Sunday, September 24, 2006

Of Columbus and His Wrecks

"Everything I touched turned to shit!"

Two journalists for Der Spiegel magazine, Klaus Brinkbaumer and Clemens Hoges, have recently produced a quickie entitled The Voyage of the Vizcaina: The Mystery of Christopher Columbus's Last Ship. Let me very quickly summarize the events that led to the writing of the book:

In 2001, an American treasure hunter named Warren White announced on the Internet that the remains of a very old shipwreck just off the coast of the village Nombre de Dios in Panama was in fact the Vizcaina, one of the four ships that had sailed with Christopher Columbus on his last voyage -- the "High Voyage", so named by Columbus himself -- to the New World in 1502 (the ship was actually sunk in 1504). But White had not discovered the caravel. Local fishermen had known of its existence for years. As it turned out, the salvage rights had already been claimed by a private Panamanian company called Investigaciones Marinas del Istmo, or IMDI for short. IMDI, run by a tacky lady named Nilda Vazquez who apparently greets visitors to her home wearing a bathrobe or negligee, is mostly financed by a former governor of the Colon province named Gassan Salama. IMDI's plan is to make as much money off the shipwreck as humanly possible. Unfortunately for them, they have had to, and will have to, rely on the work of scientists disinterested in filthy lucre. After all, Vazquez and Salama will need proof, if they plan on becoming gazillionaires, that their hunk of coral-encrusted wood is indeed the first Columbus vessel ever to be found. Enter our two German journalists, who helped organize a team of Columbus experts from around the world to inspect the wreck . . . but preliminary inspection is as far as they've gotten. The scientists want the Panamanian government to claim ownership of the ruin as a "world heritage" site; IMDI insists that the ruin belongs to them solely. The salvage dispute crawls through the enervated halls of Panama's courts.

But let's step back for a moment. What makes these businesspeople and scientists think that the shipwreck off Nombre de Dios is in fact the Vizcaina? Firstly, the wreck's hull does not have iron plates, which pretty definitively places its construction before the 1520's. "Age of Discovery" ships were susceptible to being eaten alive by shipworm during their long trans-Atlantic voyages: several of Columbus's caravels were lost to this pest. The divers inspecting the Nombre de Dios wreck have in fact found worm-holes in the hull. Also, the wreck contains a load of cannons and stone cannonballs of 15th century make. Even if this caravel wasn't part of Columbus's small fleet, it is certainly a very old ship -- so old, in fact, that Brinkbaumer and Hoges, basing their evidence on the testimony of several experts, could find only one other candidate whose ship this could possibly be, a historically unimportant merchant who had sailed with Columbus on his third voyage to the Indies and who had returned independently to the Panama coast some years later. Further, Columbus's log mentions that the Vizcaina was abandoned "near Belpuerto" -- the modern-day Portobelo, some 20 miles west of Nombre de Dios. All of these signs indicate the very real possibility that, for the first time, a caravel from the Age of Discovery has been found. Add to that the luster of Columbus's name, and the find takes on Titanic proportions.

But, as indicated, the issue remains in legal limbo, which means that The Voyage of the Vizcaina is an unfinished book and therefore something of a cheat. The compelling parts of the book have to do with the ongoing small discoveries about the shipwreck itself and the controversies surrounding archeological discoveries in general. The tension between treasure-hunters and scientists often deteriorates into personal pettiness (for instance, Vazquez informs the authors that one of the researchers from Texas A&M is gay), but the ironic fact remains that neither camp can apparently function without the other's help. This is a fairly interesting topic, taking up 30 or so (interspersed) pages . . . the length, in other words, of a long-ish article in Der Spiegel. Unfortunately, the bulk of the 302 pages of text deals with a fairly standard biography of Columbus himself, including a recounting of all four voyages to the New World. Literary editors and schoolteachers have a term for this sort of thing: padding. Nonetheless, as one might expect from any study, however desultory, of one of the truly titanic figures in human history, a few interesting nuggets emerge. The authors -- with the help of their obsessed, scholarly sources -- pretty convincingly nail down the environs of Genoa as Columbus's birthplace. They also make a strong case that Columbus was Jewish (baptized as a Christian, naturally). Citing the names of the explorer's parents -- Susanna and Jacobo -- along with his constant references in his diaries to Old Testament heroes like Abraham, Isaac, and Sarah, to say nothing of equating himself with King David (Jesus Christ is not mentioned once in the passages reprinted), the authors' assertions are certainly no weaker than any number of other writers who claim a collective kaleidoscope of ethnicities. It is interesting that he did not take a single priest along on his first voyage. Clearly, the man wasn't in a big hurry to proselytize to the "Indians", "Chinese", or whomever else he thought he might encounter. There is also some evidence that Columbus kept some Jewish sailors aboard his ships after the anti-Semitic rulers of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, promulgated an Edict of Expulsion in August of 1492: the Admiral was protecting his men from arrest. Well, who knows. Simon Wiesenthal, at least, thought the evidence was substantial enough.

Finally, Brinkbaumer and Hoges quote a provocative theory from a Yale Columbus scholar. In full: "If he or the crown really thought that he would make it to China, why didn't he take any opulent gifts? Why were there no ambassadors aboard? He knew from Marco Polo how the Great Khan lived, so why did he take glass baubles and cheap beads? Why were there no diplomats? After his return the queen and Columbus both spoke of 'the Indies'. I think they weren't certain of where they were, but they knew that it wasn't China." Columbus's admirers and detractors probably agree on only one thing: the explorer went to his grave convinced that he had found India or even China. The simple deductions quoted above seem to smash not only that theory, but even bring into question Columbus's fundamental purposes. We know what he wrote to his sovereigns -- his expectations that he would soon find the Great Khan, with infinite gold and baptisms of the heathen to follow -- but one isn't always candid with one's superiors. The notion that Columbus just wanted to explore the world is a notion that needs to be addressed by scholars, if, for no other reason, to restore to the man some common sense. It will be noted that by the High Voyage, his letters to Isabella no longer contained fantasies about Chinese gold. Clearly, he had found somewhere, and somebody, else entirely.

Those who are conversant with this material will find this book to be an utter bore, I suspect. However, I recommend it to those who know little about the man and his extraordinary achievements, both good and bad. A magnificent sailor (probably the greatest who ever lived), a cruel and inept governor, a racist, a loving brother and father, a man finally convinced that he had been sent by God to complete the discovery of the world, Columbus should still fascinate Americans (and not just Northern ones). His quest for gold and power continues to inform and mold the destiny of an entire hemisphere. Too bad he was a cursed man. The latest example? This shipwreck, likely his own Vizcaina, lying in limbo off the coast of the continent he "discovered".

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Philosophers Behaving Badly


For years, I used to write silly little movie reviews for and other sites of that ilk, and would often revisit the page of the movie on which I commented, looking for, embarrassing to say, responses from other reviewers to my reviews. As a result, I became familiar with certain phrases that the illiterati could always -- and I mean always -- be depended on to use. One of them was, "This movie has no point." Or, "It would help if the movie had a point." The variatons on this theme were impressively subtle. "The characters and dialogues [sic; a favorite error, right up there with "genious"] were OK, but the plot didn't have a point." The commentators were betraying the bad education they received in our dingy public schools (take a bow, teachers), not merely through the faulty grammar and spelling but from the drilled-in, automated desire for a work of art to furnish a "point". (The test is next Thursday, class. Refer to your notes; solve the symbolic mysteries.) Art sometimes makes a "point"; sometimes it doesn't. The better art tends to fall in the latter category. Didacticism or cant doesn't usually survive the heat of the socio-cultural moment: the centuries of the past are littered with forgotten novels, dead paintings.

But for once, I can sympathize with the "point" plaint, after having read Rousseau's Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. This book doesn't have a point! -- an unforgivable crime for a work of nonfiction, which is very rarely art, and usually not by design. The authors take a footnote in literary history -- the misunderstanding between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume that occurred in 1766 -- and blow it up into 284 pages of intermittently interesting but ultimately aimless (pointless!) text. Good old tells me that Edmonds and Eidinow have also written a book together about the chess match between Fischer and Spassky, and yet another about the time when Wittgenstein threatened Popper with a fireplace poker in a room at Cambridge. Plainly, the authors believe they have discovered a new niche in historical nonfiction.

Hm, two paragraphs in, and I still haven't gotten to the point. Here it is: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, after publishing La Nouvelle Heloise and On the Social Contract, ignited condemnation from religious authorities and was chased out of France by the Paris Parlement. He returned to Switzerland, the land of his birth, for a few years, but the Genevan government -- controlled, more or less, by Paris -- replied by burning his books. There are more details that I do not have time to rehearse; suffice to say that Rousseau eventually renounced his Genevan citizenship and wrote grand, seething pamphlets about the lack of liberty in Switzerland. Other Genevan citizens figured that this deserved a response: they stoned his house. He moved to an island near Bern; the authorities in Bern issued a warrant for his arrest. Basically, Rousseau had to get the hell out of Switzerland. But to where?

Enter fat David Hume, the Scottish philosopher and historian, nowadays famed as the author of Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals. Disliked in London for being Scottish, he had only recently found the adulation that he felt he deserved in Paris as England's embassy secretary. Feted by the salonniers (those magnificent noblewomen who opened their "salons" to the great thinkers of the day -- including themselves -- and thereby ruled the "Republic of Letters"), praised by philosophes such as d'Alembert, Diderot, d'Holbach, and Grimm, even swooned over by luscious young Parisian ladies, Hume reveled in his vindication. One of the salonniers, Mme de Boufflers, had already informed Hume of Rousseau's plight, so when word got out that Rousseau had been pursued to Strasbourg, Hume offered to put the exile under his protection. Rousseau, having read and admired Hume's works, agreed. Hume would take him to England.

After much hemming and hawing from Rousseau about where he wanted to live in England, an irritated Hume finally found a suitable place in Staffordshire, a modest mansion owned by an indulgent old earl. But it wasn't the dithering about living quarters that irritated Hume: Rousseau's philosophies and eccentricities were highly uncongenial to the practical, empirical, man-of-the-world Scot. Hume didn't trust the senses, even as a basis for empirical deduction, whereas Rousseau was all senses. Imagination, solitude, Nature, the human heart, and, above all, feeling, were the provinces of the paranoiac exile. In other words, no two men could have had less in common. According to the authors, Hume was already predisposed to dislike his charge in any event, and was irritated that he had to keep the promise to Mme de Boufflers that he would shelter Rousseau and otherwise be his keeper. There is evidence that Hume, while still friendly with Rousseau, was poking around the latter's financial accounts, asking de Boufflers and d'Holbach to get information from Rousseau's banker. Was the poor exile as poor as he claimed? But the fateful event occurred months before Rousseau's relocation, when Hume was still in Paris. Having dinner with a group of visiting Brits that included Horace Walpole, he joked that Rousseau would've gone to Prussia under the protection of King Frederick -- who admired him -- if he thought he might've been persecuted there. It was well-known among the philosophes that Rousseau nurtured a persecution-complex (somewhat earned, actually) and always seemed to bite the hand that fed him. (As Hume was soon to discover.)

The upshot of all this is that Walpole drafted a not-terribly-funny one-page letter, writing as Frederick, urging Rousseau in a mocking tone to come to Prussia. Walpole then circulated this juvenile piece of wit among the salons, asking the intellectual haute monde to correct the inelegant French. As Rousseau had criticized most of the Enlightenment figures at one time or another, no one seemed to much care about his feelings. Eventually, all of France, it seems, had memorized the ridiculous letter. After a few months, news of it traveled across the Channel to England, just as Rousseau was settling down to "retirement". The "King of Prussia" letter was eventually printed in the St. James Chronicle.

But the letter was merely the cherry on the sundae for Rousseau, who, probably sick of Hume's condescending manner in their correspondence, had already conceived a vast, swirling conspiracy against his life and/or dignity of which Hume was the ringleader. Perhaps Rousseau, from his own sources in Paris, had gleaned Hume's true opinion of him. The crisis came to a head not with the published spoof, however, but with a pension offer from George III that Hume was finagling for Rousseau. Feeling insecure in England, Rousseau wanted to delay the decision to accept the pension. This amounted to a refusal, and, to Hume's mind, a snub to the King and himself. One of Rousseau's hangups was to avoid being beholden to any man, for to be beholden or to accept charity was a form of slavery, according to his fevered, fucked-up mind. The embarrassed Hume, understandably, had had just about enough of the Genevan's famed eccentricities, and pressured Rousseau to accept the pension, or at least not turn down the King in public again. The written response (these communications were all letters, for Hume was in London) was electric. More or less? Fuck you, Hume, you never were a true friend, anyway. And you were clearly responsible for that insulting fucking spoof in the papers. Drop dead.

I don't have the space or the energy to describe every ensuing letter and machination (read the damn book if you want all the tiresome details), but I can summarize it all this way: Rousseau drove David Hume mad to the point of frothing at the mouth. Bilious letters (destroyed by the receivers for the sake of the Scot's reputation) sped from Hume's hand to his supporters in Paris; Rousseau demanded an apology from the St. James Chronicle; Rousseau sent Hume a 30,000-word indictment of his "guilt"; Hume sent it back, scribbling "Lie Lie Lie" in the margins. Before long, the entirety of Europe's intelligentsia got involved in one way or another. Against most of their advice, and purely out of red-faced spite, Hume collected all the papers pertaining to the colossal hissy-fit, and, after editing the material much to his advantage, published A Concise and Genuine Account of the Dispute between Mr. Hume and Mr. Rousseau. Vanity served. Meanwhile, Rousseau shrugged his shoulders and went back to France, where sympathetic nobles kept him well-hid till the Paris Parlement rescinded its warrant of arrest. He survived the ludricous affair with a reputation no more damaged than it was before. Hume, however, never recovered from his "victory": the philosophes were weary of his anti-Rousseau tirades (annoying Rousseau may have been, but no one really thought that he was an "atrocious" villain); it was the common opinion in England and France that Hume had debased himself, in a manner unworthy of a leader of the Enlightenment. He wrote very little during the remainder of his life. Posterity, though, has been kind to him, so what the hell!

Kind to Rousseau, too! (Well, mostly.) In other words? Who-cares. This material is worthy of an anecdote, maybe an article -- not a book. Edmonds and Eidinow write well enough, I suppose, but I deem that if you've stuck with me this far, I've saved you a great deal of trouble. The whole undertaking reads like a classy gimmick that was dreamt up by the authors' agent. Here's the pitch: A neurotic paranoiac and priggish careerist, both geniuses who changed the foundations of Western thought, meet each other. They don't like each other. They hiss at each other like cats on meth. And there's your book, fellas . . . just like your other two books!

I just checked my copy of Rousseau and Revolution by Will Durant -- volume 10 of the 11-volume Story of Civilization series. The material I've just discussed merited 3 pages from Durant -- pp. 211-214, to be exact. And people call him long-winded?

Sunday, September 17, 2006

She's ALIVE!!!

Doesn't look too happy, does she?

Oh no, you say? Not another retelling of that most famous of Dark and Stormy Nights during which Lord Byron challenges each of his several guests at the (rented) Villa Diodati to tell a ghost story, resulting in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein! Indeed, it would be hard to imagine what else could possibly be milked from this transcendent event that has become enshrined in pop culture's collective memory. Movies have been made; books have been written (most recently, Chuck Palahniuk used it as the inspiration for a collection of short stories).

Calm the hell down, man. Before you flee, muttering "So we'll go no more a-roving / So late into the night" under your breath, let me introduce you to the Hooblers, Dorothy and Thomas, whose latest book The Monsters: Mary Shelley & the Curse of Frankenstein does something that, to my admittedly spotty knowledge, has not been yet attempted for the common reader: it explicates the causes and sources of Mary Shelley's immortal novel. The Hooblers' book will doubtless have limited appeal. Those familiar with the English Romantics will be bored by this most obvious of topics within the milieu; the rest won't care. Their loss, as The Monsters proves to be a page-turning soap opera of the first order, detailing the intellectual and sexual lives of some of the most famous people in history. I read most of the book (323 pages of text) in one sitting.

The book is a collective biography of Byron and his four guests on that stormy night in the villa on Lake Geneva. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley's soon-to-be wife Mary Godwin, Byron's young physician John Polidori (traveling with Byron in exile), the sexually ambitious Claire Claremont (Mary's step-sister), and the notorious Lord all get their biographical due, but the narrative anchors on Mary. The first chapter is a moving account of the loves, losses, and achievements of Mary's famous mother, the proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, who died eleven days after giving birth to her daughter. The Hooblers go to work on their thesis right away, finding a symbolic Frankenstein connection years before Mary Shelley was born: Wollstonecraft was, before finding and marrying William Godwin, briefly the lover of Henry Fuseli, the artist who shocked England with his immortal 1781 painting The Nightmare. (Mary Shelley would describe a woman lying murdered in bed by the nameless monster in a manner identical to the woman in the painting.)

But a painting's just a painting; it turned out that Mary would find more than enough monstrousness in her actual father, the radical thinker William Godwin, author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, who had apparently used up the sum total of his decency with Wollstonecraft. After her death, if the Hooblers are to be believed (and perhaps they're being very selective with their primary sources), Godwin calcified into an insufferable moralist as emotionally cold as his Calvinist forebears, whom he resembled far more than he doubtless would have wished. The first tactless thing Godwin did was to write a tell-all biography of his dead wife, in which her sexual history, including the birth of Mary's older sister thanks to the services of a lover named Imlay, is meticulously laid out. Well, there was only so much radicalism that late 18th-century Great Britian could take: Wollstonecraft's memory was smeared until the middle of the 20th century, and Godwin himself was tarred and feathered in the press and spat on in the street. Even after he remarried -- to a no-nonsense woman named Mary Jane Clairmont -- he kept a large portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft hanging up in the living room, perhaps as a reminder to young Mary that, as the single child of the Wollstonecraft-Godwin union, she had a hell of a lot to live up to. (The new Mrs. Godwin's opinion on this shrine to the first wife remains unrecorded.)

Adding to the confusion and misery for young Mary, she "grew up in a strange blended family of five children with no child having the same two parents." The details are too dense to get into here, but let it be said that the brilliant, half-insane young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley eventually found his way to Godwin to pay him homage for Political Justice and other works. Almost immediately, the shunned, unemployable, virtually unpublishable radical latched onto the ingratiating future baronet Percy as a source of financial security; in recompense, Percy -- currently 19 and married to another teenager -- absconded with 16-year-old Mary (along with step-sister Claire Claremont, daughter of the new Mrs. Godwin, with whom Percy certainly had sexual relations soon after declaring his love for Mary). The suddenly affronted Godwin -- the torch-bearer of "free love" -- affected to feel betrayed, and refused all communication with Mary for the foreseeable future . . . though he was not so outraged as to stop asking Percy for more money as the years went on.

Monstrous people; monstrous behavior. And young Miss Mary wasn't much better, more or less laughing at the plight of Percy's abandoned (and pregnant) wife Harriet. (Harriet would eventually commit suicide when it became apparent that Percy would never return to her and their son.) But karma, as always, was instant: soon Mary herself was pregnant. The baby girl died soon after. But at least she was able to rid the household of step-sister and rival Claire, who had been living with them since the elopement. But the nubile Claire -- who emerges as the great instigator of events and engaging anti-heroine in this account -- isn't to be defeated so easily. If she would be denied the famous Percy Shelley, then she would go for bigger game and surpass Mary. Back in the Godwin house in London, Claire commenced writing love letters to none other than Lord Byron himself. The letters were so persistent that Byron eventually started writing back; an affair began. Byron really should have known better, but he was, well, Lord Byron. He summed it up this way: " . . . if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours, there is but one way . . ." The affair was occurring during the scandalous revelations that Byron was having a sexual relationship with his own half-sister. He was being run out of the country. Claire, now pregnant, would follow . . . with Mary (pregnant again) and Percy (dying to meet the infamous poet) in tow.

So that is how they all got together on that dark and stormy summer night in 1816. Actually, it was several weeks that they spent together in the Villa Diodati, Byron and Percy doing most of the talking. The subjects included poetry, philosophy, the supernatural, and science. They discussed the discoveries of Italian Luigi Galvani, "who had shown in 1786 that he could produce muscular contractions in dead frogs by touching them with a pair of scissors during an electrical storm." In 1803, Galvani was trying to do the same thing to human cadavers with electricity collected in Leyden jars. (His name bequeathed us the word "galvanize".) Mary, who had spent a lifetime reading the masters of literature, history, and philosopy, and further enriched during the past 2 years by Percy's manic tutelage, sucked it all in like a sponge. Plainly, Frankenstein was crying out to be born, and Lord Byron's ghost story challenge proved to be the vehicle of conception.

But Mary was also immersed in the new Romantic tradition, which rejected the cold rationalism of her parents' generation. Her fictional baron, Victor Frankenstein, ends up destroyed by science: the nameless monster he creates kills the people closest to his creator and vows to destroy Victor himself. The creator, half-mad like Percy Shelley, tries to turn the tables on the monster and purses the creature in turn, all the way to the Arctic wasteland aboard a ship captained by an explorer seeking the Northern Passage. This part of the plot mirrors a novel that Mary's father had written, Things as They Are; or The Adventures of Caleb Williams, in which a servant is framed for murder by a tyrannical employer: both pursue the other murderously. Influences from the world outside and influences from within her private world interlocked to create the inevitable masterpiece. Victor, the combination of her father and husband, perishes in defeat; the monster (her mother? Mary herself?) vanishes into the ice. Still out there. Frankenstein can be read as a declaration of independence from a most burdensome life, a life that was very quickly to become even more tragic: 2 more of her children died, along with her husband at age 29, before the curse abated. We're not surprised to find a reactionary, conventionally religious Mary Shelley in her middle age, who can say of her loving, dull son, "Teach him to think for himself? Oh, my God, teach him rather to think like other people!" Needless to add, Shelley revised her novel in 1831 to reflect her -- and the times' -- more cautious and conservative attitudes. Now she was Victor, adding incongruous pieces to a ghastly creation. The workmanlike Hooblers put these building blocks together in a most persuasive way.

I really must stop, but before I do, I have to mention the fifth member of the Villa Diodati group, Byron's young doctor, John Polidori -- or, as the Lord sneeringly called him, "poor Polidori". The (already) famous artists in the Villa did not, in the event, actually finish any ghost stories. (Byron produced a fragment; Percy didn't bother with the business at all.) But Poor Polidori eventually cobbled together a famous short novel that all true horror fans revere, The Vampyre. It is with this startling tale (replete with a downer ending, for the vampire lives on) that the young doctor finally gets immortal revenge on his taunting employer. The Vampyre in the story is called "Lord Ruthven" . . . which, as it happens, is the name of the Byronic character in Lady Caroline Lamb's hit-piece on the poet, the novel Glenarvon. (Lamb was another one of Byron's jilted lovers; the experience eventually drove her completely mad.) For the first time in literature, the vampire is an aristocrat, smooth, plausible, handsome, heartless, whose charms are finally more powerful than the repulsion engendered by his otherwise evil behavior. 80 years later, Bram Stoker would make this incarnation of Lord Byron a permanent icon in the world's imagination . . . but Poor Polidori, an inveterate gambler who didn't see any profits from his tale (which sold fairly well), died a suicide, another victim of the curse.

But of course there really was no curse of Frankenstein. As the Hooblers make clear, these super-human monsters, who lived such intense lives as a collective object-lesson for the benefit of posterity, brought the curse of their times and their personal antecedents with them as they destructively stomped across the earth. If anything, Mary Shelley's book broke the curse. The monsters in The Monsters suffered for their right to express themselves so that we -- the sons and daughters of Western civilization, let it be hastily specified -- don't have to.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

More than just Snack-Cakes

"May I Tempt Thee with a Toothsome Zinger?"

I checked out newcomer Catherine Allgor's "A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation" principally because of the book's slightly outrageous subtitle, secondarily because I knew very little of the woman who provided the eponym for the wretched little snack-cakes called "Zingers" (tunnel-shaped tubes of enriched flour, sugar, and calcium sulfate almost identical, but actually somewhat superior to, its bitter rival, the "Twinkie") I used to devour as a child. Here's what I did know about Dolley Madison prior to reading this book: she was introduced to James Madison by none other than Aaron Burr; she favored gaudy turbans that flaunted ostrich plumes; during the War of 1812, she saved the copy (by an unknown painter) of Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington that had hung in the first White House by taking it with her as she fled from the approaching British Army, who promptly torched the place.

This last bit was what enshrined Dolley in the annals of American fame, though, as Allgor points out, it wasn't Dolley who actually removed the painting, but rather a pair of her slaves. "Black hands tried to unscrew the picture, and when that failed, enslaved Americans wrestled the 'Father of Liberty' out of his frame." The incident, like so many in our history, became a vehicle for propagandistic embellishment. Unfortunately, Dolley's new biographer exploits her every bit as fulsomely, only in a far different -- indeed, in an exactly opposite -- manner. The 3rd First Lady has, in Allgor's hands, become the axe to be sharpened on the chip-on-the-feminist-shoulder.

Discontented feminism rears its head before the book even begins. On page xi, we're treated to a "Note on Names": "To refer to James Madison as 'Madison' replicates outdated biographical forms in which men are given the respect of last names and women are relegated to informal designations." And later: "When discussing men and women in political partnerships, both will be referred to by first names; hence, the Madisons will be 'James' and 'Dolley'. If this seems excessively familiar to modern readers, at least both women and men will suffer any diminishment equally." The Sexy Misanthropist (not, let it be reinforced, The Sexy Misogynist) wonders why anyone should suffer diminishment, equally or not, unless the historical record demands it. But these are the sort of pedantic games that our academics, born, bred, and burning with resentment in Academe, play. (Allgor is a professor at UC Riverside.) All of which means that the author of most of our Constitution, as well as the author of the world's single greatest political document, the Bill of Rights, must be referred to as "James" throughout this biography of his wife, who, hilariously enough, always referred to him as "Mr. Madison" or "Madison" or "M." in her correspondence to family and friends. Madison's brilliant Secretary of State, the sadly forgotten Albert Gallatin, is referred to as "Albert" by the author because he had the (posthumous) misfortune to be married to one of Dolley's closest confidants. Along those lines, "James" himself was Secretary of State to his predecessor, Thomas Jefferson, who, being a widower during his Presidency, is spared from being called "Thomas". But to be fair to Allgor, the contemporaneous Emperor of the French doesn't "suffer diminishment" by being labeled Napoleon instead of the more gender-equitable "Bonaparte". Score one for Allgor!

The reader will note that I've not spent a lot of time on Dolley yet. This is because there's remarkably little to tell. She commenced life as a precocious gal from a rather dour Quaker family named Payne. Her father having failed at farming and social climbing in Virginia, he removed the brood to Philadelphia and re-committed himself to the Quaker religion. (When you fail in life, get Born Again!) The father suffered more business failures and eventually took to bed out of spite. He died soon after, but not before arranging a marriage for Dolley to one John Todd, a fellow Quaker and rising lawyer. During their happy 3-year marriage, they had two children. Her husband and the youngest child died on the same day from a plague of yellow fever that was sweeping the city and environs.

Dolley was a tough and practical broad. Within a month, she was back at her mother's place -- now a boarding-house for the city's visiting politicans (Philadelphia was then the capital while Washington City was being built) -- and already on the marriage-market. One of the boarders had been Congressman Aaron Burr, who introduced his lonely Princeton classmate, James Madison, to the voluptuous widow. The rest, as they say, is history.

I've spent almost as much time describing these fairly interesting events as Allgor does. The pre-Madison material consists of one brief chapter. Chapter 2 is "Meeting Madison", also brief. Chapter 3 is "Lady About Town", in which the Madisons take residence in the new, malarial, unfinished capital in Washington after "James" is appointed Jefferson's Secretary of State. It becomes clear that "A Perfect Union" isn't going to be a biography in the usual sense. A large portion of the remaining 340-odd pages of text is devoted to a thesis, which is what you should probably expect from a professor at UC Riverside. The thesis is this: Dolley Madison's parties at the Madison home in F Street, and later the White House, created the climate of compromise necessary to a fledgling republic. While the Founders, all men, the brute beasts, were barking and screaming at one another, fighting duels, and, like the insane John Randolph of Virigina, bringing hunting dogs onto the floor of the House of Representatives, Dolley Madison was inaugurating what Allgor calls "the unofficial sphere" into the political maelstrom of early America. The author is forced to ignore much history in order to issue her feminist corrective to the achievements of the Founding FATHERS, those patriarchal bastards. Allgor ignores the Constitutional Convention, which was, as every schoolgirl knows, a triumph of compromise over rigid partisanship. Allgor describes, but conveniently ignores the implications of, the back-room dealings that created the new capital of Washington City in the first place. Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton wanted the Federal government, rather than the states, to assume the Revolutionary War debt. Here's how he got it done, in Allgor's words: "Over the course of the meal, Hamilton consented to vote for the Potomac legislation in exchange for James' support. For James to vote for Hamilton's program would amount to political suicide, but he agreed not to organize a 'strenuous' opposition. Accordingly, on June 9, the House passed the Residence Bill, establishing the capital's new location . . . " And all this in 1790, before "James" even met Dolley! The point is, even these dunderheaded late-18th-century men managed to get a few things done without killing each other or otherwise acting like children.

Don't worry, this will be the last small paragraph I'll quote in full: "At Dolley's drawing room, politicians and members of political families gossiped to form alliances, develop strategies, and agree on common goals. Again, like other elements of the unofficial sphere, gossip accomplished some of the structure building that the government sorely needed and that the Constitution did not provide." Okay, now imagine this repeated, like, literally 500 times in slightly different wording, and there's your book. And despite the endless repetition, Allgor provides scanty evidence as to what was exactly accomplished at these weekly parties and balls. The letters she cites from witnesses all too often compliment Dolley on her gracious manners and whatnot, but no one seems to have documented any actual politicking. Allgor asserts that Federalists and Republicans were able to relax in each other's company at the parties, but I'm not sure that this justifies the book's lofty subtitle, "Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation." What does come to light is how Dolley wielded her position as a fount of patronage, dispensing cushy government jobs to her ladyfriends' husbands, her own nephews, and other satellites. I think an entirely negative book could be written about Dolley, using Allgor's book as a reference: the author unwittingly depicts the emergence of the lobbying class in America. No wonder Dolley's contempories are so silent about what was discussed during those parties! The corrupt patronage angle would merely be the cherry-icing atop the Zinger. The Creation of the American Nation, indeed! One starts to suspect that it wasn't coincidental that, before her death in 1848, Dolley asked her niece to burn the majority of her (Dolley's) correspondences and other writings. A revised letter to "James", originally written in 1814 as the British were several miles away from the White House, was spared, along with a few educational mottoes to young relatives and some bad poems.

The fact is, Dolley Madison's poor little shoulders simply cannot withstand the portentous feminist glory Allgor dumps on them. Why plump up this gentrywoman with all this hot air, when there are plenty of admirable feminists in the period -- hell, even before the period (Mary Wollstonecraft comes immediately to mind)? The author even alludes to Harriet Martineau, an original American feminist who wrote Illustrations of Political Economy and who visited the Madisons in their retirement at Montpelier. Why not a book about her? Perhaps Martineau has been "done" already by the "studies" department at Riverside, and they were desperate for a new subject.

The last plate in "A Perfect Union" is a Mathew Brady daguerreotype of Dolley, taken in 1848. Allgor captions it "The Last of the Founders". What did Dolley Madison Find? A White House that served as a locus of lobbying and political patronage? Perhaps Allgor has proven her case after all . . . in which case, the eponym of snack-cakes has proven to be the most influential Founder of them all.

Monday, September 04, 2006

He's a Cold-Hearted Snake!

Look into his eyes! Oh-oh! He's been tellin' lies!

Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, authors of "Mao, The Unknown Story", clearly come from the Paula Abdul school of pop-history writing. This 814-page tome (630 of it actual text; the remainder notes and lists of sources and interviews) is an infuriated, and probably entirely justified, hit-piece on Chairman Mao. Chang and her family suffered under the Communists in China for, like, 7 decades: purges, famine, getting thwacked on the head with Mao's Little Red Book, and so on. I've not read it, but her 1991 chronicle "Wild Swans" apparently goes into all the grisly details of what life was like "on the ground" in Red China in the 20th century.

I would imagine "Mao" is even more grisly than Chang's previous book, but you won't find a lot of context here. It's all Mao, all the time. The authors' intent is to definitely place the Chairman with that special club of 20th century tyrants that include Hitler and Stalin. In fact, it will be some news to non-specialists that Mao was entirely a creature of Stalin, and in fact owed his rise to Russia's vicious scourge, apparently because Stalin knew a fellow bloodthirsty sociopath when he saw one and figured that he may as well support the worst of a bad lot in China's Communist Party. Well, Chang and Halliday make such an inference, at least. Which is what they do with a great deal of the material they collected: make inferences.

The book is deeply frustrating. I'm quite prepared to believe the majority of the authors' assertions, but their research work and citations too often don't pass the smell test. Just flipping randomly to the Notes section, which follows the impressive-looking Interviews list, reveals these "sources" for Chapter 41, "Defence Minister Peng's Lonely Battle": "[pages] 446-7, Mao to Shaoshan: our visit to Shaoshan, and interviews with Mao's entourage, relatives, local officials" . . . "[pages] 447-8, Mao at Lushan: our visit to Lushan, and interview with a local insider, Apr 1996" . . . "[page] 449, Zhongnanhai lounge: interviews with former girlfriends of Mao's, 29 Sept. 1994, 30 July 1999" . . . (The italics are mine.) There are hundreds of such-like "sources" as these.

I mean, look, I understand that historians of modern-day China or any oppressive regime will be forced to cite anonymous sources, but Chang and Halliday never alert the reader that the sources might not be infallible. They in fact don't even discuss their sources. One starts to believe that a bunch of gossipy old folks just told Chang what she wanted to hear, or that she only used information that shored up her claim that Mao was an unmitigated bastard. (For a detailed analysis of the authors' research, read Andrew Nathan's pretty devastating critique here.)

Worse, the authors immaturely indulge in omniscence. The last sentence of the book may serve as an example: "His mind remained lucid to the end, and in it stirred just one thought: himself and his power. [sic! isn't that two thoughts?]" This sort of thing goes on almost every page. When, say, Robert Caro attempts to get into the mind of Lyndon Johnson, we buy it, because Caro has spent 3 decades writing about his subject, has verifiable sources, names them, and lists them properly. But more, even when detailing Johnson's perfidies, Caro paints a whole picture of Johnson. A human being emerges, one with quite admirable and likable traits as well as less savory ones. The Mao in "Mao" is all bad, all the time. If the authors are to be believed, he hated his four wives and didn't give a tin shit about his own kids unless they could be politically useful. (He abandoned several of them over the decades, one of them -- an infant -- to death on the Long March.) He didn't even like animals. Hell, Hitler had pets.

Okay! So "Mao" isn't serious history. Is it a good read, at least? Yes, perhaps precisely because of its faults. It's always fun to read a rise-and-fall story, especially when the subject commences as a nobody and claws his way to the top. But the Mao that emerges is a caricature, rather like Richard III: always scheming, bloodthirsty, devoid of any decent impulses. By the way, if you're interested in all the crimes attributed to the man, go to Wikipedia or somewhere else -- this review ain't a synopsis, but rather a critique of the book's readability. Probably the most sensational claim of "Mao" was that the famous "Long March", undertaken by the Reds from the southern to the northern regions of the country in the 1930's, was successful not because of Mao's leadership or military brilliance but because Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek permitted the March to succeed so that Stalin would release Chiang's son from Russia, held more or less as a hostage in the old Roman Imperial style as a guarantee of good behavior. Scholars like Nathan have pointed out that this interpretation of events ignores evidence to the contrary, such as Chiang's gross incompetence. This book is suspiciously charitable towards Chiang, to the point that one starts to suspect a right-wing bias, i.e., Communists couldn't have been smarter than non-Communists or couldn't have bested the Nationalists without the latter being hamstrung by tragic circumstances. More than once, the authors point out that Mao wasn't encumbered with Chiang's "weak spots" such as his love for his children and loyalty to friends and so on. Their proof, such as it is, seems to rely chiefly, if not quite exclusively, on hearsay.

Most famously, the other revelatory doozy herein is the claim that the famous battle at the Luding Bridge -- near the end of the March -- was a propaganda invention. Chang and Halliday claim that the Nationalists weren't even in the vicinity. (Chiang Kai-Shek was still trying to get his son back, supposedly, and so this convenient glance in the other direction was yet another sop to Stalin, who, it must be mentioned, supported the Nationalists as long as they were keeping the imperialist Japanese busy. Chinese history, to say nothing of Russian history, is complicated!) The authors apparently base this claim on the recollections of a "sprightly", 91-year-old woman . . . though scholars contesting this story have already produced a similarly aged old man who does remember the battle.

Who knows what is true? The point is, the concatenation of suppositions makes for a rather gripping read, even if you know how it all ends: the Reds assuming control of the country in 1949; Mao encouraging some dissent in the mid-Fifties only to expose and then purge the impertinent loudmouths (the so-called "Hundred Flowers" episode); Mao's feverish obsession to acquire atomic power leading to the ghastly "Great Leap Forward", in which 30 million Chinese starved to death because Mao was paying for Russian technology with Chinese food; the Cultural Revolution, in which friend, foe, and millions of others were sent to labor camps or simply assassinated; the rapprochement with Nixon. And then finally Mao's slow and lingering death. Chang and Halliday's explanation for all this? Mao was a power-tripping rat-bastard, a lazy sensualist, a thug who enjoyed the sight of blood and human agony, a guy who basically wanted to be king of the mountain and nothing more. The authors even claim, on flimsy justification based on a few of Mao's throwaway comments, that he didn't give a shit about his legacy as a ruler. This would make him the first ruler in history to feel this way, but whatever.

Perhaps they're right. But missing from this chronicle of gore (and the book is often quite literally that, featuring hundreds of descriptions of various tortures and executions) is the context behind it all, and any evidence contrary to the authors' thesis. One would never know, for example, that human lifespans more than doubled during Mao's reign, even when taking the Great Leap Forward into account in the calculations. (During the late Imperial period at the turn of the 20th century, the average lifespan was 35.) Clearly, Mao bloodily dragged China, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century and modernity. Chang and Halliday aver that the cost in human lives -- they attribute to Mao 70 million deaths of his own people, which is more than Hitler and Stalin combined -- was not worth it. I'm inclined to agree with them. But at some point, one has to ask: why did the Chinese submit to this hooligan? Hey, every culture is prone to defects -- the Chinese defect, according to this book (though not explicity stated, natch), would seem to be a cowering, slavish worship of authority in general and authority-figures in particular. All those patriarchal "family values" and whatnot. How else explain it? How else explain, for example, the brilliant premier Chou En-Lai's servile acquiesence to Mao's bloodthirsty thuggery and stupid policy ideas? (There are almost 600 pages of examples, with regard to Chou alone, that Chang and Halliday meticulously cite.)

And, 30 years after Mao Tse-Tung's death, we see that nothing has fundamentally changed for China. Even with the adoption of capitalism within the country's authoritarian system, freedom-loving Chinese -- presumably few, given the evidence -- can't seem to get a foothold on power. The train just keeps on rolling, only these days they're serving Coca Cola along with the traditional tea in the dining car. Recently, China has demanded that Japan take a cold, hard, long look at their (fairly) recent past and come to terms with what they've done.

Who is telling China to come to terms with what they've done, and are continuing to do, to themselves?