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Recent Readings: Nonfiction

Here’s the complement to the recent readings post that went up not long ago detailing fiction I’d read lately. This time, I’m covering the (shorter) list of nonfiction works I’ve checked out so far this year, since the last books-I’ve-read post. As usual, it omits RPG books, for which I’m slowly working up a set of reviews that will be posted separately.  

The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey

Who doesn’t love a good polemical tirade, however flawed, if it agrees with one’s feelings? And Tim O’Neill’s right, it is flawed. (Seriously, read that critque. O’Neill demonstrates more dedication to historical fact in a single long blog post than Nixey does in a whole book.)

The best one can say is that The Darkening Age is rousingly angry, but unfortunately very focused and one-sided, with flawed “research” and lots of jiggering and forcing things into place, and lots of leaving-out-important-details because facts aren’t always on Nixey’s side. That much, I began to suspect even when I was listening to it: being flattered for one’s own sentiments should always put one on guard, especially when it’s as vigorously as Nixey appeals to any modern atheist bearing the mental scars of a religious upbringing. 

One feels like Nixey wanted to write a book about the horrors of modern Christianity, and I have to admit that, there is something heartening and timeless about the things that ancients like Celsus and Galen said when they mocked the superstition and violent ignorance they saw as the core of the faith. Yes, indeed, people have been saying things like this since the beginning, and yes, it’s still there to some degree: I remember being baffled when one of the teachers in my Catholic high school praised Origen, describing the man’s self-castration as an “act of faith.” (That castration was in fact probably slanderous fiction, though Christianity being what it is, sermons of the day suggest there were were a number of other young men who followed suit.) My thought at the time was something like, Seriously? What kind of God are you pushing at us? Well, and I decided my teacher was a bit crazy. Which it turned out he was.

In Nixey’s recounting of the thuggish Shenoute and of the desecration of pagan art, there’s sufficent horrible truth that it’s worth telling the stories without prevarication and half-truth and distortions. Nixey cites her sources very selectively, ignores vast amounts of evidence that contradict or at least problematize her claims, invents lost futures that were very unlikely to happen (the Romans don’t seem to have been on the verge of a scientific revolution like the one we had in the Renaissance, and weren’t reading Democritus anymore by the time Christians showed up), and Greco-Roman pagans were nowhere near as nice, pluralistic, or tolerant as Nixey makes them out to be. 

That’s not to dismiss all of Nixey’s examples, of course: O’Neill has nothing to say about Shenoute (the story of whom takes up the last chunk of the book), and it’s easy to see why:  even many Christians today agree that Shenoute’s influence probably wasn’t the best, and that he wasn’t particularly saintly by any standard we’d publicly uphold today. (That’s true of lots of early Christians: lunatics and horrible people and kooks were attracted to Christianity then, just as they are now… but lots of lunatics and horrible people and kooks were also attracted to pantheistic Greco-Roman religious beliefs, too.) Likewise, O’Neill doesn’t touch the question of the persecution of homosexuals, or Nixey’s account of Justinian as a brutal oppressor of those with a previously (somewhat) accepted sexual inclination: see the “Castration” section in Rictor Norton’s “A History of Homophobia” essay for the awful tale. 

Nixey’s right, too, about a decline in certain kinds of literary expression: erotic poetry didn’t completely die under the Christians, but it also really, really didn’t flourish for a long time. Nixey’s simplistic in some parts—did you know, for example, that we don’t really know how much of the contents of the Library of Alexandria were really lost, and how many survived in other libraries?—and wrong in some parts, and that deserves to be called out. The ancient world—and most times after it—was full of a range of horrible people who espoused horrible beliefs of many kinds. So is our world. Fabricating a “softer side” of Rome shouldn’t be necessary to establish that point. 

Which is to say, Nixey could have done a lot more homework and written a much more honest book… but that would require admitting that wthere were lots of brutal, horrible people on all sides, and a few relatively decent, wise, and kind ones too—the latter, always a minority, it seems. But she seems to have had an axe to grind, and, well, when she grinds it, the sparks can be a bit blinding if you’ve got an axe to grind too. What’s the point in rigor when you have anger on your side? The irony, of course, is that this is exactly the ignorant stupidity that Nixey condemns in the early Christians she excoriates. 

It’s too bad, because I think it would be a worthy project to give voice to those pagan ancients whose whole world was coming apart at the time when Christianity exploded into it, and that some criticisms of the Christian Way of Doing Things obviously are relatively evergreen. Nixey, unfortunately, was more interested in giving voice to her own, modern outrage. 

Miami and the Siege of Chicago by Norman Mailer

This is my first time reading anything longer by Mailer—I had a copy of Ancient Evenings as a teenager, which I’d bought from a library booksale, but never ended up reading it. (I suspect I wouldn’t have gotten very far into it if I had tried… though then again I did really dig Clive Barker’s The Great and Secret Show and Weaveworld back in those days.)

In any case, I picked up Miami and the Siege of Chicago from the clearance pile of the English section of a Korean bookstore in 2015, and after starting it during the run-up to the 2016 U.S. election, I had to put it down. Its depiction of a White House clownshow of morons and pigs cut too close to home. By early 2018, I’d become so used to the White House being filled with clowns and pigs that I picked it up again, thinking, “Well, who in this book could be half the asshole that Donald Trump is?”

The answer is: Norman Mailer.  

That’s not to suggest there’s no wit in this book. His takedowns of “respected” politicians are sometimes very clever and mean and funny. Here’s him pummeling Reagan: 

If he didn’t get the girl, it was because he was too good a guy to be overwhelmingly attractive. That was all right. He would grit his teeth and get the girl next time out. Since this was conceivably the inner sex drama of half of respectable America, he was wildly popular with Republicans. For a party which prided itself on its common sense, they were curiously, even outrageously, sentimental. 

… and here, Nixon’s DNC speech:

He went into the peroration. The year 2000 was coming. A great period of celebration and joy at being alive in America was ahead. “I see a day” he began to say, as Martin Luther King had once said “I have a dream.” Every orator’s art which had lately worked would become Nixon’s craft. So he said, “I see a day” nine times. He saw a day when the President would be respected and “a day when every child in this land, regardless of his background has a chance for the best education . . . chance to go just as high as his talents will take him.” Nixon, the Socialist! “I see a day when life in rural America attracts people to the country rather than driving them away . . . ” Then came a day when he could see of breakthroughs on problems of slums and pollution and traffic, he could see a day when the value of the dollar would be preserved, a day of freedom from fear in American and in the world . . . this was the cause he asked them all to vote for. His speech was almost done, but he took it around the track again. “Tonight I see the face of a child . . . Mexican, Italian, Polish, none of that matters . . . he’s an American child.” But stripped of opportunity. What pain in that face when the child awakes to poverty, neglect, and despair. The ghost of J.M. Barrie stirred in Nixon’s voice, stirred in the winds and on the catwalks and in the television sets. “Let’s all save Peter Pan,” whispered the ghost. 

Mailer’s funny, but he’s funny because he’s an asshole, and he’s also funny to the part of the reader who’s an asshole. He’s mocking the way Nixon uses kids who aren’t white cynically, but not because he gives a shit about whether kids (or adults) who awake to “poverty, neglect, and despair.” Outrage at Nixon’s amateurish nonsense is just grist for the Norman Mailer Persona Mill.  

That said, the person who comes out looking worst in all this is Mailer himself: almost everything he says about anyone except a white, middle-aged man is just plain lazy and stupid—slamming almost all the women for what he imagines to be their sexual proclivities, calling black musicians playing at one convention “Uncle Toms,” and yeah, it wouldn’t be Mailer if he didn’t slam the gays at least once, right? Everything he says about the Yippies has the air of something Jordan Peterson might say about “campus radicals” today: calculated to exaggerate, lie, and appeal to the arch-conservative who thinks he is smarter than he actually is. While I think there’s value in reading authors in whose work blind spots are apparent to us, I get the feeling Mailer was consciously being a bigot in his work, doing it on purpose to amuse other old white assholes and build up his persona.  

Which, speaking of that: it’s worse than just bigotry, because this is “New Journalism” in the 1960s, so… Mailer makes himself part of the story. He constantly writes himself into the book, preening and presenting himself as a, ahem, tough-talking, honest, audacious bastard. As Paul Berman puts it, this is “werewolf autobiography.” So Mailer gets drunk, a lot. He proposes, promises to organize, and (of course) fails to show up for a protest march to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago (which never happens). When I read his account of going to Lincoln Park and running into into people like Allen Ginsberg, Jean Genet, William S. Burroughs,  and Terry Southern, it made me want to track down and read their accounts of the incidents described. (If you’re similarly curious, see here for the story on how they got sent. There’s also links to the stuff the trio (plus John Sack) ultimately wrote for Esquire, but that’s behind a subscription paywall.)

All that said, I did find something compulsively readable about the book, probably for the same reason I also read WTF Just Happened Today every day: because I am fascinated by monsters as much as I’m horrified by them. 

What alarms me is how far American’s fallen, in some ways: Mailer’s bigotry was “audacious” but now much worse gets crowdfunded. Nixon fearmongered in his DNC speech, but he at least felt the need to gesture toward an egalitarianism and future and decency he didn’t give a shit about, while Trump… well, in contrast, Trump in 2016 apparently found such a gesture unnecessary. So, it seems, did his supporters. I’m not the only one to find that chilling, either. 

Felix Calvert & Company: A Capital Brewing Family by Patricia Richardson

I should note up front that Felix Cavert & Company is one of the books I’ve read primarily as research for the novel I’m trying to get into revising right now. Richardson’s a descendant of the Calverts, who were (at the time in which my novel is set) collectively running the biggest breweries in England (and, by extension, the world). This fact makes up the headline in Martyn Cornell’s post on it—“When One Family Ran the World’s Two Biggest Breweries”—and for good reason: it’s a bit astonishing how successful the Calverts were, and how little-remembered they are for that early triumph in the London Brewery world. (Attempting to research the period previously, I’d long been under the mistaken impression that Humphrey Parsons had ruled the London brewing world at the time.) 

Much of the book doesn’t relate to brewing, but I’m still glad I read it for a couple of reasons: there are tantalizing bits about the brewing world, and especially (though it’s implied here) about how breweries were run in networks of religious and family relations (something more deeply discussed elsewhere); there’s also noteworthy stuff about technological innovations that hit the London brewing world, though most of them came later on than the period I was looking at. Additionally, there was—as always—some interconnection with other things I’ve researched, like early Georgian England’s importation (from Turkey) and subsequent export (to the rest of Europe, notably to the Russian imperial court) of smallpox inoculation techniques. Interestingly, the Calverts at one point in their history—I think it’s the ones who were running the Peacock Brewery—would have fit perfectly into a plotline I long ago abandoned, involving female saboteurs and a number of unmarried sons. 

That said, the book’s treatment of a little over three centuries of family history has inspired me in another project I’ve been thinking about returning to next year. But… I’ll talk about that that another time. Which brings me to the fact that Richardson is writing her own family’s genealogy, but that family is interesting enough to deserve the attention. She’s also done the brewing historians a favor by sorting through the bewildering number of Felix Calverts who existed, assigning them numbers based on line of descent and generation. At the very least, I’m going to try make sure one of my characters makes a passing reference to the “Felix Calvert, the brewer” so that another character can snarkily say, “Which one? There’s been so damn’d many of ’em…”

If you’re curious about the book solely out of interest in brewing history, then (like The Life of Henry Thrale, which I discussed here) I don’t really think it’s absolutely essential. However, if you’re curious about the Calverts and their time—a time when a single extended family ran the world’s two biggest breweries, and when the brewing industry stood poised on the brink of leading the charge into industrialization—then I’d say it’s worth a look. Probably the easiest way to do so, if you’re not in the UK, is to contact Ms. Richardson directly (as I did, I think, via eBay); this was how I got the book myself, and she was a pleasure to deal with.   

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