Lewis Glinert: Language dreams – An ancient tongue awakens in a Jewish baby

GlinertIn a Jewish section of Jerusalem, in 1885, a young couple, Eliezer and Devora Ben-Yehuda, were fearful for their child: they were rearing him in Hebrew, an unheard-of idea. They had taken in a wet-nurse, a dog and a cat; the nurse agreed to coo in Hebrew, while the dog and the cat – one male, the other female – would give the infant Itamar an opportunity to hear Hebrew adjectives and verbs inflected for gender. All other languages were to be silenced.

When Itamar turned three, however, he had still not uttered a word. Family friends protested. Surely this mother-tongue experiment would produce an imbecile. And then, the story goes, Itamar’s father marched in and upon finding the boy’s mother singing him a lullaby in Russian, flew into a rage. But then he fell silent, as the child was screaming: ‘Abba, Abba!’ (Daddy, Daddy!) Frightened little Itamar had just begun the reawakening of Hebrew as a mother tongue.

This is how I heard the story (embroidered, no doubt, by time) when I interviewed Itamar’s last living sister, Dola, for my BBC documentary ‘Tongue of Tongues’ in 1989.

As a young man in Russia, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (born Perlman) had a far more modest dream: Jewish cultural rebirth. Groups of eastern European Jews, intensively schooled in the Bible and the Talmud in the traditional religious way, were beginning to explore a new, secular Jewish identity, built on reimagining their past and at the same time forging a ‘modernised’ Hebrew to acquaint fellow Jews with contemporary arts and sciences. Hebrew novels started appearing in Warsaw and Odessa, along with periodicals, newspapers, textbooks and encyclopaedias. They variously called their project haskalah (‘enlightenment’) or tehiyah (‘reawakening’).

Cultural renaissance, of course, was a rallying cry across 19th-century Europe, driven by a romantic reverence for a simpler or more glorious national past and, especially after 1848, by tumultuous struggles for ethnic and linguistic self-determination. The driving forces and goals were various and complex. Some, such as ennui in the soulless big city or the mobilisation of the masses through literacy, were modern; others were rooted in old ethnic identities or a respect for the vernacular in the arts and religion. The words and ways of the peasantry had a particular ring of authenticity for many nationalistic intellectuals, often neurotically out of touch (as Elie Kedourie and Joshua Fishman have documented) with the masses they aspired to lead. These sophisticated intellectuals were equally enchanted by childhood and the child’s access to truth and simplicity, as celebrated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Blake and William Wordsworth.

To the vast majority of Jews, Hebrew language and Hebrew culture felt passé – pious, outmoded, arcane. The future, as they saw it, lay with English, German and Russian, and with the education, earning power and passport to assimilation that these languages promised. Migration to the West was on many minds. The young Ben-Yehuda was well aware of this. If current trends continued, he believed that his generation might well be the last erudite enough to understand its Jewish literary heritage.

But what kind of cultural ‘liberation’ could Jewish nationalists hope for? The Jews had no territory of their own, and a Jewish state, even Jewish autonomy, seemed a fantasy. (Zionism as a mass movement was still a generation in the future.) Nor was there a Hebrew-speaking peasantry or a Hebrew folk heritage to turn to for authenticity, or so it seemed. Hebrew was incorrigibly adult, stuffy. There was Yiddish, of course, the vernacular of most European Jews in the 19th century, but they generally considered it undignified, comic, a language without a grammar, a mishmash.

Then, in 1878, as Europe was toasting Bulgaria’s triumph against the Ottomans, the 19-year-old Ben-Yehuda had his epiphany. As he recalled years later in his memoirs: ‘The heavens opened … and I heard a mighty voice within me calling: “The rebirth of the Jews and their language on ancestral soil!”’ What if Jews could build a modern way of life in the Holy Land – raising their children to speak the old language?

Ben-Yehuda wanted great literature to be preserved down the generations. But to speak in order to read? Today, it sounds back-to-front, but in the 19th century it would have seemed quite reasonable. The trouble was that no child had used Hebrew as a mother tongue in close to 2,000 years. Thinking logically, Ben-Yehuda reasoned that a new mother tongue would need a willing mother: and so he found one, in an intellectual young woman named Devora Jonas, raised like him in Yiddish and Russian, and with only the barest knowledge of Hebrew. (Intensive textual study was traditionally reserved for young men.) No matter – they would marry and she would learn. In 1881, the young couple set sail for the Holy Land, pledging to set up the first secular, ‘progressive’ household in the pious city of Jerusalem, and to communicate with each other (and eventually, their children) only in Hebrew.

Speaking Hebrew was actually nothing new in itself; it had long been a lingua franca between Yiddish-, Ladino- and Arabic-speaking Jewish traders (and refugees). The markets of the Holy Land had resonated with Hebrew for hundreds of years. But a pidgin is not a mother tongue. Ben-Yehuda was a born philologist; he plucked words from ancient texts and coined his own, hoping one day to launch Hebrew’s answer to the Oxford English Dictionary. The birth of Itamar gave him an opportunity to put his experiment with Hebrew to the test. Could they rear the boy in Hebrew? Could they shield him from hearing other tongues? And, just as critical, could the family be a model for others?

Devora’s limited Hebrew was presumably sufficient for a three-year-old, but, like immigrant mothers everywhere, she eventually learned fluent Hebrew from her children, thereby demonstrating the two-way validity of the model. Ben-Yehuda, however, won the acclaim. ‘Why does everyone call him the Father of Modern Hebrew?’ sniffed the author S Y Agnon. ‘The people needed a hero,’ a politician wryly quipped, ‘so we gave them one.’ Ben-Yehuda’s political vision and scholarly toil complemented the physical toil by which the Zionist pioneers made their return to the Holy Land sacred.

Many more pieces had to fall into place in subsequent years to turn a language of books into a stable mother tongue for an entire society – some carefully laid, others dropping from heaven. But amid the waves of revolutionary-minded migrants deeply schooled in traditional texts, the developing demographics, economics and institutions of a new nation, the nationalistic fervour, and a lot of sheer desperation, we should not forget Hebrew’s very special version of the romance of a child’s talk.

The Story of Hebrew by Lewis Glinert is out now with Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Yuri Slezkine on The House of Government

Slezkine The House of Government is unlike any other book about the Russian Revolution and the Soviet experiment. Yuri Slezkine’s gripping narrative tells the true story of the residents of an enormous Moscow apartment building where top Communist officials and their families lived before they were destroyed in Stalin’s purges. A vivid account of the personal and public lives of Bolshevik true believers, the book begins with their conversion to Communism and ends with their children’s loss of faith and the fall of the Soviet Union. The result is an unforgettable human saga of a building that, like the Soviet Union itself, became a haunted house, forever disturbed by the ghosts of the disappeared. Read on to learn more about the House, the book, and why the Bolsheviks can be considered a millenarian sect.

What gave you the idea to write this book?

YS: I grew up in Moscow, in a communal apartment (an apartment that contained several unrelated families, each occupying one room and sharing a kitchen, bathroom, and hallway). About twenty years ago, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to write a history of the Soviet Union through the history of one such apartment. Tracking down different families and their archives proved difficult, however, and I kept moving from one building to the next until I ended up in the largest and most famous of them all, the House of Government.

What was the House of Government?

YS: It was the apartment building where most top members of the Soviet Government lived in the 1930s. It was located in a low-lying area called “the Swamp,” across the Moskva River from the Kremlin. The largest residential building in Europe and a model of socialist domesticity, it combined 550 fully furnished family apartments with public spaces including a cafeteria, grocery store, walk-in clinic, child-care center, hairdresser’s salon, post office, telegraph, bank, gym, laundry, library, theater, movie theater, tennis court, and several dozen rooms for various activities (from billiards and target shooting to painting and orchestra rehearsals). It is still there today, next to Swamp Square and across the river from the Kremlin—still a house, but no longer “of government.” Most Muscovites know it as a huge, sinister gray building—the last address of the founders of the Soviet state and the subject of Yuri Trifonov’s wonderful novella, The House on the Embankment.

Is The House of Government a history of that building?

YS: It is a history of the building and of the men, women, and children who lived there. It begins with the Old Bolsheviks’ conversion to communism, culminates in their execution for treason, and ends with their children’s loss of faith and the fall of the Soviet Union. It is a history of the Russian Revolution through the story of the original revolutionaries and their families.

 In what sense is it a “saga?”

YS: It is an epic prose narrative with multiple heroic characters and, at the same time, a history of particular families over several generations. The reason an apartment building is a perfect subject for a book about the revolution is that all radical attempts to transform human life are ultimately assaults on the family (the oldest and most conservative of human institutions). Family apartments were places where Bolsheviks came home and the revolution came to die. Revolutions do not devour their children; revolutions, like all millenarian experiments, are devoured by the children of the revolutionaries. My book is about how and why that happened.

Why millenarian?

YS: Because, in my view, the Bolsheviks were a millenarian sect. They believed in Providence (which they called History), the fatal corruption of the world (which they called “the last stage of capitalism”), the approaching apocalypse (which they called Revolution) and the more or less immediate—”in this generation”—collective salvation leading to the Millennium (which they called Communism).

Their prophecy was analogous to those of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Mormonism, Nazism, Rastafarianism, and the Branch Davidians, among many others, but the Bolsheviks were more successful than most because they took over Babylon while still expecting the disappearance of the old world in their lifetimes (Christianity did not become the empire’s official faith until the wait for the Last Days had become routinized). It is as if the Fifth Monarchists, the most radical of the nonconformist dissenters, had won the English Civil War and formed a Puritan International. Or as if Jim Jones had installed himself in the White House, renamed the United States the People’s Temple, and won the civil war he had done so much to bring about.

The Bolsheviks succeeded in casting out the moneychangers and collectivizing most worldly possessions, but they failed the test of disappointment. All end-of-the-world prophecies have so far proven false. Some millenarian sects have managed to cross the succession threshold, institutionalize themselves as churches with hereditary membership, and turn the revelation into an allegory and the promise of “till Kingdom come” into a synonym of “till the cows come home.” Others—the overwhelming majority—have disappeared, more or less violently, along with the first generation of believers.

The Bolsheviks’ failure was almost as spectacular as their success. They built a great empire but never figured out how to penetrate the home and reform the family. Their faith remained silent on the mysteries of birth, marriage, and death, and the Babylon they conquered proved more durable than they did. A hundred years after the fall of the Winter Palace, Russia is back, and the Bolsheviks are all gone.

Yuri Slezkine is the Jane K. Sather Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His books includeThe Jewish Century (Princeton), which won the National Jewish Book Award. He is the author of The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution.

Bryan Wagner on a controversial folktale: The Tar Baby

WagnerPerhaps the best-known version of the tar baby story was published in 1880 by Joel Chandler Harris in Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, and popularized in Song of the South, the 1946 Disney movie. Other versions of the story, however, have surfaced in many other places throughout the world, including Nigeria, Brazil, Corsica, Jamaica, India, and the Philippines. The Tar Baby: A Global History by Bryan Wagner offers a fresh analysis of this deceptively simple story about a fox, a rabbit, and a doll made of tar and turpentine, tracing its history and its connections to slavery, colonialism, and global trade. Wagner explores how the tar baby story, thought to have originated in Africa, came to exist in hundreds of forms on five continents.

What is the tar baby story?

BW: There are hundreds of versions of the story, involving many characters and situations. It’s not possible to summarize the story in a way that can encompass all of its variants. The story does, however, follow a broad outline. I provide the following example in the book: “A rabbit and a wolf are neighbors. In the summer, the rabbit wastes his time singing songs, smoking cigarettes, and drinking wine, while the wolf stays busy working in his fields. The rabbit then steals from the wolf all winter. The next year, the wolf decides he will catch the rabbit by placing a tar baby, a lifelike figurine made from tar softened with turpentine, on the way to his fields. When the rabbit meets the tar baby in the road, and the tar baby does not reply to his greetings, the rabbit becomes angry and punches, kicks, and head-butts the tar baby until he is stuck at five points and left to the mercy of the wolf. The rabbit, however, is not trapped for long as he tricks the wolf into tossing him into the briar patch where he makes his escape.” In addition to this summary, I also provide an appendix with versions of the story transcribed in Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa, the Cape Verde Islands, the Bahamas, Corsica, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, the Philippines, and the United States. I also include a map of these stories representing when and where they were collected.

Why did you write a book about the tar baby story?

BW: The tar baby has some familiar associations. People think about the ways in which the term “tar baby” has been used as a racial slur. Or they think about it as a figure of speech referring to a situation that gets worse the harder you try to solve it. Or they think about the version of the story that was published by Joel Chandler Harris in Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1881). Or they think about the adaptation of the Uncle Remus stories in the Walt Disney movie Song of the South (1946). Most people don’t know that that the story of the tar baby was not invented by Harris. They don’t know that the story exists in hundreds of versions in the oral tradition that were collected on five continents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Scholars during these decades were fascinated by the story. They wanted to know how the story came to exist in all of these far-flung places. Some people, including Harris, thought the tar baby story was a key example of the cultural tradition that slaves brought with them from Africa to the Americas. Others believed that the tar baby originated not in Africa but in India or France. Still others believed it was invented by American Indians and borrowed by African Americans. The argument was fierce, and the stakes were high. Did culture belong to a race of people? Or did it cross over racial lines? Did culture construct or transcend racial identity? These questions have stayed with us even as they have been applied to a wide range of examples. It is important to recognize that the tar baby was one of the earliest and most important cases through which these questions were formulated.

The tar baby story is important to ideas about culture and race. Is it also important for politics?

BW: Yes that’s right. Increasingly over the twentieth century, scholars looked to trickster stories like the tar baby for evidence of how peasants and slaves reflected on the politics of everyday life.

Peasants and slaves told stories like the tar baby, it was argued, to share lessons about how to survive in a hostile world where the cards were stacked against you. These ideas were essential to intellectual movements like the new social history and certain strains of political anthropology. At the same time, other scholars have questioned this approach, arguing that it turns politics into the uninhibited pursuit of self-interest, failing to account for the importance of cooperation. I think that scholars have been right to bring these big questions about culture and politics to the story, but I also think that the answers they have discovered in the story have been insufficient. My book approaches the tar baby as a collective experiment in political philosophy. It argues that we need to understand the ways in which the story addresses universal problems—freedom and captivity, labor and value, crime and custom—if we are to gauge its powerful allure for the slaves, fugitives, emigrants, sailors, soldiers, and indentured workers who brought it all the way around the world.

What about the story’s longstanding association with racism? Is “tar baby” a racist term?

BW: That last one is a complex question, but the short answer is yes. Some people like William Safire and John McWhorter have argued that the racism associated with the term “tar baby” is a recent invention, and that the term’s original meaning is not about race. This is disproven by the fact that there are examples from the early nineteenth century where the term was already being used as a racial slur specifically directed at African American children. Harris published his first version of the tar baby story in the Atlanta Constitution at a time when the newspaper was using the term as a racial slur in its news articles. The term’s racism is not incidental to the story. This is also confirmed by the fact that illustrations from early versions of the story represent the tar baby as having phenotypically African facial features. In complex ways, the story is about the history of racism, and for this reason, I don’t think the term should be used in an offhand way as a figure of speech for an intractable situation. This usage is offensive not least for its willful ignorance of the long history of suffering and exploitation that the story attempts in its own way to comprehend.

Bryan Wagner is associate professor in the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power after Slavery and Tar Baby: A Global History.

Amazons in all Shapes, Sizes, and Colors: What the Wonder Woman Movie Got Right

by Adrienne Mayor

Were Amazons—and their real-life counterparts in antiquity—really as diverse as they appear in Wonder Woman?

Wonder Woman opens with a breathtaking  panorama of Themiscyra, the fantasy island populated by powerful women, a paradise magically isolated in time and space from the modern world of men and their ruthless wars. This is where the little wonder girl Diana raised by a triumvirate of formidable females: Queen Hippolyta, General Antiope, and her aunt Melanippe.

In the film, Themiscyra is a self-contained, women-only society of indomitable warriors, devoted to using their deadly expertise to fight on the side of all that is fair and good. We see how idealistic young Diana is rigorously trained for hand-to-hand combat, learning rugged martial arts alongside the toughest, most courageous warrior women the world has ever known: Amazons of ancient Greek myth.

The beginning scenes show us daily life in Themiscyra, with the entire citizenry of warlike women engaged in military exercises. As far as the eye can see, vast fields are filled with female soldiers displaying their prowess in an amazing array of skills. Frame after frame, there are women wrestling, boxing, sword fighting; women performing gymnastic feats on galloping horses; women thrusting daggers and twirling battle-axes; keen-eyed archers on foot and on horseback; acrobatic ninjas and javelin throwers with deadly aim. And in the following scenes of the battle on the beach—pitting the Amazons against boatloads of nasty German soldiers—the dizzying kaleidoscope intensifies, drawing us into a maelstrom of whirling, grappling, leaping, kicking, punching, stabbing, spearing, soaring, kickass female fighters. A crucial element in the  scene’s powerful impact is the perfectly natural diversity of super-fit body types and skin colors.

The magnificence of the Amazons of Themiscyra would have been impossible to pull off with typical Hollywood actresses pretending to be fierce warrior women. It was the brilliant decision of director Patty Jenkins to cast real-life athletes and sports champions as Wonder Woman’s companions.

And that choice ensured that women of Themiscyra display a variety of skills, body sizes, shapes, ages, and skin colors. The diversity is stunning: the Amazons are tall and short, robust and lithe, young and mature, lean and muscle-bound, stolid and mercurial; pale and dark—and everything in between.

In ancient Greek myth, Amazons were warrior women who gloried in battle who dwelled in exotic lands around the Black Sea. Now, thanks to evidence from history, art, and archaeology, we now know that the Amazons were modeled on real nomadic peoples of ancient Scythia, a vast territory that stretched from the real Themiscyran plain on the Black Sea to Mongolia. These myriad tribes had their own languages and were ethnically diverse, but they shared a lifestyle centered on fast horses, bows and arrows, and constant warfare. Their egalitarian lifestyle meant that girls and boys learned to ride, shoot arrows, and fight and the women rode to war with the men.

The Scythians left no writings, but modern archaeology, ancient art, and historical descriptions by their neighbors, the Greeks and Chinese, tell us what they were like. Human remains from Scythian graves show both European and Asian traits, characteristics evident in steppe nomads’ descendants today. Females buried with weapons ranged in age from 10 to 45. Some 2,000 years ago, Greek and Roman historians reported that some Scythians had dark eyes and hair, while others were blond or red-headed with blue eyes. Notably, ancient Chinese chronicles confirm this ethnic diversity, describing some Scythians of Inner Asia as red-haired with green eyes.

Beginning in the sixth century BC, Greek artists painted thousands of images of Amazons on vases. The pictures took on more and more realistic details of actual Scythian nomads as they became more familiar with steppe peoples. Vase paintings show tall and petite Amazons, husky and slender Amazons, often together in the same scene. Most have dark hair but there are some blonde and red-haired Amazons. There were ancient Greek tales of Amazons of Africa and Ethiopians were allies of the Amazons in the legendary Trojan War. Vase paintings show African archers dressed like Amazons.

Wonder Woman‘s vision of all kinds of Amazon warriors making themselves physically strong—and then proving their valor in violent combat and emerging victorious—is unprecedented in cinematic history. The grandeur of the fighting scenes—the sheer physicality and diversity of the Amazons—arouses surging emotions of exhilaration in viewers, empowering for women and girls, a revelation for men and boys.

The fact that the multidimensional aspect of Wonder Woman‘s Amazon paradise is grounded in historical reality adds to the glorious authenticity of the film.

So breathtaking is the tribute to strong, real women in the first third of Wonder Woman that I’m joining the chorus of viewers requesting a prequel—we want more Amazons!

MayorAdrienne Mayor is a research scholar in classics and history of science at Stanford University, and the author of The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, a finalist for the National Book Award, and The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World.

 

 

 

 

Image: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

Craig Clunas on Chinese Painting and its Audiences

ClunasWhat is Chinese painting? When did it begin? And what are the different associations of this term in China and the West? In Chinese Painting and Its Audiences, which is based on the A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts given at the National Gallery of Art, leading art historian Craig Clunas draws from a wealth of artistic masterpieces and lesser-known pictures to show how Chinese painting has been understood by a range of audiences over five centuries, from the Ming Dynasty to today. Recently, Clunas took the time to answer some questions about the book.

There are lots of books about Chinese art, what’s the particular scope of this one?

CC: This book isn’t about the whole of Chinese art, but it looks at the important art of painting in China over the last five hundred years or so, from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to the very recent past. It does it not from the point of view of the creation of Chinese painting but through a history of looking at it, and a history of the types of viewers who have formed the very diverse audiences for it over those centuries.

If I don’t know much about Chinese culture, will I be able to understand this book?

CC: I hope anybody interested in art can get something from this book. It has its origins in a lecture series, the A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, held regularly at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, since 1953. In 2012 I gave these lectures (with the same title as the book); that’s only the second time in over sixty years that art from China has been the focus of a Mellon Lecture series. So I was very conscious of addressing a non-specialist audience, of people with an interest in the visual arts generally but without any specific expertise, and I’ve tried to keep the technicalities to a minimum in the main text, while still providing the evidence for other scholars to judge the strength of my arguments. When people say, ‘I don’t know anything about Chinese art,’ they often in fact already have a strong set of preconceptions, and I want to dispel some of these by showing the actual variety of painting being produced over a long time span, including work made in China in the past which tends to get left out of the category called ‘Chinese painting’ today.

How would you break down the main argument? 

CC: Obviously, back in the sixteenth century people in China who viewed a work by a famous painter of the day, or an old master from the past, didn’t think of what they were looking at as ‘Chinese painting.’ To them, it was just ‘painting.’ Today, whether in the Chinese-speaking world or outside it, the category ‘Chinese painting’ is the meaningful one we use to describe both historic painting and contemporary work of certain kinds. The book looks at how this came about, and shows how it was through the actions of viewers that this cultural category was formed, concentrating on certain kinds of pictures and marginalizing others. I’m claiming that the understanding of Chinese painting in some ways ran before it could walk, making big generalizations about the subject before much of the detailed work was done. These generalizations then fed into art history as a whole, where ‘Chinese painting’ stands as probably the major counter-example to the western tradition of art. I’m arguing here that the category ‘Chinese painting’ isn’t a timeless essence of Chinese culture, or an imposition on China from outside, but the result of a complex set of historical processes involving different types of audiences.

How does the book do this? 

CC: Firstly, by showing a fresh and broad set of images, you can’t write about pictures without showing them! The book is very heavily illustrated; it includes some familiar paintings which everybody already interested in the topic might recognize (though I hope they are talked about in a new way), but it also has lots of unfamiliar images, pictures which haven’t been widely reproduced before. I hope every reader will see something surprising and something beautiful. At the book’s heart are a sequence of what to me are really interesting paintings of different types of people – men and women, emperors and merchants, scholars and gallery-goers – looking at paintings. These pictures which take viewing as their subject can tell us a lot. They are at the core of a sequence of chapters which roughly speaking takes the topic from the fifteenth century to our own time, looking at a number of ideal audiences for Chinese painting; I’ve called these: the gentleman, the emperor, the merchant, the nation, the people. I’ve tried to balance analysis of the images themselves with the context in which they were produced, and to look at audiences both inside and outside China, which go back a lot longer than people might imagine. I’m obviously dependent on the specialist scholarship of other writers, and I’ve tried to pull together some of this work to give readers who might be interested in knowing more about a particular topic a sense of some of the great work being done now on Chinese painting. You can now read extensively in English about Chinese painting theory and criticism, and the lives of individual artists, over a broad time span. I’d be pleased if this book made people just a bit more aware of that great body of knowledge, and of the sheer scale of China’s artistic production.

How do you think this book might be received in China? 

CC: I’ve written other books on Chinese art, mostly of the Ming period, which have been translated into Chinese, and what I find interesting (and a bit surprising) is how some Chinese readers find contemporary resonances in books which I thought of when I wrote them as being ‘just’ about history. So I’ve come to accept that the history we write is never ‘just’ about the past. I’ve also learned (and this would be one of the main arguments of the book) that it’s wrong to imagine some homogeneous ‘Chinese view’ of painting or anything else, as if everybody in that huge country thought the same way. I hope some readers there might find it intriguing, and that even if they don’t like its way of arguing they would recognise the respect I feel for one of the world’s great bodies of art and human creativity.

How do you see the story of Chinese painting and its audiences developing in the future? 

CC: Painting, whether in brush and ink or oil on canvas, is only one of the practices of the visual arts in China today, but it remains an extremely important one. This is not least because the boom in the art market in China makes works of both past and present hugely valuable commodities. It seems pretty unlikely to me that the significant collections of Chinese painting outside China (whether in museums or in private hands) will grow very much in the future, the gravitational pull of the Chinese market is now just too strong. But the digital reproduction of artworks, which is proceeding now at a terrific pace, may mean that the physical location of paintings will matter less and less, their audiences will become more global and the composition of these audiences will get more and more diverse. That’s perhaps going to make it harder and harder for a restrictive definition of ‘Chinese painting’ to sustain itself, and maybe in time it will just be part of something called ‘painting’ again, or – who knows – even the dominant strand within it.

Craig Clunas is the Professor of History of Art of Oxford University in England. His books include Screen of Kings: Royal Art and Power in Ming China, Empire of Great Brightness: Visual and Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China, and Art in China.

The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel

Are mass violence and catastrophes the only forces that can seriously decrease economic inequality? Thousands of years of history say the answer is yes. Introducing the new video trailer for Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century.

You can read a Q&A with author Walter Scheidel about the crucial role of violent shocks here.

Walter Scheidel on what really reduces inequality: Violent shocks

ScheidelWhat really reduces economic inequality? According to Walter Scheidel, the surprising answer is something nobody would wish for: mass violence and catastrophe. Tracing the global history of inequality from the Stone Age to today, Scheidel shows that inequality never dies peacefully—it consistently declines when carnage and disaster strike and increases when peace and stability return. The Great Leveler is the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world. Recently, Scheidel took the time to answer some questions about his startling conclusions:

What is the great leveler?

Violence is the great leveler, expended in massive shocks that upend the established order and flatten the distribution of income and wealth. There are four major types of shocks, which I call the Four Horsemen. That’s a fitting image because they were just as terrible as the bringers of doom in the Revelation of John. The first of them is mass mobilization warfare, which reached its heyday during the two World Wars when enormous physical destruction, confiscatory taxation, aggressive government intervention in the economy, inflation, and the disruption of global flows of trade and capital wiped out elite wealth and redistributed resources on a massive scale. These struggles also served as a uniquely powerful catalyst for equalizing political reform, promoting extensions of the franchise, union membership, and the welfare state. The second is transformative revolution, which was also primarily a phenomenon of the twentieth century, when communists expropriated, redistributed and then collectivized, in the process matching the World Wars in terms of body count and human misery. The collapse of states is the third one, not uncommon in the more distant past: everyone suffered when law and order unraveled but the rich simply had more to lose. Plague rounds off this ghastly quartet. On a number of occasions, most famously during the Black Death of the Late Middle Ages, epidemics carried off so many people that labor became scare and real incomes of workers rose while the land and capital holdings of the upper class lost value.

Your book covers thousands of years. Surely things must have changed over time?

Of course they have, but less than you might think. It was the sources of inequality that experienced the biggest changes. The shift to farming and herding after the last Ice Age let our ancestors create material assets that could be passed on to future generations, allowing some families to pull away from the rest. Later, as states and empires appeared and grew in size and power, elites filled their pockets with profits from public office, corruption, coercion and plunder. While this continues to be common practice in some parts of the world, in the West gains from commerce and enterprise have gradually replaced those more archaic form of enrichment. But even as these changes unfolded over the long run of history, violent shocks remained the most potent mechanisms of leveling.

But what about the postwar decades? Didn’t the economy grow and the middle class prosper at the same time as inequality declined?

That’s true, and that’s why many people in America and Europe look back to this period as a time of great progress and welfare. Current ideas of “making America great again” owe a lot to this happy convergence of affluence and equality, and reflect the understandable desire to somehow bring it back. But we must not forget that it was the carnage and the perils of the Second World War that undergirded the entire process. After the New Deal had ushered in progressive policies, it was the war effort that gave rise to the many invasive regulations and taxes that ensured that future gains would be more equitably distributed. This benign fallout from the war faded over time until a new round of liberalization, competitive globalization and technological change allowed inequality to soar once again. Since the 1980s, the economy has continued to expand but a growing share of the pie has been captured by the much-quoted “one percent.”

That’s a sobering perspective. Aren’t there any other factors that can combat inequality and don’t involve bloodshed and misery?

Absolutely. But they often fall short one way or another. Economic crises may hurt the rich for a few years but don’t normally have serious long-term consequences. By reducing inequality and prompting progressive policies, the Great Depression in the U.S. was a bit of outlier compared to the rest of the world. Perhaps surprisingly, political democracy by itself does not ensure a more equal distribution of income and wealth. Nor does economic growth as such. Education undeniably plays an important role by matching skills with demand for labor: most recently, it helped lower the massive disparities that have long weighed down many Latin American countries. Even so, the historical record shows that all of these factors were at their most effective in the context or aftermath of major violent shocks, such as the World Wars. Successful land reform, which is of critical importance in agrarian societies, has likewise often been the product of war and revolution or the fear of violent conflict.

This doesn’t raise much hope for the future. What are the chances that we will be able to return to a fairer distribution of income and wealth?

That’s a good question, although few people will like my answer. The traditional mechanisms of major leveling, the Four Horsemen, currently lie dormant: technological progress has made future mass warfare less likely, there are currently no revolutions on the horizon, states are much more stable than they used to be, and genetics will help us ward off novel epidemics. That’s a good thing – nobody in their right mind should yearn for death and destruction just to create greater equality. But similarly powerful peaceful means of leveling have yet to be found. And to make matters worse, a number of ongoing developments may drive up inequality even further: the aging of Western societies, immigration’s pressure on social solidarity and redistributive policies, and the prospect of ever more sophisticated automation and genetic and cybernetic enhancement of the human body. Barring major disruptions or an entirely new politics of equality, we may well be poised to enter a long period of polarization, another Gilded Age that separates the haves from the have-nots.

ScheidelWalter Scheidel is the Dickason Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Classics and History, and a Kennedy-Grossman Fellow in Human Biology at Stanford University. The author or editor of sixteen previous books, he has published widely on premodern social and economic history, demography, and comparative history. He is the author of The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century.

The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Flatbush

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows, details the beauty, diversity and history that combine to make Brooklyn what is arguably New York’s hottest borough. By simply walking around, talking to residents, and absorbing the borough’s rich history, Helmreich captures the essence and unique facets of Brooklyn. The book is filled with detailed facts and vivid imagery that will inspire a deeper look at these popular (and lesser-known) neighborhoods. We’ve been featuring a selection of these on our blog, with several more to come. Today we take a look at Flatbush.

Flatbush is made up of different subdivisions, each with a strong sense of community and its own identity. This diverse neighborhood is full of great places to shop, dine, see charming Victorian and Queen Anne style homes, and of course, shop:

At the intersection of Caton and Flatbush Avenues, I take a quick walk through the Flatbush Caton Market. It’s a small indoor mall, basically a large, high-ceilinged shed occupied mostly by specialty stores selling clothing, pocketbooks, jewelry, and what New Yorkers call ‘tchotchkes’ of every kind. Many of the stores emphasize ethnic themes, especially from Haiti, which is not surprising since there’s a large Haitian presence here.

Flatbush

The Chateau Frontenacis one of the most beautiful buildings to be found in Brooklyn

Brooklyn is home to numerous places of worship and located in Flatbush is a rare find: A Cambodian Buddhist temple.

At 26  Rugby Road, just off Caton Avenue, I discover a genuinely unusual place. It’s a Cambodian Buddhist temple in a large private home, one of only two Cambodian temples in the city, the other located in the Bronx. Religious and national flags flutter in the pleasant breeze on a bright, sunny Sunday morning…

One of the most architecturally beautiful buildings is located in Flatbush: Chateau Frontenac. The exterior and interior are visually pleasing and the building has attracted numerous famous individuals. A John Lennon documentary was filmed there and it was even the home for some of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Walking south on Ocean to Tennis Court, I turn right, stop short, and behold, a stunning building on the right called the Chateau Frontenac. Built in 1929, its exterior is one of the prettiest in Brooklyn. It’s a red brick building trimmed with white stone, with emblems of the French royal court, like the heraldic salamander, carved into it. Note the beautiful pilasters that frame the arched entranceway and the graceful wrought-iron entrance to the inner courtyard.

William B. Helmreich is an award-winning author who has written many books including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton), where he wrote an analysis of all five of New York City’s boroughs. The book won him the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is the professor of sociology at City College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City.

Jeremi Suri: Is Trump blustering toward Armageddon?

Jeremi Suri, the editor for our America in the World series, has penned a powerful longform piece in The American Prospect, detailing how he thinks Trump could stumble into war:

“Trump will quickly and irretrievably lose control of his threats and commitments, and he will find himself pressured to pursue unwanted wars to preserve the very image of toughness that will get him into trouble in the first place. His belligerent deterrence will induce global war-fighting, as happened repeatedly during the Cold War. This time, the damage will be much greater and perhaps existential. We are witnessing the rapid demise of the American-led world order that for 70 years averted war among the largest states. The next few years, perhaps just the first year of the Trump presidency, will bring us to a dangerous new precipice in multiple parts of the globe. America doesn’t face the risk of war in just one theater of conflict. Under President Trump, the United States faces that risk in at least four separate theaters.”

Suri goes on to outline what he perceives as risks in several complicated strategic spaces: The Middle East, Europe, North Korea, and the South China Sea. Suri sets his warning in historical context, asking whether past precedent can offer a warning to current policy-makers. Read the full piece here.

Explore our America in the World series here.

 

Browse Our History 2017 Catalog

Welcome to our new 2017 offerings in history:

If you are heading to the 2017 American Historical Association Annual Meeting in Denver from January 5 to January 8, come visit us at booth #208. Join us for a reception on Friday, January 6 at 4:00 p.m. to celebrate this year’s award winners and meet our authors.

Also, follow #aha17 and @PrincetonUnivPress on Twitter for updates and information on our new and forthcoming titles throughout the meeting.

An award-winning book, Europe since 1989 provides the first comprehensive history of post-1989 Europe. Philipp Ther—a firsthand witness to many of the transformations, from Czechoslovakia during the Velvet Revolution to postcommunist Poland and Ukraine—offers a sweeping narrative filled with vivid details and memorable stories. A compelling and often-surprising account of how the new order of the New Europe was wrought from the chaotic aftermath of the Cold War, this is essential reading for understanding Europe today.

Ther Europe since 1989

In Hitler’s American Model, James Whitman presents a detailed investigation of the American impact on the notorious Nuremberg Laws, the centerpiece anti-Jewish legislation of the Nazi regime. Indelibly linking American race laws to the shaping of Nazi policies in Germany, this book upends understandings of America’s influence on racist practices in the wider world.

Whitman Hitler's American Model

In a masterful narrative that propels readers from the first shots fired at Fort Sumter to the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s army at Appomattox, Williamson Murray and Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh bring every aspect of the battlefield vividly to life. A military history of breathtaking sweep and scope, A Savage War reveals how the Civil War ushered in the age of modern warfare.

Murray & Hsieh Savage War

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Susan Scott Parrish on the current significance of the Great Mississippi Flood

Parrish“Because of the 21st-century ecocatastrophes we have already witnessed and future events caused or intensified by climate-change, we can now understand that how we communicate about environmental disaster and degradation is as important as how we communicate about war. Indeed, we can also see that when a nation doesn’t take into account all of its citizenry in its environmental management and disaster response, what may ensue is a kind of undeclared civil war. 2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the “Great Mississippi Flood,” but in many ways it anticipated—or inaugurated—our current moment.”

In 1927, the south experienced one of the most extensive environmental disasters in U.S. history: heavy rains led to the flooding of the Mississippi river, spanning nearly thirty thousand square miles across seven states. More than a half million people were displaced, and due to the speed of new media and the slow progress of the flood, it became the first environmental disaster to be experienced on a mass scale. Drawing upon newspapers , radio broadcasts, political cartoons, vaudeville, blues songs, poetry, and fiction, The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History by Susan Scott Parrish shows how this disastrous event took on public meaning.

There were other major disasters in the early 20th century U.S. What was unique about the flood you focus on?

SP: Unlike other devastating floods of the era—in Johnstown, Pennsylvania (1889), Galveston, Texas (1900), and the Lake Okeechobee area of Florida (1928)—which all occurred in a matter of hours, this Mississippi River flood moved so slowly and lasted so long that national audiences could be pulled in, through newly established media circuits, to the events as they unfolded. One of William Faulkner’s narrators called it “the flood year 1927” because the disaster truly lasted an entire year. Moreover, unlike the Johnstown and Okeechobee floods, both also man-made disasters, in which the powerful industrialists involved in the first case and the Florida boosters in the second sought to avoid publicity, in 1927 white southerners, as well as African American pundits and environmentalists throughout the nation, were determined to bring attention to the flood. I would argue, in fact, that not only was this the “worst” flood of the entire 20th century in terms of displaced persons and property damage, but it was also the most publicly engrossing U.S. environmental disaster. As such, it allows us a signal opportunity to ask the following questions: How do—and how should—humans communicate with themselves about politically charged eco-catastrophes? What are the stages through which mass-mediated societies encounter disaster? Do certain media entail better, or more productive, or more democratic epistemologies of crisis? What can we learn from 1927 about how to make transformative expression, and knowledge, out of disaster today and in the future?

Why was this flood so meaningful to people?

SP: Because the course of the flood moved from north to south, retracing the 1863 river-borne assault on the Confederate strongholds of Mississippi and Louisiana, this flood had the peculiar power to make sixty-four-year-old history feel unfinished—to make it feel even biologically reenacted. Advocates for southern black farm laborers likewise found old politics written all over the flood. As conditions in the evacuee camps spelled for their black populations both forced labor and violently guarded movement, it seemed to many that slavery had returned to Dixie and that Federal institutions like the Red Cross and the National Guard were abetting its reestablishment. Though the death toll from the flood was less extensive than that of other contemporaneous disasters, it was the way that this flood—for northern, southern, white, and black publics—uncannily rematerialized the defining American nightmares of slavery and civil war that made it so culturally engulfing. Moreover, the flood gave the lie to many of the early 20th-century promises of a modernizing, technocratic society: here was, in the words of environmentalist Gifford Pinchot, “the most colossal blunder in civilized history.”

The subtitle of your book is “A Cultural History;” can you explain what you mean by that phrase?

SP: Well, I began the book as a literary history, something along the lines of an environmentally-oriented version of Paul Fussell’s The Great War in Modern Memory, which considered the literary reckoning with World War One. I eventually came to see, though, that this flood became a public event across multiple media platforms. Fiction was important for our long-term memory of the flood, but other media were crucial to how the flood became significant while it occurred. I first discovered that William Faulkner, living a few counties away from the river in 1927, took up the flood beginning with the book he wrote in 1928—The Sound and the Fury (1929)—and kept writing about it through As I Lay Dying (1930) and If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (1939). I found a number of stories and pieces of life writing that Richard Wright, living in Memphis in 1927, wrote about the flood in the 1930s. And I came upon many other literary chroniclers as well: Sterling Brown, Will Percy, Lyle Saxon and Ruth Bass, to mention just a few. As I dug deeper into the archive, though, I realized that this flood represented an important moment in the histories of radio and print journalism, theater, and music as well. How northern and western media sought to package the South to raise money for evacuees; how an environmentalist critique went national; and how black journalistic protest remained largely enclaved are all important topics for the history of how media manufacture events which in turn create “publics.” Among the major pundits who weighed in on the flood were W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Walter White, H.L. Mencken, and even, on the radio in Berlin, Walter Benjamin. After I noticed advertisements in newspapers for “monster” flood benefits—the biggest ones produced in the “Vaudeville” variety mode—I gradually realized that the way most citizens around the country came in live contact with the flood was in a theater. In particular, international comedians of color who hailed from the South, Will Rogers and the duo “Miller & Lyles,” offered a trenchant but popular kind of critique of white disaster consumption. Their messages crossed the color line in the way that newspaper editorials did not. Finally, Bessie Smith’s song, “Back-Water Blues,” also popular on both sides of the color line, and on both sides of the Mason Dixon line, offers a remarkable example of the way that black experience of displacement moved across space through sound. All in all, my book tests some classic ideas—expressed by the likes of Walter Lippmann and Jurgen Habermas—that the optimal form of democratic public reckoning with reality occurs through deliberative print media. “Entertainment,” for these theorists, is anathema to truth seeking. By contrast, the archive convinced me that, during the flood itself, Vaudeville comedy and blues entertainment communicated evacuee experience more wholly and more broadly than any other media.

One of your sections is titled “Modernism within a Second Nature,” can you explain how your book contributes to our understanding of modernism?

SP: And what does “Second Nature” mean? For many, the flood was an example of modernization adrift, of a kind of temporary drowning of that Progressive-era sense amongst Americans that theirs was a time of “the perfection of method and of mechanism” that could “spread well-being among the masses.” We have understood that artistic movement known as modernism as expressing at times enthusiasm, but at other times, profound doubts about various kinds of modernization, on the battlefield, in communications, in politics. We have not tended to think enough though about how modernist artists responded to the eclipsing of “nature” with a “second nature.” Second nature is a phrase Henri Lefebvre used to describe how, increasingly with modernity, “nature’s space has been replaced by a space-qua-product” of human design. I think this sense that industrialism’s second nature was not necessarily a “perfection” that would spread “well-being,” but was rather an imperious blunder that could bring intense misery especially to “the masses”—this sense was felt acutely amongst both whites and blacks in the South in 1927. Richard Wright and William Faulkner were the southern modernist authors who, in their stories about the flood, communicated that a rural environment could be thoroughly fabricated by humans, and fabricated in such a way as to intensify its inherent risks, so that these environments could become—indeed, had become—as political and modern and violent a product as a machine gun or a tank.

Given that the flood inundated the lower Mississippi Valley, do you see the book as primarily about the South?

SP: Yes and no. The environmental history leading up to the flood involved the entire Mississippi watershed, and how it was altered (through logging, wetlands drainage, grasslands removal and a levees-only engineering policy). And the media history, in so far as communication about the event was produced and consumed nationally, and internationally, also involves a much wider geography. It was a disaster most keenly and physically experienced in the Deep South, but the event took on meaning across a much broader mediascape. Though the South is often associated with “disaster” (of slavery, of defeat in war, of underdevelopment), it may surprise readers to find southern editorials in 1927 explaining this flood not in terms of God, but in terms of human miscalculation. Scholars who work on southern cultural topics today tend to be interested in how “the South” was created within global systems like mercantilism, empire and slavery, and also how it was partially invented by chroniclers outside its regional boundaries. My book is likewise concerned with that intersection of regional experience and broader environmental and representational patterns.

Why is yours an important book to read in 2017?

SP: Because of the 21st-century ecocatastrophes we have already witnessed and future events caused or intensified by climate-change, we can now understand that how we communicate about environmental disaster and degradation is as important as how we communicate about war. Indeed, we can also see that when a nation doesn’t take into account all of its citizenry in its environmental management and disaster response, what may ensue is a kind of undeclared civil war. 2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the “Great Mississippi Flood,” but in many ways it anticipated—or inaugurated—our current moment. We live in an age in which human impact on the earth is indelibly intense. We live this material reality—in our bones and cells—but we often come to perceive it in a way that is so technologically mediated as to be vertiginously virtual. For the sake of history, it is important to appreciate that the Flood of 1927 represented perhaps the first major coincidence of the “Anthropocene” and what Guy Debord has termed the “Society of the Spectacle.”

Susan Scott Parrish is a Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and the Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan. She is the author of American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World. Her latest book is The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History.

The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Boerum Hill

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide details the beauty, diversity and history that combine to make Brooklyn what is arguably New York’s hottest borough. By simply walking around, talking to residents, and absorbing the borough’s rich history, Helmreich captures the essence and unique facets of Brooklyn. The book is filled with detailed facts and vivid imagery that will inspire a deeper look at these popular (and lesser-known) neighborhoods. We’ve been featuring a selection of these on our blog, with several more to come in the next few weeks. Today we take a look at Boerum Hill.

Boerum Hill, a small neighborhood east of Cobble Hill, hit a decline marked by poverty that started in the 1960s and lasted well until the 1980s. Today, the neighborhood is thriving and is now considered to be an “upscale community,” not to mention, a literary inspiration:

From the 1960s to the early 1980s the area was in decline. An outstanding novel by Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude, tells the story of what it was like then and how it gradually gentrified.

Boerum Hill

Susan Gardner is an art professor and artist who turned the outside of her home into an art project

Like many of the neighborhoods that make up Brooklyn, Boerum Hill features a number of can’t-miss buildings. One is a home exquisitely decorated with mosaic tiles. The homeowner, Susan Gardner, a college professor of art, explained that she was inspired to decorate her home after 9/11, as a way to combat depression.

The home is undoubtedly striking: the entire first floor is covered with a dazzling, riotous mosaic of bright colors—red, blue, yellow, purple, black, pink, orange, and green. The interior is encrusted with tiles, beads, shells, buttons, and mirrors, mostly small, of all shapes and sizes. They cover the walls, iron bars, gate, ground, and even a pipe coming out of the ground. The tiles are all arranged in an incredibly complex series of designs featuring people and angels, some of them silhouetted in windows; animals, street scenes, flowers, tree, butterflies, the sun, and all manner of shapes, some of which cannot be readily identified.

During his walk around Boerum Hill, Helmreich came across another memorable building, this time the Brooklyn Detention Complex, which features a striking mural.

On the back of the building, on State Street, there are some beautiful murals along its white brick wall, supported by a not-for-profit group, Groundswell, which partnered with the prison to create this mural. One mural features the Brooklyn Bridge and a Manhattan skyline with some young people and an elderly man standing in front of it, all with a look of sadness or worry on their faces. This was done by teenagers possibly thinking about the prison, whose barbed-wire topping hangs over these depictions at several points. The exhortations urge passerby to exhibit ‘Responsibility,’ ‘Respect,’ to show ‘Love.’

Boerum Hill is home to a diverse group of nationalities and cultures. If you fancy a delicious French pastry or cuisine, take heart:

There’s a French presence in Boerum Hill, with several French-inspired food shops and restaurants, including a great bakery, Bien Cuit, on Smith Street, between Pacific and Dean Streets. Each year, on July 14, there’s a Bastille Day celebration on Smith, which includes a pétanque tournament. This game is similar to the Italian and British games, respectively, of bocce and bowls, all of which derive from sports popular in ancient Roman times. 

William B. Helmreich is an award-winning author who has written many books including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton), where he wrote an analysis of all five of New York City’s boroughs. The book won him the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is the professor of sociology at City  College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City.