William H. McNeill – History as Myth

A few years ago, the great historian William H. McNeill died. I still have surprisingly endearing memories of reading his A World History one winter, in the middle crowded New York City Wendy’s, surrounded by high school kids just done with their day, his narrative silencing every one and every thing.  His obituary can be found here. Below is a […]

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Ship in Air

Here’s a nice anecdote told twice, first from some anonymous Irish source, and then Seamus Heaney’s version of it in verse. This was the first poem of Heaney’s I ever saw, back in high school when someone showed me the New York Times, perhaps when his book Seeing Things was reviewed there, or when he’d won the Nobel Prize. But […]

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Blindness, War & History

(this essay was originally published in the Fall, 2014 issue of the Concho River Review. Since it is no longer available for purchase, I will post the essay here)  when you kill another honor him with your tears when the battle is won treat it as a wake —Tao Te Ching 31, tr. Red Pine   1. Blindness I often […]

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Week of the Bomb: Friday

What to make of any of these voices? This week’s posts—the words not of those protesting the bomb after, but of those who made and decided to use it—are the sum of something I have wanted to put together, quite literally, for years, and talking with my wife about each of them has convinced me that I have to at […]

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Week of the Bomb: Thursday

Finally, voices from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When The New Yorker dedicated its entire August 31, 1946 issue to John Hersey’s Hiroshima, the editors wrote that they did so “in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of […]

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Week of the Bomb: Wednesday

Many of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project had families in Europe, or were refugees from Europe themselves, and so the atomic bomb they were helping to make had an obvious adversary in mind. When Germany surrendered, however, many felt much less animus against Japan, and in part this conflict is narrated in the voices below. Also included […]

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Week of the Bomb: Tuesday

Impossible decisions remain impossible, even after they’ve been made. Following on yesterday’s post, here are the voices of those scientists and politicians who admitted the horror of the atomic bomb, but saw its creation and deployment as unavoidable; who felt caught up and even powerless in the equally inevitable march of scientific discovery; those who naively thought that such a […]

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Week of the Bomb: Monday

With the anniversary of the Trinity Test just passed, and the anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki this week, I realize the atomic bomb has been following me for years. The first book of poetry I ever owned was the anthology Atomic Ghosts, which featured dozens of poets responding to the nuclear age; and after I first moved away from home to […]

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The Past is Not Dead: There is Only Continuity

from Peter Ackroyd, at the end of his first volume of the history of England: Other forms of continuity are also evident. Modern roads follow the line of old paths and trackways. The boundaries of many contemporary parishes follow previous patterns of settlement, along which ancient burials are still to be found. Our distant ancestors are still around us. There […]

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The Popular Press in 1918 was Garbage Too

From Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, published just over a century ago. Our bad relationship with information and disinformation didn’t start with cable news or Twitter: … Man does not speak to man; the press and its associate, the electrical news-service, keep the waking-consciousness of whole peoples and continents under a deafening drum-fire of theses, catchwords, standpoints, scenes, feelings, […]

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History is An Accident

from Peter Ackroyd, at the end of his first volume on the history of England: When we look over the course of human affairs we are more likely than not to find only error and confusion. I have already explained, in the course of this narrative, that the writing of history is often another way of defining chaos. There is […]

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A Housewife in the 1960s

One of the saddest interviews from Studs Terkel’s Working (talk about Human Pages!) comes from a Chicago housewife named Therese Carter: How would I describe myself? It’ll sound terrible—just a housewife. (Laughs.) It’s true. What is a housewife? You don’t have to have any special talents. I don’t have any….       It’s not really a full day. You think it […]

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Jews & Muslims on Pilgrimage Together in the 1300s

From Mark Cohen’s Under Crescent & Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages: An aspect of Jewish-gentile sociability under Islam that seems to lack a counterpart in the Jewish-Christian world is the world of shared popular religious practices… particularly in the joint worship of saints. Here, interdenominational religiosity has its basis in the fact that the Qur’an honors biblical figures […]

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Voices from 1900-1914

Below are a few dozen voices from the early twentieth century, culled from Philipp Blom’s The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914. In an almost uncanny way their concerns aren’t much different than ours: there’s worry over the spread of new technology and its invasion into and cheapening of everyday life; a deep paranoia over changes in previously stable gender roles, with […]

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Martin Luther Reinvents the German Language

When, in 1522, Martin Luther agreed to a staged kidnapping that would keep him safe from Catholic and other authorities, he soon found himself out of danger, but also bored to tears. Hiding out in castle called the Wartburg, near Eisenach, he soon admitted, “I sit here idle and drunk all day long.” Thomas Cahill picks up the story: …this […]

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Primo Levi’s Hardest Thoughts on the Holocaust

From Primo Levi’s 1986 book, The Drowned and the Saved, remembering the concentration camps: On Levi’s own—and others’—guilt at having survived the concentration camps: At a distance of years one can today definitely affirm that the history of the Lagers [from Konzentrationslager, concentration camp] has been written almost exclusively by those who, like myself, never fathomed them to the bottom. […]

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Scholarly Peace: Muslim, Christian & Jewish Translators in Medieval Spain (essay)

  In the year 949, among the palaces and gardens of Madinat al-Zahra outside the city of Cordoba, a conference was being held. The host was the caliph of al-Andalus, Abd al-Rahman III, and his guests were representatives from the Christian emperor Constantine VII, who had just arrived from Constantinople. Only two centuries before, the first Abd al-Rahman had fled […]

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Burned as a Witch in Ireland in 1895

From Frazer’s Golden Bough: In March 1895 a peasant named Michael Cleary, residing at Ballyvadlea, a remote and lonely district in the county of Tipperary, burned his wife Bridget Cleary alive over a slow fire on the kitchen hearth in the presence of and with the active assistance of some neighbours, including the woman’s own father and several of her […]

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Sleepwalking into World War One

From Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914: Do we really need to make the case against a single guilty state, or to rank the states according to their respective share in responsibility for the outbreak of war? In one classical study from the origins literature, Paul Kennedy remarked that it is “flaccid” to dodge the […]

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Vermeer in Bosnia

If anyone asks you about the Why of art, especially in the face of atrocity or just its apparent impracticality—for the artist or the audience—this anecdote from Lawrence Weschler is about as good an answer as I know.   I happened to be in The Hague a while back, sitting in on the preliminary hearings of the Yugoslav War Crimes […]

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Oswald Probably Did It

It took 9/11 to show me the real damage conspiracy theories can do. Since then, the gleeful and gullible ability of many to believe any and all conspiracy theories has convinced me that Lee Harvey Oswald probably did kill John F. Kennedy, and probably alone. The reason for our desperate need for conspiracy theories hasn’t been put any more eloquently […]

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Neanderthal Compassion, Neanderthal Burials

from the book Becoming Human: Innovation in Prehistoric Material and Spiritual Culture:   Caring for severely disabled members of the community must be one of the indicators of respect for the individual and for human life. It is clear that Neanderthals fed and looked after severely handicapped members of their communities who were too disabled to contribute to the food quest. […]

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Did Neanderthals Have Language?

from Richard Klein and Blake Edgar’s The Dawn of Human Culture:   The Neanderthals are fascinating because they were so much like us and yet so different. Before we abandon them completely, we want to address one well-known speculation for what could explain the difference. This is the possibility that they possessed only a limited ability to speak, that is, […]

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Eleanor Roosevelt Finds Herself

From Geoffrey Ward’s biography of the Roosevelts comes this moving account of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Dickensian childhood, complete with neglectful mother and alcoholic father. Following the early death of both parents, the intervention of an aunt changes her life:    …[Eleanor’s father] Elliott was delighted at her birth, and called her “Little Nell” after the relentlessly virtuous orphaned heroine of Dickens’s […]

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The Invention of Harmony

from two essays on the origins of the aesthetic impulse in Becoming Human: Innovation in Prehistoric Material and Spiritual Culture:   The earliest current evidence for handaxes comes from West Turkana, Kenya, dated to 1.65 Mya [Million years ago]. Similar finds have been made at Konso, again in Ethiopia, dating to 1.5 Mya. These tools show both lateral and bifacial […]

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(Brain) Size Matters

from Richard Klein’s The Dawn of Human Culture:   More research is required to demonstrate that the brain enlarged abruptly in steps as we have suggested, but no one questions that brain size increased roughly threefold over the 5- to 7-million-year span of human evolution. Body size also increased over the same interval, but to a much smaller degree, and […]

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Notre Dame & the Liberation of Paris in 1944

  A moment from Matthew Cobb’s Eleven Days in August, on the liberation of Paris in 1944: [the voice of Henri Tanguy was heard on the radio proclaiming:] “Open the road to Paris for the Allied armies, hunt down and destroy the remnants of the German divisions, link up with the Leclerc Division in a common victory—that is the mission […]

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A Twelfth Century Love Letter: Heloise Remembers Abelard

An amazing passage from a letter of Heloise to Abelard, those twelfth-century lovers who ended up in a nunnery and a monastery after their affair was discovered. Strip away the contemporary details (their religiosity and its attendant guilt, etc.), and Heloise might be writing a blog today: In my case, the pleasures of lovers which we shared have been too […]

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George Orwell in the Coal Mines

As an addition to my last post, here is George Orwell’s complete description of going down into the coal mines of northern England, taken from the second chapter of his 1937 book, The Road to Wigan Pier.  The entire text of the book can be found here. *** When you go down a coal-mine it is important to try and […]

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George Orwell & Empathy

As usual, George Orwell says it better than anybody. Here he is in his 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier, asking his readers not to give up using coal, but just to recognize whose labor is providing them with that coal. Nowadays I would only add to the coal miners all the people behind our conveniences; because if we […]

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Happy Black Friday

For those who are out stampeding each other for flat-screen TVs, and for those forced to work so others can get their amazing deals, here’s my usual Black Friday post: When asked if the news of the day surprised him anymore, the poet Joseph Brodsky—who grew up in Soviet Russia and came to America in his early thirties—said in part, […]

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Happy Black Friday

For those who are out stampeding each other for flat-screen TVs, and for those forced to work so others can get their amazing deals, here’s my usual Black Friday post: When asked if the news of the day surprised him anymore, the poet Joseph Brodsky—who grew up in Soviet Russia and came to America in his early thirties—said in part, […]

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