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David Simpson: The 9/11 Memorial, 17 November 2011

... I had just about made my peace with the 9/11 memorial, whose concept I had at first found generic and full of clichés: the trees, the pool of falling water, the glimpse into the void and so on. Despite a few false notes (the tacky little flags on the bagpipes, and George W. Bush reciting from a letter written by Abraham Lincoln to a mother who lost five sons in the Civil War, once again opportunistically figuring the deaths of unknowing civilians as military heroism), the opening ceremony on Sunday, 11 September had gone well ...

Six Wolfs, Three Weills

David Simpson: Emigration from Nazi Germany, 5 October 2006

Weimar in Exile: The Anti-Fascist Emigration in Europe and America 
by Jean-Michel Palmier, translated by David Fernbach.
Verso, 852 pp., £29.99, July 2006, 1 84467 068 6
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... Palmier’s sombre encyclopedia of exile, published in French in 1987 and now translated by David Fernbach, offers seemingly endless evidence of the ways in which exile often punished over and over again those who fled Germany after 1933. One story is symptomatic. Hans Bendgens-Henner, a pacifist refugee who had first settled in Holland, was expelled ...

Wandering Spooks

David Simpson: Vietnam’s Ghosts, 14 August 2008

Ghosts of War in Vietnam 
by Heonik Kwon.
Cambridge, 222 pp., £25, March 2008, 978 0 521 88061 9
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... Conjuring up the ghost of his dead friend Enkidu, Gilgamesh asks what things are like in the afterlife. Enkidu tells him it might be better that these truths remain hidden, but he agrees to answer the hero’s questions about the individual fates of those he knew on earth. It seems that life after death is not so different after all, a somewhat intensified but not inexplicable or inappropriate continuation of worldly behaviour ...

Looking back at the rubble

David Simpson: War and the Built Environment, 25 May 2006

The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War 
by Robert Bevan.
Reaktion, 240 pp., £19.95, January 2006, 1 86189 205 5
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... Thucydides claimed that posterity should not judge the power and dignity of states by their architectural remains. The power of Sparta over much of the Peloponnese and beyond could not have been inferred from an inspection of its built culture – a collection of villages with no grandiose temples or monuments. Conversely, the importance of Athens would be overestimated by anyone in later times who based their opinion on the spectacle of its architectural remains ...

Is It Glamorous?

David Simpson: Stefan Collini among the Intellectuals, 6 March 2008

Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain 
by Stefan Collini.
Oxford, 544 pp., £16.99, July 2005, 0 19 929105 5
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... George Orwell is commonly invoked as the ideal role model for the intellectual: feisty, independent, outspoken and contrarian, active in the public sphere, and famous. So it’s a surprise to learn that the combined circulation of the three periodicals in which most of his essays appeared was only about half that of the publication you are now reading ...

Damnable Heresy

David Simpson: The Epic of Everest, 25 October 2012

Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest 
by Wade Davis.
Vintage, 655 pp., £12.99, October 2012, 978 0 09 956383 9
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... In February 1924, four months before George Mallory and Sandy Irvine died on Everest, Conrad published a short essay called ‘Geography and Some Explorers’. He distinguished between the provision of scientific facts, which could be of only limited interest, and the ‘drama of human endeavour’ embodied in the pursuit of a ‘militant geography’ larger and grander than the mere search for knowledge ...

Because We Could

David Simpson: Soldiers and Torture, 18 November 2010

None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture 
by Joshua Phillips.
Verso, 237 pp., £16.99, September 2010, 978 1 84467 599 9
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... Last July David Cameron announced a judicial inquiry into Britain’s alleged participation in acts of torture and rendition in the years since 9/11, though he also said that it wouldn’t begin until the current round of civil lawsuits had been resolved. The emphasis, he implied, would be on Britain’s role in condoning or assisting foreign agencies rather than on our own independent behaviour ...

A Positive Future

David Simpson: Ernst Cassirer, 26 March 2009

Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture 
by Edward Skidelsky.
Princeton, 288 pp., £24.95, January 2009, 978 0 691 13134 4
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The Symbolic Construction of Reality: The Legacy of Ernst Cassirer 
edited by Jeffrey Andrew Barash.
Chicago, 223 pp., £26.50, January 2009, 978 0 226 03686 1
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... Ernst Cassirer began his eclectic, productive and distinguished career as a philosopher of science, but turned to the study of culture apparently after discovering the Warburg Library in Hamburg, where he took up a professorship in 1919. He spent the rest of his life working out a synthesis able to contain the two cultures. He was prescient in getting out of Germany in 1933, and lucky in heading to Oxford and not Paris ...

What kept Hector and Andromache warm in windy Troy?

David Simpson: ‘Vehement Passions’, 19 June 2003

The Vehement Passions 
by Philip Fisher.
Princeton, 268 pp., £18.95, May 2002, 0 691 06996 4
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... In the opening sentences of his last published work, The Passions of the Soul (1649), Descartes signalled his own modernity with a withering dismissal of the ancients, whose defects he found ‘nowhere more apparent than in their writings on the passions’, writings so ‘meagre and for the most part so implausible’ that he could only write as if ‘I were considering a topic that no one had dealt with before me ...

At the Opium Factory

David Simpson: Amitav Ghosh, 22 October 2009

Sea of Poppies 
by Amitav Ghosh.
Murray, 544 pp., £7.99, April 2009, 978 0 7195 6897 8
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... For some time the Anglophone publishing industry has been keen on the fiction of the global south, at least when it takes the form of magical realism, where the paranormal is staged as the ordinary and the imagination is freed from the familiar laws of gravity. Here, in the (to us) remote corners of the undeveloped or developing world, the colours, smells and flavours are more intense, life is more meaningful and death less absolute than in the grey industrial or post-industrial landscapes of the north, the cradle of modernity and modern empires ...

Seen through the Loopholes

David Simpson: ‘War at a Distance’, 11 March 2010

War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime 
by Mary Favret.
Princeton, 262 pp., £18.95, January 2010, 978 0 691 14407 8
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... When and where does modern war begin? With tanks or gas warfare in 1914-18? With the aerial bombardment of civilians in Mesopotamia in 1920? At Guernica in 1937? With the general conscription, guerrilla campaigns and worldwide conflict of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars between France and Britain and their allies between 1793 and 1815? Or with the destruction of civilian lives and ecosystems in the Thirty Years War of 1618-48 that depopulated a good part of Central Europe? Scholars and writers tend to claim transformational status for the war they happen to be writing about, as Paul Fussell did for the Great War – which was also declared exceptional by those who thought of it as the war to end all wars ...

The Kid Who Talked Too Much and Became President

David Simpson: Clinton on Clinton, 23 September 2004

My Life 
by Bill Clinton.
Hutchinson, 957 pp., £25, June 2004, 0 09 179527 3
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... Let me establish my credentials. On page 320, Bill Clinton recalls a happy time in Montana in 1985 watching ‘marmosets scramble around above the snow line’ (he means marmots). And on page 808 (we’re up to 1998), he identifies the secretary of state for Northern Ireland as Mo Mowlan (for Mowlam). In other words, I have read My Life, all of it, closely enough to catch two slips of somebody’s pen, probably Clinton’s own ...

The Mourning Paper

David Simpson: On war and showing pictures of the dead, 20 May 2004

... America is in a muddle about mourning. The standard newspaper of record, the New York Times, registers this muddle in its national edition of 30 April with a depth and clarity that one can attribute either to a brilliant sequence of editorial decisions or to the happenstance of journalistic montage. It is, indeed, the mourning edition, the memorial edition ...

It’s not about cheering us up

David Simpson: Terry Eagleton, 3 April 2003

Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic 
by Terry Eagleton.
Blackwell, 328 pp., £55, August 2002, 0 631 23359 8
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... In the age of Sophocles or of Shakespeare, tragic drama concerned the deaths of nobles and notables, individuals whose lives were closely entwined with the health of the state. In the 19th century, on the other hand, both the drama and the novel found moral and aesthetic gravity in the deaths of ordinary people. In our own apparently democratised First World there are few kings and princes who need to be reminded not to be tyrants, and the occasional exposure of corrupt corporate moguls presents the spectacle merely of cheap greed brought to some sort of justice without convincing anyone that the body politic is thereby purged of its ills ...

Touches of the Real

David Simpson: Stephen Greenblatt, 24 May 2001

Practising New Historicism 
by Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt.
Chicago, 249 pp., £17.50, June 2000, 0 226 27934 0
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... New historicism was a 1980s thing, a literary critical movement that took shape on the West Coast, becoming established there and elsewhere as what one could talk about after having talked for long enough about feminism, deconstruction and literary theory. The term may have been coined by Stephen Greenblatt in an essay of 1982; if so it was already a restrike, minted from a prototype used by Wesley Morris in 1972 or perhaps by Roy Harvey Pearce in 1958 ...

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