Stuff I read in 2020, with some notes.
Part 1 of 3
Patterns in Comparative Religion.
This was the first book I finished last year, while still on vacation at Daytona Beach. 2020, before the virus hit us. It seems like a long time ago, now.
This book, though, is a classic examination of religious symbolism by a master theorizer and de facto founder of the discipline of comparative religion. This book looks at symbols and complexes as innate components of religious expression, almost as if they were archetypes, but without the imposed framework of supposed universalism, and examines the constellation of meanings associated with them and the rationale behind their accreated potencies.
Each section has its own bibliography, allowing the reader to deep dive into a particular religious symbol and explore it in depth through a whole raft of eclectic references. This is a book that repays repeated examinations and can be used as the framework for an extended survey of religious manifestations and forms across multiple cultures.
I will be returning to many of the concepts found in this book throughout my blogging. I will also be following Eliade’s A History of Religious Ideas as a framework for surveying world religions in the coming year, so stay tuned for that.
The Two and the One.
A collection of essays by Eliade examining specific religious questions. Explorations include androgyny as symbol, dualism, and the prevalence of ascension as metaphor for initiation.
Nine theories of religion. 3rd Ed.
I read this together with the above Patterns in Comparative Religion which it complements quite nicely. This book is a survey of religious theorizers, including Eliade, and their impact on thinking about religion. Essentially a historiography of comparative religion, this book looks at such figures as Sigmund Freud, William James, Mircea Eliade, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim among others. A great reference too and a way to refresh one’s memory on specific academic schools of thought.
The section on Freud is especially useful, though it would seem an argument could be made for the inclusion of Jung as well. Nonetheless, because Freud is less detailed in his theories about the psychological roots of religion, the analyses here are helpful.
Laurie Patton, Translator.
A concise, sometimes beautiful translation of a timeless masterpiece of religious thinking. The eleventh chapter where Krisna reveals himself in all of his transcendent glory is breathtaking.
Read more about the Gita and its cultural importance in an earlier blog post here.
A history of India as seen through the eyes of the Theosophical movement and its relationship to Indian Nationalism. A very helpful first dive into the subject of Theosophical history for me, it led me to many resources and opened my eyes to Theosophy’s wider influence. It turns out that maybe they were a bit more than cranks. What this book includes, that is uniquely helpful: some deep background on Indian Orientalism which covers East India Company sources and gives special focus and attention to Friedrich Max Müller and his early Victorian era academic influence. What this book lacks is a more complete history of Mme Blavatsky herself and Col. Henry Steel Olcott, the founders of Theosophy, especially in their early years. Ultimately this is due to the fact that the focus of this monograph is really on the second generation of Theosophy headed up by Anne Besant and Charles W. Leadbeater and its political influence. Leadbeater is also given a bit of short shrift, perhaps because a series of scandals and accusations meant his direct influence on Indian affairs was minimal after he was forced by unsavory sexual scandal to relocate to Australia.
The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company.
A popular narrative history that covers the rise of the EIC into a conquering power on the subcontinent of India. The story is one of almost continual colonial expansion that explodes out of Calcutta during the latter part of the 18th century. The British advance really begins in the wake of the global 7 years war when France becomes weakened and can no longer maintain her Indian possessions and evolves into a series of proxy wars where the EIC ties its wagon to flagging rajas, exchanging military assistance for control over economic monopolies and control of foreign policy. As my first exploration into the Raj, I do have to admit that the campaigns do tend to blur into one another, but the image of redcoats marching to war against Mughal war elephants is indelibly etched upon my consciousness. It is a period I hope to study in more depth, and look at this book as a good starter and a good place to become familiar with the general timeline, the geography, the major players, and some of the more interesting characters.
The Cheese and the Worms
A fascinating examination of a miller accused of heresy in early modern Piedmont and what books he may have been reading. Read my longer examination here.
The Crimean War: A History
A perfectly functional history of the Crimean War. Long, but readable and entertaining. The bibliography is a good source for period materials. What I ended up finding most fascinating about this conflict was how its course was ultimately influenced by the press, which, for the first time, due to telegraph and long distance cable, was able to report in near time on the happenings at Sevastopol and elsewhere. It was also interesting how this conflict made national heroes of characters like Florence Nightingale, again due in large part to the press. Finally, its influence made this one of the first British wars where the individual soldier was celebrated for his heroism and not just the gentry. In many ways this conflict, though on a much smaller scale, was a dry run for the First World War in terms of technology, both with regards to arms, as well as communications.
The Great Game
Fascinating look at good old fashioned long 19th century espionage. An array of shady and colorful characters try to push the envelope, British against Russian, Russian against British, and both against the Southwest asian natives who really didn’t ask to be on the borderlands of Queen Elizabeth’s jewel. There is adventure and triumph over adversity as much as there is snobbery, racism, and cultural disdain. The British invasion of Tibet in 1904 was unnecessary, tragic, and shameful and shines a dismal light upon the escapades which preceded it. The final fiasco was that the Russians and English would end up as allies only 10 years later, rendering all of their skullduggery moot. Russian sources seem thinner than the English, but Hopkirk makes a good game of it. I am primed to read another work of his soon, Trespassers on the Roof of the World: The Secret Exploration of Tibet, soon.