June 19, 2008


Travel Pictures. By Heinrich Heine. Translated by Peter Wortsman. Archipelago Books. $17.

Harpoon: Into the Heart of Whaling.
By Andrew Darby. Da Capo. $25.

George Washington on Leadership.
By Richard Brookhiser. Basic Books. $26.

      The interplay of subjectivity and objectivity – a longtime concern of philosophers, and as great an issue for the 21st century as for earlier ones – pervades all of these very different works by authors with journalistic backgrounds. Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), best known as a poet whose works inspired musical settings by Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann and others, was also a journalist and essayist. It was his “The Harz Journey” (1826) that first made him famous, and it wears well even 180-plus years later and in translation. Its vignettes are interesting, its observations acute, its gently satirical observations of life put forward amusingly and without bitterness: “Immortality! You lovely notion! Who first thought you up? Was it some Nuremberg hick who sat on his doorstep on a warm summer night, with a white nightcap on his noggin and a white clay pipe in his mouth, musing right cozily: Wouldn’t it be nice if he could vegetate on like this into sweet eternity without his dear little pipe and his dear little breath ever going out?” Keen observation of his surroundings, coupled with Heine’s awareness that by observing them he is putting them through his own subjective awareness, make for a still-fascinating essay that is never quite matched by the remaining three parts of Travel Pictures, “The North Sea,” “The Baths of Lucca” and “The City of Lucca.” For example, the last of these, which dates to 1831, shares with “The Harz Journey” a wealth of pithy observations and personal remarks; but having read similar comments in the earlier work, the reader may find the newer ones a bit pale here. Still, Heine’s prose, which is not well known outside Germany, has a pleasantly modern feeling to it (at least in Peter Wortsman’s translation), and his observations about people, more than those about places, remain quite insightful.

      If a reader has to think about Heine’s relevance to the modern world, he or she need not do so about whaling, Andrew Darby’s subject in Harpoon. The Australian journalist has clearly studied whaling’s history in some depth, and his discussion of the evolving methods of killing the giant marine mammals is well-informed. He never manages the intensity and objectivity of Herman Melville in Moby-Dick, but that is exactly Darby’s point: he is not interested in objectivity, does not even truly believe it possible any more than Heine does. Darby is first and foremost an environmentalist, and his species-by-species discussion of whales is ultimately designed to raise readers’ consciousness about the animals and enlist them in the fight to end commercial whaling altogether. Whether or not this is a laudable goal – most people in most Western countries appear to agree that it is – it does call into question Darby’s selection and presentation of facts about the whaling industry. He even quotes long-ago hunters who found themselves troubled by the brutality of human attacks on whales; and while there is no reason to disbelieve the quoted remarks, there is reason to wonder whether they were typical of attitudes in those times or represented only a small percentage of opinion. Darby’s passion is clear – his title must have been carefully conceived, since he would in fact like to send a “harpoon into the heart of whaling” -- and although even Moby-Dick itself finds its way into his chapter-heading quotations, most of them reflect his point of view: “…We are dealing with special creatures with remarkably developed brains. They could have taught us much if we had only listened.” “Man has been both blind and ignorant in the pursuit of the whale.” Instead of learning from the past where whaling is concerned, Darby seems to suggest, we have failed to learn from it, with the result that even now there are countries – Iceland, Japan, Norway and others – that launch their whaling ships and continue to pursue the seagoing mammals.

      If Darby’s concerns with the past focus on global issues of the present, those of Richard Brookhiser – also a journalist and historian – focus more narrowly on the United States. His George Washington on Leadership is the latest in a years-long series of books by numerous authors, purporting to find secrets of success for today in the thinking of well-known leaders of yesterday. This always involves some twisting both of words and of history: Washington’s famed military successes are only marginally related to modern business issues, or even to military matters in our time. So Brookhiser’s chapter titles can be a bit fanciful: “Start-ups,” “Small Stuff,” “Sex…and Drugs,” “Bringing Out the Best,” and so on. Still, Brookhiser – who has also written about Alexander Hamilton, the Adamses and other Founders – does a good job of mining Washington’s life for nuggets of wisdom and experience that can translate into modern-day value. Washington did cope with unexpected setbacks in resourceful ways, whether by creating the first mass inoculation against smallpox or by fighting back politically after being condemned for his role in the French and Indian War. And it is certainly possible, as Brookhiser suggests, that some elements of Washington’s personality perceived as flaws (even by his contemporaries) in fact indicated subtlety of mind. Thus, Brookhiser comments on Washington’s reserve at public functions: “Thomas Jefferson thought Washington was just a bad talker. …But Washington had good reason to keep his own counsel [when] he was surrounded by quarrels and contending ambitions. …On many of the issues of the day, Washington had to have a policy. If he had not yet formed one, he needed to keep his options open. If he had formed one, he had to avoid picking needless fights (there were enough unavoidable fights already).” Perhaps it is inevitable during a presidential election year, but even though Brookhiser writes about the applicability of Washington’s talents to the business world, it seems again and again as if the first president of the United States had abilities that would most readily translate into virtues for those who wish to succeed him – if they would only listen more and talk less.

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