Monday, October 29, 2012

I have just returned (Monday morning) from a bracing stroll in Morningside Park, defying Sandy to do her worst. No rain, though the wind is beginning to pick up. That is often a problem here in Manhattan, where the canyon-like streets function like wind tunnels. 
 I returned via the Avenue, where most businesses are open. I feel sorry for the employees who had somehow to get to work after public transportation was unnecessarily shut down. At two sidewalk cafes waiters were putting out tables for the lunchtime crowd! That is something you won't see on television. The MSM and the politicians are liars all. They stir up the sense of panic through very selective use of evidence--floods and all. Don't believe their hype.

Friday, October 26, 2012

 The teacher and writer Jacques Barzun, long a luminary at Columbia University, has died in San Antonio at the age of 104.  Those who identify longevity with abstemiousness should note that Barzun had a lifelong habit of drinking two martinis every evening.

As a teenager, I consumed with awe Barzun's two-volume work on Berlioz, which was far more expansive than any other biography I had read because it anchored the life in the times. Later, as a snooty graduate student, I came to view Barzun, unfairly, as a lightweight. I suppose he was somewhere in between an absolute oracle and a popularizer. The most important thing to remember was that he kept thinking and writing throughout his long life.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

With people living longer, some into their 90s and over 100, there has been an understandable interest in trying to find out why. One approach is to study "blue zones," microregions showing a concentration of such people. Among the blue zones that have been identified are a Sardinian village; Okinawa; Loma Linda, CA; and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. Thanks to a recent New York Times story, there has been a flurry of interest in the Greek island of Ikaria, which has been added to the list. 
Blue-zones researchers tend to emphasize diet and climate. However, they commonly neglect genes. The actual numbers are also small, suggesting that these spots may be statistical anomalies, rather than genuine answers to the problem. On Ikaria, for example, there are only about 240 people who are older than 80, evidently from a very few families with a restricted number of genetic lines. 
In short, some caution is warranted in evaluating this data.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Hits on Dyneslines have been modestly increasing lately, even though a good deal of the gloss on Blogger has faded.  I know, of course, that I will never achieve a large following, in fact not much of a following at all.  There are several reasons for this.  Most of the time I do not focus on current events, but deal with remote or arcane topics--at least ones perceived as such.  Another reason is my eclecticism.  Not long ago I made a list of my intellectual interests.  There were more than a hundred items.  To be sure, I hardly ever comment on cartography or pre-Columbian monuments herein.  But the eclecticism is enough to deter some readers, who are used to consulting blog sites that address a single set of topics.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

In recent years the French scholar Michel Pastoureau has revolutionized the historical semantics of color, showing how the status of many colors has been historically variable. In his 2001 book "Blue: The History of a Color," he showed how the hue was often disparaged in classical antiquity: The Greeks considered the color blue ugly and barbaric. Among the Early Christians, as seen in a famous mosaic in San Vitale in Ravenna, blue could even signify death.

The French scholar showed how blue gradually ascended the ladder of esteem, to reach the pinnacle it now enjoys. Yet there is nothing about Pastoureau's findings findings in this piece in today's Science Section of the NY Times:

Here is some information on the scholar: 

Michel Pastoureau, né le 17 juin 1947 à Paris, est un historien médiéviste français, spécialiste de la symbolique des couleurs, des emblèmes, et de l'héraldique.

Michel Pastoureau est le petit-cousin de Claude Lévi-Strauss, le fils d'Henri Pastoureau, proche des surréalistes et le neveu d'Henri Dubief (historien) ; archiviste paléographe, sa thèse de l'École des chartes, soutenue en 1972, porte sur le bestiaire héraldique du Moyen Âge. Le sujet est alors considéré comme peu porteur : l'héraldique passait alors pour une discipline archaïque, et les animaux pour un sujet puéril qui n'intéressait pas les historiens.
Il est historien, et directeur d'études à École des hautes études en sciences sociales et à l'École pratique des hautes études (4e section), où il occupe depuis 1983 la chaire d'histoire de la symbolique occidentale. Il a été élu le 28 avril 2006 correspondant français de l'Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres. Il est membre de l'Académie internationale d'héraldique et président de la Société française d'héraldique et de sigillographie.
Il a publié une quarantaine d'ouvrages, dont certains traduits dans plusieurs langues, consacrés à l'histoire des couleurs, des animaux et des symboles. Ses premiers travaux portaient sur l'histoire des emblèmes et les domaines qui s'y rattachent : héraldique, sigillographie et numismatique.
Le 3 novembre 2010, il reçoit le prix Médicis essai pour son ouvrage Les Couleurs de nos souvenirs1.
Après les Couleurs de nos souvenirs, Michel Pastoureau publie la même année un catalogue de 350 photographies, Couleurs, pour inaugurer un rapport différent à la couleur, via l'image. Divisé en six parties, il passe en revue le blanc, le rouge, le noir, le vert, le bleu et le jaune. À chacune de ses couleurs correspond une cinquantaine de photographies qui en évoquent les valeurs et significations, sans aucune légende2.

Livres d'études

  • Bestiaires du Moyen Âge, éditions du Seuil, Paris, 2011, 235 p., (ISBN 978-2-02-102286-5).
  • Les Couleurs de nos souvenirs, éditions du Seuil, Paris, 2010, 257 p., (ISBN 978-2-02-096687-0) (Prix Médicis Essai 20103)
  • Le Cochon. Histoire d'un cousin mal aimé, Gallimard, collection Découvertes (numéro 544), 2009, 160 p. (ISBN 2070360385)
  • L'Art de l'héraldique au Moyen Âge, éditions du Seuil, Paris, 2009, 240 p., (ISBN 978-2-02-098984-8).
  • Noir : Histoire d’une couleur, 2008
  • L'Ours. Histoire d'un roi déchu, Seuil, collection La librairie du XXIe siècle, Paris, 2007. (ISBN 202021542X) Prix national du livre médiéval : Provins patrimoine mondial
  • La Bible et les saints avec Gaston Duchet-Suchaux, Édition Flammarion (Paris), Collection Tout l'art référence, 2006. (ISBN 2080115987)
  • Le Petit Livre des couleurs avec Dominique Simonnet, éditions Panama, 2005 . (ISBN 2755700343)
  • Une histoire symbolique du Moyen Âge occidental, Seuil, collection La librairie du XXIe siècle, Paris, 2004, (ISBN 2020136112).
  • Bleu. Histoire d'une couleur, éditions du Seuil, 2002. version poche (ISBN 2020869918), version grand format (ISBN 2020204754)
  • Les Animaux célèbres, Bonneton, 2001. (ISBN 2-86253-281-9)
  • Les Emblèmes de la France, éditions Bonneton, Paris, 1998.
  • Figures de l'héraldique, Découvertes Gallimard, 1996. (ISBN 2070533654)
  • Dictionnaire des couleurs de notre temps, Bonneton, Paris, 1992. (ISBN 2862532436)
  • L'Étoffe du diable, une histoire des rayures et des tissus rayés, éditions du Seuil, collection Point Essais, Paris, 1991. (ISBN 2020611988)
  • L'Hermine et le sinople, études d'héraldique médiévale, Le Léopard d'Or, Paris, 1982, (ISBN 2863770179).
  • Traité d'héraldique, Grands manuels Picard, 1979, réédité en 1993, 1997, 2003 (version revue et complétée par les travaux du domaine publiés de 1979 à 1992)
  • Les Armoiries, Brepols, 1977 (ISBN 978-2-503-36020-1)
  • La Vie quotidienne en France et en Angleterre au temps des chevaliers de la Table ronde, Hachette littératures, 1976 (ISBN 978-2010177378).
Michel Pastoureau a également écrit un certain nombre d'articles consacrés aux couleurs, dans des publications telles que Pour la Science, ainsi que dans des publications universitaires

Friday, October 12, 2012

Even amidst a welter of self-serving trivia, the Internet (including Facebook, its latest major manifestation) facilitates intellectual discussion and communication.  Yet as a historian I have noted a pervasive present-mindedness. To cite an extreme example, the current controversy over Sesame Street’s Yellow Bird on Sesame Street raises (or is capable of raising) issues about the public funding of the arts that go back to the reign of Louis XIV, and probably much further, to the time of Pericles.  Yet the social media offer no discussion of this historical perspective and what we might learn from it.

That said, I turn now to a problem that has interested me ever since I first learned of it almost forty years ago: the controversy over the Axial Age.  What is meant by this expression?  The Axial Age is an era centered on the period around 500 BCE, when a remarkable body of revolutionary achievements in thought erupted across a broad band of Eurasia.  In Greece, there were the pre-Socratic philosophers, followed by Socrates himself, Plato, and Aristotle.  About the same time, if the traditional chronology is to be trusted. such reforming prophets as Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah arose in ancient Israel.  In India Gautama Buddha appeared, accompanied by the maturation of Hindu thought found in the Upanishads.  In ancient China, Confucius, Mencius, and the author of the Daodejing illuminated the Far Eastern manifestation of the Axial Age. There is thus, it seems, a remarkable synchronicity of epochal advances stretching from southeastern Europe to the plains of northern China.

The period not only saw the appearance of major thinkers and their writings, but a new criticality that was prepared to examine, and if necessary to discard the conventional wisdom. In most cases this development occurred in small cities and city states.  Subsequently, the rise of empires, such as the Hellenistic kingdoms, the regime of Ashoka, and the Han Dynasty served to blunt the effect of the Axial Revolution.  Yet it may be argued that this barrage of innovation, occurring some 2500 years ago, was the breakthrough to the modernity in which we still live. 

Sixty-three years ago the concept of the Axial Age rose to prominence thanks to a remarkable book, The Origin and Goal of History, by the philosopher Karl Jaspers.  Subsequent research has traced the notion back to the writings of A.-H. Anquetil-Duperron (1731-1805), a French scholar of ancient Iran.

With regard to Jaspers, it is easy to see why this grand concept would appeal to a Europe that was just recovering from the nihilism of Nazism.  Over time, though, interest faded, to revive recently, thanks in large  measure to the efforts of Shmuel N. Eisenstadt.  The new interest seems to be fueled by a broader process, that of globalization, which in the view of some observers is fostering a new Axial Age.

The historical problem has now been addressed by a weighty volume combining the efforts of eighteen distinguished authorities: The Axial Age and Its Consequences, edited by Robert N. Bellah and Hans Joas (Harvard University Press, 2012).  Since there is much to ponder in this book, my conclusions must be regarded as tentative.

The key problem is this what can account for this extraordinary synchronization of breakthroughs?  After all, in those remote times there was very little communication among the ancient civilizations involved.  Merlin Donald, an academic psychologist, has proposed an answer in terms of cultural evolution.  He believes that, beginning in prehistoric times, humanity advanced through several distinct phases: the episodic, which yielded to the mimetic, and that in turn to the mythic.  The theoretic stage, corresponding to the Axial Age, concluded the sequence.

In what is perhaps the most penetrating of all the essays in this book, the Egyptologist Jan Assmann returns a mixed verdict.  “I confess that I cannot bring myself to really believe in the “Axial Age” as a global turn in universal history occurring grosso modo in the middle of the first millennium BCE.  On the other hand, I find the concept of axiality (with pre- and post-axiality) a valuable and even indispensable analytic tool in the comparative study of cultures.  .  .  .  [The] 'breakthroughs' occurred at different times and to different degrees under different conditions and with different consequences.”

In short the thesis remains tantalizing, but not yet fully secured.

Generally absent from scholarly inquiries into the origin of the Axial Age is the name of Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian monk active in papal Rome.  About the year 525 CE Dionysius introduced the principle of the Anno Domini, that is, dating years from the Incarnation.  (That the monk got the date of Jesus’ birth slightly wrong does not effect the efficacy of the concept). Dionysus disliked the then-current practice of dating events from the beginning of the reign of Diocletian in 286, since Diocletian was a persecutor of Christians.

In advancing his Anno Domini principle the Scythian monk fused sacred and secular history, treating the appearance of Jesus Christ as the pivot of history.  In my view the concept of the Axial Age implicitly adopts Dionysus’s ploy, but pushes back the date some 500 years.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Some have taken note of the strange turn that the career of Judith Butler, a leading postmodern theorist, has taken. Active in Germany, she has joined the campaign against homonationalism. This cause has achieved some prominence in Western Europe and Canada, though so far not so much in this country.

This effort involves so many facets that it is hard to describe briefly. Basically, it seems to reflect the notion that the malign influence of Western imperialism (never mind the other kinds) is responsible for all the ills of the world. The hapless nations of the Third World are in this view innocent of any wrongdoing; they are merely victims of the heartless incursions of the West, which are cultural as much as economic and military. One aspect of this unwarranted inference is the "peculiar notion" that there is a universal horizon of civil rights, a standard of decency that applies everywhere.
No, the opponents of homonationalism say; all cultures are relative and we must never presume to interfere with other nations, simply try to understand and empathize with them.

One of the truly unfortunate results of this warped view is to argue that we must simply accept homophobia in Third World countries. It is, after all, their culture, pure and undefiled--or would be if we had simply not kept besmirching their pristine values.

One component of this view is the attack on "pinkwashing," a supposed process of exonorating the state of Israel because its policies on homosexuality are benign. Personally, I am critical of the current Israeli government, and concerned about the rightward turn of politics in that country. I certainly do not view with any composure the possibility of war with Iran. Yet there comes a point where criticism of Israel crosses over into overt antisemitism, and that seems to be happening with some adherents of the anti-imperialist approach.

By the way, there is to be a conference at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York on homonationalism next year.

At all events, the leading proponent of the homonationalist approach seems to be a professor teaching at an American university:

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Much has been written about how many intellectuals in the 1930s became committed Communists, and how difficult it was to escape the toils of this allegiance.  The escape process was chronicled in the 1949 book The God That Failed by Arthur Koestler, André Gide, Ignazio Silone and three others.
 I have personal knowledge because my parents were Communists. Another was Harry Hay, the founder of the modern gay movement, whose centennial is being marked this year. Hay found his Communist Party experience useful as a repertoire of organizing devices. Yet when the Party learned that he was creating a society of perverts, they forced him to quit. 
Stalinism was extremely homophobic. Yet Harry remained in some sense loyal, making a pilgrimage as late as 1981 to the Soviet Union, when its fate was already sealed. 
As with many such people, Hay's acquaintance with Marxist theory was thin. He never quite understood the point of "religion is the opiate of the people," and launched the faerie spirituality movement. 
Contradictions abound in all of us, to be sure, and one shouldn't mock. Yet one shouldn't be swept away by what one writer called the "romance of Communism," but examine such errors and follies with total frankness.