Review: Plutarch’s Lives

Review: Plutarch’s Lives

Parallel LivesParallel Lives by Plutarch

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ease, and speed of execution, seldom produces work of any permanent value or delicacy. It is the time which is spent in laborious production for which we are repaid by the durable character of the result.

In the course of his grand theory of history, Oswald Spengler distinguishes what he sees as the fundamental difference between the ancient Greco-Roman and the contemporary Western cultures: the Greek’s ideal concept was of bounded, perfect forms, while the Western soul craves the boundless, the formless, and the infinite. It is a somewhat vague statement, I know, but I kept coming back to Spengler’s idea as I read Plutarch’s Lives.

Specifically, I kept thinking of Spengler’s idea as I mentally compared Plutarch’s conception of personality with Montaigne’s. I could not help making this comparison, you see, since it was Montaigne who led me to Plutarch. The Frenchman idolized the Greek; and the Essays are full of quotes of and references to Plutarch. Indeed, Montaigne specifically praises Plutarch for his insight into human nature:

The historians are my right ball, for they are pleasant and easy, and where man, in general, the knowledge of whom I hunt after, appears more vividly and entire than anywhere else… the variety and truth of his internal qualities, in gross and piecemeal, the diversity of means by which he is united and knit, and the accidents that threaten him. Now those that write lives, by reason they insist more upon counsels than events, more upon what sallies from within, than upon what happens from without, are the most proper for my reading; and, therefore, above all others, Plutarch is the man for me.

For my part this quote better describes Montaigne than Plutarch. Since it is exactly in this—the representation of personality—that I think Spengler’s idea most aptly applies in these two writers.

Compare the representation of a person in a classical Greek statue and in a portrait by Rembrandt, and I think you will catch my meaning. The first is all surface—shapely limbs, a well-proportioned body, a harmonious face, whose eyes nevertheless stare out serenely into vacancy, suggesting nothing internal. In Rembrandt it is exactly the reverse: the face may be ugly, the body largely hidden in shadows, yet all the energy is focused on the expression—an expression of endless suggestion, which brings to us a definite human personality.

I feel the same contrast between Plutarch and Montaigne. Plutarch’s method of characterization is statuesque. He enumerates his heroes’ virtues and qualities as if they were set in stone; and he derives all of their actions from these static characteristics. Montaigne is completely the reverse: he contradicts himself a thousand times in his book, and in the process reveals the qualities of his mind far more exquisitely than any straightforward description could accomplish. Plutarch’s heroes never change: their character is their destiny; whereas Montaigne is nothing but change. Indeed, for me it is hard to say that Plutarch’s heroes have “personality,” in the sense that I can imagine meeting them. They are no more relatable than a Greek statue.

They were certainly relatable to Plutarch himself, however, as he writes in a famous passage:

It was for the sake of others that I first undertook to write biographies, but I soon began to dwell upon and delight in them for myself, endeavoring to the best of my ability to regulate my own life, and to make it like that of those who were reflected in their history as it were in a mirror before me. By the study of their biographies, we receive each man as a guest into our minds, and we seem to understand their character as the result of personal acquaintance, because we have obtained from their acts the best and most important means of forming an opinion about them.

This quote also illustrates Plutarch’s moral purpose. For a book written by a Greek living under Roman domination, comparing the lives of Greeks and Romans, he seems to have been quite bereft of political purpose. He is, rather, a moralist. Through his biographies he hopes to determine which actions are noble, which nobler, and which noblest, an analysis he performs through his comparisons at the end of the paired lives. He writes biographies in the conviction that we naturally imitate which we see and admire; we are drawn in by the attraction we feel for noble characters, and become ennobled ourselves in the process. This is why Plutarch eschews writing strict history:

I am writing biography, not history; and often a man’s most brilliant actions prove nothing as to his true character, while some trifling incident, some casual remark or jest, will throw more light upon what manner of man he was than the bloodiest battle, the greatest array of armies, or the most important siege. Therefore, just as portrait painters pay most attention to those peculiarities of the face and eyes, in which the likeness consists, and care but little for the rest of the figure, so it is my duty to dwell especially upon those actions which reveal the workings of my heroes’ minds, and from these to construct the portraits of their respective lives, leaving their battles and their great deeds to be recorded by others.

This sounds promising enough: teaching moral lessons through depicting great personalities. My problem—aside from not being able to relate to the heroes—was that I questioned the very greatness of their actions. Of course there are many virtuous actions recorded here, worthy of praise and emulation. However, nearly all of Plutarch’s heroes are military commanders; and these pages are spattered with blood. The cutthroat world of ancient political squabbles, territorial conquests, internal strife, did not strike me as promising ground to teach virtue. Voltaire was perhaps thinking of Plutarch when he made this remark:

Not long since the trite and frivolous question was was debated in a very polite and learned company, viz., Who was the greatest man, Caesar, Alexander, Tamerlane, Cromwell, etc.? Somebody answered that Sir Isaac Newton excelled them all. The gentleman’s assertion was very just; … those politicians and conquerors (and all ages produce some) were generally so many illustrious wicked men. That man claims respect who commands over the minds of the rest of the world by force of truth, not those who enslave their fellow-creatures: he who is acquainted with the universe, not they who deface it.

Plutarch, to his credit, does give a remarkable portrait of the Newton of his time: Archimedes. But this is tucked away in his life of the Roman general, Marcellus.

For these reasons I had a great deal of difficulty in finishing this book. After every couple Lives I had to take a break; so it took me three years of on-again, off-again reading to finally get to the end. My ignorance did not help, either. Plutarch, being an ancient author, sometimes presumed a great deal more knowledge that I possessed about the relevant political history; and so I found myself frequently lost. And his style, though eloquent, is also monotonous (at least in translation), which was another challenge to my attention.

But I am glad I read Plutarch. This book is an extraordinary historical document, an invaluable (but not infallible) source of information about these ancient figures. Plutarch loved a good story and these pages are rich in anecdote—some of them so famous that it is likely you know one even if you have not read Plutarch. And though I struggled through many of the less famous figures, I was entranced by Plutarch’s biographies of the heroes I was acquainted with: Pompey, Alexander, Cicero, Brutus, and Antony. (Shakespeare followed the latter two Lives very closely in his Roman plays.) If Plutarch was good enough for Montaigne then, by Jove, he is good enough for me.

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Review: Two Books by Henry Adams

Review: Two Books by Henry Adams

The Education of Henry Adams : An AutobiographyThe Education of Henry Adams : An Autobiography by Henry Adams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Once more! this is a story of education, not of adventure! It is meant to help young men—or such as have intelligence enough to seek help—but it is not meant to amuse them.

Everyone agrees that this book is difficult and odd. An autobiography of an American man of letters, the son of a diplomat, grandson of a president, historian, journalist, secretary, all told in the third person, written for his private circle of friends. At once claiming to be the story of one man’s life, a critique of the educational methods of the nineteenth century, a parable of the fin de siècle, and a new theory of history, the book is, in reality, none of the above, and is instead the sigh of an old man looking back on his life.

I must admit that I found this book exasperating in the extreme. One quickly gets the impression that, when Adams uses the word “education,” it is meaningless or worse than meaningless. He goes to London with his father, and becomes intimately acquainted with the workings of British politics, all during the difficult years of the American Civil War, and complains that he received no useful “education.” He teaches at Harvard for seven years, a professor of Medieval History, and concludes: “On the whole, he was content neither with what he had taught nor with the way he had taught it. The seven years in teaching seemed to him lost.” He becomes a journalist in the capital, and then works on a seven-volume history of America during Jefferson’s presidency; and still, after all this, he insists he has received no useful “education.” And after every phase of his life, when Adams rings the same gloomy bell, the reader asks: “What on earth would satisfy you, Mr. Adams?”

Another exasperating element is the degree to which Adams assumes a familiarity with the intricacies of 19th century politics. Reading the chapters when he was in England felt like reading a grocer’s shopkeeping books. It was disjointed, jerky, and, worst of all, didn’t explain a thing. At first, I assumed this difficulty resulted from Adams’s originally writing the book for his circle of friends; but the obscurity goes even further: it is as if Adams wrote the book only for himself. The book swings wildly in tone from dry note-taking to half-formed and half-coherent abstractions, all written in a prose style lucidly opaque.

Adams also gives the impression of being a bit muddle-headed. He spends some time talking about Lyell’s geology and Darwin’s evolution, and it soon becomes apparent he understands neither. He goes on long tangents about “force,” while it is obvious that what Adams means by that word is as meaningless as what he means by “education.” He ends the book on a very confused and seemingly pointless attempt to give a mathematical explanation of history, but never reaches above vague commonplaces, endlessly repeated. I seldom came across an insight of his that was insightful.

In short, the impression was that Adams had taken all of the stuff of his life—his doings, his friendships, his thoughts, his career, his background—and left it out to bake in the hot sun, until all the savor and succulence was scorched out of it, leaving only a tough jerky that wearies the jaw in the attempt to chew the husk.

Still, after all this, I must admit that this book has a strange power. There were times I could not put it down, even when I felt I wasn’t understanding a thing. Adams always seemed to be only two steps away from a great insight, an astounding thought; but he never quite reaches it, which is why the book can seem so tragic. He was always searching and never finding; and the reader is left in doubt what he was searching for, and whether anyone will ever find it. In his elegant, knotty prose, he turns out aphorism after aphorism—all apparently insightful, but in reality empty—popping like soap bubbles leaving nothing but air. And what saves the book is that Adams knew this, and yet could do nothing better.

Mont-Saint-Michel and ChartresMont-Saint-Michel and Chartres by Henry Adams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Saint Thomas did not allow the Deity the right to contradict Himself, which is one of man’s chief pleasures.

I read this book in preparation for my visit to Chartres, which was just last week. I had not been very fond of Adam’s most famous book, his Education, but I had high hopes that his writing would improve when his focus shifted to something other than his own life. Yet I have found the two books discouragingly similar.

As a stylist Adams appears, at least superficially, quite strong. His sentences are clear and mostly elegant, occasionally epigrammatic. But stylistic problems appear on a higher level of organization. Both Adam’s autobiography and this book were not originally written for publication, but for his close circle of family and friends; and as a result, Adams seems to explain everything except what most needs to be explained. His ideas float against a background that he does not provide, making his train of thought appear out of context. In this he reminds me of George Santayana, who similarly omits to signal where he is going and why he is going there, though Adams lacks the philosopher’s occasionally forays into sublimity to compensate. The result is rather irritating, superficially clear but actually opaque, like overhearing an eloquent old man talk to himself.

But my gravest complaint about Adams, both here and in his autobiography, is his tendency to organize his books around central ideas that I find vague and vapid. In the Education, this takes the form of his armchair theorizing about “force,” the Dynamo, and the laws of physics as applied to history, and even more prominently in his main theme of “education,” his conception of which remains unclear to the very end. In this book it mainly takes the form of his insistence that “The Virgen” was personally involved in the construction of Chartres Cathedral. To be fair, he tends to treat these ideas (and himself) with a considerable amount of irony; but the irony does not amount to full satire, leaving it unclear whether he is merely kidding or if he intends these ideas to be somehow insightful.

Again, just as in his autobiography, here the dominant mood is notalgia. Though extremely successful, Adams apparently felt out of harmony with his world and yearned for a time when society was simpler and more unified. This leads him quite naturally to the Middle Ages, to the poetry, to the great cathedrals, and to the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, which unite art and science into a seamless whole. Consequently this book, far from being historical analysis, is more of a personal appreciation of the French Medieval period, spinning off into fantasy or speculation wherever it suits him. This self-indulgent tone is grating to somebody trying to learn about Chartres.

Now that I have gotten all this criticism out of the way, I must admit that the book, like his autobiography, has its merits and charms. He is obviously fond of this period, and so writes in a tone of enthusiastic admiration that proves quite infectious. This keen appreciation for the “spirit” of the Medieval period is the book’s most useful attribute, helping to put the reader in the mindset to appreciate the epoch’s art, poetry, and thought. I found Adams’s chapters on architecture, specifically on Chartres, to be stuffy and difficult to follow—for here, as in his chapters on British politics in the Education—he assumes a level of familiarity (specifically about the French royal family) that the reader is unlikely to possess. But when context is provided by an external source, Adams can be quite pleasant. When I visited Chartres, and saw its magnificent stained glass for myself, his chapters ceased to be so vexing.

The chapters I most enjoyed were the final three, about philosophy—specifically, Abelard, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Thomas Aquinas—since here my background was not so lacking. Yet even here it must be said that Adams’s comments are more in the spirit of an amateurish aficionado rather than a serious student. He interprets Aquinas as an “artist” rather than a thinker, repeatedly disqualifying himself from passing sentence on Aquinas’s arguments (though he says some perceptive things in spite of this).

By contrast I thought the chapters on poetry were the worst, since they mainly consisted of excerpts of poetry, in Latin or Medieval French, with repeated assurances of their high quality and their untranslatable beauty. (His mostly bland translations serve to prove his point.) But in general Adams’s approach to poetry is the same as his approach to architecture and theology, mostly confined to passionate declarations of affection, without much attempt at analysis or insight.

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(Cover photo by Benh LIEU SONG; licensed under CC BY 2.5; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi GermanyThe Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading this book is an ordeal. It is very long and very depressing. Charting the Third Reich from the birth of Hitler to the collapse of Germany, Shirer tells the whole story with the sweep of a novelist and the detail of an accountant. He wrote the book after having access to huge stores of documents captured by the Allies after the war. Diaries, schedules, testimonies from the Nuremberg trials, the minutes of meetings, and much more were the raw material marshalled to create this tome.

As is often noted, Shirer was a journalist, not a historian, a fact that helps to explain much about this book. He lived in Berlin as a foreign correspondent from 1933 to the end of 1940, reporting on the rise of Hitler and the beginnings of the war, until the threat of the Gestapo forced him to return home. This firsthand experience lent color to his narrative, but also focused his attention on readily observable events. Rather than talk of larger trends—social shifts, economic pressures, cultural developments—Shirer focuses almost exclusively on the doings of individuals in power, such as he had been reporting on.

This focus makes the narrative vivid and pleasingly concrete, but also results in a superficial analysis. A historian would naturally spend more time on the rampant inflation of the times, the institutional weakness of the Weimar Republic, the wider political trends in Europe, the mechanics of a totalitarian state, and so on. Further, Shirer’s explanation of why Germany embarked on such a destructive enterprise boils down to: because it is peopled by Germans. That is, he locates a kind of cultural essence in the German people, an essence stemming from the Reformation and especially Martin Luther, added to by Hegel and then by Nietzsche, which came to full fruition in National Socialism. But this sort of cultural essentialism is, for me, just intellectual laziness. It can be used to explain anything or everything, since these posited cultural qualities are vague and unobservable.

In any case wider historical analysis plays a very small part in this book, which is mainly a record of the decisions and actions of the leading men of the Nazi regime. That is to say that this book is a political and not a military history. The Second World War is discussed, of course, but only insofar as its developments affected or were caused by the Nazi leaders. Shirer is mainly concerned with charting the rise to power of these ruthless men: how they outsmarted the Weimar Republic leaders, fooled the international community, bullied and threatened their way to conquests, and finally instigated a war that resulted in their own ruin.

The balance of the book is tilted heavily towards the rise of the Third Reich. This can make for some dreary reading. In retrospect it is stupefying to witness how blind, inept, and spineless were Hitler’s opponents, first within Germany and then beyond its borders, until the final crisis spurred the world into action against him. Though Shirer’s sturdy prose is normally quite plain and unadorned, he has a steady instinct for the dramatic and writes several unforgettable scenes. Nevertheless the scale of detail Shirer saw fit to include sometimes weighs down the narrative into benumbing dullness. The endless, petty diplomatic maneuvers that preceded the beginning of the War—negotiations, ambassadors, threats, ultimatums, calculations, second thoughts, and so on—made it a relief when the soldiers finally started shooting.

These political dealings of the Nazis constitute the vast bulk of this book. It is a masterclass in how far a little cunning, shameless lying, and absolute ruthlessness can get you. It is also a lesson in the need to cooperate to take decisive action against common threats. In the years since Vietnam, many have concluded that the main lesson to be drawn from America’s foreign policy is the folly of interventionist wars. After the First World War, the Western powers were understantly ever more chary of violence. And yet, at least in Shirer’s telling of the history, a timely show of force could have nipped Hitler’s rise in the bud. If England and France had upheld their treaties and defended their territories and their allies, Hitler could not have amassed so much power at a time when the German military was still small. (Though it must be said that Shirer’s intellectual weakness appears here, too, since he attributes this inaction to pure cowardice.)

In any case, this does bring out an interesting dilemma in foreign policy concerning the benefits and risks of violent intervention. In the case of Hitler, timely action could have prevented a disastrous conflict. And yet in many other historical cases, such as with Saddam Hussein, the threat of non-intervention was vastly overestimated, while the cost of intervention vastly underestimated. The word “estimate” is key here, since these decisions must necessarily be based on guesses of future threats and costs—guesses which may easily be wrong. Since it is impossible to know with certainty the scale of a threat that a situation may pose if left unchecked, there is no surefire way out of this dilemma. This, of course, is just a part of a wider dilemma in life, since so many of our everyday decisions must necessarily be made based on guesses of what the future holds.

You can see that this book, though a popular account, is not lightweight in its details or its implications. Yet it does show its age. Published in 1960, it was written before many valuable sources of information became available, such as the French archives. It also shows its age in its occasional references to homosexuality, which Shirer treats as a perverted vice. This is, of course, morbidly ironic, considering the Nazi persecution of homosexuals (something that Shirer fails to mention). But all in all The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich remains a gripping popular overview of this nightmarish time.

(Cover attributed to Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-16196; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

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Review: The Aeronautic Adventure

Review: The Aeronautic Adventure

La aventura aeronáutica: Emilio Herrera, Juan de la CiervaLa aventura aeronáutica: Emilio Herrera, Juan de la Cierva by Carlos Lazaro Avila

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has the very modest distinction of being the only book I’ve read whose author I have interviewed. Carlos Lázaro is a history teacher at the school in which I work; and when he is not scolding students or grading reports, he is researching Spanish military aviation history. This is one of the numerous books he has published on this topic.

La aventura aeonáutica is a dual biography of two of the most important innovators in Spanish aviation history: Emilio Herrera and Juan de la Cierva. Herrera was of the same generation as the Wright Brothers. His specialty was lighter-than-air crafts—dirigibles, zeppelins, and so on—to which he made great practical and theoretical contributions. Among his many accomplishments was his participation in the first intercontinental flight of the Graf Zeppelin, which earned him a ticker-tape parade in New York City. He also designed what is considered the first spacesuit, for a planned but never realized ascension to the stratosphere. Later in life he was also important for his loyalty to the Spanish Republic in exile, even becoming its (mostly ceremonial) president.

Juan de la Cierva is mainly remembered for his invention of the autogiro, or autogyro. This was a sort of early-generation helicopter, designed to fly at speeds impossibly slow for fixed-wing aircraft. The principle of the autogyro is, however, quite different from that of a helicopter. Most notably, the rotor on top is completely unpowered. Forward thrust is provided by a small frontal propeller. This motion pushes air up into the rotor, causing it to spin—though notably, unlike in a helicopter, the air flows through the rotor upwards, not downwards. The rotor’s blades are angled so that the rotation provides lift. You may think of an autogyro as a plane whose wings rotate rather than stay fixed. For this reason autogyros cannot take off and land vertically, nor can they hover, unless there is a countervailing breeze. In any case, I hope you can see from this description that this was an ingenious and original contribution to aeronautic technology.

Like Herrera, De la Cierva was politically active; unlike Herrera, De la Cierva was a committed member of the Right, and threw his support behind Franco. His life was cut short in a plane crash—ironically a passenger plane, not any experimental flight—while trying to organize international support for the coup.

I found the lives of these two men fascinating, since I had not even known their names beforehand, much less any of their accomplishments. The book is admirably informative and concise, full of attractive photos and nifty little side-panels. Hopefully I will visit the Museo del Aire in Madrid soon, to see some of these historical craft for myself.

[Cover photo licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons; author unknown.]

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Review: The Ornament of the World

Review: The Ornament of the World

The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval SpainThe Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by María Rosa Menocal

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Idealism—what we call quixotic idealism, so vividly is it depicted by Cervantes—is an act of the imagination, and perhaps a doomed one, and the question on the table becomes whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

This is a book about nostalgia, and nostalgia is a dangerous thing. It’s one of the tricks of our memory to filter the past through a sentimental lens, forgetting all the bad and magnifying the good. And when thinking about a time before we lived, we run the risk not only of twisting the truth but of inventing it.

Ostensibly the book is about Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain—from 711 to 1492—and specifically about the culture of tolerance that flourished during this period. Menocal takes her title from a remark of Hroswitha, the German canoness, who called Córdoba the “Ornament of the World” after meeting with an ambassador. Menocal does not, however, write a conventional, chronological history, but instead a series of vignettes from the time-period. Indeed, her approach is much closer to that of a journalist than a historian, picking out the most captivating personalities and focusing exclusively on them. And even though these vignettes often contain lots of interesting information, their primary aim is not to inform, but to evoke.

Menocal writes in a dreamy, wistful tone, a style that is often seductive enough to deactivate the reader’s critical facility. The land and the people she describes sound so fantastic that you want to believe her. And this, as well as the lack of almost any scholarly apparatus, makes me very suspicious.

It is hard to believe the book was written by a professor at Yale, for it is quite explicitly propagandistic, trying to counter the conventional view of the Middle Ages as backward and intolerant with a vivid portrait of an advanced, integrated civilization. Personally, I agree with both her ideals of tolerance and her desire to acknowledge the accomplishments of Muslim Spain; but this does not excuse a professor from the commitment to scholarship. All the repression and barbarism that existed during the time period is waved away by Menocal’s insistence that it was the work of foreigners, either Berbers from the south or Christians from the north; and everything positive is credited to Andalusian culture. It would be hard to be more partisan.

In short, I have many reservations about recommending this book, because I believe it wasn’t written in good faith, with scrupulous attention to facts, but rather in the effort to influence the public’s perception of Al-Andalus through storytelling. True, all scholarship is somewhat biased; but to paraphrase Stephen Jay Gould, using this fact to excuse extreme bias is like saying that, since a perfectly antiseptic operating room is impossible, we should just perform surgeries in the sewer.

Keeping the bias in mind, however, this book can be profitably read. There is a lot of fascinating information in these pages. Indeed, I recently revisited Toledo to see some of the things Menocal mentioned, such as Santa Maria la Blanca, a beautiful synagogue built in a Moorish style. And I do think that the story of syncretism, tolerance, and collaboration in Muslim Spain should be told, especially during this era of Islamophobia. It is too easy to forget how crucial the history of Islam is to the history of the “West,” if the two histories can indeed be separated at all. Menocal’s emphasis on the architecture, the poetry, and especially the translations of the Greek philosophers by Muslim and Jewish scholars, counters the common stereotypes of the Muslims as intolerant destroyers. What’s more, I fully understand how Menocal could be swept away in nostalgic awe after seeing the Mezquita in Córdoba or the Alhambra in Granada; that the people who made those amazing structures could disappear is hard to fathom.

Still, even though I agree with Menocal’s goals, I don’t agree with her means. The bright, rosy structure is built on too flimsy a foundation. Propaganda is a bad long-term strategy, because when people realize they are being manipulated they grow resentful. Much better would have been a balanced, sourced, and footnoted book, acknowledging both the good and the bad. The society Menocal so effusively praised was undeniably great; the best way to praise is simply to describe it. The worst aspect of Menocal’s approach is that it didn’t allow her to say anything insightful about how tolerance arose. And this is important to know, since creating a tolerant society is one of the omnipresent challenges of the modern world.

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Review: A World Undone

Review: A World Undone

A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 by G.J. Meyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

G. J. Meyer set out to write this book to fill a gap in the available literature on the First World War: a popular, holistic account that covered every phase and every front, without presupposing much knowledge from the reader. In this, he was undeniably successful. A World Undone begins at the beginning, with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, and ends at the end, with the Treaty of Versailles—signed five years to the day of the assassination of the infamous archduke.

Meyer’s scheme is simple but effective: interspersing “background” chapters between his main, military account of the war. These background chapters were inevitably more interesting for me, and provided much-needed relief from the seemingly endless string of battles, divisions, battalions, generals, troop movements, and so on that composed the military history. In these auxiliary sections, Meyer introduces us to war literature, major personalities, political traditions, economic crises, military technology, shell shock, and much else. The wealth of both historical backdrop and military history makes this book an ideal, if somewhat long, introduction to the “Great War.”

Meyer himself is an able and diligent writer, who steers a middle course between rhetorical excess and crass simplicity, keeping his prose lean and tasteful. He has the quintessential skills of the popularizer: the ability to compress information into a tight space, and to explain complex phenomenon without overwhelming the reader. He also wisely avoids speculation himself, leaving the analysis to the reader or the historian, keeping his eye focused on the surface-level events—which is desirable in an introductory text, I believe.

Even with a guide as competent as Meyer, however, the Great War is depressing and deadening. Meyer’s account, perhaps unintentionally, confirmed many stereotypes I had previously imbibed. In his telling, the beginning of the war was due to a combination of poor planning and reckless and incompetent advisors. That Germany could not mobilize its forces without invading Belgium, for example, or that Russia could not choose to mobilize only half of its troops, thus unintentionally threatening Germany—consequences of carefully-drawn plans, an arrangement that virtually guaranteed war—is difficult to believe or forgive.

As for the fighting, the impression one is left with is of remarkably courageous troops heedlessly wasted by monomaniacal generals. Offensive after ineffective offensive, with general after general trying the same tactics and achieving the same failures—leading to endless butchery. One quickly draws the conclusion that the leaders of Europe in this epoch were dim and shortsighted men.

It is this dreary and dreadful aspect that partially accounts for the First World War being overshadowed by its younger brother. The conflict was strikingly non-ideological. There are no Nazis, no Communists, no Fascists, no racial purges (except in Armenia), no freedom fighters, no Resistance—only obsolete Empires fighting for spheres of influence. The fighting, too, has none of the cinematic drama of the Second World War: only interminable shelling campaigns, repeated advances and retreats through no-man’s land, stagnant stalemates and antiquated tactics—there is nothing even vaguely romantic about the bloodshed, despite what Ernst Jünger may have thought.

But even if it is less compelling to learn about than the Second World War, the First World War arguably has even more valuable lessons to teach us. The logic of naked power confrontation is, after all, more historically common than ideological conflict. The comparatively colorless, and often incompetent, quality of the war’s leadership invites us to see the conflict in all its bare, barbaric brutality, without the distorting effects of charismatic chiefs. The manufactured hatred of whole populaces for one another—engineered through strict censorship, outright lies, and strident propaganda—is a case-study in how patriotism can be exploited for deeply cynical ends.

And most important, unlike the Second World War—a sad story that at least ends with the defeat of a genocidal maniac—the First World War has no silver lining, no comforting achievement to offset the millions of lives lost. As the vindictiveness of the victors proved, the winning side wasn’t on a clearly higher moral level than the losers; and in any case, the war didn’t even achieve a resolution to the conflicts brewing within Europe, only a partial deferment. In sum, the First World War is worth learning about because it was a calamitous, unnecessary tragedy that stubbornly resists romanticization or justification—and that is war.

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Review: Postwar

Review: Postwar

Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


History is a discipline peculiarly impervious to high theoretical speculation: the more Theory intrudes, the father History recedes.

When I was in university, studying anthropology, I always resented the requirement that my essays have thesis statements. Can’t I just collect information and serve it up without taking some ultimate stance? Tony Judt seems to have been of the same mind, since this book is one very large serving of information, absent of any overarching thesis. As he says himself, Judt is rather like the proverbial fox than the hegdehog: he knows many things, and has many valuable observations scattered throughout the text, without any one big idea to tie them together.

There are compelling advantages to this approach. This book is one-stop shopping for many aspects of post-war European life. Economic development, intellectual fashions, architecture, film history, political movements, the Cold War, regionalism, the emergence of the European Union—all this and more is covered in impressive detail. And though multifarious, all of these pieces come together to form an astounding story: a continent nearly destroyed by war, divided by dangerous political tension, slowly emerging from American and Soviet dominance to become the most affluent, most peaceful, and most progressive place in the world.

The main disadvantage of this method is, of course, that this story remains fairly messy and haphazard. Without a thesis to guide him, Judt had to rely on a mixture of interest, instinct, and whim—the latter playing an especially significant role in some sections. What is more, though Judt is an opinionated and assertive guide, the lack of a thesis renders it difficult to point to anything distinctly “Judtean” in his analysis. What ties the narrative together is, rather, a certain mood or sensibility—most notably, Judt’s keen sense of historical irony, which he employs to great effect.

This ironic sensibility is most often directed toward Judt’s political foes. Though he is never explicitly partisan, it is easy to tell where Judt’s sympathies lie: in the center-left, socialist-democratic camp. Thus, depending on where the reader falls on the political spectrum, Judt’s comments will be either gratifying or grating. For me they were usually the former. What irked me, instead, was Judt’s relatively brief treatment of Spain—the Franco era is entirely ignored, and the transition to democracy is covered in just a few pages. But this is admittedly my own prejudice speaking.

If Postwar has one takeaway message, it is this: that Postwar Europe is the anxious construction of a generation wearied and horrified by conflict. After going through the belligerent nationalism of the First World War, the economic depression and intense ideological polarization of the interwar period, the even more gruesome Second World War and the unspeakable Holocaust—all this, coupled with the prolonged armed standoff and Soviet repression of the Cold War—Europeans were intent on creating a world where this could never happen again. Extreme ideological stances fell into disgrace; strong government social safety nets helped to prevent economic crisis and, in so doing, made people less susceptible to demagogues; and governments forged institutional ties with one another, a project that culminated in the European Union.

Without constant reminders of this catastrophe—a European civil war that began in 1914 and whose political aftereffects did not disappear until 1991, if then—we risk falling into the same errors that tore the continent apart one hundred years ago. For this, we need good historians—and Judt is certainly among the best.

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Review: Some Still Live

Review: Some Still Live

Some Still LiveSome Still Live by Frances Smith McCamic Tinker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You can’t even surrender in an airplane; your opponent wouldn’t know whether you were joking or not.

I am fortunate enough to have a colleague who studies the Spanish Civil War professionally. And when he heard that I was interested in learning about the conflict, he generously lent me this book, the memoirs of an American pilot who fought during the war. Considering that this book is out of print and hard to get your hands on, this was luck indeed.

Frank Glasgow Tinker, Jr. was an American boy from Louisiana who came to Spain in 1936 to take part in the war. He had learned to fly in the US Navel Academy, and spent some time in the Navy until he was discharged for drinking and brawling (which, if you think about it, is pretty impressive). His main motivation for joining the war, it seems, was just the opportunity to fly combat missions: “When the fighting broke out in Spain in 1936, I was not quite sure which side was fighting for what. I gathered that each was slaughtering the other for being or doing something that the other side did not like.”

After sneaking in by obtaining a fake passport in Mexico, and pretending to be a Spanish citizen—despite his total innocence of the Spanish language—he spent seven months here flying and fighting. Tinker fought on the “loyalist” side, alongside Spaniards, Americans, and Russians, mainly against Italian and German pilots—which shows how international the “civil” war really was. He flew both older biplanes and more modern monoplanes, both of Russian make, against Italian Fiats and German Heinkels and Messerschmitts. And he was good. He shot down at least eight enemy planes, possibly more, making him one of the most successful pilots in Spanish aviation history.

He flew up to three flights a day—responding to alarms, accompanying bombers, strafing trenches, dive-bombing enemy targets, blowing up bridges and trains, driving off enemy bombing squads, and fighting in dogfight after dogfight. The bulk of his fighting took place in the vicinity of Madrid, but he also fought all over the north of Spain. After seven months of this he packed up his bags and went back to the States. Going back wasn’t easy, since he had arrived in Spain with a fake passport and didn’t have any identification; but eventually he succeeded in returning to the States, where he began writing and going on radio programs.

Some mystery still surrounds his death. The accepted explanation is that he suffered from PTSD and ended his own life; but some have suggested that the FBI may have been responsible. As his own tombstone says, ¿Quién Sabe?

Simply as a historical document, this book is invaluable. It contains maps of the air bases used by the government side, photographs by the reporter Robert Capa of wartime Spain, and a vivid picture of the Government Air Force, not to mention reams of information about aviation. Tinker obviously knew what he was doing when it came to flying; the book is filled with aviation jargon—altitude, weather, engines, weapons, rates of climbing and diving, difficulties of landing and taking off.

Even more impressively, this book is successful simply as a book. For somebody who was not a man of letters, Trinker is a strong writer. He sticks to the facts, and relates them with such vividness, candor, and energy that I often had trouble putting the book down. He never overwrites, he never bogs the book down with too many details, and he never uses flowery rhetoric. His time in Spain was so interesting that no embellishment is needed; the bare facts are fascinating enough.

Apart from his doings, Tinker himself is memorable. He is a uniquely American type. He brawls, he jokes, he drinks, he pranks, he gambles, he womanizes, and he drinks some more, and he flies and fights, and he betrays no ideals beyond good-natured hedonism, fierce loyalty, and a kind of warrior’s respect for bravery and skill. There is not a single political statement in this book, and not any indication that his understanding of the war’s causes ever progressed beyond the very basics. He was a soldier.

I will leave you with my favorite paragraph from the book:

Whitey had managed to get the elevator down (it was one of those automatic affairs), but after he got inside he couldn’t reach the control buttons to make it go up again. He was also unable to reopen the door to get out. After about two minutes of this a huge fellow with a mustache came along and wanted to go up on the elevator, too, but as he saw Whitey was already inside he waited awhile, expecting him to go either up or down. When Whitey failed to do either, the large stranger opened the door and asked him, in Spanish, what the hell he thought he was doing. Whitey, not understanding him, asked, in English, why in hell he hadn’t opened the door instead of standing there with his mouth full of teeth. Whereupon the stranger, in perfectly good American, answered that people shouldn’t get into strange elevators unless they were sure they could get out of them. Whitey almost fell on his face when he heard himself answered in English, but soon recovered and explained his predicament and had the stranger do his button-pushing for him. I saw the last part of this act and asked the man at the desk who the stranger was. He proved to be no other than Ernest Hemingway, the famous writer.

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Review: The Spanish Labyrinth

Review: The Spanish Labyrinth

The Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil WarThe Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil War by Gerald Brenan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Civil War was an appalling calamity in which every class and every party lost.

The longer I live, work, and travel in Spain, the harder it is to believe that, less than a century ago, the entire country was torn apart by a bloody war. What set of circumstances could prompt a nation of ordinary, law-abiding people to explode into conflict and kill each other by the hundreds of thousands? This, of course, is just a specific version of a more general question: Why do people wage wars? I may sound naïve, but I do find this perplexing—since, as Brenan points out, in the destruction wrought by war, especially modern war, there are only losers.

Brenan’s work was one of the first serious analyses of the Civil War to be published (in 1943, just four years after the war’s conclusion), and has remained in print ever since. Nevertheless I was somewhat hesitant to read it. I found Brenan’s famous memoirs, South from Granada, to be underwhelming, so I assumed that this book would be as well. Happily I was mistaken. The Spanish Labyrinth is a comprehensive and penetrating work, easily one of the best books about the Civil War—or indeed about Spain—that I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

This does not mean it is accessible. Brenan chose his title well. The events leading up to the Spanish Civil War are intrinsically complex. So many different parties were involved in the accelerating dance of political turmoil that even the most skilled popular writer would have trouble seamlessly weaving it all together. And Brenan, though a strong writer, was too close to the events described to even approach a popular account. As a result the book itself can feel labyrinthine—with valuable comments and data tucked away into footnotes, with several miniature appendices per chapter and a longer one at the end of the book, and a seemingly endless cast of characters, organizations, and movements. Certainly this book, like any excellent book, will repay careful rereading.

Brenan’s take on the Civil War can be helpfully contrasted with that of George Orwell. Orwell, who was in Spain a matter of months and who never learned Spanish very well, saw the Spanish Civil War in terms of the wider struggle between the Right and the Left. For him, it was a straightforward class conflict between the poor workers and the rich fascists, a struggle that was playing out all over the globe. Brenan, on the other hand, who spoke fluent Spanish and who lived in Spain for a decades, saw the war as a particularly Spanish affair; and his analysis focuses almost exclusively on internal factors. (Both authors, incidentally, did share a distaste for Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia.)

Before the Civil War, political instability plagued Spain for generations. This was, in part, a consequence of economic backwardness; and this backwardness, in turn, had its roots deep in Spanish history—Spain’s commitment to New World gold at the expense of industrialization, and to merino wool at the expense of agriculture. (By the way, Spanish shepherds still hold onto their special privileges, which they demonstrate every year in the Fiesta de Transhumancia, during which sheep are herded straight through the center of Madrid.)

The Church came to identify itself fully with the rich and powerful, alienating itself from the people. As a result, anti-clericalism has played nearly as big a role in Spanish history as the church itself. The army, meanwhile, through a series of pronuciamientos and coups d’etat, came to see itself as the guardian of traditional Spanish values, able and willing to topple any regimes they deemed unsatisfactory—and, as history amply shows, it is always bad news to have a politically active military.

During all this time, Spain was plagued by a long-standing agrarian crisis. In one of Brenan’s most brilliant chapters, he details how different farming traditions sprung up in different regions of the country, partly in response to varying soil and climatic conditions. Unfortunately, many regions of Spain are—either from lack of rain or inferior soil—rather poor for agriculture; and distinct social arrangements (such as small-holding minifundios or large latifundios) are appropriate for these different climatic conditions.

In the hot and dry south, for example, farms are usually quite large; and the work required is seasonal, not year-round. Since a small number of wealthy families controlled these large estates, the vast majority were left to subsist on badly-paid seasonal work, thus leading to inequality and violent political tension. (As I discovered from Gilmore’s The People of the Plain, these agrarian problems persisted until the end of Franco’s reign.)

In addition to the inefficiency and inequality of Spanish agriculture, there was the ever-present problem of Spanish regionalism. Brenan follows Richard Ford and Ortega y Gasset in seeing regionalism as one of the defining features of Spanish political life. (Those watching the Catalan independence movement unfold today will be little disposed to disagree.) Spain is crisscrossed by several mountain ranges and sudden changes in elevation, thus leading to jarring climatic juxtaposition. I have experienced this myself: one moment I will be driving through a windswept mountain range, and the next I will be on the verdant coast. This is one culprit for the famous Spanish regionalism.

Another is Spain’s history. When Fernando and Isabel were married, thus uniting all of Spain for the first time, their separate kingdoms, Castile and Aragon, had distinct political traditions. As the historian J.H. Elliott describes in his excellent book, Imperial Spain, the Castile of Isabel, with its history of centralized rule and its emphasis on military power, was bound to conflict with Catalonia’s history of liberalism and commercial capitalism. The industrial revolution further fueled these regional tensions, as Bilbao and Barcelona became heavily industrialized while the interior and the south remained mainly agricultural.

These divisions in Spain—climatic, historical, and political—translated into splits in leftist movements in the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War. The fundamental split was between the socialists and the anarcho-syndicalists. The socialists tended to be more reformist, while the anarcho-syndicalists were straightforwardly revolutionary. Each party had its associated union, respectively the U.G.T. and the C.N.T., which most often refused to work with one another as they attempted to bring down the capitalist system using general strikes. Brenan’s histories of these movements—their origins, development, and leaders—constitutes the central portion of this book, and is absolutely first-rate.

On the conservative side, in addition to the wealthy landowners and the Church—not to mention the army—there were the Monarchists and the Carlists. The presence of Monarchists, in a country which still had a king living in exile, requires no explanation. The Carlists, on the other hand, were a distinctly Spanish product. The death of Fernando VII, in 1833, set off a series of civil wars (the war in 1936 was hardly the first in Spain) between two contending lines to the throne. Those who supported the pretender Don Carlos became known as Carlists. Theoretically, Monarchists and Carlists were arch-nemeses; but since, by the 1930s, the last living Carlist claimant was old and without an heir, the distinction had worn thin.

Trapped between these arch-conservative and revolutionary-leftist forces were a comparatively small group of liberals, who attempted to create a Republic in 1931. But they were doomed from the start. First, as Brenan notes, liberalism has historically had little appeal in Spain. What is more, the economic downturn—caused by the great depression—severely limited whatever resources the government had to work with. Meanwhile, forces from every side were determined to undermine or dismantle the nascent state. Go too far to appease one side, and they risked severe retaliation from the other. Threading its way between this Scylla and that Charybdis, the ship of state crashed and sank.

From this rather pathetic summary, I hope you can at least get a taste of how complex a story Brenan had to tell. Climatic and cultural regions, revolutionary movements, workers’ unions, political parties, the army, the Church, economical classes—all of these were involved in the conflagration. There do not even appear to be any outstanding individuals towards whom you can orient your gaze. Franco himself was notoriously uncharismatic. The final result is confusion—labyrinthine confusion—and given all this, Brenan did a terrific job in his analysis.

The book is flawed, of course. Like Richard Ford, and like so many foreign writers, Brenan is pre-disposed to find some essential core to the “Spanish personality,” which can be used as a catch-all historical explanation. More often these are crass stereotypes (Spaniards are lazy, excitable, etc.), or otherwise Romantic wishful thinking—for instance Brenan’s insistence on the Spanish abhorrence of the modern world. Another flaw is Brenan’s focus on the Left. Though his histories of socialism and anarcho-syndicalism are masterful, his analysis of the Right leaves a lot to be desired. One certainly does not get any clear picture of Franco’s program from these pages. Finally, by focusing so exclusively on Spain, Brenan ignores the wider international scope of the conflict. The rise of the communists from an obscure party to the most influential organization on the Republic side, for example, cannot be explained without turning one’s eye towards the Soviet Union.

But it won’t do to dwell on these shortcomings. Given that this book was written, not by a professional historian but an amateur, and that it was written so soon after the conflict came to an end, it is a near miraculous achievement. I may not be any closer to understanding war in general; but I do think I’ve come a long way towards understanding this one.

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Review: Storm of Steel

Review: Storm of Steel

The Storm of SteelThe Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

War means the destruction of the enemy without scruple and by any means. War is the harshest of all trades, and the masters of it can only entertain humane feelings so long as they do no harm.

Ernst Jünger was a born soldier:neither risk-averse nor foolhardy, able to command the loyalty of others and to follow orders without question, able to fight without malice and kill without scruple. These are his captivating memoirs of fighting during the First World War.

The consensus of posterity regarding this war is that it was bloody, tragic, and ultimately inconclusive—the exemplar of a brutal, pointless war. Erich Maria Remarque, who fought on the same side and on the same front as Jünger—albeit far more briefly—writes of his experience with trauma and disgust. Yet Jünger’s memoirs, equally as bloody as All Quiet on the Western Front, are strangely warm and cheery. A born soldier, he felt right at home.

As regards the basic experiences of the war, Jünger’s memoirs cover all the bases: bloody hand-to-hand combat, endless artillery shelling, taking cover in shell-holes and scrambling to put on one’s gas-mask, swarms of flying shrapnel and bullets, and death forever prowling. But out of this basic fabric of experiences Jünger weaves a heroic and even jaunty tale, a battle narrative of gallantry and daring. Each soldier, in Jünger’s archaizing eyes, is a knight locked in a gentlemanly joust with an enemy, motivated by duty and honor. I often wondered whether this quaint way of viewing the war was some kind of subtle psychological defense mechanism, shutting out its horrors with a chivalrous fantasy; but Jünger seems to have carried this perspective with him before the fight even began.

In many ways Jünger reminds me of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Both war heroes, both adrenaline junkies, both of a seemingly inexhaustible vitality—Leigh Fermor lived to 96, Jünger to 104—and both obscenely well-educated, these two authors tend to see life as a legend. Jünger’s prose has little of that cinematographic immediacy as has Remarque’s. By comparison his writing is highly stylized, like a Byzantine mosaic or Homeric verse. Admittedly, this is more true of the first half than the second, which becomes quite thrilling. In any case it takes a special kind of person to compare an artillery bombardment to “a witch’s cauldron,” or to motivate oneself in battle by quoting a verse from Ariosto.

The ending of the book contains, in brief, some of Jünger’s thoughts on the significance of the war. Clausewitz’s famous aphorism, that war is “politics by other means,” seems to have been lost on Jünger. For him the war’s value was not in accomplishing any concrete objective—which was, in any case, foiled for Germany—but in hardening the fighting men. You might say that, for Jünger, the war was valuable for its own sake. The extreme circumstances of war roused in the soldiers an equally extreme dedication to an ideal beyond themselves, the ability to yield themselves completely to their Fatherland; and he thought that future generations would look on the soldiers much as saints:

And so, strange as it may sound, I learned from this very four years of schooling in force and in all the fantastic extravagance of material warfare, that life has no depth of meaning except when it is pledged for an ideal, and that there are ideals in comparison with which the life of an individual and even of a people has no weight.

Personally I find this view disturbing, as I’m sure many do. The nationalistic dreams of Kaisers are nothing in comparison with even one life. In any case I think history has amply proven Jünger mistaken; the very hardening anvil of war he praised led, in just a few years, to another, even more deadly war—under a regime which Jünger himself despised. And whatever we may think of the heroism displayed by individual soldiers, it is outweighed by the sheer horror of it all. I also must say that I am incredulous that someone who lost so many friends and comrades—and who himself narrowly escaped death, getting wounded 14 times—could talk in such fanciful, romantic, and vague terms about the lessons of the war—and again I wonder, was this some kind of defense mechanism?

In sum, this must be one of the oddest war memoirs ever published, equal parts exciting, off-putting, and exacerbating. For those interested in the First World War, certainly it is required reading.

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