Best Review I’ve read yet of Nicholas Wade’s A TROUBLESOME INHERITANCE: Genes, Race, and Human History

Posted by dianamuir on June 20, 2014
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A TROUBLESOME INHERITANCE: Genes, Race, and Human History

Gezellig, Gezelligheid and other Stuff Dutch People Like

Posted by dianamuir on May 08, 2014
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Words and customs that don’t translate.

Æthelstan, King of the All Britain

Posted by dianamuir on May 08, 2014
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An interesting argument for 10th century English nationalism.

“Nation-states are an almost necessary basis for democracy.”

Posted by dianamuir on March 23, 2014
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“Nation-states are an almost necessary basis for democracy. A common language and culture, a common allegiance to national institutions, a common sense of destiny, all within a defined territory, with equal rights for all citizens—these seem to be the conditions that enable people with different opinions and interests to accept political defeat and the passage of laws to which they strongly object.”

The Case for Nationalism, John O’Sullivan, March 21, 2014, Wall Street Journal

The Hebrew Bible remixed

Posted by dianamuir on January 19, 2014
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“The conditions under which the Hebrew Bible was produced are a subject of ongoing debate not only among Jews, but among Muslims and Christians since not only the Gospels, but also the Quran can be understood as the Hebrew Bible remixed.”

Just putting this phrase here because I coined it. Book to follow.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Israel Rank & Roy Horniman

Posted by dianamuir on January 06, 2014
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In addition to being the funniest show on Broadway, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is a defense of Balzac’s proposition that behind every great fortune lies a great crime, a crime that a rich man got away with.

  is based on the Ealing classic Kind Hearts and Coronets, which was based on  Israel Rank, a suavely biting 1907 satirical novel by Roy Horniman.   As everyone who follows film or theater already knows, our murderous hero (Israel Rank in the novel;  Louis Mazzini in the movie; Monty Navarro in the musical) is a young man reared by a widowed mother reduced to renting rooms in her small row house on an inferior street in an inferior neighborhood even though though she is descended from a noble family.   Because she married a foreigner who worked for a living, none of her noble relations acknowledge them, there is no possibility of sending her son to Oxbridge, and no one to set the boy’s feet on the first rung of a career ladder.  She dies, leaving a young man with a genteel education and accent, enough money to live in a very modest way, and the fatal knowledge that he is eighth in line to become the Earl Gascoyne.

The novel is a viciously funny defense of the hero’s jaw-droppingly self-serving philosophy of life: “I am convinced that many a delightful member of society has found it necessary at some time or other to remove a human obstacle, and has done so undetected and undisturbed by those pangs of conscience which Society, afraid of itself, would have us believe wait upon the sinner.”

In addition to demonstrating the limitless human capacity for self-justificaiton,  (“I could not help reflecting how much Henry Gascoyne had been the gainer by dying when he did,”),      Horniman asks whether a boy whose birth, manners and diction are English and genteel, can be regarded as an English gentleman even though one parent was Jewish (in the novel), Italian (in the movie), Castilian (in the musical) or, in Horniman’s own case, Greek and neither parent was wealthy.   Israel Rank is, after all, about a boy very much like Horniman.    He was the son of a Paymaster in Chief in the Royal Navy – a rank comparable to Captain – but his parents mush have lacked a private income since he and his brothers attended Portsmouth Grammar School, not an aristocratic public school.  Like his most famous character, his mother is said to have been an aristocrat, a Greek aristocrat.

The character was changed from Jewish to Italian for the movie because, with the Holocaust so recent, a Jewish serial-killer seemed a bit – tactless.  But Horniman knew what he was doing in making his ambitious protagonist a Jew.

Israel Rank displays zero knowledge of Jewish life or thought; no more than four or five sentences would have to be altered if Horniman had given his murderer a Greek, Italian or Castilian father.   Here I am not counting passages where the Rank is described as looking like a foreigner, but only those with uniquely Jewish content, as when a friend accuses Rank of “exhibiting the worst faults of the Old Testament, in that I showed unsportsmanlike exultation over a fallen foe.”

The antisemitism in Honiman’s book, exhibited by characters who lacked “the breeding to disguise” it, is the British assumption that a Jew can never really be English.  His endowment of his fictional earl with French name Gascoyne is at once a send-up of the aristocratic conceit of descent from an ancestor who came over with William the Conqueror, and a challenge to the notion that the children modern Greek, Italian or Jewish immigrants cannot become as British as the Gascoynes, D’Ysquiths or Wettins.

A French, German or Italian surname does not, however, have the same valence as a Jewish one.  Jews have been the West’s inescapable other even longer than there has been an England.   Making a Jew heir to an English earl was the sharpest affront Horniman could offer the British caste system.  And the funniest.

Roy Horniman knew something about being an outsider.  The son of an immigrant mother, he spent his life in a London literary world primarily populated by the children of certified English gentlemen.  He  joined the Artists’ Rifles in WWI, despite not being a public school or university man, and spent his entire life at the fringe of an upper crust world he was never admitted to complete membership in.  His brother B. G. Horniman led a somewhat similar life, with a long stretch as a writer and editor in the Raj.  Neither brother married.  Perhaps this was because as a personable single man he could be part of of the upper class world on a narrow income.   Although it has been suggested that Roy Horniman may have been gay.  There has been no biography.   27 cartons of his papers sit in the archives of the University of Reading awaiting a graduate student in search of a thesis.

In 2014 a gay heir ot an earldom offers no shock value and the musical doesn’t offer one, though “Better with a Man” is a very funny song.   A serial-murdering Jew  or  Italian would, however, apparently be too shocking for the New York stage.  Instead, plays  Monte Navarro written as an a engagingly amiable ingenue who lacks the capacity to tell the difference between right and wrong.

Israel Rank, if staged as Roy Horniman wrote him, would have been the most original moralist to appear on stage since Stanley Holloway embodied Alfred P. Doolittle.  But that is not the play we have.

What Freedman and Lutvak have given us is a laughter-filled evening with eight corpses and not a single dark thought.









Tomorrow Belongs to Me

Posted by dianamuir on January 02, 2014
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I was at the Hasty Pudding in Harvard Square on an evening in the early nineties, there was a party going on when, suddenly, a young woman began to sing  a hauntingly beautiful, lyrical ballads.   One after another, the guests stood and began to sing with her as the party turned into the most compelling explanations of fascism that I have ever seen.

The song was Tomorrow Belongs to Me, and I was, of course, watching a touring company perform Kander and Ebb’s 1966 musical,  Cabaret.   In those years the Hasty Pudding rented out its theater when the college boys weren’t using it to play dress-up.  Perhaps they still do.   The heart-stopping fascist anthem came at a moment in the play when the young characters  gather in the parlor of a cheap rooming house in Berlin.  On stage Cabaret is less stylized  than the movie, less stagy.   The characters are familiar in their youthful uncertainty and promise.   Which is what makes the moment when they become swept up in Nazism so peculiarly, horrifyingly memorable.

Something like that experience is coming to the Roundabout Theatre Company this spring with yet another revival of Kander and Ebb’s  Cabaret, this one  a revival of Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s Tony-winning 1998 revival.  And since I have never seen this version, I can’t say whether the scene will be presented as it was that night at the hasty Pudding.   I assume that the song will be as Kander and Ebb wrote it.

They understood, as George Orwell did, that people do not long merely for comfort and ease, they want challenge and meaning.  German youth responded when Hitler offered them “struggle, danger and death.”   He also told them that they were racially superior and therefore entitled to conquer and rule.

Tomorrow Belongs to Me  has enjoyed a strange afterlife within the neo-fascist movements; online versions have been posted in Italian, many in German, and one taped at meeting of the British racial supremacists,  Blood & Honor.   You can even find posters on neo-fascist websites who believe that the song actually was a Nazi anthem.    The most popular version was recorded by Screwdriver, a skinhead band whose leader, Ian Stuart Donaldson,  segued into Neo-Nazism.  But even if you follow punk rock, you’ve probably never heard of Screwdriver, or of Blood & Honor.   Neo-fascism is so insignificant that it can seem almost quaint.

Hitler’s idea of rallying young people by telling them that that they are members of a wronged but inherently superior group, that they are entitled to conquer and rule, that he will demand struggle, danger and death but lead them to glory is compelling.   Orwell knew that.

What is surprising is that two American Jewish writers, Fred Ebb and John Kander were able to put together a song that captures something Orwell did not know, although Hitler did and the Muslim Brotherhood does, which is that people want more than struggle, danger and glory.  Living as we all do in a confusing, changing and risky world, it is compelling to imagine a past that was stable, safe and golden.   When a leader promises to everyone who follows him to a future that will be as golden as the imagined past, a future that he and those who follow can create in danger and struggle by stepping on the dead bodies of those who stand in their way, young people step forward to volunteer.


The sun on the meadow is summery warm
The stag in the forest runs free
But gather together to greet the storm
Tomorrow belongs to me

The branch of the linden is leafy and green
The Rhine gives its gold to the sea.
But somewhere a glory awaits unseen
Tomorrow belongs to me

The babe in his cradle is closing his eyes
The blossom embraces the bee
But soon says a whisper:
“Arise, arise”
Tomorrow belongs to me

Oh Fatherland, Fatherland
Show us the sign
Your children have waited to see
The morning will come
When the world is mine

Tomorrow belongs
Tomorrow belongs
Tomorrow belongs
To me




Kinship, the state and violence

Posted by dianamuir on November 26, 2013
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hbd* chick has a very interesting post persuasively arguing that clans were losing significance in England by the late 800 or early 900s, visible as a decline in blood money payments to kin, which are replaced by broader, non kinshop-based mechanisms of social control accompanied by declining murder rates. (i.e., in England, the Hatfields and McCoys disappeared early)

england, the netherlands, germans earliest in *some*thing … scandinavians later … italians last.”

A pattern develops, traced in a series of very interesting posts linking back.

Note: this really is a note, I use this blog to note interesting material I’ll want to return to.

The Bay Psalm Book: America’s founding text

Posted by dianamuir on November 24, 2013
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This week a copy of the Bay Psalm Book will go to auction and it will sell for tens of millions $$$.   Fortunately for scholars in need of a cheap reading copy, it’s available online.

The more accurate news stories describe the Bay Psalm Book as the first book printed in English in the new world.  Until quite recently American scholars unaware that a printing press was operating in Mexico City well before the Bay Colony was founded called it  the first book printed in the new world.      But “first printed book”  misses the point.

The Bay Psalm Book was America’s founding text.  No new nation was ever created as deliberately or as fast as the nation established between 1630 and 1640 by a wave of settlers who self-consciously established a new England with a distinctive and highly developed intellectual purpose, carried out by a public school system, a national university (Harvard), church, representative government, army and printing press.   The printing press, and the first book it produced, matter because they were emblematic of the break the settlers were making with English culture, even with English Puritan culture.   Books produced in England would not suffice for the “folk” or “people”, (“synonyms we use indifferently“,)  of this people of this new England.  They needed books that reflected the new and distinctive culture they were creating.

England prayed from the pages of the Book of Common Prayer, as almost all of the settlers had done before sailing to New England.   England sang from the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter, dating to the 1550s.   Like the Bay Psalm Book, the Sternhold and Hopkins was a metrical psalter, a rendition of the psalms into contemporary, vernacular poetry.  A good metrical psalm rhymes and had regular meter, making it easy to memorize and to sing.   There were many translations of the psalms into English, and several metrical psalters,  but the Sternhold and Hopkins was dominant, retaining its popularity in English homes and churches for two centuries.

New England, however, required a metrical psalter of its own, not least because part of the goal of founding a new England was to reject the liturgy of the Church of England and replace it with a more godly form of church service.    New England rejected the set liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, instead making the sermon and the  psalms central to the New England church services.   But the psalms were not confined to church; in America as in Protestant Europe, psalms were sung while doing the wash and while making hay, they were sung in New Amsterdam and in Old Virginia.  Among Puritans in old and new England for a time they largely displaced hymns, ballads, work songs and drinking songs, and instead of other types of fold song, becoming the work, play and party songs of an era; gathering to sing psalms was a Purtian version of a singles mixer.   Within this Puritan world,  New England was unique because of a felt need to separate from English Puritanism and emphasize its own, distinctive ideology by producing a new translation of the psalms into metrical, singable, but theologically sound form.   The theologians charged with the translation explained thei motivation in the preface, (rendered here in modern spelling):

“Although we have cause to bless God in many respects for the religious endeavours of the translators of the psalms into metre usually annexed to our Bibles, yet it is not unknown to the godly learned that they have rather presented a paraphrase than the words of David translated according to the rule 2 Chron. 29:30. and that their addition to the words, detractions from the words are not seldom and rare, but very frequent and many times needless, (which we suppose would not be approved of if the Psalms were so translated into prose) and that their variations of the sense, and alterations to the sacred text too frequently, may justly minister matter of offense to them that are able to compare the translation with the text; of which failings, some judicious have often complained, others have been grieved, whereupon it has been generally desired, that as we do enjoy other, so (if it were the Lord’s will) we might enjoy this ordinance also in its native purity: we have therefore done our endeavour to make a plain and familiar translation of the psalms and words of David into English metre, and have not so much as presumed to paraphrase to give the sense of his meaning in other words; we have therefore attended herein as our chief guide the original, shunning all additions, except such as even the best translators of them in prose supply, avoiding all material detractions from words or sense.”

In modern terms, they needed a new psalter because old England’s Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter was not  theologically correct.

We must accept that the Bay Psalm Book was theologically correct because it was published and accepted by the New England church, but we can judge it on other points.   Did the new lyrics rhyme?  Were they easily memorized?  Did they convey the psalms as King David intended them?  You be the judge.

Here are the first two verses of Psalm 95, a familiar and enduringly  popular song of thanksgiving, in the King James version:

O come, let us sing unto the Lord:
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.
Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving,
and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms.

Here they are in the highly regarded, modern Jewish Publication Society translation:

1 Come, let us sing joyously unto the Lord:
raise a shout for our rock and our deliverer.
2 let us come into his presence with praise;
let us raise a shout for Him in song!


The Sternhold and Hopkins:

1  O Come let us lift up our voice,
       and sing unto the Lord;
    In him our rock of health rejoice
       let us with one accord:

 2  Yea, let us come before his face
       to give him thanks and praise ·
    In singing psalms unto his grace
       let us be glad always.


And the Bay Psalm Book:

1  O come, let us unto the Lord
        shout loud with singing voice,
     to the rock of our saving health
        let us make joyful noise.

  2  Before his presence let us then
        approach with thanksgiving:
     also let us triumphantly 
        with Psalms unto him sing.


The best that can be said of the translators of the Bay Psalm Book as poets, is that they understood their own inadequacies; they said it of themselves, “If therefore the verses are not always so smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect; let them consider that God’s Altar needs not our polishings.”     But as the intellectual forefathers of a nation, theirs was a powerful contribution because they laid the foundations of a new national identity and provided it with the original American songbook.





Fifteenth century nationalism

Posted by dianamuir on November 24, 2013
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English “nationalism in its fullest sense was the product of the fifteenth century.”  (p. 79)  John Barnie, War in Medieval Society: Social Values and the Hundred Years War, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974.

Patrick Collinson, describes Barnie’s take on nationalism as “a people’s awareness and articulation of its collective identity, based on common racial, linguistic, and geographic factors.  Barnie thinks it vain to look for this in the fourteenth century, where there is  evidence only of ‘a crude form of patriotism’.”  Collinson, Patrick, “Biblical Rhetoric:  the Englishnation and national sentiment in the prophetic mode,” in Religion and Culture in Renaissance England, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997,   p. 37