Western civilization, the West. Decades ago, Edward Said noted Western Europe’s tendency to claim Greek, Roman, and even aspects of Egyptian civilizatWestern civilization, the West. Decades ago, Edward Said noted Western Europe’s tendency to claim Greek, Roman, and even aspects of Egyptian civilization as its own. The Roman Empire has long been seen (perhaps anachronistically) by the West as a “Western” phenomenon, but it could instead be seen as a Mediterranean phenomenon. Certainly at the time Rome had less to do with the druids and barbarians in present-day northern Europe than it did tradesmen and soldiers from northern Africa and the Near East. In fact, you could easily take the Goths’ destruction of Rome as the first documented instance of “the West” destroying a foreign civilization: the destruction of a Mediterranean empire brought on by what we would now call militants/terrorists from the West.
But the Roman Empire was successful, so let's just say it was Western. But even in Ferguson’s descriptions of “Western Civilization 1.0” you can see the tension in maintaining that the Roman Empire was distinctly Western: It was an empire that arose “in the so-called Fertile Crescent stretching from the Nile Valley to the confluence of the Euphrates and the Tigris....” So, Egypt, Syria and Iraq were part of the West?
So much for ancient history. What exactly “the West” refers to today is also not that easy. Ferguson falters when discussing, for example, whether Central and South America are considered part of the West. It would seem that by any definition they should be considered the West. After all, this is a portion of the world that is indeed as geographically Western and Christian as North America, and was largely colonized by Spain and Portugal, the westernmost European countries. And yet, Ferguson does not seem to think Central and South America make the cut.
That’s because for Ferguson, the West basically means whichever countries are economically the Best, and so this book is primarily concerned with four countries to the exclusion of all others: France, Germany, and especially the UK and the US. These four interconnected, economically strong republics are the primary reasons for the West’s ascendancy, and so they are the only countries Ferguson is concerned with. The rest of Europe is an afterthought, as are Central and South America (to say nothing of places like Canada and Australia).
Since this is a book whose purpose is to indoctrinate the youth and/or appeal to the general public, Ferguson employs young-folks terms (“killer apps”), uses alliteration whenever possible, and comes up with simplistic “what-ifs.”
Concerning the organization of the book, there is no organization. The chapter on the “killer app” medicine contains mostly a long harangue against the French Revolution and a breathless appreciation of the “prophetic” Edmund Burke. In each chapter he picks one opponent (in the first, it’s the Chinese, then the Arabs, and so on…) and then shows how the West beat them in this one thing. (The West is usually represented solely by nineteenth-century England or twentieth-century United States.)
There are several stretches in this book that are perceptive and compelling, but unfortunately these are undercut by Ferguson’s insistence on rallying the troops for his political ideology. He writes compelling stuff concerning the thriving of faith in the US compared to culturally similar Europe, for example (the difference is competition). And his thought that “we ... seem to doubt the value of much of what developed in Europe after the Reformation” does accurately reflect a kind of disenchantment and lack of appreciation for the rich, extraordinary culture most of us are embedded in.
Ferguson is provocative, as they say, but not in a way that effectively challenges prevailing opinion; no, Ferguson’s “provocative” is more of a pretentious, partisan near-idiocy. Too often, he comes off not as an historian you can respect, but rather a wannabe American who spends too much time talking on TV.
Concerning empire, his critique of the Iraq invasion early on is telling: the problem was (1) manpower deficit—in Ferguson’s view hundreds of thousands of troops were not enough to destroy an already poor and depleted country; and (2) attention deficit—in Ferguson’s words there is unfortunately “not enough enthusiasm for long-term occupation of conquered countries.” This lack of enthusiasm is not surprising: outside of neo-cons, the arms industry, and right-wing think tanks, the majority of Americans fully support defending this country, but usually not colonizing and invading others.
Seeking to control/exploit the affairs of other nations is perfectly okay we learn, as long as you do it the right way. Ferguson takes the moral high ground when it comes to Chinese investment in Africa: He is appalled that China is willing to do business with “military dictators, corrupt kleptocrats or senile autocrats....”
This is searing hypocrisy. There’s no need to belabor the point: the US supported Franco in Spain for decades; Saddam Hussein in Iraq; paramilitary death squads, far-right military dictators, and anti-democratic coups throughout Central and South America; Marcos in the Philippines; and continues to do business with dictators whenever convenient (Egypt and Saudi Arabia come to mind). The US has no leg to stand on here.
Ferguson, always looking on the bright side when it comes to warfare, nuclear weapons, and colonialism (especially when practiced by the British or the US), claims that “the Bomb’s net effect was to reduce the scale and destructiveness of war, beginning by averting the need for a bloody amphibious invasion of Japan.” The US’s bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed over 200,000 people, and the effects of the bombings have lived on for generations. And its impact on current warfare is purely speculative.
Whenever he delves into current affairs, the level of thinking lowers. He is strident and panicked over Iran, to an extent that is out of whack with reality. The double standard with which he takes Iran to task for legally enriching uranium and opening its doors to inspectors under the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is absurd, especially if you consider that, against international law and the NPT, the US supplied Israel with the only nuclear arsenal in the region, thus guaranteeing that other countries in the region would seek such weaponry.
Or when he compares today’s science supporting the human impact on climate change to last century’s pseudo-science of racial superiority: “Racism was not some backward-looking reactionary ideology; the scientifically uneducated embraced it as enthusiastically as people today accept the theory of man-made global warming.”
Soon after that, he contends that Jews as a race likely have a genetic superiority over other races. I take it Ferguson is scientifically uneducated, at the very least.
The level of thought sometimes lowers when covering the past as well. When discussing Marx for example, Ferguson just can’t help himself, he has to gossip about the man’s private affairs. Without saying anything about the atrocious factory conditions that Capital was written in protest of, Ferguson refers to Marx, needlessly, as “the son of an apostate lawyer....” I guess Ferguson thinks that people who convert from another religion to Christianity, or who are more interested in Kant and Voltaire than the religion they were born into, are apostates. He then goes on a long ad hominem rant about this “odious individual” and gleefully reports that he had an illegitimate son by his maidservant. (Presumably the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Fords of the world are without such moral failings). Ferguson will go as low as needed to tarnish the name of someone who has an ideology he disagrees with, a not uncommon tactic.
Here’s how he characterizes protests against the Vietnam War (which as Ferguson grudgingly acknowledges had lost majority approval in the US) and racial inequality:
“They [young people in the 60s] had every reason to be grateful to their fathers’ generation, which had fought for freedom and bequeathed them opportunity. Instead they revolted.”
Nothing is safer than lionizing a generation that is currently dying off. Young men also enlisted in the military and died in high numbers in the Vietnam War, for seemingly no reason. The claim that the US joined WWII to fight for an abstraction such as “freedom” is naïve and ahistorical. I’d expect to hear such assertions from a patriotic citizen who has little concern or interest in the actual complexities of global affairs—not from a supposed historian.
Based apparently on the fact that you can see burqas on the streets of Instanbul and that the Turkish government allows this instead of imposing a law curtailing their freedom to do so, Ferguson compares contemporary Turkey’s place in the world to “the days of the Ottoman power.” You can see burqas in the US as well, obviously, since the US to its credit is loath to pass laws that limit people’s religious freedom. Such lazy comparisons don’t do any favors for Ferguson’s arguments.
Nor do snotty Ivy-League remarks like this: “He was not uneducated, insofar as a degree in sports science from Leeds Metropolitan University counts as education.” ...more
My reactions to this book ranged from stunned appreciation to exasperation/boredom. Solipsism can be used to produce revelatory content, but it has toMy reactions to this book ranged from stunned appreciation to exasperation/boredom. Solipsism can be used to produce revelatory content, but it has to be used the right way (or something), otherwise the writing starts wilting from lack of air.
I guess ultimately when I read a piece of fiction I want to experience an elaborate well-constructed world, one that reaches out towards or uses as its starting point the world we live in…. and not the ruminations of a man-boy and his obsessions with doll-houses and horse racing. For Murnane, the outside world does not really exist; the only thing of any reality is a small chunk of land in Australia and his direct impressions of this.
Murnane uses the word imagination in an odd, extremely limited sense. He claims to have no imagination and yet it’s clear that he has an extremely active imagination (though tightly bounded in the nutshell of his mind). What he seems to mean by “imagination” is the attempt to break out of this nutshell and reach beyond yourself when writing; he mocks this attempted losing of the self. Since Murnane has a complete lack of interest in anything not directly related to the extremely narrow strip of his life and daydreams, he thinks (with a weird amount of pride) that he is without this thing called imagination. For example, he goes out of his way to mock Mailer’s use of “imagination” in his novel about ancient Egypt. In Murnane’s view, Mailer should have instead written dozens of novels describing the sidewalks, streets, and bodegas right outside his Brooklyn brownstone, and how these objects made him feel inside and how they related to his childhood.
And why stop there: Shakespeare should be mocked for presuming to write about a Roman leader’s assassination; Tolstoy for writing about France’s 1812 invasion of Russia; Pynchon for writing about 18th-century English surveyors. All these writers would have been better served just writing about whatever stuff is directly outside their window, or whatever odd images tumble through their minds.
The narrator’s deepest dream is to go to the second story of a house and gaze out at “mostly level grassy countryside.” This desire carries much of the narrative, and this phrase is repeated dozens of times throughout the book. You see, the narrator lives in a one-story house surrounded by mostly level grassy countryside. But he yearns to view this same image from the second storey, or maybe even the third storey.
Even though this ideal is presumably right down the street, to the narrator it is a far-off thing, possibly unachievable. I suppose it is a metaphor.
As is the case with most writers, Murnane’s theories about fiction are entirely self-serving. Guess what, he thinks the best fiction is the kind written pretty much the way he writes it, a nonstop grab-bag of stray thoughts and images, fiction with no “characters” and no “imagination.” Literature of the Aimless, Endless Ramble is one of the premiere subgenres of the last half-century or so, and I’m not hating on it; but it’s a subgenre that I think strikes many readers as hit or miss. I really like Bernhard but can’t read Sebald, for example.
This all sounds very negative, but there is a charm (and I mean this in more than the principal sense) to Murnane’s forthright, searching narrative style. His writings about the ephemeral nature of reading and thought are compelling and perceptive. And the book overall is a unique reading experience with some passages of real beauty and strangeness. ...more