*to Hanlon's razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Great knowledge overview TV series

There is a place for middle-brow overviews in series form, before and after the Internet, so long as they neither condescend, nor misrepresent both a subject, and its complexity.  The Guardian recently had an article on Kenneth Clark's series 'Civilization'.  It's one of the good ones, if dated and plummy.  Not all are worthwhile: I do not like the Ken Burns series, and Attenborough's are worthy, if thin of content for my tastes.

'Civilization' I learned of only because in 1988/9, my very RP-speaking, canon-centric, though otherwise quite excellent professor of 'Survey of English Literature', assigned it to us to make up for the lacunae in the experience of we North Americans, as we would not have had the pleasure of, as he put it, being able to visit a "10th Century mead hall" across campus.  He sounds a worse snob than he was.  He was right.  When I got to visit England, the nearest to the Stendahl Syndrome I have experienced was entering the National Gallery, and finding the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone (thanks, Kamo) and Persian Lions all in the first few rooms.*  Paul Peeler at McGill was the professor, I recall.  No sign of him on the Internet, as he must have retired long ago.  According to a girlfriend who became an assistant to him, he was sidelined in the faculty for paying too much attention to teaching.  "And so it goes..."   My father had the book made from the series, which I did look through (though rather doubt my father had).  I did not watch much of the series, both because I then thought Clark a precious ass, and because one had to make time to go to the a/v room on campus, if you can imagine that, as one did for learning language, which I only once did for Japanese the time the prettiest Hong Kong girl in class asked me to join her.

On science, I was impressed with the few parts of Bronowski's 'Ascent of Man' I was able to catch on TVO, and always meant to go back to watch the balance.  You could do worse than to watch the conclusion.

You may see why I falsely remembered Bronowski having committed suicide, whereas it was a character he played in 'Hannah and her Sisters'.  It would have been a great complement to one of the most memorable courses I took: 'History of Science'.  Cannot remember the professor's name, but besides teaching, for the most part, the history of European cosmology and introducing me to fascinating characters like Giordano Bruno, Kepler, Tycho Brahe, and Koestler through his book 'The Sleepwalkers', he had a habit of confronting us with what you could call rhetorical-challenges:
- "Koestler committed suicide with his wife, when he decided it wasn't worth living.  What do you think of that?!"
- "Milton said, "'What is truth?', said Pilate jesting, and would not stay for an answer.""
- He brought in a lecturer from the Sorbonne, and made us sit though an hour of Parisian French half of us could not understand, being Anglos at an English university... in a French province.

Within more recent living memory, what parts of Simon Schama's 'A History of Britain' I saw I found put the pieces I knew into better order in my mind, if the images of burning caltrops on beaches was a bit overwrought.

If I were going to include radio series and webcasts: 'A Short History of Progress' about the Ponzi-scheme that is every civilization.

Do you have any other suggestions for me to subject my children to in a decade?

*The other time was in The National Treasure Museum in Taipei, as I am an EA Studies minor.


  1. I'm afraid I've noting by way of an answer to your final question, though I'll come back if anything springs to mind. This is just a comment to say that I really enjoyed this post. A nice reminder that there's lots of stuff here I really should make more of an effort to watch in entirety.

    (And I'm afraid I can't resist nitpicking: The Code of Hammurabi is in the Louvre. I know this because I had a similar experience there to yours in the British Museum. Went to Paris on a city-break with an ex. She got all excited about the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo but, being a geographer, I insisted on taking a detour to the Babylonian section. The first recorded human laws and they're largely about water and resource management. Never let it be said I don't know how to romance the ladies.

    Maybe you're thinking of the Rosetta Stone? Easy to confuse one stolen rock with another, I know ;)

    1. You are correct, of course. Where did I see the Magna Carta and Domesday Book? 'Twas rather overwhelming for this colonial.

  2. As a Brit, I rather enjoy Adam Curtis docs. Lifting the lid on the postwar dreams that turned out to be myths. Very dark.

  3. I have the boxed set (VCR) of Civilization! Love it in all its pre-PC glory. I can't stop myself from imitating Clark's mannerism of smacking his lips when he speaks, very uncivilized of me but then I'm a barbarian so what does one expect.

  4. For just WWII, I love The World At War, especially Stephen F. Ambrose's commentary. I know I've said that more than once...

    1. On a more exploitative note, I loved watching 'Battle 360' (even if the effects are mediocre). Somehow my J-wife didn't enjoy my whooping. Do you think it's because she doesn't have the kind of mind for spatial awareness of an air/sea battle, or because we KICKED HER PEOPLE'S ASS!