HB’s Note: Since this is a book review, I would like to sell some books. My wife and I are moving back to the States this summer, and I would like to unload as many of my tomes as I can before leaving. I’ll have an inventory soon. If anyone is looking for Law-, Korea-, or International Relations-themed books, both fiction and non-fiction, comment at the end of this post, or email me at email@example.com.
If you find the prospect of encountering a Lucihormetica luckae (via SGU #411) scary but just a little awe-inspiring, you would find Caspar Henderson‘s The Book of Barely Imaginary Beings utterly rapturous. A thousand authors could probably recreate Henderson’s bestiary, itself a tribute to Jorge Luis Borges‘ Book of Imagined Beings, and put only a small dent in humanity’s ignorance of the worlds around them. It’s not a Disney experience.
In The Book of Barely Imagined Beings Caspar Henderson tells us that “for much of human history attempts to understand and define ourselves have been closely linked to how we see and represent other animals.” Bestiaries are not just classical or medieval works, but part of a tradition that stretches back to the cave paintings of Lascaux and Chauvet, art that is painstakingly accurate as well as possessed of great symbolic power. Inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings, he asked himself if it would be possible to create a modern bestiary that was populated not by fabled animals, but by real ones. In his introduction he observes that we have so little knowledge of most of them that, for the most part, we have “barely imagined them”.
Reading John Lewis Gaddis‘ George F. Kennan: An American Life was a depressing experience for a number of reasons. Reading biography has a singular drawback, that plumbing the depths of an individual whose work or experience prompted admiration would reveal some noxious secret that ultimately undermines the original cause for exploring a life. It’s not so much that I don’t admire George F. Kennan now, but that his long, eventful life casts his perspective on realism and containment in less favorable terms. It’s very difficult to read about an idol.
As an undergraduate two people distracted me from language study: my adviser and George F, Kennan. Bo doubt I had a crush on my adviser from the first day of a section of the Introduction to Political Science class he taught. I had already taken two classes on Congress and another introduction, but now I was wedded to International Relations. I abandoned any fantasy about interning for a senator. Kennan also frequently got sidetracked by women. Discussions in class were electric and fluid, not really lectures but just as insightful. Here was a teacher – for she wasn’t promoted to her position yet – who let students speak and still could maintain discipline and cover a topic. Nothing anyone said was not useful to her. Unlike Kennan in his later incarnation as a lecturer at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, she rarely spoke for more than a few minutes at a stretch, confining herself to offering introducing concepts and fielding questions. One of the first assignments was Kennan’s 1946 “Long Telegram”, offered in the form of his 1947 Foreign Affairs article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct“, signed as “X”. Admittedly, the relationship between the two eluded me then, but Gaddis delivered me from that confusion. The first iteration was brilliant; the “X’ article was a political error.
Two aspects of Karl Marx’s life and writings continue to impress me. His friend was Friedrich Engels, who never abandoned this odd and trying genius who never seemed to be solvent. And, for the founder of an -ism, his books are stuffed with facts. Jonathan Sperber, in Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, is out to emphasize other aspects of Marx’s life.
Thus, there is no lack of serious and reliable Marx biographies, including relatively recent ones. Sperber’s entry is a worthy addition to the collection. He is to be commended particularly for his warning against the faddish tendency of modern scholars to make Marx’s ideas more relevant to the present by putting them through a Cuisinart along with various bromides of our time such as structuralism, postmodernism, existentialism and the like.
But Sperber’s nineteenth-century focus raises some interesting questions of its own. Marx’s historical importance, it could be argued, is mainly as the man who gave Lenin his ideas, not the polemicist who wrote a book attacking the theories of, for example, Carl Vogt, whose views are almost entirely in eclipse today. Sperber certainly is justified in dismissing various attempts to update Marx, which have ranged from the ridiculous to the absurd. At the same time, he may go too far in dismissing as useless the preoccupation with Marxism, which he calls “Marxology.” After all, Marx’s private life and his interventions in the politics of his time, interesting as they are, aren’t why he is remembered today.