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Book review: La Hermana San Sulpicio [in Spanish], by Armando Palacio Valdes

This novel was first published in 1889 but it remains surprisingly fresh in tone today. It is cast as a first-person narrative by Ceferino Sanjurjo, a young man who falls in love with a nineteen-year-old nun and wants to marry her. She is Andalusian, from Seville; he is from Galicia, in north-west Spain, and this difference in background is a recurrent theme in the story. Galicians had the reputation of being rural and unsophisticated, not to say boorish; Sanjurjo is sensitive about his origin and tries to de-emphasise it as much as possible.

In fact, Sanjurjo's father, who is a pharmacist, is quite well off and provides a good allowance to his son. Sanjurjo has trained as a doctor but doesn't want to practise and has literary ambitions, which he is pursuing in Madrid. He fails as a dramatist but enjoys some success as a descriptive poet. When his over-indulgent lifestyle leads to stomach problems he goes to a health spa at Marmolejo, in the Andalusian province of Jaén. Here he meets Sister San Sulpicio, who is also taking the waters together with her cousin, likewise a nun, and a Mother Superior.

Sanjurjo quickly falls in love with the beautiful and very lively Sister San Sulpicio, and when the nuns return to Seville he follows, intending to marry her. This is not as out of the question as it might seem; she has not yet taken her final vows and says she plans to leave the convent when the time for renewal comes up, as it will shortly.

Soon after returning to Seville she does indeed leave and goes back to her home, where she talks to Sanjurjo at night at the reja (the window with an iron grill traditionally used by courting couples). She admits that she is as much in love with him as he is with her. But all is by no means plain sailing from this point; Gloria, as she is now known, has a difficult and eccentric widowed mother who shares her house—on exactly what terms isn't clear—with a strange and rather intimidating man who controls her completely. Matters are made more complicated by the fact that Gloria is an heiress who will bring a large dowry with her when she marries. Her mother's companion is well aware of this and so is Sanjurjo, in spite of his protestations of indifference.

In the end, of course, all ends happily. But there are numerous twists and turns in the plot along the way, and we also get a vivid picture of life in Seville at the end of the nineteenth century. The two main characters are explored in some depth and subtlety and there are plenty of interesting minor characters and subplots as well. There is also comedy, mostly occasioned by Sanjurjo's encounters with the unfamiliar Andalusian ways and customs, which he finds almost as seductive as Gloria herself. Andalusian speech is rendered phonetically to enhance the effect.

Book review: Other Minds, by Peter Godfrey-Smith

The octopus and its close relatives (cuttlefish and squid), known collectively as the cephalopods, are the nearest we are likely to come for a long time, perhaps for ever, to meeting an intelligent alien life form. Godfrey-Smith provides an insightful and often profound analysis of the mind of these extraordinary animals. His unusual professional background—he is a philosopher of science and a historian—no doubt has helped here, and in addition he has an almost personal sense of involvement with his subjects. He doesn't just study them in the laboratory, he is a scuba diver who spends extended periods with them in their native habitat.

Intelligence is found on Earth in only a few groups of animals. Most are chordates—animals with backbones—including fish, reptiles, mammals and birds. Among these, still fewer groups exhibit a high degree of intelligence: primates, the elephant family, whales and dolphins, and some bird species, especially crows and parrots.

All these are comparative latecomers in evolution, whereas the cephalopods constitute a striking anomaly. They are molluscs, meaning they are related to slugs, snails, clams, and whelks, all of which originated in very remote times, long before the mammals and birds. None of the other molluscs possesses a complex nervous system.

Godfrey-Smith provides plenty of evidence for octopus intelligence. Some of this comes from formal testing in the laboratory, but not all; some is based on spontaneous behaviour. 'Octopuses in at least two aquariums have learned to turn off the lights by squirting water at the bulbs when no one is watching, and short-circuiting the power supply. At the University of Otago in New Zealand, this became so expensive that the octopus had to be released back to the wild.'

Godfrey-Smith is careful to point out that this behaviour may not be as astonishing as it seems. Octopuses dislike bright light and in the wild they squirt water at things that annoy them. Still, he is impressed by how quickly they have learned the new trick. This seems to be one aspect of their fondness for exploring their environment and even playing with objects, which they also do.

But perhaps the most remarkable story is told by Jean Boal, an experimenter who is known for the strictness of the criteria she applies to apparent evidence for intelligence in her subjects.

Octopuses have definite food preferences and don't much care for thawed-out squid or shrimp, although they will eat them. One day Boal was walking down a row of tanks giving a piece of squid to each occupant.

On reaching the end of the row, she walked back the way she'd come. The octopus in the first tank, though, seemed to be waiting for her. It had not eaten its squid, but instead was holding it conspicuously. As Boal stood there, the octopus made its way slowly across the tank toward the outflow, watching her all the way. When it reached the outflow pipe, still watching her, it dumped the scrap of squid down the drain.

It's difficult to resist the idea that this story is evidence for recognition of another mind by an octopus. Another finding that points in the same direction is the fact that octopuses can recognise individual humans and react to them in different ways. One octopus, in the same laboratory that had the lamp-squirting problem, took an objection to a particular staff member, for no apparent reason, and squirted her whenever she walked past. At another lab an octopus took to squirting all new visitors although the regular staff were not squirted.

Godfrey-Smith has a chapter in which he tries to answer a question that I have wondered about for a long time. Why do such intelligent animals have such short life spans—only one or two years in most species? An advanced brain is a 'costly' item in a biological sense; it seems odd for evolution to go to the trouble of producing it and then to throw it away almost immediately. This is not true, for example of elephants, primates or birds, which are long-lived.

Godfrey-Smith thinks that at least part of the explanation may lie in the fact that the cephalopods evolved from animals with a shell. Early cephalopods had shells but the octopus has lost its shell entirely; squid and cuttlefish have retained it only internally. The lack of a protective shell makes the animals vulnerable to predators. Acquiring a complex nervous system enabled them to behave in ways that enhanced their chances of survival. Even so, they can't expect to live very long. A short life but a merry one seems to be the outcome.

It isn't only their highly evolved nervous system that makes the cephalopods so remarkable. Another characteristic of the group is their ability to make rapid complex colour changes. Octopuses use this mainly for camouflage. Cuttlefish carry out astonishingly complex colour displays, which are usually thought to be signals to other members of a group. But here we encounter another mysterious fact: cephalopods are apparently colour-blind! This is based on the fact that their eyes contain only one kind of colour receptor, which is insufficient for colour vision; we usually have three. In part the explanation may be that the skin of cuttlefish is light-sensitive and may be able to perform some kind of colour recognition.

In any case, not all colour changes in cuttlefish seem to be intended for others. Godfrey-Smith describes witnessing a prolonged display of this kind by a giant cuttlefish. 'It reminded me of music, of chords changing amid and over each other.' And yet, to what end? There were no other cuttlefish in sight; Godfrey-Smith was the only witness.

It occurred to me that he was paying so little attention to me that all of this might have been going on while he was asleep or half-asleep in a state of deep rest. Perhaps the part of his brain that controls the skin was turning over a sequence of colors of its own accord. I wondered if this was a cuttlefish dream—I was reminded of dogs dreaming, their paws moving while they make tiny yip-like sounds.

Although the book is primarily about cephalopods, Godfrey-Smith digresses at times to talk about consciousness in general and human consciousness in particular. He has an interesting discussion on the role of 'inner speech' which he thinks is important, although perhaps not essential, for 'higher-order thought', meaning the ability to think about one's own thinking,

This is not a long book but it contains much more than I can indicate in a review like this. Perhaps the dominant idea I'm left with is the feeling of familiarity coupled with strangeness that comes from the description of the cephalopod mind. One aspect of this that I hadn't known about is that although the octopus has a large brain, its awareness is not entirely centred there as it seems to be in us. The octopus's nervous system is widely distributed throughout its whole body, so that each tentacle is partly autonomous. So the octopus mind seems to be diffused rather than sharply localised. Coupled with this, the octopus body itself lacks precise definition; it can take an almost infinite number of shapes and can squeeze through any space that is only a little larger than its eye. Octopus consciousness must be very different from ours in many ways, yet we can communicate with each other.

One final reflection. People often speak or write as if they thought it was the 'purpose' of evolution to produce intelligent life. But is it? Given its scarcity, that seems hard to believe. Do we perhaps over-value this trait because of its importance to us? Is it merely one manifestation of life among a myriad others, resembling the apparently pointless shifting colour patterns produced in sleep by Godfrey-Smith's cuttlefish friend?

%T Other Minds
%S The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life
%A Godfrey-Smith, Peter
%I HarperCollins
%C London
%D 2017
%G ISBN 978-0-99-822627-5
%P x+255pp
%K biology
%O colour plus monochrome illustrations

Book review: Two Centuries of Silence, by Abdolhossein Zarrinkoub

Abdolhossein Zarrinkoub (1923-1999) was an Iranian teacher and scholar who wrote on a wide range of subjects including history and Persian literature. This is his best-known work, in which he presents his account of events and cultural changes in the first two centuries that followed the Muslim conquest of Iran.

The first question he considers is why the desert Arabs were able to conquer the seemingly much stronger Sasanian Empire. In fact, the Arabs were afraid of embarking on invasion. But the Sasanian state had become much weaker by this time, as a result of both the long-standing war with the Byzantines and civil war. Even so, the conquest was a more prolonged affair than I had realised. It began in 633 but there was a great deal of fighting in the following years, as the Iranians resisted fiercely. By 651 most of the urban centres, apart from those in the Caspian region, were under Arab control, but even after that there were numerous revolts which were ruthlessly suppressed by the new rulers.

Conversion to Islam was gradual, and even when it occurred it was sometimes more an expedient accommodation to the new state of affairs than a heartfelt adoption of a new religion. The Persian language was initially displaced in public life in favour of Arabic, but gradually Persian reasserted itself, along with the arising of religious sects based in Zoroastrianism. This revival of Persian culture is ostensibly the theme of Zarrinkoub's book, although a lot of the text is concerned with the various rebellions that occurred and the often savage execution of the unsuccessful rebels.

Iranians were involved in the early struggles for power in Islam, as the caliphate moved first to Damascus under the Umayyads and then to the new city of Baghdad under the Abbasids. Iranians became increasingly influential at this time. Zarrinkoub's depiction of the Abbasjd caliphs is highly unflattering; they appear cruel, extortionate, corrupt and immoral in the style of Roman emperors such as Nero or Caligula. One caliph, Harun, had a pet ape which he made an emir; anyone who attended the court was required to kiss the animal's hand, and it 'deflowered several virgins', which seems a little improbable.

Not all Abbasid caliphs were quite as bad as this. Harun's son Ma'mun, although by no means deficient in extortion and ruthlessness, had a philosophical side. He arranged debates, at which he was usually present, where Muslim theologians reasoned with Zoroastrians and sectaries of various kinds, including Manicheans and Magians. Dualism, free will, and the origin of evil were among the subjects discussed. But toleration had its limits: the Mazdakite sect was not accepted as a 'People of the Book' and its adherents were not allowed to take part in public debate.

This is a slightly unusual kind of history. The translator says that Zarrinkoub was a 'littérature' as much as a historian. This seems to mean in part that he makes use of flowery language, using a plethora of synonyms; the translator has pruned these to some extent, but even so the text sometimes reads oddly. It also means, I think, that Zarrinkoub makes no pretence of objectivity but comments on the events he describes with a particular agenda in mind. He wants to demonstrate the clear superiority of Iranian culture in comparison with the crudity and barbarity of the Arabs, whom he represents as lacking any real interest in ideas or literature. Yet he professes his admiration for Islam and the Qur'an, which poses an implied contradiction that he never really confronts: how did this barbarous society come up with such an impressive religion?

Zarrinkoub may have ignored this contradiction when he wrote but it came back to bite him after the Islamic Revolution, when he was labelled a pseudo-intellectual and a Westerniser. He then radically revised his earlier opinion (p.xix). 'The change became unmistakable by 2005 [sic], when the tenth edition of…"The Report Card of Islam"…appeared.' (Since Zarrinkoub had been dead for six years by then, this date cannot be correct unless publication was posthumous, in which case can we be sure he actually wrote the text?)

Put side by side, Two Centuries of Silence and 'Report Card of Islam seem mirror images of each other. In fact…for every statement in the former one can find a counter-statement in the latter. Clearly the Zarrinkoub of Two Centuries of Silence was night-and-day different from the Zarrinkoub of 'The Report Card of Islam'. He seems to have forsworn his advocacy of national secular policies promoted by the Pahlavi shahs for the universal egalitarian message of Islam.

Readers hoping for an objective hjstory of Iran in the years after the conquest should probably look elsewhere. But its author's apparent subsequent disavowal of his earlier passionately-held view is a telling indictment of intellectual repression in modern Iran. When Zarrinkoub was writing it was a different country.

%T Two Hundred Years of Silence (second edition)
%A Zarrinkoub, Abdolhossein
%I Mazda Publishers
%C Costa Mesa, California
%D 2017
%G ISBN 9781568693602
%P xxviii+315pp
%K history
%O translated from the Persian by Paul Sprachman

Book review: Greek Buddha, by Christopher I. Beckwith

This book challenges many or even most of the ideas about the origin of Buddhism that I have had for a long time. According to the conventional picture, Siddartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, was an upper-class Indian who lived in the fifth or possibly fourth century BCE. He was born at Lumbini, in modern-day Nepal. He had a luxurious upbringing and was married, but he renounced all this to become a wandering ascetic in search of enlightenment. At first he was unsuccessful but eventually he found his own path (the Middle Way) and became Awakened; the epithet 'Buddha' refers to this. Following his Awakening he began to teach and founded the monastic system which still exists today. The central doctrines he taught are known as the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

While there has long been much debate about all the details of the Buddha's life, Beckwith goes a lot further than most and challenges almost every accepted feature of the story. So it's important to say at the outset that he is well qualified for his contentious role, being a professor in the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. He has academic qualifications in Chinese and Tibetan and teaches Old Tibetan, Central Eurasian languages, and Central Eurasian history; his research interests include a number of other languages.

Beckwith makes an important distinction between Early Buddhism (the ideas of the Buddha himself and his immediate followers) and 'Normative Buddhism'—the Buddhism largely based on the collection of scriptures known as the Pali Canon, which was compiled 500 years after the Buddha's death and is still the foundation of Theravada Buddhism. Beckwith believes that this contains a lot of material that is later than what was taught by the Buddha.

The doctrines of karma and rebirth, for example, were not part of the Buddha's message and reflect ideas that were included in Buddhism as late as the first century CE. (Incidentally the 'rebirth' which appeared at this time was thought of as occurring in Heaven or Hell, which were temporary states.) Monasticism, the development of a monastic rule, and the building of monasteries were all features of Normative Buddhism.

Much of this is admitted by many scholars of Buddhism. But Beckwith goes considerably beyond the general consensus in what he asserts, starting with the Buddha himself. Probably his most startling suggestion is that Gautama was not Indian but Scythian. (The Scythians were a people who lived in the western and central Eurasian steppes and probably spoke a form of Iranian language.) Another name that is applied to the Buddha, Shakyamuni, refers to this, meaning he was a 'Saka', a type of Scythian.

Beckwith also revises the background against which Buddhism arose. It is usually thought to have been a reaction against Brahmanism, but Beckwith suggests that Buddhism is older than Brahmanism. It is also older than Jainism. If anything, Buddhism was a reaction to Zoroastrianism (which implies a later date for Zoroastrianism than is usually quoted). And Beckwith finds evidence that Taoism in China was closely connected with Buddhism; the concept of the 'tao', he thinks, is practically the same as the Indian 'dharma'.

The reference to Greece in the title is a little misleading. It doesn't imply that Buddhism came from Greece (as is sometimes claimed); in fact, rather the reverse. It has often been remarked that Buddhist artwork was influenced by Greek forms and this is supposed to reflect the arrival of Alexander, but Beckwith is concerned with currents flowing in the opposite direction. Among the Greek scholars accompanying Alexander was Pyrrho, who is usually credited with founding the sceptical school of Greek philosophy known as Pyrrhonism. His ideas were radically different from the general trends of Greek philosophy but were virtually identical with those found in 'the earliest known bit of doctrinal Buddhist text. [Author's emphasis].

And it wasn't only philosophy that Pyrrho seems to have taken from Buddhism; he also learned the characteristic Buddhist type of meditation known as 'insight meditation', although Beckwith approaches this from a intellectual rather than any kind of mystical angle.

The Buddha says that in meditation he reached the fourth and highest state in which he abandoned both bliss and pain. He describes this in the Mahasacca Sutta.

What the Buddha is abandoning here is the distinction between the opposite qualities or antilogies that are mentioned [in the text]. This is Pyrrho's adiaphora state of being 'undifferentiated, without (an intrinsic) self-identity, which is identical to the Buddha's state of being anatman without (an intrinsic) self-identity. It is equated with nirvana…'extinguishing (of the burning of the passions)' and the peace that results from it. [Author's emphasis]

As others have done, Beckwith finds important parallels between Buddhism and the philosophy of David Hume, who was strongly influenced by Late Pyrrhonism.

These revolutionary ideas have not been welcomed by most scholars of Buddhism. But they are not idle speculation; Beckwith supports them with abundant references to the earliest available documents and inscriptions. This is a scholarly work that seems to be aimed at a professional audience; almost every page has footnotes, which are often quite lengthy and may include quotations from Chinese and Greek texts in the original. So it is by no means light reading. Still, the actual writing is informal and quite readable, with occasional flashes of dry humour.

For example, in discussing the date of certain inscriptions that are supposed to provide evidence for the Buddha's date, Beckwith writes: 'However, as Härtel has effectively shown—with extreme care not to make the significance of his points easily grasped—the inscriptions…cited by nearly everyone as crucial data are at best much later than [others of known date] and at worst forgeries.'

Some have objected that the Greek scholars accompanying Alexander would not have been able to communicate effectively with the people they met and so could not have formed a clear idea of their beliefs. But Beckwith dismisses this claim.

It is entertaining to imagine Alexander the Great and his men as mental weaklings who bumbled their way around Asia conquering a huge empire largely by accident, like Inspector Clouseau solving a case, but the Court was in the territory of the Persian Empire for ten years, five of them in Central Asia and India, and the ancient Greeks were hardly mental weaklings. After years of exposure they must have learned Persian at least, and some undoubtedly picked up other local languages, while the local people would have been powerfully motivated to learn Greek, the language of the invaders, and many local people in formerly Persian-ruled "India" knew at least some Persian.

There is in fact plenty of documentary evidence to show that communication would not have been a problem.

Beckwith is careful to say that the ideas he discusses in this book in no way detract from the value of Buddhism as we know it today. And it is true that Buddhism does not attach the weight to the historical events of the Buddha's life that Christianity, say, does to the life of Christ. Even so, this is an important book for anyone with a serious interest in the development of early Buddhism.

%T Greek Buddha
%S Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism
%A Beckwith, Christopher I.
%I Princeton University Press
%C Princeton and Oxford
%D 2015
%G ISBN 978-0-16644-5
%P xx+275pp
%K religion
%O three appendices

Book review by Anthony Campbell: All Hell Let Loose, by Max Hastings

Hastings has written eight books on various aspects of the Second World War previously. In this one he presents an overview of the whole conflict, with particular emphasis on the experiences of people who were alive at the time. To do this he draws extensively on contemporary records…memoirs and letters from both combatants and civilians.This makes for a sense of immediacy and drama, so the book, although long, is never dull. It isn't light reading, however; there is no shortage of horrors. In fact, I couldn't read continuously but had to break off at times to read something lighter, otherwise the succession of tragedies became too overwhelming.

But I don't want to give the impression that the book is just a collection of reminiscences; these serve merely to illustrate the story of the war, which Hastings tells with considerable skill. To do this he has had to knit together events in three very different theatres of conflict: Western Europe and the Mediterranean, Russia, and the Pacific and Far East. There are also two different enemies to consider, German and Japanese (the role of the Italians was minimal). Although Germany and Japan were allies, each largely pursued their own agenda and there was little direct collaboration between them.

The beginning of the war, leading up to the Dunkirk evacuation, was a disaster for Britain. Invasion seemed imminent (although it probably wasn't) and only Winston Churchill's coming to power averted collapse. (Incidentally, Churchill is three times referred to as having been First Sea Lord; he was in fact First Lord of the Admiralty, which is not the same thing.)

Paradoxically, we owed our survival and ultimate victory over Germany to Hitler; his decision to invade Russia ultimately led to his downfall. But the Japanese also played their part by making an equally big mistake that brought America into the war when they attacked Pearl Harbor. The role of Britain amid these events was of secondary importance, although that was not how it was perceived here.

A recurring theme in the book is Hasting's admiration of German military professionalism. Time and again the Wehrmacht out-manoeuvred and out-fought their opponents both in Europe and in Russia, at least to begin with. They also had better tanks and fighter planes, at least in the early years of the war. After the Normandy campaign one of Montgomery's ablest staff officers wrote of the Germans, for whom he had boundless admiration, 'I have often wondered how we ever beat them.' So why didn't the Germans win?

There seem to have been two main reasons, according to Hastings. One was that although the Germans repeatedly succeeded tactically on the battlefield, their strategic planning was poor. In part this was due to the generals, who were mostly less competent and imaginative than their divisional commanders; but a major contribution to defeat came from Hitler. Time and again he made bad decisions, especially in Russia. He also repeatedly forbade strategic withdrawals and insisted that units should fight to the last man, thus wasting enormous amounts of human and material resources.

Even if the Germans' strategic planning had been better, however, they would most probably have lost the war—certainly after the USA came in. This was because Germany was economically weaker than the Allies realised and was unable to replace its losses in sufficient numbers. It was also short of fuel after Romania fell to the Russians.

This may seem surprising, but Hastings isn't averse to discounting widely held opinions about events and personalities. The ultimate Allied success in the North African campaign was significant in that it provided a much-needed boost to morale at home, but its strategic importance was not as overwhelming as it appeared at the time. Neither Rommel nor Montgomery, Hastings finds, merits the great reputations they have acquired. Among the Americans Douglas MacArthur comes across as a 'vainglorious windbag'. Eisenhower was not a great strategist but his success lay in coordinating the forces of different nationalities under his command. The ablest British general, Hastings finds, was William Slim, who led the recapture of Burma from the Japanese in 1945.

The war in the Pacific had greater importance in American than in British minds; the Americans hated the Japanese but had little dislike of the Germans. I found Hastings' account of the defeat of Japan particularly interesting because I knew relatively little about it, probably because initial Japanese success against the British in Burma, Singapore and elsewhere appeared so inexplicable and shameful that we heard relatively little about it. In fact, the Japanese won thanks to British incompetence as much as to their own fighting ability. This was publicly admitted at a reckless press conference by a British field commander.

Allied censors smothered publication of his remarks, but they reflected the defeatism, incompetence, and incoherence prevailing among British commanders in the East. Churchill minuted the chiefs of staff: 'I am far from satisfied with the way the Indian campaign is being conducted. The fatal lassitude of the Orient steals over all these commanders.'

The role of the 'Chindits'—British forces that operated behind Japanese lines—was much trumpeted in the Indian and British Press, but they had little practical importance, as one survivor later confirmed: 'we had achieved absolutely nothing'.

Plenty of other little-known facts emerge in the course of the book. For example, when troops were brought from North Africa to take part in the invasion of Normandy there was nearly a mutiny among the 3rd Royal Tanks. And when troops did arrive in Normandy to liberate the French there was a fair amount of looting.

I was a boy during the war so many of the events narrated here are familiar to me, at least in outline, but I'm glad to have had the opportunity now to set them in their narrative context, as well as to know what was going on in other parts of the world while we in Britain were relatively spared, in spite of rationing and the Blitz. I read this in the kindle version, but it would have been better to have the printed version because in kindle the maps are so difficult to see as to be practically useless.

So was the war worth fighting. In a word, yes, but with qualifications.

Allied victory did not bring universal peace, prosperity, justice or freedom; it brought merely a portion of those things to some fraction of those who had taken part. All that seems certain is that Allied victory saved the world from a much worse fate that would have followed the triumph of Germany and Japan. With this knowledge, seekers after virtue and truth must be content.

In 1920 a book appeared with the title The First World War. It was a best seller but the title was considered to be sinister and in poor taste because it implied there would be another.

To call this book The Last World War might tempt providence, but it is at least certain that never again will millions of armed men clash on European battlefields such as those of 1939–45. The conflicts of the future will be quite different, and it may not be rashly optimistic to suggest that they will be less terrible.

Let's hope he's right.


Book review: Limpieza de Sangre [in Spanish], by Arturo Perez-Reverte

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This is the second novel in the series describing the adventures of Captain Diego Alatriste, soldier of fortune and hired assassin. We meet again with most of the characters who appeared in the first novel, El Capitán Alatriste, including his young page, Iñigo Balboa, and the poet Francisco de Quevedo, who has an important role in this book. There is also a new character, Angélica de Alquézar, a young girl who fascinates Iñigo and is destined to have a major impact on his life in later years.

The plot is triggered by Quevedo's request to Alatriste for help in rescuing a girl who has been forced to enter a convent. Iñigo climbs into the convent and opens a door to Quevedo, Alatriste, and the girl's family members, but they are caught in a trap and Alatriste and Quevedo barely escape with their lives. Meanwhile Iñigo, who has disobeyed Alatriste's instruction to return home, is captured by Alatriste's old enemy, the sinister Italian swordsman Gualterio Malatesta, who delivers him to the Inquisition.

Quite a lot of the book is taken up with Iñigo's experiences at the hands of the Inquisition. These are suitably horrific, although luckily he is not tortured on the rack because he has not quite attained the age of fourteen. (The Inqusition's rules did not allow torture of children below this age.)

The question of 'purity of blood' which gives the book its title, relates to people whose forebears had been 'conversos' (Jewish converts to Christianity) and who were suspected of backsliding. If convicted of this crime they were liable to execution by burning. The central event in the novel is an 'Auto de Fe', which is staged in Madrid with the King and Queen in attendance. Iñigo is one of the accused, alleged to have taken part in Jewish rituals, and is now awaiting sentence.

As usual, there is plenty of drama and sword-play, which on one occasion takes on a near-farcical character, when Alatriste breaks into the house of Luis de Alquézar, Angélica's powerful uncle and guardian, intending to terrify him into getting Iñigo released. But Angélica comes on the scene and attacks Alatriste savagely, scratching him and biting his arm.

There is a lot of local colour, with depictions of seventeenth-century Madrid low life. Sometimes the details of this may be obscure to readers who lack some background information. For example, Chapter III describes Iñigo's encounter with Angélica in the 'Acero' district of Madrid. This was a place where water containing iron was drunk for medicinal purposes ('acero' = 'steel'), but in the seventeenth century 'tomar el acero' ('to take the steel'—compare 'to take the waters') could also refer to the making of romantic assignations.

As in the previous book, Iñigo includes a good few verse quotations, mostly from Quevedo, in his story, along with political reflections on the sorry state of decadent Spain. Fortunately these don't hold up the action too much. The principal characters, Alatriste and Iñigo, continue to develop in a convincing manner.

The final episode in the book has Alatriste encountering Malatesta, with whom he had fought a few days previously, now lying in bed seriously injured. Alatriste wants to kill him but can't bring himself to do so while the man is defenceless. And he is forced to recognise that he and Malatesta have more in common than he likes to admit.

Book review: Who We Are and How We Got Here, by David Reich

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In 2003 Stephen Oppenheimer's book Out of Eden: The Peopling of the World, presented a popular but detailed account of the way that genetics was beginning to supplement, and sometimes contradict, archaeological evidence for how humans had populated the world after their exit from Africa. This information was based on mitochondrial DNA and on the sex chromosomes, Y for the male line and X for the female line. The new insights into human evolution that Oppenheimer described were certainly fascinating, but the whole scene has been radically transformed within the last decade. Two technological developments have brought this about. First, sequencing of the whole genome has become much faster and cheaper, so that it can be done on an 'industrial' scale. Second, it is now possible to extract DNA from much older bones than was previously thought to be possible.

The first, and most dramatic, development in the application of genome sequencing to archaeology was Svante Pääbo's sequencing oeanderthal genome in 2009, which showed that there had been interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans. Reich started working with Pääbo in 2007, and in 2013 Pääbo helped him to set up the first laboratory in the USA for the large-scale production of ancient genomes. Similar work is beginning to be carried out in other countries as well.

In this book Reich presents an overview of what has been discovered so far. He emphasises that this cannot be a definitive description; new discoveries are being made continually and much of what he says here will inevitably have to be modified or even contradicted later. Still, enough has been achieved, he insists, to produce a radical transformation in our ideas about prehistory. 'The ancient DNA revolution is rapidly disrupting our assumptions about the past.' This is the first book to provide a popular account of what has been discovered so far.

The central fact to emerge is that it is no use looking at the genetics of people alive today to infer where they come from or what happened in the past. Study of ancient DNA has shown, time and again, that earlier people were much more mobile than many scholars had supposed. Large migrations have occurred repeatedly on a worldwide scale and there has been a vast amount of interbreeding. So the metaphor of an evolutionary tree is misleading; what we have is more like a network.

The book is in three parts. Part I is about interbreeding between modern humans and other species—mainly the Neanderthals but also the Denisovans and other now extinct species. Part II looks at the evolution of modern humans in five regions of the world: Europe, India, America, East Asia, and Africa. Part III is more 'political' and considers the relevance of this work to modern life and ideas of identity.

Part I is mostly a recapitulation of Pääbo's work and adds little to what readers of Neanderthal Man will know already. However, Reich has an interesting discussion of the idea of a retrograde migration from Eurasia to Africa as the source of modern humans.

It is generally supposed that modern humans evolved in Africa from African Homo erectus. But Homo erectus had moved out of Africa and colonised much of the Old World long before this, and it is possible that the ancestral population that gave rise to Neanderthals, Denisovans, and modern humans actually lived in Eurasia (pp.68–71). 'In this scenario, there was later migration back from Eurasia to Africa, providing the primary founders of the population that later evolved into modern humans.' The advantage of this idea is that it requires one less major migration between Africa and Eurasia. At present it is speculative, but it would fit with the discovery of skeletons of 'Homo antecessor' at Atapuerco, in Spain, dated to about a million years ago.

Whatever explains these patterns, it is clear that we have much more to learn. The period before fifty thousand years ago was a busy time in Eurasia, with mulltiple human populations arriving from Africa beginning at least 1.8 million years ago.

Part II, or at least its first two chapters, was for me the most interesting part of the book. For Europe, a very important event was the westward spread into central Europe of the Yamnaya, people from the steppes of Central Asia, about five thousand years ago. The existing population at the time was mainly derived from farmers who had themselves arrived from the Near East, largely replacing the hunter–gatherers who preceded them.

The Yamnaya, themselves of mixed ancestry, are credited with the introduction of Indo-European languages into Europe, along with Corded Ware pottery. The idea that migration was responsible for these changes had been proposed in the 1920s but fell out of favour after the Second World War as a reaction to the abuse of archaeology by the Nazis. Reich is clear that the genetic evidence makes the idea inescapable.

Our analysis of DNA from the Yamana…showed that they harbored a combination of ancestries that did not previously exist in central Europe. The Yamnaya were the missing ingredient that needed to be added to European farmers and hunter–gatherers to produce populations with the mixture of ancestries observed in Europe today. Our ancient DNA data also allowed us to learn how the Yamnaya themselves had formed from earlier [Armenian and Iranian] populations. ,/blockquote>

The Yamnaya also spread east, into India, again bringing Indo-European languages as well as the religious ideas we find in the Rig Veda. The genetic evidence for this agrees with what many Western scholars have believed for a long time. The end result is that India contains a mixture, in varying proportions, of two highly divergent populations. But expressing this in scientific terms required careful handling when Reich collaborated with two Indian researchers. They objected on political grounds to the proposed term 'West Eurasians' and to the suggestion that immigration had brought outside ideas into India. They even suggested that there could have been an Indian migration in the opposite direction, to the Near East and Europe. Eventually the issue was fudged, with no reference being made to migrations.

I found the remaining chapters in Part II less satisfactory, probably because less work has been done on America, East Asia, and Africa, so what we get is a number of facts but not much of a coherent story to tie them together. But things are changing fast and if there is a subsequent edition of the book or a sequel, no doubt we will get a more comprehensive picture. In relation to Africa, Reich remarks that most researchers take little interest in what happened after the emigration of modern humans about 50 000 years ago (more recently than the 85,000 cited by Oppenheimer in 2003), yet there is a huge amount to be studied.

Research of this kind cannot be separated from social and political questions, as Reich found in India. It has also cropped up in the USA, with regard to archaeologists' alleged interference with the graves of ancient Native Americans. In Part III Reich discusses these questions with sensitivity and also considers the relevance of his research to 'race'. I found this section to be somewhat peripheral to the main part of the book.

Book review: Psmith in the City, by P.G. Wodehouse

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The novels in which Psmith appears were written early in Wodehouse's career, before the first world war; this one was published in 1910. It has two main characters, Psmith and Mike, who is Psmith's friend from school and an enthusiastic cricketer. The two young men are sharing Psmith's flat in Clement's Inn, because both, for different reasons, have reluctantly started work in the City branch of a Far East bank.

Neither man is suited to life in banking and the humour comes mostly from Psmith's dealings with the bosses they encounter, especially the manager, Mr Bickersdyke. Psmith, a languid Old Etonian with an eyeglass, addresses everyone as Comrade and speaks in a formal, mannered, yet comic tone. He is, of course, the central character in the book, although we see events mainly through Mike's eyes. Psmith reminded me of another Wodehouse character, Jeeves. His attitude to his bosses—at once studiously respectful yet discreetly superior—also recalls that of Jeeves to his employer Bertie Wooster. Psmith's distress at the sartorial indiscretions of a young employee in his department is yet another echo of Jeeves.

The story has an autobiographical element. From Wikipedia I learn that Wodehouse, like his two main characters, was compelled as a young man to work, very unwillingly, in the London branch of a Far East bank (both he and Mike had fathers who had suffered financial losses which required their sons to take this course).

In spite of its age the book stands up well to a modern reading; the humour is timeless. It won't disappoint anyone who loves the mature Wodehouse oeuvre.

Book review: Ludwig Wittgenstein, by Ray Monk

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Monk tells us in his introduction that people interested in Wittgenstein fall into two groups. Professional philosophers generally study his work without reference to his life, while the many readers who are fascinated by his life and personality find his philosophy unintelligible. Monk's aim is to bridge the gap between his life and his work and to show 'the unity of his philosophical concerns with his emotional and spiritual life'.

To accomplish this, he needed both to present a full account of the man and also to explain the main ideas of his philosophy. I should say he succeeds admirably in the first aim; as for the second, his success is perhaps only partial, but that was probably inevitable, because the difficulty of Wittgenstein's philosophy is different in kind from what is the case with most philosophers. The particular value of Monk's book is that he explains exactly where this difficulty lies. In fact, it has at least two roots.

First, philosophers' writing may be difficult either because they express themselves obscurely or because their ideas are intrinsically difficult to understand. Wittgenstein's difficulty is not exactly from either of these causes. He expresses himself very clearly, often in quite short sentences that are, in a sense, easy to understand; but he nearly always leaves you without the reference points you would expect. In particular, he completely refuses to announce any general conclusions, and this makes it hard to see the point of his remarks. 'As he himself once explained at the beginning of a series of lectures: "What we say will be easy but to know why we say it will be very difficult."'_(p.338)

Many non-professional readers probably get no further than dipping into the Tractatus, which is Wittgenstein's first published work and the only one to appear in his lifetime. It largely achieved its final form when Wittgenstein was a prisoner-of-war of the Italians at the end of the First World War. I found Monk's short paragraph describing this work to be illuminating (p.155).

In its final form, the book is a formidably compressed distillation of the work Wittgenstein had written since he first came to Cambridge in 1911. The remarks in it, selected from a series of perhaps seven manuscript volumes, are numbered to establish a hierarchy in which, say, remark 2.151 is an elaboration of 2.15, which in turn elaborates the point made in remark 2.1, and so on. Very few of the remarks are justified with an argument; each proposition is put forward, as Russell once put it, 'as if it were a Czar's ukase'. … [The propositions] are all allotted a place within the crystalline structure, and are each stated with the kind of finality that suggests they are all part of the same incontrovertible truth.

This exemplifies the difficulty described above. But there is a second kind of difficulty as well. To understand Wittgenstein seems to require a kind of moral seriousness on the part of the reader, particular in the case of his later work, the Philosophical Investigations, published posthumously.

Philosophical Investigations—more, perhaps, then any other philosophical classic—makes demands, not just on the reader's intelligence, but on his involvement. Other great philosophers' works—Schopenhauer's World and Representation, say—can be read with interest and entertainment by someone who 'wants to know what Schopenhauer said'. But if Philosophical Investigations is read in this spirit it will very quickly become boring and a chore to read, not because it is intellectually difficult but because it will be practically impossible to gather what Wittgenstein is 'saying'. For in truth he is not saying anything; he is presenting a technique for the unravelling of confusions. Unless these are your confusions the book will be of very little interest. (p.366)

Given this, there may be a temptation to wonder whether Wittgenstein's importance as a philosopher has been overstated. But this idea is hard to sustain in view of the impact that his ideas have had.

By 1939 he was recognised as the foremost philosophical genius of his time. 'To refuse the chair [of philosophy at Cambridge] to Wittgenstein', said C.D. Broad, 'would be like refusing Einstein a chair of physics.' Broad himself was no great admirer of Wittgenstein's work; he was simply stating a fact (p.414).

Long before this, Wittgenstein had had 'a decisive influence on Bertrand Russell's development as a philosopher—chiefly by undermining his faith in his own judgement.' (p.80) Their first encounter occurred in 1911, when Wittgenstein, then a student in aeronautical engineering at Manchester University, arrived unannounced at Russell's rooms in Trinity College, Cambridge. Russell later reported that 'an unknown German appeared, speaking very little English but refusing to speak German. He turned out to be a man who had learned engineering at Charlottenburg, but during this course had acquired, by himself, a passion for the philosophy of mathematics & has now come to Cambridge on purpose to hear me.' (p.38) Russell initially thought him a crank but later decided he was a genius. Looking back on their meeting three years later, Russell described it as 'an event of first-class importance in my life', which had 'affected everything I have done since'. (p.80)

Wittgenstein was at first 'passionately devoted' to Russell but later considered him to be 'not serious', which, for Wittgenstein, was a damning indictment that reflects a profound difference in temperament. Wittgenstein, unlike Russell, was fundamentally religious. As Monk makes abundantly clear, this theme runs through all Wittgenstein's philosophy. It appears as early as the Tractatus, where the concluding remarks are explicitly mystical and the book ends with the famous line: 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.' Before reading Monk's book I had been aware of this mystical element, but I hadn't realised the extent to which it pervades practically everything Wittgenstein wrote.

Religion first appears in the account of Wittgenstein's experiences during the First World War, when he volunteered to serve in the Austrian army in order to experience suffering. This, not surprisingly, altered his outlook on life permanently. At one point he came near to suicide (three of his brothers did kill themselves) but was saved by reading the only book he could find in a bookshop he visited: Tolstoy's Gospel in Brief. This brought about a religious conversion, albeit of a special kind.

One might expect that Wittgenstein, as a philosopher, would discuss intellectual arguments for God's existence, but that is something he very definitely rejected. Towards the end of his life he heard a radio discussion between A.J. Ayer and Father Copleston on 'The Existence of God'. His reaction was not what one might have anticipated.

Ayer, Wittgenstein said, 'has something to say but he is incredibly shallow'. Copleston, on the other hand, 'contributed nothing at all to the discussion'. To attempt to justify the beliefs of Christianity with philosophical arguments was entirely to miss the point. (p.543).

For Wittgenstein, religious belief is psychological: 'he does not see it as a question of whether Christianity is true but of whether it offers some help in dealing with an otherwise unbearable and meaningless existence. … And the "it" here is not a "belief" but a practice, a way of living.' (p.122)

Wittgenstein himself puts it like this:

Life can educate one to a belief in God. And experiences too are what bring this about; but I don't mean visions and other forms of experience which show us the 'existence of this being', but, e.g., suffering of various sorts. These neither show us an object, nor do they give rise to conjectures about him. Experiences, thoughts,—life can force this concept on us. (p.572)

Deciding how to live, and feelings of guilt at when he failed to live 'decently', preoccupied Wittgenstein throughout his life. At one point he insisted on making a formal 'Confession' to a number of his acutely embarrassed friends, although there is little information about what he actually confessed. He had a strong tendency to asceticism. As a young man he inherited vast wealth from his father but he gave it all away. He was attracted by the idea of becoming a monk at various times in his life and tried to do so on one occasion, but was told by 'an obviously perceptive Father Superior' that he was unsuited to this. He spent long periods living in semi-isolation in Norway, which no doubt reflects this side of his character.

A friend remarked on Wittgenstein's 'Hebraic' conception of religion, meaning the sense of awe which one feels throughout the Bible (p.540). I can see this, but it also occurs to me that Wittgenstein might have found Buddhism, at least its Theravada form, sympathetic, given its lack of emphasis on belief. So far as I know this didn't occur to him, which is perhaps surprising in view of his fondness for Schopenhauer, who was much attracted to Buddhism.

Although Wittgenstein was nominally a Roman Catholic, since that was his family religion, it seems to have left little trace in him; he was actually quite surprised to be told of the traditional Catholic belief in Transsubstantiation (the doctrine that the Host literally becomes the body and blood of Christ during the Mass). Two of his friends converted to Catholicism and he worried that he might have been partly responsible for this, unwittingly, by encouraging one of them to read Kierkegaard.

He has a brilliant simile to describe the difficulty of sustaining religious beliefs of this kind.

An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it really is possible to walk on it. (p.463).

He had the greatest respect for those who could perform this feat but he did not think he could emulate it himself. He also had a lot of respect for primitive magic, of the kind reported by anthropologists from remote parts of the world, saying: 'All religions are wonderful … even those of the most primitive tribes. The ways in which people express their religious feelings differ enormously.'

On the other hand, he had a profound distrust of science and he disliked books of popular science, such as Sir James Jeans's The Mysterious Universe, which he thought inculcated a kind of idol-worship of science and scientists. (I can imagine what he would have said about Richard Dawkins.) A fascinating sidelight on this comes from a series of lectures on mathematics which he gave at Cambridge, with the specific aim of countering the adulation of science. Among those who attended, at least for a time, was Alan Turing, who himself was lecturing on 'The Foundations of Mathematics' at the time. (p.417)

The lectures often developed into a dialogue between Wittgenstein and Turing, with the former attacking and the latter defending the importance of mathematical logic. Indeed, the presence of Turing became so essential to the theme of the discussion that when he announced he would not be attending a certain lecture, Wittgenstein told the class that, therefore, that lecture would have to be 'somewhat parenthetical'. (p.417)

There seems to have been no true meeting of minds between the two participants in these discussions, and ultimately Turing ceased attending.

When told by his doctor that he had only a few days to live, he replied: 'Good'. But his last recorded utterance was: 'Tell them I've had a wonderful life.'

In spite of his rejection of Catholic beliefs, his friends arranged for him to have a Catholic funeral. Monk thinks this may have been appropriate, 'for, in a way that is centrally important but difficult to define, he had lived a devoutly religious life.' (p.591)

%T Ludwig Wittgenstein
%S The Duty of Genius
%A Monk, Ray
%I Vintage
%C London
%G Epub ISBN 97811448112678
%P 582pp
%K biography
%O kindle version, downloaded from www.amazon.co.uk 2018

Book review: Beyond Weird, by Philip Ball

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Philip Ball is a science writer who was for many years an editor for physical sciences at the journal Nature. The subtitle indicates what his book is about. It is aimed at readers of books on popular science who have, Ball believes, been given a misleading impression of quantum physics, starting with the notion that it is 'weird', which Ball thinks is a cop-out. It's non-intuitive but not weird. The idea that it is

comes from our (understandably) contorted attempts to find pictures for visualizing it or stories to tell about it. Quantum physics defies intuition, but we do it an injustice by calling that circumstance 'weird'.

Quantum mechanics has the reputation of being probably the most obscure and difficult branches of science, but Ball insists that it isn't 'hard' in the way that car maintenance or learning Chinese are hard (his examples). That isn't to say that a slight readjustment of our intuitions will make everything suddenly explicable. 'Indeed, it is possible that we might never be able to say what quantum theory "means".'

Ball offers new ways of looking at all the hoary old chestnuts of popular accounts of quantum science: the double slit experiment, Schrödinger's cat, entanglement and non-locality (Einstein's 'spooky action at a distance') and the rest. On all these topics he makes one question the ideas one has acquired by reading popular accounts of them previously. His approach is based on work by a number of physicists in the last decade or two.

A central problem we are always told about in books of this kind concerns how the classical world of everyday objects, including us, emerges from the mysterious quantum world. This occurs thanks to something cryptically described as 'collapse of the wave function' Ball seeks to explain this, and much else, in terms of information. Quantum experiments take place within a wider classical environment, and what happens is that 'information gets out of the quantum system and into the macroscopic apparatus'.

There's then no longer any need for an ambiguous and contentious division of the world into the microscopic, where quantum rules, and macroscopic, which is necessarily classical. We can abandon the search for some hypothetical 'Heisenberg cut' where the two worlds impinge. We can see not only that they are a continuum but also why classical physics is just a special case of quantum physics.

On this interpretation there is no need for the radical 'many worlds' solution famously proposed by Hugh Everett III, according to which the world is continually splitting into different branches, in which innumerable copies of each of us continue to pursue different destinies. Ball treats this theory at some length and concludes that it is both unnecessary and unworkable.

Although this is mostly a book about theories, it does contain a quite lengthy discussion of quantum computers. This is included both as an illustration of the practical importance of quantum physics and also because Bell thinks that the questions it raises help to illuminate quantum physics. Perhaps the most striking thing to emerge from this is the fact that no one is entirely sure how these machines actually work. _

Ball is an experienced writer and he treats his subject with a light and often humorous touch, so the book isn't heavy reading even though one has to take it slowly because of the complexity and unfamiliarity of many of the ideas. Ball's usual method of approaching these is a little like a Socratic dialogue. Instead of coming straight out with what he thinks, he proposes possible answers to questions and then shows why they won't do, before offering an alternative; sometimes there are several stages in this process.

I've read a good many popular accounts of quantum theory in the past and had decided that I felt no great inclination to embark on any more. But I made an exception in this case and am glad I did, because I found I was genuinely being given a different way of thinking about the apparent paradoxes that swirl about the subject.

%T Children of Time
%A Tchaikovsky, Adrian
%I Pan Books
%C London
%D 2016
%G ISBN 978-1-4472-7331-8
%P 600pp
%K fiction
%O kindle version downloaded from www.amazon.co.uk, 2018

Book review: The Roots of Romanticism, by Isaiah Berlin

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In 1965 Berlin gave a series of six lectures on romanticism at The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. He spoke with notes but no script. This volume has been edited by Henry Hardy, using transcripts as well as BBC recordings of the lectures, which gives the text an unusual degree of freshness and informality. Berlin had hoped to use the material as the basis for a full-length book but this didn't happen. The title of this compilation was chosen by Hardy.

'Romanticism' is notoriously difficult to define (a bit like 'religion') and Berlin explains at the outset that he isn't going to try. But, whatever it is, it's certainly important.

The importance of romanticism is that it is the largest recent movement to transform the lives and the thought of the Western world. It seems to me to be the greatest single shift in the consciousness of the West that has occurred, and all the other shifts which have occurred in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries appear to me in comparison less important, and at any rate deeply influenced by it (p.1).

Before reading this book I had a vague idea that romanticism originated in England, with poets like Shelley, Keats, Coleridge and Wordsworth, and Berlin agrees that this is what most historians tell us; but he ascribes the primary role to Germany, and the book is mainly although not exclusively concerned with German writers.

Romanticism was a reaction to the values of the Enlightenment, with which France is particularly associated. We think of France in the late eighteenth century as characterised by reason, rejection of religion, and the advance of science—all of which culminated, perhaps unexpectedly, in the turmoil of the Revolution. Germany, meanwhile, was very different. While France was a unified, centralised and powerful state, Germany was split up into hundreds of small principalities and was, in consequence, relatively weak. Huge numbers of Germans had been killed by foreign troops, including those of France, in the Thirty Years War; nothing on this scale had been seen in Europe before. 'The truth about the Germans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is that they constitute a somewhat backward province' (p.34).

There was also a class division between Germany and France, Most of the prominent German writers—Lessing, Kant, Herder, Schelling, Schiller, Hölderlin—were lower middle-class, whereas nearly all the French radicals were upper-class, and many from the nobility. Hence a social chasm existed between the German intellectuals and the French; when Herder came to Paris in the 1770s he was unable to meet any of the French cultural elite.

Against this background there developed in Germany a religious mood, the pietist movement, which Berlin sees as the root of romanticism. Pietism was a branch of Lutheranism and consisted in closely studying the Bible and attending to man's relation to God. So we get an emphasis on spirituality and contempt for learning. 'What occurred was a kind of retreat in depth.'

Why pietism should have lead to romanticism isn't immediately obvious, but Berlin thinks it was largely due to one man, of whom most people today probably haven't even heard: Hamann.

My reason for introducing the obscure figure of Johann Georg Hamann is that I believe him to have been the first person to declare war upon the Enlightenment in the most open, violent and complete fashion. Nevertheless, he was not entirely alone in this, even in his own lifetime (p. 46).

Hamann was born in obscurity and lived a dissolute life for a time, but when he was at the point of suicide he had a religious revelation and became a writer. He was not successful at this either—Berlin describes his style as unreadable—yet for some reason he had a very strong influence on a number of other writers who did have a profound influence in Europe, including Herder, Goethe, and Kierkegaard.

Hamann's fundamental doctrine … was that God was not a geometer, not a mathematician, but a poet; that there was something blasphemous in attempting to foist upon God our own human, logical schemes (p.48).

Yet another writer who appears in association with Hamann is Immanuel Kant, who was Hamann's neighbour and friend. I hadn't thought of Kant as a figure in the romantic movement and in fact he hated it, yet Berlin identifies him as one of the fathers of the movement, because of his 'virtual intoxication' with the idea of human freedom. For this reason he welcomed the French Revolution (likewise the American Revolution), and even the Terror did not lead him to revise his view completely.

This indicates the passion with which this normally very conventional, very obedient, very tidy, old-fashioned, somewhat provincial East Prussian professor nevertheless regarded this great liberating chapter in the history of the human race, the self-assertion of human beings against huge idols as he thought of them, standing over against them. … He is not normally thought of in these terms, but there is no doubt that his moral philosophy is firmly founded upon this anti-authoritarian principle (p.77).

Although Berlin concentrates mainly on literature, he also looks at music and painting and even economics. It is here that, for me, what he has to say resonates most strongly with our present situation. The Revolution showed people that they had been paying too much attention to the upper portion of society—economists, psychologists, moralists, writers—intellectuals of every kind; but these were merely the tip of 'some huge iceberg of which a vast section was sunk below the ocean'.

This invisible section had been taken for granted a little too blandly, and had therefore avenged itself by producing all kinds of exceedingly unexpected consequences (p.110).


This is a short book but a rich one, brimming with ideas and extremely readable. It has certainly very considerably changed how I think about the romantic movement. For me, at any rate, its great merit is that it has introduced me to a range of German writers who were previously little more than names to me. It also let me see Kant in a new way. Encouragement to further exploration comes in the shape of a reference section at the end, although Hardy warns us that identifying sources for this 'most effervescent of historians' is no easy task.

%T The Roots of Romanticism
%A Berlin, Isaiah
%I Vjntage
%C London
%G Epub ISBN 9781446496923
%P 148pp
%K literature, art history
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Book review: The Crossway, by Guy Stagg

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n 2013, following his partial recovery after a long period of mental illness, which included alcoholism and a suicide attempt, Guy Stagg set out on a pilgrimage from Canterbury to Jerusalem, following medieval pilgrim routes. Although an atheist, he hoped that the religious ritual of pilgrimage would somehow heal him after his illness. He walked for ten months and covered 5,500 km, passing through 11 countries if you include England.

This is a travel book in at least two senses: it narrates the author's arduous journey on foot and it also describes the accompanying inner journey through his own mind and memories. It's a long book—over 400 pages—and I have to say that I found reading it somewhat of a pilgrimage myself. I needed to take breaks in which I read other books to change the mood. Although there is certainly a sense of constant movement through different landscapes and variety in the encounters with people met on the way, this did not always counteract a sense of claustrophobia induced by the author's descriptions of his earlier depressive states.

This wasn't because of any lack of skill on Stagg's part—quite the contrary. He is a very 'literary' writer (some have compared him to Patrick Leigh Fermor) and the book is artfully constructed. The writing is complex and allusive and demands slow reading. The title reflects this, combining as it does multiple meanings within itself: the choosing of paths, suffering, Christ's cross, and a reference to the fact that in earlier times suicides were buried at crossroads rather than in consecrated ground; no doubt there are other meanings to be teased out as well.

Stagg began his journey on New Year's Day, which seems an eccentric choice, given that he would have to cross the Alps in midwinter on foot, but he felt that if he postponed starting until summer he would probably never go at all. The Saint Maurice pass in a snowstorm was quite as hazardous as one would expect, and even when he reached the other side the dangers didn't disappear. He nearly drowned trying to cross a river by a shaky footbridge and then was almost run over by a train when he used a railway bridge instead.

There is plenty of drama in the story, but Stagg's main interest is less in his adventures or misadventures than in the people he met along the way. Some of his encounters, related with deadpan humour, are very funny, but the dominant impression we get is of the extraordinary kindness of strangers. Often he stayed in monasteries or presbyteries, but also in private houses, and nearly always he was made welcome—until, ironically, he reached the Holy Land. The Turkish villagers were particularly hospitable and he acquired enough knowledge of their language to converse with them.

What one would expect to be the high .points of the journey, Rome and Jerusalem, were somewhat anticlimactic; especially Rome, where the Easter crowds occasioned panic and a psychological collapse. Later, in Greece, he went on an alcoholic spree in Thessaloniki and then was overwhelmed by a sense of failure. More than once, not surprisingly, he thought of giving up, and in fact decided he would do so when he reached Istanbul. But after making friends there and joining them in anti-government riots enlivened by tear gas, he changed his mind and went on.

So why didn't he give up? I don't think this was entirely clear, even to him. He no longer believed that the pilgrimage would heal him psychologically. But the root cause of his continuing seems to have been that he has, to a marked degree, what Thomas Nagel has called the religious temperament. He remained a convinced atheist but he found a deep meaning in religious ritual, at least in the form of the pilgrimage. His attitude to religious ceremony was more complex; he attended Catholic services in the monasteries where he stayed but what they meant to him is less clear..

He includes a good deal of historical information about the places he passed through. Some of this is well known (the First Crusade, the abolition of the Templars), some less so (the Bogomil heresy). He is evidently well read in this respect, which makes his reaction to Eastern Orthodox religion rather surprising. He apparently knew little about it in advance of his arrival in Greece and was disconcerted by its unfamiliarity, although his attitude changed somewhat after he spent a few days on Mount Athos. Here he met two Western converts to Orthodoxy who made the faith more comprehensible to hjm. He followed this up with a conversation with a monk in one of the monasteries he stayed at. The monk asked him to stay on indefinitely, and for a moment Stagg contemplated the possibility, before thanking the man hastily and making his escape.

He had to depart from his planned route after leaving Istanbul, owing to the civil war in Syria. He made a detour through Cyprus keeping to the high ground because of the heat. He crossed back to Lebanon, where he narrowly escaped a terrorist bombing in Tripoli. He reached Beirut, but then had to take a plane and several buses to Amman, before continuing his journey on foot over the Golan Heights into Israel.

The end of the book brings no final resolution or illumination. In an epilogue he describes leaving Jerusalem and heading south. He passes through Bethlehem but does not visit the Church of the Nativity because what he wants to see is the desert, which he describes as the most beautiful landscape he has ever seen. Arriving in the afternoon at an Orthodox monastery, he is refused accommodation because he has no letter from the Patriarch. He is advised to spend the night in a cave on the far side of the valley, which he does. Next day, he says, he will continue walking east.

%T The Crossway
%A Stagg, Guy
%I Picador (Macmillan)
%C London
%D 2018
%G ISBN 978-1-5098-4457-9
%P 416pp
%K travel
%O hardback

Book review: On Faith and Science, by Edward J. Larson and Michael Ruse

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The relation between religion and science has a long history and it has gone through various phases, some amicable, some not. At present, thanks partly to a loosely knit group of writers who have been called the new atheists—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, A.C. Grayling and others—relations are bad. But there are some non-believers who want to find common ground with religion, and Ruse has long been one of these; not that you would know it from this book, for both he and his co-author Larson are reticent about their own religious views.* No doubt this is due to a wish to appear even-handed, but I think it leads to a certain softening of focus throughout.

Both authors are distinguished academics. Larson is a historian; Ruse is primarily a philosopher of science who also has an interest in history, particularly that of the theory of evolution (see links to my reviews of books under his name in the list of authors). They write alternate chapters, although there is some flexibility, with some chapters containing contributions from both, and it isn't always easy to be sure who is writing at a given moment.

There are chapters looking at cosmology; physics; brain, mind, and soul; geology; evolution in general; and human evolution. The approach in these is historical; they look at how knowledge has evolved over time and how this has interacted with religion—mainly Christianity, but there is some reference to Judaism and Islam and a little to Hinduism and Buddhism. For each topic we get an outline of some of the religious issues that growth in our knowledge has given rise to. It is all done well enough, but there will be few surprises for anyone who is reasonably familiar with the subjects covered.

The last three chapters (7, 8 and 9) are a little different, in that they cover matters that are topical (and controversial) today: sex and gender, eugenics, and living on earth (which looks at global warming and other threats to our survival). In their closing paragraph the authors use the common ground they think exists between two very different people, Pope Francis and E.O. Wilson, to draw a moral for the relationship that ought to obtain between science and religion as it relates to our survival.

I'm sympathetic to the authors' wish to avoid facile condemnation of religion in the name of science, but I enjoyed reading this book less than I expected to. The tone is quite colloquial, almost to a fault, yet at the same time bland and a little flat. And at times the authors' evident desire to avoid giving offence becomes somewhat irritating. For example, they quote from Fritjhof Capra's 1975 book The Tao of Physics and remark that 'he remained an outlier among modern physicists', which seems a considerable under-statement; I wanted to know what they thought of it themselves. They are also fairly non-commital in their references to Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion, about which Ruse has been scathingly critical elsewhere.

The book concludes with an eclectic annotated bibliography which is quite useful, although I was sorry to see no mention of Taner Edis's books, especially his The Ghost in the Universe, which to my mind is one of the best books on theism by a sceptic who nevertheless takes religion seriously. He has also written well on science and Islam, something touched on only briefly in the present book.

*Ruse has recently publicly identified himself as an atheist, although he prefers the term 'sceptic'. See Why I Think the New Atheists are a Bloody Disaster.

%T On Faith and Science
%A Larson, Edward J.
%A Ruse, Michael
%I Yale University Press
%C New Haven and London
%D 2017
%G ISBN 978-0-300-216717-3
%P 298pp
%K religion
%O hardcover

Book review: An Introduction to Western Medical Acupuncture (Adrian White, Mike Cummings, Jacqueline Filshie)

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This is a book about the modern medical version of acupuncture, often called Western medical acupuncture (WMA) which is widely practised by health professionals today. It is the second edition of the work (the first appeared in 2008) and is described as a companion to Medical Acupuncture: A Western Scientific Approach (Elsevier, Edinburgh, 2016), now also in its second edition. The authors are all among the foremost proponents of WMA in Britain and so are well placed to produce a book of this kind.

Its primary intended audience is health professionals who have recently completed a training programme in modern acupuncture and want to consolidate and extend their knowledge of the subject. But it will also interest more experienced practitioners, because it includes a large amount of up-to-date research evidence for acupuncture that is otherwise not easy to find gathered together in an accessible form.

The book has 19 chapters. Chapter 1 is an introduction and provides a description of WMA and how it differs from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The remaining chapters are divided into five sections: 1. Principles; 2. Effects Mechanisms Techniques; 3. The Evidence Base; 4. Practical Aspects; 5. Treatment Manual. There are also five detachable cards illustrating classical acupuncture points, myofascial trigger points, and pain referral zones. As this summary will indicate, there is a progressive shift in focus throughout the book, from evidence for acupuncture as a science-based treatment to the practical aspects, but this is not a rigid separation and even the more research-oriented sections bring out the practical implications of what they describe.

I shall now look at the individual sections in more detail.

Section 1 has three chapters (Chapters 2–4). The first is a preliminary overview of what WMA is and how it is thought to work. Acupuncture is mainly although not wholly a treatment for pain, and Chapter 3 looks at the modern understanding of pain mechanisms in the nervous system and how these relate to acupuncture. Chapter 4 describes some basic acupuncture techniques, to be elaborated later.

Acupuncture modernists always have to decide where they stand on the question of classical acupuncture points. Some, of whom I am one, prefer to avoid that terminology almost completely, but here the authors do use it, although with reservations. 'This book uses classical acupuncture point names as a convenient convention, though each point's effects are not as specific as traditionally believed, and nerves may be stimulated effectively almost anywhere in the body.'

What I found particularly welcome both in this section and throughout the book is the absence of dogmatism. The authors state their views but they recognise the existence of different approaches to treatment within the broad scope of modern medical acupuncture: 'nothing in acupuncture should be standardized—except safety.'

Section 2 is concerned with the mechanisms of acupuncture—how it works. A lot of new research on the question has become available since the first edition in 2008. The physiological mechanisms are discussed under a number of headings: local effects, segmental (spinal) effects, and general (central) effects. There is too much information here to summarise in a review, but this is an important section because it provides much of the support for the authors' treatment recommendation in later chapters.

This section includes a description of myofascial trigger points (MTrPs), which figure prominently in WMA. This is particularly useful for doctors, who are unlikely to have encountered the subject in their ordinary clinical training. It is treated here both theoretically and practically, including an account of how to diagnose and treat MTrPs.

The concluding chapter in this section is on traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). There is a succinct account of the ancient ideas and the authors consider how relevant, if at all, TCM concepts are to modern practice. 'A rational approach based on knowledge obtained scientifically can explain many of the concepts of TCM.'

The authors provide a fair summary of TCM but I question whether it is still necessary to include it in a book on WMA. I think we are rapidly approaching, or have already passed, the point where the subject can be regarded as of purely historical interest, in which case it could be omitted or at least relegated to an appendix.

Physiology is important in modern acupuncture but we also need clinical evidence of efficacy, and this is the subject of Section 3. Critics sometimes claim that acupuncture is 'just a placebo' because many trials find little or no difference between 'real' and 'sham' acupuncture. But this begs many questions, especially the problem of what constitutes a 'sham' acupuncture treatment. The authors show convincingly why it is so difficult to devise an adequate placebo treatment in acupuncture. Nor is this the only practical difficulty that attends clinical trials in this field. For example, 'blinding' of patients can be difficult (blinding of the practitioner is all but impossible). In spite of these difficulties there is good evidence of efficacy in at least some disorders.

Safety is a literally vital consideration in acupuncture and Section 3 concludes with a chapter reviewing the evidence on this question. The authors find that acupuncture is generally safe if done by adequately trained practitioners and is usually safer than most other treatments that are available. Aggravation of symptoms may occur but is seldom severe and is certainly not required for effective treatment, as is sometimes claimed, so the risk should be reduced as much as possible.

Questions of safety again figure prominently in Section 4. The first three chapters in this section (14, 15, 16) 'are essential reading for clinical practice'. They cover preparing for treatment, effective needling techniques, and safe needling. All the safety issues mentioned here are incontrovertible, but (as noted earlier) there is room for discussion about some of the techniques described.

For example, the authors advise the use of guide tubes for beginners because they make needle insertion easier. This is true, but many experienced acupuncturists dislike guide tubes and don't use them, and I'm not sure that it is necessary to impose them on beginners. I think that most newcomers to acupuncture quickly learn to insert the needles without them, at least the standard (30mm) needles; the longer (50mm) needles are probably best used with guide tubes, at any rate to start with.

On the question of how long the needles should be left in situ ('retention'), there is a widespread idea that this should be 20 minutes, and the authors think that this may be because it takes this length of time for beta-endorphin levels to reach a maximum in the central nervous system. However, they think that 10 minutes is often long enough for a clinical response. I should say that much briefer insertion is usually effective in most cases, and the authors do acknowledge the use of this technique by some practitioners. Needle retention is probably one of the most widely debated subjects in acupuncture.

The concluding chapter in Section 4 deals fairly briefly with other techniques often bracketed together with acupuncture, such as moxibustion, auricular acupuncture, and the use of lasers. The authors find little advantage in embarking on most of these.

Section 5 is a 'Treatment Manual' describing various possible approaches to try in different disorders. To avoid any misunderstanding, the authors emphasise that this section only makes sense if you have read everything that precedes it; they are not providing 'recipes' or rules to be followed without thought. 'You have discovered the principles of acupuncture in the previous chapters; here you find some guidelines to point you in the right direction.'

The book is very well produced, with abundant diagrams, and is written in an approachable style that makes it easy to read. Each chapter begins with headlines summarising its contents to indicate what the student should learn by reading it, and concludes with a useful review of its main message.

Some acupuncture enthusiasts want to emhasise what they perceive as its differences from mainstream medicine. The alternative view is that acupuncture should be reinterpreted in the light of modern knowledge and integrated with mainstream methods of treatment, and that is the present authors' opinion. 'It is time to reconsider acupuncture and its strange phenomena in ways that are credible to Western science.'

%A An Introduction to Western Medical Acupuncture (second edition)
%A White, Adrian
%A Cummings, Mike
%A Filshie, Jacqueline
%I Elsevier
%C Edinburgh
%D 2018
%G ISBN 978-0-7020-7318-2
%P viii + 234pp
%K acupuncture
%O illustrated; pull-out reference cards

Book review: Man and the Natural World, by Keith Thomas

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It is becoming almost a chiché today to say that we are living through the sixth great extinction, in which an ever-increasing number of species are being driven to extinction by human activity. The writer and broadcaster David Attenborough has acquired the status of conscience of the nation by making television documentaries that bring home to a wide audience the effects of our way of life on the natural world. The latest example is his demonstration of pollution of the oceans by a deluge of plastic that is proving lethal to many of their inhabitants. The widespread media attention that all this gets today may make us think it is a modern phenomenon, but Thomas shows that its roots go back to the early modern period, when profound changes in outlook occurred.

In Tudor and Stuart England there was a long-established opinion that the world had been created for the sake of humans, and other species existed to provide for our needs and pleasures. Attitudes to animals largely depended on how well they fulfilled their appointed role. They might be useful for work, as in the case of dogs and horses, or they could provide food, as did pigs and poultry; some, such as oxen, could perform both roles. As for wild animals, some could be eaten, but others, such as rats, mice, and foxes, could not and in fact were merely a nuisance; these were 'vermin' and needed to be destroyed.

The story Thomas tells is how and why this view changed in the period under review, until it became almost the direct opposite of what it had been at the outset. There were many reasons for this, but an important one was the movement of the population from from rural to urban. In the early years of the period most people would have seen a wide range of different animals continually in their daily lives, but by the end of it such encounters would be much less frequent, although still more widespread than is the case today. This caused people to think of animals in a different way.

Much of the discussion is concerned with cruelty, which was widespread at the beginning of the period and was often horrific. Some of this was incidental cruelty; horses and oxen were frequently beaten unmercifully to make them work, but this was due to indifference to animal suffering rather than malice. Some, however was based on a desire to inflict pain as an amusement; and many men indulged in pastimes or 'sports' such as cock-fighting or the baiting of bears and other animals. Thomas doesn't spare us ample descriptions of all this. But even in the early part of the period there were exceptional people who saw things differently, and as time went by their number increased, until their way of thinking and feeling became the norm. Cruel sports, with the notable exception of fox-hunting, were progressively outlawed. This was a profound change.

By the later seventeenth century the anthropocentric tradition itself was being eroded. The explicit acceptance of the view that the world does not exist for man alone can be fairly regarded as one of the great revolutions in modern Western thought, although it is one to which historians have scarcely done justice.

One manifestation of this new sensibility was the development of vegetarianism. At first this was a very small movement, largely inspired by classical texts, and most converts to the cause, such as the young James Boswell, soon slipped back; but it grew progressively throughout the eighteenth century. Even those who continued to eat meat became increasingly squeamish about its implications; slaughterhouses were kept out of sight and attempts were made to kill animals more humanely. It was now felt necessary to justify meat-eating on ethical grounds and some rather dubious arguments were advanced for this purpose. As a lapsed vegetarian myself I found this rather uncomfortable reading.

The book focuses mainly on how people thought about animals, but it also looks on changing attitudes to trees and flowers. And there is a discussion of landscape which I found particularly interesting.

At the beginning of the period wild country, and especially mountains, were thought to be useless and were seen as places to avoid if possible; people who lived there were looked down on as barbarous. But the later seventeenth century saw a growth in nature mysticism and the beginning of mountain climbing as recreation. Thomas thinks that this was largely a reaction against the domestication of much of the land by gardeners and agriculturalists.

Once the new sensibility to wild landscape began it spread rapidly, taking on a quasi-religious tone._'Nature was not only beautiful; it was morally healing.'

By the end of the eighteenth century…the old preference for cultivated and man-dominated landscape had been decisively challenged. Encouraged by the ease of travel and by immunity from direct involvement in the agricultural process, the educated classes had come to attach an unprecedented importance to the contemplation of landscape and the appreciation of rural scenery.

This attitude in turn led to a desire to preserve the wild landscape in its pristine form.

What was notable about this new taste was was that the scenery which was most particularly admired was no longer the fertile, productive landscape, but the wild and romantic one. Henceforth there would be a growing concern to preserve uncultivated nature as an indispensable spiritual resource.

This concern is still very much alive today, and is being debated in the context of the National Parks; how far should they be 'left to nature'?. It is one aspect of the wider problem of how to reconcile modern civilisation with nature, which the people in the early modern period were already beginning to be troubled about.

On the one hand they saw an incalculable increase in the comfort and increasing well-being of human beings; on the other they perceived a ruthless exploitation of other forms of animal life. There was thus a growing conflict between the new sensibilities and the material foundations of human society. A mixture of compromise and concealment has so far prevented this conflict from having been fully resolved. But the issue cannot be completely evaded and can be relied upon to recur. It is one of the contradictions on which modern civilization may be said to rest. About its ultimate consequences we can only speculate.

%T Man and the Natural World
%S Changing _Attitudes in England 1500–1800
%A Thomas, Keith
%I Allen Lane
%C London
%D 1983
%G ISBN 07139 1227 8
%P 426pp
%K history
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