The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Play Up, Play Up, and Play the Game!

Ellis Sharp has responded to my book-tagging. His response is well worth a visit, and reminds me by example that part of the game of book tag is telling why certain books mean a lot to you. I skipped that part, and make amends now. The books were:

On the Nature of Things by Titus Lucretius Carus, translated and introduced by Martin Ferguson Smith, Sphere Books, London, 1969 (Rome, circa 59 B.C.)

This is a long poem giving an impassioned defence and exposition of the ancient doctrine of materialism and of the ethical teachings derived from it by Epicurus. Much of the science in it is speculative, but it's speculation grounded in the appearances of things. These appearances are vividly described. Not all of the ethical doctrines have endured, but enough have to make it an inspiring as well as interesting book. As a young materialist it mattered to me that we too have our ancient texts, our saints and sages, wise men and good news. After reading it I conceived the mad project of writing a modern version. The few lines I wrote of that (and other scraps of Epicurean paraphrase) ended up in my novels Cosmonaut Keep and Dark Light.
Don't fear that philosophy's an impious way
- superstition's more likely to lead folk astray.

The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin, sixth edition (1872), with a foreword by George Gaylord Simpson, Collier Books, NY, 1962, 1967.

With this book materialism moved from a speculation to an explanation. As Richard Dawkins puts it, for billions of years organisms lived and died without ever knowing why, until, in 1843, one of them figured it out. His name was Charles Darwin. I already understood the explanation. What I learned from the book was how much I had been lied to about it.

History of England by Lord Macaulay.

When my folks talked about the Revolution, they meant 1688. When I read this book a couple of years ago I at last understood what they meant. It's a terrific read. It has a villain, James the Second of England, and a hero, William of Orange. It was perhaps the first respectable work in centuries to put in a good word for Cromwell. It's bourgeois, patrician, and complacent; conservative and liberal; the Whig interpretation of history, saturated with what E. P. Thompson called 'the immense condescension of posterity' towards the radicals and sectaries and lower orders who fought the Revolution's battles. Its faults are easy to list; its strengths are best discovered by reading it, which is itself a joy from beginning to end. It has the best last line of any work of history.

Discovering the Scottish Revolution by Neil Davidson.

This is the most recent book on my list. It explains how Scotland became capitalist. It was written by a Marxist civil servant in his spare time. The equivalent work for Ireland was written by a bolshevik bus-conductor in Belfast. (Brendan Clifford. Neil, I'm sure, would disagree with the parallel, but that's life.) Why these things happen is explained by the next book on the list.

The Poverty of Theory and other Essays by E. P. Thompson.

The two essays that matter here are 'The Peculiarities of the English' and 'The Poverty of Theory'. They explain and exemplify why radical thought in Britain has developed without the benefit of a radical intelligentsia. England is not best understood by invidious comparison with France. The British bourgeoisie is not subaltern to an effete but tenacious aristocracy. The British working class is not a 'placid urban peasantry'. In the history of materialism, Darwin matters more than Diderot. Thompson makes these points seem obvious, in the course of polemics with theoreticians who thought them outrageous.

But this isn't why the book means a lot to me. In fact, I don't know why I pick it up and get lost in it (as I just have) for hours. Maybe it's just that old Revolution thing, the pleasure of polemic; the ready ear for the long sermon, the pamphlet, the rant.


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