The Blog Without A Name
ON THE NIGHTSTAND
Because of a number of misfortunes in my life in the last year or so, my reading interests have taken on a kind of character morbid even by the standards of my usual kakological interests. So, when I was browsing through Amazon for titles on epidemiology, and saw R. S. Bray's Armies of Pestilence: The Impact of Disease on History
, I just knew
I'd like it because (aside from the obvious voyeuristic spectacle of massive loss of life) it takes an environmental approach to history which jolts one out of sleepy dogmas held by some that history consists entirely of abstract social forces or class-conflict. The book is written by a biologist, so he should also have some more informed opinions about the ontology of disease and disease vectors and so forth. So I got myself a copy.
The book is divided into twenty-four chapters plus an introduction and conclusion. The book takes a broadly chronological approach: brief discussion of plagues in remote antiquity and some discussion of the great plagues that struck Athens in 429 BC and Rome during the reign of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Then he devotes several chapters each to the Plague (properly so-called) that struck the Eastern Roman Empire during the reign of the Emperor Justinian and compares that in the immediately following chapters with the similar disease that almost halved the population of Europe in the time of the Black Death. Slightly more than half of the book that follows covers the origin and spread of malaria, yellow fever, smallpox, typhus, cholera, and influenza.
Before I take out my knife, I should mention that the book is packed with interesting and useful information. Things like: why did all those silly Age-of-Englightenment people wear wigs? Not just for the pretension value (though there certainly was some of that). Wigs were useful for keeping lice away -- and thus infectious diseases, like typhus, which have lice as vectors. People affected by that same disease apparently have breath that smells like a "drying wet umbrella". The book is, in a way I had hoped, a corrective on a lot of politically charged discussion about the Spanish Conquest of the Americas. The book by no means denies barbarities and atrocities perpetrated upon the indigenous populations by the Spanish. But it points out (and those who read Henry Kamen's book on the Spanish Empire would recognize this as well) that there simply were not enough Spaniards, even with native allies, to conquer much of Mesoamerica, much less most of both continents. So how was the conquest carried out? After smallpox had broken out all over, according to Bray, Cortez "was now master of a foodless and diseased capital, and a promising start had been made on the reduction of the population of Central America from 25 million by 18.5 million to a mere 6.5 million; a reduction of 74% in the space of ten years or so" (126) as a direct result of the epidemic. Ten years!
Those who place all the blame on the colonial Europeans miss the point: there were neither a sufficient number of men, nor the bureaucracy, necessary to carry out such a holocaust. Even if the Spaniards had wanted to kill lots and lots of Amerindians (and let's assume for the sake of argument that they did), disease would have gotten there first.
This kind of discussion actually helps the reader make an informed decision about historical events, and as such can only be good. The problems that deflect away from this shining image are legion, however. Rather than a running narrative, for a good half of the book Bray can't break away from simply citing this or that other scholar, sometimes adding along the way that Such-and-Such is obviously wrong -- but then not explaining why this is the case. Now, a certain amount of this is to be expected from someone not trained in historiography, but it almost leaves the impression that he went about his writing willy-nilly and didn't put any serious effort into revision for style. This is also borne out by the innumerable typographical errors and bizarre archaic spellings ("Istamboul" for "Istanbul") that veritably litter the text, and the incomprehensibility of the organization: why does he divide specific diseases into as many as four separate chapters? These problems, one might claim, are rather superficial: they are problems of form, not of substance. There's truth to this: if you work at it, you can get a few diamonds out of this.
The problem is that sometimes this sloppiness of manner makes you question his command of the data. When discussing a plague that threatened the highland and lowland Maya, he seems to suggest anachronistically at one point that (Classical) Mayan civilization collapsed as a result of epidemics imported from the Old World, rather than the standard and much better attested theories of endemic warfare, overpopulation and environmental degradation. Since he never specifies what he means, it's impossible to tell. Thus sloppiness of form can lead to sloppiness of meaning. I would say that for all the interesting tid-bits to be gleaned from this book, it ultimately must be used with such care as to be almost useless to the nonspecialist, and certainly won't make for engaging reading.
ON THE SCREEN
Akira Kurosawa's Red Beard
(1968) and High and Low
(1963). Seeing these two movies together was an interesting experience because their subject matter is in many ways very different from Kurosawa's more well known samurai epics like Seven Samurai
. Most of Kurosawa's films involve thematically, at some level or another, the relationship of individuals to society and what kinds of obligations and links exist between them. In most films, these themes are played out in the form of set roles: there are the daimyo
, and then there are the samurai who serve them, with some kind of conflict coming in between the two that threatens the preestablished order. In some films, there will be variations, like the samurai-errant in Yojimbo
, but the basic patterns generally hold firm. These two films are no different in the structural sense that the protagonists are engaged in questions of how privileged people must relate to those less fortunate, but there the similarities generally stop.
Set in the late Tokugawa period, the conflict in Red Beard
centers around the obligations of a young Dr. Yasumoto, steeped in 'Dutch' (i.e., Western) medicine, who is unexpectedly sent to work for a certain Dr. Niide, a harsh and rigid disciplinarian who treats the sick and dying in a remote country backwater. Yasumoto, who had been expecting to be sent to attend to no less a personage than the Emperor himself, is insulted by this turn of events and acts as obnoxiously as he can in order to get Dr. Niide to send him back. Niide does no such thing, however: Niide forces him to work by his side with a number of serious cases. As time goes on, Yasumoto gradually sees how underneath the prickly and callous exterior of Niide hides a warm and ultimately humane person who goes out of his way to help those who really need it, not just the rich. In the end, Yasumoto turns his back on his privilege and asks Niide to take him on permanently.
High and Low
takes on the same themes in a very different setting: the contemporary corporate world of Japan. Gondo, a life-long employee of National Shoes, is greeted by other shareholders of the corporation who want his help in buying out the boss to run the business in a way they perceive to be more profitable. Gondo refuses on the grounds that their shoes will make money but do so at the expense of the consumer. A loud argument ensues, and they leave offended. Knowing they can do the corporate take-over anyway, he makes plans to borrow a great deal of money in order to seize the firm to keep it out of their hands. Shortly after he has arranged for the loans, he receives a phone call from someone claiming to have kidnapped his son. He instantly promises to deliver up the money, even though that would ruin his business deal and thus his career -- until he finds out that it was his driver's son, not his, who was kidnapped. The kidnapper quickly realizes this, but calls to demand the money anyway. It's absurd, yes: but Gondo is caught in a bind. Does he refuse and let the kidnapper kill the other man's boy, or does he altruistically give up the money, knowing this would ruin his career? This sets the stage for an elaborate series of investigations by the police. The movie climaxes when the criminal confronts Gondo with his reasons for the kidnapping (which I won't reveal so as to keep some semblance of suspense for those who haven't seen it).
In both films, we see a departure from the genre that Kurosawa is famous for. At no point do samurai or daimyo really enter into the picture -- in Red Beard
, they represent more the separate world of the rich rather than the nobility as such, and they don't exist at all in High and Low
. But at another level, the same themes of loyalty and obligation are present in a sublimated, more ethereal level. In fact, these movies really look at the same issues but from the opposite perspective: rather than looking at how peasants and samurai relate upwards to their daimyo
, these films look at how the daimyo
to their subordinates. Kurosawa's message is, I would say, that society cannot be understood from one or two local perspectives; the relationships within society can only be understood when looked at from all angles. Artfully done, and skillfully acted, Kurosawa has produced two masterpieces of world cinema which deserve the acclaim they have received.
ON THE NIGHTSTAND
Empire : How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763
, by Henry Kamen (Harper Collins, 2003). In 640 pages, this work tries to do a lot of heavy lifting. It starts off with a rather iconoclastic thesis among students of Spanish history: basically, the Spanish empire was not
the result of the onward glorious march of Spanish arms and bravado which inexplicably started to fail towards the end of the 17th century, but rather of a cooperative multinational sociopolitical system, which he likens to modern globalization. Expansionism, in Kamen's view, took different forms in different parts of the empire and at different times. While Castile undoubtedly used military means in the conquest of the Americas, for example, economic and religious resources played there as great or greater roles in the consolidation of Spanish power. Spain's empire in Europe was likewise mostly the product of dynastic succession, or nonmilitary powerplays: first in the union of the crowns of Castile and of Aragon, to which the Kingdom of Sicily had been attached, then the Holy Roman Empire, Portugal, Milan and others.
In retrospect, it should seem obvious that the thesis Kamen is reacting against (which I willfully parody) is a rather silly piece of 16th and 17th century Spanish propaganda, and that a lot more went on in creating and maintaining Spanish hegemony for three centuries than willpower. This kind of revisionism is only healthy, and it is in fact rather surprising that a work of this kind has not found its place outside of academia before this.
As for problems, the scattered organization of the book -- now Spain's travails in the Philippines, now Spain's mercantile interests in Holland -- could conceivably be very jilting to the reader not steeped in Early Modern European history, though I personally didn't have much trouble with it. This might plausibly be excused as a reflection of the subject matter: Spain, afterall, did have an empire on which the sun never set (for a while). But the sheer breadth of time that Kamen has chosen to cover ultimately may be his greatest problem. He covers all the basics -- the Sack of Tenochtitlan, the murder of Atahualpa, the Spanish Armada, the Battle of Lepanto, the war of the Spanish Succession, etc. -- admirably, as well as many of the minor events, but usually not in enough detail to leave feeling you've really understood how that particular episode affected Spain's geopolitical and economic position. What, besides simple oppression, were the underlying causes of the Flemish rebellions of the late 16th and early 17th centuries? How did the increasing technological disparity between Spain's armed forces and those of the British, French and Dutch affect its fortunes in the Thirty Years' War? And why stop at the end of the Seven Years' War -- why not end a history of Spain's empire at the point when it lost most of it in the 1810's-20's? These are only some of the questions that were not, or only barely, touched on, in Kamen's book. In contrast, Fernand Braudel, author of the monumental The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II
found it necessary to cover a shorter period of time and a smaller area of the world in no less than 1,375 pages. So it is
possible; one must simply put in the effort.
So, the most perspicacious of my vast readership may have noticed that I have not in fact mounted the soapbox in precisely two weeks. The reason is fairly simple: one day, I woke up, and found that my network access had been laid low by a mighty worm. The NSIT network security bureaucracy, who have an almost Gallic reverence for interventionism, declared there was nothing for it but to reformat my harddrive, reinstall Windows, and install various patches and security devices. Hélas
, it was no longer feasible for me to post reviews of books or movies. Now that I'm back on, though, be on the lookout for the following in the next couple of days/weeks: moviereviews of Kurosawa's High and Low and Red Beard
, Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly
, Vittorio de Sica's Umberto D.
, and bookreviews on Henry Kamen's Empire : How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763
and R. Bray's Armies of Pestilence: The Impact of Disease on History
, in no particular order.
ON THE SCREEN
(1931, by Fritz Lang). This murder-mystery, Fritz Lang's first talkie, centers around a rash of disappearances of young girls in downtown Berlin in early 30's Germany. The police are portrayed as incompetent buffoons incapable of making any progress as the number of murders grows ever larger. As the radius of the police-search expands and becomes more intrusive in response, the criminals themselves are becoming alarmed, not the least because it is disturbing their own dubious activities. To stop this, they band together to find the psychotic culprit, leading to the climatic moment when they bring him in for trial on their own terms.
To really appreciate this film, it's crucial to understand the climate in which this film was produced. Germany had only twelve years prior been humiliated by the final collapse of the Germany army in the Great War, and now had devolved into a morass of economic and political instability of the early stages of the Great Depression. Now crime and economic dislocation were becoming ever more prevalent and many Germans were beginning to seek rough and ready answers to the difficult choices they saw before themselves -- ultimately culminating just two years later, in 1933, in Hitler becoming Reichs-Chancellor. This film is in many ways a response to these social trends of late Weimar Germany. The spectacle of the psychopath defending his dissoluteness before a jury of criminals and mothers whose children he had sexually abused and killed, all them ready to summarily execute him, is handled with amazing care. The film really does not prepare you for this event, or does so only subtly in such a way that even when you catch the social commentary in earlier scenes you don't know precisely what to expect until it comes. Even though significant tracts of it are slow, they serve to build up dramatic tension. All in all, this is definitely a film worth seeing, both for its historical value and its enduring message of order and civilization, imperfect though they may be, over chaos and institutionalized thuggery.
ON THE SCREEN
À nous la liberté
(1931, by René Clair). This farcial satire about labor-relations in late industrial Europe probably ultimately turns on your opinion of capitalism and of people with more money than you. The two main characters, Emile and Louis are convicts imprisoned for some unknown crimes. They tire of the drudgery of slave-labor there, where they are forced to make wooden toys, and plan an escape, in which only Emile manages to break free. In the outside world, he manages to make himself into a kind of corporate plutocrat, with immense wealth obscuring his true nature. Later, Louis gets out of prison, where he finds work in an factory owned, unbeknownst to him, by Emile. The factory, run on quasi-military lines, soon falls into chaos as Louis' eye strays to the niece of one of Emile's foremen, neglecting his post at the assembly-line. In the ensuing conflict, the boss, Emile, is called in, where the two exconvicts recognize one another. Their friendship begins to blossom once more, and soon Emile finds himself unable to hide his garish and course character. This tips off some mobsters, who procure (how, we are not told) photographs of Emile-as-convict. Some slapstick chases, attempted bribes, and more chases ensue. Just when Emile thinks he's off the hook, the police arrive to arrest him at the opening ceremony for one of his new almost workerless factories; Louis, however, gets to him first, and they end up as they began, penniless criminals on the lam.
In no sense can anything in this movie be called 'subtle'. Every aspect -- from the equation of life in prison to life under capitalism, to the exconvicts' crude behavior together at the banquet, to the merciless taskmaster of a foreman -- serve to forward Clair's indictment of capitalism as a cruel system of unremitting toil and labor. These facts are not in themselves drawbacks: literature, afterall, was improved by Juvenalian satire like Swift's A Modest Proposal
, which is practically a monument to unsubtlety. And there are in fact some good movies that highlight the plight of the poor without saccharine or patronizing overtones, such as the contemporary Metropolis
by Fritz Lang or the somewhat later neo-realist La Terra Trema
by Luchino Visconti. The problem is that these movies do so by building characters who become more than just impotent players in some grand melodrama about capitalist oppression: they are real
people, who have however imperfect those films might be otherwise. Emile, however, appears to have nothing motivating him other than greed and money and power, and sees money as the first and last solution for any problem. Likewise every member of the upper-class around him are entirely shallow stick-figures with no dimension other than basking in their own self-importance. (To be sure, there are plenty of rich people who bask in their own self-importance. But clearly, Clair has never seen the swagger of any leaders of the labor movement.) Even a character as consciously designed to be one-dimensional as Mr. Burns on The Simpsons
has more substance than Emile does: I mean, Mr. Burns at least has his Bobo
So, À nous la liberté
has problems with characterization. Some movies compensate for this by spectacular sets or a sonorous score, or what have you. (Entire genres can do this, too: just look at Baroque operas like Lo Frate 'Nnamorato
.) But this film doesn't even have those. As one other critic put it, this is a movie of "clunking ironies, heavy compositions, and shrill, caterwauling 'music'". Thus my verdict: don't waste your time on this one, since it will be forgotten.