Preview: Strange Case

Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; second Norton critical edition / Robert Louis Stevenson, edited by Deborah Lutz

Well, I am kind of stunned after reading this. Of course I thought I knew the story because of the way it has ingrained itself in our popular culture but there is truly so so much going on here. Just in terms of intertextuality Mr. Hyde casts a great long shadow, even just among things I have read recently. There are echos of this book in Planet of the Apes, and The Body Snatchers, both of which I read and reviewed earlier just this year. From last year other items come to mind, specifically, Altered States and The Island of Dr. Moreau. It makes me want to back track and review some of those works even before I continue here to review Stevenson’s classic itself. In short, this is no mere Treasure Island and I think that there is a lot of literary mileage as well as psychology to clean from doing a deep dive on Robert Louis Stevenson. At the very least, there are connections to be made and leads to be followed. Hopefully I don’t end up becoming Mr. Seek. Stay vigilant friends there is definitely more to follow…

Review: Nightmare Alley

…Was she an animal? Was all the mystery nothing more than that? Was she merely a sleek, golden kitten that unsheathed its claws when it had played enough and wanted solitude? But that brain was always at work, clicking away behind the eyes–no animal had such an organ; or was it the mark of a superanimal, a new species, something to be seen on earth in a few more centuries? Had nature sent out a feeling tentacle from the past, groping blindly into the present with a single specimen of what mankind was to be a thousand years hence? The brain held him; it dosed him with grains of wild joy, measured out in milligrams of words, the turn of her mouth corner, one single lustful flash from the gray eyes before the scales of secrecy came over them again.

The brain seemed always present, always hooked to his own by an invisible gold wire, thinner than spider’s silk. It sent its charges into his mind and punished him with a chilling wave of cold reproof. It would let him writhe in helpless misery and then, just before the breaking point, would send the warm current through to jerk him back to life and drag him, tumbling over and over through space, to the height of a snow mountain where he could see all the plains of the earth spread out before him, and all the power of the cities and the ways of men. All were his, could be his, would be his unless the golden thread broke and sent him roaring into the dark chasm of fear again.

Nightmare Alley, William Lindsay Gresham

Nightmare Alley, the book by William Lindsay Gresham, and recently adapted into a movie by Guillermo del Toro, is a more than satisfying read, especially if you are the type of person who is captivated by midway buskers, the tinkling of syncopated piano crackling in the background of a Tom Waits tune, or the psychological turn which infiltrated American literature during the early-middle of the last century.

Tom Waits — The piano has been drinking (not me) from turuncusizo on Vimeo.

The book itself really takes place in three distinct phases – though followed by a significant coda – which work together to slowly reveal that backstory for our main character and lifelong grifter, Stenton Carlisle. Each phase of the book follows Carlisle as he scams his way out of obscurity and into fame and fortune, stone stepping his way as he climbs upwards on the backs of his female companions, be they mentors, lovers, or conspirators as the case might be.

Swamp Creature Banner via

The first act is set in the depression era carnival sideshow, where we find Stenton, a young carny in training, learning the ropes on how to dupe the rubes. We don’t hear much about his backstory yet, we only see carnival life as it unfolds before him, slowly pulling him, and us, along into the orbit of the fortune teller & mentalist Zeena, and her longtime, rum-soaked partner Pete. Zeena soon takes a maternal/sexual interest in the virginal Stan, who then seeks to replace Pete, not only in Zeena’s bed but also in her mentalist act. This is a not-so-subconscious wish soon accomplished by a seemingly accidental mixup between the wood alcohol used in the show and the whisky which Zeena has hidden from Pete’s insatiable thirst, a confusion that murders the hapless Pete while Zeena and her young protégée get frantically naked in the nearby woods. 

The High Priestess

If this all sounds a bit Oedipal, it should; this is one of the major themes Greshom is developing in this early psychological novel. Our author is clearly steeped in Freudian analysis ,as well as being knowledgeable about the occult, spiritualism, and probably Theosophy as well. These ‘superstitious’ world-views have been replaced by the newer ‘scientific’ approach of psychology in our author’s mental universe as a grand unified theory of human behavior. Because of this decidedly Freudian focus I can’t help but wonder what Gresham’s approach might have looked like if his therapy had been oriented towards the works of Jung or other depth-psychology traditions instead. Perhaps his outlook on humanity might have been more optimistic. Unfortunately, we are given the literature as it exists, not as we might wish for it. 

In the second phase, we see Stanton’s meteoric rise to fame, first as a nightclub mentalist and then as a founder and reverend of his own spiritualist church – which he acquires after running a ‘spook act’ on loaded old ladies. This he does with the assistance of his second anima, Molly – a young refugee from the carnival, who he has seduced into following him into the con. Molly is presented throughout as a childish figure, orphaned prematurely by her father (yes she has Daddy issues), scorned and dominated by Stan, easily manipulated and unable to escape the influence of the older man. We are thus bordering again on a classic archetype of the feminine, with an older sexualized maternal woman followed by the naïef youngster. The whole set up mirrors a classical mother/daughter dualism, the whore and virgin, animating force behind  a great number of mythic tales, especially that of Demeter and Persephone.

“The Rape of Proserpina” by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1621-22)

The final stage of course is – as if by design – the tragic fall, now overshadowed by a third and final feminine type,  the inscrutable Dr. Lilith Ritter. She appears as the ultimate sorceress and temptress, allowing Stan to project his fevered feminine fantasies upon her. This Medea is played as an evil psychologist, encouraging Stan’s overwrought psyche to indulge in transference, the fatal embrace of the suggestive. Not good ethical practice, to be sure, but great fodder for the wicked psyche unleashed. 

She uses Stan’s ever expanding dependence on her presence to drive him into his greatest and final heist which he must perpetrate with the coerced collusion and eventual prostituting  of his meek mistress Molly, a vicious betrayal of her childish trust. The process is infantilizing towards the character of Molly, and falls a bit short of the psychological impact it might have had if she were a better rounded character. Nonetheless, we are given over to the suspicion that Stan is a lost cause; his psychological needs to dominate are becoming pathological. 

 The mark is a dangerous man, a wealthy industrialist with a dark secret Stan hopes to exploit with the aid of inside information provided by his dominating therapist. The consequences are predictably grim for all involved, but especially for Stanton, who is eventually double-crossed by his own Medea and forced to flee the evil forces of retribution which he now fears are pursuing him even in his newly won poverty, as he bums his way in flight across the depression era landscape. 

Now, with Stan in his final throes, and consumed by the dame demon-liquor that once haunted his original rival Pete, the story enters into its fatalistic coda. We see Stan falling from a great height, like the figures falling from the Tower of Babel in the tarot card of the same name. Did I mention that each chapter is associated with one of the Major Arcana cards of the traditional tarot deck? Despite this push into the spectral, however, the story is firmly rooted in the Freudian world view. We come to see the whole narrative as a dramatic reenactment of Stan’s infantile desire to bed his mother and kill his father. It is a metaphor that, with the hindsight of the current psychological vogue, seems a bit too precise and literal. But, in truth, this is a relatively small complaint against a work which otherwise seems to mark and define the feminine archetypal complex, as it appears to the male psyche anyway, with some clarity. If that three faced anima image is obscured by the Freudian reading of Stan’s intentions, it is all the more impressive in the way in which it can be seen moving behind the screen of what appears to be a simpler motive, key lit in the foreground. 

Stan is forced into extremis, and eventually he must kill in order to preserve what remains of his own life. But this killing is also an act of killing the self he has built up over his journey, and he is forced into disguise, subterfuge, and anonymity. It is his final encore.

The Tower

Stan comes full circle in desperation and is reunited with Zeena, who, after a warranted denunciation, helps Stan back on his feet, setting him up with a new act disguised as an Indian mind reader, and providing some cash to help him find his way back into the carnival life. This seems, actually, to be a fully formed ending to the book, one which displays forgiveness, resilience, and the potential of recovery, even after a long bout of self delusion and denial. This is not the ending the author decided to settle on, however. 

The final denouement is both brilliant and contrived, in the tradition of the works of O’Henry, if I remember my Freshman Lit class well enough. The novel is carefully crafted into a perfect circuit–even though there are parts (like the penultimate chapter) when it seems to want to break free of the form and end on an upbeat note. Instead we return to the first chapter, where we saw Stan learning the meaning of the word ‘geek’ as new blood at the carnival. On his way back to reenter the life he learns that his former therapist has married his nemesis, the industrialist who Stan still fears is stalking him across the countryside with the aid of invisible road agents and informants. In his paranoia, Stan returns immediately to the bottle with the extra cash he pilfered from his benefactor Zeena. Now in his throes, he finally returns to carnival in a state of disaster. 

The truth is, his addiction was never really cured by Zeena’s well intentioned intervention. His obsession with Lillith has brought him back to the nipple of  booze, which is dissolving the last fragments of his nervous system. We want the novelist to reveal to us a better case, a better potential outcome, but this is not to be. The redemption promised by the return to home base, in the person of Zeena, the matriarch of the carnival, the High Priestess, fails to pan out. 

It really does seem to me as if the author started out with his dark ending already in mind, and worked his way towards this pre-drawn conclusion upon which the story was based: how to make a carnival geek. The chance of Stan’s escape through the nurture and compassion of Zeena was a mere stumble and diversion on the way towards a greater freefall. That it was included at all is some indication that even the author has not yet been able to abandon the notion of a beneficent humanity. 

Yet, we still see the seeds of destruction in Stan’s encounter with Zeena. She asks him, at long last, if he had anything to do with Pete’s demise, but even then, in the moment of reckoning, the moment of decision and possible confession, Stan deflects the penetrating gaze of truth with accomplished misdirection, preferring, instead of admission to guilt, to startle Zeena with knowledge of Pete’s heretofore unknown last name. This move shocks her, and the subject is changed, too quickly to my taste. In so doing Stan seals his fate, by refusing to admit to his original sin to the only person capable of providing absolution. In this way, it seems to me that this book has two endings, one unrealized, and one which was inevitable by design, but also pushed onto us by the desire to encapsulate the story in a fully fixed and round figure.

In all, this book is a great deep dive into the psychology of the con-artist as well as an unflinching look at how people can be led along by their own wishful and magical thinking. There is a strong sense of disappointment implicit in Stan’s character in his failure to find a larger spiritual answer to his disease that we seem, by nature, to thirst and even strive for. This is one reason why I wish the author had encountered some Junginan thinking, not only because it offers a synthesis between psychological thinking and the mytho-poetic tradition, unduly underrated in significance by Freud, but also I think, because it permits the promise or at least the potential of self-fulfillment as a goal of the personality, an aspect that is shrouded in the darkness of the nightmare alley which runs through this author’s haunted world. 

Sneak Peek

I am just starting with William L. Gresham‘s Nightmare Alley as I continue to read film adapted novels. After only the introduction I am pretty sure that this will darkly outshine even the most recent movie adaptation by Guillermo del Toro, which, by the way, I loved. This appears to be the real deal as far as the author is concerned, and it turns out that Gresham was a student of Ouspensky as well. He is talking the talk, in other words, and this looks to be an insightful read. The grim stars are all aligned on this one, so, let’s cut the cards and see what the future holds.

The Body Snatchers

The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney

They say the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist. I don’t know about the Devil, but it seems it might be just as applicable to the surveillance state, once abhorred by the radical left. It is just this sort of creeping and relentless paranoia, so prevalent in the Cold War era, that Jack Finney co-opts for the premise of his sci-fi masterpiece, The Body Snatchers.

McCarthyism was in full swing during the first half of the 1950s, a prime example of what Richard Hofstadter was referring to when he wrote his influential article ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ for Harper’s a decade later. Hofstadter freely admits both the pejorative use of the term paranoid in his article as well as his appropriation of the term from the clinical desk references of psychology. One key feature of the psychological basis of paranoia is that it can be interpreted as both a defensive structure and a compensatory response to an identity in jeopardy. According to Jung, mass societies can react to threats and stimuli in a manner similar to that of the individual, lashing out in the political arena in ways that are analogous to the functions of the subconscious.

The Body Snatchers, by Jack Finney, is often considered an expression of Cold War paranoia, interpreted by critics as a symptom of a broader societal malaise. Hofstadter attributes other science fiction tropes to this category as well, such as fantastic fears about brainwashing and flying saucers. This latter, of course, spread beyond the domain of the fictional to become a subject of popular fascination, developing its own sub-cultures of believers and theorists, creating its own literature and inspiring evidence gatherers and researchers from across the globe.

Yet something is distinctly different about Finney’s work as well, there is an ambiguity towards identity that links it to another tradition, that of the horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft and the later dystopian musings of Phillip K. Dick, and even the psychedelic personality disintegrations of Robert Anton Wilson

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) via TCM

At the same time, such mass produced Leave-it-to-Beaver notions of what families were and who people were supposed to be, left out whole ranges of others who existed on the margins of that suburban paradise, and who crept about like pod people threatening to invade from without and corrupt the work ethic of those who cared more about keeping the sidewalks swept than the did about nightmare visions at the edge of their optical range. In this sense the book has seemed very much of its time, both with respect to the dialogue, which seems short and snappy to the point of abruptness, like an old film noir picture, as well as the attitudes of the characters, paternalistic to the point of benign authoritarianism. It is telling, however, that both the main character and his love interest, Becky, no matter how facile their flirtations seem, are at the same time dominated by the shadow of divorce, from which both are emotionally recovering. This is as far as Finney goes in giving his characters a sense of greater depth, and it may well be the wellspring of anxiety from which the whole of the paranoia derives. Again and again the main character fends off the attraction he has for Becky by making crude or flippant remarks and takes time to note that he would like to avoid ‘the trap’ of marriage. It seems at times that the whole need to avoid attraction is just another aspect of the main character trying to subvert his unconscious needs, a denial of the physical in preference to the purely conscious and hence ideological. This need for emotional distance is undermined through the story, however, by the dangers they face together fighting off the menace from space. This sub plot, which I found to be annoying and unnecessary at first, gradually came to seem a countrapunal thread to the whole wider narrative.

Body Snatchers is as much about potential dangers of identity loss as it is about 5th columns of subversives, even if it manages to skirt some of the more terrifying aspects of the idea by projecting such losses outwards towards society as opposed to the internalization of the conflict sometimes expressed by those others just mentioned. This exteriorizing feature might well be an example of how deeply ingrained the identity consciousnesses of mainstream Americans were during the postwar era, typified by the need to latch onto and protect those notions of self so extreme as to border on the pathological. Finney seems to be lifting freely from the desk references as well.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) via TCM

There are other overtly psychological aspects to the story as well. The body doubles always are found forming and growing in the dark cellars and coal bins belonging to the main characters. This might seem to make sense from a rationalized narrative point of view, but one wonders how the alien pods would work their magic if faced with apartment dwellers or the homeless. These are not the subjects of the disintegrating influence of the space weeds, however, it is small town America which is explicitly endangered, and it is the town itself, more so than the individuals who seem to be suffering. Again and again the eye of the narrator, Dr. Miles Bennell, is drawn to weeds, and trash, and decrepitude which seems to be creeping into the town, a symptom brought on by the apathy exhibited by the replacement people once they have taken hold. 

One of the most frightening sequences is early on, when the first replacement is found and examined in detail. A friend of the protagonist has discovered an unfinished blank of his own doppelganger forming in his basement storage nook and has tossed it up on a pool table for an impromptu examination. The description of the basement rumpus room is minimal but the swinging overhead light, focused on the body-laden pool felt, creating a strobe of illumination and shadow on the protean corpse, is a genius of macabre juxtaposition, laying the grotesque homunculus atop the casual mid century mundane. Eventually the new allies will recruit a psychologist friend to aid them in their attempt to understand the growing threat to their idealized lives, but when they return to exhibit the corpse it has vanished into a pile of gray fluff, like so many dust bunnies. This is another little trick that Finney seems to want to play on us, as this too seems to be the outcome of the absorbed. Dust to dust, indeed –  and yet we fetishize the form of our own being. 

Suburban life, 1950s style.

That the whole thing might be an irruption of the shadow from the unconscious into the light is a possibility that is given again and again in little hints throughout. I already mentioned the predilection for basements, but another theme is the need for sleep. Consciousness is an absolute requirement to defend against the depredations of the aliens, they can only replace you in your sleep. In one instance Dr. Miles must rescue Becky from her own family house where she has returned to see her now replacement family one last time. He invades her house by breaking in and discovers her double hidden away in the basement of her house. When he goes upstairs he accidentally walks in on her sleeping father, also a replacement (one wonders why the aliens need to sleep at all) before finding her and carrying her out of the house. She needed saving from her hidden self, obviously, she was a woman, but furthermore, she is so deep into the transformation that she can barely wake up and literally has to be carried as dead weight away from the house. The psychological interpretations are obvious. 

Pod Person from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

There are other examples of how the author uses psychology to inform his narrative. In one case, after the main resistors have become temporarily convinced that they are all imagining things, they rejoice in a too vivacious celebratory breakfast, even though in reality there is little about their situation that has changed. In another case they drive off into the night to flee the town that they now know has been overrun. But once they escape they more or less throw up their hands and, realizing there is nowhere else to go, they decide to just return to the place from which they had fled. It buys the narrative time, but also is a testament to the tendency of people to adopt and maintain persistent patterns of behavior, even when those patterns are dangerous or unhealthy. 

Eventually the whole town is consumed by the vegitative. Apparently identical, what had once been a source of comfort now posed a threat. Finney writes: 

The men, women, and children in the street and stores below me were something else now, every last one of them. They were each our enemies, including those with the eyes, faces, gestures, and walks of old friends. There was no help for us here, except from each other, and even now the communities around us were being invaded.

The Body Snatchers, Jack Finney
In the final scene, Matthew (Donald Sutherland) demonstrates the characteristic pose by which the “pod people” identify unconverted humans.

Ultimately everything is reduced to function. Aliens consume planets just because that is what they do. Humans propagate for the same reasons. Love is a chemical response and we follow the dictates of our nature. It turns out that the author considers the will to life as part of that nature, and that is the one thing that the aliens can’t tolerate. When the protagonists burn a number of budding pods in the field the body invaders just give up, finding that they cannot resist the human instinct for self preservation. How loaded is that phrase, self preservation, something that cannot exist in a collective. And so the aliens just leave and float off into space, leaving our heroes behind to inherit the earth. Of course, we can easily imagine other more likely endings to the story but this one is Finney’s and I’m going to allow it.

Planet of the Apes

Spoilers for both book and film adaptations below.

Planet of the Apes /
by Pierre Boulle (Author), Xan Fielding (Translator)

Despite the popularity and resilience of the franchise, I suspect that the number of fans who have actually read the 1963 book by Pierre Boulle is relatively modest compared with those who have seen the movies. That is a shame, because, despite some significant differences between the source material and the films, the book offers us a new window into the cultural idiom of the 1960s. It also provides us with a satire of culture and technology that is timeless, if idiosyncratic.

This book has two characteristics that will likely be surprising to fans of the movies. For one thing this book is far more satirical, without becoming a farce, than is the movie. It is really only a science fiction novel in the broadest sense. Speculative fiction is perhaps a more appropriate term. Yes, it involves rockets and relativity and evolution and astrophysics, but the scientific rigmarole merely serves as a backdrop to the narrative. The truth is that the science is at best a pasteboard set in the novel. It is secondary to the social commentary, and the tale actually could have benefited from some research by the author in this regard. Not that the science in the movie is all that accurate either, but this is less distracting in a film, where the problem can be dissolved by hand waving, effects, and suspension of disbelief. This is harder to accomplish in a novel, especially when one has already been exposed to hard science authors like Arthur C. Clarke or, more recently, Andy Weir. It is perhaps a function of its era that the technical aspects of the story are less worked out than we might wish, coming from an age where science realism dominates the scene.

Perhaps this criticism is a little unfair given the state of science fiction in the early 1960s, as opposed to now, but I can’t imagine that calling apes ‘monkeys’ was likely never good practice from a scientific perspective, and I object to this careless use of language, unless it can be attributed an artifact of a poor translation or a French idiom of which I am unaware. In the latter case the fault is with the editor, but still, it is a fault.

A second difference between the book and the movie that will likely strike the reader is that the ape society presented in the book is not as backwards as is that in the movie. They are not a primitive culture so much as an imitative one. This actually turns out to be one the primary themes of the novel, and one that is hardly developed in the movies. Ape culture in the book is presented as being fully modern and contemporary to the time, but at the same time stuck, due to failure of innovation and original thinking on the part of the apes. This is a critique of culture and the humanities, as much as it is a meditation on technology and societal advancement. There is even a long passage where the author meditates upon the appropriation of literature from one generation to the next, and one gets the sense that the author is acutely critical of the derivative nature of much artistic production. It makes one wonder what the author might be appropriating, himself. The comments are wry and self deprecating in a way that almost breaks the fourth wall of the narrative.

Chimpanzee using a tool via Serious Science.

There were some other themes in the novel that intrigued me as well. The animality of the humans was an interesting aspect of the book, and the way in which they fought against the trappings of society instead of resisting the apes themselves was an aspect that intrigued me. It reminded me very much of another recent read of mine, The Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber and David Wengrow. A complicated book that covers a wide swath of modern anthropology. I was reminded of one of the books theses, that so-called primitive societies might not actually be primitive by fate or failure of the imagination but by conscious choice. The connection did not go much deeper than this faint resonance, but it did open my eyes to the possibility that the dichotomy presented by the novel, that between animal and human, civilization and savagery, was not at all clear cut. After all, we may think of apes as dumb animals, but in fact they are accomplished at tool use, strategic thinking, political thinking, and levels of communication that we normally attribute to humans alone.

Ultimately there are some significant changes in plotting that were made by the movie franchise. Most important of these is that the astronauts are not on Earth when they encounter the ape planet, only after going home does the protagonist discover that, after many centuries, his home planet too, has given in to the urge to abandon creativity for the sake of comfort and allowed the ape servants to take over there as well. It doesn’t quite have the shock value of Charlton Heston discovering the Statue of Liberty buried in a radioactive desert, but it does better highlight the author’s point that at some level we are victims of our own drive towards status, luxury, and comfort. It really is a tale as old as time, and one that the ancient Romans dealt with in their literature. When does society become decadent and begin to undermine the very necessity that caused it to evolve in the first place?

Anthropology and societal development aside, however, the author seems more interested in how people can, in some circumstances, overlook their physical differences, as well as how, in other circumstances, they can become ingrained in established modes of behavior. One feature that the book shares with the movies is the stratification of ape society into different casts that fail to think outside of their particular ethnic box. This is directly adapted into the films and is a key feature of the social commentary. Less evident in the movie is how the protagonist is able to move between worlds. He has empathy for his human friends based on their physical form, this is true, but he is able to more or less enter ape society as the tale progresses and to abandon his old connections, and his human mistress, based on cultural cues. Social hierarchy triumphs over physicality, at least for a while, and this is telling. Only when the mute and animalistic Nova is learned to be pregnant, does the protagonist deign to return to her and vow to protect her from her ape captors and tormenters.

This blaming of the social system harkens back to the original reaction of the feral humans to the trappings of society, physically fighting against the clothes and technology, as opposed to the strange humans that have come to exist among them. It is the trappings of culture, the clothes, the machines, the houses, the guns, that transform our thinking as much as the social connections that we make or the empathetic response we have due to natural biological similitude. This is the reason that the apes refuse to clothe the protagonist throughout much of the book, continually remarking upon its absurdity. To do so would be to make him tacitly one of them and undermine their own stratification based on physical appearance and caste. In the end it turns out to be the clothes that make (and unmake) the man, or the ape, as the case may be.

Featured Image “Concept Sketch of Forbidden Zone – Mentor Huebner” via Invisible Themepark.

My 2020 Readings

Stuff I read in 2020, with some notes.

Part 1 of 3

Reading Reading Reading…
1958 & 1996.
University of Nebraska Press.

Mircea Eliade.
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.

Mircea Eliade.
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. 

Oxford University Press.

Daniel Pals.
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.
Bhagavad Gita

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.

Equinox Publishing.

Isaac Lubelsky.
Celestial India

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.

Bloomsbury Publishing.

William Dalrymple.
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.

Carlo Ginzburg.
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.


Orlando Figes.
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.


Peter Hopkirk.
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.

Bhagavad Gita as Cultural Icon

Krishna as Arjuna’s Charioteer

One way in which a book can be termed a cultural icon is if its impact spreads out wide beyond its own particular context and the circumstances behind it’s authorship, continuing on to cast its influence down long corridors of time and into unexpected and even unimagined domains of thought and expression. A book might be relevant for its historical impact within the narrow confined of its own time and place, possibly even having wide influence within that sphere, still without transmitting its aura to other times and cultures beyond those in which it arose. But when we consider such works as the epic poems of Greece, the plays of Shakespeare, or political screeds such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, what marks them out as standing alone among the general tide of literature is their long term impact and the multivalence of their expressions in cultures markedly different from those in which they originated. Edgar Allen Poe, for example, likely never imagined his work on The Raven as the basis of a Simpsons episode, and yet such unlikely transformation is what separates it as a cultural icon from popular works of the day that are soon forgotten and which disappear into dimly remembered history.

Company painting depicting an official of the East India Company, c. 1760

There is a phenomena in the study of linguistics where it is well known that the more commonly a verb is used in everyday discourse the more subject it is to dramatic change, accumulation of new, often contradictory, meanings, and variability in form — by such means are irregular conjugations formed. The etymology of simple everyday words such as to go, to bear, to speak are sometimes so convoluted and so strewn with synonyms as to make their study a labyrinthine sort of exercise. Analogously, when a literary work attains a ubiquitous aspect in terms of its cultural influence, it too often becomes difficult to assess, not just in its impact and influence on other works – in some sense that is the easy part, if one can find an explicit reference – but even, in some cases, in defining what that work is in itself.

The Bible, for example, has so many and multifarious expressions as to make it difficult to circumscribe a universally acceptable definition of what the Bible as title actually refers to. The works of Shakespeare provide another example of a corpus for which a myriad of variant expressions exist, often in a multiplication of media as well. In classical works, such problems can be exacerbated by difficulties in varying manuscripts, idiomatic language changes over time, and shifting cultural contexts that confuse the meanings of words and expressions.

Another work which can be characterized by the expansiveness of both its cultural relevance as well as its difficulty in definition is the Bhagavad Gita. Not even in itself a distinct work, being a part of a much longer national epic, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita in English, has had an outsized and multifarious impact compared to its actual text, which is quite concise, and its relatively recent genesis, having only first been translated and published into English in 1785. Of course, we must ask, is it even possible to speak of a work in translation as a separate entity from its source material? In this case, it seems appropriate, since at the time, the English speaking world, outside of the relatively insular community of East Indian Company employees and officials, was almost wholly ignorant of Indian cultural forms and religious expressions, their primary exposure to such being from what popular accounts might have existed in elaborated travelers’ tales, secondhand accounts from the Islamic world, which had dominated trade and commerce with India up until the Renaissance, and those provided by antique and classical Greek and Latin sources, out of date by centuries, at least.

Before the worldwide expansion of European power, for medieval Christian Europe, India was the edge of the earth, a distant horizon, a strange land where things were very different. The strangeness of India for Europeans could take monstrous or pleasant forms virtually without limit, because they were unchecked by experience.

(Trautmann. 2011: 169-70).

During the medieval period, European access to the cultural artifacts, intellectual products, and trade goods of India was greatly curtailed in comparison to the old Greco-Roman world order, and even in that earlier time, India was a distant and poorly understood land, despite Roman pretensions to domination. In the medieval era, access to India was almost entirely mediated through Islamic sources, and not until the Renaissance and the great European expansion that it engendered, was the full and constant contact or commerce established between the subcontinent and the now rising Western European powers.

In his landmark study Orientalism, Edward Said says of Sanskrit and other Indian cultural studies that they “did not acquire the status of scientific knowledge until after Sir Willam Jones’s efforts in the late eighteenth century” (75) But even so, the confluence of this intellectual stream with those sources engendered by Wilkins and Hastings, all of whom were working under the aegis of the Royal Asiatik Society, must have watered the same fields, coming together as they did in such close proximity and with such similarity of purpose, that the net cultural results of one are for all practical purposes indistinguishable for those of the other. All were promoting the use of Sanskrit to aid EIC rule though cultural understanding, whatever their other motives and whatever other side effects might result. Wilkins, along with Jones, was credited with the Society’s foundation, and, if Jones produced academic work that was influential in the origination of the new discipline of Indology, it was a discipline within which Wilkins had already been working independently, and doing so in an arena which would have public as well as academic impact, his proposed translation of the Mahabharata.

Charles Wilkins, in an mezzotint engraving by John Sartain, after a painting by James Godsell Middleton. Published in 1830.

His translation of the Bhagavad Gita, only a part of his proposed endeavor, would be published in the year following the foundation of the Society, and was written simultaneously with its foundation. The work would prove wildly influential, even well beyond the academy, and within two years was translated again from his version into both Russian and French. His 1808 Grammar of the Sanskrit Language would cement his reputation in the academic world as well, being the first known Grammar of that language in English that was widely available. And if there were still any question as to his reputation, they must have been silenced by his later reception of knighthood, conferred by George IV in 1833. Unfortunately, many of Wilkins’ personal papers were destroyed in a house fire in 1796. It is to be noted that Wilkins did not produce his translation alone but worked in tandem with an uncredited Indian Pandit Kasinatha Bhattacharya who was eventually made “head preceptor” of the Benares Sanskrit College. More on both of these men and their histories with respect to Sanskrit and the Gita can be found in the works of Richard H. Davis (2015).

Title page of the first Bengali typeface printed book A Grammar of the Bengal Language, 1778

The list of eminent Europeans who were influenced by the translation of the Gita into English and other modern European languages is almost too long to attempt to list. Even Mahatmas Gandhi, it is believed, came to the Indian classical tradition through the transmissive medium of the English language. According to Michael Bergunder, “there is strong textual evidence to suggest that M. K. Gandhi’s notion of Hinduism, his specific view of Christianity, and his general belief that all religions refer to the same truth were shaped by esotericism, namely the Theosophical Society and the Esoteric Christian Union” (Bergunder. 2014: 398). Elsewhere, and in other incarnations, the Gita had demonstrable influence on a range of diverse luminaries such as Thoreau, William Blake, Herman Hesse, J. Robert Oppenheimer (who understood Sanskrit), T. S. Eliot, Phillip Glass, C. G. Jung, Philip K. Dick, and the Beatles, among countless others.

When Oppenheimer witnessed the first detonation of an atomic device at Los Alamos he famously (or infamously) cited the 11th discourse from the Gita, in which Krishna reveals himself in cosmic form as Visnu to Arjuna: a vast multi-armed god bearing a myriad of weapons of war. Laurie Patton (2008: 126 & 126 n. 3) translates the verse:

If a thousand suns
had risen
in the sky
all at once,
such brilliance
would be
the brilliance
of that great self.

Bhagavad Gita 11.12

For a translation of an at the time obscure work in a more or less unknown language, Wilkins work has held up remarkably well, considering its more than two century old vintage. It begins with an advertisement crediting the EIC board of directors for its publication, noting the antiquity and veneration of the original. This is followed by an insightful letter of recommendation for the work written by Wilkins patron within the EIC, Warren Hastings, first Governor General of Bengal, who, despite his reputation for even handedness with respect to the native culture, was famously impeached on ground of corruption in 1787 (cf. Edmund Burke). Nonetheless, Hastings’ introduction to the Gita is a call for tolerance and appreciation towards the Indian natives, their religious practices, and the cultural value of their intellectual history.

Warren Hastings with his wife Marian in their garden at Alipore, c. 1784–87

Hastings calls any accumulation of knowledge with respect to conquered non-European cultures as a gain in humanity that “lessens the weight of the chain by which the natives are held in subjection” and which “imprints on the hearts of our own countrymen the sense and obligation of benevolence.” He goes on to say that through observation of the native character the British would acquire a “more generous sense of feeling for their natural rights,” learning to account them as equitable to their own, as human beings. He notes, presciently, that these influences which are to be found in writing such as the Gita will be felt and will survive “when the British dominion in India shall have long ceased to exist” ( Wilkins, 1785, 13).

If there were an award for cultural icon, I would nominate the English translation of the Bhagavad Gita as a worthy recipient, while at the same time respecting the source material from which it cannot be divorced. It is perhaps enough to say that it is possibly the one translation that came home again, through the person of Gandhi, and forged a nation from the admiration of its own oppressors. But it also caused a flourishing of ideas in England, in Europe, and in the Americas, as readers found a new handle on ancient metaphysics, and struggled to intermix their own ideas with those of another culture, creating a new synthesis that found new expressions in the American Transcendentalist movement, German Romanticism, the mystic poetry of William Blake, and the flourishing of new religious ideas that followed the first World Congress of Religions held in Chicago in 1983. The Gita is truly a remarkable book with ramifications that spread out from its center like ripples on a placid pool. With over three hundred translations into English alone, it is one of the most popular and important ancient works available to us.


App, Urs. (2010). The Birth of Orientalism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Bryant, Edwin. (2007). Krishna: A sourcebook. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bergunder, M. (2014). Experiments with Theosophical Truth: Gandhi, Esotericism, and Global Religious History. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 82(2), 398-426. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from

Dalrymple, William. (2019). The Anarchy: The relentless rise of the East India Company. London: Bloomsbury.

Davis, Richard. (2014). The Bhagavad Gita : a biography. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Davis, Richard. (2015) Wilkins, Kasinatha, Hastings, and the first English “Bhagavad Gita.” International Journal of Hindu Studies, 19(1/2), 39-57.

Erle, Sibylle. (2005, Spring) Review. [Review of the book Brahma in the West: William Blake and the Oriental renaissance, by David Weir] Blake: An illustrated quarterly. 8(4), 157-159.

Eliade, Micrea. (1992). Essential sacred writings from around the world. New York: Harper & Row.

Hanson, J. W., et al. The World’s Congress of Religions: The Addresses and Papers Delivered before the Parliament, and an Abstract of the Congresses Held in the Art Institute

Chicago. Illinois, U. S. A. August 25 to October 15. 1893. Under The Auspices of the World’s Columbian Exposition: Edited by J. W. Hanson. International Publishing Co., 1894. Smithsonian Collections Online, Accessed 12 Nov. 2020.

Keay, John. (2010). India: A history. New York: Grove Press.

Lubelsky, Isaac. (2012). Celestial India: Madame Blavatsky and the birth of Indian Nationalism. Sheffield: Equinox Publishing Ltd.

Patton, Laurie, Translator. (2008) The Bhagavad Gita. New York: Penguin.

Rao, K. S. Narayana. (1963). T. S. Eliot and the Bhagavad-Gita. American Quarterly, 15(4), 572-578. doi:10.2307/2710974

Said, Edward. (1994). Orientalism: 25th anniversary edition. New York: Vintage.

Schwab, Raymond. (1984). The Oriental renaissance: Europe’s rediscovery of India and the East, 1680–1880. New York: Columbia University Press.

Seshan, K. S. S. (2019, December 13). Charles Wilkins: He turned their gaze to Sanskrit. The Hindu.

Telang, K. T. & F. Max Muller editor. (1970). The sacred books of the East: Volume VIII: The Bhagavadgita with the Sanatsugatiya and the Anguita. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Timpe, E. (1970). Hesse’s Siddhartha and the Bhagavad Gita. Comparative Literature, 22(4), 346-357. doi:10.2307/1769580

Tull, H. (2015). Whence Sanskrit? (kutaḥ saṃskṛtamiti): A Brief History of Sanskrit Pedagogy in the West. International Journal of Hindu Studies, 19(1/2), 213-256. Retrieved November 14, 2020, from

Trautmann, Thomas R.. (2011). India: Brief history of a civilization. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Historian Carlo Ginzburg

A brief look his career and his seminal work The Cheese and the Worms.

Bibliography for further reading included.

A well known and often read historian examining witchcraft, art history, and peasant belief in early modern rural Italy, Ginzburg is often cited as a practitioner of the art of micro-history, a methodology where a larger historical perspective is studied through the close analysis of singular events. Professor Emeritus at UCLA, Ginzburg is one of the most famous historians working today.  The International Balzan Prize Foundation, which Ginzburg won in 2010, has called Ginzburg “ one of the most original and influential historians of our time,” calling his oeuvre “impressively large,” and declaring his work on the heretical miller, Menocchio, The Cheese and the worms, a classic. 

The Cheese and the worms is not primarily a work of book history, rather it is a history that uses book history to illuminate its larger story, which is an examination of pre-Christian peasant beliefs held within the rural districts of north eastern Italy in the 16th century. For Ginzburg, these beliefs are given voice by the miller Menocchio who finds a language to express his heretical beliefs through exposure to the written word. Thus, The Cheese and the worms is an example of book history that intercepts the so-called book circuit of Darnton at the point of the reader, in this case Mennocio. 

The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg
The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg

We learn the titles of several books to which Mennocio was exposed during the years that he developed his heretical views by his reference to these works in his testimony. We also learn of other works which his language mirrors to which he may or may not have had access. Of primary concern to the author is how Mennocio read these works, both physically, through borrowing them, as well as intellectually, using them to articulate positions that were his own by adapting their language to his own philosophical speculations. Of course, there are some other aspects of book history that arise in Ginzburg’s analysis, we must of course be aware of what books were available when and where. 

But the primary concern of the author is how Mennocio read. It was the technology of print that “enabled him to confront books with the oral tradition in which he had grown up and fed him the words to release that tangle of ideas and fantasies he had within him.” (xxxi) One of the books, a travel log that told tall tales of Prester John and strange lands, had been translated from the English work The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. According to Ginzbug, “By means of Mandeville’s accounts, his largely imaginary descriptions of distant lands, Menocchio’s mental universe expanded enormously.” (42)

We learn the price of another book, 2 lira, which becomes a stumbling block to repairing Mennocio’s relationship with the church. We also hear of lending groups and traveling booksellers, though these ideas are only on the periphery of the primary narrative, which is ultimately the testimonies and trials of the miller as he faces prosecution by the learned and surprised inquisitors of the church courts. 

Ginzburg, C. (1980). The Cheese and the worms : the cosmos of a sixteenth-century miller. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Annotated Bibliography:

Ginzburg, C. (1983). The night battles : witchcraft & agrarian cults in the sixteenth & seventeenth centuries. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.
A study of a group of 16th century peasants, born with a caul, and known as the “benandanti,” they comprised a special class of people believed to have special powers of incorporeal travel and the ability to do spiritual battles with witches at night.These peasants ran afoul of the Inquisition and were themselves charged with witchcraft for their claims of special powers. Ginzburg studies their cases through the use of Inquisition archives. The use of reference books describing the activities and characteristics of witches provides another primary source of inquiry.

Ginzburg, C. (1989). Clues, myths, and the historical method. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.
A series of essays concerning historical method. According to the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, as quoted on the back cover, “Ginzburg reflects on how easily we miss the context in which we read, write, and live. Only hindsight allows some understanding.” Some topics covered include witchcraft, eroticism in 16th century art, the Freudian interpretation of lycanthropy, and German mythological thinking in Nazi teutonism.

Ginzburg, C. (1992). Ecstasies : deciphering the witches’ Sabbath. New York: Penguin Books.
A broad study of the Witches Sabbath covering the 14th to the 17th century. Like other works in this bibliography, Ginzburg supposes a thread of truth behind accusations of witchcraft, supposing a pre Christian survival or at least a parallel strata of alternative belief pervading Late Medieval and Early Renaissance peasant culture in Europe.

Ginzburg, C. (1999). History, rhetoric, and proof. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.
A challenge to postmodern historical theory that supposes that all historical truth is constructed and that there is no such thing as historical knowledge. Ginzburg admits that there is a lack of absolute certainty in historical analysis and construction but holds that such analysis might still profitably reveal the imminently probable. Chapters of the book are case studies that Ginzburg uses to prove his points.

Ginzburg, C. (2000). The enigma of Piero : Piero della Francesca. New ed. with appendices. London: Verso.
A work of art history, this book examines the iconography and origins of three masterpieces of Renaissance Art, Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ, the Flagellation, and the Arezzon cycle. By combining his study with an examination of the patronage and commissioning of such works, Ginzburg tries to bring a new sensibility to interpretation by considering the conditions of the works’ origin. Black, quoting the book’s introduction, notes: “one of this book’s most remarkable features is the range of sources it exploits without regard to the frontiers between disciplines” (Black, 1986: 69).

Ginzburg, C. (2000). No island is an island : four glances at English literature in a world perspective. New York: Columbia University Press.
A series of four essays that examine English literature in relationship to its reception in outside contexts. One essay concerns Lucian and his influence on Thomas Moore, author of Utopia. A second essay deals with the Elizabethean English rejection of poetry based primarily or solely on meter, as in the ancient Greek and Latinc classics, and working instead with rhyme as a primary component of verse formation. A third essay deals with the formal structure of Early Modern novel Tristram Shandy. The final chapter deals with Robert Lewis Stevenson and the relationship of his short fiction “The Bottle Imp” to exotic island locales.

Ginzburg, C., Ryle, M. H, & Soper, K. (2001). Wooden eyes : nine reflections on distance. New York: Columbia University Press.
A series of essays reflecting on distance as a metaphor for historical analysis.

Ginzburg, C., Lincoln, B., & Höfler, O. (2020). Old Thiess, a Livonian werewolf : a classic case in comparative perspective. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Another case study of an Inquisition trial this one takes place at the end of the 17th century in Livonia, where a peasant is accused of having commerce with the devil. This book is not solely the work of Ginzburg but includes transcriptions from the trial, and interpretive essays by both Ginzburg and  Lincoln Old Theiss was an 80 year old man who, while in court for a theft trial, was accused of being a werewolf. Ginzburg reads the testimony, as he does in The Cheese and the Worms, as indication of an unattested because non-literary layer of pagan belief and culture coexisting alongside the official Roman Catholic religion.


Black, R. (1986). The Uses and Abuses of Iconology: Piero della Francesca and Carlo Ginzburg. Oxford Art Journal, 9(2), 67-71. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from

Campbell, J. (2000). Rhetoric and Public Affairs, 3(2), 300-302. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from

Darnton, Robert (Summer 1982). What is the history of books? Daedalus, 111, 65-83.

Den Hollander , J., Paul, H., & Peters, R. (2011). Introduction: The Metaphor of historical distance. History and Theory, 50(4), 1-10. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from

Ginzburg, C. (1980). The cheese and the worms : the cosmos of a sixteenth-century miller. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ginzburg, C. (1983). The night battles : witchcraft & agrarian cults in the sixteenth & seventeenth centuries. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ginzburg, C. (1989). Clues, myths, and the historical method. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ginzburg, C. (1992). Ecstasies : deciphering the witches’ Sabbath. New York: Penguin Books.

Ginzburg, C. (1999). History, rhetoric, and proof. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Ginzburg, C. (2000). The enigma of Piero : Piero della Francesca. New ed. with appendices. London: Verso.

Ginzburg, C. (2000). No island is an island : four glances at English literature in a world perspective. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ginzburg, C., Ryle, M. H, & Soper, K. (2001). Wooden eyes : nine reflections on distance. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ginzburg, C., Lincoln, B., & Höfler, O. (2020). Old Thiess, a Livonian werewolf : a classic case in comparative perspective. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

 International Balzan Prize Foundation. (n.d.).  Carlo Ginzburg – Balzan Prize European History (1400-1700),

Levack, B. (1986). The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 16(4), 729-731. doi:10.2307/204549

López, M. (2001). Utopian Studies, 12(1), 186-188. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from

Martin, J. (1992). Journeys to the World of the Dead: The Work of Carlo Ginzburg. Journal of Social History, 25(3), 613-626. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from

Schutte, A. (1976). Carlo Ginzburg. The Journal of Modern History, 48(2), 296-315. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Old Thiess, A Livonian Werewolf: A Classic Case in Comparative Perspective, In the Matter of Nat Turner: A Speculative History, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Volume 88, Issue 3, September 2020, Pages 859–869,

The Wilson Quarterly (1976-), 8(4), 143-143. (1984). doi:10.2307/40256790

Classics as Canon

Books as Cultural Vectors

The so-called list of canonized books changes according to context, though some, without a doubt, are consistently represented across multiple milieus. There is, for example, a lot of overlap between the notional ‘Western canon’ and the ‘Classical canon;’ classical here being the smaller notion of Greek and Latin classics as opposed to the notion of “Great books” as classics. Certainly any list of classics cum canon would include the works of Julius Caesar, Plato, Cicero, and Aristotle for example as would most lists of works designated as Great Books or Western Classics.

Just take Caesar as an example of why this is so. This is due to influence and tradition. Caesar has been used as an introductory Latin reader for generations. His work also had stylistic influence on historians and geographers for centuries. Here is an example of a Latin translation exercise from a 19th century Latin textbook, adapted from one of Caesar’s most famous passages, a geographical description of Gaul.

An inductive Latin primer
by William Rainey Harper

Caesar was influential in antiquity and the Middle Ages as well. Just compare Tacitus’ description of Germany with the opening of Caesar’s de Bellum Gallico.

Caesar’s Gallic War.
C. Julius Caesar. Caesar’s Gallic War. Translator. W. A. McDevitte. Translator. W. S. Bohn. 1st Edition. New York. Harper & Brothers. 1869. Harper’s New Classical Library.
Tacitus’ Germanica.
Complete Works of Tacitus. Tacitus. Alfred John Church. William Jackson Brodribb. Lisa Cerrato. edited for Perseus. New York. : Random House, Inc. Random House, Inc. reprinted 1942.
1. All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in our Gauls, the third. All these differ from each other in language, customs and laws. The river Garonne separates the Gauls from the Aquitani; the Marne and the Seine separate them from the Belgae. Of all these, the Belgae are the bravest, because they are furthest from the civilization and refinement of [our] Province, and merchants least frequently resort to them, and import those things which tend to effeminate the mind; and they are the nearest to the Germans, who dwell beyond the Rhine , with whom they are continually waging warGermany is separated from the Galli, the Rhæti, and Pannonii, by the rivers Rhine and Danube; mountain ranges, or the fear which each feels for the other, divide it from the Sarmatæ and Daci. Elsewhere ocean girds it, embracing broad peninsulas and islands of unexplored extent, where certain tribes and kingdoms are newly known to us, revealed by war. The Rhine springs from a precipitous and inaccessible height of the Rhætian Alps, bends slightly westward, and mingles with the Northern Ocean. The Danube pours down from the gradual and gently rising slope of Mount Abnoba, and visits many nations, to force its way at last through six channels into the Pontus; a seventh mouth is lost in marshes.
Excerpts via Perseus Project:

Similar examples could be given for the handful of other authors mentioned above. Alfred North Whitehead, the eminent British philosopher, is often noted as having called all of western philosophy mere footnotes to Plato. Examples proliferate (Columbia College).

Plato. via Goodreads.

The advantages of having a canon, even if it is potentially exclusionary, should be obvious. It gives students and scholars a base from which to build their knowledge as well as a common basket of references. But who decides what is canon? This is an argument beyond the scope of this little post, but I would like to offer one example of a canonical list, that of the Great Books program from St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, one of the oldest colleges in America. This school has been teaching a great books curriculum for decades and if it is on their required reading list it is almost certainly a widely respected and influential work. Here is their freshman year reading list for Fall 2020:

August 27 Homer: Iliad, I–VI
August 31 Homer: Iliad, VII–XII
September 3 Homer: Iliad, XIII–XVIII
September 7 Homer: Iliad, XIX–XXIV
September 10 Homer: Odyssey, I–VIII
September 14 Homer: Odyssey, IX–XVI
September 17 Homer: Odyssey, XVII–XXIV
September 21 Plato: Meno
September 24 Aeschylus: Agamemnon
September 28 Aeschylus: Libation Bearers; Eumenides
October 1 Plato: Gorgias, 447A–481B
October 5 Plato: Gorgias, 481B–to end
October 8 Plutarch: Lives, Lycurgus; Solon
October 12 Herodotus: History, I; II 50–53, 112–120; III 37–38, 66-87
October 15 Herodotus: History, V, 105; VI, 48–120; VII (entire)
October 19 Herodotus: History, VIII; IX
October 22 Plato: Republic, I–II 367E
October 26 Plato: Republic, II 367E–IV 427C
October 29 Plato: Republic, IV 427D–VI 502C
November 2 Plato: Republic, VI 502D–VII
November 5 Plato: Republic, VIII–IX
November 9 Plato: Republic, X
November 12 Aristophanes: Clouds
November 16 Plato: Apology and Crito
November 19 Plato: Phaedo, 57A–84B
November 23 Plato: Phaedo, 84B–118B
November 30 Thucydides: Peloponnesian War, I; II, 1-54
December 3 Thucydides: Peloponnesian War, II, 55-78; III 1-87; IV, 1-74
December 7 Thucydides: Peloponnesian War, IV, 75–end; V 1-26, 84–116; VI (complete)
December 10 Thucydides: Peloponnesian War, VII; VIII 1–6, 45–end
December 14 Plato: Symposium, Beginning–198A
December 17 Plato: Symposium, 198–end

Caesar, C. J. Caesar’s Gallic War. Translator. W. A. McDevitte. Translator. W. S. Bohn. 1st Edition. New York. Harper & Brothers. 1869. Harper’s New Classical Library.

Columbia College. (n.d.) A.N Whitehead on Plato. Retrieved October 30, 2020, from

Harper, William Rainey. (1891) An Inductive Latin primer. American Book Company: New York.

St. John’s College. (n.d.). Retrieved October 30, 2020, from

Tacitus. Complete Works of Tacitus. Alfred John Church. William Jackson Brodribb. Lisa Cerrato. edited for Perseus. New York. : Random House, Inc. Random House, Inc. reprinted 1942.