a most peculiar book

a most peculiar book –

the inherent strangeness of the bible

By Kristin Swenson

Oxford University Press – £18.99

According to the Bible, God is far too big to be just one thing.

(Introduction).

Downright contradictions. Is the Bible an anthology? Kind of, if by anthology we allow for multiple editors and communities of curators working over a span of centuries.

(‘A Problematic Book’)

From ethnic cleansing to owning human beings to not-so Christian family values, the Bible is hardly a transparent model of righteousness through and through.

(‘Biblical (Im)Morality’)

The title of this book kind of says it all, as the Bible is indeed peculiar.

Not to mention riddled with inherent strangeness throughout.

It is as if the more one finds out about the best selling book of all time, the less one invariably knows: ‘’For starters, the Bible is a cacophonous gathering of disparate voices. Not only are there different books within The Book, but they come from a range of places, from the Dead Sea to Rome, Egypt to Antioch, from tiny towns and huge metropolises, rural hillsides and palace halls, prisons and podiums, and a wider-still range of times – spanning as much as 1,500 years’’ (Introduction).

That the whole title – a most peculiar book – the inherent strangeness of the bible – is in lower case, lends another interesting facet to this particular book. It is as if to perhaps hint at a profound lack of defined definition – wherein everything written is cast unto the wide-open expanse of idiosyncratic interpretation. For instance, in the second chapter (‘But in the Original’), the authoress, Kristin Swenson, writes: ‘’Rather than despair at the lack of an original Bible to which the faithful might appeal for a straightforward and definitive Word of God, I submit that the facts of the Bible’s developments, the admission that we have fragments of copies sometimes with competing claims or inscrutable passages, invites us to reconsider the most basic ways that we read it. Rather than treating the Bible as a transparent rulebook, history lesson, or theological treatise, the sheer fact of the Bible’s messiness with its millennia of manipulation invites us to read more as participants in meaning-making than consumers of absolutist declarations.’’

Within the wonderful parameters of hindsight, the immediate above is how I have come to consider the Bible, especially within ‘’meaning-making’’ and everything which that entails (again, primarily interpretation).

But what essentially accounts for these 232 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Introduction, Notes and Index) being so regal and readable, is the acute clarification of knowledge; especially when placed alongside the book’s quintessential quest to question and openly admit historical wrong doing: ‘’The Bible’s ethnic cleansing, like its normalisation of slavery, poses a conundrum that can be addressed by modern people of faith only by understanding and respecting the Bible’s ancient past and history of development, and only by allowing for ways of faithful reading besides the literalistic application of those texts to today. Without understanding some of the Bible’s historical and literary contexts and without allowing non-literal ways of reading and appealing to the texts, the Bible’s take on slavery and ethnic cleansing would seem to be downright immoral’’ (‘Biblical (Im)Morality’).

Alongside the many controversial issues and complexities that the Bible poses, Swenson has herein brought everything to within a very fine appreciation of transparent proposal and the most utmost of appeal.

David Marx

Deposition 1940-1944

Deposition 1940-1944 –

A Secret Diary of Life in Vichy France

By Leon Werth

Translated & Edited by David Ball

Oxford University Press – £26.49

Don’t be surprised to discover nothing here of a sorrow that will never heal.

(Preface)

And so the world war veterans confused the doctrinaire, whose knowledge consists only in turning textbook history upside down, with people who were barking vulgar patriotism or purity. As if the war, unfortunately, bestowed veterans with any other distinction than having fought or claiming to have fought. The doctrinaires and the barkers were led to Hitlerism and regeneration by the police. The brutality of events threw the scholastics off their syllogistic perches. Out of sadism or masochism, they gave in a little more everyday. Maurras called Mussolini a man of genius shortly he entered the war.

(‘1940’)

There have been many memoirs and testimonies written about the German occupation of France during the Second World War, but I do have to say Leon Werth’s Deposition 1940-1944 – A Secret Diary of Life in Vichy France, may well tower over most.

Written with an extraordinary command of language, wit and fundamental knowledge of the most pertinent, French socio-political circumstances of the time, these 307 pages – excluding Translator’s Introduction, Introduction (by Jean-Pierre Azema), On Deposition (by Lucien Febvre) Biographical Dictionary, Charles De Gaulle: ‘The Call of June 18’ and Index – are indeed a high-octane, literary observation that makes for both terrific and revealing reading.

To be sure, it has been said: ‘’historians agree: the diary of Leon Werth (1878-1955) is one of the most precious – and readable – pieces of testimony ever written about life in France under Nazi occupation and the Vichy regime.’’

And it’s easy to ascertain why, because it does what it does exceedingly well; whilst in so doing, informing, as well as simultaneously, dare I say it, entertaining: ‘’If all historians revealed their ignorance, how much more we would know […]. France is like a factory destroyed by fire. Everything has collapsed. Only the little janitor’s apartment is intact. The concierge lives in it and watches over the ruins. But he has gone mad: he doesn’t merely drive away looters and people stealing metal. He imagines he’s the master of the factory. He pastes memos and pastoral letters to the workers on his windows, and keeps a careful watch over a time clock that no longer registers arrivals or departures. Such is the marshal […]. To dominate the world is only the old dream of a pygmy. Germany wants to reduce the world to just one substance […]. If Hitler weren’t powerful, he’d be laughable. Hitler’s ideas aren’t even popularized ideas, they’re advertising slogans. It’s like pharmaceutical advertising […].

Deposition is veritably jam-packed with such interesting, illuminating and perhaps controversial writings by the brilliant, French-Jewish writer, art critic and close friend of Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

So all told, this book is a finely nuanced and altogether wonderful read.

Although don’t just take my word for it, for as the author of Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance, Robert Gildea has since substantiated: ‘a beautifully observed, poignant, ironic chronicle of life under the German Occupation, weaving voices from all levels of society, both in the provinces and Paris. Essential reading for all scholars and students of the period.’’

Here. Here.

David Marx

Billy Wilder on Assignment

Billy Wilder on Assignment –

Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna

Edited by Noah Isenberg/Translated by Shelley Frisch

Princeton University Press – £20.00

I make my living honestly, honestly and with difficulty, because I dance honestly and conscientiously. No wishes, no desires, no thoughts, no opinions, no heart, no brain. All that matters here are my legs, which belong to this treadmill and on which they have to stomp, in rhythm, tirelessly, endlessly one-two, one-two, one-two.

I dance with young and old; with the very short and those who are two heads taller than I; with the pretty and the less attractive; with the very slender and those who drink teas designed to slim them down; with ladies who send the waiter to get me and savour the tango with eyes closed in rapture; with wives, with fashion plates sporting black-rimmed monocles, and whose escorts, themselves utterly unable to dance, hire me; with painfully inept out-of-towners who think an excursion to Berlin would be pointless without five o’clock tea: with splendid women from abroad who divide their stay in Berlin between hotel rooms, halls, and ballrooms; with ladies who are there every day and no one knows where they’re from and where they’re going; with a thousand kinds.

(‘Waiter, A Dancer Please’)

Who would have thought that the most majestic of director’s, Billy Wilder – he responsible for the inexorably entertaining Some Like It Hot and Sunset Boulevard – was a dancer for hire in a posh hotel in Berlin during his early years as a journalist. That’s right, a journalist (too) with the still renowned Berliner Zeitung.

Clearly someone with a telling eye for detail, the Polish born Wilder was already armed with a vivid vindication of words – which came replete with a penchant for (the humorous and) the observational – at a very young age: ‘’’’I say to myself: I’m a fool,’’ he writes in a moment of intense self-awareness. ‘’Sleepless nights, misgivings, doubts? The revolving door has thrust me into despair, that’s for sure. Outside it is winter, friends from the Romanisches Cafe, all with colds, are debating sympathy and poverty, and just like me, yesterday, have no idea where to spend the night. I, however, am a dancer. The big wide world will wrap its arms around me’’ (Editor’s Introduction).

Let it be said that Billy Wilder on Assignment – Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna, is an altogether wonderful read.

In fact it reads as if a fine, literary, malt-whiskey.

Its 195 pages (excluding Index) traverse the many aspects of Billy Wilder as a whole: from aforementioned dancer to a writer of astute profiles when it came to other writers, performers and political figures, from deft screenwriter to one of Hollywood’s most celebrated directors. As Christian Rogowski of Amherst College has since written: ‘’Billy Wilder on Assignment offers a selection of charming prose pieces from the early years of the legendary movie director and screenwriter. These brilliant vignettes present a unique window into the fascinating and turbulent culture of Weimar-era Berlin, written by one of its wittiest observers. A pleasure to read.’’

This book is indeed a pleasure to read, especially the uncanny, nigh philosophical foresight to wholly recognise institutionalised lying – something which is so horribly rampant and hideously hip amid many of today’s powers that be.

At the vanguard of which smirks the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson: ‘’I don’t want to come right out and insist that, starting this very day, schools teach the art of lying, by which I mean using postures and facial expressions, gestures and inflections of the voice to convey the opposite of truth with sweeping powers of persuasion and achieve smashing success. I don’t mean to demand it explicitly in the framework of pushing the latest educational reform, for I, too, am ensnared in a curiously outdated set of ideas, and I appreciate and honour the so-called truth. But I can easily imagine that in two or three decades lies will be regarded an an indispensable and hence utterly unobjectionable implement in our daily lives, and their correct and appropriate use could be learned systematically by employing the scientific method (‘The Art of Little Ruses’).

Uncanny or what?

David Marx

The Limits of Political Theory

The Limits of Political Theory –

Oakeshott’s Philosophy of Civil Associationt

By Kenneth B. McIntyre

Imprint Academic – £30.00

For Oakeshott, theorizing, unlike other types of experience, is ‘’experience without presupposition, arrest, or modification.’’ The logic of philosophical activity entails a philosophical experience which is complete and, because of this completeness, which is the criterion by which other types of experience are judged. This concept of philosophical activity as critical experience without arrest of partiality not only entails the investigation of the nature of philosophical understanding, but also the exploration and critique of worlds of experience which fall short of this criterion.

(‘Theorizing, Theorems and Modality’)

Like most things in life, there are several ways of looking at, understanding and seeing things. Remember the brilliant Robin Williams character in Dead Poets Society? He, who stood on a desk in front of his students to merely point out how different the world looked from up on high?

Likewise, if not more so, very much the same invariably applies to the theorizing of philosophy – an overtly fluidic undertaking if ever was one – and once as much is fully accepted unto the pantheon of philosophical understanding, then the reading of such a book as this, becomes a whole lot more tenable.

I use the words ‘’reading of such a book as this,’’ simply because throughout, Kenneth B. McIntyre both reiterates and substantiates the countless possibilities of Michael Oakeshott’s deft/dense thinking so as to occasionally be caught up in quintessential confusion.

That’s not to say The Limits of Political Theory – Oakeshott’s Philosophy of Civil Associationt harbours any wayward wrongness (it absolutely does not); it’s to say many of the writing(s) could have been put forward in a far more linear, if not concise persuasion. Especially given that literally, the second line into this book, McIntyre already writes: […] his ideas have been relatively neglected, and, when studied, they have often been misunderstood. Indeed, the general misunderstanding of his work is one of the main reasons that it has been neglected.’’

Were it not for overt cumbersomeness, that can so easily be deeply entrenched within philosophical argument, the above opening gambit – while obviously correct – could so easily have been written in such a way as more people would not have to struggle or grapple with: ‘’theorizing, unlike other types of experience, is ‘’experience without presupposition, arrest, or modification.’’

Theorizing, after all, is an open and individual and experience; and while not necessarily a ‘’presupposition’’ (well, it isn’t), ‘modification’ can come into play at random and at will.

And perhaps it should?

Is this not what philosophy is all about?

I personally believe Oakshott himself would agree, even if these 192 pages (excluding Bibliography and Index) are just a little too serpentine for their own good.

That said, once one has deconstructed (much of) the writing, there is without doubt, plenty to be gleaned.

David Marx

The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Europe

The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Europe

– A History

By Rita Chin

Princeton University Press – £30.00

We are a British nation with British characteristics. Every country can take some small minorities and in many ways they add to the richness and variety of this country. The moment the minority threatens to become a big one, people get frightened.

(Margaret Thatcher – ‘Race, Nation, Society’)

If you come to France, you agree to to melt into a single community, the national community. If you do not accept this, don’t come to France.

(Nicolas Sarkozy – ‘The ‘’Failure’’ of Multiculturalism’)

Along with Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech made in 1968, the first of the above two quotes by the loathsome Margaret Thatcher, is just one of the many literary kernels, fundamentally responsible for the ideology behind Brexit – which in and of itself, is currently destroying what is left of the UK (as I write).

Likewise, the second quote by Nicolas Sarkozy, may be considered by many for inadvertently fuelling the thinking behind France’s far-right National Front (FN).

So when it comes to The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Europe – A History, one ought to perhaps read and tread very carefully; as Multiculturalism is an overtly controversial, if not ultra-inflammatory subject throughout many parts of Europe right now. And has been for years, especially since the Syrian Civil War of 2011. Although it does need to be said that the French populace, have up until now at least, had the all round chutzpah and intelligence to not allow the FN to ultimately preside over France.

It’s a pity the same cannot be said for huge swathes of Britain, a nation, which, thanks to the likes of Nigel Farage and most of the current government, appears to be both socially and politically self-imploding by the day.

Again, a most dire situation, more than disproportionately triggered by the following continuation of Thatcher’s (devout) influence: ‘’ ‘’Some people do feel swamped if streets they have lived in for the whole of their lives are really now quite, quite different.’’ The point was […] to draw a line between the British people, endowed with British character, and those marked as bearers of ‘’alien’’ cultures who were rendering British streets unrecognizable. The latter, she implied, were not really part of Britain, and too many of them threatened to eclipse the core.’’

Rita Chin (author of The Guest Worker Question in Postwar Germany) has herein written a book that is readily readable – especially given the subject matter – and one which places the most pertinent issues at the forefront of a clearly complex and very involved situation. For example: ‘’In the past, groups perceived as incompatible with European identity were usually located beyond European borders. But now they are firmly established within Europe itself […].

Chin’s mighty extensive range alone, warrants the purchase of this most indispensable book. As such, I would like to leave the final words to the authoress herself: ‘’The goal of this book is not to prescribe a specific form of multiculturalism that might serve as a cure-all for an enormously complicated politics. Rather, my hope is that the history I chronicle here may help us to become more self-conscious about what multiculturalism is, has been, and might be in the future (‘Multicultural and Multiculturalism’).

David Marx

The Volga

The Volga – A History of Russia’s Greatest River

By Janet M. Hartley

Yale University Press – £25.00

And in the steppes beyond the Volga

You dug your trenches in haste

And in battles you marched

To the limits of Europe.

(‘The Volga in the Second World War’)

[…] the river was a dividing line between European civilization and Asian barbarism.

(Introduction)

There is something resoundingly inviting about this book, which is hard to put your finger on.

Maybe it has something to do with the way authoress, Janet M. Hartley, both portrays and conveys her subject, which in this instance, is Europe’s longest river, the Volga (which stretches over 3,500 kilometres from the heart of Russia to the Caspian sea – thus essentially separating East from West).

Her style of writing invites the reader to take place in an ultimate travelogue of dense discovery and heroic history; which in literary essence, is as equally drenched in turmoil as it remains somehow surprisingly open to social change: ‘’Settlements on the river Volga were a microcosm of the ethnic and cultural complexity of the Russian Empire and the Soviet state, and this study will examine the relationships between different groups of people on the Volga, and between non-Russians and the government […]. The middle and lower Volga regions were the first significant non-Russian and non-Christian lands where the Russian empire had to establish and exercise control. In many ways, they provided a testing ground, and then a model, for imperial (and to an extent) policies towards non-Russian peoples (Introduction).

As much is further dissected and further investigated throughout this book’s quintessential four parts (‘Early History of the Volga,’ ‘The Volga in the Russian Empire: Violence and Control on the River,’ ‘The Volga in the Russian Empire: Life and Identity on the River’ and ‘Soviet and Post-Soviet Volga: Conflict, Identity and Managing the River’) of which its seventeen chapters do much to enlighten the reader by way traversing a history heroically steeped in change, conflict and of course, folklore.

It is the latter that primarily drew me to The Volga – A History of Russia’s Greatest River, something, that in relation to Russia especially, has always resonated with a fierce force of grounded belonging and romanticism: ‘’The Volga became the subject of poetry, literature and art, and helped shape a sense of Russian identity through a shared experience of the river. Late-eighteenth-century odes to Catherine II both glorified the river and also ‘tamed’ it to honour the ruler […]. The famous painting by Ilia Repin, Barge Haulers on the Volga, uses this image to depict the exploitation and suffering of ordinary people in late tsarist Russia. The battle of Stalingrad reinforced the special importance of the river as a barrier that protected the Soviet state and all its people, Russian and non-Russian, from those who wished to destroy them, and this was reflected in contemporary poems and songs.’’

As the author of Catherine The Great, Simon Dixon, has since written: ‘’Taking a majestic sweep through centuries of turbulent history, Hartley traces in vivid detail the significance of a river that has served Russia’s multi-ethnic population as economic lifeline, strategic battleground and symbol of freedom.’’

Furthermore, she has done so in a way that can only be described as commanding and rather eloquent.

David Marx

Munich, Bavaria & the Black Forest


Munich, Bavaria & the Black Forest
By Marc Di Duca & Kerry Christiani
Lonely Planet – $14.99


As deep, dark and delicious as its famous cherry gateau, the Black Forest gets its name from its canopy of evergreens. With deeply carved valleys, thick woodlands, luscious meadows, stout timber farmhouses and wispy waterfalls, it looks freshly minted for a kids’ bedtime story. Wandering on its many miles of forest trails, you half expect to bump into a wicked witch or huntsman, and might kick yourself for not bringing those breadcrumbs to retrace your tracks…


(‘The Black Forest’)


It’s hard not to savour the mere front cover of Lonely Planet’s Munich, Bavaria & the Black Forest, and not be immediately transfixed, if not transported unto a magical place of a seemingly long-gone, bygone era. Although the latter is very much not the case, as the colours, the architecture and the all round enchanting atmosphere of this most beguiling area of southern Germany, is very much hopping, alive and invariably inviting.


As much is altogether substantiated by one this travel guides’ two writers, Marc Di Duca, who, in the immediate ‘Welcome’ section writes: ‘’Is it the sap-scented hills and trails in forests Black and Bavarian, the Franconian beer and dark tourism of Nuremberg or the emotions stirred by the tragic Ludwig II story? Or is it a mildly envious admiration for southern Germany’s knack of producing cars that work, its galleries packed with modern art or the awe I feel for the German intellect as I face yet another devilishly complex Deutsche Bahn ticket machine (perhaps not)? I suppose it’s all the above and heaps more that has me returning time and again to this quirky yet level-headed corner of Europe.’’


It is indeed ‘’all the above and heaps more’’ that cajoles tourists to regularly return to this wonderful area of Germany.


After all, what is there not to like?


Bavaria’s capital city, Munich alone, is crammed with history and far too many things to do. Some obvious. Some not so obvious: ‘’The natural habitat of well-heeled power dressers and Lederhosen-clad thigh-slappers, Mediterranean-style street cafes and Mitteleuropa beer halls, highbrow art and high-tech industry, Germany’s unofficial southern capital is a flourishing success story that reels in its own contradictions. If you’re looking for Alpine cliches, they’re all here, but the Bavarian metropolis has many an unexpected card down its Dirndl […]. Munich’s walkable centre retains a small-town air but holds some world class sights, especially art galleries and museums. Throw in royal Bavarian heritage, an entire suburb of Olympic legacy and a kitbag of dark tourism, and it’s clear why southern Germany’s metropolis is such a favourite among those who seek out the past but like to hit the town once they’re done.’’


Along with a pull-out map of the city, this book includes all there is to know on Munich, from Sights to Activities, Tours to Festivals & Events, Drinking & Nightlife and of course, the terrible trajectory of the Nazis’ first concentration camp (actually built by Heinrich Himmler to house political prisoners in 1933) Dachau. I won’t dwell on the subject, but those interested in visiting the camp will find all they need to know herein.


Then of course, there are the other corners of this most splendid part of Germany which are very much covered in this book: Bavaria in general, Stuttgart and of course, The Black Forest – all of which are liberally peppered with information and a selection of glorious photographs.


So should you be thinking about going (once this whole Covid scenario is finally behind us), be sure to pack Munich, Bavaria & the Black Forest along with your passport.


David Marx