Sunday, November 12, 2006

the TLS! Erasmus et al!

One of the many nice things about the mighty TLS is that, being the pinnacle of all literary reviewing organs currently publishing on the planet, is that its writers need not be staid in order to be sagacious. When you're the TLS, your gravitas is assured, so you can just write about things.

Things like this new Tate exhibition 'Holbein in England' ... such laudatory things that we here at Stevereads are considering requiring one of you to pay for our plane ticket across the pond to see it ourselves.

The formidable Diarmaid MacCulloch reviews the exhibit for the current TLS, and he calls it 'altogether remarkable,' which is the TLS equivalent of gushing 'OMG!'

As will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with MacCulloch's work, he's wonderfully evocative at describing what he clearly enjoyed taking in. Here's his description of Holbein's chalk drawing of Mary Wotton:

His delightful coloured-chalk sketch of Mary Wotton, Lady Guilford, catches her glancing at Sir Henry Guilford with the amused affection of a wife who has just heard her husband say something absurdly pompous, and not for the first time.

Or this, his description of young Chistina of Denmark:

She stands brilliantly illuminated, a teenager agreeably conscious of how much her widow's mourning dress flatters her Scandinavian paleness.

Or this:

Derich Born, a merchant from Cologne in his early twenties, who leans confidently out of his picture, savouring the effect of his brown-eyed good looks on the viewer.

Or this, about Thomas More's father:

Judge John More, Sir Thomas's father, combines a continuing steely ruthlessness with the possibility that he might enjoy playing with his grandchildren.

MacCulloch's review has only one painful sentence, one gentle swipe at what might have been:

There had been a moment in the 1510s when it seemed as though Erasmus and his fellow-humanist scholars, with patrons like More, might reform all Europe in a peaceful remaking of culture and religion.

This is perforce a truth to be told by Reformation historians, but oh! It bears repeating in secular company! This sentence is entirely, tragically correct: if Erasmus had been allowed to work his slow, knowing magic, if his writings and his popularizings and his New Testament and his endless soothings and cajolings and remindings, if above all his counsel of PATIENCE had been heeded, well, there cannot be an accurate accounting of the human misery that would then have been averted in the subsequent four centuries.

The pig Luther ended all chance of that. In his infinite sweaty wisdom, he opted to set afire a building not yet condemned, one with many hundreds of thousands of innocents still inside. Talk, simple, complex, persistent, and above all funny talk - Erasmus' talk - would have succeeded even in reforming so corrupt an organization as the Catholic Church, if it'd been given the time it needed.

As a result of Luther, not only did tens of thousands of people die who otherwise wouldn't have, but the very IDEA of slow, patient, funny TALK solving anything serious took a hit from which it has not succeeded, even after all these ceturies, in recovering.

But that's a post for another day, perhaps on the occasion of a new Erasmus biography! In the meantime, let's move on!

On, that is, to the single most reliable joy of any issue of the TLS: the magisterial hatchet-job. In this case it's the latest book by child-abuse opponent Alice Miller, and its reviewer, Carol Tavris, takes it out for a trot:

Are you fat, do you have headaches, do you have intestinal difficulties, are you unmotivated, do you smoke too much? Has it taken you nearly half a century to get out your paintbrushes? Poor child, you were not loved enough; you were too gifted and unappreciated. You can't remember being abused? Your body does. Because Miller never draws breath long enough to define what, precisely, she is talking about, let alone to bolster her argument with anything as tedious as scientific data, readers who already love her will cry in recognition of her case studies (which suspiciously conform to her argument and sound awfully like her own voice). The rest of us will cry in exasperation.

When the hammer finally falls, the blow is a crushing one:

Miller's confirmation bias is narrower than most, being almost entirely self-referential. A physician who was still promoting medical beliefs and interventions that had been discredited decades earlier would be out of business, but Miller goes on interminably. I'd say there is no excuse for what seems a wilful blindness to the advances of science in her own profession, especially one that has such a direct impact on her clients' and devoted readers' lives, but obviously there is: she was an abused child.

We turn from the carnage to something more innocent: the weekly contest in the TLS called 'Author, Author' wherein they pose three thematically related quotes and challenge readers to name the sources.

Ordinarily, getting all three is quite simply impossible, which leads me to think their normal compiler must be on vacation - this week's are entirely within the capability of a well-read general reader. Here they are:

1. "... the isle is full of noises ..."

2. " ... the deep Moans round with many voices."

3. "The sea has many voices, Many gods and many voices ..."

I trust we here at Stevereads operate by at least as strict a code of honor as the general rabble answering the TLS (well, OK, not exactly a general rabble - the three dozen of us who read it are generally well-mannered). I trust I need not remind that there should be no googling, no making the long arm to the reference shelf - you've either got these bits locked in the book and volume of your brain, or you don't. First one to get them all correct gets a book! (a process somewhat in arrears? I seem to recall owing Jeff a book due to some prematurely snotty crack I made at his expense, and I think I might owe Kevin a graphic novel, for some rare bit of sagacity he showed in the dim and distant past .... ulp ....)


Kevin Caron said...

Lovely post, Steve - great use of the word 'sagacity'.

lefty said...

tempest! ulysses! quartets!

all with me left hand, I typed 'em !

Jeff E. said...

Since the answers were instantly accessible through a google search I knew they were all friends of Lefty. No surprise here.

steve said...

Looks like Lefty gets the prize! A brand new CYBERNETIC HAND!

lefty said...

is that a doubt Jeff's expressing? I think somebody's just earned having all those poems recited to him from memory over the dinner table on Saturday. Don't worry, though, Jeff...I can't do the whole Tempest...just HUGE reems of it. It'll feel like enough.

john said...

incidentally, the phrase 'child-abuse opponant' quite cracked me up.

Kevin Caron said...

When's the next comic book trivia question? I wanna feel like a smarty-pants, too...

Jeff E. said...

Touchy, touchy. I was expressing the opposite of doubt. Since I found the answers before you posted, I knew you'd get it.

steve said...

yep, you better watch out, Jeff - Lefty will get you with his new CLAW!