of historic blunders
by V.N. Datta
IN Indian historical circles few non-Indians have gained such wide popularity as Marx, Arnold Toynbee, G. M. Trevelyan and E. H. Carr.
simpleton exposes complex cruelty
insider on ministerial missteps
Review by Kuldip Kalia
Serving Bosses: Big and Small Reminiscences of an Information Officer by I.P. Tewari. Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi. Pages xi+88. Rs 150.
has its uses
on becoming a social being
of historic blunders
IN Indian historical circles few non-Indians have gained such wide popularity as Marx, Arnold Toynbee, G. M. Trevelyan and E. H. Carr. Of course, Marxs great contribution lay in making history a structural piece of analysis which has profoundly influenced the method of history-writing.
Using the Spenglerian concept of the rise, growth and decline of civilisation, Toynbee focused on the decadence of contemporary western civilisation.
Influenced by his great uncle Lord Macaulays mode of making history an exquisite form of narration, Trevelyan treated history as an imaginative reconstruction of the past despite his neglect of economic factors operating in society.
E. H. Carrs reputation does not rest on his monumental work The History of Soviet Russia but on a short book What is History, which has sold 25,000 copies since its publication in 1961. Curiously enough, this work was banned in Iran and condemned as a bourgeois treatise.
Carrs brilliance is recaptured in Jonathan Haslams, The Vices of Integrity: E. H. Carr, 1892-1982 (Verso, London, p 306, £ 25).
Carr has remained a controversial historian. His pro-Soviet views reflected in his works have been subjected to severe criticism. His interpretation of the Soviet Union and its government was partisan. However, there is no denying the fact that he was easily one of the most learned men of his times, not learned philosophically in the profoundest sense of the term.
Cut off from society and leading the life of a recluse intellectual, he became self-centred which, according to his biographer, seriously affected the quality of his work. Because of the agony of his own personal unhappy life, he found comfort in the pursuit of historical knowledge.
This restless and relentless intellectual battle led to the production of several historical works of merit covering a wide range of themes. Carr had spent about 40 years in writing the History of the Soviet Russia. Haslam finds this work utterly disappointing, bereft of insight and imaginative sympathy. It is history from above.
Born into a middle class family, Carr had an opportunity to study in prestigious institutions and showed remarkable promise as a bright classical scholar. His range of learning was wide, and he developed a powerful aptitude for learning things new, and finding them out himself which is a tough thing to do in life.
He mastered several languages, English, Latin, Greek, French and Russian, and travelled widely. He served in the Foreign Office for some time. The Russian Revolution aroused his interest in the country and Marxism. His appointment in the Riga consulate helped him obtain much information about what was happening in Russia.
Carr acknowledges that the peculiar developments taking place in Russia had fascinated him. He became convinced that capitalism with its inegalitarian system of exploitation was doomed, and the future lay in nazism and communism.
In 1936 he resigned from the foreign service and took over as professor of international politics at the university college in Aberyswyth.
After this appointment, Carr concentrated on the study of international politics. He showed much admiration for nazism because he found it dynamic and stimulating a regeneration of society. He believed in the appeasement of Hitler. He stressed in his writings that Germany had been unjustly and severely treated by the victors in the Treaty of Versailles (signed at the end of World War I). According to him, Germany had a legitimate right to expand itself in central and south-eastern Europe, and to rectify the wrongs done to it in 1919.
For some time his views found support in academic circles because of his elegant deviousness and extraordinary veracity in which he was proficient.
On the eve of World War II, Carr produced his comprehensive study, The Twenty Years Crisis which showed a marked Machiavellian influence. Carr eliminated morality from diplomacy, making it purely a business operation conducted ruthlessly in ones own interest.
Haslam has traced this Machiavellian influence on Carrs study with much skill, linking it with Machiavellis Discourses, a brilliant commentary on Livys concept of statecraft. He strongly urges separating wishes from reality thereby divorcing morality from reality. He warned, The realist cant logically accept any standard of value save that of fact.
Carr rightly understood the danger of explaining the contemporary situation, but the remedial measures he suggested were not the right ones. This is because in his analysis he applied as a rule of thumb, the Machiavellian norms of 16th century politics without realising that the politics of Machiavellis time was quite different from that of the 20th century.
According to Haslam, Carrs nihilism and aggressive politics did not deter him from supporting Germanys expansion in Europe. He regarded the actions of Mussolini and Hitler as symptoms that Italy and Germany are looking forward to the time when as dominant powers, they will acquire a vested interest in peace recently enjoyed by great powers, Great Britain and France.
He commended Munich because he felt convinced that it had brought peace with honour. But he was shocked when the war broke out! Haslam remarks sarcastically that Carrs ruthless realism, which he had greatly valued, misled him and warped his judgement.
Carr was jubilant when the Russians started crushing the Germans. He insisted that the Soviet Union would dominate Eastern Europe. He felt convinced that the Soviet Union would harbour no aggressive designs against any other power as it stood for peace and socialism. It was at this juncture that he ventured to write a history of Soviet Russia. He took 30 long years to complete this work in 14 volumes based on massive official source material. It is, indeed, a solid achievement of great dedication.
Haslam emphasises that Carr was blind to the human aspect of his study of Russian Revolution and ignored the indiscriminate atrocities committed on the people and the sufferings undergone by them in late 1918 as a retaliation for an attempt on Lenins life. He dismissed the whole brutal episode just in two pages on the ground that no reliable estimate was available of those who had suffered.
Similarly, he dismissed the famine of 1921-22 which took 5.2 million lives in one paragraph. Curiously enough, Nicholas, Russias last Czar, is not even mentioned. At times it appears that this work is highly tendentious designed with the object of defending the Russian government and its policies.
In this biography Carr comes out as a bitter man who suffered from a conviction of infallibility. He confided in no one; seldom wrote letters, and had only a few friends. His married life was an utter failure. In 1946 he resigned from Abreyswyth because of an affair with the wife of a colleague who eventually went to live with him. About his way of life, Haslam writes: He never helped round the house, he was mean with money and he never provided an adequate house-keeping allowance.
At 63, Carr was elevated to the prestigious Trinity College Cambridge Fellowship. He delivered the first Trevelyan Lecture on What is History which sparked much controversy.
History, he explained, was an unending dialogue between the past and the present, thereby challenging Herbert Butterfields view that history was a study of the past for its own sake, completely divorced from the encumbrances of the present.
In his highly stimulating and lucid exploration Carr was not being original. R. G. Collingwood had already formulated similar principles governing the study of history. It was the forceful persuasiveness of Carr combined with his erudition that made his presentation worthy of much commendation in academic circles.
simpleton exposes complex cruelty
The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-fated Pessoptimist by Emile Habiby and translated from the Arabic by Salma Khadra Jayyusi and Trevor Le Gassick. Readers International, London & New York. Pages xx+169. Price not given.
SINCE Gunther Grass is the flavour of the present season, I might as well invoke him to make a point about Saeed, the ill-fated protagonist of this poignant but essentially tragi-comic novel. What Grass says about his character Leo Bauer in a rather neglected work, From the Diary of a Snail fits Saeed to the proverbial T. A man who hesitates to say I and yet cannot disregard himself...a man whose escape hatches are blocked: who retreats forwards... a man who in the course of his rise has collected defeats at every turn...a packhorse who runs only when overloaded.
Overloaded Saeed is with the freight of Palestinian history, its sombre immiseration in the Zionist, neo-colonial oppression. That is why he begins his story the way he does. It is surely as weird as the story of Moses staff, the resurrection of Jesus, and the election of the husband of a lady bird to the presidency of the United States.
Overloaded, like the protagonist of Krishen Chanders Ek Gadde ki Sarguzasht who describes himself as neither a film heroines darling nor anybody elses ballast, simply a helpless pack-mule carrying loads for the washerman of Moti Lal Nehrus household.
Saeed does not easily fit into the mould of characters that other Palestinian writers, poets and filmmakers have presented. True, all share the belief expressed by Edward Said in After the Last Sky that violence is an extraordinarily important aspect of our lives whether in their dispersal or their subjection to the Israeli settler state. We travel like other people but return to nowhere, laments Mahmoud Darwish, the poet implying stasis in movement which characterises exile. Fadia Faqir describes the pain of a guerrilla fighter in the Israeli torture chamber. Anton Shammas, who writes in Hebrew, summons the old vanquished life of Arab Palestine and makes it speak.
The protagonists of these works are either resistance fighters or plain ordinary people who calmly bear the brunt of history and live their twisted lives in violence and deprivation. They are like Umm Aboud and the old principal in Habibys novel whose very inconspicuousness is their reason for living.
Saeed has none of these stoic qualities. He lacks the absorptive stamina of Samir in Faqirs novel and the idealism of faith that his beloved Yuuads son, also named Saeed, displays in this novel. He lacks the stubbornness of Farah Hatouni in the film Futile Memory whose list of daily grinding chores speaks more eloquently than all of Edward Saids theorising on her behalf.
Bereft of the awareness of commnitarian living, Saeed stands apart, even though world literature offers numerous examples of people like him. The person he comes closest to in contemporary Palestinian writing is Abu Habib in Arabesques, who, like Saeed, has bits of English sentences rather than songs of rebellion in Arabic. Saeeds haphazard quotations from Shakespeare make him more vulnerable to the Zionist abuse in the Shatta prison.
Our response to Saeed, the ill-fated pessoptimist, is conditioned by the fact that the novel is not about revolution or even resistance, as Nishanit is, or as the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish is. It is not even directly about the Palestinian diaspora. It is a novel about a man who shuns heroic postures in order merely to survive, if not independently, then as an informer, an agent of the settler state of Israel.
You respond to heroism by holding heroic characters in awe, particularly those who redeem themselves and their cause by sacrificing their lives. There is a predictability about such characters which, though annoying, makes for muted acceptance of heroic virtues.
Often heroic characters evoke only one kind of response awe and admiration. At a deeper level of emotion they do not draw us to themselves: they are too remote, too extreme, too one-sided to represent us in our daily mutations of gesture and attitude.
Samir under torture in Nishanit is too lofty and rarified to elicit our common human sympathy. On the other hand, Saeed is too naive, too much the everyman not to provoke our anguish as well as our brotherly feelings.
Part of the reason is that with his obsession to stay alive by informing on communists who alone take up Palestinian causes he offers no resistance or hatred traits which keep him firmly within the range of average humanity. His gullibility and tactlessness are, indeed his assets because they allow him to rip the facade off the terrorism of Israeli occupation. Though enabled simply to exist, he is baulked of the prospect of meeting Yuuad earlier whisked away by the police from his room: I never rested, never slept, in order to continue my pursuit of the communists... I would infiltrate demonstrations... whisper into the ears of conservative old men that the communists tore up the Koran...But the only reward I got for all this was the repeated promise of Yuuads return.
Saeeds exaggerated demonstration of loyalty to the Israeli state is used by the author as a device to expose its barbaric, exploitative character. Here it is in order to mention that Emile Habiby (b 1919) was an activist of the Israeli communist party and a member of Israeli Parliament. This gives him an intimate insight into the workings of the Israeli administrations cruel exploitative machine, its arrogant refusal to recognise the right of its own Arab refugees.
By making Saeed an unquestioning factotum of the occupation regime, Habiby succeeds in laying bare its inhumanity and illegal power. Never really confronting his tormentors up front, Saeed acts the holy fool by feigning ignorance. For the most part a silent observer of the tragedy of his people, his pessoptimism, naïveté and assumed lack of tact become, in fact, an indictment of the Zionist colonial rule, its compulsive rougery and repressive face.
As a comic butt of everybodys taunt, he is a better vehicle of Habibys views on Israeli occupation than a really heroic character could be. Staying within the comic-absurdist ambit, he helps to expose the tragedy of his people under the sadistic ferocity of the occupation regime.
There are occasions in the novel when Saeed almost captures bits of heroism in himself. One such occasion is when he faces his own son Walaa and his mother Baqui (a relic, as the name implies) who defy him and disappear in the sea-cave to join the resistance; How often I felt an urge to go down to find out for myself, but I didnt have the heart for it. To preserve a spark of hope that they were still alive was better than to drown it.
Another occasion occurs when Saeed and his beloved Yuuads daughter hear Abou Mahmoud tell them about the effectiveness of the language of silence. If you learn to speak it, then well learn to understand ourselves. In spite of his effort, he fails to learn this language in any of its gestural force.
Perhaps Habiby wants it this way. Through Saeeds limited understanding of the silent resistance of ordinary people, Habiby puts his finger on the tragedy of his people, their specific gesture of defiance. Israeli evil, as presented in the foolish but inhuman behaviour of prison warders, governors of occupied lands and other smaller cogs in the infernal machine, comes face to face with the betrayals of the Arab monarchs and chiefs of small fiefdoms. In contrast the ordinary people suffer silently.
But not quite. The death of Abou Mahmouds father, sheltered and nursed by his fellow villagers against orders of extradition, is in itself a defiance in which all have a share. Saeeds meeting with Yuuads son in the Shatta prison makes him rise above his petty survival instinct and transforms him briefly. Such moments keep alive the spark which finally got ignited in the intifada of recent years. These moments offer Saeed a possibility of his own dignity and redemption, a fate he rejects for his suspended existence on a stake in the other world.
Pessoptimist is a remarkable work in that it abjures revolutionary rhetoric to cast a cold eye on the tragedy of Palestine. It rises above the political stances of its author to gesture to a permanence that comes from resistance to evil..It fabulates and flouts normal novelistic practice to offer an enduring glimpse into the mutations of contemporary history. In this last, it is richer than many dry-as-dust tomes written by historians and literary journalists.
insider on ministerial missteps
Serving Bosses: Big and Small Reminiscences of an Information Officer by I.P. Tewari. Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi. Pages xi+88. Rs 150.
EVALUATION of human attitude and feelings is no easy task. Any kind of control needs dynamic leadership. Moreover adjusting oneself to changing situation, adaptation and anticipation of events call for mental skills that can inspire the trust and goodwill of others and finally weave them all into image-building.
The book under review is a narration of events, incidents and glimpses of personalities; it analyses and synthesises the quality of relationship. Also shares a sense of commitment, frustration and also contentment while performing duties or fulfilling the responsibilities as a publicist.
Aiming to improve the functioning of the government, Tewari entered the arena of publicity after Independence but the very first assignment turned out to be unpleasant. In order to lessen the pressure of work on Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who was Education Minister, Keshav Dev Malaviya was elevated to the rank of Minister of State but given the designation of Minister for Natural Resources. Finding the communiqué not in the proper official tone, the author decided to withhold the release which would mean annoying the Maulana, threatening an end to the new career. (Such communiqués are normally issued by the Cabinet Secretary). Krishna Kripalani came to his rescue and saved him from the wrath of the Maulana. Undoubtedly it was an embarrassing incident but instilled confidence and also impressed the boss.
In any kind of relationship, cordiality and acceptability are two fundamental factors and there should be no place for doubt. Often called a Gujarati bania Kandubhai Desai, then the Minister for Labour, asked the publicist to gather or twist facts in such a way to prove that the communists had captured the editorial departments of several newspapers, rendering the proprietors helpless and that was the plausible reason for the publication of news regarding the complete strike in banks.
But when Tiwari declined to oblige him Desai took no time in branding him a communist.
It is not always necessary that others should think in the same wave length. Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, who was close to Nehru and the Maulana, set up Vigyan Mandir in his farm house and wanted to impress Nehru by asking him to inaugurate it. That way he wanted to secure his consent for setting up a chain of such vigyan mandirs in the country. But his plan went awry when Nehru remarked, Mujhe yakin hai ke Bhatnagar Sahib is makan mein takleef se nahin rahenege.
The passion of K.D. Malaviya for making India self-sufficient in oil is no longer a secret. When drilling for gas reserves in the Kangra valley proved favourable, Malaviya wanted to go to press immediately. As a publicist, the writer suggested to him to seek the permission of the Speaker to make a statement on the floor of the Lok Sabha because that would have more impact. The gimmick worked and the event was extensively covered by national and international newspapers.
The significance of timing in the field of publicity cannot be minimised. The same Minister was not happy with the progress of Standard Vacuum, an American oil company, in oil exploration in the Bengal basin and he wanted Tiwari to highlight it. Finding the meeting of the All India Mineral Advisory Board in Bangalore as the most suitable occasion, the publicist creeded a message to the Calcutta correspondent of the Hindu pegging the story on the governments plan to review the agreement with the oil company. When the correspondent questioned the Minister about the news item, the Minister denied it but complemented Tiwari on his master strike.
Criticism based on facts always strengthens the system but criticising simply the way and the manner of working of others is not helpful. S. Mulgaonkar, then editor of the Hindustan Times, branded Malaviya and Krishnamachari as blacksheep in Nehrus Cabinet The news item with a seven-column banner headline, Naharkatiya well caves in: Millions lost was published in newspapers. But when confronted with facts, the editor did not relent and said, Do whatever you want. I stand by my story.
Once the same paper in its editorial attacked Swaran Singh on the plan to set up steel plants where the private sector had already made its presence felt. Singh said,I am too big a fish to be swallowed by the Birla crocodile but at the same time asked the publicist, Not to annoy The Tribune or any other Punjabi newspaper popular in his constituency.
As for image, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed was rated low and repeated you see four or five times in a sentence. He was accused of blindly signing the emergency proclamation but in reality he advised against it and cautioned against the demolition and the family planning programme. These had the worst effect on the people. In fact it was this traumatic experience that angered the people. Those who did not dance to the tune of Vidya Charan Shukla were dubbed a inconvenient tool.
Dealing with Morarji Desai was like trying to break a hard nut with bare hands and sometimes one faced humiliation. Once Desai was to address a press conference on his return from the Soviet Union. Finding a hostile group of journalists, the publicist suggested that he should not take questions; he shot back Main sab ka jawab dunga. Aap kaun hote hain mujhe rokhne wale? The conference was literally converted into a class room on urine therapy because of his attitude.
Most of us perceive Atal Behari Vajpayee as a goody-goody man but he was not so when he was Minister of Foreign Affairs. As per past traditions and convention, the publicist took Atal Behari (who was there to attend a press conference of Morarji Desai) to a chair below the podium to the left side of the hall. He was asked to explain his conduct.
When he met the Prime Minister in this context, Desai flared up. So you continue to behave as you did in the emergency manner. It is Janata regime now. You are not attuned to it. Then he asked Tiwari to go and explain to Vajpayee. Tiwari felt humiliated when Vajpayee rasped: Go away. I do not want to talk to you. Will the officers now decide how Ministers behave? It was Advani who never interfered in the work and for his smooth relationship he was rated as a rare species among Ministers.
The most trying event came in his career when Desai announced the death of Jaya Prakash Narayan in Parliament without caring for the intricacies of the rules or bureaucratic wrangles. As Director of News in All India Radio, Tiwari rectified the mistake in announcement in the Punjabi bulletin at 1.40 p.m.
has its uses
Problem of Violence Themes in Literature by Birinder Pal Singh. Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. Pages 190. Rs 350.
THE blurb on the jacket of the book under review begins with a startling statement: It would not be unfair to label the twentieth century as the century of violence. It is positively unjust to single out the present century as a record-holder in matter of violence. Violence is inbuilt in the process of evolution of life. It is central to Darwins dark law of the survival of the fittest. It is through violent conflict among a myriad of species that life has reached the present stage of evolution. True, the modalities, nuances and shades of violence change in the macabre drama of biological existence in the cosmic order.
What makes the 20th century look bloodier than the earlier ones is the growth of technology which makes it possible to inflict violence and also collate, codify and measure violence with the help of sophisticated techniques and disseminate it as a finished product through numerous information channels.
Violence as a running theme should not lead one to conclude that ones existence is so hopelessly burdened with this evil that it leaves no escape route. With the growth in the consciousness, imagination, empathy and compassion of living beings and a just ordering of social arrangements, it can be substantially controlled, if not altogether eliminated.
The book under review attempts to present the existing literature on violence in a condensed form. Sorel is acknowledged as the pioneer and grand theorist of violence, who inspired the socialists as well as the fascists. His theory of violence is both creative and destructive. The proletariat, in his opinion, is fully justified in attempting a violent overthrow of the oppressive state power, and the resultant violence carries exalted ethical intentions. Franz Fanon is another passionate votary of violence and treats it as a means to unify the natives against colonial rulers. It is through violence that a native realises his humanity and empowers himself to cast aside the colonial yoke.
Jean Paul Sartre, the well-known French philosopher who did so much to project Fanon across the world, treats conflict, and not harmony, as the basis of existence. Aron is critical of Sartre for putting violence on such a high pedestal. He is prepared to accept violence as a means sometimes necessary for rational politics as conceived by Clausewitz and Lenin but is opposed to violence as a philosophy which lays claim to an ontological foundation and psychological function or effectiveness.
It is Arendt, an influential modern thinker, who rejects violence in toto and is highly critical of theorists of violence, especially Sorel and Sartre who treat it as a creative force.
Numerous advocates of violence derive inspiration from Marxs theory of revolution. Arendt charges them with lack of understanding of Marx. Marx, in her opinion, understood the role of violence in history but this role was secondary. It was not violence but contradictions inherent in society that brought about change.
The history of most of the religions in the world is marked by bloodshed. There is a concept of just war in Christianity, jihad in Islam and dharamayudha in Hinduism and Sikhism. A lot of killing has taken place in the name of religion. Violence has been an important weapon in Christianity and Islam to deal with unbelievers, deviants and heretics. In our times the concept of liberation theology of the Roman Catholic church permits the use of violence for the emancipation of the poor and the oppressed.
Violence is believed to stem from underdeveloped human mind and the low cultural level of society. It was fondly hoped that with the growth of reason, rationality, scientific temper and humanist thought in the wake of Renaissance and Enlightenment, violence would recede into the background. But all these hopes have been sadly belied. Adorno and Horkheimer, Foucault and other post-modern thinkers treat modernity as an unmitigated evil.
Violence has struck deep roots in numerous institutions of modern society ranging from those of knowledge and philosophy to the social, economic and political ones. A host of violent methods are used to control all those who live on the margin of society the poor, the tribals, social deviants, dropouts and others of the kind. Violence operates in a big way in gender relations to the great disadvantage of the female.
Science and technology have equipped man to perpetrate violence on nature to satisfy the limitless human greed leading to serious ecological imbalance.
The author has devoted enough space to some Indian thinkers like Ashish Nandy, Vandana Shiva, Alvares and others, who find violence inherent in modern science. Since violence is structured in western science and technology, the process of modernisation and development based on the western model is bound to be violent. Tribals, other weaker sections in society and various facets of nature are automatic candidates to be scarified at the alter of modernisation.
The author claims no originality and the book sums up various theories of violence by drawing heavily on leading thinkers. Those who wish to know the postulates of violence would find the book immensely useful. But the whole approach is West-centric and the Orient gets only a footnote. The individual acquired the central position in western ontology after Enlightenment and the satisfaction of his needs became the central concern of all human endeavours. This approach pits man against man and man against nature, and the pursuit of existential concern by its very logic makes violence an inbuilt adjunct.
In eastern thinking, the individual has his importance but only as part of the totality and the concern for his individual needs cannot be allowed to go counter to the larger concerns of family, society and the cosmic order. Renunciation and not acquisition, harmony and not discord, constitute the essence of existence, and this approach minimises the role of violence in life.
It is difficult to agree with the author when he puts the concept of just war in Christianity, and jihad in Islam on a par with the notion of dharamayudha in Hinduism. Unlike the semitic religions, Hinduism has no organised church and no single holy book as a source of inspiration. It has not been evangelist, expansionist and proselytising. Violence as an important ingredient in such a religious belief system is, therefore, ruled out.
One may take to arms in extreme cases as in the Mahabharata war to crush the evil or in opposing oppression of the rulers as in case of Guru Gobind Singh in Sikhism. There is no element of jihad or religious crusade in this approach. There is no place for violence in religions like Buddhism and Jainism, two religious relief systems which have played an important role in shaping human sensibility.
on becoming a social being
An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin. Penguin, New Delhi. Pages 416. Rs 295.
THEODORE Zeldin began his life as a lecturer at Christ Church in Oxford. He gained reputation as a major thinker with his contribution to the Oxford History of Modern Europe, (now reissued as A History of Passions). One of his more recent publications includes The Intimate History of Humanity. Subsequently he has brought out a slim but elegant little gift-book entitled Conversation wherein he tries to restore to our collective memories the art of conversation in the hope that making conversation would establish the essential links between people and reduce the feeling of anomie which marks contemporary society.
As can be seen from the title of his major books, it is clear that Professor Zeldin has made it his business to chart the course of emotional life of human beings. Those who know him think that he needs to be taken seriously, if not for his mastery of historical detail then at least for the fact that he has led a full emotionally satisfying life.
He makes big claims about the insights that his studies into empirical history have yielded, saying that his insights are important if we want to foster mutual respect among people all over the world. They are something we should all aim for. A fair enough profession for someone aspiring to be a baba, but for a historian this would seem suspect had Zeldin not been able to back it up with such an over-determination through empirical detail.
History, he says at one place, with its endless procession of passers-by most of whose encounters have been missed opportunities, has so far been a chronicle of ability gone to waste. But there is hope: .... today the earth in the early stages of being criss-crossed afresh by invisible threads uniting individuals who differ by all conventional criteria, but who are finding that they have aspirations in common.
His broad agenda then is to recreate our memories in order to understand these aspirations, channel them into constructive direction, make use of them to create a world community which is caring and not riven by anger, jealousy and distrust. He deems it fit to study the manner in which people across the world, in different climes and times, have related to each other. It is such a search that he carries out in his books.
In the present book, Zeldin is quite clear that it is his version of the intimate history of humanity. He allows for people to differ from him though one presumes that he would be happier if we, the readers, were to accept what he says in its entirety. To have a new vision of the future, he says, it has always first been necessary to have a new vision of the past. But this vision has to include not just the manner in which kings and queens fought with each other for their kingdoms but also how they went about trying to gain access to each others minds and that of their people. It is also about the manner in which the ability of people to deal with emotions differed according to different social and temporal contexts.
The book is structured around questions relating to emotions. Chapter titles include, among others, How humans have repeatedly lost hope, and how new encounters, and a new pair of spectacles, revive them; How men and women have slowly learned to have interesting conversations; How some people have acquired an immunity to loneliness, how people have freed themselves from fear by finding new fears, Why even the privileged are often somewhat gloomy about life, even when they can have anything the consumer society offers.
Each chapter begins with a specific instance, a portrait, Zeldin calls it, of a person and the manner in which the peoples organise their desires. This leads him to discuss the manner in which a particular desire, emotion or feeling came to be handled in other situations. Many feelings are of ancient origin. People in various cultures and ages have expressed them.
One such, Zeldin points out, is the belief that everything is becoming too complicated. Whether it be Ming China or France of the Bourbons or contemporary French society, in times of trouble people analyse life as having become too complex.
Yet, efforts to mingle with others continue apace notwithstanding the rather commonsensical fact that if life were too complex, the way to simplify it is to withdraw rather than to interact. Why does this happen? Does it actually result in the resolution of some of the dissonances in life? Has it happened on a civilisational scale ever? These are some questions that Zeldin addresses with considerable skill while taking the reader through the crevices of history.
There is a whole lot of interesting social and cultural information that the discerning reader would be able to glean from this book. Regarding astrology, for example, Zeldin tells us how established religions like Christianity and later Islam rejected planetary influences. The battle became very intense when the Church took to burning astrologers at the stake.
With the coming of the Industrial Revolution and associated existential uncertainties, astrology once again became a popular discipline. The worlds first weekly devoted to astrology called The Straggling Astrologer, came out in 1824 to an appreciative readership.
Interest in the paranormal engulfed Germany even while that country had become the leader in scientific revolution and was producing some of the leading socialist (as also scientific and atheistic) thinkers like Marx. And such interest continued in the 20th century when the Nazi leadership, including Hess, Goebbles and Rohm (though not Hitler) took to the paranormal to guide them in everyday life.
If our politicians today do the same, given the uncertainties of the political problems of our times, they merely seem to be following in the footsteps of these rootless politicians who were equally uncertain about what to do in their own times.
Professor Zeldins efforts is to make us sensitive to the manner in which people relate to the irrational and questions associated with it. The reader of this interesting book will find some of his thoughts on why this happens, and whether it is possible to have a far more rational world.
A more academically oriented reader would also find good guide to other academic books on history, philosophy and psychology of emotions. But would the historians located in this region be able to learn anything from this book? That remains a moot point.
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