Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Book 4: Heretics

The Cathars: The most successful heresy of the middle ages by Sean Martin
Pbk, Vintage, New York, 2004

It is useful and bracing to bear in mind that the foggy facades of past ages were every bit as filled with crags and holes as is our present age. This was my youthful revelation from Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium, but I knew little of the Cathars. As much as I sought a frame for Newton from Gleick, I sought a great deal more from this book. Like Newton, this is not a tome, but it has the sharpness of a well-drawn short history.

The Cathars (their name derived from the Greek of “pure ones”) were dualistic Christians who claimed decent from St. John the Evangelist, but their beliefs owe much to the Gnostics. Dualism - wrongly tagged Manacheism thanks to an influential tract by St. Augustine - is the belief that there are two dominant forces in the world: the powers of Good (in this case God) and evil (the Devil). Dualism is very ancient, and there are dualist strands running through most religions and Christianity, being monotheistic, has strong dualistic elements. There are mitigated (or moderate) dualists who see evil as secondary to good, and believe good as having or eventually gaining the upper hand in the cosmic battle, and absolute dualists who believe that good and evil are coequal and coeternal. The Cathars fall into this latter camp, and this is where they departed radically from their Christian brethren of the time, and indeed today.

A crucial Cathar belief, and one which they inherited from Gnostic thought, was that the Devil was responsible for the material world. This led them to eschew material possessions in a way that set them apart dramatically from their Catholic neighbours, and I suspect it also accounts for the radical simplicity of their liturgy. They did not celebrate mass or sing hymns. They did not build churches, and shunned the cross as an (idolatrous) symbol of Christ’s torture. Their sole formal prayer was the Lord’s prayer and their major rite was the consolamentum (consolement) which was a spiritual baptism where the officiant laid the New testament or the Gospel of John on the candidate’s head to signify that they were now blessed with the holy spirit. The Catchars did not really have a clergy, rather a loose group of elders - the Perfect - who owned nothing but the clothes on their backs and abstained from sex and meat, ministered to both the Listeners, members of the flock who had not received an initial consolamentum, and the Believers, who had been so anointed.

The Cathars’ austerity parallels that of the Fransciscans, who were the Cathars’ implacable foes. I suspect this might because the two movements were called into being by the same social forces, although the Cathars believed that their movement was connected by direct and ancient lineage to Christ himself. In the twelfth century, when the Cathars were most active, the Catholic church had degenerated into venality, and popular anticlericalism was rife. The supposedly one, holy, and apostolic church was in disarray: the century saw numerous anti-popes, and most parish priests did not know enough Latin to read the scriptures.

The first recorded Cathars appear in the historical record in Cologne in 1143, but they are best known as a southern French movement, centered in the Languedoc. They were also active in northern Italy, and it is believed that their direct theological relatives were the Bogomils in Bulgaria, and further back the Paulicians in Armenia. But it was in the South of France that the Cathars were the subject of a notorious and bloody Crusade.

The Crusade was an enterprise that saw thousands of Cathars burnt, and tens of thousand of non-Cathar Christians slaughtered. The notorious sack of Beziers, where the Crusaders, on dispensation from the Pope, murdered all 9,000 inhabitants of the town - fewer than three per-cent of whom were Cathars - points to the mixed motives of the Crusade. This was the conflict that spawned the line, "kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out." Even contemporary commentators, used to the standards of war of the Middle Ages, were shocked.

Ostensibly the campaign was to suppress heresy, it was actually a war to capture one of Europe’s richest states: Languedoc was home to productive farms and was in the midst of a cultural flowering. It produced the troubadours, and in 1200 Toulouse was outclassed in Europe only by Venice and Rome. In the course of the crusade Languedoc was laid to waste in a holocaust evocative of the German’s destruction of Warsaw in WWII. It never really recovered. And the crusade only served to confirm the belief of the few remaining Cathars that the Catholic church was indeed the church of Satan, and the world was the creation of evil. The Albigensian Crusade, as it was called, also gave Europe the Inquisition.

In the twentieth century the Cathars have served as a spiritual touchstone for figures like Simone Weil, and but the line of the Cathars was extinguished by the opposition of, and reform of the Cathoic church.

Book 3: Newton

Isaac Newton by James Gleick
Pbk, Vintage, New York, 2004

I picked up this book to put a spine through the pieces of the man I knew from other histories: Newton the jealous, blasting his colleagues Hooke and Leibniz; Newton the minter, recoining Britain's gold and silver currency; Newton the theologian, obsessively calculating the exact dimensions of the second temple; and Newton the miraculous, inventing calculus and physics in a summer. To this spectral portrait I can now add the alchemist, the hermit, the bully, the wealthy knight, and the poor farm-boy. This is not a substantial nor a scholarly book, but Isaac Newton gave me a reasonable sense of his character and a view of his solitary, complex genius.

Newton must have had an angel. Born in obscurity and fatherless, Newton was given a grammar-school education to prepare him to head up the family farm. But while he flourished as a student, he did not as a farmer: while he experimented with model waterwheels his swine ran amok on his neighbours’ land. His relatives determined that he was fit only for a career in the church and sent him to Cambridge.

At Trinity College he was a top student, capturing the attention of his mathematics professor, Isaac Barrow. When the plague of 1665 closed England’s universities, Newton returned to the farm. Alone, shut up in his room, he had his annus mirabilis: as an undergrad he conducted this famous dual prism experiments, investigated gravitation, and invented the calculus of change. And, in what would become characteristic of Newton, upon his return to Cambridge he told no one of any of his discoveries.

Newton rises: in short order he was elected a fellow if Trinity, made his debut with a short paper to the Royal Society on infitesimals, and became the Lucasian professor of mathematics. But his prominence did not make him a public man. A worse teacher than Kepler, he early on gave up delivering lectures, and with an audacity that would be unthinkable in a professor today, he ignored all of his duties to retreat into his studies. He built a hut against the walls of the college to conduct alchemical experiments and combed the libraries for his biblical research. And, save for a few papers on optics, and a sour running battle with Robert Hooke at the Royal Society, Newton publishes nothing of substance for nearly twenty years, until his Principa of 1686. But the Principa Mathematica, in which Newton lays out his laws of motion and gravatation, is an instant hit.

The post-Principa Newton is a man of fame and influence: he forsakes his Cambridge cell for London and the Mint, becomes the stern president of the Royal Society on his rival Hooke’s demise, and is Knighted. He also enters into the famous, fierce and ugly priority dispute with the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz over the invention of calculus. This battle is the inevitable product of Newton’s secrecy with his methods. Even at this late point in his career he had not shared his discovery of calculus. But the priority dispute was the product of a profound shortsightedness on both Newton’s and Leibniz’s sides. Each man knew full well the other invented calculus independently (with Newton creating the inferior notation), but both allowed the stain to spread. The battle cramped of European mathematics and science for decades and sullied Newton’s reputation on the continent.

I knew Gleick from his much earlier Chaos, a piece of popular science writing that was the Dancing Wu Li Masters of its time. Fun stuff, but we’re not talking Bruno Latour here. Isaac Newton has a similar tone: Gleick tells a good, smooth story. I could have done without the uninformative passages where Gleick waxed lyrical about the intellectual climate of seventeenth-century England or the importance of the work of Newton, but Isaac Newton gave me the spine I was looking for.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Book 2: New Yorker writers (1)

Just Enough Liebling: Classic Work by the Legendary New Yorker Writer by A. J. Liebling
Pbk., North Point Press, New York, 2005

Years ago I housesat for a friend who had a large creaky house by the sea. The house was old, and it felt as if the deep grey shades of her parents shimmered in smears along the upstairs hallway. What should have been a mildly unpleasant stay was made joyous by a dog-eared book that I found on top of the toilet tank on the second floor: New Yorker cartoons from the 20s, 30s, and 40s. I’m pretty keen on the New Yorker, and a sucker for nostalgia, so those endless bartender and battle-axe wife gags utterly charmed me. And this got me to wondering, what was the writing in the magazine I read today, like then? I bought Janet Flanner’s Paris Was Yesterday but filed the project away.

I’m picking up that thread with this book, and hopefully I can track Flanner down again, too. Last year I read Hendrik Hertzberg’s Politics, with its meditations on the landscape from 1966 to 2004, and enjoyed the concise evocation of New York from the 70s with his meditation on the creation of the Daily News line: “Ford to City, Drop Dead.”

Leibling is of an entirely different cut, and he wrote in one of the many golden ages of the magazine, between 1935 and 1963. He pieces were long and conversational, and read like the Talk of the Town. He was captivated by France, food, sport, and shady characters. When a Colonel Stingo or a Private Mollie hove into view Liebling was on the case, and willing to spend whatever time it took to tease out the story.

All of the pieces were great, but not all of his journalism captivated me: his food writing, while beautifully wrought, evoked place so much better than the plates, and his war writing seemed to amble a little. But part of this is context: as the long piece in a magazine these pieces would have a different impact as they do between the covers of a book. It’s like a dinner of nothing but main courses.

Amongst the beef and roast chicken was one of the best pieces I have ever read - up there with Borges’ Garden of the Forking Paths. In 1938 Liebling camped out at the Jollity Building, a six-story anthill of grifters, heels, and small-time talent agents in the high 40s on Broadway. He talked to and befriended everyone he could - Barney, the lunch counter guy; Morty Ormont the building manager; Acid Test Ike, a bouncer for the club on the second floor, and small-time boxing manager. And these people spun out tales of the other characters in the building. The Jollity was a most Darwinian world. Everyone is in a constant state of want, living from grift to grift, gobbling pastrami sandwiches at the lunch counter and dashing, and avoiding Morty at all costs. Leibling reports that it takes Morty four calls on average to collect his monthly rent, and Barney keeps an eye on his customers over his shoulder when he’s pouring coffee. And when a resident comes into a few dollars a game of rummy, or a bad tip played with one of the ever-present bookmakers, is sufficient to reduce the man back down to the building’s ground state.

The building is stratified: at the bottom, in the lobby, are the “Phonebooth Indians” who run businesses from the payphone booths. There are fewer indians than there are booths, so a complex series of negotiations with their fellows is required to secure their place. At the top of the heap, in the offices, is the Count - Count de Pennies - a man with a superior plan who preys mainly on the nightclub owners and the bookies.

This is a thick book, full of Sugar Ray fights, wartime crossings of the Atlantic on rusty Norwegian tankers, and dead media titans, but it is a book I was glad to pick up. And if this volume is any indication, my project will be a pleasant one.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Book 1: Rats

Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan
Pbk., Bloomsbury, New York, 2005

Consider the rat, and in particular the Norway rat*: our constant companions since they climbed out of their burrows in the steps in the middle ages. They are ubiquitous in our cities, and Sullivan is fond of repeating the exterminator's truism that no matter where you are there is probably a rat within a few feet of you. But except in the most extreme conditions, such as when a building is terribly infested, or a lone rat explorer rises up through the plumbing and surprises a resident by emerging from the toilet, they seem invisible.

Sullivan wanted to get to know rats, and for his fieldwork he selected a small alley, Ryders Alley, in lower Manhattan that was, from the rats' point of view, blessed with the garbage from an Irish bar, a Chinese restaurant, and a gourmet grocery store. Here Sullivan camps out like a naturalist with a night-vision scope, a pair of binoculars, a thermos of coffee, and his notebook. At first he doesn't see much, but wether by design or luck, Sullivan has chosen his alley well: as the rats get used to him, as as he gets used to looking for them, he sees hundreds. And as he also begins excavate the history of the alley, he realizes that this colony has been there since the American Revolution, when the site of the alley was first a field of grain, and then the site of tanners.

Sullivan also roots around the rat history of New York. He looks at the distribution of rats in poorer areas and how figures like Jesse Grey used rats to champion for the rights of poor tenants, and he looks at the history of exterminators, garbage-men, and public rat fighting. But this book is more than a rambling history of a particular object or commodity, such as salt or coffee, which has been very much in vogue in the last ten years or so: Sullivan's erudition and the quality of the personal narrative he weaves through the facts make this an appealing read.

*Which like the "French" or "Italian" disease owes nothing to Norway for its origin.