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Winter Reading Recommendations

This month: Milton’s political thought, Bloch & Aristotelian traditions, contextualized nationalisms, human cytogenetics, and radiation exposure.

Jonathon Catlin

I’ve been reading the historian Helmut Walser Smith’s latest book, Germany: A Nation in Its Time: Before, During, and After Nationalism, 1500–2000 (Liveright, 2020), a beautifully-written and ambitious book that traces evolving conceptions of Germany over a vast period of time. Smith’s narrative is grounded in a fascinating series of maps, some discovered and some made himself and regularly shared and discussed on his social media. What, Smith begins by asking, was a cartographer such as Martin Waldseemüller referring to when he labeled a vast region of north-central Europe “Germania” in his 1513 map by that name? What could “Germany” at that time have consisted of, if not any recognizable political entity or bounded region? To some extent, until the nineteenth century the notion of Germany could be considered what Reinhart Koselleck called an Erwartungsbegriff, an idea that had not yet been realized. Yet Smith contends through rich readings of sources as broad as religion, literature, and science that the designation Germany in the maps, travel itineraries, and other sources “confirms that seeing Germany for the first time was an act  of discovery, not chauvinism.” Taking such a broad view of German history helps overcome the distorted perspective of narrower histories of Germany focused on the nineteenth century. In this wider frame, Smith shows, “German nationalists did not invent the German nation,” for “there was no transhistorical concept of the German nation. There was only a nation in its time….There was a Germany before, during, and after nationalism.” This approach counters the dated Sonderweg thesis about late German national development molded by Prussian militarism and, on the contrary, emphasizes that “German lands experienced roughly twice as  many years of peace as war between 1500 and 1914.” In Smith’s telling, the “age of nationalism” (1815–1914) gives way to the more radical and genocidal “nationalist age” (1914–1945), but these periods do not exhaust the historical or possible meanings of Germany. Indeed, he argues that after 1945 Germany entered a post-nationalist age as an anchor of pacifism and European integration, and that this non-nationalist condition is hardly as foreign or exceptional as it is sometimes considered. Indeed, Smith’s book makes a compelling case for historians generally to “contextualize the nation within a history that is far greater than its nationalism.”

Pranav Kumar 

Nicholas McDowell, Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton (Princeton, 2020)

The first volume of Nicholas McDowell’s proposed two-part study of Milton’s life seeks to explain how and why Milton became disillusioned with the Church of England and the monarchy. Most biographies of Milton, he argues, tend to project his later political commitments onto his younger days and portray him as a radical from the beginning. However, in McDowell’s telling, Milton emerges as an ambitious young man somewhat indifferent to the political squabbles of the early seventeenth-century. Instead, his prime concern was to prepare himself for his poetic vocation and, ultimately, to establish himself as an epic poet of the caliber of Virgil and Dante. It was Milton’s emerging fear that clerical tyranny and monarchical corruption would stifle creativity in England and thus hamper his poetic ambitions that led him towards the path to becoming a staunch critic of episcopacy and a defender of regicide. The book ends in 1642 with the outbreak of the English civil war and it would be interesting to see how McDowell extends his argument to explain the fascinating trajectory of Milton’s political and literary life.

There is much to admire in this study. It is clearly written and skillfully walks its readers through some of Milton’s earlier literary achievements. Individual chapters offer fresh readings of key incidents in Milton’s life and even those uninterested in the bigger question of Milton’s later radicalization will find valuable information about other aspects of his life. However, McDowell’s attempt to suppress any possibility of Milton’s turn to radical politics in his early years is less than successful. His argument is far too reliant on an older revisionist historiography which emphasized consensus over conflict in early Stuart England and argued against deeper causes of the mid seventeenth-century crisis. While this literature is rich and sophisticated, it does not represent the entirety of the current thinking about early Stuart England. Relying too heavily on it often leads McDowell to outright dismiss any inkling of theological radicalism in Milton’s early writings. While McDowell is quite sensitive to the numerous theological disputes of the Jacobean period, these are almost always treated as peripheral to Milton’s concerns. Perhaps they were indeed unimportant to Milton’s thinking at the time. However, McDowell’s argument would have been much more effective if it was not as indifferent to the slightest possibility of the theological roots of Milton’s later disaffections with the Church and the Stuarts.

Nevertheless, this is a very ambitious and rewarding book. Any student of 17th century English history will learn a great deal from it. I eagerly look forward to the second volume of the study.

Andrew Hines

This month, while preparing for a class, I stumbled upon a book by Ernst Bloch posthumously published in 2019 entitled Avicenna and the Aristotelian Left. In it, Bloch makes the case that ‘there is a line that leads from Aristotle, not to Thomas Aquinas and to the spirit of the beyond, but to Giordano Bruno and the blossoming nature of universal matter. And it is Avicenna who, along with Averroes, is one of the first and most important points of note in this tradition’ (3). Part romanticism and part profound, Bloch traces the history of what he calls a ‘long forgotten’ view of matter in the work of the philosopher Ibn Sina (Avicenna). Because Ibn Sina was a key interpreter of Aristotle, Bloch suggests that the views put forward on matter by Ibn Sina, constitutes an Aristotelian left in the same way that a Hegelian left led to Marx. 

Whether you agree with Bloch’s interpretation of Ibn Sina or not, it’s worth reading for three reasons. First, it’s a fascinating piece of historical reconstruction. Loren Goldman and Peter Thompson’s translation makes Bloch’s German lucid and really brings out the breadth of Bloch’s research into the life and thought of Ibn Sina. The detail alone gives the reader unfamiliar with Ibn Sina or the historical and cultural context of his philosophy a fantastic sourcebook. Beyond that however, Bloch’s interpretation is also an object of study in its own right. He brings the reader rich intellectual historical detail and then fashions his own narrative about the period. How this shapes Bloch’s conclusion about Ibn Sina’s distinct thesis of materialism is up to the reader to decide.

The second reason to read the book is that it’s short. The entire book is 109 pages and 39 of those are the book’s extensive endnotes, bibliography and index. As a result, it’s a fantastic book to get a quick sense of a provocative idea in a way that doesn’t compromise scholarly depth.

Finally, it’s worth reading because Bloch, in 70 pages, transforms  the concept of materialism. His intellectual historical reconstruction may at times be romanticised, but the philosophical precision and insight through which he assesses what Ibn Sina can bring to the concept of materialism, makes one scratch their head and wonder why it has taken so long to get round to this giant of Islamicate philosophy. Like the best interpretations, Bloch leads one back into the text, back into the thinker being interpreted, while simultaneously offering up new possibilities for the future.

Nuala Caomhanach

I am currently reading about genes and mutagenesis–I mean it is the holiday season after all! Soraya de Chadarevian’s Heredity Under the Microscope. Chromosomes and the Study of the Human Genome (University of Chicago, 2020) is a fascinating read on the development of postwar human genetics. Chromosomes are X-shaped macromolecules (except for that wee Y-chromosome) made of threadline strings of DNA and protein found in the nucleus of most living cells. Inside is a dataset that makes you you. De Chadarevian shows how during much of the twentieth century, researchers studied chromosomes under a microscope as she maps the changing theoretical models about how chromosomes operated. As the rise of molecular biology in modern science emerged, the next generation of scientists argued that visual evidence was not enough, but understanding and knowing the actual chemical and molecular mechanisms. This highly readable and impressive book demonstrates the overlapping concerns of science, medicine, law, and policy in the atomic age. De Chadarevian argues that the earlier microscopic research was central to the approach to studying human genetics. This book is a richly sourced survey of human cytogenetics and would be useful for undergraduate teaching. 

Adriana Petryna’s Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl (Princeton University Press, 2013) is a compelling and thought-provoking read. Petryna explores the interactions between “sufferers” (people exposed to radioactive iodine-13) and the red-tape (pun intended) of the bureaucratic state and medical machinery of the state.  This book is a useful undergraduate text for entry into the complex story around Chernobyl as the author shows how Soviet citizens, in a failing state, became “biological citizens” to gain treatment and welfare provision. Petryna’s anthropological approach reveals how expert opinion in the Soviet Union and internationally was deeply divided, biological damage was inestimable and the legacy of radiation exposure over generations difficult to predict, and the manner in which medical diagnoses were heavily inflected with politics and policy.

Featured Image: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Librarian, 1566. Skokloster Castle, Sweden.

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