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Saturday, July 10, 2010

"History and the Enlightenment," "The Lovers," more

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Washington Post Book Reviews
For You
Saturday July 10, 2010
Hugh Trevor-Roper
Yale Univ
ISBN 978 0 300 13934 1
314 pages

Reviewed by Michael Dirda. Visit Dirda's online book discussion at
In the half-century following World War II, there was no more admired British historian than Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914-2003). His early book "The Last Days of Hitler" (1947) became a best-seller, as did his much later "Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse" (1976). In this last, he demonstrated, with his customary rigor and suavity, that a distinguished expert on China was a swindler, scoundrel and forger. "Hermit of Peking" remains one of the best scholarly detective stories I know, comparable to A.J.A. Symons' "The Quest for Corvo" (about the notoriously decadent Frederick Rolfe, author of "Hadrian the Seventh") and Charles Nicholl's "The Reckoning" (about the murder of Christopher Marlowe).
Initially trained as a classicist, Trevor-Roper specialized in the intellectual history of early modern Britain and Europe. As a scholar, he was an essayist by inclination, though there was no mistaking the deep learning behind his forceful and elegant but also dryly witty prose. Take, for instance, this brief passage from "The Scottish Enlightenment," one of the essays in "History and the Enlightenment." Trevor-Roper is describing the backwardness of Scotland in the years just before the emergence of philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith: "Returning travelers wrote of it as they might write of a visit to Arabia: those long treeless wastes; the squalid towns in the plains; the savage, unvisited tribes in the hills; the turbulent tribal chieftains; the rabble-rousing mullahs with their mysterious religious organization. Only for a brief moment, in the 1650s, had Cromwell opened up the country and discovered some of its profounder qualities. Then the darkness had descended as the country had gone native again."
"History and the Enlightenment" is a posthumous collection. Editor John Robertson has gathered together Trevor-Roper's reflections on historiography and the achievements of the 18th- and early 19th-century historians, starting with Pietro Giannone -- whose "Civil History of Naples" inspired both Hume and Edward Gibbon -- and ending with Jacob Burckhardt ("The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy").
Before the 18th century, there were roughly three approaches to the writing of history: History was either the working out of God's will over time; or it was a Plutarch-like gallery of the noble and ignoble, proffering moral lessons; or it was largely the antiquarian accumulation of facts and dates. But Montesquieu's "On the Spirit of Laws" -- the foundational work of sociology -- helped originate "philosophical" or "universal" history, which looks at the entire organic structure of a society. To the philosophical historian, social life, ideas and institutions are interdependent, and neither the church nor the state should be overprivileged.
"What was the lesson which Gibbon learned from Montesquieu?" asks Trevor-Roper. "Briefly, it was that human history is ... a process, and a process governed, in its detail, not by a divine plan ... but by a complex of social forces which a 'philosophic historian,' that is, a historian who looked behind mere events for fundamental ideas, causes and connexions ... could isolate and describe."
While everyone admires Gibbon's deliciously ironic style, Trevor-Roper underscores that the author of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" seriously addressed the principal problem that preoccupied the Enlightenment: "the problem of progress in history." Trevor-Roper explains: "To Gibbon, progress is intimately linked to urban freedom and self-government. It was the free cities of Europe, he insists, not the empire of Rome, or any other empire, which transmitted civilization through the Dark Ages. ... It was the empire itself which in its blind, and ultimately defensive, bureaucratic centralization had caused the organs of progress to become atrophied so that, in the end, 'the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.'"
If Montesquieu appears as the guiding spirit of 18th-century historiography, novelist Walter Scott plays a comparable role for romantic historians such as Thomas Carlyle, who -- through his cult of the Great Man and his rejection of progress -- invested the past with glamour and romance. Discussing Carlyle's "The French Revolution," Trevor-Roper writes: "Its vivid, metaphorical style, its rapid narrative, its power to re-create events, as if one were in the midst of them, carried away its earliest readers. ... To read it, even today, is a great literary experience." He then quietly inserts the stiletto: "Whether it explains the revolution, or any historical problem, is of course quite another matter."
Thomas Babington Macaulay, still another master of vividly dramatic prose, was also influenced by Scott. Yet the author of the once-famous "History of England" here stands out as a thoroughly tendentious, highly sectarian thinker, a formulator of draconian and irrevocable judgments about every aspect of politics, history, art and literature. His so-called "Whig history" seeks in the past both the pedigree and justification of the present. The substance of such history is, in essence, "material progress."
Trevor-Roper shows little sympathy with Macaulay's views. Instead, he believes, like the 18th-century German polymath J.G. Herder, that "history was the history of culture, that culture was indivisible, organic, that the past was to be respected on its own terms, not judged by the present: that, as (Leopold von) Ranke put it, all periods are equal in the sight of God."
Of 19th-century historians Trevor-Roper is most strongly sympathetic to the Swiss Jacob Burckhardt, often derided in his lifetime as an amateur and dabbler by the German academic establishment. Burckhardt and Nietzsche were colleagues in Basel, and each developed an "agonistic" theory of society. Nietzsche's "Birth of Tragedy" argued that the Greeks' reputed Apollonian harmony was achieved only by suppressing Dionysiac impulses, while Burckhardt maintained that the Italian Renaissance was born from and sustained by "competitive individualism."
"History and the Enlightenment" doesn't just focus on famous men and books. There are, for instance, enthralling chapters on Conyers Middleton, a founder of deism, and on Dimitrie Cantemir's pioneering "Ottoman History." John Robertson supplies an admirable introduction to Trevor-Roper's academic career as well as an extensive guide to further reading. In every way, this is a wonderfully intelligent and civilized book.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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Vendela Vida
ISBN 978-0060828394
228 pages

Reviewed by Carolyn See, who reviews books regularly for The Washington Post
Sometimes, it seems as if a man would rather struggle into a pair of pantyhose than read a novel by a woman, but everyone might want to take a look at this book. Its title is misleading, perhaps purposefully so; it's really about travel and the frailty of our own identities. We walk in a dream, but most of us are too numb to notice.
Vendela Vida doesn't write about this condition abstractly; she doesn't set herself up as a prophetess intoning, "Sleepers, awake!" She's just pointing out that most of us snore through our lives, and that's on a good day. Falling in love is a convenient device to make us feel alive, but actually it only deepens our dreams. One thing that can wake us up is moving to an unfamiliar place.
Yvonne is a widow in her 50s. Her husband has been dead for about two years, and anyone who's lived through this process will recognize the timing as a stroke of genius on the author's part. For the first year after the death of a spouse, you endure great suffering, but with the mistaken understanding that after a year or so you'll feel better. Then the second year comes, and it's worse, but you tell yourself you must be feeling better, and by the end of that year, you're comatose, though telling everyone you've recovered.
Yvonne, numb and mistaking that numbness for feeling fine, journeys to Turkey. She's going to meet her son, Matthew, his fiancee and her family on a chartered yacht for a short Mediterranean cruise. When she traveled to Turkey years ago with her husband on their honeymoon, they visited the small town of Datca and the seaside settlement of Knidos. She loved those places then and hopes to finger some of these old threads of happiness. She's been in mourning long enough; she yearns to retrieve some of her old identity, which has been fraying lately.
Everyone she knows assures her that she and her husband were an ideal couple, but as a mother she batted .500. While Matthew grew up bristling with accomplishments, her daughter, Aurelia, wreaked havoc, was in and out of rehab and is a great creator of general unhappiness. Yvonne is also a teacher, and there she seems to have hit a wall. After a recent class, one of her students wrote her a venomous note: "You gave the exact same lecture WORD for WORD twice this week."
But who tabulates weaknesses at a time like this? Yvonne feels OK. She still looks good. "At first glance, she looked younger than her fifty-three years. She tried not to be vain about this, but she was not un-proud." If God were grading her, she'd probably get a B(plus sign).
Those who have traveled will probably recognize some of what happens to this flimsy little widow. In Datca, Yvonne has rented a large, impersonal house. There's an unnervingly sturdy hook in the ceiling above the bed. And in another bedroom there's a piece of equipment she's never seen before. And a book she would never dream of reading. And a framed photograph under the couch of a naked lady tied up with a ribbon. The woman who introduces herself to Yvonne as the landlord's wife is not the same woman as the one in the photograph. All this is nothing, really! If her husband were still alive, and they were young and laughing and together and impervious, this might be amusing, something to talk about back home.
Then things happen. Yvonne opens a window and forgets to close it. She drives an unfamiliar stretch of road, unwisely. She doesn't know Turkish and can't read the signs. She can't even say "thank you" correctly. She explores Datca and sees that "the beach was filthy. Small plastic bags, gelatinous in the sun, had been deposited by the tide on the strand." She has nine days until the yacht comes to pick her up.
She drives to Knidos, which has just one restaurant, with a waiter who keeps giving her dirty looks, but the ocean is beautiful, and -- again -- she first saw it on her honeymoon, when she was young and dumb. She befriends an attractive Turkish couple and an endearing 9-year-old who haunts the beach and speaks no English. He seems to like her as much as she likes him, but in the largest and smallest senses, she doesn't know what she's doing. The waiter can scowl as much as he likes; Yvonne has accepted by now that some people detest her on sight. But isn't that true of all of us? There's nothing for it but to go forward, whether we know where we're going or not. But Yvonne is bad news, even if she doesn't know it, like a carrier in a typhoid epidemic.
I've talked about only the first 20 pages or so. Anything more would give away the plot, which is both intricate and simple. That plot, as I've said, has nothing to do with gender. (Nor does the fact that Vida is married to Dave Eggers impinge on this novel in any way.) "The Lovers" is somber, seductive, reflective, unsettling. All our lives are journeys, come to think of it. Hopefully, we shed some of our ignorance along the way. Vida writes -- so beautifully! -- about this process.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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THE ARABS AND THE HOLOCAUST: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives
Gilbert Achcar. Translated from the French by G. M. Goshgarian
ISBN 978 0 8050 8954 7
386 pages

Reviewed by Alison Lake
In "The Arabs and the Holocaust," Gilbert Achar probes the differing views of Arabs and Israelis over the migration of Holocaust survivors to the Middle East after World War II. While Israeli narratives center on Jewish expulsion and genocide in Europe, Palestinians and other Arabs speak of the "grievous catastrophe" associated with the establishment of a Jewish homeland, the forced departure of Arabs from Palestinian territories and subsequent wars.
Achcar, a professor of development studies and international relations in London, carefully examines the long history of Arab-Jewish conflict back through the 19th century, illuminating the range of opinions -- whether Zionist, ultra-nationalist, liberal or anti-Semitic. He points out that, by World War I, opposition to Zionism was central to Palestinian identity and Arab nationalistic consciousness. Palestinian Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, saw Jewish settlement during that period as another form of European colonization. However, early confrontations between Arab peasants and Jewish settlers were not xenophobic or anti-Jewish, Achcar writes, but a predictable outcome of the expulsion of farmers from their lands. Achar doesn't shy away from the contemporary debate. He argues that the Palestinians are engaged in "the last major anticolonial struggle."
Alison Lake can be reached at lakea(at symbol)

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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