Renaissance Wogs

The Problem of Unbelief in the 16th Century: The Religion of Rabelais (Lucien Febvre, 1942)

They were simple people who gave way to their feelings. We repress ours…. (p. 100)

Here, too, was the “underdevelopment of sight”.  He was content to “feel” — like his whole age (p. 454).

Who was Febvre talking about? Martin Luther, and with him, the entire Renaissance: Erasmus, More, Montaigne, Pico, Rabelais, the whole shebang. This is the Annales school’s famous histoire des mentalités. Where did it come from?

A while ago our teacher Lévy-Bruhl investigated how and why primitives reasoned differently from civilized men. Yet a good part of the latter remained primitives for a long time (p. 6).

But  Lévy-Bruhl was refuted by Lévi-Strauss, and there’s no such thing as “la mentalité primitive”!  And anyway, you’re not supposed to talk about white people that way — Luther and Erasmus were not wogs! (Paging Edward Said).

During the first half of the 20th century French rationalism and scientism were fierce and savage. Febvre was diligently refuting an even more rationalistic earlier book by Abel Lefranc which had claimed that Rabelais himself was a pure rationalist, centuries ahead of his time.

Published in: on April 14, 2013 at 8:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Solomon Volkov, “St. Petersburg”

I highly recommend Solomon Volkov’s St. Petersburg, a cultural history of St Petersburg (and by extension, Russia) from about 1700 to the 1980s. Wonderful anecdotes, but also lots of serious stuff. Volkov knew many of the mid-20th c. figures personally, notably Anna Akhmatova. Two anecdotes from the book (interpreted by me):


The impresario Diaghilev, who played an enormous role in the development of early 20th c. music and ballet, was a talentless, unscrupulous charlatan.How do we know this?

When he was 24 Diaghilev wrote the following to his stepmother, with whom he was very close:

I am, first of all, a great charlatan, although brilliant, and secondly, a great charmer, and thirdly, very brazen, and fourthly, a man with a great amount of logic and a small amount of principles, and fifthly, I believe, without talent; however, if you like, I believe I have found my real calling – patronage of the arts. For that, I ha ve everything except money, but that will show up.

Of course, maybe he was just another “unreliable narrator” (or perhaps a Cretan liar).


In 1881 Czar Alexander II was killed by nihilist assassins. Czar Alexander III knew he needed to do something to restore Russia’s confidence, so for 15,000 rubles he commissioned the world first
Fabergé egg and gave it to the Czarina on Easter.

Imperial Russia wasn’t into pragmatism and efficiency. Assassination is a poor way of achieving political goals, and nihilists basically believe that nothing is possible anyway. And similarly, Fabergé eggs are an ineffective response to social unrest.

Published in: on April 14, 2013 at 7:18 pm  Comments (2)  

The past is a different country

London, May 16, 1751

My Dear Friend,

In about three months from this day, we shall probably meet. I look upon that moment as a young woman does upon her bridal night; I expect the greatest pleasure, and yet cannot help fearing some admixture of pain.….

This is Lord Chesterfield writing to his son. Where are the Freudians when you need them? I am very glad that my own father never wrote anything like this to me.

Lord Chesterfield constantly nagged his bastard about not being shallow, frivolous, and artificial enough. He recommended that he take two mistresses, one of them a high society lady to teach him the airs and graces, and the other a girl of convenience. The bastard was touring Europe, and while he was there Lord Chesterfield continually pimped fine ladies on him — and many of them sent back reports (most of them negative). The son was a serious-minded, scholarly sort and he resisted as best he could, but he didn’t have what it took to make the appropriate response to the letter above:

My dear father,

I look forward eagerly to your return. Rest assured that it is with the ultimate gentleness that I shall unveil your fair charms, and that if during the final consummation the throbbing gristle betwixt your yielding thighs should cause you even the tiniest pain, that harm will be remedied with a thousand passionate kisses.

Your obedient son, &c &c

Published in: on April 9, 2013 at 1:02 am  Leave a Comment  

The Root of the Problem

Natalya, however , remembers Yezhov with love. She has said in an interview “He spent a lot of time with me, more even than my mother did. He made tennis rackets for me. He made skates and skis. He made everything for me himself.” And the authors of the first English-language biography of Yezhov write, “At the dacha, Yezhov taught her to play tennis, skate, and ride a bicycle. He is remembered as a gentle, loving father showering her with presents and playing with her in the evenings after returning from the Lubyanka.

–Robert Chandler, “Appendix” to Vasily Grossman, The Road.

Yezhov was the head of NKVD and presided over the Stalinist terror during 1937 and 1938; after being replaced by Beria in 1939, he was shot in 1940. He was responsible for the deaths of close to a million people, including much of the Russian intelligentsia.

Yezhov was nice to his daughter. Stalin was nice to his daughter. Adolf Eichmann was nice to his kids. Hitler was nice to children and dogs.

People! Quit being nice to children!

That’s where it all starts!

Published in: on April 9, 2013 at 12:38 am  Leave a Comment