Tuesday, October 23, 2012

See What I Did There?

One of the more disappointing recent reads was Jacob Burckhardt’s ‘Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy’ last year. I’d first encountered Burckhardt in the classic work on method, Hayden White’s ‘Metahistory’, in which historiographical texts are compared. (Since historiography is the study of how we write history, metahistory is the study of how we write historiography.)

What made the work so obnoxious was that it expected a great familiarity with the subject, yet was seemingly intended to tell us about that subject. I’m not a Renaissance scholar, but I’ve read Dante, Da Vinci, Castiglione, Machiavelli, teach art history, and think I’ve got a pretty good grasp on the age. Burckhardt is credited as an important founding art historian, but what do we make, then, of someone like Vasari, or the under-appreciated Winckelmann?

See what I did there? I assumed you knew Vasari and Winckelmann, which is a totally unfair assumption. If you did –if it was something everyone just knew – why bother restating it? This is the problem of Burckhardt’s text, his ironic tone makes it nearly unreadable, either through assumed understandings which he does not bother to elaborate upon, or through over-elaborating on what was already understood and accepted.

The reason why this has currently come to the surface is because I just finished the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Omnibus Edition. In it, there is a lengthy section, an almanac, with sporadic illustrations of fabulous places, a tiresome account from Alan Moore of nearly all fantastical places. Why does he bother? The places are mentioned in often obtuse ways, seeing whether the reader got the in-joke or not – for forty-two excruciating pages. I laughed once, from the description of the blue trolls from an undersea kingdom which are occasionally spotted in Argentina. But really, this reference to the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine was mostly funny because it reminded me of a funny line in the movie.

I’m not against lists, to be clear. Not long ago I enjoyed poring through Umberto Eco’s nonfiction ‘The Infinity of Lists’ and find such literary passages usually amusing, such as in Rabelais’ ‘Gargantua and Pantagruel.’ In ‘League’ however the list is tiresome because if you don’t get the reference it’s just boring, and if you do you ask yourself why you’re bothering. It’s certainly not a complete account, although I doubt the satisfaction of such a feat, were it possible, would scarcely improve upon the enjoyment of it. ‘League’ already by design rewards readers with knowledge of late 19th century literature, the insider’s chuckle at the cameos and small references. If I didn’t catch a reference, well, I didn’t know I missed it. The Almanac section, just being a list, loosely tied together by the format, was a constant knock over the head of things missed, not read, obscured.

There are likely readers out there for whom pouring over Wikipedia in an effort to track down each subtle reference is a joy. I admit I’m not one of them. A few and I would’ve been happy to. But not forty-two, tri-columned pages of references. It’s a shame, because I found the two-volume collection of graphic material very satisfying. Both of the ‘League’ adventures were enjoyable fluff – I couldn’t take the plot at all seriously for the first, and deduced the reveal within a page. The second installment was much better, but rushed the ending. It was a neuron snack, rewarding me with well-crafted comics and the pleasure of having gotten the connections and cameos.

Perhaps, though, I’m just becoming intellectually lazy. Maybe some will read this and say that forty pages of references are not too much to ask. It’s certainly shorter than Burckhardt’s lengthier work. This brings me back to his awfulness. Consider a passage from Burckhardt:

“Intrigues, armaments, leagues, corruption and treason make up the outward history of Italy at this period. Venice in particular was long accused on all hands of seeking to conquer the whole peninsula, or gradually so to reduce its strength that one State after another must fall into her hands. But on a closer view it is evident that this complaint did not come from the people, but rather from the courts and official classes, which were commonly abhorred by their subjects, while the mild government of Venice had secured for it general confidence Even Florence, with its restive subject cities, found itself in a false position with regard to Venice, apart from all commercial jealousy and from the progress of Venice in Romagna. At last the League of Cambrai actually did strike a serious blow at the State which all Italy ought to have supported with united strength.”

Note that at no time prior to this does he describe the Venetian Republic, although he mentions other specifics about them. He assumes familiarity, as already stated, but also gives nothing to back his claims. Nothing follows this that lends insight into his assertion that apparently the common people of Venice didn’t want to claim the whole land. No ‘closer inspection’ provided. The very next paragraph discusses Naples, and Venice is only resumed later on.

It’s a poor way to write history, and as Almanac of ‘League’ attests, a poor way to write fiction. A passage from the latter:

“The Oxford baker who’d accompanied the expedition was not with the expedition when they were found, nor was his body subsequently recovered. Reverend Bellman could not give a clear account of what happened to the man, nor could the team’s other surviving members. For some weeks there was hot debate as to whether the reverend and his fellows should be tried for murder, but at last it was decided that their mental states made them unfit to plead…”

Mildly amusing, if you’re familiar with Carroll’s ‘The Hunting of the Snark’. But not as clever, or as enjoyable, as the original tale. Maybe if it had been handled more cleverly, the work would’ve been more to taste. As an example, when visiting the polar regions the queen of Toyland, not being truly alive, finds comfort with her king, Frankenstein’s monster, due to shared existential experience. That’s one of the rare gems that blended the known and novel in a way that gave back to the reader, rather than writing for own enjoyment, or amusement, of playing ‘see what I did there’.

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