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Okay, Renaissance photography?

Wednesday, August 30th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — Caravaggio at Berkeley, maybe ]
.

So, David Burge has tweeted that this photo looks “like a Renaissance painting of stupid”:

**

First, let’s get Karl Popper out of the way: I don’t think that’s a fa;sifiable statement. But does it ring true for me?

I’d go with Caravaggio, maybe, a bit of a street-brawler himself, who can project himself into the brawl of the arrest of Christ —

— and notice whose hands, fingers interlaced, are calm amid the hurly-burly,

Caravaggion himself fled Rome to escape a death penalty for murder, perhaps that’s a pre-requisite for his tenebrist style of painting, perhaps not, who knows? And the photographer? Dare I ask? Apparently the photo credit goes to Marcus Yam/LA Times via Getty Images.

**

The photo again, since it may have risen out of screen, out of mind.

The photographer certainly (my view) has an eye for framing, but that’s largely what photography is all about, isn’t it?

That slashing diagonal — powerful. Who’s the guy standing, left, a bit detached? Not a Buddhist, I think, in that balaclava. Is that individual. isolated, or the entirety of the clash, what Burge sees as painterly — forget the Renaissance for a while here — ?

Black-clad anarchists attack conservatives at Berkeley rally runs the headline in the South Chibna Morning Post, and they’d know, right? South China, Northern Cal..

I’m weary.

The brush strokes — there are no brushstrokes in photography. Unless you use an app to put them there. Is there a brish stro0kes equivalent? Chiaroscuro — light-dark contrast — arguably, the sun’s too bright for much of that in Berkeley, and the anarchists’ black will have to make up for it. Not so when Christ is arrested — that’s simply dark, and Caravaggion illuminates the players.

How much light-dark contrast does the headline’s reference to “black-clad anarchists” add to the viewer’s perception of the image? Is it the word “black” or the word “anarchist” that does it?

**

Following the news is a complex affair.

But a lover affair in any case, if that’s your preference, as it is mine — it gets me from Berkeley and stupidity to Caravaggio and Chirst, okay?

REVIEW: The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings

Saturday, March 25th, 2017

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Image result for the felowship the inklings book

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip Zaleski & Carol Zaleski

“….it is plain that Tolkien has unleashed a mythic awakening and Lewis a Christian awakening”

“….these clubs offered grand things: escape from domesticity, a base for intellectual exploration, an arena for clashing wits, an outlet for enthusiasms, a socially acceptable replacement for the thrills and dangers of war, and in the aftermath of World War I, a surviving remnant to mourn and honor the fallen”

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings is a book outside my usual wheelhouse, being concerned deeply with the intellectual interplay among the Inklings impacted their literary works and legacies and more fundamentally, the central role played in the former by Christianity and anthroposophy. I was drawn to this book primarily by virtue of being a radical J.R.R. Tolkien fan, but the center of gravity of The Fellowship is C.S. Lewis, the pivotal figure with whom the other Inklings related; even if Lewis was not always the dominant persona, he was frequently a catalyst or a foil for his fellow Inklings. While the Inklings could survive the untimely death of Charles Williams, whose intellectual brilliance and influence over other writers always surpassed his own literary fame, when C.S. Lewis passed from the scene, the Inklings as an active literary society did as well.

What were the Inklings?

This is a question the authors struggle to answer, despite haven woven four strong biographical essays into one. To call them merely an informal discussion club of Oxford and Cambridge scholars is to miss the mark and greatly underrate their influence. To call the Inklings a “movement” or a “school” – either for promoting Norse mythic or Christian revival – imparts a pedantic formality and air of proselytizing that simply never happened.  The Inklings were always particular about admitting new faces to their pub meetings and stubbornly refused to include women, even Dorothy Sayers , a gifted author whom many of the Inklings admired, respected and befriended. Some of the Inklings were not scholars either, not in the academic sense, being editors, lawyers, poets and religious bohemians of a literary bent.

Largely, the authors struggle because while the Inklings have written or admitted how much their meetings or particular members influenced their thinking, their writings or in Lewis’ case, his faith – there is very little record of the meetings themselves. Much of what happened has to be inferred beyond specific incidents like Hugo Dyson’s repeated taunting of J.R.R. Tolkien (“…not more fucking elves!”) or taken from extant correspondence of prolific letter writers like Lewis or diarists like his brother, Warnie (who despite his raging alcoholism, managed to become later in life, an impressive historian of the France of Louis XIV).

The Fellowship though leaves little doubt  that the meetings of the Inklings at the Eagle and Child (“the bird and baby”) or C.S. Lewis’ rooms at Magdalene College at Cambridge were a chief intellectual and social support for the Inklings and an escape from possible loneliness. While Tolkien enjoyed a busy family life with his wife Edith and four children, Lewis’ long endured (which is the correct word) for much of his life, a bizarrely dysfunctional relationship with a much older woman whom he never married, Mrs. Jane Moore, the mother of a close friend who had been killed serving on the Western Front. Other Inklings were bachelors or had unhappy, austere, marriages, making the cerebral debate and late night amusements of the Inklings a welcome refuge.

One of the aspects of the Inklings that comes across in the book – their fellowship of male camaraderie – is nearly extinct in the 21st century and has a distinctly antiquarian air. Such associations were once commonplace. Not merely in academic circles or exclusive clubs of the wealthy, but every small town and hamlet had its charitable societies, Masonic orders, veteran’s organizations, Knights of Columbus and humble bowling leagues that formed and strengthened male social networks among friends, neighbors and their larger community from the 18th century onward. By the time women began demanding entry (or abolition) in the early 70’s these groups were already well into dying off, victims of mass society and suburbanization.

As the Zaleskis convey in The Fellowship, for an informal club of sorts lacking the aesthetic pretensions of the Bloomsbury group, the range of Inkling scholarship, literary and religious influence remains to this day, staggering. Aside from the scholarly accomplishments of its members, other writers drawn into their orbit, at least for periods of time, included T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Dorothy Sayers, Saul Bellow, G.K. Chesterton, John Wain and Roy Campbell; and also several generations of fantasy authors were inspired by the tales of Narnia and Middle-Earth, including by his own admission, the immensely popular George R.R. Martin. The effect of Lewis’ Christian apologetics, especially The Screwtape Letters, may be equally large – and this was the largest source of friction for Tolkien, whose deeply pious, pre-Vatican II traditional Catholicism left him with scant patience for C.S. Lewis’ “amateur” theology and even less for his dear friend’s residual Ulster Protestant cultural prejudices.

In The Fellowship: the Literary Lives of the Inklings, Philip and Carol Zaleski have crafted a deeply researched and complex group biography of impressive depth and reach. Strongly recommended.

The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security

Friday, March 4th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security by Bartholomew Sparrow

In writing The Strategist, Bartholomew Sparrow has demonstrated that his talents as a biographer match his skill as a scholar. Cautious and careful, in telling the life and national security career of the highly regarded Brent Scowcroft, Sparrow never slips into hagiography, or gives Scowcroft a free pass in situations where it would be easy to do so. In retaining his critical eye, Sparrow has consequently permitted Scowcroft’s selfless character and frequently wise judgement to shine on their own merits in the historical record. The result is that The Strategist is a biography of remarkable power, like a great river, there are deep currents of insight below the gently moving surface.

At a sprawling 716 pages, Sparrow had room to investigate Brent Scowcroft’s family heritage in Mormon Utah, his journey at West Point from student to professor, his intellectual and professional mentors (Herman Beukema, William T.R. Fox, George Lincoln, Richard Yudkin, Andrew Goodpaster) and Scowcroft’s unfailing devotion to his wife Jackie, who became an invalid in the years when Scowcroft’s career embraced its largest burdens. It is this context that helps explain the strong ethical core that Scowcroft demonstrated time and again as a military officer, strategist and statesman as he handled brilliant but brittle personalities at the center of national security and foreign policy.

What Sparrow makes clear, time and again, was that it was Scowcroft’s unusually high emotional intelligence coupled with an amazing work ethic that provided Scowcroft with the high opportunities that allowed him to bring his talents as a strategist and manager of national security to bear. Quite simply, Scowcroft connected with people and his relentlessly consistent integrity in dealing with everyone – literally from interns to journalists to Presidents of the United States – was such that his word was regarded as being as good as gold. His equanimity too was almost as legendary as his ethics. ” I never heard Scowcroft get angry” is a frequent refrain of former colleagues. His detractors are few: Dick Cheney, who as Vice-President had a bitter break with Scowcroft over the Iraq War, had nothing but praise to say of his former friend’s integrity and judgement.

Not only did Scowcroft forge an unusually close strategic partnership with two presidents (Ford and Bush I) but he managed to win the respect and trust of so paranoid and aloof a figure as Richard Nixon (it is far less clear that Scowcroft trusted Nixon). Scowcroft’s secret was that inside a Beltway where politics and personalities trended Machiavellian, he operated in a zone of trust. Even the Clinton and Obama administrations sought Scowcroft’s counsel because they were assured of his absolute discretion and impartial judgement.

Asked to compare himself with his former boss, Henry Kissinger, Scowcroft demonstrated that he knew his strengths and his limitations. Sparrow writes:

“….Scowcroft had his own well-developed sense of military strategy and world history. He was also brilliant at questioning and evaluating the merits of his new ideas and policy options as well as a superb bureaucratic operator who knew how to put concepts into practice. But unlike Kissinger, Scowcroft said he was better at reacting to and evaluating ideas than he was dreaming them up; that was why he liked to hire people smarter than himself. ‘I don’t have a quick, innovative mind’ he claimed. ‘I don’t automatically think of good new ideas. What I do better is pick out good ideas from bad ideas.”

Was Scowcroft a good strategist?

The first problem in answering this question, at least from reading Sparrow, is that Scowcroft’s rarely equaled skill as a manager of the NSC decision-making process tends to greatly overshadow and blur his record as a strategist.  Scowcroft’s National Security Council, which worked well under Gerald Ford when the greatest of Washington prima donnas, Henry Kissinger, reigned as Secretary of State, hummed like a machine under George H. W. Bush. One would have to go back to Eisenhower to see such a comparable example of smooth national security decision making. The key was the absolute trust Scowcroft established, as Sparrow records:

“Bush, Baker, Scowcroft and other senior administration officials were able to establish relationships based on trust. ‘One of the reasons why the system worked was that Baker and Cheney totally trusted Brent to keep them informed and to fairly represent their views to the president,’ Gates said. ‘He was the only national security adviser in my view that was ever so trusted by the two other principals’ – and Gates had served under six US presidents at the time he wrote the above, before his time as defense secretary under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Scowcroft’s management of the NSC process also worked well because of his creation of other interagency groups to expedite decision making. One of his key innovations (retained by subsequent presidential administrations) was the formation of the Principals Committee which included the Vice-President, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the director of central intelligence, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House Chief of Staff and the national security adviser – all meeting without the president.”

Scowcroft achieved the holy grail of natsec policy – “whole-of-government” planning and execution. Part of the reason was that Brent Scowcroft was extraordinarily close to the elder President Bush, far closer than in the dysfunctional yet highly successful partnership between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. That accounts for some of it, but Condi Rice was just as close to George W. Bush as Scowcroft had been to Bush’s father yet her tenure as national security adviser is given low marks, not least for being completely unable to rein in Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld or Vice-President Dick Cheney who was virtually the prime minister of the administration in its early years. The difference may have been that Scowcroft could not only speak with the President’s unquestioned authority, he knew better when to do so than Rice and consequently, seldom needed to do it at all.

The second problem in answering “was Scowcroft a good strategist” is that he clearly was not and never aspired to be a grand strategist in the manner of Richard Nixon, George Kennan or Otto von Bismarck.  Scowcroft never approached national security by attempting to reshape the geopolitical calculus despite the regrettable tagline of “new world order”. Instead, Scowcroft’s strategic philosophy was to manage risks as they emerged by peacefully integrating a collapsing rival state system piecemeal into the existing international community status quo at the lowest possible cost of disruption. Maximizing geopolitical opportunities or strategic gains was not his primary yardstick.

This is why as Sparrow, relates, that Scowcroft and the senior President Bush strongly discouraged “triumphalism” in American rhetoric about the Cold War while trying to work with Mikhail Gorbachev to manage the Soviet collapse; and why the break up of Yugoslavia was viewed with such distaste (Scowcroft had served in the embassy in Belgrade under Kennan). Conversely, this is also why  Scowcroft was so eager to use American military force in Iraq, to defend and reinforce post-Cold War international legal norms from Iraqi aggression, but not to march to Baghdad and overthrow Saddam’s dictatorial regime. Brent Scowcroft deserved the credit for both his early insight that force would be required to remove Iraq from Kuwait and the wisdom of the Bush administration to wield overwhelming force with restraint and diplomatic finesse.  When the second Bush administration – an administration filled with his former colleagues – opted to march on Baghdad, it would have been a simple matter for Scowcroft to remain silent, but instead he offered counsel. When his advice was rebuffed, Scowcroft did the harder thing and made his case against the Iraq War public even though it cost him friendships and access to the President of the United States. A rare choice in Washington.

Scowcroft is indeed a strategist by any reasonable measure and something greater, a statesman for whom the country and its national interest always came first.

Strongly Recommended.

Two Mini Reviews

Monday, June 29th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

I have a tremendous backlog of good books to review that I have read in recent months and I am facing the fact that it is dubious that I will ever to get to feature most of them here.  As a stopgap, I am going to try a few mini-reviews instead of the more noteworthy, or at least interesting, titles. Here are two:

1. Stalin: Volume I Paradoxes of Power

Stalin: Vol. 1: Paradoxes of Power 1878-1928  by Stephen Kotkin

Eminent diplomatic historian John Lewis Gaddis praises Princeton’s Stephen Kotkin for his new biography, calling it “A monumental achievement”. This is certainly correct. Kotkin has done more than break new ground with Stalin: Paradoxes of Power; in my view it is arguably the best book on Joseph Stalin ever written.

Admittedly this is high praise. It is true, that Kotkin is not in the same literary class as Simon Sebag Montefiore, who demonstrated his great prose skill with masterfully written and deeply researched biographies of Stalin, but Kotkin is always a clear, effective and always forceful writer. Where Kotkin excels is in the granularity of his biographical narrative, unearthing aspects of Stalin’s childhood and early revolutionary days, the intra-party rivalries with leading Bolshevik personalities, especially Stalin’s complicated relationship with Vladimir Lenin and Stalin’s skill as a politician and grand strategist. The narrative is accompanied with Kotkin’s piercing psychological analysis of Stalin’s criminal psychopathology emerging from a combination of complex rational political calculation and a bottomless well of narcissistic self-pity that ate away at Stalin’s soul.

If volume 2 equals the first book, Kotkin will have written the definitive work of Stalin for years to come.

II. Salinger

Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno

The book that accompanied the documentary of the same name, David Shields and Shane Salerno have put together a remarkable page turner that explains the mystifying author behind one of America’s most iconic literary works.

“Don’t worry if all of the first wave of you are killed, We shall simply pass over your bodies with more and more men” 

J.D. Salinger’s counterintelligence unit spearheaded the landing of the 4th Division on Utah Beach on D-Day, Salinger participated in five major battles in the European theater including the deadly Hurtgen Forest where his regiment suffered 200% casualties and GI’s fighting in summer uniforms without blankets or winter coats froze to death in foxholes. A CIC field interrogator, Salinger operated with great freedom and authority and after participating in the liberation of the concentration camp complex known to history as Dachau, he checked himself into a mental hospital. To paraphrase Shields and Salerno, J.D. Salinger carried six chapters of The Catcher in the Rye in to battle with him, a book that took him ten years to write and which he then regretted for the rest of his life.

Salinger the Documentary

Early Endorsement

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

Stalin: Volume I. Paradoxes of Power 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin

I’ve read quite a bit about old Uncle Joe.

Most of the major biographies of Stalin sit on my shelf, including those from Adam Ulam, Roy Medvedev, Robert Tucker, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Dimitri Volkogonov and other historians more obscure. I’ve read extensive commentaries about the Kremlin Mountaineer from Robert Conquest, Richard Pipes, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,  Milovan Djilas, George Kennan, Nikita Krushchev, Leon Trotskii, Amy Knight, Vyacheslav Molotov, Anton Antonov-Oveseenko, Al Resis, Pavel Sudoplatov, Walter Bedell Smith, Eric Hobsbawm, Herbert von Dirksen, Anatoly Dobrynin and various biographers of Churchill, Truman, FDR, Hitler and Mao. I’m not a Soviet expert, but for a layman, I can throw down rather well on Josef Stalin and his Soviet system.

So, with that in mind, if you are a Russian history buff or Soviet studies person you need to run, not walk, to get yourself a copy of Stalin: Volume I. by Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin.

It is simply that good!


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