BOOKS READ MAY 2020

BOOKS READ MAY 2020 

John Buchan: The Thirty-Nine Steps, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin, 2005 (1915) 

Scot John Buchan became one of England’s favourite sons, achieving Greats at Oxford as well as the Newdigate Prize for poetry and graduating in law and working as a barrister and becoming a member of Parliament.  He was a well travelled soldier, reporter and writer, finally becoming Governnor General of Canada. He wrote many swashbuckling novels of action as well as historical biography. The novel which put him on the literary map was The Thirty-Nine Steps which has aged well and holds its tension and power until the final pages. It is a spy  tale of intrigue, endurance and courage, and the hero’s exploits, although unlikely, are told with such graphic descriptive power that the reader remains a believer. The novel is set in England and Scotland  immediately before the First World War  and is difficult to put down, once commenced. This Penguin edition comes with useful notes which helps with the Scottish accent.   4 stars.

Jeanine Cummins: American Dirt, p/b, London, Tinder/Headline, 2019  

JEANINE CUMMINS

Exceptionally well-written account of the Mexican drug wars and cartels and the flight of vast numbers of Central Americans to the USA. The characters are fictional but the trauma, dangers and hardships would be immigrants is accurately and savagely documented. Lydia and her eight year old son Luca are the centre of the story but there many other key players especially the two Honduran teenage girls Soledad and Rebeca who form a travel team of four.  The horror of boarding the roof of moving trains, the vicious profiteering of murderous illegal agents and vigilante groups feeding off immigrants, the stern American repatriation rules, the cheapness of life in a city like Apaculpo and much more besides all keep the blood racing in this non-stop novel. 

 I think if is fair to say that this is the fastest read I have ever had, a testimony I see from the back cover that I share with John Grisham. In one sense the story is a true horror story of the misery of the 70.8  million displaced persons world-wide. In another sense it is a story of the triumph of the human spirit against a very vicious enemy. This is not a Christian book but the survival of many would be immigrants would clearly not be possible without the kindness and courage of individual Roman Catholic priests and other Catholic doctors and workers in refugee centres and in private homes  in Mexico and Central America. Once started, impossible to put down! 5 stars. 

ROGER SCRUTON

Roger Scruton: Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, pb, London, Bloomsbury,2016

Philosopher, writer and polymath Roger Scruton, who sadly died earlier this year, was one of the few public intellectuals of recent times to have the courage to call out the often unreadable and sometimes nonsensical writings of European Left writers of the late C20th and early C21st. His writing in this area came at some personal cost both to his university career and to his ability to get published although happily he managed to overcome this challenge. He published over fifty books in his lifetime on a remarkable range of subjects at a very high level indeed including works on art, architecture, aesthetics, politics, Conservatism,  beauty, psychology, philosophy and philosophers and the history of philosophy.  Scruton lectured at Cambridge and several US universities but his major contribution to academic life was through his writing.                                                                                                          

A Key component of Scruton’s attack on Communism is his adoption of the term “Newspeak” as the key weapon of the New Left.  Newspeak is taken from George Orwell’s prescient novel 1984, completed in 1949.  Scruton suggests that ‘Newspeak” occurs whenever the primary purpose of language—which is to describe reality—is replaced by the primary purpose of asserting power over it. (p.9) Newspeak is a world of abstract forces…hence it is world without action. But it is not a world without movement.  On the contrary , everything is in constant motion, swept onwards by the forces of progress, or impeded by the forces of reaction. There is no equilibrium, no stasis and no rest in the world of Newspeak…the constantly reinforced triumph of ideology over reality.

There are some truly awesome and impossible to read examples of Newspeak in this book quoted from the works of the various philosophers studied.  A Further key component of Newspeak identified by Scruton is their imagined unity between the intellectuals and the working class. Newspeak would expose and delegitimize the ‘powers’ that maintained ‘the bourgeois’ order in being.(p.15) Scruton argues that Newspeak is at the heart of the New Left’s program. Truth is power and the hope of deposing it (p.12) reducing what others saw as authority, legality and legitimacy, to power, struggle and domination. (p16).  The extreme of this language is seen in the works of Lacan, Althusser and Deleuze in whose impenetrable sentences ..nothing could be understood except that they all had ‘capitalism’ as their target. (p.16)

An immediate response to reading Scruton is the recognition that Scruton has not only read in depth the works he evaluates (across three languages) but also accepts and acknowledges the quite remarkable gifts of many of the philosophers whose writings and views he criticises. He was no arm-chair critic but someone who read not only the works themselves but the sources and relevant documents supporting their arguments. Scruton’s analytical and argumentative skills are powerful indeed.

Scruton’s first targets in this book are the historians E P Thompson and especially Eric Hogsbawm, specifically volume 4 of Hogsbawm’s monumental History of the Modern World. it is in this secition that capitalism is blamed for all ills and the Soviet Communist experiment is whitewashed. Scruton argues that Hogsbawm ignores the horror of the  Stalinist purges during which 5.2 million non-Russian peoples were forcefully moved to harsh environments and up to 1.2 million were murdered between 1936 and 1938. Such purges were later to be repeated in Mao’s China and Pol Pot in  Cambodia

Scruton next turns his attention to the 1960’s Canadian/American economist and diplomat John Kenneth Galbraith and in particular his assault on the conspicuous wealth accumulation rampant even then in American society, described particularly in Galbraith’s influential book The Affluent Society published in 1958. Scruton describes Galbraith as the most established critic of the establishment ever to have enjoyed its acclaim (p.41)Scruton does not defend conspicuous consumption but argues that it is the political institutions of a country that determine outcomes rather than any particular economic model, a point that Galbraith eventually acknowledged after his time as American ambassador and eventually economic advisor to India.

Scruton’s second target in this chapter is celebrated American lawyer and well published professor of Jurisprudence Ronald Dworkin. This section was too much for my small mind but Scruton’s criticism of Dworkin based on Dworkin’s own writing on moral issues relating to protest, sex, marriage and abortion tended to be liberal in relation to progressives and skewed against conservative approaches.

The centre stage of this book however is Scruton’s analysis of European intellectuals  (chapters 4 – 8). Western society’s debt to Hegel was mediated in France by the Russian writer in exile, lecturer Alexandre Kojève. His pre-war Paris lectures on Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit influenced many of the post-war French philosophical writers discussed in this book.  Hegel is everywhere seen in the idea of “the other”, a sort of alter ego from which we must, by conflict,  free ourselves so that we can become a truly free self-consciousness. This potentially dangerous process of “othering”  can reduce the other to the outer reaches of society and to a place where they do not need to be cared about but on the other hand spiritually hungry atheists delighted in the ideas of freedom and the self-created individual.

After the tragedy of two wars, European intellectuals were desperate to find a new meaning and purpose in humanity…a new way forward and while a few turned to religion  between the wars especially Maritain, Proust and Chesterton; even Camus was too caring for Sartre!  Scruton notes that left leaning intellectuals were not in favour of Catholicism as a creator of nationalism.  Many  others saw the future in an idealised Communism, Central Europe was the heart of the new left: in France… Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Foucault, Althusser, Lacan, Deleuze, Derrida, Badiou; in Germany.. Heidegger, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse,  Lukács (Hungarian), Habermas; in Italy..Gramsci (with a sideways look at Said (Palestinian); in Slovenia…Žižek. 

Heidegger’s difficult Being and Time, not analysed by Scruton, establishes the priority of the radical freedom of the self-created individual and this idea is enthusiastically taken up by Sartre in his major manifesto Being and Nothingness. Scruton devotes a  major chapter to the  analysis of Sartre and Foucault and then moves along to the other philosophers listed above. This section of the book is a demanding, exhilarating ride. Once again Scruton does not minimise the learning and skills of these philosophers. If anyone is capable of enunciating clearly what these writers are saying it is Roger Scruton, but the reader quickly finds that the language becomes unintelligible and in several cases completely meaningless, particularly the “nonsense machine” of Althusser, Lacan and Deleuze.

It is not for want of trying that Scruton dismisses the vigorous outpourings of these European philosophers. Scruton quotes large paragraphs of their work across their whole oevre  and attempts a clear “translation” of their meaning.  At times however, interpretation defies any analysis especially when the writer descends to pseudo-mathematical semiotics as in the case of Lukáks, and even Žiźek, although he, at least, is mathematically trained. 

A key term in the New Left assault on Capitalism is “Reification”, a process by which people are captured by, or transfer their freedom to the objects that represent them especially their possessions and their art (which becomes an ornament instead of a critical instrument to challenge society).  But it is not just objects purchased by the capital west that are prone to reification, but also institutions, laws and relationships. It is at the stage when political revolutionaries feel the need to do away with law that ordinary folk should begin to fear. This is a fear so graphically depicted in the writing of Polish poet Czeslaw Milozs’ book The Captive Mind and most simply summarised in André Breton’s second surrealist manifesto of 1930…everything remains to be done, every means must be worth trying, in order to lay waste the ideas of family, country, religion.. Other central terms in this New Left vocabulary are ‘totalization’ (a mystical event taking the place of God and the evil magic of the bourgeois) and ‘dialectical reasoning’.

Some key ideas that emerged to me in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands are listed below:

p.83f: Sartre, on “othering”:  The authentic self seeks the total solution to the riddle of existence, and one is his own creation, acknowledging no authority, no legitimacy that is tainted by the unacceptable world of ‘them’.

p.85:  Sartre, ..the existentialist anti-hero need only ensure that his commitment is not to the fragmented imperfection of the actual, but to the purified ‘totality’ of an abstract idea. It suffices to commit yourself to what Kant called an ‘Idea of Reason,’ but which we might equally describe as Utopia: by doing this you gain a world without losing your freedom. …the existentialist earns the salvation that he needs—that of the ‘total’ viewpoint obtaining in the Kingdom of Ends.

p.87  On Sartre: Sartre claims to reject Marxism for its partial and mechanistic account of man’s condition. Nevertheless he expresses his ‘total’ commitment in terms of Marxist categories..the bourgeois and  proletarian division…the extraction of surplus value ‘from the alienated ‘proletariat’ proceeds by bourgeois ‘exploitation’ leading to an ever increasing class struggle under capitalism.

p.89  On Sartre; The commitment on which Sartre settles is in fact Marxism of a wholly unreconstructed kind. We find emerging from [Sartre’s] pages the same destructive fantasies, the same false hopes, the same pathological hatred of the imperfect and the normal, that have characterised all the followers of Marx from Engels to Mao..[and Pol Pot who was influenced by Sartre in Paris.]

p.110 On Foucault: On his analysis of the law: The revolution can only take place via the radical elimination of the judicial apparatus, and anything which could reintroduce the penal apparatus. He recommends the banishment of adjudication, and every form of court, and gestures towards a new form of ‘proletarian’ justice, which will not require the services of a judge….had he proceeded to mention the historical facts—Revolutionary Tribunals, in which judge, prosecutor, and witness were one and the same and the accused had no right of reply, the thousands of executions, the genocide in La Vendée, and all the other calamities that flowed from the ‘revolution against the judiciary’ —then his remarks might have been taken as a warning and not, as he intended them, as an endorsement.

pp119f On György Lukács who immersed himself in the writings of the anarcho-syndicalist Georges Sorel whose apology for violence made a deep impression (p118), Lukács asserted that ‘Communist ethics makes it the highest duty to accept the necessity to act wickedly,’ adding that ‘this is the greatest sacrifice the revolution asks from us’ . “Wickedness” after all, is a bourgeois conception, and everything bourgeois must be overthrown. Indeed the entire human psyche is so deformed by capitalism that ‘it is not possible to be human in a  bourgeois society.’ …With Lukács  we have not to do with the anti-bourgeois snobbery of a  Foucault …We have to do with hatred…which embraces all the ‘appearances’ of the ‘bourgeois’ world…

p144 On the Frankfurt School: (Adorno/Horkheimer) It is only fair to add that the Frankfurt critique of the consumer society contains an element of truth. It is a truth far older than the Marxist theories which Adorno and Horkheimer embellished it. Indeed it is the truth enshrined in the Hebrew Bible, reformulated time and again down the centuries: the truth that, in bowing down to idols, we betray our better nature….By turning to God we become what we truly are, creatures of a higher world, whose fulfilment is something more than the satisfaction of our wishes. Through idolatry, by contrast, we fall into a lower way of being —the way of self-enslavement, in which our appetites shape themselves as gods and take command of us.

pp146-7  On Habermas: Habermas turned his back on the Frankfurters…nevertheless the critique of instrumental reason survives in Habermas, in a fortified and bureaucratised form….The style is vague, irresolute and emotionless, in the manner of a sociology Ph.D…Only where the hidden agenda is momentarily exposed does Habermas declare himself…”a political praxis which is consciously directed towards overturning the existing institutional system.”  The  rest is prodigious waffle, and indeed barely intelligible, part of an endless stream of ‘on the one hand/on the other hand’ ruminations, inspired by whatever book or article has just come to Habermas’s attention, and littered with sociological jargon. A reader coming for the first time to Habermas, and confronted with acres of such writing, may well feel a certain astonishment at the thought that here, before him, lies the core of the German left establishment….Tedium is the vehicle of an abstract authority, and the reader waits in the corridors of Habermas’s prose like a petitioner to whom truth has been promised, albeit only abstractly, on a document that is perhaps out of date. 

p158f.  On Althusser. The revolution of the 1960s was therefore a revolution conducted in laboratory conditions, with hardly a step being taken outside the world of books…it became the business of inventing spurious questions, barren controversies and arcane pedantries, with which to divert all intellectual enquiry away from the fundamental question…the question of revolution itself. The urgency of this question, and the elaborate ways of begging it, are nowhere more apparent than in the writings of the man who was singled out by the revolutionaries of 1968 as their intellectual leader, Louis Althusser….there is only one legitimate goal of all intellectual endeavour, which is the goal of revolution…Althusser offers a new and fortified language, in which no question can be posed, and no answer offered, except in terms that are barely intelligible to those who have not renounced their capacity to think outside them. As Orwell perceived, the first target of every revolution is language. The need to create a Newspeak that puts power in the place previously occupied by truth and, having done this, to describe the result as the ‘politics of truth.’…Hence Althusser’s writings, which are exemplary in this respect—engage with nothing written by those outside the Marxist camp.

p174f. On “The Nonsense Machine” 1:  Based on semiotics and ‘signs’ in Literature: Lacan/Deleuze/Derrida based on work by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure in his Cours de Linguistique générale, 1916 (posthumously). Scruton notes:..the Swiss linguist Ferndinand de Saussure introduced two ideas that were to be used, abused and jargonized throughout the 1960s and 70s: the idea of language as a system of ’differenses,’ and the idea that there is, or could be, a ‘general science of signs’. Saussure argued that the meaning of a sign attaches to it only in the context of other signs that might replace it in a sentence….Jacques Derrida went further still, arguing that therefore no sign means in isolation, and meaning waits upon the ‘other’ sign, the sign that completes it by opposing it, but which cannot be finally written down. Meaning is never present but always deferred, chased through the text from sign to sign, always vanishing as we seem to reach it, now the meaning lies before us, then this i our decision, which may have a political justification, but which is in no way dictated by the text…..that intoxicating (and toxic) piece of nonsense is now as firmly embedded in intellectual history as Newton’s mechanics…

p. 174 On Lacan:  “The Nonsense Machine” 2: …what mattered to the builders of the nonsense machine was not the answer [to the signs question] but the mystery stirred by the question. The frame of the nonsense machine was assembled by Jacques Lacan, the cranky psychiatrist whose writings, published in 1966, had an extraordinary impact on the student revolutionaries, with whose cause he publicly aligned himself…described by Raymond Tallis as ‘the Shrink from Hell”. [See Écrits, 1966]

pp.176-178. On Lacan  …the fame of an idea arises from its influence, not its truth.  So it was with Freud, Jung and Adler; so it has been with Klein, Binswanger, Lacan and many more. [cf. Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal’s devastating criticism of Lacan’s misuse of set theory, typology etc in Impostures Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science,1998. Lacan’s musings on a big “Other” ruling the world and the “mirror image” a child experiences when first identifying herself in a mirror and the semiotic/set theory form in which it was set out is way beyond my ability to summarise but Scruton assembles enough information to damn Lacan as a criminal charlatan, to quote from the published study by Elizabeth Roudinesco.

pp197-208  On Gramsci.  Italian Marxist Gramsci came to notice with his direct assault on Fascism in the 1920s and quickly ended up in jail when Mussolini assumed power. Gramski kept writing until his death in 1937 and his revolutionary ideas were canonised by the new left of the 1960s particularly with his slogan that history is on no one’s side, arguing for a gradual change in political hegemony rather than a violent revolution. The revolution involves a gradual ‘seizing of the culture.”  A key failure of Gramsci’s writing in Scruton’s view is his failure to see the very real similarities in the methodology of both Fascism and Communism (p.201)

pp210-232 On the Culture Wars in England- This idea of the “long revolution” was and is still played out in England as culture wars based around a horror of the industrial revolution and the social and literary criticism of Burke, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle, Arnold, Ruskin, William Morris, The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Historian Cobbett, Bernard Shaw, the Fabians and the cultural and socialist writing of Raymond Williams (eg The Long Revolution, Penguin edition 1961). This is basically a revolution against privilege and power. 

pp233-238 Scruton challenges C20th post-modern heroes Richard Rorty and Edward Said. Rorty, briefly for his post-modern assumption that all the Enlightenment celebration of high culture, discovery, the universal value of other cultures, a common human nature and a vision of man as free and self-created was about to be swept away completely by the vagaries of post-modernism.

Scruton attacks Said in relation to his influential work Orientalism published in 1978. He regarded Said’s book as flawed by highly selective quotations, concerning a very narrow range of East-West encounters, relying solely on Western portrayals of the Occident and making to effort to make any comparative judgements whatsoever, when it came to assessing who had been unfair to whom.

Chapter 8: The Kraken Wakes: The cause of the New Left seemed finished. Williams, Thompson, Deleuze, Rorty and Said were dead, and Habermas was busy burying the leftist message in page upon page of bureaucratic dither. Meanwhile the communist systems of the Russian Empire had collapsed and China was on its way to becoming a centre of trans-national capitalism, combining in its mad orgy of consumption some of the worst features of every system of government in living history. 

Enter Alain Badiou and his disciple Slavoj ŽIźek who have both worked hard to persuade the world that Lacan was not the crazy charlatan described previously. Badiou’s methodology was again based on set theory but this time with a much stronger basis in mathematics than Lacan could have dreamt of. Badiou is a repeat of the old left, a disdain form human rights; a denial of law; a tolerance of violence and he is in the grip of a complete commitment to something unreal, which is dressed up as a ‘truth procedure’, an ‘event’, a ‘generic multitude’, ‘the unnameable’ – terms that do nothing to conceal the underlying nothingness.  Scruton concedes (p271) that the ‘communist hypothesis’ will never go away…For it is not a prediction, nor in any real sense a hypothesis. It is a statement of faith in the unknoChapwable, the unnameable, in the ‘wandering of nothing’….They exist in order to promote a single and absolute cause, the cause that admits of no criticism and no compromise, and which offers redemption to all who espouse it. And what is that cause? The answer is there on every page of these fatuous writings: Nothing. 

Chapter 9 is a fairly brief outline of Scruton’s defence of ‘What is Right’ on which he has written in some detail elsewhere and which seems rather tame after the hi-jinks of the New Left. The book has excellent separate indexes of both names and events. 

Although there is much in this book beyond my ken I could not put it down. It is trenchant, courageous writing, hugely unpopular with the high end literary caste but like the work of David Balinski, impossible to ignore. 5 stars. 

Mary McCarthy: The Stones of Florence and Venice  Observed,  p/b,  Camberwell, Penguin, 2006 (1959, Florence; 1956, Venice)

The Stones of Florence.

Mary McCarthy graduated cum laude from Vasar College and was elected to Phi Delta Kappa. She became a highly regarded American novelist, acerbic literary and art critic, travel writer and influential left-leaning political commentator, (although bitterly opposed to Stalinism). She was a close friend of Hannah Arendt becoming her literary executor until her own death in 1989. Four times married McCarthy was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and held nine honorary university degrees.

The Stones of Florence provides an opportunity for a full display of McCarthy’s lacerating wit and extraordinary depth of knowledge in Italian art history. The city of Florence is described in depth  from many aspects including modern Florence, ancient Roman Florence, Republican, Mediaeval, Medici, Renaissance and Mannerist Florence. With no visual representations in my Penguin edition, McCarthy still manages to portray in depth “written pictures” of the history, politics,  art, sculpture, scientific inventions, streets, lanes, food, markets, churches and people of Florence. I flattered myself I knew the religious art of Florence quite well after several visits but McCarthy’s personal research and depth of knowledge is impressive indeed.

The reader comes away feeling they have a personal knowledge of Giotto, Botticelli, Ucelllo, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Vasari, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Giambologna, Cellini, Piero della Francesco, Massaccio, Machiavelli, Dante, Savaronola, Luca della Robia, Verrochio, Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi, Gozzoli, Bernardo Daddi, Andrea del Sarto,Pontormo, Il Rosso, Bronzino, and many others.

The bitter and seemingly never ending feuding between Ghibelline and Guleph is never far away in any account of Florence but what finally emerges is “Florence” itself. Florence, whose Tuscan tongue gave a language to an eventually united Italy, proud but simple, stolid, Florence, content with a little, not showy, living the seasons with good food and drink and squarely comfortable in its own skin, able to challenge both pope and emperor where necessary and finding a way to defeat oppressor,  siege, flood, plague, tourists galore. 

Even if, after the Renaissance, Florence became a “backwater” after their artistic collapse in the mid-sixteenth century according to McCarthy,  yet the city did not die or petrify like Mantua, Ravenna,  Rimini, Siena, or turn into a dream like Venice. (p.161). Rationalist Florence and Tuscany lived on and prospered to become the dream and place of every sensitive Englishman and eventually the world. McCarthy’s Florence is idiosyncratic, detailed, harsh and impossible to put down.  (5 stars)

Venice Observed. 

Everyone writes about Venice, as McCarthy herself observes…including Herbert Spenser, Montaigne, Henry James, D H Lawrence (negatively), Gibbon, Cassanova, Rousseau, Lady Mary Worltley Montague, Charles de Brosses, Goldoni, Byron, Browning, Shelley, Ruskin, Turner, artist Richard Bonington,Auguste-Maurice  Barrès, and Frederick Rolfe (‘Baron’) Corvo. In spite of this excitement Venice itself has produced few writers with the exception of Goldoni.  Nevertheless I doubt few writers  have managed the sustained analysis McCarthy brings to her series of snapshots of Venice, where she must have stayed frequently.  

True in 1956 when she was writing and ever more so today, there is no use pretending the tourist Venice is not the real Venice (p177). I shudder to think what McCarthy would have written about the gigantic cruise ships which, until Covid19,  daily shouldered their way into the Grand Canal, threatening flood and towering over the Doge’s Palace. Many thousands of tourists have half a day to “do” Venice. Writing, in fact, seems to be quite low on the list of Venetian interests and the story of the donation of all Petrarch’s library to Venice and their subsequent losing of it, never yet to be found, is outrageous! (p.220)

McCarthy writes of the earliest history of Venice, its first settlers fleeing from Atilla the Hun and settling literally in the mud of the flood prone lagoons; She notes the influence of powerful  Byzantium nearby; Venice’s limited  involvement in the Crusades  and the many sea battles which eventually gave Venice command of the seas for a time. McCarthy notes the development of the surrounding islands, Burano with its lace,  Murano with its glass  and Torcello with its C6th Santa Maria Assunta Basiiica Cathedral and Chioggia, the “Little Venice”.  She notes once again the dependance on tourism for these islands and suggests that Venice is ringed by a series of dead cities. (p.241)

McCarthy notes but does not herself adulate Venice’s golden age of the Renaissance although many others have waxed lyrical about this period of Venice’s greatness.  McCarthy describes it aa an age of adulation and ceremony, of Lutheranism and of Debauchery in that order (P.226). That there was even a possibility of Lutheranism in Venice seems unlikely but a combination of regular tensions with papal authority, enthusiastic efforts by British Diplomat Henry Wotton resident in Venice, and the remarkable monk,  philosopher, statesman and Protestant sympathiser Paolo Sarpi certainly made progress in that dierction. Sarpi had an underground direct passage to the Doge and for a while the impossible seemed to be possible with the Jesuits expelled for a time.  Sarpi survived a murderous assault by papal thugs but the cause was eventually lost in spite of Wotton’s valiant efforts.

Venice has been responsible for an amazing array of inventions including income tax, statistical science, the floating of government stock, state censorship of books, the gambling casino, anonymous denunciations and the Ghetto and held the secrets of their glass industry very tightly indeed.  They broached the idea of the Suez Canal with neighbours and even contemplated plague warfare!  McCarthy deals with several of these developments and many others. 

Also on the religious side Venice was unusual in Italy for its acceptance of a Jewish community but there again there was an pragmatic gain. The Jews were herded into a ghetto and taxed severely so that when Napoleon finally threw open the  ghetto gates there were virtually no survivors, most had died in poverty or fled to Holland. Napoleon’s theft of horses and lions from St Mark’s were eventually restored if a little damaged but the artwork looted for the Louvre I doubt ever came back.

As with McCarthy’s account of Florence, her serious excitement and commitment is to the art of Venice and once again the locations and details of genius are described with such energy that photographic imagery is not essential. McCarthy finds them all .. the two Bellinis, Palladio (the world’s loveliest city produced only one architect), Veronese, Tintoretto, Cima, Giorgioni, Carpaccio, the Bastiani, Basaiti, Paris Bordani, Sansovina Florentino, Vvarini, Crivelli atnd later Canaletto, Guardi, Lotto and Vechio. Venetian painting from beginning to end is a riot of dress goods and in a later phrase, a parade of pets. In relation to architecture McCarthy notes that  In relation to the glorious mystique of Venice all of the beautiful residential  architecture is designed to be seen from the canals and if one was serious enough to find a way to the back door of such buildings a shock might be in store.

For folk who love Italy and everything about Italy, this story of Venice is a must. (5 stars) To have both The Stones of Florence and Venice Observed in one accessible volume is a treat indeed. 

MARY McCARTHY
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