Archive for the 'history' Category

Karen Armstrong: The Great Transformation

May 15, 2022

    I’ve thought highly of the books of Karen Armstrong over the years; her approach to the study and history of religion and theology I have found very enlightening and thought-provoking. I’d never describe her works as popularising; they are detailed, careful, well-explained and do demand a certain amount of personal sympathy with the subjects she tackles.

This tome – The Great Transformation – however, I found rather different, and I will confess at the start that I skimmed a good deal of it, because there was so little in my existing knowledge that I could use to link in to the incredibly detailed exploration of the worlds of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah over the space of several hundred years. In other words, here is a far less accessible work than any others of hers that I’ve read. The links with Jeremiah, Jewish history and the Hebrew scriptures and Christian Bible I could latch onto, the rest not so much.

So not a book for the general reader, even someone reasonably well-versed in the history of religion as I thought I was; there’s an enormous amount of minutiae here, as well as a great weight of (necessary) speculation, given that so much of what she describes is largely lost in the mists of time. She was interesting on the history of Israel, the territory, its gods (!) over time and the gradual emergence of monotheism and the eventual codifying of the Jewish faith and practice.

I think she is detailing the gradual movement from religion as mere ritual to its eventual emphasis on ethical behaviour, with the internalisation of religion as a crucial development. She also emphasises movement from oral to written tradition in scripture, particularly among the Jewish people. I’ve always had a sense of the Old Testament as a chaotic and repetitive text, and lately read much about its gradual and relatively late development, but from Armstrong I have a picture of its being even more chaotic, of its contradictory content, merged stories with varying and different purposes behind them. It seems even more of a mish-mash than I thought possible.

Equally, I was surprised to discover just how early on the notion of questioning and challenging everything in an effort to understand and get to the bottom of things developed in Greek philosophy, and the fact that it was getting on for two millennia later before the West fully embraced this approach.

Another book that I cannot recommend to a general reader; I’m glad I dipped into and skimmed it but there was just too much I could not really understand or make sense of from my relatively limited and Western perspective. It’s good to be reminded of one’s own limitations from time to time…

On collective amnesia

May 5, 2022

I haven’t posted much lately because I haven’t been reading much. Escaping the current dire state of the world seems to elude me.

I realise, as I get older, that not everyone remembers as much or as far back as I do; it’s like that strange moment when you eventually realise that policemen are now younger than you, and it didn’t use to be like that. You have to be approaching seventy to have any memory of the Cuban missile crisis. Apart from Biden, no current world leaders hit that.

Back then, NATO and the Warsaw Pact faced each other; two hostile alliances. Now NATO faces Russia alone. Back then, the two alliances faced each other in Europe; there was a buffer of “friendly” states between Russia and the West. Now there isn’t. NATO has always had its missiles in the Russian back yard; the closest Russian missiles get to the US back yard is …. Alaska.

In 1961, world leaders were rather wiser than now, I think; they all knew what the horrors of the world war that had ended less than twenty years previously had been. Today all that is history, rather than memory, for our leaders. And I am horrified by their approach. Correct me if I’m wrong, but EU leaders seem mostly to be being calm and measured, even if they’re getting nowhere. Biden is past it, to be honest: should he have a driving licence at his age, let alone leadership of the “free” world? His public messaging is all over the place.

Britain continues to be a joke. Our PM gives away military secrets during a TV interview. His ministers say outrageous things about Putin publicly; they’re entitled to say what they like in private, but name-calling, doubting the man’s sanity, calling for him to be tried for war crimes when we aren’t at war with the Russians (yet) is barking. I wouldn’t trust the cabinet to run a ‘win a goldfish’ game at a funfair.

Putin, whose actions are evil, does look like a physically ill man. Some call his sanity into account: we don’t actually have access to information to verify that. But if that is the case, then threats and abuse are surely more likely to trigger a more outrageous and over the top response: we should be more measured in our response, without being any less determined.

Meanwhile, consider what is actually going on. Russia, left alone, might well have overwhelmed Ukraine in a matter of days. What they see is the West once again fighting a war by proxy: NATO is providing Ukraine with whatever it needs apart from troops on the ground and planes in the air. Ergo, to them, Russia is fighting NATO.

Here we are again with the Irishman’s reply to the lost traveller: “If I were you, I wouldn’t be starting from here.” Western triumphalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union got us here; a more measured approach to Russian needs for security would have been a good start. We are in a serious mess now.

I have no suggestions for a way out. I do know that war is not good for humans and other living things. And, while Putin threatens rapid, fiery destruction, let us not lose sight of the fact that American capitalism is busy, quietly boiling the frog: big business is burning up the planet in the quest for profit, and social media is constantly stirring the cauldron of hatred. Putin has a hell of a lot to answer for; our side does not have clean hands.

Some thoughts on the Ukrainian tragedy

April 14, 2022

Warning: politics ahead

The tragedy of the Ukrainian people is evident, without my needing to say more. Even if the war ended now, several million people have gone into exile, thousands are dead, large parts of the country have been comprehensively trashed, and the economy is in ruins.

Putin has accused Ukrainians of being Nazis. This accusation has been ignored, or simplistically dismissed in the West. And yet, for Putin, there is a kind of truth behind it, for during the Second World War (or the Great Patriotic War, as he would call it) some Ukrainians did collaborate with the Nazis, fight in their armies. Why? Because they naively saw them as liberators from what Stalin had inflicted on them in the previous decade, when millions of them were deliberately starved to death… Ukraine suffered grievously at the hands of both sides, just like another country not so far away.

And yet, there is also a tragedy for the Russians, whose economy is also being gradually wrecked, and whose international reputation cannot go any lower, we think. Their tragedy is having no tradition or experience of anything remotely resembling our flawed Western democracy: they have always – apart from a brief anarchic shakeout after the fall of the Soviet Union – been ruled by “strong” (read brutal) leaders, who have spouted words about the greatness of the nation, a delusion largely propagated by its enormous physical extent. This was true in Tsarist as well as Soviet days. Russian leaders have always done brutal very well, brutal to others, and total lack of care towards their own: what caused the Russian Revolution, after all? And, although again we in the West are inclined to overlook the Soviet effort in defeating Nazism, that effort was at the cost of regarding troops as cannon-fodder and the commanders being prepared to sacrifice however many were necessary to achieve their goal…

So the Russian approach is to wreck anywhere that opposes them: we have been reminded of Chechnya by our own commentators, and the same tactics seem to be being used in Ukraine at the moment. However, our generally ignorant, ill-informed and mouthy commentators manage to overlook the similar achievements of the West, which we are cleverer in allowing to be done by our proxies: look at the brutality being used in the Yemen, or in occupied Palestine, for example. Except it’s not the US or UK that’s doing it…allegedly.

I have been astonished by the drivel, the war-mongering nonsense written by journalists and spouted by Western politicians. If Putin does suffer from some kind of mental disorder, then it’s probably not very sensible to shout about it publicly: who knows what, in extremis, he might feel driven to try? Shut up Joe Biden (and others). And the amateur histrionics of our own government are laughable, dressing themselves up in sub-Churchill cloaks and pontificating from the sidelines as if what we thought or did made any difference. At least Macron has been trying. And then there’s all the financial aid and succour given to Putin and his kleptocrats in the past, which we are trying to sweep under the carpet.

OK so there are my opinions. And what should be done, you may well ask? I don’t know, to be perfectly honest. I do know that war is not good for ordinary people under any circumstances. And I do know that war is very profitable business for some. I do know that the West handled Russia very badly in the years after the collapse of communism, making lots of money but hardly fostering the kind of ‘democracy’ we’re usually so fond of talking about when we start our own wars (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq… I could go on but you get the idea). We have no real understanding of what Russia means by security: their definition may be over the top but we ought to have listened.

Apparently there were moves years ago to rule out Ukrainian membership of NATO, to enshrine some kind of neutrality for that new nation. What happened? We are very good at hindsight over here. And what would we do if that weren’t enough for Putin? The sanctions we have imposed seem to me to be the bare minimum that we can do; if we didn’t let big business get in the way, we might have been far less dependent on Russian energy than we are currently.

To finish, I’ll repeat: war isn’t the answer, and nobody will get what they want; that’s evident already. More mature and longer-term thinking and reflection is needed; our businesses and our leaders are not up to the mark here. We blunder on from crisis to crisis while the planet burns: future generations will not thank us. Meanwhile the innocent suffer.

Norman Davies: God’s Playground – A History of Poland (vol1)

April 9, 2022

     It’s well over thirty years since I first came across and read this monumental work by Norman Davies, who is the current expert par excellence on Polish history, so much so that all of his works have been translated into Polish and seem to rank alongside native-born historians’ work…

He begins by making it clear that it’s not merely the physical/ geographical location of Poland in the Central European plain sandwiched between Germany and Russia that creates many of that nation’s difficulties, but also Poland’s rule, and lack of it, too. He manages dexterously to pick his way through the minefield of the borderlands, national allegiances and historical changes in a way only recently paralleled by Timothy Snyder; he also demolishes a good number of nationalist myths and sacred cows along the way. It’s worth reminding ourselves that this history was written in the days of the People’s Republic, too.

There was much intermingling of races and peoples back in the days before the earliest origins of the Polish state in the tenth century, along with mobility of all frontiers: here is an aspect of the region’s history that the British, safe on our little island, repeatedly prove unable to understand. Reading for personal reasons, I’m still trying to unpick the history and geography of the region of my ancestors, on the verges of Poland/Lithuania and Belarus.

The maps are mostly excellent: one really can attempt to understand the complexities of the past millennium with their help, although the chaotic politics and regional warfare over centuries do still go over my head.

There are still surprises to this experienced reader of Polish history: from the stridency and bigotry of the 21st century Polish church, you would never deduce the spirit of toleration during the Reformation era, the lively debates that took place, and the strength of Calvinism at the time. Davies shows us how the nation eventually developed into a bulwark of Catholicism, and this was obviously reinforced by the resistance to Soviet rule, and the election of a Polish pope, some time after Davies was writing this book.

Poland’s economic and political problems seem to have stemmed from its being a decentralised state for much of its existence, as well as a complex, multi-ethnic mix, with its borders in pretty constant flux; the country was seriously anarchic during the crucial 17th and 18th centuries when most nation-states were consolidating themselves, with an over-emphasis on individual liberties for nobles and magnates which impeded the development of a strong centre which might have more successfully resisted Russian and Prussian encroachment; the nobility waged many of their own private wars, and paralysed the state through their use of parliamentary veto; magnates could also be bought up, and were, by the nation’s enemies…

We can clearly see the origins and development of Poland’s deep-seated mistrust of Russia, its rulers and their methods; recent events justify this wariness. Equally, we can see the origins of anti-Jewish sentiments which developed over the years, and about which the current regime is in denial.

Davies tries very hard to enable his readers to make sense of centuries of chaos, but at times, even to this seasoned reader, it became dull, overloaded with (probably) necessary detail. Nonetheless, the necessary broad outlines are there. This volume ends with the disappearance of Poland from the map in 1795; I shall take up the second volume when I can find it (it’s in a box somewhere…).

Rank insanity

February 24, 2022

Today the lunatics are running the asylum.

Trump thinks the US has invaded Ukraine. Biden sounds like a true Cold Warrior. Our Prime Minister is playing at Churchill. Our Foreign Secretary is geographically challenged. And our Defence Secretary hurls insults at the man who started it all – Putin. I’ve read hundreds of column inches of half-informed drivel in the so-called serious press, by commentators who ought to know better, but don’t. I think I’ve read two sensible articles.

Putin is running rings around the West, having had years to practise, and an increasingly clear, and very Russian objective: to rebuild the Empire; whether it’s the Soviet one or the Tsarist one hardly matters. And we don’t understand what’s going on. Western leaders do seem incapable of looking at the situation from the Russian point of view. Kennedy got stroppy very quickly when the Soviets started installing missiles in the US backyard, and we ended up with the Cuban crisis of 1962. And when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the West was ridiculously triumphalist: we won, our system’s better than yours, we are top dogs now.

For a while, there was caution, of a sort, but I don’t see how anyone could have imagined that to allow NATO to move right to the borders of Russia, and then to allow the – no matter how remotely in the future –prospect of Ukraine joining, was not going to have Putin as antsy as Kennedy was way back then. And I hold no cards for Putin, who is a nasty piece of work with all sorts of typically Russian skullduggery to his name, both at home and abroad. But you would have thought there might be a little common-sense somewhere in the Western camp… but no, it’s full of people who weren’t even alive during WW2 likening Putin to Hitler, wanting full-on war and I don’t know what else.

I’m fully in favour of peoples’ right to self-determination and independence if they want it; Ukraine hasn’t had much of a chance, really: thirty years of trying, and what seems like a fair amount of chaos and a hell of a lot of corruption. Many, though not all, of the countries that emerges from the Soviet yoke back in the 90s have had a difficult translation to democracy; several are clearly backsliding rather seriously. And again, Western triumphalism and the urge of businesses to make a killing rather than build real foundations for a peaceful and secure world order, are more than partly to blame.

The lunatics are running the asylum. I’m scared, horrified and appalled. I’ve always been against war, which ultimately solves nothing, but creates more business opportunities for arms manufacturers. And I’m thinking about a former student of mine, who is in Kyiv at the moment.

Orlando Figes: Natasha’s Dance

February 2, 2022

Anyone who has read any Russian literature or history must be aware of how different a nation Russia feels compared with ourselves or other European nations; sadly this awareness never seems to percolate down to politicians… Agains the current backdrop of the Ukraine crisis, I was constantly struck by the lack of ability or willingness of Western leaders and politicians to see the world from the perspective of Russia and its people, which might actually inform a more helpful and sensible response to them. But we are incapable of going beyond the triumphalism of “we won the Cold War”. It was in the hope of digging deeper and understanding more, that I finally opened this tome which I’d bought nearly 20 years ago.

Figes offers an excellent, clear and detailed contextual background at the start, and this is possibly the best part of the book, as he takes us far back into the country’s history. Russia had no experience of the Renaissance, and no religious Reformation: here are two major differences which set it apart from the rest of Europe. Then there is the power of Orthodox Church rule, which I’d never really grasped, and it gradually became clear how the church developed into an arm of the state and its power as time passes, far more a part of the establishment than the Church of England is here, for example, with there being only the one faith in Russia. Then there were the long years of Tatar rule. And serfdom, an idea we have no conception of here in the West, and it struck me quite forcefully how Stalin’s labour camps were in many ways a return to that idea, an almost endless supply of slave labour at the service of the rulers.

The idea that you could send troublemakers to Siberia – thousands of miles away – reminded me that we transported criminals to the American colonies and later to Australia, but Russia sent away clever people, intellectuals, dangerous thinkers, and then eventually allowed a lot of them to return home.

Figes documents the relationship between Russia and Europe, or rather the relationship between the Russian intellectuals, aristocracy and bourgeoisie and Europe, for the peasantry and serfs were a class completely apart. Does Russia belong in Europe or not? This is a question which still poses itself today, even though in different terms. From an incredibly wide knowledge of Russian history, art, literature and culture generally, Figes shows us the love/hate relationship which has endured for centuries: Russian feelings of inferiority when they compared themselves with what Europe had attained culturally and economically, and equally the Russian sense of purity and superiority when faced with what they perceived as our decadence…

Russians sought to imitate us, and then to derive and develop something better and more specifically Russian from their encounters with the West, but the pull (and the repulsion) has always been there. This ambivalence has been long-lasting as over centuries the country sought to define and understand itself in relation to the west. Is the famed Russian soul, the Russian psyche, really different from ours?

We eventually move on to the idea that Russians are somehow prone to collective emotion and political excess, which Figes illustrates by reference to the Populists of the 19th century and the Bolsheviks of the 20th. He sees a quasi-religious angle to the Russian revolution, anchored in the nation’s past. Soviets wrestled with how to transform the backwardness of Russian society, and their attempts were too radical and wide-ranging to have succeeded anywhere, perhaps least of all in such a backward nation. Excesses developed easily and were widespread.

Where the book falls down, in my estimation, is in the burden of too much detail, too much reference to the minutiae of various paintings, operas, ballets etc. In places it’s repetitive, in others it doesn’t make for clarity when you can’t see the paintings, for example; there are some illustrations included, but too few for the general reader to follow Figes’ analysis.

The section on Soviet art and culture feels very much tacked on to the rest of the book and not linked with Figes general thesis; clearly late capitalism and its effects were much more extreme in that country than in the rest of Europe, which links in with the idea that Russia did not go through the bourgeois phase, in the Marxist interpretation of history and economic development. I got the impression that Figes regards the art and culture of the Soviet era as an aberration; he is almost dismissive of it. He spends as much time on emigres as the homeland. However, he is interesting on artists’ experiences of exile, and how its effects were far broader than we can imagine.

Russia is obviously a country of extremes, and this must be connected with the sheer physical vastness of the country; even the USA, another vast and extreme nation in some ways, is only half the size. The church is very much a tool of the state; it reinforced Tsarist power, and was even invoked by Stalin in the darkest days of the Great Patriotic War. It is very different from Western Christianity, anchored in ritual, rather than based on theology.

It’s a useful book and I learned quite a lot from it; my sense of the background to Russian history is rather clearer, and yet the overall effect was not as coherent as I had hoped.

Colin Thubron: The Amur River

December 30, 2021

     A very welcome Christmas present was this latest book from travel veteran Colin Thubron, an arduous journey along the Amur/Heilongjiang river (and tributaries) which forms the disputed frontier between Russia and China. It was a little while before I registered that Thubron was in his eightieth year (!) when he made this lengthy trip: my admiration increased given the evident physical endurance he needed, and the injuries he sustained. And so there still are incredibly remote, unexplored and relatively dangerous places on the planet for intrepid travellers to explore, even though, as we learn, they are inhabited by peoples who have eked out their living there for centuries…

The joy of such a book is being in the company of someone who writes really well: his style is atmospheric, he is knowledgeable, the prose flows almost effortlessly, and Thubron knows how to not intrude, how not to make his narrative me-me-me-look-at me! His curiosity is evident throughout the book, and for me it’s the mark of a seasoned traveller the way he patiently reports casual conversations and encounters without any commentary or judgement, because he’s aware of his relative lack of knowledge. There is room for him to report a personal reaction or feeling to what he sees or hears, but that’s different, as well as separate from his account. This humility and respect on Thubron’s part remains, even if it’s clear or evident that what someone says is wrong, or sounds incorrect. Thus the horrors of the Stalin era and the collectivised past are allowed to stand and speak for themselves. And they do.

One thing which I learned from this journey and these places is the centuries-old distrust bordering on open dislike, even hatred that exists between Russia and China; I did not really know much about this, other than being aware of military skirmishes way back in 1969. We learn about various treaties which moved borders in various directions, the Chinese sense of injustice, and the different native peoples who had been innocently caught up in the greater powers tussles over their ancient homelands…

It comes across in the way he writes, that Thubron is aware that his picture of both Russia and China is necessarily limited: an outsider, try as they might, can never really know what it is like to live permanently as a citizen of another country, which is why careful impressions offered by a seasoned and thoughtful traveller are so interesting. He is open about what he does not see or cannot understand.

The overall picture which emerged for me was of Chinese dynamism and confidence in its new-found place in the world, contrasted with Russian entropy, and its searching for a sense of itself since the disappearance of the Soviet Union. There is much mutual resentment and dislike.

Necessary explanations and contextualisations are carefully woven in as we go along, and the one map is very useful and very carefully drawn and helpfully labelled, and most of the time was a good deal more use than my collection of atlases. I was, however, disappointed to find no photographs included in such a travelogue. It was hard to conceive of the utter remoteness of some of the places he writes about, and he made me want to return to Vladimir Arseniev’s account of the region. It’s a very good read.

Charles Nicholl: The Lodger

December 22, 2021

     A batch of legal papers from the early 17th century, in which Shakespeare is questioned in a case about his landlord’s failure to pay his daughter’s marriage portion, is the premise for this rather tenuous book. True, it places the dramatist as a lodger in a particular house in London for a few years, but in factual terms, that’s it really.

Whilst it’s good (and harmless enough) for people to continue research after four centuries, there’s not an awful lot that’s going to be uncovered now that will cast any definite new light on Shakespeare’s life and career. What is possible is an awful lot of knitting together of evidence and threads into various tapestries of speculation and deduction that fill many pages. Sometimes there is interesting contextual detail and background, but nothing here that added to James Shapiro’s books 1599 and 1606 a few years back. Plenty of deduced geographical, historical and social trivia that, sadly, is presented in a rather dull, oddly disengaged style.

What did I learn? That there were similar issues then as now about immigration, and economic migrants, a similar black economy, a similar English resentment of foreigners taking jobs, not integrating into our country… Shakespeare lodged in a house of foreigners (French Huguenots) and there was a mildly interesting but rather cursory chapter on aliens in his plays, how he portrayed them and developed their characters.

The real issue with this book is that there isn’t enough material, particularly directly connected with Shakespeare. It’s heavily padded out with notes and also many pages of legal transcript of the 17th century court case. Disappointing, and while I won’t go quite as far as to say a waste of my time, you can safely pass on this one.

Roy Robinson: The Thoughtful Guide to the Bible

December 20, 2021

     Here is a very carefully written and very thoughtful book, written by a minister in the United Reformed Church. So, a believer, and possibly with an axe to grind. But no. He clearly and trenchantly takes issue throughout the book with any kind of fundamentalist approach to the scriptures. He explains carefully and exemplifies his points, considering the history of the Bible, manuscripts, translation, the need for textual criticism, the traditions of Jews and Christians… and, at the end of it all, the scriptures survive, as they would.

He shows us the different target audiences and purposes of different books in both old and new testaments, and offers an excellent and detailed synopsis of all the research done over many years.

You can either be a fundamentalist who says everything is the word of God so unchangeable and to be obeyed, ignoring all the textual history and context of writings up to 2,500 or more years old, or a reader, perhaps believer, who realises that such a position is illogical and impossible, and that a different approach is therefore needed. What is the importance of the writings, what is the real essence or kernel of meaning? Does a modern approach undervalue and undermine it? Robertson’s answer is clear; his belief survives his microscopic examination.

I came to realise that, in the end a book like this is necessary in our times, an age where reason, logic and science present strong challenges to religious faith, although this is not really comparing like with like. But through a book like this, the messages which come from the teachings and example of the man Jesus can retain their significance for many more people today.

My only criticism of the book, really, is of the poor editing and proof-reading which did jar quite frequently during my re-reading of an otherwise very helpful book.

First World War poetry: more for students

December 14, 2021

 

If you’re going to write intelligently about poetry and the First World War, you need to know and understand something about that war, to be able to judge how it affected the many writers who fought and were killed during those four and a half appalling years. You don’t need to read a history book, but you do need an outline that you understand of what led up to the war, the major battles, the aftermath, and the effects on those who survived. This link takes you to a short-ish account I wrote as an outline for my students. I’m not a historian; it doesn’t set out to be impartial, but to make you think, and if you are seriously interested, then you can search for more to read. I’ve also prepared a list of all sorts of reference material and other texts you might at least like to consider looking up.

Maybe you, or someone in your family, has visited some of the sites of battles in Flanders or France, perhaps in search of a relative who was killed. Ask them about their impressions of those places.

If you like listening to stuff, then this website – librivox – has a number of different accounts by people who took part in the war in many different ways, read by volunteers as audiobooks into the public domain (ie they’re free). Do a search.

Do some thinking about form. Why were there so many poets, or so much poetry written during that war? Far more, and it seems, far better than came out of the Second World War. Easier to scribble a few lines in a dugout or a trench, into a notebook? You can hardly write a novel or a play in an underground bunker. What can you do with in a poem, that you cannot do so easily in a novel or in a play? Equally, consider what you can do well in a play, or in a novel? If you’re sitting down to write something longer, having survived where your mates haven’t, then you have the time to look back, to think about and reflect on what you went through… What are the advantages of each of these literary forms? If you’re thinking at this level, and able to explain some of your ideas, then you are heading into the highest grade territory, not that that’s the only reason for doing it…

Take your thoughts to another level, and realise that there were many countries involved in what was a world war, and not only the British wrote about it: find out something about what the French, or the Germans wrote from their perspective. Think about the fact that although hundreds of thousands of British soldiers were killed, Britain wasn’t overrun and occupied by the Germans, whereas all of Belgium and large parts of France were. What difference might that have made?

Finally for this piece, do not be afraid of your own opinions and reactions: be ready to express them, as clearly as you can. As long as you can support your comments with evidence from the text you’re writing about, what you have to say is valid and worthy of credit. You can like something, or not like it, it’s doesn’t matter as long as you can explain and show why you feel like that.

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