Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes

It's a myth that the Romantic poets were fundamentally anti-scientific; they were more usually inspired by the scientific discoveries of their day, argues Richard Holmes in this magnificent group biography. It makes no sense to talk of romantic subjectivity versus scientific objectivity in an age when scientists were poets, and poets were well-versed in science. Wordsworth might have accused scientists of murdering to dissect, but he also envisaged Newton as "a Mind for ever / Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone", thereby contributing to the romantic image of the scientific genius. Keats might have grumbled about Newton reducing the rainbow to a prism, but he also celebrated William Herschel's discovery of Uranus in "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer". An accomplished biographer of Shelley and Coleridge, Holmes is the perfect guide to the "second scientific revolution" (the phrase is Coleridge's) at the end of the 18th century, when artists and scientists were united by their capacity to wonder.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Bugs and the Victorians by JFM Clark

Insects have antennae, powerful mandibles, six legs and, sometimes, wings. Science fiction writers often turn to them for inspiration, from the lifecycle of Ridley Scott's alien to the Tritovores and Vespiforms in Doctor Who; and, as JFM Clark explains in Bugs and the Victorians, it was the "utterly alien morphology" of insects that fascinated 19th-century naturalists. The very lack of any point of analogical comparison to humans enthralled these early entomologists, many of them closet atheists seeking to challenge Christianity's anthropocentric worldview. Men such as Raphael Meldola ("Darwin's entomological bulldog") openly discussed the theory of natural selection at a time when other professions remained more circumspect.
But if weird, freakish insects don't obviously resemble us physically, the behaviour of the so-called "social" insects (all termites and ants, some wasps and bees) has for long been regarded as instructive and, indeed, exemplary. Virgil, Horace and Pliny all sought analogues for human social organisation in the insect world, presenting ant nests and beehives as model societies. In Victorian Britain it was especially apposite to talk of a "queen" bee, one 19th-century apiarist even observing "the Tory loyalty of all her subjects". More offensive than the idea of Tory bees was the use of ants as a justification for slavery. "I found the rare Slave-making Ant," wrote an excited Charles Darwin to a friend, "& saw the little black niggers in their Master's nests." As Clark points out, Darwin supported the anti-slavery movement, but the idea that a species of black ant was enslaved by another titillated the Victorian imagination. "More notice has been taken about slave-ants in The Origin than of any other passage," Darwin ruefully observed.

Entomologists were regarded as harmless amateurs by their peers, says Clark, but their moment of glory came during the days of the British empire, when insects became public enemy number one. Once the link between mosquitoes and disease was understood, entomologists were granted greater respect, and were called upon to draw up taxonomies of "the mosquitoes of empire". Just as reviled as the mosquito was the humble house fly ("NOW IS THE TIME TO STRIKE THE FLY" declared one Victorian poster), which brought diarrhoea and typhoid at home, and decimated armies abroad (in "The Defence of Lucknow" Tennyson included the "infinite torment of flies" in his harrowing list of what a soldier suffers). Identification of the house fly with the wartime enemy was complete when for a period they were known as "winged Huns". When the entomologist Harold Maxwell Lefroy – scourge of the house fly and founder of Rentokil – choked to death on a gas insecticide of his own invention, his last words were: "The little beggars got the best of me this time!"

If insects are still too disconcertingly non-human to be loved by everyone, entomologists themselves have not wholly escaped suspicion. Clark cites one case in which a passion for butterfly collecting was regarded as an obvious sign of lunacy. He also observes that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle makes his villain an entomologist in The Hound of the Baskervilles, although he neglects to mention that Sherlock Holmes in retirement took up beekeeping and even wrote a Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen. We may never completely overcome our entomophobia – epitomised in films such as Them! and The Swarm – but this intelligent and enlightening book shows just how much insects can teach us about ourselves.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Monsters: History's Most Evil Men and Women by Simon Sebag Montefiore

At first glance this roll-call of despicable people seems an odd project for a historian of Montefiore's standing, but it's a companion volume to his Heroes (2007). The preface takes a high-minded, lest-we-forget tone, but in presenting us with 101 mass murderers and serial killers Montefiore is really catering to our appalled fascination with evil. Wikipedia-style potted biographies are interspersed with idiosyncratic sidebars on loosely related subjects such as voodoo, kleptocracies, psychological profiling and, er, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Expect all the usual suspects - Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Torquemada, Vlad the Impaler, Hitler, Lenin, Stalin - the 20th century contributing by far the most nasties. Montefiore even brings us bang up to date with Mugabe, Saddam, Milosevic and Bin Laden. Some of the lesser-known monsters have wonderful names: Basil the Bulgar Slayer, Godfrey of Bouillon, Pedro the Cruel and Selim the Grim. It's grim stuff, sure enough, and if on a one-night stand you spot it on the bedside table, get out of there immediately.

The Third Reich at War: How the Nazis Led Germany from Conquest to Disaster by Richard J Evans

This is not a book about the second world war or the Holocaust, but about a specific regime created in Germany by Hitler and his National Socialists. Having charted its rise in The Coming of the Third Reich (2003), and revealed how it took control of the German psyche in The Third Reich in Power (2005), Evans now completes his impressive trilogy by showing how Hitler's imperialist ambitions saw the Third Reich evolve into "The Great German Reich", starting with the invasion of Poland in 1939. For Evans, 1943 is the crucial year when devastating allied air raids turned ordinary Germans against Hitler's regime. A minority, such as the White Rose resistance movement, stood up to Nazism, while Evans observes that "the majority of Germans felt uneasy [sic] at the mass murder of Jews and Slavs, and guilty that they were too afraid to do anything to stop it". The history of the Third Reich, he argues, shows us "the human hatred and destructiveness that exist, even if only in a small way, within all of us".

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

1 September 2009

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

and darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September night.

W. H. Auden, '1 September 1939'