a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Re-reading Tolkien

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th June 2006

As I’ve mentioned, we’re currently reading The Lord of the Rings, or that is, I’m reading the books to Maddie before bedtime most evenings. Those many thousands of my readers who have not already read J.R.R. Tolkien‘s books might want to skip the following, or risk spoiling their full enjoyment of the stories later on. Those who continue are not guaranteed any great reward, either, just one reader’s response to one well-known and beloved work of fiction.


Maddie is pretty wrapped up in the books. When the reassuringly powerful wizard Gandalf fell in the first one, she was inconsolable, and it was very hard not to tell her he’d be back. Later on a schoolmate told her anyway, probably from watching the movies, so the trauma was temporary. (Cheater. :))

The Lord of The Rings was one of my big reading experiences when I was a kid, in 8th grade or so, I think. As I told Maddie, I too was just stunned when Gandalf fell — it was as if a beloved franchise player like Hank Aaron or Phil Niekro had suddenly died in a car crash… orchestrated by the front office. My reaction — and I quote — was “What!? WHAT!?” I just couldn’t believe it. The final scenes as Gandalf faced his nemesis, the Balrog — “you cannot pass”; the “Doom, doom, doom” drumbeats from the deep, his companions’ headlong escape from the Mines of Moria, the final, implacable lines of the chapter: “Grief at last wholly overcame them, and they wept long; some standing and silent, some cast upon the ground. Doom, doom. The drum-beats faded.” — all are as fresh as ever in my imagination.

I’ve not checked around much about what’s written about The Lord of the Rings, and I don’t claim any fresh insights. But as a reader-out-loud of the Tolkien Ring saga to Maddie, you can’t help but notice some things.

Above all, it’s a world of landscapes. Tolkien spends a lot of words — and lovely ones — on the hills, trees, streams, sky, and more trees of the world his characters struggle through, and the land emerges on each page in clear yet everchanging focus — often more sharply drawn than many of the characters traversing it, quite by Tolkien’s design and inclination, I think.

I also can’t help but think that the story owes much to the apocalyptic wars Great Britain had been embroiled in, whether or not that was conscious, intended, or admitted. The renunciation of the ring of power is a little harder to assign to that framework — nuclear weapons? the totalitarian temptation? — but not everything has to fit, after all.

It’s also hard to decide whether to assign the ever-present sense of loss in the story to the World War framework as well — i.e., to the decline of the British Empire, spent in battle with its greatest foe — or to something more fundamental: regrets at a rural, magical way of life passing beyond reach. Cheating a bit myself now, I’ve read Michael Moorcock’s critical piece “Epic Pooh,” which is a pretty negative take on The Lord of the Rings. Moorcock takes issue with a lot, particularly Tolkien’s elevation of the petit-bourgeois and the rural. I think he’s wrong in that; you write what you know and feel, and that’s what Tolkien knew and felt. It was a means to an end: allegiance to a world itself was the main thing Tolkien wanted, made vivid — and then said good-bye to.

I’ve learned to handle the archaic turns of speech that may charm when read silently, but that can still trip me up when reading them out loud, well over 500 pages into the story. Although I actually rather like many of the songs and poems, I confess I can feel a bit silly reading some of them out loud; luckily, our deal is that Maddie reads or sings all of them, sparing me that chore. More seriously, Sam’s subservience can grate, and descriptions of Orcs (goblins in Tolkien’s world) or Southrons can verge on a peculiar, fictional variety of racism — though to a lesser or maybe just more transubstantiated degree than, say, C. S. Lewis’ descriptions of Calormenes in the various books comprising the Chronicles of Narnia.

But there are also throat-catching moments that I hope I’ve read well to Maddie: the fall of Gandalf — “fly, you fools!” he cried, and was gone,” — and Frodo’s decision to press on alone with the Ring among them.

I was particularly struck at how moved I was by what had seemed a foregone conclusion to me in past readings: Frodo’s decision to take the “One Ring”and leave the safety of the elf-stronghold of Rivendell to carry out a counterintuitive, dangerous mission. A council has decided to destroy the Ring — the weapon of weapons and the blackest of magic in Tolkien’s world — rather than risk corruption by its power. But when the question is posed who exactly shall carry out the mission…

No one answered. The noon-bell rang. Still no one spoke. Frodo glanced at all the faces, but they were turned to him. All the Council sat with downcast eyes, as if in deep thought. A great dread fell on him, as if he was awaiting the pronouncement of some doom that he had long foreseen and vainly hoped might after all never be spoken. An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo’s side in Rivendell filled all his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice.

‘I will take the Ring,’ he said, ‘though I do not know the way.’

I defy anyone with a heart who has read the story thus far (perhaps especially out loud), not to be moved, and even to aspire to something greater in oneself at that moment, or at least to conjure the possibility. Surely that’s one measure of a great book.

It may be a measure of the simplicity of The Lord of the Rings that its pivotal moment can be so clearly identified. (Or, of course, it may be a measure of my own simplicity that I choose this one.) But if so, it is a simplicity and a moment that has been well earned. The long journey up to that point, as a narrative, has succeeded in convincing you of the idyll before, the dangers ahead, and the crystalline moment of decision when one proceeds despite one’s own fears; the long journey to follow will repeat versions of this moment, each one posing the questions: what would I do, what do I do, when my own decisions loom? How do I wish to be? What’s a world worth, to me?

The story is thus not some mere celebration of the virtues of a simple world, but a celebration of the defense of a cherished world, painstakingly assembled leaf by leaf, stone by stone, story by story. Often characters come most alive when they reveal their deep attachment to some particular place. The dwarf Gimli finds his holy place in the “glittering caves of Aglarond” and delivers a rare, lengthy soliloquy on its beauty to his initially uncomprehending friend, the elf Legolas; likewise, Legolas venerates forests like Lothlorien or Fangorn, eventually persuading the dwarf of their virtues; the future king Aragorn is rarely more vivid than when he navigates the river Anduin past the monumental gateway to the kingdom he is returning to. And Frodo and his fellow hobbits — a pygmy race with no notable powers of their own save steadfastness, stamina, and a taste for mushrooms — find their promised land right under their feet and in their memories, in their homeland of the Shire.

The Lord of the Rings is also an accounting of the price paid by these defenders of the world of Middle-Earth. Particularly the elves pay a high price, doomed to eventual exile by their very victory, which undoes their own lesser rings of power even as a new age of men begins. While the era of elves passes into Middle-Earth history, Frodo’s home of the Shire abides — but here again, Frodo can not fully share in that; the defender is marked by his experience, and finds himself apart from and cut off from his own home.

I think the recent movie versions of the books, while quite excellent, can’t help but fail in this aspect of Tolkien’s achievement. The books reconcile the story’s heroic and tragic elements in a final narrative that seems to float to the ground as softly as a dandelion seed. A movie, even a trilogy of movies, seems to be too impatient a medium to allow the gentle pace and elegiac mood of the books’ final chapters.

Finally, there’s the matter of the Ring itself. I know of no other books where a token like the One Ring is so successfully imbued with power and kismet as in Tolkien’s saga; it assumes nearly the status of a character of its own — weighing down its bearer, preying on his mind, directing his footsteps. Frodo’s struggle to impose his own will on that of the Ring is a wonderful tale, clearly told.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve been tempted to mentally relegate The Lord of the Rings to a lesser literary shelf. But re-reading it, and sharing it with my little girl, has convinced me I was right the first time, as a boy: warts and orcs and all, this remains a rewarding masterpiece for me. And, I hope, for Maddie.

UPDATES, 6/24: (1) Paul has started a “Talkin’ Tolkien” forum about these and other books, movies, etcetera that he and forum members like. (2) It turns out the great science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin read the books to her kids (and three times, too!), and wrote about it: Rhythmic Patterning in The Lord of the Rings. Via Kate Nepveu, who is keeping a LiveJournal about re-reading LotR, with lots of commenters pitching in. (Thanks, Chad.)

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A good conversation

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 2nd May 2004

In mid-March I wrote about Philip Pullman’s thought-provoking, skeptical fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials — and a thought-provoking review of Pullman’s work by none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Pullman and Williams are both such literate, engaging people that I was pleased to learn they were scheduled to have a conversation about the topics raised by the books, the resulting play, and the bishop’s review.

Via Interfaith Nunnery, I was finally able to read the transcript of that March 17 conversation, and it was quite as interesting and enjoyable as I’d anticipated. Naturally, much of it revolved around questions of faith and spirituality (for lack of a better word), but in a remarkably friendly way for two people as different as Pullman and Williams. Yet there was some interesting common ground. As “Sister Andrea” writes:

What Pullman and Williams seem to be doing here — despite their varying theological positions — is rewriting the Fall as a non-negative (and, for Pullman, at least, positive) construct in order to match religion to the world as they understand it.

Another interesting line of discussion was about the paranoid/conspiratorial, “debunking” elements of today’s culture:

[Pullman]: …The word that covers some of these early creation narratives is gnostic – the Gnostic heresy, as it became once Christianity was sort of defined. The idea that the world we live in, the physical universe is actually a false thing, made by a false God, and the true God, our true home, our true spiritual home is infinitely distant, far off, a long, long way away from that. This sense is something we find a lot of in popular culture, don’t you think? The X-Files, you know – “the truth is out there”. The Matrix.

Everything we see is the false creation of some wicked power that, as you say, is trying to pull the wool over our eyes, and there are many others. Can I just ask you a question for a minute? What do you put this down to? The great salience of gnostic feelings, gnostic sentiments and ways of thinking in our present world? What’s the source of that, do you think?

[Williams]: Well, let me try two thoughts on that. One is that the human sense that things are not in harmony, not on track, can very easily lead you into a kind of dramatic or even melodramatic picture of the universe in which somebody’s got to be blamed for that.

So, “we was robbed”, you know, “we have been deceived”. It should have been different, it could have been different, so salvation, or whatever you want to call it, then becomes very much a matter of getting out from underneath the falsehood, pulling away the masks, and that’s tremendously powerful I think, as a myth of liberation.

The description Pullman gives of Gnosticism seems to fit Catharism pretty well, too, I think (a mediaeval — and brutally repressed — Christian creed I mentioned in my March piece). Other parts of the conversation were interesting to me as well; this segment reminded me of the Gatto “Against School” article I wrote about last fall:

[Audience question]: Question from a fellow atheist who is appalled by the materialism of this society – how would [Pullman] recommend children develop spiritual life?

[Pullman]: I don’t use the word spiritual myself, because I don’t have a clear sense of what it means. But I think it depends on your view of education: whether you think that the true end and purpose of education is to help children grow up, compete and face the economic challenges of a global environment that we’re going to face in the 21st century, or whether you think it’s to do with helping them see that they are the true heirs and inheritors of the riches – the philosophical, the artistic, the scientific, the literary riches – of the whole world. If you believe in setting children’s minds alive and ablaze with excitement and passion or whether it’s a matter of filling them with facts and testing on them. It depends on your vision of education – and I know which one I’d go for.

[Williams]: I think we’re entirely at one on that, I must say.

And others were just funny:

[Pullman]: Which leads us to Mel Gibson. Have you seen that film?

[Williams]: I haven’t seen it.

[Pullman]: Nor have I, so we can talk about it! That’s all right.

[Williams]: We’re allowed opinions without the constraints of reality!

Anyhow, if you’re up for a break from ugliness, spin, dishonesty, and shouting matches, have a look at this conversation.

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Missions from God

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 19th March 2004

KnopfVia the ever-interesting Interfaith Nunnery, I was fascinated to read that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has written a quite remarkable review of His Dark Materials, a play based on the book series by Philip Pullman.* The play is apparently quite the rage in London. If it’s half as good as the books, I can imagine why: reading them was a genuinely exciting, provocative, and fun reading experience for me, I can’t recommend them enough.

His Dark Materials is a fantasy trilogy** set in an alternate but in some respects recognizable world where a “Church” with otherwise unspecified theological leanings is cast as a ruthless, near-Orwellian ruler of England and Europe. From an early aside in the first book (The Golden Compass):

Ever since Pope John Calvin had moved the seat of the Papacy to Geneva and set up the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the Church’s power over every aspect of life had been absolute. (chapter 2)

That’s by no means the only or even the most interesting aspect of Pullman’s world — my vote there would go to the daemons and the daemonless panserbjorne. But it’s an integral part of Pullman’s polemic about religion, which is skeptical to put it mildly, and hostile not to put too fine a point on it.

Williams’ review, though, is such a neat reply to Pullman that … I may re-read the series. From his conclusion:

A modern French Christian writer spoke about “purification by atheism” – meaning faith needed to be reminded regularly of the gods in which it should not believe. I think Pullman and Wright [who adapted the books to the stage –ed.] do this very effectively for the believer. I hope too that for the non-believing spectator, the question may somehow be raised of what exactly the God is in whom they don’t believe.***

It was in the course of developing this response that Williams said something that really interested me:

But what kind of a church is it that lives in perpetual and murderous anxiety about the fate of its God?

What the story makes you see is that if you believe in a mortal God, who can win and lose his power, your religion will be saturated with anxiety – and so with violence. […]

What would the Church look like, what would it inevitably be, if it believed only in a God who could be rendered powerless and killed, and needed unceasing protection? It would be a desperate, repressive tyranny. For Pullman, the Church evidently looks like this most of the time; it isn’t surprising that the only God in view is the Authority.

An especially threadbare, embattled, vicious one might look like Al Qaeda. Williams’ question reminded me of Paul Berman’s discussion, in Terror and Liberalism, of Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual forefather of Al Qaeda. Berman describes Qutb’s reaction to the ‘catastrophe’ that the Islamic Caliphate — the rule on earth by the Prophet’s successors — had been ended by the secular Turkish state. Qutb believed that this portended the worst,

“a final offensive which is actually taking place now in all the Muslim countries… It is an effort to exterminate this religion as even a basic creed, and to replace it with secular conceptions having their own implications, values, institutions, and organizations.” (Berman, ch. 4)

Cobbling together Islamic and European reactionary thought, Qutb called for a “vanguard” of the faithful, charged with waging jihad against false Muslims and outside corruption alike. And, in time, the calling to desperately defend an almighty god twisted itself into a worship of death for its own sake. Qutb, on martyrdom and jihad:

“But the death of those who are killed for the cause of God gives more impetus to the cause, which continues to thrive on their blood. Thus after their death they remain an active force in shaping the life of their community and giving it direction. It is in this sense that such people, having sacrificed their lives for the sake of God, retain their active existence in everyday life…

There is no real sense of loss in their death, since they continue to live.” (Berman, ch. 4)

A philosophy like this would be tailor-made for self-appointed prophets with a taste for blood and divinely based power. Enter, years later, Bin Laden and Zawahiri, and their authority via ever-greater acts of terror as jihad.

Christianity could of course be equally murderous when it considered itself threatened. Consider, for instance, the fate of the Cathars, a Christian sect in Southern France in the 12th and 13th centuries. Catharism was brutally repressed by Pope Innocent III’s Albigensian Crusade and the beginnings of the Inquisition. At Beziers alone, at least 20,000 were massacred, Cathars and Catholics alike. (When the fate of the non-Cathar inhabitants was protested, the attending papal legate famously said, “Kill them all. God will know his own.”)

These kinds of examples might serve as the nucleus of a counterpoint for Mr. Pullman: one may wish religion were about Faith and Morality, but in practice it often turns out to be about Authority instead — and Authority “on a mission from God” to boot.

Pullman’s books are about more than that: protecting childhood, the (desirability of an) afterlife, and what might be called the virtues of materialism are all themes. The trilogy’s title comes from Book II of Milton’s Paradise Lost:

Chaos Umpire sits,
And by decision more imbroiles the fray
By which he Reigns: next him high Arbiter

Chance governs all. Into this wilde Abyss,
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in thir pregnant causes mixt
Confus’dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds,
Into this wild Abyss the warie fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look’d a while,
Pondering his Voyage …

Mr. Pullman and the Archbishop had a public discussion of His Dark Materials on Monday. I’m with Sister Andrea: that’s a discussion I’d have loved to attend.

* As “Sister Andrea” writes, there are spoilers in the review — all but inevitable, given the reviewer — so handle with care.
** The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass
*** Judging by his speech of a week earlier, Williams means Olivier Clement, a French Eastern Orthodox theologian. The idea of “atheism as purification” can also be traced to Simone Weil (via Naked Writing). According to some, Weil’s beliefs and death echo those of the Cathars.
**** (Whoa, heavy! Couldn’t resist. — ed.) Via “His Dark Materials [an unofficial fansite]”

PS: I’d be remiss in not pointing out Michael Chabon’s review of “His Dark Materials” in the New York Review of Books, and Gary Farber’s interesting discussion of same. Gary also mentions the Archbishop’s review, and was also impressed with Williams. I also should say that for detailed, knowledgeable discussion of Sayyid Qutb, you should visit Bill Allison’s Ideofact blog.

UPDATE, 5/2: More, based on the transcript of the Pullman-Williams conversation.

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Give you joy of it

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 23rd January 2004

coverI regret that I’m about to end a very enjoyable reading experience. Tomorrow, after pausing for a couple of days after finishing “The Hundred Days,” I’ll begin Blue at the Mizzen, the 20th and final book in Patrick O’Brian’s magnum opus about the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars.

I’d started the series several years ago, but set it aside. While otherwise unoccupied this past fall, I decided to go see “Master and Commander,” the movie by Peter Weir, and enjoyed it a lot. The movie intentionally bears little resemblance to the book, the first in the series; instead, Weir assembled a kind of collage of scenes and vignettes from several of the books, focusing of course on the naval “natural” talent Jack Aubrey and the cerebral, tough ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin.

It’s hard to explain what is so captivating about these books, even for someone like me who knows little to nothing about ships, nautical lore, and so forth — a little more than before, but still not all that much. Part of the answer is the genre itself. I’m indebted to Washington Post contributor and Patrick O’Brian fan Ken Ringle for this quote, from Master and Commander:

‘For a philosopher, a student of human nature, what could be better?’ says Stephen of naval life. ‘The subjects of his inquiry shut up together, unable to escape his gaze, their passions heightened by the dangers of war, the hazards of their calling, their isolation from women and their curious but uniform diet. And by the glow of patriotic fervor… A ship must be a most instructive theater for an inquiring mind.’

But the books are more than a seafaring epic. O’Brian, who died in 2000 at the age of 85, was an excellent writer and no mean social historian, giving life to both officers on deck and sailors in the rigging. The stories’ narratives change pace frequently, so that a shipwreck or an engagement with some French privateer is imminent at the end of one chapter, only to be reported by a letter home or a formal report to the Admiralty in the next, or even ignored altogether for a disconcerting page or two.

The language is a joy all its own. “Give you joy of it” was the British way of saying “congratulations” in those days, and it’s such a nice thing to say I may try it out myself sometime soon. Maturin’s habit of using “sure” as a dry, droll “yes, yes” comment — “sure it’s the great ship of the world” — is a reliable pleasure as well.

One of the main satisfactions of these stories is experiencing the friendship of the different, complementary personalities of Aubrey and Maturin. It may be that this is one of the main paths to succeeding with extended narratives, so that we have Spock and Kirk, Holmes and Watson, Maturin and Aubrey.

Yet for all that I’m a devoted Star Trek viewer and Sherlock Holmes reader, O’Brian’s accomplishment is deeper, because the two are more completely realized characters. They’re friends, yet they can be surprised by eachother. In The Commodore, Maturin overhears Aubrey playing his violin alone for once, and realizes his friend is a better musician than he is:

Now, in the warm night, there was no one to be comforted, kept in countenance, no one who could scorn him for virtuosity, and he could let himself go entirely; and as the grave and subtle music wound on and on, Stephen once more contemplated on the apparent contradiction between the big, cheerful, florid sea-officer whom most people liked on sight but who would never have been described as subtle or capable of subtlety by any one of them (except perhaps his surviving opponents in battle) and the intricate, reflective music he was now creating. So utterly unlike his limited vocabulary in words, at times verging on the inarticulate.

‘My hands have now regained the moderate ability they possessed before I was captured,’ observed Maturin, ‘but his have gone on to a point I never thought he could reach: his hands and his mind. I am amazed. In his own way he is the secret man of the world; but I wish his music were happier.’

According to Smithsonian Magazine contributor Cutler Durkee, Aubrey is recognizably based on the British naval legend Thomas Cochrane, who, like Aubrey, had a string of naval victories to his credit, was jailed for unwitting participation in a stock market scam, and continued his career after the Napoleonic wars by aiding South American countries in their bids for independence from Spain.

The Napoleonic wars have been called England’s “Troy Tale.” That could mean a long war replete with heroism, but also one seemingly remote from today’s concerns. But O’Brian gave his books another key dimension, a kind of “liberal hawk” outlook of the 1800s. Napoleonic France looms as a militaristic police state tinged with fanaticism, a foe that must be worn down and defeated, and one that is very nearly too strong for the British. The background of a world historic struggle sustains the plot and lends heft and significance to what would otherwise be simple adventure stories.

But the adventure is the fun part, of course. Tall ships lean and knife through the waters; cannons roar; heavy seas pound and wash across the decks; arctic winds blow; the mission compels; prize-money beckons. You look up; it’s late, but you have to read what happens next. You may be unable to stop until you’ve set down the last book.

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Happy July 4th

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 4th July 2003

As it happens, I’ve been reading up on the Revolutionary War a bit. I’ve mentioned before that my little girl, Maddie, has developed a real interest in it because of a PBS cartoon series about it, “Liberty’s Kids,” so that “loyalist,” “patriot,” “Yorktown,” and “Mad Anthony Wayne” are household words here these days. Admittedly, it’s mainly just fun to say “Mad Anthony Wayne” if you’re a five year old or enjoy cracking one up.

I bought a couple of books at Mount Vernon, where George Washington’s home has been preserved. It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area, the people do a nice job of involving human touches in the surroundings: high school students dressed for the part performed some of the music and dances of the era, others drilled interested kids in marching in formation or presenting arms, 18th century style. The view over the Potomac, when you get to that side of the mansion, is quietly spectacular.

When we took Maddie there, she was very interested in everything: ran from one building to the next, saw what a horse drawn carriage and spinning wheel looked like outside of a fairy tale book, pondered a smokehouse and the lack of refrigerators. She also asked a tour guide, “Was it nice of George Washington to have slaves?” The man gave a pretty good answer: no, not really, but he did free them in his will, and was the only President to do so of the nine Presidents who owned slaves — Thomas Jefferson and James Madison included.

Anyway, the books are “Washington: The Indispensable Man,” by James Flexner, and “Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution,” by A. J. Langguth. Both are engagingly written books, historical page-turners if you’re so inclined. I highly recommend both.

Flexner’s 1969 book is apparently an abridgement of a four volume history he’d written earlier. I think he telegraphs his point of view fairly in the title, and by the time I was halfway through the book, I was on board: I’ve somehow unfairly overlooked Washington. His doggedness, decency, and courage really were indispensable; we owe him a great debt. And as much for what he didn’t do as what he did: he didn’t run for a third term, he didn’t mishandle the incipient Continental Army mutiny in 1783, he didn’t summarily crush the “Whiskey Rebellion.”

Langguth is a journalism professor at USC, which may explain why “Patriots” is a snappier history book than average. Chapter 1 is “Otis: 1761-1762, Chapter 2 is “Adams: 1762-63,” and so on, each chapter isolating one person or event and building on the ones before it. The one weakness might be that it’s a bit skimpy about events south of Virginia.

One thing stands out in this narrative that had not been as clear to me as it should have: if Washington was indispensable to winning and protecting the Revolution, then Samuel Adams was just as indispensable to making the Revolution happen in the first place. I plan to spend a few Washingtons on a few Sam Adams (“Brewer. Patriot.” I just love that slogan) and drinking to both of their memories before the day is out.

Both books reminded me again what an unbelievably close thing the American Revolution was. The victories at Trenton, Saratoga, and Yorktown loom all the larger and sweeter for the unremitting series of setbacks that seemed to bedevil rebels facing the superpower of the day.

Up next: The Radicalism of the American Revolution, by Gordon Wood.

Wiggly tooth
Another historic occasion: Maddie announced with great pride on Thursday evening that she has her first wiggly tooth. She is officially a Big Girl Now. I’m unprepared. It seems to me like it was approximately a week ago that we were giving her baths in a little plastic tub and changing her diapers. Now it’s Tooth Fairy time, she dances with uncanny grace, challenges tour guides sweetly, speaks in extended simulated French, loves history and asks great questions about it, seems to remember every detail of every book she’s ever had read to her, and is clearly the best child on the planet. And she’s still glad to see me when I come home. Yay.

In case it’s not obvious, I love her to pieces.

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Worth reading

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 14th April 2003

  • Jonathan Chait suggests that Comical Saeed and Ari Fleischer have a lot in common, that Bill Clinton was the only one to get the Iraq war right and stick to his guns, and that cakewalks aren’t.
  • Tim Burke describes “The authentic temptations of intervention.”
  • Ken Layne defends David Letterman.
  • Peter Praschl publishes a series called “Unterschiede” (“Differences”) about his recent trip to Cambodia. Extra credit points for not being about Iraq. Angelina Jolie, of all people, comes off well. (in German, in case that wasn’t obvious; installments so far: 1 2 3 4.)
  • John Lloyd resigns from the New Statesman: “The left has lost the plot.” (Guardian excerpt, via Harry’s Place)
  • Non-leftie Andrew Sullivan compares and contrasts assorted lefties Nicholas de Genova, Nat Hentoff, and Paul Berman.
  • I join Sullivan in strongly recommending Paul Berman’s book “Terror and Liberalism.” You can get a feeling for some of Berman’s arguments in the book by reading “Resolved,” his contribution to the March 3 issue of the New Republic.
  • William Saletan asserts that “the number of innocent people who are dead because we ousted Saddam is dwarfed by the number of innocent people who are dead because we didn’t.” (via Daniel Drezner)

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Now that it’s just us again: Newsrack weekend update

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 23rd February 2003

The visits and page views are back where they ought to be — a select few reading the front page, most of the rest searching for ever odder word combinations (good luck, whoever you were). On with the update grab bag:

  • Charles Murtaugh answered an e-mail query of mine following up on a question in last Friday’s post about the significance of Iraqi camelpox research. Mr. Murtaugh referred me to a “Science” article of last August 12 (“Peering Into the Shadows: Iraq ’s Bioweapons Program,” Science, Vol. 297, p. 1110) detailing the knowledge of Iraqi biological weapons before the current round of inspections. Unfortunately, it’s not available online. Re camelpox and smallpox, the key quote is:

    Although the Iraqis never produced documents on camelpox studies, analysts say that the work could have served as a surrogate for its closest known kin, smallpox virus. “We have no idea when smallpox work started, or even if it has,” says the senior weapons in-spector. But U.N. investigators do know that Iraqi military scientists obtained three non-classified papers on smallpox as a weapon in the mid-1980s, and they made smallpox vaccine, testing its potency in rabbits in 1990. “They had a theoretical if not a practical interest,” the inspector notes.

    The article lists botulinum toxin, anthrax, aflatoxin, wheat smut, and perfringens toxin as the main biowarfare weapons known to have been developed by Iraq in significant quantities.

  • Apropos of nothing, I found this site via an old CalPundit link. It tells me I’m not filtered by Chinese Internet Servers. Those filthy oppressive Communist swine! …. still not blocked…. I’ll never buy anything “Made in China” again … still not blocked. What’s a blogger got to do to be ignored? …Don’t answer that :)Authors Jonathan Zittrain and Benjamin Edelman, of Harvard University, also provide a page linking to studies they’ve published of Internet filtering/blocking practices in Saudi Arabia and Europe, as well as about U.S. commercial Internet-blocking practices.
  • Hmm. John Stryker and Neil Pollack espouse eerily similar points of view, and there’s really nothing more they’d like me to say about it. Nevertheless: both are good for a grin, Stryker’s is quicker, but Pollack introduces the word “pie-hole” into my must-use-more-frequently vocabulary: it says so much so well.
  • Somehow related to that: Gary Farber (“Amygdala”) nearly succeeded in getting me to buy Robert Conquest’s classic history of Soviet Communism, “The Great Terror,” after I read this limerick of Conquest’s in Farber’s posting:

    There was a great Marxist called Lenin
    Who did two or three million men in
    That’s a lot to have done in
    But where he did one in,
    that grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.

    … and this one in the Guardian bio Farber links to:

    When his history of Stalin’s purges, The Great Terror, was republished after the fall of communism, his American publisher asked him to suggest a new title. He came up with “I told you so, you fucking fools”.

    But — “reasoning” that maybe it was at the library — I bought some other books instead (Gotham, High and Mighty, and The Butcher’s Tale). That should keep me busy in my many spare minutes of leisure.

  • Most of which are still currently devoted to yet another book, Donald Kagan’s On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, where I continue to make my way through his account of the pre-World War II years. The eye-opener so far has been Kagan’s unsparing description of Weimar politicians Stresemann and Rathenau’s efforts to re-arm and unshackle Germany in the aftermath of World War I — and of English and American complicity in undermining France’s resistance to these efforts.It’s worth pointing out, in these days of “cheese-eating surrender monkey” charges, that France suffered horrifically at German hands in World War I, with millions of war dead and wounded, and much of its industrial northern region destroyed. (French military incompetence before and during World War I didn’t help matters either, but that’s another story.) Although Germany lost many millions of casualties as well, it likely lost fewer than France did despite being a bigger country (see the introduction to The Myth of the Great War, by John Mosier), let alone the combined casualties of the alliance it faced on the Western Front. (Its Eastern Front casualties were comparatively small, since it quickly won substantial victories and Russia exited the war after its revolution.)

    As much to the post-war point, Germany surrendered with its industrial base essentially intact — and then rendered much of its “reparations” worthless with intentionally inflationary monetary policies after the war. Yet by a neat trick of moral inversion (similar to the inversion of blame for sanctions against Iraq), Germany was viewed throughout the 1920s and much of the 1930s as the victim of the post-war Versailles arrangements, and France was viewed as the villain. Indeed, the original meaning of “appeasement” was to appease Germany for the wrongs English and American appeasers agreed had been committed against it.

  • Many thanks to the many people who commented on the “With regrets: for war on Saddam” piece below, as well as the ensuing couple of posts. In particular, Vin Carreo, my old friend Patrick, Miranda, Yuri, and Patrick Phillips all joined a number of other correspondents in contributing thoughtful counterarguments or arguments that supplemented my own. Have a look.Thanks also to Glenn Reynolds for publicizing the essay twice, and to a number of bloggers and Internetizens such as Shiloh Bucher, “Twirlip of the Mists,” Douglas Turnbull, and Joe Katzman for their positive comments. Luckily — knock on my wooden head — I don’t seem to rate hate mail.
  • Iraqi Democracy graphicMr. Katzman also sent me information about “Foundation for the Defense of Democracies,” and the link you see to the right. The foundation seems to have worthy goals, and there are several interesting essays by Iraqi exiles worth a look whatever else you decide about the foundation. I encourage you to have a look.My quibbles and counter-quibbles about this:
    (1) The board of directors and advisors run the gamut from “a” to “b,” as they say, with Charles Krauthammer, Newt Gingrich, Jack Kemp, Gary Bauer, Bill Kristol, and Steve Forbes on board (to their credit) — but at least Donna Brazile (Al Gore’s campaign director) and Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) among others as well. The imbalance is likely more a problem of the liberal or progressive left than anything the conservatives and neo-conservatives supporting this group have done to bias its membership. The group is avowedly non-partisan and non-ideological, and I hope it remains that way.
    (2) I’m not quite clear how I’m practically supporting democracy in Iraq by posting this link or otherwise supporting the group. But I don’t have many practical alternatives, for one thing. For another, given that not everyone in the Bush administration is said to favor democratization as a goal of the war, this may be seen in part as a within-war-supporters pressure group.

    Again, it’s worth a look. Democracy in Iraq is very certainly a worthy cause to promote. As some of the comments to my own pro-war post below suggest, war supporters in the United States are honor bound to do what they can for this cause, and many anti-war people don’t believe it will happen. For information on obtaining the link and joining a signup list, see Joe Katzman’s or Dean Esmay’s posts about it.

    EDITS, 2/24: added details about Science reference and newsrack reference; corrected some spelling and punctuation.

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    What I did on my Christmas vacation…

    Posted by Thomas Nephew on 14th January 2003

    …from blogging and the whole “little green footballs” business, see below. Some of the comments made me briefly reconsider the wisdom of the comment utility. Who the hell is “zulubaby”? No, I don’t really want to know. Thanks to those who were supportive or at least made a good faith effort to understand my point of view.

    So what have I been up to? Over the period of about a week last year, I cleaned up my home office, cleaned up the downstairs storage room, and threw out about 6 garbage bags full of useless trash. It felt great. Entropy has resumed a bit in the office, must do something about that. But basically, great progress on the home front. The main thing was, I finally unpacked boxes of books that had been languishing in storage since we moved a couple of years ago. It’s like getting back a part of yourself. And now I’ve got a ton of stuff to read, I sometimes buy books “speculatively” and then find something else more immediately interesting.

    Lots of Christmas presents, mainly for Maddie, of course. The big hits were more Angelina Ballerina paraphernalia (tiny armchair, stroller, baby brother), some Brio wooden train stuff, and an indoor/outdoor tent to “hide” from us in with her best pal Meloney from next door. Plenty of books, too; most notably “The Red Balloon” from Maddie’s Oma and a classic by Chris Van Allsburg, “Jumanji,” from next door

    I enjoyed and am enjoying a couple of great DVD series courtesy of HBO. First, “Band of Brothers“, the Spielberg/Hanks production of the Stephen Ambrose history of the Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.* Well worth your time if you haven’t seen it yet; I won’t be against a second look sometime. The first episode, “Currahee”, named after a notorious mountain the soldiers had to run up at the Georgia facility where they trained, seems like a slow start, but it’s good history, and bears fruit in later episodes. The acting, writing, and directing (by different directors) were generally quite good (especially Wahlberg and the guy who played Winters), and even casting David Schwimmer as the reviled, insecure, ineffectual (American) captain Sobel was something of a stroke of cruel genius by the producers. The real stars, of course, were the real soldiers, who were interviewed without attribution prior to the first episodes, and whose names were revealed in the final episode, a straightforward thing to do, but a throat-catching effect all the same by the time you’ve seen a glimpse of what they went through. The company fought on D-Day, in the ensuing Normandy hedgerow campaign, in Arnhem in Operation Market Garden, in Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge, and on into Germany (where they liberated a concentration camp).

    The other series, of course, is the justly celebrated “The Sopranos”. I’m about to finish the first season. Wow. Darkly funny, great acting, from sidekicks like Louie or cousin Moltisano to wife Carmela or Tony’s mother. And good acting needs and gets some very good writing here, some very acute stuff, I think. I’m obviously years behind the curve on this, but if you’re like me and too cheap to buy cable, you’ve saved some bucks you should go ahead and splurge on renting this show for a few nights. Interestingly, my wife really loves it, too; it’s a relatively rare treat for both of us to unreservedly enjoy the same movie or TV show, so that shows something or other about the show, too. Or about us.

    I’ve also got a fair bit of reading in; plowed through Band of Brothers in double time after watching the series; a fine book, subject, and author. I also got through The Glass Palace, by Amitav Ghosh, after a fast start. It’s a kind of Burmese-Indian “Buddenbrooks”, a story of an extended family’s rise and fall as history and their own personalities interact; it’s also simply a fascinating look at how British colonialism worked, and its effect, intended or not, of pitting one people against the other economically and, via the Indian regiments, militarily. The book seems strongest early on; the description of the teak forestry, with elephants, camps, and monsoon torrents bearing huge logs down mountainsides is riveting. I may be insufficiently sensitive, but one thing that bothered me is that the book somehow fails to make the case that colonialism was so very bad for the protagonists, who mainly flourish, prosper, and drive (lovingly described) classic cars and motorboats through the Indian, Burmese and Malaysian countrysides. This wouldn’t be a big criticism, except that the issue of colonialism is the main and frequent concern of several of the book’s heroes. Yet characters like the Indian soldier Arjun, who joins a World War II mutiny against the British, seem to fail to articulate their grievance adequately even to themselves or to the reader.

    I was completely bowled over, on the other hand, by Paradise Alley, by Kenneth Baker. It’s an incredible account of the New York draft riots of 1863, through the eyes of several fictitious characters depicted in episodes from that riot, conducted principally by Irish immigrants against blacks and police, and put down by a Union regiment, many themselves Irish, sent north from the ruins of Gettysburg. There are also chapters where protagonists recall the Great Famine in Ireland in the late 1840s, which drove so many Irish to this country. It makes clear what a mind-shaking holocaust that was for its survivors. It’s not an excuse or an explanation for what happened in 1863, but it’s certainly necessary background. The way New York firemen were essentially gangs and political action clubs with a veneer of public service was also new to me; to judge from the book, fire companies were sometimes more interested in competing with eachother than in putting out fires. I can’t do the book justice here; it succeeds both as history and as a novel that is a testament to the forgotten poor and working class people of that time. I suppose one difference with “Glass Palace” is that it is more focused and less epic. Another, of course, may be that it’s about my part of the world and not somewhere else. So don’t overlook “The Glass Palace” on my account.


    *Someday I’ll learn how the American military numbers things; I’m sure I’ve never heard of a “39th” or “98th” Airborne Division, or anything but the 82nd and 101st. And I’m willing to bet a small sum there weren’t 505 other parachute infantry regiments.

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    A thousand stories in the city, or A different kind of memorial

    Posted by Thomas Nephew on 6th February 2002

    Via the German le sofa blog: a web site called Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. What is it? It starts out as an aerial photo of Manhattan. You can drill down to closeups of neighborhoods — and links to stories or story collections appear as red dots over the buildings they’re connected to. The stories are often about someone’s job at the building, in a kind of “Studs Terkel with GIS” survey of New York’s working world that is fascinating to surf around in. The writing isn’t confined to that, though; there are also links to essays and photoessays (e.g., “Defacing Britney: A Look at New York’s Newest Folk Art”) as well, some by well known writers, others not. One of the coolest things about the site: “Tell Mr. Beller A Story.” And yes, there is a link to “Stories from the World Trade Center,” that I’ll make you find yourself. Another great feature: if you use the sidebar story list, every story has a link at the top that centers the map frame on the location involved. One other note: bandwidth helps.

    The stories are being anthologized in “Before & After: Stories from New York.” The blurb explains:

    This anthology of stories from Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood was in production in August, 2001. Then everything changed. And so this book now has two covers, two halves, one before and one after. Each section has thirty stories, including work from Michael Cunningham, Jeanette Winterson, Meghan Daum, Phillip Lopate, Sam Lipsyte, Vince Passaro, and Luc Sante.

    You can order the book via the site. Sofa blogger Peter Praschl also links to an interesting New York Times review of the book and site. From the review:

    Scott Rettberg, founder of the Electronic Literature Organization, said the linear progression of a printed collection reflects its editor’s artistic decisions. But online, he said: “Readers expect they will be able to make navigational decisions and form their own compositions from the available material. The music of print is more classical than the improvisational jazz of electronic writing.”

    Well, the improvisational jazz of some electronic writing. You can count on more of a comb-and-tissue-paper variety of electronic writing around here.

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    James Fallows and Walter Mead discuss “Special Providence”

    Posted by Thomas Nephew on 10th December 2001

    James Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly has identified a book worth having a look at: Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World, by Walter Mead. In what has already proven to be an interesting discussion (“Policies of Power”), Fallows and Mead explore the idea that the United States may be among the best practitioners of great power foreign policy in history, for the very reason it has sometimes been assumed to be the worst: its democratic, “unsteady” foreign policy. From Fallows’ introduction:

    Essentially it begins with the claim that everyone has the wrong idea about how the U.S. makes foreign policy—journalists and politicians, historians and diplomats, foreigners and good wholesome American citizens. Virtually all of them, as you present it, make the mistake of thinking that the United States is bad at foreign policy. […]

    But the main surprising point you make, it seems to me, is that far from being the buffoon of the diplomatic world, the United States is actually its wily champion. We stumble and bumble around—and somehow we end up being the one that keeps getting its way, whose culture keeps getting exported, whose power seems only to grow.

    From Mead’s reply:

    My argument is that democracies do better than expected … because the national policy that emerges from the clash of interests and ambitions within at least some democratic states over time and on the average gives a better reflection of the true national interest than policies made by small, isolated elites who inevitably often mistake their own class or economic interest for the general interest of the country.

    Mead identifies several competing schools of thought in American foreign policy (“Wilsonian”, “Jacksonian”, etc.) each of which is briefly in the ascendant before being overtaken by events and newly elected administrations. The book looks interesting, and the discussion is free. Both seem worth reading.

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