Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

CULTURE & SOCIETY 1780-1950 BY RAYMOND WILLIAMS

BOOK REVIEW

CULTURE & SOCIETY: 1780-1950
by Raymond Williams
Columbia University Press
p. 1958


   I bought this book off Amazon.com almost one year ago to the day.  I paid 25 bucks for this book, and it came in terrible condition- it is literally falling apart on my desk.  I've been actively trying to finish Culture & Society for at least six months- like actively trying to read it- but it is just so boring and turgid.  However, Williams also has profound things to say about artists and artistic criticism.

  I would have to say that this is the single most profound book I've read in the area of Literary/Artistic Criticism slash aesthetics.  Williams is generally labelled a "Marxist" in the U.S., but if so he's a cultural Marxist.  Culture and Society was published in 1958 to considerable acclaim.  In it, Williams traces the history of the concept of "culture" in English artistic and literary criticism.  The table of Contents for Culture and Society is like a road-map for understanding the subject in its entirety:

NINETEENTH CENTURY TRADITION
2.  The Romantic Artist
4.  Thomas Carlyle
6. J.H. Newman and Matthew Arnold
7.  Art and Society: A.W. Pugin, John Ruskin, William Morris

TWENTIETH CENTURY TRADITION
1. D.H. Lawrence
2. R.H. Tawney
3. T.S. Eliot
4. Two Literary Critics: I.A. Richard, F.R. Leavis
5. Marxism and Culture
6. George Orwell
Conclusion

   Do you know what that list is? That is the exact recipe of influence for contemporary hipsters whether they are actually aware of it OR NOT.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that most  contemporary Indie Artists, of whatever genre/discipline, don't know the difference between Thomas Carlyle and Matthew Arnold, but the beauty of Williams argument in Culture & Society is that this DOESN'T MATTER.  Culture does not require "active" appreciation to be "good."  Culture is what people like, there can be no question of elevating the taste of a "literate minority" above the tastes of the "masses."

  In fact, critiques which postulate, "The concept of a cultivated minority, set over against a 'decreated' mass... lead to...  damaging arrogance and skepticism." (italics added.)  Further:  "The concept of a wholly organic and satisfying past  to be set against a disintegrated and dissatisfying present, tends in its  neglect of history to a denial of real social experience."

   Both of these concepts: the "cultivated minority" and the "wholly organic and satisfying past" are ENDEMIC to the mind set of  contemporary Artists who are striving/struggling to bridge the gap from AMATEUR (poor & unsuccessful) to PROFESSIONAL.  That most of them are ignorant of the terms themselves and their genesis speaks more to individual under education then the irrelevance of the concepts themselves.  Kind of like the rules of physics, you don't have to be conscious of how they work to have them effect your life.

CORTES AND THE DOWNFALL OF THE AZTEC EMPIRE

BOOK REVIEW

CORTES AND THE DOWNFALL OF THE AZTEC EMPIRE
Jon "Manchip" White
published by St. Martins Press
1971

   Here's another Wahrenbrock Book House Save. Like many of the books I bought at the end of that shop, it is dated, but actually a cool-looking book.  The cover is a lithograph outline of his head and shoulders, and imposed on top is 70s style stylized set of flames engulfing the lithographed head.  It's real cool looking.  I think that is one of the aspects of cultural products that is most "lost" in the transition from physical products to digital products: design.  A cultural product can have worth merely from having a striking appearance. I suppose liking an object for that reason might be considered "shallow" by certain people who live in their Mom's basement, but an appreciation for style and design is commonplace for furniture fans.

   I think that we could all use a little more conqueror mentality in our day-to-day lives.  You can say whatever PC bs you want about my man Hernan Cortes, but he was a baller.  There are lots of ways to diminish/denigrate/ignore the fact that Cortes conquered the shit out of Mexico, but it happened.  Amazingly, Cortes was trained as a lawyer at the University of Salamanca, around the turn of the 15th century.  Spain was militarily and culturally involved in Italy, so the Renaissance mentalite was transmitted to those in contact with the soliders and court members travelling back and forth.

        Cortes wasn't an insider- he was from the Extremadura.  The Extremadura is roughly analogous to being the "desert southwestern" state of Spain: hot, dry, not very fertile.   The Extremadura was conquered by the Romans, but they put up a fight- before the Romans came they were Celtic speaking people.  During the Reconquest of Spain, they were good soldiers for the Spanish monarch, but there was not a lot going on in the Extremadura, and the young men at that time did not have a whole lot of opportunity in the Courts of Europe.

       Thus, after his legal education in Salamanca, it was natural that he would gravitate towards Seville, which was solidifying it's status as the entrepot for Spain's colonial empire.  Cortes shipped out to the then-capital of new world Spain, Hispanola, where he served as an administrator.  He spent seven years on Hispanola and then moved to Cuba, where he helped subjugate the island.  During his time on Hispanola and Cuba, Conquistadors had been hitting out southward- in search of a water link between the Atlantic and Pacific.  They were also looking for Gold, but weren't having much luck.

       Cortes schemed and maneuvered to put together a little flotilla of ships with  horses, guns. cannons and men, got the Governor to agree to the expedition, and then took off before the guy changed his mind (which happened almost immediately.)  He went west from Cuba and hit the Yucatan peninsula, rested a bit, then landed on the main body of Mexico, south east of Mexico City (Tenochititlan.)   Cortes landed in the territory of a vassal people of the Aztzecs- fortunately for the Spanish they were not huge fans of the Aztecs themselves.  At this point Cortes probably figured out that a "divide and conquer" strategy a la Rome among the German/Celtic barbarians, would probably be a winner.  His hosts told him that the Tlaxcalans, who had what we would call an "autonomous ethnic homeland" within the larger Aztec empire, would make good allies.

    In fact, the Tlaxcalans thought the Spanish were some kind of Aztec trick and so they attacked the Spanish for weeks until they capitulated.  After that, the Tlaxacalans became his main Native bros.  They were independently motivated to defeat the Aztecs for the same reason that conquered people's everywhere are ripe for rebellion:  Being an Empire means your subject people are going to hate you.

    Cortes didn't actually storm into Tenochititlan and conquer- there was this strange interegnum where he and his cohort hung out inside Tenochititlan with emperor Montezuma II and pretended to be buddies.  Eventually, they heard that they were going to be killed, so they essentially kidnapped Montezuma and held him hostage inside a temple for a period of weeks.  Then they escaped, in what sounds like the bad shit craziest sequence of events in world history- replete with temporary bridges and sneaking around with an army of men in the middle of the night through the then biggest city in the world.

    After Cortes escaped, he rallied his Tlaxacalan buddies and proceeded in a circle around Tenocititlan, cutting off the Aztecs in their stronghold and either gaining allies or eliminating enemies. In what turned out to be a master stroke of genius, he built some attack boats in the mountains and carried them down to water surrounded Tenocititlan.  Montezuma II was killed during the escape from Tenochititlan and replaced by Cuatehemoc. The initial stage of the final battle was actually maritime, and here the Spanish "fleet" defeated the Aztec War Canoe's.  At this point the Aztecs were surrounded and it became a kind of Hitler in his bunker scenario with much carnage and cannibalism.  The Aztecs never lacked for spirit, but their tactics and weapons were just no match for Cortes and his combination of statecraft and warfare.

   It's fashionable to view the Spanish conquest of the New World as somehow without human agency- perhaps it's a form of cultural coping with an indubitably traumatic sequence of events, but it's very much clear that Cortes was a conqueror: That's what he did.  A Nation builder he was not but he conquered the shit out of Mexico.

  In conclusion, I would also note that the divide and conquer move is Rule #1 out of the conqueror's handbook.  It almost always worked in the past.

Monday, July 18, 2011

THE SEA HUNTERS THE GOLDEN AGE OF WHALING

Book Review
THE SEA HUNTERS
THE GOLDEN AGE OF WHALING
BY EDOUARD A. STACKPOLE

  One of the main advantage of our new palm springs vacation house is being able to get about seven boxes of books out of my storage unit.  They are mostly books I picked up when Wahrenbrock's Book House bit the dust: RIP.  Let me a share a consequence of the spread of Ereaders:  Books like this one, from a smaller publishing house and currently out of print, are going to disappear from the earth but everyone will be able to get the newist Harry Potter and Airport Novels.  Ereaders are for the proletariat.

  The Sea Hunters was written in the 50s by this guy Edouard Stackpole, who comes from Nantucket.  According to The Sea Hunters, the entire whaling industry basically came out of a handful of Quaker families who moved onto Nantucket in the 18th century.  From a modern perspective, the whole enterprise of Whaling seems rather d√©class√©,  rather like Mining.  Despite the decline in prominence, Whaling played a pivotal role in the development of American literature.  Three well known books are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, White Jacket by Jack London and Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana.   The American Whaling industry is also largely responsible for introducing Polynesian culture into the United States.  Because nothing has actually happened in the whaling world since the early 20th century, reading a book from the fifties makes sense.

   The actual history of whaling is pretty god damn epic.  These guys were going to the ends of the Earth before Steam Power and the Railroad made transportation cheap and accessible.  One aspect of Whaling that gets lost in the literary take is the fact that crew members got a share of the (substantial) profits from their voyages.  Also, African Americans were whaling crew waaayyy back and were generally treated as equals with whites and settled in Nantucket in the 18th century.

  Still it's hard for a modern reader to "get over" the matter-of-fact way Stackpole describes the wholesale destruction of tens of thousands of whales, seals and sea lions. FOR OIL.  I'm not trying to be all superior or anything, but humans essentially declared war on Sperm Whales in the 18th and 19th century, we killed about all of them, they killed maybe 30 of us, and when they did, a human (Melville) wrote a 600 page novel about it.  Sheesh.  Cut the whales some slack.  I can honestly say that I wish the Whales had killed more humans.

   Stackpole has a dated writing style that tends towards the anecdotal and entire chapters are devoted to the listings of islands that Whalers discovered in the Pacific, that is kind of a drag.  Ultimately though, it seems like Whales aren't being hunted to extinction anymore, and that should allow us to gain some distance on the more dated aspects of the Whaling industry, and maybe a more contemporary appreciation for this business that helped make the United States WHAT IT IS.

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