Monthly Archives: May 2008

A bonfire of vanities

An evil omen — of that there’s no doubt. After Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), hero of Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men, shoots and wounds a deer while hunting in the West Texas desert, he comes across a trail of fresh blood crossing at right angles the trail of deer blood that he has set out to follow. Looking through his binoculars, he sees a heavy black fighting dog limping away through the sagebrush. The dog glances back, unaware of Moss’s presence and perhaps looking out for a pursuer, and then continues on.

In medieval folklore, a black dog was one of the forms taken by the devil in his wanderings in the world of men; to the English, a spectral black dog was seen as a portent of death, as were the hounds that took part in the ghostly Wild Hunt of Herne the Hunter. In Goethe’s Faust, somewhat amusingly (to modern minds, at least), Mephisto takes the form of a black poodle, while in the 1976 film The Omen, Gregory Peck’s character is attacked by aggressive Rottweilers in the Etruscan cemetary where he has found the body of the jackal (another important member of this canine mythology) that gave birth to his adopted son and future Antichrist. Continue reading

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Vastly outnumbered, again

For those of you interested in the rather big question of how concepts like East and West have evolved, and how such abstractions have influenced global history and continue to influence the politics of our day, Anthony Pagden’s Worlds at War: The 2,500-Year Struggle between East & West is very much worth reading. Here’s a snippet from my recent review of it in the Spectator:

There is much to admire about Pagden’s book. His breadth of knowledge across two and a half millennia of Western (and to a great extent Eastern) history is impressive, and he introduces the reader to a series of fascinating thinkers and travellers: Herodotus, Aelius Aristides, St. Augustine, Constantin-François Volney, John Stuart Mill. He also displays a clear-eyed awareness of how myths are created and sustained. The battle of Lepanto, in which the Venetians and Spanish defeated the Ottoman navy, ‘was hailed far and wide across Europe as a new Actium, a new Salamis,’ he writes. But ‘the analogies were, of course, entirely empty . . . The Spain of Philip II was hardly less despotic than the Ottoman Empire and in many respects was a good deal more so.’ As an intellectual history of Western views of the East, the book is exemplary.

Which is why it is so surprising to find Pagden’s frequently long stretches of good sense undermined by sweeping simplifications…

As you can tell from that last sentence, I do think that despite its many merits the book is far from flawless. In fact, its flaws are one of its most interesting attributes, as they reflect, I believe, the very mentality that leads inevitably to the division of the world into what we think of as a progressive West and a stagnant East.

Read the whole review and let me know if you agree — particularly if you’ve already read the book itself. And for an additional perspective on Pagden’s book, I’d recommend John Gray’s excellent and elegant analysis of it in the March issue of Literary Review.

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Filed under Foreign Affairs, History

I loved Rome more

Fished out of the river Rhone last fall, a bust of Julius Caesar dating from 46 BCE, two years before his death. Oh yes, his death: on that delicate yet never untimely subject let us attend to Brutus once again…

Romans, countrymen, and lovers! hear me for my
cause, and be silent, that you may hear: believe me
for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that
you may believe: censure me in your wisdom, and
awake your senses, that you may the better judge.
If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of
Caesar’s, to him I say, that Brutus’ love to Caesar
was no less than his. If then that friend demand
why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer:
— Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved
Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and
die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live
all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him;
as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was
valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I
slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his
fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his
ambition. Who is here so base that would be a
bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended.
Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If
any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so
vile that will not love his country? If any, speak;
for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.

Julius Caesar (Act III, Scene II), by William Shakespeare

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What’s a nice bookstore like you doing in a place like this?

It took me nearly a year to notice this place, despite the fact that it’s located about half a block north of my office. Maybe it’s because I don’t frequently walk north (the GO train lies in the opposite direction); maybe it’s because there’s no glaringly bright signage announcing its presence (if you don’t look directly at the window you’ll miss the quiet little logo — subtitled, ironically enough, “read the fine print”). Maybe it’s because I’m staring at my Blackberry too much.

Whatever the reason, I was happy to find it. Ben McNally Books opened up last fall in the heart of Toronto’s financial district, in brave defiance of the laws of 21st century book retailing economics, which dictate that There Shall Be But One Retailer, Its Scope Shall Be National, and Its Tastes Middlebrow. Ben himself is the former general manager of Nicholas Hoare Books, a quality bookstore of longer standing (it’s part of a three-city chain, in fact) which, while being located in what one must call “downtown Toronto”, is not truly positioned on the spine of Canadian finance as Ben’s shop is — Hoare is several blocks to the east, a culture zone of restaurants, cafes, and galleries which attracts slow-walking browsers just ripe for book buying.

Bay Streeters, by contrast, generally have somewhere to go, fast. Languid walk-ins, therefore, will be rare. What Ben’s store must be hoping to attract instead is that (not insignificant) sub-set of business people who read more than the financial and sports pages, and who will be happy to have a quality bookstore in the heart of the district, staffed by people who can point out not only the latest John Grisham, but also the latest J.M. Coetzee.

Unfortunately, this select group of patrons may not often include me. Because of my limited free time, I have fairly precise, project-related reading needs, and these I’ve found are best served via the search-and-ship magic of Amazon.ca and its peers. However, I shall probably buy something occassionally from Ben’s, if only because a physical bookstore offers a different kind of serendipitous discovery effect than on-line retailers can provide (although with its many suggestion-style features, Amazon can come pretty close these days). For example, while scanning Ben’s shelves I ran across an attractive collection of Charles Baudelaire’s poetry, and came very very close to buying it on a whim. But I didn’t; too many other unread books in my house.

Next time, Ben.

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