Category: non-fiction

The Guns of August (75 Books – XIV)

I hate to say it, but for me the main takeaway from Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August is that I don’t find military history as interesting as I used to. This surprised me, since I used to read a lot of it – back in middle school and high school, I read several books on the World Wars, as well as several other military histories from around the Napoleonic Wars on. Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t read Tuchman’s book earlier.

There’s nothing wrong with the book itself, of course; it’s brought up every time there’s a discussion of the First World War, and deservedly so. It’s well-written all around, and I would still recommend it to anyone who wants to know about the beginning of the war. Even those with only a small interest in the subject might find it engaging simply from a narrative perspective, and I did find several memorable passages that made the book worthwhile. For example, while I knew that the Germans’ plan for invading France, the Schlieffen Plan, was meticulously worked out in every detail years prior to the war, I did not know much about French or Russian plans. The Russians seem to have intended to mobilise as fast as they could and then march in the general direction of German and Austro-Hungarian forces, while France had only slightly more detail:

Its motivating idea, as expressed by Foch, was, “We must get to Berlin by going through Mainz” … That objective, however, was an idea only. Unlike the Schlieffen plan, Plan 17 contained no stated over-all objective and no explicit schedule of operations. It was not a plan of operation but a plan of deployment with directives for several possible lines of attack for each army, depending on circumstances, but without a given goal. … Its intention was inflexible: Attack! Otherwise its arrangements were flexible.

I especially liked Tuchman’s description of some of the participants of the war, like this anecdote about Count Alfred von Schlieffen, architect of Germany’s plans (though he did not live to see the war itself):

Of the two classes of Prussian officer, the bullnecked and the wasp-waisted, he belonged to the second. Monocled and effete in appearance, cold and distant in matter, he concentrated with such single-mindedness on his profession that when an aide, at the end of an all-night staff ride in East Prussia, pointed out to him the beauty of the river Pregel sparkling in the rising sun, the General gave a brief, hard look and replied, “An unimportant obstacle.” So too, he decided, was Belgian neutrality.

Finally, on Sir Winston Churchill:

Asquith had, however, a particularly active First Lord of the Admiralty. When he smelled battle afar off, Winston Churchill resembled the war horse in Job who turned not back from the sword but “paweth in the valley and saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha.” He was the only British minister to have a perfectly clear conviction of what Britain should to and to act upon it without hesitation.…

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What’s the Appeal of Mishima Yukio?

SFA222007830A while back, while visiting a friend of mine, I mentioned having recently re-watched Paul Schrader’s fascinating biographical film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. He had never heard of Mishima Yukio, and after explaining that he’s famous as one of Japan’s greatest novelists and infamous for committing suicide in spectacular fashion in 1970, he asked why I had such obvious admiration for a man who committed suicide, which, being a faithful Catholic, I consider to be an inherently evil action.

It’s a fair question, and one that I could have dodged by saying I just like his novels. I certainly do love his novels, but that isn’t what first attracted me to his work. Rather, my first exposure to him came in my days as a college-age delinquent. He was one of a handful of authors in the university library’s small section for Japanese language and literature, and since I didn’t have a lot of time I grabbed the shortest book there, Sun and Steel.…

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A Critique of Democracy (75 Books – XII)

Is “anything and everything” too broad of a topic for a web log? I suppose that’s what my blog name implies, but after writing mostly about animation and the occasional novel or graphic novel for a couple years, I’ve felt odd writing about works of history in the last month, and now I’m branching out even further.

Well, I’ll consider starting a second blog or something if people complain.

Anway, the twelfth book of the year is the rarest thing of all for me to cover: a new release. Michael Anissimov published his e-book A Critique of Democracy: A Guide for Neoreactionaries only about a week ago. Since I’ve already finished books on the Habsburgs, Hohenzollerns, and an e-book collection of Sir Robert Filmer’s works, it seemed on-topic enough to take a detour from The Guns of August.…

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The Habsburg Monarchy, 1618-1815 (75 Books – XI)

More history, this time The Habsburg Monarchy, 1618-1815, by Charles W. Ingrao, which I read as a complement to A.J.P. Taylor’s book on the monarchy in the century after this.

Ingrao is, unsurprisingly, more positive in his judgements than Taylor. Of course, this is partly because he covers the empire at its height whereas Taylor covers its decline and fall, but Ingrao does a good job treating his subjects even-handedly, but Taylor was relentlessly critical to almost comical proportions, to the point of describing Rudolph II’s suicide as “fortunate.” That said, he does show some Liberal bias in a couple places, like his assessment that the French Revolution was worse than a “mixed blessing” because it prompted a conservative reaction against the Enlightenment across much of Europe. Frankly, when an ideology’s strongest proponents preside over an era known as the “Reign of Terror,” a good dose of skepticism is quite appropriate. For the most part, though, he consistently gives credit where it’s due and avoids judging his subjects entirely by modern, Liberal standards.

At 247 pages, the book can’t get into too much detail on any one subject, but Ingrao does spread his attention evenly across the two centuries he covers. Material on domestic issues and foreign policy is split roughly 60/40.

One consistent theme I noticed across the different reigns was the interesting mix of idealism, like the embrace of the Catholic Reformation or Joseph II’s enlightened despotism, with a sense of realism in the Habsburgs’ willingness to compromise when these ideals weren’t feasible. Actually, the book itself could be used as an argument for monarchism, and late Eighteenth Century Austria looks like the very picture of a great civilisation. As with the events in Taylor’s history, some of Austria’s problems went unresolved because the monarchy wasn’t powerful enough, though this would be more clear under Franz Joseph. Not that Ingrao intended this interpretation; though he treats the emperors fairly, he clearly takes the superiority of republicanism, or at least representative government generally, for granted.

In any case, I’d highly recommend this one to anyone curious about the Habsburgs or, really, to anyone who wants to know how real, historical monarchies actually functioned.

Up next on the 75 books project is a foray into Japanese Japanese comics, then even more history, probably Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.…

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How to Read a Book (75 Books – IX)

I’ve heard of Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren’s How to Read a Book here and there before, but decided to give it a read after seeing Henry Dampier’s review of it, and thinking that it may be useful, especially since I’m trying to read more (and maybe even read better) this year.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find the book as helpful as I thought I might, though that’s not really the fault of the authors. My main problem is simply that I’m already doing some of the things they suggest, e.g.¬† “inspectional” reading, skim- or pre-reading, or taking notes. The reminders don’t hurt, and I did pick up a few things, but I didn’t really need 336 pages of it, either.

The most relevant section for me was on syntopical reading, which involves methodically reading several books on the same subject. This would be very helpful for undertaking a research project, and to some extent I have approximated this recently, though not in such an organised fashion as they describe, and I have a hard time imagining making this my primary method of reading.

Overall, I’d highly recommend the book to high school or college students, and it is worth a quick read-through for everyone. It’s not quite on the same subject since it focuses on literature, but for those who want to read a book about reading I’ve always highly recommended Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading.

Next up on the reading list is another book about the Habsburgs, this time¬†The Habsburg Monarchy, 1618-1815, by Charles W. Ingrao.…

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75 Books in 2015 – VI (In Praise of Shadows)

Tanizaki Junichiro’s In Praise of Shadows is ostensibly a book-length essay in defense of traditional Japanese aesthetics, especially in architecture. He doesn’t really present a formal argument, though; instead, he presents a series of ruminations and anecdotes on topics loosely related to the main idea of the importance of shadows, darkness, and quiet in Japanese architecture. The book reminds me of taking a short, meandering walk with someone through their garden, as they relate some story of each place you come across. Some subjects include cuisine, noh and kabuki theatre, restaurant lighting, and toilets. I found this style interesting, even persuasive, but it may be the sort of “argument” that you either get or you don’t.

The book is so short, under fifty pages, that there’s no excuse not to read it if you have any interest in Japanese culture, aesthetics, or architecture, and the book’s a pleasure to read. Just to give a feel for the book, here’s Tanizaki on gold used in a priest’s garments:

I have said that lacquerware decorated in gold was made to be seen in the dark; and for this same reason were the fabrics of the past so lavishly woven of threads of silver and gold. The priest’s surplice of gold brocade is perhaps the best example. In most of our city temples, catering to the masses as they do, the main hall will be brightly lit, and these garments of gold will seem merely gaudy. No matter how venerable a man the priest may be, his robes will convey no sense of his dignity. But when you attend a service at an old temple, conducted after the ancient ritual, you see how perfectly the gold harmonizes with the wrinkled skin of the old priest and the flickering light of the altar lamps, and how much it contributes to the solemnity of the occasion. As with the lacquerware, the bold patterns remain for the most part hidden in darkness; only occasionally does a bit of gold or silver gleam forth.

One more excerpt, this time from his discussion of why the Japanese prefer their darker aesthetic, whereas Westerners try to bring in as much light as possible in their architecture:

But what produces such differences in taste? In my opinion it is this: we Orientals tend to seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are; and so darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable. If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty. But the progressive Westerner is determined always to better his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light – his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.

So, that’s six books for the year. Next up are a couple volumes of Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin. After that, I’m not sure, but probably it’ll be more history.…

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75 Books in 2015 – IV (The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918)

Alright, we’re not even half a month into this challenge, and we’re bangin’ on all cylinders. My fourth completed book of the year is The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918, by A.J.P. Taylor.

Now, I’m the sort of person who can’t help but feel a fondness for the Habsburgs, but I don’t feel confident that I know enough about them, so this book was a good step in correcting that. Well, somewhat, at least – because it focuses on 1809 onwards, much of it only covers one Habsburg, Franz Joseph, who reigned from 1848-1916. Furthermore, the book is actually fairly depressing, as it covers the decline and fall of the Austrian empire. There are very few triumphs here, and there’s a lot of muddling along and compromising, trying to hold the empire together for as long as possible, yet knowing that things cannot go on forever. Indeed, if the empire hadn’t been necessary to maintain stability in this part of Europe and thus been handled with kid-gloves by its neighbours, it may well have collapsed earlier than it did. As Taylor put it, “Austria was preserved to suit the convenience of others, not by her own strength. A Great Power becomes a European necessity only when it is in decline; the truly great do not need to justify their existence.”

Taylor isn’t afraid to state his own opinion on the people and policies he covers, and the vast majority of his judgements are negative. When an Italian war seemed possible in the early Twentieth Century, for example, he writes, “A war against Italy would have given even the Habsburg Monarchy the tonic of victory; for Italy was a ridiculous imitation of a Great Power, impressive only to professional diplomats and literary visitors.” This is fine with me, though some people might find his constant negativity grating, and he does get carried away at least once, when discussing Franz Joseph’s son, Rudolph: “[H]e intended to save the Empire by a more violent dose of German liberalism, and would have paired well with Frederick III, who had similar projects for Germany. Fortunately for himself and for others, Rudolph committed suicide.”

Overall, though, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone interested in European history. I likely will supplement it with another book covering an earlier era of the Habsburg monarchy, to see how the situation covered here arose in the first place.

Next up is more graphic novel fun (most likely either Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin or A Bride’s Story), then Tanizuki Junichiro’s In Praise of Shadows.…

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75 Books in 2015 – I (Iron Kingdom)

As I mentioned in the 2014 year-end post, I’m going to make an attempt at this challenge at LibraryThing to read 75 books in 2015. You can find my specific thread here, but I’ll also be sharing my progress on this weblog and use the thread mostly as a means of “officially” entering the challenge and to talk with any other LibraryThing members who care to stop by. I won’t be doing full reviews of these books; in most cases I’ll probably just share a few things I liked or didn’t, maybe a notable passage or two, and whether I recommend it or not.

I don’t have a particular strategy going in, and honestly have no idea how many books I typically read in a year. It generally takes longer than I’d like to get through prose books, which lowers my books-per-year average, but I also read a fair number of graphic novels, which typically don’t take me very long.

I probably will try to pick a few “themes” to focus my reading somewhat; with Mishima Yukio last year, I simply alternated between one of his novels and something, anything else, ending with a biography about him. So, I was able to make some progress on just one author, since every other book I read was by or about him, but didn’t get burned out, since I had several other things mixed in. This year, my first goal is to get through the stack of books I got for my birthday and Christmas; after that, I’ll probably focus on either reading more of William Shakespeare, or an array of political writers or philosophers (e.g., Joseph de Maistre and Julius Evola). We’ll see.

In any case, I finished book #1 today, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, by Christopher Clark. Recently I’ve felt that I need to deepen my knowledge of history, and I’ve seen recommendations for this one, so it seemed like a good start for that project. Clark’s writing is clear, and I appreciate that he doesn’t appear to have an axe to grind, even though Prussian history can get especially controversial around the issue of Prussian “militarism.” He says in the introduction, “The polarized judgments that abound in contemporary debate (and in parts of the historical literature) are problematic, not just because they impoverish the complexity of the Prussian experience, but also because they compress its history into a national teleology of German guilt.”

I also appreciate that he distributes his attention mostly equally across the entire time period covered by the book, rather than giving disproportionate space to, say, just the modern era. He does jump over a few subjects quickly, which is unavoidable in a one-volume history covering several centuries; there’s less about Wilhelm I and II than I’d like, for example. One small thing that annoyed me is that he uses typically uses anglicised names, so “Friedrich” is “Frederick,” “Wilhelm” is “William,” and so on.

So, that’s one book down, seventy-four to go. Next up I’ll knock out a couple graphic novels that I’ve had sitting around, then move on to a related subject with A.J.P. Taylor’s The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918.…

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Mishima’s ‘Sun and Steel’

Mishima Yukio has quickly become one of my favourite authors. The hardest part of writing a post about him, though, is probably deciding just what to focus on, as he was tremendously prolific. In his 20-year career, he averaged at least one full novel a year, one full play a year, several short plays and short stories, as well as some essays and poems. I suppose the best place to start would be Sun and Steel, where he explains the philosophy and aesthetic that underlies his novels.

The central problem Mishima confronts is how to reconcile words, which I understand as analagous to mind or spirit, with the body, the physical world which does not depend on words and which words often cannot describe. The former he felt he mastered at a young age. After all, he made his living as a novelist, read widely, and was naturally introverted as a child.

The body he began to understand only gradually, through a handful of experiences. He relates how, as a child, he would watch religious processions of young men carrying mikoshi (portable shrines) through town, and noticed that they all looked up toward the sky as though experiencing an epiphany. He wondered what they saw and thought. Years later, he took part in such a procession, and as he felt the weight of the mikoshi on his shoulders and began marching in step with the other young men, he realised what they had all been thinking: nothing at all. They were merely gazing at the sun.

When I first read that story, it struck me as anticlimactic. However, I think it relates partly to an older Japanese tradition. Famed swordfighter Miyamoto Musashi noted (in his Book of the Five Rings) that a skilled warrior does not consciously plan his moves, but acts and reacts to an opponent by a kind of instinct. Miyamoto and Mishima refer to a kind of knowledge that does not rely on the intellect, and which words cannot quite adequately describe. While many philosophies (e.g., Confucianism) urge cultivation of the intellect, they often neglect this physical knowledge which, according to Mishima properly forms fully half of human experience.

So, to be a full man, one must cultivate both the body and the intellect. After a man’s gotten a library card and gym membership, though, what should he do next? Is there a way to reconcile these two types of knowledge? The question persists through several of his novels to varying extents. See, for example, Runaway Horses, the second book in his Sea of Fertility tetralogy. The story takes place in pre-World War II Japan, and the protaganist, Iinuma Isao, has mastered control of his body through kendo, and has also kept his spirit completely pure. This purity leads him to decide that he must, somehow, serve the emperor by protecting him from the corrupted politicians and capitalists who control Japan. His purity gives him the will and his body gives him the ability to act, and his solution is to gather like-minded comrades and then assassinate certain key figures, then commit suicide after accomplishing that mission. They hoped that their own dramatic action would inspire the rest of the nation to demand a restoration of imperial authority.

One could also relate this, of course, to Mishima’s own decision to commit suicide, and in spectacular fashion at that. Along with a few followers, he took over a military office, demanded the restoration of imperial power, and then committed suicide. His inspiration came from words, his action from the body.

 

(image taken from Wikimedia Commons)

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Orwell’s Review of ‘Mein Kampf’

In March 1940, George Orwell published a review of a translation of Adolf Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf. The whole review is of at least historical interest, including the note that, since the edition had been published a year earlier, was edited from a pro-Hitler angle.

Of more lasting value, though, is Orwell’s reflection on why Hitler seemed so appealing to so many, even outside Germany. The first is familiar to many already: charisma. Hitler was not attractive, his writing clumsy, but his appearance and personality make him look like a “martyr,” in Orwell’s words, “One feels, as with Napoleon, that he is fighting against destiny, that he can’t win, and yet that he somehow deserves to.” This seems incredible today, when reductio ad hitlerum is often taken as a valid argument, but of course that view comes with the benefit of hindsight and the effect of the public schools emphasizing the Holocaust. Some of our own modern messiahs may also age poorly, though it’s too soon to tell for certain.

Orwell finds a second point of appeal to Nazism: “Hitler has said to them [Germany] ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death.'” Sounds great, right? Sign me up!

Seriously, though, I can see the appeal. Hedonism, the mere seeking of pleasure, seems attractive for a while, but many people prefer a sense of adventure. Something glorious, historic, like what they read in history and fables; that sense of belonging to a movement greater than oneself.…

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