 2020 for me. On to the new year!


*From Frederic Harrison's Studies in Early Victorian Literature (1896):

"Carlyle, if not the greatest prose master of our age, must be held to be, by virtue of his genius and mass of stroke, the literary dictator of Victorian prose. And, though we all know how wantonly he misused his mighty gift, though no one now would venture to imitate him even at a distance, and though Matthew Arnold was ever taking up his parable--'Flee Carlylese as the very devil!'--we are sliding into Carlylese unconsciously from time to time,..."

With that triple anaphora on 'though' and setting off Arnold's quote with dashes, I suspect Harrison was quite consciously sliding into Carlylese. Anyhoo I know I've read that line of Matthew Arnold's somewhere before, but in googling (well, really, Duckduckgo-ing) this was the only source for it I could find. Maybe it's the earliest mention of something Arnold said in conversation regularly? I would be curious though to know if it appears somewhere in Arnold's own writing.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

European Reading Challenge 2021 Signup


Once again Gilion is hosting the European Reading challenge at her blog Rose City Reader. For full details of the challenge pop over to her signup, but the basic idea is to visit European countries by reading books set in the country, one book per country. I'm once again signing up for the Deluxe Entourage level, which is five countries. 

I never know where my travels will take me, but I do know that this year the first country visited will be Italy...

For me, this is one of the funnest challenges going! Join in! 

1.) Gilbert Highet/Poets In A Landscape (Italy)

2.) Howard Pyle/Men of Iron (UK)

3.) Georgi Gospodinov/The Physics of Sorrow (Bulgaria)



Thanks to Gilion for hosting this again!

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Back To The Classics Challenge 2021 Signup

 Karen is once again hosting her Back To The Classics Challenge:

The complete description of her challenge is available here, but the important question is what are this year's categories and what books do I think I'll match up against them? Where possible I usually pick books from my main Classics Club list and I've done that again. I'm sure these will all get changed around again. But for now! Here's this years list of categories:

19th Century Classic

--Sir Walter Scott/Count Robert of Paris

I'm nearly out of 19th Century classics on my Classics Club list. Yikes!

20th Century Classic

--Samuel Butler/The Way of All Flesh

A Classic By A Woman Author

--Virginia Woolf/The Waves

A Classic in Translation

--Honoré de Balzac/Cousin Bette

A Classic by a Non-White Author

--James Baldwin/Go Tell It On The Mountain

A Classic by a New-to-you Author

--Henryk Sienkewicz/Quo Vadis

New-to-you Classic by a Favorite Author

--R. L. Stevenson/Black Arrow

A Classic About An Animal, or With An Animal In The Title

--Henry James/The Wings of The Dove

A Children's Classic

Not entirely sure here. The Wind In The Willows, The Once and Future King, or Howard Pyle's Men of Iron are possibilities, though they would all be rereads.

A Humorous Classic

How is it I have no funny books left on my Classics Club list!? I've left all the serious stuff to the end? Except for one...

A Travel or Adventure Classic

--R. L. Stevenson/Travels With A Donkey

A Classic Play

--George Bernard Shaw/Major Barbara

The one funny book left on my list. 

Which look good to you?

Thanks to Karen for hosting another year!