What We’re Reading: Week of 4th December

At a Book (oil on canvas)

At a Book (oil on canvas), Bashkirtseva, Maria Konstantinova (1860-84) / Kharkov Art Museum, Kharkov, Russia / Bridgeman Images


Alex Shephard, “The politics of the Middle East peace process is shifting in favor of Israel” (The New Republic)

Ted Genaways, “Compromised” (The New Republic)

Leon WIeseltier, “Reason and the Republic of Opinion” (The New Republic)

Jeffrey Toobin, “Justices Ginsburg and Kagan Ask about the Artistry of Wedding Cakes” (The New Yorker)


Richard Beck, “I guess I’m about to do a highly immoral thing: On The Vietnam War” (n+1)

Ceridwen Dovey, “Mapping Massacres” (New Yorker)

Menachem Wecker, “Confederate Monuments and the Power of Absence” (Religion and Politics)


Sam Kean, “Twenty-First-Century Alchemists” (New Yorker)

Caroline Crampton, “Falstaff shows Verdi can be funny” (New Statesman)

Josh Kramer, “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Striking Pop-Cultural Legacy” (The Atlantic)

Leonard Barkan, “Ingestion / What’s for Dinner?” (Cabinet)


Neal Ascherson, “Big Man Walking,” (LRB)

Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, “How A Democracy Dies,” (New Republic)

Sashi Nair, “A Federation of White Anxiety,” (Overland)


Make Acrostics Magical Again? Part I

By Contributing Writer Sarah Scullin

Acrostics—the name given to secret words spelled out in the first lines or paragraphs of a text—are experiencing a bit of a renaissance thanks to two high-profile letters that used this hidden coding to protest the Trump administration. In Late August, Former Science Envoy Daniel Kammen tweeted out a resignation letter, addressed to Trump, that featured the acrostic I-M-P-E-A-C-H. Just five days earlier the 17 members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, in a joint letter, spelled out R-E-S-I-S-T.

Now, before one lobs accusations that this acrostic-usage is a bit of partisan foolishness, let me just mention that these are merely the most recent in a long line of what could be accused of bipartisan foolishness, given the long-lived B-E-N-G-H-A-Z-I Twitter acrostic is accused here of being “inane” and “crazy” and “extremely distracting.” For those centrists who like to believe themselves above the fray, may I direct you to the governator’s subtle F-U-C-K Y-O-U to San Franciscan lawmakers.

Image #1 Acrostics copy

Berkeley Professor and former science envoy to the State Department Daniel Kammen’s resignation letter contains an acrostic spelling of “IMPEACH.”

Acrostics, then, seem to be considered an equally partisan—if “not exactly sophisticated”—way to register protest. But this practice didn’t begin four years ago on Twitter, it has deep roots in antiquity; and it wasn’t always used for registering political anger or protest.

Contextualizing these recent acrostics within the history of the practice is a useful way of analyzing them. It’s certainly easy enough to dismiss the B-E-N-G-H-A-Z-I tweets as empty “insanity,” or to label the Trump resignation acrostics as “infantile inanity.” After all, most Americans’ experience with acrostics happens in grade school, when we’re forced to crayon a M-O-T-H-E-R poem for Mother’s Day or eke out a rhyming poem that matches each letter of our first name to some kind of self-esteem boosting creed of “things I’m good at.” But comparing the ancient and modern usage can lead us to ask deeper questions we might not have otherwise: What kind of message does an acrostic really send? How can we assess if an acrostic is “productive”? Are acrostics hidden messages or overt snark? Are they—in fact—childish tricks, or do they have some kind of binding, magical force?


Some of the oldest acrostics are found in the Hebrew bible. These biblical puzzles are primarily of what’s known as the “alphabetic” type. Now these earliest examples don’t really absolve acrostics of their grade-school reputation, since they literally just spelled out—as the name implies—the alphabet (see, e.g. Psalms 9-10). These types of acrostics were meant to capitalize on the magic (like, actual magic) that the alphabet was thought to possess. This is the same kind of magical thinking that underlies the term “abracadabra,” or the practice in kabbalism of assigning numerical power to letters.

In this case, the message is not so much contained within the meaning of the actual encoded word as it is in the binding power of the acrostic form. When looked at this way, those grade-school alphabetic acrostics aren’t just a case of an author being clever (or practicing his ABCs), but speak to some of the most powerful issues that underlie artistic expression, especially that of the written word: everything we say, everything you read, for better or worse (and in these days of online commentary, more seems to be for the worse than the better) is made from a small handful of letters. The power of the word—of the letters that make the word—should not, perhaps, be dismissed as sophomoric.

Nearly as old as the biblical examples, Babylonian acrostics date back to the 7th c. BCE kings Ashurbanipal and Nebuchadrezzar II, both of whom were recipients of acrostic poems that spelled out their names (gifts for ancient Babylonian Father’s Day?). Similar to the R-E-S-I-S-T and I-M-P-E-A-C-H acrostics, these puzzles are decoded by stringing together the first letter of each stanza (i.e. paragraph) of the poem. In direct contrast to our modern political examples, the majority of these acrostics, found in hymns, prayers, or wisdom poems, spelled out names or sentences that were obvious praise for an authority—usually the king or a god.

There is one exception, however: one Babylonian acrostic does seem to allow for political dissent, even if it actually reverses the situation we see in, say, the governator’s acrostic: the poem entitled The Babylonian Theodicy is ostensibly about how terrible the gods are (the poem presents a dialogue between friends, one of whom blames the gods for his misfortunes, while the other, who defends the gods for the majority of the poem, eventually concedes the point that the gods are, in fact, assholes). The author of this poem, however, uses an acrostic to embed the message that he, unlike his fictional subjects, loves the god and the king (“I, Saggil-kînam-ubbib, the incantation priest, am adorant of the god and the king”). Rather than registering dissent, here the author uses an acrostic to protect himself from charges of heresy and disloyalty.

This example is more appropriately a reversal in the form, not the intent of Schwarznegger’s acrostic, where plausible deniability is assured for both Arnold and Saggil-kînam-ubbib. In the case of R-E-S-I-S-T, I-M-P-E-A-C-H, and B-E-N-G-H-A-Z-I, however, the relationship between the messaging of the acrostic and the main text is one of reinforcement: both resignation letters already registered their dissatisfaction with the Trump administration. I mean, they’re resignation letters. What’s more, the letters, while addressed to a single recipient, were disseminated widely and publicly  by their authors. If we think of these acrostics as failed sneaky attempts to register dangerous dissent against the current administration, we are the inane ones.

Some acrostics, in fact, I would argue, every acrostic I’ve discussed so far, is meant to be found: the alphabetic acrostics were long and a robust enough genre to be easily recognizable, while the Babylonian acrostics signaled their presence within the main text by repeating identical cuneiform signs. Schwarznegger’s representative’s response, “My Goodness. What a coincidence.” might as well be punctuated with a final “/s”

Acrostics again show up in a religious context in the early Christian era, and again perform a sort of magico-religious form of praise. The eighth book of the Sybilline oracles, for example, encodes a reference, in Greek, to Jesus that seems intended to glorify Christ. This acrostic is not as easy to decode as the religious examples above, however: it actually spells out ἰχθύς—the Greek word for fish, but is also an acronym for iêsous chreistos theou uios sôtêr stauros (“Jesus Christ Son of God, Savior, Cross”). And that’s why people have Jesus fish on their cars.

This combination of both acrostic and acronym points to the fact that this puzzle was encoded in an era in which to be “outed” as Christian was to risk death or torture. It’s doubtful that just anyone was intended to be able to understand this hidden code. Rather, this is a type of acrostic that is meant to be undiscovered by most—found only by those “in the know” who had been initiated into Christianity.

Sarah Scullin is Managing Editor for Eidolon, a public-facing journal that aims to make the Classics political and personal, feminist and fun. She received her Ph.D. in Classical Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 2012.

Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, Brothers of Continuity

By guest contributor Audrey Borowski

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a young German polymath ventured into the heart of the South American jungle, climbed the Chimborazo volcano, crawled through the Andes, conducted experiments on animal electricity, and delineated climate zones across continents.  His name was Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859). With the young French scientist Aimé Bonpland and equipped with the latest instruments, Humboldt tirelessly collected and compared data and specimens, returning after five years to Paris with trunks filled with notebooks, sketches, specimens, measurements, and observations of new species. Throughout his travels in South America, Russia and Mongolia, he invented isotherms and formulated the idea of vegetation and climate zones. Crucially, he witnessed the continuum of nature unfold before him and set forth a new understanding of nature that has endured up to this day. Man existed in a great chain of causes and effects in which “no single fact can be considered in isolation.” Humboldt sought to discover the “connections which linked all phenomena and all forces of nature.” The natural world was teeming with organic powers that were incessantly at work and which, far from operating in isolation, were all “interlaced and interwoven.” Nature, he wrote, was “a reflection of the whole” and called for a global understanding. Humboldt’s Essay on the Geography of Plants (1807) was the world’s first book on ecology in which plants were grouped into zones and regions rather than taxonomic units and analogies drawn between disparate regions of the globe.

In this manner, Alexander sketched out a Naturgemälde, a “painting of nature” that fused botany, geology, zoology and physics in one single picture, and in this manner broke away from prevailing taxonomic representations of the natural world. His was a fundamentally interdisciplinary approach, at a time when scientific inquiry was becoming increasingly specialized. The study of the natural world was no abstract endeavor and was far removed from the mechanistic philosophy that had held sway up till then. Nature was the object of scientific inquiry, but also of wonder and as such, it exerted a mysterious pull. Man was firmly relocated within a living cosmos broader than himself, which appealed equally to his emotions and imagination. From the heart of the jungle to the summit of volcanoes, “nature everywhere [spoke] to man in a voice that is familiar to his soul” and what spoke to the soul, Humboldt wrote, “escapes our measurements” (Views of Nature, 217-18). In this manner Humboldt followed in the footsteps of Goethe, his lifelong friend, and the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling, in particular the latter’s Naturphilosophie (“philosophy of nature”). Nature was a living organism it was necessary to grasp in its unity, and its study should steer away from “crude empiricism” and the “dry compilation of facts” and instead speak to “our imagination and our spirit.” In this manner, rigorous scientific method was wedded to art and poetry and the boundaries between the subjective and the objective, the internal and the external were blurred. “With an aesthetic breeze,” Alexander’s long-time friend Goethe wrote, the former had lit science into a “bright flame” (quoted in Wulf, The Invention of Nature, 146).

Alexander von Humboldt’s older brother, Wilhelm (1767-1835), a government official with a great interest in reforming the Prussian educational system, had been similarly inspired. While his brother had ventured out into the jungle, Wilhelm, on his side, had devoted much of his life to the exploration of the linguistic realm, whether in his study of Native American and ancient languages or in his attempts to grasp the relation between linguistic and mental structures. Like the German philosopher and literary critic Johann Gottfried Herder before him, Humboldt posited that language, far from being a merely a means of communication, was the “formative organ” (W. Humboldt, On the Diversity of Human Language, 54) of thought. According to this view, man’s judgmental activity was inextricably bound up with his use of language. Humboldt’s linguistic thought relied on a remarkable interpretation of language itself: language was an activity (energeia) as opposed to a work or finished product (ergon). In On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species (1836), his major treatise on language, Wilhelm articulated a forcefully expressivist conception of language, in which he brought to bear the interconnectedness and organic nature of all languages and by extension, various worldviews. Far from being a “dead product,” an “inert mass,” language appeared as a “fully-fashioned organism” that, within the remit of an underlying universal template, was free to evolve spontaneously, allowing for maximum linguistic diversity (90).


Left to Right: Friedrich Schiller, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Alexander von Humboldt, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, depicted by Adolph Müller (c.1797)

To the traditional objectification of language, Wilhelm opposed a reading of language that was heavily informed by biology and physiology, in keeping with the scientific advances of his time. Within this framework, language could not be abstracted, interwoven as it was with the fabric of everyday life. Henceforth, there was no longer one “objective” way of knowing the world, but a variety of different worldviews. Like his brother, Wilhelm strove to understand the world in its individuality and totality.

At the heart of the linguistic process lay an in-built mechanism, a feedback loop that accounted for language’s ability to generate itself. This consisted in the continuous interplay between an external sound-form and an inner conceptual form, whose “mutual interpenetration constitute[d] the individual form of language” (54). In this manner, rhythms and euphonies played a role in expressing internal mental states. The dynamic and self-generative aspect of language was therefore inscribed in its very core. Language was destined to be in perpetual flux, renewal, affecting a continuous generation and regeneration of the world-making capacity powerfully spontaneous and autonomous force, it brought about “something that did not exist before in any constituent part” (473).

As much as the finished product could be analyzed, the actual linguistic process defied any attempt at scientific scrutiny, remaining inherently mysterious. Language may well abide by general rules, but it was fundamentally akin to a work of art, the product of a creative outburst which “cannot be measured out by the understanding” (81). Language, as much as it was rule-governed and called for empirical and scientific study, originated somewhere beyond semio-genesis. “Imagination and feeling,” Wilhelm wrote, “engender individual shapings in which the individual character […] emerges, and where, as in everything individual, the variety of ways in which the thing in question can be represented in ever-differing guises, extends to infinity” (81). Wilhelm therefore elevated language to a quasi-transcendental status, endowing it with a “life-principle” of its own and consecrating it as a “mental exhalation,” the manifestation of a free, autonomous spiritual force. He denied that language was the product of voluntary human activity, viewing instead as a “mental exhalation,” a “gift fallen to [the nations] by their own destiny” (24) partaking in a broader spiritual mission. In this sense, the various nations constituted diverse individualities pursuant of inner spiritual paths of their own, with each language existing as a spiritual creation and gradual unfolding:

If in the soul the feeling truly arises that language is not merely a medium of exchange for mutual understanding, but a true world which the intellect must set between itself and objects by the inner labour of its power, then the soul is on the true way toward discovering constantly more in language, and putting constantly more into it (135).

While he seemed to share his brother’s intellectual demeanor, Wilhelm disapproved of many of Alexander’s life-choices, from living in Paris rather than Berlin (particularly during the wars of liberation against Napoleon), which he felt was most unpatriotic, to leaving the civilized world in his attempts to come closer to nature (Wulf 151). Alexander, the natural philosopher and adventurer, on his side reproached his brother for his conservatism and social and political guardedness. In a time marred by conflict and the growth of nationalism, science, for him, had no nationality and he followed scientific activity wherever it took him, especially to Paris, where he was widely celebrated throughout his life. In a European context of growing repression and censorship in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat, he encouraged the free exchange of ideas and information, and pleaded for international collaborations between scientists and the collection of global data; truth would gradually emerge from the confrontation of different opinions. He also gave many lectures during which he would effortlessly hop from one subject to another, in this manner helping to popularize science. More generally, he would help other scholars whenever he could, intellectually or financially.

As the ideas of 1789 failed to materialize, giving way instead to a climate of censorship and repression, Alexander slowly grew disillusioned with politics. His extensive travels had provided him insights not only on the natural world but also on the human condition. “European barbarity,” especially in the shape of colonialism, tyranny and serfdom had fomented dissent and hatred. Even the newly-born American Republic, with its founding principles of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, was not immune to this scourge (Wulf 171). Man with his greed, violence and ignorance could be as barbaric to his fellow man as he was to nature. Nature was inextricably linked with the actions of mankind and the latter often left a trail of destruction in its wake through deforestation, ruthless irrigation, industrialization and intensive cultivation. “Man can only act upon nature and appropriate her forces to his use by comprehending her laws.” Alexander would later write in his life, and failure to do so would eventually leave even distant stars “barren” and “ravaged” (Wulf 353).

Furthermore, while Wilhelm was perhaps the more celebrated in his time, it was Alexander’s legacy that would prove the more enduring, inspiring new generations of nature writers, including the American founder of the transcendentalist movement Henry David Thoreau, who intended his masterpiece Walden as an answer to Humboldt’s Cosmos, John Muir, the great preservationist, or Ernst Haeckel, who discovered radiolarians and coined our modern science of ecology” Another noteworthy influence was on Darwin and his theory of evolution. Darwin took Humboldt’s web of complex relations a step further and turned them into a tree of life from which all organisms stem. Humboldt sought to upend the ideal of “cultivated nature,” most famously perpetuated by the French naturalist the Comte de Buffon, whereby nature had to be domesticated, ordered, and put to productive use. Crucially, he inspired a whole generation of adventurers, from Darwin to Joseph Banks, and revolutionized scientific practice by tearing the scientist away from the library and back into the wilderness.

For all their many criticisms and disagreements, both brothers shared a strong bond. Alexander, who survived Wilhelm by twenty-four years, emphasized again and again Wilhelm’s “greatness of the character” and his “depth of emotions,” as well as his “noble, still-moving soul life.” Both brothers carved out unique trajectories for themselves, the first as a jurist, a statesman and a linguist, the second arguably as the first modern scientist; yet both still remained beholden to the idea of totalizing systems, each setting forth insights that remain more pertinent than ever.


Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, from a frontispiece illustration of 1836

Audrey Borowski is a historian of ideas and a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford.

What We’re Reading: Week of 27 November


Gordon Campbell, “Making God Speak English” (Marginalia)

John Farrell, “Paradoxes of Incarnation” (LARB)

Joan MacDonald, “‘Like Diamonds or Fine Wine‘” (LARB)

Robert Cottrell, “Russia’s Gay Demons” (NYRB)

Ingrid D. Rowland, “Norwegian Woods” (NYRB)



Thomas S. Kidd, “Roy Moore and the confused identity of today’s ‘evangelical’ vote” (Vox)

Joanna Kenty, “Avenging Lucretia: From Rape to Revolution” (Eidolon)

(Podcast) “The Reformatory: A Conversation with Tananarive Due” (Boston Review)

Sara Novic, “A Brief History of Time: A Day on Noah’s Ark” (Harper’s)



Anne Diebel, “Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, (LRB)

Eve Hoffman, “Dress British, Think Yiddish,” (NYRB)

Or Rosenboim interviewed by Aden Knaap, “Time and Space in the History of Globalism” An Interview with Or Rosenboim,” (Toynbee Prize Foundation)

Natasha Wheatley, “Letter from Lviv: On Place and the History of International Law,” (Humanity Journal)

“Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art” at The New York Historical Society

By Contributing Editor Yitzchak Schwartz

In 1946, the artist and illuminator Arthur Szyk presented First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt with a signed portrait of her husband. Dated 1944, before the war had been won, the portrait depicts Roosevelt looming triumphant over his fascist enemies. It is inscribed, “To Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt from Arthur Szyk, F.D.R.’s soldier in art.” This portrait is one of the highlights and the namesake of the exhibition Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art, running through January 21st at the New York Historical Society.

In his day, Szyk (pronounced Schick) was most famous for his political art. During WWII he created countless political cartoons and political cover art for Collier’s, Time and the New York Times Book Review. According to Szyk scholar Allison Claire Chang, more than 25 exhibitions of Szyk’s anti-fascist work were held in 1941 alone to raise money for the war effort. At the height of his acclaim, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote of him in her January 8, 1943 “My Day” column that, “In its way [Szyk’s work] fights the war against Hitlerism as truly as any of us who cannot actually be on the fighting fronts today.” Recently, Szyk’s political art has been the subject of major exhibitions at the Library of Congress (1999), the United States Holocaust Museum (2002), and the Deutsches Historisches Museum (2008).

Although his political art looms large at the New York Historical Society, several of Szyk’s most profound illuminations are also on display. They are also a major point of emphasis in the exhibition catalog, Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art. The volume is edited by Irvin Ungar, the leading expert on Arthur Szyk’s art, who assembled the collection (now part of the Magnes Collection at UC Berkeley) of which many of the works featured in this exhibition are a part. It features essays by historian Michael Berenbaum, art historian James Kettlewell, art historian and President of the American Federation of Arts Tom Freudenheim, Ungar and a preface by former New York Times Art Director Steve Heller.

In the catalog, art historian James Kettlewell argues that during his career Szyk sought to elevate illumination to the status of a fine art in the modern age. His illuminations, especially when taken together with the voluminous supplementary images in the catalog, display Szyk’s astounding stylistic diversity. He often worked in several styles at any given time and combined elements of various historical and contemporary styles in the same works. In all of his mature work, however, Szyk took inspiration from historical illumination while maintaining a thoroughly modern sensibility. As former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman notes in his review of the exhibition, Szyk’s unique style makes it hard to compare him to either contemporaries or predecessors, and his art is in many ways sui generis.

Szyk’s earliest extant works date from his teens, when he published satirical cartoons in various Polish magazines. His earliest paintings date from just after his return from art studies in Paris in 1912-1914. None of them made it into the exhibition but a few of them are featured in the catalog, intricate oriental fantasies replete with lively line and curve patterns and colorful geometric details.

Even as he created works in this vein, Szyk’s style began to shift. In 1918 a Polish-Jewish literary society sent Szyk and other artists on a tour of Palestine. There he made contacts in the Bezalel art academy, which sought to recreate a Jewish national artistic tradition in the Land of Israel. Many extant works from this period in Szyk’s career contain signature elements of that movement such as vistas of the land of Israel, themes of national redemption. and the use of Near-Eastern artistic styles and archaeological forms. In Szyk’s 1925 Book of Esther, for example, King Ahasuerus is depicted as a neo-Assyrian king, with a long, braided beard and conical helmet, a human-headed winged lion in the background. Bezalel was influential in Szyk’s work but during this same period he also evinced very different influences in other works, such as his 1926 surrealist-expressionist interpretation of Flaubert’s La Tentation de saint Antoine.

In 1929, Szyk exhibited his forty-five page illuminated Statute of Kalisz, a charter granted to Jews for settlement by the Duke of Kalisz in 1264, in Warsaw, Lodz and Kalisz. Szyk received the Gold Cross of Merit from the Polish government in recognition of the work, which depicts vignettes of Polish-Jewish history and Jewish contributions to Poland. Its title page features the Polish King Casmir III the Great enthroned above the statue itself, which resembles an open Torah scroll flanked by two rampant lions. The decorative program of The Statute is executed in a high Gothic idiom but many of the vignettes are unmistakably modern.


Statute of Kalisz, frontispiece (1927).

Szyk’s 1940 Haggadah, considered by many his magnum opus, evinces strong influence from medieval Jewish illumination but it is also thoroughly of his time, combining historical references with realist imagery. Szyk’s depiction of the four sons follows a medieval and early modern convention of making the sons into caricatures of contemporary types. His wise son is a classical yeshiva student, his uneducated son an Israeli Kibbutznik, his simple son a jolly hasid, and his wicked son a cigar-smoking German gentleman.


The Haggadah. The Four Sons (1934).

In addition to his illuminated books, several of Szyk’s political illuminations also stand out in the exhibition. Many of these are executed in a realist style very far from that of his illuminated books. One of these is a 1943 work titled De Profundis, a reference to Psalm 130. It was commissioned by the Christian Textbook Commission, an organization that aimed to excise anti-Semitism from Christian curricula. The black and white drawing depicts slaughtered Jews of varied religious and socio-economic backgrounds, Jesus with his crown of thorns among them, holding the ten commandments against his body. The caption reads, “Cain, where is Abel thy brother?” Irvin Ungar, the Szyk expert and collector, calls De Profundis Szyk’s Guernia.


De Profundis (Chicago Sun, 1943).

Szyk’s work has gained increasing popularity and scholarly attention over the past two decades as scholars have begun to explore early twentieth-century Jewish art and because of the exhibitions mentioned above. His place in American political art is increasingly well-documented but his work raises very interesting questions for historians of American Judaism, of Jewish art, and of Zionist art that remain to be explored. Thankfully, this exhibition leaves us with plenty of food for thought.

Excavating the Western Indian mounds

By editor Derek O’Leary

In the early 19th century, many Americans summoned the history of an antique race from the myriad earthen structures encountered across the expanding frontier. Ranging from small tumuli, to larger animal and human effigies, to colossal conical and pyramidal edifices, these earthworks sprawled from western New York to the Great Lakes, and clustered southward along the Ohioan river banks and up the Mississippi toward the Gulf Coast. The link between a mound-building civilization and contemporary Indians spurred debate until century’s end, but in the antebellum period, most assumed that these advanced predecessors did not—indeed, could not— share lineage with the latter, apparently degenerated tribes.

Summoning the antique mound-builder in this western theater may then seem like the narrative counterpart to vanishing the Indian in the East. (Jean O’Brien’s Firsting and Lasting provides the clearest account of how the latter process played out in the historical societies and commemorative practices of New England; or, if we look to popular culture, Edwin Forrest’s famous portrayal of Metamora; or, Last of the Wampanoags is a striking example of the devastating trope of the “vanishing Indian”.) If the profusion of history writing and popular cultural depictions in this period had indelibly portrayed the American Indian as a fleeting preface to Euro-American civilization, the construction of a distinct mound-builder civilization made him a caesura—mired in historical space, with claim neither to the continent’s antique past nor its progressive future.

Great Mound at Marietta

E.G. Squier and E.H. Davis, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley (1847)

Late 18th and early 19th-century arguments that contemporary Indians had simply declined from their mound-building époque faded. Counting tree rings on wooded earthworks, commentators increasingly placed mound-builders in the pre-Columbian unknown. Frequently, Indian testimony embedded in these texts concurred. White observers imagined the mounds as the handiwork of a lost tribe of Israel; far-ranging Phoenician mariners; Welshmen or Danes, Egyptians, Moors, or Atlanteans. ( Caroline Winterer’s recent American Enlightenments importantly places this in a hemispheric context, exploring the influence of the Mexican Jesuit Francesco Saverio Clavigero’s Storia antica del Messico (1780) on North Americans’ belief that mound-builders were related to the advanced Toltecan civilization–very useful evidence in rebutting European theories of American degeneracy.) In his massive study of American crania, seminal craniologist Samuel George Morton recognized the biological continuity between the mounds’ architects and contemporary Indians; but he still asserted a cultural rupture that distinguished them as a fundamentally different people, a distinction later espoused in the major archaeological work Monuments of the Mississippi Valley (1848) by George Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis, who had dispatched unearthed skulls to Morton during their earlier mound excavations. (On Squier, see Terry A. Barnhart’s biography, and on Morton’s networks of skull collecting, see Ann Fabian’s engaging account.)  As late as 1894, for instance, retired British naval captain Lindsey Brine, following his wide-ranging tour of North American mounds, could conclude that some medieval Atlantic crossing of “European, Moorish, or Asiatic races” had ferried the mound-builders westward. Some outstanding skeptics had persisted in challenging these notions, such as American Antiquarian Society librarian and archaeologist Samuel Haven, in his 1855 Archaeology of the United States (the second major publication by the Smithsonian Institution). However, only in its encyclopedic 1890 survey of American Indian societies, based on decade of research into the matter, did the American Bureau of Ethnology resoundingly debunk lingering belief that American Indians were distinct from the mound-builders.

In the meantime, however, hundreds of speculative works—from slight to expansive—on the western mounds circulated. From one vantage point, they may sound like many chorus members in the cant of conquest. Some recent scholarship on the mounds takes this stance, focusing on the discursive violence done by the mythology of the mounds; undoubtedly, racism was near the core of European-American disbelief that the 19th-century Indians could have descended from peoples capable of piling large amounts of dirt and sustaining sedentary societies. From another perspective, though, histories of archaeology—often presentist accounts of how that discipline attained its modern form—gape at the odd array of origin stories that Americans and European visitors perceived in the mounds.

However, between these two broad takes on the reams of popular and scientific writing about the Indian mounds—either as scripting the American Indian out of the national story or as the risible rudiments of modern archaeology—we can excavate the many uses Americans made of the mounds. Americans increasingly surged westward over the Alleghenies after the War of 1812—such watery metaphors for this migration are common: deluge, flood, wave. On the ground, though, it amounted to innumerable individual encounters with these earthworks. Most settlers, we can imagine, simply built their lives around or upon or from these overgrown vestiges, recording no reflection about them. Other settlers, travelers, and researchers, however, gazed upon them in starkly divergent ways (not unlike individuals’ varied approaches to the documentary records of the American past scattered along the East Coast). These encounters swung among disregard for, exploitation of, and obsession with the preservation of the mounds: they became ready source of soil and fill for new farms and settlements; their interiors yielded artifacts to be trafficked for personal and institutional prestige or financial profit; and their alleged evidence for an antique American civilization could act as a specter of decline, model for national growth, or grist for other cultural productions. But, whether mundane or stirring to the westward traveler, such mounds were pervasive, undeniable features of what white Americans encountered in the western landscape. Prolific excavators claimed to have surveyed hundreds, and the most enthused commentators calculated or imagined many thousands, once peopled in the millions.

As the number of surveys mounted, the genre narrowed. Dry measurement and accounting of mounds piled up, suggesting that the performance of the ritual and publication of the record held as much value as the objects or stories exhumed there. These uncovered earthworks stimulated a much broader interest in surveying, the inchoate fields of anthropology and archaeology, and the general uncovering of the continent’s record, often deposited in emerging historical societies and archives. Romantic notions of a landscape imbued with an antique past inspired professional researchers and charlatans alike, but their scientific findings also grounded the contemporary literary excavations of the mounds. Readers consumed fictionalized accounts, which transported them westward and into the depths of time. Sarah Josepha Hale, later famous for her decades-long stewardship of Godey’s Lady Book and campaign to institutionalize Thanksgiving, emerged into the literary world in 1823 with a phantasmagorical poem of Phoenician settlement of North America, “The Genius of Oblivion”.  Lying upon a mound, her hero, Ormund, falls into a reverie of this ennobling but impenetrable past:

To know from whence, and who these were ?
How came—how perished they ? And where
The archives of their history,
Their tomes of kings, forgotten lie ?
But vain these wishes throng his mind,
Vain as yon Circle’s end to find !

Notably, though, substantial footnotes follow the lyric text, showing that from her desk in Boston she was immersed in western archaeological findings. In his 1839 novel Behemoth: A Legend of the Mound-Builders, Cornelius Mathews, of the Young America literary movement, announced, “The hour has been when our own West was thronged with empires.” Briskly, he stages an epic confrontation between a mound-building civilization led by something of an indigenous George Washington and an apocalyptic mammoth, satisfying at once desires for a robust national and natural pre-history. Exalting the memory of this imagined civilization, he also laments its leaders’ material remains, ravaged by the sexualized forces of nature, “Yon mound, consecrated by the entombed dust of a generation of sages and heroes is embowelled, and its holy ashes laid open to the vulgar air and the strumpet wind.” Perhaps countervailing these forces, after his vivid animation of an antique mound-builder drama, he densely packs a full third of his 200-page book with reference notes on archaeology.

Glimpsed in these material, scientific, and literary uses, the mounds fulfilled varied and interwoven needs of nation-building in the early United States: farmers carted of soil and treasure hunters sifted through it; would-be archaeologists sketched mounds and authors scripted ancient dramas upon them.

(The full 348 feet of John Egan’s 1850 “Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley.” The full panorama, including numerous depictions of mounds, is maintained at the St. Louis Art Museum.)

To bring us closer to the many real encounters with the material past of the continent, directed to these varied ends of the present, we can imagine one scene. On a July day in 1852, in Auburn, New York, a congregation assembled to dedicate the new Fort Point Cemetery, built atop a prominent Indian mound—an “eminence”, some one hundred feet overlooking the town. Admitting that they could know but little of its first inhabitants, the introductory remarks nonetheless proposed that,

…we may well believe that their mouldering dust is mixed with the soil beneath us; nor would it be a wild stretch of the imagination to fancy that their immortal spirits may be permitted to hover near us, and to witness the solemn ceremonies of this day.

The sermon was published in a historical guidebook for visitors. As it notes after extensive historical background on the mound-builders, the land was previously occupied and abandoned by Cayugas (of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy), and thought the birthplace of the famed Indian Logan. This deep and varied history is compressed and choreographed in the site of the new cemetery—transmuted to a chronotope, to borrow Bakhtin’s term. Seizing these material grounds, archiving their physical traces therein, summoning the dead’s spiritual force, almost retroactively proselytizing them, and then selling the narrative to tourists—in that brief moment on a mound we can perceive a truly useable past.

What we’re reading: Week of November 20th

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.


Jennifer Young, “An Emancipation Proclamation to the Motherhood of America” (Lady Science)

Adrian Daub, “The Forever Chancellor” (n+1)

Edwin E. Moise, “Lyndon Johnson’s War Propaganda” (New York Times)

Adrienne Rose Bita, “The story of America, as told through diet books” (The Conversation)



Rhys Griffith, “Brief Encounters with Jean-Frédéric Maximilien de Waldeck” (Public Domain Review)

Jeet Heer, “Charles Manson’s Science Fiction Roots” (TNR)

Sarah Marshall, “The Trials of a Pioneering Abortionist” (TNR)

Sara G. Miller, “How Did an Opera Singer Hit the Highest Note Ever Sung at the Met?” (LiveScience)



I am writing this in the City of Light.

Some say fashion was born in Paris. Others argue that it was born in Renaissance Italy, or Ming China, or — as a product of convergent evolution — simply appeared everywhere, like mushrooms after the rain. Historiographic debates aside, Paris continues to hold a special place in our imagination. Jean-Baptiste Colbert supposedly declared, “Fashion is to France what the gold mines are to Peru.” In “The Empire of Fashion and the Rise of Capitalism in Eighteenth-Century France,” William Sewall wrote, “If we conceptualize eighteenth-century capitalism properly, that is, as inextricably bound up with an ever expanding empire of fashion, we may find that it was — after all — a key source of the era’s epochal political and cultural transformations.” Whether or not Colbert actually made that statement, it sounds right to us. We are living in a world made by capitalism, and we’ve grown accustomed to thinking of ourselves as consumer agents.

This time of year, the streets of Paris are clogged with shoppers. It is truly a heaven–or hell, depending on your perspective–of consumption. In the eighteenth century, Paris was also a major center of fashion production. Luxury goods were designed and finished right here, in Parisian ateliers. In the 19th century, the Parisian brand was so alluring that American designers and producers had trouble competing with imported French goods. Hind Abdul-Jabbar‘s piece in the Fashion Studies Journal notes that after the passage of the McKinley Tariff Act in 1890, dress smuggling became a full-fledged industry, and smugglers came up with an impressive range of tactics to outsmart Customs House inspectors.

But what does it mean for contemporary Paris to be a “center of fashion”? Like New York, Paris continues to be a center for design and marketing, but very little production actually takes place in either New York or Paris these days. (Because there is so little manufacturing in New York’s Garment District now, the city has proposed to do away with existing zoning restrictions that protect fashion- and apparel-related businesses.) But maybe – in this age of division between signifier and signified – it no longer matters where things are made? In this brief interview, Valerie Steele makes a case for Paris’s continued economic importance, arguing that the French luxury conglomerates continue to play an important role in our 21st-century economy of desire, by spinning inchoate desires into beautiful, shimmering, tangible things. The objects may have been manufactured elsewhere, but the dreams are still spun right here.



Glenda Gilmore, “Colin Kaepernick and the ‘Myth’ of Good Protest,” (NYTimes)

James Meek, “Passionate Politics,” (LRB)

Darryl Robertson, “Rediscovering Hip-Hop’s Early Years: An Interview with Joseph Ewoodzie,” (Black Perspectives)

And, finally, a podcast series: “Thinkers Guide to the 21st Century,” is a talk series coordinated by the International History Laureate at the University of Sydney and Sydney Ideas. Scholars such as Glenda Sluga, Dirk Moses and Thomas Adams speak about topics including  “The New International Order,” and “Feminism in the Age of Populism.” It is well worth a listen.



Lizzie Wade, “How taming cows and horses sparked inequality across the ancient world” (Science, AAAS)

Yeon Jung Yu,  “The Moral Code of Chinese Sex Workers” (Sapiens)

An essay debate with articles by Penny Spikins, Bilinda Straight, Catherine E. Bolton, and Marc Kissel and Nam C. Kim, “Why Are Humans Violent?” (Sapiens)


In Dread of Derrida

By guest contributor Jonathon Catlin

According to Ethan Kleinberg, historians are still living in fear of the specter of deconstruction; their attempted exorcisms have failed. In Haunting History: For a Deconstructive Approach to the Past (2017), Kleinberg fruitfully “conjures” this spirit so that historians might finally confront it and incorporate its strategies for representing elusive pasts. A panel of historians recently discussed the book at New York University, including Kleinberg (Wesleyan), Joan Wallach Scott (Institute for Advanced Study), Carol Gluck (Columbia), and Stefanos Geroulanos (NYU), moderated by Zvi Ben-Dor Benite (NYU). A recording of the lively two-hour exchange is available at the bottom of this post.

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

Left to Right: Profs Geroulanos, Gluck, Kleinberg, and Scott

History’s ghost story goes back some decades. Hayden White’s Metahistory roiled the profession in 1974 by effectively translating the “linguistic turn” of the French deconstruction into historical terms: historical narratives are no less “emplotted” in genres like romance and comedy, and hence no less unstable, than literary ones. White sparked fierce debate, notably about the limits of representing the Holocaust, which took place alongside probes into the ethics of those of deconstruction’s heroes with ties to Nazism, including Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man. The intensity of these battles was arguably a product of hatred for one theorist in particular: Jacques Derrida, whose work forms the backbone of Kleinberg’s book. Yet despite decades of scholarship undermining the nineteenth-century, Rankean foundations of the historical discipline, the regime of what Kleinberg calls “ontological realism” apparently still reigns. His book is not simply the latest in a long line of criticism of such work, but rather a manifesto for a positive theory of historical writing that employs deconstruction’s linguistic and epistemological insights.

This timely intervention took place, as Scott remarked, “in a moment when the death of theory has been triumphantly proclaimed, and indeed celebrated, and when many historians have turned with relief to accumulating big data, or simply telling evidence-based stories about an unproblematic past.” She lamented that

the self-reflexive moment and the epistemological challenge associated with names like Foucault, Irigaray, Derrida, and Lacan—all those dangerous French theorists who integrated the very ground on which we stood—reality, truth, experience, language, the body—that moment is said to be past, a wrong turn taken; thankfully we’re now on the right course.

Scott praised Kleinberg’s book for haunting precisely this sense of “triumphalism.”

Kleinberg began his remarks with a disappointed but unsurprised reflection that most historians still operate under the spell of what he calls “ontological realism.” This methodology is defined by the attempt to recover historical events, which, insofar as they are observable, become “fixed and immutable.” This elides the difference between the “real” past and history (writing about the past), unwittingly taking “the map of the past,” or historical representation, as the past itself. It implicitly operates as if the past is a singular and discrete object available for objective retrieval. While such historians may admit their own uncertainty about events, they nevertheless insist that the events really happened in a certain way; the task is only to excavate them ever more exactly.

This dogmatism reigns despite decades of deconstructive criticism from the likes of White, Frank Ankersmit, and Dominick LaCapra in the pages of journals like History and Theory (of which Kleinberg is executive editor), which has immeasurably sharpened the self-consciousness of historical writing. In his 1984 History and Criticism, LaCapra railed against the “archival fetishism” then evident in social history, whereby the archive became “more than the repository of traces of the past which may be used in its inferential reconstruction” and took on the quality of “a stand-in for the past that brings the mystified experience of the thing itself” (p. 92, n. 17). If historians had read their Derrida, however, they would know that the past inscribed in writing “is ‘always already’ lost for the historian.” Scott similarly wrote in a 1991 Critical Inquiry essay: “Experience is at once always already an interpretation and is in need of interpretation.” As she cited from Kleinberg’s book, meaning is produced by reading a text, not released from it or simply reflected. Every text, no matter how documentary, is a “site of contestation and struggle” (15).

Kleinberg’s intervention is to remind us that this erosion of objectivity is not just a tragic story of decline into relativism, for a deconstructive approach also frees historians from the shackles of objectivism, opening up new sources and methodologies. White famously concluded in Metahistory that there were at the end of the day no “objective” or “scientific” reasons to prefer one way of telling a story to another, but only “moral or aesthetic ones” (434). With the acceptance of what White called the “Ironic” mode, which refused to privilege certain accounts of the past as definitive, also came a new freedom and self-consciousness. Kleinberg similarly revamps White’s Crocean conclusion that “all history is contemporary history,” reminding us that our present social and political preoccupations determine which voices we seek out and allow to speak in our work. We can never tell the authoritative history of a subject, but only construct a possible history of it.

Kleinberg relays the upside of deconstructive history more convincingly than White ever did: Opening up history beyond ontological realism makes room for “alternative pasts” to enter through the “present absences” in historiography. Contrary to historians’ best intentions, the hold of ontological positivism perversely closes out and renders illegible voices that do not fit with the dominant paradigm, who are marginalized to obscurity by the authority of each self-enclosed narrative. Hence making some voices legible too often makes others illegible, for example E. P. Thompson foregrounding the working class only to sideline women. The alternative is a porous account that allows itself to be penetrated by alterity and unsettled by the ghosts it has excluded. The latent ontology of holding onto some “real,” to the exclusion of others, would thus give way to a hauntology (Derrida’s play on the ambiguous sound of the French ontologie) whereby the text acknowledges and allows in present absences. Whereas for Kleinberg Foucault has been “tamed” by the historical discipline, this Derridean metaphor remains unsettling. Reinhart Koselleck’s notion of “non-simultaneity” (Ungleichzeitgkeit) further informs Kleinberg’s view of “hauntology as a theory of multiple temporalities and multiple pasts that all converge, or at least could converge, on the present,” that is, on the historian in the act of writing about the past (133).

Kleinberg fixates on the metaphor of the ghost because it represents the liminal in-between of absent presences and present absences. Ghosts are unsettling because they obey no chronology, flitting between past and present, history and dream. Yet deconstructive hauntology stands to enrich narratives because destabilized stories become porous to previously excluded voices. In his response, Geroulanos pressed Kleinberg to consider several alternative monster metaphors: ghosts who tell lies, not bringing back the past “as it really was” but making up alternative claims; and the in-between figure of the zombie, the undead past that has not passed.

Even in the theory-friendly halls of NYU, Kleinberg was met with some of the same suspicion and opposition White was decades ago. While all respondents conceded the theoretical import of Kleinberg’s argument, the question remained how to write such a history in practice. Preempting this question, Kleinberg’s conclusion includes a preview of a parallel book he has been writing on the Talmudic lectures Emmanuel Levinas presented in postwar Paris. He hopes to enact what Derrida called a “double session.” The first half of the book provides a secular intellectual history of how Levinas, prompted by the Holocaust, shifted from Heidegger to Talmud; but the second half tells this history from the perspective of revelation, inspired by “Levinas’s own counterhistorical claim that divine and ethical meaning transcends time,” telling a religious counter-narrative to the standard secular one. Scott praised the way Kleinberg’s two narratives provide two positive accounts that nonetheless unsettle one another. Kleinberg writes: “The two sessions pull at each other, creating cracks in any one homogenous history, through which portions of the heterogeneous and polysemic past that haunts history can rise and be activated.” This “dislodging” and “irruptive” method “marks an irreducible and generative multiplicity” of alternate histories (149). Active haunting prevents Kleinberg’s method from devolving into mere perspectivism; each narrative actively throws the other into question, unsettling its authority.

A further decentering methodology Kleinberg proposed was breaking through the “analog ceiling” of print scholarship into the digital realm. Gluck emphasized how digital or cyber-history has the freedom to be more associative than chronological, interrupting texts with links, alternative accounts, and media. Thus far, however, digital history, shackled by big data and “neoempiricism,” has largely remained in the grip of ontological realism, producing linear narratives. Still, there was some consensus that these technologies might enable new deconstructive approaches. In this sense, Kleinberg writes, “Metahistory came too soon, arriving before the platforms and media that would allow us to explore the alternative narrative possibilities that were at our ready disposal” (117).

Listening to Kleinberg, I thought of a recent experimental book by Yair Mintzker, The Many Deaths of Jew Süss: The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew (2017). It tells the story of the death of Joseph Oppenheimer, the villain of the infamous Nazi propaganda film Jud Süss (1940) produced at the behest of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Mintzker was inspired by the narrative model of the film Rashomon (1950), which Geroulanos elaborated in some depth. Director Akira Kurosawa famously presents four different and conflicting accounts of how a samurai traveling through a wooded grove ends up murdered, from the perspectives of his wife, the bandit they encounter, a bystander, and the samurai himself speaking through a medium. Mintzker’s narrative choice is not postmodern fancy, but in this case a historiographical necessity. Because Oppenheimer, as a Jew, was not entitled to give testimony in his own trial, the only extant accounts available come from four similarly self-interested and conflictual sources: a judge, a convert, a Jew, and a writer. Mintzker’s work would seem to demonstrate the viability of Kleinbergian hauntology well outside twentieth-century intellectual history.

Kleinberg mused in closing: “If there’s one thing I want to do…it’s to take this book and maybe scare historians a little bit, and other people who think about the past. To make them uncomfortable, in the end, I hope, in a productive way.” Whether historians will welcome this unsettling remains to be seen, for as with White the cards remain stacked against theory. Yet our present anxiety about living in a “post-truth era” might just provide the necessary pressure for historians to recognize the ghosts that haunt the interminable task of engaging the past.


Jonathon Catlin is a PhD student in History at Princeton University. He works on intellectual responses to catastrophe in German and Jewish thought and the Frankfurt School of critical theory.




By contributing writer Stephanie Zgouridi

While living in Paris in 1784, surrounded by beautifully carved bureaus, tasteful tables, and fragile glass flutes of champagne, Benjamin Franklin penned a letter to a friend, in which he stated, “But the eyes of other people are the eyes that ruin us. If all but myself were blind, I should want neither fine clothes, fine houses, nor fine furniture.” Contained within Franklin’s words was a tacit judgment of vain opulence, and a reminder that such opulence was a fundamentally visual practice. Indeed, it was precisely because mankind was not blind that the fineries of the rich were broken or taken away during the French Revolution only a few years later, and that furnishing Napoleon’s spaces with taste and style was the equivalent of a political bid to gain status and power. And because the visual requires at least two components, that which is viewing and that which is viewed, I contend that the visual process is almost always a divisive one. It highlights activity versus passivity, the primary versus the secondary—but not always in the direction or the combinations that one might expect. In the Napoleonic period, for instance, the emperor’s architects were viewers of both him and his empire, in some ways even superseding Napoleon’s role in determining his own image and the national imaginary of the places to which he’d traveled.

Just fifteen years after Franklin’s departure from Paris, architects Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine came under the patronage of the Bonapartes, and with the best interest of their clients in mind, proceeded to design a corpus of work that would later fit under the bracket of “Empire-style furniture”, a term typically applied to architecture, furniture, and other decorative arts that aimed to glorify the First French Empire. In consideration of their patrons, Percier and Fontaine frequently produced furnishings that were grandiose in scale and dotted with Egyptian motifs, particularly the sphinx— elements of the caractère of the owner and his many voyages and exploits (Kruft, 166). Although today Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt is thought of as a loss, it is important to recall that he marched at least 40,000 men through Egypt’s great cities, Alexandria and Cairo, lighting them ablaze and capturing them, far before that defeat came. Percier and Fontaine, in line with Napoleon’s own sentiments, chose to cast the expedition as a victory in terms of a “conquest…over ignorance”, and so displayed as frequently as possible the many objects discovered and catalogued by Napoleon’s men during the expedition. The Sphinx of Giza was prominent amongst them (Strathern, 1).

A first glance at this situation might cause one to cast architects Percier and Fontaine as the viewers, and Napoleon himself as the viewed, a person deconstructed only to be reconstructed into a semblance of harmonious interior furnishings meant to impress guests. Some might even proceed to say that there is a difference in primacy of experience between these first viewers and those that were intended to view the very same tableau afterwards. Percier and Fontaine, after all, could do what even Napoleon could not. As the scholar Leora Auslander put it while discussing the relationship between the king and his objects during the Ancièn Regime, “Qualifying the king’s capacity to determine aesthetic form was the fact that neither the king nor his court could make anything. The crown was dependent on artisans, architects, and artists to create visual and mechanical forms” (30). Although Napoleon was no king in the absolutist sense, he was also no cabinetmaker. In terms of technical capacity, then, Napoleon and the future guests he hoped to impress were equally powerless. Patronage went a long way, but its influence ended where the role of the architect began. Only Percier and Fontaine, the direct producers of these objects, stood apart from both Napoleon and future viewers of these things. In this dynamic alone we see that the viewer may not always be the primary component in a visual exchange, for not all viewers are equal.

But just as not all viewers are equal, neither are all things that are viewed. The Egyptian motifs mentioned above show how specific bits and pieces of Egyptian culture might have been transported into Napoleon’s spaces, but still did not indicate any knowledge, understanding, or acceptance of it. In the works of Percier and Fontaine, this much was demonstrated by a variety of visual practices, perhaps most clearly through the placement of said elements in the pieces of furniture at large. Take the following piece included in their Recueil de Décorations Intérieures: Comprenant tout ce qui a Rapport à l’Ameublement as an example:



[Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine, Recueil de Décorations Intérieures: Comprenant tout ce qui a Rapport à l’Ameublement (Paris, 1812), Planche X in Appendix.]

This jardinière designed by the duo, for instance, features sphinxes placed into only supporting roles— quite literally. In fact, not only were their heads somewhat ridiculously serving as supports for flower pots, but their wings were the supports for the structure that held up the large figure of the minor Greek goddess Hebe. That the goddess Hebe, designated in studies of Greek mythology to the humble status of a cupbearer, was the highest point and central feature of this piece (in their words, the piece was “crowned” by her statue) with the sphinxes meant as support clearly betrayed a lack of interest in understanding the status and place of the sphinx in the ancient Egyptian world (Percier and Fontaine, 23).

Positioning and placement in a static medium such as furniture-making was crucial, for once selected and built, changes were very difficult to make. The sphinxes in pieces of Empire furniture could not easily be molded or moved; likewise, neither could the status and position of Egyptian culture within Napoleon’s empire be easily disturbed. Percier and Fontaine, having previously worked on architecture and furnishings for the theater, were intimately aware of the fact that their art was a fundamentally static one. As Iris Moon put it in her study of Percier and Fontaine, “Essentially, the architecture of theater was a problem of motion: how to move the audience through static materials, and how to freeze the action of the play into scenes…” (44). While Napoleon’s properties were no theater in the traditional sense,  they were theatrical all the same, decorated with furnishings meant to both frame and build upon the character of the emperor. In fact, this jardinière was to be gifted by Napoleon to Sweden, in a somewhat contradictory movement of a static piece and message. It was posturing in the farthest and largest sense, extending Napoleon’s viewership past the bounds of his empire. The problem of the static in the theater applied to the theater of everyday life. As Napoleon’s persona became an explicitly imperial one, the Egyptian campaign became immutably tied to the furnishings of the Bonapartes—and the practices of viewing the immovable, aesthetically potent, and structurally integral sphinx, as above, lay bare the dynamics of power in Napoleon’s empire.

But what does this lowly placement of Egyptian motifs in a static medium (as in the jardinière above as well as in countless other pieces featured in Percier and Fontaine’s Recueil) mean for the dynamic of viewing and being viewed? It suggests that Egyptian motifs were consistently refused primacy, despite the fact that they were ironically selected from within a vast range of possibilities by Percier and Fontaine for the express purpose of being seen. These images were borrowed and used as symbols precisely because they were to remain forever in the dark; it is only around the unknown and that which is not understood that one can build a myth of man, after all. In Percier and Fontaine’s quest to build Napoleon up, they did so by bringing Egypt and her many cultural images down. Her images became facets of one foreign man rather than the expressions of an entire culture and its history. It was not Napoleon that was ruined by the eyes of others and the opulent practices that that entailed— it was Egypt.

Stephanie Zgouridi is a first year PhD student in the Department of History at Princeton University, where she works on topics ranging from architecture to philosophy in modern Europe. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley and a Master’s degree from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, which she completed under the aegis of a Fulbright Student Award to Belgium. All translations not otherwise attributed are courtesy of the author.


What we’re reading, week of November 13th

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.


Jacoba Urist, “A Contemporary Artist Is Helping Princeton Confront Its Ugly Past” (The Atlantic)

John Spence, “How the military is making it hard to remember our wars” (Washington Post)

Elizabeth Catte, “The Mythical Whiteness of Trump Country” (Boston Review)

A.E. Stallings, “Shipwreck is Everywhere” (Hudson Review)



Michael Scott Christofferson, “The Last Tocquevillian” (Jacobin)

Leilah Danielson “Roundtable conclusion (part 7 of 7)” on her American Gandhi: AJ Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century (USIH)

Mareike König, “Hat Karl Marx dieses Haus jemals betreten?” (19JhiP)

Nicholas Mulder, “Neutrality, Sanctions, and Outcasting(Humanity)



Caroline Crampton, “Lucia di Lammermoor” (New Statesman)

A Short Interview with Professor A.M. Walsham” (American Society of Church History)

Hal Boyd, “The Ignorance of Mocking Mormonism” (The Atlantic)

Alice Spawls, “If It Weren’t for Charlotte” (LRB)



Maybe you want to watch some dance?

I have some videos for you. The Guggenheim posts videos from its “Works and Process” series. I’ve selected a few videos that convey some of the liveliness and energy of NY ballet right now. The first video features the choreographer Troy Shumacher and dancers from Balletcollective. Schumacher demonstrates his creative process. The video also showcases a male duet–still a rarity in ballet. In the second video, Wendy Whelan and the choreographer Pontus Lidberg discuss the development of his commission for the NYCB, “The Shimmering Asphalt.” In the third video, Emery LeCrone presents two different works–one more classical, the other more contemporary–set to Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C Minor.



Wyatt Mason, “The First Woman To Translate the ‘Odyssey’ into English,” (NYT)

Adam Shatz, “The President and the Bomb,” (LRB)

Michael Scott Christofferson, “The Last Tocquevillian,” (Jacobin)