THE TRIUMPH OF SCIENCE AND REASON: 1660-1685
by Frederick L. Nussbaum
I got this book at the redoubtable SAGEBRUSH PRESS IN YUCCA VALLEY (ABE BOOKS SHOP PROFILE) They are my go to get-away book store when I'm weekending in the desert. They ain't cheap, but I despise cheapness. Pay for quality and service, is what I say. I got this particular title for two reasons:
1. Love the Harper Torchbooks non-fiction series- especially the titles that were printed in the mid 1960s- striking covers, well manufactured, material that still rates as timely on obscure subjects.
2. I'm interested in learning more about the 17th century, but not that interested.
My feeling is that when you back to the 17th century you lose enough of modernity that it truly is a foreign land to try to understand. You can't just read a couple of novels to get a sense of what it was like back then, and there aren't a plethora of modern books treating that time period. Suffice it to say that the subheading of this book "The Triumph of Science and Reason" made me guffaw out loud. Really? Triumph of Science and Reason? More like, "The birth of science and the argument in favor of reason." As the next few centuries spell out in exasperating detail, man had, and still has, a long way to go before "reason triumphs" in any substantial way.
Such as it is then, Nussbaum's book is an attempt to expand outside of the traditional ambit of early modern power politics to encompass the history of science, commerce and ideas generally. The main non-politico/military subjcets are:
1) Cosmos: A New Heaven and a New Earth
a) The Cartesian Revolution
b) The Discovery of Science
c) Science as Social Form
d) The concept of the physical
e) The Achievement of the new Science
f) the prinicpia mathematica
3) Leviathan: The Organization of Power
The first subject refers, obviously to the "I think therefore I am" Cartesian revolution that laid the groundwork for a non-religion centered world view. Baroque was the adjunct art form of this time period- late 17th century, and Nussbaum is illuminating in this regard. The third and final subject actually seems closest to Nussbaum's heart, protestations aside. The Leviathan was the concept developed by Hobbes and generally elaborated the idea of the unitary, absolutist state- an idea which was mirrored by actual political developments- typified by the ascendancy of Louis XIV, and earlier and later activity by monarchs ranging from Sweden, to Germany, to Denmark. This shift from medieval to proto-modern statehood is an important inflection point in European, and therefore World, history, but the subject is indeed a bit dry, and I'm glad I didn't have to labor through a whole book entirely on that subject.
I've blogged about baroque architecture before- here is my post from June 15th, 2010 on the Melk Abbey in Austria. Nussbaum makes quite the strident case for Baroque being a high-point of European Art, though I confess that my own tastes veer away from the over elaboration characteristic of the Art form. I do take Nussbaum's point though, that Baroque architecture was an accompaniment to the "Discovery of Science" and Cartesian "elaboration of reason."
I have literally zero interest in Rene Descartes and the "Discovery of Science" it's a subject that I feel Foucault and his ilk have covered, to death in the last fifty years. I get it: Reason is inherently flawed, subverted from within by it's own contradictions. Ok, ok, ok. Get over it- reason is the best hope we've got of achieving community, regardless of the valid points made by romantic critics of reason.
Dedicated to classics and hits.
Friday, January 06, 2012
by Joseph Conrad
Everyman's Library 38
Does anyone else find it funny that the universal method of teaching high school students about literature/English is by reading Novels/other literature and then "analyzing" it. Like, describing the plot and asking why the characters did what they did? That's what I remember. I think educators would make more headway with students if they treated each book like a hit record, and talked about why it was popular, focusing specifically on why the students DON'T like it- what has changed in their world. Confront them about their taste and try to explain why they are reading this specific book.
From the perspective of looking at a classic work of literature as a hit, Nostromo is interesting because it wasn't well received at the time. It's "generally" considered to be a top classic Novel, even the best by Joseph Conrad since Heart of Darkness is more of a short story/novella. Part of what makes Nostromo so classic is that it's a late example of pre "modernist" novels. This is not a novel that sets out to toy with expectations of the Audience regarding a Novel, it's a novel that sets out to wow you with command of detail, richly drawn characters and enough pre-modern racism and prejudice to give the material an edge.
Nostromo tells the tale of a made-up Central American/South American nation that sounds like Venezuela, Columbia, Panama or Nicaragua. The central character set are Mr and Mrs Gould- native of English descent, who control the "richest coal mine in all the land." They are just the anchors for a cast that ranges across class, with Nostromo himself being the equivalent of a ranking longshoreman.
Other the course of 500 pages you get a lot of political squabbling in latin america- perhaps the premiere example of that specific dynamic IN ALL of literature. The backdrop is pleasantly appealing, richly drawn and stuffed with detail. It's great that Conrad just brings the thematic thunder, and the whole time, doesn't feel compelled to apologize for his point of view. That is key to the classic Novels of the 19th and pre 1920's 20th century: STRENGTH OF VIEWPOINT.
So I read Nostromo, I'm glad I read it- I love Joseph Conrad. It's everything I'm about in classic literature. Novels were better before Authors felt that to apologize for every thing that has gone wrong in the world. Conrad knew life was cruel- he worked as a sailor for twenty years- but he conjured up worlds in his mind, and then wrote it all down, and didn't say "Sorry!" afterwards. That's like it should be with Art, and how commerce so rarely is: Stated with conviction.
There's a way to look at Nostromo in terms of "colonialist literature" but I say, embrace the label. You can seek to understand colonialism without being a colonialist in matters of international politics.
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