Yearly Archives: 2014
Uncategorized / Comments Off on Best Review I’ve read yet of Nicholas Wade’s A TROUBLESOME INHERITANCE: Genes, Race, and Human History
Uncategorized / Comments Off on Gezellig, Gezelligheid and other Stuff Dutch People Like
Words and customs that don’t translate.
Uncategorized / Comments Off on Æthelstan, King of the All Britain
An interesting argument for 10th century English nationalism.
Uncategorized / Comments Off on “Nation-states are an almost necessary basis for democracy.”
“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.”
language policy, Pre-modern nationalism, Sixteenth century nationhood, When is a nation? / Comments Off on Peter Burke’s Languages and Communities in Early Modern Europe goes beyond the evidence
Midway through Peter Burke’s Languages and Communities in Early Modern Europe it is troubling to see him assert that “deliberate acts by governments” to promote, mandate, or downgrade particular languages or dialects in favor of others “were as rare before 1789 as they were common after that date.” (p. 72) Then, citing Henri Peyre, he argues that official actions of this kind were not only rare, they were “rarely consistent,” more in the nature of unplanned “reactions” to particular circumstances and, therefore, that it would be “wise to avoid the term (language policy) in the case of Europe before 1789”.(p. 73)
This is startling because Burke’s own book is filled with what read like examples of official language policy in the centuries before 1789. It is disquieting to have a scholar give a clear summary of his findings that does not appear to be supported by the evidence he himself is presenting at book-length. And the unease that this generates is doubled in a case like Languages and Communities where the author overlooks or omits what is probably the largest body of evidence negating his conclusion.
Burke’s assertion that national language policies happen only post-1789, particularly the Epilogue, “Languages and Nations,” in which he asserts that, “rare instances of conscious language policy before 1789 – were not examples of nationalism in the modern sense,” is a carefully crafted intervention in the scholarly debate over the antiquity of nations, a broadside fired at the idea that nations or nationalism may predate Herder.
The evidence Burke himself presents in this book supports a far milder conclusion, that at particular times and places in pre-modern Europe (under Alphonso X of Castile or Alfred the Great of Wessex, or in the French administration of seventeenth century Alsace) there were official language policies, which become more common in the 18th century, and far more common in the 19th.
Uncategorized / Comments Off on The Hebrew Bible remixed
“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.
Uncategorized / Comments Off on A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Israel Rank & Roy Horniman
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.
@GentlemansGuide 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,
@PinkhamBryce 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.
Uncategorized / Comments Off on Tomorrow Belongs to Me
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.