Tag Archives: literature

2019 RIP

Some deaths in 2019

Napoleon Chagnon

There will never again be anything like the twentieth century for cultural anthropology, a time when still-surviving tribal societies were studied in depth by several generations of fieldworkers. Napoleon Chagnon is among the great ethnographers. Even in this company he is exceptional for the range and depth of quantitative data he collected. He is exceptional as well for his interest in bringing evolutionary theory to bear on understanding human behavior – including violence and revenge. This made him a figure of controversy in cultural anthropology, where the duumvirate of Blank Slate and Noble Savage still have a strong hold. Here’s a post on Chagnon, and the controversy.


Jessye Norman

Just this


Immanuel Wallerstein

Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory is a spatialized version of Marxism: a prosperous Core of developed nations grows rich by glutting themselves on an exploited, underdeveloped Periphery. As a historical-sociological Theory of Everything, it probably ultimately doesn’t work better than classical Marxism. But it’s not entirely wrong either. Silver from Potosi, sugar from Haiti, corn from Wallachia, rubber from the Congo; Wallerstein and World Systems Theory have forced our attention on one of the dark sides of the making of the modern world.


Gene Wolfe

Thus I became acquainted with all the thoroughfares and with many an unfrequented corner – granaries with lofty bins and demonic cats; windswept ramparts overlooking gangrenous slums; and the pinakotheken, with their great hallway topped by a vaulted roof of window-pierced brick, floored with flagstones strewn with carpets, and bound by walls from which dark arches opened to strings of chambers lined – as the hallway itself was – with innumerable pictures.

Many of these were so old and smoke-grimed that I could not discern their subjects, and there were others whose meaning I could not guess. … After I had walked at least a league among these enigmatic paintings one day, I came upon an old man perched on a high ladder. …

The picture he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner. The visor of this figure’s helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more.

This warrior of a dead world affected me deeply, though I could not say why or even just what emotion it was I felt. In some obscure way, I wanted to take down the picture and carry it … into … mountain forests. … It should have stood among trees, the edge of its frame resting on young grass.

A remembrance of things past from Severian, born into the guild of torturers but now exiled, on a weary, war-torn Earth perhaps a million years in the future, under a dying sun. He is looking, all unknowing, at the picture of an Apollo astronaut, one of the few relics left of our forgotten age. (See picture at the top of this page, under December.)

Gene Wolfe is one of the finest literary artists the field of science fiction has produced. His tetralogy, The Book of the New Sun, bears reading and rereading. (This quotation is from Book One, The Shadow of the Torturer.)

About Wolfe. And more.

Sexual intercourse began in 1963

October 1962-October 1966

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Up to then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.

So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Annus Mirabilis, by Phillip Larkin

Weighing in with different opinion, here’s Michel Houellebecq, for whom the sexual revolution maybe came too early – in his mother’s generation – rather than too late.

It’s a fact, I mused to myself, that in societies like ours sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation, it functions just as mercilessly. The effects of these two systems are, furthermore, strictly equivalent. Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It’s what’s known as ‘the law of the market’. In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a totally liberal economic system certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude. Economic liberalism is an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society. Sexual liberalism is likewise an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and classes of society. … Certain people win on both levels; others lose on both. Businesses fight over certain young professionals; women fight over certain young men; men fight over certain young women; the trouble and strife are considerable.

Michel Houellebecq “Whatever” (“Extension de la domaine de la lutte”)

And just to make it a trifecta of sexual Eeyorishness, there’s always Schopenhauer.

The First Nobel

(First Nobel for Literature, that is)


(A sign of the times: last year, 2018, as a result of sexual harassment allegations, the Swedish Academy did not award a Nobel Prize in Literature. This year Olga Togarczuk got the 2018 prize retroactively. Peter Handke got the 2019 prize.)

The Nobel Prize in Literature goes back to the beginning of the twentieth century, when the Nobel Prize Committee decided to look beyond the sciences. The first prize was to be awarded in 1901. There wasn’t much question who deserved it. Leo Tolstoy was still alive. He was not only the greatest novelist ever, probably, but also an imposing moral figure, a champion of non-violent resistance who would eventually inspire Gandhi and Martin Luther King. So the first Nobel Prize in Literature went to …

Sully Prudhomme

No, I haven’t read anything of his. Have you?

Next year they could still have awarded the prize to Tolstoy, although it would have been pretty embarrassing to have him getting it only after Prudhomme. So instead the prize went to the historian Theodore Mommsen. Thus began a century-plus long tradition of hit-and-miss awards. In some years, the awardees were acknowledged great writers. In other years, the winners were less well-known, but arguably merited the wider recognition that came with the prize. But many of the choices – and omissions – were just plain weird.

In response to all these wasted opportunities, Ted Gioia, musician, music historian, and author, offered his own list of authors who should have gotten the prize, year by year up to 2015, with a generous representation of popular writers as well as more literary ones. At least by one metric, he did a great job: among authors mentioned on this blog,

Here’s a link to The Nobel Prize in Literature from an Alternative Universe. And here’s the list below:

1901 Sully Prudhomme Leo Tolstoy
1902 Theodor Mommsen George Meredith
1903 Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson Anton Chekhov
1904 Frédéric Mistral, José Echegaray Jules Verne
1905 Henryk Sienkiewicz Henrik Ibsen
1906 Giosuè Carducci Mark Twain
1907 Rudyard Kipling Rudyard Kipling
1908 Rudolf Eucken John Millington Synge
1909 Selma Lagerlöf August Strindberg
1910 Paul Heyse W.S. Gilbert
1911 Maurice Maeterlinck Henry James
1912 Gerhart Hauptmann William Dean Howells
1913 Rabindranath Tagore Georg Trakl
1915 Romain Rolland Guillaume Apollinaire
1916 Verner von Heidenstam Sigmund Freud
1917 Karl Gjellerup, Henrik Pontoppidan Joseph Conrad
1919 Carl Spitteler Thomas Hardy
1920 Knut Hamsun Rainer Maria Rilke
1921 Anatole France Marcel Proust
1922 Jacinto Benavente Franz Kafka
1923 William Butler Yeats William Butler Yeats
1924 Wladyslaw Reymont Miguel de Unamuno
1925 George Bernard Shaw George Bernard Shaw
1926 Grazia Deledda Arthur Conan Doyle
1927 Henri Bergson Constantine P. Cavafy
1928 Sigrid Undset Edith Wharton
1929 Thomas Mann Thomas Mann
1930 Sinclair Lewis F. Scott Fitzgerald
1931 Erik Axel Karlfeldt G. K. Chesterton
1932 John Galsworthy Zane Grey
1933 Ivan Bunin Stefan Zweig
1934 Luigi Pirandello Luigi Pirandello
1936 Eugene O’Neill Eugene O’Neill
1937 Roger Martin du Gard James Joyce
1938 Pearl Buck Virginia Woolf
1939 Frans Eemil Sillanpää Robert Musil
1944 Johannes V. Jensen W. H. Auden
1945 Gabriela Mistral George Orwell
1946 Hermann Hesse Hermann Broch
1947 André Gide André Gide
1948 T.S. Eliot T.S. Eliot
1949 William Faulkner William Faulkner
1950 Bertrand Russell Ludwig Wittgenstein
1951 Pär Lagerkvist Dorothy Parker
1952 François Mauriac Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
1953 Winston Churchill Wallace Stevens
1954 Ernest Hemingway Ernest Hemingway
1955 Halldòr Laxness Bertolt Brecht
1956 Juan Ramón Jiménez Raymond Chandler
1957 Albert Camus Albert Camus
1958 Boris Pasternak E. M. Forster
1959 Salvatore Quasimodo Cole Porter
1960 Saint-John Perse Ian Fleming
1961 Ivo Andric William Carlos Willaims
1962 John Steinbeck John Steinbeck
1963 Giorgios Seferis Giorgios Seferis
1964 Jean-Paul Sartre Jean-Paul Sartre
1965 Mikhail Sholokhov Jack Kerouac
1966 Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Nelly Sachs Agatha Christie, Jorge Luis Borges
1967 Miguel Angel Asturias Vladimir Nabokov
1968 Yasunari Kawabata Yukio Mishima
1969 Samuel Beckett Samuel Beckett
1970 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
1971 Pablo Neruda Pablo Neruda
1972 Heinrich Böll J.R.R. Tolkien
1973 Patrick White Lionel Trilling
1974 Eyvind Johnson, Harry Martinson John Lennon, Paul McCartney
1975 Eugenio Montale Eugenio Montale
1976 Saul Bellow Saul Bellow
1977 Vicente Aleixandre Tennessee Williams
1978 Isaac Bashevis Singer Isaac Bashevis Singer
1979 Odysseus Elytis Philip K. Dick
1980 Czeslaw Milosz Czeslaw Milosz
1981 Elias Canetti Elias Canetti
1982 Gabriel García Márquez Gabriel García Márquez
1983 William Golding Graham Greene
1984 Jaroslav Seifert Italo Calvino
1985 Claude Simon Philip Larkin
1986 Wole Soyinka Eugene Ionesco
1987 Joseph Brodsky Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein
1988 Naguib Mahfouz Salman Rushdie
1989 Camilo José Cela Theodor Seuss Geisel
1990 Octavio Paz Octavio Paz
1991 Nadine Gordimer Muriel Spark
1992 Derek Walcott Bob Dylan
1993 Toni Morrison Ralph Ellison
1994 Kenzaburo Oe Stephen Sondheim
1995 Seamus Heaney Isaiah Berlin
1996 Wislawa Szymborska Stanisław Lem
1997 Dario Fo Hunter Thompson
1998 José Saramago Roberto Bolaño
1999 Günter Grass Tom Stoppard
2000 Gao Xingjian Robert Ludlum
2001 V. S. Naipaul V. S. Naipaul
2002 Imre Kertész John le Carré
2003 J. M. Coetzee David Foster Wallace
2004 Elfriede Jelinek John Updike
2005 Harold Pinter Milan Kundera
2006 Orhan Pamuk Philip Roth
2007 Doris Lessing J.K. Rowling
2008 Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio Don DeLillo
2009 Herta Mueller Ian McEwan
2010 Mario Vargas Llosa Mario Vargas Llosa
2011 Tomas Tranströmer Stephen King
2012 Mo Yan Haruki Murakami
2013 Alice Munro Joni Mitchell
2014 Patrick Modiano Karl Ove Knausgård
2015 Svetlana Alexievich Elena Ferrante




Charles Lyell’s great work, Principles of Geology, came out between 1831 and 1833. Lyell advocated an uncompromising uniformitarianism: the same geological forces at work today, causing small changes over the course of lifetimes, were at work in the past, causing massive changes over the course of geological ages. We’ve seen over the course of this blog that uniformitarianism is not a completely reliable guide either to geology or to human history, which have been punctuated often enough by catastrophes – asteroid strikescontinent-scale floodsvolcanic eruptions, and devastating wars and plagues. But the theory is nonetheless at least part of the story of history, and Lyell’s work was deservedly influential.

In 1837 Charles Darwin, a careful reader of Lyell, published a short article entitled On the Formation of Mould. This would eventually led to his last book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms. Darwin’s work on soil formation was Lyellianism in miniature. He demonstrated, through a combination of careful reasoning and experiment, that the surface layer of pasture soil is formed by earthworms. “Although the conclusion may appear at first startling, it will be difficult to deny the probability that every particle of earth forming the bed from which the turf in old pasturelands springs, has passed through the intestines of worms.” Reading Darwin on worms you get the feeling he identifies with his humble subjects, gradually remaking the world through their patient industry.

The doctrine of progress through gradual change was appealing for more than just scientific reasons. In the 1830s, English liberals (of whom Darwin was one) were attempting to reform their society gradually, without the violence of the French Revolution, and without turning over politics to a Great Man in the style of Napoleon. (Darwin was also a gradualist with regard to his own work: he came up with the theory of natural selection in 1838, but England at the time wasn’t ready for anything so radical, and he didn’t publish On The Origin of Species for another twenty years.)

George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), a friend of Darwin’s, set her greatest novel, Middlemarch, around the time of the Reform Act of 1832, which moved England one big step closer to a genuinely representative government. The novel’s heroine, Dorothea Brooke, might in another age have been a famous saint, another Theresa of Avila. In the England of her time she has another fate. Here is the famous conclusion of the novel, a paean to gradualism and the cumulative force of small deeds:

Her full nature … spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Of cannibals


Three of these men [Tupi Indians from Brazil], ignorant of the price they will pay some day … ignorant of the fact that of this intercourse will come their ruin … poor wretches …were at Rouen, at the time the late King Charles IX was there [in 1562]. The king talked to them for a long time; they were shown our ways, our splendor, the aspect of a fine city. After that someone asked their opinion, and wanted to know what they had found most amazing. They mentioned three things, of which I have forgotten the third, and I am very sorry for it; but I still remember two of them. They said that in the first place they thought it very strange that so many grown men, bearded, strong, and armed, who were around the king (it is likely that they were talking about the Swiss of his guard) should submit to obey a child, and that one of them was not chosen to command instead. Second (they have a way in their language of speaking of men as halves of one another), they had noticed that there were among us men full and gorged with all sorts of good things, and that their other halves were beggars at their doors, emaciated with hunger and poverty; and they thought it strange that these needy halves could endure such an injustice, and did not take the others by the throat, or set fire to their houses.

I had a very long talk with one of them. … When I asked him what profit he gained from his superior position among his people (for he was a captain, and our sailors called him king), he told me that it was to march foremost in war. … Did all his authority expire with the war? He said that this much remained, that when he visited the villages dependent on him, they made paths for him through the underbrush by which he might pass quite comfortably.

All this is not too bad – but what’s the use? They don’t wear breeches.

Of Cannibals. Essays of Montaigne


Contact between the Old World and the New was a disaster for the latter. Conquest, mass killing, and enslavement were part of the story, but even more important was the introduction of a whole slew of epidemic diseases – measles, tetanus, typhus, typhoid, diphtheria, influenza, pneumonia, whooping cough, dysentery, and smallpox.

The flow of diseases wasn’t entirely one way. In Europe, syphilis is first recorded  in Naples, in 1495. It almost certainly came from the Americas, brought back with Columbus’s crew. Columbus himself may have been an early victim. In the Americas, syphilis may have been spread largely through skin contact, but the Old World version was mostly sexually transmitted. The disease initially showed itself in spectacular, gruesome boils and skin lesions, and killed quickly, but eventually evolved to a more slowly progressing version that left victims alive for decades while gradually destroying their circulatory and nervous systems, often ending in insanity.


Names for syphilis

Deborah Hayden’s book Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis is a popular overview of the subject. Part of the book is given over to identifying likely cases in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Of course retrospective diagnosis is difficult, a matter of probabilities, not certainties, but Hayden argues that there is good evidence for syphilis for each of the following:

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Franz Schubert
  • Jane Austen*
  • Robert Schumann
  • Charles Baudelaire
  • Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln
  • Gustave Flaubert
  • Guy de Maupassant
  • Vincent van Gogh
  • Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Oscar Wilde
  • Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen)
  • James Joyce
  • Adolf Hitler **

Was syphilis as important for European art and literature as drugs were for rock music?

* Just kidding

** Hitler reportedly tested negative for syphilis on the Wassermann test, but Hayden notes that the test isn’t very reliable for the later stages of the disease.


“Just don’t take any course where you have to read Beowulf.

Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) to Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) in Annie Hall

It seems difficult for people nowadays to get a handle on the intellectual side of the Renaissance. The Age of Discovery, sure. The Scientific Revolution, sure. But the Renaissance was in full swing in Italy before Columbus and da Gama, well before Copernicus and Galileo. Even before Gutenberg. So what was the big deal? Or was it such a big deal (apart from the amazing art, of course)?

A lot of the problem is that we’ve lost touch with one of the great intellectual achievements of the last 600 years, the discipline of philology. Below is a Google Ngram showing the fortunes of two academic words, philology and ecology (i.e. their frequencies in English language books).

ecology vs philology

Most  everyone today has some idea what ecology is, while even educated people are likely to draw a blank on philology. But, as the figure suggests, it wasn’t always that way. In his excellent recent book Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Humanities, James Turner writes (p. x)

It used to be chic, dashing … Philology reigned as king of the sciences, the pride of the first great modern universities. … It meant far more than the study of old texts. Its explorations ranged from the religion of ancient Israel through the lays of medieval troubadours to the tongues of American Indians – and to rampant theorizing about the origin of language itself.

Philology’s golden age was the nineteenth century. This blog has covered just a few of its achievements – the reconstuction of Proto-Indo-European language and culture, and the Higher Criticism of the Bible. Philology flourished especially Germany, and its decline had partly to do with the special path of Germany in the twentieth century. But philology was also at the center of the Italian Renaissance, allowing a much clearer view of the Classical past. Famously, in the 1440s, Lorenzo Valla used a close study of language to demonstrate that the Donation of Constantine, in which the East Roman Emperor supposedly granted the pope authority over the West Roman empire, was a medieval fake.

And philology puts in a good showing in two of the twentieth century’s literary masterworks. In Episode 14, “The Oxen of the Sun,” in Joyce’s Ulysses, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, as the course of a pregnancy is narrated in a historical succession of English prose styles. And The Lord of the Rings might be considered a work of philological science fiction; rather than turn to physics or biology to build his imagined world, ala Poul Anderson or Hal Clement, Tolkien turned to the science of philology. In The Road to Middle Earth, Tom Shippey does justice to this side of Tolkien’s romance. (Tolkien however lost the battle to keep philology at the center of the Oxford English curriculum.)