Saturday, November 01, 2008

History and theory

Two years ago, I received a tome, Ideas, for my birthday. Exceeding 1000 pages, it was heftier than most books I'd read; and it was read and appreciated in its comprehensiveness. Last year I bought Cultural Amnesia (by Clive James), upon hearing an interview with the author on the radio. (This seems to work with me; I bought my first John Gray after hearing him talk to Kim Hill.) Its main body consists of almost 900 pages and will be the bone for me to mentally chew upon until Christmas.

The book itself was a lifetime in the making, the eventual condensation of the notes in the margin that he has written during his time. The book on the surface is a collection of short biographies of persons from the last century; most of them were familiar to me prior to reading the book.

History really is a collection of biographies. When you read about any historical event though, it is often only described on a political level, or a macroscopic level, where individuals, apart from those at the heart of the affair, are not described. If I see the term Anschluss, I only know of it in those terms (i.e. Hitler wanted to create a large German-speaking Reich etc.). Several of the biographies so far have detailed German Jews in Europe prior to and after World War Two. Anschluss was a huge event changing the lives of the Jews who were part of the intellectual cafe culture of Vienna; Sigmund Freud was one of them; he escaped in time to die of cancer in London. It paints a picture of what Vienna was and the situation of the people before and after and how it changed things forever. Similarly, a Russian poet Anna Akhmatova lived in both Tsarist Russia and then into the Soviet times. What the Bolshevik revolution did to her life and career truly show the difference between the totalitarianism of a monarchy, and that of an ideology.

My general feeling so far: History is great painted with the lives of those that experience it.

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