Regular readers of the blog will have noticed the (temporary) disappearance of our “What We’re Reading” feature, which used to run every Friday. Starting today, we’ll be replacing our weekly link round-ups with monthly reading recommendations from our editors. These longer-form recommendations will allow our editors to share some of the why, as well as the what, of what we’re reading. Here is part one, part two will be published next Saturday.
Self-parody that I am, I have invited John Calvin to accompany me back from Geneva, in the form of his commentaries on Paul’s Epistles to the Romans and the Thessalonians. Calvin composed one of the greatest pieces of systematic theology ever written in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, an achievement that has obscured the crucial fact, to quote Bruce Gordon, that the reformer “never taught theology as a separate discipline: he taught scripture” (300). The commentaries are texts of superlative erudition—filled with careful discussions of variant readings and the opinions of previous exegetes—and of polemical vitriol (“No words can express how foul is the abomination of the Papists…” ). All just as one would expect from the pugnacious theological architect of reformed Protestantism. The commentary on Romans, in particular, is something of a magnum opus, “a work that radically transformed Protestant theology” (Gordon 103). But not every note is scholarly or savage: “whatever may happen, we must stand firm in the belief that God, who once in His love embraced us, never ceases to care for us” (186). Of the correction of others’ faults he writes, quite movingly, “if we want to be of service, gentleness and restraint are necessary so that those who are reproved may still realize that they are loved” (422). Love is an apt word: Calvin loved Paul, whose prophetic mission he embraced as his own, and he loved the Bible, the revealed Word of God whose very existence was a miracle—these loves fill every page of his commentaries. It has been nothing short of wonderful this summer to discover the loving Calvin.
As I grapple with the concept of time(s) in modern biology I return to Olivier Rieppel’s Phylogenetic Systematics: Haeckel to Hennig. Rieppel, an evolutionary zoologist, maps the development of modern phylogenetic systematics. He covers 100 years, from the German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel to Willi Hennig, the German founder of modern cladistics, as biologists vacillate between materialism and idealism to find a methodology to uncover nature in its “real” form. Rieppel reconstructs the origins of many contemporary big questions that have haunted the discipline since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of the Species (1859). Is evolution the basis of comparative anatomy, or idealistic morphology? What morphological characters need to be elevated to understand an organism’s history? How do we use characters to reconstruct a tree? Are all characters equal? Rippel’s impressive cannon of German biological literature is the major strength of the book. Rieppel also offers a perspective on German biology during the Third Reich, a welcome addition to a literature more generally focussed on medicine and the atomic bomb. The author argues that idealistic morphology and phylogenetic systematics represented two antagonistic ideological traditions, empiricist-positivist and organicist-holistic, and critically evaluates the impact and influence of Nazism on evolutionary biology. Side by side, I read Brent D. Mishler’s What are Species? as one always needs to balance those charismatic zoologists perspective. Mishler, an evolutionary botanist, argues that the multitude of single species concepts needs to be abandoned for a more fluid, pluralistic concept of species. Whilst this has been happening in contemporary practice it has yet to reach consensus formally within the biological community. These books leave me contemplating time, its measurability, its complexity and the work done to tame time on evolutionary trees.
Edna Lewis published The Taste of Country Cooking in 1976. In the very first paragraph of the book, Lewis informs us: “I grew up in Freetown, Virginia, a community of farming people. It wasn’t really a town. The name was adopted because the first residents had all been freed from chattel slavery and they wanted to be known as a town of Free People.” The book, a hybrid between a memoir and a cookbook, is both a historical document and a commentary on a moment in history. Structured as a series of seasonal menus, the book takes us through the rhythms of life in Freetown, where the bonds (and pleasures) of family and community were not taken lightly, for slavery–and emancipation–were both still held in living memory.
Her memories of Freetown are beautiful and tender, but never saccharine. After all, it is a book that includes the menu and recipes for an Emancipation Day Dinner. “My grandmother,” Lewis wrote, “had been a brick mason as a slave–purchased for the sum of $950 by a rich landowner.” The Emancipation Day dinner included a Guinea fowl casserole, wild rice and wild grapes, and a simple plum tart. We learn what the residents of Freetown might have enjoyed for a midday dinner during the wheat harvest, what might have been served for dinner after a Sunday Revival, and what went into packing a picnic basket for a day at the horse races. Lewis gives us that other history, the one written by the body, on the land. In an interview with the New York Times, Judith Jones (who also worked with Julia Child on Mastering the Art of French Cooking) recounted that “when they were working on the book together, Jones noticed that there wasn’t a menu for Thanksgiving. She asked Lewis about it, who said, quietly: ‘‘We didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving. We celebrated Emancipation Day.’’ And so she wrote a menu for that, leaving it to the reader to figure out why.”
Since the end of my research trip to England, I have gradually been working through my rather long list of readings not directly related to my own research. Though most of my time has been taken up with Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s epic novel about the Second World War, I have recently read Noah Millstone’s excellent Past & Present article ‘Seeing Like a Statesman in Early Stuart England.’ Millstone, currently based at the University of Birmingham, argues that early Stuart politics was characterized by a specific form of political thinking which he describes as ‘politic.’ It relied on decoding hidden intentions and was obsessed with secrecy and intrigue. Since simple inference could be misleading, it was deemed necessary to use a number of hermeneutic techniques that allowed one ‘to unveil the true, hidden causes behind events.’ (82).
What makes Millstone’s research and argument so impressive is his insistence that this mode of thinking cannot be understood only through printed treatises written by elite actors. He has combed through a vast amount of manuscript material that allows him to understand how ‘politic’ thinking, best thought of as a technique of interpretation rather than as an ideology, pervaded all levels of English society. Millstone is also very good at explaining the wider implications of his argument. He suggests that ‘politic’ thinking implies that there was such a thing as a ‘distinctly early modern form of the political.’ (84) Historians, therefore, should no longer think of politics as a transhistorical category that necessarily retains some common features across time and space.