Review of The Ghost Map

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson fell into my lap unexpectedly. While reviewing the syllabus for the 9th grade East-West History class I was contracted to teach I saw the book listed as a required on the syllabus for the prior year and so purchased it. I later found out that it was a optional reading item for extra credit, but I’m so glad that I read it and have since used it as a component of the class dealing with the International Baccalaureate’s emphasis towards understanding the manner in which technology effects human society.

Ghost Map is one of the best works of popular history that I have ever read. I loved it without qualifications and have already recommended it to several people. The style, the pacing, the everything is a homerun and my students that have read it have all found it enjoyable if at times a little difficult.

As the book states in the opening, it is largely the tale of four protagonists: John Snow – a pioneering surgeon and medical researcher; Henry Whitehead – a priest; the city of London itself and the cholera bacterium. Spoiler alert: the story is easily summed up in a few sentences. A cholera outbreak occurs in London at a time when people believe that such illnesses are passed around by bad smells and there is no real infrastructure to removed human and animal waste products from cities. A talented and ambitious but humble medical researcher named John Snow starts to investigate and with the help of a local priest familiar with those affected and armed with information garnished from new practices of governmental record keeping is able to determine from when the cholera outbreak came and to provide a thorough but at the time unrecognized refutation of the miasma theory of cholera dissemination. It’s the attention to detail that he gives these characters, the depth he goes to explain the rationale for functioning of practices and creatures that doesn’t seem overwhelm the reader, the contextualization of the various obstacles faced and the underlying exegesis of some of the concepts of historical materialism that made it such an engaging read. I knew that this would be somewhat the case as the book opens with a quote by Walter Benjamin from the Theses on the Philosophy of History regarding Klee’s Angelus Novus. However I was presently surprised by how much of this was described in relationship to these four protagonists.

Johnson carefully documents how the class system existent at the time and the low level of scientific knowledge played a huge role in the perpetuation of a false medical paradigms that contributed to both degrading attitudes and the delay of infrastructural development needed to address the preconditions for cholera and other diseases spread. There is an irony that hints at comedy in such disdain, for despite the bourgeoisie hatred for the “lower classes” whose labor created the capital that they enjoyed such feelings of superiority for some in the nicer communities are leveled when they too contract it. Related to this is the miasma theory of disease. Johnson cleverly shows all the holes in the theory and shows how this relates to the elite classes own prejudices much as scientific racism was an outgrowth of the conditions of American slavery.

The sections on cholera were insightful without getting too deep within scientific jargon while those on Dr. John Snow and Henry Whitehead were both compelling. In the YouTube videos that I perused for use in the classroom unrelated to the author the former is highlighted while the latter largely goes unreported. Even then Snow is depicted as an abstraction rather than a person whose motives and actions were far outside the norm of his epoch. John Snow’s devotion to finding this at no profit to him self and how in fact it causes him to face ridicule from a large number of medical professionals at his time, shows how heroic he was. Such circumstances make for good reflections on the nature of the modern hero.

Despite the book being so good, I found that some of my students whose first language isn’t English had major difficulties with the text. Understandable as while “big” concepts were well described in simple language, they had to spend a lot of time looking up words. I think it’s a good practice for students to keep a running list of the words that they use and think that this would be a great interdisciplinary text to use with science lessons.

Review of The History of Gil Blas

Gil Blas

As part of my research into picaresque novels I knew I had to pick up one of the most widely lauded examples of the genre, The History of Gil Blas of Santillana by Lesage. I’d considered buying the book for several weeks, but couldn’t make up my mind which edition to buy. When I saw the three- part edition pictured above on eBay, I knew that this was going to be the one that I would read and purchase. The outside design was, in many ways, exactly what aesthetic I wanted for it as based upon the numerous comments I’d read about the story the age and design matched the story I’d be reading – clearly somewhat antiquated, but still beautiful. The History of Gil Blas was indeed that, and for those less concerned with the books covers/container, they can find a free copy for download here.

Like Kvachi, Gil Blas is the story of a precocious youth that leaves his home to travel to a major city. After several years of extensive study of the classics, it’s his family’s hope that he will find work as a tutor for a nice family. Such aspirations are soon dashed, however, as Gil Blas soon learns that nearly everyone he encounters seeks to swindle him of the money that his parents had saved in order to make this trip. The roads are ever a place of potential danger and the “law” of such dubious quality that many avoid the various combination judges and enforcement officers.

Through the process of learning the ways of the world finds his fortunes alternately bolstered and battered. Several times he accumulates a sizable sum of gold and several times it’s completely drained from him by immoral persons that match his guile or take from him whilst he is incapacitated.
Unlike Kvachi, Gil Blas has more moral compunctions and is not a womanizer. I’d say that he is not willing to kill innocent people in order to further his interests, but for a short time he does so while working as the apprentice of a doctor who believes that all maladies can be cured by bleeding and drinking water. Like Kvachi, Gil Blas finds himself around the royal court and in a position to profit from it and does so. His corruption, however, is temporary rather than a defining character feature. After a several month stint in a prison, made more amenable due to his having done good deeds to the family of the main jailor.

Stylistically and narratively, Gil Blas is packed incredibly tightly. Blas’ own story is itself a frame for a number of other interesting characters that make up the motley social strata of 17th century Spain. Gil Blas finds himself taken into the employ of a group of bandits, a group of thieves, a priest, a doctor that kills more people than he saves, a dissolute gambler, a mysterious foreigner, a government minister, an aristocratic family and a number of other personages. From his various positions as these people’s servant he is able to gain insight into both their psychology as well as that of those employed. One of the recurrent themes – how it is that a good servant can make or break one’s home – is an interesting conceit of the self that unfortunately does not get developed in the story. What does get extensive coverage is love in the age of chivalry.

In Gil Blas someone is always trying to pull something over on somebody else for pecuniary or sexual gain. Being a chivalric society, people frequently challenge each other to defend their honor. The fear of facing death is common, yet still it is couched in a poetic language. When gentry face insult or discover that someone stands in the way of their dignity, reputation or desires – the same with the brigands who have adopted an inverse yet similar honor-code – the immediate response is to violence. The number of characters driven by a desire for retribution is staggering, though each provides an interesting narrative.

While by no means a political satire along the lines of the Good Soldier Svejck, there are a number of humanistic insights to be gleaned from the text that criticize the some times insanity of social institutions as well as the people that run them. The latter third of the book, which recounts Gil Blas’ time at the court of the King in Madrid, contains an interesting account of a government in transition. In this part of the narrative the previous manner of enacting business, bribes, is done away with. While this is a good change in that meritocracy purportedly returns to be the basis of political appointment, we soon learn that such alterations have more to do with the humble egomania of the new minister. This politicking soon backfires and a new bureaucratic constellation takes its place.

While Lesage wrote Gil Blas over three hundred years ago, the humanistic topics that are dealt within, the comic yet moralistic tone, the pacing of events, and the theatre-like scripting of scenes all combine to make it an eminently modern novel. I’ve not gone into many of the scenes of the story as there are so many and that to pick and choose ones to comment would mean that others which ought to be included are left out. I profoundly enjoyed this book and look forward to reading next the books with which this books is often associated – Don Quixote.

Review of Counter-Revolution of 1776

The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America by Gerald Horne presents the argument that the predominant rationale for the Founding Father’s mobilization for a war of independence was because it allowed what would become the United States to maintain slavery. While this sort of historical reading flies in the face of a number of inherited and taught assumptions on the fight for Colonial self-governance, Horne present a rather compelling case for the American Revolution being a “counter-revolution” or the armed mobilization of a dominant class that feel threatened.

The threats from within and without the slowly expanding colonial borders made the elites and settlers constantly fear a wide variety of political actors. There were the nearly ever-present concerns of Native Americas attacking over the dispossession they were facing. There were also the Latin countries, France and Spain, which laid claim to large and desirable swathes of land and would harass people in or near it. There were the slaves as well, who would sometimes escape. However as more time passed the American elite increasingly viewed the U.K. as both a hamper to their development and an unjust master. In regards to the former, England sought to maintain their agreements with indigenous tribes and forego Western expansion. Regarding the latter, England felt compelled to tax the colonies after having just exhausted it’s treasury fighting the Seven Years War to maintain hegemony, obtain concessions and protect it’s colonies.

While the closing off of westward expansion – a notion antithetical to a slave economy – and the increased taxation to pay for defensive wars that maintain territorial sovereignty – necessary to trade’s continuation may seem like small, bitter pills to swallow. These conditions helped the slave-owning elite increasingly see themselves in terms of the master/slave dialectic with themselves on the less unattractive side. Those owners of chattel slaves came to view Britain not as the country’s progenitor, protector, and benevolent master – not to mention a cultural aspiration – but a hurdle to the type of creative destruction that would rapidly accelerate the accumulation of domestic capital.

Compounding these problems were the spread of rebellious slaves. Following numerous uprisings in the Caribbean due to the unforgiving ratios of slaves to masters on the islands, slaves with a knowledge of poisons and rebellion were offloaded into the continent. Pacifying the Caribbean became so difficult that her Majesty’s forces had to entered into agreement with the Maroon leadership in Jamaica in order to maintain a modicum of peace. Such practices smelled of weakness and, to the slave-owners, offered a dangerous precedent.

As Colonials increasing felt that dictates given them were onerous they broke them, trading with whomever and resisting taxes. All this happened while British troops increasingly faced Africans armed by the Spanish and French. This created a problem for the British – how to successfully defend their claims without recourse to doing the same, i.e. arming Africans while at the same time preventing their colonialists from revolting?

The fear that the capital abducted from Africa in the form of slaves would not just be negated by even turned against them became an increasingly real threat.
While this began from just the enemy nations, it soon became a possibility from Britain. Faced with a legal ruling in England that made slavery illegal within her shores was frightening enough. The sudden emancipation of slaves would not only mean the dissolution of the single-most heavily invested commodity in the Colonies but would also mean generalized economic downturn due to secondary industries becoming effected.

Compounding this concern were several pronouncements by representatives of the Crown, such as Lord Dunmore, that suggested they would arm Africans in order to wage a war against the unruly “americans” if they continued to be unruly towards their duty to return the funds spent by London to ensure the Catholic/Native/Negro alliance did not disrupt resource extraction to serve the Manchester looms.

It’s this conflation of interests and contradictions that would lead to the Counter-Revolution of 1776. While the rhetoric of the revolution was universal, it was clear that the continuation of slavery and the up to 1600% profits of it was one of the driving forces of the Declaration. While I found the book to be at times a little redundant – the short closing argument of the book I think presents a correct appraisal of the works context for leftist political activists in that it calls into question the heritage – legal and economic – of the U.S. in such a way as to bring suspicion to it’s emancipatory character. This book, in fact, shows that while there were some greater benefits to this type of society than others formed long ago in Europe, it is hardly the model for the world that ought to be admired and that there is still much work to be done.

If you’d like to hear a variation of the above description of his work from the man himself I’d suggest watching this interview with Amy Goodman. The thrust of the back and forth addresses many of the points that I raise above.