The Dawn of Everything

A New History of Humanity

By David Graeber and David Wengrow

There is a certain kind of book – it may appear in any number of genres – which exists to ask a single question: do we really know what we think we know? Whatever the subject, these books share a moral viewpoint: namely, that we are obligated, in the face of our certain beliefs, to question the very substrate upon which they are founded. They are anti-canonical. They exist to problematize the things which we take for granted in whatever sphere they choose.

I love this kind of book. I love them. The truth is, I have never really been sure that I know anything at all about anything at all. I am obsessed with the idea that my beliefs are grounded in myth and error. I have spent my life peering around me for my own blindspots.

So, whatever the subject, I am drawn to these books. I don’t find them unsettling; rather, I find them exhilarating. I am thrilled to think that I have been laboring under a delusion, crippled by bad information or wrong analysis. I find this idea, that maybe we are wrong about everything, to be freeing. Because, if we are wrong about everything, than anything is possible.

‘The Dawn of Everything’ is a book about whether we know what we think we know about human pre-history. It was co-written over ten years by two friends, the archaeologist David Wengrow (at University College London) and the late anthropologist David Graeber (of the London School of Economics). According to the introduction, the two men began the book as a sort of thought-exercise, a conversation between them to express their frustration with certain dogma in their respective fields.

Now, you may not think you know anything about human pre-history – I certainly didn’t think I knew much. But the truth is, we have all been marinated in an idea of how social evolution works, an idea which is so ubiquitous that you probably don’t think of it as theory so much as common sense.

I certainly have. If you had asked me how “civilization” developed, I probably would have said something like: once, we were little bands of apes. Then we formed bigger bands; at some point, at different times in different places, those bigger bands started cohering into tribes; tribes became chiefdoms, large stable settlements of socially complex, pre-agricultural humans.

Then, wham, agriculture happened, ushering in kingdoms, private property, bureaucracy, specialization, written language, you name it. All the things which, to 21st-century humanity, characterize “civilization”.

David Graeber

Agriculture allowed rulers to feed standing armies and local police forces. Warfare, once a matter of local tribes raiding each other for whatever they could carry, became a profession, and conquest, subjugation, genocide, and colonialism were all born. Lifespans shortened, human health declined. Professional police forces were able to enforce private property, and economic classes, with all their attendant religious and bureaucratic supports, appeared. Agriculture enabled the development of all the means of persecuting each other now at our disposal: caste, bondage, debt, prison.

Wengrow and Graeber, frankly, don’t buy any of that. In ‘The Dawn of Everything’, they present a survey of human pre-historical civilizations which challenge every stage of this putative developmental trajectory. The humanity that they describe is more various, more diverse, less linear and more complicated than could possibly fit into that dogma. Some societies, they argue, developed bureaucracy without agriculture. Some developed agriculture without bureaucracy. Some pre-agricultural groups had kings; some agricultural societies seem to have abandoned agriculture and returned wholesale to hunting and foraging. There is, they say, no “progressive” trajectory to how human social complexity evolves, and we are wrong when we consider smaller groups to be less complex than larger ones. Human society, they argue, has been as diverse, complicated, and non-linear as humans themselves.

I have absolutely no idea whether or not this true, and I don’t care.

David Wengrow

Which is not to say that Graeber and Wengrow aren’t persuasive – they absolutely are. For what is, essentially, a survey textbook of human evolution, ‘The Dawn of Everything’ is incredibly readable: lucid, clear, brisk. I was persuaded, certainly, but books are usually persuasive within their own covers. Of course they are: they have unchallenged dominion in that space, complete control of the arguments, the narrative flow, and, most importantly, the evidence presented. It takes time to know whether a book is right, and it takes interest: you need to be willing to go out and look for other arguments, and I have not yet had time to do that.

But it doesn’t matter, to me, whether Graeber and Wengrow were correct about any one specific thing they said – the truth is, I will never have the expertise to say. But the exercise is a good one; the challenging of orthodoxy almost always has value.

There are a lot of things of substance and value to discuss in ‘The Dawn of Everything’, things that have to do with society and freedom and the human condition, but that is a discussion for a smarter blog. I am, as usual, less interested in the objective truth of the matter than I am in the fun of imagining that everything I have been taught is wrong.

I hope it is (wrong, I mean). I think, in general, we would be a better species if we let go of certain ideas of advancement, of complexity as a moral trait rather than an arbitrary one. But, mostly, I hope we’ve all been wrong all the time because it’s fun to be wrong. It gives you a chance to see the world fresh again, to start over from first principles and try out different ideas. If the development of our own cultures is totally different than we thought, then perhaps our cultures don’t mean what we think they mean. Maybe we have many more options that we supposed. Maybe nothing was destined, everything was improvised. Maybe, everything can change.

Inside the Third Reich

By Albert Speer

In general, I don’t think it’s fruitful to spend a lot of time trying to figure Hitler out.

I certainly understand the impulse: when we discover monsters in our midst, we are strongly motivated to examine them carefully.  Partly, this is prurient: monsters are fascinating.  But partly, this is survival: we must learn to spot them, so that we can stop them sooner in the future.

But to stop them, we don’t really need to understand them; we just need to be able to recognize them.  Which is lucky for us, because the truth is that we will never really be able to satisfy ourselves. There is no window into the minds of our villains that will ever truly explain them.

Hitler is the best and most important example of this incomprehensibility.  Oceans of ink have been spilled examining and psychoanalyzing Hitler through his books, his speeches, his relationships, and his actions. Nevertheless, he remains a cipher.  Why did he do the things he did?  Was he an evil mastermind? An ordinary megalomaniac who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time?  Was he mentally ill? Did he really believe all the things he preached, or was he merely manipulating the people around him?  How are we to understand him?

The question which has always most troubled me (and everyone else) is: did Hitler understand that his actions were wrong?  Let’s take, for example, the attempted extermination of the Jewish people: did Hitler understand that that was wrong? Even if he did not, did he get that other people would think it was wrong?  He employed euphemisms when discussing it, which implies that he did, but then, what did he make of that?  Did he believe that he acted for good but that he alone in the world saw the truth?  Did he believe that everyone secretly agreed with him and that only he had the courage to admit it?  Or did he fail to trouble himself with questions of right and wrong at all?

As I said, I don’t usually think too much about these questions, since I believe that they are unanswerable.  We will never know what Hitler “really” believed – it is enough to know what he definitely did.

Speer, with Hitler, probably around 1938

But I recently read Albert Speer’s memoir, ‘Inside the Third Reich’, and it got me grasping again after this old question.  Speer was Hitler’s architect and then, later, his Minister of Armaments.  He spent quite a lot of time in Hitler’s company, and in his memoirs, he mentions something that Hitler said to him in 1936:

“There are two possibilities for me: to win through with all my plans, or to fail.  If I win, I shall be one of the greatest men in history.  If I fail, I shall be condemned, despised, and damned.”

Despite my own good advice, I have become fixated on this quotation because it implies that Hitler was aware that other people would consider his actions atrocious.  He may have thought they were wrong. He may have considered the atrocity negotiable – he seemed to believe that victories would justify him – but he was cognizant of the fact that, in the world he inhabited, his plans were unacceptable.  He saw that, in order to be seen as heroic, he would need to remake the world.

I am particularly struck by his use of the word ‘damned’.  Damnation is total; it describes the unredeemable.  His use of it suggests that he understood the scale of the problem. It means he knew that his actions would be considered not merely bad, but in fact evil.  And, to be frank, I sort of quail before the idea of a mind which can see the evil it is about to do as evil and still do it.

Of course, I am not sure I believe that Hitler actually said that. Speer is fascinating to read in part because he is totally untrustworthy. Clearly a sycophant, he managed to intercalate himself into Hitler’s innermost circles; nevertheless, in his memoirs (written from prison), he positions himself as an intellectual, and pretends to have been able to analyze the workings of the Third Reich from an emotional distance. He does not speak to the atrocities he helped commit, and does not offer a satisfying explanation for how he was taken in. He clearly understands that his proximity to Hitler is the selling point of his memoir, and he endeavors to highlight their closeness while shielding himself from calumny.

And this quote is exactly the kind of quote of which we should be skeptical: historical, self-aware, foreshadowing, significant, intimate. It’s too neat, too good. It is entirely possible, if not likely, that Hitler never said anything such thing.

Which speaks to my original point: we will never know. And even if the quote is legitimate, even if it offers a glimpse into Hitler’s darkness, it’s probably better not to peer too hard after it.  Ultimately, Hitler will never satisfy those of us who want to understand evil – he will never yield up his own true beliefs.  Maybe it will suffice to say that, in this one case, Hitler was correct: he did fail, and so he is condemned, despised, and damned.

The Black Death

By Philip Ziegler

It’s a dodgy proposition, reading about a pandemic while living through one.

I had hoped that picking up ‘The Black Death’ would broaden my perspective, pull me out of the stress of the past few years and remind me that we are all subject to the great shiftings of history. Remind me that there have been other sufferings and that this, too, shall pass.

It worked, but not as I had expected. Rather than reconciling me to the vicissitudes of fate, reading ‘The Black Death’ reminded me, forcefully, that human history (including our own) is so often farce. That we are imperfect beings groping blindly after solutions to problems that we rarely even understand. That there isn’t much to do but learn to laugh at ourselves, even while we suffer.

So, in that spirit, as we limp through our own pandemic, I have culled from this book a list of tips for avoiding the plague, from people who lived through it:

  • Plague is carried by “miasmic air”, so avoid the coast – miasmic air might waft off the sea.
  • On the other hand, it might not.
  • Avoid marshes and windy places for the same (possible) reason.
  • Burn nice-smelling woods and plants – good smells may drive off the miasmic air. Ash, juniper, musk, cyprus, laurel, rosemary are all good.
  • Likewise, fill your home with flowers.
  • Bad smells may also drive off miasmic air, so hang your head over the latrine and breathe deeply (it does not say how often or for how long – better safe than sorry).
  • Sprinkle rose-water and vinegar on the floor of your house.
  • Carry around an apple – smell that.
  • Live in a house that faces north.
  • Avoid lepers: they are jealous and may try to poison you.
  • Lie around – do not exercise.  When you exercise, you breathe more heavily and will breathe more miasmic air (perhaps, if you are desperate, you may exercise in the latrine?).
  • For this reason, definitely do not have sex, under any circumstances. If you must, try not to exert yourself too much.
Philip Ziegler
  • Don’t sleep on your back.
  • Don’t sleep after eating.
  • Speaking of eating, don’t eat fish – they come from the miasmic sea.
  • Don’t eat hard-boiled eggs.
  • Don’t eat lettuce.
  • If you must eat, mix ten-year-old treacle with wine and chopped snake – eat that.
  • Grind an emerald into powder so strong that “if a toad looked at it, its eyes would crack” – eat that.
  • If you must drink, mix a drink of lemon, rose-water, peppermint, and apple-syrup – drink that.
  • Mix one ounce of gold with eleven ounces of quicksilver over heat, “let the quicksilver escape”, add forty-seven ounces of water of borage, store for three days over heat in an air-tight container, then drink that.
  • Take an amethyst, etch onto it a picture of man bowing and holding a snake, its head in his right hand, and its tail in his left.  Set the amethyst in a gold ring.  Wear that.
  • Definitely do not bathe.
  • If you must wash, only wash your hands with vinegar or rose-water.
  • Get bled – try to give eight pounds (say, three and a half liters) of blood.
  • Even though everyone around you is dying, don’t get sad.  This makes you more susceptible to the miasma.

And above all, stay calm.

Marie Antoinette

By Stefan Zweig

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I’m not sure what to do about Marie Antoinette.

I realize that there isn’t, strictly speaking, anything to actually be done about her at this point – our decision-tree was pruned dramatically when she was guillotined. But she is one of the more polarizing figures in European history (which does not lack for them), and she was killed during one of its most morally complicated upheavals; it feels incumbent on even a casual consumer of history to have an opinion about her.

Still, making a close read of Marie Antoinette’s life wouldn’t have felt urgent except that one of my favorite writers, Stefan Zweig, wrote a biography of her: ‘Marie Antoinette: the Portrait of an Average Woman’, based largely on Antoinette’s own letters.  It’s a curious project: despite its title, it is a sympathetic biography (let’s not forget that, on the spectrum of things said about Marie Antoinette over the years, ‘average’ is positively kindly), even a love letter of sorts, written by Zweig to a woman who, despite her imperfections, seems to have captured his heart centuries too late.

It’s always interesting watching a biographer try and force an uncooperative subject into their narrative mold. Often, biographies of this sort feel less like historical documents than rhetorical exercises, advocacy rather than education. Reading ‘Marie Antoinette’ felt more than anything like listening to the closing arguments of a good defense lawyer. It was familiar – I had a similar experience a few years ago reading Antonia Fraser’s biography of Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, which was a long and heroic attempt to make a real dimwit seem like a sophisticated, evolved, and politically subtle monarch.

Likewise, even Zweig’s best efforts can’t hide the fact that Marie Antoinette was a bizarrely spoiled young woman who, for most of her life, spent her limited mental energies entirely on the superficial and, particularly, on herself (the image of her cavorting in her “peasant hut” in Petite Trianon is impossible to forget).  It is also clear that her own stupidity and cupidity contributed to the manner of her death: despite receiving a great deal of very sound advice from a number of qualified people (not least her mother, the forbidding and formidable Maria Teresa of Austria), she persisted in acting in an extravagantly self-destructive way.

But I don’t always listen to my mother, either, and if Marie Antoinette was a self-involved moron, she was also more complicated than I had realized.  She loved her children (not a universal trait among European monarchs), and seems to have had abiding and deep friendships.  At the end of her life, she displayed great bravery and great composure.

She also, at least according to Zweig, had one great and lasting love, Axel Comte de Fersen.  The two of them, the Queen and the Swedish nobleman, loved each other for many years; Fersen even orchestrated the royal family’s attempted escape from the Tuileries.  Fersen never married, writing to his sister, “I cannot belong to the one woman to whom I should like to belong and who loves me, so I will not belong to anyone.”

I certainly do not believe that receiving Great Love makes you a Great Person. But Zweig wisely realizes that Fersen is Antoinette’s best advocate, and devotes a lot of space to their love story. In fact, it is quite difficult to read Fersen’s letters and not feel your heart soften towards the woman who inspired them:

“She for whom I lived, since I have never ceased to love her…she for whom I would have sacrificed everything…she whom I loved so dearly, and for whom I would have given my life a thousand times – is no more.  God, why have you crushed me thus…I do not know how I go on living, I do not know how to support my suffering, which is intense and which nothing can ever efface.  Always she will be present in my memory and I shall never cease to bewail her…The sole object of my interest has ceased to exist; she alone meant everything to me…I care to speak of nothing but her, to recall the happy moments of my life.  Alas, nothing is left of them but memories which, however, I shall preserve so long as my life lasts.”

Fersen was devastated by Antoinette’s execution in 1793, and never really recovered, though he lived for nearly two more decades. He died in 1810, beaten to death by an angry mob that believed he had murdered the heir to the throne of Sweden.

Stefan Zweig

Antoinette is an easy historical villain. She inhabited such extraordinary privilege before her death that it seems almost perverse to work to give her depth, post-mortem. Better to spend that effort investigating the lives of the millions of unremembered poor whose suffering funded her obliviousness. As a moral project, I’m not sure that a defense of Marie Antoinette should be a high priority for anyone. But Zweig is a literary author, not a moralist. And he is so clearly fond of Antoinette, which gives me pause. I respect him too much not to pay attention to his affections.

In the end, I’m not convinced by Zweig, but I am impressed with the exercise. In a way, Zweig’s project is no less romantic than Fersen’s: the construction of a monument to the woman they both seem to have loved, in their ways. If I am not moved by Antoinette herself, I am moved by their love.

And that’s not the worst fate in the world, is it? To be redeemed not by our own actions, but by the devotion of those that know and love us? Not a bad memorial, in the end.

Mao: A Life

By Philip Short

I’ve been wanting to read Philip Short’s biography of Mao Zedong for a while. I am, secretly, a sucker for historical biography, and I have a particular taste for humanity’s anti-heroes. I’ll brush right by biographies of inventors, statesmen, visionaries; my shelves are clogged with insane monarchs, conquerers, murderers and war-mongers.

Mao Zedong, the Communist revolutionary who would rule China for nearly 30 years, is a subject of intense fascination to those of us who like to peer into darkness. He is considered the greatest mass murderer of all time – it is possible that he is responsible for more deaths than Hitler and Stalin combined (high estimates place his death toll at around 80 million people). So Short’s biography was on my list.

It’s a great, whopping book: some 630 pages of dense biographical information. It’s beautifully presented: clear, thorough, persuasive. I learned a lot, but, having finished it, I find that I have been arrested by a single moment, and my emotional reaction to that moment has entirely dominated my impression of the book.

In 1918, a young Mao Zedong was a nobody from Hunan province. He moved to Beijing and went to work as a junior librarian in the Beijing University Library.  He (Mao) wrote later:

“My office was so low that people avoided me.  One of my tasks was to register the names of people who came to read newspapers, but to most of them I didn’t exist as a human being.  Among those who came to read.  I recognized the names of famous leaders of the ‘renaissance’ movement, men…in whom I was intensely interested.  I tried to begin conversations with them on political and cultural subjects, but they were very busy men.  They had no time to listen to an assistant librarian speaking southern dialect.” (p. 83)

This passage, Mao’s recollections of being ignored by the intellectuals he so admired, is excerpted very early in Short’s biography. However, having finished it, I find that this vignette has stuck with me more than any other from Mao’s life.

That clerk would go on to rule the most populous country on earth.  He would preside over a regime that killed tens of millions of people.  He is, more than any other figure, the architect of China’s current global position. But in 1918, he was being snubbed by men history has forgotten.  

How many people do you interact with every week?  How many people serve you coffee, check out your items, pump your gas, see you to your table, drive your Uber?

And those people, those are just the ones you see!  What about the people who clean up after you, fix what you break, prepare the food you eat, pick up your trash, deliver your packages?  How big is the army that serves you invisibly?  How many lives intersect with yours every day?

What if one of them will become Mao?

I’ve been disturbing myself with this concept for days now, rolling it around in my head.

Of course, it’s always unnerving to imagine that you might have been brushed by enormity. It’s disconcerting to imagine that history’s next great killer might be taking your order. But what’s even spookier, to me, is the fact that, later, when he was the Great Man, those men never even realized that they had met Mao. They would not have recollected his face, because we don’t remember people that don’t matter. They would never know that their lives had intersected with his, that they had slighted the man who would become Mao.

But what frightens me even more is the thought that, perhaps, Mao did not know he would become Mao. Maybe, if he had known, he would not have wanted to become Mao. We think of the great villains of history as born, but it is, of course, possible that they are made. The clerk in the Beijing University library would become Mao Zedong, we know now, but, in 1918, he had not yet.  And maybe he need not have.

There are two ways to see the future which lay ahead of that clerk: in one, Mao Zedong was inevitable. He would become the man we all know, would find his way to his role, would make space in history for himself.

But it is equally possible that he only might have become Mao. Perhaps Mao, as we know him, was the result of thousands of small accidents, the end product of innumerable coincidences. What if those moments hadn’t happened to him? What if they had happened to someone else? Perhaps many men might have become Mao – perhaps, under the right circumstances, most men.  Maybe history could make murderers of us all, if she chose.

Philip Short

This isn’t a movie: I don’t believe that Mao became a mass murderer because of those slights.  I don’t believe that, if one of these Chinese eminences had simply paid Mao Zedong the respect of answering him, the great storm of the Chinese Communist Party might have turned at the last moment and headed out to sea, that millions might have been saved.  And maybe this whole idea is wrong, and historical monsters, like other freaks of nature, just happen: maybe Mao came into this world broken and dangerous and nothing was going to change that.

But isn’t it frightening to think that, perhaps, some large number of us carry the potential for great or terrible deeds inside us, and we wait only for the right combination of events to draw us into the open, where we become the stuff of statues or nightmares?

I like to believe, as most of us do, that there are no accidents of fate which would twist me so badly. That there is no outcome in which I order millions of my fellows to their deaths.  There is no lower creature than a genocidaire – I choose to believe I could not become one. But that anonymous clerk in the Beijing University Library is dogging me and now, I see the future monsters of history everywhere I look, in the world all around me.  Because, even if we are not monsters yet, who knows what we will become?

Hild

By Nicola Griffith

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Please join me, if you will, on a long and tortured metaphor.

Stories are like dishes. They are made up of ingredients: premise, plot, characters, writing, &c. Some dishes are very complex (lots of different plots and characters) – some are very simple. Complexity does not necessarily predict success: a bad story can have all the characters it wants, it will still be bad.

Like dishes, stories can be dominated by one or two components and still be very good. Think about the murder mystery: all plot, with, at best, a single charismatic detective for continuity. Most fantasy novels are the same: it’s all plot, but with some premise thrown in. As in dishes which are dominated by a single component, in order for stories like this to work, the main component needs to be really good: you can’t make a good omelet with rotten eggs.

And like dishes, stories are made up not just of major components, but also require seasoning. If characters and plot are major ingredients, then all the little embellishments which give a story depth and attraction are seasonings: well-imagined details, zippy dialogue, beautiful language.

And also like dishes, stories can be ruined by over-seasoning. You can have great characters, great plot, beautiful setting, but if you get carried away on, say, describing lush landscapes, then you can alienate your readers and make your prose a slog.

And the reason that I have dragged you on this arduous metaphor is because today I want to talk about one of the most difficult seasonings in literature: historical verisimilitude.

Books are for readers – that is their intended audience. That doesn’t mean that books should be lowest-common-denominator products, aimed simply at gathering the most eyeballs. But books should be basically intelligible to their readers – that’s really the bare minimum.

A little antiquated vernacular is fine – most people can pick around and it get it from context clues. And some historical detail is appreciated – it adds color to the world. But, at a certain point, too much extraneous detail, or strange vocabulary, is cumbersome and alienating. I should be able to read a paragraph of your text without, say, having to check the glossary eight times, or having to read the dialogue out loud because that is the only way to understand the text. I should be able to read your novel without learning the name of every single Dark Ages village in England.

And we’re talking about this because I just finished ‘Hild‘ by Nicola Griffith and I’m frankly exhausted.

‘Hild’ is the imagined backstory of Hilda of Whitby, an English saint who lived in the 7th century. Her childhood is, from what I can tell, entirely imagined by Griffith, but the research which informs the setting is impeccable: detailed, thorough, and accurate.

It is also, however, cumbersome: Griffith has, in my opinion, crossed the line between enriching the novel and leeching the reader’s bandwidth, and her historical detail, especially her use of language, takes more than it gives from reading this novel.

Let me give you an example.

“Hild persuaded Pyr that none would think him soft if the Loid workers were fed and sheltered, for a healthy Loid worked faster. And besides, she spoke for the king when she said that in Elmet now there were no more Anglisc, no more Loid, there were only Elmetsætne. She set Morud to making sure all grumbles reached the right ears.

More people, Loid and Anglisc, straggled in and sought her out, some to swear to her, some just to see for themselves the tall maid who called them all Elmetsætne. The daughter of a hægtes and an ætheling, some said – no, a wood ælf and a princess, said others – though that didn’t stop them wanting to touch her hem or catch up a fallen hair for luck.” (p.292)

Or how about this:

“Hild had helped work out how the new wool trade would run, but even she was astonished at its efficiency. Sheep sheared in every royal vill, from the Tine valley to Pickering to the wolds to Elmet. Fleece sorted and sent by grade to rows of huts in Aberford, or Flexburg by the Humber, or Derventio. Armies of women to separate out the staples, to mix soapwort, urine, and pennyroyal to wash out the grease. Children to lay the washed wool in the sun to dry, to watch and turn it and to drive off the birds who liked to steal it. Men to barrel and cart oil and grease to the vills to make the fibre more manageable for the first finger-combing and sorting. Smiths hammering out double-rowed combs and woodworkers shaping wooden handles, for women to comb out wool in the new way, the better way, a comb in each hand. Carpenters to build the stools and tables. Bakers to bake the bread so the wool workers could work. Lathe workers to turn the spindles and distaffs – the long and the short – and, everywhere, women and man making spindle whorls and loom weights of clay and lead and stone, of every shape and size and heft.” (p. 383)

Nicola Griffith

I chose these passages not because they are unusual – the entire book really is like this – but because I think they are particularly emblematic both of that makes ‘Hild‘ singular and, often, magical, but also what is trying about it. Griffith’s writing is dense and spare. Her attention to detail is incredible, but she is totally unforgiving: she will not define, introduce, or repeat herself. If you haven’t grokked what an Elmetsætne is, you can go screw (or check the gloss, for the sixth time that page). There are too many proper names, and they are too similar. Every clause has a discrete, private meaning, and they work against each other. Meanwhile, as you are drowning in detail, you are often unable to spot the action when it happens, and because the entire story is told in this same, low monotone, there are no signifiers helping you to notice what’s important.

And it’s a shame, because I think it’s a pretty good book. It’s certainly an interesting project to have undertaken, and the depth of knowledge and imagination is almost overwhelming. It is also a masterpiece of mood – it is a low, gray novel, very beautiful, naturalistic and wild. But Griffith is too eager to show you the depth of her knowledge. The detail is not for you, to add to your sense of the story – it is for her, to show you how much she knows.

Hild‘ is over-seasonaed. Vernacular, vocabulary: these are elements which can add richness to a work of imagination. However, the more you disrupt a reader’s immersion in your story, the more you risk becoming a chore for them. Griffith goes too far for me: I am impressed by her work, but I am also alienated by it. I find myself able to feel a lot of respect for it, but no affection. By the end of the book, I felt the way I feel during a bad run: determined to finish, certain that I am doing the right thing, that I will be better for it in the end, but heavy, tired. Completion has become the goal – the journey has no joy.

The Cromwell Trilogy

Wolf Hall; Bring Up the Bodies; The Mirror and the Light

By Hilary Mantel

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Most of the time, when we say that we love a book, we mean that we love the literary work as a whole. We love the book: the plot, the characters, the prose, the descriptions and pacing, the resolution, the lessons, the intersection of the book and our selves and our lives.

But sometimes, when we say we love a book, what we really mean is: I love the character that animates this book. It isn’t that we don’t like or appreciate the other stuff; it’s that that stuff is really just the medium through which the character is communicated to us. Sometimes the love of a book is really a love affair with a character.

The first of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, ‘Wolf Hall‘, came out in 2009. Its critical reception was ecstatic: it won the Man Booker (as did its sequel, ‘Bring Up the Bodies‘, the only pair of novel and sequel to have ever done so) and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Guardian named it the best book of the 21st century.

I read it when it came out, and found it exactly as flabbergastingly excellent as everyone else. It is rare that a book lives up to the hype, right? The problem with books that unite critics in rapturous consensus is that, while you may love them when you finally get around to reading them, it’s almost impossible for them to take you by surprise. You approach them, necessarily, waiting for them to justify themselves; you read them in a state of constant anticipation, on the lookout for excellence.

Wolf Hall‘ did surprise me, though.

The protagonist of the Cromwell trilogy is Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, the man who served as chief minister to Henry the VIII for eight years until he was executed on orders from his king in 1540.

What is clear from these novels is that Hilary Mantel loves Thomas Cromwell, and, because she loves him so much and because she is such a good writer, the result is that I love him just as deeply. A reading of the Cromwell trilogy becomes, therefore, an experience of profound love, not of books, but of a man: the love of the author for subject, communicated to her readers.

I suspect that I am not the only reader for whom this attachment to the fictionalized person of Thomas Cromwell was the salient experience of reading the ‘Wolf Hall‘ novels. Mantel’s Cromwell (I am, at this point, totally unable to disambiguate her character from the “real”, historical man) is one of the most persuasive characters I’ve ever encountered in literature. He is measured, sardonic, wise. Humane, possessed of a capacious memory and an eye for detail. He’s brave, sentimental, effective, and ruthless. He is so lovable that Mantel’s readers may easily fail to notice that he has become, over the course of her books, a monster.

Cromwell, by Holbein

After a brief glimpse into his childhood, the Cromwell trilogy introduces us to Thomas during his employment for Cardinal Wolsey, who was, at the time, first advisor to Henry VIII. The reader’s first real impression of him is his love for this man, the Cardinal, his admiration and loyalty.

Wolsey fell from grace when he was unable to secure a divorce for Henry from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. Cromwell manages to secure this divorce, and further secures the crown for Anne Boleyn, thus earning himself a place in Henry’s confidence. These novels are about that relationship: between Cromwell and his king, the obsession, the love and the fear, the minute study a subject makes of his ruler.

I will never be able to explain why I have loved Mantel’s Cromwell so deeply. I can only say that I loved him from the first chapters of ‘Wolf Hall‘: his immovability, his wit, his clarity about everyone except himself.

Mantel is a great writer, really magnificent. Her prose is plain, sometimes almost like a sermon, but she shows, doesn’t tell. The only person who tells is Cromwell, and he tells beautifully. That’s why, perhaps, when the books are through, it is Cromwell you love, and not Mantel. This is maybe the surest sign of her achievement: you, as reader, can’t help but confuse her grace for her protagonist’s.

But the fact that Mantel shows and doesn’t tell means that some of the most important emotional developments of the book happen slowly, subtly, and might be missed: there is no announcement, no climax.

Cromwell was a Protestant, a sincere follower (according to Mantel) of Luther and Tyndale. One of the animating relationships of the book is the one between him and Sir Thomas More. More, who, in real life, was a complete fuckhead, is a complete fuckhead in ‘Wolf Hall‘ as well: a Catholic zealot, a one-man English Inquisition, he spends most of the book burning Protestants.

More and Cromwell are respectful enemies: both are men of the law and of the Holy Book, but one requires that the book be written in Latin, the other longs for it to be written in English. Cromwell, like Mantel’s readers, deplores More’s methods: the torture, the burning of heretics. So right is his opposition to Thomas More that readers will continue to feel themselves on his side, to find him persuasive, when he himself begins to have people executed (indeed, burned) for papacy, under the charge of treason.

I think that Mantel does this on purpose, because I believe, I really, really believe, that she loves Thomas Cromwell, and that she has endeavored to make us love him. And just as his love for his king requires a certain, side-eyed blindness to his foolishnesses and weaknesses, just as all love requires some blindness to fault, so our love for him will require blindness to his faults, apologies for them, sympathy with them.

Hilary Mantel

So we will notice that he has become a murderer, but we still fear for him as his enemies gather and gain momentum, and we will rage when they surround him and have him arrested, and we will grieve when he is executed, and the third book ends. And I know that I, personally, will never quite be able to forgive Henry VIII.

There is probably a more rigorous discussion to be had about the three individual books; I suspect that ‘Wolf Hall‘ is by far the best of the three, but I’m frankly unable to discern a difference, because it is the man that I love, not the books, and the man is in all three. As I mentioned above, I read ‘Wolf Hall’ when it came out, and then ‘Bring Up the Bodies‘ in its turn, but I reread both before picking up ‘The Mirror & the Light‘, read all three in one go, and I can no longer tell them apart; I can’t even remember now where one ends and the other begins.

But I know that he, Thomas, is dead now, in a way he was not, for me, last week. And in this way the Cromwell trilogy has been, truly, more of a relationship than a reading experience: I do not feel that I could go back again, read them from the beginning, start with him from his youth. He is dead, he died, I was there, and there is no going home again.

I am quite used to having relationships with books – relationships with people are more complicated. But they are, ultimately, richer, I think, the relationships with people. I don’t know whether how I feel about the Cromwell trilogy is richer than how I feel about books I have loved, but it is simpler: I just love its main character. That’s all. The language, the descriptions, the vivid imaginings, all contribute to my understanding of, relationship with, love of the man at its heart.

Ivanhoe

By Sir Walter Scott

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I think we sometimes assume that old stories are boring stories.

Ivanhoe‘ is an old story. I found my copy in my favorite used bookstore, ‘Second Story Books‘ in Washington D.C. It’s a Heritage Press Edition, and I’ll confess to a weakness for this kind of hardback reprint. They are wildly inconvenient and hard to read (too heavy, difficult to hold), but they really make you feel as though you are reading a proper book. And I’m a sucker for proper books.

But I bought my ‘Ivanhoe‘ years ago and, clearly, I haven’t been in a rush to read it. Honestly, as beautiful as my edition is, I suspected that it was going to be boring. I took a run at it a year or so ago: it opens with a brief exposition of the continuing effects of the Norman Conquest, and then cuts to a scene in the middle of an old-growth English forest, where two good-hearted Saxon yeomen are complaining about anti-poaching laws. So, yeah, it seemed like it was going to be really, really boring – I put that thing down like it was on fire and didn’t pick it up again until last week.

Old stories aren’t just boring-seeming because they’re, well, old, and because we think we’ve heard them already (although that is part of it) – it’s because we think that old stories are simple.

And they sometimes are, but we mostly think that old stories are simple because old stories are foundational – they are the stories upon which later stories have elaborated. They aren’t simple, but they are archetypal, which makes them predictable.

They also aren’t modern, which is obvious but important. They aren’t written in our vernacular, and their vernacular often seems cheesy to us: lacks the rawness, or subtlety, or emotional complexity, of our own.

All of which gives these stories a sort of hokey, old-timey feel which can strike some people as quaint and some people as lame.

Ivanhoe‘ lands right in the sweet-spot of this quaint/lame zone. This is a long-ass novel of Ye Olde England, and it’s filled with all the cliches of that genre. Robin Hood is here, Friar Tuck is here, Richard the Lion-Heart is here (his wicked brother John is here); there is an archery contest, there is chivalry and maidens and Sherwood Forest and wicked Norman knights and valiant Saxon knights and tournaments of honor.

But it’s a classic, and my beautiful copy kept calling to me, so I took another stab at it.

Pretty quickly, though, after I pushed through the two soul-crushingly boring yeoman, I realized two things:

  1. Ivanhoe‘ is a weirdly complicated story. Its plot is complicated; its characters are complicated; its morals are complicated.
  2. I actually have heard this story before.

As it turns out, big parts of Disney’s ‘Robin Hood‘ (you know, the amazing cartoon from when we were all kids, where Robin Hood is a fox and Little John is a bear?) is ‘Ivanhoe’-adjacent. There is no Maid Marion in the novel, but the whole scene with Robin Hood at the tournament taunting Prince John and winning the archery contest in disguise? That’s ‘Ivanhoe‘.

But Disney’s ‘Robin Hood’ is a simple story of good and evil – ‘Ivanhoe‘ isn’t. Or, it is, but with a lot of shades in between.

The story is almost unnecessarily complicated, and several attempts to summarize the plot have convinced me that it isn’t a worthwhile exercise. Part of the problem is that ‘Ivanhoe‘ is actually many stories woven together: two love stories, one tragic, one classic; a tale of chivalric honor over villainy; several tales of knightly valor; three tales about the honor of thieves; one tale of a sibling rivalry between two princes; a tale of a prodigal son; a tale about the loyalty of servants, and the wisdom of fools; a tale of a wicked usurper and a virtuous king; a story of the Jewish diaspora, and the terrible wickedness of Christians to Jews; and a tale of palace intrigue, all set against the backdrop of the tale of a conquered people trying regain their dignity. With some comic relief thrown in.

It’s a lot, and that really doesn’t even begin to describe it all. Before everything is through, there will be a tournament, a siege, Robin Hood will end up fighting alongside Richard the Lion-Heart, a castle will burn down with people in it, maidenly virtue will be rewarded, maidenly lack of virtue will be mocked and punished, a beautiful woman will be tried for witchcraft, a man will die of a broken heart, someone will come back from the dead, and lots and lots of horrible things will be said about Jews.

A Maiden

And I know that this sounds like a bunch of tropes all strung together into some sort of batshit Merry Old England mad-lib, and it kind of is! But if you’re expecting something simple, something quaint, ‘Ivanhoe’ isn’t it.

And if you are expecting easy moral takeaways, ‘Ivanhoe‘ won’t give them to you. There is one pure villain and maybe two pure heroes – everyone else is complicated. People are strong and weak, they succeed and fail, they are subject to imperfections but may overcome them, with work. They love truly, but with private reservations. They have virtues and failings, and sometimes they die and it’s unfair, and sometimes they are forgiven and it’s even less fair. It’s all very…modern.

Well, not all of it. The equivocation is modern – the Jew-hating chivalry is not.

Sir Walter Scott apparently used to be hot shit in Britain. He was a poet and author in the early/mid 19th century, but he was equally or more famous for his novels. ‘Ivanhoe‘ is the one for which he is best remembered now, but at the time he was also known for the Waverly novels, and ‘The Bride of Lammermoor’.

And one gets the sense, reading ‘Ivanhoe‘, that he was also pretty progressive for his time. A major theme of ‘Ivanhoe’ is that Jews are People, Too, pleaded with the sort of earnest heavy-handedness that indicates to me that the message was not uncontroversial.

Sir Walter Scott

And it’s a good message, but it’s delivery is decidedly pre-modern: Scott is going way out of his way to show you that, despite all the usury and their maniacal love of riches, Jews are also capable of love and goodness, even, in some rare cases, true human virtue. At one point, Robin Hood must admonish Isaac of York not to spare any expense in saving his daughter’s life:

“Yet, ere Isaac departed, the outlaw chief bestowed on him this parting advice: ‘Be liberal of thine offers, Isaac, and spare not thy purse for thy daughter’s safety. Credit me, that the gold thou shalt spare in her cause will hereafter give thee as much agony as if it were poured molten down thy throat.'” (p. 327)

And though Isaac acquiesces, because he loves his daughter (because, remember: Jews are People, Too!), the loss of fortune hurts him. Though the depictions of Isaac and Rebecca are meant to sympathetic, they are in fact anti-semitic and vile, and they represent, for me, an immovable obstacle to loving this book truly.

We’re allowed to be ambivalent about classics. It’s hard to remember that, sometimes, when we’re confronted by a handsome old hardback. But we are: we don’t have to love them. We can hate them, or like some parts of them and hate other parts. We can marvel at the complexity of the story and recoil at the endless, patronizing anti-semitism and laugh at the old-timey language and roll our eyes at the values.

I wonder sometimes whether classics are not our best-loved novels, but the ones which evoke the strongest ambivalence from us. The ones that elicit the strongest positive and negative emotions from us, at once. ‘Ivanhoe‘ was a ripping read, I tore through it, and I was held genuinely in suspense. That’s not to say that I loved it, but I’ll remember it.

The Information

A History, A Theory, A Flood

By James Gleick

Have you ever been in love with humanity when you began in a book, and in complete emotional flight from it by the time you finished?  Impressed in the beginning, overwhelmed by the end?  Awed, in the beginning: proud of what we have accomplished, by what we have learned; numbed and overcome, flooded and drowned, by the end?

The InformationBy the time I finished ‘The Information‘ by James Gleick, I was ready to abandon civilization, get back to the land.  To buy a shack somewhere in the middle of godforsaken nowhere, somewhere with no internet, no phone, no television, and never look back, never learn anything new, participate no longer in human progress.

The Information‘ is a history of the human relationship to information.  How we’ve understood it, categorized it, encoded it, compressed it, measured it.  How it has changed us, changed our thinking, our societies.  Ways you didn’t even think that it might have.

Gleick is a science writer, and ‘The Information‘ is about science, specifically about the science of information.  He takes his readers through African talking drums, the invention of writing, the printing press, the inventions of formal logic, the printing press, information theory, the telegraph, the telephone, the OED, the computer, and Wikipedia (to name a few).  He explains the basic mathematical concepts which allowed these advances, and shows the rapid acceleration, over historical time, of our ability to generate, store, send, and process information.

There is a wealth of neat stuff (for lack of a more precise, technical description) in this book: cool facts, good explanations, illuminating connections drawn between different people, ideas, technologies.  I love scientific histories, as a rule: I think it makes it easier to remember how a discovery works if you can embed it in its context.  The best scientific histories give science a human texture; they make it lovable.

For example, you may never master the language of Boolean algebra:

(x(P(x)→ ¬Q(x)) andx(¬Q(x)S(x)))(x(P(x)S(x)))

but who could help but love Lewis Carroll’s famous formulation of the same syllogism:

    1. Babies are illogical;
    2. Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile;
    3. Illogical persons are despised.

Conclusion: Babies cannot manage crocodiles.

Or, you may not think you care about what Einstein thought about quantum entanglement, but how can you be anything less than delighted to learn that, upon the publication of Einstein’s 1935 paper, ‘Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?”, Wolfgang Pauli wrote to Werner Heisenberg, “Einstein has once again expressed himself publicly on quantum mechanics…As is well known, this is a catastrophe every time it happens.” (p. 366)

James Gleick
James Gleick

If this all sounds like a Nerd Alert to you, you are not wrong.  This is a book about science, and data, and math, and about the men and women who devoted their lives to understanding how those things work, to making incremental improvements to how we organize and retrieve information.  If you aren’t excited about how Turing machines worked, or what the difference is between a bit and byte, about whether or not Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem was correct or not (or whether or not it had anything to do with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Theory), then this probably isn’t your bag.

But it’s my bag, for sure.  Or, at least I thought it was, but honestly, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed.

This isn’t the fault of the book, or of the author, but of humanity.  ‘The Information‘ is well-written, beautifully presented, thorough and approachable.  It’s interesting, gripping even, clear (for the most part).  It’s a very, very good book.

But it has filled me with despair.  There is so much that I don’t know, that I will never know.  Even today, the amount of information available to me could not be mastered in a thousand lifetimes, and those are just the things I would wish to learn.  And information is being produced at a rate which is unprecedented in human history: unprecedented and accelerating.

“As of 1972 businesses could lease high-speed lines carrying data as fast as 240 kilobits per second. Following the lead of IBM, whose hardware typically processed information in chunks of eight bits, engineers soon adopted the modern and slightly whimsical unit, the byte. Bits and bytes. A kilobyte, then, represented 8,000 bits; a megabyte (following hard upon), 8 million. In the order of things as worked out by international standards committees, mega- led to giga-, tera-, peta-, and exa-, drawn from Greek, though with less and less linguistic fidelity. That was enough, for everything measured, until 1991, when the need was seen for the zettabyte (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) and the inadvertently comic-sounding yottabyte (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). In this climb up the exponential ladder, information left other gauges behind. Money, for example, is scarce by comparison.  After kilobucks, there were megabucks and gigabucks, and people can joke about inflation leading to terabucks, but all the wealth amassed 
by all the generations of humanity does not amount to a petabuck.” (p. 394)

I have come to the end of ‘The Information‘ feeling demoralized by my own mortal lifespan, my ignorance, my faulty memory and my lack of math prodigy.  I will not know all that there is to know; I will not know any minute fraction of what there is to know; I will not even master the subjects which matter to me.  I will not master anything, because knowledge is being produced too fast to allow mastery of anything for very long (and because I am a dilettante).

And if I am not master of my subject, how will I know truth from fiction?  How will I distinguish good information from bad?  Gleick deals with this problem explicitly, and his conclusion is not comforting to me.  Because ‘information’ is not the same as ‘truth’; ‘content’ is not the same thing as ‘veracity’.

“Still, who could love a theory that gives false statements as much value as true statements (at least, in terms of quantity of information)?  It was mechanistic.  It was desiccated.  A pessimist, looking backward, might call it a harbinger of a soulless internet at its worst.  “The more we ‘communicate’ the way we do, the more we create a hellish world,” wrote the Parisian philosopher – also a historian of cybernetics – Jean-Pierre Dupuy.

“I take “hell” in its theological sense, i.e., a place which is void of grace – the undeserved, unnecessary, surprising, unforeseen.  A paradox is at work here: ours is a world about which we pretend to have more and more information but which seems to us increasingly devoid of meaning.”

That hellish world, devoid of grace – has it arrived?  A world of information glut and gluttony; of bent mirrors and counterfeit texts; scurrilous blogs, anonymous bigotry, banal messaging.  Incessant chatter.  The false driving out the true.” (p. 418)

Gleick does not believe so.  He sees a different world (one begins to suspect that he does not watch the news); his relationship to information is hopeful: “Infinite possibility is good, not bad.  Meaningless disorder is to be challenged, not feared.  Language maps a boundless world of objects and sensations and combinations onto a finite space…We can be overwhelmed or we can be emboldened.” (p. 419)

And I’m very happy for him, but this Sisyphean message has undone me utterly: it is very rare that I am so impressed by a book and yet so depressed by it.  Smarter, yes, but more acutely aware of how little I know, how little I will ever know.