Sunday, May 28, 2017

Hugh Kenner on Firing Line

I have had the above video open in a browser for several weeks without watching it. I wanted to see Hugh Kenner, but the topic title, "The Political Responsibility of Artists," put me off. I finally screwed up the courage to watch and found it stimulating...I shouldn't have let the title guide me. Kenner is engaging and there's an obvious comfort-level between host and guest. I highly recommend it for Kenner's comments and responses.

A few background facts on the show, which was recorded on June 28, 1974. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had been driven out of the Soviet Union earlier that year, making him one of the major topics of the show. Also of relevance was Kenner's resignation from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences after Ezra Pound's Emerson-Thoreau Medal was rescinded by "central committee" (as Buckley put it). The Academy's actions occurred two years earlier, shortly after Kenner had published The Pound Era. A few other writers of note mentioned during the show include Milton, de Sade, and Céline, particularly in discussions about honoring the art but not the artist.

My favorite section of the show was Kenner's discussion on Samuel Beckett and his involvement in the French Resistance during World War II. At the 29-minute mark, Kenner demonstrates why Waiting for Godot may have been inspired by those experiences. After giving a concise overview of the play, Kenner remarks about a few of the play's lines, “Nobody recognizes that is almost a literal transcription of a Resistance anecdote.”

Even funnier is Kenner's observation that the best American literature are essentially instruction manuals. You'll see what I mean in the video. Kenner's renown may have been for Modernist writing, but he demonstrates a wide-ranging knowledge of literature. His comments on the best of politically inspired writing and what helps it transcend potentially narrow strictures are insightful. Again, highly recommended.

Kenner: “The ability to see the realities that politics handles in non-political terms is a gift which the artist can confer on the rest of us. We are so trapped in political categories that we cannot see any others.”

Monday, May 15, 2017

Excerpt from Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli in His World by Erica Benner

I wanted to wait until I had a released copy of Be Like the Fox to quote anything from it. Here's a lengthy excerpt about an episode late in Machiavelli's life. The setting: the Medici successfully returned to Florence in 1512 and Machiavelli was removed from office. He remained in political exile until 1521 when he went on a mission to a Franciscan monastery in Carpi on behalf of the Florentine government. Benner shows the lighter side of Machiavelli on this mission. The italicized are quotes come directly from the mentioned letters.
[O]n arriving at the monastery, he is overwhelmed with gloom. A humourless little monk shows him to a dreary cell where he is to sleep. The food is bad, in equal parts bland, stale, and nasty; the company is much the same. His impulse is to ridicule it all, but there is no one there to laugh with him. ...

He could never wallow in humiliation for long. Now, instead, he'll try to make fun of his plight, his hosts, himself. After a long day of wrangling with his prolix, painfully tedious hosts, he writes to Guicciardini. Magnificent Governor. I am turning over some way in which I might stir up strife among these friarhoods so that they might start going after each other with their wooden clogs. His advanced age and outsider status have made him freer than most men he knows, or than his younger self, to indulge in pure silliness. Send me a servant, or a messenger, whose attentions would cause my reputation among these friars to swell. Bugger decorum.

The next day a crossbowman arrives, bearing a letter addressed to His Magnificence M. Niccolò Machiavelli, Florentine Nuncio, etc. That 'M.' is good, he thinks. He is neither a Messer—a qualified doctor of laws or medicine—nor a Monsignor, but these monks are vulgar enough to be agog at the faintest hint of a title. On seeing the martial-looking messenger and hearing whispers, 'To His Magnificence!' the friars spring up from their seats and swarm around their visitor, asking him what the news was. And I, he tells Guicciardini later that day, to heighten my prestige, said that the emperor was expected at Trent, that the Swiss had convened fresh embassies, that the King of France wanted this and that. Think he must be a diplomat of very great stature, they all stood around with their mouths hanging open.

Send a flurry of further dispatches, he implores Guicciardini. If those friars see dispatches arriving thick and fast, my shabby conditions here might improve.

Francesco, good man, gladly obliges. 'Though I'm not,' he writes, 'in the habit of performing such services without pay.' He promises to send a fresh crossbowman to Niccolò the following day with his shirt flying behind his hips, so that everyone will believe you are an important personage.

Their plot works wonders. Within hours, Niccolò has been given a better bed and much better meals. I gobble up enough for six dogs and three wolves, he reports to his co-conspirator. He revels in his new-found status. Even as I write this, he tells his friend, I have a ring of monks about me; they marvel and gaze at me as at one inspired. And I, to make them marvel even more, sometimes pause writing and breathe deeply. They absolutely begin drooling.

This is a guy I'd want to knock back some Tuscan wine with over a long evening.

Also: My notes on the book can be found here.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Red Sphinx by Alexandre Dumas

The Red Sphinx by Alexandre Dumas
Edited and translated by Lawrence Ellsworth
Pegasus Books, 2017
Hardcover, 832 pages

What is clear and undeniable in this painting is that it depicts a man of mind and intelligence, and nothing more. Here is neither heart nor spirit—fortunately for France. In the vacuum of the monarchy between Henry IV and Louis XIV, with a king so weak and diffident and a Court so turbulent and dissolute, among princes so greedy and faithless, to bring order out of chaos required a brain above all.

God created this terrible automaton [Cardinal Richelieu], placed by Providence exactly between Louis XI and Robespierre, in order to crush the great nobles, as Louis XI had crushed his "grand vassals," and as Robespierre would crush the aristocrats. From time to time, like red-stained comets, there appear these machines of history, these great harvesters that advance of their own accord, cropping the field of state, remorseless, relentless, stopping only when their work of scything is done.

So Richelieu would have appeared to you on that evening of December 5, 1628, when, aware of the hatred that surrounded him, he was nonetheless intent on the great projects he contemplated: exterminating heresy in France, driving the Spanish from Milan, and expelling Austria from Tuscany. He it is who appears before you in his study, trying to speak without betraying himself, to see without revealing, that impenetrable minister whom the great historian called the Red Sphinx. (103-4)

Two weeks ago, as I'm waking up from anesthesia after surgery, I find myself babbling on about the Thirty Years War. To feed into whatever loopy mania I'm having at the time, the anesthesiologist says he is a history buff. We talked for a while...what about, I have no recollection. I vaguely remember mentioning that he might want to check out The Red Sphinx, which was most likely the proximate cause of my Thirty Years War fixation. Who knows? Certainly not me, although if so, it clearly stuck with me through other states of consciousness.

This book is being touted as a sequel to The Three Musketeers, a claim I find a little misleading but I won't get too hung up on definitions. The description of the book as "a new translation of the forgotten sequel to Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, continuing the dramatic tale of Cardinal Richelieu and his implacable enemies" gets us closer to its contents.

Alexandre Dumas began writing La Comte de Moret late in his career, failing to finish it before his death in 1870. It had been serialized in 1865-66, but the paper Dumas was writing it for went bankrupt. Since much of the book is about Cardinal Richelieu, over time it came to be known as The Red Sphinx. The bulk of the novel shows Cardinal Richelieu conducting the affairs of state and navigating the political intrigue of the French palace. Translator Lawrence Ellsworth appends to the unfinished end a novella originally published by Dumas as The Dove in 1850. Maybe it's not quite the perfect ending Ellsworth claims, but it does continue and provide a satisfactory ending to one of the storylines of The Red Sphinx.

The action picks up a few weeks after the end of The Three Musketeers, but throughout the book the musketeers are never mentioned, while Monsieur de Tréville garners one mention. Dumas begins by looking at the maneuverings and conspiracies regarding love and politics in the upper crust of French society. Along with eminent people, Dumas weaves in little-known historical figures, fitting them into the story to his advantage. The cast of characters, in appearance and reference, is substantial. Fortunately, Ellsworth includes a valuable guide to the more important characters in the story (fictional, historical, and in-between) as well as online supplementary notes and comments. In addition to narration, Dumas includes real and fictional historical documents such as memoirs, diaries, and histories of the period to lend an authoritative air to the novel.

After setting the stage through secondary characters, Dumas begins to focus on Cardinal Richelieu and his network of intelligence gathering. The Cardinal's dual goals center on retaining power while guiding France through a tumultuous period as it is led by a weak king. Because his enemies are just as ruthless as he is, Richelieu knows if something happens to Louis XIII he won't be alive at the end of that day. But Richelieu remains cool and analytical, usually staying several steps ahead of his foes. Dumas has added complexity and an appreciation of the Cardinal well beyond that of TTM. Dumas also delves quite a bit into Louis XIII and his weak, vacillating nature.

Even though the plot meanders, the various episodes consistently hang onto the general framework for most of the novel. Dumas shows Queen Anne and the Queen Mother Marie de Medici scheming with others in Europe to depose Louis in favor of his younger brother Gaston, duke of Orléans. At the same time Richelieu attempts to counter their moves, he also carries out an investigation of the assassination of Henri IV (Louis XIII's father). Despite the serious sounding nature, there is still plenty of humor consistent with that of TTM, whether through characters' comments or Dumas' pointed asides and aphorisms.

The last third of the novel proper focuses on the War of Mantuan Succession in Italy, a side show in The Thirty Years War. (Readers of Umberto Eco's The Island of the Day Before will recognize the siege of Casale.) The attention also begins to shift, away from the Cardinal and toward Comte de Moret, Louis XIII's illegitimate half-brother, his role in the war and his love for Isabelle de Lautrec. As mentioned earlier, Dumas didn't finish The Red Sphinx so Ellsworth adds the novella The Dove, composed of letters sent between Moret and Lautrec, as its ending. The Dove is flowery and sentimental, not at all from the same vein as The Red Sphinx, but it does draw part of the preceding novel to a close.

It isn't necessary to have read TTM to enjoy The Red Sphinx. It isn't Dumas at his sharpest—at times it feels like he's trying to wring more life from the successful franchise—but there are still plenty of good moments in with the clunky ones. I would hazard to say if you read TTM and enjoyed the second half of it (focusing on d'Artagnan's seduction of Milady de Winter and her revenge), then this will appeal to you. Recommended.

An introduction to the novel by the translator, Lawrence Ellsworth

Supplementary notes and comments by Ellsworth

An interview with Ellsworth, including a helpful breakdown on the many musketeer novels and why the titles can be confusing, plus details on his intention to translate all of them

War of Mantuan Succession

Quotes from the book:

  • A parenthetical explanation by Dumas:
    (Our readers may find this chapter a bit long and dry, but our respect for the facts of history leads us to reproduce every detail of this great meeting in the Luxembourg that decided on the war in Italy, including all the speeches of the two cardinals. Our claim is that a historical novel should entertain both those readers who know the history it’s based upon, and those who are learning about it from what we write.) (364)

  • And the king took his leave, even more pale, tired, and dazed than the day before, but with a better idea of how hard it is to be a great minister, and how easy to be a mediocre king. (438)

  • After Cardinal Richelieu moves out of his house, Louis and his fool (l’Angley) drink his wines:
    Louis: “Since I have some money…”
    l’Angley: “You have money?
    “Yes, my child.”
    “Word of honor?”
    “Faith of a gentleman! And plenty of it.”
    “In that case, see here,” said l’Angley, caressing the bottle once again, “use it to buy more of this wine, my son. Invest it in the 1629 vintage!” (443)

  • About the cardinal:
    “We are sorry to have to reveal this petty weakness in such a great minister, but we are his historian, not his apologist.” (472)

Portrait of Cardinal Richelieu by Philippe de Champaigne
Picture source

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Be Like the Fox by Erica Benner

Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli in His World by Erica Benner
W. W. Norton & Company, 2017

Erica Brenner's study of "Machiavelli in his world" is being released today. I obtained an advance reading copy secondhand and wanted to pass on a few of my thoughts about the book since I found it helpful and enjoyable. I'll keep quotes from it to a bare minimum since these were uncorrected proofs.

Having your name end up as a common adjective seems to be a mixed bag. Sometimes it has a positive or at least neutral connotation, such as platonic, ritzy, or socratic. Many times though, such eponymous usage is not intended to be something nice, as in the cases of Sisyphean, chauvinistic, or draconian (actually existing is optional in some of these usages). In the case of "Machiavellian," it's rarely meant as a compliment since the intent is to describe someone as cunning and deceitful.

Much of Machiavelli's reputation stems from The Prince, his political treatise dedicated to Lorenzo di Piero de Medici (although initially intended for Lonrenzo's uncle, Giuliano). Instructing a Medici to be ruthless, tyrannical, and immoral may seem like asking a fish to be wet, so what is really going on here? And how can certain messages in The Prince be reconciled with Machiavelli's other writings supporting a republic and extolling positive virtues? Is it possible to reconcile contradictory passages in The Prince itself?

Benner addresses these questions of Machiavelli's apparent contradictions and ambiguities by reviewing his many works—"political and military writings, histories, personal letters, diplomatic dispatches, poems, and plays"—as well as writings of his contemporaries. What she ends up with is a splendid history bringing Florentine society to life, showing how the republic's political life impacted Machiavelli and influenced his writings. I'm not sure I completely buy into her explanations on some of Machiavelli's writings, but she provides a useful guide in listening to his own voice instead of his reputation.

Despite many scholarly books, papers, etc. showing Machiavelli isn't the demonic figure the adjective implies, the question remains on how to read The Prince. In his 1972 essay on "The Originality of Machiavelli" Isaiah Berlin noted there were "over a score of leading theories of how to interpret The Prince and the Discourses" and over three thousand items on a bibliography of the same. One can only imagine what the multiple of that number is up to today.

So is The Prince to be read in a straightforward manner, as if it's Machiavelli's job application for the Medicis? Or just the opposite, as if it were satire at the Medicis' expense? Benner chooses a different approach, arguing that The Prince should be read ironically, an approach close to what some of his defenders in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries proposed (see Diderot, Bacon, Spinoza, and Rousseau for examples). She says she has found it helpful to place Machiavelli "squarely in his world" when trying to interpret his writings, which is what she presents in this book. Note the U.S. subtitle of Machiavelli in His World, which I think does a better job of summing up the book's achievement than the U.K. edition's subtitle of Machiavelli's Lifelong Quest for Freedom. Not that freedom isn't addressed...Benner notes that no one did more to advance the freedom of the Florentine republic...but my preference is with the former.

Machiavelli seems to have been on the outside of the Florentine "in crowd," even when he was serving important roles for the republic. His knowledge of classical history, especially of the Roman republic and empire, paints him as a man out of his time. Coursing through much of his writing is the influence and domination of Florence by outside forces, such as France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and various popes as well as the undue influence of insiders like the Medicis or Savonarola. His disappointment in such influence and domination doesn't stop with those acts but also in how locals responded to them, many meekly accepting events while others tried to profit from them. Along the way of displaying Machiavelli's life and times are portraits of many larger-than-life characters he saw or dealt with: Giraloma Savonarola, Caterina Sforza, King Louis XII, Paolo and Vitellozzo Vitelli, Pope Alexander VI, and Pope Julius II. Machiavelli's biography places him in a fascinating place and time in history, where he becomes an actor in the many dramatic conspiracies and political intrigues of the day.

I'll skip much of Machiavelli's biography here in order to talk a little about Benner's approach. She notes that in her own repeated reading of Machiavelli's work she finds some of the more bombastic statements (especially in The Prince) are undercut by caveats and insinuations. Machiavelli admitted that he didn't always say what he believed, hiding the truth among many lies. But if we're supposed to read between the lines, how do we know when we get it right? Benner's approach is to look at all his other writings and find the consistent voice, even if it's in a lower or softer register. It seems there may be a further problem, though, in trusting that baseline too much, especially from someone that admits to writing lies. What are we supposed to do when we see some of the outrageous lines from The Prince echoed in other works? I'm not saying Benner is wrong, just that reading Machiavelli's intent seems even trickier to intuit given the many challenges she highlights.

Since there is so much source material available, Benner weaves in many quotes and abridgments in reconstructing Machiavelli's life, making the work more conversational. While some fictional embellishments are added with this approach in order to increase the dramatic effect, fortunately they seem to be kept to a minimum. My concern with the reliance on the quotes (and abridgments) lies in their chronological accuracy. In other words, can something Machiavelli wrote in The Prince or the Discourses or correspondence accurately reflect his intent or meaning in something he wrote a decade earlier? The worst case, I guess, is that we're reading what the older Machiavelli thinks of earlier events (assuming we're taking him at face value correctly or reading between the lines properly). Another potential drawback is that we don't get to see the development of his political thought over time.

"Take Nothing on Authority," "Build Dykes and Dams," "Be Like the Fox," and "Simulate Stupidity" are some of the chapter titles, using parts of Machiavelli's quotes to provide themes for the different stages of his life. Some like "Beware of Doctors" also provide an example of the undercurrent or two-register writing Benner alerts us to since medici means doctor. So what does "Be Like the Fox," the title of a chapter and the book, imply? While we often associate foxes with craftiness and deceit, Machiavelli defines this simile to highlight the fox's ability to avoid snares, something Machiavelli ultimately was unable to do.

Even with the caveats or questions above, I still recommend the book. Benner provides a great introduction to Machiavelli's life and times, assisting the reader to understand his influences and challenges during these tumultuous years. It's a complicated time period to try to explain, but Benner's conversational style helps in presenting the events. Machiavelli may be represented too much on the idealized side, swinging the pendulum away from demonization, but that makes reading his works all the more important in order to listen to his voice and make up your own mind. Highly recommended.

Regarding other features of the book (and noting again I don't have a final copy yet), the inclusion of a "Dramatis Personae" proved to be helpful, especially since several names are similar and I needed occasional reference to distinguish between family members. While not entirely necessary, I found myself wishing for a map or maps to show proximities of and directions between the republics and principalities. Assuming there isn't one in the finished book, Benner does a fine job of including helpful details to stand in for maps, plus there are some to choose from online such as this one.

Lastly, many thanks to Tyler Cowen for mentioning this book in one of his "What I’ve been reading" posts.

Link: The publisher's page for the book

An excerpt I enjoyed from the book, showing what a playful character Machiavelli could be (at least in this case)

Update (13 May 2017):
I just got a copy of the official release and it has two maps—one of Italy in the late 15th century and one of Florence. Both are well done and should prove very helpful for readers!