WRB—June 2023 History and Classics Supplement
The philosopher of our times!
Today, July 10, saw the death of Hadrian and the birth of John Calvin. Cursèd day!
The past (reviews):
Alexander Stille’s new book (The Sullivanians: Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune, June) is really getting the New York set all worked up—“What if there were a cult, but, get this, it’s in Manhattan!” [Manhattan is stealing valor from Oneida County. —Steve] There are reviews-cum-summaries in the Journal (Alex Mar), the Times (Alexandra Jacobs), and online at The New Yorker (Jessica Winter). From the local Post’s coverage (Thomas Beller):
It is this gritty, out-of-control (and cheap!) New York that is the principal setting for Alexander Stille’s wonderful and troubling new book, The Sullivanians, about a renegade psychoanalytic institute that evolved into a kind of urban commune and then into a frighteningly insular and sadistic cult that held its members in its grip for two generations.
We tend to think of cults as apart from society, removed from the very idea of geography. (Where was it again that Jim Jones had his followers drink that Kool-Aid?) But the Sullivanians lived in a bunch of apartments and a townhouse on the Upper West Side. Stille’s meticulous reconstruction of the personal history of those whose lives were profoundly shaped by the group has a thumping, almost thriller-like question propelling its plot: How were such otherwise bright people seduced into these radical and ultimately tragic living arrangements?
[Not really mysterious if you’ve paid attention to the internet for the past decade. —Chris]
We confess we don’t see the appeal, but, you know, whatever gets the people going. From the Times [The pick of the litter, review-wise. —Jude] kicker: “Its only flaw, narratively speaking, is that this key party of self-actualizers features no particular cheerable hero or heroine—only survivors with varying degrees of rue, blinking as the light of hindsight intensifies.” Cheerful!
It is our policy always to mention Plotinus when he comes up. [That’s right. —Chris] As such, we include, dutifully but regretfully, this amateurish piece on Anthony Long’s recent book of essays (Selfhood and Rationality in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Heraclitus to Plotinus, 2022) at the Bryn Mawr Classical Review:
Long has produced . . . a most instructive and comprehensive study of the concept of the rational self, and of rationality in general, in the Greek philosophical tradition. I would go so far as to say that, if given close attention, it could even prove a life-changing volume.
[Well, o-kay then. —Jude]
From the same publication, however, comes a review from Lloyd P. Gerson [Who completed the new Cambridge edition of the Enneads in 2018. —Chris] of a new commentary on Plotinus (The Enneads of Plotinus: A Commentary; Vol. 1: 2020, Vol. 2: February), the second volume of which was out this past winter in translation from Princeton, and which is apparently rather good: “It would be difficult to think of a single volume that is a more reliable guide to the mind of Plotinus.”
[Porphyry hardest hit. —Jude] [While editing this newsletter I flipped back through the Life, which for some reason has been sitting on my desk for two or three years. A touching story:
He once noticed that I, Porphyry, was thinking of removing myself from this life. He came to me unexpectedly while I was staying indoors in my house and told me that this lust for death did not come from a settled rational decision but from a bilious indisposition, and urged me to go away for a holiday. I obeyed him and went to Sicily, since I had heard that a distinguished man called Probus was living near Lilybaeum. So I was brought to abandon my longing for death and prevented from staying with Plotinus to the end.
And while we’re on BMCR and indulging hobbyhorses: ships. [Roman ships! —Jude]
A man in Delaware collects historical menus. The New Yorker is on the case:
Henry Voigt is maybe the world’s preëminent collector of historical menus, with some ten thousand pieces, including menus from love hotels and cabarets, luaus and chop-suey halls, secret societies and utopian communes, one-cent restaurants, grand banquets, gentlemen’s ordinaries, ladies’ teas, riverboats, airplanes, weddings, the Harvard-Yale game, an American Can Company banquet, Walt Whitman’s favorite bar, J. P. Morgan’s brownstone, menus made of silk, menus made by Tiffany, menus prepared for the Coney Island Hebrew Association (items included “circumcise cocktail”), for Ellis Island to greet arrivals, for San Quentin State Prison to celebrate Chinese New Year, for a Pennsylvania chapter of the Ku Klux Klan’s dinner dance (ham sandwiches with catsup), for New York’s Ichthyophagous Club in 1884 to “overcome prejudice directed towards many kinds of fish” (suprême of shark, essence of devilfish), and for the American Vegetarian Society, whose 1852 feast (pumpkin pies, melons) was, alas, cancelled and replaced by a foodless “feast of reason.”
We must warn that this piece is for only those with a high tolerance for the “New” Journalism’s imitators. [I assume, if our readers have stuck with us thus far, they are game for that sort of thing. —Chris]
Steve said to put this in. [I am once again recommending Peter Brown’s new book (Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History, June). I mean, it’s Peter Brown. Come for how he invented Late Antiquity, stay for his stories about his ancestors and his childhood, as well as his trips to Iran in the ’70s. —Steve] [Nothing had actually ever happened between the ascension of Diocletian and the Second Council of Nicaea before Pete Brown came along. —Chris]
Wilfred McClay has waded into the ongoing pop-historiographic conversation about the year that Ferdinand II was elected Holy Roman Emperor with a review of David Hackett Fischer’s African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals (2022). “It does what the best historical writing always does: It lifts us out of the preoccupations of the moment, and gives us wider horizons and longer perspectives.”
The future (forthcoming titles):
September 12 | Yale University Press
Dickensland: The Curious History of Dickens’s London
by Lee Jackson
From the publisher: Tourists have sought out the landmarks, streets, and alleys of Charles Dickens’s London ever since the death of the world-renowned author. Late Victorians and Edwardians were obsessed with tracking down the locations—dubbed “Dickensland”—that famously featured in his novels. But his fans were faced with a city that was undergoing rapid redevelopment, where literary shrines were far from sacred. Over the following century, sites connected with Dickens were demolished, relocated, and reimagined.
Lee Jackson traces the fascinating history of Dickensian tourism, exploring both real Victorian London and a fictional city shaped by fandom, tourism, and heritage entrepreneurs. Beginning with the late nineteenth century, Jackson investigates key sites of literary pilgrimage and their relationship with Dickens and his work, revealing hidden, reinvented, and even faked locations. From vanishing coaching inns to submerged riverside stairs, hidden burial grounds to apocryphal shops, Dickensland charts the curious history of an imaginary world.
[See Zadie Smith a week or two ago in The New Yorker On Killing Charles Dickens. —Jude]
This is a bit silly, a bit aimless, a bit self-indulgent; it’s also very short, and if you aren’t charmed by Zadie Smith at her bloggiest, I’m not sure what to tell you.”
Recently, I wanted to kill Charles Dickens after reading the chapter on him in Parallel Lives (1984). —Chris]