Saturday, February 25, 2012

Bibliomania and its cure

A friend is moving from one state to another, the most recent of several such relocations. As she was preparing to put some of her books into boxes, she wondered: do I really need to take this particular item with me?

Her friends offered conflicting advice. One counseled getting rid of everything--just rely on the Internet. Another friend said keep everything. Wisely, she adopted a middle course, choosing to retain in particular aging copies of books that had meant much to her.

This experience caused me to wonder what criteria are appropriate for such a triage. Four years ago, faced with a substantial renovation of my apartment, I disposed of about 30% of these pesky items--no mean feat since I had about 20,000 volumes. The books, by the way, will not be pulped, as a friend has taken them, offering them for sale at his site

There is no magic recipe, or even set of recipes, for such exclusions. Here though are a few considerations I have come up with.

Except for big foreign language dictionaries, there is no further need for A-Z items. For years, I faithfully bought Leonard Maltin’s standard one-volume “Movie Guide” in its annual appearances. There is no need for that now, as all these films, and many more, are well covered at Wikipedia and other Internet sites. Sorry Leonard, but I expect that you have made your pile by now.

Similarly, there is no need for most sets of works by standard authors; increasingly these are available in toto on the ‘net at the Project Gutenberg and elsewhere. Thus I gave away my edition of Charles Dickens, retaining only one volume of “Hard Times” because it offers some astute interpretative essays of a novel important in the history of design.

In the case of Cervantes’ Don Quijote de la Mancha, though, I have no less than four editions. Why this exuberance? Since the novel is highly allusive and written in Siglo de Oro Spanish, I rely on an annotated edition of the original, authorized by the Spanish Academy (2004). My high school Spanish is in good repair, but not adequate for this task. In addition, I keep translations into English, French, and German, because they too offer guidance.

In this matter of the battle of the book bulge, there are also cautionary principles.

To be sure, I do acquire some new items for particular purposes (right now, for example, I am on a Dante kick). However, there are some temptations that must be sternly repressed. One is stockpiling. “Hmm, I don’t have a good book on medieval Tibetan poetry; one day I may need this, so I’ll snap it up now.” Another problem is the completeness fetish. I once owned seven volumes of a twelve-volume set on the Old Testament. I kept getting the new ones as they came out. Then I realized that the premises of the enterprise were wrong--applying Christian principles to the Hebrew Bible--and I just gave away what I had, refusing any further increments.

Remainders offer a special lure. Picking up a fifty-dollar book for $14.95 seems like a real bargain, but one is still putting $14.95 on the credit card. A useful question (though often a hard one) is “do I need this NOW?”

In fact the existing stock requires constant pruning, if only to make way for new acquisitions. One can nickel and dime the task, choosing one victim at a time. Far better is to slenderize and reshape a whole category. For some twenty years I taught a course in ancient Egyptian art at Hunter College. I was always on the lookout for new items, some rather specialized. A few weeks ago I examined this motley assemblage and saw that a major reduction was necessary. I culled about half the collection. Now I gaze lovingly at the select group of 190 Egyptian items: they seem almost resplendent in their integrity. I am confident that these are all I will ever need in this field.

My library contains some thirty such categories, from American literature and China to political theory and science. Addressing these sections with an equivalent ruthlessness will be a challenge, best undertaken piecemeal, but it can be done. My mother used to say that if a deposit of dust gathers on top of a book it is no longer needed. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but there are some topics that I will never return to. Realisically, though, it can take time fully to realize this obsolescence on an item-by-item basis. If all else fails, one can reacquire something that one had discarded, as I did recently with two Dante books.

My eyesight is relatively good, but not what it once was. So some books, especially old mass-market paperbacks, must go because the print is too small.

In general I tend to cling to the art books, because leafing through their illustrations allows me to recreate in my mind’s eye many of the trips I have made.

There are also books, unillustrated, that are simply very well printed. Since economy was always a consideration in my acquisition policies, I do not have too many of these, alas. I also have not bought many antiquarian books: I have only two volumes (which I treasure) printed in the 18th century.

UPDATE. For those curious about the scope of my library, here are the categories:


ancient Egypt
ancient Greece
ancient Rome


Portuguese and Brazilian


Folklore and linguistics
Gay studies
Medieval history
History of science
Political theory (incl. economics)
Religion, Abrahamic




Architecture (incl. city planning)
Illuminated MSS
Painting and sculpture


Friday, February 24, 2012

Atheism 2.0

Four years ago, not long after the start of my retirement, I embarked on the intellectual journey (a really hard slog, to be honest) that led to the creation of my two Abrahamica MSS. See my allied sites, which can be found at the "Complete Profile" (sidebar).

I was reacting, if you will, to two things. The first stemmed from my former self. It was embodied in my 35-year career as an art historian, which was largely concerned with religious art (Christian mainly, but also ancient Egyptian). In this teaching I was prepared to set aside my awareness of the manifold confusions and downright evils set in motion by organized religion, especially as embodied in the Abrahamic family of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The bad side of these religions amounted, in effect, to the repellent grain of sand that engendered the pearl.

After I retired, and was no longer obliged to represent the collective mission of my university, I felt empowered to explore, and possibly reject this rationale.

My second dissatisfaction occurred when I read the books of the New Atheists, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. Their dismissal of religion seemed peremptory and, quite honestly, ignorant. They were tone-deaf to the cultural benefits that I had been exploring in my college lectures and books.

So in my new writing I sought to chart a middle course, guided in large measure by the hard-won findings of the historical-critical school in religious studies.

Now I find that, with his concept of Atheism 2.0, the English writer Alain de Botton has adopted a similar intermediate position, though I fear that it is not very new. In fact he goes back to the idea of Matthew Arnold in the 19th century, who held that as the power of religion receded it would be replaced by culture. According to De Botton, modern education is too much concerned with imparting information and not enough with guidance and consolation--how we should live in short. He rightly points to the deficiencies of the art-for-art's-sake approach that is dominant in our museums. From Masaccio and Michelangelo to Rembrandt and Blake much of the art that we most revere is religious. Ditto, most Renaissance and much of Baroque music. De Botton also points to affinities between pilgrimage and modern travel.

Perhaps I am insufficiently receptive because I had thought of most of these points before. Alain de Botton deserves a hearing. In fact, he makes his case quite eloquently in his recent TED talk:


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Sheriff Paul

I am not an advocate of the Arizona Sheriff Paul Babeu, but I do think that he is being subjected to unfair attacks. Unlike ex-Senator Larry Craig and the Reverend Rekers he has not sought to deny his sexual orientation, but freely avowed it in his press conference on Saturday. Yes, he was outed and did not come out voluntarily, but the same has happened to many of the rest of us. Almost all gay and lesbian people can remember a time in which were in the closet. Altering this status is not a simple matter of snapping one's fingers. Coming out is a gradual process. Sherrif Paul Babeu should be accorded this privilege just as much as anyone else.

One news story described the Sheriff as “ultraconservative.” He has even been called a "fascist" What is the evidence for these claims? To be sure, Paul Babeu is a Republican and also gay, but so are the members of the Log Cabin group and GOProud. I have never been inclined to join those organizations, but their existence suggests that the two descriptors--Republican and gay--are not inevitably mutually exclusive.

Much of the denigration of Sheriff Babeu stems from the matter of immigration. In fact, his views on immigration are not very different from those of President Obama. Both believe that our borders must be secured--as do a majority of Americans. They might differ on the related question of how the illegal aliens in our midst are to be treated, but in fact the Obama administration has not been able to articulate a coherent policy on this question.

Somehow, though, it is inferred that Sherrif Paul must hate Mexicans, so that he is guilty of hypocrisy in having an affair with a Mexican man, The allegation is ridiculous.

Finally, I am disturbed by witnessing a number of gay writers and pundits dumping on a fellow gay person. We may disagree with his views, but we should support his coming out. Otherwise it is we ourselves who are the hypocrites.


Sunday, February 19, 2012

Same-sex marriage: is it triumphing?

Twenty years ago, I joined an Internet discussion group that was mainly concerned with the issue of same-sex marriage. Of course we were for it. In 1993 there was euphoria, as Hawaii seemed to be moving firmly in that direction, and it was thought that, following the “full-faith and credit” clause, gay marriage would be almost immediately available in all fifty states.

Of course things did not turn out that way, and it became evident that a long, hard slog lay ahead of us. In the interval, of course, much has been accomplished. California will soon be a done deal, and Maryland and New Jersey cannot lag far behind.

But is euphoria warranted, at long last? According to Andrew Sullivan today, “the country is edging relentlessly toward accepting the humanity of gay couples and our marriages and relationships.” Would that that were so. What we actually seem to be confronting is somewhat different, reflecting a reinforcement of the blue-state/red-state dichotomy. Iowa is an anomaly, while elsewhere in the heartland resistance is hardening. Unfortunately, thirty-one states have constitutional restrictions limiting marriage to one woman and one man.

Once the liberal coastal states are won--as they must be--a further long, hard slog awaits. Only when same-sex marriage exists in all fifty states will the panoply of federal benefits be assured.

At least there is hope in the United States. In the rest of the world I am not so sure. So far things are breaking out into two big blocs. The first consists of Western European countries, Canada, and some Latin American countries. The second bloc, officially and relentlessly homophobic, predominates in sub-Saharan Africa (except for South Africa) and the Middle East. In this way the US split mirrors the global one--at least for the present,


Monday, February 13, 2012

Government benefits

This Sunday's New York Times contains a kind of "gotcha" piece about how many middle-class people benefit from some form of government spending on entitlement programs, and are yet skeptical about government intervention of this kind. The lesson we should take from this practice, the subtext of the article argues, is that these people are hypocrites.

But are they? Liberarianism is not a suicide pact. A friend of mine in NYC, who has strong libertarian views, has been benefiting from rent stabilization for a good many years. Should he now take the money he has saved and give it to the landlord--or to the government?

Many with such views are sitting down now to do their income tax. Should they decline to take legitimate exemptions because they believe that they are not good policy? I don't think so.

One can keep to one's views about changes that are needed in social policies without hobbling one self in the process.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

Muddled thinking about sexual orientation

Since the time of the ancient Greeks there has been interest in physiological hermaphroditism, as seen in individuals who are perceived to show some combination of masculine and female physical traits.

As far as I know, there have never been any documented cases of persons with fully functioning male and female organs so that they could both impregnate and give birth. But there are, for example, women with enlarged clitorises that might be confused with penises, “bearded ladies,” and so forth.

Similarly, there are men with variations that distance them from the typical male. A good example is the condition known as Klinefelter’s Syndrome. a condition in which human males have an extra X chromosome. While females have an XX chromosomal makeup, and males an XY, affected individuals have at least two X chromosomes and at least one Y chromosome. Because of the extra chromosome, individuals with the condition are usually referred to as "XXY Males," or "47, XXY Males." Symptoms include hypogonadism (small testes) and reduced fertility. These individuals are not, however, hermaphrodites in the strict sense of the word; they are males.

A hundred years ago, at the time of Magnus Hirschfeld, these sexual intergrades (or sexuelle Zwischenstufen) were commonly conflated with the matter of sexual orientation. Yet there is plenty of evidence that the two are distinct, each requiring a separate metric. One can be a “man’s man” or a “woman’s woman” and still be attracted to one’s own sex. Conversely, men sometimes judged somatically effeminate and “manly women” can be purely heterosexual in their psychic orientation.

This conflation is an instance of what philosophers term a category mistake. Thia is a semantic or ontological error in which things of one kind are assimilated to another; or, alternatively, a property is ascribed to a thing that could not possibly have that property. Here are two amusing examples: “Most bananas are atheists” and “Schizophrenia went shopping last week.”

In recent decades, serious sex researchers have generally been careful to avoid category mistakes, rightly keeping the matter of somatic sexual variation separate from that of sexual orientation. Not so, however, the independent scholar Hanne Blank, author of Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality (Beacon Press, 2011). The main purpose of the book is to reiterate the unlikely thesis advanced by Jonathan Ned Katz in his Invention of Homosexuality (1995). I have discussed this claim in a previous posting.

Seeking to show that nothing is as straightforward or obvious as we think, Blank begins her book by describing her own long-term partnership with a Kliinefelter individual whose sexual genotype is XXY. That means, she claims, that biologically her partner is both male and female. It means nothing of the sort: her partner is male.

Having unwisely set the stage in this way, she goes on in the main body of the book to perpetrate her category mistake, assuming that her partner’s condition throws light on the issue of sexual orientation. This claim is preposterous; it returns to the the old error of a century ago.

The current appeal of such confused thinking is that it appears to accord with postmodernism, one definition of which is to “scramble the categories.” In this instance, as in many others, such scrambling is not an aid to clear thinking.


Monday, February 06, 2012

Class in Britain?

In 1963 I left these shores for an extended stay in the British Isles--in London, of course. Before setting out, I had been informed that the most important feature of the British national character was their all-encompassing class system, so different from our looser American version. After living in London for four years--with excursions elsewhere, and careful monitoring of the press--I became convinced that I did not know what the British class system was. Neither did anyone else, as far as I could tell.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Before setting out, I had adopted a basic guide, the notion that there is a fundamental contrast between U and non-U English usage, with U standing for upper class, and non-U representing the aspiring middle classes in the sociolects of 1950s. One should be clear. The debate did not concern itself with the speech of the British working classes which, curiously enough, oftentimes used the same words as the upper class. For this reason, the vocabulary list can often appear counterintuitive: the middle class prefers "fancy" or fashionable words (even neologisms), often euphemisms, in an attempt to make themselves sound more refined, while the upper class in many cases sticks to the same plain and traditional words that the working classes also use, as they have no need to make themselves sound more refined, being completely confident of their status.

The debate was set in motion in 1954 by the British linguist Alan S. C. Ross, Professor of Linguistics in the University of Birmingham. He coined the terms U and non-U in an article on the difference that social class makes to English language usage, which was published in a Finnish professional linguistics journal. While his article mentioned some differences of pronunciation and writing style, it was his attention to differences of vocabulary that attracted the most attention.

Alerted, Nancy Mitford took up the theme in an essay “The English Aristocracy” that appeared in Encounter magazine in 1954. Mitford provided a glossary of terms used by the upper classes, unleashing an anxious national debate about English class-consciousness and snobbery, which involved a good deal of soul-searching that itself provided fuel for the fires. In some cases the U term just seems more traditional, as in the contrast of graveyard vs. cemetery and looking glass vs. mirror. In other contrasts, euphemism seems evident, as in the non-U substitute for die, pass on, and the replacement of napkin with serviette.

The U and non-U issue now seems little more than a light-hearted diversion, but at the time many took it very seriously. This response was a reflection of the anxieties of the middle class in 1950s Britain, recently emerged from post-war austerities. In particular the media used the notion as a launching pad for many pieces of commentary, making much more out of it than was first intended.

Implicitly the concept ridiculed the idea that one might improve oneself by aping the culture and manner of one's "betters," an endeavor pretty much taken for granted before World War II,.

Further reflection suggested that, in the last analysis, these vocabulary differences were not very important. What was of overriding importance, some sociolinguists maintained, was accent. The ability to render effortlessly the speech patterns of the Home Counties of southern England immediately marked one out as superior. Ultimately, this claim seemed hardly likely, as it made an educated. well-to-do individual from Leeds or Bradford the inferior of a postman in Brighton.

At all events the Home County advantage lost its cachet when reverse snobbery led younger members of the British educated strata to adopt elements of working-class speech, what is now termed Estuary English and Mockney. The latter represents the deliberate affectation of the working-class London (Cockney) accent. At all events, the BBC has long ceased to be the arbiter of linguistic correctness, since all sorts of regional accents may be heard there.

What has become clear is that in England there are no simple linguistic criteria for ascertaining class status, as many factors--including wealth, education, fashion choices, and place of origin--play significant roles.

A further issue--an unavoidable one--is this: how many classes are there? In an earlier inquiry I found that the schemes ranged from two to nine. The simplest form dichotomizes society into the rulers and the ruled. This is, grosso modo, the scheme espoused by “Upstairs, Downstairs” and succeeding TV dramas.

At the opposite extreme is the ninefold scheme of upper-upper, middle-upper, lower-upper, upper-middle, and so forth. In addition, some speak of an underclass consisting of the truly unfortunate who do not figure even in this elaborate scheme.

In short the matter is iffy, to say the least. I would encourage anyone to look at assertions about the primacy of class in Britain with skepticism. To be sure, there is something to it. However, those who say don’t know, and those who know don’t say.


Sunday, February 05, 2012

Once again: the purported "invention" of heterosexuality

In January 2012 the independent scholar Hanne Blank published a book entitled “Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality.”

According to the blurb (as furnished by Amazon), the book asserts the following: “Like the typewriter and the light bulb, the heterosexual was invented in the 1860s and swiftly and permanently transformed Western culture. The idea of ‘the heterosexual’ was unprecedented. After all, men and women had been having sex, marrying, building families, and sometimes even falling in love for millennia without having any special name for their emotions or acts. Yet, within half a century, ‘heterosexual’ had become a byword for ‘normal.’ enshrined in law, medicine, psychiatry, and the media as a new gold standard for human experience."

In fact Blank’s book simply recycles the unlikely claim advanced by Jonathan Ned Katz in his 1995 book the “Invention of the Heterosexual.” I commented on this book in a previous posting on Dyneslines (July 5, 2011), little suspecting that the issue would arise again so soon.

One problem bedeviling this hunt for "inventions" in social behavior and attitudes is that they rest on a category mistake. Changes in the social realm are simply not like the discovery of the typewriter and the incandescent light bulb. Gradual and often imperceptible in detail, these shifts are not mechanical devices. We must deal with process not discontinuity.

In addition, such speculations reflect a kind of linguistic idealism, more specifically the idea that no social phenomenon can arise until a word has been created to characterize it. “Homosexual” was created in 1869. while “heterosexual” came along a few years later. QED.

As a matter of social history (and not linguistics), the issue raised again by Blank’s book is this: was heterosexuality ever “invented,” and if so, when?

Ironically the matter has been problematized by a writer who also thinks that heterosexuality was invented, the French scholar and activist Louis-Georges Tin.  In 2008 Tin published a book entitled  “L'invention de la culture hétérosexuelle.”   In this volume he seeks to extract heterosexuality from the “order of nature” in order to resituate it in the “order of time.”  More specifically, taking his cue from the older studies of Denis de Rougemont, Tin believes that heterosexuality emerged in Western Europe in the 12th century. To his credit, Tin does not shackle the origin of heterosexuality to a word, but looks at the evidence for a social phenomenon.

Louis-Georges Tin, who is active in black cultural politics in France as well as gay ones, had earlier edited the impressive (though perhaps inevitably flawed) Dictionnaire de l’homophobie (2003), bringing together the work of 75 contributors.  There is also an English-language version.

The “when” problem remains. Did heterosexuality only emerge in the late 19th century (Katz, Blank), or as early as the 12th century (Tin)?  It cannot be both. The chronological discrepancy--a huge gap--points to an obvious conclusion. This is in line with what common sense dictates: there was no need to invent heterosexuality, for it had always existed.

In the meantime, the groundswell of “inventions” continues, witness Patricia Cohen’s new book “In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age.”  One rubs one’s eyes in disbelief.  As Samuel Chew has shown, the tripartition of the course of human life goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks, as exemplified by the riddle the sphinx posed to Oedipus.

Putting “invention” in the title may sell books, but is it good scholarship?

For more on the latest example, see